Tuesday, 29 April 2008

eBay submission

As promised, I have submitted my case against eBay's proposed monopolization of PayPal to the ACCC. You can read more about the ACCC's investigation here.
For now, here is my submission:

Dear sir/madam,

As a regular user of eBay over the past few years, I would like to submit my arguments against eBay's proposed overhaul of its item payment procedures, namely its monopolization of PayPal as effectively the only available paying method for all eBay users in Australia.
I use eBay as a private person in order to stuff I no longer use in the hope of helping with the recycling of still functional items while making a bit of extra money to pay the bills. I am very thankful for eBay, as it so far provided me with a very workable platform with which to achieve the above.
While I suspect small time eBay users like me are not responsible to the vast majority of sales taking place under eBay, it is clear that people like me make the majority of eBay users; therefore, our opinion is just as important as the opinion of the big companies who stand to make a lot of money out of the proposed policy changes.
Following are my list of "small time user" arguments against eBay's proposal:

  1. Transaction cost: PayPal charges a fixed cost commission plus a percentage commission. It doesn't sound like much, but it all adds up when you add it to the cost of publishing an item on eBay and the commission eBay takes out of the final selling price. With PayPal, profits are significantly eroded.
  2. Profitability of selling small items: The problem of transaction costs is magnified when selling small items, the way I often do through my aspiration to find my previously beloved stuff a loving home. Let's say I'm selling a $5 item: Between the cost of publishing it on eBay and then the fixed cost of PayPal commission, I will be a fool to bother trying to sell the item in the first place as my profit would be minimal compared to the effort involved with making sale. eBay's new proposal will remove small sellers' ability to sell small items, yet it is exactly the ability to sell small items that makes eBay such an attractive market in the first place; that is what eBay started with a few years ago when people like me were its core users.
  3. Buyers' PayPal aversion: Many potential buyers do not like to pay using PayPal; the process you need to go through in order to register your credit card on PayPal and verify it is rather tedious and often intimidating to those who don't want to put their financial information over the web.
  4. PayPal safety: Buyers' fear of using PayPal is very sensible, as PayPal gives direct access to your wallet to any would be hacker who manages to crack its password protection. Internet safety experts are very much of the opinion that password protection is not particularly robust, and relies mainly on the effort it would take the hacker to crack it rather than its inherent safety.
  5. Infrequent buyers' accessibility: There are many eBay beginners or those that rarely shop on eBay. Why should they be forced to create a PayPal account and wait through the couple of weeks it takes to confirm it before they can buy or sell items?
  6. Retrieval of earnings out of PayPal: Once you sell your items on eBay and you get paid via PayPal, retrieving the money that is yours is far from trivial. PayPal only allows you to retrieve the money if a minimum sum has been accumulated ($150, if memory serves me right). This sum is not that trivial an amount to a small time seller like me; I can clearly see, however, how much money eBay can make out of interest alone through sellers who are not in a position to withdraw their earnings out of PayPal or who take time doing so.
  7. PayPal complexity: As the PayPal rules and regulations I have mentioned so far indicate, PayPal users are easily overwhelmed with the bureaucracy involved in managing a PayPal account. From its initial creation and verification through to the procedure for acquiring the money that is rightly yours out of PayPal, PayPal is inherently complex and not user friendly.
  8. Viability of other payment methods: I have sold about 150 items on eBay by now, most using direct bank transfers. So far, none of my transactions went wrong and other than cases where the buyers refused to stand up to their commitment to buy I always got my money on time. I never felt the need for a better payment method; if anything, I appreciated bank transfers as a payment method that is free and available for everyone to use.
  9. PayPal user service: PayPal only offers user help through the internet, via email communication. My experience shows this method to be ineffective; the service I have received from PayPal so far was very bad, with my queries answered in a very lackluster manner. I would rather bang my head against a wall than ask PayPal for help.
  10. Similar services to PayPal: If PayPal is as good and as safe as eBay claims it to be, why doesn't eBay allow services similar to PayPal to be used as payment options?In Australia, one can use the services of PayMate (http://www.paymate.com.au/) . PayMate used to be the payment method recommended by eBay until eBay acquired PayPal. Since then, eBay seems to have suffered amnesia with anything concerning Paymate.

In conclusion, I think it is fair to say that eBay's proposal to limit payment on its website to PayPal alone is motivated only by eBay's will to increase its profits. The proposal is obviously illegal as it restricts basic trading freedom. The only reason why eBay would be allowed to get away with their proposed overhaul is them being a big and influential company, strong enough to stand above the law. It is the ACCC's duty to ensure this does not take place.

Monday, 28 April 2008

Future so Bright

In celebration of the long weekend we took ourselves on a long drive, from Melbourne to Bright, then from Bright through the Great Alpine Road to Lakes Entrance, and then back home.

The road from Melbourne to Bright took us along the Hume Highway, the main road connecting Melbourne to Sydney. It has now been more than five years since I last made the drive to Sydney and back and I forgot just how boring that road is. It’s as if the people in charge of roads said to themselves “let’s create a road that is the exact opposite of The Great Ocean Road and see what we come up with"; the Hume Highway is the result.
For like 300 kilometers or so we dragged ourselves on cruise control, locked in a tight formation of cars whose inhabitants we got to know on a personal basis during the drive. The scenery amounts to dreary and flat hills that are obviously very drought stricken, the road itself, and that’s it. To add smoke to the fire, there was a thick later of smoke over everything, so that even if there was something nice to see you couldn’t see it.
At least we had the satisfaction of not having to travel back on the same route.

As we drove Jo informed me that our Lonely Planet Victoria says the Bright area is famous for its culinary delights. Even though we were nearing our destination we had to stop and feed Dylan anyway, so we stopped at Oxley and had lunch at the King River Café there.
And what a lunch it was! It was one of those culinary delights whose memory will linger on for years. We didn’t even bother with main courses; instead we shared a plate of Fetta Cheese & Cardamom Fritters, another plate of King River Potato, and last but not least – their Carpaccio of Beef. It has been a long time since I last ate Carpaccio: Uri fed me with some when I last visited him during September 2005, and then Fitzroy’s Madam Sousou did the same a year and a half ago, but since then I was Carpaccio deprived. Still, praising the Carpaccio alone would do grave injustice to the potatoes which were more like cakes; it’s one of those things I can eat and eat until my stomach bursts open.
Luckily, Jo prevented me from having more of the potatoes as dessert. Instead, I had to settle for Crème Brulee; and it wasn’t just your average factory made brulee either. Like the rest of the meal, it was all distinctly fresh, it wasn’t too sweet (the way most Australian served desserts are), and the quantity wasn’t bad either.
In short – when in the area, don’t miss the King River Café.

