Wednesday, 30 November 2011


dont afraid to lose your weightBreakthrough was finally achieved and I managed to lose a noticeable amount of kilos of my weight. I don’t doubt for a second that fluctuations would occur on my quest to weigh as much as I should weigh in some sort of an ideal but imaginary world.  I would gain weight back before I lose more; after all, I live in the real world, surrounded by real food, and I have been known to have a physical activity phobia.
That said, I consider it important to report how my successful weight reduction took place. You see, I’ve use this revolutionary technique that no one ever thought of before:
  1. I exercise, and
  2. I eat less.
More constructively, I would like to mention that me and exercising only manage to go along together due to the EA Sports Active 2 game on the Wii. The game has its annoying points, but between allowing me to exercise in my own living room, without weights and other special gizmos I generally dislike, and in the company of my four year old instead of the Schwarzenegger look-alikes that plague the common gym, it simply works for me. More often than not I actually enjoy the exercising – especially when my son joins in the action.
I would also like to mention that eating less proved sort of manageable not by eating fewer types of food or skipping meals, but simply by eating a bit less each time I do eat. It seems to work through a cunning trick: once I get used to eating a bit less every time I eat, my stomach starts considering that lesser amount as normal; it does not feel like I’m eating less anymore, but rather as if I’m eating just fine. Which goes to show you can use tricks of the mind to fool your own mind.
Next week I will probably be here again to tell you how I put this allegedly lost weight back.

Image by SiroGraphy, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Blinded with Science

mad scientistIf you were to ask my four year old what he would like to do when he’s an adult, the answer you’re probably going to get is “a scientist”. Of course, given that you are dealing with a small child you can get virtually any answer you want out of him, but generally speaking scientist is his answer.
Since I can claim at least partial responsibility there, I am rather proud. I already used the “I want to be a scientist” weapon to convince my otherwise take-after-his-father lazy son of the need to know how to count; it worked rather well.
I severely doubt my son will ever become a scientist. First, I have no idea whether he has the qualities to become one or whether the will he's displaying now will sustain. Second, it takes a lot of hard work. Third, and most critically, our society does not encourage people to become scientists. Footballers, yes, but scientists – no.
I can only bask in my momentary success, which shows quite clearly how parents can exert influence over their children through the subtlest of things. I never preached science to my son; I just let him watch Bad Universe. Perhaps the most notable way for me to demonstrate this effect that parents can have is to point out that when I was my son’s age, I wanted to become a garbage truck driver.

Image by dzingeek, Creative Commons license

Monday, 28 November 2011

That's Sweden

My son and I were watching the adventures of the Swedish Chef on YouTube when he asked what "Swedish" means.
"Sweden", I explained, "is where The Pirate Bay is from."

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Hot Summer Games

If you are thinking of creative ways to spend the upcoming summer holidays, allow me to narrow the choice for you by identifying the video games I am going to be looking out for. The three I covet the most are:
  1. Elders Scrolls V - Skyrim: Because it seems that finally my yearning for a proper D&D like experience with my gaming console can finally be fulfilled.
  2. Call of Duty - Modren Warfare 3: Because it's a Call of Duty game. And because it's a Modern Warfare game. And because nothing can pump me with adrenaline within the confines of my living room like Call of Duty Modern Warfare game.
  3. The Legend of Zelda - Skyward Sword: Probably the last great game to be released for the Wii.
In general my policy is to wait for prices to relax and come down before I open my wallet for a video game, which for the above three will tend to happen by mid February. After all, these big name games are released ahead of the Christmas season for a reason, a reason I don't really care much for.
However... I am going to make an exception with Zelda (I already did; Ozgameshop already has my order): It seems pretty clear this one is a special game, a game that revolutionizes the world of video gaming as we know it. It also seems a pretty good game for me to play along in the company of my four year old. Yes, he's probably too young for the whole experience, but I think we'll manage to have great fun. We were both fascinated watching the game previews alone!
In case you have your doubts concerning the qualities of Zelda, allow me to refer you to IGN's review:

As for the future behind those three titles? I predict that next year I will be doing a lot of business in downtown LA...

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Weekend Agenda

This weekend's calendar looks like this:

  • Saturday morning - swimming lessons.
  • Saturday afternoon - kinder orientation session.
  • Sunday afternoon - birthday party for a kinder friend.

As I said in this forum before, my advice to would be parents is simple: Take your time!

