Saturday, 25 December 2010

Person of the Year


IMGP4494
Originally uploaded by reuvenim
I've been wanting to write this post on how this person I got to know during 2010 has had a positive effect on my life. Then I thought such a post would just look weird. Time Magazine came to my rescue and solved my problem by selecting Mark Zuckerberg of all people as their person of the year: well, I thought, if they can make such a stupid call then I should definitely publish my post and show them how it should be done. Here goes: a post telling you who my personal person of the year is and why.

That person is John Scalzi, a person who has had a significant positive effect on my life without being directly involved there and without knowing me (were I to allow people directly involved in my life into this affair my wife would always be my person of the year).
I started the year not knowing who Scalzi was. Then I read his most famous book, Old Man's War. That made me start reading his blog, then two more books of his, then I met a very moist version of him in person (don't ask), then he signed some of his books for me, and then I read another book of his - a book I regard as the best new piece of fiction I got to read over the last decade (a book that's virtually guaranteed to win this year's prestigious R-Wards). In between all of that, Sclazi became a part of my life: his opinions and views helped shape mine, his family became people for whom I care, and his attitudes have shifted mine in their direction. Simply said, Scalzi became an inspiration.
What is it, then, that attracted me to Scalzi over others? I would say it's the resemblance between us. We do many of the same things, like writing/blogging, but Scalzi does it better and is obviously more successful at it (meeting him in person clearly indicated why: the guy's pretty smart). If you were to press me today and ask what it is that I would like to have a university degree in I would say that subject is philosophy; Sclazi's done that. We're of similar age, roughly similar demographics, we have the same family (2+1)... I could continue, but perhaps the best explanation is an example: when Scalzi wrote about his iPhone/iPod app aided diet I jumped on that train, too, and now - some six months later - have lost some five kilos without feeling like I've suffered for it (although the Christmas rituals are severely jeopardizing my achievements in the field of weight loss).
Don't take me wrong, we do have our disagreements. In politics we're both liberal yet I am much more of a lefty, in matters of religion we seem to think alike yet he presents himself as an agnostic while I'm a fully fledged atheist. You could therefore argue our biggest difference of opinions is with regards to the qualities of Inception.

I'm wondering whether me thanking Scalzi here for being a part of my life is actually me thanking my childhood friend Uri. Uri was the one who got me Old Man's War in the first place, and Uri was the one who held my hand as we visited the AussieCon science fiction convention a few months ago. That's where, amongst others, we met Scalzi.
I'll be on the safe side and thank them both.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Jingle Bells

Dedicated with love to my English relatives.



For the record, we didn't know about this version till our three year old started singing it coming home from childcare.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

The Copyright Disease

I was never a fan, but after today you’ll have a very hard time convincing me that the current copyright regime we have running the world is anything but blatant dead weight on our backs.
The story starts with YouTube recently relaxing its video uploading limitations to simpletons such as myself, allowing me to now upload videos more than ten minutes long. I quickly jumped on the opportunity to upload our wedding video there, where most of the rest of our videos already reside.
As per our current video uploading policy, we upload our personal videos into YouTube as private videos. There they can be shared with friends and relatives who bother creating a YouTube account for themselves; as far as I know, thus far none did. Sharing is therefore not the main reason why we upload videos to YouTube: the real reasons are backup, with YouTube's cloud essentially offering us a very reliable service for keeping our videos available and accessible (much more so than my private hard drives can). YouTube also offers basic album features that allow me to comment, tag and search my videos.
This particular wedding video of ours was originally shot by my father in law and my brother on VHS cameras. We assembled both sources together, connected a VCR to my PC, and made a digital version of it. The result sports rather low quality (by today’s standards) and should be of no interest to anyone but us.

Last night our PC spent five hours uploading the wedding video over to YouTube. It took ages but it worked: the video was available online as of about midnight last night. Not for long, though.
This morning I received an email from Google informing me my wedding video is in some unclear state of limbo:
Your video, Our Wedding Video, may have content that is owned or licensed by Warner Chappell.
No action is required on your part; however, if you're interested in learning how this affects your video, please visit the Content ID Matches section of your account for more information.
My first thought was somewhere along the lines of “what the f*ck?”
My second thought was somewhere along the lines of “what the f*ck” as I tried to click on the email's broken links. Come on, Google, lift your game!
Then it slowly da1. Purpose and nature of video: This is a non for profit wedding video. No one other than close family and friends will be interested in it.
2. The nature and substance of the material used: The extracts are not substantial in length, especially given the video's overall length, and only play a background role (the music just happens to play in the background for a moment while we are getting dressed for the wedding; that is the nature of wedding videos).
3. Effect on copyrighted material's value: There is no way in which this wedding video can be claimed to have an effect on the potential market or the potential value of the copyrighted work.wned on me. During the earlier part of the video we’re still at home, getting dressed for the wedding. As we get dressed the living room’s TV is playing a very short excerpt from OutKast’s Hey Ya! in the background. It was unavoidable: that song was everywhere at the time. The copyright for Hey Ya! is probably owned by Warner, hence the unclear status of my video.
Let’s sit back and contemplate the meaning of this email I received. There can be no doubt about Hey Ya! being copyrighted material for which I have no rights. However, how draconian should those copyrights be? Is there any wedding video out there without some music in it, music that is highly likely to be owned by someone who did not explicitly permit the music to be there? For that matter, you can wave a camera around anywhere you go and it’s highly likely you would capture some form of copyright material, be it book cover or a Coke bottle. Where does the buck stop?
Copyright legislation has some fair use clauses that exempt you from seeking permission to use limited material. For example, you’re allowed to provide short excerpts of a film when you review it (hence my ability to provide snapshots of movie posters I review on my reviews blog). However, if you read the purposely ambiguous fair use clauses (here, for example) you will see my wedding video is borderline material: with so much room for interpretation the copyright holder can decide whatever they want to decide based on their most recent whim.
Things are just too draconian in their tilt towards the content owners of this world. Things need to change.

Needless to say, I am not going to sit silently with this one. I already filed for a dispute with Google, providing the following arguments for fair use:
I claim for fair use using the following three arguments:
  1. Purpose and nature of video: This is a non for profit wedding video. No one other than close family and friends will be interested in it.
  2. The nature and substance of the material used: The extracts are not substantial in length, especially given the video's overall length, and only play a background role (the music just happens to play in the background for a moment while we are getting dressed for the wedding; that is the nature of wedding videos).
  3. Effect on copyrighted material's value: There is no way in which this wedding video can be claimed to have an effect on the potential market or the potential value of the copyrighted work.
I am also putting my money where my mouth is. Throughout my life, but especially as a student, I earned a lot by borrowing ideas from others, and therefore see no wrong in others using my work as long as they comply with the Creative Commons license asking for no commercial use, attribution and no derivative work. Indeed, for years now my Flickr photos bear Creative Commons licensing instead of full on copyrights. For the record, my photos are being used quite often for all sorts of private purposes, but when Toyota knocked on my door asking to use a photo for advertising material I turned them down.
As I recently mentioned, I joined Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA). The EFA and the EFF are famous for making the good fight for commonsense in the field of copyright legislation. Another recent action I did not mention here before was me adding clear Creative Commons licensing on my blogs. Scroll down to the very bottom of this page to check it out for yourself.

Let’s be honest here: There is more to the matter of copyrights than just my wedding video. The issue at hand has much more social resonance. The issue at hand is whether we want a society in shackles where every little move requires asking for someone’s permission, a world where families cannot even share personal videos and ideas are subdued; or whether we want to live in a world where collaboration and the synergies coming off that collaboration drive our lives to help make things better.
I know which side of the fence I would like to be in. There is a way out of the shackles of copyrights, and that way is much brighter!

