Monday, 31 December 2007

Justified and Ancient

Coming back to work after Xmess, I was asked by a colleague whether I have celebrated Christmas. In return I asked for the definition of an Xmess celebration, and the answer was – “did you have a Christmas tree?”
I said we didn’t, but I also asked in return whether it’s the Xmess tree that defines a Christmas celebration. There was a bit of a puzzled look there for a second, and then the question turned into – “do you and your wife exchange gifts?”
I said we didn’t and repeated my former question – is it the exchange of gifts that defines a Christmas celebration?
At which point they gave up.
For the record, I don’t have a problem with Christmas trees, not even with the pagan symbolism involved in the act, other than the obvious ecological one and not so obvious ethical one: if you were a tree, and bearing in mind that as with all living creatures trees are our cousins, would you like to be cut off just for someone’s stupid ceremony? I’ll shut up with this question for now, though, because it applies to too many of the things that we do and thus it is too complex to address here.
I also don’t have a problem with exchanging gifts. But it’s not the gift itself that counts; it’s the effort that goes into finding a gift that the receiver would like to receive, and to be frank in the displays of Xmess gift giving I have witnessed so far that effort was practically tramped over by acts of sheer consumerism. Xmess gifts are more like Xmess waste. And even if one likes receiving quantities of trash, what values does one inherit from such an act? A photo of a child (excuse the lack of identifying details) standing next to a pile of gifts larger than the Everest has quite horrified me: no matter how good the gifts are, no one should be receiving so many gifts at a single point in time! I foresee a problem with Dylan's birthday parties...
At this point I’ll repeat myself and state that in my opinion, Xmess is about all of the above – trees and gifts, throw in some food that I can’t stand – but mostly about being with one’s family. Given that we don’t have much of a family with us, we have adopted a different ritual: we go away somewhere nice instead and have ourselves picnics (not like we have a choice there; everything’s closed on Xmess day). While this year things went a bit astray for us (I blame Dylan), I think that in general I can safely say we do celebrate Xmess. It’s an unconventional celebration, but then again – who cares?

The above mentioned confrontation between people coming from different religious backgrounds demonstrates a nice problem that religion imposes on us.
For argument’s sake, let’s say that you live in England. England is a country with a long Christian tradition, god shave the queen and all. Lately, however, things are changing: people of other cultures are beginning to raise their heads, and suddenly you have Muslims and Hindus around you as well.
Let’s say that you’re a Christian English boy. Everything around you tells you that Christianity is the way to go: you’re told how great Jesus was, how nice god is, how Christianity leads to salvation, etc. It’s probably never literally said but it’s very well implied that as a Christian, you’re better than everyone else simply because you’re on the right channel to god. If you’re a Catholic you’re even repeatedly told you have better reception than the Anglicans, but let’s ignore sects for now.
Then you go to school and you learn that all people are equal; a nice modern value. And then you bump into Muslim kids. Muslims are similar to you: they also believe in a god that does nice things; but they’re different to you because as far as they know their way is the true channel to god.
Thus you end up with a cognitive dissonance: on one hand, you know that Christianity rules and therefore Islam is inferior; on the other you know that all people are equal. How can you live with these contradictions? In the past, with the absence of the equality value, this was an easy question to answer – either “kill them all” or “convert them all”. With equality, however, comes complexity.
The answer supplied by modern day society is called “respect”. You are taught that while you should think highly of your own religious beliefs, you should unconditionally respect others’ beliefs. Offending someone by ridiculing their beliefs is a no-no. They may be inferior ignorants, but you must respect them for their inferiority and keep those notions to yourself! There may not be much true respect in this enforced “respect”, but religion gets yet another free get out of jail card here (in addition to its well established tax freedom): if you are to criticize religion you guarantee yourself the wrath of the politically correct camp as well as the expected wrath of the fundamentalist.
What do I make of all this, personally? Two things:
1. People are not always equal to one another. Anyone telling you that Bill Gates is equal to a street bum is a liar. People, however, should all have equal rights.
2. The “respect” solution is bullshit. Respect should never mean the cancellation of all legal permits to question a concept. Instead, everything should be open to criticism and scrutiny, including religion; that, by the way, happens to be the basis of the scientific approach. People should be taught and raised to think and question, and if they happen to find that a certain religion answers their questions best then so be it. So far, however, the mainstream scientific community – society’s heaviest practicing scrutinizers – have failed to find the slightest proof to support any of humanity’s religions.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but it is my impression that most religious believers have never asked questions about their beliefs; they just accepted as fact what their elders told them. And that is wrong! You don’t accept a used car salesperson telling you the car they offer you is a gem, you go and have that car tested by an expert; why would you then go on to accept an entire system or morals based on blind faith and blind faith alone?

