Wednesday, 29 November 2006

True happiness this way lies

One of the highlights of Jo family's recent visit to Australia was the fact that, for the first time, I actually got to properly talk to Jo's mother. On one of the drives we took them to, we somehow got to the subject of pessimism vs. optimism; I think it was after I expressed one of my notoriously pessimistic views on life in general. I was then "told off" for not being an optimist, and I was cited this research which said that optimists live much longer than pessimists, and that in fact optimism can do you much better than a workout or a healthy diet.
I explained that even though I am most definitely a pessimist I am still a very happy person, a trait I was not really able to observe with some of the self declared optimists in the car with me at the time. I think, however, that my explanations fell on deaf ears.
It goes without saying that Jo's family and I are transmitting on different wavelengths in the way we talk, act and think. That's perfectly reasonable given our very different backgrounds, and it's not bad at all - it gives such discussions an extra kick. I would, however, like to explain where I am coming from.

First, regarding the research I have read about happiness.
Just a few months ago, Scientific American has published a very interesting article on the matter. Research on the source of happiness has shown that "it's in the genes" much more than we would like to think it is, given the way Western society keeps on telling us that we are what we make ourselves to be.
Observations on happy chappies that had a serious accident which - for example - caused them to have a leg cut off showed that something like 6 months after the accident they were back to being happy chappies. Similar observations on sad people that won the lottery showed that after 6 months or so of winning they were back to being sad. Obviously, with this short summary I'm not really doing that research proper justice, but I assume you got the point: It seems as though the Greeks were right and we are wrong, and happiness does come from sheer "luck of the gods" rather than from anything under our control. Or, to put it another way, it's more to do with our genes than anything else.
Second, I would like to state that I am most definitely a pessimist. Always been and will always be. Yes, sometimes I like to present myself as a realistic person who calculates the probabilities and acts accordingly, but in reality you never see me taking something for granted even if the odds are very much in my favor.

So how come I say I'm happy if I'm always kind of blue?
I'll start answering that by quoting Matt Johnson's lyrics to a The The song I particularly like, called True Happiness This Way Lies (it's from memory, so please bear with me):

The only true freedom
Is freedom from the heart's desires
And the only true happiness
This way lies

Further on that same point, in his book Status Anxiety author Alain de Botton quotes an old American psychologist called William James who came up with a mathematical formula for calculating happiness. It goes like that:

Happiness = Achievements / Expectation

If you follow the formula and read Johnson's lyrics you will see what I'm trying to say: When you don't have much in the way of expectations, even the slightest achievement can make you happy. If you don't have any expectations at all, you will be infinitely happy, but no one can truly say that; we all like to think we'll make it to tomorrow, for a start.
Our problem today, and the reason so many people are struggling to find happiness despite the fact that materialistically people have never been as well off as they are now, is that we are simply being told that we need more and more (and then some more) just so the economy will keep on expanding and that the rich will get richer.
We keep on expecting more without any real need to expect more, but in expecting more we make ourselves less and less happy with what we already have. And I suspect that most of the [few] people who will read this post, when hard pressed, will admit that what they have achieved so far should be, by all account, highly sufficient for one to lead a very happy life.

So there you have it: You can be a pessimist and live a happy life. All you need to do is train yourself to be happy with what you got instead of wanting more; to accept what happens as it happens instead of always wanting to get the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow which you don't really need.
Think this way and you will easily defeat your genes. Most people will probably say that's really hard; but I'm with John Lennon on this one:

It's easy if you try.

Monday, 27 November 2006

A year has passed since I wrote my blog

Over the last year I have made an attempt at two new hobbies. The second is probably a failure: I played with my new guitar for a few months, but with my operation and everything the guitar is currently gathering dust. I'm definitely hoping to get back into it, but I severely doubt I would ever get anywhere far (not that I had any significant aspirations at the time I bought it).
The first has proved to be totally addictive. Exactly a year ago, I wrote my first blog post (something I tended to refer to as a blogentry) after an email I have sent to a bunch of friends was replied all. In my "anger" at this violation of email etiquette (a crime I have committed myself on several occasions, by the way), I thought I'd start a blog; and since then I never really looked back, although I looked to the side quite often. I spend hours blogging, and it costs me in my reading and my sleeping. But I can't help it: I just love it.
On one hand it's hard to see the appeal of blogging. Hardly anyone reads it; you don't have control over who reads it and when; and as I said, like all work of love things, it takes a lot of effort.
On the other hand, I just enjoy it. Through the infrequent comments people put in my blog I learn new things, get to revisit old friends, and even make new acquaintances. Those that know me for a while will remember my tendency to send long emails telling them about something I've been through or something I've been thinking about or some movie review; now it's all institutionalized in my blog.

R-Views, which has been going since July - a bit after we got our new TV - is holding on to its promise of reviewing everything we watch [everything that is a movie, and excluding rudimentary stuff such as Star Wars and Lord of the Rings]. Although it is probably the least read part of my blogging enterprise, at least judging by the number of comments I get there, I take great pride in it: the process of forcing myself to review everything can cause the frequent forced review, but it also makes me think about the film to a higher degree than before. This way, I get more out of each film.
Going Down was supposed to be the story of a man who went Down Under, a man who is falling down; after all, we are all on a downward spiral with a one way ticket since the minute we are born. Overall, I think I was successful in telling what it is that I had to tell. People who read my blog get to know what I want them to know about me, but I think it would be fair to say that it gives a pretty good impression of what I am like and what I care about. It got to the point where, when people ask me what's going on, say - with IVF - I just tell them to go read my blog; worst, when my family asks me things - and none of whom read my blog, and I'm talking both sides (although my sister started looking at the Flickr photos) - I tend to become impatient and preach about the necessities of having at least a basic grip with the internet.
You could say this is bad, but I think the worst aspect of this blog is the fact it tends to concentrate on negative stuff: I tend to criticize too many things and be more positive about fewer things. Most notably, I use this blog way too often to have a punch or two towards religion. And the point I'm trying to make is that writing a blog drives you to the extremes: as you write or plan your writing, you think about stuff; and as you think about stuff you tend to question it more and more, and so instead of settling for a comfortably numb position you end up being an extremist.
With the blog I became much more of an environmentalist, much more of an anti-consumerism, and much more of a libertarian. These extremist feeling peak, however, with religion; I don't recall despising religion as much as I do now since my high school days. Up until less than a year ago you would easily quote me saying that religion is all to do with faith; you either believe in it or you don't. Now, however, with the added thinking, I have changed my mind; it still has to do with faith, but now I think that because the probability of the beliefs is so incredibly small it is a fool's faith. And now I tend to dismiss agnosticism for being the foolish way out, the having the cake and eating it attempt we all make with our lives; and since most people are like that, in one aspect or another (me included), then where does it put me?

So what has happened to me since my high school days? I'm afraid to say that in retrospect I consider myself to be a recently freed prisoner of the system. At first it was the education system that had me as its slave and confiscated my brain; then the mind numbing army for four years; and then university, where our motto was that if you get to a test and you actually need to think then you're in trouble.
Only now, years later, with the aid of Jo and a comfortable, pressure free life, am I able to go back to doing the same things I was used to doing in my early teen years. I rediscovered how much I love reading and how much I can learn from reading. Once again you can find me clutching a book wherever I go. I also rediscovered my favorite genre: popular science, especially of the type that deals with existential issues, and especially those that blend philosophy into the debate.

I think it would be immature of me to credit all of this on the blog; a lot is to do with my rediscovery of Scientific American, which in turn has it roots in various minor events that go back all the way to Uri telling me about this magazine his brother is reading. But the blog has a part in it so I will credit it for my mightiest personal achievement of the last year:
Once again, I am back to being a thinking person.

Last, but not least, I would like to thank the one responsible for that first post, a year ago:
Thanks, Ossnat.

Sunday, 26 November 2006

Spirit in the Sky

Well, here I go again with another chapter of my ongoing debate with Wicked Little Critta. This time the topic is spirituality. To recount, I said I don't know what that term refers to; I was answered that "spirituality is a way of living for more than just what lies in front of you". You should read more about it in WLC's original comments, as I will only manage to misrepresent her views if I provide an edited version here.

