Thursday, 31 March 2011

Old Man and a Boy

Old Man and a GirlSome people worry me.
Take the example of the guy who started thinking that his CRT bedroom TV is affecting him through its radiation. As hard I as tried to explain the effect it would have on him is miniscule and can’t compare to the radiation absorbed by merely being alive, nothing made the difference. He went and bought an LCD TV instead, probably one offering an inferior experience given LCD’s sensitivity to the angle of viewing.
Another example is to do with the moon. You must have heard, a few weeks ago, about the “super moon” phenomenon: apparently, the moon was at its closest to earth in a couple of decades or so. This guy told me he saw the moon and it was bigger than he ever remembered; telling him this is all to do with optical illusions (the lower the moon is in the horizon the larger it seems) and not with distance (the variation in the moon’s distance to the earth is pretty small when you look at percentages), the guy kept on insisting on his point. Fine, he doesn’t have to take my word for it; but surely he can easily verify things (check a fine explanation from Bad Astronomer here and here). He didn’t.
Then there’s this guy who was convinced by his workmates that he’s suffering from issues with his heart. Despite tests indicating otherwise he went and had himself hospitalized; by the time he realize the horrors of hospitalization the doctors wouldn’t let him out before reverifying he’s alright, so he was stuck there for five days.
My problem is that the guys in all of the above three cases is just one guy, my father. I don’t know whether his behaviour is the result of a life devoid of skepticism and critical thinking coming back to bite him, or whether succumbing to ideas regardless of evidence and being too impressionable is the result of old age; I suspect it’s a mix of the two. What I do know is that I’m worried.
If an entire life time is not enough for a person to get a sense of what is right and what is bullshit, what hope can I have of helping him find the right track?

Image by Tjflex2, Creative Commons license

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The Book Tour

Bookstore by reuvenim
Bookstore, a photo by reuvenim on Flickr.
During the weekend that was we did something we haven’t done for a while now: we went inside a book shop for an extended browsing session.
There are two main reasons why this is fast becoming an extinct experience. The first is our transition to ebooks: our entire book shopping experience, from the stage of picking recommendations to the actual delivery, is now online. Second is the demise of the book store, in the sense that most book stores out there (cough Borders cough) flog the best sellers at you and keep the more interesting books in a state of un-browse-able disarray (if they keep them in the first place).
The book shop we visited was a proper corner book shop that did not seem to commit that big chain sin: Tim’s Book Shop is both large and friendly, and although it still focuses on new releases it does not push the latest from Dan Brown directly into your veins. Instead it offers a nice browsing experience by sections, and their children area in particular is a pleasure to browse in the company of our household’s three year old.
Browsing we did, but I’m afraid we did not buy anything. For a start, I am now running a policy of not buying paper books anymore: this saves me money but is also more environmentally friendly and fits better into our small house (to quote Captain Kirk upon deciding on his book purchases, “space – the final frontier”).
Publishers, by the way, are not doing themselves any favors. A title I’m currently looking to buy, The Book of Rachael by Leslie Cannold, is currently available only on paperback or by reading online from a PC monitor through the Readings website (can a more disastrous approach to digital book publishing ever be conceived?). I contacted the book’s publisher for advice regarding their release plans for the Amazon Kindle, my ebook platform of choice, and was told there are no plans for a Kindle release but that a Kobo release will be available soon via Borders. Personally, I don’t understand all this bickering around formats; I would have imagined publishing as widely as possible would be in the publisher’s own interest, especially when the Kindle platform is the most popular ebook platform and when the act of publishing for the Kindle is dead easy. That, and the fact that with the aid of tools such as Calibre it is just as dead easy to convert a Kobo book in the ePub format to a Kindle friendly format. You wouldn’t even be doing anything particularly illegal. As it is, the publishers seem hell bent on promoting piracy instead of selling their books.
The second reason for us not buying books is more down to earth: pricing. I’ll give you an example: a book our son saw at the shop and wanted to get, The Invasion of the Bristlebots, was selling for $30. A quick glance at booko revealed the same title is available at Book Depository for less than $13, delivery included. I’ll tell you what we did later that same day: we ordered two copies of that book, one for our son and one as a gift, and it still cost us less than a single copy at the friendly neighbourhood bookshop.
The way I see it, bricks and mortars book shops are living on borrowed time.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Smartphone Etiquette in Three Acts

Self-documenting workshopThe question of smartphone etiquette came to my mind while hearing of my friend’s Mr Mojo Risin’s latest shenanigans.
Attending a presentation and accompanied by his Android smartphone, my friend was told off for playing with his smartphone instead of giving his undivided attention to the presentation.
Then a certain reference was made to an external source of wisdom, and Mr Mojo Risin and his smartphone were the first to be able to share more information on the matter with the rest of the crowd.
Shortly after several books were referenced, and Mr Mojo Risin & phone were quick to identify the books at Amazon and then shed some more light on the matter through information they picked from reviews and general product information.
The next time external references were made all eyes were on Mr Mojo Risin, urging him to do his thing with his smartphone and get more info. Some might say there were even complaints about the time it took him to retrieve this information, although Mr Mojo Risin blames his carrier’s poor performance there.

