Thursday, 31 December 2009

Imagine

It occurred to me while I was complaining against yet another relative telling me I should thank god for Dylan’s recovery from an incident of croup that sent us on an ambulance ride to the emergency room. I said what my thoughts of a god that sends two year olds to the hospital are and that my conclusion is that god is either evil or nonexistent, and in return I was told that “god is something that might exist [and therefore we should thank it]”.
It occurred to me the problem my relative was suffering from is a lack of imagination. Sure, I agree: god might exist. My chances of winning the lottery are incredibly higher than the chances of god existing (and I don’t take part in lotteries), but yes, god might exist. However, if that is your approach – that god might exist, then we should therefore worship it – you should stop and think a bit, because my imagination tells me there are an infinite number of things that may exist which I don’t worship. These include ghosts, fairies, Irish sounding gnomes and lots more. Which gods, then, should I be worshiping based on the premises that they might exist? If pushed on having to choose between all possible gods to worship I would go for the Spaghetti Monster. At least it’s tasty.

Of course, religious people have been guilty of subduing their imagination for thousands of years. A fine example is the way many of them think their morality comes from their faith, despite evidence clearly indicating that even faithless dogs and monkeys have a sense of morality and despite many people without faith being nice and decent overall (and many of the faithful being nasty criminals).
Looking at things through the prism of history provides further evidence: what passed for moral at the time the bible was written would be considered criminal today (slavery, anyone?), whereas a lot of the things done today in the name of religion would acquire the wrath of people like the new testament’s Jesus. Say, evangelists begging for money on TV.

Limited imagination is not limited to religion. You can see it in action with people wherever you look. To point at the last example on my mind, I have bumped into a friend describing himself as “fiscally conservative” yesterday. I translate his description to “I’m happy with the piles of money I have gathered thus far, don’t you dare try and take it away from me”. Perfectly understandable, but then again where would fiscal conservatism take us if we were to allow it to prevail?
My answer would be nowhere fast. We live on a planet that is suffering the wrath of an overpopulated species whose members seem to care about nothing but their individual selfish good, a cause for which it is worth releasing billions of tons of sequestered carbon into the atmosphere. Such amounts are bound to make a difference, and the difference is that unless we’re going to do something about it then our greatest achievement - civilization - would be in danger. Most fiscal conservatives with a head on their shoulder would acknowledge that.
Yet fiscal conservatism won’t get us out of this danger; fiscal conservatism is actually working to ensure we’d be stuck in the mire for longer and suffer worse consequences. Fiscal conservatism is the option for those who cannot imagine a better way out.
Needless to say, I am just to blame for lacking imagination as anyone. The gift of hindsight makes me realize the problem way too often. A fine example is the rather mundane operation of looking for a house to buy: It was often pointed to me, and quite correctly, that I am unable to imagine a house we’ve inspected in a different form to the way it was presented. Couple this lack of imagination with the will to impose my own way on houses we inspect and you can quickly see why it is so hard for me to identify houses I would like to move to even though it is quite clear decent living can be made in the majority if not all of the houses we’ve visited. The real question is the comparison between our current house and the house being inspected, and conducting such a comparison in a worthwhile way is hard because it requires a stretch of the imagination. But it’s worth it, because at the end of the exercise you might find the house of your dreams or just save yourself hundreds of thousands of dollars.

So my tip for the start of a new decade? Do as John Lennon recommends. Go forth and imagine.

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Facing It

It seems like I'm the last person on the planet to join the party: I'm finally using Facebook. Sure, I've had an account for a few years now, but I hardly used it till now.
So why the change of heart? Two reasons. The first is an invitation from a good Israeli friend I haven't met in years made me log into Facebook and realize a large number of my friends and relatives use it quite extensively. By checking on Facebook I'd be able to know more about what goes on in their lives than I ever could otherwise.
The second reason is the iPhone: The Facebook application for the iPhone makes checking it up as easy and quick as a button click. It's incredibly accessible and it doesn't require much effort. And, unlike using a Windows based computer, you're quite safe from the collection of personal information seeking applications that friends keep on sending me for no particular reason I can see.
There, however, lies the rub: It is its ease of use that makes Facebook a rather shallow affair. Checking out on my friends' updates shows a collection of good news and cheerful photos. It's only the good stuff. It's as if they're afraid of looking bad before the very friends who are meant to be there for them anyway. Reading the friends' comments on entries is even worse: The most sophisticated feedback you'd find there is "wow, cool". Debating is prohibited.
Indeed, there is something awfully wrong with the Facebook etiquette. You're not meant to use it for anything but basic cutey cutey comments, otherwise you're treading the danger zone. And I speak from experience: in my short Facebook career I've already alienated a cousin I've never met into not speaking with me again; another friend thinks I'm a total ass (mind you, that's probably true).
At the rate I'm going, my Facebook career would be rather short. Probably too short to really notice just how nasty Facebook, the company, is.

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Cover to Cover

Upon buying my new iPhone I went looking for some sort of a protective cover to protect it when the inevitable happens and I drop it. I know the iPhone is only designed to last two years (that is, if its battery makes it; currently, I have to charge it every second day), but I would hate to have this expensive toy break before my two year mobile plan runs out.
I went looking for covers in the cheap shops of Melbourne’s Chinese Quarter, but the cheapest they had was $20 and the one I was thinking of getting – the one in the Dutch football team colors - was selling for $30. I went looking at the more conventional shops like JB Hi Fi, but there the prices were even more expensive: covers looking like the one I wanted were selling for $75 and even more.
So I went to eBay, found the exact same cover I wanted (pictured), and bought it for less than $5 (postage included). Two weeks later it arrived by mail from China.
Someone is making a hell of a profit selling those same covers in Australia at such hellish margins!

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Same Old Scene


grommets
Originally uploaded by reuvenim
Our special Dylan week started last Monday when we took our favorite two year old to the ear specialist in order to determine his fate over the upcoming holiday season.
It seemed like Dylan's previous set of grommets, installed just a few months ago, have fallen off a while ago. The result was that over the last two months Dylan has had three ear infections and has consumed lots of antibiotics. During his inspection, the specialist identified water Dylan's ear drums, so the sentence was made: Dylan would have his fourth grommet operation on Friday.
The operation went along smoothly, as smooth as an operation on a two year old can go given that you can't really reason with him or have him expect what's coming. So far so good...

Trouble started late that evening after we put Dylan to his night time sleep. He kept on coughing more and more, until - at about midnight - it seemed like the only way to get him to sleep would be to have him in our bed with us after a couple of rounds of Ventolin.
At about 4AM Dylan woke up startled. He was trying to breathe but was obviously unable to take in as much air as he wanted, which caused him to panic, which caused him to try and breathe even more rapidly, which escalated the panic in a positive feedback kind of a way. We tried Ventolin again but it didn't help and Dylan was in too much of a panic to really gain much of it, so after a few minutes we called 000 (the Aussie equivalent of 911) and within minutes the ambulance was at our door.

croup
Originally uploaded by reuvenim
Dylan was still at a panic but was obviously not passing out. The ambulance people decided there's no need to take any chances, especially given Dylan's frenzy prevented them from being able to do a proper exam, so they took him in to the emergency room escorted by Jo. Apparently, Dylan had enjoyed the ambulance ride and had got better during it, so the relaxed crew was telling Jo that it was nice for them to treat a normal family for a change. It seems as if weekend nights, especially this close to Christmas, are commonly reserved for treating violent alcohol related emergencies. Our crew has had itself a rough night before we got along.
The hospital identified Dylan with croup, which is a virus infection affecting the voice box' area. The inflammation causes breathing problems not unlike asthma, hence the similar symptoms, but the regular asthma treatment of Ventolin won't help it. We were discharged within a few hours. Overall, a positive hospital experience, but why do hospitals have to be so depressing, especially the public ones? We all need their services at the most crucial of times, and some further investment to improve their general atmosphere would go a long way in helping rehabilitation. Or are the powers that be afraid that people would like them too much?
There was one funny scene at the hospital. The doctor was trying to stir Dylan into a conversation in order to assess him by asking him about the nationality of his mother, but that didn't get him too far conversation wise. Me, I was very proud to father a two year old that knows the planets of our solar system but doesn't have the faintest idea about the concept of nationality. Our Dylan is truly a child of the world!
Coming home, all of us were tired and Dylan was obviously still very much sick, but it was all manageable. The main thing that annoyed me was the collection of relatives saying "oh, thank god". Thank god for what? For giving an innocent baby the privilege of badly designed ear canals that make him miserable, force him to take operations under full anesthetic twice a year, and then weaken him enough to catch every wandering virus? What a fucked up god this must be.