With our stomachs full (even though I would have been happy for more) and our wallets not that much lighter we continued to our B&B. Bright was too full and all the accommodations there insisted on a minimum three night stay (assholes; how can you do that if you have to work before and after the weekend?), so we had to settle for a night with Dylan sharing the same room as us. Again.
That, however, was the only bad thing I could say about the place we’ve stayed in, Kookaburra Park in Myrtleford (some 30 kilometers from Bright itself). Run by a Belgium couple living there with their two lovely kids, I find it hard to recall a warmer hospitality from people who are not first degree relatives (and some of them would get beaten, too).
I’ll focus on just one thing, the culinary delights that place offered us: At night we were given with a cheese plate that included some very nice high quality locally made stuff . They usually offer that with a bottle of wine, but as we’re not your average Aussie drinkers they settled on two bottles of Stella beer instead. An hour later, in bed, we were served with a plate of genuine top of the notch Belgium chocolate – I’m drooling even more than Dylan just thinking about that chocolate.
Then at breakfast we were served with a three courses (!), all of which freshly made from fresh ingredients. It included a bacon and potato omelette that was very as fulfilling (my way of saying I was full but happy), a savoury bacon pancake, baked sweet rice, and much more.
For $145 a night I don’t understand how they’ve made money of us, but I do know I would very much like to go back there again while Dylan is young enough to share the room with us.

We hardly did anything in Bright itself or in the entire area, for that matter. It’s hard to do stuff with Dylan around, and besides – Bright seems like not much more than a picturesque village living off its location at the foot of the main skiing attractions.
Sure, it does feature avenues of European trees that were in the process of their annual autumn leaf color change while were there, but then again I’ve seen more inspiring autumn vistas before (topped, for the record, by up state New York).
The thick layer of smoke covering everything had a definitive effect on our enthusiasm with the view and with our will to get out of the car and choke. It’s quite amazing, when you think about it: The smoke is a result of controlled fires, but these were lit in a week with no wind so the smoke just lingered over Melbourne for the week; thing is, the smoke persisted and even got stronger throughout our 400 kilometer drive to Bright. Think about it – it’s quite amazing – an area the size of several normal countries all covered up with smoke, and all because of controlled fires!
Driving through Bright and its area we were amazed to see some smoke coming out of people’s backyards and such. What is it with them? What are they burning? How can they stand it? Is it like a local pastime? Should Jo and I burn something in our yard now that we’re home?

The drive up and down The Great Alpine Road was certainly interesting. I wouldn’t rate it as highly as The Great Ocean one, which is probably what the very original people who named the road were trying to achieve, but it’s definitely a good drive.
After getting out of the Bright area set of towns, the road becomes stupidly tight and inclined as we overtook groups of suicide bicycle riders (as in, how they climb up that road without getting a heart attack?).
Eventually, we found ourselves at the peak of Mount Hotham, one of Victoria’s chief skiing slopes at 1750 meters up high. I was never attracted to skiing, and the Moon like appearance of the resort’s area failed to inspire me. The weather, on the other hand, deterred me, although me still wearing a Bright weather t-shirt inside the car when it was only 5 degrees outside was a fine testimonial to modern engineering.
The rest of the drive is pretty empty. It gets to the stage where there are signs telling you where the next gas stations are (pretty far from one another, that’s where they are).
Lacking much in the way of choice, we stopped at Omeo – an old gold rush town – for lunch. Lacking much in the way of choice, we stepped into this very mediocre bakery to have lunch (how the mighty have fallen from the previous day’s lunch!). The reason why I mention the place is that while sitting there I was quite horrified to see almost everyone coming into the bakery ordering meat pies. Next to cheap sausages, these pies represent the bottom of the culinary heap, yet people voluntarily pay to eat them. Go figure.

It was smooth sailing from there to Lakes Entrance, where we stayed at a motel. In a world premier, we’ve booked an apartment with two bedrooms (as well as a living room), so Dylan has had the privacy of his own room.
The apartment was well equipped though very archaic in design. As Jo said, one wonders what went through seventies designers’ heads when they came up with some of the things they came up with. Still, with a full on kitchen, TV, DVD, washing machine, dryer, extra beds, who can ask for anything more? Needless to say, we watched something on the Eee PC and didn’t use any of the gizmos.
I did find, later, that the place actually had free wireless. However, by the time I realized that reception was closed and I couldn’t get my password. Not that I cared, but free wireless is so rare in Australia each event is worth mentioning.
At night we got to have a peak at another Australia. At around 4:00am there was loud shouting from the caravan park next to the motel: A guy called Greg was violently chasing after a woman who, he claimed, lost him $200,000 while uttering all sorts of superlatives about her. I saw the action from the kitchen window, and as I was reaching for my mobile to call the police someone else down there said they were calling; Greg just rushed off to his car and drove away.
Being the way we are, it is often easy to forget how well ingrained is alcohol into the Aussie culture. I find it really sad that people succumb to drugs so easily and that it’s considered mainstream; in Australia, I am the exception rather than the rule as far as drinking goes.

The drive back home was pretty miserable. The rain that hit Melbourne over the weekend finally caught us (it was snowing up Mount Hotham; we were pretty lucky not to get stuck there!). We stopped at Yaragon Village for lunch as the Lonely Planet claimed it to be another culinary delight, and instead had another culinary disappointment. They even microwaved the bread roll Jo was eating!
We also stopped at the Latrobe Valley's power plant display, which takes you into a power station and around a coal mine. We didn't take the tour (not a baby friendly environment there, with the noise) but it was interesting to look around. According to the displays there, the amount of coal it takes to keep my PC alive while typing this post is like a bucket's worth; there must be so much coal in the world it's unimaginable. You can clearly see how much greenhouse gases we're dumping into the atmosphere all the time.
From then it was a case of straight home for Pipi Velishon (don’t ask). We were lucky: despite clocking more than 1100 kilometers (talk about greenhouse emissions), Dylan only started complaining towards the very end and was a very good boy throughout.
I suspect the next big day out adventure would see us flying again. I shudder at the thought of long international flights with Dylan…

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

Killing me softly

I know Uri wouldn't like it, but this post starts with yet another Scientific American article.
This time around the article is discussing the potential dangers of a certain type of plastics called BPA on babies. I have actually heard this story for a couple of months now: According to certain sources, this BPA plastic, when digested, is perceived by the body to be estrogen; and if you're a baby, you're more susceptible to it (especially if you're a male baby). Given that most baby bottles contain this lovely material, and given that baby bottles are routinely boiled for sterilization and then chilled for storage, they are potentially more dangerous than anything else for your baby.
As I've said, I've heard this before; this difference with the Scientific American article is that it is a relatively reliable source of information, as opposed to a source that tries to create hysteria in order to sell more copies.
The Sciam article has taught me two things: First, although the poisonous elements of BPA are still unverified, what is very much clear is that this plastic was never verified to be safe in the first place; it was passed as safe mainly for commercial reasons.
Second, we are all exposed to this BPA chemical day and night. It's not only when drinking from plastic bottles: it's in all plastic stuff, and it's even in cans. Yes, cans.

As far as operational steps are concerned, we looked everywhere for BPA free bottles and couldn't find any in the shops we usually buy our baby stuff from. Luckily, we live in the 21st century, so we've ordered a few bottles from an eBay seller in the USA. It's good to know that Australian babies are so well taken care of, though, especially when the rumor mill says BPA was altogether banned from baby products in Canada.
And yes, the next time we'll be buying Dylan Heinz ready made children food, we'll get the jars rather than the cans.
For the record, Dylan has been having all of his bottles for the last 9 months (his only 9 months) from Avant bottles. These contain BPA, which annoys the hell out of me: You take all this care to give Dylan the best opportunities and then you learn that you've fucked it all up through your ignorance. Jo had quite a limited diet during her pregnancy in order to be on the safe side, because after all you are what you eat; and now we learn that because of corporate greed we may have irreversibly damaged Dylan's health. An extra dosage of annoyance comes from the very high probability that the medical issues I am suffering from today may be the result of similar causes; and here I am now forwarding them onwards to my son.

