Friday, 27 February 2009

The Case Against Santa

Looking back, it is clear I was a fairly gullible person during my childhood years.
As I have told you in the past, it wasn’t until the age of seven when I first started to doubt my religious beliefs. Yet gullibility strode onwards.
One of the very first adult books I got to read was Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods, a book which raises the speculation that our gods are in fact aliens from outer space. The author doesn’t only raise the speculation, he also provides “proof” in support of his claim. Thing is, at the time I fell for it; as in, I didn’t know how to discern good proof from baloney, and for a while I really did think that von Däniken’s suggestion might have something going for it other than him trying to make loads of money out of credulous people. As it turned out, the physical location of a single book at my school library, plus a sexy title, both serving to attract my attention, may have had a profound effect on my way of thinking.
A year or so later I got my uncle to buy me a book called UFO Report (freely translated from its Hebrew title). The book took it for granted that the occasionally reported UFOs are, in fact, aliens from outer space – a conjecture that is far from trivial when you think about it. Again, the book provided “proof” for its claims, and again I fell for it. For a while I took it for granted that we are being visited by aliens.
Now, you may argue that no harm befell on me due to my gullibility. You’d be right, if you dismiss the time I have been kept away from pursuing more meaningful ways to spend my time. Yet that would dismiss the danger of me falling for those silly speculations, which could have easily been the case if it wasn’t for me also reading the likes of Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan (Sagan’s Broca’s Brain was perhaps the single most influential book I have ever read). If it wasn’t for my scientifically oriented saviors I could have easily become a weirdo.
Taken to further extremes, gullibility can kill you. Take cigarettes, for example: if you’re gullible enough to fall for the tobacco industry’s advertising, you may as well form an opinion that real men smoke. I did, for a while, especially under the influence of all my motorcycle racing heroes (yet I was wise enough to accept that it’s better to be healthy than to be a damaged real man). However, people around us fall for this by the billion, and as a result millions of people are getting killed unnecessarily each year.
Gullibility is therefore an unwanted attribute.

This brings me to the case of Santa Claus (aka Father Christmas in the venues of the English side of family).
As an outspoken agnostic/atheist (it all depends on the way you define the terms), I am often asked for my opinion on Christmas. In particular I am asked whether I would want my child to celebrate Christmas. My answer is a definitive yes, but I do have my reservations.
It’s yes because it’s nice to celebrate. It’s yes because, let’s face it, the way Christmas is celebrated today has nothing to do with the religious aspects it’s supposed to portray; Christmas, for me, is a holiday where families gather and show signs of appreciation and love to one another. These are all very positive things which we don’t do enough of during the rest of the year. Besides, Christmas was never meant to be a religious holiday: Christianity hitchhiked on the holiday in order to promote its agendas, but as a non Christian I and most of the people around me that do call themselves Christians kick them freeloaders away pretty easily.
Yet as I have said, I do have my reservations about Christmas. One of them is to do with the way Christmas is promoted and the way it has become a consumerists’ fest, causing all the good stuff behind the holiday to be discarded. My other main argument is with Santa.
Santa, as even the most religious of people would admit, doesn’t exist. Santa is a figment of the imagination. Santa does not come to give anyone gifts, it’s the parents that usually do so. So what is the point of inventing this Santa character in the first place?
Obviously, the initial reason for inventing the character was to do with religion. I am under the assumption the unquestioned belief in Santa was used to later establish the unquestioned belief in god. However, the Santa we know seems to have too much to do with Coca Cola advertising; today, most of the people celebrating the Santa story do so purely because of Coke established tradition and because everyone else around them does so, with the original religious reason mostly forgotten.
There is, however, an obvious problem with this tradition that so many of us follow blindly. The problem is that children’s unquestioned, credulous, belief in Santa conditions them for further gullibility later. One that has been trained to accept bullshit, no matter how nicely articulated, will continue being susceptible to bullshit later on in life. Santa, in effect, becomes gullibility’s stronghold in kids’ brains. And as I have already explained, I don’t like gullibility; gullibility can kill you.
What I do like is critical thinking, which comes bundled with a healthy dose of skepticism. I would argue, and there’s a body of research to support my claims, that one of the best things you can do to your child is to develop their critical analysis skills. That is, endow them with the ability to weigh different options based on available evidence in order to make their minds up, as well as endow them with the passion to search for such evidence. As far as education is concerned, my view is that this endowment is by far the best gift you can give your child and will serve them throughout their lives. Due to the ease with which young minds can be molded and the brain’s nature to accept the first input it receives as the truth, critical thinking is best taught at the earlier stages of life, the very stages in which Santa tends to be introduced. Due to the way children learn, it is probably the best and the easiest to teach them critical thinking through example.
Historically, critical thinking has been severely repressed. During the 15th century, for example, people were pursued and killed by the church for wanting to publish an English version of the bible; the church didn’t want people to have access to the bible because then they would start asking questions about what they read, and who knows where that may lead to? This day and age, though, there is no reason for our attitudes to be shaped by such fears.

