Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Kodachrome

Kodak has announced last week that it is officially and permanently cutting off its Kodachrome photo processing facilities. For those of us on the younger side of things, Kodachrome was one of several techniques with which to process color photos taken on film, that archaic format that has been almost phased out altogether by the digital camera. Archaic as it is, Kodachrome has had some significant following over the years, a lot of which probably due to the Paul Simon song dedicated to this technology (and a personal favorite of mine, by the way).
In natural fashion, the newspapers covering the end of Kodachrome made sure they publish some sort of an obituary, too. I got to read the one published by The Age (available here), and I have to say that in atypical obituary fashion it made me laugh.
Mourning the loss of Kodachrome, the author takes a poke at digital photography and condemns it as an instant gratification tool and nothing more. He goes further to express his worry that digital photography will not have much of a longevity given the potential technology changes that occur over the years and the lack of means to guarantee real long term digital storage; in contrast, he goes on to praise the now defunct Kodachrome for being able to last decades. To me it seems like while the author raises some valid concerns, he is also suffering from an extreme case of elitism and ignorance concerning what digital really stands for. Allow me to elaborate.
First of all, what is wrong, exactly, with the instant gratification provided by digital photography? Would the guy still swear by Kodachrome if it took, say, a year for him to view the photo he took? Digital photography may be accused of being an instant gratification, but I view it as a tool that allows me to know with certain confidence whether the photo I just took is good enough or whether I need to take another one. And unlike film based photography, I can take another one and another one at no cost until I am satisfied; yet just like film based photography, there is nothing preventing me from printing my photo on a paper that will last more than a hundred years. It's a small wonder Kodachrome is now extinct, and I haven't even mentioned digital’s ability to create an infinite number of perfect copies and to distribute those all over the world with as much ease as typing this sentence.
True, there are some undeniable quality advantages to film photography over digital, and personally I would prefer the analog option to still be available for those that prefer it. Indeed, digital is not always better, as the world of music reproduction demonstrates: Personally, I am of the opinion that well implemented vinyl sounds much better than a CD (but not, however, the latest sound formats available through Blu-rays); the problem is, it takes much money and much effort to acquire a well implemented vinyl based music system, whereas a CD is so easy to implement that it becomes the only real option available to most people. I also have a lot against the iPod and its world of lossy compressed MP3 music, which just sounds bad by any standard.
However, and most importantly, digital should never be condemned just because it’s digital. If we were to do so we will be condemning ourselves, because we are, by definition, digital creatures. Yes, we are: the DNA that defines our starting point in life from the time of conception is nothing more than digital code recorded using a base 4 decoding system and containing as much data as a DVD. Yes, that is "all" there is to the code that makes up every living thing on this planet of ours, but it is this "simplicity" that allows life to be so great: It is the ability to make reliable copies, so inherent to digital formats, that means we can all be here in this world today. Indeed, to declare digital as nothing more than a whim that satisfies people’s simple urges is to deny the magic of life entire. Seen in this light, the notion of harboring basic grudge against digital based photography just because of its digital nature is exposed as pure ignorance mixed with limited imagination.
Or, in the end it’s the photo that counts, not the technology.

Sunday, 28 June 2009

In Praise of Slowness

Last Friday was a really bad day for me at the office. A very human mistake I have made got escalated into big fiasco, and while I still sleep comfortably at night knowing I didn't do anything remotely immoral I cannot say I've enjoyed that day at the office. I'm pretty sure I will be reminded of that day in the future, too.
In my opinion, I am paying the price of parenthood fatigue. It is therefore important for me to have a bit of a pause and look back at my biggest achievements in my current place of work. After all, I tend to bitch and moan on how my career path took a nosedive with me migrating to Australia; let's have a look, then, at what did not happen to me over the last three and a half years since I started my current job:
  1. Never did I have to do any work related tasks during a weekend.
  2. The latest I have left the office was 17:30, and that has mainly been on days in which I started late.
For someone battling the daily grind of parenthood, the above is incredibly important.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

