Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Globally Roaming

It seems as if humanity is getting close to that ideal of travelling without disassociating oneself from society. I’m referring, of course, to the concept of global roaming.
Travelling overseas is a great mind opener, no doubt about it, but unless your last name is Rockefeller or unless you’re willing to dedicate a lot of your travel time to locating a local SIM then you will have to accept that international travel means no phone and no internet. At least not whenever you want it to be there; the occasional free wifi is nice (do use VPN to protect yourself!), but forget about relying on your map app if you find yourself spontaneously lost.
But those assumptions proved to no longer hold us in their death grip. For the first time, I have experienced travel as it should be. To use more spectacular language, our family felt like it's had its own Star Trek Communicator experience.
When the rest of the family recently paid a visit to the UK and France, I stuck a Globalgig SIM card in the wife’s phone. That SIM was my first glimpse into a future not as encumbered by greedy-bastard companies: my wife was able to seamlessly use her phone in Australia, both before and after departure, as well as in the UK and in France. There was nothing to it; she reported changing to Orange and back upon crossing in and out of France, but as far as services are concerned she enjoyed Internet connectivity on her phone throughout.
As she, and everyone else for that matter, should.

23/4/2015 update: I will note that a couple of days after this post, Google had announced its Project Fi. Said project, currently in prototype stage, allows users to seamlessly roam between 120 countries (and unlike Globalgig, that list includes Israel!). As we say in Australia, noice!

P.S. My son can now confirm Netflix UK works in the UK exactly the way it works at home.

Image by NASA HQ PHOTO, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0) licence

Friday, 17 April 2015

Infinitesimal Calculus Demonstration

One of the assignments I took upon myself while the rest of my family was away, on top of binge movie watching and throat slitting (aka playing Shadow of Mordor), was cleaning. I spent many an hour – days altogether – carefully cleaning the house. I won’t claim to have managed to bring it to a state where licking the floor could be considered advisable, but I think I made a difference.
It showed. My son’s first words, upon entering the house (after more than an earth day of flying!) were “Wow, the house is so clean!”
And then he dragged his feet in, bringing along all sorts of muck from the outside, and started spreading his stuff all over the place again.

Thus the mathematically infinitesimal nature of the states of cleanliness and orderliness have been proved in the real world.

Image by stavos, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Mobile Phone Planning

“The horror” is the famous last line from Apocalypse Now. It is also an exact description of my feelings upon hearing how much money most of my colleagues spend on their mobile phone plans. I therefore thought I’d share my own approach, with its very low costs, so that you can reflect whether you can cut your mobile bills, too.
Before we start, a bit of a disclaimer. While you may think it is the case, I do not consider the post that follows to be some sort of a “tight arse’s guide”; I do not hold myself back when it comes to using my smartphone. It’s just that I happen to use it in ways that do not cost me much money. If you think that’s what being a tight arse means, good on you; I think that’s what being smart means, because I can go and spend my money on things I really like as opposed to making rich and often scummy companies richer.

When you pay for mobile phone services nowadays, you are paying for the following:
  1. Your smartphone,
  2. Internet access,
  3. Phone calls, and
  4. Messages (aka SMSs).
Let’s examine my approach to each of the above.

I will start with Internet access.
For my iPhone, I buy a 10GB data pack of Optus 4G from Amaysim at $100 that’s valid for a year. I set my phone up to perform all backups and iCloud interactions through wifi only, and I do all my system and application updates over wifi too. Acting this way does not bother me in the least; particularly for larger downloads, the relatively unreliable nature of mobile connections can be a major pain. This 10GB actually lasts me a year, but I will concede that if you’re on YouTube a lot or if you stream lots of music that may not be the case. If that is more of an accurate description of you, have a look at buying a 2.5GB data pack a month from Amaysim at the cost of $20 instead.
For my iPad, I buy a 1GB data pack of Optus 4G from Globalgig at $10 a month. As with my iPhone, I set the iPad to do the heavy lifting over wifi. More to the point, the slight extra cost of Globalgig gives me two things Amaysim does not: Globalgig allows tethering from an iPad, which Amaysim doesn’t (thus allowing the iPad, with its strong battery, to act as a pretty decent wifi hotspot); and Globalgig’s SIM can be used for global roaming at truly reasonable costs.
Globalgig does have its drawbacks. First and foremost, it offers data alone; you do not get a phone number with Globalgig (but that’s perfectly fine for an iPad). Second, for reasons defying sanity, Optus will not let Australian users set the Globalgig APN on iPhones, thus attempting to prevent users from using their data in Australia. That’s incredibly stupid, though, as there are various ways to bypass this limitation (the easiest of which is to simply visit this website, which will get you an APN profile installed on your iPhone). Lastly, Globalgig only has monthly data packs, which means there is [almost] always some unused allowance in there that gets wasted.
Whether you choose to use Amaysim of Globalgig, note my phone bills start at $10 a month or below. The only disclaimer I will add here is that if the extra coverage offered by Telstra is important to you (say, if you live in rural Australia) then you will have to pay substantially more.

