Thursday, 25 February 2010

Make a deal with god and get him to swap our places

An upcoming family Bar Mitzvah has triggered an advice from a relative. I should, he said, expose my son Dylan to his Jewish backgrounds regardless of what my thoughts on religion are. While acknowledging god doesn't exist and Judaism is full of bullshit, a child needs to know where he's coming from in order to establish his sense of identity. It is important because in this society we live in people classify one another by religion. Otherwise, if I don't do anything re the introduction of religion because of my own personal attitudes as an atheist, that child might suddenly decide they want to become a Jesuit priest or a Buddhist, and then I won't be able to do anything about it. I should therefore stop acting like a computer that views the world in terms of pure black and white and realize there is more to it.
We're in agreement, my relative and I, about many of the above statements. We have general agreement about the validity of religion, we have an agreement about the importance of a child establishing their identity in this world. We also agree on me being unable to stop a determined son from pursuing the further extremes of religion if that's his choice. But we're also in disagreement, a significant disagreement, which is what I want to discuss here: Should I or shouldn't I train my son in the ways of the Jew? Unlike my relative, my answer is a very definitive no. If it's up to me, Dylan would not have a Bar Mitzvah.

First I have to say that I have a big problem with the defeatist attitude my relative is displaying. Essentially, he's saying "I think religion is crap, but I can't think of anything better, so I advocate religion". I'm no big thinker either, but I can - and I hope I do - stand on the shoulders of giants. It's people like David Hume, Bertrand Russell, Daniel Dennett, Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers and many others from whom I borrow ideas; and these giants seem to be able to offer me a very good alternative to the religious attitude: the rational attitude.
The problem my relative was raising is simple to specify: A child growing up in the universe needs some building blocks supplied with which to build their identity. The proposed solution is the use of religion as the free supply shop providing these tools. And I agree, the religious solution is the easy solution; but since when is the easy solution necessarily the better solution? Usually it isn't.
My solution involves two steps. The first is to teach my son critical analysis, so he can have the tools to properly analyze different options and make up his own mind as to which option is best through the application of rational criteria. The second involves exposing my son to the view of the world modern science has to offer: it's not a coincidence our house contains a multitude of books written by the likes of Hawking, Asimov, Dawkins and Sagan - several of which are aimed directly at younger readers; I'm hoping to create this exposure through these tools. Note I'm not planning on actively exposing my son to religion; he'll get enough of that, if not more than enough, from everywhere else. What I will actively discuss is religion from the historical perspective, as [sadly] it is a major effect on the way society works.
Now comes the tricky part: If I was to do my work properly, I don't see a way in which a rational person would prefer religious dogma to the view that science has on offer. Compare the two, and don't use your rose tainted glasses for a change: one offers a vision of a world dominated by a neurotic yet powerful being obsessed with power and with being worshiped, whereas the other offers an unimaginably vast universe with which we are tied through us being made of the remnants of old stars going supernova and in which all the living beings we are familiar with are closely related; a world in which we are one with the universe. The way I see it, choosing between the two is like choosing between a Trabant and a Ferrari: you'd have to be insane to choose the former over the latter.
And that's what religion does to people through indoctrination. It prevents a rational assessment of this world. Thing is, science seems to indicate that the earlier the indoctrination, the harder it is for the child to release themselves from religion's shackles later: perceptions established at an early stage of life, a stage when a human's function is to only establish their perception of the world (while being totally reliant on its parents), are extremely hard to change later when a human is meant to mostly use the formerly acquired perception in order to lead a life of their own.

Okay, so we've established that I'm not about to indoctrinate my child with religion. What if my plan fails and my child still ends up preferring religion, or - as my relative put it - goes on to become a Buddhist?
Well, shit happens. It is entirely within my child's rights to choose for his own; he's going to be the one living with the consequences. He might also change his mind later; we're all entitled to. Hell, I used to be a believer until a certain point came where I realized my belief is causing me to do the wrong things. Why should my son be prevented from being allowed to make his own mistakes and learn from them?
And as for him choosing to become a Christian priest or a Buddhist in particular: given that I don't think too highly of any religion, I don't have any particular preference for one over another. Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism - they're all different versions of hot air. What reason should I have for preempting his choice of one type of hot air (Christianity, Buddhism) by filling his head up with a different type of hot air (Judaism)? If anything, I'd prefer him becoming a Buddhist; you don't see as many Buddhists running around trying to kill others because of their beliefs.

