Wednesday, 29 June 2011

iPhone * Android = Mac * Linux

iPhone vs Android

A lot of virtual ink has been spilled over these pages towards covering the war between the iOS iPhone camp and the Google Android side, the war for mobile Internet supremacy. During this war I often changed sides, but now actually have the perspective gained from using both operating systems in parallel through the latest incarnations of their phone operating systems: an iOS4 iPhone 3GS and an Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) Nexus S phone as well as a Kogan Agora tablet.
What does my new insight tell me? The message is simple: the iPhone/Android scene is best explained through an analogy with the Mac/Linux scene. I guess that should not surprise anyone given the origins of these two operating systems, but my point is simple. Understand the Mac scene and the Linux scene and you will have their mobile counterparts all figured out.

Just like the Mac, the iPhone’s look and feel are unparalleled. Just like the Mac you can use it straight out of the box, in a manner that pretty much explains why it is coveted by those of us less technologically inclined. Sadly, just like the Mac the iPhone is restricted: you cannot do whatever you want to do with it; you can only do what Apple wants you to do with it, and Apple is usually guided by the principle of making profits.
On the other corner you have the Android system. It allows you to do almost anything you want with your phone, some times easily but often with much effort. It is rough around the edges and requires dedication and know-how to get the most out of, which explains it being coveted by geeks. On paper, you can get more out of an Android phone than you do with an iPhone; it would just be much harder to get there.
Another similarity between Android and Linux is to do with the way Android manages installed apps. The Android platform is pretty secure, but once you authorize the installation of an app you’re exposed to its whims. At the PC environment where application installations are rare those whims tend not to matter much, but on a phone running dozens of apps and charged for 3G downloads the Android platform suffers.

Given the above, which of the two operating systems do I prefer?
My natural preference, as a tinkerer and a gadget freak, is to go the Android’s way. Android is also a better fit ideology wise: it is not a truly open source platform like Linux is, but it free. Add the two together, the ideology and the ability to tailor the phone to do as I will it, and Android should be the clear winner.
It this stage, though, it is not a clear winner. Coming from the iPhone world it is hard for me to give up on that slick, simple and generally awesome presentation the iPhone has to offer. I also appreciate the operating system’s tighter control on its apps: I despise Apple dictating to me which apps I can run and which apps I can’t, but I appreciate the tools it provides me with to police the apps I do have on my phone.
I would therefore conclude on some sort of a draw. I will add that were Apple to take iTunes out of the equation I would be a firm iPhone supporter; as it is, with me having to carry the burden of iTunes every time I want to do something as mildly complicated as copying music to my iPhone, I have to deprive Apple of victory.

Things will become interesting in the next few months. Apple will release iOS5 and the iPhone 5, whatever that phone's actual name is going to be. If iOS5 does to my iPhone 3GS what iOS4 did to the iPhone 3, the usable days of my current iPhone are numbered. Soon I will have to choose where my allegiance lies.
On its side, Google plans a new Android release, too: Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4.0?), an operating system meant to combine Android for phone (Gingerbread) and Android for tablet (Honeycomb). Rumors of the next Google phone, a Samsung manufactured Nexus Prime running on ice cream power are already travelling the Internet. I wouldn’t put my money against this [Optimus] Prime being my next phone.

Image by nrkbeta, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

New Old Man

mandi__20081029_half_beardA new person was staring back at me through the mirror after I shaved my beard off. It really did feel strange.
For the record, that new person appeared older and more tired than I remember.
For another record, I shaved the beard off because of the maintenance involved: maintaining the beard required more frequent hair cuts (for better beard/hair integration), and I couldn't be bothered. Then there's the matter of reducing the attraction levels of airport security personnel.
So if you're looking for someone to blame, point a finger at the TSA and its likes. Statistically speaking, they're scarier than the terrorists.

Image by mutantMandias, Creative Commons license

Monday, 27 June 2011

House or Apartment?


Nostalgia can be dangerous. It can ruin an otherwise rational decision making process. Case in point: our future house plan.
At this point in time our plans for extending the house we live in have been approved to a level that allows us to seriously engage builders for quotes. We are not talking ballpark figures anymore; it’s the real deal now, including timing and logistics. At the same time I’m being hit with more and more nostalgia attacks that bring back fond memories of living in apartments.

I grew up and spent most of my life at apartment buildings and I don’t think I’ve suffered much for it; however, moving to Australia and living in a house/unit of my own seemed, at the time, to have been a huge step forward. Not only are these units/houses significantly bigger than the apartments I grew up in (with the notable exception of our current house in its current unextended form): things are much quieter with no walls shared with neighbours, and things look pretty grand when I step into my own private yard (both the one at the front of the house and the one at the back). Hey, I have room for my own private barbecue – hardly anyone in Israel does!
Then nostalgia strikes and I remember things differently. I remember growing up with much more human contact then I have now: that apartment building I grew up in had nine flats; three kids from those nine flats were primary school classmates, yours truly included, and there were several other kids in the building from roughly the same age group. In contrast, living in my Australian house the way I currently do, I can spend weeks without ever noticing I have neighbours. Sure, I have better privacy and less noise, but I deeply miss that human touch that was previously enforced on me simply by sharing walls and stairways.
As for that garden we now have, I will boldly say this: not only is it useless, it’s also a pain in the ass! A lot of people I know claim to enjoy their time doing garden maintenance; I don’t. For a start, I’m amazed at how much time properly maintaining the garden requires. Second, I consider every hour I spend on the garden an hour in which I could have done something truly productive, like having a nap or playing video games or surfing the Internet or – generally speaking – doing something I actually enjoy doing.
I now view private backyards the same way I view public transport: if there’s good enough public transport I don’t need to maintain my own car. In Melbourne’s case, public transport sucks so I do need a car; but Melbourne’s parks are great and they’re everywhere, so why do I need to maintain a backyard of my own?
I hear you saying it’s great for the kids to play at, especially as you don’t need to worry for their safety. Well, I argue I don’t need to worry about their safety at public parks either (the statistics are firmly on my side). I also argue my child hardly ever plays outside on his own anyway, so what’s the difference between me going outside with him to the backyard or me going outside with him to one of the public parks surrounding us?
I’ll tell you what the differences are: about a hundred meters, much more variety, and much superior infrastructure.
As for that barbecue, most Aussie apartments have open balconies that cater very well for barbecues, thank you very much.

