Wednesday, 31 January 2007

Open plan

I already mentioned that I wouldn't mind becoming a writer even if I know I don't have much to offer. Thinking about it, though, gave me an idea: Why shouldn't I go for the path of formal education?
The reason why is simple: After 16 years of formal education I cannot say I approve of it. The studying in order to pass the test, the tension of passing, and the huge effort is took was too much for me to even consider. However... if I'm doing it now for the pleasure of it, without having the slightest care about the grade, and with nothing in the balance but the fun of it, it just might be... well, nice. Constructive. A learning experience. Sort of.
I had a simple look at what the open university offers in Australia, and quickly enough I found this postgraduate writing program. It looks good; it doesn't have any tests, and the assignments and everything should all be things I can do from home (where was the internet when I did my real degree?). I think I'll give them a call to ask for clarifications some time soon: things like whether they'll acknowledge my degree and what would it take for them to do so, whether it's really all by remote control, whether I can do it from home whenever I feel like, and most importantly whether I can do it one course a time from time to time.
As far as I can currently tell the main catch is the cash: At $1500 per course, this is not a cheap pleasure, and it comes at a time in which we need to tighten our wallets. Registration for the March-May period ends in a week and I don't want to rush into it; the following period comes at a time in which, if all goes to plan, studying would be the last thing on my mind.
So there you have it. I'm sure Uri will say it's yet another sign of a midlife crisis, but I can't help being excited just thinking about it (which is probably as far as it would get). Think about it, though: I can even post my assignments here and have my loyal readers comment on it prior to handing assignments over...

1:0 to the Arsenal

Due to popular demand, as well as the fact that a screen capture from a DVD is something that is really easy to produce (but only after you find the "capture frame" button on Power DVD), here is the bit from yesterday's ultrasound where they measured the body length.
Much more importantly, this morning we received the much anticipated Down Syndrome probabilities. We're standing at 7520:1, which - according to the person I talked to - is "very high". That is obviously a subjective statement; on average, 1 in 700 babies is born with Down Syndrome, so we're roughly 10 times less likely. On the other hand, I know of people who were quoted with odds of 400,000:1 and others that were even in the millions.
One thing that could explain why we are not in the millions is the age factor, which was 1:242; if you take that away, our score goes up to the 200,000:1 range. But then again, we shouldn't take it away because it is a factor. If anything, this factoring shows the way in which the odds are calculated: just as I predicted, they put measurement numbers in a formula to give you your score.
Anyway, what does 1 in 7000 mean to us? It means we will not be doing the needle test that gives us a definite Down Syndrome diagnosis at a 200:1 risk of having a miscarriage (as well as some financial cost and Jo having to have someone stick a needle through her stomach). I cannot say I'm ecstatic or optimistic enough with 7000:1 odds; I am definitely tense and scared over us being the lucky winners amongst these 7000 births. However, the rational person in me reminds me that every year I stand a chance that is roughly in the scale of 10,000:1 of being killed as a result of a traffic accident, yet I manage to get up in the morning happy enough to make it through the day. My point is, at the odds we were quoted with there are so many other things that could go wrong that risking it all for being sure about Down Syndrome just because Down Syndrome is one thing they can actually measure seems a bit futile. But not entirely.

In other related news, we were told today that the Cystic Fibrosis test Jo did resulted in a negative answer. I assume you know what CB is; if you don't I'll just say it's an hereditary disease you do not want your baby to have. It's something that passes through the genes, and basically if both the mother and the father carry the particular gene the baby has a 4:1 chance of having CB; otherwise, if only one has it or none have it the chance is 0.
In order to test if you're a carrier they need some of your genes (and $200 which Medicare won't pay you back but you can claim on your tax returns). We got this saliva kit, and Jo robbed it under her tongue and posted the result to the Royal Children's Hospital. As I said, the result is she doesn't have the evil gene, so we're fine - as long as we assume the test is reliable, which is the case in most cases. I think I read it's 99 point something reliable, but do you want to count on it? We will. If you're even more paranoid than I am, you can have the second parent tested, too (always useful in case you're overly adventurous with your other lovers).

Overall, a day of good news.

Tuesday, 30 January 2007

Big Time

We (as in Jo) have had an ultrasound today, the one that average run of the mill people have as their first ultrasound ever. The one after which most people break the news to the rest of the world. Ah, the privileges of having IVF.
Due to the way they do this particular ultrasound is made the picture quality is pretty bad, so for now I won't bother putting the photos we got on the web (unless I feel ultra productive or unless I get the impression that many of you are truly interested in surrealistic art). We did, however, get a DVD of the scan, on which they even record sound (The sounds of us during the scan, not any of the baby sounds; and I'm only mentioning it because I sound like a puff whenever I hear a recording of my own voice, which means that to you I am puff eternal. And in case you didn't get my cryptologic hints, I'll add this: Not that there's anything wrong with it).
This particular ultrasound is different from the previous ones we've had, though, in the sense that it's an operational one. They measure things in order to give us an assessment regarding the baby's health as opposed to just doing it to see that the baby's there and that's it.
The main thing they're looking for is Down Syndrome, and interestingly enough they measure three parameters: the overall length, the width of the top of the head (as in when looking from above), and the thickness of this blood vessel running in parallel to the spine. I think they're looking for specific proportions as well as a particularly thick vessel. Later they're supposed to combine these with some blood test results to give us a certain probability; when asked what is considered a high probability for Down Syndrome the doctor conducting the ultrasound said 1:300 is the threshold. And if you ask me, that's another example of the discontinuous mind at work, because this is the wrong way of looking at it, but I've said it here before so I won't repeat myself as usual.
For now, we're waiting for the score; hopefully, Arsenal will win and we'll get a very high score. What I'm really afraid of is a middle of the range score that will leave me uncertain, because if we get a low score we will do the more demanding (and riskier) tests; absurdly enough, it's the uncertainty of a middle of the road score I'm more worried about than the actual negative result. I need a psychologist.
Anyway, during the scan the guy has told us our due ETA date is probably earlier than the one we quoted him before the test. We told him that the baby is Made in IVF, so we know the exact date and time of conception; Therefore, the conclusion is that it's not that the baby was conceived before it was conceived but rather that the baby is significantly bigger than average. I don't know whether this means Indy is a boy, whether it means we have ourself a teenage mutant ninja turtle (note I do not think that me mentioning it could be a mutant could cause it to become a mutant, the way most of my family would), or whether it's just my genes at work. For now I'll suspect the latter: Me, my sister and my brother were all big babies when we were born (according to my mother I was born 4.68kg; no wonder I eat like a pig).
Another thing about our Indy is that he/she is moving about quite a lot for his age. Must be practicing the ninja moves. I'll tell you this: having children is already becoming a very stressful affair. It probably shortens your lifespan quite significantly. Well, it's only 20.5 years until we kick Indy out of our house!

P.S. We still don't have much of a progress in the naming department. However, today Jo referred to Indy as Indy for the first time. She justified it as just being a "fetus name", but then again maybe the goddess Kali is getting into her and changing her mind.
For the record, I expect Jo will be reading this tomorrow.

Monday, 29 January 2007

Golden Calf

Allow me to return to the story of Friday's citizenship ceremony held on Australia Day.
During the ceremony conducted by our local council they awarded the local council's "person of the year" award as well as brought one exemplary citizen to give us a speech.
The model citizen they brought over was John Ilham, the owner of Crazy John's - Australia's biggest reseller of mobile phones. He was brought in because of the success story that he was: the son of Turkish immigrants that worked hard, faced severe problems with his business in the beginning, made lots of sacrifices, but ended up a big time millionaire and a large employer. After one of his four kids was diagnosed with a food allergy, he established a million dollar fund to research food allergies with children.
The local council's person of the year was not that different a story, although he was quite older than Ilham. The inheritor of a bus operating company, he made the company big, established lots of routes, and is now a big time employer of many people. He also donated a lot of money to charities and a lot of time to the Rotary Club.

