Saturday, 31 July 2010

Party Poopers

There’s something going on with key figures in the Australian Labor Party (ALP), something that makes you think about what this party does to the heads of its members. The record speaks for itself:
First we had Peter Garrett, famous for his stand on the environment and aboriginal rights, lost all traces of ever being a greenie (as discussed here and here).
Then we had Stephen Conroy establish himself well and truly as the Minister for Censorship, so much so he won an international award for Internet Villain of the Year. Conroy’s mightiest intellectual achievement thus far has been labelling otherwise decent members of society, yours truly included, as pedophiles.
Last week we had our Minister Climate Change, Penny Wong, who previously won her fame by doing absolutely nothing on the global warming front, come out against gay marriage. The catch is that she’s gay herself, which makes me proud to know a gay person can become a minister in my government but also makes me sad to see what a gay person needs to do in order to keep her position of power. Later on Wong tried to spin herself out of the rather irrational corner she found herself stuck in by claiming she suffered discrimination as a gay woman, but hey – you’re still contradicting yourself, Penny.

The above serves to provide empirical evidence to the claim that the Labor party is no place for progressive thinkers. If anything, it’s shaping up to be a second grade lunatic asylum shaped in the model of Australia’s Liberal Party.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Set my trains free

Today, the citizens of Melbourne all enjoyed a day of free Metro train rides: it was a compensation for the havoc caused on Tuesday, when a train stuck at a critical position due to a power cable's fault caused the entire network to die for a few hours (and caused us to spend hours of that day in stop-and-go traffic).
Let's have a think:
  • According to the news, the cost of that free train ride day was a million dollars (read here).
  • The cost of the Melbourne's Myki ticketing system is now estimated to be around 1.3 billion dollars (read here and here for just a couple of examples of the project's cost estimate).
  • Now let's do the math: If our government was to avoid running a ticketing system and instead opt to turn Melbourne into a free for all train network, we could have had 1300 days of free rides without feeling any financial difference from where we actually are now.
That's three and a half years of free public transport! Not to mention the other benefits a move like this would have brought Melbourne, from greenhouse emission reductions through making ticket inspectors redundant. But that's fantasy land I'm stuck in here; in real life, we're all stuck with a state government whose last priority is to provide the public good service.

Thursday, 29 July 2010

R-Wards 4

As per my usual habit, I celebrate the birthday of my reviews blog (R-Views) with a post duplicated here that is dedicated to the best I have watched and read over the following year. This particular child of mine, R-Views, is four years old today, by the way; I wonder how long it will last.
For now, Enjoy...

Four years on and north of five hundred reviews under its belt, this blog is still going strong. This past year didn’t see to many new developments under the sun: by now we grew so accustomed to high definition as to consider it normal, which implies taking a dislike to standard definition. As for the latest buzz, 3D? I think it’s going to be a buzz for a while yet.
With that in mind, it’s time to award the best I have encountered during this blog’s fourth year with the much coveted R-Wards, the most prestigious rewards ever granted by this blog.

Best film:
We have had the pleasure of watching many good films this past year (and many bad ones, but let’s focus on the positive). Last Chance Harvey was the first film I really liked this year with its superb acting and The Boys Are Back demonstrated the distance between the truly well made films and those vying for formal recognition in the shape of Academy Awards and their likes.
With the dust settled, this past year shall be remembered as a year of rejuvenates science fiction. District 9 was clearly the best film I have watched this year (and the film I have voted for in this year’s Hugo awards), with the low budget Moon not too far behind. However, quality isn’t everything, and I’m giving my award away to Avatar. Undoubtedly, Avatar is a mediocre film, but it is also the film through which this past year will be remembered for years to come.

Best book:
Through the combined influence of friends, films and me seeking greener pastures, this year saw a bit of a comeback with my science fiction reading. Of the sci-fi I got to read this year, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein was the best. In fact, it is one of the better books I have ever read.
Yet I will hand the award over to The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton. The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work earns the prize for two main reasons: For a start, it was a pleasurable read from start to finish and a reminder of why I like de Botton. Second, and more importantly, it is the only book I know that deals with the basic idea of the activity I spend most of my wakeful time on – work. The fact that it is alone in the field, as well as scarily relevant, makes this one a unique read. In addition, the accompanying photos from Richard Baker are worth mentioning by their own rights. If you doubt me, think about this: does anyone really care about the stuff you do at work, in the sense of the legacy you’re leaving for generations to come? Can you really look back and say that you’re proud of what you’ve achieved? I doubt any office worker can.

Best on TV:
I cannot say this has been a good year for TV programs. We’ve watched the same recycled "good" old stuff and we became more an more frustrated with the material broadcast on commercial TV; so much so we’ve abandoned it altogether.
The light at the end of the long tunnel came from the likes of John Adams, a mini series on the life of the USA’s second president. I liked it because it didn’t try to glorify and it didn’t try to hide the ugly teeth or the poor hygiene; instead it showed the man as a human being.
Most of all, I liked a couple of smart local comedies aired by ABC. 30 Seconds was a good parody on the advertising world that, in the manner of all good parodies, actually teaches you quite a lot. My winner, though, is Lowdown, a series about a tabloid journalist and his photographer friend. It was sarcastic to the bone, providing healthy criticism on our culture and especially on our celebrity worship. A lot of my affection to Lowdown comes from it being shot in Melbourne, but it also won points through Nick Cave’s title music song, There She Goes My Beautiful World.