Monday, 20 December 2010

The Feeling of Power

One of the Asimov stories that got themselves itched in my childhood memories is called The Feeling of Power. The story talks about humanity fighting an expensive war with an alien race, to the point the war effort exhausts humanity’s inventory of computers. Humans gain an edge, though, when this guy reverse engineers a computer and learns to do basic arithmetic on his own without the aid of a computer. The ability to multiply gave the hero The Feeling of Power.
You’ll have to excuse my memory for inaccuracies: I last read Nine Tomorrows, the book where the story was published, more than two decades ago (probably closer to three). The question remains, though: are calculators and computers harmful because we do not exercise our brains in basic arithmetic anymore? By extension, is technology dangerous because it makes us dumber?
I thought of this Nine Tomorrows question again recently upon hearing of an anti Facebook complaint. Someone was holding an anti Facebook stance for a reason I did not consider much before: Facebook is disliked because friends and family use it to break news to one another instead of making the effort to pick the phone up. Given Asimov’s legitimate concerns on the dumbing up of people through technology I would say this Facebook concern is a valid one. I will not agree with it, though.
Calculators dumb me down in the sense that I am much less capable of doing arithmetic since I was handed with a calculator ages ago. Things are even worse now that I can draft sophisticated spreadsheets on my phone within seconds. However, we have to remember that arithmetic is not an end by itself; it is the means. The means with which we can calculate the things we really want to achieve, like the ideal size of the intake valve on a racing car’s engine. It is no coincidence that since the arrival of pocket calculators racing car engines have grown more powerful: by having the technology to free us from simple arithmetic we were able to turn more of our time into making the engines stronger.
The same applies to Facebook. I am pretty sure that a hundred years ago someone complained about that Bell idiot and his stupid invention: before Bell came along people would take their time to come and break you the news in person, but since then they grew lazy and settle for picking the phone up instead. However, by doing so they also enabled news to spread faster and wider; essentially, Facebook does the exact same thing again. I don’t see much wrong with that.
The problem we do have, though, is the problem of modern Western society being so busy running itself to the ground we forget how to be social. We forget there is more to breaking news than the news itself and that there is something to the personal touch. We are so budy dedicating ourselves to work we forget work is the means to the end rather than the end itself; we forget that the end is spending time with our family and friends. Because we’re so busy catching up with work and our other perceived commitments, we break up from our partners via SMS and we socialize much less than ever before.
Who am I to speak about anti socialization? If that was a crime I would be the head of the Sicilian Mafia. Since it's not a crime I am happy with tools that help me socialize to one extent or another.

Don’t take me wrong; there is a lot that is wrong about Facebook, just not the above. For a discussion on the wrongs of Facebook one doesn’t need to go much further than the following single sentence from the brilliant mind of John Scalzi in his address to Time electing Mark Zuckerberg as its person of the year (here):
[Facebook is like] Friendster, only bigger, more annoying to use, and more contemptuous of the concept of privacy.
Now that's a statement I can agree with. That's why Scalzi and I use Twitter instead.

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Respect

It's been a long while since the last time I remember discussing the social convention of forced respect towards religion (was it here?). Pat Condell's latest video discusses the matter, and while he's incredibly blunt I agree with his approach to the matter:


You got to hand it to the guy, he doesn't mess about...

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Why I Don't Like Santa/Father Christmas (Reprise)

Wanted: Santa ClausI talked about why I don't like the concept of Santa only recently (here), but today I've encountered other discussions that made me rethink the matter.
The first came from Skepchick. Skepchick is a blog run by a group of chicks (and a guy) who happen to be skeptic atheists. In yesterday's post (here) they offer arguments for both introducing and not introducing your children to Santa; the interesting thing about their arguments is that they are all derived from the non religious point of view. For example, they argue in favor of introducing Santa to your children so that when the child learns that Santa isn't real they will learn a lesson on the merits of healthy skepticism.
Still, I prefer the purist's approach - I prefer to put distance between my son and the Father Christmas myth (By the way, did you know that Father Christmas is based on a Norse figure while Santa is German? Only recently did the two combine into one. The things you learn while reading The Atheist's Guide to Christmas!).
I was therefore enthralled to read the following today in Ben Goldacre's book "Bad Science" (a book dealing with pseudoscience and quackery in general):
Children are predisposed to learn about the world from adults, and specifically from teachers; they are sponges for information, for ways of seeing, and authority figures who fill their hards with nonesense are sowing the ground, I would say, for a lifetime of exploitation.
Although Goldacre's words were not written in the context of Santa I believe they apply here just the same. And I concur: The Santa / Father Christmas myth puts young children in danger.


Image by kevindooley

Friday, 17 December 2010

Electronic Frontiers

I may have tweeted a lot about Wikileaks and Cablegate lately but I am yet to state my opinion on the matter properly on this blog, so here goes. It’s simple, really: while I don’t pretend to know everything about Assange or Wikileaks, and while I am yet to form a detailed opinion on whether governments can function while being totally transparent as per Wikileaks' declared aspirations, I certainly share the notion of striving for maximum transparency. Given I have no doubt governments today are far off the ideal level of transparency I consider Wikileaks to be a blessing.
Granted, they and the phenomenon they represent are not perfect. Christopher Hitchens’ opinion article on Julian Assange (here) states some positive aspects regarding Wikileaks but generally looks at the empty half of the glass; I, on the other hand, am very much enjoying the view of the full half. I think the record speaks for itself: we have already learned a lot of things “they” didn’t want us to know. Most notably, we learned a lot about the war in Afghanistan, both at the international level as well as the Australian one.
Most of the criticism directed at Wikileaks follows the argument of them damaging our stand in the war against terror. However, would the parents of the soldiers that died in Afghanistan, while fighting for what Wikileaks have exposed as a war acknowledged to be unwinnable by both the USA and Australia, agree with that notion? Would you send your children – or yourself, for that matter – to take our leaders’ words and fight in Afghanistan given what we now know of this war? I know I wouldn’t, and I doubt any reasonable person who is not in it because they really love the army or because the army is their only potential employer would. Sure, we should stand strong and fight terrorism; but we don’t gain our strength from lying to ourselves, we gain it by nourishing the superior values democracy gives us. Values such as openness to ideas and transparency.
As for the personal allegations against Julian Assange, my opinion has been very well expressed by Naomi Wolf here. I think that the allegations against him should be investigated, even if they may be “only” allegations concerning consensual sex turning to non consensual sex in the middle of the act; people should be able to say “no” any time they feel like saying no. However, it is blatantly obvious that Assange has been made into the sexual criminal of the century while rapists and paedophiles of much higher calibres are left untouched. Let’s be straight about it: presidents and prime ministers have been allowed to continue warming their seats after much more serious sexual allegations were raised against them. As it is, the hunt for Assange is an insult to any victim of sexual crimes out there: it is as if the authorities are telling them they are not true victims until the alleged proprietor of the crimes is someone that also happens to be putting the world’s only superpower to shame.

The way I see it, the most important aspect of the Wikileaks affair is yet to be digested by society. That most important aspect is the fact the Wikileaks affair also happens to be a First World War: The First World War between conventional powers and the virtual world. As to the potential implications of this worlds' war, John Scalzi seems to hit the nail on its head with his statement (here): “I hope we still have the Internet as we currently understand it at the end of 2011.”
Scalzi’s fears are not unwarranted. Governments around the world have been trying to subdue the web to fit their own agendas for years now, and I am not talking only about governments like China. Take the USA, for example: a few weeks ago it had shut many bit-torrent websites under the pretence of national security, yet since when are copyrights matters of homeland security? It’s all about money. They even shut down sites that lack any contents of their own and only provide links to other bit-torrent search engines, thus making no copyright infringement of their own. These websites were shut down without warning and without, it seems, any worthwhile legal standing. Check it out for yourself: read (here) what the now banned torrent-finder website says on behalf of American national security, read what torrent-finder has to say on the matter (here), and witness the futility of the entire affair as you access torrent-finder’s mirror site (here).
As Amazon, MasterCard, Visa and PayPal have proved in the case of Wikileaks, access to the web and its facilities is all about money, stupid!
Money has been less dominant in Australian web affairs but hidden agendas certainly weren’t. The Wikileaks website has been banned in Australia long before Cablegate (read about it here); the only catch about this ban is that the Australian government lacks the means with which to enforce its ban on anything that is not hosted in Australia, which meant that you and I could still comfortably surf the Wikileaks web page. But wait; the Aussie government does have a proposed solution for that "problem", and that solution is Stephen Conroy’s proposed big Internet filter (the filter was discussed here and on numerous other occasions at this blog).
Did you really think Conroy’s filter is about preventing paedophiles from accessing their stuff? He and every three year old knows the filter could be easily outmanoeuvred by any paedophile who graduated second grade. The real reason behind Labor’s effort for an Internet filter is to have a tool with which they can control the masses, the vast majority of which would not be bothered with the easy act of circumventing the filter. If they can’t know the truth they won’t know it, and if those that strive to expose the truth – the Wikileaks of the world – are kept outside, China style, then our government will have a field day doing exactly what its self interests dictate as opposed to what we, its supposed patrons, want it to do.

