Monday, 31 December 2012

New Year's Wish

Between reading news about Google developing cars that drive themselves and the American Army becoming more and more reliant on drones and such, I have a special wish in commemoration of the start of a new year (according to common contemporary calendars, as opposed to Mayan ones):
I wish to live to see AIs (Artificial Intelligences) receive what we commonly refer to as human rights.

There. Not much to ask for, is it?


Image: BioWare

Sunday, 30 December 2012

The Spare Room

We pulled our sleeves up and went sorting our spare room this weekend. With the biannual "having guests around" event coming up, the room now sports a brand new sofa bed.
Sure, given the frequency of us having guests over this is a major waste. I, however, like to think of it as an opportunity. First, the sofa makes the room that thus far held the boxes we didn't know what to do with into a decent part of the house. Second, the sofa renders the room a nice escape from the rest of the house; say, when the upstairs becomes too hot to bear. Looking forward into the future, in a decade or so my son may use the room for "homework" when he brings his girlfriends over.
Still, I hold the hope that some day my friends will take the leap and come over to see us now that they read this post and know they have a place to stay. The world is full of possibilities, and this might just be one of them!

P.S. Now that we have a proper guest room in the house, I would also like to add the following note. If your name happens to be Richard Dawkins, Cory Doctorow, John Scalzi or Liara T'Soni then mi casa es su casa.

Friday, 28 December 2012

Falling in Love with Chuck

I get this sensation every two years or so: I stumble on a TV series that is so good I just got to watch the next episode here and now. In between I find myself captivated by what I have seen thus far.
This time around the culprit is a rather strange one: a series called Chuck that aired between 2007 and January 2012. I find it amazing I was able to be completely oblivious to the series' existence for so long; on the positive side, I’m on it now and I seem to love everything about it.
As things do this past year, it all started with Mass Effect. During one of those bored moments of meaningless rumblings about the Internet I went looking to see what the people behind the game are doing. People like Yvonne Strahovski, who lent her [Aussie accented] voice and likeness to the character of Miranda. Like most of the other real actors behind the games she did lots of mundane stuff (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but I could not avoid noting she took part in a TV series that was dubbed as “science fiction”. A science fiction label means there may be some potential to the series; I gave it a go. The rest, as they say, is history.
I wouldn’t classify Chuck as science fiction myself. Sure, there are some fantastic elements to the series, but it’s more to do with geek culture than anything else. Indeed, it is not unlike The Big Bang Theory; the main difference is the addition of action to the comedy and the subtraction of the more hard core “science” elements.
We follow Chuck, a nerd/geek who lives with his sister, cannot for the life of him get into anything successful with the females of the species, and despite all of his potential works at a frustrating job in a Costco like shop called Buy More. How many elements for me to identify with have you picked up so far?
Chuck’s life changes when secret CIA computer data gets implanted in his head. Two secret agents are put in place to take care of this now important asset as well as utilise him in covert business: the beautiful Strahovski, who sets up a cover as Chuck’s girlfriend (as in, the beautiful girlfriend all men dream about but no one gets); and the no nonsense bully of an agent that is the exact opposite of Strahovski. Between the agents, his work and his colleagues at Buy More, and his sister with her ever so awesome boyfriend, the setup for the perfect TV series is complete.
And yes, I love it. I love the whole line of jokes on the Buy More culture (get me a Buy More mug for my birthday – hint hint). I love the geeky friends who remind me so much of my own (here’s looking at you, Mr Wolf). I love the one liners from the bad ass male agent. I love the smart jokes, like the Indian looking Buy More salesperson who threatens the shop manager whenever the latter says “merry Christmas” instead of “happy holidays”. I even love the music, with the Spotify playlist of the series dominating my listening at the moment (sure, there is some crap in there; but it’s well integrated). And sure, I love Strahovski too: I do think that hers is the weaker link in the series, in the sense of the series should not rely on her looks alone (the way it seems to be doing thus far) to advance that particular aspect of the plot; surely Strahovski has much more to offer. Let’s be honest, though: it is no wonder she was cast to play a perfect gened character in Mass Effect; women do not come any better looking than Strahovski (reminding me of that immortal line from the Mass Effect parody, “Liara the asari is hot, but I’ll take Miranda”).
I’m only at the beginning of my adventures with Chuck. I suspect there will be ups and downs along the way. I also suspect I will greatly enjoy the ride.


Images: NBC

Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Bring Forth the Fourth iPhone

I have a new friend up my butt: a new iPhone 5 is now a permanent feature of my pockets, expected to grace my pants for the next two to three years.
This may come as a shock to regular readers of this blog. After all, it was only recently that I explained how the lack of fireworks from the iPhone 5’s direction convinced me to stick to my loyal yet archaeological iPhone 3GS. Even more recently I invested $50 in replacing the 3GS’ battery in an effort to help it last till the next iPhone iteration (or until Android finally crosses the threshold that keeps me inside Apple’s closed garden).
If that is the case, why was it then that I forked out almost a grand on a new smartphone? First, it was because the 3GS appeared to be faltering, occasionally resetting itself while performing tough or not so tough tasks. Second, the answer is with iOS 6: the more apps adapt themselves to the latest incarnation of Apple’s operating system, the more demanding they become; the more demanding they become, the more annoying they are to use on antique hardware. It came down to the 3GS calling attention to itself each and every time I used it to do something. That is not the way it should be; the phone itself should be transparent.
You may raise arguments along the lines of “you could have managed, after all I use a smartphone and I manage”. Yes you do; I will argue, though, that most smartphone users do not even begin to tickle the capabilities of their smartphones. A relative of mine bought himself a Samsung Galaxy S3 recently, a truly remarkable device by anyone’s standards; I’d be willing to put my house on him not scratching the surface of the functionality a device like that is able to deliver.
However, that is not the case with me. I look after my gadgets to make sure they last, but I suck them dry for they can deliver. I’m the type who is familiar with every setting on every app I use, optimizing setting to suit the way I like to do things. (To name but one example, I switched the iOS 6 advertising settings off long before the media told us how to find and disable this deliberately hidden “feature”.)
There is a lesson to be learned here about the rapid depreciation of gadgets and the false economy of spending money on older models. I have a problem with having to throw away gadgets every two years or so; this is the type of culture that has us ruining our planet fast. However, I am also unable to deny that by the time our gadgets are two years old they tend to become obsolete. To put it another way: The version of Microsoft Word I used back when I was a student does not seem to be that different to the current Microsoft Office package; both let one write documents. However, can you see yourself using the old Word while managing to keep your sanity? The world has a way of moving on, and while there is a price to be paid for catching up there is also a price to be paid for not. The latter tends to be worse in current terms: you either pay the price or you're thrown out of the race altogether.
Due to all of the above I reckoned the iPhone 5 is money well spent. After all, it is the future – at least until May.



A new phone is a disruption to normal life as we know it. Allegedly, migrating from one iPhone to the other should be easy; alas, that did not prove to be the case. Effectively, I had to rebuild my iPhone 5 from scratch (and I’m still not through).
Perhaps I should refer to it as my iPhone 4. After all, it is the fourth time I found myself having to rebuild my iPhone. Thanks, Apple!

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Christmas can suck!

Christmas SUCKS

As someone for whom Christmas was something that only happened in movies up until I got to live in Australia, I have absolutely no baggage - for better or worse - with regards to Christmas. This lack of baggage, or rather my general indifference towards Christmas, seems to be yet another UnAustralian feature of mine: the majority of the population seems to think that life without Christmas is a life not worth living. They comfortably forget that some four billion people on this planet are rather indifferent towards the holiday.
In contrast I have a friend - a proper Aussie one at that, not a bloody foreigner like yours truly - who dislikes Christmas. It's for personal reasons, and having heard her explanation I can say I totally sympathize.
The point I would like to make is that it's perfectly fine for Christmas to suck just like anything else can. Christmas is like raising children: we are told wherever we go that Christmas is magical and made of pure awesomeness, but most of the time we are busy changing nappies full of shit. Still, society's attitudes raise expectations, expectations that can never be fulfilled. The result: A Christmas that can, and is most likely to, suck.
The reason why I'm raising this matter up? Oh, there is the slight matter of spending the morning of my wife's and I second mutual Christmas day off work at the emergency room with our son. We're all alive and fine, more or less (thanks for asking), but you have to admit: emergency room do not make for a wonderful Christmas.
Christmas can suck, and for many (starting with the families of the nurses on duty) it will. And it is perfectly natural for that to be the case.