Lifetime achievement R-Ward:
If this was the year of science fiction then this was also the year Jane Austen grabbed my attention. During this year we’ve watched everything related to Austen that I could put my hands on; I even read Austen stuff even though she’s not my regular cup of tea. The selection includes:
Of the above, my favorite by far is Pride and Prejudice. The choice is obvious: it has the best “feel good” factor with a rugs to riches story that makes everyone feel like they can own a Pemberley, and its heroes are easy to identify with. Of the different Prides and Prejudices, the one I like the most - more than the original book and by quite a big margin - is the 1995 TV version featuring Colin Firth. However, to give credit where credit is due, the lifetime achievement reward for this year goes to Jane Austen.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Our tax money, not at work

Australia federal government's funding of chaplains for public schools has been previously discussed in this blog (here and here). With elections coming up and with me learning a few more things about NSCP (National School Chaplaincy Programme) phenomenon, I thought the time is right the shed a bit more light into this mote in Australian society’s eye.

One of the justifications made for the chaplain program is to provide schools with tools to deal with school bullying. With that in mind, reading the submission made on behalf of the The Australian Psychological Society to the government (here) makes for some first rate reading: the psychologists – the undisputed professional authority for dealing with issues such as bullying – virtually tear the NSCP program apart with criticism as they point out the numerous problems introduced when untrained people – chaplains – are allowed to deal with problems that deserve the utmost professionalism. Religion, the pros claim, does not solve bullying; the money should go elsewhere.
Yet Australian media won’t deal with this potential political bombshell.

Next we move on to a government funding report (here), telling us of schools that won chaplain funding. Noticeable in this list is Xavier College, a prestigious private Catholic school. When it comes to funding, Xavier is not exactly your neediest school around; if anything, it sits on one of Australia’s most expensive bits of real estate at Kew.
Yet poor old Xavier still asked for (and received) $60,000 to fund a commodity that it should have more than enough of already in a Catholic school: a chaplain. Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? Our government sure knows where we can make the most of our buck when it comes to our children’s education, doesn’t it?
Yet Australian media won’t deal with this potential political bombshell.

What can we take out of this?Seante's
In an environment where the opposition is hungry for more government financial fumbles it is clear that the above should have been made a meal of. But that didn’t happen, because too many people, both in politics and in the media, want the government money to go to the religious organizations behind the NSCP. It seems our government's purpose is to take care of their mates; if children's education comes in the way, who cares.
What can we do about it? That’s simple: we vote for parties do dare speak their minds against this vile program to damage our kids. These include The Secular Party, The Australian Democrats, The Australian Sex Party, and The Greens. Sadly, the latter do not seem to have a formal policy on the matter, even if from time to time they do create some noise; it would be nice if this party that claims the Senate's balance of power goes that one extra step towards maturity.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

The subscription we had to have

Back in February, The Age newspaper made me an offer I couldn't resist: receive their newspaper from Thursday to Sunday each week for duration of the upcoming year at a cost of $52. When a midweek edition of The Age normally costs $1.50, and when I always buy Thursday's edition for the sake of the Green Guide, this was a deal I couldn't resist. Now, a good few months later, what effect did this subscription have?
The first effect of this subscription has been the infliction of further damage to my book reading habits, with a significant part of the weekend being spent on reading a newspaper I was well capable of ignoring before just because I didn't have it at my disposal. Thing is, I didn't really want it at my disposal; once it turned out at my doorstep, though, it felt bad to waste it.
The second effect was me noticing just how bad weekend newspapers are. The majority of these editions have nothing to do with news and all to do with trying to sell you stuff, usually by either scaring you or by establishing status symbols. As in, Mr So and So goes lives in a five bedroom penthouse because he's just so good at his work; why aren't you in a similar penthouse, sitting on a similar European designed sofa to his? And why aren't you shopping at the same shops he does? Yep, weekend newspapers are not for the rational amongst us.
The third effect was the obviously needed corrective one. As there is no point to the weekend newspapers, and as they just hurt my proper reading, I slowly got to the point where I mainly ignore them. I still read my favorite part of the paper, readers' letters and opinion articles (which I otherwise read over the Internet), but that is pretty much it.

It is therefore funny to observe the overall effect my subscription to The Age has had on me. From someone who would gobble up the Thursday edition from start to finish I have turned into someone that just skims the paper. Too much of something, even a good thing, is still too much.
There are other reasons for my newspaper fatigue, though, and these come down to one simple fact: there is not that much news going on in Australia's newspapers anyway. The problem is not the newspapers' fault entirely; it is to do with the ongoing debate in Aussie society, which is pretty much led by spin and is all about the less important things. The papers are only at fault for their conservatism in supporting the status-quo instead of trying to improve it.
Take, for example, today's televised election debate between the two leaders claiming for Australia's Prime Minister office: I listened to what the two had to say but I was unable to detect a debate there; what I did hear is two spineless clowns repeating the same slogans they've been stuffing down our throats for a while now. The so called "debate" proved to be a totally redundant way to spend one's Sunday night.
If you think that was bad, wait for the real horror coming in straight after the debate. The ABC interviewed a seemingly normal guy in his forties about the debate, and he said that the most important issue for these upcoming elections is - wait for it - asylum seekers. Yes, you heard it right: Average Joe thinks global warming and climate change are altogether insignificant when compared to the massive influx of some 1,500 refugees crowding up our shores each year. If these are the people I need to share this continent with, and if that is the debate we're having, then it's no wonder I'm losing interest. These elections are a joke!
Things come down to this: Australia's hope lies in the Greens getting enough votes to acquire the Senate's balance of power, because having things go the way of the bigger two parties would mean we'll be well on our way towards becoming a banana republic. Sorry, monarchy.

