Monday, 28 February 2011

Weekend Slavery

The beginning of this new stage of our now miserable life was at a birthday party for a fellow kinder boy of our son's, the first in our son's career that we get to go somewhere because of his acquaintances.
We arrived at the birthday boy's house tad light (is there an etiquette with regards to the proper time of arrival to a toddler's party?) and at first our boy - like most of the rest of the kids around - was shy. Things opened up when a professional magician arrived and started his performance: everybody, child and adult, was occupied for the next hour or so with his tricks. It was so good I will use the opportunity to recommend the guy, Alex (photographed), and refer you to his website (here).
The magic of the moment allowed us to forget we're just tagging along. Talking about tagging along, other than the birthday boy's parents we were the only parents coming in full force, the rest sending only the mother (the majority) or the father (the minority). Still, I have to say we had fun: it was nice to meet other parents, some of whom seemed like people even a snob like I can have a conversation with. Who knows, maybe through our child we'll get to have some friends in this continent of ours.

Friday, 25 February 2011

Gift Guide

Handmade Purple Gift BoxI have a reputation for being a notoriously hard person to buy gifts for. I can defend myself saying those people who misfire when they buy me a gift don’t know what they’re doing, but the reality is that I am a hard person to buy gifts for. I can think of three reasons why:
  1. Whenever I know I want something I usually get it, and if I don’t then it’s probably because it’s too expensive.
  2. I spend a lot of my time researching what it is that I want or deem to need.
  3. I am pretty good in this researching thing.
However, I still maintain that if there is a will there is a way. I will therefore list a few gift ideas of reasonable pricing that I would not mind receiving in the least. Before you rush and buy these for me, be aware these are all things I already have (hence my ability to assess their worth):
  • Cosmos DVD: Often described as the best thing ever on TV (see here), Amazon UK is selling Carl Sagan's series at a very affordable price here. If ever there was a household item everyone should own then this is it.
  • Tim Minchin DVDs: The guy’s a genius, the guy works on the same wavelengths as I do, and the guy is incredibly and originally funny. See here for further discussion.
  • The IT Crowd DVDs: This award winning British comedy is, in my view, the best TV comedy to hit the screens since Seinfeld. Amazon UK is selling all four seasons on DVD at a pretty reasonable price, so check it out here.
  • Clint – a Retrospective: This coffee table book is great for both browsing and reading. It’s also great for both the generic movie fan as well as the Clint Eastwood fan.
  • T shirts: Through that magical thing called The Internets you can now get yourself a t shirt of any design you feel like, including your own designs. The prices won’t set you back, either: non branded t shirts sell on the web for between $10 to $15, which is almost always less than what Aussie shops will ask for. I got myself plenty of t shirts lately, probably more than I can justify: computer geek shirts, superhero shirts, atheist/skeptic shirts, sci-fi shirts, you name it. If you ask me, the website offering the most consistently fresh designs is Woot.
  • Books: Yes, I love reading, in case you didn’t know. Even in this age where I have been converted to ebooks you can still buy me gift electronic books. Most importantly, I tend to get my recommendations from my favorite blog – Boing Boing – where one of my favourite authors, a guy with who I share a lot of commonalities in taste – Cory Doctorow – often publishes book reviews.
I won’t leave you without a recommendation for children gifts. Once again I recommend books, because, you know, they’re good for you.
There are lots of kids books around and we think we know them all, but the reality is that there is a lot of truly original stuff around most people are not aware of. Again, my will point to Boing Boing as a good reference when it comes to originality. I will settle for leaving you with our recent purchase, a book recommended (here) for 4-8 year olds: Look! A Book! Our three year old loves it and so do we; it’s so much richer than your average branded crap it’s not funny.

To conclude: don’t be surprised if you receive one or more of the above the next time social conventions dictate me to buy you something.

Image by abizem, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

First Will and Testament


36PQ_019
Originally uploaded by reuvenim
After years of procrastination the worry for the fate of our child has finally got to us and we started working on preparing our wills. If anything, this laziness of ours indicates how far we are from the Aussie mainstream for whom writing a will is a national sport (to be fair, there are some fairly good legislative reasons for that).
Last night we drafted our will related ideas down, and I thought I should quote from those for two reasons:
  1. To see if anyone could enlighten us with their one ideas. For example, if someone has a good claim for an item of mine that they should receive at the event of my death (say, my copy of Mad Magazine featuring the Top Gun parody), here is your opportunity.
  2. As I have no particular secrets I would like to keep to my dead self, I thought it would be better if my current final wishes are here for everyone to see. That way there would be less surprises and that way there is less chance of my wishes not being followed.
The main dilemmas we have with the will are to do with the taking care of our son if both of us parents die, how to manage the money we leave him if both of us die, and how to split our property up in case all three of us die. I know the majority of family members will shiver at these very thoughts let alone the publication of these thoughts over the Internet, but I actually regard them as an interesting intellectual challenge. No, I do not pay much attention to the superstitious line of thinking that says discussing post death events causes death; I know with utmost certainty my death will take place anyway, so I might as well prepare for it the best I can so that the impact on those I care for is as minimal as it can be.
With that in mind, here are some excerpts of my thoughts so far on matters where privacy is not an issue:
  • In the event of my death, all my Hebrew books should to go to my sister. Many of them are gifts from my late uncle that she’d be able to appreciate even if she doesn’t like science fiction in particular.
  • Everything else should go to my wife (or my son, if we’re both dead).
  • Under no circumstances should our son be made an Israeli citizen or moved to live in Israel. However, he can visit his family there as much as he wants.
  • Funeral arrangements for Moshe:
    Under no circumstances are funeral or memorial arrangements to include religious ceremonies or motifs (at the punishment of prematurely joining Moshe). In particular, no Yarmulkah/Kippah are to be worn by anyone and no prayers of any kind (Jewish or other) are to be read.
    Although Moshe does not intend to attend his funeral or memorial services on his behalf, he warmly recommends people to listen to his favorite music, watch his favorite films, read from his favourite books, look at all the stuff he put on the Internet, or watch Carl Sagan's Cosmos. Moshe particularly recommends the last episode of Cosmos, Who Stands for the Earth.
    Moshe's body is not to be taken back to Israel for burial (unless Moshe happens to die in Israel).
    Ideally, Moshe's body is to be disposed of in the most environmentally friendly method available. If that is too complicated, then cremation is a viable alternative.