Image by cobra libre, Creative Commons license

Friday, 21 December 2012

The Graduate

An important landmark in our parental history was noted yesterday as we picked our son from kinder for the very last time. It was quite an emotional day, reminding us of our son's five year career through four childcare centers. In the morning we dropped him off at the same babies room we first brought him to some four and a half years ago when he was just beginning to crawl, and some of the carers that saw us off back then were there with us again. How could we avoid being emotional?
I have to add I consider ourselves lucky with our childcare escapades. For the bulk of my son's career he has been attending non for profit centers; the one he's been at during the past 4.5 years is a local council run center, with a relatively steady crew of carers that actually care - and it shows, and it makes a big difference. The sad reality, however, is that we are amongst the privileged; most parents and children do not enjoy such quality.

It almost goes without saying that the clearing of one set of challenges, those to do with childcare/kinder, has only paved the way to a brand new dawn of issues. At the core of it lies a huge problem: how are we, working parents, expected to look after our son during his school career? Where the hell do we get all the leave we need in order to be there during school holidays? And how are we to ensure he doesn't have such long days at school while we work that he returns home too exhausted to do anything, not to mention homework?
The first phase of our approach to this problem had me moving to a 48/52 regime. Basically, I'm going to buy an extra month of leave from work (or rather, I'm going to avoid getting paid for an entire month for the sake of being able not to work during that month). It is therefore clear that even if this scheme solves our school holiday problems it certainly adds stress to our finances.
Who says parenting is unrewarding?


Image: The Graduate movie

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The Mac Review

By now I think I can safely refer to myself as a veteran Mac user.
With my Mac tailored the exact way I want it to, my user experience is vastly superior to Windows’; I only use the latter if I really can’t get away with it. The Mac experience is also superior to Ubuntu’s, but you can’t really blame the latter: Ubuntu has to work on PCs designed for other operating systems and will therefore always get second hand drivers and such. Couple that with the Mac’s richer application environment and you will understand why my main computer of choice is the Mac while Ubuntu has been mostly relegated to server duties (which, I have to say, it performs flawlessly).
It goes without saying I have a problem preferring the Mac over Linux, with Apple being the nasty company it is. The question is how far Apple would go in ruining its platform in order to further secure control over its platform. I don’t know, but for now I’m enjoying its products; and until Apple does something drastic, like blocking apps that don’t come from its own app store, it is clear my next computer would be a Mac. The main question is which: The Mac Mini for server duties? The iMac for the grunt and top notch screen? Or another Mac Air when my current one dies? At this stage I’m too broke to tell, although I definitely covet either of the former two.
With that in mind, I thought I would summarize my Mac experience by listing my favourite applications – the ones I wouldn’t go anywhere without (with some reservations, as you will see below). For the record, I am running Mountain Lion with all the latest updates. I hope you will find the list useful:
  • Evernote: Across many a platform, Evernote is by far the best note keeping tool out there. Their privacy policy isn’t bad, either.
  • VLC: No media player out there is better than this free one, period. I particularly enjoy it playing to my Apple TV while I remote control it via an iPhone/iPad app.
  • Dropbox: Great for distributing files across PCs and across friends, as well as simply backing them up. Dropbox has a bit of a checkered history when it comes to privacy and security; they improved it recently by introducing two way authentication but I still do not leave sensitive stuff with them.
  • Tweetdeck: It seems Twitter has done its best to ruin Tweetdeck since they purchased it, but I still like Tweetdeck (not on the iPhone, though; that version was truly killed by Twitter). For my rather elementary demands, which come down to easily following my Twitter lists, Tweetdeck does a great job.
  • Microsoft Office 2011: No, I am not about to recommend this product; I regret installing it on my Mac as its main feature is reminding me exactly what it is that I hate about Microsoft products. However, this product does allow me the benefit of doing office work on my Mac.
  • LibreOffice: When the choice is with me, this is my office software of choice. Open source, free and good!
  • Keynote: Apple's take on the PowerPoint presentation formula is much superior to Microsoft's as well as much easier to use (Apple fanboys would kill me for the first part of the former sentence...).
  • Pixelmator: Pixelmator is an easy to use graphic manipulation tool not unlike Photoshop but without the intimidating price tag, the steep learning curve, and photo manipulation photos. I find it great for conjuring an image out of nowhere type of work/fun.
  • Chrome and Firefox: These are my browsers of choice. I use them in tandem, each tailored for mildly different uses. Firefox is the browser I use while logged in to Google and Microsoft, who like to track and maintain records of what I do. Chrome, my top browser preference, is used for everything else (including Google searches, which in the absence of logging in are stored against my IP address but not against my personal Google account).
  • Tor Browser: To be honest, I never used the Tor network for anything other than testing my ability to use it. However, I like to know that if online anonymity is what I am after, I have the tools to help me achieve that target.
  • Sophos: By now Apple has silently stopped selling Macs under the guise of security invincibility. Apple does not, however, actively advise its users that they need to look after themselves even while using a Mac. For that we need companies like Sophos, whose free anti malware software runs smoothly and without annoying ads.
  • Skype: Much has been said about Microsoft’s latest spoiled toy, from eaves dropping on calls to deteriorating call quality. That said, Skype has the advantage of universality that still leaves it as my [compromised] choice for interstate/international calls and video conferencing.
  • AppCleaner: Being Unix based, Macs don’t have registries like Windows PCs do. This means that when you want to remove an application you need to manually find all the files it spread around and delete them. AppCleaner is not perfect, but it does the best job of that.
  • TCPBlock: The Mac’s built in firewall is rather crude. For example, it can block incoming traffic at the application level but not outgoing. TCPBlock addresses that and other issues to improve your Mac's security.
  • Texura: One of the more annoying “features” of the Mac environment is its incompatibility with Windows storage. Files saved on a drive formatted for Windows can be read but not written to on a Mac. Texura fixes the situation there.
  • PS3 Media Server: Although I prefer to use my Apple TV when it comes to broadcasting videos to my home theater setup, simply due to the comfort of its east of use, the PS3 Media Server open source tool allows me to achieve pretty much the same using DLNA technology and my PlayStation 3. Sound quality is better than on the Apple TV, too.
  • Audacity: An open source tool for editing sound. Good for turning your favorite music into your new ringtone!
  • Calibre: An open source tool for managing all my ebooks. If you ask it to, this application will also do a good job of removing their DRM.
  • Spotify: The PC/Mac version of Spotify offers extra features to the mobile versions, allowing the acquisitions of new playlists through apps and the management of my own playlists. It also allows me to sync local music to my mobile devices wirelessly, thus helping me avoid using the dreaded iTunes app.
  • WiTopia: This app from my VPN provider of choice (WiTopia) lets me easily choose the location I want my perceived IP address to have. It’s easy and quick to use, allowing me to switch from being an Aussie to a Brit or an American within seconds.
  • Hugin: An open source application for creating panoramas out of individual photos. Aside of being free, this application offers quite a lot of versatility when it comes to creating the panorama.
  • Colloquy: A user friendly IRC client for chatting purposes. I recommend the iPhone/iPad version, too.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Person of the Year

How will history books remember 2012 a century or a millennium from now? I have no idea; I don’t even know if there will be anything like history books by then (or anyone to read them, for that matter). However, if you were to ask me in the here and the now what 2012 is to be remembered by, my vote would go for it being the year journalism as we knew it officially died.
Sure, the journals of yonder still exist. But half if not more are controlled by a single person and those as well as many others act as the voices of their limited interest owners. Paywalls now encompass many of them, and not just the Murdochs. The Age, once at the forefront of Australian journalism, has shed most of its journalists and outsourced its editing. What was once one of the main sources of Australian journalism has turned into a rather pathetic public announcer of PR releases; exceptions, while they do still exist, are few and too far apart.
Thus traditional media, as we knew it, ceased to exist. It still tells us of the cat that got stuck up the tree or that incident on the train last night. It will even tell you what someone conjured to be your horoscope for the day. What it will not tell you, though, are the things that truly matter. The Internet had killed the institution of the big company supplying the masses with news.
Once the defeat of the old ways is accepted, the question then turns to where should one be looking for in order to keep one informed. Mira Grant (aka Seanan McGuire) already told us where to look in her zombie sci-fi Newsflesh trilogy, but it took me a while to see it for myself. Newspapers may still exist, and some may still do a decent job (e.g., The Guardian); however, the bearing of the torch has now passed to a new breed, the individual blogger. Particularly the blogger that covers the news, aggregates the news, and from time to time even becomes the news through their work. I like to refer to them as the blogger activist.
In this field of blogger activists there is one about whom I kept on hearing. It started with Wikileaks and progressed through the Occupy days, but through her Twitter account Asher Wolf evolved to become my number one source of news I need to know about but can’t find elsewhere. Thus Wolf had become the natural candidate for this blog’s person of the year.
There is a lot to be said in favor of Wolf. To start with, she does not blink in the face of adversity; she may not be able to visit the USA any time soon (through the fault and the loss of the latter), but she would still gladly take the big guns, be they international or Australian. And unlike, say, yours truly, who will gladly tweet about the injustices of this world from the comfort of his sofa, Wolf does not shy from acting. Through her initiative, crypto parties – where people of all nominations gather to learn how to use the Internet to their favor – have taken place all over the world. Wolf’s efforts on this front and others have been acknowledged by the likes of many, including Cory Doctorow.
It has to be said that all of this international activism is taking place in my backyard, almost literally. Asher Wold resides in Melbourne, which brings me to shamefully confess that despite numerous opportunities I am yet to meet her in person. I hope to unlock that achievement soon (hey, if I could do Richard Dawkins, I can do anyone), but regardless – to me, Asher Wolf is the embodiment of how information can be freed in these times we’re living at. And for that she fully deserves to be this blog’s person of the year.