The next question is, what can little people like us can do in order to stop the tyrants – whether elected or not – from subduing the Internet to their purposes?
The answer I have found is the EFF (Electronic Frontiers Foundation), or its Australian manifestation EFA (Electronic Frontiers Australia). Separate organization though they may be, both are very active in matters of digital civil liberties and both have some major success stories under their belt. Shortly following the rupture of Wikileaks’ Cablegate I have decided to do my share and join the EFA.
Someone asked me on Twitter whether I wouldn’t have served the cause better by donating to Wikileaks directly. I disagree; Wikileaks itself is too much of a dictatorship and it doesn’t report its finances to the public, making it hard for me to easily give them my money (that said, I think there are much worse things one can do with one’s money). However, I think the bigger picture calls not for direct support to Wikileaks, but rather for support to social trends that would enable many different forms of virtual expression to take place freely alongside Wikileaks.
In my view, the EFA & EFF represent the best tools with which to achieve that goal. As a proud member concerned about what the future may hold to our society I urge you to do the same.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

My Name Is Legion

During the weekend we busied ourselves by being social, an activity we try to perform at least once a year, and visited friends of ours. In between running after three year olds we actually managed to exchange a couple of actual words of dialog, an event worthy of its own celebrations.
Some of this dialog concerned this blog. The host, a reader of this blog, asked me about another reader of this blog who posts the occasional comment here: who they were and what do I know about them. I answered to the best of my ability, given that I have never met that person before. Sticking to facts, I think I gave away quite a glowing description of this blog reader of mine; you see, these readers are so scarce I have to treat them all with the utmost respect.
The point I would like to note is how a person can establish themselves a reputation across the world. When they posted seemingly innocent comments on my blog the commenter probably never imagined these would trigger the attention of third parties in places they've never been to and probably never will. While posting these comments they probably didn't pay much attention to these comments' potential effects on the brand name that they are. More importantly, while I do not think I abused the trust of the people commenting on my blog, I can easily see how abuse can take place under certain circumstances, circumstances which mere mortal Internet users do not tend to consider when they put stuff on the web.
Lately I'm becoming much more aware of the stuff I put on the Internet, as it is obvious that anything you put there is, too one extent or another, public. My recent goodbye to Facebook is evidence there. Usually, the rule of thumb is that things are much more public than you think they are.
Note I'm not saying one should shut up altogether; this blog is proof. That said, I think it is obvious this blog has prevented me from ever being employed by the likes of the Catholic Church, Microsoft or a variety of other companies in the intermediate spectrum. Yet I think saying what is on my mind, and potentially changing things as a result, is worth the penalty fee. That, plus the fact that I would prefer to be employed by open minded companies that prefer to employ free thinkers rather than automatons.
Still, brag as I may about my open mouth, none of us knows how what we've casually said over the Internet is going to be interpreted in ten years time. As someone joked in this weekend Age, by 2020 we will all find nude photos of ourselves roaming through the Internet.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Friendly Neighborhood


New Swing
Originally uploaded by reuvenim
Our next door neighbor brought his old swing set over to us, asking for nothing in return. His daughters are too big for it; he got them a new and bigger set, and decided that we could use the old one. He was right - we were on the lookout for an outdoor toy for our three year old!
Not only did the neighbor get us this swing, he also built it up for us. Not only did he build it up for us, he also mowed our garden's weeds so we could actually use it.
I don't think I was ever that nice to anyone.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Which Smartphone?

Having an established position of being someone people tend to consult with before buying their gadgets comes with its own responsibilities. Granted, most people want me to say they've made the right decision rather than being truly interested in my arguments, but still – one of the questions handled to me more often than questions that really do matter is “what smartphone”.
I have recently revised my opinion on the “what smartphone” question: my vote is now with the iPhone, despite the compromised appeal over functionality approach of the iPhone 4. Not because I like Apple or its iPhone so much, but rather because the opposition is putting even poorer shows.

Let’s start with the negligible competition: Nokia’s handling of the smartphone market is simply pathetic (I've said it all before here). It’s latest phone, the N8, could be alright (I hear it’s not), but even Nokia loyalists would have a hard time justifying buying their old apps again with the N8 upgrade. Given Nokia has made it clear it would go towards a new operating system altogether with their future smartphones, the N8 is doomed.
Next is Microsoft. Its Windows Mobile 7 may be good but not yet; it still lacks features the iPhone has had for a while, like cutting and pasting, and it is also unclear what mechanism Microsoft is going to offer with which to perform future upgrades. Personally, I've had enough of Microsoft’s phone to last several lifetimes so I’ll never touch them again, but even those more pro Gates than I am should see that this is a competitor that’s been way too late showing up to the party.

Which leaves us with the iPhone’s most substantial competitor, the Google based Android operating system family of smartphones. Android offers phones that are technically superior to the iPhone, the main reason why lately I’ve been an Android advocate. Why did I change my mind about them? Several reasons:
  1. Lack of openness: Although the Android operating system is Linux based, it has been made clear Google is not making it into a proper open source operating system. It’s not going to be Apple’s tightly closed club, but it’s not going to be an open for all party either.
  2. Too many interpretations: Unlike Apple, who offer one model and make it very clear what it is you’re getting, each Android manufacturer comes up with their own crap they add on top of the operating system. It could have been good, but the reality is that the cream on top seems to always be rotten rather than beneficial. That non standard crap on top makes it hard for you, the person forking out hundreds of dollars on the phone, to change things in order for them to suit you rather than suit the manufacturer.
  3. Too many versions: Right now you can buy new Android phones from several different versions of the operating systems. There’s quite a wide range there: all the way from version 1.6 to 2.2 and as of this week 2.3. The problem there is that it’s really hard for you to know what your phone’s capability is going to be and how that capability compares with other phones.
  4. Upgrade path: Your phone may be the most sought after gadget at the time you buy it, but that won’t be the case for the majority of your phone’s life. Soon after you purchase it new models will come out and your phone will stop becoming a status symbol; it would just be a smartphone that your contract commits you to using for two years. It is therefore important to have an upgrade path that will ensure your old treasure can still do the things the newer phones do.
    Apple is often blamed for forcing users of its older models to upgrade; I agree. However, it has to be handed to Apple that they do provide a clear upgrade path for their gadgets, and that their gadgets do have a two year lifetime. With Android you’re not even certain you'd get that: you can’t find an Android phone you can buy while knowing for certain whether it would be upgradeable to the newer Android operating system releases. Even if you do, that upgrade depends on the manufacturer of your particular device and whether they intend to offer an upgrade path (a question that also depends on the crapware they’ve added on top of the Android operating system) as well as on whether the telco you bought the phone from would support such an upgrade. With Apple you know they will offer an upgrade (whether you like it or not is up to you) and you know the telco won’t have a saying in it.
So there you have it: An Android phone may be superior to an iPhone when you buy it, but after a year or more of service the iPhone will still be kept huffing and puffing long after your Android is forgotten. It’s a pity Google doesn’t think long term about its strategy with Android, because otherwise they should have an easy meal of beating the iPhone.

