Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Beat the Expert

There can be no helping the matter: In today’s complex world we have to rely on experts’ advice. One person can no longer have the capacity to be knowledgeable enough to make reliable decisions on all matters requiring his/her attention.
I can bring a multitude of examples to demonstrate this point with. The one currently most relevant to us as we are planning our home extension project is the use of building materials. Namely, what should our house’s new features be made of in order to achieve cost effective sound and thermal insulation while creating an environment that is nice to live in? While we need to make our own minds about what cost effectiveness means to us, we have to rely on external experts for constructive advice (pun intended); and since we are pretty ignorant in these matters we seem to be struggling to identify and acquire the services of the reliable experts whose advice we need.

There is another type of a problem to do with expert advice. What should one do if one receives contradicting expert advice? That's a good question we have found ourselves facing a week ago.
Dylan was sick with another outbreak of asthma. We seemed to have a pattern on our hands: he catches a cold, usually a very mild one, but that cold turns into asthma a few days later. Dylan’s regular doctor has said that if this pattern is detected then Dylan should be issued with preventer inhaler for him to puff on whenever he is prone for another asthma attack. On the down side, the regular use of steroids such as those in the preventer has been identified to reduce growth: according to the doctor, users of preventers tend to be one centimeter shorter than non users. Not much, but I wouldn’t want to be one centimeter short on brain capacity myself. Still, by our book the four consecutive colds turning into asthma were pattern enough to ask about this preventer while visiting the doctor.
Being that the visit took place on a weekend and being that the clinic we visit is pretty busy, we weren’t able to see Dylan’s regular doctor. Instead we got to see a doctor we haven’t seen before. That doctor turned out to be a bit of a weirdo:
First, he wouldn’t refer to Dylan’s illness as asthma; by his book, Dylan was battling bronchitis. This outlook is in contradiction to what we have been told both at the hospital and by the previous doctors: according to them, the current attitude is to relate to lung infections that seem to respond to Ventolin in babies older than one year as asthma.
Second, when we asked him about the preventer, he completely dismissed it as altogether ineffective with babies.
And third, when asked the unrelated question of whether we should vaccinate Dylan against flu, his reply was that as far as he knows children that young do not get vaccinated for flu. This contradicts research published in Scientific American that shows flu is mostly distributed through childcare facilities (and then passed on to older relatives), so much so that it claims flu would be effectively gone from the USA if all childcare attendees would be immunized. The case for vaccinating babies is so clear that American medical authorities are now recommending vaccinating all kids over six month old against flu. But out doctor did not only contradict American researchers, he also contradicted his own clinic partners and the hospital doctors who informed us it is recommended babies and kids with asthma get vaccinated against flu in order to prevent obvious complications.
When combining the above three observations it seemed to us as if we were dealing with an old style doctor here. Question is, what should we do? Should we listen to this expert or his predecessors? It’s not just the question of whose advice to follow: We have been known to visit medical authorities (e.g., a hearing tester) that asked about our handling of Dylan’s medical problems and then looked at us as if we’ve committed mass murder when, in fact, we followed what our doctors told us.
Experts, it seems, come in every color. It’s up to us to choose the color we prefer, but then again in order to do so we need to become some sort of an expert ourselves, which defeats the purpose.

So, what can we do about it?
One problem that was suggested to us with regards to addressing Dylan’s problem was to visit a paediatrician. However, I do not think this would solve our problems; it would mean that instead of hearing contradictory advice we will hear just one, but we will be unable to know whether the advice we receive is indeed right. There is an advantage to being able to access several experts, because one can learn things from the uncertainty of their advice. Then there are the issues with the paediatrician’s availability to see Dylan on a short notice, as in when Dylan falls sick.
It is therefore my opinion that the best course of action is to embrace the opportunity to become semi experts and make a conscious effort to achieve that. Using the web to access reliable sources, such as the aforementioned Scientific American, is a good start.
In general, taking the time to sort the wheat from the chaff seems to be the best course of action. And for that one has to keep an open mind while also maintaining an aroma of skepticism and applying critical analysis: expert advice should be welcomed as well as challenged, and experts that have been proven to have the wrong approach should be ignored.
In short, we need to apply the scientific method on our choice of experts.

