Monday, 30 May 2011

What Car?

A friend asked me today on what basis I choose the cars that I buy (or something roughly along these lines). Given that buying a car is one of our biggest expenses, I thought this is a subject worth posting about.

I'll start with a disclaimer: I would be a liar if I was to say the purchase of a car is an entirely rational decision for me. I have been interested in cars since my early childhood days, and obviously you get to accumulate a lot of bias over the years. Neither am I immune to the marketing machines operated by all car manufacturers.
What I can say is that during my youth my main criteria in choosing a car was performance, at least the way it tends to be measured in car magazines. However, having owned a few cars of my own I quickly learned that while some fun can be had with cars without getting killed or arrested, the main criteria that determined my happiness with a car is the amount of negative attention it attracted from me. Negative attention comes in the shape of me having to spend money on it, me having to spend my time on it, and me being unable to rely on it because it breaks down. Other than that there is not much difference between cars: they all perform quite similarly at legal speeds. If anything, the more sportier the car the less comfortable it tends to be.
Safety does matter, though, both active and passive. The car we currently own, a Honda CRV, was purchase after I crashed my previous Toyota Corolla. That Corolla was crashed because it slipped out of control while I mis-performed emergency braking; if that car was to have ABS brakes I would have probably owned it for a few more years.

I guess you can sum it all up by saying the most important criteria for buying a car is how happy I am with it.
While happiness might sound like an ambiguous criteria, that is not the case at all. A company called JD Power comes to my aid: every year, JD Power surveys tends of thousands of car owners in various countries and asks them a simple question - how happy are you with your car?
They break the question down to how happy you are with the car's design, with your dealership, with performance etc. The point, however, is that they have a survey measuring happiness, and because of the extent of their survey and the fact it's been going on for years you can get some very meaningful results out of it.
To the best of my knowledge there is no Australian JD Power survey. The closest one is the UK one, at least as far as I can tell, and you can access the 2011 version here (as you'd be able to see, it's quite detailed). Alternatively, you can check here for the press release discussing the highlights.
If you're after further illumination, you can check on the American JD Power survey. The highlights from 2011 are here, while JD Power's own website will give you a very detailed account here. Do bear in mind, though, that the American car market is rather eccentric and fairly different to the Aussie one.

To answer the original question I set out to answer in this post, I consider the JD Power survey to be the most important asset at my disposal when choosing a car. Who am I to argue with the real life experience of tens of thousands of drivers?
If you were to look at the JD Power survey results over the years, you will find that certain luxury brands routinely get the top spots (e.g., BMW, Lexus). However, you will find Honda and Toyota always occupy the top spots too, with the distinct advantage of actually being affordable and good value for money.
No, it's no wonder at all my last two car purchases have been a Toyota and a Honda. Nor should you be shocked to find my future purchases will be of a similar nature. There is a very good reason for that: my own personal experience with cars of various makes indicates the JD Powers survey provides a very good representation of the car ownership experience. Not only with the success stories, but also with failures I will never touch again (e.g., Renault).

One last word about passive car safety. We all know about crash tests, but when you compare the scores the same car gets at different tests you will often find inconsistencies.
In Australia you can put your hands on the results of real life crashes (check here for a sample). I suspect that real life crashes, under real life scenarios, tell more about a car's safety than scripted crash testing.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Book Refereeing

For the second year in a row I am going to be voting for the Hugo awards, the world's most prestigious science fiction award. The reason for my voting is rather mundane: for a $50 fee I get to download legal copies of all award contenders, which I can then read at my leisure (without any annoying DRM). The fact I can then go and vote for my preferred works of science fiction is, as far as I am concerned, a bonus.
First, let's get rid of the technicalities. You can become an eligible voter and download your own set of contenders here. If you were to do so, you would notice that you are downloading five contenders for best book, five contenders for best novella (short book?), five contenders for best short story, five contenders for best new author, and much more (e.g., comics). It's not a bad deal at all for $50. Go ahead, make my day: get your own voters pack.

Now that we got that out of the way, let us discuss the implications. My voting "duties" mean that for the next few months till the voting deadline at the end of July, I may be devoting some of my precious reading time to reading some of the best novel nominees, the most prestigious of the Hugos, in order to be able to vote with some confidence. I'm saying that I may because things are not as simple as they should be:
  1. I have some other nice books just waiting for me to read them, like Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi and The Good Book by A. C. Grayling.

