Saturday, 31 October 2009

The Work of the Devil

Advocates of that insult to intelligence that passes by the name of Intelligent Design will gladly tell you that the banana with its shape and peel is proof for an all powerful designer going out of his way to help us, humans, with our nutritional needs.
Let us ignore, for a minute, unequivocal evidence for the banana we know and eat today being the result of evolution taking place on the wild fruit pictured to the left – after all, since when do we let evidence stand in our way – and let me ask you this:
If a banana’s tailor made shape is the work of a generous creator, what are we to make of all the other fruits that are not so easy for humans to eat? For example, have you tried eating a pomegranate lately? It’s terribly messy!
Are we to conclude that these are the result of another agent’s work?

Don’t think for a minute that I was smart enough to come up with the question that is at the core of this post. The idea was borrowed from Mr Deity, and I’ll use the opportunity to point you towards that website and recommend you watch the videos there. They’re hilarious!

Friday, 30 October 2009

About Free Lunches

This week has been a rather historical one for computers all over the world. It had seen three major operating system events: Microsoft has released it long overdue Windows 7, Apple has significantly reduced its prices, and Canonical has released its latest version of Ubuntu Linux, dubbed Karmic Koala.
Given Windows’ popularity – some 90% of this world PCs run it – there can be no doubt Windows 7 is the most important of the above. Allow me, however, to also to have it as the first one to be dismissed: At this point in time I see absolutely no point for Windows XP users to upgrade to Windows 7. Sure, you will get benefits here and there, especially if you’re at a point where a 64 bit architecture would benefit you. But I’m sure most of you are asking what a 64 bit architecture is, which proves my point.
Next there is Apple, and I have to admit that even though I have a lot against Apple the company I have to admire their products. They are good! They’re also overpriced, although as of this week they won’t be as overpriced as they used to be. In Australia you can now get yourself an Apple laptop (or whatever they call it) for around $1200 and an Apple desktop for around $1500. Granted, for that price you can get better PCs, but those PCs won’t have the slickest operating system around.
One thing that scares me off about Apples is the cost of applications. I don’t want to spend a fortune on an Apple only to find I need to spend another fortune to be able to run the applications I covet. At this stage I’m too ignorant in the ways of the Mac to have an answer there, but I will say this: the next time I buy a computer I will seriously consider an Apple.
The bottom line of the operating system equation is actually quite simple. Ubuntu beats its competitors hands down, offering us a platform that allows us to have the cake and eat it too. Unlike Windows or Apple’s Leopard, Ubuntu is absolutely free; it’s also pretty slick (both Ubuntu and Apple are Unix based); performance wise it beats Windows quite easily; and it’s the most secure of the lot. There is no need to buy the latest and greatest hardware: my five year old desktop and my two netbooks are doing just fine with Ubuntu, thank you very much.
With more functionality offered out of the box than ever before, Ubuntu is my very clear winner in the operating system debate. The best lunch is the free lunch.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Police and Thieves in the Street

According to “Melbourne’s most popular FM news”, a recent survey of Melbournians has discovered people feel insecure about using the train system. In particular, people have said they’re afraid of going on a train ride off peak hours, and a substantial 60% said they are worried about using it in the dark.
Frankly, as an experienced train rider (“passenger” is way uncool) I tend to agree; train rides can be a dodgy affair even during peak times. Quite often you find yourself surrounded by people whose breath smells like much more than one too many and whose actions speak for themselves.
What raised my curiosity, though, was the radio station’s immediate follow-up: an interview with a Shadow Minister for Something saying that his party (Liberals) have been calling for more police and that this survey indicates the people of Melbourne agree. Or do they? I know of at least one guy who disagrees.
Sure, perhaps we do need more police, and perhaps they would even help address this problem. A bit. But I doubt anything but massive police recruitment would make a real difference on train safety, and in general I doubt anyone can produce evidence that extra police reduces crime. On the other hand, I can clearly see how extra police would be used for extra revenue raising through speed traps. I also suspect there is ample evidence to indicate extra police and extra police powers are directly linked to extra police corruption.
I would recommend another approach: Instead of instilling fear in potential criminals, why don’t we deal with the motivation and the reasons that lead to crime in the first place? Instead of investing additional resources in law enforcement, why don’t we invest more money in state schools from troubled areas so those kids become better educated and can take better care of themselves?
I know why my proposal wouldn’t get anywhere. It’s against the Liberal Party’s spirit to help the weak; if it was up to them, those kids’ schools would be sponsored by McDonald while their gold plated kids go to their private schools and completely detach themselves from the real world and its real world problem. The Liberals don’t see any harm in the widening gap between the poor and the rich and its implications; in the worst case they’d just surround their mansions with taller fences and hire private security guards.
Perhaps the better thing to do would be to take the public money the private schools receive and hand it over to the underprivileged state schools. This way both sides of the scale would receive better education.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Welcome to the Jungle


The Perfect Latte Lifestyle
Originally uploaded by tr[n]ty

The deeper we delved into the heart of darkness that is our house’s extension project, the clearer it became we are in for a ride. We’ve already accepted the ride will span years, but recently it also became clearer the ride will lift a significant weight off our wallets: circa $200,000 kind of a weight. With that kind of a cost on the table and with the notion of tradesmen banging over our heads and turning our lives into hell during the estimated four months of expansion work, we have decided the only responsible thing to do would be for us to examine other options.
And so we’ve ended up inspecting houses and visiting auctions again after more than a six years' break. Moving is high on our the agenda; we are on the market again. I'm talking The Market; the real [estate] one.
With Australia’s real estate market being the way it is (that is, a cornerstone of the Australian experience), and with the intensity and the large amounts of money rolling around – several years of our lives at work are manifested in each transaction – this blog is preparing for a surge of posts discussing the virtues of this whole new world in which we took our first step this Saturday.
Indeed, it didn’t take me long to identify some key things I don’t like about the world of Aussie real estate. Let these be the subject of this post.

