Sunday, 30 January 2011

Partners, Reprise

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I recently discussed (here) how Israel's good old excuse of not having partners in peace has been debunked by what has been dubbed as the "Palestine Papers". In the week that past another excuse went down the bin.
One of Israel's more frequently made excuses for its position on matters of peace with its neighbors was the claim of superiority: "we are the only democracy in the Middle East". Put aside the question of whether Israel is a true democracy or only a democracy if you're a Jew and think about this argument's implications. Effectively, it states that Israel cannot make peace with its neighbors because they are all run by dictators. From then on, arguing that Arabs are no good because they actually prefer being ruled by dictators is not a claim that hasn't been made before.
This week's events in Egypt prove Israel's position wrong. Again.
With it running out of excuses, Israel's naked position is becoming more and more visibly obvious: Israel does not want peace; Israel wants all the territory it can claim for itself instead.

Metro's Vandalism

New Customer Service VestThe following phenomenon was encountered by us twice during the week that went by:
  • Going back from work, we walked to our usual Metro train service to catch a ride home.
  • Arriving at the station, everything seemed fine with our train service. Even Metro's own personnel at the station kept counting down the minutes to our service's departure.
  • We boarded the train.
  • Just as the train is about to depart, on time, those same Metro personnel that counted the minutes till departure down tell us to "all change, all change, the train on platform [X] is not taking passengers".
  • All of us get off the train rather reluctantly, amazed at the sudden change of heart.
  • After a few long minutes of uncertainty we are finally given a version of what has happened by the Metro personnel: "The [X] o'clock service has been cancelled due to train vandalism".
  • The supposedly vandalized train leaves the station empty.
  • We are then forced to wait for the next train, which - on both occasions - has been very late in arriving. Being that it now carries more than two trains' worth of passengers it takes much longer than usual to deliver its load of sardines trapped in a can.
  • We all get back home much later than anticipated and in the right cheerful mood to slit someone's throat.
Alright, that was the detailed account of what took place. Now it is time to ask some questions:
How can the train get vandalized all of a sudden? I mean, the trains arrived at our station at a fine state; I saw them coming in, I saw passengers disembarking. The first time around I even saw the driver getting off and a new driver coming in (at the second round the platform was too crowded for me to spot the driver). That first time we were told the vandalism came in the form of graffiti on the driver's seat: obviously, that graffiti wasn't drawn while the train was sitting at our station, so what exactly is the problem? Not to mention that our passenger cars are full of graffiti all around, so why are we expected to sit on dirty seats while the drivers require first class service?
I think the answer to the above questions is very obvious: what we were witnessing twice during the past week is the result of the ongoing power struggle between Metro and its drivers union. A new driver arrives at the train without ever thinking of driving it towards its destination: all he/she is interested in doing is create a spectacle and embarrass Metro. There is a difference, though, between any ordinary workplace dispute and this one. Metro is not a private company, rather it is an agent of the Victorian State Government appointed as a monopoly to deliver train service at and around Melbourne. When Metro fails to deliver its services it is the State Government that is at fault and us, the tax paying public, who is directly wronged.
Yet Metro manages to hide this circus event as an internal affair without it being escalated to our State Government. We are being continuously held hostage by a mere few in a dispute that could easily be solved if Metro was to pay a bit more to its drivers.
Instead, Metro its money to itself (it recently reported nice $20 million profits - read here), while thousands of people are being denied the service that they're paying for - the same money that enriches Metro's coffers. Each cancelled peak time train service represents around 1,000 people being denied service, and both Metro and our government are letting this charade go on while pretending it doesn't exist.
You may well argue that this has been the story of Melbourne's public transport system during the last decade or so since it was privatized. Us Melbournians are being held for ransom by several State Governments and their privately appointed allies.

