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

Friday, 18 October 2013

Boy, you're gonna carry that weight a long time

Bad Teacher

I’m not the type of person to bear a grudge, but there are a few people for whom a dark corner in me does not wish all the best. Not that I would ever wish to inflict them any harm, but these are people for whom I do not have much love. If you were to wake me up in the middle of the night I would probably name three such people.
The first two are my army boot camp unit commander and her deputy. These two went above and beyond the call of duty to train us into becoming soldiers; they actually enjoyed being nasty and cruel, as widely evident by the smiles on their faces at the time. Indeed, the army is a fine venue for anthropological studies into what it is, exactly, that takes place when you give people unquestioned power over others. Especially young, inexperienced, people.
I guess the army occupying two out of three in my grudge list comes at no surprise to those who know me. I have been known to state aloud how poorly I think of such organisations and of the time I had spent in one of them. What would probably surprise you, though, is the identity of the third person in my list: my high school maths teacher.

I’ll go back a bit to explain where the idea for this post came from.
A couple of days ago I exchanged a few tweets with author Emily Gale. She was asking whether other experience nightmares where they fail things they successfully managed years ago in real life. I responded that yes, I keep on failing school tests.
I was not lying. By far the most common nightmare I have features me failing my high school final exams – in particular the maths one – which thus leaves me unable to go to uni. Upon awakening I have to remind myself I’ve actually done uni, and done uni well, but the point remains: there was some trauma that I have acquired during my high school days, and that trauma has uniquely survived to this very day.
Yes, I did use to have army related nightmares, too. Living in Australia cured me of those many years ago, but the high school ones still remain. And if I were to point at one reason why, that reason would be my maths teacher. How shall I put it? I lay the blame for most of my personal gripes with institutional education on him. He was not a bad person by any account, but as a teacher he seems to have left nothing but scorched earth behind.
His effect is very much measurable in the way I have been avoiding official studies since, the way I have been tackling the studies I was forced to endure (uni and all), and in the joy I get whenever I encounter a person who can truly educate. I guess this goes to explain my passionate admiration for the likes of Richard Dawkins, people from whom it is so easy to learn. People that turn learning into a joy.

I hope that in the years since our education systems got better enough to filter corrosive teachers out. I hope, but I know that is a false hope. I have been burnt, but I still carry the hope my son will manage to survive his schooling years unburdened by trauma.


Image by William Mewes, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Forget About Online Anonymity

Anonymity; and the Internet.