Saturday, 24 July 2010

The MacMan

Gary Barker is a regular columnist for The Age, writing his weekly Apple column on Thursday’s Live Wire section (only some of his paper columns make it to the website). As one can expect out of a columnist dedicated to Apple affairs, Barker is an all out Apple fanboy, in a way which emphasizes all the bad connotations that term was meant to imply. That is, if you’re after pro Apple propaganda, you can’t do worse than read Barker’s column.
Personally, I skim through the column regularly, because in between the pro Apple PR there is the occasional bit of useful information. For example, it was through Barker that I learned about useful and wonderful iPhone apps such as Pulse. Yet Barker seems to be outdoing himself lately, which is why I thought it worth pointing out the dangers on deluding oneself with Apple fandom and what that fandom can do to a previously well operating mind.

A few weeks ago, Barker’s column was discussing Apple’s control over the contents of its iTunes shop. Sadly I can't find an electronic version for this article, which concluded with a statement saying that we all need to have the contents we consume edited and that it’s good to have someone [like Apple] do so for us.
So, Mr Barker, Apple is some sort of an uber-human that is capable of knowing what is good and what is bad for us better than we do? Why is it, exactly, that adults can’t determine these things for themselves without Apple’s “help”?
Sorry, Barker, but you should go and read your Orwell before you continue writing stupid things on your column.

This week, on yesterday’s column, Barker told us of the wonders of the iPad again. His focus was on its portability and ability to replace a laptop while travelling for work: it can run limited MS-Office like applications, and you can even run your presentations using an iPad if you have Apple’s special VGA extension cord for the iPad.
Wow, Barker, you’re so brilliant! But have you heard of an invention that has been with us for three years now called the “netbook”? It can run the real office applications, it has a VGA output built in, it weighs as much as your iPad, and it has a proper keyboard. Oh, it also costs half as much as your iPad.
You have to be totally nuts to consider an iPad better than a netbook for general office uses like editing documents and managing spreadsheets. That is, you have to be an Apple fanboy.
Oh, and in case your trouble with netbooks is that they don’t run the Mac OS: neither does the iPad. Still, hardware wise, netbooks should be perfectly capable of running the full on Mac OS (albeit without the greatest performance ever) if Apple was to abandon its freak control policy and let netbooks do so. But Apple doesn’t.
Barker is so deluded as to ignore the whole netbook phenomenon for one simple reason: Apple doesn’t sell one.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Bad to the Bone

Our three year old visited our bedroom this morning to wake us up by singing "Bad to the Bone".
Yep, he's my son!

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Internet on the Go

When are you most in need of Internet access? Is it when you're at home and looking for ways to pass the time, or is it when you're away - perhaps in uncharted territories - and you need that elusive Internet access to plan your your future?
I vote for that second answer. Indeed, I have been quoted saying that one of the most dreadful aspects of me visiting my parents in Israel is the fact this is the only place I know where there is no Internet access. Things are about to change, though, and now the Internet has been made accessible from anywhere (anywhere I'm likely to be, at least) at reasonable prices.
The solution comes in the shape of a 3G wi-fi hotspot modem. Essentially it's just another wireless modem that, through a SIM in its belly, receives cellular signals and thus provides internet access. The trick, though, is in it acting as a wi-fi router, too: this means any wi-fi capable device can use its signal, including your laptop or your iPhone - or the two simultaneously.
Think of the possibilities here. Going overseas? Grab one of those hotspots modems with you. Upon arrival to your destination country, get yourself a local data SIM. Stick it in your modem and that's it - you have yourself Internet access.
That access point can then be used for anything and everything: you can Skype (even from your iPhone, as the iPhone regards the signal as just another wi-fi network); you can entertain yourself using YouTube; or you can book a rental car and research your driving itinerary. If you have another person with you to help, you can even use your Internet for live navigation. After all, we're talking about a mobile connection here!
Having suffered from Internet deprivation enough for this life already, I don't see myself getting out of the country without one of these toys in my hand luggage. It may have a significant cost to it, but it's much cheaper than global roaming; and through Skype you can make as many calls you want without thinking twice about it.

The Australian market currently features several options for 3G wi-fi hotspot modems. Let's have a look at the two I'm more familiar with.
Virgin Mobile offers an Optus/VHA but not Telstra Next G friendly modem (frequency compatibility wise) for $150. If you want that modem unlocked, so you can use it with any network, you need to charge it with $80 extra. You can buy the same modem, unlocked, from eBay for around $150 (search for "mifi"), but note these tend to not support the 900Mhz frequencies used by Optus in rural areas (just the sort of places you might find the Internet most useful).
A newish alternative to the market is the NetComm MyZone modem (reviewed here and here). Slightly more sophisticated than Virgin's, this one currently sells exclusively through Apple shops for the next two months at $300, after which Officeworks and Harvey Norman will be selling it, too. The MyZone works on the 850Mhz frequency unique to the Telstra Next G service but does not support the 900Mhz Optus uses, which makes it the better option for the majority of Australia's rural areas where Telstra is the only option but also means you have to use Telstra's significantly more expensive services.
Interestingly enough, newish Android mobile phones have the ability to turn themselves into wi-fi hotspots. The iPhone has that ability too, but you can only get to it if you jailbreak it; Jobs wouldn't let you actually enjoy the benefits of this device you paid a fortune for. There is, however, a significant disadvantage to using your phone as your router: battery life.
I suspect there will be more to come in this "take your Internet with you" arena as the option becomes more popular and as more people become as addicted to the Internet as I am.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Why Christianity Is an Unbelievable Absurd

PZ Myers has the habit of writing excellent articles, and yesterday he pulled one of those exquisite pieces from under his keyboard yet again. So exquisite I feel obliged to refer you to it.
Check it out here: Metaphorical Acid, an article where Myers looks at both the literal and metaphoric interpretations of Christianity’s main themes to find both worthy of the nearest bin.