My point is simple. Kids should not be trained to be gullible, no mater how nice and warm the fictitious story we feed them feels; instead, kids should be trained to critically analyze the world around them. Doing so, they will find a world that is much more interesting and imaginative than the world offered by Santa, even if it does take a bit more of an effort to expose that world. For a start, they will find a world where their loving parents bought them some nice gifts for Christmas.

Thursday, 26 February 2009

Children of Men

The news today told the story of the leader of David Cameron, the British opposition and the person who will probably be the next PM. His seven year old son died, and everyone seems to be grieving with the family.
In a speech at parliament, Gordon Brown, the current British PM and the person who will probably lose the next election, said that the death of a child is something no parent should endure. But is that really the case?
Historically speaking, it is only during the last 150 years or so that infant and child mortality rates have drastically been reduced; before that, the ratio of kids who didn't make it to two was fairly substantial. It is probably fair to say that historically, most humans lived in conditions where the death of a child was a fairly normal affair. Sad, yet normal.
My point is simple: While I grieve with the mourning family, I also marvel at this miracle that allows us to take the privilege of not enduring the death of a child the vast majority of the time. I wish we could leverage on it more to reduce the number of cases children die on their parents. Yet that miracle is not really a miracle; it is all the work of science.
Let us not forget the positive effects science has had on the way we live.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

The Captain

For the better part of my childhood, I wanted to be a captain.
I guess this started by me watching Star Blazers as a single digit old child and falling for the glory of characters such as Dirk Wildstar as they commanded glorious battleships across galaxies. I was a control freak as of a young age, you see.
At high school the fantasy took on a new perspective with the realization that if I was to become an academic officer in the army, as was quite common for kids in my school, I would - eventually, towards the later stages of the seven years long army career such a path takes - become a real captain. No spaceship to call my own, but an authentic captain never the less.
Of course, now these aspirations look pretty foolish. Sure, I'm proud of the imaginative kid I once was, and I hope I am still imaginative; but an army career? Give me a break. Speaking from this side of my army service I can tell you it was nothing but time wasted for a meaningless cause. And generally speaking, with all due respect to New England, I don't think too highly of patriotism and patriots; I don't see why a person whose accident of birth meant they were born on the other side of a man made border does not count as much as people this side of the border.

Of course, I can say all those nasty things about captainhood now, simply because I have just been appointed a captain. My childhood dream is soon to be realized!
Yes, yours truly is to become a team captain in the 2009's GCC competition. I have already discussed the GCC here last year; it's this competition that's not really a competition where teams of co-workers document their daily step count. As I have said last time around, it's interesting to know how much one does walk on a given day, even if that count seems to be more related to the quality of the fragile pedometers they issue you with rather than your actual step count.
With great powers come great responsibilities, and as a team captain one of my duties is to name my team. Obviously I'm going to make this a democratic process, given that I'm such a nice captain; but my personal choice so far is The Imperial Walkers. The rest of my team had better accept it; I will not stand for insubordination on my ship.
O Captain! My Captain!