Friday, 25 November 2011

Bang: Science Books for the Preschooler

Getting to the point where I could no longer bear reading Monkey Truck to my son again I embarked on buying him some new books. I think we did well, especially in the originality department: The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man is a great superhero book for kids (I thoroughly enjoyed it myself!); and the Mad Magazine based Spy vs. Spy allows my four year old to read a book by himself for the first time ever. At least on paper, because it is surprising how much one needs to bring with them into the comics reading experience in order to be able to understand it, even if that particular comics does not have any text to read.
Of the books I bought my son, the ones that interested me the most are the science books. Yes, one can put one’s hand on science books that would make a four year old happy! The first example is Ankylosaur Attack by Daniel Loxton, a dinosaur book that aims to describe dino action in a manner as close to what science predicts as possible. At first our four year old was intimidated by the t-rex coming in to eat the goodies, but once he realized there’s a happy ending he was alright (note I am working under the assumption it’s OK for me to provide bloopers on children’s books in this forum).
The second example is a proper non-fiction popular science book for kids: Bang! How We Came to Be by Michael Rubino attempts to pull the same trick that Richard Dawkins pulled in his award winning Ancestor’s Tale. It does it in reverse order to Dawkins’, and it does it with children in mind: it starts with the Big Bang and progresses through the evolution of the universe to the evolution of life on earth, up to the point it gets to us humans. It is quite detailed; I would put my money on 98% of the world's population not knowing half the things the book says, so you can argue this one is a kids’ science book that parents can learn from just the same. It features too many words I had a problem with myself, most notably the names of various species; the language, too, is probably too articulate for the book’s target audience (unlike Dawkins, who pulled things off extremely well on his The Magic of Reality). Complaints aside, Bang! is a great book and at least our four year enjoys it thoroughly.
The idea of putting the information in Bang! in the hands and brains of my four year old is interesting. I doubt he is able to digest the full meaning of the evolutionary story (can I?), but he does seem to be able grasp the idea that all life upon this earth is related even if his focus is mostly on the more exotic life forms described by the book. Most interesting is the fact it does not seem to bother him at all that us humans have evolved from ancestors that were apes, and before that ancestors that looked like various shrews, fish, amoebas etc. Unburdened by the need to feel special regard for humans, it doesn’t take any effort at all to make him happily accept evolution as fact.
This unquestionable acceptance begs the question of whether me supplying my child with popular science books on evolution is any different to another parent supplying their child with books about, say, the Noah’s Ark myth and passing them on as the truth. Aren’t both acts different manifestations of the same act of indoctrination?
The short answer is: no.
The longer answer is that there is this thing called “the truth”. Bang! tells the truth the way evidence tells it; Noah’s Ark is a fable that sees no evidence supporting it, and actually has tons and tons of evidence contradicting it. These start from the fact the story was copied by the Israelites from earlier origins to its numerous factual contradictions with the world we see before our eyes today (e.g., how did koalas make it all the way to Australia, and why didn’t they leave some evidence of their trek behind). There simply is no way a honest person can accept the Noah’s Ark story as the literal truth.
On the other hand, who am I to know whether evolution is true? I’m a nobody; but I am smart enough to realize I need to call on the help of experts in this matter, and the experts are unanimous to a degree that makes me more than comfortable to accept the theory of evolution for what it is: an elegant and incredibly sensible explanation for why we’re here, that just happens to imply our ancestors looked a lot like the apes we see today in the zoos. If I wasn't to accept the experts advice on evolution then by the same token I should not be accepting mobile phone technology or intercontinental flight; after all, they were all the results of the same scientific method. Personally, I find the theory of evolution much more attractive than the one that has humans as the pinnacle of creation.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Books: An Alternative Reality

Back when our son was born, friends of ours lent us a book called Sleep Right Sleep Tight. The book informs readers on the science of sleep and suggests ways to instil a sleep regime with your baby in a manner that would enable parents to lead a normal life. In retrospect, we found the book to probably be the most helpful single parent support resource in our career as parents.
We liked the book so much that we bought several copies to friends having their first babies, in the hope they’d get as much of it as we did. The result is that the title, for which we never paid when used by us, ended up making numerous sales by virtue of us knowing of its existence. By borrowing a book for free, we created more sales for the book than it would have otherwise had.
Imagine, if you will, what would have happened instead at this alternative universe where ebooks, as we know them today, are the only form of books available. Remember my friends that lent us their copy of the book? They wouldn’t be able to do so; it would be illegal for a start and DRM will probably prevent them from doing so even if they didn’t mind bending the law. In turn, we would not know of the book and our parenting (and sleep) would be hurt. Most notably, the publishers themselves would be hurt because they wouldn’t be making all those extra sales based on our word of mouth, my public book review, and us buying copies for our friends. Everyone’s a loser in this scenario!
Yet this scenario is exactly the one our real world publishers are driving at. Unless you put on your pirate hat and remove the DRM off your Kindle books, you cannot lend your ebooks to your friends. Actually, much worse things can happen: publishers like Penguin can insist on preventing you from using your ebooks the way you wanted to, even ordering Amazon to pull the previously purchased ebooks off people’s readers (see here). Talk about ways to make the public embrace ebook technology!
As my not so hypothetical alternate world example demonstrates, book publishers are clearly out of touch with the needs of their readers (read: the people on whose money they depend). What happened to “the customer is always right”? Not only that, book publishers are oblivious to the damage they are inflicting on themselves: they may lose money when I borrow a book rather than buy it, but they lose even more when I don’t hear about the book in the first place and don’t buy copies for my friends.
It’s time publishers wake up to the fact that book borrowing is not theft. It is a habit ingrained to the very fabric of our culture as cooperative human beings. Instead of fighting it, publishers should embrace it! Publishers lose much more money through people not knowing of their products in the first place than they do at the hands of pirates; if anything, pirates boost the word of mouth effect and boost sales.
Instead of punishing us with DRM that can be overridden anyway, one way or another, they should work to give us a product we’d be happy to pay for. It is not that hard; they’ve done it for decades if not centuries with that thing called “books”.

Image: Sleep Right Sleep Tight

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

The Truth, The Whole Truth

Last night’s 7:30 Report on ABC had a story that was bad enough to trigger rants on Twitter (sorry, at the time of writing they did not put the story on their website). I feel obliged to join and explain how, in my opinion, the reason for this story’s failure is the view rampant in today’s society that claims truth is a relativistic term. Allow me to explain.

