Tuesday, 29 May 2007

I had a dream, crazy dream

I have had a very weird dream last night, and for a change - and probably because I told Jo about it as I woke up - I even remember it.
As usual for dreams, the premises were "somewhat" unrealistic. I met up with all my university friends in hospital, where we were all expecting our first babies. Then when ours came along, I asked whether we should be calling him Dylan or Indy, and he immediately answered that he prefers Indy much more. Yes, he was talking as of the word go, but only in Hebrew and only to me; to everyone else his speech sounded like the usual baby talk.
He was smart, too, and we had ourselves a few discussions on the virtues of sports cars and what they really portray about their owners. Thing is, no one would believed me when I said that Indy can talk, and when tested - as in when Jo has asked me to ask him to do something 7 times, he would deliberately cheat and only do it 6 times. Which is not that frustrating, when you think about it, given that having meaningful discussions with a very newborn baby is quite an achievement on its own (and given that making him cheat and do that something only 6 times is quite a miracle).

Anyway, what is my point with this story, other than try to push my name preferences a bit further and other than entertaining you with a stupidly funny and innocent story? What do I want to achieve here?
My aim is basically to say what I think of dreams. To any rational person out there, dreams are just that - dreams. However, rationality is not that common in this world of ours (check out religion), and I can testify that a significant portion of my family tends to regard dreams as some kind of a sophisticated forecasting technique that can tell you what is going to happen.
Which is where the rational person in me jumps to the post. Sure, I (and society in general) doesn't know much about dreams and what is behind them; we don't even know why we and many other animals like us sleep in the first place. However, let us not take this lack of knowledge and use it in order to endow dreams with some mystic abilities.
It comes down to this: dreams reflect the things that are going on in our minds; that is exactly what makes them look so relevant and so useful for predictive purposes, but it's all just a chicken and egg coincidence. The baby told me he prefers to be called Indy simply because I would prefer to call him Indy, and the baby talked in the first place because I am afraid of not being able to communicate with the child (especially given how "good" I generally am with children). Even things like the discussion issues we have had - sports cars - are things that were there because yesterday I talked about the subject and expressed the same opinions as Indy had in my dream during work. And the scientific experiment aimed at demonstrating Indy's speech recognition abilities - doing something 7 times - well, that's exactly my mirror image, ever the person looking for reproducible proof and not accepting evidence by revelation.
I would say that theories along the lines of dreams being a tool for the brain to shift stuff from its short term RAM and into its longer term memory have much more empirical evidence to support them than anything that gives them supernatural powers. Sure, we can all remember dreams that actually came true; but do we remember those that didn't to check dreams' rate of success on a statistical basis?

Monday, 28 May 2007

Jesus, he knows me

I don't know if it's just increased awareness on my behalf, but lately I keep on noticing that I'm surrounded by people who wear crosses around their necks. They're everywhere: on the train, at work, or even on the streets. Obviously, some of them do it for pure ornamental reasons; after all, a cross is a rather appealing shape, which is probably why Christianity has borrowed it in the first place, the same way it borrowed all of its major motifs from the same religions it claimed to replace (e.g., virgin births and stars as a guide to a specific location).
Not that Judaism is any better. Many people in Israel wear stars of Davids, and a significant portion of my side of the family wears all sorts of evil eye repellents, exemplifying the universal definition for superstition: "other people's religions".
The question I ask myself is why people bother with it in the first place. What need does adoring the symbol of your beliefs on you serve? Why is it that at a time in which religious fundamentalism is on the rise more and more people seem to have the need to proclaim their religious identification for the benefit of the rest of us? And why did Kaka, the rather excellent Brazilian footballer from AC Milan, go to great lengths to show his deep affection to Jesus after his team won the European Champions League?
In my opinion, the football analogy really hits the spot. It all smells like a case of "look at how flashy my team is". Kaka wearing a shirt advertising Jesus serves the exact same need that I satisfy when I wear an Arsenal replica shirt: this sense of identification with "my team". Belongness. Only that I am aware that this is ultimately all about the money, and while I'm quite cynical about it all it is probably quite far from that for Kaka.
I wonder what goes through his mind. Does he think that AC Milan winning the title is because Jesus set it up to be so? And what if AC Milan was to lose - would Kaka still belong to Jesus? And how does he explain losing the same final two years ago - was that only in order for him to atone for his team's sins? It all smells pretty fishy to me. Should we expect the Liverpool players, who have lost the final, to be on their way to Mecca now that their former god has abandoned them? And what should the teams that never reached the final do?
Just where is rationality in this world?

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Massive Clearance!

Five years ago, when I landed in Melbourne, I thought I have arrived at Antarctica. This year, however, we're having an unusually sunny and warm May (relatively speaking, of course), and in order to celebrate the sunny weekend that befell us we spent pretty much all weekend long doing baby shopping and - much more so - preparing our house for the baby's arrival. And when we're talking about preparations at our place we're talking mainly about clearing up space. And what a massive clearance we've had! All stock just had to go off the floor.
I got rid of a lot of old work stuff. Countless numbers of old Clarify manuals, Business objects guides, and SAP course books have found their way into our recycling bin (having just been emptied on Thursday, this huge bin is now almost fully full with the results of our escapades - lots of trees gave up their lives to be used in order to maintain some pretty boring stuff).
Another thing I got rid of is my old (and fairly big) collection of audio cassettes. I feel bad about throwing content away - it's almost like the Nazis burning books - but let's face it: I will not be listening to those anymore. Besides, by now I have most of them (at least those I'm still interested in) in rather more up to date formats. Not that it makes it easier to say goodbye to the fruit of labor I've worked so badly on in the past: I still remember the tedious art of setting recording levels and matching the right cassette to the music I wanted to record; I spent many an army R&R recording cassettes.
Thing is, with all the stuff that we're throwing away, we're also getting in much more stuff instead. This time around we did the bulk of our shopping at Target, who up until Wednesday have 20% baby stuff.
We got a sophisticated mobile to put on the cot that plays lots of musical pieces (you don't only choose the type, you also choose the category!) and "natural sounds" (frogs croaking, birds chirping, and waves waving) - all at a fidelity level similar to fart noises. It can also hypnotize the baby with weird colorful lights. And it even comes with a remote control, so that you can shut the baby up (or try and compete with its noise by generating even more noise) from the comfort of your sofa.
We also got mattress protectors to keep the baby's "output" away from the mattress, and I'm only mentioning this because everyone tells you the baby should lay on breathable stuff yet in the same sentence they tell you that you need to lay them on a piece of plastic. I guess that for the 95% of the population that believe in the contradiction called god having another set of contractions doesn't matter that much, but we're finding it hard to do the right thing.
And we got a baby bath seat and we investigated using gates with extensions so we can block Indy from accessing the stereo and the TV.
But probably the most interesting purchase was a new clothes drying rack - what they call here "clothes airer", to avoid confusion with tumble dryers. While in Israel you dry your clothes outside, in Melbourne's weather that's a rather dodgy affair as it can always rain any minute; and we don't like using electric dryers because they ruin the clothes and they consume more energy than an office building. The rack we've had so far is very good and very big and you can put lots of clothes on it, but we now need the spare room in which it has resided so far and I didn't really like the plan B option (the kitchen); but not anymore, as now we have a rack that's just as big but works height wise and is on wheels. We'll put in the kitchen's corner and it wouldn't be the nicest thing ever to have around the house, but compared to the alternative it's immensely better.
In conclusion we put our suitcases on top of a closet, pushed the treadmill around, and set the cot in the place it will be in when Indy arrives. We're actually pretty ready for him to come now! We even have a corner ready for the Beema. Eventually, I'll take some photos of the room and post them on Flickr, but that will probably not happen before the next weekend since by the time I come home from work it's already dark.
To conclude: It's been such a tiring weekend I don't know how I'm going to manage a week of work now, but then again - soon enough I'll probably look back at this time with much envy (at least as far as sleeping is concerned).

