Thursday, 29 June 2006

The Naked Sun by I Asimov

There was no football on last night, but still I couldn’t go to sleep – this time because I just had to finish my book, Asimov’s The Naked Sun.
I told you when I bought it and I told you when I started reading it how this book has some historical significance for me. It was my second science fiction book read and the first ever adult hard cover book I got to read, and it was funny how 25 years later on I still remembered a lot of it from that first read. I am privileged to have read lots of good books, but with most of the books I have reread recently I hardly remember a thing; I take it as a sign of this one being a truly good one. I was probably blessed to have hit off my career in adult fiction with such a fine creation!
Reading the book I remembered how Asimov’s books were labelled in Israel: Sometimes it would be just “Asimov” on the cover, sometimes it would be “Isaac Asimov”, sometimes it would be “Itschak Asimov” (the Hebrew version of Isaac), but most of the time it was just “I Asimov”. As a kid I always wondered how many writers called Asimov are really out there.
Reading the book I made me remember that my parents took a photo of me reading the book: a fat kid lying/sitting on the sofa with just shorts on in a typical sunny Israeli summer before the age of the air-conditioner. I should look around for that photo, my mother may have given it to me already and if she hadn’t I can rescue it when I visit her come September.
But oh, how I liked this book! I apologize for breaking into clich├ęs, but the book feels like an onion – it worked in different layers, each one tastier than its predecessor.
On top you have what is basically a detective story – a detective is sent to investigate a murder mystery. That’s a fine story for you on its own.
Then we have the futuristic elements layer that gives the book its unique charm: It’s set in the future with futuristic environments; it involves space and space travel. But most of all, this book is remembered as one of Asimov’s classic robot tales with Asimov’s famous three laws of robotics. It certainly worked its charms on me back then at 5th grade.
Asimov is obviously no fool, and all the messing around with robotics and space and stuff is not there just so the book would impress the imaginationaly challenged amongst us; he is telling us these things in order to reflect on contemporary society. And that’s the next layer, where he is saying quite a lot about where our society is heading for with the industrial revolution, technological revolution and informational revolution.
His warning about people enclosing themselves with technology and becoming more and more individualistic and selfish has reminded me that back when I first read the book I would spend most of my leisure time playing with my friends in the outside. It was mostly football, despite the fact I was always the emblem of crap when it came to sports. I had a Tango ball (that’s the old World Cup ball for you) my father got me from the USA, and we used to play almost every afternoon. When did this stop? When I got my Atari games console. Just like the robots in the book, it was technology that changed my lifestyle, and not in the most positive of ways.
To add on top of that there’s a more personal layer. The book’s hero goes into a new world out there in space and gets exposed to stuff inconceivable to him before, on his old world. He comes back to his world and he finds he can’t stand that world anymore. I remember someone who, not that long ago, visited Australia from Israel, and when he came back to Israel he couldn’t stand it anymore and couldn’t see himself living there anymore, so he made his stand and changed his world. On a wider level, I think that people who didn’t get to travel much, see the world around them and most importantly allow what they see to penetrate them just don’t know what they’re missing by having their own narrow perception of the world around them dictate the way they live (and effectively, waste) the gift that is their stupidly short life.

The Naked Sun by I Asimov: One of the best three books I ever had the pleasure of reading.

Wednesday, 28 June 2006

Vanishing flight plans

Last week we watched Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes", a black and white film from 1938. We borrowed the DVD from the local council's library, which often proves to be a far more potent source for good material than your run of the mill Blockbuster that packs only the latest shit.
[By the way, we saw it on our late, miniscule TV - soon to go on eBay]
Anyway, the thing about this film is that the more recent Flightplan, starring Jodie Foster, is based upon it.
And the thing I'm trying to say in here is that although we watched Flightplan and liked it (and you're welcome to refer to an historical review published on this very blog), it is not even remotely close to being as good as Hitchcock's original.
I'll give it one thing: Production values are far superior. But that's it.
Hitchcock's film is much more complete: You get the sense of mystery and intrigue, but every character is well developed and every character is a story on its own; Flightplan has only one round character, and we don't even really know what her story is. The rest of Flightplan's characters are just a vague background, and while in the Hitchcock version everything merges together seamlessly, Flightplan is fairly linear and not so unique once its mystery is resolved.
I guess it's a sign of the times and how the people and the world have changed; Flightplan smells much more contemporary in the way people don't get in touch with one another anymore in a world busy fighting an elusive "war on terror", and that remoteness is probably what the film is trying to convey; but as far as genius in making a film is concerned, I'd take Hitchcock's noisy black & white version.
And it's even original.

Tuesday, 27 June 2006

I love to hate you

Watching Argentina beat Mexico and then Italy beat Australia, I couldn't help reflecting on the teams that I hate. While on the good side there will probably always be Holland, Brazil and England (no matter how boringly bad they play), there are other teams I managed to develop severe antagonism towards during the years.

Italy reigns supreme in this dubious company. It's not that the Italian people have done too much wrong to me (even if my visit to Italy gave me the impression that Italy is populated by useless con artists), but mostly to do with the way their team plays. They always have excellent footballers on their side, yet they will always play a bore-you-to-death defensive game, going for that one-nil. They're like cats: they're so good at it, they only bother making an effort for 5 minutes, and put you to sleep the rest of the time. And why do they have to rely on theatrics so much, and why were they fascists during the last world war?

Next on the list is Argentina. I started hating them when they invaded the Falkland Islands. Then Maradonna came along to beat my Peter Shilton with the hand, and that was it. Every world cup since I just wait for the game where Argentina would fuck off.
Last time around was probably the best in this regard: They were off on the group stage, and they were even beaten by England (albeit in not the most convincing of ways).
This time around, though, things are different. I got more sense in my head and I realize that my old childhood prejudices are nothing more than childhood prejudices. No one on the Argentinean team invaded the Falklands, and I'm sure they're quite happy to get rid of that Chunta that ruled them. And let's face it: they play some mean attractive football; their game against Mexico was so far the best in the tournament by far.

Last on the list is Germany. I don't think there should be much doubt as to why it stars on this list, but history aside there is also way Germany has been known to play - boringly.
Now I admit that I have a generic problem with Germany. I am fully aware of the fact none of the players in the team had anything to do with what happened some 70 years ago, yet when I walked the streets of Germany I couldn't help asking questions whenever I saw an old person in the street: now, what did HE do back then?
As is always the case with ignorance, once you actually get to know the people you see them for what they are: people, just like you and me. I actually had the pleasure of working with a German whose father was an SS officer; working with Israelis, he always felt like he had something to prove, but we all thought that he was the best of persons.
Anyway, as with Argentina, my feelings towards the German team are now changing. Again, I do not let old prejudice dictate my preferences anymore, and with Klinsman at the helm Germany is actually one of the more attractive sides around. I tip them to take the cup (I tipped that months ago), simply because France showed the value of home support.

And thus by this World Cup I get to follow teams that play a decent game, not the Allies.
Now, can someone mop Italy aside?

Monday, 26 June 2006

When the walls come crumbling down

Yesterday, while looking for a plastic bag from the stash we hide under the kitchen sink, Jo discovered that the sink is leaking. Or rather, the pipes under the sink are. Great! I just love to mess around with plumbers.
I think the thing that I'm afraid of the most with my new job is plumbers. Not personally them, but rather the need to be at home in order to mess around with them. While at Ipex I could just stay at work until 20 minutes before they visit, pop home, and then pop back to work, now it's a logistical nightmare; by the time such an exercise is maneuvered, half the work day has vanished.
We called the plumber that did the work on our house before we bought it and it was obvious he wasn't in love with the idea of coming over to revisit his creation. We called a local one who came over and didn't really want to mess around with it because they were twisted and convoluted in order to fit the limited drawer space, which obviously hurt his artistic feelings (or, to put it another way, he didn't figure we'd be willing to pay for the job).
When called to actually do it, he wouldn't, because it would "take too much time". The time was 14:30 and it was estimated to take 2-3 hours, so I don't know what the problem was other than the fact I'm obviously in the wrong profession. One of us will have to work from home some time next week because of this stupid whim.