Image by Nikki Pugh, Creative Commons license

Friday, 25 March 2011

Android cannot come any sooner

Allow me to regale you with the story of last night's upgrading of my iPhone 3GS to the latest iOS operating system version, 4.3:
  1. Things started off at around 19:00 with the installation of the latest version of iTunes. After downloading around 100mb of files and close to the very end of the installation process I was politely told the process failed.
  2. After a reboot I tried installing iTunes yet again. This time it worked.
  3. Downloaded the latest versions of all my apps to iTunes. This took a while as I have many of them.
  4. Started the iOS update to my iPhone. Somewhere in the middle the process failed; I suspect it was due to a "blip" in my Internet connection, probably the result of the stormy weather at the time. As I was using Windows XP to run iTunes on (as opposed to my preferred Linux environment that iTunes won't support), and as Windows XP cannot reconnect once the network connection got lost, I had to abandon the process and reboot.
  5. Second attempt at updating the iOS proved successful. By now the time was roughly 22:00.
  6. Testing my iPhone I noticed its wifi did not work. Reboots here, there and everywhere (router, modem, iPhone) did not help.
  7. After lots of googling and running around the Internet for advice I reset the whole of my iPhone's network connections, switched my iPhone off, waited for it to make sure it's off, uttered prayers to Allah and Shiva, switched it back on, redid my network settings, tested... and it worked. The time was 23:00.
You could argue this torment was worthwhile: I should be thankful to Apple for offering me an upgrade path in the first place. I am not that thankful, though: so far the only noticeable change I can see with the upgrade is that the phone says I'm on the "Virgin" network instead of the "Optus" it used to have before. Other than that, the main feature of iOS 4.3, wifi hotspot capabilities (available in Android for over a year now) works only on the iPhone 4; Java enhancements that imply quicker web surfing seem to crash the browser much more often than before; and the battery seems to die at a significantly quicker rate.
In short, this is another Apple "upgrade" that is meant only to make sure I pay more of money to "upgrade" into their latest product.
In my case the upgrade is going to be to an Android. If I were to buy a new mobile phone today it would probably be the Google/Samsung Nexus S; however, the more likely candidate for now, till my iPhone 3GS is brought to its knees altogether by Apple, is the upcoming Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1v tablet (pictured), running plain vanilla Android 3.0 and kicking the iPad 2's ass (read here for details).
I know, it's a lot of money for a toy. I'd be happy to receive it as a gift, though...

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

So Give Me Coffee and TV

Sony profile dog big by reuvenim
Sony profile dog big a photo by reuvenim on Flickr.

How long would you expect your TV to last?
It almost seems like a rhetorical questions. Back in the age of the venerable CRT TV, the average life expectancy of a TV was between 10 to 12 years. They were usually built like tanks and they survived like such.
Times have changed and newer technologies now dominate the market. Prices have skyrocketed: whereas $1000 would get you a top notch CRT during those days gone by, now you would need to fork out around $3000 for a model with similar claim to fame. Granted, your screen will be larger and much thinner, but your wallet would shrink much more.
The market itself keeps on producing new innovations that may mean you would not want to keep your TV for as long as you were used to. Just four years ago 720p TVs with component inputs were the high end norm, whereas now 1080p and HDMI rule. At the same time the manufacturers force you to buy 3D enabled models if you want the best it can be, even if you find the whole 3D thing nothing more than a headache (pun intended).
It seems as though the manufacturers are in the process of conditioning us to replace our TVs more often. They do it by coming up with new features we don’t necessarily need (e.g, HDMI 1.3 with ethernet capabilities) or want (3D), but they also do it in more covert ways. A recent article in Widescreen Review raised concerns about a mainstream manufacturer they preferred to leave unnamed (but did mention its name starts with an S and ends with a G) that did not bother stocking replacement parts for a four year old TV panel. Given that today’s LCD and plasma screens do not have the reliability of the old CRT tanks, that alone could force us to replace our TVs every 5 years. Widescreen Review already claims that 5 years is the new TV lifecycle average.
TV manufacturers are obviously not the only ones making a killing out of forcing us to repurchase their products. Ask my wife and she will tell you all about her iPod Touch: still less than two years old, it has been rendered as useful as a fresh pile of dog poo many moons ago when it was “upgraded” to Apple’s latest iOS 4. Then again, should I be surprised? Apple is probably at its best when it comes to separating fools [like me] from their money.
I am left to think of the environmental impact of these exercises in waste.

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Bi-Amping

009#365 Banana ConnectorsLet the record show that for the better part of three years, yours truly, once a devoted audiophile, did not see to the full optimization of his hi-fi amplifier’s performance.
The first part was to do with setting up Audyssey, a system meant to improve sound performance in your specific listening conditions. It works by you placing a microphone at your sitting position and it playing test sounds; Audyssey listens to the test sounds’ results captured by the microphone, and then assesses (using propriety algorithms) how to best manipulate the source signal in order to create an optimal listening experience in your room by digitally manipulating the signal prior to its amplification. The trick was with those test sounds: their nature meant they would either scare the baby in the house or, even worse, wake him up; so I just did the minimum and forgot about it.
Then there was the matter of the amplification itself. My current receiver is good, for a receiver, but its sound cannot compare with the more fluid and powerful Hafler power amp I used to have (but gave away in the name of comfort). The Hafler’s FET transistor amplification made it sound almost valve like but without the power inhibitions most valve amps exhibit; in comparison, my current receiver's more common bipolar transistors sound harsh and weak.
There is a workaround to the amplifier problem: the receiver comes with seven amplification channels whereas I am only using five, which means I can bi-amp. That is, I can use two amplifier channels to power each of the main left and right speakers in my hi-fi setup (one is used to power the low frequency drivers, the other is used for the mid to high frequencies). Laziness held me back; what difference would it make when there’s a baby in the house and adequate listening cannot be achieved?

