Sunday, 31 August 2008

Climbing Mount Improbable

Our baby Dylan is not walking yet, but traveling the UK has introduced him to a new element he is unable to find in his Aussie homeland: stairways. As the film below demonstrates, these do not phase him in the least.
At least not until he decides to sit back and have a rest.

Pay & Display

One of the benefits of travelling a foreign country is being able to listen to local radio. While being driven by Jo's mother across country England, we had the pleasure of listening to talk-back radio.
Now, I'm not about to express my opinion on talk-back radio in full detail (I don't see why I should be spending precious conscious time listening to idiots I would normally prefer to avoid). Yet the topic of discussion was interesting in its stupidity: Should “we” (as in, Brits) go travelling overseas, or should we explore the UK first and exclusively? As per the program's format, they actually brought in people to represent both sides.
Personally, I can think of some very good reasons why one would not want to or be unable to go travelling out of their native country. However, not leaving one's country simply due to an accident of birth, as in being born in that particular country and having enough nationalistic pride not to dream of going elsewhere, does not constitute a legitimate reason in my book. It's more like a display of ignorance, as in not being able to see that international borders are a rather stupid human invention which can vary quite a lot over time due to a multitude of reasons (most of which do not make sense).
That said, travel in England has enabled me to come up with many a good reason for Brits to want to leave their country as often as possible when a vacation is on the agenda. One of those reasons is called “Pay & Display”.
Pay & Display is the parking convention used in areas near tourist attractions. You park, you pay a ticket machine, and you stick your ticket on your car window. Pretty conventional, you say; every place has some sort of a parking fee collection mechanism. Yet English Pay & Display systems are unique: First, they are a major rip-off, with rather phenomenal parking costs.
Second, these ticket machines are pure evil: the one we've had the pleasure of using yesterday at the resort town of Skegness, for example, offered us the options of parking for two hours (2.50 GBP) or the full day (6.50 GBP). This doesn't sound too bad until you realize the machine doesn't accommodate for intermidiates: Want to park for, say, 3 hours (the way we did)? Well then, open your wallet wide and pay for the entire day. In our case, though, the lack of coins meant we settled with two hours of parking. But wait; we only had 3 GBP in coins, as opposed to the required 2.50. Do you think we got our change back? And do you think we were compensated with an extra half hour?
Third, the parking facilities themselves are so crap that parking there is asking for trouble. At York Castles' parking facilities, for example, the parking spaces were the narrowest I have ever seen and the shortest I have ever seen. I would have never allowed my Honda CR-V in there, nor do I think it would have fit in the first place. What we did see there, by the way, is a Toyota scratching a Kia and then getting away (I took a photo and left my card for the Kia owner, but so far I didn't hear from them).
The fourth problem with the pay & display system and with the concept of travel in England is much more generic. You pay through your nose to go anywhere here - out of all the countries I've been to England is really doing its hardest to get your cash - but way too many times the attractions you're paying to get to are, well, shit. Take that Skegness beach resort town as an example: it is absolutely horrible, both in its attractions and the nature of its human population. To quote our guide for the day, "hold on to your gold".
Those that limit their travels to their country alone are missing out on so much this world has to offer, and they're not even aware of what they're missing. I invite Brits to visit Australia, where the pays & displays are rare and those that are there are humane and worth the effort.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Eee Power

I know I'm repeating myself here, but I would like to say that our Asus Eee PC is proving to be quite an asset in our current European adventures.
It simply does everything one would need to do while away and does it well. It easily connects to a wi-fi network, which for us meant we could quickly compare car rental companies and book a car for the upcoming weekend for the stupid cost of a mere 30GBP (Ford Focus for 3 days from Hertz). To supplement our weekend adventure we've booked a room at Bath's Holiday Inn Express (59GPB per night), which should hopefully allow us to admire Bath's architecture, marvel at Stonehenge, and have a passing glimpse of Oxford while driving back "home" (that is, Jo parents' place). All navigation and itinerary planning are done using the web, with Google Maps having a significant role.
Travel planning aside, we're using the Eee PC to keep up to date with emails, entertain ourselves, do some very safe internet banking (the safest it can be, given that our Eee is a Linux one; no reason to worry about viruses, torjans, spyware, and the rest of the traps that lurk in Windows land).
Weighing less than a kilo and measuring the same as the paperback I brought with me, the Eee PC is an indispensable tool while on the move.

P.S. Time limitations mean I am unable to report much of out travels. I will leave that duty to the photos I'll upload to Flickr, but that will probably have to wait till we're back home as preparing the photos takes even longer than blogging. So for the record, we're taking things easy (not much of a choice there, given the baby) and are having a good time.

57 Channels and Nothing On

Digital TV has brought with it an abundance of newly released airwave spectrum just waiting to be exploited.
Indeed, at the UK, where we are currently visiting, TV channels seem to outnumber common sense. Bruce Springsteen's song quoted above talks about 57 channels, but Jo parents' TV now features hundreds of channels. Yet Springsteen is still all very right: there is still nothing on.
Perhaps the status of things is best demonstrated through a documentary on the so called Reality Channel. Entitles "Proof of the Paranormal", it has to be the shortest program ever.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Meet the English Family 2