Saturday, 26 May 2007

Photo ark

One of the things that has been keeping us occupied at home lately is sorting out a room for Indy. Not that he has elaborate decorative requirements, but we need to clear up some space for him - and as my family will gladly tell you, space is the final frontier when it comes to our house.
One of the things we were storing at Indy's future room is our collection of photographs. You know, those things we used to shoot on film and then print in that age before digital cameras and before internet web albums. Still, while I can mock them, photos are the best memory capsules at our disposal, so we want to keep them. Jo was asking how we can best preserve them when an old idea came to me: why don't we scan them and store them digitally on a hard disk and on our Flickr page?
The boss approved the idea, and with the efficiency and productivity that come to me at those times when the purchase of a new gadget is on the agenda I researched and concluded that the scanner for us to buy is the Canon Lide 600F (pictured), sold for $196 at MSY.
I have to say this is a weird dream come true for me. Back in 1999, when I purchased a PC after almost three years of not having one, one of the main reasons for buying it was the ability to digitally manipulate the photos I take using a negative scanner (the main reason, though, was being able to play FIFA 99). I never really got to fulfilling that dream: the cost of a negative scanner was prohibitive, but mainly it was the internet that kept me busy enough not to have the time to explore digital photo manipulation. Then, eventually, came the digital cameras, and the whole idea seemed rather useless.
But not that useless. I still think that the best photos I ever took were with my film SLR, and for a simple reason: given the substantial cost of each photo, every shot was carefully composed and calculated. Where today I just snap at anything that moves, back then I would actively seek the best photo. It's silly, when you think about it, but it's the format's limitations that meant I ended up having better photos on film. That, and the fact that most of my world traveling was done with a film SLR camera at hand. Which explains why I wanted a scanner that sports negative scanning facilities, as I still have all of my negatives with me (by now some of them are almost 10 years old whereas they're supposed to last for up to 5; we shall soon see how well preserved they are).
Let's not limit the scope of the discussion to my own photos. Potential scanning possibilities are endless, especially when you throw Flickr into the equation. While I don't have much in the way of childhood photos (I don't even have one photo from my army period, to name but one example), Jo has a vast collection that will keep the scanner happily churning. But why stop there? We can now manage Jo's collection of recipes with the scanner and even make them available on Flickr (while trying to avoid potential copyright issues). We can even scan things like birthday cards and Xmess cards and stick them on Flickr for safe keeping!
Not that it's the perfect solution. Printed photos are still the most durable way of keeping your photos. However, for them to be properly maintained you need to store them in a dark place and with no air contact - that is, in an album - and we don't have the capacity to do that with all of our photos. The digital option is even more limited: It's risky - hard disks live for about 5 years, burnt DVD's for probably less than 2, and who knows how long Flickr will live? And what about the JPG format in 10 years time - will we have the facilities to read them? They do, however, offer a very accessible way to locate and watch photos with commentary, and - roll the drums - they allow everyone to access our photos from everywhere. Very useful when your family is on the other side of the world.
So far, the quality of our very first scanned photo is so good (and so much better to view than the original) that I will vote for the digital way. Which means that between the piles of photos we have, there's a lot of work ahead of us...

Thursday, 24 May 2007

The Lost War

I should have known this would have been a lost cause to begin with.
There is just no way I was able to get up at 4:30 this morning in order to watch the Champions League final between AC Milan and Liverpool. Once upon a time this would have been nothing to me; back in the army I used to stay awake entire nights and live to talk about it. Not anymore, though; especially not with the way things are going at work with pressure cooker like packed days in which I don't even get to surf the internet in peace anymore. How the mighty have fallen.
So I programmed my VCR to wake up on my behalf. Yes, the VCR; the crap on Australian TV does not merit an investment in advanced time shifting technology. For that one program we record per month a VCR does just about fine, even if we have quite a collection of video cassettes that can no longer be sold on eBay and serves mostly as a reminder for a decade gone by. We mainly notice that collection now when we ponder where we're going to stick stuff as we clear up space for Indy's upcoming arrival.
The plan was to avoid contact with the rest of the world all day long and watch the game at night. It's hard, but history shows it's achievable if I put my mind to it and avoid surfing websites that would give the score away; given Australian interest levels in football, that should be enough to take care of things. I even got The Age on paper to keep me busy during those boring moments at work where I wait for a meeting to take place and such.
What might be good on paper, though, managed to completely collapse during the day.

On the train to work in the morning, and I'm doing my best to sleep - as usual. A couple of guys sitting next to me start to talk, enough to keep me annoyingly awake. Since when do guys talk to one another anyway? I thought male to male communication starts and ends with hums and thumps on the chest. And then, in typical Australian fashion, the conversation has shifted to sports. It started with rugby, so I wasn't worried; but then it got to football, and seeing it coming I plugged my ears and started humming to myself. Alas, there's just that much you can hum to yourself in a car full of people who don't know you; and in between the hums I first heard that Milan won.
Things didn't end there. A couple of guys sitting next to the original chatty couple started talking, too; one of them has seen the game, and again - in between hums - I heard the score and that one of Milan's goals was scored from a magnificent penalty shot. Well, at least I didn't get the minute in which it was scored.
By now I was quite ambivalent about the game, so I didn't really care when I went to a tailor place in the building next to me to get a quote for replacing a zipper in cargo pants I've had for years which broke down yesterday and made me look like a complete idiot while surrounded by a bunch of Jo's work colleagues when I dropped her off at her office to clear up her desk. The thing I didn't care about were the huge plasma screens at the foyer of the tailor's building; they were airing the game (or rather a replay).

And now I'm watching the recording as I type. I just love it when a plan comes together!

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

The color of Green

Several months ago, when our old gas/electricity plan ran out, we have decided to join Origin Energy's green plan.
What does that mean, you ask? A good question. I have asked it myself: they call it green energy, but the gas our ducted heating burns is still the same old natural gas as before and nothing about it is particularly green. Nor does our choice affect the mostly coal based electricity generation plans for the state of Victoria.
Generally speaking, from now on we are now artificially diagnosed to be taking our electricity from renewable sources and some green projects are being "projected" in our favor to compensate for our gas consumption. What green projects? The Origin representative I talked to over the phone had no idea; it didn't sound like that many people asked her that question. When, eventually, we got the leaflet for the green program we just joined the picture was made clearer: Our plan says that 20% of our electricity comes from hydro sources (and some of that 20% also comes from wind turbines); there were still no further details on the qualities of the green offset projects.
Which is were my temper started getting the better of me. You see, Victoria's hydro electricity sources are basically just one power plant; and due to the lack of rain - caused by global warming which was caused by emissions, mostly coal burning emissions for generating electricity - that hydro plant has not been running on water lately. In fact, according to the papers, they have been using coal based electricity at night (when the rates are cheaper) to pump water up the river so they can use the water to generate "clean" electricity during the day (when the rates are higher). Yes, very green.
Allow me to state the following: Yes, it would be nice if more and more Australians join green power plans. However, call me a cynic, but I argue that the power companies couldn't care less about greenery or the environment; all they want to have is a product that they can sell you as a green product, which would cause you to think that you're not killing the hell out of the environment when you have your air-conditioner on together with the heater, so that you will still consume a lot of energy and make the energy companies richer even in these times of environmental awareness.
Let Origin correct me if they think I'm wrong; they'd have a lot of convincing to do, because today we got our "Green for Footy" gift pack (check out the photo above) for joining the plan by mail. And what is in this pack? There's a green grocery bag we might use as a nappy bag, a green water bottle that we'll probably never use, a small green footy ball that maybe Indy will like in a few years time, a low pressure shower head, and six energy saving light bulbs. Thing is, the energy saving lights don't fit the light fittings we have at our place, and as green as they may be (and there are plenty of reasons why they may not be as green as they are claimed to be, including the higher effort required to manufacture them and the toxics they contain) I will not go about spending thousands of dollars in getting an electrician to redo the lights' wiring on our roof. The story with the shower head is pretty similar: it won't fit our shower. In case you didn't know, Origin can now claim money back from the government for turning us green; well, they definitely did so by sending us their useless crap, didn't they?
So what did we end up with? Nothing has really changed as far as the damage we do to the environment is concerned, but we do have ourselves a useless box of items that won't even sell on eBay and which took some nasty emissions to manufacture.
We did, however, achieve one thing: we managed to make Origin Energy richer!

Monday, 21 May 2007

How long?

