Friday, 28 September 2007

Merry Solstice

Ramadan is upon us once again, and since it’s only natural to talk about fasting while eating it was discussed during lunch yesterday at the office. And as the conversation naturally rolled on, it got to the upcoming holiday season, now less than three months away, and how there are all sorts of discussions on how to present people with the end of the year parties given the politically correct demand that “Merry Christmas” get itself replaced in favor of the non Christians amongst us.
The obvious took place: One guy asked whether we think things are not going a bit too far with all this holiday branding bonanza. He got several replies, all of them said something like “of course it’s wrong, Australia is a predominantly Christian society”. And while I agree that avoiding the mentioning of Christmas is quite a bad idea, I quite disagree with the reasoning. You see, Christmas is Christmas, and when you take a couple of days off as of the 25 of December that is why you’re off work; why should anyone be offended by the mentioning of a mere name? But that said, I don’t think that Australia is a Christian society; I think it’s predominantly a secular society, where most people couldn’t care less about religion most of the time. The exception is usually when someone different comes about, someone who fasts for an entire month, and then the difference between you and that someone causes xenophobia to pop up.

But regardless of the reasons, an interesting question still stayed in my head: given my anti religion views, how would I manage Christmas?
Well, I will start by saying that at its basis, and if you remove the bullshit religious elements as well as the stupidly excessive consumerism elements of the holiday, Christmas is not a bad deal at all. And those removals shouldn’t be that hard, ideologically: even die hard Christians should acknowledge that the timing of the holiday doesn’t have much to do with Jesus’ birth but everything to do with the pagan longest/shortest day of the year celebrations; and as for the consumerism, a healthy society should not rely on consumerism to make its citizens happy anyway. Someone who shops to keep himself/herself happy is someone who has a problem that no shopping can solve, and I won’t even mention the negative effect that excessive and totally redundant consumerism has on the environment.
Once stripped, Christmas becomes just a long period off work and off school during the peak of summer; in short, a great time to be off on holiday, which is exactly why Jo & I have developed the habit of going somewhere nice for a few days during the holiday (a habit which looks likely to be broken this year, if only because we’ve failed to book anything so far). Presented this way, neither Muslim nor Jew should have any problems with the holiday, and society can cease its artificial steroid enhancements of a minor Jewish holiday called Hanuka in order to appear politically correct.
However, this idea of mine is not without its own problems. Once Christmas becomes just a “long period off work and off school a few days after the longest day of the year”, businesses will realize that there’s not much there to stop them from operating as usual, or at least as weekend usual, during this holiday. And that’s where the problems start: instead of Christmas being a time when all the family can be together for a couple of days, the newly revamped holiday would be just another version of a long weekend. The best thing about Christmas would be lost.
Is this a real problem, though? Australian Jews would tell you that this is exactly what they’re facing with their Rosh HaShana or Passover, and Muslims will probably tell you the same about their Id El Fitter; the lack of a universal celebration framework means that the spirit of the holiday is far from being fully maximized. So if they suffer, why shouldn’t the rest suffer as well?
It’s therefore a shame that secularism is unable to organize itself a proper holiday and that religion still has to be relied upon for organizing some proper holiday spirit. It shouldn’t be this way; the link between a secular holiday and commercialism is not a mandatory link, and if the government puts its mind to it then a proper “artificial” holiday should definitely be achievable. But that is as likely to happen as Australia having a Muslim Prime Minister. Sad but true, as Metallica says.
Till then, let’s call a spade a spade. Bring on Christmas, I’m dying for some time off. Just turn the shopping tap off, please.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Speakers for the Dead

The short story of it is that we’ve bought ourselves new speakers. These represent the first major tweak of my sound system in 10 years.
With this conclusion behind us, let’s get to the details.

First the motivation: what was it that drove us to get new speakers at a time in which we’re earning less than half of what we used to (with Jo looking after Dylan at home) while also having more expenses than ever through catering for a third set of genes? Well, as you might have guessed, I’m going to pin it on Dylan. You see, it’s a safety thing: it is clear we’ll need to establish some form of a barrier where the front speakers are, because they can be easily toppled over – just like the TV; and then there’s the rest of the equipment, which wouldn’t exactly tolerate small prying hands. The worst offender, however, were the surrounds: lying on the floor they did not only consume precious floor space, they were also a prime attraction given all the cables connecting them; and they’re also dangerous to a baby full of mischief.
So we went off to look for surround speakers. I knew exactly which ones I wanted to get. Then it occurred to us that we would benefit from replacing the front speakers, too, and that maybe we can get a “package deal” price if we combine the purchase of the fronts with the surrounds. At the shop we told them we want the surrounds, but also asked them to make us an offer we can’t refuse for the fronts; they’ve made it, and we just couldn’t refuse it.

The next thing I wanted to discuss was the process of demo-ing the speakers.
We got our new speakers from a proper hi-fi shop, as opposed to a shop specializing in moving boxes that contain electrical appliances. The difference is that we had ourselves a well calibrated room to examine the speakers in for as long as we wanted, using an amplifier specified by me, and using CD’s and DVD’s that I have brought with me as opposed to stuff selected by the shops to highlight just the good things about the products they’re selling (for example, the way most crap shops demo projectors using bright scenes only).
Sure, the best way of examining hi-fi equipment is to get it home and test it in your own room; after all, the room is the most dominant factor in sound reproduction. Problem is that given obvious reasons, that rarely happens; I was happily settled with the second best option.
The listening conditions at the shop were quite ideal. On one hand we still had a salesman who seemed to know what he was talking about to one extent or another (another rarity), but on the other hand he said exactly what you’d expect a salesperson desperate to make a sale would say. Which is fine with me; I think I know enough about the subject matter to avoid disruptive influences.
I guess what I’m trying to say here is that people who buy audio and video stuff should not take anything less than a proper demonstration done at ideal terms and conditions where they are allowed to do what they want. With the purchase of our new speakers we got just that and it didn’t seem like we’ve paid a premium for that. It is also important to remember that all this demo took place with a purchase that was not exactly the most expensive item sold by the shop: next to our speakers in the demo room lied a pair of Wilson WATT Puppies, speakers I would seriously consider if I was to win the lottery.
At this point I’ll declare that I don’t fill lottery forms anymore; I don’t think winning would make me any happier in the long term, but that should be discussed in a post of its own.

The purchase of new speakers doesn’t come without the creation of new problems.
Our new surround speakers will be hung on the back wall. Yes, I know it’s not your ideal place for sound reproduction; worse, they’re going to be placed in corners and up high.
The real problem is not the speakers' location but locating them there in the first place. First, we’re talking about drilling holes in the wall; then we’re talking about finding the best way to use these holes to keep the speakers secured to the wall; and then we’re talking about finding some aesthetic way to get speaker cables to deliver the signal from the amp at the front of the room to the speaker at the back. In short, we’re talking about some major Bob the Builder stuff here, and given my record as the Demolition Man I’m not looking forward to the job. Mess aside, the work would rob me of quality weekend time at a time in which rest is as rare as a honest politician.
It could be one of those experiences I will “cherish” for years to come.

Moving on, I would like to state that the decision to go and get ourselves new speakers was a joint decision Jo & I made.
I regard this as an important observation, given that once triggered it wouldn’t have taken much for me to get a second mortgage and go for a set of Wilson WATT Puppies. But it's not just that. One of my problems with this love I have to the world of audio reproduction is that listening is essentially an anti social affair. Around ten years ago that was most of what I would do with my spare time – anti social listening / movie watching. The anti social elements presented themselves again when we bought the speakers: I had to cancel a visit to friends I was quite looking ahead to in order to get the speakers home.
However, the most important element about listening, as far as I’m concerned, is that now I do it with Jo; so even if she doesn’t always like my choice of music/films, it is that much nicer to do it together.
Overall, while being a financially bad decision, the purchase of the speakers did come because most of our leisurely activities in the upcoming years are going to take place at home; it’s therefore good to have a good head start.

