Sunday, 29 December 2013

Of Adam and Eve

The other week us parents were having a chat with our son. Don't ask me how we got to discuss it, but through this and that we ended up telling him of the biblical story on Adam, Eve, the talking snake, and that apple of theirs. We also told him of the story's implications: that through the woman eating the forbidden fruit came pain and suffering to the whole of humanity. That through the sin being committed by a woman came millennia of mistreatment to women with discrimination that still continues in force.
His reaction was to laugh and mock the story. As in, "what, all the bad things in the world happen because a woman ate a fruit?"
Clearly, that should be the reaction of any rational person hearing of Adam and Eve's story. Alas, our society is not made of rational people; the vast majority of us have received religious indoctrination during their childhood, indoctrination that prevents them from assessing matters of religion the way they would, say, their finances.

The problem is that religion does not stand on its own. If one accepts religion then one accepts the whole system of morality it brings along. And that is where the catch lies.
Because of religious indoctrination, people think it is a good idea to mutilate the genitals of their daughters or just to mess with those of their sons. Other people think their religion stands before all the evidence in the world, therefore refusing to accept phenomena such as global warming; they insist on "fighting" a losing war on drugs, on making the lives of tenth of our population miserable through their refusal to recognise gay right, and on prolonging the lives of the elderly who just want to finish their lives off. Some times these people can even become their country's Prime Minister and ruin it for their entire country.
It all starts with the little things. It starts with parents insisting to lie to their kids about the whole Santa bringing their presents, often the first step in "teaching" their kids to accept falsehoods and thus a fine preparation for the bigger falsehood of religion and god/s. It continues with state schools running events such as Christmas Carols nights ahead of the holiday, or worse - state schools running religious education classes that are nothing more than organised Christian evangelism propaganda.
All of these and more can take place because the prevailing state of mind with the average Australian is that "a little bit of religion doesn't hurt anyone", or its cousin "it doesn't matter". Bullshit; it matters and it matters a lot, otherwise we would not have a Prime Minister in Tony Abbott that can openly speak in contempt of global warming.
We would not have a country filled with people who think the story of Adam and Eve makes sense.

Merry [belated] Christmas to you, too.

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Settle this and that



You know you're an Ocher Israel when one of the main reasons you return a Christmas gift back to the shop is it being manufactured in an Israeli settlement.


Image by Ken Worker, Creative Commons license

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Advantage: Streaming

When one has Led Zeppelin’s music on CDs, one is not expected to think much of the appearance of said band’s entire catalog on Spotify, does one?
Turns out one is wrong. Spotify has the advantage of being able to offer the most up-to-date versions of everything, including music from a band that has ceased to exist 30 years ago. And it uses this advantage: it offers remastered versions of the band’s music, which make everything sound so much better. Listening through good headphones, this “new” version is a guaranteed deliverer of musical orgasms.

Not that I had to wait for Led Zeppelin to show up on Spotify to learn that lesson. I learned it already when Pink Floyd’s catalog made its Spotify appearance.
Regardless, the point is the same: as long as the price is right and the end user is not abused, the future of music reproduction lies with streaming.


Led Zeppelin album cover: Spotify

Saturday, 21 December 2013

An Army with a Country


Earlier this week, I was informed, a group of soldiers visited the old people’s place my father is staying at, back in Israel, and did its best to cheer people up. Everyone seemed happier as a result of this activity. I, being the Ocher Israel that I am, was left wondering: why did the soldiers visit the old people’s place?
The immediate answer, already given, is to cheer the old people up. Which, given that it seems to have worked, is great. But still, why soldiers? Aren’t they supposed to be doing military stuff instead? I’m pretty sure none of them were conscripted to the cause of cheering old people up.

The discussion can move on into the direction of the old people place’s visit doing good to the soldiers, too. It can help their morale as well as act as some sort of a group cohesion activity. But still I will ask, what do these have to do with a visit to an old people’s place? Wouldn’t the army be able to come up with better ways to achieve the same military goals?
The discussion can continue for a long time with some valid reasons for a group of soldiers visiting an old people’s place raised in the process. Yet, I will argue, there will always be a certain shadow over this discussion, because we should all know the reason why a group of soldiers visits an old people’s place. And this underlaying reason is all to do with the militarisation of society.
In other words, the army needs to be seen out there in places deemed unnatural for soldiers to be at in order to be perceived as the people’s republic army. If the army’s goal is to achieve such a level of popularity and acceptance (as opposed to, say, merely defending the country), then sending soldiers to visit old people’s places is probably one of the most effective ways for it to achieve its goals. Eclipsed probably only by visiting schools (oh, but they do that already, too).

Israel is not alone with this exercise. As part of his election campaign, now PM Tony Abbott promised to let the Australian military deal with “stopping the [asylum seekers’] boats”. Clearly, there are lots of politicians across both countries who consider the militarisation of their society a positive thing.
I don’t. I’m with Herzl, the first Zionist ever, on this one:
We shall restrict our professional soldiers to their barracks.


Image by Yossi Gurvitz, Creative Commons licence 

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The Carpet Crawlers

_DSC8209

The other day I visited a private school for the first time. To say it was interesting would be an understatement.
The first peculiar thing about this school that I visited was it being a girls only school. What twisted mind came up with that idea? It goes further, though. Oil paintings along the school hall portray the images of past and present principles. All of them, surprise surprise, women. I understand the need for corrective discrimination, but somehow I suspect this is not such a case; I suspect it is rather the very discrimination women constantly “enjoy” that got this particular private school to be the way it is.
Let me get back to those oil paintings. Yes, specially commissioned oil paintings line up the hall. Couple that with the squeaky clean carpet on the floor, and you could be mistaken into thinking you are actually visiting some sort of a museum. Those carpets, by the way, range across the school buildings and classes.
It made me wonder. Given all the grandeur and the elaborate settings, and given the contrast between those and the equivalent settings at my son’s state school (which, as state schools go, is a well off one), please regale me with the following: why does even 1c of public funding go towards the financing of this private school?

The point is worth considering given Australia’s current setting. All we hear about in the financial news are budget deficits and the various austerity measures planned in response (coming from a Liberal government elected primarily for its self-alleged financial prowess). One of the more clever ways this government of ours is seeking to cover up the deficit is by hitting the weaker ones with a mallet: while everyone was focused on Holden closing down, our beloved government snuck the news it is going to cancel the pay rises it promised aged care and childcare employees. Because, of course, these people are already earning too much money.
Have no fear, the well off are not to be harmed. They will be able to continue sending their children to carpet laden private schools where can admire their self commissioned oil paintings at the tax payers' expense.


The above photo is not an image of a private school, though it is not far from it

Monday, 16 December 2013

Smoke on the Waters

Roger Waters

There is a phrase in Hebrew, "Ocher Israel" (עוכר ישראל), that occasionally gets used to label those going against mainstream Israeli culture or Judaism. Particularly people of left wing leanings, and particularly Israelis/Jews of left wing leanings.
I was trying to find a good English translation to the term. Google translates it to "hater of Israel", which is not that accurate; DuckDuckGo suggested a more accurate "disturber of Israel", but it also fails to hold on to the original term's charm. I asked my friends to come up with a worthy translation; one suggestion was "Moshe Reuveni", which is probably very accurate, but misses the point somewhat. It was also pointed out to me the original Hebrew Biblical phrase was translated to English as "Art thou he that troubleth Israel?", but again - it doesn't sound as good.
So I'll stick with Ocher Israel.

