Monday, 31 October 2011

Party Time

Pirate_Party_BE_20100509_Bxl_Cinquantenaire_P1550668_cc-by-nc_Didier_Misson.jpgOver this past weekend, Pirate Party Australia conducted its yearly (?) get-together. It was held at Sydney, but I followed it up when I could through a live video feed. There were also a live audio feed, live discussions over IRC, and the constantly updating online minutes. You can’t argue this relatively small group of so called pirates don’t know their technology and how to use it in order to organize themselves.
At the basic of levels, I enjoyed the “show” for the example it provided in how the democratic process should and could take place. People were respecting one another, people were asking one another questions and looking for opinions, and in general the atmosphere was one of great cooperation. For example, the current party president stepped aside out of worrying him staying too long at his post will keep the party stagnated. Then there was the motion to stop for lunch. You won’t find any of that at your average Liberals/Labor conference (can anyone tell the difference between the two anymore?).
Entertainment aside, I had a lot of personal interest in the conference. A lot of the party’s key people are people I follow on Twitter. That is, they may be half my age, but in many respects we are like minded. I totally agree with the party’s agenda, and I consider it important for society at large to implement its policies.
Before you dismiss them pirates as a party based on silly notions, check out your newspaper. This day alone had two articles published in Delimiter concerning how Aussies’ online freedom of speech and other basic human rights may be put under threat in the immediate future (see here and here). If you expand the discussion to closely related social movements, you can easily see (the way this opinion article does) how pirates stand at the forefront of rolling social changes.
Due to the party’s relevance, the thought prevailing in my mind as I watched the conference was whether I should join the party or not. If I agree with everything they stand for, and if I want to be active in the areas they stand for anyway, then surely joining to become an official Aussie pirate is the way to go? Hold your registration forms, I am not rushing in there yet. My problem is simple: the pirates’ agenda great and all, but what about other issues affecting our society? How would an elected member of the Pirate Party deal with, say, global warming, education or health? The way things are, the Pirate Party deliberately avoids discussion on non core issues out of the fear of creating internal rifts, but let’s be honest: the party cannot expect to be anything more than an obscurity without better policy coverage.
Looking at the matter from my own personal point of view, no Australian political party, pirates included, will accept me if I am a member of another party. If that is the case then how do I choose which party to join given there’s at least one other party with whose agenda I generally agree (the Secular Party), not to mention the Greens who are the party closest to my views with actual power?
Then there is the fact that most of the Pirate Party agenda items are already covered by the EFA (Electronic Frontiers Australia). The EFA has the advantage of not being associated with any political party. It also has the advantage of having world class experts on its side, the likes of privacy expert Roger Clarke (but many others more). As I am already an EFA member, I currently choose to keep an open and very favourable eye on the Pirate Party but nothing more; at the moment I do not feel the party is ripe enough for me to join it. Unless, that is, I decide to make myself active enough so as to try and change the party from within, but that’s a totally different ball game.

Image by Didier Misson, Creative Commons license

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Police State

Police TapeFriday's The Age featured two front page stories dealing with police affairs. The first told us how the position of the Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police was undermined by the office of the very minister in charge of police. As we know, that commissioner ended up out off office rather quickly. The second story deals with the Occupy Melbourne protest that was evicted using force by Victoria Police a week earlier (I was there to see some of it), and how the police provided one legal justification for the use of force while the mayor put another; thing is, both arguments were exposed by the newspaper as legally inadequate.
My take on these matters is that the State of Victoria is not run by law but rather by the whim of the powers that be. In the particular cases we have here, it is controlled by a few power hungry Liberal party members who regard the state as their private playground.
My second take is more straight forward. Given the ease with which these news items came about and the speed at which they were forgotten, I can only conclude that the general Australian public is very much indifferent to this whole charade. As in, "as long as it doesn't bother me and I can do what I want, they can do whatever they want". Only that history repeatedly teaches us that people who work under this assumption tend to find it is rather too late to get up in arms when shit hits their fan.

Image by freefotouk, Creative Commons license

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Dealing with Commercial TV's Abuse

Channel 9 logo on 717 Bourke Street, Docklands, MelbourmeThis week's letter to The Age's Green Guide:

Last week I tried to record an old Clint Eastwood film off Channel 9's GEM. I programmed my PVR using GEM's own EPG (Electronic Program Guide) and added a ten minute safety margin. However, I was later disappointed to find the recording missed both the beginning and the end of the film.
My question is this: does my Channel 9 experience give me the legal right to download the film off the Internet?

Image by DocklandsTony, Creative Commons license

Childcare Closure

Embodiment of Sorrow Exactly a week ago we were informed by our local council that it intends to close down its childcare service centers. The announcement took us and other parents by surprise; there were no hints of this being on the agenda. Even though the closure is gradual and our son will not be directly affected, we were quite angry at the local council's move and the way it made its decision. Pushed by the powers that be, I felt it's time to use my familiarity with the virtual world to support real world activism.
After receiving the council's notice I immediately scanned and forwarded the notice letter sent to us by the local council to the local newspaper. To do that I used an iPhone app to quickly scan the letter and generate a PDF document, which I then edited using an open source Linux PDF editor to remove personal information from the letter. James Bond would have been proud. It turns out the local council anticipated parents' resentment, so it arranged a special meeting with the paper to present their position at; the meeting was arranged for Tuesday, a day ahead of the weekly paper's cut off date. However, the paper already had the material I provided them with by the preceding Saturday...
On Wednesday night we had a a parents' meeting. Objection to the council's decision was unanimous and various action items were identified. However, parental coordination is planned to take place through a dedicated Gmail address, which feels a bit too 20th century to me. The thought of proposing to manage the cause's Facebook page did occur to me, but with my contempt to Facebook only growing worse with time I held myself back. No, it would take more this that to get me to rejoin this site that continues to track me after I logoff.
Sadly, there aren't any other social media means suitable to this occasion: while a Twitter hashtag could have easily been arranged, Twitter's popularity with the parents is wanting. On the other hand, at this stage Google+ will only support individuals. There are some promising social networks developing out there, like Unthink, but these are nothing more than desert islands. Gmail it is, then.
The local newspaper's editor informed me they will publish the letter I sent them as part of their news coverage. As I was warned the letter will be edited due to length, I will conclude this post by quoting it in its entirety.