Update from 24/2/2011:
After further consideration, here are some more items I would like to add. Those who know me must have wondered how these requests never made it to the first draft:

  • My son may not be indoctrinated in any religion.
  • My son may not go to a school of religious affiliation (e.g., Jewish, Catholic).
  • My son may not attend religious education classes at school.
  • My son may not take part in activities of predominantly religious nature (e.g., religious camps).

Needless to say, the above cease to take effect once my son gains the right to make his own decisions at the age of 18.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Rise of the Android Machines

What do you do with your mobile phone?
I can tell you what I don’t use my mobile phone for: make calls. Or at least not make many of them; probably less than five calls a month. I receive even less calls: my phone has this habit of taking me by complete surprise whenever it breaks into singing the Hawaii 5-0 original series’ tune, my ringtone of choice. Why am I so surprised? I’m surprised because for all intents and purposes, my mobile phone is first and foremost a mobile Internet access point. I use it so much for Internet surfing (my wife would gladly tell you I use it way too much) that all its other uses are [almost] redundant.
My usage habits are contradicting the products offered to me at the moment by mobile phone companies. The contract I’m in now with my iPhone, which is on the cheaper side of average but represents the market’s mood, has me committed for two years with monthly $50 payments (that’s $1200 overall). For those $50 a month fees I’m getting an iPhone 3GS, roughly 150 minutes of calls, and 300mb of data. Yet I’m not using the calls but I would very much like to use more than 300mb of data; I’m taking great care not to exceed my data allowance by severely limiting my 3G Internet usage.
Up until recently alternatives weren’t available. Now they are.

First for the SIM:
Amaysim is selling Optus bandwidth for less than anyone else. They have the cheapest call rates I am aware of, but now they have a new deal: buy yourself 1gb of data a month for $10.
With this pack my monthly mobile bill will cost me less than $15!

A SIM is one thing, but you still need a phone. When I got my iPhone that was the only worthwhile smartphone around; now the battlefield is thicker with some worthy Android candidates like the Samsung Galaxy S.
There is a new market segment emerging, though, which is usually not talked about much: the cheap Android phone. Go to your local Dick Smith and you’d be able to put your hands on an unlocked Android mobile phone for less than $300.
I’ll pick on this specific offering from Huawei that's pictured above, selling unlocked for less than $200 here (a friend of mine got it for $170). It runs an unmodified version of Android 2.2 (the latest version is 2.3 but you’d be hard pressed to find phones running it), it’s got a GPS and it’s quite capable – amazingly capable – for the price.
Let’s not be around the bush with the financial savings this mobile phone would represent for me: $200 for the device + $15 * 24 months = $560 over two years, or less than half of what I am currently paying ($640 less, to be precise). That’s a saving your pocket and your mortgage feels very well.
That said, the Huawei is not without its disadvantages. To name a few, its screen is too small and too poor in resolution compared to the upper end of the market (iPhone, Galaxy); it doesn’t support multi touch either. All that means Internet surfing will suffer significantly. It means I probably won’t want this phone for myself, but that doesn’t mean it won’t suit others.
To continue with its shortcomings, the Huawei’s weak CPU cannot manage Flash and therefore does away with one of the Android operating system’s biggest advantages over Apple crowd. It doesn’t have much internal memory either, so if you want to use it for music or videos you will need to buy a memory card. For the record, that last attribute is actually an advantage over Apple: it allows you to choose exactly how much memory you need at any point in time and it allows you to find cheaper bargains instead of being forced to pay Apple its outrageous fees.
Talking about hidden advantages, let us not forget one major advantage this humble Huawei and all other Android phones have over the iPhones: they don’t require iTunes or any other bloatware for you to use them; just plug them to your PC with any normal micro USB cable (as opposed to Apple’s propriety cable) and there you go. I’ll put it this way: despite the very brief personal experience I have with operating an Android phone, the sense of liberty that system bestowed on this Apple captive was too much to bear. It is clear to me my next phone cannot be an Apple when such freedom machines exist outside of Apple’s Berlin Wall. Sure, Apple has the advantage with its vast array of apps and its style; but as Aladdin’s genie so eloquently states, nothing beats freedom:
But oh, to be free. Not to have to go "Poof! Whaddaya need," "Poof! Whaddaya need," "Poof! Whaddaya need?". To be my own master. Such a thing would be greater than all the magic and all the treasures in all the world.