  2. The shortest of the five nominees for best novel is 350 pages long; the rest are north of 400 pages.

  3. At least four out of the five are either sequels, the first of a trilogy and such, and in general - books that were never designed to sell entirely by their rights.
It is observations 2 & 3 that bother me the most. Something is wrong with modern day science fiction when a book has to be long to qualify; sure, the shorter ones get under the novella banner, but the one Hugo category that everyone talks about is the Best Novel one, and if nothing below 350 pages can find its place there then there is something wrong with the science fiction of today. I, for one, cannot afford to read such long books too often: it would mean I would read way too few books a year. I'm afraid it would mean I would not be able to keep myself up to date with contemporary science fiction writing. Not to mention the fact that even these long books are only a part of some vast series of books!
Whatever happened to short and sweet?

I do seem to be receiving some aid with the voting process, though. I know who will get my vote for last place even before reading a word of it or its contenders. I'm being sarcastic here, so let me clarify myself.
One of the Best Novel contenders, Black Out / All Clear by Connie Willis, is actually two books: they're a book and its sequel. For the record, Black Out is actually this year's Nebula award winner, the almost as good as the Hugos science fiction award given by American science fiction authors to one of their own.
My problem with Black Out / All Clear is that its distinguished publisher has elected to provide only the first book, Black Out, in the voter pack. If I do want to read the two books and decide my vote on the basis of merit I would therefore have to buy All Clear separately. If that is the case then what is the point of the voters packet in the first place?
Connie Willis' publisher continues to do her disfavors. While the other four nominees for Best Novel provide ePub as well as PDF versions of their books in the voters pack, Willis' is provided in PDF format alone. This means very poor reading on my ebook reader (the font is way too small for reading on my Kindle's screen). Even after using the Calibre application to convert PDF to my ebook reader's native format, I still get page numbers stuck in the middle of sentences because the converter does not know how to tell them apart from the rest of the book.
It therefore seems clear to me that Connie Willis' effort deserves my vote for last place. If I am not meant to read it in its entirety, and if reading its first half is made harder on purpose (while a Kindle friendly version is generally available for sale), then what reason do I have for showing the publisher any respect?

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Beard Sage Advice #17: Trimming

It is truth universally acknowledged, that a single person in possession of a beard, must be in want of a trim on or at around a weekly basis.
I am here to concur.
Scientific experimentation conducted on yours truly's beard renders the above obvious. No matter how long my beard is, inconsistencies in my rate of hair growth meant that things stop looking neat after a about a week. Without a trim, there are too many stray hairs popping here and there (most notably white ones).
A week is also the rough amount of time it take for facial hair around the lips to get long enough to rub against your lips, which - in my book - is one of the more annoying aspects of having a beard.

With the above observation accepted, the question then becomes - how worthwhile is it to have a beard in the first place?
Me, I chose to have a beard purely for reduced maintenance. I hated having to shave ahead of every work day. However, given the need for a weekly trim, which is better - short shaves five times a week, or a more laborious trim once a week?
Time wise, it appears we are talking of roughly the same investment. Five shaves a week, at about five to ten minutes each, is not too different to the half hour or so it takes to set the hair trimmer up, trim the hair, and then do all the cleaning and trimmer maintenance (i.e., oiling). I consider cleaning important: I really hate those ubiquitous little hairs you get everywhere after shaving or trimming. Their presence could easily mean fellows of your household are alienated by the entire beard idea.
There is, however, a significant advantage to trimming a beard as opposed to daily shaves: you can do the trimming at a time of your choice, and it doesn't really matter if you do it a few days earlier or later. And choice, my friends, is all that matters.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

High School Reunion

Wembley Stadium (40)The news that three of my Israeli high school friends/colleagues paid 2000GBP each in order to attend this weekend's Champions League Final (in which I predict Barcelona to trounce Manchester United, extra martial affaired Giggs or not), did make me think. A bit.
At the time, our high school was one of Israel's more prestigious ones, collecting talented children from all over central Israel into a hard science / technology curriculum. If it sounds like I'm boasting, I'm not: in retrospect, and as an adult, I think it would have been much better for me to attend a local school that reflected society more loyally than the artificial environment of my select school. A school where you didn't need to be shows pictures in order to learn what female humans look like. Regardless, my high school doesn't exist anymore for reasons eluding me.
Back to my rich friends that can afford spending so much money on a single football game (not to mention the cost of getting to and staying at London, where the game will take place). Of the seven high school colleagues of mine that I know about with moderate plus levels of certainty, I think it is safe to say I'm the least financially well off (or at least somewhere near the bottom end of the scale). This is the direct result of me moving to Australia and choosing a relatively safe career path in a country where a technology industry simply doesn't exist. Us Aussies dig stuff from the ground, we don't need brains.
Of us seven, two are calling Australia home (yours truly included), one seems to be currently residing in the USA judging by his blog (although I don't know how permanent that arrangement is), and at least one other had himself relocated to the USA from work for a few years' duration. It is clear Israel is not doing a particularly good job securing its talent.
Of us seven there is one guy who is rumored to have become a millionaire. Not surprisingly, he is one of those to attend Wembley Stadium on Saturday night. What may surprise some is the fact this guy had lower grades back in our high school age, which goes to say a lot about the correlation between doing good in your studies and having a successful career later. In my [unreliable] opinion, his success is the result of choosing to work for a small company that ended up being sold for a lot of money to a bigger company. Most such small companies don't get anywhere; he seems to have picked himself a good one. And he was probably very lucky, too.
That's what you need in order to attend a 2000GBP football game.