As the parent of a four year old child using my local council's childcare centre facilities, I was surprised to see the note posted on the centre’s door on Friday 21/10/11 informing parents the local council has decided to gradually close the centres down over the next two years. It was obvious the centre’s staff were just as surprised, and it was obvious neither parents nor staff were consulted or even informed the centres' closure was even on the agenda.
The council’s main justification for closing the centres down is their perceived lack of so called “viability”. However, the council does not explain how this viability is measured, which is not surprising given that none of the services provided by local councils are financially viable: the entire point of government is to supply the population with otherwise unviable services and to do so in a way that promotes a healthy society. However, it does not seem as if my local council is interested in creating a healthy city: by closing its own childcare centres it is actively harming its most vulnerable, parents of children with special needs or parents in tough circumstances who would otherwise have trouble finding suitable privately owned facilities to look after their children.
The council’s childcare centres are currently serving hundreds of local families, served thousands in the past, and could serve thousands more in the future. The centres’ current two year long waiting list speaks volumes of the appreciation local residents hold for them. My son’s own experience of attending several private childcare centres prior to the council ones confirmed why: none of the private ones even came close when it came to quality care. Clearly, council run centres act as the industry’s benchmark. If council members voting the centres’ closure had bothered looking these matters up, they would have found plenty viability to justify the running of the centres!
The reason quoted by the council for the timing of its centres’ closure is upcoming federal regulations that, under current layouts, would see the council centres serving fewer families. The council has to be “commended” for using regulations intended to improve the quality of care as an excuse for making them worse. It also emphasises the council’s disconnection from the public, in the sense that these federal regulations will affect private childcare centres just the same and will make it much harder for parents to find a spot for their children – even before the closure of the council’s own centres.
As an existing user of my local council's childcare centres I am left under extreme uncertainty. With parents bound to take their kids away as they place them in alternative childcare facilities, the viability of the council’s doomed services will actually – and for the first time – truly diminish. Parents will be facing that as well as the inevitable decrease in staff morale, staff leaving, and the council’s own promise to review the centres’ situation on a quarterly basis.
It is interesting to note the local council’s intention to close its childcare centres and focus on its kindergarten services instead. One has to wonder what the council is thinking and what its priorities are, given that kinder services are unable to provide the full time care required for full time working families and given the rarity of private full time kinder age services. Is the council running an agenda of stay at home mothers?
Then again, reading between the lines, with my local council already closing down homes for the old and the disabled and now moving on to closing childcare facilities, it wouldn’t surprise me if the council real agenda is in making a quick buck through selling its real estate. Indeed, the only evidence to contradict the “council going for the money” theory is the council sending us parents the childcare centres’ closure notice via Express Post. No financially conscious council would have acted this way.

Image by johnwilliamsphd, Creative Commons license

Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Book Shop, RIP

Embiggen Books at TAMOzI finally paid a visit to Embiggen Books, a new book shop to open in Melbourne with the aim of catering for the science oriented reader and the skeptic in particular. Oddly enough, Stephen Fry paid the shop a visit that same day; it must have been in the air. I don't know about Fry, but I fell in love: the shop is small in comparison to those Borders aircraft hangars of yesteryear, but it was as if someone designed a book shop with me in mind: one wall features works of fiction with science fiction having a significant presence, another wall features philosophy (but not pseudoscience junk), another is comprised of popular science, etc. There is even ample room dedicated for children books made of books I would love my son to get into.
I do not recall being at a book shop where that “wow, I should definitely read this book” notion sprang up at such a frequency and with such variety of genres.
That’s all great, but did I buy anything? No, I didn’t. I simply do not see the point in buying paper books anymore, now that I have been so thoroughly exposed to the charms of the ebook. It’s similar to asking me to take a ride on a steam train: it might appeal to me once as an attraction, but the reality is that it can’t keep up with modern trains and it’s stinky as hell. There are exceptions to the rule, like books heavy on the graphics or children books, but reality knocks on the door yet again: price wise, a small book shop cannot compete with what the Internet has to offer (as summarized so exquisitely by websites like booko). Even if/when Embiggen offers ebooks, and they told me they would do so in six months, there is no way they'd be able to match Amazon's might.
The way I see it, the book shop has a couple of potential aces up its sleeve. There is that nice feeling of brushing with the books that one cannot get on the web, although preview services like the one offered by Amazon come pretty close. Then there is the book shop acting as a gathering point for people of mutual interests, a line Embiggen is definitely active at through the organization of various gatherings and "meet the author" events. Can Embiggen generate income out of such gatherings in the face of declining book sales, currently its main income stream? I doubt it.
And if a book shop as good as Embiggen is living on borrowed time, then it is clear the entire book shop institution is an endangered species.

Image by podblackcat (whose blog and other web presences I follow), Creative Commons license

Swimming Lessons

The Swimming LessonMy four year old son’s swimming lessons made me think about the optimal approach to educating children. At his second ever swimming lesson the instructor was trying to get him to put his head in/under the water. Alas, my son has too many of my genes (50% is a lot). Too afraid to do as he’s asked, he reverted to shouting – meaningless shouting – at the instructor. He wouldn't do anything else but shout; in effect, that was the end of his swimming lesson.
The question that popped to my head there and then was this: what is the optimal level of strictness for educating a child? If you’re too soft, as with this particular case, he’ll happily abuse you and learn nothing in the process other than reaffirm his understanding that ignoring requests with abuse is the way to go. If you’re too hard on him and just push him in the water you take a risk: he may find out there’s nothing wrong with putting one’s head under the water and that it’s actually fun, but he may be so badly traumatized he won’t want to come near a swimming pool again.
The following day we had a similar standoff. We met with friends on the beach and the kids were all playing together. At one point, my son picked up a glass bottle he found in the sand. I immediately barked the order for him to put it down; he looked it me, fully understanding what I asked him to do, but continued to hold the bottle. I barked again, to no avail. I barked for the third time, and when nothing happened still I went over and quite forcefully dragged my son away by the arm.
That same question popped up again, only in reverse: was I too harsh? Should I tried to appeal to his rational instead? In effect, I was pondering that good old question on whether children should be taught using positive incentives or whether they should be punished into obedience (or some mix of the two), but with a slight twist. In the above two cases, punishing our child was never on our agenda: we were either trying to educate our son or block him from danger.
I won’t pretend to have the magic answer. The current family status quo has my wife preferring the soft approach while I’m drifting towards pushing my son into the deep water. Both of us are aspiring towards the same goal, it’s the path to that goal that is different.
If allowed to expand the philosophy of my approach then I will point at the good old forgiving tit for tat algorithm. That is, start things gently and rationally, but when abused show the child – in a harsh manner if time and circumstances prevent the nicer, rational approach – what is expected of him. Once the child resumes behaving properly or when a good opportunity presents itself, go back to being nice to him.
The downfall of this approach is that it assumes the parent knows better than the child, which is not always the case: some times he does know better than I do and I just abuse my authority. However, given that we are dealing here in scenarios where no real harm should come to the child, neither physical nor mental, I can see some advantages there, too. As long I don’t turn out to be truly dumb, my son may learn that life is not always fair, that there are unavoidable punishments on the way, and that not everything in life is great. It could be a harsh lesson to learn, but I consider it vital none the less. It’s the truth we are all very familiar with: it's called "shit happens".

Image by Cowgirl111, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Claiming Prima Nocta

Last week Delimiter told us Spotify has officially started recruiting in Australia. It (Delimeter) even went further to predict Spotify will make its music services available to Australians within 18 months.
My take on this bit of news: I demand Spotify grants me the right to be their first ever Australian Premium subscriber. I think I have the right to be the first to pay them for that service given the transformation their free service is making to my life. A service that, let me remind you, is only available to Australians if they’re tech savvy enough to use services such as VPN to acquire a European or American IP address.
Before going on to discuss that transformation yet again, I would like to note what the Premium service is. Essentially, it gives you the right to listen to uninterrupted music: no ads, no limitations on the amount of music you can listen to. You can even download playlists to your smartphone and listen to them without an Internet connection (hey, who needs iTunes?). Most importantly, at least for me: music is downloaded at a rate of 320kbps, which makes a whole lotta difference when connected to the hi-fi.
Spotify Premium currently costs Americans $10 USD a month and Brits 10 GBP a month. This substantial cost difference across nationalities leads me to fear someone high up in the recorded music industry’s food chain will decide Aussies would be willing to fork out $25 for the same pleasure. If you read this, Spotify, then please make sure you don’t make the mistake of alienating your customers before you even start! A lot of us, myself included, are not buying music from iTunes because of such regional price differences, differences where the Aussie is always on the losing side. Or is it due to the cost of freighting all that digital contents all the way Down Under?

