Wednesday, 16 December 2015

In Sickness and In Health

This week’s Time Magazine focuses all about its Person of the Year choices. At 6th place (if I remember correctly) stands Travis Kalanick, Uber’s founder and CEO.
I don’t know much about Kalanick as a person, but I do know that I sure have a quarrel with his professional enterprise. Specifically, I have a quarrel with a company that enjoys the benefit of employing north of 100,000 people yet wouldn’t recognise them as employees, with everything that goes with that, such as annual leave and sick allowances. [In another post I might discuss the quarrel I have with the Uber app ravaging its users’ privacy.]
Those worker rights things, like the right to go on paid leave or the security of knowing that one is cared for even when one is sick (often due to work related activities) are important things. They are rights our not so distant ancestors paid for with blood, their blood, and now we are asked to forget all about them so that this young entrepreneur can make an extra buck as he bends the legacy industries to his will. You know, the industries that do offer their workers social rights, if only because they follow the law.
The fact Uber is waging its war against a monopoly industry that has been screwing us (and its drivers) for around a century should not matter much. Indeed, it is a tragedy to see Uber getting away with murder on account of its main rival being an industry everyone likes to hate. But again, this should not matter; workers’ rights are a much more important matter than Uber. It is something that is likely to affect you, and it is something that will almost certainly affect your children. Do not let them grow into a world depriving them of stuff that we have been taking for granted.

Uber taxi ad

As for yours truly, I very much doubt there is a future career for me with Uber. What I do know, however, is that I will almost certainly have a future career in short term contract employment. It’s not Uber, but it is still employment that deprives the employee from basic social rights such as annual leave or sick pay.
I know many people who are perfectly happy with their contracting career. Me, I cannot say I’m looking forward to this market driven necessity. Being a person, I do need to take leave. Being a human being, I do get sick from time to time. And when I do get sick, I do not wish to have to worry about money in addition to having to worry about getting healthier.
This whole Uber thinking, the thinking that manifests itself with the contracting employment, is something that can only work for the young and healthy that don’t have any children. In the rest of the cases, the vast majority of cases, such employment conditions screw lives up.
Let us not get there. Me, I’d rather put Travis Kalanick endeavours in the trash compactor of society rather than glorify it, Time style.


Image by Alper Çuğun, Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0) licence 

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Old Debts

Given so much of my social life revolves around coffee, it is hard not to nitpick at some of the related rituals. Like that of paying: when going for coffee as a group, it is usually the case that one member of the group will pay for everybody. And not only because the café won’t split bills.
One person paying for everybody else will, obviously, create debts. It is therefore interesting to note the different attitudes that different people hold towards debt. Some will repay it quickly in cash; others will await their turn to repay in the currency of coffee; and others are rather casual about it all. As a member of the second camp, I find the accounting challenge is often bigger than one would think. Given the composition of the coffee pact varies, paying one’s debt is not a simple matter of taking turns. On one hand I may owe a person several cuppas, while on the other there may be multiple people owing me several rounds each while I do my best to repay an old debt.
My insistence on debt repayment in coffee currency while aspiring for optimal fairness brings along some sort of a reputation. A reputation that made me wonder: why am I so bothered by this matter? Because clearly I am more bothered than others.
Contemplating my personal answer brought me back to my childhood days. Back then I hardly ever had much money on me, probably the direct result of my parents not having much of it either. My friends didn’t seem as affected, and as a result I would often owe them money for rather lengthy durations. [At this point I will mention that I am talking about children here. What passes for a lot of money or a lengthy duration to a child is many parsecs away from what adults refer to using the same terminology.] I would repay my friends, sure, but I think it is safe to assume that over time some debts were forgotten. Hence my contemporary behaviour: I’m pedantic about my current coffee debts because I feel I have wronged my friends in the past over similar matters.

The 1 euro Coffee

Now, all of the above discussion related to petty amounts of money. Consider, if you will, what people who do not have money for the really important things in life – food, shelter – have to go through. Imagine what it can do to their relationships. Clearly, life can be far from easy.
Spare a thought for those not as lucky as you.


Image by Pierre-Olivier Carles, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence

Monday, 7 December 2015

Gadget Longevity

Apple II

Over the years I have been known to criticise Apple a lot but also to be the obedient slave that buys too many of its overpriced products. Today I’d like to point out a not as often talked about aspect of Apple product ownership.
Let the numbers talk:
  • My iPhone 3GS is now more than 6 years old. I haven’t been using it as my main phone for 3 years now, but it is still serving as a music player and my main GPS for driving.
  • My MacBook Air is more than 4 year old now. Not unheard of for a laptop, I admit; what is exceptional, though, is that despite me having much stronger [Windows] hardware at my disposal, this Mac is still my go to PC for everything other than World of Tanks.
  • My first iPad is now coming close to its 4th birthday, still alive and kicking and getting daily heavy workouts by the child in our family.
  • Our Airport Express and Apple TV (third generation) have been with us for almost 4 years. Other than wifi interference issues that were solved with AC wifi deployment, we’ve been getting daily output from these.
  • My iPhone 5 is now 3 year old. On a regular day I need to charge it twice, but then again so do too many smartphones. Other than that I see no reason why it should not cruise along till my iPhone 7 joins the party, say, October 2016.
I severely doubt any other manufacturer can boast such longevity figures. Indeed, no Apple gadget ever died on me, even though – statistically speaking – they should have every right to do so.

I think the question to be asked is whether it is better to buy an expensive Apple gadget and hold it for a long while or whether to buy from the cheaper [Android] competition more often and enjoy the benefits of using the latest hardware for longer periods. The greeny in me would opt for the former.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

A Year of Smartwatching

Apple Watch Sport

The main problem affecting smartwatches is that lack of a killer app, a reason to make people say to themselves “I want a smartwatch so I can X”. Recently published research confirms the notion: most of the time, the bulk of Apple Watch users use it for telling the time + receiving notifications. Given Apple Watches start at $500 (at least in Australia), that seems like a lot of money with which to replace one’s own perfectly working watch with a short lived one from Apple just for the sake of receiving notifications!
That said, receiving notifications to the watch is a big deal, I can tell you that! It never occurred to me how important it is till PAX. I visited PAX with friends, and during the course of the day we often split up and later regroup. Throughout the day we communicated with one another over Signal messages. I never heard my phone ring nor feel it vibrate that day; but I did not miss a message and always knew exactly what my friends were up to. That was achieved with the aid of my never-miss-a-notification Pebble watch.
The beauty of it was us taking all of the above for granted. Only later did we realise we were totally dependent on our Pebbles. Or, in other words: we reached the stage where life without a smartwatch would feel like some sort of a Stone Age experience.
Now I will admit to having a love/hate relationship with my Pebble. It costs a fraction of an Apple Watch, its battery usually lasts me four days [insert standard deviation and note the Pebble Round model last “up to two days”], and it is very water proof [with the notable exception of the new Pebble Round being only splash proof]. But the Pebble is also clearly made using lowest bidder grade cheap components: over the past year, two had died on me (both had screen problems, one also had Bluetooth issues) and another is suffering from inconsistent battery performance that reeks with that “soon to make a warranty call” stench.
However: at per their current prices, one can buy a Pebble once a year, as per the duration of their manufacturer’s warranty, and still come out spending much less than one would on Apple Watches.