Which naturally leads me to re-discuss Tony Blair. I have previously expressed my disappointment of his recently exposed religious tendencies and of his confession that religion had a lot to do with his policies, including his invasion to Iraq. That post has earned me some heavy criticism (which you’re welcome to read together with the post here), so I would like to reiterate my opinion on Blair.
At the time the Iraqi war was initiated we were all told the reason behind it is the stockpile of weapons of mass destruction accumulated by the then Iraqi regime. As it turned out not that long afterwards no such weapons existed, and worse – all the leaders sending us to this war knew this was the case and yet they have continued lying to us (remember Colin Powell presenting fake evidence before the UN council?). The war itself went on to create more casualties for the West than Bin Laden achieved on 11/9/01, not to mention casualties on the Iraqi side which are six figures high. And then you have all the resources that were wasted on the war, which could have solved the world’s global warming problems on their own or which could have annihilated all poverty in this world and probably the next one, too.
The question is, what was it then that drove those world leaders to invade Iraq if weapons of mass destruction weren’t the reason? This is a very serious question, especially as it is still a very small number of people in the world that control the fate of entire nations by determining whether to wage war or not. Jo has recently finished reading the excellent book “Guns of August”, a book that discusses the historical events leading to World War 1. With the retrospective gained through a century gone by, we look back at World War 1 and we say to ourselves “what a foolish war” and “what a stupid reason to have a war for”. President Kennedy has cited the book as one of the reasons why he chose to disregard his advisers and not attack Cuba during the crisis there, a decision for which we still have a world to live in. President Bush, however, probably never read the book before deciding to invade Iraq (and probably afterwards, too), and thus failed to learn from history. Why was it, then, that Blair – obviously an intellectual – followed Bush on this foolish affair?
I think it is pretty safe to say that the Iraqi war was waged for economic reasons: the West wanted control over Iraqi oil, and the USA especially wanted to ensure American Dollars are still the world’s currency at a time in which Iraq was considering a move to Euros (thus helping explain why France was so opposed to the war). Blair, however, broke the deck of cards when he announced that religion was involved in the decision making process: we all know that Bush and god have a special relationship, but we didn’t know Blair has had one as well.
I suspect most people, including myself to one extent or another, forgive Blair for that. After all, Blair follows the Christian religion, and this dogma is so nice and forgiving, isn’t it? Well, that depends on who you ask. Allow me to recite a few quick examples for the opposite off the top of my head:
1. The Christian god is the same as the Jewish god, and that Jewish god was one mean nasty piece of work: remember what he did to innocent first born Egyptians? Or to the people that lived in the land of Israel when Joshua came along for a visit?
2. Remember the Spanish Inquisition?
3. Remember the suppression of one Galileo Galilei? You may argue it is an irrelevant old story, but when Blair converted to Catholicism a couple of weeks ago he was accused of not fully agreeing with the Vatican’s position on abortions, thus taking an oath in vain. Are all Christians expected to blindly follow the leader in the face of facts?
4. Remember all that was done to, say, Jews in the name of Christianity? Hitler didn’t invent antisemitism, you know. The church, however, practiced it for more than a millennium before he came along.
5. Jesus advocated to turn the other chick and to do unto others as you would like the others to do to you (aka the golden rule). Sounds so nice and cool, but is it really practical? Not in the least, which is perhaps why no one, Pope included, follows suit. So Christians may preach one thing, but they certainly do another thing (and to reiterate the point, there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s the policy that’s impractical, not the actual actions).
When questioning them, then, Christian values and their real world implementations are suddenly not that nice and sound at all. You may argue that Blair is beyond the Spanish Inquisition, and I will definitely support you on that, but the question still remains – what is it, then, that Blaire took out of religion and inserted into his decision making process?
And to go to the extreme, in what way are the elements Blair took out of religion and into his decision making process different than the elements taken by Bin Laden out of his religion when he decided to blow the Twin Towers down, given that as demonstrated above both religion can be twisted enough to support any argument one could seek support for? What is it that makes Blair’s religious justifications better than Bin Laden in a world where we should all practice “respect” for each other’s religion?

Another question raised in my head is this: Why did Blair follow his advisers’ line to hide the religious aspects of his decision making from the public? Is he, as the number one public figure in the UK, entitled to keep such information to himself?
For all we know, Blair could have suddenly exposed himself to be a follower of Kali, that nice goddess from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and expose himself as a war monger. I know, I know, this sounds like a particularly silly argument to make; Kali is just a fable, as real a god as Zeus or Thor. And I fully agree; my point is that due to the lack of foundation to the belief, tomorrow’s Jesus will be regarded the way today’s Kali is.
Whichever way you look at it, some foul play was involved in the decision to invade Iraq. We, the people of this world, have a duty to ensure the survival of our species and the survival of this planet we live on, and in a world of World Wars and weapons of mass destruction we cannot allow ambiguous decision making to go on unattended. If religion was involved in the decision making process, then religion should have been exposed as such at the time so that the public can make their own decision on whether a war (any war) is justified.

That’s it for this year.

Sunday, 30 December 2007

Score one for the big corporations

According to the yesterday papers, Sony has decided to quit manufacturing rear projection TV's in order to focus on their flat LCD panels.
As far as I can tell, there are two things to take from that story: First, there is not much happening this time of the year and the papers would take anything to fill up their pages. The second is that the marketing machines of the big TV makers did its job and did it well. And that's pretty sad.
It is a not well known fact that per a given screen size, no TV gives you as much quality for your dollar as a rear projection TV. The reason why this is not well known is that marketing machinery that did its best to convince people that what they really need are relatively thin flat panels, most of which are currently in the shape of LCD or plasma panels, as opposed to the thicker (and we're only talking about 8" thick) rear projection screens. Most people don't hang their TV's up on the wall anyway, and if you have a proper home theater system you wouldn't want to hang your TV on the wall anyway for acoustic reasons; so why do the manufacturers want you to buy "flat" panels? Simply because they cost you more so they can make more money.
To be blunt, Sony's announcement about abandoning rear projection in order to focus on LCD technology is pure bullshit. Sony does not intend to discontinue its front projectors, which essentially use the same technology as its rear projectors (other than the screen, which is bought separately in front projection setups). The saddest thing about is that Sony's lineup of rear projection TV's utilizing LCOS (Liquid Crystal on Silicone) technology, dubbed the SXRD lineup by Sony, is the best TV out there by a very long mile. And generally speaking, the technologies that deliver the best picture quality - LCOS and DLP - are technologies that work only in projection systems.
Without Sony in the picture, Samsung remains the only manufacturer of rear projection TV's that you can actually acquire in Australia. They're also the only ones that seem to invest in the technology, recently introducing LED lighting to replace the projector lamps on its DLP TV's. The problem with the Samsung is that by now no shop carries rear projectors in their store displays. If you want to buy a rear projector you have to buy it blind.
They have won and we have lost.

Saturday, 29 December 2007

Solid Rock

We are about to commence a grand experiment that has only been done twice before: We got ourselves the proper tools, we bought a pumpkin, we have the proper cooking instructions. And Dylan is about to start eating solids!
How exciting! A whole new world of mess is ahead of him (and more importantly, us). Puke will not be the same again, and neither will shit.

