Monday, 31 March 2008

The Chosen One

I noticed last week, while at the toilet at work doing what it is that you do at the toilet, that the building's toilet cleaner stepped into one of the booths and had a go himself. I'm not talking about a standing ovation there; the guy went through the full motions, producing a complete project worth of goods.
Now think about it: Out of a 28 story building, the guy who knows all the toilets best chose to do his bit on our floor. Doesn't that make us truly special?

Sunday, 30 March 2008

Scenes from an Italian Restaurant

We took Dylan to have breakfast with friends at a restaurant. The food wasn't exactly great, but meeting with friends sure is. As usual, though, genuine opportunities for genuine conversations with your friends are severely limited with babies around.
This round, Dylan was too tired from missing his round of sleep, which oddly enough translates to him being active and doing stupid stuff. But I'll shut up and let the pictures do the talking instead!
The following clips were pretty much shot in succession. The voice you hear on the first video, recounting a Top Gear episode, belongs to Martin.



Saturday, 29 March 2008

Candle in the wind

Tonight marked the occasion of Earth Hour in Melbourne, an event celebrated in many other cities throughout the world. Essentially, the call was for people to switch of their lights for an hour in order to demonstrate their support for the environment.
At first I thought I'd just give this topic a pass, but after reading that during Earth Hour in Tel Aviv shops were serving their customers under candlelight I thought my readers deserve to know why I think this whole Earth Hour thing is, to quote Ben Elton, just garnish. Or rather I thought I'd say why the Earth Hour came and went while I had my lights on as per usual even though I claim to be an environmentalist (to one extent or another).

First of all, there is the practical matter of whether emissions will actually be reduced because of reduced demand for electricity during Earth Hour. Now, I'm no expert on such matters, but as far as my understanding goes I suspect there will hardly be any real emission cuts: the power companies simply cannot afford turning turbines off for just one hour; these beasts are not that flexible.
Second, there is the problem that for most people "celebrating" the Earth Hour, that one measly hour will be all they would actually spare. That is, by turning their lights off for an hour, they will think they've done their share and continue with business as usual immediately afterwards. It sounds foolish, but then again the average person in the street is very much a fool about most things other than a few very specific things they deal with in their daily lives (and that includes yours truly).
This may explain why some big time companies have enlisted to show their support for this Earth Hour: by pretending to do something meaningful for an hour, they're trying to divert attention from the damage they do to the environment on a regular basis. Hence why I think that this Earth Hour is not only just a case of hot air, it could actually damage the environment.
In the building I work at they put these signs saying that the building will shut its lights off during Earth Hour, with the exception of lights that are deemed necessary for security reasons. Given that Earth Hour takes place at night, when no one other than security actually works in the building, am I the only one that asks the question why they don't just turn all the lights off after hours, not just during Earth Hour but just all the time? As I said, hot air.

The biggest problem I have with the Earth Hour is, however, different. It relates to my experience as an ex-Israeli.
The Israeli calendar "celebrates" two memorial days per year: The first is the Holocaust memorial day and the second is the memorial day for Israel's fallen soldiers. Both memorial days have a very established culture for the way one is supposed to act and feel during the days: Radios play only depressing songs in Hebrew all day long, sirens do their sirening during the day and you're supposed to stand still during their "song", and in general you are not meant to do happy stuff such as go to the cinema. If you do listen to nice music in a loud enough volume that others can hear what you're listening to, or if you walk during the siren, or if you just do an activity that might be interpreted as happy in public, you're immediately labeled as a traitor of the first degree. But are you, really?
At this point it is important for me to mention that some 40% or so of the Israeli population has been directly affected by the Holocaust and that most people know someone who has lost a relative in one of Israel's wars, which means that a lot of the grief expressed during those memorial days is very much genuine. However, the memorials are no longer there to allow people to express their grief; I don't know if they ever were, to be honest.
In my view, and I know I will be very much contested on this view by the vast majority of Israelis who read this, the memorials are mainly a way to feed the notion that it is good to kill and to be killed in the service of the state of Israel. That is where the buck stops.
By celebrating the Holocaust memorial, people are fed with the notion that the Jews are the world's most fucked up people. This leads to the reasoning that says that because the Jews have always been the most fucked, they can never be the victim and they therefore have an open check with which to establish their home state. And if some Arabs are uncomfortable with that then fuck them, because no one has been ever fucked like "us".
Then comes the war memorial day, which further enhances the notion of Israel as the victim with its pure hearted soldiers dying left and right in order to maintain this pure and innocent country. Never mind that the last truly existential war Israel had to fight took place 35 years ago and that since then Israel has been the instigator rather than the victim; if you have yourself enough memorial days, no one would be allowed to think this way and everyone would be properly conditioned. It's not as direct as Orwell's 1984 world, but it's essentially the same thing.

When I heard of the idea of having a token memorial day for the earth, or when I hear of similar token memorials for other worthy causes, the skpetic in me turns its head up to ask what the real reason for said memorial is.
If people truly cared for the earth, all they would need to do is turn of lights they do not require and turn off electricity consuming devices they are not using. Not for an hour, though; all the time. Make it a habit. There is no need for token gestures. There is, however, a definite need for immediate and lasting action.
Granted, there's much more to be done, but that would be the first step. It's not hard, either: I do it all the time, and I believe I am leading a happy and fulfilling life.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Bread and Cheese

Any time is a good time for a new Dylan video, even if this time the implication is that I will hardly get any sleep. Again.
This time around we have been feeding Dylan with cottage cheese on top of wholemeal bread. It's the first time he's eating cheese, but the reason we took the camera our was our Dylan holding a piece of bread with each hand while another is stuck in his mouth. The little piglet!
Naturally, by the time the camera was ready this bit was all over, but you can still admire the big mess that is Dylan feeding himself.
A word of warning to the delicate amongst thy viewers: the video does contain profanities, mainly due to a new work laptop with Windows Vista installed on it. It's amazing how a Core 2 Duo laptop with 2 gigs of RAM can crawl along so slowly; takes some effort to achieve that, not to mention the "friendliest" user interface ever.

Camera shy

I have recently discussed in this very blog how one should not pay much attention to anything coming out of the mouth of a salespersons trying to sell you a camera. Well, it seems the lesson applies to buying a webcam just as well. Given my experience with home theater and hi-fi shopping, this insight probably applies to any purchase of items that one is not normally exposed to.
This time the story begins with my sister, whom I recently managed to convince into Skype. However, I wasn't convincing enough to make her get a webcam to enable us to see her, so Jo and I have decided to do something about it.
We happened to be at a shopping mall so we stepped into a Harvey Norman to see what they have in the webcam department. After talking to the sales guy there, we noticed the cheapest webcam they had on offer costs $80 and the average webcam was $130. We were surprised to see people are willing to spend that much on a webcam, but the guy made it sound as if that's what one needs to spend in order to get a webcam. As in, there are no cheaper alternatives out there.
I knew better, so we went to MSY the next day and got ourselves (or rather, my sister) a Logitech for $21. Somewhat less than what Mr Harvey and his pal Mr Norman wanted, and sporting enough quality for what Skype can deliver over the type of internet connections my sister and I have.
Now I often speak in this blog about the negative effects of ignorance, and many times the response is along the lines of "well, it doesn't really matter". Well, here is an example where it clearly does matter because it hurts our pockets: people who do not know any better and who fall for the advertising barrage of Harvey Norman ("we won't be beaten on price" my ass) will go there and spend themselves $130 in order to get something they could have gotten for $100 less if they weren't ignorant.
This blog will continue doing its best to open peoples' eyes.

