Tuesday, 31 October 2006

Billions and Billions

A few weeks ago, Triple J's Hack program had this item about Australian culture making big heroes of sports people while not paying much attention to intellectuals. They made their point by asking people who their favorite sport person was, which usually resulted in an immediate answer, and then following that by asking who their favorite intellectual was - which was usually followed by embarrassed silence.
Jo then asked me what my answer would be, and I immediately said Dennis Bergkamp. She persisted, and I said that my answer would probably be Asimov - I like him, I read lots of his books, and he implanted lots of ideas in my head. Bill Bryson would probably come second place, even though he's not the biggest of intellectuals (certainly not on the Asimov scale). Jo asked what about Chomsky, and the answer is that as much as I appreciate his opinions he seems incapable of speaking at a popular enough level to really stir some emotions.
And that was it.

A couple of days later I read a book review in Scientific American, dealing with a new book by Carl Sagan. I found that odd, given that Sagan died 10 years ago; indeed, the book is a collection of lectures he gave before he died.
But then I started recollecting Sagan and his influence on me. It's not just another man I'm speaking of; it's the man who is most responsible for the way I look at the world now.
I've said it before and I'll say it again. Back when I was 10 years old, my uncle bought me Broca's Brain, a book by Carl Sagan. I read it - it was a tough read for a 10 year old, but I managed to get through it with something - and my personal history from that point in time was totally changed. For a start, the concepts of religion and god - concepts I already started developing doubt towards - were now no longer something to doubt but rather something to dismiss (not that this was the Sagan heritage; there's a lot of my interpretation in that).
Then my uncle taped Sagan's TV series for me, Cosmos. We would watch it again and again, and again it made a huge impact on me.
I think I can safely say that the way I view this world of ours - the way I think of stuff, accept stuff, and my general views on where we come from and what we are - come directly from Sagan's mouth (and brains).

Since the Scientific American reminder I've re-read Broca's Brain and started watching Cosmos again. My uncle died roughly at the same time Sagan did, so now my Cosmos partner is Jo, and she's enjoying it almost as much as I do.
A shiver runs through me when I watch it. There is a lot of that old kid's excitement running through me again, plus memories of my uncle, but most of all it's the excitement of hearing the things that I keep think of the way I think of them.
I bought another book of Sagan last week and I've already started reading it; the grand design now is to buy all of them, pretty much. His books have this lovely mix of scientific facts thrown in with a lot of philosophy and personal views, and I seem to be a sucker for these.
I am not a big fan of ratings and classifications such as "what is the greatest video game ever" or "who is the world's greatest intellectual"; I feel these are stupid, because at any given moment my answer would be different due to different moods and different circumstances. But that aside, I think Carl Sagan is one major great intellectual.
I love his work and I am appreciative of its effects on me. Sagan may be dead, but his work is still with me.

Monday, 30 October 2006

Child friendliness

One of the things I noticed about the previous week, when we had the family over, was that my diet during that week has suffered in favor of food I would normally label as junk. This culminated in a big headache I got after eating a plateful of chips.
When thinking of the reasons for this inferior diet, my basic instinct was to blame the eating habits of our English relatives; I dismissed things at that. However, the ever vigilant Jo has very rightly pointed out that their preferences had nothing to do with my diet during last week: it was much more circumstantial (and I'm an idiot, but as disturbing as that may be, it's not exactly news).
For example, while on Chapel St we initially wanted to go to our favorite Mexican restaurant, but had to give up on the idea because of the lack of a high chair and the general child-unfriendliness attitude the place exhibits. Instead, we went to the nearby TGI Fridays, where the food is quite junk oriented; I ate a pile of chips (that no one forced me to eat), and ended up with a headache.
Similar incidents took place all week long, causing me to reach the following conclusions-
  • The way in which restaurants aiming towards certain types of clientele treat families with children could easily explain why children develop bad eating habits. Those restaurants prefer a cool image over actually serving food.
  • The general quality of the food we tend to eat outside is severely lacking compared to the food Jo & I (but mostly Jo) prepare at home. We don't tend to notice it simply because we don't go out enough times for the external dinners to make an impact; but when we did, as in the case of last week, we felt the effect.

Less than great attitude towards families with kids was not evident in the food department alone. Walking around in Chadstone, the huge shopping mall that is full of escalators and stairs, we noticed that if we wanted to switch floors with the baby pram we had to find the elevator; the problem was that this elevator tends to be hidden at the end of a dark alley like corner.

I never really paid attention to these issues before. Now that I think about it, however, I'm amazed with how much we can get away with when we don't think of the others out there. The kids' related example is a classic, since we were all kids once and most of us will have kids of our own, yet we find it quite easy to be cruel towards ourselves.

Blogger problems

I have to break regular broadcasting in order to let you know that over the past week or so both of my blogs have been plagued with a mysterious illness.
Whenever I try to post something, I get this weird error message telling me of java script errors when the blog is trying to republish itself. It is obviously no problem of mine but rather a problem with Google's blog publishing engine; so far the cure has been to simply try again and again, but it seems to have been growing worse and worse and trying again and again does not always work.
I have already saved a couple of upcoming posts as Word document, waiting for a cure to be found. Blogging already takes too much of my time, so wrestling around with these technical issues is not my way of having fun with the PC.
I'll see how it goes in the upcoming days. Google seems to think that by sticking a "beta" label on the facilities they provide they can get away with anything, so if trouble persists I'll investigate moving to greener pastures - say, WordPress.

Saturday, 28 October 2006

The house is too big without you

Exactly a week after they arrived, we said goodbye to our English guests.
It's quite sad, actually: by the time we started getting used to having them here with us, they went away. The mayhem and noise and the mess that accompanies Jane wherever she goes; the easy going of Jo's mother, who is obviously the one in the family that makes sure things get going; and, needless the say, the baby Georgia, who is very cute and by now we got used to her and to playing with her. I've got myself into a nice family through Jo, and it's a pity I can't get deeper inside; for a start, they could use someone to show them how to do things over the internet.
Once again we remember the worst thing about Australia: it is too far from anywhere else, to the point that years pass between us seeing the members of our family. We ended up not seeing my family at all this year, and similarly we haven't seen Jo's father; and that's just family, without mentioning friends.
When we got back home from the airport things felt strange. Everything was so quiet and empty it was uncomfortable; it didn't feel like our house.
But everything very dirty, too, so the rest of the afternoon was spent cleaning. We rented some DVD's (you know where you'd be able to read their reviews), and Jo cooked the lentil soup we like so much which she wouldn't cook to her family because she suspected they would be overcome by taste. Food was where we had to let go too much this week because of all sorts of weird reasons (as in the availability of children's high chairs at restaurants), and I could definitely feel how the increased amount of junk in my system is making me feel like shit. It's amazing how bad chips can make me feel today - I just can't cope with fried food anymore; I should learn to control myself in front of them.
And so we attempt to go back to our regular routine. Despite the fact we didn't leave home, the last week definitely took our minds off work and off routine, so it would still feel very weird to go to work come Monday.
For now, happy daylight savings time! Better late than never.

Round the World in Flickr

With my new Flickr Pro account, I've started uploading "historical" photos on to my Flickr page.
The first of these experiments are a bunch of photos from the round-the-world trip we took last year, which involved San Francisco, New York, England, Scotland, and Israel. I came back with 17gb of photos from that trip, so obviously I will not upload it all; for now I'm uploading just a batch which we set aside in a CD aimed at our families and labeled "best of round the world". Since it's aimed at our families it doesn't have much in the way of scenery and good photos, focusing instead on photos of us. But that will do for now.
One thing this experiment does cause is confusion when you watch my Flickr page, as Flickr sorts the photos out in descending upload chronological order. In order to help with the navigation I have re-shuffled the sets I've had, so now navigating to the batch of photos you're interested in should be easier.
How does it work? When you access my Flickr page, the right column is made of tags, each representing a set (or, in plain English, a dedicated photo album). Click on the set you want, and away you go.
Eventually, the grand design is to put a lot of our historical stuff up there. We'll see how it goes; I think the idea of maintaining our photo albums on the web, where everyone can immediately access whatever photo they want, is just great.

