Friday, 31 October 2008

How to become a Cricket Expert

Living in Australia, and Melbourne in particular, pits one into scenarios where one needs to demonstrate advanced analysis expertise in rather esoteric types of sports. Sports like cricket.
Mission impossible? Well, no longer. Yours truly has conducted extensive research on the matter, and it seems as if performing the following would not only get you out of jail for not knowing a thing about cricket but also guarantee you will be appreciated as a world renowned cricket expert.
When asked about a particular cricket match, all you need to do is:
1. Put on a serious expression on your face.
2. Set your gaze to the far horizon and your focus to the side, avoiding all eye contact and putting on an impression of deep thought.
3. Shake your head and utter the following slowly, as if thinking deeply about every syllable: "Tough - Wicket".

That’s it.
In this superficial world of ours you should be careful not to perform the above too often or you will find yourself acting as a TV sports commentator within a fortnight. Like all good things, use the above strategy sparingly in order to avoid the over tantalization of your listeners.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Stress Busting

Yesterday I attended a presentation entitled Stress Busting and thought it was so good it’s even worth a post.
The event was arranged by WorkSafe Victoria, the authority in charge of reducing workplace injuries in Victoria, and is/was a part of their WorkSafe Week: a week of concentrated events to promote people’s awareness of safety issues.
This particular event that I have attended was dealing with workplace stress. Personally, this is probably the worst enemy I face at the office, even while taking into account back issues and wrist problems from over keyboarding and mousing. Think about it this way: when I finally get that fatal heart attack, the primary reason for it being there would be stress; and the primary source of that stress is work. That said, the presentation turned out to be much more relevant than anticipated, providing tools and information to identify stress and combat it regardless of source.

And so I made my way to Melbourne Museum yesterday afternoon to attend this presentation. Melbourne Museum is where WorkSafe conducts its Melbourne based WorkSafe Week events, and an excellent choice of a venue it is: the food was great, for a start, and they even had free coffee – and sophisticated coffee at that, not your instant or Starbucks grade crap. There’s more to it, though: The museum itself is an incredibly lovely venue and one of the better museums I have had the pleasure of attending in general. True, it’s nothing compared to, say, London’s Natural History Museum in wealth; however, it pays back by having rather manageable natural history exhibits that deliver the point even more effectively simply because they are just the right size to be digestible. I can’t wait till Dylan is old enough for me to take him there and show him evolution’s work.
While attending a WorkSafe Week event last year the museum gave me an added bonus: At the end of the event I found myself inside the museum so I was able to go for a quick tour before returning to the office. Not that a proper museum visit is too dear; it’s not. It’s just that it was a nice way to spend some of my working day.
This year I came prepared and brought my camera along (albeit the smaller and more manageable one rather than the SLR) only to find that “my” presentation was being held just outside the main entry to the museum. Oh well, I had to settle for taking some outdoor photos instead, but even that wasn’t bad: it was a glorious day – Melbourne is at its best weather this time of the year, not too cold and not too warm – and the sun was up. The Royal Exhibition Building, standing right next to the museum, was as photogenic as it can be.

Back to the presentation itself.
Over the last few years and through work I have had the opportunity to attend many presentation to do with dealing with stress, depression and general well being. The vast majority of those were either wishy-washy, as in events where some speaker says lots of things that you can relate to at the emotional level but can’t do much with otherwise, or worse – presentations where the presented came to present their own private agendas without worrying too much about evidence to support their claim. After all, if they think about it and if they manage to get crowds to listen to them then they must be right, don’t they? Sadly, religion proves most people agree and fall for such things; maybe not consciously, but effectively.
The Stress Busting presentation was different. Along came a proper university professor and did a methodological presentation, the way one would expect a properly laid out scientific paper to be structured for peer reviews. Only that she did it in an entertaining fashion that was quite thrilling and didn’t read as boringly as your average scientific paper written by someone with their head mostly in the clouds.
She started by defining stress and establishing when it becomes a problem. She moved on to specify what research identifies as the main causes for work stress as well as the main implications of said stress. And then she went on to analyze how one thing leads to another and, most importantly, what we can do about it. Everything was explained systematically with numbers and KPIs to complement each statement: that is, instead of having to take her words for it, she let the evidence do the talking.
For the record, the above photo is a photo of her presentation’s summary slide. I don’t know if you can read it, I took it while experimenting with my new PDA’s camera, but you can get a lot of the presentation’s gist through it. Essentially, the message was that stress can be handled the same way all problems are handled and the same way one would deal with conventional hazards: it can be identified and rectified, and it can even be prevented through clever design.

I warmly recommend attending similar WorkSafe Week events or other similar events. Then there’s always next year, and the museum is open throughout the year...