There’s an argument I find myself having with friends at a surprisingly regular rate. They acknowledge me not wanting to join Facebook due to privacy concerns, but they do not understand why I don’t join under false credentials.
I see no point in repeating why I’m not on Facebook here again. The executive summary of those deliberations would tell you the cost to benefit ratio is a poor one, and the blame is on both sides of the equation. In comparison, Twitter gives me tremendous value at a much smaller cost (albeit looking as if that cost would rise, now that Twitter is staring down an IPO).
My friend’s point still remains, though: why can’t I eliminate the privacy cost factor by providing false credentials? The answer there is simple, yet most people seem to refuse to stare it in the eye. The answer is that there is no such thing as anonymity online; false credentials or not, a company like Facebook will be able to identify me for who I represent quickly enough, brushing aside the effects of my false name/gender/age like a tornado does a fart.
Ignoring the fact Facebook has been known to manage “shadow profiles” that include information collected through various dodgy means, it doesn’t take much to figure out that by metadata alone Facebook will clearly be able to know who I am. Looking at today’s news we hear the NSA has the ability to identify and track people who regularly replace their cell phones; Facebook can achieve similar feats using the metadata on its hands. The user does not have to use my name in order to be seen as me; all it takes is for the user to have similar Internet activity background, collect similar cookies along the way as they do their online shopping (to give but one example), and Facebook will take it from there. Not to mention accessing Facebook keeping track of my IP addresses.
Similar fallacies are taking place whenever we are told we should not be concerned with Big Data because it’s all anonymised. These are bullshit claims: take annoymised satnav mapping data as an example. Surely, trips that start or end at my home address can be attributed to me; and if that is the case, then whoever sees where these trips end up at can tell where I work and hangout as well as what times I leave home etc. It does not take much effort to show this example applies elsewhere, too.
But let’s go back to Facebook. Yes, I can trick them a bit by using tools like Ghostery/Disconnect to prevent them from collecting information on my computer browsing habits. But companies such as Facebook are working hard on new tracking techniques. This week alone we heard that Microsoft intends to follow Google up on researching ways to replace the Internet cookie, the most popular online tracking method. No doubt it would seek a tracking measure that is not as easy to avoid. We also heard how a smartphone (or tablet’s) accelerometer can provide unique identification for its user; and once Facebook knows to associate you with that particular accelerometer that would be it.
The “nice” thing about identification by accelerometer is that, for now, there is nothing you can do about it. But if you think such a thing is science fiction, think again: companies are already known to track users by the specific settings of their browsers. As it happens, we all have different browser settings. For example, the one I’m using now happens to be the latest version of Chrome, running on a Mac running the latest version of OS X, with these certain fonts, those certain plug ins, etc. The more unique these settings are, the easier it is to pick me from the rest of the mob; and in my case, tools such as Ghostery/Disconnect/Disconnect Search/NoScripts/Click to Play per-element and more make me quite unique. In fact, the irony is that the more protective measures I add to my browser, the more unique and thus easily identifiable I become.
EFF is running this website, where you can check for the uniqueness of your browsers. My primary browser, Firefox, is identified as a unique one among 40,000. My Chrome browser stands totally unique: nothing in the EFF’s database of more than 4,000,000 browsers matches mine. Now, being able to identify a person with odds of 1:4,000,000 is pretty accurate, I reckon.
It doesn’t matter whether I use Tor or VPN to hide my IP address (and geographical location); my browser’s settings remain the same. Thus my point is made: forget about online anonymity; anyone willing to make the effort will see right through you. Multibillion dollar behemoths like Facebook and Google surely do.
Things come down to this. Anything you do online leaves a footprint, whether it's a Skype call or whether you deal with more dodgy stuff. The question one needs to ask oneself before embarking on such activities is whether the necessary privacy sacrifices are worth it. The problems are twofold: first, we have arrived at a situation where governments, especially the USA, have twisted the Internet on its back and turned it from an information tool into Big Brother's wet dream; many companies, many if not most of them American, follow suit. On the other hand there are the people, the majority of which claim to care for their privacy but are either too ignorant or too short sighted to appreciate what's really going on here.


Image by Stian Eikeland, Creative Commons license

Saturday, 12 October 2013

What I learned from Gib Van Ert

A few months ago, I read and reviewed Gib Van Ert’s book A Long Time Ago. The book is the story of the now man, then child, who grows up in the shadow of Star Wars. While it is not a book that would knock me off my chair, it is a charming book never the less; I quite enjoyed it. And I do have to acknowledge that weaving Star Wars into what is, essentially, an autobiography turned out to be a clever trick to make an otherwise ordinary person’s* life story into a much more interesting story.
A bit of a chain reaction followed. Van Ert noted my review and tweeted it to his followers. “In return” I set out to mimic his storytelling and posted my own personal Star Wars story, which then triggered another referential post from Van Ert, this time on his blog. Hooray to the miracle of modern day social media!
This affair made me think. This personal Star Wars tale of mine was not bad. It was not badly written, either, even if its first draft suffered from awful editing (which I can now politely attribute to me requiring the services of reading glasses). It occurred to me that given enough time and will, I could have written a book like Van Ert’s myself. Sure, there would have been plenty of room for further refining my writing skills, and granted, I would have had to rely on experts’ editing. But the point still remains: I could have written this book myself; what Van Ert had, which I hadn’t, is an idea.
Obviously, I am not planning on robbing Van Ert of any of the credit he fully deserves for writing his book. I am only trying to derive some personal conclusions here. And my conclusion is that if I want to publish a book of my own, the easiest way for me to achieve this task would be for me to heavily base my book on personal stories. Just as Van Ert did! More importantly, in order to make these personal stories of mine interesting enough to be worthy of others’ attentions, I should bind it around an attractive core theme. Just as Van Ert did!
The trick seems to lie in identifying such core themes. However, it wasn’t long, once I put my mind to it, before I could think of several qualifying themes: my journey towards losing all manner of religious faith, seeing Australia through Israeli eyes, seeing Israel through a “deserter’s” eye, and so on. I could fetch many such themes.
Then something even more interesting occurred to me. I have been writing down my personal stories for many years now; during the past eight years I have been doing so rather systematically upon these very pages. Further, my writing has often dealt with these personal journey themes that I came up with in the previous paragraph. To put it another way, I have already written my own Gib Van Ert book – it’s just that there is no book to show for it!
As I have said here before, I am interested in writing and I wouldn’t mind turning it into a career. However, I know fully well such a career would not be able to pay my mortgage half as well as my current one. I'm simply not good enough. Writing, therefore, will have to be content with its status as a hobby.
Since my livelihood will not depend on my ability to sell a book, there is no reason for me to want to write a commercially viable book. This leaves me to conclude that if writing a book was one of those goals I’d be proud to say I have achieved, then here’s to something I have already achieved: This blog is my book. It may not be as coherent and as well edited as a book should, but the raw ingredients are all here. The themes, the ideas and the elaborations, I already did all the hard work.
As far as I am concerned, I already wrote my book.


