Wednesday, 31 December 2008

True Freedom This Way Lies

It’s the end of the year, a perfect artificial marker for taking on ambitious undertakings. And what a better ambitious task could there be than for me to explain why we do the things we do? Yes, I’m going to attempt that, and on the way explain some of my motivations for continuously posting stuff on this blog.

Seriously, though: Why do we do stuff?
Why do we decide to get married to someone, why do we decide to have a child, why do we strive for a promotion at work, why do we choose to buy a totally impractical convertible, why, why, why?
When faced with this question, most of us will instinctively answer that they thought about things and decided on a certain course of action as the way to go. For example, they will say that they thought things through and decided to marry this particular guy.
Is that so?
No, it isn’t. Look yourself in the mirror, have a think about it, and you will quickly admit the truth (that is, if you’re brave enough): In the vast majority of cases, we make even the most serious of decisions first and then, maybe (but probably rarely) come up with reasons to justify them. If you have a problem accepting this last statement of mine then think about this: Last time you fell in love, did you really rationally choose the subject of your love or did it just happen?
Let’s face it: We do things and we make our decisions because our subconscious tells us to do them. The real question is, what does our subconscious contain? If we were to use a computer analogy of the brain (an analogy that happens to be pretty accurate, but let’s ignore that for now), then what is the program code our brain uses to run our subconscious with?
We don’t know the full answer to that question yet, but we are lucky enough to know how this bit of code was written and therefore know quite a lot about it even without looking at lines of code. Our brain is a product of millions of years of evolution, hundreds of millions of years of you start the counting from when some fat cells first started functioning as some sort of a nervous system. Assuming you accept evolution as a fact (which you should, if you’re sane), then you will have to accept that evolution has also shaped your subconscious as it went along: it is not only evidence that points to that conclusion, it is also common sense; your brain has had to evolve together with the rest of your body.
Looking at my baby child and his development, signs of evolution affecting his behavior are everywhere: they are in his will to become bipedal, they are in his attempts to talk, and they are in the incredible similarities between the ways all babies start to talk regardless of demographics or culture. As adults, we can see evolution’s programming at work in our craving for sex, power and status: we are programmed to constantly seek out ways to immortalize our genes.

Now let me ask another question: Given that we are all running evolution’s programming in our minds’ subconscious, and given that this subconscious is in charge of most of what we do, does that mean we are prisoners of evolution?
Well, evidence points at most of us being prisoners of evolution’s programming most of the time. But this is not a necessity: Personally, I would like to think of myself as above evolution. I would like to think that I have my own goals, my humanist goals, and that these goals are my driver and not evolution.
The trick, though, is to learn how to release yourself from the captivity of evolution and set your mind free. That involves awareness as a mandatory ingredient: Without awareness, without knowing where you came from and where you want to be, you can never truly release yourself from evolution’s captivity. The problem there is that we have many distractions in our path to awareness: we have wishful thinking agendas in the shape of religion coming in to tell you what its version of the truth is (only that its version is completely unsubstantiated); and we have marketing, advertisements, and culture in general always inferring that they know what is really best for you (and you’re just lucky enough for them to completely relieve you of any sort of thinking that might promote actual awareness).
Achieving awareness is thus a hard and constant battle. With it, though, and with rational questioning and a healthy skeptical mind holding its hand, you can set yourself any goal you wish to achieve. And there lies a risk: There is nothing preventing you from setting yourself a goal similar to, say, Hitler’s. The trick is, however, that not all of evolution's subconscious code is bad; some things, such as the sense of morality we inherit and our instinctive recognition of good from bad are essential for a healthy society and should therefore be kept in mind; after all, this is exactly why we have inherited them (to one extent or another). if, like me, you share the humanist point of view, your freedom of mind will not only benefit you, it will benefit the whole of society.
Indeed, one of my reasons for maintaining this blog is to promote my humanist values and to promote awareness. Hopefully, I managed to make some sort of a difference to this world by doing so.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Notes on a Small Break


Book - Bryson England
Originally uploaded by reuvenim
As per our yearly habit this time of the year to go away somewhere nice, we set our GPS to South Australia and headed off for a long drive on Xmess morning. We spent the first night at Port Fairy and the next three nights at Coonawarra but the story of the trip’s main events will be told through Flickr; for now, here are a few notes.

1. Breakdown:
While driving down the highway, still inside Melbourne, we started hearing this weird sound. At first we dismissed it, then we thought it was coming from other cars, but eventually (pretty quickly, actually) we realized we’re to blame. I took the next exit and stopped at a gas station in time to see smoke and smell heavy break pad stench coming off our rear right wheel.
What a great position to find ourselves in, and on Xmess day when everything’s shut! We couldn’t even rent a car to finish our trip off with, the trip that hardly started!
The next half hour was spent mostly with me cursing the gods of Honda for failing us at the least favorable time. Then, however, our RACV road assistant came over to have a look. In typical fashion, he found nothing wrong; the suspicion was on some piece of grit from the road attaching itself in between the break pad and the disc. Off we went for our trip…
I take two lessons with me from this incident: First, while you may think you have everything under control, things can always fall apart. Second, we were lucky to be on Honda’s premium rescue service with RACV, which meant we’ve waited for half an hour on Christmas day as opposed to a good few hours. Next time I register with RACV on my own I will book the premium service, too, because it seems cars always get stuck when it’s the least comfortable.

2. Wine:
The area we’ve stayed in, Coonawarra, is a wine region. We were surrounded by wineries, dozens of them; I have never even dreamt of the possibility of having so many wineries in such close proximity.
Naturally, we went for some wine tasting (me doing the driving, Jo doing the tasting, and Dylan being a pain). It’s a nice experience, but it made me think of all the sophisticated people I know who worship wine for the status symbol it is, feeling for that slight hint of bark and fruit instead of just enjoying it as a drink. Granted, that search for taste is a part of the fun, but for them it’s a ticket to thinking themselves the elite: by copying those they consider the elite (i.e., those with enough money to afford expensive wine) they perceive themselves to actually be the elite. Well, it’s not the wine you drink that makes you a good person.
For us, the only problem is we hardly ever drink alcohol; it would take us years to consume the wine we bought.

3. Traveling with a baby:
The older Dylan gets, the more demanding he is when traveling. We can’t just go anywhere we feel like anymore; when he wants his stretch or his food he will let us know, and when he’s unhappy we’re unhappy. In order to pacify him we had to resort to previously unthinkable measures, such as feeding him in the car; the result is a car that now feels like a dumpster. All the more annoyed we had become when we go out to eat only to find the eatery doesn’t have a baby highchair (take that, Nandos!) or that the baby highchairs are all so dirty it would be inhumane to use them (as they were at the places we’ve visited in Naracoorte).
On the positive side, for the first time Dylan has been expressing interest in the places we take him to: We took him to a fossil center that had an interactive museum, with animals of sorts making sounds and moving (slightly). While he was initially mildly scared by the woof-woofs (by Dylan’s reckoning anything with four legs is a dog), he quickly got over that to really enjoy and take part in the experience. Guess I might think things over the next time I want to take him to a strip club.

4. Environment:
It was interesting to note just how many houses in South Australia had solar water heating panels on their roofs. I guess it makes sense for them: being that the area we’ve visited is rather remote there is no gas grid around to plug in to, so the heating options are either gas tanks or inefficient electricity.
Even more interesting was noting how virtually all the houses we’ve seen in the areas of South Australia that we’ve visited had water recycling tanks collecting rain water from the roofs, usually two or even more gigantic ones. Didn’t they hear what the Premier of Victoria, John Brumby, said on TV? Our John claimed that if everybody installed water recycling tanks the damage to the environment would be enormous and that the only solution for Victoria is a desalination plant (which, at an energy consumption level equivalent to tens of thousands of cars, if very environmentally friendly). You see, unlike water tanks, which rely on rain water, a desalination plant is both renewable and sustainable.
Oddly enough, though, the South Australians seem to cope with the environmental disaster they brought upon themselves: despite the harsh desert like conditions, many have had their sprinklers on to water their green grass.
Ain’t that weird, Johnny?