So, to sum my arguments up:
Children do need help forming up their self identity. Religion is an easy tool with which to form a sense of belonging, but it's a flawed tool due to its false premises. An alternative exists: a rational approach based on humanist values and scientific evidence.
That alternative approach is not as popular and would be tough to teach in a potentially hostile environment. By that environment I am mostly referring to the peer group my son is going to end up belonging to in school, which is probably going to be his main source of influence while at the age in which he first needs to make his mind up regarding his identity.
My son may end up agreeing with me and he may not. The choice would be up to him; I'm still going to be his father even in disagreement. I don't intend to choose an attitude concerning religion for him the same way I don't intend to choose a football team for him.
And if, just if, it all comes down to the need to feel like he belongs to a group... If that is the case, we'll both follow his favorite football team all the way.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Sanitation

PZ Myers, the famous scientist, atheist and blogger was interviewed on Triple J radio's Safran program this week, ahead of his upcoming visit to Melbourne for the Atheist Convention.
During the program I was shocked to learn, through a discussion on the topic of tax exemptions religious organizations receive, that the food company behind Weet-Bix is tax exempt. Yes, the company called Sanitarium that makes some of Australia's favorite foods is owned by the Seventh Day Adventist Church, and as such it is entirely exempt of tax payments. How crazy can that be?
Guess from now on I'm only going to buy Sanitarium products if I have no other choice. Other food companies out there are no saints, but at least they pay their due; with Sanitarium you can rest assured your money is going to fund lunacy.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

And No One Sings Me Lullabyes

Richard Wright is gone for a while now and it bothers me. The question is, why does Wright's departure bother me in particular?
Rick Wright was the keyboard player of Pink Floyd, and despite the fact he did well on numerous tracks (including my favorite record of all time, The Dark Side of the Moon), he was never the band's dominant figure. Yet he, as well as the rest of his band, touched me: I grew up on Pink Floyd. Eras of my life have been accompanied by Pink Floyd's music, especially my teens.
As I watched a couple of Pink Floyd documentaries this week I seem to have realized his departure saddens me because it marks the end of an era. My carefree childhood days are gone, the same way that Pink Floyd is now gone and can never be what it had been no matter what potential reunions take place.
Needless to say, there is not much sense in such a view of the world. At the time, my teens did not seem care free at all; not to mention my army days. Yet Richard Wright's music is still with me, living through bits on CDs, hard drives and my brain.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Walking in the Wild West End

We took our yearly pilgrimage to the Melbourne Aquarium today. We've had a tough week with Dylan and his asthma, so we thought taking him to see some fish, penguins and other exotic creatures could help with all of us feeling better.
The weird thing about visiting the aquarium, located on the western side of Melbourne's CBD, is the walk. We park our car somewhere in Southbank where parking is available and then make our way to the aquarium on foot, only that this walk is not as trivial as it should be. You see, there has been a lot of building work going on that side of Melbourne (Southbank / South Wharf), but it all seems like this one big convoluted mess.
You get these huge apartment buildings; really big ones, standing one to the side of the other. You have the Crown Casino, hotels and convention centers. What you don't seem to have is a proper footpath: some streets don't have a footpath at all, others seem to have it as an afterthought, and when you try to cross the road you often discover that you need to cross three lights instead of one in order to get to your destination.
What has happened here? Why is it that despite having buildings housing people by the thousand, no suitable provisions were made to ensure they can actually get around in any way other than their cars?
I'll give you my theory. I strongly suspect the area fell victim to greedy developers who wanted to make as much money as they could. That, amongst others, includes selling as many apartments as they can while failing to provide facilities to match. The state government, on its side, is never shy of bending its own rules for the sake of money. Nor is it shy of turning a blind eye to the welfare of the people its meant to serve when dealing with big money. As far as they're concerned, that's their primary function; this is where they get their real power from. The victim? Everyone in Melbourne, and in particular everyone living in this area.
Another victim? Melbourne itself. This particular area of Melbourne, with its proximity to the water and all, could have been made into something really special. Instead it reminds me of my visit to the center of Atlanta USA, another place where cars rule and pedestrians are considered pests. Is that what we've come down to? Is this our role model? We could have had an area that is almost Sydney Opera House special (and the Sydney analogy is no coincidence, with most decision making in Melbourne being driven by its inferiority complex to its more glamorous counterpart). Instead we got some big huge concrete monoliths, more shops selling the same things as all the other shops, and an area no one would give a shit about.

