Saturday, 29 November 2008

Life of Pi

Recently, my American movie critic friends have published a review of the film Pi, a film I didn’t like in the least. You can read what the film is about in the review itself, but to sum it up in one sentence it's about a guy that deciphers a secret message from god in the Torah.
Earlier this week, while at home under a severe cold, I commented on their review; in retrospect, that comment was good enough to stand on its own, so here it is in a slightly modified version.

The term Torah refers to only the first five books of the Old Testament, from Genesis to Deuteronomy. According to tradition, these were recited by god himself and written down by Moshe. When the Greeks translated the bible they took the name Moshe, replaced the "sh" with s just because they don't have an "sh" sound, and added an extra s at the end just because that's what Greeks do to names; the same treatment was received by a guy called Yeshua, whom you probably know as Jesus.
My point with this lovely tale of names' evolution is simple. When discussing secret messages in the bible, one has to take into account that the bible has been mixed and edited many a time before we got to read it. Worse, the Old Testament was handed over orally over many generations before it was put down in writing in the first place. Therefore, if god had intended for us to find a secret message in the Torah, he must have planted it in the version he would know we were to end up having; but then again, which version? The original Hebrew one or the King James one? Which is the truly diving bible?
Not that this simple logical problem has stopped me from hearing of these wonderfully encrypted messages one can find in the bible during virtually every time I got to interact with a religious person back in Israel.

As for pi in the context of the Old Testament, allow me to quote a passage dealing with the construction of the temple from Kings 7:23:
And he made a molten sea, ten cubits from one brim to the other... and a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about.
What we have here, in case you couldn't already tell, is either some very divine circle or an account so ignorant its estimate of the value of pi is 3!

Which leads me to say that if you look hard enough for a pattern you will find it in everything. Look hard enough and you will probably find tomorrow's winning lottery numbers in this very post. The trick is to find something that matters, something that is statistically significant enough to stand on its own. Given the attention given to the bible, if such a thing really existed it would have been found ages ago.
My opinion is that things should have gone the other way around altogether. If god had wanted us to know about great big things, he should have given us a straight forward account. He should have specified Maxwell's equations or told us about electricity. He could have told us the fascinating tale of galaxies and black holes in some manner that would have passed through the ages with awe only to be understood generations later. He could have even settled to tell us the earth was rather ball like.
Yet he chose not to do any of the above. Instead, he left us with a document that can't even provide a good approximation of pi. Come on, I could do better during fourth grade with a bit of wire!
And you know what that makes me think? It makes me think the Old Testament is nothing but a man made relic of the Bronze Age. Hence for my opinion of films trying to glorify it the mumbo jumbo way.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Two Dollars

The country’s financial planning is hot on the agenda. Clearly, next year’s budget is going to be tighter than we have grown accustomed to; it is unavoidable given the government will have significantly less tax income. The question is, should the government plan for a deficit budget or should it stick to the Liberal Party’s policy or surpluses?
The Liberal Party is already smelling the blood and keeps on making comments on how the Labor government is unable to manage the finances as well as they have. They are pushing their spin wheels as best they can in order to create an aversion in the public to the word “deficit”, as if that word is the devil itself. Labor, on its part, is playing along, clearly afraid of using the D word too much for fear of being stigmatized.
What I find so annoying about the way this discussion has been going is the rarity in which the real question pops up. That is, instead of asking “which policy will serve my political agenda best”, no one is asking “which policy will serve Australia best”. And that’s shocking. It is a clear indicator to the quality of leadership this country has and to the way this leadership regards us – the public – as mere children that cannot think for themselves. Worst, it is an indication that the leaders are probably right to treat the public the way they do, given that the public plays along so sheepishly. Essentially, our opinions are shaped the way we’re being told.

I will therefore use the opportunity to express my opinion on this grave financial matter.
First, I would like to say that having budget surpluses is, in my view, a clear indication for bad fiscal management. If you don’t need the money then don’t collect it; and if you can’t tell whether you need the money or not, then you obviously need to work on your forecasting ability before you can come and claim my money for obviously unjustifiable reasons. Second, once you have the money in your hands (as you do when you have a surplus), then please return it to me; don’t keep it with you for over ten years. Return it to me in the shape on better infrastructure, better health and better education. As the record clearly indicates, under the Liberal government all three were left to severely deteriorate despite the surpluses (note subsidizing private schooling for the middle classes does not count as investments in education).
Third, a budget deficit is not necessarily bad. Sure, it has lots of potential to be bad, but it can also be good: If, for example, the government goes into deficit in order to fund the infrastructure projects we actually need, then they would both kick-start the economy and help society along. If this investment kick-start works well enough it return the investment next year to wipe out the deficit. The point is, it’s better to invest in the future by borrowing now then to dig into place just so one political party wouldn’t lose face to another. That said, Labor seems to specialize in coming up with projects in a rather offhanded way, without really thinking their worth, or – worse – in coming up with projects whose main aim is to make a rich banker even richer (with numerous examples in Victoria alone, the best of which are the proposed desalination plant and the traffic tunnels: both are unneeded, damaging projects).

Last, but not least, this entire surplus/deficit argument shows just how limited the thinking capacity out there is. Surpluses and deficits are not absolutes, they are relatives living on a continuum. To explain my point, I will ask you this: What is the difference between a one dollar surplus and a one dollar deficit?
Exactly two dollars.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Digital Killed the Video Star

Please allow me to continue the trend of home entertainment posts just a bit longer. I promise I will return to my usual bitching on how stupid religion is as of the next post. You see, I do have news to unload, and the news is that we finally got ourselves a high definition set top box. Not only that, we got ourselves a high definition PVR.
What is this PVR, you ask? Well, it's a box equipped with two high definition tuners and a hard disk. It allows you to watch one program and record another or record two programs simultaneously, and the recording is directly to the hard drive - at high definition quality. Goodbye VCR...
A PVR does wonders to the way you watch TV, and we're still getting the hang of it. You basically watch TV shows at the time you want to watch them (and you fast forward through the commercials): you pick shows you want to watch out of the weekly program guide the PVR gets off the air. And that's it, basically... You can also start watching something, say a football match, and click pause so you can go to the toilet; once back, you can resume watching, and when you get to the half time break you can fast forward again.
A week plus into having a PVR at home, it's already filled up with some movies from last week's crop (usually films that we would normally avoid renting but are still curious about watching). As for shows, such as At the Movies, Review or Newstopia, we record them and watch them while Dylan is having his night time bottle. We don't watch TV more than we used to before, it's just that we have better control over what it is that we watch. The bottom line is that there is more competition now to downloads and rental DVDs with off the air being essentially as comfortable to watch at our own time.