Monday, 30 March 2009

Opposites Attract

A strange phenomenon contradicting all of our experience thus far took place last week.
As of the preceding weekend, Dylan has had a minor cold which became a pain when it triggered his asthma. More on these adventures in the post to follow; the point, for now, is that we have had to miss work for most of the week in order to stay home with Dylan. And let me say this again: Work is a holiday compared to staying home with Dylan, especially a sick Dylan (although by now there are many nice moments to be had with Dylan, such as when reading him a story).
By Thursday night Dylan seemed a 50-50 case for childcare the next day. On one hand he was still troubled, on the other he was lively and obviously too bored with home. Given work pressures we took him to childcare, and lo and behold: he came back home better for it.
It's probably the fresh air, but credit has to be given to the fact that by now Dylna actually likes going to childcare and is looking forward to playing with his childcare friends ("Josh! Josh!").
Childcare still has a lot of debt to pay in the making Dylan sick vs. making him healthy department, and I'm sure that over time the deficit will only grow and grow (especially with Winter in the air); yet it is interesting to observe that for a roughly year and half old, childcare becomes a place where pleasure can be found.

Friday, 27 March 2009

All Bad Things Come to an End

Late last week the new Battlestar Galactica TV series had come to an end. An event of such likes is fairly uncommon and therefore merits a mention: A TV series at the height of its popularity comes to a conclusive, designed and crafted end. Sure enough, this ending leaves ample opportunities for sequels to come if someone's wallet feels a bit too empty; but the point is that they left things off with a relatively satisfying solution.
I say relatively because, in general, I think this Battlestar Galactica series is a good example of a TV series with a promising agenda that nurtured high hopes and which slowly but surely went to the dogs. All the soap opera bullshit developing as the series was stretched with mysticism and the idea there are greater forces at work than rationalism can explain have made me puke. Even as the ending left way too many questions unanswered and provided such feeble explanations to others, I was glad I'm over this frucking TV series.
Yet Galactica is just a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. The real problem is that TV in general is not an entertainment media but a cash making media, and a TV series is viewed as a tool to make people stay and watch the commercials. In order to ensure people do stay we are swamped with material that is not meant to be particularly good or enlightening, just material that is addictive enough for us to come back again next week.

I was thinking of the above in relation to an ongoing dispute raging over the Green Guide's letters pages. For the record, The Green Guide is The Age's weekly TV guide; and for the record, The Age is the second most popular newspaper in Melbourne and probably the only Melbourne based daily newspaper that won't insult your intelligence [much].
The debate at hand is whether the ABC, the Australian Government run TV channel, should stick to its policy of airing British material almost exclusively to partner its Australian made productions or whether the channel should open itself to foreign material sourced elsewhere; say, the USA, a country that has been known to generate TV material here and there.
On one extreme there are the protectors of anything British, who probably still have a portrait of the queen hung up their living room walls, who say that the ABC should continue with what it has been doing and that all American TV stuff is crap. They are aided, of course, by such phenomena as the one exemplified through Battlestar Galactica above. I can sort of understand where they're coming from: once the dam breaks, who knows where the flood will take us; however, there is also the hidden assumption there than anything British is good, which is obviously not the case (just watch some ABC for proof).
On the other hand there are those who claim there is some good coming out of USA, commercialism or not, and that even the commercially oriented stuff is there because the people want it; if they want it, they should get it. This extreme tends to be populated by free market advocates, who probably wouldn't mind seeing the ABC go off the taxpayer's books.
My view? My view is that it is very stupid to say all American stuff is crap; like everything else, the quality of American TV moves along some sort of a continuum. Granted, this continuum's average is pretty low and most of its output is unsuitable for a non-commercial station that actually prides itself of its quality (and with some good reasons too). But by disqualifying it altogether one also eliminates the chances of material such as Ken Burns' The War, a very high quality documentary about World War II, from being offered to Australians. Then there's Seinfeld, if you were after lighter material. Worse, by disqualifying American TV you would also deprive Australia from watching the PBS production that is still very much the winner of my vote for best TV ever, Carl Sagan's Cosmos.
The point I'm trying to make is simple. We shouldn't let the likes of Galactica ruin it for us; someone at the ABC should have the skills to tell good stuff from crap so that we can enjoy good quality foreign stuff on ABC, be it British, American or Swedish.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Pita with Humus

One of the pleasures moving to Australia has deprived me of is easy access to good humus and good pitas to rub the humus with. It sounds ridiculous that in a whole continent one cannot find such simple dishes, but the reality is that good pitas are extremely hard to find - what normally passes here for a pita is too thin to even come close to conforming with the ISO Moshe standard for pitas - and good humus that doesn't taste like an army combat ration does not exist at all.
Sometimes one has to work hard for life's simpler pleasures, so the obvious solution to the above problem is to do my own humus. And sometimes I do so; today was such a case, and to honor the occasion I have decided to document it.

