Friday, 28 June 2013

Robert Lucas Blues

Once upon a time, when I was still a full time audiophile and the Internet was in its infancy, I wrote a review for Robert Lucas' aptly named blues record, Completely Blue. In that review I claimed this album from this rather elusive artist is, in my opinion, the best blues album I have ever heard.
I can discuss how I got to hear of this particular album and this particular artist in detail, but suffice to say my exposure came through Lucas recording through an audiophile label, Audioquest. The more interesting story is that as a result of my review I got Lucas' agent to contact me to ask if I really meant the compliment; I explained that I did, and in the course of our email correspondences we got to talk about this and that and what the agent thought would be good for Lucas' future career.
Years went by. I am no longer the audiophile I used to be; I have a family, a mortgage, I moved to the other side of the globe, and I hardly get the time to properly listen to music anymore. In many respects I am quite different from the person I used to be. But yesterday, as I was sick [again!] at home, I foraged through Spotify collection of long forgotten Audioquest recordings and stumbled upon Lucas'. I hit play and listened to his I Miss Being High, a song about you-know-what, and immediately recalled how much joy Lucas' songs about food and being fat brought me. I continued listening through sheer delight; the thought I had in my head after that album and Luke and the Locomotives finished playing were along the lines of "after all these years, this is still the best blues album I have ever heard".
Then I read Spotify's biography of Lucas, and found he had died of drug overdose back in 2008. My thoughts returned to his I Miss Being High, a song that had many a friend laugh (not to mention some nice memories with female friends these laughs were partly responsible for). I realized that the sad reality is that the song was probably more than a laughing line for Lucas himself.
But I still have his music and I still love it. It's my kind of blues.


Image: Completely Blue by Robert Lucas

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Stereo Types

midnight train

Allow me to systematically assess the transport related evidence at my disposal.

State #1 (normal state): Yours truly in Australia
  • The last seat in the carriage to be taken is usually the seat next to me.
  • I only need one hand to count the number of times a woman sat next to me on the train when other seats were still available.
  • I often get scared looking stares on the train. Especially since I started bearding up. And especially when I unzip my bag (usually for the purpose of getting my Kindle out).

State #2 (recorded during April): Yours truly in Israel
  • People seem to sit next to me on the bus just as often as they seemed to sit next to anyone else.
  • People stopped me, asking for help with navigation, at a rate averaging three times an hour. Yes, I measured.

Given the above inputs, I am suggesting the following hypothesis:
Stereotypes are highly geographical. What counts at each location is what people are used to seeing, with people belonging to minority demographics tending to get rejected.
In other words, we feel comfortable with the common and the average and we fear the strange.


Image by Jonathan Warner, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Mama


One thing I was never quite good at, and one thing I don’t think anyone should be doing and expect to be healthy for it, is keeping things inside one’s stomach. Don’t ever ask me to keep a secret!
This post is therefore dedicated to something I have been keeping in my stomach for a few weeks now. At first I wrote a very angry would be post but then decided to censor it; then I hinted at it; and now I have determined that for any healing process to be able to take place I need to spill things off my guts first. So here goes.