Don’t take me the wrong way. Not all apartments will do.
For an apartment to work for us it needs to have ample room. At least three bedrooms (one for an office and/or storage to compensate for the missing backyard) as well as generous common living space where we can spend time together without touching one another’s nerves.
That apartment needs to be set at a nice area with parks and facilities around to compensate for the lack of a backyard.
Now for the catch: add these two factors together, a generously spaced apartment set at a nice environment, and reality bytes. The cost of such an apartment under current inner Melbourne real estate terms and conditions just nudges the million dollar mark. In some of the nicer cases it politely crosses that psychological seven digit barrier.
Given that grim reality I can only fold back to our ongoing extension plans. They will still cost us an arm and a leg and a lifelong commitment to the bank, but at least they're achievable.
I sincerely pity those entering the Melbourne real estate market for the first time to find themselves a place to live in. If mine is a liveable compromise, theirs is going to be a very painful one indeed.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Aussie High Tech

Australia, Kalgoorlie: A big wholeOnce again someone has asked me whether I moved to Australia for the benefit of my professional career.
Once again I had to laugh in someone’s face.
Once again I had to explain the IT market in Israel is so much larger than Australia’s that moving here was the exact opposite of career development.
Face it, Aussies: we have a wonderful country to live in. A viable high-tech industry is not its claim to fame, though.

Image by kool_skatkat, Creative Commons license

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Stand in the Place Where You Work

What we did at work today (Rawwrrrr!)

What is common to all of the following:
  1. A chocolate bar stolen from an office desk.
  2. A bunch of sticky notes covering an entire office PC monitor.
  3. A pile of hole puncher residues left on an office desk.
If you answered with “you [as in yours truly] has been the first to be named the suspect committing the above office crimes” then you won yourself the right to go on holidays. You deserve it.
Me, I’m bothered thinking what it is exactly that I have done to earn this honor. No, I did not commit any of the above: I looked at that chocolate bar long and hard, the way I look at any piece of chocolate, but I have this tendency not to take things that aren’t mine away; I’m too much of a greenie to waste sticky papers on a practical joke; and as the father of a three year old whose mess I need to clean after several times a day I consider creating a mess for others a crime worthy of capital punishment.
So, why was I accused of the above?
I could invoke the racial card and I could invoke the cultural card. I could also invoke the religious card: enough people around me either consider me the resident Jew or know me for an atheist, and let’s face it – the majority are believers, and the majority doesn’t like to see others criticizing belief. It makes them think they might be riding the wrong horse, and that makes them uncomfortable.
I won’t invoke any of these specific cards, though. I think the correct answer is some sort of a mix of all of the above and then some. I think the correct answer is simply that I stand out amongst the crowd: I look different, I behave different, but most importantly – I’m a very opinionated person who does not hesitate to state his opinions loudly and clearly.
The problem here is that through being different and through not letting myself fade into the background I attract attention. I have been created myself the image of a troublemaker when, in my honest opinion, I am anything but.
That saddens me: it makes me think [again] that I might be working at the wrong place. It saddens me even more to see history repeating: from Joan of Arc to Nelson Mandela, those that stand out tend to pay a price for doing so. I do not pretend to be anything like these two, but more than before this firsthand experience of mine certainly makes me appreciate what people have been through in the ongoing struggle to make the world a better place, surrounded as they were/are by a generally indifferent public.

Image by @superamit, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

The Failed Experiment

Experimentation and trying new things out are good investments of one’s time even if they do turn up with the occasional failure. In this post I would like to discuss such a failed experiment and explain how I’m happy to have embarked on it despite the failure.
A few weeks ago I told you (here) how I’m going to be taking part in the voting for this year’s Hugo awards, the most prestigious awards in science fiction. I won that honor because I paid $50 in order to put my hands on copies of most of this year’s Hugo nominees; voting was just a side effect. The chief intention behind this move of mine was to get the best of science fiction for the year in one affordable package. Note the key assumptions I have made here: I assumed Hugo nominees would be the best science fiction books of the year, and I assumed that by being such they would be the best material for me to read.
The first of the five nominees for Best Book I got to read, Feed, was indeed a fairly good book that I quite enjoyed reading (and reviewing here). However, moving down the list of remaining nominees revealed a different story altogether.

The second book I tried, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin, turned out to be fantasy rather than pure science fiction. On its own that is not necessarily bad, even if I have been finding it really hard to find genuinely good fantasy reads.
What was bad is how quickly I got bored with this second book. What seemed to be the story of a fight between claimers to the throne of a mystical kingdom, with an unlikely claimant as the story teller, felt tedious and boring to this reader’s eyes. Hugo nominee or not, I have plenty of books I know to be good waiting on me (see here); I was not about to waste time on this one. I moved on.
Before moving on to the next book on the list I did some pondering. After all, one has to learn from failed experiments!
In his book The Meaning of Things, philosopher A.C. Grayling claims that we tend to appraise experiences based on how they were at their peak and how they ended. He asked his readers to see whether the way they remember their last holiday matches this insight, and I have to say that in many respects I find this generalization to be correct.
However, I will go further and add the importance of a good start to Grayling's argument. When we remember a book we may remember it by its peak and by its ending, but we also need it to start well in order to want to get to that peak and that ending in the first place. John Scalzi, one of my favorite authors (and the subject of my ravings here), recently gave would be writers advice on his blog. One of his points was about the need to capture and secure the reader by throwing something exciting their way at the very beginning so as to make them want to get deeper into the book.
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms failed me in this regard. Its start was pretty ordinary, focusing on trying to teach me the ways of the book’s world rather than trying to excite me about it. As such, the book probably does not deserve a Hugo award.

