Wednesday, 31 December 2008

True Freedom This Way Lies

It’s the end of the year, a perfect artificial marker for taking on ambitious undertakings. And what a better ambitious task could there be than for me to explain why we do the things we do? Yes, I’m going to attempt that, and on the way explain some of my motivations for continuously posting stuff on this blog.

Seriously, though: Why do we do stuff?
Why do we decide to get married to someone, why do we decide to have a child, why do we strive for a promotion at work, why do we choose to buy a totally impractical convertible, why, why, why?
When faced with this question, most of us will instinctively answer that they thought about things and decided on a certain course of action as the way to go. For example, they will say that they thought things through and decided to marry this particular guy.
Is that so?
No, it isn’t. Look yourself in the mirror, have a think about it, and you will quickly admit the truth (that is, if you’re brave enough): In the vast majority of cases, we make even the most serious of decisions first and then, maybe (but probably rarely) come up with reasons to justify them. If you have a problem accepting this last statement of mine then think about this: Last time you fell in love, did you really rationally choose the subject of your love or did it just happen?
Let’s face it: We do things and we make our decisions because our subconscious tells us to do them. The real question is, what does our subconscious contain? If we were to use a computer analogy of the brain (an analogy that happens to be pretty accurate, but let’s ignore that for now), then what is the program code our brain uses to run our subconscious with?
We don’t know the full answer to that question yet, but we are lucky enough to know how this bit of code was written and therefore know quite a lot about it even without looking at lines of code. Our brain is a product of millions of years of evolution, hundreds of millions of years of you start the counting from when some fat cells first started functioning as some sort of a nervous system. Assuming you accept evolution as a fact (which you should, if you’re sane), then you will have to accept that evolution has also shaped your subconscious as it went along: it is not only evidence that points to that conclusion, it is also common sense; your brain has had to evolve together with the rest of your body.
Looking at my baby child and his development, signs of evolution affecting his behavior are everywhere: they are in his will to become bipedal, they are in his attempts to talk, and they are in the incredible similarities between the ways all babies start to talk regardless of demographics or culture. As adults, we can see evolution’s programming at work in our craving for sex, power and status: we are programmed to constantly seek out ways to immortalize our genes.

Now let me ask another question: Given that we are all running evolution’s programming in our minds’ subconscious, and given that this subconscious is in charge of most of what we do, does that mean we are prisoners of evolution?
Well, evidence points at most of us being prisoners of evolution’s programming most of the time. But this is not a necessity: Personally, I would like to think of myself as above evolution. I would like to think that I have my own goals, my humanist goals, and that these goals are my driver and not evolution.
The trick, though, is to learn how to release yourself from the captivity of evolution and set your mind free. That involves awareness as a mandatory ingredient: Without awareness, without knowing where you came from and where you want to be, you can never truly release yourself from evolution’s captivity. The problem there is that we have many distractions in our path to awareness: we have wishful thinking agendas in the shape of religion coming in to tell you what its version of the truth is (only that its version is completely unsubstantiated); and we have marketing, advertisements, and culture in general always inferring that they know what is really best for you (and you’re just lucky enough for them to completely relieve you of any sort of thinking that might promote actual awareness).
Achieving awareness is thus a hard and constant battle. With it, though, and with rational questioning and a healthy skeptical mind holding its hand, you can set yourself any goal you wish to achieve. And there lies a risk: There is nothing preventing you from setting yourself a goal similar to, say, Hitler’s. The trick is, however, that not all of evolution's subconscious code is bad; some things, such as the sense of morality we inherit and our instinctive recognition of good from bad are essential for a healthy society and should therefore be kept in mind; after all, this is exactly why we have inherited them (to one extent or another). if, like me, you share the humanist point of view, your freedom of mind will not only benefit you, it will benefit the whole of society.
Indeed, one of my reasons for maintaining this blog is to promote my humanist values and to promote awareness. Hopefully, I managed to make some sort of a difference to this world by doing so.

Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Notes on a Small Break

Book - Bryson England
Originally uploaded by reuvenim
As per our yearly habit this time of the year to go away somewhere nice, we set our GPS to South Australia and headed off for a long drive on Xmess morning. We spent the first night at Port Fairy and the next three nights at Coonawarra but the story of the trip’s main events will be told through Flickr; for now, here are a few notes.

1. Breakdown:
While driving down the highway, still inside Melbourne, we started hearing this weird sound. At first we dismissed it, then we thought it was coming from other cars, but eventually (pretty quickly, actually) we realized we’re to blame. I took the next exit and stopped at a gas station in time to see smoke and smell heavy break pad stench coming off our rear right wheel.
What a great position to find ourselves in, and on Xmess day when everything’s shut! We couldn’t even rent a car to finish our trip off with, the trip that hardly started!
The next half hour was spent mostly with me cursing the gods of Honda for failing us at the least favorable time. Then, however, our RACV road assistant came over to have a look. In typical fashion, he found nothing wrong; the suspicion was on some piece of grit from the road attaching itself in between the break pad and the disc. Off we went for our trip…
I take two lessons with me from this incident: First, while you may think you have everything under control, things can always fall apart. Second, we were lucky to be on Honda’s premium rescue service with RACV, which meant we’ve waited for half an hour on Christmas day as opposed to a good few hours. Next time I register with RACV on my own I will book the premium service, too, because it seems cars always get stuck when it’s the least comfortable.

