Wednesday, 31 March 2010

NFL coming for a visit

Why did I just go out to buy Madden 10, an NFL game, for my PlayStation 3? That’s a good question given that it’s clear this game is going to play a very second fiddle to my copy of FIFA, my preferred code of football by a good few parsecs.
Here goes an attempt to justify this seemingly unjustified waste.

First, my video gaming is severely limited now by the two year old in the house. As much as I want to play Call of Duty Modern Warfare, I don’t particularly want my son exposed to that. I also don’t want my son to wake up in the middle of the night to the sound of shooting, especially with modern games on a PS3 connected to a proper home theater and the resulting bombastic sound.
Second, I have good reasons to suspect an NFL game would be quite enjoyable. The nice mix of tactics and arcade like action offered by NFL is something I liked before: my favorite game on the Sega Dreamcast, and perhaps the reason I bought that console in the first place, was an NFL game. I guess what I'm trying to say is that although I find NFL to be boring as a spectator sport (mainly because of all the breaks), it's not bad at all as a computer game.
Third, these sport games (FIFA, NFL) fit my general lifestyle of having no time for anything anymore (at least until I let go a bit with my addiction to the internet). Unlike, say, the Lego Indiana Jones game that I also bought recently, these sports games have a predefined start and finish. You sort of know that a game would take you around half an hour, unlike Indy where who knows how long it would take you to get to the next saving point and by the next time you pick it up there is no hope you’d remember what took place before. What can I say? Such is the life of a father.

Fourth, I have this really good top notch best friend who likes the NFL. I suspect it’s a part of his overall American-phile-ness, because he even likes baseball (b-o-r-i-n-g!). Who cares why, though – he likes American football and that’s all that matters. He doesn’t go about killing those who prefer other codes and he doesn’t even prevent them from legally marrying one another – he’s a genuinely nice guy that happens to like NFL.
And all of the above has been to say that this best friend of mine will soon be coming to visit us in Australia – the first time I have had the pleasure of a genuine friend of mine going that extra mile (or thousands of them).
So I am happy and I am looking forward to it. As they say in Team America: Fuck, yeah!

Monday, 29 March 2010

Free My Willy

The concept of free will is one I find interesting, especially when science is often accused of nullifying it. I therefore find PZ Myers' recent notes on free will to be not only interesting, but also worth repeating here.
As usual, PZ' is an in-your-face approach to matters. I like it; there is no need for going around the bush and making things sound mysty; let's leave that for pseudo-scientists. Anyway, here goes:

"Free will is philosophical bullshit. You can have an entirely natural biology that is subject to investigation by science that is not some kind of clockwork, predestined sequence of events. I decide what to put on my sandwich, but "I" is an unpredictable product of very complex neurological activity, colored by history over a baseline of biological predispositions."

Sunday, 28 March 2010

A Haven of Sanity

At long last, someone in the political system is about to do something about the silly chaplain school funding program established by John Howard and backed up by Kevin Rudd. And as expected, the sanity comes from the direction of the Greens.
In broad terms, the chaplain program allows school principle to receive federal government funding for school chaplains. Personally, I cannot think of a sillier way to spend my money: first of all, Australia is supposed to be a secular country where religion is separate from stately affairs; and second, as the purpose of the program is to provide counseling facilities at schools, why use chaplains when instead we can use people that are actually trained for the job, people like professional counselors? I don't only consider the current program to be a waste of money, I consider it damaging: there is no way I want a chaplain to come near my son under any sort of an educational pretense (and let me take a further jab: if the chaplain happens to be Catholic, there is no way I want him to come near my son, period).
At least (or at last?) the Greens have now come into the picture, asking the very same questions I do. I wish them all the best as, once again, I reflect on me finally taking the plunge to join their ranks.
In the mean time, think about this the next time you go to a polling both and wonder who you should be voting for: The Liberals and Labor are effectively the same and they're both incredibly bad to Australia; it's not only chaplains, it's everything else, most notably global warming. The Greens, on the other hand, offer the only sane voice around.

See you in Twitter

I know that I have been dedicating too much space here to Twitter lately, but that is probably only due to its impact. The successful encounter between me and Twitter is driving me to say the following:
  1. From now on it looks like casual updates on my day to day life will be mostly removed from this blog and reported in my Twitter instead.
  2. This blog will be used mostly for discussions requiring more than just a couple of sentences to properly discuss. As in, the types of discussions that have steered most of my family members away from reading this blog but, more importantly, the type of discussions I find interesting.
  3. The above implies the frequency of posting on this blog will probably come down. On the other hand, the ease of Twitting will probably mean there's overall more activity.
  4. What about Facebook, I hear you ask? Facebook will be reserved for the mundane stuff that most of my Facebook friends will find acceptable. Yes, even when in the mood to celebrate the banality of life (as discussed here), I still find most (but not all!) of what goes on in Facebook to be an insult to intelligent life.
Note that in order to read my Twits you don't even need a Twitter account of your own. You can just access the page here or read the latest updates using the new special panel I added to this blog's right side. You can even subscribe to my Twits on your RSS reader, like Google Reader.