I have discussed my relative contempt to Israel's holocaust memorial day on this very blog not that long ago. Basically, I'm annoyed at the way we fail to learn from the past; instead, we use memorial days to serve some silly agendas. Case in point: poisonous baby bottles. Now let me explain...
One of the thing about the Nazis was that they used technology to increase the efficiency of their killings. Adolf Eichmann was a bureaucrat. He was also a Nazi who, by "just obeying orders", was in charge of killing millions of Jews and other innocent people. All he did was sit by his desk and process the orders that made the murders possible, but by doing what he did he was the number one killer. Eichmann was unquestionably a mass murderer.
Today's mass murderers are fairly similar to Eichmann. Today's mass murderers are office workers like you and I, who - in the name of improved bottom lines for the benefit of shareholders - commit acts that are just as lethal as Eichmann's. Just like him, they think they're doing the world a favor, and in some respects they do: Virtually all of us are shareholders, if only through our pension plans, so we all "earn" through their actions.
However, I think our world has gone crazy when in the name of profits we allow ourselves to poison future generations without having a clue as to what the potential damages may be. Just how low can we go in our quest for money and power?
My conclusion is simple: the financial system running the world is all fucked up. It has been obvious with the ozone layer, with global warming, and now with baby bottles. We must do something about it before humanity collapses once and for all.
I have talked here before about Children of Men and how highly I think of this film, but now I no longer think of it as a prophetic warning; more than ever, I think we are already living the world of Children of Men.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Equal Opportunities

We’ve had our equal employment opportunities refresher training today at work, and what can I say? Having had this refreshment, I can now attest to knowing exactly why women earn significantly less than their male counterparts and why all the top managers out there seem to come from the very same network of private school graduates who know their way around football.
A lot of it is to do with the weight being carried into the presentation. For example, early on we were told that 20% of our employees come from “culturally diverse” backgrounds [I've tweaked the figures; they're not the real ones]. So I asked how cultural diversity is defined, and in return I got some lengthy meaningless spill followed by a suggestion that it was race related; I asked whether 80% of the employees are race-less and got blank stares in return; then I clarified my point and asked whether a culturally diverse person is anyone who is not a white Anglo Saxon, at which point someone else intervened and answered that this parameter talks about the use of English at home. Yeah, right; that explains why they had to perform circles in the air to give me an answer.
Later we were asked whether refusing to work with someone because we can’t understand their accent represents discrimination. We all said it does, and then we were asked on what grounds, and it turned out the answer is to do with race [again]. Well, excuse me, but I have a friend from Chinese origins who – if you were to hear her voice alone – would sound more Aussie to you than Crocodile Dandy eating vegemite; on the other hand, I know several white Anglo Saxons of northern England or Scottish origins from whose mouth I can’t understand a word they’re saying. My sister in law is a fine example there, but if you want an example you can relate to check out Alex Ferguson in his pre/post match interviews. The fact we automatically associate accent with race says a lot about our preconceptions and explains why discrimination is taking place in front of our eyes all the time and we just take it for granted or fail to notice it.
The biggest problem in the face of equal opportunity is the ambiguities the law is unable to answer. To go to extremes, why can’t I become a supermodel? If that ain’t sexual discrimination, age discrimination, and discrimination on the basis of physical appearance I don’ know what is. And until the law becomes clear and unambiguous about discrimination, as opposed to overusing and abusing the word “reasonable”, there will always be a backdoor for everyone out there who wishes it to actively discriminate.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Greed

On numerous occasion this blog has discussed the merits of selling stuff on eBay: a great tool to help you get rid of stuff you don't need and regain some space while putting some money in your pocket, which is also good from an environmentalist's point of view in the recycling sense.
The way of this world is that trends flow in a rather cyclical manner, and things that are good eventually become bad and vice versa. This time around it is eBay's turn to become the villain: in a rather unashamed case of greed, eBay Australia has recently announced that as of the end of May 2008 all items sold on eBay must offer PayPal as a payment option. Shortly afterwards PayPal is to become the only means of payment to be used on eBay other than the rare case of cash payment during pickup.
That's bad. That's very bad. Let me give you a brief account for why it is bad from my point of view as a small time seller.

PayPal charges a commission of around a dollar plus one or two percent commission. It doesn't sound like much, but when you add it to the cost of publishing an item on eBay and the commission eBay takes out of the final selling price it means your profit as a seller are greatly eroded.
Things are obviously much worse when selling a small time item, the way I often do through my aspiration to find my previously beloved stuff a loving home. Let's say I'm selling a $5 laserdisc: The cost of publishing it on eBay without a gallery photo would be $0.50 (with a gallery it's $1.1). Then you get the eBay commission of around 5% and then you get the PayPal commission, meaning that less than $3.5 actually finds itself in your pocket - an erosion of some 35%. At that point you may as well feel like an idiot, because no matter how much you want to recycle and help your stuff find a loving home, you definitely don't like being a fool.
That's not all. Many potential buyers don't like to pay using PayPal; the process you need to go through in order to register your credit card on PayPal is rather tedious and often intimidating to those who don't want to put their financial info over the web. Makes sense to me: after all, PayPal gives direct access to your wallet to any would be hacker, and it's only protected by a password.
Then there are the eBay beginners or those that rarely shop on eBay. Say, a would be mother looking for cheap maternity clothes of the type I'm selling at the moment and who heard from a friend that eBay is a good source for bargain maternity clothes. Why should this would be mother bother creating a PayPal account and wait through the couple of weeks it takes to confirm it before she can put her hands on the maternity clothes?
Wait. There's more! Once you sell your item on eBay and you get paid via PayPal, it's not like the money is in your pocket. If you want it in your bank account you must accumulate over $150, not that trivial an amount to a small time seller like me; otherwise, your only way of "feeling" that money is spending it, which is what we usually do when we do get paid with PayPal - we buy Skype credit and use it to call our backwards family and friends who can't be bothered to install Skype and talk to us for free. As beautiful as this may sound, I do prefer to have my money in my wallet, thank you very much; I can clearly see, however, how much money eBay can make out of interest alone through sellers who are not in a position to withdraw their earnings out of PayPal.

The funny thing about this entire recent eBay escapade is that it's entirely illegal - and eBay knows it. The law prohibits exclusive dealing which broadly involves one trader imposing restrictions on another’s freedom to choose with whom, in what or where it deals. That is why eBay had its lovely lawyers, heavenly souls the lot of them, write to the ACCC (Australian Competition & Consumer Commission) to ask for exemption on the grounds that using PayPal is safer.
Well, that's bullshit for you.
Sure, PayPal is probably relatively safe and it is definitely comfortable; you know for sure when you get paid, as opposed to a bank transfer which can take days and is more susceptible to errors. But then again, so what? I have sold about 150 items on eBay by now, most using bank transfer, and so far I did not have any transactions going wrong. It took patience, but I'm alive.
Then there's the issue of eBay forgetting that PayPal is not the only service provider out there; it's just the only one that's owned by eBay. In Australia alone you can get the services of Paymate, which used to be the payment method recommended by eBay until they went and bought PayPal. Since then eBay seems to have suffered amnesia with anything concerning Paymate.

