Sunday, 30 May 2010

When am I getting an iPad?

Not only is the Apple iPad selling everywhere in Australia, but I have also seen it in the flesh while touring Chadstone today. And not only did I see it in the flesh, I saw it held up against a Borders Kobo eBook reader (the one I talked about here). So, what do I make of them?
First, let me make it clear: the iPad is a very drool inducing gizmo. It just looks wow. The Kobo is not far behind, although its black & white display does reduce its sex appeal; that said, it should be an incredible way to read given that with all its size (a very thin paperback) it can carry north of a thousand books.
Still, I prefer to wait before buying either. I have already explained why I'm not jumping the eBook bandwagon yet (here and here); further investigations re eBooks availability in Australia clearly indicate one should wait until publishers decide how they're going to play the game and catch up with the technology that's already here.

Things are slightly different with regards to the iPad. The iPad could be a revolution to the way we use computers simply because of the full interaction you have with the screen: you don't press buttons on the side, you just mess about with the screen. Add to that the fact it's always ready for action and just works, and the bonus of not having to worry about viruses and such (yet), and you got quite an appeal from quite a sexy gadget. Probably the sexiest.
Yet I am not getting the iPad. It's mostly because I do not want to take part in the great big dictatorship that Steve Jobs is running as he and his empire attempt to dictate to me what I should have access to and what I should not.
Look at how Apple has limited the iPad. Sure, it has web surfing facilities, but without Flash support you are severely limited: no film clips either than YouTube, plus a very limited ability to music from the web. Instead, you are directed to the Apple app store, where you can get any of the two hundred thousand plus applications that Apple has kindly approved for you to use. Each of these apps is like a perimeter enclosed private property where you do whatever you like; the trick is, the apps need to acquire Apple's approval first, and Apple has its standards.
Steve Jobs won't let you watch porn through his apps. Nor would he let you use apps that may offend people. Now, how the hell do you define what porn is and what material offends people? Well, you just have to trust Apple! They know what's good for you! Say what you will, I have full trust in my own ability to tell what's good or bad for me. As for all the hypocrites who nod their head at the exclusion of porn, please look yourself in the mirror when you do that to see your nose getting longer. Or any other part of your body.
The iPad comes with its own built in morality police. It lacks USB connections. It lacks a webcam. I'm sure I'd love to use it, as limited as it is, but why should I spend so much money on it - as drool inducing as it is - when I know that the likes of Google will come up with an equivalent device shortly, free of Apple's dictatorship? It won't have all the eBooks the iPad will have access to through the Jobs empire, but it will be open source (ala Android) and Linux based (no viruses, instant operation ala the iPhone and the iPad).
The way things are, if Jobs wants me to get an iPad, he should cut its price levels where I wouldn't need to think twice. He won't, because at the moment they're selling faster than suicidal Chinese can make them. Sure, I have my concerns about the morality of buying Apple, but I admit: if the iPad was selling for $200, any ethical concerns I might have would just disappear as I dash to the nearest dealer.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Quotes to die for

Catherine Deveny’s tweets might have been too good for The Age to keep her but I still find them inspiring. Yesterday, they pointed me towards a couple of Bible quotes I wasn’t familiar with. Check them out, directly out of the King James version:
Timothy 2:12 - But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence
Psalm 137:9 - Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones
Ain’t that something? Doesn’t it warm your heart to know that even in this day and age there are people upon this round planet we live on (which happens to circle the sun and not the other way around) that still hold the Bible as the source of our morality and as the reference we should all adhere to?
Just the other day I was talking here about a Muslim educator (Fahme) and his claim that those with no faith [in the supernatural] are incapable of being moral. Well, given the above quotes, can anyone truly claim they follow the gospel's word to the letter? There are lots of people out there who sadly still act as if women should be silenced, but even they don’t just dash children against stones, do they?
I will therefore repeat my point. None of us takes our morality from the Bible; we are born with it hardwired into us through evolution, because we are a social species and without civilization – that comes through us being generally nice to one another – we won’t get too far. Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene provides the mathematical background for that, which is one of the reasons I adore the book as much as I do.
The point is, it is actually the atheist/agnostic that is in a better position to act ethically than the believer. The believer has to contend with instructions from above urging them to actively discriminate against women and to kill children. These leave him confused; most believers prefer to pretend these orders do not exist as they pick and carefully choose a selection of their god's holy words that suits them best at any particular point in time. The tactic works, but the believer is forever condemned to live a double life of confusion between their common sense and their dogma.
Us agnostics do not have this problem. We can freely pick and choose the best the Bible has to offer while we condemn the crap. We can listen and learn from the sermon on the mount while we can ignore and laugh at the bits that condemn women to a life of inferiority or the agnostic to eternal and unforgivable damnation (one of Jesus' lesser moments). By being free to think for ourselves we can acquire ever improving and clearer ethical standards.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

