Wednesday, 31 October 2007

If there is some confusion, who's to blame?

I have already used this blog to express my opinion on the service Telstra provides us in the past. For example, just before Dylan was born I was complaining how expensive it is to use wi-fi hot spots in Australia (and how rare these hot spots are) whereas, in comparison, I was able to surf the internet quickly and freely in every American toilet while visiting there.
Today an article in Israel's Haaretz newspaper has shown me just how much we're being screwed by Telstra for your plain vanilla home ADSL broadband connection. I am on a cheap plan by Australian terms and I pay $50 a month for my 1500mbps connection; however, in Israel that same connection would cost me $13 before haggling and $10 after haggling, and I will also receive all sorts of minor bonuses such as chatting gear and anti-virus software.
While the need to haggle for a price tells you something about Israeli culture (something I really don't like), the 500% price difference between Israel and Australia says quite a lot if not more, too.
And still people will tell you that they go for Telstra because it's an Australian brand, which just goes to show how many people can be fooled all of the time by Telstra's propoganda. Telstra may be owned by Australians, but it is a private company now that couldn't care about Australians in the least: It keeps on outsourcing its services abroad, and it keeps on screwing us Australians left and right. The earlier people realize that, the earlier a viable alternative will surface.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Fly by Wire

Dylan seems to have quickly developed an expertise at sucking his thumbs.
At first he was pretty crude: he’d slap his own hand across his face and drag it down gradually until it came to around the area of his mouth. By now he’s much more sophisticated about it and he even uses both hands to perform his trick (although it looks pretty obvious he’s right handed). By adult standards he is still pretty crude: as you can see in the Flickr photos, he often misses his mouth and ends up scratching his nose; the scratches can tell you a thing or two on how aggressive he can be with his sucking.
While the sucking may look innocent, it does have negative aspects beyond the scratching. For a start, because of his dominant right hand, Dylan quickly flips himself to his right side while in bed to help with the sucking; this results in the already squashed right side of his head, the side he has always “preferred”, to become even more squashed.
Then there are behavioural issues. While at first it was nice to have him able to pacify himself without the help of a pacifier, now we’re getting gross exaggerations: he will gladly chuck the dummy out of his mouth in favour of a finger, and from time to time he’ll even try to chuck the milk bottle out of his mouth in favour of a finger. He also tends to cry in his bed when having problems sticking the thumb in, such as when he’s tired and we put him to bed; and when he wakes up in the morning the first sounds you hear are the cries he emits while he failing to stick his fingers in his mouth and then, assuming he was successful, the sounds of his sucking.
The thing I find interesting about all of this is to do with me. Those who know me can attest to me having fingers in my mouth on a regular basis (I do it for chewing, though, as opposed to sucking). Thing is, there is no way in which Dylan could have learnt this behaviour from me: for a start, at his age (and most definitely at the age in which he started sucking his fingers) I doubt he is able to learn anything at all, not to mention anything that sophisticated. And then there’s the fact that I hardly ever put my fingers in my mouth in his presence, simply because I am more relaxed when he’s around and I tend to have my hands busy holding him or messing about with him; it’s actually work where I do most of my chewing. In fact, one parameter that I tend to use to gauge how good a time I am having is the status of my fingers’ skin, and while over weekends they tend to renew themselves (and on vacation it looks like I was installed with a new set of fingers), at the office they are beaten to death.
What I can therefore conclude from this entire saga is that the need to put his fingers in his mouth, while probably a harbinger of the generic baby tendency to sample stuff by sticking it in the mouth, is very much hard wired into the baby’s genes. Dylan was lucky enough to inherit some of my genes that made him extra adept at it.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Hearts and Bones

During the weekend I said goodbye to my Polk speakers as the buyer who got them off me on eBay came to collect them. It was one of those occasions where I really had a hard time departing from an object: since acquiring them back in 1992, those speakers and I went a long way together. For a start, I’ve had them for almost half of my life and they moved with me from my parents’ place to my rented bachelor’s apartment and then crossed the seas all the way to Australia to follow me. Just imagine how much music they have played for me and how many times these speakers were tortured with Terminator 2 at THX levels just for me. With the truck/bike chase down Los Angeles’ water canals alone, I suspect that subwoofer has had to struggle for something like a hundred times.

The speakers’ story actually begins with their acquisition. Back in 1992 there was no internet and good stuff was hard to come by: Most of the stuff I would read about in American magazines was not available in Israel, and those that were came with a hefty price tag, curtsey of Israeli customs legislation. At the time I was also a soldier, and although I hardly had any expenses I was also earning less than $100 (USD) a month.
So when I decided that I want the speakers that I ended up getting it was obviously going to be a case of “dream on”. That is, until my father suggested using the services of my cousin from Chicago. Or was it cousin David that volunteered? I can’t really remember. Whatever happened there, David ended up buying me the speakers in the USA, and he brought them over to Israel in one of his then frequent business trips. Thing is, that subwoofer was too big to just walk through customs with, so not only had to carry 20 kilos worth of speakers together with the rest of his luggage by hand, he also had to pay a fine at the Israeli customs – after being held there for most of the night following his transatlantic flight. In short, it wasn’t a pleasure ride for him, and the affair ended up costing us much more than originally planned.
Looking back at it all, I am amazed to see how unappreciative I was to the effort made on my behalf. And all for a set of speakers! Not exactly the best way to abuse one’s family. To add to the insult, I didn’t pay much for the speakers: my father announced that I still had some money left from my Bar Mitzvah to cover for the fine, and I was happy with that because I never knew I had that money in the first place (note that in Israel it is customary to give cash as a gift, something unheard of in Australia and in the English branch of our family; between you and me, since it’s rare that someone else knows what I want better than I do, I prefer the Israeli way).

