Thursday, 30 January 2014

Remote Control


When I'm cleaning I take my entertainment in any shape and size. A month ago I got it in a totally unexpected form: a phone call.
With that obvious delay on a poor quality line, it felt entertaining the moment I picked up. It got even more so as the conversation started: I received this call, I was told, because my computer is in great danger!
Obviously bullshit, but I decided it's better to mess those trying to mess me up than continue cleaning. So I persevered, role playing the computer illiterate person the people on the other side were obviously after. Which computer, I asked; I have several. The Windows computer, I was told. Which Windows computer, I have several. And so I continued cleaning and chatting, while the person I was talking to was giving me instructions on how to help him clean my Windows PC (one of them) from the imminent dangers.
By now I was curious. What, exactly, were these con men after? Clearly they want to infect my PC rather than cure it, but how? I continued role playing, pretending to click here and there (and giving them a hell of a long wait while pretending to boot my PC up).
Eventually it became clear: they wanted me to let them assume remote administration for my Windows PC. Once they acquire that, they can pretty much do whatever they feel like with what will then be "their" computer.
This particular attack vector is not new under the sun. As security expert Brian Krebs points out here, remote administration is often the easiest way to hack someone else's computer resources. People tend to neglect this back door. That said, I was "impressed" by how brave these people were, calling me directly. I have no doubt they get to fool the occasional customer.
Keep watch of those back doors of yours.


Image by David Reeves, Creative Commons licence

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Living on Borrowed Time


It's always hard to have friends leave you behind. I recall one of the most depressing type of experiences during my army service, one amongst many but a particularly memorable one, being the sight of friends that joined after me getting released from the army before me (not everyone has to serve the same duration at the Israeli army).
Of course, these days I am not in the army nor in Israel anymore. However, the sight of good friends leaving my workplace does have significant impact still. It sort of brings that good old notion of "what am I still doing here?" into the agenda again. Some major career moves of mine have started through these very thoughts.
And now I'm at that same junction point once again.

This time there is a twist. Not only am I having my best work friend leaving me behind; this time I have my workplace going through a peculiar chain of events that, essentially, mean it will shut down in a few years time. Probably two years in the minimum and four years max.
And while two years is still a long time, the realisation that the place I go to work at on a daily basis has no future in it for me is proving to have significant impact. What reason do I have to make an effort at such a workplace? Sure, I value my income for the next few years, but as far as aspirations and motivations go, they all disappeared into a black hole.
Thus I find myself as a peculiar position. Career wise, it is clear that the best thing to do would be to abandon ship and look for something else. On the other hand, staying put would mean enjoying all the benefits my doomed workplace has to offer, and there are certainly plenty of those; it also means a potentially nice redundancy package down the line, if I prove patient enough.
Given the frequency of good jobs in my field, the general lack of companies that make me feel "wow, I this is the place I should be spending the bulk of my conscious hours at", I suspect it would be that other hand that prevails. Regardless, these are testing times.


Image by David Jackmonson, Creative Commons licence

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

The Sum of All Fears

One of the experiences Tasmania had to offer us visitors is that of the chairlift. We actually stumbled (and went across) two of those, mostly due to the excited son of ours. To him, it seemed as if those chairlifts almost managed to compensate for all the forest walks and lookouts we dragged him through when all he ever wanted to do is play on the iPad in the comfortable confines of our hotel room.
Alas, there is a slight problem with chairlifts: yours truly is afraid of heights. Thus when my son and I boarded the chairlift for the first time, he was cheerfully shifting way too much on his chair while I was occupying myself taking photos. That is, up until the point I noticed the camera is slipping out of my hands due to the excessive sweat on my palms.
I explained what was going on to my son, who replied with a surprising comment: “Abba [that’s me]”, he half asked, “I thought you are not afraid of anything!”
What an interesting statement to make. It opened a dam-ful of opportunities for discussion, which I did use (anything to distract me from the horrors of the chairlift!). I explained about seemingly irrational fears and their evolutionary basis: I told him my Room 101 would be filled with cockroaches and I explained why humans often have a problem with such insects; I continues to explain how this species of ours, which came down from the trees and lost the ability to tree walk, benefitted from height related phobias – those who stayed on the ground lived longer. And I continued to explain that evolution is great and all, but some people still have irrational fears for all sorts of reasons, and I am certainly not immune to the irrational.
It was, as one can expect, an interesting discussion. One of those where my son’s eyes could tell me he was gobbling up the information I was offering as the cogs behind the eyes were digesting them. Most of all, it gave me a glimpse into how my son perceives me as a parent: impeccable and invincible.
Boy, is he up for a life of disappointments.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Netflix, keep away from Australia!


