Sunday, 29 August 2010

The Wall

Since I started using Flickr to publish my photos over the internet, a good few years ago, I maintained a general policy of having my photos out there for all to see. This policy was a result of hoping remote family members would be able to use the photos to gain a window into our lives, but also the result of my general preference for transparency and for the sharing of intellectual property.
This policy's days are numbered, though, and shortly I will start the gradual process of making more and more of my photos available to friends only. This change in attitude is the result multiple reasons:
  1. The realization that my understanding of the concepts of privacy and security, although improving all the time, is always behind.
  2. Not wishing to have photos of my son in his nappies available for all to see when he's about to come to an age where he'll develop some sensitivities about such issues.
  3. The obvious attractions that everything with even the slightest potential to be gross has in attracting the worst kind of visitors to my Flickr page. Examples include photos of a child playing in the bath, nappy change photos, or the balls of a kangaroo - all of which attract record numbers of hits I don't necessarily want.
  4. The way the Creative Commons license on my photos has been abused. For example, the way Conservapedia (an American conservative's "encyclopedia" for morons) took the liberty of using a PZ Myers photo of mine on their PZ Myers page. PZ Myers is a person I greatly admire, yet my photo is being used for the purpose of defaming him!
    In my opinion, Conservapedia would be the winner if I was to change my photos' licensing away from Creative Commons into the more common "copyright" model I have so much antagonism towards. I therefore chose to maintain my interests by stating exactly what I think of Conservapedia on my photo page. That said, this incident was a bit of an eye opener that led me to ponder on the implications of having my photos online.
No, I am not about to hide all my Flickr photos behind an iron curtain. Some of my most watched Flickr photos are of tennis celebrities (shot at the Australian Open) or of electronics (items I shot before selling on eBay), and I have no problems whatsoever with anyone and everyone watching these photos and enjoying them to their heart's delight. The story is different, though, with the more personal stuff.

Friday, 27 August 2010

A Day at the Races

As some of you may know I’m working only four days a week this year, with the aim of spending Thursdays together with my son. As I have often complained, those Thursdays tend to end up as errand days. The following list of my achievements from this last Thursday demonstrates what I’m talking about:
  • Prepared breakfast by warming up a ready made pancake.
  • Took Dylan for a wander at the shopping mall, where I got him a smoothie he hardly touched (“too cold!”) and I carried like an idiot for half an hour later. He also had a play in an Australian Geographic shop and at a video games shop I managed to convince him we should visit before I had to change his stinky poo nappy (he considers changing a nappy at the shopping mall a treat, the weirdo). Finally, he had a pizza roll.
  • Cleaners come in half an hour late. Dylan watched lots of TV.
  • Lunch: a jam sandwich.
  • Off to bed for Dylan, two and a half hours of working from home for me.
  • Watch some YouTube clips before moving back to the TV.
  • Another stinky poo nappy.
  • Two machine washes.
  • One dishwasher round.
  • Cook some schug.
  • Preparations for dinner (spaghetti).
Yes, life could not get more exciting when you’re out and about.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Faith School Menace

Richard Dawkins has a new documentary out called The Faith School Menace, and you can watch it too because it's available on YouTube in four parts (episode 1 can be accessed here).
This three quarters of an hour long documentary discusses the education scene in England, where state run faith schools are now a third of the overall number of schools. These schools are in the way of normal parents trying to send their kids to a nearby school, but they tend to have a reputation for being the best performing schools, too. Dawkins looks at these issues and ultimately confronts the big question, which is whether parents should have the authority to force their own faith on their kids or whether kids should be allowed to make their own minds up, uninterrupted.
The beauty of Dawkins' documentary is that it does not push Dawkins' views as the correct ones. While Dawkins does have the last word as the narrator, he does let those whose opinions contradict his to present their arguments uninterrupted, allowing viewers to make their own minds up. Things are quite different from the strident image many claim Dawkins to have.
I warmly recommend the Faith School Menace, mostly because of its relevancy to Australia where a similar problem exists. It's even worse here, with Labor promising 222 million dollars (!) to fund chaplains in government state schools that are supposed to be secular. On a personal basis, I liked Dawkins' documentary also because it raises the question of whether religion should be used as a tool to form a child's identity around (a matter I have discussed here after family members pressed me to celebrate my son's Bar Mitzvah so as to allow him to form a "proper" identity). According to Dawkins, an identity that is formed through religion is an identity that alienates its subject from people of all other religions. Granted, Dawkins' is a nice argument even if it would probably fall on deaf ears with the likes of my family that simply won't care. Obviously, there are many problems with our world that need fixing, and I'm glad Dawkins is there with the initiative.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