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Imperial Walker

Well, it's only been a couple of days since the last video, but Dylan's walking confidence has been growing exponentially and now it has become easy enough to catch him on video.
So here goes - the world premier of Dylan, as of now a bipedal life form:

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Snail Rider

The Two Towers has introduced us to the concept of Wolf Riders. A New Zealand film film has introduced us to the concept of Whale Riders. And now comes Dylan, introducing us to Snail Riders. At least in the video below.
As I say in the video, Dylan's snail is a toy we've borrowed from our local toy library. As I have said here before, it's a good concept since we would never be buying him a toy like that, but to have it on loan for a fortnight is not bad at all. He's obviously enjoying it, even though he's quite sick again with a cold (which has already invaded Jo, too; I must be next in line).



I have to say that we've had greater bouts of enthusiasm coming out of Dylan with regards to said snail than you can see in the video, it's just that he's not acting the same when he sees the camera and I can't be bothered to hold the camera all day long just to catch that most magical of moments. It's one of those things where by the time you notice it's that moment the magic has gone and you didn't even turn the power on the camera.
Talking about magic moments, Dylan is already walking. It's just a few steps at a time and he's as confident as I am with, say, cooking, but he's walking. Again - capturing that on camera is something that would, at this stage, require the likes of David Attenborough.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Go from the country and your kindred and your fathers house

There is this stigma that Israelis use on their fellow Israelis who choose to leave their country. As if those the leavers have also stabbed those left behind in the back with a rusty blade and twisted it, they are commonly treated as traitors. Label wise, they are referred to as a Yored, which literally means "Going Down".
I can't say that I care much about this stigma showing itself, but it is still funny to encounter when it does. And it does.

Take this first example, from about a year ago. I called the Israeli embassy in Canberra and eventually got to talk to their consular services department. After introducing myself as an Israeli citizen living in Australia and telling them that I just had a new son born, they warmheartedly congratulated me. Then they stated that I must be calling to sort out the baby's passport when I corrected them to say that I'm actually calling to have their Israeli citizenship canceled.
Silence. For a while there I thought the phone got disconnected.
"Hello? Are you still there?"
Eventually I got this whimper from the other side: "But why?"

Moving ahead in time, while we were visiting Israel during September I went to visit a local bank branch in order to withdraw the very last deposit I have in Israel. I got rid of all my Israeli assets very years ago, but due to a couple of mistakes by banks and fund managers who weren't too keen on paying me back my own money I had to go down in person to withdraw it.
After waiting in a very badly managed queue - that is, a very Israeli queue - while watching several amusing scenes taking place (this old man got angry at a clerk and started shouting when she asked for his ID so he could deposit - yes, deposit - money into his account), I was greeted by a smiling clerk. I told her the purpose of my visit and she was fine with it.
Then, however, she asked me why I want to withdraw such a good fund as theirs. I explained that I don't live in Israel anymore, she started asking me questions about Australia, and I could see her generally good mood quickly deteriorating as the discussion went along. When she eventually asked me whether Australia is better than Israel I didn't even say what I usually say and settled with saying that they're different and to each his/her own preference, but you could see what she was thinking by her facial expression.
Shortly afterwards my clerk got this phone call from a friend of hers. She got rid of her quickly, but her answer to the obvious question of "how are things going" to her mate was "this day has been quickly deteriorating for me".

The third example is also the most recent.
I'm not a big fan of Facebook: I have a profile there but I don't really like the concept, which I consider to be a lazy person's replacement for a proper blog. Not to mention the poor facilities for managing photos, the great potential for computer security risks, and the gold mine Facebook offers to any would be identity thief. However, with all the criticism involved, Facebook is a great tool to find people with (especially people who can't be bothered to find you using a simple Google search).
Thus I was contacted a week ago by an army friend whom I have last seen 16 or 17 years ago. It's great but it's also an eye opener: I have had this experience several times during the last few years, and you can see with pretty much all of them why our ways departed. People change with time, and friends from yesteryear usually have a good reason for being friends in past tense.
Still - the reacquaintance is a nice experience that should not be dismissed for pure nostalgia before it gets its proper chance. A good friendship is worth the effort.
Anyway, this newly found friend and I exchanged a few emails and I also dropped a few words re my opinion of Israel given the way I experienced it in my recent visit. This has earnt me her feedback, where she said she would never be able to betray her ancestors' values and traditions by leaving the country.
Obviously, she is entitled to her own opinions and as far as I'm concerned she can stay in Israel as long as she wants (and I truly hope she has the best of times there). My point, however, is that I don't let accidents of birth control my destination: just as I don't believe I should be labeled a Jew because my parents are and instead be allowed the privilege of choosing my own world views (in my case views that are evidence based), I see no reason to have a special affection to a piece of land just because I was born there. Neither do I see a reason to attach myself to a particular nation just because I happened to be born there.

I went down and I'm proud of it.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Gentlemen, start your downloads!

Allow me to quote from an article in 23 October 2008’s The Age:
"WOMEN will no longer be able to go to a public hospital to find out whether they have inherited a genetic mutation that causes breast cancer, after the company that holds the licence to the gene patents set a deadline of November 6 for other laboratories to cease testing.
This will force testing for the genes — widely used by women with a family history of the disease — into Genetic Technologies' own Melbourne laboratory, at $2100 per test."