2. Wine:
The area we’ve stayed in, Coonawarra, is a wine region. We were surrounded by wineries, dozens of them; I have never even dreamt of the possibility of having so many wineries in such close proximity.
Naturally, we went for some wine tasting (me doing the driving, Jo doing the tasting, and Dylan being a pain). It’s a nice experience, but it made me think of all the sophisticated people I know who worship wine for the status symbol it is, feeling for that slight hint of bark and fruit instead of just enjoying it as a drink. Granted, that search for taste is a part of the fun, but for them it’s a ticket to thinking themselves the elite: by copying those they consider the elite (i.e., those with enough money to afford expensive wine) they perceive themselves to actually be the elite. Well, it’s not the wine you drink that makes you a good person.
For us, the only problem is we hardly ever drink alcohol; it would take us years to consume the wine we bought.

3. Traveling with a baby:
The older Dylan gets, the more demanding he is when traveling. We can’t just go anywhere we feel like anymore; when he wants his stretch or his food he will let us know, and when he’s unhappy we’re unhappy. In order to pacify him we had to resort to previously unthinkable measures, such as feeding him in the car; the result is a car that now feels like a dumpster. All the more annoyed we had become when we go out to eat only to find the eatery doesn’t have a baby highchair (take that, Nandos!) or that the baby highchairs are all so dirty it would be inhumane to use them (as they were at the places we’ve visited in Naracoorte).
On the positive side, for the first time Dylan has been expressing interest in the places we take him to: We took him to a fossil center that had an interactive museum, with animals of sorts making sounds and moving (slightly). While he was initially mildly scared by the woof-woofs (by Dylan’s reckoning anything with four legs is a dog), he quickly got over that to really enjoy and take part in the experience. Guess I might think things over the next time I want to take him to a strip club.

4. Environment:
It was interesting to note just how many houses in South Australia had solar water heating panels on their roofs. I guess it makes sense for them: being that the area we’ve visited is rather remote there is no gas grid around to plug in to, so the heating options are either gas tanks or inefficient electricity.
Even more interesting was noting how virtually all the houses we’ve seen in the areas of South Australia that we’ve visited had water recycling tanks collecting rain water from the roofs, usually two or even more gigantic ones. Didn’t they hear what the Premier of Victoria, John Brumby, said on TV? Our John claimed that if everybody installed water recycling tanks the damage to the environment would be enormous and that the only solution for Victoria is a desalination plant (which, at an energy consumption level equivalent to tens of thousands of cars, if very environmentally friendly). You see, unlike water tanks, which rely on rain water, a desalination plant is both renewable and sustainable.
Oddly enough, though, the South Australians seem to cope with the environmental disaster they brought upon themselves: despite the harsh desert like conditions, many have had their sprinklers on to water their green grass.
Ain’t that weird, Johnny?

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

We wish [some of you] a merry Xmess

In compliance with his take on the concept of Christmas spirit, "The pope has sparked controversy by saying defending heterosexuality is as important as saving the world's rainforests from destruction" (quoted from The Guardian here).
I therefore like to thank the Pope for helping us see the true face of religion. When looked upon closely it is clear there is not much of a difference between the radical Muslims doing their terrorist attacks and the agendas the Pope is trying to push.
The Pope's comments do make me laugh, though. On one hand we have science indicating that homosexuality is perfectly natural and abundant throughout nature; we have science indicating that we are all somewhere on a continuum between heterosexuality and homosexuality; we have great achievements achieved by gay people (check out Oscar Wilde); and I also have my own personal experience indicating that gay people are just like all people: some are great and some are a pain. On the other hand we have the Pope with his demagogy.
The question of which side to go with is rather rhetoric.

In conclusion, I would like to say to the Pope I think he's an idiot. To the rest of us, enjoy the upcoming break!

Half Life

Should I start worrying?

A couple of weeks ago we took Dylan to childcare. We got into the car, started going, and then I realized I forgot Dylan's childcare bag at home. I drove back home, went inside, and realized the bag was actually in the back of the car all along.

This morning I left home on my own to the train station. As I arrived, a train went by some ten minutes after its due time or five minutes prior its due time. I should have known better with Connex, but the surprise factor got me to look for my mobile phone to check and see whether Connex sent me any SMS updates about its services. Trouble is, I couldn't find my phone!
I decided to drive back home and look for it. I got home there but couldn't find it where I last remember to have put it at home, either. In panic, I called myself, only to find my bag - the bag I had with me all along - ringing (and waking Dylan up in the process).
Turned out my phone was on me all along, just in a bag compartment different to the one I usually stash it in.

Question is, is senility having a go at me, is it just lack of sleep, or are they both joining hands?