All of the above was in order to inform you there is a new Ocher Israel in town, Roger Waters. Waters, in case you are unfamiliar, is one of the key people behind Pink Floyd (the main composer, nonetheless), which thus makes him one of the most influential people upon yours truly. It seems as if Waters' latest crime is comparing Israelis with Nazis, which earned him the wrath of Israelis and Jews alike. In other words, he's a Moshe Reuveni (or rather, an Ocher Israel).
This post is not about whether Waters' comparison is right or wrong, but rather about the act of comparing itself. This is because Waters does not seem to have received responses telling him he's wrong, but rather received tons of responses telling him that comparing Jews/Israelis to Nazis is sacrilege, an act filled with antisemitism which puts the heritage of six million Jewish victims in shame.
I wish to question that.
The way I see it, there are some comparisons between Israel and the Nazis that are obviously and undoubtedly correct. For example, both were/are land occupiers: the Nazis occupied many parts of Europe while Israel is occupying the West Bank and is still controlling Gaza. So there you go: a valid comparison.
By the same token, it is also clear there are things where Israel cannot be compared to the Nazis. As much as one can dislike Israel, one can still not blame Israel for creating mass production death camps.
Now, I don't know where on the continuum between the two comparisons Waters' is. My point, however, is that comparisons can be drawn.
I would also argue that comparisons should be drawn. After all, the Nazis have taken the part of the universally accepted manifestation of ultimate evil upon themselves; while it is all too easy to always draw comparisons with them, a good comparison can be educational. That is, after all, the whole point of learning from historical mistakes so as to prevent them from happening again.
That is why I think this particular example, one that compares Australia's treatment of asylum seekers with the Nazis, is quite valid. It was made in response to this Amnesty report, telling us asylum seekers are held in extreme heat conditions yet receive less than adequate amounts of water. The report on ABC spoke of half a litre per person, with said persons held in temperatures of up to 50 degrees Celsius. To me, this sounds very much like concentration camp conditions.
Regardless, the comparison was made yet no one bothered to raise the claim held up against Roger Waters. No one went on record saying that Pirate Party Australia, who made the comparison I linked to, puts the heritage of six million Jewish victims in shame.

I can thus conclude that the only Nazi comparisons one is disallowed to make are those comparing between Nazis and Israelis/Jews. The rest are fair game.
In other words, it is clear that the bulk of criticism against Roger Waters is nothing but ad hominem.


Image by Guillermo Cadiz, Creative Commons licence

Saturday, 14 December 2013

It's a Miracle!

Untitled

I thought I'd add fuel to the Hanukah fire from the previous post. Because you know me, I always respect other people's silly beliefs no matter how silly they are.
The particular aspect of Hanukah I would like to point your attention to is the famous miracle of Hanukah. You see, it's not the historical victory over the Greeks that is actually celebrated with Hanukah, but rather the alleged "fact" that the oil that was found at the temple after it was relieved of the Greeks - the only bit of oil they could find - actually managed to last them whole eight days. No, they did not use the oil for deep frying donuts or anything as remotely constructive; they lit their Menorah instead.
Can you think of a miracle mightier than that?

Completely unrelated to Hanukah, I would like to remind you that you are reading this very post through a contraption containing billions of transistors utilising the principles of quantum physics. My message is delivered to your particular contraption through a chain of somewhat similar contraptions spanning the entire globe and its surroundings (think satellites) that form a big network. This network allows you to do all sorts of things, such as providing you with access to the bulk of human knowledge, facilitating the waste of time known as Facebook, or allowing you to take part in a video conference with partners across the globe.
Put things into this perspective and you can see where I'm coming from when I mock Hanukah and its miracles. Or, in other words: the religions we are holding on to are clearly way past their expiration dates. We need and we should move on with our lives.
There are much better things to celebrate than f-ing Hanukah.


Image by Jen T, Creative Commons license

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Zika

7th Night of Chanukah

Not to be outdone by the side of the family claiming I'm robbing my son out of his childhood through my anti Santa stance, a member of the other side of the family has recently accused me of losing touch with their side. Why? Because of not celebrating Hanukah with my son. To be precise, I was told I should be displaying more "Zika".
Zika is an archaic Hebrew word, now reserved purely for religious connotations. It stands for "link", in the context of maintaining a link to Judaism.
With Zika in mind, let us have a look at the story of Hanukah. Let us check this missing link.

I will start with the elephant in the room. The only reason non-Jews are aware of Hanukah's very existence is to do with this holiday supplying Christians the fig leaf required for them to be able to force Christmas into our generally secular world. The way it works is simple: by pointing a finger at the Jews celebrating their holiday around the same time of the year, Christians think they can shake away any claim blaming them for forcing their holiday on people who do not share their faith.
As the Jewish ranking of holidays goes, Hanukah is a low order holiday. The reason is simple: unlike holidays such as Rosh Hashana, Pesach (Passover) or Shavuot, Hanukah is not a holiday ordered by God; it is a holiday created later in order to celebrate a historical victory, the victory of the Hasmoneans over the big empire of the time, the Greeks, in what is known as the Maccabean Revolt.
In Israel, probably the only country where Judaism does not suffer a confidence problem, Hanukah is a holiday celebrated almost exclusively by kids. There is a very good reason for that: the kids get a whole week off school while the adults don't get any days off work. Plus, the holiday does come with some nice traditions: you get to light candles every night (read: you get to play with fire), you get to eat jam filled donuts, and - a personal favourite - you get to eat potato cakes.
As you should be able to tell by now, Hanukah is a children's holiday. Personally, I recall celebrating it (mostly in the form of playing with fire) up to my early teens. Never did I celebrate it as an adult, which is pretty much why I do not celebrate it now, which is pretty much why my Aussie son has no clue about what Hanukah is, which is why I'm accused of losing my Zika.

I will go further and argue there are better reasons for not celebrating Hanukah, though. And the best reason is to do with the answer to the question of what the victory celebrated by Hanukah is all about?
Back when I was a child taught at Israel's religion infested schools, I was told the reason for the Maccabean Revolt was to do with the Jews' anger towards the Greeks. Anger caused by the Greeks defiling the Jewish God by placing their idols all over the place. The Jews revolted, and through the power of their God they kicked Greek ass - hence the holiday.
Nowadays I know better. I'm an atheist, and therefore I do not accept this whole "my god is bigger than yours" excuse; in my opinion they are all man made crap. So if we were to take away the godly excuses for this revolt, what one is left with is a successful rebellion by a tribe of barbarians against what was then the most advanced civilisation on earth. Greek philosophy, anyone? Or science? Or the first glimpse at democracy?
So no, historically speaking I do not think the Jews successful revolt was such great victory. Sure, it meant the Jews survived as a religious group, but it was not a great day for humanity. At least nothing I should be concerned with or celebrating today.

Now, I fully acknowledge there is nothing wrong with celebrating Hanukah through the holiday's little traditions. Why shouldn't I let my son play with fire, the way I used to? Or eat donuts? After all, he does have his Christmas tree and he does enjoy receiving Christmas gifts.
The answer there is to do with the culture we are living in. I couldn't care less about both Hanukah and Christmas, but everyone around us seems to think Christmas is the answer to global warming and then some. In this atmosphere, it takes a mighty effort to disconnect oneself from Christmas. Hanukah, however, is on the other side of that scale: without consistent, active effort on my behalf, my son will not even hear of that word. And let me be frank, I am not going to make an effort for the sake of a stupid holiday; I have enough challenges in my life.
My son and I will probably get to play with fire sooner or later. I suspect the context will not be Hanukah; I have the distinct suspicion it will happen when I teach him the virtues of barbecue cooking, Aussie style.

And now I will return to my family. Specifically, the accusation of me/us losing touch with them through not celebrating a Jewish holiday.
Seriously? Is that the reason we are losing touch? A F-ing holiday? If all that is connecting me to the family is our common religion then, boy, are we disconnected!
Allow me to suggest, instead, that there is a much bigger gulf between me and the Jewish side of my family. A gulf for which the Hanukah celebration or lack of act only as a minor symptom.


Image by slgckgc, Creative Commons license

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Person of the Year


“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”
H.G. Wells

No one would have believed in the first years of this century’s second decade that our online world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligence services endowed with superior resources and the legal privileges to do as they will; that as we busied ourselves about our various concerns we were scrutinised as studied by the billion, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.
But then came a person, one person, and opened our eyes to this grim reality. Speaking for myself, my view of the world has changed drastically since this person’s revelations came to light. Hard to imagine those revelations only a few months ago. Regardless, I will probably never see the world in the same way again. It was as if someone opened my eyes and showed me I was living in The Matrix. Reports in the media clearly indicate I am not the only one to feel this way.
Thus this man proved that a single person can still change the world, and change it for the better. I doubt there would come a year when the choice for “person of the year” could be as easy as this year’s.
That person is, of course, one Edward Snowden. Now, I don’t have much of an idea about him as a person. All I know is that a few years ago he made some remarks in favour of intelligence services. And, of course, that more recently he changed his mind as far as any change of mind can take place and made the bravest move to sacrifice the rest of his life for the benefit of society as a whole.
Regardless of my lack of familiarity with the person that is this hero, I would like to pay him back through an offer of asylum. Edward Snowden, you’re more than welcome to seek asylum at my house. Sadly, I suspect the government of Australia, a government that already labelled you (very inaccurately) to be “an American traitor”, would object to that.
Please, continue to prove them wrong.