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

We wish [some of you] a merry Xmess

In compliance with his take on the concept of Christmas spirit, "The pope has sparked controversy by saying defending heterosexuality is as important as saving the world's rainforests from destruction" (quoted from The Guardian here).
I therefore like to thank the Pope for helping us see the true face of religion. When looked upon closely it is clear there is not much of a difference between the radical Muslims doing their terrorist attacks and the agendas the Pope is trying to push.
The Pope's comments do make me laugh, though. On one hand we have science indicating that homosexuality is perfectly natural and abundant throughout nature; we have science indicating that we are all somewhere on a continuum between heterosexuality and homosexuality; we have great achievements achieved by gay people (check out Oscar Wilde); and I also have my own personal experience indicating that gay people are just like all people: some are great and some are a pain. On the other hand we have the Pope with his demagogy.
The question of which side to go with is rather rhetoric.

In conclusion, I would like to say to the Pope I think he's an idiot. To the rest of us, enjoy the upcoming break!

Half Life

Should I start worrying?

A couple of weeks ago we took Dylan to childcare. We got into the car, started going, and then I realized I forgot Dylan's childcare bag at home. I drove back home, went inside, and realized the bag was actually in the back of the car all along.

This morning I left home on my own to the train station. As I arrived, a train went by some ten minutes after its due time or five minutes prior its due time. I should have known better with Connex, but the surprise factor got me to look for my mobile phone to check and see whether Connex sent me any SMS updates about its services. Trouble is, I couldn't find my phone!
I decided to drive back home and look for it. I got home there but couldn't find it where I last remember to have put it at home, either. In panic, I called myself, only to find my bag - the bag I had with me all along - ringing (and waking Dylan up in the process).
Turned out my phone was on me all along, just in a bag compartment different to the one I usually stash it in.

Question is, is senility having a go at me, is it just lack of sleep, or are they both joining hands?

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Spreading the Word

A friend at work has finally got himself connected to the internet. Afraid of all the threats that may plague him now that he's exposed, he asked me for advice, and in return he got the usual speech: Ensure you keep up to date with Windows Updates, install AVG's anti-virus, install the ZoneAlarm firewall (not the best but a good choice for the beginner), install Adaware to protect yourself from adware, and install Spybot to protect from trojans and other nastiness. Be careful with what you do on the internet, but in general expect to be hit eventually.
I did add at the end, as almost a whisper like comment, that "alternatively, you can just install Linux". And you know what? The unthinkable happened, and the guy asked me to help him with a Linux installation; the next day he even brought his laptop to work so I could do just that. I guess it's his naivety in the field of computers that allowed him to still be open to new ideas as opposed to going with what he's used to.
Indeed, on that next day (today) I installed Ubuntu on his laptop in dual boot mode with Windows, allowing him to pick his preferred operating system whenever he reboots. Alternatively, the Ubuntu installation CD allows you to just boot from the CD in order to get yourself an impression of what Ubuntu Linix is like, or - even more alternatively - install Ubuntu as a Windows application. Both, however, are inferior options to the proper installation my friend ended up doing.

While installing Ubuntu on his laptop, several passerbys who saw the act could not contain themselves from commenting. The first was impressed with me providing a Linux installation just a day after the request was made; coming over to have a look he asked to book my consultation services ahead of an impending Ubuntu dual boot installation on his home PC in order to guarantee safe internet banking.
A second guy came in and commented that Linux should be made our standard operating system at work. It would work better, it would be much cooler than Windows, and - as I have added - it would save the organization a lot of money as Linux is free.
Then a third guy came over and commented how cool, nice and fast Ubuntu is.
You get the picture: Everyone that saw Ubuntu in action loved it. After watching me install it and noticing how easy it was, and after seeing it in action to witness how effective and nice it is to work with, they all wanted to have a go.

My point is simple: Most of us are trapped with Windows on our PCs simply because of ignorance and fear of the unknown. The decline in Linux netbook sales and the rise of Windows based netbooks despite their inadequate ability to cope with Windows is testimony.
Well, as those that saw Ubuntu in action with me today will testify, there is no need for that fear to bind you. You can just go ahead and download Ubuntu from their website here and install it; you won't regret your move.
Don't let ignorance and fear of the unknown leave you stuck with inferiority.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Right to Think


356B_027
Originally uploaded by reuvenim
There is a lot of hoo-ha in the air lately with the proposition by some humanist organization to use school religious education time to promote humanist agendas (i.e., what most people would refer to as atheist).
You know a sensitive nerve has been hit when the Sunday Age’s letter section is full of letters saying people like me (i.e., humanists) are scum because we don’t have a frame of reference to attach our sense of morality to. That is, we don’t have that great surveillance camera in the sky we need to be constantly fearful of; we just rely on common sense granted to us through evolution to know what is right and what is wrong, but then again everyone knows that evolution is just senseless dogma forced on us by the scientific elite as they block any other alternative point of view from having its say. Or maybe it’s because there is all the evidence in the world to support evolution and none to support much else, especially the religious?

What I wish to do with this post is to express my opinion on the matter of religious education at school, and my opinion is very clear: There should be none of it.
Australia is a secular country and it should behave as such. We might learn a thing or two from the USA here, where religion is very strictly withheld from having a go at state schools. As it is, religious education only serves in dividing society: Muslims, for example, will seek their own lessons given the predominantly Christian nature of these teachings; the result is that the Muslim kids will only be further marginalized by their peers.
I will have the same problem when my own son goes to school: I can give him a note asking him to be exempt from religion classes, but he would have to spend that time in some time wasting effort school has to provide and away from his friends. Do you think he’ll like me for that? And why should I be facing this dilemma anyway?
Instead of religion, pupils should be taught how to think for themselves. That is, how to appraise different opinions and theories and how to determine their version of the truth based upon the validity of the evidence in front of them. Surely, no one can object to that? Surely, no religion has anything to be afraid of here?
Obviously they do, because if too many people started looking at the evidence in front of them there won’t be many religious people left around. This is why religions insist on having right of way to indoctrinate kids before anything else gets to their minds; evidence clearly indicates that especially with kids, the first thing to go into the brain is deemed the ultimate truth, no matter how unsubstantiated it is. The best proof for that is kids coming from different religions tend to virtually always stick to the religion they were originally indoctrinated in; they always see the light in their own faith whereas the kids growing on other faiths always see the light in theirs. Surely there’s some problematic contradiction here?
My point is that some of the humanists’ agendas, as in those that talk about thinking for oneself, should be taught; however, they should not be placed under a school’s religion time. Instead, they should be taught because every person has a right to know how to think rationally. Religion should still be taught in schools, but it should be taught the same way history is, regarded for what it is: an artifact of human culture.

I would like to go one step further with my arguments. I would like to argue that the indoctrination of children in religions should be banned altogether through legislation. Adults can and should choose for themselves; children are unable to, and at the moment it’s leading them to be abused. Sure, they’re mostly abused by their own parents, but they are still being abused.
There are two arguments against my proposal. The first would say that banning parents from talking to their kids is impractical, whereas the second would argue about the morale right that goes to prevent parents from doing something together with their own children. My answer to both revolves around one concept: zeitgeist.
While the outright banning indoctrination of kids by their parents will simply be ignored, it will not be ignored when it is done gradually and through thorough transparency of what is at stake here: A child that goes to school and learns how to think for herself will protest when her parents try to push stuff on her by virtue of authority alone. In effect, through education, proper education, the zeitgeist could move to new grounds, grounds where a ban on the religious indoctrination of kids will be regarded the same way a ban on drink driving is regarded nowadays.
And as for coming in between parent and child: Well, once upon a time not that long ago (but long enough for many to ignore) children were sold or used as slave labor. Today the zeitgeist has changed and children, at least in Australia, may only be properly employed as of the age of 16; something came in between parent and child to stop the parent from abusing their child. Similarly, while parents used to hit their children in the past, today no parent would admit to that; the zeitgeist has changed enough for hitting not to be acceptable (in some countries, like New Zealand, it is even outright illegal).

While I do not think there is even the slightest chance for kids’ religious indoctrination getting banned any time soon, I definitely think getting rid of religious studies in state school is a good enough start.
And there was never a better time to start than now.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Train Surprise

Life can be full of surprises. At least if you're Connex and you have been in charge of running Melbourne's trains over the last very cancellation riddled weeks.

A couple of weeks ago, Connex has explained the morning cancellations by saying the trains were left in the wrong positions over night and thus weren't able to provide full service come morning. I can clearly see it: the Connex organizing staff went home after a hard day at the office all full of satisfaction for managing a successful day, only to come back to the office the next day and learn - to their total astonishment - that they actually need to run the trains for yet another day. That's not it, though, for lo and behold - they need to run the trains according to the very same schedule they had the day before! Who could have thought of that! Now, where did we leave them trains overnight?