Last week I finally put an end to this charade. The main reason for me holding back, the toddler in the house, became the enabler: instead of avoiding action because of him I did the setup and the bi-amping together with him, and we all had fun in the process.
For the Audyssey setup we built this tower of pillows on the sofa, simulating a listening person, walked out of the room so as not to interfere with the testing signal, and listened with awe as the test signals did the rounds several times between all of our speakers. Our three year old was excited, and the result is a sound field with tighter bass, better presence and much clearer movie dialog. Audyssey may be introducing equalization and other nastiness the pure audiophile would prefer to avoid, but in this real life it greatly improves the sound reaching my ear.
The bi-amping was a much more empowering experience for my son. We took proper tools out: screw drivers, plugs and a multi meter. We did measurements and proper handiwork, messing with cables and such. My three year old, who always pushes in to help us but normally only hinders ended up genuinely helping me: without him at the helm of the multimeter during some crucial times I wouldn’t have been able to identify which cable goes where without physically moving some heavy speakers around.
The result of the bi-amping? Much tighter, stronger bass for a start; more importantly, it feels as if a brand new, much more powerful amplifier has been added to the room. There is much less distortion, and loud or demanding pieces that take all amplifiers out of breath are performed with significantly more ease than before. Instead of an amp that is a heavy smoker we got ourselves a prime time athlete running the show(s).

The conclusion is obvious but needs stating: win-win. The toddler and I got to do some top notch father/son activities, the toddler had the benefit of empowerment through doing the same things I do, and we all gained much better sound as a result. The three year old even claims The Octonauts sound much better now!


Image by Endemoniada, Creative Commons license

Monday, 21 March 2011

An Ode to the Landline

FestnetzDon’t ask me how we got to talk about, but chatting to my wife about this and that turned me to mention the history of my relationship with a device called the “phone”.
Growing up in Israel, the first decade of my life was spent without us having our own phone line at home. At about the age of 7-8 we had a public payphone installed on our street which we could use, and indeed I used it a lot (and was often told off by adults who couldn’t believe a child could actually be operating a phone – he must be there to break it apart; given the entire street was sharing the phone, you can sort of understand their anxiety). Coming into my teens we finally got our own phone line at home (I’m sure you heard the trumpets going off at the time), but even then things weren’t as they seem: most neighbours had to share a single line between two or even three of them, which meant that only one neighbour could use the phone at any moment in time. Imagine the friction this can cause if one neighbour’s family hosts teens anxious for a chat, or another has a baby and likes to take the phone off the hook to avoid waking it up.
It took a long while – probably a decade or so – till we all had proper phone lines we could call our own. Let me remind you that all of this took place well within my lifetime, that I am not that old, that Israel is no technological backwater, and that I grew up in a suburb of Israel biggest metropolis. Yet it all happened.

Now let’s fast forward to this day and age, an age where having a landline no longer makes sense. What did we gain by having a phone?
When looked at this way, I argue that we lost a lot. Back before the age of the phone life was simpler and much more relaxed: you couldn’t coordinate paying a visit to a friend, so you just went and paid them a visit if you wished so. You couldn’t alert people of any changes to previously made plans so everyone just stuck to their plans and made things predictable for one another. Predictability also meant tranquillity, or rather reduced stress through reduced uncertainty; we took things easy back then.
Today? Today I need to book an appointment with a friend weeks in advance; if I was to see the friends I have on this continent on a yearly basis I consider myself lucky.
Obviously, the above comparison is terribly one sided. Phone brought up lots of benefits, probably too many to mention: we can now phone an ambulance and save the lives of people who need attention within less than ten minutes (say, heart attack victims). We can also communicate much more easily, which means we are more productive and can achieve more with our time.
That’s the trick, though: too much of the productivity gains provided by the landline (and for that matter, its descendants, the mobile phone and the Internet) are being abused in order to make us work more and be available to work even more rather than to merely improve the quality of our lives. Technology is great, but when self interest and greed are placed ahead of it – as they usually do – it serves for enslavement long before it makes our lives easier.