Compulsive excessiveness

Through some chain of events to do with an ongoing quest to find an energy saving CFL light to fit the light socket on our recently installed ceiling fan, I found myself this Tuesday night walking through a rather empty Kmart.
As Jo has predicted, they were selling Easter eggs at 50% off, and since we are both choco-junkies the idea of getting some definitely had an appeal. So I got some, even though I think weight wise they were still more expensive than regular chocolate; don't say I'm always as rational as I should be.
Then I got home and went ahead to unpack the eggs. It was then that we were both found ourselves to be in quite a bit of a shock: the amount of packaging on those Easter eggs was just enormous! Each egg was enclosed in a carton box, underneath which lied a rather sophisticated plastic packaging, underneath which laid a rather small egg consuming probably less than 20% of the box's size. The packaging filled up our recycling bin quite convincingly. It wasn't just shocking; it was annoying.
In a world where it is now clear we should all do our little bit to make this planet livable, such waste is totally inexcusable. The eggs would have been just as edible in much smaller and economic packaging, even if they wouldn't have looked as big and as sexy. The need manufacturers have to pack their merchandise in such a way says more than a bit about us, the customers, and what we deem important in our purchasing decisions (and, come to think of it, all of our decisions in general).
No Easter eggs for me, no come back one year.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Blade Runner dreaming

It was dark and wet this morning when Dylan, Jo & I boarded the seven o’clock train. It was warm, though, and humid by Melbourne standards, which made me feel dirty.
We set at the end of the carriage, in the disabled area, where Dylan’s pram can fit in. The train itself has had better days some thirty years ago: it was crackling and creaking as we rode, it was dirty, it was full of layers of graffiti, and it was smelly. The neon light on top of our heads was contributing to the general atmosphere with its last flickers before running out of breath, driving us crazy in the process; still, it wasn’t like we could go and sit anywhere else on the train.
Between the darkness, the decrepitude around us, and that awful neon, I think I can be excused for thinking the distorted PA station announcements sounded a lot like “let’s go to the colonies”.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Easter Egg

To supplement the seven Dylan clips from the previous post, here's another one taken today.
This time around Dylan demonstrates his Don Corle-Dylan alter ego as he bullies his mirror into submission. To be honest you can't make much of it from the clip unless you raise the level on your speakers, but Dylan has this low talk mode that is not what you'd normally associate with baby talk and sounds ominously like good old Vito from back in the Cosa Nostra.
As a further bonus, Dylan also demonstrates sitting on his knees pre-crawling position. His days of crawling are scaringly close...

Dylan chronicles

It's time to post some more Dylan videos. As usual, there is nothing special in the clips, but they do document stages in Dylan's development and therefore represent important memories of ours.
Before getting to the videos themselves, a couple of words about the hardware used to take them. As I've mentioned before, we were looking to get a new digital stills camera that would take better films than the camera we now have (a Panasonic Lumix DMC-LC40) and which we can have an easier time carrying while away. However, it seems like there's no perfect fit for our requirements: Cameras that use AA batteries, thus not requiring us to tag along with a dedicated charger, are not much smaller than our current Panasonic Lumix. On the other hand, cameras of the credit card size/shape tend to exclude any manual intervention from the photo taking process, therefore antagonizing me by default (plus they have their own dedicated slim fit batteries that require a charger, rendering them bigger than the larger AA cameras for travel).
We also had a look at camcorders. However, we quickly found out that in order to get something acceptable you need to spend at least $700, otherwise you suffer in the quality or usability departments. It also seems like the world of camcorders is currently split: you can either get camcorders that record linearly on tape, which requires an import ritual to get the film from the camcorder and onto your PC but on the other hand allows you to easily edit and create movies using software like Adobe Premier; or, alternatively, you can get cameras that record on a hard disk or on an SD card which means you can easily copy the file to your PC, but then your editing options are limited because the file is already in a compressed form.
With all of the above, we have decided to stick to our Panasonic Lumix for now. I suspect that eventually, when Dylan's arsenal requires something more sophisticated to document, we'll buy a camcorder. By then we'd probably be able to find something cheap enough and decent enough that records on a flash card and allows for full editing facilities. Till then, I have to say that I find still photography to be generally superior at documenting memories than videos, and luckily we're already well equipped in that department with an excellent SLR.
One last thing about buying cameras: do not trust anything coming out of the salespeople's mouth. They do not know a thing about what they're selling; they can only read the cameras' list of features aloud or make arbitrary statements that are as conclusive as religion. For example, they would recommend one camera over another just because it has "face detection", which may be a nice feature but its relationship with picture quality is rather ambiguous; and in response to a question about camcorders' quality, I was told that they're all "digital quality". Can anyone tell me what digital quality is, other than a bombastic sounding expression? Please don't make me mention the salespeople love affair with mega pixels either.
Instead of having to listen to what this ignorants have to say (not that I blame them; I blame their employers), do your homework. For digital stills cameras, do not move before you read what dpreview has to say.

Now for the video clips. Jo took them all more than a week ago, but because of the heat and the backlog of photos to upload from Tasmania we only got to uploading them now.
The first clip shows us Dylan playing and eating what is probably his favorite toy at the moment, a mirror:


In the next clip, Dylan is playing with this Tupperware puzzle ball that Jo got him (for quite a lot of money, by the way; it's a nice toy, but Tupperware sure know how to steal people's incomes):


Next here's Dylan playing with the puzzle pieces that normally hide inside the Tupperware ball:


Next we have a sitting Dylan. By now Dylan can sort of sit for a while, but he hardly ever sits on his own; he still needs help to get there, although through some random maneuvering of his we do find him sitting on his own from time to time:


Just as you think Dylan is sitting stable, he loses grip:


And here's Dylan in a raspberry frenzy:


And last, but not least, here's Dylan in a swimming frenzy:

Friday, 21 March 2008

Dylan's new toy

For the last couple of weeks or so, Dylan seems to have discovered this new toy he always had on him. While he has his baths, he often plays with this new toy of his.
Normally, this wouldn't be something people talk about or mention. I, however, do not see much point in such an attitude; on the contrary, I think that hiding such behavior, especially when it is obviously very innocent behavior, could lead to significant issues with one's personality.
Allow me to put it this way: If you play with your toy, that means you're human. If it wasn't for your ancestors playing with their toys with much delight, your existence here today would be very much in doubt: others who did play would stand a much bigger chance of generating offspring, and when you multiply the probabilities by thousands of generations it quickly becomes obvious that it is the players that had to survive.

Today we went out with friends to Frankston's beach promenade. Normally, Frankston would not be an area we would be visiting, but they're having this sandcastle exhibition there and we thought it would be a nice baby excursion.
Next to the sandcastle thing there was some live music. Jo was wondering how come they have music on Easter (and Good Friday for that matter), but a closer inspection revealed that it was some sort of a Christian music affair - they had this huge Jesus thing at the center of the stage.
Anyway, while walking on the pier I was handed this leaflet by one of those Jesus campers, which basically tells me that unless I stop sinning I will find myself in an eternity of hell. It was like something taken out of a Richard Dawkins documentary, and the first time we have encountered Christian evangelists of the lowest grade live in Australia; Jo was noting how sad it is that proper Christian values are ignored and instead they're trying to buy people with fear.
As I said before in this blog, I don't think too highly of the good old Christian values to begin with; some of them are nice, to one extent or another, but they're quite unrealistic and impractical. I also don't think the image of Jesus as this purer than pure character is a valid one, for various reasons including that he was still a proud Jew that, like most other Jews, thought the more noble of rules are to apply to Jews alone (as in "thou shall not kill" really meaning "thou shall not kill a Jew", otherwise wars with other nations could never be fought). That, however, is irrelevant; Jesus was still a major personality given the context of his time.
The reason why I'm mentioning all of this is that this "be nice to god or go to hell" brochure we got quotes Jesus as saying "Whoever looks at a woman to lust after her committed adultery with her in his heart". What is wrong with this statement? Lots.
First of all, let's not forget that the chances of Jesus actually saying these words are quite low. All of the Bible books involving Jesus were written long after his death and were second hand accounts of his adventures to begin with. To think about it in modern terms, the books about Jesus would be the equivalent of someone starting to write a book about Hitler today with nothing but hearsay to do the work with.
Second, and more to the point, Jesus' words make us all sinners. Obviously, that's the intention - to make us feel guilty. But should we, really, feel guilty for something that is really and purely natural? We are all of us designed to feel lust given the right stimulation; as I said above, if our ancestors didn't feel this way they wouldn't have had their offspring that led, eventually, to us being here. The same applies to Jesus himself: even if you really go for the son of god bullshit, his mother wouldn't have been here without some lust in the air. Besides, if you take that lust away, half of the world's advertising industry would die... Come to think of it, half the economy would die, simply because sex is one of our deepest urges and therefore one of our primary motivations to go out and do/consume stuff. The fact is that our brains are designed to be triggered by good looking women; a responsible guy should be tested on his actions, not his thoughts. As Dylan demonstrates while playing with his new toy, looking at women with lust means that you're a human.
By the way, I have a third problem with Jesus' words: What about women that look at men? And, for that matter, what about men that look at men? Or are all Christian fundamentalist women immune of any sexual tendencies while Christian fundamentalist gays simply don't exist?

