Monday, 31 July 2006

Today's letter to The Age

Dear sir/madam,

Lately, and for obvious reasons, the media has been busy covering the carnage taking place in Lebanon. A lot of people are angry at Israel, and rightly so: harming innocent civilians is a war crime in every book of law, and the fact Israel has warned the region's population to leave the premises doesn't nullify that; it even enhances it, because forcing someone to leave their home is a war crime by its own merit.
However, there is a significant lack of duality in the way the media covers the events. It is obvious, for example, that if it it could, Hezbollah would be very glad to score a direct hit on an Israeli school and kill victims aplenty; it directly targets such facilities, and the fact it didn't manage such a feat so far is mainly an attribute of its inability rather than its lack of will. And if such an event were to happen, I am quite sure what the reaction on the Arab street would be like: I was in the West Bank on the 11th of September 2001, and I can assure you that I am yet to see scenes of jubilation to match the ones I saw in the streets of Ramallah on that particular day. While it is unfair to judge the Arabs on an event that is yet to take place, what is obvious is the glaring silence of critics against the targeting and the hurting of Israeli civilians.
I guess what I am trying to say is that both sides utterly fail their humanity class.

Moshe Reuveni

LED the way

As someone who prefers projectors of all types to the more common flat panels favored by your local electric shop that's out to make as much money as it can, I found the latest developments in the field of projection to be quite interesting.
Basically, some newer projectors now feature LEDs as the source of light instead of a lamp. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense! Instead of taking one not so long lasting and damn expensive light source and splitting its light to the three RGB base colors with a prism, you use a trio of RGB LED lights that will last till World War 4.
The effect should be most noticeable with DLP projectors, as those employ a flywheel to distribute the different colors around; well, no more flywheels, because LEDs could be switched on and off quickly enough to generate the exact color you want at the right time you want it. Better yet, by switching all LEDs off, you can actually create the perfect black, something that all projectors struggle with.

Sunday, 30 July 2006

Project: R-Views

I thought about it for quite a while but didn't have the guts to move on with it.
But not anymore, for today I have started publishing my own reviews blog - a blog dedicated to nothing but reviews. Mostly film reviews, for that matter. Check it out at:
As a result I expect this blog to suffer a bit while I pump the new blog with content, but I'm positive the end result will be more time spent bloggin overall. Branding wise, this will be my personal blog, while the new one will be dedicated to reviews of all sorts - but reviews alone.

Saturday, 29 July 2006

Us and Them

One of life's not so secretive secret pleasures is eating. And despite Jo's opinion that I'm eating bird food, roasted sunflower seeds are one of my favorite foods ever. They go really well with watching football, and if it's an Arsenal game and Bergkamp just happened to score it's the equivalent of an orgasm.
The entire concept of eating sunflower seeds is funny because it's one of the most favorite snacks people eat in Israel, and shops selling it can be found on most street, corners running 24 hours a day, whereas in Australia it's almost completely unknown (replaced by alcohol consumption instead). Those Australian that see me eating sunflower seeds live are always shocked and awed by my performance - that art of cracking the seed and consuming the shell ever so quickly using just one hand to deliver the seed from the plate to the mouth, an art most Israelis have mastered at childhood. Jo keeps on saying how she wants me to demo sunflower seeding to her family when we see them, because this act would be so foreign to them and because by their book sunflower seeds are strictly parrot food.
After coming to Australia I gave up on sunflower seeds. They were one of those things that I just thought you cannot truly get in here, together with other gems such as good pita bread (Australian pitas are thin and lack the meatiness of their Israeli counterparts), good humus (the shit they call humus in here is, well, quite shitty), and good thina (commonly referred to as tahini paste).
From time to time I did stumble upon a shop that sold the precious seeds, but they always turned out to be less than satisfactory. The seeds were either way too small or they were obviously cooked by infidels not fluent with the art of proper roasting and smoking (it's the smoking that gives the shell the taste that takes control over the mouth when you eat sunflower seeds; the seeds themselves are pretty neutral in taste).
Then, about a year and a half ago, we discovered the Lebanese shop next to the Aldi shop by Morabbin Airport we started visiting because of their (Aldi's) very attractive pricing for day to day food shopping. And that Lebanese shop had roasted sunflower seeds for sale! They weren't particularly good by Israeli standards: they were on the smaller side of things, and instead of being properly smoked they relied of heavy salting. But beggars can't be choosers, and they were good enough for me; so we got them whenever we visited the area (to Jo's great displeasure, because she can't stand the sound of the cracking seed).
But last week things have changed: that Lebanese shop has replaced their sunflower seeds with some other type. I got my usual share and gave them a try at home. And since then I haven't stopped smiling!
The new sunflower seeds are pure excellence. They don't fall short of the best Israel has to offer: big, well smoked, and only lightly salted - pure culinary pleasure (it's a pity Bergkamp has just retired). One less reason to visit Israel.
Since we got the new type at home a week ago I've been eating them like there's no tomorrow. The effect on my stomach has been all too obvious: I've been slowly yet steadily gaining weight for a few years now, but over the last week I could see as my stomach got larger and larger. And now with stocks of quality sunflower seeds at easy reach, I will need to find a way to eat them and stay [relatively] slim without reverting too exercise [that I can't be bothered to do].

So, what am I trying to say here?
I'm trying to say that it's a bit ironic that while Hezbollah is targeting missiles at the Israeli town of Affula, the center of Israeli sunflower seeds production, I am getting my sunflower seeds from a Lebanese shop ran by people of obvious Lebanese origins (and by the way, they have always been extremely nice and helpful). This shows, in quite a loud and a clear fashion, how stupid the war taking place at the moment between Israel and Lebanon is.
As someone who is still an Israeli citizen (even though I would gladly give up on that if it weren't for the obvious grief it would cause my family and the trouble I'd face each time I try to enter or depart from Israel for a family visit), I have always maintained that before Israel blames certain Arab factions for doing bad things, it should look upon itself first and apply the principle of universality on what it is doing. Or, to put it in other words, it should apply old Rabbi Hillel's summary of the Bible in one sentence upon itself: "do not do unto others what you wouldn't want them to do to you".
And what is Israel doing? In the name of protecting its innocent civilians, which is by all accounts a good justification, it fucks up the lives of thousands of Lebanese civilians, most of whom are also innocent. Yes, there is no love lost to Israelis amongst the Lebanese, and some of them do harbor and help Hezbollah, but there is also a huge number of totally innocent people out there who are not exactly having a ball since the hostilities have begun. And if we look at the bible again for reference, even Sdom and Amora (aka Sodom and Gomorrah) would have been spared if 10 innocent people were to reside there; and I'm quite sure there are more then 10 innocent people in every town in Lebanon (some of them would be commonly referred to as "children" or "babies"). By the way, in my book one innocent guy would be enough.
Am I saying that Israel should just sit back and relax while it is being attacked? No; I think, however, that Israel is retaliating against the wrong target, and while doing so it is committing horrendous crimes that don't really contribute to the way it is perceived in this world and definitely don't break new paths of understanding with its neighbors.
If Israel does seek out to solve the problem at its source, then it should attack military targets in Iran and Syria; they are responsible for Hezbollah, and they're the only places where effective pressure can really mean the end of Hezbollah for good. But that is probably too hard and too risky for Israel, so instead it tries to bomb the hell out of the Lebanese people in an attempt to get them to cast Hezbollah away. But the Lebanese are too weak for that and if anything, Israel is showing them why a strong Hezbollah would be a good asset for Lebanon - in the same way that the strength of Syria and Iran is making Israel think twice before attacking them.

As I said before, most of my sympathy towards Israel comes from the fact I have friends and family there. At this stage, it looks as if the chances of Jo & I visiting Israel as we planned at the end of September are pretty slim. We're still waiting on it, but it looks as if we'll try to change the destination to Paris or Barcelona instead. As the song says, I love Paris in the spring time, even if it would be Parisian autumn time, and even if there won't be sunflower seeds for me to eat there.

