Friday, 29 April 2011

The Other Side of Easter

We had great fun during this [almost] week long Easter festivity that we just had, thanks for asking.
First and foremost, the weather was great. Second, we had several successful day trips involving some exploration and good food. Third, we rented seven films and watched a different film every night, each night (how terribly addictive!). And fourth, we were even mildly social – we met up with friends on one of those Easter break days.
In fact, evidence for the [too] good times we’ve had stares me in the face every time I buckle my belt. Sigh.

I will leave you off with the part of the Easter story we normally don’t hear about, being the human centric society that we are:



I particularly liked the part of the leopard. Did you know I couldn’t tell what the difference between leper and leopard is for most of my teen years?

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Long Beard

Long Beard ManOne of my obvious traits is laziness, and one of the manifestations of my laziness is my passionate avoidance of shaving. I generally shave for work, but when able I would hold shaving off for a few days until the itches get the better of me. This Easter, though, I let go of the shaving for an unprecedented duration; less than a week later I had myself a beard. This time around I decided to keep it.
That’s how lazy I can be.
On Tuesday we bought a hair trimmer (a proper hairdresser grade model from Wahl, made in USA and all), so now I’m properly equipped to maintain my beard for a while.
I would say the beard makes me look older but also more mature. Not that I care much, though. One other significant effect the beard has is in making me look scary in this land where everyone who is not pinkish white is already a monster that should go back to that land they came from and leave the pure of heart alone.
Yes, scaring little children and adults alike is fast becoming a hobby of mine. You should see the look on people’s faces – on trains or on the street – as they see the latest threat from Al Queda / Hezbollah / (insert the name of your favorite terrorist organization here).
The way I see it, there are three things that will eventually make this beard come off:
  1. The wife acceptance factor.

  2. The amount of maintenance required for maintaining a healthy beard turns out to surpass the benefits of not shaving.

  3. Flying. As in, I’m already harassed at airports with “random” security checks. Between my beard and me wearing a Casio watch they won’t even bother with the checking anymore, they’ll just arrest me and throw the key away.
Check the image here for the closest reference I could find to the way I currently look like, expression and all.


Image by The Gonger, Creative Commons license

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

No Credit to Sony

Eiko and her credit cardI hate to say it but I was right: Sony proved out to be the most incompetent company ever when it comes to the handling of its customers’ personal details. This is the result of today’s announcements that the personal details of 77 million PlayStation Network customers, yours truly included, have been compromised. The breach included the names, addresses, dates of birth and passwords(!); at this stage it is unclear whether credit card numbers have been stolen but Sony advises customers to contact their financial institutions. I already did; I spent the morning and the better parts of my night blocking my card and redirecting direct debits, and I still have a long way to go.
You can read more about this through the BBC here, Wall Street Journal here, and ars technica here.

The first question that pops into my head is why did Sony wait for ten days before announcing the breach. We now know the damage was done on 17 April; the PlayStation Network (PSN) has been down for six days already, so obviously Sony knew something is going on. Yet only today, 27 April, did it bother coming out of the darkness to tell us what’s going on. Those that stole our details could have had some major festivities with them by now.
My next question is how come Sony has been storing passwords in the clear, without some form on encryption applied. This is not just malpractice; I suspect it’s also against the law.
The next question that comes to mind is what makes organizations as big as Sony think they are capable of safely managing their customers’ details. Again and again this assumption of “I’m big therefore I can do it” turns out to be wrong. Whether it’s the government (how often did the British government lose private information over the past few years?), Vodafone or now Sony, it is clear that organizations are cutting corners when it comes to the storage of personal info. It is clear they are incapable of the task.
Which leads to my next question: why, oh why, does Sony need to store my personal details in the first place? In Australia, an address and a date of birth is all one needs to steal my identity and do various tasks ranging from dealing with utility companies to health care and insurance, not to mention simple banking transactions. Why does Sony need to maintain such potent information in order to run a network of f*cking video games?
Note Sony does not have to deal with private information to sell us stuff. It can, for example, let the banks deal with the financial aspects of the transactions. All major banks offer such online facilities, but Sony wouldn't want to use these, do they? After all, the banks take a cut that Sony can keep to itself.
Needless to say, Sony is not alone. Apple has my credit card details and I know they use them to identify me when I bought a keyboard from an Apple shop (my name and address were on the invoice after the only thing I gave the cashier was my credit card). Amazon has also been storing my credit card details for fifteen years now. Who, then, is going to be the next conglomerate to fail me?
In contrast, PayPal has been holding my credit card details too. They, however, actually do need them; PayPal’s entire service is built around only them knowing what my personal info is.

Less than two weeks ago I explained how I prefer to buy my online books from companies that do not store my personal information (here). Sadly, today I received more than enough evidence to prove my paranoia is entirely justified.


P.S.
As if putting out fire with gasoline: I only had to wait a couple of hours after reading about Sony’s privacy breach before learning of a new one. This time it’s Borders that had its customers' private information stolen from them (read here).
I don’t think we need to hold our breath for something to happen here. Privacy related legislation is so lax, and politicians are so in the pocket of big companies, we are guaranteed this charade will go on and on.