Today we got an electricity bill: $260! Ok, it was for four months as opposed to the usual quarterly bills, but still - something was terribly wrong. I started experimenting with the electricity's meter until I discovered an interesting fact: With the heating off, the meter's dial goes through one revolution every 1 minute and 59 seconds (as measured with my Swiss watch). With the heating on, however, it does a revolution in 6 seconds!
Thing is, we have central gas heating, so what the fuck does electricity have to do with it? Well, it's the fan that circulates the air through the house that's to blame, but given the fan's consumption, maybe we should just get an electric heater. Or better yet, an air-conditioner: we'll get our return on investment in less than three winters, and we'll enjoy it in summer as well.
Yes, I know. We're such big time environmentalists.

Anyway, expenses: the last thing we needed in this age of big spendings.

SEAL operation

Jo has been complaining for quite a while now that when you sit on our sofa you feel the draft of a cold wind hitting you. We suspected the gap under the door was to blame, but I was always amazed at how Jo managed to feel the effects of such a slight gap from a relatively large distance as the sofa and while facing the opposite of the door. I felt like this was the equivalent of Seinfeld's "magic loogie".
However, last week, while messing around the TV in preparation for the new TV, I felt it too. The difference was that this time I could actually pinpoint the draft's source: the chimney hole that's right behind the TV.
Yes, we have a chimney in our house, placed right on top of our fire place. Thing is, we don't care for the fire place at all; we're not into poisoning ourselves. Besides, this fire place shows how old our house is: it's constructed of mid 50s designer red tiles and similarly fashioned wood. We would like to get rid of it but for the implications: a fire place is an attraction when selling, and if we are to take it away without making the house look like shit we'll need to replace the tiles with something similar to our wooden floor. In short, it will be an expensive project.
Anyway, now that the draft's source has been identified, we went into operational mode. We visited Bunnings (a huge DIY place) after work, got a peace of plastic and some tape, and now our fire place is even more photogenic than it was before. Luckily the big TV hides most of it.
And the point of this whole story is this: This small sealing operation has made quite a difference. Whereas before the house's temperature in the morning and when we came back from work was 13, now it's 15. And that's not something to be dismissed that easily!
You can hear and see the plastic in action. It makes sounds as if it's breathing, and it moves from side to side all the time. Which is great, because it works. Oh, we're such environmentalists!

Peek-a-boo

Saturday, 24 June 2006

Red card to the referee

Once again I am here to talk about a football game that I will remember for ages because it was funny, and once again the reason for that is the referee. I'm talking about the Croatia - Australia game, which sealed Guus Hiddink's reputation for generating gold out of everything he touches (I mean, if he can get Australia to the round of last 16, the man has to be a magician).
I'll start by saying I wanted Australia to win. Not necessarily because I'm an Australian, but more because I liked the way they played Brazil, and more because it was the Croations that did what I don't like about Australia - going for the legs. And then there's the fact Croatia is one of those teams I like to hate, with the reason being their collaboration with the Nazis. I know it's a stupid reason, but if you have a team that you like and a team that you hate football becomes that much more interesting.
Anyway, the hero was Graham Paul, a senior English referee. Every Arsenal supporter out there will tell you what the whole world knows by now - the guy's a shit referee. Even my aunt called me from Israel to tell me she thinks the referees are screwing Australia after this match.
To be fair, I think the guy was not on an Australian vengeance mission; he's just not good enough. Let's see what we had:
  • Australia should have had a penalty after Viduka was held in the box during the first half.
  • Australia should have had a penalty after a second hand ball by the Croations in the second half. The German director noticed it, the referee didn't.
  • Harry Kewel's goal was scored from a very obvious offside position. The German director noticed it, the referee didn't.
  • The worst of the worst: Mr Paul issued a second yellow card to this Croation but forgot to issue the red. The German director noticed it, the referee didn't. Later on, Paul gave the guy a third yellow card in what must be a world first!
  • Was it just me or did the game never really finish? There was mayhem in the Croation box, an Australian seemed to have been fouled, the referee blew his whistle, the ball ended in the Croation net, the referee issued the famous third yellow card while arguing with Croations, and in the mean time the other players started celebrating/crying and exchanging shirts. Now, it could be that the ref blew his whistle to end the game, but since when does a referee do such a thing a second before a goal is scored?
It's obvious the guy just lost control of the game and of himself. He wasn't on his own, though. He had some tough competition.
First there was the Australian keeper, who had a few blunders, including the second Croation goal. But it was the SBS commentator that really got on my nerves; so one sided, such an idiot!
After Australia got its first penalty he kept on repeating that it was because Kahill was pushed, even while the German director showed slow motion replays of the Croation handling the ball. And then there was no word of Kewel's obvious offside while scoring - he didn't want to break the news to the enemy.

Yes, people make mistakes, and the referee is just a human being. But you sort of expect more from everyone in a World Cup. Come on, if I'm to lose sleep, at least make it worthwhile!

Bullet the Blue Sky

I’ll start with the conclusion: we bought ourselves a new TV. A rear projection TV. A Sony 50” LCD rear projection TV. Read the following for the full account…


As I already mentioned, it turned out we were given with the wrong impression on rear projection TVs after our initial surveying, covered in “No Silver Bullet”. It turns out that all the places we went to watch TVs in have been feeding their rear projectors with crap signals, whereas their plasmas were fed with high definition.

We went to Betta (pronounced “better” in the blocked nose Australian accent) Electrical where we saw the Samsung 60” DLP rear projection TV playing Monsters Inc, and it was fabulous.

And then we went to Clive Peters and asked to use our own material. They connected a DVD player to the Sony we ended up buying and an LG plasma, and we compared the two with Lord of the Rings DVDs. And the rear projector beat the plasma, as I initially thought it would. The plasma had an edge in color saturation and the picture is overall more forgiving, but that is not enough to win the day; an iPod would be more forgiving playing shitty recording than my hi-fi, just because my hi-fi has enough resolution to show a shit recording for what it is. The difference is, the hi-fi would make a good recording sound way better, whereas on the iPod it would sound the same as the shit stuff.

So that sealed the decision: It was rear projection for us.

The question now was which TV, but the answer was relatively easy. We wanted to consider only newer models featuring latest technologies: HDMI inputs, later generation DLP chips, etc. This has severely reduced the number of models available for selection, and to be frank we haven’t chosen the best TV out there. The Samsung DLP 60” is a better TV in my book, and the LG 71” LCOS TV is an astonishingly good TV that doesn’t cost as much as you’d expect for its size; but both were just too big for our room. The LG wouldn’t have fit even if we wanted to.

Next came the question of where to buy it from. We both wanted to give Clive Peters the prima nocta right, for allowing us to test the TVs with our own material. We told them as off the word go that we can get the TV for less than $3200 through eBay, but they were only willing to cut down their price from $4000 to $3750, which was pretty ridiculous as it doesn’t take much of a genius to realize they can do much better given what other shops already offered us.

But it wasn’t only the price, it was also the way they went about the sale that drove me away towards eBay. I’m talking about their total ignorance with the product they are selling, which leads them to tell me lies during the sales process. Whether they know that it’s a lie or not doesn’t and shouldn’t really matter, but it serves as a warning for those that don’t know a lot about the technical side of things – those of us that haven’t subscribed to Widescreen Review for the last 15 years, for example.

Where should I start? Our salesguy started by saying that a component input is better than an HDMI input. I agreed that a component input’s implementation on a specific device could be better than the HDMI one, but I argued that HDMI has more potential on paper. What did the guy say? He said component is better than HDMI because it’s three cables versus one, and when I told him that HDMI is digital and therefore the number of cables doesn’t matter he told me that component is also digital and went away to find a cheap component cable that says “digital” on its box to prove he’s righteous. I am unable to remember such a pile of bullshit since the last time we were in the company of a real estate agent! For a start, we’re using a $5 set of mic/headphones for Skype, and their package claims they’re digital, but I’m still convinced my ears can only listen to analog sound waves and if someone whispered next to my ear something like “one zero zero one zero” it wouldn’t mean much to me.