Naturally, the first thing I don’t like about real estate are the real estate agents themselves. Can someone tell me what it is, exactly, that they do and what sort of professional expertise they bring to the field? I’m asking the question because the ones we’ve encountered seem to be really good at opening doors and babysitting a house while it’s being inspected. Others were even good at giving long and boring speeches during auctions, and even repeating their “first call… second call… third and final call” mantra much more often than the single time they’re supposed to go through the motions.
But when it comes to the crunch them estate agents are totally useless. Upon inspecting a weather-board house I asked the presenting agent if he knew whether the walls had some insulation. The answer I got from that pro was “I have no idea”. Granted, I don’t know half as much as I would like to know myself; but wouldn’t you expect a professional trying their best to serve their paying customer (the owner of the house) to give you an answer along the lines of “I don’t know but I can find out for you”?
Need I mention the agent that didn’t know where their house’s laundry facilities were?

The second thing I don’t like is that dominant institution of the auction itself. It may work for the seller in allowing the heat and emotion of the moment to grab more money out of two or more enthusiastic bidders. It may even help in organizing a quick sell as opposed to having to offer the house for inspection over weeks and weeks. However, in my view, it blocks the rational buyer from making a purchase; for example, it makes an architect's inspection problematic, because as a buyer you'd hesitate to pay for one when you know your chances of winning the auction are relatively slim.
I would much prefer a scenario in which the buyer can meet the seller face to face and negotiate a price under complete transparency. It would allow the seller to know what figure is expected, and it would allow the seller to state exactly what figure it is they want. They may even start up high and slowly manage their way down, as opposed to the auction’s gradual climbing.
So while I admit there are some substantial advantages for the seller to benefit from out of an auction, I suspect it is a tool perpetuated mostly by greedy agents rather than actual bottom lines.
Allow me to complain about the lack of transparency in particular. For a start, why are the agents working so hard to prevent any direct contact between the seller and potential buyers? The only explanation I can think of is that their first priority is to secure their source of power. Then take this auction we’ve been to on Saturday afternoon. The unit was published for the range between $720K and $770K; the auction has concluded at $750K. Sounds like a successful auction, doesn’t it? But no, this auction was passed in by the owners because it didn’t reach a sum high enough for them. Obviously, they never intended to sell their house in the price range it was published for.
And that’s annoying, because it means that as a potential buyer you can’t really tell how much the owners are looking to get. The owners, on their part, are acting unethically as they try and lure people with less to fork out more. And both the owners and the real estate agents are acting illegally, because Victoria’s laws specify quite clearly that published real estate prices are to be followed.
Let me guess: the owners and the agents will get away with it because everyone is on the same money making bandwagon. The practice is widespread; I'm just wondering how widespread dummy bidding is.

Which brings me to my biggest issue with real estate. It seems fair to say religions all over the world have already lost the battle between their gods and the god of Mammon thousands of years ago. Or, to quote Midnight Oil, “who can stand in the way when there’s a dollar to be made?”
My problem is simple: houses are not viewed as places of residence to help us live our lives comfortably and enhance our living experience; instead, they are viewed as money making investments. And that notion manifests itself in every aspect of the Aussie real estate circus.
Take, for example, the way houses are being presented for inspection. Have a look at these houses and you will see that people cannot be living in them the way they are presented. It’s not that the clutter of life has been removed from them; so many things are lost in the bid to present a larger than life size and a clean presentation that you end up with a sterile, synthetic taste in your mouth. Emphasis is put on shallow yet totally useless “lifestyle” aspects but none is given to real life: children’s play areas, places to store all your stuff, and rooms nice enough to sleep and play in.
I could not help but think of Richard Dawkins’ jungle explanation as an example for the workings of evolution. Dawkins asks, why are the jungle trees as tall as they are? His answer is that they’re all fighting one another for sunlight. Each tree tries to get higher than the rest so it can capture more light, be in an advantageous position, and thus be able to bring more descendants to this world. Yet in the process of getting higher than the rest the trees overstress themselves. Now, what if all the trees collaborate and agree to all stick to a one meter height? They would all gain significant prosperity, because the energy they spend lifting themselves could now be spent on other purposes; that is, until a renegade tree decides to break the pack and creep up slightly to gain a selfish advantage over its mates, thus triggering the race to the top all over again.
You could say this analogy explains the power of socialism but also why socialism can never work. I argue that socialism can work if there is enough cooperation between the parties involved. I argue that houses could be sold decently and will sell well if enough of the market decided that they are looking for a nice house rather than a secure investment.
But the problem is that most of us have been brainwashed to think the way we do with regards to property. I argue that commercial TV’s house selling reality shows have contaminated the Australian mind so badly that everyone thinks they can’t sell if they don’t go through the same motions as everyone else. Everyone is exhausting themselves to death to be the tallest tree in the jungle. And for what?
All the while the greedy industry of real estate agents and their conspirators, including the TV channels and all the related "home and garden" magazines, are rubbing their hands as they make a killing.
Welcome to The Jungle!