So, what is my opinion on the subject of spirituality?
I think there can be no clearer answer to this question than the one I'm about to give. In my opinion, there is no such thing as spirituality; it is a mere delusion people tend to create in order to justify their existence and their actions in the face of an imperfect world.
The way I see it, the real problem we face comes down to the us wanting to see a reason, some sort of a justification for why we are here and what it is that we are doing here. When we don't see an answer to that question - and let's face it, such an answer is not written on subway walls - we seem to tend to start inventing such reasons. Religion is one of those attempts, and usually we are told that we are the jewel in god's creation, that "he" put us here for some kind of a plan that he/she/it/they might have, and that if we behave ourselves we're guaranteed an appointment with Elvis after we die.
Regular readers of this blog will know I am not exactly a supporter of such notions. I think along much simpler lines: There is absolutely nothing behind what we have in this world; I mean, maybe there is, but I see no reason to start suspecting that, especially not on the basis of purely made up fables. Some of those are deeply articulated, but they are still fables. If I was to accept such fables, I would be facing a severe problem: which should I believe in? The Jewish Kabala? The Catholic version of heaven with some nine different circles? The Hindu version that says I'll probably come back to this world as a cockroach? Should I stick to the doctrine I was born into just because I was lucky enough to be born into it?
I think the only conclusion I can safely draw without being delusional - that is, without actively inventing the truth or accepting the truths that others have invented for me - is that there is no ulterior reason for living. We are all here simply because we are matter that gained consciousness and is now busy ensuring its survival through the copying of my genes. If there is any superior reason for me to be here it is to bring children to this world; we are sophisticated, feeling, machines and that is all there is to it.

I find it rather strange that people need to resort to hearsay level delusions in order to fill up their world with contents when there is so much to this world that we don't know or ignore.
Why do we need to come up with spirits when we can look up to the sky and see what a marvelously complex world we live in and how we are only a tiny spec in it. It was Carl Sagan who coined the banal sounding phrase "billions and billions", but he's right: there are a hundred billion galaxies out there, with billions of stars in each on average; in such a vast world, so vast that our limited brains are incapable of imagining just how vast it really is, why do we need to invent stuff? Let us marvel in our own world, the one we can feel and touch, first. Let us explore all that we don't know before coming up with made up stories to fill those gaps.

I think I can safely assume that most of those who will read this post will ask something along the lines of "who is this arrogant prick who calls my beliefs delusions and tells me off as if I'm a child".
Needless to say, there is a lot of truth to this questions, because it is important to remember that first and foremost I can be a major idiot quite often, and that when it comes to theological discussions I do transform into the Mr Hyde in me and become an arrogant prick.
But there is more to it than that. I do allow myself to refer to so called spiritual concepts as delusions because they are unfounded beliefs. There has never been any substantial evidence presented on such matters; no peer reviewed tests. No one that came back from the dead, no one that can tell us what the winning lottery numbers are going to be. Everything that has been presented as evidence is as creditable as a headline in The Daily Sports [feel free to replace that with most other Rupert Murdoch newspaper names].
Therefore, without any substantial proof, such beliefs can only qualify as delusions. True, most of us who go for such things are not delusional; they just accept preconceived delusions pumped into them by their elders. But they still accept them without enough questioning.
The scientific approach, which is the materialistic one, has one major advantage which allows it to have a higher morale ground and act in arrogance in the face of delusion: it has its foundations.

The last important issue to discuss is why are we, as in humanity, so susceptible to such delusions. Why do we let them take control over us so easily?
I do not have an answer for that, although from what I've read I tend to suspect there is some anomaly in our brains - perhaps in the r-complex, the bit we share with reptiles where experiments show religious feelings tend to be based - that makes us go for such things. Carl Sagan ponders in one of his books whether a dog's unconditional love for its owner comes from the same bit of the brain (dogs have it, too); that is, whether a dog regards its owner with religious fervor.
I don't know for sure; but we do know that we can use our superior brains to realize when we mess around with delusions and to acknowledge these delusions for what they are, instead of blaming those that tell us the king is naked for acting in a politically incorrect manner and thus making us ashamed of ourselves.

Friday, 24 November 2006

Green pastors

It is truly rare that a letter published in The Age moves me so much, so I thought I'd better share my movement with the faithful readers of my blog (pun intended, as you will soon see):

The Green Peril

ALL Victorians should be aware of the extreme danger posed to our state with the grim possibility of the Greens holding the balance of power. This party fraudulently claims to be about the environment, yet wants to import heroin, decriminalise other dangerous drugs, and encourage young teenagers into a homosexual lifestyle.
The Greens are the radical descendants of the Communist Party cloaked in the falsehood that they are harmless lovers of the environment while their real agenda is strongly anti-Christian and anti-family.

Pastor Peter Curtis, Werribee South


How lucky us Victorians are to have this loyal priest alert us of the imminent Green danger. How lucky we are to have the church stand guard to prevent us from contaminating ourselves.
Seriously, though, such a letter deserves some addressing. Now I'm not about to humiliate myself by directly answering the idiot; but I will use the opportunity to express some of my views (as well as to repeat my intention to vote for the Greens tomorrow).

First, to the issue of communism. I'm not a big fan to say the least. As much as I despise capitalism for being a system that basically capitalizes on our selfishness and creates a dog eat dog world, communism was a world in which the very basic freedoms were deprived. That said, I don't know whether the problem was with communism itself or rather with the way it was implemented, which allowed the elites to cheat the system. I suspect the fault was with communism, because it made society head towards the lowest common denominator; but then again, it was the fault of the people that took it there. Regardless of whether it was a cause or effect thing, communism was bad, if only because it allowed people like Stalin to make a mark.
So far the best working model I am aware of is the socialist tending model used in Scandinavia. I would very much like to see such a social model in Australia, although I don't think there is any party here to support such a model; maybe the Greens...

Second, to the issue of drugs. According to surveys, 80% of the population has tired illegal drugs, and a huge proportion uses it from time to time - at least 20%. This pretty much means that this thing called "illegal drugs" may be illegal, but it is very common, too.
Therefore, people who say "let's put them in jail" are two faced. If they were to really "put them in jail", they would have to put members of their own families in jail; and they won't do that.
Now I'm not saying drugs are good. For the record, I belong to the 20% that never touched them. But I also admit that the fight against illegal drugs is a losing battle, and maybe it's time to admit we're losing the war and consider changing our strategy.
I've been to Amsterdam, where light drugs are allowed to one extent or another, and I think I can safely say that Amsterdam was one of the loveliest places I've ever been to. Obviously, the fact drugs are legal there did not make the place into a Sodom and Gomorrah; instead, it lowered overall crime levels because drug barons couldn't make a lot of money and because addicts didn't need to resort to crime to pay for their drugs.
Another point to make about drugs is that those who are totally against them tend to forget other forms of legal drugs, forms that overall are much more damaging to society than the illegal ones: alcohol and tobacco. But then again, being two faced was never a problem for conservatives, especially those that advocate for "family values", whatever that may be (probably the values of having the women cook and clean the house while the man read the paper) while at the same time advocating for family destroying individualism based capitalism (otherwise known as greed).

Last, but not least, the issue of homosexuality. Now, until the Greens came along, I was a happy hetro; but after the encouragement I got from them, I'm seriously considering becoming a homo.
It's easy to recognize the previous sentence is a joke. We all know one does not become a homosexual out of a whim. Scientists also tell us that many other life forms display tendencies of homosexuality from time to time; it is not a matter of fashion or a herd instinct, it is something much deeper. Again, the religious people are two faced, and instead of confronting the problem they just ban it.
Now I could have mentioned the large number of priests who seem to really like young boys, but that would be a cheap shot. What I will mention is that even when people are educated to accept homosexuals, the price of being a homosexual is still pretty high; people will not become ones just because the Greens tell them so.

Thus I can only conclude that the true danger faced by society is religion. It is two faced, it employs double standards, it does not have any well founded basis, it won't face reality, and it will not accept anything that may crack its doctrine. In short, religion is one of the last leftovers of the dark ages; we require yet another reneciance to help us clean it up.
Let free minds rule. Vote well tomorrow.