Thursday, 26 October 2006

Georgia on my mind

We keep on traveling with our English family visitors, doing day trips of sorts around the neighborhood.
On Sunday we went for an easy one - Williamstown, where we met our friends Martin & Yvette (and Arnika). Then on Monday we were off to Healsville, for a taste of wine in wine country and a visit to the zoo - where Jane's main aim was to get to the gift shop, so we had to rush the zoo part of the zoo. Tuesday was the hottest day of the week, so we went to the beach near Sorrento; yesterday (Wednesday) was the worst day of the week, at least as far as the weather was concerned, so Jane's wish came true and we went to Chadstone's shopping center to indulge in that most numbing of sports - shopping. And today we went to Queenscliff to relax and enjoy the view.
Everything is nice because we do it together with the family, an element that is truly missing in our lives here. Obviously, though, there is a twist to things when you do them with the family. Allow me to recount the ones I find most interesting.

First, having a baby at home adds a significant overhead to everything and it can really drive you crazy: Jane needs looking after on a regular basis or the house would fall down. That said, Jane seems to be doing a good job looking after her one year old baby, Georgia.
Second, I'm always amused by the eating habits of my relatives.
Third, it is interesting to note how Jo's speech changes when she is talking to her family. You would expect the English to use English phrases, as weird as they may seem: "love", "knackered" and "settie". But Jo hardly ever uses these phrases - unless she's with the family, in which case words such as "lass" (a young woman, according to dear old Webster) popup in every second sentence. And the accent changes, too; from a fairly neutral one - something from the middle of the road between Australia and London - it turns into something that resembles her family's accent more. Anyway, I find this observation interesting because I know something similar happens to me when I talk to my Israeli relatives: it feels quite weird to talk to them in English, and simple sentences that I usually utter flawlessly (albeit with a heavy accent) suddenly become full of stutters.

The fourth one is the most exciting one.
Georgia has arrived at Australia not only with some jetlag but also with a cold. It seems as though Tuesday's stint at the beach really helped her out, and for the last couple of days she's been a much nicer toy to play with.
So nice that yesterday - when we went to the shopping center, that empire of the shutting one's senses and following one's basic instincts to consume stuff one would never need - instead of suffering, I just took control over Georgia's pram. We left the rest to mess about with their shopping while Georgia and I went for an exciting 4wd pram ride in the shopping center's corridors. She was happy and excited and I had a good time; the surprising thing was the way people treat you when you have a baby with you: everyone is so polite and helpful, it makes you want to have an out of pocket baby to carry with you all the time, as a sort of an "in case of an emergency break the glass and deploy your out of pocket baby" thing.
I went to buy the paper at this place; I couldn't find it, so I asked someone; it turned out to be the till operator, who was in the middle of handling someone's shopping with others waiting in queue. She left the guy in the middle, went to get me the paper, took my pay - and then went back to the person she left behind. And that person and the others in the queue were not angry; they were beaming at Georgia.
Still, after all the totally redundant shopping, I did come out with a new Carl Sagan book from Borders, so you can't say that bonding with Georgia was the day's only achievement. Not that I have any illusions about her remembering me a couple of days from now, and not that I can say that I my inability to communicate with kids has suddenly been cured.
Anyway, I know baby stories will probably bore you to death. Feel free, though, to look at the loads of photos I've uploaded to my Flickr page.

Wednesday, 25 October 2006

There's always the sun

Friends of ours who watched an interview with Al Gore (but not the feature film An Inconvenient Truth) have said that he failed to convince them, appearing as a dodgy character that wants to make money out of his book/film combo. They also said that they found this website where a scientist, claiming to be an outcast the others scorn, claims that global warming is the result of cyclical solar flares. He claims there is a pattern in these flares, and that according to these patterns the world will be to normal weather patterns after 2007 (whatever normal means).
Now, I have a problem accepting such statements.

First, I have to say that solar activity could be a major source for weather patterns here on earth. As far as I can tell from my readings, there are three main things that could cause global weather changes aside of things that come from the earth's inside: Changes to the earth's rotation and orbit, the greenhouse effect, and changes to solar activities.
The problem I have with the solar flare theory is that, to the best of my knowledge, this is a phenomenon we don't really understand. We know it involves huge magnetic fields, we know it concentrates around sun spots, we know it throws huge amounts of radiation out - but that's it. The news about detecting cyclical patters there are new to me; I have never heard of them before and I am yet to hear of explanations as to why these cycles happen in the first place. The way it has been presented so far, it sounds to me too much like "you're a Taurus, you insist on not eating bananas, therefore you're stubborn, therefore astrology is right".
What I'm trying to say is that in order for me to accept such a theory I need plenty of proof, not just conspiracy like statements saying the scientists and Al Gore have banded together to make lots of money of this rumor called global warming due to the greenhouse effect. The current level of explanations requires one to have faith, which is something I'd leave for religion.

Second, there is the now well known fact that energy companies are financing everybody that is willing to say anything that even slightly contradicts anything to do with global warming.
Back in the seventies, for example, Dupont - the world's biggest manufacturer of CFC's, the killer of the ozone layer - did the same. Cigarette companies have been doing the same for years and years.
Therefore, a website making a rather unorthodox claim faces the onus of proving itself even more than under normal circumstances.
Still, we shouldn't let such hurdles stop us from exposing the truth: many of the things we are now taking for granted sounded awfully foolish not that long ago. Just ask Galileo about his adventures with the church.

Third, the solar flare theory says it can explain temperature changes taking place in the last 150 years, the time in which we chronicled weather information.
While that may sound ok to the laymen, this does not mean much: through plenty of means available to science today we can tell what the weather was like hundreds of thousands of years ago (for example, through air bubbles trapped in the ice caps).
A theory that pretends to explain stuff should be able to go further back than 150 years.

Fourth, scientists who talk about global warming do not talk about temperatures alone.
While this new theory of solar flares could potentially explain a temperature rise, it cannot address other issues that go part and parcel with global warming.
Advocates of the green house theory talk about the rise in CO2 particles in our atmosphere. Soon enough we will reach the 500 parts per million threshold (ppm), and from what we know of earth's history such a ratio was never reached without some major calamity wiping out most living stuff on the planet. I do not know whether CO2 ppm is the cause or the result of such a calamity, but since history tends to repeat itself it is definitely a worry.
Sea acidity is also on the rise, due to more and more CO2 being absorbed by the seas. This causes temperature changes and current changes, as well as giving rise to all sorts of weeds that are not particularly friendly to the other sea animals on which we rely for food.

Fifth, by looking at other planets in our solar systems we can easily see the effects of the greenhouse effect. Venus, the planet closest to us, is constantly boiling at 480 degrees due to its eternal cloud layer. Other planets and some of the Jupiter and Saturn moons provide similar evidence to varying degrees; the relative simplicity of these environments, when compared to the earth's living environment, makes it easy to witness the greenhouse effect.

But even if after all of the above explanations we still doubt the green house theory - and let me make it clear that I have my own doubts, since I still have to take certain things presented to me as facts by just believing them (I was never there to witness the solar caps melting, for a start) - there is one very good reason for me to want to do something about the phenomenon commonly referred to as "global warming".
And that reason is simple: I cannot accept the notion that we, humans, can do whatever we want with the small planet we live on - chop things, burn things, contaminate things - without those things coming back to haunt us. It is physically impossible to avoid that.
And the sooner we start doing something about it, the sooner we start living in harmony with our environment rather than living by exploiting our environment, the better.
The sun may flare at will and we can do nothing about it; but there is a lot that is under our control which we are currently neglecting or abusing.