Monday, 26 October 2009

The Universe and Everything

The Richard Dawkins Foundation continues to release excellent videos, and the latest is no exception. It's so good I thought I had to post it in my blog, too.
This latest presentation is by Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist and a Scientific American columnist, giving an overview presentation on the latest news we have on the universe, where it came from and where it's heading. It's more than an hour long, but as far as I'm concerned it's too short; and it's far from tedious because, as you will see, the guy's a natural comedian.
I liked the bit about the stars dying so that we can live the most (16:50).

Saturday, 24 October 2009

How to Lose Friends & Alienate People

My previous post, where I discussed my harsh reaction to someone else's opinion on vaccinations, has earned me some harsh criticism. I was told it's no wonder my attitude loses me friends, as instead of being harsh on my colleague I should have used the opportunity and the privilege of knowledge to educate and improve.
Obviously, that criticism is quite justifiable. I won't seek to defend myself by explaining the circumstances; that will not be a valid excuse. What I will do after acknowledging this mistake of mine, however, is provide a representative example for an occasion where my normal way of communicating has lost me a friend.

Nowhere are my opinions more potentially venomous towards relationships than it is with religion; when I say that people stop talking to me because of my opinions, it is usually because of what I think about religion or what they think of science.
A classic example took place a few years ago at work. Back then I was consulting an organization affiliated with The Salvation Army, and at the time I was involved with their top management and had several meetings and chats with their CEO.
One day that CEO was corridor chatting with me and asked me, in the spirit of the Christmas that was fast approaching us, if I follow Jewish rituals. My answer was quite simple: "Oh, I'm quite the atheist". The look on the CEO's face, though, was the type of look one gets when they're told of the death of a close family member. That was it; I did not hear a word from that CEO ever again.
Work colleagues with whom I shared the story told me I should have been more polite and less direct with my answer. I disagree; I am always proud and ready to defend my opinions, and if someone asks me about them I will state them as clearly as I can. And if I am wrong, as I have been in my last post, I will acknowledge the fact and thank those that proved me wrong.
As for the case at hand, those who know me will agree that by most people's reckoning I am, indeed, quite the atheist and that the statement is an accurate and concise summarization of my approach to religion. The only potential point of contention would be the mostly irrelevant point of whether I am an agnostic or an atheist, with the former being a more accurate definition if you follow many dictionaries to the letter while the latter being my actual qualification by most people's reckoning.
My point is simple: Ask me a question and you will get a direct answer. Some times, some people will find that answer offensive. I, however, am in a constant struggle to identify the truth, regardless of its appeal. And often enough, what lack of appeal the truth may have is only due to unjustified prejudice anyway.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Lack of Curiosity Killed the Cat

Would you vaccinate a child against flu? That was the question someone I know has posed me a week ago. Their view, they explained, was that they shouldn’t; they would like the child’s body to learn how to cope and deal with such threats on its own.
My reply was immediate and harsh, the type of an honest reply that gets me to lose friends here and there. I explained that vaccines actually cooperate with the body and help it form up its defenses, and I also explained that in the particular case of the flu it is quite useless to expect the defenses acquired on one strain to apply to future strains. I could have continued to explain how a preventable flu can cause unnecessary damage to everyone around: people often die out of flu, especially the very young and the very old; it is not a threat to trifle with. I could have quoted a recent Scientific American article it was claimed vaccinations are the second best modern savior of human life after clean water. But I didn’t; I was overwhelmed, and my partner in conversation was already too shocked by my reply to absorb any additional learnings.
I have heard before of cases where people preferred to avoid vaccinations because they thought they are potentially harmful (as discussed here); what I didn’t encounter before is this purer form of ignorance in understanding how a human’s immune system works and how vaccinations augment it. It made me raise to questions to myself, both of significant importance.
The first question I asked myself was where do we draw the immorality line when it comes to vaccinations. When can we say that a person is acting immorally, or even criminally, when they deprive another person of a vaccine that would ease their suffering? Currently we are far from making it a criminal act, and personally I would oppose such legislation; we have too many laws as it is. What I would like to see, though, is an education system good enough so that people are not as ignorant about vaccinations as this particular encounter demonstrates.
Which brings me to my second question: how can an educated person be so ignorant as to inflict potential suffering on others through something so trivially preventable? Again it has become clear to me that our formal system of education is but a joke, a system that’s geared more towards allowing parents to do their hours at work than to teach their kids anything useful. And until schools get in shape, and let’s face it – with the amount of resources thrown their way and their "performance" driven KPIs, they won’t – the burden of educating our kids to be able to rationally think for themselves lies firmly on parents’ shoulders. And how many of us would be able to manage it?