Yesterday we had an arranged get together party with many members of the English side of our family. That's one of those mandatory things on the checklist whenever we visit England, being that traveling from Australia to the UK is not that trivial an affair.
For me it was only the second time I got to meet most of them, so it was a fairly interesting affair; and because, unlike the previous occasion, numbers were low and the music was not too loud, I could actually talk to some of them. Yes, I know, proper conversation is dangerous and chit chat is the rule of the day, but call me old fashioned.
Turns out there are some interesting people in the family I could easily talk to for hours, given the chance (probably the key phrase here, as I suspect the chance won't be given). One uncle, for example, is now retired and likes to spend his time reading science fiction; another is into astronomy, telescopes and such, always a subject I can easily fall for.
There were also conversations I didn't take part in. For example, showing solidarity with the family spirit (as in, wanting to avoid being cast out) I did not say a word when the topic of discussion moved on to religious grounds. That is, whether Muslim schools should be allowed in Britain, and if not then what should that imply over Church of England schools. I quickly moved away before my principles got the better of me (for the record, in my opinion the religious indoctrination of kids is a crime against humanity regardless of the particular religion).
The funniest element of the meeting was to do with Dylan, our one year old baby. Dylan was literally Made in Australia, and I can attest to that as I personally witnessed his conception (before you think I'm a pervert: Dylan was conceived using IVF). However, to his English family, Dylan is British; to them, at least given the way they communicated it during yesterday's chats, him being an Australian is side effect, and a minor one at that. A couple were even asking me about his support for the English cricket team.
Being that our household is as anti nationalist as a household can be, the referral to Dylan as British made me laugh. It's not like I have a problem with English culture; sure, the food is bad as and they're illogically attached to their queen, but British culture has a lot going for it: A lot of the books I read, the music we listen to and the TV stuff we watch are English, definitely way over England's size proportions. But still, I never think of myself as even remotely English and we never think of Dylan as English. He's a person and there's no need to label him further! We got him a British passport so he could get in and out of the EU and get the benefits involved, but support for the English national team?
The reality is that Dylan will be surrounded by peers who will drip Australian support into him, for better or worse. He will have an Aussie accent and he will follow Australian cultural trends. And unless he is to have a particular wish to be mauled by his friends, he will support the Aussie national team, too.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

Drop the Pilot

If you think long flights are a nightmare, try getting yourself on board a long flight with a baby. The biggest con the airlines are trying to sell us, new parents, is the bassinet.
Getting one is not something you can rely on if you have a one year old, because availability is limited and the airlines hand them out to younger babies first. Makes sense, but I can't see how the parents are expected to endure a long flight without the checking themselves right into a mental asylum as they land if they don't have front row seats.
Priority bassinet seating for young babies makes sense because the bassinets are pretty small. Our one year old Dylan proved to be an exact fit! Which meant that he couldn't turn over or make himself comfortable in there, which in turn meant that we had to put him to sleep first before we laid him in the bassinet. And since Dylan doesn't go to sleep on our lap anymore just like that, we have to wait until he's totally exhausted first. And as every parent knows, you don't want to be around an exhausted baby.
If you think that's the only thing I have against bassinets you're wrong. Consider this scenario: You seat with your baby on your lap, tied to you with this joke of a seatbelt, until the baby exhausts itself to sleep, screaming and wriggling like all good babies. You think the worst is behind you; hey, you're just about to chuck the baby in the bassinet and catch some sleep, maybe even have a read or play your Nintendo DS. You put the baby in the bassinet and you think there might, after all, be a reason to live.
Five minutes after you put the baby in the bassinet, the "put the seatbelts" sign lights up and this announcement goes in, saying you should take buckle in. Oh, and also take the babies out of the bassinets and buckle them to you. Guess what? Once you remove the baby out of the bassinet, you have an awake baby in your hands yet again. And a very annoyed baby at that.
And the whole god damn thing starts all over again.

Multiply that by five repetitions per flight and you'll figure out why I could easily kill a few pilots lately. The stupid thing is that behind some very slight shakes there were no real signs of turbulence; and even if there was something worth shaking for, the baby is probably much better protected by the bassinet's fastener than it is by the loop seatbelt that's as baby proof as an exposed power outlet.
It's all just your average case of a company doing its best not to be found liable for anything, sticking to the written law with such jealousy that they lose sight of the bigger picture - the picture that says the airlines are there to serve their customers. Then again, who am I kidding? They're there to make money, nothing more.
In conclusion, if you are considering having a baby but are not too sure on whether to take the plunge or not, get on board a long flight. Make sure you sit next to the bassinet seats, take a deep breath and enjoy your flight...

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

The Media Center

Digitization can achieve wonders. If you seek proof, check your own DNA: it's the perfect example for how being able to make reliable copies, an attribute of digitized information, has brought conscious beings into this world.
Recently, digitization has reached the video world. The result is that we now have high definition digital TV, digital broadcasting, digital downloads, as well as the close siblings of digitized music. However, with this digital revolution come new issues: namely, how are we supposed to manage all this digital information now at our disposal? For example, how are we expected to record programs off TV when our old VCR’s picture looks as attractive on our big high def capable screen as a smiling politician?
There is a large pool of solutions available, as deep as your wallet. You can get a high definition set top box, a high definition hard disk recorder, MP3 players, home networking equipment that would transmit your downloads from your PC to your TV, you name it – the options could crack your brain just thinking about them. But between all of the confusion there does seem to be one solution that rules them all and in the darkness of your home theater binds them, a single box that does almost everything you need at this day and age: a media center PC.

A decent modern PC has enough processing power up its CPU’s sleeve to easily muster any demands home theater can present. Set up properly, a media center PC can perform the following duties:
  • High definition set top box.
  • High definition hard disk recorder.
  • DVD burner.
  • DVD player.
  • DVD/CD ripping: Useful when, say, your child wants to watch the same DVD again and again; instead of messing with physical disks, just have the movie stored on your PC.
  • Internet gateway: this enables all sorts of things, from downloading stuff directly to the PC that will be used for watching it later, to programming your hard disk recorder directly from websites that contain the channel guides.
  • Act as your music library.
  • Connect to your TV using an HDMI output.
  • Connect you your home theater using 5.1 outputs, either analog or digital.
The idea of using PC’s to manage one’s media is not exactly new. Microsoft has offered a modified Windows XP version dubbed with a Media Center tag a good few years ago with varied success. Windows Visa has upped the ante, but the question is – do you really want Windows to manage your media center?
Well, I don’t. To point at just a few of its issues, Windows is heavy, it’s a bad product, and its security is very lacking and resource consuming. Personally, by now I find the idea of my money going to Microsoft for their compromised Windows products quite revolting.
Luckily, Linux can help by providing constantly updated distributions that do everything you would want a media center PC to do, do it very well, avoid being demanding on the user and on computer resources, and best of all – are totally free of charge.
You can buy ready made Linux PC’s at places such as this one, or you can do things yourself by buying a PC or assembling your own from parts. Widescreen Review, for example, has had a nice article on how to build such a machine (albeit a Windows running one) in its #125 issue.

