Monday, 30 November 2009

Vacant Lot

I have a question to Tony Abbott, Nick Minchin, Wilson Tuckey and all the rest of the Liberal Party members currently wrecking havoc with their party due to their strong “climate change skepticism” and fear for the future of an Australia under an emissions trading scheme:
You say you do not accept the science presented to you thus far as evidence for human induced global warming. If that is the case, what more does science need to provide you in order to convince you? When will you cross that threshold of disbelief?
I am not expecting an answer and I don’t need one. The sad reality is that we cannot expect science to deliver better evidence than we have so far, so therefore our misguided skeptics are doomed to their disbelief (and let me make it clear: I dislike the use of the word "belief", most often associated with blind faith, in relation to scientific evidence). My point is that when you ask the question the way I just did – as in, what would it take for you to accept the evidence – you realize something that may have not been as clear before: These people will only believe the things they want to believe in.
I really feel pity for them.

I do have to add that at the moment I find myself in the same camp as this group of Liberals that I mock/despise: We are united in our opposition to Kevin Rudd’s proposed emissions trading scheme. They think it would ruin Australia’s financial future, while I (and many others like me, such as The Greens and Kenneth Davidson) think this legislation is actually a tool to ensure Australia is stuck with the big polluters for the next few decades; a tool that will not reduce greenhouse emissions even the slightest.
So if you wanted proof for the sad state of Australian politics in particular or for the modern age democracy in the age of corporate power in general, you have it all here: I/we have to join forces with the devil in order to achieve what the elected government got elected to do in the first place as it tries to do what the former government (now opposition) promised to do before the elections.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Real Estate Myth Busters

One of the prevailing myths in the world of Aussie real estate is that house prices double every ten years. The myth, supported by the partner myth that house prices never go down, is used to justify investments in real estate above everything else. Like all good myths - say, organized religion - its followers will follow it rain or shine no matter how much or how little sense it makes.
Me? I think such claims tend to be as credible as the good old statements about women drivers turn out to be (some of the safest drivers I know are mostly women) or the statements about how good Jews are with money (a far cry from the realities of my Jewish family and friends). So I will attack the myth and set out to disprove it the good old fashioned way: by providing an example for a case where it doesn't apply. And what better example can I provide than my own house?
We bought our house 6 years ago and have recently had it valued by two different real estate agencies, both coming with the exact same estimates for the current worth of our house. We also know that our house would not sell for more than the real estate agents have projected because we've seen how neighboring houses perform when sold.
So, what are our projected return on investments? Expanded linearly from 6 years to 10, we are looking at between 50% to 60% ROI; very different prospects to the myth's doubling. Even if we assume that we overpaid by 5% when we bought our house - being the naive fools we are - and under the most optimistic selling circumstances, we are still looking at only 75% ROI.
Close enough, you say? Well, let me remind you of the subtle issue of stamp duties, the fees we pay to government when we buy the house but don't get back when we sell it. When added to the equation, even the most favorable ROI estimates shrink to 60% while the more realistic ones are just a bit higher than 30%.
Let's go a step further and assess the performance of our house investment against inflation. Assuming a 3% CPI rate per year, our ROI shrink to between 2% to 30%, with the more realistic ones at less than 10%. That's nice, but 10% is far from being the greatest investment ever made and is certainly not worthy of the glory granted to real estate investments in Australia.
Now you could argue that all of the above is simply the result of us not being good real estate investors; we bought the wrong house. Yes, silly us, we were looking for a place to live in rather than a good investment. Fine. Yet you still have to admit that the "house prices double in 10 years time" rule of thumb has been refuted for what it is: an unfounded urban myth.
Or, in the straight talking plain language I much prefer, it's bullshit.

Saturday, 28 November 2009

Pride and Prejudice

The Victorian Government has just published a registry of the state's schools over the internet, allowing everyone to know how well a certain school is faring against others over a given set of parameters. You can access that registry here.
I have a problem with such superficial comparisons between schools. First because I'm not sure the right parameters are being measured and that whatever's measured is measured properly. Second, and more importantly, such comparisons will only make the worse schools even worse as those that have the ability to avoid them will strive harder to do so.
Quibbles aside, a registry such as this provides what is, by far, the best resource we have on our hands to determine how good the schools in the given areas where we are currently considering buying a house are. You can say it's an effective real estate guide. As I have explained before, the quality of available state schooling is of utmost importance to us when picking a potential future home. Thus far we had to rely on crude parameters such as word of mouth, quality of internet website and external looks when judging schools, but as much as I find the new registry problematic, it is obvious it is significantly more reliable than the measures we've used till now.
So, what did I find when I looked at the registry? The first observation is that the areas we've been looking at so far all sport schools that are either average or above average. The second observation is much more interesting: some of the schools that thus far I used to regard as the worst, to the effect of prejudicing against an entire area, have turned out to actually be the best performers.
And what are the lessons here? Simple: Observations made using unsubstantiated data should not be used for making crucial decisions. But the much more interesting observation is this: word of mouth should not be taken too far; the people spreading the words of mouth are obviously people that spread that word of mouth because they feel the need to assure themselves they have made the right decision.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Fiddler on the Roof

It happened to me again today: someone who hardly knew me has referred to me as a Jew. I guess it goes part and parcel with having a name like Moshe, but I'm still annoyed whenever it happens.
The question to ask, therefore, is simple: What is a Jew?
The way I see it, the definition of the term is rather lax. You can define a Jew on the grounds of ancestry, culture and/or religious belief; let's have a look at each of those criteria.

If you count being a Jew on racial grounds and go to have a look at my genes then I'm definitely Jewish. Hitler would have sent me off to the gas chambers right away. But then again, so what? What do Jewish genes mean, anyway? It probably comes down to a group of people sharing a very minute amount of common mutations that, in the grand scheme of things, are absolutely meaningless. It's also guaranteed you will find I belong with some other groups of mutations, too, as I doubt my ancestors had always maintained a closed community. So the Nazis might have had their way of looking at races but the rest of us should have moved ahead.
If you count being a Jew on culture grounds then you'll find I'm somewhere in the middle. I definitely have Jewish influences in me; it's by far the culture I'm most familiar with. Then again, is there really such a thing as a Jewish culture in the first place, beyond the veil of clichés? I would maintain that I have been much more influenced by Israeli culture than Jewish culture, and as evidence I will point at the undeniable fact that those who regard themselves as Jews outside of Israel live in a different culture to those regarding themselves as Israeli Jews. The diaspora Jews seem to have a chip on their shoulder that forces them to be extra Jewish, perhaps the result of them having to deal with the contradiction of being Jewish yet not wanting to fulfil their belief by living in Israel as well as the result of having to take extra measures to avoid assimilation with the rest of the population. And if it comes down to being an Israeli then I should point at the fact that I am far from being a typical representative of the Israeli culture; that distance between and that culture is one of the main reasons I left Israel behind in the first place.
If you count being Jewish on religious grounds then I'm definitely no Jew. Virtually all the world's theists would be far more Jewish than I am, for I will only have faith in things that can be reliably and credibly observed and measured. I gladly put my faith in quarks yet I will never go for the god delusion.