Now, as I already said, I will probably not go as low as the Huawei for my own personal use. I can, however, see how it would fit others. Take my wife, whose year and a half old iPod Touch decided to give her a life of misery since it was “upgraded” to iOS4. She uses her iPod mostly for contacts, calendar and music – all of which can be delivered with much panache by the Huawei, with the extra benefit of 3G connectivity to ensure she has workable Internet access wherever she is.
As for me, I may not go with the Huawei, but I see no reason why I shouldn’t adopt the same business model I illustrated here: buy a cutting edge Android (say, the Samsung built Nexus S), probably from overseas (why not?); get my Amaysim; and go and listen to Internet radio as much as I please.
Or perhaps just get out of this vicious circle the mobile phone companies push us into where we "have" to upgrade our phones every two years: I already had my iPhone unlocked; were it to be still functional when my contract expires I will probably settle with fitting a cheap SIM to freely listen to Internet radio with...

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Neighbors, we have neighbors



Our application with the local council to have our house extended has been published for public scrutiny, and thus far it seems as if it did not receive any objections. Theoretically that means our home extension project will move one tiny step forward (that is, if anyone can tell how our local council works; my impression thus far is that they work as if it's some sort of a gentlemen's club).
The interesting thing I'd like to talk about in this post is the reaction we got from our immediate neighbors, that is the people living on either side of us. Both of them said they prefer to keep us as neighbors than to offer petty objections to our plans; one of them did not even bother to look at the plans after we told them the gist of things in two sentences and given their trust in us.
I have to say I was touched by this attitude. Even if it was not necessarily the result of altruism on their behalf, our neighbors gave us a vote of confidence. To be honest we took great care in our planning not to offend or intrude on our neighbors (in contrast to what we've seen elsewhere, e.g., the neighbour across the street that was discussed in the post here).
The point I am trying to make is simple: when you buy a house to live in you usually don't check on the neighbors you'd be living next to, mostly because it's not something that can easily be checked. However, the quality of your neighbors is of paramount significance: a bad neighbor, or even a mildly annoying neighbor, can utterly ruin the most wonderful of residences. So take that into account the next time you consider buying a house.
Another note of importance is the value of owner residences versus investment properties: one of the major reasons why our group of neighbors gets along so well with one another is that we're all the owners of the houses we live in, not some transient blip on the radar that is here today but gone tomorrow. So there's a note from me to the Australian government, who through multiple incarnations seems to always put the investor at the top of its agendas.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Books Without Borders

Amber Benson Borders Books ReadingThe avalanche of events quickly unfolded: before midday yesterday I read on Twitter that America’s Borders bookstore chain filed for bankruptcy and by evening time local news told us that Australia’s Borders have followed suit.
The implications are interesting. John Scalzi illuminated things for me from the writers’ point of view (here); as much as I would have been happy to earn my money writing his views made me happy I have my day job. The main insight I’m taking from this incident, though, is to do with the reasons for Borders’ collapse.
A bit more than ten years ago Borders used to be on the other side of the debate, often accused for the closure of small speciality book shops. Films have been made on this very subject, like the obnoxiously sugar coated You’ve Got Mail. Now the story is different: while ten years ago it was the small time book shop that did not realize big scale economics is going to swallow it alive, now it the big scale chain store that is being eaten alive by online shopping.
The newspapers tell us the fall of Australia’s Borders is due to the might of the Aussie Dollar and the rise of the ebook (read here from The Age for an example). I say those analysts are either self interested and thus biased or idiots we shouldn't consult with on the weather outside.
My point is best explained through the similarity between what happened with the music industry and what took place with Borders. The music industry continued (and still continues) to try and sell us CDs when we don’t want them, pushing many to piracy and rendering Apple as the master supreme of all music sales because they were the only one with enough power to establish an online music shop at the time when the music industry still had power.
Now look at books. Electronic books are nice and all but they’re still a small niche, while paper books are incredibly similar in nature to digital music in the sense that it doesn’t matter where you get them from they will always be the same. Sure, you don’t download a paper book, but buying a paper book online is just like downloading music only that the download takes a little bit longer. The publishers did not realize that people will get their paper book downloads at the cheaper venues and insisted on inflated book prices for the Aussie market, asking for significantly more than their overseas counterparts do; the customers went overseas instead and Borders collapsed. Sure, the strong Aussie dollar makes imports cheaper, but the price difference in favor of online downloads/imports is around 50% or more and cannot be attributed to the dollar alone.
Thus Aussie book publishers have established themselves as the same idiots as the international music industry for clinging to their beloved business model without realizing a change is due. Now with the aid of their analysts blaming the ebook and the dollar it looks like they’re about to continue sticking their head in the sand and play for the sympathy most people have towards authors. Dumb fools.
The last point I would like to make, as an advocate for the sharing of knowledge, is to do with piracy. The book industry is down on its knees now, just like the music industry, but piracy has nothing to do with it; it all just boils down to defunct business models. The lesson is simple: the music industry, and for that matter the film industry too, bullshit us all big time when they try and pin their woes on piracy; as the book scene shows through Borders' collapse, their woes are entirely their own fault.

P.S. To show you there is still some brains in the industry:
For a limited time, Amazon UK will ship your orders to Australia for free if your order is larger than 25GBP. Read here for further details. Still, the best source for buying paper books online is booko, a site that shows you where it's cheapest to get your book from (delivery fees included).

