Wednesday, 22 May 2013
One of the more annoying ways in which Apple works to raise more money from the fools who buy its products, fools such as I, is by creating new standards and forcing them upon said fools. First we had the Micro SIM but the industry caught up; lately the iPhone 5 brought along the Nano SIM and the Lightning connector.
It is the latter that is the most astonishing. As in, why couldn’t Apple align itself with everybody else and start using Micro USB connectors? No, it chose to force its fools to buy new cables and accessories instead. Accessories which it offers for stupid amounts of money ($15 per cable, as far as I know).
So I went and spent $3.50 to get two Lightning cables on eBay. They arrived yesterday, causing me to drain my iPhone’s battery (through game playing) just so I could test one of the cable’s at charging. And… just like the aftermarket iPhone cable of the old standard I bought about a year ago to serve in my car, it failed. Charging would start and stop erratically, probably the best recipe for destroying the iPhone's non replaceable battery. I have already contacted the eBay seller asking for my money back.
There is a bigger problem here. On one hand, buying the accessories from Apple feels incredibly foolish - $15 for a silly cable? On the other hand, the cheap replacements from eBay’s vast line-up of Chinese sellers are generally of crap quality. It’s not just the cables: the iPhone 5 lookalike headphones sold on eBay for less than half of Apple’s $35 price are also much less than half as good; they just look similar, but they are certainly not similar in quality.
I’m still calculating my options, but trending towards a makeshift solution. I already bought tiny convertors that allow me to charge my iPhone 5 using a Micro USB cables. That purchase cost me $2, and it allows me to use Micro USB cables to charge, sync and play music in the car via my iPhone. Now all I need is a good cheap source of Micro USB cables; guess I'll try eBay.
Yes, I know. So be aware: Be aware of what you tie yourself into when you buy Apple, and be aware that stuff coming off eBay is all too often fake crap.
Image by Seth Anderson, Creative Commons license
Tuesday, 21 May 2013
Although video games are threatening its position (just ask our son, the Skylander), movie watching is still what we consider our primary source of entertainment at home. We may be spending more hours on TV shows, but it is the movies that have all the glamor.
A couple of recent experiences caused me to rethink my movie watching strategy. First, as I mentioned here, we had a nasty night with Batman and it was nasty not because of some evil villains; it was nasty because a scratched rental Blu-ray disc wouldn't let us watch the movie in peace. Second, due to road work, the other week I found myself spending more than twenty minutes in the car as I was struggling to approach our video rental place in order to return a disc.
Obviously, something has to be done here. And we all know what the solution is: what I would like to have, and what most other Aussies I know would like to have, is an all encompassing video streaming service. A video library that would allow us to choose what we want to watch whenever we want to watch it and on our device of choice, but without the need to venture out in traffic and struggle with defunct pieces of BPA rich plastic. A sort of a Spotify service for videos.
Problem is, Australia doesn't have such a service.
But America does. It's called Netflix, and it is so popular there that a third of all American Internet traffic is Netflix traffic. It even demoted bit-torrent from its top spot there. So how do we get from Australia to Netflix?
There are three problems along the way of getting there. First, there are the studios, who are so thick headed they wouldn't dare establish a Netflix like service at Oz (but they will complain about Ozzie piracy!). Second, some studios are already scared of Netflix' power, and perhaps through taking lessons from the way Amazon fooled book publishers they decided to retreat from Netflix and open their own services (e.g., Warner). This leads to frustration: you pay the fees but you can't watch the stuff you want to watch just because it happens to come from the wrong studio. And third, because of this all crazy situation, Netflix is blocked from Aussie access.
Or is it? It turns out that the only thing really blocking Aussies from the promised land of a 12,000 titles long catalog is geo-blocking. All one needs to have in order to override that is an American proxy server or an American VPN service (I have one!); then you need to provide an American address (I have one! Besides, it's easy to make one up). Oh, and a credit card. Any credit card will do, it doesn't have to be American.
That is it - come up with these and you can start awatching. I am severely tempted.
Image by MoneyBlogNewz, Creative Commons license
Monday, 20 May 2013
I always suspected that eventually I will incur some collateral damage for expressing my opinions over the Internets. I did not suspect it would come from the direction it came from.