The Father Tongue

As any self aware parent will tell you, parenting is hard work. More often than not we fail to stand up to our own ideals of parenthood; in my own personal case the most obvious evidence for that is our failure in the toilet training department. There are, however, other worthwhile failures in my parenting portfolio, and language is one of them.
Originally, my intention was to teach my son Hebrew to a limited extent. That is, help him speak Hebrew at a level that would pass for normal day to day chats but certainly no reading or writing. The main reason for this intention was to do with horizon broadening, and the timing was good because learning languages is never easier than when you’re a toddler with a brain that’s virtually a dedicated language learning tool (an ability we lose as we grow old). Knowing a second language is nice and it could even be helpful; in my personal case, the fact I have English as my second language certainly did prove helpful. Interestingly enough, I heard from a few sources that teaching a toddler more than two languages could confuse the child rather than produce an Einstein.
Hebrew in particular was chosen as our son’s second language for two main reasons: first, it would allow for dialog with the Israeli part of the family, much of which is not fluent in English. Second, I just happen to have someone who speaks Hebrew pretty well in my household, which makes teaching the language easy. Yet, as already implied, circumstances have proved to be quite far from easy.
For a start, our toddler’s world is made of a whole lot of English speakers and only one Hebrew speaker. Since his time with me is limited, there is just that much Hebrew exposure that he can have. Worse, most of the time in which he’s with me we also happen to be with others who do not speak Hebrew, making it a bit awkward to use Hebrew when I talk to my son and use English otherwise. Especially when many of the statements I make to my son are meant to be heard and understood by our companions…
As our child grows and starts using language more complicated than baby talk he’s also starting to ask questions that are quite complicated to answer. For example, with his love of understanding how things work he asked me how car engines work and in particular what pistons do. Now, I could be the typical parent and give him a shallow answer like “they move the car”, but I prefer to give a proper answer (i.e., mixing gasoline and air and burning them to create an explosion that pushes the car) but in a way that someone totally ignorant of this world could have a chance of understanding. He may not immediately understand it all – I don’t understand it all either – but as we go along discussing the same things again and again he well learn; it’s a journey thing. My problem there is a problem of limited vocabulary: because my son’s Hebrew vocabulary is significantly smaller than his English one, a direct result of his limited Hebrew exposure, it gets very hard for me to explain things to him in Hebrew and expect him to understand them. In the conflict between giving my son a good answer and giving him an answer in Hebrew that he will understand the former seems to be winning on a regular basis. I am happy with my choice between these two options, but I feel it is important to make a conscious choice and to acknowledge it.
I find my last complication with teaching my son Hebrew to be the most interesting one, as it is related to me. The problem is simple, even if initially it sounds a bit ludicrous: with me living in a world where I constantly speak English and where all the written material around me is in English, a world where the only exception is phone calls I receive from my parents, my Hebrew is simply dying. It’s funny because there’s always this impression that your mother’s tongue is there to stay with you throughout life, but my experience shows it’s anything but. I used to have a problem with English speaking where I would hesitate to speak a sentence out because I was missing a word or two (that problem still exists, to one extent or another); now I find myself encountering this problem virtually any time I need to form Hebrew sentences up. Even at its shallowest use, as in when talking to family members over the phone, I still find myself inserting words in English here and there without even realizing I’m doing it. Or when answering a straight question put to me in Hebrew, I find myself using English words with people who don't understand a word of English. My English is not the same as the English of native speakers, but English had become my de facto dominant language; it now takes special effort for me to speak Hebrew, a scenario that used to be reserved for English - my second language. When Hebrew requires me to make an effort, and between me being generally lazy and the mighty efforts required to keep my son alive in the first place, it’s no wonder I’m losing the battle to teach him Hebrew.
Not that I care much about their opinion, but my Israeli relatives are in for a disappointment if they expect to be able to form proper dialog with my son the next time he visits Israel. I suggest they take up some English lessons.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Planet earth is blue and there's nothing I can do