Fast forward almost 16 years, and now – with Dylan acting as a catalyst – we got ourselves new speakers. Given that we have a small house we can’t just keep on piling stuff we don’t need, so as has by now become the routine eBay stepped in to the rescue and we sold the speakers. And as said, the speakers have joined a distinguished line of items I had a hard time departing with, like the HP48 pocket scientific calculator that has saved me so many times during university.
I guess what I am trying to say here is this. As much as I am emotionally attached to my former speakers, they are just that – speakers. They are not worth being passionate about; not half as much as my relationship with my cousin is. Stuff that can be bought with money can sure make life nicer, but at the end of it all that is all there is to it and stuff is just stuff.
In many respects, I am grateful to our small house, which forces me to learn to appreciate the things that really matter in life. I am also thankful to eBay as it allows me to get rid of the stuff I no longer need so easily (and even gets me some cash in return).
With shopping fast becoming the world’s national sport, it’s good to have some way of remembering that the acquisition of material goods is, for most parts, a redundant demonstration of vanity that does nothing to improve our lives and wastes so much of our time. And I’m saying that knowing fully well that Christmas is coming up and the entire world is going to go shopping to their death in a short while.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Gems

Cardinal Pell, Australia’s top Catholic, seems to be eager to supply the world with gems. Check out the latest from yesterday’s Age, in which he further emphasizes his position as a global warming skeptic. I guess I can’t resist laugh potential when it is so readily presented, so I’ll discuss three of his arguments here.

First, Pell tells us that Jesus said nothing about climate change, therefore concluding that global warming is not an issue.
I’m not that familiar with Jesus’ writing, especially as there is none of it and all we have today is hearsay written many years after Jesus’ death. From what I do know about that documented retrospective hearsay commonly referred to as the bible's new testament, there’s not much of a discussion there about many other great things and that doesn’t stop us investigating them.
Take space exploration as an example. Jesus does not tell us anything about galaxies, nothing about black holes (as fascinating as these are), and nothing about our size and place in the grand universe we live in. He doesn't even go as far as discussing the solar system. Does that stop us from trying to know what goes on up there? The same goes for particle physics, where Jesus fails to tell us about atoms, electrons or quarks. Come to think of it, he doesn’t even mention electricity or magnetic fields, yet no one is suggesting we turn the TV off because Jesus never talked about it.
Let’s face it: by our measures, Jesus was a pretty ignorant person (which, by the way, does not mean he was a bad person; we're all ignorant about a great many things). A believe might explain this ignorance by arguing Jesus was doing his best to integrate with the people around him, but the point is still the same: you cannot deduct that global warming is not real just because Jesus chose not to talk about it; he may have been deliberately playing the "contemporary ignorant" card.
Mind you, the atheist in me sees the lack of black holes and such in the supposedly holy scriptures dictated by god etc as yet another indicator of them being written by ignorant bronze age people as opposed to divine entities; the bible's scope and vision is just so limited that people who follow it suffer from immense tunnel vision that limits their entire lives. But that’s not the point I’m trying to make here.

Pell then goes on to say that “radical environmentalists are more than up to the task of moralizing their own agenda and imposing it on people through fear”. Sure they are; the church, on the other hand, would never even dream of doing such things, would it?
I mean, the church, especially the Catholic one, has never ever tried to impose itself on people. And on those very few occasions where it might have been perceived as if it was trying to do so, it never ever used fear as a tool. No, the Spanish Inquisition was a charity to help the homeless and the Crusaders were on a diplomatic mission to ensure the well being of animal stock in the land of Israel. Not to mention countless (and I do mean countless) of other, more contemporary events.

The biggest joke of them all comes from one sentence uttered by Pell which immediately qualified and won the “how wrong can a statement be” international award. We’re talking here about something that’s worse than “1+1=3”. Read it and weep (of laughter):
“Church leaders should be allergic to nonsense”.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Trading Places

Back in January, when Jo had her Australian citizenship ceremony, I was telling you how annoyed I was with the "authorities" bringing in celebrities to preach about the wonderfulness of Australian life, celebrities whose main distinction between them and us mere mortals was that they made lots of money.
One of the two guys they brought over was John Ilham, a Turkish guy who came over to Oz at the age of 3 and made millions out of nothing with his chain of mobile phone stores. Well, earlier this week, while walking at a park next to his home, John has collapsed and died, just like that, at the age of 42.
Obviously, this is pity. It's a pity this guy didn't do as much as he could have done in life, it's a pity he didn't get to experience more of it, and it's also a pity for his family.
I do wonder, though, if the same people who brought him over to the citizenship ceremony would have traded places with him, millions and all, had they known he was to die at the age of 42. My point is simply this: there is so much more to life than money; I'm pretty sure John Ilham would have donated it all to charity to earn a few more years on this planet so that he would be able to do the things that really matter in life, the things that - amongst others - truly make one eligible to come and speak during a citizenship ceremony.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

But if your mind's neglected

A very interesting article in the current issue of Scientific American pits two brain experts in a debate on how consciousness is created in our heads. Oddly enough, neither’s theory involves souls or other extra terrestrial fictitious entities; instead both of them say that consciousness is the result of chemical and electric reactions in our heads, with the difference being the configuration of these reactions. To the mere mortal in me both theories sound pretty similar, and compared with the problems that prevent the theories from being verified the differences between the two are subtle. Still, an interesting read by all accounts.
One statement in one of the scientist’s arguments made me think a lot. In her arguments, the Oxford scientist said that consciousness is the result of complicated neuron structures that are created and disassembled all the time, and that it’s the magnitude of these constructions that dictates what it is that we are conscious of. This argument’s implications are quite severe, because many of us allow ourselves to eat, say, fish, on the grounds that fish don’t have any feelings; but even fish have some level of neuron constructs, and therefore they are self aware to one extent or another, in which case by many peoples’ standards we are committing horrible crimes every time we lunch.
Further on the same lines, the scientist tells us that people who are unable to create complicated neuron constructs are people that tend to act illogically and be greatly motivated by emotions. I suspect we commonly call these people “religious”, but jokes aside the question I did ask myself was – given that elections are coming up in a month’s time, should such people be allowed to vote and have an equal weight to their vote as someone whose neurons are not limited?
I can see the commotion that asking such a question raises, but I don’t think the commotion is argument enough not to ask the question; I think the trick is in finding a proper answer. If we look ourselves in the mirror we can see that we prevent many potentially eligible subjects from voting on much lesser grounds: An American intellectual living in Australia will not be able to vote unless he becomes a citizen, while a moron Australian born criminal is, solely on the basis of being born in Australia. A brain dead person in a comma still has the right to vote, while a chimpanzee that has been taught to express itself (himself/herself?) is not even allowed out of the cage.
Still, this is no justification for going down the spiraling path of limiting voting rights by one’s neuron topography. It is pretty obvious we shouldn’t discriminate against the supposedly “dumb”; it’s clear that today’s smart will be tomorrow’s moron, for a start. No, such a path represents the highway to the dictatorship of the supposedly logical.
But aren’t we doing similar discrimination against the dumb already? I will gladly argue that we do, and in mass quantities. Just think of all the crap on TV that numbs people’s brains, for a start. Think of all the people that are incapable of opening a book (for the record, I cannot claim not to belong to these prestigious clubs). John Howard himself said he strives to make Australians happy and carefree, but if you look at his policies it is clear that his way is the comfortably dumb way: Happiness, according to most Australians, comes from the acquisition of material commodities. Shopping malls are the new shrines. The kids of today grew up knowing nothing but the Howard way; no wonder they are so indifferent towards the upcoming elections.
This leads me to my proposed solution to the problem of people who lack the capacity to use their brains logically. Instead of banning them or labelling them as second grade, my opinion is that society should offer these people the tools required to get the most out of their black boxes. In short, education is the way forward, or rather: mass investments in education. The sad thing about it is that the type of education that most people receive is the type that makes them want to sit and watch commercial TV instead. I guess a revolution in the way we educate ourselves is due, but I know I shouldn’t hold my fingers in the hope that the upcoming elections are going to fix anything.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Dylan on the Morning