Friday, 19 February 2010

Politics in a Bubble

Sometimes you have to wonder just how thick and wrapped up in their own spin our politicians are.
Take the case of the turnout to school NAPLAN tests conducted last May, as reported by The Age here. The NAPLAN tests are meant to provide a national tool to estimate just how good school children are at various stages of their school career. Personally, I do not think the connection between the score on these tests and a good education is that strong: it’s one thing to learn for a test and another to receive good education. I clearly remember how quickly we've learned to study for our tests rather than study to know the subject matter during my university days; with all the congestion that comes with the testing season, you stand no other choice.
The current debate concerns student turnout to these NAPLAN tests, with the opposition claiming Victoria’s low turnout is a result of some cover-up aimed at increasing Victoria’s scores. The government, on its side, is answering back with the usual meaningless crap that dominates the output of politicians’ mouths.
I, on the other hand, have just one thing to say: Wasn’t half of Victoria, and school kids in particular, down with Swine Flu last May?

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Overtaking the Law

I often use this forum to complain against copyright legislation or, for that matter, the related internet censorship legislation that the much beloved Senator Conroy is cooking for us all (in what has already earned him the "internet villain of the year" award). There is, however, another area where our government excels when it comes to legislation that doesn't make sense, and that's to do with road rules.
A few months ago, Victoria came up with new road rules. You read them and they make sense: you're not allowed to overtake over a solid white line (Australia's equivalent of what, in the rest of the world, is represented as a dashed while line; two solid white lines in Australia represent what the rest of the world does with a single solid line); you're not allowed to make a u-turn over a white line; and you're not allowed to park next to a white line when there is no other lane available on your side of the road for the traffic to use.
These rules make sense. That is, until you notice the Victoria's roads have not be adequately prepared for them.
Take, for example, a road next to where I live. It's got a solid white line through its middle. It's got one lane on each side of that solid white line. And it's got a lot of traffic running through it: it's a central road for its area that runs for a few kilometers.
Now, imagine you're happily driving down this road when you suddenly find yourself stuck behind a bicycle. What do you do? The new rules do not allow you to overtake the bicycle the way you're used to. Not even if the bicycle rider is at the very side of the road, because another [older] road rule says you must allow at least a meter's gap when overtaking bicycle riders. If you're following the rules you'd find yourself stuck behind the bike for a long while; that is, until either you or the bike gets off the road.
Real life works differently: the drivers overtake the bicycles without thinking twice. If you ask me, they're doing the right thing; the unnatural slowness, in car terms, that comes with following bicycle down the road is a recipe for disaster when other drivers find themselves puzzled or annoyed with a car driving at unexpected speeds. Things like that cause accidents. I can also say I wasn't at all surprised to see police cars committing this traffic violation.
The question then becomes, why do we allow ourselves to be in a position where our elected government comes up with laws that hinder more than they help, laws that don't work in the real world?