The story was about communities’ fight against telcos as the latter tried to erect cell towers in their area, in particular around the vicinity of a Hobart school. They had worried mothers interviewed, they had a guy waving some sort of a meter to show how radiation rises threefold when in the vicinity of a cell tower, and they had a scientist say that thus far there is no proof for cell phones or cell towers having negative effects on people’s health. The story’s problem was it giving the same weight to the guy waving the meter and showing three times more radiation as it gave the well researched scientist. Three times nothing is still nothing, but by ABC’s account it could well be something.
Indeed, we’ve seen this film (or news report) before. Every time there is some sort of a discussion on matters of global warming, our public broadcaster insists on bringing some loudmouthed twat with totally unrelated credentials at best and give their say just as much weight as it gives the calm, and too often not that well spoken, scientist. It’s all in the name of showing the two sides of the story and providing an appearance of objectivity; but is that truly the case? Are both sides truly equal?
In matters of global warming the evidence is pretty clear; I won’t even try to pretend the deniers have any argument worth countering up their belt. The story is not too dissimilar with mobile phones, though: despite their wide use for much more than a decade now there has been no measurable rise in cancer rates. The energy transmitted by the phones is far less than the energy hitting brain cells stricken by visible light (yes, you read that right). The cacogenic effects of cell phones have been classified at the same level as coffee drinking. And the effect of the heat coming off mobile phones is meaningless when discussing the potential dangers of cell towers. (I've discussed all these arguments already, here). I’m not saying there are no potential risks from mobile phone technology; I’m saying that we do not know of such yet and I’m saying we should research the matter.
We cannot behave as if a danger already exists when we have no idea what it truly is. No one, not even the reports’ worried mothers, is saying we should rid ourselves of mobile phones. Therefore, by relocating cell towers away but still using mobile phones we are forcing the devices to emit more energy in order to maintain communication with the faraway towers. Isn’t that a more significant threat?

The point I am trying to make is not about the virtues of global warming or the safety of mobile phone usage, but rather about the idea of truth as a subjective matter. Well, it isn’t: the objective truth does exist, and if we pretend there is no such thing we are putting ourselves in great danger. For example, if you were to choose not to believe in evolution, for example, you’re putting yourself on the delusional side of things by virtue of the ample evidence supporting evolution. The same goes for the moon landing, global warming or cell phone usage: evidence matters!
Ignore the evidence and you will find yourself in a backwards world where medicine suffers (due to lack of understanding on matters of evolution), communication suffers (no cell phones), and civilization as a whole is at the brink of collapse (global warming). However, the best method for demonstrating the haziness of the subjective truth’s point of view is taking things to the other extreme: if anything and everything can be true, then why not doubt the existence of, say, Napoleon (to quote Richard Dawkins' favorite example)? After all, no one alive can claim to have seen him; he could be a fabrication.
There is a very slippery slope here. Thus far, the scientific method has proven itself to be the only mechanism we can conjure to help us separate truth from crap. We need to embrace and support it; giving equal say (or more) to every opinion out there regardless of evidence is not the right way about it. We need to discriminate, and we need to do so based on evidence. Of all the media in Australia, the 7:30 Report, prestige and all, should have known better.

To finish on a high note, here is Tim Minchin’s view on the matter.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Being God

Because I don’t spend enough quality time with computers I’ve decided to climb a new [computing] tree. Actually, it’s an old tree I haven’t climbed upon for years.
Back when personal computers entered my life, shortly after the Atari 2600 did, computer programming was one of the main feats one was expected to perform on their computer. In fact, my choice of first proper personal computer was made by virtue of it having a decent version of the Basic programming language: it was Microsoft Basic for the Dragon 32 computer (a British computer that was otherwise the same as the TRS-80), and it beat the hell out of the primitive Basic available on the otherwise superior Commodore 64.
I did a lot of programming on my Dragon. I did some fooling around with graphics, creating all sorts of patterns; I manually typed in programs from books, mainly games; I programmed games of my own. I even wrote some machine code / Assembly for the Dragon’s Motorola 6809 processor!
However, as computers became more sophisticated the need to write one’s own programs waned. Eventually it got to the stage where I did not even have the tools to write my own programs anymore. With some exceptions at the office and at uni, I stopped writing my own programs on a regular basis as of high school graduation.
I miss it, though. I miss things like being able to solve math riddles, the type that occasionally appear on the weekend papers, using my computer’s brute force and a short ad hoc piece of code. I miss that ability to relate to what I normally see on my computer screen by virtue of understanding how it all works behind the scenes. I miss that feeling of having an intelligent being, a computer, execute my commands to the letter – for better or worse (usually the latter). I miss being god.
So I thought I’d remedy the situation and have a bit of a play in the process. Following Cory Doctorow’s recommendation in Little Brother, I had my eye on Python as a modern day coding language I can easily have a play with. Then Twitter friend @piecritic (aka Brendan Molloy) referred me to Learn Python the Hard Way and Software Carpentry to act as my teachers.
I had a look and quite liked the style of The Hard Way. Its obvious bias towards Linux/Mac did help: I liked the way it spends a lot of space explaining how to set Python up on Mac and Windows, but then settles Linux in only five lines while mentioning that if you’re using Linux you know what you’re doing anyway… It may be a geek’s joke, but it’s pretty accurate: Ubuntu comes ready for Python action right out of the box, and all you need to learn is how to start your terminal. Which you should know already...
Thus I found myself last night doing that famous Hello World variation program. Actually, it a much less politically correct variation to the one I first did several decades ago as a little child. Back then, my uncle drove to a special university facility with mainframe terminals that had us waiting 15 minutes to see the result printed on a piece of paper.
It was cool then and it’s cool now. I’m looking forward to introducing my four year old to the virtues of being a god!

Image: Learn Python the Hard Way

Monday, 21 November 2011

Sum of All Fears


Our attitude to death is one of the indicators for the various flaws of our Western culture. We are brought up to mostly ignore the existence of one of this world’s biggest certainties, to simply pretend it does not exist. Then, when the inevitable happens and it hits us, we don’t know what to do. I need only look at myself and my immediate family to see that.