Image: Asher Wolf

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The 2nd Visit

Moist Chocolate Cake

I’ll try and get to what I’m trying to say quickly, so excuse the next paragraph's laconic language:
This Saturday we had guests over (great!). One guest party brought a cake with them. At the end of it all, when everybody left, we noticed the cake was left untouched; we also noticed it was of a type the bringer of the cake likes the most. We jokingly SMSed them that they forgot their cake and they should help us eat it.
Guess what happened? Some quarter of an hour later they knocked on our door, again, and we all had some cake together (there were significant leftovers which we had to force ourselves to eat the next day).

I’ve enjoyed the cake, but more importantly I’ve enjoyed the unprecedented event that happened here.
We are living in an age where coordinating a meeting with friends requires weeks if not months of advance warnings. I shit you not: a month ago we tried to coordinate a play date for our five year old but were told the friend's weekend calendar is booked till after Christmas. Obviously, the more stakeholders involved, the more the merrier coordination becomes.
In contrast to culture of coordination and calendar appointments for social gatherings, I grew up in a culture where friends and relatives would just show up. They’d show up and we would love it. We didn’t have a choice because communications were vastly limited; the short distance between stakeholders meant mistakes did not cost much.
What has happened since? I put the blame on economics. We live in a society where if you’re not productive you’re nothing (check what we’re doing to the old and the disabled). True, we have more money these days, but we have much less time on our hands than my parents’ generation has had.
In contrast, that spontaneous revisit of our friend brought back some faith in hope for mankind. If people can still knock on our doors without an official invitation, letting us all have fun (and cake!) together, then perhaps all is not lost. Yet.


Image by Chocolate-Dessert-Recipes.com, Creative Commons license

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Revolution at Home

Airplay mirroring (BBS)

The stars have aligned over Australia this year to enable a revolution in the way we consume our audio and visual entertainment media. I have discussed most of it on these pages already, but it was always from the point of view of the gadget or the app; now I want to look at it from the simple point of view of the consumption experience itself.
I like music; if it was up to me I would be listening to music most of my time. How do I go about listening to music today? It’s pretty simple, actually.
Let’s say I think of something I want to listen to. Say, the soundtrack from the movie The Dictator, which features high quality productions of famous songs sung in Arabic (highly recommended, by the way). I pick my phone or my tablet up, do a quick Internet search for the album, select where I want the music to play from, and… that’s it. About four seconds later, music starts bursting from my speakers of choice. Life is beautiful!
Now for the technical part – how does it work? I use Apple’s AirPlay technology. In our lounge are I use an Airport Express that’s connected to an old set of Creative computer speakers; the latter are not great on fidelity but do a decent job for background music, which is what we’re after when we have dinner. That Airport express is receiving the music to play through my wifi network, with my iPad/iPhone feeding the music coming off the Spotify app. Alternatively, I can choose to listen through my Apple TV equipped hi-fi, with the Apple TV performing the same duties as the Airport Express.
It’s all incredibly easy to set up and start running. At about $100 for an Airport Express / Apple TV, cost is not much of a factor either. That is, assuming you already have a tablet/smartphone and speakers to play music through. At $12 a month, a Spotify subscription isn’t penalizing either. And if you’re not an iPhone/iPad user then an iPod Touch will do.

If you think that’s the whole story, just wait. This whole thing that I have just described for audio can be replicated with video!
The magic comes of the Apple TV. That gadget can do two basic tricks: it can run its own apps to allow you to, say, watch YouTube videos directly on your TV; or it can mirror things playing on another Apple device. That is, it can play the music playing on your iPhone, and it can also play the image of the screen on your iPad or Mac.
Video mirroring is a hit & miss affair with the iPad, given the device’s resolution, but with the Mac? It’s glorious!
Essentially, the experience comes down to this: anything your Mountain Lion running Mac can play, which is pretty much everything on the Internet, can be played on your TV (and in my case, through the hi-fi). Sports, movies, TV stuff, the works – it’s all wirelessly there for you.

The stars have aligned: Between Spotify, Apple TV and Mountain Lion home entertainment will no longer be the same.
You may read the above and say “so what”. That’s fair enough. My answer is simple, though: There is no going back. Once you get used to such easy and seamless delivery, you’re hooked.
Getting your media on plastic discs that you need to go somewhere to get (and then potentially return)? Getting those plastic discs posted to me and then having to wait for days if not weeks? Waiting for the TV network to air the program that actually interests us? Don’t insult me. These are all butchered by the ability to play anything you want, exactly when you want it, through the Internet.
The future is here. The only question is how quickly the media companies will align themselves around it. They’ve done it with music during 2012; they’ve done it with video to one extent or another in the USA. Now they need to stop their crying and do the same for video here and in the rest of the world.


Image by ckm, Shih, Creative Commons license

Friday, 7 December 2012

MassStation News

Mass Effect (1), the first game in the trilogy, has finally been released for the PlayStation 3. Hooray!
Needless to say, Australia was the last to have it up and available on the Sony store. Hooray!
And it almost goes without saying the Australian Tax™ is firmly here, to the benefit of Sony and/or BioWare and/or EA: the game sells for 11 GBP in the UK, 14 Euros in Europe, and $24 in Australia. In other words, they have a special currency convertor for Australia, and it’s set to “SCREW”.

Regardless, yours truly will be saving the galaxy yet again.
Things are not as simple as they sound, though. Once the first Mass Effect game is done, one has to import the character into the second to witness the changes in the plot as a result of previous actions. And then do the third game, too.
One also has to play as both male and female, if only in order to manage the different relationship options. Again I will say what I said here before about Mass Effect: I consider the female option significantly superior, both for its acting and for the marvel of role playing a proper female character (as opposed to, say, a container for boobs).
Altogether, I am looking at something like 250 hours of gameplay here. That’s before getting the latest Mass Effect 3 DLC. That also doesn’t account for the multiplayer action, which may lack the story but is generally superior in the action department.
Sleep is for wusses. Me, I own this galaxy.


Image: BioWare

Thursday, 6 December 2012

It's Xmess Time

christmas decorations at virtusa

How do I know Christmas is coming? Because of incidents like this.
This morning I was noted for being relative alone in not having Christmas decorations on my office desk. (Screw those, I say; I’m the only one with Mass Effect decorations on my desk, and I know who wins in the comparison between the Normandy and Santa’s sledge. Even without having its guns calibrated.)
As a result of this notation, I was challenged by a surprised colleague: “What, you don’t believe in Christmas?”
I answered by simply asking what belief in Christmas entails. After a notable pause, the reply I got was a rather silent “Santa”.
So, for the record, let me point the following out:
  1. I have no idea what believing in Christmas means. Not just for heretics like me, but even for Christians.
  2. I definitely do not believe in Santa.
  3. I do, however, believe in winding down.
  4. I certainly believe in taking time off work, especially when everyone takes time off work together.
  5. And I believe in making the most of this off time together with family and friends.
Actually, I wouldn’t say “believe” is the right word there. A belief is an opinion we hold without evidence to back it up. I, however, have plenty of evidence to support my seasonal notions.