For the record, the PVR we got is a Palsonic with a 320gb hard drive ($400 at JB Hi Fi). Palsonic is a no name brand, and you can get the same PVR in various guises from a long list of pseudo brand names. Of these, the best one to get is probably the Omni, which sells for around $400 on eBay and comes with a 750gb drive. Why didn't we get one of those? Because with all the previously reported nightmares we've had with high definition set top boxes we wanted to have the option to return it to the store, no questions asked; can't do that on eBay.
Unlike the high definition set top boxes we've tried before, this one works and works well. It is easy to use, offers good reception, and as weird as it sounds it just works (well, the previous ones didn't): no lip sync issues, no menus that end up nowhere. And the recording part of it is just amazing!
There are a few deficiencies to the PVR, though. A couple to be precise:
First, the HDMI connection is unable to contain 5.1 digital sound; it only delivers stereo sound. This makes sense if you want to connect your PVR directly to your TV, but in my case - where I connect it to my receiver - I need to connect an additional inferior optical cable (of the Toslink type) to my receiver and give it the odd instruction to receive the sound there and not from the HDMI connection. Surely the desingers of these PVR could have added 5.1 sound as an HDMI option!
The second problem is that on channel 7, and only channel 7, the sound drops out every 10-15 seconds. It's not much but it could be annoying, as in someone saying "**** you" and you have no choice but to tell whether it was a "fuck you" or a "bless you" through the context. Research indicates this is a universal problem to all members of this family of PVRs.
I suspect both problems could be addressed through a firmware update but I don't see it as worth the hassle of posting the PVR to Sydney for the update job. To be frank, I suspect the biggest problem of this PVR is going to be it dying one day after the warranty expires.
The other problem with the PVR is that it exposes the shortcomings of the various TV stations: SBS only has the current program and the next one on its "weekly" program guide, and it only does stereo sound; channels 7 and 10 only do stereo sound on the front and mono surrounds, requiring the use of Dolby Pro Logic (or some other equivalent) on the receiver to get a center channel. Only channel 9 seems to broadcast in real 5.1 sound. And I won't even mention how "well" the commercial stations stick to their time table so I will put it this way: internet downloads are here to stay.
The age of high definition has finally dawned on us.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Devil in the Details

You may have gathered it already from my previous post, but over the last few days I have been conducting a lot of research in order to help me come up with a definitive answer to the question that was bothering me: Which is the Blu-ray player to buy?
My requirements are simple. My Blu-ray player should be able to do the following:
1. Support profile 2.0, also known as BD Live, which is the latest spec of the Blu-ray standard. For now. Its main feature is the ability to download extra material over the internet. For the record, that extra material is blocked from normal internet access; you need to have the movie disc in order to access it, and thus far you cannot do it from a regular PC even if you have a Blu-ray drive. We're dealing with great companies here.
2. Full support for Dolby TrueHD bit-streaming, meaning the ability to push the Dolby TrueHD singal through an HDMI connection to a sound processor. In order to achieve that the player needs to support the 1.3A spec of the HDMI standard, which is relatively new.
3. Full support for DTS HD bit-streaming, as per Dolby TrueHD.

And now come the catches. There is currently no cheap player that will do all of the above; the cheapest one, as far as I can tell, is the LG BD300. However, as nice a player as this one is, it is limited to Region 4 only for DVD playback and cannot be set free for the risk of getting it eternally stuck with a void warranty. I expect more for $450.
There is also a Panasonic model that would do the same for $550 and a Sony for $650, but then again for $700 I can get a Sony Playstation 3 and have myself a Blu-ray player and a very capable games console in one go.

So what's the Playstation 3's story, then? Well, if you have to ask...
The answer is not simple. Look in Sony's numerous websites and forums and you will not find the definitive answer, as in - you will not find a set of specifications. What is Sony trying to hide?
Research seems to indicate the following. As it was originally delivered, the PS3 was incapable of handling the latest Dolby and DTS sound formats. However, through repeated firmware updates (the latest from March 2008) the PS3 was made able to handle both. In its ability to be constantly kept up to date, an ability gained by its very powerful computing hardware, the PS3 is vastly superior to all other Blu-ray players out there.
There is a catch, though. When Sony released the PS3 they were in a hurry, so they shipped it out without 1.3A spec HDMI outputs. Because of that, the PS3 is incapable of bit-streaming Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD; instead, the PS3 processes these inside, and sends out the fully equivalent PCM signal down its HDMI output. There is no loss of sound quality here as the PCM is identical to the original, but what you do miss out on is the choice department:
1. The PS3 does not allow you to choose whether to do the processing on the player or in the receiver/processor. That shouldn't matter, but it does mean that the choice is taken out of your hands; if you have a PS3 then you must rely on your player.
2. Where it does matter is in areas like bass management: In some cases you would have to do it through the PS3, unless your receiver is truly sophisticated.
3. Another drawback is in stereo soundtracks (as opposed to 5.1 or 7.1): When given a stereo signal, as is with most supplemental material, the PS3 would still transmit a 5.1 signal to the receiver (with only two channels actually carrying a sound). Your receiver will think it's receiving a 5.1 signal so it wouldn't let you apply matrix processing on it (e.g., Dolby Pro Logic), so instead of enjoying an analog Dolby Surround sound that utilizes your center channel you're stuck with stereo sound coming out of your left and right speakers.
4. No 7.1 sound: As there is no room for 7.1 PCM sound over the PS3's HDMI connection, you can only get 5.1. To most people, me included, 5.1 is more than enough.
5. You cannot use your universal remote with the PS3 without some aids. The PS3 only accepts Bluetooth remote inputs, so you either need to buy its dedicated Blu-ray Bluetooth remote or buy a special Bluetooth remote repeater.