Image by Spuz, Creative Commons license

Friday, 18 March 2011

Bad Astronomy

Blue Moon

Throughout the majority of my life I was living under the assumption there is not much to amateur astronomy. You get yourself a telescope, you point it to the right point in the sky, you check the light show out – most of the time you would just see dots – and you move on. Even the task of identifying where to look at has been made much simpler through facilities like the Pocket Universe iPhone app where you point your mobile phone to a piece of sky and it tells you exactly what object/s you’re looking at. Where’s the challenge there?
With my limited experience today, as an owner of an amateur telescope, I can only laugh at this question being raised in the first place. The challenges are everywhere!
The first to hit you are the logistical ones. Thinking of doing some night time star gazing? Well, if it’s warm outside there’s a good chance you’d be severely bitten by mosquitos and their likes. I’m not joking: in one session I’ve only been out for one minute and my legs captured numerous hits. Cold weather comes with its own bonuses, but regardless of temperatures there is always the curse of the cloud cover to prevent you from going anywhere on the night.
Let’s say you’ve survived the weather and pointed your telescope towards some sexy target up in the sky. You go to call your better half to come and have a look, you come back to your scope and… where was that lovely thing you were looking at? Well, the answer is simple: the earth may take some 24 hours to turn on its axis, but when it comes to telescopy it’s moving at rocket speed. Nothing is in focus for more than a few second, and every proper gaze has to involve some effort.
The weather is against you, the earth is working against you, and then you realize your own body works against you, too. It starts with your back: even when coupled to a hefty tripod, a telescope pointing up to the sky still requires you to bend down a lot in order to look up its lower end; that’s the price you have to pay for looking up instead of looking in front. Then there’s your eyes: gazing through strong magnifying glasses, as optically accurate as they may be, is a tough experience on the eyes; fatigue hits very quickly, within less than a minute if staring at brighter vistas.

I thought I’d play a trick and watch the sky with the aid of my camera. I opened my wallet wide to buy the contraptions allowing me to connect my SLR to the telescope so that the telescope acts as its lens (requiring about $100 for a T adaptor kit for my specific telescope as well as $5 on eBay for a T adaptor for my Pentax SLR). The idea was to combine astronomy with my love for photography, as well as to allow the three year old of the house to be able to marvel at the telescope’s output given his inability to do so through the normal eyepiece.
That attempt to mate my camera with my telescope only opened a new can of challenge worms.
First of all, it proved extremely hard to be able to focus the camera. Using the small spotter scope on the side of the proper telescope I would point the telescope at a major attraction in the sky; say, the moon. I would then play around with the camera and the telescope for minutes trying to see the moon through the camera but to no avail; at best there would be a very faint smudge of light for a few seconds. Given the previously mentioned tendency of stellar objects to race through the sky, you can never really tell if the problem is to do with the focus or the aiming. It took lengthy and painful efforts for me to get to see proper objects in relative focus.
Then there’s the problem of telling what the camera is seeing in the first place. Looking through the camera’s eyepiece is terribly hard when the telescope is pointing up; effectively it means putting your face on the ground. The alternative is to use the camera’s “live view” mode and set things up using the camera’s monitor, but I found you simply cannot tell whether the image is focused or not by the camera’s monitor alone: at 3" it is still way too small. Sure, I can connect a netbook to the camera and watch the image on its screen, but that takes the logistics equation too far. Instead, and in order to take photos, I had to take many separate shots at various focus settings, hoping that one of them would catch the moon in its proper dressing.
The best focused photo I took so far is the one displayed above, and it reveals yet another problem with astrophotography. When you connect your camera to a telescope you’re exposing your camera’s sensor to a whole lot of dust, dust the camera's sensor normally protected from with the aid of a sealed camera lens. As you can see in the [non Photoshopped] photo above there are clear signs of dust on the right of the frame. It’s also a worry: sure, the camera is equipped with dust shakers, but with enough exposure you will get to the point where some dust decides it likes the sensor too much to say goodbye.
The uncropped photo reveals yet another issue. Most of my telescope’s magnification is done by the eyepiece at its end; the main barrel of the scope is there to gather light rather than magnify it. However, the camera can only be attached to the telescope instead of the eyepiece, which means that you don’t have that much magnification at hand; you have something that is enough for looking at the moon but probably not even close to taking photos of Saturn’s rings or Jupiter’s facial features.

Yet with all of the hardships, it has to be said there is a lot of magic to star gazing. With my scope I can see much more than dots in the sky: It only takes one look to see there are many more stars up there than meets the eye, and by the second look you realize we’re surrounded by many cloud like formations and nebulas; the view is magnificent even from my very not optimal backyard with all the lights surrounding it.
The moon’s surface strikes you hard as you gaze at it and witness the variety of its blemishes. When magnified, the very edge of the moon no longer appears round; you can see the holes there and all the ups and downs they create. It is very much amazing to think that just a few centuries ago people were burnt at the stake by lovely institutions such as the Church for merely suggesting the moon is not a perfect sphere but rather an imperfect one with blemishes. It is a privilege to be able to see the truth with your own eyes.


The title of this post is taken from a science blog (here) written by astronomer Phil Plait. Plait is also famous for his activity in the skeptic scene, which – amongst others – rightfully earned him my following of his Twitter account @BadAstronomer.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

In My Time of Dying

So I can die easy we finally had our wills signed and finalized.
There is nothing spectacular about our wills: mine generally says that everything should go to my wife; if she doesn't make it either everything goes to my son; if he doesn't make it then everything is split between family members (according to a secret formula that won't be disclosed here).
The tricky bit, or the bit that attracted our attention the most, was to do with the handling of our son in case both us parents die. We are talking here about a scenario where some major shit has happened, so no option is really attractive, but then again dead people can't be choosers.
As I have already mentioned here, the more interesting bits of my will are the clauses discussing my views, in particular those relating to matters of religion as it comes into effect with the raising of my son and the disposal of my body. There is not much new that hasn't been mentioned in my previous post so I won't bore you with repetitions; suffice to say I consider my will to be pretty cool by virtue of the fact it cites Carl Sagan.
Other than sharing the above news with you, the main purpose of this post is to let everyone know where my will can be found in case / when I actually die. Those that know me are welcomed to contact me for a copy, preferably while I'm still alive (otherwise there may be delays). If anything, you can use it as a reference for writing your own will. Generally, though, at the event of my death my official will should be available at:

Wills & Probate Victoria, Lawyers

Level 3, 20-22 McKillop Street

Melbourne Vic 3000

T: 03 9670 1700

With all this boring stuff behind now, let us focus on my true agenda here. I was looking for an excuse to embed a video of one of the better songs ever written, so here goes. Take it on, Led Zep:



They never could write worthwhile lyrics, but that Jimmy Page sure can play guitar.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Flattery from the Behind

Maternity pants - 3Having bought several 36 size pants lately, I couldn't avoid noticing that not all 36 size pants are created the same. I took my measuring tape for a spin and discovered the following:
  • The size 36 cargo shorts I got from Target actually do measure 36".
  • The size 36 cargo pants I got from GAP measure 38" around the waist. Still wearable and quite roomy...
  • The size 36 cargo shorts I got from Banana Republic measure more than 39" around the waist. I can only wear them with a tight belt, and unless I have my shirt on top of that belt I look like a joke.
It's obvious that the people from GAP and Banana Republic know how to measure their clothes; it is therefore equally obvious these size measurements are meant to flatter the majority of the public who have grown in size over the years but feel bad (and thus less inclined to consume) whenever they're reminded of the fact.
Call me old fashioned, but I thought that clothes sizes are supposed to tell us something about the article of clothing rather than convey a message from the marketing department.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

The Case of Public Holidays

Australia DayI had special plans for this weekend. I wanted to write a post entitled "My Fellow Australians, We Are Being Shafted"; then I found out the entire premises of this post was just wrong.
I wanted to write on how Aussies get less public holidays than their international counterparts. I thought the point is worth making both to enlighten Australians and to enlighten the rest of the world that often stereotypes Aussies as lazy. When I did my research, though, I found out I was wrong: it turns out the number of public holidays received by Aussies (or at least Victorians) is similar to the number received by Brits, Americans and Israelis. All those receive significantly less days off than Germans, but then again the point I wanted to make does not sound so exciting when countries of a more similar nature to Australia do not stand up to be counted.
So what is the problem with Australian public holidays, Victorian ones in particular? I see it as a case of double trouble:
  1. Poor distribution: Victorian holidays suffer from a huge dry period between the middle of June to early November. That stretch, which also coincides with the depressing nature of winter, is too hard to bear.
  2. Non religious nature: Not that I'm trying to advocate religion here, but when I compare Israel to Australia the lack of religious holidays is obvious.
    Other than Independence Day, all Israeli holidays are religiously based. The advantage of a religious holiday is that it's got build up and it's better enforced. Australia has Christmas with its buildup and Easter with its four days off, but Israel has two holidays that span over a week - Sukot and Pesach (aka Passover); not only that, those holidays are better spread (roughly September and April vs. December and April), an advantage gained by the fact the Jewish holidays come from agricultural origins whereas Christmas is astronomical and Easter agricultural (if anyone tells you these holidays are there because of Jesus, tell them they're in Dreamland).
I think the solution is simple: Australia needs to invent new public holidays. My first nomination would be Grand Final Weekend: more people follow it than any religious ceremony, so we might as well enshrine it.

Image by Halans, Creative Commons licensing

Friday, 11 March 2011

Of Meat and Men

Warning: Do not play the following video at work, in front of kids, or if you have a sensitive heart. Do, however, play the video if you want to see what takes place millions of times a day in your name.



The above video shows the process of killing animals of various sorts for later food processing. It starts by showing us a normal killing: it’s quite gruesome and I certainly wouldn’t want to do it, but it starts with stunning the animal. Then the video moves on to show us the exception to the rule, granted under religious grounds, and demonstrates how animals are killed for kosher/halal butchering. If the normal killing made you faint this one would turn you vegetarian on the spot. The amount of suffering is unimaginable. And what for?
Sure, we need to eat something, and granted, we are naturally inclined to consume meat. But why do we need to follow Bronze Age slaughter processes in this day and age? The only reasons I can think of for us still doing so is that we are either ignorant, dumb or evil. I don’t think we are inherently evil, and that video certainly takes care of the ignorance department; what remains is us being dumbed down by religion. I guess you can say there’s nothing new under the sun there.
One of the sad things about kosher/halal butchering is that the companies running the show don’t want to manage different stocks of meat so they tend to do evil unto most of their stock, even if in the majority of cases the end client does not care about the religious aspects of the slaughtering. In the name of efficiency us humans can do evil to no end.
But we can also try and make amends. Even if you’re not going to turn vegetarian (I don’t), you can reduce your consumption of meat (I do). It’s really easy, when you think about it: each time you crave meat and are in a position to buy some, think about this video that you just saw and remember the horrors done so that you can have your meal. Alternatively, you can think of the huge amount of carbon emissions the production of meat (especially beef) uses up and what your steak is doing to your planet and the planet your kids will live in.
You can also insist on non kosher/halal meat. If enough of us do so there will be an incentive to reduce these barbaric acts.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Axis of Evil