Ultimately, I am of the opinion that it's up to the individual to decide whether they want to be referred to as Jewish or not, the same way as it is up to the individual to determine whether they want to be known as Cat Stevens or Yusuf Islam. And in my case, I don't want to be counted as a Jew.
The main reason why I don't want to be counted Jewish is simple: It is not a descriptor that would teach you too much about me; if anything, it will probably mislead you. You can say I'm a member of the homo sapiens species, you can say I'm a male, you can say I'm relatively tall, you can say I love to blog, and you can even say I live in Melbourne but grew up in Israel. All of these observations tell you true objective facts about me. Yet you will gain no reliable information about me by adding that I'm a Jew.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

How to Lose the Market and Alienate Customers

With my Windows Mobile 6.1 mobile phone now on its death bed – it started resetting itself involuntarily several times a day – the question of what its replacements is going to be is more relevant than ever.
It’s obvious what it is not going to be. It’s not going to be Windows Mobile! I can actually get my phone fixed under my credit card’s extended warranty policy, but that will only mean that I’ll have a working piece of shit in my hands (and pocket, most of the time) instead of a dead one.
I have already reported how it seems like the iPhone is the best of the smartphone lot. It seemed the best, but I cannot say that I’d be happy with the purchase of an iPhone: It’s a lot of money to pay for a very artificially restricted gadget (effectively, $1200 for a 16gb iPhone GS with a two year Virgin Mobile plan incorporating 300mb data allowance). And you hear of the restrictions every day in the news: you hear how Skype has been suffocated, you hear how the big saint Steve Jobs bullies a small time developer into submission, and you wonder why such a flashy device is still not flash enabled and still boasts the copy & paste facilities its latest operating system upgrade offers as anything but an embarrassing fix. Apple, in short, is an evil monopoly that makes the most of its position; it’s just that unlike, say, Microsoft during the Vista era, they actually do have generally good products in their line-up.
So I put myself on a mini crusade to find the iPhone killer. I thought I found one in the Nokia N900 and I spent tons of precious time researching the product. However, what I did find was not an iPhone killer, but rather a company – Nokia – that has simply lost its way. If Nokia represents Apple’s competition in the smartphone market then it’s no wonder Apple has become the market's supreme commander.

Let me make it clear. If Nokia’s own reports, videos and images are to be considered credible enough, then its N900 is a mega iPhone killer. Perhaps not in selling figures, but definitely in technical capabilities: It has a Firefox based browser with Flash and all the capabilities you’re used to from your normal PC Firefox (including add-ons) but with a touch screen that allows zooming and tabbing and a lot of nice usability things that so far only the iPhone was capable of delivering. It already has 32gb of memory but you can expand that using a memory card (something Apple won’t allow). It is unlocked, so if you’re overseas you can stick a local SIM in and your phone and cut down global roaming costs.
I’ll stop listing the N900’s attributes at this point because they’re not the main point I’m trying to convey. Let’s just say that it’s a mighty phone, by far the best out there. Add to that it being open sourced, based on the Maemo distribution of Linux, and you can appreciate that unlike Apple forcing you to an unbreakable wedding with iTunes, Nokia allows you the freedom to do as you see fit.
I could only find two shortcomings with the N900 phone: First, you can’t sync the N900 to Google the way you can sync Google Calendar and contacts to a Blackberry, iPhone or Windows Mobile. Second, Nokia’s applications front, Ovi, is incredibly inferior to Apple’s; there simply is no comparison. Yet, if you ask me, who needs an application shop when you have a full blown web browser at your hands? When it comes to the bigger application, such as GPS navigation, Nokia has basic stuff built in but the iPhone doesn’t, while both charge a lot for the full blown stuff (enough to convince me to just buy the Tomtom Start for $180).

So where does the N900 fail? Well, it doesn’t fail anywhere; it’s Nokia that fails it.
First they failed it by announcing it will be released in October 2009 and gradually postponing its actual release; current rumors talk about a February 2010 release.
Then they failed it by announcing the N900 will not be sold in Australia, thus demonstrating that Nokia doesn’t want to sell its phones to the consumers but rather to the mobile providers. On their part, the mobile providers are not exactly in love with a phone that has such great VOIP capabilities to cannibalize their business.
On its own, the lack of official Aussie imports is not a big deal: I can buy the phone in Amazon for $550 (USD) and have it brought over to Australia using Shipito, a service that already provides me with a mailing address of my own in the USA. The problem is warranty: if things go wrong, I’d have to post the phone to the USA and use Shipito to get it back again. The problem is magnified by the overall lack of reliability of these small gadgets, as demonstrated by my old MP3 player and my current mobile phone (both, interestingly enough, running Windows Mobile) and as demonstrated by the tons of flak Nokia has been receiving on its current flagship smartphone, the N97 (a model everyone recognizes as a failure). The issue is made worse through reports from N900 test users of microphones not working and screens broken on delivery.
But then Nokia threw the N900 the killer blow through a notification announcing two punches. The first of the two said that anyone who wants to develop Maemo applications needs a million dollar liability insurance. There goes the option of having an rich application environment ala iTunes’ catalog of application numbering in the six digits! Effectively, this implies there is no future for Maemo; in turn it means there will never be a reason for Google to provide the facilities to sync Maemo phones with its Google Calendar, to name but one example.
As far my own N900 prospects are concerned, any ideas I may have still had of buying the phone evaporated with Nokia’s second announcement, saying they will limit updates and applications based on geographical location. Given the phone will not be officially sold in Australia this represents a risk I just cannot take. For Nokia, however, it represents the complete inability of a major company to recognize the internet has unified this world of ours to a point where geographical separation makes no sense to anyone but old dinosaurs like the movie studios who still deploy regional coding on their stuff and then wonder why what they refer to as piracy is so rife.
Nokia, it seems, belongs firmly in the company of dinosaurs. If it continues on this path, Nokia will soon be extinct.

So there you go. Unless my current phone does the unexpected and manages to survive until Android comes up with a worthy model, you will soon be looking at a very reluctant owner of an iPhone.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Good Reasons for Bad Belief

Readers of this blog will know that I am often puzzled and troubled by that common phenomenon by which otherwise sane and healthy people also happen to go after one or another of religious belief. That is, beliefs in the unnatural powers, belief in stuff for which there is absolutely no proof. It's just insane: no one believes a real estate agent, yet most people believe lies of a much greater scale.
Troubled by this contradiction, I often go out of my way to point at the rather shaky rational foundations for religious belief. Yet no one listens to me (and the majority of the world’s population doesn’t listen to people who say the same but in a much better way). Why is that?
To the rescue comes philosopher Dan Dennett (who has frequented my blogs before). In a lecture presented by The Richard Dawkins Foundation, Dennett offers what seems to be a very sensible explanation to the problem of why people contrive to believe despite their said beliefs' lack of rationality. Essentially, Dennett provides a list of rational reasons for declaring belief; none of those hold water, as he quickly points out, yet they seem rational enough for enough people to happily settle with them.
I recommend watching the video despite its length. Note it starts with a long introduction that is not directly related to the topic at hand, since Dennett’s lecture is actually a reward acceptance speech. However, that introduction is quite illuminating by its own rights – especially if you have a thing for goats:

Now, the reason why I have found the video to be quite illuminating is its practical approach to belief. It provides an excellent explanation for the way the believers I am familiar with “work”. Take, as an example, my parents and my parents in law: both believe in the faith their respective accidents of birth got them to (Judaism and Christianity), yet both don't follow their faith beyond the realm of performing rather pagan rituals that work on their sense of belonging to an elite club (say, circumcision and christening, respectively). When questioned about their beliefs (an act that requires persistence as they don't like the shaky foundations of their belief to be tested for weight) they will both do their best to avoid the discussion, thus revealing exactly what Dennett is saying in the video: they don't really believe in all the bullshit; they just believe in believing.
And on a personal note, I couldn't avoid noting how my own attitudes towards religion had to contend with the same challenges posed by society's defense mechanisms for religion that Dennett is mentioning: from being shy about my skepticism, as if to avoid hurting anyone's feelings, to being outspoken about it. Today I take pride in the fact that from the internet to the office I work on, no person that knows me can say they don't know what my opinion on religion is.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

The Terrible Twos

I thought I'd take a nice and peaceful video of Dylan eating chicken. He was eating lemon pepper chicken on a skewer (aka Shisklik), his favorite dish. He was so peaceful; he was obviously enjoying himself.
But he is still a two year old, and he's still trying to show off to the camera. The results speak for themselves:

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Beauty and the Investor

We just came back from an auction for a really old house on a full plot of land (i.e., a plot that was not subdivided already). We went there to assess our chances for buying an empty plot of land (or what would be an empty plot of land after you pay someone $10,000 to get rid of what ever's on there) and build a house according to our own requirements. That is, a house with less than 72 toilets.
As per our standard experience by now, the auction was pretty depressing. The property sold for $655,000, much more than anything that would allow us to build something with more than a tent on it. But that's not my biggest issue with this property or this auction.
The auction came down to a battle between a young family (of seemingly Indian origins, for what it's worth) and an investor (driving a convertible Mercedes). The latter won, and it doesn't take much of a genius to figure out he's going to build two units out there and sell them.
Now let's do the maths. On one side we have a young family that can just afford to spend $650,000 on buying a house. On the other we have an investor that can spend more: He's going to build two houses on that same plot, with each of them selling for much more than $800,000 (and I'm being conservative here).
What does that mean? It means the investor can afford to bid a hell of a lot of money on the auction, enough to drive all families away. It also means that a family with $650,000 - a lot of money by my account - cannot find a place to live in, at least not in this particular area we're talking about. That family will have to venture far far away to areas where the potential profits from subdivisions are too low and/or areas where the previously subdivided houses are affordable. That is, in Melbourne's terms, areas with no infrastructure to support a healthy lifestyle; areas where you can't go anywhere without a car; areas where I wouldn't want to live.
And that, my dear readers, is exactly why the Aussie real estate market is fucked up to the core.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

UFO in Parliament

ABC news was talking yesterday about the parliament discussion in which Scientology was accused of some horrendous crimes. They went on to interview several parliamentarians, including The Nationals' Barnaby Joyce. Joyce didn't voice his explicit opinion on Scientology, but he did go on to say something about the stupidity of believing in spaceships and aliens.
Not that my opinion on Scientology differs much from Joyce's, but I would like to ask him the following: In what way do Scientology's spaceships differ from the following elements of your own belief-
-A star racing across the sky to act as a directional beacon
-Walking on water
-Virgin birth
-Turning water into wine?

At this point I have to say that I'm picking on Joyce for a reason. Joyce is an outspoken global warming denialist. He accepts Christianity but denies Scientology despite the two sharing a lot of similar bullshit at their core, and he also rejects what is very nearly scientific fact.
I would say Joyce is severely delusional, or at least severely ignorant. If it was up to me, Joyce would be sent back to school to get the education he so badly needs. Yet the Australian people see him fit to be sent to parliament and decide on issues of utmost importance to human civilization as a whole.

Wednesday, 18 November 2009


My aunt has recently moved out of her old apartment, an apartment where I had spent quite a lot of time as a young boy in the company of her and my late uncle. Today, while at the office and while going through yet another exciting day at the office, I caught myself daydreaming of that gone by era: how I used to play in the apartment, and how doors would be kept open and I would even go and play at neighbours’ apartments. The line of thought caught on as I remembered how small and rather sparse these apartments were; no one I knew at the time has had much in the way of means to spare. Memories of an old gone neighbour showing me photos of his kids floated by and I recalled his stories about raising his kids in his apartment, putting some shame into my current quest for a bigger place to live in and putting the amount of effort we’ve been investing into this quest of ours in context: people lived in much worse conditions than we do now, and yet they flourished and they were happy. And it all took place within my lifetime and within my world. What has happened since to cause the drastic changes in the way we live since?
And then it occurred to me: Boredom.
When I look back at my early childhood days, the days before responsibilities kicked in, the predominant notion was boredom. TV was available through a single channel that worked for just a few hours a day, books were available at the library only (buying books was quite rare), and films were limited to cinema visits. With the internet having to wait some fifteen to twenty years to emerge, people had only one channel with which they could guarantee an entertaining time: they had to do stuff with one another. Hence the open doors and the open social interactions.
Today things are different. I have enough unread books in my personal library to last me a few years. I can listen to the music in my collection for twenty four hours a day over a few months without listening to the same track twice. And while I have a big collection of movies to entertain myself with, I have movies to last a lifetime within easy access. Not to mention video games. And last, but not least, the internet means that the only time I will lack varied entertainment is when something goes wrong with my PC or my internet connection (last time that had happened was due to a blackout taking out most of the state).
The result of this transition from the boring world of yesteryear to our packed up world is that our interactions with one another are limited. In order to see someone nowadays we need to book our calendars weeks or even months in advance. People are able to live half way across the world from their families, but when they come for a visit their families will quickly regard them the same way they regard a plant and go kill some brain cells in front of their extra loud TVs. Whereas I used to play outside quite a lot as a child, nowadays you hardly see free roaming kids about; what you do see is fleets of armoured four wheel drives chauffeuring their precious cargo around to ensure they’re on time for their macramé class.
I can come up with two things that contributed to this deep social change: The first was gradual but significant technological improvements, the things that allow us to have multiple TV channels all day and all of the night (to name but one example). The second was all of us being significantly better off than we were a few decades ago, providing us with the means with which we can tap on those advanced technologies. In short, what took place was all of us living in what most people would describe as a healthy economy.
But is this healthy economy truly contributing to our well being and happiness? I think the answer is a mixed bag. On one hand, it is clear that the exposure to a more stimulating environment is making us smarter overall, at least in certain respects (those that are commonly measured when, say, applying for a university position). On the other hand, we humans are social creatures by definition; none of us would get too far without a social structure around, and there can be no denying the damages caused by this social erosion.
Personally, I’m happy to sound like an old man and state that I’m troubled with younger people taking the way things currently are for granted and thinking there is no need and definitely no way to increase social interactions. In the past, parents managed with their babies even though they didn't have disposable nappies because they had lots of help around; now we've lost that loving feeling. Yet are only living the way we do because we’ve shaped our world in this particular way; but we can undo things, if only by a bit, in order to improve this state of affairs.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Beware of Nasty Koalas

About a fortnight ago I was sitting here raving about the virtues of Ubuntu’s latest release, Karmic Koala. Two weeks later and I’m regretting my praise.
I first noticed something strange was going on when I was deleting files off USB memory sticks. The files would be deleted but memory was not freed up; when I tried to format the USB stick altogether the system wouldn’t let me do so. I dismissed it thinking I was doing something wrong (how very Microsoft-ened I have become!).
Then I noticed that my netbook fails to notice the partition on which I keep my music and my videos. This means that while I can use Karmic on the netbook to surf the internet, I cannot use it to play my music while doing so.
And then a friend from work whom I convinced to install Ubuntu on his aging laptop told me that since the upgrade to Karmic his wireless modem has stopped working. There's a bit of a catch there, because without the internet connection allowing him to access the internet he's unable to download a solution to his problem...