Next I moved to The Dervish House by Ian McDonald. After reading it for half an hour my Kindle was telling me that I was still only 1% through. That less than a percent that I read wasn’t too bad, but my progress (or lack of it) was testimony to the book’s tediousness: for example, a single paragraph had several flashbacks going back and forth in time. I might get back to it some other time, but for now – Dervish House is asking too much of me.
I moved on to Blackout by Connie Willis, the book I blacklisted before (the books was only partially made available to Hugo voters, and even that was in a non ebook friendly format) . Indeed, reading the book on my Kindle proves a bit of a pain: lines tend to break for no good reason due to the necessary format conversions. It’s amazing how much of an effect this has on reading flow! The book itself might be good, but its publisher deserves no credit for its meager attempt at promoting its product. Dear publisher, promotion only works if you’re truly committed to it!
I won’t even try to read the last of the five nominees, Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold. That book is a part of an ongoing saga of books I haven’t read.

I therefore have myself a success rate of 1 in 5 with this year's Hugo nominees, or 20%.
Although low on observation samples, the experiment concludes I cannot trust Hugo nominations to act as viable book quality indicators. I therefore doubt I will repeat the experience next year; the Hugo awards will just have to learn to live without me.
I suspect I should have seen this coming. Looking at the science fiction books I read over the last year or two, some of the best of them did not win a Hugo and most were not even nominees: The God Engines, Agent to the Stars, For the Win, Old Man’s War… I can continue but I’ll stop here because the conclusion is the same: award winning has poor correlation with whether I, personally, like a book.
What measures can I still use in order to identify science fiction books worthy of my time? That’s easy: between them, blogs such as Boing Boing and Whatever, as well as Twitter, have been able to supply me with ongoing and reliable recommendations. All I have to do in order to identify book prospects is turn to my RSS reader.

Monday, 20 June 2011

You Can Go Your Own Way

Problem: You fly off to a foreign land, where you need/want to drive. How can you find your way around?
Up until now you had the following options at your disposal:
  1. Use a local’s help: Locals are not always available.
  2. Use a map: Paper maps are so 20th century!
  3. Use a GPS: Granted, that’s the ideal solution. However, getting an extra map to load into your GPS device can be an expensive affair. For example, if you’re flying to the UK, a Tomtom map would cost you at least $80; the Tomtom UK app for the iPhone would cost you even more. That’s quite expensive, especially if you’ll only use it once or twice, and especially as a brand new Tomtom Start GPS sells for less than $150. In my book, Tomtom has priced its maps beyond viability.
  4. Use Google Maps on an Android phone: Google Maps can give you turn-by-turn instructions, just like a Tomtom or Garmin GPS would. However, for Google Maps to work you need constant Internet access: if you’re global roaming it would cost you a hell of a lot, whereas putting your hands on a local SIM is not that easy a feat. Then there’s the problem of losing navigation capabilities when you’re out of 3G coverage.

Today I am here to tell you of a fifth alternative.
Called Navfree, it’s a free open source program with maps updated by the community of its users. Navfree is available for many countries (including most of Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the USA). And yes, Navfree will give you turn by turn instructions!
Navfree is available for the iPhone through iTunes. It’s also available for Android but not through the Android Market yet, and at the moment it doesn’t work on Android 2.3 (Gingerbread) but it does work on 2.2 (Froyo).
We tested it yesterday on my iPhone. Look and feel wise, it’s quite similar to the Google Maps navigational experience on an Android Phone. There is a major difference, though: the map is loaded on your device in its entirety, so you don’t need a live Internet connection to use Navfree. That’s ideal for the tourist who does not wish to go bankrupt through global roaming!
Granted, Navfree is not as good as the commercial solutions from the likes of Garmin and Tomtom. However, it is perfectly fine for the casual or the short term user. Navfree is further proof to how a community of people can join hands and come up with a great product that is openly shared with everyone while totally taking greed out of the equation. Great products do not come any greater than that!

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Downloading Films Is Stealing

And if you do it, you will face the consequences:

Brought to you by The IT Crowd, one of the best comedies ever made.

Saturday, 18 June 2011

The Dimness of the Cinema

Birmingham IMAX Tour - Film Ready to GoWhat, in your opinion, is the best place to critically watch a film at?
If your answer is “the cinema” then we’re at odds, you and I, because I really can’t see how a cinema can compete with a home theater experience utilizing Blu-ray technology. By definition, a cinema – a large venue where many spectators need to share the experience – has to provide a compromised environment if it wants to satisfy both the viewer sitting at the center as well as the one sitting on the side. A home theater environment, on the other hand, can be optimized so that the one possible hotspot – the best seat of the house – can be as good as it can ever be.
Traditionally speaking, the cinema’s main advantage used to be its larger screen. That advantage is no longer the case when screens creating the same viewing angles are affordable, not to mention the sheer quality advantage a properly calibrated modern day high definition screen possesses over the cinema screen.
Sadly, it seems as if cinemas have been made worse still by the recent development of 3D (read here). I recently discussed my views on the poor state of 3D affairs for the home (here), but as it turns out there is more to it than meets the eye: by leaving the polarizing lens required for 3D projection on the projector even after going back to 2D, cinemas are making 2D presentations much dimmer than they need to be.
If you read the linked article you will see this can happen due to laziness, but it also happens because of Sony. Yes, that company that specializes in giving your private information away also does DRM that makes life harder for the projectionist, so instead of taking risks and potentially locking the projector (thus not being able to project a thing), projectionists prefer to take the safe option: they often avoid touching the projector and leave it set on 3D mode.
As Roger Ebert points out (here), there are further issues at hand. For example, 3D presentations require the image to be projected to a silver screen in order to prevent the picture aimed at one eye from infiltrating to the other. However, silver screens are pretty crappy compared to normal screens when it comes to picture quality; yet often enough the cinema won’t bother switching between the two screens when moving from a 3D presentation to a normal 2D presentation.
Perhaps you’re lucky and the cinemas you attend make sure to have the right lens on and the right screen up. However, given the way most multiplexes are run I doubt this is the case. I accept that cinemas are a nice place to go out to for social reasons, but as far as watching a movie properly, the way it was meant to be seen, the home environment is the one with the best fulfilment potential.