I’ve been keeping this black book in my head, accounting for the good and the bad things the leading technology companies do. I am referring to the companies that have direct impact on my life as I know it, as an avid technology fan.
I couldn’t avoid noticing a certain trend with this black book of mine. As a result of this notion of a trend I thought I’d lay cards on the table for all to see. Have a look, and let me know if you have any contributions or corrections to contribute to my exercise.
Here we go, in alphabetical order – my list of good/bad technology companies:

Amazon:
Good:
  • Responsible for making books available anytime, anywhere.
  • Established the largest collection of ebooks, which they sell at decent prices with a decently priced ebook reader.
  • Provides decent and cheap hosting services, allowing developers to wield a lot of short term power if need be the case.
Bad:
  • Cancelled all Wikileaks’ hosting the second they smelled the whiff of potential favors from the American government’s direction.
  • Used their god like ability to remove books from readers’ Kindle devices.
  • Enforce annoying DRM on their ebooks that's unique to Amazon and forces their customers to totally rely on Amazon, unlike other ebook sellers who use common formats.
  • I had a personal experience with Amazon where they charged my credit card for no particular reason other than them having it on file; it took a while for me to get a refund.
Verdict: Minor evil with good redemption potential.


Apple:
Good:
  • Apple have always been on the innovative side of things. From the Mac’s superior UI through inventing the web enabled smartphone and in a single sweep doing to the tablet market what Microsoft was unable to do in decades, Apple has been a major pusher of technology for the laymen.
  • If it weren't for them legal music downloads wouldn't have existed.
Bad:
  • The most major advocate of the closed garden philosophy, manifested mainly through apps, which blocks access to content and prevents those with lesser means from being able to adequately express themselves.
  • It seems like Apple couldn’t care less about anything other than its bottom line. It took control over legal music downloads, and now – through its closed garden – it’s trying to do the same for ebooks and magazines.
  • Has a very annoying rental model for video content.
  • Divides and conquers: for reasons unclear to anyone (including Apple’s very vague spokespersons), they sell the same song for $1.70 in Australia and $1 in the USA.
  • Privacy invasive: the first thing you need to provide when opening an iTunes account is your credit card number, even if you were never planning on buying anything; from that point onwards, Apple will track every move you make.
  • Likes to abuse Chinese slave labor. Although they're not alone there, their very image of pure cool is in total contradiction to the way they produce their products.
Verdict: Distilled evil.


eBay:
Good:
  • Auction site gives power to the people.
  • PayPal is a good step towards secure financial transactions over the web.
Bad:
  • Pretty nasty small letters on PayPal user agreements.
  • These small letters are put into effect too often.
  • PayPal is forced on all eBay users.
  • PayPal was one of those financial entities that were all too happy to close Wikileaks' donation line. Later they did the same for Bradley Manning (but quickly went back when they smelled the wind's direction).
  • Gradually but surely eBay is made into a big retail store at the expense of the small time second hand sellers that made it what it is today.
Verdict: Evil.


Facebook:
Good:
  • I guess you can say they provide a tool to help people who don’t know any better keep in touch.
  • Famously used as a revolutionary tool against oppressive regimes.
Bad:
  • Exhibits total disrespect for privacy.
  • Continuously abuses its users’ privacy.
  • Supports third parties’ abuse of its users’ privacy.
  • Doing its best to dominate the web at the price of taking it all down to its standards.
Verdict: Gives Satan private tutoring on being evil.


Google:
Good:
  • Offer nice services like Gmail and Google Docs while promising to do good.
  • I like the Chrome browser's interface and I like its speed even more.
Bad:
  • Tracks all of searching activities and has been willing to share their info with authorities without too much of a hassle. Yes, didn't you know it? All your Google searches are stored against you.
  • Didn’t come up with anything good of its own for a few years now. Google Wave, anyone?
  • Likes to sniff private data from passing cars.
  • Recommends people change their name at the age of 18 to rid themselves of their documented web history with Google.
  • Routinely says its search results are objective when clearly they aren’t (or else why do Google's own facilities tend to always be at the top?).
  • With all the data in its disposal it can do some serious damage if it were to become, say, an Apple in attitude.
  • Took upon itself the authority to break net neutrality for mobile Internet access.
  • Tries too hard to copy Facebook and Facebook’s disregard for privacy with its Buzz and other non voluntary infestations.
Verdict: Already evil, Google has the potential to become our worst nightmare.


Microsoft:
Good:
  • The Kinect is one impressive piece of hardware signalling the future of gaming and entertainment in general.
Bad:
  • Microsoft is single handedly responsible for forcing us all to settle for expensive yet mediocre computer systems.
  • Since then they’ve been mostly printing money off Windows and Office, not having much of an effect on our lives’ progression.
Overall: The face of old evil.


Sony:
Good:
  • Provides an extensive music videos library for free on the PS3.
Bad:
  • Tries to scare people that tweak their own PS3s by wielding major lawsuits.
  • Got the courts to allow it to collect information of people who merely accessed a website where the breaking of the PS3's DRM was discussed.
  • Will happily infect your PC with Trojans in the name of copyright protection.
  • Is behind too many DRM schemes that make consumers’ lives hard (e.g., regional coding on Blu-rays).
Overall: Evil.