What could change this equation?
The appearance of a new killer app. If the current killer app for the smartwatch is notifications, I predict the next one would have something to do with health. As I said here before, I will gladly pay for an Apple Watch if it could warn me to rush to a hospital due to an imminent heart attack. It would be even better if the watch gave me that defibrillation hit that kept me running all the way to that hospital.
Apple, my glove is at your feet.


Image by LWYang, Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0) licence

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Gifting in the Digital Age

DSC_0027

It is the time of the year of merrily throwing your money away at greedy merchants, but this time around I cannot avoid noting how hard buying a meaningful gift to your loved one has become. And it’s all the Internet’s fault!
Think about it. No one wants plastic discs anymore, so there goes the idea of buying music; there is no such thing as recorded music gifts in the age of Spotify & Co. Unless your loved one is really nuts about Adele or Taylor Swift (hint: I’m not).
The same goes for DVDs and Blu-rays, with the extra touch of DVDs being an obsolete format (low definition analog) and Blu-rays are soon to be replaced by the 4K Blu-ray format. That is, the format that will render your old Blu-rays obsolete while making you wonder why you ever bothered pouring your money on those coasters.
Even books suffer. Most people I know have long left the dead tree versions behind. So focusing on ebooks, there is the matter of which supplier one goes with so as to match the one(s) used by the receiver of the gift. The supplier question is not that trivial given they all come with their baggage. Said baggage includes all sorts of evil geo blocking (can be quite painful when the subject of your gift is not in your country), DRM and user tracking. Seriously, I don’t know if I want to receive the gift of a book that spies on me.
My point is simple. If your gifts tend to revolve around consumable media, then nowadays you are pretty much limited to speciality books. It’s a large category of all sorts of printable stuff, but it is still a niche category. It’s that and video games, pretty much. Step out of the consumable media world and you’re firmly back in the world of junk gifts that most people will either never use / throw away eventually / sell on eBay come Boxing Day.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Stab, Rinse and Repeat

From Hell's heart, I stab at thee! Prague, Czech Republic

The current wave of violence in Israel brings forth some disturbing news. A 70 year old was stabbed by a Palestinian boy; a young girl was stabbed by an adult Palestinian. The immediate reaction of any sane person is something like “how could they do such a thing?”
Clearly, such actions could never be justified or legitimised. However, I would like to offer my two cents on how the Palestinians can still do such things. I’m talking more than the knee-jerk answers along the lines of “because they don’t have fighter jets that can drop a bomb weighing a ton and indiscriminately destroy a street block with everyone in it, children and elderly included”. Which, by the way, did happen in the last Gaza conflict and caused casualties not dissimilar to the ones Israel is currently facing. Both sides are horribly inhuman, it’s just that one side has better technology; one dreads the day the other side catches up, because it shows too clear signs of lacking ethical inhibitions.
I promised to go beyond that, though, which takes me back to my own Israeli army days. I spent the bulk of these at the West Bank, where I witnessed in first person the pretty horrible conditions that most of the Palestinians there live in. Being that they were still able to see how the other side lives, they could see exactly what they were missing. The result is hate.
It’s a hate of a calibre most of us cannot fathom. I have seen it in their eyes, in pretty much the eyes of everyone of the streets of cities like Nablus or Hebron or Tulkarem that looked at me. Especially with the children and the younger folk; the adults are generally too busy with the daily chores of making ends meet. It is hate of a magnitude that made it clear they would have flailed me alive and severed my limbs one by one if it wasn’t for the gun I was carrying the protection I generally had around me. And I am talking about myself here, a forced conscript who meant the Palestinians no harm and did them no harm either (Israeli soldiers who wish to inflict harm on Palestinians have ample opportunities to do so).
I severely doubt the situation at the West Bank has improved since my own army days. Which brings me to conclude that, yes, it is this hate that drives Palestinians to stab helpless kids or old people. It is no justification for committing such horrible acts, it is just the force that drives them.
Clearly, whether you’re an Israeli or a Palestinian, this is a horrible situation to live with. The trick for dealing with it is not finding who owns the higher moral ground, as is commonly done over the media and on the Internet, because even if there was a clear winner I doubt the other side would simply capitulate. The challenge is to change the situation so that the motivation for violence, be it of the horrible or even the “less” horrible (because the stabbing of a middle aged male adult is no fanfare either), is gone.
It is here that I believe Israel is holding the keys to any potential improvement. I argue that without substantial improvements in the lives of Palestinians, controlled as they are by Israel, there will be no end to the violence. On the other hand, well off content people will rarely bother to go out and stab a young girl (though all societies still have their criminals). However, the current Israeli state of mind is the exact opposite; it deals with violence through escalating the deployment of force. Thus the circle of vengeance continues.
In other words, Israeli society seems content, for lack of a better word, with living the way it currently does. That current state of living has it paying the occasional violence tax, a tariff where a young girl or an old guy are sacrificed at the altar of maintaining the current state of affairs with the Palestinians. It’s like road toll: it’s sad and all, but we’re still using our cars, thank you very much. And when all is said and done, as per the result of elections after elections, Israelis are fine with this state of affairs.


Image by Grufnik, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Dental Advice

Brushing my teeth 2

A few posts ago I complained about the conflicting advice we have been receiving on the life and death matter of healthy diets. I would like to do something similar in this post and complain about the feeble advice we have been receiving on a closely related matter: dental health.
Check this Guardian article dealing with how to look after one’s teeth. Notice anything odd?
I did. For as long as I remember, I recall being told to brush my teeth as quickly as possible after eating, so as to reduce the time during which nasty bacteria + nasty chemicals in the food I ate get to spend munching over my teeth. That advice seemed particularly useful when drinking Coke: don’t let Coke’s acidic nature ruin your teeth, rush off and brush them!
Now, however, we are told differently. We are told that by brushing our teeth immediately following the consumption of acidic foods (not just Coke; also most fruits), we are meant to wait a while before brushing our teeth. Otherwise we are at risk of not only brushing the acid and junk, but also brushing our teeth’s own protective layer away! How long is “a while”? Depending on who you read, that period ranges from twenty minutes to one hour.
So yeah, I have a problem with that. A couple of problems, actually:
  • I understand that, as we learn more, health recommendations can change. Science is constantly evolving. However, if we do have this knowledge now, why isn’t it commonplace? Why aren’t dentists all over the world actively advising us on the correct scheduling of our teeth brushing activities?
  • In order to protect our teeth during those times we are not allowed to brush them, we are told to rinse our mouths with water or – better yet – fluoride rich mouthwash. Cool.
    However, last time I looked, the fluoride rich mouthwashes available to consumers are dominated by brands such as Listerine. Have a look here at the history of Listerine and you will note it served many purposes before focusing on its current marketing incarnation of mouthwash. More specifically, it contains quite a lot of alcohol, a substance we have good reasons to avoid gurgling in our mouths for minutes a day. In other words, there are pretty good medical reasons for consumers to avoid washing their mouths with the mouthwash solutions available to them.
Dear dentists of this world, what gives? You are letting us down, mates.