LCD vs. Plasma

Widescreen Review did a series of comparisons between plasma and LCD screens and came up with some interesting and surprising results, at least as far as I am concerned. So surprising that I would like to share them with you.
First I want to make a point about Widescreen Review's comparisons. They weren't your "let's have a walk to Harvey Norman and see what looks best in their showroom". No: they had them all in a lab, calibrated them all to the way they should be set up (TVs are generally set to look bright in the showroom, not to function well in your living room), measured them thoroughly, and had a group of big time experts come in to offer their opinions. By experts I mean people of the likes of Joe Kane, the guy Samsung called in when they decided they want to make decent TVs so they can be a viable player in the market.
Overall, Widescreen Review's approach had been what I would call scientific: they measured, they experimented, and they peer reviewed.
Here are some of their findings' highlights:
  1. When comparing the top of the plasmas to the top of LCD screens, plasmas give significantly better picture quality. LCD's advantage is when viewed under well lit conditions (not the type of viewing one could call critical) and in their lower energy consumption, but other than that they got the crap bitten out of them.
  2. The best plasma screen for the common person out there now, and therefore the best screen, is from Panasonic. Pioneer used to make the best plasmas but they couldn't afford it; Panasonic hired their engineers. I spotted a 50" Panasonic plasma (last year's model) for $2000 at Myers; never before has such great picture quality been so affordable for such a screen size.
  3. Looking at the top LCD screens from the top LCD manufacturers, Sony came out as the top performer. It was followed by the the likes of Samsung and LG, which were quite significantly behind (one of my personal surprises, given that Samsung and Sony share a lot of their manufacturing). Sharp came at the very back, virtually with a "don't dare touch me" label on it.
  4. Generally speaking, what used to be the bane of plasma screens - ghosting and its likes, generated by having the same picture for too long - is no longer an issue.
  5. Generally speaking, what used to be one of the banes of LCD - motion smear due to response times - is no longer an issue when buying a decent model from a decent manufacturer. Response time statistics can be ignored, together with features like 120hz; all the screens perform virtually the same, and all do a good job at preventing smear. What smear you do see is usually the fault of the original.
  6. Generally speaking, there is not much of a difference between last year's model and this year's in picture quality. Differences tend to come in the form of extra features, but these are usually gimmicks that hinder picture quality rather than improve it and are best switched off (e.g., edge enhancements, which produce things that weren't there in the original). Same goes for LED screens compared to normal LCD screens: a good screen is a good screen regardless of the latest buzz.
One last comment. At the risk of repeating myself I will say this once again: Do not trust what the salesperson at the local Harvey Norman (or any other shop interested in processing large numbers of orders) tells you when it comes to picture quality. They have no idea, and frankly - they cannot have an idea because a TV cannot be properly judged under showroom conditions. Nor should the list of gimmicks the TV comes up with affect your decision. Do your homework in advance and don't choose your model at the showroom unless you're that price sensitive or unless you can use the help of a qualified advisor (and there are many certified ones around).

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

I, the Face of Evil

Last night’s Insight program on SBS dealt with Special Religious Education (SRE) classes given to school children in Australian public schools. The program focused on the current initiative in NSW to offer ethics classes to kids whose parents don’t want them to take part in religious education and who, thus far, had to spend that hour a week sitting in a remote corner reading a book. You can read about the program and even view it here.
While I found the program interesting enough to watch I am of the opinion the debate was a failure for the simple reason it chose to ignore the elephants in the room: First that there is no room for advocating specific religions in the public schools of a secular and multi cultural country; that principle question was never under serious debate. The second and an even bigger elephant is the reality that the religious institutions are objecting to the ethics alternative for the simple reason that without little children indoctrinated in their dogmas their source of power will further diminish. It is, after all, nothing about the belief in an almighty god but rather a power struggle between the religious institutions of old and the movement of reason that started since Galileo’s time and keeps on pushing religion out of the equation further and further.
What I did find interesting about the program, in an annoying kind of way, was the freedom some of the representatives of religion took upon themselves when presenting their ideas. Let’s look at three of those ideas.

First there was Glenn Davies, the Anglican Bishop of North Sydney. This dude jumped the gun by offering an idea religious people often flag:
…as it were, atheistic religion of some sort…
That is, the idea that atheism is just another religion. Well, if the state of having no religion is equal to having some sort of a religion, does that mean that I can go and sell being barefoot as the latest in shoe fashion and make money out of it? Or does the state of having no money to own a mansion by the beach mean that I can claim to own one?
I find this "atheism is another religion" argument incredibly silly. The bottom line is that religion comes with a leap of faith in the supernatural as a mandatory prerequisite; atheism refuses to accept that, therefore it cannot be a religion. To the incredibly cynical Glenn Davies I will say, stop taking us rational people down to your level.

Then came along Mazen Fahme, who organises Islamic Special Religious Education in NSW (where there are enough Muslims in the public schools). Fahme’s first claim to ridicule was the following:
And the other issue that we have is that who is to, I suppose, say what ethics are common right now? Ethics can evolve over time.
Oh yeah, and religions haven’t evolved over time. In fact, just this morning I sacrificed a goat so my gods will like me enough to ensure my train to work is on time.

The time for silly jokes was over with Fahme’s following statement:
The other issue we have with ethics as well is that it does lack the substance in that with religion, it gives it extra dimension. As a religious person, when I was asked to serve someone or assist someone, I'm doing it for no gratitude in this world, I'm doing it for the pleasure of my creator and for reward in the afterlife. When you put that purely with no religion and just ethics then I don't have to serve this person, I want the reward in this world and so forth.
If you didn’t get it, Fahme is essentially saying that those who do not believe in a god cannot be moral because they lack that almighty surveillance camera in the sky looking over their shoulder. By Fahme’s account, I, for one, have nothing stopping me from being truly nasty to my fellow human beings because I don’t believe in god (any god, for that matter).
Maybe it’s just me, but I find the people that need god by their side in order to act ethically the most unethical people around; they’re definitely the scariest, because once they’re of the belief that god wants them to do something nasty to someone else they could convince themselves to ignore the common sense inhibition to be nice to one another and commit atrocities. Perhaps these things have happened before, like, say, September 11.
There you have Insight’s contribution: The realization that I am sharing the planet with would be monsters created out of religious dogma taken too literally. I knew these people existed; what I didn’t know is that these people have control over public school agendas in Australia and that they’re mainstream enough to express their views in mainstream current affair program. What do these people think of the 30% or so of Aussies that declare themselves to lack faith? Do they really perceive every third person they see on the street a potential serial killer?
What can I say? Us humans have a long way to go still.