Hope is not lost yet. The ACCC has announced it would look into things, starting soon by letting the public submit their claims as to why eBay is wrong. I will be there with something similar to this post; I consider it my duty to do what I can do for the things I believe in. Especially when they directly concern my back pocket, but also when this is a moment in time when the entire world is watching Australia to see how successful eBay is in its evil plot - success here means demise would follow elsewhere.
I do have to say this in conclusion. eBay is a company making some gigantic loads of money in profit and rolling over more than most countries' budgets. Obviously someone very calculated sat back on eBay headquarters and figured that this new initiative of theirs would earn more money than it would lose so the big bosses gave them the green light. I am wondering, though: why is it that eBay needs to make more money in the first place? What is this obsession we have with expansion for the sake of expansion? Why do we have to be so greedy?
What happened to just doing to right thing?

Friday, 18 April 2008

Silence in the Studio

After Dylan was born, there was a period of great disquiet at our house. Most of the disquiet was generated by Dylan and too much of it was generated during the middle of the night. To me, the indicator that sanity was on the rise was being able to sit and watch a movie properly on our hi-fi; we just weren't able to do that during the first six to wight weeks following Dylan's arrival. I know it sounds stupid, but that was a make or break type thing for me, reminding me of how staying away from home during my army career – or rather, away from my stereo – used to drive me crazy.
Now, however, we seem to have a new problem on our hands. Whereas before we were able to play movies as loud as we wanted to – even at THX levels, which Jo doesn’t approve of – and still have Dylan very fast asleep in his cot, nowadays the kid has grown up enough to become aware of such events taking place. We can still watch films, but let’s just say that the bombardment of Pearl Harbor would have to be viewed more like a silent film than what a proper home theater experience should be like if we don’t want to spend our nights pacifying the baby of the house.
I strongly suspect the problem would get worse with time. Not that I’m blaming Dylan or anything; I wouldn’t be able to sleep with someone playing a film even at low levels in the next room, so why should I ask Dylan to do the same?

You can also see why Dylan is agitated by us watching the films. Watching King Kong last week, the film was long enough to step unto his late at night bottle time (which by now he can live without but at the time he was sick enough for us to want to push more liquid into him). We woke him up, and because it was already late and the film was so tediously long we wanted to get it over with ourselves we allowed the film to play as Dylan drank. He likes to watch the news on his evening feed, so why wouldn’t he like to watch a proper film?
Well, there are some good answers for that why question. It comes down to two things: First, it is clear that Dylan is unable to distinguish reality from fiction. That is, for him, the events taking place on TV – notably, King Kong being attacked while roaming about Manhattan with Naomi Watts – are obviously very distressing, as opposed to entertaining. Second, and what seems to be much more important given Dylan’s regular ambivalence towards exciting events on TV, is the sound factor: King Kong played through our hi-fi is an extensive experience that engulfs you with orchestral music and action all around; it’s nothing like watching ordinary TV. We’re used to it and we need quite a kick to feel that we’re inside the film, but Dylan was obviously 100% with Mr Kong.
We clicked the stop button pretty quickly.

Talking about King Kong reminds me of the developmental stage Dylan is currently in. It’s quite funny, actually, because throughout our experiences with Dylan, since conception till now, it feels as if evolution is staring us in the eye. At first we had this fish larva on the ultrasound screen, and now we have ourselves a small King Kong of our own.
Dylan’s current hobby seems to be sitting up (he’s capable of that now) and uttering a prolonged shout, gorilla style, often while waving his hand. While raising the question of whether we are raising an aspiring alpha at our premises, one cannot avoid laughing at the phenomenon; it’s not like we have King Kong here, it is still a baby that’s performing this act, and the result is funny. The main thing that’s missing from making it a complete show is Dylan banging on his chest, but I’m working on teaching him that.
Yes, we seem to have got to the stage where Dylan actually and obviously mimics our behavior. Maybe it was random, but he did seem to wave at us yesterday when we waved at him, and when I answer his King Kong call with a King Kong of my own we quickly establish a King Kong open dialog.
It’s not just us he reacts to; Dylan is clearly reacting to music, too, and I have to say that so far the boy does have good taste. Last night, for example, he waved his arms around (as well as his head) in rhythm with Dire Straits’ Telegraph Road. The guitar riff was his favorite bit! It’s funny to watch him react to music, because he reminds me of those documentaries that show you old African tribes and their dancing/mating rituals. I wouldn’t have thought that dancing is so well engraved in our genes, but it obviously is.

In conclusion: Lately, we seem to have a preference for short, quiet films.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Dilemmas

The question that interested us the most the previous week was "what should we do about Dylan's childcare".
A very sought after childcare facility in our area turned out to have two vacant days which Dylan could fill in, and because we just happened to be browsing at the time the vacancy materialized they did the convenient thing and offered the place to us. Should we or shouldn't we?
The main advantage of the new place is that it's near us, so we don't have the hassle of dragging Dylan to the city with us and the whole Connex adventure. Nor will I have the pleasure of walking him in the cold or in the rain (or both), because we'll just park next to their door and take him in. The other advantage is that they seem to have more experienced staff.
On the other hand, the place is full: the more experienced staff of two has to take care of ten babies, whereas at Dylan's current place the ratio is more favorable (mainly because they can't find enough parents). Next, the new little babies room caters for babies from 8 to 18 months old, which would pit Dylan against much larger babies that can walk all over him; Dylan's current room takes care of babies up to one year old, which puts Dylan in a good position. Convenience is also hampered by a couple of other factors: The new place's opening hours are significantly shorter, making it a problem to actually have a proper working day in between depositing Dylan in the morning and withdrawing him in the evening. Last, but not least, their prices are on the higher side of high (north of $90 per day), and they even charge $15 an hour for the acclimatization sessions the parents must do before the babies start. Pricing is not just a wallet issue; we find it distasteful that these places can rip people off just because they can, and we definitely appreciate Dylan's current childcare place being a non for profit organization.
It's funny, because up until a few weeks ago we were really disappointed with Dylan's current childcare place and were openly seeking alternatives. However, with time a strange thing has happened: we seemed to have addressed all the problems the childcare posed and now Dylan seems to finally get some proper service there. Sure, it took heavy involvement on my side and significant policing, but it paid off; who knows whether we'd need to go through the same thing again, and whether we'll even know about the problems to begin with. After all, a lot of the problems were identified because Dylan is near me.
To move or not to move? That is the dilemma.
After much deliberation and after visiting the new place, we have decided not to move. A great winter adventure awaits Dylan and I.

