Thursday, 31 May 2012

Euro Trash

A burst of nostalgia made me check out on some Eurovision childhood memories. What was the winning Eurovision song on the night before I went for my theoretical driving test? My good old neurons said that winning song came from Luxemburg and was sung by a French speaking blonde singer; I even remembered the tune for that song. Alas, a quick check on Wikipedia revealed that pre-testing Eurovision winner was actually a Swiss winner from Celine Dion; that song I had in my head came a few years before, was called “Si la vie est cadeau” (is life a gift?), and was sung by Corinne Herm├Ęs. Since I still like that song I will share it with you here:


The reason I’m posting this is not to show the feeble nature of my brain, nor demonstrate my old age. What I really want is to express the feeling that surfaced upon checking out all those Eurovision winners of yonder to conclude a simple truth: the world we live in today is a significantly different world to the one we lived in during the eighties.
It shows everywhere. It shows in the TV presentations of the Eurovision. I remember how they used to make a fuss over the Eurovision being broadcast simultaneously all over Europe using a satellite (wow #1: satellite!); I remember how they used to make international phone calls to communicate each country’s votes to the main venue (wow #2: international phone calls!). Yet I look at the videos and I can’t avoid thinking the whole thing’s crap: the dress-ups, the camera movements, the choreography. Even the venue they used for the Israeli hosted Eurovision turned out to be a disappointment: when I was a child this majestic “Halls of the Nation” shrine, as per its Hebrew name, turned out to be the place next to which I would catch a bus to my army base just a few years later (and another few years later a place where several terrorist bombings took place).
Most of all I remember the reverence with which the Eurovision was held in Israeli eyes at the time. It was important: it was our chance to feel like we’re just one of the many proper countries of the world; for a while we weren’t that small forsaken country known for its wars, we were European! We could even show them a thing or two on how to write a song from time to time! Looking at it now from an Australian perspective, the feeling was not too different to the way sports are regarded in Australia as a tool with which this small forsaken nation can show other countries (but mostly Britain) who can hurdle a ball better at some wooden stumps.
Disillusion came to Istael through technology. To me, personally, it came through my father’s business trips to New York: when this young boy joined him there I saw what the modern world really is like. I will never forget the eye opening kindness bestowed on me by New York. To the rest of us, technology was the great equalizer: flights became cheaper, international phone calls became cheaper, and the world in general became smaller. Small enough to render the Eurovision an eccentric’s joke in a world where millions of people can hold international video conference calls across the planet and never think twice of it.

Monday, 28 May 2012

The Great Cultural Inhibitor

The other week we finalized yet another successful family visit to the Melbourne Museum (their Mesopotamia exhibit is excessively costly but good nevertheless) with a nice lunch at Lygon Street. I went with Spaghetti Calabrese, which at that particular restaurant meant spaghetti in spicy tomato sauce with olives and hot chorizo. It was good!
Somewhere in the middle of the lunch I realized this event is worth a photo. Spaghetti Calabrese is a dish I used to order quite a lot in the past, and the taste brought back memories. It brought back memories of a student without much money on his hands, for whom one of the only affordable yet tasty restaurant adventures was a serving of Calabrese at Tel Aviv’s Spahgettim restaurant (later to form up a chain which still exists today).
There was another reason why that dish was memorable: it was one of the rare cases where I could order myself something to eat that mixed both meat and cheese (in the form of Parmesan cheese sprayed all over the spaghetti). The only other such “event” I was aware of, at least when discussing affordable options at then’s Tel Aviv, was offered by Domino’s Pizza.
It all has to do with Kosher regulations, you see. When most non Jews discuss Kosher regulations they think they’re all to do with not eating pigs, but there is much more to Kosherness than that. There are rules on which fruits and vegetables one can eat, what wine can be drunk, all sorts of limitations on other animal food (shrimps – out!), and then there is the limitation on not eating meat with dairy products. In my opinion, it is that last limitation that is the most limiting one.
It all starts from this bible passage that says, as per this quote from the King Moshe version: “do not eat a sheep in its mother’s milk”. Now, if you were to ask me, I would say the passage should be read allegorically to mean “don’t benefit from someone/something and then abuse it” or something along these lines. However, religious Jews – in the good all tradition of religious people everywhere – chose to pick on this verse explicitly and make a huge fuss of it (rather than ignore it, the way many other bible regulations are). There are whole traditions of rules and regulations based on this passage, with all sorts of “smart people” providing their analysis to questions such as just how long a time one should wait after eating meat and before drinking milk. Religious Jews have two separate kitchens, in effect, to handle dairy and meat stuff, with two different sets of dishes and utensils – all to prevent the slight contamination of dairy stuff with meat and vice versa (contamination that happens inside their bodies anyway, eventually). They even go as far as declaring that poultry with dairy is forbidden, because third parties might think you’re eating meat with dairy, and you don’t want that, do you? For a faith, Judaism sure doesn’t have faith in its constituents. But by far the worst aspect of this twisted policy is the fact a believing Jew can eat as many sheep as well as their mothers' milk as they want, as long as they do so within a few hours of separation. What is the point of all this madness, then?
I was thinking of all of the above as I was gulping my Spaghetti Calabrese with great delight. And it occurred to me: religion is not just a bunch of silly rules meant to create a team spirit of “us vs. them” through rules designed to make life insensibly harder for a select few. Religion is also a major inhibitor of cultural development: think of all the millions of Jews that lives their lives and never had the pleasure of tasting good pizza, good lasagne or good spaghetti. Religion is to blame when it comes to these people not being able to enjoy their lives to the best of their abilities; who knows how many countless of other cultural limitations it is still putting on us today, in addition to silly wars on drugs, prohibitions on gay marriage or euthanasia. In all these cases and more, religion is holding us back and we are poorer for that.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

The Building Project Management Experience in a Nutshell

Tilers at work (1) 

The following is a loyal depiction of our experience with any decision making process around our ongoing home extension project. From choice of vanity to lighting, all our builder/tradesman interactions seem to come down to this:

Week 1:
Us – “When do you need our choice of X by?”
Builder – “Oh, we are weeks away from that.”


Week 2:
Us – “When do you need our choice of X by?”
Builder – “Oh, we are weeks away from that.”