Image by HTTP 500 - Internal Server Error, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Donations Time

donate

It’s the time of the year to giveth, so I thought I’d list the organisations that should expect to see some dollars coming from the direction of my wallet this month:
  1. EFF (Electronic Frontiers Foundation), who look after our online freedom. True, they are USA centric, but then again the rest of the world tends to copy what the USA does anyway.
  2. Wikipedia, the bastion of free and readily available information. Hard to imagine what the world would be like without it in public hands. Some credit is also due to Jimmy Walesefforts for justice to Richard O’Dwyer.
  3. Richard Dawkins Foundation. Saying I appreciate the work of Richard Dawkins is an understatement that needs expanding on. Dawkins, together with his foundation, is now my main source of science news and updates. Add this to the ongoing efforts towards curing public ignorance and one can see why a donation is virtually obligatory.
  4. Medicine Without Frontiers, aka Doctors Without Borders or Médecins Sans Frontières. They help those that need helping the most, and they do so without much regard for matters such as personal risk. Oh, they are also not religiously affiliated, which means there are no hidden motivations at hand as well as no potential for discrimination on the basis of religion. Their managers not telling the press that atheists are something along the lines of the scum of the earth helps, too.

My partner is also giving away some of our cash to other organizations, but you can read about those on her blog.
For the record, the above is not posted in order to demonstrate how great I am. I’m not; I’m much more of a tight arse than a generous person and my donations are not large by anyone’s account. The point is to inspire my readers to do the same thing. Note, for example, how the targets of my donations are closely aligned to my views and interests.
In other words, many similarly minded tight arses working together can achieve great things.


Image by Mindful One, Creative Commons license

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Se7en

Seven is meant to be a number with some heavenly qualities, isn’t it?
There is a good reason why many cultures associate such qualities with the number 7, even if most people today are unaware of it. The best explanation goes back to the days we thought the earth flat and had no idea what those lights up there in the night sky are. Back then, all the stars seemed fixed in place other than some notable exceptions: the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. All seven of them. It is exactly the ignorance that prevailed in those times that lent the number its supernatural qualities.
These days, Our Car™ is celebrating its seventh birthday. Indeed, this car of ours is proving to have some super natural qualities: originally, our plans had us replacing it within three years, perhaps five if the car behaves itself. Alas, by requiring nothing more than regular servicing, new tyres and a new battery, and through never failing us after all these years, we are happy to keep on going with this car of ours. I really can’t think of any benefit a new replacement would bring us, and I certainly have better things to do with my money than see my investment depreciate to half its value within three years. Paying the mortgage, for a start.
The birthday of Our Car™ signifies the birth date of a related entity. Seven years ago this blog was created as a means of spreading my word between friends efficiently and effectively. Did I imagine at the time that I would spend so much time on it and that it would last seven years? I didn’t, of course; I doubt anyone truly plans that far ahead.
My world of today is significantly different to the one it used to be just seven years ago. Back then we just had our first wifi router installed; now, between iPhones, iPads and Kindles our world is much more digital and the Internet prevails over everything we do. These days I got the Internet stuck up my ass [pocket]. Oh, I also became a parent during the past seven years.
Perhaps because of all these changes it is nice to see some things have been with me throughout. Indeed, it is nice to see how nice things can evolve through time and effort from the mundane need to tell my friends I bought a new car.


N7 image from BioWare has nothing to do with this post other than the 7 reference and the fact everything has to do with Mass Effect.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

On the State of Internet Freedom at Australia


censorship [remix]

A couple of weeks ago we were advised of victory for all freedom fighters in Australia. Communication Minister Stephen Conroy has finally climbed off his beanstalk and announced his plans for an all-encompassing Internet filter for Australia have been stashed away.
Hooray!
I will call that a small victory, though. In the next sentence we learned Conroy is instead applying the Interpol blacklist of allegedly the worst the Internet has to offer and making it mandatory. Previously, companies like Telstra have volunteered to apply it (without asking their clients); now all Aussie ISPs need to apply it under the supervision of Federal Police.
Most people seem to accept that. Who would object to the blocking of the scummiest of the scum? Well, I do. And I do so for the following reasons:
  1. If the Interpol list is what it is said to be, as in a list maintained by the Interpol, then Australia is letting an alien organization dictate what it can and what it cannot access through the web.
  2. The Interpol list is unavailable to the public. We do not know and cannot know what we are blocked from knowing. This lack of transparency does not go well with the principles of democracy.
  3. If there are offenders of the scummiest of the scum type out there, isn’t it better to deal with them directly and have them shut down using existing laws instead of devising ingenious ways to protect us from them? The situation is similar to setting up sacks of sand to deal with a leak when one can just switch the tap off. On the other hand…
  4. It is incredibly easy to imagine how the scope of the blacklisting would be enhanced to include websites that offend this or the other, too. Once the filter is there, it is only a matter of days before the copyright lobby starts asking for the likes of The Pirate Bay to be banned. Yes, you can call me a cynic, but I would say the whole point of this useless affair is to serve the copyright industry.
  5. At its current implementation, the filter is dead easy to circumvent: all one needs is to use a different DNS server. In other words, the scummiest of the scum will not be bothered by this filter at all; the rest of us would.
By far the worst offender is this, though. The whole discussion on the Internet filter was there because the government needed to legislate for it. Public debate was triggered as a result of this need to legislate. Now, all of a sudden, Conroy is announcing our Internet will be censored by stretching existing laws, thus negating the need for new legislation and killing debate at its ebb. ISPs such as iiNet, who stood against the powers that be before, already announced their legal teams told them to comply (see here). If that is the case then why did we need to go through years and years of debating the matter of Internet filtering in the first place?
In effect, Conroy was able to censor the Internet without asking anyone. The Internet is not healthier for that. Neither is Australian democracy.


Image by the|G|â„¢, Creative Commons license

Monday, 26 November 2012

Where the Wild Things Are

The things you find while messing the net.
I make it no secret my favorite character of the Mass Effect universe is Liara, the Asari doctor. There are multiple reasons for this, starting from the role the character plays alongside the player and continuing with the voice and the looks. Ultimately, though, I think I like her because she is probably the closest to the way I would like to see my real self in the video game’s world: looks aside, we are talking about the knowledgeable scientist who is a tad fragile and lacks self-confidence but can kick ass when push comes to shove.
Looking things up, I found out Liara is voiced by an actress called Ali Hillis. It’s interesting to note that YouTube clips featuring Hillis show her sounding quite if not totally different to Liara, which probably says something about Hillis’ acting abilities as well as what it takes to voice video game characters.
Perhaps more interesting is the fact Liara’s looks was modeled after the facial scan of a real life woman, Jillian Murray. Look Murray up and the men readers will notice she is not exactly punishment to look at*. You will also notice her main claim to fame is her role in a movie called Wild Things: Foursome, which I suspect is some sort of a sequel to 1998’s Wild Things featuring Neve Campbell and Denise Richards.
I find it hilarious. As in, the producers sat down thinking “how do we make a sequel to Wild Things”, and arrived at the conclusion that the way to go ahead is to add another woman to the equation and make it a foursome affair. Aside from wondering at the ever thinning line between where this franchise is appearing to be heading for and straight out porn, I can only speculate what the sequel to Foursome would be called.
Think about it this way: There is a chance the series continues into the foreseeable future. After all, if there were enough happy customers to merit the first sequel, there probably are enough for another. Roll on the time wheel, ignore what sequels say about the people you are sharing this planet with, and the conclusion is inevitable: we should eventually expect to find a movie called Wild Things: Harem.


Liara image: BioWare

*Added on 30/11/12:
If would like to enjoy Murray's looks, have a look here (location tweeted by Murray today). Beware: some would consider the photos NSFW (many wouldn't).

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Best Gadget Ever

This was no atypical morning.
I woke up with the alarm clock. After a few seconds of figuring out that this really is another working day I started my morning routine from within my bed: I checked on the current weather and the forecast for the day, I checked how train services are running, I checked my to do list for the day, I checked my emails, I checked on the football scores (Arsenal was playing the Champions League), and I had a quick look at the news headlines.
Breakfast at home was accompanied by a browse of the latest IT news. I was then reminded I need to give my car away for servicing, so I picked on the navigation app to take me there in the best route as per current traffic conditions. During the drive I listened to an album I just discovered the other night from the little heard of Abbe May.
At the garage I picked my list of issues/requests and discussed them with the mechanic. Bidding him farewell, I made my way on foot to the nearest train station while checking train times. A train was due in three minutes; I burst into a jog.