Today's letter to The Age follows a theme that should be familiar by now to the readers of this blog: Connex and the service levels (or rather the lack of service).
There are several things that make me so annoyed with it all. The first is that people are don't realize public transport does not have to be so bad! Just today, when expressing my delight with Connex at work, I was told by a colleague that he gave up on public transport 15 years ago and now uses his car because it can never compete. But is that the case? I've been to many places in Europe where a car would be a pain in the butt and public transport is fascinatingly reliable, clean and safe - the opposite of Melbourne. People need to travel around to see what potential this world of ours has in store.
Second, I'm amazed at the numbness of the general public. Hundreds of thousands use public transport in Melbourne, even more of them do in Victoria. I think it would be safe to say all of them complain about the service and all of them want better public transport. Why is it, then, that when they get to vote they just act like robots and vote for the same old shit that never got us anywhere?
Anyway, given that the government is soon required to make up its mind about the future of its contract with Connex, I feel it is time to hit the pedal on the metal. And without further ado, here's today's letter:

As I was standing on the exposed platform in this morning's cold wind and yet another Connex service was canceled (with absolutely no warning whatsoever - no SMS and not even a public announcement at the manned station), you betcha I have had Buenos Aires deja vus.
Just how long are we expected to go on like this?

Sunday, 20 May 2007

That's Entertainment

For the third year in a row, Jo and I got ourselves Melbourne's entertainment book. For $60, you get a book full of discount vouchers that you can use in hotels, restaurants, more casual places where you can eat or drink, fast food, cinemas, and plenty of other things. The discounts are valid up until the first of June next year, when you're supposed to get the next book.
The main event with book are the restaurants / food places, where discounts are usually along the lines of one main free for another main or 25% off the bill for up to $30. When it comes down to it, a couple can cover the book's costs after three restaurant visits (or even two if you have a snobbish taste).
Given the thickness of the book, Jo and I actually use it as a guide for selecting where to go to in the first place. On Friday night we went to a steak restaurant in Port Melbourne ($28 off the bill) and yesterday to this Greek restaurant ($7 off - it's a cheap place to begin with). And that was just one weekend! There are even discounts for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and the Melbourne Theater, and there are enough take away places and such to keep us using the book even when we're locked at home with a screaming baby.
Highly recommended.

Growing Up in the Universe

I got myself a DVD today. Once upon a time not that long ago this would have been something of a weekly act; lately, though, I got to think of DVD's as wasted space. Why should I buy them if I can rent them for virtually nothing? I'm so flooded with things to watch that buying more seems totally irrelevant.
Today's DVD is different, though: Called "Growing Up in the Universe", the DVD's are a collection of five lectures given by Richard Dawkins (allow me to assume readers of this blog require no introductions there) about life, the universe, and everything. The unique thing about these lectures is that they were given to kids; I'm sort of hoping this means that at last I can find something that can serve as a sequel to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, in a similar way to how Richard Dawkins is pressing forward from where Carl Sagan has left us off. I hope this is something I'd be able to repeatedly watch with Indy in the same way my uncle and I used to repeatedly watch Cosmos (and when I say repeatedly I mean it; I probably watched each episode 20 times or so).
The nice thing about this DVD purchase is that revenues go towards the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason, a newly created Foundation (I like the word Foundation - it reminds me of Asimov's great books) to advance, well, science and reason. After all, Richard Dawkins does hold a professorship for Public Understanding of Science at Oxford.
Given all the tax free billions that are being wasted towards religious purposes, you can definitely count me a proud person to have helped such a cause. Specifically, my money would go towards providing copies of these lectures to schools and libraries, hopefully getting more and more brains out there to switch on.

Friday, 18 May 2007

This is the Day

Baby Catherine was found abandoned on the doorstep of a hospital at Dandenong, causing a bit of a stirrup in the media. "How could she", asked our much beloved Prime Minister, John Howard, with regards to the mother. Which, in turn, has made me realize just how much "the mainstream" is training us to think in a certain way. The tabloids, the Prime Minister, and Gold 104 (the radio station I listen to in the toilet, amongst my other sins) have all been saying things like "I can't understand how the mother could have done such a thing; once you have a baby you can't let it out of your sight and you don't want others to come near it". Or do you?
Because when you read The Age you get to read about people that were thinking more along the lines of the way I did. "What has made her do it", instead of "how could she". And "why are the picking on the mother and no one is saying a word about the father". Obviously, "mainstream" does not allow you to think; you need to think the way everyone else does, and free thinking The Age style is discouraged.

All of this was actually just an exposition of mine to something completely different: Mother's Day. It took place a week ago or so, and since a friend told me she likes it I couldn't help but go out and about and attack it. Or rather, attack the "mainstream" notion of what Mother's Day is all about.
We actually spent this Mother's Day shopping around for baby stuff (Jo was annoyed at me hurrying to buy the most expensive nappy bag we could find) so we didn't really notice the Mother's Day action. But last year we went to this restaurant/coffee place by the beach and it was packed with people our age taking their mothers for lunch. It was really funny: instead of the usual woman/man couples filling up the place you had (younger man or younger woman) / older woman couples. It left me wondering where the fathers ended up; even while accounting for the longer lifespan of women, older men were noticeably absent that day.
This inflation of people going out with their mother on this particular day of the year raises a question in my head: what do the mothers do during the rest of the year? Are they just left to rot by their TV? Which is pretty much my problem with such artificial occasions of the Mother's Day / Valentine's Day / Whatever Day likes: if there is a day for loving, for example, are we expected to hate during the rest of the year? Why can't we make an ongoing effort throughout the year instead of just forgetting our love all year long and just coming up with a token gesture on a particular artificially determined day? If I was to be the recipient of a gift, for example, I would have preferred it to come on any other day than Valentine's Day: it would have turned it into a genuine surprise, not just an "ok, how do I get out of this day's duties" affair.
But the thing I find most annoying is the ease with which people just accept this artificial day. Why is it that when the mainstream calls for a "Mother's Day" the vast majority complies? Why do so many people just go with the flow? I know the comparison is harsh, but to me it is not unlike the behavior of people following the preachings of a guy called Hitler. Why ask questions when numbness makes you feel a part of the tribe?
And yes, the fact we all do this to one extent or another worries me.

Thursday, 17 May 2007

We are all lined up

Over the last few days I have found the debates caused by my posts on baby naming conventions (most of which have been debated through emails and not through the blog itself) quite interesting. One interesting motif that stood out is that by choosing a name we have an opportunity to give some credit to our ancestors, without which we wouldn't have been here in the first place. The elegant way in which someone has put it was something along the lines of "we are who we are because of them".
Now I am not going to debate that last statement; I fully agree with it. I will, however, naturally debate the issue of giving credit to our ancestors. Not that they shouldn't receive credit; what I'm asking is who should receive the credit, how much credit they should receive, and how the credit is to be received. As usual, I will do so by attacking convention.
This time around I will address the "who" question, and I will do so by asking questions of my own.

1. Why is it that we're so naturally giving credit to our fathers (through their last name) but we totally ignore our mothers?
2. If I was to go back to, say, my grand-grand-grand grandfather and find that the guy was a serial killer, should I give him credit by carrying his last name? Am I an inferior person because of his crimes? And what are contemporary Germans supposed to do - commit mass suicide in shame? That would be a pity because the ones I know are a fairly nice bunch.
3. How far should we go back in giving credit? We tend to go just a few generations back, but what about those that were here 500 years ago? 1000 years ago? 10,000 years ago? 100,000 years ago? A million years ago? Why discriminate against them? After all, we are who we are today because of their efforts! If it wasn't for those entities that mitochondria banded up with to form a cell a billion or so years ago I wouldn't have been here. If it wasn't for Ethiopia's Lucy like species I wouldn't have been here, too.
4. I am sure that some of my ancestors, even the relatively recent ones, are people I wouldn't get along well with. Just look at those from the 19th century: for a start, they're bound to be racists and chauvinists; that was perfectly accepted at the time.