The next day, today, was much better, although one can never tell what's coming up next and when the next emergency call would be. At the supermarket we got Dylan a toy croquet set with which he had a bit of fun:



Don't be fooled by the easy going appearance. We are living on the edge: seconds after I stopped shooting the video Dylan fell down and bruised his leg, aided by his overall weakness. And tonight already looks like it's party time.

Putting Things in the Right Proportion

In less than a week we're going to hit a holiday where many people (me included) are about to have some great fun. It's also a holiday when many other people think they're celebrating the birth of their god or some other weird story that no sane person can pretend to understand. These people, along with many others who believe myths of similar nature, truly believe that we humans are at the center of this universe's attention.
So, in order to put things into proportion and demonstrate our true place in this world of ours, here is a six minute video demonstrating the extent of the known universe.

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Lost

Several things got lost today as Communications Minister Stephen Conroy announced he and his government (our government) are going to introduce legislation to censor the internet (you can read the news coverage here).
First to get lost is Australia's status as an open minded country. We are now in the same club as China and Iran as far as internet surfing is concerned. And what a proud club this is!
Second to get lost is our ability to surf the internet. Sure, it will still be there, but we'll never know what we're missing as the blacklist of banned sites is banned from public access by Big Brother Conroy.
Conroy started by saying he's going to ban paedophilia, but later on it was leaked euthanasia was banned just the same as well as some pretty ordinary porn sites. And even the website of an innocent dentistry was banned by accident and no one knew about it, not even the dodgy dentists. Sure, Conroy's defensive blockage can be easily circumvented (which pretty much indicates how useless this entire censorship affair is - that is, unless greater things are to follow); what we will definitely lose for good is some significant portions of our time on this earth as web surfing performance suffers.
The third thing that got lost is my vote. Conroy's Labor party can kiss my vote goodbye. Today's move means that I'm more likely to prefer the Liberals I despise so much over Labor, simply because you know what you get when you vote Liberal but you don't with Labor. Labor promised action on global warming but is now pushing its "let's keep things the way they are but call it a nice name" emissions trading scheme; and Labor never said anything about censoring the internet before the elections.
By directly attacking the very foundations of democracy, Labor has relegated itself to the very bottom of my voting preferences. I just hope more voters open their eyes to do the same, and preferably go Greens instead - the only party that condemned Conroy's legislation outright.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Heritage

A couple of weeks ago I was posting on how I don't think I should pass as a Jew by anyone's account. In response to the post I got an email from the same guy who made me write that post in the first place, an email that contains two core arguments against my position. I would therefore like to use the opportunity to cite these two arguments and use them to further point out why you won't see me referring to myself as a Jew and why I have a lot against religion in the first place. Here goes.

Argument #1: "It is better to honour one's heritage than not"
Let me see, what does my Jewish heritage honor, amongst others?
Well, it honors the female sex as an inferior one. Don't tell me that bullshit about Judaism saying that women are special; if women weren't considered inferior then men wouldn't go about praying "thank god for not creating me a woman" several times a week in their regular prayer routine.
What else does Judaism honor? Well, it honors slavery. Granted, for its time Judaism was a step ahead of the pack in its relaxation of slavery's terms and conditions, but it's still an arguer in favor of slavery.
Judaism is also an arguer for racism at a scale that wouldn't shame Hitler. Remember the stories about Joshua, the hero that killed all the non Jews when the Israelites invaded the land of Israel so as to avoid interracial influences? Remember that most important of Jewish holidays, Passover, in which Jews celebrate god committing mass murder and killing all the Egyptian firstborns, including babies? Not that Christians are better; they admit they worship the exact same god. And no, I don't argue that all Jews and Christians are walking Hitlers; I argue that most Jews and Christians blindly follow their heritage without thinking about what it is that they follow. No one sane would celebrate the mass murder of babies; religion is obviously capable of twisting people's sanity enough that they do.
One last argument against blindly following one's heritage: What should the decent sons and daughters of Nazi officers do? Are they doomed even before they're born?
So what should I do? I don't blindly honor my heritage. I appreciate Judaism, but I appreciate it the same way I appreciate all the rest of humanity's Bronze Age heritage. What I really honor is my ability to pick and choose the good values from the bad ones; blindly honoring a tradition comes in the way of me being able to think for myself.

Argument #2: "But atheism is not all it is cracked up to be, because it too is an ideology and has its own internal contradictions and rigidities. People are not rational beings, so it is unrealistic and sometimes dangerous to pretend we are. Inner daftness, perversity and a need to believe in things that could not possibly be true is an unavoidable part of our make up."
I find this argument so flawed it's hard for me to determine where to start attacking it from. I'll start with the definition of atheism, as taken from the Atheist Foundation of Australia's website: "Atheism is the acceptance that there is no credible scientific or factually reliable evidence for the existence of a god, gods or the supernatural."
The reason why I quoted this definition is its reference to science. It's one thing to say "I don't believe in X" and it's another to say "I don't believe in Y because it has no credible evidence on its behalf". Take, for example, global warming skeptics: they have all the evidence in the world but they still won't believe. Or those who damn evolution in favor of creationism: they're not atheists, they're just lunatics or ignorants. Proper atheism is not a dogma; it's simply about accepting science, because science is the best and only tool we humans have devised so far in order to assess this world that we're living in. And science is reliable, it works, you make accurate predictions using it, and it delivers (e.g., cell phones or jet planes).

_DSC8770
Originally uploaded by reuvenim
I agree: people are not rational beings, definitely not to the fullest degree. But it's exactly because of that trait of ours that we need science to help us find the objective truth. None of us would want to live in a world where a doctor's verdict depends on a throw of the dice or where a court's decision is based on how good a night the judge had before the trial; we value truth and we need to know the truth.
Religion is a hurdle on the way to truth; I keep my distance from it. Science is a tool with which to know the truth; I honor it and I embrace its heritage. I honor the heritage of Newton and Darwin.

Friday, 11 December 2009

I Predict A Riot

As most Melbournians know, our esteemed State Government is about to impose the new Myki ticketing system on us for use in public transport in order to replace the perfectly functional Metcard train tickets. As in, I can think of a million things that need improvement with Melbourne’s public transport system; the ticketing system would probably fall somewhere toward the very end of the list. I guess the government feels the need to justify it spending more than a billion dollars (yes, you read that right) on something completely redundant when they could have spent the money on, say, more trains and more tracks.
Personally, I choose to ignore the Myki up until I cannot ignore it anymore and it is forced down my throat French geese style. As for what I foresee for the Myki’s future, consider the following events taking place a fortnight ago:
Arriving at my home station back from another exciting day at work, I disembarked the train together with plenty of other fellow commuters (whose number I estimate at between twenty to thirty). We all made our way briskly to the station’s exit with our homes in our minds, but then we suddenly all had to suddenly stop. So sudden and unexpected was the stop that a few of us bumped into the backs of the people ahead.
What had happened? I looked to the side to see what’s going on. And there I saw it: The person at the head of the line was a Myki user and had to stop next to the Myki machine at the station’s exit in order to verify his Myki card.
No doubt about it, Myki has a very promising future ahead.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Terrible Twos