Not that this was the only example. One way for Clive Peters to lower their price was to bundle the TV with a high definition set top box. They started by pushing a DVI only box on us despite our TV not having a DVI input but rather an HDMI one, and they did not warn us for a second that such a connection is famous for its low reliability (simply put, it just doesn’t work many times). Then we explained that our signal reception at home is quite bad, and therefore we don’t have high definition reception (we do, however, have adequate digital standard definition reception, as I already reported). What did the sales guy say? He told us not to worry, because the set top box would “amplify” the signal. Jehoshafat! What an idiot!

But the final straw to break this camel’s back came when the guy said, “but will you buy a TV from eBay in the first place?”

Well, the answer is yes. Not just because by now we already did it, but also because I remembered that back in 2000 I bought our current Sony 29” from an internet auction site. Not eBay, but a pretty much similar source. And I have been very happy with the service I got, thank you!

Not that the service I got from the eBay shop we ended up buying the TV from was bad. They answered and addressed all my questions, and when asked the high definition signal question so we could make an educated decision on the bundling of a set top box they were fair enough to say that we should stick to our current standard definition box (they did, however, provide us with some advice on improving our reception through the use of a dedicated high definition satellite like antenna).

And thus the conflict I had between awarding Clive Peters for enabling us to see the TV and test it and eBay’s ability to offer us a cheaper price was solved. Yes, Clive Peters allowed us to test the TV, but they also bullshitted us and lied to us while the eBay seller was professional. And lest we forget, Clive Peters was among the places that tried to stir me towards plasma and away from rear projection LCD\DLP\LCOS by falsely promoting plasmas.

Maybe I should look at things the other way around. Maybe I should reward the eBay shop for being a pioneer and for being the first reliable source for buying appliances through the web in Australia, defying the local importers and distributors who do not allow internet sales in order to be able to control prices?

I talked here before against Amazon’s monopoly, but I also think that Amazon is an asset; what I resent is its bullying of others; but in the TV case, it’s the internet seller that is currently the underdog.

One last thing about the eBay shop we ended up buying the TV from. There are lots of people selling you stuff on eBay, but our shop – Pals Palace – is the only one that gives you a proper invoice, warranty and all.

We got their invoice, and it said “Joyce Mayne” on it. I googled Joyce Mayne, and what did I come up with?

Joyce Maybe is a brand name owned by none other than Harvey Norman!

And now we know what tactics have been deployed by Australia’s biggest electrical retailer in order to establish an effective presence on the internet without upsetting their distributors.

Anyway, we’re supposed to have the TV delivered on Monday.

Thursday, 22 June 2006

Jehoshafat!

First thread:

Jo wanted to go and look for shoes after work, so I had to spend a bit of time. In typical fashion, I went to the nearby Dymocks book store, where I was amazed to see that they have 20% off everything. Everything!

Second thread:

I’m currently reading Asimov’s Naked Sun. I’ve read Caves of Steel, its prequel, just a couple of months ago, and it was good; but Naked Sun is not just good, it’s fucking brilliant!

I’m biased, though: As I said before on this very blog, Naked Sun was the second science fiction book I ever got to read, and the first science fiction book of the type of science fiction that I really like (the type the truer nerds amongst us refer to as social science fiction).

The threading of the threads:

I got Asimov’s three good Foundation books, as well as the sequel to Naked Sun, Robots of Dawn. It’s one of those sequels that were written long after the original and its bound to be shit compared to Naked Sun, but Asimov is still Asimov.

Since Jo & I read the same books and since we have roughly very similar tastes, it’s funny how we both got excited with this recent rejuvenation of science fiction literacy. For me, it’s a reminder of the time I was 10 to 12 years old: I read Asimovs one by one (or should I say nine by nine?), and I really liked them, but I was still too much of a chicken to try for that thickest book of them all, The Lord of the Rings.

That period was also identified by the regular reading of a Hebrew magazine publishing science fiction stories, called Fantasia 2000. I would spy the news agency shop window to see when the new issue came out, and then I would haunt my parents until they gave me the money to get it (shit, I was so spoiled). And then I would read it.

I was thinking of doing the same thing now and subscribing to a science fiction magazine. For the cost of two paperbacks you can get a yearly supply of science fiction short stories, just choose your magazine: Asimov’s, Analog or Fantasy & Science Fiction.

Problem is, I already have way too many books to read – I buy them at a rate significantly quicker than I read them. Even Jo is starting to have a bit of a backlog, and just the thought of “which book should I read next” drives me crazy (albeit in a good way).

Jehoshafat!

Wednesday, 21 June 2006

Dreary England

Regular readers of this blog will be able to tell by now that I tend to criticize things that are closer to my heart much more than the things I hate. This is exactly why I am writing to tell you that I am quite dismayed with having spent two hours of my life watching England play Sweden instead of using the night to get some sleep.
The score line might tell a different story: 2:2, four goals within 90 minutes is not that bad a ratio for a game that can easily sport no goals at all. No, it’s not the goals that were the issue, but rather the uninspiring way in which the game was played.
To start, I will make it clear that I like both teams. Sweden features Swedish girls, and they also happen to have one Freddie Ljunberg. But it is England that I like more, and it is England that I liked since the days of old; I guess you can blame it on Peter Shilton’s charming individuality or on Maradonna’s unfair hand of god, but they captured me, mostly with the way they always lose with this certain level of tragic panache that makes you remember World Cups by the way England was taken out. A World Cup is probably not a World Cup unless England is controversially taken out: I already mentioned the famous hand of god, and then there’s Beckham’s red card from 1998, or Ronaldinho’s mis-kick that failed to inspire David Seamen. There’s always something in the air.
You have to feel pity for them. They have such lovely characters on the team, poetic souls like Guscoin (excuse spelling), sexy players like Beckham (I can’t stop dreaming about him at night – not), but also stupidly excellent players who never get to properly express themselves (ala Steven Gerard this time around). And when you think about them having to settle with English food all of their lives (the not so English Hargrives excepted), you just have to feel sorry for them.
Tonight, though, I mostly felt sorry for them because they had a manager that lacked the balls to be daring enough to clinch the game using the talent he has on his side. You can accept it once or twice, but the third time is unacceptable, especially as it was obvious it would take the equally poor talented manager on the Swedish side a hell of an effort to rob the English of the first place in their group using the inferior tools available to the yellow and blue side.
Simply put, England was playing in a manner that was designed to minimize the blame that may be attributed to the coach when inevitable defeat comes along, rather than on a way that would make them get the results, or (god forbid) make us enjoy the game for a fine display of sportsmanship and tactics.
Sadly, it seems as though we’re doomed to have a miserable England in the future, too, with the appointment of Mclaren as Ericsson’s sequel.
Which makes me think that perhaps it is the British people that are to blame for this phenomenon, as it is their representatives – in the form of the British press – that drove all the good managers to the havens of more tolerant team/countries (anyone heard of Scholari, by any chance?)? While I am truly glad this approach prevented England from robbing Arsene Wenger from the helms of my team, I think it does tell one thing or another about the inner workings of England and probably Britain as a whole, and the picture is not exactly flattering.

Monday, 19 June 2006

Hats off to Guus Hiddink

I have said it before on this blog that it's not what you achieve but rather how you achieve what you manage to achieve that counts. And last night's match between Brazil and Australia demonstrates the case.
I am not a fan of the Australian football team. They don't seem to do themselves favors whenever they open their mouths - all you hear are complaints about referees and a tough life with FIFA. The local press doesn't do them any favors with the way they cover them, pumping into people's heads that winning is all that matters - the great Australian approach to sports - which leads both the team and the people in general to dehumanize the opponents.
But worst of all, the Australian team plays a nasty type of football: they just go for their opponents legs.
That is, until the game against Brazil.
Quality wise, Brazil is infinitely superior to the Australian team. Ronaldinho on his own should be able to take entire Australian squad. But last night, Australia played Brazil as an equal, it didn't play rough, and I had the pleasure of enjoying a fast, tense, and free flowing game. I woke up at 2:00am to watch it, and when I got back to bed at 4:00am I couldn't fall asleep.
Yes, Australia lost, but it lost in a way that can make the team proud.
And who is to credit for this? There is only one address: Guus Hiddink, the Dutch manager.
I do not remember ever seeing a team so inferior to their opponents being so well prepared for the match. Formations changed on a constant basis to keep the Brazilians under pressure, attacks were well built to utilize on Brazilian weaknesses, Ronaldinho was no where to be seen (although Kaka did get too much of the ball), and overall Brazil was under lots of pressure.
If ever I required a demo as to why football is such a superb game, I got it yesterday. The weaker team was able, through preparation, to match up to the much better team; and unlike Aussie Rules, for example, it was runtime tactics that caused it.
Eventually the Brazilian coach, a pale shadow of the Australian/Dutch one, changed enough to enable a goal to be scored through the quality of Roanaldo and Adriano; but the fact the game had to come to that shows how well prepared Hiddink was.
For that, and most of all for not being a coward and for playing a superior team by attacking them back, I take my hat off.