Week 3:
Us – “When do you need our choice of X by?”
Builder – “Oh, we are weeks away from that.”



Week n:
Us – “When do you need our choice of X by?”
Builder – “Oh, we are weeks away from that.”

Week n+1:
Us – “When do you need our choice of X by?”
Builder – “Oh, we need everything by tomorrow.”

Just thought I'd mention the above in case anyone is still thinking building projects are actually run, managed and planned better than IT projects. They’re not; the only difference is that you can physically feel the outcome. Otherwise, the bullshit factor is identical.



Image by boobook48, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Rdio vs. Spotify: The Day of Reckoning

I’ve been waiting a long time to the day I can see a Spotify app icon on my smartphone. Finally, when this day arrived, I cannot help feeling under whelmed: with me giving up on Spotify and joining Rdio just a couple of weeks ago, today’s announcement of Spotify commencing its Aussie operations was less than the earth shattering development this might have been. After all, as I have explained I'm already enjoying most of what there is to enjoy from these two killer apps.
However, given my familiarity with both Rdio and Spotify, I thought I’d share some comparative insights with you. Note this insight is based on me using Spotify on various PCs (Linux, Windows and Mac) via VPN for about a year now, using Rdio over mobile, tablet and PC (Linux and Mac) for two weeks and using Spotify on my iPhone and iPad today. Here we go; bear in mind I am comparing the full premium services here:

iPhone user experience:
Spotify has the advantage of presenting music search results using a clearer, tabbed view. On the other hand, Rdio offers better “now listening to” views; it’s stupendously silly that you can’t tell what the next song Spotify is going to play without at least a couple of touches and probably some scrolling on less than instinctive screens.
Then comes the time for syncing songs across to your mobile device so you can listen offline. With Rdio you can just pick a song, an album or a playlist and ask for it to sync; with Spotify you need to go through the loops of adding the songs to a playlist which then syncs across.
The trend continues with the options interface where the streaming and syncing qualities are controlled. Spotify allows selection between three different quality levels whereas Rdio offers only two; however, Rdio provides separate controls for streaming over wifi, while Spotify will stream the same across wifi and 3G. This means you lose both ways with Spotify: either you don't enjoy the best sound quality over wifi, or your 3G allowance suffers a death blow.
Clearly, Rdio offers the better smartphone user experience.

Price:
For the subscription allowing the use of mobile phones and tablets, Rdio charges $13 (it seems like those are American dollars, as my credit card was charged $13.27) while Spotify charges $12. Both charges are reasonable and both of them incur the notorious Australia Tax over American fees ($10).

Music library:
Run some similar searches on both Rdio and Spotify and you won’t be able to avoid noticing Spotify returns more results. When pushed with some elusive titles Spotify repeated its demonstration of superiority again and again (I searched for Hebrew songs, as the above image capture from Spotify on my iPhone demonstrates).
Still, Rdio has some exclusive aces up its sleeve, too. For example, the Robert Plant / Jimmy Page album No Quarter is available on Rdio but not on Spotify.

Artist's radio:
A "radio" channel is a feature that comes handy when you don't know the exact song you want to listen to but you do know you want something that sounds similar to "this". So you pick on an artist and ask the service to play the artist as well as similar artists' radio channel.
Spotify’s similar artists’ radio option on the PC is an excellent Pandora killer that Rdio seems unable to match (refer to my correction at the bottom of this post). However, Rdio offers the radio option on its iPhone application while Spotify’s is a PC only feature.

Supported platforms:
Both Rdio and Spotify are available for all decent mobile platforms. However, Rdio has a significant advantage in the PC arena: while Spotify requires the installation of a dedicated app, Rdio can run off a browser. Any browser.
This has significant implications if you happen to be a Linux user: I often spat blood trying to get the Spotify app to work via Wine on Ubuntu PCs. Obviously, this advantage won’t apply to Linux users alone: there are very good reasons for users to wish to avoid installing yet another application on the PC or Mac (e.g., wishing to avoid more crap on a Windows PC's registry).

Privacy, or - The Facebook factor:
I don’t know about you, but I pack a lot of antagonism towards Facebook. I therefore consider Spotify’s requirement for a Facebook account in order to login ludicrous; I much prefer Rdio’s approach. With the latter you can link your Rdio account to Facebook if you wish, but are free to live without if you don't.
[Note: Since I created my Spotify account long before they fell on their Facebook sword, I am able to use Spotify without a Facebook account. Most users will not be so lucky.]
If push comes to shove and this matter bothers you, as it should, I recommend creating a Facebook account with a fictitious name on a browser you never use or plan on using. Feed it with minimal information, set your privacy to the max, and just use it to login to Spotify. It's sad but it's probably worthwhile. I would actually recommend this course of action even if you already have a full blown Facebook account of your own: you don't really want or need the whole world to know exactly what you've been listening to, do you? It is clear Spotify does not put its users' privacy at the top of their agenda.

Sound quality:
Both Spotify and Rdio offer higher bit-rate music to premium subscribers. However, while Rdio's bit rates are classified as "low" and "high", Spotify specifies exactly how many bits per second you will get with each of its three quality settings (ranging from 92 to 320).
I thought this was that and that both will offer the same rate at their highest settings. Wrong! There is a reason why Rdio won't specify their high bit rate settings, and that reason became as clear as it could ever be to my ears when I played the same music pieces on my hi fi via both Spotify and Rdio. Such comparisons made me want to throw Rdio to hell: it simply couldn't compete with the sound quality coming from Spotify. Karajan's performance of Beethoven's 9th, for example, sounds strident on Rdio but nice on Spotify; I could clearly pick on individual background drum beatings with Spotify whereas Rdio had them all merged to form background noise. Tight bass is a permanent feature on Spotify, making itself most obvious on electronic dance titles such as The Chemical Brothers'; Rdio's sound loose and obnoxious on the ears in comparison.
Spotify wins the sound quality contest by a clear knockout in the first round.

