Friday, 30 December 2011

Addicted

It's hard to ignore the phenomenon commonly referred to as "coffee" when one is living in Melbourne, but I think our household managed to hold itself back way longer than average. However, even we had to succumb in the face of Christmas shopping season discounts. Most notably, Aldi offering a home coffee machine for a mere $80!
We had a look at the Aldi machine and decided it's not for us. Then we stumbled upon a Nesspresso machine (the one with Clooney in its ads), and between us being overenthusiastic and the the saleslady trying for commission we were under the impression you can get their entirely automated (just press a button!) coffee and frothing machine for $200. Alas, that was not the case; the asking price was $500.
So we had second thoughts, and realized there is not much of a difference between the Aldi coffee machine for $80 and the Nesspresso one for $500, especially when you throw in an extra $20 to get the Aldi frother. Most notably, both machines use very similarly styled coffee capsules as their ammo, and both require similar style maintenance (that is, almost nothing other than pressing the "clean" button from time to time).
So we went and bought the Aldi machine. That is, we went several times, because it took a while till the shops had them in stock. Since then we never looked back: our otherwise coffee immune household became caffeine addicted, even if we are not talking about common Melbourne grade addictions: ours is just a few coffees per week. However, an addiction it still is: when we went for our Christmas holidays this year, we took our coffee machine (and frother) with us. After all, we still had the original packaging, so it was dead easy!
Addicted, as per the above holiday photo - QED.

Now that addiction has been established, allow me a few words concerning the quality of the coffee produced by the Aldi machine.
No, it is not of the same quality you would get at a proper coffee place. It is definitely inferior to that, probably the result of the capsules' coffee coupled with the machine's inability to deliver the pressures and temperatures of a pro machine. However, if you ask me, the Aldi machine still beats most of the inferior coffee places and is at least on par with the majority of consumer home coffee machines. It is excellent value for money, to put things explicitly, regardless of whether you're talking running costs or just the initial cost.
Currently, Aldi sells some eight varieties of coffee capsules. However, if you look overseas (say, here) you will see additional milk and drinking chocolate capsules on offer; I assume these would land at the Lucky Country shortly. What I was unable to find thus far are decaf capsules for the Aldi machine (capsules of which are available for Clooney's Nesspresso): having those on board would mean I'd be able to enjoy the taste of coffee without the side effects that come along with such an addiction. Yes, I know decaf is blasphemy, but let me make it clear - I drink coffee because of the taste and the ritual, not because of some quest to attain legal drugs.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

When they kick out your front door, how you gonna come?


The EFF asks people joining it (or, in my case, people renewing their membership) why they choose to do so. At the time of my renewal I didn't have a catchy answer to that question, but exactly because of that lack of an answer I kept thinking about the matter. Eventually, things settled in my mind upon the words of The Clash:
When they kick out your front door
How you gonna come
With your hands on your head
Or on the trigger of your gun?

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Coming Out of the Closet

Coming out the Closet

The Azrieli shopping mall photo affair continues to roll on, with me receiving emails and phone calls from my family calling on me to change. Notable arguments include:

  1. As the Jewish son of Jewish parents, how can I say such things about the State of Israel?
  2. As an Israeli, how can I say such things about the State of Israel?
  3. I am only a tourist in Australia; my true country, my home, is Israel.
  4. By expressing myself the way I do I am humiliating the State of Israel as well as humiliating my family.
  5. Certain family members (some cousins were specified) already stopped talking to me as a result of my expressed opinions. This causes family disconnections.
I think all of the above arguments have been discussed in this blog before, but for what it’s worth I’ll have another [shorter] go:

  • Religion: I am the son of Jewish parents. I was brought up on the modern Israeli secular variant of the Jewish culture. I like many Israeli foods and consider them my favourites (humus!). I listen to Israeli music (matter of fact, lately I've probably been listening to more Israeli music than I ever did).
    However: none of the above requires me to consider myself a Jew; I’m an atheist, a vocal one at that, and like Christopher Hitchens before me I tend to see the institute of religion as one of this world’s greater evils. Now, if, in your opinion, religion is in one’s genes then fine – by your way, I am Jewish. If, however, you are of the opinion that everyone is allowed to make their own minds as to what they are, then face the fact that I do not consider myself a Jew.
  • Nationalism: To quote Carl Sagan, when you look at the earth from outer space you do not see international borderlines. Me, I accept the concept of nationalities as one of this world’s evils that I am unable to correct; I certainly hold no particular favors for any country. The way I see it, a country is there to serve its citizens; some countries do a much better job at this than others (Australia vs. North Korea), and the better ones are the countries I would prefer to live in. To put it in other words, I am a patriot of the countries that put human rights, as per the spirit of humanism, as their core value.
  • My true country: Let us not forget that Israel is a country where my wife would not be able to reside due to the religion she happened to be born into. My son, too, will have problems living there. For that reason and for many more, Israel cannot be my “true country”. In contrast, Australia’s culture is foreign to me in many ways, but Australia is a country that is totally unbothered by me living in it and allows me to lead a normal life involving work and family. I have many reservations about Australia, most if not all of them have been expressed in this forum; overall, though, I am happy here.
  • Expressing my opinions: Of all the basic human rights out there, I consider the freedom of expression to probably be the most important one. If someone has a problem with my opinions they are more than welcomed to argue these problems out (one of my friends did so at my previous post, raising some very valid arguments); I am very often wrong and appreciate the effort it takes to correct me. However, shutting up for the sake of others who do not like to hear what I have to say is not a behavior I see myself adopting any time soon. If anything, I take pride in speaking my mind up, the transparency it brings, and the openness it nourishes. Last, but not least, if you have a problem listening to criticism and seek to shut me up through posed humiliation, I would say you have a huge problem on your hands.
Overall, it does seem to me as if my true alleged crime is daring to ask questions that others prefer not to ask. At stake is the matter of my identity.
In summary, it appears as if it has suddenly dawned on my family that their son is a lefty atheist. For years they tried to ignore the evidence before them, but now – for one reason or another (I would put my money on my parents’ introduction to the iPad coupled with my brother currently visiting them) – it just popped up in their face. That’s perfectly fine: it’s about time they meet their son.
I do have to say this whole experience feels a lot like coming out of the closet in front of the cliche family. Just like a gay person, this is what I am, for better and for worse; my friends who read this blog seem to have learned to live with that and still be my friends (and I totally adore them for that). Not to mention my wife! However, my family has a problem there. Their attempt to force me to change my opinions the way Alan Turing was forced to take drugs to counter his homosexuality will only make things worse. Just like a gay person, this person expressing himself in this blog is the person that I am, for better and worse.
I can only sympathize with gay lefty atheists coming out of their closet: their experience has to be the worst!


