Friday, 30 September 2011

An Author's Reply

Interesting things happen when one blogs, and one of them happened to me just recently: A rather damning review I wrote of Mira Grant's science fiction book Deadline has been honored by the author providing her direct response. You can read my review here and Grant's related post here (do note Grant is a pseudo name). I would like to note I think very highly of the way Grant addressed my review. This has been quite an education for me; some times I forget there are people behind the books I read as well as people out there actually reading my blogs.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Of David Guetta

David Guetta @ CoachellaI never heard of David Guetta before bumping into ads promoting his music on Spotify. However, given the way Spotify has captured my heart I have been hearing a lot about David Guetta lately. So much so I couldn’t avoid noticing a review of his latest CD in The Age's weekend paper.
It occurred to me then that while I am pretending to be an American by using VPN services in order to access Spotify’s great music archives, the people of Australia are still expected to use CDs as their default music consumption method. What a silly notion! I find it hard to name anyone still buying CDs these days.
Yet the music labels will happily prevent Spotify from entering the Australian market. By forcing Spotify into a web of tangled agreements, Spotify (and its peers) are effectively kept out of our shores (to the point of Spotify announcing they do not foresee making an effort to enter the Australian market any time soon - see Spotify will not launch in Australia).
We’re paying the price for the record companies' stupidity.


Image by Drew "Rukes" Ressler, Creative Commons license

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Cut It

Everything going well, a good friend of mine from Israel is going to become the father of a baby boy in a few months. Having met the guy while visiting Israel recently I can testify he seems totally ill prepared  for parenthood while his partner seems quite up to the job, so hey – I hope they manage.
One question that did surface in our regular round of email teases is the question of circumcision. Is the newborn going to be circumcised or would his penis be spared?
My friend’s answer was that because absolutely everyone in Israel circumcises their boys the act of circumcision is taken for granted. More than that, the child would be a freak amongst his peers if he was to have that extra piece of skin.
I can relate to those arguments. It is incredibly hard to go against the flow and do something contradicting the auto-pilot mode of the society you live in. It could also be that the parents actually believe in the religious reasons for Brith/circumcision: while, to the best of my knowledge, they are both heretics, they probably also take pride in belonging to Club Jew. You know, the type of pride a Manchester United supporter is full of after the team won.
I’m afraid there are no easy answers there. In my opinion the argument of “everyone doing it so I must do it as well” is invalid. If everyone is doing the wrong thing then there is no point in continuing the erroneous habit, is there? Someone has to set the record straight, and it just might be that you’re the one.
The question, then, is whether circumcision is wrong; in my opinion it is. Health wise, there is a reason why evolution gave us foreskin, and while there may be some hygienic advantages to having no foreskin those advantages pale in comparison to the risk. There is also the argument against mutilation: generally speaking, people adhere to the concept of avoiding the mutilation of others' bodies. For example, it takes a major sacrifice to give away your breasts in order to mitigate cancer; but if that is the case, why would you give away another piece of yourself on the grounds of some highly unlikely health benefit and at the price of a risky procedure?
As for making one’s son a freak for standing out, foreskinned, against a background of circumcised children. For a start, the boy could have positive attraction on his side; it’s not necessarily negative attention alone that he may attract. Second, given the Jewish sages themselves acknowledge the main purpose of circumcision is to subdue sexual drive through a reduction in sexual pleasure (see here), leaving the boy’s foreskin intact is likely to leave the parent with an eternally grateful son.
Regardless, the thought that circumcision is plainly wrong cannot escape me. I remember when my son was a week old, fragile and – let’s face it – barely clinging to life. The thought of taking a knife and cutting a piece of him off at that time, as per Jewish guidelines, was probably the most sickening notion I could have thought of. It’s pure barbarism, period.

No, I don’t expect my friend and partner to change their opinion because of this particular post. I am, however, lamenting the billions of children born into this world only to be painfully mutilated due to the delusional religious faiths held by their parents or the need to belong to a group whose main association is through religious delusions. By my book, all those parents are criminals. My parents and some of my best friends included, but still criminals.