When deciding to go for a media center PC, one of the dilemmas is whether to get a laptop or a desktop to do the job. A laptop has the advantage of having its own screen, which means you don't have to turn your TV on just in order to pick an MP3 song to listen to. This seemingly minute point is quite important in my own private case as projection technology does not like being frequently turned on and off.
That, however, is the only advantage I can think of; the rest of the advantages are clearly on the desktop side, from price through reliability to scalability and flexibility. Generally speaking, I think it is safe to say one should only get a laptop if one has to use a PC while on the move; for everything else, do yourself a favor and get a desktop.

It looks like my call is going to be preparing a PC of my own from separate parts and running the Mythbuntu Linux distribution on it.
As its name suggests, Mythbuntu is based on Ubuntu, so you enjoy all the updates and support that Ubuntu provides, but adds media center necessities on top as per the MythTV project. Effectively, once you install Mythbuntu (or, for that matter, one of many other Linux media center distribution), you’re all set to start using your media center for what it is meant to be doing – managing your media.

While praising Linux, one has to be aware of its biggest deficiency: lack of hardware support. The problem is that for better or worse, today’s computer equipment is built with Windows in mind, and often the drivers – the bit of software that liaises between the hardware and your PC’s operating system – is lacking. This means that if you buy a PC and want to run Linux on it you need to verify things would work in Linux first, which is far from being a trivial affair. There are websites that recommend suitable hardware, some of which are linked through the Mythbuntu website. However, when dealing with a media center which is expected to generate high quality multi channel sound and hopefully support the new high definition sound formats (e.g., Dolby True HD), things get even more complicated.
One solution which I may choose implement is to make my media centre PC a dual booting machine, with Mythbuntu sharing the pleasure with Windows XP. Once I’m happy with Mythbuntu I should be able to kiss XP goodbye. Such a safe approach would allow me to tinker with my media center’s components until I find a good combination; because I will be dealing with relatively small components, the cost of tinkering with parts should be quite acceptable.

My media center PC is still at the conceptual stage, which means that at the moment I’m mostly busy just thinking about it. So far I have identified the need to acquire the following components, which should cost significantly less than $1000 in total:
  • CPU: Given the undemanding nature of Linux, a moderate Intel Core 2 Duo CPU should do well at around $100-$150. In fact, it would be overkill, but given their cost there’s no need to go lower.
  • Motherboard: Probably the most important choice to make when building a PC, I will be looking for a motherboard that provides digital and analog 5.1 sound and does so in Linux at around $100-$150. Asus has a lot of offerings in the motherboard department, but my personal preference is with Gigabyte given Asus’ appalling support in Australia and their record of cheating with their motherboards’ specs.
    To date, I am yet to encounter a motherboard that supports the new high definition sound formats, but at least they're not that expensive to upgrade later.
  • Sound card: A sound card will probably only come on board if the motherboard’s sound facilities are found to be lacking. Relevant sound cards start at around $100, but audiophile grade stuff comes at a price of $500; I hope things won’t come down to that.
  • Case / power supply: As the media center PC will be spending time in the living room next to the hi-fi, it needs to look good and keep quiet. It should also be reliable. That means a rather heavy investment in a desktop (flat) box from Antec or Thermaltake at around $250. That, however, should come with a small LCD screen that will allow us to pick songs to listen to without turning the TV on and also come supplied with a remote. The big question would then be whether the remote and the screen are going to be supported by Linux?
    One interesting point about the cases which could explain their high price is the rarity of flat desktop cases (as opposed to standing tower cases). In particular, the rarity of those that would look good in the living room. Being that they're read and generally unavailable in the cheaper computer shops, one has to open his wallet wider to get a suitable box.
  • Wireless card: Used in order to connect to our wi-fi network. Research indicates the $15 Asus wireless cards work well with Linux.
  • Graphics card: Nothing a media center does should challenge a modern graphics card. All we really need is HDMI output and support for our TV’s resolution, which should cost us around $80 for a nice Nvidia based PCI-Express card. To be honest, there's a good chance a good motherboard will already contain all the graphic skills our media center would need, depriving us of the need to get a dedicated graphics card in the first place.
  • RAM: Given the Linux approach, 1gb of DDR2 RAM should do. Given the prices, I will probably go with a 2gb Kingston kit at less than $50.
  • Hard disk: A media center needs tons of storage space. At the moment, the balance of cost/benefit is on the 500gb mark, costing a tad less than $100 to buy the latest mainstream Seagate or Western Digital hard drive. If need be, additional drives should be easy to install.
  • TV card: To be connected to our aerial and receive the high definition signals. Again, the challenge is to get a model that conforms with Aussie digital broadcasting standards (which are rather eccentric) as well as with Linux. Should cost us significantly less than $100.
  • Wireless keyboard and mouse: Required because our living room needs fewer wires if we want to be able to live in it. Say, a $50 investment.
  • DVD burner: A pretty basic affair at $30.
It looks as if I would be delving into the media center realm sooner rather than later. Money issues aside, this looks like a bottomless pit as far as time consumption is concerned. I'm talking, of course, about building the PC; enjoying it as a media center would probably come much later.

Monday, 18 August 2008

The P Monster

Over the last few weeks we’ve had a new problem to contend with every morning. Each morning when we pick our roughly one year old baby Dylan out of bed we would find him wet. Sometimes he’s wet all over. The nappies seem to completely fail at capturing a night’s worth of output. No doubt, this is a conspiracy by the joint militant arm of the baby clothing companies and the washing powder companies.
Faced by such mighty opposition, we were pondering how to best tackle this problem. We are not alone in P land: two other babies born within a month of our Dylan have also become morning lake producing machines.