Image by @Photo, Creative Commons license.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Real Estate Tip

I would like to share with you an excerpt from Cory Doctorow’s novella, Chicken Little. It takes place when the story's male hero is trying to sell the apartment he bought just a year ago; his female real estate agent just told him she expects it would sell for less than what he paid for.
We start off with his reaction to the news:
"It's just that --" He dropped his voice, striving to keep any kind of whine out of it. "Well, I'd hoped to make something in the bargain."

"For what?" she said, softly.

"You know, appreciation. Property goes up."

"Did you do anything to the place that made it better?"

He shook his head.

"So you did no productive labor but you wanted to get paid anyway, right? Have you thought about what would happen to society if we rewarded people for owning things instead of doing things?"
Let that be a lesson to all Australians.


Cory Doctorow publishes all his work under Creative Commons licenses that allow me to freely quote him here. You can find his full work here. And yes, I love Cory Doctorow; so much so that I nominated the above story as well as his book For the Win to this year’s Hugo awards.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

App Warning

You may have heard of a new Israeli developed iPhone/Android app called Viber. Viber is an app that allows you to make free calls between other Viber users in a manner not unlike Skype; the key difference is that with Viber you don’t even need an account. Viber looks through the contacts on your iPhone, identifies those that use Viber too, and offers them as potential call targets. All you need to do is install the app; sounds great, doesn’t it?
Well, no. I seriously warn everyone against installing and using Viber due to the company’s privacy policy. Essentially, Viber loads the entire contents of your contacts to its servers, keeps them there, and allows itself to sell it onwards (read their privacy policy for yourself here). Think about it this way: there is just that much money they can make by showing you ads; it is obvious your details are worth more.
I truly hope none of my friends uses Viber, as I don’t want my personal details running around the world and out of my control. The fact that Viber can acquire my information without my consent and get away with it is testimony to privacy legislation’s lag behind the times in this age of the Internet.

Update - 17/2/2011:
It has been brought to my attention that my concerns were already raised by others (here) and addressed by Viber (here, for example).
The main question is how well the privacy concerns are addressed. My impression is that Talmon Marco of Viber seems genuinely honest and open about balancing between an effective solution on one side and privacy concerns on the other. The matter is open for interpretation, though: there is always the question of just how cynical you are about the way companies will find creative ways to abuse your privacy. I know I can be very cynical there: for example, I have seen and heard a lot from Google with their "do good" mantra on one hand, and their eavesdropping on unencrypted Internet traffic on the other.
With Viber's clarifications, though, it seems to me as if using Viber places you in similar spheres to using Gmail or Hotmail to manage your contacts and on much better grounds than using Facebook. Which brings me to say this:
I stand corrected. I consider the explicit warning I issued above regarding the use of the app to be wrong; Viber seems as safe as most other commonly used web communication facilities, if not more.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Nothing is worse than having an itch you can never scratch

22nd February 53/365In case you thought blogging cannot have a physical effect on the blogger this post is for you: a post whose very typing makes me itchy all over. A post regarding the latest pleasures delivered to us through the experience of parenthood (in our case, parenting a three year old).
Yesterday, and after a fortnight of suspecting something was wrong, we have positively identified our son suffers from threadworms. That is, in plain language, parasite worms infecting our son’s digestive system. Note that by positive identification of the problem I am referring to my wife spotting a worm popping out of the anus.
In general, there is nothing particularly special about this phenomenon. Worms and other parasites have been there with humans since before homo sapiens, and they’ll probably outlast us too. At any given moment there are billions of people infected with worms; most of them come from poor countries. Us Westerners can rid our bodies from this pest by taking a single dose of medicine.
Indeed, the medicine part is the coolest thing about threadworms: the medicine given to me last night by the pharmacist is special chocolate. Special in the sense that it contains the medicine; taste wise, it felt like any [cheap] chocolate out there. It was the first medicine ever I did not mind consuming. Even our son came asking for more! [In case you’re asking, given the threadworm’s talents at distribution the entire household needs to take the medicine if eradication is your aim]
The problem is that this is not the end of the war on the worms. The problem is that worm eggs are easily distributed all over the place: beddings, sofas, chairs - enough to make even the most persistent hand washer give up. We are now in for a major cloth washing and vacuuming effort, but even after that it is clear we are yet to see the last of the worms when considering how easy it will be for our son to be reinfected via childcare. When you share a room with 25 other toddlers lacking any sense of hygiene, you know you’re doomed.

Indeed, the cause of our next harassment looks to be childcare, where reports have been coming of kids suffering from head lice. While it does not seem like this epidemic has entered our household yet it is clearly just a matter of time, and with our son’s love of sharing our bed with us in the mornings it is clear this is going to be another campaign of massive bed linen washing coupled with weeks of careful head combing and nasty toxic shampoos. It is also clear this will not be a one time affair.

