Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Generalizations on Truth Reshapers

Real Estate Agent at Currumbin

I know I’m committing the crimes of generalizing and stereotyping, but I can’t help it: I’ve become real estate agent phobic. The way I see it, there is no other logical course of action when one witnesses repeat cases of stupidity, non truths and sheer inability to comprehend the potency of the private information they repeatedly ask us to provide.
Last week, and over the course of two days alone, we have had four different cases where I felt like knocking my head against the wall in despair. I won’t tire you with the full details, but: the first case in the line of frustrations took place when the hard to get estate agent answered our emailed question “do we need to supply proof of ownership or proof of when we bought our house” with a laconic “yes”. In case you don’t know, we are talking about two different official documents here, none of which should interest the real estate agent to the level of keeping a copy; but still they do copies a-keeping.
Guess what? We ended up providing both documents, and do you know why? It’s because the real estate agent is in a position of power over the renter, who has to bend down on his/her knees and take it all with a smile. At this stage of my Australian life experience (I’m adding this disclaimer primarily because of my inexperience with Australia’s education system) I am yet to identify any other area where one has to deploy the stiff upper lip as often and as vigorously as one is required to when dealing with matters of real estate.

This state of affairs reminded me of a song by Rafi Perski, an Israeli singer whose late eighties’ debut album is still one of the most frequently played on my iPhone. Loosely translated from the Hebrew original entitled “Million Dollar”, it goes:
Merely a junior clerk, the one that counts the money
Smooth, negative character
And yet how can it be that he is the one determining my future?

I'll finish on a positive note: we found and secured a place to rent, finally. As deliberated here before, we bound ourselves to a full year lease agreement which we will be most likely be breaking half way through.


Image by Mornby, Creative Commons license

Monday, 30 January 2012

The Three Visitors


If you were to ask me who I would love to have at my home dinner table, with the exclusion of friends and family, my answer would be Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov. I’d love to have Christopher Hitchens in, too, but he’s the type that will make me afraid of opening my mouth and exposing my comparatively benign qualities. I will also invite my uncle, despite the family exclusion clause, because I know he will enjoy the company.
The immediate problem with this proposed dinner is that other than Dawkins none of my guests are with us anymore. Which brought me to ask who would be in my preferred list of feasible guests? In particular, which Aussies I would love to have at my house?
While no Aussie name shines as brightly as Dawkins’, the one name that would definitely light the top of my list is Leslie Cannold’s. Which is exactly why I was rather ecstatic to have her at my place the other week (as was my then sick son, who loved the attention she gave him). Think about it: the article writer, the TV persona, the book author, the activist, the Humanist of the Year, the presenter at both Global Atheist Conventions, and obviously the charming person – in my humble adobe!
First, I need to thank my friend Uri, whose actions paved the way for this visit.
Second, I would like to point out the obvious contribution of social media to this momentous event: sure, there are many negatives to wasting one’s life on these addictive tools, and I certainly think Facebook is vile; but if it wasn’t for Twitter I would have never known Leslie Cannold in the first place and I would have never established contact with her, nor would she be able to acquire the help she was after at the visit. I will therefore use this opportunity to admit my love for Twitter: not only is Twitter establishing itself as only dominant technology company that is driven and operated by worthy values, it is also a wonderful tool with which to establish social circles with people one could only aspire to contact otherwise.
I’ll try tweeting Dawkins when he’s in the ‘hood during early April for the Global Atheist Convention, but I don’t expect much. He’s rarely in the Twitter scene.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Let Nobody Tell You There Wouldn't Be Days Like These

Copyright Symbols
SOPA, PIPA, ACTA. Megaupload raided by the FBI, bit-torrent websites shut by the Feds (only to reopen the next day under a slightly different domain).
Yet with all this witch hunting and lobbying for copyright holders, with their money almost buying politicians at will (they even admit it - see here), one thing seems clear to me. It's inevitable:
Can you really imagine a world where, in ten years time, we will not be able to listen/watch/read whatever we want, whenever we want to, and at a decent price?
I can't. And it's obvious why: the company that offers a solution that gets us nearer this utopia will be the next Spotify/Amazon. It would be the company that rules the market.


Image by MikeBlogs, Creative Commons license

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Pulling the Facebook on Us

Statement Shirt 

In case you haven't heard about it yet, Google is going to change its privacy policy on us as of 1 March. The change would have them run the same privacy policy across all their services, which would allow them to keep track of anything you're doing while logged in to Google and thus better target ads at you. Because, in case you didn't realize it, Google makes its money from targeted ads, and the more it knows about you the better product - you - it has to sell to its advertisers.
Assuming you are a user of Google's services (and let's face it, if you use the Internet then you almost certainly are), I warmly recommend you do your research to determine what effect this change of policy will have on you. I can point you at a very factual FAQ that the Washington Post wrote on the matter (here), but there are plenty of other guides on the web of one quality or another (like this one from Gizmodo).
Personally, I am taking this policy change very seriously. The way I see it, we are in the midst of a fight for Internet dominance between Google and Facebook, with Google currently running in panic mode (anyone mention Google+?). I consider the implications harsh, because I do not want huge conglomerates to maintain a database of everything I do on the web: such a database would be a pretty good mirror of everything I do in life, and I value my privacy. My privacy is mine to give away at will, not Google's to take away.
You may argue, not without merit, that we should have seen this coming. Why else would Google let us enjoy services like Gmail (and lest we forget how groundbreaking Gmail was upon its release)? To that I will answer that while I may have been naive, I did listen to Google's "do no harm" mantra at the same time and I did think they might be different to the rest. Well, now it has become clear they aren't.
Obviously, as this blog that you're reading is a Google run one, I am a heavy user of Google's services. Only recently did my confidence with Google receive a boost when I started using their two way account verification, which meant my Google cloud data became significantly more secure. Now, however, I am forced to start thinking of leaving Google behind.
How does one leave Google behind? Not that easy, I agree. Gizmodo published a guide here, which I consider not too bad. I will add to Gizmodo and say that WordPress is more than a better alternative to Google's Blogger/Blogspot (the platform on which this blog is currently running). I will also add that as far as free web email services are concerned, I would recommend GMX as the best alternative to Gmail by virtue of the fact its privacy policies explicitly state they do not read your messages. Sure, the GMX web page is full of ads, but if you're using an email client like Thunderbird on a PC or your smartphone's email client then that won't affect you in the least.
Oh, and as for the matter of me and a future Android phone? It seems as if Apple's chances of me sticking with its iPhone are going to rise significantly. Just think of the wealth of information you are providing Google just by having a smartphone of theirs on you, a phone that has to be logged in to your Google account in order to work. For a start, they know your whereabouts.
So yes, I do intend to start ridding myself of Google, but being the lazy person that I am I do not see this happening all that quickly. Google, it is obvious to say, has trapped me in its comforting lair of web services. I therefore intend to start with the utilization of a simple solution to the problem: use two separate browsers. Luckily for me, I like two browsers almost as much, Chrome and Firefox. I will therefore use one of them for my Google account and the other for everything else (with Google logged out). Google will still be able to collect a lot of my information but not as much; over time, I will strive to unshackle myself further from this giant, and now loomingly evil, octopus.