However, that excuse was the exception. The regular Connex excuse for not being able to run trains according to schedule is malfunctioning trains, and lately their press releases keep saying day after day that this morning's bunch of cancellations is due to malfunctioning trains.
I find this approach rather surprising. As a company in charge of running services worth millions of dollars, including train maintenance services, I would have expected Connex to have pretty accurate statistics on trains' MTBFs (mean time between failures), which should mean that they would plan routine services at the right frequencies to prevent breakdowns . But they don't, or at least they don't manage their train rotations as if they do. Which pretty much means that they're incompetent and that they should not be running Melbourne's trains.
Yet Connex does continue to run Melbourne's trains, the state government let's Connex do whatever they do, and Veolia - Connex' French owner - is reporting record profits, specifying explicitly that these are due to their operations in Melbourne.
Ain't it great to see incompetence paying off?

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Was it worth it?

Having traveled with a one year old baby around the world and having fought bloody battles (literally) with baby ear infections for more than a year now, I believe I am qualified enough to answer a seemingly simple question:
Was it worth it? I’m talking about the question that pops up in the backs of would be parents’ minds, whether they are first time parents or whether they are thinking of siblings: Is the bringing of a child to this world a worthwhile effort, cost benefit wise?
Before I attempt to give my take on an answer I will add a disclaimer: I will not be dealing with the question of what it is that makes us want to have babies in the first place; I will deal with that in another post. The only question I am trying to answer here is whether, once you have your baby, the benefits coming from the baby are worth the costs involved with it.

Well, my answer to this question is a politician’s answer: Is anything we do in this world worth it?
Think about it: As we are all going to die eventually, and having already lived the average half life I can attest to that eventuality being not that far into our future, everything we do is fruitless. Everything we do will die, eventually. The trick is that some things are still worth doing because of the effect they have on us while and after we do them.
Take, for example, the act of climbing the Everest. There aren’t many other items in anyone’s CV that will earn more “wow!” or “cool!” calls, yet ask the mountain climber and I’m sure they would tell you that the climb itself was a rather stressful and painful experience.
Personally, I think people who need to climb high mountains to feel good about themselves are people that lack some very basic grip of what life is all about, but never mind that; my point is simply that most of the grander experiences in life involve a hefty amount of torture with them. Kid raising is just another one of those, albeit one of the more demanding ones most people encounter.
My answer, therefore, is that having a baby is worthwhile because the experience makes you a better person. Fighting all the shit that comes with raising a baby is the Everest climb's equal. A good parent can become a much less selfish entity, an entity that knows it needs to give a lot to others, an entity that is much more aware of its environment, and an entity that is much more aware of the impact of its actions on the environment. Obviously, a parent can be a selfish one at that and not care less about anything other than their very own, but then again that parent will not be reaping what I consider to be the main rewards of parenthood; that wouldn't be a particularly good parent.
So yes, despite the cost and the hardship and the lack of sleep involved with flying a baby with you around the world, our trip was more satisfying having done it with our baby.
In case you consider this post a good excuse to have yourself many kids, do note there is the question of marginal benefits. If you were to ask whether you should bring subsequent children into this world, then be aware that the benefits you will get out of baby x+1 are generally expected to be lower than the benefits out of baby x.

Why did I think of all of the above? Because earlier during this week, while I was crouching down at the bath preparing it for Dylan, he came up behind me and gave me this huge hug; the biggest he can give. His hands surrounded my back and his nose was right up against my spine. I couldn’t see him but I could feel him; it was one of those rare moments of a lifetime.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Should 5% appear too small be thankful I don't take it all

Five percent?!
If ever we needed proof that the people governing Australia couldn’t care less about global warming then we got plenty of it yesterday when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced a carbon emission reduction target of 5% by 2020. Wow, that’s an ambitious target that will secure a world for our children to live in!
It’s not just Rudd. At the state level, Victoria’s Premier John Brumby said on ABC TV a few weeks ago, in an interview for Stateline, that if every household was to install water recycling tanks to collect rainwater from their drains it would be an environmental disaster. He said it as a justification for the building of a desalination plant that will generate as much emissions as tens of thousands of cars. I couldn’t believe Brumby uttered such an outrageously ridiculous statement, but I saw it on TV and the sound did sync with his lips.

Let’s face it: Our leaders are climate change skeptics. Now, there is no law saying you are not allowed to reject global warming theories; it implies on the rationalisation processes these people deploy in their decision making process, but it is still entirely within their rights to disagree with these theories.
What is very unethical, though, is these same leaders selling themselves as climate change activists in order to get elected and only then exposing their true face. I believe there are laws against false advertising.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Insult to Injury

What do you do to players you dislike in your favorite team?
Case in point: Arsenal’s Emmanuel Eboue.
I can’t say I like him; to be honest, I can’t say I like the vast majority of football players; they are all overpaid, and I doubt any one of them would have what it takes to be a friend of mine. I doubt they care, though, and that’s fine; as long as they entertain us with their football, the contract between fan and player is not being breached.
Eboue’s case is a rather extreme one, though. Personally, I don’t like him much as a player: he’s not of the flashy type that catches your attention, and he did manage to establish himself quite a reputation as a diver having done so during a Champions League final move that resulted in an unjust goal. I think it would be fair to say most Arsenal fans don’t like Eboue.
That, however, does not justify the events taking place during Arsenal last week’s home match against Wigan. Eboue, returning from injury, was put on as a sub out of his normal position and gave a terrible performance to match the circumstances; the supporters, some 60,000 of them, all insulted him on an ongoing basis despite Eboue playing for their own team, seeming to take all of their accumulated frustration with Arsenal on him (and this season, at least, there's ample room for frustration as far as Arsenal supporters are concerned).
Eboue didn't take it well. As the photo shows, he came out of the pitch crying. He was a shattered man.
Tens of thousands of people have worked together to shatter this person down; did he deserve such treatment? Does any human being deserve it? Can any human being handle being at the center stage of a stadium only to receive the wrath of everyone around?
An event like this makes me want to disown my loyalty to the Arsenal team so I won't be mistaken for one of the many that did this wrong.

Thing is, as I have said before, I am more than a bit two faced.
A few years before leaving Israel to Australia me and some of my friends would, from time to time (but not that often) go to see some low league football games during the weekend. These were pathetic matches played between teams light years away from Arsenal, but it was exactly this pathetic state of affairs that attracted us to the experience: it was so bad it was funny.
Chief among the entertainment material was the act of telling some of the players and the referee in particular what I thought of their ancestors; and it's not like I had evidence to support my claims. It wasn't serious; I rarely am serious when I swear, it's almost always a joke. It was all so pathetic and I was one of many, so who cares if I was having a laugh? That was my way of justifying the admission price.
Now, however, I have seen what such behavior can lead to. There is no justification for breaking a person up through such unjustified jeers, and for all I know my jeers could have been taken seriously.
I have made a huge mistake with my past behavior. Every person deserves to be respected.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Santa got me a PS3

Usually this time of the year I dedicate some posts to express my disgust with the consumerism festivities taking place under the banner of Christmas shopping. This year, for a couple of reasons, it looks like I won’t.
First there’s the global financial crisis. Walking through Melbourne’s major shopping precincts, as I do twice a day through my commute to work, the relative lack of congestion is easily felt: whereas yesteryears required some heavy NFL derived tactics just to be able to cross the street this year is all about peace and quiet. Hooray for financial crises! I hope they would help people figure what the real deal is with the holidays anyway.
Second, there is the undeniable fact that I have been spending money like the double faced consumerist I am. The epitome of this season’s spendings so far, as you might have guessed through careful reading of my blogs, has been the purchase of a Sony Playstation 3.
The purpose of this post is to communicate key aspects of the PS3 experience.