Talking about Dylan changing with time, one thing that really scares me as yet another sign for what the future has in store is that it only took Dylan two weeks from his previous cold to catch another cold. And as before, both Jo and I now have it, too. Luckily, it's not as bad as the last one; we're mostly functional. But I really don't want to go through an entire year carrying a cold while impatiently waiting for Dylan's immune system to develop.
They never tell you these things when they discuss babies!

Friday, 28 December 2007

The Fan

A few weeks ago I wrote how tight we are for money in the face of major oncoming house projects. One of those projects was the installation of a ceiling fan in our living room.
They say that miracles happen from time to time. Well, those that say it seem to be stupidly wrong; by definition, a miracle is an event where the laws of nature have been put aside for a minute in order for someone to enjoy something, and let’s face it: there is no proof whatsoever that the laws of nature can or have ever been set aside. And it’s good that things are this way, otherwise we would be living in a very chaotic world.
So miracles don’t happen, but lots of other good things do happen. For example, friends can often make things happen, and a week or two after I wrote about our ceiling fan aspirations friends of ours gave us a brand new ceiling fan they’ve had no use for. And it was even one of the models we have already shortlisted for purchase! Obviously, they could have gone a step further and installed it for us, but I was still thankful (and I still am).
The fan is not a standalone example. Friends have been helping us a lot, especially since Dylan came on the agenda. Financial help, as in the form of the fan and the tallboy we received earlier this year is the most noticeable, but tips and advice and the good old “just being there” are just as good if not better. I guess what I’m trying to do is to thank all those that have helped us lately.
I will go a step further, though, and extend the thanks to all those that have been reading this blog. Although the blog is highly eccentric, I cannot think of any better way for people who are not with us in our daily lives to get to know what is going on in my mind, which in turn is a reflection of a lot of what is going on in our lives. I would say that as far as I can tell, it's the second best thing to actually being there. I know it’s strange and I know it may offend certain family members when I say this, but the reality is that I feel much closer to those that read the blog and respond to it than to most other people, regardless of physical distances and regardless of how much of our genes we're sharing. I know that I am also fairly unique in running a very personal blog, but the benefits are there to be reaped: through the feedback I get to know what goes on in the lives of my friends who do not necessarily maintain a blog or anything similar. Most of my friends do a very good job keeping to themselves, so anything coming from their direction is a big bonus.
That, plus I get to have a free ceiling fan from time to time.

I will actually abuse my blog and move on to list the things I would like to have. I mean, it worked with the ceiling fan, maybe it would work again and some friend will just happen to have a spare of what I would like to have.
So here goes, in no particular order of wanting:
1. Nikon D300 SLR camera: Now, that’s one mean camera! Think of all the ways I could shoot Dylan with such a camera! Thing is, however, my current camera – a Nikon D70 – is not that bad either. Sure, it’s a few generations behind by now, but the D300 will be a few generations behind shortly anyway. The reality is that I really like my D70 and I’m not feeling like I’m missing anything. The D300 is nice and I would gladly buy it for $10; it's not, however, $2500 nice.
2. Nikon 18-200 VR lens: This new generation Nikon lens offers stabilization, allowing photos to be taken in darker conditions without the aid of a flash and still look sharp. The 18-200 range also sounds too good to be true, covering everything from wide angle to quite a high zoom. Thing is, it is too good to be true: as the linked review says, any lens covering such a range has to suffer significant compromises, and that’s while ignoring the hefty $1000 price tag compromise. Looks like I’ll stick to my 18-70 lens, vignetting issues or not.
3. Nikon SB-600 flash: An external flash can do miracles. Unlike most cameras’ built in flashes, the power an external one has means that it doesn’t have to ruin your photos when you use it; it can just add a touch of light, and you can even adjust it so that it provides its light indirectly. For indoor baby photography, a flash would be very good. Thing is, so far I have been using my camera hand held even in the darkest conditions and the results have been quite good; there’s not enough of a motivation for me to go out and spend north of $400 on a contraption I’m not sure I’d be bothered to use or carry around in the first place.
4. Asus Eee PC: As has been recently discussed in a post that broke this blog's record for number of feedbacks that are not mine, a small portable notebook would serve as an excellent blogging facility for me. I could blog on the train, blog in the toilet, blog all over the world. Not that I feel inhibited by my current blogging facilities, though.

The thing that most noticeable to me about the above list is its shortness. I’m not asking for a Ferrari and I’m not asking for lots of other things that people could wish for if they had the opportunity to ask for anything they could think of.
The second most notable thing is that none of the above mentioned items are things that I truly need, nor do I have any hopes of them solving all my problems upon this earth; they are all compromised by design, and acquiring them just means exchanging one set of compromises with another.
The reality is that I’m very happy with the things I already have, and the main things I wish for are not things that money can buy. Until someone comes up with a working design for a time machine, time is not something I can buy, and time is the one thing I want the most: time as a healthy person, quality time with friends and family, leave time, sleep time.

It looks like the reality is that I am quite a happy chappie. And it didn’t even take a winning lottery ticket to achieve that.
So thank you all.

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

My home is my fortress

Our Xmess holiday came and went as we came back to Melbourne on the evening of Xmess day to find a very weird looking city: It's only the second time we're in Melbourne itself during Xmess day itself, and the desolation seems awfully weird. It felt like those apocalyptic films where Charlton Heston is the last person alive.
Today, Muhammad Ali day (otherwise known as Boxing Day) is the day in which I am going to tell you about the main lesson from our holiday's adventures, namely - how is it like to go out for a few days with a 5.5 month old baby?
Funny you're asking.

Well, lesson #1 in going out with a baby is to do with the room arrangements. Simply put, it's a problem to share your room with the baby. Honestly, as a parent who has had the baby in the baby's room as of day 1, I can't understand parents who have their babies with them in their bedroom. It's bad enough with the baby monitor, but how can you sleep with every slight nudge or moan coming from the baby?
It gets worse. Our routine dictates putting Dylan to bed at around 19:30. Which is great, because it gives you the night for yourself, but is also severely limiting when you're in the same room with Dylan. For a start, he kept looking at us, thus staying awake instead of sleeping. Then we had to lower the volume on the TV or even turn it off altogether, because the sound/light attracted too much of his attention. Then we had to lower the lights. The result? Dylan finds it hard to fall asleep and we can't do much at night: reading in the dark is pretty tough! I was thus forced to play the Nintendo DS (set to a low volume).
As the days went by we became more clever, turning Dylan's cot so that the blind side faces us or so that he can't see the TV. Eventually, we placed the cot as far away from us as possible - right next to the room's door, the closest thing to a separate room we could muster. But that's my entire point:
If you travel with your baby, try and arrange for separate rooms. And if you're sharing rooms at home, please go to your nearest psychiatrist and have your mental health assessed.