Death hit me properly for the first time 15 years ago through my uncle. He was no ordinary uncle: in many ways he overshadowed my parents throughout my childhood. My parents were the ones that got me dressed up and ready for school, but he was the one who bought me my first proper books and who took me to the cinemas. Amongst other achievements, my uncle bought me my first ever science fiction book (Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey), took me to see my first ever proper cinema experience (The Empire Strikes Back), and got me the book that probably carries the burden of blame for my world views (Broca’s Brain by Carl Sagan). More importantly, it was my uncle who was the family’s skeptic; without him I would have probably been an entirely different person. So yeah, my uncle was important to me.
For as long as I remember my uncle had an ongoing dispute with cancer. Fifteen years ago he got to the point where his doctors told us that he has up to two months left to live, more likely two weeks. What I remember from that experience was the way we dismissed the information: it couldn’t happen; after all, my uncle didn’t seem that bad, did he? But he was, and two weeks later he was dead.
The thing that still annoys me about it is that as a direct result of living in a society that pretends death does not exist I did not get to have a proper farewell with this uncle that gave me so much. My dismissal of the doctor’s news, boosted by the way the whole family dismissed it, was coupled to my sheer ignorance of not realizing the meaning of death. It was not the ignorance that comes when you simply don’t know something, the way I am ignorant about, say, baseball; it was the ignorance that comes from not wanting to know in the first place.

Fast forward to modern times, and it seems that history might repeat itself soon. Now it’s my father who is on the line.
Don’t get me wrong: he is not dead or dying yet. However, over the last year there was a pattern of health failures, and at his advanced age it is clear there is no going back. It may take a good few years before the inevitable happens, and I hope death takes its time, but it is clear that the distance between where my father is and death has severely shrunk. Shrunk enough to bring back all those fears I have developed 15 years ago: I might have learnt my lesson, but would I be able to have it any different now that I live some 24 hours away by jet?
It is not easy to just drop everything in Australia and quickly board a plane to Israel, where my parents live. It costs a lot of money, it requires coordination with work, it means leaving my wife and child behind, and there is always the uncertainty of not knowing how long this all affair would take. Death, it seems clear, is nasty business.
One annoying thing I find is that while I have grown to be able to stare death in the face, name it for what it is and even pass jokes on its behalf, the openness I am displaying does not apply to the rest of my family. With the way they are behaving it feels as if they’re all planning on immortality. As in, I have no idea how my mother expects to be able to manage her finances without my father. That is something I find even scarier than death itself: the latter is inevitable and certain, but the former is basically a shroud of uncertainty that has been proven to ruin the lives of the living. You know, the people’s whose lives still matter after the dust settles.
I have to add that I have another fear to add to this equation, one that I am not too proud of: the fear of Israel. I don’t like Israel and I don’t make much of an effort to hide the fact; why else would I leave it? However, a death in the family means that I will have to go back to Israel, and for an uncertain while I will have to do some organizing and arranging. In other words, I will have to be an Israeli again, if only for a limited period. And I hate that and I would do a lot to avoid doing it.
My Israeli friends have already picked up on this fear of mine; they enjoy making jokes on my behalf. The funny thing about my fear of Israel is that it only seems to apply before I go there. Once at Israel I’m fine, but on the way there I keep wondering what wars and calamities will befall the country just as I drop for a visit. A death in the family is obviously much worse than just coming over for a family visit, though, so there is more chance for this phobia to rear its head.
For now, all I can do is to try and get both myself and the rest of the family ready to deal with whatever is likely to happen. Alas, I’m quite sure all the various inhibitions we grew up on will prevent the us from achieving much.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Two Way Verification

This week’s Livewire in The Age is devoted to matters of Internet security, so I thought I’d drop in a tip of my own and recommend you start using Google’s 2 step verification. That is, assuming you hold an account with Google; is there anyone out there that doesn't?

First things first: what is Google’s 2 step verification?
Normally, we log in to websites’ private facilities using a password. Philosophically speaking, a password represents something you know but no one else does.
What Google’s 2 step verification adds to this process is the enhanced security of not only using something that only you are supposed to know, but also something that only you are supposed to physically have. In Google’s case they use your mobile phone, an item the majority of us carries on our selves all the time.
When logging in to a Google account where 2 step verification has been enabled, you start by entering your account name and password as usual; however, instead of that being it, you are then called upon to enter a secret code. That code is SMSed to your phone, for free, by Google. You can only access your Google account if you enter both your password and the code you picked off your phone.
The process is made slightly smarter for owners of smartphones. Google supplies a free app that does not require Internet connectivity and which churns out secret codes by the minute (valid for only a minute each), codes that you can use to access your Google account instead of the SMS. Google also provides a list of ten backup codes you can print in order to access your account when/if your phone is dead/lost.
Put together, this means your Google account is not compromised even if someone picks on your Google password. I call that a great security measure, and I commend Google for coming up with this scheme and for supporting its implementation at no cost to us users. It reminds me of the Google I used to look up to some ten years ago, before its “do no evil” slogan became a joke.
Note there are some complexities to the process. For example, using the above process to authenticate the Gmail app on your smartphone is not the most practical affair ever. To support these cases, as well as other examples like accessing your Gmail via Outlook, the Google 2 step verification process would help you generate application specific passwords you enter once per each such unique instant. I can see this being more than a bit of a pain to IT averse people like my parents, but I still recommend going through the motions. The added security is well worth the price, particularly when you’re relatively IT illiterate and not fully aware of the traps that are out there for your virtual identity.
You can also hear it straight from the horse's mouth:

Google 2 step verification can be enabled by logging into your Google account, clicking your name at the top right, and then selecting the Account settings option. The 2 step verification option would appear under the security menu; clicking that would allow you to initiate the process as well as provide you with links to various help screens.
Overall, I highly recommend using 2 step verification. The extra awareness gained by the process alone is well worth the admission price.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Kicking the Dead Blog

