Wednesday, 29 February 2012

The Big & Cheap TV

I shall start at the end: this past weekend we bought ourselves a new TV. This new TV of ours happens to be the largest I’ve ever bought, but surprisingly enough it’s also the cheapest I’ve ever bought. Let’s look at the details.
The need for a new TV came from two different sources. First, our existing TV has been showing its age for a while now with various color distortions over different areas of the screen, but lately the situation got to a level when the right hand side of the frame is constantly blue. Second, the rental place we recently moved to has an overabundance of natural lighting, the direct result of the landlord fitting it with the cheapest blinds ever. This meant our rear projection TV could not compete with the ambient light. During the day, TV watching ranged from strenuous to impossible; it was better to get a new TV than suffer headaches and ruin our eyesight.
Once we’ve agreed to get a new TV, the question turned to what TV we should be buying. Obviously, we need a TV that can compete with the ambient light, which rules out plasma in favour of LCD. Of the LCD TVs we preferred to focus on LED backlit ones, mainly because they tend to have better picture and they’re more environmentally friendly (LEDs consume less power than the fluorescent lights on “normal” LCD TVs). On the negative side, LEDs' backlighting is potentially dimmer than fluorescents’.
The next question was the budget one. At this moment in time, when we’re renovating/extending our house as well as renting another to live at, spending bucket loads of money on a quality TV is not at the top of our agenda. Buying any TV would overstrain our budget as it is. So we decided to opt for a cheap TV, but not any old cheap TV: we will get a TV that will, upon our return to our extended house, act as the lounge TV that serves our child as well as casual TV watching/gaming. This means that we still want the big size even though we’re looking for a cheap TV. Eventually, when we can afford it, we will get ourselves what I would refer to as a “proper” Moshe Reuveni grade TV to hook into our hi fi and watch films with the way they are meant to be watched; but not now, not when we can’t afford it. You can therefore argue that this new TV we bought represents us purchasing our future second TV.
[I will deviate a bit to say that as far as I am concerned, I would like our future “first TV”, that is – the reference grade TV – to not be a TV at all. I want it to be a projector. The likes of Sony and JVC now make 3D projectors using LCOS technology that sport magnificent picture quality – the type that would make you spit at your cinema screen in disgust – from around $4000. Coupled with installation, calibration and the cost of a decent screen we are talking about more than $6000, which is why we did not throw our old TV out. Yet.]
Having decided on the parameters of our new TV we went ahead and scanned the market for potential candidates. Eventually things came down to two models: The Kogan LED/LCD 55” that you can only buy on the Internet and can’t see in person at any shop, home delivered for around $770; and the Soniq LED/LCD 55” that JB Hi Fi (and only JB Hi Fi) sell for $870, post bargaining price. We went for the latter because of the following reasons:
  • Our poor past experience with Kogan’s deliverables (as per our Kogan tablet),
  • Our inability to assess the Kogan prior to committing to it (you’re allowed to return the product within a week, but the courier is on you),
  • The Kogan’s disadvantage in power consumption (a sure sign of cheaper components),
  • A month’s waiting time for the Kogan to be delivered,
  • And the poor history of our experience with couriers (namely us probably having to take a day off work at zero warning to be home for the courier).
So we got the Soniq, and we delivered it ourselves to our house in Our Car™, the best car in the world (mainly because it’s the only car in the world that’s ours, but also because it saved us the $55 JB Hi Fi charges for TV deliveries).
What is this Soniq brand? It actually turns out to be the same as the Kogan in the TV department. They both build TV sets based around old generation LG panels. It is important to realize there are but a few factories in this world that manufacture flat screen TV panels, much fewer than there are TV set brands. If you’re not buying from one of the big five or six, you are buying someone else’s panel (the iPad 2, for example, is fitted with an LG made LCD panel). Obviously, there is more to the TV than the panel: Sony and its likes also have sophisticated electronics and software processing your picture, all of which is lost when you buy a cheap brand.