Friday, 10 December 2010

Lost

Do you know the feeling of writing a new blog post just for it to totally disappear off the face of your PC? Well, I didn’t know that feeling till today, when a [rather lengthy] post I wrote disappeared – the first time an event such as this took place during my blogging career.
For the record, I am pointing my finger firmly towards our friends from Redmond. For another record I will state I am not about to rewrite that post: given the amount of readership this blog receives it is obvious its main value is derived the process of writing, not in the process of posting.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Bicycle Races Aren't Coming Your Way

I find the most interesting question concerning the short term rental bicycles now available at various places around Melbourne to be “why have them”, rather than the question that is aired much more often of “why isn’t no one using them”.
The obvious answer to the first question is that these bikes have been sponsored by RACV to act as a fig leaf to Victoria’s road lobby whom RACV represents with much vigil. The same lobby that ensures billions of tax payers’ money are spent each year on eternally blocked highways or tollways no one wants to use while only a slight few are spent on the struggling public transport system.
As to the second question, the answer seems obvious there, too. Discussions in the media seem to focus on the mandatory need to bring your own helmet if you wish to rent one of those blue bicycles, but I don’t see the point of this discussion. What I did see are enough examples for motorcycle helmets saving lives to figure out they would be a good idea on bicycles, too; an idea so good it’s worth the reduced demand for rental bicycles.
Which brings me to my answer to the “why isn’t no one renting the bikes”. I would say it’s simple: people want to live. I’ll elaborate: The whole road system in inner Melbourne has been designed for car usage. It takes people truly dedicated to the cause to ride bicycles there, and these people do not tend to be the type that would rent a bike; they’d bring their own. For the rest of us, sharing a road with anxious drivers in Melbourne's CBD is not too different to jumping off a high building's window. It's suicide.
The entire farce of putting bikes for rent in Melbourne serves only to demonstrate that eternal truth of there being no silver bullets. If you want to solve your transportation problems, you need to invest: invest in bicycle friendly facilities or invest in public transport at the grander scheme of things. Instead, the other thing the farce of putting bikes for rent in Melbourne demonstrates is how the powers that be – lobbies and the governments relying on them – would always go towards “solutions” that try and improve perceptions before solutions that try to improve the true state of things.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The Plagues of Melbourne

Tropical giant locustA few years ago Australians were asked to pray for rain to end the drought (as discussed here). Apparently, the not so hidden assumption was that god is punishing us by keeping us dry.
This year the same authorities are telling us that the exceptionally rainy season resulted in locust attacks (read here).
Should we just accept the fact god hates us no matter what?

Image by rwsphoto

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

On Parenting

One problem with the Internet is that it’s hard to find the good amongst all the crap that’s around. The issue of parental advice in particular, as discussed here before, is ripe with advice based on not much else than their writer’s personal whims (and often greed, too). It is therefore important to identify the better resources, and by better I mean those that are evidence based.
One good blog on parenting I have found (with the help of Scientific American) is called On Parenting and is written by Nancy Shute, a science writer.
Check it out here.

Friday, 3 December 2010

The Break

The Break is a [relatively] new band formed out of Midnight Oil’s refugees. That is, it’s the Oils without Peter Garrett, who is now busy ruining his good name by turning to a Dark Side career in politics. A few months ago The Break released their first album, Church of the Open Sky, and I wanted to get it since: previews on the internets clearly indicated their line of instrumental rock music touches a sensitive nerve with me. If you want a direct comparison I would say it’s not unlike Midnight Oil’s early eighties album Bird Noises. I wanted to get Church of the Open Sky.
The question turned into how I should get the album. The Break is one of those bands that are not popular enough to be found in regular CD selling shops. I could get the CD through the web, but at $25 and northwards the admission price seemed too high. Besides, we hardly listen to CDs anymore other than the rare occasion when I wish to indulge on an audiophile recording; MP3s are the order of the day. Not to mention CDs taking up too much space.
The other option is to download the music from the internets. That option has its own issues: First and foremost, I have a problem paying for lossy compression quality music; if I pay for my music I want to get the real deal. I want at least CD quality sound, but that is hardly ever what you have available to download.
Second is the question of who to download from. By now there are plenty of services selling music over the web, but let’s get real: the only place you can go to and find all the stuff you’d really want is the Apple iTunes store. Buying from that store is a bit of an ethical dilemma for me: For a start, Apple puts its hands on significant portions of the amount you pay, and I don’t particularly like the way Apple handles itself as a company. Second, you have to use the iTunes software to buy music from Apple, and I hate iTunes: it’s an abomination of a badly written monstrous software, a security hazard once you install it, and it’s only available for Mac or Windows while I am primarily a Linux user. Then there is the fact Apple sells most of its music in the m4a format, which is not a format friendly to music players other than Apple’s.

My dilemma was magnified by an article I read last week, claiming that we should stop pirating music because we won the war: we can now buy our music on a song by song basis (as opposed to being forced into buying the entire album) for miniscule prices.
I beg to differ: singles were always there, since long before I was born; and when iTunes Australia charges $1.70 per song I wouldn’t call the cost miniscule at all. If anything I would say the cost of buying one’s music through legal Internet downloads is not that different to the cost of buying CDs, with the added advantage of being able to pick and choose songs. Personally, I’m old style when it comes to music preferences: I prefer to buy the full album, and there the prices are usually around $17 for a full album download from iTunes compared to $20-$25 for new release CDs. Cost wise, I would say the record companies have won big time with legal Internet downloads given the low cost associated with maintaining download facilities compared to the cost of shop real estate.
No, you would not find me saying that war over music has been won. Yes, battles have been won, including the biggest one – the fight over DRM. Yet I wouldn’t say the ware is over until:
  1. I find myself able to legally download music in as easy a manner as buying a Kindle book from Amazon is: go to a website that is accessible from any browser, click a button and you got the song.
  2. The cost of music is significantly lower than it is now. I am pointing a finger here at the fact iTunes Australia charges Australians $1.70 per song while iTunes charges Americans $1.50 (if not less) for the same song, even though our currencies are roughly equal.
  3. I can choose the format my downloaded music is in. FLAC would be a good start, offering CD quality with no lossy compression.
For the record, I downloaded Church of the Open Sky from iTunes.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

Cars Are Cars All Over the World

a00795 - Monster truckAfter a year or two (or three) of a break we finally had ourselves a Skype video call with my Israeli family this weekend. For obvious reasons the three year old of the house was the main feature, and he – liking that extra bit of attention provided by several new voices (alas, setting up a worthy picture of their side is too much for my family) – brought some of his toys for those new attention providers to admire.
One such toy was what my son calls his “monster truck”: a four wheel drive car with big wheels. Upon showing it to the other side of the world they asked what car it is; he answered “monster truck”, and they replied “is it a Honda?”
Other brands were mentioned, which was when it dawned on me: my son has no idea what Honda is. Nor does he know about any other major car manufacturer. Come to think of it, other than “Aldi” my son is completely unaware of any brands.
I realized that this brand unawareness goes hand in hand with the way I aspire to raise my child. Just as I am looking to raise him god free / religiously neutral so he can make his own mind about these things when he is capable of making his own mind about these things, we have been shielding our son from ads or anything that might push him to prefer one brand or one product over another for any unreasonable reason. Our son is at a unique point where, other than his daily exposure to the people in his life, his brain is yet to be brainwashed.
Obviously that won’t last long. At one point or another peer pressure will take over and he will ask to watch stuff on commercial TV. He will ask for that brand of shoes his friends wear and he will ask for an iPod/iPhone, just like his friends’. When that will happen I don’t think we will have much choice on the matter, but till then I see no reason to contaminate his mind with branding. I am actually envious of my son, living his life without the burden of advertising’s toll: a pure and ripe brain.

Photo by M.Peinado

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The Father and the Holy Spirit

My three year old returning from childcare this week talking about Father Christmas coming or not coming to school for Christmas has pissed me off a bit. I thought I was living in a secular country; what gives childcare the right to fill my son’s head up with bullshit of the Santa / Father Christmas (Santa’s British incarnation) type? Would they have done it if there was, say, a group of Muslim children in the facility, too?
I hear you saying that I should get a grip and join in the innocent fun. I agree, this is a relatively benign affair. I still have issues with it: because all problems start off benign so there’s no reason to encourage the benign. I therefore have this to say:
  1. Nice bullshit is still bullshit, so why should we fill our childrens’ brains with bullshit?
  2. This whole Santa affair only works because children are susceptible to accept anything they hear from what they consider sources of authority (parents, childcare supervisors). Abusing this susceptibility of theirs goes against my philosophy of raising a critical thinker that can think for himself instead, because my son is in the age where the foundations for a critical thinking life are laid.
  3. At the end of the day it would be left to us, parents, to clean the child’s brain from this bullshit. I am not about to cooperate; when my child asks about Father Christmas my child is going to learn a new word: “bullshit”.
  4. Last, but not least: Why can’t we find a rational alternative to this Santa bullshit? What is wrong, exactly, with telling children the truth – that they’re getting presents from people that love them and worked hard to give them their presents?