Image by richardluyy

Friday, 28 January 2011

Flood Response

Heavy Sediment along the Queensland CoastFloods have hit Australia and in certain parts are still hitting it, but by now most of the public attention has turned to the rebuilding effort. Yesterday, Julia Gillard announced her budget plans for addressing the mess; today, like many others before me (check here for a the opinion of an economy analyst I actually enjoy reading), I would like to say why I think Gillard's plans are crap.
  1. The levy
    Gillard came up with a flood levy plan where people earning north of $50,000 a year will pay an average of $250 as a one time fee. Several questions pop into my head with that, starting off with the use of a tax aimed targeting little people? Granted, I agree that we should all open our wallets, and that includes a levy; after all, I have been known to say I would actually want to pay more taxes if I was to see them going to worthwhile causes such as addressing climate change, education, health and public transport. However, the notion little people have been pointed out because they're easy prey is unavoidable: I cannot avoid the memories of Labor's mining tax. When Labor put a tax on the miners they found they had a big fight on their hands, so now they just didn't bother and instead put up a tax on the little people that cannot fight back.
    Then there are other questions, such as why make this a one time fee when it is clear Australia - and for that matter, the rest of the world - are due to have catastrophes on a more frequent basis as a direct result of man made climate change?
  2. The budget cuts
    In addition to the levy, Gillard's government chose to cut a few billion dollars from its shopping list. Why? All in the name of the elusive budget surplus idol, a concept that everyone with even the most basic understanding of finances would tell you does not make fiscal sense. Yet Gillard deems that's what the ignorant Aussie voter is after. Wave bye bye at the next elections, Julia!
    Then there is the matter of the items Julia decided to cut. Did she cut the half a billion budgeted to religious chaplains for brainwashing kids in supposedly secular state schools? No. Instead, Gillard put the knife at the throat of programs aimed at tackling climate change - the greatest morale challenge of our time, according to her predecessor and our current Minister for Foreign Affairs. Granted, most of these programs are exercises in money wasting, but some of them - like the subsidization of solar hot water system - make perfect sense. Solar hot water is our future!
    Instead of targeting climate change, the cause of all this mess, we're going the other way.
  3. Defense
    While all this budgetary mess is taking place, defense is still getting more and more of our money. And what for?
    Looking at the threats hitting Australia over the last few years, and I'm talking about genuine threats that kill people as opposed to make believe threats like asylum seeker boats, the list is narrowed down to two: fires and floods. What good does a brand new fleet of submarines going to do in a flood? What relief can the latest squadron of bombers bring when bush fires attack Australian homes?
    When the floods did hit Australia, the Australian army - an army with troops in Afghanistan and Iraq - was able to contribute something like twenty helicopters for flood relief (read here). Twenty helicopters for a flood infected area the size of Western Europe? Surely, we're putting our money in the wrong basket.
    If you want easy budget cuts, Julia Gillard, look no further than defense.
The floods that hit Australia are offering us a great opportunity: an opportunity to address the challenges causing the fire/flood catastrophes in the first place, as in climate change; and an opportunity to fix the wrongs of the budgets of past, like defense and school chaplaincy. Gillard's plan misses out on both fronts, instead going for a sterile approach that gets us nowhere. Obviously, Labor continues to misunderstand why voters have been turning against it en mass over the past two years.

Image by NASA Goddard Photo and Video

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Childcare Statistics

IMG_6328.JPGLast week our three year old started a new year at childcare, this time at the kinder level. With government restrictions on the number of carers per child significantly more relaxed at the kinder age group he is now in a room shared by 25 toddlers each day; in turn, this opens the door for some interesting statistics given the sample size (which is actually higher than 25 as the children alternate):
  1. Afternoon nap:
    While common wisdom – in the form of chitchat between parents – has it that toddlers this age no longer have an afternoon sleep, only 1 or 2 children out of 25 do not have an afternoon sleep at our son’s kinder room.
    I think it is important to add that this particular childcare facility’s policy is to let the children dictate what they want. This policy manifests itself in several aspects: in this particular case the children decide whether they need to sleep or not; in other cases the children are not forced neither pushed to toilet train (we heard rumors on ABC childcare centers that force toilet training on parents and children as of the age of two in order to make their lives easier).
    I find this afternoon nap statistic interesting because it is so overwhelming in favor of an afternoon nap and because it goes against a common line of thinking that says kids should get as tired as possible at childcare so that they are more timid and go to bed properly at home. In actual fact our experience goes the other way around: if anything, we find the problems we have with our son once he’s back home are to do with him being overly tired in spite of his afternoon nap.
  2. Working parents:
    I find it very interesting to note that none of the toddlers at my son’s kinder room are there full time, as in five days a week. The maximum of four kinder days a week is shared by only four children, with the majority in for one or two days a week.
    At the personal level, comparisons between Israeli habits and Australian ones immediately spring into my mind: my Israeli family speaks of our part time kinder arrangement as if it is some kind of a curse preventing us from working full time and generating the maximum amount of income we can make; we, on the other hand, see childcare as necessary evil letting us balance our needs for income and socialization with our will to be together with our child and together enjoy the childhood/parenthood experience.
    The other thing that comes to my mind with this statistic is the effect being a mother is having on people’s lives. Let’s face it: when a child is not at kinder, he is almost certainly with its mother (as opposed to its father). As we live at an age where women generally go to work rather than stay at home, this means the majority of mothers – women who used to go to work, probably on a full time basis – are now working part time at best. Granted, my kinder day observation came from one childcare center only and any conclusions based on it are limited to the nature of our area (e.g., its relative affluence and the need for the mother’s income). I will still argue this: employers who can learn how to leverage on part time working mothers’ needs should have a mighty advantage given that mothers represent a significant portion of the working force (a quarter?).
    My personal experience with shifting to part time work on a limited basis in order to be a better parent taught me the opposite is true: employers tend to give the more devoted parent a much harder time; the more one strives to make parenthood a significant part of one’s life, the more compromises they need to make on their career. That should not be the case and I am of the opinion government should intervene here on behalf of parents (think about this: there are many more voting parents out there than probably any other demographic). I’m not holding my breath because I know government is in the pocket of big business, but I do argue that the business that learns how to cater for the needs of the parent stand in for potentially bigger success.

Image by tantek

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Best Second Camera

With a relative looking to buy himself a new serious camera, I was once again recruited into the un-winnable war of advising others on what purchase would make their lives happier ever after. In typical fashion, I got to delve inside the camera world head first: a year and a half after buying my own serious camera, and without any intentions of buying a camera of my own, I found myself getting into the thick of things as I tried to answer that old question - "which camera is best".
Obviously, the answer to that question is very personal and highly dependent on budget and personal preferences. My own conclusion, as someone with no brand loyalty whatsoever, is a rather unsatisfactory one: at the moment I find there is no really good candidate in the prosumer serious camera market. I quote several reasons for my conclusion:
  1. Canon and Nikon continue to annoy me by asking too much money for their stuff. Sure, they sell good cameras, but their value for money is relatively poor.
  2. Pentax, the maker of my current SLR, have shot themselves in the foot: their new prosumer offering, the K-5, is an excellent camera - by far the best value for money is stills photography for amateurs looking at the serious end of the market. However, the camera still lacks auto focus in video shooting, which happens to be the only thing I find lacking in my current Pentax and also happens to be a trick the new but otherwise inferior Nikon D7000 knows how to perform.
  3. On the emerging front of the four thirds replaceable lens cameras, Panasonic continues to lead the way with all-round capable cameras. However, these are still on the pricey side of things, they enjoy a limited variety of lenses, and let's face it: they're light and small but they're still not as good as their bigger competition. Worth their money if it means you'll actually have them on you, though.