This morning my brother emailed me an ultimatum. What he said, more or less, is that I have been displaying low level intelligence, I have been a shame to my family (including my wife), and he is ashamed he has helped me with my migration to Australia. Unless I change my ways, he will limit contact with me to discussions of my father's ill health.
My chief crime, in case you were wondering, is posting photos from Israel and adding negative commentary to them (given the timing, I suspect he was referring to photos such as this, this, this, this and that). To add fuel to the fire, he claimed I spare Australia from similar criticism.
Although this is not my main purpose with this post, I will dedicate a bit of space to dismantling his arguments:
- First, I admit having an overall negative opinion concerning Israel; if it were otherwise I probably wouldn't have made all the effort required to leave that country. It is obvious to me Australia is a much better place to live in for many a reason, many of which are obvious to my brother, too. After all, he chose to live here, too.
- Regardless, I fail to see how leaving a place implies not being allowed to criticize it; by this logic none of us are allowed to pass judgement over North Korea either. This argument stinks Orwellian.
- Even though I think Judaism (and all other religions I am familiar with) are dangerous nonsense, I do not go inside synagogues and shout my opinion out loud; I respect the rights of those practicing Judaism to practice their religion. By the same token, if my brother doesn't want to hear my opinions he doesn't have to enforce the obliteration of my web resources; he can just, you know, ignore them.
- My brother is ignoring me actually saying some positive things about Israel from time to time.
- He is also ignoring me criticizing Australia a lot. Obviously, he does not read this blog; neither does his inability to locate it and my other web presences bid well for his Googling skills.
- Besides, since when do the crimes of Australia compensate for Israel's? (Repeat: North Korea, Orwell.)
- For that matter, my brother can easily find me criticizing other countries, too, chief amongst which is the USA. The USA is a country I love a lot and owe a lot too, but also a country from which I have been seeing a lot of scary stuff come out lately. Why should I shut up when I see the country that sparked this child's imagination several decades ago go to the dogs?
But my brother chose not to address my arguments. Instead, his attack too a personal approach: shooting the messenger and applying personal pressure. When someone argues this way they are either saying they are too ignorant to argue properly or they admit their side's lack of foundations.
More importantly, I believe very strongly that everyone has the right to say whatever is on their mind. By the same token I also believe that everyone else has the right to tell them they are stupid idiots. I did the first and my brother did the second, which is perfectly fine, but my brother did more: he tried to block me from expressing my opinions through the threat of severing contact with me. This is not a threat I will take lying down; this is exactly the type of thing that burns my fuses the fastest.
Besides, can I truly be expected to change my opinion because I know someone doesn't like them? It is technically impossible.
Truth is, my brother and I have been drifting apart for many years now. We have grown to be very different people who share little in world outlook and opinions. It was probably just a matter of time until a rupture came along; as it happens, it took a particular difference of opinion for it to finally erupt.
Friday, 17 May 2013
It is only a hundred days or so before PM Tony Abbott steps into his new office. It is therefore only understandable that people are already starting to talk the “how are we going to vote” talk.
Back in Israel such conversations had much more substance. In the Israel I had left, voting was generally based on a simple concept: everyone around us wants to kill us, so how do we best avoid this fate? If you believed the better survival course was along the path of peace you voted left; if an “let’s kill them all” ideology reverberated better with your heart, you would vote to the right.
Perhaps tragically, Australia lacks any immediate existential threats, be it real or perceived. I thus hear more and more people reporting their voting preferences coming down to something along the lines of “Liberals promise to do this thing which would give me $200 extra, whereas Labor promises to do this thing which would give me $150 extra, therefore I’m voting Liberal”. Such arguments became even more popular now that the Baby Bonus (a competitor for the silliest middle class welfare concept ever) has been abolished to the disappointment of many an Australian voter.
I can’t take it when such conversations pop up. I pop myself up, asking the people involved whether they are really going to base their vote on such petty nonsense, paying total disregard to the slight matter of policies? Don’t you care about things like global warming or asylum seekers? However, raising these questions only further exposes my UnAustralian roots. For everybody around here knows people vote with their back pockets; how dare I shatter their comfort zone by suggesting they are short sighted selfish bastards?
The selfish bastards that will land Tony Abbott his new office shortly*.