Lesson #2 is to do with sticking to routine.
On day one we didn't do much after arriving at the resort we stayed in, which was fine with everybody. On day two we had a tour of wineries in the area we stayed at, so we kept on taking Dylan in and out of the car. He didn't like it; it really seems as if there is a very finite number of times he would take being taken out of the car before going berserk. Worse, this ritual meant he couldn't sleep his usual number of sleep cycles during the day.
The result is that by afternoon time he became an intolerable zombie: so tired he couldn't even fall asleep, and we had a crying/yelling baby on our hands. That's one tough thing to handle! We're lucky that overall Dylan is a very good baby: come the evening routine of bath/feed he was alright again. One thing is very clear, though: if you're keeping your baby awake during the day so they would sleep better during the night you're doing the wrong thing; we find that Dylan sleeps better if he gets the sleep he needs when he needs it. A sleepy day guarantees a sleepy night.
On the subsequent days we adjusted accordingly. Instead of taking Dylan in and out of the car, we went on long drives that guaranteed good sleeps and only took him out to major events. Given Australian scale for distances, that is not hard to achieve. At some places we took turns getting out of the car to check the local attraction, so that the other can keep an eye on a sleepy Dylan in the car. That's bad for touring, but good for the baby; a bit of a worrying thought, though, given our near future Tasmanian tour.
Thus lesson #2 is: plan your trip around the baby, not the baby around the trip.

We came back home as relaxed as a Sicilian waking up to find the head of a horse next to him in bed. It was nice to escape routine, but it was hard, too.
The pinnacle was watching a Christmas movie at night, back at home, relaxing on the sofa with Dylan asleep in his own cot. The latest Die Hard sure fit the occasion!

Friday, 21 December 2007

Gulliver on Christmas Island

I think I finally managed to pinpoint the source of my strange feelings towards the holiday commonly referred to as Xmess.
It's comes down to this: Virtually everyone around me is in this seemingly lunatic holiday mode; I'm not. Now there's nothing wrong with being in a seemingly lunatic mode; some great fun can be had in the process, and in this regard losing yourself to Xmess is not that different to losing yourself at a football game.
Problems start, however, when you lose your grip on reality in the process. If you continue behaving like a loony long after the game of football is over, or if you let your life get totally consumed by the football experience, everyone around you would say that something is wrong with you. Yet people all around me are totally consumed by Xmess, mostly locked in this frenzy of gift shopping and family coordination to the point of excessive loss of grip on reality (as in, the world would continue being the same as it is after Xmess, high hopes should not be placed on Xmess because a date on the calendar does not change a thing in your life, and things would go along just fine even if you don't get uncle Mike his favorite perfume).
People are so into "celebrating" Xmess they don't even realize that they are, in fact, lost. It's only me, a person for whom celebrating Xmess is the exception rather than the rule, that sees things this way. I am the Gulliver!
The reasons why people are so locked into the Xmess fever is clear: most of them do not know better. Most of them have never experienced anything else during this time of the year, and some of them are even willingly committing themselves to the ordeal in the name of religious reasons. Anyway you put it, it comes down people simply not thinking about the "why" when they do the things they do; they just do it, usually because enough people around them do the same thing.
What I find most thought provoking about all of the above is this: How many things do I do just because of a force of habit? How many things I can do without or do differently to come up with a better result, yet I don't because I'm too much of a stupid ignorant to realize that I'm a stupid ignorant? I suspect the answer is "quite a lot" and more than likely "much more than what you can ever dream of". I guess all I can do is read and travel, the activities that so far I have identified as the most eye opening of them all (and no, watching TV doesn't help; it only makes you dumber).
Another potentially interesting way of countering this ignorance is through parenting: by striving to be a good father to Dylan, I can probably learn quite a lot in the process of teaching him how to live.

Thursday, 20 December 2007

Festive spirit

Everybody around me is into this Christmas spirit. Should be cool, shouldn't it? Only that to me, as the neutral spectator who is not really used to this entire shebang, Christmas spirit seems all to do with shopping. And that's it.
I am very tired of hearing how people are behind in their Christmas shopping or hearing work colleagues negotiate their way around their Christmas shopping. It's just amazing how widely people can open their wallets, and for what? It's all stuff that the recipient does not necessarily want, and most of it is as original and as useful as used toilet paper. Want my advice? Do something good with your money and give some of it to Oxfam instead.
The things that annoys me the most is the waste. By now everyone agrees that global warming is a major issue (Melbourne's freak weather makes sure people are aware of that), but no one seems to be able to or to want to make the connection between that the indiscriminate consumption that is the Xmess season.
Take wrapping paper, for example. Who the hell needs wrapping paper? What is the point of wrapping paper? Is it to hide the poorness of your gifts?
You receive a wrapped up gift, you struggle with the wrapping paper for a few seconds, you chuck it aside, and that's it for the wrapping paper. On the way, however, you caused trees to be cut for the paper, oil to be burnt for processing the wood and turning it into paper, chemicals to be released in the making of the paper, and more oil to contaminate the planet for transporting the wrapping paper all the way from its plant in China to the shop near where you live. And a few second after it heads down to the nearest landfill site.
Wow! What a sense of purpose!