Image by eikootje, Creative Commons license

Monday, 25 April 2011

Sony Making Beliefs

A long while ago I used this forum to praise Sony for providing a service called VidZone to owners of PlayStation 3 consoles. The service, discussed here, allows PS3 users to freely stream videos from Sony's music library at relatively high quality (a comparison to YouTube quality would do the service a disservice). However, as good as this service is, we hardly ever use it.
The reason is simple: DRM. In the name of protecting its contents, Sony allows access VidZone access only when you are logged in to its PlayStation Network. It doesn't just check you're logged in when you start VidZone; it repeatedly checks it throughout VidZone's operation. The problem there is that because VidZone is bandwidth intensive, so much so it chokes my Internet connection, the connection to the PlayStation Network often drops down; and when that happens VidZone stops working. In real life scenarios we usually suffer from this drop down after two to three songs; the most we'll get out of VidZone is half an hour of uninterrupted music listening. Couple that with VidZone's stupidly slow startup times, and you have yourself a service that's nice on paper but useless in reality.
Now, what would a normal person that's fed up with VidZone's quality of service do if they want a simple alternative that actually works, for a change? They go pirate. Piracy allows access to similar contents without the hassles of DRM, which raises the question of what exactly it is that Sony is trying so hard to protect in the first place? They have a great service, thanks a lot; now let us actually enjoy it instead of suffer DRM anguish!
The main reason why I'm noting this whole DRM affair at this particular point in time is to do with the PlayStation network being down for a few days in a row now. Currently we're on the 5th day. Sony claims to have taken it down due to hacker attacks (Anonymous promised to pay Sony back for suing George Hotz for the "crime" of hacking his PS3). The problem is, by taking the PlayStation network down Sony has made the PS3 into an old style games console that can do some stuff locally but not much more; VidZone, for example, won't work. In many respects, the PS3 has been made into a pile of worthless plastic.
Thanks a lot, Sony.

Friday, 22 April 2011

An Easter Tale

_DSC3185Driving back home from our Easter lunch at Nandos (most other venues were shut), we saw an interesting thing.
A bird was lying in the middle of the road, obviously hit by a car. It was still alive but it looked as if it was living on borrowed time. That wasn't the interesting part: the interesting part was the two other birds, obviously the injured bird's peers, that were trying anxiously to "wake" the injured and push it off the road and towards safety. There were no cars behind us so we were able to stop and witness this affair taking place right in front of us.
The lesson is clear: obviously, morality comes from the bible.

Added on 23/4/2011:
Alright, so where does morality truly come from?
I argue that evidence indicates it's a combination of evolutionary processes and culture. Evolution, because even birds can show clear signs of caring for one another, and because for animals like humans to be social you need a base to start from; and culture because humans have obviously taken morality a step further when they started taking contraceptives.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

The Albums of My Life

pink wax
Recently, while discussing the specifications of my will (here), I recommended the readers of this blog to listen to my favourite music as a worthy experience with which to remember me after I die (an event I do not wish to see any time soon, but nonetheless an event that is guaranteed to come).
It then occurred to me that the question of what my favorite music is has never been thoroughly discussed in this forum. Given that I do not wish to leave my blog’s readers in doubt when it comes to matters as important and as serious as my musical preferences, I seek to start remedying the situation with this post.
I thought I would start approaching matters by specifying the music that had the most impact on my life. Trying to assemble a list in my head, it quickly became clear this list will not be a list of songs but rather a list of albums. There are some good reasons for that: For a start, as standalone creations songs are too fickle; my preferences change with mood and my moods change plenty of times across a day. Albums, on the other hand, are a bolder statement and are therefore more stable. Second, albums have the advantage of being able to provide more depth and development: some of the better albums have clear starts and endings, ups and downs, to a level much greater than what a mere song can offer. Indeed, it is one of the sadder facts of today’s music scene that the album is dying and that we tend to recognize the single as the only music delivery format.
Still, as this post proves, there was an age when albums mattered. Here are the albums that mattered to me the most in chronological order of impact:

Pink Floyd: The Dark Side of the Moon
If asked what album I would take with me to a remote island, even one with no electricity, this would be the one. The Dark Side of the Moon has been with me since I was three and is still dominant today, thanks for asking. If asked what I like about it in particular I would say that the way the songs connect with one another to create a seamless creation creates that synergy effect that renders this one to be my favorite album ever, and by a wide margin.
It has to be said that other Pink Floyd albums have had significant impact on my life, too, but in this forum I limited myself to one album per band. These “also” albums include Animals, The Wall and Wish You Were Here.

The Police: Reggatta de Blanc
Owned by my borther, this was one of the first albums I was able to listen to at will as a child. And listen to it I did; this is one rare album where each song is a gem: consider Message in a Bottle, Bed's Too Big Without You, and Walking on the Moon to begin with! Between them, The Police and Sting have had significant impact on my music listening.

David Bowie: Ziggy Stardust
As a young teen I was exposed to David Bowie quite a lot; for some odd reason he is really popular in Israel, more so than in other parts of the world. In fact, I suspect Let’s Dance has been the first album I bought with my own money (to answer that age old RockWiz question). Hunky Dory also played a part in my musical development while Ziggy Stardust was a relatively late arrival. However, it is clear to me that Ziggy Stardust is Bowie’s best album ever and one of the best albums ever in general; again, it comes down to it telling a story and creating synergy between songs.

Led Zeppelin: Remasters
Throughout my childhood I was forced to listen to Led Zeppelin by my older siblings, for whom Led Zep was by far their favorite band. At the time I didn’t like them much, probably because of that force feeding, but when the quadruple Remasters CD came out I gave it a chance and discovered that – surprise surprise – not only is Led Zeppelin a great band, but they also shaped the whole framework of music appreciation contained in my head. Specifically talking about why the band is so good and why it lasted through time longer than most if not all others, I would pin things down on the combination of great individual talents. When you combine the best voice, the best guitars and the best drums, there’s a good chance sparks would fly.

The The: Dusk
Dusk is probably the first and only album I ever bought on the basis of lyrics alone. I still hold Dusk to have the best lyrics ever; what else can you expect from an album that starts with “the only true freedom is freedom from the heart’s desires” and finishes off with “if you can’t change your world then change yourself and if you can’t change yourself then change your world” and “the world’s too big and life’s too short to be alone”?