Image by Ronen Frieman, Creative Commons license (14/4/2014: Image removed at owner's request; see comments below)

Monday, 26 September 2011

There's No Monkey on My Back


As I was asked about the electronics I carried with me in my backpack while on a month’s tour of the world, I thought I’d share and concisely review the gadgets I relied upon to serve and protect.
Without further ado:
  1. Pentax K-7 DSLR camera: My camera proved yet again that my love for it is entirely justified; from high definition videos to handheld stills in the dark, nothing encumbers it.
    Being lazy and frankly afraid of having to change lenses in the field, I stuck with one lens that proved very adequate for the job at hand: A Sigma 18-250. In the camera I had an 8gb Sandisk Extreme card but I also carried a couple of extra memory cards.
    What I didn’t carry with me this time around is a backup camera: I decided our phones’ cameras are good enough for me to avoid the extra bulk.
  2. NetComm MyZone wifi hotspot: With 3G data SIMs at hand almost everywhere we went, the MyZone allowed me to have the Internet with me wherever I was. In these days where online check-ins are a necessity there are valid reasons for having the Internet available on me regardless of addictions. Giving us Skype access also meant I never had to resort to expensive global roaming.
    Lest I forget, thanks to those who worked hard to get me the SIMs!
  3. Asus Eee PC 1000HE netbook: Old in the tooth, this three year old netbook is still more than capable when it’s running modified Ubuntu Linux. It did everything I wanted it to do and more, and unlike a tablet it had a keyboard, a proper browser, and no inhibitions on what I could do with it.
  4. Kogan Agora 7” tablet: There can be no doubt this tablet is cheap crap. It even partly broke down during our travels, requiring me to go through special efforts to charge it. However, it proved very effective in keeping our four year old entertained with his favorite videos.
  5. Amazon Kindles: Carrying north of 40 books between us on a couple of lightweight devices and easily buying a couple more books as we travelled makes me say this – a Kindle is the international traveller’s best friend. Hard to believe people are still reading paper books. Those poor souls!
  6. iPhone 3GS: I may badmouth Apple on every available opportunity, but I also give them credit for generating this wonderful device. Aside of normal duties (Skype, email, Twitter, quick browsing) we used NavFree for extensive navigation around the UK (and I do mean around the UK). It never failed us (other than during this massive storm with clouds so black we lost GPS satellite signal!).
    It was also interesting to compare our regular Tomtom GPS to the iPhone: given the iPhone’s superior processing power, it calculates new routes in a blink – whereas the Tomtom can take a long while, often missing us some crucial turns as you continue driving.
  7. Google Nexus S Android phone: My backup camera and our alternative navigation device, utilizing Google Maps’ turn by turn instructions through our wifi hotspot’s Internet connection. We used NavFree on it, too (its GPS reception proved stronger than my iPhone’s), but at the moment the only NavFree maps available for Android are the UK’s.
  8. Chargers and adapters  To cater for differing international standards as well as the need to charge multiple devices overnight I carried a power board with me.
  9. Lowepro Fastpack 250 camera and laptop bag: The backpack itself, ideally compartmentalized for the gadget freak. It comfortably fits into airlines' hand luggage allowance.
All in all, if you were to ask me what I would take along with me next time around I would probably pick the exact same items. I do suspect that by our next international tour the netbook will be replaced by an ultra notebook, though (ala the MacBook Air, but running Linux). Not because the netbook is incapable, but rather because the ultra notebook promises to be significantly more capable, lighter and offer 12” screen sizes – a size I consider the ideal compromise between the pain of carrying and usability.


Image: Lowepro

Sunday, 25 September 2011

The Price of Travel

scream and shoutA short post on the perils of traveling around the world with a toddler: You may enjoy your travelling, but once you come back home you should prepare for the worst.
First we had to contend with a four year old who has been fed primarily on chocolates and sweets by both grandmothers for a month and won't eat anything else (as in, any proper food that is actually good for him).
Second, we had to contend with a tired and jet lagged boy. That quickly translated into a sick boy once that boy attended childcare and caught the first virus that moved.
Third, after a month of total routine violations due to the necessities and perks of travelling, getting our pre-schooler back into the groove is proving to be mission impossible. Unless, that is, one truly enjoys giving a bath to a creature that won't stop shouting in their ear throughout.