Image by StephenMcleod, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

State of Security

Azrieli Shopping Mall

What is wrong with the above picture?
At first sight I would say it’s a plain boring photo. However, there is a good reason for me taking it during my September visit to Israel. The photo was taken at Tel Aviv’s Azrieli shopping mall, where we intended to go up to the 49th story observatory to review Tel Aviv from up above, entertain our four year old, and enjoy some cool air-conditioned air.
Upon entering the shopping mall’s parking lot we were stopped by a security person. It’s standard practice in Israel: she had my father open the trunk, looked around it, scanned the car’s occupants, and then – in atypical fashion even for Israel – started asking us questions. Questions about the purpose of our visit and our intentions.
We were puzzled at first, but soon enough the focus of the security guard’s attention became clear: the digital SLR camera I was carrying with me. At first I assumed the problem is to do with the neighboring army base, the Kirya, home of the Israeli army’s headquarters; you're not supposed to take photos of army bases. It turned out to be a different problem: we were told we are not allowed to take photos inside the shopping mall. Eventually, the guard let us in after we clarified we only intend to take photos at the observatory, while promising not to take photos at the shopping mall below.
At this point you’ll have to excuse me. What the fuck!? Why are we going through the third degree in order to enter a fucking shopping mall, and all just for the sin of carrying a camera with us, when virtually everyone entering the shopping mall does so armed with a camera on their mobile phone? Where is the sense in that?
In rebellion, I did take a photo inside the shopping center. It’s the above photo, which I dedicated to the State of Israel and the security centered people dominating that country.
A few days ago I received feedback on the photo, asking me why I don’t pick on Melbourne’s drunkenness instead. I’m almost ashamed to pay attention to an argument of such sophistication, but I will do so because the whole incident still infuriates me. So here goes: first, as readers of this blog can attest, I have been known the criticize the fallacies of Australian culture, including the over reliance on alcohol to lubricate virtually all social engines. Second, two wrongs do not make a right. Third, and most importantly, the whole world from Namibia to Iceland is suffering from an endless number of problems; if we don’t deal with any of them just because other problems exist we’ll never get anywhere.

There is more to this post than dealing with my personal arguments with members of my family as they post feedback on my Flickr photos for the very first time. I wanted to use this opportunity to discuss exactly why I consider this particular problem I had at Israel to be much worse than the problem of drunken behavior at Melbourne.
The first aspect is the ability of an individual to avoid the problem. I can lead a healthy and active life in Melbourne without bumping into drunk people if I want to. Matter of fact, I hardly bump into drunk people even though I don’t actively avoid them, simply by virtue of the fact I don’t have much interest in the places such people tend to occupy. It is not the same in Israel: you encounter security people wherever you go, with your privacy infringed each time you enter larger institutions. Your street corner’s grocery won’t check you up, but your bank and post office would. Not to mention shopping malls.
The second matter is to do with the authority at the hands of the culprit. That security guard in Israel could have put a stain on our holiday plans by preventing us from entering the observatory. However, let us not forget that she could have done much worse: theoretically, she could have arrested us. She could have even shot us: her and the numerous other guards around her were all armed with automatic weapons. As an Israeli, one gets accustomed to the constant presence of guns & ammo all over the place, but this Australian cannot avoid thinking what these tools were designed to do. Somehow, I find them much more intimidating than a drunk person.
The third problem is a direct result of the undisputed authority granted to these security people. When you interact with them, your fate is entirely in their hands; if they decide to treat you in a certain way, you don’t have many options to fight back with and argue back other than appealing to their humanity (a quality that is often lacking with those employed in security services). For example, was that security guard to decide our camera prevents us from entering the shopping mall, there was nothing we could have done about it. If she decided to be even more of a pain, we wouldn’t have had much we could have done about it either. Just ask the Palestinians who routinely have to cross army security checks for their insight into such experiences.
Which brings me to my main point: as far as I am concerned, my incident with the security guard at a shopping mall located in the center of Tel Aviv indicates just how far the damage of Israel's occupation culture has proliferated into the very veins of the Israeli experience. After all, the same people that hold the potential evil Arab terrorists at bay in various checkpoints end up running the security of Jewish folks' shopping centers, don’t they? You can’t expect them to switch to a different brain when they move some ten to twenty kilometers nearer to the coast, can you? You can’t have it both ways. You cannot have one without the other.

Needless to say, Israel does not hold a monopoly over the security culture. If anything, Israel can boast some decent arguments in favor of this culture (not that these won me over; it is this culture that was the number one reason I aspired to leave Israel for a better place).
For the rest of us, encounters with the security culture at its brightest tend to be limited to airport visits. There we are expected to shut up and accept being undressed by radiating porn scanners, viewed in the nude by operators we wouldn’t let near our homes under normal circumstances, get poked all over our bodies by people we don’t know, and in general be treated like sheep. Dumb sheep: we are not allowed to take photos, not allowed to use our phones (a felony upon landing at Melbourne), and are even expected to adopt a special language. As in, let’s see what happens to you the next time you utter words such as “bomb” or “terrorist” near an airport. And with all of the above, you are not allowed to dispute or argue; you either cooperate and get to fly, or you get yourself arrested. Do not pack reason with you on your flight.
All of this, for what? The number of terrorists apprehended under all of the above mentioned airport security schemes is incredibly round, while terrorists’ bombs find their way to planes under the guise of inkjet printer refills. With all their porn scanning, TSA's own testers still manage to smuggle shotguns on board airplanes on the majority of their attempts. In other words, we chose to adopt a culture of security not in order to bring true security, but rather to create the illusion of security.
Let’s quit our security binge drinking and return to sober policy making. Let’s reinstate the culture of respecting one another and appreciating each others’ basic human rights instead. There are some things we should not copy from Israel and/or America; the security state of mind is one of them.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Confirmed: The Best Computer Ever

I have been known to claim over these pages that I want to buy a MacBook Air because I am of the opinion it is the best computer ever. Now that I have bought and used one over several weeks, I am here to confirm my initial speculation: the MacBook Air is, by far, the best computer I have had the pleasure of working/playing on.
When I say “the best”, what I mean is that it is the device most suitable for my needs. Others’ needs may vary, obviously; what I will do next is explain why the MacBook Air is such a hit so you can make your own mind up as to whether these attributes are relevant to you, too. So here goes – these are the reasons I consider the MacBook Air the best:

  1. Incredible ergonomics and finishing: The combination of being ultra light and portable, together with the very decent keyboard and mouse pad, is sealed off with a decent screen or a respectable and quite usable size (13”, in my case).
  2. Decent grunt: Between its I5 CPU and 4GB of RAM, this is a pretty powerful computer. Not the most powerful ever, nothing that can play the latest Modern Warfare, but more than enough for what I need and foresee needing in a portable platform.
  3. Solid state drive: The MacBook Air represents my second proper computer experience with solid state drives replacing conventional hard drives. However, unlike my first generation Asus Eee PC, the difference is huge! The speed advantage of solid state is not marginal but rather that of an order of magnitude, and it expresses itself in everything I do with the Mac – from booting to processing photos. So much so that going back to the hard drives of my other computers feels like being thrown back to the dark ages.
  4. The screen: The MacBook Air’s screen is worth mentioning on its own. It’s not only of particularly high resolution, it is very clearly superior to all other portable computer screens I have seen before. Placing it next to my other laptop makes the difference dead clear. It comes down to Apple choosing superior hardware: there are three different types of LCD screen technologies; most laptops choose the cheapest, Apple chose the best.
If I were to sum it all up it would come down to this: the greatness of the MacBook Air comes from it being an exceptionally well designed piece of hardware.