How to make your own good humus:

It's easy, really. Just mix the following ingredients in a blender:
  1. The contents of 2 standard cans of chickpeas (roughly 400cm^3 each), drained.
  2. Half a cup of thina paste (here they refer to it as tahini). We buy our paste from a Lebanese shop.
  3. A quarter of a cup of the sesame oil from the top of the thina paste's can.
  4. The juice of 1 fresh lemon. Make sure seeds are not included, as they would render your humus bitter (speaks the voice of experience).
  5. 1 tablespoon of cumin.
  6. A bit of salt.
  7. A bit of pepper.
  8. 1 tablespoon of oil.
  9. One third of a cup of water. As you blend you may add a bit more water to acquire the desired level of density for your humus paste.
Now, everyone knows that in order to truly enjoy your humus you need to have some Harif mixed with it (Harif being the professional term to describe a hot, as in spicy, sauce).
One of the better types of Harif around is schug, popular with Yemenite circles. So here goes:

How to make your own schug Harif:
It's easy, really. Just mix the following ingredients in a blender:
  1. 1 bunch of fresh coriander.
  2. 8 cloves of garlic.
  3. 1 teaspoon of salt.
  4. 150-200 grams of chillies, either red or green, seeds included. It's probably better to stick to either red or green to achieve a more uniform look for the resulting paste, color wise.
  5. One quarter of a tablespoon of pepper.
  6. 2 tablespoons of cumin.
  7. Half a teaspoon of cardamon (known in Hebrew as "hell").
The resulting paste is very dry. I put it in a jar and fill it up with olive oil, which also helps for preservation. Do be careful with the mix, though: as the ingredients indicate, we're talking explosives grade material here.


Now that you have your humus and Harif ready, portion yourself some of the humus and drop a tiny bit of schug. Mix and enjoy; the result is best eaten by rubbing against a pita.

Sunday, 22 March 2009

Eee Remixed

Readers of this blog will know that I consider my Asus Eee PC 701 netbook to be one of my better purchases. Although quite a weakling as far as computers go it offers excellent mobility and acts as a good second computer when you need one. Add the fact it's running Linux to the equation and you get a PC that is very secure and offers lightning fast reactions when booting up and surfing the internet; you just can't ask for anything more. Sure, the 701 uses old Intel Celeron CPUs (the newer netbooks use the much quicker Intel Atoms), but with Linux at the helm it's fast enough for what a netbook is supposed to be doing in the first place.
Thing is, all was not well in paradise. You see, the Xandros Linux distribution used on the Eee PC was not being actively supported: security updates to the operating system and to its packaged software, most notably the Firefox web browser, have effectively stopped arriving almost a year ago. Continuing to use the netbook has turned out to be dangerous.
Hope was not lost, though: Ubuntu offers a Linux distribution that is well supported, with updates pushed at the user, and is also much better than Xandros. The trade-off, though, is that Ubuntu was not designed for the Eee PC 701's meager capabilities; although not as demanding as Windows, it is certainly no walk in the park for the 701. The [partial] answer comes in the shape of Ubuntu Netbook Remix, UNR, which is supposed to be somewhat lighter (but not much; it's designed with the Intel Atom in mind). More to the point, it is designed to be more netbook oriented in the sense that it caters for netbooks' lower resolution and smaller screens by offering an interface that is simple and easy to operate (check the attached screenshot).
So I've decided to go for it and install UNR on my Eee PC.

Question was, how?
It's not like I'm a Linux master that knows how to deal with these things, and it's not like Ubuntu fits the 701 like a glove. Lucky for me, the Linux community tends to be open and helpful, and there are plenty of accessible resources out there on the web that tell you how to do these things.
To start with, you need to install Ubuntu (the regular version) on the Eee PC. Explanations that tell you how to do so can be found here. I used a USB stick for the installation and within something like half an hour I've had a plain vanilla Ubuntu Intrepid Ibex working.
Thing is, that was when problems started. It's the usual Linux plague: devices and such are not recognized and special measures have to be taken for drivers and such to be located. [For the record, Windows Vista is just as problematic in this regard, and Widows XP only manages to get away with it because most manufacturers designed their hardware with XP in mind]
The first problem was getting the wireless to work. That was sorted using the explanations here. However, silly me has sorted wireless first and only then downloaded all the system updates that came out since Intrepid Ibex was first released, which overrode my fixes; I had to redo them. I therefore recommend doing all the system updates first before setting your mind on solving any of the other problems. Those same system updates also solved other minor problems, such as shutdown orders not really shutting the Eee PC down.
Next on the agenda was sorting the microphone and audio in general in order to be able to use Skype for video calling. That took some trying, but eventually I've stumbled on the very detailed solution here that took me home cruising.
Screen size was still a problem, and many Ubuntu windows were just too big to fit the screen. The advice on un-constraining windows to the top of the screen found here did the job.
With Ubuntu working well the time came to perform the changes necessary to turn out-of-the-box Ubuntu into UNR. I have found the following explanation here to be the best for the job; it was written with a Dell netbook in mind, but it worked on my Eee PC (as well as on a Lenovo netbook, judging by user feedback). It should work on any PC running Ubuntu as it is not hardware specific.