Let’s move to making phone calls.
The reality is, I do not make a lot of phone calls. However, the calls to landlines and mobile phone numbers that I do make are done over Skype.
With Skype Premium, I am able to buy 5 hours a month of phone calls to landlines and mobile phones in all the countries I care to call at about $3. Since Skype cards are often available at supermarkets under 50% discounts, I am able to make all the phone calls I want to make in a year at around $15, plus the negligible consumption of data that comes with that. Yes, a year’s worth of phone calls for $15.
There are disadvantages, of course. Call quality over Skype can be less than brilliant; then again, this is the case with all mobile phone calls (but probably less so with conventional ones). Skype does not support 13 or 1800 numbers, at least not without extra fees. Last, but not least, we now know that Microsoft has handed the NSA the encryption keys to Skype, which pretty much means our friends at the NSA/GCHQ/your local spy agency are listening in to our calls. Does that bother me? Sure it does! However, if you are under the illusion your normal mobile or landline calls are not tapped by the NSA & Co then, by all means, do enjoy your life at Dreamland.
Being an iPhone user, the bulk of my calls are actually made over Facetime to other Apple users. Like Skype, Facetime relies on the Internet to communicate the message. Apple claims Facetime to be secure, but I severely doubt this PRISM partner is telling us the whole truth. What I will say about Facetime is that its call quality is far superior to Skype’s or, for that matter, conventional phone calls (be it landline or mobile).
Last, but not least: If you do fancy having a truly private conversation – that is, having a chat without the participation of your friends from the NSA – then I’d recommend using Signal (or its Android counterpart, RedPhone) to make the call. Unless you were handpicked by the NSA for personal targeting, a privilege probably not reserved for common people like us, then those Signal calls you’d be making will be the first truly private mobile phone calls you have made in decades. As Edward Snowden told us, encryption works!

The topic of Signal brings me to the last criteria, messaging.
It is true that, from time to time, I do need to send an SMS to someone. Someone like my dentist, sending me an ultimatum to “reply with a Y or your appointment is cancelled”. But those SMSs cost me 12c a pop through Amaysim.
The rest of the time I use either iMessage, Telegram or Signal. Lately it’s been Signal for 95% of the time, being the most secure messaging platform for both Android and iOS. As with VOIP phone calls, the cost in data is negligible.
SMSs are for people stuck in the 20th century who want their messages to be read by the NSA, like to be limited for space, and prefer to pay tons for the privilege of sending poor quality photos.

So there you have it: the confessions of a person using an iPhone for around $12 a month and an iPad for $10, and using them a lot. I contest you to point me towards something better; I would actually appreciate it if you were to do so.
I do admit to ignoring the elephant in the room, which is the cost of the smartphone itself. I buy mine outright, but many – most – people are driven to plans simply because they cannot afford the outright cost of a phone. Especially for Apple users, and especially given the poor Aussie dollar at the moment, I cannot blame them; I’m speaking here from a position of privilege. I would, however, urge you to compare the cost of your smartphone plan to mine over the course of the smartphone’s life in order to help convince you regarding the significant merits of choosing my approach. You’d be hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, richer at the end; and if that is the case, then perhaps the sacrifice of buying a phone outright is worthwhile?
I’ll finish with a tip on how to save a third of the cost of your smartphone: do not replace it every two years; wait another year to make it last three. No harm will come to you in the process.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Festival of Comedies

This year I have done something I haven’t done for a very long time. That is, since becoming a parent. I have attended the Melbourne Comedy Festival! Yes, having one’s family overseas can accommodate for interesting opportunities.
I’ve seen Wil Anderson’s new show, Political Wil (lots of Tony Abbott jokes); I’ve watched Arj Barker (“put a filing cabinet in your toilet and sort your shit out!”); and I’ve attended a Chaser’s refugees show. That last show had the interviewee report that in order to avoid a Fatwa on his head, he chose to hide in Toorak – where no Muslim is to be found [it's Melbourne's most expensive suburb]. Apparently, Toorak is a place where what women do all day is get facials; it was claimed Toorak women get more facials per day than porn stars.
So yeah, it was fun.

It was also an interesting experience from the anthropological point of view. Walking across the city for the shows, I could not avoid feeling I’m standing out. I was swimming in torrents of kids, with the odd exception of some old people; clearly missing from the crowds were people of your typical family rearing age. Which, to my mind, raises an important question: shouldn’t society do more in order to allow parents to, like, have a life?
This is a serious question, the answer to which is more than “get yourself a babysitter”. Babysitters are cool and all, but they turn a comedy watching night into a three digit affair, which defies the whole point of having a life in the first place. Spontaneity, and thus ease of jumping into things, is of essence here.
This is also a financial matter, if the neoliberal in you prefers to look at things through the eyes of the market. Think of all the potential income that’s lost through parents not being able to spend as much money as they would like to on going out!
Then again, I might be barking up the wrong tree here. Stepping out of one of the shows, I felt tired and wanted nothing but go home and have a rest. I checked my watch: it was 9 o’clock*.