We started off with tactical solutions. Instead of the Aldi nappies we have been using, which are good as well as cheap ($16 for 50 nappies, that’s $0.32 per nappy), we thought we would give Huggies another go.
Huggies are the winners of Choice Magazine’s nappy comparison, but then again I have said here before what I think of Choice as a reference; to add insult to Choice’s injuries, they have recently recommended a compact digital camera as a camera that takes better quality photos than a Canon SLR model that in everyone else’s opinion (mine included) beats the crap out of every compact digital camera out there. That said, when Dylan was born Huggies were the only nappies that fit him, so they’re not all bad.
We bought a pack of 48 Dylan size male baby Huggies for $25. At $0.52 per nappy they’re 60% more than expensive than the Aldi nappies, although buying bigger packages would reduce unit cost. Unlike Aldi, though, with Huggies you do need to shop around for cost, and barring a major sale you would still fork out loads more than you do at Aldi.
The first thing you notice about the Huggies is that they’re much lighter than the Aldi nappies. While Aldi nappies are unisex and feature absorbent padding on both the front and the rear, the male only Huggies feature front padding only, and a lighter one at that. We suspect the lightness comes at the expense of using more vicious absorbent chemicals: in the past we could feel some warmth coming out of a wet Huggies nappy. We might have been delusional, but those chemicals are probably not the best thing for a young male baby’s testicles. I suspect we’re creating a generation of blank shooters through the use of disposable nappies, but I guess only time will tell; there’s no way we’ll be moving to cloth nappies. At least that's one way for dealing with over population.
Question is, did we get our money’s worth? Well, the straightforward answer is no. No magic took place, and nastier chemicals or not it appears as if the Aldi’s thicker padding is working better than the Huggies. So much for trying to solve the morning wetness problem using tactical means.

The Huggies experiment was repeated by the other two pair of parents I have mentioned before with similar results. It appears as though there are no tactical solutions to the problem, only strategic ones.
I suspect the issue at hand here is routine: we have all started with feeding our babies every 3-4 hours, then moved to a routine of overnight sleep with a cut-off feed at around 23:00, and then cut off the cut-off feed as our babies grew up. However, all of us are still feeding our babies milk before they go to bed, and it is our babies’ increased mass that makes them pee en masse over night.
The solution is therefore to abandon old habits that have accumulated through gradual evolution and instead take the initiative and do some proper optimization. Instead of the bottle being the last thing we give Dylan before he goes to bed, we should give him the bottle before his bath and put a clean nappy on him after most of the bottle's contents already came out of other way. It is obvious this is the path we need to tread through: this is, after all, what we adults do ourselves, and it would open the door to teaching Dylan how to brush his teeth before bed and have a bed time story ritual.
The only problem there is that messing with a baby’s routine is a guaranteed recipe for losing sleep. No one wants to go there unless absolutely sure and unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Scientific Anniversaries

Next week’s a holiday for all Australians. No, we won’t be off work, but we will be celebrating National Science Week.
You can access the Science Week’s website here, but I’ll spare you the trouble; it’s one of the worst designed websites I have ever seen, a leading candidate for the website where nothing ever works trophy.
However, I will tell you that as far as I am concerned the week’s major attraction is Michael Shermer. As a regular columnist in Scientific American I know him well, and I can tell you his Skeptic column is usually the first thing I read in a newly received edition of the magazine. It’s not the best thing in there, but its ratio of interest per text length is probably the magazine’s highest.
There’s more to Shermer than a column. Shermer is most famous for managing the Skeptics Society and for publishing the Skeptic magazine. He also writes interesting books, with the most famous one being Why Darwin Matters (a title I have used on numerous occasions in this blog). I cannot say that I agree with Shermer’s every word; in my opinion he believes too much in the power of the market to do good whereas I am more of a skeptic there (excuse the pan).
The Science Week’s website is completely useless and I cannot tell when and where Shermer will be presenting, but through some googling around I did find he will be in Melbourne between 17 and 19 of August and that on 17 August he will be presenting Why Darwin Matters at Melbourne Uni. We, by the way, will not be there because we strongly suspect babies would not be welcomed, but think of us not being there as an improved chance to get your own seats at this free presentation.

Shermer is good but not Dawkins good, and talking about Darwin and Dawkins brings me to my next science related news item: a new three part documentary TV series by Richard Dawkins, celebrating the 150th birthday to the publication of Origin of Species and entitled The Genius of Charles Darwin.
Two of the three episodes have already been aired and are very widely available at a bit torrent near you. The last episode is aired on 18 August, which means it will be downloadable the day after.
So far we’ve watched the first half of the first episode*, featuring a very old looking Dawkins as he retraces the steps Darwin took in coming up with his theory of evolution through natural selection. In parallel, Dawkins is challenging London high school kids whose indoctrination with religious creationism has greatly affected their ability to accept reality. Generally, I’m not a big fan of this latter type of reality show like dramatization, but Dawkins does raise a real and severe problem here by showing how society closes itself down from reality, and he makes his point quite well.
Overall, like pretty much everything Dawkins does, the result seems highly entertaining and educating. Do not miss The Genius of Charles Darwin!

In conclusion, I’m looking forward to the Science Week that will manage to bring Dawkins down under. When that happens, we’ll take Dylan along.

*By the time this post is published we have watched both episodes and I can say that as documentaries go, The Genius of Charles Darwin is excellent. The second episode explores the idea of selfish genes, kindness and morality; it's just intriguing. I find it amazing Dawkins manages to deal with such complex ideas in a simple TV program that should be digestible for pretty much everyone. I think it's fair to say that Dawkins' ability to push science to the general public in a way they can all digest it is probably his biggest talent. People like him are truly valuable to a healthy society.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

A Room with a View

Walking to the train station after another day at the office, I noticed these big posters hung on several billboards. The posters were calling for a demonstration to be held in protest of anti Muslim racism. In particular, the poster was pointing at the trigger to this current demonstration: Melbourne’s RMIT University closing down its Muslim praying rooms.
Having attracted too much attention to myself by reading the poster in the first place, I moved on to catch my train home.

My first problem with this poster’s call to arms is to do with its misrepresentation of the term racism. Not that it’s anything new or anything exclusive to Islam, but I think it’s worth pointing out:
Having something against someone just because he/she is a Muslim does not have much to do with racism but more to with a lack of acceptance to other cultures, cultures different to the discriminator’s own. Race is something we all inherit from our parents and can’t do much about, and thus a person born to black parents will always be coined black by those that wish to discriminate against him/her. That person, however, can decide to become a Muslim today and then change their mind a week later to become a practicing Buddhist.
I realize that I am in a minority vote here and that it is common practice to label prejudice against self identified groups with the “racism” tag, just as it is common practice to do it for groups identified by unchangeable traits. My problem, however, is with this trend of making racism cheaper by the dozen: By expanding the set of attributes that make one liable for racist based compensation we are causing society to cheapen the value of racism in the first place.