Image by Sophie, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence

Sunday, 15 November 2015

On the Matter of Ad Blockers

Ad blockers were the hot topic once Apple released iOS 9 with its ability to cater for ad blockers. It was the first time a company of Apple’s clout stood behind a mechanism for defying ads, standing out firmly against Google (and poking a finger in that advertising company’s eye, no doubt). Indeed, Google did the exact opposite when it banned Disconnect from Google Play.
I did not see the point in joining the discussion back then simply because my position is, and has been, quite clear. I changed my mind and will do so now, if only to commemorate the fact Firefox now offers anti-tracking facilities by default (but only in private browsing mode). Again, we have a company that stands up in the face of Google and its ever so popular Chrome, the browser that helps Google track your every move.



So, what do I think of ad blockers?
Before diving in, let us remember the pact we all signed with the devil with regards to our Internet usage. In general, we have all come to expect the Internet to supply us with free services and contents; we pay for those services through our exposure to ads.
Only that things are not that simple. There is more to these ads than a single word can suggest:
  1. We’ve all seen ads that assume too much and ruin a website’s core experience. The worst of that tide has been stemmed, but the problem is still very much there.
  2. Through the politics behind the ads, mainly advertisers distrust of websites telling them how much exposure an ad has received, the world of online advertising is now controlled by third party companies that both place the ads at websites and then provide the statistics to the advertisers themselves. It did not take long before these third parties realised they can increase their income by cross referencing between multiple websites we visit, thus ushering the birth of online trackers. In turn, these trackers follow us around the Internet and build a very detailed portfolio of what each and every one of us stands for. That is exactly how companies like Google and Facebook makes their billions.
    As an anecdote, and in order to illustrate how far user tracking goes, check out this recently revealed tale of ads that track you across devices by emitting ultrasounds.
  3. Even worse than privacy defying tracking ads are the security holes that are there to let hackers take over your computer when ads utilise highly exploitable technologies such as Flash or JavaScript. This is not a theoretical problem: such trojans have been distributed through Yahoo, and more recently through a company offering counter-ad-blocker technology (yes, you read that right). Simply put, if you do not protect yourself with ad blockers, you are leaving yourself exposed to security vulnerabilities.
So there you go. I do not necessarily mind the ads themselves, as long as they are not too obtrusive. On the other hand, I do not recall ever paying attention to online ads, so I can see the problem faced by advertisers when it comes to attracting our attentions. In other words, I would prefer a “user pays” world, and I try to follow that rule when opportunity presents itself through services such as Evernote or fruux. Given most of the Internet still relies on ads, tracking and gaping security halls, I will heavily defend myself with ad blockers, thank you very much.


Adblock Plus image is in the public domain

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Australian Sportsmanship

The following post has been published here before. For some reason it was relegated into a back page; I therefore chose to re-publish it here.

Brick Warriors' Crutches

Spare a thought to the sport obsessed Australian. At least those obsessed to bodily harm levels.
I used to work with a guy whose entire leg was basically metal, the result of a football tackle gone wrong. “But it was worth it”, he used to say about the tackle that is still giving him so much pain. This month alone, a work friend has been booked to a shoulder operation (tennis is to blame) and the daughter of a work colleague is on crutches (tennis is to blame, again).
What’s wrong with you, people?
Not that I am in any position to offer criticism. Not when I’m dead, prematurely, from lack of exercise. And not when bodily harm does not stop me from the things I like doing, like messing around on computers.
My obsessions are no better than anyone else’s. But still, take it easy, people!


Image by Josh Wedin, Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0) licence

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Vale YIFY

Several weeks ago, a 21 year old New Zealander’s endeavour for the past five years or so has ceased, taking down one of the world’s most popular websites with it. Known to the world as YIFY (and later YTS), this guy was in charge of uploading some 5,000 movie titles into the bit torrent network. He did it in a timely manner and with quality that soon established itself as the benchmark for all pirates. This quality had his facilities used by Popcorn Time, the pirate version of Netflix, as well as running the world’s biggest bit torrent tracker facilities.
In other words, YIFY was easily the top individual pirate on the face of this planet. He was the Dread Pirate Roberts of our world. And yet the copyright monopoly, openly assuming responsibility for YIFY’s takedown, remains awfully quiet about its victory.

Pirate Ancestor

Interesting news aside, the question I would like to ask is – what is, exactly, the copyright monopoly’s end game here?
Let us assume we live in their perfect world, a world in which not only YIFY is taken out but all other movie pirates as well (note there is no shortage of those; while YIFY stood out from the crowd, he certainly wasn’t on his own). In this perfect world, where are people expected to source their videos from?
As puzzled as you may be with this question’s seemingly obvious answer, let us examine it.
If your answer to the question is “get the DVD”, then I would challenge you by noting no one in this day and age is interested in accumulating plastic real estate anymore; anyone who tasted the flavour of online streaming, Netflix style, will attest to that.
Then there is the matter of cost: if you’re only interested in watching a movie once, it makes no sense to spend north of $20 on said piece of plastic. Especially given plastic’s obsolete nature: in a world moving towards 4K, DVDs still offer some 500 lines of resolution in NTSC/PAL (remember those?); and if it’s Blu-ray that you’re into, there is a new standard coming in shortly, given the current standard’s inability to support 4K. Also, in the not so distant past we used to be able to rent plastic for sensible fees, but your local Blockbuster went the way of the non avian dinosaur shortly after Netflix entered the scene.
So shut up and stream your movie, you say. Not that easy, I answer: Netflix holds a library where one can always find something to watch, but it is still only a library that will rarely host the movie you actually want to watch (especially if that movie is a recent release). The current trend is to further entrench this sickness, with CBS about to launch its own Netflix style “solution” that will be the only legal way for people to stream its upcoming Star Trek series.
iTunes may be the solution for me, I hear you say; unlike Netflix, it does have recent releases, and its modus operandi is not that different to the Blockbuster of old. True, but at least in Australia iTunes’ pricing is far from reasonable; renting a movie costs three times what I used to pay at my local Video Ezy, RIP. Worse than the price, though, is the usability: last time I tried to “rent” a movie off iTunes, it asked me to wait 5 (!) hours for that movie to download. Sorry, Apple, but that’s not acceptable.

What I’m trying to say here is simple. A world where piracy is absent would be a world where we are all taken back to the pre-VHS days, a world where most of us can only hope to watch a movie at home when that movie trickles down to network TV. No one wants to live in such a world anymore, not even the copyright monopoly (do check the figures out; you will see most of its profits nowadays come from home viewing, not from the cinema).
Instead of the copyright monopoly trolling down pirates, it should stop to think what people actually want. They figured that one out for the music world, more or less, through services such as Spotify. It is about time they do the same for video.


Image by June Yarham, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

They can take our freedom, but they can never take my bacon

Last week was all about bacon and sausages now being labelled carcinogenic by the UN. Seriously, there was no news there; it's not like we did not know processed meats are full of nasty chemicals, nor wasn't it like we were unaware of the dangers of cooking barbecue style.
The UN's message itself, talking about research now indicating a very strong link between these foods and cancer, got mostly misinterpreted too. But hey, mass media was never particularly good at communicating science to the masses, and through the ongoing failures of our education systems the masses are largely incapable of interpreting the nuances of a complicated message. This is not the first time science had a problem communicating with the public, nor would it be the last.