Monday, 23 October 2006

Going pro

For the "measly" fee of $25 (USD), I became a pro account holder at Flickr today.
This means that they publish all the photos that I upload, as opposed to the last 200; that I can upload up to 2gb a month, instead of 200mb; and other bonuses that don't really amount to much but never mind - we all heard, about a week ago, that Yahoo! shares fell down following a significant reduction in expected income, so I'm just doing my share to support them.
Anyway, the true implications on my Flickr account are that now I will upload photos at print-worthy quality, because I don't need to worry about space limitations anymore. Especially as I noticed that I keep uploading more and more photos, whereas before I acted as more of a filter to stop the crappy ones from sneaking past.
The real implication of that is that now relatives do not have to ask me for prints or for CD's: all the worthy photos will be up there, and everyone can grab 'em and do whatever they would like to do with them.
But that's obviously not going to happen and I've obviously just wasted some $40 of my money. Why? Because when we asked the relatives that we currently have at hand, Jo's family, as to whether they have a look at our photos over the web they said they never [ever] accessed it. What they do remember is losing the photo CD's we sent them a year ago. Needless to say, my side of the family is just as useless - they don't have internet access in the first place; they refuse to touch that beastly thing that's all in English.
So where does this leave me? It leaves me as Don Quichotte. I will do my best to be up there and to offer what I consider to be the best solution, even if no one will ever use it. At least I'll feel good with myself.

P.S. I think I should tell you that you can get a service that in many respects is superior to Flickr through the new version of Google's Picasa web facilities. The reason why I'm stuck with Flickr is its superior integration with my blog, something that is a bit silly when you consider that my blog is Google based.

When the walls come tumbling down

We woke up last night to the sound of a big thud, shaking our bedroom windows quite viciously. It happens from time to time when some car with a juiced up exhaust causes resonances in the area, so we didn't pay it much attention.
A few minutes later there was a sound of a big bang coming from the roof. It sounded like the gutters have decided to go their own way and break apart from the roof. The next door dog started barking, too, and I thought I'd better go out to check if we still have a roof over us, but then I was "talked" into staying in bed because it's probably just possums running about.
Anyway, this morning the first operational thing I did was to check the area, and everything seemed fine. The second thing was to turn the computer on to see how Arsenal fared last night (very well, which means they'll lose their next match) - which is when I stumbled across this news item saying that Melbourne's south eastern suburbs have suffered an earth tremor - 2.5 on the Richter scale.
Exciting as it is (I really hope we won't get rain inside the next time it rains), I really don't understand why it should happen; there's nothing around, tectonic wise, to cause such a stir. Then again, I was never an expert on tremors, but then again - I am curious now.

Sunday, 22 October 2006

On the night shift

I don't know how they do it. Parents, that is.
A select few of Jo's family have arrived at our local airport's doorstep all the way from the UK: Isobel, her mother; Jane, her little sister; and Georgia, Jane's one year old baby. It's a pity Jo's father wasn't able to join the party.
We got home at about 22:00, and after some sorting out Jane has decided to sleep on the sofa next to the cage (aka porter cot) we got for Georgia to sleep in. You see, we expected Georgia's jetlag to attack us, and attack us it did!
Come 4:00am, I first woke up with the sound of a "boom". Then came another boom, which was quickly followed by "how can you ignore me" type crying.
I got up with a headache (helped by this cold that I have) to see that Georgia was throwing toys from her cage in a bid for some attention. Then Jane got up and all was well and I could go back to bed; the thing is, the saga didn't end there for Jane.
The crying carried on for a while (enough to ruin a good night's sleep). Eventually, they went to bed together on the sofa.
I'll go back to my original statement: I don't know how parents can cope with that over a lengthy duration of years. No one ceases all the other pressures they have when the baby pops out; if anything, they have the additional pressures of less time for work accompanied by the need for more money in order to be able to maintain the lifestyle they're used to.
Things are even harder in the case of single parents. Both Jane and my sister are, in effect, single parents (the similarities between them do not end there, even though they never met and probably will never meet either - but that's probably a potential subject for another post); you can see how their lives end and everything now has to revolve around their babies.

There's enough food for thought in last night to make everyone doubt whether the need imprinted in all of us to advance the progression of our genes is worth the effort.

Saturday, 21 October 2006

The end of an Age?

Well, if you live in Australia then you must have heard by now that Rupert Murdoch bought some 7.5% of the shares of Fairfax, his biggest Australian competitor in the newspaper arena and the publisher of my favorite Australian newspaper, The Age.
And it's all possible with the release of the new media laws by Helen Coonan, our beloved Minister for Communications. For the un-Australian amongst thee I'll explain the new legislation in one sentence: whereas before one company could only have a limited presence in the media, to avoid one company from ruling it all, now the chains are much looser.
Thing is, I fail to understand the benefits of this new legislation. What good is going to come to the Australian public if fewer companies provide for TV and newspapers?
Well, it seems that I'm not the only one dumbfounded by this question. Absolutely no one that was interviewed and asked this question was able to provide an answer, and the cynical consensus among those that are not related to the government is that this was all just to please a few people - the three currently in control of Australian media, Packer Stokes and Murdoch. Thing is, these three are making so much money anyway, I don't see the point is us bothering to sacrifice the quality of our media just to ensure their great-great-great-great-great grandchildren are still guaranteed to be billionaires.
Naturally, you can trust John Howard to explain it all: Australia, says Howard, is too small a media market; it needs some consolidation to survive. Personally, I don't see where he got this one from; I didn't exactly hear of any media owner complaining of financial troubles. If anything, I did read repeated articles in The Age this week saying how its people are afraid of the outcomes and declaring that they want to continue with what they refer to as proper journalism.

Yet again we are being sold to big companies. Yet the government makes sure we will be dumbed down enough for it to win subsequent elections.

Outfoxed

One of the less exciting news from the past week was Microsoft's official release, after several beta versions, of its Internet Explorer 7 software: the first official Explorer release since 2001.
How unexciting can the release of a new product be? Well, this one has to break new records - it offers absolutely nothing that Firefox doesn't, and as far as I can tell Firefox has still a few advantages in handling dynamic stuff which I can't even name because I'm not that familiar with the concept. But the bottom line is, that in typical fashion - the way Microsoft has always done with Windows copying stuff from Mac and others - Microsoft has once again delivered us a product that is less than inspiring and only manages to get close to keeping up.
Eventually, I will probably even have Explorer 7 installed through some Windows Update I wouldn't even notice. That said, I see no reason for me to quit using Firefox: it's elegant, easy on me and my PC, and it delivers.

As if to reiterate my views on Microsoft software, I dreamt last night that in a couple of hundred years we will not have the internet as a network of computers but rather as a network of our brains. People's thoughts would pass from one brain to the other at lightning speeds, enabling everyone to understand one another - we might even know what's going on in the heads of the North Korean leaders.
And in charge of it all was the newest version of Windows. It allowed people to control which aspects of their brains and thoughts were to be shared with others, and to what degree.
And guess what? In my dream, there were lots of operating system related problems. Some thoughts that people did not want to share were exposed, humiliating them; other brains were exposed to virus attacks, which left them blank; and Bill Gates was still there, telling everybody that everything is just fine.

Not that much attention should be put to my dream; it's just a pile of bullshit that is not indicative of anything other than my anti Microsoft prejudices.
But as if to confirm the prejudices' existence, Microsoft has also announced this week that it's postponing the release of the third Windows XP service pack, in a marketing effort to help boost Vista support.