*Not that Labor is much better, but did you ever stop to consider voting for a smaller, not yet corrupted party? If enough of us do so then we actually might get somewhere. Somewhere better. I mean, just check out how successful some independents were last time around.
Image by InfoMofo, Creative Commons license
Wednesday, 15 May 2013
Perhaps I am not following him as carefully as I should, but the first time I heard the USA ambassador to Australia say something meaningful was when he criticized Aussies for downloading Game of Thrones en masse. As in, downloading without paying via bit-torrent: as Torrent Freak’s numbers show, Australia is ranked #3 in the world when it comes to downloading this series; per capita, Australia is the capital of the known universe.
I find it amazing that of all the things to criticize Australia for, Mr Ambassador chose the piracy of a popular TV show. A popular TV show that during its first two seasons was aired only to cable subscribers and only after a huge delay. What, don’t we have other slightly more burning issues to deal with, like asylum seekers or global warming?
It's also amazing the ambassador is fluent in the latest statistics published by a website called Torrent Freak. In other words, if one was wondering in whose pockets the American government is and could not be bothered to ask Kim Dotcom for an answer, Game of Thrones and the American ambassador to Australia provided us with an answer.
It is important to note the reasoning behind the ambassador's plea. While in past years Aussies were unable to legally watch Game of Thrones without significant delays, this year (season 3) things are different. First, Foxtel made sure to air the episode within a few hours of their American broadcast. That's pretty respectable, it has to be said. And second, iTunes is offering the episodes to Australians at the same time as Foxtel, asking $35 for the season's ten episodes. Who could ask for anything more?
Well, I do. First of all, the Foxtel option is quite expensive. Assuming one is not interested in anything else this cable provider airs, then the cost of watching Game of Thrones translates to about $100 a month (and that's without installation costs). Not the best value for money ever. Then there is the matter of the money going into Murdoch's coffers, one of the last places I'd like my money to go to.
As for iTunes. Well, there are some good reasons why I never bought into the iTunes idea and waited for Spotify to come along before I opened my wallet for online music. iTunes is pretty limited: all videos are DRMed, and can only be watched on an Apple device or on a Windows PC with iTunes installed. Want to watch your stuff on an Android device or a Linux PC? Want to avoid installing the mess that is iTunes on a Windows PC? Well, you're out of luck. In other words, iTunes ties you down to the Apple environment, and there is no reason for one to do so voluntarily. However, the true iTunes killer arrived in the news today, when we were told that Foxtel applied the monopoly rights granted to it by HBO to prevent iTunes from airing Game of Thrones without delay (see here). Yes, that will give us a good reason to stop downloading!
Indeed, it seems as if the studios will do everything possible to encourage piracy. Take Warner, for example: it chose to take its contents away from services such as Netflix in order to run its own Internet channel. The logic is obvious: who would want to subscribe to a central repository of videos when one could subscribe separately to each studio's separate channel? I suggest we learn from Warner and split Spotify apart, too.
This is a clear case of dumb & dumber. The only question is which of these two the American ambassador chose to associate himself with. As for Australia, it will continue to download for all the good reasons it has been repeatedly provided with.
Image by Cyol Ternyan, Creative Commons license
Saturday, 11 May 2013
I would like to dedicate a post to some of the positive things I have seen during my recent visit to Israel. It’s not like I’m abandoning well established habits of knocking Israel down. Instead, this is an attempt to show that in some respects there is a lot to be learned from other countries, even if these countries are in stress.
First, I would like to clarify I am only going to talk about things I have seen with my own eyes during this last visit of mine. That is, there is much more to Israel than what this post covers, at least when compared to Australia; significantly lower cost higher education is a fine example that springs to mind. I choose to focus on what I could see with my own eyes during a ten day visit where I found myself saying "I wish Australia, or Melbourne in particular, was like that".
Bearing those clarifications in mind, let’s have a go.
Public transport made some significant inroads in the Tel Aviv area. First, there are regular train services to the airport (hear that, third world Melbourne?).
Second, it is incredibly easy to find your way around the public transport system. A Google search will not only tell you what buses you need to take to get from here to there, it will also point you to the stations and tell you when you should expect your buses to arrive. In some cases you can use apps to tell you exactly where the buses are (as in, you can see them moving on your smartphone's map). While this last feature proved unreliable in other cases, it is still way ahead of the facilities available to Melbourne’s public transport users.