The Baloney Detection Kit

It is no secret I have an affair with Richard Dawkins. After all, I even advertise the fact with a nice banner on the right hand side of this blog. It’s natural: like Dawkins, and also because of Dawkins, I have been a fan and an advocate of the rational approach and of using science and the scientific method as an arbiter between arguments. Like Dawkins, I think this approach is of ultimate importance given personal challenges and society wide challenges facing us all; and because this is the case, I will use this post to further advertise The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science.
The Foundation, as I like to call it given my unashamed affection to anything Asimov, is not afraid to use the latest technologies available and does not seek to make money for its own good. Thus it operates a dedicated YouTube channel where many a great video can be found. For example, you can find in there, free of charge, the whole five episodes of Richard Dawkins’ Growing Up in the Universe lectures: a set of lectures summing up a lot of the Dawkins narrative in a manner which is aimed at teenagers (but worked very well on me, too).
Currently, the latest video on the Foundation’s YouTube page is entitled The Baloney Detection Kit. It is this video and its qualities that prompted me to write this post and proclaim The Foundation’s existence to the world. Narrated by Michael Shermer, the editor of Skeptic Magazine and my favorite columnist in Scientific American (he was mentioned in this blog a year ago when visiting Australia), the video sets out to explain in laymen terms why the scientific approach is important and why well implemented science is something we should all recognize as positive instead of something to alienate ourselves from. The core of the video, though, is inspired by Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit (first specified in Sagan's exemplary book, Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark). Essentially, it is a set of simple rules accompanied with real life example that show us how to differentiate a bad argument from a good one; and while doing so, the video demonstrates the value of the scientific method.
Have a look at the video. It’s only fifteen minutes long and it’s pretty entertaining. And make sure you subscribe to the Foundation’s YouTube channel!

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Hottest 100 of All Time: Reprise

The constant tinkering started immediately after posting my vote for Triple J’s Hottest 100 of All Time last week: Which songs should have been included and the list but ended up forgotten instead?
There are many worthy candidates. Really, the list does go on from here to eternity. At the end of the day, though, I could thus far only think of two songs that should have been in my list but were left out, two songs that are worthy of displacing two other songs that were included in my original list:
  1. John Lennon – Watching the Wheels
  2. The Police – Message in a Bottle
Now that I managed to clear my mind of pondering the “which” question, I could open it up for the even more interesting question of “why”. As I have said, there are many songs worth listing as my favorite ten songs ever, probably hundreds of such songs; the interesting question, to me, is why did I pick the specific ten plus songs I had picked. And the more I think about it the more obvious the answer seems to be.

It is obvious that it is not straight out musical quality that gets my nomination. While, say, A Day in the Life could be said to have been a somewhat revolutionary song, the majority of songs have nothing particularly special about them. It’s not like any of the songs are the first song ever to feature human vocal work or the first song ever to feature a new type of an instrument, say the electric guitar.
It is also obvious that lyrics do have a significant role in my selections. Bowie’s Life on Mars, for example, is a nice example for how simple lyrics help create a certain image in my head that is augmented by the music to make a very effective experience. Lyrics are significant, yet not the most dominant factor of all.
As Life on Mars’ lyrics demonstrate, I am after the experience. And when I think back of the reasons why certain songs’ experience ended up being dominant enough for me to list them, I can only conclude the truth that has been staring me in the face all along: The songs I have picked are the songs that conjure the most positive memories in my head; but it’s not only that, these memories have to be memories of the type I would like to be associated with.
I can explain what I’m talking about using examples. There was a period, when I was 16, when I thought very highly of the singer Samantha Fox and her musical work; so while I have the memories, what I do not have is any wish to still be associated with Fox’ music. I doubt Samantha Fox herself has such wishes. On the other hand, take Pink Floyd’s Time, one of the masterpieces from their Dark Side of the Moon album: It is surrounded by many other songs of equal and perhaps greater quality, but Time is the song that has been engraved in my head as a child because of some confusion that allowed me to associate it with some police TV drama I never got to watch as a child because I was too young. Add to that the memory of my brother’s exotic green audio cassette, where he had recorded Dark Side of the Moon, and the aroma of exotic memories becomes too overpowering to resist.
Memories go a long way indeed. Two other songs on the verge of entering my list are also heavy on the memories: Pink Floyd’s Learning to Fly is a song my brother taped me shortly after he moved to Australia, so its associations of flying were enhanced by the associations of that mysterious land of Oz half a world away from the Israel this teenager was living in at the time. Or Genesis’ Home by the Sea, a song unsuitable for listing because it’s actually two separate songs (part 1 and part 2), is a song I remember both for its dominating drum beats but mostly for the way I used to listen to it through my Walkman while taking very long walks with my father as a young teenager. We would walk for 3-4 hours a time but most of the time we would hardly chat; my father had his radio, I had my tapes. But we really enjoyed ourselves. And don't get me started on the memories behind The Wall!
Perhaps this is what we look for whenever we contemplate our own history to determine its highlights. What we’re really looking for could be some sort of an easy way to recreate our favorite memories, be they real memories or false hopes. Lucky for us, modern technology and music conspire to provide us with an easy means with which to achieve that goal.