Dylan's childcare was just the first of several dilemmas. The next one to take hold of our brains is to do with the installation of solar panels on our roof, as discussed here a few weeks ago.
By now we talked with three different solar panel installers, and with each of them the story is different. The first gave us a rough quote for Chinese made panels, with an out of pocket expense of between $2000 to $3000; the second seemed really slick and professional (or was it that they just talked the talk?), using Aussie made BP panels, and quoting north of $5000 - making it a rather costly affair; and the third offered BP equipment but warned us that the neighbors tree would cast a shadow that will reduce our electricity throughput by 35%.
So which option should we go for? The cheapest? The most professional? Or should we go with the guy that actually measures stuff as opposed to letting his mouth do the talking? And should we go ahead with it in the first place, given the shading issue and our very leaky finances?
Then yesterday we learned that there's this company that collects lists of 50 interested parties in an area, then buys and installs the solar panels in bulk at a cost of less than $1000 out of pocket. They probably don't use the best equipment, but should we care given the cost? We just don't know.

All of the above pales in comparison with the next dilemma.
They say that space is the final front ear and we seem to have rediscovered that age old truth: our house is too small for the three of us, and an extension is high on the agenda.
Jo has already invited professional extentionists to come over and suggest what we can do and for how much. In general, we were thinking of extending our living room so that we can have our home theater next to a living area as opposed to a home theater that is the living area. It is, however, pretty clear even before we get any quotes that we are talking about something that would mean we would have to take a lot of money out of our mortgage: we're talking about acquiring permits, planning, building, re-rendering (probably the entire house), messing with the roof, having to move somewhere while work takes place, and much much more.
The most natural comment at this stage would be "why don't you just move", but the reality is we can't. We will not be able to find a bigger place we can afford in an area as nice as ours, period; and our current area has good schools and it's close enough to the center for Dylan to find it nice as he grows up. Besides, our house is pretty good: as they say, they don't build them like that anymore. For example, being double brick, it's not too cold in winter and not as warm in summer.
Aside of seeing how much the extension option would cost us, there is also the question of what to extend. Theoretically, we could - for significantly less money - build a garage to use for extra storage. That should cost significantly less than a proper extension, but it wouldn't be as nice.
Or should we do both? Time will tell, but until it tells I am constantly bothered by thinking about these dilemmas.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Lance Armstrong

As someone who shares a lot in common with Lance Armstrong (we both walked on the moon?), I have a sensitive spot for the guy. Coming from his low to the high of straight Tour de France wins, even if I couldn’t care less about that achievement, is still a personal victory that obviously means a lot to the guy. Being the nice dude that he is, being that he is different to all the rest of the cyclists – he smiles at the camera and he’s a family man and all that – it is easy to identify with him as a hero.
Well, this week I read this article in Scientific American about sport doping. The article had this interesting sidebar that shows how the average speeds at the Tour de France have risen quite significantly over a short period of years. Undoubtedly, this is due to the result of doping.
The article doesn’t say so explicitly, probably in order to avoid damaging American egos and/or to protect the magazine from an impending lawsuit, but the writing is on the wall. I’ll spell it for you:
Lance Armstrong is a cheat.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Smarties

A recent article in Scientific American Mind discusses some ideas on how to raise intelligent children. It is a very interesting article and, personally, I have found it much better than all of the child raising guides I have had coming my way so far; probably the result of the way it is written and its evidence based approach. Whether you agree with it or not, I urge you all to go and read it. Just click the link. Do it now.

OK, now that you've read it, you know the article essentially says that in order to effectively increase your child's intelligence, it is better to encourage them and to praise them for making an effort rather than to compliment them on their actual achievements. By praising their achievements you mainly guarantee that they'd be looking for the easier challenges that would earn them repeat compliments rather than help them develop; when they actually do stumble upon a challenge they cannot overcome they would just feel frustrated and look elsewhere quickly. In short, you'd be raising a child who is always on the lookout for the easier solutions in life.
In contrast, if you encourage your child to make an effort, then even if their genetics mean they're not the next Einstein they would still be able to develop and learn to acquire the ability to overcome challenges.
Makes sense to me. It's not only that I have developed resentment towards parents that attack you with the "look at my kid he/she is so smart" approach when their child does something randomly, but rather it touches some soft nerves in my teenage history.

You see, I was one of those kids that were always told they were smart. Indeed, in primary school things were always automatically easy for me without me having to make much of an effort. I do, however, distinctly remember how my first encounter with geometry - while doing homework on 9th grade - has brought me to tears when I simply could not understand anything and wasn't able to do any of the tasks I was supposed to (including stuff that looks pretty ordinary to me now).
Subsequent events where I just wasn't up to the school challenges, virtually all to do with math, have pretty much convinced me that all previous notions I might have had about being smart the way I was told I was were wrong. For all I knew, I was dumb. In retrospect, now I know that most of my challenges were to do with a particularly bad math teacher - indeed, this math teacher is probably one of the very few people I can think of whose longevity demands they keep their distance from me.
My way of addressing my own perceived dumbness was to do what my uncle always told me to do: work hard. Throughout high school I used to devote many an hour to studying, but during my university years I probably broke world records of devotion: In contrast to the happy student life most people lead, my life was purely devoted to studying day in and day out, weekends included. I might have allowed myself the privilege of watching a film once a fortnight, mainly for relaxation purposes. No wonder the thought of studying for a Masters degree is as appealing as one of Dylan's used nappies!
The results, however, did speak for themselves. Regardless of my inherent intelligence, which I still maintain to be pretty average, between my hard work and the help I got from friends I managed to achieve some very respectable achievements in my studies. Not that I think that is a major indicator; most of my official studies were more like a case of digesting facts and spitting them out for a test than actually learning to think for myself. Still, at least I developed the skills that allowed me to achieve that.
My point is simple: Whatever I did manage to achieve was mostly achieved through hard work, and most of the frustration I have had on the way there was because of some perceived need to think myself superior to the problems I have encountered even though I was really only competing against myself. Due to these factors, I tend to agree with the above mentioned article.

More importantly than my own personal observations, I think there is something inherently right about the approach that applauds good intent rather that a good outcome.
I can clearly see problems when I look at things the negative way (at least according to the article's negative). A child that grows up expecting everything to align their way might have enough luck to succeed in most of the things he/she endeavor. This child will, almost surely, grow up to believe that he/she made it through everything because he/she actually deserved to. This is exactly how your average Liberal voter is created: selfishness needs to be justified somehow, and thinking that you deserve something others don't have is the ticket most people use to justify their selfishness.
That notion may sound far fetched but it's not: Western society is built around the concept of meritocracy, namely - those that have something are those that merit it and those that don't have it do not deserve to have it. But is that always the case? I would argue that most of the time we have things due to luck and other factors beyond our control, rather than our own personal merit. Most of our achievements are directly related to the people we were born to. Those who don't have what we have are not necessarily inferior; they are usually just not as lucky as we were.
While the approach that calls for hard work can lead someone to believe they deserve stuff just the same, at least the hard work they would invest on the way would teach them to appreciate their achievements rather than take them for granted.
In short, no one wants a spoiled child, but many of us spoil our children just the same.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

Lunch at Barwon Heads

Today we took Dylan for lunch at this restaurant, "At The Heads" in Barwon Heads, which we have been visiting rather frequently over the last couple of years. Dylan himself was there twice already, with the first time being when he was just six weeks old.
The nice thing about the restaurant is that it's right on the water, so you have 270 degree views of the water around you. The views are quite nice: on one side you see the mouth of the Barwon river and on the other the entrance to Port Phillip Bay, the bay Melbourne resides in. There's a lot of shipping action involved, too, with ships going in and out of the bay. Amongst the numerous ships bringing in containers of stuff we don't really need from China I suspect we actually spotted the ship that is currently dredging the bay doing its work: there was this big ship that didn't seem to go anywhere but lingered at the entrance to the bay.
Anyway, to commemorate the lunch, we took the following video. Talking lunch, I do have to say that At The Heads specializes in seafood (not our cup of tea other than normal fish) and that it's quite expensive for what you get - you do pay a dear premium for the location. We tend to think it's worth the admission price overall, and we're not alone - the place tends to be packed.
So here goes:

Friday, 11 April 2008

Curse the vile Andromedans!