All of the above was achieved with the aid of my smartphone, an iPhone 3GS, which for the past three years managed to change the way I do almost everything I do. Singlehandedly (pun intended), the iPhone managed to put the Internet into almost every activity of mine. The funny thing about it? By now, about four years since the iPhone 3 first arrived in Australia, all of the above would be a very boring read. “Tell us something we don’t know” would be the expected feedback. But think about the miracle of technological achievement we have been witnessing here!
I have had two smartphones before my iPhone, but these Windows Mobile devices were pathetic jokes. Now there are other smartphones that are significantly superior to my iPhone and superior to the current iPhone 5 in numerous aspects. However, even the biggest Apple hater cannot deny that it was Apple that established the smartphone into what it currently is.
Because of its ability to revolutionize the way I do everything by blending into everything I do, I consider my iPhone the best gadget I have ever had. By far!
Enjoy the beginning of your fourth year with me, iPhone 3GS; you deserve it. Even if, or perhaps because, it is likely to be your last (Apple announced future iterations of its iOS operating system will no longer support the 3GS).

I do have to add that smartphones do have significant problems. No, I’m not talking about the fact that people tend to play with their phones instead of socializing. (Let’s get it out of the way: I don’t need you to tell me I’m guilty of that; I know that fairly well.)
My main problem is with privacy. Smartphones collect an incredible amount of data about us: our contacts, our calendar, what we do on the web, our exact location… and all this information is largely available to the apps we let in our phone, our telcos, and often Apple/Google. Most people appear to be blissfully ignorant about these matters while I appear to be fighting a losing battle against them.
The approach I prefer to take is that of trying to be the master of my smartphone. It is very well secured to a level that a thief would find it no more than an awkward paper weight. I control its settings tightly and remove most applications that offend my privacy whenever these are identified (preferably before I install them, although as Angry Birds proved that is not always the case). I also prefer to avoid using features that, in my opinion, infringe on my privacy too much: for example, Android phones running Jelly Bean could have programmed the garage’s address to the navigation app by virtue of my schedule appointment alone; me, I prefer it if Google doesn’t know that much about me, where I am and where I am heading.
But it is bloody hard to keep Google at bay and, by extension, other corporates and governments. The smartphone thus becomes a double edged sword, a mighty tool on one hand but also a danger at the same time.

Update from 25/11/12:
Talking about the privacy implications of smartphone, here is a TED presentation from A/Professor Katina Michael from the University of Wollongong talking discussing the next step after smartphones - chipping:



Katina Michael is Vice Chair of the APF (Australian Privacy Foundation) and is active with EFA (Electronic Frontiers Australia), where I am a member.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Search the Engine

A famous guy once said,
And so, my fellows of the Internets: ask not what you can find through your favorite search engine - ask what your search engine finds out about you!
I agree: this is a good question to ask. Since Google serves as most people’s default search engine, let us review what Google learns about you every time you use its search engine:
  • First, Google knows something about what you are interested in by virtue of the fact you are searching for it.
  • If you happen to be logged in to your Google account, the search is tallied against your account.
  • If you are not logged in to your Google account, the search is tallied against your IP address. In many if not most cases, this accounts to effectively recognizing you; perhaps not by name, but that is not necessarily important.
  • Through your IP address, Google can tell quite precisely where you are – enough to pinpoint your house on a map. I suspect locating your smartphone wouldn’t be too hard, even if you’ve disabled its location services.
  • Google’s recently revised [anti] privacy policy means Google can cross reference the inputs it had collected about you. It is thus relatively easy for it to know what your phone number and address are, as well as many other personal details you wouldn’t normally volunteer away (did one of your friends upload a photo of yours to one of Google’s products?).
The next interesting question, if we ignore direct privacy implications such as personal data security for a minute, is: what does Google do with all the data it collects about you? Well, the following are pretty obvious:
  • It targets relevant ads to you. I have to add that given all the information Google has on me, it seems to be doing a pretty awful job targeting ads at me; then again I use ad blockers on my browsers.
  • It tries to assume which answers would be more relevant to you through some propriety ranking and sorts the search results for you.
  • It filters some results it deems altogether unsuitable.
The matter has been documented already (see here), but think about it for a minute: the image of the Internet exposed to you via Google becomes a highly subjective one and quite different from the impartial image most of us have of the Google search engine. We can argue on how truly objective a search engine can be; obviously, none can be truly objective. The thing is that unlike its earlier days, the days during which Google acquired its claim to fame as the best search engine out there, Google is now actively subjective.
I will therefore ask: do we want our Internet search engine to be actively subjective? I don’t know about you, but most of the time I would answer with a “no”; most of the time I would like to be the judge of my search results, and if I do want them to be subjective then I want to control that subjectivity myself (e.g., by limiting the search to Australian websites).
I miss the days when Google was more reflective of the true nature of the Internet. I am therefore asking myself whether I am willing to pay the price for this subjective search in the first place, namely am I willing to sacrifice my privacy and endanger it on the altar of a Google search? Is the sacrifice worthwhile when I do not want its alleged benefits in the first place?
I can think of exceptions, but generally speaking I will confidently answer this last question with a resounding NO. Which brings me to the subject of alternative search engines, and I don’t mean Bing or Yahoo that are no angels in their own rights. I am referring to the emerging search engine that is the carries the objective and unobtrusive banner on its mast, DuckDuckGo.
By now DuckDuckGo serves as the default search engine on my PC/Linux/Mac browsers, while the DuckDuckGo app has been installed on my iPhone and my iPad. I like it a lot: I like the variety of search results this search engine retrieves, I like the way the results are grouped, I like the astonishingly simple mechanism DuckDuckGo allows me to maintain my search preferences with, I like the fact it allows me to run a Google search when I find it lacking, and most of all I like the lack of tracking. I will admit, though, that occasionally this search engine’s inferiority to Google is well felt: to start with, it feels this way in its inability to guess what I’m searching for and its inability to correct my grosser spelling mistakes.
But if you really feel that you just must, Google is only a page away.


Image: DuckDuckGo

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Our New Motorcycles

What do you think of my new motorcycle? It’s from Aldi!
There’s always an extra bonus when shopping at Aldi. This weekend around my always hungry for more toys son advised me of a motorcycle model special, where pretty accurate and good looking models of some motorcycles got sold for $6 apiece.
Following a couple of minutes of discussion we both chose our preferred models: my son picked the Honda CBR1100XX, because our car is a Honda and because he has been told (mainly by me) that red’s the color of fast vehicles. In turn, I picked the Suzuki GSX-R1000 because of the emotional impact the model carries: Back in my teens the only motorcycles you could get in Israel were Suzukis, with the other manufacturers joining the Arab boycott that was only lifted in the early nineties. When this child thought of sportsbikes, this one dreamed of a Suzuki GSX-R750.
So yeah, when you apply a filter over the photo, you can’t really tell the above only depicts my new model standing on my office desk, can you?

In an effort to teach my son about the virtues of his new toy I went looking on YouTube for videos depicting the bike. The first one I found was this, which left me astounded:


Notice how, in the course of this minute or so long video, the motorcycle at hand accelerates to 300km/h not once but twice. Even when counting on the optimism of the dashboard’s speedo, this is magnificent performance from a device anyone can put their hands on at their local dealership; road legal cars can only dream of such performance. I realized that in the course of a decade I forgot what sport motorcycling stands for. I forgot the speeds and I forgot the acceleration.
I forgot, for example, that one of the purposes of me migrating to Australia in the first place was so I would be able to afford buying a bike and then enjoy plenty of nice roads to ride that bike on. Now that I remember that, I also remember why I chose to forget that dream. I remember the first and second hand experience accumulated over the physical dangers of motorcycling, and more importantly – I realize now the better parts of a good life, the examined life, do not require an engine revving at 12,000 RPM between my legs. By now the closest I want to get to a motorcycle is a YouTube video.
Not a bad reminder for $12, don’t you agree?

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Shiny Happy People

Shiny happy people

I was walking through a shopping mall today as it occurred to me. Everyone around me seemed happy: children were laughing and playing, couples were hugging one another, people walked about with a smile on their face. Happiness was in the air.
This brought back memories and thoughts. Sure, it's easy to be cheerful when the weather is great, but there is more to it than simply a bit of sunshine. For example, one of the things I remember the most from visiting England is just how grumpy everyone seemed to me upon first arriving from Australia. After a while I got used to it. Now, need I mention the mood in Israel?
If one seeks an advertisement for Australia, one need not look any further than the general mood of its people.