While finding the "main camera" market disappointing, I was quite amazed to see the quality available at the simpler end of the market and the prices there. I am talking here about the type of cameras I would like to have as backup or for carrying around when I just can't be bothered with the better but bigger and heavier equipment.
If you are willing to give up on a viewfinder - a fair trade for a second camera, if you ask me, even given the might of the Australian summer sun - then look no further than the brand new Panasonic DMC-GF2. It's got replaceable lenses, a flash and the quality of a proper camera but it's small and light. At only $600 (here, for example, with a practical lens included) this is one camera I wouldn't mind finding in my bag even when I don't really need it.
I have to say it: I really like the way Panasonic has entered the more serious end of the camera market. They didn't try to copy the big boys; they just did what they do best. They came up with a new system that gets rid of the prism bulk that makes conventional SLRs so big (and is, let's not forget, a legacy of that film era that is now gone the way of the dinosaur). They perfected their innovative focus mechanism to allow quick focusing on cameras with interchangeable lenses despite the lack of a prism. With the GF2 they also came up with touch screen controls to replace the old multiple button interface, a first (?) for such an advanced camera. Sure, the buttons are good for instant setup, but with cameras getting more and more like small powerhouse computers I have no doubts the future is with the touch screen.
If the GF2 is still too much for you and you're looking for something smaller still, albeit less capable, then perhaps you should have a look at Panasonic's top offering in the compact camera market: the Panasonic DMC-LX5, a compact camera that dares going down to the 24 wide angle range. Granted, it's a compact camera, but it's no toy: you can have full control over your photos if you wish, and at $400 the price is not bad either. Again, this is a backup camera I wouldn't mind finding in my bag.
Indeed, I am becoming quite enthusiastic about the happenings in the "second camera" market. I don't need a new camera, but I would not be surprised if that Panasonic GF2 or one of its mates does end up in my bag, one way or another...

Tuesday, 25 January 2011


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Growing up in Israel, I remember that very Israeli tautology being pumped into us kids at school:
  1. All the wars Israel was involved in have been forced on it; Israel has never sought war with its neighbors.
  2. Israel welcomes peace with its neighbors; it’s the neighbors that don’t want it. What they really want instead is to annihilate Israel altogether.
At the time, like all good boys, I took those messages for granted. Then I grew up.
In parallel to my personal development Israeli society shifted quite significantly to the right. Despite this shift and as right winged as the dominant Israeli view has become, ask the average person on the street for their views on matters of peace and you’ll be told by the majority that Israel has always been seeking peace only to repeatedly find there is no partner on the Arab side.
Or is there? Recent “Palestine Papers” exposed in Wikileaks style by Al-Jazeera TV indicate a different picture altogether (try here, from The Guardian as an example). They show a Palestinian side that is clearly offering viable solutions which address most if not all of Israel’s security concerns, at least those that Israel has always been flagging as ones it can never concede. They show an Israeli government that considers the more moderate Palestinians its biggest threat for the simple reason they could “force” peaceful compromises on the country. Most importantly, they show an Israel that will not cease until it has it all for itself, as in all the territory; who cares if “all” means that the Palestinians who happen to be around will suffer the consequences?
Isrealis need a wake up call. The optimist in me still hopes that majority of Israelis follow that old school ideology of striving for peace, yet that same silent majority is letting a bunch of extremist lead the country to a future of eternal life by the sword. With atomic weapons not too far from reach, life by the sword could easily lead to death by the sword.

As a side note:
Reading Israeli newspapers and listening to Israeli radio (through the wonders of the Internets), I could not avoid noticing the difference between the coverage the Palestine Papers receive in Israel and the coverage elsewhere (most notably The Guardian, which has been my main source). It's simple: Israel's mainstream news report negative images of the Palestinian side, whereas The Guardian paints a pro Palestinian picture.
Regardless, my point is still valid: even if the Israeli coverage is true, it is still very clear peace can be achieved and relatively easily if Israel actually wanted to have peace. It doesn't; it looks to taint the other side instead, as if pretending really hard that if it thinks bad things about its partner in peace then it must be in the right.
When a person acts this way you either dismiss them as childish or commit them to a mental institute.

Monday, 24 January 2011

The Power of Prayers

Check the following video for a very scientific assessment of the power prayers can have on improving the world we live in:

That settles it - I'm subscribing to the YouTube channel. My only question is, what the **** is kool-aid?