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Putting our money where our mouth is

Often in this blog I talked about my latest purchase of a fancy gadget, say an Asus Eee PC to quote a recent phenomenon, or my cravings towards yet another fancy gadget, say a Nikon 18-200 VR lens or a Nikon D300 camera. But these are mostly fantastic escapades; in this real world that we live in, our latest purchase has been something completely different. Something my mother would have never believed I would ever buy: a food processor.
We've had this simple blender for a few years now and it did it's job: from juices to humus, it blended our stuff to one extent or another. However, we wanted more, and with recent developments in the field of Moshe cooking - namely, the introduction of home made Schug (recipe to be posted as soon as I get to photographing the end result), came extra craving for the food that goes well with schug - namely, humus. And for both dishes a simple blender is a bit of a pain to use, hence the seeking after a food processor.
Obviously, I'm of only minor priority in our casa lately. Dylan is the main event, and our little food processing machine demands lots of mashed fruits and vegetables while we prefer to give it the real thing rather than buy pre-mashed and pre-processed stuff. Hence the seeking after a food processor.
Jo also likes to do some cooking of her own. Hence even more seeking after a food processor.
Thus we found ourselves in Retravision of all places while walking Chapel Street last Saturday, and for a nice $130 we came out carrying a Braun food processor. Mind you, it was quite a surprising food processor: For a start, it wasn't made in China but rather made in Hungary; I didn't know they still make stuff anywhere other than China. Second, it's really silent. And third, it comes with more functionality than we've asked for, so we can do cheese grating, for example. You might scorn at that, but we like our pasta with grated Parmesan cheese; now, instead of buying the cheap pre-grated crap at stupendous prices off the supermarket, we can get a block of proper parma at the market and grate it ourselves. Which, as Kobi Nataf would say, is just grate!

Another item on our shopping list is a camera. No, not a new Nikon D300, even though I secretly hope my existing D70 would break so I'd have a good excuse to put my hands on what is probably the best not truly for professionals camera available today. What we are seeking is a cheap crap (if you don't mind me saying so) compact camera that does a good job with movie clips, is small enough for us to carry, and runs on AA batteries.
The reason for this quest is simple: the compact camera we're currently using for taking movies, our 2002 model Lumix camera, is a bit on the chunky side of things. This means that when we went to Tasmania we didn't carry it with us, which meant that we didn't take any films while it just kept rotting in our suitcase. There are other reasons for it going out of favor: it takes low resolution 320*200 or so films at only 10 frames per second, and it stores them in the Quicktime format which is more than a bit of a pain to process. Add a bulky charger to the equation and it's simply not a camera you'd rush to use. To be completely honest, a lot of my antagonism is to do with the feeling that carrying a compact camera when I have an SLR is like driving Travant when the Ferrari is waiting in my garage.
Anyway... I noticed that this Canon camera, A570IS, is selling for a cheap price. I've even seen it for $100, but it mostly sells for $160. Now, $160 is a good price to pay for being able to keep good copies of Dylan's escapades.
The camera is one of those "last year models" that has been replaced by the A580 and the A590IS ($300), but it's one of those cases where the older is probably better than the new because the IS feature is important (IS = Image Stabilization, where the lens or the CCD is on springs to compensate for a shaky hand) and the new models only "extra" is way too many mega pixels for their own good, resulting in a very noisy result.
By now, however, Canon seems to have managed to remove all stocks of the A570IS off the shops' shelves. Looks like I've missed my turn, at least until the next round of Canon camera lineups.

In parallel we've also started looking at flights to the UK / Israel during the upcoming winter. The prospects so far look pretty miserable: between the extra Dylan related costs and the stupidly high taxes, we are looking at something pretty close to a five digit expense on the flights alone - that's like a tenth of our net combined yearly income!
Given the grim news, I have lost all appetite of spending money on anything. Let us continue using the Lumix till well after it dies, and don't you even mention Nikon VR lenses in my vicinity.

One area where we are still hoping to be able to spend our money is solar power.
Sounds incredible, doesn't it? The reality is that solar power at home is a reality and it is available. We've had a guy come over to have a look at our roof, and it looks like we'd be able to install receptors that would provide up to 1.5 kilowatts of electricity on our roof. That said, because the government only rebates up to 1 kilowatt of capacity, we'd probably go with that lower option. But it's still something, and it would allow us to supply a significant portion of our total electricity consumption on our own while often contributing excesses back to the grid (since most sunlight happens when we're away at work).
The economics is interesting. After the government rebate of $8000 plus a bit more for being green and clean, our out of pocket costs would be between $2500 to $3000. The return on investment given current electricity prices would be pretty poor; it would take us more than 10 years to repay that investment, and that's without taking interest into account.
But money is not the thing here. Installing solar power on our roof is a matter of ideology, just like installing Linux on my computer is. It is something we would like to do in order to make a point, not something we would like to do to make money. Between you and me, while the investment is a losing one, it's not something that would shake us much; it's about a quarter of our flights to Europe, but it has much more of a lasting significance and it actually pays us something back.
I'll be blunt: Solar power is something I would like to get into so that I'd be able to make a difference to this world. I would like to tell all my friends about it and blog about it till my keyboard bleeds just for the remote chance I'd be able to make a difference on others and convince them to do what I consider to be the right thing.
While the solar power guy was at our place he demonstrated something interesting: He replaced one of our 50 watt downlights with a more efficient 20 watt downlight that is actually twice as bright and costs only $7 per bulb (light intensity was actually measured, not estimated). We looked everywhere for such a solution to our inefficient halogen lights but couldn't find anything similar in any of the major lighting shops; we were told that we would have to change our light fittings, which would cost us around $700 to sort and result in much more of a carbon footprint for this change itself than anything we would save by reducing our electricity consumption. However, this $7 option was always there; it's just ignorance that prevented us from accessing it.
Ignorance is indeed the general problem this world of ours is facing with global warming. People just don't realize that addressing global warming is quite easy if we put our minds to it. It doesn't even need to cost us much; if we put our minds to it, we can even make money out of it while making this planet of ours more hospitable. It's a win-win situation, really, and the failure of people to grasp that is what annoys me the most about global warming: most people just refuse to turn their minds on and instead act like a herd.
If we were to all install solar panels, if the government join in on a grander scale, just think of the possibilities! Think how it would enable us to truly enjoy the benefits of electric cars! Instead we live in a grim world where enough big companies can create enough of a distraction so that people wouldn't even know that the easy options are there for them to have. We are left in the dark so that the people who make their money through the current state of affairs could continue doing so for as long as they can.
Get out there and see whether you can install solar power on your roof, too.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Didn't sort new tooth?

Vampires live amongst us.
Dylan is proof: last night we felt our way to an emerging tooth in his upper gum, his very first. Contrary to common human teething habits, Dylan has started with a side tooth, proving that he's a blood sucking vampire. And also explaining why he's been much more of a pain lately, the poor fellow. Note to intelligent designers (what an oxymoron!): you have to be either an idiot or truly evil to design the teeth to pierce through the flesh.
Today we've found that the two teeth on the upper gum that usually appear first, the rabbit teeth, are also on their way out. We thus have ourselves a brand new can opener at home! And a portable one at that, with Dylan already able to push himself backwards to randomly wander the house while showing ominous signs of being able to raise his behind in preparation for some serious crawling.