You may regard the above as an indictment of cinemas, and in many ways it is. However, I would like to point out the above is also a celebration of the potential for modern day home theater to deliver wonderful experiences at generally affordable prices.
I consider the point worth making after I noticed how [too] many people interpret my generally critical way of looking at things to be a generally negative way of looking at things. There is a difference between being critical and being negative.

Image by William Hook, Creative Commons license

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Mother and Child Reunion

Mother & ChildSome interesting research results dealing with the potential benefits sending your toddler to childcare have for the mother and the child came to my attention (thanks to Leslie Cannold). Have a look here.
I thought I would share it with you here since I have always found myself a player in the battlefield where a war is being waged between the camp that thinks little children need to stay at home (almost always with their mother) and the one that sends their toddlers to childcare facilities. As I pointed in the past, that former camp seems to have a strange but firm grip on the Aussie psyche, especially when comparing things to other countries.
I would say the debate is more about women’s liberation than it is about the optimal way to raise a child. The fact there is debate in the first place says something about the status of women in contemporary Aussie culture, and that message is not particularly good.
I would just like to point out two of the research’s conclusions (which I admit to list below in too simplistic a manner):
  1. Sending a two year old to formal childcare helps the mother avoid depression and helps the child behave better by the time they’re five.
  2. Sending the same two year old to non formal childcare (I assume the research is referring to things like leaving children with their grandparents) does not do anyone any good.
I might have simplified things, but the point is clear: sending a little child to childcare can help both the child and the mother; it is not a case of getting rid of the child for selfish reasons, but rather the opposite.

Image by Andy Magee, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Our Next TV?

Our TV is now five year old, and it is clear that we will soon need to decide on its future. An LCD rear projection TV, it is becoming more and more obvious that its lamp is getting towards the latter stages of its 8,000 hours rated life: light output is getting lower and lower, and new types of distortions/halos keep showing up with time; nothing spectacular, but it is clear the lamp is no longer strong enough to outshine some of the TV’s inherent issues.
What is spectacular, though, is the cost of a replacement lamp: once upon a time when I inquired I was told Sony sells them for $600 to $800 a pop. That assumes they are still in stock in the first place and Sony wouldn’t want to use the opportunity to force us to buy a new TV instead.
That question is still relevant, though: is it worthwhile to buy a new TV instead of investing significant monies on technology that is five long years out of date?
Given my affection to technological gadgets and to home theater, I set out to find my answer to this question.

The starting point is the preferred technology. I am still of the opinion that, in general, projection gives a much more realistic looking picture than flat panels. While a proper front projector is too expensive and generally unsuitable for our needs, a modern DLP or LCOS rear projection TV would offer us the best picture suitable to our room. Especially DLP TVs powered by LEDs or lasers, where the TV is rated to last 20,000 hours and there is no need for costly replacement lamps.
Alas, you cannot get rear projection TVs at Australian shops anymore. You can get some models if you go to the manufacturer directly, but then that manufacturer charges an arm and a leg (last I’ve seen, the cheapest model was selling for $6000), whereas the entire point of rear projection is its potential for good value for money.
We are therefore back to mainstream flat panel technology, where the options are either plasma or LCD (whether conventionally back-lit or LEDs back-lit, it is still LCD no matter what marketing departments want you to think). I will say it again: I don’t see what the entire fuss over flat panels being flat is; unless you hang the TV on the wall, which I won’t, it takes up just as much space as a rear projection unit.
The choice between LCD and plasma is actually fairly simple. Plasmas tend to offer better picture for the dollar than LCD, with some models out there being able to produce images as good as the best projector. LCDs, on the other hand, perform better in rooms with light, while suffering from directionality (the steeper the angle of viewing is, the less bright the picture would be).
My interpretation of these qualities is simple: plasma is better for critical viewing while LCD is better for viewing in casual conditions. I’ll [generally] take the plasma, thanks.

The next question is, which plasma? Or rather – which TV should I get while bearing in mind that it is likely to be a plasma model (but still remembering that there are many LCDs that beat many plasmas)?
Reputable reviews would tell you quite unequivocally that Panasonic makes the best plasma panels around. However, for the last couple of years their models have been plagued with various issues that manifest themselves when playing Blu-rays in particular (that is, at the time you want them to be at their best behavior). Those issues relate to flicker effects showing up when the screen has to cope with the cinematic rate of 24 frames per second while the plasma panel was originally designed to cater for 60hz refreshes. Since Blu-rays came out the problem was solved by running at 120hz or 240hz (multiples of both 24 and 60), but for some reason Panasonic has a problem there.
Rumor has it Panasonic’s newest models, coming out shortly, have addressed these issues to make Panasonic the very best again. Rumor also has it these models would start north of $3000, which is more than I am willing to pay.
Who should I turn to next?
Sony would have been my natural second preference if it wasn’t for their PlayStation Network fiasco: it would take something truly special for me to touch a Sony product again. Besides, Sonys tend to be severely overpriced.
Moving on, the next manufacturer I would put my eye on is Samsung. Samsung offers good plasmas and LED backlit LCD TVs, of which I would go for the plasmas due to value (picture quality) for money. Looking at Samsung’s plasma offerings, one can see them divided into “familles” where a 50” model ranges in price from less than $1000 to north of $3000 from family to family. When looking at the features each family provides I couldn’t avoid noticing the basic panel has similar specs whether you’re talking about the $1600 per 50” family or the $3000+ per 50” family.
What are the differences between families, then? From what I can tell these are all to do with extra features (emphasis on “all”). The more prestigious the family is, the more likely you are to get integrated wifi, Skype and Facebook facilities, as well as various picture enhancement modes with flashy acronyms. What is common to all those families is that they all feature 3D.
Let us discuss these differences. First for wifi and internet features: sure, they’re nice, but do I really want them on my TV? My answer would be no, or rather – not as long as I have to pay an extra. I can get the same functionality by connecting my laptop to the TV; in fact, I already have a PS3 connected to my TV, with its own browser. Besides, have you tried entering a URL with your average TV remote?
Moving on the picture enhancement modes, the answer there is very simple: the critical viewer does not want these features, not even for free. They are pure gimmicks that give you one good thing (say, brighter picture) on behalf of another (say, details level in the dark parts of the picture). Usually they’re not even a trade off; usually they are all bad. If there is anything you should take out of this post, it’s this: if you want the best picture on your TV, don’t resort to three letter acronyms; calibrate your TV instead. There are many guides to tell you how to do it as well as professional tools, but the best way for the laymen to achieve good calibration is to get a professional to do it or to copy professionals’ recommended settings for your TV off the web. After setting contrast, brightness, gamma, color temperature and other advanced parameters properly, you would be surprised how good the picture from any crappy TV looks like: sure, it would be much dimmer than the way it was at the show room, but it wouldn’t generate a picture where everything looks like it’s computer animation all the time with stupidly enhanced colors to boot. It would look real.