And what a good start the new speakers offer! One by one the better sounding CD’s are being removed from the shelf for testing. One of the bad things about having a good sound system is that it exposes bad recordings for what they are, and let’s face it: most contemporary recordings are shameful to say the least. However, the occasional well recorded album (like the new Simon & Garfunkel live album, Old Friends) or your average audiophile recording that just sound good do deliver a kick in the ass experience in suspension of disbelief.
Jo & I listened to a Reference Recordings CD I have of a Mozart piano concerto and it was amazing. We could feel exactly where each of the instruments was, hear the breath of the pianist, and feel the visceral impact of the orchestra as if we were attending the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra live again. It was very loud but it was crisp clear; by far the best sound I ever got out of a system that I could call mine.
And then we started to watch our favorite DVD’s again, but I won’t go over that here; I maintain a separate blog just for such issues.
So here I'll go saying it: Just as I'm annoyed with people buying audio/video equipment without checking it properly and while relying on totally unreliable salespersons' advice, I am annoyed with the fact most people have no idea how good music sounds through a good system (and a good system does not have to be an expensive system, by the way). Especially in this day and age of the MP3, where people go for comfort rather than quality (and I know because I'm one of them), more and more people just have no clue what proper sound reproduction should be like.
I acknowledge that some people are genuinely unable to hear the difference; but the majority does, and the majority is missing out on something really nice just because they are not aware of its potential existence (and not because of financial reasons). As usual, education is the key.

And now to this post's final conclusion: While on one hand I’m really happy with the new speakers, I can’t avoid thinking that this could have been one if the most irresponsible acts of money spending I have ever done.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Australian Sicko

The Australian health system deserves many posts, and for a long while I was pondering how to best approach the subject. I actually had the framework for this post shaped in my head for a week now (yes, that’s how most posts start), but you can blame the recently reviewed Sicko for pushing me ahead with it: it reminded me that the term “medicare” is used and abused both in the USA and in Australia.
You can blame Sicko, but you can also blame our obstetrician. Not that I have much against him or against the service we got from him; on the contrary. The obstetrician we have been using with Dylan has a reputation for being Melbourne’s best, and aside of being on holiday when Dylan decided to pop out everything he did justifies his reputation. Including his bills, which are the subject of this post.
Overall, the obstetrician has pocketed something like $7000 through his engagement with Dylan, along the following breakdown: Fees for the initial meeting (around $200), first bulk fee bill (around $2000), second bulk fee bill (around $3000), charge per visit (around $1500), and the fee for the last meeting (around $200).
Now, I wouldn’t want to be an obstetrician myself – and not only because I don’t want to receive emergency calls in the middle of the night – but if you calculate how much work our obstetrician or his delivery substitute had to perform in our case per dollar, I’m sure you will see that being an obstetrician is pretty close to winning the lottery. Question is, how can he/they get away with it? The answer sounds complicated until you understand the way the system works, which would require some patience.
Although we have engaged the obstetrician as private patients, we did get quite a lot of our $7000 investment back: For the first and last meetings we got about $120 back from Medicare, the Australian public health network run by the government; then for that second bulk fee we got close to $2500 back from Medicare; and the “per visit” charge of $1500 was paid full through both Medicate and our private health insurance combined. Overall, we were only around $3000 out of pocket on the obstetrician (and the actual sum will be reduced even further once we do our tax returns for the year). However, can we really say that we “only” paid $3000 out of pocket? Don’t the rest of the fees, for which we got reimbursed and about which the doctors tell you not to care about because “we” don’t pay them, end up being paid by us just as well through the backdoor of taxes and private health insurance fees? No wonder the private health insurers keep on asking for stupidly high fee rises on an annual basis if this is the way things are!
And that is the point of this post. Private health is being actively promoted by the Australian government because, they say, the public system lacks the funding to provide adequate support for everyone; it is those that pay for private health that “enable”, according to the government, the more lowly public to enjoy public health (on a separate note, a similar and just as stupid excuse is used by the government to justify its funding of private schools). But while saying that, the government is also heavily subsidizing private patients (as demonstrated above in our own case) and also promotes private health insurance by subsidizing 30% of the monthly private health bills.
The results are simple. On one hand, you have a very wealthy obstetrician. On the other hand, you have people receiving public obstetrician support which probably costs the government significantly less than $4000, while those that opt for the private way end up costing the government more than those that go public. Now, I am assuming here that public patients cost the government less than $4000 even though I don’t really know their true cost; however, I find it hard to believe it would be more than $4000.
This, in effect, demonstrates that the Australian government has totally failed its task to fund public health through private health; what it did manage to achieve is the creation of a system which makes key people (e.g., our obstetrician) and key companies (e.g., private health insurers) stupidly rich through the enormous sums of money flowing between their hands.
I have made our obstetrician adventure an example here, but that’s not the only way in which the government has implemented a rather twisted concept: just check out its Medicare Safety Net scheme, where most of one’s health expenses are refunded after a certain expense threshold is passed on a given calendar year – doesn’t this sound like a good motivation for people to go and visit doctors as many times as they can once they pass the threshold? Not that there’s much wrong with going to see one’s doctor, it’s just that the framework is all twisted. Again, the doctors are being made richer, and the people get less for their buck.
My solution is simple: cut the middle man. Remove private health from the equation. No one would go about wishing for private health if nothing is wrong with the public system, and no one would even think about it if the money invested in private health was to be invested in public health. I’m pretty sure even our obstetrician will manage to financially survive the shock to the system.

Friday, 21 September 2007

The night and day of the living dead

Us humans don’t need comedians to entertain us. We supply ourselves with our own material on a regular basis, and I’ll use the occurrences of one day and two night to demonstrate my point.

Over the last couple of nights, Dylan has given us the privilege of sleeping from roughly 23:00 till 6:00. And what do we do with this heavenly gift? Both of us kept waking up as of 3:00-4:00.
The procedure is as follows: You wake up; you realize it’s the middle of the night because it’s dark and you’re tired; you notice that Dylan is not crying and that you can go back to sleep; you wonder what has gone wrong; you lift your head up just high enough to read the time off the alarm clock; you see that there’s still plenty of room for a proper night’s sleep; and you try and go back to sleep, which is usually pretty easy.
Repeat this process several times per night for each of the two of us and you get to see that (a) given the way we cry and moan about lack of sleep this is really foolish and (b) it’s just amazing to see how the human body can adjust to anything, even something as unwanted as getting up in the middle of the night to change and feed a little screamer.

As much as things are getting better (or it is us getting used to the way things are instead?), one can clearly notice that we are way too heavily sleep deprived.
Last night, close to midnight, Jo put the microwave sterilizer to work in order to prepare Dylan’s formula bottles for the next day. After the eight minutes of work it takes the microwave to do its job there was a definitive stench of burnt plastic in the microwave’s vicinity. A short examination has revealed the problem: Jo forgot to put water in the sterilizer. The contraption itself, as well as the bottles that were in it, looked just about right; so where did the smell come from?
It turned out the stench came from the microwave itself, namely the bit of plastic on which connects the motor to make the carousel revolve. Or, to put it another way, this was the end of an illustrious microwave’s career spanning almost 10 years, and all for what? A small bit of plastic that probably costs next to nothing but there’s no way you’re going to put your hands on a replacement. At least we know what we’re going to do tonight (hint: Friday is late night shopping), but I’m annoyed with the waste of an almost perfectly good microwave oven and the $150 that would be spent on its replacement. And all for what? For a very human error.
Not to be outdone by Jo – let’s face it, when it comes to stupid mistakes I’m vastly superior to her in both talent and recorded achievements – I woke up this morning, filled a bowel with porridge and soy milk, and went over to the now dead microwave to warm it up. Yes, the contents of that bowel was spilled down the drain.