Overall, it seems to me the winner between the two will be decided on points by each and every user. I suspect Spotify will win the day with most Aussies through its cheaper price and much larger library; most users will start using Spotify's free services, the way I did, and then drift to the more premium offerings. On the other hand, Linux users will have a much easier time with Rdio. Not to mention Rdio's far superior user interface, which puts Spotify to great shame and will obviously frustrate many Spotifyers.
Me? At the moment I’m using both. I gravitated towards Rdio for its interface and ease of use at first; I can't be bothered with apps that try their hardest to show me who's the boss. However, I am also an audiophile, and as such I cannot overlook Rdio's clear inferiority in the sound quality department. The whole point of using premium services such as Rdio's and Spotify's is for me to be able to rid myself of the burden of plastic discs, yet only Spotify is allowing to do so with a clear conscience.
Sorry, Rdio, but you have been bested.


Further comments, 22/6/2012:
A couple of days ago Spotify released its new iOS app, which now features radio listening. You pick a song, an album or an artist and Spotify starts singing similar songs to you. The experience is very Pandora like: you can issue a thumbs up or a thumbs down to a song, and the rest of your radio channel's listening is shaped accordingly.
It works - it works very well, actually. Spotify put yet another reason to prefer it over the competition. With MOG entering the fray as of yesterday, offering 320 quality streaming to rival Spotify's, one can argue Spotify's timing with this release could not have been better.

Monday, 21 May 2012

My Science Fiction Trilogy

I may be nailed to the post for it, but this year I will not be bothering to join in to the yearly Hugo celebration of all that is science fiction. The reasons are discussed here in detail; the executive summary is that my taste in science fiction is out of date in the sense that it is still firmly back there with the Asimovs and the Heinleins of this world. I have a problem with the current trend for over long books usually released from the start with the intention of creating trilogies (if not more). Besides, if you look at the books I read – and in general, they are there for all to see – you would see science fiction does not constitute the bulk of my reading; it's only the majority of my fiction reading.
However, when all is said and done, I am very much looking forward to three new science fiction releases that should see me through the next couple of months. I suspect none will win a Hugo, but since when do I care for such trivia?
With that in mind, here are my coveted three:
  1. The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi: While I did not fall in love with this author’s debut, The Windup Girl, its portrayal of a global warming stricken world remains firmly stuck to my head. Then came the YA angle on the same theme, Ship Breaker, which I found much more approachable. Now I am very much looking forward to reading the latter's sequel, The Drowned Cities. It's already loaded to my Kindle!
  2. Blackout by Mira Grant (June release): The last of the zombie trilogy that started with the marvelous Feed, continued with the extremely disappointing Deadline, and escalated through the author blogging on my review, is probably the book I am most curious to read this year. Will my Deadline review get proven wrong? I certainly hope so!
  3. Red Shirts by John Scalzi (June release; Kindle version available to us Aussies via VPN and other forms of trickery only): The equation here is pretty simple. Currently, Scalzi is my favorite author of fiction on one hand; on the other hand, Red Shirts is about the expandable red shirted characters from Star Trek that die on away missions while the leads survive. Can any book have more potential for delivering in the fun department?
Let the reading begin (just after I finish this current comic I’m currently reading)!


Image: The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Global Atheist Convention 2012: The Presentations

With presentations from the recent Global Atheist Convention starting to pop up on the net, I thought I'd embark on the ambitious task of concentrating the presentations I stumble upon in one single post. So here goes. I intend to update this post as I go, but I doubt I'd be persevering too long.

David Nicholls with the opening address:



Dan Dennett, How to Tell If You're an Atheist:



A.C. Grayling, What's Next for Atheism:



Ayaan Hirsi Ali, A Secular Spring or an Islamist Winter?:



For further updates and videos, please refer to the Atheist Foundation's playlist of Global Atheist Convention 2012 videos here.

Friday, 18 May 2012

The Curious Case of the iPad Charger

The iPad’s charger seems fairly innocent, but looks can be deceiving!
For one reason or another, Apple designed it to look exactly the same as the iPhone charger. Only that the two are not identical twins: while both have the same output voltage of 5V, the iPad’s charger is rated at a higher 10W. This means that you can use both chargers to charge your iPhone up, but if you were to use the iPhone’s charger to charge your iPad the whole affair could be agonizingly slow.
Telling the two chargers apart is not easy but it’s possible. Just look for the iPad charger’s small letters where it says “10W”.
One you can tell the twain apart you can potentially use the iPad charger’s extra oomph to your own benefit. Often I stumble upon batteries that are harder to charge. Take, for example, my Amazon Kindle: under certain circumstances, its battery stops charging midway through. As in, the light turns green to tell me the battery’s charged, but when I disconnect the charger and turn my Kindle on I find it’s only half full. In the past I used to just shrug and re-connect my Kindle to the charger; now I have my iPad charger!
All it takes is connecting a Micro USB connector (or any other USB compatible connector) to your iPad charger, and that charger becomes the superhero of all USB chargers. Your rechargeable batteries will love you!

Thursday, 17 May 2012

Building Truths

1506 

You know this major home extension/renovation project that we currently have running? It is quite clear this is going to be the last opportunity we have to make our home the closest to what we want it to be during this, our current incarnation. The cost and the effort involved clarify that point very well.
Given this once in a lifetime opportunity to get things right by our reckoning, we regard this operation with the highest importance. It is therefore an interesting let down to see how the building industry treats us in return. Allow me to identify two building truths that emerged before us during the work:
  1. Inefficiency: Coming from the world of IT, where philosophical discussions on how to best manage projects are the order of the day, I expected physical building to be a study of efficiency. My mental image involved multiple crews working at our house, one knocking down this wall while another building the other and a third doing the wiring. Instead what I see before me is a study of inefficiencies: different tasks held back due to bottleneck issues that take weeks if not months to resolve, all the while our house is often left to its own with no one working on it.
  2. Cheap and nasty: There are exceptions to the rule, but in general – set your builders and tradesmen free to do their work to the best of their understanding and you are guaranteed to have a cheap and nasty result. If an option exists to perform a certain task easily, you can rest assured matters such as quality will not stand in the builder’s way. And don’t expect to be consulted, either.
You can argue the above two are the direct result of human nature, and to some extent or another you’d be right. However, the second point in particular indicates at the true source of the problem by raising a question: why is it that the builder seeks the easy solution when he (hardly ever a she) gets paid more for the better solution?
I therefore point my finger elsewhere. In my opinion, the above are symptoms of the investment property disease that Australia is so sick with. When houses are no longer regarded as homes but rather as financial investments with cash flows and revenues; when the whole industry is driven by investments; when the industry is the biggest in Victoria’s economy and acts as the state's main financial driver; when all of the above combine, you get builders whose main motivation is to finish this job to go on to the other without enough care for the present.