Sunday, 23 May 2010

The Provincial Side of the World

Let the record show that I am not afraid to open my wallet and pay for good content.
This week I paid $5 of my hard earned money to buy The Guardian's iPhone application. You may say that $5 is nothing, but I say that $5 is too much to pay for contents you get for free on The Guardian's website anyway; what you're really paying for is the ability to browse through items comfortably using the iPhone as well as the ability to download articles offline (an ability that is mostly irrelevant to me).
The question to ask here is why bother with The Guardian when one can put one's hands on so many sources of free news on the internet and on the iPhone. We all know where to find news on the web, and the iPhone has nice free apps from the ABC (the Aussie ABC), Haaretz (Israel) and tailored for the iPhone website from The Age. Why The Guardian, then, a newspaper from the UK - a country that is not that relevant to me?
My answer is simple. I consider The Guardian to be the best newspaper I know. Most of the world's English speaking newspapers are owned by Murdoch, which automatically means they can't be too good; the better American newspapers seem to be all about money; Haaretz is a good paper but like anything from Israel it's all about the Arab-Israeli conflict; and Melbourne's best paper, The Age, is simply not in the same league. If anything, The Age seems to be stooping down to Murdoch's tabloid levels lately, especially since it decided to sack Catherine Deveny. In contrast too all of the above, The Guardian offers a good news overview that revolves around the English point of view but does not shy from providing a good international coverage; it has nice science, technology and environment sections; it's got interesting commentary columnists; and its sports coverage is more along the lines of what my sports preferences are (isn't it funny that both sports preferences and religious preferences are the result of the same geographical accident of birth?). Pack all these up, and in my book The Guardian's the best; after reading The Guardian, moving over to The Age seems like switching going down a few school classes (a phenomenon that does not occur when moving to, say, Haaretz).
What does it all imply? If one makes the analofy between the newspaper and the country, the conclusion is imminent. To me, the differences in the papers' qualities reads of Australia being a rather provincial place. Looking at the map one clearly sees that Australia is stuck on the earth's provincial end, but then again that does not necessirily mean Australia is provincial in its habits. However, looking at Australia's newspapers renders the conclusion obvious: the lack of a truly serious Aussie newspaper is proof. Not that The Age or the Sydney Morning Herald cannot be as good as The Guardian; I'm sure the talent is there. Where Australia is lacking is in the will to be good, simply because not enough people are interested in being good in the first place. So the really good leave to pursue their dreams elsewhere while the rest remain because leaving in this provincial outpost is comfortable.
Every place has its problems, but the realization I'm living in the provincial side of the world is a bit depressing. It implies there is not much reason to make an effort to improve things when you're surrounded by apathy. After all, Murdoch was Australian.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Theory of the Mind

Yet another great video from the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science came out, explaining the concept behind the Theory of the Mind. As I suspect a lot of parents should find this information interesting given that it will tell you a lot about your child's behavior and about how you need to accommodate, here's the short video:

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Borderless eBook Reader

Since my previous post discusses eBook readers amongst other issues, I thought I might dedicate the next post (this one) to Borders' Kobo eBook reader which was launched in Australia today.
You can read about it here, but here's the gist of it: Borders' eBook is a lot like Amazon's Kindle in the sense that it uses the same electronic ink screen (as opposed to the iPad's LCD screen) and that you can get free Windows and iPhone applications on which you can also read the same books and which are even synchronized. That is, you get to page 17 on the iPhone and the next time you open the book on your PC it would start from page 17. The main difference between the two, Borders and Kindle, is in the Borders' eBook reader not acquiring the books through a cellular connection but rather by connecting it to a PC. far better, if you ask me, because it means that Borders can't just decide it removes all your books from your e-reader the way Amazon can.
All in all, at this stage I find the Borders deal quite attractive. Much more attractive than the Amazon-Kindle one, for the following reasons (note I'm saying this before seeing the Borders unit in first person):
  1. The reader is incredibly simple, small and light. It's 200 grams light and it's the size of a very thin paperback. Yet it can carry 1000 books.
  2. The Borders unit already comes packed with 100 free books. Sure, these are old books out of copyright protection, but it's still a nice gesture.
  3. The Borders iPhone experience is far superior to the Kindle one. Books are better cataloged and searching for new books is done through the Borders app itself, unlike the Kindle version that opens a separate browser and sends you to the mercy of the internet.
  4. The Borders eBook reader sells for $200, about half the price of the Kindle.
So, am I buying one? Despite my complaints about DRM and the fact that any eBook you buy today and wish to read in a few years time would probably needs to be re-purchased, I was quite tempted. At $200 for the reader and at half the price for the books themselves it becomes financially viable to buy the same books again in the future when you take into account the fact you'd only want to re-read a minority of the books.
Yes, I was tempted by the Borders option. But only till the point I actually started browsing the Borders catalog through my iPhone, looking for authors whose books I have recently bought as indicators for the books I am likely to wish to purchase in the future. Here's what I've found:
  1. Isaac Asimov: Four eBooks available from this author who wrote many hundreds of books.
  2. Richard Dawkins: Three eBooks available.
  3. Robert Heinlein: None available.
  4. John Scalzi: None available.
  5. Carl Sagan: None available.
In short, book availability is a joke. What is the point of committing yourself to a specific format if, no matter how attractive and sexy it is, you can't get any worthwhile content for it?