Jo reckons the best time to catch Dylan smiling is in the morning. That's a time when he spreads smiles for free, so today we were there in time with our camera to catch all the action. Naturally, with the camera around he didn't smile half as much; I don't know if it's to do with us not making as much of an effort in inducing a smile or with the camera being a distraction. Still, we did get ourselves a few smiles.


Later in the afternoon Dylan has had himself an unexplainable fit. He cried for an hour or so while we tried to settle him down, and eventually settled for this very weird position. Jo took some photos of it but I also took a short video of the aftermath while Dylan was lying on me.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

The Elders' Protocols

Earlier this week I woke up in the morning and noticed my watch said it was quarter past three. Given that there was light outside, I figured that we're either going through some religious cosmic experience or that the watch's battery ran out. Being that I feel stupidly insecure without a watch on me I got a backup watch from a drawer (which, by the way, helped confirm the second theory). That backup watch, a Casio G-Shock, looked fine until I clicked its light button - that move had the opposite effect to what I expected it to do and the watch just died on me. I slapped yet another backup watch on my hand and took both dead watches with me to work.
While at the office I scanned the yellow pages for watch repairers and found a couple that were right near my office. I went to the first one and asked to replace the batteries on both watches. The guy there took a careful look at my watch and started praising it; then he took a careful look at the G-Shock and started praising that one, too, saying it's a real G-Shock. Then he told me that it would cost me $65 to replace the battery on my watch and $35 to do the same on the G-Shock, altogether $100.
Obviously, something was wrong there. First, the last time I had my watch's battery replaced it cost me $20. Second, I'm always suspicious when supposedly accurate quotes just sum up to a very round number. And third, I failed to understand why replacing the battery on an expensive watch (not that expensive, though) costs more than replacing the battery on a mere mortal's watch.
The watch repairer noticed the way I feel and in retaliation started talking to me in heavily accented Hebrew, explaining why the cost is the way it is: he needs to have my watch pressure tested in order to guarantee its waterproof-ness. Fine, but why doesn't he need to do the same for the G-Shock? I bid him farewell and went to the other place, which happened to be just across the road.
There I was greeted by a guy of Far Eastern appearance (probably Chinese). He had a look at the watches and quoted $8 for the G-Shock and $10 for my watch, explaining that my watch uses a unique battery. Altogether, $18 - less than 20% of the first guy's quote. Upon my approval the guy went on doing the job right in front of my eyes while explaining what he was doing to a very curious me who found the lesson on its own was probably worth the admission price (although I would have preferred to have my own saying with the lesson's timing).
Anyway, my point with this story is a bit of a repeat of the previous post: Why did the guy at the first shop start talking to me in Hebrew when he noticed the doubts I had about the transaction? Why do people think that by showing they belong to the same religion as I do (at least so they think, given that I don't belong to any religion) I would be more susceptible to falling for their lies?
One can easily see how antisemitic notions are created this way. An ignorant person going to this watch repairer and noticing that the guy is both a Jew and a cheat cannot, really, be blamed if his/her ignorance takes the better of him/her and makes him/her associate greed with Jewish people. Historical reasons will contribute further to this link, given that historically Jews were prevented from conducting normal labor by the Christian authorities, therefore being forced to work in banking and such; once they became good at what they were doing they also got the wrath of the community and the stigma of being "good with money".
Not that I'm becoming antisemitic or anything; my only aim is to demonstrate just how easily we can fall into the trap of racism. It happens because we're all wired to connect one point to another in our brains; luckily, by educating our brains we can also realize that there's more to a person's behavior than the genes he/she was created of.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

The Graduate

Dylan has officially graduated for the first time over the last week.
First, Jo has graduated him from his bassinet, which was used to carry him on top of his pram. From now on he’s just another kid sitting in a pram, but I have to say Dylan wasn’t in love with the idea of not being confined in a bassinet. I’m sure he’ll get used to life’s harsh realities, if only because he doesn’t have much of a choice.
And then yesterday we’ve graduated him from his baby capsule (pictured) and into a proper child car seat, albeit a rear facing one (for now; it can be transformed later on, Autobot style). At around 7kg, Dylan could have survived the capsule for a few more weeks, and safety wise the baby capsule is probably the safest thing he’s going to be in until technology (or oil running out) prevent car crashes altogether. Comfort wise, however, the capsule forced Dylan into some sort of a ball, and it was quite a pain to get him in and out.
The trick with those child seats is their installation. The seat we got Dylan didn’t come with a manual; all the instructions are on the seat itself. Sound easy and great, only that the instructions were obviously written with someone who already knows how to do it in mind; for an ignorant idiot like me they meant absolutely nothing. Given that a bad installation takes the point out of getting a child seat in the first place, we went to a professional installer near us that was recommended in the RACV website: Mentone Motafix. We knew them already as they did the capsule installation for us, and once again they were nice enough to merit a mention in this blog: a rare case of mechanics that are actually nice and seem truly interested in doing a good job.
Turns out that we were lucky to go there for other reasons, too. The harness that is to be used to anchor the seat to the car was too short for our wankers’ choice 4WD car, so they had to get an extension belt and a clip thing as an extra. Half an hour later and $52 down the Amex drain Dylan was happily installed in his new seat; and I’m not just saying that: Dylan took an active part in the installation and was also keenly interested to hear the installer’s advice, often responding with a trademark “hoo”.
The point of the story is this: I recommend this professional installation thing, and I recommend the particular establishment we’ve been too. For reference, with the car capsule they have charged us for labor only and it was $22. Piece of mind usually carries a much larger price tag with it.