It is often said that a person returning from travel is not the same as the person who first embarked on the travel. One basic example is me.
A few months ago I announced my intentions to start a new blog before my friends, a blog dealing with the realistic side of parenthood. That is, a blog where you won’t be able to read that the birth of my child was the happiest moment of my life (conception was much more fun; during the birth itself I was tired after two sleepless nights in a row, and seriously worried for my wife); nor would you have been able to read that parenthood is as rewarding as an unexplored gold mine.
I had plans for this blog. For a start, I built it in WordPress, with the intention of learning a new (for me) blogging system that also happens to be a much more powerful web publishing tool than Google’s Blogger is. The blog was meant for me to hone my skills at writing I can try and sell later. Adopting a serious approach, I drafted some posts with ideas and highlights.
Then I went on a month long overseas trip, and four countries later I came back home feeling as if writing about parenthood, or at least seriously writing about parenthood, is the last thing on my mind. I suspect this was the result of two factors:
  1. Drowning in the very pleasurable task of processing the 27GB of photos and videos I took during on the trip. I’m enjoying it, but it takes ages and consumes too much of my post blogging spare time.
  2. The realization that, generally speaking, there are topics I am much more interested in discussing than parenthood. Things like gadgets, the Internet, or civil liberties in the context of the virtual world are all things I tend to get much more excited about.
The question would eventually go back to where and how I see myself starting to write stuff I can offer for publication. Perhaps I will find, eventually, that writing about parenthood is the way for me to put a foot in the door. In the mean time, though, I declare my previously declared parenthood blog dead.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

I'm the Tux Man

Linux 'Tux' Tattoo With not even a single day of Mac ownership under my belt, I was already asked whether I am now going to turn into an Apple snob (aka fanboy) and boast/gloat my Mac ownership around. I’m insulted.
Yes, I will continue saying what I have said here before: In my humble opinion, the MacBook Air is the best piece of computer hardware ever. That is because it is the ultimate netbook: it’s small, light, incredibly usable, incredibly portable, but it still performs like a proper contemporary PC. Plus it’s got a keyboard that lights in the dark, I mean – what else can you ask for, a computer that wipes your butt?
But with all due respect to Apple, the late Jobs, Mac fans everywhere, and my new NetBook Air: I am, as I have been for several years now, a loving advocate of the open source way. Me, an Apple fanboy? You’ve got to be joking. I am Linux through and through!

P.S. I’m hereby declaring the trademarking of the term NetBook Air.

Image by rbieber, Creative Commons license

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Give These People Air

We're interrupting our regular programs to announce to the world of us (as in, me) finally getting my MacBook Air. In fact, this very post is typed on this very new MacBook Air.
And what a wonderful device it is. To say it is a marvel of engineering would be an understatement; even its packaging is oozing with style, and the computer itself - thin, light and simply sexy - is pure pleasure to look at.
Yours truly is now in the process of grasping the workings of Lion. Having mastered Linux to a comfortable degree, and with all my experience elsewhere, I don't think this would be my biggest challenge ever. Indeed, thus far my Mac experience has been pretty similar to my Ubuntu one. Which, as far as I'm concerned, is great.
Now you'll have to excuse me. This child is about to embark on some play time with his new toy.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Internet, Endangered

Locked OutPerhaps we should have expected it given their whole Wikileaks fiasco, but the USA’s campaign to take away our Internet freedoms is continuing in earnest. As you are reading this, the Internet as we know it is in severe danger.

Take the court ruling announced last Friday, where a judge decreed the American Government has the right to access Twitter users’ private data without telling anyone about it. Note we only know of this in the first place because Twitter made a bit of a fuss; Google and Yahoo gave in to their government’s demands lying down.
Consider the implications of this court ruling. Any information you have on an American server is, in effect, at the hands of the American Government. Got web mail accounts, like Gmail, Hotmail or Yahoo? Got photos on the web with, say, Flickr or Picasa? Got private video clips of your baby having a bath on YouTube for the benefit of faraway relatives? Got general information on the cloud with the likes of Amazon? Are you using Apple’s new iCloud services with your iOS5 upgraded iPhone? Are you using Facebook?
The bottom line is that if you’re using the Internet you’re under the watchful eye of the American Government. I don’t have anything against the USA, but I don’t exactly welcome them to my house so they can take a look at my private stuff; them giving themselves the authority to browse my private stuff on our Internet puts them in very poor light.
The Patriot Act: ten years and counting.

An even bigger threat to the open nature of the Internet is coming from the direction of new legislation dubbed SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act), which looks destined to get rushed through the motions and become effective before Christmas.
First and foremost, the issue with SOPA is the censoring of allegedly infringing websites (allegedly being the key word). I don't think more words need to be wasted here on why such censorship is dangerous; we know that already through our experience with Conroy & Co.
One of the more interesting highlight of this proposed legislation is the financial boycotting of potentially copyright infringing businesses based on allegations alone. It would work this way: A company that doesn’t like what another company is putting on the web will be able to contact financial providers (the likes of Visa, MasterCard and PayPal) and ask them to withhold finances from the allegedly infringing company. The financial provider might ask questions, but the whole point of the law is that it doesn’t have to; in effect, these institutions would likely bend down to the powers of the greater companies out there, with whom they don’t want to mess about and risk liability. Visa is not out there to protect our rights; its aim is to create value for its shareholders! The company being blamed will therefore lose its finances, most notably without anyone actually proving it was at fault in the first place.
Think for a moment just how easily such legislation can be abused by the greater powers to suppress competition as well as dissent. This is the entire point of this legislation in the first place; after all, there are ample measures to be taken today in order to address potential copyright infringements on the web, it's just that these are too hard for Hollywood and its likes.
You may think these rules won’t affect you personally. I suspect they would, if only indirectly. Yet I suspect it would affect many of us directly in ways we can't even think about yet. Take this as an example: many of us post videos to YouTube and various services, yet a subsection of the proposed SOPA legislation puts hefty penalties on streaming copyrighted materials. Think it through: you may be put to prison in the USA for posting a video of your child’s school play, a play where they happened to have copyrighted music in the background. What a great piece of legislation this is when it makes so many of us criminals!