Now let me tell you what message I took home with me with the selection of these two particular people for the Australia Day ceremony.
John Ilham is a nice guy, although I'm not sure how he's like when facing him across the business world's battlefield. That said, the things that made him what he is now do not contribute to the greatness of humanity; no new grounds were broken through the reselling of mobile phones. The only thing that sets him apart from most of the other people living in our local council was that he made it, financially. That's all there is to it. Sure, now he's donating some money; but I think it would be safe to say that he has so much of it, it does not matter much to him in the grand scheme of things. You can also argue about the altruism of his donations given that he only started donating after his child was identified with an allergy: I also donated more money to people collecting for cancer than I usually do when I was under the impression I have a cancer of my own; there is a lot of selfishness in that.
The local council's person of the year is quite a similar story. The main difference is that he didn't have to work as hard to establish his empire, he inherited it; but that aside, we're talking about another rich person who is able to comfortably donate a lot of money because he has so much of it, and is able to give away a lot of his own time because he can easily afford to employ others to take care of his business.
And now for the part that will annoy people: The message I got in that Australia Day ceremony is that in order to be acknowledged as a model citizen in Australia the only thing you have to do, really, is become stupidly rich. Once you've done it, people will look up to you and people would kiss you up.
And yes, I find this to be the reflection of a nation with no real vision that lacks any proper values. Where are the people that pushed society forward? Where are the intellectuals, artists and the scientists? Don't they count if they don't manage financial success?
And if it is giving away money to charity that counts, where are the hard working family people that work their guts off to make ends meet and then go and volunteer in order to make society a better place? Sure, their financial contribution is not as big as the ones of this world's Bill Gateses. But the amount of effort that they make and the amount of sacrifices they are required to make are significantly bigger. And it's not like these people are hard to find; with the recent fires roaming through Victoria, there were plenty of people out there who risked life and limb to combat the fires while their mates gobbled beer in their air-conditioned home. [For the record, I don't drink beer, but I stayed at home. However, I don't claim to be a person of the year; if anything, I'll claim for longest blogger of the year.]
Potential nominees are not that hard to find. Where, for example, is the mother that has to sacrifice her career in order to bring up her children? Where is the one that takes care of others' children? Common as muck, you say? Well, is rich as muck any better?
I can go on and on about it, but the bottom line is fairly simple. I despise a society that rewards those that are rich just because of them being rich. If there is one evident manifestation for idol worshiping today, this is this.
Perhaps in my anger over this I am similar to that [fictitious] guy I was named after.

Sunday, 28 January 2007

Power to the People, part 2

For reasons I will not elaborate on now, people often come up to me to ask me which camera they should buy (as in which digital stills camera). Usually my standard answer is that they should go looking in dpreview for the camera that fits them the most, an answer which achieves two things: First, I am pointing them to the ultimate reference on digital photography, a place they can find anything they ever wanted to know about the subject. And second, I get rid of them; and the reason why I want to get rid of them is that most people are not looking for a serious camera. Most of them are after a good looking toy, a fashion accessory that can also take snapshots from time to time. I'm not in that business, sorry.
The exception are the people who want to buy a serious camera, an SLR. Now that's something that enables you to create when you take a photo. Personally, with my two years plus of owning a digital SLR, I can't comprehend how I settled for a non SLR digital camera for two years before I got my Nikon D70 (the answer is simple: SLR's were prohibitively expensive and digital photography was too attractive for me to continue using my film SLR).
Up until now, when people came up to me to ask what SLR they should get, I would usually put in a recommendation that depended on their photography habits as well as existing equipment. For a while I was recommending either Nikon or Canon, with a tendency towards Nikon because they provided proper kit lenses compared to crap plastic ones from Canon. Lately, however, both have been providing plastic lenses. Most of the time, though, I would refrain from putting in a specific recommendation; most cameras are good enough, and it was just a question of personal preference better made through dpreview's advice than my own.
However, in the past few months an old contender joined the fight and showed both Nikon
and Canon how to do it right. I'm talking about Pentax, which has been known to be the rebel fighting the imperial stormtroopers back in the days of film; now it's back with new death star demolishing weapons.
For those that want a good camera but have a tight budget, the Pentax K100D offers an excellent SLR at a bargain price: $1000 including a nice lens. I've actually seen it for something that starts with an 8. Bargains don't come any better than that, and the best thing about it is that you don't get what you pay for - you get much more. You get something that's equal to Nikon and Canon's $1500 range SLR's.
The real shocker came with the release of the Pentax K10D, a camera that sells in Australia for less than $2000 with an excellent lens and delivers more than Canon and Nikon's $3000 contenders - including built in image stabilization, built in sensor cleaning facilities (the nemesis of digital SLR's), and a robust metal body. This camera is a clear winner for the enthusiast that wants more.
If my Nikon was to break down, the K10D would be the one I would replace it with today. Despite the Nikon lenses I already own; I could new Pentax equivalents and sell the Nikon ones I have on eBay, which should probably we a money earning deal given the quality of the Pentax kit lens.
Anyway, my point is that now I can point my finger at a couple of cameras I think of as clear winners in the SLR arena. I am no longer neutral.

Stone her!

I don't know if you noticed it, but when Serena Williams won the Australian Open and gave her acceptance speech, her first round of thank-yous went to her god, Jehovah (I think it was pretty evident that Sharapova's god must have been on leave during the final).
Having seen Life of Brian, we all know what should happen to someone as blasphemous as Serena.
Now, who's volunteering to cast the first stone?

Friday, 26 January 2007

Australia Day

I tend to devote a lot of time and energy doing my best to dismantle religion, all the time hardly doing a thing to address its equally ugly relative, nationalism. And for the record, when I say ugly my main argument is that both are major excuses for people to stop regarding other people as individuals; instead these people become "Jews" or "Germans" or "Leeds United supporters".
Today was Australia Day. Loyal readers of this blog might remember that today Jo was to receive her Australian citizenship, which indeed she has (check out the photos on my Flickr page). I therefore think today of all days is a good day for me to tend to some of the neglect I have displayed towards nationalism. It's just notes, however, nothing conclusive.

I will start with something that does not have much direct contact with nationalism, though, and everything to do with people being to stuck in smelling the roses and not understanding what is going on around them. I'm talking global warming.
Pretty much all of the speakers in today's citizenship ceremony mentioned the drought Australia is currently going through. Good. Pretty much all of them have expressed the hope that "things will go back to normal soon and the drought will be over". Bad.
The sooner people realize that this is not a temporary thing that will pass us tomorrow the better. This drought is not a temporary thing; unless we do something about it, global warming is here to stay and here to grow worse. Did any of those speakers notice that this "temporary drought" is now in its 15th year? I've been here for less than 5 years and I know that.
I find this ignorance to be particularly annoying given that these speakers represent the leadership. If the leaders' brains are stuck in the stone age, who is it that will actually do something to address global warming?

Next, before we get to nationalism, just a bit of a thought on religion:
When pledging allegiance to Australia as a new citizen, one can choose whether to take an oath "before god" or whether to just take an oath without involving any fictitious man made characters.
During my citizenship ceremony, back in September 2004, the vast majority of the new citizens chose to leave god out of business and take the ordinary oath. Today, however, three quarters of the new citizens took the oath while holding a copy of the bible in their right hand. Is it a sign of the times, a side effect of the war on terror?
I have to admit the scene made me laugh. For a start, everyone got the same type of a bible to take the oath with; but what if they were Muslims or Jews? Or what if they were Hindus?
The second laugh came when I saw the copies of the bible each of those people have received. I was annoyed that they are getting a free book while we were to go home empty handed (I offered the copy of Scientific American I had with me to Jo so she'd be able to take the oath with it, but she refused what I consider to be a very generous offer; after all, my subscription is paid with her money, too).
When asked what I am going to do with a copy of the bible if I was to receive one, my answer was that in the worst case I can sell it on eBay. But in all honesty, a bible can be a useful thing (much more than a paperweight, for a start). Having a copy at home means you can easily find the right quote to show the true believer how silly the bible really is, for a start.
Anyway, I was relieved to see they didn't fuck us at the drive-through: the event's organizers collected the bibles back from all the newly sworn immediately after they took their oaths.
[For the record: please do not consider this an invitation for getting me a copy of the bible; we bought Asimov's guide to the bible already, and it contains the original scripts, too.]