The story of the child seat does not end with the installation. The story of acquiring the seat in the first place has some anecdotes on its own.
As I have mentioned before, two child seat safety researches we had a look at said that simple is better: crash test results are virtually identical with all the “proper” seats, with a bit of an edge to the simpler seats, but installation errors that are more likely in the more sophisticated seats mean that you stand a good chance of causing harm through an error there. One way of mitigating that is to have the seat professionally installed, but let’s face it: throughout the life of the seat it would be taken in and out of the car in order to use the car’s expanded boot space when the seats are folded, and we are not going to have the seat professionally reinstalled each time around.
Thus we went to visit Glenhuntly Baby Carriages, whose website said they sell the simple Safe-N-Sound Safeguard seat at the cheapest price of them all. Upon inquiring about the seat, the salesperson there immediately asked whether it’s for our second car. We asked for explanations, and he said that the simple seats are only worthy of a second car installation or a granny’s car installation; people buy the more sophisticated seats for their first cars where safety really matters.
Now, being an experienced hi-fi consumer, I know that everything a salesperson tells me is to do with making more money and hardly anything to do with facts. But to hear such lies told in such a way was majorly annoying! I challenged the guy, telling him that RACV and Choice said contradictory things to what he was saying; he muttered that RACV recommends the elaborate seats (they do, but they also state the above mentioned reservations). Then he pointed at a $400 seat and said it had won an Australian safety award; I looked at the seat and it said the seat had won an Australian design award. I’m sure it’s a major trophy, but I’m not sure this design academy is in any way a reference when it comes to safety.
In short, the salesperson was blatantly lying to us in order to make an extra buck, trying to work on our parental emotions so that they would make us spend more money. We ended up deciding to go for the “second car” child seat we had our mind on in the first place, given that our defective child is obviously not worthy of anything more and that we’re shit parents who totally disregard their child’s safety and would only get him granny grade equipment.
I do wonder, though, how many other parents fall down this trap set by their own ignorance; after all, you would assume it is safe to go to a shop and rely on the salespersons’ advice. They’ve seen it all and they’re professional, how can they be wrong?
As if to reinforce my feelings about the shop, when I went to pay for the seat and they asked me for a price higher than the one specified on the web, which resulted in me arguing, they’ve started talking to me in heavily accented Hebrew (Glenhuntly is in the Jewish ghetto area). What a slick technique! They try and f*ck you even harder by working on your patriotic emotions. Needless to say, they caught the wrong guy there.
Anyway, the point of this story is to do your homework when it comes to buying baby stuff, because the salespeople won’t help you out or even mislead you. Glenhuntly was bad because they were lying, but the story is the same in other baby shops we’ve visited, including Baby Bunting and Baby Gallery: ignorance is the rule of thumb. Most people end up relying on word of mouth, as in “I have a friend that used equipment X on her baby and was really happy with it”. I disapprove of such an approach, simply because usually those friends were not really aware of what other options are around and because most people would not say things like “oh, I bought this equipment X thing and I feel so stupid because it was such a waste of money”. If they do have negative feelings they usually are unable to properly specify exactly why they didn’t like said equipment X; if, say, it all comes down to X being too high and them being too short, their advice could mislead you out of worthy equipment if you happen to be tall.
Luckily, the web allows for easy access to good, scientifically based research results.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Death and Taxes

John Howard has just promised us all 34 billion dollars in tax cuts if we re-elect him, and I am here to explain why I would like tax increases instead of tax deductions. Allow me to explain.
Say you’re a medium to low income earner, earning just $50,000 per year. You can’t afford to send your kids to private schools, you can’t afford sophisticated private health procedures (unless they’re covered by insurance), and you can’t afford a driver to take you places while you’re doing what you want to do in the back of the car. You’re basically forced to use state schools, state health, and public transport, all of which are subsidized by tax money. You have an interest in the tax money being there, otherwise your kids will get bad education that will lead them nowhere, you’ll be stuck with your health problems, and the commute to work and back would feel like taking a Connex train.
Now let’s say you’re at the other side of the scale, earning a million dollars per year. Off that million you’ll be taxed with something like $350,000 (a rough estimate of mine; it could be less and it could be more). You don’t want to pay those taxes because you don’t get anything even close to that expense in return; it would be significantly cheaper for you not to pay taxes at all and send your kids to private schools, have all your health arrangements done privately, and employ a driver to take you around.
My point is this. In order for Howard to be able to cut down those 34 billion dollars from the budgets, he would have to cut down on services. The primary users of those services are going to be people in the area of that $50,000 earners, not the million dollar people. What’s more, the $50k area is much more heavily populated than the million dollar area.
The result? The people that will get $10 extra per week due to the tax cuts will have to fork out much more out of their own pockets in order to maintain the level of education, health and transport they have enjoyed before. Australia already suffers from greatly deteriorating public services: universities cost tens of thousands to graduate from, if not hundreds of thousands; bulk billing is as rare as Tasmanian Tigers; and Connex’ train contract has recently been extended for another year. We need the tax money if we want the picture to change!
On the other hand, the rich people will get richer. This is fine with Howard because they’re the type of people his party represents; the sad bit about this affair is that the rest of us, the majority, do not seem to be able to see through the catch. With time, this marginalization will lead to an even larger difference between the rich and the poor, and we will become like the fifty first state of the USA: a country where rich people live in one area and the poor live in another where no one dares enter. I, for one, prefer the Scandinavian model, where equality is of prime importance and the government takes a very active part in nurturing its people.
Ultimately, what I want is better services. Better education, better health, and better transport for a start. Those are the things that differentiate between a healthy society and a not so healthy one. Sadly, these things don’t just come out of the blue; they cost money. That is why I would prefer to pay more taxes if these would get me better services.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Hi Def Foray