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Illusions of Security

Steve Mirsky, who writes a monthly satirical column for Scientific American, recently wrote an item on airport security and the utter futility of the security mechanisms we all seem to have politely accepted. He agrees with me that these measures may only have an effect in stopping the very dumbest of terrorists. That said, when I wrote about this subject before my views were to do with humor given that I was almost arrested for begging to question said policies.
The interesting thing about Mirsky’s column is that he takes the discussion away from the specific problem of babies being starved to death on long haul flights due to banned formula drinks or people unable to take their aftershave on board with them; he refers to the general “Illusion of Security” the powers that be try to supply us with in order to show that they’re doing something against terrorism (regardless of effectiveness), to cover their ass in case something does happen, and to calm us scared sheep down.
Statistics, let us remember, clearly indicate we stand more of a chance of drowning in our own bath than coming to harm due to flight related terrorism.

I would therefore like to take Mirsky’s line even further and discuss the Illusion of Security at its grandest: virtually all countries spend significant portions of their GDP on security, but is that expense truly needed or is it all just a case of one country after the other taking the other countries down a spirally slippery slope of unnecessary investments?
Take the USA, for example, just because it is easy to pick on for having what is obviously the grandest army on earth. Do they really need their arsenal of some ten thousand nuclear weapons? It’s not like destroying a city has ever been in the direct path of winning a combat, let alone destroying thousands of them. Such weapons, however, do entice those that consider themselves on the target side to develop similar weapons, and the result is that we’re all living under the threat of total annihilation.
Does the USA really need to maintain a fleet of ultra expensive nuclear submarines, each costing more than a billion dollars? Or is it that they’re needed in order to supply Tom Clancy with the subject matter for his next book? Today alone Australian news announced an investment of 25 billion dollars in submarines; just think of all the schools, hospitals and universities this money can bring. Just think of the benefits to come if such money was invested in solar power! Instead, we're letting our money take a dive.
The main reason why I have decided to pick on the USA in particular is an article I have read not that long ago (written by Kenneth Davidson and published in The Age), which claims the USA maintains its military might for purely financial cost/benefit reasons. According to the article, the USA needs its army in order to guarantee its currency is the world’s default currency; that is, to guarantee that all currency exchanges go through the US Dollar first. The advantage there comes because the USA is always able to print more US Dollars, thus making life easier for credit purposes. The suggestion therefore is that this easy credit is worth the USA spending a certain percentage of its GDP to feed its army.
Now, I am way too ignorant when it comes to such matters to offer an opinion on whether this article I have read is worth the paper it was printed on (although in general I have a lot of good things to say about Davidson). What I do know, though, is that the security industry – or the arms industry – represents a significant portion of the USA’s economy. It is perhaps their biggest industry, somewhere high up on the agenda as their entertainment and high-tech industries. The USA is not alone in this position: Russia, the UK, Israel and a great many others rely on their weapons industries to maintain a viable economy.
Take the arms out and the entire economy would collapse, hence the reason why we all have to live in the unsafe world they create. For the sake of an economy we are willing to destroy our security and cover it up with an illusion of security. For the sake of the economy we are willing to kill others.
That has probably always been the case. However, let’s get rid of the illusion and call a spade a spade.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Hypocritical Oath

On Friday night, Channel 7 broadcast a film called Inherit the Wind. Not the 1960 version with Spencer Tracy, but rather the 1999 TV version with Jack Lemmon. Regardless of the version, the film is about the prosecution that took place in 1925 USA against a teacher that dared to teach evolution in his classroom. As a result of this trial evolution was removed from the curriculum for many decades, and as we all know evolution is still very much under prosecution from various guises of creationists.
I have recorded the Channel 7 broadcast but found that I have to seek the film through some other venue because, Channel 7 being Channel 7, the film started more than half an hour past its due time so our recording did not have an ending. Regardless of that intriguing development, what captured my attention the most with regards to Inherent the Wind was its film review, published on Thursday The Age's Green [TV] Guide.
I will quote the exact words of reviewer Scott Murray: "The [Darwinists] believe with absolute certainty in the veracity of the Big Bang Theory and the evolution of of species, even though history has shown scientific theories to have the permanence of sand on a stormy beach."
Rarely am I to encounter such a hypocritical representation of science. The ignorance on display here is so bad it is as if Murray is doing his best to proclaim his idiocy to the wide world; I mean, it's one thing to be ignorant, but it's a completely different thing to boast one's ignorance.
So yes, I do want to say a few things to Murray.