It's hard for me to say it, but the USA’s attitude towards privacy and civil rights stinks all the way across the Pacific. What a shame the country that brought gems such as the Declaration of Independence to this world is falling apart in such a pathetic manner.

Image by, Creative Commons license

Added on 16/11/11: You can read more about SOPA and the dangers it poses to the Internet at Boing Boing here and the EFF here.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Free Thoughts

Good Citizens Don't Think

A few mischievous thoughts have been on my mind lately, and what better place do I have than this to share them around?
  1. Why is it that we take it for granted a system that has us getting paid in return for work? Why shouldn't we be allocating resources between people based on other parameters instead? Why is it that the matter isn't even open for debate?
  2. Why is it that we live under a hierarchical social order where we elect people to rule us? Why do we need someone to rule us in the first place? Isn’t such a system just an unimaginative replacement for monarchy? Can’t we do better?
  3. Why is it that I have to get up every morning and dress up in office uniform, mingling with other similarly clad people, the majority of whom I have little in common with?
In my opinion all of the above questions are closely related subject that are effectively considered taboo. When I combine these thoughts, it seems to me as if society is purposefully rearing us to lead unhappy lives.

Image by PropagandaTimes, Creative Commons license

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Needs and Wants

One of the main things on my mind lately is the MacBook Air (as discussed here).
Thinking about it made me realize the following: I cannot say I need to have a MacBook Air. I can, however, argue with much confidence that the MacBook Air would be the best computer I can hope to have at this time. When I say "best", I am saying it is the best of the computers that suit my needs, and by a fairly wide (and, I will admit it, sexy) margin.
Thus I am facing the following dilemma: Is having the best things out there worth spending $1400 on, even if I do not truly need it?

Image: Apple

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Pale Blue Dot

Yesterday was Carl Sagan's 77th birthday. Phil Plait suggested this, Pale Blue Dot, as a worthy tribute, claiming it is one of the greatest passages ever written in English. I will argue it's one of the greatest passages ever, period.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

On Writing

DSCN0213Yesterday I hit upon this tweet that asked some interesting questions: “Can I ask all the writers out there: Why do you write? Are you driven to do it? Are you paid to do it? Can you take it or leave it? Why?”
I’m no professional. I haven’t earned anything for any of my non technical writing, but I do have quite a throughput when it comes to writing for leisure. So I thought I’d use the opportunity to discuss my creative process, maybe even providing some answers to the twitted question.

It did not occur to me till late but I always enjoyed writing. Even in school, where we were often forced to write essays, I recall enjoying the process. I don’t think I was ever incredibly good at it, but I enjoyed infusing the otherwise boring topics forced on us by our teachers with some stuff that truly excited me. For example, even in the final school exams (what you would call VCE in Victoria and what was called Bagrut back then in Israel) I plugged revolutionary ideas from Larry Niven’s Gil Hamilton stories.
Years later, post university graduation and after starting proper full time work, I would often write rather lengthy emails about all sorts of things and send them to my friends. Blogs didn’t exist back then so it was so it was all rather chaotic and maintained as a private Outlook folder, but those were the very first movie reviews I ever wrote. Just like today’s writing, they have been written for the pleasure of writing and for the benefit of consolidating my thoughts.
Eventually I joined the blog bandwagon and the records speak for themselves: I never looked back. Most of my posts receive two digit readership numbers, a minority (say, 10%) go into the hundreds, while a bare few get into the thousands. I hardly ever promote my work; obscurity, it seems, does not prevent me from marching on with my writing.
Given that hardly anyone reads my stuff, and given I don’t see a cent out of it, where does the motivation to write come from? I don’t have a proper answer for you; as I said here recently, it feels like a calling. What is clear is that I love writing: as far as personal leisure activities are concerned, writing comes over everything else, reading and playing video games included. My wife will tell you it comes over social stuff, too, although I would not totally agree there.
So why is it that I find writing so attractive? Again, I don’t have a definitive answer. It’s probably something to do with narcism, because receiving feedback and hits is always very exciting. Having an author critically address my damning review? I was so excited I couldn’t go to sleep. Simply having a friend relate to me when I’m in distress (see here for the most classic example) was the best comfort I could get. For this person, most of whose friends and cultural heritage are overseas, the contact that’s facilitated through my blogs – as flimsy and one sided as that contact is – is of great importance.
Note that when I talk about contact to my cultural heritage I don’t mean Israeli culture in particular. I am mostly referring to science fiction culture, atheist/humanist culture, the open source culture, science, technology and much much more. When I write, I’m assuming the role of a mini Asimov/Dawkins/Doctorow/YouNameIt. My writing connects me to all of those, making me feel like I am a contributing part. In other words, writing turns me from an onlooker to an activist.

