Friday, 30 April 2010

Top of the Pope

Recounting our last post, here's a video from Tim Minchin that may put things in a better perspective.
Note: unless you're self employed, do not play this at the office.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Divided They Fall

Originally uploaded by reuvenim
Christianity seemed like a simple affair to me during my Israeli days. Sure, we studied a bit on how the church was divided several hundred years ago and that some wars followed; we heard about Northern Ireland; and we know that Rangers and Celtic supporters would rather eat each other’s guts than the more mundane Scottish culinary delights. But those have to be minor interruptions in the grand scheme of Christianity, so I supposed, a religion that the ignorant Israeli in me used to perceive as made up of a group of rather naive people who actually go for that really silly story about Jesus (unlike “our” Jewish story which is all but impeccable, at least according to some of my school teachers; check it out here if you don't believe me).
When I moved to Australia I started noticing the Christian world is not as homogeneous as I used to think. The most noticeable manifestation was the way Catholics are despised by the rest of the population. There’s more to it, though: driving around you notice all sorts of different churches from different streams of Christianity. Then you notice they’re in active competition with one another, and then you realize that while they might all call themselves Christian they probably hate each other’s guts more than they hate people of other faiths.
At least in Australia, the argument seems to come down to a battle for dominance between Anglicans and Catholics. My impression is that the Anglos are a generally nice bunch (looks may be deceiving, though: bring over a Global Atheist Convention and you will see all the hairs on the Anglican’s backs). And the Catholics? I have to say that the more I learn about them the more problems I have with what they stand for.
Catholicism, it seems, contains the worst Christianity has to offer. Given Christianity's starting point, that’s saying a lot: Looking at their present state, they have their distorted sense of thinking we’re all living in total sin, fallen from some ideal that could have never existed; they mistreat various minorities, such as gays; they mistreat half of the population (women) more than other popular Christian sects; and – here comes the worst – they actively seek out to impose their way of thinking and their way of life upon the rest of us. Don’t believe me? Check the following out:
  1. The Catholic Church thinks it’s above the law in the way it deals with child rape (discussed here). Sadly, it appears we’re all letting them get away with it.
  2. It is pressure from the Church, and the Catholic Church in particular, that took down the initiative to give Australia its own bill of rights. George Pell, head Catholic honcho in Australia, is the most adamant activist against the initiative. The Church, it appears, prefers inequality because it’s the source of its power.
  3. Stephen Conroy, the man who would censor our internet if we were to let him get away with it, is a Catholic. Listen to him talking and you will quickly see his Catholicism is the main motivator for him being such a stupid moron. And yes, the guy is a federal minister and he’s sticking his Bronze Age beliefs in my face.
Thus when signaling out the worst of Australian religion, one usually ends up pointing the finger towards Catholicism.

As a closing note, I'd like to point out there is significant difference between Catholicism as an ideology and Catholics as people. The Catholics I know in person are proof you can't successfully stereotype people, while the dogma is fair game waiting to be trounced.

Monday, 26 April 2010

Redneck TV

Generally speaking, we do not watch commercial TV at our household. It's not a matter of principle but rather testimony to the quality of programs on Australia's three commercial TV channels. The only time we give them a chance is when they broadcast good films, and during these exceptions we always fast forward the commercials. I could not, however, ignore the following:
A harsh serious voice, of the type normally used in film teasers (ala "this time it's personal"), recounting how "people from the Far East" are buying OUR houses and then leave them empty while Aussies are left unable to fulfill our dreams of ever owning a house of our own. Enhanced through the insertion of a distorted images such as one depicting several people of Far Eastern appearance made to look nasty, you could have easily mistaken the message to be a Joseph Goebbels blast from the past; but it isn't. That was a prime time promo for Channel 7's prime time program current affairs, Today Tonight.
It sent shivers through my spine. This fucked up promo had all the classic Elders of Zion racial propaganda trademarks, including distortion of the truth and looking at a very narrow bit of the facts (as if pure bred whites do not buy investment properties). I felt ashamed in the thought that friends of mine who happen to be of Far Eastern origins might view this shameful testimony of the way some of their peers view them.
The problem is not a new one. Channel 7 has been playing the racial card in its ratings war with Channel 9 for a while now, with flagship programs like Border Security (a reality show scaring locals through the demonstration of all the nasty things wanting to get inside our homeland) and even with the way they market programs like The Pacific, a World War 2 series on American soldiers in the Pacific theaters, as "the fight for Australia".
The scary thing is that aside of criticism from the likes Marieke Hardy in her ex column at The Age we're letting the culprits get away with it. The scary thing is that since playing the racial card Channel 7 has been winning its ratings war. What does that say of us?

Caving to mounting pressures, the federal government has reinstated limitation it had removed due to the GFC on foreigners buying Australian real estate. I agree, there is a supply problem and letting outsiders in only increases the problem; but I think the solutions are clear for all to see, mainly in the form of doing something about the tax benefits real estate investments have over other, more constructive, forms of investment.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Cold Calling

One of the privileges of staying home in the middle of the week is receiving cold calls trying to sell you stuff. Or, in the case below, get my money contribution:
[Note: the following transcript is accurate only in spirit; my memory is not that good]
Cold Caller: "May I ask if you'd be interested in selling raffle tickets for our Save the Children fund?"
Yours Truly: "No, I choose to be selfish. A line has to be drawn and there are just that many causes I or anyone else can support in this world of finite resources."
A rather confused Cold Caller: "So you are not willing to help save the children?"
Yours Truly: "No."