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Don't Expect, Suggest

I am often numbed by the way companies treat their clients. It appears as if too much is not enough for them; they want more.
Take, for example, our recent experience at the Melbourne Museum. This blog has often praised this institution, but there is something very wrong with the way Museum Victoria is managing its special exhibitions. I have already discussed the hard times they gave us when we went for the Star Wars exhibition here; our recent expedition to their A Day in Pompeii exhibition demonstrated that things can be worse.
Conditions of entry were as draconian as per Star Wars: Baby strollers were not allowed due to them taking up space (will they ban fat people or wheelchairs next year?), so we had to carry our two year old in our hands; letting him walk was out of the question with the place packed with people the way it was. Once in we could not go out and in again, so there was no respite for our arms’ muscles. And in a particularly unexplainable urge to humiliate its patrons, the museum has decided that photography is not allowed in its Pompeii exhibition.
The end result? We had to rush through Pompeii. We didn’t enjoy it in the least, and we felt like it was a complete waste of the $20 admission price.
At least we paid only $20 for the two of us as opposed to $40. As members, we get to pay half the rates. But there was a catch, and that is what I’m complaining about when I talk about company greed:
In our hands we had ourselves a 20% discount voucher for the Pompeii exhibition. The small letters on the voucher say: “Not valid with any other promotional offer. Discount only valid for Adult, Concession and Child entry tickets”. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Not according to the museum; when we tried to use the voucher we were told it is not valid for members. Worse, when I complained I was told to place my feedback in their “feedback box”. Great!
My conclusion is that Museum Victoria is either regarding its membership program as a promotional offer, which is more than degrading, or it doesn’t consider me an adult (which, at my age, would have probably been flattering; yet they didn’t consider me a child or a concession case, either).
I suspect a lawyer willing to go the extra mile could have a feast with them. But for me, finding one of my favorite natural history institutions inflamed with a greed epidemic is the biggest blow.

Yet there is a reason for optimism: On most of these cases where I encounter an organization breaking a promise or acting unethically, I complain; and on the vast majority of cases, I win. I can bring a couple of examples from the last quarter to prove my point.
The first was to do with my credit card, which promised special bonuses on international transactions but failed to deliver. I complained over the phone and was piled up with promises but nothing happened; I wrote a letter of complaint, and within a few weeks I got the promised bonuses plus a bit more. I also got back my yearly credit card fees, which amount to quite a nice sum.
The second case was to do with my dentist. I went for a routine cleanup during which they decided I should get an extra deep cleanup. Sounded fine; that is, until I discovered my private health insurance did not allow for their two cleanups to take place during the same calendar day because they overlap, forcing me to pay $84 out of my own pocket. Again, I complained, and again I got my money back and then some.
Neither my credit card company not my dentist seem to be the most ethical players in town, but at least I made them pay back and suffer a bit of a headache on the way. In a world where one cannot expect more than small victories, I feel as if I have made a bit of an impact; I would feel even better if others joined me instead of passively absorbing everything the powers that be throw their way (in the hope we're too numb to react).
All it takes is writing an official letter of complaint stating your problem and stating you will seek an escalation if the matter is not addressed within a month. You can read more about it in the Consumer Affairs Victoria website. Suffer from injustice by some big company? Follow these rules and you will have consumer law on your side.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Bonanza

Having recently reported the purchase of my second netbook, a part of me is already thinking of getting the third. Not that I have any justification for doing so, but the thought is tempting.
Consider this: Amazon is already offering a Windows 7 Asus Eee PC for $350 (American dollars). With websites like Shipito around that will send it to Oz, and with the Aussie dollar being as strong as it currently is, the implication is that you can get this latest and greatest netbook for less than $450 Aussie dollars. And that’s about half of what it would cost you in Australia, were you able to acquire it in Australia in the first place – and currently you can’t.
Indeed, I suspect it is just a question of time before the strong Aussie dollar’s “now or never” notion gets the better of me and I put Shipito facilities to the test. Sure, I don’t need another netbook; but what about some nice clothes from GAP?

By the time this post is put on air, I have discovered GAP insists on credit cards bearing an American address. Shipito can help you get around that, too, but it's too much of a hassle for something as unimportant as clothes. Amazon, on the other hand, doesn't mind such trivia; when the time comes, my next netbook will probably be sourced there.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Get Your Filthy Hands Off My Desert

Some things make you ashamed to be an Australian, and one of those things is the treatment of asylum seekers.
The latest episode of shame is rolling as we speak. It started when a boat of Sri-Lankan asylum seekers was approaching Australian waters. Our tougher than tough Prime Minister, Kevin “Coal’s my best friend” Rudd acted out on his intelligence reports and made a special plea with Indonesia to intercept the boat before it reaches Aussie waters. Indonesia cooperated, but now it has a boatload of people on hunger strike and all sorts of other attention seeking activities aimed at getting them to Australia.
The shame is in the way Australia is treating asylum seekers. For years these have been branded as anything from criminals to queue jumpers, mostly by the now in opposition Liberal Party. The extra shame is that the Labor party, elected to replace the Liberals, is trying to outdo their opponents in the xenophobia department, as demonstrated by Rudd’s actions. The thing is, these Sri-Lankans and their counterparts are not doing anything wrong; international law specified in the UN and signed by Australia clearly states that people have a right to go to other countries, visa-less, and seek asylum there. The only party acting illegally here is Australia.
The stupidity of it all is that Australia is an immigrants’ country. Every day, thousands of new immigrants arrive at Australia “legally”. Every year, hundreds of thousands arrive at Australia to settle here, and no one says a word. Yours truly arrived at Australia in such a way and thus far managed to stay off the eviction list. Why so many immigrants? Because of the financial benefits involved. It’s the money, stupid. But if hundreds of thousands come in anyway, why fuss as much as we do about a couple of hundred more? Shouldn’t we do something useful with our time, like watch paint dry or, if we are to accept a constructive and thus decidedly un-Australian state of mind, deal with issues like global warming?
The thing that alarms me the most about this whole charade is the ease with which the public is allowing itself to get carried away from any sort of rational thinking by minority groups with some very specific, and in this case pretty immoral, agendas. The matter of asylum seekers is way too deep to have its discussion led through the knee jerk reaction of xenophobic agendas. Agendas formed by people who, judging by their current policies, would have happily kept Jewish refugees fleeing from the Nazi regime out to die in a gas chamber of their choice.
I would like to think that if they thought things out this way they would change their minds.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