A recent article in Scientific American discussed the future history of cosmology. That is, the history of things to come in outer space.
The future, it seems, is pretty bleak. With the way the universe is constantly expanding, eventually (that is, in 100 billion years) anything out of our Local Group will be receding from us faster than the speed of light. Effectively, there will be no universe out there anymore, just blackness. The Local Group itself, the group of galaxies comprising of our own Milky Way, Andromeda and a bunch of other satellite galaxies will merge into one super galaxy, and for all “we” would know that would be the entire universe. Our descendants will not even be able to tell that once upon a time there was this big bang thing.
The consequences of that eventuality are fascinating. Think of our own universe the way we know it here and now, for example: what if our universe is just a small shred of an even bigger universe that got away from us? The possibilities are pretty much endless. To me, reflecting on this just goes to show how little we know of our world.

But until our universe becomes bleak, we have other worries to occupy our minds. Take, for example, the clash of our fair galaxy with the Andromeda galaxy, commencing as of about 5 billion years into our future.
By then, humanity will probably consume all the oil and dig up all the precious metal the Milky Way has to offer. The prospect of having a brand new galaxy to dig our way through will offer an incredible opportunity for our future economy to continue expanding, our GDP to grow, and interest rates to go down and provide some relief to home and investment property owners.
Or will it? What about the distinct possibility that we will find the whole of Andromeda was dug and exhausted just the same by those evil selfish Andromedeans? I say, those self centered aliens will just have to pay for robbing us what is our god given right. Curse them all!

OK, I admit, I was fooling around in that last paragraph. As much as I care about the future of my descendants and humanity in general, the events to come in 5 billion years interest me as much as the events that happened here, on earth, 500 million years ago. It’s interesting, but you can’t feel the personal touch.
However, jokes aside, if you were to read the above paragraph and replace “Andromeda” with , you will find the paragraph somewhat less stupid; it would sound more like your average tabloid article instead, invoking many arguments that are typically raised whenever foreign affairs are on the agenda.
And that really says something about us and our world.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Vengeance is mine

Long term readers of this blog probably remember that yours truly has been denied of proper internet access at work for a good few months now. In the name of some vague agendas, blogs, photo repositories and webmail services have been blocked.
That is, until I stumbled upon Google Reader, an online tool available to anyone with a Google account. Essentially, it’s an RSS reader: you create an account, type in the links to your most beloved blogs and other routinely updated websites, and in return you will be delivered with a constantly updating list of all the new posts out there. For example, you can even use it to keep track of my blogs: by registering this blog, my reviews blog, my Flickr page, and my YouTube page, you would be able to keep yourself up to date with the latest posts in one go.
RSS services are not exactly new on our blocks; Firefox browsers have had them for as long as I know them. The catch with Google Reader is simple: my place of work does not block it. The implication is very simple: All those blogs I was not able to access before have now become accessible (at least until Google Reader is blocked). It’s not perfect: Flickr photos are still blocked, and you cannot see comments added to posts, but hey – beggars can’t be choosers.

Beggars can, however, continue to find innovative ways to circumvent thoughtless acts of stupidity (the only explanation I can come up with for censoring internet access en masse). My point with this post is simple: Through Google Reader, I have proved that all these efforts to censor web access are a useless waste of time. Instead of achieving successful results (whatever those may be; ask the brilliant minds behind the blockages), they demoralize employees and cause significant waste whenever legitimate websites are blocked from access. They also cause stagnation in the organization when information that could have been used to improve things remains unknown because it was blocked from access in the first place.
My place of work is obviously just a small bean stuck under a stack of mattresses. There are much bigger cases demonstrating how narrow vision and lack of openness can cause a return to the Middle Ages.
Take, for example, the case of Melbourne’s train network: Instead of spending more than a billion dollars on a failed project to replace the ticketing systems, the patrons of the state of Victoria could have just made public transport free and earn their money through the added advertising income they would get out of all the extra people using public transport. Think of all the jobs saved (and find them alternative ones). Think of the contribution to global warming. Think! Sure, I know there are issues with this freedom proposal, but my point is simple: The political decision makers are so well stuck in their business oriented state of mind they won't consider any proper innovation. That's the reason why, by the way, I don't hold my hopes up high for Kevin Rudd's upcoming 20-20 summit; it's a tax payer funded talk fest.
Then there are the record companies, who recently started talking about the contribution of music downloads to the word of mouth effect on publicizing their products. They may talk the talk, but they don’t walk the walk: they’re still firmly stuck to their old models, failing to realize the world is changing around them, but then crying like babies when they seem unable to earn the shi*loads of money they were used to. They would like us to be censored just as well, failing to realize that for each mouth they shut there will be two more Google Reader like workarounds.
Let there be light.

Microsoft's Way

As some of you may know, I am the owner of a Microsoft Windows Mobile based PDA phone device, otherwise known simply as a “smartphone”. Note I did not say I am the proud owner of this PDA, because it’s unreliable and never works the way it should. I have had a Palm PDA before the Windows Mobile one for over five years and I only had to reset it once; with my current PDA I have to reset it at least once a week.
Yesterday I had to perform one of these resets. The reason was mundane, as almost always is the case: an alert I got for an upcoming appointment kept on alerting me long after I have confirmed it can be dismissed. After all, what can one expect from a Microsoft based system?
The real problem came to be when my PDA decided that instead of a soft reset, the equivalent of a reboot, it wants to perform a hard reset – that is, wipe all of its memory out and bring it to the same condition it was when I turned it on for the first time ever. All the information I have there (contacts, tasks, appointments, etc) and all the applications I had installed (Skype, GPS, chess, etc) were gone with the wind.
Things are not that bad, though: I routinely back my PDA’s image into its own SD card, so after settling down from the immediate shock that followed the wipe out I started the image recovery process. Indeed, in half an hour my PDA was at the same state it was when I last backed it up some time during February.
Next, at home, I connected my PDA to my desktop in order to synchronize it with Outlook and have all the Outlook info (appointments, tasks and such) from the last two months copied over from my up to date desktop to my rejuvenated PDA. Wrong move!
Instead of updating the PDA with the latest information from the past two months, what actually occurred was that my PDA’s old info stepped over the info in Outlook. In effect, I lost two months worth of information.