It is therefore important to get this straight: the fact our TV is cheap is written all over it. I’m not talking about the lack of features like Internet connectivity or 3D, about which I don’t care much; I am talking pure picture quality. In fact, standing at the JB Hi Fi showroom, where I know no proper assessment of picture quality could ever be made, it was dead clear to me the Soniq is a far cry from the Sony LCD and the Samsung plasma standing next to it and projecting the same images. Sure, that Samsung was a state of the art model so comparisons are problematic, but the amount of lost details was shocking. Shocking was also the right word to describe the over-saturation on parts of the Soniq’s screen. I improved things a bit by playing with the picture settings (as with all TVs, the default is way too bright), but things still felt as if someone was splashing paint at the screen with great inaccuracy. For a moment there my feet turned cold to the point of wanting to forget we ever came up with the idea of buying a TV; that is, until my wife reminded me why we’re seeking a cheap TV set.
Back home, with the TV up and running, the Soniq doesn’t look as bad. Sure, everyone looks super tanned, but our new TV is clearly superior to our old one. Since we’re still used to that old TV’s image, whatever crap the Soniq presented us with looks amazing. I did perform basic calibration on the the Soniq's picture using reference material to set up white level (more commonly known as contrast), black level (more commonly known as brightness), sharpness (like virtually all TVs out there, the minimum setting gives the best result) and aspect ratio (I made sure we watch the whole frame, to ensure we get one to one mapping of the 1080 pixels per row in the source material on our 1080 pixel per row screen; otherwise you get the distortion that’s caused by fitting less than 1080 pixels of info on a 1080 pixles screen). I could not adjust color because I currently lack the equipment for that, but I’m working on a workaround. I also left the white color balance on its default and unnatural “cool” setting, just because the Soniq has an over tendency towards red. Professional grade calibration would obviously help (they do proper white color balancing across the range), but I don’t see the point with this inherently flawed TV that will see the bulk of its use in non reference viewing.
[Added on 3/3/12: I almost forgot to mention the very first step of TV calibration: turning off all "noise reduction" and other supposed picture enhancers offered by the TV. These are almost always up to no good, but for some reason that eludes me they are always on by default. The exception is in various schemes to reduce motion artifacts; some times they work, other times they don't.]
While you can argue with us on the merits of our purchasing decision as much as you would like, one thing you won’t be able to argue on is our new TV’s clearly displaying itself to be an edge lit LED design. You can clearly see it when the image the TV is projecting is entirely black: the edges, in particular the corners, are lighter than the center (and nothing is truly black). It’s actually the exact opposite of our old rear projection TV! These artefacts are telltale indicators for cheap LED TV implementations, because the better LED TVs have the LEDs spread across the screen rather than the edges alone. The better LED TVs also control their LEDs and turn them on and off selectively as their area is supposed to be darker or lighter, so as to increase the picture’s contrast; ours obviously doesn’t go to such lengths given that the LEDs were still firmly on even when projecting a black image.
Given our new TV’s obvious poor quality, are we happy with our purchase? At this stage I would answer with a definitive yes. We would have bought this TV eventually anyway as our second TV, and while mediocre it clearly shows the march of technology in the six years since we bought our previous TV. For gaming purposes in particular this is an excellent TV set, at least when considering value for money. Most importantly for where we are now, it is a bright TV. Very bright TV indeed. Mission accomplished, I would say.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Stressed Fingers