Which leads me to my second problem with the call to arms mentioned above: the expectation to automatically deserve dedicated praying rooms for the sole reason that one belongs to a certain religion. It is exactly the next logical point on society’s path once it starts cheapening the concept of racism and applying it to every second thing.
Now let me make one thing very clear: There can be no doubt that Muslims are being discriminated against in Australia.
You can feel it almost every time you view an interaction between a Muslim and an “Aussie”, whatever that entity may be defined as (probably “a Christian white with English as their mother tongue”). I could certainly view it by the worrying looks I got while reading the above mentioned poster in the middle of a crowded street. It’s a game of connect the dots, really; a man of Middle Eastern appearance reading a sign about Muslims’ protest, the guy just has to be a blood thirsty terrorist, doesn’t he? Let’s keep our distance away from him. And make sure you don’t let our child get too close, dear!
Discrimination against Muslims in Australia is even constitutionalized, to one extent or another: just check the case of a Sydney suburb’s local council refusing to grant a permit for a Muslim school on grounds that no one would ever think of coming up with had the school been Christian instead. What does society expect Muslims to take away from such an experience to the next time they get to interact with authorities or just their neighbors, the same people who wrapped themselves up in Aussie flags and declared that a Muslim school could only be built over their dead bodies?
Yet however problematic the treatment of Muslims by the great Aussie society is, there is no justification for Muslims to deserve something no one else is getting – praying rooms in their universities – purely on the grounds of belief. Neither does the Christian majority, for that matter; that is, unless they pay for these facilities out of their own money and make sure these facilities do not interfere with the rights of all other university students.

Thing is, if Muslims deserve dedicated rooms to practice their religion in, what about the rest of us?
Just because I don’t believe in any mythology that was spoon fed to me as a child until presented with proper evidence to support it, does that mean I’m to be deprived of my very own room in which I can practice whatever it is I want to practice?
If that is indeed the case – that is, if I need a religion behind me in order to acquire the extra resources the Muslims deserve by default just because they’re Muslims – then I call for the establishment of a new religion. I will refer to it as Bullshitology.
Us Bullshitologists have ourselves a highly demanding religion and we deserve to be provided with the resources we require in order for us to conduct a healthy spiritual existence. For a start, we can’t work too much, because work means we are prevented from practicing our religion; no, work is to be banned due to its obvious racist nature.
Next, in order for us to actively practice our religion, we each need to have our own dedicated large, warm and well maintained Jacuzzi. In this Jacuzzi our practicing Bullshitologist will share the company of 72 knockout babes of his choice (“his” choice, as opposed to “her” choice, because like all religions Bullshotology knows where the right place for women is). Only in that environment can a Bullshitologist go through the deepest practice of the religion, the ultimate way of communicating with his gods: the exchanging of notes on quantum physics with his army of babes.
I think it’s important to stress a good Bullshitologist will never pick virgin babes for his Jacuzzi; a good Bullshitologist appreciates the value of a babe that is well versed in mechanics.
If you disagree to supplying me with all of the above, you’re a bloody racist.

Back to serious mode, the relevant question regarding anti Islamic notions becomes whether these have originated through exaggerated “I deserve this because I believe” requests coming out of the Muslim community itself.
As interesting as this question may be, I think it is safe to say that at least in Australia the fear of the Muslim is a much more primeval than that. In my opinion, it is more to do with a basic fear of the unknown. Most people bearing anti Muslim grudge regard Muslims as a potential terrorists regardless of these Muslims’ demands; they don’t know them well enough to know better.
That said, I really think the Muslims are shooting themselves in the foot with their ridiculously unjustified demands for praying rooms. Such requests, surely made by just a small minority, blemish the group entire.
You could easily pick on me for picking on Islam when its image is tarnished by just a slight few. Then again, Islam is repeatedly being tarnished by a slight few, and the reality is that I don't see as many Muslims as I would like to see seeking out to get rid of the crap in their ranks. Complaints should work both ways, not just to the outside; if anything, one should look inside first before looking to the outside.

An anecdote to conclude with:
With the passing this week of Isaac Hayes, an SBS news item covering his life was saying how he left South Park after the series decided to have a go at Scientology. Hayes was shown saying “I’m a Scientologist and I demand to be respected for my beliefs”.
Well, I respect Hayes for many reasons; his beliefs are not one of them. Still, why shouldn’t I jump on the bandwagon? I’m a Bullshitologist, and I demand to be respected for that, too!

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

The Jedi Strikes Back

I don't think I have anything to add to the above video other than note the force was strong with this one.
What I will say is that many years ago and a country far far away, my uncle forced me to go with him to see this film called The Empire Strikes Back. It was the first day of my third grade at school and it was the first ever film I went to properly see at the cinema. I was afraid of the experience, but guess what? I enjoyed it immensely. Well, my uncle has now been dead for exactly twelve years, but as the video indicates his memory is very much intact.
Last, I would like to thank Marcus & Sarah for providing Dylan his lightsabers.

Monday, 11 August 2008

The Good Australian Samaritans

This blogger prides himself on being a human being, and as a typical member of this fine yet problematic species I tend to focus most of my posts on the negative things I see around me. Well, in order to improve the taste in our mouths, here is a rather rare foray into the realm of the positive.

The writing on the post started in my head during a cold morning last week. Riding the train to work, I noticed this rather dark looking dude (some people would simply call him black) wearing this big baggy hat to cover his hair. Nothing really special about the guy other than him being the type I sort of mark as a “better keep my distance” kind of guy. You know, the type of thing others are doing to me which guarantees the seat next to me on the train is never taken.
Getting out of the train station I had to go through the turnstiles and revalidate my train ticket. Next to me there was this very old guy, Chinese looking – he looked as if he came directly from a Karate Kid sequel – who was trying to get into the train station but obviously had no clue about train ticket validations. He lacked the English to ask for help, too.
But before I could say Jack Robinson that dodgy dark dude jumped to the aid of this old Chinese guy and kindly explained – using hand gestures – the practical theories involving the application of train tickets in Melbournian public transport. At least by this single observation, the seemingly menacing guy turned out to be a really nice one.
The incident reminded me of a similar experience where I was the aided party. Back in 2001, when I was visiting Australia as a tourist and driving all over the place, I got to this challenging turning point life tackles us with at least once: I had to fill up my rental car’s tyres with air. Thing is, Aussie service stations’ air pressure hoses are slightly yet significantly different from their Israeli counterparts, and I didn’t know what to do with them. To make things worse, next to me there was a group of evil looking bikers, armed with Harleys, goatees, open face helmets, and an archive of tattoos longer than the list of websites banned by the Chinese government.
I needn’t worry, though; those guys were really nice as they helped me out. They were so polite and courteous about it that you would think they came directly from their weekly voluntary commitment at the Salvation Army and were on their way to the local old people’s place to entertain the occupants.