The bottom line here is that if I look long enough into the past I will find ancestor criminals and even ancestor cannibals. We tend to avoid these uncomfortable issues by only looking back a few generations, but let's face it: we only do so because of our own limitations. I would say that the entire issue here should not be "who" is getting the credit and how, but rather - why do we desire a contact with our past so badly that we have to have it in every fiber of our being?
The thing is that we already have contact with our past in every fiber of our being. Each one of us carries many a billion copies of DNA that has been carefully assembled generation after generation and which could be traced back to the very beginning of life's origins some 4 billion years ago. Us being here in the first place is the best credit we can give to the efforts of our ancestors!
In my view, the quest to honor thy ancestor through thy children's names is not much unlike religion. That is, it's a rather delusional effort limited by the scope of our understanding which in its turn is limited by the scope of the information we have available at our hands. Take, for example, the question of morality: many a religious believer will tell you that if it wasn't for religion telling us what is right and what is wrong the world will be in chaos, whereas I completely disagree and argue that issues of morality have been built in to us by millions of years of natural evolution and that we do not need a book to tell us what is right and what is wrong [at the high level]. I'm only bringing this up because just like a lot of people seem to need to name their child after an ancestor to feel good about themselves and to feel connected to a past into which they are already very firmly connected, so do the people who call themselves believers need to attach their morality to a book which is far from being responsible for their morality and is in fact quite out of date by today's standards (just where did my slave disappear to?).
Note I am not saying that anyone crediting their ancestors through a name is an idiot. Nor am I saying that researching your personal past is a futile affair; I think it is very interesting and that you can learn a lot from it. What I am saying, though, is that we are here because just like us our ancestors were essentially well tested survival machines whose sole aim was to go forth and multiply. Sure, some if not most had wonderful personalities and some have done some great and noble deeds; but let us study them, revel at their noble deeds and achievements, and seek inspiration from them rather than find ourselves arguing about which of our ancestors is to be commemorated through a baby's name. Let us translate their heritage into acts, not symbols.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Enemy at the tailgate

Yesterday morning, while driving to the train station as usual during an unusual rain period, I noticed that all so very common Australian phenomenon: the car behind me was about 20 centimeters behind.
And it's not like it did so for a brief second or two while changing lanes: I was effectively towing it for over 2 kilometers down a busy multiple lane road at a speed of 70km/h. Then when I turned to the side street in which I park my heart missed a few bits as the tailgater looked a bit perplexed with the move despite my signaling. However, I was surprised to see the guy turning with me (literally, given the distance between us): I was sure he was trying to tell me something; maybe I cut him off without realizing it and he was after me in pursuit mode seeking revenge.
But no: Immediately after the turn, while I was still going ahead to my preferred and remote parking spot, he just parked and immediately got out of his car and started running towards the train. Obviously, the guy was in an awful hurry. But let me ask you this: Was him being so dangerously close behind me of any benefit, time wise? I don't think there are any doubts about the answer to this question. I do think that it just made it significantly more likely we would both miss the train as we watch it go by while exchanging car insurance information. To add fuel to the fire, we both ended up catching the same train anyway.
So what's my point with this story? Simple. On the next morning (this morning) the news said that three people have died on Melbourne roads that night. It was a rainy night, and Melbourne's roads are not particularly busy at nights; allow me to therefore suspect the main reason for this casualty inflation is the absence of carefulness from the repertoire of the average Aussie driver. Now I'm not going to be like the police and the Victorian government are and say that it's all because of speed; I quite disagree with blaming speed as a factor. I do, however, blame the authorities for not putting enough educational emphasis where it really counts: keeping your distance.
Back in Israel statistics routinely tell you that around 40% of accidents are caused by insufficient distance keeping. It is the same story in Europe: percentages may differ, but distance is still the number one cause of accidents by a wide margin. It's even the same in god stricken USA, which goes to show we're all made of the same genes.
My question is, then: why don't we hear anything about it in Australia? All you hear about is speed, alcohol, speed, and alcohol. You can drive all over the other side's lanes in zigzags and cut off everyone else, but as long as you're not speeding and as long as you're sober you're fine - at least according to the authorities here. Just think how much heartache could be saved if people are exposed to the facts instead of being preached with speed (i.e., government revenues) propaganda!

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Stressed out

Oddly enough for a blogger with a throughput such as mine and for someone who is relatively unashamed to open up over the internet, it took me quite a while before I figured out how to approach this particular post. You see, I can blog about IVF and about the stresses of going through surgery and potential fatherhood as much as I want, but the one thing I can't really blog about is work - unless, that is, I'm willing to lose my job. I guess there is a reason why Australia is ranked at 32nd place as far as freedom of information is concerned, behind such progressive countries as Bolivia. The problem, however, is that I have a lot to say about work lately.
And then it occurred to me: I don't really have to say what's going on at work. No one would be interested in that anyway. However, what I can freely talk about as much as I want is how work is making me feel; and while I doubt there would be many out there interested in that, here goes. Who cares what others think as long as I get my opportunity to vent things out...

I'll put it bluntly: Over the last few months I have been gradually more and more disenchanted with work. It started faintly but the notion grows stronger and stronger; I seem to be stuck in a positive feedback loop where my contempt to work rises as my motivation falters while all the while my stress levels are reaching peaks that have not been heard of for years. It's getting to the situation where the prospect of getting out of bed for work in the morning has more than lost its appeal. While I'm at work I'm all over the place and headaches are the rule, and then when I go home in the evening I'm tired and as energetic as a dead battery (the cheaper ones, not a Duracell). I suspect that with the first signs of a cold I would immediately grasp the opportunity to take a few sick days with open arms.
The feeling is quite similar to the way I have felt when I was unemployed for 5 months: the feeling of being completely helpless in the face of insurmountable odds; the feeling of not having much in the way of control over the way things turn out. Only this morning a colleague told me I look as if I'm stressed with a capital stress.
Under regular circumstances, this would have been the time in which I started looking around for a new job. However, between expecting and strange health related phenomena, I don't think I'm going through regular times at the moment. Like it or not, the conditions of my current job fit my personal circumstances like a glove. And then there's the generic scene with the IT market in Melbourne, which - while going through a very healthy revival period - is still far from being inviting by Israeli standards. Simply put, the chances of me finding something better are very slim and everything points at keeping my current job for the long run as the better option. You can also argue that this is just an indicator for me not really being able to handle pressure, and that I'm going to end up in the same boat I'm in now whatever job I land on. Not that this makes the current stress more tolerable.

I know some of you would label it as a midlife crisis, but I can't avoid thinking of some professional u-turn. To be honest, I'm quite sick of working in the IT market, which is basically greed based. I'm especially tired of working in the Australian IT market, where there is hardly anything remotely innovative and lack of professionalism is the rule (not to mention the low scale of operations).
I wouldn't mind getting a lower wage for a job where I will truly be able to feel I'm making a difference. Take education, for example: they keep on saying how science teachers are so hard to get, yet I am a fully fledged engineer (who also happens to like reading popular science quite a lot). I guess I'm heavily influenced by the image imposed on me by Jo's sister, who seems to have been born to be a teacher, but still - wouldn't it be nice if I could do the switch?

Conventionality belongs to yesterday

Having recently discussed the current naming convention for our future baby, I find it quite the anthropological delight to go over some of the comments I have been receiving about the name from my parents.
As far as they are concerned, I am giving them a hard time: first with my refusal on the subject of circumcision, and now with us intending to name the baby with a non Hebrew name. And they are not even aware of our last name intentions! To quote my mother, I have become a "Goy Gadol" (big gentile), a description I find a rather demeaning given that I am equally contemptuous to all religions (with the potential free get out of jail card given to Buddhism).
The interesting element about it is to do with the reasons why they think we should use a Hebrew name. It seems like the main motivation is some unexplainable urge to perpetuate their culture, while a somewhat lesser motivation is to do with not losing face before their friends when they break the news to them. Needless to say, I find both motivations ludicrous; if I wanted to preserve the Israeli culture (which my parents tend to regard as a "Jewish" culture even though they're pretty secular) I would have lived in Israel. Not that I think that now I'm in Australia I should do everything to become a true bone fide Australian (drink barrels of beer?), but as I have explained before I think the main purpose of the name is to give the child an easy start; most Hebrew names will not achieve that.
My father went a bit further and wrote me a letter listing names that, according to him, would sound well both in Israel as well as in Australia. First, I would note this is only the second time ever my father has wrote me a letter, which goes to show something about what it takes to make him write (and let's not be around the bush: I love it when people write to me). Second, he obviously didn't really think that hard about the names he has proposed, as a name like "Bar" would make the child very popular in Australia but for the wrong reasons. Third, my father was obviously completely unaware of the importance the name's meaning has for me, which is why I would seriously contemplate Darwin but totally reject biblical and other praise-the-lord names like Moshe or John. But fourth, his letter has made me realize that there is no Hebrew name I truly like; I can think of plenty of good names that I would like to use out of thin air, but none of them is Hebrew.
As for the losing face motivation: If my parents are so worried about their friends and family's feedback to our name, what do they expect us to do? Should we let their friends tell us what the name of our son should be? Was I a bad boy when I selected my university subject without asking for my parents friends' advice? Was I a naughty guy when I married Jo without consulting my second cousin?
I guess all I'm trying to say is that I find their line of arguments funny. Let's not be around the bush: their reasoning completely ignores my right to have my own opinions and utterly ignores the good of the child, which is taken for granted. Which, to me, demonstrates the failure of tradition in an era where traditions of yonder are infringed left and right - say, when a son migrates half way across the world.