Twitter:
Good:
  • Connects people to those they really want to be in touch with.
  • Regularly proves to be the best source for news.
  • Resisted when USA authorities demanded the private details of Wikileaks operatives.
Bad:
  • Nothing, really.
Verdict: Nice guys.


Yahoo!:
Good:
  • Flickr.
Bad:
  • They’re too small a player now to cause much harm.
  • Don’t you dare sell Flickr like those rumors say!
Verdict: Incompetent.


As you can see, the trend is clear: the forces of evil are dominating our technological agendas as they go on dictating the way we live in the 21st century. Personally, I associate a lot of importance to the technology under the control of these companies, and not only because I'm a technology freak. Web technology is now my primary connection to the great big world, including keeping in touch with friends and family; damaging my civil liberties on the virtual world means damaging me directly in the physical world.
I chose to be active in my struggle against those that try to impose their version of freedom on top of mine. I encourage you to follow suit and join the EFF and/or the EFA.


Image by EFF, who encourage everyone to reproduce their electronic media

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

To Boldly Go Where No Toddler Has Gone Before

I thought I'd spare a line or two to our toddler's favorite TV program in recent times, The Octonauts.
There is much to like about this program: it has exciting plots with interesting heroes, you learn a bit about the sea and its ecology as you go, and you get to experience multiculturalism in the shape of different species sharing and working collaboratively. They even have different accents for each character, with my favorite being Tweak the bunny and her American accent (she must be from the south). My own personal three year old like Kwazii the eye-patched cat best, but then again he's an Aussie.
Most of all, though, I like the way the good old Star Trek formula was copied, almost to the letter, into a series that's aimed squarely at three year olds. Spock would have loved watching The Octonauts!

With Star Trek in mind, here is Captain Kirk's eulogy for the Discovery space shuttle. I know it's only loosely connected to the post, but it's damn cool:


Sunday, 6 March 2011

How HarperCollins made a pirate out of me

Upon finishing reading the latest book I bought at Amazon for my Kindle ebook reader, I stumbled upon the following copyright statement at the ebook's very end:
By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage or retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins e-bools.
Obviously, the stupidity of the above statement knows no bounds. We can read it and admire the thought some well paid lawyers obviously put into the text, as with the handling of both "mechanical" or "electronic" means; or with them making sure that nothing invented in the hereafter may be used to copy the book. However, I read the statement and take notes on how the mere act of me buying this ebook violates it: buying the ebook from Amazon meant the book was downloaded to my Kindle reader, my PC and my smartphone. It also means its files are stored on several of my hard drives. There is nothing I can do about it; that's just the way ebooks work, you know.
So that's how HarperCollins made a pirate out of me: they sold me an ebook of theirs.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

The Dissent of A Man

This week the newspapers told us the Victorian government released figures (see here) telling the public just how much money the water desalination plant devised by the previous Labor government would cost us. It's going to cost a lot in money, but personally I’m more worried about the damage to the environment and/or the plenty of worthwhile things we could have done with the money instead.
What surprises me is that these figures are being presented as a surprise. Well, they aren’t; it’s just the current Liberal government that’s trying to take us for a ride, accompanied by the media that wants to sell us today’s papers. Allow me to refer you to a multitude of articles written by Kenneth Davidson and published in The Age where Davidson analyses the true cost to the public of the desal plant. These articles were all published a while ago and they were all out in the open for everyone to see, as per these two:
So no, the desal plant may be a major financial hazard but it being so is certainly no news to anyone other than those who actively keep themselves uninvolved or those that are being actively kept out of involvement by selfish stakeholders.
At this point I would like to point out Davidson’s vast repertoire of countering government authority with facts and plain analysis, which made him my clear favourite when it comes to political analysis in Australia. Davidson’s main focus is on editing a small magazine that’s published three times a year, D!ssent (see here), occupying itself with “informed discussion on public affairs”. As a two year long subscriber I cannot recommend this magazine enough: it is quite an eye opener on matters like housing, superannuation, education and much much more.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