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Spreading the Word

A friend at work has finally got himself connected to the internet. Afraid of all the threats that may plague him now that he's exposed, he asked me for advice, and in return he got the usual speech: Ensure you keep up to date with Windows Updates, install AVG's anti-virus, install the ZoneAlarm firewall (not the best but a good choice for the beginner), install Adaware to protect yourself from adware, and install Spybot to protect from trojans and other nastiness. Be careful with what you do on the internet, but in general expect to be hit eventually.
I did add at the end, as almost a whisper like comment, that "alternatively, you can just install Linux". And you know what? The unthinkable happened, and the guy asked me to help him with a Linux installation; the next day he even brought his laptop to work so I could do just that. I guess it's his naivety in the field of computers that allowed him to still be open to new ideas as opposed to going with what he's used to.
Indeed, on that next day (today) I installed Ubuntu on his laptop in dual boot mode with Windows, allowing him to pick his preferred operating system whenever he reboots. Alternatively, the Ubuntu installation CD allows you to just boot from the CD in order to get yourself an impression of what Ubuntu Linix is like, or - even more alternatively - install Ubuntu as a Windows application. Both, however, are inferior options to the proper installation my friend ended up doing.

While installing Ubuntu on his laptop, several passerbys who saw the act could not contain themselves from commenting. The first was impressed with me providing a Linux installation just a day after the request was made; coming over to have a look he asked to book my consultation services ahead of an impending Ubuntu dual boot installation on his home PC in order to guarantee safe internet banking.
A second guy came in and commented that Linux should be made our standard operating system at work. It would work better, it would be much cooler than Windows, and - as I have added - it would save the organization a lot of money as Linux is free.
Then a third guy came over and commented how cool, nice and fast Ubuntu is.
You get the picture: Everyone that saw Ubuntu in action loved it. After watching me install it and noticing how easy it was, and after seeing it in action to witness how effective and nice it is to work with, they all wanted to have a go.

My point is simple: Most of us are trapped with Windows on our PCs simply because of ignorance and fear of the unknown. The decline in Linux netbook sales and the rise of Windows based netbooks despite their inadequate ability to cope with Windows is testimony.
Well, as those that saw Ubuntu in action with me today will testify, there is no need for that fear to bind you. You can just go ahead and download Ubuntu from their website here and install it; you won't regret your move.
Don't let ignorance and fear of the unknown leave you stuck with inferiority.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Right to Think

Originally uploaded by reuvenim
There is a lot of hoo-ha in the air lately with the proposition by some humanist organization to use school religious education time to promote humanist agendas (i.e., what most people would refer to as atheist).
You know a sensitive nerve has been hit when the Sunday Age’s letter section is full of letters saying people like me (i.e., humanists) are scum because we don’t have a frame of reference to attach our sense of morality to. That is, we don’t have that great surveillance camera in the sky we need to be constantly fearful of; we just rely on common sense granted to us through evolution to know what is right and what is wrong, but then again everyone knows that evolution is just senseless dogma forced on us by the scientific elite as they block any other alternative point of view from having its say. Or maybe it’s because there is all the evidence in the world to support evolution and none to support much else, especially the religious?

What I wish to do with this post is to express my opinion on the matter of religious education at school, and my opinion is very clear: There should be none of it.
Australia is a secular country and it should behave as such. We might learn a thing or two from the USA here, where religion is very strictly withheld from having a go at state schools. As it is, religious education only serves in dividing society: Muslims, for example, will seek their own lessons given the predominantly Christian nature of these teachings; the result is that the Muslim kids will only be further marginalized by their peers.
I will have the same problem when my own son goes to school: I can give him a note asking him to be exempt from religion classes, but he would have to spend that time in some time wasting effort school has to provide and away from his friends. Do you think he’ll like me for that? And why should I be facing this dilemma anyway?
Instead of religion, pupils should be taught how to think for themselves. That is, how to appraise different opinions and theories and how to determine their version of the truth based upon the validity of the evidence in front of them. Surely, no one can object to that? Surely, no religion has anything to be afraid of here?
Obviously they do, because if too many people started looking at the evidence in front of them there won’t be many religious people left around. This is why religions insist on having right of way to indoctrinate kids before anything else gets to their minds; evidence clearly indicates that especially with kids, the first thing to go into the brain is deemed the ultimate truth, no matter how unsubstantiated it is. The best proof for that is kids coming from different religions tend to virtually always stick to the religion they were originally indoctrinated in; they always see the light in their own faith whereas the kids growing on other faiths always see the light in theirs. Surely there’s some problematic contradiction here?
My point is that some of the humanists’ agendas, as in those that talk about thinking for oneself, should be taught; however, they should not be placed under a school’s religion time. Instead, they should be taught because every person has a right to know how to think rationally. Religion should still be taught in schools, but it should be taught the same way history is, regarded for what it is: an artifact of human culture.