With Netflix working as smoothly and easily as it now does at our household, there is only one thing I have to say to the company:
Please, Netflix, do not come over to Australia and release a local service!

If I appear to contradict myself, allow me to explain. There are only two things that will happen if Netflix properly opens itself up to Aussie users, instead of us Aussie users pretending to be Americans in order to use the service:
  1. Prices will double, and
  2. The Netflix movie catalog would be reduced to the two meaningless titles that the movie studios will allow Netflix to offer to Australian users.
So, do we really want those things to happen? Clearly, Netflix is a much better service the way it is now, unencumbered by the Australian Tax.
Please, stay away, Netflix!


Image by Trevor Dickinson, Creative Commons licence

Monday, 20 January 2014

Reasons for Piracy, Episode #1493

Over the Christmas - New Year period, Apple gave Aussie users the gift of the movie Home Alone for free. A couple of days ago we tried to play it through our Apple TV, only to receive the following message:


Let me translate to you what the picture says: "Ready to play in 4 hours 47 minutes".
Don't rush with the popcorn!

Friday, 17 January 2014

To Netflix the Glory


A few months ago I used this forum to inform you why I, an Australian user, have found Netflix to be rather “meh”. Between its demands on my Mac, the poor picture quality and the uninspiring catalog I was of the opinion that even though Netflix clearly signals where our future lies it is yet to be worthy of my $8 (USD) a month.
Yet here I am again to tell you I have changed my mind about Netflix.

It started from the ongoing comparison between Netflix and its equivalent in the field of audio, Spotify. It occurred to me the main benefit of Spotify is its usability, including the instantaneous nature of its operation. I was wondering whether I was trying Netflix out through the wrong use case, going as I did for the Mac/PC instead of the more accessible options. So I spent some time contemplating how to best recreate the Spotify circumstances on video using Netflix, particularly given the geo-blocking restrictions that are there to prevent Aussies from using Netflix.
If it's not the PC that I should use then the next option, the far more casual one, is the iPad. There are a couple of advantages to iPad Netflix consumption: the "closed garden" environment means less effort needs to be spent on DRM, and unlike my Mac I do not expect to have my iPad huffing and puffing when playing Netflix vids. All the while I could still have whatever movie I’m watching playing up on my big TV using an Apple TV.
So I went and explored how the iPad option can be implemented. The Netflix iPad app is unavailable in the Australian iTunes shop, which required me to create an American iTunes account. That turned out to be quite feasible, for free, as long as one has access to American VPN servers (or other geo-blocking countermeasures): follow the instructions here on how to “purchase” the Netflix app for free and you’ll get there, too.
After a short ceremony, during which I reactivated my Netflix account, I tried Netflix on the iPad for the first time. Lo and behold!
First, as expected, there was no huffing and puffing coming from the iPad. Not even mild heat when I went for Apple TV airplay. Second, the picture quality was good; it varied as it went along, but it was never bad and occasionally clearly of HD grade. Third, there were no buffering pauses whatsoever; playback started quickly, unlike iTunes, and never missed a beat. And fourth, mirrored through my Apple TV to our home theatre, the results were spectacular.
Not only did I get the usability experience I was after (bear in mind, I did have to keep my iPad running on VPN throughout), one of my other problems – picture quality – was effectively solved. I was so happy I was willing to forget the quality of Netflix’ catalog and remind myself there’s so much stuff in there I’m bound to find something to watch whenever I feel like.
I love Netflix.