It takes more than the above to make me sit and write a positively spirited post. The straw that broke the back of this negative camel was yet another display of good nature, encountered last Saturday.
I went into this huge outdoor shop carrying lots of stuff on me, so I stuck my sunglasses in my shirt’s pockets and forgot all about them. Later, after leaving the shop and going about elsewhere, I noticed that I was squinting a lot, something I’m not used to doing because I tend to wear my sunglasses with the slightest hint of sun; thing is, I wasn’t wearing my sunglasses because I could no longer find them.
I searched the car, I searched here, I searched there, I searched everywhere. Couldn’t find them. So I ran back to that shop, the last place I remember touching the sunglasses. In a typical Israeli fashion I overtook the queue, to the amazement of the polite people waiting in line, and asked the shop owner if he saw my red Oakleys. He smiled, reached back to a shelf behind me, and gave me my glasses; he told me someone found them outside, lying on the ground, and brought them over (at which point the people in the queue started laughing).
Now this is not the first time I lose these sunglasses. I have reported the first time here already, and by my reckoning this is actually the third time I lose them since that initial report. More importantly, this is the third time I retrieve them due to people’s general good nature.

It is this general good nature that I like to praise in this post; it’s just that I find it marvellous and inspirational. I know that if I was to find the equivalent of my own glasses I would also try to find their rightful owner, but I also know that if I won’t be able to do so they would go on eBay within two and a half minutes; which means that returning the glasses to their rightful owner is not that trivial an affair.
I also maintain that this good nature is something uniquely Australian. No, I’m not being patriotic here; I’m the last person to bear patriotic pride of any sort. In my opinion nationalism is almost if not as bad as religion. It's just that Australia does have an inherit easy nature to it, probably the result of it being a Land of Plenty (or rather the land of a bit more than most of the other places) where one can make a living just by digging stuff off the ground and where there are, overall, less people to compete for resources with you. There's more to it, though: I maintain a lot of it has to do with Australian society being so varied. It's the fact that we have a black guy, a Chinese old man, and an Israeli loser (of sunglasses) that mean everyone respects the other just a tiny bit more.
It’s not like this good will can’t happen anywhere else but Australia, it’s just that in here it happens so often you can regard it as a norm rather than an exception. I'm sure there are other countries in which such behavior is the norm, and I promise to mention those when I learn of them. For now, though, I would like to mention Australia because it’s the first country I know of where I know I can systematically rely on people being nice to me.

Sunday, 10 August 2008

The Great Dividing Range

One of the things you get to notice as a parent is just how big a gap there is between those who are parents and know what it takes and those who haven't been there.
You get to notice it quite regularly, say, when you meet with old friends and suddenly realize that you don't have as much in common anymore because there is this thing in your life called baby which now consumes most of your attention but simply doesn't occupy a single neuron of your friends' brains. I have been known to find myself meeting friends for lunch only to find that I just don't have much I can talk to them about anymore; that is, not much I can talk to them about without boring the hell out of them.
Another example came just this week, when a friend from Israel asked us whether we would be interested to go and see Deep Purple, who just happen to have a show at the time we'll hopefully be in Israel. By all means, that's positive thinking on behalf of the friend; I love Deep Purple. Or at least I used to.
Assuming this friend was serious with his invitation, the issue is whether he was aware of all the issues involved with us going out to a place where we would not be that contactable and not within an easy reach in case something happens with Dylan. And that's after assuming that we have someone to take care of Dylan in the first place while we're away; while our family would probably gladly help they don't know our baby's set of tricks. And it also assumes the baby has settled enough in Israel in the first place so that we can actually leave him with others to take care of him. All of these concerns are rather trivial and all of them can be addressed, but when you add them all up there are just too many uncertainties for us to go and commit to buying tickets at this stage.
Such offers would not come from people who have children of their own.

Friday, 8 August 2008

While My Guitar Gently Weeps

Several weeks ago we were having a weekend breakfast with the laptop on, and in order to entertain ourselves while eating we've decided to watch some music videos on YouTube. It's really quite the treasure chest, YouTube: All the music videos I used to like as a child or even much later but could never watch when I really wanted to watch them, all the music videos my uncle taped me on his VCR back when no one else knew what a VCR is, all of them are available in YouTube at the click of the mouse.
The question then became which music video we should kick our breakfast off with. For reasons that elude me, whenever I think of music videos one of the first things to come to my mind is A-Ha's The Sun Always Shines on TV; indeed, that was the first video we watched that morning.
Later that day I wanted to write a post here to express how annoyed I was with our family's approach to us coming to visit them, namely them not really appearing to be going out of their way to make the most of our limited time with them. On one hand I wanted it to be a toxic post in order for it to have an effect (that is, if only they bothered reading the post; they didn't). On the other hand, I didn't know how to start writing the post.
So I chose the George Harrison way. His song While My Guitar Gently Weeps (from the Beatles' White Album) is famous for the way its lyrics were written: following this Chinese concept, Harrison opened a random page in a random book he found at his parent's place and read "gently weeps". The rest of the song was built around that phrase. I copied his strategy with my post: I had A-Ha's song still in my mind and just forced it on the post. Now, I'm not saying here that my post is half as poetic as Harrison's song or anything, but it did fit what I was trying to say. Especially the bit about the family's content with sitting to watch TV all night long as if we weren't there and as if TV is the peak of human experience.
I know this sounds stupid, but I'm proud of being able to link a seemingly unrelated song and the message I wanted to convey into one coherent post. That is, coherent by my standards.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Celebration in the Snooker

Last week I had this dream. Not that I think there's particular meaning in dreams other than my brain doing some sorting out with its RAM, and not that there was anything particularly unique to that dream other than me remembering it later on.
In my dream I was playing snooker together with three colleagues of mine. The location was this Israeli snooker joint I used to frequent back in Tel Aviv, called Lincoln (I think we can safely assume no relations to Republic party presidents or English towns). My company included two of my best Israeli friends, with whom I chatted over the phone the day before the dream, as well as the helpdesk manager for this software company that gives me plenty of pain in my day job (and I think it's safe to assume this guy has never been to Israel).
Now, what is wrong with this picture?