I know this blog has already dedicated considerable space to the topic of The Terrible Twos, the considerably terrible than anything before behavior that two (to three?) year olds tend to exhibit. But I will still dedicate a bit more space to the phenomenon, simply because a couple of days ago we’ve encountered what has been by far the worst exhibition of the Terrible Twos syndrome thus far.
It wasn’t just a short term tantrum. For more than fifteen minutes, our two and a half year old Dylan threw himself in a fit involving him applying all the strength he could muster against us while being totally ignorant of the damages that he could be inflicting upon himself. In the bath, for example, he was doing his best to lie down – with his head under the water and his nose up – as I was struggling to hold him back while, at the same time, doing my best to avoid hurting him.
I know that this is all to do with the developing brain, some areas of which are not as up to date as others and neurons firing blanks and all that. But it still doesn’t change the obvious fact that no matter how good your intentions are and no matter how carefully and deductively you approach parenthood, you are still going to get a slap in your face when your kid reaches the Terrible Twos. Again I can only observe that no matter what others say about it, parenthood is far from being rewarding. It’s probably the reason why so many people say it is: they need to convince themselves this is the case even if it isn’t in order to be able to tolerate the punishment.
The question is how to deal with the problem while still keeping the main targets in sight: providing our child with an overall happy childhood and helping him grow to become a decent person. Personally, I don’t know the answer; what I can say is that I am not at all convinced that applying physical force or keeping your child on a tight leash are the best ways to go.
What I will do, for now, is avoid judging other parents when I see their child going through the motions of a tantrum. Those of us that are not parents (including me up until not that long ago) who are exposed to children's tantrums tend to think along the lines of “what can you expect from such idiots [parents]”, but the reality is these things will happen regardless of how good the parents are.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Good Riddance

The Decent of A Man would like to warn its readers the following post is rated R as it contains language that may offend users of certain operating systems.

It feels like I just got discharged from the army. After more than four grueling and often testing years, I finally got rid of that burden that is called Windows Mobile operating system (from the house of Microsoft, naturally). As I have said here before, I cannot believe I actually bought two Windows Mobile based mobile phones / PDAs, as in I was dumb enough to buy myself a second one despite my experience with all the shortcomings of the first.
Well, the third one will not happen in this life. I bought myself an iPhone instead; I'm not proud of it, but at least it works. As in, you can set it to play music, and it won't lock itself after a couple of minutes, pause the music and ask me to type a password (to name just one frustration).
To Windows Mobile I will say this: Fuck you, and thanks a lot for causing me such agony and for wasting so much of my time and money.
Finally being free is such an unimaginable relief.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Have a Break, Have a Kit Kat


IMGP1554
Originally uploaded by reuvenim
You have to excuse me for my reduced blogging throughput of late: Someone (let's not name names, but it's the two year old living in our premises) has been waking us up quite at around five thirty (AM!) every morning now. I guess that's the price you have to pay for long summery days, but the result is that although these days are way better than winter they do become hard and tiresome.
Not only that, but our unnamed nemesis has a new trick up his sleeve: when we take him out somewhere on a weekend morning he sleeps for, say, ten minutes in the car while on the way back. Then when we get home he decides that he doesn't want to have his afternoon sleep because he already "had a nice sleep", so none of us gets any rest and we all have to contend with one overtired baby in our midst for the remainder of the [now much longer] day.
Today we took our Dylan to Melbourne Zoo, where he had much fun and exercised himself quite severely. Knowing what we're up against we made some special effort to prevent him from falling asleep on the way back for as long as we could. And we managed it: we all had some nice afternoon sleep today! Hooray!
I foresee many more zoo expeditions in our future.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

The Real Estate Agent Experience, Part 1

Too many real estate agents remind me of Rudolf Höss. Höss was a person of contrasts: during the day he would manage Auschwitz while off hours he was a family man. People don’t come in more flawed a form than this one, so it’s good to try and learn from the phenomenon.
We all have a sense of morality ingrained in us: we have a sense of what is right and what is wrong; we can instinctively tell when someone is being wronged. Research clearly indicates at the universality of this sense we’re all equipped with through examples with kids that are yet to be exposed to much teaching (in the process proving that morality does not come from religious indoctrination). The puzzle around people like Höss has to do with their ability to suspend this ethical sense in a very selective way; my observations clearly indicate that many real estate agents perform the same suspension of ethics in their course of work. It appears as if in their case it is the lure of cash – plenty of it in one big transaction – that drives this suspension.
We’re all guilty of suspending our ethics from time to time. For example, most of us eat meat, a process that requires us to turn a blind eye to the horror that befell the animals we consume, the vast amounts of water and fossil fuels that were consumed in its raising, the damage to the environment the poor animals have made through their various forms of feces, and the forests that often had to be cleared in order to make space for them (to name but a few issues). The element that allows us to get away from these ethical issues the most is the passive nature with which we consume the meat, yet for the real estate agents the experience is not passive at all. Indeed, they are very active in their application of psychological tricks on both buyer and seller, the people they are meant to serve, their paying customers.
Just like with Höss before them, I don’t understand how these people are able to sleep at night. How can they live with themselves when they so openly and so frequently break the law, toy with people’s emotions, and blatantly cheat and mistreat them in order to make a buck?
In my opinion, one cannot be an ethical person half the time; Höss’ case proves the point quite well. But like it or not, Höss also proves that humans are capable of willingly suspending their sense of ethics. Which is why I was thinking of him – again – as I was telling yet another real estate agent to cut the bullshit yesterday.

The above is obviously a generalization that may apply to some real estate agents but definitely not all of them. There have to be some that still have an operable sense of good and bad about them.
In the next post I’ll take you for a look at the real estate agents our home buying adventures have bumped us into thus far as we further explore that unique real estate agent experience.

Monday, 30 November 2009

Vacant Lot

I have a question to Tony Abbott, Nick Minchin, Wilson Tuckey and all the rest of the Liberal Party members currently wrecking havoc with their party due to their strong “climate change skepticism” and fear for the future of an Australia under an emissions trading scheme:
You say you do not accept the science presented to you thus far as evidence for human induced global warming. If that is the case, what more does science need to provide you in order to convince you? When will you cross that threshold of disbelief?
I am not expecting an answer and I don’t need one. The sad reality is that we cannot expect science to deliver better evidence than we have so far, so therefore our misguided skeptics are doomed to their disbelief (and let me make it clear: I dislike the use of the word "belief", most often associated with blind faith, in relation to scientific evidence). My point is that when you ask the question the way I just did – as in, what would it take for you to accept the evidence – you realize something that may have not been as clear before: These people will only believe the things they want to believe in.
I really feel pity for them.

I do have to add that at the moment I find myself in the same camp as this group of Liberals that I mock/despise: We are united in our opposition to Kevin Rudd’s proposed emissions trading scheme. They think it would ruin Australia’s financial future, while I (and many others like me, such as The Greens and Kenneth Davidson) think this legislation is actually a tool to ensure Australia is stuck with the big polluters for the next few decades; a tool that will not reduce greenhouse emissions even the slightest.
So if you wanted proof for the sad state of Australian politics in particular or for the modern age democracy in the age of corporate power in general, you have it all here: I/we have to join forces with the devil in order to achieve what the elected government got elected to do in the first place as it tries to do what the former government (now opposition) promised to do before the elections.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Real Estate Myth Busters