Thursday, 25 March 2010

Cleaning the noise out

Computers are all about cutting edge hi-tech stuff, aren't they?
Well, no. Our almost six years old desktop has been making so much noise over the last summer that we hardly used it. And now that things have started getting cooler it is still too noisy for comfort. What should we do? Should we get a Mac (mmm... tempting yet expensive), or a new all powerful PC, or the new model Asus Eee Box (not that capable but relatively cheap and definitely quiet)?
Or should we just clean our desktop instead? Last night I went on exploring that last option. The last time we had our PC's internals cleaned was more than three years ago when its then motherboard died; since then I had the rare basic cleaning session of the graphics card but that was it.
Well, last night I went all the way, disassembling everything on top of the CPU and giving it a clean. Turned out that the CPU cooling blades, on top of which sits the CPU fan, were blocked solid with dust; no wonder the poor desktop kept on being noisy, there was just no way for it to get rid of the heat!
After giving the CPU and the graphics card their clean the PC is now significantly quieter. Still noisy, mind you, on the grounds of the PC case being the cheapest of the cheap (at the time I built this PC up I was under the very wrong impression that the casing is where money should be saved). But it's much better, and it's testimony to the fact that computers need their regular mechanical servicing just like anything else - cars, bikes and people.

Interestingly enough there was a sequel to last night's trouble. Now that the CPU could get rid of the heat, the motherboard started making these annoying beeps to let me know it's overheating. Great; the PC can ventilate much better than before, but now it is able to notice that it's still hot in there.
I don't particularly care about the overheating risk for my PC. It's been overheating for years now, and if it was to suddenly give me the ultimate excuse to go and buy myself a new desktop I wouldn't shed too many tears. Besides, we have other means of computing at home besides the desktop, so even I - a guy with obviously severe internet withdrawal symptoms - would be able to live with my desktop's untimely demise.
Anyway, the beeps were easily sorted out through BIOS adjustments.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Guess who's coming to the living room

With the internet being as dominant as it is, it was just a question of time before we noticed a thirst to watch internet content directly on our living room’s big screen TV. As usual, the extra push to go and do something about it came through the realization YouTube contains all the stuff our two year old Dylan would find magical, from cartoons through to fish and octopuses. Luckily for us we didn’t need to do much to get there: Our PlayStation 3 is equipped with a browser that is generally capable but also, from time to time, capable of getting on your nerves when it gets stuck way too easily.
Yet there is an issue with the PS3 option: typing text. Have you tried typing a full blown URL using the PS3’s controllers? It takes half an hour, it’s annoying, and it’s reason enough to forget all about it. The solution? Get a keyboard, obviously. Could things be easier than that? Yes, they could.

On paper, the PS3 would accept any keyboard connected through its USB slots. In reality, things are slightly different.
For a start, you would want a keyboard that fits the occasion. It’s your living room we’re talking about here, not your office; personally, I wouldn’t want a big monster on my lap but rather something that is more like a remote control.
Second, you wouldn’t want a wired keyboard, because you wouldn’t want the dangling wire running across your living room. This narrows thing down to normal wireless keyboards or Bluetooth keyboards; the former may be simpler to operate with their USB dongles while the latter should have an advantage when it comes to range. Our experience indicates range being an issue, so I preferred the Bluetooth option.

Knowing roughly what I was looking for I went up thinking of worthy candidates for the acting role of the keyboard to my PS3. Preferably, this keyboard would not be a PS3 only model; if I spend my money on a wireless keyboard I want it working on all the computers I might end up using.
Oddly enough, it’s really hard to find PS3 keyboards. The only available model qualifying through the above criteria was a Logitech model called the diNovo Mini which comes with a stupendous $150 (USA Dollars!) asking price. It’s not a bad concept: the Mini is small, more like a mobile phone in size, which makes it a perfect candidate for living room operation. It also has a track pad which can be used as a mouse and thus replace PS3’s controller in moving the cursor. However, it does have a major disadvantage: it doesn’t have the PS3’s special buttons (the square, triangle etc), so you would still need the PS3 controller by your side.
The other candidate was a keyboard I have had my eye on for a while: the new Apple Mac wireless keyboard, another one of those brilliant designs from Apple. It’s a Bluetooth only model that has only an “On” button for operation, it’s quite compact, it runs on AA batteries, and it’s stylish – very stylish. Just check the way the battery compartment is also used to incline the keyboard! I wanted one.
I could think of two problems with the Mac keyboard: At $100 it’s still expensive, and reports on internet forums were mixed when it came to the question of whether it would work with a PS3.

On Saturday we made our way to the Apple shop in Melbourne’s Chadstone shopping center. The place was packed but also full of attendants that, unlike most of their rivals in technology stores, seem to know what they’re selling you. Or, in my case, seem to want to help you: the guy I talked to refused to sell me the keyboard at first on the grounds it would not work with the PS3, but after reading the same mixed reviews I’ve read agreed to give us one. We were only happy to buy one because of Apple’s no-questions-asked return policy, allowing us to get a full refund within a fortnight. Perhaps the Apple keyboard is not as good as the Logitech one, but given the risks involved with buying the Logitech off eBay (the only financially viable option) and the peace of mind that comes through Apple’s security, I prefer the Apple way.
One last comment about the Apple shopping experience: Two minutes after I got out of the shop I received an email from Apple on my iPhone with my shopping invoice. How the hell did Apple know my email address? The only possible explanation is that they linked the credit card I used at the shop to the credit card on my iTunes account. Smart yet very scary; it’s the first time I see any company perform such a feat, even though they all have the capability to do so (especially companies with reward programs). Personally, I don't see this development as a particularly positive one; I don't see much advantages in it for me but I do see the danger to my privacy.