So there you have it: the future in the here and now.
All one needs to do now is take a moment to reflect why us Aussies are unable to access services of such quality, services our American brethren have been taking for granted for several years now. I suspect the reason for this state of affairs is best summed up in one word, starting with Mur and ending with Doch, but I will let you form your own opinion up.


Image copyrights: Netflix

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Australia Post: Epic Fail


I have documented some of Australia Post’s megafailures here before (see here and here), but allow me to indulge you with another. A small one, but a megafail still – failure to provide a basic service Australia Post sells for prime time money.
Without further ado, here are the facts:
  • I paid Australia Post $21.75 to withhold postal delivery to my house for 12 days. That’s $1.81 a day, or more than $2 a day if you take into account post is not delivered during the weekends anyway.
  • During this 12 day period, I ended up receiving three letters and one parcel. Turns out I have paid more than $5 per item to be withheld.
  • Of these four items that were posted to me during the mail withholding period, Australia Post actually did deliver two of the three letters and the parcel during the withholding period. Only one letter was actually withheld, which means that I paid $21.75 for the sake of withholding one letter.
An epic fail if I ever saw one.
Do not ask me why Australia Post bothers selling a mail withholding product if its success rate is as poor as 25%. I won't even go into asking why it charges so much for what should be a trivial service to begin with!


P.S. I have already filed a complaint with Australia Post, asking for my $21.75 back.
P.P.S. In case of libel claims, I would be happy to supply proof for my non withheld letters and parcel. This would be the same evidence I already forwarded Australia Post. I do not wish to do so in public, though.
P.P.P.S. I do, however, think it would be reasonable of me to expect further compensation on top of my money back. Especially given this affair takes place every time I ask for my post to be withheld.


Image by Stu Rapley, Creative Commons licence

Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Travel Light


One of the more notable features of our recent Tasmanian excursion has to do with what I did not take with me. As in, for the first time since I put my hands on the original Eee PC, back in early 2008, I went on holiday without a PC.
In case your heart missed a beat reading that last paragraph, allow me to clarify: I took my iPad and its accompanying Bluetooth keyboard instead. Coupled with the transition from SLR to the Sony RX-100 compact camera, my back was elated with the change. But was the iPad good enough?

Obviously, an iPad cannot do everything a proper PC can do. The question is whether it can do everything I want to do with a computer while I’m away travelling; the answer is a “yes, but” type of an answer. So here goes – here are my iPad travel gripes:
The thing that bothered me the most is the iPad’s inability to provide me with what I consider to be a safe browsing environment. On a PC I can use tools such as Ghostery and Disconnect.me to protect me from tracking, AdBlock to stop ads, and NoScript to control java code. The iPad’s arsenal is limited: The Ghostery app is crude and will not handle complicated java code; other browsers, such as Mercury, offer an ad blocker but are still fairly limited; and that’s it.
The second problem is that not all websites function as well as they do on a proper PC. Take, for example, Blogger, the platform on which this blog is written. There is a Blogger app for the iPad but it’s pretty bad. The iPad’s Safari browser coughs a lot when I use it for working blogger.com out, so I had to try my way with multiple browsers. Eventually, but perhaps to no one’s surprise, Google’s own Chrome browser was found the best for Blogger. It’s still not perfect, though; posting a photo that is uploaded from the iPad itself seems impossible, and regular tasks such as highlighting text to create a link are only possible using the external Bluetooth keyboard.
Of course, Blogger is just a mirror into an otherwise pervasive problem. I can come up with plenty of properly hair raising scenarios in which the lack of a proper browser can have lethal consequences.
The third problem only bothered me upon my return. As I took my camera’s 16GB memory card and copied its contents over to my PC, I realised I was only a few photos away from filling the memory card up! As we know, copying the contents of a memory card to an iPad is not that trivial an affair. At the time I packed for the journey it did not occur to me Tasmania will be as photogenic as it turned out to be, otherwise I would have packed an extra SD card. Newer cameras offer wifi, which could have solved the problem just as well.

Anyway, that is it. Other than the above issues, the iPad performed very well, thank you very much. It offered me all the connectivity I needed as well as entertaining me, all in a very compact and light package. Even my Kindle was left home, its long lasting battery deemed not as crucial, beaten as it was by the backlit iPad when it comes to night time reading.
Back home with my PC, I could not avoid thinking how clunky this machine is. And I was referring to a Mac Air.