Bohemian Rhapsody

Call me a weirdo, but I love music. Love requires dedication, and in my case I’ve been neglectful; since entering the professional career stage of my life music’s role has been gradually diminishing, to the point I’m quite detached from the music scene and I can live my life happily without listening to much music – a situation I was simply unable to tolerate before. So I thought I’d make an effort to relight the fire and practice what I have recently preached: I thought I’d join the Rhapsody service.
Rhapsody allows you to stream music of your choice through the internet at respectable quality. You can listen as much as you want to any of the nine million songs they have on their catalog for a flat fee of $12 a month. I figured this budget CD worth of music per month, cost wise, is something I’d be able to live with if it means having such a huge catalog of music available to me wherever my browser is: at home, on my iPhone, and even on the hi-fi. I’ve even experimented, connecting my old Asus Eee PC 701 to the hi-fi to listen to high quality web streaming (courtesy of 3RRR) with some very promising results.
The ground was set for a revolution in my music consumption. The result, however, was anything but; I’m about to tell you what took place, but let me start with the conclusion: my experience with Rhapsody has confirmed to me once again that the content distribution companies are only interested in maintaining their bear hug over their precious existing business model. They don’t care about the artist and they certainly don’t care about the listener/consumer. They don’t even care for the potential hike in revenues they may have if internet based music services really take off. They’re idiots, and we have to suffer their idiocy through the limitations they’re artificially imposing on the music available to us.
With that in mind, let me tell you of my grueling experience with Rhapsody.

In order to be on the safe side, I decided to start my exposure to Rhapsody by installing their free iPhone application first. I clicked on the iPhone link at the Rhapsody website, which started iTunes… and brought up this nice search results screen that did not include Rhapsody in it.
That was strange. Surely, an app like that can’t just disappear? So I tried it again and again, only to find – eventually – that the Rhapsody app is available only in the iTunes USA store. Silly me, I tried using iTunes Australia!
So I thought what the hell, I might as well open an account with iTunes USA. It will only take me two minutes; it’s not like I don’t have any other online USA accounts. So I started creating such an account.
It didn’t take too long – in fact, it was after the first step – that my attempt at creating an American iTunes account was put to a halt. The first screen Apple puts in your way to creating the account is a screen saying that you must use applications bought in their USA shop inside the USA. It reminded me of a similar statement they’ve made back when I opened my Aussie iTunes account. Pretty silly of Apple to come up with such a demand, isn’t it? For a start, haven’t they heard of global roaming, or am I expected to delete all the apps on my iPhone before venturing out of Australia?
The point is that Apple is pretty serious. Google it and you will see plenty of stories coming from people whose iTunes accounts were deleted altogether by Apple (without warning) for such national infringements. That is, for buying an app from the USA in order to use it in another country.
Apple is a two faced company, and now I have the proof for it. Apple does not have the least bit of a problem when it is using British engineers employed in San Francisco offices to come up with designs that are manufactured in China, but when it comes to us users they’re suddenly an anti globalization advocate. They divide and conquer.
Well, fuck you, Apple. I sincerely hope my next phone would be an Android.

Having given up on the iPhone Rhapsody app did not mean that I gave up on Rhapsody altogether. Sure, using it on the move would be a problem, but it could still be worthwhile to use it at home – where the bulk of my listening is.
So I went ahead and clicked the Rhapsody link to start a two week trial. And… then I got this nice error message saying Rhapsody is not available in my region of the world. Ain’t that great! I was actually left puzzled: I know that I can go to a hi-fi shop and buy Sonus equipment that allows me to listen to Rhapsody through my stereo, or at least that I used to be able to do that; so what went wrong since? And second, why can’t Rhapsody say on their website that it’s only for USA use in the first place? Nowhere does it talk about regional limitations other then when you actually ask to join. [For the record: I contacted them and they confirmed it's a USA only service at the moment.]
Lack of clarity aside, it is obvious Rhapsody isn’t the culprit here. Let's just say it's highly likely Rhapsody would be happy to take my Aussie dollars given the chance; let's also say it's highly likely the record companies are blocking it from doing so. They’re probably having backroom discussions on how much royalty Rhapsody should be paying them, because it seems that they consider non American listeners ought to pay more than American ones.
Well, to the record companies I will say this: fuck you, too.