In summary, all I can say is that it’s not easy being a zombie. Sleep deprivation is a truly bad thing, but at least I’m thankful I didn’t kill anyone yet and that work didn’t cast me out the 27th floor window for my poor performance since Dylan came to be (maybe they couldn’t tell the difference from before?).
As far as personal conclusions are concerned, it is obvious that I need to be careful about anything I do and think twice before every decision I make; I simply am not the person I used to be from that long forgotten age of sleep, and I should learn to compensate for that.
Drive carefully!

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Faith No More

One, especially the atheist one, often hears lots of affectionate stories on the comforting nature of religion. Occasionally these stories are even used in order to justify religion: How else, many people ask, can one explain the comfort people in trouble feel when they get in touch with their gods? Alternatively, the question is asked in another manner: How, say, can you remove the main source of comfort for many terminally ill people – say, a cancer patient who manages to get a smoother ride through the last months of her life via faith?
The last time I was made to think of this issue was while reading a review for the documentary Jesus Camp (check the review out here). The review was written by one of this blog’s two readers, so here is my chance to create her blog some PR.

Back to the issue at hand – the views saying faith is justified on account of its comfort, to the point of using it as evidence to justify the faith’s subject. Obviously, I have something to say about such views, and what I have to say is quite simple: Yes, it is true that people can derive lots of comfort through their faith. Yes, it’s true that it can make people happy. But no, that does not mean that their faith is in any way substantiated or that the subject of their faith is in any way true.
In order to avoid killing the debate before it started, I’ll politely ignore the fact that different people find comfort in different, and also very contradicting, faiths.
I’ll move on to make an example out of drugs. Drugs can make one happy, probably much happier than faith ever could. Does that justify the use of drugs? Can anyone claim that the delusion created by drugs is real? Is it OK to justify the use of dangerous drugs in order to achieve comfort or happiness?
For the coup de grace I will turn once again to the world of toiletries. You see, the best way to counter an absolute is to point at the extreme case, and when it comes to extreme cases the best example I can think of has been provided to me lately by Dylan:
Since moving from breast milk to formula, Dylan has often had problems producing number twos. He can dedicate entire days of his life to making the effort to generate an output, but often to no avail. When, eventually, push comes to shove and the fodder is released, you can clearly see the relief and the comfort on his face.
Now, is anyone suggesting that god is a piece of shit?

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Smile, what's the use of crying?

This blog already contains some concerns that were raised about Dylan’s incapacity to smile. But as Dylan’s song goes, the times they are a-changin.
Dylan has been making gestures that sort of look like smiles for a while now, but they were either during sleep or while concentrating on something completely different (a number two job or just your average run of the mill fart). Yesterday, however, in a world premier event, I managed to get a genuine smile of him!
I was holding him on the sofa after he had a bit of a grumpy time. Eventually, he settled into a relatively rare “I’m no longer annoyed and I don’t know why I’m still awake but what the hell I’ll stay awake longer” mode. I looked at him and spotted him looking to me in my eyeball; immediately, because he’s just so cute, I decided to make a run for it: I smiled at him with all the smiling vigour I could muster and rubbed his chin for some extra motivation. And in return, while still looking at me, I saw Dylan starting to smile, then very slowly expanding his smile, then moving on to reshape the rest of his face in total smiling commitment. For a few seconds, I was holding a fully beaming baby, shiny eyes and all; it seemed as if the smile took over his entire face.
I know it sounds stupid, but this smile means quite a lot to me. First, for the paranoid in me, it removes some of the worries I still very much have for Dylan (yeah, just some). And second, for the first time this person we’ve been hosting in our house for more than two months gave us a genuine token of appreciation for all the effort we’ve been making around him. It felt the same way you feel when your boss finally gives you the good word after you worked your guts off for a year on a stupid project, only that this means much more than work; this is the real thing.
Since the premier Dylan managed to spare two additional smiles in Jo’s direction. The trick, it seems, is to catch him in those very rare moments where his digestive system doesn’t bother him but he’s not sleepy. It seems like a mighty effort on behalf of the smile inducer is of paramount importance, too.
I hope this is a sign for things to come. Not that I think we’ll all be living happily ever after from now on, but let’s face it – Dylan has a major lineage of smilers behind him: my sister, her son, and myself; I wouldn’t mind it in the least if he follows suit.

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Rewritten history with my armies and my crooks

I told you in the past about the upcoming citizenship test our Australian Government is about to introduce in yet another attempt to needlessly Americanize our continent. Well, now the test is on, and we even have some sample questions published here.
Allow me to refer you to two subsequent questions presented in this sample. Question 14 asks "which of the following are Australian values", and the correct answer is all of the above - men and women are equal, a fair go, and mateship. Aside from the fact that men are equal but always happen to be mentioned ahead of women, you will probably note that in no country other than Australia are people allegedly equal regardless of gender (dare I say "bullshit"?), no other country gives people a break, and in no other country are people friends with one another. All three values are obviously very uniquely Australian.
But wait, it gets worse. Allow me to point you to question 15, which asks what are Australian values based on. The options are either the teachings of the Koran (yeah, right), the Judeo Christian tradition (sounds plausible for a second, until you realize that aside of getting days off on Christmas and Easter the country is pretty secular), Catholicism (what's the difference between that and Judeo Christian tradition?), and secularism. Being that Australia is secular, I would have chosen the last option as my answer for this question. But would I be correct? Not according to the official answers, which specify the Judeo Christian tradition as the correct answer.
In retrospect, how could I dismiss that answer? Obviously, the Judeo Christian tradition complies with all of the very Australian values from question 14. Take, for example, a fair go: after all, according to the bible you should be nice to your slaves; you should even set them free after seven years. A more fairer go can never be achieved. Or, alternatively, have a look at the Judeo Christian record of gender equality: For centuries now we are used to having women Popes, and Jewish daily prayer no longer says "bless god for not creating me as a woman" since... oops, they're still saying it.
OK, enough fooling around: My point is that there is not much correlation between the Judeo Christian tradition and what certain people refer to as Aussie values. Sure, there are heavy cultural influences, but that's it; if anything, Aussie society is stupidly patriarchal, to the point that when a woman runs for a top job (as in the case of deputy opposition leader Julia Gillard) criticism about her not having kids immediately pops up from the coalition's direction.
Let's turn our attention back to the citizenship test and it's silly question. This new test was presented as a means to ensure that new citizens are ready to blend into Australian society as they become citizens. However, the reality is that the test is there to "put the new citizens in their rightful place", that is - if they happen to be Muslims, they will know where they can stick their Koran; like it or not, this country runs by "our church". And so on and so on.
This citizenship test is a stupid waste of resources since the second it was conceived. However, in reality, the test is much worse: it is used by politicians to reshape the truth according to a certain vision they have. A vision which, by pure accident, happens to be way too loosely based on reality. Not that such minute issues ever bothered a politician.