With that out of the way, I would like to focus on what this post wants to focus on.
Time Magazine dedicated a lot of pages to the latest gastronomic revelations. Amongst others, it published the following counter - as in, enough telling us what we shouldn't eat, tell us what we should eat instead!
Here's what Time had to say about that:


Item #4 was the one that attracted my attention the most. Eggs.
It wasn't long ago that we were told, probably over the pages of Time, too, that eggs are to be avoided due to their high concentration of fats and cholesterol. So, what gives?
Don't get me wrong, I'm all for changing one's mind in the face of new evidence. My point, however, is that the particular area of "the recommended diet" seems particularly susceptible to such changes of the mind. We routinely hear different messages about different food items, and those messages are often contradictory. A year ago, did anyone even know this thing called kale even existed?
It's a similar story with sugar. We hear some people saying it's bad, while on the other hand the mainstream authorities are still pumping the good old line of "fat is thy enemy". But the latter seems awfully silent about their recent egg u-turn...
So, again, what gives? What should Ms & Mr Average do? What should they eat?
Maybe we will get to find the answer to this question once enough commercial self interest is removed from the equation. Till then, a lot of us are going to suffer unnecessarily though this cloud of misinformation.


Image copyrights: Time Magazine, used under the fair use assumption

Monday, 2 November 2015

PAX AUS 2015

A couple of years ago I was thoroughly impressed with PAX breaking into the Australian scene. Last year was a bit of an eye opener; I didn’t really enjoy the experience. This past weekend I’ve made my way to the third PAX armed with those now wide open eyes and also the virtues of experience. I knew what to expect.
I will sum it up: best PAX experience ever.
Now for the details.



The core event is based around allowing people to sample the future. One can play all sorts of soon to be released video games. So I will come out in the open and state: thank you very much, but I don’t care. I do not see the point of queuing in a way too noisy environment for the dubious pleasure of a limited experience at something I will be able to have a proper go at in two months’ time.
I know, mine is the type of cynicism that comes with age. In the same vain, I am not interested in hearing what the latest celebrity gamer’s current favourite board game is. That said, I will admit PAX is clearly aimed at an age group younger than me.
Nothing in the above implies I am unable to have fun at PAX. It’s just that I need to find my own brand of fun. As it happens, most of this fun came from being able to acquire on overview of what’s available in the gaming arena (including video, card and board games) and then trying my hand with a proper, guided, go. While that type of experience is generally unavailable for video games (exceptions do exist), it is certainly available for card and board games. And yes, some gems have been identified!
It is also nice that this whole affair takes place at a very nice environment. Despite the gathering of a large number of people and the congestion that comes with that, nowhere were ugly scenes to be found. Despite queuing there was never any pushing or attempted overtaking. Everyone was just so nice! I will be blunt: this so different to the football stadium experience proves all those who claim video games rot kids’ minds and/or turn them into psychopaths wrong. It’s actually the exact opposite.
As to my top PAX experience? As before, it involved direct exposure to indie developers, and particularly the Toronto based crew of three from Vagabond Dog, makers of the wonderful Always Sometimes Monsters (available on Steam and iOS). I even used the opportunity to ask them for tips on how to get myself employed by the Toronto based company I’d very much like to have as my next employer. Plus they even gave my son a free shirt! [Yes, PAX is a very kid friendly affair.]

Next year I shall return to PAX in greater numbers.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

Are You Being Served?

To this child, the British comedy series Are You Being Served served as a milestone. Acting as one of my first notable uses of a VCR, I would re-watch episodes with my uncle and we would laugh at it again and again. I guess, in retrospect, it also served to teach me English (as well as the German word for bra, it has to be noted). Sure, by today’s standards this was a sexist + racist + homophobic show, yet it is so well etched in my memory that I still do revisit it from time to time.
Alas, nothing has prepared me for the Wikipedia news bulletin. Apparently, from the entire original cast, only one of the actors is still alive – Mr Rumbold (actually, Nicholas Smith, but to me he will always be Mr Rumbold). Conforming with my morbid mood of late, the bulk of this crew had departed during recent years:
  1. Mr Humphries (John Inman) died in 2007, age 71, as consequence of food poisoning.
  2. Mrs. Slocombe (Mollie Sugden) died in 2009, age 86.
  3. Ms Brahms (Wendy Richard) died in 2009, like her boss, but age 65. Cancer is all the proof one needs for the absence of a loving god.
  4. Young Mr Lucas (Trevor Bannister) died in 2011, age 76. He died while gardening, which should serve as a lesson to us all.
  5. Captain Peacock (Frank Thornton) died in 2013, age 92 (good on him!).
I take my hat off to all of them. You have all served me very well indeed.


Image used under the assumption of fair use

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Bluetooth Headphones

Bluetooth headphones give me the shits.
They need power to run.
The need for power means they’re heavier.
Sound quality wise, the bit rates they can run on nowadays imply they cannot handle audiophile grade throughput (although they should be able to handle Spotify rates; at the same time, new Bluetooth standards do cater for improved speeds).

Indeed, now that I have tried myself a cheap $20 pair of Bluetooth headphones I bought off eBay, it has become clear to me that barring some sort of a miracle I will not be purchasing any type of wired headphones anymore.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Echoes


Last week I heard familiar echoes on the train. The voice of the concerned Israeli.
Somewhere behind me, a woman was frantically calling her mother. Speaking Hebrew, she told her she just received notification on her smartphone of a stabbing in Ra’anana (an affluent suburb of Tel Aviv), and therefore wanted to speak with her as soon as possible to make sure she’s alright.
I admit, by now I forgot this state of mind. But hearing that voice on the train reminded me of the first time I was in such a mode myself.
It was during the first Gulf War. We would receive news of scuds fired from Iraq towards the centre of Israel, and then there would be the immediate rush of people everywhere trying to use whatever phone available the make sure their loved ones are fine. Back then no one knew what a mobile phone was. Often calls could not be made due to excess demand.
A lot has happened in Israel since. We now all have a smartphone stuck up our ass that, amongst others, can tell us of the latest act of mass violence. Clearly, our technology has advanced over the years, even if our humanity hasn't.


With regards to the embedded clip:
If you ever sought the definition of musical perfection, this is it.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Coffee in a Land Far, Far Away


Hope had me sampling all the coffees I could spot. Maybe, just maybe, the next one I’ll be trying would actually be worthy of its title, rather than yet another cup of dirty [soy] milk?
I was away from home. I was desperate. Desperate for a decent cuppa, like the ones you can get at every street corner of Melbourne (not to mention the really good ones that are there for the picking, too).
Looking around me, I noticed I was the only grumpy faced person around. Everybody else was loving their coffee, admiring it, a facsimile copy of my face upon consumption of the real thing from Melbourne.
It was then that it occurred to me: these people are at risk of living out their entire lives without ever knowing what a proper cup of coffee tastes like. Through the relative obscurity of good coffee, they will suffer for their ignorance, missing out on one of life’s biggest joys while wasting their lives in mediocrity.
What a shame.