I’ll move on to a non Rhapsody experience that is well related to my experiences above: the Amazon Kindle experience.
Kindle, as you probably know, is Amazon’s eBook reader. Having seen it in action on numerous occasions by now I can attest that it is, indeed, a wonderful apparatus and that I would dearly love to own an eBook reader. It’s just that I don’t think the concept is ripe enough, as my Kindle experience demonstrates.
I thought my first step to the Kindle world should be installing its Windows and iPhone software to check things out using a free book (and there are plenty of those; essentially everything written by authors who died more than fifty something years ago should be in the public domain according to our current draconian copyright legislation). So I installed them and it was all nice and easy (even if there's no Linux version and I had to do it on Windows).
Next I went to the Amazon website to get a couple of free books, only to notice they’re not free: they sell for $2 each. Why? Because books are downloaded to your Kindle eBook reader through the cellular network, and Amazon – being a USA company – has to pay for global roaming. But, and that’s an interesting but, why should I pay for global roaming when I’m downloading the books to my Windows PC through an internet connection? Doesn’t make sense, does it?
So I took the liberty to use my American address (a perfectly legal address I bought over the web) with Amazon, which immediately made the books genuinely free. This allowed me to quickly download some books.
The next day I got a nice email from Amazon, saying "I see that you attempted to purchase [books] while in a different country than United States listed on your Amazon account... If this is not the case, and you would like to share information that you live in United States, we can be reached by fax... Helpful information includes: Passport, Military ID, Permanent Resident Card, Driver’s License, Other state photo identity card".
Sure enough, I couldn’t hold myself from sending documents exposing me to potential identity theft to Amazon. Amazon, the same company that decided to charge my credit card for no particular reason (read here). Not that I have any of the documents they’re asking for, but the point is they (Amazon) actually have the guts to make a fuss over a point where they’re being idiots in the first place because no global roaming was ever used.
So I’ll say this to Amazon: Fuck you.
And I’ll use the opportunity to say why I don’t think eBooks are there for us yet. It’s called DRM, the copy protection mechanism that Amazon’s eBooks use which prevents them from being used on any platform other than a Kindle supported platform. Matter of fact, all eBooks use this type of DRM. Thing is: what’s to happen in two years time, when instead of a Kindle we find ourselves using a Shmindle? I hear the publishers and the distributors’ great delight, because they know the answer: we’ll have to buy the same books again.
Call me old fashioned, but they can all go and fuck themselves. I’m sticking to my paper books: they’re bulky, they’re more expensive, but they’re always there for me and I can lend them around or borrow them from others without any issues. Call me when you can do that on your eBook reader.
Till then, I will conclude by stating what is growing more and more obvious: what the content owners and distributors of this world seem to really need in order to get them to get a life and accept reality is a very good dose of piracy. Piracy has started to bend record companies and movie studios down to reality; there’s a long way to go still, but it can and should go further.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

The Age of Innocence

A couple of weeks ago, when the sun was still shining on Melbourne, Jo took our two year old Dylan on a bus ride – a big time adventure by his account. On the bus Dylan met an older boy, perhaps four or five years old. At first the two were playing together, but quickly enough things have changed.
The cause of the change was Dylan’s excitement: playing with a bigger boy was such a thrill he started making his happy sounds. These vary between duga-duga-duga and dig-dig-dig, but you get the point; the point is the older kid stopping cooperative play and instead turning to mock Dylan into acting like a baby. For his part, Dylan didn’t mind; he still considered himself playing with an older boy and didn’t understand what was taking place. Affairs, however, weren’t as nice as they were a minute earlier.

I see the above incident as a metaphor for what takes place with all of us when we lose our naivety and come face to face with the real world, a place that unlike our parents is harsh, indifferent and unforgiving. Most of us deal with the real world by copying the behavior of those around us, as the older boy on the bus did when he suddenly turned from a child playing childish games into a critical adult. I, on the other hand, don’t see this act of conformism in a positive light.
As long as no one is harmed, there is absolutely nothing wrong with us behaving like children from time to time. It is not ethically wrong to do something foolish or something meaningless or to pause and emit baby sounds when you’re happy. In contrast, blindly following what others are doing as opposed to thinking for yourself is something to be condemned: in this particular bus incident both sides lost from the breakup of the play.
At the personal level, I think Dylan’s the cutest when he’s doing his childish celebrations. There is probably a lot of positive feedback from me in those rituals in the first place, as I often do stupid things together with Dylan for the sake of having fun. As Monty Python have said, Dylan is the son of a silly person.
While I know Dylan is only behaving the way he currently does on a temporary basis and soon enough he’ll want to make an adult of himself, too, a part of me is longing to ask Dylan to remain the cute innocent child he is. It’s good to lose your naivety for the sake of knowledge, but it’s not good to lose your openness to ideas and your sense of wonder at the same time.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Clear or Shrill?

Atheism is facing a minor dilemma: should it speak out loud against religion, or should it adopt some sort of an apologetic/accommodating attitude as it tries to find its place in the world?
Indeed, I have often been accused on this pages for being too much of the former; indeed, I take pride in adopting the confrontational attitude as I see a need to identify the truth and as I don't see a need to be around the bush.
Interestingly enough, my colleague Richard Dawkins has been plagued by similar accusations. Here is Dawkins' reply when asked about his views on the matter of the preferred approach; if anything, you're guaranteed a laugh:

Woman

As I told this blog in its very first account of my views on religion (here), the way women have been treated by religion was one of the major reasons for me becoming an atheist. Yesterday, PZ Myers has published a post throughly discussing the Judeo-Christian religions' attitude towards women. I found his post so good I thought I should point you there myself: give it a go here.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Sunday morning omelet


Sunday morning omelet
Originally uploaded by reuvenim
One can do a great deal during a weekend, but if you ask me one cannot outdo being lazy and doing nothing. The days of staying in bed till two in the afternoon and then getting up to wonder what's for breakfast are long gone, but the least we can do given the two year old in the house is have something nice to eat when we're forced out of bed. This morning the choice was an omelet, for the simple reason we had too many eggs and needed using them up.
The beauty of an omelet is that it's so easy to cook even I can do it. So here we go - write down this recipe:

-2 to 3 free range eggs per person
-Grated tasty cheese
-Feta cheese, chopped into small pieces
-Chopped spring onions
-Chopped parsley (aka petrosilya)
-A small amount of well diced tomatoes
-A bit of diced bacon (our omelet usually misses on that, simply because to the delight of pigs we tend to not stock up on bacon)
-Spices: thyme, oregano, some pepper and paprika

Note I like my omelet without milk. The act of adding milk to an omelet in order to make it go further was foreign to me as an Israeli, probably because Kosher habits in Israel tend to avoid using milk for no good reason. Today I still follow my old Israeli habits simply because I think a milkless omelet tastes much better.
Also note there is no need for added salt; the feta covers for it, so keep your blood pressure down.

