Tuesday, 22 April 2014

The Home Videos Problem


I have a problem with my home videos: I like to have them managed all in one place, in chronological order, and in a manner that allows me to search through them.
Sure, I know I can do it all on my hard drive, but I don't particularly like that solution. Hard drives break down, hard drives are not always accessible, hard drive folders are not too user friendly to search through, hard drives are not easy to share. I can continue, but what I am trying to say is that I actually prefer to keep my home videos on the cloud. I would have preferred to store them on Flickr, where my photos reside, but Flickr is not user friendly when it comes to videos; I therefore manage [most of] them as private videos on YouTube.
YouTube has its own issues. The service is not designed for managing private home videos, I can tell you that. However, the larger problem at hand is with copyright matters.
The gist of it is this: a significant number of my home videos have some music in the background. Some times, the music is a key factor in the video. For example, when my son dances to some tune, that dance is relatively meaningless without the accompanying music.
The problem is a copyright problem: once music is included, the video becomes a copyright violation no matter how benign it is. Us normal people ignore it; virtually every parent carries on their smartphone a collection of such illegal videos and none of us seems to care about it. However, YouTube does. Its algorithm searches through uploaded videos to identify just that and disqualify offending videos. Given the lawsuits YouTube has gone through, one cannot blame them for being rather precautions.
The question is, where does that leave me? Or, for that matter, where does that leave anyone who wants to manage their collection of "illegal" home videos online? It's not just YouTube; even Dropbox was recently complicated in removing copyright breaching material from its services. The problem is clear: a cloud service that wants to remain legal and above board is, by definition, unable to accept the this huge portion of home videos.
Where does this leave us, normal people, who just want to be able to recall our kids doing silly stuff? How come we allowed ourselves to get into a position where the possession of cherished family memories is illegal?


Image by Kevin, Creative Commons licence

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Error Corrections


A month ago I expressed my concerns as to how religion is going to create tensions when it comes to mourning over my father's death. Now I can report, retrospectively, that I was generally wrong.
The first point of contention was the funeral, which I attended without taking an active part in. I wore my Mass Effect hat as a Kippa, I kept my distance from the Rabbi coming in to tear the shirts of first order family members, and I did not say any prayers. I was able to get away with it because my brother took on all religious duties, which was fine by me.
Sure, it wasn't all smooth sailing. I was teased before the ceremony, I was stared at during the ceremony, people stepped in to "advise" me on how to behave during the ceremony, and I was teased after the ceremony for being too much of a tight arse to let the Rabbi tear my cheap t-shirt. With regards to the latter, I was wearing a Carl Sagan shirt that no Rabbi is worthy of touching. More importantly, though, when people tried to get me to act as per the script it was none other than my mother who stepped in to inform them that her son has his own opinions and these opinions should be respected. I never saw that coming!
Later on, at the Shivaa (the Jewish ritual in which the immediate family sits at home for a week and friends/family come to visit) there were no prayers either. It seemed as if there was quiet agreement amongst the family (mother, brothers and sister) that we are secular, we do not care for praying, and we should stick with what we feel comfortable with. Before discounting this gesture for nothing, bear in mind that this is a first for my family. Not all the grand family was pleased with this move; some chose to hold their own Shivaa instead of attending "ours".
So: although it is clear religion is still a divisive force, I can happily report being wrong. Or as happy as I can report anything these days, given my father's death.

