Sunday, 31 October 2010

Auto Victimization



Reading the news about the latest terror scare, bombs sent to the USA via freight planes from the Middle East, I find the most interesting aspect being the obvious variations in which the same news is covered in different countries. Let's have a quick survey:
  • In Israel, Haaretz newspaper's main emphasis is on the two bombs' final destination: they were addressed to Chicago synagogues. Read here and here; the airline security aspect of the affair takes the passenger seat.
  • In the UK we have the complete opposite. UK emphasis is on the words of top politicians claiming the bombs could have been set to detonate midair and bring their airplanes down. Whether you read The Guardian (here) or BBC News (here), it would take some effort for you to realize the bombs were sent to Jewish targets; one doesn't need to make much of an effort to realize why Israelis claim antisemitic tendencies in the two's news coverage.
  • USA's New York Times covers the story (here) by mixing facts with comments from politicians and security stakeholders.
  • Australia's The Age doesn't bother with originality (here). Quoting directly from The Washington Post, the coverage is not much more than stating the facts and providing Obama's own words on the matter. Obviously, The Age does not have the means to support international news coverage on its own, indicating at the poor state Australian journalism is in.
None of the above sources are from the Murdoch circus; all are reputed to be the best news sources for their respective countries. Yet the cynic in me cannot avoid noticing how news is "stretched" to fit national agendas: the notion the entire world hates us that is sponsored by Israel as opposed to the notion of never saying anything complimentary of Israel and/or Judaism in British/European press. Or just the way politicians are going out of their way to impose anti terrorism measures on their citizens and then cling on to every excuse possible in order to explain to their citizens why their privacy has been eroding so much lately and why they need to suffer on every visit to the airport. I find it no wonder at all the harshest words coming from the mouths of politicians are coming from the security obsessed UK.
Personally, I have been trained to see these terror incidents as nothing but an excuse for those in power to have a go at our civil liberties. The entire way in which they handled air security thus far is a joke: all the measures we have been forced to suffer, culminating lately in undressing us at the airport, are all totally useless when freight goes by unscreened. Everything from ensuring we do not carry our lethal tweezers on board to taking our finger prints has been geared towards finding the next suicidal passenger but nothing gave way to the thought there are plenty of other creative ways to attack air transport. Perhaps now we will see tougher measures on freight being introduced, but will that truly stop the terrorists? Can't they just move to attack freight on ships instead?
The entire world is on its knees spending billions at the effort of a slight few in Yemen. Do not tell me we are no being manipulated to be scared by our own leaders so they can pursue their true agendas.

Saturday, 30 October 2010

Internet Insecurity

Sample of FiresheepThis week announced a new precedent in Internet insecurity with the release of a Firefox extension, FireSheep (pictured in action above), that allows its users to access private Twitter, Facebook and other accounts when these are used over unencrypted wifi networks. This extension has been downloaded hundreds of thousands of times already, so in effect whenever you’re surfing the Internet over an unencrypted network – and most McDonalds and their likes are this way – you’re in danger.
FireSheep works by “borrowing” the unencrypted Internet cookies Facebook & Co send you in order to identify who you are. By doing so, FireSheep piggybacks on the fact these Twitters & Co have been too lenient in their own observation of encryption policies: while their login process is encrypted, the stuff that follows is usually unencrypted.
There are several things you can do about this threat to help maintain your privacy, and I suggest immediate action:
  1. If your own wifi networks are unencrypted, stop being lazy and change the setting on your wifi router to enable encryption. It’s amazing how many people do not bother with that.
  2. There are plenty of websites offering encrypted connections. That is, you access them and then access the rest of the web through them. I, however, would recommend simply using free VPN services such as Hotspot Shield (discussed here), which mean anything between your computer and Hotspot Shield’s servers in the USA is encrypted and therefore inaccessible to nearby snoopers. The Hotspot shield is available as an easy download and install application for Windows and Macs here, or as an even simpler setting update for iPhones here.
    If you’re using Linux, the way I do, then VPN is a problem. The otherwise excellent Ubuntu Forums contain many stories of anguish with regards to the use of VPN, so I would suggest implementing the next option instead of banging your head against the wall with attempts at VPN.
  3. When accessing the Internet over an unencrypted network, use Firefox as your Internet browser. I have a bit of a problem saying so myself, as I have been finding the Google Chrome browser to provide a much smoother and faster browsing experience than the now too heavy for its own good Firefox, but Firefox does have an advantage through its open source nature.
    What you need to do with Firefox in order to give snoopers a kick where they deserve is install either or both of the following extensions: HTTPS Everywhere and/or Force TLS.
    What the former does is ensure that all your communications with select websites such as Facebook and Twitter are always encrypted, therefore dealing with these websites’ inherent and problematic laziness to do so themselves. HTTPS Everywhere works with a specific list of popular websites, including the likes of Google searches, Facebook, Twitter and bit.ly.
    Force TLS does the same but only for websites you specifically list. This means that you can’t take security for granted until you list the website through Force TLS’ setup menu, but it also means you can add websites that are not in HTTPS Everywhere’s list to your private list. For most people, though, HTTPS Everywhere should be enough.
Needless to say, you can combine your solutions for some extra security. That is, use a VPN connection and browse with an HTTPS Everywhere enabled Firefox browser.
The bottom line, though, is that one needs to recognize one simple fact when dealing with the Internet: Everything you do on the Internet goes out to the whole big world by virtue of the fact you’re transmitting your stuff. Be careful and be calculated with what you’re doing there. Even if you think you know it all, staying on top of things when it comes to Internet security is a full time job, so tread carefully.

P.S. It almost goes without saying that by implementing methods 2 & 3 you would also bypass the Internet filter currently proposed by the Australian government.