Epilogue
Isn't it sad that at this time in my life, when I finally have at my disposal a hi-fi system with incredible capabilities the likes of which I wasn't even able to imagine a few years ago, I also don't have the time and the ability to listen to music the way it should be listened to? Sure, I can listen at very low volumes and I can listen at proper volumes while playing with my two year old or while accepting a constant whine/cry in the background.
But gone are the days when I could listen properly while welcomed are the days in which I can afford the equipment I like. It's one of those cases where I don't know whether to laugh or to cry.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Swine Flu, Episode 3

Ever since going back to work late last week I have become some sort of an office celebrity. Obviously still very struck with a cold, people have been approaching me with questions on the matter of Swine Flu as if I am some sort of a subject matter expert; others do the same as a protection mechanism, to verify whether I am safe to be near them (“Moshe, do you know of anyone with Swine Flu?”). The funny things fear of the unknown causes people to do.
This celebrity status leads to many conversations, most of which fall under the usual polite yet meaningless office courtesy conversations. There was, however, a single exception which blew some of my fuses:
An office colleague joined one of my mass gathering Swine Flu information sessions at the office kitchen to announce that, given my own admission of not having a fever during my last flu like outbreak, it is impossible the disease I have contracted was Swine Flu. The reason, according to the guy, is this: According to what he has heard, every person with Swine Flu has to have at least two days with a fever.
Now, I am not here to say whether I have had Swine Flu or not; I can speculate, but I am definitely not able to make a conclusive determination. There is nothing wrong with not being able to conclusively determine on matters and suspending judgment instead; I am completely unable to make conclusive determinations about most things, yet I manage to sleep well at night. The thing that does bother me, though, is the ease with which the guy at hand has accepted a rumor concerning Swine Flu as the ultimate truth without even the slightest skeptical analysis.
Can it really be said that everyone infected with Swine Flu has to go through at least two days of a high temperature? It doesn’t even take a second of reflections to realize this is blatantly obviously not the case. First, there were reports of numerous infected people who were totally oblivious to their infection due to its mild nature. Second, and more importantly, this is a basic misunderstanding of the way diseases work their way through populations. In all epidemics, there are always those that have some sort of immunity or those through which the bug just passes through without making them feel bad; this has been the case with malaria and this has been the case with the medieval European plague and this has been the case with the more recent SARS. Yes, SARS, a disease that seemed to kill everyone on its sights: even the dreaded SARS virus “only” killed 5% of its victims, with many of those infected completely unaware of their infection.
It didn’t take much for me to refute the guy’s argument; just a bit of awareness and a short thought experiment. Sadly, it seems I am at a minority here; for most people it is much easier to build their convictions upon rumors they happen to bump into. And with political correctness at the office so dutifully enforced, I will be risking my job if I was to make the effort to correct the guy.
Now, isn’t it ironic to see how it is exactly those falsehoods that manage to grab a foothold in our consciousness that are also the falsehoods that manage to find ways to protect themselves and guarantee their self preservation in a world where their preservation is completely unjustified and even has destructive consequences? Turns out religion and Swine Flu have a lot in common after all.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

There's a Starman

This morning started at 6:30 when Dylan made his first waking up noises. By 7:30 we gave up and got up. The first thing the brat did after we changed his night time nappy and dressed him up was run to his Atlas of the Universe book and browse for stars.
This time around I was mentally ready with the camera option. I missed out on him dragging the heavy book to the sofa, but I managed to capture the next six minutes of star browsing:



Clearly, the boy's latest fetish is with the stars. While I encourage it, I am also aware it won't be long before he'll move on to the next best thing. For now I'm having fun; but we really need to find a book that's aimed at Dylan's age and which provides a genuine astronomy background with some nice plot. As nice as Dylan's atlas is, it's not good on the narrative side of things.
For now, I will leave you with this final note, also quoted in the above video: There is no dark side of the moon, really; matter of fact, it's all dark. Dylan may already be aware of that.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Hottest 100 of All Time

Triple J radio station, probably my favorite radio station in Australia, is currently doing this "hottest 100 songs of all time" competition. People are expected to nominate their all time ten favorite songs, and eventually the station will play the top nominees.
Now, in general, I don't think there's much merit to such competitions. I know my choice of favorite songs varies greatly with mood and genre. Besides, what is a "favorite song" anyway? Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon is by far my favorite album (again, depending on context and such), but it's really hard to point at a specific song that stands out in that album. Or what about my favorite jazz album, Miles Davis' Kind of Blue? That's defintiely a collection of mood tunes, and again - it's hard to point at a winner. And Beethoven's 9th: Is that a song?
Quibbles aside, it's fun to think up a list. So here's mine; I have decided to pick the songs that tend to "melt my heart" the most when I listen to them. That is, either that, or set my heart on fire:
  1. The The - Lonely Planet
  2. David Bowie - Life On Mars?
  3. David Bowie - Moonage Daydream
  4. Beatles, The - A Day in the Life
  5. Beatles, The - Happiness Is A Warm Gun
  6. Simon & Garfunkel - Bridge Over Troubled Water
  7. Led Zeppelin - Bring It On Home
  8. Pink Floyd - Time
  9. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here
  10. White Stripes, The - Girl, You Have No Faith In Medicine
Two notes in conclusion:
Upon voting, you're asked for the one hottest song ever. My vote went to Lonely Planet; if you need to know why, it's the lyrics.
Second, I fully trust people will vote some major sh*t songs. Democracy tends to make sh*t float; at least it's popular sh*t.