Friday, 20 October 2006

Bissli Grill

Back in my Israeli childhood days, one of the snacks I grew up with was called Bissli. The Israeli version of what is classified by English Jo as "crisps", it's made of baked stuff with added flavoring (apparently it was "invented" by mistake when a spaghetti production line overcooked). Back in the good old days, the most popular flavor was the grill one (other classic flavors were falafel, onions and pizza).
I haven't had Bissli for years now; I strongly suspect that by today's standards it would suck. Not because I don't enjoy junk as much as I did, but more because it's rather bland - it's like eating spaghetti that doesn't taste of much.

Anyway, the reason why I came up with this nostalgic story is Kim Beazly, the leader of the Labor party - which makes him the leader of the Australian opposition.
Now, readers of this blog will no that I am not exactly affectionate towards our beloved prime minister, John Howard; if it was up to me, I would gladly send him to spend some time with our troops in Iraq - as long as he won't come back until they do.
The problem is that with the pathetic conduct of politics in Australia, Mr Beazly, who is supposed to stand up and offer a viable opposition, is more like Mr Bissli. Now I'm not saying that because he's fat; at the rate I'm going the day in which you won't be able to tell us apart by weight alone is getting closer and closer. I'm saying this because he lacks flavoring; he doesn't stand up for anything other than popping up whenever Howard does something and saying that this something that Howard did is wrong. He is as attractive to vote for as Bissli.
There are plenty of examples. Even with the stuff he's supposed to have a hard agenda on, such as workplace relations, all you really hear him saying is "I'll cancel everything Howard has done". That's good; but what will you offer instead? The blank expression on your face?

Anyway, this week he and the Labor party said a few things that may change my opinion and nullify his Bissli classification.
First, Labor said that they will abolish temporary protection visas and also abolish the habit of holding refugees off shore. This means that refugees will be able to stay in Australia and live a life here, as opposed to the current situation where they are effectively imprisoned on some remote island; and once they do get to Australia, they will have a future ahead of them.
There is a long way to go further here as far as making Australia a decent country in the way it acts towards refugees, but going against the natural xenophobic attitudes that are so prolific in Australia and heading towards the right thing to do is a good start.
The second thing is what Beazly said to counter Howard's suggestion that Australia should go nuclear in 10 years in order to address global warming. Beazly said, and I fully agree with him on this one, that nuclear is not the way to go and that the future is with the sun - either in solar or wind energy.
Again, there are many problems still with Labor's positions. For a start, Labor is still for uranium mining; does it really matter if Australia uses the uranium or another country with a very respectful record - say China - uses this uranium?
Sarcasm aside, Labor's spoke-person said that a Tasmanian renewable energy plant is suffering and is about to fire 100 workers because of government neglect, claiming that such a thing - a crisis in the industry that on paper should be blooming - would only be possible in Australia, due to Howard's policies. I don't know whether this information is true or not, but I do know this: In Australia we got sun coming out of our asses - for a start, it's been waking us up each morning at 5:00am for a month now - yet we don't use it at all.
All the investments the government is making in nuclear power and in Iraq would do wonders if they were spent instead on buying people Australian made water tanks and Australian made solar heaters. That would obviously not happen under Howard, but there are parts in me that still give Mr Beazly the benefit of doubt in the hope that he could rise up, stand up for something, and do something good for this continent - eventually.
Till then, he's just Bissli to me.

Thursday, 19 October 2006

Ozone, Baby

I'm currently reading this popular science book. It doesn't matter which, because that will be the subject of several other posts; what does matter is that the book was written in the mid seventies, and the Hebrew version I'm reading was published in 1981.
Amongst others, the book discusses the issue of the hole in the ozone layer, and it suggests that this hole is caused by CFC's found in aerosols as well as the fluids running air-conditioners and fridges.
The amazing bit comes in the shape of a footnote, saying: "Translator comment: According to the current views of the scientific community, this theory is incorrect". I bet that translator would prefer to commit suicide than to be reminded of this foolish footnote she added to a perfectly good theory!
Which shows the wisdom one gains over a period of 25 years. We can now safely look back and see how silly and ignorant we were.
But the lesson I value the most with regards to the hole in the ozone layer has to do with something a bit different. Ask everyone you want about the dangers posed by the hole in the ozone layer, and I guarantee that 90% of the people if not more would tell you that it's skin cancer.
And that's where the problem is. We are so selfish and self centered it's amazing! We can't seem to help it: religion tells us we're the pinacle of creation, and most of us seem to take its word for granted.
Hardly anyone cares to think of others. In this case, hardly anyone bothers to think of what, to the best of my knowledge, is the real big danger: that small micro organisms, infinitely more sensitive to ultra violet light, would break apart; and that their catastrophe will filter up the food chain to create a problem much bigger than having to slap some sun-screen on or keep under the shade.
We humans need to learn some humility. And we need to apply it soon, because the handling of global warming is going to be much trickier than the handling of the hole in the ozone layer.

He's a Family Guy

I've been dangerous this morning.
You see, I got up at 4:40am to watch Chelsea convincingly beat Barcelona in what was quite an entertaining match (they say they're handing out cash prizes to those that managed to spot Ronaldinho on the pitch); alas, it made me totally unable to focus and concentrate. I think I even knocked a few people off the pavement on my train commute through the loss of peripheral vision.
Still, as far as being dangerous is concerned, this is nothing it comparison to the packed concentration of English danger we will be receiving on Saturday night: Jo's mother, sister, and niece will be paying us a visit for a week.
The key word here is "niece", as she is just a bit older than a year and at the stage where the order of the day is crawling and putting stuff in her mouth. Given that our house is not exactly child friendly, with the kilometers of cable adoring our stereo setup and the high concentration of rather expensive electronic gadgetry per cubic meter, we spent the last two weeks moving stuff about and clearing the way. The living room looks quite different now, and it would look even different-ier when we move the guitar and front speakers away.
I suspect we won't be sleeping much next week; while the adults in the family (Jo's mother) will probably manage the jetlag, the not so adults (Jo's sister and her baby) will probably wake us up at night quite consistently. For this reason we've charted a list of external activities for us to do together in the sun, in the hope of setting their internal clocks to the local time.
It is funny to note in a sad sort of way that Jo's family faced exactly the same problems we faced when booking their flights; that is why they'll be here now and not on Xmess, and that is why they will only be here for a week (which is a bit of a shame considering the distance).
I think the prospects for the niece are quite exciting. She will probably not realize it now, but having people she could always come and visit in Australia could easily mean the difference that would make her growing up exciting.
Anyway - I'm looking forward to having some time off work and to entertaining the family. And also to seeing how is it like to live with a toddler full time...

The Bill and I

Who said writing doesn't pay?
I just got a call from Dymocks, an Australian chain pf book stores, which unlike Borders is actually genuinely Australian but just as expensive. They told me that I won their Bill Bryson competition!
The prize is a full set of Bryson's books. Pity I already have most of them, yet I'm sure we can use them as gifts or just sell them on eBay before Xmess; we actually already sold a couple of his books quite successfully, as both Jo and I had the same books in our collection.
In order to join the competition I had to write something about why I like his books. I wrote the same thing I actually told Bryson when we met him at a presentation / book signing some two years ago in Melbourne: that his book on Australia (which I won't name because it has different names in different countries) that I purchased back in 2000 before visiting Australia as a tourist has significant responsibility to the fact I now live in Australia as a citizen.
Regardless of that, it's always nice to win things - and even nicer when the prize is some excellent books.

Wednesday, 18 October 2006

Battlestar Galactica the Third

In case you didn't know, the third season of the new Battlestar Galactica series started airing in the USA a couple of weeks ago.
I have no idea what the plans are for off the air broadcasting in Australia - I lost track of Channel 10's miserable performance during the first season - but you can find the first three episodes of season three on the inernet.
So I was told.

By the way, if you're looking for the best thing on off the air TV at the moment, look no further than Family Guy on Channel 7 (Thursday nights). It's a cartoon, and it's great and creative - the way The Simpsons used to be when they started. Last week's episode featured a cameo by Pamela and Bobbie Ewing (I kid you not).
And if you can't make it on Thursday night, I am sure you'd be able to find it on the internet, too. Or so I was told.