Preparation is dead easy. Break all the eggs into a pot and steer well till you get a gooey but uniform goo. Add the rest of the ingredients (all in quantities to taste) and mix it all up again.
Warm up a pan with some olive oil and throw the combined mixture on top. Cook until it begins to separate from the pan, then take a deep breath and flip the omelet. That's where I usually fail and my thus far good looking omelet turns into a colorful scrambled egg. Cook till ready.
Enjoyed best with a cup of roasted Turkish coffee cooked on the stove the Arab way with some hell (aka cardamom).

Saturday, 15 May 2010

The UnAustralian

Let's not be around the bush: by common Aussie definitions I am a full blown unAustralian.
Perhaps the worst thing one can say about a mate, the evidence is there for all to see. I stick out like a sour thumb whenever I'm in the company of people, and I see it every time there's some sort of a work function as well as through the undeniable fact I don't have any personal friendships with anyone from the office despite the fact my current position is also my longest serving position. If you want to know why I'm not that good at mingling here are the main reasons: I don't drink I couldn't care less about the popular sports here.
Yet the beauty of Australia is that despite being at the extreme end of mainstream one can still lead a decent life. Unlike Israel, to name the example I am familiar with the most, society here is open enough to allow a live and let live society.
Things are not as simple as that for Australia, though. There are many out there who are afraid of people like me. The Tony Abbotts and John Howards of this world don't want people asking too many questions and defying the order of things; they want to make sure that the middle aged white male Anglo and his culture will rule supreme over all else. They also tend to be the ones that tend to tag those they don't particularly like as "UnAustralian", making me a proud bearer of the stigma.
Personally, what amazes me the most is that in the first years of the twenty first century these people are still getting votes. It does bring me great pleasure to work towards reducing their numbers, though.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Only in America

Here's a video where one Republican candidate goes out against another Republican candidate:



Did you notice it? Did you notice our guy is being named and shamed for saying evolution makes sense? Don't you just feel pity for the guy and his stupid opponents?
Well, pity him no more: Check out his response here, where he's quick to show support for creationism. To his credit he doesn't say anything against evolution, but hey - an idiot surrounded by other idiots is still an idiot.

Want more good American idiocy? Check out here the words of the famous conservative radio talk show host, Rush Limbaugh, with regards to the Louisiana oil spill.
At first he said the oil spill has been some sort of a green's conspiracy. Now our astute expert is claiming that "The ocean will take care of this on its own if it was left alone and left out there. It's natural. It's as natural as the ocean water is."

It's things like that which give Americans a bad name around the world. Not that Australia lacks its own set of idiots - I mean, the guy leading the polls for this year's federal election probably shares his opinions with the above - but at least in Australia these guys know to keep their idiocy to themselves as opposed to boldly advertising it.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Police and Thieves in the Street

Two policemen knocked on my door this afternoon while Dylan was asleep. At first I thought they're finally on to me but quickly it became clear they are looking for details on our ex next door neighbor, a guy who moved away long before we moved in and who has been wanted long before that. Obviously, the police are in a hot pursuit.
After finishing their grueling inquest, one of the policeman has asked me for my name in order to put it on the record. Upon me pronouncing my name I couldn't help but notice the other policeman sneering at this grossly "bloody foreigner" type of a name. Which, I have to say, has annoyed me even more than the risk of them waking Dylan up.
The point I am trying to make is that my interactions with the Aussie police force thus far do not lead me to a position where I can claim I will gladly put my faith in them. I have seen them abuse their powers quite often (usually in the context of traffic law) and, as this example demonstrates, being a policeman does not preclude you from being a bit of an ignorant bigot.
Where is this discussion leading me to? Both main political parties are preparing their messages for the upcoming state elections. Both main political parties have promised to significantly boost police force numbers in an effort to curb Melbourne's rising crime (or at least curb the news headlines generated after weekend nights of boozing; with all the mayhem these headlines generate it's hard to tell whether there is a crime wave in the first place). Thing is, will having more police mean us being generally safer? I sort of doubt it. I definitely see how more police will mean more fines for silly traffic offenses, and I definitely see how more police could anger certain demographics (e.g., the bloody foreigners), but I don't see how more police equals less crime.
In contrast, I do see research disassociating police numbers and crime levels. I am also of the opinion that prevention is much better. As in, instead of investing in police to deter us, shouldn't we invest directly in our communities? Shouldn't we invest in better education? Just dealing with alcohol and drugs alone should prevent the vast majority of crimes taking place in Melbourne from ever being on the agenda.

Here we go again...

Winter is here in earnest, and - in the immortal words of C3PO - here we go again:
  1. Last Friday Dylan must have caught something at childcare (we know other children did, too).
  2. On Saturday he started having a runny nose.
  3. On Sunday the runny nose became more like a Louisiana oil well.
  4. Monday saw him starting to recover from the cold.
  5. Tuesday had him getting better. We took him to the doctor who confirmed that, but warned against the now ebbing cold triggering Dylan's asthma. Coughing in earnest started during the afternoon; by evening time we had to use the doomsday medication (at least it works).
  6. Wednesday had Dylan improving but still coughing and not eating much.
  7. Thursday the same: generally tired, hardly eating, numbed by medication.
  8. So far it looks like we're going to keep Dylan at home on Friday, too. We'll take it easy over the weekend.
So there goes the week.
By now I forgot how intense an experience looking after Dylan is when he's really sick. To add some extra spice, our low carer's leave balances force us to try and do as much work as we can when Dylan is resting, which means we hardly get any rest.
Don't you just love winter?