P.S. Don't ruin the point of this post by asking me about the other colleagues attending with him; I don't know their detailed stories.


Image by Martin Pettitt, Creative Commons license

Monday, 23 May 2011

The Rapture

Ruptured
They tell us the promised rapture never happened. I'm here to tell you it did.
Last week our three year old Dylan caught his first proper winter cold, probably at childcare. His nose was running on Thursday; by Friday he had a fever; by Saturday he was complaining of ear pain. Then came the rapture.
On Saturday night none of us slept. By now our son is used to ear pain, and the fact his was keeping him (and us) awake meant this was something special. His eardrum raptured during the night, sending all sort of lovely goo out.
According to the doctors this is a normal way for the scummy stuff to come out. The problem is that each such rapture is dangerous: you could end up with hearing losses if the eardrum is at an irreparable state. Not to mention the pain.
The pain proliferates, too. By Saturday my wife was sick; by Sunday night I caught something too, although to date I am still to suffer as much as my peers.
Once again we were reminded how awful Melbourne winters can be.

There is also the matter of how work deals with you being away in order to look after your child. When I reported a part day absence for the full day at home in which I looked after my child, I was asked for explanations. Which really boiled me over: I make tremendous efforts to do some work at home in between looking after a sick child. Instead of taking a break to rest when he does, I go and do some work - which totally drains me. I'm not asking for any rewards, but is this the right way to show appreciation to the effort I'm making? Perhaps next time I should do nothing instead.
Talk about ways to ruin an employee's motivation.


Image by CarbonNYC, Creative Commons license

Saturday, 21 May 2011

The Cure for Internet Piracy

Recently published statistics on Internet traffic volumes (read here) raise a few interesting insights.
According to the stats, bit-torrent is still the number one use of Internet facilities, at least as far as bandwidth is concerned. If anything, bit-torrent keeps on getting stronger and stronger. Given that the bulk of bit-torrent traffic is made of pirated material this says something about the phenomenon called Internet piracy: to say it is rife is an understatement. To say that many people indulge in it is an understatement, too. Piracy over the Internet, as per the stats, is not a marginal exception; it is the rule to which billions of dollars worth of infrastructure is devoted. The people are voting with their keyboards.
There is nothing new in the above observation, though. What is new pops up when dividing USA Internet traffic from European one. In the USA, and for the first time in a long while, bit-torrent has been relegated to second place in the bandwidth department. The new number one is Netflix. In Europe, however, where Netflix does not exist, bit-torrent is still the undisputed number one, putting all the web pages, all the Googles and the Facebooks to shame.
What is Netflix? I cannot give a qualified answer there as Netflix is a service that is available in the USA alone. By my understanding, Netflix is a service where a monthly fee of $8 gets you free access to library of all the films and TV material you could dream of (do correct me if I'm wrong!).
The way I see it, the arguments are clear:
  • Once a better alternative to piracy becomes available, most people will go for it.
  • The main reason piracy is popular is not because it's free (it isn't; any download costs you money). It is because piracy offers a superior product.
  • The contents companies, be it record labels, movie studios or book publishers, are so busy clinging to their mid twentieth century business models they can't see a good thing when it happens. Why the hell is Netflix available in the USA alone?
Instead of opening us all to new horizons, the copyright collective has other ideas. Last week we read about them wanting to have a new tax on all digital storage media (read here); no, that tax would not mean that from now on you're allowed to copy, it would just mean extra money in their coffers. This week we read the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) is seeking permission to be able to browse contents people store up in the cloud for pirated material (read here).
Stupidity, it seems, has never been better funded.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

The Perils of Online Shopping

I seem to be having a run of bad luck with my online purchasing. I thought I’d share the highlights with you so that we can all learn from them.

The first problem I’ve had was with the book Lost and Found by Shaun Tan. Tan is the guy behind the Oscar winning The Lost Thing, he’s a very graphic science fiction author and he’s an Aussie. After watching The Lost Thing on ABC we decided we want to read his books, and Lost and Found offered a great opportunity by combining three of his previous releases (The Lost Thing included).
I ordered the book from Book Depository and received it some two weeks later. Usually the book would be shelved for a while until I found time to read it, but my wife did browse it and noticed a strange problem: half the pages that should have been The Lost Thing were replaced with duplicate pages from the preceding story.
I contacted Book Depository who gave me the option of a replacement or a refund. As they weren’t able to guarantee the problem won’t reoccur I chose the refund option, but my point is that their service was exemplary. I kept my defective book despite the refund, and I was very impressed by the speed and the quality of Book Depository’s communications.
Proof of me being a happy customer is in the shape of me buying more books there since.