Monday, 15 June 2009

One in Three

"I am a one in ten, a number on a list" (UB40)

According to today's headline from The Age, which I have had the pleasure of reading while sitting at the doctor's waiting room, one in three Victorians is estimated to be infected by the Swine Flu virus. I was wearing a mask and I was surrounded by people wearing masks, which made me laugh given what I have read on the effectiveness of these masks. So yes, I was looking forward to hearing the doctor's estimate of what it is, exactly, that I'm suffering from; preferably something more exact than the regular "oh, you've got a virus".
Sadly, it looks like I will never know for sure. Victoria has given up on the containment of Swine Flu a fortnight ago, and since then they don't bother testing it anymore (instead, they're supposedly keeping an eye on the pulse and targeting those in particular danger; yeah, right). However, the doctor had to admit that given the description of my symptoms and his own readings, it is a safe bet that the virus I am now carrying and manufacturing copies of at despicable rates is, indeed, the Dread Pirate Roberts (sorry, I meant to say Swine Flu).
So, how is life this side of a suspected Swine Flu attack? Well, as they keep on saying, it is a mild case of a normal flu. I do have all the regular flu symptoms, but they are on the milder side of things; I am able to get out of bed, although you won't catch me playing football. Come to think of it, I'm even able to play FIFA on the PS3 to one extent or another, which is a rarity for me when I'm sick. I, personally, never seemed to have a fever this time around, but I'm definitely hit; the biggest pain of it all has to be my blocked nose: I cannot recall my nose ever being as blocked as it is now. Indeed, after a few very interrupted nights where I kept waking up because of some weird side effect that comes with breathing through your mouth, I just gave up and used a nose decongestant. Problem is, you can't use them for more than three days, so I don't know how long I can party for.
Overall, I can clearly see why Swine Flu is as contagious as it is. Between some very meaty coughs and a nose that feels more like a tap, I seem to be releasing the virus at a rate that even Chinese manufacturing would be proud of. I'm pretty sure one of these agents will be tapping your door soon; together, we can improve that one in three ratio.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Oink!

According to local media, outside the Americas Melbourne is the Swine Flu capital. Judging by the news coverage and the local talk, that is indeed the case: on one hand we have the continuous count of infections run by the media; on the other we have the Federal Minister of Health, Nicola Roxon, talking about targeted treatment of the disease. That is, those deemed most susceptible will be targeted and dealt with to avoid fatalities.
It doesn't take much of a brain to realize the media circus surrounding Swine Flu is just a joke. If we have more than a thousand infections, and if new infections come up all the time, and if these new infections do not have anything to do with previous infections, then it must mean there are tens of thousands of diseased people. SARS, for example, was a virus that killed 5% of those infected, and that was hard to track; how can you genuinely believe you can keep track of a disease as subtle as the common cold? The media, it seems, doesn't care; alarmist headlines sell papers, even if it comes at the price of driving the public's ignorance.
As for Roxon's targeting, should I start with her being officially declared a vampire two minutes after her own "private health insurance fee rises - over my dead body" declaration? No, I'll deal with her using the story of our own two year old son, Dylan.