Miles Davis: Kind of Blue
Through various stages of my life I tried to get myself acquainted with jazz music but repeatedly found I was unable to find the right link to the genre. That changed once I was exposed to Kind of Blue.

The Beatles: Abbey Road
I discovered The Beatles at a relatively late stage of my life. I blame my brother and sister, who did not listen to Beatles music much. Eventually I gave the Liverpool band a chance, bought all their CDs online, and fell in love. Of their albums I like Abbey Road the most: I see it as the most mature of their creations, mostly because George Harrison has become a proper creator by his own rights. I also really like side B’s medley. As was the case with Pink Floyd, there are several other albums from The Beatles that could have easily found their place here: Revolver, Sgt Pepper and the White Album.

Noticed something about the above? Yes: other than Miles Davis, they're all British. Maybe the bland food makes them seek refuge in music.
Having gone through the albums with the most impact, I would still like to recall other worthwhile albums that had significant impact on me or albums which I appreciate to a higher level. Again, I will go with the chronological order in which these albums impacted me:

Dire Straits: Alchemy
Dire Straits was probably my favorite band during the bulk of the eighties with Mark Knopfler being the subject of much admiration. They’re also the first proper band I ever got to see live. Of their albums I liked the live Alchemy best: it came at their peak and provided their best songs, the songs that came before the band changed gear and style with Brothers in Arms (an album most people would say is that band’s best but an album I consider to signal the band heading in the wrong direction). I still clearly remember how I couldn’t take Alchemy’s performance of Once Upon a Time in the West out of my head during a high school final exam where I ended up getting my school’s highest grade: proof Dire Straits’ music is good for you.

Midnight Oil: Diesel and Dust
It took me a while to get used to them, Peter Garrett's voice in particular, but Midnight Oil quickly became more than a band that plays music I like: they became a symbol for Australia, the promised land. Diesel and Dust also happened to be the disc playing in my car the first day I met my wife.

Guns N’ Roses: Use Your Illusion 1 & 2
Together with the film Terminator 2, to which a song was contributed, this album made me spend a whole lot of money I didn’t have at the time on buying my first hi-fi. It probably is also responsible, together with that previously quoted film, to the ongoing rings in my ears. By now I grew out of my Guns phase but I still hold them a favor.

The Red Hot Chilly Peppers: Blood Sugar Sex Magik
Shortly after this album was released, and for more than a year, not a day went by without me listening to this album at least once. When the cassette showed signs of aging I got the CD.

The White Stripes: Elephant
Rock 'n' roll isn't dead, it was just waiting to be resurrected.

Simon & Garfunkel: Old Friends
This live album and its accompanying DVD made me realize how much I like Paul Simon's work. He presence was felt throughout my life and his songs are still very fresh and relevant.


Image by Ms. Phoenix, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

The Books of Moshe

I have recently discussed at length (here) why I am holding back on purchasing The Book of Rachael, Leslie Cannold's recently released book and the receiver of many a glowing review. As I explained, the pricing of the ebook version made me feel as if they did not want to sell it to me in the first place.
Today it was brought to my attention the ebook of Rachael sells for $22.80 at the Kobo website here, which represents a bit of a discount on the Borders asking price of $26 here. It's nice to see some competition, but this affair exposes much that is wrong with the book publishing industry and electronic publishing in particular. Allow me to expand the discussion and point out the malaise of the electronic publishing industry that an ebook reader such as yours truly has to contend with on a regular basis:
  1. Obviously, the first problem is basic greed. Greed manifests itself in asking way too much for the ebook version despite the severely reduced costs of publishing electronically when compared to a paper version, and despite the format's inherent limitations (e.g., you cannot lend an ebook to your friend). It certainly feels as if publishers would have preferred none of this electronic thing ever took place; progress is to be held back.

  2. Next we have nationalistic greed to deal with. As I mentioned in my book review of an Australian book release here, I fail to understand why an Australian ebook would sell at a higher price to Australian buyers than it does to American buyers.

  3. For that matter, why do ebook publishers divide the world into countries in the first place? We're all downloading the book from the same servers anyway. Why can I buy a paper book from any country I like, but the minute I decide I want to buy an ebook from the USA I need to resort to extreme measures like VPN in order to pass as an American in order to commit the crime of buying an ebook?

  4. I wasn't joking when I talked about committing the crime of buying an ebook. As I mentioned here, the mere act of me buying an ebook from HarperCollins defied their license agreement which said I am not allowed to download the book. How, exactly, do they expect me to buy an ebook without a download is beyond me; the fact of the matter is that I did break their license agreement. By buying a book of theirs.

  5. Next is the issue of multiple ebook formats, which [mostly] narrows down to the ePub format vs. the Amazon one. Fine, we can live with multiple formats; but why won't publishers who go ahead with releasing their book electronically do so in both formats? Oh, did I mention greed already - as in, the publishers' power struggles with Amazon? Both parties are at fault (although as a reader Amazon is easier to identify with given they fight to reduce prices). The bottom line is that the reader ends up the main victim in the middle.

  6. Bought a legal copy of an ebook? Now you're limited by its DRM. On the face of it DRM shouldn't bother you much, but it does. In a few years time when no one will remember what the Kindle was, what will happen to all your precious ebooks? Luckily, there are now ways to crack ebooks' DRM (see here); but why do things have to come down to that?