Friday, 29 October 2010

The Kindle Experience, Part 2

The Amazon Kindle ebook reader was just further promoted up the ebook ranks with the recent announcement from Barnes & Noble. B&N's second generation Nook ebook reader, the Nook Color, will be a Google Android driven tablet computer with an LCD screen. In plain English, it is going to be a low key Apple iPad; it is also not going to be as good a book reader as the Kindle is, by virtue of the fact it will sport a backlit screen that is uncomfortable for extended reading or reading in broad daylight (unlike the Kindle and the old Nook’s electronic ink screen, which is very similar to properly printed paper in its characteristics). Perhaps the new Nook would be good for browsing magazines online or for simple web surfing; I can't see how an LCD screen can provide a satisfying book reading experience, though.
With the Kindle dominance in mind, I would like to report the further story of my own Kindle experience, first discussed here. In particular I would like to say something about the way it revolutionized my reading habits.

It really is simple. In the past, when I wanted a book, I used to have to think about it a lot – simply because I had the time to think about it prior to putting my hands on the book. I had no choice in the matter. I would have to wait till opportunity presented itself for me to go to a book shop, I used to wait until Borders issued discount vouchers (regularly a monthly habit of theirs), or I used to wait a month or so for the book I ordered from Amazon to arrive. That time meant I could ponder over my purchases, and often enough with the passage of time my passion waned. By the time its turn came up my mind would have been on another book.
With the Kindle the experience is different. I hear of a book and within minutes I have the book with me. It really is that simple! The phenomenon repeats itself: I read of a book that sparkles my imagination at one of my favorite blogs (usually Boing Boing or John Scalzi’s Whatever). The fuse is lit, and within minutes I decide I want the book. It’s a similar story with my wife: She reads of a new book release in The Age, and her fuse is lit. In both cases we tend to have the books on our Kindles (note the use of plural form) by the time we go to bed. If anything, this is testimony for Amazon’s ability to have the vast majority of new releases available for sale in the Kindle format.
There are side effects to the ease and speed with which books are acquired. First, visiting books shops is not half the fun it used to be. Second, it becomes hard to focus on reading one book when you’re carrying so many other tempting titles with you at the same time. And third, this temptation causes me to want to finish my current book quickly so I can start reading the next one I already bought.
What I’m trying to say is, with the Kindle I find myself reading more. Yes, I am very happy with my Kindle!

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Security Flaws

PassportsWith great flights come great responsibilities, and the ongoing security fanaticism that is sweeping the world is demanding more and more victims. The latest craze is the need to register your upcoming arrival to the USA in advance through the web (check it out here), and while we've been actively trying to avoid flying to and through the USA just in order to avoid going crazy, America has been inspiring copycats.
This is where we come into the picture by attempting to book family visit flights that would take us, amongst others, to the UK. The UK is expected to copy the USA's pre-arrival registration policy, and in an attempt to mitigate potential issues our travel agent - one of the biggest travel agencies in Australia - has informed us of their new policies: "To avoid passengers been denied boarding to their flights in the future [travel agency's name removed] has decided to bring in a policy of capturing all [my emphasis - MR] Client Passport details prior to ticketing to ensure that future changes to ticketing requirements do not adversely impact you as a traveller, or [travel agency's name removed] as a travel agent."
Look at what havoc the USA is creating and how eroded our civil liberties, privacy in particular, have become. In order to mitigate a potential minor issue that can be easily addressed through ten minutes on the web, would be passengers are now being asked to provide their very personal details to a travel agent. Travel agents are not exactly renowned for their data security skills, yet we have been asked to give them more than enough details to allow them to open a bank account on our name - or, worse, withdraw the money in our existing bank accounts.
Most people will probably fail to register the problems here and give their details away; I have no intention of doing so. I'm sure the travel agency will not hesitate to take my money and forget their policies if I protest hard enough, but even if they insist - what grounds do they have? Am I not allowed to book flights with no passports whatsoever, having them produced just a few days prior to the flight?

This chain of insecurity flows, from the USA through the UK and down to our travel agency is interesting. I put the blame on the higher grounds, the USA and the UK. I've given up on the USA years ago; the country has gone insane when it chose George W as its president (note I did not say "elected") and when it came up with a so called Patriot Act that is anything but.
The UK, however, is a different story. The UK has always been the smart country. But no more: I have already discussed the UK's fall here, but if ever there was doubt as to how bad things are in "Great" Britain then the last couple of weeks have proved the point for all to see. On one hand, the UK has announced budget cuts to education (higher education is going to cost a lot more, as per the news here) and severe budget cuts to science, although somewhat reversed just recently given the protests (read here).
However, where do you think the UK has all the money in the world to spend? You got it - when it comes to snooping the private lives of its citizens, the UK has all the money in the world. Two billion pounds are going to be spent on a system that keeps track of everything you do over the web, including emails (read here). As usual, the justification is security.
Let me ask a simple question, though. How will the government be able to scan through all the data it collects in order to identify threats? We are talking about a huge amount of data here. We are also talking about a system that is incredibly simple to override: all you need is encryption on your web surfing, either through HTTPS connections, VPN networks, Tor or any of many other easily accessible methods. So accessible the real criminals will just use them by default, leaving the two billion system tracking the ignorant web users - people like the majority of my family members - as they go about doing their mundane Internet Facebook stuff. What are the chances then of this data being used out of context? History shows us this is guaranteed, just the same as data leaks are. Great security relief for the UK, no doubt about it!
The point to all this is the ease with which, for no particular reason other than the mere appearance of doing something about security, our privacy is being further and further eroded. The government is able to get away with it through people's ignorance in such matters, while at the same time people become more and more ignorant through lack of investment in education and science. Give it twenty years or so and the UK will become a true nation of imbeciles. What a shame to think there will be no next generation Richard Dawkins, no new David Attenborough. Instead we'll have to settle with tight airport security.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Resistance is not futile