Last Saturday evening Dylan started with this cough. By the evening he had a genuinely high fever, around the 40 degrees, which even for him - and he is sick on a fortnightly basis - is unusual. The fever continued to run high even in the morning, which is yet another atypical phenomenon (fevers tend to peak at night), so we took Dylan to see the doctor despite it being a Sunday.
Our doctor's appointment was postponed twice because of medical emergencies, and the clinic was full of patients way past its closing time - a sign of wintry times, I guess. Eventually, Dylan got his turn with my favorite doctor (he's not only a good doctor that does not mind questioning and goes through great lengths to explain his decisions, he's also a Liverpool supporter - which means we can discuss genuinely interesting stuff while being diagnosed). The doctor agreed with us on Dylan having flu like symptoms, but because he identified an inflammation of the tonsils he went with that and prescribed antibiotics.
The antibiotics seemed to kick in pretty quickly and Dylan's fever was reduced (at the price of runny nappies due to the antibiotics). Still, a couple of days later he still had a fever (albeit a significantly milder one); we took him to the clinic again, this time to see another doctor. She concluded Dylan seems to have a multiple infection (our son is very talented!): in addition to the bacteria messing with his tonsils, which seem to have been dealt with, he has some sort of a virus. The running order is for diseases involving a fever lasting for more than two days that are combined with flu like symptoms is to regard them as Swine Flu until proven otherwise; however, because Dylan's fever was lower (effectively gone during day time), he got off the hook.
Now, does that constitute effective Swine Flu targeting? I have no idea whether Dylan's virus was the dreaded Swine Flu or not; however, I do know that Dylan's medical history indicates he is a prime time Swine Flu target, and that if anyone should be targeted for treatment it should be him. But nothing like that really happens; it's all just talk in the air.
The rest of the story is that a day later I caught my own version of Dylan's virus. I can report mild flu like symptoms: no fever, but I'm definitely a weakling germ manufacturing apparatus. Jo seemed to have caught her own version, with her nose getting blocked. Again, we have no idea what virus it is that we have; but if anyone was seriously into dealing with Swine Flu, they should have given us a look given that our case complies with the regular Swine Flu story of mild flu like symptoms. Instead, all I got out of my doctor's visit was a sick certificate for work and a speech telling me I don't need antibiotics because what I do have seems to be a virus.

With the above observations, let me tell you the real story of Australia's handling of Swine Flu.
The reality is that if Swine Flu was to be fought the way SARS was, the local economy would be significantly hurt. People won't go to work or won't be able to go to work, and the financial damage would mount up high. This time around I actually tend to agree with this money makes the world go around decision: Given Swine Flu's mild symptoms, there will be much more suffering due to the stagnation of the economic machine than there would be as a result of Swine Flu.
The problem is, no one is saying what I have just said aloud. In typical political fashion, the handling of Swine Flu has become a game of spin; politicians seem to think it's much better to misinform that public and maintain an aroma of ambiguity (and a significant level of fear) rather than tell things the way they are. Actually, telling things the way they are could hurt Australia's international stance: As per the Mexican case, it is going to be the poor countries where people will genuinely suffer from Swine Flu; if Australia was to appear to give up on containing the disease it will have fingers pointed at her, eventually. Some public confusion is a good price to pay to avoid that, it seems.

So stop listening to the Swine Flu mambo jumbo spin festival, and start preparing for the next big thing. I hear Yak Flu is going to be the real deal.

Note: The above post was typed in its entirety with me breathing through my mouth. And it's not like I had a choice.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

One for Tux

Microsoft has always been the envy of the marketing world with its strategy of pushing its products. Essentially, they do everything they can to make sure we get used to their stuff, and then - once we're too numb to look for anything better - they strike our wallets by repeatedly selling us the same mediocre product again and again under the guise of an upgrade.
They can go to extremes. More often than not, Microsoft will be happy with people using pirate versions of their products just so they're hooked; but then, at some stage or another, they'll cry wolf and moan that people don't pay them. Alternatively, Microsoft will cut down its own prices in order to compete with the opposition, as in their successful campaign to kick Linux out of the netbook arena by selling Windows XP licenses for $30 (they also scare netbook manufacturers into Windows submission, but that's another story; read here for a recent example).
The point is clear: Microsoft will stop at nothing to get total control over our computers, and, effectively, our wallets.

Well, I say: Eat your heart out, Bill Gates! Yes, have a look at my two year old and his attitude to computers.
As recently reported, we bought Dylan a rocket toy bundled with a moon base. That moon base has a small computer station. And how does my Dylan refer to that workstation?
"Computah! Penguin!"