On to the promised discussion on Spotify’s transformation qualities. I’ve discussed these at the past but I will do so again using last night’s experiences.
Those started with me listening to the soundtrack from Wim Wenders’ early nineties film, Until the End of the World. I hold this soundtrack in high regard as one of the best to ever decorate a movie, even if the movie was not my cup of water. It features some great atrists: Nick Cave, R.E.M. and Danial Lanois to name a few. It even features a U2 from those forgotten days where they actually had something to say, as opposed to the great money laundering machine they turned into. I used to have this soundtrack on cassette, but given what I did to my cassette collection I didn’t listen to it for probably a decade or so. Last night I did, though, positioning myself between my hifi speakers while assembling the latest robot toy we got our son (don’t ask). I’ve enjoyed both the joint assembly work with the four year old and the music in that certain way that only soul penetrating music can achieve. Thanks for a great experience, Spotify!

Shlomo Artzi is an Israeli singer I always tended to despise. At our recent trip to Israel we took a boat ride that had a song of his playing as background music. Amongst songs by the likes of the Red Hot Chili Peppers and R.E. M. (them again!), Artzi’s song stood out when my wife pointed out everyone around us was humming along.
With that experience in mind I decided to give Artzi’s “best of” a try over Spotify. I can’t say he’ll be in my top ten, but listening to him certainly brought back memories. I’ll even admit he does have several good songs.

The point of the above musical tales is that through Spotify I was able to connect with the past in a manner that was otherwise impractical. Sure, I can buy these songs from iTunes, but do I want to commit some $40 odd dollars to a nostalgic affair? No, all I wanted was a brief reminder.
What I am trying to say is that music is of great importance to the shaping of our personalities. Through extrapolation I will argue that music is of great importance to the shaping of our culture. Currently, the preferred method for acquiring music is online; that is an undeniable fact. However, with the music industry actively blocking the Australian consumer from access to half decent online music services, what they are doing in effect is blocking cultural evolution.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Current copyright legislation is heavily bent against the interests of the vast majority of the public. We are the 99% plus suffering because of a tiny minority that decided to put us on a leash.

Image credits:
Until the End of the World soundtrack - Warner Bros. copyrights
Shlomo Artzi - TheCuriousGnome, Creative Commons license

Sunday, 23 October 2011

The Newsletter

I recently volunteered to work on the company newsletter at work. Everyone needs to start somewhere; today I'll write for the company newsletter, tomorrow I'll edit The Guardian kind of thing.
In the rush to publish our first edition I ended up writing a travel column about my own travels. I found the exercise quite interesting because I was essentially writing the same travel account as the one I wrote for this blog, only that I had to adapt my writing to my target audience. Instead of a no holds barred approach I had to write a politically correct piece (I'm sure some people will never believe I'm capable of that); instead of having as much space as I wanted I was limited to just a few paragraphs to make my statement on; and instead of my preferred mode of American English typing I had to use Australian/English English (e.g., catalogue instead of catalog).
You can find the results below. Before leaving you off, let me note I consider it interesting that despite all of the above "obstacles", the general message manages to stay the same. Our travels were a bitter sweet symphony:

My wife is English and I am from Israel, so we went for the obligatory family visits. That is, we showed the rest of our family the wonders of our four year old son. In between we stopped at Amsterdam and Singapore so that we could actually have some fun. As can be expected when planning so much and with so many people involved, we had our ups and downs.
At the UK we enjoyed ourselves visiting the Lake District and then Wales, in particular South Wales. Both are spectacular, but as far as I could tell the latter looks nothing like the New one. On the other hand, driving in the UK is less than spectacular: we found ourselves perpetually staring at the rear end of every slow moving tractor in the kingdom.
It’s been almost a decade since I visited mainland Europe, and the sights of Amsterdam’s classic attractions reminded me of stuff I miss living in Australia. Our son did have his moment under the limelight, shouting “this is boring!” at the top of his voice while we were admiring Vermeer’s The Milkmaid in the middle of the quiet but otherwise crowded Rijksmuseum. This was my first time at Amsterdam without paying a visit to the Red Light District – blame him!
In Israel it was good to see the family, my childhood friends, and all the food I grew up on (losing those extra kilos will take a while). It was also hot, to a level that severely subdued our enthusiasm to go outdoors. Hard to believe I used to regard the heat as normal for the majority of my life.
By Singapore we were used to the heat but also tired and sick (my son’s asthma doesn’t like being on an airplane for too long). We stayed at a plush hotel, but it was still good to be back home and to return to work, where everything is quiet and predictable. That is, more quiet and more predictable than a jet lagged four year old.

Image by FontShop, Creative Commons license

Friday, 21 October 2011

The Measuring of Success

The Sunday Times Rich List 2010

Office chitchat recently steered to one of its favorite topics, the financial success of select society members. “Look at how much money this guy is making” and all that jazz. I did my regular party pooper manoeuvre, broke the festive spirit, and pointed out relatively quickly that by my reckoning financial achievements are far from being a true measure of a person’s success.
What is the true measure of success, then?
The answer is complicated and I do not pretend to have it. I consider the answer derived out of the answer to questions regarding the meaning of life: the meaning of life is the meaning we give it. Extrapolating from that, my personal answer to the success measure is that a person is successful if the person achieves an acceptable portion of the targets they pose themselves.
Take me, for example. I dedicate the majority of my wakeful time to work, but it’s been a long while since I’ve been passionate about my work. I feel a bit sad admitting it, but blogging made me realize my true passion is writing; in particular I am passionate about writing about the subjects dearest to me, from books and films through social matters such as civil liberties in the virtual world. Note I do not pretend to be a particularly good writer; I just love doing it. It feels like some sort of a calling.
Writing my blogs, I am already satisfying my passion to writing. Some of my posts even earn hits by the thousands, which leads me to suspect I can try to achieve more in the writing arena. The fact these posts tend to deal with matters of technology, and the fact I am an undeniable gadget freak, renders the picture clear: my true personal success measure, at least when it comes to my professional life, would be to write periodically to a respectable IT/gadget forum. I don’t care about seeing much money out of this escapade; it is all from the heart.

[Warning: the following passage contains severe ass kissing]
At this point I will turn your attention to a person I know very little about, but a person with whom I suspect I share similar passions and aspirations.
There are plenty of Australian IT forums (for lack of a better word), and I follow most of them on Twitter. However, there is only one that I follow in my RSS feed, where I make sure not to miss a single feed. That select publication is Delimiter. The reason is simple: Delimiter has a no bullshit attitude. It won’t rush to publish the latest press release from a brand starving for attention, and when it does publish something it doesn’t only recite what the corporate PR departments pushed forward but adds its editorial analysis. The fact is, I usually – if not always – agree with that analysis. The fact is also that I tend to arrive to the same conclusion as the editor even before I read his words, which – given the above stated passions of mine – did lead me to think that perhaps my future lies in working for a publication of a similar nature to Delimiter.
Delimiter is published by Renai LeMay, who – as far as I can tell but I could be totally wrong – established the website and is at the very center of its running. That makes LeMay a person I am quite jealous of: here is someone with similar professional aspirations to mine that was actually able to go out and fulfil his dream, big time. I fully admit: I lack the skills and the balls it takes to make one an entrepreneur ala LeMay.
I do, however, consider myself quite good at doing the hard work once that initial spark has been lit. With that in mind I contacted LeMay via Twitter; this led to that, and LeMay said he will be following my blog. As in, this blog.
Now I don’t know if he does, I don’t know if he’ll read this post, and I don’t know whether he will think of this post as anything but a cheap attempt by me to attract more of his attention. It doesn’t matter [who am I kidding? It matters a lot]; the point of this exercise was to point at a person I consider successful. Not because he made a lot of money (I sort of doubt he’s drowning in it), but rather because he and I share the same dream but he was able to take it much further than I have and much further than I ever will.