The matter at hand is a follow up on the quarrel I have been having with my brother. To the benefit of those of can’t be bothered to read the link, I will cite here that he determined he’s not talking to me anymore other than on matters relating to our ill father. His decision was made on account of my views on Israel and the shame these views bring upon him and my family, my own wife included. [Unrelated note: this whole “I think you’re an idiot therefore I won’t talk to you about anything other than X” is bullshit; how can we talk to one another about anything when we totally lack respect for one another?]
The escalation point triggering this post is the involvement of my mother in this quarrel. It’s very simple, really: from the second I told my mother what took place between my brother and I she never bothered to hear any of the case’s evidence; she immediately labelled me an idiot and took my brother’s side.
Now, I have been listening to my mother calling me an idiot on a fortnightly basis, more or less, since I was six or so. I learned to live with that: at first I had to listen to lots of Pink Floyd music to compensate; later I learned to blame my mother for the faults she found in me; and even later I learned there’s this whole joke thing concerning Jewish moms. As in, I found out I was not alone.
There are, however, a couple of caveats to take note of when it comes to my tolerance of the current situation. The first is that the wheels have turned: instead of a dependent boy looking up to his mother, it is my mother who is now seeking my help. There is that much help, or a simple sympathetic ear, that I am willing to lend a person who keeps telling me I’m an idiot. Especially when I clearly disagree with the diagnosis (note it is clearly not my views that are labelled idiotic; it is me, the person). Thus I am rediscovering a deficiency in the Ten Commandments that Christopher Hitchens told us about years ago: they tell us to honor our mother and father; but what about parents honoring their children?
I promised a second caveat. Just like my brother before her, my mother took a step inside my own marriage and suggested that perhaps it was a mistake for me to marry a non-Jew. This was her attempt at explaining my views on Israel; to me, the mere act of throwing religion into the ring was a knockout blow. Obviously, my mother has little grasp of her son's world and where my allegiances lie: I detest religion on one hand and I certainly hold my non Jewish wife and son to be my number one interests in this world on the other. This sub-Jewish, and in effect (and in her view) sub-human, status that my mother classified my wife and by extension my son with is not something I can tolerate, not even from my mother. On the other hand I can say in my mother’s credit she probably lacks the capacity to fathom the potency of what she said. Then again, no one lost credit with me by pausing to think twice.
The problem is that in the shadow of all this arguing about nothing, really (remember, the point of contention was supposed to be my views on Israel, but there never was any discussion there), lies my sick father. While I am getting close to the point of willfully forgetting I ever had a family in Israel, he is not getting any better.

Monday, 24 June 2013

The First Movie I Did Not Watch


Last week Gib Van Ert, author of the recently reviewed A Long Time Ago, tweeted some warm words for my review. You know me, it always warms my heart to hear an author referring to my review. I therefore thought I would pay him back for his tweet. I would do so using his own currency: I would repay the author of a book about growing up in the shadow of the Star Wars franchise through my own previously untold Star Wars story.
First, an introduction. As mentioned before, I tend to regard The Empire Strikes Back as the first movie I ever got to see at the cinemas. I remember the experience quite vividly: my uncle took me to Shahaf cinema at Tel Aviv's beach on the first day of third grade to see the matinee show; the big pre-multiplex era cinema was empty with the exception of younger yours truly, my uncle and another mustached, bold person with a coat (in summer!); the Dolby Stereo sound hit home; my uncle measured the duration of the film with the stopwatch on his brand new and by that era's exotic digital watch, to record a creepy 2:00:01; and this particular escapade started a movie going career lasting a few years and featuring my uncle taking me to the movies on a weekly basis. That glorious period of my life ended when severe ill health prevented my uncle from attending the cinema anymore (cancer can do that to a person). The last movie we watched together at the cinemas was Star Trek 3: The Search for Spock at Ben Yehuda cinema, where he had to rush to the hospital half way through and my father came to pick me up instead. All I can say is that throughout our mutual career at the cinemas my uncle always measured the movie's duration with his stopwatch. It was our thing.
Now I know I watched me other films before Empire at the cinemas, but none left a lasting impression the way Empire did. Hence it being my official first, like it or not. However, Empire, as we all know, is a sequel. So, what is the story of Star Wars? Why wasn't that movie my first ever at the cinemas?
Let us take our time machine for a ride again.