The real spitting blood experience with Karmic Koala took place yesterday. All I wanted was to print the latest MSY computer parts pricelist through my desktop so I can design my future desktop. You see, the question at hand there is whether to go with an Intel i7 CPU that requires DDR3 memory and as a result more expensive motherboard and RAM, or whether finances are going to restrict me to the inferior (but still quite good) i5 domain.
Yet the printouts on my otherwise excellent performing Samsung CLP-310 color laser printer was all gibberish. A few cleared forests later I remembered my wife telling me she had to use Windows XP to print her stuff, so I could only conclude that Karmic Koala’s installation had stepped over the printer’s driver. Not a big deal; all I needed to do was install the printer driver again. And that’s simple: Samsung – praise be the Samsung – actually delivered their printer with a Linux driver in addition to a Windows one.
What followed next was a demonstration for why Linux is probably not ready for the big time yet; and when I say big time, I mean the non-geeks out there who couldn’t care less what operating system they use as long as they get things done.
I put the Samsung driver CD in my desktop’s DVD drive; nothing happened. I didn’t expect an auto-run to take place, but I did expect a navigation tool to pop up and allow me to browse the contents of the CD. So I opened such a browser manually (it’s called Nautilus, and it’s Ubuntu’s equivalent of Windows Explorer). There I was shocked to find my DVD drive, as well as the other CD drive on my desktop, were left unidentified by Karmic Koala. I couldn’t use them!
The next option was to install the generic open source Samsung driver for Linux available on the internet. I installed it twice yet each time I did it the test pages came out all messy again; the generic driver was obviously too generic. I had to use the Samsung one.
So the next step was to look over the internet for solutions to the missing DVD drive problem. Only that Firefox was busy uploading photos to Flickr, and for some odd reason uploading photos to Flickr using Firerfox under Ubuntu causes Firefox to freeze; you can’t browse the internet at all until the upload is finished. Great! I went to have a shower while the photo upload was taking place.
All freshened up I googled for answers, only to find that missing drives (either CD, hard drives or USB sticks) are a common event with Karmic Koala. Given that Ubuntu is open source software its bug reports are available for everyone to browse, which – while very nice – did not comfort me in the least. I still wanted that pricelist printed!
So I reverted to downloading the Samsung driver from the Samsung website and googled for instructions on how to install the driver from an Ubuntu forum (where I found out that Samsung laser printers have been specifically targeted by Karmic Koala’s path of destruction). Eventually, past midnight, I even had my pricelist printed!

The lesson?
All these issues I have encountered were not the usual Linux problem of lacking drivers. Missing hard drives and CD drives point at basic problems with the operating system; Karmic Koala is riddled with bugs. Karmic Koala is simply not production ready yet and should not have been released.
As I am trying to figure out what my next desktop would require and where I can cut costing corners, the thought that maybe I should invest $150 on the OEM version of Windows 7 Pro, 64 bit, did occur to me. Not for the love of Microsoft, but for the lack of trust worthy alternatives.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Post War

It was to be expected, but it's still terrifying: Our very first property auction as potential buyers ended up selling for more than a hundred thousand dollars (!) than our top limit. Bearing in mind that we were looking at property that was quoted well within our range, the result can only be interpreted as an argument in favor of us extending our current house instead of moving. Or, to put it in the words of the real estate agent himself, "that was crazy".

The event gives me an opportunity to discuss the institute that is the property auction. The real estate agents sell it to you as "the most democratic way for selling a house", but in my book that's not too far from saying Hitler was only worried about potential overpopulation issues. For a start, there is nothing preventing a seller from taking their time to consider multiple private sale proposals; it's just as democratic, and it allows the buyer to offer their own terms & conditions rather than blindly accept those set by the seller. And in our particular case, the seller was indeed on the evil side of things, quoting for stratospheric compensations in case anything goes wrong.
So yes, an auction is very democratic if you're the seller. To the buyers it's dictatorship par excellence.

Given that we're all living in a real world where property auctions cannot be avoided, the question becomes - how do we best tackle an auction?
Even though I'm a beginner when it comes to perperty auctions, I can confidently say I'm very well versed in the psychology of bidding through my substantial eBay experience. There are several tactics I tend to use on eBay, but the basic one is this: I determine how much I'm willing to pay for an item and I don't bid on it until the very last minute because I want to avoid the emotional bidders from doing their best to outbid me. If my top limit is surpassed before the auction ends then so be it.
Thing is, property auctions are different to eBay in that they have no predetermined ending time. The real estate agent will pull them as long as it takes if they were to suspect another bid can come. The real estate agents will also do their best to stir up emotions in order to get the emotional bidders into bidding more than they should; they even have estate agents roaming the bidders to try and elicit them for more. My eBay strategy would therefore not work.
What can the rational bidder do, then? I would say the best option, overall, would be to (a) wait until the very last second before putting a bid and (b) add the lowest incremental on top of the current bid (that is, if the agent is expecting $10,000 over the previous bid, offer $5000). This way you'll be doing yourself the least damage and you're creating a potential war of attrition that might just help you get rid of the "emotionals". On the other hand, it might just lead them to believe that by just adding a thousand more they may get the house, so it cannot be said that my strategy is an all out winner.
My brother, the Israeli in our family (in the classic sense of the term, which means someone who will never allow themselves to be anyone's sucker), proposed an alternative: Do the same as I have suggested, but bring in a fellow bidder to bid with/against you. Others will think they're facing mightier opposition than they really do, thus helping you get rid of more "emotionals".
So we took my brother along and we followed the plan to the letter. We could also note others applying the very same tactic, too; there goes originality.
But we still lost, and lost miserably, leading me to the following cocnlusion: if you want to win a property auction, all you need to do is have more money than everyone else.