I will put it this way: it appears Tel Aviv has invested in its public transport, whereas Melbourne does the minimum it can to sustain its services at their historical level of service. This week’s state budget brought the message home as firmly as it could go: $8 billion for a new toll road of dubious value, nothing for public transport.
They’re all over the place in Tel Aviv, with people of all ages riding them to get from place to place. Couple that with lots of bicycle lanes created on the sidewalk (as opposed to the far more dangerous road), and we have ourselves a very effective way to get from place to place. Which, you know, is the whole point of bicycles.
Or is it? Because in Melbourne you have to wear lycra and participate in at least three triathlons a month to be allowed to be seen riding a bike. With a relatively few inner city exceptions, bicycles are not a mode of transport; they’re a social statement.
The streets of Tel Aviv allowed me to witness a sight I had all but forgotten existed: the sight of children playing in the street. More importantly, the sight of children playing without adult supervision in the street. I commented recently on this matter in a book review here, but suffice to say I consider the sight of children playing a very good indicator for a healthy society.
In contrast, at Melbourne you can actually get the impression there are no kids about. You do not see them on the street, at least not on their own; you see them being ferried around by their dedicated chauffeurs, riding at the back of their armored aircraft carriers. You see them guided by adults into playing footy or cricket. But you don't see them simply playing. You do not see children being children.
The problem is that keeping the children away from harm's way is a self fulfilling prophecy. We keep them supervised at home because we are afraid for their safety even though, statistically speaking, they do not have much to fear outside (or at least they used to not have much to fear outside). However, by keeping children inside, we are making the experience of venturing out for those few that do go out much more dangerous: there will be less sympathizing kids around and more room for preying adults to do their thing uninterrupted.
The case of children playing unsupervised outside is a case where Israel clearly has the upper hand over Australia, or at least Melbourne.
Thursday, 9 May 2013
This year is poised to be the year of the next generation game consoles. We’ve already seen the Wii U released at the end of last year; the PlayStation 4 was sort of announced a couple of months ago; and the next generation Xbox (the Zbox?) will be announced shortly on the trail of many a leak. The question is, which would be the one to get?
Upon the release of the previous generation of consoles I said here the Wii was the most interesting one, and I think I was right. Its controller was the main bit of news from that (this) generation, and follow-ups in the shape of the Kinect clearly point the finger as well as the rest of the body towards the shape of things to come. Alas, the Wii U is a disappointment: loaded with painful DRM that deters me from moving ahead from my Wii, lacking in games I can’t already get on my PS3, and now seeming to lack the grunt required for future games like Mass Effect 4.
The PlayStation 4 is off my list, too. By now I have accumulated too many reasons for hating Sony, and with the PS4 lacking backwards compatibility I see no reason to remain loyal.
Which leaves the Xbox. While I cannot be said to adore Microsoft, I don’t mind them at all when they have a good product on their hands; in the case of this new Xbox, that seems to be the case. The Zbox is rumored to come armed with the next version of the Kinect, as well as the strongest hardware around (that is, better hardware than the PS4; that's the opposite of the current state of affairs between the PS3 and the Xbox 360). There was controversy regarding the requirement for an always on Internet connection, but this week a Microsoft leak (undoubtedly deliberate) stated the Zbox will not require an always on Internet connection for the sake of performing tasks that should not need the Internet. Amongst such tasks they listed the likes of single player gaming or Blu-ray viewing (with the latter being a new feature to the Xbox world).
It therefore appears as if the Xbox is the winner.
Or is it? It could just be that there is simply no winner amongst this upcoming generation of consoles.
For a start, unlike previous console generations, the gap between the upcoming one and the current one is not going to be that big. For example, the PS3 is already capable of 1080P gaming; the PS4, therefore, will only offer marginal improvement. That is the reason the current generation has been around longer than its predecessors, and that is also the reason why I am going to wait with my purchasing decision until the next game I cannot do without is released only on the new generation of consoles. That game will probably be called Mass Effect 4.
More importantly, the console makers are trying to use this new console generation to achieve certain goals I consider unethical. It is already known Microsoft patented the upcoming Kinect to be able to count the number of people watching stuff in the room so as to charge more if it deems too many are around. It’s not only ludicrous theft from our pockets in the name of the holy copyright, it is a gross invasion of our privacy. And how long would it take before the same camera is hacked to allow anyone who wants a view of our living rooms?