I think I was seven years old when my parents came back home to report their latest night at the movies. I seem to remember my father saying they saw a really fun film and my mother saying they saw a nonsense film. Me, I went to bed when they came back home.
At the time I was attending speech therapy sessions. For years I couldn't pronounce Rs and Ls properly, generating Y sounds instead for both. By the time I got to school I managed the Rs but the Ls still challenged me; in order to avoid mockery and to prevent learning blockages, my first grade teacher - probably one of the best I ever had - recommended speech therapy.
Once or twice a week my mother would pick me up from school and instead of us going home we would take the bus to the center of Tel Aviv, alighting near where Tel Aviv cinema used to be. From there we would walk to the vicinity of Mugrabi cinema, where the speech therapy clinic was. This very nice young lady would play L games with me: I got to build a building block by block each time I pronounced my Ls properly but witness their demolition every time I fudged it. Not only did the sessions work, I also enjoyed them. La la la!
Anyway, during that inter-cinema walk to therapy we crossed a weird advertising area of a type I haven't seen for decades now: aligning the street were glass covered movie advertising boards telling us what's playing using small, perhaps 10" size photos. The weird thing about it was there were no cinemas around; it was just a cavity in between residential buildings.
I remember one of those photos very clearly: it featured this huge masked guy, dressed in all black, lifting this tiny guy, dressed in light colors, with one hand and thus strangling him. Both were surrounded by futuristic looking robot like people. I didn't know how to express my feelings, but that photo made me curious. I asked my mother about the film the photo came out of.
My mother told me this was the movie she saw with my father the other week, that movie that was all stupid. Forget about it, she said. This is not a movie for you. Maybe she said it because strangling is not something a child my age should be exposed to? That's what I thought at the time. I did remain curious, although I also took her word for it.
Needless to say, I grew up since. I grew up not to take anyone's word at face value, for a start. And I grew up to know that if someone tells me something is not right for me there's a good chance that something would turn out to be quite attractive. Especially if they cannot come up with a good reason why.
Let that be a lesson to all you kids out there: do not turn out to be like me. Do not miss your chance at Star Wars. Question everything!


Image: Star Wars


25/6/13 update:
I apologize for the awful editing/spelling/grammar on the original post. I do have an excuse: I wrote this post on my Windows PC, as opposed to my Mac; and the screen on that Windows PC is a pale shadow of the Mac's.
What I am trying to say is that my eyesight is at a stage where the quality of the screen can have significant impact on the quality of my output. There's a scary thought for you.

Second 25/6/13 update:
Gib Van Ert posted about this very post in his blog! Wow!
I learned my lesson: having failed my first go, I booked myself an eye test.

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Game of Consoles


Not that long ago, but prior to E3’s Xbox One revelation, I posted my views on the future of gaming consoles here. Basically, I said that because I hate Sony for a multitude of sins, and because it appears the Xbox will offer the better hardware, I will probably choose Xbox this time around. Oh, and I also added there are significant issues with both, which would mean I will be giving the PC option a hard look.
Now I am here to say that, more or less, my decision has been reversed. I am willing to forgive Sony for its past sins and I am very skeptical regarding the chances of the Xbox One ever entering my house. You probably heard about the reasons already through news coverage, but I will recite them here nevertheless because I regard them to be much more than gaming issues; I regard them as basic human rights.
The first of these is privacy. The issue is the Xbox One’s new Kinect camera, now forced by Microsoft as a mandatory always-on accessory. Seriously, Microsoft: do I really want an always on camera capable of telling what my pulse is to be situated in my living room? On a console that demands to talk to the Internet at least once a day or it would turn into paper weight? In its defense, Microsoft is claiming the camera will not be uploading stuff to its servers etc; but how long would it take till the Xbox is hacked? After all, security experts are already telling us to cover our laptops webcams (Apple and several others are excused; on Apple laptops, the light indicating the camera is working is hardware, not software, triggered).
The second matter is that of ownership. I know I’m a weirdo, but when I buy something I like to think that this thing that I bought is now mine to do whatever I please with. That includes sharing with friends, because that’s what friends do, and it includes being able to resell that something when I no longer want it. Microsoft has a problem with that; it introduced a heavy handed mechanism for lending games to friends (only those you declared to be friends before Microsoft more than 30 days ago), and they severely limited reselling options (only through named vendors). Forget about borrowing games from your nearest Video Ezy.
Perhaps worse is the matter of geo-locking. The Xbox is going to break new grounds and lock the device on a country by country basis, even [illegally] splitting up the European Union (see here). Since I buy most (probably all!) of my games overseas now, because Australia is priced to extort money from those ignorant enough to buy locally, buying the Xbox would mean paying much, much, more for games. And then not being able to recoup the cost later through selling them.