  7. Combine 5 & 6 together and you get one of my specific problems with The Book of Rachael's ebook version. It is sold as ePub alone whereas I own a Kindle, which means that in order to read it I will need to buy the ePub, neutralize its DRM and then convert it to the Amazon format. It's all possible and the tools for doing so are available free of charge, but this act will still constitute as me violating user agreements. I don't know whether I will be breaking the law, too, but I do know that my intentions are pure and lack any malice (i.e., I just want to read a book). Am I a criminal or not? The fact I need to ask the question in the first place does leave a bad taste in my mouth even if the fact I will be cracking some futile DRM will make me smile.

  8. One specific complaint I have against many onlione book shops, Kobo included, is that they collect my credit card details. In my opinion, book shops should concentrate on what they do best - sell books - and avoid collecting information about their customers which they probably should not hold in the first place. Only recently we were informed (here, amongst others) that the company holding customer information for AbeBooks, an online book store, has had its database hacked. Kobo may be selling The Book of Rachael for $3 less, but I would still prefer to buy it from Borders where PayPal is accepted.
Combine all of the above and you reach some very simple conclusions. At the moment, Amazon offers the most superior ebook purchasing experience; however, even with Amazon one still needs to resort to measures such as VPN to buy most books, which puts the legality of the purchase in some gray area. Yet if we've reached a gray area, and if we're being treated like scum as it is, why not go grayer? Why not pirate?
The fact of the matter is that piracy is easier than most ebook purchasing and offers a superior product (no DRM!). Most of us have already been taught that lesson by the music and film industries; now the publishing industry seems keen to teach us that lesson again. The way things are, publishers do not deserve us buying their books.

This whole discussion started from The Book of Rachael, an ebook on which I picked for obvious reasons: On one hand, it is a book I really want to read it due to its author. On the other it is the first time I cannot get my book in the Kindle format while at the same time its asking price is the highest I have ever encountered for a coveted ebook (and by a large margin). At this point I will state I don't mind handing Leslie Cannold $26 in cash with nothing in return; she deserves it. I do, however, mind giving her publisher $26 out of which only $2 or so would go to Cannold.
Am I going to boycott the book? No, that would be silly; I will be the only loser there. I will probably buy it sooner rather than later. Regardless of any specific title, though, I am still a reader; and as a reader I am pretty pissed off at the way book publishers are treating me.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Identity Crisis

The Matzah ThiefIt's Passover time, and once again my family cannot fathom me not caring much for the holiday. If anything, Passover has to be the one holiday in the Jewish calendar I despise the most, if only because of the vivid week long yearly starvation caused by the lack of edible food at my army base. So when a family member asked me if I was celebrating she should have known better as I could not avoid belching out all my contempt.
When the dust settled, she asked me a simple question: don't you feel the need to belong to a group?
I answered that I already belong to a group of Arsenal fans, which causes me enough grief without even having to consider forcing myself to eat bricks for a week. Jokes aside, though, I answered that I do not have the need to take part in silly rituals just for the sake of belonging; some of Passover's rituals, like the reading of the Hagada where we praise god for killing all Egyptian firstborns, are - by my reckoning - not too different to Nazi habits. What benefit comes from celebrating innocents' death?
Don't get me wrong. I don't mind the silly ritual that's fun: I don't mind hiding chocolate eggs for my son during Easter; I don't mind him playing with a plastic tree during Christmas; nor do I mind playing with candles during Hanuka: it's pretty cool to burn stuff. Those rituals, however, have nothing to do with religion; they're just fun and games. If any similarly worthwhile ideas were to be conceived I'd be happy to take part in them just the same. However, Passover does not present such opportunities: its silly games are a pain in the ass (literally, as it tries to digest the Matzah bread).

I will be serious for a few minutes and address the part concerning identity. As in, don't I need the group ritual to feel a sense of belonging?
Well, of course I need to feel a sense of belonging. However, I do not want to belong to a stupid sect believing or pretending to believe in nonsense just for the sake of a warm and cosy feeling of belonging; there are plenty of genuinely worthy causes I would like to belong to. Allow me to count some examples:
  • There is nothing preventing me from joining the Melbourne science fiction club and take active part there in a group of like minded people.
  • The same applies to the Melbourne astronomy club.
  • Or photography club.
  • Or skeptics club.
  • Or humanists.
  • Alternatively, I can just connect to all of the above via the Internet. Wait a second; I already do that. I follow my favorite authors, I follow astronomers and NASA, I browse through acclaimed photos, I am in touch with many humanists and skeptics, and much more.
To conclude my argument I'll give you the most recent example. Earlier today I finished reading a philosophy book written by A.C. Grayling, a guy who in comparison to me is of vastly superior intellect and wisdom. Yet for two hundred pages or so I had intimate access to his brain, allowing me to learn a lot and truly expand my horizons. Now let me ask you this: can any religion or religious ritual come up with something that comes even remotely close to that book reading experience?
I rest my case.