So, now that I have the Ubuntu Netbook Remix installed in my archaic Eee PC 701, what do I make of it?
Well, it's not the greatest thing ever. UNR is not an operating system on its own, it's just a nice facade that fits over Ubuntu, and often enough you find yourself in some limbo between the two. However, Ubuntu's user interface is highly customizable, and one can make what one wants to make out of it easily enough. It's fairly easy to find a formula to suit you.
Most importantly, UNR makes the most of the limited screen real estate a netbook offers, and Ubuntu is probably the best supported operating system on the planet. Ubuntu is also the most secure operating system you can run at home, and that's not something to be trifled with.
On the not so positive side, my Eee PC's Celeron does struggle with Ubuntu; it's either idle or on 100%; yet it is very much usable. That would not be the case if I was to have a go at Windows XP (where, once you add the necessary anti-viruses and firewalls there will be no room for anything else) or Windows Vista (which demands much more than what even the newest netbooks are capable of). And let's not forget that this entire UNR operation of mine is perfectly legal and didn't cost me a cent. Try that with Microsoft!
Overall, I am happy with the transition. And I'm very proud of being able to manage it on my own (sort of).

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Vanilla Ice Ice Baby

Dylan was asking for ice cream as his post dinner dessert, and we couldn't resist documenting the occasion. A rap star on the rise:

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Freedom to Choose

We all keep on bragging on how much we value freedom and how important freedom is. Yet, when tested, we seem to deprive the people we love the most of some basic freedoms they should be perfectly entitled to.

I got to think about this after our last doctor's visit with Dylan several weeks ago. The doctor we met is a Liverpool supporter, which means that he and I have a lot to talk about; mainly, I tease him about Liverpool not being good enough to win the title and how their most hated rival (Manchester United) is about to beat them again, and he teases me back in return about Arsenal's awful year. We both feel better for it.
This time around he asked me whether I already got Dylan an Arsenal kit. When I answered, saying Dylan is yet to choose his team, he looked back at me and laughed.

Yet why should he laugh? Why should Dylan be forced to support the team I support for no reason other than me choosing it years ago?
I am unable to come up with a good reason why. I can, however, easily come up with good reasons for why Dylan should not automatically follow me: my choice was made for some very stupid reasons (Arsenal's red colors); but maybe Dylan prefers blue?
Obviously, given that I tend to watch more Arsenal football matches than any other team's, Dylan would be more exposed to Arsenal and is therefore more likely to choose it as his team. That, however, still does not mean I should force Arsenal on him; for a start, most people I know choose the team that was the most dominant one during their childhood years (as did the above mentioned doctor during Liverpool's glory days of the early eighties). Maybe Dylan would prefer to follow this approach over his Arsenal exposure?

In the grand scheme of things the choice of a football team does not matter much. However, just as most of us seem to take it for granted that their children should support their own teams, so do most of us take it for granted that our children should follow our religion. A Christian baby is declared as such long before it is able to understand even the very basic concepts of the system of values that had been forced on it, and a Jewish baby gets circumcised long before he realized he was even born.
Yet we do it without thinking twice. We deprive our own children from making choices of utmost personal effect and we mutilate their bodies without thinking twice.
Freedom to choose? What a joke.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Train in Vain

In a moment of inspiration I wrote the following letter to The Age. I doubt they would publish it, as it's too arbitrary, so here goes:

One simply cannot argue that Connex has performed well over the last quarter. During December its service was poor enough for the State Government to offer us a free ride day; over January and February it failed its basic KPIs; and at least according to my personal experience, March isn’t shaping up for a stellar performance either.
Arguments for leniency may be raised on the grounds of extreme weather. Surely, though, one cannot hang a quarter’s performance on four days of extreme weather. Surely, one can see service levels have been poor under extreme heat as well as in the rain. Surely, the last quarter is also evidence enough for the poor service received by the voting public on nice and mild days, too.
Surely one has to ask what more would it take for things to change. One has to wonder what it is that is keeping Connex running our trains. Surely, given performance records, one has to be quite bewildered as to why it is that the State Government still insists on maintaining the current private operator model of work while arguing we can leverage out of the operator’s international experience?