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Working 9 to 5

034/366: Working Late on a Sunday

  • What do I think following my first week of full time work after more than a year?
    I think it sucks. The weekend could not have come any sooner.
  • What does my three year old son think after the Thursday experience with his father did not take place this week after more than a year of Thursday experiences?
    He asked why it did not happen and expressed sincere dissatisfaction. I was touched.
  • Work sucks.
  • You're not going to be a parent for too long, so make the most of what you get. Tasmanian Premier David Bartlett agrees.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

"Our Nation's Capital"

Originally uploaded by reuvenim
Our Canberra holiday plans went heavily criticized. If we weren’t told there’ll be nothing for us to do and the place is going to be a ghost town during the holiday season we were told there would be no place for us to eat dinner. Even I was more than a bit skeptical, as evidenced by my Nation’s Capital mockery above: I do not think highly of arguments by nationalism or patriotism, hence I find a city’s claim to fame for nothing more than being the capital more joke than praise.
Yet I have to say that now, having been to Canberra, I like it; more importantly, I really enjoyed our holiday there. It worked very well as a holiday for a family encumbered by a three year old. Our Canberra experience turned out very similar to our Singapore holidays: a good hotel to take care of our physical needs and then some, plus the easy availability of child friendly activities meant we all had a good time as our Dylan learned what room service is. Even the New Year's fireworks were better because there weren't half as many people as at Melbourne's and Dylan got to properly see his first ever proper fireworks display.
If you ask for my Canberra highlights, here are my top three:
  1. The all you can eat buffet breakfast at the hotel was one of those events were there was so much good food I didn’t need to eat anything else for the rest of the day (but I still made the effort and did). Most notable was the crispy smoked bacon: it’s the bacon you usually get in the USA but not in “follow the English with their crap food” Australia and, unlike what you usually get in the USA, it was of very high quality. I’ll put it this way: were you to take my blood sample at the end of one such a breakfast you have found it was 90% pure bacon.
  2. A visit to the NASA/CSIRO Canberra Space Centre with its radio telescopes served as a reminder that humanity can do wonderful things given the proper opportunity. True, I’m sure the equipment is used for military purposes too, but let’s not ignore the fact that these very impressive antennas were used in the landing of the Mars Rover. Sadly, they are not looking for new employees at the center (I asked).
  3. Touring the foreign embassies precinct of Canberra provided all sorts of entertainment even if I don’t have the photos to prove it (I was busy driving). For a start, you get to see imaginative architecture, with each country trying to give "local" flavor to its territory. Second, you get to see one embassy right next to another, which enhances the experience. Third, you get to learn something about each country: for example, the size of the Chinese embassy probably says something about that country’s aspirations while the fortifications around the USA embassy and the fact the actual embassy building is so far from the road says something about American mentality. Indeed, security was the best joke as we were tracked by the various spooks around the American and Israeli embassies. Is it a coincidence these two are so close to one another, or was the architect of the Israeli structure instructed to design a building to kiss American butt even when as far away as Australia?
It’s not just the embassies area that’s weird. Canberra is full of artificial weirdness, best demonstrated through its wide avenues that still don’t manage to cater for pedestrians as they symmetrically connect, Champs-Élysées style, various architectural monuments most of which seem designed according to the fascist architect’s textbook. Visiting those monuments is usually free of charge but be warned: you would often find yourself attacked by very Christian motifs, something I did not expect from a supposedly modem and secular country like Australia as it tries to demonstrate itself before the world.

Despite its tax paid eccentricities I found Canberra to still represent the Aussie spirit. That spirit was best exemplified through our visit to Capital Hill’s Parliament building.
Upon entering the building we had to go through an airport like security check. No porn body scanners there [yet?], but I still had to give away my Leatherman key chain holder. This part of the visit reminded me that Australia is, after all, a satellite country of the USA; if the grandmaster does something then so will its dog.
A more positive aspect of the Aussie spirit was on display at the cafeteria. A particularly naughty Dylan would not eat his proper food while insisting: “I want a sandwich with butter and nothing in it!” The staff there did a special sandwich for us, free of charge.
When we left the building I had to collect my keys again. Doing so we started talking to a security guard with whom we ended up having a nice chat. First, he told us the Leatherman was confiscated to protect the building’s artwork from angry citizens. Then we learned he actually comes from near where we live: formerly a policeman, he got injured at a traffic accident on the job and succumbed to depression for a few years as a result. He then moved to the coast and later moved to Canberra when work for security professionals became available; having lived and worked at Canberra for a few years now he’s happy with his life again.
Coming from none other than a security guard, the openness, will to expose the darker side of his personal hardships, and the overall cheerful atmosphere in which this was done is, in my opinion, a sample and testimony to a lot that is good about Aussie society. A place with such spirit is on display deserves to be a capital city.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Now isn't it ironic?

We live in a world where those amongst us with darker skins – blacks – are being discriminated against for hundreds if not thousands of years now. In my family circle alone I have been known to hear the occasional racial remark that brought a shiver to my spine.
Recently, science started telling us that humans of European and Asian origins have their genetic code mixed with some Neanderthal genes (check Scientific American here for some more details). We do not know how smart or dumb Neanderthals were and what the exact effect of their genes on the modern human is. However, in what seems to me as the perfect irony, the main human population exempt from this Neanderthal mix is the population that remained in Africa and constitutes most of today’s blacks.
Those blacks are now entitled to call each condescending white fellow a “Neanderthal”. Unlike that condescending white fellow they’d actually be right.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Guide to the Perplexed