Sadly, the smooth problem handling Book Depository offered is not as common as it should, with my wife being the main victim.
We bought her a watch from a Sydney watch shop over eBay. The watch we received did not work, and after some negotiations where the seller wanted to replace the batteries but I asked for a new watch (as per my legal rights given it was dead on arrival), and after lots of staggered and inconsistent replies from the seller's side, they agreed to send me an postage parcel I can use to mail the watch back to them.
Due to an Australia Post error (or rather, fuck up), that parcel took two weeks to arrive. During those two weeks both seller and I exchanged accusations and eventually they paid me money to post them the watch; I apologized sincerely when their parcel did arrive.
By that time, though, the seller refused to provide a replacement watch and gave me a refund instead. I clarified this would earn them negative feedback in an otherwise unblemished eBay career, but they persisted.
The odd thing is that I can still buy the same watch from them in a completely separate eBay transaction. Sure, we had a tough transaction on our hands, but by now I appreciate their service even though their communications could improve. In retrospect, given the limited information each one of us had about the other, we both behaved exactly the way we should have behaved under the circumstances.
What I fail to understand is their irrational insistence on not selling me a watch once the dust had settled. Is this the way a professional behaves?

The third unlucky incident took place when I tried to buy my wife a Nexus S Android smartphone (as discussed here).
I chose to buy my phone from the Smooth Mobiles website. They seemed to offer the best balance between good price, good payment options, a good Australian warranty (Vodafone has exclusive rights over the sale of Nexus Ss in Australia; any other sale comes from Hong Kong), and model availability (I wanted the AMOLED screen version rather than the LCD one). I paid them on the spot via direct Internet money transfer.
For two days later they were "chasing" me over the phone. They also sent me emails saying they would try to call me several times a day, which they didn’t; they called once and a day only. Contacting them back was limited to leaving them support calls on their website, for which you need to create an account, which I did not have (nor did I want to have; there are enough companies out there tracking me already).
Eventually they did catch me. I learned all they wanted to know whether there will be someone at home for the drop off, and if not – what should the delivery person do. Don’t ask me why they couldn't collect this information over the web at the same time I made my purchase; the bottom line was a three day delay.
On the fourth day I received an email telling me my order is in “backorder” status, with some obscure explanations as to what backorder means. I immediately asked for time estimates while pointing out I consider it unfair they took my money first and told me they don’t have the phone in stock later. I asked them to tell me what I need to do in order to cancel my order.
I didn’t receive a reply, but on the following two days I received daily emails telling me my order status is “backorder”. I replied the same as before; no answers were received.
The next day I received an obscure “credit memo”; I asked for clarifications. An hour later I received an email telling me I was refunded. It puzzled me: how were they able to refund me without knowing my bank account details? I emailed a question, to which I received an answer a few hours later asking for my account details. It seems they can read my emails when they want to.
Currently I’m still waiting for the money to make its way back to my account. In the mean time, note how bad communications can lose you sales: I did not ask to cancel my order; I asked for more info and for instructions on what I need to do in order to cancel my order. Neither was provided. The sale was lost because the seller chose to hide by not providing direct means of contact. What, exactly, do they have to hide?
Instead of communicating, Smooth Mobiles earned itself a lengthy post on the public Internet telling the world how badly they serve their customers.

If there is a point to this post then this is it: when I do have troubles with online purchasing, these seem to be the direct result of lack of professionalism on the sellers’ side. It makes me appreciate how good Amazon have been over the years: they sold me their first book back in the mid nineties, and although I’ve had my hiccups with them they generally know how to service their customer. It's not that hard, really.


Update from 19/5/2011:
My bad run continues. Last night I bought the Nexus S from an eBay shop (another Hong Kong seller with an Australian presence). The item description clearly stated a "Super AMOLED" screen, but when I asked the seller to verify this is the version they have - and thus prevent later embarrassments - I was told they currently only have the LED version.
If that is the case, why did they advertise the more expensive and the more sought after version? Those Hong Kong shops certainly seem to have a different set of ethics to mine.
I asked for a refund. For the record, I'm still waiting on the first Nexus S refund...
In the mean time, make sure you know what you're doing when you deal with these small time sellers.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Wanted: Babysitters for 13-15 April, 2012

The Global Atheist Convention is coming to town, my town, again!

