Friday, 29 July 2011

R-Views 5

As per my usual habit, I celebrate the birthday of my reviews blog (R-Views) with a post duplicated here that is dedicated to the best I have watched and read over the following year.
I started this habit in an attempt to promote my reviews blog; by now the promotion is rather redundant as that blog receives significantly more hits than this one. Still, it's a personal landmark: it was five years ago that I started full time reviewing.

It's that day of the year again when this blog looks back at the year that was and awards the coveted R-Ward to the best it has seen this past year. But before I go and do that, let me pause to commemorate a special occasion.
You see, today this blog is celebrating its fifth birthday. I therefore demand the right to pat myself on the back! In its five years the blog has achieved the following:
  • Quite a lot of reviews by any objective measure.
  • Helping me record the history of the films I’ve watched. As in, I no longer need to wonder whether I watched a certain film or not; I just google my own blog.
  • Mildly improved my writing skills.
  • Acquired me one proper friend and several acquaintances.
  • Significantly enhanced the amount of fun I am getting out of watching/reading stuff through forcing me to articulate my views.
  • Sleep deprivation by the ton.
Making it very clear that the costs of writing, as in the time invested, far outweigh its tangible benefits.
Enough about the blog; let’s have a look at the year that was and pick the best of its crop up.

A couple of years ago I reported a revolution on these pages, the revolution of high definition video and Blu-ray in particular. Both had an impact on my viewing, because they made watching films at home that much more attractive a proposition.
This year I am happy to report a much bigger revolution: the entrance of the ebook into my life. We can all be skeptical and claim there is no substitute for paper books etc, and I have been known to make that claim myself. However, from the minute I put my hands on my Amazon Kindle ebook reader, almost a year ago, I could see that this device was about to significantly change my reading habits. I won’t repeat how the Kindle changed my reading habits (you can read about it at great length here, here, here and of course here). What I will say is that I have been reading much more than I used to before acquiring my ebook reader, as can be noted by my much more prolific book reviewing escapades this year. That, I believe, is the biggest reference letter I can write in favor of the electronic book.
I will also add that the future of the paper based book looks bleak. We stopped buying them, other than exceptional specialties (e.g., books reach with graphics or children books). We’ve also stopped, effectively, reading the huge stocks of them that we have at home; it looks likely they will be condemned with the fate of my VHS and CD collections.
More importantly, I see no reason why my personal experience as an early adopter won’t be reflected in society et large during the very near future. The proliferation of tablets, in particular, is the signed death warrant on the door of the paper based book. The Federal Minister for Small Business has already predicted the demise of the conventional book shop within five years, to the great outrage of many. If you ask me, this affair only demonstrates how shooting the messenger is still a very popular sport.
Books are dying. Long live the ebook!

Best Film:
In contrast to the average year, where this bloggers’ favorite films happen to belong to the science fiction genre, this year had been almost empty of sci-fi. It started out looking as if this is going to be the year of the war film, first with Beaufort and then with The Hurt Locker. Then The Adjustment Bureau emerged as a candidate well worth crowning of the science fiction genre, almost pipping the post.
However, there was one film I enjoyed more than anything else this year. A simple film, a feel good film. Then again, given it was made by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, I should have seen through Cemetery Junction all along, shouldn't I?
It is very rare to watch a seemingly simple film combining the many elements required to make a film leave a lasting impression, but Cemetery Junction achieves that feat in a very entertaining manner.

Best Book:
Some would see it as a sign; I don’t care for such omens, but I cannot deny that the first book I ever got to read on my brand new ebook reader also happened to be one of the best books I ever read and one of the best things I have seen in fantasy literature in decades. John Scalzi acquired his general fame with the books he wrote prior to The God Engines, but as far as I am concerned it was The God Engines that cemented his status as one of my favorite authors, period. It was so good a book I simply knew there was no way I’d be lucky enough to read a better book this year.
Then again, The God Engines was almost sneaked at the post by another unlikely book. A rare example of quality science fiction humor, Agent to the Stars took me by total surprise as I read it from start to finish entertained from head to toe. Then again, what should I expect? It was written by one John Scalzi, who almost stole this year’s R-Ward for Best Book from himself. Almost.

Best on TV:
This year had been the year of the American sitcom for us, triggered by our discovery of the existence of a TV comedy series we can finally identify with: The Big Bang Theory. However good this sitcom is, and I think it is pretty good, it find it does not soar into Seinfeld heights the way other geek comedies do (I’m thinking about you, The IT Crowd). I also think that after four episode rich seasons the series has definitely overstayed its welcome. However, The Big Bang Theory did serve a purpose in making us open to the American sitcom concept, which has been largely forgotten by us in recent years (mainly due to our avoidance of commercial TV, coupled with the insistence of ABC to rely almost exclusively on British content).
Our openness to the American sitcom led to us getting exposed to Better Off Ted, which is definitely made of R-Ward deserving material. This comedy about corporate office life is not only funny and witty while offering some fine acting displays (most notably from Portia de Rossi); it does what all good comedies do, which is laugh at things that are extreme but also have more than a grain of truth in them. Given that I spend most of my non sleeping hours at work dealing with issues not dissimilar to Ted & Co, I greatly enjoyed Better Off Ted.
Which explains why the series has been discontinued after two relatively short seasons.

Best Video Game:
Alright, I will admit it. Call of Duty: Black Ops is not the best video game to be released this past year. However, Black Ops demonstrates very clearly how the good money that comes with a successful franchise, which triggers good production values, can combine with a good gaming concept to create a game that takes the first person shooter genre a small step forward. It doesn’t fail to entertain its players, either.
Sure, Black Ops’ main contributions are in new weapons and cut scene like missions having you do all sorts of nice things like fly an attack helicopter. My point, though, is that with the voice talents of Ed Harris and Sam Worthington at hand you can easily think Black Ops is the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Only that it isn’t; it’s better. It’s a very engulfing video game.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

About a Boy

When I was a boy…
  • On average, I would come home from school between 13:00 and 14:00.
  • At home I would meet my stay at home mother and we’ll have lunch together.
  • My father would be home from work not longer after that and no later than 16:00.
  • My uncle, who was like a second father to me, would often come visit us after his work. He would finish working by about 13:00.

Now, when I have a boy…
  • With some exceptions, our household has both parents working almost full time.
  • I choose my employer specifically for its less demanding work hours rather than the benefit of my personal career development and/or my income.
  • My son is at childcare between 7:30 and 17:30 every working day. The story wouldn't change much when he goes to school.
  • We all get home together a bit before 18:00. Generally exhausted, we have dinner together and then commence getting the child to bed operations.