And on that same note:

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Preliminary Elections Guide

With the USS Australia heading off to federal elections in less than five weeks time, I thought I'd set the agenda by providing a couple of "how to vote" tips.
First, it's important to stress that it's not the political parties that determine what your voting priorities are, it's you. There is absolutely nothing but your laziness coming in between letting your party of choice decide that priorities for you and you mastering your own vote. My advice, therefore, is for you to do your homework and determine your exact voting preferences; anything else would be the equal of letting the politicians vote for you, and both you and I know how highly we value them.
My second tip is quite straight forward. Remember good old Stephen Conroy, our Minister for Internet Censorship? While I haven't started the process of determining my voting for Victoria's Senate members yet, my starting point there is as obvious as the sun in midday Sahara: my beloved Conroy will feature at its very bottom, where he belongs.

Image taken from The Age.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Toy Story 4

Toy sale season is at its earnest and our toddler is already drowning in new toys, so much so I have real grounds for worrying about spoiling him and worrying about storage space for all the toys he’s now playing with and all the toys awaiting him in the cupboards. The pinnacle of the toy sale crop, the Target toy sale, is coming up in less than a week's time, and it's giving me a headache.
My problem is with a specific category of toys, the "your child's first computer" one. It comes in the shape of a netbook sized package, with a keyboard, often a mouse like apparatus, and a tiny small black & white LCD screen of dubious quality. The more sophisticated ones can connect to a proper PC in order to act as its keyboard, allowing you to run specific software for the toy.
This toddler's laptop category is sold to parents under two premises. The first is the toy helping the child's education, as in helping them learn the ABC or do basic math. The second is in them being your child's introduction to the world of computing. Both of these premises, but especially the latter, are essentially trying to say that getting your child one of them laptops quickly will guarantee them not ending up behind their peers; and that's the notion that's troubling me.
We already have a full blown netbook just waiting for our son to use, only that it's obviously too advanced for him during the near future. Then again, is there really a chance of a child growing to be computer illiterate while sharing a house with me? Or, to be more specific: Does my child really need this crap of a toy laptop? Would he enjoy playing with it? Would he get any substantial educational benefit out of it? Or is that just a tool to make me, the parent, feel as if I was fortunate enough to save my child's future by spending money on this toy, as if working under the assumption that buying a shit toy now would guarantee my child's university graduation?
Obviously, the marketing machine is aiming towards that latter option. Parents are under great pressure not to let their children lag behind their peers, and the simple magic formula there is to open your wallet wide. But if a laptop now is the savior of my child, why should I stop there? Why shouldn't I send my child to a private school and feel really good about myself, allowing myself to think that this money I'm spending is the one true way to show my child how much I really love him?

One item we will definitely seek to buy at the Target toy sale is a children's booster seat, a Hipod Senator. The Hipod is unique in being a booster seat with a five way harness, which means it is legal for use on children less than 4 years old (but more than 8kg in weight). It's the perfect transition model from our son's current baby seat, which is getting too small for him even though the law says he still needs to use one for at least another year.
Why the Hipod model and not any of its rivals, especially those from Safe 'n' Sound and their Maxi Rider rival range? Simple: crash testing performed by RACV indicates mediocre performance from Safe 'n' Sound, while the Hipod is clearly the best booster seat around.
With all the hype around Safe 'n' Sound, we often forget the entire purpose of these seats is safety.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

The Bambi Horror Show

As the parent of a toddler I have noticed that conventional movie ratings (G, PG, R and their likes) are quite useless when it comes to determining which films my child should watch. Currently this is because most G rated films contain too much excitement for my delicate three year old to absorb; for teens the nature of the problem remains the same with films such as Harry Potter artificially made to get more tolerant ratings than they deserve in order to get the cash milking cow going.
We notice the problem whenever we try and present our son with material that’s not tailor made for a toddler. Films like Toy Story or Finding Nemo, which all of us regard as children films, regularly turn out to be much more than he can tolerate. This leaves us with a dilemma: on one hand there is temptation for him to watch them, just because he’s seeing Woody and Buzz everywhere he goes; on the other hand, each time he’s watching them we have to have our finger on the remote if we don’t want to have a catastrophe on our hands.
Obviously, we are not the only parents facing this problem, which by now has been often nicknamed after the dreaded Bambi syndrome: your child watches a children’s film, Bambi, a seemingly effortless and tranquil event; however, by the end of this viewing session you, the parent, have to explain to your distressed and crying child what death is all about. You didn’t sign up for death when you clicked “play” on the DVD, did you?
The question is, what can a parent do to successfully manage their kids’ movie viewing?