First, it is obvious that Murray does not really know what Darwinism is. Darwinism, or in other words evolution through natural selection, says that if you have yourself a replicator and a mechanism to insert copying errors to the replication process, you will have yourself an evolutionary process. Give that replicator a few billion years and wonderful things could happen, things like you and I.
Nothing, however, directly links evolution through natural selection with the Big Bang Theory. Evolution could have happened whether the world had always been there, whether the world was created some 14 billion years ago through some Big Bang, whether some combination of the two took place (the world had been there for a while, but some 14 billion years ago it went through a massive expansion process), or whether you're conducting an experiment in a Petri dish.
What I'm trying to say is that both Darwinism and the Big Bang Theory are interesting theories, but to link the two up in the context Murray was linking them is completely irrelevant.

Second, as evidence goes, Darwinism has so much evidence in its favor its coming out of its ass. Fossil records, DNA, the convoluted design features we all carry which no intelligent designer would have dared use, and much much more - as scientific theories go, Darwinism is one of the more solid theories. It's actually the Big Bang that stands on much lesser grounds, but it doesn't really matter: both are the best theories at our disposal at the moment if we want to answer some very basic questions about this world of ours, and thus both deserve to be taught.
The minute better theories are found then by all means, teach the new theories; but what would you have till then? Would you prefer raising your hands and giving up, letting ignorance prevail, just because you can never be 100% sure your current theory is 100% correct? The scientific method has self correcting mechanisms to deal with exactly that; but we won't get anywhere with the Murray approach.

Third, regarding the specific claim that all scientific theories have an inherently short lifespan:
Is Murray really suggesting that the Germ Theory has the potential to be incorrect? Is there any chance we will wake up tomorrow to find that it's not bacteria and viruses that render us sick so frequently?
Or is Murray suggesting that the world may not be round and that the earth doesn't orbit the sun? After all, a bare few of us have seen the earth from space with their own eyes to make sure that theory is correct. Therefore, according to Murray, we may find earth being round et all is just a short living theory that will be dispelled in a week or two.
In general, Murray seems to be completely ignorant of what the term "scientific theory" represents. A scientific theory is not something that someone thought of while having a bath and told a friend at the office while having a laugh; it is line of arguments supported by many experimental results and a thick body of peer reviewed papers published in notable publications so that other can counter them, yet no one did so successfully thus far.
The question to be asked is why do people pick on Darwinism in particular and not on other theories, such as Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Relativity actually did prove Newton's theory wrong, but only in the sense that it made Newton a private case for slow speeds compared to light speed. Yet while Relativity explains unimaginable phenomena such as gravity waves, it is widely acknowledged that Relativity is wrong: it is unable to explain what takes place at the quantum level. No one in his right mind, Murray included, would suggest we dump relativity out the window because of that; it still provides the best explanation we can muster for lots of things.
Darwinism is still being fine tuned with arguments as to whether it takes place at the gene level, the individual level, or the species level; yet unlike Relativity, Darwinism is not a theory that is in any doubt. The only reason people attack Darwinism is that some people find its explanation to be unflattering to their sense of self, that's all. The Marray falling for that is just an ignorant Murray.

There is more to Murray's words than pure ignorance. There is a lot of hypocracy there, too.
I would love to see Murray repeat his words against science while he's flying. At flight, some 10 kilometers above the earth in a flimsy metalic shell, the only thing that keeps Murray alive is science and its incredible discoveries.
For Murray's sake, I hope he doesn't discover the theories that keep him alive and drive him safely to his destination to have the permanence of sand on a stormy beach. I am not worried that is the case, though; clearly, Murray is completely ignorant in the ways of science.
The question of why a major newspaper allows itself to display such ignorance on its behalf is a rather worrying one, though.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Have a Nice Day

It happened to me several times already.
You listen the news, and then you hear them say "American president" and you think to yourself, "no, not that idiot again".
But then they say "American president Obama". And you smile and notice how the sun is shining and what a lovely day it is outside.