Image by Smeerch, Creative Commons license

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Happy Australia Day

And here's a suitable (and surprisingly accurate) song for the occasion that is probably unsuitable for kids:

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Goodbye, Noisy Friend

A couple of weeks ago I said goodbye to an old friend and took its heart out. No, this is not a post dealing with euthanasia (at least not yet), but rather my farewell to the desktop that served me for more than seven years as I decommissioned it and took its hard drive for safe storage.
It felt strange: I’m not used to saying an organized goodbye to my computers/gadgets. They’re either neglected, eclipsed by the latest and greatest, or they break down unexpectedly. They don’t get an orderly funeral the way this noisy friend of mine did while I carefully searched through its guts to make sure all important things are backed up (and no, even though I consider myself rather prudent, there were numerous bits of memorabilia I failed to back up).
I would like to use this opportunity for a proper eulogy, if you don’t mind.

My good old desktop ran the course of its life with a single Windows XP installation. Originally it was a Service Pack 1 installation, and originally that desktop was breaking reboot speed records. Now, seven years onwards, that same installation took two to three minutes to boot, and many more minutes to become properly usable. In general, the use of Windows over the past few years had turned into an agonizing affair.
That is exactly why, through the course of this desktop’s life, it has changed course from being a Windows PC into being a dual boot machine that runs Ubuntu most of the time. As with Windows, the desktop had seen one Ubuntu installation but has also seen numerous upgrades in its lifetime. What started with Ubuntu Feisty went through all ten releases till the current Ubuntu Oneiric. The last two Ubuntu releases had the desktop showing its age, but nothing even remotely close to the tediousness of Windows when it came to deteriorating performance.
In its seven years my desktop did not see any upgrades, but it did have its breakdowns. The CD drive it inherited from my previous desktop stopped working within its first year; the motherboard died just a few weeks after its two year warranty elapsed, to be replaced by a similar (yet slightly inferior) Gigabyte board; and the power supply started smelling dodgy and thus found itself replaced after three years. Indeed, I would blame moat of my issues there on mediocre power supplies: at the time I assembled the parts for this PC I was working under the impression the box and the power supply don’t matter. Well, they do, and we suffered with both: the box in particular left a lasting impression through an incredibly noisy fan experience, especially in summer. My next desktop will see a hefty investment in a properly ventilated box as well as reliable and strong power supply.
It looks funny today, but this desktop of mine was fitted with a dialup modem and a floppy hard drive. These were eclipsed from the word go, but the rest of my PC was still potently capable all the way through. It is changes to our lifestyle that saw its days gradually coming to an end till the point it no longer served a worthwhile purpose for the amount of space it took. However, I’m quite sure the MacBook Air that gave this desktop its knockout blow of redundancy will not last me half as long as my noisy friend.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Many Ways to Skin a Bath

At our house we wash ourselves in all sorts of ways, ways which we present before our four year old every evening. These include:
  • Bath: him having a bath.
  • Shower: him having a shower.
  • Bower: him having a bath while his mother or his father have a shower (seeing others partake in the activity is a major morale booster).
Then there’s the ultimate combination: child having a bath, mother having a shower, and father having a shave. We call that a Shawarma.

Shawarma


Image by toyohara, Creative Commons license

Monday, 23 January 2012

The Renters' Rant

Application to rent 2/7/11

After close to a decade of living at our own house we are now in the process of seeking a place to rent while our “real” house is being extended. As I haven’t been to this rental game for a while, I find the immediacy with which the process of searching for a place to live has slapped me in the face quite striking. Although I’m only at the beginning of my quest for a place to live, it seems to me as if the state of affairs in the Aussie rental market is all about power: that is, the abuse of the power held by the suppliers and their supply chain over the end consumer.
Remember, that consumer is seeking to satisfy their most basic of physical needs – the need to for shelter, and is thus at a pretty weak bargaining position. Theoretically, the market should have arranged for competition to help the side of the consumer, but in practice it’s anything but. This post is here to review a few of the property rental scene’s areas of pain.

Problem #1: The Landlord
As we’ve been reviewing places to rent, it seems a lot has changed in the quality of what’s on offer. I cannot say this with authority given my limited number of observations, but it seems to me as if what has passed as a quality apartment a decade ago is significantly better than the current standard. For example, rooms tend to be smaller, living rooms in particular; common stairways and corridors are narrower and steeper, leaving me to wonder how anything can be taken in and out; and lifts are much smaller (again, affecting removals) if they exist in the first place.
The way I interpret it, newer properties are built to tick boxes, not to be good places to live in. The crowd wants bedrooms? Give them away, but make them smaller so we can build more! And make the corridors smaller, so we can build more apartments! In one word, greed.
In parallel to quality seeming to deteriorate there have been significant price rises. Generally speaking, the cost of renting has almost doubled over the last decade. In order to cover this up, what used to be fortnightly rental fees are now quoted as weekly fees; I could not avoid nothing the figures are the same…
It seems landlords deliver those price increases by limiting rental contacts to a year. If you want to stay at your rental place for more than a year, fine; you just need to sign this new contract. And pay more. This has been sending several people I know to find a new place to rent each year whether they want it or not (see here for an example).
In general, over my decade of life at Australia I have been witnessing the build-up of a uniquely Aussie class struggle: you’re either a property owner or a renter. If you’re in the former, “we” (including we, the tax payer) will help you get stronger and secure your power; if you’re with the latter, just shut up and pay, you failure you!