Formerly driven automobiles

We noticed that in ads of all sorts - newspaper, radio and late night TV - they no longer call "used cars" "used cars". No no, the places that sell them have nothing to do with used cars, god forbid!
They are all into a new line of business now - "preowned vehicles". And that is, obviously, a totally different affair. Do you think, even for a minute, that someone selling you a "preowned vehicle" will try to rip you off the way a "used car" salesman would? You have to be kidding!
The sad thing about it is that there must be a reason behind this exercise in denomination. Someone must have figured out that this sells more cars, that people prefer a sophisticated "preowned vehicle" over bogan "used car". Which doesn't really project a nice image of us, does it? It's yet another proof that we've stopped consuming for function but rather we consume for the sake of consumption.
I wonder what new brand they would have for "preowned vehicles" once people get fed up with this one. Feel free to suggest your tag - I put my suggestion as the headline.

Sunday, 18 June 2006

Team America

It took place last night, we taped it and watched it this morning (that is, when we got up, which was actually more like noon): Italy vs. the USA, or in other words – probably the world’s funniest football game ever.

The laughs started when they read the players on the American team. At the substitutes table there were both Howard and Beazley, both at the same camp for a change. Call it whatever you’d like to call it, the fact they were both subs on the USA’s reserves list must be more than a mere coincidence.

Next they played the national anthems, which is always a surrealistic affair. The Italian one was funny and lasted forever, but it didn’t prepare me for what happened next: a few people held the American flag at a 45 degree angle to the players, who stood in line; the players all stood at a sexy angle to face the flag for the singing of the Stars Strangled Banner; and worse, they all had their right hand on their heart. I didn’t know whether to laugh because it was just so pathetically funny or whether to cry because this was the closest I will ever get to the sight of a proper Nazi salute. Both Jo and I thought it looked like a scene from Starship Troopers.

The SBS commentators are all pretty shitty, but the one assigned to handle this game was so bad we kept on laughing at his remarks (not that he has much of them to share with us; he keeps on repeating himself). Thing is, he kept on referring to the USA team as “Team America”, and having seen this excellent film I could not stop laughing at the connotations this reminded me of. With the flag salute and all, this was definitely a soft target hit.

Next came the game itself, where I was for the USA. I tend to prefer the underdogs, and I tend to hate Italy because they play such a boring and uninspiring game. Usually, that is, because so far in this tournament they didn’t play badly at all; in fact, in this particular match, it was the Americans that did their best to subdue any hint of creativity.

Between the yellow cards, red cards, and offside calls the game was as eventful as a football game can ever be. Everything seemed to go wrong for the Italians, who scored an own goal and then got a red card, and then everything seemed to go wrong for the Americans, who got two red cards.

The Americans kept using the offside trap so effectively the Italians became e so frustrated that one of their attackers, facing the goalie alone, seemed to have given up for an offside when an offside was not even called. Watch the game’s highlights and you wouldn’t get that; but just like real life, it’s this accumulation of brief moments that determines how the overall experience feels like.

The referee was the star of the game, which is always a cause for alarm if you actually want to enjoy the game as anything but comic relief. I have to say all of his decisions seemed correct to me; it’s just that by applying some common sense things could have been much better to both sides. Why is it that every game where the referee is from South America ends up as a complete farce?

After watching this game I am convinced that life is like a game of football: brief, full of tackles but also full of laughs, full of bad decisions but also some inspiring moments, but most of all – meaningless.

Friday, 16 June 2006

Thin Red Line

We went to Melbourne Central after work. Jo is desperately looking for boots to wear for work, so we figured the CBD's biggest shopping mall will do. With the sales on in full rigor, the timing is right.
Needless to say, I find the hunt for boots terribly exciting, so I spent most of my time in Melbourne Central's Borders shop. The rest of my time was spent in the Sony shop, where they had the same 50" rear projection TV twice: once was fed of a normal off the air signal and the picture quality was just shit, the other was fed off channel 10's high definition signal (it was 18:30, so it was Neighbors time), and the picture quality was not bad at all (the TV stood right underneath a very strong light, so it did look a bit washed).
Anyway, back to Borders. I saw three books I wouldn't mind buying at all if I wasn't in the mood to save, if I hadn't bought an LCD monitor yesterday, and if I hadn't had an incredibly huge backlog of books waiting for me. And then there's the latest problem we have: our bookshelf is just overflowing with books.

The first book I liked was Geoffrey Blainey's "A Short History of the 20th Century". Mr Blainey is a Melbournian historian; not that his location matters much. A couple of years ago we got and read another book of his, something like "a short history of the world", and we both really liked it because we learnt a lot from it and because it was written in a way that made you want to read more. Just as an example, I always wondered how people like the American Indians got to America or how the Aboriginals got to Australia some 60,000 years ago. I mean, there's a lot of ocean in between that and Africa, where we're supposed to come from, even if between you and me we all know we came down from Ararat, where Noah parked his ark. The explanation Blainey provides was stupidly simple: they walked. It's just that during the ice ages the sea levels were much lower, Indonesia was a part of Asia, Tasmania was a part of bigger Australia, and the sail to Australia from Indonesia was more like a short swim.
Anyway, that book omitted the 20th century, under the assumption that it's both familiar and too concentrated to capture at a thin level. So the new book comes along aiming at fixing this gap, only that it's only available in a hard cover at this stage and Borders sells it for a ridicules $50 ($17 in Amazon, which after currency conversion and shipment is still less than $30).
As we like to say, next time Gadget.

The second book was called Jpod. It's by this Canadian author, and it's a story about a cool computer games programmer and how shallow and empty his life in the pursuit of the dollar is. This is certainly something I can relate to, only that I'm past this stage and I don't think I can be classified under this classification anymore. I mean, leaving that lifestyle behind me was one of the reasons for leaving Israel behind. I think my friend Haim would probably find the book hits home given his capitalist nature, but I gave it a pass.

The third book is the main reason for this blogging session; everything so far was just one long preface. Written by another bloke from Melbourne (together with a fellow whose details I didn't bother reading), it's called something like "The Ethics of What We Eat".
Reading through the book you get yourself exposed to some horrid realities, some of which I was aware of and some not:

  1. Most of the meat we eat today is "generated" in plant like places where the animals are conceived, grown and processed for delivery in much the same way as you'd expect a car to be made but not in the way you'd expect a living, breathing thing to be handled. Pigs never see daylight, calves are grown in boxes, and chickens are locked in tight cages.
  2. Fish do not get a better deal. Those living in the oceans can enjoy life until they're caught, but then they can be dragged for a few days in a net only to eventually die suffocating, while probably injured from being beaten by clubs until they stop protesting (the fate of bigger fish). Alternatively, their gills may be cut, leaving them to bleed to death. Those that are "home grown" get to spend their lives in shit conditions all the time.
  3. Cows raised for their milk definitely suffer for it.
  4. The raising of animals for the meat industry requires a heavy toll on the environment, an unsustainable one in the long (but not too long) range.
  5. Lots of energy is spent delivering us meat and groceries.
  6. We are currently not paying the full price for the meat and the vegetables we eat. If we were to add the environmental impact to the price tags no one would be able to buy much in the way of meat.

The book's final chapter provides a listing of places where you can get ethical food from: Places that treat their animals humanely or places that sell vegetation that did not require toxic chemicals to produce. The thing is this chapter is less than 3 pages long, which shows a thing or two about the futility of this exercise in ethics.
The book is aware of this problem, and therefore it recommends straying away from meat as much as possible, preferably becoming a vegan, and buying locally raised products to help cut the energy impact.
The thing about all these problems is that addressing them is a sort of a lose-lose solution. Everyone is better off being selfish and eating meat, while the others around are to be more careful and eat less meat and pollute less. There is no real incentive for anyone, be it a person or a country, to stop this unethical behavior while others continue acting badly.