Image by Donna Cymek, Creative Commons license

Friday, 16 November 2012

An Apology to Amaysim

It looks like I owe Amaysim an apology.
A year ago I wrote here against the way this telco calculates data consumption on my iPhone. One of the specific examples I have cited was how I measured a YouTube video download to consume much more of my monthly data allocation than it should; I put the blame on Optus’ poor 3G service (which Amaysim resells), and concluded the problem is magnified by Amaysim’s way of rounding up consumed data to the nearest megabyte.
While some of my reservations on the rounding up may still hold, most of my others do not. At least according to this recent revelation concerning an iOS bug that causes streaming contents to be downloaded again and again in parallel on iPhones, thus wreaking havoc on users’ data allocations.
I have to add the phenomenon described in the article is not identical to what I have experienced. The article reported the problem started with the recent iOS 6 release, whereas I have been having these problems with iOS 5 a year earlier. Perhaps this discrepancy is caused by me still using a “retro” iPhone 3GS, whereas the bulk of people are now using newer iPhone models. Regardless, both the article and I seem to agree the problem is now solved: lately I have been listening to Spotify music streaming at work like there is no tomorrow, and checking up on my Amaysim bandwidth consumption reveals this habit of mine is entirely sustainable – in complete contrast to similar experiments I have held a year ago and earlier during 2012.
Give credit to Apple, though: this is a company in whose dictionary the word “ethics” does not exist. Apple kept its customers in the dark throughout, and still won’t say anything about this problem (which it now appears to have solved). While I love some of Apple’s products, dearly in some cases, the same cannot be said about the detestable company that makes these products.
Going back to Amaysim. Having been a customer of theirs for a year now, I can report they are by far the best telco whose services I have ever enjoyed (enjoyed being a key word here). Their main attraction is transparency and the level of control they give me on my account, allowing me to know exactly how much I am going to be charged (and not trying to take me by surprise). Second, they are cheap: the last bill I got for both me and my wife’s smartphones, covering a period of two months, was for less than $24. And I have the Internet doing something on my smartphone virtually all the time (friends will testify on my behalf there). Not only is Amaysim cheap, they actually got cheaper during the year when they reduced their call charges to 12c a minute.

So, to summarize:
  • Some of the accusations I threw at Amaysim turned out to be wrong, for which I apologize.
  • It seems the issues I was having were Apple’s fault. Apple will not comment, though.
  • I highly recommend Amaysim as a mobile phone provider.

Image: Amaysim

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Re Christian Values

As we are getting to that time of the year when all good Australians get Christian values shoved up our exhaust pipes, whether we like it or not, I thought I’d dedicate a post to the concept (Christian values, not exhaust pipes). A work event added further motivation for me to raise the matter.
We were recently given a presentation by pop psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg. The doctor, who also appears on commercial TV, presented on the matter of parenthood and in particular the parenthood of teenagers. It wasn’t the deepest presentation ever but it was well delivered and very entertaining, thus quite effective. In other words, it fit the occasion and the crowd very well. I took some points to ponder about with me and I quite enjoyed the show. That is, until the matter of Christian values was raised.
It started with the psychologist claiming research proved children fare better when they have some sort of a framework and they feel a part of it. He continued to say that he does not want to get into the sticky subject of religion… and then he did. He said his wife is a Catholic, he was raised an Anglican, and because he like Christian values he frames his children’s lives around them*.
That got me annoyed. As in, which good Christian values is he referring to? Is he talking about:
  1. Slavery, a concept firmly endorsed in the Bible?
  2. Racism, of the type that got the Crusaders to love their Muslim neighbors or endorsed the exploitation of blacks throughout the planet?
  3. Misogyny, as in the way women are treated as chattel?
  4. The rendering of anything sexual as sinful? Should we kill the whole of humanity, or at least the 95% that obvious masturbates?
  5. The ongoing suppression of everything gay?
  6. Do all Christians give the whole of their money to the poor because they know it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for the rich to go to heaven?
  7. What would be of our justice system if we truly followed the “he who is without sin cast the first stone” instruction?
  8. With regards to Christian holidays, which the psychologist specifically mentioned: are we really meant to celebrate the value of sacrificing flesh in order to appease a blood lusty God, a concept around which the entire premises of the Christian Easter holiday revolves?
  9. Perhaps we are talking about the ongoing systematic sexual abuse of young children (as reported here to a gruesome level of detail)?
  10. Or are we referring to the sanctity of the about to be stillborn, which suppresses the sanctity of the mother's life to the point of letting the mother die (see here)?
I can go on much longer, but the point is simple. There are very good values in this world, but these are universal values that do not apply to Christianity alone. There is compassion and generosity in this world even outside of the Christian domain (surprise!).
Yes, there is not much out there that is good and is exclusively Christian. In contrast, there is plenty that is bad about Christian values, and it is still bad even if nowadays most Christians prefer to be selective and ignore the worst of those. The advances too many of us now take for granted, like women’s rights and the abolition of slavery are the direct result of the Enlightenment, a secular movement at its core. Christianity? It only forgave Galileo recently (1992, to be precise), so don't expect much progressiveness there.
That the psychologist could get away with the recommendation he was making when presenting before a mainstream crowd who has been mostly raised to avoid questioning religion is no surprise. He cannot, however, achieve the same with me: I agree that a child needs some sort of a framework, but I much prefer the eyes wide open approach of humanism. I prefer my child to be able to grow up in a framework that has him thinking for himself rather than feeding him with crap because it appears to be comforting.
We may not celebrate the Christian Christmas, but I think we’re doing well in the fun department every 25 December.


*Do note the doctor almost certainly did not use the same words I am using here to describe his statements through my feeble memory. Please do not consider the above to be an exact quotation of his words.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Social Music

Music Note Bokeh

One of the greatest features of the Internet and its social media is the ability to connect with others, others who under normal circumstances we would have never been able to get in touch with. This post is here to suggest a possibly yet unconquered realm of this social connectivity is music.
One of the great things about listening to music via Spotify is that you think of something you want to listen to and you find yourself listening to it the next second. However, quickly enough you begin to exhaust the scope of music familiar to you, which then sets you about looking for more. There are some conventional mechanisms available to help you there: there are recommendations based on your previous listening, there are listings of new music, there are radio channels playing similar music to the one you like, and then there are the social elements. These last ones come in two shapes to allow you to listen to what others are listening to:
  1. Facebook connections: I guess this allows users to see what your Facebook friends are doing on Spotify; I don’t know because I am not a Facebook user and I hope to stay that way.
  2. Others’ playlists: This allows users to subscribe or just listen to playlists created by other users.
Let’s have a look at the second one. Playlists are retrievable using a normal search. That is, you can search for “Beatles”, and playlists bearing the name are returned together with artists and albums bearing the same name. It does not matter whether these playlists were created by others or by you. This is quite nice, if we are to ignore the lack of private playlisting: as a fan of the music used in the series Misfits, it’s great to see people out there created playlists featuring those tracks for me already. Spotify playlists can also be published outside of Spotify, as John Scalzi has done here.
It is that latter point I would like to focus on: being able to listen to what celebrities are listening to or recommending. Spotify can connect me with my Facebook friends, which is nice and all, but let’s be honest: the people I would have on Facebook are probably not there because of their musical taste or their ability to point me towards sources of inspiration; they’re just friends, and most of them are not into music in the first place. I can see the attraction there with kids striving to conform to peer groups (one of the main fallacies of Facebook in general), but I seek inspiration instead. I would like to know what Sting recommends, what Mark Knopfler listens to in his spare time, and where P. J. Harvey draws her inspiration from.
I want it to link me to the musical friends I would like to have, not to the friends I already have. In other words, I want Spotify to be more Twitter like in its social elements than Facebook like.
I think the idea has merit. Who’s joining me for a nice new startup?


Image by Daniel Paxton, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

When Books Fall Down

Imm_Living_Big_Top_Bookend
I’m sure you are all wondering why our household’s entire population has been tired yesterday. Let me tell you why: books.
It gets weirder. As you may know, we recently bought new book shelves for our house. Even more recently, we started unpacking our books from storage and placing them on our new shelves (sorted by genre then author). It is important to note that as per this moment of our unpacking escapades, we have more storage capacity than unpacked books. Not that we will be reading most of our books again, in this age of the ebook.
Getting to the point: the other night we were awaken at 5:30AM with a thunderous thump. I got up to investigate the cause. Stiff and tired, I eventually identified the problem: some of the books at the end of our relatively empty shelves fell down on their side. For the record, the three main culprits were my hardback motorcycling books (including the Wayne Rainey biography and the Kenny Roberts' guide).
So much for the mundane. The problem, however, was that both my wife and I spent the rest of the day in a rather shattered condition. It’s just amazing how far a seemingly minor interruption to one’s sleep can go.
Naturally, this brought back the not so distant memories of looking after a baby. How did we survive that if we cannot even survive a book falling on its shelf? I don’t want to even start answering this question; I will, however, direct a statement to those who urge/ask us about having a second child:
Get ****