Sunday, 13 May 2007

Taking care of business

We got the desktop back from repairs just as the laptop backup option started giving us the blue screen. It seems as if the laptop is suffering from that very old chronic disease: the severe Norton Anti Vitus syndrome, where the software that's there to protect you goes berserk. There's probably some hardware issue involved as well, but given that it's a work laptop there's not much I can do about it.
What I could do, however, is say goodbye at long last to Norton on my desktop once we got it back. Its problems were definitely hardware related: the power supply was replaced, and it also turns out that the layer of liquid of top of the CPU (between the CPU fan and the CPU) was nearly out of water, causing the CPU to constantly overheat. Dare I say it was some QA problem at the Intel plant? However, I didn't want to wait for Norton to give me the jinx the second time around.

Following the Bleeding Edge's advice, I used a Norton removal tool first to make sure all leftovers from that vile program are dead and gone. Then I installed Avira's free AntiVir software to act as my new anti virus protector. Why Avira? Because their product rates high in identifying yet unrecognized virus threats by their suspicious behavior, allowing relative comfort even while the virus is just out there. Avast is also offering a free anti virus software about which I have heard many good things; the point is that both are incredibly superior to Norton - you can really feel how much quicker your PC becomes once you get rid of Norton - and both are absolutely free. In fact, all the security programs I use on my PC - anti virus, anti spyware and firewall are all free and are all superior to the stuff too many people pay for.

With Norton behind me, I went ahead to implement DPExpert's advice and installed Paint.NET, a free picture/photo editing program that gives me what I usually need Photoshop in order to get in an absolutely free product and with a much simpler and easy to master user interface. Pictured above, it offers features like layers, curves and healing brushes with which you can get the most out of your photos. I have already used it for my Modern Times post. As far as shortcomings go, Paint.NET doesn't handle RAW formats, won't let you easily change the color temperature, and you also need to have the Windows .NET update for it to work; but you should definitely use it as your default photo editing program.

Next I went on to implement another of Bleeding Edge's advice and installed CCleaner. CCleaner is an application that removes redundant stuff from your computer: temporary files, old threads, leftovers from uninstalled programs, and other such stuff in order to clean up your computer's hard disks. It works like a charm (much better than the built in Windows XP accessory), but its greatness comes from two other features that it has: It can also clean up your registry file (and it will back it up first if you wish so - and you should) as well as allow you to view and control the applications that run during start up. With my PC's Windows installation now being two and a half year old, there is a lot of shit in there - all sorts of stuff I don't use anymore or hardly ever use got called up, such is iTunes help or Bluetooth support that I never use. Once cleaned, starting up my PC takes significantly less time than before, and as with the removal of Norton things feel smoother now.
Give it a try - it will do wonders to your health.

Saturday, 12 May 2007

Hello shoes, I'm sorry but I'm going have to stand on you again

This post is an obituary to my business shoes.

I purchased them back in 1998.
I didn't like them at first. Compared to the shoes I was wearing most of the time back then they were tough and nasty. Time healed the wounds, though, and slowly but surely they became an unnoticeable extension of my feet.
Over the last three years or so I was wearing them pretty much every day I went to work, with the very notable exception of casual Fridays [Ah! Casual Fridays!]. I had newer shoes to wear, even pretty good ones and expensive ones, but they couldn't compare to the comfort of the trusty old pair.
Decay caught up with them eventually, and over the course of the last year their soles became so thin that both shoes got holes in them. As it wasn't really noticeable unless you looked at the shoes from below it didn't bother me, though.
That is, until last week, when Melbourne finally got its first day of proper rain for a very long while. I parked the car next to the train station and walked to the train; and all that I knew was the hole in my shoe which was letting in water. I slowly felt how water creeps inside the shoes through the holes and how the water slowly pushes its way throughout the shoes. By the time I got to work my feet were not only wet, they were freezing; everyone at the office had their fair share of laughs as I walked barefoot. After drying my socks in the toilets' hand dryer I was partly spared, but the walk home later that day has reintroduced water to my feet.
It was obvious that the time to say goodbye has come. The shoes have been waiting politely near the door for me to take photos of them, but now that this has been done they're going to go the way of the dodo.
Goodbye. My feet are already missing you.

Cable Guy

Charlie Walker, the man behind the Bleeding Edge blog on computing etc (I've had a link there on the right hand side bar for ages now) was generous enough to send me an invitation for Joost.
Joost (pronounced "juiced") is the latest endeavor by the people who brought us Skype (who, by now, are rich enough to do whatever they feel like). It's basically cable TV on your computer monitor: you download an application, and when you run it a nice looking window pops up with a list of channels for you to choose from. You choose a channel, which then causes the window to refresh with a list of programs available on that channel; you choose a program, and voila - you watch the TV program on your PC monitor. As I said, it's like having cable through your internet, but it's not as crude as cable: programs start, pause, fast forward, and stop at your command; if you quit Joost and come back to it later it will start from where you previously stopped.
From what I've been hearing, each country gets its own list of channels and programs. In Australia you get a comedy like channel (I wasn't familiar with the stuff there), a music video channel (I didn't know any of the songs), and a science fiction channel (featuring Total Recall 2070 amongst others) as well as several other channels. Nothing to knock you off your chair, but it's free, it's legal, and if you don't know what to do in front of your computer it's a good avenue for exploration.
That said, the most impressive thing about Joost is that it works. It works like a charm. And it's smashingly impressive with the way it works. If you thought youtube was cool, think again; Joost is "wow" with a capital "WOW". The picture quality is amazing, the interface is intuitive, and it all feels slick and cool. You really should give it a go just for the look and feel; it makes everything else on the internet, including Flickr and the rest of the web 2.0 stuff, look pale.
There are disadvantages: It pretty much strangles your internet connection, for a start. Our 1500k/256k connection was constantly used at full throttle (which explains the quality), but I'm still amazed at the lack of hiccups: it's very rare for me to be able to continually access a website at full throughput, but Joost achieves that all the time. Maybe this is because it uses peer to peer architecture, which means that it's continuously working behind the scenes (albeit at a slower pace), abusing your internet connection while it's on standby. Loyal Telstra clients who pay for uploads in addition to downloads should beware! You can easily turn it off all the way, though.
Then there's the fact you can only watch the programs on your PC monitor. Sophisticated users should be able to record the stuff, but then again - why should they bother if it's all available on request anyway? The biggest downside, however, is the contents: nothing seems impressive enough to make me sit and watch; not that I can complain as no one is forcing me to do so.
Still, as I said, it's very impressive. If you want an invitation of your own, let me know (I will need your email address). A highly recommended adventure.

Thursday, 10 May 2007

What have they done to our fair sister?