Get Lost

For the second time in a recent while, we took Dylan to a visit a maze. Both were in the Mornington Peninsula area near Melbourne: the first was the Ashcombe Maze and today's one has been the Enchanted Maze.
You can see the trend here. With our two and a bit years old Dylan growing up and becoming more aware of his surroundings, and thus more demanding, we have to take him to activities he would enjoy; it's no longer a case of us deciding we want to do something followed by us dragging Dylan along. Rather, it's a case of let's go and do something Dylan would enjoy because if he's not enjoying himself no one's enjoying themselves.
A maze turns out to be a good compromise, then. It's an enjoyable activity for all of us and it's not a dumb way of spending one's time; as far as stimulation and development of the intellect is concerned, we could be doing much worse.
And with that in mind, here is a short video from today's maze adventure, taken inside the maze itself. It reminds me of the old game of Doom, with your character running around a maze and encountering interesting objects along the way:



It is interesting to note that we have been approaching these mazes systematically. That is, we've took an approach of always turning to the left, which means that while we don't really know where we are we're also never really lost.
I'm still wondering whether we're missing out on some of the fun of being in a maze by acting this way. Isn't getting lost a part of the charm of going to such places in the first place?
Well, maybe it is. Maybe next time I should turn to the right.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Look for America

The concept of The American Dream is familiar to most people. Expressed through American’s own movies, it usually comes down to the arbitrary use of the word “freedom” as well as a heterosexual family with kids and a dog living in some suburban mansion. The purpose of this post is to form a discussion on my own personal version of The American Dream, the timing of which is not coincidental: A recent movie review reminded me just how much the USA means to me.
So please read the following while having Simon & Garfunkel’s America playing in the background.

In Israel, or at least in the Israel I grew up in, there is a very specific myth to do with The American Dream. America, in Israeli eyes, is a place where opportunity beckons and where everything you touch is gold. Even the mere expression of the word “America” is enough to convey such notions, and popular skits often referred to that interpretation. The uniqueness of the Israeli attitude to the dream is probably best expressed through the mixed response received by those migrating to the USA: On one hand, they are vile deserters not worthy of our thoughts while “we” stay behind to defend our homeland; on the other, there is a sense of awe: those people must have been worth something if they were to be accepted at that heavenly place called America.
My own America materialized at the age of 12: My father was sent to work in New York for an extended period, and my mother and I joined him at his central Manhattan luxury hotel room for a month. The effects of this visit were, and still are, huge; by my reckoning no other single event during my self-conscious years has had a bigger effect on the development of my personality. To this kid, coming from a family that generally lacked the means for international travel, it was the first time I got to step out of my world and into a brand new one. And what a world did I step into! A world where anything you can dream of is there for you to stop dreaming about and immediately touch and interact with. A world of buildings taller than anything I could have imagined. A world where, during rush hour, the sidewalks are filled with more people than I could have imagined. A world of technological wonders such as a subway train and multi-channel TV. A world where it can be so cold outside my that ears hurt, but inside the heating can make you sweat. A world full of new culinary delights I was never aware of, like fried chicken covered with crumbs and other tasty spices. A world so different to the one I knew all my previous life.

Nowadays my feelings towards the USA and New York are different. We live in a smaller world, and the wonders that were confined to the USA back in my childhood days are now available all over Western countries, including Israel and Australia. Sure, there are annoying exceptions, and sure – New York will always get everything first; but the differences have been severely diminished. Blame the web, with facilities such as those provided by shipito negating the need to visit the USA by allowing you to put your hands on everything sold there.
The second eye opener is that many of the things I once deemed wonders are currently deemed uninteresting or even evil. Take KFC, for example: it's no longer an exotic temptation; it’s a badly made, unhealthy serve of chicken, and usually a very tormented chicken at that. A far cry from the free range chicken I prefer to consume when available.
The biggest issue I have with the USA has to do with my own personal views, in particular my lack of affection towards capitalism (especially in the unrestrained way it is idolized and allowed to work in the USA, when, say, compared to Europe and Scandinavia in particular). Or, for that matter, my affection with the environment. In my latest visit to the USA, during 2005, I couldn’t help noticing the garbage and the dirt piling in the middle of the Times Square’s glamor. I couldn’t help feeling insecure at the sight of all the homeless and the beggars and the poor in their large numbers, a by-product of capitalism taken to the extreme.
There are plenty of other things I don't like about America. Things like having my finger prints taken upon entry, having to answer the stupid question of whether I have committed genocide, or that sense of patriotism that results in way too many flags all over the place, as if one needed a reminder as to which country one was in.
And not, but don't get me started about America being a country where 40% of the population really think the world was created less than 10,000 years ago. That's like a scene from a horror movie.

The result of my disenchantment with America was that when I was able and willing, I chose Australia to fulfill that role of that mythical America I have had stored in my mind since that kid's visit to New York.
Yet some doubt remains. Two of the people I look up to the most and one of my favorite musicians all grew up in New York: Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan and Paul Simon (interestingly enough, they all come from Jewish backgrounds; I don't know about Simon, but the first two turned out to be as Jewish as I am). If these people turned out the way they did through the influence of the location they spent most of their time in then there must be something good to be said about life in my American dream.
I love Australia and I am grateful for the opportunity to live where I do, but a part of me still yearns for that childhood dream of an America that doesn't exist. I wouldn't mind it in the least if in some parallel universe I turned out to give America the chance it probably deserves.

