Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Referee's a Human Being

The World Cup’s round of the last 16 is a clear demonstration of our humble human origins. Out of the round’s 8 matches I got to watch 6, and in 4 of those 6 I have witnessed refereeing errors that either deprived a well deserved goal or earned an ill conceived one:
  1. England – Germany: A perfectly legal Lamprad strike denied England from equaling the score to 2:2, which could have changed the game’s flow and stop German dominance.
  2. Argentina – Mexico: Argentina’s first goal from Tevez was scored from an incredibly obvious offside position and ruined Mexico’s game plan.
  3. Netherlands – Slovakia: Slovakia was wrongly awarded with a penalty kick that was converted into a goal. Granted, the penalty didn’t affect the outcome as it was the last move of the match and only served to cut the Dutch advantage, but the yellow card given to the Dutch goalkeeper might have an effect later down the tournament.
  4. Portugal – Spain: Silva’s winning goal for Spain was scored from an obvious offside position (unless Xavi didn't hit the ball with his attempted flick; I think he did). Interestingly, the replays never bothered to show us an offside line to make the call, the way they usually do; I was only made aware of the problem while watching a YouTube replay. I wonder if FIFA has implemented a policy of shutting down our right to make our own minds up regarding offside calls.

Given the abundance of bad critical calls there are the expected “referee’s a wanker” comments all over the place. While those calls are probably correct, technically speaking (the referees are humans, after all), I am of the opinion these calls are off the mark. The referees are humans, after all, and like all humans they jerk off and they make mistakes. Instead of blaming the messenger, football requires a revision of the way games are being refereed.
FIFA has always been known to object to such changes under the argument that adding TV replays and/or an armada of additional referees would prevent the game from being played the same way all over the world, given that not everyone will be able to follow the more resource demanding solutions to the problem. I agree there is some merit to FIFA’s claim, but I suggest a workaround: tie the level of refereeing to what’s at stake. Use a TV referee at the World Cup and the Champions League, but keep to the current refereeing regime for Hapoel Beer Sheba’s league games.
Let’s face it, judging by the sample given to us by the World Cup’s round of 16, the results of football games are determined by a lot of things. Merit is not one of those things half the time, which means luck is the major factor the other half of the time. If that is the case and luck is the determining factor when it comes to winning a football game then what use are rules in the first place? Under such circumstances the offside rule, to point at one ongoing football law enforcement issue, is just as useful as the rule that says Australians are only allowed to record off the air TV contents in order to watch it once: it's a non enforceable rule that everyone breaks.

Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Bad Start

Julia Gillard's prime ministership is off to a bad start. One of the areas that screamed most for a changeover from Rudd's era was Labor's internet censorship program, spearheaded by Labor's special Minister for Censorship Affairs, Stephen Conroy; yet while I and plenty of others in the blogosphere were waiting with much angst to see Gillard substituting Conroy for someone with a brain cell or two she chose to keep him in place.
That's one bad. The next bad came from the horse's mouth when Conroy was interviewed (here for the video version and here for the transcript). When asked about the Greens' proposal to enable an opt out option from internet censorship, Conroy's reponse was: "I'm not into opting into child porn".
As far as I'm concerned, that says it all. If Conroy is making me into a pedophile just because I would prefer to not have anyone looking over my shoulder as I use the internet then I have no conscious problem whatsoever in saying this:

Stephen Conroy is a stupid asshole

Julia Gillard should help us rid of this scum instead of supporting him. As long as she does support him and his beloved filter, she and her Labor party can kiss my vote away.

Monday, 28 June 2010

All's Relative

I want to dedicate this post to some basic popular science stuff; I feel it is necessary given the regular frustration I feel whenever the blatant ignorance of too many people around me in the basics of the theory of evolution becomes apparent. No wonder this happens; between religion, bad science education, and a culture that still regards humans as the center of the universe one cannot blame people for being ignorant; one can only try and educate, even if by a tiny bit.
To sum up what I would like to say, I'll start by stating what should be obvious: we are all relatives. I don't just mean that you and your mother are relatives; I mean the following:
  • You and every other human being that ever lived are relatives.
  • You and that chimpanzee you see in the zoo are relatives.
  • You and your pet dog are relatives.
  • You and the dinosaur whose fossil you see at the museum are relatives.
  • You and the fish you had for dinner are relatives.
  • You and the potatoes that made the chips you ate with that fish are relatives.
  • You and an e-coli bacteria are relatives.
The point is simple: every living thing identified upon this planet thus far shares a common ancestor with all other living things. In the case of you and the chimp, that common ancestor of ours is your great-great-great grandfather that lived around some six million years ago and probably looked very ape like (not that we don't look ape like; we are an ape type); that grandfather also happens to be the chimp's great-great-great grandfather, only on the other side of the family.
In the case of you and and your dog, that greater great-great-great grandfather of yours that lived some hundred million years ago (give or take; feel free refer to The Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins for more refined estimates). That common ancestor probably looked like some sort of a shrew and it probably spent its life hiding from dinosaurs.
The same applies elsewhere, only that for your common ancestor with the potato you need to go significantly further in time; for the e-coli common ancestor you need to go back billions of years.