Image by Ambra Galassi, Creative Commons licence

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Spirit of Australia

There was one recurring theme to people’s reaction whenever my wife and I would tell them we were going to visit Tasmania. Whether we did so together or whether it was her telling her friends or me telling my colleagues, the reaction would generally be the same.
First, we would be asked how we’re going. Second, upon digesting our reply that we were going by the Spirit of Tasmania ferry with Our Car™, they would change tone. Drastically.
Reactions did vary, but the general intent would be the same. The look on the face would change into worried/tragic mode; verbally, they would express concerns. They would ask us, in that polite Australian way, whether we react well to sea sickness; they would recommend pills to address sea sickness; some would even go as far as to recommend we book a cabin close to the life boats.
WTF? We are not talking about a Magellan trip for the unknown here. It’s basically a board in the evening, disembark in the morning type cruise on a fairly big boat. The Spirit of Tasmania is smaller than your average luxury cruiser, but not much smaller. Its safety records are pretty clear, too: none has been known to have sunk. Personally, I was quite looking forward to the boat trip: I have been on board aircraft carriers, but never did I actually go cruising on a boat of this scale.
So what is going on here? What is making bona fide Aussies, guys who hunt a croc for breakfast, ride their kangaroo to work, and down a barrel of beer for dinner turn into chickens with the mere mention of a ferry ride?

Having gone there and back again on board the Spirits of Tasmania I & II, yours truly can now report as to the true nature of the cruise.
First, you hang around the “boatyard” for an hour or two, wriggling your way through various queues with your car, up until you board and cram it in a manner designed to allow you to get out of the car (and that’s it). Then you’re forced to go to the upper decks, comprised of cabins, viewing areas, sitting areas and shops/dining/gaming (that foul Australian word for gambling that cold bloodedly murders the true meaning of gaming).
Our cabin was tight but usable, featuring four bunk beds (two at ground level, two upstairs) and surprisingly usable shower/toilet. While accessing the upper beds was a bit of a challenge, the facilities were quite good: better than some proper accommodations we had the displeasure of using at Tasmania [you can read all about that side of the trip in my TripAdvisor reviews].
As for the swashbuckling aspect of the trip. Leaving Melbourne was calm and peaceful affair, but once the ferry left Port Phillip Bay things got substantially more dramatic. I woke up in bed several times during the night to feel the world around me going up and down (interestingly, not from side to side but rather front to back). Being in bed I was not troubled at all other than being kept awake, but I could easily imagine reacting rather badly were I to be on a passenger seat or in one of the public areas instead. My wife’s reaction was similar; my son slept through.
The way back was a different story. As we left Devonport we were informed by Captain Stubing over ship’s PA that in contrast to the past week or so the seas are calm. He was right; our Love Boat cruise was Dead Calm.
We made it out alive. Didn’t even need to use the life boats.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Size Matters, and Smaller Is Better



I have been using the compact Sony RX100 camera for several months now, and through time and opportunities managed to use it under various circumstances. Enough circumstances for me to be able to compare it to an APS sensor equipped digital SLR. In my case, the comparison is between the 2012 model RX100 and my 2009 model Pentax K-7 SLR.
So here goes.

If you want the executive summary, then here it is: The RX100 can do everything an SLR can, with the notable exception of being able to change lenses. In other words, anything a non professional user would want to do with their SLR, with the exception of zoom photography, can be achieved with the compact, almost pocket grade, RX100.
Quality wise, the RX100 shows how much of an advantage three years of technological development can provide. Generally speaking, the quality of photos taken with this camera is superior to that of my K-7. Obviously, the Sony's lens does not let it down. If that is not enough, its video performance trounces that of the older SLR.
From RAW photography through HDR, being able to take 10 photos a second, high sensitivity ISO settings that are still usable and entirely manual photo taking (including long exposures that are usually the sole realm of the SLR), the Sony does it all. And again, it does it in a very small package.
While the Pentax has a wonderful user interface that allowed me to quickly change its settings to my liking, the Sony features programmable dials and buttons that allow me to essentially achieve the same (albeit after a bit more fiddling around).