Image by mdanys, Creative Commons license

Friday, 23 September 2011

Bloody God

Surgery Went WrongI am often accused for being a loudmouth atheist: why should I care, I am told, what others believe in when no harm comes from their religious beliefs? Somehow, many of us forget the historical atrocities committed by one person to another in the name of their god/s of choice. However, this week I've stumbled upon an example that shows how religion can bring harm even if it does not cause one person to apply violence unto another.
Someone I know - let's not get into the details of how - requires keyhole surgery. So far we're not talking about anything out of this earth; keyhole surgeries are a pain, but in general they tend not to be the end of the world. The catch is that this specific person happens to be a Jehovah's Witness, and according to their beliefs they are not allowed to receive blood transfusions. Thus what should be a relatively simple affair, keyhole surgery, turns into a complicated and dangerous affair - and all in the name of god.
As religions come Jehovah's Witnesses may be an extreme case, but it's pretty clear each religion brings its own set of physical hazards to its believers. The argument that there is no harm in religious belief is therefore invalid; unsubstantiated belief is always harmful in one way or another.


Image by Sebastian Niedlich (Grabthar), Creative Commons license

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

The Art of Travel

Great Barrier Reef from aboveThere was a time when going travelling meant having one long fun session interrupted only an occasional [daily] nap and ending abruptly upon landing back at my home airport. That is no longer the case, a fact that I learned to live with. Nevertheless, this fact still seems to surprise those who ask me about my recent overseas trip: my one liner of an answer, "it had its ups and downs", takes them out of their comfort zone. Surely we need to maintain the illusion that everything taking place during holidays has to be great?
Well, I’m sorry to break it to you but this is not the case. Maybe in dreamland, but not in reality. It has never been the case, really, but as you grow older it never being the case becomes more and more obvious.
For a start, all forms of travel are always restricted in one form or another. The usual restrictions come in the form of us not having as much money as we would like to have (and we would dearly love to fly business class on our next European expedition). We also never have as much time as we would like to holiday: most of us have jobs to come back to, and these jobs restrict our leave allocations. The bastards!
Moving on from restrictions, there is the problem of having to satisfy a growing number of stakeholders with our travelling. We need to accommodate for the fact we are now travelling with a young boy, whose idea of fun is totally different to our conventional senses and whose needs are quite special to say the least.
[A short side note, aimed at those urging us to have additional children: if travelling with one child is a pain, just imagine what it would be like to travel with two! Each time we book a hotel room we would need to book two, and at least while the kids are young we’d have to split up each evening to babysit. Wow, that sounds like fun!]
Then we need to accommodate for the whims of the people we are travelling to. As much as we would like everyone to drop everything and be with us during the short time we have allocated to be with them, that is not the case. It's funny to see how everyone, me mostly, seems to think their private whims are shared by everyone else; they aren't. The people we visit have their own lives, they have their business to run, and they have things they would like to do with their time – things that are likely to be different to the things I would like to do with my time. They certainly have different preferences: to give but two obvious examples, the English part of the family’s taste in food could not be more different to mine, while the Israeli part’s preferred way of spending their leisure time during the hotter seasons is to go and visit a shopping mall – not exactly the most interesting of tourist destinations I’ve had in mind.
Health is another issue that needs to be taken into account. While it could be unlikely for a single person to feel unwell while away for a month, it is quite likely for one of us three to feel unwell while away for a month. Between us getting older (or not being as young as we used to be), the sensitive little boy in our midst, and the varying climates it becomes quite likely to have one or more of us feeling unwell while overseas. Indeed, the last three times we’ve been overseas we always faced some health issues that were severe enough for us to significantly break away from our travel plans.
Flying itself is not getting any better. In the sacred name of security the airport part of the flight becomes more and more time consuming and intrusive. In perfect synchronization, airlines are working hard to cut costs while trying to milk more money: instead of having the usual crappy economy class seat we now have to contend with worse conditions as the airlines try to sell us “premium economy” at premium prices. When you land, weary and tired, you tend to encounter less than fascinating welcomes: you're mostly greeted by poor facilities and long queues, as the airports do their best to increase their profit margins while making the most of their captive audience. Flying: What used to be glamorous has turned into a very shitty experience through and through.