What has changed over the years? Well, obviously, I have much less time to spend with my family. On the other hand, I am much more well to do: whereas I kept on complaining of boredom as a child, I am now living in gadget galore. Whereas I grew up with less toys than one can count on one’s own fingers, my son has piles of toys all over the house and bookshelves filled with his own material.
Are we any better than we were, though? Well, I am of the opinion that in the process of turning ourselves into 21st century grade consumers we lost too much of our humanity. I would happily give away much of my affluence to have a more relaxed lifestyle; I cannot do so, though, because employers won’t let me.
"Oh", I hear you say – "are we hearing you preaching conservative values, urging people to go back to those good old days?" In a way, yes; you are. All I am asking for, though, is for a change of culture. I want to live at a place where it is perfectly acceptable for people to have a five to six hour working day.
At this point I would like to point out that while I am spewing a classically conservative message here, that message is in total contradiction to the messages coming out of the mouths of contemporary politicians calling themselves conservatives. From the Republicans in the USA to the Australian Liberal party, all of them would have you working harder and harder to benefit the economy and financial growth. I, on the other hand, would prefer the economy to serve me rather than me becoming a servant to the false idol of “strong economy”.
It’s not only conservatives that keep on preaching for a stronger economy, though. When asked what her vision for Australia is, Labor’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard did not speak of a country that is educated, healthy, or good to live at. She did not mention a country where everyone gets to have a warm bed to sleep in on a full stomach. Instead, her vision for Australia always starts with “a strong economy”. But if that is what Labor has to offer then our child is doomed to be stuck at school for the better part of the best part of his life.

Image by arockalypse, Creative Commons license
Do go and click on the image: there's a nice story behind it.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Tweets Worth Quoting, Episode 1

The Australian Christian Lobby (ACL) was quick to point out the Norwegian shooter used to play Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2.
I would like to point out he used to read the Bible, too.

Image copyrights: Infinity Ward and Activision

Monday, 25 July 2011

Spot the Difference

This post is here to tell you of what I consider to be the best thing that happened to music since the word "online" entered our daily vocabulary: Spotify.
Spotify is an online music streaming service allowing its users to listen to any of the 15,000,000 tracks in its arsenal at will. That's all you need to know about it, really. If you want further details I can tell you that it's free (ads will burst in between songs, though); I can also tell you that it's available for Windows and Mac (as well as Linux, through the use of Wine, as explained here). Apparently, Spotify uses the same technology that put The Pirate Bay on the map (see here).
Paid accounts will let you download songs and listen over your iPhone or Android smartphone. They'll also remove the ads.
My experience thus far with Spotify indicates it's awesome. I'm in love: every song that I look for is there, and when I search for classics - say, Mozart's 20th piano concerto - I receive a list containing multiple performances. I can choose to listen to entire albums (always was an album man) and I can make my own playlists. Sound quality is good enough given the circumstances: something along the lines of the average MP3. Which leads me to this: Excuse me for asking, but who needs to buy individual tracks anymore? What reason does one have to maintain a music library when such a huge library is always there to tap into?
There are a couple of catches: if you're an American then, at the moment, you have to queue up to receive an invitation for a free account (opening your wallet will get you instant access). The second catch, if you didn't figure it out already, is that Spotify is available only at certain countries: a few European ones, as well as the recently added USA.

I cannot state how stupid I consider this geographical separation thing to be. Americans already enjoy multiple music services unavailable in Australia: Rhapsody, Pandora, Google, Amazon - you name it! Us Australians are limited to services such as Anubis, which do not offer free options, are more oriented for use via a Sonos box, and are generally significantly limited compared to the likes of Spotify. Thanks, but no thanks.
Luckily, geographical limitations are easy to override (cough VPN cough). But overriding them does not mean problem solved: I would love to pay Spotify for a premium subscription that will let me listen to music on my phone and remove the ads (they don't go well with classical music). The cost of premium accounts, $5 to $10 a month, is perfectly reasonable - so reasonable I feel obliged to pay for such great service; I can't, though. Spotify will only accept American/European credit cards.
If you ever wanted a live demonstration of the stupidity with which record companies are managing the online world, this is it: customers willing to pay for what they consider to be a great product cannot pay for it, while others are forbidden from accessing that great product in the first place. And then they wonder why piracy is so rife?
It is no wonder to find that pirates also happen to be the best customers the music labels ever had (see here). The majority of pirates are people anxious to consume something that the record companies do their best to prevent them from accessing, in the process converting them to felons. Oh, and in case you were wondering how the record companies allowed Spotify to happen in the first place, then rest assured: they did their best to prevent Spotify from existing (see here). We can speculate on the why; a recent theory I bumped into says the record companies' primary target is not selling music but rather maintaining their status as music gatekeepers who do not want you to access your music in any way other than theirs. As far as they're concerned, you should forget about this whole online thing and buy those pieces of plastic that take up a lot of space and can't be played in today's dominating music players.
We can debate the record companies' reasoning till next year but the bottom line is the same: their strategy is distilled dumb.

Spotify is already changing my music consumption. It's installed on all my PCs. I even rebuilt my old Eee PC 701 netbook as an online music player (thank goodness for Linux!) and connected it to the hi-fi. Until my account gets blocked, I'm in audio nirvana!

Screenshot: Spotify

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Like the Ladies in the Magazine

Playboy, January 1985Back when I was a teen certain magazines were all the rage. I used to make quite an effort to have a sneak peak at the Playboys or the Penthouses, often held back by the shame I thought was facing me whenever someone noticed what magazines I'm "reading".
These days, magazines are a dying phenomenon: Twelve years after my first subscription, and after six years in a row, I am about to let my Scientific American subscription run out. There are multiple reasons for that, but at the core of them stands one reason - the same reason that renders Playboy as attractive to today's teens as an Atari 2600 is: the Internet.
It's not just the Internet on its own, but rather the digitization of our culture. Since ebooks have entered my life, other forms of reading - newspapers and magazines - have significantly suffered. No magazine can compete with the depth of a book, yet my Kindle ebook reader took all the discomforts often associated with reading a book away. It used to be that magazines were easily accessible and cheap, now it's the other way around.
The book had won.