Image: Screenshot of the film Prism by Praxis Films, believed to be OK to use under fair use

Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Humans on Trains

Crowded train

The other week I gave my train seat away to a pregnant woman. I’m not here to boast about it; yours truly is a certified selfish bastard. It’s just that the occasion made me take note of things that are, perhaps, worth noting.

First, let’s clear the elephant out of the room. Reporting on Melbourne’s poor public transport facilities and f*cked up train services should surprise this blog’s readers as much as the news the sun rose in the east this morning. Still, that particular night was one of those extra worse service events where a couple of mishaps joined to hold train services by more than half an hour. In turn, this resulted in fewer trains available later, and those fewer trains resembling General Zod’s Superman 2 prison even more than usual.
Waiting on the platform, I took note of a pregnant woman looking like she was about to faint amongst the crowds. I took note and forgot about it; she was too far away for me to do anything about.
Several trains came and went. So crowded were they I did not even bother for a personal sardine experience. Then, finally, a train with a hint of room arrived; Israeli skills kicked in and I found myself not only on the train, but also on a seat. Surrounded by standing sardines.
I looked around and there she was, two meters away, that near fainting pregnant woman. I offered her my seat and joined the ranks of the sardines; she moved to a seated near fainting position.

The question I would like to ask is, why me? As in, how come did no one else offer this obviously pregnant, obviously ill feeling woman a seat? Neither did the seated nor the standing move a finger to help this visibly distressed woman.
It is not as if random acts of kindness are absent from Melbourne territories. They are frequent and they are common and they are all over the place. Melbourne is a place where random people you pass on the street may some times greet you with a "hello" or a "good morning". So why not here, at this specific crowded train?
My hypothesis is that when certain thresholds of menace are crossed, people forget they are human and basic survival instincts kick in. We forget who we are and focus entirely on Number One, as evident by a carriage full of sardines doing their best to not only avoid eye contact; if looks could pierce the floor they're aimed at, they would have that night.
The sad thing is that Melbourne’s ailing public transport systems seems to create this menacing effect on its users, turning them from people into a herd driven by survival instincts.

Commendation is to be offered to all the state governments that looked after our public transport system so well it can now turn us into animals.


Image by Daniel Bowen, Creative Commons license

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Humus Envy

A few months ago I was approached by a friendly office colleague. I know you like humus, I was told; but have you heard of this food called “ta-hi-ni”?
I was polite and all, even if the scenario was not unlike asking Neil Armstrong whether he heard of this place called “the moon”. What can I say, clearly Aussies don’t know their humus.

A fortnight ago I visited my GP. I am at a critical stage, I was told, where the quality of my diet and other habits will dictate the quality of my latter years. Being that this has turned into a life and death discussion, she moved forward into a third degree as to my eating habits. Unsurprisingly, she identified an issue with my consumption of fruits.
“You [said in a way that sounded a lot like a plural you] like humus, don’t you?”
Well, duh.
“So why won’t you squeeze a lemon over your humus? That’s your missing fruit.”

What am I trying to say here?
I’m trying to show there are indications that humus is breaking into Australian consciousness. It seems to be doing so through two niches: those who have “seen the world” and are happy to embrace the best it has to offer, such as foods otherwise deemed exotic; and those conscious of their health.
However, despite these breakthroughs, Aussies continue to demonstrate abject ignorance when it comes to the matter of the quality of their humus. So much so they are unable to imagine there are higher realms of humus out there. Instead, they settle for stuff that, to me, tastes like it came out of a field ration.

And then my best friend from Israel Whatsapp-ed me the above image.
Allow me to translate the image: he is eating his favourite humus, or at least the humus that used to be his favourite at the time he and I used to visit this particular humus joint (Tel Aviv’s Humus Ashkara) twice a week. Although I doubt my stomach would manage the exercise today, that old habit of ours lasted several years, concluding when one of us decided to leave the country.
He sure knows how to rub it in.


Image copyrights are retained by my friend. Reproduced here with permission.

Friday, 29 November 2013

A Massive New Santa

With Christmas already in sight, we’re at that time of year when the good old Santa question is back in the air. As in, do we lie to our kids and tell them Santa’s coming and all that crap?
My opinion on the matter has been mentioned here, more than once or thrice. However, I’d like to share an angle I’ve recently read from my colleague Sam Harris.
One of the arguments often laid against people like yours truly is that by depriving children of the Santa myth I am making their Christmas less exciting. “Robbing his childhood away” was, I believe, the exact accusation thrown at me by my own parents in law with regards to the way I chose to handle Santa with my son. Because I chose to tell him the truth.
Thus far I looked at things from the point of view arguing that it is better to avoid lying and stick with the truth. Harris, however, goes the other way around: if we are to justify lying with the excitement it creates, then way aim as low as Santa? Why not bring out the big guns, and go with something properly exciting – stuff like fire breathing dragons? In other words, why should we accept the rather boring imagination, when looked upon through contemporary eyes, of those from the era that invented Santa? As in, people who lived before the car, computer or the cell phone? Surely our lies can step up with the times!
I discussed Harris’ arguments with my son and we are both in agreement. This Christmas, children all over the world will be receiving their gifts from Commander Shepard. The piloting skills of Joker and the Normandy's stealth will be utilised to ensure Shepard manages every household on the planet during one night. Garrus will perform all the necessary calibrations while Liara would support Shepard’s gift drop offs through her advanced biotic skills.
And if you happened to be a bad kid, you will get a visit from a Reaper instead.

This Christmas, we will all be going to Mass. Effect.


Image: Frankly, I do not know who the artist I should credit for the Santa Liara image is. That said, it is obvious its copyrights are held by Bioware.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Grey Shopping Warning

It’s that time of the year when many consume themselves into a life of shopping. So I thought this is the right time for me to contribute to Aussie consumerists' awareness through a personal story of mine. The story of how I did not get my Sennheiser Momentum headphones.
The thing about these headphones is that they are stupidly expensive. At the time they were generally selling at Australian shops for $450, although through careful shopping one could cut the price down to $400. However, it became clear through looking around that one can do much better through a grey import. That is, buying from someone who brought the headphones to Australia themselves, instead of through the official Sennheiser importer. In plain English this means buying from someone that made sure I got my hands on headphones originating from Hong Kong.
So off I went to the Internet, looking for a grey importer of choice. That, on its own, proved to be a pain. There are many price comparison websites and online shopping search engines out there, but all of them fail when it comes to price quotation. As in, I’d go into a shop that promises to sell me the headphone for $250 (hooray!), only to find they charge $150 shipping (boo!). And let us not discuss the inclusion of shops that will only accept such esteemed payment methods as Western Union money transfers. So yeah, a lot of work is required till a decent looking candidate is found.