Our childcare decided to come up with a new initiative. Instead of charging our credit card on a fortnightly basis or let parents pay at the childcare facility itself, all parents have been forced to provide direct debit orders from their savings account - and savings account only - where childcare fees are going to be charged on a fortnightly basis. Interestingly, the new scheme was described as a service improvement initiative, now commonly known to be a euphemism for being shafted up the ass.
No, I didn't like this initiative at all, and I wrote childcare a nice letter explaining why:
  1. I am unsure whether they have the legal right to force existing customers into a direct debit regime.
  2. Regardless of legalities, it is clearly unethical to force existing customers to a direct debit policy and to deprive them of a payment method (credit card) that was accepted before. I see it as unethical because parents are captive audience: if we do not like the new policy we cannot go and place our children at alternative childcare centers in short notice.
  3. For unclear reasons childcare does not charge us by the same amount each fortnight. We therefore have a problem anticipating how much money we need to place in our savings account; our credit ratings is at stake if we get it wrong.
  4. As part of the policy change, childcare promised to let us know how much they are going to charge us a day in advance through a note left at the childcare center. As we do not visit childcare on a daily basis, and as we tend to miss many childcare days (due to sickness or going away), there is added risk we will not know how much money we are going to be charged with. Again, our credit rating is at stake.
Following ongoing protests on my side, as well as childcare doing everything wrong and failing to follow their own promises, I was finally allowed to go back to credit card payment. However, I was asked to keep this away from other parents. Since we hardly talk to other parents at the center I thought I'd better post it on the Internet.
To the majority that has nothing to do with our childcare center the message is even simpler: we do not need to accept bad service wrapped up in a nice layer of bullshit as a foregone conclusion. By making simple protests we can improve this world we live in. Don't shut up!

Sunday, 24 October 2010

Captain America is a court jester with a broken heart

Why do most people care about the clothes they wear? Up until a century or so ago, most people didn't. The richer people used clothes as status symbols while the majority of poorer people had to settle with what they could get. Now, however, clothes serve a major identification purpose: in a world where people need to strive hard to find their own identity, clothes are used by us all as a means with which we express ourselves. When you wear a certain piece of clothing, it is as if you are telling the whole world who you are.
By far the most popular articles of clothing are those promoting certain brands. As in, shirts screaming Adidas, hoodies with a huge GAP label all over them, shoes with the Nike check sign, or underwear with Calvin Klein popping at the back of way too low hung jeans. Personally, although my wardrobe is full of such clothes, I have a problem buying items such as this: if the main purpose of a cloth is to advertise its brand, shouldn't I get paid for wearing it? Why should it be that I need to fork my money out for the sole reason others can see I support a certain brand's line, as in - I deem myself a member of the market segment that specific brand has decided to position itself in for purely commercial reasons?
For someone who likes to think of himself an outsider in the great game of identification through clothing, I seem to spend a lot of money on specific items of clothing I like. My game seems to focus around the t-shirt arena, where much more versatility is at hand: while there are just that many pants designs one could wear, there are virtually endless t-short designs, starting from colors and moving through prints. My t-shirts feature praise for open source systems, science fiction motifs, pro evolution / anti creationism motifs, and as of yesterday's Internet order some superheroes featured by my Big Bang Theory alter ego, Sheldon.
Common to all my t-shirts is one major theme: I'm not into this branding game or the latest in fashion. I'm a geek, and I'm proud of it.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

The Case of the Fucking Moon Melon


"That's no melon!"
Originally uploaded by oskay
“You fucking moon melon” is a sentence I did not expect to hear through the mouth of my three year old son, but hear it I did. In fact, I have been hearing versions of it on a daily basis for more than a week now. It annoyed me and it made me want to feel like I should do something about it, so here’s me doing something about it – writing a post.

I shall start by explaining why I’m annoyed.
First and foremost, I am annoyed because I wanted to be the one introducing my son to the wonders of swearing. Let’s not be around the bush here: like most people, I swear; unlike most people I’m not ashamed of it. On the contrary, I take great pleasure in swearing: when done well, swearing is harmless and relaxing.
Most people would disagree with me on the “harmless” department, but I would beg to differ. I would argue that most people’s pretend antagonism towards swearing is the result of a religious like belief in the power of words. Words, to the non religious amongst thee, form a major part of religious faith: religious people claim that the words in their prayers carry the ability to perform supernatural feats, such as curing illnesses (check out the miracles the Catholic Church used to “approve” Mary MacKillop’s sainthood: her ghost had allegedly answered the prayers of select women to cure them from cancer). If words can have such supernatural effects, one can easily see how not so kind words – swear words – can have negative effects on people. Most people claiming to abhor foul language do not articulate their position on the matter the way I did; they claim swearing is bad but can never tell you why. The skeptic in me can never accept such unfounded claims.
I can, however, provide plenty of proof to the harmless nature of swears. For example, no matter how many times and how many people call me a “son of a bitch”, I will not change from being the son of my very human mother. Technically speaking, it is impossible for a bitch (species: dog) to deliver a living human baby. So that all there is to it, really: I have proved this particular swear is harmless.
Wait, I hear you say: what if this swear is not meant to be interpreted literally? What if it was supposed to affect your self image by damaging the perception you have of your own mother? You’re probably right: this probably is the intention of this and most other swear words uttered towards specific people. But let’s face it: most of the time people curse they do not intend to seriously inflict their words on others; the above case of my son (“moon melon”, a term derived from Lunar Jim, my son’s favorite TV series) is proof. Intention goes a long way: I, as a person that swears quite a lot, cannot remember the last time I actually meant what I said or meant to hurt someone when I used foul language.
In other cases we usually refrain from uttering the swear words in a manner that would allow their target to actually hear them: most of us swear behind the wheel of a car, but once out in the open we’re all nice and cheerful. Last, but not least: if someone is seriously swearing at me, there is absolutely no reason in the world for me to take them seriously unless I believe in the supernatural; since I don’t, I interpret people swearing at me with serious intent as nothing but fools.
That said, there are cases where swear words can definitely have a bad effect. For example, I can see how having a large number of people shouting stuff at you can be detrimentally scary. This can and does happen often on the Internet, where people use the guise of anonymity to say things they otherwise wouldn't have said about others. My point, however, is that these are but a small minority of cases. Most of the time, swearing is harmless fun. We don’t stop driving cars even though there’s not a bad chance they’d kill us, so why should we stop swearing for the remote chance they’ll cause actual damage? Through the application of adequate reasoning we can all have fun swearing.