Image by justmakeit, Creative Commons license

Saturday, 16 April 2011

My First Tablet

Today I bought my first tablet: an Agora one from Kogan at $160, delivery included. According to the website we are a month and a half away from receiving our tablet which is probably yet to be manufactured.
As tablets go, this one is probably not going to knock you off your feet; Kogan specializes in having getting technology stuff delivered at dirt cheap prices by cutting corners, so I am not holding my breath to receiving the flashiest thing out there that would bring iPads to their knees. To name but one example, I am not expecting stellar performance from the battery. I am, however, looking to receive something practical, through which my three year old can have a smooth introduction to the world of technological gadgets so dear to his father. The price obviously has a saying there: I would think twice before letting my son touch the latest flashy tablet or smartphone, but at $160 I’ll take the risk.
Having set the expectations down it is now time for me to raise them again. This new tablet we’ll be receiving is not exactly a piece of junk, specs wise: it’s got a 1Ghz single core CPU, like the first generation iPad; a 7” screen, like the first generation Samsung Galaxy Tab; it’s running Android 2.2 as its operating system, the currently dominant Android version for phones although not the newest (2.3) and not the one aimed specifically at tablets (3.0); and unlike the iPad it’s got a memory card slot and a USB input (albeit a mini USB input, which would be a minor pain). If you ask me, the whole thing smells like a polite version of the current first generation Samsung tablet.
The main thing that held me back from jumping on the iPad bandwagon thus far was the lack of use, as in justification, for buying an expensive device. The Kogan’s cheap price makes it easy to justify the expense:
  1. It’s going to be a good quick Internet browsing option. Unlike the iPad and the rest of the Apple folk it can deal with Flash, too; the main limitation is going to be the screen size. My 7" netbook and I know that 7" is not enough for a satisfying long term experience; then again, it's not like our household is short on proper Internet browsing facilities; the tablet's advantage is its instant turn on ability.
  2. It can be used for watching videos. My three year old would love it.
  3. It can be used for listening to music. We can connect to our main hi fi and listen to music, for example.
  4. It can be used to play games. There are tens of thousands of them available on the Android platform – did I mention the three year old would love it?
  5. It is an easy to start / quickly available platform for running Skype calls, our main venue for international calls (and a very viable option for local calls, too).
  6. Given that Android can easily accommodate for VPN connections we can tap into the infinite resources of the American web. For example, we can have Pandora deliver us our music.
  7. It doesn’t have 3G capabilities, but coupled to our wifi hotspot we will have Internet browsing abilities wherever we want without carrying a mountain.
  8. It will serve as a nice introduction to the Android operating system for me.
All in all I would say we will be getting our money’s worth. You can count on me to still be on the lookout for a tour de force tablet that can replace my netbooks in doing proper computing stuff like managing photos and, for what it’s worth, blogging. For now, though, I’m happy with my first affordable step into the realm of the tablet; I hope my happiness won’t turn sour when I actually receive the gizmo.


Image copyrights belong to Kogan

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Best Person on Twitter

While I have already handed my Person of the Year award recently, the thought of handing out another Person of the Year award did occur to me recently. It occurred to me while reading a twit in which someone unfamiliar told Leslie Cannold that she is the best person on Twitter, and it occurred to me because it caused some bunch of neurons to light up in my head and say “You know what? That’s absolutely right.”
You can read a lot about Leslie Cannold and her activities at her own website here. What matters to me, though, is the impact Cannold has had on me, personally. To me, Cannold is an intellectual first and foremost, an intellectual discussing matters I consider to be of extreme importance to contemporary society. She deals with subjects such as science, education and feminism. Before you start arguing that feminism has nothing to do with me given that I’m a male, I will counter by saying feminism has everything to do with me given that 50% or so of the people I share this planet with are women; if they are worse off then so am I, in the same sense that none of us would like to board busses with separate seating for blacks and whites. I have mentioned here before how religion’s attitudes towards women were one of the core reasons I personally decided to give religion the boot. As far as I am concerned, Cannold is fighting my fight when she presents her views on feminism just the same as when she presents her views on the importance of having a truly secular Australia. Which brings me to note that Cannold was recently awarded as Australian Humanist of the Year (read how you can join the celebrations here).
Cannold has established herself in my consciousness much more firmly than others through seemingly mundane means. Most notable is her extensive/aggressive use of Twitter, which fits me like a glove given my lack of free time: Cannold sure knows how to use Twitter’s platform of limited length for maximum effect. Not only does Cannold state her opinion on Twitter, she also listens to followers’ feedback: by now we’ve had several Twitter based dialogs (as limited as those can be), which is much more than can be said for my contact with all other celebrity intellectuals. With Cannold I can “dance with the stars”, so to speak.
She is also a regular columnist for National Times (here), The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald’s opinion column. I recommend her article on rape in particular (here).
Then there is the simple fact of locality: Cannold, like me, is Melbourne based. This means we can easily relate to one another, not just on global affairs but also matters of local news (e.g., the recent state elections). It also means that I could see her in person relatively easily, as I did last week when she gave a presentation at the Wheeler Centre during my lunch time break (where the attached photo was taken).
By now I don’t recall when exactly it was that I started following Cannold on Twitter, the point in time where I first started paying serious attention to her, but given her position on my list of people I follow she was amongst the first. That is probably the direct result of the Global Atheist Convention where she was one of the presenters (I'm talking about that same convention I’m still kicking myself for not attending due to my usual babysitter problem). For the record, Cannold presented herself there as an agnostic (I have the proof on the convention’s DVD), yet it seems obvious that her definition of agnostic is fairly similar to my definition of atheist. In practical terms, neither of us circumcised our sons to make them a member of Club Jew.
Which brings me to note, once again, how most of the intellectuals of this world that I look up to the most (apologies for overusing the word “most”) share a similar background to mine. As with Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov and even Cory Doctorow, Leslie Cannold comes from a Jewish background. Don’t ask me why this matters when it comes to me picking up my intellectual role models because it shouldn’t; fact of the retrospective matter, though, is that it’s there.
Let the record state I don’t always agree with Cannold. When, for example, she argued for a Cochrane review to look at the preventative health benefits of circumcision I argued that there is a difference between circumcision and taking a pill: you don’t just go about mutilating yourself in order to prevent potential disease, in the same way a woman won’t have her breasts removed for no other reason than to prevent potential breast cancer (there are cases where such an operation is the right thing to do, but special evidence needs to be put on the table for the act to become acceptable). My point is that even through disagreements I can still admire Cannold for utilizing reason in her arguments first and for presenting her arguments so eloquently second. Arguing with people like that is a pleasure from which I learn a lot.
All of the above certainly equates to one thing in my mind: Leslie Cannold is the best person on Twitter.