Next came the most critical stage of all: Would the Mac keyboard work with the PS3?
It does, but it was a bit of a pain.
In order to make sure the keyboard is working I paired it to my Windows XP netbook first. The first attempt produced weird results, with each keyboard stroke producing three characters on the screen; the second worked fine.
Then I tried to pair the keyboard to the PS3 but the keyboard wouldn’t go into the “search for pairing candidates” mode; it considered itself already paired, even though my netbook was off. So I turned the netbook back on and cancelled the pairing.
Once I managed to get the keyboard to its search mode I asked my PS3 to scan for Bluetooth equipment. In two and a half seconds the keyboard was paired, and it was all working fine and dandy. With some noticeable hiccups, of course…
The first hiccup was the annoying need to keep the PS3 controller by my side in order to act as the mouse. The PS3’s interface is so controller geared you even need the controller in order to tell the PS3 you want to use your keyboard to type stuff in, and you have to do it every time you want to use your keyboard to type stuff in.
The second hiccup is to do with the pairing: Once paired the keyboard works well; the problem is that you need to perform the pairing every time you turn your PS3 back on and want to use the keyboard. It’s not that bad, but it is still a bit of a pain. Reviews on the internet claim this is not the case with the Logitech model which maintains its pairing. Still, I don’t think this justifies the Logitech’s extra cost.

Was this whole affair worth the effort? I would say yes. It is incredibly easier to surf the internet now in our living room. Whether it is a YouTube clip watching or a photo slideshow in Flickr, the point is that we are actually doing it as opposed to just wishing to do it.
There are also added educational benefits. Upon seeing the keyboard in our living room on Sunday morning Dylan reported to me that the computer is broken; I explained that it is just keyboard and not a full computer. Yesterday he was reported to have played a lot with the stand alone old XT style keyboard at his childcare. See the connection there?
For now, it seems, we have a new and very stylish member to our living room.

Monday, 22 March 2010

I Twit Therefore I Am

It feels like it was only three days since I have last blogged about Twitter and me joining its ranks and here I am, another night, similar topic. I guess time flies when you're having fun.
And that's what I'm here to say: Using Twitter is fun!
I can quote numerous reasons to explain the fun:
  • Instant gratification: Want to fill up a minute of your time? Go to Twitter and read the latest updates from those you follow. It's like receiving a stream of SMSs whenever you feel like.
  • Instant gratification: Want to spill your guts quickly for immediate relief? Post what's burdening your stomach on Twitter. Sure, it will be a shallow slogan, but it sure is quicker and easier than posting on a proper blog. Like this one.
  • No holds barred: Unlike Facebook, there is nothing to stop you from saying exactly what you want to say on Twitter. With Facebook you have to be polite before your friends and you have to tread carefully between the different circles of your friends; with Twitter you have less of a commitment to neutrality by virtue of the fact your comments are not pushed on others but rather pulled by them. Don't care to read my anti-religious rants? Don't follow my twits, then. Much easier than defriending a friend.
  • Quality: Sure, Twitter is shallow; on the other hand, you can easily get in touch with respectable Twitterers who, in general, won't befriend you on Facebook.
  • Diversity: Because of the sheer number of easily accessible Twitters you never know who you're going to stumble on next. A twit by PZ Myers, for example, mentioned a Ms Naughty; a brief examination revealed said lady to be a "Feminist pornographer, creator of porn for women sites and films". And her twits are anything but dumb (witness it for yourselves here), plus she's got a thousand or so followers. And I'm only talking of one example out of what is effectively an endless number of possibilities.
I can see me and Twitter going a long way together. Hell, I even have someone following my twits already (not that I can say why).

Saturday, 20 March 2010

Dylan's claim to Fame


IMGP1997
Originally uploaded by reuvenim
Dylan has hit the big time last night: PZ Myers, the biologist running a science blog with regular readership in the six digit realm, has posted a photo of Dylan carrying his favorite octopus in his blog.
Myers has an ongoing romance thing with eight legged creatures (to be honest, I don't know exactly where it came from but I suspect it has something to do with his ongoing battles against the likes behind the stupidest thing called The Creationist Museum). So I thought I'd send him the photo to thank him for his wonderful blog.
...and now Dylan is on the world stage. The thing that I like the most about it, other than the comments added to the post, is the way the affair indicates Myers actually reads his emails. Even people he doesn't know, like yours truly, can have access to a person who is quite a celebrity (and for a change, a celebrity for very good reasons).
That explains why Dylan is so happy.

Friday, 19 March 2010

Celebrating the Banality of Life

On several occasions, some of them in this forum, I have been lamenting the rather banal use of Facebook. Today I am here to tell you that I have changed my mind.
The problem, the way I used to see it, was that Facebook is an incredibly powerful tool that is almost exclusively used to convey the most banal of communications ever. I saw at as rather shameful not to use this tool for much more exciting purposes, such as creating meaningful discussions or conveying useful information. Now, however, I look at it differently; now I consider its inherent banality a treat.
What has happened for me to change my mind?
It started with my exposure to the world of Twitter. Thus far I actively avoided the world of Twitter, thinking it to be an even shallower replacement to a proper blog than Facebook is. Last week I’ve made a u-turn and registered to Twitter in order to get connected to the only source of live news from the Global Atheist Convention taking place at my doorstep yet without me. Having registered myself I started looking around reading twits from people whose proper blogs I follow, a process that made me notice something strange: Twitter deals with the mundane yet it still delivers a satisfying experience. The combination of having tiny bits of frequent information thrown at you coupled with the ease of gratification such a quick format provides allowed me to get into other people’s worlds, their daily lives, in a way other formats cannot provide.
The notion is better communicated in John Scalzi’s blog here (Scalzi is a science fiction write whose books I have reviewed here and here and whose blog I read on a regular basis). The essence of Scalzi’s point is that it is the very banality of Twitter that makes a success: it allows you to get into the life of the otherwise untouchable celebrity, and it also allows you to keep in touch with friends and relatives with whom you are otherwise not in physical touch. It allows you to see that their lives are just as banal as yours.
His point is emphasized through an example he provides: A couple of decades ago we would have considered a fortnightly interstate call to a relative to be an act of keeping in touch; today we can tell what fruit they’ve eaten for dessert regardless of physical distance, immediately, and for no additional cost. If only my family and close friends would bother twitting!