Having gone through these lengths to explain why I don’t perceive swearing to be the manifestation of evil upon this earth, I now need to do the opposite and explain why I was annoyed with my son’s swearing.
As I said, I was annoyed because I wasn’t the one introducing him to the concept. Instead this was done by J, one of my son’s peers at childcare, a peer who appears to be taking on the role of the alpha male in my son’s childcare group. Obviously, J being a three year old himself, he’s only innocently copying the behavior of adults in his surrounding. You could say that peers like J is what you get when you send your son to a state schooling facility; I would say that what you get is exposure to the real world out there as opposed to keeping oneself in a glasshouse that would, sooner or later, break.
Yet I was keeping my son in the glasshouse myself: I did not introduce him to the magic of swearing. Not because I thought that by doing so he will never swear, but because I was waiting for him to be ready. As I said, adequate swearing requires the application of adequate reasoning, and it is very obvious my son lacks the reasoning capabilities required there.
The problem is that this is always going to be the case and that us parents are always doomed. Our children will always learn how to swear before we want them to do so the same way they are always going to learn about sex before we deem them ready through their peers and through the vast amounts of porn on the web.

The real trick to performing the duties of a parent is to guide your child as he or she prematurely stumbles upon the next big thing they are not ready to properly appreciate yet. It will always land on you as a surprise: a death in the family and you need to explain death; the sudden realization that the steak they’re eating used to be a living cow once upon a time not that long ago and you need to explain where food comes from; etc. The catalog of things too enormous to digest which life presents us with while we’re not ready is too big to mention here.
The question is, how does one parent their child through these challenges? It really is a tough call. I look at myself and I see a person that only had to truly face death when I was 26, and I did so rather poorly. Who am I, then, to tell my three year old better? Well, no one is; that’s the catch.
Handling suggestions would be welcomed. For now, I am trying to explain to my son that words have meaning and that people can be affected by these meanings, so you need to be careful with the application of your words. If you don’t, people will probably perceive you to be stupid. Does the strategy work on my son? Not really. But I do think that over time, applying to his reason, as limited as that sense still is, and setting an example are the best short and long term approaches.

Monday, 18 October 2010

The Real Education Revolution

Ask most Australians about the dilemmas they are facing with regards to their children’s education and you will probably get their position on private vs. state schooling. Ask our Prime Minister the same question and you’ll probably get lots of hot air revolving around some mystical education revolution, words with less substance than a bone that was just treated by a pack of hounds.
It is exactly because of this limited public discussion on our education system that I am worried. I am worried because I recall my own days in school: the more great books I read, the more I despise the boring unreadable stuff we were forced to study at school; the more exposure I have to the works of great scientists the more stomach pain I get at memories of dreadful math and incoherent physics lessons. I recall the dread I felt before every test; I remember the lengths I went to in order to ensure I pass them. Grades, NAPLAN tests, VCEs: When I look back at my school days what I see is a manufacturing line producing subordination and conformism, in the process taking away all the natural curiosity and sense of wonder I came equipped with as a child. It took me years to reacquire some of that lost magical touch.
If you were to ask me what the dilemmas I am facing with regards to the education of my child are, my answer to you is that I am very hesitant to expose him to our schooling system, period. What crime did he commit that I should strive to have any sense of independent spirit smashed out of him with sledgehammer like subtlety? Why should he be inflicted to the same suffering I had to endure?
The Julia Gillard of this world, elected and paid by us to serve us, should take notes when designing their “education revolution”. Start with this video as an example for what education should really be about:

Sunday, 17 October 2010

Our bills, our planet

Our electricity bills have been telling us some fascinating facts. Like the fact that we consume about a third of the electricity the average Melbourneian household does. What does that tell you? It tells you we don't have an air-conditioner.
Our water bills have been telling us some other fascinating facts. Like the fact that we consume significantly less water than the average three person Melbournian household does. What does that tell you? It probably tells you that we never water our garden.
Now, our household is not exactly suffering: we do not refrain from using electricity whenever we feel like, while I am famous for my daily long hot water showers - one of those nicer experiences to close my day with. If all this indulgence still makes me significantly less resource consuming than my peers, I can only wonder what goes on in their households. It seems to me as if we have a long ahead of us if us people are looking to reduce the damage we inflict upon the environment.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

How to acquire USA only books to your Kindle

The problem should be familiar to any non American trying to acquire media contents: a lot of the stuff you're after is only available to USA residents. Alternatively, what you're after is available to you where you live, but at a much higher price than the one it sells for Americans.
Lately, I have encountered a new manifestation of this problem with my Kindle ebook reader: although there are a lot of books I can buy at the Amazon Kindle bookstore as an Australian, there are ten times more books available to Americans. Sometimes, one of these books happens to be the one I am looking for. Other times, Amazon will sell a book to an American for a certain price but will ask for a lot more from international buyers; and on other times Americans can get certain books for free while the rest of us have to pay. I don't understand why that is the case, given that Internet book delivery costs the same wherever you are (sending an email to someone in the USA does not cost you less than sending it to someone in Mozambique); therefore, finding a way around this absurd state of things is essential to any sane member of society. Luckily, there is a way, and it's easy to use - even for those without any technical expertise.
It's called VPN, or Virtual Private Network, and companies like Hotspot Shield will offer you it for free (here, or here for the iPhone solution). What it does is create a secure "tunnel" through the Internet between you and Hotspot Shield's servers. Any website you access will think you're not accessing it from where you really are, but rather from where the Hotspot Shield's servers are; and in the case of Hotspot Shield, its servers are in the USA (when I tried it I was given a Chicago location).
As far as buying an Americans only Kindle book, the order of things is:
  1. Connect to Hotspot Shield (or any other VPN service you wish to use).
  2. Go to the Amazon website.
  3. Under "Manage Kindle", provide them with an American physical or postal address. Don't worry if you don't have one; with the Kindle, Amazon will never send you anything to that postal address anyway. Therefore, you can feel free to be creative: give them the address of the hotel you stayed in at your last visit.
  4. Buy your Kindle book.
  5. Download the book to your PC or your iPhone while still connected to the VPN. For that you will need to install the Kindle software on your PC (available for download at the Amazon website) or the Kindle app for the iPhone.
  6. From now on you're free: you can download the book to your Kindle, even though the Kindle is not connected through a VPN. I would suggest you use a wifi connection for this download, though, instead of a 3G one; it's only fair, since a 3G download outside the USA does cost Amazon more.
That's all there is to it. As far as I am aware, there is nothing illegal in performing this trick; there are plenty of websites out there that would sell you an American address, for a start, and they're legal. The simplicity and ease of this method only exposes the idiocy behind trying to divide and conquer us as far as media is concerned.
By the way, the same methodology can be used to easily circumvent Internet filters such as the one proposed by the Labor government in Australia. Again, this only goes to show how dumb the idea is in the first place.
Enjoy your reading.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Video Conferencing