The biggest bombshell of an announcement thus far is that the so called four horseman of the anti-apocalypse have promised to come: Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.
I’m quite skeptical (pun intended) about Hitchens’ ability to attend given the man is busy dealing with lethal cancer and already seems to have lost his voice for good (read here from the horse’s mouth). Regardless: this is going to be the biggest such event ever, and it will all take place minutes from where I live. How lucky can a person be? Or rather, how unlucky can I be if this is all to take place at my doorstep while I still can't find a babysitter so I can actually attend?
This time around I want to make more of it than I did last time. Sure, meeting PZ Myers at the pub was great, but I want to tell the above four how much I have enjoyed reading their books; I want to share facial hair experiences with PZ Myers; I want some book/Kindle signatures; I want to be there and take part, properly this time. I’m excited as hell!

So – any babysitting volunteers out there?

Sunday, 15 May 2011

How to read an ePub book on your Kindle

I got several people contacting me for explanations since I tweeted that Leslie Cannold's novel, The Book of Rachael, is alive and well on my Kindle. Given the limited scope for technicalities on Twitter, I thought I should provide the detailed steps I took in order to have the book on my Kindle in this forum. You can argue I have vested interests in helping Leslie Cannold sell as many copies of her book as possible, and I hate to think of people holding back on the purchase (the way I did) simply because of ebook format incompatibility concerns.
Let's go.

Objective: Have an ePub format book running on an Amazon Kindle ebook reader.
I have approched this objective from "Racheal's" point of view, but it should work just as well for any ePub format ebook you want to read on your Kindle. In tehcnical terms, what we are after here is the conversion of an ePub ebook to the azw or mobi formats native to the Kindle.

Constraints:
1. The Book of Racheal is only available electronically in the ePub format.
2. The Amazon Kindle does not support the ePub format.

Ethical deliberations:
There are a few legal/ethical issues involved with the conversion from ePub to Kindle. The first is to do with copyrights breaching; the second to do with dismantling DRM (which under certain circumstances and in certain territories is an illegal activity on its own, even without any copyright breaches); and the third is the issue of breaching user agreements, which you will definitely do if you were to convert your ebook formats.
I have very firm opinions on these matters, some of which have been expressed here.
On my part I will say I did not violate any copyrights, nor do I intend to do so in the future. I will let you form your own opinions on copyrights and the other matters; my views are made pretty clear by me writing this guide in the first place.

Preparations:
You will need to install the following software-
  1. Calibre: Calibre is free open source software to manage all your ebooking needs with on your PC. In this particular case we will be using Calibre's ability to convert ebook formats.
  2. Adobe Digital Editions: Adobe Digital Editions is the most basic piece of software you can use to manage your ePub purchases with. Note I installed Adobe Digital Editions without authenticating it for my PC.
    You can probably use the application Borders offers for your PC to serve the same need as Adobe's, but given that I'm a primarily Kindle oriented ebook reader I preferred simplicity.

Conversion steps:
  1. Buy your ePub book. In my case I bought The Book of Rachael at Borders (here).
  2. Go to the ebook seller's ebook management page and download it. Note that what you will be downloading here is not the ebook itself, but rather a license to download the ePub version of the book later.
  3. Looking at the file you've just downloaded to your hard drive, ask to open it with Adobe Digital Editions. This will cause the actual ebook to download to your PC. You should now be able to read your ebook on your PC screen.
  4. Turn Calibre on and import the actual ebook into its library. You should find the ebook stored under your Adobe Digital Editions folder (if you're using Windows, that will probably be under your My Documents).
  5. Now for the magic to take place: ask Calibre to convert your recently imported ePub ebook to one or more other formats. For Kindle reading, the best choice is probably mobi.
  6. All that's left is to get your mobi format ebook to your Kindle. You can connect your Kindle via USB and copy the file from your Calibre folder (if you're using Windows, that folder should also be under your My documents). Alternatively, you can email the file to your free Kindle email address, [your Amazon account name]@free.kindle.com, and have Amazon wirelessly transmit the file to your device.

Potential catch:
The conversion process (step 5 above) might require Calibre to deal with DRM that is beyond its basic capabilities. Due to the efforts of some good people this threat to our reading can be negated, too, by following steps in the simple guide that's quoted here.

In conclusion:
All that is left for you to do is read your book on your ebook reader of choice.