Memories of my own childhood head lice experiences, plus the current pleasures of dealing with threadworms, remind me of the one we should be thankful for all this taking place. Please sing along with me and the Pythons as we raise a toast to the twisted mind behind parasites:
All things dull and ugly,
All creatures short and squat.
All things rude and nasty,
The Lord God made the lot.
Each little snake that poisons,
Each little wasp that stings.
He made their brutish venom,
He made their horrid wings.
All things sick and cancerous
All evil great and small.
All things foul and dangerous,
The Lord God made them all.
Each nasty little hornet,
Each beastly little squid,
Who made the spiny urchin?
Who made the sharks? He did!!
All things scabbed and ulcerous,
All pox both great and small.
Putrid foul and gangrenous,
The Lord God made them all.
Amen
All Things Dull and Ugly by Monty Python


P.S. If you think these parasites are god’s punishment for us non believers then think again. For a start, why should my three year old suffer from his father's disbelief? Is that the way a loving god would act?
Second, given that the bulk of today’s human population is god fearing, and given there are billions out there infected by parasites, it is safe to say the majority of those infected by parasites are believers.
My own conciliation is in the thought that if man was truly created in the image of god, then god might have his own issues with head lice and worms sticking out his ass.

Disclaimer: The above poem and its subsequent analysis represents plain mockery of those who put their faith in imaginary friends and should not be interpreted as personal admission to belief in that for which evidence can never be found.

Image by fifikins, Creative Commons license
It is safe to assume someone owns the copyrights to the above lyrics

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Neil Gaiman on Book Piracy


In case you can't watch the above video, here's an excerpt from Gaiman's words:
"Then I started to notice that two things that seemed much more significant. One of which was that places where I was being pirated -- particularly Russia (where people were translating my stuff into Russian and spreading it out into the world) I was selling more and more books. People were discovering me through being pirated. And then they were going out and buying the real books, and when a new book would come out in Russia it would sell more and more copies."
I'm not saying that all authors are in the same position as Gaiman is and that his insight applies to them all, but I will say I agree with Gaiman on this point and that I have witnessed enough anecdotal evidence in support of the word of mouth effect he is talking about.

Friday, 11 February 2011

The Future of News

The Age, 4 February 2011My subscription to The Age is about to expire, and it seems like the calculation of determining whether to extend it comes down to a very simple formula depicting what took place with this newspaper over the last year:

- Catherine Deveny
+ Peter Costello
= No subscription renewal

On a more calculated note, I will say that my news consumption habits have changed radically over the past year, catalysed by the instant availability of the Internet wherever I am through my iPhone.
The transition started with me being exposed to other newspapers of greater merit than The Age, the likes of The Guardian or New York Times (as discussed here). Times have changed, though, and with the pressures of time, availability and the need to reduce my overall Internet surfing it is now fair to say that virtually all of my news consumption comes from the web. The bulk of it comes from:
  • Twitter: Again and again Twitter proves to be the first with the news, long before the TV or the papers catch up.
  • Blogs: By reading blogs specializing in my areas of interest I can get the news that matter to me, filtered and distilled. My number one source there is Boing Boing, where the mix of technology, culture and news fits my requirements of coverage scope and depth like nothing else.
I foresee a bleak future for the printed newspaper.


Proper disclosure:
After the above post was written I received a new offer from The Age to extend my subscription for a year at a cost of $59. As I intend to continue buying the Thursday edition anyway, because of its Green Guide / Live Wire section, that alone would cost me 52 * $1.50 = $78 if I was to buy it at the newsstand. I therefore extended my subscription.
And the lesson is: the right price can work wonders, especially when The Age is desperate to increase its circulation figures.

Image by Gerard's World, Creative Commons license

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Their Kitchen Rules

google zurich office - micro kitchenThe history of workplace relations is wrought with blood. It is common knowledge that up to less than a hundred years ago workers were scum, the property of the owners, fodder for those in power to do with as they wish. Things changed into what we now consider the norm – workers’ rights, weekend rest, an eight hour workday - relatively quickly through struggles involving many physical sacrifices.
In today’s world, where most of the people reading this post live a comfortable life, we tend to forget the nasty past. We forget where we came from. I’m guilty as anyone: after university graduation I thought it normal to work eleven hour workdays, and regarded those leaving work on time as leeches. It is, after all, an easy thing to forget, with workplaces trying their best to “help” us there. At the technology sector, for example, they pay us high salaries and give us company cars, pamper us with Blackberries and laptop computers to make us feel good as we work for them day and night, weekday and weekend. By far the cheapest weapon at their disposal is talk, and talk they do with many a slogan in their sophisticated sounding vocabulary as they tell us how important it is for each individual worker not to fail “the team”.

Which brings me to a story an acquaintance of mine, Mr Mojo Risin, told me about recently.
Mojo Risin works at an office shared by managers and workers alike. Shared is a key word here, because the office used to have shared facilities – namely, a kitchen for everyone to use and a kitchen roster where manager and employee alike joined forces in cleaning tasks. And they all ate and drank coffee together happily ever after.
At least that was what Mojo Risin used to think until, recently, an updated kitchen roster was published and the fellow could not avoid noticing how certain past roster members – namely, the managers – and removed in stealth. Mojo Risin asked around and received evasive answers from managers who claimed they did not realize they were removed from the list. So he asked the person responsible for the roster and was unequivocally told managers asked to be removed because their seniority meant they did not have the time to look after the kitchen.
Mojo Risin was infuriated (so much so he told me about the whole affair): his job description did not include kitchen duties, neithter did the job description of any of his fellow employees; since no one is a janitor by profession, what is the criteria for determining who the busier employees are? And at what rank are you kitchen duty exempt when everyone is supposedly higher than cleaner rank?
Mojo Risin pushed the matter forward, raising fellow employees’ awareness. At first he was told to shut up because the cost of having managers clean the kitchen is just too high, but those claims went silent when Mojo Risin pointed at the large number of expensive short term contractors employed at the office who do take part in the kitchen roster. Cost, it seems, was not the real issue.
Then he was told that the managers hardly ever use the kitchen anyway, an argument quickly falsified by Mojo Risin’s frequent lunching with the managers at said kitchen. Perhaps, Mojo Risin suggested, he could be excused out of his kitchen roster duties himself by minimizing his own use of the facilities?
His insistence getting on some soft nerves, Mojo Risin was next told to be careful about the fights that he picks. Our Mojo Risin got the point: wanting to keep his job he went silent. His cynicism towards his managers did not keep silent, though; it exploded exponentially.
You see, Mr Mojo Risin – and I’ve discussed this with him thoroughly – accepts that a private employer can make their own office rules and change them as they see fit. But if that is the case, then that authority should be properly established, in the open, not when no one can see. Let everyone know what is expected of them and under what conditions.