And where do I fit in? I am quite comfortable eating meat as long as I am not exposed to the ways in which they are made. Just like the Australians I mock who are willing to place people in detention with no trial for the "crime" of trying to get into Australia, as long as those detention camps are in the middle of nowhere where no one can see them.
I think that eating meat is fine because we obviously evolved to eat meat. That said, I think we should treat animals humanely if we are to continue behaving as if we are better than those animals; and I also think that since evolution does not really apply to humans anymore (at least not in its regular form), the excuse where we say we have evolved as meat eaters does not really apply.
So what should I do? Should I stop eating meat? And if I do, where is that line that says "now I'm a good person" which I need to cross in order to stop being an evil person?
Is it when I only get local vegetation? How close do I need to be to their origin? Would I still be a sinner if it turns out that I ate vegetables where bad chemicals were used to raise them? And if I don't know about it am I still guilty of committing a crime?
And what about eating food for pleasure? What about me becoming fatter and fatter? Aren't I just consuming vital resources from the earth in the process, contributing to the destruction of the environment to serve my momentary whims?

I don't have an answer to these questions, yet the fact I am obviously evil does trouble me.
Religion does not really offer much in the way of a solution. Pope Bene-dict said, according to the book, that production line farming of animals should cease; but is the church really doing much about it? Allow me to say my impression is that they are making much more effort to prevent Africans from using condoms than the effort they spend on humane animal treatment or sustainability affairs. Judaism doesn't fit the picture in the first place, as its ways of handling animals are often inhumane to begin with.

The more I think about it the more I tend to agree with Jo, who recently said it looks like we humans simply do not deserve to have this world that we are so busy selfishly ruining.

Thursday, 15 June 2006

It's the time of the season


The end of the financial year is upon us, so if there is ever a time to spend money on something that you can claim in your tax returns, this is it.
And what a better way to spend money then to get ourselves a new 19" LCD monitor? It's not that the old CRT monitor I've had since June 99 was bad, it's just that I noticed definite eye fatigue when using it for long. And I can live without eyesight problems (not that I don't have some already). I thought an LCD screen with a DVI input would do the job well, and so far it looks like I was right!

Wednesday, 14 June 2006

Give these people air

I have just finished my probation period at my new work. During probation they could have fired me whenever they felt like, but now I need to do something very illegal - like have sex with the cleaner on the office table or publish what I think of my new job in my own blog - in order to get myself fired.
While I have my reservations about the new job - Lotus Notes and the lack of team spirit have been mentioned on these pages before - I do get to notice how small differences can make a whole lot of a difference with my satisfaction levels.
It's June, and everyone around me seems to have a cold, and voila - as of yesterday I officially have a cold of my own, too. However, it is only my second cold for this winter, and more importantly - like its predecessor, it's a mild one that annoys me and does detract from my productivity at work, but it's not a major lie down horizontally for a week and feel like shit for another week cold.
And why is that so, when with my previous job I would have been on my third horizontal cold by now? I can think of several reasons:
  1. The daily walk to and from work, and the general exposure to [very] fresh air help my immune system.
  2. I have established a twice a week treadmill session routine by now. I'm still as fit as a cripple old dog, but I'm fitter than what I would be without it.
But I think the primary reason for the difference this year is the airconditioning at work. I realized that when I stepped into the bank right next door to work, and it smelled so stale I immediately wanted to go out; then I realized that the smell reminded me of my old place of work, because that's the smell the place had in winter.
At the new office, the air just feels fresh, and the temperature is decent enough so I don't have to wear a sweater. The old office, by comparison, suffered from a constant stench - as if the air was never circulated, as if in an attempt to cut costs they just stopped circulating the air and relied on the place being shut and insulated for heating purposes.
Now, energy saving is a good thing, but when it comes at the expense of health it's counter productive.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that these little things count a lot. They're like a dose of fresh air.

Tuesday, 13 June 2006

Arbiter

Australia beat Japan 3:1 in the World Cup, and the nicest thing about it is that for a change you don't hear anything about footy or shmooty but instead you're getting proper sports news: Football news.
For a while now it has been funny to hear people at work talk about the upcoming World Cup. The language they use and the things they discuss are funny, and it's all because they don't know a thing about football but rather look for parallels in the Aussie Rules world. Remarks like "I wonder if Viduka will kick a few goals" are the basic example.
Given Australia's victory the trend has reached new heights. All of a sudden, everyone and their grandmother is a long time football supporter. And I don't know exactly why, but many seem to come up to me to share their new football insight with me (I mean, I know why: because I know a bit about football and they don't; what I don't know is how they can tell that). When I start discussing attacking vs. defensive formations or when I talk about Viduka being quite useless playing with his back to goal they quickly lose me, but they still have that bright shiny thing in their eyes - enthusiasm.
The best player in the Australian camp, by far, is the coach - Guus Hiddink. As far as coaches go, he's probably the next best thing to Wenger. So when I tell my fellow Australians (who, by the way, are quite upset at me for supporting the Dutch team) that Australia misses out on some attacking punch, and that a Thierry Henry would have done it much good, I suddenly realize how spoiled I am with my football choices: My team has and has always had one or more of the world greats playing for it, whereas most other teams don't even have someone playing for any national team, period. So I can dismiss Australia as a football superpower, but where would my humility be then?
Anyway, bottom line is that with my newly established status as the 27th floor football expert, I can ill afford to miss Australia's next match with Brazil, even though it is going to be one of the most one sided matches in this World Cup (read: one of the more boring matches). The people would look up to me to tell them that Viduka was shit, and I cannot disappoint them.

Monday, 12 June 2006

Koala Conversation Center

We spent our long queen's birthday weekend in Phillip Island with friends.
It was quite freezing there and we didn't do much other than eat and do what is commonly referred to as "relax", but it was pretty effective.
We did play a bit of football in the backyard of the place we rented, which turned out to be a pretty effective way of warming me up. At night we could spot lots of running rabbits by their white tails wagging about, and this morning we were greeted by a rainbow just opposite the living room's window (which faced the beach, although you couldn't see the sea because of a dune in between).
Yesterday we visited the island's Koala Conservation Center, which like most of the commercialized attractions that aim towards the younger side of the family is more than a bit of a ripoff at $9 per adult. We saw 14 koalas (the first spotting was quite ceremonious, later ones were dismissed), so you can work out the dollar rate per koala spotting; not that it matters much, because they all look the same and they all do the same (that is, nothing). Check out the photos in my Flickr page.
A fine weekend; the thought of going to work tomorrow sends shivers through my chilled bones, especially as the next long weekend is Melbourne Cup in November.

Friday, 9 June 2006

Yallah Holland!

Or, as they say: when at first you don't succeed, try again.
Regardless of team preferences (being an enemy of patriotism I basically choose the team I like to watch the most), there is one thing there is no doubt about: There's a very tired month ahead of me.

Biodiversity

Last week I have learnt that Paul Simon, one of my favorite musicians, has a new album out (it's called Surprise).
Where did I learn about it?
Was it Triple J, the radio station I listen to the most here, which specializes in new alternative music? No, because Paul Simon is too mainstream for them.
Was it Gold 104, the radio station I listen to while I have a shower, which specializes in 60's to 80's music? No, because they don't mess with new stuff.
I do listen to other stations, but just a bit; point is, Paul Simon falls between the cracks, and you won't hear his new album in any of them.
So where did I hear about this new album? In an Israeli website, Walla, which I check regularly for sports news (they have the mix of European football coverage I'm so used to).
And once again, the over commercialization of radio here proves that branding yourself towards very specific market segments means that sometimes you lose track of the bigger picture. I said it before: Australia's music scene is in a dire need for some generic radio station that would play a bit of everything. In a world where the contents is determined by the target markets of the ad breaks, that won't happen.