Thursday, 13 September 2007

There’s a war outside still raging

You probably noticed it and didn’t pay it much attention, but the USA is currently a country in war. The two sides are handling it like soldiers on a winter’s night with a vow to defend; no retreat and no surrender are on the agenda. The battlefields span all over the internet, all over the country, and in particular over school curriculums.
I am talking, of course, about the battle for evolution. On one side of the front we have people bearing opinions quite like my own, while on the other side we have Christian creationists; check out the opinion on evolution written for the New York Times by one Sam Brownback (said to be a presidential candidate, although I don’t know enough about US politics to confirm that) for a glimpse at the middle ages. While I understand why this war is important, and while I’m all behind the evolutionary side of things in its fight to stop the American Taliban at its wake, I can also sympathize with the enemy: yes, their beliefs are totally unfounded, but it must be hard to be told that everything you think you believe in stands to nothing. And besides, last time I checked belief was no crime.
What I don’t sympathize with, however, are the unconventional warfare techniques used by both sides. I’m talking about the way they demean one another: just check the most popular videos on YouTube to see some of each sides repertoire of nastiness. While I don’t expect much of the creationist’s side, I am rather puzzled by how the enlightened side allows itself to be dragged in the mire; how the likes of Dawkins and such either turn the blind eye or fully support such nastiness.
I was made to think of this issue while recently stumbling upon an internet shop specializing in atheist merchandise (check it out here). It reminded me of the discussion taking place on this very blog after I was puzzled by the AC Milan footballer Kaka, when I was wondering what makes him wear a shirt saying “I belong to Jesus”; by the same token I can ask the following question - what makes a person wear clothes declaring outright that he/she is an atheist? When put this way I can see the appeal: it’s exactly like wearing your football team’s shirt.
Still, what bothered me the most with the merchandise were not the shirts saying “atheists are great”; it’s the ones that demean the theists that annoy me. Not that I haven’t had my fair share of theist demeaning, but I don’t see how theist hearts are to be won through a shirt that portrays Jesus as the devil. True, I don’t think too highly about Jesus, and I’m pretty sure he would have rolled in his grave had he known what legacy others have created of him, but still – he is a person, and just all other persons he is entitled not to be wrongly demonized. Besides, since atheists are fighting for what they perceive as the truth, then surely they have to admit that portraying Jesus as the devil is plain wrong.
So how could theist hearts be won? My opinion is that it could only happen through education. The demonstration of evolution at work could do marvels.

Take the following example from Richard Dawkins’ Ancestor’s Tale (I can hear that “not again” sigh from this post’s reader; read on, I really think this is interesting).
There is a valley in California that is surrounded by several different species of salamanders; there are none in the valley itself, but they are all over the place in the hills surrounding it. The species at the eastern hills can mate with the species at the southern tip but not with any of the other species; the species at the southern tip can mate with the species to their east and west, but not with the species to the north. The species at the west can mate with the ones to the south and to the north but not the ones to the east. And finally, the northern species can only mate with the ones from the west.
In effect, we have ourselves a salamander ring of species that are all intermediates of a single species, only that after a certain length the intermediates are too far from each other to be compatible anymore. Thing is, whether they are the same or they aren’t is solely dependent on the two particular salamanders you are comparing.
A similar ring story occurs on a grander scale with gulls. In the UK you have smaller white gulls and big dark gulls that are obviously different species and cannot possibly mate with one another. However, as you move across the globe from east to west, you can detect gull varieties of different shades of brown, intermediate varieties that show us these two brands of gulls do have something in common; it’s just that in the UK they got far enough from one another to become truly independent species.
And now for the story’s point. Forget salamanders and gulls and think of us, humans/apes for a minute. It is pretty clear that we are very much related to chimpanzees and that we share a relatively recent common ancestor. Now, what if the ring of intermediates between us and the chimpanzees was there for all to see, the way it is for those salamanders and gulls? This is not that ridiculous an idea; after all, the only thing that prevents them, the intermediates, from hanging around us is death. But let’s just pretend for a minute that they haven’t died out and that the links between us and our chimp cousins are there for all to see. This is the minute when you realize just how important evolution is in the way we think of ourselves: How are we going to think of ourselves once these intermediates are around? How are we going to treat our primate cousins? How are we going to treat other animals in general? What is our opinion on issues such as abortion going to be?
It is clear to see how our perception of ourselves is going to be significantly altered. It is also clear to see that we are denied of this alteration just by the simple fluke of a chance that prevented our intermediates from being around us the way they are around some salamanders and gulls. Personally, I suspect that this speciesm we suffer from, where we think we are unique and no other animal matters, is going to be regarded by future generations the same way that we are now regarding slavery.

In conclusion I would like to say that despite my general opinion of those atheist clothing, I wouldn’t mind wearing that “heathen” hat at all. Not because of the statement it makes, but rather because of the joke. I can’t help remembering the line about the heathens in the Python’s song, Every Sperm Is Sacred.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Day of Infamy

It is exactly a year today since I have had my operation, and it’s really hard to believe that a year has past since. While it’s easy to forget that a year ago I was under the assumption that it’s 80% certain I have cancer, it’s also hard to imagine that within the space of a year we’ve managed to cram together IVF, pregnancy, and a generally screaming two month old baby.
The beauty of it all, if you like, is in the way everything is connected. Due to the same problem for which I was operated on we had to go through IVF, which in effect meant that Jo had to go through some interesting months of treatment and then an operation of her own. Then IVF related complications meant that Jo had to stay at home, pretty much immobile, for some two thirds of the pregnancy. And eventually, the pregnancy was over five weeks ahead of time because of those IVF related complications. While the end result was successful, to one extent or another Dylan will probably be paying for his premature arrival throughout the rest of his life. He’s a gifted baby, and I’m the gift provider.
The most elegant thing about it all is the reason why things came to be this way in the first place: low levels of certain hormones within my mother’s womb, some 37 years ago, before my own birthday!
One more demonstration for how much we are slaves to the chemicals we are made of, or rather: to the fact that essentially, we are not more than a nicely grouped collection of chemicals. Don’t take me the wrong way, I’m not being negative here: the lengths through which these nicely collected bunches of chemicals can go to are nothing short of amazing!

Monday, 10 September 2007

Dylan of Borg

Dylan has had his hearing test done today at Melbourne's Royal Children's Hospital. Apparently, this is something you get to do as a baby if you had two or more days of special treatment, which Dylan has had a couple of weeks of because he was premature.
You're supposed to bring the baby in unsettled so that he/she goes through the test while asleep (great logic, isn't it?). You're even supposed not to let the baby sleep in the car, which is pretty much mission impossible: Jo sat next to Dylan at the back, but try as she might to poke him awake he would only wake up at traffic lights. If only we could have his bedroom fit into a car!
Arriving at the hospital, you realize how gruesome a children's hospital can be. As you walk the corridors you see many babies and kids in all sorts of mental and physical conditions, and you realize how lucky you were/are if you get to have a generally healthy child. Eventually, when you arrive at the hearing lab, they put you in this dark and quiet room. It's not quiet enough to block the nearby construction site sounds, but it is dark enough to prevent you from reading the book you've brought with you (yes, Richard Dawkins' Ancestor's Tale again; I got to episode 20, sharks, with whom we share our grandparents from some 500 million years ago).
They give you a form to fill in with the baby's details, and once again this state hospital asks for the baby's religion, but this time with a twist: they have a yes/no question for whether the baby was baptized. Now I don't know much about baptism, but why would they want to know that? What medical importance does this have? I would understand if they were to ask about circumcision; that's a proper operation. But dipping the baby in some water? If they were to provide some room for a free text answer I would have written something like "no, but we gave him a bath last night".
Anyway, Jo fed Dylan while I read my book in darkness, and after that the both of us worked for an hour and a half on excavating all the gas from Dylan's stomach so he could fall asleep so he can have his test. The test itself is quite clever: they put these implants on the baby's head, one behind each ear and one on the forehead. These implants (check for additional photos on Flickr) look a lot like electrodes that you just stick on the top of the head, only that they are sophisticated Borg implants. Once the baby's asleep they stick a small microphone down each ear and play sounds; the implants are there to detect whether the proper nerves inside the brain are reacting to this signal, hence the need to have the baby asleep so that his/her brain will not be reacting to all sorts of other stimulations.
The test itself takes half an hour and Dylan spent it all lying stomach down on my stomach, asleep (at last). We were sitting on this rocker chair thing that you just need to rock a bit and it perpetually rocks, and it made me so sleepy that my eyes want to shut themselves down even as I type these words, a drive, a lunch and a few hours later.
Most importantly, Dylan has passed the test with flying colors. He can hear himself scream!