Image by rudenoon, Creative Commons license

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Classical Notes

In the past I have devoted some space here to list some of my favorite music (see here for an example). Absent from those lists was classical music, a genre about which I am quite ignorant, have been less exposed to than I would like, and only started seriously paying attention to at a later age. So I thought I’d invest a post on discussing my favorite classical music.
For the above reasons cited this list of classical favorites is going to be short. There are exceptions, but generally speaking I tend to prefer the bigger symphony over the more low key recitals etc. Of those bigger symphonies it would surprise no one to know that my all time favorite classical piece is the 9th (the 9th, as in Beethoven’s). I will put it this way: it is probably the only musical piece I am aware of that can consistently bring tears [of joy, of course] to my eyes (QED). For what it’s worth, my preferred version is the newer recording of Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra; not necessarily because it’s good (which it is), but rather because it belonged to the first ever event of me purchasing classical music: me and my then good high school friend Moshe bought it* together with Karajan’s take on Beethoven 5th and 6th at the then new Tower Records shop in Tel Aviv’s rebuilt Opera House. (Anyone remember Tower Records?)
While I like the 5th and the 6th a lot, too, the other classical favorite I want to mention here is the first movement from Mozart’s 20th piano concerto (aka The Piano Concerto No. 20 in D minor, K. 466). Generally speaking I am no piano man, but there is something about this piece that gravitates me; perhaps it’s that ongoing hhmm… sound that’s always in the background of that piece. We actually saw this piece performed live by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra several years ago, with some French virtuoso whose name I forgot playing the piano. I particularly enjoy listening to different versions of the 20th, because each pianist does a different piano solo and the comparisons are illuminating. Thanks to Spotify and Rdio I am now able to practice this comparison as often as I like!
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the 20th is how I got to know it in the first place. After all, unlike Beethoven’s 9th it is not one of those pieces everyone knows about. Well, as stories go, I got the CD as a gift from my army friend Zaev upon my release from the army's clutches. The CD came bundled with a dedication: “Dir Balak you don’t keep in touch”. For a few years I did keep in touch; Zaev even helped me get and setup my PC at the time (yes, there was a time when I needed help with computers!). Eventually, physical distances and circumstances took their toll and we lost touch. Yesterday I finally managed to find him on Google after many a past attempt; boy, does he spell his name weirdly!
You may well argue my classical music associations are neatly tied with memories of friendships gone by. Perhaps that is why they call it classic.

*Actually, I bought the old version of Karajan's 9th; since then I learned there is a newer and better recorded version which I grew to prefer due to its superior sound quality.


Image: Ludwig van Beethoven's original Ninth Symphony manuscript, Public Domain

Monday, 14 May 2012

How to Get There and Back Again

Having a good GPS (aka satnav) by my side when driving has been proving worthwhile for twelve years now. It’s not just a case of it telling me where to turn; the GPS also informs me how far I have to go and when I should expect to get there, information that could help make a long drive that much more manageable. The question is, which GPS should I get to replace my aging Tomtom Start?
My problems with the Tomtom come down to the following:
  1. Its two year old map is starting to get too out of date. The money Tomtom is asking for in order to provide an up-to-date map would get me several new Tomtom Start devices at the shops.
  2. Being one of the cheapest of its kind, the Start isn’t equipped with much brains. Its poor processing power is exposed every time a route recalculation is required: those take so long I often miss a few turns before the device makes its mind up. In turn, those missing turns send the GPS to recalculate the route again, thus thickening the plot.
  3. By today’s standards, the resistive touch screen on the Tomtom Start is nerve wrecking. The amount of mistyping that goes on with the device is astronomical, and so is the frustration.
  4. Tomtom has a policy of selling user data. Originally, data was collected in order to help Tomtom calculate optimal routes and determine expected travel times; however, Tomtom recently discovered it can make a buck by selling users’ data to third parties. Like, say, the police, who bought it to maximize speed traps' revenues.
  5. There is also a privacy issue with the way Tomtom handles users’ data. Although Tomtom claims the data is anonymized, it is not too hard to figure out where you live or work when you see an address that tends to be at the start or the conclusion of most trips.
Seeking a replacement to the Start, I started by wondering whether to get a standalone GPS device or a smartphone app to do the job. I discussed the pros and cons of each here, but although I regarded the standalone solution the superior of the two I ended up going with the smartphone one – purely for financial reasons. Armed with discount iTunes cards (you can always find a place that sells them at a discount, usually around 20%), I went searching for iPhone apps to help me find my way.
The question was, which app should I get? My main criteria was to look for offline apps that would allow navigation without 3G signal at hand (thus disqualifying apps such as Waze). Following is a review of the main contestants.

Tomtom:
Tomtom is a worthy contender, no doubt about it. However, it was the first major player to get disqualified. It was mainly the cost: the Tomtom app is the most expensive out there. Supplements such as live traffic updates would also cost more than others charge. It was also unclear as to whether map updates are going to be provided for free or not; what was clear is that map updates thus far have been relatively rare.
Then there is the matter of Tomtom’s attitude towards privacy. Other than selling users’ data, Tomtom’s latest iPhone update keeps pestering users to connect the app with Facebook. Why I should want Facebook to know where I’m driving is beyond me, although it is clear why Facebook would love to know that. Thanks but no thanks; I’m off elsewhere.

Navfree:
I spoke of the virtues of Navfree before, the turn-by-turn navigation app that costs nothing. I used it extensively while traveling the UK, where it literally took me from one side of the island to the other and then back again. However, Navfree's Australian solution is not as good, particularly in the routing department.
I have three core issues with Navfree in Australia that render it a less than optimal solution despite the price, a solution that's hard to rely upon:
  1. While it would get you there, the routes offered by Navfree are often ridiculously convoluted. In my experience, most of its suggested routes suffer, even simple short range ones.
  2. Navfree's does not recognize one way streets as such way too often. Rare map updates do not seem to address the matter.
  3. Calculated arrival times are fantastic. In the negative sense.