As inconceivable as it may sound, coffee isn’t everything. There are more important things in life. Even I will concede that. Thus the question I found myself asking, as I was watching these miserable people sipping their dirty milk and waste their lives in their blissful ignorance, was this: what other things are we missing out on through our ignorance? What things are there, ripe for the picking, but are left on their low hanging branches because we’re simply not looking the right way?
Take the average Sydneysider or Melbournian who never had the opportunity to get away much from Australia. They could lead their entire lives completely unaware of what a properly functioning public transport system feels like. That could lead to them appointing captains like Tony Abbott (good riddance!) to lead them, a guy that will fight against public transport with the full might of his religious fervour while seeking to invest billions after useless billions on jammed up roads.
If we cast our eyes State side for a minute, we can state the obvious and note just how dumb American public discourse sounds like to everyone else (i.e., the rest of the world). Democrats tear the Republican guts and vice versa, but both stand out like total morons on matters such as health care. Probably one of the most beneficial experiences for your average American would be to have themselves a medical emergency when visiting the UK, just so they could experience the wonders that the absolutely free NHS health system has to offer.
How can such horrors of ignorance take place?
Well, it’s not too hard to see that we all grow up accepting that what we see in our immediate surroundings is the universal truth. To an Australian, public transport is a worthless endeavour; to an American, free public health is synonymous with murder. When public discourse is controlled by self interest, and let’s face it – the level of political discourse in Australia is lower than kinder, with the two major parties ecstatically happy to keep it right there – there is not much hope for the general public. When the media is, in effect, a monopoly held by one guy whose name starts with Murdoch, the process of critically reviewing that public discourse is aborted prior to birth. And when the Internet, once deemed the secret weapon of democracy, is ruled by a few greedy giant conglomerates through which we consume the wealth of our information about the world – your Facebooks, Googles and Twitters – the hope of us individually crossing the divide to open our eyes to the world plummets to previously unexplored depths.
The only tool available for us to gain our freedom of mind with is travel. We might experience plenty of disappointments as we go about – the poor coffee that lies in the realms beyond Melbourne, the medical emergency awaiting us at the UK – but with it comes a new way of seeing the world around. Travel is the most effective removalist of ignorance.

All of which leaves me asking a personal question: what experiences am I missing out on? What is that excellent cup of coffee that is not at the end of the rainbow, but right around the corner, waiting for me to try and marvel?

I do not know the answer to that frustrating question. What is clear to me, though, is that I am almost certainly doomed to never read the book I would find the best ever. But I can try; I can explore books in order to climb up the tree of that crusade for the holy grail. At the end of it all, it is that exploration that counts and it is all that really matters.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Mortality

Memories of my father keep floating about.
At a school concert I could see my son, on stage, scanning for us parents. I recall how, under similar circumstances, I would never have this problem; my father’s deaf defying whistling capabilities made sure of that.
While being sick, I noted my son’s repulsive stares at me and the state I was in. He did not want to be there and see me like that. I recall how, witnessing my own father at a similar condition, I could not fathom how this giant of a man could ever be brought down by anything.

There is an overarching theme to these comparisons between my son, myself and my father. It’s a cyclical affair: the death of my father hurts more because I am able to see him in me today, in the way I relate to my son. I am also able to see me in my son, in the way he relates to me.
And since it feels like it was only yesterday that I was a little boy and my father was a towering giant capable of anything, and only yesterday that I saw my father shrinking until eventually dying, life has been put under a brand new perspective. For the first time ever, I can see the end of the tunnel; for the first time ever, life feels agonisingly short.
Yet there is so much I still want to do and achieve.

This realisation, the acknowledgement of the fact I will not be able to achieve everything I want to achieve, I will not be able to read all the books I want to read or travel to all the places I want to travel to, has been served to me in person through the death of my father.
I can see where he was when he was at a similar stage to where I am with my son today. And I can see that it’s all downhill from here. The best achievements of my life are now behind me; the best physique I ever had is now long gone, the best intellectual capabilities I ever had have faded away.
I am a mortal.


Copyrights for the image of Mortality, the book by Christopher Hitchens, are with the author. I highly recommend the book, having awarded it the best book of the year.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Sugar Rush

Sugar Loops

Last week a Chinese work colleague ran up to me as we were both approaching our office building in the morning.
“Moshe”, he said, “I noticed you lost weight. Do you have any advice for me? I want to do that, too.”
I was taken by surprise with this direct approach, but I do commend it. This Australian way of going around the bush instead of talking directly to the point has been known to drive me crazy on a daily basis. Which is exactly the reason I pointed out the Chinese factor; the only other person to ask me about my weight loss at work was an Indian. Do accuse me of stereotyping and extrapolating too much out of too little, but I think there is clearly a point here for “pure” Aussies to take note of. And the point is, you don’t learn by going around the bush and avoiding what’s staring you in the face.

Cultural insight aside, here is what I told my colleague (a very nice and wise guy, if I might add):
  • If you want to reduce weight, avoid consuming stuff with added sugar.
  • If you want to put on weight, eat sugary stuff.
I was not joking; my personal experience really comes down to that.
I know I have focused on calorie counting before. I know most people put a lot of emphasis on exercise. But experiments I have conducted on myself lately seem to prove the point that, as long as one handles oneself reasonably, little else matters in the matter of weight management other than the small matter of added sugar consumption.


Image by Vox Efx, Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0) licence

Monday, 31 August 2015

Papers, Please


On Friday morning my Twitter feed burst into a life of its own. Australia’s Border Force, whatever that is, has announced it will be joining hands with Victoria Police and public transport authorities in Melbourne in order to conduct Operation Fortitude. "Anyone crossing paths" with the Border Force, the press release said, will be asked to demonstrate their visa status.

Several observations came quickly to mind:
  • What happened to due process, as in the assumption of innocence?
  • How is this farce going to be implemented without it turning into a clear case of racial profiling?
  • Where is the common sense in stopping so many people for the sake of catching the infinitesimal percentage of visa violators lurking in the thick of the Melbourne CBD?
As the CEO of the Always Picked at the Airport’s So Called Random Security Checkups Club, this truly pissed me off. I can live with the farce theatrics at the airport because, hey, I hardly fly; but what does this new initiative mean for my daily life? Is each train ride going to be like that airport nightmare?
One can also clearly see where things have to go from here: in the name of efficiency, we will shortly be wearing our IDs on us. It won’t be long till I have a Star of David on my forearm as I am relegated to the carriages normally reserved for cattle.

I wasn’t the only one worried about this initiative. The Friday lunch room at work was shared between a Russian, a Chinese and I (all perfectly legal Australians) when the TV broke the Fortitude news. The Russian noted how even in the lesser parts of Russia he never encountered such attitudes, and commented that when asked for his visa he will ask if MasterCard is accepted, too. The Chinese guy was clearly worried, noting his paperwork is safely at home and wondering what he would have to do when stopped.
You know what this whole thing felt like, for me? It felt like being back in Israel. A country where you have to present yourself at the entrance of each shop. Where not carrying the right paperwork could land you in big trouble (the fact this is almost exclusively implemented against Arabs does not matter in the least).
Me, I agreed with myself on an approach of peaceful protest. I know my rights; officers can stop me if they have reason to believe I have done something wrong or if I am on public transport. Border Force people can ask for my papers if they have reason to believe there is something wrong. Given there is nothing wrong, I made sure my phone is set to take videos with minimum clicks and my Periscope app is up and running. Any delegate of the authorities that stops me will get the Internets to watch them live in the act of unreasonable behaviour.
Oh, and I have my favourite lawyer on my iPhone's Signal app.