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Selling England by the Pound

Those that know me will know that I am not exactly an optimist. I've already expressed my concerns regarding humanity's bleak future through the obvious inability of the people of the future to come and visit us, but then again time travel maybe is asking for too much.
But it's not just that. Evolution has shown us so far that those who were on top are the ones to get wiped out when the next calamity comes. The once kings of the world dinosaurs are all but gone, at least as far as dominance is concerned, and instead those that were shrews back then are now in charge of the planet; therefore, when calamity comes, it will either be the cockroaches or the mice that take over.
Practically, if you think about it, if the probability of us destroying ourselves is 1 to 1000 per year, then in 500 years our existence is a 50/50 affair, and in 1000 years we are goners. Thing is, I would put the odds at more like 1 to 100 or even less: just think of the last 50 years, featuring the Cuban missile crisis, and by the admission of the US government 2-3 more such close call incidents that were simply not made public. On top of that you add global warming, global diseases, and all sorts of new countries you wouldn't trust to take the garbage out getting a hold of nuclear weapons: Israel, Pakistan, and now Iran. And worse, the old, supposedly trustworthy nuclear powers, the USA and Russia, now have gunslingers that shoot from the hip in charge.

And it is in the climate that Australia has now signed an agreement to sell uranium to Russia. There's similar talk about selling it to India (maybe it's more than just talk and I'm just not up to date); the same goes for that shrine of humanism, China. Basically, Australia will sell uranium to anyone with deep enough pockets, and it's bold enough to say that the uranium is sold under a guarantee it would not be used for weapon systems. Of course it won't; it just guarantees that the uranium those nations already have or the uranium they get from other sources will end up in weapon systems.
Almost as if in sync with the signing of the uranium contract between Russia and Australia, Putin has now announced that strategic bomber patrols will be resumed (the use of the word "strategic" in this context is one of the best examples ever for government spin at work). And last week, on the same day the contract was signed, the news told us that British fighter jets have intercepted Russian strategic bombers over the North Sea.
I find it nothing but amazing that the Australian government is bold enough to sell uranium in a world such as ours. Australia is thus directly contributing to a significant increase in the probability of us wiping ourselves out, and all for what?
All for the satisfaction of a very few peoples' greed.

Friday, 7 September 2007

Prisoner's Dilemma

The Prisoner’s Dilemma was mentioned in my blogs several times already. The basic premises is simple: Two prisoners are questioned separately by police; if they both keep silent, they’ll get minimum sentences, but if one of the cooperates with the authorities and the other doesn’t, the co-operator will be set loose while the silent one will rot in jail. If, however, both decide to betray one another they’ll both spend significant amounts of time in jail. This simple dilemma can therefore serve to simulate many situations where a decision has to be made between being selfish or altruistic, which is the reason for its fame.
Basically, it’s easy to see through the Prisoner’s Dilemma that win-win solutions are to be strived for. However, we are finding that at least when it comes to raising babies, parents are at a lose-lose situation. This annoy-ism that we’re experiencing is the driver behind this post; allow me to elaborate.

Rewind three weeks to Dylan’s six week check-up at the paediatrician.
The doctor wanted to see him because he was premature. After a short examination, he concluded that Dylan is fine for a would be one week old baby. He did, however, make two comments: He urged us to get Dylan to lay on the left side of his head, as his body seems to naturally twist to the right and he always lays on his right side the way he did in the womb, giving him a bit of a flat head. This is to be accomplished by trying to capture his attention from the left hand side so that he turns his head. The doctor also told us off for feeding Dylan way too much, informing us that it is really easy to make a baby overweight while on formula.
We were a bit puzzled by that reprimand, as the reality is that Dylan makes it quite clear when he wants to eat [more]. Others have also told us not to worry about overfeeding, as any excess gets puked out. However, with the paediatrician’s comments, we were effectively thrown into a lose-lose situation: If the choice is between a fat baby and a screaming yelling crying baby plus a combination of two shattered parents who don’t get anything remotely close to being able to sleep, I know where my choices would be. It’s easy to say “you should do this and that”, but it becomes really hard to do it when you’re eternally dazed and confused.
One way in which we tried to implement the doctor’s recommendations was to take our time in between feeds. That is, fill the bottles up as before, but just try and stretch things out. My mother called me during one of those stretching sessions and asked why Dylan was crying in the background; when I explained, she told me off, saying that both me and my brother were eating like pigs, too, and that both of us used to gain about half a kilo per week; eventually, we became tall and slim (in my case only as of my late teen years, and that only lasted until I’ve recently gone back to eating like a pig). While her observation might be true, I have no idea whether her recommendation to feed according to demand and ignore the doctor’s advice was really the best thing for the baby; repeating her actions on auto pilot could be the wrong thing to do.
Eventually, things sorted themselves out: Dylan’s demand for food was drastically reduced after a week or so. It turns out that he was going through what is known as a “growth spurt”; you could definitely see the result, as after that week he was visibly significantly bigger. As for the doctor’s recommendation that put us in a lose-lose situation I will say what my mother usually says in these kinds of scenarios: doctor de mi culo.

Yesterday Dylan has had his routine exam with the local nurses. Piglet is now 5.7kg, and dimension wise he’s more than average for his age – and that’s while not taking into account his premature-ness. However, his cognitive skills are lacking: he still won’t smile.
Now, since I’m as paranoid/pessimist as, Jo has expressed concerns about the lack of smiling to the nurses. After all, if we do have potential autism on our hands here, let us deal with it as quickly as possible. I do doubt it, though, because Dylan does not shy from eye contact. Then again, it is well known that statistically, premature babies have lower IQ’s than their full term counterparts, and if there is something to do about it I would like to do it rather than let time fly by. In the mean time we have ourselves a potential candidate for the AFL: Big and strong, but not that smart.
The nurses response to our concerns was to do this test called Brigance Test on Dylan to see how developed he is compared to his age, but then the trick question became – what is his age in the first place?
Again, this is one thing where everyone tells us different things. Vaccine wise, Dylan is two months old; paediatrician wise, he’s three to four weeks old; physically, he’s three months old. To us it seems clear he is somewhere in the twilight zone between all these figures, developing separately on each parameter along continuums affected by his premature birth. To say that he should be at a very discrete development point is to make the mistake of Essentialism.
Anyway, eventually the nurses committee decided to regard Dylan as a month old baby and he passed the month old test in flying colors. However, given that the passage/failure was more to do with the arbitrary decision on how old Dylan was, you can still count me as a worried person. You can also apply the de mi culo phrase on this situation, too.

Fun didn’t stop here. The nurses have also told us off about Dylan’s preference for the right hand side, which we found – once again – to be quite annoying. When do they expect us, really, to try and convince him to turn the other way? When he’s asleep (he flips back pretty quickly)? When he just wakes up, crying for a feed at ear shattering volume levels? When he’s just after his feed, and every slight shake makes him deposit?
We’ll be taking Dylan to a physiotherapist to deal with this. We’ll also take him to see a doctor in order to check on the asymmetry in the fat folds on his legs, which is a thing the nurses are now obliged to warn parents about (don’t ask me why).