Image by *NEXT* design for your modern home, Creative Commons license

Monday, 12 November 2012

Scooter Man



While I have many reservations with regards to IKEA, particularly with the way they handle themselves as the world’s largest charity (thus not paying as much taxes as they should), one has to admit the general public owes it a lot. By now we take IKEA for granted, but let us not forget that this company is singlehandedly responsible for us being able to furnish our residences with affordable modern designs. IKEA also seems to support environmental causes: it would be great if they were more transparent and vocal about it, but their products do seem to generally comply with European low VOC standards while wood seems to be sourced from legitimate sources.
We gained some first hand insight to these virtues of IKEA lately, having embarked on an effort to furnish our recently extended house. We bought a lot of IKEA stuff, but got our lesson with the exception: a dining table we got from Harvey Norman (because IKEA wouldn’t make the table we wanted in decent colors). This Saturday I have been a prisoner in my own home when the Harvey Norman delivery guys ended up two hours late over their “some time between 9:00 and 11:00” quoted delivery. Not to mention the “delivery man will call you half an hour before he arrives” promise that was never fulfilled.
With delivery people dropping in the goods, you would expect the table to arrive ready for eating on, knife and fork included. Prepare to be surprised: the table arrived IKEA style, flat packed. There were also additional surprises, like the box saying “Made in Vietnam” as opposed to the sign in the shop saying “Made in Malaysia”; not that I care, but one has to wonder what else they got wrong.
Once we unpacked the box we discovered foam. Lots of it. The type that breaks into tiny little pieces, creeps up on you unexpectedly around the house, clings to your shirt with electrostatic fervor, fills up your garbage bin, and ends up clogging landfills. IKEA, in comparison, doesn’t deal with that toxic shit. Its stuff is wrapped in recyclable paper packaging.
Score one for IKEA.

The second score for IKEA came from left field. The other week I was so disgusted with spending yet another weekend at an IKEA shop that I started fooling around. This time, fooling around meant me using a giant shopping cart, one of those big flat beasts, as a scooter. After two or three goes I’ve discovered something very interesting: I was really enjoying it!
So yesterday, when we started unpacking our books from storage to put them back on our new IKEA bookshelves, I unsheathed another artifact stored with the books: the scooter my nephew left my son several years ago but which we left in storage due to my son’s then tender age.
I quickly gave it a go. It didn’t collapse under my weight; on the contrary, it was fun!
This resulted in two side effects. First, my ever so impressionable son saw the light and spent the bulk of the perfect weather day we had yesterday scooting down our backyard. If you ask me, it’s a welcome change from his excessive YouTube/TV watching habits. It was also nice to walk around the house and see flashes of a boy on a scooter through windows around me as I went into book sorting mode.
The second side effect had to do with me doing my standard Internet investigations, this time on the matter of scooters for adults. Once I’ve identified worthy candidates I went looking around for places to buy them from. I’ll put it this way: by now I am not at all surprised to see that buying a scooter from Amazon UK and having it posted to Melbourne by air costs about half as much as buying the scooter from Aussie shops. Neither should you. I do worry about those that fail to do their homework and get robbed at Aussie shops, though.
I am hoping for that positive feedback effect where my son and I end up pushing one another to scoot from here to eternity this summer. Thank you, IKEA; looks like my Christmas gift to myself* for this year is all sorted.



*Not that I care much for Christmas gifts, but I do seem to get myself interesting stuff around this time of the year. We had a PS3, we had a Mac Air, and now I hope to have another “gadget” to take center stage in this one’s** life.
** Spoken in third person ala my new hero, Blasto.

The embedded videos were taken from The Adventures of Scooterman, a historical English teaching TV program from Israeli TV. It was a classic from the moment it first went on air.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Gun Control

Holding a sniper rifle in my left hand and an assault rifle in my right, I felt like Commander Shepard for a few seconds there.
Sure, I was only holding Nerf toy guns, and I was in the middle of a Harvey Norman and not in some Reaper infested world, but does it matter? Those Nerf guns looked so real – in the sense that they look and feel like the real, albeit futuristic, guns. As someone who spent years in the company of the real people killing apparatuses, I can vouch for the similarities.
However, it is those similarities that take me back, too. Although I spent years with them, I am now utterly disgusted by guns, tools whose sole purpose is to hurt – and quite viciously and literally so – other human beings. You know, people not unlike you and I. So is it alright for me to feel good about holding a toy, a toy that’s although harmless is very obviously modeled after the far from harmless?
Taking the question further, is it alright for me to get toys like this for my son? After all, when I was his age I was yearning for toys like this. Although vastly inferior to today’s flashy offerings, I did enjoy many such toys; yet it is exactly that craving that made me excited, at the time, when the army offered me the real deal. That excitement surely makes the use of a real gun for its true purpose somewhat easier, or at least more acceptable, which leaves me puzzled: would I be a bad parent for getting my son one of these, or would I be a bad parent for depriving my son of a type of toy I had much fun with myself?
I do not have an answer to this question. I’ll go further and state I am probably too traumatized by real life incidents with real life guns to be able to answer it. On the other hand, perhaps it is this trauma that makes me more qualified than most others? Again, I don’t know.
In practical terms, these gun like toys are limited by the fact there is not much a child can shoot at with them. Even assuming you’re relaxed enough to let him shoot at people (in some sort of an organized game), there won’t be that many opportunities for doing so. And then what? The flashy toy would gather dust, mostly.
I might solve the dilemma, to one extent or another, by getting a pair of Nerf water pistols for my son and I to play with on hot days. It could be fun, it will be refreshing, and those pistols do look like the double barreled heavy pistols from Mass Effect, don’t they?


Image: Hasbro

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Maverick, Without the Goose

How was your Cup Day?
We started it thinking we should escape Melbourne to Geelong’s Ford Museum, a place our mechanically oriented boy seemed to like last year. Alas, upon checking their website to make sure they’re open we hit upon the news the museum was closed during July. As far as I am concerned, this has been the worst manifestation of local car industry woes thus far (not that I am trying to detract in any way from the pain of those whose jobs are on the line).
Still facing the same direction, we decided to give another museum in the same direction a try: the RAAF Museum at Point Cook. The main trick to this museum is that it’s free. Hard to believe nowadays, I know, but I can assure you we did not pay any entry fees.
Entry is actually funny: the museum resides inside a military base, but the base’s gateway was guarded by a single unarmed guy from a private security company. How shall I put it? The experience was somewhat different to what I remember from my days with the Israeli army. Indeed, as I noted before, in Israel you are welcomed into shopping malls by gangs of guards armed with automatic pistols and submachine guns.
Once the guard took down my driver’s license details and gave me the spill about not taking photos of the base (other than the museum itself), we made our way to the museum’s parking lot. I have to say that other than the matter of gate security, army bases do have a universal look: that look of functionality over anything else, with little regard paid to aesthetics. Our leaders fail to realize a healthy person requires those; then again, since when did they want healthy minded people in the military?
The museum itself is quite good. Not the finest display of aircraft and militarism I have ever seen – nothing to rival the F-16 squadron visits I have had as a child – but given the nature of this open to the public operation, including foreigners, there can be no complaints. Exhibits include some history as well as the real deal, in the shape of an F-111 and a multitude of other planes serving the Australian air force. Notable in its exclusion is the F-18, probably because it’s still in active duty and probably because the Australian air force only has a fraction of the number of aircrafts you would expect it to have given Australia’s size (and if you ask me, that number is almost certainly too high as it is).
The highlight of our visit took place at 13:00, when we were called to a live demonstration outside. Two guys, one of them an experience air force (and now Jetstar) pilot, told us about the mechanics of flying and the history of the place. Apparently, Point Cook’s is the oldest continuously running airport in the world, having been in operation since 1914. The theoretical explanations were excellent, too, managing to convey the physics of flight in a manner that all the high school crap I had to read never did. There is a lot to be said in favor of Australia’s down to earth nature, and who am I to argue if these benefits manifest themselves with explanations of popular mechanics?
Then came the main event. After telling us how things work, the pilot jumped into the cockpit of a previously prepared training aircraft, took off, and gave us a demo of everything he told us about before – including loop the loops, aileron rolls, barrel rolls and stalling. He managed to talk to us over the PA during all those stunts, which shows something about his skill levels; then he landed and finished things off by answering questions from the crowd. All hundred or so of us!
No, the demo wasn’t as exciting as the F-16 bombing run I had the privilege of watching as a boy. That visceral feeling of total body disintegration caused by an F-16 flying some ten meters above my head with its afterburner engaged was absent, too. However, instead of an exciting display of military might I was witness to a fun and very educational display of wonder. In my book, the latter is much nicer and much more child and family friendly.
Which brings me to say that the RAAF Museum in Point Cook is a hidden gem of a museum. I know the military has its own agendas with museums such as this, but this does not mean we cannot enjoy and celebrate one of humanity’s greatest ever achievements – flying. This is exactly what the museum achieves, and for that I highly recommend it!