*As ordinary as any person can be. We are all extraordinary, but some life stories are more interesting than others.

Image copyrights: Gib Van Ert

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

The Coffee Snob

I’m not foreign to being called a snob, and I don’t often disagree with the label. But a coffee snob? Who could have imagined that?
Yet through the rise of friendships at work (and I wouldn’t use the F word without proper justification), that is what I have become. Friends tend to socialise over cups of coffee, and with one thing leading to another I have become a regular. With regularity come preferences: we no longer settle for your average coffee; upon discovering specialised venues we got to develop a taste. These venues' superiority implies that by now we twist our nose at your average vacuum sealed bag of beans. No, for us it’s single malt - Brazil and Columbia sourced beans seem to be my favourite.
It’s funny, being a regular customer. The waitresses know us and our preferences by now, and we get all sorts of regulars’ perks. (Yes, our preferred coffee joint has waitresses and table serving. I should probably add there was either through some major improbability or some very selective recruitment, these waitresses happen to be quite easy on the eye. Female members of our crew do complain about the absence of similar quality male servers.)
With the negative impact of caffeine on the brain, and with caffeine being a class C carcinogenic (if I remember correctly; Wikipedia has the classifications if you care to check), I forcefully limit myself to one cup a day. A single exception is allowed, but it has to be decaf and it has to be a rare occurrence – once in a month or so. Still, when I deprive myself of coffee I can feel the incoming head pounding, which is not a good sign. But hey, I tell myself, it’s nice to have friends.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Democracy

Growing up in the light of huge technological advancements that took us from the surface of the moon to the smartphone, it is easy to think the only way is up. It is easy to forget that most of the social progress we have achieved, things like the standard working day, came at a huge cost to members of previous generations. They paid in blood for things we now take for granted.
Yet, as entropy would have it, the natural way for things to go is actually down; if we do seek to maintain a course of constant improvement, we have to make an effort. Clearly, we are not.
An international observation follows.

Upon returning from the UK, my wife told me of a couple of things that took her notice. First, she found out parents who do not send their kids to school there are fined at hundreds of pounds per day. When you consider that a hundred years ago that average kid spent a month a year at school, and you compare it to the present, you would see that through state mandate schooling is taking more and more of our children’s life away. Is it always for the better? In most respects, yes, but I will argue that this is not a definitive “yes”. By far the most life shaping event of my school years has been living in New York for a month; that event happened during school time, but my parents were given permission from [a reluctant] school.
Then there was my wife noting how a children’s play centre she visited has every child fitted with a locating device, allowing “authorities” to know where they are at any given moment and beeping aloud if the child tried to leave their enclosed area. Yes, I’m a parent myself, and I can appreciate a parent’s need to have a bit of a break, but what are we teaching our kids here? We’re telling them that they cannot be trusted for even a second. We are also training them to live under constant surveillance.
Then again, every citizen of the UK should be used to living under constant CCTV surveillance by now, so what difference does this make? If anything, these kids are being prepared for the life ahead of them.
Preparing children for life at a totalitarian society is by no means limited to the UK. Yuval Dror wrote a very interesting post (it’s in Hebrew, but you can use Google’s translation services) on how his nine year old daughter was scared shitless through a week at school. For two hours a day, an army soldier told her and her classmates about the dangers of terrorism, non conventional weapons and other fatal calamities. Most worryingly, the soldier put the responsibility of the households’ readiness for these affairs on the kids’ shoulders.
They train them to leave in constant fear when they’re young, back there in Israel. Otherwise they might ask too many questions about their leaders’ latest whims.