You may think the above makes me an idiot asshole. You're probably right. Still, think about this: There are something close to an infinite number of good causes out there, yet any one of us hardly does anything to support but a few of them. Why should I surrender to this particular application of psychological extortion? Is it just because it was my phone number's turn to come up on some elusive call center's queue?
The reality is none of us does as much as we can to address good causes. Not the guy from the call center and not even you, because if you were to do everything you can to help the needy you wouldn't be reading this but rather helping the homeless. Oh, and that cake you've had? Think how many starving kids in Africa you would have nourished there. There is no end to these things and a line has to be drawn where I choose to become selfish.
My point is that we all have to make our compromises and decide at which point it's worth to stop giving and start living, given that we only have one life each and that one life tends to be rather short and chaotic. The only difference between me and everybody else is that I am not about to shy away from my selfishness and pretend that by giving away a dollar to a cold caller I have saved the world.
What we should all be doing is pro-actively think how we can best improve this world we live in. For some of us the answer would be giving away money to charities, for others the answer would be different; but no cold caller intent on maximum profits per call time should be causing a significant revolution to my priorities. Or yours.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Eeebuntu 701

My adventures with my two Asus Eee PCs continue. My old Eee, the very first netbook this world has seen - the Eee PC 701 - is now a bit of an under performer. Old in the tooth and equipped with too lesser a CPU and RAM to reach for the sky, it's now primarily my official computing testing environment.
More than a year ago I told you how I've installed Ubuntu Netbook Remix (NBR) on my 701, at a time before Ubuntu released their official NBR version. I liked it and it had served me well, but that particular Ubuntu version (Intrepid Ibex) is now too old for comfort: it's version of Firefox is so old the first thing you get when you start it is a security warning. The solution is to upgrade to a later version of Ubuntu but there's a rub: getting all the drivers to fit the operating system to my particular netbook's hardware is far from trivial, and I wasn't particularly looking forward to the ordeal of looking new ones up.
So, what can one do?
I decided to go for another Linux distribution, Eeebuntu. The current version (3) is meant to be based on Ubuntu and fitted with the Asus Eee PCs in mind (a newer version, 4, is expected soon; version 4 will not be Ubuntu based after a rift erupted between Eeebuntu's developers and Ubuntu, with the former claiming Ubuntu keeps on rewriting basic bits of the operating system too often for them to keep up).
There are two reasons for this choice of Eeebuntu. The first one is comfort: Eeebuntu is meant to work on the 701 out of the box, drivers and all, saving me that annoying search that is the bane of Linux. The second is directly related to the first: I have never managed to find the Ubuntu Netbook Remix drivers for my other Eee PC, an Asus 1000HE; if Eeebuntu turns out to be good, and if it does indeed work out of the box (as it also promises to do on the 1000HE), then I might replace Ubuntu NBR with Eeebuntu NBR on my more operational netbook, too.
With that in mind I went for the installation itself. The entire affair took me half an hour last night and was as smooth as - read that, Microsoft!
The pleasant surprises did not end there. First, it became obvious Eeebunru does have the drivers for my 701: wireless internet worked right away, and the same applied to the speakers and the microphone. Second, Eeebuntu comes with most of the applications I like to use on my netbook already pre-installed: for example, Skype and VLC are already there.
Indeed, the only setup work I had to do involved Skype. While the webcam was running well out of the box the microphone didn't. It's a typical problem for Skype's Linux version which I have encountered with all my previous Skype installations there. The solution is simple: change Skype's default sound devices to Intel, Pulse and Pulse.
And there you have it. This post has been written in Eeebuntu, proving that Linux can be stupidly user friendly - much more so than Windows - when it is specifically tailored with a particular PC in mind.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

How to get away with rape

Today's headline from The Age provides a user guide on how one can get away with raping underage kids. I'll give you the guide's executive brief in four words:
Become a Catholic priest

Now for a few of the facts revealed in the article below the headline:
1. 300 abuse cases against the Catholic Church in Melbourne alone.
2. Punishments thus far: One decommissioned priest.