Friday, 13 May 2011

The Beard: Past, Present and Future

Anuncio Pep
It’s a Friday and I’m in a good mood, so I thought I’d share my beard plans with you.
I already mentioned my beard before (here), stating its purpose has nothing to do with looks and everything to do with being lazy. Thus far it’s paying off: saving ten minutes of my life each working day by not having to do something I hate doing (shave) is a great achievement.
The question is, where to from here?
So far I have conducted two experiments to help determine the optimal answer to the above question. The first experiment was with trimming the beard, and as previously reported my newly purchased Wahl trimmer ($100) did a fantastic job there. First, it helped the beard integrate with my hair (no “stairway” effect). And second, it gave my beard an even look (no individual hairs trying to make a name for themselves by sticking out, a phenomenon that’s very popular with my growing number of white hairs).
The second experiment is still ongoing. In trying to find what the ideal beard length is, I let it grow uninterrupted for a couple of weeks since that initial trim. By now I can report surpassing the ideal beard length, which seems to be dictated by the lips: it’s one thing to get used to the general itchiness of having a beard: I went past the itchiness that is fairly trivial to live with (scratching one’s beard does make you feel so smart!); getting used to the now curling beard hairs scratching against my lips is a different story altogether: as I have found out the hard way, the lips are much more sensitive than the rest of my face. I also passed the point where the beard interferes, if ever so slightly, with the process of elegantly sticking food in my mouth.

Given the results of the above two experiments, my plan is as follows:
  1. This weekend I will trip my beard together with the rest of my head hair to the very short length I normally have my haircut in.
  2. This process shall be repeated on a fortnightly basis.
  3. Ongoing reviews shall be conducted to audit the success of this plan.
Other than that, the main conclusion needs to be emphasized: as far as I can help, the Pep Guardiola short hair/beard look is here to stay.


Image by Álvaro Redondo Margüello, Creative Commons license

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Breeders

.familiesWhy do we have children?
The answer to this question seems simple but when you think about it - really think about it - it isn't. If one is to argue that the need to have children is imprinted in us by design then, in effect, one is arguing against the prevailing notion of us doing what we do because we will it so. If instead one argues for having children in order to be happy then one is simply ignoring objective research that tells us bringing children to this world reduces the parents' happiness; happiness only makes a recovery when the children leave home.
If you didn't know about this reduced happiness before having your first child, surely you would know about it by the time you bring your second one along; yet the majority of parents have more than one child.
In this post I will offer a new explanation to why parents bring a second child to the world: status anxiety.
In other words, parents are pressured to bring the second child to this world not because they really want to, not because they thought it out, but rather because everybody does it and they don't want to be the ones who are "different"; they want to keep up with the Joneses.
The anecdotal evidence at my disposal is as follows:
  1. Virtually every pair of parents from our age group we have been in touch with in Australia has had two children. This includes workmates as well as mothers' group members. The only exceptions I am aware of come from those who have problems conceiving (and then there's us).
  2. Those parents that had the two children don't just have two randomly spread births. They all have them, or aspire to have them, within two years of one another. Surely not all of them have pondered the ideal number of children and their timing and arrived at exactly the same answer by accident; I suspect a lot of them are merely copying one another. In other words, they are following a trend, doing what society expects them to do.
  3. Society does expect them to do exactly that. Becoming a parent is the best way to reduce a person's productivity, so once you become a parent work applies significant pressures to reduce your parental demands as much as possible. On the other hand you get signals telling you what's expected of you whenever you go to places like zoos or museums and are told that a "Family Ticket" is a ticket for two parents + two children. Not one child, and usually not three; just 2+2.
My take from this is that the portion of people who actually think for themselves and make their own choices in the general population is too low for comfort. When we ponder why humanity is slowly sinking into climate change mire without even trying to rescue itself it is exactly this inability of people to weigh the evidence and think for themselves that we should be looking at.


Image by bass_nroll, Creative Commons license

Monday, 9 May 2011

Applying the Golden Rule

Nexus S-001“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, we are told. The Golden Rule.
Often attributed to Jesus even though it was around in various incarnations long before his alleged time, this ethical guideline has always suffered from severe impracticalities. Just ask any friendly sado-masochist. Alternatively, you can ask me and I can tell you all about trying to convince my wife she should put her hands on a Google Nexus S Android smartphone and I can tell you all about my ongoing humanitarian efforts to help those whose lives are made miserable by not being able to have the Internet on them all the time.
Until this Saturday, that is, when this gadget freak managed to crack the final walls of resistance and order one for her over the Internet ($560, delivery included).
  • Why an Android phone? Because we’re both sick of Apple and the Apple treatment. Only yesterday we got further motivated to dump Apple when we both spent several Sunday afternoon hours trying to synch our iPod Touch / iPhone with iTunes (probably the world’s most celebrated and most prolific bloatware).
  • Why a Nexus S? Because the Nexus S is a plain vanilla Android phone, without the manufacturer (in this case, Samsung) installing their layer of stuff we don’t need on top. In turn this means it is easy to take control over the phone and upgrade/root it in the future. You don't have to wait for some mobile provider or the device manufacturer to bother offering an upgrade option (which they usually don’t). Granted, I do have second thoughts: with dual core mobile phones on the horizon the Nexus S is bound to become old in a matter of months; then again, that will always be the case.
  • Why order it over the Internet? Because over the life of the phone it is much cheaper than buying it from your Telstra/Optus (I won’t even consider Vodafone anymore). We’re also not locked in a contract more restrictive than a Gordian Knot. All we have to do is stick our existing Amaysim SIM inside and cruise along.
As we welcome my wife to the age of the smartphone, I feel the need to defend myself. It seems everyone thinks I bought this Nexus S for myself (wife included).
Yes, I did buy it for myself: I bought it so myself won’t have to see my wife dealing with a Nokia phone that doesn’t belong in this century. I bought it so my wife can have the features she used to like on her iPod Touch, and then some, in that prehistoric age before the “upgrade” to iOS4 ruined that gadget.
Obviously, if my wife was to decide she prefers an old iPhone 3GS instead I will be more than happy to switch phones. I sort of doubt this will happen, though. To be frank, when the dust settles and daily use is in mind, there is little difference between the Apple and the Android formats. It’s only when you try to raise your head a bit that you realize how restrictive Apple is.