The RX100 does have its issues, although I am of the opinion these are all relatively easy to live with.
First and foremost, there is the lack of a viewfinder. This means that under bright conditions (read: the Australian outdoors) it is often hard to tell exactly what is being shot. Second, I find its macro performance rather lacking; compared to my Pentax, I find myself having to hold the camera further back than I would have liked in order for it to be able to focus. Then again, when it comes to macro photography my iPhone shines. And third, its fastest shutter speed of 1/2000 has been known to limit me from choosing the large aperture I wanted to use.
There is another disadvantage, a rather silly one: the RX100 is so small that I have already dropped it once, something that never happened to me during all the years of SLR photography. I strongly suspect the Sony's end of life will not come through superior technology making me stop using it, but rather through it crash landing somewhere while being used.
And that's it for disadvantages.

The verdict is thus clear. For non professional uses, I really do not see any justification for dragging an SLR along with me anymore. The difference in bulk and weight when going out is astounding, yet the difference in quality is still in favour of the smaller package. Oh, and price as well.
Just like the tablet is killing the desktop and its sexier sibling, the laptop, the large[r] sensor compact camera should and will kill the hobby grade SLR.
Thus if you were to ask me for my camera purchasing recommendations, then here they are:

  1. If you are after the ultimate in quality, go for a full size sensor camera. Sony has new smaller sized offerings there, but to date not a wide range of lenses to support their two cameras. It's therefore the usual Nikon/Canon story, or wait for Sony to revolutionise this niche as well.
  2. If changeable lenses are mandatory yet going full sensor is too expensive, then the Four Thirds system is the way to go. Olympus in particular has some very cool looking offerings there. The alternative, in the shape of the Sony NEX system, is somewhat less convincing.
  3. Last, but not least - and obviously my personal choice: If the "normal" lens that does 95% of the photos anyone takes is enough for you, there is no reason in the world the RX100 would not do great things in your service.

In my view, matters are very clear: the Sony RX100 is not only the best compact camera around, it is also the best camera around. And that's all I am trying to say with this post.


Image by FUWEWE1119, Creative Commons licence

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Theory of Scarcity

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Let me ask you a question: what is your most favourite food?
For the vast majority of my life, my answer to this question would have been "steak". The peculiar thing about this said choice of mine is that for the majority of my life, when steak was my answer to the above question, I was in no position to have much steak. My parents would serve me with regular servings of steak, but frankly given their financial position and my mother's approach to cooking we are not talking about the world's best steaks here. No disrespect, but when I think of my mother's steaks the image that pops up in my mind is that of a tough sandal.
The years did not render my steakly years better. Getting a good steak in Israel used to mean going to a restaurant with good steak offerings, and these are not that common or cheap. Even less common was the availability of good company to go to such a restaurant with.
Only when I moved to Australia did the picture change. Suddenly, good steaks are everywhere; good steaks are affordable; good steaks are easy to cook at home on my own barbecue. Steak heaven.

Or is it?
Roughly at the same time steaks became easy as pie my preferences started changing. I started becoming more aware of the fact a sentient animal was murdered for the pleasure of my stomach. I started becoming aware of the beef industry's environmental impact. I started becoming more aware of the health impacts of red meat on one hand and barbecue cooking on the other (in case you were unaware, it is very much unlikely barbecues would have received health approval were they to be invented now). Clearly, my stomach no longer belongs to the steak.
There is a new king in town. There is one food now that utterly dominates my dreams: it's the one food I can happily live with for breakfast, lunch and dinner; it's the one food I had available for the bulk of my life; it's one food that's actually not that bad for one to eat. It's called humus, and for reasons unclear to yours truly but regularly lamented on these very pages it is one food that is very hard to put one's hands on at Australia. At least in its higher quality manifestations.

And this is why I am suggesting that the things that attract us the most are often things that are generally not that attractive in the first place; they are just hard to get.

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My new year’s resolution, in case you’re wondering.
Happy New Year!