Notably missing from my descriptions of the MacBook Air’s greatness are references to the Mac OS X operating system, now in its Lion incarnation. Is it because I don’t think much of it?
Well, no. I think it’s very good, and I can clearly see why no one exposed to the Mac world would ever want to go back to Windows. The majority of issues that the less tech savvy amongst us encounter with their PCs are never a problem on a Mac. Inside Apples's kingdom, things really come down to switching the computer on and using it through intuitive controls with hardly a need to perform any maintenance.
My problem with OS X, if you want to call it a problem, is not Windows; my problem is Linux. It’s just that I think Linux, at least in its Ubuntu incarnation, provides all the benefits that Apple does with its OS X, but does it better and for free. It’s just a pity there is no industry wide support for Linux: if Linux got as much attention as OS X or Windows are getting, the latter two wouldn’t exist.
There is another problem with OS X: it’s closed nature. Why is it, for example, that my Mac won't write to an external hard drive that has been formatted the Windows way? For that matter, why can’t Windows deal with Mac formats? And why can Linux be happy to deal with either, while offering additional formats that are superior to what both Apple and Microsoft offer?
There are other minor pains, such as Apple's over exuberant attempt to reduce keyboard buttons manifesting itself in me having to google for the right key combination whenever I want to grab a screen shot. Not to mention having to google the first time I wanted to do a right click. These are minor gripes, though.
On the positive side, Apple does know how to appeal to the consumer. This comes in simple things, like the Photobooth application that uses the webcam to take your photos and process them creatively: it turns you into an alien, places dizzy birds circling over your head, or puts you on a rollercoaster ride. There’s ample potential there for entertaining a family with a four year old, especially when you compare what’s bundled with a Mac to the bloatware contaminating most Windows hardware.

Friday, 16 December 2011

The Shit Gadget Syndrome

my experience with gadgets over the past year (see notes, particularly the ones on the cds in the bottom left)

It happens way too often: a relative/friend acquires a gadget, seeks my approval, and then gets upset upon hearing what my opinion of their latest purchase is. As somewhat of an authority on gadgets and matters of technology in general I am confronted by this too often, so I thought I’d post about it. Not that I think this post would make much of a difference, but perhaps it would help ease some Christmas shopping frenzy anxieties.

First, let us discuss the phenomenon in detail. Events tend to follow the same script again and again:
  1. A friend/relative notices some sort of a gadget, either through advertising or by seeing peers using it. For example, a parent sees all his young son’s friends are using an iPod Touch.
  2. Status anxiety kicks in and the friend/relative decides to buy the gadget. Note the decision is not made on the basis of needs analysis.
  3. Usually, we have ourselves a period where the friend/relative is using their new gadget.
  4. Doubts start to creep in: the friend/relative realizes there is something wrong. Their new gem of a gadget does not fulfill their wettest dreams as per pre-purchasing expectations.
  5. The friend/relative turns to me for advice. Or so they say; what they are really seeking is my endorsement on their purchasing decision, a voice of authority to tell them they did not make a mistake forking hundreds of dollars on the wrong gadget or a gadget they did not need in the first place.
  6. Being the honest person that I like to think I am, I tell my friend/relative exactly what I think of their purchase. More often than not I end up telling them they bought a piece of shit (often using these very words when the case calls for it, and it does way too often). What I actually mean when I use the phrase is that the gizmo is not meant to address its owner's particular needs and/or circumstances. In my defense, I always explain my opinion and discuss alternatives.
  7. The friend/relative looks me in disgust. How can I do this to them? How dare I tell them the truth, or at least my views on what the truth is?
  8. The friend/relative resorts to blaming others for their mistake.

I call the above The Shit Gadget Syndrome.

Before moving on to discuss how the Shit Gadget Syndrome can be avoided, and easily so, let’s have ourselves a bit of an adequate disclosure break: yours truly has been known to buy shit gadgets, too. My blogs speak for themselves: I bought a shit [expensive] MP3 player, I bought a shit tablet, and I bought a shit electric shaver. I do not, however, blame others for these purchases. Some times I knowingly buy crap, as with the tablet; other times, as with the case of the shaver, my purchase represents a conscious attempt to reduce my ignorance by dipping my feet in a new field. In all the cases, the follow up purchase was a stellar performer.
Clearly, the problem at hand is one of ignorance. Friends, relatives and yours truly live in a world where we are constantly tempted by gadgets but where we do not know enough about the gadgets, ourselves or our needs to purchase the right tool. With the problem clearly stated in these terms, how should we go about avoiding The Shit Gadget Syndrome without making all the effort required to become a subject matter expert?
There is nothing wrong with consulting experts in areas we are ignorant about. Just this morning I referred to weather specialists in order to acquire their assessment of today’s weather at Melbourne so I can dress appropriately for work. Referring to relevant authorities does not mean I need to take their word as the word of god; it just means doing a bit of consultation. What’s better: going to the experts, or rather relying on advertising and the word of mouth of friends that don’t really know much and are probably suffer from The Shit Gadget Syndrome themselves?
So yeah, go to the experts, and go to them before you open your wallet wide (instead of going to them later to seek approval when things go wrong). If you consider me an adequate expert, feel free to knock on my door for an opinion; I have my strong opinions on matters of gadgetry, but I am also fully capable of recommending different things to different people.
For example, although my next smartphone will probably be an Android (mostly for price related reasons), I do not hesitate recommending iPhones to people who are less likely to tweak their gadget. Although I do not consider buying myself an iPad at this stage, I did not hesitate recommending one as the best computing platform for my old and technologically challenged parents. And although I shy away from them due to their prices and poor post sale support, I do recommend Telstra’s mobile services as the best value for money to people that actually make phone calls on their mobile and/or need reliable data access on their smartphone. A good expert will know how to analyze your needs and adopt their recommendations accordingly.

So, in conclusion: Want to avoid the Shit Gadget Syndrome? Do your homework in advance and don’t let social anxieties drive you to make the wrong decision at the counter. By all means, consult with the experts.
I’ll leave you off with a tip for this holiday season. By far the most popular Christmas gift this season seems to be an iPad. That’s fine; it does what it’s meant to do well and it’s by far the best tablet around (and probably the only tablet worth spending money on). However, do bear in mind the iPad 3 looks very likely to be launched some time between February and April. Oh, and the current iPod Touch model? Bound to be replaced soon, too.


Image by @heyamberrae, Creative Commons license

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

What Soap?

A few years ago I read on this Israeli blog I follow (Tsifer; warning, Hebrew) about its blogger's adventures with Druze hosts he visited. Amongst other things, he described the olive oil soaps they manufactured to be resold by Oxfam: he claimed they were the best soaps he ever used. I was impressed enough to remember his descriptions.
A while later I stumbled upon Lebanese manufactured olive oil soaps at the closing sale of what had been, at the time, my favorite Lebanese store. Unlike their Oxfam equivalents they were dead cheap; I bought them, and eventually decided I should actually give them a break. Since then I never looked back; when I shower at home I am using olive oil soaps exclusively.
It really is simple: olive oil soaps leave a natural feeling on the skin (as opposed to the dryness most soaps create), they do their cleaning job well, and if you know what you’re doing you can get very good value for money out of them. As in, much better value than what you normally get out of supermarket soaps, and definitely better value than what you get buying high caliber brand names soaps (that is, stuff that comes from companies with vast advertising budgets). But again, it is not the value for money that matters; olive oil soaps do feel better than anything else I’ve tried. It’s a win-win situation.
Of course, not all olive oil soaps are the same. I suspect they all contain some conventional soap matter in addition to the oils, and I know many of them (like the Duru brand pictured here) contain much more palm oil than olive oil (raising further ethical questions). However, these problems can be mitigated through informed shopping.
I find you can get olive oil soaps at speciality shops, where they’re usually prohibitively expensive; online, where the quality is a bit of a hit and miss affair; and at Lebanese shops (or other Middle Eastern shops), where the ingredients are usually not quoted but where prices are cheap and quality tends to be very good. I hope (and I hope I’m not being too na├»ve hoping) that the Middle Eastern sources of these soaps use Middle Eastern derived palm oil rather than orangutan unfriendly stuff from Indonesia.
Interestingly, the blogosphere has been rife with people reporting they stopped using soap altogether and feeling better for it (see an example here from Boing Boing, a very popular blog). I do wonder whether these bloggers checked out more natural alternatives for soap, like the olive oil based ones.