Sunday, 15 October 2006

Water of Love

Lately, water - or rather the lack of it - has become the talk of the town. The talk of the state. The talk of the continent.
Readers of this blog will know that I am a sort of an aspiring environmentalist. Yet I cannot help getting annoyed - quite annoyed - every time I am told that I need to cut down my water consumption.
Let me get one thing straight. I do think that we should all cut down our water consumption, even when there aren't any water shortages in the reservoirs. So allow me to explain why it is that I'm annoyed.

First, I am annoyed because Australia has been going through a 15 year long drought and the people who call the shots still didn't realize that it's not a drought by now - dry is normal, and anything more than that is abnormal. Welcomed, but abnormal.
What I'm annoyed with is the way the people who call the shots will not acknowledge that global warming is here and will not do a thing about it.
Second, I'm annoyed because I'm often being told off for taking long showers. I do take long showers - 20 minutes long, probably, on average. And I do not consider these showers to be among highlights of my good deeds; yet those 20 minutes are one of the things I look for in my day. The thing that annoys me is that most of the criticism I receive is through people who attest to shower for 6 minutes a day, but then when you ask them about it they will tell you that they water their huge private gardens on a daily basis. Yes, I take long showers; but according to our water bill, our overall water consumption is on the very low side of things for a family of two.
The third reason for me being annoyed is the biggest one of them all. I refer to it as mis-information; allow me to elaborate:
  • They tell us to cut down our private water consumption. Yet they don't tell us that most of the water being consumed is not used by private household; the bulk of the water goes for agriculture and industrial use. Has anyone seen any plea for those to cut down their water consumption? If anything, they might even receive subsidized water. So, if I and everyone else around cuts their showers by 50%, the effect it would have on the overall water consumption would be rather miniscule. As I said earlier, it would still have a positive effect; however, it would have a far less than detrimental effect.
  • They tell us to cut down our water consumption, yet they don't tell us anything on how the logging companies are ruining our water supplies at a rate we can never expect to match no matter how much water we save at home. Every forest that is cleared means that less water gets to the rivers that end up at our water supplies; every new forest that is planted in order for a logging company to have something to log consumes something like 6 times more water than what an old forest used to consume while the trees are growing. But they would never tell you that; there are enough people up there who make too much money for anything to be said that might offend their bank accounts.
  • They tell us to cut down our water and take longer showers. Yet they don't tell us where the vast majority of our water consumption really is; and no, it's not in our showers, nor is it in us watering our gardens. All these pale in comparison to the amount of water we consume without knowing. How many of us know that each kilogram of meat we eat takes about 2000 liters of water to generate? If you want to cut down on water consumption, simply eat more fruits and vegetables and reduce your meat consumption - fruits and vegetables consume between a tenth to a half of the amount of water required to produce meat. How many of us have been told that a t-shirt that we buy takes about 600 liters of water for the cotton to grow and for it to be processed? Want to cut down on your water consumption, then simply don't buy clothes you don't really need. But why should they tell you this when it could have an effect on the wallets of some of the people at the top of the food chain? Why should these people be bothered with finding sustainable ways to make money and create jobs when they have their milking cow - and who cares if this milking cow is drinking all of our water?
So you'll have to excuse me while I ignore those pleas to save water. Whenever I hear these pleas I know there is some two faced politician out there who needs some votes, but nothing more than that. If they really wanted to make a difference, they could have done something where it really counts.

Saturday, 14 October 2006

Bandwidth on the run

This past week I've been to this convention held at the Hyatt hotel on Collins St (Melbourne): Changing government through IT.
It was pretty interesting, but in typical fashion for such conventions it lacked in the practicality side of things; there wasn't much I could take away from it in order to improve what we do at work. There were, however, plenty of "let's pat ourselves on the back because we're so good" elements in there.
One presentation I did find quite interesting, even though it has nothing to do with what I do at work, was a presentation on the state of broadband internet connectivity in the state of Victoria.
The presentation was quite flattering. Apparently, Victoria is the best networked state in Australia as far as broadband connectivity goes; which makes sense, as compared to New South Wales or Western Australia it's small and it does have one major population center where most of the people in the state are.
But then things got to the less flattering aspects.
Due to Telstra's policies, which are more to do with profits and politics than to actually serving the people who still own most of its shares - the people of Australia - Telstra has not been laying any fiber optics infrastructure. Current legislation says that houses have to be connected to the copper network, so that's what they do, but that's also the only thing they do.
The problem there is that although copper can support broadband, it will only do so to a rather limited extent. To the best of my knowledge, copper could get you up to 20 megabit per second speeds; fiber, on the other hand, brings about performance of a higher scale altogether, starting at 100 meg before you get to blink your eye.
Now, because the state of Victoria is the place to be, and because elections are coming up and Bracks wants to seem as if he's at the front edge of technology, the Victorian government did a few experiments in newly built suburbs. They got this contractor to lay down a fiber network to the newly built houses, something which is pretty easy to do (which highlights Telstra's crime even further). Apparently, the people living there are happy.
That's where the presentation ended. Then, during question time, somebody from the crowd asked "well, what about brown fields" - meaning houses that are not in newly built projects; that is, houses where you and I live. The answer to that question was, for me, the highlight of the presentation: there are no plans for that. It's not only that no one is doing the laying of a fiber based network; no one has any idea how to go about doing it in the first place!

So where are we, then, in the broadband arena?
  1. We are at one of the most expensive countries in the Western world, as far as the price you and I have to pay to get ourselves connected. I was inquisitive enough to find what seems to be a good deal, but most of the people pay more than I do and end up receiving less that what I do.
  2. And what do Australians get with their broadband connection? Well, the vast majority of them get a 256k connection. Look at up and you will see that no one in this world other than Telstra and Australian authorities considers 256k to be broadband. That takes at least 512k, and usually the quote stand higher than that at 750k.
  3. Worst of all, when I do use the internet with my 1500k connection, I am virtually always seen to be connected at much slower speeds. In fact, while I see my ISP at 1500k, most American websites, which is where most of my surfing is, see me at speeds just a bit higher than 100k. And that goes to show how bad the infrastructure connecting Australia to the world is.
So what are the conclusions? I have two.
The first is that in this age of high energy costs and major internet related innovations, where Australia can make tons of benefits out of broadband related connectivity, Australia is lagging behind.
The second is with regards to the people in charge who are supposed to ensure Australia is not lagging behind but is rather at the forefront. Well, they are obviously not doing their jobs properly! Instead of doing nothing but tell us how prosperous we are - mostly because we dig up stuff from the ground - they should stop passing new laws that consolidate our media to prevent us from knowing the truth about what they are doing, and actually get a move on with doing stuff.
I guess what I'm trying to provide you with is another reason why we need to vote the Howard government away.

Thursday, 12 October 2006

What dreams may come

My report on the jajah website caused me to receive lots of silence that didn't surprise me because no one reads my blog anyway, one excuse, and one phone call.
Through the phone call I did receive I got several email addresses to follow up old friends with. So far I'm behind in my chase; writing this blog takes too much fucking time. So far, I managed to make one call as a result of a resulting email correspondence.
Through the two calls I've learnt that a good friend has a newborn daughter, another good friend is expecting a baby daughter, an ex work colleague has died all of sudden, another ex work colleague is HIV positive and is in all sorts of other problems, and other than that my friends all seem to be doing well professionally.
Two funny things came up in the second call. The first was being asked whether I'm a writer, given the volumes in my blogs; obviously, the friend who asked the question didn't really read the blog.
The second funny thing was being asked whether I managed to fulfill all my dreams in Australia. Now I know where this question came from and why it was asked, but I also know that at the moment I find such questions to be silly; it's a question that comes from a different world, a world I left four and a half years ago when I came to Australia to settle here.