The point of Mojo Risin’s story has nothing to do with kitchen work. The point is to do with a scene most employees have witnessed at their place of work: managers asking everyone to make the extra effort in the name of team spirit, with the very same managers being the first to break that very oath. They ask us to look at the employee of the month they so gracefully anoint for sacrificing their personal life and working weekends, but then they never show their face around the office on a weekend day. Instead of leading by example, they make demands they themselves have no intention of adhering to.
We don’t have to accept such things idly. We have our workplace rights, the rights that people the age of our grandparents have died for; we should not give up those rights so easily.


Image by pineapplebun, creative commons license

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

My Diet Trick


Toothbrush
Originally uploaded by Jeremy Brooks
Through sheer coincidence I have stumbled upon a new trick to help me eat less junk at night: brush my teeth early, preferably shortly after dinner.
Since I hate eating after brushing my teeth, I avoid putting anything in my mouth till the next day's morning.
Simple. Effective. Cunning.

Image by Jeremy Brooks, Creative Commons licensing

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Money for Nothing

I never seem tired of mentioning my dismay at the level of public debate Australia has to endure. To summarize my arguments, debate on the most crucial of issues (e.g., climate change) is often subdued due to political interests; the debate that does exist is raised to its stature by the same political stakeholders as they seek to satisfy their selfish agendas. The scraps of debate we do have are dominated by both major parties settling and insisting on irrelevant positions that totally ignore the elephants in the room.
A case in point is the issue of housing affordability, or rather unaffordability (check here for recent analysis on the matter). For example, there's the not so well kept secret that it is financially better to rent out a house you own rather than live in it, which explains why many prefer to rent a place to live in as they rent their own house to someone else. Real estate taxation is so twisted in favor of the well funded investor that the little people wishing for nothing but a place of their own to live in find themselves outgunned, big time, as the following example demonstrates.

A few years ago the house across the street from us was sold at an auction. The old house was sold to an investor for $560,000. That investor demolished it, built two new houses on the plot instead, lived in there for something like two years in order to rip the most of the owner benefits*, and is now selling. He expects the inferior of the two houses he built to fetch more than a million. A real estate agent we bumped into claims he knows the guy: he makes his living this way, never living in his house much longer than a year.
With that in mind, let's have a musical break:


Before you call the police, rest assured this neighbor followed the law to the letter; he just exploited as much of it as he can to make a bucket load of money. Sure, by demolishing and rebuilding Mr Freddie Freeloader contributed to Australia's GDP, but look what he has done to housing affordability: he took one semi affordable house and gave society two very unaffordable houses instead. With so much money to be made by him in the process and minimal risk, how can anyone of poorer means – that is, any average person who cannot afford to spend a million dollars on a house – expect to be able to buy a house in our area?

The matter of taxation benefits for real estate tycoons that need it the least brings me back to the debate dominating Aussie media at the moment, the one about the merits or the flood levy proposed by the Labor government. As I have argued here before, I don’t mind the levy and I don’t mind being taxed more if my taxes are used for good purposes like public education , public health, public transport, scientific research and welfare for those in need.
However, I do mind when I’m being levied while I and the rest of the tax payers subsidize real estate investments to the sum of many a billions a year. I mind being levied when religious institutions are tax exempt at the cost of around $15 billion a year. I mind being levied when constitution defying religious school chaplains are getting $220 million dollars to evangelize at public state schools. And I do mind when troops from my army are stationed at Afghanistan for no particular reason other than the childish political whims of little leaders with big egos, costing us billions in dollars as well as human lives. What did the soldier killed there last week die for?
Wake up, Australia. Your lives could be so much better, your houses affordable and your children alive with a little bit of awareness on your side!


*The owner benefits our neighbor is expecting to get are tax exemptions on profits from the sale of the house he resides in.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Oh say, can you see?