That's really the bottom line. If you were to rape underage kids you'd be sent to jail and everyone around you would detest you; unless, that is, you happen to be a Catholic priest, in which case the worst that can happen to you is a transfer to an office job. But hey, don't let that punishment stop your dick from getting into places: only one in three hundred gets that extreme a treatment.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

The Business Lunch

How does one keep track of events in one's personal life? I noticed that I do so by referencing notable events in my life. As in, that desktop came in right after we moved houses, that printer came in during my mother in law's previous visit, and that photo was taken right before we had Dylan.
The strange thing about it is that I have been noticing it’s getting harder and harder for me to keep track of the times. Some of it is probably to do with senility creeping in with my advancing age, but a lot of it is to do with the age of my ultimate reference calibration point for estimating periods: the date I moved from Israel to Australia. It's ultimate because it’s a date where pretty much everything I’ve had before was replaced by new stuff, but it’s starting to fail in its role as a reference point because by now I have gone through several cycles of life in Australia.
Then it dawned on me. Even though I still regard myself as new to Australia, by now I have actually spent some 20% of my life as an Aussie. That’s a lot of time! Sure, I’ve missed out on growing up here, probably the defining experience for being a fair dinkum Aussie, but the fact is I am now more Aussie than anything else. Sure, I consider nationalities and borderlines to be humanity's most stupid invention other than religion (and one look at our planet from outer space is good enough to see why), but as small as our world is becoming it is still not that small; geography still matters.

This got me to reminisce on the hardships of moving to Australia and the things I’ve had to contend with, new habits I’ve had to assume. Especially when it comes to work, given the traumatic experience I’ve had at being unemployed for some six months during the early stages of my Aussie adventures.
There are many things one needs to get accustomed to when it comes to Aussie work etiquette. Dress code is one thing I’ve discussed here before, but there's another thing I’ve neglected to mention thus far but which has a significant impact on the general feeling of workers at the workplace. I'm talking about the institution of lunch.
I didn't really appreciate it much when I worked in Israel, but throughout my working career there work has supplied me with free lunches. Even while working as a student on a measly pay, I still got my lunch. My first proper job was at a government place where the food wasn't great (it did have healthy options) but the entire team would go together to eat and it was great fun. Later, when I moved to the high-tech side of town, my lunches were upgraded to proper restaurant business lunches: these were probably the best tasting lunches I've ever had.
Then I moved to Australia. Gone were the free lunches.
I didn't realize it at the time, but one of my initial shocks upon starting my first job in Australia came from having to find a place to have lunch in. Given the low density of Melbourne, unless you're at the CBD you do need to look quite hard for a proper place to eat; you're usually required to make a car trip. That takes time, which means your lunch break is extra long, which means you have to stay late at the office. Eventually I gave up and drove to the nearest shopping mall where I usually ended up with some garbage fast food.
With my second Aussie job I quickly settled on bringing food from home. At first it was leftovers, then the lazy person in me (the dominant side of me) resorted to tinned fish with bread - the perfect lazy man's lunch which earned me the nickname "tuna man". That particular place had a lunch room but didn't have any facilities other than a microwave, which meant I even had to bring my utensils with me from home - pretty pathetic.
At least that place had company, something that's missing from my current job. Nowadays, come lunch time, everyone disappears their own way. I usually disappear to read my Scientific American while munching on my fish; the point is, it's a miserable solitary lunch.
The point of the story is simple. Work wise, my immigration story to Australia is not only the story of how all my professional aspirations vanished in the haze of the mediocrity that dominates the virtually non existent Australian high-tech insudtry, as I have discussed here in the past; it's also the story of how office life had deteriorated to but a pale shadow of what it used to be.
The average Aussie worker is not appreciated half as much as their European colleagues and works under much sadder conditions. While, generally speaking, Australia offers a much better lifestyle than Israel, Australia still has a lot to learn.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Come Together

The internet is a great tool for bringing together people of like minds. That is what I was thinking as I was Googling my parents in law's business, only to find that one of their main rivals has paid Google enough money to put their name on top of someone else's business in the Google search results even though it was that someone else's business I was explicitly looking for.
For the benefit of the rest of this post, let me provide you with the basic background of my parents in law's family business: They're in the manufacturing industry; theirs is a niche market; they sell a small number of relatively big and expensive products; and their business shall rename unnamed here.

I knew the internet to be a gateway to the world for quite a while, but it was the acquisition of the iPhone, the resulting constant internet accessibility, and the consequential infatuation with the world of Twitter and Facebook that helped me realize just how much the internet is capable of getting me in touch with people that think like me.
To name just a few examples from the last month, I have had a photo of Dylan appear in one of the world's most popular science blogs; I have exchanged views and jokes with presenters from Melbourne's recent Global Atheist Convention and with comedians from the Melbourne Comedy Festival; and in my list of Facebook friends I now have an Australian author, an activist and a feminist with whom I share a lot of opinions and who publishes articles in daily Australian publications on a regular basis.
What does that have to do with my parents in law's business? Not much other than me wondering how far their business would go if they were to do what I am doing out of my own personal interests in order to promote their own business. Their business' current website is archaic, the type that makes you think theirs cannot be a serious business (while in fact I know the truth to be the exact opposite); but think of the options they have to promote their business, most of which won't cost them anything other than time - time that I already spend for my own pleasure without any financial gains.
Where could they start? They could establish a presence for themselves on Facebook and alert all their customers of it so the customers can become friends or fans. In there they could publish updates regarding their business and new products of theirs; they could even add some personal stuff for that personal feeling, because one of the greatest things about their business is that it is a family business and not some cold hearted conglomerate.
Similarly, they could start a Twitter account with the occasional news brief. Say, a sale of sorts, a second hand item they put their hands on and now offer on sale, a new model product... To those interested in their products such a service could be very handy.
They could start selling their products online. Maybe not by themselves, but they could certainly do so through eBay; they already have the delivery side of things sorted, it's just an avenue to easily connect the end consumer to them. Accepting PayPal, they can have the option of easily selling overseas, too.
And yes, they could even redo their website and update it on a regular basis. The way this blog works. By seeing a live website being kept up to date, customers will have confidence doing business with a company that's alive and well.
The funny thing about it all? If my parents in law lack the know how on how to do all of the above they could even get us to do some of them. Sure, we live half a world away, but since when do geography and international borderlines matter when it comes to the internet?