Latest order from Amazon

Not that I've been letting down Borders and Dymocks:

1 "The Selfish Gene: 30th Anniversary Edition--with a new Introduction by the Author"
Richard Dawkins; Paperback; $9.98

1 "Billions & Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium"
Carl Sagan; Paperback; $10.91



1 "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark"
Carl Sagan; Paperback; $10.17

1 "The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God"
Carl Sagan; Hardcover; $18.45

Thursday, 23 November 2006

When the wind blows, when the mothers talk

Last night my mother was telling me how my sister told her she really liked one of the photos we posted on the internet. Specifically, she was talking about a photo where Jo was hugging Georgia that was recently posted at Flickr. I explained that we now put all of our photos on the web for everyone to watch, and that we're actually putting all of our backlog up there, too (there are some 1500 there at the moment, and counting).
I wasn't really surprised when my mother started expressing doubts about this habit. Why do you do it? Do others do it too? Do Haim and Uri [my best friends from Israel] have similar web habits?
I explained that I don't have anything to hide and that I doubt any villains would go to the web in order to abuse my photos. I also explained that regardless of what my friends do, I don't see any reason to do what they are doing if I think that what I am doing is the right thing to do; and I definitely think that posting photos is the right thing to do, especially given that most of the people we know are half a world away and this is one thing that could bring us together.
But most of all, my mother's attitude has exposed her line of thinking, shaped by the brainwashing she's been through: to her, showing one's photos to strangers (as in people who are not as close to you as to guarantee their love to you) is a recipe to expose oneself to others' evil eye. Yes, it's superstitions that we're talking about here.
And her line of thinking doesn't stop there. There's that greatest superstition of all, religion. When I told her recently that our kids, if we ever get to have any, will not be circumcised, her immediate reaction was "why not". My answer, by the way, was "why yes?". Then she went on saying that even Christians do it, which is where she exposed herself to a flank attack: I asked her "since when do we do what Christians tell us to do"; she didn't have anything to say to that.
Now I need to explain why. You see, Jews often complain of antisemitism. History shows they're right; even Borat does. However, Jews themselves are only human, and they are just as likely to think nasty things about others who are foreign to them; for example, Christians, who most modern day Jews think of as the poor little brothers [they're too chauvinistic to think of the sisters] who believe that stupid story about that loony guy with the cross. Mind you, I agree with them on the stupid story bit; yet I also don't think too highly about Judaism to begin with (and for the record, I do not consider myself to be a Jew).
Anyway, my point with all this was to show the value of education by example. I'm not talking about school; most schools only serve to block one minds. I'm talking about stuff like religion and other superstitions on one hand, things that fill your mind with bullshit and make you think the way my mother does - and by now she's too old to see the light - as opposed to what the writings of, say, Asimov and Sagan can educate you with: the virtues of an open mind to empirical evidence, speculation, and doubt.
I am so happy I had the opportunity to be exposed to the likes of Sagan at the right time. You could argue he saved me.

Wednesday, 22 November 2006

Living on the edge

Yesterday I went to see the doctor in order to have someone qualified look at my eye. Nothing serious this time; just a minor infection, either because the time of the year means there's a lot of stuff in the air or because I poked my finger at my eye one too many times. Besides, with all the things we've been going through this year, we crossed the Medicare safety net threshold - which means that doctor visits hardly cost us anything until the end of the year. Which shows the stupidity of this safety net in that it encourages people to waste doctor visits and, more importantly, encourages doctors to charge more per visit. But then again, sense was never a part of the Howard government's agenda.
Anyway, out of curiosity I asked my doctor whether he has been updated by the specialist who operated me about my situation. He had a look at his records and found only one letter, sent on 11/9.
Now, for those who don't know, 11/9 does not only mark the date in which my favorite two towers came crashing down. It also marks the date of my operation. Apparently, the doctor who operated on me sent out this letter immediately after my operation.
And the point of this story and the reason why I'm wasting your time on it is that in this nice letter, the surgeon says pretty clearly that I have cancer. On that day he told Jo that things didn't look good and that the tissue he removed looked pretty bad and abnormal, but off the record and in a letter we never got to see it was cancer.
Happily enough for me the surgeon turned out to be wrong; but it still shows the very slight difference between a relatively positive outcome and a very negative one. Not that living without an organ can be declared to be a positive outcome (just thought I'd say that, in case people start telling me that I should praise the lord for sparing me the cancer).
The funniest thing was the way the doctor looked at me after we both read the letter: It was as if he was looking at a ghost. I spared him and told him it's not up to date.
But I still wonder whether, in some parallel world, a different version of me is going through radiotherapy instead of wasting his time blogging.

Today's short letter to The Age

Recent history shows the Victorian State Government has had a hard time finding acceptable remote locations to put wind farms in.
How would the Federal Government expect to find acceptable places for 25 nuclear reactors near population centres?

Tuesday, 21 November 2006

Textbook material

The more I'm reading of Richard Dawkins, the more I learn to admire the guy.
This video is from a recent Q&A session he had in the USA, following a session in which he read from his book "The God Delusion". I'm currently reading the book, which so far is a major page turner.
Anyway, the guy definitely says what I'm saying, only much better... This stuff should be taught in school - preferably replacing most of the 10 years or so I have been forced to learn the bible in school (not that I don't acknowledge the bible's value is an historical piece of literature).

Monday, 20 November 2006

Dungeons and Dragons

I'm about to go through a change at work.
Due to some unavoidable personnel issues, I'm to be removed from all the things I have been doing so far at my new (well, 8 months long) job. In two weeks time I will be leaving my ivory tower on the 27th floor to dedicate my time solely to a project taking place on the 16th floor.
So far it doesn't sound bad, but the catch is in the floors. All the IT team, barring a few people that work on specific projects, are on the 27th floor. The building's elevators are separated: one group does floors 7 to 17, the other does 17 to 27. The implication is that by moving to the 16th floor not only am I not going to see much of all the people I've worked with so far, I'm not going to even bump into them from time to time.
Effectively, I'm going to be starting a new job at a new place when I don't really want to. Effectively, I've been cast off to the dungeon.
The problems don't end there. I don't know much about this project I'm supposed to be working on; in fact, tomorrow I'll have my very first induction meeting to discuss what the project is all about. However, when I talk to people about this move and I tell them that I'm moving to this project, they all react as if I'm effectively going to die; this project has the reputation of those never ending projects that have been doomed from the word go. You know, your average big IT project.
So it seems as if that dungeon I'm about to be cast into is full of dragons, too.
I think what bothers me the most about this move is the fact that I'm about to be torn away from my familiar surroundings: the people I know, the desk I sit in. This change is bringing in a lot of important questions with it: Will I be able to surf the web as much as I do now? Will I still be able to listen to music most of the time?
And then there's the issue of work itself. I have to say that since I've started in my current job I hardly ever got to do anything that even begun to start challenging me, professionally speaking. Things are so bad that I'm effectively shutting my brain at work, with the only stimulation provided by my MP3 player. And when, from time to time, I actually need to use my head, getting it warmed up proves to be such a hard job that I tend to fail, miserably. And to be fair, lately I've had so many things in my personal life that work was even at a lower priority than normal. The icing on the cake is that the first thing I'm going to be doing on this new project is writing test plans - boredom delight.
So, to cut a not so long story short, it looks like I'm going to have to face some dragons soon. It's quite obvious that most of them are going to be in my head; it's amazing how much I depend on rituals to keep me going and how much I'm afraid of changes. Yes, I know all about this "who moved my cheese" shit; it's just that I don't see much of a reason for making an effort.
It's only work. And yes, I'm as motivated as hell.

In case you're wondering about the photo, it's my team from work. I blurred it because I'm not so sure they'd like to have their photo published. Usually I don't care about such things, but when it comes to work - I have to.
With all the above complaining, I have to say that my team and everyone I know at work has been really supportive throughout everything that has been going on with me lately; and my manager seems like a truly nice guy. It's the type of thing you don't really appreciate until you land on some bad company; problem there is that the bad companies are, by far, the majority. Good bosses are worth their weight in gold.

Saturday, 18 November 2006

Another blast from the past

Perhaps it was the influence of the Rubik's Cube. Or perhaps it was reading Carl Sagan's Dragons of Eden book, where he discusses the evolution of intelligence, and states quite repeatedly the importance of brain stimulation at a young age which reminded me of the times I spent filling out crosswords as a child (usually with my uncle).

I had a 20% off everything Borders voucher to use this week (thanks, Fei), and so I connected the dots in my not so intelligent brain and decided to get a book of crosswords.
Jo and I spent some time evaluating the inventory at Chadstone's Borders. There were British ones that seemed easy enough but didn't have much "crosswordiness" in them, in the sense that one word didn't cross many others in its path - which is where a lot of the fun comes from, if you ask me.
Australian crosswords suffered the same symptom, plus most of them were too sports oriented (and in Australia they're into weird sports, it's not just proper football).
So we ended up picking a New York Times crosswords book. We did one yesterday at home and it was fun, and another one at the beach today. We cheat a lot with frequent gazes at the solutions, but then again so do the crossword designers with way too many puzzles you just have to be an American to know. That said, you can definitely see the grade of improvement as we're more and more in sync with the crossword.
Anyway: A very nice way to stimulate the brain while relaxing. I expect we'll use the book a lot during the upcoming holiday season. And I can't help thinking how effective crosswords are: for their cheap cost, the return in fun and stimulation is incredibly higher than most of the much more expensive (usually electronic) stuff advertisers keep pushing under our noses all the time (and especially during the Xmess season).