I thought I found one in the shape of ValueBasket. They had a decent price on both product and shipping, they had a .com.au website, an Australian phone number and an Australian address. What could go wrong? As it turned out, a lot.
Two weeks after purchasing the item online I got my headphones delivered by courier. The matter of the two weeks wait aside, the problem was I did not get the headphones I ordered. You see, the Momentums come in two shapes: the original brown colored one, that no one wants to come nearby anymore, and the much coveted red and black one which I had ordered. Guess which color headphones was delivered to me?
Although I cannot prove it, I have a strong suspicion this was not an innocent mistake. Especially when my first query was answered by a “we would be willing to offer you a cleaning kit as compensation”. WTF is a cleaning kit and why would I want one?
Thus started an ordeal of emails and phone calls. After a week or so I thought I had a written agreement from ValueBasket which said I will return the headphones to their Australian address via Australia Post, and they will refund me for both the headphones and the return postage costs. I did my part the next day; ValueBasket certainly took their time with theirs.
After several weeks of emails that always got answered with refund promises but never an actual refund I was fed up. I filed a dispute with PayPal. Yet, how shall I put it? If I were you I would not put my trust upon the staff of this bruised reed that is PayPal.
First, PayPal could only return the funds I had paid through them, which means I was not able to ask for my return shipping costs. Second, and more importantly, it was clear PayPal never bothered reading my complaint in detail: even though by now I had returned the headphones and ValueBasket acknowledged it, PayPal came back to me insisting I provide proof of return. Further, they insisted the return costs are one me, a peculiar and bewildering call: what if, for argument’s sake, I had ordered a toothpick and ValueBasket sent me a battle tank instead? Would I have to return the tank at my own cost, too? Why should I pay the price of ValueBasket's [intentional, in my opinion] mistake?
Anyway, after a bit of bickering PayPal refunded me for my original payment. All that was left was for me to receive a refund for my return shipping costs back from ValueBasket, as per their original promise. Should be simple, shouldn’t it? Especially as we were talking $12?
Well, it wasn’t simple at all. It took almost two months and north of twenty emails from my direction till I got the promised refund. In the process I learned three important lessons:

  • First, I learned an Australian phone number is worthless when it clearly transfers you to some overseas call centre. Especially one that does not always bother to answer calls.
  • Second, I learned a physical Australian address does not really matter. When I looked to have Australian Consumer Affairs authorities involved, and had a deeper look into ValueBasket, it turned out that without an Aussie ABN there is not much that can be done in the way of enforcement. ValueBasket is not an Australian retailer and making it play Aussie Rules is difficult.
  • And third, I learned the only real weapon at my disposal was perseverance. It really did come down to me nagging ValueBasket to the death, which I had successfully done.

What should you take from account?
The lesson is to only deal with grey importers with good track record. While not everyone is as reliable as Amazon, grey importers tend to belong to the opposite end of the scale more often than not. Do your homework; if I had done mine I would have discovered many people complaining in various online forums about ValueBasket sending them the inferior version of the product they had ordered. I might have also noticed articles such as this one, warning consumers that a .com.au website does not in itself guarantee much.
Me, I am going to stick with reputable grey importers. Take Kogan, for example: their own products can be dodgy, no doubt about that; but as a grey importer of, say, Apple products, they are fine. At least until you need to make your warranty claim, an Apple iGadget is an Apple iGadget. Even if it comes with an aftermarket charger because Hong Kong uses different plugs to Australia.
Hope you will learn from my lesson. Happy consumption season!

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Costco Special

As sad as it may sound, we are definitely an Aldi family. As testified by Aldi being the first ever brand name my son was aware of, we buy the bulk of our groceries there. We do so for good reasons: the quality is good and the prices so significantly lower that buying at “regular” supermarkets has turned into a vomit inducing affair.
There is more to Aldi shopping than groceries, though. Wander around our house and you will see many an Aldi artefact, from plates to a hammock and a trampoline. These are the Aldi specials, items that come on sale for short periods and then disappear. And these Aldi specials are special: while some proved too lacking in quality, others revolutionised our lives. An Aldi DVD player carried the bulk of our home entertainment duties back when DVD players were expensive; an Aldi set top box had introduced us to digital TV. The list goes on, but the point remains: through their low prices and a very generous return policy, Aldi specials make trying new things out cheap and easy. So much so that more often than not, we choose to fully embrace that new special.

Which brings me to discuss Costco.
This past weekend we visited Costco again, after not doing so for six months. It’s not that we dislike Costco, it’s just that it’s all too hard. Between the crowds and the parking situation, one needs something special to justify the venture. But we did so anyway on Sunday.
As it turned out, we did so in the company of many an Australian. We arrived less than five minutes after the shop opened and already the parking lot was generally full. By the time we made it to the tills, a couple of hours later, the queues were so bad they snaked three quarters of the way back into the depths of the shop.
Probably the result of my experience at Israeli queues, I hate queuing up and generally do my best to avoid the experience. However, this was your classic Aussie queue: people were nice to one another, exchanged jokes and such, and allowed me to both ponder and play with my phone. Just to make it clear, absolutely no one was attempting to pull an overtaking, claim they are only here for a prescription, or pretend they’re unfamiliar with queuing etiquette. Given the hundreds of people involved here, this is nothing short of amazing.
It was while queue pondering that it occurred to me. There is a reason why Costco is as popular as it is in Australia, and that reason is closely to do with our Aldi specials experience: to the average Australian consumer, Costco is a single giant repository of Aldi specials!

With that conclusion in mind, I believe it is clear Australia’s traditional players are in trouble. Clearly, Aussies are growing more aware of the availability of good stuff for less; therefore, the likes of Target and Myer will have to adapt. They can either do it through pricing, specialisation or focus on exclusive brands. However, as long as they’re on business as usual mode while Costco continues expanding, they are doomed.


Image: Two shoppers admire a very Costco sized Teddy Bear (yours for $200)

Monday, 25 November 2013

Breaking Bad


As usual, I am late to the party. But what a party it is!


Image copyrights: Breaking Bad

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Old Man's Throat

Portrait: 260/365 "Down"

After more than six months, I shaved my beard today. Summer is on our doorstep and I thought I'd see what things look like on the other side. After all, at any point in time I'm only four days or so away from having a beard.
So what do things look like from this side? Well, I can tell you that the throat staring at me on the other side of today's shave looks different to April's. Saggy-ness wise, this one is an older man's throat.
On the positive side: my face is so smooth!


Image by Jens Vilhelm Rothe, Creative Commons license

Friday, 22 November 2013

Was it worth waiting for?


Finally, after many months of waiting, I put my hands on the iPad Mini I was waiting for such a long time. Waiting, because I considered a Retina display mandatory (and I do apologise for adopting Apple’s marketing language). So, given all the buildup, what do I make of this new toy?

Since I am who I am, I will start with the negative. And the negatives started with the acquisition of said iPad, which at first I tried to order online through Apple. That turned out to be quite horrific: I tried to order the iPad and have it delivered to an Apple shop, as I read I could do, but was unable to find the option. Then I called Apple to complain, informing them my problem is with their courier services and my inability to dedicate a working day to the pleasures of said courier. So, what did Apple do? They compensated me with a free cover. Only that this cover, too, was to be delivered via courier and require my mandatory presence.
So I cancelled my order and called an Apple shop to ask how I can get an iPad delivered there. After several calls (!) I found this link that worked some times and didn’t some other times. But eventually I got it to work and I got my iPad. I even got that compensation cover, which – despite all the notes about mandatory presence and the need to sign things – was just left at work’s reception. Bad form, Apple.
Having the iPad in my hands made what is by far its worst aspect clearer: the price. This new iPad Mini is exuberantly expensive [yet this idiot went ahead and bought one].
The next thing I can tell you about this new iPad model is to do with its screen. Sure, it’s sharp and all, but being a heavy iPad [3] user already it was also obvious the Mini's picture is not on par with that of its bigger brothers and sisters. In other words, things look dull. I’m rather surprised it took the likes of Ars Technica almost a week to report on this deficiency, given its glaring presence.
Last in this list of negatives, but not least, I would like to condemn Amaysim. This otherwise brilliant mobile provider will not allow iPad users to use its 3G connection (Amaysim does not have 4G) for tethering purposes. I’m quite disappointed there, as I had plans on using my new iPad as a wifi hotspot: while nowadays any smartphone will act as a wifi hotspot, tethering butchers their batteries faster than one can tweet “Jack Robinson” over their wifi. An iPad, on the other hand, sports a much more substantial battery. Bad form, Amaysim.