Skype has just released version 5 of its software for the Windows platform, and the main event there is video conference calling involving up to 10 participants. It even has an automatic feature to increase the picture size of the side that's doing the talking. Think about it: it's a technological wonder. And it's free!
Yet to me it serves mainly as a reminder of the world we live in. A world where it's going to take a while before I'm ever going to test this video conference calling feature. Why is that? Because my Israeli family is too scared of computers, preferring to pay and call me via normal phones instead. Because I don't remember the last time we had a Skype call with my English family. And because my friends don't seem interested enough to bother.
I have stopped complaining about the above for a while now. What I will complain about is the fact that such technological marvels are going to be left unused for so stupidly mundane reasons. What a waste!

Thursday, 14 October 2010

I Talk to the Wind

I'm on the outside looking inside
What do I see
Much confusion
Disillusion
All around me.
I Talk to the Wind, King Crimson

_DSC9313

Afghanistan is back in the news. No, the question of whether Australian soldiers should be there or not isn’t finally on our agenda. What we do have is a mix of Liberals asking to bolster Aussie military presence at Afghanistan (here), Australian soldiers being put on trial for allegedly not being too nice to the locals (here), and the latest – Tony Abbott not being particularly happy with the way his visit to Afghanistan was covered by the media. Tough luck, Tony.
I am of the opinion that the first two items are directly linked. The more soldiers you will have in Afghanistan, the more friction their presence there would cause with the locals. However, the question that is on the agenda at the moment is whether soldiers should be put on trial in the first place. As someone with a record of serving in an occupying army myself, I would like to discuss the matter from the point of view of a person who has seen it all during four years at the West Bank.

The similarities between Israel’s conflicts and Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan have been discussed before in my review for the Israeli film Beaufort. This time around, though, I want to discuss the specific issues of morality at hand.
I have had the pleasure (note the heavy sarcasm) of serving in the Israeli army during the days of the first Intifada. Back then the Palestinians didn’t have guns; stones were the main threat. On the other hand, the Israeli army took pride in its self awarded title of being “the most moral army in the world”; officially, we weren't allowed to shoot back at stone throwers.
Now, you could just sit back and relax when you read that stones are the biggest threat we’ve faced, but you’d be wrong: stones can kill, stones can maim. Granted, guns do it much more efficiently, but think of this: think of scenarios where a big block hits your car’s windshield as you’re driving at 70km/h, and think what the result could be. Or think about being surrounded by hundreds of people throwing stones at you: each of the individual stones is relatively harmless, but combine them all and you’re in for a pretty scary experience.
How can someone placed under such circumstances react? My experience indicates they can react along several paths. One can simply avoid conflict and run away, perhaps even migrate to another country on the other side of the world. Another can turn the other chick and respond with kindness; I have been privileged to witness a few such occurrences myself. The third, and by far the most popular course of action, was to respond by being harsher. Sadly, when one side tends to look at the other through the barrel of a gun, you can take it for granted that gun would eventually be put to use. Indeed, that third course of action is the one responsible for the bigger impressions left on me from my army days (probably one of the main reasons I chose to flee).
Harshness can manifest itself in various ways. It can materialize as shooting tear gas or rubber bullets at innocent bystanders and it can materialize as beating people with sticks without much justification. It also comes in subtler ways, which can even be crueller because of their very subtlety: holding people up in security barriers for no particular reason, even though the people you’re holding have a life of their own to live with its own issues and troubles. Or the phenomenon that was most popular during my days in the army, waking families up in the middle of the night to force them to climb ladders and remove Palestinian flags placed in all sorts of hard to reach places.
Should those extra harsh soldiers be put to trial? Aren’t they just doing what their country sent them out to do?
If you ask me I would tell you that of course they should. Despite the best of army training, these rigorous subjections that are meant to make one into a fighting animal that obeys commands and forgets its capacity to think, each soldier is an autonomous unit capable of independent rational thinking. If those units are unable to use their own brains to figure out the immorality of their actions then they should pay the price for making others suffer for it. This is not the case of someone driving to work in the morning and happening to hit a child on the way; with these cases of soldiers' harshness, whether they were in life threatening situations or not, there was undeniable intent on behalf of the soldiers to cause harm.
That said, I agree that extreme situations can get the better of anyone. You can’t expect a soldier getting hit with stones on a daily basis not to lose it after a while. Abu Ghraib was hosted by people who were probably nice up until circumstances drove them into an Apocalypse Now like state.
Yes, the soldiers are to blame. If you ask me, though, the true criminal is not the soldier; the true criminal is the one who put the soldier in this impossible scenario in the first place. The true criminal is the politician sending the soldier to the hot zone.

Why shoot the messenger? The ones that should be put on trial are our distinguished leaders. The people who, in the name of making their political fortunes, are willing to send thousands of people like you and I into hellish conditions - and then put us on trial when we misfire, and misfire we will because we are only humans. The Tony Blairs, the George Bushes, the John Howards: they are the ones that need to stand in front of a judge and jury and justify sending thousands, perhaps millions, to slaughter.
If we narrow our focus on Australia and ask ourselves exactly why John Howard & Co sent our troops to Iraq and Afghanistan, and exactly why Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard have avoided doing anything to change that status quo, and why almost everyone else around them is making sure the question of our troops being there is kept well off our agenda, the answer is fairly obvious:
  • Our troops are there because American troops are there.
  • America is Australia's only feasible defense in case major aggressors (say, China) decide to have a feel.
  • If Australia wants to have a hope of enjoying such a defensive envelope, Australia needs to kiss up. That is, send troops.
That's all there is to it.
Now, I'm not trying to question the logic behind this defense strategy that all Australian major party politicians seems to blindly follow (even though I personally think it's ridiculous). All I'm trying to say here is that we, as in the Australian society, should put our cards on the table and openly state the way things are. We should call a spade a spade.
In our case, we should say that soldiers dying in Afghanistan, the billions we spend there, the civilian casualties we cause, and the soldiers we are now putting on trial - these are all a part of Australia's real defense budget. Only when we acknowledge this fact do we have a hope of ever sorting ourselves out.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