Thursday, 27 July 2006

I surrender to the spirit of the night

I give up: I decided that I should probably get myself an MP3 player.
Needless to say, your basic iPod is out of the question. I don't want to tie my life into the iTunes knot and have restrictions upon restrictions with regards to what I can do with my music.
What I do want is, first and foremost, gigs aplenty. I have a one gig card on my PDA which I use for music, and I listen to it on a regular basis at work (where putting music files on my desktop is a no-no), but 1 gig is just too limited when it comes to offering me the right music for every mood. So while I would like 60gb, I would take 30gb or more.
Another thing I want is radio. One thing that pisses me off about my new job is that fact I cannot listen to Triple J's daily Hack program at 17:30, because I'm either waiting for a train or on the train. Yes, I can download the podcasts, but I can also clean my house and wash my car - but I just choose not to do it if I can avoid it.
Video playback would be nice, too. Not that I think a smallish screen can do justice to any material, but given that I have more material than time to watch it, I could just use it. In a month's time the football season will be on and I'll be downloading games through the internet, for a start, so Divx playback would be nice.
I went and did my research on players, and so far I concluded that the best player for my needs is the Creative Zen Vision M (pictured). It's got 30gb, radio, and video playback for lots of formats. And I can get it for $440, which would be $400 after I get the GST back at the airport when we fly at the end of September.
But - and it's a big but - the Creative is not a perfect player. A beast like that simply does not exist, it seems, which is a major pity.
Deficiencies include:
  • You can't replace the battery on your own. Given that rechargeable batteries only last for about 200 charges, is Creative letting you know that this is a gadget you should be throwing away after a couple of years?
  • In order to connect it to a charger or to a USB connection, you need this special plug. Which means that you need to carry this plug with you when you travel. And yeah, you should make sure you don't lose it.
  • Worst of all, that 30gb of hard disk cannot be accessed like you'd expect a hard disk to be accessed - i.e., by copying files and creating folders. Instead, you have to use software ala Microsoft's "block your CPU" Media Player to sync your player with your MP3 or videos collection. I suspect this is some sort of an anti pirating measure; but regardless of source, I want a democracy.
There are other contenders about, such as the iAudio X5. This one does behave like a hard disk, and it has a reputation for excellent sound, but it has its own set of quirks, including a heavier price tag. And it is out of stock everywhere.
Anyway, opinions and recommendations would be greatly appreciated!

The truth about Pocket PC

Many of my regular blog readers must be wondering why I didn't publish anything on my blog last night (I'm sure there's a very round number of people out there wondering about it). Well, wonder or not, I will tell you why: because of my Pocket PC.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: my pocket PC is very powerful - it has wireless, bluetooth, it's a phone, it runs applications of all sorts - but it is so unreliable and so full of bugs that I often think its purchase was a major waste of money.
Last night I got to think about that again when I installed the new version of Skype on my Pocket PC.
On paper, this would be a wonderful application to install on a PDA that has wireless. Just imagine the following scenario: You're somewhere abroad and you want to make a call, but you know that with global roaming fees each minute costs you $7.50. So instead of picking up you PDA to make a normal mobile call, you go to the nearest Starbucks (or whatever place you find that has free wireless), and call for free (or almost for free) using Skype. Wonderful. Not only wonderful, but I'm also sure that in 10 years time or so this is going to be the way we'll be making most of our calls with.
Anyway, back to reality. I had an old version of Skype on my PDA, but I wanted to have the new one which is tailor made per PDA model, so I uninstalled the existing version.
I downloaded the new version to my desktop, and installed it on my PDA for the first time. It ran and everything, but it wouldn't connect in order to make a call.
I uninstalled and reinstalled, doing a soft reset in between, but got the same results as before.
So I downloaded another version of the same software, this time directly to my PDA. This time it wouldn't run, but get stuck on the login screen trying to login.
I did a soft reset and repeated the feat to get the same result. I did it again, and this time it did manage to login after 5 minutes or so of trying - not a good result, given the rate in which wireless gobbles battery power.
I thought everything was honkey dorry and that I'm about to be able to go to sleep, but then I noticed that the mobile phone part of my PDA stopped working. I did a reset and it didn't recover; on the second reset I noticed it gave me a warning, saying only emergency calls can be made. I did yet another reset, and this time I got an error message saying my SIM is damaged.
I started picturing the scenes of me trying to recover my SIM at the Elizabeth Street branch of Vodafone, doing the full 100 points identity test, and living for who knows how long without a mobile phone (not that I use it much, and not like I can't get a cheap prepaid SIM instead; it's just the hassle of letting people know my new number). But worst of all I was thinking of having to abandon the splendid package I am on now, Vodafone No Plans, which no longer exists because it was just so good (1c a second - and that's all).
I took the last step possible before giving up: I dismantled the battery, took the SIM out, and put it in again. And then it worked. And then I went to sleep, tired and quite unhappy.

So what's the morale of this story? Basically, that the Pocket PC operating system is as stable and as reliable as a cease fire in the middle east. Naturally, it's a Microsoft product.
Behavior like that makes you think twice and more before installing stuff or thinking of new uses for your PDA, because you never know which old features would stop working once you go for new stuff.
But it's not only that. There is just a constant stream of small bugs that get under your skin. Things like an alarm warning that wouldn't go away even after you dismiss it, forcing you to reset the PDA. Things that never happen on a Palm.

Wednesday, 26 July 2006

Get a Grip

We just came back from watching Ben Elton's Get a Grip stand up show at the theater right opposite work (as opposed to the theater to the side of work where we watched a play last week).
By far, this was the best stand up show I've ever seen; probably also the longest, at close to two and a half hours.
What I find interesting about this show and other things I'm exposed to lately is how much the things that I am exposed to reflect the person I am and what I'm inclined to. Or may be it is the other way around?
For some reason, I keep noticing that the books I read (Ben Eltons, Asimovs), the music I listen to (Paul Simon's latest, an album more notable for its lyrics than its musical qualities), the movies I watch and the documentaries we watch on TV - they all seem to be discussing issues that trouble my mind lately. No, not the situation in Israel (which also troubles my mind, but mainly because I worry for friends and family), but rather issues such as global warming, sustainability, religion, political freedom, and similar stuff along these lines.
It's obvious that these things are not new: Ben Elton wrote the book I am reading now, Stark, a book about sustainability, in the late eighties; it's only now that I'm exposed to it.
It probably just proves that great minds think alike. Or that I am looking for what I am thinking of.

Tuesday, 25 July 2006

While You Were Sleeping

I've read in a few places - credible places ala Scientific American, not your average Horoscope Delight shit - that our heads are full of mites feeding off the juices coming out of its skin. These mites live long and prosper in our pillows and our mattresses, and in fact they are so prolific that each year our pillows add some 10% to their weight in the form of mite shit. Those mites are not exactly healthy: researchers are beginning to suspect they're to blame for all sorts of illnesses that attract us.
Think about it the next time you lie in a hotel bed, mixing yourself with shit from peoples' heads all over the world.
With that in mind, we have replaced the pillow I have been using since high school this week with a new one. The old one was thrown to the garbage, rather unceremoniously.

Monday, 24 July 2006

Farewell to Arms

Last weekend Dennis Bergkamp, the person most responsible for my renewed interest in football (if we ignore certain friends of mine who introduced me to him via the FIFA computer games) has retired as a player, after playing for the last eleventeen years for Arsenal.
I remember two of his [real] goals in particular: the one against Argentina in 98, which caused me to get up and shout with joy at that beautiful goal as well as the demise of the evil Argentineans to such a beautiful pass and clinical finishing; and the one against Newcastle (you know which one I'm talking about), scored while Jo was visiting me in Israel and I went to the kitchen to bring some food (she still teases me on this one).
Anyway, in this Chelsea day and age where money and more money are all that matter, a player that is loyal to a team that is good to him is rare. In this day and age where looking good is all that matters, a player that trains hard and is a family man after work is also rare. It seems to pay, literally: Up until two days ago, Bergkamp was the second richest active football player in the world.
So it's nice that he retires nicely without much fuss, even if he hasn't been scoring much lately. Football will not be the same for me anymore.

Food recycling

On Friday night, Jo cooked us a Thai dish with minced meat and brown rice. I was actually the one that cooked the rice (as in, I was the one that put the rice in the rice cooker, one of humanity's more clever inventions, and turned it on). As is our policy now, we prepared more rice than needed for the recipe, so we'll have leftovers. By now, brown rice has become our default rice: we like it more than regular rice for the same reason we prefer wholemeal breads to white breads - taste and health.
On Saturday, we had a barbecue with friends, featuring steaks (and discussed to death in my previous blog). To accompany the meat, Jo has prepared fried onions, fried mushrooms, and grilled potatoes. As we had so much meat, we couldn't finish all the side dishes (despite the cleanup this fat pig did on the grilled potatoes; Jo does them with these herbs (for the English amongst thee: they're added for that thing called taste) and I can't resist them).
And so on Sunday we had a leftover day. We got up late to have a breakfast/lunch (also known as blunch) featuring an omelette with feta cheese and leftover onions and mushrooms. It was awesome.
For dinner we've had stir-fry made of steak leftovers, brown rice, and other vegetables we've had around the house (including some more foreign herbs). It was great, too.
And we didn't have to throw away anything!