Monday, 17 March 2008

Homeward Bound

Tasmania, Day 5, 10/03/08

Unlike the previous Tasmania posts, this one is actually written back home with the hindsight of a week passing by and under pretty boiling conditions of rising mercury. It's a good test of memory, so let's go with a summarized account of what I remember from that last day of ours in Tasmania, exactly a week ago.
The most notable element of our last day in Tasmania was Dylan finally appearing to be substantially better. To quote Lionel Richie, he slept all night long (all night!). It made a huge difference; we felt alive again. And to celebrate our rejuvenation, we decided to dedicate our last day to the ex-convicts area of Port Arthur.
Port Arthur is a peninsula type area (the area is actually called the Tasman Peninsula). Because it's connected to the mainland through a very narrow stretch of land (the width of a standard road), it was used by the British as a special prison to host the nastier of Australian convicts back in the convicts' era (which by most countries' standards of history would be fairly recent). The area's main features are some great beaches, a national park, and a museum type exhibition of the old convicts' camp.
We didn't have time to any of those. We basically just drove around, had ourselves a lunch, and stopped at the very basic lookouts to admire the view. And there was definitely much to admire: the views were quite spectacular! I didn't expect much of the area after my sister told me she found it quite depressing, but it appears she just took a tour of the camp whereas we drove around. The area was the most spectacular and approachable of the Tasmanian areas I have seen so far, and it reaffirmed my impression that Tasmania is some sort of an inferior New Zealand lying just an hour's flight away from us.
The place we had lunch at was selling postcards, which reminded me that my dear friend Haim used to collect postcards sent from different places all over the world. Being that Haim is a Looney Toons fan, he would have probably loved a postcard from Tasmania, or so I thought. So I started the acquisition workflow on one of them postcards; quickly enough, however, I remembered that Haim didn't give me his new address after he moved and that he knows I don't have his address. So there went the postcard notion.
In typical fashion we were a bit behind on getting to the airport, having extended our drive around the peninsula. Before getting to the airport, we had to stop at a gas station to fill the tank the way you do before returning a rental car. We approached the airport through the town of Sorell, some 20 kilometers from Hobart. According to the map given to us by the rental company, the place has three gas stations, and shortly after you leave it there's another. But then it was time for the day's drama: the first gas station was closed; the second was open, but the third was a BP and we get discounted gas at BP, so I drove onwards. Alas, the BP was also closed, so we continued to the last gas station. That last station had such a massive queue that in order to join the queue we would have had to block the roundabout next to it. So we had to bite the bullet and either do a u-turn or pay the penalty.
Avis charged us a $35 gas fine. At least they didn't say anything about the nice scratch I've added to the front spoiler...
The flight was OK, given circumstances, and home was nice to be back in. So was the CR-V, which we sort of learnt to appreciate even more during the trip (although I will restate how deeply I fell in love with the Tiptronic gear). Since returning, though, Melbourne has been so boiling hot that I do my best to avoid the desktop, which means that I hardly got to process the trip's photos so far and blogging was minimized, too.
The most dominant memory I take from Tasmania is roadkill: Tasmanian roads are so full of dead marsupials that driving feels like going to the zoo. Allow me to venture that they don't clear them off the roads, which might explain the CSI like condition some of the bodies are in. For the record, the only Tasmanian Devil we saw during the trip was a roadkill one.
The lessons from our first away mission trip with Dylan are simple: take it easy, plan for extra simplicity, get a room with a bath, get an extra room for the baby, brace yourself for the flights, and most of all - try to avoid taking a sick baby with you.

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Field Day

Tasmania, Day 4, 09/03/08

The story of the fourth day of our Tasmanian holiday is firmly rooted in the story of the third night of our Tasmanian holiday, which has been so far the story of the holiday in general. We're both feeling a bit offline, but Dylan has made quite an effort last night to make things even worse by waking us up and getting us up on multiple occasions during the night.
It's not like I'm blaming him or anything. Regardless of him not yet getting to the stage where he stages such acts, he is sick. I'm actually quite worried, because he's been sick for 10 days now and although there has been some gradual improvement as days went by it is still taking him way too long to get out of what seems to be a regular cold, even with the aid of antibiotics (if you can refer to them as an aid in the first place). Our main worry, other than the sickness, is that the sabotaged routine due to our travels will now become the routine itself once we get back home.
The result of the night is that come morning time we were all devestated. After Dylan had his morning feed we all went back to sleep instead of trying to make the most of our day, and even after that we were tired. Then, in a demonstration of the condition we were all in, I bashed my head on the low doorframe. If there is one thing to enforce my line of thinking that Tasmania iss some sort of a replica of England it is the low doorframe of our room: back in England, where people seem to hang on to traditions no matter how silly or irrelevant they are (check out the monarchy), I've bumped my head left and right on doorframes, and one of them was a pretty bad knock. At least here the excuse is that the hotel is an old building and at the time people were significantly shorter than they are now; in England I've bashed my head on modern doorframes, too (and for the record, English people are amongst the tallest in the world, national height average wise).
Eventually we set of towards Mount Field National Park, located somewhere near the middle of Tasmania, about an hour's drive from Hobart. We had to justify the purchase of that rip off Tasmanian National Park Pass. The drive was nice, going along this river which at parts was quite wide – wider than any river I've seen before – and in other parts was just nice. Shortly after leaving Hobart the road turns from a nice and fast one into a piece of shit one that in Israel would have people dying on it on a daily basis but in Tasmania they can get away with it because of the very low pupulation density. Indeed, the few towns on the way to our destination, if you can call them towns, were pretty desolate. The population of Tasmania must be full of country bumpkins, a statement which forces me to add that in no way do I consider myself superior; I do consider myself lucky to have been born into different circumstances that allow me to live my life the way I do. And for the record, those country bumpkins had a few rare displays of curtous driving in store for us, appearing at a much more frequent a frequency than anywhere else I remember.
The last comment I would like to make on today's drive is a repeat of a comment I have made before: for a place that sells itself as a world power in gourmet food, Tasmania (or at least the bits of it we have been to so far) seems to be very poor in what it has to offer and in the variety of what is on offer. There's not much of it, and the things that are on offer are far from inspiring unless you consider cheap pub food to be Michelin Guide material.
At the park we took the ten minute walk to Russell Falls. The walk passes through a very nice rain forest which was nice and tranquil other than the ongoing sound of a baby crying in between sessions of sucking his thumb that seemed to have followed us wherever we went. Eventually Dylan won and we carried him by hand, which meant I couldn't take half as many photos as I wanted to.
The falls were pretty marvelous and so was the setting. Even Dylan was fascinated by the water and the sounds, and on several occasions he seemed to answer the calls of the laughing kookabaras. I was trying to find the best settings with which to take forest photos, given the dark settings and the lack of wind which allowed me to utilize long exposures. I took most photos three times, using the camera's bracketing facilities, and I'm curious to watch the photos at home and see what works best.
Other than the falls the park offers other easy walks, but they're mostly unpaved and we left our Baby Bjorn carrier at home. That was actually the reason we were almost late for our flight to Tasmania: we remembered we didn't pack it just before leaving home, and then we couldn't find it. So we asked for suggestions at the park's info center, and they told us of this drive that takes up to a location where some of the world's tallest trees can be seen and where the park's full diversity can be witnessed.
We set the car on course and headed of to see some talls trees first. We saw them, but only from a distance: stepping out of the car we noticed we were surrounded by swarms of oil tanker size bees, more than enough to send us rushing back to the car and drive on. The road then became very narrow and unsealed, which was pretty tricky given that it was a two way road that was only one lane wide with no margin for errors. We've made it through more than half of it before we were able to locate a place where we could make a u-turn, and I have to say that diversity wise everything looked pretty much the same. On its own what we saw was not bad at all, so why the abuse of the word “diversity” on behalf of the park's staff?
So we drove back home. We detoured through the center of Hobart looking for takeaway meat as we were craving some nice juicy meat, but eventually between everything being closed and Dylan starting to whine we had to settle for KFC. And I'm only mentioning it because they forgot to give us the can of Pepsi we paid for, and it wasn't even a drive through (where, according to Lethal Weapon 2, they fuck you every time). Even though they've actually improved our health a bit by not giving us the poison drink, Tasmania, or at least Hobart, seems to be truly bad at serving its guests with fast food. Or food in general.