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Family First, Reason Last

The dangers of not following the scientific method have been discussed here before, but yesterday the alert level went up a notch when ignorance hit our Upper House: Family First’s Senator Steve Fielding has announced he would like more research on solar flares as a potential cause of global warming. Apparently, he took part in a conference where the idea was suggested as an alternative to the more commonly accepted theory that global warming is the result of rising greenhouse gas levels. Alas, the conference organizers were as able to support their claim as the Pope is able to coherently explain the concept of the trinity, resulting in Fielding’s attempt to recruit Aussie scientists to task.
I can hear scientists from Oxford to MIT just lining up to Fielding’s call. I can hear Australia is already diverting its massive research infrastructure, including a vast array of orbiting satellites and telescopes, just to check Fielding’s “new” hypothesis. And on a more serious note, I already hear Fielding being knocked back by leading scientists.
The problem, however, is not Fielding’s ignorance in science; it is his ignorance in the scientific method. Unlike Fielding’s world, science is no autocracy; if someone wants to research something scientifically, there is no one out there stopping them. Anyone who wants to check solar flare theories is more than welcome to go ahead and do so. However, it is exactly this freedom that demonstrates the likelihood (or rather, unlikelihood) of the solar flare theory as an explanation to global warming, because if there was any basis for giving the theory a second thought someone would have jumped on that train. Just think how famous one can be if one was to legitimately prove the vast majority of scientists wrong on global warming! That would have been an achievement not unlike Einstein’s. The reality, however, is that this is not the case: the reality is that we have thousands of peer reviewed papers supporting the greenhouse gases theory for global warming and a very round zero number of acceptable papers supporting solar flare.
I think the main thing that troubles me with Fielding, other than an idiot like him representing me in Parliament, is that the guy goes to prove me right. I have said here before that there seems to be a link between religious faith and global warming skepticism, and Fielding is a case in point: one can easily see how this devout Catholic with his archaic agendas had turned into a global warming skeptic. In his view, if there is such a thing as global warming, then it is surely something created by god; solar flares go along with god’s doing much better than humans burning fossils. Not only that, since Fielding assumes his god to be merciful (again, despite all evidence leading the other way), he is unable to accept that this global warming is a bad thing for us. He’s not even able to accept the general contamination caused by burning fossils.
In short, Fielding’s view that we are the epitome of creation and that this world is our playground, a view fueled by his baseless religious dogma of choice, is at a point where through his vote it can lead Australia to imminent defeat against humanity’s worst enemy.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Real Patriots Ask Questions

I'm always amazed at the ease with which powerful people with narrow minded agendas manage to convince us to limit our freedom of expression. Usually this is done in the name of security; the latest trendy option is to do so in the name of political correctness. How delightful!

By now it's been all over the news (in Australia): The ABC will be taking its Chaser program off air for a couple of weeks. The reason cited is a skit on last Wednesday night's program where the Chaser team laughed at the Make a Wish Foundation. This Foundation is not as impressive as Asimov's but it does some nice things, like granting terminally ill kids' wishes.
The Chaser's crime was to laugh at them by doing a skit on the Make a Realistic Wish Foundation. In this Foundation, a sick kid asks for a Disney holiday and gets a stick in return; a funny joke in my book, but not in the books of those that complained to the ABC, and not in the book of our distinguished Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. No, according to our moral compass, the beacon of all that is just and fair (with the slight exclusion of the times he spent at strip clubs and the time he dedicates to having a go at air hostesses), this Foundation is exempt from all mockery. The ABC seems to agree, even if the punishment in bestowed on its renegade program is meaningless.
I, on the other hand, disagree. I disagree because it is obvious the minute we stop scrutinizing everything - no matter how holly - we will also stop scrutinizing other things. Like, say, politicians, those very same politicians who jump to defend their sacred foundations.
I also argue that the right to say the things on your mind, especially the right to question, is one of the few truly sacred things around, even if what you have to say is bullshit. Yes, even if you're a climate change skeptic, a fake moon landing conspirator, or a holocaust denier - even if you're much worse than this, you should be allowed to have your say. Otherwise, how will the rest of us know you're an idiot? More seriously, otherwise people like Galileo would not be able to tell us our world is not the center of the universe; otherwise, our world would be forever flat.
I also argue that the ABC, a channel owned by the public, is exactly the place where freedom of speech should be fought for the most; no commercial channel would ever dare go near controversy that could hurt its income, so it's up to the non commercials to carry the flag for all of us.
Still worked up about being exposed to bullshit on TV? Well, for a start, you can always switch your TV off. And second, the cure for dealing with bullshit is the education that teaches people how to tell bullshit from fact; let us not give up on education by introducing the morality police's censorship.

Another example of some senseless policing came from work. As I have told you in the past, my distinguished place of work has decided to block various websites from its employees. Since the initial blockage of nearly everything interesting (and useful) on the internet, a string of complaints have caused the curfew to be somewhat relaxed. On a good day one can even access Flickr (alas, the good days are a rarity). The main blockage point thus far has been the blocking of internet email facilities, the Hotmails and the Gmails and their likes, on the grounds that one can download a virus there (as if one cannot do so in a million other ways).
There were always some ways around this blockage. For example, I was always able to access web mail services from Israeli websites that speak Hebrew; obviously, those were beyond the scope of the redneck blocker's intelligence. Another way was to use iGoogle's Gmail widget, which allowed me to see if I had emails and who from even if it didn't allow me to read the emails themselves (surprisingly enough, that is all you need most of the time).
The latest development came last week when Google refined their iGoogle service. If you're yet to try it, give it a go; it's a mighty home page to have: mine features my emails, calendar, trackers for my favorite blogs, weather forecasts for all the places I care for, international clocks, Melbourne's rain radar, news headlines, and much much more.
The trick is that iGoogle's revamped Gmail widget allows you to read and even send your Gmail emails from iGoogle itself, without resorting to direct Gmail access. The implication is that despite the office blockage at the office I now have, effectively, full access to my Gmail account at the office. The weak minded beings that came up with the blockage concept have been defeated once again; no one, not even them, will dare block Google! And I doubt they'd find a way to block iGoogle alone any time soon; I doubt they'd even realize their Berlin Wall has been bypassed.
My point is simple: Don't block, and never shut people's mouths. Educate instead! It's harder, but it pays.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Rocket Man