The Thing with Jesus

IMG_0337 by reuvenim
IMG_0337 a photo by reuvenim on Flickr.
Julian Morrow, famous for his Chaser membership, was interviewed last week at ABC’s weekly program on matters of religion, Compass. You can view the interview and its transcript here, but I have strong suspicions that link would be blocked for access outside of Australia (proving again stupidity is a worldwide phenomenon). There weren’t many surprises for me in this interview: I knew Morrow is a fellow atheist with whom I share a lot of opinions since before he presented at last year’s Global Atheist Convention.
His interviewer, though, was obviously not an atheist; thus when asked about Jesus and Morrow answered
…I think I am moved by some of the ideas of Jesus teaching of compassion, forgiveness, acceptance of outcasts and the like... Had a pretty radical theory of the way the world works. I think he was probably clinically insane. But I also think he was on to something. And often you know artists and poets do run a fine line between wisdom and madness…
the matter of insanity was not pursued any further and the subject was changed.
However, I would like to expand on that point. Not on the point of Jesus’ insanity, mainly because we have only very indirect evidence for Jesus’ existence and the things he may have said or done; no firm conclusions can be made there. That said, if you read the books that did not make the Christian canon, like the recently exposed book of Judas, you may as well conclude everyone involved was clinically insane.
Instead I just want to leave Jesus the person alone and briefly point at three points where Christianity and Christian philosophy are clinically insane:
  1. Dying for our sins: The whole affair of Jesus dying for our sins stinks of blood lust; the fact it is a cornerstone for Christian belief says a lot about the stupidity of such belief. How else would otherwise normal people accept that the blood sacrifice of one can do anything to absolve for others’ actions?
    The hospital where my son was born had a cross in each room; so did the hospital my son had an operation at (pictured). What does it say about a hospital when it has this need to portray the image of a tortured person in each of its rooms? To me it says that a hospital with such values is probably not a hospital I would like to seek help from (that said, the limited choice of doctors and their availability has been proven to force my hand on the matter).
  2. Turning the other chick: It sounds so sexy to be this forgiving, but can we really run a society based on such values? No, we can’t. To name but two examples, we wouldn't have been able to stop the likes of Hitler and we would have had a hard time dealing with crime.
  3. He who is without sin cast the first stone: Another very sexy sounding quote, but upon further thinking – what does this rule of thumb imply towards our justice system when no one can have the authority to judge anyone? Can Jesus/Christianity offer us a better justice system or prevent us from needing such a system in the first place? Obviously, they can’t. Given their inability to offer an alternative, they could do us a favor and shut up; keeping silent is the better course of action if you don't have anything that makes sense to say.
The point I am trying to make is simple. The god of the old testament is often portrayed as evil and harsh, and rightly so, whereas the one from the new testament is cool and forgiving. Cool and forgiving my @ss: blood lust is still there, and the rest is wishy washy nonsense. The god of the new testament is just as bad, and those following him would do themselves a favor if they were to start pondering what it is, exactly, that they believe in.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

The Selfish Nation

Singapore: Where Air Conditioners LiveLike the true Australians we are, we went to pay a visit to inspect our neighbor’s house currently for sale. Yes, it’s that house I already mentioned here, the one our neighbor held on to for just as long as it takes to get an exemption for paying taxes on sale profits.
We were therefore surprised to find the house’s brochure, which the real estate agent made sure he stuck in our hands, boldly states the house was never resided in. Clearly that statement is true: there is no blemish in the house to make you think a human being had actually resided there. I do wonder, though, what the ATO might think of this? [ATO, or Australian Taxation Office, is Australia’s version of the IRS]

The other thing we couldn’t avoid noticing is the house’s heating/cooling approach. It’s very simple: they installed an air-conditioner in most rooms to a total of five in the house. Think about it: at full throttle, with each air-con consuming about 2kw of electricity (and that’s a moderate estimate), we are talking about a single house consuming around 10kw/h for heating/cooling alone. That house needs its own power station! Just think about the cost passed over to the tax payer that has to fund the infrastructure to support that, which in Melbourne’s case means more dirty coal powered turbines. Think of what this house says about Australia’s approach to climate change.
My argument is made clearer through the evolution of our neighbor’s house. Due to its design’s intrusion over the other premises around it (we are lucky to live on the other side of the road), that house’s design was up for lengthy local council discussions and eventually found its way to VCAT for approval. We are actually going through similar motions ourselves at the moment in order to get our own house extension project approved, but that is the result of local council regulations demanding all changes to small residential plots go through the most rigorous approval processes (while exempting the larger plots that dominate our area and Melbourne in general).
These approval processes we are going through are pretty tedious. In essence, they are there to ensure the character of your would be house would be similar to that of the houses around it, and they’re pretty picky about things – they want to know what finish you intend to apply, etc. Yet we live in the 21st century, we know for forty years now about the effects of global warming, but the picky local council doesn’t give a damn about you installing a billion gazillion power hungry air-conditioners at your house; they only care for the color of your bricks.
Not that I should be surprised by this approach of our official government: a poll on this Monday’s Age (here) asking “Do you accept that we need to put a price on carbon to tackle climate change?” had 35,510 people answering it, 53% of them saying no. I know one shouldn’t pay too much respect to such polls but it does mean there is a significant number of people in the Australian public, perhaps even the majority, that simply live in denial and prefer to ignore the very clear science on the matter of human induced climate change.
On what ground do these people allow themselves to ignore the science or claim that it’s wrong? Obviously they don’t have science of their own, because the science is pretty unanimous on this matter; they either choose to ignore the science or they choose their own sources to make their minds up with, sources that by definition cannot be founded on evidence. In other words, they choose to be selfish about this, an issue that really is the greatest moral issue of our time (I’m quoting Kevin Rudd here but I actually think he’s right for a change): the issue of what world we choose to leave behind for all future generations, a world in ruin or a world with potential?
I will be explicit about it: Australia’s approach to climate change clearly demonstrates that a big portion of Australians (if not the majority of Australians), while generally nice people and all, are selfish and narrow minded people that worry about their own back pockets first and foremost. That worry manifests itself in all that is bad about Australia, including – to name but one example – the way these people ensure their preferred private schools get enough public funding so they can afford to send their kids to a religious school that will indoctrinate them to dismiss science and listen to their oracle of choice instead. And if that oracle tells them to ignore climate change then so be it.
There is something very rotten at the core of Australian society. Sooner or later we will have to face this demon, because our troubles are only going to be magnified.

Image by pmorgan, Creative Commons license