This brings me back to my definition of a successful person I opened this post with. I wrote that a person is “successful if the person achieves an acceptable portion of the targets they pose themselves”, and I would like to emphasize the use of the word acceptable.
As stated, for very down to earth reasons I will never be able to go as far as LeMay in my professional dream fulfilment. It’s not only that I’m no entrepreneur, it also has a lot to do with me lacking the networking one acquires through living their entire lives in Australia and attending local high schools and universities. For that reason, what passes as acceptable for me is probably quite unacceptable for others.
Further reduction of my acceptable standards comes by virtue of the fact I am now a parent. My priorities are different: I don’t care for being a jet setting man of importance anymore; I want to spend time with my family. If you were to ask me what my chief priority in life is, the answer I would give you is the ability to spend more time with my family. That would be enough success by me!
I don’t want to see my son only when we get him ready for kinder, pick him up from kinder, have dinner together and put him to bed. I want to experience life with him, otherwise what was the point of bringing a child to the world with all the effort that endeavor takes in the first place?
The way I see it, the dream of having more quality time to spend with the family is entirely achievable. It’s achievable in two ways: I can work part time or work for less hours each day, and I can reduce the time it takes me to get to and back from work. Achievable on paper as my dream may be, it hits some very solid walls: employers are quite reluctant to give up on their resources (i.e., employees), especially in the IT industry that is so famous for longer than average working hours. Second, a reduction of my commuting time to and from work looks highly unlikely given the abysmal treatment Melbourne’s public transport system has been receiving at the hands of consecutive state governments. There is the idea of working from home, but it does not seem as if my employer is in love with the idea of making that a normal practice.
Still, this is my personal path to success, and it will be even more so when my son goes to school. I will not go down without a fight!

Image by HowardLake, Creative Commons license

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Defending the Faith

Australia's Supreme RulerThe subject of Christmas popped up at a recent office meeting. Specifically, the politically correct question of whether we are allowed to refer to that particular day on our calendars as “Christmas” or whether we should use some euphemism tailored so as not to offend the non Christians. [Adequate disclosure: this non Christian could not give a fuck.] One participant opined that “of course we can [use the word Christmas], because Australia is a Christian country”.
Normally, such a statement would blow my fuses and boil my blood. This time, though, it couldn’t: the reality is that, officially at least, Australia still is a Christian country. It’s a country where Christian prayers are said at the beginning of each parliament session, a country where elected politicians gather at a church to celebrate the post elections dawn of a new parliament, and a country where the head of state – in our case, the Queen of England – is also legally trusted with acting as its Defender of Faith. That is, she’s the head of the Church of England.
All of the above indicates there is plenty of room for Australia to improve, but through the realization I am not living in the plural society I was hoping to live in came another thought.
I was generally under the assumption that those who want to keep Australia in the clutches of British monarchy do so for primarily racial/xenophobic reasons. As in, “let us keep Anglo Saxonia Minor [i.e., Australia] at our hands instead of those of that riffraff over there”. That is, people who are acting to preserve their culture under the assumption that theirs is a superior one.
However, now it occurred to me there may be more to this. Religion is probably a big part of the equation: those looking to keep the monarchy are probably motivated by their perceived need to keep Christianity as the dominant religion in Australia at all cost. Even if that cost means pretending a daft* old Pom is our head of state.

*You may not consider Elizabeth daft, but you have to admit Charles has repeatedly and quite conclusively proven himself to be one.

Image by yewenyi, Creative Commons license

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Bitter Sweet Symphony

As far as I am concerned, our overseas trip is still ongoing even though it has been more than a month now since we returned home. I can confidently make this statement because I am still to process and post even half the photos and videos we took on our way. On my way through the these I am finding ample room for contemplation, resulting in this post that offers a summary of my trip's highs and lows. To be more poetic, it summarizes the bitter sweet symphony that our trip was.

Let’s start with the highs. In chronological order, these were our trip experiences I’ve enjoyed the most:
Our visit to Wales stood out amongst our UK adventures. In particular, I was taken aback by the hospitality of my newly discovered Welsh family. We were pampered with good food, we were taken to guided tours, and most importantly – we were in the company of likely minded people. One glimpse at their CD collection, so similar to ours, told the entire story. Our four year old had a great time as well, enjoying being spoiled by more family members than he ever thought he had; in particular, he enjoyed playing with the local three year old, probably the best cooperative play he’s had during our trip.
Next in the highlights is Amsterdam, representing my first proper tour of mainland Europe for close to a decade. Despite the first few hours of disorientation I enjoyed the Dutch experience a lot: the classic nature of everything, the excellent public transport, the canals, the food, the good natured locals – many of them things missing from Australia.
Special mention should go to Amsterdam’s bicycle riders. Melbourne claims to be a bike city, but I say that total bullshit and Amsterdam explains exactly why. Everyone, from children to pensioners, rides bicycles in Amsterdam. They ride them in rain or shine, they ride them in dedicated lanes separated from car traffic, they ride them while eating/drinking/smoking/talking over the phone/SMSing, they mostly ride cheap but comfortable upright bikes, and they respect the rest of the public while the rest of the public respects them. Now compare that to Melbourne, where riding a bicycle means a death wish, where you have to wear Lycra uniform and ride the latest carbon fiber frame to be counted. Which of the two cities' bicycle cultures can claim to be truly ingrained?
Back when I toured Amsterdam as an Israeli I remember thinking how this could be a place I would be happy to live at. The thought occurred to me as we were walking around, yet now it seemed Australia is a clear winner – if only because of the ferociousness of European winter. Mind you, now that we’re back home I might change my mind…
My last highlight was Israel. No, it cannot be said that I like Israel much, but it has to be said my Israeli friends made substantial efforts to make us enjoy our time there. They succeeded: I thoroughly enjoyed my time with them. Our mutual exploitations are planned to feature on a future post, but I have to talk about my personal highlight of highlights: my three school friends and I cramming together into one car for a short drive to the supermarket to get some Coke. For a short while I thought I was in a time machine taking me twenty years back. I truly miss their company, and I value it much more than going to see the latest attraction.
Our four year old’s highlight came that same day, too. The property our friends rented us for the night had him in a room with his own TV opposite his bed – out of which he didn’t want to come out! Then there was the huge Jacuzzi bath all three of us shared with the TV right in front. The four year old was in heaven - a TV bath!