Problem #2: The Real Estate Agent
My property buying experience has led me to theorize the real estate agents serve neither seller nor buyer but rather themselves. Not surprisingly, that same insight seems to apply to the rental market.
First, it does not seem as if the agents care much for the landlord’s interests. Between being late at inspection times, not knowing the very basics of the places they’re demonstrating (e.g., “where is the heating?”), and even disappearing while the property is open for inspection, I sincerely think investment property owners are being short changed. What they’re getting for their money are glorified door openers, and unreliable ones at that.
Things are even worse from the renters’ point of view. The process of applying to rent a property is incredibly tedious and tilted heavily in favor of the agent/owner. It starts with application forms where you need to disclose so much information about yourself, including previous addresses, the details of previous landlords, previous jobs and much much more that it all feels like a bad joke. A very long bad joke.
Technology has stepped up to the challenge, and now you can apply online using the services of a company called 1form. The process is just as tedious, though, with some nasty surprises along the way. For example, the “your previous job’s manager” information fields, like their number and email address, are mandatory fields; yet in my case that company doesn’t exist anymore, and besides – keeping the contact details of a boss that hasn’t been mine for years is quite unreasonable. The same goes for the history of previous landlords. And what is one expected to do when one does not have a previous job?
1form’s true candy comes at the very end of the application process, when you’re informed that if you don’t want to refill all the forms from the start the next time you apply online (a process that took us more than two hours) you need to open your wallet and pay between $30 to $50. That’s right, you’re paying them to store your details, something they’d be doing anyway because they need to do it for the application you’ve just finished. Now, I wouldn’t mind them charging money for their services; I do, however, mind them not telling me they’d be charging money up until the point where I finished my application. I also mind facing a monopoly that can charge me as much as it wants.
Monopolly is the key word here, because its effect continues throughout the process and is not limited to the application forms. Applicants are asked to provide the whole histories of their lives, but they are left in the dark when it comes to the totally non-transparent process of assessing their application. Renters are often left in the dark after their application has been accepted, with landlords waiting to see if they could get better applications coming in before the rental agreement comes into effect. At a time when good properties are are battled for, one cannot look elsewhere for easier solutions.
The potential for adding uncertainty to one's life through property rental is certainly immense.

Problem #3: Privacy
I already pointed to the tediousness of the application process, but there is another aspect that's worth pointing at on its own because of its potential for creating some personal tragedies. That's the aspect of privacy.
When applying to rent a property one needs to provide an exhaustive amount of personal information, some of it of dubious value to the application itself: why, for example, do I need to provide the license plate number of my car on a property rental application form?
Then there is the need to supply 100 points of ID together with the application form. That also applies when the application is filed through the web and no one can verify the photo on your driver's license, which raises the question of what the point of collecting this information at such an early stage is. Why not save the hassle and verify the ID at the end instead, thus saving both supplier and collector the trouble?
If you read the small letters on your application form (I read them on the online application form), you will find a privacy statement allowing your information to be forwarded to some 17 (!) entities, starting with the real estate agent and the landlord but moving forward to far more obscure ones. Oh, and your information may be shared with up to five other institutions that may use it to investigate you, as well as your state's real estate collective agency where it may be used for various statistical purposes. Note all of the above have access to your personal info, including your 100 points of ID. All of them would create various copies of your information on the way, and who knows what might take place from thereon?
Which brings me to the risk of all your private information getting lost (or rather, stolen). It can happen with real estate agents losing paperwork, and it can happen through the interception of 1form's online transmissions. True, 1form 's databases are encrypted (so they say), but your personal info is still exposed to 1form's employees. Then there's the fact 1form forwards the online application forms to email addresses, and email is famous for being an insecure form of communication. Then there's the fact copies of the application information are stored on the PCs of the real estate agents assessing your application, and who knows what security they have there?
In short, any would be hacker can have a hell of a time raiding online application forms using tools that are commonly available over the web. In short, once you apply online to rent a property, you may as well consider your identity compromised. The trouble is, you don't have much of a choice.
There seems to be zero awareness on behalf of all sides to the privacy issues present in the application process, yet the danger is clearly there. If companies like Sony can be hacked to death with personal information stolen, so can your local real estate office. Why it is, then, that they so cheerfully ask for and collect information that is mostly redundant?

To sum up:
Almost all of us will rent a property at one point or another, and almost all of us will manage the process. Yet the question remains: why do we have to go through a process that could have been so much easier on everyone involved if it wasn't for vast amounts of self interest skewing it throughout its way?


Note I was trying to get my wife to write a guest post on rental anguish. Thus far she has refused the honor; instead, you got another typical post from yours truly.
Image by esimpraim, Creative Commons license

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Rebranding

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the only thing separating this blog and worldwide success is branding. The thought of how to position myself to attract more attention thus keeps bugging me.
OK, it doesn't bug me. And my blog's main problem (if popularity is deemed an issue) is to do with its limited appeal. Still, upon discovering that GoDaddy will give me my coveted reuvenim.com domain for a mere $10 (first year special), I decided the time has come to reposition my blog: instead of the lowly reuvenim.blogspot.com domain, it shall now have the mighty and coveted reuvenim.com domain (or rather, www.reuvenim.com).
I did not want to go with the SOPA sympathising elephant shooting GoDaddy, though. The question was which domain name registration service I should be using instead. Given my total ignorance on the matter I decided to follow recommendations, in particular Delimiter's one for ireckon domains and Cory Doctorow's much praised Hover. I ended with the latter, for the simple reason they offered a step by step guide on redirecting my blog from Google's Blogger premises to my own new domain. At $15 a year Hover is 50% more expensive than GoDaddy, but that's the price of ethical shopping for you: that's the cost of protesting against SOPA (as Hover clearly does on its home page).
As for the implications of this domain transfer. As far as I can tell it is fully transparent. I still manage my blog through the same facilities at Google, and my blog is accessible regardless of whether you access it via http://reuvenim.blogspot.com or www.reuvenim.com (which makes me suspect RSS readers will need no updating).
The irony of it all is that for now my reviews blog, which earns an order of magnitude more hits than this one (by now it's a pretty respectable blog, hit wise) is still at its old Blogger/blogspot domain. The point, however, is that my personal web brand is now established. I'm an internationalist; I'm a dot com.