Now let’s compare the Xbox to the Sony PS4.
On the privacy department the PS4 is as invasive as the current PS3. Sure, you don’t have the Kinect, and the Kinect is potentially awesome, but hey – none of the games I truly like make use of the Kinect. At least at this point in time, the Kinect is a gimmick for attracting non gamers.
On the ownership department, the PS4 will not limit used games or sharing of games. Neither will it feature geo-locking on games, although its own online shop does price games differently per regions. I find it very sad to say it, but the PS4 stands to be my console of choice for reasons those big companies should be ashamed of.

I will reiterate this whole charade is putting the PC gaming option back on the map. I did some research to find more about PC gaming, and thus far I have two reservations:

  • Price: Gaming PCs cost triple the amount of consoles. You do get more for your money, but the cost is still hard to justify given there is nothing else I would like to do with a Windows PC that I wouldn't prefer doing on my existing hardware.
  • Sofa gaming: I game to relax; I don’t want to play sitting in front of a keyboard and a mouse. That's too much like work. Apparently, some PC games can be played with an Xbox controller but not all (notable exceptions from the official list of supported games include the Mass Effect series). I’ll put it this way: if a satisfactory solution for playing PC games on my sofa through my home theater system is found, I’d be knee deep in PC gaming land within days.

In conclusion, I have to add a critical caveat to all of the above arguments. At the end of the day what really matters are the games. For example, I thus stand a decent chance of eventually buying a Wii U for the sake of playing the latest Mario stuff. Thus far it seems the Xbox One is going down the path of familiar releases while the PS4 is winking towards independent developers. As in, the PS4 seems to be winning where it matters the most, too.


P.S.
Two days after I wrote this post, and just as I was about to publish it, Microsoft came out with its own announcement. Realizing they are losing the war by a downslide, they now announced a change of mind: the Xbox One will allow freedom of selling and sharing the way the current Xbox 360 does, and it will no longer require an Internet connection to be able to play single player.
While definitely an improvement (and let's not forget, it's not like Sony is a big humanitarian), Microsoft's announcement still leaves a lot to be desired: geo-locking and privacy, for a start.
Most of all, the question that begs to be asked is why did it all have to come to this? Why do these companies insist on enforcing vile DRM upon us while appearing to genuinely think we actually want this shit?

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

The Streisand Effect


The Guardian is telling us Barbara Streisand has publicly criticized Israel for the way it treats women.
In response, my mother and my brother have announced they are severing all ties with Streisand due to the shame she has brought upon the State of Israel with this announcement of hers. Further, they announced they will do the same with Israeli police and with the Israeli army (both its females and its males).

In case you fail to see the irony behind this post, read this.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

School's Out

Schools Out

My son’s first year at school, albeit at prep, is drawing towards its halfway mark. If I am to rate the experience thus far, the obvious conclusion is simple: a failure.
There are numerous symptoms to this failure. It starts with schooling itself, where my son shows little interest in his studies. We keep finding ourselves having to use The Force to get him to do his reading assignments, while the teacher is telling us our son’s behind. There is the social side, where we find our son is not making friends at school; often when I drop him at school I notice the kids form into gangs, with my son forming a one man gang. Most importantly, the failure is obvious in my son’s general outlook: our once interested and curious son is now tightly closed, focused on specific narrow interests which – obviously! – have nothing to do with school and everything to do with escapism.
I don’t put the blame on school, at least not entirely. Clearly this son of an antisocial of mine has learned a lot from his father. Clearly, my firm choice of not producing brothers and sisters for my son is having an effect on his behavior. And clearly we are losing the work/life balance war, with us not having as much time to dedicate directly to our son as his raising seems to require. Yet I still blame school, I definitely do: whereas last year my son seemed to flourish at kinder, this year he’s the opposite. Perhaps things are to do with the extra attention one gets at kinder, but I suspect the tight confines of school are having an effect on what used to be an imaginative boy.
It’s not like this should come as a surprise to me, of all people: I hated school too. I, however, was lucky to end up with good friends by second grade (after some significant misery in the first); and being physically big, no one messed with me, which is definitely not the case with my son. To put it another way, the problems of modern schooling about which I read in Free to Learn, if one can use the terms “modern” and “schooling” in the same sentence, seem to be coming to life. And at least at this particular point in time I am helpless for solutions.