One thing that always puzzles me about Australia is the difference between people’s attitude to here when compared to Israel. In Israel, everyone is outspoken and you know to a fine degree who your office colleagues are going to vote for. In Australia, on the other hand, the matter is effectively considered a taboo: there could be talks about politics but they’re rather vague or things that everyone agrees with (e.g., “this guy’s an idiot”). You will have a hard time finding people arguing politics at an Aussie office or explicitly telling you what their political opinions are. Unless, of course, that someone is an ex Israeli.
I think it’s a shame to hide away political opinion because I think the biggest problem the Aussie political scene has is lack of debate, which leads the vast majority of the public to develop apathy towards politics. In turn, this leads to election campaigns of the likes we just had, where none of the truly important issues facing Australia were on the agenda. In its turn, this leads to ambiguous results such as the one we ended up with after this elections.

In a setting such as this, I find it interesting to think back with gained hindsight and have a look to see exactly what got us to where we are now in Australian politics. Or, to be more specific, what happened to rob Kevin Rudd’s immense popularity during early 2008 of all its charm, so much so as to get us to the point where Labor thought it wise to replace him in a nightly coup, and what has happened since for Labor to lose its majority?
The popular answer to the latter question seems to be that Labor lost because of a very badly run elections campaign. I agree: their campaign was a one big muffled joke, especially when compared to the Liberals well focused campaign. I disagree with the vast majority of the subjects of the Liberal campaign (especially the notorious “we’ll stop the boats”), but at least they said what they had to say clearly and effectively – unlike Labor. However, my opinion is that there is more to Labor’s loss than just a badly run campaign.
In my view, the public opinion about Labor and the Rudd government started to deteriorate with the slowly digested understanding that Rudd is simply not going to deliver on his promises. First and foremost, Rudd was elected to get rid of Work Choices and to act on climate change. He did the former, but then we had two years of talk-fests. These peaked when disappointingly low carbon emission reduction targets of 5% were set (even less, actually, given the more generous reference Labor chose in comparison to the way the rest of the world measures carbon reductions). Then Labor followed with a suggestion for an Emissions Trading System (ETS) that was obviously nothing more than a tool to make much fuss with and make some brokers very rich but had nothing to do with reducing emissions; it had a lot to do with handing billions to emitters. The Liberals wouldn’t even accept that, and that was it; Labor closed its climate change shop up. The public, however, didn’t; they reacted by abandoning Labor en masse. Some went to the Greens, others to the Liberals (where they came from earlier upon their disillusionment with John Howard).
What had happened there, then? Why did Labor turn back on its election promise to deal with climate change? In my opinion the answer is simple: It’s not that Kevin Rudd didn’t want to deal with climate change; it’s just that Kevin Rudd didn’t want to mess too much with big business by coming up with an emissions reduction scheme they wouldn't like. Say, a carbon tax and an emissions reduction target of 40%, as the science recommends (as per the government's own Garnaut review).
Big business came back to haunt Rudd and Labor in the next bit of straw on Labor’s back, the mining super tax. The recommendation to install it came from Treasury’s objective inputs, but the result was such a big thump to government from the mining companies that Rudd lost his position and Gillard quickly compromised 20 billion dollars to essentially keep three big companies quiet.
My point is simple: as the above cases of climate change and mining taxes demonstrate, the Australian political agenda is set by those with the money and not by the interests of the population. Usually, those with the biggest amounts of money are the biggest companies around; in a sad testament to the state of our democracy, big business is more equal than the rest of us.

Where Labor continued to err was in marginalizing its grassroots and wooing votes that are not your traditional Labor voter. Take, for example, Labor’s great Internet filter plans as well as its secretive plans to have the records of all Internet surfing activities maintained for lengthy periods. No one can understand the rational behind the latter, but the former popped up in order to support promises made to the Australian Christian Lobby. However, through Labor’s dogmatic insistence on pursuing these quests they manage to make an enemy of anyone with a tiny bit of civil libertarian tendencies in their veins (your truly included). They even managed to aggravate many of the older population, not your typical web surfers or early adopter, who are interested in researching euthanasia through the web.
In doing so, Labor lost a lot of its progressive faction, mostly to the Greens. On the other hand, I very much doubt the move earned them any votes from the Christian side. Given the deadlock between ALP (Australian Labor Party) and LNP (Liberal National Party) at the polls, I wonder whether someone at Labor’s headquarters is having second thoughts as to the wisdom of their actions.
Oh, and why exactly was Labor opposing gay marriages? Did they want to lose the seat of Melbourne that badly?