Whatever applies to Twitter applies to Facebook just the same. Sure, Facebook allows more flexibility and somewhat lengthier texts, but it still shares the spirit of Twitter’s limitations. If I want to celebrate the banality of someone’s life on Twitter then I should be technically able to achieve the same with Facebook. And I do: I feel closer to a friend in the UK than I did when I worked meters away from her; and I can share the low points of parenthood several times a day with another friend I haven't seen for a year now.
Still, when all is said and done, there is still a lot of issues to report concerning what people post in Facebook. A brief look at my Facebook home page indicates pretty clearly that the majority of my Facebook friends do not report things that may put them in a negative light, despite the audience being made of their supposed friends - the people that should be there for them when they're down. You read their updates and it is like they are all living in some sweet fairy tale where life is one long happy party.
Well, they’re not. My interpretation of people that present themselves in such a way is that they are probably the opposite, probably insecure people that are afraid of showing others that they’re just like everyone else. I suspect these people are, on average, less than happy. And given that my Facebook friends tend to be real life friends, to one extent or the other, this is a good reason for me to be worried. Yet again, the banality of Facebook provided me with a tool with which to experience the banality of the lives of the people I directly care for.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

Another mystery unraveled

Surely you've encountered this scenario yourself. You step into a public toilet only to find the establishment severely contaminated. As in, there's shit everywhere: In the toilet, on the toilet, on the floor, on the walls, on the ceiling - you name it, it's there. Now, the question that had always eluded me was simply this: how the fluck did the shit get to all those places? Is it a case of anti gravity crap? Is it that certain people choose to take a dump while standing on their heads? I was simply dumbfounded.
But not anymore. Finally, I have a plausible theory to explain the phenomenon with. It's simple: it's children.
Once again, things come down to the things you learn as the father of a baby/child. In particular, the things you learn as your child gets into the early stages of toilet training. Once again, I got to learn these things the hard way, a way I'm pretty sure I share with most parents even if they, the majority of parents, prefer to take the Fifth and keep silent about it all and even pretend they actually think parenting is enjoyable and rewarding.
It is, some times, but it certainly isn't when you need to stick your hand down an un- flushed toilet (filled with a number two, none the less) in order to dig up items of interest that should not be there. And it certainly isn't when you need to clean the results of missed shots while remembering that botch jobs are unacceptable given the concentration of germs involved in the matter.
Again, I plea to those of us that are yet to take the burden of parenthood upon themselves to approach the matter with open eyes. There are some very good reasons for people to so frequently state that shit happens.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Teach the Controversy

When one is seeking to mock Americans, one of the first things that comes to mind is the irrational zeal with which too many of them try to protect their interpretation of a bronze age work of fiction against the peril of reality (in the form of evolution). One of the famous ways in which these zealots go to promote their agenda is their ongoing campaign to teach "intelligent design" in the science classroom along with evolution under the guise of "teaching the controversy". Of course, they neglect to mention the weakness of their argument, in the sense that there’s no controversy at all.
Lately, it seems, Australia is starting to learn the bad things from the USA. We seem to be having our own versions of teaching the controversy, with announcements made last week that people high up on the ABC’s food chain have ordered to give equal representation to both sides of the climate change debate.
Which side do they mean? I can only see one side. Oh, are they referring to the rabble that likes to make arguments but has no evidence to support their claim, the side that likes to twist the facts and often resorts to pure lies? Should they be given any air time?
If that is the case then why are we to limit the covering of both sides of the controversy to climate change alone? We could start with the weather forecast, for example. Immediately after the weather man gives us the Weather Bureau’s forecast for tomorrow we can have some hand picked morons off the ABC management give us their views on tomorrows weather. And since we need to make sure everyone is represented we can have one of those lunatic doom sayers come in to tell us there is not going to be a tomorrow anyway so why bother with the weather.
Of all TV stations, the ABC – being non commercial – should be the first to realize not all claims and not all opinions are equal. Some are supported by evidence and some are not; just as you won’t give air time to someone claiming the earth is flat, you should not give air time to greedy bastards saying there’s no such thing as man made climate change. Until, that is, they can come up with reputable proof; I would advise us all not to hold our breath, though.

As things are, it is obvious the ABC only bothers covering “both sides of the controversy” even when there is just one clear side on some very select issues alone. Sadly, these seem to be issues relating directly to science and religious belief; it is only in areas where people’s irrational faiths may be offended that the ABC goes out of its way to teach both sides of the controversy. One of these examples was climate change, as discussed above; the other is the way the ABC covered the Global Atheist Convention taking place in Melbourne during the last weekend.
Melbourne’s weekend news on the ABC covered the convention, as it should, with a relatively long item (newsworthy items are hard to come by on a weekend). The item showed Richard Dawkins, as expected, and some atheists saying a few sentences here and there. But then the item took a turn and went off to St Paul’s Cathedral, an Anglican church in Melbourne, to talk to some Sunday worshippers and their opinion of the atheists’ convention as well as talk to the head of the Anglican church in Melbourne. The church bit consisted a significant proportion of the news item's length, pretty incredible given where the real news item was in the first place!
And what did the church goers have to say? Nothing different to the usual propaganda you get from those advocating the teaching of “both sides of the controversy”. They had one moron claiming atheism is the next golden calf (and comfortably forgetting the majority of the world's population would say the same about Christianity). For the record, I’m allowing myself to say the guy’s a moron because on my daily commute to the train station I’ve spotted him many times outside the church shouting out Jesus’ virtues and handing leaflets damning people to an eternity in hell if they fail to put their faith in Jesus. For all intents and purposes, the guy's a terrorist: he doesn't explode, but he does do his best to terrorize innocent people.
Not that the head of the Anglican church was any better in his arguments. Essentially, he said that a movement based on being anti something cannot get anywhere, failing to notice the silliness of his argument: First, no one would raise such an argument against a movement that is against road tolls, so being against something is not necessarily bad. Second, and more importantly, between Dawkins and the rest of the conventioneers everyone agrees that atheists are pro rational thinking; so stop being a moron and stop spinning your web of lies.