And what do I think of the possibility of someone owning the patents to my own genes? Well, the same as I think in general about the validity of our current copyright legislation.
This calls for a fight.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Quality TV

With so much crap on TV, it's good to remind myself from time to time how good TV can be when done right. I have said here before, more than a year ago, that in my opinion Carl Sagan's Cosmos is the best ever thing to ever grace my TV off the air, and I still stand by it.
Today, while reminiscing at work about Cosmos and how good it was, I remembered this thing called YouTube. And indeed, in there I was able to find my favorite Cosmos clip. This is so good I would be delighted if they play it at my funeral, just to put things in context:

Friday, 17 October 2008

Receivership

One of the interesting things I took from our recent trip to visit the family is the way the family has reacted to us. Overall, while we were definitely taken care of and looked after, especially by both of Dylan's grandmothers, you could also see that quickly enough life returns to its course and everyone's back to their normal way of doing things.
Our visit was no different to the procedure taking place post shopping for a new piece of clothing: at first there's the novelty factor, but quickly enough you're being taken for granted and maybe even cast aside in favor of newer things. The novelty wearing off was most visible when a relative we've stayed with asked us if we could babysit. Talk about feeling we got our money's worth for coming to pay the family a visit...
Top honors, at least for reliability and continuity, seem to go to the grandfathers. To one extent or another both showed as much interest in Dylan as I show the horoscope section of the paper, never bothering or seeming to be able to give us a hand with the maintenance tasks (feeding or taking care of its outputs), and only bothering to play around with Dylan when they had nothing better to do. That is, when there was no TV around.
It's important for me to stress at this point that these attitudes do not make me angry. Everyone is playing up to their evolutionary roles with exact precision, so who am I to ask them to change?
It's the TV that is at the core of the problem here. Despite the big differences between my Israeli family and Jo's English family, they are both united by their love affair to the TV. Both have TVs in their living rooms and in their bedrooms, both have the TVs on from the afternoon until they fall asleep, both subscribe to cable channels that provide 24 hours of continuous shit, and - this is where it hurts the most - both have the TV on at such loudness that no meaningful dialog is possible. It was as if our families are on drugs, and you could see it in action: we enter the home and within a few seconds some elusive hand is reaching the remote control to turn the TV on.
It's sad, so sad, it's a sad sad situation. And it's getting more and more absurd. Why can't we talk it over? Because it's so fucking loud, that's why.
I can come up with dozens of reasons for the sadness of the situation, but as time went by I noticed that the main hurting is the lack of music. Because the TV is on all of the time, music is off; and all three of us, including Dylan, were obviously missing out on music (you could see it by Dylan looking for every excuse possible to have himself a dance). Music's absence felt really weird in England in particular, since the family is even even professionally into music; them being able to live their life with music a total absentee was a major source of puzzlement.

Coming back home I was still traumatized by this music deprivation. It's not only our parents' places that didn't have music, it was also the hotels: they now seem to be into the habit of providing music channels through the TV, which is rather annoying because a TV that's on is always a distraction. That, and me not being a fan of headphones, meant we were very deprived.
Coming back home meant I had to face old problems. And the problems come down to this: I do have a good quality hi-fi setup, but because of wear and tear my 16 year old preamp only has one functioning input. This means that if you want to listen to something other than what's currently connected you have to play with wiring, which means that we left the DVD connected on 5.1 mode and just stopped using the hi-fi for anything else. Which is a bit of a waste; we were listening to music through an MP3 player connected to PC speakers instead of through proper hi-fi amplification connected to proper hi-fi speakers.
Something had to be done. I couldn't take it anymore.

So I've started doing my homework with regards to sorting things out. I could, theoretically, get myself a new processor and hold on to the amps I've got; the problem there was that a good processor that does justice to sound and also supports all the new lossless sound formats (e.g., Dolby HD) are stupidly expensive. As in, $4K or more. The more affordable alternative is to buy a receiver that does it all in one box but doesn't do it as well and also provides amplification which I don't need.
Then it happened again: the first shop I went to offered me this price I couldn't refuse on a receiver and we (or rather I, because Jo should not be blamed here) got it.
By all accounts, it's a good receiver. By receivers' accounts, it's excellent. That said, by audiophile accounts it is not as good as separates, and at least in the power amplification department I am losing some quality and power. More importantly, the dream I have had some fifteen to ten years ago of having my own audiophile quality hi-fi is effectively gone for good, because a receiver simply cannot do it as well as audiophile quality separates designed with the philosophy of producing the best sound with no compromises.
Dreams aside, the overall sound of my hi-fi setup did improve with the purchase of the receiver. There are two main reasons for that: First, in this day of everything being digitally processed, the ten to fifteen year old processors I have had are simply outgunned by the latest and greatest; they may be designed with audiophile philosophies, but they've been taken over by the latest technology.
Take, for example, my old digital to analog converter, a unit that takes the digital signal out of a CD player and changes it into an analog signal that can be amplified and heard through speakers: it was designed some fifteen years ago to use a separate external power supply so as to remove "noise" running through the electricity from the sound. It works really well and it has great sound, but it can't match the sound of the new receiver that has everything crammed into one box with as much noise contamination as possible.
The second reason for the improvement in sound is called Audyssey, and its the latest innovation in the field of home music reproduction. Audyssey is this scheme where you connect a microphone to your receiver, which in turn plays these sound pulses through your speakers. The signal the receiver gets back through the microphone tells it exactly what speaker setup you have, how loud each speaker is at your listening position, and how far each speaker is from your listening position. After all, our brains interpret the direction a sound is coming from through its level and the direction it comes from first, so if you were to avoid compensating for speaker distances and you were to sit at a typical home theater setup where the rear speakers are closer to you than the front ones, you would tend to hear the sounds as if they come from behind you. Usually, that is not the moviemaker's intention.
So far I have described a pretty ordinary home theater setup routine I was able to perform manually on my sixteen year old surround processor using a sound pressure level meter and a measuring tape. Audyssey does it for you automatically, but then again what's the big deal?
Well, the big deal is that Audyssey also listens to the frequency response of the sounds it captures back through its microphone, and through sophisticated equalization mechanisms made possible by contemporary digital processing power it is able to smooth the effects of your imperfect listening room. And that, my friends, is a very big deal.
I remember reading about similar attempts in the past, where audiophile magazine editors had people come to their houses with bucket loads of equipment and suitcases full of computing power to achieve similar goals through primitive parametric equalizers; now it's all done in inside your receiver, quickly and efficiently.
The effect Audyssey has on the smoothness on the sound is nothing short of incredible.