One thing to reemerge during the mourning is how little I know about my father, particularly about his history prior to marrying my mother. I grew up weary of conflicting tales on origins and adventures, to the point of simply not caring (and in this age where people seem to develop a fetish for identifying their immediate ancestry, I still don't care much; I'm happy knowing I'm a relative of anything alive today on our planet, descended as I am from a line of great apes).
One thing I do know about my father is that he was, by anyone's definition, an Israeli war hero. He took part in an underground movement at the time Israel was under British control, and later he lied about his age to join Israel's newly established army and fight for the 1947-1948 War of Independence. That war saw 1% of Israel's Jewish population die, and many of my father's friends were in that 1%, but he was one of those that made it despite taking part in several bloody battles.
When I consider my father's war history nowadays I wonder about its morality. I do not blame my father of any crime; his actions were a product of the time, and ethics were not a major part of the establishment of any democracy I am aware of. I think it is safe to say my father did not do anything extraordinarily unethical by the time's standards. I also know that he took part in some very ethical activities, such as rescuing people from the burning weapons ship Altalena when there was a risk internal fighting shortly after the declaration of the State of Israel. That guy you see standing on top of a Hasake (חסקה, a small flat boat you stand on), rushing to rescue people from the burning ship in the embedded image above, is my father! Or at least that's what he used to say.
Why am I telling you all of this? Because during my father's funeral there were a couple of speeches being said. In one of them, it was claimed that my father was an Israeli war hero - a fact I agree with - just like another Israeli war hero who died recently, Meir Har-Zion. And it is the latter comparison I disagree with.
If you were to read what Wikipedia has to say about Har-Zion I doubt you would call the guy an Israeli war hero. Sure, you might say that he was a great soldier, but a hero? To me the guy reads like a war criminal much more than he does a hero. Comparing him to my father is, therefore, a great injustice to the memory of my father.
As usual, I suspect what I have just said here would be considered heresy by most contemporary Israelis. That, however, is exactly why it was important for me to express my opinion on the matter. That, and the fact that I think my father's views were closer to mine than to Har-Zion's. Sure, my father fought and did lots of things that one can only be forgiven for during war time, but he was also brave enough to change his opinion over time.
He might have not murdered Arabs like Har-Zion did, but he was of the material that could bring peace, finally, to the Arab-Israeli conflict. In this postmortem comparison I can only see one hero, and that hero is my father.


Image taken out of this YouTube video of the Israeli TV series, Amud HaEsh (עמוד האש). You can find it at 50 minutes, 10 seconds.

The connection between religion and global warming


It is a fact: the majority of global warming denialists come from the Liberal side of the political spectrum (do not confuse it with small l liberalism; the Australian Liberals are similar to the American Republicans). It is also a fact that global warming denialists have, more often than not, deep religious beliefs. The question I am often asked to answer when I suggest both of the above facts is what connection lies between global warming denialism and religion. It seems as if I got a fine example to provide my hypothesis with today.
Our Attorney General, George Brandis, opened his mouth yet again. The guy is not content with repeatedly calling Edward Snowden a traitor, despite the fact American law has a very specific definition for treason that Snowden is most definitely not guilty of; neither is he content with threatening to impose pro copyright monopoly legislation in Australia while members of his office are running open dialog with the copyright monopoly (but refuse to include the general public); no, our Defender of the Law now went out to call those advocating for action on climate change "believers" and to condemn the way they are trying to silence denialists (see here and here for coverage).

First, I need to provide explanations for why Liberals are so fond of climate change denialism. I can provide two. To start with, Liberals tend to populate the higher echelons of our class system, and are therefore in a position to lose more from us changing the way we live in order to accommodate for global warming. One can delude oneself into all sorts of nonsense when one is convinced that one is to lose something.
More importantly, the whole Liberal view of the world relies on principles of laissez-faire economics, thus advocating for small and passive governments whose main job - only job - is to ensure the private sector is allowed to reign supreme over the market. However, if the Liberals were to accept what science is telling us about global warming and the action dealing with it requires then they would, in effect, admit that the principles at the very core of their ideology are wrong. It is therefore much easier for them to deny global warming than to admit being wrong.
We can see this phenomenon in areas unrelated to global warming. Check, for example, the Liberals ongoing criticism of Labor's handling of the 2008 financial crisis. Most experts praise Labor's policy for saving Australia from the worst of the crisis' wrath, but the Liberals continuously focus on how Labor stopped running a surplus budget in order to support its policies.

I am yet to explain what any of this has to do with religion.
My hypothesis there is simple. In order for the Liberals to delude themselves into global warming denialism, making themselves look and feel like the folk who insisted the world was flat or the earth stands at the centre of our universe despite all the facts at hand, they need to be well practiced in delusion. They need to have acquired skills in taking things for granted despite evidence to the contrary or lack of. And it is there that religion provides the perfect training ground for those seeking to delude themselves further.
I have often argued that religion is a cancer to society, a cancer that prevents us from staring at the challenges facing us in the eye. One can witness it in stem cell research as well as the way we conduct our so called War on Drugs. In the case of global warming, though, things are much worse. If we do not start acting soon, it looks highly likely the religion as a cancer metaphor would apply to us in a much more accurate fashion.