Even though I'm not the sport's biggest fan, I am happy that today's Superbowl has been won by a non for profit team that is owned by the collective that is its supporters. Isn't that much better than some millionaire making a bucket load of money?
In your face, capitalism!
Perhaps it is not odd at all that since the Green Bay Packers were established the NFL changed its rules to forbid such formations from reoccurring. New teams have to be owned by a single majority holder owner, that is, people who either inherited their money or back stabbed who knows how many to get it. With the amount of money it takes to own an NFL team there can be no one accumulating enough money to buy a team by being nice.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

I'm a M-A-N


The Last Nail in the Tyre
Originally uploaded by reuvenim
Yesterday, and after more than a decade of abstinence, I had that dubious pleasure of changing a flat tyre on my car. It was also the first time ever I did it entirely on my own from start to finish. Usually these events tend to be forced on you when you least need them, but I have to add that between the pleasant weather and child related circumstances I was in no particular hurry, thus able to savour the experience to the full. To paraphrase on that famous Apocalyptic quote, I loved the smell of flat rubber in the evening.
There are a very few things in this world that make you feel more like a man than changing a flat tyre. Not only do you get intimate with a car – in my case a ton and a half behemoth of steel – you also get to lift it. Oh, the feeling of power! Then you get to mess with oily goo (coming off the jack); you get to sweat and work your muscles out opening them wheel nuts that have been previously tightened way too hard by pneumatic machinery at the garage, therefore making you go head to head with robots; and you get a fair appreciation of what takes place underneath the car, mechanics and all, given that for an hour or so you’re forced to stare at it without a wheel to obstruct the view.
Oh, that manly feeling! Just give me a barrel of beer to throw down my throat, a raw cooked cow to bite at, and some tobacco to chew! [It’s me we’re talking about here, though. I’ll have none of that nonsense; I am not a man, I’m a blogger.]

Jokes on male stereotypes aside, I would like to give the Honda engineers who designed and specced my car the finger. Their design, one that forces you to place the jack at the tightest spot possible next to the wheel, and the size of the supplied jack that just – emphasis on just – lifted the car enough so I can drag the wheels and in out (instead of lift them) is a study in tight margins. So tight were the margins I actually had to deflate the spare wheel to be able to fit it on the rim. So yes, Honda engineers: you’ve designed a good and reliable car, but still – screw you.

Needless to say, you won’t read a post from me without some two cent philosophy attached, so here goes.
I mentioned already that this was the first time ever in my career where I changed a tyre entirely on my own. This is no coincidence: the previous times all took place in Israel, where various people always came to my aid. From friends to bystanders that just happened to be there, everyone would lend their advice and some would even help here and there (or, as has happened to me on several occasions, take the task up by themselves from start to finish – how thankful I still am!).
This time around things were different. Despite being on a fairly busy street with a constant (yet timid) stream of cars and pedestrians, most of them obviously noting my presence and the task I was busy at, no one even blinked in my general direction. The only exception was a female bicycle rider who returned a smile.
What can this difference teach us? I argue it provides some sort of insight, albeit weak, to the societies I live/lived in. Grossly stereotyping the way I hate others doing unto me, Israelis have a habit of poking their nose and making everyone else’s business theirs. One manifestation is that they annoy you all too often by intervening in things that are none of their business, like dictating the terms under which you can get married (religiously). The flip side, though, is that they also poke their nose to help occasionally.
Australian mentality is a bit different. People are just as helpful, but the prevailing notion is one of “live and let live”: I don’t get involved in your stuff, you don’t get involved in mine. That’s quite a good way for people to able to tolerantly live next to one another, one of the main reasons why Australia is such a great place to live in. The downside, though, is the lack of community sense: people are so unaware of what is going on with their neighbors they simply don’t know their neighbors (a blame that certainly applies to me). To put it another way, when everyone lives in their own fenced house with their fenced backyard to hang out at, the way the people living the Australian dream do, people are less aware of what is taking place behind their fence. With time they also lose interest in knowing, too.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Input/Output Error

Zombies Invade San Francisco!Ask the average Aussie who their role models are and I suspect you would get answers containing mostly sport personas and some demi TV made celebrities. Today I wish to expand their horizons by pointing out a potential new role model for them, a person who is worthy not because he knows his way with a ball but rather because he’s got the balls to be active for various freedom and civil liberty causes the entire world benefits from.
Allow me to introduce ioerror, or - by his non Twitter name – Jacob Applebaum. I was aware of the guy for a while due to his involvement with Wikileaks and his escapades with the TSA (American airport security) each time he wanted to get in and out of his own country. The guy was obviously paying the personal price for spreading the cause of freedom, in the shape of freedom of information, worldwide.
Recently I learned a few more things about ioerror. For a start, I learned of his involvement with the Tor project, that wonderful tool that allows each and every one of us to use Internet anonymously (or much closer to that ideal than the very un-anonymous nature of normal Internet surfing) through the talents and the efforts of a chain of volunteers.
Then came the recent upheavel in Egypt, and ioerror seems to have found his true element. Through directing advice to Egyptians on how to access the web and how to do so anonymously, he also acts as a conductor of news and events from Egypt to the rest of the world (doing a much better job there than most “proper” news agencies). Thus ioerror became the personalization of the Egyptian revolution in my eyes: he may not be out there in the streets, but through his specific sort of non violent fighting, a fighting style that utilizes his expertise, he became a major contributor to the cause.
Sure, the fight over Egypt will not be won in the virtual world. Surely, though, one has to pay tribute to the value the web has had in stirring things up there; and now one has to pay tribute to the people at the center of that storm. Jacob Appelbaum is one such person. An example for how a young person can make a positive difference to the world without a wallet fat with notes. A proper role model.

Image by Laughing Squid (Creative Commons)

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

How Legal is Legal?

legal_downloads_are_killing_piracyThe notoriously painful process of legally acquiring music online has been the subject matter of these pages before. Now I would like to deal with another question: assuming you chose to go legal with your music downloading, what is it then that constitutes "legal"? I know this sounds like a silly question; common sense would tell you that just as going to any CD shop and buying a CD is legal, so would going to any website and paying for music downloads there would be legal. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well, prepare yourself for a surprise.