Image: Duru olive oil soap

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

What Electric Toothbrush?

As someone with more than a decade of electric tooth brushing under his cavities, I thought now’s the time to offer my answers to two related questions:
1. Are electric toothbrushes any good?
2. If they are, which electric toothbrush should one get?
My answers are based on my personal experience with three different Braun Oral-B electric toothbrushes. These include the $30 Vitality model (pictured), as well as a $100 model and a $200 one.
The most obvious difference between electric and manual brushing is the feeling: generally speaking, my mouth tends to feel much fresher after a session of electric brushing than after a manual operation. I suspect it is to do with the relentless nature of the electric toothbrush, coupled [slightly!] by the fact they’re much easier to use given that one’s duties are downgraded to simply guiding the brush along one’s teeth.
My speculations are further enforced by the repeatedly observed fact that my teeth feel more polished the more expensive the brush is. After a week of repeatedly brushing using the $200 brush my mouth feels like it has been polished, waxed and fitted with brand new teeth. So, is that it? Should we all buy the most expensive electric toothbrush we can afford?
Hold your horses. At least to this mouth there are more important issues than the refinement level of my teeth’s polish. The older I get, normal cavities and such are turning to become the lesser problem; the main event taking place at my mouth is my receding gums. The amount of problems introduced by this recession far eclipses those generated by a bit more or a bit less cleaning.
My dentist recommended I relent, if only slightly, with my tooth brushing in order to support my gums (as opposed to pushing them further). She recommended I use a manual brush in the morning and an electric one at night, a move which quickly relieved various issues with my mouth. She also recommended using the softest brushes available and applying minimal pressure on the teeth while brushing.
Back to the question of which electric toothbrush is better, my personal answer reflects the status of my gums. After a straight week of $200 brushing my teeth may feel new, but I also get all sorts of weird pains coming up from the direction of my gums. Eventually, I settled on the $30 Oral B Vitality toothbrush as the best of both worlds, a brush giving me a decent clean mouth feeling that does not offend my gums much while producing this feeling. In the morning I brush manually using a soft brush. In between and now and again I even floss!
So there you go: the $30 brush that does a better job than the $200 one is further proof that splashing more money does not necessarily buy happiness; one needs to spend it wisely.

P.S. If you, too, are an Oral-B toothbrush user, do yourself a favor and get thy brushes from eBay. Compared to the shops, even the cheaper ones, they’re a fraction of the cost online.


Oral-B Vitality image: Oral-B

Monday, 12 December 2011

What Electric Shaver?

Efficiently dealing with my facial hair has been an obsession of mine lately. Desperate to free up some lost moments of my life from the chores of shaving, I even tried a beard for a while till I realized maintaining it is just as painful as shaving. The gadget lover in me turned its focus to a new area, that of electric shavers.
Although I have been shaving with a razor for decades now I do have some electric shaving experience under my belt. Back in boot camp, I used a tiny AA operated Braun shaver my father bought overseas. It saved my ass, literally: instead of having to gallop to the toilets and back in the freezing (-3 degrees) dark, like the rest of the squad, I leisurely waved this device at my face for a couple of minutes. Alas, once out to normal army service I started getting picked on for the quality of my shave, and soon had to migrate to the razors I have been using since. Yet the lesson was obvious: electric shavers have the potential to reduce agony, but it’s also much harder for them to give you that clean look one is often after when shaving.
Times have changed, though, and I am no longer in the army. Hooray for that! More to the point, I don’t really care much for the quality of my shaved look anymore; it doesn’t have to be baby smooth for me to be accepted at the office. The time has come for me to look at electric shavers again, in a bid to save time for more worthwhile activities. The question was, which shaver should I try?
That question proved very hard to answer. There are plenty of electric shavers out there for a man to choose from, but feature wise they are almost all the same; they all claim to be able to shave you. So how do you choose one? Or, more specifically, how can one tell whether to buy a $30 shaver or a $300 shaver when they’re both by the same manufacturer and they both claim to achieve the same goal?
I tried to ask around with friends and work colleagues. Turned out many of them use electric shavers, but it also turned out none of them could tell me what the differences between them were. At least not in a proper, measurable way; they could just be labelled as fans of their manufacturers’ shavers, unable to say what it is about that manufacturer that captures their facial hair.
So I went and bought myself an electric shaver from the same company as the shaver I’ve used at the army and utilizing a similar design: a Braun Series 1 190, which cost me $60 at Singapore. That particular model was selected because of its particularly severe discounting. As with all electric shavers, the manufacturer claims some three weeks are required before your face gets used to the shaver. Alas, even after more than three weeks it appeared this new electric shaver of mine was up to no good: it couldn't cope at all with longer facial hair (e.g., after a weekend of no shaving). After two or more days of consecutive use without a manual razor there would be too many hairs it wouldn’t cut, enough to make its look unpresentable. By far the worst, though, was the way it made my face feel, with ingrowth and other not so nice phenomena.
Another post purchase realization was that electric shaving is not particularly cheap. It’s not just the shaver that you pay for: My new Braun requires monthly oiling (oil purchased separately) as well as yearly replacement of certain parts. Buying replacement blades and foam for my manual shaving costs much less!
I didn’t give up on my quest, though. I often note how I tend to fail the first time I buy something, but learn from the mistake to do better next time around. Equipped with first hand experience, I was able to investigate the electric shaver market yet again. I did my research, spending hours reading reviews and watching video clips on the web, as well as interrogating salespeople at shaver shops. This time around, though, I was able to relate to what I was reading: I could tell when a review was applicable to me or when a salesperson did not have a clue. Eventually, the choice came down to three contenders: the top of the line Phillips, Braun Series 7, and Panasonic 8249 (the Panasonic marketing team must have spent months coming up with that model number).
The Phillips was the first to go. Phillips’ trademark circular blades were at fault here, as too many apparently reliable reviews claimed the Phillipses are too rough on the face and more suitable for wet electric shaving (not my cup of tea). The Braun and the Panasonic appear very similar, but I ended up voting for the latter: its faster motor in particular appears more suitable to my particular needs, thick facial hair on sensitive skin.
Now the question was where I should buy the shaver from. Us Aussies are privileged: while Amazon sells the Panasonic 8249 electric shaver for $112 to American customers, we are required to pay $400 at our local shops (yes, you read it right). One of the privileges $400 gets you is the ability to change your mind and receive a full refund if you’re unhappy with your shaver a month after buying it (note that privilege is available to Americans just the same; it’s just that you can’t buy the shaver in the USA and get the cash back in Australia). I decided to bite the bullet and had my shaver delivered from the USA for less than $160.
More than a month later, I can report I am happy with my decision. The Panasonic is a good shaver that consistently produces very good results and overall treats my face well. There are some sour points on my face, but then again it’s not like the razor is foolproof; there are some harder to shave places, like immediately under my chin, but eventually I learned which way to hold the shaver (unlike a razor, shaving against the growth is critical; the surprise comes from learning how chaotic the direction of my facial hair’s growth is – it’s all over the place!).
With the better shaver come better comforts. The Panasonic comes with a box you can stick it in and have the shaver cleaned and disinfected automatically! That comes at a cost, though: the cleaning liquid cartridge, which looks and feels like an ink cartridge from a printer, last only a month (or two, if you clean the shaver manually every second day). I bought 12 spare cartridges off eBay for $60, delivery included; local shops would have you paying $30 for three. That's not the end of the ongoing expenses: as with my now defunct Braun, which I sold on eBay for $25, there is a need for yearly part replacements.
The point is: comfortable electric shaving is available out there, despite all the misinformation or deliberate fuzziness spread by manufacturers. However, this comfort comes at a cost. To me, that extra cost enables me to avoid the razor shave’s restriction of having to shave shortly after a shower, something I tend to do just before I go to bed (hence manual shaving tends to happen quite late). Even if the time it takes me to shave electrically or manually is roughly the same, that extra flexibility makes electric shaving worthwhile. At least for now.