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Classic Rock

Probably due to the desperation that comes with eternally low ratings, Melbourne radio station Classic Rock (91.5 FM, formerly known as Vega) has started this new habit of playing classic albums in their entirety. Last Sunday they played Reggatta de Blanc by The Police, this Sunday they played The Wall by Pink Floyd: both albums that are much more than favorites of mine; I would describe them as more embedded to who I am than my own DNA.
In these days where albums hardly matter anymore and the single is the way of life, much praise is to be thrown at Classic Rock. I certainly know that my music appreciation would have greatly suffered if I was not to listen to complete albums for most of my music listening career, back in those days when I actually had time to listen to music and when my music listening was not dictated by the three year old dictator running the house.

While all this is happening, Apple is working hard to achieve the exact opposite. Last week accusations came out concerning Apple blocking radio station apps that allow iPhone users to listen to a single radio station (the story is still ongoing; read about it here). As is usual for Apple they come up with all sorts of stupidly sounding reasons to justify their application banning policies; to me, however, the story seems very clear.
If you look back at Apple’s ongoing war on Flash, one of the main probable reasons behind Apple’s vigorous campaign is the need to prevent people from accessing music in any way other than its own iTunes shop. One only needs to look at the YouTube app for the iPhone and its lack of support for playlists (forcing you to choose your songs one by one) to admire Apple’s efforts on this front. Then there is Apple banning apps such as Grooveshark’s, currently my favorite live streaming music website.
It really is simple: while most people view the iPhone and its compatriots as god’s (i.e., Apple’s) given gifts to us all, Apple views them as products whose purpose is to make us consume contents. Consume contents that we pay for. Consume contents that we pay Apple for. It is as simple as that; Apple do not want iPhone users with ever growing data allowances to listen to radio stations for free, they want you to buy stuff from them.

As I am writing the above I am also celebrating a year with my iPhone. The device has had significant impact on my way of life, the way that having the Internet on you all the time and using the Internet all the time can impact a person. By now the thought of not having Internet access, even momentarily, sends shivers down my spine. Before I’m accused of addiction I will add that yes, I am addicted; but I will also add that I view the ability to access the Internet whenever I feel like to be more important than the ability to make phone calls whenever I want to (pointing a finger at the way the majority of us are glued to their mobile phones without being labeled for addiction). If only because the Internet allows making phone calls and then some.
You can say I have a love/hate relationship with Apple.

Monday, 29 November 2010

The Great Debate

don't hate :: debateIf you thought the biggest revolution coming out of Victoria this week is the very likely election of a new Liberal government, I have news for you. Liberals, Labor - we've replaced one group of corrupt morons with another. No, the most revolutionary event I have experienced last week was a political debate held in no other place than our office kitchen during lunch!
For the first time in my living memory a true political debate took place at an office environment, in Australia, while I was there. The debate was polite, respectful, and featured creative ideas thrown in from all sides - the way debates should be. Unlike TV debates, no one avoided any questions or answered a question by asking another.
In a country where it's virtually impolite to discuss politics and where office codes of conduct try to restrict you from coming too close to topics that might "offend" the bleeding hearts, the fact such a debate took place is of major historical consequence. There are still many grounds for worrying about the future of political debating in Australia, though: the primary stakeholders of this historical debate were all bloody immigrants. Where does that leave pure blood Australians?

Picture by hive

Friday, 26 November 2010

The Meaning of Christmas

Probably the result of having a name like mine at a country claiming to be multicultural, I was recently asked to provide a paragraph on how I celebrate Christmas for an internal office publication at work. I delivered, recounting our yearly Christmas adventures while also implying there’s life beyond religion and while also taking a jibe at the mindless consumerism that relegated the whole Jesus thing to a faraway second place as far as holiday priorities are concerned.
Where my paragraph was short is on account of what Chrismass means to me. Growing up in Israel I spent the majority of my life with knowledge of Christmas limited to what American cinema provided me with, and there wasn’t much Christmas in personal favorites like Terminator 2. Obviously, it’s not like Christmas suddenly became the most important thing in my life once I moved to Australia (the way you would think given the behavior of many if not most of the people I have encountered since moving to Australia); given my very negative views on religion and on following tradition for tradition’s sake without paying it much thought, I am no fan of the Christian take on Christmas. I will admit, though, that some of the holiday’s pagan motifs (which were borrowed by Christianity) are nice.
With that said, it is important for me to add that I like Christmas. I like it a lot. But I don’t like it because of some elusive promise made by an imaginary zombie who rose from the dead; I like it for very earthly reasons. I will let the following song from Tim Minchin, White Wine in the Sun, explain what I consider the ideal Christmas experience to be like:



The above song has proving controversial lately: it was included in a charity CD for The Salvation Army, yet some of its lines upset some Christians who brought it into public attention. Attention the song deserves by virtue of it being a beautiful song by an incredibly talented artist rather than by upsetting the type of people that claim “Homosexual practice however, is, in the light of Scripture, clearly unacceptable” (as per The Salvation Army’s own publication here). In light of the feedback, Minchin (whom you can follow on Twitter here) has diverted proceeds from the song towards secular charities.
Regardless of the controversy, the more analytical and less poetic thing the song is trying to say is that Christmas is a time for people who love one another to be together, if not physically then at least in the mind. Christmas is unique in offering us the ability to achieve this closeness by virtue of the fact the majority of us are free from work/school or any other sort of external obligations that time of the year, free enough to be able to turn our attentions to the people we love more than we’re capable of doing the rest of the year. That is Christmas’ main value and that is the meaning is holds for me. It is also important to note that this meaning is entirely man made – the freedom to indulge ourselves during Christmas' obligation free time is the result of civil legislation allowing us to be free for a few days.
That last point concerning Christmas’ man made nature is important to stress about because so many people forget it. Too many people forget the true value of Christmas and instead focus on its religious rites or the shopping bonanza that comes with it. That, in my opinion, is the greatest tragedy that is Christmas.
I need not look far for evidence of this tragedy. I grew up not celebrating Christmas, but the Jewish calendar supplies several major holidays of its own, most notably the Rosh Hashanah (Jewish new year) bunch of holidays around September and the Pesach (Passover) holiday taking place roughly together with Easter. As a little child these holidays used to be the times when we met with the greater family, cousins and all, but as I grew older family disputes moved us apart and holiday celebrations became less of an event due to the smaller number of people involved. Despite the reduced number of participants my family still insists on doing the prayers and the religious ceremonies, regardless of not one of them actually believing or adhering to them in the first place. Given the rather tedious and repetitive nature of Jewish religious celebrations the end result is a rather boring affair; no wonder family members are not trying hard to take part.
Holidays are not the only time when my family seems to cling to rituals because they seem afraid of other, more involving options. Yearly memorial services for dead relatives are usually nothing more than a collection of people showing up, reading from a prayer book that no one understands for half an hour to an hour, eating something and then going their separate ways. Wouldn’t it be better for everyone, dead or alive, to sit together and browse family photos, or – for that matter – do some joint activity that is linked to the dead person? When questioned about their preferences the reaction is almost unanimous: unexplained anger (I was close to being punched over this) coupled with statements along the lines of “this is what people do”. How incredibly constructive of them.
Sadly, most people seem to lack the imagination required for making the most out of a holiday; I cannot claim self immunity there either. Yet as it is, I have grown fond of the Christmas holiday and I am definitely looking forward to my upcoming break. Whether it’s merry Christmas or merry kiss-my-ass, I hope you’ll have a good time, too!