The demise of the magazine from my personal life happens to be the major reason why I am contemplating the purchase of a tablet computer. There are magazines out there worth at least a casual read, magazines like Wired, and many of them are available on the iPad. Like Wired. The Age is now also available on the iPad, indicating that newspapers are heading down the path of the tablet, too. Common to them all is the fact they are presented in a way that makes the printed paper version dull and utterly uninspiring in comparison.
The other draw card I can invoke in favor of tablets such as the iPad 2 are them being sexy and incredibly flashy. The fact the tablet I ended up putting my money on - the Kogan Agora 7" tablet - turned out to be a total failure for anything other than occupying my toddler with videos and simple video games has had its share in boosting my hunger for a quality tablet. One that would actually be useful for instant web surfing (without having to wait for a reboot); one with a screen that actually responds to user commands.
I do try to be a rational person, though. Instead of surrendering my cash to a superficial attraction yet again, I set out to analyze what I would do with a iPad. Here's what I came up with:
  • Music: I'd have to use iTunes to load my iPad with music. I hate iTunes, and besides - I've got a lot of music on my phone already.
  • Videos: There's that iTunes shadow again.
  • Games: Experience indicates I have better things to do with my time.
  • Reading: Serious book reading would take place over my e-ink equipped Kindle, but the tablet would take respectable magazine reading duties. That is, if I find the time for those.
  • Internet surfing: My internet surfing is rather chaotic. I jump tabs, have several of them active at the same time, and reference other applications in between. iPads don't handle such operations well; not to mention them not handling Flash particularly well.
Some of the above answer would change favorably if I was to answer by Android tablets instead of the iPad. There is a catch, though: Android tablets don't handle apps written for the Android phones particularly well, leaving the user rather empty handed. Then there are childhood issues that never appeared in the iPad world, such as USB connections that are physically there but aren't supported yet by the operating system and more. Call me in a few months/years when these childhood diseases have been cured; at the moment the iPad is the only tablet worth paying for.
But is it worth paying for one just for the sake of flashy magazine reading? Mmm... I don't think so. They're so tempting, though.

Image by MattHorst, Creative Commons license

Friday, 22 July 2011

Your Money, Their Call

Bank underground station sign

What would you think if someone was to keep tally of all your grocery shopping and use the information to decide whether you can make further grocery shopping in the future? I suspect you would say it's outrageous that anyone can come between you and the bare necessities of life; I suspect you wouldn't be too enchanted with the idea of someone keeping track of all your shopping behind your back either. That, however, is exactly what happens in the financial industry.
Every time you become financially active, some big brother behind the scenes keeps the score. Open an account? Apply for a credit card? Join a mobile phone plan? Someone will ask to see whether you are cleared for such a transaction, and an elusive Big Brother will tally your performances through time and give the nod or tell the company you're dealing with to tell you to f* off.
I didn't realize just how bad these behind the scene dealings were until I was denied a credit card application. At the time I didn't know what to do; the company I applied with refused to provide any information as to why the application was canceled, while to the best of my knowledge I never got a single bill late and my financials are safe and sound. I moved on with my life (using a different credit card).
The next time this happened, a couple of years later, I pressed the supplier further. This time around they told me that they get their financial approvals from Dun & Bradstreet. As in, the future of my financial application depends solely on what Dun & Bradstreet, a company I never dealt with directly, has to say about me.
I went to look at D&B's website. In there they offer you the option of applying online for your own credit report: you provide identification (driver's license number, your address history) and two weeks later they email you the report. If you're in a rush you can pay to get the report on the spot.
I wasn't in a rush but I was still curious. Indeed, two weeks later I got my report. What was in it? Nothing; it was empty. D&B have said "no" to the company selling me the financial service I was after solely for the fact they never had any interactions with me. That's despite the fact I am a holder of several credit cards, a mortgage and several bank accounts! All of those are perfectly sound, and as I mentioned already - I never had a bill paid late.
Mind you, D&B are not the only ones making their money as financial Big Brothers for us all. My Credit File offers similar services in exchange for similar inputs (see here); they also offer a paid subscription service where they let you know of activities on the account they're holding for you so you can identify identity theft. Identity theft protection offerings seem to be in demand, as The Australian recently reported here.
I find this whole charade of companies maintaining our private information covertly behind our backs and using it at crucial juncture points in our lives too surreal to accept for real. How did we dig this hole and trapped ourselves in it in the first place? Take note of what's going on here:
  • We are required to pay for access to information that should be our intellectual property.
  • In order to access our private information we need to provide the tracking company additional private information (e.g., driver's license). I do not doubt they keep hold of those and use them to further refine their tracking of our activities. I am also under no illusion that a good hacker would be able to acquire my details from these companies without too much of an effort; bigger trees have fallen in this jungle.
  • We do not know when and how this financial information is gathered.
  • We do not know who is gathering this information. Is it Dun & Bradstreet today? Or is it My Credit File? Who is it going to be the next time around?
As my own case demonstrates, these companies do not provide reliable services. I was refused financial services on account of having no financial history when I am a very active financial entity. I was also refused service without being allowed to know why.
You could be next.

Image by HowardLake, Creative Commons license

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Privacy Matters


No matter what Mark Zuckerberg says, privacy matters. We all have things we do not proclaim aloud in the middle of a crowded street, and we all care for our own finances enough to wish to avoid the identity theft that comes when our personal details are exposed (as has happened to me when the details of my credit card were hacked of an online shop - see here).
You would expect care for the public's privacy would start at the top and trickle down to the level of the individual, but in reality this is not the case. Disregard for privacy starts from the very top of the food chain and escalates very nicely down. It starts with governments and it's shattered by the time companies finish it off.
Let's start with our governments, who - in the name of protecting us from terrorism - come up with all sorts of wonderful schemes. Schemes like Advanced Passenger Info, where passengers traveling to countries such as Australia, UK and USA have to supply private information to the government of their country of travel. This private information includes your passport's number, a rather sensitive piece of information given that one can easily withdraw money from your bank account using a passport for identification. The problematic aspect of the Advanced Passenger Info modus operandi stems from the fact this private information of yours is collected and maintained by the airlines (often through your travel agent). Now, why should commercial companies such as airlines, whose main occupation in life is to get people from place to place safely, be in charge of our private information?
In my own personal case, privacy compromises were threatening to escalate due to a private initiative taken by my travel agent, Flight Centre. In order to make life easier for both passenger and agent, Flight Centre's policy is to take photocopies of its passengers' passports and maintain them so that when another crazy government comes up with yet another crazy terrorism oriented, privacy defying scheme, they are well prepared.
The question is, again, what business does a travel agency have with holding information as sensitive as my passport? We are not talking about a passport number anymore; we are talking about a digitally maintained photocopy. The distance between that and being able to withdraw all your money from the bank is way too short for comfort.
The next question is to do with how securely Flight Centre maintains this private information over time. A while ago, the papers told us Flight Centre has started using Google applications for its enterprise (see here). From that I can speculate that photocopied passport images are stored on Google servers, probably overseas; and we know how well Google regards privacy, don't we? We also know that Google's servers have been occasionally hacked.
The question is, once again, what business does Flight Centre have holding on to such private information when companies of much superior clout proved totally incapable of looking after their customers' privacy (I'm talking to you, Sony).
We decided not to go to the slaughter without a fight and told our travel agent we refuse to have him photocopy our passports: he may gather the information he requires for Advanced Passenger Info, but that's it. The agent refused us, and since we already paid he did not even show the slightest interest in trying to come to our aid.
I did what I end up doing way too often and called Flight Centre's headquarters to complain. There I was answered by a very helpful lady who told me Flight Centre's policy is to not force customers into having their passports copied; she called the agent and ordered him to comply with our demands. He did, although he gave us the look of the waiter whose day would be made when he spits into our soup.
The main question I ask myself is just how many other travellers do not even consider for a moment the privacy hazard they bring upon themselves? It seems certain the majority of them comply with Flight Centre's policy and have their passport photocopied and held in the company's digital vaults. Our travel agent and his branch take care of hundreds if not thousands of people, the majority of whom give their privacy away to Flight Centre.
It is time the public wakes up to realize what is going on here. It is time the public wakes up and demands that governments and companies holds matters of privacy with the respect they requires and deserve.