28 across: Think about it

Lookalikes

Jo says that if I was to grow a mustache I would look exactly like Borat. Especially when I'm just before a haircut.
It does seem likely that Baron Cohen and I share some gene material. All humans do, but maybe in our case the family lines could be traced back to Kazakhstan. After all, my mother's mother maiden name was Baron, and I won't even mention racial lineage.
However, when Baron Cohen was in Melbourne this week I didn't go for a family reunion, although I'm still contemplating suing the filmmakers. I reckon I have just as good a reason as all the rest who think of doing so.

Friday, 17 November 2006

Inconvenient Truths

Well, here's an entry dealing with a topic I usually just hint at but avoid giving away too many details about: the medical stuff we've been going through. I was thinking about it, and the conclusion I reached was that there's no real reason to keep silent; but then again, this is definitely something I don't feel comfortable writing about. So here goes an attempt to handle the uncomfortable side of blogging.
I'll start with my own post operation condition. On one hand, I'm recovering well from my operation. I'm terribly unfit, which is probably more to do with being lazy, but I'm recovering well.
There are two catches here, though. First, I won't be able to know how my hormone levels are going for quite a while. That would probably involve a series of tests. And second, which is the worse one: I still have issues of a similar nature to the ones that caused me to have an operation in the first place, but on a smaller scale; the future is basically going to be a balance between living with problematic tissues or having another operation, and so far the suggested solution is to keep a regular watch on things. But it does sound like a question of time... And I'm still not being specific about what this is all about, but never mind.
The second bit of news is to do with the IVF treatment we - or rather Jo - is going through. We're towards the end of our first cycle, and earlier this week they extracted 9 eggs, which sounded good - it meant we had the potential for repeated attempts while avoiding the worst part of IVF (which is the egg extraction).
Today we learned that of these 9 eggs, only two had developed into what is referred to as healthy embryos. Two days after they were fertilized in the grace of god (read this if you don't get the joke), one of them had 4 cells and the other a weirdo of 6 cells (which means that one or two cells are rather lazy at splitting). They put the two back in, so theoretically we might have twins in 9 months, but realistically statistics say that we have less than 25% of having anything at all. And worse, if/when we'll want to have another go at it, we'll have to go through the egg extraction phase again, because we weren't able to put enough embryos on the side for freezing and then thawing later for another go.
[In case you're curious: they don't put more than two back nowadays, due to potential issues the mother might suffer as well as too common cases of twins; and the thawing thing works only about half the time, so if you don't have many embryos to play with, you wouldn't take the risk of freezing. Basically, IVF - like most medicine - is not sophisticated at all; it's just a statistical game of probabilities and risk management.]
If I'm allowed to go back to my less serious self, upon seeing the "mutant" 6 celled embryo (they show them to you on TV before putting them back), I immediately started referring to it as Haim. Jo didn't like the idea even after I explained that Haim is Hebrew for "life". She suggested other names, the most popular of which was calling the more normal 4 cell embryo Corwin (from the Amber books).
We debated the issue more, and suggestions such as "Ringo and Paul" came about. So far, Stewie and Brian (Family Guy) seem the most popular, but I have to admit that I still think in terms of Haim. Old habits die hard... If you have your suggestions, feel free to offer them using the creative commentary facilities provided. Jo wants to see some female names, for a start.
To conclude, I'll mention that Jo has this idea of writing a blog about the rigors of IVF in a kind of an attempt to help others. Maybe I'll get her on a guest appearance here; maybe even guest appearances.

The Right Stuff

Yesterday I've started reading this book called The God Delusion by one Richard Dawkins. I've heard of the guy before - he wrote this book about how our existence and the way we are come down to our genes wanting to reproduce themselves using us instead of it being the other way around.
Anyway: I've encountered the Delusion book by chance, but given that its subject matter is dealt a lot in this blog, I bought it. After reading the first chapter I can see this is going to be a success story.
However, I'm not about to review the book now; that time would come some 400 pages into the future in another blog.
What I did want to mention in here is the author's attitude. In the book's preface, he's talking about how religion is now at a point where it threatens science's progress. As an example he gives the USA, where evangelism is on the crest of a wave and atheists have to hide their beliefs because, according to the views of most Americans, being an atheist is worse than being gay as far as getting along in society is concerned.
Then he mentions that this book of his actually started as a TV documentary he did for the British Channel 4, called Root of All Evil. He's saying that while this show was aired in the UK and in Australia's ABC, no one in the USA is willing to show it. And then, which is where I'm leading at, he urges the American reader to look for bootleg copies of his documentary on the web - where they are widely available.
What a guy! Here's an example of someone who doesn't care much about the money, preferring to spread his message across as the first priority. Excuse me for expressing my views, but I think that if more people and companies were like that the world would have been a much better place.
In case you're wondering, we just finished watching the documentary. It's good, but I have a few disagreements with Dawkins' attitude; he's no Carl Sagan, but he's good.
Anyway, Wicked Little Critta has recently asked me whether I think science and religion can coexist. I gave her a not as good an answer as I would like to, but now I think I can safely say that she can read Dawkins' book and watch his documentary - it would pretty much tell her my views on this coexistence.

Wednesday, 15 November 2006

Victoria State Elections

On the 25th of November I, as well as many others, will be voting for the Victoria state elections. The relatively easy question to answer is, who should I be voting for?

First for some clarifications. A vote for the state elections is, in most respects, similar to a vote for the local municipality in most other countries. States do not have much power when it comes to the big politics of this world; it's mostly to do with day to day things like public roads and public transport, schools, and the all important stamp duties on house purchases (important due to the most Australian hobby of buying investment properties).
Second, votes are collected in a preferential system. You don't cast just one vote, you rank all the candidates according to your preferred order.
And third, you vote for two different things: the upper house and the lower house. One is for your local area's representative, which in my case - because we live at the edges of a rich people's area - is a very safe Liberal seat. The other vote is for a legislative council style type things, a place where legislation is contemplated; this is where the small parties can make a difference if they manage to establish themselves as the balance of power between the two big parties, Labor and the Liberals.

Insufficient expositions aside, who should I be voting for?
For a start, I wouldn't be voting for the current government: Labor's Steve Bracks. I state this for two main reasons:
  1. In the 7 years Bracks has been in charge I don't think he has been doing enough to improve stuff. As far as water supplies have been concerned, he did nothing to change old agricultural habits and encourage sustainable farming (as in raising stuff that doesn't consume much water instead of cattle). As far as sustainable power sources are concerned, he invested in wind farms that look sexy but didn't do anything to promote things that may impact much more, such as subsidizing solar panels at people's homes. The same applies to education and health: he does just about enough to look sexy, but he won't offend anyone while getting there, and he doesn't even try to really make an impact; just to look as if he is trying to.
  2. His government is corrupt. He has been a slave to the big companies as far as the environment is concerned, endorsing the timbre industry that damages the environment and the water supplies and on the other hand crying out for people to save water. Private companies made a bundle under his supervision at the expense of your average citizen: CityLink and the other toll road operators; public transport operators Yarra Trams and Connex, which specialize in delayed and canceled services yet receive enormous subsidies from the state.
    I see no reason for this corruptness, the will to please those with the power - i.e., money - to change. With public transport, the private operator's contract will expire in 2008 and the state can claim those services back; yet Bracks said he wouldn't do it, providing some explanations that make no sense and managing to get away with it because this entire affair is below the public's radar at the moment.
So who should I vote for? Should I go for the main opposition, the Liberal party?
The answer there is "over my dead body". The Liberal's solution to everything is usually to do with more things that would benefit those that are already on the "over benefited" side of things. Problems with road congestion? Build more roads (and neglect public transport). Problems with crime? Let's build more jails and toughen the legislation to get "hoons" off our street (and nothing to address the causes for these hoons being there in the first place - like making education better and more affordable). In short, the Liberals are all for turning Australia into the American model; most Australians, me included, are against it.
It's quite interesting to watch the confrontation taking place between the Liberals and Labor at the moment. They're both promising to spend tons of tax money on bullshit stuff - free public transport for students, another train station in a place I've never heard off. It's all things aimed at seducing certain margin seats' pockets, but things that would not make a big difference. What's a new train station compared to the total revamp of public transport they should be doing?
Both talk the same and promise the same. In fact, they're hardly any different; choosing between the two is basically choosing whose friend is going to get kickbacks once their party is elected. Both stray of revolutions, and both politely avoid stepping into territories that would harm their rich friends: things like handling polluting industries and the big companies with whom they have connections. Basically, both major parties are not about to do anything that might offend the private sector's top guns in the least.
I point my finger towards the media there, which allows these politicians to get away with it during the peak of an election campaign, failing to point public opinion at these issues - which are ten times more important than the issues that are supposedly on debate during these elections. But then again, if you look at the people in charge of the media you see that they're prime time members of the private sector top gun club - you can't expect them to damage themselves for the benefit or society (or can you?). Here I point my fingers (two fingers, to be exact) towards the federal government for creating the atmosphere in which this corruption and this dumbing down of the public can take place.