Talking about the festive season's sense of purpose, I have to say I'm really annoyed with the way the news covers fatalities on the roads. "The 26 year old dying on the eve of Christmas is the most tragic thing", they say (with slight variation, depending on the background of the deceased).
I can see it how it works. During the rest of the year, the father of the 26 year old tells the mother, "pass me the beer can, and, by the way, almost forgot, our son's dead". However, during the holidays, the conversation is entirely different: "Look at our son, how he managed to ruin our Christmas with his death".
The media is trying to go for a cheap headline, but what they end up doing is making people lives feel cheap. Any one person is worth much more than all the Xmesses throughout history.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

There's a rat in the kitchen

Well, actually we don't know of any rat in our kitchen. But we do know we have this huge spider in our mailbox, a huntsman, and now every time we check to see whether we got mail we go through a Temple of Doom like adventure.
For the record, that particular huntsman that seems to like our mailbox so much is h-u-g-e! And hairy! It's one of those spiders that would feel right at home in an Indiana Jones sequel (given that sequels must always outdo the originals).
I guess exotic spider are one of those things you need to get used to when you live in Australia. Especially when redbacks, a spider that can actually kill you, are quite common (you do have to go out of your way, however, to get into trouble with them).

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

A league of their own

My team, Arsenal, is currently at the top of the English Premier League, playing some very attractive football. And I couldn't care less.
Why should I really care when the team started the season with rumors concerning an American millionaire trying to take control over it and a vice president being chucked out because of his support of said millionaire, only to be replaced by news about a very corrupt Russian billionaire who ended up buying the shares of said vice president and now owns a significant portion of the club? Where am I, a lowly supporter, in this picture? And what values does the club represent in order to merit my support, other than a continuous hunger for more money?
They also say that the English Premiership is the best football league in the world. I strongly disagree: how can it be so good if only four clubs have a realistic chance at the title? Arsenal supporters bitch and moan when a season goes by and no title is acquired, but look at the vast majority of teams out there: they have nothing to aspire to.
This lie about the superior quality of the English Premiership reminds me of a blog post I read the other day (Hebrew warning!)
discussing how hard it is to be skeptical of ideas. While I would add that it should take more than a post in someone's blog for me (or you) to support a certain theory, the theory raised there is, indeed, quite interesting: Basically, it says that once an idea is ingrained in one's head, any discussion about that idea - even a discussion that is supposed to counter it - actually helps in reaffirming that idea.
It all comes down to the way evolution has shaped our minds to acquire its perception of the world, but the basic premises is that once you hear an idea the first time it would be very hard for anyone to convince you that the opposite is actually true. Say, if a politician called John Howard was to repeatedly tell you he's incredibly good at financial management, it wouldn't help if financial experts would tell you that international debt has actually peaked during Howard's time at the helm and that the prosperity we're all going through is more to do with selling stuff we dug out of the ground to China and with the general prosperity of the world than anything Howard has done. Such an act would actually do further damage - it would reinforce the idea that Howard is a good financial manager in your head.
You can see how this theory explains why some people stick with truly irrational ideas. Say, religion. You can also see how children are very susceptible to external influences shaping their world views for the rest of their lives. Indeed, being there first for a child can be a mighty strong weapon at the wrong hands!
Again, the lesson for me as a parent is simple yet hard to implement. One way to make sure Dylan's mind is not contaminated is to counter a bad idea implanted in his head by implanting other ideas; instead of telling him that "no, John Howard is not a good financial manager", I can tell him "John Howard is really bad in macrame".
The better strategy, however, would be to implement a policy suggested by Steven Pinker (whose book I'm currently reading). Pinker is saying that the way we teach our children should be overhauled; children should learn decision making, evolution and psychology as of a young age, and only then should they start being stuffed with the nonsense schools all over the world excel in stuffing their kids with. While I know there's no way we would be able to send Dylan to such a school, I hope my presence would be enough to teach him how to think for himself.

Monday, 17 December 2007

Shot down point blank

It finally happened today: Access to blogs at the office has been blocked altogether. With all the rest of the blockages and with new blockages being added on a daily basis, the issue of internet access has now become the talk of the office.
Personally, I have decided that being passive about will not take me anywhere. I therefore concluded to write a letter expressing my opinion on the matter of internet access at work, but due to a collection of reasons I deemed an anonymous letter to be the better option. Since, however, I am generally of the full frontal confrontation view, I have decided to post a lightly censored version (devoid of any identifying info) on my blog. After all, with blogs being blocked, it's not like anyone at the office would be able to trace it:

I am an employee writing to you anonymously in order to complain about the recently introduced limitations to internet access at the office.
On 5/12/07 we have all received a rather laconic email from the Helpdesk telling us that as of 6/12/07, “we will be making a couple of changes to Internet access”. What has followed since seems to be more like a massacre than a couple of changes, with a large number of websites becoming inaccessible for often vague reasons. While most of the websites that have been blocked have nothing to do with work, some actually do.
Currently, websites that have been blocked display a message saying “Your access to the site has been blocked according to internal policy”. However, I had a look at the policy document linked to the message, and that policy says nothing about employees not accessing “personal pages” (the error message received when trying to access a work related website), nor does it say anything about any other type of websites other than those containing sexual content. If anything, what the policy does say is that employees are allowed to reasonably use the internet for private purposes.
And that is exactly what I am complaining about. I see nothing wrong with me or any of my colleagues accessing the internet for private usage, the way I see nothing wrong with me or my colleagues using the phone from time to time to make a private phone call or even occasionally stepping out of the office on a private errand. We have also been known to have coffee breaks and smoke breaks (for the record, I don’t smoke), and so far our self proclaimed “employer of choice” have been fine with that. Further, I maintain that having such privileges actually improves the quality of our work by helping us relax after a tight meeting and by creating a positive working atmosphere. Why is it, then, that we have suddenly been placed under Orwellian scrutiny when it comes to internet access?
Now, I do suspect there are some good reasons for blocking internet access to employees: things like cost, security issues, and employee abuse. However, none of these reasons have been communicated to us, the employees; all we know is that one day we had acceptable internet access and the next day we have been robbed of something that by now everyone takes for granted and everyone is used to.
Besides, I suspect that all of the above mentioned arguments – cost, security and abuse – can be easily countered. I wouldn’t mind seeing the case for this recent internet blockage act, if it was actually prepared (I doubt it), because I strongly suspect its arguments would be quickly countered. It simply doesn’t make sense to take us back to medieval times! The internet, after all, is a tool we have been enabled with only because it is an incredibly effective working tool. Who is it, then, that has been suddenly bestowed with the insight and the wisdom required in order to decide what the best tools for me to perform my work with are? Why is it that the tools that were previously deemed as useful working tools have suddenly been taken away from us in a rather unprecedented act? And who was it that decided to rob me of the creativity that is often gained when new ideas come up through random web searches?
Let’s not beat around the bush and address the private usage of the internet, too: Who amongst us has the authority to become a de facto censor and decide which websites we are allowed to privately surf to during work time (like, say, the so far unblocked website of The Age) and which ones are forbidden (using excuses such as “personal”, “open image” or “games”)?
It is my impression that someone has suddenly been granted with way too much power at their hands and decided to show it off. Without much thought, without due process, and without proper communication.
In conclusion, I hope that the protest rising from the ranks together with the wisdom of our managers will prevail in order to set things back the way they used to be. I have addressed this email to you in the hope that you are the right channel for such issues; if that is not the case, I would appreciate it if you could forward it to the suitable authority. In the mean time, allow me to use the opportunity to wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year!