Image by gadgetgirl, Creative Commons license

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Google+ or Google Minus?

Scary Google with Sauron eyesA lot is being said in favor of Google+ and the alleged privacy measures it introduced into the social networking scene. I agree: Facebook is such a turd when it comes to privacy that any other thing will shine next to it. The question I would like to ask is whether Google+ offers genuine improvement or whether it is just a shinier turd?
It appears as if the media has made up its mind in favor of Google. Even reputable sources like the New York Times grovel at it (see here), and we all know that the NYT is viewed by many if not most as a source of authority on the stuff it reports.
I disagree. I think it is way too early to pass judgment of Google's new toy, and I also see many warning signs of a bleak future ahead. Let us look at some [of many] examples:
  1. Photo policy: I already pointed at the sad state of affairs that is Google's policy of taking ownership of any photographic material you upload to Google+ (see here). Google has quite a fine reputation of claiming ownership over others' intellectual property: isn't it what it did to the books it scanned and wished to put online without asking for permission (see here for one of many references)?
  2. As Roger Clarke (a fellow EFA member and a Visiting Professor in the Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre at the University of N.S.W.) points out here, there are so many gaping holes in Google's privacy policy it's not funny. You can also refer to his comparison table between the privacy on offer through various Google services vs. the privacy on offer by competing services here, but let's just summarize it by saying Google's score on privacy is a very round zero.
  3. The fact we depend on Google for many services other than Google+ only puts Google at an even more powerful a position than its competition. If you use an Android phone you probably manage your contacts with Google Contacts, your calendar with Google Calendar, and your RSS reading with Google Reader; do not be surprised if you see stakeholders from all of these sources appear as recommended Google+ friends.
    We may think of Google as a company supplying web searching facilities, but financially speaking Google is an advertiser specializing in pushing the right ad at you over the web. Between knowing who your personal friends are and what their dates of birth are through a combination of Google+ and Google Contacts, they are able to pinpoint their advertising as your privacy vanishes.
  4. I can't say I'm too impressed with the Google+ app for the iPhone. Interface aside, I am annoyed with Google insisting on collecting my location information (it's one of the things you have to agree to in order to start using the app in the first place). Google does not rely on the iPhone's own location services, which means you cannot override Google knowing where you are as it uses your wifi or cell network to pin you down. From there on they can keep track of your whereabouts over time (and then hand them to various authorities you might not wish to hand your personal history to).
So no, I do not think that Google+ is a beacon of privacy. The verdict is still open, but while Google+ is off to a much better start than Facebook I am still less than impressed thus far. The cynic in me would argue that instead of taking action to improve privacy, Google is letting its fans endow it with an image it does not deserve.

Image by dullhunk, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Your accent problems are worse than mine!

I used this soapbox before to discuss some of the weirder incidents my accent gets me to in Australia (see here for a fine example). This time I would like to discuss the other side: the limited range of the commonplace Aussie accent.
What better way for me to introduce this issue than with the pronunciation of my own name. A quick Google sent me to, where they rightly tell you to pronounce my name the following way:
Moshe is pronounced mo ( long o as in go ) she as in the.
There. That wasn’t too hard, was it?
Why is it, then, that almost everyone in Australia pronounces my name as mo-shee instead? One explanation is that they read the written name and pronounce the last syllable the way they would normally pronounce the word “she”. That, however, fails to explain why people who have never seen my name in writing still pronounce it with a shee at the end. Or why, for that matter, people who ask for my name and hear me pronounce it the right way, go on to immediately refer to me as “mo-shee”.
It’s not even as if the particular pronunciation of “she” that I am looking for does not exist in day to day Australian English. No one calls Sherlock Holmes “Sheerlock”, do they? (New Zealanders: you’re exempted)

By the way, if you think Aussies are bad with my name, I have news for you. For some odd reason that eludes me even more than the above, the English part of my family seems to refer to me as “Mo-shah”. Ay, caramba!
The worst bit of that particular idiosyncrasy is to do with my son. The toddler hardly ever hears people refer to me by my name (to him I’m Abba, which is Hebrew for daddy). However, he does know that I have a name, and when asked what my name is he invokes the version he heard the most: Mo-shah.
Kill me quickly, please.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

The GP Story

Doctor Visit

Doctor's visit for the toddler: paid $72, got $36 back from Medicare. So much for public health.
I tweeted the above on Thursday. It was picked up by Leslie Cannold (aka the best person on Twitter); after she retweeted it I received many replies asking me in one way or another why I did not go to a bulk billing doctor. One particular reply noted that GPs cannot be expected to survive on government Medicare rates.
Given the subject’s popularity, I thought I’d use this post to explain my position on the matter. Writing here allows for more breadth and depth than Twitter does, even if this post won’t be read by a tenth of the people who follow Leslie Cannold’s tweets.

First and foremost, I think bulk billing – that is, the ability to go and see a doctor without paying them anything – is important. It’s important for financial reasons because many of us can’t afford seeing a doctor. It’s important for social reasons because we usually need to see a doctor in times of trouble, and being hit a financial blow aside of the health problem only makes things worse. And it’s important for pure health reasons, because the child whose sick but her parents can’t afford to take her to the doctor would pass her disease over to my son (and make me lose productive days at work while at it).
A healthy society needs free and easily available health services, amongst which a visit to the GP is probably the most commonly used service.