How do I know that? There's plenty of evidence to support all of the above, but the most effective way to demonstrate the certainty of the above is through a basic thought experiment.
Consider the following two facts, about which there is no controversy:
  1. Living things are complicated. Given their complexity they don't just pop up; we need to go through great lengths to explain how they come about. In other words, the probability for life just spontaneously appearing is small.
  2. All the living things we know use the same genetic code.
Now, consider this: If not all living things are related to one another, that immediately implies that life on earth has started twice or more. Not only that, those two or more living systems have evolved to have the exact same genetic code. Given that the probability for that happening is so incredibly small we can and should rule it out as impossible, which therefore leaves us with the inevitable conclusion that we are all relatives and that life as we know it has risen only once.

Scientists at the David Hillis lab came up with a radial tree of life (the above drawing) that shows exactly how, according to the evidence before us, all living things are related. Note how "mammals", the branch us humans belong to, are just another one of many branches along the tree of life. We're so elusive it takes time to find us!
This brings me to the conclusions we should be deriving from this true view of ourselves as one of many related living beings upon this planet. When living things are presented in a form such as the radial tree of life one is unable to identify any special supremacy in human beings compared to other living things. We like to think of ourselves as the pinnacle of "creation", but the reality is that we're just one branch. If anything, it's the microbes that are ruling this world, and they'll continue to be here long after we're past our due date: did you know, for example, that the number of microbes in the seas is estimated at 36,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000? Our population of near seven billion appears a bit shy next to such a vast number.
My point is simple: when we look at the world through the correct evidence based view where all living beings are relatives of equal merit, the world looks different. Us chopping down trees, us treating the animals we eat in horrendous ways... Suddenly all these things appear bad. You wouldn't do them to your cousin, so why are you doing them to your remote cousin?

Saturday, 26 June 2010

A Fool's Prophecy

Now that the World Cup's group stage is over, allow me to present my preference for the final before thee.
No, I suspect it won't happen, and I don't even know whether it is theoretically possible given the draw, but I would love to have a final between Argentina and Spain. I predict Argentina would win after Messi finally ends his World Cup goal drought.
That said, given the unlikely nature of my prediction actually taking place, I would like to state that I'd be happy with any team playing positive football progressing through the stages. Given that we got rid of Italy and France already, the prospects for that are quite positive.

Thursday, 24 June 2010

These are the Days of Miracle and Thunder

The ousting of Kevin Rudd and his replacement by Julia Gillard as our new Prime Minister came as if to prove my point concerning the lesser value conventional journalism is playing in our lives. Twitter was already running the coup story for hours while the ABC only had a small item on their website when the major TV networks interrupted their usual programs to discuss the revolution. And the printed media? Their websites had nothing till much later; this morning's headlines are far from delivering in the facts department either.
The evidence is there for all to see. In a world where any individual can immediately report and widely distribute news, as Twitter kindly allows, we do not need a central authority to do the same for us. These days we don't even need that red phone line: even Barrack Obama (@BarrackObama) and Medvedev (@KremlinRussia_E) are exchanging tweets.
No, I'm not saying we should get rid of newspapers; I'm saying that newspapers' role is now primarily in uncovering the hidden stuff, something they have been proving to be quite incapable of doing (at least in Australia). That, and the provision of analysis to the news, as in moderating social debate, are their main roles in a healthy modern web literate society. What they no longer are is a monopoly on delivering the news to you first.

With that said about the delivery of news, what do I make of Julia Gillard as our new PM?
For a start I have to say I am no particular Julia fan. As Education Minister she oversaw the inefficient investment of money into school facilities through the spending stimulus that could, with some foresight, have been spent much better. As billions of dollars don't come easy this was a major wasted opportunity. Her other main achievement was the public ranking of schools, a move that international experience indicates to be more of a society polarizer than a contributor to a healthy one.
That said, Gillard is a billion times better than Tony Abbott (so much so I feel bad for making the comparison in the first place). As for Rudd, he's had his chance, and were he to do a little less conversation and a little more action he might have done well. He didn't, though, and especially with the handling of climate change he stagnated things with his worse than doing nothing Emissions Trading Scheme.
Forget about all the comparisons and past records, though: Australia finally has a dick-less Prime Minister, and for that 50% of the population without dicks this has to mean something. It certainly does mean something to me when I see a leader emerging from one of the most discriminated against demographics. Australia, welcome to the twentieth century!

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

The Great Political Debate

A debate between Australia’s Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, and Australia’s would be Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, was held last night. Surely you’ve heard about it; how can such a major debate be kept unheard of?
Well, it can. It can because the debate was accessible to Christian churches and church organizations alone; in order to view it you had to find a church broadcasting it near you.
Sure, I’m annoyed that Australia’s leaders are conducting their debates before a crowd made exclusive solely through their accident of birth. Sure, I’m also generally annoyed by the Australian Christian Lobby because of the wide gulf between our political views. Yet I will concede that Rudd and Abbott have every right to debate whenever they feel like and choose the crowd before which they do their debating.
No, the thing that annoys me the most about this debate is the way it was kept quiet. It’s not like the debate dealt exclusively with purely Christian affairs and had no interest to the general Australian public: On the agenda were the handling of asylum seekers, abortion policies and education, issues at the focal point of public attention. If this debate was to be held in any other way it would have been headline news; instead it’s passing by with hardly anyone aware of it taking place.