What I’m trying to say here is simple. People often dismiss me for my anti Microsoft attitudes. They do it for many reasons, chief amongst them their own perceived lack of bad experience with Microsoft related problems and the view that we owe Microsoft a lot for all the stuff they’ve contributed to the world.
My view is different. I maintain that we all suffer because of Microsoft related blunders, such as the one I had yesterday when older data stepped over new data simply because of negligent design. I maintain that these problems happen all the time, but because we got so used to them and because most of us lack the capacity to imagine a better world we don’t open our minds to the fact the main reason for these problems being there in the first place is that there is no one out there to challenge Microsoft into delivering better products.
I am so looking forward to having open source based PDA’s on the market that actually have support and applications running on them. Where is the Ubuntu of PDA’s?

Monday, 7 April 2008

Field Dressing

Yesterday we took Dylan to see the sculpture exhibition at Werribee Park, the park surrounding Werribee mansion. It's the third time in a row we go to this yearly exhibition, and by now it's a regular calendar feature that is in the "don't miss this" list.
And for a very good reason: the park is very well looked after and is just nice to walk about; the mansion itself offers an impressive surrounding (if not half as impressive as similar mansions we saw in the UK, but then again those mansions have a lot to envy in the weather department); the sculptures are interesting and offer the required motivation to roam around the garden and look for them; it's a great excuse to take photos (and I took so many it would take me a while to upload them); Dylan was a very good boy (unlike today - drove us crazy!); and the weather was just perfect - sunny, 21 degrees, not too warm and not too cold.
I'll put it this way: if any of our friends would like to go there, and we're available, we would love to have another go. Worth the $13 admission price (per person)!
One interesting thing that happened to us while roaming the park was that we've stumbled upon one of the two couples that sat next to us during our prenatal classes. Aside of reminding us of the era that was there before Dylan came along to irreversibly change our lives, and aside of the exchange of notes on how much of a pain raising babies is, I have found the bumping interesting for much more trivial a reason: being that we hardly know anyone in Australia, it's strange to just bump into someone while walking about. In Israel I would bump into people I know, often people I don't really want to bump into, all the time; but one of the things I got used to by now about Australia is that you just don't bump into anyone. It's funny, because it makes you miss the experience and makes you wish you do bump into someone; you want to feel like the world around you cares about you.

Anyway, bullshit stories aside, here are a couple of videos documenting how we changed Dylan's nappy at the park. It's split in two, a before and an after film; the nappy change itself is rated Echs [for the record, "echs" is a common Israeli way of expressing disgust that's pronounced rather like the letter X is pronounced in British English]:



Saturday, 5 April 2008

New Scientist

A while ago I have informed my readers of a really bad experience I have had shortly following the demolition of a big pack of Doritos. Over the following night, I have experienced shakes, headaches and weird stomach pains.
Shortly after posting that report I received a direct email from a reader of this blog who is shy of internet exposure, claiming that it’s highly likely the reason for my Doritos experience was the E-621 food additive, better known as monosodium glutamate. Experiments done since seem to indicate that this theory is, indeed, highly likely to be correct.
The question then becomes what types of ready made crisps I am allowed to buy at the supermarket. Luckily, the experimenter scientist in me jumped into the cold water to work out the answer for this one: no package of crisps was left unturned at our local Safeway and at Aldi, where we do most of our grocery shopping.
The results are startling: With the exception of two very specific tastes of crisps, everything has this E-621 in it. The exceptions are Kettle and Red Deli’s very basic potatoes with salt flavors, which contain just potatoes, oil (35% of it!), and salt. In the name of science I have recently consumed big packages of both, and I can report no health issues at all other than that weird feeling I get in my stomach after consuming way too much oil. That said, I see myself repeating this experiment quite often, just in order to increase the number of observations and ensure my scientific conclusions are safe and secure.

On a more serious note, I would like to mention one difference between the Kettle salty chips and the Red Deli ones: The Kettle one contains sunflower oil only, while Red Deli also contains “vegetable oil”. The thing about vegetable oil is that it is often a cover up for palm oil, and the thing about palm oil is that it is mostly generated in mostly illegally cleared forests in Indonesia and similar places. These forests have traditionally been the habitat of our close cousin the orangutan, which is exactly why they are now endangered.
My point is this: When you see a food item with “vegetable oil” in it, don’t buy it. If the manufacturer didn’t have anything to hide, they could have been more specific with their description.
The second point is that between the Kettle salty crisps and the Red Deli ones, the Kettle wins not only because of its superior taste and texture but also because of its superior ethics. But don’t touch any taste of chips other than basic salt – they’re all contaminated!

For the record, the Red Deli chips I have tested in my attempt to expand scientific horizons was the Aldi version, which unlike the regular version contains only sunflower oil.

Friday, 4 April 2008

Horny Hamster

I know this post will fail to interest most readers, but in the interest of objectivity and transparency I feel I have to go ahead with it.
What I want to say is that I’m finding Linux to be somewhat inferior to the image of perfection portrayed by its admirers. Sure, it has significant advantages and I still think it beats Windows hands down, but it wins by points rather than a knockout and the main weapon in its arsenal is its free and open ideology rather than a feature by feature victory.

All seemed very well after first installing Ubuntu’s Feisty Fawn release as a dual boot with Windows XP on my desktop. Everything was faster, things were stable, and most of the stuff I used to do on Windows worked better. That is, internet surfing was faster and the bit torrent client, Ubuntu’s bundled KTorrent software, provided me with bit torrent services at a much higher efficiency than what XP delivered.
Things started going wrong when I’ve upgraded Ubuntu from Feisty Fawn to its current version, Gutsy Gibbon. I quickly noticed extra loud noise coming in from my desktop, and a simple examination revealed the CPU was stuck on 100% - not exactly the best recipe for computer longevity, and very odd given that my desktop was busy doing nothing special.
Some research revealed two problems. First, it seems like Flash technology, used on many websites, doesn’t really work well on Linux and causes some extra CPU action. It’s not the world’s most efficient CPU killer, but it’s bad, and it means that I cannot even leave my own blog open without fearing the consequences as the Flickr chequers panel on its right hand side uses Flash. Now, Flash is an Adobe product and its faults cannot be blamed on Linux or Ubuntu, but that doesn’t really matter to me – what matters is the end result, which is bad.
Next I found out that KTorrent is the main villain in my desktop’s midst. A few minutes after starting it, the CPU just sky rockets to 100%, and doesn’t go down until well after shutting KTorrent off. I looked at forums everywhere for solutions to the problem, but while I could find many people reporting similar issues I was not able to find a solution. I tried solving the problem on my own, but my obvious ignorance in the field of Linux became very obvious: When I uninstalled and then reinstalled KTorrent, I found it had continued from the exact same spot it left off when I uninstalled it. Ubuntu, it seems, behaved in a very Windows like manner when it gave me the illusion of uninstalling the program (but illusion alone).
My next avenue of exploration would be to delete my currently running torrents and start adding new ones gradually, in order to test whether the fault is with the torrents rather than the software. I doubt that is the case, but it’s worth a try.
The other option is to wait until the next release of Ubuntu comes out at the end of April. Given the progress from Feisty Fawn to Gutsy Gibbon, Jo & I are expecting the new release to be called Horny Hamster. I have already read that the new Hamster is expected to have a really smart firewall, and I’m sure it’s all very nice – it definitely does seem like Ubuntu is the reference as far as operating system security is concerned – but I also doubt whether Hamster would sort out the KTorrent issues.
There is always the fallback option of reinstalling Feisty Fawn again and starting Ubuntu from scratch. It shouldn’t be too hard to reinstall, especially as I did not manage to build up lots of stuff in the Ubuntu environment anyway so I don’t need to do much backing up. Still, going back through versions is not what one would like to do, especially in a world where security threats keep getting meaner and darker.