I’ll start with the bad solution. A parent I know whose then three year old child was suffering from Bambi distress told their child not to worry, because Bambi’s mother is now “with Jesus”. Now, there are a billion and a half reasons why I think this is a crap way of addressing this problem, and they start with the fact I don’t wish to bullshit my own child. There is as much evidence to support the “with Jesus” explanation as there is to support the suicide bomber’s “with 72 virgins” ones – nil. As the suicide bomber analogy shows, giving your child the “with Jesus” explanation is actually morally wrong, too. If you are so sure of an eternal post death session with Jesus, why are you afraid of your own death? And why are you sad when others die, when instead you should do your best to ensure they die quickly and move over to their eternity of happiness as efficiently as possible; people you like, in particular. You don't, though, and you label those that do lunatics. Then there’s the problem of whether you’d go crazy or want to kill yourself out of boredom in the process of spending an eternity with Jesus...
Yet there is no escaping the fact that Jesus and his fellow make believe idols provide comfort to billions of people around the world who are afraid of dying. The problem, it seems, is not limited to parents wishing to calm their children, but to society in general: we are all afraid of dying. Thing is, some of us are afraid of dying and deal with it through denial – just look at the way talking about death will turn you into the life of a party, while a minority of us is happy to accept life with all that’s bundled along, death included. I belong to the latter group, and I think my son would lead a healthier life if he was there, too, instead of the deluded group.
Alright, then: having disqualified the delusional solution, how would I solve the Bambi syndrome?

My solution should work, but as with many things in life it comes through hard work because it requires awareness and an active rather than a passive role for the parent. Essentially, it requires the parent to determine what movies the child should be exposed to in the first place and be involved enough with the child’s life, especially as a teenager, to have a saying there. That is, instead of randomly picking the Bambi DVD up and pressing play, the parent should research the consequences of their choice first and choose the films carefully.
There are tools out there to help you think of those consequences. The Australian Council on Children and the Media, to name but one example, publishes thorough movie reviews aimed at the concerned parent on its website. These reviews don’t just tell you whether a film has “violence” or “a sex scene”, the way the normal film classifications work; instead they go into great detail to describe the nature of each potentially problematic scene. Another interesting factor about these reviews is that they don’t necessarily signal out scenes as bad ones; for example, the Dark Knight review alerts the parent to the problematic features of the film but also tells the parent that the film can be used to initiate ethical discussions with your child. In the particular case of Dark Knight, the question of whether one can take the life of another to save oneself (or someone else’s, for that matter). It’s really interesting stuff.
Another advantage of knowing what the potentially problematic issues are is that you, as a parent, can decide for yourself just how problematic they are. I, for example, do not see a problem with exposing my son to nudity, especially when done under control to ensure his perception of sex is not twisted. On the other hand, I do have a problem with the glorification of violence and the portrayal of violence as a good means for problem solving.
As for Bambi, I would prefer to introduce my son to the concept of death gradually and over time; once that is done to a satisfactory level he can watch Bambi as much as he wants.


P.S. If you are under the impression this post is all about showing off my superior parenting skills then you are wrong. My son still avoids watching Cars after I failed to properly introduce him to the film. Parenting is tough work, and all I can do is try my best given my limited resources and my need to keep some sort of a non parental identity version of myself alive.

Monday, 12 July 2010

Hungry Like a Wolf

I am famous for once telling a child I was looking after that the more contact I have with humans the more I learn. Through the years that statement still applies, and the latest example is my quick reaction to advice posted in John Scalzi’s blog just a few days ago (Scalzi, in case you don’t know, if a science fiction writer and a blogger whom I follow). Scalzi was recommending an iPhone app to help people keep track of their calories’ inputs and outputs, which made me think that if there is any chance of me losing weight it’s got to be through the integration of a gadget and the internet in the process of doing so.
Thus I dipped into dieting waters by registering myself at the LiveStrong website and buying their $4 iPhone app, Calorie Tracker.

So, other than a silly named website, what does LiveStrong offer?
The site's name seems to come from Lance Armstrong, but let's not delve into the matter of the use of drugs in sports. Once you create an account and provide the website with slightly too much private information about yourself than it should require, Livestrong will tell you how many calories you need to be eating each day in order to sustain your weight and activity lifestyle. You can then tell it how much weight you want to lose each week in order to receive an estimate of the number of intake calories per day required to manage that.
Then you get to the active part. Each time you eat or exercise you need to go back to the website (or the iPhone) and tell it what you’ve been consuming. LiveStrong’s power comes from its large database of foods, including many Aussie branded ones, as well as a large collection of exercises. Thus far my experience indicates I can always find what I ate or an acceptable alternative, including for restaurant food; I was also able to find entries for my type of exercise, which mostly come down to “grocery shopping” and “walking with a pram” (no, this is not a joke).
Couple the accounting of intake and consumption together, and you got a pretty good idea of what’s going on in your diet, as well as where you are and where you should be in the weight loss department.
As one can imagine, the website has many weaknesses. For a start, it’s heavy on PC resources, which is usually an indicator for less than perfect design. Then there’s the site’s typical American centralist attitude; you know the type I’m talking about, those that give you their phone number but neglect the +1 international code at the beginning, or those that give you their address and forget to add “USA” at the bottom. Yes, it’s a website that thinks there is only one nation to this world, theirs. This rather centralistic view manifests itself in the website defaulting to American time instead of your time, causing me to enter my breakfasts at yesterday’s date if I don’t pay too much attention to what I’m doing. I don’t understand why the website can’t look at your own PC's clock. Surely they can afford to program that, given the vast number of intrusive ads on the page.
Another annoying factor is the almost exclusive use of silly measuring units: while the credit goes to LiveStrong for me now knowing that a pound is roughly half a kilo, I would have preferred a life to remain solely in the metric domain. The same goes for their definition of “cups” and “bowls”, which are far from internationally recognized.
The iPhone app is a story on its own. For a start, it requires an internet connection and doesn’t add any functionality over the website's, which means that if you have a decent mobile browser at your hands (that is, if you have an Android phone) you don’t need the app. The app is also limited in rather annoying ways: for example, when you specify what you ate by choosing from its extensive list of meals it will not allow you to change serving units. Whereas the website occasionally allows you to change from consumption units, say from oz to grams, the iPhone app forces you to stick to the often confusing default units. It’s good if you want to exercise your fractions algebra.