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Sisters are doing it for themselves

Having the privilege of doubling the size of my family through Jo, one of the things that has always intrigued me is the incredible similarity between Jo's sister and my sister, occurring despite both coming from significantly different cultures and backgrounds.
Now I am not going to specify in here the ways in which I consider the two to be similar, because absolutely anything that I will write in this context will earn me eternal family damnation. For the sake of argument, let's just say that the similarities are outside the scope of this blog as I do not intend to impose on the privacy of others who do not seek public exposure.
Now I wouldn't be writing the above if there was no breakthrough to report, and this week there was. An interesting post in a blog discussing evolutionary psychology expanded on the implications of the order between kids, and the arguments there went a long way in explaining the nature of the above mentioned sister similarities.
You can have a look at a summary of the findings in here and here, but I'll spare you and give you the highlights. Essentially, the arguments show once again how similar the science of evolution is to the science of economics:
A first born receives the full attention of his/her parents due to the very simple fact they have nothing else to pay attention to (note the high level of generalization here, which is an ongoing theme; exceptions are very likely). When the second child comes around, parents' attention is divided between the two, so the second child never receives as much attention as the older one used to receive before the younger one came along. Not only that, the young one has to compete for resources (i.e., parental attention), but he/she is competing with a severe handicap: the older child has years of advantage on them. From here on you can see the type of effects that this "economical" struggle can have, mainly that the older child is used to being at the center of things while the second is pushed towards becoming a rebel. Interestingly enough, with as many good intentions as possible, I find it hard to imagine parents that could avoid these traps.
Personally, I think I was very lucky on this front: I was the youngest child of three, so I was spoiled the way the youngest child normally gets spoiled. However, I had two advantages: First, the gap between me and my sister was wide enough for me to enjoy some of the privileges of the firstborn in addition to my youngest son privileges. And second, I had an uncle who took me in as if a parent, thus bestowing on me much more attention than a "normal" child receives (and indeed, I attribute a lot of the good things about me to my uncle).
I guess the relevant points to take from this affair is for all of us to be aware of the minor accident that is the order of our births and not to get too carried away with their effects. By being aware of these issues one should be able to counter them. Most of all, one should be careful before using arguments such as "my parents were evil", as it is obvious that the parents cannot be blamed for having to share their attentions.
To me, at this point in time, the main lesson is to do with the way we will be bringing Dylan up: I hope we will manage to do a good job there, but parenting does seem like it's going to be one of the tougher challenges I am going to encounter during this incarnation.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

My next toy

The more I read about the Asus Eee PC, the more I want one.
Not that I'll get one any time soon. All Australian stock has sold out minutes after they went on sale and the waiting lists are as long as a day at the office. And then there's the $500 price tag, which given our current financial situation means luxuries are things we pass away. And I won't even mention the fact that, to be honest, I don't really need one.
But still, there's nothing wrong with dreaming, and there's quite a lot to dream about here. Essentially, the Eee is a very small notebook (7" screen). At 1 kilo, this is a truly portable PC that you will carry with you without breaking your back!
It's running Linux, so there's no Microsoft contamination there, and its packed with open source applications and a wireless connection which make it the real thin client, the one to carry along when traveling or whenever you have a bag with you (which to me means most of the time). All the applications you need, be it Skype or Google Docs, as well as all the real storage space you require, are just an internet connection away. You can listen to music on it, type on it, process photos on it - it's the essential blogging machine.
It's got something to cover everything you need in a second PC that you can take with you, and it's even got a VGA output so that you can watch videos on your big TV!

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Daniel is flying tonight on a plane

Back at work and feeling significantly better, I got to feel even better-er when I noticed that the Kodak website we have started using in order to distribute Dylan photo printouts to our relatives still stuck in the Stone Age is actually not blocked at work, unlike Flickr, which gives me a renewed opportunity to be able to watch a collection of Dylan photos at the office.
Goes to show a thing or two about the value of blocking access to specific websites in a world where millions of new websites pop up every day.
By the way, that Kodak website is not bad at all. It offers mugs with photo prints and similar kitsch, which means that from now on it is going to be our bread and butter source for family oriented gifts. The aim is to have all family members own a collection of “Dylan through the years” mugs.

While having a walk to the post office during work time, I found myself at the entrance of Dylan's future childcare center. Holding lunch (shawarma) in one hand and the shopping (two cans of formula for Dylan) on the other, I decided a reconnaissance trip is not that bad an idea, so I went in.
One of the attendants was walking out as I stepped into the lobby, and as I’m used to by now she gave me that look Australians normally reserve to terrorism suspects. I told her that my wife had just booked our child there the other day and that I was in the neighborhood so I decided to pop up and have a look, and immediately the “where is my pepper spray when I need it” look changed to a wide smile and the mouth said “Oh! So you’re Daniel’s father!”
So in she took me to give me the grand tour while pointing me at all the things that Daniel admired when he was there the other day and while showing me the room Daniel will spend his time in and the kids Daniel is going to have for company.
It all looked pretty good, only that by now we know there’s more to a childcare place than its looks. The true test is how they cope with the babies during the day, especially during the ultra chaotic feed time. They do seem better suited to handle smaller babies: as of next year (i.e., in three weeks’ time), they are going to have separate rooms for babies under 1 and babies over 1. Daniel, it seems, and even Dylan for that matter, stand a good chance of not being trampled underfoot.