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

What if science was like religion?

It has often been pointed out to me, as feedback to my posts, that the way I follow science is similar to the way others follow their religion of choice. I have always disagreed, pointing at the main differences between science and religion: Science being based on observable evidence and science being able to deliver (e.g., plains that fly, medicine that keeps us alive).
My colleague Richard Dawkins took one step further in addressing the "science is religion" claim by giving us a short presentation demonstrating the way science would have behaved if it was to follow the way religion behaves. Brace yourselves for a good laugh:

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Uncritical Thinking for Children

I agree with Vince Chadwick (Sunday Age 9/5/10, Bigoted Tintin can still teach children a thing or two) when he argues that bigoted books such as Tintin should not be banned but instead get used to teach our children critical thinking as they learn about the background that allowed Hitler's rise.
The question I would like to ask, though, is whether society really wants its children to think critically. Take the way we have been teaching a book slightly more popular than Tintin to our kids: the Bible. Our public schools force religious education on our children where only Christian agendas are taught. But do they ever critically analyze the way Joshua blindly follows orders and kills every non Israelite for the sole reason their faith might confuse his folk? Do they teach that Jesus offers forgiveness for everything as long as it's repented, murder and rape included, with just one exception - the eternal and unforgivable damnation guaranteed to those that don't follow his faith?
Let's face it: We may claim to want to teach our children to think for themselves, but in actual fact we're working hard to make sure they don't. We tend to prefer our children mildly bigoted.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

The Way The Future Blogs

To give credit where credit is due, I would like to mention that title of the previous post was inspired by The Way The Future Blogs, the blog run by Frederik Pohl. Pohl is a science fiction writer from the classic era of the Heinleins and the Asimovs, with books such as Gateway that acted as a stepping stone when read by this child almost years ago when I was a child.
My most notable Pohl experience concerned my personal acquaintance with the term orgasm, a direct result of reading his book Jem (a book I should re-read given how good I thought it was at the time; luckily I still have the copy my uncle bought me). I’ll put it this way: my memories of my father’s reaction to this child asking him what an orgasm is are not in danger of fading out soon.

Friday, 7 May 2010

The Wave of the Future

Prophecy is for fools, I know, but here’s a bit of propheteering on my behalf.
In my previous post, discussing alarm clocks, I predicted iPods and iPhones will not be with us for that much longer. While Apple is guaranteed to try and prove me wrong I pointed at my old bedroom CD / cassette player boom box and its inevitable demise: in the age where one stick holds a gazillion CDs, who’s going to listen to CDs?
Sure, Apple has its nice gizmos. But Apple’s empire is built on a foundation that requires exclusiveness (manifested and maintained through the need to anything and everything via iTunes, Apple’s dictatorship of an application). Once we’d be able to get the same functionality and the same user experience from open source alternatives there’s not going to be much of a reason for us to stick to the Apple regime, unless Apple continues to do what it has been doing for a while and keep coming up with inventions that create new markets. Well, one day Apple is going to come up with a dud, while in the mean time Google Android is already better than the iPhone in many respects and is gaining ground faster than Apple can run away (Gizmodo’s look at the next generation iPhone provides evidence for the iPhone's relative lack of future innovation). To put it another way, there is a limit to the amount of time you can withhold technology such as Flash from your gadgets and still get away with it because you're trying to protect your business model while trying to spin things out as if HTML5 would solve all of this world's problems.
My prediction? Our alarm clocks shall soon be connected to that great contents shop in the sky, the internet. Services such as Rhapsody already let you access all the music you’ll ever want to $12 (USA dollars) a month, roughly the cost of a CD, so why do your shopping elsewhere?
In fact, I may already happen to have my future music player with me. My old Asus Eee PC 701, running Eeebuntu Linux and consuming just 25w of power, can play Rhapsody’s music as much as I want. It’s Linux, which means it’s stable and can be left on for months without rebooting; and it’s got minimal power requirements, so it’s not like having my proper stereo on all the time. The only upgrade this system might need is some PC like powered speakers for a slightly more acceptable sound.
No, I don’t see myself using the 701 this way yet, for the simple reason it’s not a particularly elegant solution. But when the day comes and I decide to take the Rhapsody plunge (a decision that’s mostly to do with when my two year old will let me listen to the music I’m interested in), something like that may well be implemented at our household.
Unless, of course, enough time passes and boom boxes tailor made to use the internet come out and rid this world of the current generation of boom boxes tailor made for iPods/iPhones.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Sound the Alarm