As an audiophile, the lack of bit-streaming on the PS3 annoys me the most. I want to have the choice, even if it shouldn't really matter. It's rather annoying also because by now the new PS3 units do have 1.3A HDMI and all Sony needs to do is release a firmware upgrade to kick them into action; yet Sony chooses not to do so.
On the other hand, the PS3 has a winning trump up its sleeve: it's got wireless built in, so you can easily enjoy BD Live material without too many hassles connecting the PS3 to your existing wireless network. None of the other players have that ability; they all have ethernet inputs you can use with a wired network, but what are the chances of you having your network router right next to your Blu-ray player? You are much more likely to want to use wireless, and to achieve that with anything other than the PS3 you will need an ethernet bridge like this one here.
Add the cost of this bridge to the cost of the player and you end up with a PS3 like cost, not to mention the hassles of messing with the wireless network. All this means that if you want to use BD Live your only choice is the PS3.

So is it the PS3 for me? I'm not sure. BD Live would be nice, but then again I'm only planning on renting Blu-ray titles, so who is going to have the time to mess with downloaded content? As if that content would be earth shattering; it's just going to be some extra supplementals anyway.
The main thing is to play the movie and play it well, and currently there are no Blu-ray players that would do a fully satisfactory job without sever wallet damage.
It comes down to me having to imagine how I am going to use Blu-ray in order to be able to make an educated purchase decision. Yet how am I to know my imagination is through enough?
I'm sad to say it, but Blu-ray is not here yet. A PS3 might be a good idea for its gaming abilities, but other than that the world of Blu-ray is a world full of ridiculous compromises.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

I Have a Dream

I enjoy watching movies. Some appeal to my intellect, but the ones I truly enjoy the most are the ones that make me feel as if I’m taken off this world and into the film’s world for the duration of the film; the ones where the suspension of disbelief is working so well as to truly suspend my disbelief.
One of the most effective way to suspend one’s disbelief is to trick one’s senses into thinking that the imaginary world of the film one’s watching is real. Films try to achieve that using their visuals and their sound; in my opinion, and as some research indicates too, it is the sound that is responsible for 80% of the immersion experience.
I am an audiophile who likes watching films. My dream was to be able to watch films the closest way possible to the way they were originally made. For years I have been trying to achieve this dream and for years I was denied.

Let’s have a look at the history of film sound. I won’t go all the way back; I’ll start in the early nineties.
By the early nineties digital sound, in the form of music CDs, was firmly established. The question then became how to introduce digital sound to the cinemas. What was clear is that the cinema digital sound has to be multichannel sound, given that cinema audiences have enjoyed Dolby Stereo sound since the original Star Wars. Several companies rose to the challenge, some more successful than others. Of these, Dolby was again the most dominant.
The problem that Dolby and their competitors had to contend with is where to store the digital soundtrack’s information. Dolby chose to be creative: Its Dolby Digital soundtrack is applied on a thin magnetic layer that is positioned in small sprocket perforation holes at the side of the cinema’s projection film. Now, I don’t know how familiar you are with cinema film, but there’s not much room in there between those holes; as a result, Dolby Digital has had to be a very bandwidth limited sound format, simply because there wasn’t much room to put much information on the film.
In order to cope with the inability to store much information on film, Dolby came up with a lossy compression method. “Lossy” means that the compression actually loses information is it goes about compressing the sound; it’s information that is deemed the least vital to the listening experience, but the more least vital info you take away the less inspiring the overall sound is. Dolby thus ended up with a system that was effective but also a far cry from the original soundtrack master’s sound.
The second most dominant company when it comes up to movie theater sound experience is DTS (Digital Theater Systems). Their solution for the same problem was different to Dolby's: They chose to put synchronization information on tiny magnetic tags added to the film's side, whereas the soundtrack itself was playing off a separate CD-ROM. A CD-ROM contains much more bandwidth than the space between the film's perforations, so DTS could afford to have a significantly less lossy compression than Dolby. A DTS movie soundtrack is still heavily compressed, though, and still suffers significantly when compared to the original master.

That was the early nineties. By the mid nineties a new kid came into town, the DVD, and the question then became what sound format would be used in order to store movie soundtracks on DVDs given that the format lacked the capacity to host the full blown master.
Both Dolby and DTS came along with their existing offerings from the world of cinema playback, and pretty quickly Dolby got themselves as the mandatory soundtrack format for DVDs (with DTS being a noted optional). Thus we've ended up with a system that has been designed to serve cinema theaters on DVDs instead, despite this system being designed with the cinema theaters' limitations in mind and despite these limitations not really applying to DVDs. The fact of the matter is that with the architecture of the Dolby Digital system being the way it is, Dolby were not able to come up with a system that would utilize the extra bandwidth offered by DVDs; we all had to contend with extra compression we didn't need to contend with.
Dolby still continued to claim that extra compression doesn't matter, at least in articles they published in audiophile magazines such as Widescreen Review and Stereophile. I disagreed with them: I did not have the opportunity to listen to Dolby Digital or DTS live but I did listen to the Sony Minidisc format. It had lesser compression than Dolby Digital but still didn't sound great when compared to the CD version, the same way an MP3 version pales in comparison to the CD version nowadays; Dolby truly had to come up with a miracle to be able to achieve more than Sony could.
In 1994 I wrote Stereophile a letter expressing these concerns. The letter was published and then addressed in an editorial which earned the response of Dolby's then chief technical person (whose name, if I'm not mistaken, was Roger Drexler). Luckily for me, my mother threw my copy of the magazine away so by now I lack the proof this has ever happened...
Essentially, Dolby's claim was that all the bleeding hearts should shut up and listen. A few years later I did, and since then my opinion is fairly firm: Dolby Digital sound is good, but it's far from being truly good; listen to it on its own without a picture to distract you and you will notice that the sound does suck. Big time.