Where did I hear about this debate? On a blog, here, to which I was referred through Twitter. This indicates two things to me:
1. That, as I previously discussed here, what passes for journalism in Australia is a pathetic joke. Australian media is so poorly resourced it has to rely on media releases rather than investigative journalism, and those media releases are under the total control of spin masters.
2. As people and their democracy lose power to the Murdochs and their likes who control our weak media, they hunger for bigger and better things. Currently, their answer lies in the blogosphere, with Twitter being the main distribution facility.
The power of knowledge and its maintenance is in the process of shifting from the central authorities of old to individuals, and this is facilitated through that tool called the Internet. This power shift is not only a nice to have, it is essential for a healthy society made ill through the corruption that too much money brings into affairs.
Obviously, I’m not the only one who figured this power shift out. The likes of Stephen Conroy have seen it before, and this is exactly why he’s waging his quixotic war to censor the internet: at its core, the struggle over the internet is just another struggle to keep old powers powerful; it's extreme conservatism. Nowhere is the battle best represented than with Wikileaks, the organization that exposed Conroy’s list of banned websites and showed how much of a sham it was. Wikileaks have become great heroes of mine, but they’re currently weak and small numbered, especially with US authorities seemingly hunting them down over the knowledge they might have concerning dodgy American operations in the Middle East. While Wikileaks is small and relatively lacking in resources, they are still our flag bearers; in the long term there is no way those old powers chasing them are going to withstand them and the power of the individuals behind them. It comes down to a numbers game, and in this game we will win.
Oh, and it’s not odd at all to note Conroy’s biggest supporter in his crusade to censor the internet is the Australian Christian Lobby. They’re also an old power that’s growing weaker and weaker as people become more and more knowledgeable.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Touched by Piracy

As recently suggested I became a member of the upcoming Melbourne science fiction convention (known as AussieCon4) for the sole purpose of putting my hands on digital copies of all the works nominated for this year's Hugo award, the most prestigious award in the science fiction community. The cost was $59, which I consider to be very good value for money for the amount and variety of material received (including books, short stories and graphic novels).
The question I had in my mind was whether the material is protected by some nasty piece of DRM (Digital Rights Management) installed by the providers to ensure I can't move my books between various computers/readers of mine. Worse, they could have put a nice time bomb that renders the digital files useless after a certain date; say, after voting for this year's Hugo has concluded.
I am happy to report this is not the case. Indeed, all of the downloaded files come with a Read Me file that includes the following statement:
The works in this package are presented without Digital Rights Management because the authors and publishers trust that you will use this Hugo Voters Packet as it was intended -- for yourself, to aid you in your voting for the Hugos and Campbells. Please do not share this Packet with others outside of your household. Your willingness to do this makes a difference in convincing authors and publishers to participate in this packet, both now and in the future. Thank you.
I have to say I'm touched. I'm touched because when a collection of copyright holders is willing to let go of silly DRM nonsense and allow for fair use instead then something good is happening in this world. That, if you ask me, is exactly the way things should be: the contents should be sold for a non greedy price, and the users are allowed to do use what is now theirs without any annoying limitations and without Big Brother looking behind their backs.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

World Cup Brief

This World Cup has seen me twitting with much gust, but I thought a short post here is still due; the privilege of unlimited space to state my claim with is beckoning.
When it comes to earning my support, my heart usually goes out to the teams that play the most attractive football. Traditionally these had been Holland and Brazil, lately to be joined by Spain; however, thus far in the tournament my love lies elsewhere. Holland has been quite boring, Brazil plays way too tactically and its players tend to fall down way too easily (Joga Bonito? Who are they kidding?), and Spain's only game thus far has been quite a spectacular failure (why did they play with just one striker?).
Thus I find myself rooting for other teams this time around. The USA has captured my heart with their fighting spirit; the fact they have been disallowed a proper victory against Slovenia for no particular reason other than bad refereeing has only added to my affection towards this team that seems to always play from behind, as if unable to function otherwise.
However, my biggest love this tournament goes to the team I loved to hate since its invocation of the hand of god; the team I've enjoyed seeing slaughtered by an inspirational goal from Dennis Bergkamp back in 1998. Yes, I'm talking about Argentina, by far the most attractive team of the tournament: I'd love to see them take this one if they continue playing the way they had done so far. My only fear is their obvious susceptibility to weakness when playing a tactical team. On the other hand, the European teams that stand as their biggest challengers tend to fail when playing outside their home continent, so we'll have to see how we go: play for 90 minutes and take it one game at a time. Remember, the ball is round.


One last comment about Australia and Harry Kewell's red card playing Ghana:
Since several people have asked for my opinion as the representative bloody foreigner who knows this game of football better than true blood Aussies, I will state that to my understanding Kewell's red card is well in accordance with football regulations.
However, in my opinion the regulation is stupid and has a record of ruining many a good football game (including Arsenal's only Champions League final a few years ago): Once a penalty has been given there is no need for the red card; a yellow card will do. The red card just ruins the rest of the game as the red carded team cannot match a full squad; what we end up having is no longer a viable sporting competition, which leaves the whole audience penalized and not just the offending team. Straight red cards, in my opinion, should be limited to treating violence.
That said, one cannot expect the referee to apply anything but the written law. Were he to act on common sense he would have never been allowed to referee another match. No, the problem is with FIFA to fix; then again, FIFA is so corrupt we should not hold our breath. FIFA, for example, is the one responsible for introducing a beach ball into World Cup proceedings (aptly named Jabulani, or "balloon" in common English), just so it and Adidas can make a killing. Not only that, they've allowed Germany to have an unfair advantage and play with said beach ball for six months while other countries did not have access to it.
For now, instead of trying to fix the world we should take comfort in the fact Australia's has not been the last football game to be ruined by silly decisions. Statistically speaking, these decisions tend to go in favor of the better teams, which does say something.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Kindled Spirits