With that in mind, I have to say that although I hate ads and although I hardly get to watch them (simply because we hardly get to watch commercial TV), I do have a liking for this one:

Have a nice day? Yes we can!

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Dr Jekyll and Mr Dylan

Over the last few nights we have had the pleasure of encountering a new type of Dylan. The screaming type.
Take last night, for example: waking up at 1:30 (a very AM 1:30), we have had ourselves the pleasure of listening to Dylan scream his guts off up until he exhausted himself to sleep on our bed at around 4:30. When I say scream I mean it; this weren't the usual cries of a baby under pain (and Dylan is, indeed, sick). Instead, it was the shouting of a baby wanting his way.
Yes, we've landed on the age of the tantrum. Thing is, the time of night being the way it was even Dylan didn't know what his tantrum objectives were. No matter what we did and what we tried he just kept on shouting (with a couple of slight breaks, such as when I switched the radio on and offered him some competition for his noise).
What do you do in these situations? Well, who knows. Thing is, I would be lying if I was to deny that amongst the thoughts passing through my head was the idea of strangling. No, I don't think I should be arrested tomorrow and no, I don't think there is any danger of Dylan suffering any sort of abuse; I fully recognize that this is a part of a struggle where the baby tries to secure as many parenting resources as possible and I am fully in control of myself. I also fully recognize Dylan is not someone we can reason with yet.
All of which does not mean that when he behaves this way he is not a major pain.
I just hope this will not turn into a habit. I hope it stops when Dylan recovers, otherwise we will be total wrecks within less than a week.

So what am I trying to say here? Not much more than demonstrating yet again that parenting is a pain, a task where the cost/benefit analysis clearly shows the parent in the red.
At the risk of repeating myself, I warn you all to be very skeptic of those who blabber on how rewarding the rearing of children is. Liars the lot of them, a bunch of people that live in denial and do their best to convince themselves of some delusion.

Monday, 16 February 2009

God's Barbecue

With Australia in general and Victoria in particular hit by their worst natural disaster in recorded history, I find it quite interesting to have a look at people’s reactions to the bushfires. In particular, given my own views, I find it interesting to read what those with a religious worldview make of these events.
Barney Zwartz, The Age’s editor on religious affairs and a person who appears to be a mainstream Christian with much faith in his veins, has summed most of the bushfires’ religion related arguments in an article entitled “Failing to understand the nature of an understanding God”. I would like to use this opportunity to assess the various arguments discussed by Zwartz for their quality, using the same criteria used to assess scientific papers. While those criteria might sound too harsh and too hard to grasp, I can assure you that is not the case; in my opinion, they can be summed up under the banner of “would you buy a used car based on these arguments” set of criteria. For argument's sake, I will accept the assumption of a god with Christian orientations (an assumption most of this world's population would beg to differ with).

Zwartz starts off with criticizing Danny Nalliah, the leader of a fundamentalist Christian group called Catch the Fire. Nalliah claims the fires that hit Victoria, killed two hundred plus, left many more homeless, and in general did several billion dollars worth of damage are the direct result of god’s disappointment with the State of Victoria recent relaxation of its anti abortion legislation. Basically, Nalliah is arguing we have a cause – pro abortion legislation – resulting in an effect – a deadly fire.
I will not say a word about the ethics leading someone to come up with a supposition such as this. What I will say is that the trick with Nalliah’s argument is the rather vague link between the cause and the effect, which Nalliah explains through a dream he’s had. Essentially, Nalliah’s is an argument from revelation, and revelations tend to contradict one another. I’ll explain through an example: I am deeply worried about global warming, its effects, and us not doing anything about it; Let's say that I knocked on your door and told you of my revelation suggesting the deadly fires are god’s punishment for us not doing anything about global warming. Hey, I have just enough evidence on my side as Nalliah does; probably even more, given that under my revelation there is an actual connection between warming and fires. Now, I didn’t really dream this revelation of mine, but I am worried about it night and day!
There is another problem with Nalliah’s argument that is to do with cause and effect. Nalliah seems to have completely ignored the cause for Victoria’s relaxation of its abortion rules: Victorians wouldn’t have relaxed the abortion rules if it wasn’t for god designing them to do so in the first place; god is the reason why Victorians made the choice they have made. Even if you argue that god designed people to have free will, surely you have to admit that god has a strong overall effect on the choices people make. He designs everything around them, what choice do they have?
Given god was in control all along, what reason does god have to punish the people? Nalliah’s failure to distinguish cause from effect nullifies his argument.