Talking about mistaken identities, I can’t help but wonder whenever I see one of the many Santa figures currently roaming all over the place. The first thing that comes to mind is actual worry about them coping with the searing hear in their suits, hats and false beards. The second, however, is a thought on how aware people are to the fact that the image of Santa we all have in our heads today is more to do with Coca Cola advertising than with any so called saint.
The thing that really troubles me the most is simply this: Why do people keep on with this foolish fable? What’s the point of maintaining this lie and feeding it to children? I can see that it’s an imaginative story, but what is wrong with the truth – what is wrong with telling kids that the gifts they’re getting come through their own parents’ hard work and through the love of their family and friends? If that is not a much better story then I don’t know what is, and with some creativity it can be easily painted in some imaginative colors just the same if not better. But still most people go on with the charade.
One interesting theory I read last Xmess was that the belief in Santa is important for kids because it’s their first step towards believing in god. The assumption is, therefore, that a small lie coupled with the bribe of gifts will open up a gap through which a much nastier and more implicative lie can slip through.
Call me naive, but I prefer water to Coke and the truth over the lie.

Shot through the heart

Someone at work has too much time on their hands.
The latest news is that blogs have been blocked from internet access. Currently, you can still access the blogs themselves, but you cannot watch peoples' comments or add a comment of your own. Already this would make life at the office very miserable; just imagine how it would be like when, in a week's time, blogs are inaccessible altogether?
And again, I can't help but mention that stupidity reigns supreme here. After all, we are actually using blogs at work for work.
Power corrupts.

Monday, 10 December 2007

In the summer in the city

I went to work today for the first time in a week. It wasn't because I have recovered already; it was more because I was tired of being sick. I was far from effective at work, unable to read a page of text without collapsing and totally losing it when the effects of the cold pills wore off. But still I survived, proving once again that it doesn't take much to get through an office job.
To make this a truly special day, Jo had joined me in the morning train ride with Dylan. Jo went to examine a childcare place in the city, and the bottom line of it is that she liked it and we now have provisions for two days per week there as of the new year. The childcare place is near my place of work, so we'll both take Dylan with us on the train and I will take him there in the morning and retrieve him in the evening. It works well for us because my working day is 7.5 hours while Jo's is 8, so if we want to ride the same trains without me working extra time (the horror!) then handling Dylan's childcare woes is one effective balancing techniques.
Obviously, things can't just be so nice and easy. I must have something to complain about or worry of in order for this bit of news to make it to my blog, so here we go.
This morning's morning ritual was sort of a dress rehearsal for the real thing. We got up at 6:00 with the aim of leaving at 7:00 to catch the train. I did my usual morning routine on auto pilot, Jo took care of Dylan with hardly any help from me, and we ended up missing our train by two minutes. So there we have lesson number 1: I need to get up even earlier if I am to help Jo and if we are to be ready on time.
The real issue here is Dylan's breakfast. With all his messing around, it takes him about half an hour to go through his bottle, and if we're taking him to the city we can't just wait till he gets to childcare and leave them to feed him; at least not yet (experienced parents are welcomed to say when we can expect Dylan to be able to wait an hour plus after waking up and until they he gets his breakfast; in general, Dylan stays awake for an hour and a half between each feed, which doesn't leave much room for delayed breakfasts even if his stomach could cope with the delay to begin with (and at the moment it won't)).
However, getting up even earlier in order to have enough time to give Dylan his breakfast doesn't solve our problems either, because we won't be waking Dylan up at 5:30 anyway. And we don't want to take later trains, because they become too crowded.
And there you have it in a nutshell: the woes of taking Dylan with us to work.
Obviously, woes don't end there. It's summer now and all is fine and dandy, but how will we cope when it's soaking wet and cold? That could supply us with a lifetime of memories. And needless to say, the Connex trains don't make life easy on us: just this morning we stood at the very end of the platform under the assumption that the last carriage would have disabled facilities that would fit our pram. It turned out not to be the case, and we found ourselves on a car where the pram hardly fit. Other carriages had disabled facilities, but in the brief few seconds the train stops at the station you can't afford to be too picky (definitely not with a pram in hand). Life must be really charming to the truly disabled!
Well, at least we won't be late picking Dylan up in the evenings because of Connex to find ourselves fined at a rate of $1 per minute.

Saturday, 8 December 2007

Camera shy

We're all still sick. In fact, I'm quite amazed at how slow my recovery is; I feel better every day, but the difference between today and the day before is so slight it's shocking.
Dylan is visibly better now. He can't fully squeal yet, his voice still somewhat lost, but he's back to talking to himself. You can see it in the following video, although the funniest thing about the video is that after many minutes of giving us a very flowing speech Dylan goes quiet the moment he notices the camera. It wasn't a one off; hours later I tried the same thing again in the middle of a speech and he went quiet again.
Obviously, he doesn't want his words to be taken out of context.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Don't do god

Our friend and ex Tony Blaire said a week or two ago that he was told by his advisers to hide his religious beliefs. According to Tony, religion plays an important role in his life; so important it even had a role in his decision to join his friend Bush in war . However, he was never allowed to expose his opinions, because - as he was told - "we [the British people] don't do god". Or, to put it another way, what goes well in the USA (where you're politically dead if you don't believe) will take you down in the UK.
Learning this about Blaire has certainly tarnished the image I have had of him as an intelligent politician. I have to say I agree with his advisers. Yet, sadly, hiding his opinions does not mean he doesn't have an opinion, which - as we know - led the world to a grossly unsuccessful war in Iraq.
People often ask me why I am so adamantly anti religion and this story adds up to provide yet another example why. If Blaire managed to drag 60 million people with him to a stupid war based on his religious beliefs - as opposed to anything substantial - then this is some very good evidence to the corrupt power religion has. What is the difference between waging war on Iraq due to religious convictions and, say, the imperialist adventures the British have had all over the world just a century ago? Worse, what is the difference between Blaire's argument for the war and Bin Laden's? The only difference seems to be the particular religion each of them goes for, which is merely the result of where they happened to be born in.
Especially in this globalised era, the world cannot afford being led by arguments from religion or any other tradition for that matter.