This ideal scenario doesn’t manifest itself in contemporary Australia. As someone who calls Australia home for less than a decade I can actually see things deteriorating not very gradually over the years. It starts with the obvious fact that bulk billing doctors are becoming an extinct species rather rapidly.
Have you tried seeing a bulk billing doctor lately? There are exceptions, but in general I have found the contemporary bulk billed visit rather scary. It does not feel like you're visiting a doctor; it's more like a production line at an abattoir. The doctors cannot afford to spend too much time on you, so it all starts and ends in two minutes; during those two minutes the doctor will hardly examine the subject, not to mention paying too much attention to trivial matters such as patient history or visit documentation for the sake of future visits. Thank you very much, but given this reality I prefer to pay and see a proper doctor.
I mentioned exception. Those tend to come in the shape of clinics that only bulk bill children, which is great by me given that the toddler of our household is the frequent flier when it comes to doctor services. We even have such a clinic near us, but here's the rub: in our experience, we were able to have a doctor of theirs see us on the same day only on 1 of 5 attempts. On the other four we go to a non bulk billing doctor.
The issue of not being able to see a bulk billing doctor on the same day is not something that troubles us on emergencies only. The reality of the common Australian workplace dictates that a parent staying home to look after a sick child has to provide a carer's note signed by a doctor (unlike normal sick leave, which does not always require a doctor's certificate). Doctors are pretty reluctant to provide retrospective certificates, therefore putting the parent between a rock and a hard place: either pay for the doctor that same day or risk issues with work. I choose the former.
The point of my personal doctor story is simple. The problem with bulk billing is not only the result of a government that doesn't want to spend money on personal health. There are social problems all around, from the shortage of doctors that comes with the high cost of studying and the sheer hardship of qualifying to become a doctor, to issues at the very core of the Australian work culture. In the mean time, we spend thousands a year so our toddler can see a doctor all the while politicians act as if Australia has a public health system.

Image by Laura4Smith, Creative Commons license

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Forward, Criminals!

I hate emails that have been forwarded a million times, period!Have you ever forwarded an email?
Did you ask for explicit permission before doing so?
Oh well, you're just another criminal - like the rest of us. Check it up here for some clarifications regarding copyright legislation. (As you will see there, this very act of linking could be a copyright violation, too; for the record, my linking policy is borrowed from Boing Boing's.)

My point is simple: copyright legislation, the way it currently is, makes us all pirates. You don't have to download newly released films from bit-torrent and you don't have to buy dodgy DVD copies from behind the counter to be an active pirate. All you need to do is lead a normal life and you will be violating copyrights.
Yet if we're all pirates then, obviously, copyright legislation is wrong. Obviously, it has to be changed.

Image by Derek M. Miller, Creative Commons license

Friday, 15 July 2011

Tourism Melbourne

_DSC1206The totality of Melbourne’s failure to offer its tourists the transport option most of them would take for granted is nothing short of amazing. The situation keeps on getting worse:
  • If you thought of renting a car from Melbourne Airport, you should prepare yourself for road tolls on the road leading from the airport to the center of Melbourne. These are unique road tolls: You can’t just pay someone in a booth to use them; as a tourist you will need to make special payment arrangements that will take more time and more money than usual.
  • If you thought of using public transport to get to your hotel instead, be prepared for a shock: Melbourne does not have train service to its airport. The only form of public transport available is a bus that would take you to Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station at a cost of $16 each way. While on the bus you’d be able to admire the best of Melbourne’s traffic jams.
  • Since the Southern Cross Station is probably not your final destination, and since you would hate dragging your suitcases around, you may consider taking a taxi instead. That would set you back about $50 each way to the center of Melbourne, and double or more if your destination is in the south eastern suburbs on the other side of Melbourne when coming from the airport. With such figures, the taxi ride may cost you as much as your flights if you’re coming in from Sydney or any other nearby city. On the plus side, if you’re coming with the family, it could cost you less than the bus.
  • If you were thinking of using Melbourne’s public transport to commute around the city while you’re here, be prepared spend more than what you would normally expect for the privilege of using public transport: As recently announced, from 2013 Melbourne would have no short term public transport travel card options. This would force tourists and locals to commit to the purchase of a Myki travel card (a $10 initial investment, before paying for any of the actual travel fares).
Despite getting elected on its promises to improve public transport, the Baillieu government seems to continue a long held tradition of putting public transport at the bottom of its priority list. As long as there is no private stakeholder close to the politicians’ hearts that is about to make a killing from investments in public transport, Melbournians and their visitors should not expect to see any improvements.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Time Shifting

TV Guide #1702I was paying a visit to business customers for a fix up job. While at it, I couldn't help listening to their chitchat about this thing and that; the conversation revolved mostly around MasterChef.
Suddenly, it occurred to me: In this 21st century, there are still people out there who actually let the TV program calendar dictate their leisure activities.
If ever I needed a reminder of how detached I am from the way "normal" people live, this was it.

Image by trainman74, Creative Commons license

Monday, 11 July 2011

I, Cloud-ius

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A recent announcement from Amazon caught my eye. Its Cloud Drive service, allowing users to upload files of theirs to the cloud as if it were any other hard drive, has a special offer. For a limited time, Amazon is allowing paying Cloud Drive users to upload as many MP3 titles as they wish without it counting on their storage cap.
The announcement immediately caught my attention, for several reasons:
  • Amazon’s Cloud Drive already offers 5gb of online storage for free. That's pretty decent.
  • Amazon’s Cloud Drive has good reputation when it comes to security and reliability (in contrast to recent issues with the competition, cough Dropbox cough).
  • Music represents the last large form of data I, personally, do not back up on the cloud yet.
I therefore thought I would give Cloud Drive an inspection. Even better, I thought I would give the whole idea of cloud storage for personal purposes an eyes wide open look.

In that last bullet point of mine up above I implied I am a heavy Internet cloud user. Indeed I am, and I am finding the following services very useful in helping me securely back my personal stuff up:
  • YouTube: Great for storing videos, by far the largest consumer of storage space. However, YouTube’s policies can be annoying. See here for my personal clash with YouTube, which cost me the ability to upload videos longer than 10 minutes without YouTube allowing me any form of dispute.
  • Flickr: Great for storing photos and short videos. Unlike Facebook and Google, whatever you put on Flickr remains yours (see here for the sorry state of affairs with Google’s Picasa and Google+). Compared to YouTube, videos are limited in length, format and quality; however, privacy settings are much easier to deal with at Flickr. The way I see it, the main problem with Flickr is its owner, Yahoo!, whose uncertain future could mean a bleak future for this great service.
  • Evernote: Best for notes, both of text and photographic nature. Works well on smartphones, too. As far as I can tell they have the best security for a cloud service, which earns them a lot of credit.
  • Toodledo: For maintaining to do items. It can also manage your notes, but unless you pay them connectivity is insecure.
  • Google Docs: A great repository for documents, spreadsheets and PDFs.
  • Dropbox: Excellent for sharing stuff across platforms (e.g., from laptop to phone) and between people. Due to recent security incidents and revised terms & conditions I wouldn’t put my private things there for now, though.