Moving down Zwartz’ article, we get to the opinion of Gregor Henderson, the president of the Uniting Church of Australia, a mainstream Christian organization. Henderson says what most people have grown to expect to hear from religious leaders: “God is not punishing the people of Victoria... God is, in fact, there with the people”. I find a couple of problems with Henderson’s words. In fact, they are the exact same problems as before.
First, Henderson’s argument is entirely unverifiable: although what he says is much more comforting and easier to listen to than what Nalliah says, there is absolutely no way for us to verify if what he is saying is true; Henderson is arguing purely from authority.
Second, Henderson’s shares the same cause and effect confusion problem with Nalliah. The same god that is now with the people is the god that caused the fires in the first place, so how can anyone argue that god is not punishing the people of Victoria? As comforting as I find Henderson’s words to be, I actually think Henderson’s god is a worse god than Nalliah’s. With Nalliah you can arrange for a checklist of rules to follow and know that if you do follow them all you should be fine, which is more than a bit of a comfort; the rules might annoy you, but they take all uncertainty away. Henderson’s god, on the other hand, is a god of whims: one minute he bleeds you, the next minute he’s with you (in spirit alone, though); isn’t it just great to know that you can’t even rely on god?

By failing to explain why atrocities happen to those who think themselves good Henderson manages to put religion in the corner. Zwartz jumps in to fill the gap with his own argument: “At a time like this, the role of religion is not explanation; it is consolation.”
What Zwartz is doing is arguing for a special plea in favor of religion. Those who assume there is a compassionate god out there have a problem when bad things happen, so because they cannot explain the problem away they ask us to ignore it altogether on the grounds that while religion may not provide an explanation it does provide comfort.
Indeed, Zwartz concludes his argument by saying “I also know that such thoughts [of religion] have provided comfort through millennia of suffering”. Here, again, we have ourselves an argument that looks at the favorable aspects but ignores the negative ones. It counts the hits but ignores the misses: The very same comfort religion has brought humanity through millennia of suffering was used to justify slavery, the supposed inferiority of women, and to explain to the poor masses why they need to do what their rulers tell them to do regardless of the nasty consequences those orders bring.

In conclusion, it is obvious that none of the arguments brought forth by religion cut the mustard. They all depend on blind faith to support their lack of rationality, but as the various points of view within religion itself prove, there can be many contradictions within faith itself.
I would much rather see a world in which people hit by events such as Victoria’s bushfires start asking questions. If religion doesn’t deliver, if you can’t trust the god that is with you to treat you well, then what good is this god? Forget about him, open your eyes and make sure you do your best to improve this world you’re in.

Another article published in The Age by Kenneth Davidson demonstrates the kind of approach I would like to see. Davidson, with eyes wide open and through a measurable comparison with historical events, argues that Melbourne’s water supplies are now under a severe threat: Even slight rains might wash the fire’s residues as well as the chemicals used to fight it into Melbourne’s water supplies. Unless something is done soon, Melbourne might be forced to take extremely drastic actions to secure drinking water.
So where are our leaders in this time of crisis and what are they doing to address this clear and present danger? Not even a dismissal is coming through; there’s nothing but radio silence coming from their direction.
But hey, yesterday our Prime Minister and the Governor General were in church, attending mass. It’s good to know we’re in safe, reliable hands.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Self Feeding Unit

Witness the future: a self feeding Dylan. Next thing you know, he won't need us anymore and we'll be cast out of our own house, seeking shelter.
On a more serious note, Dylan has been to childcare for one day and already managed to come back home with a cold and some nice infection of his airways. It's back to the doctor's tomorrow, but I hope this time around this will be as far as it gets.
In the mean time, enjoy Rasputin and Dylan.