If all the above failed to convince you how very much alike Australian politics is to the scene from America then perhaps the election results map will do it. Looking at things in blue and red, it is obvious that Australia's is a divided society, with distinct blue (as in Liberal, the Aussie equivalent of the American Republicans) and red areas (as in Labor, the Democrats’ equivalent). If that doesn’t indicate too many Aussies are voting through their back pockets I don’t know what else can.
While despair for an idealistic democracy does strike me, I do take comfort in one major feature of these last elections. As we stand, three to five Australian men happen to be the most powerful people in the country: these are the Greens/independents that won their Lower House seats and who are going to determine which party is going to lead the country during the next three years. Through them, these five men are making the population of their five electorates significantly more powerful than the rest. I can only hope others are taking notes here, so that the next time they vote they don’t consider the elections a two dog race between the ALP and the LNP but rather a race where the underdog can have a strong bite. A potential rise in power of this now generally dormant dog might give rise to a culture of proper political debate in Australia.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Cloudy Outlook

There is always that sense of relief that accompanies any occasion when I free myself from the shackles of tyranny. This week it happened again as I broke free from the shackles of Microsoft Outlook, and this post is here to tell you all about it.
For ten years now, I have been using Outlook to manage and maintain all the personal information I want to carry on me. With the aid of the PDAs I have had with me, a Palm, two Windows Mobile phones, and now an iPhone, I was able to carry my Outlook’s calendar, contacts, notes and to do items on me. Now I managed to do the same sans Outlook.

First, it’s important to clarify why I wanted to rid myself of my dependency on Outlook:
  1. Outlook is a Windows application, and I hate using Windows. Every time I boot my PC on Windows some agonizing thing takes place; I much prefer the seamless and faster experience that Linux offers.
  2. Outlook costs money. A lot of it, actually, as it requires one to buy the professional version of Microsoft Office to acquire an Outlook license.
  3. For a private person like me, Outlook’s information is saved on my local hard drives. This implies that backups are always compromised and that my information would be at the hand of anyone putting their hands on my hard drive.

So, what did I do to get rid of Outlook?
The solution was cloud computing – putting my information up on the web, where I can access it wherever I can access the Internet while a local copy is saved on my iPhone. It’s free and it works on any Internet browser on any environment (Windows, Mac or Linux). It’s backed up by much better facilities than I will ever have and it’s available to me much more than my home PC is (think how many times you've had issues with your home PC compared to how many times Google was down). Security is the biggest issue with cloud computing, though: you never know who can access your data; you just have to put your trust in the likes of Google, Apple, Amazon and all the rest of the companies that provide cloud computing services.
Specifically, I chose the following alternatives to maintain my information:
  1. Calendar: I use the Google Calendar that comes with my Gmail account. It syncs automatically to my iPhone.
  2. Notes: As of the introduction of iOS4 for the iPhone, any notes on your iPhone that you edit are automatically synchronized with the IMAP compliant email you have specified. In my case that IMAP account is Gmail, where I now have a new folder called “Notes”.
  3. To do items: Out of the numerous iPhone apps for this purpose I have been using the Toodledo app on my iPhone. I actually chose Toodledo because they have a tool to sync with Outlook, but you can also manage your tasks through their website or their iGoogle widget. By now Toodledo also have the facilities to manage notes.
  4. Contacts: I use Google Contacts, another tool that comes with Gmail. Just like the Google Calendar tool, it automatically syncs to my iPhone.
There you have it: personal liberty through the cloud. If anything, this liberty means I no longer need to maintain my home PC as rigorously as I have been doing thus far.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Australian Tipping