Thursday, 15 April 2010

The year gravity took hold

Looking back at Dylan's life thus far, it seems as if we can sum up his life experience by the calamities that befell him during each of his years on this planet. The first year shaped up to be the year of the ears, with Dylan suffering from a chain of ear infections and grommet operations to address them. The second year was the year of the asthma (augmented by ear infections, too). And now we seem to have a worthy candidate for the calamity to dominate his third living year: gravity.
The record speaks for itself. During Easter Dylan stumbled on my shoes to fall on our bedside cabinet and earn himself a black eye. Yesterday Dylan tried taking his shoes off while sitting on a chair, lost his balance, fell off the chair, hit his head on the spare bedside cabinet that we placed in the kitchen because we didn't know what to do with it, and then hit it again on the floor. And today, in a moment of sightseeing, he forgot to keep hold of his bicycle's handlebar and fell off.
The result thus far is a Dylan that's shaken and a bit stirred. But also a Dylan that learns that he needs to be a bit more careful as he goes about: he knows now that running around the house could be dangerous given the tight confines; that you need to be careful when you're on a high position; and that you need to be very careful when riding a bike. There is, it seems, a benefit to the gravity related incidents he's been going through: he learns from them, and hopefully, with time, they would take place less frequently.
The trick, it seems, is in having accidents that hurt enough to teach you but don't hurt enough to really hurt you. Luckily, we have noticed that evolution seems to have humans designed to deal with moderate falls: it is quite impressive to see how well Dylan's skull can cope with managing to prevent serious damage from taking place, and - in particular - how well protected the eye is.
Still, as parents, we need to keep our eyes open for signs of danger. Learning is good, but I would have preferred it if Dylan would just listen to us for a change and avoid testing the earth's gravity for its consistency and power.

At this point I'll stray a bit and mention that this strategy of learning from milder experience does not only apply to babies learning how the world works. I can see the way it has worked on me in dealing with grown up stuff.
Take love, for example. I have had my share of broken hearts in the past, and at the time each of those incidents felt bad and recovery was hard. But I think I learned something from those incidents, things that helped me become more aware of what a good relationship is and how to maintain it. There is still a lot of room for improvement, of course, but in retrospect those moderate falls from days gone by ended up serving as the foundation for the way I act today. I wouldn't have been able to be the married parent I am without those broken hearts.
And what do I take out of this? That us, humans, are not as capable as we want to think we are when it comes to learning from others' experience. That is probably why we allow history to repeat itself again and again.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Raising a Religion Neutral Child

In my previous post I have raised the alarm concerning our children being forced to endure Christian religious brainwashing sessions at their supposedly secular state schools, all under the government’s approving eye. This time around I want to focus on my reasons for being so vehemently against the evangelization of religion in secular schools.

When it comes to religion, my basic approach is to raise a religion neutral child. That is, raise the child without introducing him (in my case, it is a “him”) to religion at all, to the point of him not being aware of the concept of god in the first place, and maintain that approach as long as suitable. Suitability is measured by the child’s ability to make his own mind up as opposed to surrendering to what others tell him is right through the power of their authority; and in order to ensure my child is thus able, my focus in bringing him up shall be on teaching him the tools of critical analysis.
This approach of mine is not limited to religion alone. I refuse, for example, to choose my son’s football team for him; he should have the pleasure of choosing his own team for his own reasons. Religion is different to sports, though, in that religion attempts to provide a framework for everything in life, and therefore the handling there is much harder. Yet similarly to football, I do not intend to teach my son that atheism is the right way (which, indeed, is my firm opinion); he should make his own mind up.
Personally, I can’t see a way for any sensible person to willingly choose religion. I mean, just look at the crap coming from the religions in my immediate vicinity: the old testament teaches us its quite cool to murder others if they don’t hold your own beliefs (check out Joshua), while Christianity’s myth of Jesus dying to save us all can only make sense when you realize it’s nothing more than a barbaric lust for blood.
In effect, what I am trying to do is to cure my son from religion by not introducing it to him at all. The simple analogy would be the lack of a need to vaccinate a child against a virus that does not exist: I am seeking to keep my son in a religion free bubble until he’s old enough for his mind’s immune system to deal with it without the need for particular directions on my behalf. And as most viruses in our environment can be dealt with using a healthy immune system, so can an able mind easily deal with religion’s numbing effect.
The way I used to see it, the only flow in my plan is my own parenting skills: I do not have much confidence in my ability to instill critical analysis skills to my son. Frankly, at this early stage I don't even know where to start. But I intend to work in it.
The way I see it, other than this not so minor flaw my plan should have been perfectly achievable in Australia. Not in Israel, mind you, given the way that country is very nonsecular and Judaism is forced on you left and right; but Australia, on paper, is a multicultural secular country. Things could not be easier.
But then I learn that Australia is not secular at all. And then I learn that Australia may be multicultural but there is one culture that’s above the rest of them. In Australia, Christianity is the one culture to rule them all.