The is right for this blog to discuss the exotic subject of alarm clocks.
Yours truly has been enjoying the services of cheap digital alarm clocks for years now; almost since I can remember myself. Back in the Forgotten Ages I was using alarm clocks that would wake a dead elephant up whereas today I'm looking for one that would just politely tell me it's time to get up without harassing others, but the point's the same. Lately, though, we've been encountering issues with the less than $10 alarm clock from Aldi we have been using for the past two years: Dylan keeps de-tuning the dial so we wake up to the sound of nothing rather than the sound of stations, while radio reception is generally poor. So we thought we might get another one.
The first thing you notice today when you shop for an alarm clock is that the shops push ones with iPod docks at you. You quickly realize why: they sell for 10 times more than our Aldi one. A quick look at Amazon.com will reveal USA prices are about half of Aussie ones, indicating once again how us Aussies love getting shafted. Still, a person needs an alarm clock.
So, after looking around to see what's on offer, what am I looking for in my future alarm clock?
  1. Radio with digital tuning (as opposed to a dial): That would mean we can easily navigate between stations as opposed to being lazy and have the radio on just one station. It also means there's less room for our two year old to play with the tuning.
  2. Remote control: A remote means we can use the alarm clock as a proper music producing device while in bed. It also means we can stick the alarm clock far from the bed and save some bedside real estate as well as allow whoever wants to get up first with the alarm to run the alarm clock for the night.
  3. 24 hour mode: I hate AM/PM hour displays; as Seinfeld had already said, it's a good way to set your alarm clock to the wrong time. I much prefer a clock with 24 hour display option.
  4. iPod dock: Let me start by saying that I think iPod docks on these alarm clocks / music players are way overrated. For several reasons! First, let's be honest - none of these units has the sound quality to compete with a proper stereo, like the stereo I have in my living room. They all sound shrill and harsh; yes, those that boast the physically impossible quality bass are included in this category (the laws of physics are undeniable: for real bass you need real size).
    Second, there is the compatibility issue: most alarm clocks suit iPods but not iPhones. Check your player's box if you want to avoid like the iPhone not fitting the dock or various annoying sounds as the iPhone's cellular activity is not shielded. As a general rule of thumb, the cheaper players are cheap because they're incompatible with iPhones.
    And third, these docks permanently charge your iPod/iPhone's battery. Given that the iPhone's biggest problem is its miserable battery life, you should try and charge it when it really needs charging as opposed to every time you want to listen to music in your bedroom.
    After all is said and done, I think the iPod dock is a nice to have. It means that when you really want to charge your iPhone you can do it easily with no cable mess. But it's only a nice to have.
  5. Aux sound input: You may think your iPod will still be there through the next millenia but it probably won't. I remember the fate of the CD players that now gather dust or we've already got rid of. If I'm about to spend a three digit figure on a f*cking alarm clock, I want one I will be able to use still use in two years time.
After looking around at the shops we ended up getting a Jensen model for $80 (pictured). It featured everything I've listed above and we got it from Target for almost half the price of the main competition (for the record, JB sells a similar Sony model for $158, a TDK for $130, a Logitech for $140, and an iLuv for $200).
I hear you asking who's Jensen. My answer is that I couldn't care less; all these alarm clocks seem to have been made at the same Chinese factory. You can clearly see that many are very badly built; I haven't mentioned those. But I'm not about to pay Sony double the sum I can pay a brand I remember from car audio stuff that delivers a very similar product.
We used the Jensen for a couple of night, charged my iPhone with it (it's a slow charger, which is excellent for battery life), and we were happy. Until we woke up, that is: the radio alarm, described by the manual as "starting soft and growing gradually louder", scared us shitless. Who was the idiot to design this alarm? Why can't I adjust the alarm volume myself? Features or no features, the Jensen unit was re-packed and returned to Target (who, to their credit, gave me my money back with no questions asked).
We're back to our el-cheapo Aldi alarm clock, a model that will probably survive a full nuclear exchange. I'm still looking for a good deal, but I'll say this: I'd feel quite stupid spending north of a $100 on an alarm clock; $80 is already a gross waste. It's a pity Americans have weird electricity standards...

Monday, 3 May 2010

Of Facebook and Privacy

Facebook and privacy are two concepts constantly getting further and further apart. It’s not due to our ever expanding universe, it’s simply a matter of greed on Facebook’s behalf: as Facebook is getting stronger and establishes its dominance in the internet scene it seeks out more opportunities for cash rather than use its position of power to stand for something.
A couple of weeks ago Facebook has announced it would sell away users’ profile information such as activities and interests to third party looking for advertising opportunities. They used the same opportunity to announce they’ll let third party applications hold on to private Facebook user information for as long as they want, instead of limiting them to one day as before. That’s just the short end of Facebook’s deteriorating standards; read here for the thorough historical perspective.
My reaction? I deleted all my the personal info I did not want to share for someone’s money making behalf off Facebook. Same goes for anything I put in there from now on. Indeed, everything in Facebook should be regarded as very public domain, out there only so that a third party can make a buck out of it; it has nothing to do with you or your friends.

Moving forward, here’s the latest Facebook privacy catch I became aware of. Not because Facebook went public about it but rather through an alert from a friend (thanks, Sarah!):
There is a new privacy setting called "Instant Personalization" which shares data with non-Facebook websites and is automatically set to "Allow." Go to Account -> Privacy Settings -> Applications & Websites -> Instant Personalization and UN-CHECK "Allow". Tell your friends about it, too, because as long as they allow it you’re still exposed.
You can read more about this particular affair here, but for now let us conclude with the inevitable conclusion: Facebook sucks.

Sunday, 2 May 2010

Capitalist Pigs on the Wing

The Age's habit of publishing articles sourced from members of the Institute of Public Affairs always guarantees a good laugh, and the latest from Chris Berg (Capitalism is ruining the planet, and pigs might fly, 2 May 2010) is no exception.
In the article Berg looks at the way capitalism has a butchered pig sold into 150 products, from meat products to antifreeze liquids. This example of the meticulous breakdown of a pig, Berg argues, shows how capitalism and glottalization are sustainable.
Once again the IPA shows us how it is able to come up with rather silly arguments and disguise them in a sexy package. Allow me to demonstrate: Humans have been breaking down oil into hundreds of products for more than a hundred years now. In many respects, the production and the use of oil have been synonymous with capitalism. Yet no sane person can argue that humanity's use of oil is particularly sustainable: oil is a finite resource and the use of oil has been creating environmental and health damages at costs so high we dare not estimate them.
Just give the state of Louisiana a call for further details.