Travelling may be a tedious affair, but it does have its upsides. We had many downs during our recent travels but the break from routine and the ability to see things from other perspectives makes the whole affair worthwhile; not the constant rollercoaster ride I remember from the past, but still an experience worth savouring for its ups as well as its downs. The person coming back from a travel is not the same as the person who left off. The way I see it, travelling is an art; Alain de Botton wrote a book about it already.
In case the benefits of going through the travel motions seem by now as if they are not worth the effort, consider what seeing multiple different cultures has done to our toddler (excuse me, our pre-schooler). At my parents’ third floor apartment in Israel he realized he was in something unlike the houses he’s used to. It made him ask the question we found ourselves asking on multiple occasions during our travels: “How do we get out of here?”

P.S. For further evidence concerning the effect of bumping into the strange, refer to my son referring to Israel as "Warm Weather World", or www in short.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

A Sort of an Epilogue

On our last day, she and him had a quarrel at the end of which he retired for an afternoon nap.
She tried to sneak on him again in his sleep twice more, but this time I was there. The first time she saw me and turned away; the second time I took her by surprise, hiding behind the door.
When the time came for us to say goodbye she reached up for a hug. I was unable to bring myself to say goodbye.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Changes Are Taking

A half moon greeted me as I left home for work on this very sunny Melbourne Monday morning.
Last I remember of the moon was a week ago. It was full and I was in Israel.
Funny how things change.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Spare a Thought

_IGP0110Spare a thought for those of us returning home today after a month's traveling.
Not only do we now have to live with the knowledge that as we plan our next weekend excursion to Geelong the whole world is happening in places like Amsterdam. Not only do we have to go back to work on Monday (assuming we'd be able to do so in the first place, given our son returned home sick). We also need to process more than 27gb worth of photos and videos taken during the course of our travels.
That last item alone would take months of processing and many a sleepless night. What a bummer.

No Diamonds on the Soles of My Shoes

7P1000010 My shoes are dirtier than yoursI would like to note a strange phenomenon concerning the soles of my shoes. In all the countries I've been at, the soles of my shoes would keep the colors bestowed on them by that factory in China; they'd get dirty and store all sorts of nasty stuff in between the cracks, but you could still tell exactly what the soles' original color is.
There had to be an exception to the rule, and that exception is Israel. One has to admit Israel is an exceptional country, and it sticks to its reputation with shoe soles, too: In Israel, the soles of my shoes would quickly turn black; once out of Israel it took a day for the soles to return to their factory settings.
The reason is probably the desert dust that constantly washes Israel over and makes things go dusty at a rate that's probably more than ten times faster than Australia's. The interesting point with this dust, if we were to expand the scope of this discussion beyond soles, is that this dust makes everything appear dirty. There is this feeling of decrepitude in Israel that I never noticed while living there but I can't avoid feeling constantly whenever I now visit. It's everywhere: cars look miserable, apartment buildings look uninviting.
Thing is, that feeling is entirely superficial. Apartment building may look crappy, but once I step inside I am often surprised by how glamorous they are (certainly when compared to my humble abode). As they say, taste the steak - don't settle for smelling the cow!