When I'm 64

A friend from work recently told me he got caught speeding driving at 64km/h in a 60 zone. Grievances aside on how the government of Victoria is getting away with extra taxation under the guise of safety, his story made this tune go on in my head… 64, 64… Until I realized I was humming to the tune of 64 Zoo Lane, a Saturday morning children TV show. As in, this song:


It wasn’t the first time I caught myself humming tunes to children’s TV shows. Generally speaking, Giggle and Hoot has been the number one hit on the “tunes inside Moshe’s head” chart for a while now, with the main competition coming in from the same duo’s Five Steps to Bed song. The latter has a good excuse, though: it’s rather jazzy, so I have good justification for liking it.
As far as children’s programs are concerned, my favourite is probably Yo Gabba Gabba. Indeed, this morning I woke up with their talent song in my head, so much so that my three year old threatened me to shut up or face the consequences. I can’t help it, though:
What’s your talent
What’s your skill?
What’s your talent?
Everybody’s got one!
My name is Foofa
I have a talent…

P.S. When my son asked me what his talent was, the first thing that came to my head was his cunning ability to wake us up way too early, every morning. He wasn't impressed.

Don’t say you weren’t warned…

A few days ago I reported here on how Facebook can acquire your phone numbers through friends synchronizing their iPhone contacts with Facebook, probably while at a state of complete ignorance as to what the potential consequences of their seemingly innocent action may be.
Today it started: for the first time ever, my wife received junk SMS from the UK to her work mobile phone during the night. Facebook seems the main plausible source for them acquiring the phone number from.

I have already deleted my Facebook profile. Do you like your privacy or are you willing to take your chances with Facebook?

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

The Big Bang

In case you were wondering why there haven’t been too many reviews in my reviews blog lately, please refer to the work colleague who introduced me to The Big Bang Theory.
I don’t think Big Bang Theory is as good as its British counterpart, The IT Crowd, but it does have one significant advantage over most British TV stuff: episodes. A single season of Big Bang has almost as many episodes as four seasons of IT Crowd!
Of course, the really important question is to do with us not knowing about this TV series even though it is now in its fourth year. The answer there is simple, yet indicative of these times which we’re in: the mediocrity of Australian commercial TV channels, the likes of which broadcast The Big Bang Theory, stirs us away from checking it out. It’s not just the mediocrity, it’s also the way they treat their customers: they regard their profession as the broadcasting of advertisement material with intermittent shows in between. That philosophy explains why they keep changing schedules and why they don’t even stick to their own schedules.
On the other side of the equation are the non commercial channels, SBS and ABC. SBS simply can’t afford a high profile sitcom like Big Bang, and ABC has a problem with broadcasting anything from the USA. In fact, one can argue (I certainly do) that the Australian ABC is more like the BBC’s foreign legion.
Anyway, why am I wasting time pondering stuff here? Let's go and watch another episode.
reuvenim AFK

Monday, 11 October 2010

New Laptop

I got a new laptop today. Excluding netbooks, this is actually the first time ever I buy a laptop with my own money. As laptops go, mine is an el-cheapo but an el-cheapo with some class: an Intel I5 CPU, 4gb of RAM, and a 64 bit operating system.
Technologies progress, yet certain things seem to stay the same regardless:
  • Internet Explorer, the browser you have to start with upon buying a new laptop, is still the worst browser out there. Thank goodness for Google Chrome.
  • Windows by any name is still Windows. Windows 7 might be the best version of Windows ever, but it's still a pain to work with and a disaster when compared to my operating system of choice, Ubuntu Linux.
The question is obvious: why are we forced to buy Windows each time we buy a new non Mac laptop? It looks like Ubuntu shall be installed on my new laptop sooner rather than later.

Sunday, 10 October 2010

Distilled Contraceptives


Surface Tension
Originally uploaded by nickwheeleroz
My son's ongoing ear issues have placed us yet again waiting for the pharmacist to brew a concussion of antibiotics. The pharmacy was one we haven't visited before, and being a modern one it had this computer screen where one could browse medical information aimed at people who can't even tell what Wikipedia is.
Being that I was only looking to pass the time I thought I'd browse the alternative medicine page. I didn't waste my time on that introductory page, choosing immediately to read more on homeopathy. That intro page talked on how homeopathy was an 18th century invention and went on to elaborate on the divine qualities of distilling medicine with water. When I finished being puzzled by thinking too much on how a place pretending to provide cures dares place such advice in its midsts I noticed a link to a page dedicated to homeopathy medicine aimed at curing bleeding.
Doesn't dealing with wounds immediately expose homeopathy for the sham that it is? I mean, what's next? Are they going to sell us homeopathy contraceptives? On the other hand, maybe they should; if anything could prove to those falling for homeopathy what the rather mundane qualities of consuming expensive water are, that would be it.