Image: Hover

Friday, 20 January 2012

Dying for Science

Le penseur

Close to a year ago I reported here about the writing of my first will (see here and here) while delving more than a bit on some of the choices I have made there.
One will related question that has bugged me then and still bugs me today is the matter of disposing with my dead body, an area where I am beset by conflicting thoughts: on one hand, I want to contribute to the world to the best of my abilities, even with just a dead body to do so; on the other hand, I have this unexplained phobia of not wanting others to toy with my body even when I’m done with it. Perhaps the latter comes from friends’ rather mischievous stories of their cadavers adventures at medical school, or perhaps these are just the normal social inhibitions we all have when considering others pointing at our bodily deficiencies. Regardless of the exact detail, I ended up specifying the following in my will:
Moshe's body is not to be taken back to Israel for burial (unless Moshe happens to die in Israel).
Ideally, Moshe's body is to be disposed of in the most environmentally friendly method available. If that is too complicated, then cremation is a viable alternative.
I cannot say I am happy with the above. It always felt like an unnecessary compromise, but I just glided along with it. Glided, that is, until Christopher Hitchens died and until his brother Peter posted information such as this about his funeral arrangements:
Some people have asked me when and where my brother’s funeral took place. In fact, as Christopher donated his body to medical science, there has not been and will not be any funeral. He took this decision partly because of his religious (or rather non-religious) opinions, and partly because, much influenced by his friend Jessica Mitford and her book ‘The American Way of Death’, he disliked what he regarded as the excesses of the American funeral industry.
And that was it. Hitchens sealed it for me. I may have some relatively unreasonable phobias on the matter, but it is clearly the right thing to do: I should donate my body for medical science!
The advantages are clear. First, I may be able to assist in promoting others’ health even after my death, which is a mighty achievement by anyone’s account. Second, I will help my family by reliving them of the whole charade that is the matter of funeral arrangements. And third, I will prevent my grave (or otherwise the location of my remains) from turning into some sort of a shrine, the way I am very sad to see my Israeli family turning the graves of some favorite family members into some sort of pilgrimage sites.
Christopher Hitchens has helped me open my eyes on many things, and he is still doing so now (I’m greatly enjoying his Hitch 22 memoir at the moment). In this particular case he proved inspirational even in death, which says a lot about the man. As for me, I know posting my body dispensation preferences on my blog does not count as a legal document, but you’ll have to excuse me: I simply cannot be bothered to go [and pay] the lawyer to have my will changed; that official change request would have to wait. However, since my will is to be executed by friends and relatives, let me make it clear it is my wish to have my dead body donated to medical science, and it is also my wish for them to respect this wish of mine.


Image by jeanpierrelavoie, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Mea Culpa

This is another post that was meant to be published around the new year. Heat prevented that from happening, and further contemplation held it back further. As before, better late than never, even if as I'm typing the temperature at our house is 28 degrees again...

Mea Culpa

Like everyone else, I  have made many mistakes in the course of my life. In the context of blogging, however, there is not much that I feel bad about. That, however, does not mean there is nothing to be sorry for.

As the writer of many a review, there is always that nagging feeling: what grants me the right to criticize others who took the bother of creating something when it is clear I am not even half able to achieve what they had done? My answer there is that I need to try and focus on reviewing the product rather than the person, but in many cases that is easier said than done. How, for example, can one rate a director’s film without referring to past work and thus touching on the personal?
That is why I was impressed with author Seanan McGuire (aka Mira Grant) and the way she treated my critical (to say the least) review of her book, Deadline. At her blog (here) she tackled my arguments and never once aimed a shot at the messenger, instead doing what I consider the right thing and tackling my arguments. I was even further impressed to see her reply to the comment I had left on her post (check these out at the very bottom of this page): now, here is an author who totally won me over and whose books I will always keep an eye on!
Still, I do feel bad for the grief I must have caused McGuire. And for that, as well as the grief I might have caused others through my reviews, I wish to apologize. Please accept that I am not trying to criticize the person, and if it looks like I do then consider it an indication of my inferior reviewing and writing skills rather than my true intention.

There is another blogging issue that has been bugging me since I first posted about it. I have contemplated it a lot, but it took a recent post from John Scalzi dealing with the matter of ebook pricing to convince me that I was wrong and that I have wronged.
The issue at hand is the way I have made Leslie Cannold’s The Book of Rachael an example for what I saw as improper ebook pricing. I did not do it in a post that dealt with ebook pricing, and I did not cite The Book of Rachael amongst the many other examples of ebooks whose price I consider inflated; I did it all in a post that was meant primarily at glorifying Leslie Cannold and her work. I had my reasons for doing what I did, but still: Scalzi’s argument, with which I agree, is that it is silly to attack or be perceived to attach a particular author for the price of their ebook when pricing is generally out of their hands. Not only that, their book is their baby, the culmination of years of work, learning and effort; it takes a particularly cold hearted person to come and casually dismiss it all for the sake of a few dollars less.
Don’t get me wrong: I think there is plenty of room to discuss and argue over ebook pricing. I am very opinionated on matters such as this, being the advocate and mini activist that I am for a culture of information sharing. But again – I should have done it in a manner that does not make an example of a specific book/author. The irony of it is in me “picking” on Rachael/Cannold because I wanted to read the book so much and because I hold Cannold in very high regard; now I see the matter as a case of “you hurt the ones you love the most”.
I hope Cannold will accept my apologies.