Australia enjoys the privilege of being relatively immune from such practices as the UK and Israel’s contempt of children’s rights. However, it is clear that the key word here is “relative”. If we are not careful this and similar crap will surely land our way, too.
After all, we have just elected ourselves a new federal government. Or is it? As far as I can tell, the bulk of this new crew is made of the same people we voted out with much disgust back in 2007. What has changed since then? Not the people, and in most terms not the agendas these people are bringing along. So, can we really expect the previous decade’s stinkers to have turned into smelly roses? Or can we instead argue that our democracy, our democracies, are not working the way we had in mind?
Because if these people we call leaders know that there is no payback for what they're doing, and that given enough time they will be back to doing whatever it is they want to do, then you can count on these things that they will do to be far from great. Essentially, we have invented a society in which the elected classes pay no consequences for their actions; they do not even need CCTVs to follow us nor do they need to scare us when we're young.

We need to improve our system, and quickly so. Otherwise all the efforts of our predecessors will be for nothing.


Image by Peter Fletcher, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Home Alone 2


A couple of people expressed an opinion that I found interesting: two weeks, they claim, is a good length of time for being on my own without my wife and child. It is enough to get a taste of "freedom", but not enough to develop habits that would make resuming normal family life hard. I don't know how right this observation is, but it is interesting in the sense of it making me ponder what I got out of being on my own for two weeks.
Therefore, this post will attempt to answer the question of what I learned out of being on my own while my wife and son were overseas. Because, hey, it's a unique experience that had me go back to an ancient period of not only being pre-parenthood but also pre-marriage/girlfriend. And then come back to normal life again.

Before answering, let me highlight what I did and didn’t do while on my own:
  1. Defying what seemed to be everybody’s expectations, I did not live on a diet of pizza deliveries.  In fact, I did not order pizza even once.
  2. I sorted out the paperwork for this year’s tax returns. It’s amazing how much time this takes.
  3. The washing machine was doing extra rounds.
  4. I did cleaning and sorting, both inside and outside.
  5. I listened to music a lot. Through the hi fi, while sleeping, the works.
  6. In particular I explored musical venues I don’t normally explore. In particular, I listened to a lot of Israeli music.
  7. I played Mass Effect on the PlaySation, but I have to say I played much less than I anticipated I would.
  8. I slept a lot during weekends, interchanging night for day.
  9. I went to the movies.
  10. I did some minor explorations to investigate what Melbourne has to offer when it comes to my favourite foods. Conclusion: while prospects are much better at the Israeli areas, there is still no good humus to be had in Melbourne.
  11. I went to public sessions on free software and copyright/piracy.
  12. More than anything else, I watched tons of stuff through my Mac + Apple TV. I would say the Apple TV was the most overworked gadget in the household.

How did it feel like, doing these things that I was doing?
  1. It felt strange.
  2. I constantly missed my wife & son.
  3. I got a glimpse of what life used to be like before we had our son. In other words, the feeling of arriving home from work and having so much time to do whatever it is I want to do – wow! There is so much time in this world when one doesn’t have to run like a headless chicken around a child. What did we use to do with all this time we had back then? We must have been so wasteful.
  4. Regardless of having what seemed to be all the time in the world, I constantly felt like I was missing something. As in, what should I be doing next to avoid wasting this opportunity to do whatever it is I want to do?
  5. In particular, being the person that I am, I found myself carefully analysing which activity will be most beneficial in the sense of being something I wouldn't do in the company of my wife & son. I'm talking about things I can't normally do (e.g., sleep) or things I won't do with the rest of the family (e.g., watch horror stuff, search for good humus, or listen to Israeli music excessively). In other words, I found the calculation of what to do next turn into an exercise in optimisation.

Having gone through this background, allow me to specify my learnings:
  1. Looking back at the times I used to spend on my own in my [ancient] past, there is no such thing as being bored anymore. Courtesy of the Internet, gadgets and gaming consoles, the question is rather what I’d rather do now. Whereas in the past I had to rely on [cable] TV, in this day and age I am the master in charge of dictating exactly what I want to do next.
  2. After all these years, I still enjoy being on my own. It doesn’t feel as natural as it used to be, but I think I can confidently state I can cope with my own company better than the majority of people can. In fact, I will argue there is a lot to be learnt from being on one's own (and even from being bored on one's own): I will argue that before one can get along well with others one needs to be able to get along well with oneself. It is not as easy as it may sound.
  3. It is oh so very nice to be able to experience being on my own while knowing fully well this is a temporary condition. There is nothing like being on my own to appreciate the value of good company. I'm not talking only about my wife and child; the daily social interactions at work play a major part as well.
In other words, being on my own helped me appreciate all the things that I have but tend to take for granted. The technology that help pass the time constructively, and, much more importantly, the human companionship.