Naturally, you can't advance too far without encountering problems.
Given that our Mp3 player performs a crucial part of our music listening, it was the second device I connected to the new receiver. It worked well for a few second but once I touched it loud hums started coming out of the speakers and I had to disconnect it.
I had a look on the internet for advice and it talked about ground hums: basically, the earthing of the receiver is different to that of the MP3 player (due to the MP3 player being cheap crap), and the difference causes hums. So I quickly went out and bought a hum removing device on eBay for $15: it's a contraption that is commonly used in car stereos to remove the engine whine from the sound.
A day later I discussed the problem with the salesperson who sold me the receiver, and he said that from his experience this is usually a cable problem: because the small jack on the MP3 headphone output is so small, the cheaper cables don't bother connecting its earthing, hence the hums. I tried playing with the cables and it turned out he was right and the internet was misleading me; it was a cable issue.
After verifying that I went out and bought a used quality cable to connect my MP3 player to the new receiver on eBay (a landmark on its own as it was the first time I had bought a used item on eBay). Now that I'm using this new/used cable I can attest to the huge difference in the sound: MP3 music, which up until now I totally dismissed as shit sound that is only useful because of its comfort factor, now sounds great; it now gives CD sound a run for its money.
What a difference a cable can make!

I talked about sacrificing sound quality with the receiver, but I didn't talk about the main advantage of using a receiver: everything is connected to just one box that does it all for you, which means things are simple and easy to operate. In this day and age where I rarely sit and dedicate myself to music listening, something I would do on a daily basis once upon a time, earning comfort and paying with some potential quality loss is a good tradeoff.
One of the signs of maturing is being able to accept that everything in life has its shortcomings as well as its advantages.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Work - what is it good for?

I had a phone chat with my mother last night. Through talking about the small kitchen redo my parents now require in order to accommodate for the purchase of a new fridge (how exciting!) we got to discuss our own plans for extending our home.
My mother then asked if it wouldn't make more sense for us just to move to a bigger house. I answered that it would if she could give us the money. In turn she said that no one gave them money at their time and that if I want the money I should work hard/harder.
Which is where my mother managed to make me laugh: With all of her years upon this earth and all the experience she has accumulated, does she really think that big money can be made by working hard? Come on, you must be joking.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

At discharge the doctors recommended monthly airport visits

I have already gone to great lengths to explain how and why we did not enjoy ourselves during our recent trip to Israel, at least not as much as we would like to have, and how we didn't get to hardly do a thing with the family. As I am still traumatized by these troubles I would like to use the opportunity to further discuss two specific problems, problems which sound like nothing on paper but actually amount to quite a pain.

The first one is to do with the state of internet facilities in Israel.
For the first time ever on an international trip we took a laptop with us (the almighty Eee PC), and to our surprise we ended up using it quite extensively in England. Not only did we use it to manage all the photos I took, we also used it for security guaranteed internet access (thank god for Linux) to check our bank and credit accounts, and more importantly while on a trip - to plan our excursion to Bath, survey car rental companies, rent a car, and book a hotel room. And it all worked, dare I say worked perfectly.
Then we came back to Israel to stay at the only place I am now familiar with that does not feature internet connectivity - my parents' place. Doesn't sound like much of a problem but it is; try taking away something you're used to, something really beneficial that you use on a daily basis, and see how it feels. I felt the same.
Eventually I did find this place at the corner of my parents' living room where I could tap into an unsuspecting neighbor's internet connection, and our friends also offered us to use their internet. In fact, they went out of their way, offering me passwords and such, and even saying a good word or two about the Eee PC when I wasn't listening. But then again I didn't particularly want to abuse my parents' neighbors, nor did I come to visit my best friends whom I haven't seen for three years in order to use their internet connection.
Planning our activities while in Israel was therefore a major problem.