As Sarah pointed out with her comment to my previous post, things are not as bleak as I portray them to be. As was pointed out to me, the religious lessons are carried out by old grannies with no genuine teaching skills and the whole affair is no more dangerous to a young person’s mind than other means of time wasting. Any danger those classes might have are easily averted by discussing them at home.
There are a couple of rubs here. The first is that I would prefer to avoid discussions on religious matters at home in the first place. Not because I don’t enjoy a good laugh (this blog is evidence I do), but rather because I prefer religious neutrality given the three contradicting religious views held by family members (Judaism, Christianity and atheism/agnosticism). Needless to say, if pushed to a corner then my son is going to have one major advocate for atheism by his side, able to utilize the full load of intellect “my” side has: between Dawkins and Sagan, religion does not stand a chance in a rational debate. The God Delusion alone obliterates it into tiny pieces (and if you haven’t read it, do it: it’s a great read), and PZ Myers breaks it apart several times a day in his blog. But again, I don’t want things to come down to that.

The second rub, and the reason why I am not about to allow complacency towards religious education in school, is to do with history and what I can learn from it.
The history books are pretty clear here. Throughout its existence, religion has always made a bid for the young mind, looking to make future loyal subjects by brainwashing them when they're young. Christianity in particular, being a missionary religion, has dedicated institutions for dealing with such tasks.
And if you think this is just ancient history and I'm being overly paranoid, think again. Since this last weekend the newspapers have provided enough information to demonstrate that today's church leaders are just as bad as those of days we thought have gone by. Perhaps the only difference is in the church's relative lack of resources (compared to days of yonder) forcing them to use the services of rather useless grannies instead of a professional brainwasher.
Check this article, written by the head of the Australian Christian Lobby and published in The Age in protest of NSW considering the limited replacement of religion classes with secular studies of ethics. The general gist of the article is the author claiming Christian ethics to be the number one source of ethical standards for humanity. That's not only factually wrong, it's a comment most people would find racist; if I was to make such a claim myself on behalf of, say, Judaism I would be rightly prosecuted. The church dudes, however, can get away with it in modern Australia; their way rules, and they must have their way forced on our children.
Then we learn here that the same church dudes have had a private chat with the NSW Premier, as a result of which they are now allowed to vet the contents of the replacement ethics classes. In effect, through the corrupt politicians running our supposedly democratic country, the church has found a way for its brainwashing classes to continue uninterrupted.
And don't you think for even one moment that it is only the church we're dealing with here. There are bigger forces at hand, as this article demonstrates: the power group of xenophobic Christian Anglo Saxons is mighty strong in Australia. For a start, they include the former Prime Minister, John Howard, and plenty of other powerful Liberal Party power brokers; later this year we might blink and find them in power again. Remember, these are the people that think apologizing to the aboriginals for the things done to them was a mistake. If you ask me, judging by the way these weirdos want to preserve their cultural seat of power, these people wouldn't mind going back to policies that actively discriminate against aboriginals (or rather, given the still pathetic situation many aboriginals are in, these are the people who would be happy to make things worse).
In short, I'm arguing that in my struggle to keep my son religion neutral I am not fighting an old incompetent granny; I am fighting mighty institutions with a lot of power behind them, institutions with a record of not avoiding stooping to corruption when it comes to ensuring the supply of numbed up brains to their ranks. Such opposition cannot be trifled with. Such opposition requires a call to arms on behalf of all rational people.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Forced religious education in state schools

I have written here before regarding the hardship of raising a religion neutral child in contemporary Aussie society, with the aim of allowing the child to choose his preferred religious/non religious views when he/she is old enough to know what they're doing (as opposed to the way it's commonly done, as in the parents brain washing their children with their own religion's dogma; how often have you seen a Christian child deciding to turn against his parents and become, say, a Muslim?).
So far, the bulk of my attention was turned to fighting off pressure coming from the family's direction (which in my case has Judaism on one side and Christianity on the other). Lately, the closer my son is getting to school age, I am beginning to learn more and more of a future nightmare I will have to contend with, one which is much more powerful than my overseas family: the state school.
As the article here talks about (and I warmly welcome you to read it), Australian state schools have reached this arrangement with the church some centuries ago that allows the church to bring in their representatives to talk about anything they'd like to talk under the guise of children's religious education. Parents are allowed to have their kids dismissed from these so called "classes", but things are not as simple as they may seem: As only a minority of parents want to have their kids excluded from these brainwashing sessions, the kids are left marginalized and are often required to spend the duration of the classes under detention like conditions. A normal child with a tiny bit of social tendencies would prefer sitting in the class rather than enduring this marginalization, which - and there's the rub - puts the pressure back on the parents.
Now, in a country that is truly democratic and multicultural, as Australia pretends to be, that should have never been an issue and state schools would have been entirely secular. But Australia is not really secular and it's not really multicultural, is it? Everything is always under the shade of Christianity, the class' official bully (a point I have recently discussed here, too).
It's time our enlightened politicians do something about it. It is exactly the lack of action in these departments that prevents me from joining political parties such as the Greens, who do have the power to make changes; if they really stand for their ideals, isn't it time to act and relieve our children of this pain?