Metroview ($15):
There is a lot to be said in favor of Metroview, and the first thing to point at is the price: for a mere $15, one gets a full blown turn-by-turn navigation app that will take you all across Australia and which promises free map updates. And it works! Can anyone ask for more?
Well, I can. For a start, Metroview does not offer traffic updates; not that these seem to benefit other apps that much, but on the other hand if a traffic update is what stands between catching your flight or getting stuck in traffic for hours than it's probably worthwhile.
My second gripe with Metroview is to do with its UI. First, the software does not deal with roundabouts too well: it regards them like any other turn, telling you to turn left or right but not telling you which exit to take. It's a bit confusing! As is the UI: everything you want is there on the screen, including lane guidance, but things just don't click well enough. I found myself having to focus on the screen more often than I do with other systems and for slightly longer each time. Multiply that by a few times as per the length of your drive, and the chances of you missing out on something important up ahead of you on the road just grow significantly. Too significantly.
On the positive side? Metroview offers a proper Google search with which to identify the address you'll be heading to. That's by far the easiest way I know of for setting a destination.
Given price and features, I would say installing Metroview on your iPhone is a no brainer.

Navigon ($70):
Not fully satisfied with Metroview, I decided to try the navigation app reviews claim to work best on the iPhone. I concur: Navigon offers the best navigation experience I have encountered thus far, period.
Navigon comes at a price, though. It sells for $70 (I bought it for $50 during a short sale; deduct 20% for iTunes cards' discount, and things don't look as bad). Traffic updates cost you $26 extra, with ample ambiguity as to whether you'd have to pay again in a year's time (and as to weather these updates contribute to the app's navigation efforts). For regular quarterly map updates, which Navigon used to hand out for free before, one has to pay $30 (I did not do so yet; it will take a while before the current map starts losing its edge).
It's got the best routing. It's got the best UI. It's got a price tag. What else does Navigon have? Bugs! The app seems heavy on the iPhone, but there are also proper bugs. The most annoying of which takes place when you try to start navigating before Navigon knows where you are: the app offers to simulate a route to your destination, claiming to revert to normal navigation once it finds you. Alas, it reverts to nothing when it finds you, forcing me to park the car and re-program my destination yet again. Frustrating!
Navigon's alleged Google search for finding one's destination is also frustrating. This search appears to actually be a Google search on the Yellow Pages database instead of a proper Google search like the one offered by Metroview. The result is rather miserable: big time destinations, such as train stations, are simply not there while the location of other destinations is often inaccurate. Why Navigon chose to limit its search to the broken yellow pages instead of going the full Google is beyond me.
Still, it has to be said Navigon is the real deal. Navigon, recently purchased by Garmin, also holds a significant advantage over Tomtom: users can choose whether the their drives' statistics are uploaded to aid future navigation calculations. I would have preferred it if opting out was the default (it isn't), but Navigon is still way better than Tomtom in this department - it clearly tells you at the start that your data will be collected, and informs you on how to disable that.

Overall, I would say Navigon is the iPhone navigation app you will use most of the time, or at least want to use most of the time if it wasn't for the frustrating experience its Yellow Pages search and bugs procure. Then again, in cases of extreme annoyance, Metroview will always be there to serve and protect.


18/10/12: Before deciding to go ahead with Navigon, I would advise you to read this update regarding my relationship with this application.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Better Than Piracy, Episode II

My biggest issue with the contents industry is its inability to provide its contents 21st century style. In this age of the Internet they still insist on shoving geographically contained and carefully timed plastic discs down our throats. In contrast, the solutions offered by the piracy “industry” are way better: they’re easy to find, easy to acquire, and they have no silly limitations on them.
Many consider iTunes the first adequate answer to this contradiction; I don’t. In my opinion, the iTunes product is vastly inferior to the piracy option. I consider Amazon to be the first to show us how things should be done: with its Kindle, the process of finding your book of choice, buying it, and then getting it to your ebook reader is so seamless and easy it is well worth the admission price. I have my gripes with Amazon and its DRM, but I’m appreciative of it showing the world how contents delivery can be done right while making money.
Now I am in a position to report Amazon’s feat has been replicated in the music industry. Us Australians finally have a product on our hands that surpasses the experience of the pirated product!