Points in time where I change my mind from one side to the other tend to be exciting ones; they make me think a lot. Therefore, this post is dedicated to explaining why I have decided that, on principle, I should get myself a Kindle eBook reader (and why I should be doing so despite all the negative arguments I have raised here and here).
Here are the reasons why I think I should get an eBook reader:
  1. Bulk: Most of my reading is now done on the train. A lot of my books are quite heavy to carry, and a couple of recent acquisitions prove the point. As in, I have no idea how I'm going to read Bill Bryson's At Home or Adrian Johns' Piracy. Both are massive hardbacks.
  2. Space: We're running low on book storage space. It's a good problem to have, but it's still a problem.
  3. Cost: I buy many more books than I can read. Electronic books cost roughly half the price of paper books; it seems as if the cost of the eBook reader itself would be recovered within a few months.
  4. PDF books' availability: Books in the PDF format are becoming more and more available for free or for a relatively minimal payment. I'm not talking about Project Gutenberg style free books only (i.e., books that are no longer copyrighted). I'm talking about things like the Worldcon science fiction convention, taking place in Melbourne this year, offering its members an electronic packet containing all the Hugo award nominees (here); that's a hell of a way to keep oneself up to date with the best of this year's sci-fi crop.
    However, once you download all the packet's PDF files, what do you do with them? Reading from the screen is not a favorable option; it sucks (sorry for stating the obvious, iPad fans). However, reading from a proper eBook reader is a delight.
  5. Book availability: Although this is by far the eBook reader's weakest spot, there is constant improvement. John Scalzi's book The God Engines, for example, has only recently been made available for the Kindle (sadly, it's not available to Aussie Kindle owners yet).
  6. Environment: Getting books on paper and having them shipped across the seas by air means more carbon in the atmosphere than reading their electronic version, even while counting the carbon cost of the eBook reader itself.
  7. Gadget factor: Let's face it, I love to surround myself with the latest technology. Once Google Android tablets ala iPad become available I suspect it wouldn't take long for me to get one, either.
Note having an eBook reader will not imply the death of the printed book. At the risk of repeating myself, most of the books I want to read are not available to me in electronic form. Nor do I want to buy a DRM equipped version of an electronic book that I know I will want to reread, as I probably won't be able to use it in a few years time.

Alright, I've decided that I want an eBook reader. Why a Kindle, then?
  1. Availability: Currently, Amazon has the largest selection of eBooks at its disposal. I don't know if this situation will last, as publishers are afraid of Amazon becoming too powerful (powerful enough to make them redundant). There are also new powerful kids on the block, like Apple and its book store; but again, do I want to read my books on a computer screen, no matter how sexy that screen is? And do I want Steve Jobs to oversee what I can and what I can't read for me?
  2. Reliability: Having played with both the Kindle and the Borders applications for the PC and the iPhone, there can be no doubt as to which application seems better made. The Borders app crashes, is riddled with bugs, and lacks functionality I would consider mandatory on an eBook reader (for example, you can't delete books from your reader).
  3. PDF rendering: Given that I want to upload PDF format books to my eBook reader, the reader's ability to render them properly is important. While the Kindle has a good reputation there, reviews of the Borders reader indicate it cannot be trusted in its PDF rendering.
  4. Book formats: This is actually a negative for the Kindle. As far as DRM book formats are concerned, the Kindle supports only Amazon's own eBook format; most of the rest support the more generic ePub format. If the ePub format turns to rise and rule the market in a few years time, Kindle owners (at least those of the current Kindle models) would be stuck in a corner.
  5. Reader's quality: Build wise, the Kindle is superior to the Borders Kobo reader. It's slicker and feels less like it's going to break in your hands soon.
In conclusion: Am I rushing to buy a Kindle? No; rumor has it Amazon will be releasing new models come August. I'll wait to see what the future holds, hoping the Aussie Dollar doesn't continue on its downward spiral during the upcoming months.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

A Moment in History

Write it down: For the first time since we took it a bit less than seven years ago, our mortgage balance is in the plus side.
Obviously, this does not mean we have repaid our mortgage. Things will go back to the red side once we pay our credit card bills etc, but hey - it does mean we're doing well on the repayment side of things.
Does this mean we will not have a mortgage soon? Not at all; as we are still planning on extending our house we will be withdrawing money back in large quantities that will leave us slaves to the banks for a few decades more.
Still, encouraging news.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Hit the Deck

As I have mentioned recently, one of the challenges a modern day homo sapiens has to deal with is to do with keeping oneself up to date with internet social interactions. In particular, keeping up to date with resources like Facebook and Twitter. Indeed, times are tough.
So far I have been waging this war through my iPhone. However, I have recently started using the PC version of one of my iPhone tools, and like god on Tuesday night, I like what I'm seeing.

My iPhone Twitter experience had me going through several apps, looking for a proper partner. I started with Echofon, moved to Twitterfic and even sampled Twitter's own app (pretty bad); all were less than satisfying in too many respects. Following a friend's recommendation I tried TweetDeck, and from then on, as they say, I haven't looked back.
TweetDeck can be installed on your PC as well as your smartphone. On the PC side of things it can cater for more than Twitter: it allows you to link your Facebook and LinkedIn accounts too, as well as many other forms of social internetting activities. You can filter, list, and do a whole lot of things and it just works great. In particular I like TweetDeck's ability to filter out messages, allowing me to get rid of all those stupid Farmville updates that seem to dominate my friends' Facebook activities.
Most of all, I like TweetDeck's user interface.
Is it flawless? No. TweetDeck's biggest problem is that it's a third party application, so in effect you're letting a third party access your privates, passwords and all. When it comes to Twitter and Facebook I'm fine with that; I have no state secrets there. Do consider security and privacy before taking the plunge, though.
I have installed TweetDeck on my Linux PCs. It's available for Apple and Microsoft suckers, too.