*Yes, the cynic in me would like to add that when all was said and done, I think I would have enjoyed the comedy much better if I was watching it on my TV in the comfort of my living room, legs up on the sofa instead of imprisoned by a tight seat designed for maximum patronage (thus acting as some leftover medieval torture device). I do think the comedy is better appreciated at home; the going out factor is more to do with socialisation rather than pure entertainment.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Total Recall

For a while now I noticed this strange phenomenon that blogging has caused me. Intense experiences that have been bugging the back of my head for years seemed to fade into the oblivion once I discussed them over these pages.
I’ll give you a couple of examples. I mentioned (here) a nasty experience I’ve had with my school music teacher. In that same post I also recounted the tale of me refusing to read from the Torah at a synagogue. Both experiences were key moments in my life, at least the way I used to perceive them. Yet since I mentioned them here, and pretty much immediately after, I seem to have forgotten all about them.

The other week I read this article, talking about the necessity to suppress old memories in order to be able to learn new ones. It occurred to me there and then: Through my blog I was able to put these incidents aside, effectively forgetting about them. Through my blog I was then able to get on with my life.
As achievements go, not bad.

Image by Ehsan Khakbaz H., Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

J'accuse ...!

J accuse.jpg

"J accuse" by Émile Zola - Scan of L'Aurore. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I wanted to write a post informing the world how happy I am with my iPhone 5. I wanted to say that its comparative size disadvantage is actually working to my advantage, therefore giving me little reason to upgrade to an iPhone 6 Plus or the upcoming iPhone 6S Plus. I thought I’d be perfectly fine waiting things out for the iPhone 7, because once that is out then all the iPhone 6 phones – whether S or older, Plus or Minus – would look ancient in a second.
The reason why I was so happy with my aging iPhone 5 is my iPad. With both iPhone and iPad equipped with 4G, I find the iPad to be a great work tool. I use it for everything warranting a big, computer like screen; nowadays I don’t touch my proper computers half as much as I used to. Given this usage profile of mine, and given my iPad is on me most of the time, I do not need a big phone; with a usage profile such as mine, the small screen of the iPhone 5 is actually an advantage.
I wanted to say all of the above, but now I can’t.

You see, a couple of weeks ago Apple released iOS 8.2. As I always do, I’ve installed it on all my iOS devices as quickly as possible. Not because there’s any risk of me getting an Apple Watch any time soon (Apple Watch support was the main feature of 8.2); it was due to the security measures that are always bundled with such releases, like the fix for the FREAK vulnerability
Alas, iOS 8.2 came with a couple of extra features. The first was my phone occasionally losing it; I witnessed it resetting itself twice in one day, quite an astonishing achievement given it probably only reset itself once or twice before in its entire two and a half year long career.
Second, and more annoying, is the damage done to battery life. Whereas before I could get a day to a day and a half of intensive use out of my iPhone, with 2-3 days of casual use (say, during the weekend), now it’s all different. Now it’s significantly less than a day of intensive use and about a day of casual use. Battery behaviour is outright weird: if I set my phone to airplane mode, like I usually do at night, it loses 20% battery by morning time; if, however, I leave my phone be, it loses only 2%. Go figure.

The point about this destruction of my iPhone 5 is that it is not a random event. I have experienced it twice before: once an iOS gadget is more than 2 years old, Apple seems to destroy it with its system updates. My wife’s iPod Touch suffered from this, as well as my own iPhone 3GS (where having the 3 year old battery replaced with a brand new one made absolutely no difference to how long the battery lasted).
I think the evidence is clear: Apple may hide it under the guise of a system update, but it systematically and deliberately messes with its old devices in order to force their otherwise satisfied owners to upgrade on a two yearly cycle.
Apple, J'accuse…!

Monday, 30 March 2015

I Love Paris

With the rest of the family currently at Euro Disney, the management of this blog has released the following statement:
We cannot comprehend* how a person in their right mind can be even slightly attracted to Disney when they’re at the footsteps of the most beautiful city in the world.

*OK, we will concede that we can. But will add that the reasons for preferring one over the other are well worth discussing.

Wednesday, 25 March 2015


The main differentiator between the mature amongst us and the rest, in my humble opinion, is that the former are well aware that all things must pass. At one stage or another one has to say goodbye to everything in one's life, and usually the bigger and more important the thing one departs from the harder the departure is. Often these departures are sudden and unexpected; in other occasions one only realises a departure took place retrospectively. Eventually, we all have to say goodbye to life itself. It's hard for me to think of a way for that to take place in a pleasant manner.

I thought of the above as I making an airport drop off and saying my goodbyes. By now I have grown to hate to airports: whereas once they use to stand for gateways to the exotic, now they're venues for intrusive security checks, ridiculous questioning and the portals for rotting on crowded and extremely tight and uncomfortable confines for hours if not days.
There is more to it, though. Airports are our training grounds for saying goodbye. Each time I say goodbye to a loved one at the airport I die a little.