Sunday, 15 March 2009

Va Va Voom

One of the things they tell you to look for and to nourish with babies of Dylan's age is the ability to pretend play. Today, and for the first time as far as we can tell, Dylan was pretend playing with a toy car; not the way he plays with any other toy, but really pretending it's making car noises and going like a car. So we thought we'd capture the moment on video:

For the record, the Lightning McQueen car Dylan is playing with was a gift from his English grandparents. It should make them proud to see their grandson following on the steps of Thierry Henry...

Friday, 13 March 2009

Doctor's Orders

Do doctors have some out of this world divine quality I was unaware of? That is the question that stuck to my head after a family member of mine reported the latest medical adventures another family member of mine went through.
As events transpire, that second relative of mine has started suffering from severe eye issues. On they went to an eye doctor who gave them some drops. These didn't help, so on they went again to the same doctor who gave them another type of eye drops to try. These didn't help, so on they went again to the doctor who - hold your breath, please - gave them yet another type of eye drops to try. Surprisingly, these didn't work either.
Through some sort of coincidence the family has learnt they can see an eye specialist for a minimal cost using their private medical insurance; all the need is a referral from their existing eye doctor. So off my relative went to their regular eye doctor to claim their referral, which they got in a cinch. Then off they went to the specialist, who told them to stop applying any eye drops for a while to let the eye settle, and then go for a series of tests. At this point, they got annoyed with the first doctor: if the doctor didn't really know what to do, why couldn't he/she give my relative that referral earlier and out of his/her initiative?

Now, the value of critical analysis and healthy skepticism has been previously discussed in this blog. My point with this post is to demonstrate yet again how valuable such an approach is, and how important it is that we apply it regularly on anything and everything. It's really simple: Had my relative applied critical analysis, it should have been clear to them their doctor was playing a guessing game. Had my relative applied some skepticism and challenged their doctor, they wouldn't have had to wait for a coincidence to put the option of a specialist on the agenda.
Yet when I asked my relatives why the doctor was never really challenged I was told it is impossible; you do not mess with a doctor at work. This, in turn, got me to raise the question I have opened this post with, namely me pondering as to whether there is something of the divine in doctors that prevents us from challenging them?
According to the information available to me, doctors are people just like each and every one of us; they eat, they sleep, and they take the occasional dump. The difference is, they have studied and specialized in a certain area for a long time; but that's it, and to that argument I can say the same applies to me yet I have been known to make mistakes on a regular and very frequent basis. Just like me, doctors have a lot of things on their mind while at work, a lot of which has nothing to do with work; and unlike me, doctors see many patients on a typical day and are usually only able to devote a very small portion of their attention to each and every patient. In short, there are very good reasons to critically analyze a doctor's instructions. It's not only that the doctor's are imperfect, it's also to do with what is at stake here: one's health.
No, I am not saying that doctors should be disobeyed, nor am I saying one can always know better than them. However, I am saying that one should ask the doctor "why" from time to time to make sure they understand the rational behind a suggested treatment. I am also suggesting one cross references doctors' advice with other information, through the internet for example (with the added disclaimer that there is a lot of bullshit out there on the internet, especially with regards to medical advice; one has to use reliable sources and be carefully skeptical in general). I maintain that if my family had conformed to this simple analysis things would not have turned out the way they did.
Then again, one cannot say I am surprised. Critical analysis is a rare thing in my family and in society in general: just check how many families fail to install their baby car seat in the center of the back seat, the safest place in a car, for the sole reason of not even thinking up the possibility.
As I have said, critical analysis can save your life. Apply it.

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

The Premier's Challenge

Today I had to attend a work meeting at a place some few kilometers away from where I work but right next to a train station. For some reason or another I was stupid enough to think that getting there by a train would prove timely, easy and comfortable.