Naturally, the discussion of Leslie Cannold’s intellectual virtues brings me to discuss her recently published work of fiction (otherwise knows as “a book”), The Book of Rachael.
I have mentioned me wanting to read the book already here, where I also mentioned me waiting for the ebook version to arrive. Simply put, I do not see myself buying paper books anymore unless there are special reasons like special graphics: paper books take up space which we are short on, they are less comfortable to read, they are a pain to carry on the train where most of my reading is done nowadays, and they are more of an environmental impact if you read as much as I do.
Thus far The Book of Rachael was published electronically only in the ePub format, a format my Amazon Kindle ebook reader won’t accept. The publisher also informed me they have no plans for a Kindle version. My views on such compatibility matters are well known, and you could say it would be a pleasure for me to convert the book from ePub to Kindle using open source tools such as Calibre; it would be my special way to show the people whose sick minds come up with all those rivalling formats exactly what I think of their fruitless attempts to divide and conquer.
However, I will not be converting The Book of Rachael any time soon. That’s due to a very down to earth reason: pricing. Currently, according to booko (here) I can get the paper version of the book delivered for $31; Borders will sell me the ebook version (here) for $26.
$26 for an ebook? That’s about double the price of the most expensive ebook I had bought so far from Amazon, and I bought plenty – including many new releases otherwise available only in hardback. Only $5 difference between the paper version and the ebook, when postage alone would cost more than this difference? That smells like something else; that reeks of not wanting to sell the ebook version in the first place. I suspect that is the reason this ebook is not sold at Amazon: Amazon is famous for pressing publishers to lower their ebook prices so Amazon can sell more Kindles; it is also known that Amazon suffers from flocks of people placing negative feedback and thus damaging prospective sales whenever ebooks are sold for more than $10.
As for me, I can sense the same stench here as the one coming from the movie and music industries when they continue to wage the war of preserving their existing business models while doing the best they can – and they can afford a lot – to halt progress towards the digital domain. It is the kind of thing that makes me the occasional pro advocate for piracy.
However, the case of The Book of Rachael exposes the other side of piracy. It’s one thing to pirate the contents of a big studio that’s loaded with record profits and refuses to sell you the product you really want to buy, but it’s another thing to hurt a person’s income. By pirating The Book of Rachael I would be depriving Cannold of her earnings, money that as far as I’m concerned I would be very happy to give her under normal circumstances. I need her to have my money: I don’t want her to not be able to afford to tweet anymore.
So there you have it: an ethical dilemma. I don’t want the paper book, I want electronic; if I buy the electronic version I will be rewarding a publisher whose motives contradict my values; if I pirate I will be hurting the author with whom I so thoroughly identify.
For the record, my dilemma is eased to one extent or another by the very likely fact I will not be able to pirate The Book of Rachael even if I wanted to (and let me make it very clear: I don’t!). Being that we are not talking here about the latest best selling fodder from Dan Brown, but rather about quality material, I doubt torrents for Cannold’s would be available. I suspect I will just end up waiting until one of two to happen: either the ebook’s price comes down or my passion for reading the book gets the better of me.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Crime and Punishment

A friend has informed me of a book called Parenting Without Punishment, a book described to be “about positively motivating kids and avoiding using punishment”. I cannot say I am familiar with the book, but its Amazon description gives some information away regarding the parental methodology at hand when it states the book “deals with how to use reinforcers, star charts, time outs, and contracts” in order to produce a self-monitoring, self controlled child.
On the face of it I like the idea. It’s hard work to try and create a reward system for positive experiences, though, and then there is the issue of whether rewarding your child to do good is the ethical equivalent of bribing. As in, you’re not really teaching your child to do good, you’re just teaching him/her to do whatever gets them their reward. At what stage can your child tell the difference?
But I'm digressing.

My main argument with the book is to do with practicality. I’ll give you this morning’s scenario: we got up for work (parents)/kinder (three year old); I prepared my son his dose of medicine but he refused to drink it. What should I do next?
You can argue that if I did my homework and established a motivational framework then my son would have enough positive inclination to drink the medicine. However, what if he wouldn’t drink it still?
In our case it is obvious our three year old has reached the stage where he deliberately tests us by going slightly over the boundaries we’ve set for him. This morning it was the medicine, last night it was a chair he toppled over but wouldn’t pick up. I understand where he’s coming from: he’s new to our world and he needs to know exactly where he’s standing; experimentation is the best way to figure this out. You can therefore argue my son is applying the scientific method on us.
In my opinion, given the practicalities of having to get to work on time, punishment is the most effective way of dealing with this situation. Note I am not talking about particularly cruel punishments here, just enough to make my son think about the consequences of his actions (or at least give him the opportunity to do so). I’ll give you an example: when, last week, my three year old chose to pee in his pants instead of do it at the toilet, just so he could play with his toys a bit longer, his punishment was no TV watching for the night. Instead of TV we spent the same amount of time reading books together (in between me reminding him why we’re reading and not watching TV). The point of the punishment was that my son ended up getting a superior experience for his wrongdoings, even if he doesn’t realize it; on the negative side he also got a lot of attention for his wrongdoing, which could encourage him to pee in his pants again.
I do not claim to know the perfect solution for adjusting child behaviour; all I’m saying is that practicability counts, and with all due respect to text books I want to see their authors deal with real life situations first.