A word or two about 3D.
I don’t think the technology is there yet, and I don’t think it’s worthwhile investing money in it yet. There are several reasons for my opinion there:
  • Contents is generally lacking. To date there are only a few compatible Blu-rays. Some, like the most anticipated release - Avatar - are only available through exclusive agreements with Panasonic or other manufacturers (that is, you can only get Avatar if you buy a Panasonic TV).
  • You would need a Blu-ray player supporting 3D and a receiver supporting it as well. By "supporting" I mean they need to have HDMI 1.4 connectors, which doesn’t tend to happen often even with the very latest equipment. In my case, my PS3 supports 3D (at 1080i only due to lack of HDMI 1.4) but the receiver doesn’t, which means that if I want to watch a 3D film I would need to use TV’s internal speakers rather than my hi-fi for the sound. Between giving up on 3D visuals and sound quality, I’d dump the former.
  • I don’t know about you, but 3D gives me a headache after a [short] while.
  • Those glasses are annoying, expensive and generally incompatible across manufacturers.
  • With glasses normally supplied in batches of two, what would the third person of the house do? And what do you do when you have guests over?
Regardless, the manufacturers are effectively forcing you to buy 3D if you want to buy anything close to the latest technology.

Given all of the above, my choice of a future TV (to be bought upon the death of our current TV’s lamp) is the Samsung 50” plasma selling for an RRP of $1600. I think they call it “series 5”, and I suspect I’d be able to get it for around $1300.
It’s interesting to note just how much TV prices came down. When we bought our current one we paid around $3000 for it; when I bought the significantly smaller 29” CRT I had before I paid $1000. Now the initial price explosion of the big screens has subsided, and once again common – but good – models are there to be had for around the $1000 mark.
Sadly, one of the implications of these prices coming down is that our existing 50” rear projection TV has an absolute zero resale value. I think buying a “modern” TV for $1300 is better than investing $600 to $800 on a lamp for the old one, but I do mourn the extra landfill to be occupied by what still is a very decent TV in need of a spare part.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Kogan Agora Tablet Review

Just an unashamed plug for my reviews blog:
Check up my review for the newly acquired Kogan Agora 7" Android tablet. Or in other words, can one buy a quality tablet that kicks iPad ass for a mere $160?
Get your answers here.

Friday, 10 June 2011

Newly Arrived at My Hard Drive

One of the key differences between buying paper books and buying ebooks is that while ordering a physical book over the Internet takes weeks, with ebooks you only need to commit to the purchase minutes before you want to start reading the book. It sounds a minute affair, but it saves money: instead of hoarding books but later finding you don't have the time to read them or you've lost the passion to read them because of some bigger and better things, you only buy the book you're just about to read.
This month I've made a few exceptions to the rule and bought some ebooks even though I am not about to start reading them any time soon (given my book refereeing mission). I do it conciously: I admit that when it comes to books I allow myself to be a savage consumer/hoarder. I do it because books offer so much more than your average physical commodity given their immaterial nature. Books are food for the brain.

Philosophical discussions aside, here are the books that caused these exceptions:
  1. The Good Book by A.C. Grayling: Grayling's go at producing the humanists' bible seems like an impressive achievement full of tiny bits of potent philosophies. The book also seems like it has great gift potential.
  2. Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi: The latest release from John Scalzi, one of my favorite authors and probably the favorite living fiction author.
  3. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne Valenta: A YA title that received very favorable reviews from both Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi. The chances of me disagreeing with both of them together are pretty low.
  4. The Quotable Hitchens: While I have many disagreement with Christopher Hitchens I greatly enjoy reading his opinionated arguments. He's a guy that makes me think, whether he writes about politics or religion. This book is a collection of his quotes, so I reckon by reading this one I will "save" myself the need to read many of his other books.
  5. You're Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop by John Scalzi: John Scalzi writing about writing. Need I say more? Not only is the book written by a favorite author, with a sense of humor that never fails, it's also about a matter dear to my heart - writing (refer to this blog for evidence). For the record, the book is actually a collection of posts from Scalzi's blog dealing with the process of writing.
  6. Robopocalypse by Daniel Wilson: Another book winning much praise from both Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi (can you tell I'm influenced by my favorite bloggers?). This time the subject matter is dear to my heart: a war breaks between humans and robots as the latter deem that only a war would win them equal rights given that only wars improved the rights of various human demographics.
I can now officially retire to a desert island for a few months of congested reading.