I started by looking on the web to see which train I should be taking and at what time in order to arrive to be punctual and avoid losing work time at the office. While the route maps are easily available, I found that time related advice was hard to acquire. Eventually I found what I was looking for on Connex' website in the form of PDF train timetables; a bit clumsy, as I would have preferred something that tells me where I need to go to and at what time instead of me having to work it out myself, but at least it works (these more sophisticated web facilities didn't).
I made my way to the train station and arrived five minutes ahead of the time suggested by the PDFs. The clock display on the outside of Flinders Street Station (Melbourne's main train station hub) said I should go to platform 3; however, upon stepping in to the station I was dumbfound to see that none of the three different trains that were supposed to take me to my destination around that time appeared on station's screens; instead, half of the platforms said "wait for announcements" and the rest were irrelevant.
I decided to take the safe option and went for the new posh looking information booth they opened at the center of the station. There, a nice lady told me I need to head to platform 6 and catch the 9:30 Blackburn train. Sounded promising, given the sophisticated display on her handheld PDA.
A minute later I was on platform 6 looking up its display. It said the next train was the 9:30 to Blackburn, so I took my book out, relaxed, and started reading. At 9:28 or so I noticed something at the corner of my eye: the display switched to describe the Pakenham 9:32 train, yet with small letters it said the next train to depart is the 9:30 Blackburn. Then a train arrived, and I assumed it was the 9:30 Blackburn: it was the earlier of the two, and the screen specifically said it was the next train to depart platform 6. Wrong! As the train was about to depart on 9:35, an audio announcement said it was the Pakenham train; together with several others, I jumped off just in time to avoid a major embarrassment.
My next stop was the information booth, where [again] I asked the same nice lady what was going on. She looked at her screen at admitted something was odd, but that didn't really comfort me. She then suggested I catch the next train from platform 3, which was due at 9:40 and which would have meant I would be late for my meeting. Beggars can't be choosers, so off I went.
Standing on platform 3, I couldn't help but notice another train was arriving at platform 6. With all due respect to Connex' information booth, I went to check it up, and indeed it was "my" 9:30 Blackburn train. It left at about 9:40, before any train had arrived to platform 3.
I won't even start on the events of my return trip.

To summarize:
  • I went for a train ride during non peak hours.
  • The available timetables and such proved utterly useless.
  • The TV displays at the station proved utterly useless.
  • The information centers at the station proved utterly useless.
  • As a result of all the confusion and uncertainty I was almost riding the wrong train.
  • As a result of the trains' inherent inability to be there on time I was late for my meeting.
Most importantly: One can only conclude one simply cannot trust Melbourne's public transport, not in the least, not even for the simplest of tasks such as getting from one central suburb to another central suburb connected via a direct railway.

I would therefore like to challenge the people in charge of running Melbourne's public transport, and our distinguished Premier John Brumby in particular:
Have a go at it. Go for a train ride.
Choose a starting point, choose a destination, and choose the time you need to be at your destination.
Now, plan your trip; then try to execute your plan.
Let me know if it all works out for you. Don't let me know if it doesn't; just fix it, damn it, because my experience mirrors the daily experience of hundreds of thousands of people riding the Melbourne public transport system on a daily basis. It is only the incompetence of people like you, Mr Premier, the head honcho in charge of incompetence, that things turn out so badly. Then again, none of you lot ever uses public transport, do you?

Personally, I am growing more and more ashamed of the fact I carry a yearly Melbourne public transport ticket. It looks more and more like I'm going to use my car once my ticket runs out.
Sure, I aspire to be an environmentalist. Sure, I will be stuck in traffic, I will not be able to sleep during the ride, and my reading will suffer significantly; but I will not be at the mercy of incompetence.

Monday, 9 March 2009

Grand Theft: Reason

Yesterday I've executed a guy. I squeezed a gun to his head, pulled the trigger, and watched the resulting splatter. Don't think too bad of me: The guy deserved it; he was a pain in the ass. And you should see the way he treated this girl.
No, there's no need to call the police: the above took place when I played Grand Theft Auto 4 (Aka GTA4) on my PS3. You see, it was a long weekend, the perfect occasion for renting a game. Mind you, as games go GTA4 is not perfect: I hate getting stuck on missions and having to do them again and again, and the way it consumes your free time is just scary. But it is one hell of an addictive game, a game that allows you to see yourself doing all the bad things your ethics will never allow you to do in real life in an environment that is as close to real life as it gets: demean women, be nasty to people for no particular reason, and generally do evil experiments that would put Mengele to shame.
Which is not to say I don't enjoy playing GTA4. I'm only human. I wouldn't, however, like to see my son playing this game. I wouldn't want to see anyone whose senses of right and wrong have not been made rock solid through life's experiences, and to be frank that would exclude a great majority of the population regardless of age; what I don't understand is how a game such as this one is rated in Australia for 15 year olds.