On that note, I am happy to say that the recent elections have pushed Australia in the right direction. The new Rudd government, just sworn in, had most of its members swear the secular oath (sadly, Rudd himself is a major Christian, so his oath had the redundant god bit in). The previous government, on the other hand, had almost all of its 40 members doing the god version. Then again, that was the government that sent Aussie troops to Iraq.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

And Then There Were Three

Once upon a time there was a baby called Dylan. On only his second visit to childcare, Dylan stuffed himself with the forbidden fruit. Then when he came back home, Dylan has opened a germ factory.
And that factory was a very successful endeavor indeed. Within a few days not only Dylan was sick, but his mother got sick as well. And a couple of days later, his father, usually the least resilient of the two, got sick as well.
If this is a sign of things to come when Dylan starts going to childcare on a regular basis then I am so not looking forward to it.
Today we actually have ourselves a family outing to the doctor's place: all three in one go! It is funny, however, to see us all sick. Jo is probably the sickest amongst us at the moment, but in typical Jo fashion she soldiers on bravely. I'm probably the least sick, but all it takes is for me to have a bit of something and I become totally useless (some would argue that this statement applies to when I'm healthy, too). Usually, I handle sickness by sleeping it off; now, of course, my sleep is entirely up to the hands of one baby called Dylan.
It is funny to see how I lose functionality with time. When Dylan first got sick and we didn't sleep much, I lost my ability to concentrate on proper reading and instead started playing the Nintendo DS after months of neglect (the last time I played it was when Dylan was still at the hospital). This time I played Mario Kart and Zelda against online opponents and it's really great! Then when I became sick myself reading was out of the question altogether, the DS was out, watching TV was out, and messing on the computer was limited to "necessary evil" stuff. Blogging, it seems, doesn't require much brain capacity.
Anyway, I hate being sick. You have to hand it to them viruses, though: those small bits of DNA/RNA that have evolved to be able to replicate themselves are one mean effective thing.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Work Choices

I don't usually blog about work. Perhaps it is because financial necessities mean that I would prefer to keep it even if sometimes I have some guts to spill.
But now the levee's gonna break.

It took place with the usual salami method.
First they banned web email sites, claiming that you can get emails with viruses there. A somewhat dubious explanation given that I'm pretty sure the anti-virus software Google and Microsoft and Yahoo have at their hands is somewhat superior to what my place of work can offer; and if the problem is receiving an email with a link that would lead you to a virus, then that can happen anytime anywhere.
Still, the salami looked intact.
Then they banned YouTube. I can actually understand that: Let's face it, you don't use YouTube for anything remotely close to work purposes; usually, YouTube serves to satisfy my football curiosities.
So my salami still seemed to be in one piece.
But then they blocked Flickr with the excuse of it being a "media storage". So what? What's so bad about media storages? And aren't all websites media storages to begin with?
Now, finally, my salami looked as if someone has cut a big chunk out of it. Flickr is not just your other website; Flickr is where I have all of my Dylan photos. Flickr is where I look to whenever I think of Dylan. Flickr is my answer whenever some wise ass comes over and asks how come I don't have any photos of Dylan on my desk (usually adding some cheap boast like "the way I do"): I select my Flickr photo page on my browser's favorites, and e voila! I don't have just one or two photos on my desk, I have hundreds of Dylan photos on my desk.
Or rather, I used to have hundreds of photos on my desk. Up until some smart guy decided to ban it.

It seems to me as if this is always the case at work. I first noticed it at the army: you never get some officer or boss to say "you know what, we don't need to be this tight; why won't we relax [something] and let people have an easier time". No, instead all you hear is how bad one thing or another is and how we should tighten security in the face of threats that don't really exist. From time to time you get something like the internet that reshuffles the cards and let's the good time roll, but then quickly enough the bosses get their way and the workers are re-enslaved.
That's Work Choices for you.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

The Not So Young and Restless

Last time around I left you with a sick Dylan. This time around Dylan is still sick but he's much better.
Thursday night and Friday were the tricky parts. At first we were very close to taking Dylan to the hospital because he didn't drink enough, then Dylan was diagnosed with an airway problem which got us close to taking him to the hospital. Things started sorting themselves out after the doctor prescribed him with some steroids (not to be confused with the good old Asteroids on the Atari), and within 3 hours we had ourselves a rejuvenated baby. Score one for science.
As I already said, the process of having a sick baby has regressed us a few months back. After much more than a month of uninterrupted sleeps (albeit shorter ones than I would like to have), we found ourselves devastated by going back to the realm of the newly born baby and sleeping an interrupted four hours a night. The next night we had only one interruption and I still felt like I have been ironed at about lunch time. Sleep deprivation is not something one can get used to; not only that, it is pretty horrible to endure.
But by far the most interesting observation from looking after a sick baby for a few days is that never during this time did we say to ourselves "fuck this" and quit to take a break. The thought never crossed our minds; the only thought that did cross it, eventually, was the thought that questioned why.
After all, on the face of it, why should we be looking after this small bundle and sacrifice so much for it? Why shouldn't we be selfish instead? And why is it that under such circumstances the thought of being selfish comes highly unnaturally, only as the result of a pondering mind?
The answer is, of course, quite obvious. So obvious that I feel foolish to type it in, but I still will, because when you think about it it's quite amazing how well evolution has equipped us to take care of our descendants. Simply put, if we weren't so hard wired to find Dylan ever so cute and to care so much for him, Dylan would not be here; and if our ancestors happened to think this way, too, we would not have been here either. And there'll be no one to type this stupid post.