The first test case I would like to look at is Grooveshark, a site where plenty of music is available for free listening over the web. This freedom puts it in contrast with the majority of other music websites, like Last.fm, which now charge you for the pleasure. How does Grooveshark pull this trick, then?
Well, if you ask Universal Music, they can play their music free of charge because they’re illegal. Thus when Grooveshark had its iPhone app on the iTunes store, Universal quickly complained and Apple was all too happy to pull the plug on an app that competes with its own iTunes shop (read here for details).
Illegal as that app may be, the Grooveshark main website continues to run unimpeded. Can it truly run so openly while pirate websites such as Pirate Bay are under prosecution? The fact that it does make it smell as if maybe, just maybe, Grooveshark is not illegal at all; after all, Universal is not exactly a company lacking the means to file a lawsuit against the website.
Now think of the average Internet surfers who are completely unaware of all these going abouts. They heard of Grooveshark through friends, let’s say on Facebook; they check the website up, they fall for it, and they listen to music there for free all day and all of the night. Are these average Joes criminals? And if they aren’t, what exactly is the difference between them and those who get their free music through bit torrent: is it the mere act of peer to peer downloading that renders the activity illegal, given that the end result is exactly the same?

Let’s take our case a bit further. From Grooveshark, a suspicious operation due to its free nature, let’s look at websites that actually charge for their music.
Let’s turn to the now old case of allofMP3, which claimed to supply legal music and did so at significantly lower rates than its legal competition. Others – namely the record companies – begged to differ on these matters of legality. Read here for some very unclear insight as to whether Aussie downloaders of music from this website were right by the law or not. The bottom line, though, is still very much the same: a mere mortal accesses an Internet website selling goods and buys from them. Others claim that website is operating illegally; is the downloader committing an illegal act each time they listen to their paid for downloaded music?

Having demonstrated two cases where seemingly legal music turns its listeners into active criminals, at least by record company law, let’s look at a more extreme case – the extremist of them all.
The BBC is telling us (here) that iTunes, the Apple shop at the forefront of legal downloads, is illegally offering Russian video material for sale. That is, Apple did not ask for the consent of the copyright holders before wrapping the material up with their DRM and putting it up for sale. I bet they wouldn't dare do that with Beatles music.
Again, I will ask the same questions: viewers that buy this material and watch it – should they see a criminal the next time they stare in the mirror? How can a mere mortal have any chance of knowing whether the material they download is legal or not? And given the way the supposedly “legal” alternatives often turn out to be not, why should mere mortals care to abandon the so called illegal alternatives?


Image by busyPrinting

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

I've Been Reading...

Lately I’ve been reading various books and articles dealing with common themes. The possible future for humanity was their main concern of these science fiction books, popular science articles (most of which are peer reviewed) and opinion articles*. Together they offer one consistent vision, and a very grim one it is: between man made climate change, overpopulation and peak oil, humanity’s future for the next century or so would require significant lifestyle changes for those of us leading the better lives as well as significant suffering for the rest.
This revelation shook me up a bit. I used to think along the lines of climate change being dealt with by simply reverting from fossil fuels to greener, sustainable alternatives. I was under the assumption that the same money we invest in fossil fuels, perhaps with a little bit more here and there, could be invested in solar power stations, wind power and geothermal power; the clean power we would get there would drive our cars, and that would be it – green pastures for everyone, or at least enough for the world to be able to help those going through immediate suffering.
Now, upon further investigations, it seems clear to me this is no longer the case. It would take much more than the above to fix the world: our lifestyle, the way we know it, would very much disappear. I might be “lucky” enough for it not to happen during my own lifetime, but that would only mean that my son and my grandchildren, if they ever exist, will suffer even more.
What sort of changes am I talking about? Let’s start with international travel. Air travel and air freight are going to be prohibitively expensive; there will be no more visits to overseas family (guess they’ll just have to finally learn to use Skype!). With air freight so dear other sacrifices have to be made: no longer would we be able to buy stuff overseas and have it sent to us quickly. Think food: the days of being able to eat fruits and vegetables out of season will be numbered; you would spend most of your life in one place and you would consume locally, too. Goodbye urban sprawl, because people would have to live next to where they work. Fresh water, scarce as it already is, will be an even bigger issue when desalination plants no longer have the energy to run.
I can go on, but the point should be clear: humanity made great leaps and bounds through the last two centuries, resulting in us reaching the moon and us significantly increasing our life expectancies; but the cheap energy which got us through this stage is either running out or is going to cost too much once environmental effects are taken into account. Couple that with a population of more than 9 billion by 2050, all of which hungry for energy, and you may as well wonder whether we should go down the path of nuclear energy to make the transition manageable.
The biggest problem, though, is that we are not in the process of transitioning to anything. Everyone continues with business as usual despite the fact the future this is leading us to is clear. Clearly gloomy. I suppose the history books of the next century and onwards will not look upon our generation in favorable light.


*I am sorry to say all my reading material was hard copy based; I cannot provide links.
For sci-fi sources I would point you to Gateways' first story, Shoresteading, as well as to Paolo Bacigalupi's books The Windup Girl and Ship Breaker. For analysis and opinion articles I would refer you to issue 34 of D!ssent, featuring the article "Why the city we build will never be the city we need" by Andrew McNamara and "A carbon price, and then...?" by David Spratt, author of Climate Code Red.
I'll settle with these for now.