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

We Fade to Grey

Have you ever heard people saying that women are trouble? Well, today you'll hear me saying it, albeit with a reservation: Women are trouble as far as Facebook is concerned.
I'm not talking about women using Facebook to get a confidence boost. Men are just as guilty: my experience indicates many if not most Facebook comments are placed only so as to get a pat on the shoulder from one's friends as they tell you how cute/cool/generally good looking you are. Who cares if they're lying and you're not that different to everyone else? I don't.
No, what I'm talking about is the hardship women give you when you want to find them on Facebook. Have you tried to look for women you knew ages ago, like, say, women you knew while studying in uni? Well, chances are they got married. And once they did, chances are they changed their name. And that's it: game over, you don't stand a chance of finding them anymore.
Sometimes I do manage to find them, though: mostly by identifying them as other friends' friends. And you know what I keep on noticing about them? I can't help notice how these women, which were once the good lookers that broke my heart or were in some way or another the subject of my fantasies, look - well - they look middle aged. They look ordinary. Age took their glamor away.
I know I'm treading on dangerous grounds here, so I'll make it clear: I'm not saying that older women are ugly. What I am saying is that when you last saw a woman and she was twenty, and then the next time you see her she is forty, you should not expect her to have maintained all of the looks that come with a young age. Yet you do, mentally, even if you're not consciously aware of it, simply because the last mental picture your brain maintains of that specific person was taken at the time when they were bold and beautiful.
And I really don't think this observation of mine should be taken negatively. I consider it as an enforcement to my view that there's more to people than the shallowness of their looks, which is mostly to do with their particular accident of birth. If anything, this observation teaches me that when one is looking for a partner in life, looks should be much lower on the agenda than they tend to be; once the shining is gone you'd be stuck with everything else but the looks. Don't envy those footballers that marry supermodels; they'd dumb one another to death in a few years time.
Don't get me wrong: I know this aging phenomenon applies to me just as well. I got the exact same reaction but in reverse when an army friend looked at my Flickr photos while chatting; his first reaction was "ooh, we are getting old" followed by something along the lines of "where's your hair". The reason why I don't notice me getting older is that I see myself on a daily basis rather than on the twenty year interval through which I'm exposed to some of the women in my past.
That, plus the fact looks were never my strong side.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Welcome to The House of No Fun

What do you do when a problem you’re facing has no good solution? That is the issue we are now facing with our house dilemma.
Our problem is that our current house is too small for us. It’s undeniable: there are just too many things in the house for us to maintain sustainable family life. I guess you could argue this is the hidden cost of having a child.
So far, we have identified four potential solutions to this problem:
  1. Buy another house, move there and sell our current house.
  2. Extend our current house with a second floor and live in the house while it’s being extended.
  3. Extend our current house with a second floor and rent another place to live in while our house is being extended.
  4. Forget our size problems and use the money to travel more frequently.

I have to say that I am seriously tempted by that fourth option. Just yesterday, for example, I watched this nature program about the Rocky Mountains together with our two and a half year old Dylan and wished I could take him (and myself, for that matter) there. Well, why not? My ancestors certainly lived in smaller confines than I currently do while I grew up in an apartment of roughly similar proportions to my current house. And we all survived.
Another reason why I like the fourth option is the obvious cultural drive that pushes us to have a bigger house. As in, do we truly need a bigger house, or is it that we want one because everyone we know strives towards a bigger house and Aussie culture in general is all about having your own castle? I sure don’t want to end up like the couple from Revolutionary Road.
On the other hand, one obvious reason for our spatial frontiers is to do with modern lifestyles and the fact we’re much more affluent than previous generations were. Our entertainment system occupies most of our living room; my parents have a TV on its side. My desktop with its peripherals needs a room of its own (albeit a smallish one); my parents never had a computer of their own, and when I had one it was in my own room and it was nothing like the empire I have today. And Dylan, our son, already has more toys than I ever had (by a very large margin) and more books than most adults have.
Can I give my home theater up? Not for what I would consider a life worth living. Can we bite the bullet and continue to live as we do in smallish confines? Yes, but it’s going to get worse the older Dylan gets.

Which sent us looking for a house to buy.
I have already spent many a word in this forum dealing with the deep antagonism I have developed towards most real estate agents. To sum things up, I view them as a hurdle to a real estate transaction, not as a supporter, and I can clearly see the linkage between living a healthy life and avoiding interactions with the majority of them. Which sort of makes it hard to buy a house.
Other factors to do with preventing us from buying a house are the entire auction mechanism that is so deeply frustrating. Houses’ open for inspection times tend to all be concentrated during Dylan’s sleep time (they’re obviously geared towards the investor), and any investment in ensuring the house you’re about to bid on is in sound quality are very risky when you know you’re going to be outbid at an auction with the house’s true asking price being a hundred thousand more than what it is actually advertised for (if not more than that). Actually, any emotional attachment you might have to the house is risky given the auction system; it alienates you by its very definition the same way you won't want to become best friends with someone going overseas tomorrow for life.
Ultimately, it’s the prices that kill us. We’ve identified several houses we’d be happy to live in; some turned out to have carefully hidden issues (e.g., public sewage plumbing running through the house), but in general these houses end up costing more than we could afford. Sure, we can compromise by moving further from the center, where we can find truly beautiful houses in prices we could afford; but would this qualify as an improvement?
Ultimately, the buy another house option suffers from a simple financial equation: assuming we’re comparing apples with apples, it would be cheaper for us to extend than it would be to buy. It makes sense: instead of paying someone else to do the work for us we’d do it ourselves. But there’s a hidden factor there: our house is located next to commission housing, which severely reduces its value; however, since this proximity issue doesn’t bother us in the least, we perceive ourselves to be living in a house much more expensive than the market would say it is. And a downgrade, as we all know, is not something one cannot easily accepts.
We all but gave up the buying a house option. Each time we look at realestate or domain we don’t know whether to laugh or cry. At the prices, at the agents, at the way things are.