So - allow me to repeat myself - who should I vote for?
Allow me to quote my friend Sherlock: "Eliminate all corrupt parties, and the one s which remain, however improbable, must be the one to vote for."
Which leaves me with two parties: The Democrats and The Greens.
To be honest, I cannot say that I know what the difference between the two is. What I do know about the Democrats is that they originated from the Liberals and that now they are a dying party, highly likely to disappear, and mainly due to their own fault. The Greens, on the other hand, are on the rise - but they are still far away from the limelight.
Both pretty much say the same things only at a different order. Both talk about public transport, education, the environment, and health. My impression is that the Democrats are more towards true liberalism - as in being a libertarian, while the Greens are fanatic about shrubbery but quite naive when it comes to real life politics.
It's funny to see how much it costs to become a member of each of those parties. The Greens charge more for "high income earners" (that is, more than $40k in their book) than anyone else around, while the Democrats charge peanuts.
I would like to be a member of a political party in order to feel I'm doing my share to make a difference, but at this stage I cannot identify a party that I'm truly in sync with; if anything, I think it's probably better to avoid the corruption that comes with politics and join an apolitical organization. It's just that I have no idea where to start.

Anyway, the bottom line is that I'm going to use preferential voting and vote for a Democrat-Greens mix.
For my local representative (a token vote, since it is obvious the Liberals will take it), I'm going to vote for: (1) Greens (2) Independent (3) Labor (4) Liberals and (5) Family First. These are all the candidates in my area.
For the legislative vote I'm going to vote below the line for a mix of Democrats and Greens (starting with the Democrats, as I heard good things about their candidate), followed by the Labor Candidates, followed by the independents, followed by People Power, Liberals, Democratic Labor Party, and Family First.
In case you're curious, parties such as the Democratic Labor Party and Family First are eccentric conservative parties - the Christian, gay bashing kind of thing. People Power are just eccentric.

One last comment regarding voting above or below the line:
You can take the easy option when voting for the legislative house and just select one party, thus relying on the preferences set by that particular party. I consider people who vote this way to be - excuse my bluntness - people who are not worth the atoms they are made of. People whose intelligence is wasted. [Disclaimer: I'm exaggerating with my sarcasm here to make a point]
Why? Because, if you read the news, all the big parties are corrupt in the way they set their preferences. So corrupt that the Liberals and Labor - the elections' arch rivals - prefer their arch rival more than they prefer their smaller allies, in an effort to get rid of the small parties and ensure the power stays with them. And that's bad, because that defies everything they're supposedly standing for.
I will therefore spend 2 to 3 minutes of my time voting below the line and ranking my preferences exactly the way I want them to be. I owe it to myself and I owe it to fellow Victorians, because I will not get a better chance to make a difference in the few years to come.

Tuesday, 14 November 2006

Live and Let Live

I'm a bit behind here with the news, so please give me some slack. Not that I'm about to give it to others, but never mind.
If you're up to date with Australian news you would have heard about the state of Victoria's Senator Conroy, who - together with his wife (pictured on the left) - had a baby through a surrogate mother. His wife couldn't bring children due to a former (hopefully) case of ovarian cancer; they wouldn't even let them adopt because of her cancer. So the couple used an egg from a friend and had a surrogate mother in New South Wales give birth to a baby conceived through IVF - and that's because Victorian law would not allow for their version of surrogate pregnancy.
The news talked a lot about this senator that turned his back on his home state, but I don't think there's any reason to accuse the guy: people would go through much more than that to achieve something like having a child if that's what they want, so I think some slack should be given. Especially to the wife, who had to suffer much worse than media criticism.
What I did find most amusing about this incident are the comments that came from George Pell, the Catholic Church's Archbishop of Sydney (guess which of the photos is his) - the head of the Catholic Church in Australia, and from his counterpart the Archbishop of Melbourne. They both said things such as expressing their worries about the baby's future, calling surrogate birth "far from ideal", and saying the situation could unravel at the baby's expense. The reason why they bothered having their own say on the matter is because Mr Conroy is a Catholic.
Now, my question is: why did they bother saying those things in the first place? Obviously, Conroy is not really listening to them, otherwise he wouldn't have gone ahead with something that quite contradicts Catholic preaching (which basically says that if you can't have children - tough, because that's god's will). Obviously, Conroy's will to have a child was stronger than his Catholic faith.
Now I will take the liberty of answering the question I myself asked. I think these two arch-villains said what they had to say because they were afraid. And they are afraid because the foundations that hold the Catholic faith are shattering through the technologies that science provides, in this particular case - IVF. [Note, however, that I do agree surrogacy is problematic, but not due to religious reasons.]
Guys who have been through IVF will know that when the time comes for the man to produce his sperm, his instructions are to ejaculate 2 to 4 days before the actual donation. The reason for that is to get rid of old sperm stocks and to ensure that quality young sperm is ejaculated when it counts. This leads me to assume that masturbation, in that case, has to be one of evolution's mechanisms to ensure that the survival of the fittest; only that in this case, it's the wanker that is the fittest: by doing it he ensures quality sperm is there when it counts, thus improving the chances of his genes to go forth and multiply. I guess what I'm trying to say here is that in contrast to what the church is saying against it, masturbation is natural. Take one problem off IVF.
On to my next argument. One of the church's biggest problems with IVF is that the church has a problem explaining where the spirit of god is mixed into the formula when creating a new baby. Things were easy for them at the time when no one knew anything about the mechanics of creating new life and they could say whatever they wanted to, but now that times are tough for them because we know more the church is saying that the "soul" is created by the sexual act between the mother and the father (when and how this happens, exactly, is rather obscure - but that is quite consistent with most religious arguments). The church's new problem is that with IVF we can now create a new person without the sexual act, and so - according to their doctrine - the result has no soul because its making lacked god's intervention. To put it in other words, the result of an IVF treatment may look like a person to you and I, but in the eyes of the Catholic church it is more like an abomination.
For the record, it's not only the church that has a problem there; regular law has similar issues with genetic playing around. What if, for example, we create a clone that looks exactly like - say, George Bush - and then kill it. Have we committed murder or not? Or did we just play with a bunch of chemicals? Society can still take its time to think about this issue, but for the church the time has run out - they have a problem with IVF, a technology that has produced children for something like 16 years now. In fact, according to what I've heard, one in ten couples now resorts to IVF. Which means the Catholic church has a major ideological problem on its hands.
Now, for the record, I have nothing special against the Catholic church. It's clown like dressed archbishops can do whatever they want as long as they stay out of my life. The main problem is that they don't - they tend to get involved in politics from time to time, as in the above case. Personally, I never hid my views: I think all doctrine based religions are, in laymen terms, a bunch of bullshit - and that includes, amongst others, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
One good thing that came out of Pell's words is that at least now I can tell what has happened to the offspring of those that were in charge of the Spanish Inquisition and those that tortured Galileo around: they became archbishops.
In conclusion I would like to wish the Conroy couple all the best. Their child is bound to be one that will not suffer from a shortage of parental love.

Sunday, 12 November 2006

The Cube

Two weeks ago, when Jo's family was here with us, we took them to do some shopping (because they couldn't stand not doing some for more than a week, I guess; it has nothing to do with us, even if we did take an active part in it).
Anyway, while walking down Chadstone I saw this t-shirt in the Mambo shop that had a pair of hands playing around with a Rubik's cube and a caption saying "Solving Problems". It suddenly brought back memories, and I had the urge to get it; an urge that quickly faded away when I saw the price tag ($45) and when they told me they only have it in green.
However, the memories were still in my head. I remembered how these cubes became stupidly popular when I was about 9 or 10 years old, on how my uncle got me one as a gift after I initially said I don't want to have one - probably because I was afraid I wouldn't be able to solve it.
I played with it a lot (there were no video games back then), and I managed to learn how to do one side on my own. I remember I had this system of rules: If I had a certain pattern, all I had to do was a certain combination to get to finish the side.
Then my uncle got me an instructions booklet with steps on how to finish it all. It started with finishing one side, then doing more sides, then finishing the top; it had this system of instructions you could learn by heart to finish the cube. So I did, and I became so fluent at it I was able to do it all in 15 seconds when I was all fired up. I was the master of the cube's domain, even if most of it had nothing to do with my own skills (other than the ability to memorize the instructions).
Back to today, and after we saw the shirt I got me a new "anniversary edition" Rubik's cube at Kmart (Jo's mother paid for it - thanks!). The first photo attached here shows it being taken out of the box, the second one shows it after it was garbled up... probably never to be sorted again, unless I download the instructions from the web.
By now I've learnt how to do one side again; pretty quickly, I have to add. What I found interesting is that now I analyzed what I was doing and approached the affair more systematically and mathematically than before; instead of memorizing patterns, I was thinking abstractly. That's probably worth the $20 admission price on its own.
Anyway, another source of fun for the time between TV programs and another dose of reminiscing.