At the time I left Israel I was a hot shot earning lots of money. I was sure that Australia is going to open its doors for me, I was going to find an even higher earning job, and the world is going to be my oyster (or at least Australia).
Nothing has prepared me for more than five months of unemployment which ended only due to my brother's contacts with a job that although interesting was earning me less than half of what I used to earn in the past. I wasn't prepared for the winter cold, I wasn't aware of the local dressing customs - in short, I was a Sting like English man in New York, only in Melbourne instead.
Slowly and eventually I did settle down, in the process abandoning many of my highly publicized Australian dreams. Everybody knew that I was coming to Australia in order to get myself a motorcycle (probably a Honda VFR), after which I was to get myself a sports car (the talk was about a Mazda MX-5 which I was supposed to drive down the Great Ocean Road while listening to the Meir Ariel song talking about him wanting to flee from guard duty in the Israeli army).
What did come instead of those dreams is the realization that happiness does not come with such lowly achievements. My views on the ways of this world have changed; from being a capitalist who used to think that if someone's poor and miserable it's only because they didn't bother to make an effort, those five months plus of unemployment have made me into a socialist.
If you asked me now whether I am happy, I would tell you that I am happier than I ever was. But if asked to explain why, I will tell you that it is because I am sharing my life with the person I love the most, who for one reason or another loves me too. I am happy because although I need to work to pay for the roof over my head and the larger and larger amounts of food that I eat, I work for a place that strives to make a social difference and I work at a place that allows me to have a life, too. And in this life I do lots of creative stuff: I watch films, I read (although not as much as I would like to), and I also blog a lot.
To me, at this point in time, all of those mean a lot more than being able to buy something. I am constantly expanding my horizons, reaching further than ever before with my mind.
Yes, there is a lot of room for improvement: Meaningful relationships with people are the thing I value the most, yet being in Australia means that I left most of the people that love me the most - my family - behind. The same applies to some of my best friends, who in some cases have been friends of mine for 28 years by now. Another problem is that with our lowly social skills we are definitely not doing as much as we should be doing with the friends we managed to acquire in Australia.
But other than that, I don't have any particular dreams that require fulfilling. I am living one big dream; it has its lows, as I recently found out the hard way, but that's the way life is. The end is the same for every living thing, but I think I have found the formula to turn the way there into a nice ride.

Tuesday, 10 October 2006

Holiday destination acquired

Jo has booked us this year's Xmess - New Year's vacation.
As marked on the map, we will be staying for two days (the weekend before Xmess) in Lakes Entrance, to be followed by three days in Merimbula on the other side of the Victoria - New South Wales border.
In both places we will be staying in bed and breakfasts. The plan is to take books with us and relax, have long drives and do some walks in some of the many parks and beaches the area has to offer.
I have only been to this area once before, back in 2001 when I drove the east coast on my own as a tourist. I basically just drove past, with the main stop being for a pizza based lunch in Lakes Entrance. I also bought the Akubra hat I wore for the rest of my trip in Lakes Entrance. Merimbula was a very nice place full of accommodation places where I wanted to stay in for the night, but due to school holiday everything was full and I had to settle for a cheap motel out of town.
However, the main thing I remember from back then was how lovely the Princess Highway linking Melbourne and Sydney through the beach was. The drive was fascinating: I measured almost 45 minutes without any car coming in from the opposite direction on a road that's a sports car's delight. I just wonder how it would look like now: will the fasicnating scenery still look fascinating after living in Australia for close to five years?
Anyway, we should have a good time.

Monday, 9 October 2006

High definition, Aussie style

While at our friends' place yesterday, aside of the usual serving of great food (and I also got to take home with me a bucket full of fresh olives - ate a pile of them tonight), we also got to see our first demonstration of live high definition off the air TV transmission in a controlled environment.
I emphasize the controlled environment bit, because in shops they do control it and they definitely play the better signal on the TV they want to sell you; and often they would have some dedicated thing they got from the manufacturer playing there.
Anyway, what was my impression of this high definition? And how did it compare to our digital standard definition at home?
Well, the first observation was that my friends TV was probably not calibrated. I thought that black level, more commonly known as "brightness", was set high, creating grayish rather than black blacks. That's a common "out of the show room" problem, because manufacturers set their TV's up to be as bright as possible so they'd catch our eyes in the show room when we compare them to the rest of the crop.
But that aside, the high definition quality was a major disappointment. On our friends' plasma it didn't look any better than the SD we get at home! The reason is well known, it's just that I only got to witness it now: the Australian definition for high definition is very lax; it doesn't need to be that "high" to pass as high definition here.
Instead of broadcasting at 720p (which most high-def capable monitors can handle) or 1080p (and let the set top box down-convert the signal), they seem to be broadcasting at 480p. Which is better than the SD quality of 480i, but not much better; 480p is what you can get from a cheap DVD player if you set it on progressive scan, only that off the air broadcasts are severely more compressed than DVD's; one high def station does not necessarily equal its peers.
What amazes me the most about it is that it shouldn't really be that much of an effort for the broadcasters to transmit at 720p instead. It's just purely a "let's not make an effort because we can get away with it" thing.
Call me naive, but I am hoping that something would get the Australians stirred up enough to replace the current government; if not Iraq or refugee policy or the AWB scams, maybe shit TV would do the job. At least there's no need for us to rush and get an high def set top box.

Bob the Destroyer

For a very long while now Jo has not been in love with the piece of furniture (for lack of a better word) we use to store our CD's in. And while esthetics don't bother me much, I do agree that we could use a bit more in the way of floor space and a more tidy appearance overall.
We decided on putting shelves on at the side of our kitchen, but couldn't find the right size of shelves in IKEA. So we decided to try for some pro carpenter help.
Jo had a couple visit us when we were both at home at the first week after my operation. One came and talked for half an hour about everything but the work itself, leaving us with not that much of an impression as to what his grand design was. Another came and was obviously less than enchanted with the small piece of work; after lots of pursuits he left us with a quote that left no doubt about that.
He did, however, specify he planned to get the shelves from Bunnings, so last week we went there for some scouting. Yes, we decided to do the job on our own. We had lots of pain getting the Bunnings people to give us advice, but eventually we ended up with the right equipment for the job. Or so we hoped.
Because yesterday, when we got up early to install the shelves and started working, we found out that a lot of the Bunnings advice was worth its weight in shit. I think Jo would be very happy to stick some of the nuts and bolts (and a drill bit as well) up the rear ejection hole of one of the guys that helped us there.
Wrong advice aside, the biggest problem was with our walls: they were stupidly inconsistent. One hole would go smoothly - even too smoothly; the next would require minutes of drilling on hammer mode, generating terrible noise and severe inaccuracies in the drilling. The worst, however, would be the ones that start easy and then cause the drill to jump up or down when a hard layer is encountered but a soft one is right over it; we ended up with a few holes that seem to have been created by hollow point bullets.
And thus we got the photographed shelves up and running. We prefer to think of them as the likes of an Escher painting: on their own, each of the six individual shelves look straight enough; but together they're a work of art, each with its own slightly different deviation from straight.
Given that we're both "Australians" by now, we're considering committing suicide for the ultimate sin we have committed: by our own hands, we have probably reduced the value of our "greatest investment" [hint to those that don't get it: I'm mocking the love affair Australians have with their investment properties].