Which sends us to the extension option, an option that – at least on paper, as in when we look at the drawings – we like. Not only would we be able to maintain our current status quo – shop where we shop, visit the doctors we’re familiar with, etc – we should also be able to afford this alternative without risking the banks breathing down our necks [more than they already do].
The catch? The catch is that all witnesses lead me to suspect the period of time during which our house will be extended, somewhere between four to six months, is going to be hell on earth. Yesterday I gathered enough evidence to change the status of this argument from witness based to personal experience.
We had an electrician in to install two ceiling fans, one in our room and one in Dylan’s. We have one in our living room and we really like it, so we thought we might as well do it before the extension when the ceiling becomes not as accessible as it is now.
Between sorting things around to minimize damage to furniture (empty the rooms where the work takes place in, cover remaining furniture), running around to deal with issues as they come, running after a Dylan overexcited by all these amazing events taking place around him, and me not feeling too well to begin with, I felt like a total wreck. I was sweaty, I was dirty (dust seems to attach itself really well to sweat), and I was tired. Now, imagine this experience, but multiplied in severity, taking place all day long, every day, over a good few months. Imagine living in a construction site; imagine having tradesmen going in and our of your house as if it’s a train station; imagine trying to move our stuff around when everything is a construction site and when we don’t have much room to move stuff to anyway (as evidenced yesterday); imagine accessing the house every day when it’s surrounded by a fleet of alien cars; imagine the dust and the dirt we’d have to sleep in; and imagine how it would be like when we’re sick, which does tend to happen to us on a fortnightly basis.
Clearly, even my limited imagination indicates this would be totally unbearable (with the proviso that I might have set my imagination too free). This is an experience I wouldn’t want to go through no matter how much money it would save me. And then there’s my biggest fear (yes, worse than my fear of cockroaches): This is an experience that could easily get so out of hand it could drive our family apart.

Stop your sobbing, I hear you say. Just move out while the extension is going ahead.
Fine, only that it’s not as easy as it sounds. With the way Melbourne’s house rental scene is going, it’s pretty hard to find a place to rent as it is; trying to rent one for six months or less is very hard, and trying to find one close to our current house is bordering the impossible. The real estate agents are not helpful either: their websites do not specify which houses are available for short term rentals, which makes identifying relevant prospects much harder than it should. It all sounds so trivial, but it looks as if us waiting for a suitable place to rent could delay the extension project long enough to defeat its purpose altogether.
Oh, and there’s the cost issue. Even assuming we’d happily settle for a flat (which we would), we’re still talking probably $400 or more, per week, for rental costs. Then there’s the cost of moving. Overall, we’re talking about a cost nearing the $20,000 mark once we add things like duplicate insurance policies and utility bills. Effectively, the cost of running a household would be doubled for the duration of the project, mortgage included.
There are other issues, more minor in nature: How are we going to secure the house and its belongings, and how will we ensure the builders don’t damage things (as they surely would, to one extent or another).