All this mishmash of conflicting needs, wills and practicalities made me sit back and think (how dangerous can that be!). I therefore want to raise the level of discussion up a notch and ask a simple question: do we want to raise children in a punishment free environment in the first place?
It sounds good, living a punishment free life. There is also the argument that punishments never really solve the problem they are meant to address, which is certainly an argument I tend to agree with.
Then there are the facts of life. One of them is that you will get punished during your lifetime, like it or not. In our modern civilization we may like to think that we can lead a punishment free life but that is clearly not the case: we live in a harsh universe that is totally indifferent to human endeavour and will punish us the minute we relax. We are also pretty good at punishing ourselves; we may choose not to do so to toddlers, but there are plenty of experiences out there that will punish a teen or an adult. Thinking otherwise places you in the delusional corner quite explicitly.
From the parental point of view, it is possible to argue that it would be wise to provide the punishment experience to your child so that he/she will learn the harsher aspects of life. As I said, my son’s attempts at touching are soft nerves are perfectly natural and understandable; he would be stupid (in the official dictionary sense of the word) not to venture there. It could then be argued that it would be just as stupid for me not to demonstrate the full consequences of crossing the acceptable line.
I won’t pretend to know the answer to the question, but perhaps it is wise to expose your child to punishments of the more constructive nature.


Image copyrights belong to Amazon

Monday, 11 April 2011

If Corn Could Talk

_DSC5043We can learn a lot from feces. Even at the personal level, as explained a couple of years ago in a British health documentary aired in Australia under the Catalyst banner.
According to the program, what you eat clearly affects the frequency of your feces output: eat chips and crisps alone, as per the real live examples they had, and you will visit the toilet for a #2 once a week; on the other hand, eat natural stuff that’s rich with fiber, stuff like fruits and vegetables, and you will visit the toilet once a day or even more. The point the documentary was trying to make is that visiting the toilet more often (diarrhea like circumstances excluded) is a good thing, because no one wants to be full of shit. That is, the stuff that’s in the feces is stuff your body wants to get rid of, so you might as well help yourself. Keeping it inside longer means its nasty chemicals enjoy extended opportunities for interaction with your body, e.g., give you colon cancer.
One method with which the documentary suggested checking just how long you carry your feces inside you was to eat corn. Apparently, corn has a tendency to pass through your digestive system relatively unscathed, to the point of being quite visible when you take a dump. It’s true: I verified it already shortly after the program was aired.
I was reminded of this whole affair while munching on “corn on the cob” yesterday. Earlier during the day we visited Aldi, where we bought some fresh corn, and for lunch we cooked it and had it all – all three of us. As in, the three year old of the household really enjoyed the experience. The successful corn experience made me think, and I recalled that just two weeks ago we had corn salad (recipe here) for dinner; the following day, during my post work lunch Twitter update run (otherwise known as toilet visit) I could clearly see yellow corn down there.
Yes, you can complain as much as you want about this blog dealing with shit, but I will ignore you. For a start, if posts dealing with death are this blog’s most popular ones (as per this case), then perhaps I struck gold with these subjects that too many like to avoid for irrational reasons. The other reason is because I did want to note I never realized my diet was that good till my feces told me so. And they’re right, my feces, because whenever we go travelling and my diet is changed by the forces of food availability then my toilet visits’ frequencies goes down. Oh, and I also tend to feel like shit.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Why Eric Bana?

From time to time I tweak my blogs here and there, changing one setting or another. It's fun.
One thing I always seem to be getting back to is my profile picture. For some time now I have been consistently using the image of Eric Bana from the film Munich in my profile, not only for my blogs but also for Twitter, Facebook (back when I was in Facebook) and other web pages. Why is that?
The picture shows Eric Bana in a darkish room, holding a pistol in his hands and contemplating. As it happens, the picture reminds me of myself: true, I look nothing like Bana, but it's just that I've been in that very same pose many a time.
Back in those dreaded army days of mine, at the end of the day/night I would often find myself an empty room to sleep at (we didn't have proper sleeping quarters). I would normally be very tired, and as I would start the pre-sleep undressing operation one of the first things I would do is take my pistol off its holster so I can put it away somewhere. Being tired, I would often just take the pistol out, hold it, and daydream myself away for a while. Usually, I would just wonder why it is that I'm stuck in the army holding a pistol in the first place.
As it happens, those wonderings of mine from decades past were probably the seeds that planted my blogs.

Image copyrights belong to imdb

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Priva-SIM

Last week I went and bought my first Amaysim mobile phone SIM at a 7-Eleven near work. The purpose was to have a pay-as-you-go SIM with cheap data rates that I can stick inside my wifi hotspot so I can have a cheap standby alternative Internet connection to my ADSL one. Amaysim qualifies in the cheap department and its Optus download rates are decent enough (although far from stellar) to work as a backup or if I need a portable Internet connection that is better than the one supplied by my iPhone.
One of the tricks pulled by Amaysim in order for it to be cheap is to sell its product – its SIMs – through third parties, parties like gas stations and 7-Elevens. Which brings me to regale you with the story that took place at the 7-Eleven I attended in order to spend my $2.

Apparently, when buying a SIM, one needs to fill out a mandatory form required by the Australian Government. In the form you need to provide all sorts of personal details, including:
1. A credit card number if you pay for the SIM via credit card (the whole $2 worth!).
2. Passport or other photo ID details if this purchase would make you the owner of five or more prepaid phones.
Don’t ask me why our esteemed government needs these details in the first place. It all stinks of the Muhamed Haneef fiasco, where – lest we forget – the government ended up paying the poor guy an “undisclosed amount” of our tax money in order to prevent further shame. Otherwise, I’m pretty sure Al-Qaeda operatives would buy SIMs with their own credit cards and show off their genuine passport just so they can have more than five SIMs; I dare you to show me a more foolproof way to stop terrorism!