On Sunday afternoon, while still terribly tired from the just finished ordeal, we went to see friends of ours. We were still excited with the shelves experience - my main argument with going ahead and doing it on our own was that this is going to be something we will remember in 20 years time, recounting war stories.
And then our friends gave us a demo of their recently installed music system. There's a central power-amp connected to a PC; on its other side the amp is wired through the roof to sets of ceiling mounted speakers, a couple in each room. Now I'm not a big fan of such setups; they're neat and tidy, but they cannot provide the sound quality of a real stereo setup. But never mind that; I can't really remember the last time I used my stereo the way it should be listened to for music. What really astounded me with the friends' setup was the neatness of the installation: everything was so smooth and so good looking. We can't put a shelf up straight, and they have this Rolls-Royce of a setup up and running; if ever I received a display of how incapable I am, that was it.
Don't get me wrong: It wasn't like I felt ashamed of myself or anything like that and it's not like I was jealous. I did what I did with the shelves and I never thought that I was good at it. What I did feel was just a combination of admiration towards our friends' achievements - as in, wow! - and a lot of humility inducing thoughts about how one man's pile of gold is another one's trash.
You can even take the metaphor further away to explain the importance of travel and why we should all go out and see the world: when you see things from the perspective of another who is significantly different from you in one way or another, be it their ability to put shelves up straight on the wall or the food they eat or their entire culture, you learn a lot about yourself, too. You see things in a different way and you realize there's more than one way to go about living, and that the social paradigms to which we stick are nothing but a convention that sort of got stuck into too many people's heads and became the norm for the group of people we commonly refer to as "us". But in actual fact it's far from being the final word of god on how to live one's life.
Or, use Alanis Morissette's words, as said on our way to our friends place through our MP3 player: "Isn't it ironic".

Saturday, 7 October 2006

Ah oui oui

The fight for dominance in the current new generation of game consoles is raging on.
The Xbox 360 is already out, and now it's about to have an HD-DVD version instead of the original DVD only drive. The Sony Playstation 3's release in Australia has been postponed to March 2007, but on paper it looks as if it's going to be the meanest of them all.
Still, I am far from impressed. When I look at the 360 all I see is the same old shit but with improved graphics. Sure, it makes a difference, but the games are all pretty much the same as they were. And that's where my problem is: the games.
They lack originality - most of them nowadays follow the same formula anyway, with the most dominant formula being the first person shooter.
And the vast majority of them require you to dedicate your life to them. For example, there's this Prince of Persia - Sands of Time game, which by now is an old one but shows what I'm talking about very well. It's a wonderful game: it's not overly violent, it's full of really original graphics, the look and feel are superb, and you just want to go there and follow the prince's adventure. But - and that's a big but - the game won't let you save other than in specific (and very far apart) saving points. Which means that you have to dedicate your life to it, because some of the puzzles are just too much for an idiot like me to muster all in one go. And that's why I keep leaving the game after relatively short bursts of enthusiasm.
I keep looking back to the holy grail of games. For me, FIFA 99 was the best of them all; I still have problems quantifying what it was that worked so well there, but it's the simple things that made it simple and approachable which made it great. So great that every time I hear the commentator in my head saying "Overmars... Cross into the box... Bergkamp scores!" I get shivers all over.
Our Xbox experience from the last three years shows that the games we enjoy the most are the ones we play together. Halo was great - we set it on "dead easy" level and went on a rampage of alien butchering. But most games are not that easy and do not let you cooperate so easily; and so the other games where we had so much fun were the Atari 2600 games - Pong and Outlaw in particular. Yes, we had other attempts at success with Worms 3D (the 3D element made it fail - too much for a game where simplicity rules) and Crash Bandicut kart racing, but we dropped them pretty quickly.

All this introduction is to say that the one new console prospect that actually manages to excite me is the upcoming Nintendo Wii.
It's small - the size of three DVD jewel boxes.
It's got internal wireless capabilities. You can turn it on and [hopefully] it would connect to the internet, without having to go through engineering feats to have it internet-fit. You can also have another Wii nearby and they'll talk to one another, creating the potential for superb multi player action.
You can stick SD cards in to save games. Which means you don't have to rely on Nintendo for some ultra expensive memory. It also means that you can easily carry your saved games with you.
But most of all it's its joystick that's innovative, to the point of creating enough potential for a minor revolution in the games arena. It's got a full scale motion detector on it, so - for example - when you play the bundled tennis game, you actually hit the ball with your hand. Come at it from below and you'll get a lob; spin your wrist as you hit it and you will get top-spin. There's also potential for getting away from the couch and moving about the room; I don't know, perhaps waving your light saber.
The bottom line is that this joystick represents true innovation that could really break new grounds in games, especially two player games. The potential to have half an hour of relaxing fun together is vastly increased with it, even if the Wii overall is hardly more capable, conventional performance wise, than our old Xbox (and is definitely archeological compared to the next generation Xbox / PS).
Pleasures don't come cheap nowadays. The initial release of the Wii would cost $400 for the console, plus $30 for a second joystick and $30 for another thing which you're most likely to need plus yet another $30 for yet another thing that you are even more likely to need. And games are not going to come cheaper than $70 each; all of which means that the Wii will probably not be this year's birthday gift to Jo. It's not just the cost but the fact that it's better to wait to see how good it really is, plus the fact that Jo will probably be as enthusiastic about another console as I am with John Howard's latest attempts to grab control over school curriculums (that said, she'll probably enjoy playing the games, while we all suffer under Howard - whether knowingly or unkonwingly).
Anyway, I'll be on the lookout to see if the Wii will really be the innovation it promises to be.

Thursday, 5 October 2006

Open Plan

With tickets to the 2007 Australian Open on sale as of today, we decided that this year we will only go once - on the opening night At Rod Laver Arena.
Last year we went to the opening and to one of the quarter finals. There is a significant difference between the two events: Opening night is more like a festivity thing. You get one very famous tennis player of each gender play against another that you never heard of (and maybe even forget by the end of the match); the game is just a formality, a warm up, that ends quickly and you go home with a smile on your face.
The quarter finals, on the other hand, are a much more robust contest. The two matches we saw last year were both tight, and the man's match ended after 5 long sets at almost 02:00am (opening night matches end at like 22:00 or so). It was all too much for us: the seats, for a start, are designed to host your average pygmy; we couldn't really tolerate it for that long.
From the photography point of view - one of the reasons why I like going to see the tennis - the quarters are better. The crowd is more noisy and tends to cheer one side or the other, so you get the opportunity to take lots of photos without people looking at you as if you've just killed the match with the camera's shutter noise.
We got our tickets through Amex, a sponsor. They're supposed to be quite good - they get special allocations at the normally reserved part of the arena. Still, given that it's Amex we're talking about, I'm sure they'll make a mistake and send me tickets to the day session instead of the night one.
Anyway, see you at Rod's place on 15/1/2007. The women's match starts at 19:00, but the gates open at 17:00.

Tuesday, 3 October 2006

If you believe they put a man on the moon

October is supposed to be the rainiest month here in Melbourne, but so far this year there was hardly any rain and it doesn't look like much of it is going to come this way soon.
Australia in general has been going, so they say, through a drought over the last 12 years or so (I wasn't here personally all those years to make sure this rumor is true). Between Australia getting drier each year, Europe getting warmer to the point thousands die of heat in France, and hurricanes devastating the USA, I don't have much of a doubt that global warming is a reality.
It's interesting to hear the scientists and read the articles, but what truly convinces me that something needs to be done is just observing what mankind is doing to the environment. Drive along Australia and you will see that pretty much everywhere that can be made into some use by man was indeed already twisted on man's behalf. While this may not necessarily mean that the climate is changing, I think we have been overdoing it, and that in one way or another we are going to pay the price. If there is some sort of justice out there, then, for example, what we are doing to animals - say, the way caged chickens are brought up - should be paid for. Spoken by a man who loves his chicken, by the way - I am as guilty as anyone.
It therefore struck me as terribly strange when a friend told me that he doesn't believe in this thing called "global warming" which he dismisses to be some sort of a conspiracy by a group of people trying to promote their agenda. His line of thinking was that mankind has only been documenting the weather for 150 years only, so how do we know that the world is truly on the boil and that what is taking place now is not just some part of a regular trend?
I told him (and showed him articles) that we are actually able to measure the temperatures from hundreds of thousands of years ago through ice taken from Greenland or through trees (albeit with a high variance). I told him that global warming does not necessarily manifest itself in high temperatures, but also in things like sea acidity (changing currents and killing all sorts of living things) and an increase of carbon particles in the air (rising up to extremes never ventured before without some serious cataclysm). Needless to say, I was about as convincing to the guy as John Howard is to me with his "children overboard" tale.