1: Plug and Play
One of the key advantages a games console holds over the PC as a gaming platform is its plug and play capability. You connect it to the TV, you stick the game disc in, and you sit and play. But is that the case with the PS3?
The short answer is no. The lengthy answer follows.
The PS3 uses Bluetooth controllers (a sophisticated word for “joystick”). Given the Bluetooth nature of said joystick, it needs to be paired to the console so that both console and joystick will be able to talk to one another. Given the need for the cordless controller to be charged, it needs to be connected to one of the console’s USB outputs for charging. Add one to one, and the first thing you need to do with your PS3 after you put it in its shelf and connect it to the power socket is to connect it with a USB cable to your controller: this will charge the controller and also pair it (a process required every time you introduce your controller to a new console).
Next you need to connect the console to your TV. In my case, I have connected the console to my receiver via an HDMI cable; the receiver was already connected to the TV via HDMI. As you turn the console on, it will automatically handshake with your TV (through the receiver, in my case) to determine the optimal screen setting. In my case it determined 1080i as the console’s output (the PS3 is capable of 1080p output but my TV won’t accept it); I had to manually ask my PS3 to use 720p instead. To do that you have to navigate through the PS3 menus, which use a very smart interface that will still take you a while to digest when you use it for the first time. Do not rely on the supplied joke of an instruction book to help you much there.
Next on the setup agenda was the sound. As I have discussed before, the PS3 will not output the advanced sound formats (Dolby TrueHD or DTS HD) out its HDMI outputs; it outputs the resulting PCM code instead (that is, it processes these sound formats for you already, theoretically relieving you of the need for an expensive receiver/processor). When setting the sound up, the PS3 handshakes with your receiver through the HDMI interface to determine which of its long list of supported sound formats it would accept and presents the results for you to approve in a few seconds. It worked like a charm.
Next thing on the agenda was to try and play a game, just to see that the console works. So I stuck FIFA 09 down my PS3’s mouth, only to be greeted by a message telling me that in order to be able to play this game I need to have my PS3's system updated. Great! In plain English the message meant I had to connect the PS3 to the internet; note this was not an option, I had to do it in order to play games, the console’s main role in life.
Luckily, the PS3 has built in wireless, but it was still a pain to register it on my wireless network given that all the info has to be entered using the joystick and not with a keyboard (Sony says a USB keyboard should do the job, but I don’t have one).
With the internet connection sorted I moved on to do the system update. Now, there’s a system update and there’s a system update; this one is a System Update in capital letters because it took about half an hour just to download on my ADSL2+ connection and then some ten more minutes to install itself. Plug and play, right?
Well, no. With the system update behind me I put FIFA 09 in again, and this time I got another message telling me I need to download the latest software updates for the game itself, 32mb worth. So there go a few more minutes. And then the game tells you that in order to enjoy it the most you need to set an internet account with the Playstation network and a separate account with EA Sports (FIFA 09’s publisher). As before, given the need to enter all the info using the joystick, and you do need a lot of info to register with Playstation, this is tedious and takes quite a while.
Experience thus far with three games indicates you need to download the latest patch with every new game you try to play on your PS3. Curb your enthusiasm when bringing the newest, meanest and hottest game copy home, because it will take a while before you’d be able to actually play it!
There is no doubt the PS3 is the most technically advanced games console out there at the moment, but a plug and play console it is not. I guess that is one reason why the Wii is beating it in the sales department.

2: Blu-ray and video playback
You can argue whether getting a Blu-ray player is worthwhile in the first place but you cannot argue with the PS3 being an excellent Blu-ray player, at least when compared to the alternatives.
The most noticeable feature of the PS3 playing Blu-ray titles is that it is unnoticeable: Unlike other players, you do not get lengthy delays when playing a new disc or when pausing/restarting. Instead, you get an experience that is very similar to the DVD playback experience we are all used to. To date I am still to encounter a Blu-ray title offering internet contents (aka BD Live), but the PS3 is meant to be able to deal with those, too; till then, the only difference between Blu-ray and DVD watching, as far as I am concerned, is the quality and me needing to use the PS3’s controller as a remote control.
Surprisingly, using the joystick as the remote is not bad at all. Sure, I would have preferred to use my universal remote instead (which you cannot do unless you have a device converting infra red to Bluetooth), but I really don’t see a need to buy Sony’s dedicated PS3 Blu-ray remote control. The joystick’s utilization of the buttons and commands just makes sense!
It’s also interesting to note the PS3 managed to play any DivX contents I threw its way (through a USB stick; it also has the capability of detecting media on your network, assuming you have the right setup). It deals with high definition and standard definition with zero complaints and quite quickly. In this regard, it is better than any DVD player with a USB input I have encountered thus far, thus providing an excellent way to watch internet downloads in your home theater.

3: Antisocial gaming
I cannot say I am familiar with that many PS3 game titles, but there seems to be a repeating pattern with those I have bumped into thus far: conventional multi player gaming options are cast aside, with emphasis put on single player campaigns and multi player facilities over the internet.
Take the games we got bundled with our consoles as an example. With my previous console, the Xbox, we've received a copy of Halo. Indeed, the most fun we've had with the Xbox was when we played through the game's entire campaign in cooperative mode, an alien blasting partnership. With the PS3 the story is different: the bundled game, Resistance 2, a shooter not unlike Halo albeit significantly more spectacular, only offers internet multi playing options. Sure, I can use it to play cooperatively with others over the web, but I can't play it sitting next to my partner.
Things get worse, though. The PS3 comes bundled with a single controller. Wanna buy a second one, in case you do put your hands on a multi player game? Open your wallet wide and fork out $94 for the pleasure. That's daylight robbery for you. Cheaper alternatives exist on eBay, but they're all compromised: they're either wired or they lack the Wii like motion sensing features (that are hardly utilized by PS3 games, but then again maybe that would change).
That's anti social in my book. Compare it with the Wii, a console that specializes in social gaming and suffers tremendously in the technical capabilities department, and you can see why the Wii is outselling the PS3.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Just a Little Bit of History Repeating


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Originally uploaded by reuvenim
Once upon a time, back in 1984, there was a trial.
The movie studios were worried about no one going to see their films again, so they sued Sony for its latest invention – the VCR, a tool allowing people to record off the air material and watch it at their own time.
The USA’s Supreme Court has dealt the studios a blow. In a precedent, it has ruled that people are allowed to use VCRs for the purpose of time shifting, thus allowing the proliferation of VCRs in our homes worldwide. This, in turn, ushered the age of purchasing and renting movies, an age that culminated with the DVD. The movie studios ended up the big winners: Nowadays, they make 6 times more income out of home videos than they do out of cinematic releases; by now they regard the cinematic release as a mere marketing campaign for the ensuing DVD.
You would think the movie studios have learnt something from this case, would you?

Well, I wonder if they did.
Fast forward to modern day Australia, and have yourself a look at the case of the movie studios plus Channel 7 against iiNet, Australia’s third largest ISP. iiNet, the movie studios and their partners allege, is guilty of allowing illegal material to pass through their services.
Before moving on to discussing the sanity of such an accusation, allow me to ask a couple of interesting questions:
1.Why is it that the studios choose to pick on iiNet, the third largest ISP, and not on Telstra or Optus, the really big guys? It is fair to say that so called illegal material passes through them more than it does on iiNet, so you would think they would be targeted instead, would you? Or is it that Telstra and Optus can afford themselves a defense that would make the trial a farce?
2.Why is Channel 7 taking part in the lawsuit? Could it be because iiNet is planning to release it own Tivo like service that will compete for market share with Channel 7’s overpriced Tivo?

Yes, you can say I am questioning the motives involved in this lawsuit.
More importantly, though, let me ask you this: What is the big difference between me watching the latest episode of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles off a file I have downloaded from the internet and me watching it off the air?
I can think of two differences. The first is that the download bypasses Channel 9, who paid for the series’ rights in Australia, and the second is lack of advertisements in the downloaded version. However, are these reasons good enough to justify a lawsuit that makes as much sense or even less as that archaic lawsuit against the VCR?
Why won’t the movie studios rearrange themselves to a completely new modus of operandi? Why don’t they flood the market with cheap material that can be legally purchased for next to nothing (say, 1 dollar for said episode), thus allowing them to make just as much money as they would anyway from Channel 9? They can throw in some advertisements for me to fast forward through while at it and for them to make some extra bucks of, I don’t mind. And get rid of stupid DRM while at it, please, it only makes the handling of your material so cumbersome people would rush for the superior “illegal” versions.
Yet the studios choose to bang their heads on the wall and file a lawsuit instead. Who are trying to defend, anyway? The way I see it, they are fighting on behalf of nothing more than their current business model. That, and on behalf of some of their distributors (e.g., Channel 9), whose business model will need revamping, too.
Is it worth it all, the legalities and the hassles? I’ll let you decide.

By the way, in case you thought Americans going to court over time shifting is stupidly incarnate, think of Australia: Up until 2006, it was illegal to record stuff on your VCR. The law was never enforced, which pretty much says it all: just as it is today, you cannot prosecute the majority of the population.
Since 2006, though, we can relax: the law allows us to now record stuff for time shifting purposes. However, you are only allowed to watch your recording once. Do not even think of rewinding if you’ve missed out on some of the dialog!