Ok, it's time for nationalism. And first on the agenda is that most classic of the nationalistic symbols, the flag.
What is all the fuss people make about flags, anyway? Back in 2005 when Jo and I landed in the USA and started walking around San Francisco we were quite intimidated by the various flags attacking us from all possible angles. Everywhere you looked some American flag stared back at you, and the general impression was that all the flag owners had some sort of a competition to see whose flag was the biggest.
Again - what's the point? Are the people walking the streets of San Francisco lost, at a state in which they continuously ask themselves in which country they are? Is there something in the air there that makes people think they have accidentally landed in Mozambique, therefore requiring the constant assurance that they are still at home?
Australia is not as bad as the USA, but we do have our on set of people who are so lost they have to have a flag sticking up their [excuse me]. It starts with John Howard, who will only provide funding for schools if they have a flagpole with a flag deployed. And it trickles down to people wearing the flag on them and abusing people around them who refuse to "respect" the flag.
Therefore, allow me to say this: a flag is just a piece of sheet; any meaning it has is entirely in the heads of the people who give it a meaning. A nation such as Australia can be great without a flag - and by great I mean a democracy where people are free to do what they want as long as they don't bother others, a country where health and education are available to everyone, and a country that takes care of its weak [note: in no way is this supposed to be an all conclusive list]. However, Australia can just as well suck even if the flag is widely displayed everywhere; and if you ask me where the trend is currently heading for, I think it would be safe to say that while Australia is not that badly positioned with the first option it is heading in the direction of the second.
Personally, you will not see me cherishing a flag. The act reminds me of footballers who kiss the club crest on their shirt after scoring a goal but on the following week ask to be transferred to another club where they will get more money.
Don't get me wrong: some things are worth fighting for, and history shows that sometimes a fight is a must (re the second world war). But a flag is not one of those things.

Towards the end of the citizenship ceremony an opportunity was given to all the members of the crowd to take a reaffirmation pledge of their commitment to Australia. The text went something along the lines of "I will obey the law and I acknowledge that Australia's a hell of a place to live in".
I think I was one of the very few people attending the ceremony that didn't take this reaffirmation pledge. There are two reasons for that:
The first is very simple - if I was to say that I observe the law I would be lying. Not that I'm robbing banks left and right or anything like that; it's just that the law and my common sense don't agree on everything. I'll give you an example: According to Australian law, it is still illegal to record an off the air program on your VCR. Call me a criminal, but I do this regularly (and I'm even thinking of getting a high definition hard disk recorder that will do it much better, but these are too stupidly priced at this stage). A recent revision to this law (I don't know if it has taken effect yet) says that you're allowed to record stuff, but you're only allowed to watch it once; oops, another crime I am doing from time to time. Yet another clause says that if you buy a piece of music you're only allowed to have it in one form, yet I have it on a CD, on my desktop, and on my MP3 player; I'm a triple criminal. Anyway, my point is that everyone who took the pledge is a liar, and while I commit many sins (either knowingly or unknowingly) on a regular basis I would rather take "liar" off the list.
My second problem with taking the affirmation oath is similar to my flag problem. There is no real connection between taking the oath and being a good citizen! I truly think I'm a good citizen even if I couldn't care less about the flag and oaths, but I could just as easily take the reaffirmation pledge and cheat on my taxes. Yes, if I was to do that I would be a liar, but then again that didn't stop any of the criminals out there.
My point is simple: I don't need this pledge to be good. I need to be good.
If anything, I think this pledge is there for two reasons, none of which are particularly good: the first is to help the people taking it feel good - look at me, I'm a loyal citizen, I'm taking this pledge - but regardless of whether they are truly good. The second is the herd factor: "look at me, I am one of many people supporting this club Australia; I don't need to be an individual person, I accept what the big guys tell me to do."
This reaffirmation thing is a trend that doesn't affect nationalism alone. Lately it seems as if there's a trend for married couples to reaffirm their pledges, especially while trying to recover from some sort of a marital crisis. But again, why can't the couple just do what it takes to make the marriage work, as opposed to uttering some text in an act that on its own will not make any difference whatsoever?

Last, but not least: mateship.
Every one of the speakers in today's ceremony talked about mateship as an important Australian value, one of those things that make Australia unique.
But is it so unique? Do none of the people living out of Australia have any friends? Have none of them ever sacrificed something for the benefit of a colleague of theirs?
Allow me to put it this way: Judging by the problems we have faced so far in trying to locate Bin Laden and bring him to justice, I can only conclude that mateship is one of Al Qaeda's principle values.

Exploding wishing wells

Someone from work whom I never really knew has left work a couple of weeks ago. Being the fat bastard that I am, I went together with all the rest to loot some of her farewell cake in her farewell party. The interesting thing about this affair was learning the reason for this woman leaving work: she left in order to focus on her writing career. Her first proper creation, called Wishbone something, is said to be a murder mystery featuring a lot of mysticism and exploding wishing wells.
Which got me interested. Since I've started with this blog I noticed that I truly like writing. I mean, others have noticed that I write a lot and that I say something that should be said in one sentence using ten sentences or more, but the point is that it's lengthy because I like doing it (writing).
Yes, I wouldn't mind at all having a career as a writer. Think about it: you work your own time at home, you're in front of the computer (where I like to be the most - just ask Jo), you don't need to rely on the favors of Connex... Plus you're doing something really creative that really makes a difference for you, as opposed to something you don't really care much for as long as you get your paycheck in time.
It seems that this lovely lady that was leaving work didn't really publish a book yet. What she did do was publish a book on the web for free and hope that it would get her somewhere towards the publication goal. Her story was published on Australian Reader, which seems to me like an interesting way to gain exposure; I haven't read her story (you can do it here, if you're interested), but I did have a generic look around and my impression is that I am certainly capable of writing something that would be worthy enough for publication on that website.
Now I'm quite sure there are probably better venues to help me get some exposure to my writing, but that is not the point; the point is, should I really start making an effort towards achieving this dream of becoming a writer? If life was an American movie some millionaire publisher would have found this blog already and I would have been happily typing ever after, but the reality of the matter is that while I can blog I am not that good a writer; and even if I was to write, what would I write about?
After thinking about for a while while on the train and such, I concluded that if I want better results I should focus on writing stuff that is really heavily based on my real life experiences. My writings will have zero reliability otherwise, and besides: I lack the capacity to think of any good ideas that are not copies of ideas I already read about in someone else's book. Call it the originality factor.
I managed to come up with several things I can write about: dating women and finding someone, migration and settling in a new place, or even the torments of having a baby. Then the question was: fine, I can spill my guts on these issues, but what would the point be? After all, most people go through the same experiences in their own lives, what makes me think mine would be interesting enough for them to devote their time to what I write? Just look at this blog - hardly anyone outside of my circle of friends and family reads it. No one reads my blog just because it's a good read.
The trick is obviously to find an angle, a new look on these things. An example would be something that I often do in this blog: take a simple story and twist it enough to show that religion equals bullshit, or that global warming is a danger, or any of my other regular agendas. I doubt that would be enough, though. Good art needs to have some substantial foundations behind it to be good, even if commercial success does not necessarily mean good quality (e.g., Da Vinci Code).

Don't look for a proper conclusion to this post, because there is none; it's just something that got me thinking. I would love to be able to make an effort towards fulfilling a proper dream of mine, but on the other hand I don't want to devote too much to something that is pretty much a hopeless cause.
All I want to say here is that it's an interesting dilemma and I'll probably think about it for a while. Now, why did saying that take so long?

Thursday, 25 January 2007

A letter to an annoying "friend"

Haim, I can't believe how annoyed I am with your stupid comment [for the record, in case you can't be bothered to click the link: Haim suggested that I will soon surrender to family pressures and circumcise Indy, justifying my change of heart with medical reasons; for the record, this comment was made in a post about the Australian Open].
I think me being annoyed is mostly to do with the breaking of the axiom about our friends being the ones I can rely on for unconditional support through all the tough times we have been facing lately, even while the family specializes in driving me crazy.
What makes you think you're entitled to make any sort of a statement about our personal lives from half way across the world?

I want to make the following three statements, just for the record:
  1. As we don't know Indy's gender yet, there is a 50% chance that circumcision will not even be on the agenda. I actively put it on the agenda because I wanted to have my opinion on this issue made very clear regardless of its impact on my personal life.