Day 86 :: up to no good

One of the key things I take from all those reality shows depicting how houses are being renovated is the toll the process takes on its participants. Not that I’m watching many such programs at all, but the one repeating motif with those shows is the people (usually a couple) that are armed with aspirations for what their house would be like and enough money, or so they think, to cover the work.
The emphasis has always been on those two, the plans and the money, at least when it comes to discussing our renovation plans with friends and family. Yet what I tend to pick on and care about is the personal toll. In particular I recall an episode of Grand Designs I got to watch by a fluke where the husband got a heart attack in the middle of the project even though things were going alright.
Now that we’re in the thick of our own extension I can start seeing the hidden toll, the reason for that heart attack. Between running around to sort plumbing, running in between utility companies that seem utterly useless at providing the very basic services they are here to deliver, and fitting all of these with work’s constant demands, stress kicks in. It’s not like we had much leisure time to begin with: if anything, it has become clear to me that the nemesis of contemporary life is the lack of free time.
I look back at how I grew up. We didn’t have much money, but even during the working days we would have a lot of time together as a family. People didn’t seem to work for as many hours, and after work they would totally disassociate themselves from their offices/factories/whatever; today we have the mobile phone and the Internet to keep us on the leash for the whole day (and night). Yet we still need to do the same things as before: we still need to take the kids to school, we still need to feed ourselves, we still need to shop for groceries, and we still need to do our homework. The question of how we can fit all of that into a day’s 24 hours has been the issue for us ever since we became parents, and now that we’re running a home renovation show the problem is magnified.
The result? After three years of not chewing my fingers, I am now fully back into the thick of things. It annoys me because I thought I was over it, yet I suddenly find myself with a finger in my mouth with my teeth heavily grounded in it to the point of bleeding. I don’t even know how the finger got there in the first place; it’s scary stuff.
It appears we managed to avoid most of the renovation’s chaos by moving elsewhere for the duration. However, it also appears we haven’t been able to avoid the stress.

Image by Meredith_Farmer, Creative Commons license

Sunday, 26 February 2012

The Humble Bundle

EFF, of which I am a proud member, pointed my attention at the Humble Bundle: a collection of video games written by independent developers and offered on multiple platforms at a very nice price. That is, you pay as much as you want!
Upon payment you receive an email with a link that you can use to download your games. And your games they are, because everything is DRM-less, which means you can download a game as many times as you want to whatever platform you want and you don’t even need to worry about the game messing around with your operating system (the way Sony's famously DRM did).
Supported platforms include Windows, Mac, Linux and now even Android. Given the format and the lack of DRM it is of no surprise that iOS is missing from the list of supported platforms, but I guess that’s what you pay for when you choose to enclose yourself in Apple’s secret state. On the Android side of things I can attest the one game I tried, Osmos, works very well on my wife’s Nexus S but will not install on our cheap & nasty Kogan tablet (why am I not surprised?).
As for the games themselves. Given our current ADSL woes I only dared downloading one of the bundle’s games, the aforementioned Osmos. It works brilliantly on Mac, Ubuntu and the Nexus S Android; indeed, brilliant is the word to use because it is quite a brilliant game – I would say it’s better and more original than the bulk of the stuff I get for my PS3. Being that the game is based on basic laws of physics, it carries substantial educational value, too. All this can be yours for as much as you're willing to pay!

A short but important aside, there is more to the Humble Bundle than paying as much as you want and the lack of DRM. The money you pay to access your bundle is divided between charity, the game developers, and the company running the Humble Bundle show. You, the buyer, can specify exactly how the money you’re paying is going to be divided between the three.
Piracy is often referred to by all sorts of people as a problem. The Humble Bundle and its success (it has made its creators a lot of money) are clear indications that piracy is not a problem at all but rather a symptom of a world where willing consumers are being forced with archaic business models down their throats.
I really hope the humble concept would thrive further. Lucky for us, it came to my attention my beloved Cory Doctorow is working on expanding the concept to ebooks. I wish him all the best there, because as far as I can tell the Humble Bundle encompasses in it some of the best things about human endeavour.