In conclusion, I would just like to state the obvious and emphasize the importance of travel. Proper travel, that is, as opposed to going somewhere in order to disconnect yourself from the world.
Proper travel exposes you to things you're not used to and the ways you were not aware of. We all tend to think that we know better and that we do best (hence the existence of patriotism and its sibling, xenophobia). The reality is, though, that there is no objective optimal way of doing things, and that by exposing yourself to other ways you're allowing yourself to learn how to accumulate the best of all worlds within you. And that's priceless.
That trip of mine to New York was an eye opener. Now, as a parent, I hope I'd be able to provide my son with many diverse versions of that experience so he can have his own American Dream.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

One Eee Leads to Another

IMGP1205I am often asked whether I recommend the purchase of a netbook. My answer to this question, as of July this year, is that I own two netbooks. Indeed, this blog has already raved all about my Asus Eee PC 701; now comes the time to tell you a bit about my newer netbook, an Asus Eee PC 1000HE.

First of all, why a second netbook? The main motivation behind the purchase of the 1000HE was us seeking a portable workhorse, that is: a portable computing solution we can use for work as well as extensive pleasure.
The 1000HE addresses the work criteria by running Windows (something the 701 can never do properly with its more limited resources). Not only that, the 1000HE offers a comfortable working environment: For a start, its 10” screen that doesn't require side scrolling (compared to the 701's 7”, lower resolution screen). The new Eee's keyboard definitely justifies Asus’ reputation as the company that builds Macs for Apple. And then there are the bonuses: With a 160gb hard drive, the 1000HE can carry all our music (albeit in a compressed form) and lots of videos, too, making it an excellent portable entertainment unit. That big hard drive also means that it can run Linux, too, under a dual-boot arrangement; by now the ability to run Linux has become mandatory for me.
The 1000HE's advantages do come at a price, though: At 1.5kg it is significantly heavier than the 701's 0.9kg; you feel it when you carry them. You also feel the size difference, although that is not as significant as the screen sizes would lead you to believe (the 701 could, theoretically, have fit a 9" screen were its speakers located elsewhere).
Now that we’ve covered the why, it’s time to tell the story of my actual experience with the 1000HE. So here goes…

By now I have [almost] forgotten how tedious the task of setting up a Windows PC is. So after the initial charging of the new Eee’s battery my first step was to stabilize its Windows XP Home Service Pack 3 operations to a level that would allow me to actually use the netbook.
After running all the Windows Updates I had to, I chose to experiment and install the AVG anti virus, Tall Emu’s Online Armor firewall, and my regular spyware/trojan protection crew of Spybot and Adaware. All are available for free, and indeed professional reviews indicate this package provides better protection than using costly products from the house of Norton and its likes. Indeed, I tend to think that installing Norton on one’s PC is a sign of lunacy.
The “power” of Windows has become apparent even while doing those very simple installations: Between getting stuck, getting blue screens of death, annoying error messages, and things not behaving the way they should, there can be no denying it: Windows is a mediocre product that, sadly, most of us have to live with. Me included.
For the record, my experience with AVG and Tall Emu turned out to be lesser than those offered by my default anti-virus and firewall package, Avira (currently recognized as the best anti-virus out there, and it’s free!) and ZoneAlarm. So eventually I moved to using those.
With security under control it was time to install the usual suspects: all the software packages I want to use on my new Eee. I’m talking software like Picasa, VLC, Google Earth or iTunes, as well as the software I need for work (word processors, spreadsheets etc).
And by the way, you can download all the previously mentioned Windows software at download.com, where you’re guaranteed to have malware free downloads; just make sure you filter down your search results to free software in order to avoid installing the software versions that stop working after a month and ask for your wallet.
Finally, the time has come to install Linux.

Installing Ubuntu Netbook Remix is a fairly easy affair that takes around half an hour and installs most of the software you would want with your operating systems during the same process, so you don’t have to go through the same loops as a Windows installation. Most notably, you can forget about having to install security measures; you don't need them.
There is, however, a catch: when installing Ubuntu in dual-boot mode with Windows, you need to re-partition your hard drive. That is, you need to find empty space in your hard drive that is currently not occupied by Windows. The Ubuntu installer provides a nice graphic tool that helps you there, but you need to know what you’re doing. In particular, you need to realize that Asus (and other netbook manufacturers, for that matter) leave an image of their basic Windows installation at the end of the hard drive in order to facilitate easy Windows reinstallation; most of us would probably not want to step over that.
The real problems with Linux started after I have finished its installation as two issues became immediately apparent: Wi-fi reception was poor and intermittent, and when using Skype the receiving side would only hear a mild echo of me. Both problems are driver related and both of these problems were encountered, to one extent or another, when I installed Ubuntu on my older Eee PC 701. However, and as I have reported here, I was able to find remedies for the 701 by virtue of it being the first and most popular netbook out there; the same does not apply to the 1000HE, and thus far I was unable to find a satisfactory solution. The wi-fi problem seems to be accentuated through the confusion caused by Asus using some three different wireless cards on its 1000HE, some of which offer perfect wi-fi reception under Linux while others don’t work at all; mine seems to be stuck somewhere in the middle.