One cannot expect to have a month long period without disappointments, and indeed we had our share. As far as I am concerned, the English part of our holiday was disappointing for reasons thoroughly discussed here, here and here; it’s not often that events scar me as much as this one did. There were multiple other lows to our English visit, albeit of significantly less intensity; I do not see the point in me getting a divorce from my [English] wife over me reciting those in this forum.
At the personal level, Israel was my biggest disappointment of this trip. My stated purpose with visiting Israel was to spend quality time in Israel, given my parents’ old age and the inconvenient truth of me not knowing how many more time I will get to see them. Yet my parents could not avoid giving the impression they weren’t as interested in mutual quality time as I am, preferring the usual company of their TV sets to spend an evening with.
In general, most of our suggestions for shared activities were answered negatively. An incident that proves the point took place one afternoon, when my hungry self suggested we go for a classic Israeli lunch at a restaurant called Skewers of Hope; it's nothing special, but you know what you’re getting. My father countered, insisting that Meeting of the Steak is a better lunch destination despite my clear (albeit decade old) memories telling me the opposite. Eventually I surrendered and agreed to go to this Meeting of the Steak, at which point my parents said they don’t want to go anywhere because they’re not hungry. They sure can argue, though.
In general, my parents were blaming me for not teaching my son Hebrew, thus depriving them of their ability to communicate with their grandson. The fact my friends’ children could easily and very successfully play with my son despite their lack of English and his lack of Hebrew proved the problem was entirely in my parents’ head. When they did try to approach my four year old they often treated him like a baby, something he disliked for obvious reasons. On the positive side, things have greatly improved since our visit with my parents’ iPad assuming a pivotal role in getting my son acquainted with his Israeli grandparents, as I have discussed here. That said, I could not avoid leaving Israel with a bitter taste in my mouth.
The third and last of our lowlights is to do with our wellbeing. As with previous expedition to Israel, the heat got to us and one of our stomachs suffered. That’s a major issue given the importance gastronomic pleasures have when one’s travelling is limited by children. Then, as with our previous expedition to Singapore, our boy’s asthma started playing up and our activities were severely limited.

One can tend to forgive the lowlights if one’s homecoming is nice and the ending has a sweet taste. Alas, it didn't.
Landing at Melbourne, we were greeted by huge queues at passport control. God have mercy on the souls of those with no Aussie passports, for their queues were forbiddingly long. All the while you’re surrounded by signs telling you that because of some law from 1920 or so you’re not allowed to use your phone while waiting. What’s going on, are we home or at a concentration camp? I tweeted like there's no tomorrow.
The fun continued through the queue for quarantine, which was so long it snaked around the luggage pickup stations. Finally, upon our release from the clutches of the terminal, we were gritted by our trip’s final bill: $100 taxi fare to take us home, courtesy of consecutive Victorian governments making sure Melbourne is the only developed city in the world with no rail service to its airport.
Welcome home!

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Couch Potatoes Are Thinner

Exercise with Gloria

I seem to be losing the weight loss battle.
I put on some 3 kilos on during my recent round the world travelling expedition. That was to be expected: I was forced to survive English food by stuffing myself with chocolates, ice cream and pistachios instead, while in Israel I made sure I ate as much as I can and as often as I can from all the local foods I miss so much at Australia.
Upon returning home to Australia I immediately started taking steps towards getting rid of those extra pounds of flesh. Through circumstances I shall discuss in another post I took on exercising; the trick is, since I’ve started exercising I actually put 2 extra kilos on.
How can that be?
That’s simple. After exercising I am so hungry I feel I can eat an entire cow. Sadly, I don’t have cows grazing my backyard; what I do have are cupboards full of food (and a fridge!), which I raid like there's no tomorrow. As the scales clearly indicate, I eat much more than I burn off!
It sounds illogical, but my problem is not as unique as it may sound. You can read what The Guardian and research had to say about it here, but if you’re interested in the bottom line then you should be aware the indication is that exercising hardly ever reduces weight. Usually it actually achieves the opposite. I can therefore use the opportunity to rave about the benefits of a life devoid of physical effort, given my expertise in this subject matter, but for sincerity's sake I will conclude by saying it seems the best way to reduce weight is to simply eat less.
That, however, proves a bit too hard for me. Much harder than exercising.

Image by kevin dooley, Creative Commons license

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Take Your Time

sleeping beauties - mother and son asleep in bed - MG 5315.JPGThis Friday our four year old jewel decided to get out of his bed and enter our bed at the lovely time of five (AM!), bringing a collection of his favorite toy airplanes with him.
Despite severe urging and us gradually confiscating said airplanes, our pride and joy would not let us continue our sleep. That is, until the time for us to get up for work has arrived: when that happened, he quickly pulled the blanket over him and went to sleep. As usual, pulling him out of bed and getting him ready for childcare was one of those stressful experiences all parents, but only parents, are so experienced with.
The lesson to the rest of you innocent humans out there, potentially considering bringing children to this world: take your time. Take. Your. Time.

Image by sean dreilinger, Creative Commons license

Friday, 14 October 2011

Musical Chairs

  1. A couple of weeks ago I read Cory Doctorow’s review of Ry Cooder’s latest album. That night I listened to the entire album through Spotify.
  2. Last week we read a review in The Age of a new Jim Henson (of Muppets’ fame) tribute album, The Green Album. I can’t find a link to the review but you can read more about the album and its contents here. What I can say is that we listened to the album in its entirety on the same day we read the review, and we did it through Spotify.
  3. Yesterday I read on Twitter about William Shatner’s newly released album, Seeking Major Tom. Yesterday evening we listened to the album in its entirety through Spotify.

Do you detect a theme here? Yes, I do too. The theme is that us Aussies are getting SO S-C-R-E-W-E-D by the music labels it’s not funny.
While the American and British consumer can listen to any music they feel like through services such as Spotify, the musical powers that be are preventing us from achieving the same feat. I don’t know what exactly it is the labels are expecting us to do (buy plastic CDs?), but they’re definitely putting themselves in a position where they cry wolf over piracy yet refuse to sell us the product we really want.
As for me: Yes, I do get to use Spotify despite its lack of availability for our Lucky Country users. I do so by using VPN. However, instead of being able to pay Spotify for its Premium service I am so longing for, my money is going to the coffers of the VPN providers that let me listen to Spotify’s limited but free service. Where is the sense with that? I don’t know, but do feel free to refer the question to those controlling Australia’s music industry.

Copyrighted image: William Shatner's new album, Seeking Major Tom

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

School Uniformed

School uniformThere can be no doubt that school uniform can save a parent’s sanity. Yet as much as I value my sanity, I am about to dedicate this post to the conclusion that school uniforms are, overall, bad for us all in the sense they damage society as a whole.
The benefits of school uniform are obvious: there is no need to wonder what the child should wear in the morning, just as there is no need to buy the child the latest trending and expensive fashion-ware just so he/she can feel they are truly their peers’ peer. Potentially, a lot of money can be saved there while us parents can feel good about the equalizing / class leveling effect the uniform has on our kids' class.
However, I am of the opinion that money is not the most important thing in life (assuming one has enough to live comfortably by). Just as I think money is generally overrated, I think that the potential cost savings derived from school uniforms are a fine example for the way it is overrated. That is because having an open minded, free to think society, is a very worthwhile alternative to having a bit more money in the pocket. As for class leveling? There will always be the kids with the latest iPhone and the kids stuck with Nokia bricks.