One of the prevailing myths in the world of Aussie real estate is that house prices double every ten years. The myth, supported by the partner myth that house prices never go down, is used to justify investments in real estate above everything else. Like all good myths - say, organized religion - its followers will follow it rain or shine no matter how much or how little sense it makes.
Me? I think such claims tend to be as credible as the good old statements about women drivers turn out to be (some of the safest drivers I know are mostly women) or the statements about how good Jews are with money (a far cry from the realities of my Jewish family and friends). So I will attack the myth and set out to disprove it the good old fashioned way: by providing an example for a case where it doesn't apply. And what better example can I provide than my own house?
We bought our house 6 years ago and have recently had it valued by two different real estate agencies, both coming with the exact same estimates for the current worth of our house. We also know that our house would not sell for more than the real estate agents have projected because we've seen how neighboring houses perform when sold.
So, what are our projected return on investments? Expanded linearly from 6 years to 10, we are looking at between 50% to 60% ROI; very different prospects to the myth's doubling. Even if we assume that we overpaid by 5% when we bought our house - being the naive fools we are - and under the most optimistic selling circumstances, we are still looking at only 75% ROI.
Close enough, you say? Well, let me remind you of the subtle issue of stamp duties, the fees we pay to government when we buy the house but don't get back when we sell it. When added to the equation, even the most favorable ROI estimates shrink to 60% while the more realistic ones are just a bit higher than 30%.
Let's go a step further and assess the performance of our house investment against inflation. Assuming a 3% CPI rate per year, our ROI shrink to between 2% to 30%, with the more realistic ones at less than 10%. That's nice, but 10% is far from being the greatest investment ever made and is certainly not worthy of the glory granted to real estate investments in Australia.
Now you could argue that all of the above is simply the result of us not being good real estate investors; we bought the wrong house. Yes, silly us, we were looking for a place to live in rather than a good investment. Fine. Yet you still have to admit that the "house prices double in 10 years time" rule of thumb has been refuted for what it is: an unfounded urban myth.
Or, in the straight talking plain language I much prefer, it's bullshit.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Pride and Prejudice

The Victorian Government has just published a registry of the state's schools over the internet, allowing everyone to know how well a certain school is faring against others over a given set of parameters. You can access that registry here.
I have a problem with such superficial comparisons between schools. First because I'm not sure the right parameters are being measured and that whatever's measured is measured properly. Second, and more importantly, such comparisons will only make the worse schools even worse as those that have the ability to avoid them will strive harder to do so.
Quibbles aside, a registry such as this provides what is, by far, the best resource we have on our hands to determine how good the schools in the given areas where we are currently considering buying a house are. You can say it's an effective real estate guide. As I have explained before, the quality of available state schooling is of utmost importance to us when picking a potential future home. Thus far we had to rely on crude parameters such as word of mouth, quality of internet website and external looks when judging schools, but as much as I find the new registry problematic, it is obvious it is significantly more reliable than the measures we've used till now.
So, what did I find when I looked at the registry? The first observation is that the areas we've been looking at so far all sport schools that are either average or above average. The second observation is much more interesting: some of the schools that thus far I used to regard as the worst, to the effect of prejudicing against an entire area, have turned out to actually be the best performers.
And what are the lessons here? Simple: Observations made using unsubstantiated data should not be used for making crucial decisions. But the much more interesting observation is this: word of mouth should not be taken too far; the people spreading the words of mouth are obviously people that spread that word of mouth because they feel the need to assure themselves they have made the right decision.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Fiddler on the Roof

It happened to me again today: someone who hardly knew me has referred to me as a Jew. I guess it goes part and parcel with having a name like Moshe, but I'm still annoyed whenever it happens.
The question to ask, therefore, is simple: What is a Jew?
The way I see it, the definition of the term is rather lax. You can define a Jew on the grounds of ancestry, culture and/or religious belief; let's have a look at each of those criteria.

If you count being a Jew on racial grounds and go to have a look at my genes then I'm definitely Jewish. Hitler would have sent me off to the gas chambers right away. But then again, so what? What do Jewish genes mean, anyway? It probably comes down to a group of people sharing a very minute amount of common mutations that, in the grand scheme of things, are absolutely meaningless. It's also guaranteed you will find I belong with some other groups of mutations, too, as I doubt my ancestors had always maintained a closed community. So the Nazis might have had their way of looking at races but the rest of us should have moved ahead.
If you count being a Jew on culture grounds then you'll find I'm somewhere in the middle. I definitely have Jewish influences in me; it's by far the culture I'm most familiar with. Then again, is there really such a thing as a Jewish culture in the first place, beyond the veil of clichés? I would maintain that I have been much more influenced by Israeli culture than Jewish culture, and as evidence I will point at the undeniable fact that those who regard themselves as Jews outside of Israel live in a different culture to those regarding themselves as Israeli Jews. The diaspora Jews seem to have a chip on their shoulder that forces them to be extra Jewish, perhaps the result of them having to deal with the contradiction of being Jewish yet not wanting to fulfil their belief by living in Israel as well as the result of having to take extra measures to avoid assimilation with the rest of the population. And if it comes down to being an Israeli then I should point at the fact that I am far from being a typical representative of the Israeli culture; that distance between and that culture is one of the main reasons I left Israel behind in the first place.
If you count being Jewish on religious grounds then I'm definitely no Jew. Virtually all the world's theists would be far more Jewish than I am, for I will only have faith in things that can be reliably and credibly observed and measured. I gladly put my faith in quarks yet I will never go for the god delusion.

Ultimately, I am of the opinion that it's up to the individual to decide whether they want to be referred to as Jewish or not, the same way as it is up to the individual to determine whether they want to be known as Cat Stevens or Yusuf Islam. And in my case, I don't want to be counted as a Jew.
The main reason why I don't want to be counted Jewish is simple: It is not a descriptor that would teach you too much about me; if anything, it will probably mislead you. You can say I'm a member of the homo sapiens species, you can say I'm a male, you can say I'm relatively tall, you can say I love to blog, and you can even say I live in Melbourne but grew up in Israel. All of these observations tell you true objective facts about me. Yet you will gain no reliable information about me by adding that I'm a Jew.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

How to Lose the Market and Alienate Customers



With my Windows Mobile 6.1 mobile phone now on its death bed – it started resetting itself involuntarily several times a day – the question of what its replacements is going to be is more relevant than ever.
It’s obvious what it is not going to be. It’s not going to be Windows Mobile! I can actually get my phone fixed under my credit card’s extended warranty policy, but that will only mean that I’ll have a working piece of shit in my hands (and pocket, most of the time) instead of a dead one.
I have already reported how it seems like the iPhone is the best of the smartphone lot. It seemed the best, but I cannot say that I’d be happy with the purchase of an iPhone: It’s a lot of money to pay for a very artificially restricted gadget (effectively, $1200 for a 16gb iPhone GS with a two year Virgin Mobile plan incorporating 300mb data allowance). And you hear of the restrictions every day in the news: you hear how Skype has been suffocated, you hear how the big saint Steve Jobs bullies a small time developer into submission, and you wonder why such a flashy device is still not flash enabled and still boasts the copy & paste facilities its latest operating system upgrade offers as anything but an embarrassing fix. Apple, in short, is an evil monopoly that makes the most of its position; it’s just that unlike, say, Microsoft during the Vista era, they actually do have generally good products in their line-up.
So I put myself on a mini crusade to find the iPhone killer. I thought I found one in the Nokia N900 and I spent tons of precious time researching the product. However, what I did find was not an iPhone killer, but rather a company – Nokia – that has simply lost its way. If Nokia represents Apple’s competition in the smartphone market then it’s no wonder Apple has become the market's supreme commander.