Fiascos do not end there. Instead of giving me a single form to fill, I was handed the entire pile of forms and asked to fill the one on top. Quickly browsing to see what’s below, I was shocked to find the personal details of those that bought Amaysim products from that 7-Eleven before me: their names, addresses, and often their credit card numbers and their passport numbers were all there, glaring for me to abuse.
I didn’t abuse anything, but I was still shocked at this macabre display. Disregard for privacy is one thing, but totally throwing privacy down the sewer is another!
For the record, I filled out my name and address (otherwise available to the public through the phone book) and got my SIM. Unlike other mobile operators that insist on photocopying (!) your driver’s license, Amaysim is happy with you just showing the seller your ID.
Then again, Amaysim does leave your details at the hands of the 7-Eleven staff, all of which are qualified security experts who signed non disclosure agreements upon their employment at their reputable establishment, I’m sure. Not that giving your details to a major telco, say – Vodafone – offers better prospects.
Did I mention privacy protection legislation is stuck in the Dark Ages? Or that all is fair in the name of anti terrorism, even the daftest ideas ever?

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

The Babysitter

Little babysitterThe term Inconvenient Truth might have been used as the title of a successful documentary, but as far as I am concerned it is a term best used to describe our life since we became parents. Most notably, it is a term best used to describe the fact that since our now three year old was born we've only gone out twice on our own while leaving the child under someone else’s care. If you find that unbelievable that I can assure you that so do we.
That situation is looking like it’s about to change after we’ve successfully engaged a willing babysitter this weekend. From here onwards, the sky could be the limit! As in, we might even be able to go for a nice dinner or even – hold your breath – watch a movie at the cinemas.
The way things are going, and under the right star alignment, I might even be able to attend the recently announced second Global Atheist Convention, scheduled to take place at Melbourne between 13 and 15 April 2012.

Image by MiriamBJDolls, Creative Commons license

Monday, 4 April 2011

When Work Sucks

Work sucksWhat do you do when work sucks? That is, what do you do when the prospect of getting up in the morning just to spend the majority of the upcoming day doing things that would make you feel lesser than your current state becomes business as usual? When you’re feeling so helpless at the office you don’t even mind openly blogging about it?
That is roughly the point I’m currently at.
In what is by now the ancient past it used to take much less to make me look around for another job. Not necessarily get another job, just look around; looking alone is good enough to make me feel I still have the initiative and I am not totally helpless.
Today things are different. Today I’m held captive. Not by work; no one is holding me on leash, and as far as employers treating their employees nicely I am definitely on the better side of the Aussie scale. My leash is the direct result of my own personal circumstances: having a mortgage, working towards extending our home, having a child, and having no one immediately next to us to help us with parental tasks. With such a leash around your neck you too would absorb a lot of crap before looking around.
Then there are matters of convenience. Starting a new job means potential collisions with your current holiday plans. It means you’ll need to start suiting up for work (Incredibly detestable in my book, especially in winter when it’s cold and the suit doesn’t warm you or in summer when it’s warm and the suit boils you. That is, it’s always a pain). It means you need to rearrange your life, if ever so slightly, to accommodate for your new employment; with a child around, and with me being so used to doing things the way I do, those slight adjustments can be a big pain.
Being tied up so effectively triggers thoughts around my career prospects and what happened to those when I decided to migrate to Australia. It only takes a brief look at my Linkedin to see what my peers are up to, and the majority of them have very flashy job titles – much flashier than mine, stuck as I am in Australia, the land where there is no real IT industry since we can get everything we want by digging it off the ground. It’s hard to remind myself that I was the one who decided, and still stands behind the decision, to take a low career profile in order to be able to achieve the peace and quiet that I value much more than a flashy jetset lifestyle. Times like this make me wonder whether I really made that decision or whether it was forced on me by circumstances: at the time I migrated to Australia I was under the illusion the IT market here would be better than Israel’s given the population is three times larger; how wrong could I be? It was only later, as I frustratingly looked around for job and learned to settle for nothing much that I determined the trade off between a career and a life is worthwhile. Regardless of whether choices were made or forced, thinking about my studies and my qualifications and comparing those to what I actually do at work makes me cringe.
Which leaves me where I currently am. The logical thing to do, as I am being told, is to start looking for another job. Being the irrational being I am I settle with expressing my frustration over the web. For now.

Image by michelhrv, Creative Commons license

Friday, 1 April 2011

Midlife Crisis

Home Screen CloseupI cannot stress this point enough: if you are the owner of an iPhone 3GS, do not upgrade its operating system to the latest 4.3 version!
I discussed this point about a week ago (here) but it needs emphasizing. Since the upgrade, the battery that would have lasted me 3-4 days under the 4.2.1 version of iOS now lasts me just a bit more than a day. It even loses about 25% of its power at night, when I leave it on airplane mode and shut down all open applications. Yes, you read it right: it loses a quarter of its power by just doing nothing for about 8 hours.
To be fair, I should have seen this coming. Exactly a year ago I have “upgraded” my wife’s iPod Touch from iOS3 to iOS4 to get the exact same result: the upgrade’s main feature was turning the battery from something that lasted about a month between charges into something that last about a couple of days.
We therefore have ourselves a trend: about a year and a half after Apple releases a product it offers a free “upgrade” that renders it useless just in time for you to buy their newly released product. When I look at the street and see how many people use iPhones it becomes obvious to me that as much as I detest Apple for acting this way I have to admit they are doing their shareholders the best of service. But let’s not get into the ethics of our market driven economy, shall we…
For now, let me close of with this three point advice:
  1. Do not buy Apple products.
  2. If you do happen to be the owner of an iPhone 3GS, do not update its operating system anymore.
  3. If you do happen to be the owner of an iPhone 4, print this post and keep it locked in a vault till early 2012. Then, when Apple releases its latest iOS upgrade, read this post again to recall why you should not update your device.

Image by hummingcrow, Creative Commons license