One of the things that shocked me upon migrating from Israel to Australia was the matter of school uniforms. I’m still amazed at the sight of kids wearing suits and ties to school, or of girls wearing a hat that was the height of fashion back in the 18th century, together with a skirt no sane person would ever dream of wearing, all on a very cold day. Private schools seem like the main status symbol differentiating parents in Australia, yet the more prestigious the school the more restrictive and old fashioned its uniforms are. Odd.
Odd, because growing up in Israel I had very mild school uniforms: they came in the shape of a t-shirt with the school logo which I only had to wear for PE classes. Still, by now I got used to the state of things in Australia, and seeing a child wearing a suit to school doesn’t phase me much anymore.
At least until The Guardian started making me aware of them again.
My journey towards utter contempt for school uniforms started recently. I was visiting the UK and I got to read this Guardian article on school uniforms, published ahead of the beginning of the British school year. It reminded me of those old uncomfortable feelings I had with the strict school uniform codes imposed in Australia, and it also reminded me that in a bit more than a year my own son would have to start wearing those damn things.
A day or two later, The Guardian had readers’ letters published in relation to their article. One letter in particular grabbed my attention. Written by Peter James, who describes himself as a former head of a primary school, the letter states the following: “Uniforms induce uniform behaviour and are a control system”.
That was the hammer that hit the nail for me. After all, why did I have to suffer through four years of strict uniform code in the army if it wasn’t for the army’s obvious intention to keep me subdued and to keep me following orders? What else could be the purpose of school uniform, especially in their British like strict fashion, other than subduing children’s free spirits? After all, it is no coincidence that we had to wait for a British band to state aloud that “we don’t need no education”.

Shortly after the UK we visited Israel, where my nephew reminded me of the lightness of Israeli school uniform: his uniform set was in the shape of a collection of differently colored t-shirts, one of which had to be worn to school on designated days. Still a control system tool, but nothing as subduing as the British/Aussie model.
Today I got to read an article discussing Dutch [footballer] striker Dennis Bergkamp, probably my dearest sports person ever, and his current post retirement adventures. In the article Bergkamp gets to discuss his and his family's move back to their Netherlands origins after more than a decade as Londoners. One of the things he mentions was his inability to accept the lightness of Dutch school uniform codes following him getting used to the strict English system. Bergkamp's experience made me ask myself whether the Dutch raise dumb children? As far as I could tell, on the basis of me recently visiting the Netherlands in between the UK and Israel, the Dutch seem to be fairly nice people. It definitely did not feel as if they were in any way less intellectually capable than their British counterparts across the channel; if anything, they were all multilingual, unlike the typical Brit.
The question therefore remains. Why are we doing this? Why are we pushing our own children through the meat grinder of a strict school uniform system, knowing fully well that as we’re doing it we’re taking something away from them? Every parent will tell you their kids are the most important thing to them in the world, yet something very precious, the children's ability to establish a bit of an independent identity through their clothing, is robbed away from them in broad daylight.
There are lots of things Australia inherited from its British parent nation. School uniforms should not be in that list.

Image by PinkBallerina2008, Creative Commons license

Monday, 10 October 2011

Internet Anonymity


True to their name, TorrentFreak has published an article worth the weight of the servers hosting it in gold: an article explaining to everyone out there, especially the non geeks, where to go to if they would like to keep themselves anonymous while using the Internet. To be more specific, the article compares different providers of VPN services and discusses their approach to maintaining their users' anonymity.
You can read the article here. The rest of my post represents my attempt to explain the importance of TorrentFreak’s article.

First, what is a VPN, or Virtual Private Network?
You can look at a VPN as a secure tunnel connecting your computer (or smartphone, or tablet) to the servers of the company providing your VPN services. Whatever passes through that tunnel is encrypted in a manner that makes it impractical for anyone to know what passes through the tunnel. No one, not even your ISP, knows what goes on in there; all they can see is encrypted traffic travelling between you and the VPN provider.
Traffic going out of the VPN provider and towards its final destination, say – the Amazon USA website you want to buy a book from – will appear to Amazon as if it originated from the VPN server and not from where you, the end user, are physically located.
Combine the two together, the encrypted tunnel and your new virtual ID, and you can derive what VPN services are good for. For commercial use they represent a good way to keep employees talking to company servers in a secure manner without letting others eavesdrop; but for personal users they allow the following:

  1. Inability for others to eavesdrop on you Internet activities: Let’s say you’re travelling and you’re using an open wifi network this coffee shop you’re currently eating at provides. Using a good VPN service would ensure none of your dining neighbors are able to snoop your Internet banking password as you surf.
  2. Ability to change nationalities: To the rest of the world, a VPN user appears to come from the country where the VPN server resides. Let us say you’re an Australian and you’re using the services of an American VPN: through those services you would be able to enjoy Internet services that are otherwise open to Americans only. Say, being able to buy Amazon Kindle books from the huge catalog available to Americans, compared to the measly one on offer for Aussies; being able to watch the latest TV shows on Hulu; or enjoying Spotify’s vast music library. Use a British VPN server instead and you’d open the BBC’s vaults instead. Alternatively, Aussie expats can acquire the services of an Australian VPN server, which would allow them to watch their favorite ABC programs on iView.
    In short, with VPN you can unlock many virtual options currently blocked through for no other reason than nationality. And you thought we live in a globalized world!
  3. Ability to bypass filters: Using VPN services from other countries lets you easily bypass any filters imposed by your ISP or by your government on your Internet surfing. Remember Stephen Conroy great big filter? Well, with VPN at hand you can forget all about it.
  4. Ability to maintain anonymity: Whatever you do over the Internet while connected to a VPN service appears to that rest of the world as if it is coming from the VPN service. No one, other than the VPN provider, knows anything about you, the person on the other side of the VPN tunnel. In effect, you are anonymous. That’s great if you live in a country that subdues free speech; it is also great if you’re into things like bit-torrent.

That's all great, but is there a catch? Of course there is. Just ask the LulzSec guy who is alleged to have broken into the Sony network and stole my personal details as well as those of seventy million others (see here).
The guy, Cody Kretsinger, is said to have used the aptly named VPN service HideMyAss to perform his trickery. Only that when the FBI identified the hacking came from HideMyAss they subpoenaed the VPN service for the hacker’s info. They got it, and now Kretsinger is under arrest. What has happened there? Where was Kretsinger’s promised anonymity, given his use of VPN?
It turns out Kretsinger wasn’t truly anonymous. To the rest of the world, he was; but not to HideMyAss, who kept logs of all his Internet activities. And when pressed against the wall, HideMyAss had no option but to forward that information to the authorities.

This is where TorrentFreak enters the picture. They called on all VPN providers and asked them to disclose what their privacy policies are. In particular, do they keep logs of their users’ activities? If they don’t then they don’t have anything to hand over to the FBI when they knock on the door asking for usage records, meaning the VPN provider's end users are anonymous.
The results of TorrentFreak's survey are published in the article I would link to yet again – here. Read it to see how you can be anonymous, too. After all, given that the threat of litigation against Australians bit-torrent downloaders is in the air (see here), web anonymity is well worth keeping to many of us.
I do feel the need to add that not all VPN providers are alike. As in, there are many things to consider when choosing your VPN provider other than whether they would turn you to the FBI or not. After all, throughout recorded history there was only one case where a user has been turned in by their provider; never was there anyone turned over by a VPN provider for, say, downloading a newly released movie via bit-torrent.
Take two VPN providers as an example, both of which allow bit-torrent traffic to pass through their servers: BTGuard, which promises never to collect its users’ logs, and StrongVPN, which promises to always log them and advocates the use of its services for legal services alone. First, allow me to point a finger at StrongVPN, a company that supplies a service knowing it would be used to circumvent various laws (including those that prevent Aussies from using Hulu, for example), and then pretending to be law abiding when it comes to copyright laws. We can argue whether StongVPN is two faced or not some other time.
Second, I would like to point at the fact that StrongVPN offers much higher bandwidths and an overall better quality connection than BTGuard. StrongVPN also offers cheaper VPN options, and StrongVPN lets you choose the countries where your VPN server is located (say, the UK today, so you can watch the latest Dr Who episode off the BBC website, or the USA tomorrow, so you can watch stuff on Hulu). In contrast, BTGuard does not let you choose your country, and its servers are located in less attractive countries (at least to this user).
The point this post is trying to make is that:

  1. There is a lot of benefit to be had out of using VPN services.
  2. Not all VPN services are created the same.
  3. Most importantly, choose your VPN provider wisely. TorrentFreak’s great service was in allowing us laymen to be able to choose the best VPN service for our needs despite all the unintelligible small letters in the user agreements and privacy statements. For that I thank them a whole lot.