I can understand why the Anglican dude is saying what he’s saying. There is a reason why he and his bed mates want to delegitimize atheism: He’s afraid. So afraid his church went out and published "The Case for God", a collection of silly articles full of wishy-washy arguments that stand to nothing. And they did so solely to counter the convention.
They’re all afraid.
Check out The Age’s coverage of the convention. The Age is Melbourne’s second biggest daily distributed publication and the number one when excludes trash, yet it handed over the task of covering the atheist convention to its religious editor, Barney Zwartz.
The result is similar to what we have seen from The Age four years ago, when it was handed the task of covering the Australian team at the Football World Cup in Germany: reporters who generally make their living covering Aussie Rules football produced some feeble results, treating football like an infected rat. A rat that could jeopardize the world they live in.
Same for Zwartz, only that in the case of the latter he doesn’t even need to hide his contempt for atheism. He had been criticizing the very idea of the convention long before it took place, and now that it did he continued in the name of giving each side their share of the limelight. Even when the topic at hand is an atheist convention, he went on to prove again and again how hard it is for him to remain neutral.

What can rational people do in the face of such hostile media coverage? I say, give them a taste of their own medicine. Till they choke on it.
We need to educate people to realizing religion is no sacred cow. We need to make people realize everything should be questioned, religion included, instead of cowering under some politically correct agenda that forbids us from touching religion.
We need more of these conventions.

Sunday, 14 March 2010

The Curse of Recorded Music

David Gilmour, Pink Floyd’s guitarists, is one of those musicians that have been there with me for most of my life. Everything he touched, Kate Bush included, seems to delight me. So when random messing about on the internet made me notice his 2007 live concert at Albert Hall, Remember That Night, is available on Blu-ray I thought this might be worth looking into. When I saw the Blu-ray’s specifications include a 5.1 Dolby TrueHD soundtrack I thought this might be worth getting.
So I went looking for it. I started with mainstream music shops in Australia but quickly discovered they only stock the DVD version; the Blu-ray is available only through gray imports of the “fell off the back of the truck” type.
So I went Googling, and Amazon USA came up at the top of the search results with an asking price of $26 (USD). A tall order, but after grinding my teeth I would have probably accommodated. That is, if I could: the Blu-ray on offer is regionally encoded and my Blu-ray player, a PS3, would not be able to play it.
On I went to Amazon UK, where a Blu-ray playable on my player is available for sale. Hold your breath, though: they're asking 33.50GBP for it.
No, I'm not going to pay that much for a Blu-ray. Especially not when it is clear the record company is trying to screw, yes - screw - customers outside the USA.
Curse the vile record companies!

A commentator on RRR, probably my favorite Melbourne radio station at the moment, said a few weeks ago that the biggest crime the record companies have committed is allowing entire generations of people to assume it is perfectly fine to consume music without paying for it. And he spoke as a musician that is that is hurting as a result of the record companies' incompetency.
I concur.

Friday, 12 March 2010

To Meet a Superhero


PZ Myers 003
Originally uploaded by reuvenim
PZ Myers is an American professor of biology and one of the more famous atheists around, especially in that American battlefield concerning evolution. To me, however, he is the man behind what is probably the best blog I have encountered thus far - Pharyngula. Currently, Myers is in Melbourne for the Atheist Convention taking place over this weekend, and in one of his posts today he mentioned his expected whereabouts today.
So I decided that the opportunity to meet one of my heroes is worth leaving the office a bit early and went to meet him at Melbourne's Jackson & Young pub (right opposite Flinders Street Station).
With the science blog Pharyngula being read by some 100,000 readers, the place was full of fellow atheists. It was quite funny, actually: we recognized one another by our nerdy shirts (this woman took photos of the t-shirts on display, including mine, an Ubuntu shirt she considered scientific because of the cogs the logo features; I hope to locate the photos on the web one day). Shirts and nerds aside, you could see there was something atypical of this gathering: people tending to the shy side of things, the atmosphere tended to the quiet side of things despite the concentration of people, yet conversation was flowing and the atmosphere nice and unimposing. Interestingly enough, I was able to detect many openly gay people in the crowd, which made me particularly happy: atheists, it seems, don't stand for the mere denial of the god concept; they stand for the scientific approach, and their open minds also opens them to others in general.
It's interesting to note most of the crowd weren't from Melbourne. There were people from Canberra, Sydney and Brisbane; I was a minority Melbournian, and definitely the only one there after sneaking out of the office. Myers was late, and I found myself growing more and more annoyed with missing out on the convention itself. Especially after the fifth time or so I had to explain I'm not actually going to the convention because of babysitter related logistics.
When Myers arrived I was surprised to see people let him be instead of jumping all over him the way celebrities are usually expected to be treated. It's good he was treated so well because he was obviously jet lagged. Given the etiquette I couldn't force myself into a conversation with him so I just settled with sticking my iPhone in his face to take a few photos (hey, I have a reputation to maintain). Mission accomplished.
Overall, I can say my impression is that the atheist convention is a success story in it managing to rally people who usually don't stand up to be counted. It was nice to be in such good company yet it made me annoyed I couldn't go to the convention itself for more. And with Myers itself, it was nice to be in the presence of a true hero: a scientist that does his best to popularize science and the scientific attitude with the public and who manages the task excellently.
PZ Myers is a true hero.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Developments in the Arab/Israeli Conflict