Thursday, 9 June 2011

The KitKat Indulgence

Experiences, accumulated over the years, seem to change the way I perceive things. The most trivial example I can give for the phenomenon is to do with KitKat.
I was eleven years old the very first time I tasted a KitKat, when my father brought a pack back from a business trip to New York. At the time KitKats, as well as many other international products, were unavailable in Israel due to the Arab boycott (finally removed at the early nineties, but up till then depriving Israelis of the dubious pleasures of drinking Pepsi or driving any Japanese car other than Subaru). That KitKat that I tasted was heavenly; at the time I thought it was the most fantastic thing to ever enter my digestive system.
Years came and went during which I generally did not consume KitKats. A few weeks ago I bought a few packs as office snacks, but upon trying them I was quite disappointed. Instead of those heavenly memories I got to feel an overdose of sweetness in my mouth. No subtlety or texture worth talking about, the way a proper Swiss chocolate works; just an overabundance of sugar covered with some cheap chocolate.
Gone are the days where I am easily impressed.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Great Expectations


This week’s cold weather spell in Melbourne, with the mercury hitting a top of 10 degrees today, reminds me of how things felt like physically and emotionally upon my arrival to Australia as a new migrant close to a decade ago. It reminds me of one of my more colossal failures.

I arrived to Australia at an all time high. For the previous year and a half nothing could come between me and my efforts to move to Australia; I was at an all time high. What could go wrong?
Well, a lot did. As usual for problems of a colossal nature, it all came down to ignorance and stupidity. I assumed that Australia’s job market is the same as Israel’s only larger, because of the larger population. I assumed the culture is similar because both countries are generally Western secular countries. I assumed the weather would be alright because, hey, Australia is the sunburnt country (and it was nice and warm when I visited during summer). I assumed too much and did not stop to verify my assumptions are anywhere near real. I was supported by the cheers of everyone around me into a euphoric state of mind but that is no excuse; for all intents and purposes you could say I was a fool.

Then came the harsh reality, in various shapes and sizes. It did not take its time to slap me in the face without mercy:
  • Melbourne’s weather was the first to welcome me. Coming off Israeli spring I thought I had arrived at Antarctica. I was eternally cold (with a proper cold to boot during the first fortnight). There was more to it, though: it took me months to realize what an effect the eternal winter cloud cover has on me. It’s very rare for the sun to be completely hidden in Israel, yet during Melbourne winter you can spend weeks without a proper glimpse, especially when you're locked at an office for the bulk of the day.
  • My next slap came at the office. Office culture is totally different: people are so formally dressed at the office, suits and ties and all, that even the lowliest employee out-dresses the most conservative of Israeli CEOs. The dress code is just a mirror for the formal way of Aussie office affairs, where there is much less casual communication, where an employee’s mouth tends to be much more reserved around the boss, and where obidient observation of managers’ orders are the order of the day. Granted, Australia is not Germany; but it is also very far from the much more open (and thus creative) environment offered at Israel.
    The stupid thing about it is that Australians are not at all reserved and quiet; they just pretend to be so at the office so that they can maintain the illusion of running a show fit for a queen. Once outside the locker most inhibitions are abandoned.
  • Next it was culture. In order to get along with people in you usually have to descend to the lowest common denominators. That’s fairly easy in Israel, where security is a common fear and the vast majority serve in the army. In Melbourne these lowest denominators tend to be alcohol and footy (in other parts of Australia Aussie Rules is replaced with rugby).
    The problem is that both are totally foreign to me; in many respects, especially those that matter to most Aussies, I despise them. That is, I like my sports but I have a problem with violence and I also don’t see how one mercenary beating another should have an effect on my life other than me enjoying the spectacle. It obviously matters to the average Aussie, though. Sports is the official religion of Australia, yet I am a skeptic.
    Don’t get me started about alcohol, the pivot around which the majority of Aussie life revolves: in most circles, if you don’t drink you don’t exist. And I don’t drink, definitely not at the quantities regarded as normal by Aussie standards. You may think this position of mine shouldn't affect a new immigrant’s stand much, but it does: on my second day at work in Australia, my fourth day since landing, I had to deal with an office alcoholic harboring a thing or two against Jews/Israelis. Well hidden while sober, things took on a new twist once alcohol got in the mix.
  • Antisemitism is relatively rare in Australia although it definitely exists in the open (I recall waiting in line at the bank to hear a couple next to me discuss “Jewish businessmen” in less than favorable light). However, one of the biggest problems of contemporary Australia is the inherent xenophobia that’s simply rampant everywhere, felt by anyone who is not a Christian Anglo Saxon and especially new migrants (even though as a migrant it took me a while to identify the problem for what it is). Everybody appears nice and people smile at you, but the core is rotten. The stranger is not as well accepted as it should in a country with so much immigration, probably because immigration is only welcomed as means to improve the financial benefits of existing residents. To me it meant that my CV stood a much lesser chance of being looked at than a CV bearing a "proper" English sounding name.
  • I thus found myself in the midst of a professional crisis. After being forced to leave the first job, where this bloody foreigner was rejected by one business unit that didn’t like another telling it how to get along, I found myself unemployed for close to six months. Again, I was the fool: I assumed Australia’s IT market would be just as lively as Israel’s, when in fact what qualifies here for IT is mostly running government projects and running companies’ computers.
    There is hardly any high tech development here: there is no Intel designing and manufacturing chips and no international software companies employing thousands to write code. The closest you can get is small time consulting. I had to compromise my professional aspirations and my income expectations, and I had to adapt myself in order to become a potentially successful job seeker in the Australian IT market. It’s not as easy as it may seem, especially when there is no one to support you (which gives me another opportunity to express my utter contempts towards Australia’s IT recruitment industry).
  • Interestingly enough, state support for the unemployed in Australia is very poor. For a migrant it’s even poorer: you’re not allowed any proper form of support for the first two years of your arrival. Regardless, Australia’s reputation of lazy people getting their tans under the son is entirely unjustified: compared to European and Israeli standard, the unemployed as well as the rest of society’s weakest get nothing and a half here. If you lose your job you can quickly and all too easily find yourself in proper trouble with no one to help. You’d be on your own, like in that film Three Dollars.