Saturday, 11 November 2006

Cleared!

Finally, Jo has been cleared!
Allow me to explain. Some two months ago, Jo has applied to become an Australian citizen. She went to this interview where they assess her suitability (you see, we don't want scum to come in and suck the blood of our children).
After she finished her interview she was told they cannot give her an answer, because someone by the name of Joanne Hopkins has committed a crime in the state of New South Wales, and until she's cleared they cannot confirm her candidacy for citizenship.
So for the next 7 weeks or so I had to live with the fear that I married a fugitive criminal. I also thanked my parents for calling me "Moshe Reuveni", and name that is guaranteed not to be confused in Australia; just imagine the trouble you'd go through if your name is John Smith and you ask for Australian citizenship.
Anyway, after weeks of paranoia with regards to the police knocking on our door to take Jo way, last week we received a letter telling us that Jo has been cleared. All we're waiting for now is a date with destiny; specifically, a date for citizenship ceremony. Sadly, Jo will miss her chance to vote for the Victorian state elections in two weeks.
We strongly suspect her ceremony will take place on Australia Day (circa 26 of January) at the Brighton City Council building (that's where I had my ceremony). Be there or be square.

License to Kill

Following is a letter from yesterday's Age... Followed by a few brief words from your host.

Thanks for the balance
DESPITE its overwhelming support in editorials and in the number of stories that support human activity as the predominant cause of supposedly catastrophic global warming, The Age is to be congratulated for printing the contrary views of climate scientist William Kininmonth (Opinion, 2/11), as well as the critical reply from the CSIRO's Kevin Hennessy (Letters, 4/11).
To the lay reader, both the arguments and counter-arguments make some sense, and this is surely the kind of debate we need to have about such matters, rather than the emotional rhetoric of "very real fear for our children" (Ian Broinowski, Letters, 7/11) or the frank propaganda of Al Gore's film.
Very few "sceptics" deny there is some impact of human activity on global warming; we just doubt its relative influence, and its supposedly totally disastrous detrimental effects everywhere. Global warming did not "cause" the current drought. Over the past 10 years, the north-west half of Australia has had above-average rainfall; much of it well above average. Did global warming cause that too? What about the record low overnight temperatures for October in parts of western Victoria? There are many natural variations in our climate.
Expert doubters such as Kininmonth show that while he is still in the minority, the debate about climate change is not over, and "all evidence" is never in.
Ian Murray, Westgarth

Now back to your host again...
Why did I bother with this email? For two reasons.

The first is simply to show how "we", the people who call on people to do something with regards to the phenomenon known as global warming, still have a lot to do when it comes to the marketing of our message. If people are unaware that "global warming" does not necessarily mean warming but is actually more like "fluke weather everywhere", causing them to think that if it's getting cooler there's no problem to take care of, then we have a problem.
The second is to say that as much as I advocate doing something about global warming, I can see where the above guy is coming from. Look at Al Gore's book, An Inconvenient Truth, and you will see much in the way of evidence to show that global warming is taking place, but not much showing you the link between man made activities and this global warming (there are some indirect evidence, such as the rise of acidity in the oceans and the affluence of certain sea creatures that live on the trash we dump into the sea). This lack of direct connection between us and the weather is the main problem today, as far as convincing is concerned, because most people now will agree that the weather is going wild; it's just that too many of them say it's just natural.
My point of view, which has been expressed in this blog on numerous occasions already, is that while I admit there is a significant leap of faith to be taken here - it is still significantly less than the leap of faiths required by this world's believers in religion (sadly, they're the majority).
But more to the point, my view is that we don't have anything to lose by acting to reduce the amount of contamination we humans deliver upon this world. Even if it doesn't affect the weather, it affects the animals we kill when we cut down their territories in order to build beach side resorts or more areas for beef grazing so we can eat more McDonald burgers. And it affects us, because the burning of coal - to name just one example - doesn't release energy alone, but also some other lovely stuff into the atmosphere (including some radioactive stuff). Each year, a great number of us die from complications to do with this shit that we breath.
So why shouldn't we act on this? Why shouldn't we develop energy sources that don't contaminate? So that Exxon can still make a huge profit? Why should we give these companies that care only for the financial benefit of a very already too privileged few? Why should we continue giving them a license to kill?
My point is: Even if you don't believe Al Gore; even if you don't believe most scientists; you will still benefit greatly from doing the things the scientists tell us that we need to do in order to address global warming. Even if all it does is clear your conscious, it would still be worthwhile.

Thursday, 9 November 2006

The Perils Of Rock N' Roll Decadence

I used to think that Melbourne Cup day is one authentic Australian public holiday that is superior to most of the other holidays: Unlike the others, which are based on pretty bullshit religious premises (e.g., Easter), this one is an authentic holiday.
But I don't know now. The more I get myself familiar with this holiday, the more my appreciation for it fades.
Basically, Melbourne Cup day is supposed to be the holiday celebrating the culmination of the horse racing season. On paper, that can sound like a nice and innocent sports thing where one can get closer to nature (horses).
But it's not like that at all. It's mostly a celebration of gambling, of people going to the race track to get stupidly drunk, and of people dressing up in pretty abnormal clothing to say the least so they would look good (as in better than the people next to them).
It's a celebration alright, but not a celebration of things I would consider to be positive.

Let's have a look at them one by one.
Horse racing might be entertaining; but from time to time a horse falls down and gets shot. When a footballer gets injured he gets treated; when it's a horse he/she gets shot because now they're not worthwhile to anyone. Although they're just as intelligent as the footballer, they are just a commodity.
I don't think there's much of a need to discuss the virtues of gambling, the engine behind horse racing. Australian gambling companies make hundreds of millions of dollars of profit during the horse racing season, money that could have easily solved tons of poverty problems in Africa.
Getting drunk is yet another noble cause for most Australians (but not a bloody immigrant like me), and it reaches obscene heights at those races. People get so drunk that on the train after work they're shaking all over - women have to take their high heeled shoes off - and smell like a rotten sewer.
Which brings me to the clothing issue. They're drunk, and they're clad in particularly weird clothing (check the photo): women dress up in stupid dresses they would never wear elsewhere, and put on hats that look totally ridiculous. Men wear suits, which is fine - until you start thinking about the why. I still don't understand why a sane person would want to wear a suit in the first place - it's so uncomfortable.
So it's all some sort of a weird celebration of trying to catch people's eyes. The women dress like trumps to catch the men's eyes, and the men like it because it's a feast for the eyes, yet to me it all looks like a mad circus - none of it makes sense. The values it represents are all values I despise: The clothes are bought especially for the event and are worn only once, killing the environment (but expanding the economy, I'm sure); the whole circumstances stink of old chauvinistic values; and most of all, it's all a celebration of form over function.
I talked to a friend from work who went to one of those races and asked him what he would be wearing. He said a suit, and pointed out that while he hates suits he would feel uncomfortable being the only one not wearing a suit. Which is exactly my point: Melbourne Cup an occasion where one tries to "outlook" the other.
All people are somewhere between the edges of the scale that measures how much they value others' opinions when they appreciate their own self esteem. Personally, I'm close to the side that doesn't really care what others think than most others; Melbourne Cup is a celebration for those who are close to the other edge of those scales, the edge I don't really appreciate.
It's an edge that to me stands for decadence. For a set of values that can never satisfy.

I'm pretty annoyed with secularity - the kind of culture I preach for - managing to give us holidays like the Melbourne Cup as a cultural celebration. I'm annoyed because it makes religion look good in comparison, but I'm even more annoyed with the infinite wasted potential on display here. Is this all that modern day secularity can come up with? A festivity of gambling, drinking and wasting?

We celebrated the Melbourne Cup day off with a drive to Warburton and a walk by the Yarra river (check the photos on my Flickr page - it's under the "Travel" set; don't expect much, though). It was great and we really enjoyed it.
I was wearing a track suit, by the way. Not that I like track suits that much, it's just that since my operation I really learned to appreciate their finer qualities.