As I find myself changing my preferences between the above four options on an hourly basis, the one conclusion that is dead obvious is that things are not simple at all. Again, the question comes down to this: what are we to do when the problem we’re facing has no good solution?
Well, I’ll do what one needs to do in such circumstances. I’ll specify the problem, the potential solutions, the evidence at my disposal and the various related arguments. And I’ll do so as transparently as I can in the hope of learning while going through the motions and in hope of constructive feedback.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

The War of the Business Model

The movie studios and the music industry's crusade against what they refer to as piracy continues, but I am very glad to say they've received a nice punch in the head by Aussie authorities.
The short end of the story is this: Some months if not a year ago, the movie studios / music industry combined together to file a lawsuit against Australia's third largest internet provider (ISP), iiNet, for allowing its users to infringe copyright laws via file sharing on bit torrents. I guess the first clue for their mischief is in going at number three: they didn't aim at number 1 (Telstra) or number 2 (Optus) because they know very well that these two giants can pay for enough legal counsel to knock them a few light years off; so they went for a small fish. And iiNet's openly expressed antagonism towards Conroy's proposed internet censorship made them a nice fine target.
But iiNet didn't cave in, and last week it won the trial: the judge decreed that copyright legislation doesn't call on anyone other than the copyright owner to defend copyrights, therefore iiNet did not do anything wrong when it let bit torrenters go on downloading. Hooray for common sense: if iiNet was to be found at fault, I would have sued the government for paving roads on which people speed and my electricity company for supplying the electricity with which people run their computers when they use bit torrent.

However, we're not in the clear yet.
The movie studios / music industry's fight to protect their existing business model still continues. What are they to do when they find that the law has them in the wrong? Well, they use their heavy back-pockets to influence our democratically elected politicians to change the law. And how do they go about doing this incredibly unpopular move? Under a shroud of secrecy, of course.
As reported by The Age here, international talks are taking place about this very subject as we speak. And if you want to know what they're discussing you're in for a disappointment; they won't let you. Who do you think you are, anyway? What right do you have in saying which laws you need to abide to? Only big money has a right to talk; you go stand in your corner. And don't let me hear a whisper coming out of your mouth!

I just can't believe how stupid the movie / music industries are. If they really think there is a problem (I'm not so sure about that: movie revenues keep on climbing, and even music revenues have been climbing lately), they can solve it in two and a half seconds by making their contents easily accessible online for free (with ads) or for a very cheap price.
I rent Blu-rays, the best quality material one can get, at two dollars a film. It's perfectly legal and at this price level I don't even dream of the download option. I also download the occasional iPhone application for $1-$2, and maybe even more when something really good is beckoning (but not much more). So why can't I access other content at similar price levels? Why do I still have to pay around $20 to download a music album at inferior quality lossy compression, and why can't I download TV or movie material at all?
Simple: They don't want me to do so because they can't be bothered to change their business model. Well, read it and weep, evil industries: You've been losing this war ever since it started, and you'll continue to lose is no matter what secret meetings you hold with our distinguished leaders. I mean, just look at the way these leaders tackle global warming: they're totally useless.
The balance of power is so heavily tilted in our direction, the consumer end, you're only prolonging your misery. Change now; it'll be good for you.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Landmarks

Today marks a very special landmark. For the first time ever, our two and a half year old Dylan played a video game on our PS3. As in, not just pressing buttons indiscriminately or interfering me while I play, but rather playing on his own.
We were playing Little Big Planet when I gave him the controller. First we taught him that pressing the X button would result in his character jumping, a fact which delighted him with every one of the hundred thousand subsequent X button presses.
Then we taught him that by moving the left joystick in a certain direction he would cause his character to move in that same direction. That was harder for him to muster, but eventually resulted in him being able to follow another character on the screen through the use of the joystick. At least to one extent or another.
Obviously, you can trivialize the above and think nothing of this. I don't; a hundred years ago, people would have looked at a PS3 as if it's a miracle bigger than anything the bible could ever think of. The fact that a human starting off a relatively blank slate can relate to an on-screen character with such relative ease is, in my book, a genuine wonder of the natural world. A tribute to the brains we have been equipped with.

Oh yeah, we've had another landmark today. For the first time this year, Dylan is sick. It's amazing how quickly the month of January has made us forget the tribulations of having a sick child at home. Now we can genuinely say that the new year is upon us.

Friday, 5 February 2010

The Fall of Babysitting

As it happens, Melbourne's upcoming Atheists' convention has sold out already. To quote one of the convention's presenters, PZ Myers (the author of one of my favorite blogs): if you want to be there, look for a scalper.
I'm not going to be there even though I'd love to be there and even though it's probably going to be the last opportunity I ever get for me to meet one of my favorite intellectuals (probably the favorite), Richard Dawkins, in person. I never even tried to buy a ticket (as overpriced as these tickets were), because we don't have babysitting arrangements because Dylan keeps on getting sick at a rate which makes arranging reliable babysitting arrangements a rather frustrating affair.
Oh well. I can probably catch up on the action through YouTube.