Yesterday morning there was a queen size bed at the center of Melbourne's Flinders Street train station. Lying in the bed and surrounding the bed were a group of young and fairly attractive women, all of them handing out free samples of the Uncle Toby's instant porridge satchels. I managed to avoid the traffic jam surrounding that bed, but as I walked out of the station another girl wearing pyjamas and ambushing the refugees stuck two of these satchels in my hand.
Not that there's anything wrong with porridge. It's not bad, actually (but probably not good enough for the Uncle Toby's people to have fat old guys give away free samples instead). I have porridge every morning in the cold season, which for Melbourne is from somewhere in the middle of April and probably all the way to October. We get these 750gr packs of oats from Aldi for $1, and together with some soy milk it's microwaved to warm me up in the morning. Jo adds some syrup to the mixture, but I find that repulsive; if I'm bored I add some cinnamon instead. I don't think you can get a healthier breakfast than that (ok, you probably can, but the point is it's fairly healthy).
Healthiness is exactly what Uncle Toby's emphasize in their campaign and on the packaging of their instant porridge packs. Basically, these are oats with all sorts of tastes added (peach and vanilla in the case of the satchels I got for free) and some milk solids; you add more milk or water, warm it up in the microwave, and breakfast is served.
But is it that healthy? Is it as healthy as my version? I don't think so. First, the oats are fairly processed by the time they're packed in that small satchel. Second, that satchel contains 30% sugar (!). Third, while the packet contains some fruit (6%), it also contains a long list of artificial tastes. And fourth, the ready made stuff contains preservatives, guaranteed to preserve your intestines and the rest of your body once digested. In short, what might have once been healthy is no longer so.
Is there any added benefit to packing the oats this way, then? Well, not really. It is instant breakfast, but my simple version is no harder to make. The benefits come down to an artificial taste, perceived instantaneousity, and of course - money pouring down the Uncle Toby's bank account. Porridge, after all, is fairly cheap.
Not that this is the only case where a company takes a simple food and sells it to you in as inferior product for a much steeper price; take microwave popcorn, for example. Not that it's hard to think up more sophisticated examples. It's not that hard to create genuinely good burgers, for examples; some places actually do it (I recommend Burger Edge). Yet all we hear about is McDonald's.
This behavior of the food manufacturers makes me sick, but worse: it just mirrors the way our society is behaving in many other areas. We no longer look for quality, we look for the image. And we look for the money.

Wednesday, 9 May 2007

Short term bribery

Last night's announcement of the federal budget for the upcoming financial year was your basic attempt at bribery. Not that anything else could have been expected.
We were given with the usual $15 a week (or was it $15 a fortnight) gift back from the government in the shape of tax cuts. Basically, the government is returning back the money it has taken from us for no particular reason. Personally, I think taxes should be increased, not decreased; it's about time some infrastructure, health and education investments are made. Not to mention global warming. It doesn't really matter if us poor cannot afford to get the latest 80" plasma if the world around us is coming apart.
Anyway, the budget's highlight was the spending of some 5 (or was it 4?) billion dollars on universities. Which is very good, no doubt about it.
However... Was it only me that noticed that this allocation of funds was accompanied by the rather silent announcement that universities will no longer be forced to put a limit on the number of full paying seats they offer students?
So let me get this straight: On one hand, the budget is offering us $15 extra per week. On the other, it tells us [rather silently] that we will need to fork out some $100,000 when our child will want to go to uni because there is absolutely no reason for the universities to offer "discounted" student allocations.
Call me a weirdo, but I would gladly give back those weekly $15 for the privilege of cheap education. Yes, I know, I'm a weirdo: why am I expecting education to be free? Obviously, education is only for those that can afford it.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

Modern Times

Since it's the most popular question after "is it a boy or a girl", and as my parents are quite annoyed with me not picking a Hebrew name for our future potential baby, I thought I'd recount our current views on the issue of naming our future born son (code named Indy). I know I've said most of it already on this blog, but then again who bothers reading it anyway?
First I would like to clarify that I don't see much in the way of importance to this issue of naming. A name does not make a person good. The way I see it, the main target when naming a child should be to give them an easy go in life - to smooth out the experience as much as possible for them. This means giving them something that corresponds to whatever zeitgeist might be reigning and also means giving them something that would minimize the potential for being teased by other kids. What I definitely don't consider a worthy reason when choosing a name is the perpetuation of a certain culture through a name, which is why I do not see any particular reason for branding my child with a Hebrew name. Personally, I would prefer to use a name that has a special meaning for me - say, off the top of my head, Indiana, Sagan or Darwin - but given that these are not particularly good names as far as the zeitgeists are concerned I won't stick to my guns (even if I think Indy would be a very good name). I would note, however, that I cannot really think up any Hebrew names that have a special meaning to me.
And so for the name itself, which currently stands at Dylan Reuveni Hopkins. Let's attack it one by one:
  • First name: Dylan stands for "son of the sea" in Welsh. Between it sounding nice and both Jo & I liking it, I'm happy with this name.
  • Middle name: Reuveni is not the best name out there as far as my criteria goes, but then again I'm no fan of middle names to begin with; they're pretty meaningless, usually serving as a useless and rather redundant token. In case you're wondering about its origins, the name Reuveni comes from biblical Jacob's first son, Reuven (or Ruben in English), which literally means "Look! It's a boy!" in Hebrew. Using my last name as the baby's middle name does have its advantages: it would mean my name is there to be used if so wished, but it would also mean there would hardly ever be a need to spell it. The advantage for me would be a reduction in the number of times the kid's teachers refer to me as Mr Hopkins. In the very worst case our son will earn a lovely initial on his driver's license - and no, I'm not joking there: you will be hard pressed to show me a kick ass bike that does not feature the letter R in its name. From the Honda VFR to the Suzuki GSX-R, R's rule!
  • Last name: Hopkins. Again, it's a Welsh name in origin, meaning "son of Robert" (don't ask me how "Robert" ended up as "Hop"; those Welsh must be really drunk). Robert, by the way, is a German name in origin meaning "bright fame". Anyway, Hopkins would be an easy name to live with in an English speaking country (unlike Reuveni), and if 50% of us are already called Hopkins then so be it; I would have preferred Wildstar, but I can't be bothered to go that far. After all, it's only a name.

Sunday, 6 May 2007

Lazing on a sunny afternoon

May is usually the harbinger of Melbourne's true cold weather, but this year it seems like we're still stuck on April weather. As a result, we were wearing t-shirts today; total contrast to the feeling I've had upon arriving at Melbourne five years ago, wondering whether the plane has landed on the North Pole instead.
One cannot say that we didn't use today's lovely weather properly. Following is a detailed account of today's adventures...

Upon getting up and settled at roughly 11:00 or so (a pleasure we will never have again in just a few months), we went to Aldi for the usual grocery shopping routine.
Just yesterday my brother told me how we should get ourselves a radiator heater to compliment our ducted heating, as the radiator would be significantly cheaper for heating the baby's room than warming the entire house with the ducted heating, and as a radiator's heat is much nicer - it doesn't dry your soul in the process of heating you up. What can I say? Apart of the fact he forgot that our house is small and that warming it up using the ducted heating is no big deal (how can he forget that given the eternal criticism we have been receiving on our house being too small to fit human occupancy?), he has convinced us. The ducted heating can really dry you up, and you definitely don't want it running all night long. Not that Melbourne is cold enough to have it running all night long, but the baby will probably see things differently.
Those radiator heaters start selling at about $100 or so, and therefore we were really surprised to bump into what seems to be a very decent oil based radiator heater for $50 at Aldi. So we got it! It has a timer facility and it seemed pretty good, although efficiency wise it cannot really compete with the ducted heating.
We got back home and then the real action started.
I had two servings of ice cream in a biscuit for lunch (back in Israel they were called a "cassata"), and went straight away to mowing the lawn. Nothing feels more like a total waste of time than mowing the lawn; if you argue that cleaning is just moving the dust from one place to another, mowing the lawn is just making it short only to watch it immediately grow back. Thing is, between everything that has happened it was probably 6 months or so since the last time I did the mowing, so some of the grass was knee high by now. But the worst thing is that by now there's effectively no lawn in our back/front yards: between the drought and our caring attention, all we have is a garden of weeds. Some are relatively nice, like clover, but others are vicious - like the nettles I hate so much.
There were so many weeds to mow that I completely fulfilled our trash can with the results (I know this is not proper English there, but I think "fulfilled" conveys the filling to the full notion much better than the proper way; and if Shakespeare got away with twists to the English language, why can't I?). I finished the mowing stinking of the gas (that I always manage to spill on myself as I refill the mower) and of the mower's exhaust fumes.
Then the DIY work started.
First we assembled the new heater. In typical fashion, the instructions were as clear as the Chinese Wall back in its heyday. For the life of me, I don't know how dumb people manage to assemble these things; luckily, I have Jo to decipher the criptomania and guide my way to assembly nirvana.
On we went to the next DIY job: attending to our much beloved desktop. Yes, for the second time in just a few months it is generating trouble: this time around there is a significant stink when you turn it on; a headache is guaranteed if you use it. It looks like it's either the power supply or one of the cooling fans that mostly generates noise rather than wind, so we'll be giving it away for repairs again. All I can say is recommend spending some good money on your PC's box and power supply; at the time I thought this is an area I can cut corners in, but now it looks like it's just a question of time before I'll need to open my wallet wide and get us a new PC while the current one - two and a half years old - is not performing bad at all and can do everything we want it to do and well as long as it is not betrayed by its cheap power supply.
With the computer issues verified we moved on to the main event: assembling the cot. As usual, the instructions were as useful as a piece of used toilet paper, but Jo was still up to the job and the assembly was relatively straight forward (a piece of cake by IKEA standards). The mattress they gave us for the cot is good but it's not the exact size required by the cot (one centimeter short and one centimeter wide), so we'll look around for a proper one.