In his documentary The Enemies of Reason, Richard Dawkins complains against alternative medicine, claiming it is basically superstition that captures the hearts of people because of the attention bestowed on the patients. It is not the medicine that wins people’s hearts; that is obviously fake. It is the attention that makes the difference.
Those lovely doctors and nurses we have been meeting should watch this documentary. Maybe they will realize how disconnected and inattentive they are to their clients. Till then, we, the parents, end up feeling as if we’re prisoners.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

First we take Manhattan then we take Berlin

A recent post discussing the extreme (and may I say stupid) corner that copyright legislations have got us to managed to create a bit of a discussion. On one hand there was me expressing my support for the proliferation of free information to the masses whereas on the other hand there was Uri saying the information generators need something to live on. I don’t think I disagree with what Uri is saying; I think the question here is the good old problem relativism always poses: just where do you draw the line between paying for what you use and between democratization in the sense of non means tested access to anyone interested.
At the time I have cited a few examples, both in the post itself and in my subsequent comments, to demonstrate how the current environment favors the payback side of things in a way that I consider to be way too strong for society’s good. After all, we are talking here about the good of society in general versus the good of a creator, who is often an individual (as in the case of a writer) but usually comes in the shape of a company, which on its part usually justifies its greed through the altar of its commitment to increase shareholder value.
My point with this post is not to further discuss this relativism dilemma directly, but rather to provide two examples: one for a case where things have gone wrong and greed won the day, and the other for when things work well and everyone is happy – yes, both the consumer as well as the provider. What I’m aiming for is to demonstrate that win-win situations are possible if all sides put their minds to it and a proper model is identified, as opposed to the information provider just being annoyed at the way things are changing and preferring to use of their immense resources in a futile attempt to turn back time (as in the case of the record companies).
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start with the bad example.

The bad example is football (no puns intended), specifically the English Premier League. While the Premier League itself does not exist that long, English football in general does. Most of its clubs have been there for a century or so, and most have all sorts of traditions involved. Not that I care much about those traditions, but my point is that the English football league was established by the community and for the community.
Come Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Channels, who pay the Premier League hundreds of millions of whatever currency you can think of for the games’ TV rights. The results?
Ticket prices have escalated, and now it’s not unreasonable to be asked to pay 70 pounds to watch a game. Most games (if not all games, depending on the country you’re in) are no longer broadcast free to air, with viewers having to pay extra: back in 2005, while visiting Jo’s parents – who have a premium cable package – the asking price was 10 pounds just to watch a game (yes, on top of the cost of the cable package). The result is that the same community for which the league was established in the first place cannot necessarily afford watching football anymore. I’m not sure I’m the target audience, but I haven’t been watching football properly for years now because of financial reasons.
The negative side effects don’t end there, though. Corruption propagates everywhere now: Big business and corrupt business people are lured by the big sums to buy teams out of their original owners, their interests purely financial. Players’ salaries have inflated to incredible heights, resulting in many of them thinking and acting as if they were gods while totally abusing their [sad] role as role models (the regularly abused gets even more abused…). The league’s own management, in there to keep a look on things, is itself corrupt: just check out what happened with the transfer of Tevez from Westham to Manchester United or with Westham bringing getting him in the first place.
Football itself suffers, too: we ended up having four big teams that are the only ones able to win anything, a couple more also runs, and the rest that are just happy to be there in the first place. There is no way in which one of the rests can end up winning the Premiership without it being purchased by a multi billionaire, probably a corrupt one, first. World class players like Arjen Robben end up warming up the bench in Chelsea where we can't see them, whereas any other team would feature them as their main attraction.
In short, the sport we were used to have is effectively gone; all we have is a big money making machine now, with football being a minor side effect.
Did we really need this to happen? Did we really want this to happen?
Happily enough, the internet steps in for the rescue. Through various illegal file sharing schemes you can now watch the games live or download them later. You used to be able to watch them on YouTube as well until the Premiership threatened to sue for copyright infringements; god forbid someone would pose a threat to the millions in its coffer! As usual, though, this is an empty threat: Games are available in so many venues over the internet that one YouTube more or less doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things. The only difference is that behind YouTube there’s now a highly sue-able Google as opposed to a pimpled teenager.
I’ll conclude with a simple question: What was so bad with the old way, before stupendous TV contracts stepped in? The answer is nothing. Unless you count the greed of certain key people.

The positive example may surprise you: it’s movies.
For fifteen years or so, ever since I’ve acquired my first laserdisc player, I have been a buyer of films. Not anymore, though. I still get to watch many films, perhaps more than ever before, so how can that be possible and why am I so happy about it all?
The answer is simple. Next to where we live we have a substantial video library where I can rent three films for $4-$5 a time. That’s significantly less than $2 per film, and I get a good quality product with some friendly service.
Now, I can easily acquire my films for free. The internet offers illegal downloads even before films are first released to the cinemas. That said, I choose not to download because I can get my hands on better quality and price is simply not an issue. I also don’t mind waiting until films are released to DVD’s in Australia, given that in my view a good film is a good film even after the hype has mostly faded.
This happiness of mine is seems to be the result of a freak accident rather than something intentional. The movie studios go out of their ways to milk us of our money: they postpone the releases of DVD’s, they release DVD’s at different times in different regions, and they do their best to keep this mechanism intact despite attacks and copyright infringements.
Still, this is no freak accident at all. My happy situation is the result of the efforts of millions of people hacking into the movie studio world. The rental prices I’m paying and the product availability I’m getting would have never been there if the industry didn’t have to compete with the fierce competition posed by other content providers, other media, and of course – my beloved hackers. I owe my happiness to bit torrent.
Now, in conclusion, let me ask you this: What is wrong with my current movie situation? I would say that nothing is wrong with it. And I would add that I think the money the movie studios are not getting because they have to lower their prices is not missed by anyone other than some CEO’s who pocket a few hundred million dollars less per year than their wildest dreams.
I’m all tears.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Stasi-Land