Remember someone bumping into my car exactly a fortnight ago?
Well, this evening I went over to the guy's place to pick the money he owed me. It was all nice and pleasant; I mean, the guy did make some attempts to shake me off, but these were polite and so obvious I don't think even he expected to have much success there. Overall, as far as transactions where someone has to give someone else money without getting anything in return, it was all done in nice terms.
I noticed at the guy's place that the family were speaking Arabic to one another. When all was over and done with and I was about to leave, he asked me that inevitable question: "Where are you from? Are you from Italy?"
I answered I'm from Israel before considering the wisdom of such an answer, only to see the sinking expression on his face. So much so that I wonder whether I would have received the money I was owed if my origins were known in advance.

I will therefore state my position in no uncertain terms.
I am sick to death of being labeled by according to my country of origin, my religion at birth or the color of my skin. Sure, I'm darker than the average Anglo-Saxon; so what? I'll catch my skin cancer slightly later, on average, while "they" will get more vitamin D. I was born to a Jewish family, so what? I don't think too highly of Judaism, nor do I think too highly of any religion. And sure, I was born in Israel and lived most of my life in Israel, but would I have left Israel if I was a true believer in what Israel stands for?
These generalizations are stupid. I am an independent human being, with my own thoughts, capable of my own actions. I have a certain background, yes, but I also have a brain that allows me to do what I consider to be right rather than blindly follow the culture into which I was born.
Thank goodness there are others like me. Thank goodness for the Atheist Convention about to take place in Melbourne this weekend. Sure, I won't be there; but it demonstrates to me I am not on my own. It gives me a some sense of hope.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Where have we gone wrong?

Frustration hit me deeply this last weekend. We were away, supposedly having fun at the Great Ocean Road, yet we were encumbered. Although he's two and a half years old, our Dylan is showing no signs of getting over his nappies on one hand; on the other his food habits are getting worse and worse with time and it's getting to the point where the only things he'd eat are comprised of sugary crap.
It's hard to get him into a proper food regime. On paper, we can be tough and force him to either eat the healthy food we serve or starve, hoping he'd surrender before we do. It should work well on paper; that's what all the would be counselors tell you to do. That and things along the line of "cook him a casserole and hide stuff in it". Yet I wonder how many of these experts have had a child in real life rather than pretend world, because in real life our child is getting sick on a fortnightly basis and then we have to feed him with stuff like jelly so he won't lose liquids and we have to feed him with any crap he would eat so he won't lose weight. The problem is, once he recovers he does not know any better than expect that regime of spoilage to continue.
With the nappies things are different. Things come down to us being lazy chickens. Lazy, because we've always been hoping the trigger to quit using nappies would come from Dylan rather than us; and chickens because we're afraid of biting the bullet, taking the nappy off, and paying the consequences.
As far as control goes, it is clear that Dylan has the ability to control his outputs, both types. What he's lacking is the mental recognition that things don't just happen in the nappy but are rather under his control. It's something we adults take for granted, but if you think about it it's not that trivial a connection to make; it's also testimony to how good contemporary disposable nappies are, so good that the baby has no idea what's going on downstairs. Regardless, the insight into what it takes to control one's own feces is an example of the wonderful things one learns as a parent: wonderful because they truly expose you to the inner working of the homo sapiens, and not so wonderful because you're literally dealing with shit.
Our latest direction has been to push Dylan into using the steps we got him from my brother so that he produces his output straight to the toilet instead of the potty. That way we'd save ourselves the misery of having to clean the potty (how the hell are you supposed to clean it after a number two?), as well as teach him the real thing. But our delicate boy is like his father - delicate - and was rather afraid of the steps contraption. Frustration got to me and I started teasing my child: I told Dylan the toilet was only for big boys and added that he's obviously not a big boy.
I was rather startled to see what an effect my words have had. Within half an hour of me saying so, Dylan had asked to sit on the toilet steps. While at it, he kept repeating he's a big boy, Abba (that's me). Great; on one hand I'm happy I got him to try it, on the other I really don't want him to think he needs to prove anything to me or assume that he needs to qualify in order to ensure my love for him. I want him to learn how to use the toilet, but not at the price of developing some sort of a complex involving a tyrant of a father.
The road is still long and windy. Sitting on the toilet is one thing; producing an output is another, and connecting the dots between producing an output and controlling production is even further down the road. Our current plan involves getting Dylan some underwear that he chooses himself in order to get him to wear them instead of nappies; once he wets them he should feel irritated enough to eventually learn what takes place down there, and hopefully we'd have ourselves a nappy less world (or rather, a nappy reduced world; getting rid of them at night is probably years away).
It's nice to have a plan, but I find the lack of quick and tangible outcomes to be quite frustrating. Again, the conclusion is imminent: those who claim parenthood is rewarding are nothing but deceptive and/or delusional fools.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Paranoid Delusions