It got me thinking - what makes people believe in things?
Most of us seem perfectly happy to believe in all sorts of weird religions just because our parents tell us to; the vast majority doesn't really nitpick the details of their religion, yet history shows that a lot of us will kill or die in its name. I, on the other hand, dismiss religion as pure bullshit all too often, yet even I admit that I do it more because I despise the corrupt ways of most organized religions rather than really believing that they're bullshit; you can call me an agnostic instead of an atheist if you want, but I admit that I do not know if god exists or not. I'm just saying that I severely doubt he exists in the common forms we associate it to take, and I'm also saying that I refuse to believe in things unless I see proper proof for them - no matter how powerful these entities might theoretically be, and no matter how much eternal suffering this doubt might cost me when I rot in hell.
The question now becomes: well, smart ass, what is "proper proof" anyway?
And that's the really tough one.
Lately it has become fashionable to deny the USA moon landing. I associate this trend more with the lack of popularity of Mr George W rather than true doubt (you didn't hear much of that conspiracy theory when Clinton was around). Still, I could not believe the number of people that will simply not accept the moon landing as a fact; and I'm not talking about lunatic eccentrics here, I'm talking about logical, smart people at work - people not that different to me.
I find their approach puzzling, and I'll quote Ben Elton on that. In his recent live show, he said he finds it hard that people don't accept the moon landing - despite the fact the principles of what it takes to land on the moon have been known since Newton's days and the fact no one doubts the existence of satellites on top of our heads. Yet these doubtful people will take photos in their mobile phones and SMS/email them across the world, where they will instantaneously appear on someone's screen - all without paying it a second thought. This unbelievable magic - no person alive would be able to tell you exactly how this collection of light beams is captured and beamed across the world - this miracle of science eclipses Moses' burning bush by a good many light years - this magic is being accepted without any second thoughts; but having the world's biggest super power land a man on the moon with technology that's been used to move stuff around for quite a long time (remember the rockets falling on London during World War 2?) will not be accepted.
I guess what I'm trying to say here with the help on Neil Armstrong is that we humans are not that logical in what we believe in and what proof we require in order to believe in things.
So what is proof enough for me?
As I said in previous posts, as far as I'm concerned I do not even know for sure whether the earth is not flat and whether the sun doesn't sink into the sea only to be teleported to the other side each morning by the neighbor's cat.
What I do know, though, is that in order to explain things I would accept a systematic approach to try and explain them; a system that incurs coming up with a theory and then seeing how it matches empirical observations. Often enough, one theory will replace the other when new observations come about, but that's fine with me.
I can easily find a lot of these theories and the arguments that support them in all sorts of scientific publications and even in fictional books. Where I cannot find them is in religious scriptures, but that's not the point. The point is that it's the approach that counts; since I can tell how, theoretically, a person can get from the earth to the moon and back, I am satisfied there; but since no one can provide me with a guide to reaching heaven (other than urging me to "well behave" according to certain behavior patterns that might look really silly in the near future and definitely looked even sillier in the not too distant past), and since I have to resort to pure belief in order to accept heaven's existence, I will not take accept it for now.

And as for global warming: There is pretty much a consensus in the scientific community about its existence. Publications such as Scientific American don't discuss whether it's there or not, they discuss how to prevent it from killing us all in the too near future. Those of us that do not accept it are more akin to hiding their heads in the sand. Or, sadly, they are more likely to be the victims of damaging propaganda distributed by certain groups who stand to "lose" (I cannot see how you can win when the world turns into ashes, but never mind). Call me a weirdo, but I find that religious people tend to doubt global warming more than the agnostics amongst us.
Which brings me to my last observation about beliefs: People will have a much easier time believing the things that are more comfortable for them to believe in.

Sunday, 1 October 2006

Judgment Day

Regular readers of this blog would know by now that I think the concepts of religion and god are one of mankind's worst inventions. That said, there are a good few things to take from religion when it is not abused.

Take, for example, Christmas - or as I prefer to call it, Xmess. There are a good few reasons why I think it's a mess.
If you look at it from the believers point of view, you'd have to be a truly fundamentalist Christian not to admit that this holiday doesn't really have much to do with Jesus' true date of birth and much more to do with the old winter solace.
Next, it is obvious that people develop way too high expectations out of it, looking at it as a period of time that is pure fun and nothing else, when in fact nothing really is; people are delirious if they think this way, yet most of the Western world is taught to think this way. And the higher the expectations, the bigger the disappointments and the bigger the tensions that rise out of the occasion; Xmess may be the happiest time of the year for many, but it is also a very tense time of the year because it is a culmination of high hopes, and those stresses probably cause more damage than the good and fun holiday could ever hope to cure.
The last bad thing about Xmess is the emphasis put on the gifts concept. It's consumerism with the pedal on the metal, people all over the world get spoiled with stuff they don't need and don't want, others spend money they don't have, and overall waste is the rule of the day.
However, with all the criticism I have for it, Xmess is also a time when families get together and spend some quality time together. I find it sad that families need a religious excuse to get together, but it's a case of the end justifying the means here; if Xmess is what it takes to get families together, than until a proper alternative is found I'm happy with it.

As far as Judaism is concerned, the holiday I would "take home with me" so to speak is the holiday that's actually taking place today: Yom Kippur (day of atonement). It's not really a holiday to the believers, but more of a holly day: it's the day when god is supposed to go over each person's deeds over the last year and determine his/her fate according to the balance sheet of good vs. bad.
The idea of an accountant like god has its merits. In an uncivilized society where people did whatever is good for themselves even if it hurts others, such an idea would have worked really well to tame the people into a subordinate pack of sheep that can be ruled. However, one cannot escape the conclusion that if people need this made up referee up in the sky in order to make them behave nicely to one another then the people are truly fucked up. Sadly, all evidence points at them being truly fucked up.
However, Yom Kippur is also a holiday that comes at the end of a week or so where one is supposed to go through all the people one has let down in any way during the previous year and apologize for one's wrong doings. And that, my friends, is a great concept.
I find blogging nice because it helps me think of things in a constructive way. I take special delight in writing movie reviews because they enable me to think of a film in a structured manner (use this opportunity to have a look at R-Views, please). The same applies to this asking for forgiveness: through the soul searching that is the thinking up all the things you did wrong over the last year you can learn a lot about yourself, regardless of your religious beliefs.
Better yet, if you actually get to talk to the people you hurt - most of the time that would be your closest friends and family members, but it could also be bitter enemies - you might do something to help your relationships sail along and relieve some unnecessary tensions. Our world suffers a lot because of poor communication between people; some sincere apologies could do wonders to help things in this department.
As for me, I cannot say that I asked anyone's forgiveness this year. I didn't get to it, although I cannot say that I do it regularly each year anyway; I just think that if there is a reason for me to ask for some particular guy's forgiveness, I shouldn't wait till Yom Kippur to do it. I also think that to one extent or another I hurt anyone I have been in touch with, so going around asking for forgiveness would be a very long process stuck in an eternal loop since I'm likely to offend while asking for forgiveness. However, as I said, giving this a thought is beneficial on its own.

I will therefore use this opportunity to ask for your forgiveness. I apologize for the things I did or the things I didn't which might have hurt you.
I know it's not the same as being more specific about it and directing it to specific people due to specific causes, but hey - the humility factor in it, the acknowledgement that at the bottom line I'm just another asshole that treads over others from time to time - makes me feel better.