At least I always have the Windows option available for me to fall back on.
As you may know, Jo’s work laptop was recently upgraded to a Windows Vista one, and as you may also know I have already complained how Vista can take a powerful machine and make it slower than a Melbourne Connex train. Not to mention software and hardware compatibility issues.
One thing I do have to credit Vista for is the improvement in its handling of wireless networks over Windows XP. XP used to (and still does) disconnect its wireless connection every couple of minutes or so for security reasons. It’s just for a couple of seconds, but it’s enough to disconnect you from a Skype call, as Jo’s parents keep finding out whenever we try using Skype’s video conferencing facilities.
Vista, just like Linux, does not disconnect your wireless, enabling nice and long wireless calls, and preventing me from saying that the path from XP to Vista is all downhill.

The one computing thing that never fails to amaze me with how well it works is our Asus Eee PC. Sure, it’s not the platform you would want to do serious work with, and it wasn’t designed with bit torrent in mind. But for quick and dirty stuff, with emphasis on the quick, it just works like a charm. It also works on batteries, in case you happen to live in Melbourne where power comes and goes more often than Connex trains leaving on time.
In short, as the E in Eee PC says, it is so stupidly easy. And quick.
The new development on the Eee PC arena is the recent acquisition of a 16gb SDHC card ($80 on eBay) which I stuck in the Eee PC’s card reader slot and which now acts as its hard drive. It’s fast, it’s mobile, it’s light, and it now means I am able to install additional software on my Eee PC without worrying too much about space. Picasa and VLC will do nicely, thank you very much!
A note on SDHC cards: These things look exactly like your average SD card, the things you probably use in your digital camera. However, while the SD standard is limited to 2gb of storage space, the SDHC format isn’t; on the other hand, while SDHC hardware is compatible with SD, SD rated hardware is not compatible with SDHC. This means, for example, that the superduper Sandisk ultra fast card reader I got a couple of years ago for my desktop won’t read the new SDHC card, which is terribly frustrating and forces me to pile even more peripheral hardware in the vicinity of my already very cluttered desktop environment. Mind you, the problem is not exclusive to SD cards: I had to buy a new Compact Flash card reader as my old one supported up to 1gb of capacity and by now I’m using a 4gb card on my SLR. The short lifespan of computer hardware is nothing short of amazing, especially as things die on you not due to faults but rather because of compatibility issues.

Indeed, the world of computing can be terribly frustrating.

Thursday, 3 April 2008

Dancing in the Dark

Yesterday was a rather surreal affair in Melbourne, and it doesn't have to do directly with Dylan being sick again, me staying with him at work again, or me having to change his nappies a record time because of a stomach virus.
The real reason for excitement were the remnants of a cyclone off the coast of Western Australia, which, probably using a bit of an aid from global warming, hit Melbourne with winds north of 100km/h. Dylan and I spent most of the day hearing its effects and also seeing them: the sky was funny colored, the effect of dust coming in from central Australia, and the sounds of branches giving up and leaves smashing up against the windows were a constant feature. Then there were big thuds: A major branch from the neighbor of our neighbor fell upon our neighbor's driveway, blocking it altogether and smashing some of the fence between them; a smaller but still respectable branch from our own tree fell down our front yard; and an even smaller but still very much respectable branch hit our car (no damage, as far as I can tell).
As I was watching the party unfold I was also listening to the news. Public transport was in shambles, even worse than its business as usual form: they kept on telling people to go to the Connex website to receive updates about service problems, but the site was down most of the day. Even when it's up, the news page (containing breakdowns) is so badly designed it only shows the ten top news items, sorted alphabetically; this morning, for example, nothing north of F (Frankston line) was showing.
It was pretty clear that disaster is only a matter of minutes away, and indeed at exactly 14:00 it struck: a power failure has hit our entire area. According to the news, 160,000 houses all over the state of Victoria were cut off the grid. Oddly enough, this is the second time in recent history such a massive blackout takes place, and both happened within the last six months: earlier we had a fire due to the heat cutting off power lines, now it was the wind doing the same. They've said Adelaide is a backwater, but it appears to me that aside of its poor infrastructure, Melbourne is very much suffering from its huge geographical spread.

It's funny how taking something we all take for granted away affects you.
I had to take Dylan to a doctor's appointment at 14:30, so with all the preparations for the expedition I didn't have much time to fuss about the power failure; I mainly fussed at how the appointment was exactly when Dylan was due for a bottle.
We came back home at about 15:15 and Dylan was still bottle-less and obviously pretty annoyed about it. I called the power company, and after four calls actually managed to acquire the faults helpline (which, I then noticed, was staring at me all along from the very top of the power bill I was holding). The woman at the fault line sounded as if she was just facing Freddie Krugger when she told me there are general power failures all over the place and they can't even spare the resources to talk to me, so please leave me alone and let me do my work (which is to tell people that there is no time to tell them about their power failures).
At this point I turned to the gas stove to heat Dylan's bottle up. After finding the Turkish coffee pot (we don't drink much coffee) and filling it up with water
I switched the stove's gas knob, but nothing happened; the sparks that are usually there were not there. It's electric.
So I searched for the gas lighter thing I bought on my very first Australian supermarket adventure, a time in which I thought one needs one of these to ignite the stove gas. How ignorant was I? At least it meant the lighter was still, effectively, brand new. It worked like a charm.
Given the ongoing severity of the storm I then went to prepare our hand held lights and some candles. I took the old fashioned phone that doesn't need power and hooked it to the kitchen's phone outlet so we'd have a phone within usable range, and I charged my PDA phone in the car while going to pick Jo from the train station.
Dylan's next set of nappies were replaced under battery light; we were just hoping we managed to wipe all the artifacts away, because there was no way we could tell what it is we were doing down there. Then Dylan has had himself a candle light bath.
By 20:00 it felt like we were at around midnight or so. We were just so tired! I went out to see what's going on in our street, and I could see our entire area was in the dark. Far away in the distance, though, I could see lit neighborhoods. When I looked up at the sky I could see many more stars than usual - it was pretty beautiful.
The plan was to spend the night reading, or watching something on the laptop, but we were both pretty tired. The darkness gets to you, and even though the time was pretty early by normal standards it felt like past midnight. It's amazing what this invention of artificial light can do to us, humans: it is obvious we are wired to switch off when darkness settles, but we manage to cheat nature by extending light time artificially. What do we do with this newly acquired time? Usually, just work a bit longer, so we can get more stuff that we can mess about with at the time we don't have anymore. I wonder who it is exactly that profits from this artificiality.

Shortly after 21:00 the lights came back on. It felt weird: the light was just too strong, too obscene. All of a sudden I didn't feel like going to bed anymore, I wanted to play on the computer as per usual.
Aside of worrying about the food in the fridge going bad, maybe we do need some more blackouts to help us fix our lives. Who needs an Earth Hour when a good blackout is just a tree fall away? Trust global warming to work something out.