I would like to go one step further with my arguments. I would like to argue that the indoctrination of children in religions should be banned altogether through legislation. Adults can and should choose for themselves; children are unable to, and at the moment it’s leading them to be abused. Sure, they’re mostly abused by their own parents, but they are still being abused.
There are two arguments against my proposal. The first would say that banning parents from talking to their kids is impractical, whereas the second would argue about the morale right that goes to prevent parents from doing something together with their own children. My answer to both revolves around one concept: zeitgeist.
While the outright banning indoctrination of kids by their parents will simply be ignored, it will not be ignored when it is done gradually and through thorough transparency of what is at stake here: A child that goes to school and learns how to think for herself will protest when her parents try to push stuff on her by virtue of authority alone. In effect, through education, proper education, the zeitgeist could move to new grounds, grounds where a ban on the religious indoctrination of kids will be regarded the same way a ban on drink driving is regarded nowadays.
And as for coming in between parent and child: Well, once upon a time not that long ago (but long enough for many to ignore) children were sold or used as slave labor. Today the zeitgeist has changed and children, at least in Australia, may only be properly employed as of the age of 16; something came in between parent and child to stop the parent from abusing their child. Similarly, while parents used to hit their children in the past, today no parent would admit to that; the zeitgeist has changed enough for hitting not to be acceptable (in some countries, like New Zealand, it is even outright illegal).

While I do not think there is even the slightest chance for kids’ religious indoctrination getting banned any time soon, I definitely think getting rid of religious studies in state school is a good enough start.
And there was never a better time to start than now.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Train Surprise

Life can be full of surprises. At least if you're Connex and you have been in charge of running Melbourne's trains over the last very cancellation riddled weeks.

A couple of weeks ago, Connex has explained the morning cancellations by saying the trains were left in the wrong positions over night and thus weren't able to provide full service come morning. I can clearly see it: the Connex organizing staff went home after a hard day at the office all full of satisfaction for managing a successful day, only to come back to the office the next day and learn - to their total astonishment - that they actually need to run the trains for yet another day. That's not it, though, for lo and behold - they need to run the trains according to the very same schedule they had the day before! Who could have thought of that! Now, where did we leave them trains overnight?

However, that excuse was the exception. The regular Connex excuse for not being able to run trains according to schedule is malfunctioning trains, and lately their press releases keep saying day after day that this morning's bunch of cancellations is due to malfunctioning trains.
I find this approach rather surprising. As a company in charge of running services worth millions of dollars, including train maintenance services, I would have expected Connex to have pretty accurate statistics on trains' MTBFs (mean time between failures), which should mean that they would plan routine services at the right frequencies to prevent breakdowns . But they don't, or at least they don't manage their train rotations as if they do. Which pretty much means that they're incompetent and that they should not be running Melbourne's trains.
Yet Connex does continue to run Melbourne's trains, the state government let's Connex do whatever they do, and Veolia - Connex' French owner - is reporting record profits, specifying explicitly that these are due to their operations in Melbourne.
Ain't it great to see incompetence paying off?

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Was it worth it?

Having traveled with a one year old baby around the world and having fought bloody battles (literally) with baby ear infections for more than a year now, I believe I am qualified enough to answer a seemingly simple question:
Was it worth it? I’m talking about the question that pops up in the backs of would be parents’ minds, whether they are first time parents or whether they are thinking of siblings: Is the bringing of a child to this world a worthwhile effort, cost benefit wise?
Before I attempt to give my take on an answer I will add a disclaimer: I will not be dealing with the question of what it is that makes us want to have babies in the first place; I will deal with that in another post. The only question I am trying to answer here is whether, once you have your baby, the benefits coming from the baby are worth the costs involved with it.

Well, my answer to this question is a politician’s answer: Is anything we do in this world worth it?
Think about it: As we are all going to die eventually, and having already lived the average half life I can attest to that eventuality being not that far into our future, everything we do is fruitless. Everything we do will die, eventually. The trick is that some things are still worth doing because of the effect they have on us while and after we do them.
Take, for example, the act of climbing the Everest. There aren’t many other items in anyone’s CV that will earn more “wow!” or “cool!” calls, yet ask the mountain climber and I’m sure they would tell you that the climb itself was a rather stressful and painful experience.
Personally, I think people who need to climb high mountains to feel good about themselves are people that lack some very basic grip of what life is all about, but never mind that; my point is simply that most of the grander experiences in life involve a hefty amount of torture with them. Kid raising is just another one of those, albeit one of the more demanding ones most people encounter.
My answer, therefore, is that having a baby is worthwhile because the experience makes you a better person. Fighting all the shit that comes with raising a baby is the Everest climb's equal. A good parent can become a much less selfish entity, an entity that knows it needs to give a lot to others, an entity that is much more aware of its environment, and an entity that is much more aware of the impact of its actions on the environment. Obviously, a parent can be a selfish one at that and not care less about anything other than their very own, but then again that parent will not be reaping what I consider to be the main rewards of parenthood; that wouldn't be a particularly good parent.
So yes, despite the cost and the hardship and the lack of sleep involved with flying a baby with you around the world, our trip was more satisfying having done it with our baby.
In case you consider this post a good excuse to have yourself many kids, do note there is the question of marginal benefits. If you were to ask whether you should bring subsequent children into this world, then be aware that the benefits you will get out of baby x+1 are generally expected to be lower than the benefits out of baby x.