It grew worse, however, once we went to visit my sister to spend an evening using her internet connection: we have discovered that once you acquire access to the internet there is not much to access; at least not something to rival the standards we are used to.
Take, for example, hotel bookings websites. We've tried several, and they all gave us this warm fuzzy feeling of being just on the verge of making a booking. They even ask to collect - as mandatory information - information I would never dream of giving away of my free will, such as my ID number (yes, there is such a thing in Israel). We thought we've secured our bookings through those websites only to discover a day later that we haven't; we were contacted by two different travel agents who told us the info on their websites is indicative only and that the places we thought we had booked and even gave our great grandfathers' maiden names for are actually fully booked. Would you like to hear of the great alternatives we have on offer?
Compare that to the experience of booking a room at Bath's Holiday Inn Express through a five minute transaction.

Similar things happened when we tried to rent a car.
First thing I noticed was that all Israeli rental car companies force you to pay for reduced excess in case of an accident, something like $30-$40 per day, even though my credit card and many others cover you for such things. The only exception was Budget, so I went ahead with renting a car through them.
I thought I had a quote and a reservation all done over the internet, but it said at the bottom to give them a call so I did; then I realized that what I got over the internet was, again, "indicative" only. The quote I got over the phone was different: it was more expensive (naturally). And then I was told that only at the branch itself will I be able to acquire the true quote. When I go to pick the car up...
Guess what? At the branch itself we got ourselves yet another quote. An even more expensive quote. Naturally. By now we were not too far from the other rental companies that charge you for the extras you don't need to pay in the first place.
The car we had rented was by far the worst car I have ever rented. An Hyundai Getz, it wasn't the world's best car to begin with (yet its rental cost us much more than the Ford Focus we rented a week before in England). The worst thing was the state of it: it was obviously unsafe with a shaky steering wheel on highway speeds, it stunk of cleaning material, it had bits coming off... It was a piece of shit, in short. You won't catch me renting a car from Budget in Israel again.
Great internet facilities.

The next problem that bothered me in Israel was driving on the right.
Since leaving Israel for good in favor of Australia I never drove on the right side of the road. Getting used to driving on the left to a level in which it felt completely natural and instinctive was hard and took me more than a year, so I didn't want to confuse myself again. It's not that I was so worried about not being able to cope driving on the right; having lived in Israel for more than 30 years, I know most of the roads so well that I don't really need an orientation course. My main worry was to do with going back to Australia and driving on the left, feeling completely secure at that, and then doing something that should not have been done on the right hand side of the road.
In short, it was that false sense of security I was worried about, because it was exactly that sense that overcame me whenever I made a serious mistake while trying to orient myself to Australia's left side driving.
Worries aside, we were so miserable during our stay in Israel we just had to go out and do something with ourselves. We just had to rent a car, phobias or not.
So we did.
And I drove on the right side again. In broad daylight. In Israeli traffic.
And... And it felt completely natural. It felt like I was stepping into the same driver seat I stepped out of last night upon returning back from work.
Sure, I took my time orienting myself to driving on the right by letting others drive me before taking the steering wheel. And let me tell you something, those friends of mine that took us on drives are lunatics - the way they turn into the wrong lanes, the way they do it every time they turn. God knows how they're still alive.
But things felt different once I was sitting in the driver's seat. Things felt natural. By now I can also report that going back to Australia did not seem to be an issue, therefore allowing me to declare myself a fully universal driver. Just give me a road, any road.

In conclusion.
I said a lot of bad things about Israel and I stand behind them. As a friend reminded me while we were visiting, I once said in this very blog that Israel is a place I have no attachments to whatsoever other than it being a place that hosts a lot of my family and friends; I still stand behind this statement, and I would happily add further condemnation to the state of Israel on top if this was the right place and time to do so.
As a traveler, though, the bottom line is simple: Israel is not good enough, especially when coming from Australia. England, for comparison, is also quite inferior when compared to Australia; to be fair, I suspect most countries are. But England is still a place you can enjoy while visiting, Pay & Display and all. Israel, on the other hand, is much too significantly inferior. Sure, I would still go there, but by now I have lost any expectations of having fun there; I will go for the sole purpose of visiting family and friends.
And for the record, I think Israel is also a place where it is damn hard to raise a child. I moan about Australia, but Israel is in a league of its own. There's no Target or Big W to buy cheap clothing for your child from, given that he/she will outgrow the cloth after wearing it twice anyway, and the choice of baby foods available at the supermarket is very limited. Not to mention having to send them to the army once they hit 18.