I love the state if Israel almost as much as I love religion. This may come as a surprise to you, given that I had lived in Israel for more than thirty years, but then again there had to be some good reasons for me wanting to leave the place. Chief amongst those is the privilege of spending four years of my life in active army duty, plus a good few months more doing reserves duty. This is one pleasure I would like to deprive of my son Dylan, which is exactly why I called the Israeli embassy in Canberra today.
I told them about my personal circumstances and that I have a new baby boy. They congratulated me, and said that I must be calling in order to register him as a citizen. I corrected them, saying I actually called because I know that Israeli law states that the descendant of an Israeli citizen automatically becomes an Israeli as well, whereas I actually want the child not to have Israeli citizenship.
At first I was answered with silence. Then, in a whisper like fashion, came a desperate sounding “Why?”
I answered that the boy is an Australian as well as a British citizen and that both countries prohibit triple citizenship. I was answered that in this case there is nothing they can do, but given the contradiction with the automatic Israeli citizenship law they recommend I acquire an official certificate from Australia or the UK saying they don’t allow triple citizenship. Otherwise, I might encounter problems when visiting Israel (or rather when trying to leave).
So off I went to see how I can acquire such a certificate. Quickly enough, though (or rather: dough!) I have discovered that both Australia and the UK don’t have a problem with multiple citizenships. Back to the drawing board!
I then looked at the website of the Israeli Ministry of Interior. This one has an English website that’s full of propaganda and a Hebrew one that is more to the point, so that is where I looked for citizenship related regulations.
I found this section where a parent can declare the giving up of Israeli citizenship for a son or daughter who is under 16 years old and lives out of Israel while holding “foreign” citizenship. The procedure was pretty straight forward – all you needed to do was fill out a form – only that there were two catches: First, you had to provide the child’s Israeli ID number, which is a bit of a problem if you don’t want to have to register them as citizens in the first place; and then there was a second knockout problem, because this giving up on citizenship thing requires your personal presence (as in, it can’t be done electronically or by mail; you have to “be there”). The problem there is that Israel has consular services in Canberra and Sydney but none is Melbourne, and it’s not like we’re talking about a 20 minute drive to from here to either of those places. And I won’t even mention that the people I already talked to at the embassy had no idea that there is an option to give up the citizenship in the first place.
The next option was for me to give up my own citizenship, which would also have an immediate effect on all my young kids. I won’t deny it: this is my favorite solution of them all. Israeli citizenship, now that I’m an Australian, is nothing but a pain in the side, an extra cost when traveling (a passport is an expensive document). Besides, I’m not that big a fan of what Israel is doing; if it wasn’t for family and friends, I wouldn’t want to have anything with that country anymore.
Still, this option proved to be even harder: you still need to fill up a form and be present, but you also needed to write a letter explaining why you wanted to get rid of your precious Israeli citizenship; a mere “because I don’t want it and I’ve got a better one” won’t do. Technically, though, that can be easy: I can say I have political aspirations in Australia, and the Aussie law states that if you want to run for office you need to give up on foreign citizenships; you know, conflicts of interest and such.
The sad reality, though, is that I can’t just give up on my citizenship: It would mean that every time I enter or leave Israel I would be labelled the traitor that I am and security would give me hell. Again, I wish I would never need to visit Israel, but again it’s those pesky family and friends that ruin the plans.
And so we reach the last option. We can register Dylan as an Israeli citizen, have him an Israeli passport, and when he’s 16 we can fill in these forms that ask for the Israeli army to politely excuse him from service because he has foreign citizenship and he lives outside of Israel. Which is fine until you notice the catches:
1. The form where you register your child has this nice entry for a field called “Religion”. My Israeli ID says “Jewish” even though no one has ever asked me what I am, but the point is that I’m furious about the religion being in the country’s business in the first place. Will they check under the hood to make sure he’s been circumcised? Anyway, I know what I’m going to put there.
2. Dylan’s birth certificate has to go through a special authentication procedure that costs time and $60. Why is that necessary? Bureaucracy for the sake of bureaucracy.
3. When applying to the army, you need to provide the child’s school certificates. Why the hell do they need those? Obviously, to make sure he really lives abroad. But can’t they tell that simply from the fact he’s not in Israel in the first place?
4. When applying to the army, the parents also need to supply a letter from their employers, specifying what they do and for how long they have done it. What the…?
5. When applying for Israeli citizenship for Dylan, I need to attach my Israeli passport, which is fair enough given that he is to acquire Israeli citizenship through descent. However, I also need to attach Jo’s passport, which is terribly stupid since it’s not an Israeli passport and since she has no business whatsoever with the state of Israel. Again, why is that necessary?

The conclusion is that I am furious.
I am furious because I’m a citizen of a police state that makes it its business to shove its nose down the private parts of all of its citizens and non citizens that are somehow affiliated with it.
I am furious because there does not seem to be any practical way for me to permanently detach myself from this devil.
I am furious that a country with pretensions of being modern and democratic can get away with actually being a police state.
I am furious that the people living in the country I was born to are unable to see what's going on around them and realize that this "state of security" they're in is not a natural state but rather a security state.
I am into nationalism in the least. I think that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. But I’m also happy, immeasurably happy, to be an Australian by choice.

Monday, 3 September 2007

25 or 6 to 4?

A couple of weeks ago I had a phone call with my parents that went like this:
Me: Dylan was weighed today, and he’s now five kilos and a quarter.
Parents: You don’t say it like that. You say five kilos point twenty five.
Me: OK, if you want the whole story, he actually weighed at five kilos and two hundred and seventy grams, but given the lack of accuracy I thought I’d round it off.
Parents: No, when you say his weight, you always need to finish it with a five at the end.
Me: Why?
Parents: [Some mumbo jumbo that translates to one thing: the Evil Eye]
Me: [Some profanities that translate to “you know where you can stick your Evil Eyes”]
Parents: [A mixture of “how can you say such things” and “we don’t know what’s going on with you”]

Yes, this is another post devoted to superstitions, but this time I’ll leave religion alone and focus on Evil Eyes. Now, Evil Eyes come in many great shapes and varieties; for the purpose of the limited scope of this post, I will focus on the specific Evil Eye worshiped by my parents. I would, however, like to make it clear that Evil Eyes are definitely not limited to the Israeli side of the family; they seem to be alive and well in the UK branch of the family as well, although there they have a bit of a different version. They’re also alive and well in Australia, where friends have been known to stumble upon yet different varieties.
Obviously, I think superstitions in general are rather foolish. They can be harmless, and even act as funny jokes; but the minute you let them dictate your actions they cross the border into the realm of the harmful, which is why I think a world without superstitions is a better world. However, since I want to adopt an understanding approach rather than my usual “you idiot, how can you go for that approach” I have so often deployed on religion, I will stop saying “the Evil Eye is stupid” and just analyze the Evil Eye for what it is.
Let’s go.

The particular brand of the Evil Eye that works in Israel works like this. If you say something good about a person, then the Evil Eye hears you, and that good thing will fly like a boomerang to hit that complimented person right back. The boomerang here is usually shot back at the person through nasty people who become envious of said person. That actually makes sense: envy does often lead to nasty actions (although I can also see cases where envy creates empathy and creativity).
The trick here is that the envious person who inflicts the damage never really hears the original praise that originally spoken. Say, if someone in Israel was to say “wow, look at Moshe, he’s so sexy and handsome”, the damage inflicted back at me may well happen through the hands of an Aussie who works with me and has no clue whatsoever as to what was said about me back in Israel (not to mention the ability to speak or understand Hebrew).
So how does it work, then? How does the saying of one thing lead to an action the other side of the world? How is the Evil Eye enforced?
Well, that’s the mystical side of it, I guess. There obviously needs to be some supernatural element here that provides the conductivity required. Now, I know my mind has been way too inflicted with the disease of reason, but if I was to pretend to be a superstitioner for a moment and think of a conductor that will do the job here I would come up with something like a low level devil/demon of sorts.
This demon is quite a special one; not your average demon in the least! It waits about, floating in the ether, just waiting for someone to say a good thing about another someone; not think a good thing, for this is not a thought triggered demon (how silly can that be?), but say a good thing – we are obviously talking about demons with some acute hearing here; even a whisper will trigger them off. Plus, they’re multilingual demons. Very capable demons indeed.
Once our demon hears the good word, it immediately identifies a matching person to offset that good word. Since we’ve already agreed that person could be on the other side of the globe, we have now established that these demons have some great transport facilities at their disposal! I don’t know whether they can travel across space (or time, for that matter), but they can certainly travel from Israel to Australia without any noticeable carbon emissions – if only our airlines could mimic these demons!
Now that the demon has arrived at its destination, it possesses the potentially envious person, robs him or her of their self control, and then goes off to inflict the Evil Eye’s damage.
All very plausible indeed. I have no idea how people can really say that the Evil Eye is just a superstition.