Let me make it clear. If Nokia’s own reports, videos and images are to be considered credible enough, then its N900 is a mega iPhone killer. Perhaps not in selling figures, but definitely in technical capabilities: It has a Firefox based browser with Flash and all the capabilities you’re used to from your normal PC Firefox (including add-ons) but with a touch screen that allows zooming and tabbing and a lot of nice usability things that so far only the iPhone was capable of delivering. It already has 32gb of memory but you can expand that using a memory card (something Apple won’t allow). It is unlocked, so if you’re overseas you can stick a local SIM in and your phone and cut down global roaming costs.
I’ll stop listing the N900’s attributes at this point because they’re not the main point I’m trying to convey. Let’s just say that it’s a mighty phone, by far the best out there. Add to that it being open sourced, based on the Maemo distribution of Linux, and you can appreciate that unlike Apple forcing you to an unbreakable wedding with iTunes, Nokia allows you the freedom to do as you see fit.
I could only find two shortcomings with the N900 phone: First, you can’t sync the N900 to Google the way you can sync Google Calendar and contacts to a Blackberry, iPhone or Windows Mobile. Second, Nokia’s applications front, Ovi, is incredibly inferior to Apple’s; there simply is no comparison. Yet, if you ask me, who needs an application shop when you have a full blown web browser at your hands? When it comes to the bigger application, such as GPS navigation, Nokia has basic stuff built in but the iPhone doesn’t, while both charge a lot for the full blown stuff (enough to convince me to just buy the Tomtom Start for $180).

So where does the N900 fail? Well, it doesn’t fail anywhere; it’s Nokia that fails it.
First they failed it by announcing it will be released in October 2009 and gradually postponing its actual release; current rumors talk about a February 2010 release.
Then they failed it by announcing the N900 will not be sold in Australia, thus demonstrating that Nokia doesn’t want to sell its phones to the consumers but rather to the mobile providers. On their part, the mobile providers are not exactly in love with a phone that has such great VOIP capabilities to cannibalize their business.
On its own, the lack of official Aussie imports is not a big deal: I can buy the phone in Amazon for $550 (USD) and have it brought over to Australia using Shipito, a service that already provides me with a mailing address of my own in the USA. The problem is warranty: if things go wrong, I’d have to post the phone to the USA and use Shipito to get it back again. The problem is magnified by the overall lack of reliability of these small gadgets, as demonstrated by my old MP3 player and my current mobile phone (both, interestingly enough, running Windows Mobile) and as demonstrated by the tons of flak Nokia has been receiving on its current flagship smartphone, the N97 (a model everyone recognizes as a failure). The issue is made worse through reports from N900 test users of microphones not working and screens broken on delivery.
But then Nokia threw the N900 the killer blow through a notification announcing two punches. The first of the two said that anyone who wants to develop Maemo applications needs a million dollar liability insurance. There goes the option of having an rich application environment ala iTunes’ catalog of application numbering in the six digits! Effectively, this implies there is no future for Maemo; in turn it means there will never be a reason for Google to provide the facilities to sync Maemo phones with its Google Calendar, to name but one example.
As far my own N900 prospects are concerned, any ideas I may have still had of buying the phone evaporated with Nokia’s second announcement, saying they will limit updates and applications based on geographical location. Given the phone will not be officially sold in Australia this represents a risk I just cannot take. For Nokia, however, it represents the complete inability of a major company to recognize the internet has unified this world of ours to a point where geographical separation makes no sense to anyone but old dinosaurs like the movie studios who still deploy regional coding on their stuff and then wonder why what they refer to as piracy is so rife.
Nokia, it seems, belongs firmly in the company of dinosaurs. If it continues on this path, Nokia will soon be extinct.

So there you go. Unless my current phone does the unexpected and manages to survive until Android comes up with a worthy model, you will soon be looking at a very reluctant owner of an iPhone.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Good Reasons for Bad Belief

Readers of this blog will know that I am often puzzled and troubled by that common phenomenon by which otherwise sane and healthy people also happen to go after one or another of religious belief. That is, beliefs in the unnatural powers, belief in stuff for which there is absolutely no proof. It's just insane: no one believes a real estate agent, yet most people believe lies of a much greater scale.
Troubled by this contradiction, I often go out of my way to point at the rather shaky rational foundations for religious belief. Yet no one listens to me (and the majority of the world’s population doesn’t listen to people who say the same but in a much better way). Why is that?
To the rescue comes philosopher Dan Dennett (who has frequented my blogs before). In a lecture presented by The Richard Dawkins Foundation, Dennett offers what seems to be a very sensible explanation to the problem of why people contrive to believe despite their said beliefs' lack of rationality. Essentially, Dennett provides a list of rational reasons for declaring belief; none of those hold water, as he quickly points out, yet they seem rational enough for enough people to happily settle with them.
I recommend watching the video despite its length. Note it starts with a long introduction that is not directly related to the topic at hand, since Dennett’s lecture is actually a reward acceptance speech. However, that introduction is quite illuminating by its own rights – especially if you have a thing for goats:



Now, the reason why I have found the video to be quite illuminating is its practical approach to belief. It provides an excellent explanation for the way the believers I am familiar with “work”. Take, as an example, my parents and my parents in law: both believe in the faith their respective accidents of birth got them to (Judaism and Christianity), yet both don't follow their faith beyond the realm of performing rather pagan rituals that work on their sense of belonging to an elite club (say, circumcision and christening, respectively). When questioned about their beliefs (an act that requires persistence as they don't like the shaky foundations of their belief to be tested for weight) they will both do their best to avoid the discussion, thus revealing exactly what Dennett is saying in the video: they don't really believe in all the bullshit; they just believe in believing.
And on a personal note, I couldn't avoid noting how my own attitudes towards religion had to contend with the same challenges posed by society's defense mechanisms for religion that Dennett is mentioning: from being shy about my skepticism, as if to avoid hurting anyone's feelings, to being outspoken about it. Today I take pride in the fact that from the internet to the office I work on, no person that knows me can say they don't know what my opinion on religion is.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

The Terrible Twos

I thought I'd take a nice and peaceful video of Dylan eating chicken. He was eating lemon pepper chicken on a skewer (aka Shisklik), his favorite dish. He was so peaceful; he was obviously enjoying himself.
But he is still a two year old, and he's still trying to show off to the camera. The results speak for themselves:

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Beauty and the Investor

We just came back from an auction for a really old house on a full plot of land (i.e., a plot that was not subdivided already). We went there to assess our chances for buying an empty plot of land (or what would be an empty plot of land after you pay someone $10,000 to get rid of what ever's on there) and build a house according to our own requirements. That is, a house with less than 72 toilets.
As per our standard experience by now, the auction was pretty depressing. The property sold for $655,000, much more than anything that would allow us to build something with more than a tent on it. But that's not my biggest issue with this property or this auction.
The auction came down to a battle between a young family (of seemingly Indian origins, for what it's worth) and an investor (driving a convertible Mercedes). The latter won, and it doesn't take much of a genius to figure out he's going to build two units out there and sell them.
Now let's do the maths. On one side we have a young family that can just afford to spend $650,000 on buying a house. On the other we have an investor that can spend more: He's going to build two houses on that same plot, with each of them selling for much more than $800,000 (and I'm being conservative here).
What does that mean? It means the investor can afford to bid a hell of a lot of money on the auction, enough to drive all families away. It also means that a family with $650,000 - a lot of money by my account - cannot find a place to live in, at least not in this particular area we're talking about. That family will have to venture far far away to areas where the potential profits from subdivisions are too low and/or areas where the previously subdivided houses are affordable. That is, in Melbourne's terms, areas with no infrastructure to support a healthy lifestyle; areas where you can't go anywhere without a car; areas where I wouldn't want to live.
And that, my dear readers, is exactly why the Aussie real estate market is fucked up to the core.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

UFO in Parliament

ABC news was talking yesterday about the parliament discussion in which Scientology was accused of some horrendous crimes. They went on to interview several parliamentarians, including The Nationals' Barnaby Joyce. Joyce didn't voice his explicit opinion on Scientology, but he did go on to say something about the stupidity of believing in spaceships and aliens.
Not that my opinion on Scientology differs much from Joyce's, but I would like to ask him the following: In what way do Scientology's spaceships differ from the following elements of your own belief-
-A star racing across the sky to act as a directional beacon
-Walking on water
-Virgin birth
-Turning water into wine?