Saturday, 22 July 2006

Rats ass

We had friends over today, and as we didn't have a barbecue for a long while, and as the weather was fine (thank you), we thought we'd do a barbecue for lunch.
So we went in the morning to our favorite meat place in Hampton Street, and got ourselves a couple of prime time (as in well aged) eye fillets, one porterhouse, and one almost one kilo long rump steak (for me).
Jo has times the supplementary stuff to go along with the meat (potatoes, onions and mushrooms), and 20 minutes before these were ready I took the cover off our backyard barbecue to start the action.
I opened the barbecue lead, and saw small round pellets at the top of the plates where you put the food. It was, quite obviously, shit.
At first I thought this was possum shit, because we get lots of it under every tree, and there's a possum epidemic in our area. Possums are protected in the state of Victoria: you are not even allowed to move them without a license (whereas in New Zealand, for example, they're a fair go).
Possums may be nasty, but there is no way they could have got themselves into the barbecue. So our friends offered the more logical explanation: It was actually rats that visited our barbecue. It explained two things: Rats could have slipped through the cracks to get in; they would like to get in, as they would be able to eat the small bits of meat that are left there; and the shit was a bit smaller than your average possum shit.
Regardless of source, seeing shit on where you're supposed to be putting your food is not exactly appetizing. I regretted not having Wabby the rat killer (my brother's Jack Russell dog) with us for quite a while, because he would have never allowed a rodent of any sorts to slip under his radar (he goes berserk at the mere scent of one in a neighbor's backyard).
I cleaned the shit off. Then I warmed the barbecue up to 250 degrees and gave it a good 10 minutes to feel the heat, and then I actually had to let it cool a bit before cleaning it with some water and vinegar and scraping the leftovers off.
It took longer than anticipated, but eventually we did have our steaks and they were as good as ever. I'm getting better with the timing of it all to get the best results; but the lesson is: we should have more barbecues, so the rats would not have the opportunity to have their parties in between.

Friday, 21 July 2006

Cold as Ice

Today was the coldest morning I can remember in Melbourne: When I left home today at 7:25, it was just 3 degrees. Literally, it was cold as ice: the footy oval next to the Brighton Beach train station had a white coating which was nice to look at in sunrise with the circular way the grass was cut.
The funny thing about the truly cold days in Melbourne is that they are clear, sunny days. In Israel the coldest days are the cloudy days when it rains; in here, the coldest days are the ones that follow a clear night, where there is no cloud cover to keep the heat in. The result is a cold morning but a nice noon afterwards (which, compared to the frosty morning, is a "nice" 13-14 degrees or so).
Another funny effect of this cold weather is that you feel as if you just came out of the pool, all the time. Ask George.

Wednesday, 19 July 2006

Ghost Stories

We went to a theater after work to watch a play called "The Woman in Black". We had no idea what the play is about, but it sounded as if it's actually interesting (as opposed to the average Starlight Express musical shit), and I remembered that once upon a time when I was working for El-Al back in that strange country called Israel I was told by Malka that she saw it at the West End and liked it.
The theater is the building right next to where I work (which is smack in the middle of the theater area). We still left work a bit early and rushed home to take the car back to work, simply because the thought of spending an hour on the train at a very late hour with some dodgy company on the train is something we can do without. Same for walking out in the cold (and it was a cold night).
The play turned out to be one of your classic ghost stories, which is to say that the plot wasn't the most sophisticated of plots; however, it was very well done and I enjoyed it, despite the fact me and theater don't really get along well (and I won't repeat why as I've done it twice before already). They do make the most of what theater has to offer in this play, which was nice.

The play reminded me that yesterday morning the alarm clock's radio switched on to Gold 104's morning show, where the female presenter was saying that someone told her that her mother, called Shirley, recently died; and the night after her death her VCR started taping a film called Shirley on its own, which is obviously a sign that ghosts do exist. She went on to say that it's a well known fact ghosts take some electric form after death, draining batteries and causing electronic equipment to go berserk.
What can I say about this scientific line of thinking? Well, you know what I have to say, so I won't say it. I will say that I suspect the mother wanted to tape a film named after her, so she programmed the VCR before dying (although the ghostly explanation is much sexier).
But what really bothers me is the way in which ghost stories are told to the ignorant listener as if they are verified truth and with such an attitude where if you suspect their validity you must be a complete moron.
Personally, I am unable to prove ghosts don't exist; but that said, I have much more reason to suspect they don't exist than I have to suspect they do. For a start, no ghost came back from heaven to recall its story.

Another thing the ghostly play reminded me of is my uncle. Back when I was 14 or so, he bought me this book called "Ghost Stories". It was in English, and it was a collection of short ghost stories, and its main value was in getting me to read stuff in English (a very foreign language for me at the time). The stories themselves were crap routine ghost stories: haunted castles and similar uninspiring stuff.
But the main reason I remember the book is that my uncle was reading it bit by bit over the next 10 years or so, pretty much until he died.
In two weeks time it will be 10 years to his death, and it's funny how the more time passes the more I appreciate what he did for me and how much I miss him. He was, effectively, a second parent to me, and in many respect he was more a parent than my parents (a fact that my parents, by the way, will not deny).
Whenever I watch The Empire Strikes Back it becomes like a memorial session for him; it was the first film I went to see at the cinema, and he took me there. So you could say he's to blame for me reading Asimov's Foundation for the N-th time as I go to bed tonight.

Tuesday, 18 July 2006

The Pink Floyd conspiracy

Just a few days ago I discussed Syd Barrett's death on this very blog.
This morning I walked along Bourke Street's JB Hi Fi, only to see that their entire shop front window is full of ads for the "new" Pink Floyd DVD, Pulse. It's actually a recording from more than 10 years ago of a live show of theirs, which is admired mostly because it features a full and uninterrupted live version of Dark Side of the Moon. I know because I have it on laserdisc.
Thing is, don't you think it is more than a bit convenient to have Syd Barrett die exactly when Pink Floyd is in need for some public relations to support a new release of some of their old shit? Now I know this sounds far fetched, but given the lows record companies stoop to in their "fight" against the evil peer to peers, I wouldn't raise an eyebrow at all if I was to learn they were behind Syd's death, Constant Gardener style.
Now, what is the morale of this story? Simple: I should have sold my Pulse laserdisc back when I could have gotten $80 or more for it (just a year ago on eBay). Now no one would piss in its general direction. Or, to put it in other words: I should stop feeling attached to my gadgets and my collections once I stop using them; they're just pieces of metal and other chemicals, they don't love me back.

Monday, 17 July 2006

Police Academy 7

I was taken today to Victoria's Police Academy up in Glen Waverley.
It's very nice there - on top of a hill, with lots of really expensive looking mansions around. The academy itself seems to have been, once upon a time, a church; in fact, it looks as if the church part of it is still running, although it raises questions regarding the discrimination of policemen who just happen to be devil worshippers or jedi knights.
A fairly interesting day at the office, but I have to say I have failed: I could not find Mahoney in there.

Sunday, 16 July 2006

Driving Ms Hopkins

Once upon a time back in those pre-March days when I was still working for Ipex we used to have our regular mid week driving routine.
I would drive Jo to the train station, drive to work, drive home back from work, and do a bit of an excursion to the train station when Jo finally got back home.
Weekends would be different: We would both go together in the car to some exciting destination and get all excited about it.

When I moved to my new job, things have changed. We would both go to the train station in the car together, and we would both return together in the car from the train station come evening time.
Weekends would be pretty similar: We would both go together in the car to some exciting destination and get all excited about it.

The funny thing is the exception handling.
When, after about a month at my new work, my brother gave me his city parking pass and we took the car together all the way to work, it felt like we were both going together to some exciting destination, simply because if we're both in the car and we're not going to the train station then by habit's definition it must mean that we're going somewhere exciting.
And when, for some reason or another, I get to drive the car on my own now, it really feels strange. While in the past most of my midweek car sessions would be together with me myself and I, nowadays it's very rare to be in the company of yours truly alone; it feels as if there's something wrong.