You may think that doing nothing for six months is a nice luxury. I will tell you it isn’t. Here is my word of warning to those who think winning the lottery is great because they can retire to a life of doing nothing: doing nothing is bad for you. Doing nothing detaches you from the world around you. I suspect that doing nothing for so long got me into a proper state of depression, albeit a milder one that wasn’t too hard to recover from.
I will say this: doing nothing when you don’t know when you’d be able to start doing something again, when the hope of being able to start doing something again is fast dwindling, and when your fate is generally not in your own hands, has been the toughest mental challenge I ever had to contend with. Couple that with all the issues faced by a new immigrant thrown into the unfamiliar environment described above and you will see why I now consider my time of first arrival at Australia to be a colossal failure.
You can see why I am in no rush to try another migration adventure.

At the end I was rescued by people who cared for me, my partner and my brother in particular as well as many a few good men (and women). Yet the experience changed me forever.
I used to think that making enough of an effort will take one anywhere. That attitude took me to Australia, didn’t it? Now I think differently about this basic psyche of what commonly passes as The American Dream. Now I realize that circumstances matter: you can make all the effort in the world, but if circumstances don’t allow it you will never be the next Beethoven.
This realization made me much more caring to the wellbeing of others. Even those that don’t seem to be making an effort deserve my attention when it is clear that some people are in no position to make the effort in the first place. I realized that my own well being is tied down to the well being of others, because as long as there are those who suffer there are circumstances which could make me end up as one of them.
By now the probability of me suffering greatly for anything other than personal health related reasons is severely reduced, but the state of mind is there to stay. My Australian migration experience is responsible for making me a full fledged humanist.

Monday, 6 June 2011

First Impressions of an Android

androidOver the weekend my wife finally received her new Nexus S mobile phone. I won’t bore you with the dodgy purchase experience that led us to that point, an experience that included being lied to by multiple sellers (eBay shops, other online shops, and most interestingly – Vodafone). Nor will I go into the details of having the phone delivered to us by Fedex, which necessitated us driving to the Fedex depo instead in order to pick the phone because a Fedex delivery means they'll deliver at time and a place convenient to them.
Instead I want to discuss my first impressions with the Android operating system, where this Nexus S represents my first proper hands on experience.

I will start with the conclusion. It shouldn’t surprise anyone, given the history of both my wife and I coming from the Apple iOS world but consciously choosing to move to Google Android land: Android beats the crap out of the iPhone.
I am not basing this conclusion of mine on the fact that hardware wise, the Nexus S is quite superior to my iPhone 3GS. It is obvious it’s going to have a sharper screen and better performance; after all, there are almost two years of development between the two.
My conclusion is based on the functionality of this latest incarnation of Android (2.3.4) when compared to that of the latest iOS release running on my iPhone, 4.3.3.
First and foremost, with Android you don’t need iTunes or any other form of bloatware. You stick the SIM into the phone, you push the replaceable (!) battery in place, and you switch the phone on – that’s it! With the iPhone you need to activate the phone via iTunes on your PC/Mac, which is also used for all system updates and for updating the music/video library on your device. Android had me download the latest operating system directly off my wifi connection, while music is copied over simply by copying files to the phone – it couldn’t be simpler!
Then there is the matter of functionality that is simply unavailable to the iOS world, at least not for free and/or out of the box. The Google Maps app offers superior functionality on Android over its iOS version, to name one example. However, the killer app is the Android’s Navigator app: it uses Google Maps to offer turn by turn live navigation instructions on a user interface that wouldn’t shame Tomtom. The potential this represents is huge: land at a foreign country? Instead of buying a local map for your GPS for a three digit figure (if one is available), get yourself a local SIM (which you wanted anyway in order to be able to surf the net) and drive along.
Then there’s the matter of apps. iTunes is famous for having the numbers, and I respect that: Australia in particular is the land of the iPhone app. However, I cannot ignore the fact most apps are nothing more than a glorified bookmarker for a web page; nor can I ignore the fact Apple artificially limits the apps it makes available to those it wants you to use. Things are different on Android: you can get Flash, you can get Grooveshark, you can get Firefox or Starfire browsers... You can get anything you want that someone bothered writing for you – there is no one holding the gate to prevent you from accessing the app you want.

The Android operating system is not devoid of issues, and the glaring one – at least by my limited exposure – is the poor tools with which it lets users manage what apps are doing in the background. After all, you don’t want your apps to churn at your 3G data allowance and cost you a bundle without you knowing about it, nor would you want apps to upload the personal stuff on your phone to parties you wouldn’t normally hand your details to. Not to mention the load these background apps pose on your phone battery.
Android does have a system wide feature to prevent apps from transmitting data in the background (that is, when you’re not directly using them). However, if you enforce this then many applications that need this background facility to run, starting from the Android Market (the main place for getting and updating apps), wouldn’t work. In short, you have to succumb to the will of your apps even if you know that some of them will abuse you. This is not a hypothetical question: the Skype app for Android is a fine example for an app that keeps on running in the background unless you take special measures.
Apple is definitely better in this regard, if only marginally. Their closed garden policy means they exclude the worst offenders, while killing an app on the iPhone is easier and more reliable than on Android.
It appears the best solution towards addressing the problem, at least until Google decides to do something about it, is to root your Android phone. Rooting means going through certain technical motions to take total control over your phone but potentially rendering it useless if you don’t know how to do it and if you don’t do it properly. Luckily, the Nexus S is dead easy to root and un-root by design (read here for Wired’s advice on the rootability of selected Android models, Nexus S included).
Once rooted, you can install some of the apps Gizmodo lists here and make progress in claiming your phone to yourself. Me, I’m waiting for the wife to give me the green light before I do her phone.