These issues affecting Windows and Linux mean that I choose my operating system each time I boot my 1000HE and depending on its current intended use. When I want to start using my new Eee quickly, I boot with Linux; the same goes when I want to perform some security sensitive activity on the internet, such as internet banking. Windows is used for work, Skype and iTunes (can someone ask Apple to release a Linux version?).
There are, however, two other [rather eccentric] reasons for using Windows. The first is to do with battery life: Asus ships the 1000HE with a utility that allows you to over-clock and under-clock its CPU. If you use the Eee in the under-clocked mode, battery life can last you a very long while; I had it go for more than eight hours, which is pretty amazing!
The other use for Windows is when accessing an external wi-fi network, as we did while visiting Singapore. Due to the Linux driver issue, wireless reception there is rather weak; in Windows, however, the wireless reception is stronger than anything I have experienced before, making it easier to tap into a relatively remote wi-fi network. Alas, you do it without the security Linux provides; while we were on the road we had every reason to feel insecure with Windows, as we did not have all the latest anti-virus updates.

The bottom line is that the 1000HE is a very capable netbook that was obviously designed to be used with its native Windows XP operating system. While it stumbles with Ubuntu Netbook Remix, I would still recommend giving Linux a go: it is a much better operating system, especially for a netbook environment. Next time around I would check the Ubuntu Netbook Remix support page to ensure compatibility before committing to a specific netbook model.

One last comment as an appendix: The Asus Eee PC 1000HE is available with two different CPUs, the Intel Atom N270 (clocked at 1.6mHz) and the Intel Atom N280 (clocked at 1.66mHz). Mine is the former, and although I was a bit disappointed because I thought all 1000HEs use the newer N280, I have to say the difference should be very negligible. Especially when the motherboard is incapable of using the N280's extra CPU speed in the first place.

Sunday, 11 October 2009

High Tech Barbecuing

Picture 018With the weather in Melbourne getting better all the time now, barbecue season is upon us in earnest. Yet Huston, or rather Melbourne, we have a problem: Spring in Melbourne is nice and all for outside cooking, but it is also the rainiest time of the year; and as much as I love a good barbecue, I hate getting soaked. What can we do about it?
Well, for a few times now we've been referring to the Bureau of Meteorology's radar map of Melbourne prior to deciding on the deployment of our barbecue. It only takes a couple of minutes to check the radar loop picture to see if a rain cloud is on the way on one of our Linux netbooks; it takes even less on our iPod Touch.
And there you have it: space age technology being deployed in order to determine on an affair as mundane as a barbecue. And you know what? It sure works.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

I'm Taking Control of My Life

I was listening the other day to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' "Into the Great Wide Open" album. Back from 1991, this album came out at a key moment for me: I was just beginning my renaissance with music.
I always loved music; but with the aid of Petty's Learning to Fly, a track sharing its name with a favorite Pink Floyd song and equipped with a nice video, coupled with other great tracks and other great albums released in the same period (notably, The The's Dusk, The Red Hot Chilly Peppers' Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and Guns and Roses' Use Your Illusion double album) I was turned quickly enough into an audiophile. I know, none of these albums is your classic audiophile material; but you got to start somewhere.
Anyway, I was listening to what has probably always been my favorite track of this album, Two Gunslingers. And as always, I was paying attention to the lyrics:

Two gunslingers walked out in the street and one said
"I don't wanna fight no more."
And the other gunslinger thought about it and he said,
"Yeah, what are we fighting for?"

I'm taking control of my life, I'm taking control of my life
I'm taking control of my life now, right now, oh yeah.

It's not really hard to come up with interpretations to these lyrics; I used to think of this song a lot as I was planning my permanent departure from Israel to Australia.
But you know what occurred to me as I was listening to the song after years of neglect? Well, I realized it explains exactly why I have decided to get away from Windows and start using Linux.
I took control over my life. Now, right now, oh yeah.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Death by iPod

To the tunnel visioned teenage girl that jumped a red pedestrian light right in front of my car as I was doing 70km/h on a major road:
Perhaps you should consider removing your iPod or at least lowering its volume before crossing a road. As it was, you were a fraction of a second from ruining my day and the rest of your life.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

The Blood Is the Life

Thought I’d amuse my readers with tales of my geriatric nature.
On Monday morning we had health check-ups at work: they take a blood sample, measure your waist and blood pressure, weigh you up, and then give you a quick analysis of what their measurements seem to indicate with regards to your general health. Not a bad thing to do, from time to time, and a great thing to have at work; indeed, I should be proud of my employer for providing the service free of charge and during business hours.
In order to support the cholesterol measurement part of the blood test, I had to fast and skip my breakfast. The result? By my check-up’s time of 9:00am my head was throbbing at such a level that I could hardly keep my eyes open and was generally capable of not much more than sitting down.
No denying it, I am getting old. Back in my army days I would hardly ever have breakfast (the one on offer at my army base would have been deferred by a cockroach); now I can’t stand being awake and deprived of it. Another lesson I take from this is to do with the importance of routine: no wonder our two year old Dylan gets freaked out at the slightest deviation from his daily routine, and I do mean the slightest; it appears evolution has prepared him to get used to have his breakfast before 9:00am as of a young age.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