Habits and perceptions are a weird thing. If you extrapolate on my private driving experiences, you could all of a sudden understand why, for example, most people tend to become fools for religion: it's just a force of habit, and any changes would feel weird enough to detract confidence.

Saturday, 15 July 2006

Shine on you crazy

By now you must have heard that Pink Floyd's founder, Syd Barrett, has died at the age of 60 about a week ago.
I cannot say I was a big fan of his: I like Pink Floyd, but I do not like the two albums the band has released under his leadership; they're too weird for me. Even if some of the songs are good, they do not make for particularly good albums.
That, however, cannot be said about Pink Floyd in general: Even though it is hard to point one finger at particular hit songs, they made damn good albums. Everyone knows about Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, but there are also others - Atom Heart Mother, for instance - which are just smashing and are the reason why I can boast at owning all of Pink Floyd's albums on CD.
I don't listen to them much anymore, though; it's no longer my taste. Too depressing, if I have to point a finger. Not that I listen to much music nowadays - certainly not as much as I used to in the past, when listening to music was my main reason for being. But there were times in which Pink Floyd represented the bulk of my music listening, times in which I would have been perfectly happy with just listening to Dark Side again and again (and again).
These times have gone; today there is no real dominant artist in my music listening.
However, with all those disclaimers said, Pink Floyd will always be Pink Floyd for me - the band I got to know because my brother had Dark Side and Atom Heart Mother recorded on a green cassette (remember those?) and as a small kid I was always fascinated with the color of this green cassette. And although Barrett's songs don't shine in particular, he has obviously influenced the rest of the band enough to drive them in the right direction and at that mood that hits home when you're growing up and trying to realize why life and the world around you are just so fucked.

Guess I'm not much good at speaking for the dead.

Episode 3

We just finished watching Episode 3 which we have rented from Video Ezy. I'm emphasizing that it's a rental because it's such a badly made shit movie I feel it is important to stress that we did not bother departing with too much money for its sake.
I'm also mentioning it to let you know that Video Ezy has this deal where, if you show them your RACV membership card, you can rent one new film plus two weeklies for just $5.50; that's cheap enough to make you stop thinking twice about renting and to prevent you from buying DVDs, because at this cost it is cheaper to rent the DVD every time you want to watch it than to it is to copy and burn it.
I would also like to use the opportunity to discuss our newly purchased TV yet again. With the time we have had it and the programs we saw on it, plus the fact that yesterday commemorated our departure with my good old Sony 29" (sold for $300 on eBay), I think I should make a few points and correct a few mistakes.
First, regarding my claim that our new TV has zero screen-door effect: that claim was totally wrong. If you look at the TV from a very close range (say, half a meter or less), you definitely see the pixels and the grid surrounding them. It's subtle, but it's there. From our normal viewing position, which is about 2.5 meters away from the screen, you can no longer see a grid or identify single pixels, but overall the grid transforms itself into a bit of a haze effect that is visible when large patches of the same color are displayed.
Second, it is obvious that no matter how much you tweak the TV, an LCD will suffer from what LCDs suffer the most: blacks are not true blacks, and darker scenes suffer from lack of definition.
Those two points said, it is important to stress that I still think we bought the best TV we could get our hands on given size and budget limitations. It's just that I feel it is important to recognize its deficiencies as much as it is important to enjoy what is has to offer us, and believe me we have been enjoying that for the last few weeks with lots and lots of films as well as our favorite TV shows.
Value for money, we could have not done a better deal. To the perfectionists amongst thee who have enough space and a fatter wallet, I will again urge you to look at LG's 71" LCoS TV to rule them all.

Friday, 14 July 2006

Today's letter to The Age

Dear sir/madam,

Ever since I have started reading The Age a few years ago, I was always amazed at the editor’s daily habit of printing a letter, written by someone with a Jewish name and saying the Palestinians are bad, and countering it by another letter, written by someone with an Arab sounding name and saying the Israelis are evil.
The thing I found so amusing about these letters, as well as the occasional Leunig cartoon, is that hardly any of them bother blaming their own side. Instead of mutual blame, these letters are almost always bent on blaming the other.
This seems to perfectly mirror reality: Israel commits atrocities on a regular basis while blaming the Palestinians for those very acts, and the Palestinians do their best to commit any horrors they are able to perform, compensating for their relative lack of means by sheer force of will.
Both sides are deadlocked in this effort to prove who can destroy more of the other, and frankly I do not see any way out for them until both sides have so totally destroyed one another that they no longer have the means to continue doing so.
At the personal level, I solved my problem by migrating to Australia. Here I am able to live next to ex-Palestinians quite peacefully, without any exchange of projectiles, and even develop friendships with them; which in the least helps me observe that the problem is not inherent to our genes.
If anything, it helps confirm my realisation that the holly land’s system of values is crooked. There is no hope for the area’s peoples until the “land” stops becoming the dominant value and life prevails instead.

Moshe Reuveni

Thursday, 13 July 2006

The Road Warrior

Once upon a time not too long ago I used to regard highways with awe. The engineering, the simple complexities of the interchanges, the amount of cars that manage to get through on them.
Now I look at a highway and think about the waste, the inefficiency, what we're doing to our planet, and what we're leaving behind for next generations.

Wednesday, 12 July 2006

Israel, here we come

I was joking before, but with the situation in Israel deteriorating the way it does, maybe we should pass up the opportunity to visit this great land in September.
I just read in the Israeli papers that emergency reserves recruitment is being considered, now that the mess in Gaza has been joined by another mess in Lebanon. Given that the last thing I would care for is being called to the army again, I think I will give my travel agent a call tomorrow to ask exactly what is the deal if we decide to skip over Israel. Paris, for example, should be nice this time of the year.
It would probably cost us a lot to change things, though, with some of our flights being special non-refundable fares and even the rest already being paid for and ticketed. In fact, the only thing preventing me from going over to pick the tickets up from the travel agent is this ongoing mess; I would just hate to pick them and then come back to replace them.

Short changed

Reading May's issue of Widescreen Review (I know, I'm behind; too much to read), I couldn't fail noticing Sony's release announcement for the TV that we ended up buying. They had similar ones before, but this release is for a TV that looks and specs exactly like ours.
I noticed two things in particular:

  • The American model of our TV has two HDMI inputs, while ours only has one. At the moment we're not using the one that we have, but soon enough I expect to be using many, as this would be the prime time input for HDTV material. We'll want our high def recorder to use it, our set top box, our Xbox 360, and our next generation DVD to use this input because it's the best; and therefore, I don't understand why Europeans / Australians get fucked by Sony.
  • The retail price for our TV in the USA is $2500, which is a tiny bit more than the $3200 Australian Dollars we paid for it here. However, it is a well known fact that no one pays retail price, which means that the bargain basement eBay price we got the TV for here is expensive in American terms. This means that Australians who buy this TV at a regular shop, paying anything between $3500 to $4000, simply get fucked, without knowing they get fucked, while someone in the middle makes a bundle of money without doing much. It's not like there are heavy taxes on such imports in Australia; this is pure greed we're talking about.
In other related news, Pioneer has announced the release of the first ever plasma display supporting the 1080p format. It joins the ranks of LCoS and DLP in this regard.
It's nice to know 1080p is breaking through; it should be supported by the new HD-DVD and Bluray formats.
Talking about these rival formats, it seems as if one manufacturer out there has some sense in their head: LG is working on a player that will do them both (pictured), saving us the anguish of a VHS vs. Beta replica fight.

Tuesday, 11 July 2006

Big Brother's House

One of the things that first amazed me about Australia is the size of the houses here.
Coming from Israel, where everyone lives in apartments, it was really strange to come up to a place where the majority lives in houses. And the houses are not mere houses: the house my brother was living in when I came to Australia as a tourist, the house he was living in when I migrated here, the houses his friends lived in - they were all mansions that in Israel you have to be a multi millionaire to be able to live in. Not just Israel: most of the places in Europe I was familiar with were the same, because the more prestige a place has, the more people want to live there, and when enough people want to live somewhere and still be able to afford it, the eventual answer is apartments.
I guess it this "exclusive" factor that me feel shocked and awed by those big houses. Come to Australia and live in a palace.