And then I had a shower and now I'm blogging while Jo is talking to her parents using Jajah.
As I said, we have used the last of the nice weather to its fullest.

Saturday, 5 May 2007

Action!

It was all happening today - guns ablazing and credit cards asweeping - as finally we got ourselves a cot and a pram (and some other stuff, too).

The choice of a cot was rather simple. There is not that much separating cots other than their robustness and their finishing quality. Obviously, we didn't want something that would put a baby in danger, but we also saw no reason to invest in having an entire forest worth of wood brought over to our house; the baby will certainly not appreciate it.
Friends recommended a place called Baby Gallery in Clayton (I would have pointed at their website had they had one), and that recommendation turned out to be quite good as they had a wide range of stuff at the lowest prices we've seen so far. We narrowed down our search to a couple of cots made by Kingparrot which happened to be on sale, but once we asked about them we were told that we will have to wait for 4 months for them to be in stock. They did, however, have a more expensive Kingparrot in stock which they were willing to give us at the "sale" price, so we ended up with the Kingparrot Kimberly model for $383 (and that's the one in the above photo). Just like the IKEA cot we bought and returned it turns into a bed (not that we cared much about that), and just like the IKEA cot did it is now waiting for me to assemble it; assembly, however, should be much simpler. Overall, we were a bit lucky: we got a cot that is much better than the IKEA one for less than the cost of the IKEA one. And it even matches the color of the tallboy Martin & Yvette have lent us!
While at it, we bought a foam mattress to match ($85). They pushed a spring mattress on us, but when we pushed back and asked in which way it is better than a foam mattress the bottom line was durability; since we don't plan on having more kids, and since it is not recommended to share mattresses between kids anyway (damn mites; why did Noah get them on his ark?), there is absolutely no reason to invest in a spring mattress unless you really want to make the shop richer.
One thing weird about the mattress is that both sides are not identical, yet it does not say which side should be on top; it just says that one of them sides is supposed to be on top as it was
designed to absorb moisture and distribute it evenly (or some other similar sounding elusive description of something that probably never happens). Thing is, the shop never bothered telling us about this and we only noticed it at home; now we need to call them back and hope they will know what we're talking about.
Not that we were greatly surprised with this example of shop ignorance, as we have been encountering it all along. Sometimes I wonder whether we are the only ones to ask questions and whether the rest just open their wallets to get the most expensive thing available just in order to feel as if they're not depriving their child of anything.
Ignorance was prevailing in all the shops we have visited when it came to baby monitors, too. We had to do our research on the internet, and we ended up getting the Angelcare AC301 for $185 (also at Baby Gallery). There is another model out there, the AC301-R, but no one in any of the shops could tell us what the difference is (the internet would, though). Nor was anyone familiar with the exact way in which you're supposed to use this model, which sports two sensor pads to detect if the baby stops breathing.
By now I have emailed Angelcare's support a couple of questions about the sensor pads, as the instructions are as ambiguous as I don't know what. Look it up yourselves - check out figure 2: the diagram shows you that it's correct to use only one out of the two sensor pads; why is it, then, that they give you two of them? Another catch is that they tell you to put a piece of wood under the bed in order to have a stable platform for the sensor pads that prevent them from bending, yet all the experts tell you not to block the circulation of air from under the mattress in order to prevent SIDS in the first place. That's the lovely two faced nature of parenthood guidelines for you: one authority tells you to do one thing, the other authority tells you the opposite, and you're stuck in the middle with a headache.

Finally, and at long last, we got ourselves a Beema pram on layby (that's Australian for "pay a deposit now and pick it up later"). For $565 we got ourselves an orange tinted Beema Q with a bassinet, a storm cover, a pram liner (basically a soft thing for the baby to lie in and get warmer), a set of soft toys to hang on top (comes in for free with the liner; they are cute, though), and a sunshade UV cover (us Australians are more affected by the hole in the ozone layer).

Not that we're in any way done with our shopping. We will probably get the Baby Bjorn Active baby carrier (again, Baby Gallery is even cheaper than eBay for those) but we will wait until after the birth to check the fit with the actual baby.
And then there are diaper related preparations, mattress protectors, heaters, humidifiers, and god only knows what else (and that's something coming out of me, since I don't see any evidence for god being there in the first place).
All this mess and all this tension could not be handled without external help, so I would like to use the opportunity to thank those that have helped us so far. In particular, I would like to thank:
  • Martin & Yvette, for lending us their tallboy for a couple of years or so and for giving us sack fulls of baby clothing. They saved us thousands of dollars in the process, but more importantly they saved us from the hassle of shopping for baby clothing; we got them coming out out of every pore in the house at the moment.
  • Sarah & Marcus, for providing us with up to date intelligence on where to do the shopping and what to look out for, proving that knowledge is the most important thing.
As Ringo says, I get by with a little help from my friends.

And the winner is...

You might be wondering what it is exactly that makes me blog at 4:00AM, in bed, on a weekend, with a laptop. I'll tell you what: I have finally made up my mind as to which pram is the best buy for us - the one clear winner. And while that may sound as exciting as listening to a politician's speech, it is definitely enough to make the entire arrival of a future child seem that much more real that I am awake, in the middle of a weekend's night. Call it the sheer terror factor.
So in order to allow me to fall asleep I will write down exactly why I think the Swallow Beema Q is clearly a better pram than the Mountain Buggy Urban. And don't ask me whether it's an African swallow or a European swallow!