Despite my criticism, my own experience thus far indicates LiveStrong is a very useful tool. There is absolutely no valid reason why I am not ten kilos lighter than I am now, therefore making a tool that shows me why that is so is not as bad an idea as it may sound.
The use of LiveStrong for just a few days has already helped me come up with some revelations. It showed how me how much of a difference digesting fewer or more snacks makes. It shows how eating out at a restaurant is usually a much more calorie intensive affair than eating at home, mainly due to the size of the serving and the more fatty nature of the stuff I tend to eat outside. Yes, it also shows how critical the size of the portion is: eating too much food makes you fatter regardless of whether the food is good for you or not.
There is a tragic nature to this engagement, too. On Saturday night I was sad to see there is no room for negotiations with regards to me having my popcorn together with Sense and Sensibility. Another day I witnessed how the mere fact of eating out meant there is no room for a night time snack. Last, but not least, on Friday night I had to settle for the smallest portion of ice cream in my living memory.
For now, the tragedy of not eating stuff I used to gobble unconsciously is somewhat offset by the joy of toying with a gadget and making elaborate calculations, but I’m sure perseverance would be high on the agenda shortly. If anything, it would pop up there due to a simple reason: all this effort I’m making will only go as far as helping me lose half a kilo a week. At this rate, it would take me a year of torturing myself to lost those ten kilos I can do without!
It is clear the battle would be won before that year is over: I’m either going to make a habit of eating as much as I should (I suspect that quickly enough I won’t need the internet to tell me how much that is), or I’m going to capitulate to the cookie monster in me. One thing is clear, though: having metrics on my side helps, and it helps a lot; knowing exactly what you eat and what it counts for is way better than having a shootout in the dark with some mysterious diets that are often based on pseudoscience. Having the challenge of managing your own diet, together with the tools to manage it with, takes you a long way.

Saturday, 10 July 2010

My World Cup Team

It took me a while to pick my favorite team of this World Cup, but I'm really happy with my pick. Not only did I select the team with the best football, I was also able to overcome years of prejudice in the process of doing so. Sure, my team is already out of the tournament, but why should that matter? Knock out competitions are never a fool proof way of identifying who the best contender is.
Over the years I have had good reasons to hate the German football team. One of the main reasons was their boring play. The trauma of that boring team winning the 1990 World Cup still lingers on, augmented by them knocking some really nice teams out of the competition on their way.
Most of my antagonism towards the German football team is historically related, though. Yes, I'm talking about the good old war and the holocaust. Are these good enough reasons to dislike a German nation? Not really, yet - as I have experienced when visiting Germany - I have a problem seeing those old people in the street and wondering where they were back in those days. Statistically speaking, many of them must have done something nasty or might have not taken action to prevent nastiness when they should have. I have a problem liking a team that's associated with these people regardless of their minority status in contemporary Germany.
Today's German team seemed to have gone out of its way in countering the above two disadvantages, as if aspiring to help me support them.
First, they completely dispel my 20th century prejudice by fielding players of backgrounds we tend not to associate with Germany. These include including black players, players with a last name like Gomez, and Muslim players of Turkish descent. So much so that Neo Nazis in Germany complain about their national team's nature, supplying it with the best credentials I could have hoped for.
Second, Germany has been playing the most attractive football in the World Cup, period. There is a nice parameter by which to judge their performance: the number of goals they've scored. Spain, the team that beat them to reach the final, scored just seven goals in their entire campaign thus far; Germany, on the other hand, scored four goals in one game, and repeated that act three times. It's not just the goals they've scored, though: Germany's style of play has been pretty attractive to watch for this neutral spectator. They never try to close themselves to defend the score, but rather look for every opportunity to attack. Knowing they don't have the best talent in their ranks they tried to make the most of what they could do through adopting a strategy of speed and area coverage, which worked pretty well for them.
That strategy of the German team is what sets them apart, in my view, from the bulk of the contention. Some teams, like Australia, are inferior to Germany in most respects. Other teams, like Argentina, Netherlands and Spain, are superior in talent. However, look at how those better talented teams have fared: Argentina lacked the managerial skills to reap the benefits. Netherlands, generally my favorite team, show that they have the talent but are way too scared to play the open total football style they're famous for playing, instead playing some boring football that manages to get a significantly inferior team like Uruguay to rattle their cage. And Spain, drowning in talent as they are, only managed to beat Portugal through a goal scored from a blatantly offside position and managed to survive Germany - despite their obviously superior talent and possession dominance - through some questionable referee decisions and a goal scored from a set piece.
The bottom line is that the German football team is unique for this World Cup in being better than the sum of its parts. That is a sign for a well managed team, and that is a quality I admire enough to make the German team my pick of this World Cup's crop.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Accentophobia