At this point I have to say that I'm picking on Joyce for a reason. Joyce is an outspoken global warming denialist. He accepts Christianity but denies Scientology despite the two sharing a lot of similar bullshit at their core, and he also rejects what is very nearly scientific fact.
I would say Joyce is severely delusional, or at least severely ignorant. If it was up to me, Joyce would be sent back to school to get the education he so badly needs. Yet the Australian people see him fit to be sent to parliament and decide on issues of utmost importance to human civilization as a whole.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Boredom

My aunt has recently moved out of her old apartment, an apartment where I had spent quite a lot of time as a young boy in the company of her and my late uncle. Today, while at the office and while going through yet another exciting day at the office, I caught myself daydreaming of that gone by era: how I used to play in the apartment, and how doors would be kept open and I would even go and play at neighbours’ apartments. The line of thought caught on as I remembered how small and rather sparse these apartments were; no one I knew at the time has had much in the way of means to spare. Memories of an old gone neighbour showing me photos of his kids floated by and I recalled his stories about raising his kids in his apartment, putting some shame into my current quest for a bigger place to live in and putting the amount of effort we’ve been investing into this quest of ours in context: people lived in much worse conditions than we do now, and yet they flourished and they were happy. And it all took place within my lifetime and within my world. What has happened since to cause the drastic changes in the way we live since?
And then it occurred to me: Boredom.
When I look back at my early childhood days, the days before responsibilities kicked in, the predominant notion was boredom. TV was available through a single channel that worked for just a few hours a day, books were available at the library only (buying books was quite rare), and films were limited to cinema visits. With the internet having to wait some fifteen to twenty years to emerge, people had only one channel with which they could guarantee an entertaining time: they had to do stuff with one another. Hence the open doors and the open social interactions.
Today things are different. I have enough unread books in my personal library to last me a few years. I can listen to the music in my collection for twenty four hours a day over a few months without listening to the same track twice. And while I have a big collection of movies to entertain myself with, I have movies to last a lifetime within easy access. Not to mention video games. And last, but not least, the internet means that the only time I will lack varied entertainment is when something goes wrong with my PC or my internet connection (last time that had happened was due to a blackout taking out most of the state).
The result of this transition from the boring world of yesteryear to our packed up world is that our interactions with one another are limited. In order to see someone nowadays we need to book our calendars weeks or even months in advance. People are able to live half way across the world from their families, but when they come for a visit their families will quickly regard them the same way they regard a plant and go kill some brain cells in front of their extra loud TVs. Whereas I used to play outside quite a lot as a child, nowadays you hardly see free roaming kids about; what you do see is fleets of armoured four wheel drives chauffeuring their precious cargo around to ensure they’re on time for their macramé class.
I can come up with two things that contributed to this deep social change: The first was gradual but significant technological improvements, the things that allow us to have multiple TV channels all day and all of the night (to name but one example). The second was all of us being significantly better off than we were a few decades ago, providing us with the means with which we can tap on those advanced technologies. In short, what took place was all of us living in what most people would describe as a healthy economy.
But is this healthy economy truly contributing to our well being and happiness? I think the answer is a mixed bag. On one hand, it is clear that the exposure to a more stimulating environment is making us smarter overall, at least in certain respects (those that are commonly measured when, say, applying for a university position). On the other hand, we humans are social creatures by definition; none of us would get too far without a social structure around, and there can be no denying the damages caused by this social erosion.
Personally, I’m happy to sound like an old man and state that I’m troubled with younger people taking the way things currently are for granted and thinking there is no need and definitely no way to increase social interactions. In the past, parents managed with their babies even though they didn't have disposable nappies because they had lots of help around; now we've lost that loving feeling. Yet are only living the way we do because we’ve shaped our world in this particular way; but we can undo things, if only by a bit, in order to improve this state of affairs.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Beware of Nasty Koalas

About a fortnight ago I was sitting here raving about the virtues of Ubuntu’s latest release, Karmic Koala. Two weeks later and I’m regretting my praise.
I first noticed something strange was going on when I was deleting files off USB memory sticks. The files would be deleted but memory was not freed up; when I tried to format the USB stick altogether the system wouldn’t let me do so. I dismissed it thinking I was doing something wrong (how very Microsoft-ened I have become!).
Then I noticed that my netbook fails to notice the partition on which I keep my music and my videos. This means that while I can use Karmic on the netbook to surf the internet, I cannot use it to play my music while doing so.
And then a friend from work whom I convinced to install Ubuntu on his aging laptop told me that since the upgrade to Karmic his wireless modem has stopped working. There's a bit of a catch there, because without the internet connection allowing him to access the internet he's unable to download a solution to his problem...

The real spitting blood experience with Karmic Koala took place yesterday. All I wanted was to print the latest MSY computer parts pricelist through my desktop so I can design my future desktop. You see, the question at hand there is whether to go with an Intel i7 CPU that requires DDR3 memory and as a result more expensive motherboard and RAM, or whether finances are going to restrict me to the inferior (but still quite good) i5 domain.
Yet the printouts on my otherwise excellent performing Samsung CLP-310 color laser printer was all gibberish. A few cleared forests later I remembered my wife telling me she had to use Windows XP to print her stuff, so I could only conclude that Karmic Koala’s installation had stepped over the printer’s driver. Not a big deal; all I needed to do was install the printer driver again. And that’s simple: Samsung – praise be the Samsung – actually delivered their printer with a Linux driver in addition to a Windows one.
What followed next was a demonstration for why Linux is probably not ready for the big time yet; and when I say big time, I mean the non-geeks out there who couldn’t care less what operating system they use as long as they get things done.
I put the Samsung driver CD in my desktop’s DVD drive; nothing happened. I didn’t expect an auto-run to take place, but I did expect a navigation tool to pop up and allow me to browse the contents of the CD. So I opened such a browser manually (it’s called Nautilus, and it’s Ubuntu’s equivalent of Windows Explorer). There I was shocked to find my DVD drive, as well as the other CD drive on my desktop, were left unidentified by Karmic Koala. I couldn’t use them!
The next option was to install the generic open source Samsung driver for Linux available on the internet. I installed it twice yet each time I did it the test pages came out all messy again; the generic driver was obviously too generic. I had to use the Samsung one.
So the next step was to look over the internet for solutions to the missing DVD drive problem. Only that Firefox was busy uploading photos to Flickr, and for some odd reason uploading photos to Flickr using Firerfox under Ubuntu causes Firefox to freeze; you can’t browse the internet at all until the upload is finished. Great! I went to have a shower while the photo upload was taking place.
All freshened up I googled for answers, only to find that missing drives (either CD, hard drives or USB sticks) are a common event with Karmic Koala. Given that Ubuntu is open source software its bug reports are available for everyone to browse, which – while very nice – did not comfort me in the least. I still wanted that pricelist printed!
So I reverted to downloading the Samsung driver from the Samsung website and googled for instructions on how to install the driver from an Ubuntu forum (where I found out that Samsung laser printers have been specifically targeted by Karmic Koala’s path of destruction). Eventually, past midnight, I even had my pricelist printed!

The lesson?
All these issues I have encountered were not the usual Linux problem of lacking drivers. Missing hard drives and CD drives point at basic problems with the operating system; Karmic Koala is riddled with bugs. Karmic Koala is simply not production ready yet and should not have been released.
As I am trying to figure out what my next desktop would require and where I can cut costing corners, the thought that maybe I should invest $150 on the OEM version of Windows 7 Pro, 64 bit, did occur to me. Not for the love of Microsoft, but for the lack of trust worthy alternatives.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Post War

It was to be expected, but it's still terrifying: Our very first property auction as potential buyers ended up selling for more than a hundred thousand dollars (!) than our top limit. Bearing in mind that we were looking at property that was quoted well within our range, the result can only be interpreted as an argument in favor of us extending our current house instead of moving. Or, to put it in the words of the real estate agent himself, "that was crazy".