  2. The decision on whether to do a circumcision is a decision both Jo and I will take. And no one else.
    We will obviously have to face external inputs, though. At this point in time I can say I have found no sufficient evidence to support the so called health benefits of circumcision (at least nothing that would mitigate the risks involved).
    However, it would be stupid of me to make that a 100% foolproof statement, since I fully acknowledge there is more to this world I don’t know than the things I do know; who knows, I might learn something new about circumcision in the upcoming months. I would be perfectly willing to lose face and change my opinion if sufficient evidence is presented to me; a comment by an idiot friend who lacks any sensitivity will certainly not stand in my way of doing that.
    That said, given that I do not accept tradition, revelation and authority as viable reasons for explaining stuff, and given the rate in which scientific discoveries in the field of circumcision are made, I think I can safely say (the way I have already been doing) that I will do my best to prevent the circumcising of any offspring of mine.

  3. Since I am an acknowledged relativist, I will also admit that if someone was to offer me ten million dollars for circumcising Indy I will not deny them on the spot. My point is, my opinion can change due to unforeseen reasons; while I don't expect someone to offer has the above cash prize, anything can happen and I will be stupid to pretend it can't. Hell, maybe I will be hit on my head, go crazy, have my own private revelation, and become a true believer in time for Indy's birth. Given that even I admit there is a slight possibility Judaism is actually correct (very terribly slight to say the least, though), maybe god will change his mind and show up suddenly after several thousands of years of settling for watching us through hidden cameras. I'm not holding my fingers on any of those scenarios actually happening, though.

At the personal level, as someone who went through several medical procedures lately my view on such matters is "don't touch it until it's broken".
You do need to talk to Jo for our mutual position on this, but I suspect she will tend to think the way I do.

Wednesday, 24 January 2007

Reasons to be cheerful, part four

I know this borders on the insane, but I'll say it anyway.
When I think of why pessimism is the "right" way, one of the reasons I come up with is that so far we have seen no evidence for time travel.
I'm not saying that we should have been able to time travel it by now. I'm saying that we don't have any evidence of anyone from the future visiting us. Even if they don't show up sporting a computer that can run Windows without ever crashing, you'd expect them future people to be able to make things smoother for us even without showing their true face. Say, they could help us get rid of stupid leaders (I didn't mention W) or those that just won't go away (I didn't mention Howard); or maybe just let someone stumble upon the cure for cancer, as if by accident. But they don't.
Obviously you can argue they do have a presence here, we just don't notice them. Ever wondered why your average taxi driver is so confident with his (it's almost never a her) political opinions? It's just that confidence is easy to acquire when you know what's going to happen!
What I'm trying to say here is that if we, as in humanity, were to last for billions of years - something you should believe in if you belong to the majority of people who are religious and think god has tailor made the world for us - you'd expect those futuristic looking people with big brains or whatever to have found the trick to make time travel work. And since they're not here, making time travel work, one possible conclusion is that we simple won't last that long.
Obviously, there are several potential hurdles to this time travel thing. The first is that maybe it is against the laws of physics and it's just impossible; but then again, that's not the case, and it has been mathematically proven to be an option (albeit under severe restrictions). Which brings the second hurdle: yes, it is possible, but you need to harness something like several neutron stars to get things going, and these are not exactly as portable as an iPod. Things are obviously more complicated then that, but then again in a billion years time you'd expect your local supermarket to sell you some pocket sized portable neutron stars to help take care of all your time travel needs. Maybe even black holes, which by then would come in a variety of colors.
So if you wondered why I'm a pessimist, there you have it.

P.S. The photo is a picture of a nebula where a supernova has occurred, leaving a neutron star behind in its center.

Monday, 22 January 2007

Today's letter to Stereophile

Dear Editor,

Thank you for reviewing the Vandersteen 2Ce Signature Edition Mark II loudspeakers in your January 2007 issue. I just love these speakers!
Thomas J Norton was the one who first ignited the spark in my heart when he brought the Vandersteens to my attention in his April 1993 review of the 2Ce's. Since then, subsequent listening tests have proved to me again and again that these are the speakers for me. The all around great performance that works so well both in music and soundtracks, the dimensions, the philosophy, the looks - when combined with a price tag of only $2000, the Vandersteen 2Ce made their choice as my preferred speakers a no brainer.
However, I do not live in an ideal world; I live in Australia, which is probably as close as you can get to it. And one major reason for Australia not being ideal is the price tag local dealers demand for the 2Ce's in their current incarnation: I was quoted with $3750 Australian Dollars by the Melbourne dealership listed in the Vandersteen website. Now, the exchange rate between the Australian and the American Dollars is 1 AUD = 0.78 USD, which means that in American terms the Vandersteens sell for more than $2900. And that's almost 50% more than the speakers' recommended retail price in the USA!
I realize that Australians have to pay a premium for someone bringing the speakers all the way here, but that someone will need to go through not that dissimilar great lengths just to ship them from coast to coast in the USA; granted, Australia is further, but not by that many a light year.
I am simply unable to come up with any reason as to why Vandersteen, in particular, charges so much in extra. Other brands - say, B&W - do not charge any extras over their USA and UK prices. When I asked the dealership for the reason they charge such a hefty surcharge on a speaker whose main attraction is its modest price tag I was told that they are "just following orders" from Vandersteen USA.
In the name of your overseas readers, I would like to know why and how such things allow themselves to happen. Who is the one responsible for the broad daylight robbery taking place? I would be very interested in hearing what Vandersteen has to say in its defense.

Sunday, 21 January 2007

D-Lite

After Jo kept on pushing me, I ended up getting myself a Nintendo DS Lite games console last Saturday. Ok, she had nothing to do with it; it was all a case of an advertising campaign actually getting to me, plus a price tag that wasn't high up in the sky. Plus a game that I found interesting.
For $190 we got something that looks a lot like the Game Watch thingies we used to play with way back in primary school. You know the type: Mickey Mouse, Donkey Kong. It has more buttons, though, as well as stereo sound and wi-fi capabilities. And yes, the games are much better. As I said before about the Nintendo Wii, while it doesn't have the grunt of the Sony PSP it does have some very playable games and some originality, mainly through the use of its bottom screen which is touch sensitive and behaves a lot like a PDA screen.
The idea behind buying it was to have something I can mess about with on the train and while going through this pregnancy thing where I know a lot of waiting is going to be involved. As far as games are concerned, the one that interests me the most is this game called Brain Training, where you get these exercises that are supposed to give your brain a workout. Designed to help old people stay mentally active, the game involves mainly mathematical questions and sudoku. If it works out fine, this is something I can play together with Jo on the train. Generally speaking, though, once I get my hands on games like Pro Evolution Soccer or FIFA I could see myself spending hours with this thing; in fact, I could see myself at the hospital telling Jo to wait a minute and continue pushing because Ljunberg is about to score.
Anyway, at this stage the only game I have is the game we got with the console, called Viewtiful Joe. It's a nice game of simple action and puzzle solving, but it definitely shows my frustration with most contemporary games: Yes, it's a children's game, but I still managed to get stuck very early on. Why don't they let you just move on with the game? Oh well, once I get the games I'm really interested in, Joe would go down the eBay path...

Saturday, 20 January 2007

A toast to a toaster

Today, for the first time since coming over to Australia (at least), we threw something that was in working order to the trash. And it annoys me.
Not too long after arriving to Australia, I was looking for food making ideas. Times have changed my personal circumstances: my mother was no longer there to cook for me, work didn't give me restaurant vouchers anymore, and I didn't earn half as much as I used to in Israel (making eating out not as attractive as it was before). One of the workarounds for this problem was to buy something that in here is called a sandwich maker or a snack maker. I, however, used to refer to it as a crash toaster: an appliance where you put some cheese covered with bread on both sides, throw in a lot of zaatar for some good taste, and get yourself a tasty meal.
That crash toaster has served us for more than four years, but it was a pain. It's latch broke because we would use it with too thick pieces of bread from our home made bread machine, and we had to tie it down instead; and worse, it got dirtier and dirtier as food leftovers got stuck in its grooves. A decision was made to get a new crash toaster with flat crashers that would be easy to clean, and in the post holidays sale we managed to get one.
The question then was what to do with the old one. We got rid of a lot of stuff over the last three years: most of it went down the eBay path, where we made some money out of it. But there was more to it than that: the notion that someone who actually wants the item and is willing to pay for it is going to get it acted as some sort of a relief. We were not really wasting much by getting rid of stuff [For the record, almost all the stuff we sold on eBay constituted a losing deal. That is, we paid for the item much more than we got for it]. Most of the clothes we wanted to get rid of were given away for charity.
But the toaster was an exception: it was too big to post; it was a bit broken; and it was dirty. We just couldn't get rid of it the eBay or the charity way. We also didn't know anyone, say - a student - who would happily adopt the toaster.
I tried to postpone its death sentence, but after repetitive successful uses of the new toaster the decision could no longer be put on hold. Very gracefully and which much respect, I put the old toaster in the garbage bin today.
It's amazing how attached I can get to the stuff that I own, even if it is just a simple kitchen appliance. I am surprised, though, at how troubled I am with the sheer waste of throwing away something that could still do what it was meant to do. I'm sure many would say that's a sign of me being cheap, but I think it's just the sheer waste that annoys me; this was an evidence for the wasteful lifestyle we live by, and as someone who tends to preach against waste it is a live example at how two faced I can be.