Image by loppsilol, Creative Commons license

Thursday, 6 October 2011

On Father Figures

Steve Jobs 2011 (black)

There was a point in time, several decades ago, when it became clear our Atari 2600 has been fully digested and the time has come for me to have that latest gizmo out there, the personal computer.
What followed next probably qualifies as some of the best quality time I ever had with my father, along with him teaching me how to ride a bike and him taking me to Tel Aviv’s Book Week (and buying me some of the latest sci-fi releases): My father and I paid many computer shops a visit, trying to determine where his money should go and which computer would serve me best.
We looked at many. We looked at the Texas Instruments, Tandy TRS-80, BBC, Sinclair, Commodore, Ataris – you name it. At several points we were close to buying any of the above. However, the computer shop visit I best remember was the Apple one, then located at Tel Aviv’s then prestigious Dizingof Center. The Apple II we saw there was by far the best and most capable computer out there: it even came with a floppy disk drive by default at a time where everything else used cassette tapes. It also had a very good version of the Basic programming language, allowing me to play with it more than, say, the Commodore 64 that relied way too heavily on Poke and Peek commands.
But the Apple II was also the dearest of the lot, and by a wide margin. So we didn’t buy it; eventually, we compromised on the Dragon 32. Not half as capable, cassette reliant, but equipped with very good Basic – the latest (second) version of Microsoft Basic, come to think of it.

On a day in which everyone is discussing Steve Jobs and his effect on their lives, my contribution is as follows. Jobs, and his fellow Apple cofounders, did have an effect on my life: their effect was achieved by them regularly releasing the most usable pieces of computer hardware out there, while always making sure their asking price was much more than I could afford. I always coveted their hardware, but I always had to settle for the imitations – most notably the ones from Microsoft – instead. Apple still had a measurable effect on me: by forcing Microsoft to lift its game Apple allowed me to enjoy better computers overall.
The phenomenon continues to this day. Apple effectively invented the tablet and is pulling the whole market behind. I got myself a cheap el-crapo tablet which would have never existed if it wasn’t for the iPad. Before that I had myself a crap Toshiba MP3 player which would have never existed if it wasn’t for the iPod. Today I have my eye open for the soon to arrive ultra notebooks, which are – in effect – the commoners’ version of the MacBook Air.
The only time I let Jobs truly enter my life was when I got so sick and tired of Gates’ mobile offerings that I was willing to open my wallet wide (very wide) to get myself an iPhone. That had allowed me to experience Jobs’ ability to revolutionize life as we know it firsthand: I bitch and moan about the limitations Jobs still imposes over his/my phone, but I cannot deny the significant effect that having a portable version of the Internet on me 24/7 has had.
Together with Bill Gates, Jobs is probably the only person whose identity is totally synonymous with the company he led. Both are/were relics of a dinosaur era.
Death is always sad. As much as I disliked the Jobs/Apple cult, it is even sadder to lose a person that managed to revolutionize the world of personal technology for the whole of humanity on multiple occasions during the last three or so decades. How many potential revolutions are the rest of us going to miss now that Steve Jobs has gone the way of the dinosaurs?

Image by tsevis, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Historic Day

Let history remember that today was the day my four year old son received his first ever explanation on evolution's course, and that the explanation came in the shape of the following clip from Carl Sagan's Cosmos:

Let the record also show Spotify is to blame for us getting to matters of evolution. We were listening to my favorite Vangelis tune, Alpha, when my son commented how boring it is; in retaliation I had to show him exactly why that music carries so much weight with me. Hence Cosmos.
By the way, over the last couple of days we have been discussing what metals are and where they come from (supernovas), compared to what plastics are and where these come from. I got to the point where explaining about the nature of the atom and how one element differs from the other seems the natural way to progress the discussion. Not that my four year old understands too much; I consider the general exposure the most important thing. Plus it's fun: it's fun to hear the questions and it's even more fun to think the answers up and try to present them in a comprehensible manner.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Australia Joining the Club

piracy is a crime

File this under breaking news, literally: According to Delimiter, Australia is about to join the prestigious club of countries where copyright holders are filing mass pretend law suits against collections of IP addresses from which they allege their contents was downloaded via bit-torrent.
The massive lawsuit phenomenon has been going on for years now in countries like the UK but especially in the USA. It works this way:
  1. The copyright holder, usually a porn company or a frustrated movie studio, decides they need the extra cash. They contact an external company specializing in bit-torrent lawsuits.
  2. That company, usually a small time company that calls itself a law firm, uses the services of another technology company to collect the IP addresses from where their contents is being downloaded via bit-torrent. That information is rather easy to collect: all they need to do is take part in the peer to peer action themselves (that is, join the downloading).
  3. With the IP addresses at hand, they can now contact the ISPs in charge of these addresses and ask for the personal details of the real people or companies behind them.
  4. Currently, there is nothing that forces the ISPs to comply with providing the details. It actually takes a lot of effort for the ISPs to comply. It therefore looks like the copyright holders are planning to provide the ISPs with some incentive to forward user details.
  5. The company running the show can now use another law firm to send threatening letters to the alleged downloaders, asking them to pay a settlement fee (the USA average is $3000) or go to court.
  6. At this point the alleged downloader is expected to pay, giving the copyright holder their extra cash.

For the moment I will ignore the issue of whether allegations based on an IP address are meaningful (e.g., lots of different people can use a single wifi network, especially at an office or a library and especially as it is perfectly legal to run an open, non encrypted, wifi network); that is a matter for the courts to decide. Another matter that should be in the courts' court is the ongoing lawsuit filed by American copyright stakeholders against iiNet and its effect on ISPs' behavior. What I do want to point out is that this whole mass lawsuit affair is not designed to ensure justice is done, but rather as an additional revenue stream.
The companies behind the threat letters do not want to go to court. All they want is to threaten people enough to scare them into paying the settlement fee, a fee that is significantly lower than the cost of defending oneself at court and winning. Cases that do get to court tend to stagnate there for years, and as far as I know other than lawyers hardly anyone gets to see actual money out of them (if at all). In other words, these companies abuse a shortcoming of our justice system – that is, the extreme cost of defending oneself at court, including justifiably defending oneself at court – in order to make money. In other words, we are dealing here with leeches.
If you are after further evidence for the leech factor look no further than the guise of secrecy behind the process. The companies dealing with the lawsuits like to keep themselves in secrecy and maintain the processes through which they acquire IP addresses and personal details from ISPs quietly behind closed doors. However, they have no secretive inhibitions when it comes to holding the private information of the real people behind the IP addresses.
While none of the discussion thus far is unique to Australia, there is something in Australia that makes these mass threat letters campaigns worse than in other countries. Australia severely lacks legal alternatives to bit-torrent piracy: movie releases are severely staggered here, both at the cinemas and upon DVD or Blu-ray release; and facilities for legal downloads are incredibly rare and usually non existent. There is no Netflix equivalent service for videos here, nor is there a Spotify or a Rhapsody for music.