Image by UnNickrMe, Creative Commons license

Monday, 16 January 2012

The Million Dollar Question

bin funnies

One of the main challenges on our current agenda is the subject of moving. Theoretically, we can stay at our house while it’s being extended, but it is clear that in order to do so we would have to stow away the bulk of our possessions and live a dirty [cold] life for a few months. Me, I wasn't born to suffer; I prefer to use this thing called money to acquire indulgences, such as the ability to sleep in peace. And watch TV. And go to the toilet.
So moving it is, then, which implies us renting a place to stay at while our true house is extended. The rub is in that last part of that last sentence, “while our true house is extended”: thus far it seems the only short term rental places in our area are dumps, old houses waiting to be knocked down and feeling the part. We’re talking about carpets that smell like they’ve been alive for decades, kitchens and toilets that were probably out of fashion by the time I was born, and heating facilities that make it pretty clear winter is going to be a nasty affair.
The alternative is renting “normal” places, with a minimum of a year’s worth of rental. The price per week is roughly the same as that for the short term rentals, and there is good stuff to be had, but there is also the potential cost: were we to break to contract after around six months to go back to our now extended place, we would have to pay around $500 worth of compensations. Oh, and we would have to pay rent until the place is let again. If the rent is $500 per week (damn, Australia is expensive), and if it takes two months for the new renter to come in, we will be talking about some $5000 going down the drain! If we do go with this option we better find a place that would be sought after enough to reduce the risk of prolonged damage to our wallets.
At this stage we are still doing our homework; we have a few weeks before we need to move out. However, I would warmly welcome your inputs on this matter: short term lease vs. contract breaking.


Image by Cail Young, Creative Commons license

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Spotify Adventures in the Land of Ubuntu

Warning: the following post gets pretty technical.

I have been known to rave on how good Spotify is; by the same token, I have been known to rave on how good Linux is, and in particular its incarnation that I tend to use the most - Ubuntu. This post is written to share some insights on using a free Spotify account in Ubuntu land, and it's written because:
  1. Generally speaking, Spotify does not support Linux.
  2. While Spotify does offer an experimental Linux version, that version is only accessible to paying Spotify users because thus far Spotify has been unable to integrate ads into the software.
Given the above,  I have been running it on my Ubuntu machines using Wine (a Linux emulator for Windows). Spotify itself has a pretty good page on running its software in Ubuntu using Wine (see here); follow that and you'd be home free.
That is... until you install the latest version of Spotify's Windows client, or - as has happened to me - until Spotify upgrades itself automatically to the latest version (currently version 8) without asking for your approval. Once that has happened, Spotify kept on crashing on all my Ubuntu machines. Given how important Spotify is to me I had to fix the problem, and indeed I did so after some Googling and playing around. The rest of this post is here to tell you what I did to get Spotify up and running again in Ubuntu land.

First, a summary for those who know their way around Linux:
  1. I removed my existing installation of Wine and all the Windows software installed under it.
  2. I installed the latest version of Wine (not through Ubuntu's repositories).
  3. I installed winhttp using Winetricks.
And now for the more elaborate description of the steps I took (note you may start from step 5 if you already have the latest version of Wine installed):
  1. Uninstall all of Wine's Windows applications (I have found that using Wine's own uninstaller to remove Spotify alone did not really remove it):
         cd $HOME
      rm -rf .wine
  2. Uninstall Wine through the Ubuntu Software Center.
  3. To remove the last traces of Wine that may still be there, do the following (note the following will still leave menu items and other stuff behind; those do not matter much as far as making Spotify work is concerned):
         sudo apt-get remove wine
  4. Install the latest version of Wine, 1.3.3:
      sudo apt-add-repository ppa:ubuntu-wine/ppa
      sudo apt-get update
      sudo apt-get install wine1.3
  5. Start Winetricks, a Linux application which has been installed as part of the new Wine installation. 
  6. Make the following selections in Winetricks' menus:
    a. Select the default wine prefix
    b. Install a Windows DLL or component
    c. Choose to install winhttp (out of the long list of options available).
  7. Download the latest version of Spotify for Windows (here).
  8. Install Spotify into Wine by right-clicking the Spotify installation file you've just downloaded and choosing to open it using Wine.
  9. You may need to set wine up for Spotify again in order to have proper sound (as described here under Wine configuration).
That's it. Now all you have to do is sit back and enjoy the music!


Image: Spotify

Friday, 13 January 2012

The Curse of the Eternally Dull Office

251/365 - one happy geek [explored]

We are at a hopeless situation. No, I’m not talking about global warming here, but rather your average corporate environment computer scene.
Windows XP is still the dominant system when it comes to running most corporations’ computers. Being that XP is old in the tooth and soon to be left unsupported, a lot of companies are currently in the process of upgrading to Windows 7 (see the case with Telstra here and the ATO here). While at it, they are probably upgrading to Office 2010 too, not to mention looking at more modern Internet browsers (although I suspect most of them will not be able to unstick themselves from IE8).
Right there is the catch: whatever upgrades all these companies do, they will never be able to satisfy their employees. Virtually all of us in the corporate/government world are now in possession of either a smartphone or a tablet, and both are incredible sexy devices operated by finger swipes and producing flashy graphics in response. How can that flashy way of life ever be compared with the dullness of a Windows 7 desktop running boring old Microsoft Office? It cannot.
Which is why I think the situation is hopeless. Given the corporate agenda which has the efficient use of company resources in mind, there is nothing that a CIO can do that stands a chance of ever getting employees excited about their work environment. And there’s the rub: all of us office workers are therefore doomed to spend the bulk of our conscious time upon this earth in dull and rather dreary environments.
Pity Steve Jobs didn’t give the average office more attention.


Image by joshfassbind.com, Creative Commons license

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Smelly Facts About Australia

day 38: deodorant

Fact #1: The Coalition's citizenship spokeswoman, Teresa Gambaro, told the media that migrants should be taught how to use deodorants and how to stand politely in queues. Note she was not necessarily talking about refugees; professional migrants with university degrees (e.g., yours truly) are referred to as well.
Fact #2: 45% the voting population of Australia votes for the Coalition. Actually, the latest polls show an easy win for them with 55% voting for the Coalition on a two party vote. That is, the majority of Australia’s population.
Now, tell me how the combination of the above two facts cannot lead to the inevitable conclusion that xenophobia and its close relative, racism, are rife in Australia?