Last weekend I got to recall all of this when we visited a friend's place in an outer suburb of Melbourne. It's quite amazing to be leaving our place and driving for an hour to get to his place at relatively high speeds (60-80km/h) and find that we left from one point in Melbourne and ended up at another point in Melbourne while never leaving Melbourne.
Anyway, friends' reunion aside (which again made me realize how valuable friends are and how nice it is to spend time with them), this friend that we visited had a huge house. We, on the other hand, live in a small two bedroom house, and even our living room is small, so the contrasts is fairly obvious.
Size is obviously a relative affair. This small house that we're living in is similar in size to my parents' place, where I lived until I was 28, but in Australian suburban terms it's small. When my parents came for a visit, for example, they couldn't stop saying how small our place is; the fact they only said it because they came straight from my brother's mansion had a thing or two to do with it, I suspect. The funny thing is that people like my aunt, who have never been to Australia and hardly ever got to leave Israel, tell me over the phone that I should move to a bigger place; which goes to show that brain washing is not exclusive to the dungeons of the KGB.
Still, maybe it's in my genes, but I cannot deny I am fascinated by big houses.
Yet the rational person inside me knows this is pure bullshit and that we are better off in our small house.
There are several reasons to support that conclusion, starting from the financial point of view. The bigger the house, the more expensive it is; the closer the house is to the center of things, the more expensive it is. Therefore, given a fixed budget, you have to select a size/place combo that fits you. Our house is already way out of touch if we apply Israeli standards to Melbourne, as evident by my parents' lack of comfort with staying with us and coming over to visit our place from my brother's place. Yet by Melbournian standards, we live in the relative center, and the fact we're near the beach and near Brighton makes us live in quite a respectful place.
Not that place and cost matter that much. It's not like we're living in a house we can afford: we have a huge mortgage on our necks. We didn't buy our current house because it was cheap and we didn't buy it because we could afford it; we bought it because we decided on a budget that sounded as if we'd eventually be able to afford, a budget which fitted our status related social aspirations, and that was the main factor dictating our choice.
In retrospect, I think the choice of a small house was wise. It's easy to maintain: just the thought of cleaning a huge mansion makes me shiver, given the "enthusiasm" that cleaning our small house gives me. It's easy and economical to run, too: You turn the heat on, and within 5 minutes the house is warm, simply because there's not much of it to warm up.

I can go on justifying our choice as much as I want, but do we have enough space in our small house?
We keep on hearing people telling us that "when we have kids we will need to move". It's true that I wouldn't exactly be overly enthusiastic with kids playing around MY toys - the Stereo and Co - but they would probably be doing so in a big house, too, simply because that is where I will probably be hanging around. And I grew up in a small place, and I don't think I did that bad.
We will have more room to put our stuff in, like the old Sony 29" TV that is still a hell of a TV, quality wise, yet we have to dispose of it in eBay and it doesn't seem like we'll be getting much for it. Yes, we will have room for it, but will I want to use it if I have a 50" TV? I severely doubt that.
What we'll end up with is lots of inefficiently thrown around mess, the way I had in the first place I rented after moving to Australia (featuring a huge lounge, a huge living room, and three big bedrooms): One bedroom was used exclusively for cloth drying, and the rest had lots of things thrown all over the place. Nothing was efficient, nothing was tidy, because there was no reason for it to be; lots of money was spent on populating those empty rooms with something that would make them feel decent.

I know I messed this point up, but what I'm trying to say is that the difference between a small place and a large place is not that great. It's mostly a psychological difference. If you accept a given size, you will manage living with it and you will be living with it quite happily.
That said, I suspect eventually our status anxiety will drive us to fork a few more hundreds of thousands of dollars so that we could keep up with the Joneses and live in a big mansion. I just don't think we should, not for the reasons for which we would.

The Sun Never Shines on TV

In my quest for that elusive download that would change my life around (not that it needs changing) I downloaded some of my favourite A-Ha videos from the eighties.

A-Ha is a bit of a weird phenomenon in my musical history records. Having grown up listening to my brother’s music, I was always into the more rocky material than the stuff I should have liked as someone who was shaped by the spirit of the eighties. The weird element is that while I didn’t like most of the music made in the eighties (or, to put it better, I didn’t like that eighties sound – which today, by the way, I despise), I did like A-Ha. Yes, they use that annoying synthesizer sound a lot, but they also rock, to one extent or another. And their vocalist is just so sexy!

Everyone remembers their “Take on Me” video, and there was a time when I regarded “Hunting High and Low” as their best song (I was so mellow), but in retrospect the A-Ha song I like the most is “The Sun Always Shines on TV”. This one has that noise element that I look for in bands that I actually respect.

It was fun watching that sun on TV video again. It didn’t look as impressive as it used to, probably due to the fact that the small window on my desktop where Media Player had a go at it was too small for comfort. And for the first time, I actually noticed the band is singing in a church, a fact I didn’t notice before simply because back then I never got to see a church (ok, I saw some, and even been to St Patrick’s in Manhattan, but they weren’t exactly something I would think of in the context of “oh, but of course, Watson, this was shot in a church”). Church or no church, though, the video is still just pompous pop culture trash.

Anyway, as narcissist reminiscing goes, A-Ha videos rank high.

Talking about the sun shining on TV, last night’s ABC late news had an interview with this oil specialist who claimed world oil production has peaked and that oil producing companies are severely overestimating their oil reservoirs’ capacities, and as a result oil prices will soon climb up to $150 a barrel, and as a result of that there will be no more “business as usual” and life as we know it will no longer continue as we know it.

TV has always been a good place for all doomsayers to express themselves, but this one will obviously be right (eventually), because humanity doesn’t seem to be doing much to find alternatives for oil’s historically cheap and abundant energy, and one day or the next there will be no more oil.

The effects of this no more oil thing are obvious: Everything, from food to houses, will be so much dearer; inflation will go berserk, interest rates will reach sky high levels no matter what John Howard promises. And we’ll have us a good few wars while the nations fight for the scrubs.

Makes you think about this wonderful world we live in and the shitty place we’re helping it become. Do our children really deserve this legacy?

Monday, 10 July 2006

Liar Liar

So, Howard has lied to Costello, too. Big deal: he lied to us all already, what difference does it make if he lies to a colleague, too?
Mr Costello, welcome to the club. Population: Australia entire.

Sunday, 9 July 2006

Australian Rules Football

The World Cup is ending tonight, and the first thing I want to say is: Vive la France!
I do have several other things to say, hopefully on the more constructive side of things:
  • My prediction from before the World Cup came true (not that it was such a big gamble): If you want to watch the best football, you'd be better off watching the European Champions League or one of the two big teams meeting in the local leagues (and you really don't have to go as far as Real Madrid vs. Barcelona). The World Cup is nice, definitely in football deprived Australia, but it's not the real thing.
  • While most football games are played with a group of 22 morons running around the pitch, with their combined IQ lower than the show size a little girl up in the crowd, one of the things you could see in this World Cup is the value of a decent coach. Not that I think the French coach is worth a final, and I definitely don't think too highly of Italian tactics, but you could see clearly see how teams make (Hiddink, Klinsman) or break (Perriera) by their coach.
  • The thing I hated to see the most in this World Cup, even more than some of the worst refereeing we ever got to witness, was the diving. It seemed like Italy and Portugal reign supreme in this department; I want to watch the final before deciding which of the two, Christiano Ronaldo or Italy's Grosso, deserves the thorny crown of "diver supreme".
Talking about diving, Australia will remember this World Cup mainly for Grosso's injury time dive that won Italy its "round of 16" match. People don't really care that for Australia's quality, reaching the final 16 is much more than they could ever hope for, or that overall Australia gave a fine show (again, given the raw quality they had to offer). In Australia all that matters is winning.
Which is a pity, because during the month that was the World Cup it actually did dominate the news and the coverage here. For a month, Australian Rules and rugby and lawn bawling and swimming and netball and cricket and all the other boring sports that dominate Australian media played second fiddle to football. It was quite the deja vu for me.
But now, with the way Australia lost, the achievement that was Australia's success in the World Cup will be gone and we'll go back to football being the last thing's on most people minds and media coverage where even the miserable local league is covered only by hyper expensive cable.
Which fits the plans of most sporting stakeholders in Australia, for whom the World Cup was a major nightmare: Their kingdoms were about to fall to the invasion of the richest sport around, and if football did manage to gain a foothold here they would all be doomed, losing their hold on Australians' agenda and money. What would all the AFL analysts do if no one would be interested in their words anymore? What would the newspapers do if all their sports reporters were suddenly useless? Yes, they could recruit more people and learn to live with the new kid in town, but that is as likely as the USA offerign the Soviet Union to share technologies during the Cold War so that both could dominate the world without competing with one another.
You could see it all over the place: Radio stations making a big fuss out of minor World Cup things, newspaper articles complaining about the inadequate coverage of football on TV (saying things like "why don't they show personal possession statistics, which may matter in the AFL but are quite meaningless in football). But most of all you could see them all trying to build up an atmosphere of "we're going to win this World Cup".
An atmosphere such as that is silly in places such as England; it is 100 times sillier in Australia, which has zero football heritage and pretty much zero talent as well.
The thing that annoys me the most is that these people won the day: Everyone that was excited just two weeks ago is now expressing total alienation towards football.
The dark side of capitalism has won, again.