To finish on a brighter note, there is a hope coming out of our visit to Israel: We got a promise that at least one of my best friends will come and visit us (yes, in Melbourne no less) during August/September 2010.
We need to thank an international science fiction convention taking place in Melbourne for that honor, but who cares? Hell, I have loved science fiction even before it brought friends over.
Naturally, being the way I am, I am sure that in the long march till August 2010 I will be crippled or have a heart attack. Still, I will have a reason to want to recover.
See you on August 2010. Call me from the airport so I'll come and pick you up.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Toys Are Them

Following friends' advice, we investigated the concept of registering to a toy library.
The concept is simple. For a fee of $80 per year (in our area), plus a one time $10 registration fee, you get to borrow up to three kids' toys for a fortnight from the library. Obviously, given the way a kids grow and the way they outgrow their toys as well as lose interest in them pretty quickly, the idea has some merit to it. What's more, as you're not committing to a purchase, you can actually get your child big toys that you would never dream of buying due to their cost and also due to them taking way too much space; once you know that the space will be emptied in two weeks to make way for yet another gigantic toy, the prospects look different.
So we've inquired with our local toy library and got this detailed Word document giving us all the spill. Or so we thought, because when we actually got there today we heard a bit more: we've heard, for example, that the joining fee is not only the money you need to pay but also a requirement that you "volunteer" twice a year to help with the running of the toy library. Now, I don't mind this volunteering business, even if it's a potential pain in the ass logistics wise; it actually makes sense when you think about it, and being that it's only an hour or two it wouldn't be too different to a normal visit to the library in order to change toys. What I do mind is the secrecy around it, them not telling you that you need to "volunteer" until they've got you in their sites.
Anyway, to skip back from the negative to the positive, today we've had our first go at this library. It does seem as if most of the good toys are out there being used by others, and it does seem like most of the toys available for loan are pretty crappy; or maybe they aren't and it's just the ubiquitous layer of dirt covering them that's making me cringe (slightly). Still, we did manage to find a push toy for Dylan, in the hope it would entice him enough to do what he seems to be able to do anyway - walk - if he was to be brave enough to attempt it. We also got him a dinosaur that makes these noises that I fell in love with and so did Dylan.
The main event, though, is a machine wash / dryer toy, that although smaller than the real thing is not that much smaller. In the past, Dylan was afraid of our washing machine; however, since we came back from our overseas holiday, Dylan can't wait for an opportunity to play with it. So we got him the next best thing... And it got him so excited!

Friday, 10 October 2008

Like Father Like Son

They say that you should take your baby to the toilet with you so they can learn the business and, eventually, quit using nappies. And in a particular moment today, in which Jo was busy cooking, I had to go to the toilet, and neither of us knew what to do with baby Dylan while we're both engaged, I was reminded of what "they" say.
So I took him with me for a demonstration of what it is that men do standing up in the toilet room.
At first Dylan was quite impressed with the impact of the drizzle on the toilet's water. Then he gave the source of the current a very investigative look. Then trouble started.
Dylan decided the next best thing to do is to flip the toilet closed. Now, I think I can boast good control over my bladder, but I'm not that quick; by the time I've restrained myself the need to do some cleaning off the now closed toilet cover was more than obvious. Well, at least pee is sterile.
While I was cleaning Dylan decided that this toilet cover thing is really cool and started playing with it. Big mistake; next thing I knew he shut it on his own fingers, and while our toilet cover is a fairly light piece of plastic it was enough to start a traumatic cry of the type that required Dylan to be picked up for consolidation. Only that I was in the middle of cleaning the spill and could ill afford messing with a baby.
I think I can confidently say Dylan was not ready for this big event to take place just yet.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

That's the Way It Always Starts

Upon returning from our vacation we were greeted by a sign posted at the entrance to Dylan’s childcare stating they had one case of chickenpox at the kinder room. Since Dylan will only be receiving his chicken immunization at 18 months, we quickly became worried. No, we were reassured, it was only one case at a room different to Dylan’s where a child caught it from his sister who caught it at school; no worries, please.
We had a look on the web and learnt that chickenpox has an incubation period of 14 to 21 days, so theoretically speaking Dylan may have it already and we wouldn’t know. The sickness takes you out of action for a few weeks and for a baby Dylan’s age can scar you for life through scratching: Dylan is at an age where telling him not to scratch himself is a waste of voice and wrapping his hands with gloves would be a major upset given his affection to sucking his thumb.
We also learnt that chickenpox is quite dangerous for adults. Jo has received a booster immunization while pregnant and according to my parents I was immunized at the ages of 1 and 7 (as chickenpox requires a “reminder” immunization some 5 years after the initial immunization). Personally, I wouldn't trust my immune system in the least; therefore, the only way of knowing whether you’re really immunized is to have your blood tested for its antibodies. Still, we didn’t have a reason to worry, did we?
Well, yesterday we were greeted by an update to the previous announcement: now childcare has two confirmed cases of chickenpox, albeit still in the kinder room. Then again, all the kids are mixed together in the mornings and in the evenings, so can we really trust this separation? Besides, we’ve seen that movie before when Dylan caught his hand foot and mouth bug: things started exactly the same way, with one “no worries” case escalating to two no worries and something like ten confirmed cases, Dylan included, the following week.
We’ve inquired with the doctor today about immunization. If we want to go ahead with it we’d have to pay $60 out of pocket (plus the doctor’s visit, which is another $62 before a $32 Medicare rebate). As it is, the Australian government will only pay for the immunization if it is done after the baby is 18 months old; yet to us it is obvious that the damage costs of a chickenpoxed Dylan will severely outweigh those $60. Once immunized, he may still get grilled but it should be a relatively easy affair that would pass within a week.
Do drop by at the clinic near us to see Dylan get his immunization on Monday!