Friday, 5 December 2008

Science Frontiers


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Originally uploaded by reuvenim
One of the more annoying things to take place on a Melbourne train is having people talk on their mobile phones. They're noisy for a start, and then there's the bullshit they talk about which distracts you way too much to be able to take a short nap, read, or just daydream.
Jo was telling me about this woman chatting over her mobile phone on one of her previous week's rides, telling her entire life story not only to her partner in chat but also to the rest of the carriage. 26, she just came back from a trip abroad with her mother, and she couldn't bear normal life anymore – you know, work and such. She couldn't wait till the time she was able to retire and just travel and do nothing all day long.
On one hand, it's amazing just how little understanding there is out there of what life is all about. That woman showed no indication of realizing what life is all about, why we're here in the first place, and why true, lasting and complete happiness is something that can never be had.
Then again, why should I be amazed? We live in a world where any baseless agenda can be promoted tax free as a religion and thus receive immediate and total immunity from any criticism; a world where people have ten times the exposure to astrology than they do to anything in the least scientific; a world where stating the obvious fact that we humans are apes is not something you would do because people will react strangely to such a statement.
A world like ours needs people who will embrace the challenge and become champions of science. We need every Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov or Richard Dawkins we can get.
In Australia, the closest one can get to any of the above is Karl Kruszelnicki, or as most of the public knows him – Dr Karl. While Dr Karl cannot boast the scientific achievements of Dawkins or Sagan, he is a prominent feature of Triple J radio and has quite a following. He also had a go at politics, running on behalf of a global warming action group and raising some more awareness to the cause (and to the ease with which we can address it if we really put our minds to it, which the government obviously doesn't want to do).
A couple of weeks ago I met Dr Karl and had a chat with him while on a book signing tour of Melbourne, and I just want to say I'm proud of that and I'm proud of him being there and doing what it is that he's doing. It's people like Dr Karl that stand in between ignorance with all its tax free billions on one side and knowledge and enlightenment on the other.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Homeland Security

For reasons some of which are elusive, I tend to be deemed by my peers as some sort of an authority when it comes to personal computing. As a result, I’m often asked for help with the latest virus infection, trojan infection, mysterious firewall alert, or just your average Windows error messages that warns you about a security threat and prevents you from ever using your PC again. Ever.
If anything, the rate in which I receive such queries is rather alarming, which is strange given that I hardly ever get any infections on my own PCs, and when I do it’s almost always a case where I know I was looking for trouble. But I do not seem to represent the majority of PC users out therel judging by the horror shows I have seen when dealing with relatives’ PCs during our recent family visit to the UK and Israel, I would say that I would consider myself a very daring person if I was to ever put one of my passwords to use on one of their PCs; now, that would be asking for trouble!
So, is there a solution to these security issues, or are we all doomed to live forever with a sword hanging on top of our PCs’ necks? Is there no option for my relatives but life in the virus mire?
Well, there is. It’s glaringly obvious and it became even more obvious to me during our overseas trip when I took out my miniature Asus Eee PC and surfed the internet in comfort while leaving my relatives’ PCs for the much needed rest they deserve. The answer is Linux.

It is really hard for Windows “trained” users to imagine, but Linux offers its users a world free of viruses, trojans or spyware; a world where security tools like firewalls do not require a doctorate and run in the background, where they belong; a world where anti-virus software is a tool you use in order to help friends running Windows based PCs get rid of their viruses.
Don’t get me wrong; Linux is not perfect and it has its security issues, too. However, there are key differences: First, being open sourced, Linux vulnerabilities are known to everyone and not hidden under some remote shelf in a some underground Microsoft dungeon; this means that solutions are quickly delivered and, in my case, as an Ubuntu user, automatically brought to my attention. Usually, solutions are delivered long before anyone vile enough is able to exploit them. And best of all, it’s all free!

So how does it work? How does Linux manage so well where Windows fails so miserably?
Well, don’t look at me as the ultimate authority there, but here’s the gist of it in a nutshell. It really is simple: In Linux, applications have a very limited and very carefully monitored list of rights. That is, there are just a few things they can do, and unless you give them the explicit authorization to do more they cannot do much wrong no matter how hard they try.
I’ll explain through a few examples. Let’s say that you’ve downloaded a trojan that tries to use your internet connection; it won’t be able to do so, because it doesn’t have the right to use the internet connection, because just a very few applications have this ability by default (with the internet browser being an obvious example). But can you download the trojan in the first place? No, because it is an application of sorts, and you need explicit authorization in order to install an application; similarly, the trojan cannot attach itself to your internet browser or to any other application, because unless you gave these some explicit authorization they are not allowed to change themselves.
The same applies for viruses. You can have a virus file on your Linux PC, but unless you explicitly let it run loose it would be just another harmless file on your PC, totally unable to do anything. Exactly why Linux is great for getting rid of viruses on a Windows partition or on a USB stick.
You may be aware that Windows is actually aspiring to have this same regime. There are, however, a few key differences: First, Windows was not designed with this regime in mind because it was never really designed from scratch with networking in mind, which means it all comes as patches on top. Second, because such a regime was never strictly enforced as a rule, most applications are badly written and require administration right to perform the way you would want them to perform; similarly, most of us log into our Windows PC with administrator rights, giving us permission to do what we like. That, however, is exactly what malicious software uses in order to get its way.
As I have said before, Linux is not perfect; work hard enough and you will find a way through its defences. But there lies the key: you really need to work hard for that, much harder than you would in a Windows environment. Because the number of Linux PC users is but a tiny fraction of Windows users, the lovely people who create malicious software have no reason to invest in cracking Linux.

My point with this post is simple: If you want a virtually carefree environment for your PC that requires hardly any maintenance, give Linux a try.
With Ubuntu, for example, you can get yourself a dual boot installation (where you choose whether you want to start Windows or Ubuntu whenever you restart your PC), thus allowing you to have the best of both worlds.
Once you give Ubuntu a chance, though, you won’t want to go back to Windows. For people like my family, whose understanding of the scope of threats facing their PCs is so limited, Ubuntu Linux is indeed the silver bullet. With Linux, they don't need to be particularly alert, and they will never need to be alarmed.

Monday, 1 December 2008

The further adventures of Dylan and Grommet


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Originally uploaded by reuvenim
On Friday night Jo saw something in Dylan's right ear. At first, we thought he poked something in it; a more careful look has revealed it was his grommet that came out.
Come Saturday morning, Jo has found the grommet on Dylan's bed. Come Sunday morning and Dylan already had himself a fever, now that the bugs in his ear had nowhere to go.
It's funny to see how effective the grommets were in taking care of Dylan's ear infections and how quickly we forgot the way things were with Dylan before he had the grommets installed. Now, though, we remember.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Life of Pi

Recently, my American movie critic friends have published a review of the film Pi, a film I didn’t like in the least. You can read what the film is about in the review itself, but to sum it up in one sentence it's about a guy that deciphers a secret message from god in the Torah.
Earlier this week, while at home under a severe cold, I commented on their review; in retrospect, that comment was good enough to stand on its own, so here it is in a slightly modified version.

The term Torah refers to only the first five books of the Old Testament, from Genesis to Deuteronomy. According to tradition, these were recited by god himself and written down by Moshe. When the Greeks translated the bible they took the name Moshe, replaced the "sh" with s just because they don't have an "sh" sound, and added an extra s at the end just because that's what Greeks do to names; the same treatment was received by a guy called Yeshua, whom you probably know as Jesus.
My point with this lovely tale of names' evolution is simple. When discussing secret messages in the bible, one has to take into account that the bible has been mixed and edited many a time before we got to read it. Worse, the Old Testament was handed over orally over many generations before it was put down in writing in the first place. Therefore, if god had intended for us to find a secret message in the Torah, he must have planted it in the version he would know we were to end up having; but then again, which version? The original Hebrew one or the King James one? Which is the truly diving bible?
Not that this simple logical problem has stopped me from hearing of these wonderfully encrypted messages one can find in the bible during virtually every time I got to interact with a religious person back in Israel.

As for pi in the context of the Old Testament, allow me to quote a passage dealing with the construction of the temple from Kings 7:23:
And he made a molten sea, ten cubits from one brim to the other... and a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about.
What we have here, in case you couldn't already tell, is either some very divine circle or an account so ignorant its estimate of the value of pi is 3!