Thursday, 8 June 2006

Internet killed the radio star

Yesterday was a Ben Elton day for me.
A couple of days ago, while walking to the train station, I saw a poster on the wall of an alleyway advertising a one night stand up show by Mr Elton in Melbourne, next month.
I don't have much of a history with Ben Elton. A few months ago I got a CD of a stand up show of his from the library and it was great; since then I realized the guy is behind Blackaddrer and Maybe Baby. Since then we bought and read a book of his, Popcorn; I must say, I didn't really like the book. I found it tried to be so clever it was patronizing and rather obvious, while in other respects it was as simple as the Da Vinci Code.
But that stand up CD was brilliant so we looked to buy tickets.
We looked at Ticketek's website, and it offered us shit seats at the side of the very back. More annoyingly, it wanted to charge us almost $10 commission, even if we were to just pick the tickets up at the box office. Then Jo suggested buying through the box office directly, and then I noticed that it's just the building opposite where I work, so I went there yesterday and got better tickets (back, but center) with zero commission.
I thought the internet was cheaper to run and that therefore it should offer cheaper prices, but Ticketek disagrees. Fuck the internet.

I left work early yesterday and found my way, one way or another, to the big Dymocks book shop on Collins Street. While looking for the books that I intend to order from Amazon, just to see if I can get them elsewhere, I saw that Ben Elton has a new book in paperback to do with World War I.
I said it here before that I have some sensitivity to that war, so I got the book. Reading the back cover, I saw that he has a book on companies fucking up global warming, so I bought that, and then I noticed he has a book on pollution, so I bought that as well.
Talking about those, I also bought a Noam Chomsky book (I think it's his latest). I read bits of it on the train ride home, and it's funny because by now, after reading that Dictatorship of the Proletarian article recently, I find reading political articles very interesting (I read those on a daily basis in The Age, but they're way shorter). The funniest thing of all was the second paragraph in Chomsky's book, which said there are two big dangers to the world that could mean its end - nuclear war and global warming. The funny thing about that is, I said exactly the same thing in my "An Inconvenient Truth" blog-entry, written just a day before I bought Chomsky's book.
Anyway, by now you know why yesterday was a Ben Elton day. What you don't know is that I asked the people at the Dymocks shop why they sell books for way more than Amazon, and they actually took me behind the counter to show me that they buy their books from their distributors at prices higher than what Amazon sells the same books to me, a simple individual. Apparently, because of their buying power, Amazon get huge discounts which they can hand over to their clients.
In general, that's good. However, monopolies are not that good, and Amazon is shaping up to be one, at least in the Australian book market. I also cannot say I like them much, even though they mean that I can now put my hands on most books I that I crave. I had a couple of incidents where I could just go crazy, like the time I ordered a "best of Blur" CD at a really cheap price from them, only to receive an email saying the CD I ordered is no longer available, but instead they have another CD called "best of Blur" that happens to sell for much more yet feature exactly the same songs. Also, try to contact them for help and see whether you won't find committing suicide is much better than receiving one of their dumb answers.
Bottom line is that while they provide some necessary services, Amazon is also dangerous towards everyone else in the market. A balance should be found, but in the mean time this shows that the internet can do evil just as it can do good.

Wednesday, 7 June 2006

Bob the Builder

My boss took me yesterday to get me some safety equipment so I can join construction site inspectors to see what's going on there.
The results are here for you to admire (minus the safety boots).

Tuesday, 6 June 2006

An Inconvenient Truth

Al Gore, the man who would be president, has a new documentary film accompanies by a similarly titled book, called "An Inconvenient Truth". According to a Scientific American editorial, this film is the best presentation so far of the problem that is commonly referred to as global warming as well as the solutions that might help us address the issue.
Since I find this issue interesting and since I think sustainability is as major a problem for this planet as the proliferation of nuclear weapons - both could spell the end of the world - I had a look to see what I can find about this book/film. I ended up bit torrenting an interview with Al Gore, and both Jo and I watched it with great interest. Highly recommended.
I had a look in Amazon to see what the book is about. It was quite funny to read what people said in their reviews for the book. First, it is funny that the book has reviews in the first place, since it was only out for a couple of days at the time I had a look. Second, it was funny to see the distribution of the reviews: they were either reviews by environmentalists who praise the book (probably without reading it at all) and reviews by people whose mission in life is to look after the American way of life, who say the book is full of shit (and in their case I'm sure they haven't read the book, unless these are false reviews meant to get aspiring environmentalists like me annoyed enough to buy the book; all's possible in the land of the free money).
Personally, I don't get those negative reviews. Yes, they're perfectly entitled to say things like "listen, I read the book, and I simply didn't find the arguments convincing". That's acceptable criticism. But to say something like "the book is full of shit because it goes against our American way of life" is one of the biggest piles of shit I've ever heard (if you'll be patient enough you'll read about bigger piles later on).
What is the American way of life anyway? Is it about consuming and consuming and then consuming more? Is that all there is to it? Why can't another type of consumption be considered, a type of consumption that is more responsible, a type of consumption that emphasizes renewability?
I haven't read the book myself, but I did watch Gore's interview and I did read September 2005's issue of Scientific American where they discussed solution for addressing global warming. And none of these sources said that we should stop consuming or stop living or commit mass suicide; they just said that we should change the way we act. Instead of buying energy hungry air-conditioners, we can seal our houses better; the cost on the long run would be similar, but the environment won't suffer. Instead of taking a 2 ton piece of metal wherever we go, we can use public transport more. Instead of using electricity or gas for water heating, we can use solar panels. Is that a contradiction to the American way of life?
I don't think it is. What I do think this represents, though, is a move from current habits to new ones. Basically, some major big players out there - oil companies, for example - stand to lose a lot of money from this transition; they can work a bit to change their ways so that they'll continue to be on the mark, but instead they work to convince us there is no problem at all or that the solution to the problem would ruin our way of life. Personally, I think the only thing that can really ruin our way of life is those companies, because if we keep on listening to their spin then eventually we will have to stop our current way of living.
The fact that this entire conflict comes down to some companies not wanting to lose money in favor of other companies is quite shocking. The fact these companies manage to brain wash so many people out there into accepting their spin is majorly shocking.

This conflict is not a USA exclusive affair. If we focus back on Australia, we currently have the biggest bullshit feeder of all - our beloved Prime Minister Johnny be good Howard - telling us that we should "consider" atomic energy for Australia and appointing a committee to "investigate the viability" of this proposition. Luckily, this committee is made entirely of big time atomic energy supporters, which means this is all over and done with.
The problem, the way I see it, is that Mr Howard intentionally block all other avenues to address the supply of energy in the age of limited fossil fuels and global warming. His government has totally cut down all solar energy research, for example.
The problem, the way I see it, is that Mr Howard will gladly spend billions on nuclear energy that would make some of his rich friends richer but will leave our kids with lots of contamination to deal with for 100,000 years when the same amount of money could be spent on paying all of us so that we will all have solar panels on our roofs for water heating. The cost would be the same, the energy output would be the same, it's just that the people that would earn out of the solar panel solution are currently not powerful enough to make a difference with our policy makers.
If you ask me, that's the most inconvenient of truths in this whole affair.

Monday, 5 June 2006

Dietry changes

We met with my brother today, and because he lives in the Jewish ghetto we went to eat at an "Israeli" restaurant serving "Israeli" food while surrounded by Israelis and Jews.
The reason for the extensive usage of the " symbol is the fact there is no such thing as "Israeli" food. Israel, like Australia, is a country of immigrants; if anything, Israel as a Jewish state is much younger than Australia. So just like there's no such thing as "Australian" food other than in stylish definitions such as "modern Australian cuisine", there is no such thing as Israeli food. In here you get English food with all sorts of inventory and climate related modifications (choice of fish to go with your fish & chips), and in Israel you get Arab food that's been cultured to fit trendy fashions. In both cases you get everything else as well, and the abundance of immigrants means you can pretty much get whatever food you want.
We haven't been to tonight's Israeli restaurant for quite a while - probably a year or so - and what surprised me about tonight's experience was that I didn't really enjoy my humus and my shishlick in the pita. Yes, it was nice, but it wasn't the "meet god face to face" good it used to be back at the time when humus was my main source of calories. It's not just the food, it's the wrestling with the pita while the humus drips out of it and eating it quickly before the meat goes cold; it just makes me think, hey - why bother?
So there you go: taste and habits change together when the culture around you and your physical environment change.
We enjoy lots of variety in our food, both at home and when we eat out. We do Mexican stuff, we eat lots of Indian, and between pizzas and spaghetti we manage some good Italian stuff. More rarely we do Far Eastern food, too - mainly Thai. I think I could safely say that the common element is that it's all food with strong taste; rarely do we get something bland.
What can I say? Viv la revolution!