Wednesday, 8 November 2006

For Ward

I cannot be said to be truly amazed at the way the world of music has been going on lately. True, there are some nice things out there, mostly to do with Jack White's guitar, but overall the picture is pretty bleak.
However, it is this bleakness that makes the nice surprises I do stumble upon from time to time to seem so nice. And lately the nicest surprise I've stumbled upon when it comes to music is called M Ward.
I first heard about him when his previous album, Transistor Radio, was reviewed in The Age's Green Guide - in a section that reviews new music that is not of the usual pop trash.
Then, while I was recovering from my operation, the Green Guide gave 5 stars to his new album: Post-War. So I gave it a try, and it was just great!
I cannot be said to be able to review music, which is why I'm telling you about Ward in here and not in R-Views (not that my movie or book reviewing skills are up to any good anyway). However, I can say that I really like Ward's mix of melancholy yet smart lyrics, blues guitar, and a general mix of blues themes (with some country musical elements thrown in, which really made me worried since I would hate to look in the mirror and find a hillbilly). If I can make any complaint it would be the relatively rare deployment of an electric guitar: I like noise, you see. Maybe he can get Jimmy Page for a guest appearance on his next album (Jerry Lee Lewis did in another nice new album, and both of them do Led Zep's "Rock and Roll" much pride).
I played a bit with Pandora to find that an older album of Ward's, The Transfiguration of Vincent, is even a moodier go at things than Post-War; which, depending on your mood can be better or worse. I recommend you listen to Ward's take on Bowie's "Let's Dance" for one mean interesting yet poignant cover version. Personally, I'm happy with the privilege of being able to listen to both albums.

Today I learned that Ward is visiting Melbourne during the Xmess - New Year break. Obviously he's coming here to enjoy summer at its peak... His show in Lorne, on the Great Ocean Road, is sold out already (and at $142 a ticket, someone is going to make a killing). Ward has another show at the Corner Hotel in Richmond (for only $42), but that's standing room only. Given that we're talking an enclosed pub with a bunch of beer sapping crowds at too close a proximity, and with my ears being as sensitive as they are, I think I'll give it a pass.
Still - it's great to have Ward's music on my MP3 player. Makes the time at work pass really quickly.

Tuesday, 7 November 2006

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

A review I have written for Pride and Prejudice in R-Views has earned me some feedback from one Wicked Little Critta (who oddly enough looks a lot like Amelie). During our exchange of comments I said something which, to a patriotic American (as in someone from the USA) might sound offensive; I promised to elaborate on the subject of my attitudes towards the USA, so here goes.

Up until not that long ago - to be accurate, up until some four years ago, when I started digesting my move to Australia - the USA has always been the place I looked up to. If asked where I would like to be the most, the USA would have been the answer. Today, however, my opinion is quite different. I can't point my finger to one specific reason - it could be George W Bush, it could be this "war on terror" that's driving the world crazy with its fear campaign, it could be the way things look from Australia, and it could be my own experience with unemployment that led me to apply active cynicism towards capitalism. I don't know exactly what it is, but I feel like my eyes have opened with regards to the way I view the world's most powerful nation.
There is a lot to be said in favor of America. As far as a source of influence is concerned, most of the books I read are/were written by Americans. Most of the films I watch are American. A major portion of the music I listen to is American (although in general most of my favorite musicians come from the UK). Most of the people I look up to in this world which are not family or friends are Americans (a brief look at this blog would show names like Asimov, Bryson and Sagan popping up quite frequently). But it is also quite interesting to note that some of these very people - people like Bryson or Chomsky - are also amongst the biggest critics of the USA.
There is definitely a big contradiction to do with America: It has by far managed the biggest achievements humanity has ever managed - putting a man on the moon, sending a spaceship out of the solar system's planet area, for example - but it has also done some nasty things to humanity - say, McDonald.
Last time I was in the USA before migrating to Australia (1999) I kept on admiring it for being a land of possibilities, a place where anything can be acquired and everything can be found. The last time I've to the USA (2005) I felt totally insecure the minute we stepped out of our taxi next to our hotel in San Francisco only to be seemingly surrounded by several characters of a suspicious appearance; the impression I've had from my last visit had mostly to do with the gross difference between the rich and the poor in the USA, a difference that makes you think twice before you go to the street.
So here is my current take on it: I think that the USA is a place that has been contaminated by its elites. Instead of sharing the prosperity that came with being the most successful nation on the planet, the rich seem to be abusing their position in order to get richer. The USA is a place where people's entire lives and goals revolves around the acquisition of money; people will not smile at you if you don't tip them. Just like the leaders of the Communists in Russia have betrayed their people by abusing their position to bestow those close to them with benefits the others couldn't get, the richer people in the USA betrayed their comrades by building this mechanism that supports them in becoming richer and richer. Terrible crimes have been done to this planet and to many of its peoples in the name of increasing company share values, and most of them are American.
Oil companies, cigarette companies, food companies, guns and ammunition companies, technology companies - they are behind most of the bad things taking place here. I think Al-Qaeda is basically the extreme manifestation of hatred towards the bad things coming out of America (note I am not saying they're nice people; I'm just saying I can see what causes their existence).
America is supposed to be the land of the free, the land of all possibilities. But in reality it is a land where you're free to do what you want if you can afford it; you will certainly not become the president unless you have a lot of money backing you up. It is a place where the difference between the rich and the poor is the biggest; I do not think this is a recipe for a healthy society.

So, am I anti American? I don't think so.
Yes, I don't think too highly of the way things go there. I think the dumbing down of the people and the putting of a price tag on everything are pretty bad; but I criticize these because I care and because I want it changed, not because I hate.Read my blog and you will read a lot of criticism about Australia, but I will also tell you that I love Australia and I think it's the best place; I certainly don't hate it. And I think the same applies to Bryson and Chomsky: when they bother to criticize, they do it because they would like to improve things.
I would like to see an America that cares for its people. A place where economic growth for the sake of economic growth is not the holiest of shrines. A place where people matter, where health services and education are available to everyone.
And the main reason this matters to me is because I believe the dominance of the USA will mean that these values will trickle down to the rest of the world.
Sadly, I don't see this coming. What I do see is continuous cynicism towards the USA, materializing in the form of basic hate and contempt towards Americans. Most of the people I know already think Americans are stupid. I disagree; I've seen plenty of stupid people wherever I went, and I also know that most of this world's scientific achievements come from the USA. But with the way things are currently going, the USA is not gaining much popularity in this world.

Sunday, 5 November 2006

Circumcise Me

Last week we went to see the urologist the operated on me a month and a half ago for a post-operation examination.
He gave me a few tests to do, so any updates on my status will only be published (if at all) on this blog after I know what's going on. I will say that it seems like a sort of a mixed bag of news, with the better news being that I seem to be recovering well from the operation.
Anyway, as a part of the meeting I used the opportunity to question the guy on the benefits of circumcision. Who knows, it may be a question that we will need to ask ourselves at one point or another, and it's not every day that I have the attention of a professor on that part of a guy's body.

[To those who don't know: Jews circumcise their male babies a few days after birth; it is considered to be like an authentication thing, the same way one authenticates his/her copy of Windows XP with a code issued by Microsoft whenever he/she installs it]


When asking the question I told him that he doesn't need to be afraid of hurting my religious beliefs, because these do not exist. He said in return that he himself faced the same question, as he has three boys and his wife is of Jewish origins.
Anyway, to his answer: he said that circumcision might be beneficial if you live in a third world country, as it lowers your chances of catching nasty sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV. However, in places like Australia this doesn't mean much, but with the chances of damaging some sensitive limbs being quite significant - he said he could think of some nasty circumcision gone wrong incidents - he chose not to take the risk.
So that's it as far as I'm concerned. I did some reading on my own before and got to the same conclusion. Not that I'm so interested in circumcision, but my parents had this period where they kept on saying that we should do it if it becomes relevant, and kept on trying to get me to promise them to do it.
So - it looks like if Jo & I end up having a boy eventually, it will not be circumcised. If that potential "he"would ever want to become a Jew, he would have to do it on his own; and as for my parents, I see no reason to blindly follow some pagan ritual just because my parents ask me to do so. I respect my parents, but I don't have to agree with them; if they want a circumcision, they will have to get themselves a male baby some other way.

P.S. My parents don't read my blog.

Saturday, 4 November 2006

Parking meter complaint

Dear Mr ***,

I am writing this letter in order to complain and ask for compensation with regards to an incident I have had with a parking meter in Jacka Boulevard, St Kilda, on Saturday 28/10/2006.

Before providing the details of the incident, I will explain why I am addressing this complaint to you.
On Thursday, 2/11/2006, I called the phone number provided on the City of Port Phillip website for parking related issues (9209 6228).
There I was provided with a Fault Registration Number (***), and I was told to call the Assist Centre on 9209 6777.
The Assist Centre provided me with a Record Number (***) and with your details, and has instructed me to provide you with the details of my parking meter complaint so that it could be assessed. This letter would hopefully provide you with all the information required.