Monday, 14 June 2010

In My Lucid Dreams

Praise is something we usually don't do enough of, so I consider it my duty to bestow my praise on the latest Ubuntu Linux release, Lucid Lynx. This LTS (Long Term Support) version of Ubuntu is, by far, the best operating system I have had the pleasure of working with. True, I don't have much experience with Windows 7, but one cannot ignore Ubuntu's advantages over anything Windows has to offer at the moment: Total lack of viruses and a totally free price tag.
By now I have Lucid Lynx installed on all my PCs, both in the normal desktop version and in the Netbook Remix version that suits netbooks best. Indeed, Lynx shines on my netbooks best: The old Asus Eee PC 701 works just fine with it; everything worked well out of the box, wireless, microphones and webcam included.
It is, however, my other netbook, an Asus Eee PC 1000HE where Lynx truly shines. Ubuntu have finally fixed the driver issues this netbook had suffered, and now its wireless and everything else work like a charm (out of the box!). Couple that with Ubuntu's inherent startup speed (made even faster with Lynx), and finally this netbook of mine can shine where it should have always shone: it's there for all your computing needs, ready for action within 30 seconds or so from the time you switch it on. Compare that to the very lengthy minutes you need to wait for Windows to start, and then the wait as all of its startup programs load; Ubuntu is in a totally different realm, the incredibly usable one.
With an installation that takes less than an hour and is dead simple (again, compare that to Windows); the fact that it just works; the fact it requires minimal maintenance; the fact finding and installing new programs you may require (say, a video editor) takes seconds; the fact most of the applications you will need are already there, installed with the operating system itself; and the fact that it's totally free, you really should give Ubuntu Lynx a try. By now that thought that passed through my head, to spend a bucket-load of money on a Mac just because I can't stand Windows, seems incredibly foolish.
Try Lucid Lynx for size with Google Chrome. You'd be surprised just how quick your PC can be.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

God Shave the Queen

We are celebrating the Queen's birthday in Australia this weekend, even though it's not really her birthday and even though the majority of Australians don't want the Queen as their head of state. While any reason is a good reason to have a long weekend, please allow me to state the obvious:
Like her or not, the Queen will be succeeded by another eventually. Soon enough, we will find ourselves celebrating a Moron's birthday this time of the year.

Yes, I'm talking about that biggest fan of homeopathy, the guy who spends millions of UK tax payers' money on charlatans instead of healthcare, the complete and utter moron Prince Charles. And now you can read about his latest gems here, if you like, where Charles explains that the worlds' problems are all because of the following:
  1. Galileo
  2. Us stopping to refer to the earth as a "she", instead reverting to "it"
  3. Us no longer believing in souls.
So you get where he's heading. Global warming and the rest of our environmental problems would be solved in an instant were we to accept that the sun is orbiting our she planet and that we all turn into happy fairies when we die. Trust Charlie, he knows best.

I therefore consider it my duty to remind the people of the UK that tradition can get you just that far. For example, if you follow tradition to the letter and you happen to be a member of the female half of the population, tradition will get you just as far as the kitchen. In the case of royalty, sticking up to tradition at all costs will get you as far as having a total dumbass as your king.
I really don't understand why you still need this wasteful institution called The Monarchy. Not that Australia is much better.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

It's 1984 in Australia

Just what has gone wrong with the Labor government in Australia?
First there was Stephen Conroy, still doing his best to censor our Internet, China style. And now we are informed the same government is working towards forcing ISPs to record and store our full internet browsing histories. These will be stored for a period likely to be two years if not more.
As usual, the excuse the government comes up with is "protection". This time they're talking about allowing the police to have access to evidence in the form of browsing history. However, since when is everyone to be considered guilty two years or more in advance? What is the difference between recording our internet history and placing a camera over our shoulders wherever we go, other than the latter being more noticeable by the general public and therefore something the government cannot afford to do?
This government of ours is sinking to record low depths with its internet policies. There is absolutely no need for Australia to prove George Orwell right; I, for one, intend to bury Labor at the very bottom of my voting preferences.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