Friday, 13 November 2009

What I Really Really Want

As we are on the eve of taking part in our very first house auction as bidders, I cannot help but feel doubt as I immerse myself in second thoughts. The realist in me says we won't win the auction; we've seen similar houses go for way more than we can afford. But the question remains: are we stupid to give away our combined six years worth of income just like that?
With such immense weight hanging over the decision I comfort myself with the notion that I would have second thoughts no matter how good the house is. I would actually be worried if I was to find myself spending so much money without second thoughts.
On the positive side, the house we're talking about - it's living room is featured in the above photo - is probably one of the best looking houses I've ever seen in Australia, certainly of the houses that can be considered affordable. The photo simply doesn't do it justice; it just goes to show how uninspired the real estate agents are when they take their property photos, because given the material at hand and a proper sunset I could have come with heavily drool inducing photos of that living room.
So what is it about the living room that we like so much? I'll put it this way. In our search for houses, we noticed that the houses we're attracted to the most are those that connect its residents with the outside world in a positive way. In this particular case I'm talking about a house where the entire north wall of the living room (the sunny side when you're in the southern hemisphere) is an openable window to a deck over a nice, open backyard. Just looking at it makes you feel good.
And there's more. As you can sort of see with the photo, the roof's shape is a bit unconventional, giving an extra roomier feeling to it. My description sounds pathetic, I know, but that house worked on me. I liked it, and I could immediately see myself living there.
The point I'm trying to make is that with most of the houses out there being conventionally designed to follow the latest fashion (including, for example, having more toilets than bedrooms and having minimal outside spaces in favor of more and more internal living spaces), a house that doesn't follow suit yet makes you feel alive is a house for which I would go a long way.
But probably not long enough.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

On the Beach

One of our bigger problems with our two year old Dylan has been water. Because of the grommets in his ear we want to avoid his head getting in the water; and because of that we have had a problem with introducing him to water play and swimming. However, sea water is supposedly less of a problem than your average chlorine / bacteria infested swimming pool. And given the hot weather spell Melbourne is currently going through we decided to have an early morning adventure at the beach before it gets too hot.
It was a good opportunity to introduce Dylan to the huge truck we got him at a recent toy sale. He may be afraid of water, but at least he’d be able to enjoy himself playing with his new truck:

The concept worked and we all had a good time at the beach. Dylan woke us up early, as usual, which meant we comfortably left the beach by 10:00. Actually, getting to the beach turned out to be the problem: we may live right next to it, but on that particular day our local council decided to close our beach in favor of some triathlon (damn Aussies with their damn sports) so we had to venture into neighboring territories.

I noticed the photos I posted on Flickr from our beach adventures turned out less than ideal, so I started thinking of the reasons why.
Because we went to the beach, I replaced the shake reduction equipped Sigma lens I’ve had fitted on my Pentax K-7 DSLR with a water resistant Pentax lens. That water resistant lens does not have shake reduction, so I should have turned the camera’s built in shake reduction to compensate. I forgot to do it, though, and given that by now I take shake reduction for granted and don’t even bother to keep still while taking photos, some of my photos turned out too blurry for comfort.
Let that be a lesson on the price we pay for cutting edge technologies.
Then there is the issue of mastering my photos prior to publishing them. It really is a must to master the photos, even if I rarely go beyond basic adjustments (with the number of photos I’m taking, anything more than that would be prohibitively time consuming). The heat conspired against me to prevent me from mastering the photos on my calibrated 19” desktop monitor, so I did it on my netbook instead. The results speak for themselves: the netbook’s overly shiny screen made my white balance and contrast adjustments go all over the place.
Let that be a lesson in favor of monitor calibration.

The first thing we noticed upon approaching the beach itself was the abundance of dogs. Not that dogs are so rare, it's just that we were surrounded by signs saying dogs must be on a leash, with a $200 penalty applying otherwise, whereas the vast majority of the dogs we saw were freely roaming about. The local council could have made a fortune there!
Normally, I'm not an advocate for fining people. But when you encounter that breed of the confidence deprived young woman herding a flock of rottweilers, some of them unleashed, through a beach full of babies and kids who won't know a rottweiler from a poodle, there is danger in the air. Or when you see the dogs pooing and peeing on the same sand that young kids put in their mouths a few seconds later.
Then we saw a mother that brought her two year old to the beach with her. Judging by her appearance and behavior, she was obviously well to do. The boy was dressed with the latest kids' fashion from Polo, including a baseball hat; only that the mother failed to notice that the beach is not a fashion show. Being as close as it is to the hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica, the sun is particularly harsh (and abundant) in Australia. Unless you're a fool, you take care of yourself when exposing your body to the Aussie sun; and you use more than a baseball hat to protect yourself at the beach. That said, that mother didn't bother bringing any toys for her son to play with either, so he was left to annoy other kids by trying to steal their toys (including Dylan's big truck).

Overall, we've had a fun day:

We got back home early and tired.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

In Defence of Truth

Jo Hockey, a leading Liberal and a person very likely to be a future Prime Minister in Australia, has boldly published a personal opinion article entitled In Defence of God. Indeed a bold move it is, because someone with aspirations to a top political seat knows very well they should avoid offending people. The article, in which Hockey advocates the “pick and choose” god (that is, picking the nice things from the bible as our model for god) is quite likely to offend those that advocate a literal interpretation of these mythical Bronze Age scriptures.
My own opinion about the article is that it is aimed at the mainstream majority of people who view religion as a nice and comfortable thing to have but don’t really go to church unless someone’s getting married. Logic wise, the article’s arguments are as flawed as hell, but I don’t see much point in addressing those holes here; Richard Dawkins shreds the pick and choose god into little pieces in his The God Delusion.
The point I would like to address with the article is the way in which Richard Dawkins is dismissed by Hockey. Hockey dismisses Dawkins rather too quickly for being a representative of those that claim religion to be the source of all that is bad in the world. Yet this nonchalant dismissal serves only to demonstrate that Hockey never bothered understanding what Dawkins is trying to say, because if he was to read The God Delusion he would have seen that while Dawkins points at religion as a source of evil this is not Dawkins’ main problem with it.
Dawkins’ main problem with religion is that it stands in the way of truth, with truth being represented through science – humanity’s greatest endeavor into finding the truths of our world. In his fight for the truth, Dawkins is not fighting religion alone but also popular post modernist views that advocate for the relativity of truth (and again I will quote a friend’s annoying email signature, “perception is reality”). In the face of this world’s complexity, as perhaps represented through quantum mechanics, there is some appeal to this relativistic look at this world; but again, such a view does not withstand the slightest rational argument. There are some things that are undeniably true: Napoleon is true, and so is the holocaust and Ayers Rock / Uluru. Even the most drugged up spiritual being will not argue that Napoleon is relative.
So why is this fight for the truth so important? I’ll refer to Carl Sagan’s example from his book Demon Haunted World. A few centuries ago, a certain Queen of England (whose name I forgot; could it be Mary?) was dying. She had all of her kingdom’s resources at her disposal and therefore had loads of very important people praying for her sake, but she still died because there was no one there to give her medicinal help to treat a disease that won’t bother us in the least today. And the reason why this disease doesn’t bother us today is science exposing the truth to us despite the barriers put in its way by religion: we know, today, that this particular disease is caused by very real bacteria (as opposed to demons or some unnatural intervention of sorts). We don’t pray of mess about in any other way (although there are plenty of loonies out there who do); we know the truth. If we want to get cured, we just take antibiotics. Today, we are all much more powerful than the strongest person of an ignorant world.
As Dawkins, Sagan and I, for that matter, argue and clearly demonstrate through the “my kingdom for antibiotics” story, the truth is too important for us to create veils between us and it. And Hockey could use some reading to further his education, especially is expects my approval on his way to becoming our Prime Minister.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