Friday, 14 March 2008

The Mind of the Market

Tasmania, Day 3, 08/03/08

The morning started with Dylan's usual siren. He slept better tonight, waking up for a self sustained cry at 2:00am, followed by a few consecutive sessions after 5:00am. At around 6:30am we gave up and officially got ourselves up.
Reception told us that last night someone tried to steal one of the other occupant's car as well as ours. A short scouting expedition couldn't reveal any signs of an attempted break other than a minor scratch, but the story didn't really enhance my impression of the average Tasmanian. Driving through middle of nowhere Tasmania yesterday, on a Friday afternoon when people tend to leave work and go have themselves a few drinks, exposes some rather suspicious looking characters. Couple that to the dominance of boring food (Tasmania is supposed to be a seafood culinary delight; that probably doesn't apply to the areas we've been to so far) and the church/Christianity links thrown all over the place (every small place has a war memorial and such, and none of them are religiously neutral), and you can see why my general perception of Tasmania is of a... Well, to quote John Brumby, a backwater.
To further enhance what I'm trying to say, allow me to quote from the tourists' brochure of Sufi's Craftshop & Tearooms (open everyday 10:00-16:00 at the town of Triabunna): “It's always Christmas at Sufi's... Devonshire teas and snacks... Christmas decorations... Nativity sets”. You just gotta be there! Not that you have much of a choice; there are two places you can eat in at Triabunna, and the next town you can eat at is significantly far.
With a more tranquil day in mind, we've made our way on foot to the world famous Salamanca street market, run every Saturday at Hobart's center of town. Yes, it's one of those things that spell like tourist traps, smell like tourist traps, and actually are tourist traps. Not that it's so bad, it's just that it's nothing extraordinary; there are two very similar markets in Melbourne every weekend, too, selling stuff that looks remarkably identical.
Our first purchase was four bars of fudge for $10. We each chose two, and mine included chocolate chilly. I have to admit it didn't taste that good, but I'm intrigued by the results of mixing chocolate with hot stuff: When you eat it, my impression is that the hot taste kicks in quite a while after the sweet taste; I wonder why. It does work, though, and it makes me wonder what other taste combinations would work for chocolate: we already have bitter chocolate, now we have hot chocolate, what's next? Salty chocolate?
Next Jo bought a gift for a family member. I won't go further there to avoid breaking the surprise factor when Jane opens up the package she'll receive by mail from us around the time of her soon to come birthday to find some pink object you wear on your hands if you're into such things (for the record, I'm not). The gift buying was the official excuse for visiting the market, so it was a case of mission at least partially accomplished.
There were several interesting exhibits in the market, despite my generally negative attitude. For a start, it was a nice walk and I've enjoyed it, even if the way back to our hotel meant climbing Hill Everest and making us think we're back in San Francisco (but this time with a pram to encumber us and a way less fit form). Then there were the weird displays that you don't find in the more capitalist Melbourne: There was, for example, a stand belonging to the Greens party. Given that I vote for them, I passed by it to see what they have on offer (not much). I was greeted by a woman who asked me where I was from, obviously thinking I was a tourist (as in, someone not from Australia). She probably thought I was an exotic tourist given my five day old beard. Anyway, when I told her I'm from Melbourne she was rather confused and eventually started this minor argument with me to tell me that Tasmania is better. It was all in good nature, but it did help enhance the unjustly stereotype of Greenies being primarily weirdos.
There was also a stand by the work unions, and that one featured a group of people singing wholeheartedly what can only be referred to as union songs. That is, a collection of songs that sounded remarkably like those boring church hymns from afar but turned out to praise the union instead of god. I liked “the union is you the union is me” the most. Look for it in uTunes – it's a must!
For breakfast we ate crepes from this stand at the market. Compared to the pancakes we regularly prepare at home they tasted pretty artificial, but it was still an event worth remembering because the last time I had myself a genuine crepe was in Paris. I wasn't a big crepe fan at the time, but with proper home made cooking my opinion has changed.
By the time we got “home” to our hotel room, Dylan was screaming his guts off. He was obviously more bored than I was at the market. However, the minute we stepped into our room he became cheerful again; the guy likes the familiar routine almost as much as his father. We fed him and tried to make him sleep in his temp cot but to no avail, so we went out for some short range afternoon expeditions around Hobart.
First we drove to Richmond, some 20 kilometers away, to watch the first bridge ever built in Australia. Apparently, it was a convicts' area at the time. Dylan slept like a brick and we didn't dare wake him, so all we did was stop next to the bridge and admire it in turns. It is a nice bridge, as bridges go, but I have seem more poetic stuff in my life. The rest of the town seemed like a nice touristy town that tries to capitalize on its old bridge to make a buck.
We then drove up this mountain to admire the view because the signs had a camera next to the mountain's name, but there was no proper vantage point once up there. My point is simple: Signs and other tourism facilities in Tasmania are not as good as they should be, and a far cry from Victoria.
We drove to the Cascade beer factory / museum back in Hobart. It was too late already and Dylan couldn't get in there anyway, but I wanted to see the building. Besides, it was a nice way to drive through Hobart, and with the GPS guiding us we could dare venture where no tourist usually does and through roads regular tourists don't go through. The drive by the beach, in a residential area, was quite nice: reminded us of Sydney. The center of Hobart with its tourist attractions is nothing special, in my mind; that residential area, however, is. As Jo said, when cockroaches take over Melbourne because of global warming, that is where we should be moving to.
The beer factory, at least from the outside, seemed pretty bland. Looked like any other factory out there. This reminded me that the previous beer museum I've been to, Heineken's in Amsterdam, is no longer the factory and hasn't been so for quite a while; they took the old factory, which looks the way we would imagine a beer factory to look like, and made it into a museum, so we could continue with our romantic delusions of how beer factories look like. Call it Charlie's Chocolate Factory on steroids.
We went back home, put Dylan to bed, and ordered pizza from Dominos. It arrived more than two hours later, after we had already given up hope and started preparing dinner on our own. At least watching the two last episodes of Sarah Connor on the Eee PC kept us awake.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Big Mistake

Tasmania, Day 2, 07/03/08

I can't think of anything that went according to plan on our second day in Tasmania.
The night time sleep before the second day would be a good place to start if only I could have said we had what passes for night time sleep. Our room is described as a “studio apartment”, but it's actually what we humans call “a hotel room”; it's just that the Quest chain we're staying with is a chain of serviced apartments, so in order to keep the faith with their marketing slogans they describe everything in terms of apartments. A car park is probably sold as a mobile apartment or something.
While at it, curse on all hotel beds! I imagine they probably got someone like me to come and do a cost benefit analysis, and that moron has recommended using a layered sheet – quilt – bed cover implementation. Since then all hotel guests had to suffer with waking up in the middle of the night and having the sheet stuck up their nose while their legs are exposed. The hotel that comes out with a normal quilt inside a quiltcover implementation should rule the market!
Anyway, the point of the story is to say that sleeping in the same room as Dylan is not the most pleasant experience ever if one wants to sleep. We knew that already from Xmess. However, sleeping in the same room as Dylan when he's sick is much worse; the poor fellow kept waking up every half an hour or so for a brief (or not so brief) crying session, which is a good way to ruin our sleep. When he's in another room I can usually sleep through all but the stormiest of cries, but when he's in the same room his blocked nose breathing is enough to keep me awake in the first place.
Despite sleeping late Dylan decided the new day has started at seven. After having cereal with soy milk I felt fresh enough for the day's adventure: driving all the way up to Wine Glass Bay and doing some touring of the place. We even managed to drive away by nine thirthy.
Being that we needed a Tasmanian park pass of the type we couldn't get yesterday at the friendly and helpful Hobart Information Centre (yes, I'm cynical), we set our GPS on Triabunna first – some third of the way towards our final destination. The Tribunna info center was the way an info center should be, helpful and all. They advised us to delay the purchase of the pass and pointed us to a nice place to eat and a supermarket. The eating place was this “Devonshire Tea” establishment, i.e. a place that serves English oriented food. There's not much of a choice in middle of nowhere Tasmania, so Jo has had a ploughman's lunch and I've had my daily dose of mercury in the form of flathead fish and chips. As a bonus for meal eaters the place allows its visitors to have a free tour of their garden (it's $2 per person otherwise!), so we took the opportunity to check out why someone charges an entry fee for a house's garden; maybe we should do the same with ours, the whole world can come and watch our weeds, and I can retire. It was quite a well looked after garden, although it was just a garden to my eyes. It had roses and I held Dylan close to one so he could smell it; he just whacked it instead and caused it to shed all of its petals to the ground, which pretty much summarizes his attitude towards us having lunch there in the first place: it was one long torture for us and the surrounding diners, starting with the high chair that caused him to constantly slip to the side and moving to Dylan's abstinence with eating and especially with drinking when he's sick. I really don't know what keeps the boy alive. On the positive side, the garden had chickens and roosters that did rooster sounds which even made Dylan perk up.
Eventually, at about 13:00, we moved towards our destination, now firmly aware that we won't have much time there given that we had to head “home” to Hobart by 16:00 if we wanted to have any shred left out of Dylan's routine. Bear in mind, we are talking here about more than 400 kilometers worth of a trip on roads that are not exactly autobahns.
That said, the drive was pretty spectacular. There's no doubt Tasmania is quite beautiful, even though the glimpse of it I've had is equivalent to me saying someone looks good based on having had a look up their nostril. We did cross this bridge over this inlet that was just a tiny bit over the water height, making us feel like we're sailing; there was this part of the drive where we drove next to a proper river laying in a proper valley between proper mountains, reminding me of certain scenes from Two Towers and of many a Western where rivers that look pretty similar play a key role; there were long stretches by the beach, featuring some beautiful scenery; and of course, there was the drive through Break-Me-Neck Hill, where we should have stopped to take a photo of the road sign to prove we were there. And don't get me started about the fresh air! Coming from Tel Aviv I always thought of Melbourne as the place to be for fresh air, but it's obvious Tasmania is way ahead.
The drive was quite a fancy one, with twisty roads all over. I can hardly think of roads more entertaining to drive, and I have to admit the auto/manual Tiptronic gearbox on our rental Mitsubishi Lancer made things quite entertaining. It was so nice to be able to have total control over the 6 gear gearbox when overtaking or when tackling some particularly steep turns!
We got to the park's information center to find there's no avoiding us paying $56 for a park pass. It's valid for two months, which is the excuse for the major daylight robbery taking place there; just how many tourists can afford two months of Tasmania?
By now Dylan was in major upset mode and nothing seemed to please him. We took him for a five minute walk to this viewpoint of the bay: it was quite spectacular, with mounty mountains, clean sand, and clear blue water. Indeed, it was only the crying baby that detracted from the scene. He cried and cried, but he wouldn't eat or drink anything.
We drove to this easy 15 mintue walk by a lighthouse they have there, which was supposed to be boardwalked according to the info center, which meant we could carry Dylan in his pram. I'll say this: the Tasmanian definition of a boardwalk is significantly different to mine and we just ended up wasting time before heading back to Hobart.
To summarize my basic impression of Wine Glass Bay, I have to say that while it is spectacular as many people say, it is not out of this world spectacular; in fact, it reminds me a lot of Wilsons Prom, with the same type of scenery and same type of activities.
A bit more than two and a half hours later we were back in our hotel room, tired, hungry, and worried about Dylan. He slept for most of the day in the car, which is good given that we spent virtually all day in the car; but he just wouldn't eat to stop his eternal moaning whenever we stopped. It was clear that weve tried to cram too much to the day, and it was clearly my fault: whenever we travel I try to cram as much as I can to get the most of the day, and I obviously failed to realize that with Dylan our circumstances are so different that it's time for old habits to die hard.
To add insult to injury, the parking lot at the park's info center had these bars of wood that I went over, which scrapped the bottom of the Lancer's front spoiler. I shouldn't have gone over them, I should have known better, and it was probably my CR-V habits that made me totally ignore them. It does, however, seem as if the Mitsubishi's are too low for a normal road car. It further emphasizes the sportier than thou image Mitsubishi has tried to establish with its Lancer, often at the price of practicality. I just wonder how much Avis will want for the damages... As I've said, lovely day. Our credit card covers for rental car companies' stupidly high excess fees, but our out of pocket will still be up to $300.
Back at the hotel we tried a new tactic with Dylan's bathing time. I sat down at the shower's floor and adjusted the shower head so that I can have total control over which bits of Dylan get wet. Jo gave him to me, and for a second he laughed at the tickling effect of the water; but then he started cryign and it was just horrible. I hate it when I try to do something nice for him and he doesn't appreciate it; guess tomorrow he will be sponge bathed.
Given today's lessons, tomorrow will probably be spent in Hobart from start to finish.