The Prince of Darkness

On Wednesday we were suddenly informed at work that our group of Business Analysts (read: paper shufflers specializing in surfing the internet during work time) is to be moved to another cubicle in the same floor. From a cubicle facing the southern side, I was to move to one facing the west, in order to allow one of the developers' teams to be able to seat next to each other.
Cubicles at our office are made of four desks, and the question was whether I want a window facing desk (like my current one) or an away from the window facing desk. I did some User Acceptance Testing during different parts of the day, with the sun exposed and with the sun hidden, I came to the conclusion that the sun is just too strong in the afternoon for someone with fucked up eyesight like me to tolerate on an ongoing basis, so I chose the dark side.
I started (and finished) moving on Friday morning. After settling down I noticed that the new cubicle is significantly smaller to the old one; this one resembles that old Ipex feeling of having no room for privacy. When one of the four neighbors is on the phone, everybody's going to be there with him/her.
But what made me really worried is the glare on my screen. It was quite bad, and from previous experience I knew that these reflections would mean regular and imminent headaches.
I started worrying. I wasn't a happy chappie.
I started asking around for anti glare protectors to put on my monitor. Within five minutes I had a brand new one installed, but oddly enough it made things worse: Instead of having slight blotches of reflected light on my screen, I got very dark blue blotches of reflected light on my screen. Call 3M and tell them their product is shit; I gave my glare protector back.
Then I reverted to the only counterattack that worked for me in the past: I started closing the blinds down. That's a shame, because the view from our 27th floor is quite spectacular, and after three years plus at the windowless Ipex cave I can't get enough of it; but between a view and a headache, I'll go with the ache.
Needless to say, this move was not particularly popular with the area's former residents. Informing them that this move goes part and parcel with the arrival of the Prince of Darkness into their 'hood didn't really improve things much; they wanted their views back, regardless of whether it messes with their eyes or not (they're probably used to it by now, I guess; I noticed ages ago that I tend to be more sensitive to environmental conditions than most others, especially when it comes to things to do with eyesight).
Someone suggested we change to LCD monitors, as they're much better with handling glare. I dismissed the idea (even though I wouldn't argue against an LCD monitor), but didn't really stop anyone (because I wouldn't really mind an LCD monitor).
Within an hour we all had brand new LCD monitors. They're quite good: Very clear pictures, and they even feature DVI inputs (not that our desktops will ever feature DVI outputs, though). And guess what? No more glare, no more reflections. The Prince of Darkness can retire.

Now, what's my point? My point was to show you a thing or two about my place of work.
Yes, we get moved about for no particular reason. Yes, most people still have CRT monitors, even if LCDs have been proven ages ago to increase productivity (and now we know why).
But that aside, I am amazed at how quickly and efficiently my problem was addressed - and solved. I am amazed to find myself working for a place that truly cares about the wellbeing of its employees.
I can complain day in day out about the advanced Lotus Notes technology I have to contend with at work, but in all honesty having an employer that gives a fuck is much more important, because at the end of the day I don't live to work - I work to live - and if I can sustain myself better at work, I would be able to better equipped to handle that part of life which I work for (living).
I left work on Friday afternoon quite the happy chappie.

Saturday, 8 July 2006

The cost of living

I noticed this week that in celebration of the new financial year, The Age has raised its price from $1.20 to $1.40.
Now you can say that 20c don't matter much, and to be fair I don't really remember when the paper's last price hike took place; but what I do know is that the Australian CPI (inflation index) has been around the 3% mark for the last few years, and so in order to justify this 17% price rise they would have needed more than 5 years on the old price, and I severely doubt they haven't touched their price for more than 5 years.
And therefore I cannot think of this price hike as anything other than greed.
What troubles me is that this phenomenon is not exclusive to The Age. Prices are on the rise everywhere, and have been on the rise for a long while before the price of gas became a viable excuse. And when prices rise, they rise big time.
Stupidly enough, the first time I noticed the phenomenon I was shopping for margarine. Jo & I used to buy (and we actually still buy, but in reduced quantities) this expensive margarine that's supposed to reduce your cholesterol (by preventing its absorption). A couple of years ago it was priced at around $6.00 to $6.50 per half a kilo; and then, all of a sudden, about a year ago, it became $8.00; just like that, suddenly, out of the blue. Why? Greed is why.
Since then I keep noticing it all over the place. People assume they can get away with it, they raise their prices, and obviously - they are getting away with it, as evidenced by the fact they keep doing it more and more. It's aided by the general Australian lifestyle of spending more and more and borrowing more and more in order to spend more because tomorrow we'll die - a sort of a live for today, fuck tomorrow attitude that is heavily encouraged by the government (which relies on the interest rate increases scare campaign to force those who over borrowed to re-elect the government). Not that the Victorian Labor government invests much in infrastructure - they're just as big money wasters as the federal government.

When I came to Australia as a tourist back in 2001 I was amazed at how cheap things were compared to Israel.
When I came to Australia four years ago I was amazed at how cheap supermarket shopping and food shopping were.
Now I'm pissed with constant price hikes, the fact that almost everything - paperbacks, serves at restaurants - always costs $19.95, regardless of how good it is.
In short: I'm pissed off. But I'll probably continue buying The Age on Thursdays, if only because there is no alternative that is as good as their Green Guide and Livewire. You can say that this is what the free market is all about; I say this is greed.

Friday, 7 July 2006

Land of Milk and Honey

You hear the news about what's going on in Israel, and you can't escape thinking: Oh yeah, I'd really like to go there in two months, that would be lovely!

Looking back at Israel from Australia, I can't help acknowledging the confirmation of what I felt back when I was in Israel: that both sides are suffering from majorly high doses of double standards. Both have just claims, both find just causes to inflict damage and pain on the other, neither stops to realize that their activities only make things worse.

Reading the letters in The Age, you see lots of people asking for international intervention (mostly Palestinian sympathizers, because even in this side of the world you have to be either/or; you just can't be objective). As if international intervention would solve anything.

To be fair on those two both sides, they are not unique in what they do. Most people and most countries perform lots of bad things, it's just that they're able to get away with it.

Me? I have family and friends that I care about, and if it wasn't for them I would have said something along the lines of "fuck them all, they don't deserve much better". Yet I know that the little man in the street doesn't have much of a saying in the way things run, regardless of what he/she votes for. And so I can't deny that I think both sides are just doomed. That's it, doomed.

Now I know that when I'll be in Tel Aviv I won't feel a thing and life would seem to go on as usual (which, if you think about it, is yet another horrible aspect of this conflict). But it's hard to ignore these dual sided crimes, and for now I know that my army dreaming nightmares are definitely on the rise.