Why did I think of all of the above? Because earlier during this week, while I was crouching down at the bath preparing it for Dylan, he came up behind me and gave me this huge hug; the biggest he can give. His hands surrounded my back and his nose was right up against my spine. I couldn’t see him but I could feel him; it was one of those rare moments of a lifetime.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Should 5% appear too small be thankful I don't take it all

Five percent?!
If ever we needed proof that the people governing Australia couldn’t care less about global warming then we got plenty of it yesterday when Prime Minister Kevin Rudd announced a carbon emission reduction target of 5% by 2020. Wow, that’s an ambitious target that will secure a world for our children to live in!
It’s not just Rudd. At the state level, Victoria’s Premier John Brumby said on ABC TV a few weeks ago, in an interview for Stateline, that if every household was to install water recycling tanks to collect rainwater from their drains it would be an environmental disaster. He said it as a justification for the building of a desalination plant that will generate as much emissions as tens of thousands of cars. I couldn’t believe Brumby uttered such an outrageously ridiculous statement, but I saw it on TV and the sound did sync with his lips.

Let’s face it: Our leaders are climate change skeptics. Now, there is no law saying you are not allowed to reject global warming theories; it implies on the rationalisation processes these people deploy in their decision making process, but it is still entirely within their rights to disagree with these theories.
What is very unethical, though, is these same leaders selling themselves as climate change activists in order to get elected and only then exposing their true face. I believe there are laws against false advertising.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Insult to Injury

What do you do to players you dislike in your favorite team?
Case in point: Arsenal’s Emmanuel Eboue.
I can’t say I like him; to be honest, I can’t say I like the vast majority of football players; they are all overpaid, and I doubt any one of them would have what it takes to be a friend of mine. I doubt they care, though, and that’s fine; as long as they entertain us with their football, the contract between fan and player is not being breached.
Eboue’s case is a rather extreme one, though. Personally, I don’t like him much as a player: he’s not of the flashy type that catches your attention, and he did manage to establish himself quite a reputation as a diver having done so during a Champions League final move that resulted in an unjust goal. I think it would be fair to say most Arsenal fans don’t like Eboue.
That, however, does not justify the events taking place during Arsenal last week’s home match against Wigan. Eboue, returning from injury, was put on as a sub out of his normal position and gave a terrible performance to match the circumstances; the supporters, some 60,000 of them, all insulted him on an ongoing basis despite Eboue playing for their own team, seeming to take all of their accumulated frustration with Arsenal on him (and this season, at least, there's ample room for frustration as far as Arsenal supporters are concerned).
Eboue didn't take it well. As the photo shows, he came out of the pitch crying. He was a shattered man.
Tens of thousands of people have worked together to shatter this person down; did he deserve such treatment? Does any human being deserve it? Can any human being handle being at the center stage of a stadium only to receive the wrath of everyone around?
An event like this makes me want to disown my loyalty to the Arsenal team so I won't be mistaken for one of the many that did this wrong.

Thing is, as I have said before, I am more than a bit two faced.
A few years before leaving Israel to Australia me and some of my friends would, from time to time (but not that often) go to see some low league football games during the weekend. These were pathetic matches played between teams light years away from Arsenal, but it was exactly this pathetic state of affairs that attracted us to the experience: it was so bad it was funny.
Chief among the entertainment material was the act of telling some of the players and the referee in particular what I thought of their ancestors; and it's not like I had evidence to support my claims. It wasn't serious; I rarely am serious when I swear, it's almost always a joke. It was all so pathetic and I was one of many, so who cares if I was having a laugh? That was my way of justifying the admission price.
Now, however, I have seen what such behavior can lead to. There is no justification for breaking a person up through such unjustified jeers, and for all I know my jeers could have been taken seriously.
I have made a huge mistake with my past behavior. Every person deserves to be respected.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Santa got me a PS3

Usually this time of the year I dedicate some posts to express my disgust with the consumerism festivities taking place under the banner of Christmas shopping. This year, for a couple of reasons, it looks like I won’t.
First there’s the global financial crisis. Walking through Melbourne’s major shopping precincts, as I do twice a day through my commute to work, the relative lack of congestion is easily felt: whereas yesteryears required some heavy NFL derived tactics just to be able to cross the street this year is all about peace and quiet. Hooray for financial crises! I hope they would help people figure what the real deal is with the holidays anyway.
Second, there is the undeniable fact that I have been spending money like the double faced consumerist I am. The epitome of this season’s spendings so far, as you might have guessed through careful reading of my blogs, has been the purchase of a Sony Playstation 3.
The purpose of this post is to communicate key aspects of the PS3 experience.