I'll tell you what's wrong with the picture: There's no way you're going to catch me at an Israeli snooker joint, that's what's wrong. Not that I mind playing snooker; I suck big time but I enjoy it. And not that I mind being surrounded by rather dubious guys I wouldn't trust for a second, the way you do at a snooker joint, because the friends I'm with more than compensate. The problem, you see, is the smoking legislation in Israel that allows people to smoke in places like snooker joints. In the past I didn't care that much; today, being spoilt by clean Aussie air coming directly from Antarctica and by the anti smoking legislation here, the thought of spending time in a place clouded by cigarette smoke seems inconceivable.
That said, for all I know there might have been some new legislation in Israel which amended the snooker joints' atmosphere and of which I'm unaware. Point is, where there's smoke there's no Moshe.

Smoking, however, is the lesser wrong with my dream's picture. The bigger wrong is that I was in Israel in the first place.
Why? Because Israel is a country living on borrowed time. A couple of years ago it had a war with Lebanon in which missiles hit a third of its area, including its third largest city. With the Hizballah rising in power ever since, a rematch is just a question of time. This time Hizballah is much more likely to sport missiles that reach Israel's center.
The even more severe threat to Israel is coming from Iran, who seems to be on its way to develop its own atomic bomb. Israel is naturally agitated and threatens an attack Iran's nuclear facilities; it even practiced such an attack over the Mediterranean a few weeks ago. Whichever option Israel goes with, its stuck between a rock and a hard place: if it attacks Iran, it should expect to be attacked back, and its obvious that in addition to a flurry of terrorist attack on Israeli targets all over the world Iran would do its best to fire long range missiles on Israeli civilian centers; not to mention the worldwide panic as oil prices jump up the roof and as an exchange of unconventional weapon seems more than likely.
If, on the other hand, Israel decides to do nothing, then for years to come it would feel as if its living on borrowed time. Vigil would have to be maintained at extremely high levels, because you never know where you're going to get the A bomb from; it could be this man walking with a suitcase size one, it could be this airplane approaching Israeli airspace, and it could even be a ship cruising not that far from Tel Aviv.
So what should Israel do, then, with regards to the threat from Iran? Well, that's a tough one, and I can't say I have an easy solution in mind. No one has. The only thing I can advise Israel to do is to wait until after I visit to attack Iran, if it does intend to attack Iran in the first place, because otherwise it would ruin our travel plans. And I don't even want to think of the consequences of an Israeli attack while we're actually in Israel.
If, however, I was to think more strategically, then my advice to Israel would be simple. Simply put, there is no way for Israel to continue existing in the long term if things go on the way they do now. If it's not Iran, then someone else would come up with an atomic bomb; it's not that hard to make them, and given enough time everyone would. It seems as though Syria was on its secret track there, held back by a recent Israeli air attack.
The only way to prevent Israeli's neighboring countries from building their own atomic arsenal is to rid them of the motivation to build an atomic bomb in the first place. And the only way to truly help them get rid of this motivation is not by deterrence but rather by establishing peace with them: A peaceful neighbor is a neighbor that would set their minds anywhere other than war.
So how can peace be achieved in the Middle East? It is obviously a hard thing to achieve, and it's obviously something that many would do their best to prevent (e.g., Hizaballah). However, in my opinion Israel should be taking the initiative into its own hands and appeal to the moderate Arabs by changing its policies: Instead of hanging on to land that is not its own, Israel should get rid of the territories it occupies. The Golan Heights and return them to Syria; they're not worth the radiation. The same goes for the West Bank.
Most importantly, Israel should get out of Jerusalem; nothing good ever came out of this place, and its main export is bloodshed. I find it absurd that peace in the Middle East hangs on the fate of this one city which is supposedly "holy" to everyone involved in the conflict, because the way I see it Jerusalem is the least holy place on the planet. It's the world's worst place by far.

If you want another view on the Arab - Israeli conflict that's similar to what I am trying to say but is expressed much more fluently and in a much more entertaining fashion, have a listen to my mate Pat Condell here. As I have said before, I very much agree with this guy:

Monday, 4 August 2008

Secure payments over the internet

It's sad when complaint letters are the order of the day, but earlier tonight our bank (the ANZ) managed to piss me off enough while I was trying to make a hotel booking over the internet that I decided a letter is due.
To cut a long story short, the security pages added by the bank to the process of making a secure credit card payment through third party websites don't seem to work; instead of enhancing security they severely reduce it, but they do add tons of confusion instead.
Without further ado, here's tonight's letter of complaint:

As I have just been through a horrible ordeal involving ANZ'a web facilities, I thought I might share this experience from you so that you might understand why I keep on finding ANZ's facilities to be less and less attractive and why the thought of moving my finances to another bank is increasing in its appeal.

Earlier tonight my wife and I were trying to book a hotel room in Singapore through the website. I was using a desktop computer running Ubuntu Linux as its operating system with Firefox 3 as the internet browser.
Entering the order at the website required us to go through the lengthy procedure of entering our order requirements, followed by entering our personal details, followed by entering our ANZ Visa credit card details. At that point we were presented with an ANZ internet page asking for my ANZ credit card's confirmation password. I typed my password in, but the page did not respond when I clicked its confirmation button. Firefox alerted me that the internet page was trying to download a plug-in, so I gave it permission to download the plug-in; however, Firefox then told me no plug-in could be found. It seemed as though I was not able to finish the hotel booking transaction, although for all I know the booking could have already been made without me knowing.
In a second attempt to book a hotel room, I reverted to using another computer running Windows Vista with Internet Explorer 7. I went through the same ordeal and got presented with the same ANZ password confirmation page. This time around, a popup window told me that if I want to use password and chip protection I need to download a plug-in. However, when I clicked the OK button on the popup to download the plug-in my browser window just closed down on me. Again, I was not able to finish my hotel booking transaction, and again I was left in the dark with regards to how far my booking really went.
I then made a third attempt, using Internet Explorer 7 (again). I went through the same ordeal for the third time, but this time around I clicked the Cancel button on the popup asking me about the plug-in. I then went on to enter my ANZ password, and then - finally - managed to click the web page's confirmation button and acquire a confirmation for my booking.