OK, so now for the positives.
And the positives are simple: this iPad Mini is exactly what I have been looking for!
It is a brilliant tool for work, no doubt about it. Coupled with a good Bluetooth keyboard and some fine software (I will warmly recommend NoteSuite), it does everything I need and does it extremely well. Note taking is a pleasure: not only can I type stuff in, I can also add sketches, photos, audio and video. And it’s all maintained for me in one place, backed up, sorted, searchable and easily retrievable. Add to that the iPad Mini’s ultra portability, and you’d be right to question the need for a work desktop/laptop.
I will expand a bit on the matter of the keyboard. My keyboard of choice is the Zagg Mini 9, which is supposed to act as a case as well as a keyboard. The keyboard part of it is more than fine, it is excellent, allowing for quick and easy typing as well as providing special keys that make playing with certain iPad features a pleasure. I’m talking keys for the home button, cutting and pasting, volume and playback control.
The Zagg's case side of things isn’t that great, though. In fact I find it abysmal. The iPad just won’t fit! I can push it in using more force than I would like to, but even that will only keep the iPad there until the next time I flap the case shut. Then, when it’s closed, it is not 100% closed; and it wasn’t long before I noticed how the slightly opening and closing lead has the iPad turning on and off at an alarming rate. A rate that, surely, does not do my iPad much good.
I looked around for other keyboards but was unable to find one that does better keyboarding without taking me further towards bankruptcy than Apple already did. So I implemented some high tech and used an elastic band to keep the case shut while moving about. Then, however, I received the Apple compensation case, which turned out to be quite good; so now I just carry the Zagg separately and balance the Apple covered iPad on it for typing. Sounds awkward but it works well enough, as the photo shows.

So there you have it. The new iPad Mini has its issues, but it is also a complete game changer for work. As much as it already was a game changer for media consumption.
If you ask me, the real question to ask is whether to get the Mini or go for the larger but now of similar form iPad Air. The latter is something special, as special as the Mini should have been in the first place; I suspect it would be a better choice for most people.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

In My Little Town

Nothing but the dead and dying
Back in my little town
Simon & Garfunkel


We recently learned that the local council run childcare centre my son had attended for four years will be shutting down at the end of this year. This news saddens me a lot.
We have fond memories of the place. It was fairly obvious to us it offered superior quality care to all other childcare centres we have seen (and we have seen some). It had wonderful staff. And, more to the point, it offered us an opportunity to go to work while confident our son is being well looked after.
The latter should not be dismissed that easily: it is not easy to find good childcare nowadays, or even not that good childcare. The closing down of such facilities does not only mean lost carer jobs, it also means parents - particularly full time working parents - will not be able to go to work, too.
As usual, women will be the ones most hurt by this move.

And all for what?
Two years ago, we were told the council cannot afford to maintain the childcare centre.
Parents protested and organised to prove the council wrong. Surprised by the popularity of their plea, the soon to face an election council decided to suspend and potentially undo its previous decision.
The elections came with the childcare centre being high on its agenda. Perhaps because of that very matter, the former mayor was not reelected; one of the new mayor's core promises was to keep the childcare centre running.
Obviously, the new mayor failed. Why? Because, to quote the local council, the local council would have to provide an extra $2000 per child per year to keep the centre running. Pull your calculators out: If we are to assume the centre hosts 40 kids, we are talking about $80K a year. That is probably the cost of a single local council employee; it's a cost that could be mostly covered through marginal fee rises, too.

Clearly, someone is pulling the wool over our eyes.
In other words, it is clear the local council is closing down the centre because of some other agenda. If I were to speculate, I would put my money on them wanting to sell the land to a developer friend of a council member. Regardless, the council's persistence with its agenda of closing the centre down, spanning across both sides of an election, is to be admired.
If only they could persevere that way in helping residents instead of screwing them up.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Crab Juice

Bubble Crab

The sharp eyed amongst thee might have noticed already that my reviews blog has changed its address and is now to be found at www.crab-juice.com. Not only did it change its address, it changed its name accordingly.
Why Crab Juice? It started out with a Simpsons joke, but it caught on. Over the years I found myself using the phrase alarmingly often, to the point it became associated with me. So I thought, hey, why not?
I wanted to get a ".com.au" address, but these turned out to be more expensive. Also, Hover, my domain registrar of choice, does not protect the privacy of ".com.au" domain holders; so I went with a conventional ".com". Alas, crabjuice.com was already taken, so I settled with the clearer crab-juice.
Technicalities aside, I will be gradually revising the themes of my reviews blog as per its new culinary title. I do not intend to change past posts, though, so I guess some confusion will prevail.
For now, feel free to enjoy reading this revolutionary drink's reviews.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Reflections on Reading Glasses

eyeing vernal falls

With the bit of money left in my private health insurance allowance for optical aids this year, $40, I went and bought myself backup reading glasses. In contrast to my primary pair, which cost around $400, this time around I spent – you don’t need to guess - $40.
What did I get for $40 ($6.20 out of pocket)? I got a non branded metal frame and the same lenses as the order of magnitude more expensive glasses had. Thought I’d mention it, in case you  were thinking there is some sort of correlation between the cost of manufacturing glasses and the price we are asked to pay for them. There isn’t.
Also, in case you still harbour positive feelings towards Australia’s tax payer supported private health system, consider that I could have done with much lesser glasses than I initially did. But I didn’t, because it didn’t cost me much out of pocket. Anyone telling you that privatisation is the only way to create efficiencies deserves a lobotomy.

Anyway.
I chose to experiment with these new backup glasses of mine. I went for a thinner frame with narrower lenses that will allow me to easily look the world above them for long range scanning (viewing anything further than a meter or two through reading glasses creates a very fuzzy, headache inducing world). And being that I was on a tight budget, I skipped the anti reflection coating; since that was an expensive item before, I thought it was important to see just how valuable this coating really is.
Now I can report: if you are thinking of using your reading glasses in front of a glaring screen and over long periods of time, get your glasses coated with anti reflection coating. It matters! It matters with the neon lighting at the office, and it even matters when reading on my iPhone in a dark environment. The difference in eye fatigue is so noticeable I could not bear to use the my new backup glasses at work; within a minute I rushed back to my “old” pair. I do have to add a disclaimer, though: my old pair’s larger area lenses meant its coating is much more effective than any coating on the new glasses narrower lenses could ever be.
Where the new glasses work well is normal reading on the train. My Kindle screen uses e-ink, so it’s not glowing; having the advantage of being able to easily look up the station I’m at and quickly go back to reading my book felt nice. Similarly, when paying Lego with my son, the ability to easily shift between short and long ranges matters. Also, at home on my Mac, the new glasses proved good enough for working under our gentle LED downlights and a high quality IPS screen.
So, if you are after some conclusions, here they are. If you seek reading glasses for prolonged work in front of a computer, especially at an office environment, I would recommend larger area lenses (as opposed to the currently fashionable narrow lenses) and I would dearly recommend anti reflection coating. However, for more casual use where you need to shift between long and short range viewing, thin lenses have the advantage.


Image by Thomas Levinson, Creative Commons license

Monday, 11 November 2013

A Note on Flickr

Since I know of many people are not into Flickr simply because they could not be bothered with creating a Yahoo account, I would like to note that for several years now one can put one’s hands on a Flickr account using one’s Google of Facebook credentials. [Indeed, the primary reason most people do not bother with a Flickr account is to do with them using Facebook as their photo album of choice. But don’t get me started on Facebook and trusting one’s photos with them.]
Thus, for example, if you know me and were after access to my Flickr photos that are not public, all you need to do is establish yourself a Flickr account using your credentials of choice and tell me about it. As in, tell me how you chose to refer to yourself on Flickr.

While on the matter of Flickr, I would like to note a recent tweak that made the service much more valuable to smartphone owners (at least iPhone ones; I don’t know if, at this stage, the same applies to Android).
I assume that by now you are aware that Flickr allows any user to have 1TB of photos uploaded to its servers for free. I severely doubt you’d be able to manage a significant fraction of that capacity with all your photos uploaded.
The recent trick is now with this setting available on the iPhone Flickr app. It allows its users to have their photos, all their photos, automatically uploaded to Flickr for safekeeping (you can set it up to only upload via wifi). All photos uploaded this way have their privacy setting triggered so that only you can access them, at least until you go and change that setting on the photos you want exposed.
Think about it: between its 1TB capacity and this auto upload, your smartphone’s photos are all going to be backed up in the cloud. Automatically, care free. That's much better than Apple's iCloud or even Dropbox can offer.
Of course, cloud backup comes with a price: essentially, you’d be sharing your photos with the NSA; but then again, if you backed your photos to the cloud already, any cloud, chances are the NSA has already seen your latest holiday snaps. I suggest swamping them with as much material as possible instead.
And just to make sure this post gets the NSA’s attention and wastes their time: #terrorism #BinLaden


Image copyrights: Flickr

Saturday, 9 November 2013

How to increase office productivity and happiness

Office Rescue

I recently identified the 8 hour working day to be my biggest enemy in life. I intend to be persistent and further pursue the point in another post.