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Fifty reasons why I hate Windows

Last night I sat on the sofa to watch Barcelona tear Arsenal apart. The game took place in the morning; I recorded it and assumed I'd be able to avoid learning the score but reality hit me in the face: A friend's Facebook entry told me the score. Even the elevator's TV at work told me the score, a precedent given the low levels of interest the European Champions League has in Australia. Still, not much can stand between me and a good football game, so I sat to watch it with my netbook on my lap in order to perform my computing duties for the night while watching the game.
I booted the netbook to its native Windows XP environment. Having not done so in a fortnight I expected some updates to take place. I did not, however, expect what transpired next:
  1. I had to perform an anti-virus update (I use Avira).
  2. I had to install the latest version of Firefox 3.6 (now at 3.6.3).
  3. I had to install the latest version of Java.
  4. I had to install the latest Microsoft Windows Update patch, a security update for IE8.
  5. I had to install the latest version of Avira anti-virus (an upgrade from version 9 to 10).
  6. I had to reboot.
  7. I had to perform an anti-virus update on the new Avira version.
By the time I finished all of the above the football game was well into its second half. Fifty minutes have past and I didn't even start doing what it is I wanted to do with my netbook in the first place! That's not a "Windows experience"; that's sheer torture. That's an advertisement for Apple. That's all I need in order to rest assured that my choice of embracing Linux is and has been the right choice.
Sure, you get massive system updates in Ubuntu, too. But there it's all consolidated, as in you don't have to update each application separately. And more importantly, it all takes place in the background, allowing you to continue working almost seamlessly (but for a tiny bit of extra CPU work and some bandwidth taken for the download).
By the way, after the installation of Avira 10 took place, the software warned me I am logged in as an Administrator - a potential security risk. How else am I supposed to perform all these system updates? In Linux you can login as an Administrator too, but you still have to explicitly grant admin rights to each application wanting it separately; the default is not to give away these rights. So there's another thing Windows can take from good operating systems...

Wait. The ordeal did not end there. I still had to do what I needed to do in the first place.
One of those tasks was to post my daily blog, which I did (here; probably my weakest movie review in a while, but I blame Lionel Messi). The second task was to FTP a few documents to my iPhone so I can have them on me wherever I go.
The last time I did this FTP to the iPhone trick was back in December; then it worked. Last night it didn't: it appears as if some Windows Update that occurred since has blocked this operation from being allowed under the guise of a security update. In addition, the iPhone's FTP software provider put a post on their website advising that a bug in IE8 prevents the FTP from working under Windows XP. Great! Here's for another half hour wasted.
Sure, a lot of the blame here is on Apple's shoulders. Being the obsessive compulsive they are, they prevent users from transferring files via a simple USB connection, forcing them to resort to rather esoteric measures like FTP. Still, that does not take any of the shame away from Microsoft: the Windows experience is simply a nightmare.

Today I tried the same FTP operation in Ubuntu. I had the files on my iPhone within less than two minutes.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

To Be a Movie Star

With Myer selling MacBooks for $1200 (a $100 discount on the normal price), I have been thinking: Given the way all the films show the hero using Macs, as opposed to other forms of computers, does it mean that if I was to put my hands on a Mac I would become a movie star?

On a more serious note I will add that if I was to buy a laptop it would probably be a Mac. As it is, I'm not looking to buy a laptop; I always preferred desktops, for a start. They are more flexible, cheaper, powerful and ergonomic. Given work demands, a PC would tend to be more suited to my needs than a Mac. As for non work related tasks, Linux gives me most of what a Mac does for free.
But they are sexy, them Macs.

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Walk Like an Egyptian

I have often mentioned on this blog how I hate being stereotyped. In particular, I hate being stereotyped as an Israeli/Jew, with most people immediately inferring that I have something against Arabs. For a change, I thought I'd talk about what took place in a case where no stereotyping took place, just so you can see how nice things can be when people give other people a chance to be themselves.

Last week we sold our previous master bed on eBay, having bought a new one to replace it. The bed was picked up by a guy who, as usual, was asking me where I'm from. I told him I'm from Israel, and it turned out he's from Egypt.
Normally, and sadly, that could have been the end of the dialog with the bed changing hands in a cold manner. Not in this case, though: having read about Egypt, its culture and its history, I find the place fascinating. So instead of a cold war, what started was a fascinating dialog.
We talked about Alexandria, Cairo, and the hustle and bustle of the Cairo way of life. We talked about the writings of Naguib Mahfouz and we discussed whether the Western way of keeping to oneself is really better than the Egyptian way of everyone knowing everything about everyone on their street. It was interesting; we both enjoyed the conversation, and I even got a movie recommendation to boot (Cairo Time, to be reviewed shortly).
I got more than I bargained for with this eBay transaction.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

[Don't] Go Harvey Norman

Originally uploaded by reuvenim
For a while now I have been excited about the option of having my photos printed on canvas, a service currently provided by most photo printing shops. An upcoming family anniversary gave me the opportunity to test this option through printing the overseas brunch the gift of a family photo they can proudly hang on their wall.
Having had good experience with the quality of normal 10*15 photos from Harvey Norman (which I attribute mostly to their choice of Fuji papers), I decided to use their service for my new initiative. If successful, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship with our plans to decorate our extended house with canvassed photos from our vast collection.
What follows is the account of our experience with Harvey Norman.