The event gives me an opportunity to discuss the institute that is the property auction. The real estate agents sell it to you as "the most democratic way for selling a house", but in my book that's not too far from saying Hitler was only worried about potential overpopulation issues. For a start, there is nothing preventing a seller from taking their time to consider multiple private sale proposals; it's just as democratic, and it allows the buyer to offer their own terms & conditions rather than blindly accept those set by the seller. And in our particular case, the seller was indeed on the evil side of things, quoting for stratospheric compensations in case anything goes wrong.
So yes, an auction is very democratic if you're the seller. To the buyers it's dictatorship par excellence.

Given that we're all living in a real world where property auctions cannot be avoided, the question becomes - how do we best tackle an auction?
Even though I'm a beginner when it comes to perperty auctions, I can confidently say I'm very well versed in the psychology of bidding through my substantial eBay experience. There are several tactics I tend to use on eBay, but the basic one is this: I determine how much I'm willing to pay for an item and I don't bid on it until the very last minute because I want to avoid the emotional bidders from doing their best to outbid me. If my top limit is surpassed before the auction ends then so be it.
Thing is, property auctions are different to eBay in that they have no predetermined ending time. The real estate agent will pull them as long as it takes if they were to suspect another bid can come. The real estate agents will also do their best to stir up emotions in order to get the emotional bidders into bidding more than they should; they even have estate agents roaming the bidders to try and elicit them for more. My eBay strategy would therefore not work.
What can the rational bidder do, then? I would say the best option, overall, would be to (a) wait until the very last second before putting a bid and (b) add the lowest incremental on top of the current bid (that is, if the agent is expecting $10,000 over the previous bid, offer $5000). This way you'll be doing yourself the least damage and you're creating a potential war of attrition that might just help you get rid of the "emotionals". On the other hand, it might just lead them to believe that by just adding a thousand more they may get the house, so it cannot be said that my strategy is an all out winner.
My brother, the Israeli in our family (in the classic sense of the term, which means someone who will never allow themselves to be anyone's sucker), proposed an alternative: Do the same as I have suggested, but bring in a fellow bidder to bid with/against you. Others will think they're facing mightier opposition than they really do, thus helping you get rid of more "emotionals".
So we took my brother along and we followed the plan to the letter. We could also note others applying the very same tactic, too; there goes originality.
But we still lost, and lost miserably, leading me to the following cocnlusion: if you want to win a property auction, all you need to do is have more money than everyone else.

Friday, 13 November 2009

What I Really Really Want

As we are on the eve of taking part in our very first house auction as bidders, I cannot help but feel doubt as I immerse myself in second thoughts. The realist in me says we won't win the auction; we've seen similar houses go for way more than we can afford. But the question remains: are we stupid to give away our combined six years worth of income just like that?
With such immense weight hanging over the decision I comfort myself with the notion that I would have second thoughts no matter how good the house is. I would actually be worried if I was to find myself spending so much money without second thoughts.
On the positive side, the house we're talking about - it's living room is featured in the above photo - is probably one of the best looking houses I've ever seen in Australia, certainly of the houses that can be considered affordable. The photo simply doesn't do it justice; it just goes to show how uninspired the real estate agents are when they take their property photos, because given the material at hand and a proper sunset I could have come with heavily drool inducing photos of that living room.
So what is it about the living room that we like so much? I'll put it this way. In our search for houses, we noticed that the houses we're attracted to the most are those that connect its residents with the outside world in a positive way. In this particular case I'm talking about a house where the entire north wall of the living room (the sunny side when you're in the southern hemisphere) is an openable window to a deck over a nice, open backyard. Just looking at it makes you feel good.
And there's more. As you can sort of see with the photo, the roof's shape is a bit unconventional, giving an extra roomier feeling to it. My description sounds pathetic, I know, but that house worked on me. I liked it, and I could immediately see myself living there.
The point I'm trying to make is that with most of the houses out there being conventionally designed to follow the latest fashion (including, for example, having more toilets than bedrooms and having minimal outside spaces in favor of more and more internal living spaces), a house that doesn't follow suit yet makes you feel alive is a house for which I would go a long way.
But probably not long enough.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

On the Beach

One of our bigger problems with our two year old Dylan has been water. Because of the grommets in his ear we want to avoid his head getting in the water; and because of that we have had a problem with introducing him to water play and swimming. However, sea water is supposedly less of a problem than your average chlorine / bacteria infested swimming pool. And given the hot weather spell Melbourne is currently going through we decided to have an early morning adventure at the beach before it gets too hot.
It was a good opportunity to introduce Dylan to the huge truck we got him at a recent toy sale. He may be afraid of water, but at least he’d be able to enjoy himself playing with his new truck:



The concept worked and we all had a good time at the beach. Dylan woke us up early, as usual, which meant we comfortably left the beach by 10:00. Actually, getting to the beach turned out to be the problem: we may live right next to it, but on that particular day our local council decided to close our beach in favor of some triathlon (damn Aussies with their damn sports) so we had to venture into neighboring territories.

I noticed the photos I posted on Flickr from our beach adventures turned out less than ideal, so I started thinking of the reasons why.
Because we went to the beach, I replaced the shake reduction equipped Sigma lens I’ve had fitted on my Pentax K-7 DSLR with a water resistant Pentax lens. That water resistant lens does not have shake reduction, so I should have turned the camera’s built in shake reduction to compensate. I forgot to do it, though, and given that by now I take shake reduction for granted and don’t even bother to keep still while taking photos, some of my photos turned out too blurry for comfort.
Let that be a lesson on the price we pay for cutting edge technologies.
Then there is the issue of mastering my photos prior to publishing them. It really is a must to master the photos, even if I rarely go beyond basic adjustments (with the number of photos I’m taking, anything more than that would be prohibitively time consuming). The heat conspired against me to prevent me from mastering the photos on my calibrated 19” desktop monitor, so I did it on my netbook instead. The results speak for themselves: the netbook’s overly shiny screen made my white balance and contrast adjustments go all over the place.
Let that be a lesson in favor of monitor calibration.

The first thing we noticed upon approaching the beach itself was the abundance of dogs. Not that dogs are so rare, it's just that we were surrounded by signs saying dogs must be on a leash, with a $200 penalty applying otherwise, whereas the vast majority of the dogs we saw were freely roaming about. The local council could have made a fortune there!
Normally, I'm not an advocate for fining people. But when you encounter that breed of the confidence deprived young woman herding a flock of rottweilers, some of them unleashed, through a beach full of babies and kids who won't know a rottweiler from a poodle, there is danger in the air. Or when you see the dogs pooing and peeing on the same sand that young kids put in their mouths a few seconds later.
Then we saw a mother that brought her two year old to the beach with her. Judging by her appearance and behavior, she was obviously well to do. The boy was dressed with the latest kids' fashion from Polo, including a baseball hat; only that the mother failed to notice that the beach is not a fashion show. Being as close as it is to the hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica, the sun is particularly harsh (and abundant) in Australia. Unless you're a fool, you take care of yourself when exposing your body to the Aussie sun; and you use more than a baseball hat to protect yourself at the beach. That said, that mother didn't bother bringing any toys for her son to play with either, so he was left to annoy other kids by trying to steal their toys (including Dylan's big truck).