I won't be going to next week's Atheist Convention in Melbourne, that's for sure; not only did they sell out, they also closed their waiting list. So I did the second best thing: I registered myself to the convention's Facebook page.
Given the nature of Facebook, that group page has many people who are the exact opposite of atheists registering and then proclaiming their unhappiness with atheism. One of them, who seems to be running a blog called "Atheism Is Dead" (trust the believers to spice things up with some violence; not to mention the obvious falseness of the claim) posted a comment complaining, amongst others, that the convention refuses to include debates with Christians in its agenda. As if Christians would welcome a debate with atheists during each Sunday sermon. I couldn't resist it; I answered them back, saying Christianity is so Bronze Age and I'd much rather debate Spaghetti Monsters. Which is true: Why should the convention choose to debate Christians, out of all faiths, and why should the convention waste its time debating what everyone at the convention knows to be bullshit in the first place?
The interesting things happened next.
Half an hour after posting my comment I got a phone call from a Sydney number direct to my office. The guy on the other side presented himself as a representative from a company collecting information about professionals, and was looking for me to confirm my professional details (which, undoubtedly, he got off the web through Linked In). I refused to cooperate with someone whose details I could not verify; after the call I Googled the company name he gave me to find nothing fitting the description provided.
A couple of days later I started getting emails informing me that attempts are being made to reset my Facebook password. It's the easiest way of taking over one's internet accounts: pretend you're them and that you've forgotten your password, and then attempt to answer the password reminder questions (which, for most people, are set with way too obvious answers). Thus far it didn't seem like the would be hacker has had much success.
Now for the trick question: Are all these events related? Could it be that by poking my nose into some jealous guy's business I started a fire that triggered some gross attempts to invade my privacy? I don't have an answer regarding the connection between the events, but it would not surprise me if there was such a connection; outspoken atheists are often a target of such attacks (just read from today's posts by PZ Myers here for some samples). Regardless of connection, there can be no doubt that attempts to hack into my Facebook account have been made and that one can gather too much information on me through public web resources.
The lesson? Don't be shy about your atheism; be outspoken and let the begot shy away. Do that, but make sure your privacy on the web is well protected. Be careful with what you expose of yourself in websites like Linkedin, even if it's for purely professional reasons, and set your internet accounts with strong passwords and reminder questions that only you can answer. Then sit back and watch the idiots bang their heads against the walls.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Immigrant Song

A rare event happened to me this week: Unexpectedly, someone called my name from a moving car on the other side of the street. That someone turned out to be the guy from our video store (who else amongst Australians would know me by name?), but the point of the incident was to highlight just how unlikely bumping into someone I know has become since I moved to Australia.
Back in Israel, I would stumble on people I know wherever I went. If it wasn’t people I knew from school it would be people I know from the army, and if it wasn’t friends of my parents it would be people I went to uni with. So much so that going on a blind date was nothing less than a covert operation deep into enemy territory: I was always afraid someone would spot me. Yet as much as I didn’t particularly liked being spooked upon, there was something reassuring about it all, as if the knowledge that you’re never far from people you know helps your sense of self confidence.
That confidence boost is someone you lose when you migrate to another country. I guess this is one of the main reasons migrant communities in Australia tend to concentrate themselves in their “own” specific areas; I, on the other hand, preferred to do the exact opposite under the assumption that if I want Israelis by my side I’d go and live in Israel. My approach is not exactly foolproof: while I don’t have Israelis living near me, at least not that I know of, the area I live in is certainly made of a very specifically homogeneous portion of society rather than the full spectrum of humans in whose midst I’d prefer to live. Effectively, though, I still gain variety at the price of feeling like somewhat of an outsider.
Is this outside feeling a burden? Not really. Besides, what options do I have? Living as a somewhat of an outsider in Australia is still better than living in Israel (by a mere few orders of magnitude). All it takes is biting the bullet, knowing that this is what the migrant experience is like, and singing Led Zep’s song.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

To Mock a Killing Bird

I have stopped pointing at the silliness of religious belief for a while now, taking it for granted that people with minds on their heads would have realized that fact without my aid (while realizing those who don't will probably take more than my arguing). The last few weeks have supplied enough ammunition for me to want to say something, so I will change my ways and go forth to mock religion over three different observations.

The first observation is to do with Mary Mackillop being ordained as Australia's first Catholic Saint, some hundred years after her death and in a manner that makes lots of people anticipate making lots of money out of this affair (through tourism etc). Now, it's clear Mackillop has done a lot for society and is worth remembering for her achievements; but Catholic sainthood is something I would consider punishment rather than a prize.
Consider this: Mackillop was recognized a saint on the basis of performing a couple of miracles. The second miracle involved the recovery from incurable cancer by a woman who prayed for Mackillop's help. Ignoring the obvious likelihood the recovery had nothing to do with any prayers, let me ask you this: Why is Mackillop so evil?
Yes, evil. As in: why doesn't she do anything about the other millions dying of cancer? Why does she only intervene in one or two cases? That's no saint; that's a devil by my book.
My point is simple: I respect Mackillop for her achievements; I will not respect the silly religion that ordained her, because if closing your ear to millions while listening to the suffering of one is one of god's virtues, I do not want anything to do with such a god.

On we go to the next case. Last week, Triple J's Hack program dedicated itself to discussions concerning virginity. A silly topic, I agree, but the program is aimed at teens and virginity does seem to attract attention at that age group.
One of the interviews they held was with a Catholic woman, who urged listeners to keep their virginity till they're married. The speaker herself was no virgin; she went through a rather promiscuous period for a few years before opening her mind to religion. Or rather, closing her mind because of religion. And what a fine example she is!
One of the things I won't forgive Christianity for is the way it criminalizes sex. Luckily, with most Christians this comes in through one ear and goes out the other, but we all feel it wherever we go; in Western society, sex is much more a taboo than it should be. And we're all miserable for it, because sex is perfectly natural and I see no reason to treat it as evil; instead of making you a devil for having sex, the powers that be should focus on educating you to practice safe sex.
No, I cannot respect the religion that makes those who have sex outside of marriage criminals. Nor do most members of society, at least if you look at what really happens out there; it's just that we should stop pretending.