Friday, 16 September 2011

Scarlett Fever

Scarlett Johansson_004The Internets are awash with excitement as naked photos of Scarlett Johansson, or what seems to be her, are going viral. It appears as if someone hacked her smartphone to get some photos Johansson herself took and released them to the obviously anticipating public.
The first comment I want to make about this affair is that I am not going to reproduce the photo here myself. Not that I have much against nudity (on the contrary); it's just that other than Johansson herself, no one has the right to publish these photos. There was a time when I was oblivious to these rules, but now I try to follow them the best I can in order to honor those who make an effort to create contents (and in order to run a legal blog). The other reason I won't publish the photos here is that I strongly suspect Johansson herself does not want me to do so; regardless of IP matters, the decent thing is to not publish the damn photos. What I will do, however, for titilization's sake, is provide a link - so here goes.
The next thing I would like to do is raise the simple question - why do people bother taking photos of themselves in the nude in the first place? The only time I get mine taken is when I go for an ultrasound, and I doubt the end result would raise as much commotion as Scarlett's lot here. Let me know if I am missing something, but also let me assure you that beyond the rare "here's a photo of this nude chick on the beach that I took while pretending to look at the dolphins" you will not find nude photos anywhere in my personal photo collection. Nudity storage and maintenance is what the rest of the Internet is for.
The last thing I want to say is perhaps the most important lesson concerning privacy. We all know that once you put something on the web it's effectively in the public domain, no matter how carefully you hide it; the only question is how fast it takes for the information to become public. Put it on Facebook and it's immediately public; put it with Sony and you'll have to wait till they're hacked again, which could even take a full fortnight.
However, the Scarlett incident teaches us that your stuff can go public not only when you publish it somewhere, but also when it is merely stored on a web enabled device. Smartphones are great devices and by now I can't see myself leaving without one, but they are a major privacy trap.


Image by GabboT, Creative Commons license

Thursday, 15 September 2011

International Smartphone Observations

Comunicando 114 ¿Qué móvil prefieres? iPhone, BlackBerry o Android

Us Aussies know that Australia has been won over by Apple: everybody on the street seems to have an iPhone stuck up their butt, including kids who can't even read yet. I was wondering what things are like in the rest of the world, and in my ongoing travels I kept an eye open. Here's what I saw:
  1. UK: Seems to be split in half between iPhone and Android phones.
  2. Netherlands: Androids seem to have quite an edge over the iPhone.
  3. Israel: The most striking thing about Israel is the infrequency of the smartphone. Most people are still stuck with those old Nokias - you know, those devices whose only purpose in life is to make calls and receive SMSs. You can see the occasional Android and an iPhone in the hands of a young soldier, but really - the Hebrew language barrier with its right to left schizophrenia seems to have taken a major toll.
  4. Singapore: Another Android and iPhone draw, maybe with a small Android lead.
If you sense that the smartphone world is a two player game then you caught the drift. Blackberries were visible but hardly, and the rest were simply not there. I would like to clarify, though, that the above is far from a reliable scientific examination, but rather based on what I happened to see in the streets.


Image by jagelado, Creative Commons license

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

I Always Feel Like Somebody's Watching Me

_IGP0415It was another hot and moist day in Singapore. Not that our hero (let's call him Moshe) could feel it much in the underground confines of the air-conditioned train station he was at.
It was way past the hero's lunch time, and his stomach signaled in protest. Shortly thereafter a hand slipped into the BreadTalk plastic bag, where an oily cheese bread was waiting. A bite was taken, forcing our hero to let a satisfied purr out.
The station's PA went on before the bite had a chance to go down the throat. "You are requested not to eat at the station". Our hero looks around, puzzled; the sandwich goes back in the bag.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Play with Fire, Get Burnt

Deep GazeThe news of a second cousin of mine turning into an Orthodox Jew (a process referred to as "Hazara BeTshuva") has been taken rather harshly by my family. It seems they feel as if this could mean the family may lose the guy; memories of a similar fellow referring to his mother as a whore for wearing makeup were quoted aloud.
My sole contribution to this news was to comment that when you play with fire, you should expect to get burnt from time to time. You stick a Kippa on kids' heads during holidays and teach them that they're members of an elite group, god's bestest friends upon this earth, and some of them might take it literally. Needless to say, when I said this aloud I was blamed for being a heretic (I thanked them for the honor); being a Jew is a necessary part of their identity, my family members claim. They are unable to imagine people having a fine sense of identity without associating themselves to a religion.
The way I see it, the only difference between the guy who is about to turn orthodox and the rest of my Jewish family is in the former actually paying attention to the literal instructions of the bible, while the latter don't really believe what they claim to believe in; they're in it for that cozy feeling of belonging to a group. They are fine with it because they do their best to ignore the contradictions of their faith. Otherwise, were you to truly believe in the Jewish god, how could you ignore that god's promised wrath for committing certain acts they do on a daily basis? For example, how could you violate the Sabbath, a felony committed by my family as I type these words and they are watching TV, when you know the god you believe in will send you to eternal damnation as a result?