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Facebook, RIP

Last night I decided that enough is enough and gave the order to delete my Facebook account. Not just your mere account deactivation, the option Facebook allows you to easily access, which keeps your info on its servers; I opted for the option Facebook doesn't want you to see, the option requiring mere mortals to use external help (like the one here) to access, the option which - in two weeks time - is supposed to have all my information removed from Facebook's servers.
The removal of my information from Facebook is exactly what I wanted to achieve. The reason for that is simple: I am sick and tired of the way Facebook treats, or rather mistreats, my privacy. Other companies do their best to take away from us as much as they can (e.g., Google), but no respectable company is going as far as Facebook in their constant derision of what the concept of privacy means.
The problems start with one essential fact most people fail to notice when registering: anything you put on Facebook is owned by Facebook. For example, when I upload a photo to Flickr I can choose what rights to claim over it (you can claim a copyright; I claim a Creative Commons license); with Facebook, on the other hand, the photo is Facebook's. If they want to sell it or do whatever they want to, they can and probably shall.
Then there's the constant struggle to keep oneself up to date with Facebook's privacy settings. These tend to change on a regular basis, and when they do they tend to default on the less careful side. One needs to be truly careful to avoid their personal information from being exposed to the whole wide world: the most basic example there is the way your Facebook profile, including the list of your Facebook friends who have no saying on the matter, is open game to search engines by default.
My decision to quit Facebook here and now came as a result of two recent developments that broke this camel's back:
  1. As The Guardian reveals here, it turns out that iPhone and Android Facebook users have been uploading their phone contacts into Facebook's servers for a while now. This means that if your Facebook friend has an iPhone running the Facebook app, and if they were foolish enough to choose to sync their contacts online (at least in the past this used to be the default), then the phone number and address of yours they had stored elsewhere on the phone will be available to Facebook, too. The most interesting and scary aspect of this tragedy is that you, the person whose details are exposed, do not have any saying in this.
  2. This week Facebook came up with a new feature that allows users to group their friends. This is actually a nice feature, as it allows you to separate between friends from work, with whom you want to maintain a certain type of relationship, and friends with whom you like to have orgies on Saturday nights, with whom you maintain a totally different kind of relationship; keeping your day job would mean that separating the two into separate domains has its benefits.
    However, Facebook cannot do everything right. An extra bonus of this feature is that your friends can now enroll you to Facebook groups without acquiring your approval first. As this example from PC World shows, that can quickly lead to one finding oneself a proud member of the pro-pedophile North American Man Boy Love Association.
As these examples indicate, one is always in a virtual race to ensure their Facebook identity is kept healthy. They also show this race cannot be won, as a lot of it depends on your friends' actions rather than be directly in your hands.
I have decided that my life would be better with me relaxed and out of this race. Sure, I will lose touch with a few friends with whom Facebook has been my main communication conduit, but I am sure that over time better alternatives can be found; keeping in touch with someone should never mean sacrificing one's privacy to the whole world (and to greedy businesses) on the way. As it is, if you read this blog then you know how to keep in touch.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Never going to get to France

A friend recently returning from a visit to France posted photos of said trip on Facebook. Given the fond memories I have gathered touring and working in France I looked through each of those photos, but upon realizing these were limited to people's portraits and could have been shot in my own backyard instead I started thinking. How can anyone visit France and not marvel at its beauty? And given that people obviously can visit France and not marvel it enough to take photographs worth posting, the question turned into me wondering what the purpose behind the photos that were taken was.
Quickly enough my thoughts turned into this very blog. Five years ago, when I started this adventure, the blog’s main purpose was to facilitate better communication with those that cared for me. As in, provide a tool for those physically far away with which they can have some sort of an understanding as to what is going on in my life. In effect, the blog was to provide snapshots of my life.
Since its humble start my blogging has changed. Now I blog on several fronts: this blog is used primarily by me to articulate opinions; my reviews blog discusses the movies and books that I read, a fair activity given the importance that reading and watching films carries with me; Twitter is used for quick status updates and the distribution of memes where quick and short bursts can do the subject matter enough justice; and Flickr is my detailed photo album, where all our extraordinary activities (as well as some fairly ordinary ones) are meticulously documented. As it is, if someone cared enough to want to know what goes on in my life, they have some very capable tools with which to do so; all that's required of them is time.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that not too many people like that exist. If anything, I am constantly surprised by the way people confessing their care for me avoid anything I put on the web. Therefore, if I am to try and assess just how successful a communication strategy mine is, I have to look elsewhere. I have to look at people that practice the same web habits I do.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that I know several people like that. Two of them stand out in particular, as they are people whom I track on a daily basis: John Scalzi and Cory Doctorow, both science fiction authors and both guys who were mentioned in this blog several times. Both Scalzi and Doctorow maintain regularly updated blogs, both of them are very active in the Twitter department, both of them review a lot of material, and both maintain Flickr pages containing personal stuff. Indeed, at any point in time I can tell you to a surprising level of detail what these two guys are busy doing, I can tell you a lot of what takes place in their personal lives, and I can tell you a lot about what their concerns are.
Most interesting of all is this simple fact. With both Scalzi and Doctorow, but especially with Doctorow, I can tell these things to a level that by far surpasses the level with which I can profess the same information about anyone other than the people with whom I share my house. The only exceptions to this rule, and they tend to be momentary exceptions, come not from family but rather from friends of mine who do share a window to their lives through the web.
A lot of people criticize the web for taking away real relationships and replacing them with virtual ones. So much so that it became fashionable to accuse the web of ruining people, in particular younger generations. I disagree; I think the web is a wonderful tool to connect people and share ideas with. Cory Doctorow agrees with me: in his review of Steven Johnson’s recent book, Where Good Ideas Come From, he concludes good ideas require putting oneself “into innovative environments”. The web provides exactly such an environment; I can only mourn how the vast majority of people fail to use it to even a fraction of its potential.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

A kind word on the iPhone

I have been known to use this blog in order to express my opinion on how superior the Google Android platform is to the Apple iOS one. Or, in other words, how much better Android mobile phones are to iPhones. This notion was based on the much more open architecture of the Android as opposed to the grappling attachments Apple enforces on its users; it was only supported by Apple’s own malpractice of releasing a badly designed phone, the iPhone 4, just because it looks cool to have an antenna that can be easily short-circuited by its user.
This time, though, I want to say the good word about the iPhone. Or rather than saying good things about the iPhone itself I want to say why I don’t think buying an iPhone in today’s market is a capital offence.
At least in Australia, the iPhone dominates the smartphone market. The immediate implication of this dominance is that parties who want to release mobile phone apps do so for the iPhone, and almost exclusively for the iPhone alone. Examples include:
  1. Vicroads, an application that will tell you how long it should take you to drive from where you are to Point B in Victoria’s main roads and also allow you to see what the roads look like the way by accessing their cameras (as per the above shot).
  2. ANZ has a banking app that lets you access your account in a matter of seconds to perform complicated operations easily.
  3. AroundMe compares your location with map information and Yellow Pages information to tell you about businesses around you. It proved itself very useful when I needed to quickly find a pharmacy while visiting Sydney, to name but one example.
  4. TramTracker is an app that tells you the live story of Melbourne trams and tram stops around you.
Easily noticeable is the attribute that makes all these apps irreplaceable when compared to your average website: they work best if they know exactly where you are. There is nothing preventing the Android platform from offering similar applications; it’s just that the iPhone’s popularity dictates it gets things first. I suspect the situation is different in the USA, where Androids have been available much earlier, but there can be no denying the appeal the iPhone platform has to this Melbournian user.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Jaws