There is a good reason why I maintain two separate blogs, this one for personal musings and another for reviews. In the former I can write whatever I feel like writing in whatever form I choose, whereas in the latter I have to write around the specific item I review. That is a significant difference there, which is why I enjoy the challenge of reviewing. Regardless, the writing process is pretty similar.
Most of my posts are the result of the same process. I have some question that bothers me and burns off in the side of my head. These questions can range from “why is it that this particular thing bugs me” or “what was it about this film that made me enjoy it so much”. Then, at some elusive moment when I’m doing something completely different – having a shower, waking up, falling asleep, daydreaming on the train, or pondering about a book I am reading – lightening strikes. In a few brief seconds I get this anchorman in my head dictating ideas to me. Some times he goes as far as dictating the whole post to me again and again. I tell you, that anchorman is crazy!
Usually hours pass between the time the anchorman talks and the post gets typed. That’s life for you: I can’t afford to write whenever I feel like. Some times I do, as with this post, and it shows in the rather under-cooked nature of the final result. But rare steaks are often tastier.
Usually the actual writing has to be postponed by hours if not days. Often I have so many ideas I just have to record their highlights somewhere on the cloud (love the cloud!) so I can return to them later; I would estimate less than half of those actually get returned to later. Most ideas end up returned to later that day or during the next day or two.
By the time I get to write Mr Anchorman’s ideas down I usually find that the tune that sounded so great in my head is much less so in writing. Some times I get posts that were meant portray a certain idea ending up saying something quite different, like this one that was originally supposed to be a tribute to my best friends. Other times the post comes out disjointed and lacking coherency, like this one where you might as well ask “what the hell was he trying to say in there”. Rarely do I have the time to sort things out; as most of my posting is done late at night I often prefer to simply go ahead with the show. In other words, editing is something best done before midnight.
On a positive note I will add that through the years I have been trying to add method to the art of blogging. Writing reviews does help there because it forces me to come up with worthy structures and to try and present a united front across reviews. In my opinion, my approach works: when I really make an effort, as with this review, I get my blogs' best hit post ever. Should have done better with the photo, though!

Lately I have been toying with the idea of having my writings professionally published. If anything, I think I should quit my laziness and put some big time effort into devising a proper strategy to get me out there. Not in order to make money, but rather in order to provide a foundation to my writing passion.
Make no mistake about it: writing is a passion. I devote so much thought to my writing, as poor as it is, and that energy has to come off other areas. Yes, writing comes at a cost: my devotion definitely cost me a promotion or two at work. It costs me sleep, it costs me Call of Duty rankings, and it has costs in the quality of my relationships with other people. For now, at least, I have no regrets on the matter, though, because I consider writing/blogging to be a major part of the person that I am.
If writing is what I am passionate about the most, the logical path would be to receive external recognition for that. Such recognition would signal that all the lost money and lost promotions have been rightly sacrificed.

Image by kneetobefree, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Christmas Envy

Merry ChristmasThere’s a while left till Christmas and the holiday is already getting on my nerves.
I may have not been raised under the Christmas culture but I actually like the holiday. I like the fact everyone takes some time off, I like the way it brings families together with some quality time, and I like the fact everything is winding down around that time of the year. The fact this time of the year happens to have the best weather of the year is a bonus (lucky for us Southern Hemisphereans), which means that my family and I can celebrate our own version of Christmas and have fun together.
My quarrel is with a specific group of people that can be characterized by the following indicators:
  1. They are Christians believers.
  2. They truly believe the holiday has some divine meaning to it, ignoring the obvious evidence that the holiday is a mishmash of traditions adopted by Christianity over the years.
  3. As a direct result of the above two, they truly believe that their way is the only way to celebrate Christmas.
  4. As a result of this belief, they try and impose their Christmas on others. Others that may not be particularly interested.
Members of this group can be easily identified through their frequent complaining on how they are being robbed of Christmas. They say they’re not allowed to celebrate Christmas anymore, and the example they usually cite is them not being allowed to say things like “merry Christmas” in public duty. These people are living the paranoid dream of having their culture robbed away from underneath their feet.
I agree with them that not being allowed to mention Christmas as Christmas is silly. It’s a holiday, it’s there on the calendar, and they celebrate it – so why not say it out loud?
The problem is that with most of these people, things don’t go round the other way. They seem unable to realize what things look like from the others’ point of view. In particular, they seem unable to realize what it is to live as a minority; they complain of being robbed, but the reality is the clear majority of Australians want to celebrate Christmas.
Want the clearest evidence for these people's inability to relate to others? Just congratulate one of these people with a “happy Ramadan”. Then quickly seek your nearest thermonuclear shelter.

Image by aussiegall, Creative Commons license

Monday, 7 November 2011

Arrgh Maties

Aye, Eye!

My wise friend Uri tends to joke on my behalf, saying that whenever I blog about not doing something he knows that this is the last step before I do it. Often enough, Uri is right, and not just because he’s wise (I consider him much wiser than I am), but mostly because the issues I blog about are also the issues I think about, and when I think of something I often realize I was wrong and change my mind. I don’t have any problems with changing my mind; it usually is quite an amusing exercise.
This post is here to tell you of one such change of heart/mind. Less than a week after I’ve explained here why despite all I have in common with them I am not about to join the Pirate Party; however, a few days later I went ahead and joined the Pirate Party. You can quote me on having changed my mind for the following reasons:
  1. The abduction of civil liberties has never been more popular than it currently is. You read about it in the news every day; check out this latest example of a Christian bleeding heart trying to defend us from the danger that is Grand Theft Auto. Extra points go to the media (Channel 7 in this particular case) for their partial and evidence lacking coverage.
  2. I am currently reading Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, a book that is about the way civil liberties are being robbed of this current generation in the name of some elusive idols. That book made me think, as it should everyone who reads it (reading is such a perilous activity!).
  3. While being a party with a narrow core has its disadvantages, it also has its advantages. It is a party where, if I ever decide I want to make a difference, I actually stand a chance of making a difference.
  4. The party’s key people seem to be genuinely nice people.

So at least for now, I am a pirate. Officially.

P.S. A question for you: How does the Caribbean branch of the party refer to itself?