Friday, 13 February 2009

Still Life in Color

One thing where human beings seem to be different to the rest of the animal world is in the way we cherish our memories. Perhaps it is so because we have the means to preserve them that I get this impression, but regardless of that most people would pick on their collection of photos as one of the first things they would rescue in case of a fire after all living residents have been secured. The rest of our house’s contents can be reacquired (especially if we’re insured), but the memories can’t.

It was this line of thinking that got us to buy an inkjet printer capable of doing a fine job with photos some five years ago. Digital photo prints were expensive at the time, at between 60 to 90 cents for your normal 10 by 15 photo, so we were certainly going for the appeal of the ability to do so at home under our own terms, with added flexibility and much better quality control.
Things have changed as the years went by, though. First, the digital revolution didn’t stop with us converting from film based cameras to digital ones; we also moved from a primarily paper based archiving process to a digital one. We mostly view our photos on the computer screen, which gives us added bonuses such as the ability to easily arrange slideshows and such. And more importantly, we store our photos and manage them online, which means we can easily retrieve any photo of ours (and I'm talking about picking one of of tens of thousands) from any internet connected facility and watch them on any screen. We don’t even need to rush for them if our house burns down, because they’re stored somewhere in Yahoo’s data centers.
Second, digital printouts became cheaper while inkjet printing hasn’t. Nowadays, you can get a 10*15 photo printed for between 10 to 20 cents, and even an A3 printout costs less than a Mars bar.
And third, we have found that maintaining an inkjet printer is not without its hassles. As we don’t print that frequently, by the time we do decide to print we need to clean our inks first; this cleaning process uses up a lot of ink, so we have to replace them inks quite often or settle with poor quality printouts. We usually settle on the settling, just because we’re too lazy, but also because by now most of our printing is of work related documents. That and us not willing to go shopping for new inks every second month.
The wheels have spun. A solution to replace our inkjet was required.

Such a solution has been available for a while now. It is called the color laser printer, and lately some products aimed directly at home users such as us have been made available, mostly by Samsung and HP.
We ended up with the Samsung CLP-310, the smallest color laser printer currently available, which we bought for $170. Yes, a color laser printer can be bought for such a price, and it comes with enough ink to manage some thousand pages or so!
One thing has to be made clear in advance: this new color laser cannot compete with our old inkjet when it comes to printing photos. It doesn’t have the quality, and it is unable to print on the glossy paper that gives that higher contrast feeling (I prefer mat paper myself).
On the other hand, where the laser shines is in documents. Text is so much easier to read off a laser printer than an inkjet, where there is always some diffusion. Sure, our printer of choice is not the best laser ever, but it’s still much better than an inkjet. Coupled with the ease of use and high usability, I think we’ve found ourselves a winner.

Naturally, you cannot have a new computer related gadget and expect it to work right away.
Installing the printer for Windows was a cinch. The story was different with Linux Ubuntu; indeed, connecting equipment has always been the dread of Linux given its lack of support.
Thing is, our printer actually comes with an Ubuntu driver; it’s just that when I tried to install it I got this nice error message telling me I have to be a root user to run this software. That was a bit of a problem, as I am the only user on my PC that I know of (Jo uses my user account). Go figure!
So instead I let Ubuntu pick a driver from the web. It managed to find something for the Samsung CLP-315 (mine is the CLP-310); I gave it a try and it worked. Go figure!
[Actually, by the time this is posted, I did figure things out; to apply for root privileges in Linux, one needs to use the Sudo command. Once I did, things worked well. I'm actually quite proud of Samsung supporting Linux so well; I doubt other manufacturers do so]

As I hate to badmouth Linux, here’s an opposite story. With the printer I also got a one terabyte (1tb, which is one thousand gigabytes) external hard drive (Western Digital, $170). Now, Linux can handle any hard drive you throw down at it and in any format, but Windows is limited; so I had to suffer a very long wait last night as Windows formatted the new drive according to its way too specific and inefficient requirements.
Oh, and if you think that you can count on Windows actually releasing the drive when you ask it to, so you can actually use it in other environments, think again; it only does so when it feels like it. It's as if there's a demon there, taunting you.