For someone who has had a high definition ready TV for more than a year, I'm showing extreme resilience with my ability to tolerate living with no true high definition source at my disposal. For the last two years we have had digital TV in the shape of an SD (standard definition) set top box connected to our TV (photo on the left). In Australia you can get away with it: all the channels available in high definition are also available in standard definition, and most of the time the high definition channels are broadcasting in standard definition anyway (although that is improving all the time). You may ask what the point of SD digital is when you can get analog anyway and the quality is similar, sort off; the answer would be that SD is in widescreen and that given the digital nature of the picture you miss out on analog noise (but you do get digital artifacts aplenty).
Anyway, this weekend I have surrendered and decided to get the $120 Aldi high definition set top box (model Tevion TEV8200). We bought it yesterday and returned it today, but in the day we've had I have learnt a lot about high definition expectations.
The first thing I noticed was that unlike our old SD box, the HD box will not talk to the VCR. Being that it operates like a computer, it can only output one type of picture at any given time (you can choose between HDMI, component, RGB, or low life composite). A VCR will only accept composite, but you won't buy a HD box to watch composite! Currently, with our SD box, we get away with it: we connect it to the TV using the S-video connector while the VCR is connected to the composite connector. While it's shit quality compared to HDMI or component, it does allow us to time shift easily and on the cheap; an upgrade to HD would mean that the VCR would have to rely on its analog tuner, which - again - means no widescreen. To make a long story short, migrating to a HD box means you need to upgrade your time shifting facilities, and high definition hard disk recorders are stupidly expensive.
The second thing we've noticed with the new HD box was the poor usability. The front panel's display was so bright that you need to wear shades to watch TV; very distracting.
And then we noticed that it doesn't have a clock on display. I know, who wants a clock displayed in front of them while watching a film? But the old SD box had a clock, and it's a mighty useful clock: it's always accurate, setting itself using the signal it receives. It has been the clock we've grown used to adjust our watches to; it's a pity to lose it just because of an inferior design.
The third thing we've noticed with the HD box, once we had it up and running, was the picture quality. Disney's animated Tarazan film on channel 7 broadcast at 1080i looked simply stunning, while Motorcycle Diaries on SBS was on par with DVD quality at 576p. The difference to the SD picture was huge! Not so good was the performance of ABC: Its HD channel only works when they have HD material, so for the rest of the time you have to flick to their SD channel instead. How stupid is that? This leaves you wondering whether you're watching the right ABC channel, which is simply pathetic; ABC could have done what the rest do and simply broadcast SD stuff in SD on its HD channel.
Anyway, the Aldi HD box we got had severe setup issues. Some things wouldn't work, others would jump around. I thought of calling their support line on Monday but then I had a look on the internet and saw that others are reporting similar problems to mine; it's not just a bad sample that landed on us, it's the design that's bad. And so we've returned the HD box and re-installed the old SD box back (and since then I've been complaining about the picture quality to Jo).
The lesson there, I guess, is that the move to high definition is not a trivial "buy a new box" affair. You need to be careful with the box you buy, and you need to be aware of the move's implication. We weren't.

Delicate Sound of Thunder

I tried taking a video of Dylan as Jo dries him immediately after the bath because that's one of those times he's guaranteed to laugh. Needless to say, on the one occasion I tried to take the film he didn't laugh; I think he was just too tired. What he did do, exactly two second after I finished filming, was to release a thunder fart.
So Spielberg I ain't, but you can still watch the video:

Thursday, 11 October 2007

The Green Mile to Elections

Federal elections are coming up soon, and at least according to the polls there could be a good reason to rejoice: they tell us we are soon to get rid of Howard for good. Being the ever so pessimist, please allow me to explain why I am not exploding with joy yet.
First, there is the lesson learnt from past elections: Australians vote out of very selfish personal reasons. If they learn that one candidate might offer them $10 extra a fortnight, that candidate is guaranteed to win regardless of what unjust war he (always a “he”) sends the troops to fight in. Given the regional seat based Australian election system, one does not have to acquire the majority of votes to win; one needs the majority of seats, so it all comes down to a battle over key marginal seats. Given the battlefield, I won’t be rushing in to dismiss Howard’s chances.
The second and more substantial reason that stops me from partying is that opposition leader Rudd is so busy trying to secure votes from the right that he has forgotten everything that he should have been standing for in the first place. If he does win, and I hope he would, we would end up with a Howard compatible system and not much of an improvement overall. Nothing demonstrates this better than the latest commotion on the issue of capital punishment.
Generally speaking, Australia is one of those places where there is unanimous opposition to the death penalty. Both major parties oppose it, and I for one cheer them on that; capital punishment is one of the more barbaric and ineffective forms of punishment I can think of (which, by the way, is my way of saying that the USA still has a long way ahead of it on the path to progress). However, as much as Australians oppose capital punishment through the left side of their mouth, it seems like the right side of the mouth is speaking a different language.
The saga started when Rudd’s opposition shadow foreign minister said that Australia should strive to ensure that capital punishment is abolished in all neighboring Asian countries, which would include sparing the Bali bombers who are awaiting execution in Indonesian jails after killing hundreds of people, 88 of which happened to carry Australians passports. John Howard wasted no time jumping on the wagon, forgetting his own party’s agenda, and proclaiming that this proves that Rudd is soft on terrorism and “how can you forgive people with Australian blood on their hands”. There are so many contradictions in Howard’s case I won’t go too far discussing them; for example, there are enough Australian killers in Australian jails already, but none on death row. Some Australian killers are even celebrated as heroes, as in the case of Ned Kelly. Of course, the difference according to Howard is that while pure blooded Australians can kill other Australians, letting subhuman Muslim dirt kill Australians is a totally different ball game. In short, Howard plays the xenophobic card yet again, and I can see why: he is a man clinging to his seat of power with his nails in total desperation. I despise him for that, but then again I was never a big fan to begin with. What truly annoys me, though, is Rudd’s reaction to the Howard spin.
While Rudd was quick to point at the contradiction between Howard’s words and his party’s policy, he was overall apologetic. Australia, says Rudd, will only protest against capital punishment if an Australian is due to be capitally punished, as in the case of the drug dealer Van Nguyan who was hung in Singapore a couple of years ago. Obviously, all other people, being none Australians, are not worth the fuss; I heard they come cheaper by the dozen.
Rudd didn’t stop there. He continued to condemn his own shadow minister, saying that the timing of his words was wrong given that it will soon be five years to the Bali bombings and therefore such words of compromise are more likely to hit some soft nerves with the grieving families. Again, the logic is twisted: According to Rudd’s logic, Australians are opposed to capital punishment but only until someone close to them gets killed, in which case the gloves are taken off and the shooting squad becomes perfectly legitimate. Did I mention that Australians tend to vote out of narrow, selfish reasons? And what’s all this fuss about “five years”? Did the grieving families forget all about their loved ones, partying all year long, only to succumb to grief at the exact point in which the earth is in the same relative position with the sun as it was on the night of the bombing? Sounds like a silly excuse to me.
At this point in time I will mention that Israel, a country that has been hurt by terrorism significantly more than Australia, there is no capital punishment for terrorists. Sure, there are many who ask for it to be introduced, but for many reasons – including the worry that it would just trigger more violence – none has been introduced yet.
Still, comparisons aside, the ease with which principles are thrown in the wind in the name of securing sleazy votes is just amazing. Vote Greens.