I recently stumbled on the following excerpts from The Guide to the Perplexed by Moses Maimonides, a 12th century Jewish scholar known as the Rambam and widely considered one of the top Jewish philosophers ever.
Rambam excerpts are widely available over the Internet (I took mine from here). Have a read of some of this wise man’s words on the matter of circumcision, especially in the Jewish/religious context:
Similarly with regard to circumcision, one of the reasons for it is, in my opinion, the wish to bring about a decrease in sexual intercourse and a weakening of the organ in question, so that this activity be diminished and the organ be in as quiet a state as possible. It has been thought that circumcision perfects what is defective congenitally. This gave the possibility to everyone to raise an objection and to say: How can natural things be defective so that they need to be perfected from outside, all the more because we know how useful the foreskin is for that member? In fact this commandment has not been prescribed with a view to perfecting what is defective congenitally, but to perfecting what is defective morally. The bodily pain caused to that member is the real purpose of circumcision. None of the activities necessary for the preservation of the individual is harmed thereby, nor is procreation rendered impossible, but violent concupiscence and lust that goes beyond what is needed are diminished. The fact that circumcision weakens the faculty of sexual excitement and sometimes perhaps diminishes the pleasure is indubitable. For if at birth this member has been made to bleed and has had its covering taken away from it, it must indubitably be weakened. The Sages, may their memory be blessed, have explicitly stated: It is hard for a woman with whom an uncircumcised man has had sexual intercourse to separate from him. In my opinion this is the strongest of the reasons for circumcision.

The perfection and perpetuation of this Law can only be achieved if circumcision is performed in childhood. For this there are three wise reasons. The first is that if the child were let alone until he grew up, he would sometimes not perform it. The second is that a child does not suffer as much pain as a grown-up man because his membrane is still soft and his imagination weak; for a grown-up man would regard the thing, which he would imagine before it occurred, as terrible and hard. The third is that the parents of a child that is just born take lightly matters concerning it, for up to that time the imaginative form that compels the parents to love it is not yet consolidated. For this imaginative form increases through habitual contact and grows with the growth of the child. Then it begins to decrease and to disappear, I refer to this imaginative form. For the love of the father and of the mother for the child when it has just been born is not like their love for it when it is one year old, and their love for it when it is one year old is not like their love when it is six years old. Consequently if it were left uncircumcised for two or three years, this would necessitate the abandonment of circumcision because of the father's love and affection for it. At the time of its birth, on the other hand, this imaginative form is very weak, especially as far as concerns the father upon whom this commandment is imposed.
Having read the above, please let me know how any modern person equipped with a brain and fully capable of thinking for themselves could have their child circumcised in order to follow with the twisted and pure evil Jewish/religious dogma above? The Rambam's analysis makes it very clear the Judeo/Christian interpretation of the biblical circumcision order is a simple case of mutilation and a blatantly obvious case of child abuse in the first degree.
The fact circumcision is still very popular perplexes me and makes me incredibly pessimistic about the future of humanity. The fact that many if not most of my best friends and closest family have circumcised their children, Rambam style, makes me incredibly sad.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Onwards eBook Readers!

IMGP4756Yesterday’s announcements regarding the availability of tools that allow everyone and anyone to remove DRM from electronic books means my final objection to the concept of electronic books – a concept I lovingly embraced since acquiring my Amazon Kindle several months ago – is now dead and gone.
Have a look at these two web resources to see how to rid yourselves of this vile DRM: there's a guide here and another, simpler guide, here.

Let's put this development into the historical perspective it deserves:
Finally, the people – yours truly included – can truly own the books we bought for our ebook readers. Finally, Amazon or any of its other compatriots are no longer able to take away books we bought from us whenever they feel like. Finally, we would be able to buy an electronic book without worrying whether our particular brand of ebook reader, be it the Kindle, Nook or Shmook, is going to disappear from the market in a cloud of smoke and leave us with books we can no longer read. Finally, to the publishers that have been telling us through incredibly long legal agreements that we’re only “renting” their ebooks from them, we can say: Shove it! What’s mine is now mine, finally.
Good riddance, DRM. You were always a bad concept invented by narrow minded people who did not hesitate for a second to make criminals of us all. Now let the floodgates open on the electronic book!

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Some of us are looking at the stars

Last week my three year old asked me "why don't we have a telescope?" No, I did not have an adequate answer for him.

Let's go back a bit. My affair with telescopes spans for years now. The telescope option was first raised around the time of my Bar Mitzvah, when my parents deliberated what they should give me. I asked for a telescope because at the time I was heavily into astronomy and science fiction but they didn't seem particularly fond of the idea, especially when looking at the shops and not finding anything promising (those were the pre-Internet days, that dark age when info was hard to get). Eventually we settled on organ playing, an instrument I studied passionately for a year and then gave up on because I wasn't getting anywhere.
Further encounters with telescopes made me think that perhaps my parents' approach was the right one. For a start, let's be honest: you can have a mighty powerful telescope but the stars would still look like dots; you can only really achieve something with the moon and the solar system, and there's that much for you to achieve there.
Second, whenever I did get to hear about the telescope experience or to feel that experience myself through a friend it was always rather fuzzy; things just didn't work. Only recently that frustration was enhanced when I received a small spotting telescope as a gift: try as I may, I just couldn't get it to focus on anything, not even things several hundreds of meters away. Eventually we returned it to the shop where we were told it was broken. Later, when I decided to have another go and asked for the same telescope at another branch of the same chain's shop, they handed me another specimen that suffered the exact same problem as the first. Again I thought that telescopes might not be the right thing for me.
Things are not all doom and gloom. We went to several holidays this year where being far from city lights allowed for some magnificent sky views. In particular, our Christmas holiday at Tathra, where we stayed at a place with a sea facing veranda and I had some nice binoculars with me, provided an enchanting experience during the one night of our stay when the skies were clear: Jupiter, when viewed through the binoculars, was a proper ball - not just another dot; and I couldn't avoid noticing that anywhere I looked at through my binoculars I could see much more than I could see with my naked eye, including nebula clouds and other exciting stuff. There was more to the sky than meets the eye if only I had the right eyes to look at the sky with.