Panasonic 8249 image: Panasonic

Saturday, 10 December 2011

See you at the party, Richter!

TableWe had several friends over to our place today, running that social event that's normally referred to as a "party". I find the composition of the invitees interesting:
  • We've invited friends we know from my wife's previous place of work.
  • We've invited friends we know from my wife's current place of work.
  • We've invited friends we know from my previous place of work.
I really like each of those friends that was invited, which only brings the absence of the following category further into the light: we did not invite anyone from my current place of work. After all, I've only been working there for the past six years.
I believe that says something.


Image by Eira M., Creative Commons license

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Touched by Authors

"The Library"

Three events took place during the last week or so, events that shook my confidence with the ebook revolution. Yes, yours truly, known for his blatant disregard of dead pieces of wood for over a year now, is starting to have doubts. What could have caused that? Funny you should ask:
1. Charlie Stross, the Hugo winning science fiction author, blogged about the need to rid ebooks of DRM. Nothing new under the sun there; the catch was his reason for advocating so this time around. It wasn’t because DRM is the pure evil that it is (i.e., the argument I have been maintaining for numerous years by now), but rather that DRM only serves to enshrine Amazon as the dominant monopoly in the ebook market with the ability to bend publishers at will.
2. Peter Watts, another Hugo winning science fiction author, wrote a personal email to a friend of mine. That friend paid Watts for a book he legally downloaded for free; in return, he got Watts to email him and tell him that
It still kind of blows me away that people fork out hard-earned cash for something they can get for free. It almost restores my faith in humanity.
3. Leslie Cannold, aka The Best Person onTwitter and an Australian author, tweeted me out of the blue to tell me that
@reuvenim just to let u know my book part of Amazon post xmas ebook sale. My royalty .34/copy
I suspect I was honoured with this tweet as a result of me criticizing ebook pricing policies and using Cannold’s specific book as an example (here and here). Readers of my complaints could easily think I have something against Cannold, but that is definitely not the case: the only reason I used her book, The Book of Rachael, as an example was the fact I wanted to read it quite badly. Yet the privilege of doing so in my preferred way was both denied of me (the book was unavailable for the Kindle at the time, at least until I played my tricks), and its electronic version was priced at more than twice the cost of all the other ebooks I had ever bought.
Back to Cannold's tweet: The Book of Rachael is currently available for the Kindle and sells at Amazon for around $18. Assuming the book won’t be discounted too much for the post Christmas ebook sale, this would put Cannold’s royalty of $0.34 a copy at about 2%. Or, to put it more bluntly, if Cannold is to be able to make a decent living out of the book she worked so hard on, she will need it to sell as much as the next Harry Potter (that is, sell the book in quantities that normally make one a millionaire).

What conclusions can I draw from the above three interactions?
The most immediate one is to do with how mere mortals such as my friend and I become emotionally involved when an author we like and look up to takes the bother to contact us directly. It is incredibly exciting, and flattering too, to be contacted by the people I regard as my intellectual idols.
The second and probably main conclusion I’m drawing here is just how ignorant I am about this whole book/ebook publishing affair. I tend to draw my information from the writers I follow who openly expose their information, Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi. Both of whom share fairly similar opinions to mine when it comes matters of copyright and both of them sound like they’re doing fairly well for themselves. Yet here come three more authors at the top of their game and expose a world in which things are not as nice as I would like to think they are. With three fell swoops they shattered my confidence in the ebook revolution.

Where do I stand on these matters?
I am an above average consumer of books, and the ebook revolution only pushed me further down the line. Between my wife and I, we bought about thirty ebooks this past year; but even if I don’t like reading paper books anymore, I still buy them in large quantities for my son and as gifts to others. Indeed, books are by far my most popular form of a gift: when I read a book I like a lot I don’t pay its author directly (as my friend did with Peter Watts), but rather buy copies of the book as gifts to others.
There are limits there, though. First, many of the books I love would be unsuitable as gifts: I cannot expect most people to appreciate me buying them a copy of books such as The God Delusion (they don’t know what they’re missing, but never mind that for now). Indeed, too often my book gift giving is distorted by social convention as well as by my appraisal for what I expect the subject of the gift to like.
Another form of limitation comes from the books themselves. DRM stands tall there, because it makes buying an ebook for a gift a major pain in the you-know-what. You have to take into account the particular platform the reader would use, for a start, and then there’s the fact you’re usually prevented – yes, prevented – from bestowing an ebook as a gift in the first place.
Given the above, I consider Renai Lemay’s eloquent description of the state of Internet piracy in Australia to describe very well where my standings on matters of book consumerism are. In the context of ebooks in particular, my demands/opinions are:
  1. I know that books require more than just an author to get published, but I don’t care much for that food chain story; I care for the author alone, and rely on the rest of them to just do their part.
  2. I want to be able to buy any book I feel like buying.
  3. I want a book product I’d be able to use in any way I see fit, and to be able to do so easily.
  4. I do not distribute my books around. Sure, I will lend them to friends, the way people have always done, but I will not post them on the Internet for people to copy. Publishers, trust me on that.
  5. I want my ebooks to be treated just like my books are. Ebooks should be resalable, to name but one example.
  6. I want a product that will be mine forever once I hand my money over.
  7. I want a reasonably priced product. With ebooks, that should mean paying significantly less than what we’re used to pay for books: there aren’t any printing costs, and the costs of storage and distribution are negligible.
  8. I want to be able to easily find and buy my books; I don’t want to start looking all over the world for a particular book just because a particular publisher doesn’t want to work with a particular shop. That is, I want something like the iTunes shop for books. [Yes, I know I can buy books at iTunes; I also know I think it sucks.]
  9. I want my book shop to be easily accessible from any platform I choose to use. One of my gripes with the iTunes shop is that it requires iTunes; a browser based shop would be a million times better.
  10. Once bought, I want to be able to have my books find their way to my reading device of choice instantly and easily. No wires, no messing around.
Looking at this list of my demands, it becomes evident Amazon caters for most of them – all but the DRM side of things. Sure, Amazon's DRM can be dismantled, but why should I be forced to make the effort in the first place?
My second gripe lies with the fact that it is only Amazon that comes close to fulfilling my demands, and then again only when I perform minor level cheats and use VPN to access Amazon's American catalog rather than its Australian one. Clearly, that should not be the case; as I stated above, I (and most people I know) consider it the most reasonable of demands to be able to buy the books I want to buy. However, we are denied this “right” so very often.
Still, I like Amazon; with the exception of Cannold's book, I bought all my ebooks exclusively from them. However, until we get what I’ve asked for, I see no reason for people to stop resorting to book piracy. It’s natural: when one has a need, one looks for ways to fulfil the need. These ways are there: there are plenty of ebooks to be found at bit-torrent, probably the most extensive source of ebooks out there other than Amazon. They’re all free, and non come with DRM – so you can do whatever you want with them! Yet, as good as the pirated product is, I am of the opinion that Amazon is usually better: for a reasonable price, it gives unprecedented ease of use; it’s quick; and it pays the author for their work. If only they got rid of DRM…