Image by John Scalzi, Creative Commons licence

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

First Litigation Threat


I was wondering when the day would come, the day I will receive some legal threat over something I wrote on my blog.
That particular threat arrived two days ago, when I received a request by the photographer of a photo I embedded into a post to remove the photo. Sadly, that request came attached with a "or I will take legal actions" threat. You can read it for yourself in this post's comments.
First, I would like to clarify that in this particular case there is no legal grounds for the threat. Although the photographer has changed the licence on his photo from Creative Commons to a full Copyright one, at the time I have embedded the photo into my post it bore a Creative Commons licence. As explained by Prof Michael Fraser, a firm copyright supporter, during the event discussed at this post, once a creator gave up on their copyright monopoly privileges and gone Creative Commons, there is no going back. Fraser was saying this in order to deter the crowd from choosing Creative Commons, but his inputs clearly put me in the clear.
However, although I am in the right, this does not mean that I have much of a choice on the matter. Yes, I suspect it would have been very hard for the photographer to file a lawsuit against me; in all likelihood we live at different parts of the world. But do I have the resources to take part in a proper legal fight, even when it is clear I am on the right side? No; I have neither the time nor the money to wage in legal warfare. Which, by the way, happens to be one of my main criticism towards contemporary matters of copyright: can any normal person fight back when a corporation such as Disney takes down their YouTube video under copyright claims? Obviously, not. [Note I mention Disney in particular because they did take down a private YouTube video of mine, featuring my baby son, under a copyright claim claim. They did so some 5 years after the video was posted. The reason? Star Wars music playing in the background.]

Legal deliberations aside, I did not hesitate and removed the embedded photo. I did so because I know fully well how annoying it is to have a photo of mine misrepresented. Take, for example, how my PZ Myers photo is used in an unfavourable Conservapedia entry. I accept that and others as the price I have to pay for standing upright and publishing my photos under a Creative Commons licence. I believe that overall, the world is a better place when knowledge and culture is spread unhindered.
While I accept misrepresentation as part of the deal, but I can understand other that don't. Think about it before you stick a Creative Commons licence on your stuff; I know I did, and I do not regret it when I see my photos getting used for creative causes all over the Internet.


Image by A. Diez Herrero, Creative Commons licence

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

The Day After Tomorrow

With the way things are going at work at the moment, it would be stupid of me not to pay significant attention to employment future. As in, what am I going to do once I no longer have the job that I now have?
It is clear the job market out there is not in a glowing state. Looking at relevant job ads, the vast majority are for short term contract work; more importantly, there aren't that many positions in the market. In other words, both quality and quantity are suffering.
From friends that are out there on the hunt and who are in touch with recruiters I have learnt that for each such position there are between 80 to 100 applicants. Getting that job interview in the first place is a tough competition on its own. Some of these friends have been out there looking for a job for several months now. And some of them are very good at what they do.

The potential for long periods of unemployment, or "spare" time between contracts, got me thinking more deeply into how I can use the this idle time to benefit my career. Specifically, what can I do to enhance my skills during this spare time I am going to be endowed with?
First, and most obviously, comes the conclusion that I should make myself attractive to potential employers looking after someone of my current profession. However, I would also like to expand my horizons; I would like to use online resources to go into areas that:
  1. I am interested in and would like to spend my time doing, regardless of pay.
  2. Are in demand.
  3. I have reason to believe I can make some money out of as an independent business.
Essentially, what I am looking for is something interesting that I can do "on the side", in between contract jobs. That something will keep me occupied in studies while I am unemployed and might, hopefully, allow for some bonus dollars to fall into my purse.
Thus far the main idea I came up with is the implementation of simple websites for businesses in need of exactly such a tool as well as potentially looking after these websites on a regular basis. I have already done it before, in parts; I even have the tools such tasks would take. By improving some specific skills along the way, I can make something out of this.


I welcome other ideas.


Image by Kevin Lim, Creative Commons licence

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Lost Opportunities

This post runs a heavy risk of stating the obvious. Occasionally it's not too wrong to do just that.