Monday, 8 October 2007

Words of the Host

Cardinal Pell as at it again. Already mentioned on this very blog several times, George Pell is the archduke of the Sydney Bishopry or something similar – basically, the head honcho Catholic dude on the entire continent of Australia, including the Great Barrier Reef.
In his latest escapade, published in last week’s papers, Pell is quoted saying that he is skeptical when it comes to human activities causing global warming. He claims that he wasn’t confused by the published conclusions regarding global warming and that he looked at the evidence himself, and when he did those failed to convince him; he cites the increase of temperatures in Mars in particular as something pointing away from manly causes.
Having read a lot of articles discussing both evidence and conclusions, I disagree with Pell. Granted, however, it his right to have his own opinion; no one is saying that man made global warming is a 100% foolproof fact. The thing I find amazing about Pell and his approach is this, though: Here we have a person whose entire life is based on worshiping a supernatural entity for which existence there is absolutely no evidence telling us that he doubts scientific evidence.
Each person is entitled to form their own opinions, but coming from Pell criticism regarding the way science draws its conclusions is a bit hard to wallow.

Which brings me straight to Saturday, when we had friends over for dinner for the first time since Mr Dylan was born (it wasn’t really a dinner, but my point is that we went off the beaten track to prepare for this visit; we’ve had friends before for “unofficial” business). It was definitely nice to have friends over, and for the first time in more than a year we’ve uncorked a bottle of wine. Not that I’m a big wine person or anything, and I classify alcohol in the same group I classify dope, but I find it nice to have a sip of lighter white wines when it’s warm.
Dylan himself seems to have changed quite significantly over the last week or so: whereas before you could see that he was suffering most of the time, as in – “I’m not ready for this world yet”, now he seems content. Sure, proclaiming to be a happy parent still means you’re either a masochist or a liar (or both), but Dylan is a much happier person now and unless he has a good reason he’s quite fine, firing smiles aplenty in all directions (mostly in the direction of his pet friends on the mobile; he seems to truly like his cot).
In between minding Dylan and my duties as a host (I’ve prepared some home made humus) I hardly got to interact with our guests. Things were so bad that when a banana was introduced and the inevitable mentioning of the famous intelligent design video took place I wasn’t able to take part. To those who are not familiar with it, the video proclaims that a banana is so well designed for human consumption it is the proof for the existence of a designer god (which just happens to conveniently follow the Christian doctrine). Full of arguments of a similar level and some outright lies, I find the video to be a scary joke.
However, during the inter-guest discussion, an interesting opinion was raised: it was claimed that convincing arguments can be made for pretty much anything, be it the banana god or Richard Dawkins saying the opposite in his “The God Delusion”. Sadly, because of Dylan I wasn’t able to contribute to the discussion, but I will say this now as this is something I feel very strongly about:
Sure, a person is allowed to think that convincing arguments can be made for anything. I cannot change that. However, in my opinion, by definition a convincing argument has to follow the scientific approach; you can’t just say “look at a banana” and conclude that you have a proof for god. If you do, you might as well say something like “look at the turds in the toilet before you flush and you shall find god there”; both are supposedly created by the same god. To make a convincing argument one needs more than just arguments that stem from authority, tradition or revelation; and while such arguments may win certain hearts, I do not consider them to be arguments at all.
In fact, I think that our friend’s opinion is quite dangerous, simply because the logic of making convincing arguments about anything can be taken a bit too far. It can be taken to say that blacks are an inferior race, or that, say, the Jews should be exterminated.

Anyway, before offending our friend too much, I will make it clear that I strongly suspect I’m taking his words way out of context; what he was probably aiming for was to say that with all the idiots out there, some people are bound to get themselves hooked on whatever argument that may sound convincing to their ignorant mind.
Therefore, if there is anything one should take away from reading this post, it is this: Once you have a child, you should forget quality socializing; the times of meaningful dialog with friends are long gone and they have taken the world of the social boardgaming away with them. From now on, everything – including your interactions with your own friends – is to do with Citizen #1, the baby.

Friday, 5 October 2007

0.25

Today is Dylan's quarter birthday, so it's a good opportunity to present his present self through a couple of clips.
In the first one, Dylan is shown in his favorite pastime: sucking his thumb. He has quite a funny routine by now: he throws his right hand over his face, slowly drags it down across the face until it eventually gets to his mouth, and then he inserts the fingers next to the mouth into the mouth. Often that translates to the entire palm of his hand ending up in his mouth.