A lot has happened as years went by.
To one extent or another, Drexler was right: Dolby Digital sound was good enough for most occasions, or good enough for me to be happy with it on most occasions. Not all occasions, though, especially when not when reproducing music where the difference can be clearly heard as opposed to when reproducing movie sound effects to which it is much harder to relate.
New sound formats promising much but delivering little came and went. SACD and DVD Audio are the most notorious ones, completely failing the market for a multitude of reasons.
With me losing interest over time in favour of bigger and better things, interest waned.

Now, however, there are finally signs of an impending sunrise.
With advances in technology, computing power and storage facilities we now have on our hands two sound formats that kick ass, as in – two sound formats that can deliver the exact thing the recording studio recorded in the first place. Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD are both new formats that can deliver a non lossy eight channel soundtrack recorded in 96kHz and 24 bits. Compare these figures to the measly CD format, the usual benchmark: a CD features just two channels recorded in 48kHz sampling frequency and 16 bits.
For the record, the 96 vs. 48 and the 26 vs. 16 may sound like meaningless waste on paper but they’re not when implemented in real life. For example, and without getting into too much detail, the filter installed on all CD players in order to remove the sampling noise you get just above 20kHz (due to it being half of the 48kHz sampling rate) doesn’t just block the sound you don’t want to hear or can’t hear, it also has an effect – a marginal yet noticeable – effect on the music.
To me, the promise of 8 channels of pure perfection is the stuff of dreams.

The problem, however, turns into the equipment to be used in order to provide this HD sound at home.
The reality is that there are but a few receivers that can play these new HD formats and even fewer that would do it properly (and even fewer high end components that would do it at all; I am only aware of one). A lot of the problems are to do with the need to support a new and advanced format of HDMI, which is currently the only way to transfer the high bandwidth that a high definition picture and the HD sound formats require. Luckily for me, I happen to own one of those receivers. Well, it wasn’t luck at all; it was calculated dream fulfilment.
Then there is the matter of media, which is a particularly hurting point. The world of high definition media capable of carrying the new HD sound formats has had to endure a format war between HD-DVD and Blu-ray, at the end of which the lesser of the formats (Blu-ray) won the day. It wasn’t its superior capacity that won it, it was pure politics, but never mind.
The trouble with Blu-ray, or at least one of the troubles with Blu-ray, was that the competition made the manufacturers release their players to the market long before the Blu-ray standard was finalized and long before the hardware was ready. Sony managed to get away with it with its PlayStation 3, mainly because that unit’s processing power is so strong they were able to routinely release firmware updates to keep it up to speed. The reality is, however, that most Blu-ray players purchased so far are incapable of delivering everything the format was meant to deliver, with downloadable content from the internet being the most notable one.
It’s not only that, though. The media was suffering with most movie releases lacking the much coveted HD sound formats and settling for something far too close to what DVDs offer. The players themselves have been suffering from illnesses that caused them to deliver poor performance, most notably the first Samsung Blu-ray player (which happened to be the first ever Blu-ray player) that had such a badly implemented filter it was outgunned by DVD players. Then there is the copy protection and the overall high sophistication of the players, which cause severely long waiting periods on viewers whenever they switch the players on, try (emphasis on “try”) to play a disc, pause, or do whatever it is you do with the movies that you watch; anything you do comes with very long reaction times, and often the players just choose to get stuck.
And then there is the players’ price.

Things do seem to get a move on, though. Blu-ray players adhering to the latest standard (referred to as BD-Live or 2.0) are now out. The manufacturers, especially Sony, have realized no one is jumping on the bandwagon, so prices have been coming down.
And now we have ourselves, at last, a Blu-ray player that seems to be a winner. The Sony BDPS350 will do the HD sound formats when connected via HDMI, and it’s available now at the shops at "buy me before Christmas" prices: Harvey Norman sells it for $394, and JB Hi Fi sell it for $391 but will reduce it to $375 if you ask them nicely.
I suspect it is just a question of time before I surrender and get me one of these. Now I know that just a few months ago I have said on these very pages that I do not see myself getting into Blu-ray and that the future is in downloads and not in optical discs. However, things have changed: Blu-ray got better and cheaper, and I got much closer to the holy grail through the acquisition of a new receiver. Too close for comfort, I argue.
Don’t take me wrong: I have no intention of buying even a single Blu-ray disc; but I wouldn't argue against the ability to play rental discs at $2 a pop.

It feels like a déjà vu, but I have a dream.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Intentional Incompetence

Ever since Microsoft has released its very latest Windows Live incarnation of its Hotmail webmail service I have been unable to use Hotmail from my Ubuntu Linux desktop.
I would go to the Hotmail login page and login as usual, but then the next screen to greet me would be a warning screen telling me that my web browser is not up to date and that I should upgrade it. It even offers links to Mozilla and Microsoft (naturally) in order to acquire the latest and greatest version. Trouble is, I already have the latest version of Firefox 3 and I am using the latest Ubuntu version, Intrepid Ibex(*). There is nothing for me to upgrade to!
Hotmail is kind enough to still let you access you Hotmail inbox. When you do everything seems fine, but just wait until you go and ask to write a new email: you will not be able to access the area of the screen where you are meant to type your new email’s text. Pretty not handy, isn’t it?
From the beginning that problem looked strange given that I was able to access Hotmail with a similar version of Firefox while using Windows XP and given that I was able to access Hotmail using my Xandros Linux Eee PC, which still uses Firefox 2. What was going on here?
Well, the guys at the Ubuntu Forums sorted things out for me (read their advice here). Basically, Hotmail checks on your browser settings when you login, and if you’re using an unfamiliar Vendor name it would block you; in my case, the unfamiliar vendor name was “Ubuntu”, whereas the default Firefox setting is simply “Firefox”. Had Ubuntu not messed with this setting, the way Xandros didn’t, I would have never had this problem.
Indeed, once I switched the Vendor from Ubuntu to Firefox, Hotmail went back to working perfectly. No upgrades were necessary and no software/hardware were required; the same computer I’ve had before could now manage to access Hotmail.