Image by estherase, Creative Commons license

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Life Signed Away

FM Liberman signs agreement with OECD Secretary General Gurría 19Jan10It took us a great many years, but today we made the first step on our home extension project that truly hurts the wallet: we signed a contract with our builder of choice.
This means that we are now officially on the lookout for a place to rent while our house gains a second floor. This also means that we'll be the bank's best friends again, borrowing money that we might be able to pay back by our seventh reincarnation.
The implications on you, my dear readers, are dire. Brace yourselves for the severe ranting that's bound to result out of the unavoidable encounters with my dear old friends, the real estate agents (whom I just love so much). Alas, posting frequency is expecting severe reductions as our focus shifts to this most useless of exercises, moving, a huge effort that upon unpacking finds one at the exact same point one was at before packing.


Image by IsraelMFA, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Inferiority Complex

Jennifer Hawkins, Robert Doyle

Each time I find myself standing next to Robert Doyle, I find myself surprised at how short the guy is. The last time that had happened was last week as I was walking through the city with the following Renai LeMay tweet still in my mind:
I look forward to the day when "liberal" is not a simile for "right-wing nutbag"
This combination of the clash and the tweet made me think: could it be that the guy’s a right-wing nutbag as a direct result of some sort of a height related inferiority complex?
An interesting theory. Alas, it is refuted by the tallish Peter Costello next to whom I also had the dubious pleasure of standing on a couple of occasions.

To those that don’t know what this post is all about: Robert Doyle is the Liberal mayor of Melbourne. He recently won his claim to "right-wing nutbag" fame when he used police force to evict Occupy protestors and have them harassed all over Melbourne in a manner that seems rather illegal to me and to The Age (see here). After all, agree with the Occupy movement or not, I was under the impression we have the freedom to protest in Australia. Not by Doyle we do.


Image by avlxyz, Creative Commons license

Monday, 9 January 2012

I Care a Lot

This post was meant to be published around the new year; the heat prevented that from happening. Now it's a case of better late than never.


Back in high school there was a Phil Collins song I quite liked, "I Don't Care Anymore". I liked it for two fairly obvious reasons: the drums' track was impressive (I always liked Collins for his drumming much more than his singing), and the lyrics. I mean, hardly anything can capture the heart of a teenager better than "I don't care anymore". The funny thing about this song, though, was that I was only able to listen to it a couple of times or so; back then, it was very hard/expensive to listen to specific music at will.
Today things are different. Today the Internet allows me to listen to music almost at will, and the embedded YouTube clip of that very song is proof. However, 2011 proved a breakthrough even there: through Spotify, I am now able to expand my musical horizons in unprecedented manner and in significantly better quality than what YouTube is allowed to offer.
As a result, Spotify has been providing the soundtrack for my life since April 2011 (plus/minus), when I first opened an account with them. I disconnected the MP3 player from my hi-fi and replaced it with an old netbook that's running Spotify and nothing else, and that netbook has been working a lot: even my four year old knows that the first thing a decent human being does upon arriving home is turning the music on. Indeed, Spotify has been with us wherever we had an Internet connection: you can say it's been an integral part of our wifi hotspot experience, illuminating us with its music while tripping around the world as well as while vacationing in Australia. Other than during car drives, virtually all our music was supplied by Spotify. For the first time in more than a decade, the decline of music in my life has been reversed. Due to Spotify's fault, music is back to playing a key role in my and my household's life.
When looking at the impact technology has had on my life, I had dubbed 2010 as the year in which the ebook came into my life. In similar fashion, I dub 2011 as the year in which music reentered my life, and most of the credit there has to go to Spotify.
There is more to the connection between the ebook and the music revolutions than personal revolutions. In both cases, we are talking about revolutions I was not meant to have. If it wasn't for me using VPN to pretend I am an American, I wouldn't have been able to access the majority of science fiction and other books I bought for my Kindle; similarly, if it wasn't for me using VPN, I wouldn't have been able to access Spotify, whose services are currently limited to several European countries and the USA. At business school you learn the customer is always right and you need to give them the product they are asking for, but that rule does not apply for the contents industries: as far as they are concerned, we (and Aussies in particular) should live by the old rule for as long as possible. Who cares if people don't get the books they want to read or the music they want to listen to when the powers that be can stick to their old business models and pretend the year is still 1970?
This semi cheating of mine worries me, because whatever Spotify gaveth it can also taketh away. As I don't hold an American credit card with which I can get a paid Spotify account (called "Premium"), I am relying on Spotify's free services. Those free services are supposed to be limited to strict quotas as of the second month, including up to two hours of music listening per month and not listening to the same album more than twice. To date, Spotify is yet to impose those limits on me despite my extensive use of their services. I like to flatter myself and think they know exactly who I am and they allow me to continue using their unlimited product because of the good publicity I give them on my blog, but then again who am I kidding?
When, eventually, my account is limited I will immediately start a new one. I do, however, hope Spotify will finally start operating locally and allow me to use its services above the water. When that happens, the whole of Australia can enjoy what I have been enjoying for the better part of a year. Music can reenter the lives of many others who found themselves homeless since the demise of the CD format.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Change Management Communication, Tip #74

Managers be advised:
When you tell an employee they made the grade to have a break on some project work, that may raise a perception with the employee that everything they've done so far is seen as shit.

Friday, 6 January 2012

War on the Internet


Where would you be on Saturday 21 January between 15:00 and 17:00? Personally, I hope to be at Melbourne’s Trades Hall for this session entitled War on the Internet.
The event appears sponsored by The Greens and EFA (Electronic Frontiers Australia, of which I am a member). The most interesting aspect of it, as far as I am concerned, are the speakers. These include:

  • Jacob Appelbaum, i.e., @ioerror, a hacker and an activist who has already been glorified by this blog (here).
  • Scott Ludlam, The Greens Senator from WA who is probably one of a mere few Aussie politicians that are actually inspirational. He is probably also the last thread in the defence of sanity when it comes to matters of technology and Australian politics in elected Canberra. You can read more about him here, here and here (all curtesy of Delimiter).
Between these two and more, this event appears to be a must.