In the second clip we put Dylan to bed, and as usual for now he immediately started smiling towards his friends on the mobile. I rushed for the camera to catch him smiling but by the time I got back he ceased all smiling operations. The end result is still funny, though.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

National Socialism

I don’t like telling people where I am from.
The last time this issue was on the agenda was during Dylan’s hearing test. The consultant (for lack of a better word) attending to Dylan, herself of some Asian heritage given her appearance, asked me where I am from; I circled around but avoided a direct answer. This is no single incident; when I purchased my Atlas of the Universe, the attendant at the shop who took my credit card looked at me, and thing out of his mouth was the question of where I am from.
What is the reason for me being ashamed of my heritage, ashamed enough to try and avoid the question even when the person asking it is very nice and very helpful? Why am I so ashamed I often lie? Why do I come up with answers ranging from Holland, Kreplakistan (the country from which a nuclear warhead was stolen by Dr Evil in the first Austin Powers), Kazakhstan (an option made popular by Borat), or France (a good option since people often mistake my accent for French; given my experience there I actually have a good cover story if they dig in for more info)?
Well, there are several reasons. First to the obvious: While I am definitely ashamed with much of what Israel is doing, shame is not the reason. Being born in Israel was not exactly something I had a choice in, and therefore it would be terribly stupid of me to be ashamed of it; if I have a problem with Israel’s actions I can do something about it, and I have been doing things about it to one extent or the other – including leaving the place for good.
With that covered, allow me to state what should be very obvious to every Israeli: security is one major reason for not stating you’re an Israeli. Simply put, you just can’t tell what the background of the person asking about your origin is. What if they’re a Bin Laden? You think I’m exaggerating, but that is not the case: I remember coming back from Sydney once and taking a taxi home from the airport with the driver listening to some imam preaching on how Israel should be exterminated. When he asked me where I was from I was telling him everything he ever wanted to know about Grenoble.
Or, in another example, I went to a coffee place to get a sandwich for breakfast. The attendant there, a woman of Middle Eastern appearance and an Arab accent, kept badgering me about my origins; eventually I succumbed and told her the truth. The effect was immediate: her facial expression fell off, as if suddenly struck with acute depression; the sandwich sucked; and I’m sure she overcharged me.
There are plenty of other, more subtle examples, for people who would have an issue with Israelis. Take, for example, British academia, many of whom are vocal in boycotting everything Israeli. Why should I want to open a can of worms? Even if I won’t be killed I would still raise too much of a controversy.
Talking about the academy world brings me back to the main reason why I prefer not to disclose my origins, which requires an explanation that would befit a scholar.
Basically, any bit of information we gather is useful in the sense that it removes some level of uncertainty about something. The world we live in is a world of uncertainties in which we can never be 100% sure of anything: not what our eyes tell us (check out optical illusions), and not even us being here in the first place. I mean, can anyone prove to me behind any shred of doubt that the thing I refer to as existence is really there? No, but we all take certain things for granted so that we can get on with our lives and move on from there to reduce the uncertainty around us.
Let’s go back to origins. Let’s say we have Person A who is a French and person B who is a Brit. When person A tells person B where she is from, but only where she is from, B doesn’t really know much about A as an individual; however, certain uncertainties would become less uncertain in B’s mind. Things like B being surer than he was before that A is an arrogant prick or that A likes eating frogs for breakfast with tons of garlic. However, by doing so, B can – and is quite likely to – acquire some seriously twisted image of A, who could just as easily be a lovable vegetarian. Let’s face it, there are millions of French out there, and they come in every color one can think of.
Now apply the same logic to me avoiding the disclosure of my Israeli origins. Someone who knows nothing more about me other than the fact I come from Israel may correctly assume that I enjoy my humus and my shawarma, but they are much more likely to assume that I am major league Jewish believer who hates Arab guts – all of which are totally wrong.
So there you have it: the major reason why I prefer to avoid telling people I come from Israel is that by doing so I may give them the illusion that they have reduced their uncertainty levels concerning me, but in fact I will be misleading them. Stereotyping is the problem here, and it is also one of the reasons I despise religion as much as I do, because religion serves as a major dehumanizing tool. Once you learn that someone is, say, a Muslim, that someone ceases to become a person and immediately becomes a secret Al Qaeda agent. In the case of an Israeli things are worse than usual, because to most people being an Israeli automatically means being Jewish.
Contrary to popular belief, I do not think I can be summed up by using only my religion and my country of birth.

No service

According to our State Government, hundreds of new weekly services were added to Melbourne's train schedule as of this week. Yesterday, according to Connex, the 7:45 and 17:16 Sandringham line services were canceled, and that's just during the one hour long window of my commute to and back from work.
It must be fascinating for Connex to now have a wider palette of services to cancel from. Life for the commuter, however, is far from fascinating.

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

The Bottomless Pit

Just where does the Liberal party manage to dig up all these really evil characters to fill the role of Minister for Immigration?
First we've had Philip Ruddock (Dracula lives!), who was then followed by Amanda Vasntone; and now, between the Mohammed Hanif case, the new "we don't want you if you don't think the way we think is right" citizenship test, and the newly imposed limits on African migration that deeply crosses the border of into the land of racism, Kevin Andrews proves he won't be left behind by breaking new records in cruelty while performing his job.
One wouldn't want to end up at the wrong end of this lot's boot had these three been around in other times and under slightly different circumstances.

Monday, 1 October 2007

There is so much that I can't do

There is so much to being a parent other than directly looking after your child and holding him all day long while he is trying to generate output downstairs, that there really is no life left in there for you.
Eerily enough, it even goes as far as reading. You see, you can’t just continue reading the books you like; no, there is the weight of expectations on you, and you just have to read the right books on how to raise your child or the Joneses would do a much better job than you, and your child will end up an imbecile (proving once again that it’s all in the genes). I have already reviewed one “how to raise your child” book, Kid Wrangling, and the genre’s problems were way too obvious: the books are stupidly boring and uninspiring, the books’ messages could be summed up in two sentences yet they are miraculously spread over 500 plus pages, and the worst thing about it all: none of the books’ advice really works; it’s all just a trial and error thing, and often circumstances prevent you from trying in the first place.