The question is, then, why did this happen in the first place?
Is it that Microsoft is incompetent enough to design Hotmail so that it wouldn’t work on PCs that are perfectly able to run Hotmail but just had a simple setting changed?
Or is it that Microsoft is actively trying to discriminate against Linux and push its users towards its own Windows line of products?
Given Hotmail’s own hinting towards a required upgrade, I tend to think the issue here is not incompetence at all but rather deliberate discrimination. After all, how can moving from Linux to Windows ever be considered an upgrade?

(*) Before you ask, next April’s release of Ubuntu will be called Jaunty Jackalope and not Jocular Jackal.

Long in the Tooth

Several websites Jo ran into last night, like this one, come up with such claims as: "A lot of research has been done which shows that babies are not more irritable or unwell when teeth come through."
My thoughts of such insight? Ha! Pah! And of course: Stick this up your ***!
I'm only saying this because this weekend that came and went was a pain in the ***. Dylan has showed severe teething signs before, but this weekend he hardly ate, was as disquiet as a disco let loose, and ended up mostly crying. All the time. I never imagined I could be so upset by someone else not eating, but here I am telling you this has been the case all weekend long!
Obviously, I'm not blaming Dylan even for a second. If he'll let you you can have a look at his gums and see the teeth coming out, white pointy peaks first, with gum meat in between; it's obvious the gum meat has to go somewhere, hence the pain.
I strongly suspect the people coming up with quotes like the above one are of the Intelligent Design camp (closely affiliated to Orwell's Ministry of Truth).

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Proof of the Supernatural

This morning, a Saturday morning, we spent Dylan's morning sleep time on assembling his new playground toy mega-complex: This thing has a slide, steps and a swing built into it. It's really nice, unlike IKEA stuff assembly was a snitch, and eventually there'll be photos on Flickr.
Anyway, being that I am the greenie that I am, after the assembly I went to the front yard to tear the big packaging box apart so I could fit it all in our recycling bin. I used a stanley knife to cut it apart, folded the nice small bits up even more, and shoved them into the bin by using the force.
Then I started searching for the stanley knife so I could put it back in the closet with the rest of the tools. I searched here, I searched there, but I couldn't find it anywhere. I even emptied the bin to see if I was foolish enough to put it there with the torn apart packaging.
I gave up and went inside, which is when I took a snick peak at the closet and saw the stanley knife glaring back at me.

Now, what would you call an experience such as this?
Let us start by ignoring the impossible. It is dead obvious I cannot be senile enough or mentally ill enough to have forgotten that I already put the knife back in the closet.
Therefore, the only conceivable explanation is the supernatural. I argue that a miraculous teleportation took place here! God herself came down from the heavens above to relieve my Saturday morning chores duty and put the knife back in the closet for me.
No matter what imbeciles like Dawkins and Shmawkins tell you, revelation happens. And my morning experience is proof.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Australian Big Brother

Ever since Labor has won Australia’s federal elections last year and some time before that took place, the now Minister of Communication Stephen Conroy has been promoting his plan for mandatory internet censorship in Australia. Essentially, the guy wants to filter all illegal internet material from all Australian internet users.
Rumors say this motion has been set in place because of Labor’s need to appease a couple of independents. Regardless, Conroy’s plan is so ridiculously stupid it makes me boil inside whenever I hear about it or think about it. I will therefore specify my reasons for being so vehemently against it:

1. Civil liberties:
Originally, the offer was raised in order to provide a way to prevent paedophilic material from circling around. Fine; no one in their right mind wants that. Then, however, we’ve learnt that euthanasia is going to be added to the list of banned stuff, which made me ask – hey there, what is so wrong with euthanasia that people can’t even check it out to make their minds about it through the internet? It’s not like kids are being abused to satisfy someone's curiosity.
Then we were informed that the government is going to maintain a list of banned stuff and that this list will not be open to the public.
If the above doesn’t sound Orwellian to you I can’t think what will; this doesn’t sound to me like Australia, it sounds more like the darkest regimes in history.
Where would the censorship stop? Will I be able to read Wikipedia’s page on euthanasia to see for myself what is so evil about it? Will I be able to access my Arsenal football team supporters’ website if some Manchester United supporter is sitting at the helm of the censorship wheel?
The question to be asked here is simple: Why do Australians need to be protected from themselves? We are not talking about blocking kids from accessing porn here, we’re talking much deeper stuff.

2. Effectiveness:
If anyone is toying with the idea that internet blocking at the ISP level is going to be effective then they don’t belong in this century.
For a start, Conroy’s proposed enforcement cannot deal with peer-to-peer communications, where most illegal downloads dwell and where 60% of the overall internet communication is. I am very glad that is the case because of what I think of our existing copyright legislation, but regardless – there goes the bulk of the justification Conroy might have had for his proposal.
Second, bypassing content filtering at the ISP level is so easy any moron can do it. Even I can do it, so here’s a short ignorance fighting tutorial –
You can access most web pages through a web proxy that replaces your ISP’s. If you don’t understand that last sentence don’t worry; the point is that you will be able to surf the internet as if you’re on another planet and not in dark ages’ Australia. You can find an example for such a web proxy here. Oops, didn’t think of something: Are web proxies going to find themselves added to Conroy’s secret list of banned sites?
An alternative bypassing technique to the web proxies is establishing a secure VPN connection, which – in plain English – means everyone would think you’re using the internet in another country. Say, the USA, the literal Land of the Free if Conroy gets his way. Windows users can find their way to secure VPN facilities here and here, while Linux users can find them here.
The bottom line is that it is very obvious any budding paedophile will be able to bypass Conroy’s Berlin Wall and get his/her way. The alternative of an escalating war where more and more websites are blacklisted is just not feasible; there are enough free minds out there to help all Australians get their way over the internet.

3. The damage bill:
Then there is the price we have to pay to implement Conroy’s Big Brother is watching you plan. That would take computers looking at everything coming down from the internet and comparing those with the databases for illegal material, which means a significant cost of maintaining the infrastructure to do so as well as lots of greenhouse emissions we can all do without. We, Mr and Ms Tax Payer, will be footing the bill.
There’s more to it, though. Tests conducted so far by ISPs indicate performance times are hurt by about 80% - that is, Australia’s already slow internet performance, due to adequate infrastructure, is going to be twice as slow!
And what for? So some paedophile would have to access the stuff that turns them on through a web proxy?
Or do we need it so that Conroy could feel like the man he isn’t because in his quest for power he forgot to bring his brain along for the ride?