One

The question is raised again and again by virtually anyone I meet: When (or if) are you planning on having your second child?
Without delving too much on the fact the decision here is not just my own to make, the answer is always the same: The one child that we do have is enough of a burden already, and with the lack of family around we don’t see ourselves coping with the added stress; we can’t afford another baby (due to added costs, but mostly due to reduced incomes); we don’t have the space; and we can’t be bothered to go through another stressful IVF treatment.
The funny thing is that for me, at least, there is a deeper reason behind not wanting another child. For some reason or another I rarely mention it; it’s probably to do with not being thought of as a fool by the majority that blindly follows their biological programming as well as cultural trends into automatically thinking having a second child is a good thing (these blind advocates for a second child should not be confused with the minority of second child advocates that do have rational reasons for having that second child). That fear of mine will not stop me posting my reason here, though:
In my view, history will remember my one and only positive contribution to human civilization as my decision to limit myself to having just one child.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

The Band's Visit

Finally, some good news: According to The Age, Richard Dawkins will soon be visiting Melbourne.
I’m pretty sure his main objective is to come and visit our place so we can discuss his books, my blog and the issues of contention between us. Namely, the following comment made in his last book, The Greatest Show on Earth: “How can you not love dogs?” Easy: Some of them are pretty scary. My other major disagreement with Dawkins is to do with his love of cricket as a spectators’ sport, surely one of the more boring ways to pass one’s time. The point, though, is that we seem to be in agreement about pretty much everything else; the point is that Dawkins is one of my favorite authors and definitely my favorite living author; and the point is that Dawkins is by far the most inspiring intellectual currently on the face of this planet.
So yes, I’m pretty excited about Dawkins’ visit to Melbourne during March 2010, in which he is supposed to take part at a Global Atheist Convention taking place at the Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre (the same venue hosting a World Science Fiction Convention slated to take place during September 2010).
As an agnostic/atheist myself (the exact classification depends on the way you define each of those terms) who is very much interested in the matters on the Atheists Convention’s agenda I wouldn’t have minded taking part and actually hearing/seeing Dawkins and others live. Yet that’s where reality slaps you in the face: The convention is scheduled over a weekend, raising the regular baby sitting problem we always face (I don’t suppose they would like two year olds to take part in the discussions, do they?). And then there’s the matter of cost: Entry to Sunday’s events alone, the day Dawkins is scheduled to present, costs $150. I understand they need to find a way to finance the event, and I understand these organizations are not as tax free as religious organizations are, but I also know fully well this atheist is not a particularly rich one.
Hopefully, Dawkins will use the opportunity of visiting Melbourne to conduct some other activities we can actually take part in. He is, after all, busy writing a book aimed at children; I’m sure he’d be delighted in giving a presentation aimed at children in a venue such as a museum or a library that would love to host him.
Till news of such an event comes up, I’d have to satisfy myself with the promotion that rational thinking in Australia is about to receive through Dawkins’ visit.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Turn Windows into Wine

I have an old age problem with my five year old. I'm talking, of course, about my five year old desktop PC.
Most of the time I have my PC running Ubuntu Linux. That's an easy load that makes it feel young and rejuvenated as it tackles its duties effortlessly. Yet our world is far from perfect, and from time to time you encounter Linux' bane: a particular application you want to use is unavailable and you have to revert to Windows.
And it's the Windows realm where my PC feels geriatric. With CPU fan noise that feels like it's about to take off, it boots ever so slowly; and even once it finishes booting you still have to wait ages before it's genuinely ready for action as it downloads and processes the latest anti-virus updates and the latest Microsoft security patch and the latest update of this and then the latest update of that, all of which you must have in order to safely run your Windows PC.
Newer applications, such as iTunes or the latest Picasa, have obviously been designed for much stronger PCs: Picasa alone, while idle, has been measured to occupy some 25% of my CPU's time. And indeed, it is Picasa that I usually boot my dual boot desktop under Windows for: Google are saying they will not release its newer versions (currently the latest is 3.5) on Linux due to lack of demand. So what do I do? Buy a new PC? Grind my teeth while my PC struggles with Windows and Picasa?

Luckily, Linux comes to the rescue with software called Wine. Wine is a Windows emulation software of sorts for Linux, allowing you to run Windows programs in the safety and comfort of Linux.
Installation is dead easy. In Ubuntu Jaunty Jackalope I only had to type the following:
sudo apt-get install wine
Alternatively, the even easier way to go is to install Wine through Synaptic.
Once installed, you will see Wine added to your list of menu applications.
In order to install a Windows application, you need to open its .exe install file using Wine; that will start an installation process similar to a regular Windows installation, after which you can find your newly installed pseudo Windows app under Wine's list of applications. And that's it! As expected, Windows applications run much quicker and smoother under Linux. And as per normal Linux regulations, Wine is all free; no need to leave money in Bill Gates' coffers or anything.
Yet things are not as great as they could be. As Wine's own list of maintained applications (check here) indicates, while many applications such as World of Warcraft runs smoothly in Linux, many other applications require some massaging of one sorts or another; others are best left alone. It's therefore better to check first before going the Wine way.
Picasa, for example, is one of those applications that need a push: In order to have version 3.5 running, I had to install the Linux version of Picasa 3, then install the Windows version of Picasa 3.5 using Wine, and then copy the Wine installation folder over the Linux one. Each of the steps was dead easy to perform, yet I can clearly see how people not too confident with a computer will prefer to stick with Windows and Bill Gates.
Yet that is a shame, especially for their five year old desktops that will find their way into their nearest landfill site for no fault but Gates'.