As a friend of mine is about to cross the world in order to pay us a visit in Australia, I thought I’d write this guide to the Australian visitor telling them what to expect upon landing.
Australia is the only country I know where the security checks at the airport are much tighter when you disembark rather than when you’re about to take off. It’s comes down to a simple truth: there is not that much fear of terrorism, but there is a fear of having foreign biological material invade our fair continent. I don’t know how justified that fear is; there is evidence to it being more than just a means for protecting local industries, although it is obvious there is some protectionism to it, too. It is also obvious this quarantine regime is used to bolster Aussies’ sense of belonging (as per Channel 7’s redneck TV reality shows on airport quarantine).
As it is, upon landing in Australia you’d be asked to fill a form saying whether you’ve brought nasty stuff with you. The local definition of nasty stuff includes anything living or anything that had once lived (e.g., wooden furniture, seeds and fruits), as well as drugs and porn. Yes, porn: quarantine staff has the authority to search your laptop to ensure you’re not bringing naked photos of yourself into the country; I don’t know of cases where that has been enforced, but it goes to show that stupidity has a long arm.
My advice is simple. Given the ambiguity of the request for disclosure of suspicious items, and given the efficient handling of voluntary disclosure of such material, I suggest you avoid deliberating whether your cold pills count as drugs or not and just declare them. Declare just for the sake of declaring; chances are you won’t be delayed any longer than when declaring a clean passage. That said, don't bring food with you unless it's packed and sealed, so as to allow it being imported into Australia for sale. Also avoid bringing things made of plant material, such as beanie bags filled with seeds or decorations made of wood (to name but two items sent to us in the post that were confiscated by quarantine).
For the record, I was allowed to bring roasted sunflower seeds through Australian quarantine on several occasions. So if you're coming to pay me a visit, feel free to bring a few kilos of Afula ones with you, because you can't get them here.

Talking about travel tips to Australia, here is a tip concerning tipping. As far as I know, Australia is unique in the fact that tipping is not expected by default. The vast majority of the time you just don't tip. This is a fact that is often not disclosed: some tourist guides mention it briefly (as per this example), but the majority of tourist resources talk about tipping in Australia as if it’s the same as in Europe or even the USA.
That is not the case, though. The terror you get in countries like the USA where you have to leave your hotel room cleaner some cash or goodness knows what they’ll do to your toiletries doesn’t exist, nor do you need to have cash with you to leave behind every time you want to eat out.
It’s not like you can’t tip; at restaurants you can even tip through your credit card. It’s just that it’s not expected, and in most cases there is not much point to it as the tips would reach the owner of the establishment rather than the person actually providing you with the service.
I like this Aussie approach to tipping, and not just because I’m a tight ass. I like it because it implies you will get good service regardless of your personal ability to pay an extra, and it also implies everyone gets the same quality of service. That’s the way it should be and that's what Australia says it's all about: giving people a fair go.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Journeyman

Our recent trip to Cairns has had some personal resonance with me. Some ten years, Cairns was the final stop in my driving tour of Australia's east coast. Back then I was an Israeli tourist; immediately afterwards I started working on my move to Australia. Now, in this second visit of mine to Cairns, I come as an Australian. You will be right in saying that a lot has changed over those last ten years.
The first unavoidable comparison between that old trip and our new visit is the sheer amount of stuff I got to see back then. On my own, fit and in the mood for exploration, I managed to pack more into a single day of travel than we managed to fit a whole week this time around. Extrapolate that experience over the period of a month and it becomes clear that during that single month I spent in Australia ten years ago I probably got to see more than the majority of Australian born ever get to see of their country.
Then again, there are things I missed seeing back then. I did the tourist destinations, mostly the natural ones, but I failed to see much about the culture. To name but two examples, I didn't realize just how dominant alcohol and sports are in Aussie culture, and I failed to see the contradiction between the strict formality of office life and the extreme abandonment of going to the pub for afternoon drinks. Back then I just got to see Australia the way a naive Israeli would.
Looking at my own person, I can clearly see how my last ten years have changed me. At their beginning, before the bursting of the Internet bubble, I was this young and arrogant guy who thought the whole world is his for the taking; now I'm a tired father with much more of a social conscious, although still too lazy to do much about it. More importantly, back then I was on my own; now I'm travelling with the people I love the most, people without which my life would seem pointless and meaningless.
I may be ten years older now, but I think I'm much a much wiser, complete person than I was before. I am glad I did that big road trip around Australia: that journey was the catalyst without which I would never be where I am now. Journeys, it seems, have a special way of getting on to you, proving that it's not getting there that matters but rather how you get there. I took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Mandatory Internet

To me, the Internet is not just another accessory; it is something I depend on. It's more like electricity and water supply, things that one cannot live without in a modern world. Perhaps you wouldn't take my word for it because I'm an acknowledged Internet addict, but perhaps you would also change your minds after reading the following.