Beema advantages:
  1. Size: Both prams are huge carrier size prams, but it took seeing them one next to the other to conclude that Mountain Buggy is an aircraft carrier and the Beema is a helicopter carrier. The Beema is 7cm narrower and 15cm shorter while offering more baby space. These dimensions should have a direct impact when maneuvering tight spaces.
  2. Folded size: As a result of its overall smaller size, the Beema takes significantly less space when folded.
  3. Boot space: As a result of its overall smalelr size, the Beema takes significantly less boot space. Both will occupy most of our Honda CR-V's boot, but while the Buggy will pretty much take it all the Beema provides for some free flat space.
  4. Folding: On paper, the Mountain Buggy is the winner here with a folding mechanism so easy even I can do it. However, once you master the Beema technique (pretty quickly achieved, even by a person as clumsy as me) you notice something truly magnificent: while simple enough to fold, the Beema does not require you to bend down in order to fold it! You don't even need to bend in order to unfold it. Clever! Both prams take roughly the same amount of space when standing up folded, but...
  5. Storage when folded: The beema stands on its wheels when folded and does it very elegantly; the Mountain Buggy requires standing on its handle, which the people at the shops told us off about when we attempted it as it damages the unit (scratch wise, and probably resale value wise). This is an incredibly important issue for us, given our space limitations; if required to point at one reason for the Beema being a winner, this is it (together with the no bending - I do have a problematic back!).
  6. Usability: Seating adjustments are easy on both prams, but the Beema is easier with handles instead of straps.
  7. Brakes: Incredibly easy to use on the Beema, a bit of a pain on the Mountain Buggy - I do not see myself operating those without giving the pram a good kick, which I'm sure the baby would "like".
  8. Features: Out of the box, the Beema comes with more features. For example, a bar (for the baby's hands) is built in. Storage space is roughly identical. The Mountain Buggy looks naked in comparison (but that's actually a contributer to its slick image; once accessories are added to it, the Buggy will probably lose most of its fashion show image).
  9. Baby room: The Beema offers the baby a complete flat operation platform. We tend to ignore it now, but initially this was of paramount importance to us: a happy baby = a less demanding baby. The baby also has variable leg positions to choose from, whereas with the Mountain Buggy they're stuck in a semi stroller position throughout the pram's lifespan.
  10. Price: A whopping difference here. With the accessories that we want, the Beema sells for $550 compared to $850 for the Mountain Buggy (and that figure takes some haggling into account). Resale value will compensate a bit here, but we will still pay more interest on our mortgage with the Mountain Buggy (and as we're talking about some 3 year life expectancy here, this difference computes to an added $70 or so to the price of the pram just for the extra interest payments).
  11. Bassinet: The above Beema price includes a bassinet, which would be useful for the first 3 months or so in order to carry the baby on a flat panel that's facing you. The Mountain Buggy bassinet costs an extra $200 (again, haggling included), so we didn't even plan on taking it into account given its limited lifespan (and thus the above $850 quote does not include it). Let it be noted that both bassinets are not recommended for extended sleeps, so they're not a solution for carrying the baby around the house. As far as usability is concerned, the bassinet is really easily fit on the Beema while with the Moutain Buggy it's quite a major setup issue.
  12. Resale value: The Mountain Buggy sells for $400+ on eBay while the Beema sells for $200, but the trick is that no one pays you an extra for added accessories when you sell second hand stuff, which is why the Beema wins again.
Mountain Buggy advantages:
  1. Image: There's no denying the slick, motorcyclist, technology savvy image projected by the Mountain Buggy. It says "I'm sophisticated", it says "I'm sporty", it says "I'm trendy", whereas the Beema says "I'm a parent". Yet again I will emphasize I think this will greatly diminish once accessories are piled on top of the pram; and I think they'll totally disappear with a nappy bag on top of the pram, potentially leading to disappointment with the overall purchase of the pram.
  2. Slave labor: The Mountain Buggy is made in New Zealand, the Beema is Chinese. That said, the 2005 Mountain Buggy model has had recalls; whether it's because of bad quality or because the company actually cares is unknown to us.
  3. Pushiness: The Mountain Buggy is easier to push. It feels as if it wants to roll on its own (which could actually be a bit dangerous). I don't know why this is the case given that both sets of wheels look the same and both lack suspension; I suspect the quality of the wheel bearings is to blame. Do note, though, that we never tested the prams with a baby inside; they were always tested empty of carry weight.
  4. Weight: The Mountain Buggy weighs 10.6kg to the Beema's 12.6kg. However, the differences narrow when accessories such as the bar are added. Importance wise, weight will probably not be much of an issue because we will only lift the pram when both Jo and I are together.
Overall, both prams are good and I think both represent a good purchase. However, given the major usability / functionality advantages offered by the Beema, I think it's the clear winner here. The fact it happens to be significantly cheaper is an added bonus rather than a decision maker.
Are we buying a Beema already? Not yet; Jo, the primary pram user, is still to make up her mind. She admits to "knowing" the Beema is functionally better but also falling for the Mountain Buggy's slickness. You can argue that the image argument is silly and that we're falling for advertising bullshit, but the bottom line is that perceptions do matter and that once we become parents the harsh reality of it all would mean our perceptions of everything will suffer a massive blow; if that can be helped by forking out more dollars, then let's not dismiss it as nonsense. Anyway, we shall see what the future has in store (pun intended).
But at least now I hope I've spilled enough of my guts enough to hopefully be able to fall back into some proper sleep.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Freedom of Choice

In our quest to identify the ideal baby equipment for us to get we keep on interrogating pretty much everyone that might have some sort of an experience with babies or baby equipment, trying to milk them for what it is that really matters. Mostly this is in order for us to understand what it is that we should be looking for when it comes to us. For example, most people you talk prams to, as well as most shops that try and sell you prams, expect you to be mainly using the pram with a car: that is, store the pram in a car, head off to some shopping center, browse around, head home. That is pretty much taken for granted to the point nobody realizes this would be quite irrelevant to us; but still, no one seems to think of our situation hard enough to realize the irrelevancy of their assumptions.
Think shortages don't stop there. The vast majority of people we have been talking to have referred to the Choice set of reports and in turn have been referring us there, too. Choice is some sort of an Australian consumerists' non for profit organization that is set to find the best product to cater for the Australian consumerists' needs. They work by comparing different products in actual or simulated use, and when I say different I mean different: their test range from diapers to video game consoles.
On paper, Choice sounds like a great reference. Someone else has done all the thinking for you and found exactly what it is that you should be buying; that someone has to be a great expert, too, because they belong to some great Australian institution. Or are they?
In as recently as my review for the DVD of The Queen I have expressed some of the antagonism I have towards arguments from authority and arguments from tradition. I am afraid that what applies to the British monarchy applies to the Choice reviews, too. Allow me to explain with a few examples.
A caring friend has mailed us the Choice's review of strollers. The review looks at 10 different prams/strollers, most of them around the $400 mark (and some of them being very similar - obviously manufactured at the same plant in China but branded differently). The Beema is the review's clear winner, in case you were wondering, but there are catches involved. First, the review has failed to include some very respectable prams - say, the Bill & Ted or the Mountain Buggy, to name a couple. And second, if you read the review itself - as opposed to just look at the bottom line to see who the winner is - you will see that the review is incredibly shallow. Now, I am not pretending to be an expert in the subject of prams; all my knowledge comes from several shop outings and looking at people in the street. Don't ask me when was the last time I even held a baby. Yet even I, with my incredibly shallow understanding, could immediately detect the even shallower premises of the Choice pram review. If you base your purchase on that review then you might as well pick a pram in random.
Next come baby monitors. In Israel, the common baby monitor comes in the shape of a device to detect whether the baby has stopped breathing (thus countering SIDS, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome). In Australia, however, due to the bigger houses and the lack of familiarity with the gizmo (and dare I say the "no worries" attitude?), baby monitors are basically walkie talkie devices allowing you to hear your baby crying a mile away. So, in Choice's review of baby monitors they don't even mention the option to detect SIDS symptoms; call me an idiot, but wouldn't you expect them to mention the option if they are such a super duper authority?
Prams and baby monitors are not areas I pretend to understand much about. However, digital cameras, stereo equipment and home theater are; and when I read Choice's reviews in those areas I simply shudder at the thought of people basing their purchases on the Choice recommendations. Take, for example, their guide to "LCD vs. Plasma". The things they tell you to look at are ludicrous; there's no mentioning whatsoever on the things that truly constitute a good picture or the things one is required to do in order to be able to properly compare one screen with another. Worse, it totally fails to identify the key issue: that the technology used by a monitor is totally irrelevant and that the only thing that matters is the reliable and consistent quality of the picture. As I said before, I don't care if the picture I'm looking at is generated by pixies flashing their different colored behinds at me, as long as the picture is good. I'll put it this way: Don't expect me to cancel my Widescreen Review subscription because of Choice's revelations.

So why am I so bothered by Choice? Simple: I'm bothered by people accepting the perceived authority of this institution as the word of god. I'm bothered by the self perpetuating process in which some idiot decides to buy a TV because of some very stupid reason, and then Choice stepping in to tell everybody that they should be buying TV's according to the same stupid reason - hey, because that's what they say everybody does (and not because it's the right way) - and as a result we end up with absolutely everybody following their word.
Authority and tradition.
Comparing Choice to the word of god was not a fluke; the two are very similar. Both are pretty shallow and low on the commonsense factor, but both have been accepted by the majority through arguments by authority and tradition. An example I recently bumped into through Ricky Gervais is the example of the original sin: If someone builds a road that's obviously dangerous and accident prone, you will ask for their head to be removed; but when god designed The Garden of Eden with its forbidden fruit, snake and gullible humans all side by side - an accident waiting to happen - we are expected to pay for this original sin till eternity. I, on the other hand, say that god is an underachiever designer (or worse, an evil designer). And anyway, why fuss about eating an apple when the world is full of so much death? It is tradition tells me I should be in awe of this god that is constantly punishing me, but it is my free thinking that allows me to dismiss the notion.
So - do I really think Choice should be classified for eternal damnation, together with its mate, god? No. There are definite advantages to using Choice as a reference, just as there are some many good things that can be taught from religion. For example, Choice does expose you to plenty of products and it does tell you something about them, often things you were not aware of or you were not paying attention to. Say, their diaper tests telling you which diaper was significantly more preferred by a set of a hundred testers.
As long as you can take these observations and then apply your own thoughts and preferences to them the scientific way you should be doing fine.