Overall, we've had a fun day:



We got back home early and tired.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

In Defence of Truth

Jo Hockey, a leading Liberal and a person very likely to be a future Prime Minister in Australia, has boldly published a personal opinion article entitled In Defence of God. Indeed a bold move it is, because someone with aspirations to a top political seat knows very well they should avoid offending people. The article, in which Hockey advocates the “pick and choose” god (that is, picking the nice things from the bible as our model for god) is quite likely to offend those that advocate a literal interpretation of these mythical Bronze Age scriptures.
My own opinion about the article is that it is aimed at the mainstream majority of people who view religion as a nice and comfortable thing to have but don’t really go to church unless someone’s getting married. Logic wise, the article’s arguments are as flawed as hell, but I don’t see much point in addressing those holes here; Richard Dawkins shreds the pick and choose god into little pieces in his The God Delusion.
The point I would like to address with the article is the way in which Richard Dawkins is dismissed by Hockey. Hockey dismisses Dawkins rather too quickly for being a representative of those that claim religion to be the source of all that is bad in the world. Yet this nonchalant dismissal serves only to demonstrate that Hockey never bothered understanding what Dawkins is trying to say, because if he was to read The God Delusion he would have seen that while Dawkins points at religion as a source of evil this is not Dawkins’ main problem with it.
Dawkins’ main problem with religion is that it stands in the way of truth, with truth being represented through science – humanity’s greatest endeavor into finding the truths of our world. In his fight for the truth, Dawkins is not fighting religion alone but also popular post modernist views that advocate for the relativity of truth (and again I will quote a friend’s annoying email signature, “perception is reality”). In the face of this world’s complexity, as perhaps represented through quantum mechanics, there is some appeal to this relativistic look at this world; but again, such a view does not withstand the slightest rational argument. There are some things that are undeniably true: Napoleon is true, and so is the holocaust and Ayers Rock / Uluru. Even the most drugged up spiritual being will not argue that Napoleon is relative.
So why is this fight for the truth so important? I’ll refer to Carl Sagan’s example from his book Demon Haunted World. A few centuries ago, a certain Queen of England (whose name I forgot; could it be Mary?) was dying. She had all of her kingdom’s resources at her disposal and therefore had loads of very important people praying for her sake, but she still died because there was no one there to give her medicinal help to treat a disease that won’t bother us in the least today. And the reason why this disease doesn’t bother us today is science exposing the truth to us despite the barriers put in its way by religion: we know, today, that this particular disease is caused by very real bacteria (as opposed to demons or some unnatural intervention of sorts). We don’t pray of mess about in any other way (although there are plenty of loonies out there who do); we know the truth. If we want to get cured, we just take antibiotics. Today, we are all much more powerful than the strongest person of an ignorant world.
As Dawkins, Sagan and I, for that matter, argue and clearly demonstrate through the “my kingdom for antibiotics” story, the truth is too important for us to create veils between us and it. And Hockey could use some reading to further his education, especially is expects my approval on his way to becoming our Prime Minister.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

The Honest Politician

What is the rarest thing on earth? Diamonds? Gold?
Evidence seems to suggest none of the above. The rarest of the rare, as far as I can tell, is the honest politician. And I consider myself lucky to have witnessed one.
Last night on ABC’s Four Corners they ran a documentary (accessible here) investigating the politics behind the scenes of the emissions reductions scheme currently negotiated between Labor and the opposition’s Liberals. It was fairly interesting to see how certain Liberal and National politicians cling on to their “I’d rather believe those that say what I want to hear despite what all the evidence and experts' opinions” views.
Most interesting, though, was a brief moment where Shadow Resources and Energy minister, Ian Macfarlane, had a candid moment with the camera. In that moment he said that the reality is Australia will never have clean coal operations because these are so far from being feasible and that Australia will never be able to build another coal power station again.
Coming from a high ranking Liberal that statement was something. But more importantly, that statement was made at an eye to eye level; you could see it came from the heart, and you could also clearly see it is an accurate reflection of the man's true opinion: it’s the type of statement that gave An Inconvenient Truth its name.
Being that Macfarlane is a Liberal there is not much of a chance he’d get my vote. However, honesty goes a long way; it could prove the tipping point between voting for a typical Labor candidate or an honest Liberal, especially given Australia’s preferential voting system.

If Macfarlane managed to impress me with his honesty, then his colleague Ted Baillieu, the leader of the Liberal opposition in Victoria, managed to do the opposite.
Baillieu has just announced his plan for placing lots of police in train stations so as to increase travellers’ safety. Which is good. Trouble is, what about all the rest of the stuff Baillieu is so quiet about?
What about public transport infrastructure? Are we going to get more rails and more trains, especially trains that weren’t built Before Christ? What about water policies? Would Baillieu scrap the joke that is the desalination plant? What about education? Are state schools going to have buildings better than the wrecks they currently use and are schools and teachers going to get the money they need? And what about health? Will I prefer to die rather than wait in the queue again the next time I am privileged to go to an emergency room with my son?
If the typical dishonest politician thinks he can get his way out of meaningful policies by throwing a short term popular gesture then he is in for a nasty surprise come election time. Problem is, with the way the current Victorian Labor government is going, and the public’s irrational aversion to voting Greens, we are all losers when the opposition is weak minded.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Yes, We Can

Scientific American has published an article specifying a plan for providing 100% of humanity’s energy requirements through emissions free, sustainable, renewable energy by 2030. The written article is available here (requiring a paid subscription), and a free web presentation is available here. To download the less user friendly paper, click here.
The point is that you read it right: 100%, renewable, no emissions, by 2030. It is possible; personally, I find it quite exciting, as I hope to still be around in 2030. The plan takes the dealing with global warming from a problem our children will inherit from us and turns it into something we can fix ourselves.
OK: Maybe the authors took too many drugs. Maybe we can only make it to 80% or 90% by 2030. But even that would be way more than what our worthless leaders are targeting us at. And if you think the article's milestones are way out there – say, if you’re asking yourself if we can erect four million wind turbines as the plan calls for – then bear in mind that humans are manufacturing more than 50 million cars each year.
Humanity has gone through bigger changes than the one specified in the plan before. Science has been telling us for a while that the move to clean and sustainable energy is a move we must make; now we know that it’s also a move we can make.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Part Time Lover

One of the ways in which evolution works is adaptation. The delicate bones in our ears are an adaptation of older chick bones, and the lungs with which we breathe are an adaptation of a bladder of sorts from our underwater days (which many fishes have adapted for buoyancy purposes). Where we humans seem to have a significant advantage over other animals is in evolution endowing us with brains capable of adapting to new challenges within our lifetimes as opposed to the eons during which evolutionary adaptations take place.
One such example in which skills honed in one area were adapted to address a challenge in another area took place recently with me at work. In an effort to improve the balance of our lives at home (and also our finances and our careers), I have asked work to move to a four day week so that both I and Jo can work for four days each while Dylan visits childcare three times a week (a frequency which we feel is just about right).
Initially, my oral request was answered with a resounding "no". Not only that, I was told that were I to ask in writing I would be given a written rejection. But I didn't succomb; instead, I've adapted the skills earned in thousands of blog posts and wrote a lengthy request letter pressing all the buttons I could press (e.g., "work life balance", "employer of choice", and even pointing at the fact that similar request raised by females returning from maternity leave are commonly accepted whereas I was denied due to sexual bias).
And it worked: I recently got the news that my request is going to be tested through a three month pilot between January and March. If the pilot is deemed successful (and the powers that be avoided defining a set of criteria that would prevent them from changing their minds later), I would be on a four day working week for the duration of 2010.
So blogging works, and poor Dylan doesn't realize what's coming.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Go Raw

One of the more interesting mysteries of our time is to do with the rising popularity of allergies with the younger generations. I grew up in an environment where everyone had free access to nuts, yet today I’d be shot dead if was to enter a childcare facility with a peanut in my pocket.
Interestingly enough, over the last week or so I have stumbled upon two separate updates that provide some potential hints towards locating the source of the problem.
The first was a news update from ABC, where scientists claimed to have identified that the processing of fiber through bacteria in the stomach tends to encourage the immune system. When fiber is hard to come by, as when people eat more processed food and less raw stuff, the immune system as not as stimulated, thus increasing the potential for inflammatory diseases (which, to the best of my understanding, include auto immune diseases and allergies).
The second update came from the British Journal of Psychiatry, where research has reported to find a link between the consumption of processed foods and depression.
I guess the lessons are pretty simple. The problem is the modern lifestyle that keeps us too busy to cook properly and holds us hostage to the constant marketing bombardment coming in from the manufactures of cheap processed foods.