It took the acquisition of an iPad to make me stop waiting for Spotify to climb down from its Mount Olympus and grace us with their presence in Australia. Up till now I used to listen to Spotify extensively via VPN and an American account; due to Apple’s walled garden I could not achieve the same on the iPad (Spotify's app is unavailable to Aussie iTunes account holders). Yet the iPad’s advantage of being instantly on and so easy to use pushed me to seek a mobile solution, and those only come with paid services; Spotify’s current inability to accept Aussie credit card payments as well as the absence of its app from the Australian iTunes disqualified it. I went with Rdio instead: of all the Aussie music streaming alternatives (which also include solutions from Songl and JB Hi Fi), Rdio gave me the impression of offering the closest thing to Spotify as far as options and breadth of musical contents are concerned.
Having used Rdio for a few days now (I’m using it as I type), I can sum up the experience with one word: great!
Highlights include:
  • Support for all known platforms: There’s Mac and Windows applications, but Rdio will run out of any browser. Then there’s support for all the mobile platforms, even Blackberry.
  • The experience of picking music up on the iPad (or iPhone, for that matter) and then having the music play on my hi fi wirelessly (courtsy of my Apple Airport Express) is simply divine.
  • Mobile use: Listening to Rdio through our smartphones’ 3G connection is too expensive an affair to be worthwhile; it’s also a big time battery drainer. However, one does not need to resort to that: you can easily choose to sync music to your smartphone through your wifi and then listen to it offline.
It’s that last bullet point that turns Rdio, as well as its competitors, into killer apps. True better than piracy solutions! Want to listen to a song? Just pick it off the list and listen to it wherever you are! No need for iTunes to come in your way, no need to maintain large collections of MP3 files on your hard drive. It’s all managed up the clouds, it’s a huge library that contains most of the music you’ll ever want, and it all comes down seamlessly to your smartphone whenever you wish it to do so. As I said, great!
There are blemishes in this picture perfect scenario, though. They’re mostly to do with cost.
Rdio charges $13 a month for its services, which I would say is on the higher end of reasonableness but still reasonable. The first catch is that if you choose to subscribe through an iOS device, Rdio would ask you to fork out $20 a month. Rdio’s help on Twitter alerted me that this is due to Apple’s 30% surcharge on everything; makes sense. All you need to do in order to circumvent that is subscribe through Rdio’s own website.
It is the comparison to the USA that is hurting Rdio. For a start, why don’t we get a free option, the way Spotify has, to listen to music with ads? Second, why are Aussies charged $13 a month when Americans are charged $10? Currently, and for a while now, the two currencies are roughly equal with a bit of an advantage for the Aussie dollar. Rdio’s Twitter put the blame on exchange rates but I don’t buy it. I certainly don’t accept a 30% exchange rate surcharge: surely Rdio can do better than my own exchange rate, which stands at the low single digit domain. It is a clear case of that good old Australia tax most technology companies like to impose on us (and I’m looking at you, Microsoft, Apple, Adobe, Lenovo and the rest of the gang!).
Functionality wise, Rdio's most glaring disadvantage when compared to the Spotify juggernaut seems its lack of radio like features. I was unable to find an option that would allow me to listen to similar artists/songs to the one I am currently listening to. [Correction added on 14/5/12: Radio like facilities do exist but not for all artists (Gotye is an example for an artist without one). When I asked for Bjork's radio, I got one song by Bjork followed by several straight songs from Madonna of all people; I wouldn't call that a working "similar artists" radio option.] Neither was I able to instruct Rdio to play some jazz for me, a request that triggers numerous offers with Spotify.
Still: this is the best we have at the moment. With a free week to taste the Rdio experience with, I highly recommend it.

Friday, 11 May 2012

Letter from a Christian Nation

In case I was still entertaining the thought Australia is a true secular country, the country of its citizens, and whatever other democracy related superlative I had in mind, the welcome pack from my son’s future state school had them all obliterated.
The mailed pack included info for the parents and enrollment forms. They were all black and white photocopies of poor to average quality; the exception was a color brochure boasting the virtues of CRE, or Christian Religious Education. If you read the small letters it does mention parents can opt their children out of this program, but that is probably the only “positive” think I can mention in its favor.
That is why I intend to raise the following question at the parents’ night the school is going to hold next month:
As a concerned parent with no intention of letting his son sit through evangelical Christian sermons, I would like to know what the school’s policies for taking care of children that opt out of CRE are.
I intend to be loud and clear about it for several reasons:
  1. Let other parents be aware of the fact they can opt out of CRE.
  2. Let other parents know their children will not be on their own were they to opt them out of CRE.
  3. Let the school know it cannot expect to get away with mistreating my son during CRE classes. I am, of course, referring to the horror stories of kids being dealt with as if they are punished for the crime of not attending these “classes”. Stories that I hear way too often.
Is this CRE thing making me angry? You betcha.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

The Apple Shop

To end the previous week with a bang [to our credit card], we went and bought ourselves an iPad 3 (or, as Apple would like you to call it, just an iPad). Since we are not rich and not overly silly we settled on the 16GB wifi only model. To be honest, I would have preferred the 4G model for its navigation abilities (the iPad’s GPS shares a chip with the 4G); however, I did not want navigation $130 bad. We chose white, where fingerprints are not as obvious.

We got our iPad at an Apple shop – you know, one of the few shops that are actually run by Apple. There were several reasons for us preferring Apple as opposed to say, Dick Smith, where we would get extra points on our totally useless Qantas frequent flyer (useless because of Qantas’ constant effort to devalue the program): first, Apple actually had our iPad of choice in stock; and second, Apple actually matched its price to the lowest currently published, Big W’s, despite the fact Big W did not have them in stock. They didn’t even argue with us on pricing; they were the ones that told us Big W is the cheapest around and that they would match its price. Unbelievable! [They refused to match accessories prices, though]
Another thing that’s unbelievable is the whole shopping at an Apple shop experience. You really owe it to yourself to experience this Shopping Done Right affair where Apple teaches even the likes of IKEA how to get things right. At the gate we were welcomed by C, a well mannered and unimposing architecture student who asked us for the reason of our visit and escorted us through from start to finish. Aside of the friendly and knowledgeable escort, I had to appreciate how the entire purchasing process has been so carefully engineered from the start through the wireless supply of the purchased product and the receipt that pops up from underneath the table. Any table. No waiting for a cashier at Apple!
Apple is also offering its customers free “get to know thy gadget” sessions. While I did not see the need for one I could not avoid noticing a session that took place right there and then, featuring a group of elderly customers and their iPads. What a great way to make money while providing true benefit to market segments that are normally technology averse! Yes, I also refused the free help offered for setting up my iPad; no one sets my gadgets up for me (occasionally not even I).

What do I make of our new toy?
First of all, that new screen is stunning. Photos of mine from Flickr created even bigger wows! than my Mac Air with its superb screen does. Second, reaction time does not seem to be as much of an issue as it was on the first iPad: the Internet surfing experience is essentially of similar quality to the one offered by my Mac Air (if we ignore the lack of keyboards).
Obviously, the iPad is not perfect. There’s the lack of Flash support that’s a minor affair by now, but there is the lack of USB inputs that is a big affair even if you can get around it via the cloud. Most annoying are the websites that limit their functionality on the iPad: Twitter, for example, would not let me edit my profile settings through the iPad. I understand having iPad optimized websites, but the least they could have done was to offer access to the normal website; for that I had to go back to my Mac Air.
Going back to my Mac Air is what I end up normally doing anyway. With all due respect to the iPad, it is a significantly less capable piece of hardware that doesn’t even have a keyboard (there, I said it). I suspect it’s everything the majority of people would seek in a computer, but it certainly isn’t the computer for me.
The question remains, what is an iPad good for, then? I can suggest some answers:
  • It’s good for the four year old. Currently, he’s our resident Fruit Ninja.
  • It’s good for quick Internet checks, like checking the forecast.
  • Coupled with our Airport Express, it is a superb platform for choosing and playing music with. So much so that I am about to quit waiting for Spotify to finally open its Australian operations and start paying Rdio for its music streaming services.
  • It’s good for ebook reading. The screen is not half as suitable as my Kindle’s, but it is more flashy. An unexpected drawback for reading on the iPad is the fact the Internet is only a touch away; it can be quite distracting.
  • It’s good for reading magazines, and there are plenty to choose from (for example, a yearly subscription to National Geographic costs around $30 or even $20 through a magazine app, as opposed to $70 for the printed version). Magazines were actually one of my main reasons for getting an iPad, only that now that I have this ability realize books are still better than magazines (and I’m backing my Kindle there). Perhaps the iPad will start me on comic books, where the Kindle is simply inadequate.
  • There’s plenty of good games around. Not just Fruit Ninja, but also proper stuff like Mass Effect.