Lest we forget how biased we are

I read about these tests which supposedly measure how biased we are towards all sorts of things - race, religion, gender, sexual preferences (homo vs. hetro) etc - while reading Scientific American. The basic assumption there is that although people can be enlightened as hell, they still carry with them all sorts of biases gained from even the slightest childhood experience - things like your parent tightening their grip on your hand while walking you through a neighborhood full of Manchester United supporters.
Given that I was on my lunch break, I couldn't resist doing one of the tests. Have a go at: https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/
I did the black vs. white test, and it came up telling me that I'm moderately biased in favor of the whites. They have different adjectives for specifying how biased you are, and moderate is the middle of the road one.
I do have to say that beyond the fun element of this exercise, I have my reservations about its reliability. The test works by letting you first associate good stuff with white people and bad stuff with blacks, and then reversing the order so that you associate good with black and bad with white. By measuring the difference in the speed of your reaction to each of the challenges, it is supposed to be able to statistically tell how badly biased you are.
Well, that's nice on paper, but I have a problem with it. Let's say I've been driving on the right side of the road for 15 years, and then all of a sudden I'm told I now need to drive on the left side of the road; I can tell you from my own experience, this would take getting used to, mainly because I'm so deeply experienced in doing things a certain way. So how can this test train me on doing things one way, then change the side of the road I'm driving on, and then tell me I'm biased? They claim to have this factor statistically factored out, but I would like to be able to go through the same test again in reverse order, where I first associate bad with white and then bad with black.
Why do I bother you with this story? Because I get pissed when statistics is abused.
Not that I'm saying I'm not biased; I would certainly be biased against blacks, and for a very simple reason: I've hardly had any exposure to them. It's the ignorance of my ways that gets me to become biased.
On that same token I can say that I noticed I'm more than a head over heels in the company of gay people, both men and women.
And on that note, don't let any man tell you they'd be able to be totally objective when interviewing two people to work with them, one an ugly looking old man, the other a very attractive young woman. Even if they don't think of the woman as their next mistress and even if they're happily married and all, the contest is a no contest.
To mock all the intelligent designers out there, god has created us with bias built in.

Cold Man Walking

It's not only that today was extra special freezing cold, everyone next to me at work has a cold, and everyone seems to be either sniffing their nose or sneezing at everyone around.
That's it, I'm doomed now. I hear the cold a-coming. And just before the long weekend.

Sunday, 4 June 2006

No Silver Bullet

The bulk of this weekend was spent, or wasted (depending on how you look at it), on the potential future purchase of a big TV / projection device for us to enjoy.
As I said before, the purpose is to enhance the suspension of disbelief. That may be achieved by a better quality screen and/or a bigger size screen, something that could equate to the cinematic experience. For our living room's size, 60" is the way to go. Go less than that and it would still look just like a TV, go more than that and you'll eventually get a headache, first row at the cinema style.
There are several technological options. CRT is out of the picture, as it is not available in relevant sizes. That leaves us with plasma, LCD (panels, rear projectors, or front projectors), DLP (rear/front projection), and LCOS (rear projection).
As I said not too long ago on this very blog, I was thinking of a Samsung rear projection DLP. So this weekend we went to a few shops to see what this model has to offer and what else is available on the market.
We first went to your average run of the mill electronics shops - the sort of places where the salespeople know which products give them the most commission, but that is pretty much the full extent of their knowledge: Harvey Norman, Clive Peters, JB Hi Fi, and Retravision. The picture was very bleak: All these places are heavily plasma oriented. When I asked them about rear projection models, all they could say is ask me why I'm not interested in plasmas instead.
We gave up and went to a genuine hi-fi shop, Secher in Camberwell. To my surprise, the sales guy there was still asking me why I'm not just going for plasma; I told him that I just don't think plasmas have a life like picture - they're like Canon digital cameras, they look "wow" in the beginning, but after a while they give you a headache. So we got him to show us around projectors and what options we have in this arena.
And let me tell you this: The situation is bad. When you're constrained by budget, picture quality, aesthetics, and usability - there is simply no "win-win" situation to bring them all and in the darkness of your living room bind them to a proper film experience.
Allow me to spill out some of our findings so far...

Rear projection:
As I said before, these models seem to be relegated into the back storage compartments of the big shops. It appears as though they simply don't want to sell them, and in fact most of them don't have any in stock and those that do have just a couple that they put on special sale to get rid of. Plasma and LCD panels are all the rage, it seems.
By now I think I know why: These models are marketed and priced as plasma's inferior sibling. They're significantly cheaper, but from what we saw in the shops they are quite bad, picture quality wise. We saw several DLPs and one Sony rear projection LCD, and they all had the same problems typical of over-driven rear projectors: The corner of the screen was darker than the center, and the screen was very directional - you can only see proper picture if you're directly in front of the monitor. Step aside and you see black.
The reason for this is clear: All places had front projectors demoed as well, and in the well lit show rooms their picture was very (but very) washed out; they just need darkness to operate. The rear projectors, however, just use the same projection technology but drive it to the extreme so much - like a car on constant full gas - that the picture quality is pretty shitty. All for the sake of looking good in the show room floor.
Yes, you can adjust the picture at home so that it would look good when you watch in the dark, but the screen would always be a high-gain directional one.
Further corners seem to have been cut in the picture processing side of things: All the screens we saw need to convert the input signals they receive into their native resolution (which in most of the cases is 720p). They do a really bad job about it: The picture doesn't look like a picture, it looks like moving pixels. I thought the Sony was good at first, and then I switched to watch the footy (Geelong - West Coast); at first I thought something's wrong with me, but quickly I realized it's the TV. It just couldn't handle movement at all! It was like one group of moving pixels fighting against another. What a shame!
So, is rear projection a shit technology? Only when priced to the bottom of the pile, because we did see an exception. By far, the best picture we have seen so far - and probably the best picture I have ever seen - came from an LG 80" LCOS model, on display at both Harvey Norman and Clive Peters. It made me understand why it was nominated by Widescreen Review as the best screen technology available today - the first and only technology to eclipse CRT. Yes, the screen was still directional, but it gave a hell of a show at the stupidly lit Harvey Norman shop floor, showing all the plasmas surrounding it where fish piss from. Such detail! Such blacks!
Alas, we live an in imperfect world. The price tag is quite reasonable - $7500, dead cheap for 80", especially when you consider it's the only model on those floors capable of 1080p. That's roughly the price of a 55" plasma! But we just don't have the space for an 80" monster in our room, and with LCOS being the new kid in town there aren't any other models to pick from (JVC is supposed to have older LCOS technology out there, but where?).
To conclude rear projection findings: We will not find our salvation here, at least not until LCOS trickle down the food chain. Given plasma's domination, I doubt that will happen.