This morning's letter to The Age

Dear sir/madam,

I know what I am about to say borders on the seditious, but I have every indication to suspect this is our only remaining hope:
I would consider it to be a good way to spend our tax payers' money if someone burns down Steve Bracks' government issued car (without him or anyone else in it, of course), so that he could enjoy Connex' exquisite service (most notably it's lovely summer timetable). Better yet, expand the treatment so that all government ministers are covered by this experiment. Once they are forced to give up the pleasantly air-conditioned interiors of their cars and join the rest of us commoners stuck on the platforms I think it would be safe to assume improvements to Connex' service would just miraculously take place.
But who am I kidding here? These blokes would never give up their cars. As they rush along to rent themselves a replacement, they will publish a statement saying that because their time is so important they cannot afford to waste it. It's only us, little people, whose time is completely worthless. We can safely rot on the platforms, guaranteed that no harm will ever happen to us.

Friday, 19 January 2007

Power to the people

By now virtually all of us, especially those that read this, store our photos on our computers. And most of us would like to enhance some of the more special photos we have; you know, make it look better (some cameras, such as mine, have default settings that take in a manner that would allow more flexibility with retouching at the price of a less brilliant looking initial take).
So far the best tool for doing this retouching was Adobe Photoshop, which had cheaper versions intended for the enthusiast (Photoshop costs around $1000, Elements costs $150). Well, if you're in a hurry, you can get Adobe's new application - Adobe Lightroom - for free here until the middle of February.
Lightroom takes the basic photo retouching stuff from Photoshop and puts it in a pack that's easy to master. It allows for temperature and exposure changes, as well as color curves, and it will gladly handle both JPG and RAW photos. In short, it's everything 99% of the people look for when they modify a photo, it's high quality, and it's free (for now). Ignore it at your own risk.

I will use this opportunity to mention Picasa again: While not as high on quality as the Adobe photo products, this is the best thing so far as far as photo management and photo retouching goes, and it's absolutely free as well.
Picasa manages all the photos on your hard drives and allows you to find them and access them, tinker with them, and even email them in an email friendly format (hint hint to relatives who send me 10mb emails with two photos that could be compressed to 100kb each without much of a noticeable quality degradation).
I use Picasa to manage all the Flickr photo uploads I've been doing. Given that I've uploaded some 4000 photos by now, I think I can safely say it does a good job.
In case you're wondering what the difference is between Picasa and Lightroom, allow me to use an analogy. You could say that Picasa gives you a chainsaw - quick and easy, yet not that high on quality - while Lightroom gives you a file: it's harder to achieve the result you wanted, but you can get some fine outcomes. Picasea also offers photo management and indexing as a bonus, so you could say that until we get one piece of software that does it all, the ideal would be to use both Picasa and one of the Adobe products.

Wednesday, 17 January 2007

I've got the power?

Melbourne has a claim on one of the weirdest titles I've ever heard of, yet it is a title issued by the UN: the world's most livable city. Melbourne has actually held the title for a few years, but lost it to Vancouver last year (which obviously shows that being frozen is very livable).
I can't say I'm familiar enough with the world's cities to be able to say whether Melbourne deserves the title or not. For the record, all the leading contenders come from Australia, Canada and Scandinavia (in alphabetical order); makes sense. Personally, I can't say I approve of such rankings to begin with, unless they are used in order to raise the standards by having something to aspire to. Well, if you look at the way Melbourne has handled its three years at the top you will see that it very much enjoyed the comforts the top offers rather than trying to really set the standard everyone else looks up to.
The most classical of examples, and to the best of my knowledge the reason why Melbourne has lost its crown, is public transport. As a daily user I can attest to it sucking big time, at least compared to European places I've been lucky enough to visit. The biggest problem is that the services are very unreliable - for example, since the year has started we only had one day in which the train we planned to take back from work has not been canceled (which has a domino effect on the following trains). Today I've had the pleasure of having two trains canceled in a row. And then there's the crippled infrastructure: most of the trains are from the early eighties, while the un-air-conditioned train I've had the pleasure of cramping into this evening is early seventies vintage, made by Hitachi at the time in which "Made in Japan" was considered to be a piece of shit. No one sane would give up the use of their car for the pleasure of riding these hi tech trains... And I'm not even mentioning the fact that significant parts of Melbourne are simply not covered by public transport.
But just as I thought transport is Melbourne's biggest infrastructure problem we all got slapped in the face by something much more basic: power.
Yesterday we've had the co-title holder for the hottest day of the year so far: 41 degrees. Given that it was also atypically humid it was the least comfortable day of the year by a wide margin. Everyone had their air-conditioners on.
Another eternal feature of global warming is that we have bush fires going on pretty much all the time. They've been going on for months now, but yesterday they came close enough to the power lines connecting Melbourne's grid to the hydro power plants in New South Wales to trigger their emergency shut off - cutting down 20% of Melbourne's electricity supplies in a second - on the day in which peak demand was recorded.
The result? A third of Melbourne blacked out from 16:00 to 21:00, and total mayhem on the roads: lights not working, electic trains powerless. We were lucky enough to get home relatively quickly, but others were stuck for hours.
And with that in mind let's look at who is to blame. First we have the newly reelected Labor government, which has been in power for 7 years now. The bush fires were going on for months in the same areas; saying, the way they say, that yesterday's event was "an act of god" constitutes as blasphemy even for an atheist like me, because it doesn't take much brains to realize there's a potential problem lurking there. Yet there's nothing new about governments' lack of vision; they all think short range, because that's all they're measured on at the voting booth.
I got my true answer for "who is to blame" on the papers today. They quoted the private company in charge of maintaining the power lines between NSW and VIC saying that they were unable to foresee the problem. And there's the trick: "private company". It's simple, really: what incentive does a private company have to try and prevent the problem in the first place? None; its cash flow will not be affected in any way. It's not like it's a government that actually has to take care for its people; a private company cares only for its profits.
It's the same with our public transport: since its privatization there has been zero investment in improving the infrastructure, simply because there weren't any incentives for the private companies to do so.
So who is to blame? The private companies? No, they're just doing what they're supposed to do. The government? Yes, they're doing a shit job, but they just got themselves reelected, so obviously they're doing what the voter wants them to do. Which leaves us with the bottom line: we, the voters, are to blame, for reelecting a government that treats us like shit. Sadly, I was in the minority when I voted for a party that advocates for public transport, sustainable power, and a transparent government that doesn't lose itself in deals with its powerful private industry friends; the rest followed the spin.
I just hope enough people wake up before Australia turns into the fifty something state of the USA. Sometimes the market is not the solution to all of our problems.