Image credit: unclear

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Which VPN?

It seems clear to me there is demand out there for VPN services. The reasons (previously discussed in detail here) are mostly to do with:

  • Internet security (e.g., privacy over unsecured networks), as well as
  • The ability to acquire otherwise blocked contents over the Internet. With us Australians having limited legal venues for contents at our disposal, we might seek to impersonate being an American in order to get that ebook that Amazon will only sell Yanks or in order to listen to Spotify’s music through a British account. Then there is the
  • Need to camouflage peer to peer activities from prying eyes.
As much as the need is obviously out there, confusion is also abundant as to which of the hundreds of VPN providers out there one should be using. Whenever the question of “which” is raised at any of the blogs or forums I read, there is an immediate flood of responses that make picking genuine winners almost impossible. Then there are reviews do not help users much in choosing one VPN provider over another (like this one).
I therefore thought I would try and remedy the situation, if only by a bit, by sharing my own experience of using VPN services with you. I am no expert, but I have been using numerous VPN providers over significant periods; more importantly, I have the cunning ability to compare VPN providers systematically, a factor that seems missing from other comparisons.

I will start be presenting you with some of the things you need to look for when shopping for VPN providers. By determining what your own needs are, and by comparing those to what the providers are offering, you should be able to find your ideal match:
  1. Cost: Cost can vary between $30 a year to $30 a month. Oh, and there are numerous free VPN providers out there, too.
  2. Platform support: Does the VPN support Windows (XP? 7?), Mac, Linux, Android and/or iOS?
  3. Anonymity: Does the VPN service keep records of you activities with them? If they do, and most of them do, then you are not truly anonymous when you’re using VPN. The trouble there is that it is often hard to find what a VPN provider’s true anonymity policy is; the only reliable input on this matter I can refer you to is this post from TorrentFreak.
  4. Server locations: One of the most common uses of VPN is to do with pretending to belong to another country. Say, being an American to watch Hulu videos, or being a Brit to watch BBC videos. In order to use VPN for that, your VPN provider will have to have servers in the country you want to belong to.
  5. Ease of switching servers: Some VPN providers restrict the amount of times and the ease with which you can move from one server to another (i.e., the ease with which you can pretend to be of different countries).
  6. Protocol: Different VPN providers offer different VPN protocols for their products. In my experience, protocols such as PPTP VPN are problematic because when they [occasionally] fail the connection is resumed without VPN (through "normal" Internet instead). This means anonymity is lost! On the other hand, an Open VPN protocol connection tries to re-establish connection over the protected VPN before resuming.
  7. Capacity: The cheaper the VPN provider, the more likely it is to impose limits on how much data you can download through.
  8. Bandwidth: How quick will your connection be, and what will its latency be like, when you’re connected to the VPN provider? The answer has a lot to do with where you are and where the VPN server is, as well as your own Internet connection. However, some homework might give you insight as to the performance of the VPN provider you might be eyeing.
Needless to say, there are other criteria for selecting a VPN provider. I chose to focus on those I deem relevant to the majority of users. However: One criteria that’s obviously missing from the above is to do with special VPN requirements for people living in repressing countries, where the use of better VPN services can mean whether they can access the Internet in the first place and whether they will live to tell the experience the day after. I simply have no experience in that regard.
With the above criteria established, here are my own personal recommendations. I suspect they would be fine for 90% of Aussies and Western country users with a need for VPN:
  1. Free VPN services cannot be relied upon for anything more than, say, the occasional purchase of a Kindle title through Amazon. They are slow, filled with ads to the point of being useless, and are often unreliable.
  2. For all VPN uses that do not require the utmost level of anonymity, I recommend Witopia’s VPN services. For $40 a year, Witopia offers decent speeds, multiple platform support, and easy to switch between servers spread all over the world.
  3. For VPN uses where anonymity is mandatory (e.g., bit-torrent), BTGuard is widely regarded as the top option. Note there are only a few VPN services out there that guarantee anonymity.
  4. For mixed use, that is – both being able to pretend to belong to different countries as well as remaining anonymous – I recommend signing up with both Witopia and BTGuard. Do note you won't be able to use the two simultaneously.
I hope you have found the above useful.


Image: BTGuard

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

14 + 9 = Jupiter

jupiter and moons (cropped and enlarged)

On New Year's Eve, just before Melbourne's weather turned too hot for me to consider switching a computer on in anger (with the occasional exception of the more expandable netbooks), we decided the time has come for me to unleash our telescope from its hiding place and have a look at Jupiter and its moons.
You see, Jupiter is quite prominent in Melbourne's early evening northern sky at the moment. When I look at it through my binoculars, as I occasionally do, I can't avoid marvelling at how Jupiter looks like a ball whereas stars look like classic star shapes. That is, they look like shiny spots with star shape like edges, due to the fuzziness introduced by earth's atmosphere. Obviously, the time was ripe for me to go one step further and see Jupiter in its full glory.
Now, I discussed the hardships of home astronomy in here already: how hard it is to aim, focus, and maintain focus on an earth that rotates on its axis surprisingly fast when magnified. I didn't discuss other, much more earthly issues.

Coming home from the 21:00 fireworks (which were actually at 21:30 and were also quite disappointing; let's face it, Sydney harbour cannot be matched), I quickly erected the telescope and took it out. It didn't take long for me to spot Jupiter and aim the telescope at it (in between our tree's branches).
The sight was magnificent: using the normal magnifying lens (the middle on of three I got with my telescope), Jupiter's stripes were clearly visible but, more interestingly, so were three of its moons that were surrounding the gas giant like flies hovering over a piece of... meat.
Let's delve a bit into the importance of this sighting: back when Galileo first erected his telescope and sighted the same Jupiter, the fact it had stuff orbiting it and not the earth was the first obvious evidence that not everything in the universe revolves around the earth. Today we take it for granted; back then, religion's grip on reality was much firmer.
Back to us. I called the entire family to come and have a look, and indeed they have. They were all impressed. I, however, started feeling a new sensation; five minutes later we were all back inside, telescope dismantled.
The next day I counted 14 mosquito bites on my left foot and 9 mosquito bites on my right foot. Astronomy sure is hard: as Galileo discovered several centuries ago, it's a bloody affair.