Which brings me to my last question for the day: how is my standing affected given the three author inputs I started this post with? This is where my ignorance in the working of the publishing world becomes obvious, forcing me to make non evidence based assumption.
As Stross points out, there is clear danger with letting Amazon become the monopoly it already is; yet just as the music industry did before it, publishers are heading like sheep to the slaughter. Apple showed us with its iTunes shop that once it becomes a monopoly it will abuse its power; there is no reason to think Amazon will be any different. The solution is clear: publishers should sell their ebooks elsewhere (everywhere!) and without DRM. Once that option is popular, we may have to start our book purchasing through a Google search instead of an Amazon search, but the result should be the same.
Cannold’s poor cut out of every Kindle sale of her book only pushes that point forward. It does, however, point at another deficiency of the current book market scene: her ebook still sells for $18, much more than the average ebook (probably twice the average). When Cannold gets only $0.34 for every sale that implies someone else gets more of the rest. Apple is notorious for grabbing 30% out of everything it sells in its iTunes shop; given Amazon does not have the same reputation I am assuming its cut is not larger. Therefore, this implies that the publisher is taking most of the rest of the money and leaves hardly anything to the author. Coming from the consumer perspective of seeking contact with the author but not caring much for the rest of the publishing chain, I can only see this as another major wrong by the publishers. They know the authors need to be in Amazon to gain international exposure, and they make the most of the opportunity. In other words: greed.

In conclusion: the book publishing scene is on the verge of going electronic, but that transition is not going too well, at least as per three authors I look up to. However, given these authors’ inputs and given my own standings and assumptions, I can only conclude the fault lies squarely with publishers stuck in old world business models. It’s time for these publishers to wake up before they take my favorite authors down with them!


Image by Here's Kate, Creative Commons license

Monday, 5 December 2011

Takes more than combat gear to make a man, takes more than a license for a gun


The one image that keeps crossing my mind over the last couple of weeks is the one of police officer Pike, put in charge to withhold peace, spraying peaceful protestors with pepper spray in their face. And oh, did he do it ever so nonchalantly!
Now let’s think back a minute. We keep on being told that police needs weapons along the lines of tasers in order to have a non-lethal option, so as to avoid having to shoot people down when they don’t really need to. Sometimes we relent and we let them have their way; then we look up and see what the likes of Pike here think about it all.
Remember Pike and his colleagues at the force the next time you hear the police, the army or any other source of authority complain they need more peaceful weapons to do their job with. When you give someone a weapon, of any sort, they will eventually use it; the chances of it being used the intended way are more or less random.

It’s my personal voice of experience that’s speaking here, too. When I was in the Israeli army I used to carry all sorts of Call of Duty grade assault rifles. Most of the time I had an M-16, but I also had an AK-47 and a Galil. Not settling with that, I had the ultimate status symbol: my very own pistol.
Let me put it to you this way: I have found there are plenty of things one can do with a rifle or a pistol, and only a minor portion of those has anything to do with defending the good cause. Let me just say that my own personal experience clearly indicates the chances of very bad things being done by one’s firearms are vastly higher than the chances of them being used to serve and protect. It took me too many years to realize that and to eventually get rid of my pistol in disgust, but in between I tended to derive an ego boost from this lethal piece of metal I was carrying. No doubt Pike feels the same.
I therefore extend my conclusion. It’s not only police forces and their likes that have no business messing around with weapons; the same message applies to normal people just the same. As far as I am concerned, you have to be a loony to want to mess with them. Listen to the voice of experience.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

There's Stealing and Then There's Downloading

Question: What would happen to me if I was to get caught stealing an iPhone? Given my record and everything, I expect to have ended up with some community service time for stealing, or trying to steal, a device worth close to $1000.
Another question: What would happen to me I was to get caught pirating the music an average iPhone holds? In the USA, a woman who downloaded 24 songs (a fraction of the music on your typical iPhone) was sentenced to pay two million dollars for her alleged crime.
Note the disparity between the two cases. That imaginary iPhone that I stole contained tons of music yet I got slapped on the wrist; those two albums worth of songs pretty much ruined the life of the woman downloading them.
I don’t know about you, but my conclusion out of the above example is that piracy is NOT theft. If it was theft then the punishment incurred should have been in line with the market value of the stolen goods: the $30 worth of piracy in the above case would have ended up with nothing more than a warning.
Think about it the next time you hear the contents industry propaganda that piracy is theft. Think about it the next time you play a DVD you bought with your hard earned money and you're forced to watch a message telling you that downloading is stealing.
So let us be clear: piracy, or – to be more accurate – illegal downloading, is not theft. It is a copyright violation, nothing more and nothing less.

*The above post was conceived while reading how the music for an anti-piracy campaign was its own case of copyright violation.


Image by TorrentFreak, Creative Commons license

Saturday, 3 December 2011

I don't belong here

I Don't Belong HereI don’t have much in common with the average Aussie. I need only look around to realize that: Other than the occasional film, I can’t stand commercial TV here; nor can I get excited about anything to do with alcohol. Slurpees excite me much more.
By the same token, I don't have much in common with the average Israeli. I need only look around at the people surrounding me at this virtually Israeli/Jewish exclusive party I was invited to a couple of weeks ago to realize that.
However, not having much in common with both the Australian and the Israeli mainstream cultures does not mean I feel lonely. I definitely used to feel lonely in the past; today I have my own family. Today I can connect with likeminded people as much as I want, regardless of physical distance, through the Internet. The latter is not the same as proper friendship, but it still goes a long way. It even has its advantages: let’s face it, people like Richard Dawkins have little reason to interact with me on a personal basis but have no problems exposing me to their world via the Internet.
A few weeks ago I posted about my reasons for writing my blogs. Add the following to the list of reasons there: Taking an active part in the Internet is my ticket to likeminded people.