A question that has been bothering me since the passing away of my father is the question of grief. As in, what is it, exactly, that makes me feel in that particular bad way I am now feeling? Because it is certainly noticeable that I am feeling something; it does not take much to detect behavioural changes taking place upon me since receiving the news of my father's "just a question of time" state.
Having thought about it, I got to the conclusion that my grief is the result of missed opportunities. Never again will I be able to do something with my father, tell him about something that happened to me, or hear him telling me something. That's it; this death arrangement is very permanent. It is the only thing that lasts forever.
It's not just not being able to do things in the future that causes grief. The worst part of the grief is to do with all the things I could have done in the past but dismissed, through one reason or another. There is plenty of that, especially given my migration across the world: by leaving Israel in favour of Australia I severely reduced any opportunities for mutual activities. But even before that, I can recall being too busy with work or having better things to do with my time than spend time with my father. I am not the only one at fault here: my father had his things, the things he liked to do, and spending time with one of his children was not always at the top of his priority list.
There is no end to missed opportunities. I can wax lyrical about not being able to do this or that with my father or complain at my parents not taking up on the communication opportunities presented by the Internet as much as I can physically can. However, it feels a lot like complaining at not winning the lottery: those numbers that won yesterday's draw were simple numbers, the bastards, so why couldn't I figure them out on time?
I guess grief is one of those things only time can heal. Probably never in full.


Image by Tim Hamilton, Creative Commons licence

Friday, 11 April 2014

Changing Passwords


You should have heard of Heartbleed by now, but in case you haven't: it's the recently discovered vulnerability in the way much of the Internet has been encrypted. It also happens to be the third ultra serious vulnerability that was happened to be found recently, following Apple's and Linux'.
Clearly, this succession of vulnerabilities serves to indicate we cannot fully trust the Internet with our stuff. A lot of what we put in there, no matter how secure it seems, should be considered to be in the public domain. Think about it the next time you are asked to place your biometric identification information on some online repository: you can change a password, but you can never change your fingerprints.
For now, the question is, what do we need to do in order to prevent this Heartbleed vulnerability from exposing our information. In this particular case, the main item at risk is our password: the password we used to, say, access our bank's website may now be in the hands of some criminals. And if not now, it may be in their hands later if the bank won't sort itself out. [Note I am ignoring the risk coming from governments putting their hands on our passwords; by now I take that for granted].
It seems like there are three rules to be followed when it comes to acting upon Heartbleed:

  1. Some websites already announced they were unaffected by the vulnerability, or at least that their level of being affected does not require end users like us to do anything. These include Google, Evernote and Dropbox to name a few.
  2. Other websites announced that they have patched themselves and therefore now recommend their users to change their passwords. These include the likes of Facebook, Amazon and Yahoo. By all means, go forth and change your passwords for these websites. You don't want those credit card details of yours, held by Amazon, to do the rounds.
  3. The catch is with the rest of the websites, some of which will be left vulnerable for years to come. With those the suggested policy is to avoid accessing them altogether until they are patched.
    Often you will not know whether they have been affected in the first place, but you can definitely check whether they are currently vulnerable or not. This tool, to name but one example, lets you check on websites' current Heartbleed status. [If you want to go further than Heartbleed, use this tool instead; be careful, though, as it might scare the hell out of you to realise how insecure some of the websites we deem secure are.]
    Once you know the website is fine, go and change your password. Do not do so before they have been fixed, as you will only expose yourself further.

With these rules in mind, I have been basically running over my passwords and checking their respective companies to see whether they have made official announcements regarding their Heartbleed status (check here for some major Aussie updates). If I find such advice, I act according to rules 1 & 2; if I don't, I assume the worst and act as per rule 3.
Obviously, the result is a time consuming headache. I will add, however, that using a password manager tool makes life much easier in this regard. I use 1Password, and although I cannot say I am 100% content with it not being open source, it is probably safe to say that by using the tool I am overall more secure than before through being able to easily manage the wealth of online passwords I maintain.


Image by Flippo, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Interceptor

I read it in Motorcyclist: Honda is rejuvenating its VFR line of motorcycles, releasing a new take on the V4 sport touring bike concept. This new model motorcycle, the VFR800, will be themed along the lines of the nineties model. It will even bear its good old name: Interceptor.