Thursday, 4 February 2010

The World Without Us

I was walking this morning armed with two kilos of Yumi's humus in one hand and Dylan's stroller held in the other. Yes, I followed MC's advice and went to get my humus at the source (where it is sold by the kilo at $8.50 each). MC, you're ace!
In between my parking spot and the humus shop lay what used to be a gas station that got knocked down a few years back. Now it's an empty yet fenced block. And on that block there were new creatures calling the plot home: a flock of cockatoo parrots. They were just beautiful!
We looked at them and they looked at us. In all other countries this would have been a major zoo attraction, yet in Australia - their homeland - the parrots take refuge at knocked down gas stations. Which, in my view, says a lot about the selfish way us humans have been treating the planet we're sharing with so many other species , all of which share an equal claim to its resources.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Live to Walk

With the Monday that was being the first day of the new school year, one cannot avoid school related reflections: Reflections on the trains being full with kids once again, reflections on the government policy of starting to ranking schools and publish the league tables over the web (here), and reflections on me becoming the father of a schoolchild in a matter of a few years.
To celebrate the occasion, The Age has published an opinion article urging parents to walk their kids to school instead of driving them there. In particular, it stated claims I tend to fully agree with: First the claim that these habits will stay with the child as they grow, and then the claim that walking together time is actually prime time quality time. But still, how realistic can walking your child to school can be?
Let us assume that you only have one child requiring walking to school as opposed to several requiring walking to multiple schools. Let us also assume school is within a ten minute walk (in our case it would probably be slightly longer). Now do the maths: Walking your child to school would take you forty (40!) minutes a day, for the simple fact you visit school twice each day and you also need to walk back home (assuming you need to take the car to work, as the majority of people do). Now look at the other side of the equation: in between walking your child to school in the morning and escorting them back in the evening, you need to stick an eight hour working day (preferably with a lunch break, too). And don't forget that overtime your manager presses you to do and on which the fate of your team so badly depends!
How can anyone be expected to achieve that? Or rather, what planet are the people writing the opinion articles for The Age living on?

I was actually thinking of the distance between the way we all like to live and the way real life forces us to live as I was waiting for a train yesterday morning. And then the train arrived: a forty year old Hitachi train. The ride was shaky, noisy, and lacked air-conditioning on an otherwise atypically warm Melbourne morning (that is, as atypical as any extreme heat can be under global warming conditions). I don’t think I, nor any of my train compatriots, enjoyed the ride.
Then we arrived at Melbourne’s Flinders Street Station, Melbourne’s main train station. The escalators at our platform didn’t work (they weren’t working the night before, either), so we were all forced to use the stairs. Not that there’s anything wrong with using the stairs; I prefer to using them anyway. It’s just that the stairs lacked the capacity to efficiently deal with the thousand or so people disembarking a morning train by itself. We all stood there for several long minutes, gazing at the lucky few who managed to cram themselves up the stairway.

It seems obvious to me that all this talk about liveability is nothing more than lip service. Our society and our culture all aim us to get to work and to do what it is we need to do at work to make our place of work as productive as it can be, but they don’t care much about the peripherals. No one cares how you manage to deal with life before and after work.
School? That’s more like a sophisticated babysitting service. Dump your kids there and go to work, quickly.
Public transport? Who cares. The cattle train will get you to your office just the same.
And Melbourne actually has a claim to being called the world’s most liveable city. What a joke! Without deep cultural change where we rid ourselves of that money god we seem to be worshipping so vehemently, liveability will always be just a euphemism.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Some Days Are Better Than Others


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Originally uploaded by reuvenim
With me recently transitioning to a four day working week so I can take care of my two and a half year old Dylan on Thursdays, and with ongoing discussions I have been having with friends concerning parenthood and dealing with babies that seem overly eager to test their guardian’s patience, I thought now is a good time to re-evaluate and re-state my position on having kids and parenthood.