I am a cybernetic organism. Today I had a metal ring installed around one of my tooth.
The story goes back a long way. For several years now I had pain in my upper right teeth. I did numerous x-rays, went to see several dentists, but while all were able to take my money in all sorts of creative ways none was able to tell me what was wrong. The last doctor I've been to suggested redoing an existing filling, which helped: it helped because while treating me she was able to see that the neighboring tooth was cracked, and it also helped because the pain narrowed down from an entire region of teeth to this cracked tooth. That is, I had multiple problems before, one of the reasons why a specific problem was hard to locate.
Today the same doctor wrapped (with much force) that metal band around the cracked tooth, and for the first time in eons I can chew and drink with my right side without feeling electrocuted. There is a catch, though: the metal band is just a temporary measure; it's uncomfortable to begin with, with all the food bits getting stuck in it. What it does provide is an indication of what comes ahead: if all's well after the band is installed then I need to replace it with a crown; if there are still issues then the solution is the much dreaded root canal. I have two weeks to decide...
Regardless of what lies ahead, I just want to go over the main lessons from this story:
  1. Be aware that there is such a thing as a cracked tooth and that these cracked teeth do not come up on x-rays. They still hurt, though.
  2. Teeth get cracked from all sorts of reasons: chewing hard stuff (like unpopped popcorn), clenching your teeth against one another, and lack of flossing - to name my own crimes first.
  3. In my case the problem is exasperated by my receded gums making the whole affair much more sensitive than it should be. The reason for the receded gums is rather mundane: years of brushing my teeth too hard, especially when using electric tooth brushes that let you brush hard without much effort. Do take it easy!
For now, and until the decision is made on that crown vs. root canal affair (i.e., the $1400 vs. $4000 question), I am trying my tooth on every chewable substance out there. Everything feels so new with this cyber-tooth that I have!
Oh, and I'm applying for a role in the next James Bond.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Our Possum in a Box

That little face peeking at you from between our recycling bin and our lawnmower's catcher is a little baby possum. Our possum.
A member of a three possums' family living off our and our neighbors' trees, this little possum decided to make a home out of our bins. At first we were a bit intimidates, as possums can be nasty when scared, but thus far it's looking at us and we look at it and that's it. So much so that when I wanted to actually use the lawnmower's catcher I had to poke it politely with the end of a broom to make it get out of its home (for precaution I lifted the whole bin by sticking a broom through it and ensuring the little creature can't decide to jump at my face).
During the day, our friend spends most of its time asleep in its new home. Even when we put our stuff in the bins! At night it's a different story: it and its larger mates have spread little pallets of shit all over our yard, especially near the fences (on which top they like to stand). It doesn't really bother us, though, and as long as they stay out of our house (especially out of our roof) we're fine with them being around. Given the harsh environment they have to live in with us humans around, we're quite happy to play hosts.
It probably won't take much for me to decide that enough is enough and our guest has overstayed its welcome, but for now I feel like having a cute pet without the pain of having to look after it.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Witch Doctors


Witch Doctor
Originally uploaded by Martin Barber
I’m getting to the stage where I can’t stay silent anymore when people talk to me about the latest miracle they encountered upon their interactions with witch doctors. Yes, witch doctors: you may have thought these were a relic of the ancient past, but we still have them amongst us today. Only that today we tend to refer to them as homeopaths, chiropractors or osteopaths. It's the new age, man.
I shall start with a disclaimer: I have been to a chiropractor myself, and I even raved about it on these very pages (here). Back then I was ignorant: I didn’t know what the difference between a physiotherapist and a chiropractor was, so I went and gave the chiropractor a chance. And you know what? There wasn’t much of a difference between what the chiro did to my back and what the physio did, so I didn’t have much of a reason to suspect foul play. However, since then I learned more about the philosophy behind chiropractors’ practices, and let me tell you this – it isn’t natural philosophy.
As the Wikipedia entry on the matter will tell you (here), chiropractic is a 19th century invention that is based on all sorts of weird hypothesis, none of which have been vindicated since. Personally, I would suspect none of them stand much chance of being vindicated at all, for the simple fact that they’re pretty much based on someone's wishful thinking. In my book I would call this bullshit. The question is, do you really want a professional practitioner in whim based speculations to mess around with your back, or whatever else they claim they can deal with? I’m not stretching the truth here; the main reason for this post was me stumbling upon the suggestion that a chiropractor should be able to sort a tonsil situation on a child so well as to prevent the need for surgically removing them. Yep, you read that right. In my book, there is no difference between making chiropractors making such a claim and some stone age witch doctor at a remote African village making similar promises.
Me, I would prefer to go with the tried and tested methodologies (emphasis on “tested”). Sure, the placebo effect is probably ramp with chiro treatments, and sure – as my own experience indicates – a chiro’s treatment is usually harmless. Yet what is the point of going to them instead of going to those that have been proven to be able to reliably make a difference?
Ultimately, the onus of proving their claims lies on each practitioner of any belief, be in chiropractic or religion. Conventional medicine is conventional because it takes measures to prove that its treatments make a difference, whereas alternative medicine feels itself superior to this lowly practice. Yet alternative medicine claims to be as effective if not more effective than conventional medicine; if that is the case, why do all alternative medicine practitioners shy away from properly run objective testing of their claims? Is it that they know their practice lacks foundation?
Sadly, official Australian medical policies do not make the distinction between conventional medicine and alternative witch medicine. Australian private health funds, institutions receiving billions of tax payers dollars each year, will support and refund people using the “services” of witch doctors. By doing so they’re only legitimizing these institutions for the Average Joe that is ignorant about such matters and just wants to feel better, the way I was only a few years ago.