Image by Stmpjmpr, Creative Commons license

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Eichmann is laughing in his grave

Back at Ramallah, on 11 September 2001, I was initially shocked and then annoyed at the scenes of noisy jubilation taking place right before my eyes. It seemed weird to me that people can actually enjoy the death of a fellow human beings.
Fast forward to this week, where the USA went ahead with killing Osama Bin Laden. The immediate result is scenes of jubilation, and again I am left to wonder how easily people celebrate death.
Don’t get me wrong; I am not losing sleep over Bin Laden’s death. Here was a person who would have not only beheaded me if opportunity presented itself, but would have also killed everyone I care for – and with much joy. Yet the question has to be asked: isn’t looking after our civilization as we know it, with its compassionate values, the entire point of us fighting this fight against Al Qaeda? If it isn't then where, exactly, is the line differentiating the "good" from the "evil"?

There is one area where that line certainly doesn't cross, and that's the one to do with our principles of justice. Every person, we are told, deserves a fair trial. However, by now it seems pretty clear there was never an intention for America to take Bin Laden alive. For all intents and purposes, the operation to get him was an extermination one.
This extermination raises a few instinctive objections with me. Since when have we been endorsing capital punishment? Sure, capital punishment is still used in [backwards] parts of the USA, but why does the Australian Prime Minister agree with it on this occasion and even welcomes it?
Then there is the even more important question of judge and jury. Who is it, exactly, that has the mandate to kill people without a trial these days? Can President Obama decide to kill others without giving them a fair trial, too? Will it be Osama today, someone who voices concerns about it tomorrow, and you the following day? What would the USA think if other countries decided to apply the same logic on Americans they would consider criminals?

I did not shed a tear for Obama's death, but I am afraid of shedding many at the society we have so eagerly become. Between the ridiculous security measures we impose on ourselves for no good reason (check your nearest airport) and between us behaving more like the animals we claim to be above, I would say Bin Laden has won the war.


The image is taken from Boing Boing, which bears a Creative Commons license.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Curriculum Day

Picture 005
Yesterday I learned the meaning of another Aussie phrase: Curriculum Day.
Curriculum Day is a day in which school/childcare shuts down for the benefit of teachers. In our case we were told it is used for teachers' training. Regardless, it is also a day in which us parents are held hostage to a society that is generally indifferent to work/life balance concerns. In other words, us parents are forced to take a day off work. And in other words, Australian society firmly expects the mother to stay at home and look after the child rather than have a life of her own. Surely replacement carers can be found to look after the children while the core crew goes on training?
Last year I was staying home one day a week with my son. Given that this year I am back to full time work I used the opportunity so politely offered by Curriculum Day to have a midweek adventure with my son. It was less than four months ago since the last time I spent a midweek [non holiday] day with him, but what a difference those months make!
Last time around our three year old was still having regular afternoon sleeps, which meant that the day's activities had to be planned around the sleep. By now these sleeps are an extra rather than mandatory; although the child definitely turns into a monster when deprived of his sleep, a short nap in the car is all it takes. Longer naps actually hurt as they drive his night time sleep routine berserk.
With that in mind we made our way to Scienceworks, otherwise known as the science museum. The intention was to take our son to his first ever planetarium show but that turned out a disappointment: during the week they only have shows for organized school trips or shows aimed at adults in the afternoon. Not only that, their main exhibition area was closed off in preparation for upcoming attractions. Still, we had great fun.
From the shorter than expected Scienceworks escapade we drove to nearby Williamstown where we had ourselves a Nandos meal. Again, the recent months accrued under my son's belt made a difference. Sure, he is still in need of constant surveillance and frequent tours of the public toilet, but we did share a nice meal. That meal was topped off by Italian ice cream: we sat opposite one another, eating our desserts while scanning the lovely docks/water/city views outside. For all intents and purposes, I was having ice cream with a boy rather than a toddler.
Taking advantage of the sunny weather we took for a stroll by the boats, scanned the parked battleship and played around the pretend battleship that is the local park's playground. Tired but happy, we made our way home.
Now compare that experience to the races I used to have last year when taking my son to the same museum. We had to leave home early enough to be at the museum's gates when it opened in order to have ourselves an hour or so of action before we had to rush home for the sleep; any delays and my son would fall asleep in the car, which would mean he won't want to sleep upon arrival at home, which would mean the rest of the day turns into a horror show. On the other hand, spending a fully active day with him proved quite a tiring affair: working around afternoon sleeps is hard, but at least you get some time for yourself.
The main conclusion I draw from this whole affair is this. Children's habits change as they grow, but one thing remains constant: their demand for parental attention. In other words, once a parent, always a slave. There's your curriculum day's training worth!