Why am I using all of the above instead of storing stuff on my own personal hard drives at home? I do so for the following reasons:
  • Accessibility: I can access my stuff from anything connected to the Internet.
  • Disaster recovery: Hard drives die, usually at the least comfortable time. Big companies, like Google, can afford better redundancy measures.
  • Theft: Hard drives, especially external ones, are easy prey to thieves.
  • Maintenance: I don’t have to worry and bother with maintenance.
  • Cost: Most of the above are free. The exception is Flickr, to whom I pay $25 a year for its services. Hard drives, especially in the form of a NES setup with RAID redundancy, cost more.
There are also disadvantages with using and relying on the cloud, and these are:
  • Companies don’t last forever, and their cloud services will disappear with them.
  • Privacy: Companies like Google let you store your data not because they like your pretty face, but because they want to make money of it. They make money by abusing your privacy. This is why I am picky with the cloud services I use and what I use them for.
  • More privacy: Worth mentioning here is the fact that any data stored in the USA can be accessed by the American government through its notorious Patriot Act. Often you don’t know where your data will be stored, but most of the time it’s overseas; in my case it’s virtually always at the overly patriotic USA.
  • Security: Recent incidents prove that everything you put on the web can be hacked into. The way I see it, the trick is to identify the less hackable services and use them instead of the softer targets.

The point of all of the above is that the use of cloud services is a balancing act. You need to choose which way works better for you by determining your own optimal risk balance. Read here for similar analysis in the particular context of Dropbox’ services; it arrives at similar conclusions to mine.
With that in mind, let us have a look at Amazon’s latest Cloud Drive offer and see where it stands:
  • Uploading efforts: My MP3 library is in the many tens of gigs realm. Uploading it all to Amazon via my ADSL2+ connection would take months of gross effort.
  • Usability: Once I have my music on the cloud, what can I do with it? Amazon offers Cloud Player services that allow you to play your own uploaded music directly from the cloud. However, that service is not on offer for us Aussie scum, which means you can only listen to your Cloud Drive music if download it first. Great for backup, but not that great for mobile use, is it?
  • Quality: MP3 is not the greatest of formats, sound quality wise. I prefer uncompressed sound formats, like FLAC. However, Amazon’s offer is limited to that format only.
  • Device limit: Cloud Drive can only be accessed from up to 8 devices. By “device” Amazon means a browser with its tracking cookie in it, which means that if you’re using both Chrome and Firefox on the same PC to access the web they would count as two devices. With me accessing the Internet through multiple personal devices running multiple environments (Windows and Linux), each with multiple browsers, that device limit becomes a major deterrent.

Between the inability to stream previously uploaded music and its device limit, I deem Amazon’s Cloud Drive to not be worthy of my time and effort. Perhaps your circumstances make things different, but at this stage I would like to point at the elephant in the room that’s making Cloud Drive useless: copyrights.
It is copyrights that prevent Amazon from offering Cloud Player capabilities in countries like Australia. I can’t blame Amazon there: Pandora, Rhapsody and Spotify all have to deal with the same issues.
It is copyrights that the Cloud Drive device limit is meant to protect. Amazon acknowledged it themselves when I contacted them, saying:
The device limit function was created for security and copyright protection reasons and is designed to not be circumvented.
I couldn’t think of a better way to encourage piracy and copyright violations than telling the folk of some country they can’t do what other countries. Limiting access to users' own private material is a good way to achieve that, too.
Again and again the recording industry proves it is the number one authority when it comes to shooting itself in the leg. We have to pay the price through disabled services that cannot live up to their potential promise.

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Owner of a Lonely Heart

Broken Heart

I was recently told of the treacherous path a 25 year old woman living in Canberra was going through while using the web to find her special someone. It reminded me of my blind dating career, which had been quite the interactive adventure but also a total loss.
The way I see it, there are two main issues with blind dating. The first is to do with your limited ability to identify just how much you have in common with your potential date, and the second is the problem of expectations. Both are related.
Most of my own blind dating has been the result of friends intervening on my behalf in order to address the problem that has plagued me through the majority of my bachelor life: loneliness. I appreciate their help, but at the same time I have to say that even friendly match ups suffer from the same problem a web made match does: you have no way of knowing in advance just how well you would get along with your date. You’re left to wonder whether she looks alright, whether she’s smart, whether she would like the same thing you do, or - in contrast - whether you are about to familiarize yourself the local member of the KKK.
You communicate with her prior to the face to face meeting, hungry for tiny bits of information that will help you determine whether you are about to have yourself a nice adventure or whether you will find yourself stranded in the middle of a minefield. That, however, will only lead you to that second problem – expectations. It is only natural, at this stage, to unreasonably extrapolate from anything that is being said. If she was to tell you that she’s heard of Arsenal, you are very likely to assume that here, at last, is that unique woman who would gladly sit and watch all of your favorite team’s matches with you (even those in the middle of the night).
It doesn’t work this way. Perhaps I’m picky, perhaps I’m a weirdo, and perhaps I’m a hard person to get along with; I suspect I am some of all of the above. My reality, though, was that only 1 in about 10 blind dates I have attended could have been labelled as successful. By "successful" I mean that I have dated a person whom I would like to date again.
That’s a very poor success ratio. If that rate applies to the rest of the population, it would imply the need for many blind dates prior to finding a special someone. It gets worse if you think about it from the date’s side: if her chances are 1 in 10, too, and if there is no correlation between the both of your probabilities (there almost certainly is, though), then you are looking at something along the lines of 1 in 100 when it comes to the odds of having a mutually successful blind date!
In my personal case that 1 in 100 blind date success rate seems right as far as orders of magnitude are concerned. However, if that really is the case then there are some significant implications: it means that blind dating can be totally disregarded as a means for finding partners. Unless, that is, you’re in it for the ride, which I was – at first. Eventually, if you're anything like me, battle fatigue will hit you. Hence my sympathies to that young Canberrian woman.