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Protection

Girls Coming From School

Altogether, my son is one of a group of six kids moving from his current kinder to start prep next year at the public school closest to us. All six are boys.
This does not seem to be a geographical coincidence. Girls, according to the list at our kinder, get sent to private schools at a much higher ratio than boys. Multiple explanations can be offered, but I would put my money on this one: I would say it all comes down to the perceived need to protect girls from the general public.
Just in case you were wondering how chauvinism gets itself entrenched in society even during this, the 21st century.


Image by jwinfred, Creative Commons license

Sunday, 4 November 2012

The Nexus Edge

Google announced new a smartphone and tablet this week, both of which boasting unprecedented hardware in previously unheard of prices. The LG made Nexus 4 smartphone caught this retro iPhone 3GS user’s eye in particular through the following features:
    •    Quad core CPU, probably the strongest around.
    •    4.7” screen.
    •    Plain vanilla Android 4.2 (a brand new version of Jelly Bean), without any crapware on top.
    •    You can buy the unlocked phone directly from Google.
    •    Updates to be provided directly from Google (no telco standing in the way).
    •    $400 asking price for the 16GB version.
Basically, an amazing phone for an even more amazing price. Never before did a flagship smartphone cost so little!

The phone will start selling on 13 November and I have to say, I immediately switched my antenna on. Sure, I prefer iOS, but I can’t argue with the price: it’s bloody half the cost of an iPhone, and it’s boasts a much stronger spec sheet!
I can live with the Nexus 4’s obvious omissions. 4G is no big deal for me as my provider (Amaysim) doesn’t offer it yet and as I live out of anyone’s 4G coverage area (but do work in one). It could actually be an advantage, as the Nexus 4's huge capacity battery would not have to deal with the drain of 4G. The lack of SD card memory extensions is also annoying, but then again I can listen to Spotify music online. That is, I can live with that.

The issues that do trouble me with the Nexus 4 are:
    •    iOS’ superiority: I still think iOS is better than Android by virtue of stability and ease of use. I hardly ever have to reset my iPhone, but Androids are a different story. That said, looking at the evolution of the two operating systems, it does feel as if iOS is past its peak whereas Android is taking leaps and bounds. Android 4.2 now offers widgets on the start screen, whereas iOS offers maps to get lost with.
    •    Cost: The phone might cost $400, but there will probably be a $20-$30 postage fee. On top of that I will need to add some $100 to get the app environment I’m used to from my iPhone back in Android land. Actually, probably more given to the cost of navigation apps.
    •    Privacy: I have a problem with the way Google treats its users. I suspect I will be able to live with it through the suppression of some default functionality on the phone. However, there is the matter of how apps treat my privacy, and on Android this is more of an “anything goes” type thing than on the iOS 6. Mind you, one needs to be firmly aware a smartphone is a privacy trap: apps like Angry Birds, for example, grab and sell your IP address and location no matter what operating system you’re on. And Angry Birds are not alone.
    •    Build quality (and subsequently, longevity): I held the LG Optimus (on which the Nexus 4 is somewhat based) and it clearly does not inspire the same notions of build quality as an iPhone. Perhaps the Nexus 4 would be different; then again, given the N4's price, one cannot complain too much (unless one thinks of the landfill effect).
    •    AirPlay: I use AirPlay extensively around the house. The problem there is that AirPlay is firmly an Apple thing. It’s not the end of the world, though: my old iPhone can comfortably serve as an iPod Touch for in house Spotify music streaming.
    •    Car music playing: As recently reported, my car stereo takes music from my iPhone via USB. I tried the same with an Android phone and it didn’t work: the car recognizes the phone as a USB drive, but probably due to DRM it is unable to play its Spotify music. I can get around it by playing music from the headphone jack instead of USB, but that is as elegant a solution as farting in a small windowless room. It really amazes me how Apple thinks these things through but Google fails them one by one.

Anyway, due to the above it looks like I will not be queuing up for my Nexus 4. But you, my dear reader, should not follow suit: if you are on the lookout for a mighty capable smartphone, this one is worth checking out through its price alone.
I know I will be checking The Verge for their review on the Nexus 4 as soon as it comes out.


7/11/2012 update: The Verge's review has been published (here). Their main point was the lack of 4G, but they also commented on the phone glass backside's susceptibility to harm.


Nexus 4 image: Google

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

What is wrong with this picture?

What is wrong with this photo on the left? It took a while till it occurred to me.
This photo of my son & I was taken at our recent holiday on Hamilton Island. My son just got out of the pool, dried and got dressed while I was reading a book on my Kindle. So far so good.
Then it occurred to me that, when viewed at its original quality, this photo allows its viewers to read the text of the page of the book I was reading at the time. In other words, this photo may constitute a copyright infringement! And we know what the deal is with the scum that infringes on copyrights: They ruin our economy. They get honest people laid off. They are pedophile, murders and rapists combined!
I don’t want to be a pedophile raping murderer, so I sought the advice of the Australian Copyright Council on the matter. In particular, I wanted to check whether this photo of me reading a book constitutes a copyright infringement or whether it is considered to be fair use.
Unlike the USA, Australia does not have a “Fair Use” clause to its copyright legislation. What it does have are Fair Dealings allowances (refer to this Australian Copyright Council document here), and to the best of my understanding they come down to this: the use of copyrighted material may be considered a fair deal if it is for either research/study, criticism, parody, news reporting, or professional advice. Clearly, my photo above does not fall into any of these categories: it is simply a holiday picture.
I might find my break elsewhere, though. As the same document states, if I am using “less than a substantial part of the material” for my work [photo, in our case] then I do not need to bother with permissions and all; my photo would not be considered a copyright infringement. So I went looking to see what constitutes a “less than substantial part of the material” in the eyes of the Australian Copyright Council and found this document of theirs.
Common sense tells me my photo is completely meaningless, but that is not what the Australian Copyright Council is telling me. What it says is that, essentially,
The concept of a “substantial part” is judged by whether or not what you want to use is important, essential or distinctive.
Alright then, how are we to make this judgement?
The quality of the part is more important than the quantity or proportion. The part may be a “substantial part” even if it is a small proportion of the whole work, particularly if it has resulted from a high degree of skill and labour.
Ooh, now I need to judge the quality of the specific page my camera caught. It’s important for me to do so, too, as per this example:
There are many court cases about whether using part of a work infringed copyright, such as the case where the court held that reproducing 4 lines from a 32 line Kipling poem infringed copyright.
In other words, a layman like me could have no real confidence here. Posting this photo might be completely innocent or it might turn me into a raping murderous pedophile, but unless I employ the services of an expert lawyer I will never know which of the two I am. The matter may only be settled at court, a place I do not seek to find myself at.
For added complexity, I will ask myself a question on which expert lawyer do I need. Do I need one specializing in Australian law, because I am an Australian and I manage my online presence from Australia? Or do I need an American one, because my domain is a .com one and the corporations hosting my material are American? People in the know might be able to answer this question, but regardless: the layman does not stand a chance. The result? Publishing your own content without a cartel to hold your hand in the process is a very risky affair.

Or maybe the actual case is that our copyright legislation is evidently and totally screwed up when an innocent family photo by the pool can be regarded as the cause of such mischief? Think about it.
Think of this, too. That page of the book is not the only object in the photo. I am wearing designer sunglasses, both my son and I wear designer shirts, we are sitting on a chair designed by someone, and I am reading an ebook off a very sophisticated device designed by a company called Amazon. In the background there may be a building designed by an architect. The inclusion of none of those would constitute a copyright violation; there would not be a photo that doesn't breach copyrights in the world if that wasn’t the case. So why is it, then, that the same cannot be applied to books, or for that matter music or film?
It is clear only very specific forms of creativity are recognized by law to have property like attributes. It is therefore this very specific focus that clarifies the whole affair reeks of artificiality.


P.S. I am under the assumption my quoting off the Australian Copyright Council’s forms constitutes a fair dealing since this post is all about criticizing it.
P.P.S. If you think this entire post is a frivolous act of hot air on my behalf, I recommend you read this bit of news, the essence of which is that none other than Sony is being sued for quoting nine words out of a book in its film Midnight in Paris. If Sony with its army of lawyers can be sued for nine words, what is to become of the rest of us?