So when my son asked about us having a telescope a quick chain reaction resulted. I agreed: we should have a telescope. But not just "a telescope": if we are to have a telescope, we should have a proper one. A proper telescope should:
  1. Work, not just provide fuzzy images.
  2. Be easy to use.
  3. Provide genuine results: allow us to see things like Jupiter's clouds and eye or Saturn's rings etc.
  4. Potentially be used as a camera lens. That is, attach my SLR to it in order for me to take photos of what the telescope sees.
How does one get a telescope complying with all of the above? I didn't know, but I did know the opposite: I knew that going to one of the conventional shops that "also" sell telescopes would be the wrong move, because the people there have absolutely no idea what they're selling.
So I did the usual: I went to the Internets to do my research, where I quickly found shops specializing in star gazing that are run by passionate star gazers. At one such shop I was able to find a nice serious beginner's telescope that would comply with my requirements for around $300 ($450 with camera equipment). It came with a caveat: it lacks a motor and other facilities required to allow the telescope to track the same piece of sky as the earth turns, a necessity for interstellar photography (I could still use it for moon/Jupiter/Saturn photography). In order to overcome that caveat one has to spend north of $1000, and I am not ready to do that at a stage when I don't even know whether I'll persevere with telescoping in the first place.
My son and I picked our new telescope us last week, during the heavy rains that fell on Melbourne. The seller provided extended explanations, a point that's only worth noting because my three year old seems to have recorded them in his head and keeps repeating them as he passionately tells us about the wonderful stars he's looking at while the telescope is inside, pointed at the ceiling. Not that my experience with the 'scope has been much better thus far: aside of aiming it at our neighbor's antenna to see that it works (it's amazing how many details one can observe about a neighbor's antenna through a telescope), thus far we had one cloudy night and one night where I rushed back inside after being eaten alive by post rain mosquitoes.
Hopefully, my time with the telescope is going to come.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Tim Minchin is a legend

We just finished watching Tim Minchin's Ready for This? show, which was aired just before Christmas on ABC. What can I say, the guy's just awesomely talented.
As a teaser, here is something you could have just as well heard from me (sans tune and rhymes):

Friends and relatives, be warned!
Just wait till the next there's an excuse for you to receive a gift. Expect a Minchin DVD.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

A Year of Thursdays

thursdaysThis Thursday marks the last of a year of Thursdays where I stayed home with my now three year old instead of going to work. And what a year it was…
Up till this year started the only occasions when I was on my own with my toddler were times in which he was sick. While very demanding, these tend to be times when he doesn’t do much more than watch TV; the rest of the time he’s either sleeping or taking care of his other basic human needs, like eating or eating's opposite, while I’m busy trying to compensate for time off work as much as I can. However, staying with him together for a full day when he’s not sick presented me with a new opportunity: we could actually do stuff together.
Not that doing stuff together is that easy to achieve. When Thursdays started we weren’t used to doing stuff together; the first couple of Thursdays we had together were spent mostly with one of us crying and the two of us forced into doing less than exciting stuff. There is also the sad reality where this day off work was often used for errands, simply because the errands have to be done and it is much easier to do them during the week than it is during the weekend (besides, who wants to do their errands over the weekend anyway?). Most crucially, one has to remember that one is dealing with a toddler for whom all the basic toddler rules and regulations still apply: you’re still limited by having to look after his feeding (and feeding’s opposite), by him getting tired quickly, and by him requiring an afternoon nap. Between those limitations and between Melbourne’s weather, too many of those Thursdays were spent with a visit to our local shopping center as their main event.
Yet with all the hardships and limitations aside, a lot has happened during that year. My son is getting to the stage where genuinely nice things can be done with him, and indeed we spent several Thursdays doing what has become a bit of a ritual since: visiting the science museum and then stopping at KFC on the way back home (before you judge me on feeding my son junk, note the choice of KFC was made because it is at a good middle point on the drive home where the stop prevents him from falling asleep in the car and then refusing to have his afternoon nap, thus ruining the day for us both by being sentenced to spend its remainder with a grumpy grump).
More importantly, I think we bonded, my son and I. Being together and doing stuff is no longer a weird phenomena to be endured by crying; it’s just a normal day in the life. Yes, I enjoyed this year of Thursdays.
It is a pity this Thursday habit was not sustainable and could not continue this year, too. Then again my employer should be praised for letting me go part time in the first place; I don’t know many others who would, despite those ever present company policies to make you think work is equivalent to family and therefore justifies working weekends or extra hours without compensation. For now, I’m back to staying with my son on sick days’ basis; yet like everything in life this is only a temporary arrangement. Soon enough school holidays will come into the picture and us parents will be forced to take extra leave off work. As Ned Kelly famously said when contemplating his child care obligations, “such is life”.