If you make sure you're connected, the writing's on the wall

As we drove to pick his mother up from the train station this evening, my close to three year old son told me: "Abba [that's me], when we wait in the car for mommy to come out of the station, can we watch a video on your iPhone?"
Aside of being able to make quite articulate statements for his age, my son was pointing at a certain inconvenient truth. I always needed some sort of a sophisticated spatula in order to peel me off my computer and the internet, but since the iPhone burst into the scene it had become a virtual part of my hand. There's a good reason for it: with my determination to keep ahead with the stuff that interests me, I find that I need to have a constant link with the internet if only to keep up to date. While it is obvious the iPhone has had a major part in helping me connect with web resources I now consider a part of my daily routine, it is obvious I am aspiring to keep up with more than I can chew.
Check the following rough overview of my daily internet routine:
  1. Google Reader: By far the most useful resource for keeping myself up to date, I use Google Reader to keep myself up to date with my favorite blogs and my favorite friends' web resources, including their photos and home videos.
  2. Twitter: Although I'm over my initial infatuation with Twitter, there can be no denying the fact that by now I learn about the more interesting events taking place in this world through Twitter. With its short SMS like format and the democracy of its message distribution (unlike Facebook, where stuff is only between "friends"), Twitter is by far the most effective meme distribution facility I am aware of.
  3. Boing Boing: Although this is just one of the many blogs I follow using Google Reader, Boing Boing is very much like Twitter in the sense that it is a venue for keeping me up to date with the more interesting things taking place in the world. Unlike Twitter, though, Boing Boing is rich with substance. Examples include the latest scientific discoveries on Titan, the latest Wikileaks escapades, and the latest on copyright legislation in Britain. My favorite writer there is Cory Doctorow, who is an advocate for sharing information (as in an anti copyright advocate); the fact he's also a science fiction author that, true to his word, allows his books to be downloaded for free only excites me further.
  4. Pharyngula: PZ Myers and his scientific blog Pharyngula have been mentioned in this blog many a time and for a very good reason. The combination of Myers' prolific scientific, humanistic and atheistic writing makes for what is clearly my favorite blog.
  5. IT Wire: My daily source of Australian and international IT news.
  6. Sport update: Depending on the sporting event taking place, I get my sporting kick from some of several sources. Most notable are my daily Google News email on the latest Arsenal news and Ronen Dorfan's Hebrew speaking blog on international sports.
  7. The Age: My main source of Australian news. Since there is not much going on in Australian news, I find myself spending most of my time reading their opinions section and the letters to the editor.
  8. The Guradian: Since installing their iPhone app I find this British newspaper irresistible. The mix of relevant news, technology, science and environment updates is second to none. It's just the best credible international source of news I am aware of. I also happen to be developing special affection to their weekly technology podcast.
  9. Haaretz: Simply the best source of Israeli news, in the sense of it being a newspaper with proper values of journalism (as opposed to the more yellowish stuff that prevails all over the world). Given its values it makes for a pretty good international newspaper too, although the inevitable shadow of the Arab-Israeli conflict means too much of the paper is dedicated to covering that. Oh, it's also available in English.
  10. Facebook: By now my least favorite form of being socially aware given its privacy issues and the shallowness that prevails there, Facebook is still a good way to keep up to date with the interest groups I subscribe to even if Twitter does a better job. Like it or not, Facebook is my only connection with some of my friends and family.
Looking at the above list it becomes clear that my need to keep up to date with all of these resources borders into the obsessive compulsive range. Indeed, I admit this pursuit of mine is unsustainable. One way or another I will have to cut down on my internet consumption there, simply because there aren't enough minutes of the day to allow me to do them all. The important thing for me is to recognize the problem and to start taking measures: Facebook has already been significantly relegated, and using Twitter's lists features I was able to narrow down my Twitter consumption as per specific interests.
My closing comment is aimed at those who think that my keeping up to date with the world is a fruitless attempt to catch more than I can grab. My reply to such an argument would be that our world was never as complicated as it is now and never before has so much information been so easily available; arguing I'm obseesive compulsive or anything similar would be a tough call to justify given the undeniable fact our world has grown so complicated that keeping up to date with it has never been as hard as it currently is. Back in Da Vinci's time people were able to specialize in everything; today being a Da Vinci is impossible. Yet this doesn't mean one should avoid trying to become as close to Da Vinci as one can be.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

Memories of 96

1996 was a pivotal year in Israeli history.
Between 1976 and 1992, Israel was led by the right wing Likud party. Likud had one mighty achievement, signing the peace agreements between Israel and Egypt, but other than that it didn't seem to go anywhere towards addressing the Arab-Israeli conflict. What we Israelis did have, as of the eighties' end, was the first Intifada.
At 1992's election the public was fed up and voted for the Israeli Labor party, led by Rabin. Optimism was the rule back then: The Oslo agreements were signed between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel retreated from many areas of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and the Palestinians were finally able to have some sort of self rule, albeit limited.
Then disaster struck. Towards the end of 1995 (or was it early 1996?), Israel was hit by a wave of suicide bombings that took quite a toll and changed the mood of the public. Obviously, the Palestinians wanted more than they had received, but it seemed Israelis were not willing to give them that. Rabin's popularity declined and eventually, during 1996, the ground was set for him to be murdered by a right wing Israeli nut case.
Regression followed. In the election taking place a month or two after Rabin's assassination the Likud party rose to power yet again, led by Benjamin Netanyahu. His election was a shock to every left wing Israeli, including yours truly. His achievements were rather miserable: Highlights of his reign included riots breaking as a result of Israel opening tunnels under the Temple Mount for tourism, a move Arab interpreted as Israel taking ownership of the holy places. Currently back at Israel's helm, Netanyahu's latest highlight is the Flotilla affair.
Most of all, though, I suspect the pages of history will remember Netanyahu as a leader who took Israel back from the position of a leading initiator of peace to a jealous holder of land it presumes its own.