But then came Melbourne’s hour of glory.
By 14:00, several hundred protestors surrounded the Flinders Street train station and prevented the Border Force from executing their plans. The latter had to be evacuated after changing to civilian clothing. It was all very Melbourne like: if you look at the photos you will see many if not most of the protestors were holding cups of takeaway coffee. These are my people that fought for me! (While, I should add,  I was away working.)
The whole operation got untangled, then cancelled, very quickly. Soon we heard hiccups from upstairs denying the operation was ever planned (jokers, the lot) but failing to explain the ministerial approvals it had received.
In my opinion, Australia got lucky: the Liberal dummies in charge chose to open their scare campaign at the capital of Australia’s multiculturalism, a Greens seat. Had the Dutton & Abbott comedians initiated their scare campaign at a less tolerant spot – pretty much anywhere else in Australia – chances are I would have ended up wearing my Star of David in a month or two.

I am sure the war is far from over. The Liberals are clearly on a war mongering scare campaign to rescue their ailing polls with. However, what was also demonstrated through this Melbourne Spring demonstration is the power of ordinary people to organise themselves and fight back. Which explains exactly why our government is hot in its pursuit of the implementation of data retention measures with which it can control and oversee our use of the Internet.


Papers Please image copyrights belong to 3909 LLC. I highly recommend this game (I play the iPad version).

1/9/2015 update: Author Richard Flanagan, whose book The Narrow Road to the Deep North I had recently discussed, has some very wise words to pour over this Border Farce.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Musical Interlude

Here's proof having some Mass Effect weapons at hand can always be of some use:



To which I will add that whoever manages Lana Del Rey's musical career and product branding, they are doing an excellent job.

I will leave you, however, with the song I've been playing the most these past two challenging weeks. A song that makes people note just how good this band called R.E.M. is/was:


I will finish off by noting that one John Paul Jones did the classical arrangements for the song. You might remember him from a little known band called Led Zeppelin.

Friday, 21 August 2015

The Deforestation of the Amazon

I assume that by now you've heard of and probably read the New York Times article discussing the working culture at Amazon. Assuming that article is correct with its facts, then here is the worst example known to humanity on how the human spirit could be torn apart in the name of efficiency and productivity. And I do tend to suspect those facts are correct, given Amazon's record and given Jeff Bezos being the libertarian that he is (note the difference between that and civil libertarians).

Books from amazon

It did make me think, this article.
When they told us how smartphones are made by slave labour and reported the suicides at Foxconn, where iPhones tend to get assembled, I dismissed it. It's not like I had a choice: pretty much all gadgets nowadays are made of blood. You can have your moral ground, but you'd be stuck at a prehistoric era.
Then when they told us of the harsh conditions at Amazon's warehouses, where workers' movements and packing throughput are measured while temperatures are rising, I managed to convince myself to dismiss it because all jobs at these levels tend to suck in one way or another.
Now, however, I hear that Amazon is having a go at white collar workers. Now is when I cannot dismiss it anymore, because now they're after me.
So yeah, I'm two faced. But at least I recognise the fact.

I do not doubt for a second that my record as an Amazon consumer is yet to be concluded. I do, however, plan on reducing my Amazon intake as much as I consider reasonably possible, and that includes purchases from Amazon subsidiaries such as Book Depository or Woot.
The more important fact to recognise is that Amazon is not alone in this game. None of these companies that try and portray themselves like they were your best friend really is. Apple, Google, Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft, they're all the same shit - they're all there to make money, and they will probably even argue that they are legally bound to cross the threshold of what a reasonable person would consider ethical.
Any significant improvement in the way things are has to happen at the political level. With the USA being as capitalist minded as it is, and with the USA in control of the world and its culture, I cannot see that happening any time soon. Indeed, I see the opposite taking place right in front of our eyes in the shape of the TPP agreement.


Image by Aurelijus Valeiša, Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0) licence

Monday, 17 August 2015

Aussie Standards

One of the reasons I wouldn't want to live in the UK is the houses. I don't know if you managed to survey many of those yourselves, but I will give you the gist of it: the vast majority of UK houses follow the exact same design. A design loyal to the technology and economic state of affairs the way they used to be about a hundred years ago.
No wonder these people are stuck in love with their archaic monarchy.

Question is, are we any better?
I will argue that the way we build our houses tells us a lot about who we are. What our values and aspirations are. We've covered the UK; now let us have a look at Australia and Melbourne in particular.

Timber Floors and New Krslovic Homes

The first thing you would notice when you step into a Melbourne home during winter is that it's cold. Not as cold as the outside, but compared to what most people consider normal indoor temperature - even during winter - your Melbourne residence would feel quite cold.
There are multiple reasons for this cold. Melbourne goes through extreme temperature variance between seasons and sometimes between the hours of the day; the same house has to deal with both wintery temperatures less than ten degrees as well as summer temperatures above forty. Melbourne houses tend to also be fairly big, which implies heating them up is no simple affair.
Most of all, things come down to Melbourne homes being built to lower standards than their international cold climate colleagues do. Whereas the average UK home is built of double bricks, the average Melbourne home is built of one layer of bricks and a layer of plaster. When Scandinavia utilises double and triple glazing as standard, Melbourne is still mostly built with one. And so on.
It comes down to Melbourne's, and Australia's in general, high cost of labour. And it also comes down to Australia's, in general, low cost of energy; it's cheaper to build a flimsy house and heat it up ferociously, though without much efficiency, than it is to build a house that will look after its own temperature.
Or is it? The world is changing, and Australia seems to lag behind. In yet another arena.

The other week we surveyed a huge apartment building currently being built in our area.
The vultures, otherwise known as real estate agents, circled around us demonstrating their goods in their attempt to go for the kill. Yet, as nice as the apartments were, and they were nicely built at a very nice area, they were simply too small for people - whether singles or families - to happily live in.
It was funny to witness the lengths the builders went through in order to prevent would be buyers from noticing they are like Gulliver at the land of Lilliput. All fittings are smaller: the sinks are smaller, the toilets are smaller, the showers are smaller. To top it all off, we were informed that the buyers of these apartments will even receive a free fridge! We were not surprised to see this was a 300 litre fridge fit in a custom made enclosure; no normal fridge could fit those apartments.
Hundreds, thousands of such apartments are being built in Melbourne as we speak. Apartments that no one really wants to live at. Apartments where only people stuck with no better choice will end up at.
So why do such apartments get built in the first place? They are there because they are not designed to enrich the lives of their residents; they are there in order to lure the prospective property investor, or rather to turn normal folk into official Australian Investment Property Owners. That's all there is to it; no more and no less.
If there ever was a telltale sign for how far Australians can be driven by their greed, it is in the apartments they build for themselves. Those apartments will be there for decades to come, making the lives of our younger generations and those that follow miserable and ensuring they remember us not as fondly as we would hope.
And we let it be the case, driven as we are by short term greed.


Image by Timber Floors, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Security Dos

The last couple of weeks have seen an unprecedented amount of computer vulnerabilities surface up into public knowledge. All Mac users, we have been told, are exposed to a certain online vulnerability that they simply cannot escape and chances are Apple will not fix in the foreseeable future. Android users have been hit with one unavoidable security vulnerability after the other, all of which quite severe, with hardly a hope of rectifying the situation - the direct result of an eco system featuring thousands of different devices distributed through numerous telcos that couldn't care less about the security of their end user.
What can a simpleton user do in the face of such overwhelming odds?
The results pretty much speak for themselves. Most users do not do enough. Most users actually have no idea what they can do. For most users, having an up to date antivirus software that gives them a green tick of approval is all that is required in order to consider their PC environment safe.
Well, it isn't enough.
The fact of the matter is, if one wants to stay on top of the latest computer security hazards, one has to spend a lot of time keeping oneself informed with the latest news as well as on keeping one's computing armada (all PCs, smartphones, tablets and gaming consoles for a start, not to mention the latest in the Internet of Things) up to scratch. And even that does not guarantee anything come the next vulnerability, or come a vulnerability that the world is simply unaware of.