What can one do about this threat of receiving potentially legal extortion letters?
It is extremely hard to avoid all forms of copyright infringements. As discussed here in the past, each time you forward an email without asking for the explicit right to do so you are breaching copyrights; the fact of the matter is, copyright legislation is so twisted and convoluted, especially in the direction of the powerful copyright lobbies, that you can only try to reduce the risk of being picked upon.
The easiest answer to the above question of threat mitigation is to stop pirating. Now, before you go on saying “well that’s bloody obvious”, please consider the repeated surveys that indicate around a third of Australia’s adult population openly admits to having illegally downloaded material off the Internet. Look around you: many if not most of the people you see have committed Internet piracy. The majority of the rest of them probably settle for buying illegitimate DVDs during their last holiday to Bali.
The more complicated answer is to stop downloading newly released films and porn, the two areas where the majority of the threat letter campaigns come from. There are also the various options of keeping oneself downloading under relative anonymity (e.g., the use of various proxy servers or VPN services).
Then again, quitting your Internet piracy now or hiding your personal trail would still be exposed for downloads you’ve made in the past.
If you do get a threat letter, I would advise contacting EFA (Electronic Frontiers Australia) and EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation). EFF has a reputation of helping people out in such circumstances, and although American based they may like to prevent nasty precedents in Australia; EFA has local know-how.
What should you do even if you do not receive a threat letter? Well, you could consider joining EFA and/or EFF and support the causes they stand for. To quote from EFF, you should "champion the public interest in every critical battle affecting digital rights".

Image by orangeek, Creative Commons license

Sunday, 2 October 2011

The Successful Experiment

"Heinz, you now see, what I see."

A few months ago I reported how my Israeli parents finally took the plunge and got themselves a computer. Following my advice, which relied on their total computer illiteracy and their lack of confidence with the English language, they got themselves an iPad. The iPad not only delivered them an as simple as it gets computing platform, it also delivered them their Internet connection through its 3G capability. Through one small 10” tablet, my parents now have themselves a portal to the great big virtual world.
One of the primary reasons my parents wanted a computer was to be able to have video calls with us Aussies through Skype. As if by coincidence, Skype released its dedicated iPad app just a couple of weeks before I arrived at Israel for a visit (and for setting my parents’ iPad up). Since our return to Australia a couple of weeks ago we had several Skype video chats; my parents also had similar chats with my brother.
Based on our limited experience thus far it already seems as if the iPad is a great success story. Having a video connection makes a huge difference in numerous ways. For a start, my four year old is now seeing his grandparents on a regular basis; in contrast, upon our arrival to Israel less than a month ago but during the pre-iPad age they were, effectively, total strangers. What’s more, connecting to his grandparents from the familiar environment of our home seems to make him more confident: it works better, at least by him. There are other advantages: English to Hebrew language barriers are more easily broken when video is added on top of the audio of a regular phone call.
I know it sounds odd, but I even feel as if I have talked to my parents more over the last couple of weeks through Skype than I did during the couple of weeks I was there. I believe the reason is simple: when Skyping, everyone feels obliged to talk; during our physical visit my parents were more inclined to do whatever it is they normally do when we’re not around (oddly enough, that last observation applies to my parents in law just the same).
My own experience was duplicated with my brother. He reported helping my father throughout the entire weekend’s crossword over Skype. Quality time with our parents never came better than this, and I am saying that in total seriousness.
Expanding the discussion away from the scope of my parents and I, it is interesting to note that other members on the English side of my family have tried video Skying with us in the past. They all encountered technical difficulties here and there and quickly gave up on the idea. The lesson I take from this is simple: Apple should do more to push its iPad on people who are not that technically inclined. If it takes an iPad for the non geeks out there in order to be able to properly video Skype then sell them iPads, damn it!
If anything, Apple should definitely try to offer the iPad as a simple and safe computing alternative for the elderly. They won’t do it, out of fear of ruining their cool image, but they should.

Having done Apple the privilege of identifying new market segments it can sell to, let me point out one market segment it probably won't be selling to in the near future.
My experience of setting my father’s iPad up made me realize one simple truth. An iPad is a nice gadget, and I would happily buy one for $100 or so; but for anything other than that I simply do not want one.
I can explain my position with two arguments. First, an iPad is a contents consumption device whereas I spend a lot of my computing time creating contents. Contents creation means one needs more sophisticated features than the iPad offers, as well as a good keyboard.
Second, most of my contents consumption time is spent through heavy browsing: multiple tabs open here and there, quick skipping between this tab and the other, some Flash action, with music playing through Spotify/Pandora/Grooveshark/some Internet radio station all the while. The iPad’s offerings in this department are severly limited compared to what any of my Linux (and even Windows) running PCs can offer.
An iPad is ultra portable, but it’s not for me.

Image by spieri_sf, Creative Commons license

Saturday, 1 October 2011

The Business of Shoes

business shoesThe other day saw 48.8mm of rain falling on Melbourne. At the physical level I got wet on my way home from work, but mentally I wasn't phased. I had my raincoat and umbrella with me, like I [almost] always do. The catch, however, was that I was wearing my Timberland boots, which meant I could get home with dry feet.
I suspect keeping one’s feet dry qualifies as one of this world’s least appreciated acts. I find dry feet make a whole of a lot of a difference: wet feet make me feel cold and miserable; with dry ones I couldn’t care less about the weather.
The question is, what was I doing wearing boots to work? Am I not supposed to be wearing business shoes to work?
Funny you should ask. Thing is, upon returning from our month long round the world holiday, I found that while I was fine wearing my business shoes around the office I wasn’t fine at all walking with my business shoes. I found that my daily half hour walk between the train station and the office turned into literal pain when those flat and non ergonomic shoes came in place of the comfy shoes I wore throughout the holiday. Given I'm generally pain averse, I started using proper shoes for the walking bits, leaving my business shoes behind at the office.
The real question is why do we do this to ourselves. Why do we wear business shoes in the first place instead of more functional shoes?
I have already discussed Aussies' love affair with wearing suits as an instrument through which perceived authority is deemed to be acquired. It seems to me that business shoes serve a similar need. Pulling that line of thought further, it seems as if Australians have a major need to dress the part in order to feel the part: it is as if the average Aussie is afraid of behaving like the alcohol consuming addict he/she tends to be outside of work, with only their business apparel to keep them on the leash inside work. I’m rather sad to find myself living amongst people who so totally rely on their clothing to dictate acceptable codes of behavior.
Then again, the problem extends much further than that. How often do we see women whose toes are totally twisted from years of wearing narrow shoes? Or, for that matter, women wearing high heels? If business clothing arrises from the need to establish behavior codes and authority, women’s impractical clothing stems from much stronger sexual drives.
In short, as modern as we think we are, we are slaves to the animals within us. Your shoes know all about it.

Image by nitecruise, Creative Commons license