As for my son, he does have a solution of sorts. As far as he is concerned, his entire life is now focused on gaming: Skylanders was a major craze and now it’s the world of Mario. He used to play games on the iPad for a while now, but ever since it dawned on him to dare to play by himself (he was too shy of losing before) he is going like a sonic boom. Clearly my reign as the household’s gamer supreme is coming to an end.
It is important to note this switch, the idea it is alright to try and play even when there is a chance of losing, hit when a friend from kinder (and now school) came for a visit with his older brother. The two played together, providing my son a live example that it’s not only parents that can play video games but peers, too. By providing this example those guests further emphasized my parental failures regarding the production of siblings and anti-socialism (as in, if we had guests more often then perhaps we wouldn’t have to wait so long till we had ourselves a gamer).
Thus my son is now able to escape the realities of school through his video games. That "cure" does come with its own negatives, like the obvious efforts we need to make in order to make him do anything else. Clearly, we will need to find the fine balance between gaming and responsibilities in the near future.
For now, though, I am probably the last person able to criticize my son and his choices.


Image by Rex Austin Barrow, Creative Commons license

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Encrypted Emails

Enigma Machine (Bletchley Park)

It took the efforts of the mighty NSA to put me down that path, but now you can send me encrypted emails if you wish.
You can also start encrypting your other emails. It's a bit of a pain, but it would ensure that your emails are only shared between you and their intended recipient (barring recipient side calamities). That is probably better than sharing between you, the recipient, the NSA, and whoever else the NSA forwards its information to. As in, we already know it forwards info to British and Australian services, which - given the way these organizations manage themselves - pretty much means you should expect your private emails to pop up on Facebook one day or another.
All you need to do is follow the advice of this friendly Ars Technica article. It explains how to do it on Windows and Mac. As for the iPhone, I am using a free app called oPenGP Lite.

For now, here is my public encryption key:

-----BEGIN PGP PUBLIC KEY BLOCK-----
Version: GnuPG/MacGPG2 v2.0.19 (Darwin)
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==
=fa6q
-----END PGP PUBLIC KEY BLOCK-----


Image by Tim Gage, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Trauma Land