So far I told you why blind dating doesn’t work. I have to qualify myself and state that I am known for having certain attributes that definitely help in reducing my success rates at blind dating; the blind dating technique will probably work for many others. Still, I suspect I am not alone in the non blind dateable club.
I would not say all hope is lost when it comes to meeting a special someone, though. The main reason why I have had as many blind dates as I had, somewhere in the three figures realm, was the perception I held at the time: a perception that concluded I don’t have any other choice. How else could I meet people? Go to a bar? Not only won’t the man going to the bar be “me”, what chance do I have of finding the right person there? And how do I initiate contact – don’t these things work only in the movies?
In retrospect I was wrong. I am now of the opinion that the right approach is to identify where you are most likely to find worthwhile partners and aim carefully but hard at that niche.
If I was to hypothetically try and implement that approach on myself, I would look at the things I really like and try and find ways to meet others who share this love. In my case I would try to get active in science fiction club gatherings or, say, skeptics / atheists meet ups. There’s plenty more: there are regular events for people with intellectual aspirations taking place on a regular basis. I don’t know about Canberra, but Melbourne has plenty of those (check the Wheeler Centre as an example). I won't even mention political activism; they say the best looking chicks are on my side of the political map.
Think about it this way: given the commonalities you would have with everyone else, even if you don’t find your true mate on that particular day you would still have a good time with some nice people.

Lucky for me, the problem of finding that special someone is no longer one I am facing. And no, I didn’t meet my someone at a blind date; I met her through circumstances that brought like minded people together. I met her at work.
Regardless of my personal circumstances, if there is a point to take from this post then this is it: if you are looking for that special someone, or even if you are looking to make friends, I would recommend you look in the places where you are most likely to find them. Randomly initiated encounters of the virtual kind are not the likeliest of places to find love.

Image by Gabriela Camerotti, Creative Commons license

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Time Warp

WormholeMy toddler recently notified me of his time travel machine designs and expressed the need to further discuss them. That’s what you get when you let him watch a Stephen Hawking’s documentary on wormholes and flood him with books about black holes.
I suggested we document our ideas in order to further discuss them with the world’s most distinguished experts on matters of time travel during the 2014 WorldCon that is to [probably] take place at London.
I therefore consider this post to be a timely reminder to my favourite authors to come ready for some serious discussions. Not that I can actually guarantee attending London in 2014.

Image by PhotoGraham, Creative Commons license

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Inspector Gadget

Inspector GadgetRegular readers of this blog may have noticed the relative abundance of technology and gadget related posts here recently. This is no coincidence.
For many years now I have been regarded as some sort of an authority on matters of technology by those who knew me. However, in recent years I have been making it my business, rather than just an interest, to keep myself up to date on these matters. Coupled with my active blogging habits, I consider myself to be at a position where some sort of a career revolving around technology and writing about it would be something I would dearly love doing.
I have been doing my homework. I am well disciplined across multiple computing platforms (Linux, Windows, iOS, Android) and even across multiple gaming platforms. I am therefore of the opinion I have the right credentials.
The way I see it, the main thing that prevents me from doing such writing on a regular basis is the lack of access to new technology (gadgets are too expensive for me to buy them all just for the sake of it!). However, in cases where I do acquire newly released products, as per the recent Kogan Agora tablet, I was able to quickly produce a review that is as thorough and as well written as the best of them. That particular review has actually gained my bloga quite a lot of traffic, and as far as I can tell it is the best review of the Kogan tablet out there.
So yes, I would like to do more of that. Here’s to you hiring me, Ars Technica!

As a side note I would like to mention that given my efforts with the above, it pains me to see how people like my own father generally disregard my advice on matters of technology. We can talk about it for hours and I can explain myself as thoroughly as I can, but he would still do what his circle of friends tells him to do. None of them is a particular expert in anything I would consider interesting.
For the record, the advice I gave my father – someone who was never exposed to computers and the Internet and someone who will have a problem with anything presented in a language other than Hebrew – was to get a 3G iPad 2. That would sort out his Internet connection at the same time, would require relatively minimal setup and maintenance, and allow him to access Internet resources in the simplest way possible today.
No, I do not consider myself one of those children hungry for their father’s affection. I am way past that stage. What I would love to have, though, is a family I can connect to across continents: a family I can run video Skype calls on a regular basis. Keeping in touch through photos and videos would be a nice bonus. Such a family would give my toddler the feeling that he does have a larger family, something he is obviously missing. As it is, the whole of my international family fails him there: even those with the know how don’t bother.
Breaking news: just hours after typing this my father called me to say he took my advice and ordered an iPad.

Image by Landahlauts, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

3D from a New Angle

Recently I discussed my journey towards identifying our future TV set and how 3D is not going to play a part in that quest. Most of the trouble there was not because of some sort of antagonism towards 3D, but rather the result of technical issues with getting 3D to work at the home environment.
This time around I am here to report of a manufacturer that seems to have taken things to heart and produced a more user friendly take on 3D at home: LG. In its line-up of TVs, LG has three LED backlit LCD models that provide passive 3D. What's this passive thing, I hear you ask?
Well, all the rest of the TVs, including the other LG models as well as the rest of the manufacturers, provide active shutter 3D: these require glasses that synchronize with a transmitter mounted on your TV (either via infrared or Bluetooth) and have each of the glasses’ lens shut for a time. The implications are high costs of glasses, need for batteries/recharging of the glasses (god forbid they discharge in the middle of Avatar), inferior 3D effect (those shutters don't sync perfectly), and annoying effects when looking at displays other than your TV through the glasses (the display panel on your PVR, for example, would flicker).
Passive 3D is much simpler. The glasses themselves are simpler and lighter, being passive; they’re the exact same thing you get at 3D cinemas, with each of the two lenses polarized differently. The screen itself has matching polarization on each second line, so each eye “sees” only half of the lines (but the half it’s meant to see). The disadvantage is a loss of resolution because you only see half the lines – you’re coming down to almost standard definition realm there. The advantage is a very solid 3D effect that won’t require you to remortgage when guests arrive.
At the moment the [basic] 55” model from LG to offer this passive 3D ability, 55LW6500, is available for $2700 ($2500 once you start bargaining). You pay $200 for the [flagship] 55LX6500 model that comes with bundled wifi bundled.
There, in the price, lies the problem. I’m not talking here about the world’s most expensive wifi, I’m talking about 3D: I like LG’s approach because its 3D is actually useable, but let’s face it – 3D is still very problematic to implement at home given the lack of contents and the incompatibility of existing home theater receivers.
Personally, I would prefer to save money and buy the Samsung 59” Series 5 plasma for less than $1800 from Eljo (here). The Samsung comes with useless active 3D I’ll probably never use, but its 2D picture quality is on par with the LG and the rest of the best of them (barring exotics). And It’s mighty big!
Still, I like LG’s approach and I would like to see more of it. I would like to see more companies trying to make the latest technology more useable and thus more useful. I would like to see enough companies doing so to a level that would make this new technology not only useable but also affordable.