As depressing as the above may sound, this does not mean that one needs to turn the other chick. Leave that to Jesus; you can still put up a fight. There are actually several simple things you can do, things that will help reduce your personal risk significantly - to the point of being able to consider oneself almost (but never) in the clear.
Here are the three top measures you can take in order to keep on top of your online security, as recommended by yours truly:

1. Keep your devices and applications patched up with the latest version of everything:
Make sure you install the latest updates to your PC/smartphone/etc operating system as soon as these updates are released and up to the latest patch available. Do the same to the applications you use, particularly those that use the Internet: your web browsers are the classic example.
Note Microsoft releases most of its security updates on what it calls Patch Tuesday, the second Tuesday of the month; make sure you run your Windows Updates shortly after. Adobe has, by now, synchronised itself to Microsoft time, publishing its releases at the same time. Apple has a less regular release schedule but it will let you know when its gadgets are ready for an update. Ubuntu stands clear of the field, regularly checking for all relevant updates and handling all relevant updates at the same time seamlessly in the background while requiring not much more than a mouse click.
Android stands out as the black sheep of the family, as already mentioned. If you do go with Android, I would recommend buying a model that guarantees being able to receive regular updates - say, Google's own Nexus models. Beware of buying your Android gadget through a telco, because that telco will hold you back from updating your device later on.
What good is keeping your device up to date this way? After all, especially with Apple, keeping it up to date will also mean sacrificing battery power and speed?
The answer is simple. With each patch that's being released, the latest round of security hazards and vulnerabilities is taken care of. At the same time, due to them being taken care of, they also become public knowledge. Thus, at the same time that a solution is being offered to the public, the various rogue elements of the electronic world are offered a raw list of vulnerabilities they can try and exploit through the large ranks of everybody out there that fails to keep themselves patched. And exploit they will; you can count on it. It's a rule of nature.
You do not have to put yourself in the ranks of the exploited. Patch up. Avoid the non patched like the plague that it is.

2. Use a password manager
I have discussed password managers here before. Password managers offer two key services: they let you easily maintain long and complicated passwords of a grade you will never be able to remember on your own, and they let each and every such password be unique.
In turn, this helps you in two ways. Nowadays, when passwords get lost, that usually happens in the form of a massive database leak at the company holding on to your password. Usually, if those companies are up to their game, the passwords will be hashed - meaning, it will take some effort of behalf of the hacker to actually know what your password is. If you use a strong password created by a password manager, as opposed to a simple dictionary word (like "password"), there's a good chance that hacker would never be able to put their hands on your actual password. It's a maths game; the hacker's "guess the password" utility can only guess so many options during the hacker's lifetime. A good, password manager generated password, will take them a few billion years to guess using today's hardware. We can live with that.
Occasionally the hackers will get your password, though. Too many companies like Sony and Adobe exist out there, keeping your passwords as plain text. This is when having unique passwords helps. In most of the latest rounds of online identity thefts, the reason the hackers were able to get into people's accounts was to do with the fact those people used the same password on multiple websites/devices. That will never happen if you use a password manager!
I have recommended 1Password here before. It's actually free for iOS devices, but it will cost you on a Mac or Windows. LastPass has recently reduced its prices, now offering free services; you pay to get your passwords synchronised across devices.
Do have a look into such a product, it would be one of the best things you'd ever do for the sake of your online security. Sure, password managers do not negate all risks; they actually introduce new ones. But the fact of the matter is, you are much safer in the hands of the security experts from AgileBits (makers of 1Password) than in your own humble hands alone. You should exploit their expertise to your own benefit!

3. Disable
This last measure is simple. If you don't need something running on your computer or your gadget, disable it. Better yet, remove it.
You're asking for examples. I'll give you two.
Adobe Flash is something you should be able to live without nowadays. Lately it also happens to be our major source of security hazards, with even Yahoo ads injecting malicious codes into web pages of the most popular of websites. YouTube is where most of us needed Flash before, but nowadays YouTube and most video streaming websites have moved on to HTML 5, clearing the path for you to get rid of this up to no good hazard. And if you really think you still need Flash, do yourself a favour: disable it. Modern browsers like Firefox and Chrome will give you the option to prevent Flash contents from running without your specific, direct, approval. Use that option!
My second example is Java. Ever since Oracle took over Java from the setting Sun, it failed to deal with security properly. As it happens, you're in luck: hardly anything out of the corporate world uses Java anymore (a lot of stuff uses JaveScript, but that's a different animal), so the chances of Java's removal having an effect on you are minimal. Indeed, most modern browsers no longer have Java, by default, and even Apple got rid of it a couple of years back. As far as I can tell, the main implication of removing Java on a home user nowadays is Minecraft - which is why I got my Minecraft on a console rather than a PC.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Australian Decadence

Talking Head

By now we’ve more or less stopped laughing at Agriculture Minister, Barnaby Joyce, rather miserable uttering concerning the decadence of gay marriage and the potential economic effects on trade with Asia were such acts allowed.
Yeah, stupid. But Bronwyn Bishop took over in that department. 
If we stop mocking the sheer stupidity of Joyce, we can pause for a little on the view that stupidity represents. Essentially, Joyce is saying that we should not care for basic human rights or general right from wrong; all that matters is the bottom line, and if trade might get hurt then, well, we should all shed a tear for the gays amongst us and plough on.
Is that a good representative for the values Australia should stand up for?
I argue Joyce did not speak in a vacuum. He said what he said because his crowd, the generic Australian voter, votes through their back pocket. The majority of people I speak with do not care for right or wrong at the polling booth, they care for what their vote will earn them. Negative gearing, subsidies for private schools, superannuation discounts for the rich – they know these are all wrong, but they will vote for them anyway because they benefit from them. And screw everyone else.
If you ask me, this is Australia’s true decadence.


Image by Marie Peters, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence

Friday, 31 July 2015

fruux > Google

I make it no secret I would consider the world a better place if we were to eradicate Google. Not that I mind its products; some of them are pretty good, some the best. It’s the surveillance and the tracking that comes bundled with those services that I despise, which is why I have already dedicated a post to Gmail alternatives in the field of email.
Now I am here to tell you of another alternative to a core Google service, the calendar and contacts applications. The rational for ditching Google in this department is clear: first, do you really want Google to know exactly where and when you are going to be, through your calendar? And second, what did your friends ever do to you that you’re letting Google gulp down all their contact details?
There are, of course, viable answers to these questions. Services like Google Now can only work if you do let Google know everything there is to know about you. Besides, let’s be clear, Google does a pretty good job managing contacts and calendars; theirs is not a product one would want to leave behind because of its inferiority.
Yet that’s exactly what I did, and I am here to report I am happier for having done that.