Image by Artiee, Creative Commons license

Friday, 2 December 2011

The State of Piracy

Piracy

Delimiter’s Renai LeMay has been mentioned in this blog before. This second time he's invoked in these premises is due to him actually writing for this blog, so to speak.
Earlier this week LeMay published an opinion article on the state of the Australian debate on matters of Internet piracy. To show he’s serious, LeMay put a Creative Commons license on the article, urging people to share it.
I have found this article to probably be the best article on the piracy state of play I ever had the pleasure of reading. The inevitable conclusion, therefore, was that I should share the article here in its entirety. There is more to it, though: although most of the article’s ideas have been expressed in this blog before, I was never able to construct such a holistic vision as LeMay presents. I’ll put it this way: when I grow up I want to be able to write articles like the one below.

Self-interest is ruling Australia’s piracy debate

Over the past few months, I have alternately been appalled, disgusted, saddened and ultimately bored at the degree to which naked self-interest is ruling the ongoing debate about how Australia will deal with the issue of online copyright infringement (Internet piracy).
Now, there is no doubt that the debate has been a vibrant one. There have been strong opinions from multiple sides. There have been complicated legal, commercial and ethical arguments presented ad nauseum. There have been many speeches made, public discussion papers issued, off the cuff comments thrown into the ether and the overall entertainment factor has been extremely high; worthy, almost, of its own reality show on prime-time TV.
However, what has been lacking from the debate at its core has been any real consideration for the underlying factors underpinning the growth of Internet piracy and how they might be addressed. Unfortunately, but perhaps predictably, the major players in the debate — the ISP and content industries and the Government — appear to be almost purely engaging in this dialogue out of their own self-interests; nothing more, and nothing less.

Let’s take last week’s release of a discussion paper by a number of Australia’s major ISPs and representative group, the Communications Alliance, on the issue.
On the face of it, as many commenters agreed over the weekend, the paper sounds pretty good. It avoids unsavoury approaches to dealing with Internet piracy such as disconnecting users’ broadband connections, includes significant avenues for appeal and independent oversight and works within the boundaries of Australia’s existing law on a predominantly education-based approach to dealing with the issue. However, when you dig a bit deeper into the rationale underpinning the paper, it becomes clear it has broader aims.
Ask yourself: What does Australia’s ISP industry really think about the issue of Internet piracy? Well, the answer to this question is clear: It wants the issue to go away. Australia’s ISPs want their users to continue to funnel money into their revenue trough for broadband connections with big quotas, and they don’t want to be on the receiving end of lawsuits such as AFACT’s action against iiNet while they’re doing it. Australia’s ISPs primarily see the issue of online copyright infringement as being one between content producers and content consumers; they want no part of the whole shebang.
The discussion paper released last week reflects this belief. It positions ISPs as outside the cycle of online copyright infringement by having them passively pass on educational and warning notices to users whose activities will in turn be tracked by the content industry; then, when users don’t listen, the ISPs again step out of the way and pass their details back the other way. There’s also a limiting factor on how many notices they’ll pass on. It’s all quite neat and clean — and predictable.
The response from the content industry (film, TV, video game and music studios and distributors) has also been predictable.
Ask yourself: What does the content industry think about the issue of Internet piracy? Well, the answer to this question is also clear: It wants to hold onto existing business models. The content industry wants its consumers to continue to funnel money into its revenue trough, forking out for pay television, DVDs, sitting through ever-increasing amounts of advertisements on free to air TV, buying video games at full prices, buying whole albums of music and more. The content industry has a whole superstructure set up which has been custom-designed to part you from your money, and it doesn’t want to migrate to a new system.
Hence, the content industry primarily sees the issue of online copyright infringement as being one between users and ISPs. They can’t control what users download, but ISPs can, so they want ISPs to take responsibility for undercutting their existing business models. The content industry’s response to the ISPs’ discussion paper released last week reflects this belief. When the Australian Content Industry Group’s Vanessa Hutley says the proposal “falls short”, she means that there’s no responsibility in the ISPs’ model which would require them to take any enforcement action against their users.
Then there’s the Government.
Governments are a complex beast. Beset by a thousand different competing political and bureaucratic demands, Ministers such as Federal Attorney-General Robert McClelland are positioned at the heart of a huge spider web with a thousand different cords pulling on them simultaneously.
Consequently, they don’t pay attention to industry lobby groups such as the Internet Industry Association, Communications Alliance, Australian Information Industry Association, Australian Content Industry Group, Interactive Games & Entertainment Association and so on unless there is clearly an issue which the industry can’t resolve itself.
When this happens — as it clearly has in the case of online copyright infringement — the Government will normally order a public enquiry to get all sides of the story, and try to get the warring sides to sit down around a table to negotiate under its steely gaze. This is precisely what has occurred in this case as well. Closed door discussions about Internet piracy are being held by the Attorney-General’s Department, and a number of public consultations are under way about the issue of the Internet in general.
The Government primarily sees the issue of online copyright infringement as being one between ISPs and content owners. They want these two industries to sit down and work out the issue themselves. If this ultimately fails, the Government will be forced to devote resources to legislating on the matter — something which it wants to avoid.
Now, have you noticed something about all of these approaches? In all three cases, the prime actors (the ISPs, the content industry and the government) have avoided taking any personal responsibility for the issue. None of the major three sides of Australia’s Internet piracy debate fundamentally believe that the issue is theirs to resolve. They want someone else to do it for them.
What this has meant for the debate is that it has constantly gone around in circles, with each side of this odious tri-pointed star constantly evading responsibility and passing the buck. In addition, they have each avoided discussing the real issues underlying Internet piracy.