Preparing the photo for printing on canvass at the shop is a bit of a tricky procedure. Given the squarish proportions of the canvass, which don't match those of the photo's (1.5:1), there is a lot of cropping taking place with canvas printing. Then there is the fact the photo's edges are stretched over the canvas board's edges, effectively leaving you only with the center of the photograph. The software at Harvey Norman's for managing the process clearly shows you the effect of the cropping and of the stretching, which is great and allows you to carefully compose your output.
The nice lady at the shop told us it would take two business weeks for the canvass to be ready and that they will call us when it's ready for pick-up. She also reassured me when I expressed doubts about the relationship between what I saw on the monitor and what the final outcome is going to be (thus spoke the voice of my past experience with complicated photo printing): she said that "We're not just a shop on the street corner, we're Harvey Norman. You can trust us".
Yeah, right.

The promised delivery date came and went and my phone didn't ring. I ended up calling the shop instead to find my canvass had already arrived. Upon showing up and asking for the photo the first question coming from nice lady that looked like I was ruining her day by disturbing her was whether I received a call telling me the photo's there; I said I didn't, a move that quickly placed a winning smile on her face, but then continued to spoil the smile when I told her I had to call myself.
Quite reluctantly she made her way to the back to get my canvass, coming back with a delivery box posted from Sydney where the actual third party printers reside. She gave me the box and hurried back to messing with her iPhone.
What I found upon opening the box was not what I expected. From a distance the canvass looks good, but when you study it - and not that carefully - many issues come up. First there was a problem with handling dark patches: these lost all their details, coming up as mere black botches. Generally speaking, all fine detail was lost: Jo's forehead, to name but one example, came out like a shiny lighthouse. And last, but not least, the line by line structure of the canvass' fabric made the photo appear the way a picture would appear on an old crappy CRT TV, with an easily discernible line structure interfering with the photo quite aggressively.
I went back to my reluctant helper and asked if something might have gone wrong with my print; it looked much worse than the sample canvass prints they had on their wall, and my problems could have been easily the result of a print job done without much caring for the final outcome - you know, the prints you tend to get when you go to a cheap place (only that this canvass cost $60).
Without thinking much my helper immediately attributed my problems to the quality of the original photo; I immediately answered back saying the photo was taken with a professional grade camera using a professional lens. Cornered, she moved to another argument: it's the canvass format, you see; on regular photo paper the photo would have been great.
Obviously, she was trying her best to get rid of me, not to - heavens forbid - help me. I went home with my disappointing canvass, but I can confidently add I won't be rushing back to Harvey Norman.

The shop sells itself as "the specialist in this" and "the specialist in that". I already know that to be bullshit: in the areas I specialize in (to one extent or another) - photography, home theater and computing - I know their advice to be incredibly shallow and often misleading with staff that does not have much of a clue concerning the goods they're selling. I also know their prices to be incredibly inflated; my heart goes out to those buying goods there without doing their homework over the web first.
It's just that I expected a big chain like Harvey Norman to be good on the service side; obviously, I was wrong.
Consider yourself warned.

Friday, 2 April 2010

Chauvinism in Contemporary Australia

It’s Easter and I’m off on Easter holiday, even though I couldn’t care less about the original Pagan/Christian notions behind the holiday and just want to celebrate that extra long weekend in April that tends to hit Melbourne just before the weather turns shitty. And what better opportunity do I have to discuss the chauvinism in contemporary Aussie society then this Christian holiday in a country that claims to be secular?
Since most people think of chauvinism as a term relating to women's right, I'll start by quoting the dictionary's definition for the term: "undue partiality or attachment to a group or place to which one belongs or has belonged".

And what could be a better start to this discussion than religion? Specifically, the way it’s imposed on us – say, by talking again about the government paying for school chaplains in state schools using tax money. But I've recently discussed this particular manifestation of government supported chauvinism and the way it enforces itself on those that don't want it here, so I'll go no further.