P.S. Note the photo is a montage created out of six (!) separate photos by Photoshop. Check it out in its full glory as well as the six photos that made it up here.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

I'm on a Plane

Tasmania, Day 1, 06/03/08

For someone famous for his worldwide adventures, it feels strange for me to say that today was my first time on board a plane since September 2005. Of course, this just goes to show how much credibility one can give reputations: up until May 1998, when I first flew for free while working for El Al Israel Airlines, the only time I boarded a plane in anger was to visit my father who, back in 1982-1983, was working in New York. Till then my policy was that travel is not as good a way to spend my money as buying hi-fi and listening to music / watching films on my stereo; in retrospect, I think true travel is one of the best things to do to enhance one's life. [For the record: by “true travel” I mean getting to a new place in order to truly experience it and its culture, as opposed to flying somewhere to hang out at a resort, visit a theme park, and then fly back home]
Of course, today's flight will not be remembered because of my own personal record, but rather because it was Dylan's very first flight. To add to the excitement, things didn't go according to plan.
We left home 15 minutes later than planned and drove towards United Airport Parking, which supposedly provides better long term parking facilities than Melbourne Airport's own facilities. Alas, we drove by looking for signs to direct us to their premises, but these proved as useful as used toilet paper and with time pressing we just continued on to the regular Melbourne Airport parking.
The trick at that parking lot is not to try and park near the entrance but rather to go as far away as possible. The bus that goes through the parking lot collecting people starts from the end and works its way up to the terminals; by the time it gets to the parking lot's "closer to the entrance" areas the bus is too full for comfort and often fails to be able to collect passengers in the first place. We found ourselves crammed up ala Connex, Jo was sitting with a couple of bags on her and Dylan in between, and I had Dylan's stroller up my chin. We had to sit; there was no other space available.
We got to the terminal at pretty much the last minute they allow to check luggage in, so Qantas put us on this special late queue. I also had myself a cross terminal run (an essential component of a healthy day) in order to secure my Thursday copy of The Age, sporting the must read weekly Bleeding Edge column. Then I was sent back by security for forgetting my Leatherman tool in my key chain; I posted it home for $6, the first of many stupid expenses on our trip. Felt weird to post something to myself with the sender's address and the recipient address being the same.
Obviously, we needn't have hurried. In an effort to help us relax, Qantas has delayed our flight “due to airport congestion”, which made me ask: Since we're not exactly living in a Die Hard 2 world, it's not like the people there didn't know there'd be lots of flights around; why didn't they plan ahead? (Answer: to make more money)
The flight was only an hour long. Thank god for that (figuratively speaking, of course), because the flight experience with Dylan on board Jo's knees was not something to write [lovingly] about. Dylan, still sick, was a very good boy as usual; but the crammed up seats on the 737-800 were horrific. No space for the bags a baby requires, no room to maneuver, no room to open the tray on (Jo's meal was on my tray, together with my meal, and together with Dylan's). Qantas surprised us by giving us a nice meal pack for Dylan: four containers of his favorite mashed up fruit shit stuff. He ate half of one of them and we stashed the rest in our bags.
Landing at Hobart airport was funny. One is not used to such small airports anymore: You just walk from the plane to the small terminal building, where people in uniform and dogs scramble at you to make sure you're not smuggling a vicious banana in. Australia is the only place where airport security is at your destination, in the form of food quarantine, rather than at the point of embarkation.
After collecting our suitcases and Dylan's stroller (which we left by the plane's door and collected with our suitcases) we went on to the Avis desk to collect our car. I had my share of romance with them: their website offered a $33 discount when booking a “class C car (e.g. Toyota Corolla)”, so I booked a Corolla. Later I called to coordinate Dylan's baby seat, and as an afterthought they told me they would not honor their discount because a Corolla is a class B car. I told them I couldn't care less about their class definitions, as they can change them whenever they feel like it, but I know all too well what a Corolla is. They didn't know who they are messing with and told me I just have to trust them, I told them I don't trust anyone's word because the next thing I know they'd tell me the world is flat, and eventually they've succumbed to my Israeli resilience. Anyway, when we got to actually get our car it turned out they ran out of Corollas (an elderly German couple that couldn't speak English was rotting there waiting for their last Corolla to be ready) so they gave us a class C car instead – a Mitsubishi Lancer.
We were actually looking forward to the Corolla experience because we have already started thinking of our next car, and a Corolla definitely represents a more economically sound choice (not to mention environmentally more friendly, even though not by much) than our much reverend Honda CR-V. Thing is, the Mitsibushi (that's Mitsubishi in an Israeli dialect for you), bigger as it is than the Corolla, probably scared us enough to knock on Honda's door the next time we want a car. We simply need a station wagon to get by, and the CR-V is an excellent station wagon; a family car's boot is not enough, and Dylan has to sit next to lots of our shit thrown on his side. Not the safest thing ever. Dynamically, although the Lancer is lower than our CR-V, handling is significantly inferior; or at least it feels this way. The steering wheel feels completely dead, and the car seems to wallow almost as much as an American made car. The car feels like it was designed to make you feel you're in a racing car, sitting wise, which is not my cup of water; that said, it could be that we got too used to the CR-V's higher sitting position. Last, but not least, one cannot compare the finishing on the Mitsubishi to our Honda's. Having owned a Mitsubishi Lancer in the past and having had many nightmares as a result, our rental car has totally failed to make me regain confidence in the Mitsubishi brand. Still, as rental cars go, it's quite good: between the cruise control and the space to lay my GPS, it will do the job well.
We used the GPS to quickly find our way to our hotel of choice for the trip, Quest Trinity at Glebe. But before we get there it's time for first impressions, and indeed the question is – judging by those 20 kilometers or so between the airport and the hotel, what do I make of Tasmania? Well, the initial answer was “England”: Green pastures, and roads that look and feel similar to what I have experienced in England sans the traffic congestion. Some more driving has revised the impression to “Scotland” instead, with the adding of hills/mountains to the equation. Indeed, Hobart seems to be overlooked by mountains that seem to me of Alpine qualities (as in, high) – and you don't see many of those in my usual neck of the woods.
Back to the hotel, the Quest Trinity is rather special. Yes, it's located within walking distance of Hobart's center without being too close for parking to be unavailable (each room has its own parking space). But that doesn't matter; Hobart is not exactly big, it feels more like an outer suburb of Melbourne (and it's only a fraction in size and population). The thing about the hotel is that it's made of these small cabins, and I seem to remember reading it's an old monastery that was converted into something beneficial. Anyway, it's not like we're really enjoying that; by the time we've booked (two months ago) the only thing we could get was a studio apartment, and despite warnings from the hotel that it's too small for a baby plus family we went ahead with it. Well, they were right: it is stupidly small. Still, the annoying thing with the room is not its size but rather the thing it doesn't have: the room is advertised as having a “full kitchen”, yet it only has a microwave, a kettle, a fridge, an electric wok, and some basic kitchen plates and stuff. Isn't an oven missing there? They told us they can bring a portable electric plate, but our idea of cooking stuff for ourselves (e.g., pasta) was put on hold. Instead we went to the supermarket and got ourselves some cheeses and cold meats. And lots of chocolates.
Talking supermarkets, the prices at the Woolworth's next to the hotel are like 25-30% higher than their Melbourne counterparts. It's not like it's because it's a touristy area, because Melbourne is much more touristy for a start; it's probably the price one has to pay for living in a rather secluded island.
For our first adventure we've decided to go to Hobart's center and visit its information center while also having lunch after starving on the flight (breakfast was cereal based, and I don't drink milk but that's all they have, and Jo was too occupied fighting the Dylan monster). We parked and paid the meter enough for an hour, then went to the information center to put our hands on a Tasmanian Park Pass, a rather expensive certificate that allows you to drive your way into national parks. We went inside to find the center's consultation posts were abandoned and instead only the pay posts were manned. We've waited there for 15 minutes and the queue did not even make a sign of progressing, so I just said “fuck this” (and you can quote me on that) and we went away carrying nothing but brochures we could have got at our hotel in the first place.
For the eating part we walked around the corner to this wharf area, a famous Hobart attraction that has “tourist trap” written all over it. I guess it's Hobart's version of Sydney's Darling Harbour. Anyway, we found a fish and chips shop that looked decent and shared a deep fried flathead and a grilled blue something fish, both supposedly caught in the waters just next to us. We've ordered the one of the portions with chips and the other with what the menu referred to as a Greek salad, which at least meant that to the bunch of lettuce based shrubbery that commonly passes for salad in Australia they've added some proper salad ingredients. Overall, it was OK, overpriced but not by much; the problem was mostly to do with us choosing to sit outside because it was nice and then with the wind blowing like I don't know what the minute the food was served. Later that evening we watched an ABC news item shot just in front of where we ate and featuring some government guy urging people not to eat flatheads from the local bay more than once a week because they were found to e carrying stupendous amounts of mercury. Great.
After Dylan has had some sleep back in our room and I've started typing this into the Eee PC, we've decided to go on our first proper Tasmanian adventure. We went for a drive around the gardens next to our hotel, which we mistook for botanical gardens but they looked quite dreary. Then we've found the real botanical gardens, a thing stretch by the water's edge, and we drove by them. Looked inviting but we didn't have the time.
We continued to drive towards Mount Wellington, the tallest mountain overlooking Hobart. As I've hinted, it's pretty high, and to our surprise there's a very good road that takes you all the way up to its peak – pretty impressive! I was quite impressed by the fact they have toilets and other similar facilities at the top. It's amazing they went through all that effort, but they did.
The drive up the mountain from its base is some 10 kilometers long. It starts with a foresty bit that's quite dark (the way forests tend to be dark), but the taller you get the more the scenery changes into something more Martian like. Photos will not really justify the views from the way up, nor the views from the top. Interestingly enough, the temperature at Hobart was 24-25 degrees, but at the top of the mountain it was only 12 and the wind was very fresh – as in, directly from Antarctica.
Driving down the mountain I've discovered this nice feature of the Mitsubishi: Its Tiptronic automatic gearbox, that allows you to have total control over its six gears' selection while still not having to mess with a clutch. It doesn't feel just like a proper manual gearbox, but I have to hand it to the car: it works and it works well. Going up or down the curvy mountain road it proved highly effective and entertaining to do the gears manually; then, when we got to the city with its traffic, lights and all – it was handy to just shift it to fully auto and smell the roses.
Happy with our achievements for the day we came back to our room with a Dylan that was way overstretched even by his healthy standards and has obviously gone to a world beyond. That is, he was so tired he was hyperactive. Our room doesn't have a bath, so Jo took him to the shower with her and he didn't like it in the least; nor did Jo when Dylan became way too slippery after soap was applied on him. Eventually, he went to bed, thus closing the book on our first day at Tasmania: A day in which Dylan flew for the first time ever, has also climbed to an all time high that will probably take him a while to overtake (in the shape of Mount Wellington), and we got to the southernmost place we've ever been to and will probably ever be at until we pay New Zealand's South Island a visit. Mostly, however, it was a crazy day with a crazy baby.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Tasmanian Holiday: Introcution