I call it the Inverse Flag Law. The more national flags you see on display, the more f*cked up the country is. The reason is simple: the flags are up there for a reason; deep down there is a need with the population to compensate for something. Hence the more common the flags, the more issues with the local population. Think about what it means for the USA with its flag fetish and the whole pledging allegiance to the flag thing and you will know what I think of contemporary America.
Last time I thought of the Inverse Flag Law was upon arriving at Israel back in April. Sure, the reason for so many flags greeting me had to do with the visit’s timing, merely a couple of days following Independence Day. But still, at Melbourne you’d be hard pressed to know Australia Day is on unless you happen to stumble on a specific event; the majority regard it as a good excuse for a barbecue, not a flag waving affair. Melbourne aside, I do not recall seeing that many flags around back when I was an Israeli.
In Israel’s case, it seemed clear to me what the source of the compensation problem is. The Tel Aviv I got to see during this, the first time since I left when I was actually living like an Israeli for a fortnight, clearly seemed to me like an area in trauma.
Evidence for this trauma was all over the place. The ever evident friction between Jewish patients and Arab staff at the hospital my father was staying at. The friction between the Arab doctor welcoming my father to a rehabilitation center, evident when my father asked him where he’s from and the doctor answered Umm al-Fahm (an Arab Israeli town). The way in which the football TV show covering the European Champions League talked about an Umm al-Fahm amateur football club in terms of “us” and “them”, all the while both us and them are Israeli citizens. The total disregard to the way Prisoner X’s life was erased on the altar of state security. The evident friction between Israelis and black African refugees. The population that seems to be drip fed with news around the clock, in comparison to Australia where one can go about living a normal life without having the least bit of an idea what is going on around them. The leftovers from the army Chief of Staff’s Independence Day speech, where he said Israel will hurt its enemies. And the reaction to the news headlines at the time of my arrival, talking of rockets being fired on the city of Eilat: are we heading for war?
War? War with whom? All the constant stress and the media pounding drives a very basic existential fear. Yet as much as Israel is surrounded by people who clearly do not like it, it is also easy to see there is no conventional army force to pose an existential threat to the State of Israel. Matter of fact, there hasn’t been any for at least the past three decades. Yet the majority of the population is convinced at something this visitor for a fortnight could see clearly through. The result? An ever expanding defence budget (this year they’ve announced cuts; cuts to the amount that will be added to the defence budget).
Between holocaust memorials, independence days and the constant media cacophony it seemed as if everyone is so into it. It’s impossible not to be in it. Yet it is still crazy.

Why do I bother reporting the above impressions here again? Is it only to ensure my brother never speaks to me again?
No. I have to say that by now I don’t really care much for Israel. As in, I care for my friends and family, and at a general level I care for the whole of humanity to live long and prosper. But I am no longer troubled by Israel’s personal fate.
What does trouble me is the direction Australia is heading for and what we can learn from Israel in order to ensure Australia does not head in the wrong direction. After all, there is nothing unique to Israel that cannot be replicated elsewhere: all it takes is having rivaling demographics put together in a congested environment and a lot of heat. Such demographics are in no short supply at Australia, where 30% of the local population is not Australia born. Throw in Murdoch style media that serves those in power instead of informing the people and the risk of deterioration is even higher.
The real trouble is that we are already witnessing people reacting Israeli style to events. We are already informed of defense, police and government personnel referring to Muslims and refugees in ways not dissimilar to the ways the broader Jewish Israeli public refers to the Arabs it shares the country with. Me, I find that very scary.
Indeed, we have a lot to learn from the state of Israel.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

The Surveillance State

If you haven't heard of it by now you must have been on drugs these past few days. First The Guardian told us that NSA receives daily updates of all phone records made through Verizon; the following day both The Guardian and Washington Post told us that for seven years now the NSA has had open access to user data at Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Yahoo, Apple and more. In other words, this is the biggest invasion of privacy ever conducted.
So first, let me pat the back of whoever it was that leaked this news from the NSA and award him the Bradley Manning award for true heroism in the service of society. I do hope he doesn't end up the way Manning is.
By now the USA admits the act, no doubt leaving the Chinese government extremely jealous. Some poor excuses were offered, along the lines of The Guardian's coverage being inaccurate (rumor has it there were a few grammar errors there). Then we were told that only stuff outside the USA was tapped, which really comforted me because - as we all know - everybody outside the USA is an evil non North American scum; yet surely we cannot accept that explanation given the Verizon side of the story. And now Obama stepped in to feebly defend the charade.
Am I surprised by this whole affair? I cannot say I am. I have been following Asher Wolf on Twitter and paying attention to what Jacob Appelbaum has to say for years now. The difference now is that the benefit of doubt has been taken away from the USA: yes, it is undoubtedly a fucked up state. And the Obama administration? Well, it may be white as snow when compared to China's ruling party, but to quote the Pythons, I wouldn't even fart in its general direction.