First, what am I doing reading Motorcyclist? And what is Motorcyclist in the first place?
Despite hardly ever touching them, let along taking one for a ride, I was in love with motorcycles for decades. You may fancy your sports car, but I think even the best sports car cannot compete with the thrill of riding a motorcycle; and you really have to dig into the most expensive of the exotic super cars in order to come up with something that would beat a sports motorcycle that costs less than a used Toyota Yaris.
Yet I could not afford a motorcycle of my own, especially not in Israel where they used to be very heavily taxed and where insurance was a killer (I have no idea what the current deal is). So I had to compromise, and the compromise came in the shape of watching motorcycle races on TV and reading motorcycle magazines. Of these magazines, Cycle used to be the one I liked the most until its publisher decided to kill it and merge it with Cycle World some time during the nineties. No big deal; I comfortably slid over to my second place preference, Motorcyclist, which I continued subscribing to for a decade later.

Motorcycles continued to play a major role in my life. The first thing that attracted me to Australia, as far as setting the spark on the thought of coming to live here, was the prospect of being able to afford a motorcycle of my own (as well as a sports car). And the one motorcycle I coveted the most was the Honda VFR, then the VFR750 Interceptor. Those who know me from the time might remember me naming my then car Interceptor; that was no coincidence.
But then life happened.
While a motorcycle was one of the major reasons I came to Australia, I never got to have one. Starting from financial issues and moving on with the realisation that a motorcycle is too dangerous to my well being, I totally abandoned my dream of having one. Practicality won the day by a landslide, starting off on the day I visited a Mazda dealer to try out the MX5 only to realise I'm about a head too tall for its roof. And practicality is winning the day since.
Yet I will not deny the force of attraction motorcycles still hold on me. They are wonderful beasts, and as an engineer I am fascinated by the way they are designed. It's incredible how the slight difference in an angle here or the bore and stroke dimensions of the cylinder there can create a wonderful new design. To me, motorcycles represent a lot of what is beautiful about human technology.
Thus when Zinio offered me a discount on a Motorcyclist subscription, I took it. And when I read about the new Interceptor's reincarnation, I immediately recalled my old love.

Having seen first hand how dangerous motorcycles can be through several friends and family members, and having a mortgage and tons of other expenses, I cannot say there is much risk of me owning a motorcycle of my own any time soon. Frankly, there is not much risk of me getting along for a ride even.
Perhaps when I have my millions and a private circuit I can safely ride my bike on I will get one. That, however, will never happen. Which does not mean I am unable to wash my eyes on them and dream about them at night.


Image copyright: Honda

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Live to Work to Live


The level of busy-ness of our lives seems to be climbing higher and higher. Between the pressures of work and the pressures of parenting, we constantly feel under the pump. Come the weekend, all we want to do is rest. Time? There's time for nothing.
One of the questions the situation raises is "what did we do before we became parents". What did we do with all that time that we now we are missing so badly? It seems hard to recall, but when I think about it I do come up with an answer. I used to work!
I clearly recall a survey I took part in while working in Israel. The findings were clear: my average working day, at the time, was more than 11 hours long. Things were different, back then. Work supplied me with lunch and dinner, and my work colleagues represented the bulk of my social life during the week.

I said it was hard to recall the above. I have to admit I actually forgot about it. As it often happens nowadays, I need to thank my friends for this recollection.
In my previous post, I raved with jealousy at Israel and its thriving high tech industry. It didn't take long for people to correct me. High tech in Israel may be flourishing, but it is not necessarily helping its employees flourish. They are trapped in jobs that demand them to work long hours, and once they pass the age of 40 their chances of acquiring future employment are severely diminished. Or so I was told.
Witnessing the look on the faces of some of my friends discussing their Israeli high tech job prospects at the advanced age of 40, though, it does seem as if the resulting anxiety is genuine.

The whole affair served to remind me something I seemed to have managed to forget by now. As in, it reminded me of some of the core reasons I decided to move from Israel to Australia in the first place. It reminded me how impressed I was with the whole "work to live attitude" Australia seemed to offer, in contrast to the "live to work" approach that dominates the culture I grew up into back in Israel.
It says something about me when nowadays I find it easier to recall the negatives about the Australian high tech industry, or rather the lack of substance in Australia's high tech industry, rather than remember the more important way of life advantage that Australia offers over Israel. People would probably use this against me to declare me a "half glass empty" type of person; I prefer to regard myself as a person who always seeks improvement and is happy to look elsewhere for inspiration.

Regardless, the philosophical discussion at hands puts key cultural differences between Australia and Israel on the agenda. I intend to explore the theme further in an upcoming post.


Image by Belén Montilla, Creative Commons licence