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Career opportunities are the ones that never knock

CAREER OPPORTUNITIESLately I find myself daydreaming quite often about a career change. As usual, I'm too much of a chicken to actually act on this whim; things will most likely start and end with this post. Yet it is interesting to analyse the situation at hand.
The reasons for wanting a change seem fairly obvious:
  1. I'm getting too bored with what I'm doing at the office. I was hardly ever put to the test with assignments that truly challenge my capabilities, perhaps because I never offered myself up but also because most employers do not really want breakthroughs. As it is, I am going to work in the mornings not for self-fulfillment but rather so I can pay the mortgage.
  2. Since becoming a parent, the ongoing battle for work/life balance is taking its toll. It is best felt when our child is sick: not only do I have to make the extra effort running after him, I also have to make the extra effort to cover up for work. Yet even under normal circumstances times are hard: between childcare open and closing times, my workday does not leave me much leeway for luxuries and I'm always short on time.
  3. Like everyone I would like to be doing at work what I like to be doing off work. As it is, the stuff I'm doing at the office is stuff that I'm probably good at, but it is also stuff I got to do through circumstances (mostly the need to get a proper job after migrating to Australia) rather than my own career choice.
Obviously, if a career change is what I want, then the question is what career options I have that would satisfy my three main demands: income, work/life balance and interest?
In an ideal world the answer would have been making money out of blogging/writing, but we are not living in an ideal world. There are very few people that really earn money this way, and probably only a handful that make a proper living out of such activities alone. Looking at people that do make money writing, like Cory Doctorow or John Scalzi (to name two personal favorites), it becomes obvious that in order to them to maintain viable income they have to comb the world over all the time. I'm pretty sure they can't be there every evening at five to pick their child up from childcare.
There are, however, other things I like doing. In particular I noticed how I am acting as many of my friends' consultant for all things PC: I advise them on software, I fix minor issues on their computers, and I even install stuff. My specific niche is in the free software: I advise people on acquiring free anti virus software, free firewall software, free anti malware software, and even free operating systems altogether (Linux). I also advise on free tools that deal with specific needs: I tell people about free movie editing software and photo editing software that can give Adobe and its products a good run for their money, especially for with people of more amateur demands.
I believe that when looked upon this way, I do have a market I can get some money from. The market is simple PC users who want to get more out of their computer but do not want to or do not have the means to pay much for it. I encounter people like this all the time, starting from each time I look myself in the mirror. My business rivals are also plainly obvious: there are companies out there making billions out of telling people they need to spend money on software that I consider unnecessary. Take the anti virus arena: people are actually paying for inferior security products from the likes of Norton when they can get much better alternatives from the likes of Avira for free. The best example is Windows: Microsoft is very good at pushing Windows down our throats, yet I am convinced the vast majority of users would be better off with Linux. Take my parents, for example: In half an hour I can install Ubuntu on a PC for them and set it up so that they never need to do a thing to keep their PC up to date and secure while, at the same time, they can get all the functionality they would ever want to get out of their PC. Half an hour, and it's verified, because I have done it before.
If you want my business model then there it is: advertise myself to people like my parents (e.g., old) that want basic computing/Internet abilities but cannot deal with the implications of keeping a PC running reliably, and charge them an affordable one off sum (say, $50-$100) to sort things out for them. I would enjoy doing it, I would feel like I am spreading the good word while doing it, and I truly believe I would make a difference to people's lives. Having an Internet connection you can adequately use is not a thing to be trifled with!
Obviously, there are problems with my vision, and quite a lot of them, so I'd better keep my day job for now (or forever). I am unable to tell how much demand there will be for my services - again, I am fighting billions of marketing dollars here. Then there are the people I will be helping, who will stop being my friends once I go commercial: they will have their own weird demands, they will have PCs that have been so totally ruined under the Windows regime I won't be able to do anything before reinstalling the entire operating system, and there will be lots of people with hardware problems whereas I do not pretend to be able to have the tools required to deal with that.
The temptation is there, though. I'm pretty sure that if I was to lose my day job I might even give it a go!

Photo by mike fischer

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Supply and Demand


Nintendo DS Lite
Originally uploaded by reuvenim
I just sold my four year old Nintendo DS Lite on eBay for more than it cost me new. Something like that doesn't happen too often but it does happen quite often with the DS Lite, to the point of raising the question: Why is there such demand for a game console that has been surpassed by the likes of the DSi and other consoles, not to mention the ubiquitous iPhone/iPod Touch platform that offers superior gaming experience?
The reason is very simple. It is incredibly easy to acquire pirated games for the DS Lite, whereas the newer models do not have this "capability". In fact, blocking the piracy option was the main reason behind Nintendo releasing the DSi in the first place.
I would like to look at this phenomenon from a different perspective. Instead of fighting piracy with a model that is obviously not as welcomed by the market, why doesn't Nintendo capitalize on the fact its console is so sought after because of the virtually endless supply of cheap games (cheap, and not free, because piracy still has its costs)?
While I let Nintendo ponder this question I will ponder the way piracy is so openly obvious in Australia.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

God Shuffled His Feet

One morning god woke up and decided to have a change of heart. Yes, god the perfect woke up this morning through his earthly incarnation, Mr Pope, and decided that under certain circumstances condoms are alright (here).
Don't get me wrong, it's about time the Vatican joined the rest of humanity and realized condoms are a lifesaver. Yet what does it say about our belief in an omnipotent god if that god can suddenly change his mind? Why didn't he do it earlier, being that he's perfect and all? And what's next - will we be told tomorrow that the earth might not be as flat as we know it is, or that - god forbid - we are not at the center of the universe?
Oy Gevalt!

Monday, 22 November 2010

Extreme weight reduction program

Lose weight nowAs odd as it may sound, there are benefits to having the severe tooth pain that goes with a tooth infection. It is obvious, actually: when one is under severe tooth pain one does not eat much; and when one does not eat much one loses weight.
Thus I found myself two kilos down within the manner of a week. And I like what I have found! I like the feeling of my clothes not holding me with as tight a grip, and I like that light feeling that goes when every move you make goes that extra millimeter more than expected.
Not that weight loss is news to me. I have been losing weight slowly for a few months now by managing my calories' intake, to one extent or another. The difference is the suddenness of the weight loss: one minute I'm weighing X, the next I'm weighing X-2; it is this suddenness that allows me to feel the difference.
I am not naive enough to think that weight lost so quickly will not be regained as quickly. However, that good feeling I'm feeling now gives me further motivation to cut the bullshit and try and lose weight in the manner that lasts. The hard way.
The war on weight rages on, and I am armed and ready for it!

Photo by alancleaver_2000

Sunday, 21 November 2010

Knowing

mowersI had the pleasure of mowing the lawn again this afternoon (what a lovely way to spend precious glorious weather weekend time). Usually, my three year old is afraid of the mower's mighty noise. Today was different, though: having watched plenty of YouTube videos on how mowers and in particular mower engines work, he said he is not afraid of the mower anymore now that he knows how it works.
There goes a lesson much more important than how a mower works: When we know how things work, we are much comfortable with the way things are. Even when those things are not particularly pleasant.
I'll go even further and state my opinion on the matter: The ongoing and eternal quest to make sense of this world we live in is one of those things that makes life worth living.

Photo by Ben McLeod

Friday, 19 November 2010

We call it Riding the Gravy Train

Some times you need the point of view of the unattached observer in order to realize what the problems you’ve been facing for years are. The recent AussieCon 4 science fiction conference provided such an opportunity by it having people of like mindedness enter Melbourne and provide me with their input.
John Scalzi, current SFWA president (Science Fiction Writers of America, I believe), put it bluntly in his blog here:
If I had to mark down Australia for anything, I suppose it would be that day-to-day incidentals there are markedly more expensive; for example, the 20-ounce bottle of Coke Zero I would pay $1.20 for here is $3.50 there, even when factoring in the exchange rate for the Australian dollar, and a candy bar that’s eighty five cents here is at least twice that there. I think if I were living in that country, I would do a lot of buying in bulk.
Then there’s the Israeli friend who visited me during the convention. In similar fashion, he observed the local inventory of Levis jeans being significantly dearer to American prices. The models were different too: for example, the classic Levis 501 model does not exist as far as Australia is concerned; it is as if Levis chose to divide and conquer Australia from the rest of the world. Also noted was the rarity of finding t-shirts selling for a single digit dollar figures at Melbourne's shops.
What do I make of these aliens’ views on Australian consumerism?