The clearest evidence to point at the fact people should get around more and learn about the world we live in is to do with accents.
A few years ago there was a bit of a commotion in Australia when we learned that Australia’s biggest cultural export (at least money wise), The Wiggles kids TV program, have been voice dubbed in the USA to get rid of their Aussie accents and replace them with what those ignorant Americans regard as a proper one. If there was anything redneck Aussies needed in order to prove their claim regarding the stupidity of the average American, that was it.
Turns out accent xenophobia (accentophobia?) is not limited to Americans alone. The best TV program ever, as far as our three year old is concerned, is a Canadian stop motion animation production called Lunar Jim. The version aired by ABC in Australia features the original Canadian voices; however, this week we learned that the UK version of the same series and the same episodes we’ve seen so many times before is dubbed with British voices. Aside from making all the characters we know and love sound different, they all sound like a Prince Charles; and given my affection to that idiot of a prince I consider the British attitude to have been totally in the wrong. What do they have against their fellow Commonwealth members, a nation that – like Australia – still regards the Queen as its head of state?
My personal experience in Australia goes to prove the point about openness to accents the best. My accent is perhaps my most un-Australian feature, and this week it led me to new heights when I called our son’s childcare to have a chat with its manager:
Me: Can I speak with Tricia?
Lady on the other side: Are you after Lisa?
Me: No, I'm after Tricia.
Lady on the other side: I'm sorry, Lisa is not working here anymore. You need to speak with Tricia.
Me: Yes, she's the one I'm after.
Lady on the other side: I'm sorry, Tricia is out for a meeting.
The defense rests.

Wednesday, 7 July 2010

iPhone vs. Android

I know I'm a gadget freak, but I can still call things the way they are. At the moment, my call is that everyone is interested to know which smartphone they should be getting.
Generally speaking, up until a short while ago the answer was pretty obvious: an iPhone. Recently, though, Google's Android platform caught up and - quickly enough - left the iPhone in its wake. Not only is it technically superior, it's also devoid of that wretched iTunes software taking control over your PC, or Apple dictating what you can do and can't do with your phone.
You need only look at the following video to learn of some of Android's advantages:



Actually, the video neglects to mention a few more of Android's advantages. These come to light when you travel, something you tend to do in the company of your mobile phone:
  1. Usually, an Android phone is unlocked, so you can stick a local SIM in it rather than pay global roaming.
  2. You can use Google Maps as your GPS turn by turn guide instead of buying software. That's nice when you're visiting a place for a short duration and don't want to spend a hundred dollars on a GPS app.
  3. When you want to use your laptop to access the internet in the middle of nowhere, you can use your Android as a wi-fi hotspot.
  4. Oh, and there's Flash support, too.
An iPhone, especially a non jail broken one, will give you none of the above. Then again, as the following video by the same maker shows, the Android is not without its own issues:



To me the debate between Apple and the Android comes down to basic political views. On one hand, the Android's open source nature touches the civil libertarian in me; on the other hand, Apple's dictatorship and tight control over code and contents reminds me of the likes of Stephen Conroy. You know, escapees from the Middle Ages.

Happiness is Childless

P1000080
Here's an article saying what I've been saying for three years now: No Joy and No Fun.
This New York Magazine item inquires into the link between having children and happiness. Most of us live by the dogma that having children is a source of happiness; I have been quoted saying that while there is good to take out of the parenthood experience, parenthood is generally a rather shitty experience (literally). As I have been known to say, parenthood is like an ongoing climb of the Everest: you may be proud of your achievement at the end, but the climb itself is a pain in the ass; and it goes on and on, essentially for the rest of your life, so there really is no end.

Here are some key quotes from the article to entice you to have your own children (emphasis by yours truly):
Yet a wide variety of academic research shows that parents are not happier than their childless peers, and in many cases are less so.

...a 2004 study by Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize–winning behavioral economist... found that child care ranked sixteenth in pleasurability out of nineteen activities... This result also shows up regularly in relationship research, with children invariably reducing marital satisfaction.

The economist Andrew Oswald, who’s compared tens of thousands of Britons with children to those without, is at least inclined to view his data in a more positive light: “The broad message is not that children make you less happy; it’s just that children don’t make you more happy.” That is, he tells me, unless you have more than one. “Then the studies show a more negative impact.” As a rule, most studies show that mothers are less happy than fathers, that single parents are less happy still, that babies and toddlers are the hardest, and that each successive child produces diminishing returns. But some of the studies are grimmer than others. Robin Simon, a sociologist at Wake Forest University, says parents are more depressed than nonparents no matter what their circumstances—whether they’re single or married, whether they have one child or four.
The defense rests. Literally.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

Moments in Time

When I was a boy everything was right. Back then, nights when Dallas was on air everyone watched it; the streets would be empty, TVs would glare at you from neighboring apartments, and the day after everyone would discuss the latest gossip on Bobby and Pamela Ewing. Such were the early eighties in Israel, days where the sole TV channel dictated people's lives. It wasn't just adults; whenever The Wonderful World of Disney was on air at 17:30 us kids would all stay at home to watch the latest adventures of a stray dog.
Things are different now. Between multi channels, DVDs, YouTube and PVRs, TV events are no longer as common as they used to be. We've all grown self centered in our viewing habits. Events that hold an entire nation gripped in front of its TVs, or, for that matter, the whole world, are extremely rare; nothing like the weekly rate of Dallas episodes. Back then the whole world stopped to see who shot JR; if you think about it, the last time the world held its breath in a similar manner was on 11 September, 2001.
The exception that still manages to captivate the world is sports. There's the Olympics, but I dare say the World Cup eclipses it as far as concentration on a single event is concerned. Hundreds of millions watched yesterday as Brazil took itself apart to get beaten by Holland, and most of these spectators were fairly neutral - people that watched the game as neutral spectators. People watching the game to witness not a contest between two teams representing two countries, but rather a world event.
Beyond quality football, I consider this world uniting aspect to be the number one achievement of the World Cup. Much better than 9/11, I am of the opinion we need more of these things to remind us that we're all citizens of this one planet.