When all is said and done, one has to recognize that at least for us the iPad is a toy. A flashy toy, probably the flashiest, but still a consumption toy. I do envy my son: I grew up in a household with one TV channel broadcasting as of 16:30; he’s growing up in a household with a PS3, a Wii and an iPad – and that’s before we mention all the other gadgets.
Yes, we do have a lot of gadgets around. There can be no denying the last year saw me and our household turning into an Apple shop: My iPhone is still the gadget to have on me at all times and my Mac Air is still, by [very very] far, my computer of choice. In this Apple shop of ours the iPad is the icing on the cake; very nice icing that is relegating our netbooks to either be sold or serve on server like duties.


Image: Apple

Monday, 7 May 2012

Antennagate

Three months into the extension work on our house, time is due for an update. The short executive summary is that the road is bumpy but thus far not catastrophically hazardous. The elaborate description follows…

While our builder is still yet to cause us to change our opinion of him being a nice guy with whom we can pleasantly work, he (and us) are human beings and we make mistakes. For example, he got rid of our old and hideous fireplace, a task that was not in his scope of work; he did so without asking for extra payment, which is a nice and fresh approach compared to other builders we’ve engaged that will stick to the letter and are always more than happy to stick more letters in your way. Especially when you least expect it.
On the other hand, our builder has made a critical error by underestimating the windows supplier’s 12 weeks delivery lead time. This is hurting us all: the house cannot be properly sealed, while he cannot get his next payment that’s due when the house is lockable. I can understand where he’s coming from: given the costs involved with work at this magnitude, one needs to carefully manage one’s cash flows. However, it is clear we will be paying a price for this error:
  • There is evident water damage the builder will be required to fix.
  • There are potential delays to the delivery of our house.
  • There is newly introduced potential for quality compromises as the builder tries to fill in the time by doing work now that should have been done later.
  • Obviously, there is room for friction in our engagement with the builder. It's already evident through his recent claim to have replaced our bumpy ceiling for no added charge: that ceiling wouldn’t have been bumpy in the first place if it wasn’t for all the rain it had to deal with.
Yes, I have severe concerns with the builder seeming to already start his PR crusade. It is an indicator for him wanting to get away with less later.As far as I am concerned, the biggest specific gripe I have with our builder is to do with his choice of electrician. That electrician managed to get on my nerves several times already: first, he tried to flog us with clearly inferior LED lights to those we chose, requiring me to make significant efforts to convince him to go ahead with our choice – something I should have never done but did still in order to maintain the good relationship we have with the builder. Second, he actually dared to argue with me over the choice of speaker cables for our hi-fi: I can accept that not everyone hears the difference between cables, but his “we’ve used this cable [his cable] on big systems” stand showed ignorance in his own field of expertise in addition to a childish “size matters” worldview. It does not take an Einstein to realize an unshielded speaker cable like the one he's proposing acts as an antenna to all sorts of electrical interruptions one does not want to listen to through one’s speakers. Again, we had our argument but we got over it, even if I ended up with that bitter taste caused by him trying to sell us whatever he gets kickbacks for.
What we are still to get over with is the electrician’s handling of our TV antenna. Apple is not the only one to have its Antennagate story…

Antennagate started when I noticed a new antenna boldly installed at the front corner of our house, where you cannot miss it, and less than a meter from where the builder laid our old antenna to rest while he took the roof apart. A giant WTF flag waved in front of my eyes.
The next day I asked the builder what’s going on; he answered he doesn’t really know, with the aerial being under the electrician’s jurisdiction, but that they always strive for the best possible signal. I expressed my displeasure with the explanation in my very Israeli manner, and told him I do not want my money to pay for that antenna. He said he’ll inquire with the electrician; I did the same.
The electrician repeated that silly slogan of “best possible signal”; when further pressed he said we cannot expect to be consulted on everything. I disagreed: there are financial, aesthetic as well as functional considerations with the choice of antenna. As an example to the latter, the electrician could not explain the choice of the new digital only antenna – how did he know we do not watch analog TV? Or use our aerial as an FM antenna?
The plot thickened when the actual antenna installer called me at the electrician’s request so we can have the issue resolved (jokers, the lot of them!). Again, he started with the “best possible signal” mantra, to which I replied “ok, but why did you put the antenna at the corner of the roof and not up high?”
The reply started revealing what really took place. Or rather: best possible signal my ass. According to the antenna guy, he was instructed by the electrician to install his antenna by the roof’s facia and not up the roof where the previous antenna was (and where the best signal is; I know, because the installer of our old antenna took measurements). Then I asked why he didn’t use our old antenna, to which the antenna guy replied by saying he “picked the best antenna” and that it’s not cost effective for him to try our old antenna out. Obviously, it is very cost effective for him to charge us with a new antenna. I asked about the lack of consultation, to which the guy’s best answer was “but why would you want anything other than digital TV”. How incredibly professional of him!
Then I called the electrician again to hear him claiming he did not order the antenna guy to avoid a roof installation. Then I called the builder and told him this is getting ridiculous, and he agreed to have our old antenna installed up the roof with no cost added to us (as if we can tell whether we’ll be paying that same money elsewhere).
Personally, I intend to further press on the matter. I intend to do so for a few important reasons:
  1. Principally speaking, whenever someone says that “best possible signal” thing to me I consider it an insult to my intelligence. For that to happen we need to erect the Eiffel Tower up on our roof; we don’t do that, though, because that would be unreasonable. Hence what they should be saying is that they were seeking the “best signal within reason”.
    