The next piece of evil dealing is the attempt to use the new consoles in order to eradicate the existence of a second hand games market. Already too many games (did I say Mass Effect?) rely on single use codes to certain features in order to reduce the attraction of used games. However, now we are talking about taking things further, which – together with piracy - is the whole point of the “always on” Internet debate. Sadly, the lack of a market for used games would severely damage my gaming: I often buy games because I know I can easily sell them when I’m tired of them or if I don’t like them. Then there is the whole aspect of second hand games driving prices down to the benefit of all consumers. Most importantly, I consider it a basic right to be able to do with my stuff as I see fit, and I refuse to let some company dictate what I can and cannot do with stuff that’s mine. IKEA would never dream of telling me what to do with one of its chairs once I buy it, so why should Sony and Microsoft regard themselves eligible to the task?
Perhaps the alternative lies in abandoning the console market altogether and going back “home” to the PC. In PC land I can build whatever machine I fancy (albeit at probably double the cost of a new console, if not more); I can also enjoy cheaper games. By now I can easily connect any PC to my TV, too.
I see myself having two issues with the PC option. First, I do not like Windows and all the messing around that is required around maintaining a Windows PC (and Windows 8 is particularly awful). Second, PC games are still, and for understandable reasons, keyboard/mouse oriented. Me, when I do my gaming, I like to sprawl on the sofa, not sit on my office chair huddled on top of a keyboard. The experience is simply not the same (note I do not claim it to be inferior, just different).
On the other hand, all my problems could be solved instantly if Mass Effect 4 – and for that matter, all future games – would be released on the existing generation of consoles as well as the future one. But what are the chances of that happening?
Image by hsuyo, Creative Commons license
Tuesday, 7 May 2013
It appears as if once again I am going to be the pain in the ass that points a finger and asks the questions no one else would. I guess it’s the type of thing that requires bloody foreigner DNA, the kind of thing that indicates yet again how ill fit I am with the Australian mainstream. Unaustralian would be the Tony Abbott way of describing my standing.
It all started with us parents receiving an email from our son school’s parental committee. The letter informed us of the following:
The Mother's Day stall is on [...]. All children will be brought to the hall by their class teachers and given the opportunity to buy a gift for their mum. All gifts are $7. Please help your child to remember to bring their money on [...].My wife alerted me to this email first; when I got to read it my blood boiled. Basically, in order to acquire more contributions from us parents, our son’s school and its ancillaries seem happy to apply extortion techniques. And extortion it is: unlike the usual demands for contributions we have been receiving from school on a weekly basis, this one comes with a veiled threat: don’t pay us, and we’ll ensure you child is marginalized. The way I read the email, it tells me I should give my child $7 to spend on a Mother’s Day gift at school or stand the risk having him pointed at by the rest of the kids who did get the money from their parents. By the way, all of this is to be done at school, under teacher guidance, and during mandatory school time.
I immediately emailed my son’s class teacher, who then took it to the school principle, who clarified only the group of kids with money will be taken to the stall while the rest of the kids are at school assembly. No, I am not happy with this clarification at all, mostly because school assembly is held at the same hall this stall is at.
I now intend to take the matter up with the parents who came up with this lovely idea in the first place. What is clear, though, is that this is the start of a new troublemaking career for me. Between this and SRE/CRE (Special/Christian Religious Education), due to start next year, I suspect my picture will soon star in school’s target practice sessions.
I also suspect that soon enough my son would prefer me to go against my character and keep quiet.
Between the writing of the above post and its publication I got to have further email correspondences with the parents’ committee, school and the principle. The bottom line is that I was told, politely, to F off. I didn’t expect it any other way, but it doesn’t mean I needn’t have made my stand.
I do think it is worthwhile to note neither the school principle nor the parents' representative bothered to address my arguments concerning the use of extortion and the use of school for commercial purposes. I therefore know the level of the people I am dealing with here.
The last email from the principle referred to me as “Moshi”. I would have said this takes the mispronunciation of my name to new levels if it wasn’t for the very common rate at which I encounter this mistake.
Image by ChrisM70, Creative Commons license