Our recent trip to Cairns has convinced me once again just how valuable the Internet is when you're in unfamiliar territory. It also convinced me how great the iPhone is: I despise Apple for the was it treats its customers, but I have to hand it to them - they do have a great product on their hand.
Other than allowing me to have the Internet on me wherever I go (albeit through a limiting small screen, annoying Optus connectivity where 3G is rare commodity, and no Flash), the iPhone's built in GPS allows the use of applications such as AroundMe. By identifying where I am and crossing that information with Google Maps and Yellow Pages information, AroundMe told me where to find restaurants, pharmacies and medical help. Things that in the past required lots of wandering around became trivial.
Then there was the experience of what the lack of an Internet connection can do. The English family joining us at Cairns have had a relative back home who became sick during our vacation and needed hospitalization. Obviously, they wanted to keep in touch with the family, but what means did they have? I gave them an Aussie prepaid mobile phone but that proved too much of a pain for them to use (it was a Windows Mobile phone, so it's all Microsoft's fault). My iPhone's monthly internet allowance was too meager for them to rely on; it's good for text and information based web services, not heavy stuff. As a result, they had to use hotel phones and their own English mobile phones, which meant they're going to have the shock of their lives back home when they receive their global roaming bills.
If, however, I was to have an 3G Internet wi-fi hotspot with me (the kind I discussed here), things could have been different. Instead of using any type of conventional phones, the family could have used Skype over my netbook to chat with their relatives all day and all of the night at negligible costs. They could have even used their own iPhone for that, at the same time they were using the netbook, and without paying global roaming. Needless to say, they could have emailed, Facebooked, tweeted, and done a hundred more things to deal with the situation that full on Internet access allows you to do.

Given the obvious advantages of having a 3G wi-fi hotspot on me while away, I did some further research on the best options there. My conclusion is to go with the Netcomm MyZone modem, currently sold for $288 at OfficeWorks. In Australia, I would stick a Telstra prepaid Next G SIM inside this modem. Here's why.
The Netcomm product is better than its rivals from Virgin Mobile, Vodafone and 3 because it uses the 850MHz frequency while they use the 900MHz. This difference means that the Netcomm would work on Telstra's 3G network, the best mobile network in Australia by a very wide margin. The downside is that it would only work for Optus, Vodafone and 3 inside the big cities; outside those cities the latter providers use the 900MHz range.
Going out of Australia, the 900MHz range is pretty rare, while Israel uses the 850MHz range. This implies the Netcomm solution is the better choice for my potential international travels in addition to my Aussie travels. For the record, it deals with most European demands as well as American ones (as do its rivals).
Now for the SIM part. Telstra are notorious for ripping its customers off, but recently - a week ago, actually - they decided they've been losing too many customers and slashed their broadband prices down. Now you can get your hands on a prepaid data SIM of theirs, loaded with 3Gb you can use over a month, for $30, which is not too bad. Needless to say, Telstra has to make life hard somehow: Telstra prepaid data SIMs are only available on their special iPad programs, which means that when you get the SIM you will need to have it converted on the spot from a micro SIM to a normal SIM (blame Apple there).
Do that and you'll have the Internet on you wherever you go no matter what equipment you're using: Linux and wi-fi equipped mobile phones are all catered for (in contrast, the Virgin modem cannot be set up using Linux; unlike the Netcomm, which is managed through the browser, the Virgin modem requires Windows or Mac drivers).
The only catch would be getting your hands on a local SIM upon landing at your foreign destination. I suspect that soon enough we'll be greeted by phone company booths at the arrival terminals, the same way we are currently being greeted by car rental companies. Nothing will stand between people and Internet connectivity anymore.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Australia Votes