The funny thing is that I think they’re right and wrong. You can buy things for cheap in Australia, the problem is you need to buy them at specific places and at specific times. Perhaps the example most familiar to Aussies is the Myer sale, Myer being probably the most famous department store chain in Australia: many people wait things out for the six monthly sale to start before daring to buy at Myer, but when the sale is on they rush for it.
Yet Myer is an extreme example because I am of the opinion Myer is too expensive even during sales season. Let’s look at food shopping instead: Go to your average supermarket and from time to time the prices will bite you, but that is exactly why we have been doing the bulk of our grocery shopping at Aldi for a few years now. It may lack some of the convenience and variety offered by mainstream supermarkets but some of its products are of very high quality and most of them are very reasonably priced.
Over the years we have developed a list of places we go to if we want to buy particular items. There’s Aldi for groceries and a market for fresh food items, there’s MSY or CPL or CentreCom for computers and there’s Best & Less for cheap baby clothing. More and more, though, I am finding myself annoyed at the severe mark-ups Aussie shops take, especially given the current strength of the Aussie Dollar; the result is that more and more of my shopping is now online, including shopping that is less web traditional (if traditional web shopping can be said to exist in the first place; how many of us bought stuff over the Internet ten years ago?):
  • Books: Most of my book purchases are now direct Kindle digital downloads, but when I want to buy a hard copy that would usually come from either The Book Depository, Borders online, Fishpond or Amazon as opposed to a brick and mortar shop. The price difference between Borders’ shops and their own website is reason enough to stop buying at a shop, especially when they hardly ever have the book I’m looking for.
  • Video games: One can find the occasional bargain on eBay, but for consistently good prices I buy my games at ozgameshop. The odd thing is that this is a British website (with free shipping to Australia) that still manages to be much cheaper than anything in Australia.
  • T-shirts: I can find the exact designs I like over the web, and I’m very picky about my t-shirts. Why on earth would I want to spend the same or more at a normal department store in order to have what everyone else is wearing?
  • Clothes: Aside from purchases such of cheap covers for my iPhone or my Kindle, I have started using eBay to buy the exact clothes I want. The Levis 505 jeans I thought of buying for a while? Got them for $42, new and delivered from the USA; in Australia the equivalent model (504) sells for $75 during the Myer sale. Or the GAP cargo pants I’ve been looking for way too long? Got them new and delivered from the USA for $40; the equivalent cargo pants I used to buy in Australia from Industrie sell for $100. By the way, a note to GAP: you are only shooting yourself in the leg by limiting your website to American users.
I can continue with further examples but I will finish with the one I’m engaged with currently. A few months ago I’ve mistakenly placed my [empty] camera bag in a water fountain, causing it to smell of mold. Mold, in case you didn’t know, is one of your camera lenses’ biggest enemies, sending me looking for new camera bags.
After thinking a lot about it, I decided my preferred camera bag is the Fastpack 250 from Lowepro, a backpack designed to carry an SLR, a laptop and their auxiliary equipment. I can get it new on eBay from various international shops for as little as $98, yet I feel bad about it.
I feel bad about it because when I went to check the bag out for fit at Michael’s, a big Melbourne photography shop stocking quite a lot of stuff, I wasn’t only able to touch the Fastpack 250 and verify it suits my needs (to a level much higher than photos on the Internet ever could), I was also easily able to try it out against other models and check that it fits in the airport hand luggage "template" station they had there so I could tell whether I can use this bag as hand luggage on both domestic and international flights.
Michael’s offered me great service from start to finish, yet does that service earn them the right to charge me more than $60 extra over their web competition? I’m happy to pay reasonably more for better service, yet I am not sure that in this case $60 can be deemed reasonable. Instead it seems to me as if the bigger Australian shops, as they keep growing bigger and driving the smaller players out of business, are running a seemingly cooperative campaign to skim the milk off the ignorant Aussie consumer to the point where finding a bargain is a phenomenon relegated to the realm of the exotic. Shopping in Australia is getting more expensive by the day during times it should be getting cheaper.
I refuse to take part in this game; I’m getting my stuff over the web.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Character References

Christmas is in the air, which means shopping is everywhere. From time to time one bumps into some sort of a sale, and Book Depository - a very attractive UK website selling books at often surprisingly low prices and freely shipping them to Australia - has an original one: Give Book Depository the email addresses of ten of your friends and you will immediately receive a 10% discount voucher. For every one of those friends that actually makes a purchase you will receive an additional 10% voucher.
I took their offer, gave them a list of ten friends, and used up my 10% discount. You can review the screenshot of my friends' email addresses on the left.
To which I will say: serves them right from trying to elicit people to betray their friends' privacy.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Toy Camera

Fisher-Price toy cameraWe have a new camera added to our collection: This weekend, at Harvey Norman, we got our three year old a digital camera for $27. It is a genuine camera that unlike purpose made kids' toy cameras even features a preview screen. It is most obviously also one of the crappiest cameras I have ever seen; it sort of reminds me of the way digital cameras were just a bit less than ten years ago, lag and distortion wise.
When one buys such cheap crap one does not expect much in the way of longevity, and indeed our jewel had dropped the camera less than 24 hours after he got it. It stopped working and we had it replaced, but I don't see it lasting long. That said, the boy is obviously happy imitating his father: he even puts the camera up to his eye the way one does with an SLR.
Say what you say about a three year old having his own digital camera, I cannot avoid pointing out this three year old has one while my own technophobic parents don't.

Photo by John Kratz

Monday, 15 November 2010

The Root Canal

My agony seems to have been put to an end by the talented hands of my dentist today as she mercilessly killed the root of all my painful and swollen face. It sounds funny but it's true: there are very few people I was looking forward to seeing more than I was looking forward to seeing my dentist today. A root canal, something I would have wanted to get away from as far as I could under normal circumstances, became the thing I was yearning for the most.
The operation itself is quite vicious if you compare it to your average filling. The concept of a root canal is that the tooth's root is redundant: once the tooth grows to its full size, as in once you stop growing, the root doesn't do much and you could well live without it. Thus in cases where the root becomes troublesome it is simply sucked off and killed. What usually takes place is that the top of the tooth is removed, drilling is done through its center, the root is cleaned off the drilled hole (using tiny bottle brushes like tools), poison and antibiotics are poured into where the root once was, and then the root's previous home is filled with rubber. Yes, I was expecting some titanium alloy to go in there but instead you get a byproduct of oil. When all is done and dusted, a crown is placed over the tooth to make it look like a tooth. And there you go: you get to save the tooth but you're rid of the pain the tooth brought you.
You might think I've provided the above description to shock and awe you, as if to either scare you away from ever seeing a dentist or to show you how brave I am for going through this motion. That is not the case; my intention was to show root canal for the marvel it is. Think of the alternative: I certainly did while suffering a painful weekend on heavy pain killers while still going through unprecedented pain. Less than a hundred years ago, people had to compensate for the fact our teeth were never meant to last more than a few decades - why would they when, in evolutionary terms, most people died before they were 35 - by pulling their tooth out with a string? When looked upon this way, the fact we can go through a relatively painless operation called a root canal and get to keep our mouth looking nice and cool is a wonder of human ingenuity.
Still, I would rather wait a while before my next root canal.

Note the above photo was taken during the operation by my dentist. At first I took photos of my myself just so I could see what's taking place; then the dentist cooperated and took a couple of shots for me. She also arranged for me to hold a mirror instead...
You can see the bottle brush used to remove the root popping out of my tooth there. The full set of photos is on my Flickr page. As per my current policy, the photos are accessible to friends only.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Grinding to a Halt

My tooth, the one currently ongoing all sorts of money excavating operations at the dentist, is putting on its last stand. As of Wednesday it's continuously hurting, and by now things are so bad the entire right side of my face, ear and eye included, feels like it's seriously considering emancipation. I can't concentrate on anything.
Hello, root canal!

Thursday, 11 November 2010

The Finkler Question

A recent email exchange I had with a couple of my Israeli friends ended up evolving into a minor discussion on the matter of Zionism. Given that I recently finished reading the recent Man Booker award winner, The Finkler Question by Harold Jacobson, and given that this is a book dealing with matters of Jewish identity, I thought the timing is right for me to sit down and articulate my views on Zionism. Here goes nothing.