As per Dylan's normal course of action, we have been celebrating the last long weekend before the big long weekend drought with him being sick. By now we're pretty sick of him being sick; it's not that trivial an effort to toggle between the demands of work and those of the child. It's pretty obvious which of the two gains priority, but it's also pretty obvious there are people at the office who would like to cut some of my body parts off and rather slowly.
What these people fail to realize, though, is that the trouble at home means I'm much less capable when I'm at the office even though my time at the office is made more precious by its rarity. Or, to put it another way: We're in need of a vacation.
Till then, we bought Dylan what is probably is most sophisticated toy by far - a proper rocket, with moon buggies, a moon base, astronauts el al (and by et al I'm talking about the companion space dog, a bed, a toilet, and a microwave oven). I have said here before we were after proper toys and I have said how I would like to see Dylan getting to know the space around us, so this rocket goes well with all my favorite motifs. It goes particularly well with the Stephen Hawking books we recently got him; we're looking forward to some live reenactment of some of the books' scenes.
The following video records the initial unpacking of Dylan's new toy:

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Violence of Truth

“Why is it that anything on this earth we do not understand we are pushed down on our knees to warship or to damn” (Matt Johnson)

A couple of recent and successive events have reminded me how oblivious people are to the things that make them believe in something. What is it, really, that make us accept one argument as truth and not the other? To me, a self declared skeptic, the answer seems dead obvious; yet it is clear this is not the case with most people.
Let’s start this story with the account of these successive events that made me write this post.

As our two year old Dylan has been the dominant force in my life for the past three years, this story starts with him. Again.
Since Dylan was three to four months old, we have been putting him to bed in sleeping bags. At the time we got into them because they were recommended as a means for reducing the risk SIDS, but since then we grew to like them more and more: Dylan associates them with sleeping, they are easy to deal with, and because he can’t untangle himself out of one we reduce the chances of him waking up cold and waking us up in the middle of the night (the thing every parent wants to avoid the most). Baby sleeping bags have been such a success we have changed models whenever Dylan grew out of them and have been regularly maintaining three sets of sleeping bags: one for hot weather, one for medium weather, and one for cold weather (the most useful set given Melbourne’s weather).
Yet despite the success they have proved to be, my family routinely raises doubts about the sleeping bags. Whenever Dylan is sick they harass me with anti sleeping bag questions and statements along the lines of “I have never heard of anyone using sleeping bags for their baby”. Obviously, they’ve never heard of me, which is where their problem lies:
My family is world renowned for never starting a morning without reading a couple of peer reviewed scientific papers published in reputable publications. They’re also famous for their highly intellectual peers, with whom they regularly debate philosophical mattes. I am being sarcastic, of course, but my point is that my family will accept what their peers tell them as truth no matter how insensible these things are, yet they will never accept what I tell them, regardless of the evidence I bring forth.
Given that it’s currently Melbourne winter, I was recently asked by a member of my family whether we warm Dylan’s room up at night. Again, it was an attempt to explain why he is sick so often. I answered that we warm it up to 18 degrees and in return I get the shocked reply aimed at making me think I have just performed genocide on my baby: Not only do I let him sleep in a sickness inducing sleeping bag, I also dare to heat his room only up to the temperature widely recommended for babies by the majority of medical authorities? How dare I!