It's that time of the year again when we have to vote ourselves a new federal government, and the question is - who should we vote for? Should we vote for the spineless woman that just promised $222,000,000 (!) to fund extra chaplains in state schools and who wants to have a committee made of ordinary people decide Australia's policy on climate change when science is pretty clear on the matter? Or should we vote for the ignorant Pope guided bigot on the other side?
The answer is, obviously, neither. Lucky for us there are some good parties to vote for, and if these good parties get the balance of power in the senate then all the bigots and the spineless can go to hell. This post is all about telling you how I have voted. Yes, I voted already, in the comfort of my own home and with the aid of the Internet to help me check the policies of all the parties so I can make an educated choice. This post is here to tell you of the considerations I have taken in my voting process, and consideration is what I did as I voted below the line to rate all Victorian senate candidates from 1 to 60.
So here they are, my considerations:
  1. The good guys:
    My starting point was the parties I really like. There are three of those: The Secular Party, whose policies are pretty much a carbon copy of my political opinions; The Greens, the largest good doer in Aussie politics; and the Sex Party, a flag bearer of civil libertarian values.
    As good as these are, they all have their disadvantages. The Secular Party is a minor player with no chance of getting a seat; since a party needs 4% of first choice votes to receive public funding, a vote for them is a bit of a waste. The Greens, on the other hand, have a strong religious core in them, which prevents them from doing good when it comes to certain matters of civil liberties. The Sex Party has acquired quite a lot of following with its agendas, but it's short in other respects: for example, as hard as I have tried, I was unable to find what their policies on climate change are. Since I consider climate change to be an issue of potentially apocalyptic repercussions, I require my party of choice to have a firm policy there.
    I therefore chose to start my senate vote with a mix the candidates from the above three parties, starting with the specific people I like in particular: Richard Di Natale from the Greens and Fiona Patten from the Sex Party.
  2. The other do gooders:
    I continued my voting preferences with the other parties I like (but not as much). These include the rather surprising Joseph Toscano, Socialist Alliance (they're naive but positively so), and the Democrats (a party that likes to shoot itself in the leg; lately they have been doing so in order to differentiate themselves from the Greens).
  3. The neutrals:
    I moved on to rate parties that are generally useless to mildly bad. Not that I like them that much, it's just that they're too small to make much of a difference, so I'd prefer them over the corrupt Labor or Liberals. And if they do get their seat, then at least they'd be able to play hard to get and make life harder for the Stephen Conroys out there that want to make the lives of all Australians harder through the draconian legislation that's backed by their big party power. More about Conroy later...
  4. The big idiots:
    Then, as far away down the list as I can put them, come the big parties (separated by DLP). Naturally, I prefer Labor over the Liberals; sure, Labor has its internet censorship agenda which is more than enough to have it blacklisted, but it's not like the Liberals are going to make my life better. For example, they support pretty harsh copyright legislations.
  5. The scum:
    Closing down the list are the parties that simply should not be there, period. These include mostly Christian fundamentalists (e.g., Family First) as well as the Shooters and the racists (e.g., One Nation).
  6. The penultimate idiot:
    The honor of being #59 in my voting preferences went to the current senate's clown, Steven Fielding: the guy who had to hide from the media for a fortnight after Richard Dawkins had him for breakfast on ABC's Q&A.
  7. The honorary last:
    The guy I want to get rid of the most is the one and only Stephen Conroy, Labor's Catholic agent for all matters of Censorship, and the only person I know to call me a pedophile. May he long be forgotten after these elections!
I hope the above was helpful. If there is anything I can say in conclusion, it's this: Do make the effort to vote below the line and rate the politicians exactly as you see fit. You only vote once in three years, so don't let the politicians determine your fate for you; make the most of this, the most effective and easiest to use tool you have to shape the face of Australia's future.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Vacation born under a bad sign



Originally uploaded by reuvenim
Yesterday afternoon we flew back from our yearly winter escape vacation, this time to the clutches of warm Cairns - the heart of Tropical North Queensland. The conclusion after this time off is obvious: we need a vacation.
I'm not talking about the hardships of contemporary flying, with parking the car at the airport (while wondering whether it would start when you're back), checking in and going through the motions of security, or just all the waiting one has to do while armed with a lethal three year old. Nor am I talking about getting to the other side to find a hotel that seemed to have changed its mind about a few things we had in writing.
I'm not even talking about the stresses involving us meeting with some of our overseas family, even though these are quite a stress. The summit meeting of our three year old with his five year old cousin alone can cause more collateral damage to than a clash between two modern armies. Add to that contradicting tastes when it comes to determining how to best spend our time together, coupled with English manners dictating no one is ever allowed to express what they really want to do in any explicit manner whatsoever, and you can see what drove Jane Austen to write books like Pride and Prejudice and how our vacation can get a bit stuck. No, the family part was the fun bit; I've enjoyed it quite a lot, if only through marveling at how poorly able all sides of the family were at communicating to one another on what their life experience has been like since the last time we've met. Isn't it amazing how close family can meet after several eventful years, only to talk about not much more than the average chitchat you get at your workplace office's kitchen?
Seriously, the family part was great, and no one enjoyed it more than our son, for whom the whole family other than his parents live in far away continents. I guess it's all because he's the one member of the family least familiar with what the concept is all about while I know enough about it to seek shelter in another hemisphere. Yet even, supposedly the rational kid on the block, I feel this big emptiness whenever we depart.