Wednesday, 5 July 2006

Talking and Conversing

I was trying to get a hold of my brother most of the last week over his home phone. Trying, because I never got an answer. When, eventually, I did manage contact, the question that was raised was "why didn't you try my mobile".
Well, why didn't I?
Call me old fashioned, but I just can't talk to people on their mobiles. I mean, I can talk; but I can't TALK. I can't make a conversation. I can say something like "yeah, let's meet at 5:28 in the train station", but I cannot discuss the contradictions between the theory of relativity and quantum physics, if you catch my drift.
There are several reasons for that.
First, as Jo's sister will tell you, I am a tight ass, and mobile calls cost a lot (especially in Australia), and the thought of the meter running is cause enough for me to agree that John Howard is actually the best prime minister this country could ever have, thank you very much. [At this point I will add that I don't really think I'm a tight ass, given some of the things I spend my money on, but rather someone who likes to spend his money - which is basically made of the time of my life - on exactly what I want it to be spent on; I guess, though, that for most people that would make me fall under their exact definitions of "tight ass", yet I would disagree with their dictionary]
Second, as advanced as mobile technology gets, there are always enough connection problems to make any attempts for proper conversation go off the rails. You lose a lot when you move from "face to face" to "phone to phone", and that limited frequency range plus noise plus disconnections make it severely worse.
And then there's the third and most important reason: when you call someone on their mobile, you never know what you gonna get. How many times did your mobile phone spring on you while you were in/on the toilet? How many times did it ring while you were driving (yes - I know I'm weird, but I don't talk while I drive)? How many times did your mistress call while you were with the wife, or vice versa?
Anyway, the point is clear: Most of the time, you don't catch people on their mobiles while they are in a "let's have a proper conversation" frame of mind. By definition of the term "mobile", you catch them while they're doing something else, which tends to make you a pain in the ass rather than a partner for a meaningful conversation. And even if you are ready to converse when your mobile suddenly vibrates in your pocket, you're usually at a place where a conversation is not really an option: standing in the middle of a noisy street, or riding the train surrounded hundreds of others and sitting next to this smelly dude that reads Asimov's Science Fiction magazine.
I think Seinfeld's take on mobile phones, made more than ten years ago, is still very much valid and will probably continue to be so - unless our devotion to ourselves further progresses into the stage at which we no longer allow others to waste our time conversing with us: You don't call people on a mobile phone if you want to TALK to them.

Tuesday, 4 July 2006

Allergies (something living on my skin?)

Yesterday, Jo was working from home in order to attend the visiting plumber, and thus I had to take the train home on my own.
In typical fashion the train was late and the platform was congested with people in a rush. The doors opened and we all rushed in, racing for a seat. It was one of the new trains, the type that has some rows of two seats on each side without opposite facing chairs on the other side, but the guy with the Kippa ahead of me got to the last of those first.
I had to settle for a two opposite two seat. I sat next to this young lady that was all dressed up in fashionable stuff and was reading the MX magazine (the free daily magazine you get at the train station). Opposite me sat this old lady, and next to her there was this dude with a book stuck to his nose (a very short range reader).
I opened my Dutch-orange Crumpler bag to unleash the Asimov's Science Fiction magazine I bought from Borders in an attempt to try and revive old days and start flicking to the page I was on before, when that fashion conscious chick next to me looked at me - and then got up from her seat and went to stand next to the door.
At first I didn't think anything was wrong. I thought she just got up for something and intended to get back to her seat. But she had no such intention - she just stood there, next to the door, still reading her MX magazine. But no one gets up from a seat when they still want to read unless there's a very good reason to do so, and that reason just had to be me! It wasn't like we got to her station or anything - the train was yet to leave Flinders Street Station!
I looked at the empty seat next to me, trying to find a clue. I looked at the chick with the magazine. I looked at my bench companions, and the old lady just looked at me with a smile that said "I agree, what a weirdo". But alas, I couldn't help but feel there was something wrong with me that made her get up.
I scanned myself all over and couldn't find anything wrong. I tried to smell my coat and even my pants to see if something evil caught onto them, but could detect nothing. I was puzzled.
At home I asked Jo if I smell but she said I don't. I don't know, she's biased, and besides - she's used to my stench by now.
I can't stop thinking what was wrong with me, what made that young lady get away from me. It's quite annoying, "knowing" there's something wrong with you but not knowing exactly what...

It's a kind of magic

Two things I forgot to mention in my lengthy TV review (aka "the case for high definition" from 3/7/06) and in my subsequent comments:
First is that our new TV has no screen-door effect what-so-ever. Don't ask me how Sony manage to do that: Have they been so efficient that the grid around the pixels is too small to detect? I doubt it. I think it's addressed by clever optics that utilize the fact our new TV actually has three projectors in it; by playing with the way the three overlap, they can create enough diffusion (which you don't really notice because of the high resolution) to hide the screen-door effect. But that's my theory only, I cannot substantiate it; I think it's either that or some clever form or sorcery.
Second thing is that our new TV doesn't suffer from that famous LCD problem of lag in response time. You see it in computer monitors all the time when movement is at hand, but I cannot see it on my much larger TV at all, even when fast movement takes place (ala football or pan shots). Again, don't ask me how they managed it; it must be a kind of magic.

If you are after the ultimate technology and are willing to wait a few years, they are about to release flat CRT based panels in a year or two. Wait until the prices come down, and you'll enjoy the benefits of CRT (best picture) on a flat pannel, something LCOS (being a projection technology) is unable to provide.

Monday, 3 July 2006

The case for high definition

Well, it’s exactly a week now since we’ve received our new triple rear projection LCD TV, and I think a review is due.
First of all – did it change our lives the way we know them? Not at all (I doubt anything that can be bought with money can achieve that, at least not when we’re eliminating negative changes from the discussion board). The main change has been that we have been revisiting some old stuff in order to see how it works out on “this TV” (a term coined by my brother when he twisted his nose at the prospect of watching a film on our old Sony 29” CRT TV).
So for the last week we watched episodes of the new Battlestar Galactica (high definition internet downloads we watched by connecting the TV as the laptop’s monitor), TV through our standard definition set top box, lots of VHS (World Cup matches taped over night), laserdisc (my calibration LD as well as Starship Troopers), and a mix of DVDs (The Importance of Being Earnest, Austin Powers International Man of Mystery, Star Wars, North Country, Santana Supernatural, and Simon & Garfunkel in Central Park).
Does it feel like the cinema? It comes close, but 50” from our pretty average viewing distance is definitely not the equivalent of the cinematic experience. I would say that lies at about 65”, give or take a few, so if you have the space for that LG 71” LCOS model – by all means, go for it.

At this point I will break the review to explain how an LCD rear projector works, and how LCOS, its closest relative and today’s best imaging technology works. It’s just that I had many people ask me this question, so bear with me:
LCD in general works by projecting light through color filters (usually three filters, one for each of the RGB colors). By changing the intensity of the filters over time for each of the pixels, we can get a moving image.
LCDs come today as panels and as projectors, but both work the same way: A light is projected through a panel of filters, and what you end up seeing is the result. All that varies is the size and location of those filters.
Note LCD’s biggest disadvantage: it works by blocking light, not by generating light. This means that the picture’s intensity varies according to the different colors projected on the screen, and not according to the intensity of the source material. In plain Hebrew or plain English, this is commonly referred to as “distortion”.
Another problem caused by the way LCD works is the absence of true blacks. Black light, by nature, is actually “no light”, yet the filters of an LCD are unable to block all the light as required by particularly dark scenes (or, for that matters, the bars at the top/bottom or the sides of the picture when displaying a picture that doesn’t match the screen’s aspect ratio).
And yet another common issue with LCD that is also common to DLP is the screen-door effect: some of the circuitry required to toggle the fixed pixels’ filters can only be located around the pixel and you can actually see it as gaps in the picture, in the shape of a screen-door. These gaps were not there in the original picture, so that’s another form of picture distortion.
In an attempt to improve the rendition of colors and the intensity of blacks, better LCD projectors tend to have three separate projections – one for each of the primary colors. Our new TV falls into this category.
LCOS is the next generation of attempts to cure LCD’s woes. It stands for Liquid Crystal on Silicon, and it is basically an LCD projector implemented inside a chip. As the chip is fully enclosed and sealed (other than its light output), contrast ratios and blacks are that much better; and as it’s a chip, it’s easy to generate high resolutions out of it, so LCOS is currently the only medium that can generate 1080p picture without reverting to trickery (as DLP does, by having two separate DLP chips combine their picture to create a higher resolution).