A few hours ago we landed back from our five days vacation in Tasmania. As usual I find that Melbourne sorts of ruins vacations a bit because you're always coming back to a place that is much better than where you've just vacated. Jo corrects me as I type this by asking whether I would think the same after a Connex train adventure and after finding a dead cockroach in our dishwasher upon coming back home, but still - it's good to be back home.
Given that this time around we took the Asus Eee PC with us, I was able to write a detailed account on each of our adventuring days (well, except for today). That said, I wasn't able to post these posts on air because internet connections in Australia are governed by a monopoly called Telstra that excels in taking people's money: Free wi-fi connections are very rare to come by. At the hotel we stayed in, for example, I could pay $12 per hour of internet connectivity or $20 per day (they wouldn't know what connection quality I would get); I chose to wait until I return home.
For now and until I post my accounts I'll just say that our first plane trip with Dylan it has been a devil of a holiday. If this is an indication of what will take place when we fly long range to visit our families, we would pretty much have to turn our logic circuitry off when booking flights.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Home Alone

Dylan is sick today and cannot go to childcare. Jo stayed at home to look after him yesterday, and in an effort to balance things out (I get much more sick leave than Jo) I'm looking after Dylan today. At home. Alone.
Yes, for the first time ever I'm Dylan's primary caretaker over an extended duration (as in, longer than it takes for Jo to have a shower, go to the gym, or jump over to the supermarket). You know what that means: Poor Dylan!
Anyway, we've made a pact, Dylan and I: I'll look after him and he won't poo. Surprisingly enough, so far he's actually holding to his end of the deal, but I doubt it's got much to do with the pact; I suspect it is all to do with the diarrhea he had on me last night. And I do mean on me: I was feeding him with the bottle, an eruption took place, and because of the liquid like nature of the output the clothes I wore at the time are now spending time in a bucket with an evil solution that's normally used for cleaning nappies. Yes, it's another chapter in the untold saga of parenthood.
For the record:
1. Things are not as bad as they may sound; if you've ever looked after a pet you would have gone through much worse.
2. By the afternoon, Dylan broke the pact.

The annoying aspects of the day, so far, have been supplied by work. I seem to be at an all time low with work, some of which has been discussed here to one extent or another but most of it hasn't in order to enable me to keep my job.
Still, I think I'd be allowed to keep my pants on if I was to say that my manager called me earlier today and asked a few questions which made it sound very much as if "certain people" are doubting whether I'm taking a day off work for the right reasons.
He also urged me to do some work from home, which I don't see myself getting into mainly because looking after Dylan, especially when I'm on the sick side of things myself, is not exactly an easy job; I was told that "they do sleep", but then again, "I do need to eat and relax" and "I'm getting a day off anyway, why should I spend it on work instead of getting better" (words uttered only in my head). Indeed, a lovely state of affairs.
To be more honest, the work I'm expected to do at home is of the type I consider to be meaningless politics. It all follows a reprimand received yesterday from the very same manager for saying "no" to a customer. Apparently, our policy is to never say "no", but rather say "yes, and..." or "we will look into it". More than Dylan's germs, this attitude makes me sick.
I see two problems with this approach. The first is that this attitude represents a mentality of putting the emphasis on perceptions rather than actions. I can see where my manager is coming from: in a couple of weeks, no one would remember what words were used in the meeting, so when "no" turns out to be the outcome it would be just get smeared along; however, when a blunt "no" is said, regardless of why, an image on incapability is immediately generated. But that's the problem: we're talking about perception and perception alone; the actual outcome, in both cases, would be "no".
I prefer to maintain a relationship with my customers where they know that a yes is a yes and a no is a no. If they know that we deliver when we can - and they should know that - then we have no problems. If, on the other hand, someone was to ask me "can you get me to Mars tomorrow morning", I suspect everyone would agree that a "yes, and..." answer would be terribly stupid. Yet, that, in effect, is exactly what I am expected to do. I've been to the extreme manifestation of this scenario way too many times: we're gathered in a room, some wanna be hot shot manager presents us our agenda for the next few months, everyone is very well aware this agenda is more fantasy than reality, yet rarely does anyone say anything. Not in Australia, anyway; you'd immediately be labeled as someone who lacks a positive attitude and as someone who is not a team player. It appears as though some imported cynicism is required in order to bring everyone back to the real world, and I just happen to regularly carry a few tons of that forbidden fruit on me.
The be completely honest, I have been known to act as a politician during my career; it's one of the things you just have to do to survive. The real problem with the perceptions first attitude,however, is that it leads to an attitude of protecting one's behind. This is by far the dominant attitude at my office: Since too many people promise things they can't deliver on, their focus switches from making sure they deliver to making sure no one is able to accuse them for failing to deliver. Every action they do gets covered by a trail of emails handing responsibilities over and every chat you have with them feels like a meeting of the UN's Security Council. Eventually, projects fail and promises are not met, and then it's time for the Hunt for the Red Scapegoat - that is, the person who did not bother covering his/her ass, usually some low ranked new kid on the block who is not up to speed yet with "our way" of doing things.
From time to time, however, that scapegoat is actually someone who is not willing to play ball or does not have the time to join the circus. That's where I seem to be coming in lately.