In conclusion:
I remember how, exactly ten years ago, while working at an Israeli airline, we had to get an approval from the USA government to deploy a mainframe utilizing these huge cabinets that offered one terabyte of storage. They were deemed too technologically advanced to be given away for anyone to use. Now I get the same capabilities through a small can on my desk.
I find it all amazingly wonderful. And now that you’re aware of it, you can find an amazingly affordable color laser printer that suits you, too!

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Water Man

Still too preoccupied to properly blog about much more than a movie review, I'll settle with posting a couple of Dylan videos.
In the first one he's playing in our backyard with the water/sand table his grandmother bought him. It's all full of Wiggles branding, which is rather scary, but we hope he won't be able to detect the not so well camouflaged attempt to get him hooked on consumption from the age of zero and a bit. He also got himself this nifty water tower which has lots of sophisticated wheels and stuff but seem to have this tiny bit of plastic on the side that doesn't do much but attracts Dylan's attention the most.

Following the water play, we went out for an early dinner at an Indian restaurant in order to commemorate Isobel last night with us before she flies home to the UK. The food was great, and as you can see Dylan likes his butter chicken.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Feeling the Heat

I haven't been posting much on this blog lately. At first it was because Dylan was sick and I was sick and we were having our hospital adventure, but now it's because muse is lacking. Sure, I have things to blog about, but it feels like a bit of an anti-climax to discuss the rather mundane things I have to say compared to what we went through over the last fortnight.
For the record, over the last week Dylan has been recovering quite well. With his grandmother around he's been getting some extra attention and he has found himself the perfect partner for his outdoor water games. It took him a couple of days at home till he started walking, and more importantly, over the last three days or so you could see he is back to being his usual happy self.
We did have to contend with the heat, though. Yesterday's was Melbourne's hottest day ever on record at more than 47 degrees (and records have been kept for the last 150 years). We spent most of the day at home with the blinds closed and all electric goods shut (both to preserve them and to reduce generated heat).
To compensate, we drove today to Torquay, where after a nice lunch we've had ourselves a walk by the beach. Being that it's Torquay, a surfer's beach, it was quite windy, as the video below indicates.

Back to the heat.
Not everyone fared as well as we did with the heat. As per tonight's news, the devastating hot wind that came with the heat wave has taken some 66 lives thus far in fires all over Victoria, with many more expected to be added to the tally and many more injured.
As expected given the atrocity, we have had the pleasure of listening to politicians talking the talk in response. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was heard over the radio saying that "Hell and all its fury has visited the good people of Victoria"; I beg to differ.
I haven't checked the fires in person, but I'm pretty sure there was nothing supernatural about them. What I am sure about, though, is that this person who is now turning to some supernatural hell to explain the events that took place is the same person that is happy to sell Australians short by setting a target of a measly five percent for carbon emission reductions, the same carbon emissions that are responsible for global warming, the same global warming that is responsible for Melbourne's record heat. The real culprit, Mr Rudd, is not hell; it is you and the long line of leaders that stood before you who refused to acknowledged reality and are still hell bent on us utilizing our god given right to burn coal.
Another interesting point is that Rudd volunteered the Australian army to help people out. That's great, but let me ask you this: If Australia doesn't have much in the way of enemies, and if most of what our army does is civilian rescue missions, then why do we spend god knows how many billion dollars a year on a defense force when we can get a much better bang for our money by establishing a top notch rescue force?
All I'm trying to say is that we are led by the nose by so called leaders with such narrow vision and such selfish agendas that we seem to be getting our votes' worth. Wake up, public, and establish the awareness you were numbed out of: you're being messed around with!