1: Plug and Play
One of the key advantages a games console holds over the PC as a gaming platform is its plug and play capability. You connect it to the TV, you stick the game disc in, and you sit and play. But is that the case with the PS3?
The short answer is no. The lengthy answer follows.
The PS3 uses Bluetooth controllers (a sophisticated word for “joystick”). Given the Bluetooth nature of said joystick, it needs to be paired to the console so that both console and joystick will be able to talk to one another. Given the need for the cordless controller to be charged, it needs to be connected to one of the console’s USB outputs for charging. Add one to one, and the first thing you need to do with your PS3 after you put it in its shelf and connect it to the power socket is to connect it with a USB cable to your controller: this will charge the controller and also pair it (a process required every time you introduce your controller to a new console).
Next you need to connect the console to your TV. In my case, I have connected the console to my receiver via an HDMI cable; the receiver was already connected to the TV via HDMI. As you turn the console on, it will automatically handshake with your TV (through the receiver, in my case) to determine the optimal screen setting. In my case it determined 1080i as the console’s output (the PS3 is capable of 1080p output but my TV won’t accept it); I had to manually ask my PS3 to use 720p instead. To do that you have to navigate through the PS3 menus, which use a very smart interface that will still take you a while to digest when you use it for the first time. Do not rely on the supplied joke of an instruction book to help you much there.
Next on the setup agenda was the sound. As I have discussed before, the PS3 will not output the advanced sound formats (Dolby TrueHD or DTS HD) out its HDMI outputs; it outputs the resulting PCM code instead (that is, it processes these sound formats for you already, theoretically relieving you of the need for an expensive receiver/processor). When setting the sound up, the PS3 handshakes with your receiver through the HDMI interface to determine which of its long list of supported sound formats it would accept and presents the results for you to approve in a few seconds. It worked like a charm.
Next thing on the agenda was to try and play a game, just to see that the console works. So I stuck FIFA 09 down my PS3’s mouth, only to be greeted by a message telling me that in order to be able to play this game I need to have my PS3's system updated. Great! In plain English the message meant I had to connect the PS3 to the internet; note this was not an option, I had to do it in order to play games, the console’s main role in life.
Luckily, the PS3 has built in wireless, but it was still a pain to register it on my wireless network given that all the info has to be entered using the joystick and not with a keyboard (Sony says a USB keyboard should do the job, but I don’t have one).
With the internet connection sorted I moved on to do the system update. Now, there’s a system update and there’s a system update; this one is a System Update in capital letters because it took about half an hour just to download on my ADSL2+ connection and then some ten more minutes to install itself. Plug and play, right?
Well, no. With the system update behind me I put FIFA 09 in again, and this time I got another message telling me I need to download the latest software updates for the game itself, 32mb worth. So there go a few more minutes. And then the game tells you that in order to enjoy it the most you need to set an internet account with the Playstation network and a separate account with EA Sports (FIFA 09’s publisher). As before, given the need to enter all the info using the joystick, and you do need a lot of info to register with Playstation, this is tedious and takes quite a while.
Experience thus far with three games indicates you need to download the latest patch with every new game you try to play on your PS3. Curb your enthusiasm when bringing the newest, meanest and hottest game copy home, because it will take a while before you’d be able to actually play it!
There is no doubt the PS3 is the most technically advanced games console out there at the moment, but a plug and play console it is not. I guess that is one reason why the Wii is beating it in the sales department.

2: Blu-ray and video playback
You can argue whether getting a Blu-ray player is worthwhile in the first place but you cannot argue with the PS3 being an excellent Blu-ray player, at least when compared to the alternatives.
The most noticeable feature of the PS3 playing Blu-ray titles is that it is unnoticeable: Unlike other players, you do not get lengthy delays when playing a new disc or when pausing/restarting. Instead, you get an experience that is very similar to the DVD playback experience we are all used to. To date I am still to encounter a Blu-ray title offering internet contents (aka BD Live), but the PS3 is meant to be able to deal with those, too; till then, the only difference between Blu-ray and DVD watching, as far as I am concerned, is the quality and me needing to use the PS3’s controller as a remote control.
Surprisingly, using the joystick as the remote is not bad at all. Sure, I would have preferred to use my universal remote instead (which you cannot do unless you have a device converting infra red to Bluetooth), but I really don’t see a need to buy Sony’s dedicated PS3 Blu-ray remote control. The joystick’s utilization of the buttons and commands just makes sense!
It’s also interesting to note the PS3 managed to play any DivX contents I threw its way (through a USB stick; it also has the capability of detecting media on your network, assuming you have the right setup). It deals with high definition and standard definition with zero complaints and quite quickly. In this regard, it is better than any DVD player with a USB input I have encountered thus far, thus providing an excellent way to watch internet downloads in your home theater.

3: Antisocial gaming
I cannot say I am familiar with that many PS3 game titles, but there seems to be a repeating pattern with those I have bumped into thus far: conventional multi player gaming options are cast aside, with emphasis put on single player campaigns and multi player facilities over the internet.
Take the games we got bundled with our consoles as an example. With my previous console, the Xbox, we've received a copy of Halo. Indeed, the most fun we've had with the Xbox was when we played through the game's entire campaign in cooperative mode, an alien blasting partnership. With the PS3 the story is different: the bundled game, Resistance 2, a shooter not unlike Halo albeit significantly more spectacular, only offers internet multi playing options. Sure, I can use it to play cooperatively with others over the web, but I can't play it sitting next to my partner.
Things get worse, though. The PS3 comes bundled with a single controller. Wanna buy a second one, in case you do put your hands on a multi player game? Open your wallet wide and fork out $94 for the pleasure. That's daylight robbery for you. Cheaper alternatives exist on eBay, but they're all compromised: they're either wired or they lack the Wii like motion sensing features (that are hardly utilized by PS3 games, but then again maybe that would change).
That's anti social in my book. Compare it with the Wii, a console that specializes in social gaming and suffers tremendously in the technical capabilities department, and you can see why the Wii is outselling the PS3.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Just a Little Bit of History Repeating