Anyway, back to the review.
How would I rate our new TV’s picture quality? In one word, excellent. No, it is not as good as the good old CRT, but it’s much better than plasmas by a few parsecs: colors are excellent and the picture just feels live the way a cinema screen feels live and in contrast to the way TVs normally feel like. Maybe it’s the projection element that causes it, but it just feels alive rather than artificial.
In typical fashion, you don’t get to see the TV’s best out of the box. It’s the usual story of the fight for the shop floor space: since the masses will go towards the TV with the brightest picture, as opposed to the TV with the best picture, the manufacturers set their TVs to “stun” – that is, to project as brightest an image as possible at the expense of longevity and quality.
That is where my good old Video Standard calibration laserdisc comes into use. Aimed at CRT technology, it does not provide the tools for setting white level (more famously yet misleadingly known as “contrast”), but it did allow me to fix the rest of the controls. Brightness needed severe reduction, and now black is much more blacker than the original rather light shade of gray. Color was set fine but with a disclaimer: nowhere along the scale was I able to find a truly good setting; I had to compromise, and the default setting was indeed the best compromise. Hue had to be adjusted for better NTSC reproduction, and sharpness had to be severely reduced (as is always the case, with manufacturers concluding the masses prefer a seemingly sharper yet noisy picture over a less sharp yet truer to the source image).
Post calibration, the TV truly feels like a mini cinema screen. More than ever, I am now convinced that the manufacturers are marketing plasma monitors up our noses because that is where they make a lot of money rather than plasmas giving the best picture.

Any drawbacks? Sure!
Blacks are still not as black as real black or as CRT black (or DLP black, for that matter). But they are good enough for me.
Next on the line of issues is directionality. We all know that projectors need a very dim room to operate in, but our new TV doesn’t. It’s not plasma scintillating bright, but it’s definitely bright. This brightness is achieved by overdriving the projector, which shortens overall longevity and lamp life in particular (I hope that is not the case in our TV, but I can’t be sure), and also by limiting the screen’s directionality – the direction the screen allows light to go through. While side directionality is pretty good on our TV, vertical directionality is quite limited: your head has to be between the top and the bottom of the TV to enjoy the best picture, and if I stand up the picture looks dim and miserable. Not that this is an issue, because I tend to watch my films while sitting, thank you very much.
The next problem comes from the fact our TV is a fixed pixel TV with a 1.77 aspect ratio, while most of the source material is not. As a result, you have to set the TV’s zoom/crop settings for every single piece of material that you watch, and I mean it: every single piece of material. DVD menus are different to the film and the supplementaries are different yet again; SBS generally broadcasts in widescreen, yet some of their broadcasts are made of material originally made in 1.33.
The bottom line here is that you need to know what you’re doing to get the best undistorted image you can get. The TV definitely doesn’t help you: it’s set to expand the picture all over the screen by default, which fills the screen up but also distorts the picture; I’m more of a purist and I prefer to stick to the original, thank you.
But no matter how you look at it, it is still a problematic issue. I doubt that Jo, who is definitely not less intelligent than me, would know how to best set the TV up for each of the movies we watched; it’s one of those things where you need to know what you’re doing, and I suspect that the majority of the plasma buying public out there would not know a thing.

And now we come to the TVs biggest problem: the only problem we will not be able to live with for long.
Just like a good stereo, the TV is quite unforgiving when bad source material is displayed. You get to see what your source material is truly worth; if it’s good than the result is great, but if it’s bad than the result is a nightmare of noise.
VHS looks bad, very bad – especially the long play six hour football recordings I made during the weekend. You watch VHS and immediately you start calculating how to save for a high definition hard disk recorder.
Standard definition digital broadcasts look better, but not by much. They have obvious digital compression artefacts all over them, making you feel as if you’re watching a badly compressed JPEG (albeit a moving badly compressed JPEG).
Laserdiscs are fine but their resolution is simply too low for true comfort. Analog noise is abundant, too.
DVD is ok. That’s it: ok, no more and no less. It’s a decent picture, but you can clearly see there’s room for more details and a better picture overall, as if the TV is saying “Is that all? Did you wake me up for that?”
And so for the solution.
For years I have wondered why Widescreen Review makes such a fuss out of moving to true high definition. Now I understand why: High definition is the only true remedy for good big picture quality, period.
Currently, high definition is only available off the air, yet our antenna is incapable of handling it; we will need to fork out a few good hundreds of dollars to maybe be able to achieve the capability to watch the trash Australian broadcasters provide is with.
The next solution is to go for one of the two new high definition disc formats: HD-DVD or Blu-ray. Yet these are way too expensive and way too limited at the moment, and with the rivalry between the formats one has to be totally stupid to commit to either. Not that there’s much of an availability anyway.

And so I’m annoyed. I’m annoyed because while we significantly improved our TV experience, we did not achieve happiness. In fact, happiness is now a few thousands of dollars further away – or, to be precise, an antenna plus a set top box or a hard disk recorder away, throw in a new format player and a few discs as well.
Once again, we fell into the greatest marketing trap of all, the notorious upgrade loop.
Luckily for us, we have a huge supply of excellent material on DVD to watch until we save up for the next round.

Saturday, 1 July 2006

The Naked Sun, Take 1

Told you I remember my father took a photo of me reading Isaac Asimov's The Naked Sun the first time around, and here it is. It was taken in my parents' living room, which is still their living room today (albeit with severely different furnishing).
Turns out I had the photo with me: last time (which was also the only time) my parents visited us here, my mother brought a small photo album with her, and this photo was a proud member of her collection.
According to what my father wrote on the back of the photo, it was taken in July 1980, which means I was 9 years old at the time.
It also means that I was reading the book during the summer holidays between 4th and 5th grade, in contrast to the notion I maintained which was that I read it between the 5th and the 6th. I have to say I find it quite amazing I was reading such deep books when I was 9, because I cannot see the 9 year olds I know today doing the same. But then again, times have changed, and at the time there wasn't much for me to do other than read and go downstairs to play outside with my friends.
Anyway, 26 years later on, I have to agree with my old self: The Naked Sun is one mean mother of a good book.

Someone else's problem

Here's an example for something that's really stupid that frustrates me.
When we had the new TV delivered, the delivery guy didn't follow normal customs and take the TV's box with him (so that it could join its mates in the great packaging material heaven up in the sky). Because it wasn't a conventional appliance delivery service, but rather just a courier service, we had to keep the box with us.
And now the question is how to get rid of it. We could just put it on the nature strip so that eventually some trash picking service would pick it up, but it would mostly serve as an advertisement to the less lovable members of society that we have a really nice and big TV to steal.
We could cut it up and put it in the recycling garbage box, but it's so big it would take a few rounds until we actually get rid of it all. And it's quite thick, so cutting it is not that trivial an affair (so far I used an angle grinder to cut bits of it - a knife failed to penetrate through the thick cardboard).
Or, we can adapt the strategy of making it someone else's problem. We could take a night drive and leave it next to an appliance shop - Harvey Norman, The Good Guys - and they should know what to do with it. We can even leave it next to the charity boxes near our Bi-Lo supermarket: everyone seems to be leaving their big trash there; if it's an old sofa or an old washing machine that you're after, Bi-Lo's charity boxes are the place to go. Problem is, I would like to be able to face myself in the mirror, and doing such a thing wouldn't help. I'm definitely hypocritical more than often, but that's going over the edge.

So for now the agreed solution is that we leave the box folded up in the backyard until the next weekend. On Thursday they'll empty the recycling box, so over the weekend we'll team work to chop the box down into little pieces and then get rid of it the way a decent serial killer gets rid of the bodies: piece by piece.

Stupid is as stupid does

Using the last breath of the end of the financial year sales, I went to try on a zipper equipped sweater at a shop. Trying to release the sweater from the clutches of its coat hanger, the coat hanger snapped like a well tuned spring to hit my lip. And now I have this red blotch on my lips and my front teeth still hurt.
Stupid, right? Sure, but not as stupid as the new copyright legislation about to be introduced by our beloved Australian government (at least according to The Age).
You see, at the moment it is illegal to tape TV material on your video player in order to time shift it. Yet there is no Australian out there that does not commit this ugly crime in broad daylight (yes, this very night I intend to tape the quarter finals so I'll watch them during the day and actually get to have some sleep).
After 20 years or so of living with this breach, the government has decided that enough is enough. Soon, Phillip Raddock, our heartless legislator, will introduce updates that would allow us to tape stuff (or basically, convert stuff from one format that we own to another) so that we can use it once again.
The catch here is on the word "once". According to this new law, we will only be allowed to watch taped material once. Rewound to watch that goal again? You just broke the law!
Yes, that's the definition of stupid. I mean, I appreciate the intention to update the law to contemporary reality, but in this day and age of bit torrents, who is going to pay any attention to such silly legislation?
Not me.
And, by the way, backing your stuff up will still not be allowed in Australia. If you bought a CD, a game, or a DVD and you want to make a backup of it - migrate to the USA.