You see, Australia's system of rating computer games only goes up to the 15+ level. There is no "unlimited" rating to cover anything a 15 year old should not play but a 42 year old may; due to the insistence of one particular legislator in South Australia, if a 15 year old cannot play a certain computer game, no one can.
The result is that everyone tries to bend the law. A game like GTA4 cannot afford not being published in Australia; it's a game with many millions of dollars behind it, not just for the game maker but also for Sony and Microsoft (the companies behind the main platforms supporting the game). With such mighty stakeholders, the game has to pass local censorship rules, so something has to give in order to create an appearance of bending down to mighty Australia and its legislation that is there to ensure our kids grow up to be mighty and just.
Thus in Australia's case, several amendments were made to the game. When having sex with a hooker, for example, all you can see is your car rocking. And when shooting people around you will not see their injuries nor will you see blood splattering around (you do see blood in the movie like transition scenes, though).

Do you get it, then?
According to Australia's ruling parties, at least when it comes to censorship and ratings, watching a computer character have sex is a no-no regardless of age. A 72 year old can not see such disgusting acts. However, a cold blooded execution is another matter; impressionable fifteen year olds can take active part in that as many times as they want.
Makes perfect sense, doesn't it?

Sunday, 8 March 2009

Train of Thought

Dylan has this thing for trains. It's not like we have pushed him down the train path and it's not like he's surrounded by Thomas so much that he cannot avoid it. Instead, it is clearly a matter of his own preferences. I read that it's the testosterone in male babies that makes them behave like little engineers, tinker with stuff and assemble/disassemble stuff they're presented with; I can't really comment on that as I haven't been exposed much to baby girls, but that observation seems to apply to Dylan.
At first every big thing he saw was a train. He saw trains in trucks, until we taught him to differentiate the two. Today he saw trains in trams, which is probably a very accurate observation on his part.
And yesterday he made the very first three word sentence we got to hear out of him: "Train gone work". We were driving through a railway crossing, and Dylan was looking for the train as he's been doing for a while now; when he saw none he came up with the above statement. For him, everybody and everything that exists but not next to him is at work: when I'm not at home then I'm at work, and since his grandmother left us to go back to the UK she has been at work, too, as far as Dylan is concerned.
Through the way our little baby expresses himself you can learn a lot about the way the child's mind, and thus our minds, work. I find it extremely interesting.

But then one can learn a lot by behavior, too. I have this Russian dolls set of Arsenal players that my friend Haim got me as a gift from Prague, once upon a time; these dolls are now one of Dylan's favorite toys. A couple of days ago we saw Dylan feeding the Bergkamp doll with water from his drinking cup.

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

I Used to Live in a Room Full of Mirrors

A couple of weeks ago I got to listen to The Pretenders 1986 album Get Close. Having not listened to it for more than ten years it sure brought back memories.

The unique thing about the world tour that accompanied this album's release was that they've actually included Israel in their plans. Me and my best friend Haim decided to go and see Tel Aviv's Park Yarkon show, played at the open air venue where the biggest shows in Israel are held in front of tens of thousands of spectators. My brother took me there before to see Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms, and I definitely wanted to reproduce the experience.
Money was an object for us high school kids, but luckily for us Revlon came up with a special deal: buy several bottles of their shampoos and you got a significant discount on Pretenders' tickets! It was a no brainer for me, as at the time I was using Revlon shampoos anyway (or rather, my mother was and I was borrowing hers).
We saved our money, bought our shampoos, and went to the box office near the Cameri Theater to buy our tickets. For a few weeks they were the most carefully guarded pieces of paper on our small piece of earth.
Show day had arrived and we were early to the park so we could put our claim to a good vantage territory. With all the people in there, though, that was not a feasible act; I remember watching the show's opener, Room Full of Mirrors (a Hendrix song whose Pretenders' version became my favorite Pretenders song ever) from afar while it was still broad daylight.
Something had to be done, so Haim and I decided to take the plunge and push ourselves to the very front. Soon enough we were there, pressed between the crowds and the railing just below the stage. We were right below Chrissie Hynde; we could see her fillings, and she definitely had her eyes on us from time to time (especially Haim; she couldn't help his devastating looks). It was actually funny, the things you could see from such a close range: between the general Israeli heat and the strong lighting on the performers you could see the makeup melting off Hynde's face and all of the sweat she had to deal with while playing guitar and singing. The lighting was so strong we were able to see guitarist's Robbie McIntosh underwear through his pants, a vision that managed to make such an impression on us that Haim and I still remind ourselves of good old Robbie's underwear.
The show ended with Brass in Pocket, and suddenly we were free. For over a couple of hours we've had no control of our bodies, being pressed as we were between a whole lot of people. We were just constantly swept away, which would have been scary if we weren't on the taller side of things (for a couple of girls standing next to us it was very scary as they nearly got drowned under people's legs; it was so tight in there I might have impregnated them and a few other girls and boys that evening). As our bodies were released so did the sweat accumulated over the show, and suddenly I felt cold; for a week later I was horizontal in bed with a severe cold.
Yet that's how memories of a lifetime are created.