Monday, 2 May 2011

I'm a PC, I'm a Mac, I'm Linux

<span class=iMac-1.JPG">A friend from work went out and spent almost $5000 on buying the latest 27” highest grade Mac. Being that he’s a guy I can properly interrogate I went ahead with cross examinations, trying to fathom what it is that makes people spend so much money on an Apple Mac when they can get superior hardware for less than $2000. That “other” platform will run the same or similar applications as the expensive Mac, which makes the question even more relevant.
Both my friend and I do not pay much attention to the cool image Apple’s marketing has very effectively created. When it comes down to functionality, my friend’s arguments in favour of his Mac experience came down to the following:
  1. He was sick and tired of Windows. Macs offered the only alternative known to him.
  2. With the Mac, everything worked straight away, out of the box. There was no need to set this thing up here or to install another thing there. There are no delays from the time you bring your computer home to the time you can start using it.
  3. Running a Mac is virtually maintenance free. You don’t need to pay attention to stuff like anti-virus updates or other software updates.
  4. Running the same applications on the Mac provides superior user experience to running it on Windows. Things are slicker.
I agree with all of the above arguments. I disagree with the choice of the Mac solution, though: I found all of the above applied to me just the same with my choice of adopting Linux and its Ubuntu distribution as my PC operating system of choice. With Ubuntu I can achieve the same results as my friend while spending less than half the money. All the while I will also be supporting the great human collaboration endeavour that is behind Linux instead of supporting a greedy and morally corrupt company such as Apple.
I do not dismiss the Mac option all the way, though. Clearly it is needed for some professional applications not supported [yet] by Linux, such as Photoshop. On the other hand, I often pity those who totally rely on Microsoft Windows to run their PCs without realizing better options are out there. Yet even Windows has its uses: in real life there are still many things that will only work on Windows, especially at the work environment; that is why Microsoft is winning the battle by forcing its way into our schools and offices.

Despite all my praise for Linux, I cannot avoid noticing the elephant in its room. In too many respects, Linux is not ready to take its place with the simple and generally computer illiterate user.
Last night I upgraded my six year old desktop to the latest Ubuntu release, 11.4 (aka Natty). The main feature of this release is its use of a new interface called Unity to replace the very Windows (but highly customizable) like Gnome that was always there with the Ubuntu PC releases before.
Unity was available in the previous Netbook Remix Ubuntu release and I didn’t like it; it made my netbook too slow and it occupied too much of the netbook's already limited screen real estate. I quickly solved the problem by installing the regular Ubuntu version, which works like a charm still.
I like it Unity even less with this latest Natty release. The first thing to happen after the post upgrade to Natty reboot was my desktop not rebooting! No worries, though: booting in safe mode, I quickly discovered the problem is down to my old graphics card’s inability to support Unity. I booted in the Classic Ubuntu mode (still available) and that was it for my problem. Doesn't feel like much of an upgrade now, though, with everything looking the same as before…
To be honest, I don’t see the point in Unity. One of the main reasons I like Linux is its performance; why does it have to insist on installing an interface that slows things down so much it makes me think I’m back with Windows? It’s not like Unity changes your entire perception of the way computing is done either: it is not like moving from DOS to Windows 95 and it is not like the touch interface first successfully offered by Apple’s iOS devices that even a two year old can handle. Unity is perfectly ordinary and mundane, yet heavy on computer resources.
I had other issues with the Natty upgrade, like my microphone not being recognized anymore (thus preventing me from using Skype on my desktop). I suspect I would be able to solve that, too, if I was to try.
For now, my point is simple: an ordinary computer user who does not know how to tinker would still have too many reasons to avoid Linux by labelling it “too hard”. I don’t think Windows is much better there, judging by the number of Windows users totally unaware of the amount of malware on their PCs. The way things are, these users are either stuck with Windows or have to open their wallets wide for Apple. Both are nasty compromises.


Image by dnwallace, Creative Commons license