History, it seems, has a way of repeating itself. My impression is that Australia is now standing at a crossroad not dissimilar to the one Israelis faced back in 1996.
After more than ten years in power, Australia's Howard so called Liberal government was finally kicked out of office in 2007. In my view, this reign was a symbol of xenophobia and regression hidden under the camouflage of financial success that was mostly the result of global prosperity. Besides, that financial success did not materialize in anything other than making the rich richer.
Thus when Kevin Rudd burst into the scene, promising to transform the face of Australia from the negative into a positive and welcoming society he was warmly elected. One of Rudd's main attractions was his promise to deal with global warming, and indeed he seemed to deliver at first: immediately upon coming into office Rudd ratified the Kyoto agreement.
Since then, however, Rudd seems to have been nothing more than a burst balloon quickly running out of air. His Emissions Trading Scheme failed to pass, and rightly so; it was pathetic. Now, with Labor stating it will not pursue global warming initiatives till 2013, the public is abandoning Rudd - and Labor.
The result? The latest polls show that if elections were to be held today the Liberals would win. As much as I despise Rudd for his lack of spine, the thought of the Liberal leader Tony Abbott standing at the helm of Australia sends shivers through my spine. It clearly reminds me of the shivers I had felt in 1996, when Netanyahu was elected, shivers that were shared by many others (I remember the radio playing R.E.M.'s "It's the end of the world as we know it" way too often back then).
The people who are serious in their intentions to vote for Abbott because they're disappointed with Rudd are either seriously dumb or ignorant. These people seem to have forgotten what Tony Abbott really stands for. Read this excellent article by Leslie Cannold for a summary of what Abbott stands for and see if you can really bring yourself to vote for the guy.
Most importantly, remember that Australia's preferential voting system allows you to pick and choose exactly who you want to see in power. If you're disappointed with Rudd, as you should be, there are other alternatives; you don't have to go from bad to worse. Australia's politic scene is more than a two horse race.

Friday, 4 June 2010

State of Disinformation

Israel has a lot to answer for after this Flotilla week. Ignoring the whole affair of Israel taking control over the ships/boats under the justification of protecting its naval blockade on Gaza, I find myself forced to question Israel’s behavior during the aftermath. Especially its behavior on the Australian side of things. Yes, Australia: Through its actions, Israel has made Australia an active partner in the Flotilla events.
As a part of it taking control over the Flotilla convoy, Israel also took four Australian journalists from the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper under its custody. For the record, The Sydney Morning Herald is probably Australia’s most respected newspaper together with Melbourne’s The Age: both are owned by the same company, Fairfax, and in effect they are some sort of non identical twins. Amongst the four journalists was also Paul McGeough, a veteran Middle East reporter with a lot of well earned respect for his work in Australia.
By custody I am implying that Israel put these four journalists under arrest. Shortly after the four were arrested it was leaked Israel had offered them to choose between immediate deportation or extended arrest. They chose the latter, as they should: why should a reporter be arrested in the first place, and then threatened with deportation, is beyond me. You can read about this stage of the reports' arrest here.
A couple of days later it turned out one of the four was tasered during the mayhem and suffered some injuries. I can actually see how, in the chaotic conditions that prevailed, innocent people can get hurt; I don’t justify it but I can imagine how the soldiers being pressed had a hard time determining who’s who in all the chaos. What I simply fail to understand is why the reporters, all four of them, ended up being deported from Israel to Turkey like everyone else on the convoy. Why doesn’t Israel recognize the very legitimate right of reporters to do their work? As a country continuously boasting it being the only democracy in the Middle East, isn’t Israel aware of the importance reporters have in maintaining the very fabric of democracy? Or is the entire world expected to take Israel’s own word as the sole source of truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
Now that the journalists have been freed they can actually do their reporting. You can read McGeough’s report in today’s The Age here. Notice how McGeough's first person reports are quite limited; the majority of his report is made of eyewitness accounts he was able to collect while imprisoned by Israel together with the rest of the Flotilla’s participants. What, then, did Israel gain out of imprisoning them if it only resulted in the reporter being able to collect battle stories much easier than he would otherwise?
The peak of the crop, when it comes to Israel’s behavior towards the Aussie journalists, has to be the way it tried to confiscate photographic evidence of the Flotilla events from the hands of reporter Kate Geraghty (read here). What does Israel have to hide if it needs to strip search a legitimate reporter from a friendly country in order to confiscate her camera's memory cards?

When presented with all the above evidence I cannot avoid the conclusion that Israel’s behavior is more along the lines of George Orwell’s Ministry of Truth than they are in accordance with Israel’s supposedly democratic values.
I feel genuine shame for carrying an Israeli passport.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

What do you make of the mining super tax?

Back in Israel, political debates were everywhere. Part of the reason people there communicate by shouting at one another is to do with half their communications being fierce political debates. If you stay with an Israeli in the same room for more than ten minutes, chances are you would know what their political opinion is on everything from the Arab-Israeli conflict to acupuncture. Alternatively, you can look at Facebook: Many of my Israeli friends have posted comments regarding the recent boat incident off Gaza’s shores. My question is, when was the last time an Aussie other than a political activist put a political comment on Facebook?
Researchers will have to go back to before the recent ice age for such a find. As it is, Aussies tend to keep their opinions to themselves: With all the places I have worked and with all my Aussie friends, I am simply unable to predict who any of the Aussie colleagues I work with vote for. My next question is then: is it good for Aussies to keep themselves out of political debates as fiercely as Israelis put themselves into such debates?
Well, here is a point where I am on the Israeli side of things (for a change). I am of the opinion that political debate is necessary for healthy democracy. Sure, the way it’s done in Israel is often if not usually unhealthy: there is little respect for others’ opinions and those who do not conform to popular opinions are rejected, often by force. Yet this does not mean arguments are bad; it means that we need to manage our arguments properly when we hold them, and hold them we should.
We should hold them because otherwise the leading debates are the debates dictated to us by the media. The media, on its own, is rarely the initiator of debates; as discussed here, Aussie media in particular is stupidly weak and lacks the resources for adequate inquisitive journalism. Instead, the debate is led by interest groups, most of which are either closely affiliated to self interested politicians or closely affiliated to self interested “let’s make tons of money” business groups. Or, for that matter, a combination of the two. To put it bluntly, when no one takes interest in stirring a debate, the debate is led by spin.