Monday, 6 October 2008

Media Center on the Cheap

A while ago, as in not that long but before our recent holiday (a period which seems very hazy this side of the holiday) I posted about the virtues of a Mythbuntu PC media center. This all capable box will do everything for you other than iron your clothes: it would play your music, DVDs, downloads, high definition TV, and high definition recordings.
Alas, the media center world is not all roses. For a start, a properly built media center using up to date technology would cost $800 plus, plus potentially much more if the Australian Dollar continues the way it has been behaving lately. Sure, cost can be easily cut by settling for inferior hardware - you don't really need the latest Intel CPU to run Linux - but once you start scavenging for cheaper hardware you can no longer find your parts at the cheaper shops that specialize in selling the latest in mass quantities. Which brings me to the second major disadvantage of the media center, which is the amount of time and effort building such a machine takes. The amount of research required in order to do it, do it well, and do something that will feel at home next to my audiophile grade components, is astronomical.
Besides, we're really pretty indifferent about most of the fancy capabilities the media center sports. We don't watch TV off the air other than news, so why should we want to not watch it in high definition? Not to mention recording high definition material we won't be watching. And as for managing our MP3 collection, don't we already have an MP3 player and an armada of other equipment that will play MP3s?

So we have decided to go for a cheaper option. And the cheaper option is a DVD player with a USB port that can play DIVX files, a machine that will do the entertainment we actually care for: play DVDs and play downloads. While at it, it would be nice if said DVD player also does upscaling to 720p so we can get the most of our TV (even if upscaling is a far cry from true high definition), and it would also be nice if said DVD player sports an HDMI connection. An HDMI connection not only allows for the latest and greatest in picture and sound, it also handles both the picture and the sound in one cable thus reducing living room clutter.
Now, if you want to spend your money on a good DVD player, you can easily spend several tens of thousands of dollars. However, as with everything, the law of diminishing marginal benefit kicks in, and with DVDs being very established technology it kicks in really early. For mere mortals like me, there is not much of a reason to go beyond an Oppo DVD player; I, however, chose not to even go as far as Oppo, mainly because Oppo's policy is to sell directly from the USA (as in, not through shops). You can get them in Australia but it's all mail order and if something goes wrong things won't be nice.
So we stooped even lower and went to JB Hi Fi, where we got ourselves a Toshiba DVD player for a bit more than $100. Toshiba makes some good DVD players now, at least as far as picture quality is concerned, because ever since they lost the HD DVD battle they put their efforts into making the most out of DVDs. Indeed, "our" Toshiba had a stunning picture; however, its USB port failed to convince us, choosing to completely ignore or fail to play more than a third of the files we threw at it. Worse, it would very frequently and for no particular reason skip over parts of the program when playing USB material, rendering it pretty useless with downloads. It therefore wasn't good enough to satisfy our media center on the cheap requirements.
So we went back to JB and replaced the Toshiba with a Pioneer player costing slightly more than $130. The difference was noticeable: for a start, the setup menus, user interface and the remote were so much more user friendly and clearer than the Tosh it made me wonder whether Toshiba actually designed its DVD player for use by humans. Second, so far it played every download file we threw at it other than one (I'm still trying to figure why that particular one was signalled out), and it played them well and fluently. On the down side, its picture is slightly but noticeably inferior to the Toshiba one.
Up till now we used to play downloads through a laptop, but now that we do it through the DVD player and use the player's remote it feels as if we've been upgraded from economy class in Lufthansa to first class in Singapore Airlines.
Please welcome our new media center!

Thursday, 2 October 2008

This Is How We Say Goodbye in England

International travel is no longer what it's cut out to be. It used to be about adventure; it used to be that when you heard of someone flying you'd be jealous because you would see them in their jet setting apparel, dodging air hostesses from all sides as they sip champagne in the confinement of their economy class seats.
Not anymore. Today's air travel is a pain in the ass.

It starts with the security. Flying out of Melbourne, for example, I was randomly selected for a personal security check. It was very random, of course, and had nothing to do with my looks (I was the only non Anglo Saxon in the vicinity). That was one thing; the rest of the time, as you run from one connection to the other, you just stumble from one security check to the other.
The peak of stupidity was at Frankfurt airport. We've just arrived from Tel Aviv and were on our way to catch a connecting flight to Singapore. First, we had to pass through security screening, even though we just came out of a flight for which we were obviously screened in the first place. Then, at the gate itself, we had to present our passports and boarding cards to get into the gate, where - less then two meters later - we had to present our passports and boarding cards again to someone else who had another look at them. Obviously, those two meters were very crucial; an airport's weak spot that any wondering rebel x-wing might be attacking any minute now.