First, let me tell you about my actual experience during my first two Thursdays as Dylan’s sole guardian. Sure, I’ve stayed with him alone many times before, but the vast majority of these occasions were when Dylan was sick and the few exceptions to that rule were for relatively short periods.
So how did it go? "Nightmare" would probably describe things best. The morning of my first Thursday was spent with both of us trying to show the other who’s the boss: Dylan through crying and through a series of ongoing tantrums that lasted close to two straight hours and me through applying physical force to get my way once I gave up on convincing him using words or distractions. And it’s not like physical force is the ultimate answer, because you need to apply just enough force to get him dressed or change his nappy without actually hurting your dear baby while, at the same time, being completely unable to determine how much force to apply because the constant crying renders you unable to judge through vocal feedback.
In other words, imagine someone doing their best to cry into your ears for two hours straight without you being able to do much about it. That’s how much fun it is.
The second Thursday wasn’t much better. The main difference was in the timing: this time Dylan reserved his tantrums just prior to his afternoon nap and to the pre-dinner ceremonies.
Overall, the causes for the tantrums are easily identifiable. It comes down to a combination of not liking a change in routine, not liking it when things are done against his way (and by now turning the TV off is very much against Dylan’s way), and all while trying to assess the new rules of engagement brought about by the change. In short, Dylan was behaving exactly the way one would expect a human to behave under circumstances of change, only that he was using baby tactics instead of adult tactics: crying instead of, say, stalling or not cooperating.
The question then becomes how to manage things better. The trick is to do things without spoiling Dylan: I can have him sit all day long in front of the TV and he’ll be happy, but then again that’s not the point, is it? On the other hand, if I force my uncompromising way then how will I be able to fault Dylan for resisting when I would do exactly the same? As it is, the only answer I can come up with is to try again. Odds are I’m going to have another miserable Thursday this week.

Given the above, the inevitable question which I find raised quite often is – what do I make of raising children and parenthood? Is it worth it?
My answer is rather complicated but in general it hasn’t changed so originality is not to be expected. To each their own, I say, but here is my opinion as per my own personal experience:
  1. Parenthood is not rewarding under the cost/benefit framework we normally judge things by, period. I would suspect anyone telling me otherwise the same way I would suspect a used car salesman.
  2. Personally, since having a child I feel like I've grown decades older.
  3. Not only isn't child rearing rewarding, it's actually the other way around: your child is triggered, through evolution, to take as much as he/she can out of you [the parent].
  4. The loving relationship you have with your child can go a long way into compensating for the related losses. That is, when you don't feel like committing murder.
  5. Our personal experience prior to having a child has been of the “been there, done that” type, which led us to the seemingly inevitable conclusion that the next stage of our lives had to do with bringing a child to this world.
  6. Once you do have a child, there's no going back. People don't seem to realize that, the way they don't realize just how much your life changes when you have a child. You're no longer the end to all means, you're just the means.
  7. The experience one seeks when one seeks to have children is similar to any other experience and thus suffers from the reduced marginal benefit syndrome. I therefore don’t see a rational reason for me, under my own personal circumstances, to want a second child (not to mention doing my part for dealing with overpopulation, probably humanity’s biggest current problem).
  8. I view the child rearing experience as an experience similar to climbing the Everest. While you’re on the climb, you suffer and you hurt and you don’t know why you’re doing it; afterwards, you can marvel at your achievement. Trouble is, with children you keep on climbing for the remainder of your life.
  9. The best way to survive parenthood is to find the golden path where everyone, baby/child and parents, are happy. Luckily, we are there most of the time; Thursdays seem to be the main exception. An exception which should be worked upon, but if push comes to shove we can probably manage without fully addressing it (as the problem is routine based, and as routines tend to be set in a baby/child’s mind after four or so repetitions, an event that takes place only a week will always be regarded as an exception).
  10. After all rational arguments have been raised, one inevitable truth still has to be considered: We are all, each and every one of us, the descendant of a chain of billions of generations of successful ancestors. Successful in the sense that they managed to procreate and leave a descendant behind. Such a heritage cannot be trifled with: procreation is our purpose in life and, like it or not, this is what we are wired to do. Ultimately, it is why the majority of us keeps on acting irrationally and delude themselves to thinking that a child is what they need.

Now, what’s my plan of attack for this Thursday?