Image by Cayusa, Creative Commons license

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Reasons to Be Cheerful, Part 3

This mind has been quite busy lately trying to identify reasons with which to justify the purchase of a brand new 13" Apple MacBook Air. It's a work in progress effort, but thus far I could come up with the following:

  1. Have you seen the latest MacBook Air? There's nothing out there like it.
  2. Have you held the latest MacBook Air?
  3. My netbook, on which this post is typed, is three year old now. It's fine and all and its performance is more than acceptable when running Ubuntu, but it's showing its age. It's got slight keyboard and mouse pad issues, and some times its hard drive refuses to start.
  4. In my opinion, the MacBook Air is the world's best netbook ever: it's roughly the same size (slightly bigger screen but in a slimmer package), it weighs less, and it performs a hell of a lot better.
  5. Imitation ultrabooks running Windows have started coming out, but have you seen how much they're selling for? Dick Smith has an Acer ultrabook of inferior specs that costs about the same, as well as others costing more and offer less. I suspect it's the first time ever that Apple's product is actually cheaper than the opposition.
  6. It got a very favorable review at Delimiter (yes, it's me in the comments section down there).
  7. John Scalzi has one and he often repeats his claim it's the best computer he's ever had (see here for an example). Generally speaking, Scalzi's opinion has a lot of clout with me; in this particular case I strongly suspect we're both looking for exactly the same thing in our PCs, hence I have reasons to suspect I would agree with Scalzi.
  8. For someone aspiring to be an authority on matters of personal computers and gadgetry, my lack of firsthand Mac experience is a gaping black hole. I'm familiar with various versions of Windows, Linux, Android and iOS; but not with the Macs. I should do something to remedy the situation!
  9. As I said here before, tablets are nice but they're not really the right thing for me. As PCs go, a MacBook Air is the closest PC to a tablet that would satisfy me.
That's all nice and dandy, but where am I really going ahead with buying a MacBook Air? The damn thing's expensive!
I'll put it this way: I can't say I truly need the MacBook Air. However, the minute my wife gives me the green light to go and spend the $1400 it takes to get one is the minute you will see smoke coming off my afterburner. And if you happen to hear of some Christmas sale or something at Apple, let me know!

Image: Apple

Friday, 4 November 2011

Simply the Best

IMG_0411One of the declared purposes of our recent visit to Israel was to reacquaint myself with local food, in particular the stuff you can’t get at Australia or the stuff where Australia’s offerings pale in comparison.
My Israeli friends cooperated with this theme all the way. They decided to take us on a “best of humus” tour. As the two leading humus experts of the group couldn't decide between them which of their preferred humus restaurants is the best, they took us to both of them. The first best one they took us to, located at an Arab town in northern Israel, was closed.
The other's best one, located in the old market of Acre (also known as Akka/Akko), was so crowded with people and had such large queues that we decided we will happily live without tasting Israel’s best ever humus; we moved on to eat at another, neighboring but otherwise unfamiliar, humus place. The humus was fine by me (even if two old ladies sitting at the back were smoking and even when the toilets looked like they weren't cleaned since Napoleon dropped into town for a visit).
The next day we returned to that Arab town to recheck its best ever humus. The local professionals, my friends the tour hosts, expressed their disappointment; the humus wasn’t as best as they remembered. I was quite fine: I ate two serves.
Prior to ending the tour we stopped at an Arab bakery rumoured to offer the best of Arab delights. This means the place specializes in the likes of baklava, kanafeh and kadaif. That stuff was good! We got a decent supply to take back to my parents, which didn’t last more than two hours. My mother, however, did twist her nose: the kadaif was not the best. By her reckoning we should have bought these sweets from the famous bakery at Nazareth – everyone knows it has the best ever baklava!
Personally, I don’t get this typically Israeli obsession with only having to go for “the best” or bust. In the company of my best friends any food is the best ever. Besides, who has the authority or the ability to determine what’s best in the first place? The whole affair is rumor based anyway, a matter of latest fashions. As long as I’m enjoying myself I’m perfectly happy with the stuff that’s not on everyone’s radar at the moment.
To prove my point, I went to eat at Oved’s sabich four times while we were in Israel, including a straight three days in a row hat-trick. You have to be insane not to know Oved’s is the best serving in the universe!

Image by Moshe Reuveni, the best photographer ever

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Special Discount Books

Book DepositoryYou know how you can buy cheap books at BookDepository and have them delivered to your doorstep for free, do you?
Well, you know wrong. BookDepository does not do free delivery; what it does instead is inflate the book prices it quotes you depending on the country you’re from. Given they’re a British company, you can expect the prices on offer to British users will be somewhat lower than those on offer to Aussies (the titles I checked were by around $3 cheaper).
The funny thing about it is that the discount has nothing to do with the country the books will be shipped to and everything to do with the country you’re using the BookDepository website from. For example, were my English mother in law to buy me a book and have it sent over to me at Melbourne, she will be paying less than it would cost me to order the same book and have it delivered to the same Melbourne address. It goes the other way around: if I was to buy my mother in law a book from Australia, it would cost more than it would cost her to order herself the same book.
Only that two can play in that game. If you can make yourself appear British before BookDepository’s eyes, you would also be able to enjoy the same rates offered to British users. There are ways of giving BookDepository the illusion you are British, one of which is using the services of a British VPN server to acquire a British IP address before the eyes of external lookers. It is important to note there is nothing illegal about doing so; you will only be using/abusing BookDepository’s rather eccentric mechanism for determining delivery fees. No one is preventing BookDepository from charging delivery fees that depend on shipments' destinations (the way its new owner, Amazon, does); they're doing what they're doing out of the assumption their claim of offering "free shipping" would attract extra clientele.
The VPN services through which you can acquire these postage discounts will usually cost you money, but if you order enough books you can get your money back and more.  As far as I am concerned, this VPN trick is a fine example for the way opening one's business to online scrutiny exposes all sorts of issues in business models that were designed by some ingenious marketing team.

Image by spike55151, Creative Commons license