Image by Keithius, Creative Commons license

Resourcefulness


Some six months ago I took a day off to spend with my son when childcare closed for an alleged "training day" (more like pain in the butt for working parents day, if you ask me). I took my son to the Scienceworks museum, and then we closed things off with Nandos and an ice cream at nearby Williamstown.
Back then, my son had to go to the toilet in the middle of our Nandos lunch. We did our thing, and when we came back to our table we were both surprised and annoyed to see it has been cleared. Despite us being still in the thick of things!

I spent today in the company of my son again. His childcare is closed for the holiday season, I took a day off work to be with him, and we spent the day at Scienceworks - followed by Nandos and an ice cream.
This time around, as we stepped into Nandos, my son immediately suggested going to the toilet before ordering. Just in case, you see: "We don't want them to take our lunch", he said.
The right incentive can make four year olds surprisingly wise.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Best Bloggers

Blog (detall)

It's that time of the year. We've been past the Christmas shopping frenzy, now time to have a bit of a look at the year that past. I'll start with blogging.
To commemorate my appreciation to my fellow bloggers that have made my life that much more interesting over the last year, here is a list of my favorite ones and their respective blogs. The blogs list is sorted in the usual order I tend to start reading them in the morning, which – for the record - does not have much to say about my relative appreciation levels; order tends to be a matter of convenience:
  1. Yossi Gurvitz: A left wing Israeli blogger that turned lately into being my main supplier of impressions from Israel through his blog. That said, I actually got to know Gurvitz through his daily technology news column here. Note both sources “speak” Hebrew.
  2. Ronen Dorfan: Another Israeli blogger, but this time a sports blogger (here). The point is that having been raised in Israel, my sport preferences tend to be much more similar to Dorfan’s than they are to, say, the average Aussie. That aside, Dorfan specializes in shedding original light on sporting events, to the point I enjoy reading him even when he writes about sports I’m not particularly interested in. I guess that means he passes the ultimate writer's test.
  3. Renai LeMay: LeMay is running the best IT news website in Australia, Delimiter. More than being a supplier of news, I like LeMay’s personal opinion and analysis of events – especially when he’s politically incorrect. It’s great to see someone dare speak his mind up; the fact I’m almost always in agreement helps. It’s interesting to note that while I would have called LeMay a journalist, he claims to prefers the title of blogger (which, coincidently, makes us brothers in arms).
    While on the subject of Delimiter, I would like to mention Jenneth Orantia who writes regular reviews for the site. More than any other technology reviewer I could find, her reviews seem to hit the point best in precision and relevance. I strongly suspect we have a lot in common, Orantia and I.
  4. John Scalzi: Enough has been said about Mr Scalzi and his blog on these pages; suffice to say he seems to be my favorite fiction writer at the moment. That aside, he's also one of my favorite bloggers - I would say his blog is not that different to mine, actually; only his is much better (and received more hits per hour than mine receives in a whole year). As I have found while reading his latest book, Fuzzy Nation, reading Scalzi's blog during the time he wrote the book (and, for that matter, following him on Twitter) has significantly augmented my reading experience. I could clearly see the blog behind his book.
  5. TorrentFreak: While the blog carries the name of the most popular file sharing mechanism out there, this blog is a pirate's most effective way of keeping up with the world. It doesn't [only] deal with how to best pirate stuff; it quizzes the whole system behind intellectual property from the pirates' point of view. Not shying from investigative journalism (as per its recent findings of rife piracy within the ranks of top copyright stakeholders), TorrentFreak has been known to supply headlines for mainstream media.
  6. Richard Dawkins Foundation: While the man himself rarely blogs, his namesake foundation is quite prolific and offers a blog full of science and atheism news. From the latest at CERN to the latest bus ad campaign, the Richard Dawkins Foundation has it all.
  7. dpreview: Undeniably the best authority on digital photography, I subscribe to the site to get the latest dose of photography news and updates. Most of the stuff there is irrelevant, but a quick browse keeps me up to date and the occasional gem of an article leaves me a better person.
  8. Terry Lane: Posting and writing for The Age as dpexpert, Lane keeps me informed on matters of photography that are particularly relevant to Australia. It also helps that his reviews are published long before dpreview's (although the latter's reviews are a marvel of thoroughness). I don't always agree with Lane, as in the case of his recommendation to buy European TVs over the Far Eastern ones due to the former's supposedly superior picture; I'd rather put my money on the best TV I can afford and then spend $100-$200 more on calibrating it. Still, there is much to learn there.
  9. PZ Myers: Myers' is one of the first blogs I got to follow, and indeed the man has been one of my favorite bloggers for several years now. Look no further for the latest politically incorrect analysis of all matters atheism, including ventures into Australian territories (supported by a long list of loyal local followers). There is some good humor around the octopus fetished Myers; his review of the latest in the Game of Thrones' book series, entitled Game of Drones, pretty much settled the matter of whether the books are worth my time or not.
  10. Cory Doctorow: Doctorow position in my life couldn't be any firmer, with him serving as a role model on many a front - from piracy (or rather, the open source culture) to science fiction. The trouble with following Doctorow through Boing Boing and his more personal blog is that they publish around 50 posts a day, only a fifth of which is Doctorow's; even then, a lot of the stuff Doctorow blogs about is to do with things that are of lesser interest to me, such as matters of the steam punk culture.
  11. Phil Plait: Not only the main culprit in making my four year old interested in science (through his awesome Bad Universe TV series), Plait is also a fine skeptic and blogger. His blog focuses on recounting the latest science news, in particular astronomy related science news, by explaining pictures and videos to the laymen. Needless to say, the occasional post on matters of skepticism (e.g., the anti vaccination movement) adds spice to an already interesting and educational blog.
As a closing comment, I would like to make clear that the above list includes bloggers that post on a regular and frequent basis only. I follow many other less frequently published blogs, but the above are my staple intellectual nourishment.


Image by Lady Madonna, Creative Commons license