Tuesday, 16 January 2007

Aqua baby

I think it is safe to say that Indy is not a fan of tennis.
We were actually lucky last night at the Aussie Open: while the forecast said 31, reality offered a pleasant progressive 23 (a bit of a contrast to today's 41; we'll be "cruising" in high thirties up until Sunday). Mind you, the tennis park and the Rod Laver Arena area were packed with people, many more than in previous years. You can see where the organizers put their effort in: the grass on the outside, dying with the drought, was painted green; and on the inside, spaces where we could picnic in the past were now devoured by commercial booths.
The first game we watched was between Serena Williams and Santangelo from Italy. It wasn't particularly interesting, and I was quite annoyed with the pre-match announcement telling us not to take photos during play even without the flash. I don't know why all other sports are a festivity of noise and cheering but with tennis you feel guilty for sucking a lollipop during play. As a result I was pretty limited in my photo taking; you can see the results in my Flickr page (photos are being uploaded as I type).
The second game was more interesting, if only because it featured Safin - the tennis player I like the most. Not that I'm a big fan of tennis to begin with, and not that I can truly adore someone just because of the way he plays tennis, but I was sort of captivated by him during the Australian Open from two years ago (which he won, beating Federar on the way in a magnificent game; as a commentator said, he would have beaten god that night). The photos of him I took that time, especially those of him serving, made him look like one of those Greek god statues [I assure you that the last time I checked I was not gay; not that there's anything wrong with it].
Jo's back only lasted till the end of the first set of Safin's match with Becker from Germany (is he related to Boris?), and we left at 22:30. We got home and it was still the second set; Safin only managed to win by a hair and send me to have a shower at 1:00am. I don't predict he would go far this year: he was rusty, and had severe problems placing himself against the ball (something I could tell even while being quite dumb in the ways of tennis).
Believe it or not, tennis is not the main thing I wanted to discuss in this post.
When we came back home after the tennis Jo wasn't feeling that great. Not feeling great seems to be the main motif of pregnancy; while before she got pregnant everyone around was telling us that flowers blossom eternally when you're pregnant, the reality is that pregnancy sucks big time; only when you tell others how much it sucks do they open up and tell you that pregnancy is quite a shit-ful experience. There is nothing glorious about it, and all those that really believe in intelligent design need not look further than pregnancy to see that there's a lot of stupidity in our design (mind you, stupidity goes well with most of the doctrines intelligent designers barrack for). Pregnancy may explain why intelligent designers tend to be male, though.
Anyway, because certain alarm bells rang, we went to see our obstetrician today. He did an ultrasound - pretty much the only thing he can do - and we got to see that it seems all's well for now. However, for us it was quite a novelty, because for the first time we saw something that looks humanoid (as opposed to a pea or a tadpole or a sophisticated reptile). It looked more like a cartoon character: the head was like half the overall size. You could actually see facial features!
The attached photo doesn't do it much justice; you need a video to truly appreciate what you see. And what we saw was quite funny; the alien was lying down in this ball of liquid, splish-splashing from side to side. No wonder they don't want to come out: they're in their own water park, all expenses paid; who can blame them? It reminded me of these giant balls they put you in New Zealand, where they throw you down a hill.
Anyway, the result are here for you to admire.

The Amazon way

To those of you who were wondering what came to be with my recent Amazon.com adventures, you can rest assured:
After a couple of emails where I asked them what's going on and a couple of replies in which they assured me I shouldn't worry, my credit card was charged.
This is not that trivial an affair; what Amazon did here constitutes a breach of the law. If anything, it's a reflection of the fact that Amazon can get away with daylight robbery while we, the small people, can't do much about it. Think about that next time you give them your credit card number.
They have already promised to refund me, but I can hardly find that satisfactory. For a start, given exchange rates a refund will not fully cover me; and then there's the fact that you don't just forgive a murderer when they say "oops, I'm sorry". Especially not when it's the third time they say it.
The decision on whether to shop at Amazon again will not be taken lightly. I don't think they should expect to see my business there any time soon. It's amazing when you think about it: I've been purchasing stuff over the internet for more than 10 years now from all over the place, including lots of eBay-ing; yet the only time I was robbed was with Amazon - supposedly the haven of safe internet purchasing.

Sunday, 14 January 2007

Pioneers of Space

Once upon a time when I was between 8 to 11, growing up in Israel, there was this anima show on the single TV channel we had back then which aired twice a week – 15 minutes each time – and was pretty much the center of my existence at the time.
It was called Star Blazers, and I was reminded of it through a recent spite of blogging.
Well, through the wonders of the internet I got to watch some of it again. I noticed the baddies speak with Russian accents, I noticed the series is definitely showing its age, but I noticed that I could still very much tell why I liked the series so much at the time. It wouldn’t have been the sensation it was at the time were we to have the abundance of material we now have to choose from, but Wave Motion Gun (don't ask) or not – it’s a good series.

Monday night tennis

The program for this year's opening night of the Australian Open has been published, and on Monday night Jo & I will be watching Serena Williams yet again (we saw her last year) and Marat Safin yet again (we saw him two years ago).
I just hope Jo will be fine with the experience. The forecast says 31 degrees, which doesn't sound too encouraging...
If all goes well I'll have new photos added to my Australian Open set on Flickr.

Friday, 12 January 2007

Superstition ain't the way

How does one define the term "superstition"? It seems to me as if the definition that makes most sense is "other people's religions".
The one religion that always seemed to make the least amount of sense to me was astrology. Conceived at a time in which the earth was flat and assigning mystic importance to groups of stars that have nothing in common with each other other than the fact they appear at the same patch of sky at a given point in time on planet earth, it is unable to explain to me why the people that were born at roughly the same month as me - but no matter where, regardless of circumstances, and no matter at what year - share a lot of their destiny with me.
Alas, astrology seems to matter to lots of people. First tier family member included, which sorts of preventing me from saying that I think someone who believes in astrology is an idiot, but oops I've just said it. Don't worry, I tell it to them in their face as well.
[And for the record, if you do believe in it: please show me some evidence; don't tell me something like "haven't you noticed that all Libras are stubborn", because I haven't, and also because we are all stubborn to one extent or another; a statement like that is not that different to sexist statements like "women can't drive" or "people from [insert enemy's country] are dirty and smelly".]
Anyway, why do I bother mentioning it now? Because I've already had two people asking me when the due date for young Indy is. When I told them the date I noticed this hazy tone in their voice; they were obviously thinking. I asked what the issue was, and it turned out they were calculating Indy's future astrological sign (which, if you're curious to know, and if all goes well, should be Leo).
The stupidest thing about it all is that Indy's star sign has/will be determined mostly by one thing: the availability of the IVF doctor that worked on us. We had to wait in his queue for almost five months because he has a reputation for being amongst the very best, but that's besides the point: according to astrology, Indy's future has everything to do with his holiday plans etc.
And if one needed any proof for the vast amount of bullshit involved in astrology, there you have it.