Back from my duties as a servant of the Evil Eye, allow me to conclude with a couple of statements.
First, I would like to say that with the number of times the evil eye was already triggered on Dylan, he should have been dead and buried by now: with all the stuff we bought him before he was born, he should have never come out in the first place, surrounded by fifty demons at least. Yet he’s here, and he’s fine overall; still, the most amazing thing to me is that no family member (on either side) has raised any doubts as to why the Evil Eye demons didn’t bother working this time around. Their belief in the Evil Eye remains intact. I, with my stupid reasoning, see it as a foolproof belief: the way it’s working, it can never be proven wrong.
The reasoning person in me also sees through the veil of evolution in action here: millions of years of evolution have trained our minds to be risk shy; it is better to follow the Evil Eye’s rules and be on the safe side than defy it, regardless of whether it makes sense or not. Still, if we were to follow this logic, we would be able to invent so many varieties of the Evil Eye we wouldn’t get anywhere; it is only our limited imagination that stops us doing so, although it could be an interesting social experiment to try and invent a new Evil Eye brand and see whether it takes a hold in society.

The second statement I would like to make is that while there are still plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong with Dylan during the course of his life, I think that adhering from giving him any praise would be much worse than the potential damage of the Evil Eye. The guy could very well end up on a psychiatrist’s couch if all he hears is negative stuff.
My point is simple: the Evil Eye is not only stupid, it is harmful. In my book, I will be committing a moral crime if I was to let the family (again, both sides) go on with it.
Hence this post, which none of my family will read anyway.

Saturday, 1 September 2007

Business as Usual

A month and a half ago I put a couple of videos here showing how we change Dylan's nappies and how we settle him (you can refresh your memories here). Now, for documentation purposes, and to show just how much Dylan has changed (and just how much he didn't), here are a couple of videos taken today showing a nappy change and a feed.
The purpose was to show how aggressive and how noisy Dylan can be. Noisy during the nappy change, aggressive when he sees the bottle. However, the videos below fail miserably: Dylan had a dummy on during the nappy change, which kept him relatively silent (barring some funny squeaking), and by the time he got to the feed he was too tired to be his usual aggressive self.
Anyway, be warned: nothing special happens in the videos, although I think they're mildly entertainingly funny.



Risk shy

Time is probably the most precious resource at our disposal, yet we seem to squander it left and right. One very effective way in which one can waste their time is TV watching. Now, there are plenty of ways one can watch TV material, some of which are not bad at all: you can watch a movie on DVD, or, say, a worthy documentary that could even make you slightly wiser. And then there's cheaper entertainment that's good for relaxing, like the Seinfelds and the Are You Being Served-s.
However, lately I noticed that people are still fully capable of committing that ultimate time murder exercise that is watching commercial TV, as in not watching a specific program but just turning the TV on to see what's on air. Basically, you're committing your body and your soul to watch the material that an organization which cares about nothing but its profits shoves your way. Your only saying on the matter is in potentially flicking to another channel, but there you only get more of the same. Frankly, I find this inexcusable, even if I do commit this crime myself from time to time (although as time goes by rarely and rarelier). You see, VCR's have been around for more than 20 years now; even DVD's have been around long enough for all of us to have lots of them and even more of them at the DVD rental shop. So why would you let someone else, someone whose interests obviously conflict yours, dictate what you do with your time? In this day and age of contents bombardment, the internet, and most of all the bit torrent, someone who does not watch exactly what they want to watch at the time they want to watch it is committing a moral crime. I'm serious: it's equivalent to paying someone to have your brain lobotomized for no particular reason.

With that conclusion behind us, let me move on to potential cures.
Books are one excellent solution, video games are another (a very inferior yet quite entertaining another). Both, however, are under normal circumstances rather anti social solutions. So, what should one do if one is in a group of people with some time on their hands?
Enter the board game.

Obviously, board games are not the only solution to this deeply troubling need for quality social time. Role playing games also pop into my head as a good alternative; however, board games are the lowest denominator of the lot: everyone can accept them, most people know them already, they are properly balanced between skills and luck (unlike, say, poker or other gambling games), and most do not require a university degree or vast experience to take part in (the way most role playing games do).
So - which board games make my day? Well, there is no definitive answer here. There shouldn't be one, because it's about having fun, not answering existential questions. I'll go through a few popular options.
Cluedo (which I believe is called Clue in the USA) is always a popular option when you have enough players. The problem with Cluedo is that once you do the maths behind the game, all the players should have the exact same picture of what has been identified so far, and barring some lucky break it's just a question of being the first to make the accusation once the culprit has been positively identified. It's still fun, though, and you need to be on your toes to keep up with the ongoing questioning and answering.
Monopoly is a game I like for social reasons: it can drive people to nasty extremes... Seriously, though, Monopoly can be quite a pain. If someone manages to take control over the more expensive strips, that someone is usually the winner; if no one manages that, though, then you end up with a stalemate, which is when the true pain comes: in order to finish the game someone has to sell something to someone else; but who is to be sold the more expensive sought after stuff? It's a tricky question because that would decide the game's winner. No - while fun, Monopoly is not the answer.
Scrabble, however, is quite a good answer. People tend to think of it as a game that requires a large vocabulary to win, but in my opinion that is only half of the truth. The other half is exploiting the board's structure in order to maximize your points and minimize your opponents', which is exactly how I manage to have some fair level of success despite usually being only able to add an "s" to the end of existing words. Scrabble is an excellent mix of skills, games theory, and luck!
One genre of board games I have a special affection for is the strategical games. These are less familiar, but they require more thinking on behalf of the players, as in more statistical analysis: Of the ones I had a go at, I like Dragonlance (based on the AD&D series) and Ogre the most. Both suffer from lack of familiarity, which means I hardly ever get to play them. Mind you, some of these strategic games are so complicated - say, Axis and Allies - that you just never get to play them.
Surprisingly, at least when compared to other people, I'm not competitive at all when it comes to playing for the win. I mean, I do try to win a game and I enjoy the thrill, but at the end of the day I couldn't care less whether I win or lose. My life will not change as a result of a loss, nor will I be inferior to someone just because they managed to spell a six letter word featuring the letters Q and X whereas I can only muster words like "in" or "dog". I do, however, find it quite annoying to play with people who think their life is hanging on the line, stopping at nothing to win. The result of that is that something which is meant to be fun turns out to be outright nasty. Sometimes, I encounter friends whose only goal in playing is to make sure I'm not winning (let's call a spade a spade: I'm talking about Haim). It can be nice if it goes with the spirit of the game, but it's stupid if they effectively ensure the victory belongs to a third party. Come on, it's just a game!
The game I seem to like the most because it's totally not about winning is Cranium. In case you haven't heard of it, it's a mix of trivial pursuit, play-dough, pictionary, and spelling stuff. And when played with the right group of people it's just pure fun - we ended up not caring in the least who's going to win, it was just a case of going through (or watching others go through) the activities. Naturally, I suck big time in all the make believe stuff, but that's exactly why I enjoy it; Jo excels with those, and that's exactly why she enjoys it and I enjoy watching her. It's just an excellent way to spend the time. If only players were easy to come by, and if only they'd leave the TV alone when they do!

The only exception to me not caring about the win is with the game Risk. This is a game my uncle bought me when I was in high school and we played it quite a lot together. I also played it with others. The main thing about it is that I never lost a game of Risk. Or rather, I always won all the games of Risk I took part in! The result is weird: I am now afraid to play the game, not because I don't like it, but rather because I like having the title of "eternal Risk winner". Then there are social issues: I know that if I was to play it with my friends their only agenda would be to beat me up rather than have a constructive attempt at having fun.
I think I know what the solution to my Risk disease is: When Dylan is old enough, I'll get him the game and we'll play it; if he wins he wins, if he doesn't I'll let him win. And that would be the end of the Risk curse!