At the end of the day there are two questions to ask.
The first is what are the chances of Conroy getting away with his senseless act? Well, Labor could face a tall task there because the Greens are against it and they'll need some minor party's consent in order to pass the bill. Then again, there are enough parties out there with policies as sophisticated as “we'll lower gas prices at the pump”, and I'm talking about Family First in particular, which are highly likely to jump on the pretentious bandwagon to show their support for the so called family values they stand for.
The second question is what can we do about it, as in how can we change things so that politicians serve the people instead of their narrow self interests. I don't have a conclusive answer here; I doubt anyone has a conclusive answer and I suspect it is exactly this lack of a conclusive answer that get people like Obama elected. Personally, I'm thinking more and more about taking the plunge and joining the Greens.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Lightning never hits twice

They say lightning never strikes the same place twice. Well, they say lots of things; the reality is there is no evidence to support such a statement, just an illusion caused by the abundance of places that lightning can choose to strike at.
The question I would like to ask in this post is whether lightning will hit twice in the case of president elect Barack and former prime minister elect Barak(*).

Back in 1996 Israel, shortly after prime minister Rabin was assassinated, the right wing Likud party took the elections by surprise and Netanyahu became the new prime minister. In my opinion and in the opinion of many others he was dreadful in this role, with the tunnel riots involving much death amongst Arabs and Jews being the pinnacle of his achievements.
Netanyahu’s government didn’t last long, though, and by 1999 he was replaced by the left winger Ehud Barak. On the eve of Barak's election there was unsurpassed joy in the streets: people all over the place were partying at the departure of the pain in the backside Netanyahu and the rise of the new star Barak with his promise to change all that was rotten about the Netanyahu way. I clearly remember how more than a hundred thousand youths gathered that night at the center of Tel Aviv to celebrate.
At first it seemed as if Barak truly made a difference. He had an undeniable achievement up his sleeve, taking all Israeli armed forces out of Lebanon (a contestable move given the rise of Hezbollah ever since and the way Israel has abandoned its Lebanese allies, but still a move that made a huge difference).
However, as time went by it became clear that Barak is not all he was meant to be. Things just didn’t go well and eventually, towards the end of 2000, an armed conflict started between Israel and the Palestinians. By 2001 the Israeli public got rid of Barak and since had clearly lost most of its interest in him despite his recent attempts at a come back.
Netanyahu, however, is currently leading the polls for the upcoming Israeli elections.

What I’m saying here is simple. Barack Obama was elected on the promise of a long awaited change, but then again he has succeeded such a lacklustre president in the shape of George Bush that even my now dead grandmother would have walked thought that elections.
Sure, it is exciting to know that the USA can ignore racial grounds and vote for the better candidate, and it is nice to see the majority of Americans overcoming religious fundamentalism to vote for the clearly better way. But the bottom line is that Obama should be judged by his actions and not by his obvious gift for coming up with mesmerizing speeches or for getting elected despite the color of his skin.
I’m holding my hands out for Obama in the name of peace, global warming, poverty, education, and the general welfare of all people. I’m often annoyed with the USA but it is clear that if something good is to happen to this world that something needs to start in the USA for it to have a chance.
I’m crossing my fingers for Obama but in my mind I still recall Barak.

Barak, in Hebrew, literally means lightning. In Obama’s case, Barack comes from the Arabic/Hebrew word for a blessing or being blessed; he shares the origins of his name with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

A Memo to Connex

A memo to Connex as it goes about rendering our trains prime cattle worthy by removing seats:
Please make sure you remove the dirty seats and not the clean ones. Every time I board a train at least half of the seats have some vintage smelling liquid spilled over them, archaeological food excrements thrown about them, or just general muck stuck so well it feels one with the seat. So make sure you remove these seats and let us continue sitting on the usable ones!

Friday, 7 November 2008

What's wrong with this picture?

A year ago I have reported the rather frustrating adventures we've had to endure when we tried to incorporate the services of a high definition set top box into our home theater. It seemed as if there's more to set top boxes than meets the eye and that there are a lot of aspects to consider when choosing one. Paying more money did seem to make a difference even if the various boxes seem similar on paper.
A year has past with us settling for standard definition digital transmissions. It didn't bother us much because we hardly watch TV off the air, but there was still a sense of shame: we have such a capable screen in a very nicely set up environment that not having a high definition picture to match is a shame. Not only that, high definition digital is much less prone to dropouts than standard definition digital, so even if you only watch the news the experience is still nicer.
Well, a year has past since, and now we seem to be under attack by a new round of cheap high definition set top boxes. Aldi started the attack with a $90 special, but reviews have immediately condemned its offering to be too problematic: apparently, Aldi sold set top boxes using old firmware that caused significant lip sync issues (that is, the sound and the picture don't match). Dick Smith, it was reported, was selling the same set top box for $10 more but with the new firmware, so we got Dick's offer instead.
Our first impressions was that things have significantly improved since last year: Unlike last year's model, this one actually works and seem to be good in the usability department, too. The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound and the picture were too good to ignore. That, however, was the first impression; the second impression, coming two seconds after the first, was that of severe lip sync issues and a thin white stripe running along the top of the screen. Great! At least Dick Smith offers two weeks money back guarantee, no questions asked (one of the reasons why I went there in the first place).
Stickers on the set top box advised not to hurry and return it in case of trouble but rather call their support line first. And so I did; hey, it was a free call!
I was told the lip sync problem has been reported on several models and that it could be solved if I bring the box to their service center where they can load it up with the latest firmware. Great! Exactly what you want out of a brand new purchase - to go and have it repaired before you even begin to use it. Would they compensate me for my time? The thing I find more annoying is that it seems as if the lip sync problems start when you adjust the sound to Dolby Digital from its default mode of PCM; most people are not aware of the lip sync problem simply because they never do that.
As for the white stripe, after some playing around while over the phone we have discovered that the stripe appears only when the set top box is set to 720p mode, as opposed to its default of 1080i. The woman that answered my call seemed happy: "Set it up to 1080i and the problem has been solved". When I insisted that I actually prefer 720p to 1080i she was obviously shaken: "Why?"