The second incident took place at work. A colleague of mine had stumbled upon the copy of Scientific American I had on my desk waiting for my lunch break read. Having carefully studied the magazine’s cover he started what could have been a roller-coaster of a ride by moving on to inform me that evolution is just a theory which has never been proven.
Work code of conduct regulations aimed at keeping all employees comfortably numb with their set of beliefs, no matter how far these are from the objective truth, prevented me from standing up and giving everyone in my vicinity the speech I wanted to give. Instead, I questioned the guy’s perception on the concept of “proof” by asking whether Einstein’s Theory of Relativity has been proven.
Of course, was the answer; it was proved on numerous occasions. I moved in with the challenge: was it proved or is it “just” a case of the theory being able to explain various measurable phenomena, like the bending of light near the sun? And how do you deal with this so called proved theory’s inability to explain various things taking place at the quantum level?
I moved on to germ theory. Was that proved? Did anyone check to see that every case of a diseased person that has ever been pinned on a germ was truly the result of small living beings doing their worst? I doubt (but I'll welcome the news I'm in error) anyone had ever looked up a microscope to see a virus in the process of making a cell duplicate its RNA strands; it’s too small level a phenomena. It’s just that this theory explains how we become sick and how we become healthy; it explains a lot of things very well, so the evidence in its favor make us accept it as fact even though it cannot be proven in the exact mathematical sense.
The same applies to The Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection. No, it cannot be proved in the strict mathematical sense, but yes – and that’s a big time yes – there is so much evidence to support it that you have to be either totally ignorant or a total fool to reject it as anything but real. The reason why people keep on picking on Evolution of all theories is that they are, indeed, ignorant and fools, fooled by their own religious beliefs.
The point I am trying to make is that information at our hands, in the shape of evidence and such, can never prove something to be absolutely right. With the exception of those of us who venture into space, none of us can be absolutely sure (absolutely being the key word) the earth is not flat; it’s just that the earth being round explains so many things so well. The satellite photos of the earth show it is round, but can you trust them a hundred percent? Some people don’t, as evidenced by the stupidly popular movement denouncing the Apollo moon landings as fake.
What evidence can do for us is to reduce our uncertainty. Gather enough evidence to support a claim beyond the threshold of disbelief and you might as well accept that claim as the objective truth. This is how our courts work: ask your favorite judge and they will tell you they are never absolutely sure about the verdicts they pass; they tend to aspire for 95% certainty.

In my case, and in the case of all rational people, the evidence in favour of evolution has reduced the uncertainty around it way past the threshold of disbelief. Yet a question still remains, what qualifies a piece of evidence, conveyed indirectly to us through quotes and news we stumble upon, to be viable evidence we can genuinely use to reduce our uncertainty in favor of accepting a certain argument as true?
The best advice I have received there comes from Bertrnad Russell’s book, Sceptical Essays. Russell is arguing that today’s world is too complicated for everyone to be an expert at everything, therefore necessitating the need for us to seek help with the experts of their respected fields. If the experts are in agreement, we should accept their opinion. If they disagree, we should suspend judgment; there is nothing wrong with suspending judgment when there is not enough evidence to support a certain claim.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Head

The world of video games is suffering and the symptoms are clear. Check out the games lineup for the more sophisticated consoles and you will see there's nothing new under the sun; the vast majority of games are copies of tried and tested formulas. The problem is the cost of developing a new game: it's so high, no one can take the risk of coming up with something original. The result? The most capable gaming platform around at the moment, the PlayStation 3, has a lineup of games that is as exciting as a sermon at your local church. To add insult to injury, the cost of a new game can be north of a hundred dollars. There is, however, a ray of light.
Sony is now offering a line of new, smaller games to its PS3 console through its online shop. Following a recommendation in The Age, we took the plunge and downloaded one of those games, Flower, for $13 (AUD). And let me say this: Flower is not only cheap, it is also wonderful and original!
You play a flower which you pilot through fields in order to make other flowers blossom, an act through which you make dreary looking scenes come to life. The graphics are PS3 quality, meaning they're superb, but the nice thing about the game are the controls: effectively, this is a flight simulator game where you fly a flower, but you fly it by tilting the joystick instead of using the stick. With its calm music and forgiving nature the game has a pre-bed-time appeal for our two year old Dylan, whom we managed to teach some colors through the onscreen flowers (later levels are too dark for his comfort, though). Overall, Flower is a game with a green agenda that will not disappoint.
Our Flower experience gave us the appetite for more, so for $13 more we've downloaded Zen Pinball. It's a "simulator" of four pinball machines, and let me tell you this: it really feels like the real thing, both in the look, in the physics of the game, and in the actual feel. Through the vibrating controller and the very realistic surround sound effects you do feel like you're playing a real pinball machine. You can play online, but we like to play the two player mode; indeed, Zen Pinball is proving to be a good option for a short video gaming stint.
Overall, we like the option of downloading games on the cheap. It's like renting only that we keep the game and through DRM you cannot pass it around. At least you don't need to mess with game discs...
Another positive of the PS3 online shop is that you can download playable game demos. We've already tried Lemmings, a World War 2 flying game, and a Formula 1 game. The last two are not worth buying, but having the option to suss them out is a quite useful.
Overall, I recommend you try the download option, especially Flower.