The contacts/calendar alternative I went with comes from fruux, a small German company specialising in contacts/calendar solutions. Wow, such an exact fit!
The key difference between fruux and your Google is in the privacy department. Starting with fruux being a German company, its policies state it never uses your data for anything while its security facilities have your data  encrypted both when communicating with fruux' servers as well as when at rest with fruux. Do note, however, that fruux uses Amazon servers, which pretty much guarantees the NSA has access to your data, assuming they have the ability to crack its encryption. The main point is that your data is as secure and private as it can be for a cloud product that let’s you enjoy the benefits of a cloud based solution (as opposed to, say, the Apple solution that only works on Apple gadgets).
These benefits include web access at will and for free (through facilities that can feel noticeably cruder to Google’s) as well as up to two devices for free. Note fruux does not have its own apps; you are free to use any standard calendar/contacts application, from Outlook to the Contacts or Calendar apps on your iPhone.
There is not much for me to add here other than state fruux simply works, with both my wife and I being happy converts from the Google jail. We particularly like the ability to throw shared calendars into the mix, which allows us to easily (incredible easily!) run our own private calendars/contacts as well as a mutual calendar for stuff that’s relevant to the two of us.
I took great pleasure in deleting all my contacts and calendar information off Google. And I highly recommend fruux!


Image copyrights: fruux

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Top of the Crab to You

Attack of the Crab Monsters

This blog's sister blog, Crab Juice, is celebrating its 9th birthday today. As has always been the case, proceedings involve yearly summaries and pickings of the best this year had offered.
So go forth and have a look. Later we can blast a tank or two over a cuppa.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Ode to the Public Library

One of my more interesting destinations, back then in the once upon a time era, used to be the book shop. A unique place that collected huge amounts of quality entertainment and enlightenment where I was allowed to pick and choose (and then pay) for the food that is going to be nourishing my thoughts next. 
For better or worse, that establishment is now more or less gone. Instead we have ourselves massive online shops and ebooks that allow us to read more and acquire our reading material faster and easier than ever. Yet there is no replacement for the book shop as a physical place of pilgrimage; or rather, do we really need such places of pilgrimage in the first place?
This post is here to argue that yes, we need them. Not for religious reasons, but rather for the simple fact that libraries still fulfil important jobs.

Read a fucking book tee, Red Emma's, Baltimore, Maryland, USA

We do not get to one of our local libraries as often as we used to, but when we do we notice we are not alone. We usually bump into people we know, people from our community, which – given my background as an immigrant – is a rare affair for me in Australia. Extrapolate from my own private experience and you should arrive at the conclusion that a public library seems to serve as some pillar of quality community interaction. A hub, of sorts, and a high quality one at that.
I will not go into other roles the contemporary library fills nowadays, like offering access to the Internet or free (but heavily DRMed) short term ebook rentals. These do not affect me in person.
Book wise, the number one benefit of the modern day library lies in its curation. Every time I visit the library I am exposed to the books on prominent display, as curated by the librarians. These happen to be a mix of popular hits with the local readership as well as books that the librarians find interesting. What’s notable about this curation is that, in contradiction to the one you get/got at a book shop, choices are not affected by marketing or sales or accounting departments, but rather by popular demand and the tastes/inclinations of the local librarian. As such, those curations happen to hit home with me and point me towards books I would have never otherwise heard of but will greatly enjoy reading much more than most other books recommended through market driven channels. You know, the channels that seem to forget books published five years ago or longer even exist.
That curation also works in a manner that no “recommended for you” page on Amazon can achieve. In an instant I am exposed to dozens of books (how important is that book cover!), and within seconds I know where my focus should go. Online, the story is significantly different; one can only focus on one book at a time, and the links between one book and another are rather limited in number. At the library I can drown myself in a hundred books a time and quickly identify 2-3 favourites. Amazon is still unable to achieve that.
You can dismiss the library if you wish. I argue that this service it’s giving me is of vast importance, particularly because the economics of our era have made this a time of very little free time. The time it takes to spare a look at books is sparse. On the other hand, our generation of over stimulated humans is well trained on how to deal with massive amounts of information, which means that we can easily digest the book display at our local library.
To put it another way: the institution of the local public library has survived the latest challenges imposed on it by technology, well enough to still offer vital services to the public. As it has always been, the public library is well worth community investment.


Image by Cory Doctorow, Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0) licence

Friday, 24 July 2015

My Place of Warship

Disney Worship

With the pending doom of my current employment, one source of comfort is the act of daydreaming up my fantasy workplace. The place the will combine everything I love the most into something others can enjoy while earning me money, too.
I even thought of a name: “The Hummus and the Pita: Abou Gadro’s Place of Warship”

The Hummus and the Pita will offer the following core services:
  • We will be serving our customers the best dish ever, hummus (consumed with the avid support of pita bread).
  • We will be serving our customers quality coffee.
  • Customers will be able to enjoy their hummus & coffee over public discussions on matters of technology and the Internets.
  • Customers will be able to put their learning into use.
The above should explain the choice of a name, but in case you didn’t get it:
  • “The Hummus and the Pita” is designed to sound like your average English style pub name, i.e., two silly nouns connected in a manner that makes no real sense (e.g., "the crab and the juice").
  • “Abou Gadro” gives both Arabic flair as well as a scientific one. That goes well with hummus.
  • “Warship” hints at the possibility of taking part in MMOs such as World of Warships, while suggesting that hummus and coffee are addictive to the point of worship. What seems to be a spelling error acts to attract further attention.

To clarify: the above was written in a burst of whim and should not be taken seriously. Once I do lose my job I will put on my suit and tie, like all good boys, and beg for my part in the job interviews scene.


Image by Albert, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Star Copyright Wars

“Without copyright, independent creation is impossible”
The above are not my words. They’re the words of Prof Michael Fraser, who at some point in time (and perhaps still) was the chair of the Australian Copyright Council (ACC). He said them at a debate I have attended and discussed before.
All the hype that’s currently in the air ahead of a Christmas release of the next Star Wars movie, episode 7, The Force Has a Coffee to Wake Up With, made me reminisce on Fraser words. Reminisce, and demonstrate in a post just how to debunk that statement was.


Think Star Wars for a moment. Think of the hype: clearly, there are many people out there looking forward, very looking forward, to the new Star Wars movie. And a big part of this longing is to do with the duration, measure in decades, between batches of Star Wars movies. The reason for that long duration? Copyright!
If it wasn’t for copyright, we would have had everybody in this world and their grandparents doing their own version of Star Wars. We would have had Star Wars coming out of our nostrils.
Copyright is not the enabler of creativity; it is the blocker of such. I know, because even my YouTube family baby video was taken down (thanks a bunch, Disney!) due to a copyright claim. You see, it had Star Wars music playing in the background.

No, I am not arguing we should kill copyright altogether in the name of enabling the mass creation of Star Wars stuff. I certainly think George Lucas is entitled to enjoy the fruits of his creation. That said, I think he would have done just as well with significantly less inhibiting copyrights.
Still, I hear you argue, that independently made Star Wars content would never be up to the quality the multibillion dollar juggernaut studios are able to produce. I agree; there is definitely a question of quantity vs. quality here. It does not, however, render my core argument – regarding copyright actually being an inhibitor of creation – wrong.
I will concede one thing: no independent production can rise to the peaks of quality delivered to us by The Phantom Menace.


9 August 2015 update:
If you didn't believe me on Star Wars, here comes Buck Rogers to prove the point.