Friday, 2 July 2010

Coming of Age

What is it that shapes us to be what we are? Obviously, everything around us does, as well as everything inside us (I'm referring to that good old nature vs. nurture argument). When it comes to the nurture part of the equation my unconfirmed notions are that role models have more of an impact than others. Most of my childhood role models came from immediate surroundings with me tending to always point a finger at my uncle as the top serving one; but when it comes to role models with whom I have never been in direct contact, two people stand head and shoulders above the rest.
The two are Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov. Sagan impacted me through his book Broca's Brain and his TV series Cosmos; Asimov achieved similar impact through the large number of his books I got to read throughout my childhood. I find it interesting to note the similar backgrounds of the two: Both come from families of East European Jewish heritage, both lived in New York, and both shared relatively similar interests. The two lived, and died, in similar periods and similar circumstances. Quite importantly, for me at least, the two shared a mutual lack of respect towards the religion of their forefathers: both Asimov and Sagan are famous for their atheism (even if they might prefer to call it by other names, by most people's accounts they're firmly on the side of atheism).
I thought of Asimov and his relationship with Judaism after reading a post on Frederik Pohl's blog dealing with that very issue earlier this week. In it Pohl describes how Asimov felt like he didn't need to apologize to anyone for his views on Judaism; I'm fully there with Asimov, a point I feel quite strongly about today, the eve of my nephew's Bar Mitzvah in Israel. While it would have been nice to celebrate with the family, I do not regret not having the opportunity to take part in a ritual bursting at the seams with senselessness.
Thirteen year old children are not ready for prime time. Synagogues, where Bar Mitzvahs are held, are a depressing place that echo the way Judaism treats women with contempt through the separation between men and women (who get inferior seating arrangements). Besides that, if anyone bothered to understand what the texts they're chanting in there are all about then they simply wouldn't chant them anymore. I don't.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

Give Me Some Sleep


Sleeping in my pram
Originally uploaded by reuvenim
Last night I spent a couple of minutes of my time listening to Gary Numan's Are Friends Electric on my stereo. I have been fascinated by Numan's music ever since I was a little child: it started through simple childhood fascination with the fascinating vinyl album cover my brother owned and moved on, with time, to a fascination due to typical reminiscing of carefree times gone by. Times when I wasn't eternally tired; times when I was able to listen to the music I like on my stereo without having a toddler screaming at me that he doesn't want to listen to "this music"; times when I could listen to music of my choice whenever I felt like it, not only when my son was being dressed by his mother after his evening bath.
This Gary Numan incident reminded me of a question I was recently asked. A [childless] friend wanted me to rate how bad my tiredness is on a numerical scale. I can't do that; even though I can compare between personal historical eras of tiredness I have no objective frame of reference to reliably relate to nor experience varied enough to establish my own reference (the way I do when I review films). However, I can comfortably state the obvious and say that since I became a parent, my sleep is no longer the same and being tired has become my business as usual state.
Some of you may wonder why this is the case. After all, our son is way past the age where his routine involved waking up in the middle of the night; unless things go wrong and he's particularly sick, he would normally sleep for more than ten hours a night. So what is my excuse for being eternally tired?
The answer is simple and is best demonstrated through a look at my typical day. Most of my time awake during a generic day is spent on work: either commuting to and from work or work itself. After work I usually need to pick my son up from childcare; upon our arrival home it's usually time for some house chores and dinner. Our son's night is concluded with a bath (note: he doesn't bath himself) and watching an episode of his favorite TV program before heading to bed - usually at about 20:00.
There, in fact, is the crust of the problem: my own life, as an individual, starts at the time my son goes to bed. Even then it's limited: we have to give him some time to actually fall asleep, we can't do anything that would wake him up (like listening to music or watching films the way I would have liked to), and - obviously - we have to keep to our house as its resident babysitters.
With said toddler waking up at about 6:00 (sad but true), a balancing act game ensues: how much of a life do I want to have vs. how much sleep? I think of all the things I like doing, things that I used to have hours of my life each day to do them with, and the sad reality becomes obvious. Sleeping, reading, messing with my computers, watching movies and everything else I like doing - all have to compete for a slot of my limited night time piece of personal time.
The way things are my de facto solution to that balancing game is a routine involving some six hours of sleep. Six hours are not enough for a healthy human being, I know, but the temptations of the internet have proven too much for this sad worrier. Wait, things get worse: The morning wake up call does not come at my time of choice; it comes abruptly, when my son decides it's the right time to visit his parents' bed. On average that wakeup call comes at 6:00, but the standard deviation is high; sometimes I go to bed at midnight expecting to wake up at 6:00 only to hear the dreaded steps across the corridor at 4:50.
The outcome is undeniable: I am eternally tired. Yet in this struggle of priorities my choice thus far has been clear: I would rather have a life of my own, even as a restricted parent, than have a good night's sleep.