This Monday, the eve of Melbourne Cup day, my office throughput has been about twice that of my normal working day. I can provide the numbers that allow me to make this claim but prefer not to do so in public. The important thing is: I wasn’t even trying to be extra productive! Being the eve of a holiday and the state of mind that brings along, we even went for lunch and schmoozed around.
This increase in work throughput reminded me how much more productive I am when I work from home. Using the same numbers I won’t be citing here, I deliver about three times more at home than I do at the office.
Why is that the case? Why was I so much more productive on Monday and why am I even more productive working from home? The reason is office distractions. This Monday the office was mostly empty, with the majority of people preferring to bridge the Monday so as to have an extra long weekend. That meant I could work without breaking my concentration every time someone passed through the corridor just ahead of my desk; it meant I did not receive emails and phone calls to break my work flow with; and it meant I did not spend my time at meetings, most of which turn out to be redundant time wasting affairs.
Yet whenever I ask to work from home I feel as if others think I’m trying to get an extra day off.

All I am trying to do here is point a middle finger in the face of people who think the normal working day is the word of God, those who twist their noses at people late to work, and those who talk behind the backs of colleagues leaving early early. [Adequate disclosure: as the father of a school child, I am a member of all infringing clubs.]
Office productivity has something to do with the amount of time spent at the office, but not everything to do with the amount of time spent at the office. We could, and we should, revise the way our daily work routine is shaped. For a start, it will help us increase our productivity. And as a side effect, it might help us lead happier lives (not that we would ever aspire for that, heavens forbid).


Image by banspy, Creative Commons license

Friday, 8 November 2013

Crab Juice [The Teaser]

Here’s something to tease you with:


An official announcement will come shortly. Or somewhat later.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Online Relations

#DiceLounge: Take online conversations offline to create depth. via @TheOneCrystal #SHRM12

A lot of people I know do not care about anything online. It seems the attitude is directly related to age, although there are obvious exceptions (yours truly included). Don’t get me started with what I think of people that dismiss the online altogether, out of hand; I suspect their culture will share a similar fate to the Neanderthals’. Yet even I am often taken by surprise when I realise there is more to the online than meets the eye.
The phenomenon that caught me recently is the realisation of just how much I care for certain things online. As in, people with whom my interactions have been limited to virtual means alone.
Asher Wolf has been mentioned here before for different reasons, but now I will state that I follow her personal affairs too. The adventures of this single mother trying hard to get ends meet are touching; just the other week she reported the death of her car, making it clear she could not afford a replacement. I was genuinely worried, but then relieved when a fellow Twitter follower offered her cheaper salvation.
Another Twitter acquaintance went through a personal drama upon flying from Melbourne to Canada with three kids and no adult companionship. That’s agony to begin with, especially given the kids’ age (young); but then her flights were delayed by 13 hours and I found myself thinking about it the whole day. I recently flew through similar distances on my own and it was hell, without delays or kids; doing it with three kids? Kill me quickly.
In the context of this post, what matters is the fact I genuinely care for people I have never met. What matters perhaps even more is the contrast between my feelings towards certain family members of mine who actively shunt the Internet and the(se people with whom I share significantly fewer genes. People who, in all likelihood, will dismiss me or worse) if they were to meet me in person; yet online we seem to have been able to form some sort of a friendly relationship. How can it be that we have been able to form such relationships in the first place?
I do not have an answer. I wonder if it has to do with the same clouding of judgement I used to experience before a blind date, where one good sentence from the would be subject caused a massive rise in expectations but then the balloon would instantly implode upon meeting in person. I strongly suspect face to face meetings with those online people would end in disappointment, at least for one side. I’m not talking of romantic aspects (I am totally disinterested there, thank you very much), just the sort of things you pick off a person when you meet them.
Which brings me to say that, given the evidence at hand, the importance of online relationships is very clear. They represent a fine opportunity to interconnect with the world in previously unexplored ways, opening up new avenues for meeting likeminded people and for learning from others [read here on the importance of interconnectivity]. That said, I suspect I will not be the only one to struggle with reconciling the differences between this type of a relationship and “real world” ones. At least I am given something to think about here, which is always good.


Image by Dice.com, Creative Commons license

Friday, 1 November 2013

Closing on Android

Android DevJam

Some three years ago you would have heard this iPhone user saying it would take something special for me to buy another iPhone. I was a happy advocate for Android. Eventually, though, my views changes and I stuck with the iPhone while getting in way too deep into the Apple eco system. So, what was that special thing that kept me with Apple?
It wasn’t anything in particular that Apple did, for a start. Apple is still a blood sucker of a company that does not do the minimum we all do and pay its taxes. No, my change of heart did not have much to do with Apple but rather everything to do with Google. Since the introduction of Google+ and the twisting of everything Google around it, doubts started creeping. Later, the change in Google’s privacy policies drove me even further towards minimising my interaction with this overreaching, info collecting, monster.
Yet Android still remained a bit of a crown jewel: an operating system that is not as nice to use as iOS but is certainly more capable, more flexible, and much cheaper to put one’s hands on. Most importantly, it was open source – who could argue with that?
Well, Ars Technica did. In this article they strip Android naked and show how, over the past few years, Google put all of its power towards effectively closing down this system. By now it is fully successful: one would be hard pressed to use Android without relying on Google’s own tools. The implication there is simple: there is not much of a difference between relying on Google for Android and relying on Apple for iOS. In effect, both are closed gardens; same crap by a different name.
There is a difference, though. Almost everything happening on an Android phone passes through Google’s servers. For example, this includes every notification sent to you upon receiving a new Whatsapp message. Google collects all this information about its users, probably knowing more about the users than the users themselves. Apple does the same, but there is a difference: Google will exploit this information while Apple, at least for now, regards keeping this stuff private to be an advantage. There is a slight difference there but an important one.
For this reason alone I would recommend iOS over Android to the majority of users. Obviously, there are some applications and there are power users with legitimate counter arguments. In the feudal relationship that is developing between us lowly vassal users and the great rulers of the cloud world, I prefer the lesser evil of the Apple rule. For now.
How I’d love for someone to come and offer us slaves an escape from these Dark Ages into the Renaissance we were promised back in those ancient times, three years ago, when everyone thought Google good and Android open.


Image by Braden Kowitz, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

An Aussie in Netflix

From laserdiscs through DVDs and Blu-rays, I used to be a big fan of the plastic disc’s ability to deliver superior picture and sound over their competition. Now, however, I am fed up; quality matters to me much less than it did in the good old days where I had time to myself. In contrast, being able to use my precious time to watch exactly what I want, when I want it is far more important. As is my growing lack of patience with the fallacies of physical media, from getting stuck in traffic acquiring it to being at the mercy of the previous Blu-ray renter’s whims when it comes to scratches and other physical deformities ruining the viewing experience.
This is why I thought I would venture out of Australia to explore the promised land. A land where, I was told, I can subscribe to one service where a measly $8 USD a month would allow me to pick from a catalog north of 10,000 titles of movies to stream at will at the time I want to sit and watch. In other words, I went looking for the Spotify equivalent in the realm of videos. As rumour has it, this service is called Netflix.
The comparison with Spotify is interesting, because ever since Spotify came into my life some three years ago it dominated my music listening while making me listen to music much more than before. Just like Netflix today, Spotify back then was unavailable at Australia and I had to jump through some hoops to get it; it paid off, the jumping, because having joined Spotify earlier on meant I was not forced to use it via Facebook (the way newer users are).
Spotify became so dominant that, as far as I am concerned, if your music is not on Spotify you do not exist. Can the same be said of Netflix? And more importantly, is Netflix really the answer to my video wet dreams the I made it out to be? Last week I set out to get my answer. Finally, I joined Netflix!
Following are my impressions of the Aussie Netflix experience thus far.