The Honest Politician

What is the rarest thing on earth? Diamonds? Gold?
Evidence seems to suggest none of the above. The rarest of the rare, as far as I can tell, is the honest politician. And I consider myself lucky to have witnessed one.
Last night on ABC’s Four Corners they ran a documentary (accessible here) investigating the politics behind the scenes of the emissions reductions scheme currently negotiated between Labor and the opposition’s Liberals. It was fairly interesting to see how certain Liberal and National politicians cling on to their “I’d rather believe those that say what I want to hear despite what all the evidence and experts' opinions” views.
Most interesting, though, was a brief moment where Shadow Resources and Energy minister, Ian Macfarlane, had a candid moment with the camera. In that moment he said that the reality is Australia will never have clean coal operations because these are so far from being feasible and that Australia will never be able to build another coal power station again.
Coming from a high ranking Liberal that statement was something. But more importantly, that statement was made at an eye to eye level; you could see it came from the heart, and you could also clearly see it is an accurate reflection of the man's true opinion: it’s the type of statement that gave An Inconvenient Truth its name.
Being that Macfarlane is a Liberal there is not much of a chance he’d get my vote. However, honesty goes a long way; it could prove the tipping point between voting for a typical Labor candidate or an honest Liberal, especially given Australia’s preferential voting system.

If Macfarlane managed to impress me with his honesty, then his colleague Ted Baillieu, the leader of the Liberal opposition in Victoria, managed to do the opposite.
Baillieu has just announced his plan for placing lots of police in train stations so as to increase travellers’ safety. Which is good. Trouble is, what about all the rest of the stuff Baillieu is so quiet about?
What about public transport infrastructure? Are we going to get more rails and more trains, especially trains that weren’t built Before Christ? What about water policies? Would Baillieu scrap the joke that is the desalination plant? What about education? Are state schools going to have buildings better than the wrecks they currently use and are schools and teachers going to get the money they need? And what about health? Will I prefer to die rather than wait in the queue again the next time I am privileged to go to an emergency room with my son?
If the typical dishonest politician thinks he can get his way out of meaningful policies by throwing a short term popular gesture then he is in for a nasty surprise come election time. Problem is, with the way the current Victorian Labor government is going, and the public’s irrational aversion to voting Greens, we are all losers when the opposition is weak minded.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Yes, We Can

Scientific American has published an article specifying a plan for providing 100% of humanity’s energy requirements through emissions free, sustainable, renewable energy by 2030. The written article is available here (requiring a paid subscription), and a free web presentation is available here. To download the less user friendly paper, click here.
The point is that you read it right: 100%, renewable, no emissions, by 2030. It is possible; personally, I find it quite exciting, as I hope to still be around in 2030. The plan takes the dealing with global warming from a problem our children will inherit from us and turns it into something we can fix ourselves.
OK: Maybe the authors took too many drugs. Maybe we can only make it to 80% or 90% by 2030. But even that would be way more than what our worthless leaders are targeting us at. And if you think the article's milestones are way out there – say, if you’re asking yourself if we can erect four million wind turbines as the plan calls for – then bear in mind that humans are manufacturing more than 50 million cars each year.
Humanity has gone through bigger changes than the one specified in the plan before. Science has been telling us for a while that the move to clean and sustainable energy is a move we must make; now we know that it’s also a move we can make.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Part Time Lover

One of the ways in which evolution works is adaptation. The delicate bones in our ears are an adaptation of older chick bones, and the lungs with which we breathe are an adaptation of a bladder of sorts from our underwater days (which many fishes have adapted for buoyancy purposes). Where we humans seem to have a significant advantage over other animals is in evolution endowing us with brains capable of adapting to new challenges within our lifetimes as opposed to the eons during which evolutionary adaptations take place.
One such example in which skills honed in one area were adapted to address a challenge in another area took place recently with me at work. In an effort to improve the balance of our lives at home (and also our finances and our careers), I have asked work to move to a four day week so that both I and Jo can work for four days each while Dylan visits childcare three times a week (a frequency which we feel is just about right).
Initially, my oral request was answered with a resounding "no". Not only that, I was told that were I to ask in writing I would be given a written rejection. But I didn't succomb; instead, I've adapted the skills earned in thousands of blog posts and wrote a lengthy request letter pressing all the buttons I could press (e.g., "work life balance", "employer of choice", and even pointing at the fact that similar request raised by females returning from maternity leave are commonly accepted whereas I was denied due to sexual bias).
And it worked: I recently got the news that my request is going to be tested through a three month pilot between January and March. If the pilot is deemed successful (and the powers that be avoided defining a set of criteria that would prevent them from changing their minds later), I would be on a four day working week for the duration of 2010.
So blogging works, and poor Dylan doesn't realize what's coming.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Go Raw

One of the more interesting mysteries of our time is to do with the rising popularity of allergies with the younger generations. I grew up in an environment where everyone had free access to nuts, yet today I’d be shot dead if was to enter a childcare facility with a peanut in my pocket.
Interestingly enough, over the last week or so I have stumbled upon two separate updates that provide some potential hints towards locating the source of the problem.
The first was a news update from ABC, where scientists claimed to have identified that the processing of fiber through bacteria in the stomach tends to encourage the immune system. When fiber is hard to come by, as when people eat more processed food and less raw stuff, the immune system as not as stimulated, thus increasing the potential for inflammatory diseases (which, to the best of my understanding, include auto immune diseases and allergies).
The second update came from the British Journal of Psychiatry, where research has reported to find a link between the consumption of processed foods and depression.
I guess the lessons are pretty simple. The problem is the modern lifestyle that keeps us too busy to cook properly and holds us hostage to the constant marketing bombardment coming in from the manufactures of cheap processed foods.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

I Didn't Start the Fire

It’s hard to imagine, but I was outgeeked last night at my own home: Jo actually stayed on the computer later than I did. Worse, she took the netbook with her to bed. Sure, she had a good excuse, but it probably is a sign of the times; an indication for just how much the internet has taken hold of mortals’ lives and not just the gadget oriented.
There are other signs out there for the whole world being infected with internet geekiness. Here’s one.
More than three years ago I purchased a Firefox t-shirt at the Mozilla website. Those keeping an eye on my photos at Flickr must have seen it being worn on one occasion or another as it is one of my favorite shirts.
When I wore it to work on a hot casual Friday three years ago there was only one guy making an audible comment about the shirt. He pointed it out and told others that I’m wearing a silly web browser shirt but no one else knew what he was on about.
On Monday this week I wore the shirt again for the self declared casual Monday I celebrated before the Melbourne Cup holiday. This time around the shirt was commented on by virtually everyone I’m on talking terms with at the office. Not only that, I got comments and smiles while walking the street. Several people have referred to me as “Mr Firefox” even though they only saw the shirt’s front, where the Firefox logo is on display but nothing actually says “Firefox”; those people must have recognized the logo.
On my way to the train station I got stopped by all the charity organization hawkers that stop you and ask you to donate money to their organizations. I used to be annoyed by them but now I fully despise them: A week ago, The Age has revealed them to be the employees of a marketing company (as opposed to ideological volunteers) that collects 90% of the first year’s donations into their own pockets (as opposed to the money actually going to the charity of choice). I was so annoyed by the revelation I canceled my regular donations to Oxfam. It’s not that I don’t think Oxfam’s agenda is worthwhile anymore, but I am quite annoyed with their lack of transparency and the way they treat their donators.
But I’m straying, as usual. This post’s point is that people are much more internet savvy than they used to be, indicating at cracks in Microsoft’s grip of the computing world. If a non for profit, open source organization like Mozilla can achieve such recognition then there must be hope for civilization yet.