I'll tell you why. I'll tell you why I'm annoyed to encounter such ignorance from someone who is supposed to act as a guide.
Back in the fifties, when the NTSC and PAL analog standards were set, they did not have the technical capability to cram all the picture information required to compose a frame into the bandwidth available. So they came up with a nice compression method: instead of showing you all of the frame's lines and refresh the frame every 1/30 of a second, they would show you half of the frame lines each time and refresh the frame every 1/60 of a second. With this nifty trick, called interlacing (the source of the "i" from 1080i), you would only see the 1st, 3rd, 5th etc line the first time around, and then you would only see the 2nd, 4th 6th etc lines. As you might imagine, and as your eyes have witnessed throughout most of your TV watching career, this causes some judder and skipping in the picture; you might not notice the alternating lines, but you do notice flicker, especially when you're close to the screen. Think about the effects interlacing would have on an diagonally moving object to see where the problem lies.
A progressive picture (the "p" from 720p or 1080p) doesn't stoop that low: it just shows you all of the lines all of the time, saving the flickers to Flickr.
The thing is, with today's technology there is no justification for interlacing anymore. It's not like we're short on bandwidth or anything similar; the fact that interlacing still exists just acts as evidence for the fact the market is not as sophisticated as it can be, acting more like a blind watchmaker (to use Richard Dawkins' analogy for evolution). Just like evolution got us eyes where the light sensors are facing backwards, so does the market get to build us interlacing solutions we no longer require.
The fact of the matter is simple, as your eyes as well as all the experts would tell you: a 720p picture is much better looking and nicer on the eye than 1080i. Exceptions might take place with your TV automatically turning the 1080i picture into a 1080p picture through its line doubling circuitry, but that's as if you give your TV an intentionally broken puzzle and ask it to solve it before it shows it to you instead of giving your TV the pre-assembled puzzle you've had in your hands all along.
So yes, I was annoyed at that lady. Not to mention that my TV's native resolution is 720p.

To be fair, this mentality of selling you stuff that doesn't really work and stuff that hasn't really been tested is not exclusive to cheap set top boxes. It is quite common in high tech gadgetry.
In their race to compete with the now dead HD-DVD high definition disks, Blu-ray player makers have often released products that simply don't work or work very badly. One of the areas where many players have been reported to fail is playing at a 720p setting, simply because the manufacturers do not have time to test it as they rush to market focusing on 1080 playback.
Another example is the receiver I have recently purchased. Today's receivers pose as hi-fi equipment but in fact they are computers with amplification circuitry on the side, and as all other computers they need their own operating system. For some reason or another, to do with their market branding, hi-fi equipment makers refuse to let us manage their products the way we manage our computers, i.e., let us control what we have installed and how we use them; they have their own firmware versions instead. Well, the receiver I have bought came with firmware version 34; originally, it was out to market with version 32, only that this version had so many features not working or working improperly (creating various unwanted noises) that the manufacturer had to quickly come up with something. By now they are up to firmware version 37, with 39 in the works in order to address some new bugs introduced by 37.
Thing is, as an owner of such a device, what am I to do? The answer seems to be not to fix anything until I find it broken. But this answer does not address the real problem on our hands here, which is the manufacturers being so eager to take our money they don't even bother to make sure they sell us a working product. If, for comparison's sakes, you were to go to a hospital and get yourself a botch job done on you the way these companies do, someone would go to jail; yet these companies are able to cruise along instead as they take their clients for a ride on their waves of ignorance.

Another problem I read about with regards to set top boxes is their life expectancy. Generally speaking, people report their set top boxes don't last long after their one year warranties expire, a symptom of the way consumer products are no longer built to last but rather built so that you would buy a replacement as soon as the manufacturer can get away with it. Case in point: the iPod, where Apple manages to get away with bad quality and devices dying left and right through deft marketing.
Or take our very own rear projection TV. When the time comes and we need to replace its lamp, Sony will charge us $800 for it. However, today we can put our hands on flatscreen TVs of similar size and high quality (albeit not the very latest) for around $1800 if not less; not to mention that these newer TV's already have high definition tuners built in, saving you the cost of a set top box. What incentive do we have to keep our still very well functioning TV would be very small indeed as, once again, we get taken for a ride by greed.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Sugar Dylan

On Melbourne Cup Day we went for a drive to an old favorite, At the Heads in Barwon Heads, where we had lunch with the usual servings of small portions at ridiculously expensive prices (you pay for the view).
What a great holiday Melbourne Cup Day is! For a start, it's a brilliant idea: It's not a holiday that's there to celebrate someone getting killed, it's not in celebration of some war, and it's not a celebration of some silly and unsubstantiated myth. It's just a good time for a spring break! Note how impolitely I ignore the abuse of horses and the gambling that's involved with what this holiday is. But anyway, because Melbourne Cup is a Melbourne only holiday we didn't have to pay the stupendous 15% public holiday surcharge they charge in At the Heads.
In order to try out the video mode of my new PDA I took the following video of Dylan playing with a sugar pack. It's not the greatest ever; you can tell this is not a proper camera. It is, however, nice to see Dylan is so happily integrating into Melbourne's latte culture!