Now that we accept the reality, the real question is what can we do about it. Given that the Internet companies through which we are being spied are pretty much at the core of almost everything Internet, how can we ensure we still have a shred of privacy?
There are options there but they are hard. Basically, one needs to move away from American Internet services. Want your web mail? Go with GMX instead of Gmail.
Second, you can always encrypt your own stuff. TrueCrypt is an open source tool that allows everything you want out of NSA eyes to remain so. Widely available for every platform, it raises an important question: every would be baddie with an ounce of wits about them would take care to encrypt their shit before sticking it on the web, so what is the point of this whole affair in the first place? It's not just me saying it: the Danish government admitted collecting all this big-big data turned out to be a useless affair. So what is the point?
The only worthy answer I can come up with is that the information is collected in order to establish a form of a surveillance state that even the Stasi could only dream of but which is now possible through technology. And with most of us carrying smartphones that allow the big Internet companies and telcos to know more about us than anybody else including our mothers, that vision of Orwell's is now not only a possibility - it is reality.
So, are we going to take this lying down? Sure, we can encrypt, but why should we retreat in the first place? Surely the American system, despite the Obama encumbrance, can still sort itself out? Well, all I can say is that now I am an even prouder than before member of EFF. Because I can trust them to take this as far as humanely possible in order to fix this affair; their track record speaks for itself.


Image: Electronic Frontier Foundation's Hugh D'Andrade

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

When it rains, it pours

 
I went through great pains to describe my gripes with Australia Post lately (see here and here). However, as bad as Australia Post has become, there is an even bigger problem to be dealt with: its competition is not doing any better. And when the entire market is doing badly then it is us, the consumer, that suffers; and it is the entire economy that is affected.
Case in point: I ordered headphones from an online shop. That whole affair turned out wrong in so many ways that I will gladly describe in a future post, but for now I will focus on the delivery of the promised headphones. Those were to be delivered to me by a courier from Toll Priority.
I could see by Toll’s online tracking that I am likely to receive the headphones. And it happened last Thursday, a day in which I happened to be home (sick) by coincidence. I got up at 8:00 in the morning to look after my five year old; come 8:40 I noticed something strange by the door and went out to see the courier had come and gone. Gone, but left behind a note saying sorry they missed me (refer to the above photo).
Yeah, right. Very sorry. So sorry he (I’m assuming it’s a “he”) could not even bother knocking on the door. And yes, I am accusing the courier here, and I feel I can do so based on the fact that two other people I have never met before knocked on my door that same Thursday and they proved fully capable of attracting my attention. The courier, I argue, could not care less; he’s measured by time, not by the quality of delivery experience as perceived by the customer. And there lies the problem. Oh, and it also lies with Toll's call center, whom I called to rearrange the delivery: I complained twice about the courier inability to knock on my door, and on both occasion the guy I was talking to chose to ignore me. Somehow I get the feeling I am not the first to be raising such complaints.
I have to add that this particular case still does not equal the incident taking place a few months ago, which saw my wife out at our front yard and an Australia Post courier brushing by her to leave a “sorry we missed you” note by our doorstep. No, Toll’s case wasn’t as bad. But it was still pretty bad.

Taking matters to a higher level, I argue the whole idea of trying to deliver packages during business hours to residential addresses is silly to begin with. We are past the age of stay at home women; ignoring that only wastes everybody’s time, couriers and us.
It is time we start developing post box like solutions that would allow us to pick packages up 24 hours a day. In this Internet enables world of ours that should not be an issue; all it takes is for the likes of Australia Post and Toll to make an effort. Sadly, between their insatiable desire for money and their lackluster nature, it appears reasonable implementations of such solutions are at the bottom of everybody's priority list.

Monday, 3 June 2013

The Blog Apologizes

Swine Flu H1N1 virus influenza 2.0

The management would like to apologize for the lack of significant posting on my blogs lately. This is due to the latest import from school, a virus curiously named “flu”.
Mind you, since we’ve all been vaccinated we were spared the worst. But still, this past week it was the bed that won the competition over my late night hours.


Image by hit thatswitch, Creative Commons license

Sunday, 2 June 2013

70"

Commander Shepard's adventures are going to turn that much more spectacular.
Just noting.