Which leads me to say that if you look hard enough for a pattern you will find it in everything. Look hard enough and you will probably find tomorrow's winning lottery numbers in this very post. The trick is to find something that matters, something that is statistically significant enough to stand on its own. Given the attention given to the bible, if such a thing really existed it would have been found ages ago.
My opinion is that things should have gone the other way around altogether. If god had wanted us to know about great big things, he should have given us a straight forward account. He should have specified Maxwell's equations or told us about electricity. He could have told us the fascinating tale of galaxies and black holes in some manner that would have passed through the ages with awe only to be understood generations later. He could have even settled to tell us the earth was rather ball like.
Yet he chose not to do any of the above. Instead, he left us with a document that can't even provide a good approximation of pi. Come on, I could do better during fourth grade with a bit of wire!
And you know what that makes me think? It makes me think the Old Testament is nothing but a man made relic of the Bronze Age. Hence for my opinion of films trying to glorify it the mumbo jumbo way.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Two Dollars

The country’s financial planning is hot on the agenda. Clearly, next year’s budget is going to be tighter than we have grown accustomed to; it is unavoidable given the government will have significantly less tax income. The question is, should the government plan for a deficit budget or should it stick to the Liberal Party’s policy or surpluses?
The Liberal Party is already smelling the blood and keeps on making comments on how the Labor government is unable to manage the finances as well as they have. They are pushing their spin wheels as best they can in order to create an aversion in the public to the word “deficit”, as if that word is the devil itself. Labor, on its part, is playing along, clearly afraid of using the D word too much for fear of being stigmatized.
What I find so annoying about the way this discussion has been going is the rarity in which the real question pops up. That is, instead of asking “which policy will serve my political agenda best”, no one is asking “which policy will serve Australia best”. And that’s shocking. It is a clear indicator to the quality of leadership this country has and to the way this leadership regards us – the public – as mere children that cannot think for themselves. Worst, it is an indication that the leaders are probably right to treat the public the way they do, given that the public plays along so sheepishly. Essentially, our opinions are shaped the way we’re being told.

I will therefore use the opportunity to express my opinion on this grave financial matter.
First, I would like to say that having budget surpluses is, in my view, a clear indication for bad fiscal management. If you don’t need the money then don’t collect it; and if you can’t tell whether you need the money or not, then you obviously need to work on your forecasting ability before you can come and claim my money for obviously unjustifiable reasons. Second, once you have the money in your hands (as you do when you have a surplus), then please return it to me; don’t keep it with you for over ten years. Return it to me in the shape on better infrastructure, better health and better education. As the record clearly indicates, under the Liberal government all three were left to severely deteriorate despite the surpluses (note subsidizing private schooling for the middle classes does not count as investments in education).
Third, a budget deficit is not necessarily bad. Sure, it has lots of potential to be bad, but it can also be good: If, for example, the government goes into deficit in order to fund the infrastructure projects we actually need, then they would both kick-start the economy and help society along. If this investment kick-start works well enough it return the investment next year to wipe out the deficit. The point is, it’s better to invest in the future by borrowing now then to dig into place just so one political party wouldn’t lose face to another. That said, Labor seems to specialize in coming up with projects in a rather offhanded way, without really thinking their worth, or – worse – in coming up with projects whose main aim is to make a rich banker even richer (with numerous examples in Victoria alone, the best of which are the proposed desalination plant and the traffic tunnels: both are unneeded, damaging projects).

Last, but not least, this entire surplus/deficit argument shows just how limited the thinking capacity out there is. Surpluses and deficits are not absolutes, they are relatives living on a continuum. To explain my point, I will ask you this: What is the difference between a one dollar surplus and a one dollar deficit?
Exactly two dollars.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Digital Killed the Video Star

Please allow me to continue the trend of home entertainment posts just a bit longer. I promise I will return to my usual bitching on how stupid religion is as of the next post. You see, I do have news to unload, and the news is that we finally got ourselves a high definition set top box. Not only that, we got ourselves a high definition PVR.
What is this PVR, you ask? Well, it's a box equipped with two high definition tuners and a hard disk. It allows you to watch one program and record another or record two programs simultaneously, and the recording is directly to the hard drive - at high definition quality. Goodbye VCR...
A PVR does wonders to the way you watch TV, and we're still getting the hang of it. You basically watch TV shows at the time you want to watch them (and you fast forward through the commercials): you pick shows you want to watch out of the weekly program guide the PVR gets off the air. And that's it, basically... You can also start watching something, say a football match, and click pause so you can go to the toilet; once back, you can resume watching, and when you get to the half time break you can fast forward again.
A week plus into having a PVR at home, it's already filled up with some movies from last week's crop (usually films that we would normally avoid renting but are still curious about watching). As for shows, such as At the Movies, Review or Newstopia, we record them and watch them while Dylan is having his night time bottle. We don't watch TV more than we used to before, it's just that we have better control over what it is that we watch. The bottom line is that there is more competition now to downloads and rental DVDs with off the air being essentially as comfortable to watch at our own time.

For the record, the PVR we got is a Palsonic with a 320gb hard drive ($400 at JB Hi Fi). Palsonic is a no name brand, and you can get the same PVR in various guises from a long list of pseudo brand names. Of these, the best one to get is probably the Omni, which sells for around $400 on eBay and comes with a 750gb drive. Why didn't we get one of those? Because with all the previously reported nightmares we've had with high definition set top boxes we wanted to have the option to return it to the store, no questions asked; can't do that on eBay.
Unlike the high definition set top boxes we've tried before, this one works and works well. It is easy to use, offers good reception, and as weird as it sounds it just works (well, the previous ones didn't): no lip sync issues, no menus that end up nowhere. And the recording part of it is just amazing!
There are a few deficiencies to the PVR, though. A couple to be precise:
First, the HDMI connection is unable to contain 5.1 digital sound; it only delivers stereo sound. This makes sense if you want to connect your PVR directly to your TV, but in my case - where I connect it to my receiver - I need to connect an additional inferior optical cable (of the Toslink type) to my receiver and give it the odd instruction to receive the sound there and not from the HDMI connection. Surely the desingers of these PVR could have added 5.1 sound as an HDMI option!
The second problem is that on channel 7, and only channel 7, the sound drops out every 10-15 seconds. It's not much but it could be annoying, as in someone saying "**** you" and you have no choice but to tell whether it was a "fuck you" or a "bless you" through the context. Research indicates this is a universal problem to all members of this family of PVRs.
I suspect both problems could be addressed through a firmware update but I don't see it as worth the hassle of posting the PVR to Sydney for the update job. To be frank, I suspect the biggest problem of this PVR is going to be it dying one day after the warranty expires.
The other problem with the PVR is that it exposes the shortcomings of the various TV stations: SBS only has the current program and the next one on its "weekly" program guide, and it only does stereo sound; channels 7 and 10 only do stereo sound on the front and mono surrounds, requiring the use of Dolby Pro Logic (or some other equivalent) on the receiver to get a center channel. Only channel 9 seems to broadcast in real 5.1 sound. And I won't even mention how "well" the commercial stations stick to their time table so I will put it this way: internet downloads are here to stay.
The age of high definition has finally dawned on us.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Devil in the Details

You may have gathered it already from my previous post, but over the last few days I have been conducting a lot of research in order to help me come up with a definitive answer to the question that was bothering me: Which is the Blu-ray player to buy?
My requirements are simple. My Blu-ray player should be able to do the following:
1. Support profile 2.0, also known as BD Live, which is the latest spec of the Blu-ray standard. For now. Its main feature is the ability to download extra material over the internet. For the record, that extra material is blocked from normal internet access; you need to have the movie disc in order to access it, and thus far you cannot do it from a regular PC even if you have a Blu-ray drive. We're dealing with great companies here.
2. Full support for Dolby TrueHD bit-streaming, meaning the ability to push the Dolby TrueHD singal through an HDMI connection to a sound processor. In order to achieve that the player needs to support the 1.3A spec of the HDMI standard, which is relatively new.
3. Full support for DTS HD bit-streaming, as per Dolby TrueHD.

And now come the catches. There is currently no cheap player that will do all of the above; the cheapest one, as far as I can tell, is the LG BD300. However, as nice a player as this one is, it is limited to Region 4 only for DVD playback and cannot be set free for the risk of getting it eternally stuck with a void warranty. I expect more for $450.
There is also a Panasonic model that would do the same for $550 and a Sony for $650, but then again for $700 I can get a Sony Playstation 3 and have myself a Blu-ray player and a very capable games console in one go.