Architecture:
As I briefly above, Netflix is currently unavailable in Australia; it is not expected to be available any time soon. Given this reality, certain hoops have to be jumped through in order to access this geo-blocked service. Whereas Americans (and, for that matter, residents of other countries where the service is formally available) can utilise their smartphones, tablets, video streamers (ala Apple TVs), game consoles and computers to access Netflix material at will, we are severely limited.
Various workarounds allow the Aussie viewer to access Netflix through each of the above options, but getting there is not that easy and sacrifices have to be made. Since at this stage I wanted to see if jumping on the Netflix bandwagon is worthwhile in the first place, I chose the easy way out and focused on accessing Netflix through my computer’s browser.
There are many methods to circumvent Netflix’ geo-blocking. I went with the Rolls-Royce solution and used an American VPN, but this workaround comes at a price: my ADSL2+ service, normally capable of 9Mb/s speeds, is reduced to 5Mb/s or less.
I used my Mac to access the Netflix website, with its screen mirrored on my TV using an Apple TV. My browser of choice, Firefox, proved too prohibitive to use Netflix with due to all the protection measures I loaded it up with (Disconnet, NoScript etc). I could get around it but I did not see much reason to bother, so I went with my second choice of a slightly less protected Chrome browser. Upon playback, Netflix informed me it prefers Firefox or Safari, so I went ahead and used Safari. To be frank, I was unable to detect any difference in Netflix performance on either browser; I can tell you, though, that Netflix deploys plenty of web trackers on its users (sadly, this is the way of most websites nowadays), which suggests there is value in setting your browser up to protect your privacy.
In order to work and display video, Netflix insists on using Silverlight technology. Silverlight, in case you do not know, is/was meant to be Microsoft’s answer to Adobe Flash. In any case, it is a compromised piece of software that definitely offers a backdoor into one’s computer to any party wishing to make a bit of an effort there. It is very sad to see Netflix forcing Silverlight on its users, but it is also clear why they have to do it: DRM, or copy protection. Personally, I do not see why paying users have to be punished with such DRM given that it is not exactly hard to make your own pirate versions of anything Netflix has to offer anyway, either through Netflix or elsewhere. Silverlight, therefore, is a reflection of the way the copyright monopoly regards the average consumer. Indeed, I consider Silverlight a critical issue with my acceptance of Netflix.
In contrast to playing local videos using VLC, fan noise and other forms of huffing and puffing coming from my Mac make it very clear my computer was out for a workout with Netflix, to the point of making me think twice about watching Netflix on hot summer days. Macs are just too expensive for me to sacrifice this way! I went ahead and tried Netflix on my similarly specced Windows 7 laptop, a PC I’d have less reservations sacrificing on the altar of video entertainment. That solution did not work out well at all: on both Chrome and Firefox, Silverlight crashed seconds after I tweaked video quality to acceptable levels, rendering the whole viewing experience null. I do not know whether the fault is with Silverlight, Windows 7 or the PC being too incapable (again, it is of similar specs to my Mac), but the final outcome was less than impressive.
Which brings me to discuss picture quality, or quality of presentation in general, at length.

Presentation:
First for the easy part. Thus far, Netflix seems to have only supplied me with stereo soundtracks throughout (as opposed to 5.1). Fidelity was obviously far from the highest standards set by Blu-rays; it was more like good quality YouTube stuff.
Now for the picture. My first instinct, once all the initial buffering had gone through, was along the lines of “WTF”. Picture quality was abysmal, so on par with VHS as to to make it hard to read titles. I guess it would suffice for smartphone viewing, but definitely not on the home theatre big screen. There could be no way out of this one: picture quality was simply unacceptable. Surely, being as successful as it is, Netflix could offer more?
Some Internet searching later and I found my answer. First, there are Netflix account settings controlling maximum quality, probably there to protect your Internet plans; the default was the minimum. I switched to the maximum, which promises up to 3GB per movie.
That, however, does not affect much. I still needed to update the Silverlight settings in order to tell it to buffer at a higher rate. That did solve the picture quality issue, which now was more along the lines of sub DVD levels (but generally acceptable), albeit with a price tag. First, these manual settings have to be made again each time a new video is played, which implies every Netflix session has to start with a bit of a session of messing around with buffer settings. Second, raising the picture quality bar exposes the limitations of one’s Internet connection: set it up too high and you’d get your movie to pause occasionally for a round of buffering. One cannot blame Netflix with this, but one can look at other ways of dealing with them. Apple, for example, solves the same problem on its Apple TV by buffering for a significant amount of time before letting you start watching its iTunes movie.
The comparison with Apple is interesting for other aspects, too. There can be no doubt Apple offers far superior presentation to Netflix’, both in sound and picture. With iTunes you get 5.1 and you can choose between standard and high definition, both of which beat Netflix’ presentation and both working over the same Internet connection as Netflix.
iTunes also offers the latest and greatest movies in its catalog; can Netflix compete there?

Catalog:
The vastness of Netflix’ catalog is at the core of its promise to give its viewer any video it can name. Does Netflix take one to this promised land? In one word, no.
It would be a bit too evil on my behalf to dismiss things with a “no”. There are vast amounts of videos on Netflix, and it seems as if great care is taken to avoid overwhelming the user and offer them only material relevant to them. There is enough stuff in there to keep any viewer watching videos for the rest of their lives.
However, I could not avoid noting the quantity vs. quality difference. Yes, Netflix is full of stuff I wouldn’t mind watching. It is not, however, brimming with stuff I want to watch; I was able to find some here and there, but that’s it. If it’s recent releases you’re after, you will still have to make your way to your nearest Video Ezy or open your wallet wide for iTunes. The same applies if you’re after big name titles; I’m not even talking Star Wars big, but rather way below. For example, a search for Steven Spielberg will retrieve Tintin as the only proper movie on offer; similar results apply when searching for Arnold Schwarzenegger or even Simon Pegg. Netflix is simply not there.
To say I was gravely disappointed would be an understatement. Netflix’ catalog is a clear slap on the face for everyone who thought the copyright monopoly dared stepping up to modern times and abandon their ideas of forcing us to buy pieces of plastic. Clearly, they haven’t; Netflix’ inventory is the manifestation of their ongoing fallacies.
There are different ways to look at things, though. If, say, you are a parent looking for ways to entertain your children, then you will find endless hours of fun to be had with Netflix. If you are a regular cable viewer who likes to turn the TV on, find an acceptable channel and veg out, Netflix will deliver at a fraction of Foxtel's cost. The only reason why I regard Netflix negatively is to do with me being a discretionary viewer who knows what he wants to watch but does not have much time to watch it all; for viewers such as yours truly, the Netflix crippled by the copyright monopoly simply won’t do.

Overall Experience:
After covering the technicalities, I will attempt to answer the question of what is it like for an Aussie to use Netflix. In my case, what was it like for me to use Netflix on my Mac?
The answer is that it is a bit of a ritual that requires more technical expertise than the average user would accept. Of course, there are many ways to skin a cat, and many of the things I performed manually can be automated while other things I consider important will probably be overlooked by others.
Proceedings start with starting the VPN connection up, then the browser, then accessing Netflix. There I could choose to watch new stuff or to continue watching stuff I left off before (Netflix will keep track of progress for you). Once you picked your program of choice, the browser will load Netflix’ online viewer and buffer enough content to let you start watching. When the program starts, I usually react with disgust at the poor quality and quickly rush to my Mac to adjust the buffering rate to a better setting that would allow me to watch the rest of the program continuously without buffering breaks. I mentioned my computer huffing and puffing on Netflix’ behalf; if you intend to use a laptop for your Netflix adventures I suggest carrying its charger along for the ride, because battery power vanishes into thin air (as it does with most Flash content, for that matter).
The whole ritual comes down to us Aussies not being allowed on the Netflix bandwagon yet. Again, it is clear this is not because of any wrongdoing by Netflix, but rather because of restrictions imposed by the gods of the copyright monopolies. Which side you would like to find yourself on in this particular conflict is up to you.