Friday, 24 February 2012

LED Zeppelin

As part of our ongoing home renovation/extension project, we need to come up with some sort of a lighting plan. Generally speaking, our house currently uses downlights. We like the idea and we like the lights, so we are looking to continue relying on downlights. However, there are two issues with our specific downlights implementation: our downlights have not been properly installed, which means their 12V have all sorts of issues; and the inefficient halogen lights running the show are a major generator of heat and power bills. Now that we are renovating, we want to go one better. At this moment in time, the bleeding edge is LED lighting, and this is where we see ourselves heading. The question is, what LED lighting should we get?
Go to a lighting shop, search the Internet or go to eBay, and you will find plenty of LED downlights claiming to be all conquering. However, upon seeing these lights in action one can clearly see they tend to be significantly inferior to halogen in their intensity and coverage (they only light a narrow area, leaving gaps between neighboring lights). User stories tell the tale of lights that don’t last long, either. I was close to giving up on LEDs under the assumption they are just not there yet.
Yet technology marches on at an incredible pace. A year ago, Charles Wright, who writes The Age’s Bleeding Edge column, wrote about an Australian company called Brightgreen that designs LED lighting. Brightgreen's special K factor is in its lights being both equivalent in character to halogen, and some times better, as well as being lasting. When Charles Wright writes I pay attention, so we went to Brightgreen’s website and visited some of the shops alleged to sell their stuff.
Now, I don’t know who runs the Brightgreen website, but most of the shops it referred us to told us some pretty nasty things about Brightgreen and why they don't sell their products. The picture that started to emerge is that quality LED downlights do exist from various manufacturers like, say, Osram, but they are quite expensive with street pricing of between $100 to $150 for a set (by "set" I mean the whole hardware required to install the light, installer not included).
Eventually we actually stumbled upon Brightgreen’s own lights. We saw their D900 globe, which is supposed to be the most halogen like downlight out there and then some, but I wasn’t too impressed with it: it is wider than the common downlight, which means larger holes need to be cut in the ceiling (perfectly fine, until you decide to use other brands and need to refill the hole). The D900s are also quite expensive at around $150 each. I was much more impressed with Brightgreen’s DR700 bulb (pictured above), a globe meant to act as instant replacement for your 12V halogen downlight: it’s not much dimmer than the D900, it’s conventionally sized, it’s $70, it’s dimmable, and it can work with practically any 12V transformer out there. It seemed like we have ourselves a winner.
Or do we? The next shop we went to presented us with another Aussie brand, Eco Light Up, who claims to have lights roughly as illuminative as Brightgreen’s but at about half the cost ($40) and at only 8W instead of more than 10W. What is going on here? Every shop we go to tells us a different story, and we simply have no clue as to who is right and who is the disinformation spreader.
The problem got worse when we started looking at the various lights’ official spec sheets. They all claim to be pretty much equal, luminosity wise, angle coverage wise, and longevity wise! If that is the case then we should go with the cheapest, shouldn’t we? Then again, we already know the cheapest LED lights are up to no good!

We took action. I did some research on the Internet to investigate the various claims made to us by the various salespeople. For example, one shop told us to avoid 12V lighting and go with straight 240V lights because many "young electricians" refuse to do 12V. I was hoping that through this research I could identify the salespersons who do not shy from lying, under the assumption they would also lie about the quality of their LEDs on sale.
It worked. While learning a lot about the virtues of 12V transformers (their reliability, the power wasted on them), I also learned that specific salesperson’s claim was rather dubious. 12V lighting is doing just fine in the market, it seems.
We went further and contacted both Brightgreen and Eco Light Up, asking them to explain why their downlights are better than the other’s. Brightgreen did not bother responding, but Eco Light Up’s answer took me by surprise: they told me the Brightgreen DR700 is probably the best LED light out there, but added their products are cheaper. I was thankful for the sincere reply.