Monday, 2 November 2009

Home Away for Home

Originally uploaded by reuvenim
With two weekends of relatively intense house inspections and auctions under our belt, the resulting soul mining processes are stating to create some convergence in our grasp of what it is that we want from our future home.
I can repeat what I said before and state that we are looking for a house we can comfortably live in which would also enhance our lives’ experiences, but while we can all get some idea of what I am talking about with such a definition there can be no denying its rather wishy-washy nature. This is a definition worthy of pseudo scientists, not someone like me who likes to be grounded in facts. The purpose of this post is therefore to specify some measurable attributes of what it is we would like to have in our future home.

Before going in to what we want out of a house, let me spend a couple of paragraphs on what it seems the general Australian public (or rather Melbournian public) is looking for when they shop for a house. It’s interesting because of its overall simplicity when looked upon at the macro level, and it’s also important because it has a significant effect on our own preferences and compromises.
First of all, people are looking for location. Because real estate investments are the number investment in Australia, due to legislation as well as popular culture (in contrast to Israel, where the number one spot is firmly with the stock exchange and property investment is relatively unpopular), Melbournians are looking for a way to ensure their investment will bear the fruits of high returns. So they look for simple parameters by which a house’s value can be estimated, and the number one of those is the post code.
A look at the post code we currently live in and its immediate neighbors reveals an unpleasant truth: we have been effectively priced out of our area. There are no houses worth living in (bachelors excepted) for less than a seven digit figure.
The second parameter Aussies are after is size. Size conquers all: you can get away with selling a huge mansion built of paper walls in Melbourne, because it’s the size matters. Insulation and build quality matter less than last year's news. The main manifestation of this lust for the big is the way houses are built nowadays: they take as much of the plot as the local council will allow, and they will leave outside areas to the minimum they can get away with while still being able to sell the place and advertise it to have an outdoor area.
Combine the two factors together, the post code and the lust for size, and you can see a trend: moving from inner Melbourne towards the outside suburbs, investors are buying old houses in their full plots of land, knock these houses down and divide the plot to a couple or more units. Then they build houses on these subdivided plots, houses that are built to take as much space as possible for optimization in the size department.
The implication is simple: Given our budget, for us to live at an inner suburb would immediately imply us buying one of those subdivided units. If we want a house that, by our terms and conditions, would enhance our lives, then we have to get away from the center towards the areas the investors have not touched yet because their return on investment there would be lower. Now, that last statement of mine implies I don’t like houses built for maximum size, and that is true. Although there is a high probability I end up living in one, I find these constructions to be buildings that impose themselves on our minds rather than buildings that allow the mind to break free.
But I’m being wishy-washy again. The point is that we have to compromise with our choice of a future home. And with that in mind, it’s time to move into measurable specifications. What is it that we really think we want in our house at this moment in time?

  • Size: Being true to the Aussie spirit, we want to join the size party even if by Aussie standards our demands are rather humble. We would like to have at least a three bedroom house, preferably with a fourth room that could serve as a study.
  • Living areas: We would like a living area for us and a separate one for our currently two year old Dylan. Sounds selfish, and I admit this is a lower priority demand, but it would feel nice not to sit on a pile of toys when looking for rest and recuperation after a hard day at the office / serving the whims of a child.
  • Space: Living areas on their own are not much good if you don’t have room to store all your stuff in. We’ve seen houses that boasted a large number of rooms but had no storage facilities to speak of; effectively, one of the rooms has to be sacrificed in order to serve as the junk room. Workarounds such as using half of your double garage for storage can work but only to certain degree: you won’t store your clothing articles and your, say, towels in the garage.
  • Car space: In contrast to everyone seeking a garage worthy of a couple of aircraft carriers, I would be happy with just a basic roof over my car to prevent the worst ravages of nature (both weather caused and fauna sourced - as in droppings).
  • Home theater: Our house must be able to accommodate my minimum requirements for a home theater setup. I’m not asking for a dedicated room or anything special, just a configuration that the speakers and the screen can live with. A place to put them all in while maintaining a proper home theater speaker configuration around the listening sweet spot.
  • Body corporate: I suspect that I can love thy neighbor much more if I wasn’t busy quarreling body corporate issues with them. Best avoided.
  • Schools: That’s a new one in our vocabulary, but if one of my purposes in life is to ensure my son grows up to be a decent person (and it is) then being able to send him to a good school is of utmost importance. Thing is, what is a good school?
    I’m going to start by being un-Australian and stating out loud that I do not want to send my child to a private school (unless I have to due to bullying etc); I am also of the opinion that the entire concept of private schooling is a flawed one because I have a hard time seeing how the greatest minds humanity has ever produced – the likes of Einstein, Hawking, Newton and even Dawkins and Asimov – could ever come out of such meat grinders. These establishments are but factories for processing kids, robbing them of their open mind-ness as they go.
    Special reservation is dedicated to religious [private] schools. One of the houses we’ve inspected is right near a Catholic school, and when I asked the estate agent for the area’s state primary school she suggested using the Catholic’s services. I semi politely declined the offer.
    The question is, how does one assess the quality of an area’s state schools? While some have a reputation, I am in no position to be able to provide an answer I’d be comfortable with. Who knows what the basis for the reputation is? What I can do is look at the data at my disposal: First and foremost, and for obvious reasons, it is clear that schools tend to be as good as the affluence of their areas; the sad reality is that federal legislation gives away more tax money to affluent areas than they do to poorer areas, and the even sadder reality is that the politicians who might try to reverse the trend will not be re-elected.
    Second, I can go and have a look at the schools themselves. I haven’t done any worthwhile tours but I can speak of my impressions from the outside. The typical Aussie school looks quite different to the structures I’m used to from Israel: Many are built around Victorian era buildings that I find quite intimidating and, I suspect, might have been designed with the purpose of intimidating their occupants rather than cultivating their spirits. It's also interesting that in contrast to Israel most schools have huge sporting grounds of very a green nature, testifying to the importance of sport in local culture (and making me wonder whether these come at the expense of intellectual achievements).
    Third, we live in a world where the virtual is no less real than the real. Looking at school’s websites, I could so far see that a lot of their word of mouth reputation is, indeed, substantiated through their website. The better the school is said to be, the nicer and more effective its website is. Whether that is a worthy indicator is a matter for another debate.
  • Outdoor area: Again, I’ll be true to my locality and specify we would like our house to have a nice outdoor area. Growing up in Israeli apartment buildings I never dreamt up the option of having a private outdoor area of my own, but there can be no denying its value to “the human experience”: spending even just a few minutes out on a nice day can make a whole lot of a difference to one’s view of life. And Dylan is just crazy about playing outside.
  • Facilities: This is one area where the more affluent suburb trumps the lesser ones. We live in close proximity to a medical clinic that’s got friendly and professional staff and is open very generously (late in the evenings, weekends). You may discount that last attribute, but between having an accessible clinic next to me or having to take my child to an emergency room during a weekend – I know where I would want to live.
    There’s more. We live next to a post office that’s open on Saturdays, so we always have an easy pickup option when someone sends us registered post. And lest we forget, we live next to a really good video rental store where by now I’m getting super VIP treatment and we’re all on first name basis; sounds silly, but that’s important to me. It’s the type of things that makes life nicer to live.
  • Transport: The importance of living next to a good train line cannot be understated. At the moment we live in a suburb that’s not too far from Melbourne’s CBD, at least by Melbournian standards (by Israeli standards it’s on another galaxy). Yet it takes me a full hour to get from home to work, less than half of which is spent on the train itself.
    Then there’s the issue of one train line being better than the other, mostly because you stand less of a chance of feeling like a tinned sardine as you climb on board. If we do move further away from Melbourne then we will be looking at the grim reality of even extended commutes to work. Unless, that is, we score a place not too far from a train station (a possibility that grows less likely the further you get from the center).
  • Area: Everyone says they want to live in a nice area, but what does that mean, exactly? Facilities wise, you’d want to live in a clean area with lots of open spaces and lots of green. For children you’d want proper play parks. For adults and children you’d want a quiet piece of the world and some distance away from major roads.
    Most importantly, you want good neighbors. But how can you determine that? Again we’re getting back to the area’s affluence as the best indicator, but I do have to add a reservation. As discussed at a previous post, there are significant issues with what people perceive as the top signs of successful life: Those with the largest amounts of money seem as inspiring to me as a cheap women’s magazine. The area I would prefer to live in would have less affluence and more diversity.
  • Budget: While I’m not going to specify our budget here for various reasons (not least being its lack of relevancy to the discussion at hand), we are very much limited by a budget. The more we spend the more we’ll owe our lives to the banks and the less freedom we’ll have: Do I really want the best house ever if it means I cannot travel overseas or cannot put my hands on a PlayStation 4 (whenever it comes out)?
    While one can clearly see the difference between houses selling for X and houses selling for X + 10%, in the sense that you do get what you pay for, the restrictions that come with tying your financial future to a piece of real estate are very hard to forecast.
  • Return on investment: No, I still don't think of my house as an investment and then a place to live in, but I do have to recognize that a house represents many years of my life and I do know that eventually I'd like to sell the house. Therefore, I would seek a house that will not mean I threw my life down the dump. That implies that previously sub divided units have a lot against them, as they lose investor attraction in the sense that they cannot be further sub divided.