Originally uploaded by reuvenim
Once upon a time, back in 1984, there was a trial.
The movie studios were worried about no one going to see their films again, so they sued Sony for its latest invention – the VCR, a tool allowing people to record off the air material and watch it at their own time.
The USA’s Supreme Court has dealt the studios a blow. In a precedent, it has ruled that people are allowed to use VCRs for the purpose of time shifting, thus allowing the proliferation of VCRs in our homes worldwide. This, in turn, ushered the age of purchasing and renting movies, an age that culminated with the DVD. The movie studios ended up the big winners: Nowadays, they make 6 times more income out of home videos than they do out of cinematic releases; by now they regard the cinematic release as a mere marketing campaign for the ensuing DVD.
You would think the movie studios have learnt something from this case, would you?

Well, I wonder if they did.
Fast forward to modern day Australia, and have yourself a look at the case of the movie studios plus Channel 7 against iiNet, Australia’s third largest ISP. iiNet, the movie studios and their partners allege, is guilty of allowing illegal material to pass through their services.
Before moving on to discussing the sanity of such an accusation, allow me to ask a couple of interesting questions:
1.Why is it that the studios choose to pick on iiNet, the third largest ISP, and not on Telstra or Optus, the really big guys? It is fair to say that so called illegal material passes through them more than it does on iiNet, so you would think they would be targeted instead, would you? Or is it that Telstra and Optus can afford themselves a defense that would make the trial a farce?
2.Why is Channel 7 taking part in the lawsuit? Could it be because iiNet is planning to release it own Tivo like service that will compete for market share with Channel 7’s overpriced Tivo?

Yes, you can say I am questioning the motives involved in this lawsuit.
More importantly, though, let me ask you this: What is the big difference between me watching the latest episode of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles off a file I have downloaded from the internet and me watching it off the air?
I can think of two differences. The first is that the download bypasses Channel 9, who paid for the series’ rights in Australia, and the second is lack of advertisements in the downloaded version. However, are these reasons good enough to justify a lawsuit that makes as much sense or even less as that archaic lawsuit against the VCR?
Why won’t the movie studios rearrange themselves to a completely new modus of operandi? Why don’t they flood the market with cheap material that can be legally purchased for next to nothing (say, 1 dollar for said episode), thus allowing them to make just as much money as they would anyway from Channel 9? They can throw in some advertisements for me to fast forward through while at it and for them to make some extra bucks of, I don’t mind. And get rid of stupid DRM while at it, please, it only makes the handling of your material so cumbersome people would rush for the superior “illegal” versions.
Yet the studios choose to bang their heads on the wall and file a lawsuit instead. Who are trying to defend, anyway? The way I see it, they are fighting on behalf of nothing more than their current business model. That, and on behalf of some of their distributors (e.g., Channel 9), whose business model will need revamping, too.
Is it worth it all, the legalities and the hassles? I’ll let you decide.

By the way, in case you thought Americans going to court over time shifting is stupidly incarnate, think of Australia: Up until 2006, it was illegal to record stuff on your VCR. The law was never enforced, which pretty much says it all: just as it is today, you cannot prosecute the majority of the population.
Since 2006, though, we can relax: the law allows us to now record stuff for time shifting purposes. However, you are only allowed to watch your recording once. Do not even think of rewinding if you’ve missed out on some of the dialog!

Friday, 5 December 2008

Science Frontiers

Originally uploaded by reuvenim
One of the more annoying things to take place on a Melbourne train is having people talk on their mobile phones. They're noisy for a start, and then there's the bullshit they talk about which distracts you way too much to be able to take a short nap, read, or just daydream.
Jo was telling me about this woman chatting over her mobile phone on one of her previous week's rides, telling her entire life story not only to her partner in chat but also to the rest of the carriage. 26, she just came back from a trip abroad with her mother, and she couldn't bear normal life anymore – you know, work and such. She couldn't wait till the time she was able to retire and just travel and do nothing all day long.
On one hand, it's amazing just how little understanding there is out there of what life is all about. That woman showed no indication of realizing what life is all about, why we're here in the first place, and why true, lasting and complete happiness is something that can never be had.
Then again, why should I be amazed? We live in a world where any baseless agenda can be promoted tax free as a religion and thus receive immediate and total immunity from any criticism; a world where people have ten times the exposure to astrology than they do to anything in the least scientific; a world where stating the obvious fact that we humans are apes is not something you would do because people will react strangely to such a statement.
A world like ours needs people who will embrace the challenge and become champions of science. We need every Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov or Richard Dawkins we can get.
In Australia, the closest one can get to any of the above is Karl Kruszelnicki, or as most of the public knows him – Dr Karl. While Dr Karl cannot boast the scientific achievements of Dawkins or Sagan, he is a prominent feature of Triple J radio and has quite a following. He also had a go at politics, running on behalf of a global warming action group and raising some more awareness to the cause (and to the ease with which we can address it if we really put our minds to it, which the government obviously doesn't want to do).
A couple of weeks ago I met Dr Karl and had a chat with him while on a book signing tour of Melbourne, and I just want to say I'm proud of that and I'm proud of him being there and doing what it is that he's doing. It's people like Dr Karl that stand in between ignorance with all its tax free billions on one side and knowledge and enlightenment on the other.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Homeland Security