Now, I argue that every reasonable person would have tried to use the existing antenna or bothered to tell us in advance if that antenna was deemed not good enough.
    
I argue that every reasonable person would have tried to install the antenna at the best possible location – up on the roof – given that this is where the old antenna used to be, and given the highest quality facilities for such an installation are already there (false tiles etc).

    I argue that every reasonable person would have consulted with us about the choice of a new antenna to install on the roof, assuming one was deemed necessary in the first place through comparative measurements. We were never allowed to specify how much money we want to spend on the antenna (maybe we don’t even watch off-air TV in the first place?), or what type of antenna we are after.

    The fact that all these things a reasonable person would have done were not done indicates to me that either the electrician or the antenna guy (or both) are lazy and greedy. Given the electrician was in charge, I blame the former for acting incompetently and against the best interests of his client. Was he going for the “best possible signal” or the “best possible rip-off”?

    Doing the right thing matters. Giving up here would only open the floodgates later.
  2. We need to make it clear to the builder our problem is not with him but rather with his subcontractors. It is very important we continue with a healthy relationship rather than a tense and formal to the letter one.
  3. We need to take the builder out of the defensive foxhole he dug himself. I am not happy to hear him repeat his boasts on the replacement of our bumpy ceiling as a token of his generosity; we both know generosity had nothing to do with it. We should therefore clear spin out of the table and let the facts talk instead. He's got plenty of those in his favor anyway.
Overall, I think what we are seeing in our renovation adventure is the classic Aussie “no worries, she’ll be alright, mate” attitude. Only that we are talking here about an investment of hundreds of thousands of our dollars and years of our lives. A building site is where I want to see professionalism; we do see that, most of the time, from our builder. However, there is a clear case for improvements.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

On the Right Foot

I apologize in advance for yet another post delving into matters of mortality.

Right Foot

Back when I was in first grade I tripped at home over my unlaced shoes. My right foot bent into an unnatural U shape and the resulting pain was constant. Eventually my skeptic mother took me to the emergency room, where it was discovered I broke a bone in my right foot. They put my right leg in cast from the knee down, and for a month I had the pleasure of being the center of everything’s attention.
Other than a photo my parents took I do not have anything else to remember this event by. Until, that is, my age and Melbourne’s weather caught up: at the onset of recent winters I started feeling my foot at the same place it hurt me once upon a time. The phenomenon seems to get worse with each new winter; this time around I even find myself dragging my foot in some sort of a limp to avoid the pain.
Australia’s cultural fixation with wearing formal business shoes at the office surely has its saying on the matter, but other than that: Getting older sure is fun, isn’t it? I’m not even close to being really old, but at the rate things are going I shouldn’t be surprised if I were to find myself immobile in a winter or two.



Image by LightCapturePaper, Creative Commons license

Friday, 4 May 2012

Son of Mine

Until this Tuesday’s show and tell at my son’s kinder, it did not occur to me just how much my son is my son. I realized it through M, a girl in my four year old’s kinder class, bringing her favorite jacket to show and tell.
A jacket? Compare that to my son’s object of showing and telling, a toy model of a futuristic fighter jet. The thought of elaborating on his jacket is probably as far away from his mind than it is from mine.
That same night we were discussing my son’s pre-sleep reading. He wanted me to read from his animal book (actually, it’s a proper animal encyclopedia of adult grade). Alas, both of us parents are tired by now from reading the animal book every night. Upon expressing my dissatisfaction with the suggested reading material, my son came up with an alternative:
Let’s read from the Richard Dockins [Dawkins] book [The Magic of Reality]!
Now, that’s my son! We read about various incarnations of the eye as it evolved in various earthly life forms, as well as speculations on what aliens’ eyes might be like. In the discussion that followed both son and father agreed we learned a lot from the experience.


Image: The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

Event Horizon

1984...meet DRM 

Old news are worth discussing if they're important enough, so here goes:
Tor, probably the world’s biggest science fiction publisher and a subsidiary of Macmillan, has announced last week that as of this July all of its ebooks would be sold without DRM. I don’t know if this will mean resellers such as Amazon or Apple would be forced to sell us Tor’s books without their DRM (as far as I know, Apple will not sell ebooks without DRM, period), but regardless – this is an important step forward to everyone involved, from authors to particularly us readers.
I explained here before why I consider DRM bad in the particular context of ebooks. To recap, it’s a pain to the consumer who cannot regard the ebooks they paid for to be truly theirs and cannot expect their ebooks to last more than a few years; interestingly enough, it is also a pain for the publishers as it renders them slaves to the likes of Amazon and Apple rather than the masters of their own domain. They only had to look as far as the music industry to see how DRM helped established Apple as the sole source of legal music online to see how wrong their approach to DRM is. It seems as if Tor did just that, finally. Let us hope other publishers will follow suit; to be honest, I really don’t think they have much of a choice.
I do take personal pride, if I may say so, for Tor’s move. As a science fiction reader, Tor represents my fictional home ground, more or less. Some of the authors writing for Tor happen to be in my favorite fiction writers (John Scalzi) and/or bloggers (Charles Stross). But beyond that, I find it no coincidence this breakthrough in the field of publishing started off with a science fiction specialist: through their very nature, science fiction readers will be more likely to be up to date with technology, more of the type that buys many books per year with the intention of re-reading them in the future, and most importantly – the type that is fully aware of the futile blemish that is commonly referred to as DRM. They would know the damage it brings.
My fellow sci-fi readers, take pride in what you have achieved. Who knows, the pages of history may place you in the same boat at Gutenberg and his revolution.



Image by jbonnain, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Meanwhile in England...

Pub sign
The above includes stuff I heard of during the past 48 hours, which goes to show just how bad things are at the United [Monitored] Kingdom. Not that I haven't seen this coming: when you start by threatening to arrest parents trying to "sneak" baby food aboard a plane, you end up placing rockets on top of people's houses and claim to do so in order to protect them.