There are probably more factors that escaped the top of my head for now, so I’ll continue the discussion by reviewing the houses we liked the most thus far.
Of the houses we’ve seen saw far, three have touched us to the point where we could see ourselves living in them. The first is a ground level unit in the back of another unit, smallish yet homely but expensive for its size. The trick about it is the area: A super quiet location at the back of a very quiet street. Then there’s the location: stand at the end of the driveway and you will see the sea, only a five minute walk away; and if you will take the walk you’ll find the house is right next to the back of what seems to be a very nice school and near an area full of nice restaurants and cafes. We joke about the real estate agents touting “lifestyle” with every piece of crap they sell, but in this house’s particular case it is, indeed, the lifestyle that is right next to it which is its biggest attraction.
The second house is one of those monstrous space fillers of a unit. It’s two stories high, which means the upper floor will get hot, but it seems to be well built (quite the exception!) and even sports double glazed windows. It’s big and the house itself certainly ticks all the boxes, but… It ticks them all but it doesn’t trigger any enthusiasm while doing so. It’s functional but not exciting. It’s like excellent special effects on a crap film. By far its biggest drawback is its outdoor area: A thin strip that won’t let Dylan play too much in and is overlooked by the neighboring two story unit that’s half a centimeter away.
Outdoors wise, this unit is pretty close to our current residence, so it shares most of the pros and cons. It is located right opposite a Catholic school, which would allow me to post a sign its front along the lines of “Condoms = Life” or just “Boys, watch your backs”; more seriously, though, I don’t know how noisy or how busy the area gets due to its school life. State school wise, the unit is served by what is probably the least attractive school of the area; how unattractive is something I’ll need to investigate if and when the proposition becomes hotter.
The third option will probably be beyond our means. It’s a very beautifully renovated huge weatherboard house on its full plot of land, located at a relatively remote area (public transport wise) of a suburb farther than ours. The area is probably not bad, but definitely not as nice as our current area and the house is right off a major road. On the positive side, the area’s school seems promising.
But the house! While it has one toilet only, it’s got enough rooms for all the guests we never have to come visit us at the same time, and it’s got a living room so big that Mr Bingley can host one of his balls there. Not to mention the outdoor area that will allow Arsenal to host their home matches. It’s a house that made us go “we want it!”, a house that ticks the checkboxes quite enthusiastically. Pity we’ll be outbid at the auction.
Interestingly enough, when Jo discussed our housing escapades with her mother in England over a lengthy Skype call on Saturday night, the house that kept creeping back to the agenda was the one by the sea. Even if it fails ticking the practicality checkboxes that are sending us off our current premises in the first place, it is undeniably the place with the best magnetism. Should we follow our hearts or follow our checklist?

Sunday, 1 November 2009

Signs of Summer

How can one tell that summer has hit Melbourne, or at least that Melbourne went through its first spell of summery days?
One way is to note our two year old Dylan catching his first gastro after a break lasting since last summer. The other way is to listen to the noise our desktop generates.
Exactly five years ago I have assembled the parts for my current desktop. You see, I see no point in going to a company like HP or Dell and paying a surcharge for the privilege of them overcharging me on older model components when I can get the latest for much less. However, back then I saw no reason to invest in its case; I therefore picked the cheapest case I could find, which gave me a box and a power supply for $60 (or was it $55?). That proved to be a big mistake.
I should have seen it coming. For a start, I never had myself a desktop where I did not have to replace the power supply somewhere along the way; a good excuse if any to invest in a good one that would, hopefully, change the trend. And second, I failed to take into account the behavior of my desktop's CPU and graphics card during the hotter days of the year. As it is, whenever the temperature inside our house is 22 degrees or higher, the noise from my desktop's fans is just too loud for us to be able to really enjoy using it.
So there you go: The next time I buy a desktop or recommend components to others (quite a frequent affair), I would invest some $200 to $300 in something nice from the likes of Thermaltake or Antec.
For the record, we are not exactly doomed to live through a noisy summer. Not with our netbooks at hand. With the Asus Eee PC 701's Celeron CPU and especially with the Asus Eee PC 1000HE's Intel Atom CPU, heat dissipation is not that big a deal simply because not much heat is generated in the first place. What a lovely way to deal with summer!