For reasons some of which are elusive, I tend to be deemed by my peers as some sort of an authority when it comes to personal computing. As a result, I’m often asked for help with the latest virus infection, trojan infection, mysterious firewall alert, or just your average Windows error messages that warns you about a security threat and prevents you from ever using your PC again. Ever.
If anything, the rate in which I receive such queries is rather alarming, which is strange given that I hardly ever get any infections on my own PCs, and when I do it’s almost always a case where I know I was looking for trouble. But I do not seem to represent the majority of PC users out therel judging by the horror shows I have seen when dealing with relatives’ PCs during our recent family visit to the UK and Israel, I would say that I would consider myself a very daring person if I was to ever put one of my passwords to use on one of their PCs; now, that would be asking for trouble!
So, is there a solution to these security issues, or are we all doomed to live forever with a sword hanging on top of our PCs’ necks? Is there no option for my relatives but life in the virus mire?
Well, there is. It’s glaringly obvious and it became even more obvious to me during our overseas trip when I took out my miniature Asus Eee PC and surfed the internet in comfort while leaving my relatives’ PCs for the much needed rest they deserve. The answer is Linux.

It is really hard for Windows “trained” users to imagine, but Linux offers its users a world free of viruses, trojans or spyware; a world where security tools like firewalls do not require a doctorate and run in the background, where they belong; a world where anti-virus software is a tool you use in order to help friends running Windows based PCs get rid of their viruses.
Don’t get me wrong; Linux is not perfect and it has its security issues, too. However, there are key differences: First, being open sourced, Linux vulnerabilities are known to everyone and not hidden under some remote shelf in a some underground Microsoft dungeon; this means that solutions are quickly delivered and, in my case, as an Ubuntu user, automatically brought to my attention. Usually, solutions are delivered long before anyone vile enough is able to exploit them. And best of all, it’s all free!

So how does it work? How does Linux manage so well where Windows fails so miserably?
Well, don’t look at me as the ultimate authority there, but here’s the gist of it in a nutshell. It really is simple: In Linux, applications have a very limited and very carefully monitored list of rights. That is, there are just a few things they can do, and unless you give them the explicit authorization to do more they cannot do much wrong no matter how hard they try.
I’ll explain through a few examples. Let’s say that you’ve downloaded a trojan that tries to use your internet connection; it won’t be able to do so, because it doesn’t have the right to use the internet connection, because just a very few applications have this ability by default (with the internet browser being an obvious example). But can you download the trojan in the first place? No, because it is an application of sorts, and you need explicit authorization in order to install an application; similarly, the trojan cannot attach itself to your internet browser or to any other application, because unless you gave these some explicit authorization they are not allowed to change themselves.
The same applies for viruses. You can have a virus file on your Linux PC, but unless you explicitly let it run loose it would be just another harmless file on your PC, totally unable to do anything. Exactly why Linux is great for getting rid of viruses on a Windows partition or on a USB stick.
You may be aware that Windows is actually aspiring to have this same regime. There are, however, a few key differences: First, Windows was not designed with this regime in mind because it was never really designed from scratch with networking in mind, which means it all comes as patches on top. Second, because such a regime was never strictly enforced as a rule, most applications are badly written and require administration right to perform the way you would want them to perform; similarly, most of us log into our Windows PC with administrator rights, giving us permission to do what we like. That, however, is exactly what malicious software uses in order to get its way.
As I have said before, Linux is not perfect; work hard enough and you will find a way through its defences. But there lies the key: you really need to work hard for that, much harder than you would in a Windows environment. Because the number of Linux PC users is but a tiny fraction of Windows users, the lovely people who create malicious software have no reason to invest in cracking Linux.

My point with this post is simple: If you want a virtually carefree environment for your PC that requires hardly any maintenance, give Linux a try.
With Ubuntu, for example, you can get yourself a dual boot installation (where you choose whether you want to start Windows or Ubuntu whenever you restart your PC), thus allowing you to have the best of both worlds.
Once you give Ubuntu a chance, though, you won’t want to go back to Windows. For people like my family, whose understanding of the scope of threats facing their PCs is so limited, Ubuntu Linux is indeed the silver bullet. With Linux, they don't need to be particularly alert, and they will never need to be alarmed.

Monday, 1 December 2008

The further adventures of Dylan and Grommet

Originally uploaded by reuvenim
On Friday night Jo saw something in Dylan's right ear. At first, we thought he poked something in it; a more careful look has revealed it was his grommet that came out.
Come Saturday morning, Jo has found the grommet on Dylan's bed. Come Sunday morning and Dylan already had himself a fever, now that the bugs in his ear had nowhere to go.
It's funny to see how effective the grommets were in taking care of Dylan's ear infections and how quickly we forgot the way things were with Dylan before he had the grommets installed. Now, though, we remember.