Thursday, 11 January 2007

Que Sera Sera

As far as telling people about our ongoing pregnancy, we seem to be setting the precedent. Generally speaking, people don't like to talk much about such things; I, on the other hand, think of telling the world about it as a good exercise in letting off some steam. I am no person to be able to hold a secret, and I prefer to share it, especially with those I consider my friends.
Several people have already told me things along the lines of "you're not supposed to tell others about pregnancy before it's 3 months old", and when questioned about it they claim that before that point in time there is a high risk of a miscarriage.
Is that the case? We were told by our IVF doctor and by our obstetrician that after 6 weeks the chances of an abortion are 4% and after 8 weeks they're 2%. Therefore, can the three month threshold be said to carry that much of a significance? Or is it just a cultural habit that we're talking about here? I tend to vote for the latter. Richard Dawkins would refer to this three month barrier as an indicator for what he calls "the discontinuous mind".
Don't take me the wrong way: there are definite advantages to keeping one's pregnancy a secret for three months. For a start, the three month ultrasound can give you some visible indication to the fact you're carrying a child, which is easier to relate to than the doctors just telling you that there's something going on. But most couples who go through pregnancy the first time are not truly aware of that. Then there's the fact that by the time three months pass by, the pregnancy is plainly visible; you can't hide it anymore even if you want to. The bottom line is that if you think keeping it a secret would make life easier for you, then by all means keep it a secret.
I still think that informing people of the pregnancy whenever I see fit, as opposed to a magical date, is the better option. But never mind that; the thing I truly despise and the thing I want to protest about in this post is the attitude that says that one shouldn't talk about the pregnancy because it's the talking that is going to cause harm. They hide it under some dubious scientific sounding excuses, but that is what they really think - or rather, that is what society has programmed them to think. That is pure bullshit, of the top of the bullshit kind, and yet I think I can safely say that most of my family will openly admit to it.
This three month phenomenon is just one thing; we keep on noticing this "pregnancy etiquette" thing, where people keep telling us we should do certain things just because everyone else does them and you'd feel out of touch if you don't follow suit. You'll be the parent of a leper, and it would all be your fault for not blinking the right way.
Things get even worse. Lately we've been hearing from numerous sources all sorts of references to "fate". We heard people questioning the concept of IVF under the assumption that if you can't manage pregnancy the natural way, maybe fate meant it this way; maybe you weren't meant to have a child. Similarly, when expressing our fears of the Down Syndrome issue, we've heard people say things along the lines of "if it's meant to be it's meant to be".
And that, my friends, is one line of argument I cannot sit silent to, no matter how close the person uttering the fatalistic comment is to me and no matter how much I'd hate to hurt their feelings.
Where can I start? Let's take IVF as an unnatural means of reproduction. There's no doubt about it being unnatural, and there's no doubt about the inability to conceive an embryo being a Darwinian method to ensure the survival of the fittest. But let me ask this - so what? Is us eating wheat based food at the high rate we tend to do natural, in any way? No, humanity has only been doing it for the last 10,000 years or so. Is us domesticating animals natural? No. Is us living in houses with ducted heating and air-conditioning natural? No. Is us eating processed foods at McDonald's natural? No. Is us taking contraceptives natural? No. The only difference between IVF and all of the above is that IVF is newer, new enough to yet infiltrate into the minds of most people and grab a foothold there. Give it enough time, though, and our lifestyles will ensure that most of our future kids will be conceived the IVF way. In fact, give people the option to give birth outside of the human body altogether - and make no mistake about it, we will soon be there - and most women would gladly take it (once they mentally accept it as a viable option); I wouldn't blame them.
And as for events taking place because they are meant to take place... While there is no one that can say, yet, whether everything that transpires happens because it just has to happen or whether it happens because we make it happen, I think the attitude of being passive and letting things happen is very dangerous. At the extreme case, the inaction that comes through such an attitude can lead to a nuclear holocaust (please refer back to the Cuban crisis if you doubt that statement). But let me argue in much simpler lines: why do the people that think along these lines bother to do anything in their lives? Why do they eat food and drink water when they know that death is inevitable? Why do they take pain relief pills to ease their headache - isn't that headache meant to be?
Yet again I cannot avoid the conclusion that people simply do not bother to think about the reasons why they act and think in certain ways, because if they did there is no way they would have actually expressed such fatalistic thoughts. I find it obvious that people just like to have the easy comfort that comes when they think they are handing the control over their lives to some higher entity - be it their army general, be it the business clothing they wear to work even if they don't have to because it means they don't need to trouble their minds in the morning with what clothes to wear, or be it when they invent an omnipotent/omniscient being and call it god and totally submit themselves to it.
Make no mistake about it, though: I do not claim to be in total control of my life. But I am fully aware that Down Syndrome, for example, has nothing to do with fate and everything to do with events taking place at the molecular level - events so complicated that yes, I have to regard them as some sort of "fate" (I would express that better by saying something like "an event of a statistical nature"); but I will still do everything I can to have a desirable effect on these events, such as controlling my diet; I will not resign to blind acceptance.
I have said it here before, some three months ago, that I find it strange that the people who have the hardest time accepting the concept of global warming seem to be religious. Their basic assumption is that god would not let such a calamity befall on us. But now, with our pregnancy, we can see that religious thinking can have an effect on our daily lives as well, and on decision making that we have to make at the personal level. And for the record I just have to say how much I despise it.

A retrospective disclaimer: The association I have made between fatalism and religion is, well, just an association based on limited observation samples I have had at my disposal. That said, it makes perfect sense for a religious person to tend more towards fatalism than a non religious person, given that they tend to attribute everything and anything to some higher being.

Monday, 8 January 2007

Mirror Images

There's this website that uses these sophisticated algorithms to find your celebrity lookalikes. It's fun to try - you get all sorts of weird results with it. With one photo of mine, wearing a sunglasses + hat and unshaved, it came up with Mrs Tomcat Cruise as my celebrity lookalike. Well, at least it didn't come up with Adolf Hitler.
With Jo's photos, I have to say that whatever photo we tried, Miranda Otto always came up.



Sunday, 7 January 2007

I've become comfortably numb

I suppose you can say I'm a late arrival to the world of MP3's. I take no shame in it: I fully acknowledge having a lot against the format due to its very low quality. I realize many would raise an eyebrow over such a statement, but I also know that most people never really had the pleasure of listening to a true hi-fi, audiophile grade stereo system to see (or rather hear) what reproduced music can and should really sound like.
That said, there is no denying the comforts of the MP3 format. With our Toshiba MP3 player (at least during the times in which it is actually working) we have close to 50gb of music; now, that's a lot of music! Compare it to the information stored on human DNA, which is estimated at between 4gb to 5gb - that's roughly the capacity of a single layer DVD for you (and it only took 4 billion years to produce); and most of that is deemed redundant, as in you could create a perfectly workable human being with about a tenth of the information. Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that we have quite a large collection of music on our MP3 player, which is pretty convenient.
Now, I do claim to be an audiophile, but I will also tell you that pretty frankly I do not sit and listen to music anymore. I used to do it a lot in the past, and I used to derive great pleasure and great inspiration of it. But those days are over; I do sit and give my full attention to films, where I deem the sound experience to be worth something like 80% of the film watching's pleasure. But when it comes to music, listening has been relegated to a background role, something you do while most of your attention is devoted to something else - eating, reading, you name it. Therefore, sound quality doesn't mean that much to me anymore when it comes to playing music.
Add the MP3 comfort element and you will see why the bulk of our listening is now done through the MP3 player (or some other MP3 capable player). Want to listen to a specific album? You don't need to find the physical disc anymore. Want to play games? Put the player on random, or - if you're after something more sophisticated - play all the songs with a title starting with "I" or "one".
It may sound stupid, but although the MP3 player is truly convenient to operate, coupling its output to speakers in order to generate actual sound is not. Our main hi-fi can accommodate it, but through it the MP3 format is exposed for what it truly is: a low resolution format with very little depth and not much to deliver in the imaging department. Other portable players we have do not have an input through which we could connect the MP3 player, so we had to use our Belkin Tunecast II FM transmitter to listen to MP3 music as if it's a radio station; which works, but it consumes batteries (we use rechargeables), and worse - the FM encoding means even lower stereo separation and the truncation of high and low frequencies.
So what's the solution? The most common solution is to buy an MP3 player's accessory: a set of speakers that plug to the MP3 player (in most cases that would be an iPod). There's a vast range of such accessories, ranging from simple passive speakers to very expensive active ones, but there is one theme common to all of them: for the sound quality they deliver, they are very expensive.
As a result, I looked up cheaper alternatives with similar portability levels. That is, I looked at computer speakers. Contemporary computer speakers vary quite a lot: you can get cheap stereo ones for $5, or you can get sophisticated 7.1 speaker sets for sums that go into the 4 digit realm. In all cases you would get sound that would be severely inferior to audiophile grade sound, but bang for the buck you can get some pretty good results from computer speakers. Given that we wanted portability with ours - as in, the ability to listen to the MP3 player at the kitchen one moment and in the bedroom the next - we went for something small and simple, with no subwoofers. [For the record, I would like to note that the term subwoofer has been awfully twisted; what started as a term for a speaker that goes down to 20hz when the main speakers can't is now used to describe anything that is supposed to handle frequencies lower than the main speakers, no matter how low and no matter whether these frequencies are low to begin with]
For $40 at Harvey Norman we got a pair of Logitech X-140 computer speakers. This is a set of powered stereo speakers. Power is not really the word to describe them, not when they're in the same room as the hi-fi, but they can fill up the room with nice sounding music; they do the job. What they don't have is a remote control, which many of the iPod custom made speakers have. But again, value for money wise you can't really get any better than that, and sound quality wise they are much better than most iPod accessories. Yes, they do have wires dangling about, but that's the price of flexibility: you can place them wherever you want and create a proper stereo image, something you can't do with MP3 tailored speakers.
Couple these speakers with the MP3 player and plug them into the mains and you get an effectively infinite music playing system that, while not high on quality, is heavy on convenience.