Given the experience I have just had, I would like ANZ to explain the following:
1. How come ANZ fails to support the Firefox internet browser, used by 30% of the Australian internet community?
2. How come ANZ produces such badly designed internet pages in the first place, given that they don't function properly both in Firefox and in Internet Explorer?
3. What is the point of ANZ's credit card confirmation facilities, meant to enhance user security, if they don't work the way they are required to work and if they only serve to reduce users' confidence?

For all I know, at this moment in time I might have anything between one to three hotel bookings paid for in my name using my ANZ credit card. I am sure you would agree with me that the blame for this confusion and for the time I have wasted is entirely at the hands of ANZ, which seems to have managed to produce web facilities that are both insecure and riddled with defects.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

I Like Trike

We just had to get Dylan a trike during the ongoing toy sales. Jo really likes the idea of those new style baby trikes that come with a stick at the back that allows the parent to push the baby, and I just like reminiscing about those good old days when I used to have a trike of my own. I rode it to its death, or rather to its murder: one fine days, coming back home from first grade school to take a spin on my trike, I found it broken. My parents broke it because they thought it was time I moved on. Talk about repressed childhood!
It took us time to get out minds into buying a trike. Perhaps we've procrastinated because Dylan is actually a good few months away from being ready to ride a trike... We've missed the Kmart toy sale altogether and were late enough to have Big W run out of stock on its $30 trike sale. Target offered a rather fancy option with a metal chassis, that in my opinion is totally redundant and serves for nothing but weight, but late beggars can't be choosers so we got one for $70 on the first day of the Target toy sales.

The story of this purchase is not that simple, though. A week before we were shopping at Target for a baby gate so we can seal Dylan off the kitchen where he's too much of a hazard. They had a few nice models that would do the job, starting from $100; then we noticed this new pile of Target baby gates at the side that sold for only $80 and did the same, so we bought one.
Coming home we realized that this gate we just purchased is actually a member of Target's toy sale catalog and that within a few days, once the sale starts, we'd be able to get it for only $40. So we returned it, only to get it back again for $40 together with the trike on the toy sale's first day.
The gate was well worth the $40 and significantly improved our living conditions. The trike's story, however, was different.
In typical Made in China fashion, the assembly instructions were as clear as the Liberal Party's policies on climate change. We've assembled the trike all the way, and I really liked its orange/blue color combination (mirroring the Dutch football team's shirts); but when playing with its pedal locking features I ended up with a pedal in my hand instead of on the trike where it should be.
So we returned the trike. The Target shop next to where we live had already ran out of the trikes, so it seemed like Dylan missed out on having a Dutch trike. Guess one way or another Dylan has had to learn that things in life don't always go the way you want them to.
I didn't give up, though, and during work time went to check on Target next to work (a much more interesting way to pass the time at the office than to actually work). It turned out that that shop didn't even bother unpacking their stock of trikes so I was actually their first customer. This time I was equipped with a $10 Target voucher that all shoppers at Target got on the first week of their toy sale, regardless of me returning the first trike, so I actually ended up paying $60 for Dylan's new trike. Was the $10 discount worth the hassle and me carrying this huge box home on the train? I don't think so.
At least it was an adventure. My point, however, is that this all affair - buying the gate twice, the breaking of the pedal - was caused by misinformation. At least in the case of assembly instructions, I really can't understand why brands fail to provide a manual that people can actually understand. I realize corners need to be cut in order for me to be able to buy a trike for a mere $60, but why the assembly instructions? Where is the cost cutting there? Are they cutting on the guy that can express himself using proper sentences, that evil bastard who earns more than everyone else?
It's not just Target and it's not just Chinese made products; IKEA could use a major boost in that clarity department, too. As new parents, we've stumbled upon many such cases, and the amount of quality weekend time we've wasted on such bullshit is way too vast for comfort.

By now it's a case of all's well that ends well. If you've already watched the video above you would see some of Dylan's impressions concerning said trike.
You may have also noticed this video is unique. It is actually an edited video, made out of six separately shot clips that were packed together into one "film" with some special effect added on top, made possible with the help of the Adobe Premiere Elements software. Come to think of it, it's the first time ever in my career that I do editing on a video, which is something I find quite surprising given my love affair with film. Not that the resulting video is a masterpiece of editing; I didn't go for flow or anything like that, I just put the pieces I wanted to remember Dylan by together.
Yet it is clearly obvious there is a major playground waiting for me to expose by using this Adobe product. The possibilities are endless: I could, for example, do what I wanted to do years ago and prepare a DVD out of our wedding video that would incorporate my "director's" comments. Not that I care much about our wedding video by now, it's just that it would be a fun thing to do (if I had the time). Or, alternatively, I could mix a few videos taken while traveling into a travel journal. It may sound complicated, but Adobe Premiere Elements is so easy to use that messing around with videos becomes as easy as figuring out what you want to achieve with them.
Mind you, Adobe doesn't release its software for the Linux environment and I had to use Windows instead. It didn't take much for me to remember why I've left Windows behind: Adobe Premiere is such a heavy application you can see the steam coming out of my four year old desktop's P4 CPU, and every time another application was used the Adobe application just disappeared with no trace. This made it really annoying when the Microsoft Defender software decided to run routine scans without asking me for permission three times during the creation of the above video (a task that overall took me a bit more than an hour, but bear in mind that when I started it was my first time ever use of the software).
Still, while I can complain about Adobe missing out on the Linux platform as much as I want, I will take my hat off to Adobe for releasing this mighty powerful software in the first place. Highly recommended for everyone serious about their home movies.