Last, but not least, was a Muslim representative to that very same Hack program.
The guy was explaining what Islam is promising the faithful believer: According to Islam, those that reach the lowest circle of heaven will receive 72 virgins of the opposite sex to do with as they will. The guy was quite proud of this, flaunting it as if he's getting a reward the rest of us won't.
Question is, would any decent human being want such a reward? Those 72 victims are, for all intents and purposes, human beings (otherwise it wouldn't feel right). 72 human being that, effectively, become the slaves of that Muslim that reached heaven. Would any sane person take slaves on this day and age? Yet Muslims seem to aspire to do so after their death.
Yes, we have ourselves another case of religion twisting all sense of rational thought. And in this particular case, all sense of humanism, too. No, I cannot respect such beliefs; I will actively mock them. And so should any sane person.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Parenthood's Rewards

The rewards one receives as a parent come in many shapes and sizes. For example, the realization that going to, say, a museum is going to be costing you more than it ever did because of the extra souls on board takes its time to dawn on you (and no, you're not earning more to compensate; you're probably earning less because someone needs to stay home and look after the child).
Still, I have to say that as rewards go, nothing comes more in your face than being vomited on. A thought that occurred to me last night as our two year old Dylan was vomiting here, there and everywhere (mostly over my wife). Twice.
The damage bill is extensive. As well as having to calm an obviously anxious baby and ensure he's not doing too bad, we threw several things we wouldn't dare reuse and spent the rest of the night cleaning (and, to one extent or another, we still do). As a bonus, we had a steam cleaner come in today to do our sofa. Indeed, the lingering aspect of vomit - its odor - is probably the most annoying thing, if only because its seeming permanence. So yes, you can even attach a price tag to vomits.
The game is far from over, though. We still have additional challenges to aspire to: Take, as an example, the inside-car vomit (preferably while on a long drive in the middle of nowhere). Take that, you parent!

Monday, 1 March 2010

There Must Be Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover

Thursdays are the days I am now off work, looking after my two and a half year old Dylan. Last Thursday our bonding experience took some reinforcement as we had to handle the unexpected together.
Returning to our parked car after shopping at a pharmacy we were just in time to watch this guy driving the Ford Falcon station wagon, formerly parked in parallel next us, smash into our car. First, he reversed out of his spot; then he turned right to get out of the parking lot, misjudged the amount of clearance he had from the back of my car, and smashed into it. He moved on to get out of the parking lot, which is when I blocked the exit and engaged in conversation with him through his now open window.
“Did you see that”, I asked.
“Yes”, he answered.
“Did you know that was my car you just hit?”, I asked again.
“Oh…”, he answered, and you could see the dark cloud going over his face as he answered. He went on to get out of the car; I took his details (he wasn’t the least bit interested in mine) and we examined the damage. Didn’t look like much – he suggested I stick it with tape – but I insisted on the full on process; I’ve had enough experience to know that significant damage can take place without much in the way of visible clues. Turned out the guy was a pensioner that, if you were to ask me, should no longer sit behind the wheel. Especially if he’s going to hit cars and then say he can’t pay for the damage.
At the risk of sounding like the nerd that I am, I will add that the ritual of collecting info and evidence about the accident has been made incredibly simple through modern gadgetry. In particular, the iPhone: I took a few snaps of the crime scene, and the with the click of a finger the iPhone recorded the precise location of the incident on a Google Map together with the time. Makes you want to have an accident just to enjoy feeling like that incredible amount of money you spent on a toy is worthwhile.
Dylan, all the while, sat in his stroller – I positioned him under the shade of our car at the start of this affair – and watched the unrolling events silently with mild curiosity.

Wanting to get this off my to do list as soon as I can, I called my car insurance after putting Dylan to his afternoon sleep. There I was told that given my suspicions for a minimal damage I can go to an assessor first and decide whether I want to file an insurance claim or not.
Thus when Dylan woke up I had to fight with him to take him to the assessment center – it was yet another delightful attempt to show me whose boss. After weighing things up quickly in my head I figured it was now or never (or rather, next Thursday), so I used the force to put Dylan on his car seat and off we went. A few minutes later he relaxed enough to say it was nice to go out in the car together, the little devil.
At the assessment center Dylan has had a great time watching cars being lifted, cars half assembled, and lots of men messing around with tools and cars. Must be his current definition of heaven. Eventually, our car was assessed and the initial instincts turned out to be true (I hope!): The damage was limited to my spare wheel cover; the spare wheel itself seems to have absorbed the rest of the impact.
Then I learned a quick lesson on how car companies make their money. Well, turns out Honda charges $282 on a vinyl cover for a previous model Honda CRV’s spare wheel. Must be made of gold, this vinyl.

So I called the hitman again to ask if he’s going to give me the cash or whether I should make an insurance claim. He asked me to call him in two weeks as he’s going to Sydney for a few days (obviously, he can afford that); I answered I’m happy to wait, but I also intend to take no more delays. An insurance claim will hurt him more than it would me, and I’m not planning on having my car put for sale – eventually – with a spare wheel cover screaming “accident damage”.
The thing that troubles me the most about this entire experience? Not the fact this was a completely preventable and redundant experience; mistakes happen all the time, and I have had my own share of silly parking lot accidents that were all my preventable fault. No, the thing that annoys me is the fact the guy was trying to get away from the scene when I caught up with him.
Human decency, it seems, applies only to the point we get personally disadvantaged by it.