No, what broke this vacation of ours was all to do with health. The statistics speak for themselves:
  • Four doctor visits.
  • Two ear infections.
  • One very high fever.
The straw that broke this vacation's back took place overseas but had all the flavor of our vacation as we knew it: a family member had to rush to hospital, breaking our tropical party.

Not that I'm complaining or anything. Our vacation might have had its ups and downs, but at least it was nice and warm - unlike the Melbourne we've left and the Melbourne we came back to.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

First Home Sellers Grant

At last we have some good news for those looking to buy themselves a home to live in: house prices in Australia are coming down (read here). Nothing spectacular there, just a tiny discount, but still something worthwhile discussing given the way the crazy Aussie real estate market.
The thing I find fascinating about this trend is its timing. It wasn't the GFC that brought this price reduction; no, during the GFC Aussie house prices climbed to their highest ever. The trick that made the difference seems to have been the end of the government's so called First Home Buyers Grant, a subsidy the government gave away to new home buyers.
The reason for this explanation is obvious. The house price bubble that seemed to have been eternally growing has to be fueled somehow; that fuel was personal debt. The personal debt of Australians has reached high enough levels to have the housing market go through stagnation, and therefore the first stimulus measure implemented by the government to address the GFC has been the introduction of subsidies. They knew why they wanted to implement this measure: not to help buyers, but rather to help sellers. The grants meant more money was thrown into the market, hence prices going up. Now the subsidies have stopped, and the price caravan is coming to a halt.
I suspect this reduction in house prices is only temporary. Sadly, Australians don't know what's good for them; they have been trained to expect house prices to always go up. The government that will allow the opposite would be a government that will never get elected. My lesson, therefore, is that our government is very consciously doing its citizens wrong by taking active measures to increase house prices while pretending to worry about housing affordability.
Or, as Jarvis puts it, cunts are still running the world.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

News for the would be working mother

An interesting article in The Guardian today discusses an American study recently finding "that mothers can go back to work months after the birth of their child without the baby's well being suffering as a result." You can read the full article here.
I find the subject interesting because of several reasons. On a personal basis, I have a problem with the prevailing Aussie mentality that takes it for granted that women should stay at home after giving birth because otherwise they'd be ruining the lives of their children. The evidence available to me seems to indicate a somewhat opposite view, more along the line of a mother staying home is ruining her own life. Yet the dilemma is hard: if you don't have family to look after your child then you have to send them to childcare, and in childcare they catch every germ that moves, which means they're probably going to be sick more often than they should at too young an age. Yet on the other hand there are benefits to be gained from childcare, especially on the social side. A few years ago I seem to remember reading an article in Scientific American quoting research that found the social benefits of childcare outweigh the parental negligence factor of sending the baby/child to childcare when it comes to the child's overall intelligence, but I have been unable to locate that article since.
With that in mind, it's worth going back to the main points raised by The Guardian's article:
  1. It's best if the mother goes back to part time work only. Makes sense; the parenthood of a young child is too hard anyway.
  2. The most important thing about parenting is giving your child attention, so when the mother is home - regardless of whether she's always there or whether she just came back from the office - she should forget work and focus on the attention side of things. Makes sense too; our experience is that our child begins to misbehave at the exact point he feels he's not getting enough attention.
My conclusion is simple. Women should not heed common perceptions concerning working mothers; instead they should decide what would work best for themselves. Call it women's liberation.


Note added on 2/8/10:
To prevent some of the above comments being taken at too personal a level, I would like to state I do not pretend to know what is better for any specific person; I have never been a mother myself, I never will, and I can't put myself in another person's position.
When I said that "evidence available to me seems to indicate a somewhat opposite view, more along the line of a mother staying home is ruining her own life", I meant for a more generic observation. Something along the lines of recent social research done at Kew (an expensive Melbourne suburb), that found divorced mothers there are really suffering because they gave up on their careers to become a full time mother. When the husband jumps off for his younger mistress, they're left with a huge Kew mansion to maintain but not enough means to maintain it with and no professional prospects to help them overcome their situation. In order to prevent what they consider a humiliation (i.e., moving to a less expensive area), they live a life of lies.