For background on my starting position, here are the emails that instigated the discussion. Please bear in mind this was an email exchange between friends, never intended to go on record, and probably not written under the most serious of attitudes:
Friend #1:
Here are photos of our childhood’s cinemas from an era when… Moshe was still a Zionist…
Yours truly:
I have to protest: By your definition, I was never a Zionist; by my reckoning, and I am of the opinion Hertzel would have agreed with me, I am more of a Zionist than most of the idiots pretending to be Zionists.
Friend #2:
As per Babylon:

Zionist['Zi·on·ist 'zaɪənɪst]
n. one who practices Zionism, one supporting the movement that promotes Jews returning to and rebuilding Israel

For sure now you are not promoting Jews return to Israel, so I don’t think that you can be counted as one.
I think that is the past, you didn’t agree with the views of the Israeli government, but you were part of the people of Israel, hence Zionist.
Basically most of the people live here and are Jews (NETURI KARTA excluded) are Zionists in practice.
A lot of the people that left Israel, but still see it as a future option, can be counted as such.
As for you, even if Yossi Sarid will be PM & Shulamit Aloni will be the minster of defense, I think you will not return, so [Friend #1] is about right with his definitions as I see them.
With the context set, let's have a discussion.

Question #1: What is Zionism?
As noted above by Friend #2, the current definition of the term Zionist that most people would concur with is a person supporting the notion of a Jewish state in Israel. However, I beg to differ with the dictionary here. Dictionaries tend to fail in the slight nuances that matter the most; look up dictionary.com here for the Random House definition of the term Atheism and it would tell you it’s “the doctrine or belief that there is no god”. Ask Richard Dawkins what his opinion on the matter is and he would tell you that there probably is no god but that we will probably never be able to verify that, therefore atheism is a philosophy that states the probability for god’s existence is so low one can live a much better life if one lives it like there is no god. Can we honestly say that Dawkins is no atheist just because he differs with the dictionary? No; I say that I prefer to think for myself, thank you very much, rather than take the dictionary's word for it.
When I think for myself about the meaning of Zionism I go back to the vision of those who came up with the idea in the first place. Most famous amongst these is Herzl, widely considered the father of Zionism. Herzl clearly prescribed a vision for a Jewish state where, amongst others:
  1. The Jews of the world can find a home.
  2. All people are welcome and equal, not just Jews.
  3. Religion is confined to the insides of temples.
When we look at modern day Israel it is clearly obvious the last two of Herzl’s visions are far from materializing. Israel is not a country where non Jews are equal; ignoring the slight matters of the ongoing discrimination against Israeli Arabs or the ongoing occupation of the Palestinian territories, let us look at my own family. If we were to live in Israel as we are we would be heavily discriminated against: my son qualifies as Jewish by Israeli law but not by religious Jewish laws, which would make it a big problem for him to marry in Israel given only religious marriages are allowed. Things would be worse for my wife: her not being a Jew would mean the need for special licenses to stay in the country and work for a living.
Next we have the way religion dominates the living instead of being confined to the insides of shrines. As mentioned, religion governs marriages and other matters in Israel. Religion is taught in state schools while things of minor importance such as the Theory of Evolution are not. I can go on and on, but let’s look at the bottom line, the way the people of Israel actually conduct themselves: the vast majority of Israelis do not question religious indoctrination for a second and have their sons circumcised. In my book, circumcision - or any other act of involuntary mutilation - is a barbaric act. And all for what? Because a bronze age book says so? Where is the supposed Jewish brain to tell them they are doing their children wrong?
My point is this. Israel is the current manifestation of Zionism, yes. However, Zionism has strayed a lot since its inception, to the point it is but a pale shadow of what it was originally meant to be. I have plenty of issues with the modern day manifestation of Zionism, enough to have left Israel for good; I do not think I would have left Israel if the country was loyal to Zionism’s original vision.

Question #2: Who is a Zionist?
Friend #2 claimed that there was a time in which I was a Zionist by virtue of me being a part of the people of Israel. I disagree.
I disagree because of several reasons:
  1. I was not a part of the people of Israel by choice; luck of the draw had me born in Israel.
  2. While as a child I had my moment of identifying with Israel and its doings, these were childish moments, moments where my opinions were dictated by what others told me to think. As an adult with a mind of his own I was never a big fan. A good example is the way Israel's military victory in the 1967 war was celebrated at school as a great military triumph; today I see that victory and everything that came with it (e.g., occupation of the West Bank) as a tragedy.
  3. True, I served in the Israeli army and did more for the state then many if not most Israelis. I did not do so willingly; I did so because the alternative was prison and because I am a chicken.
  4. Being a part of the people of Israel does not automatically make one a Zionist even if the above three issues did not exist. What if I was a spy or a terrorist or even a simple criminal? Does that still count as a Zionist? Can one be a Zionist drug trafficker just because one claims to be Jewish?
I am of the opinion that in order to be a Zionist, one has to identify with the Zionist cause. There are plenty of Israelis who do; I don’t and I didn’t.

Question #3: Would I ever return to Israel?
No I won’t, not even if left wingers like Yossi Sarid and Shulamit Aloni were in the country's helm. The first reason is that they will never be at the helm. The second is that even if they or their peers are, Israeli culture is so well entrenched they will never be able to turn Israel into the state I would have liked it to be.
The third reason is much more practical. It is damn hard to migrate! I did it once already when I moved to Australia, and I can tell you that things were pretty close to catastrophic. I was unemployed for six months, saved only by the partner who migrated with me and my brother’s connections within the Jewish community. Yes, I got my first proper job in Australia because of my ethnic background.
As I have only one heart with no spare parts, and as I am not a particularly fit person, I would prefer to leave my career as an international migrant behind. As it is, I even dread moving houses.

Question #4: Is there a need for a Zionist state?
That’s the most important question, isn’t it? Does the world need a Jewish state in the first place, and is Israel what it needs if it does?
I am going to surprise a lot of my friends by answering both questions with a definitive yes. Yes, the world needs a Jewish state. And yes, the world needs Israel despite all the wrongs it has done and the wrongs it is doing. The reasons I think so are not the reasons usually invoked when justifying a Jewish state: I think we need an Israel because I think the world is fucked. The world is fucked because there is no country in the world where a Jewish person, or for that matter any person not of the country's dominant ethnicity, is truly an equal.
Look at the USA, for example: Look at the fuss the mother of all democracies went through when a Catholic was elected president. Look at the fuss they went through when a black was elected president. And look at how millions of Americans believe this black person is a Muslim and therefore unsuitable for presidency!
Look at my own experience in Australia: Am I truly an equal among equals here? I argue that I am clearly not. Any non Anglo Saxon would tell you how hard it is to find a job in comparison to an Anglo; research confirms the phenomenon (check here). I live in a country where children are either forced to endure Christian religious “education” in public schools, usually organized by evangelical Christian organizations, and where kids whose parents demand them being excused from such ordeals are being punished. I live in a country where parliament gatherings and many other official gatherings start with The Lords’ Prayer, a Christian prayer, even though I am anything but a Christian.
We live in a sad world where ethnic groups can only find peace if they have a country of their own that they can screw. Jews need their Israel, Palestinians need their Palestine. Hardly any country came to be without great injustice to the natives, including the USA, Australia and Israel; hopefully we can be mature enough to acknowledge that and try to make amends. As the world currently is, the world needs an Israel so that Jews can have a place where they are equals. What they do with this place is their problem, as long as they treat minorities fairly (which is where Israel is in the wrong).

Question #5: I have problems with both Israel and Australia. What is it, then, that I am looking for?
I said I don’t like Israel and I mentioned problems I have with Australia. I admit to living in Australia because it’s a country where living is generally much easier than in other countries and where, despite many forms of discriminations, I am still able to live a life of my own: I was able to marry the way I wanted to instead of through a religious ceremony, to give but one example. Yet it is obvious I am not content with Australia either. What is it, then, that I am looking for?
As I have mentioned, I like the original idea of a Zionist state, as per Herzl’s prophecy. However, I also detest religion, and therefore see no reason to wish for a state defined by either religion or race. What I am looking for is a state where humanism is the guiding light. Such a state would be a secular state where everyone is truly an equal regardless of the majority’s race or ethnicity. A state where anyone can become a Prime Minister without anyone else eyebrows’ raised.
As far as I know there is no country like that on our world yet. It is because we do not have such countries and because most people do not realize that countries such as this would serve them best, instead of countries formed around a common religion, that we have so much strife in our world. It is because our world is lacking understanding of the need for such states that we still need Zionism and Israel.
I, however, am no Zionist. Nor was I ever one; I am a humanist.