Saturday, 6 January 2007

I heat up, I can't cool down

Wasn't it John Howard that up until recently (as in up to the point he realized he's losing votes because of it) denied the phenomenon commonly referred to as global warming?
Not that it's hard to detect in contemporary Australia. We have had the weirdest year, weather wise: winter was the coolest of the five Aussie winters I've had the pleasure of experiencing, but also by far the driest.
Summer is altogether weird. Two weeks ago it was 40 degrees during the day and 30 at night (an all time record for Melbourne); Xmess day, however, was the coolest on record - just 14 degrees (we were away and didn't enjoy this dubious record ourselves). And this week has been entirely composed of 35-37 degree days and 21-27 degree nights.
As a result of this relentless heat week even the aspiring environmentally conscious Jo & I have switched the air-conditioner on (for the record, it's still the mobile unit I've had from my Israeli bachelor days). Oddly enough, we noticed that while during the previous two years we used it in our current house it struggled to decrease the temperature by even 2 degrees, this year it's smooth sailing all the way to 5 degrees, with the first 3 cut off some 20 minutes after we turn it on. What is it that makes the difference? While I want to think it's god that is showing us some favoritism, I tend to think more along the lines of insulation: this year we've covered the chimney hole for the fire we never use (and will never use) with a piece of plastic. That's all, and it makes such a huge difference.
Another cooling system that seems much more efficient which we have started using this year is opening the windows. We didn't do it before, but the difference this year is that we had fly-screens installed, and these make a whole of a lot of a difference. Since Melbourne nights tend to be significantly cooler than Melbourne days, we do not really need to use the air-conditioner except under the most extreme of circumstances (which, as I wrote above, tends to be quite common with global warming entering the equation).
But while we try to exploit nature by controlling our exposure to it - insulation on one hand and fly-screens on the other - we keep on encountering the opposite wherever we go. Take the office, for example: they cool it down to something between 20 to 21 degrees, which is ok if you're dressed up in a suit and a tie but a bit freezing if you're wearing what you should be wearing when the temperature outside is 35 degrees. So, because too many Australians think their dick gets bigger when they're wearing a suit, the rest of us need to suffer, and worst - a lot of energy is being wasted.

So - what am I trying to say here? Although giving away advice on how to save energy is a noble cause, my main intention was to actually criticize John Howard's ongoing pro-nuclear initiatives. For the un-Australians amongst thee I will explain that our beloved Prime Minister is suggesting that within 25 years (and as of 10 years) Australia will build around 25 nuclear reactors (at the moment it has one, for research purposes) that will supply something like 25% of the overall demand for electricity. Given the nature of the demand for power, we will have a few reactors in Melbourne and a few in Sydney (I think something like 7 each).
For the record, I consider this initiative to be rather stupid. First because waiting that long to combat global warming is waiting too long. Then because nuclear power is dangerous, environmentally very unfriendly for hundreds of thousands of years, inefficient and has no future; Australia, of all countries, should take the lead in solar power given that it has so much of it - and that should not run out for the next 5 billion years and presents zero dangers. I am also more than a bit suspicious about Howard's motivation for going nuclear: a lot of it seems to do with pleasing the mining companies that would dig the uranium rather than satisfying the needs of Australians who want clean power. But the topic of this post is Howard's consumption related assumptions...
In order to justify his nuclear initiative, Howard says that nuclear is the only potential source that could meet the rise in future demand for electricity - which, according to him, would rise by a lot (I don't remember - was it 60% or was it 80%?) over the next 30-50 years.
Which is probably true - if current trends apply. But, and there's the big but: do current needs really need to continue applying? Can't we, instead of being thirsty for more and more power, just change the pattern of our consumption?
Can't we invest in improved consumption efficiency - say, proper insulation - instead? Look at what a small change has done to our air-conditioning. Can't we build houses and offices that are designed so that air-conditioning would not be required to begin with? And when we do switch the air-conditioner on, can't we just change the way we dress instead of driving the air-conditioner to put us in Antarctica?

What I am trying to say here is that in his attempt to satisfy his rich mates running the big mining companies, Howard is assuming we cannot use the gray matter in our heads. We should tell him that he's wrong: nuclear power is the wrong choice (mind you, fusion would be a different story).
But most importantly - instead of trying to solve an irrelevant problem, we should strive to make the problem irrelevant.

Thursday, 4 January 2007

Beware of Darkness

One of daily routine habits is to have a look at Israeli newspapers. Generally speaking, that would be Haaretz. I think I can safely assume that given this is a Hebrew publication it wouldn't interest most of this blog's readers (although they have a significantly inferior English version aimed at the "Jewish diaspora"). Needless to say, I don't read it for its Jewish material; I read it because they have a very good computing section, because I like their in house movie and literature critics, because they cover the sports I'm interested in (namely, European football), because I find their opinion column and their analysis articles very interesting, but mostly because they're a very good newspaper you can rely on for world news - generally speaking, quite better than Australia's journalism best, The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald (both published by the same company but in Melbourne and Sydney respectively). And just for the record, if you were to ask me what is the best newspaper I've encountered so far, my answer would be The Guardian; and if you look at all the newspapers I've mentioned here, you will see that they're all fairly similar despite the varying geography and languages.
Anyway, don't ask me why I'm bothering telling you all of this. Maybe it's because I just value those that seem to be providing me with reliable, up to date information.
Yesterday, I read an interesting article in Haaretz talking about how the dominant group of Jewish Orthodox Rabbis in Israel have decided that as of this year they will forbid "their" women from studying for university degrees. Why? Because of the obvious dangers that such an education can bring to the fabric of their society. The article didn't go any further than that, but the thing they are trying to avoid is pretty clear: they're afraid that once the women know what's going on with this world of ours people would stop listening to their rabbis. Their minds would be freed.
Seems terribly archaic, doesn't it? Very medieval; you read such news and you don't know whether to laugh at the rabbis idiocy or feel pity for their flocks. Indeed, we can mock them as much as we want (I certainly do; I also think that what the rabbis are doing is a crime). But are we any better?
Well, if you've read your average Australian newspaper lately, the answer would have to be "no". According to them, the demand for scientific education in Australia is at an all time low. As a result, the entry grades for university scientific degrees in Australia are very significantly lower than the ones for degrees in alternative medicine, fashion design, and sports. And just to make it clear, when they're talking about scientific education they are not talking about people wearing coats in labs; they are talking mainly about B.Sc. degrees, a criterion according to which I am a scientist, too (as well as most of my friends who will, hopefully, read this post).
Now, for the record, I will specify in a summarized manner what I find wrong with the popular degrees mentioned above. First, I do not see the justification for alternative medicine; if it's half as effective as they claim it to be, it should have been mainstream medicine ages ago. The fact they don't let in integrate with the mainstream shows more about the charlatan nature of those practicing it than their supposed curing skills. As for fashion design, it is the art of vanity, perpetuating our need to outdo the Joneses. And as for sports, they're a good practice for a healthy lifestyle, but the constructive benefit you or society gets out of making it your profession is rather benign if not negative. Don't get me wrong, though: alternative medicine should be investigated in order to make whatever's real in it mainstream; there is room for fashion as an outlet for creativity and art; and as I said, sports are good for a healthy lifestyle. It's just that these should not be the main sources of inspiration, the drivers for society's progress into the future.
Now compare the above mentioned to science: science is responsible for giving me the electrical power I'm using to type in this post, the cooling of my air-conditioner that allows me to write on this 35 degree day, the laptop on which I am typing at this very second, and the technology to spread what I am now typing all over the world in a manner of seconds. And I have only covered the things that directly concern me at this very minute!
So what can we learn through the Australian attitude towards science? A lot. We can learn that knowledge is not considered to be a good quality in modern day Australia; being in fashion, earning lots of money, following cool and trendy stuff, looking good, and showing off are. In short, we can laugh at those Orthodox Jews trapped somewhere in the 15th century, but we - I mean modern day Western society - are in no way better. Science, the thing that got us to where we are today, is at the fringes.
Want another proof? Have a look at John Howard's personal links page on his personal website.
You will see that the only links there, other than government links that interest no one, are links to sports clubs and institutions of various sorts. What can I say? Illiteracy starts from the top - just as with the case of the above mentioned rabbis.

Last night I emailed something very similar to this post to one Professor Richard Dawkins. I doubt my email will receive any attention; after all, Dawkins is probably a very busy man. Still, one cannot win the lottery without filling in a form first.
Australia can sure use the services of the best Professor of the Public Understanding of Science alive today.