As for the details of my complaint:
On Saturday 28/10/2006 my wife and I took visiting overseas family members, two adults and a one year old baby, with us in our car to St Kilda Beach. Our visitors had only a few hours before they had to catch their flight back to the UK, so we decided to park near the beach and pay for the parking in one of your parking meters. The decision was made simpler by the fact it was a rather cold and windy day.
We parked next to parking meter JAP1 and got out of the car with everyone waiting for me to get a parking docket from the parking meter.
However, the next thing that happened was that they all waited for almost 10 minutes while I wrestled the parking meter. The parking meter would not accept most of my coins: I had to try again and again with different coins until eventually it would be courteous enough to accept one of them. As we had to pay around $6 we had to run through many a coin in the process, and again and again we got frustrated by the meter’s lack of acceptance (the one year old baby was not overly happy with waiting in the cold, either).
Eventually, I got my docket for two hour parking. However, during the process, your parking meter has swallowed an estimated $2-$3 extra in coins over the total sum I was trying to pay.

As you can probably imagine, the trouble involved with the two phone calls I had to make and this letter I am writing now far surpasses the damage caused to me by losing $2-$3, 10 minutes of my time, and the overall discomfort of having to spend 10 minutes of our lifetimes wrestling with a rather ungrateful machine.
However, I feel it is my duty to dedicate my time and complain about this incident, because I think the incident reflects on the way the authorities misuse the power given to them by the people in order to serve the people.
I fail to comprehend why a visit to St Kilda Beach has to involve a wrestling match with a parking meter. If the City of Port Phillip needs the money that badly, then the City of Port Phillip has the duty of making sure that the facilities for acquiring that money are in working order; and if they are not, as in my case, then the City of Port Phillip has an even greater duty to make sure that my problem is smoothly and quickly handled, rather then send me through a maze of phone calls and complaint letters.

I therefore demand to be compensated for the money swallowed by the ticket machine and for the effort and expenses I have spent alerting you of this problem.
I would also like to thank you for your time and attention in handling my complaint.

Sincerely,
Moshe Reuveni

Friday, 3 November 2006

Analog Classics

It took some time for this to dawn on me, but eventually I realized that my Flickr photo upload project is not only a nice way to share my photos around with friends, relatives and blog readers - but also the best way to back my photos up. That is, as long as I am willing to pay Yahoo some $30 a year for the courtesy.
So I've already uploaded our "best of round the world" photos, and now I'm uploading what I refer to as "analog classics".
Between you and me, I consider those analog classics to be the best photos I've ever taken. They were taken at a time in which I was just crazy about photography - crazy enough, for example, to carry a rather heavy tripod in my backpack all day long and to take photos of the Louvre in the middle of the night when the temperature was -3. So it's a combination of craziness, rather exotic locations (or exotic when you look at them from half way across the world; but still, Paris and London are not places to be trifled with), and the will to experiment and into spaces where no Moshe has gone before - such as the use of 3200 ASA film for dusk time London photos.
Anyway, I'm uploading these photos now, so you'd be able to admire them on my Flickr page. Their set will be called, surprise surprise, "Analog Classics".
One last thing - These photos were taken with my old Canon A2E film camera, which was sold a long while ago on eBay. They were digitized courtesy of the famous Myron Enterprises Inc lending me a hand with his scanner. Thanks, John!

Thursday, 2 November 2006

The better just got better

Firefox 2.0 has just been released, and what can I say? If you want a fast and friendly browser, go for it.
Today I had the dubious pleasure of playing with the other browser to be released at the same time, Internet Explorer 7 by some company called Microsoft. We already had compatibility issues with it at work, caused by the way it supports ActiveX.
You don't get such bullshit with Firefox, and overall the experience is faster and smoother. I like the built in spell checker in particular - makes blogging that much easier.

Wednesday, 1 November 2006

Charlie Chaplin

For more than a week now the news has been telling us quite a lot about this Muslim mufti of Sydney, who said that women dressed in seductive clothing are like exposed meat left out for the hungry cat to devour. Or something along these lines.
Since these pearls of wisdom were uttered, the item refuses to let go. There are calls from all over the place to sack the mufti, with some even going as far as saying that he should be deported for his un-Australian words.
What do I make of it?
Well, if you ask me, the Muslim community who this guy is supposed to be representing would do well to get rid of him; he's a total idiot. Then again, I doubt they would follow my advice, given the distinctive gap in the way we view this world of ours.
As to the wise people of Australia calling for him to be deported, all I can say is - since when has the expression of one's opinion, as stupid as it may be, become a felony carrying the punishment of deportation?
What I'm trying to say here is that as stupid as this guy's words may have been, their contents is not the real driver of the current turmoil. Just compare these words to what the archbishop of god-knows-where or the rabbi of your nearest ghetto would say, and you will find that their opinions do not differ by much; the main differences are that this archbishop won't say these things in a forum that may make such a news item bomb out of it, and that no one would ask for the rabbi to be deported. Why? Because he's a rabbi, and not a Muslim; and currently, it is the Muslims who are the ones being picked on.
All this big fuss has nothing to do with the bleeding hearts leading our society being truly worried about the status of women in our society. Most of them agree with the mufti. What this is all about is an opportunity to bash Muslims about and to show them who is the real boss in this country.

And as if by coincidence, and as if we didn't know who's the boss in this country, John Howard came up with a lovely new idea this week: The government will now fund chaplains for schools, who will provide "spiritual help and support" to students requiring such help.
In an article published in today's Age, Howard says - and I quote:
"There is a keen desire in the wider community for additional ways to provide pastoral care, comfort and support for young Australians. In an increasingly complex world, parents are telling my Government that a school chaplain would help them provide positive guidance to their children."
Better yet, in case you managed to secure a firm grip with all the hordes of community members running around looking for some pastoral care, he also says:
"Students often struggle to come to terms with the loss of school friends, and a chaplain would help them manage their grief."
Excuse me, but how many students need to come to terms with the loss of school friends in the first place? I did 12 years of school plus 4 of uni, and none of my friends died on me. None died on me in 4 years of army service in quite a hostile territory, either. What the hell is Howard talking about?
Well, it's obvious what he is really talking about, and it is also obvious that I'm infuriated.
Once again, through the use of nice words such as "community", Howard is trying to force his own agendas on us. And just like his attempt to dumb us down with the new media legislation robbing us of proper journalism, now he also wants us to think like he does - i.e., embrace religion - straight as of childhood, a time where we're vulnerable, a time where our views are first formed.
Since the time of Rome and through the Dark Ages, religion has been the prime time tool used in order to control the hordes so that the ruling classes can have their good time without anyone questioning them. We thought we had ourselves a Renaissance and managed to push religion away, establishing states where religions were forced into their separate ways; well, not anymore, if Johnny has his way.

My opinion on religion, and on doctrinal based religion in particular (which pretty much encompasses all the major religions I'm familiar with) has been expressed many a time in this blog. But I'll say it again, just in case there are some out there who are yet to feel offended today:
I think doctrinal religion is based on stupid ideas; and I think that people who accept it for hereditary reasons without thinking much about what it is they believe in are stupid. Not because they're really limited in their ability to think, but just because they don't bother to really think of what it is that they believe in and what it is their beliefs stand for and what it all means. [For the record I will add that I'm not on a quest to label religious people as particularly stupid people; for example, I consider myself to be a big time idiot, and I have plenty of proof to support this observation]
We no longer live in a flat world resting upon the back of a turtle like we did when our religions were invented. We know enough now to stop asking what that poor turtle is resting on.
We no longer live in a world where a flower opening itself up to catch the rays of sunlight is considered an act of god; we know that it opens up as a result of chemical reactions.
Since the time religion was invented in order to explain what goes on around us we learned enough to know that we don't really need a magical being to explain why the things around us behave the way they do.
We do not need chaplains to impose archaic doctrines on our children. By all means, bring on the counselors; but keep your superstitions separated away from the state. Bring us Charlie Chaplin, not some dark ages' chaplains.

Back in 2001 I made the decision to leave Israel in order to live elsewhere. The main reason for me wanting to leave was the way security and religion was so well entrenched into the daily lives of the people of Israel: you can get called into the army on a whim to "protect" your country at any given moment; you can't marry anyone you like; you can only marry someone the religious way; and the list goes on and on.
Australia, to me, represented freedom from these stupid values. Yet now, when the so called "war on terror" is used to shut people's mouths from saying things that might offend those at the top, and when religion is starting to impose itself on us, I feel as if the world is falling down on me. I feel as if there is no escape for me, no place where I can live my life according to the values that I see fit.
You can argue about my values, but I maintain that it is those scientifically based values that got humanity to where it is today. And I don't want to regress.

John Howard, I want my country back.