Image by Saad Irfan, Creative Commons license

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Cellular Issues

Five Mobile SystemsOne of science’s biggest problems is the way it is communicated to the masses. The main culprit is popular media, which never lets the facts get in the way of an attractive headline.
This week we got some fine examples for poor journalism when WHO declared that mobile phones need to be further examined in order to assess their potential to cause cancer. That is pretty much all WHO said, but what we got instead are headlines telling us something significantly different, virtually telling the public that mobile phone cause cancer (check here and here for examples).
In contrast, check what people well versed with science are saying. The professional skeptics are not misled by the headlines:
  1. PZ Myers (here) points out how silly the claim mobile phones “cook” your brain is, and asks for evidence – something totally missing from a debate too rich with claims thus far.
  2. Phil Plait (here) points out mobile phones are now in the same category as coffee and pickled vegetables. Did anyone hear the warning cries against coffee drinking?
  3. Michael Shermer (here) goes further and points out how the radiation emitted from mobile phones is incapable of causing cancer in the direct manner proposed by most claims. He goes on to defend his claims here.
Sadly, no one listens to scientists these days. Why wait till further research is conducted when we can make our minds now? It’s all about sensationalism and the sale of another copy of a newspaper. No wonder the general public is largely clueless about huge matters such as climate change.

Image by, Creative Commons license

Saturday, 4 June 2011

Feels Like the Very First Time

Picture 016We celebrated several first last night.
For the first time in more than four and a half years we had ourselves a proper dinner at our favorite French restaurant, Madam Sousou.
For the first time since last February we got to sample life on the town during night time. It was amazing to see there is a world out there in the darkest of hours.
Most importantly, and hopefully not for the last time: for the first time ever since becoming parents we had a paid babysitter looking after our son so we can do all of the above at our leisure and feel, if only for a few hours, as if we are normal human beings again. Not just parents.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

The Lesser Generation

TV Shows We Used To Watch - 1964-2006 BBC Top of the Pops
For a while now I have been feeling that the world of music is in decline. Or, to put it more explicitly, it seemed to me as if the music we hear from our radios today is not as good as that we used to listen to in previous decades. The main question was whether this process is the result of my stagnating taste reflecting the passage of time or whether there was a measurable and objective decline in the quality of popular music.
There is plenty of evidence before the court. Let us look at some of it.

Like many other radio stations, the Israel Defence Forces radio station, Galey Tsahal (also known as glz) runs popular music charts. Unlike those in larger populated countries these charts are based on popular votes rather than sales figures. At the end of every decade since the seventies, glz would have a special “song of the decade” chart.
The best song of the seventies was Hotel California by The Eagles (second place went to Pink Floyd’s Shine on You Crazy Diamond). The best song of the Eighties was Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2. The nineties’ song was U2’s One, while the noughties’ song was Californiacation by The Red Hot Chilli Peppers. I suspect we can safely assume that had the chart been run during the sixties the winner would have been a Beatles song.
What I find most interesting when looking at the decades’ charts over time is the perceived decline in quality. Can Californiacation, or for what it’s worth One, even come close to competing with the might of Hotel California or The Wall?
Even worse, when I look at the top 10 list of the 2000’s I find many songs I don’t even remotely recognize (you can check the complete chart here), a phenomenon that simply did not take place in previous decades. When I checked the songs up I discovered why: those elusive songs are as exciting as Brussels sprouts. I suspect this comparison does ill favor to the latter.
We don’t even need to look as far as Israeli charts to witness the quality declining. Check the supplementals on the It Might Get Loud DVD: One of the pieces there is a press conference featuring the film’s three star guitarists, Jack White, The Edge and Jimmy Page. You’d have to be blind not to notice that Page was the biggest attraction by far, and you’d have to be deaf not to notice the main question on journos minds was whether we will ever have a Led Zeppelin reunion.
As far as I am concerned, the decline in the quality of popular music over the recent decades is very much a fact.

Next I will move to the philosophical realm, aided by a brilliant idea I read at a sports blog (here, but be warned – it’s in Hebrew).
The blogger, Ronen Dorfan, was saying the we tend to think there is constant positive progress in everything. However, he claims that is clearly not the case. Take Bach and Beethoven: can anyone look me in the eye and say that classical music talents of equal caliber exist today? No, I didn’t think so.
Why is it, then, that in today’s age, an age where we have ten times more humans living on the planet and more than ten times more humans living affluently on the planet, that we are unable to come up with equally talented composers?
The answer I would propose is that circumstances have changed to such a degree that there are no grounds for such talents to develop anymore. I would also suggest the same applies to popular music: between the commercialization of the market and the rise of the single, quality suffered. That is why all the songs sound the same when you switch on the radio to a popular music station.
Don’t get me wrong. Good music does exist; it’s just that it’s at the fringes, unable to attain the same place in our conscious that the likes of Led Zeppelin were able to achieve repeatedly.
I wonder what it would take for music to change direction and head for the better. At this stage, my hopes can only lie with the Internet. On one hand, the Internet and the digitization of music caused the world of music a lot of harm: we all seem to settle with inferior quality MP3 sound, we don’t care for albums anymore, and we are flooded with so much content it’s a major challenge to pick the good from the mediocre. Combine it all and you'd notice we are at an age where we cannot devote as much attention to music as we used to; the loss is entirely ours.
On the other hand, the Internet also allows everyone to instantly access more music than people of previous generations could ever dream of. We have the ability to learn from the past and maybe mix our way into a musically better sounding world.
On one hand the Internet drowns us; on the other it brought us an era where it is easier than ever to borrow on others' ideas and potentially improve them. The question is, which hand will be the winner?

Image by brizzle born and bred, Creative Commons license

Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Ask a Silly Question

Tunisia - Dec 2010 - 054The combination of my Israeli accent, with its very un-Australian pronunciation of the letter R, coupled with people asking stupid questions they shouldn’t ask in the first place, can and does lead to some rather embarrassing moments.
Before you read the following, which took place a couple of days ago, do bear in mind that while mother tongued Aussies’ R is pronounced with more like a W sound, my bloody foreigner's Rs come from the depths of the throat:
Person A: What nationality are you?
Yours truly, with a look of astonishment, as in “why are you asking”: Israel.
Person A: Oh, Islam!
And there you have it. The UN has already announced it would recognize this fledging new country. It might even consider giving it a spot at the Security Council.
I will conclude by stating this was no one off; the country of Islam has been recognized by at least five other poor Aussies who proved unable to dig my accent but were perfectly able to ask irrelevant questions.

Image by Syromaniac, Creative Commons license