Image copyrights: LG

Monday, 4 July 2011

Wawa Wii Wa


Roll the drums, please, as our household welcomes yet another gaming platform inside: After the recent introduction of Android we are now the proud owners of a Nintendo Wii. Old in the tooth, I know, but the admission price was so low at Big W this weekend we couldn’t resist it ($138 for the console package, accessories and Mario Kart game + $57 for a second Wii remote to allow two player gaming + $7 for a used copy of Wii Sports = $202).
The official excuse was us wanting a gaming platform the toddler of the house can play with. We do have a PS3 that he’s exposed to, but the games there tend to be more adult oriented than kiddie ones. His Android tablet is nice and fun for our in-house Angry Bird fan, but a Wii allows us all to play together. Sure, the PlayStation 3 has its own Move kit, but there can be no doubt the orientation of Wii games suits children much better. There can also be no doubt as to the Sony's excessive cost, where kitting two players costs as much as the Wii.
The Wii could also work for us adults. The best video gaming fun I tend to experience comes from social multiplayer gaming, and the Wii is better oriented there. No, I am not going to try playing Call of Duty on the Wii; that’s exactly where the PS3 excels. But for innocent fun, the Wii’s nicer.
We are looking forward to exploring the cheap fun games the Wii is famous for, both by buying more used titles and by renting.

The first thing I noticed upon connecting the Wii to our home theater setup was the quality of presentation. By now all of our source components are either native high definition or upscaled standard definition material (e.g., the DVD player upscales the picture to 1080p). The Wii, however, takes us back in time with its composite only connector and standard definition quality: its picture just looks B-A-D.
Our receiver lends a hand in de-interlacing the Wii’s picture and pushing the converted result down an HDMI connection, but it will not upscale the picture. Which leaves it looking horrible.
The presentation’s impact was immediately noticeable when trying out Mario Kart. We have a karting game for the PS3, Modnation Racing, that’s got quite a bombastic presentation. Mario, in comparison, looks pale and miserable. However, Mario is offers more enjoyable silly multiplayer action and proved vastly more accessible to our toddler.
So there you go. I can still enjoy a good game despite the awful presentation. However, as I already said, games where the presentation is the key will definitely continue to be acquired for the PS3 platform.

The second thing I noticed was the speed with which our toddler got tired of playing Mario and Wii Sports. The lack of appreciation on display, both here in with the new bicycle we got him last week (his second pair) is amazing: here is a console I would have committed genocide for as a child, yet our distinguished toddler takes it for granted – and happily moves back to play with regular favorites, like his paper planes.
I take two lessons there:
  1. Our child, like most children today, is over stimulated. On the positive side, I suspect he is significantly smarter than what I was at his age.
  2. A price tag does not make a toy great.

Image by Ramen Junkie, Creative Commons license

Friday, 1 July 2011

Tablet vs. Netbook: which is the better exclusive computing device?


What computer hardware do you take along when you go travelling?
There used to be a time when there were no dilemmas there. You would take your mobile phone, obviously, but if you wanted big time computing power you would take a notebook (aka laptop). Thing is, I never subscribed to the latter: notebook PCs, even the lighter ones, are just too heavy.
Some four years ago I found my winner in the shape of the netbook. It offered similar capabilities to the notebook PC at a smaller (typically a 10" screen) and lighter (typically 1.5kg) package. Its Windows performance is appalling, but a Linux running netbook is quite a capable platform. Recently, the tablet has emerged as a new viable option threatening the netbook's status, so the dilemma facing me ahead of embarkation is simple: did the tablet kill the netbook already, or am I still better off with my Eee PC?

Before comparing the two contenders, it’s important to determine exactly who these contenders are.
On the netbook side things are pretty simple: there are stronger netbooks and weaker ones, but in general we are talking about an Intel Atom powered PC running Windows XP or Windows 7, and in my case Ubuntu Linux as well. It is equipped with a decent hard drive (160gb to 320gb), an SD card reader and multiple USB ports.
The tablet side is not too complicated either. The way I see it, the only tablet worth spending your money on at the moment is the iPad 2. Sure, Android Honeycomb tablets look sexy and offer features the iPad doesn’t (USB connectors, SD card readers and Flash playback); but they all suffer from various childhood diseases. The way things are, the Android operating system is simply not ready yet for anything but beta testing on tablets (some may argue the same applies to Android running on mobile phones, and frankly I find much in support of such claims). As long as Android tablets are priced on the same ballpark as the iPad you’d be better off getting the real thing.
Between these two, the iPad 2 and the ubiquitous netbook, there can be no doubt as to which one you would prefer to carry. The tablet is half as light and is significantly less bulky. There is also a good chance it uses the same charger as your mobile phone. The question then becomes, can you really expect to use a tablet as your exclusive computing device for the duration of your time away from home?
Let’s check a few potential problem areas out.
  • Photography aid tool: If you like to take plenty of photos and videos, especially high definition ones, you would like your portable computing tool to be able to store and manage them. A netbook will easily do that, but for the iPad 2 you would need an extra connector and you may find the device’s storage capacity limiting.
  • Keyboard: Tablets are great for casual use, but if you see yourself typing a lot then you should seek yourself a proper keyboard. This blogger, for example, is happy with the compromise of a smaller keyboard on his Eee PC.
  • Applications: I would say that the netbook and the tablet are pretty equal when it comes to apps. The netbook allows running the much more sophisticated stuff you get with a proper operating system (and if you use Linux, the performance is not bad at all). You can do almost anything you do on a big computer, including video editing. The tablet offers simpler versions of the more sophisticated stuff, and enjoys a bigger variety of better quality games.
  • Ergonomics: As bad as a netbook is, forcing you to fit yourself in between its keyboard and screen, netbooks are worse. As bad as netbooks are, tablets are worse. Prolonged use of either is a disaster in the making, but the netbook is superior. Until, that is, you need to carry it on your back.

Given the above, I would say the choice between tablet or netbook depends on personal preferences. My photography and blogging needs, as well as my affection towards unencumbered Internet surfing, mean that in my case the netbook is the clear winner.
However, it is clearly a matter of time before the netbook is effectively dead. You can see its demise already in the shops, where only the budget end is on display if at all. I suspect the netbook would officially die when the Android camp finally gets its act together and produces worthy tablets at around half the price of an iPad.
Then again, perhaps the rumors of the netbook’s immanent death are premature. In my view, the best netbook on the market at the moment is the MacBook Air; its only problem is its cost. That and the relative lack of USB outputs, card readers and storage capacity. A new model is rumoured to come out during July, but I doubt it would be that much cheaper; I suspect we will get the same price tag but with larger solid state drives.

Image by charliestyr, Creative Commons license