Personal Verdict:
On paper, Netflix is great – the Spotify of video. But that only indicates at the quality of paper promises.
Netflix is a reasonably priced service delivering viewing solutions to virtually all possible platforms of choice. There can be no doubt the future of video programming lies with services such as Netflix'. However, for us Aussies the usability of Netflix' services suffers greatly.
It is not only the usability that suffers, though. On both catalog depth and quality of presentation, Netflix is knocked down by both iTunes and that other great content library I shall refer to as The Pirate Bay. iTunes is generally unacceptable for many a reason, starting with price; one iTunes rental will cost you as much as an entire month of Netflix. Where does that leave the Aussie viewer? I will leave you to draw your own conclusions, but state it is no wonder 37% of Aussies openly admit piracy.
Piracy is deeply related to Netflix. The major compromises in introducing vulnerabilities to one’s computer, the extra workout your computer will get (potentially raising Netflix’ cost due to shortening the intervals between hardware failures), and the general absence of A title quality offerings are all valid explanations to the public seeking alternatives the only way it could find. The music industry learned its lesson, more or less: where Spotify has been introduced, music piracy rates came tumbling down. There is no reason to pirate music when one can comfortably acquire 95% of what they’re after at the click of a button and for a reasonable price. The video industry is yet to reach that level of maturity.
Despite its pricing and its good intentions, I do not see myself continuing with Netflix past the one free month they gave me. Its product is simply not good enough.


Image copyrights: Netflix


17/1/2014 update: Since publishing this post I have changed my mind about Netflix. Read all about it here.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

My True Enemy

Banksy in Boston: F̶O̶L̶L̶O̶W̶ ̶Y̶O̶U̶R̶ ̶D̶R̶E̶A̶M̶S̶ CANCELLED, Essex St, Chinatown, Boston

The premises of this post are simple. They are the components of a simple equation, the equation that tells the story of my life.
On one side we have the things I like doing. On the other side I have the things I don't like doing, or worse - the things that threaten me. In the middle, standing between those two sides, are the things that prevent me from doing the things I like doing and draw me towards the dark side.
The things I like doing the most turn out to be simple things. Most of us don't realise it, but I do not need a fleet of Ferraris nor a Lear jet to lead a happy life. Sure, I'd like to travel around the world at will, but it is not the absence of a private jet that prevents me from doing so; and as for the Ferraris, what good are they? They are significantly worse than my trusty old Honda in every practical respect; and as for the vroom-vroom factor, I can lose my driver's license easily enough without a red devil.
Seriously, I'm not short of anything. I am healthy and I lead a healthy life with the people I love the most. The things I really need to keep me alive, from books to movies and video games, are there - in such quantities that I will never be able to pass through all the things I want to pass through even past my seventh reincarnation. And no, I see no evidence to suspect the possibility of even one more incarnation to this.
Looking at the other side of the equation, there is pretty much nothing to pose an immediate threat. If we ignore the matter of job security, I am well off in a country with some of the highest quality of living standards (if not the highest) and in the total absence of immediate existential threats (no matter what fear mongering politicians try to tell us). Life, in other words, is good.

No problemo, then? I have all the things I want and I don't have anything threatening me?
Well, yes problemo. I do have a problem, and that problem is that I do not have the time to do the things I really like doing; the bulk of my time is spent at work instead, leaving me with just the shreds of the day to enjoy life with and the weekends to charge my batteries up with in between running errands I am unable to run during the week. Because of work.
But do I really need to work as much as I do? The short and sad answer is yes. I need to because if I didn't, I would not have the financial means that allow me to live this carefree life I have the potential of living. And no, the way the whole thing is set up, I cannot "choose" to work a tad less; like many professionals before me, it is pretty much a case of take it or leave it - take the whole working day or leave for a career at Centrelink, augmented by some street begging.
On my side, I will argue - in a manner that is likely to disqualify me from future job opportunities once my would be employer Googles up my name - that I, we, do not truly need to work an 8 hour day. I argue, and there is plenty of evidence to support me, that we are only productive for a fraction of this time, and that the rest of our work time is absolute waste - a relic of industrial revolution era slave work agreements. The trend will only get worse through technology and automation replacing humans in more and more areas.

What am I saying here?
I'm saying that I concur with this analysis of our state of being, or rather the state of being of the average Western professional. I am saying my fiercest enemy is not a Bin Laden nor some other bearded Muslim in a cave (my apologies to all Muslims and bearded men; you happen to be the easiest stereotype to pick on). My one true enemy is the eight hour working day, that social convention we have been groomed to accept without question, the assumption of which leaves me constantly exhausted and unsatisfied.
It is so high time we stop being the slaves of our own conventions.


Image by Chris Devers, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

On the Online Distribution of Memes

When anthropologists from the 22nd century (and later) research cultural development during the early 21st century, they might want to check my morning experience with Twitter.
It started with me reading a column by Yossi Gurvitz. I tweeted one of the items in Gurvitz’ article to my Twitter followers, currently numbering at about 200. My tweet was picked by Asher Wolf, who retweeted it to her army of 30,000 followers. Many of her followers retweeted me again, and eventually Graham Linehan (you might know him as the guy behind The IT Crowd) retweeted it to his 300,000 followers.

Overall, my tweet of an article identified by someone else in Israel had been repeated more than 50 times and [probably] read by a six digit crowd spanning across the globe. Think about it technology wise: a person that hardly anyone heard of, yours truly, managed such distribution in the manner of an hour. No wonder newspapers are dying.


Image by Scott Beale, Creative Commons license

Monday, 21 October 2013

Why Online Privacy Matters

Last week I posted here on why one can no longer take online anonymity for granted anymore, mentioning that this lack of anonymity is one of the core reasons you will not find me using the services of Facebook and why I do my best to minimise my footprint with Google. I did not, however, address the even bigger question: why do I care so much about my online privacy?
This question has often been posed to me. You are not a spy nor a criminal, I am [rightfully] told, so why shouldn’t you use Google even when you know there is a price to pay in privacy?
I will not attempt to provide a philosophical answer to this question; I will leave that to esteemed colleagues such as Rick Falkvinge. I will, however, point out this “nothing to fear, nothing to hide” approach is something no one would accept, not even the people who have adopted it as their mantra. As in, call me to come and install a webcam at your toilet if you disagree with me; somehow, I doubt you would. We all know exactly what takes place at everyone’s toilets, yet we all prefer to leave these matters between us and our toilet paper roll. What I’m trying to say is that at our core we all value privacy, it’s just the some of us value it more than the rest. Or perhaps some of us are more aware of its value than the rest.
At the much more down to earth level, I have decided that I would like to be the arbiter of what I would like to keep private and what I would like to share. This is exactly why I choose my preferred social media platforms: both this blog and my Twitter account allow me full control over the information I would like to make public. That said, it is clear Twitter works behind the scenes to try and monetise me, so who knows what things would be like in the near future; Twitter already makes public too much information concerning the people I like to associate myself with. Still, relatively speaking, I am still in control.
Being in control is important because of the rather fickle way in which identity is established in Australia. One does not need to know much about me in order to do many things on my behalf, such as apply for credit cards or health insurance. The same applies to tampering with my existing financials and health arrangements. Not that I am calling for more rigid identification measures, such as national ID cards to be introduced; I do not think we can trust the state (and by now we know Australia is in full cooperation with the NSA when it comes to tracking its citizens), nor do I think these measures offer any safety improvements. On the contrary.
This is why I tend to give away false details whenever someone who has no business knowing asks me for information that's none of their business. And I can tell you that over the past few years I have been getting many more birthday greetings on my false birthdays than I do on my genuine one. It is quite charming to feel so loved all year long, though; I warmly recommend the habit.
At the even more down to earth level, keeping my privates private can have measurable impact on my wallet. Check out this research, showing how information collected on us through seemingly innocent means can have a bite when we are identified for who we really are from “annonymised” data.
In this particular case, the information we provide slap us in the face when it comes to paying for our car insurance. One can argue, and not without reason, that determining car insurance fees as per one’s actual driving performance is much fairer than the current scheme. However, consider the situation in Australia, where supermarket (and pokies) giant Woolworths has now positioned itself in big data and insurance, too. Woolworths have recently announced that their data analysis shows people who buy red meat and milk at the supermarket tend to be more reliable drivers (see here). Where would that leave those of us who are lactose intolerant?
It is just a matter of time before big data collected on us starts slapping us with the whip of financial hits. And because no one can argue with hard facts, such as Woolworths’, legislation allowing companies to do so will be introduced with the most minimal of lobbying efforts. And what would happen then?
Until we get to that point, though, I would like to be the one controlling what bits of personal information about me are out there and what’s safely with me. It's getting harder all the time for me to be able to do so; on the comforting side, awareness is the first step in the right direction. In a world where we don't know where the next blow would come from, but we know with absolute certainty we will get blown, that is the only rational option.


Photo by hobvias sudoneighm, Creative Commons license