Now, there are two further parties in the debate which have remained largely silent on the issue of Internet piracy so far: Those who actually create the content — rather than distribute it — and those who consume it. I’m speaking, of course, about artists and the general public.
I was struck recently by a comment which Greens Senator and Communications Spokesperson Scott Ludlam made on this issue in a post on Delimiter. Ludlam wrote:
“This is a complex and opaque clash of commercial self-interest, with old media conglomerates seeking to retain their incumbency in a world which doesn’t need them as much as it used to. Amazing how little we hear from the artists and creative people themselves about how they’d like to be paid for their work.”
That’s right — real artists! What a shocking concept!
As Ludlam rightly points out, it is not film and TV directors, producers or actors, musicians, video game development houses or any other form of artist calling for the issue of Internet piracy to be resolved. These people — artists — do not really care about the issue. Their main concern is that they are allowed to produce their art without gross commercial interference, and that art gets distributed to consumers in a way which allows consumers to get access to it and at a reasonable enough rate of return to allow them to continue making it and even profit a little.
Art has other aims than just profit, although profit is usually mixed in there somewhere. Strange to hear this said out loud, isn’t it?
It is a similar situation with the general public. All Joe Citizen wants is to be able to get whatever content they want, at the same time as everyone else, on whatever device they want to be able to view it on, and at a reasonable price that they can afford to pay. Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? The average Australian couldn’t give two hoots about content industry groups, record labels, film and TV distribution networks, television stations (pay TV or otherwise) or video game retailers. What they want is the content, plain and simple.
I was struck by a comment by ABC managing director Mark Scott, who said (as reported by Mumbrella) in a recent speech that the ABC’s iView platform had demonstrated that there is a strong and growing online audience for “great content, well-curated and delivered in an accessible format”. “Our research suggests that when audiences discover iView, they love it — they use it, they keep coming back to it,” Scott added.
Precisely. When the barriers to consuming content are taken away (as they have been on the ABC’s stellar iView app), content consumption explodes. I personally use iView almost every day — on my PC, on my media centre, on my laptop, on my iPad, on my iPhone — anywhere. Sometimes the content isn’t great, but it’s so readily available that I consume it anyway.
Australia’s love affair with piracy is not an effort to gyp content creators of their rightful remuneration for that content — it’s a simple attempt to get at content which is too hard to consume otherwise. Once again, audiences want to be able to get whatever content they want, at the same time as everyone else, on whatever device they want to be able to view it on, and at a reasonable price.
Now the thing to understand about both artists and consumers is that they are absolutely the key stakeholders in this debate — everyone else are just middlemen. In addition, they don’t have many linkages with the other three groups who are driving the debate.
Content consumers primarily see their main relationship as being with artists directly — the film buff who follows a director’s career, the music fan who buys all of a band’s albums, the Gears of War fan who follows every comment Cliffy B makes in public. And on the flipside, the artists see their main relationship as being with their fans — talking to them, producing content for them, performing for them. Neither places ISPs, content industry groups or the Government as stakeholders of high importance in the way they consume content.
And yet it is these middlemen who are driving the debate about online copyright infringement in Australia, who are negotiating behind closed doors on the issue, suing each other in court, and threatening to legislate about it. For self-interested reasons.
When artists and consumers themselves get involved in the debate, a remarkable thing tends to happen: Self-interest largely disappears from the picture. Great art is never created from self-interest. It can only be created when an artist is driven by their creative impulse, and applies discipline to develop their talents. Great art is never consumed from a sense of self-advancement. It is consumed with wonder, for entertainment, to take oneself away from our normal lives. The commercial agenda is present but rarely the most important factor — it is usually the middlemen who tend to bring it into the picture — not the artists, nor the consumers of that art.
Other things happen as well, when artists and consumers take the online piracy debate back into their own hands. Video game developers create their own publishing platforms which users prefer to piracy. Artists call for their fans to pirate their albums rather than buy them from greedy music labels — and then start publishing them online themselves, without the assistance of intermediaries. Internet video platforms arise to stream content when, where and how consumers want. And more. A direct connection is made between artists and consumers without middlemen.
Now, I’m not saying every middleman in Australia’s online piracy debate is purely motivated by self-interest. Some ISP leaders, like iiNet’s Michael Malone and Internode’s Simon Hackett, also have altruistic motives and do care about their customers. And the same can be said of some figures within the Government and content industries.
But what I am saying is that we are letting middlemen rule a debate which should be rightly ruled by Australian consumers and artists themselves. Let’s set self-interest aside from the issue of online copyright infringement and ask consumers and artists what they want. Now that would be the real definition of an “industry solution”.




Image by ToobyDoo, Creative Commons license

Thursday, 1 December 2011

The Curse of the Misleading Telco

Telcos (29th/52)My iPhone 3GS is celebrating its two year birthday this week. I have been known to criticize Apple’s closed architecture very often, but if I look on the bright side then I have to admit my iPhone is, by far, the best gadget I ever had. By now it’s old in the tooth and the battery is showing its age, but the good old 3GS still does everything I want my smartphone to do. Given that my Kindle is in charge of major entertainment on the road (now supplemented by a MacBook Air for when I’m truly on the road), my smartphone is there mostly to provide quick Internet access: you know, email, Twitter and stuff. The 3GS is perfectly fine in that domain, and the recent iOS5 upgrade made it even better.

To celebrate the conclusion of my two year contract with Virgin Mobile I changed my carrier to Amaysim where I expect my mobile phone bills to shrink from $35 to less than $15 a month. Both Virgin and Amaysim use Optus as their bandwidth provider, which means the quality of service is vastly inferior to Telstra’s. For example, watching a one minute YouTube video can take more than ten at the rate Optus will deliver, whereas Telstra will happily let you watch the video "live". However, given my use of mobile Internet is pretty much a leisure only affair I cannot justify the cost of a Telstra SIM; Optus it is.
Let me say that the transition from Virgin to Amaysim was rather “interesting”. I bought my Amaysim SIM card at a 7-11 shop for $2, then registered it on Amaysim’s website on Sunday morning. I knew fully well that phone numbers are only transferred during the working week, but I also knew there is no reason for the transition itself to take more than ten minutes. Instead, nothing happened on the Monday; on Tuesday, at about midday, I noticed that 3G was gone. A minute or two later all I had was “SOS only” reception. Then I switched SIM cards to discover I have no service at all; my phone was down for five hours before service resumed under the Amaysim regime. All and all, it took two days of waiting and five hours of denied service to switch from Optus to Optus!

The reason why I’m expecting to pay less than $15 a month with Amaysim is to do with my profile of mobile services use. I hardly make any calls, and the data side of things should be handled by Amaysim’s $10 for 1GB a month package. Or is it?
At this point I will break to mention that another mobile phone services provider, TPG, has been recently told off by the courts for its misleading advertising (see here). TPG’s crime was it hiding the nasty details of their Internet surfing packages in small letters. I will argue that Amaysim is just as misleading with its descriptions of its data packages; it actually does worse than TPG, because it abuses the fact most people are quite ignorant of how the nitty gritty of Internet surfing on their smartphone works.
My complaint is this: Amaysim advertises a relatively generous 1GB pack for $10, but obscures the fact it counts your Internet surfing in 1MB chunks. This hidden fact implies that what you’re actually getting is much less than 1GB of data: what you will be getting is more like 1,000 opportunities to access the web during a month. The two are not the same!
Allow me to explain. Every time you check your emails, whether you get new emails or not, Amaysim ticks 1MB down your bill. It gets "better" if your phone is set to check your emails every hour or so, because there goes three quarter of your supposedly generous download allowance! You can understand why my phone has been set to only check for updates when manually asked to. But it gets worse: a short YouTube video I’ve downloaded appears to have “cost” me much more than it should by virtue of the fact its download was repeatedly broken up by Optus’ lacklustre bandwidth and my phone having to repeatedly ask for more of the video in separate goes. That is, it seems to me as if I was charged for more bandwidth than I actually wanted to consume through the fault of the carrier itself!
On the positive side, prolonged and stable Internet usage works well. One of my vices is listening to Israeli radio (Galgalatz) during the day: Israeli night time transmissions offer uninterrupted mixes of nice music. However, that 1MB truncation is a killer, and overall I am getting the same or even less out of my 1MB Amaysim data allowance than I did with the 300MB a month that Virgin used to give me. I’m still better off financially, but the point is simple: Amaysim’s advertised 1GB does not count as 1GB in my book, nor should it count by anyone’s account. At best, I would call it misleading advertising.
It’s a bit of a shame, because otherwise Amaysim seems incredibly transparent about its ways: its billing is incredibly clear, roaming settings are easily managed through the web, and premium SMS services are under customers’ full control. It’s a pity, then, that they feel the need to mislead customers in the data department.

16/11/2012 update:
It seems as if Amaysim is not responsible for some of the things I have accused it of in the above test. Please refer to this post for further details.


Image by skippyjon, Creative Commons license