Monday, 3 March 2008

The best second computer ever

After living with the Asus Eee PC for a month and a half now, I think it's time to say what I have to say about it. In typical fashion, I'll start with the bad.
1. Screen: The screen is too small. Not just in physical size but in resolution, too: it's 800 by 480 pixels mean that not much can fit in vertically, and websites that cram themselves so that you wouldn't need to use the scroll bars suffer (such as Google Maps). On the other hand, the horizontal field of view is not that great either, so you need to use the dreaded horizontal scrolling with most websites. In short, most websites would have you scrolling about just to make sure you're watching everything there is to watch.
2. Heat: The little Eee PC is your own personal heater. Whatever you put it on will get cooked; sort of makes you think how long the Eee will live if you use it in hotter climates.
3. Size: It's small size is a bit of a pain when you want to seriously use it. The keyboard is not exactly friendly to fast typing.
4. Battery life: I've never seen me a laptop with a battery that lasts as long as the manufacturer says it would. The one on the Eee PC is not that bad, but Skype (always a demanding application, especially when video is enabled) will drain the battery after just somewhere between an hour and an hour and a half.

I don't know if you've noticed by now, but the list of shortcomings has one thing in common: They're all issues that are to do with the Eee PC's superb mobility. In trying to make it small and portable, Asus has made it a bit annoying for serious usage. Then again, they did make the most portable serious computer I am familiar with: the Eee PC is indeed a computer you would take with you anywhere you want to go with a computer. Yes, you can even take it with you to the toilet (I admit I haven't done that. Yet).
I am, however, going ahead of myself. Let me count the Eee PC's distinct advantages before summarizing:
1. Reaction time: It's all up and running within 20 seconds of you turning it on. It shuts itself immediately after you ask it to shutdown. And in between, it reacts just as fast as your average Windows machine, usually much faster. It's so agile that you turn it on just to check what the weather is like outside before you go out, because it's much easier than looking out through the window. I even turn it on while having breakfast for a quick email check before going to work (where the internet is mostly blocked).
2. Ease of use: The name "Eee" supposedly stands for Easy, and you have to hand to to Asus - they've got it right! With all the applications you would want already installed and clearly labeled, all you need to do is turn it on and click the thing you want. Even my mother would manage that, but more on my mother later.
3. Safety: Running Linux means you're as safe as you can be without the need for anti viruses, firewalls, anti spam measures, electronic warfare, chaff dispensers, flare guns, and/or the Phalanx anti-missile system.
4. Stability: Unlike its Windows running counterparts with whom I've spent the best of my last 10 years, the Eee PC's Xandros Linux distribution just works like a charm. Things don't get stuck, things don't crash, and you don't get mysterious error messages; things just work, they work well, and they work quickly. As I have mentioned before, even wireless connections seem much more stable than they do on Windows machines: We have been known to Skype for more than an hour straight with no disconnections, something unheard of in Windows domain.

I don't know if you've noticed by now, but most of the good things about the Eee PC are to do with its operating system. I'm positively amazed at how good Linux can be, and I'm negatively amazed at the way the vast majority of us have been suffering the pain that is the Windows experience so long without realizing there is a better world out there (and it's absolutely free).
I don't understand those that buy the Eee PC and install Windows on it; that is the best thing you can do if you want to turn the Eee PC, which is by all accounts on the challenged side of the hardware equation, into a very unfriendly and slow machine. Sure, if you want a physically light and cheap Windows machine the Eee PC would do, but in my opinion you will have yourself an expensive paperweight rather than a good Windows machine.

The long and the short of it is that I find the Eee PC to be the perfect second computer. My desktop is still the main powerhouse, running demanding stuff and stuff that requires me to sit next to the computer for longer exposures. However, when I want to check the internet while on the sofa, on the floor, or outside; or when I just want to Skype a grandparent from where Dylan just happens to be, the Eee PC is just perfect. It fits the bill to perfection.

Now, I promised to return to my mother, so here goes:
Generally speaking, I am not the world's most typical computer user. While I'm not the most professional one, I do know more about computers than your average computer user. The average user is interested in doing simple things with the computer, things like checking emails, surfing the web, and from time to time do a bit more like Skyping. The Eee PC, my choice for the best ever second computer, would fill up the needs of the average computer user like a glove on a cooler day: the only setup required is in setting up the network definitions (either wireless or cable network), and after that... Well, after that even my mother can find herself computing.
Surely, I hear you saying, the Eee PC is not that unique. And you're right: Install Xandros on your average desktop and it would do the same things. Problem is, how often does someone like my mother stumble upon a desktop with Xandros installed on it? Especially a version of Xandros that has all the applications she will ever want to need already there, a simple click away?
You want another example? Here goes. Dylan's other grandmother, Jo's mother, has suffered at least two computer related setbacks as far as I know: She didn't open a Jajah account because her Windows based laptop warned her of some risk that wasn't there, which was enough to scare her off; and she didn't open a Flickr account allowing her to view all of our "Family only" photos on Flickr because somewhere during the creation of her Yahoo account she got a similar warning. In both cases the warning was meaningless, probably the result of using products like Norton Anti Virus; thing is, while I know these are meaningless warnings, she doesn't. She just stopped using the computer in those particular contexts.
Had she used an Asus Eee PC none of this would have happened. All the while, her internet surfing would have been smoother and more secure than ever.
My point? What I consider to be the best second computer ever would qualify as most people's best computer ever.

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Cold starts

I've recently read in Scientific American an explanations for why colds are much more frequent when it's cold (you can find a similar article here). Basically, what we consider cooler weather is just ideal for cold viruses in the sense that their molecules tend not to break up as much. As an added bonus (for them), the relatively low levels of humidity that are more common in cooler weather mean that the small water droplets that carry them from one victim to another are optimally sized to be able to have a longer range with which to acquire the next home base.
What I'm trying to say here is that with Dylan coming back home from childcare carrying some new variation of a cold with him every fortnight or so now when it's still summer, I'm really not looking forward to winter at all.
This week he has been gifted with this cold that doesn't make him feel too bad but does make him generate mucus at industrial levels. Given that we need to feed him and such, allowing him to freely cough at us and drool all over us, we catch whatever he carries quickly enough. The result is that by the time we stop feeling like shit because of the previous cold we feel like shit because of the new cold. Which is just a lovely feeling.
Indeed, this ongoing cycle of sickness is just another one of those things they don't tell you about when discussing parenthood. It's supposed to be this most wonderful feeling ever, but most of the time it feels like, well, like being sick.

Attention wise, Dylan is quite demanding now. And that's even before he is mobile enough to wreak havoc (and we can definitely see it coming; he already achieves liftoff with his bum). Oddly enough, the move to solid food means that we're much busier than before: instead of just having his bottles, Dylan is now having bottles plus solids. Sure, he's having less bottles, but with all the preparation cycles and everything around his meal - preparations, cleaning afterwards - things take an incredible amount of time. When he finally goes to sleep you have just enough time to sort things out and prepare for him to wake up.
Looking after Dylan is a full time job now, and quite a hard one at that: unlike your regular office job, you have no control over your schedule and you have zero transparency concerning upcoming events. Add teething to the bill and a new tendency for multiple number twos per day, and you can see how life becomes quite tiresome.

You get the feeling that it would take something special to make people fall for babies the way we do. Indeed, despite the eternal smell of puke mixed with old milk, Dylan is very cute, probably by all account and not just by prejudiced I; I can clearly see why evolution has had to make babies feel so cute.