So what's the Playstation 3's story, then? Well, if you have to ask...
The answer is not simple. Look in Sony's numerous websites and forums and you will not find the definitive answer, as in - you will not find a set of specifications. What is Sony trying to hide?
Research seems to indicate the following. As it was originally delivered, the PS3 was incapable of handling the latest Dolby and DTS sound formats. However, through repeated firmware updates (the latest from March 2008) the PS3 was made able to handle both. In its ability to be constantly kept up to date, an ability gained by its very powerful computing hardware, the PS3 is vastly superior to all other Blu-ray players out there.
There is a catch, though. When Sony released the PS3 they were in a hurry, so they shipped it out without 1.3A spec HDMI outputs. Because of that, the PS3 is incapable of bit-streaming Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD; instead, the PS3 processes these inside, and sends out the fully equivalent PCM signal down its HDMI output. There is no loss of sound quality here as the PCM is identical to the original, but what you do miss out on is the choice department:
1. The PS3 does not allow you to choose whether to do the processing on the player or in the receiver/processor. That shouldn't matter, but it does mean that the choice is taken out of your hands; if you have a PS3 then you must rely on your player.
2. Where it does matter is in areas like bass management: In some cases you would have to do it through the PS3, unless your receiver is truly sophisticated.
3. Another drawback is in stereo soundtracks (as opposed to 5.1 or 7.1): When given a stereo signal, as is with most supplemental material, the PS3 would still transmit a 5.1 signal to the receiver (with only two channels actually carrying a sound). Your receiver will think it's receiving a 5.1 signal so it wouldn't let you apply matrix processing on it (e.g., Dolby Pro Logic), so instead of enjoying an analog Dolby Surround sound that utilizes your center channel you're stuck with stereo sound coming out of your left and right speakers.
4. No 7.1 sound: As there is no room for 7.1 PCM sound over the PS3's HDMI connection, you can only get 5.1. To most people, me included, 5.1 is more than enough.
5. You cannot use your universal remote with the PS3 without some aids. The PS3 only accepts Bluetooth remote inputs, so you either need to buy its dedicated Blu-ray Bluetooth remote or buy a special Bluetooth remote repeater.

As an audiophile, the lack of bit-streaming on the PS3 annoys me the most. I want to have the choice, even if it shouldn't really matter. It's rather annoying also because by now the new PS3 units do have 1.3A HDMI and all Sony needs to do is release a firmware upgrade to kick them into action; yet Sony chooses not to do so.
On the other hand, the PS3 has a winning trump up its sleeve: it's got wireless built in, so you can easily enjoy BD Live material without too many hassles connecting the PS3 to your existing wireless network. None of the other players have that ability; they all have ethernet inputs you can use with a wired network, but what are the chances of you having your network router right next to your Blu-ray player? You are much more likely to want to use wireless, and to achieve that with anything other than the PS3 you will need an ethernet bridge like this one here.
Add the cost of this bridge to the cost of the player and you end up with a PS3 like cost, not to mention the hassles of messing with the wireless network. All this means that if you want to use BD Live your only choice is the PS3.

So is it the PS3 for me? I'm not sure. BD Live would be nice, but then again I'm only planning on renting Blu-ray titles, so who is going to have the time to mess with downloaded content? As if that content would be earth shattering; it's just going to be some extra supplementals anyway.
The main thing is to play the movie and play it well, and currently there are no Blu-ray players that would do a fully satisfactory job without sever wallet damage.
It comes down to me having to imagine how I am going to use Blu-ray in order to be able to make an educated purchase decision. Yet how am I to know my imagination is through enough?
I'm sad to say it, but Blu-ray is not here yet. A PS3 might be a good idea for its gaming abilities, but other than that the world of Blu-ray is a world full of ridiculous compromises.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

I Have a Dream

I enjoy watching movies. Some appeal to my intellect, but the ones I truly enjoy the most are the ones that make me feel as if I’m taken off this world and into the film’s world for the duration of the film; the ones where the suspension of disbelief is working so well as to truly suspend my disbelief.
One of the most effective way to suspend one’s disbelief is to trick one’s senses into thinking that the imaginary world of the film one’s watching is real. Films try to achieve that using their visuals and their sound; in my opinion, and as some research indicates too, it is the sound that is responsible for 80% of the immersion experience.
I am an audiophile who likes watching films. My dream was to be able to watch films the closest way possible to the way they were originally made. For years I have been trying to achieve this dream and for years I was denied.

Let’s have a look at the history of film sound. I won’t go all the way back; I’ll start in the early nineties.
By the early nineties digital sound, in the form of music CDs, was firmly established. The question then became how to introduce digital sound to the cinemas. What was clear is that the cinema digital sound has to be multichannel sound, given that cinema audiences have enjoyed Dolby Stereo sound since the original Star Wars. Several companies rose to the challenge, some more successful than others. Of these, Dolby was again the most dominant.
The problem that Dolby and their competitors had to contend with is where to store the digital soundtrack’s information. Dolby chose to be creative: Its Dolby Digital soundtrack is applied on a thin magnetic layer that is positioned in small sprocket perforation holes at the side of the cinema’s projection film. Now, I don’t know how familiar you are with cinema film, but there’s not much room in there between those holes; as a result, Dolby Digital has had to be a very bandwidth limited sound format, simply because there wasn’t much room to put much information on the film.
In order to cope with the inability to store much information on film, Dolby came up with a lossy compression method. “Lossy” means that the compression actually loses information is it goes about compressing the sound; it’s information that is deemed the least vital to the listening experience, but the more least vital info you take away the less inspiring the overall sound is. Dolby thus ended up with a system that was effective but also a far cry from the original soundtrack master’s sound.
The second most dominant company when it comes up to movie theater sound experience is DTS (Digital Theater Systems). Their solution for the same problem was different to Dolby's: They chose to put synchronization information on tiny magnetic tags added to the film's side, whereas the soundtrack itself was playing off a separate CD-ROM. A CD-ROM contains much more bandwidth than the space between the film's perforations, so DTS could afford to have a significantly less lossy compression than Dolby. A DTS movie soundtrack is still heavily compressed, though, and still suffers significantly when compared to the original master.

That was the early nineties. By the mid nineties a new kid came into town, the DVD, and the question then became what sound format would be used in order to store movie soundtracks on DVDs given that the format lacked the capacity to host the full blown master.
Both Dolby and DTS came along with their existing offerings from the world of cinema playback, and pretty quickly Dolby got themselves as the mandatory soundtrack format for DVDs (with DTS being a noted optional). Thus we've ended up with a system that has been designed to serve cinema theaters on DVDs instead, despite this system being designed with the cinema theaters' limitations in mind and despite these limitations not really applying to DVDs. The fact of the matter is that with the architecture of the Dolby Digital system being the way it is, Dolby were not able to come up with a system that would utilize the extra bandwidth offered by DVDs; we all had to contend with extra compression we didn't need to contend with.
Dolby still continued to claim that extra compression doesn't matter, at least in articles they published in audiophile magazines such as Widescreen Review and Stereophile. I disagreed with them: I did not have the opportunity to listen to Dolby Digital or DTS live but I did listen to the Sony Minidisc format. It had lesser compression than Dolby Digital but still didn't sound great when compared to the CD version, the same way an MP3 version pales in comparison to the CD version nowadays; Dolby truly had to come up with a miracle to be able to achieve more than Sony could.
In 1994 I wrote Stereophile a letter expressing these concerns. The letter was published and then addressed in an editorial which earned the response of Dolby's then chief technical person (whose name, if I'm not mistaken, was Roger Drexler). Luckily for me, my mother threw my copy of the magazine away so by now I lack the proof this has ever happened...
Essentially, Dolby's claim was that all the bleeding hearts should shut up and listen. A few years later I did, and since then my opinion is fairly firm: Dolby Digital sound is good, but it's far from being truly good; listen to it on its own without a picture to distract you and you will notice that the sound does suck. Big time.

A lot has happened as years went by.
To one extent or another, Drexler was right: Dolby Digital sound was good enough for most occasions, or good enough for me to be happy with it on most occasions. Not all occasions, though, especially when not when reproducing music where the difference can be clearly heard as opposed to when reproducing movie sound effects to which it is much harder to relate.
New sound formats promising much but delivering little came and went. SACD and DVD Audio are the most notorious ones, completely failing the market for a multitude of reasons.
With me losing interest over time in favour of bigger and better things, interest waned.