Then there are the airlines themselves, which seem hellbent on doing everything they can to reduce costs and maximize profits. Lufthansa, for example, seem to excel at reducing costs by hiring staff specializing in being so annoyingly stupid they must be paying them less than the minimum wage. You see, at Manchester airport we were checked in by this cow who sat us in different parts of the plane (that is, until I came back and had her fix it); she also insisted we issue Dylan a paper ticket, despite our general electronic ticketing scheme, which meant we had to wait at another queue just to get a meaningless piece of sheet we didn't need and which served no purpose whatsoever.
The airline's new trick, though, is to hit you with overweight. The days of being able to board a plane after checking in your entire possessions upon this earth are gone. With our flights, we were limited to two articles of 20kg each, plus one article of 10kg for Dylan; more than that and you're stuffed, and believe me, the airlines did their best to make sure it was a case of no more. Now, 50kg might sound like much, but it's not, really, when you consider the demands of going away for a month with a baby.
We spent quite a lot of time with scales while we were packing.

Security and airline stupidity are one thing, traveling with a baby is another. I have already talked enough about the pleasure of using the bassinet, but the reality is that bassinet seats are the best thing you can have: as they are on the first row, you get the best legroom! Turns out we were lucky with our baby Dylan: He was just young enough, size wise, to fit in the bassinet. By now, for example, I suspect he simply wouldn't fit in one and we'd have to hold him in our arms all flight long. It is clear we should not be flying with Dylan anymore until he's two, by which time we'll have to pay for a his seat but at least he'll have his own space.

Turns out we were also lucky Dylan was old enough. Otherwise, he would have starved to death on the flight out of England.
You see, England has this thing going where they just don't care about babies; it's security they care about and nothing else. New international security measures for taking liquids on board flights limit you to one small plastic bag full of 100cc or less liquid containers, but also state, and I quote, that "For those travelling with babies, there are exceptions for baby products required for the duration of the flight". Now, in Melbourne, Frankfurt, Tel Aviv and Singapore they interpret the baby food clause as "bring in as much baby food as you deem necessary, this would not count towards your liquid allowance". In England? Well, in England they interpret the paragraph quoted above with jealousy that would put the Gestapo to shame.
As we got to the liquid security check post at Manchester airport, this nice lady greeted us. We showed her our liquids, and... trouble started.
With us we had a couple of 500cc bottled baby formula bottles, of the type that doesn't need refrigeration. No, the nice lady told us, we can only take these on board if we taste them first, because they are more than 100cc in volume. Jo protested, explaining to the dumb bitch that once we open the bottles we need to have them refrigerated or thrown away in two hours, but again - no, said the dumb bitch.
At this point my blood boiled. You see, I imagined a younger Dylan, a Dylan that still needed his sterile bottles. How the fuck are we supposed to feed him if we need to taste the sterile water, thus rendering it un-sterile? And it's not like we're talking ancient history here; Dylan was on sterile bottles just a few months before.
The nice lady told me that these are the rules and that they have to be followed.
My blood boiled even more. I asked her what we are expected to do if we were to fly all the way directly from Manchester to Australia, and how is our baby expected to survive such a long flight with no food because our fair lady decided to contaminate it all?
I was answered, rather laconically, as if citing from the rule book, that these are the rules and that they are meant to protect me. I explained exactly how protected these rules made me feel, but exactly, and I also asked if these rules are meant to protect babies dying of starvation during flights.
At this point the nice lady switched into some sort of an authoritative mode, changed her tone of voice, and started telling me that I should shut up or she would have me shut up.
Jo realized I was one step away from being arrested and stopped to calm me down. I did, sort of, but continued arguing along more polite lines. Much good it did me; again and again the stupid idiot told us that these are the rules and that they need to be followed. Not only that, she suggested we give the bottles away to the airport's fridge after tasting them and then put them in the airplane's fridge so they survive the flight. What the hell was she on? Airport fridge? Airplane fridge? Excuse me, lady with the power to have me arrested for making too much sense, what planet are you on?
Oddly enough, they were fine with allowing us to take as many 100cc and less bottles on board as we wanted to. A note to all would be terrorists: don't bother with big bottles, just bring your explosives with you in small bottles and mix them up on board.
Eventually we gave up, surrendered the milk for the nice lady to "destroy", went on to board the flight, and consoled ourselves with the knowledge that Dylan is old enough to drink cows' milk and that the planes should have cows' milk on board.
I will conclude with this: the first person who used the "but these are the rules and I didn't write them" argument to defend his actions was Adolf Eichmann. Sixty years after beating Eichmann and his likes, modern England got to the stage where the people are just as intoxicated in their perceived sense of superiority as the Nazis were in their own time. Sure, they aren't taking train loads of people into gas chambers, but they will starve your baby if you decide to commit the crime of taking a long range international flight. Australia, Israel, Singapore, and even Germany all have enough sense to let babies through; but in England they will follow the laws to the letter whether they make sense or not. Me, I'm just waiting to see what England comes up with once terrorists find a way to make explosive underwear.
What a stupid country.