Look at Australia’s hottest topic of debate at the moment: the government’s proposed super mining tax. A few weeks ago the government came up with this initiative based on the Henry Review’s recommendations. Henry is a justifiably well respected public servant who was in charge of coming up with revisions to Australia’s tax system. He came up with the goods one weekend a couple of months ago; our PM and Treasurer took to a dirty weekend together and decided which of the recommendations to implement. Should they implement the recommendations that would really improve the life of Aussies, such as tax initiatives that would make housing affordable? No, that’s too hard and would virtually guarantee Labor losing the next elections. No, our pair chose the super mining tax as their pet, a tax that would force mining companies to dig up to 40% extra off their earnings into government coffers. They chose the populist move, and the primary reason for them doing so was the perception that taking money out of the big companies and putting them in the back pockets of the average Aussies would earn them votes. It's all about getting re-elected.
Was Rudd and Swan’s choice of this tax initiative over others ever debated? No.
The next thing we knew, the Liberal party announced it’s against the new mining tax. The newspapers quickly told us of the fact the Liberals receive significant donations from the mining companies, but that was it. Since then the Australian public is being repeatedly bombarded with conflicting messages from both sides, often financed by tax payer money: The mining companies and their Liberal partners claim the tax would ruin the industry and send operations elsewhere, leaving Aussies unemployed, the share market at a slump, and super pension funds in the red. In contrast, the government argues Aussies should get a fairer share in return for the resources they own. Who is right?
I have some very firm opinions on who is right in this debate, but then again I’m a left winger with socialist tendencies. I also prefer my environment intact, uranium and coal included. That, however, is beside the point: the point is that the average Aussie’s only sources of information when it comes to forming an opinion on this most important of matters, judging by newspapers headlines, is spin. There is no room for objective observations; it's all about spin, spin generated by self interest groups. Self interest groups who are allowed to take control over the debate simply because no one else volunteers to take part in the debate.
And these people, who have not much of a chance of forming an opinion based on facts without making a substantial effort (of the type the average Joe would prefer to avoid), these people vote. And that’s how we get our so called democracy.

That’s it for the superficiality of the Aussie political debate. The next thing I would like to look at is the issue of what gets debated in the first place.
I already mentioned the lack of debate on which of Henry’s recommendations are to be implemented. I will go further and argue that the items on the Australian’s debate table are there mostly to distract us from the things “they” – the self interest groups – don’t want you to discuss.
As in, every day in which the debate focuses on the Great Mining Tax is a day business as usual affairs can continue with regards to issues of much higher importance. Issues like climate change.
Think about the following as you’re contemplating mining taxes:
  1. Victoria, a state the size of the whole UK, can cut it’s electricity bill by thirty percent just like that. Given that Victoria’s electricity is generated through brown coal, by far the most contaminative energy source on the planet (carbon emissions wise), that cut would be significant – a billion gazillion more significant than you unplugging your mobile phone charger when not in use or, for that matter, switching your air-con off. All this can be achieved by Victoria stopping the supply of electricity to Alcoa, an aluminum smelter company. Alcoa employs some 750 employees in Victoria, so these should be taken care of; but instead Alcoa is dismissed out of public debate.
  2. The world’s most contaminative power station, Victoria’s Hazelwood, is not only allowed to run but recently had its lifeline extended for a few decades more. Where was the debate on that decision? Oh, wait a minute: there was not much of a debate because the Victorian government came up with new legislation preventing protests near major power stations. Did you ever hear about the debate concerning this legislation, actively allowing the government to subdue debate in the first place?
  3. Victoria is busy building a water desalination plant it doesn’t need at the cost of billions of tax funded dollars. When asked about the eventual cost of water to the end consumer, the government gets away with blatant lies and easily manages to avoid debating the issues. Why? Because the questions come from Greens politicians perceived to belong to in the fringes, while both big parties – Labor and Liberals – are dead silent in serving their affiliated interest groups. For further info, read here.
  4. Labor and its cunning agent Stephen Conroy are still firmly working towards censoring our internet. For a change, they’re in for quite a fight this time from various public groups; yet it is highly likely that they’d be able to get away with their initiative and actually implement it – putting Australia in the same club as China and Iran – just in order to satisfy the Australian Christian Lobby, which could earn them a few more votes at marginal seats and get them re-elected. The reason why Labor can get away with it is simple: the apathy of the majority of the distracted Aussie public. For further evidence, note how Conroy always times his announcements to coincide with other major news items or during public holidays when everyone’s ears are off.

My point with all of the above is simple. It’s time for Australia to wake up from its indifference. Australia is a good place to live in, but we should stop looking no further than our own back pockets when making political decisions; we should be involved with them. Do you really need to wait until you’re asked to pay $4000 for your home’s water bill before you wake up? Do you really want to wait till you’re out of a job because the world has moved on to sustainable energy sources while Australia continued to rely on coal for too long?
We should have political debate. We desperately need a culture of open debating.