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

High Time We Made a Stand and Shook Up the Views of the Common Man

I have said it before and will therefore try not to repeat myself too much: We really enjoyed our time in Singapore.
This came to us as a bit or a surprise. After all, Singapore is an Asian city/state and we’re not culturally oriented that way; the chances of a successful collision were estimated to be low. Then there is the issue of the weather: being the closest place to the equator I have ever been to, Singapore is stinking hot and humid.
It is therefore quite conceivable that we ended up liking Singapore because of us arriving there after two less than inspiring weeks in Israel. The cultural shock wasn’t much of a shock because Israel is an even bigger cultural shock and because Singapore is very Western in its Eastern-ness, and the weather wasn’t an issue because Israel was just as stinking hot. Add to that an ultra friendly reception at our hotel and a very luxurious room and you could see why I would not mind revisiting Singapore in the least. I think I can confidently say the Swissotel Stamford was the best hotel I have ever stayed in.
There is more to that, though. Singapore is a place that knows where it wants to be at in the future and takes action accordingly. For example, the entire city/state is sprayed with wi-fi hotspots, and guess what? They’re all free to use after you register. In Australia, for comparison, free wi-fi is as abundant as the [now extinct] Tasmanian Tiger; the government won’t do it because it deems this to be a matter for the market but the market won’t do it because the market is greedy and is monopolized by Telstra anyway. We, the people, end up suffering. But in Singapore? Be it at the airport or in my hotel room, I was able to surf and Skype using my Eee PC. Despite being some fifty floors high, the mighty Eee PC was able to tap on a wi-fi hot spot located in the shopping mall below our hotel.
Shopping malls are, indeed, a key Singaporean institution. Is it just me or are there more shopping malls in Singapore than residencies? A walk along the city center or along its famous Orchard Road is a walk from one shopping mall to the other, and as I have already reported the shopping malls can have some very narrow minded specialties: there are several that will sell you nothing but gadgets (and food at the food court, for that matter). I don’t know what a culture based on shopping says about the people of Singapore because I haven’t been there long enough to obtain reliable observations; while you will not hear me say good things about a culture based on consumerism, I can attest that it may surprise people to know that we were quite able to occupy ourselves with proper attractions (other than shopping malls) during our visit to Singapore, thank you very much.
Another great thing about Singapore was the warm reception baby Dylan had received everywhere we went, which in turn meant that people were very nice to all three of us. Sure, many were nice to us because they wanted our money, but there was enough genuine smiling to convince me there’s more to it. There was hardly a place or a person we’ve interacted with who did not stop to do something cheerful with Dylan and make us all smile; it even happened at Burger King, twice! I can only conclude that the affection to babies is a cultural thing. Hell, even taxi drivers were nice to us!
That, however, has managed to raise a big question for us: If the Singaporeans are so into shopping and so into babies, how come their baby facilities are so lacking? Not once nor twice did we look for the promised baby changing room just to find that it’s under refurbishment (including at the airport, where we just ended up changing Dylan on the terminal’s floor). Walking around with Dylan’s stroller through some shopping malls felt like a triathlon, with way too frequent stairs and no disabled access whatsoever. The IT shopping mall I had previously mention, Funan, has absolutely no entrance that does not involve many stairs or an escalator. The Ruffles chain of shopping malls, connected to many other shopping malls through an underground network, sports a very similar lack of support for baby strollers.
What was going on here? We were wondering whether people were so Dylan friendly because they’ve never seen a baby out before because babies cannot get out of the house before they’re five.
Free wi-fi but no baby access? Singapore has some weird set of priorities.

Obviously, baby access is not the biggest puzzle posed by Singapore. That title is owned by Singapore not being a democracy while the Singaporeans themselves seem indifferent to their autocracy and, in general, lead what seem to be happy lives.
I don’t have an answer to this puzzle. My theory is that the people are happy because they are well off; it seems to me as if it's a common generalization to state that the Far Eastern culture cares more about individual finances than civil liberties. To me, personally, such an approach raises alarm bells: If civil liberties are being trampled, who can guarantee that your own personal well being won’t be trampled tomorrow morning?
Such questions emphasize the importance of events such as today’s elections for the post of the so called leader of the free world. It seems as if us democratic Westerners are expected to make a stand and oppose the Singaporean approach. It seems as if we’re expected to feel superior and to mock the Singaporeans.
I, however, find it much more interesting to figure out the real reason why Singaporeans are so unfazed by their lack of democracy. Could it be that they had had a look at us and figured out democracy is not all its said to be?
I don’t know if they did that or not, but I would tend to agree with them if they did. In every way you look at it, our current model of democracy simply doesn’t work: People are not truly equal, leaders kiss up to those that are more equal than the rest, long term issues such as global warming are neglected in favor of short term opportunism, and the list goes on and on. Leader of the free world? I truly doubt Obama will be able to make a significant difference upon this world. That is, if he would finally tell us what difference he intends to make in the first place instead of just waving the slogan of change.
Don’t take me the wrong way, though. Between democracy and all the rest, I would very much like to be on the democracy side of things. We can complain about it, but so far we haven’t been able to come up with anything better. Take the philosopher Bertrand Russell as an example: in his book Sceptical Essays, Russell suggests our regular democracy is replaced by the model deployed during World War I Britain when effective results were required and quickly. Back then, authority over specific areas was handed over to dedicated groups of acknowledged experts who reported back to the democratically elected politicians. For example, a group of biologists were put in charge of crops.
Sound promising, doesn’t it? In Russell’s example it was, because his example had the topmost scientists running the shows of their respected fields of expertise. That, however, is probably a rather naive scenario, because the choice of people running each show is not going to be that easy in real life where the pressures of war do not apply. When results are not that important, people who are lesser experts or no experts at all will be given higher priority than the true experts.
Take, for example, Australia’s late John Howard regime, where instead of calling on the help of science to address the problems brought forward by the drought we had ourselves a Prime Minister calling on his constituents to pray for rain. The religious “experts” won the day ahead of the scientist.
The new Rudd government doesn’t offer much reason for optimism either: in its well publicized talk-fest, when a thousand of Australia’s “topmost intellectuals” were gathered in Canberra (at their own expense, which meant they had to be the topmost rich intellectuals) to discuss their ideas for Australia’s future, the main thing that was heard was Australia’s need to dump its British monarch and become a republic. Sure, we should have done it ages ago (and so should the British), but is that going to cure global warming?
The issue, it seems, turns into the question of who will be the one choosing the experts. In Russell’s world, that will be where the power lies, and that is why his suggestion – while definitely worth a careful implementation – will not prove to be the solution to this world’s problems.
Until we do find such a solution, the people of Singapore seem quite content to move on with their lives.