There can be no doubt in my mind that there is a longing in me for those good old days. The days when I had hardly any responsibilities but did have all the time in the world to do anything I wanted to do.
Yet the reason in me tells me this longing is nothing more than a stupid notion, the same type of a longing for days that were never there that conservatives worldwide share. It is the craving we all have for a simple world with no uncertainties and where all of our needs are being taken are of by some superior agent (for most of us, our parents). Sure, I do have parental responsibilities now, and that means my life is not my own anymore, but was life that good back then? And what is wrong with having a life so important it is crucial to others?
Back then in the good old days I didn't particularly enjoy my life. My high school years were pretty dreary, I was hopeless with the girls, I was lacking in means, and the offerings I could choose from were of a pretty limited nature and scope; when I wasn't doing my homework I was constantly bored. I was even playing D&D with myself. Boredom is a word that does not exist in my vocabulary anymore.
I do miss those days of irresponsibility, but I fully recognize that time is long gone. I am a man of the present now; the one thing I truly miss is the presence of my best friend, Haim.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Cinema Paradiso

It is often funny for me to recall on the memories I carry with me from childhood.
One of those funny ones is to do with a presentation of the film Kazablan we’ve had at my primary school’s smaller (of its two) gathering halls, probably at around the time I was in fifth grade.
Now, Kazablan is an Israeli musical film from 1974, belonging firmly into the genre that is referred to in Israel as the “burekas film”: films with as much substance as puff pastry that are made to appeal to the masses through their lightness. The premises are simple: an alpha type dude who thinks he is a man of honor but is actually a petty criminal falls for the girl he is not expected to fall for and then gets implicated in a crime he didn’t commit. Seriously, a very original film indeed...
The thing about that school presentation is that you had to put it in the context of time. Back then, if you didn’t manage to catch a film during its cinematic release, you would have had to wait many years until it was broadcast on TV if you were to ever have the hope of seeing it. VCRs were invented a while later.
With much gusto we were all gathered at the hall to watch this incredibly educational film. Say what you say, it was much better than normal class!
But then disaster struck. Sort of: the copy of the film the school had received was English dubbed. We were going to watch an Israeli Hebrew speaking film in a version that was dubbed to English (and rendered speech totally out of synch with actors’ lips) and Hebrew subtitles! Ori, our school principle, didn’t like it in the least; even Avram, the janitor and our projectionist for the day, looked annoyed and was twitching his mustache. Yet Avram always looked annoyed, and Ori has had enough pragmatism in him to know the show must go on. So on it went.
The scene I still remember from the movie itself is the rendition of the song Kavod (honor): For a reason that is probably to do with the way the English lyrics have had to impose on the Hebrew speaking lips, that song was actually sung under the title of Respect.
You can marvel at the song in its original Hebrew version through the clip below; if you don’t understand what they’re saying, read the Hebrew subtitles:

Which Brings me to the reason why I’m telling you all of the above.
You see, I often sing to Dylan while I bath him. It sort of comes naturally, and Dylan is yet to complain about my voice being my voice. Very often, Dylan does certain things in the bath that demonstrate the acquisition of a new skill, so I praise him with words of honor (and when you praise someone in Hebrew, you usually use the word “honor” quite explicitly).
And so it was that on one of the occasions where I was to praise Dylan I started singing him the Kazablan song. I was probably too bored with the usual clapping or the giving of five, but the result was that Dylan really liked the song. Through repetitions in consecutive bathing session I noticed that he froze to attention whenever I start singing the song. Now that he’s into speaking the occasional word it’s even better: he nudges his head against mine and says “yeth yeth” in order to get me to sing this song that ends with the Hebrew word Yesh (which translates to something like hooray, only that in Hebrew it also carries the meaning of ownership, which implies the singer has got the honor the song is talking about).
A very odd yet funny experience.

To conclude of this post I feel I should tell you the story of the school presenting Saturday Night Fever to us a year or two later.
With all the onscreen sex and nudity, I remember Ori looking quite puzzled and wondering not that silently as to whether this is the right film to show a bunch of kids around the age of 11. Yet in typical Ori fashion we soldiered on, and I think I can safely report none of us has become a serial killer yet. I doubt today’s Inquisition of Political Correctness would have allowed such a thing to take place, but Ori was Ori and it’s exactly why I respect him.
I do have to note it did not seem like Avram has had any problems that time around.