Image by spo0nman

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Now I stand accused of the things I've said

Vacuna influenza / Flu vaccineAllegedly, I called a relative of mine “dumb”. Let the record show the accused admits the act.
Complaints have been raised about me using a harsh four letter word to describe said relative. Screw that; “dumb” may be a four letter word that may offend certain people, but it is also a respectable word with some useful meanings. To quote, one of its meanings is:
lacking intelligence or good judgment; stupid; dull-witted.
I argue this meaning describes the actions of said relative perfectly. That relative refused to administer flu vaccinations to their household, arguing the vaccination “introduces foreign bodies”. That is exactly what I call lacking good judgement, because, to name but a couple of reservations:
  • Our bodies contain huge amounts of foreign DNA already. Our stomachs in particular are full of them. In fact, our bodies rely on foreign DNA to digest food for us.
  • If the introduction of foreign bodies is the problem, how do you justify eating or drinking?
A week after the media exposed the big sham that was the British anti MMR vaccination movement to be the fraud it is (you can read Brian Deer’s brilliant and peer reviewed article exposing the fraud here), you can rightly accuse me for intolerance towards those taking pride in their ignorance on matters of vaccinations. Flu is a dangerous disease that kills many people each year, especially children and the elderly, and should therefore not be toyed with.
I will not be lenient there. Dumb’s the word that suits the occasion perfectly.

Image by alvi2047

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Where the Streets Have No Name

The cities a flood
And our love turns to rust
We're beaten and blown by the wind
Trampled in dust
I'll show you a place
High on a desert plain
Where the streets have no name
Surely, U2 wrote this song about Australia, where as I type Brisbane is being flooded (here) while bush fires run wild near Perth (here). Melbourne has to settle this time for what is, comparably, a mundane looking flash flood warning (here).

Monday, 10 January 2011

Twenty years down the line

PZ Myers has referred me to the following video featuring an Isaac Asimov from 1989. As a big time Asimov fan it was a rare pleasure to watch the man with the sideburns speak; I’m used to photos of his or stories of his, but not hearing or seeing him in live action:

I took two things out of this video:
  1. Asimov really has that English accent I commonly associate, rightly or wrongly, with New Yorker Jews. It made me laugh.
  2. Humanity has had worthy people warn it about the dangers of climate change for decades now, and still no one is listening. Then we moved twenty years further and still nothing is being done.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Reasonable Toilet Training

Manneken PisTo quote Bob Dylan, the times, they are a-stressful. The reason? Toilet training.
We took our time toilet training our child. There are many toddlers half his age who are fully toilet trained, yet we did not put the pedal on the metal till recently. There were numerous reasons for this delay, but it mostly came down to perseverance: we lacked the ability to offer a consistent toilet training experience. Our son had this habit of getting sick all the time, and we didn't want to fight the toilet training war with him while he's already off balance; between work and other commitments, we did not have the ability to offer our child the same experience again and again as required by training; besides, let's be frank: we were lazy. Changing nappies is a pain in the ass but it has its advantages: you know what you need to do and you know when you need to do it. With nappies you have the initiative; with a toilet trained toddler you're in for constant surprises. As we have been finding now that we're doing the toilet training, surprises come under all sorts of circumstances, requiring us to exercise our imagination in order to come up with countermeasures. My imagination can only extend thus far.
There is, however, one major difference between toilet training a baby and the delayed toilet training of a toddler: reason. By now, our child knows what's going on with his output; he knows what feces are. We can therefore apply to his sense of reason in teaching him toilet manners, a bonus you don't have when you're limited to mechanical toilet training only as with younger toddlers/babies. I like this difference that reason makes, because it appeals to my general sense of appreciation towards reason as the main justification for doing things. I always had a problem with conditioning my son, so when the option to reason my son into doing stuff is available I'm gladly taking it.
Not that I propose this reasoning approach is the best way to toilet train a child. Sure, it has its advantages, mostly to do with the child being quite ready to toilet train on his own rather than us having to fully force the affair on him. Yet it is hard to ignore the fact that toilet training, even with reason applied, is still a very stressful experience. It is also hard to avoid the fact that our child is smart enough to twist reason his way: while we're busy reasoning him out of nappies, he is busy reasoning himself some new parent extortion techniques (that is, when he's not busy reasoning himself back into nappies).
It's all fun and games, parenting, and I don't think anyone has the silver bullet there. I, however, am happy to finally be able to apply reason with my son. Be it toilet training this time or something much more elaborate the next time, reason is the way to go.

Image by arnybo

Thursday, 6 January 2011

The Gruffalo's Child

One of the better Christmas gifts my three year old has received was the copy of the book The Gruffalo’s Child that his English niece has previously used. Excellent recycling of emotional attachment as well as a good children’s book, if only a sequel to the incredibly good The Gruffalo.
I couldn’t avoid noticing the sticker on the book’s cover saying it has been reduced to 5 GBP (that’s around $8 for you). Then I had a look at the British online book shop, Book Depository: they sell the book for $6.50 with free shipping to Australia (if you did click the link to check for yourself, note the price you will see depends on the country you check the link from).
The cost of posting us the used book from England was much higher than the cost of buying the book new at Book Depository. In my opinion that says a lot about the world we live in.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

The Pub Dinner

Originally uploaded by reuvenim
At our three year old’s request we went for a dinner out at a nearby pub. It’s still holiday season, he’s still on his summer holidays, so why not?
There were two distinct observations I was able to make at the pub:
  1. With the exception of yours truly, every one of the diners was a very white Anglo.
  2. The food, although of good quality, was rather bland.
I venture to suggest that these two observations are very tightly related.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Mind the Apps