Front projection:
Here the story is more of an engineering one.
I know what technology I want there, and there's not much room for arguments. LCD front projection suffers from too much of a screen-door effect and its blacks are simply not black enough for Moshe Reuveni's book. I understand why others buy them - good for them - but for me the distraction caused by those effects outweighs the picture size's advantage.
Which pretty much leaves DLP as the master of this domain.
Now, a good - or rather, acceptable - DLP projector featuring 720p capabilities costs $5000. Thing is, with projectors that's only the start. There are installation costs - we'll need someone to install it to our roof, there's the screen, there's cabling, there's the mounting... Let's attack them one by one.
With the way our living room is setup, we can comfortably have the projector mounted on a pole lowering it from the ceiling at the very end of our living room. We need it lowered from the ceiling so that the projector would throw it's picture at a nice height rather than at the ceiling's height. Yes, we can tilt the projector, but that would mean we'll need keystone corrections, and as much as the salespeople tell me it's nothing I think it's quite a something.
If we have a projector we will still need our current CRT for day to day stuff - SBS news, for example. Things where we won't want to bother with the projector or times where there's too much light in the room for the projector - which is quite, often given that projectors need almost total darkness to produce a neat image. Given our limited real estate, that means a screen dangling in front of our TV; this screen could either be manual or motorized, but it could not be a simple (and better, picture quality wise) fixed screen. This means we'll have something dangling from the ceiling, either by chains or just a long screen where the projected image will only occupy its lower half; either way is not particularly nice. Either way is quite expensive, too, with manual screens costing $1000 and northwards and motorized ones costing $2000 or so. A short glimpse at eBay shows you can get stuff at $100, but it probably will not fit our complicated ceiling scenario.
Cables would be a costly affair, too. We'll need S-Video, composite, component, and HDMI cables running across the ceiling from where our stereo components are to where the projector will be. We're talking about a 5 meter run or so, even longer when considering the cables need to run up the wall at least once. You need quality cabling to manage such long lengths, so you need to have an open wallet there.
Last but not least is the cost of installation. We were quoted at $90 per hour, and we were told that the task of installing a projector with power and cables plus the installation of a [powered] motorized screen to the ceiling usually takes an entire day. Write down another $1000 there.
If we ignore cost for a while, there are usability issues with front projectors. I said before they need virtually total darkness; my brother has his projector room covered with black curtains. We, on the other hand, do not have the luxury of having ten rooms in our house per person, and we cannot do this to our living room. Therefore this means that we will only use the projector once or twice a week for that occasional film or cinematic TV series. Is that worth all this hassle, then?
Usability issues don't end there. Have a look at www.projectorcentral.com: They have an interesting calculator there. According to it, our room is a bit of a problem for front projectors. We will end up with an 80" picture, which would be too big; yes, it would be a "wow" thing that would amaze all the two guests that bother visiting us - but it will also drive us crazy after the first disc of Fellowship Special Edition. We could have the projector closer to the screen and not at the back of the room, but then it would stick like a mote in god's eye aesthetically, and its noise would be right on top of us.
To conclude the front projection story, this looks like a high cost affair that suffers from
significant usability issues. Still, for the best picture quality we can have, this is the way to go.

Where does that leave us?
Well, my friends, this leaves us with an option I did my best to avoid, but an option that seems the most popular. I hate to say it, it's hard to say it, it's probably - plasma.
Yes, picture quality is somewhat problematic. Mainly, it's a "too good to be true" picture. Just too bright. Yes, it's as if you have an open oven in your house, which could be handy in winter but would definitely be a pain in the ass come summer.
But - it's high on usability. It's slim and "sexy" enough for us to accept even a 60" model into our living room. It's robust, despite its not so robust reputation. Current models do provide for 720p resolution, and models like the Pioneer even have several gamma modes that allow you to make colors look like real colors once you're out of the show room. And it could run day and night, SBS news to Return of the King.
So is plasma a winner? Maybe, but it's an expensive winner. 60" plasmas are manufactured in one plant only, so they're all pretty much the same regardless of brand; and they all start at about $12,000 and finish at $16,000, way more than we could afford. Fujitsu has a 55" model selling for $7500, but that's an old model that I wouldn't want to touch. Which leaves us with 50" models from Pioneer ($5800 on eBay), LG ($5000) and Panasonic ($4800). Quite expensive for our budget, especially when we do not get the full cinematic experience that 60" provides. But at least with plasmas we can go out and about and test and see live models, because they're simply there.

This is obviously a "to be continued" affair. For a start, we can only go out and see stuff on weekends, and next weekend we'll be freezing ourselves to death in Phillip Island for the queen birthday's long weekend.
I'm doing lots of Widescreen Review reviewing. But my main conclusion is that I should get real: Rear projectors are simply marketed out of touch; projectors are low on usability; and LCOS and the new CRT like format that's supposed to kill everything else are still not mature enough.
The next real step we'll take would probably be going to shops with our favorite DVDs to test some monitors. There's a scene from Fellowship my brother and I used when he bought his projector: Just after Frodo gets knifed at Weathertop, there a dark scene where they look for weeds to cure him, which is quickly followed by a horse race scene featuring lots of movement, natural looking scenes, faces, and colors. An excellent test, which has become a benchmark because I have seen it so many times on so many displays.

Till the next frustrating episode, I'm going to watch ABC news on our Sony 29" CRT.

Friday, 2 June 2006

Australian blogs

According to today's Age, an Australian start-up has just gone live with this blog search engine. The special thing about it is that it's supposed to crawl through all popular blog suppliers - including Google's Blogspot - and locate Australian blogs, thus making it easy for Australians to locate blogs close to their hearts.
You can access this sophisticated search engine at www.gnoos.com.au; I did, but I have to say that it was not able to find my blog.
Therefore, in order to make my blog Australian enough so it would be picked by this nationality detector, I thought I'd better add some Australian vocabulary to my blog. So here goes:
Beer, sport, cricket, footy, battler, mate, barby, detention, and of course - investment property.

Help promote this blog by suggesting more Australian search engine catch phrases!

Today's letter to The Age

Dear sir/madam,

Today I have learnt there is a recipe for stopping the federal government's rather unpopular privatization plans for Telstra and Medibank.
It simply requires the mixing of the following ingredients:
1. Labor has to support the privatization.
2. Labor state governments need to take the sale's income into account in their budgets. For best results, it's best if the state budget is just fresh out of the oven.
That's it! It's that's simple. Of course, if this doesn't work, one can always get Cate Blanchett to sign a petition.
I do admit, though, that I am still unable to convert this winning formula into something that would rid us of the federal government's Industrial Relations laws.

Sincerely,
Moshe Reuveni

Thursday, 1 June 2006

Hymn to Her

There's a bit of a mayhem going on: someone has noticed that Muslim schools are telling their kids that gay people are un-Islamic and should therefore be condemned, and those that noticed this fact are breaking the news to the rest of us that at last, proof was found to the fact that Muslims are truly evil, as we all suspected for so long.
I agree: such views do not belong to the 21st century. But all those pure souls condemning the Muslim schools should look upon themselves first. We can look at their leader, a certain Mr Pope. He recently visited Auschwitz to tell the world how the evil Nazis have committed crimes against all humanity by killing Jews there, yet the same pure Pope would not say a word about the fact the Nazis have also systematically killed poofs in there; in fact, the Pope is quite famous for saying very bad things against the gay people, things that do not belong to the 21st century.
And as usual, the arguments people use to justify their racial prejudices just bounce back at them to show their ignorance. Personally, I think the problem is that the Australian government allows religious institutes to run their own schools; how can Australian society strive for integration, especially when it is made entirely of immigrants (even if most of them are from distinct parts of Europe), when every religion pulls towards its own agendas and uses the opportunity to say the others are shit? Let us not forget that these schools receive lots of money from the government, too.
Just in case you thought the Jewish schools (which take pride in getting the highest grades on a regular basis) are pure of such anti others shit, let me tell you about the end of the year party my nephew had a couple of years ago after finishing first grade at a private Jewish school.
At the end of the party, the headmistress got up to the stage and asked people to rise for the playing of the national anthems. I was surprised when I thought I heard the plural form used; and I was even more surprised when they played the Israeli national anthem as well as the Australian one. It was like, "what the fuck?!"
Even my brother who is still very much an Israeli at heart found this strange. I found it repulsive. What gives these fuckers the right to associate themselves with Israel in the first place? If the parents want Israeli connotations in their children's studies, then by all means they should send them to Israel.
And I can go on and on about what I think of the concept of national anthems in the first place. The Israeli one is a very nationalistic one and pure Jewish oriented, in a country where more than 20% of the population is not Jewish. The Australian one feels like it was written by a committee, and I don't know how people can associate themselves with it. And what about the Stars Strangled Banner? That's a f*cking war song! What is it doing associated with a country that's supposed to be based on freedom related values?
It's all just shit symbolism that's totally meaningless other than in acting as a way to easily drug the masses into following their leaders. The only national anthem I approve of is La Marseillaise, and only it's first few notes, and only because it is used as the beginning of the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love".
Now, that's an anthem worth having a country for, and that's a value worth teaching in schools.