Image by danny.hammontree, Creative Commons license

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Crapland

Paul McCarthy, Shit Pile, MiddelheimmuseumThe public park behind my parents' house in Israel seems to serve as the local refuge for local dog owners. Surrounded by looming apartment buildings lacking in open spaces, that park is the only place these people can use in order to let their dogs express their physical needs. None, however, seems to bother collecting after their dogs; the result is what I like to call a shit park.
If you were to ask me, that shit park serves as a decent analogy to the entire state of Israel. At my moments of intellectual laziness certain thoughts creep into my mind: thoughts along the line that maybe the people of this country deserve the problems they're stuck in. Because if they don't bother cleaning after themselves, why should the rest of us fuss over someone else's crap?


Image by appelogen.be, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Israeli Queuing

Busy SupermarketThe phenomenon has been thoroughly analyzed upon my previous visit to Israel three years ago (see here), but it's worth repeating the point if only to let you know that nothing has changed. This phenomenon I'm talking about is "Israeli queuing", or at least what passes for queuing in this land I'm currently visiting.
The numbers are unofficial, so at this stage I can only discuss the two observations I've had this very morning. The first was at this pharmacy I went to (got the Terminator conjunctivited red eye again): there was no queue when I got in, but upon counting the change left in my hand by the pharmacist the seemingly nice woman behind me decided that enough is enough. Starving for attention she pushed her way in and kicked me in my left heel as a bonus.
My next stop was at the supermarket (some Coke Zero was required in order to settle semi upset stomachs - the heat gets you in mysterious ways - while not adding to the escalating tally of kilos my stomach has been putting on since this trip of ours began). The staff was very helpful in finding stuff, a point I would like to make since I usually associate common courtesy with Australia whereas we've bumped into it in heavy quantities in all the countries we've visited thus far. The problem was at the queue: the guy standing behind me, half my height and size, seemed certain things would go much faster if he was to stand on my foot. He did it once and retracted his foot once he noticed the rather uneven nature of the turf; he did it again seconds later, probably because he was sure I (or my foot) spontaneously combusted during the past few seconds; he tested the theory despite what his eyes must have told him, but no - my foot and I were both very much there. The third time he did it my arm was semi raised in that Dark Side of the Force notion of Release Your Anger, but just then my time with the cashier had arrived and I had better things to attend to.
The problem, of course, is not that queues are slower as a result of all this messing around. The problem is the lack of respect on display towards fellow human beings, that feeling whereas everyone else around you is out to get you and you just have to keep on your toes (or someone else's toes). I argue this comes from the very justified feeling of prosecution Jews have had to endure throughout their history, but I will also argue there is no point in maintaining that feeling now that the Jews are the masters of their own domain. The fact the notion persists points directly at the heart of the maladies taking Israeli society down.


The image (that has nothing to do with Israel) is by Steve Crane, Creative Commons license

Saturday, 3 September 2011

First Encounters of the Porn Kind

Privacy, health, fears over airport X-rayIt's probably a world record, but we managed to pay Amsterdam a visit without going near its red light district. Where we did come hand in hand with porn culture is at the airport on our way out of the Netherlands, where we were instructed to go through those notorious airport porn scanners. Meant to identify alien bodies on your body, these gizmos have been repeatedly proven to only be effective at wasting people's time and annoying them while at it; security wise, they have been unable to detect much guns & ammo thrown their way. If at all, they're only good at creating the illusion of security with those that do not know the real story.
My own personal adventure with them was a success: I announced I would like not to go through the scanners. Fully expecting to be patted down to death I was simply told to go through around the machine. That was it! If there is anything you need to take from this post, it is this: do not hesitate to express your dislike of this invasion of privacy in the name of security. Don't be herded like sheep to the slaughter, because authorities will keep on pushing this stuff on us unless enough of us protest.


Image by publik16, Creative Commons license