App StoreIn a desperate attempt to acquire readership through cheap populism, The Age reports today of a bug rendering iPhone alarm clocks useless during the beginning of 2011. Indeed, for a company like Apple that built its reputation on being better than Microsoft this incident exposes them for the naked kings they are; I, however, would like to point out a problem much more severe with the iPhone: the reliability of its apps. After all, Apple boasts the largest number of them, some several hundreds of thousands, as one of its biggest advantages over potential rivals.
I already talked about the problem of iPhone apps doing things behind your back, such as the problem of the Facebook app uploading all of your phone's contacts to Facebook's servers, where they become Facebook intellectual property, without giving you much of a hint about it. Now I'd like to talk about another problem, a problem that hits your wallet directly: buggy apps.
During the recent round of Christmas holidays I used several apps on my iPhone to find my way around unfamiliar territories. I used the BP Locator app to find gas stations around me and I used CitySearch and AroundMe to find businesses in my vicinity (e.g., supermarkets, places to eat). Then one evening I noticed something strange: according to my iPhone, that day - a day where I only used the above three apps - I have downloaded 4gb of data and uploaded 4gb of data more through my cellular 3G connection.
By Australian terms, my monthly iPhone data download/uploads allowance is a generous 300mb. Excess, however, is paid at a rate of 0.2c per kb, which means that these 8gb of data my iPhone said it downloaded would cost me a whopping $8000. Just like that!
There are several reasons for an iPhone to exchange data without you, its owner, to actively order it to do so. None, however, are as violent as this - not during one day! Having researched the issue over the web, the main plausible explanation for this charade is an app gone astray: like a location sensitive app that kept on running in the background (the iOS 4 operating system running on my iPhone allows for multi tasking in the shape of apps running in the background) and kept on asking for updates as I moved along and changed my location. Indeed, during that day we were on a long drive between NSW's coast to Canberra.
To be on the realistic side of things, it was immediately clear to me my iPhone could not have exchanged 8gb of data through its 3G connection in one day for a very simple reason: its battery is not strong enough to support so much data throughput on a single charge. Still, even if it downloaded a fraction of the amount it said it did my wallet still stands to lose thousands of dollars.
I immediately contacted my provider, Virgin Mobile, and told them of my unintentional problem. The next day I got a very laconic reply back from them, proving once again why mobile phone providers are topping the list of consumer affair complaints for several years now. Don't expect help to come from their side; I was given the Apple Australia phone number and told to discuss issues with my phone directly with them.
A few days later, after regularly checking my data consumption report with Virgin Mobile, it became clear the whole thing was a false alarm and my iPhone did not download the data it said it did. While there was relief to my wallet, the problem still remains:
  • The iPhone app store is riddled with apps that are buggy, up to no good, and disregard basic consumer rights to the point of breaking the law.
  • The iPhone itself is a buggy smartphone that can, under certain circumstances, hurt you bad.
What can be done about these problems assuming you are not going to return to the pre smartphone Stone Age? I can advise two measures:
  1. Be careful with the apps you install on your smartphone. Do not install anything that moves just because you've seen it somewhere or because it's free; install only apps from reputable suppliers.
    At the moment this advice is hard to follow because there is no reputable source of advice concerning notorious apps. Just the other day the newspaper reported Apple being sued for letting apps that violate privacy into its app store. The list of apps doing that included seemingly reputable apps like Pandora, and The Weather Channel.
  2. Do not let apps run in the background. Terminate them properly!
    On the iOS 4 iPhone the process of terminating apps is rather clumsy: you double click the Home button, which shows you a list of all active apps. Then you hold your finger on one of these apps for a few seconds until they all start jittering. Then you press the X sign on their top left to terminate them. Click the Home button again to cease the termination process.
    Don't be lazy - terminate your apps immediately after you cease using them, or face the consequences of them doing nasty things to your phone, your phone battery, and your wallet!
Most importantly, do not trust the apps. Treat them like you treat your websites: do not access them in the first place if they appear dodgy, and close them the way you close your browser when you're finished using them. Personally, I would prefer a well designed website (like the Google mobile websites, e.g., Google Reader) over the majority of apps.

Monday, 3 January 2011

A New Year Without Shops

TV ads are now telling us that between the new year's discount season and the high Australian Dollar there has never been a time to go and shop at your nearest hard brick shop. I beg to differ; again and again I am shocked by the prices we're asked to pay at the shops.
On the other hand, see what I was able to get online:
  • Levis jeans for $40
  • Gap cargo pants for $40
  • Banana Republic cargo shorts for $30
  • Diesel belt for $30
The interesting things to note about the above are:
  • All purchases were of brand new items with their tags still on and everything.
  • The above prices included the cost of postage. In three out of the four cases we're talking about airmail postage from the USA.
Now, can any local shop match these prices? No way. They don't even come close.
The funny thing about it is that I don't really care for brand names; my default place for buying clothes is Target. The only reason why I'm buying brand names is to do with reliability. That is, when I buy a product made by a brand I know I can put faith in size 36 actually being size 36, which is important when you buy things online without being able to measure them. Still, brand names or no brand names, online prices are incredibly better than Aussie shop prices.
Between the new year's discount season, the flux of unwanted Christmas gifts washing the web, and the Australian Dollar being at an all time high, there has never been a better time to shop online.