Now, however, there are finally signs of an impending sunrise.
With advances in technology, computing power and storage facilities we now have on our hands two sound formats that kick ass, as in – two sound formats that can deliver the exact thing the recording studio recorded in the first place. Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD are both new formats that can deliver a non lossy eight channel soundtrack recorded in 96kHz and 24 bits. Compare these figures to the measly CD format, the usual benchmark: a CD features just two channels recorded in 48kHz sampling frequency and 16 bits.
For the record, the 96 vs. 48 and the 26 vs. 16 may sound like meaningless waste on paper but they’re not when implemented in real life. For example, and without getting into too much detail, the filter installed on all CD players in order to remove the sampling noise you get just above 20kHz (due to it being half of the 48kHz sampling rate) doesn’t just block the sound you don’t want to hear or can’t hear, it also has an effect – a marginal yet noticeable – effect on the music.
To me, the promise of 8 channels of pure perfection is the stuff of dreams.

The problem, however, turns into the equipment to be used in order to provide this HD sound at home.
The reality is that there are but a few receivers that can play these new HD formats and even fewer that would do it properly (and even fewer high end components that would do it at all; I am only aware of one). A lot of the problems are to do with the need to support a new and advanced format of HDMI, which is currently the only way to transfer the high bandwidth that a high definition picture and the HD sound formats require. Luckily for me, I happen to own one of those receivers. Well, it wasn’t luck at all; it was calculated dream fulfilment.
Then there is the matter of media, which is a particularly hurting point. The world of high definition media capable of carrying the new HD sound formats has had to endure a format war between HD-DVD and Blu-ray, at the end of which the lesser of the formats (Blu-ray) won the day. It wasn’t its superior capacity that won it, it was pure politics, but never mind.
The trouble with Blu-ray, or at least one of the troubles with Blu-ray, was that the competition made the manufacturers release their players to the market long before the Blu-ray standard was finalized and long before the hardware was ready. Sony managed to get away with it with its PlayStation 3, mainly because that unit’s processing power is so strong they were able to routinely release firmware updates to keep it up to speed. The reality is, however, that most Blu-ray players purchased so far are incapable of delivering everything the format was meant to deliver, with downloadable content from the internet being the most notable one.
It’s not only that, though. The media was suffering with most movie releases lacking the much coveted HD sound formats and settling for something far too close to what DVDs offer. The players themselves have been suffering from illnesses that caused them to deliver poor performance, most notably the first Samsung Blu-ray player (which happened to be the first ever Blu-ray player) that had such a badly implemented filter it was outgunned by DVD players. Then there is the copy protection and the overall high sophistication of the players, which cause severely long waiting periods on viewers whenever they switch the players on, try (emphasis on “try”) to play a disc, pause, or do whatever it is you do with the movies that you watch; anything you do comes with very long reaction times, and often the players just choose to get stuck.
And then there is the players’ price.

Things do seem to get a move on, though. Blu-ray players adhering to the latest standard (referred to as BD-Live or 2.0) are now out. The manufacturers, especially Sony, have realized no one is jumping on the bandwagon, so prices have been coming down.
And now we have ourselves, at last, a Blu-ray player that seems to be a winner. The Sony BDPS350 will do the HD sound formats when connected via HDMI, and it’s available now at the shops at "buy me before Christmas" prices: Harvey Norman sells it for $394, and JB Hi Fi sell it for $391 but will reduce it to $375 if you ask them nicely.
I suspect it is just a question of time before I surrender and get me one of these. Now I know that just a few months ago I have said on these very pages that I do not see myself getting into Blu-ray and that the future is in downloads and not in optical discs. However, things have changed: Blu-ray got better and cheaper, and I got much closer to the holy grail through the acquisition of a new receiver. Too close for comfort, I argue.
Don’t take me wrong: I have no intention of buying even a single Blu-ray disc; but I wouldn't argue against the ability to play rental discs at $2 a pop.

It feels like a déjà vu, but I have a dream.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Intentional Incompetence

Ever since Microsoft has released its very latest Windows Live incarnation of its Hotmail webmail service I have been unable to use Hotmail from my Ubuntu Linux desktop.
I would go to the Hotmail login page and login as usual, but then the next screen to greet me would be a warning screen telling me that my web browser is not up to date and that I should upgrade it. It even offers links to Mozilla and Microsoft (naturally) in order to acquire the latest and greatest version. Trouble is, I already have the latest version of Firefox 3 and I am using the latest Ubuntu version, Intrepid Ibex(*). There is nothing for me to upgrade to!
Hotmail is kind enough to still let you access you Hotmail inbox. When you do everything seems fine, but just wait until you go and ask to write a new email: you will not be able to access the area of the screen where you are meant to type your new email’s text. Pretty not handy, isn’t it?
From the beginning that problem looked strange given that I was able to access Hotmail with a similar version of Firefox while using Windows XP and given that I was able to access Hotmail using my Xandros Linux Eee PC, which still uses Firefox 2. What was going on here?
Well, the guys at the Ubuntu Forums sorted things out for me (read their advice here). Basically, Hotmail checks on your browser settings when you login, and if you’re using an unfamiliar Vendor name it would block you; in my case, the unfamiliar vendor name was “Ubuntu”, whereas the default Firefox setting is simply “Firefox”. Had Ubuntu not messed with this setting, the way Xandros didn’t, I would have never had this problem.
Indeed, once I switched the Vendor from Ubuntu to Firefox, Hotmail went back to working perfectly. No upgrades were necessary and no software/hardware were required; the same computer I’ve had before could now manage to access Hotmail.

The question is, then, why did this happen in the first place?
Is it that Microsoft is incompetent enough to design Hotmail so that it wouldn’t work on PCs that are perfectly able to run Hotmail but just had a simple setting changed?
Or is it that Microsoft is actively trying to discriminate against Linux and push its users towards its own Windows line of products?
Given Hotmail’s own hinting towards a required upgrade, I tend to think the issue here is not incompetence at all but rather deliberate discrimination. After all, how can moving from Linux to Windows ever be considered an upgrade?


(*) Before you ask, next April’s release of Ubuntu will be called Jaunty Jackalope and not Jocular Jackal.

Long in the Tooth

Several websites Jo ran into last night, like this one, come up with such claims as: "A lot of research has been done which shows that babies are not more irritable or unwell when teeth come through."
My thoughts of such insight? Ha! Pah! And of course: Stick this up your ***!
I'm only saying this because this weekend that came and went was a pain in the ***. Dylan has showed severe teething signs before, but this weekend he hardly ate, was as disquiet as a disco let loose, and ended up mostly crying. All the time. I never imagined I could be so upset by someone else not eating, but here I am telling you this has been the case all weekend long!
Obviously, I'm not blaming Dylan even for a second. If he'll let you you can have a look at his gums and see the teeth coming out, white pointy peaks first, with gum meat in between; it's obvious the gum meat has to go somewhere, hence the pain.
I strongly suspect the people coming up with quotes like the above one are of the Intelligent Design camp (closely affiliated to Orwell's Ministry of Truth).

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Proof of the Supernatural

This morning, a Saturday morning, we spent Dylan's morning sleep time on assembling his new playground toy mega-complex: This thing has a slide, steps and a swing built into it. It's really nice, unlike IKEA stuff assembly was a snitch, and eventually there'll be photos on Flickr.
Anyway, being that I am the greenie that I am, after the assembly I went to the front yard to tear the big packaging box apart so I could fit it all in our recycling bin. I used a stanley knife to cut it apart, folded the nice small bits up even more, and shoved them into the bin by using the force.
Then I started searching for the stanley knife so I could put it back in the closet with the rest of the tools. I searched here, I searched there, but I couldn't find it anywhere. I even emptied the bin to see if I was foolish enough to put it there with the torn apart packaging.
I gave up and went inside, which is when I took a snick peak at the closet and saw the stanley knife glaring back at me.

Now, what would you call an experience such as this?
Let us start by ignoring the impossible. It is dead obvious I cannot be senile enough or mentally ill enough to have forgotten that I already put the knife back in the closet.
Therefore, the only conceivable explanation is the supernatural. I argue that a miraculous teleportation took place here! God herself came down from the heavens above to relieve my Saturday morning chores duty and put the knife back in the closet for me.
No matter what imbeciles like Dawkins and Shmawkins tell you, revelation happens. And my morning experience is proof.