Then there are the much more mundane affairs relating to the ongoing quest to have the right materialistic things to solve all your problems with. The problem there is that as materialistic as this can be, and it is materialistic in its entirety, the fact is that spending your money on certain things does improve the quality of your life. Whether you can do better with your money or whether the time spent acquiring the money would be better spent is another issue altogether. We are currently heavily stuck in consumer-land, and the following account proves it.
First, and as reported, there is the issue of mounting our new rear speakers on the wall; this is no small issue, as currently we’ve been putting the new speakers on top of the old ones, which takes up even more precious space than it used to. On we drove yesterday to Bunnings (a chain of DIY shops, each the size of a hanger) and after much deliberation settled on what seemed to be the right choice of plastic canals to hide the speaker cables in and a couple of mounting screws to hold the speakers to the wall with. Our Honda CR-V has proved its worth once again through an ingenious way to hold the 4 meter long canals in the car without significant folding: open the back window (and I do mean the back window, not the rear side windows). Bunnings, on the other hand, didn’t prove its worth – and neither did we: I had to go to another DIY shop to get proper, strong, Scotch double sided sticky tape to hold the canals to the wall with; and worse, after clearing up the area and preparing everything for the drilling (including taking an hour or so to measure where the holes should be; every time I checked my previous measurement I ended up with a new place to make the hole in) we have discovered that the screws we got, while strong enough, do not have a proper hook at their end to actually hold the speakers with. We need to go back to the shop. Again. This ended up being just about fine, because later I realized that the place I wanted to drill the holes in would have meant that the speakers were to block the “view” of our alarm system’s sensors. Yes, we’re back to the drawing board; and we haven’t even started drilling, which – traditionally – is the most likely source of problems with this whole adventure.
Our life at the moment is about getting rid of stuff just as much as it is about acquiring new stuff, which is where eBay steps in to save the day, clear up some space and help us with a bit of cash. It’s just amazing how much time can be spent preparing items for sale on eBay: taking the photos, processing the photos, writing descriptions, and then messing around with the auctions from start to finish. Aside of baby stuff that Dylan has already grown out of (e.g., breast pumps), I have finally made the strategic decision to get rid of most of my laserdisc collection: We simply hardly ever watch them anymore. We won’t get much for them, but at least someone will use them (which is the general spirit of most of our eBay adventures). Still, as good as my intentions were, I didn’t get the time to take photos of the lasers this weekend. It would have to wait till next week: by the time I’m back from work during the week the light is inadequate for good photography (and flash photography doesn’t count as good photography, at least not with the equipment I have at my disposal).
As the aspiring people that we are, we aspire to go out and about from time to time. It’s getting warmer and nicer out there, and it would be a shame not to go out and about; but in order to be able to go out and about (while wondering just how many times I can type “out and about” in one paragraph) we need to open our wallets. On Thursday night we bought a port-a-cot for $75 from Target: they all look the same, and Target has a 20% off baby hardware stuff this week. We’ll probably use the new mini cot as a portable cage in the living room, too. You can already see the contrast in our living room’s design: on one hand you’ve got a high end sound system with a big screen surrounded by tower speakers, and right next to it there’s a swarm of kindergarten stuff thrown all over the place – a baby gym, toys, and a rocker.
One cannot go about without a car seat nowadays (where were the days when I would sit on my mother’s lap?), and Dylan is already growing out of his car capsule. The question then becomes which car seat we should get: the capsule is good till 8kg, and we aspire to get a rear facing car seat that would take Dylan till 12kg and then transform it into a front facing car seat that would take him till 18kg (by that time we will probably want to replace our car, but never mind that for now). Research shows there are lots of expensive options out there, but if you look at usability and crash testing results from RACV and Choice the conclusion is very interesting: The more expensive seats are just as safe, structurally, as the well made cheaper ones; if anything, the simpler front facing only seats (as opposed to those that transform from back to front facing) are the safest. There’s more to it, though: the simpler seats are safer than the expensive ones because with the expensive one you are much more likely to fail to install them the right way. Let’s face it: with me in charge such errors are very likely. Our conclusion was to avoid the marketing like a plague (generally a good advice anyway) and go for a simple $200 Safe-N-Sound Safeguard seat. I will not rest here, though, with my anti marketing condemnation: the child seat that was by far the safest and the cheapest in both tests (RACV + Choice), the Safe-N-Sound Series 3 seat, has been discontinued; one does not need to be left wondering what the motivation for that was (I’ll be blunt: greed). Anyway, we’ll still need to devote a Saturday morning to shopping around for availability and pricing on the seat.
Next on the agenda for free travel is a stroller. Yes, we have our Beema Q pram and so far we are very happy with it: It’s great for long walks and it’s just so easy to operate and so comfortable to use. However, it does take up lots of space and it is heavy, so we do want a simple stroller that would be light enough to take on board flights. At Big W you can get an el-cheapo stroller for less than $30, but in my opinion this is an area we would be wiser to spend some more money on in order to get something comfortable to use: if we get a stroller to walk through Paris with, I want to enjoy my walking (and no, I’m not stretching things here; next time we venture to Europe, I would very much like to visit Paris – and I would very much like to expose Dylan to the world as best as I can). The result is that we’re thinking of a Maclaren stroller: they’re light, adjustable, ergonomic, and very well built; the only reason why we didn’t get one as a pram is that big wheels make a difference, but we can now look to get a simpler Maclaren to serve us while traveling. Yet another Saturday morning to spend in a baby shop.
Finally, we get to Moshe’s bane, the nastiest project of them all: getting rid of our treadmill. We don’t really want to get rid of it, but let’s face it: space issues and safety issues mean we have to. The main problem is that it’s not that easy to get rid of: In order to be able to take it out of Dylan’s room it has to be taken apart; however, in order to demonstrate it to potential buyers it has to be in working order. We’re not talking about a small screw job here: the treadmill weighs 80kg, and moving it about is not only a back killer but also a floor killer – it’s so heavy it leaves its marks on our wooden floor.
So let me put it this way: if you want a treadmill, let me know. We’re aspiring to get something like $200 for it (we paid around $1500), but if a friend wants it for their own use they can have it and save us the eBay ordeal on this one. You can even come and admire it before making your minds up.

I guess this is the true face of parenthood that I am currently experiencing, with its eternal self feeding mundane-ness. It is clear that this trend will never stop; one thing will just be replaced by another, but from now on weekend life is not going to be about rest and recuperation but rather about a race to sort things out.

Go Cats!

Saturday was AFL grand final day, but as Jo & I are quite ambivalent of the fact (so un-Australian of us!) we went about executing our shopping plans as usual.
We arrived at the shopping mall next to us before the match started to find the parking lot atypically vacant. The mall itself was on the emptier side of things, and most interestingly it was very female dominated.
We left after the game had already started into what looked like a ghost town, closer to Yom Kipur memories than middle of the weekend day Melbourne. Arriving at the grocery shop, we found there was no other male in there beside me (and I know some who would contest that observation, too) and they didn’t even bother filling up with fresh vegetables; well, either that or they were all watching the game.
We got back home in time to watch the last ten minutes of the Geelong Cats’ win. As the match ended, they played the theme from Bizet’s Carmen, only that it wasn’t Carmen they were playing; it was the Cats’ club song.
Jo was wondering how many Geelong supporters are aware of the fact their club song is based on Carmen.