Sticking with religion, let's move on to Glenn Stevens, the governor of the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA). This week's papers told us of his spilling his guts concerning his Christian beliefs (see here). While he's not the first person in a position of power to be a theist, I found the following comment he made particularly interesting: "If you're a Christian, God has given you certain capabilities to do a job, to earn a living".
Note how close this statement is to him saying that, by his definition, non-Christians do not receive the skills required to do a job and earn a living. It's not just close to saying that, it is saying that but in the pussy like manner common to today's epidemic of political correctness. He's saying here what the Catholic Church has been saying during the Middle Ages when it prevented Jews from practicing certain professions.
The right of free speech allows Glenn Stevens to go ahead and say these things that he said, and that's perfectly fine. But Stevens is not a private person, is he? He is a top representative of the Government of Australia, so his words are perceived to be the words of Australia. And last I checked, Australia was supposed to be a secular country where all manners of faith and lack of are deemed equal; so how can Stevens get away with it?
To further emphasize my point, let's say I was a government employee and I was to open my mouth and say that I have the skills to do my job because I'm an atheist whereas my colleagues don't because their theists. I'd be sacked two and a half seconds after making this comment (and I'd also be badged stupid because that's a very stupid comment to make). Yet Stevens is not sacked and is not branded stupid; why? Because of the chauvinistic Australian society we live in, that's why.
But forget my rational arguing: as any bigot worth their credentials would tell you, it's Jews that are good with money, not the Christians. Our RBA dude can boast his god as much as he likes, he'll always be second grade.

In order to point at the breadth of the problem I’ll move on to discuss something much simpler: shopping mall parking.
Last Thursday, when I took my two year old Dylan with me to the shopping mall, I ended up parking on a “mother and child” parking spot, reserved – at least according to the drawing of a human figure wearing a skirt and pushing a pram – to women encumbered by little children. Was I breaking the law parking there, given that I am a father with child? Or is it that Australia is so chauvinistic in its dealings with women it doesn’t even realize how chauvinistic it is?

Back to religion, but this time I'll look at it indirectly through its effect on culture. Or rather, our so called multiculturalism.
At our two year old’s childcare we were told that they don’t mention Easter because they don’t want to offend people of other [rival] denominations. That’s fine with me. The kids were kept busy this week painting paper Easter eggs, which we were able to take home with us, but the box from which we picked them up referred to them as “oval cardboard paintings”, presumably for the continued purpose of not offending non-Christians.
Pretty silly, if you ask me, but I’ll live with that. What does trouble me is this: If, indeed, the childcare facility is religion free, then why do they bother painting their oval cardboards in the first place? And if the intentions is to offer a variety of multi-cultural experiences – not that bad a thing to do, as long as it’s done for educational purposes and not evangelical ones – then why does childcare settle for Easter eggs only? Why don’t they offer the Jewish Passover’s Matza bread, to name but one holiday belonging to another religion that happens to take place at the same time?
This "doing the religious thing while pretending that we don’t" culture is Australia’s way of pretending to be a multicultural haven while, in fact, having Christianity stamp its authority over everything else. Sure, you can go about practicing your culture, but you have to do it while knowing who's the real boss in this 'hood.
If we really want multiculturalism, as opposed to the pretend version we now have, then we need to be either totally neutral or we need to sample something from everything, giving all cultures a chance. As it is, us Aussies have neither. It's still Christianity or nothing (with the possible exception of the rare token of respect to aboriginal culture, with token being the key word here).

If there is some relief to be had, it comes from the direction of my two year old. Upon recounting his adventures at childcare, Dylan went on to talk about his “Geaster eggs”. In your face, Easter!

Thursday, 1 April 2010

The Trend Setter

With my application for a four day working week approved at work till the end of the year, it is time for me to say a few words on the work side of this arrangement; till now the discussion was usually limited to how I’m going to spend my day off work with my two year old.
Work wise, the math of working 80% off a previously full time job is simple: Generally speaking I’m expected to perform the same as I did before, which means stress levels are higher (manageable, but definitely higher). In other words, I tend to be more to the point and I tend to mess about much less. I also notice the need to keep on demonstrating I can deal with the situation, which – when added to the gratitude of being allowed to work a four day week in the first place – means I’m more effective at my desk for psychological reasons, too.
Yet the most interesting insight into my situation is to do with what seems to be a trend. At least in my area of the organization, I was the first and so far the only man that asked to move from a full time job to a part time job in order to improve his work/life balance. Yes, I was surprised myself to hear I was such a pioneer: given how popular the term “work/life balance” is in contemporary Aussie society, you’d expect a significant portion of fathers to ride that horse; but no, that is not the case. When, on my Thursdays off the office, I go to the shopping mall near us with my two year old Dylan I still find myself surrounded by mothers and by entire mother groups and only the very rare, if any, sight of a male in pre-retirement age messing about with a small child.
There is, however, a chance that by breaking the invisible barrier I have opened the doors to others. Ever since my work arrangement had started I keep on being asked about it by fellow male employees, some of which were serious enough to take things further than the hypothetical discussion and into their managers’ discussion board. And you know what response they got? Different managers told them the same thing: that if they want to reduce their time at the office they should go ahead and make an official request soon before too many others ask for the same thing and management has no choice but refuse them.
The point I am trying to make are simple. First, as my case demonstrates, there are perks involved with being a pioneer; yes, it’s harder, because you have to break the mold (just ask Galileo), but it also has its advantages. And second, my case demonstrates there are tangible benefits to be had from adopting a state of mind that calls for questioning everything, including established sexual roles in our dominant culture and including the authority of one’s work superiors.
There are advantages to being a skeptic.