Thus far I told the story of pretty much all we know about LED downlights. Given the above, how do we move ahead with our lighting plan?
It looks like we will go with the Brightgreen DR700, both as a replacement for our old halogens and for the new extension, because:
  • They won credit from Charles Wright as well as Eco Light Up.
  • We bought a sample DR700, installed it next to one of our halogens, and were quite impressed: it did provide virtually the same light output, both in intensity and spread (a tad less in both departments, but nothing close to significant).
  • It costs much more than halogen, but as far as quality LED downlights go it doesn’t cost too much. And at 10W of energy consumption (say, 12W once you add transformer inefficiencies) it will reduce our power bills and our cooling needs.
At this point I would like to note the similarities between the LED light market and the hi fi one. In both cases the market is full of cheap crap sold next to true high quality products, and in both cases the cheap crap seems to be able to come up with the specs to show that it’s just as high quality as the genuine high quality. If anything, the cheap crap is often better on paper: a lot of the budget amplifiers from the cheaper brands boasts hundreds of watts of amplification power, yet once I put ear to it I find it clear that the 25W amplifier from the reputable brand (say, Meridian) is immensely more powerful.
The same, it seems, applies to lighting: too many LEDs boasts the lumens output and the angle coverage of the ubiquitous halogen globe, not to mention color character that’s better than the sun’s own. As with hi fi, the typical salesperson does not know much about the product they’re selling, often selling disinformation: for example, it became clear most salespeople do not know the difference between the wattage of a globe and its output in lumens. Granted, the two tend to be related; but “tend” is the key word. And last, as with hi fi, manufacturers are very slight and purposefully ambiguous about the way they measure their products, reminding me of the nasty sounding cheap amps that boast “0.0001% of distortion” when the clearly superior sounding amp specifies 0.1%.
The problem the consumer is faced with is this, though. In the hi fi world, one can listen to the separate products and form their own opinion; that is hard to do with lights that can only be sampled at a very well lit shop (bear in mind that even if you buy samples, you need an electrician to install most types of lights). Second, the hi fi world offers lots of reputable magazines that reliably review and compare products; there are no such resources when it comes to lighting. (I do feel obliged to add that sadly, most hi fi magazines do not provide reliable reviews)
I take comfort knowing that even if we will end up spending a thousand dollars extra on our lights, we would still get a product that is superior to halogen lighting. We will get a product that saves us money overall through our power bills, a product that is at the environmental cutting edge (Brightgreens are heavy metal free), and a product that will probably outlast us.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Educated Choices

Harold's 2nd Grade School Picture

The Gonski report, looking at Australia’s school education system, submitted its report this week. To everyone’s least surprise, it’s saying that state schools should get more money from the government, private schools less, and that something needs to be done about the current obscure school funding mechanism. No big surprises there; in my opinion the best analysis of the post Gonski situation comes from The Global Mail here, where it is basically argued that the more prominent private education is in Australia, the dumber Australia is becoming.
Personally, I am not holding my breath in anticipation for improvements to follow on the report. The Liberals already stated their staunch support to the private schooling system, and Gillard knows all too well what Latham didn’t know – that anyone hurting private schools’ funding is going to lose votes big time. It appears to me as if we are stuck with an education system on the decline, at least until the majority of the public – the 70% plus whose kids attend the state system – wakes up, realizes the importance of education to their kids and society et large, and decides to vote accordingly. As stated, I am not holding my breath.
What I did find interesting, though, is an argument used by Liberal Christopher Pyne, the opposition’s spokesperson for education (see here). His argument against reducing government support for private schools is that such a move would reduce choice. Now, this argument makes me retaliate immediately by asking: since when is the education system a supermarket where parents are expecting to have choice? Granted, while I think the concept of choice when it comes to basic education is ridiculous and divisive, choice is a core concept of the Liberal party. Fine. But what choice is Pyne talking about, exactly?
This is where the elephant in the room is hiding. It comes down to religion, stupid: most private schools are religious schools, and Pyne & Co want to ensure parents have relatively affordable options when it comes to the indoctrination of their kids with their favourite religion. If one wanted a fine example for how religion breaks down the foundation for a healthy society in what is supposed to be a secular state, look no further.

Image by Robert of Fairfax, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Strike, You're Out

Figueroa strikes out Wright

My ongoing experience of life without ADSL (see here) is making me think.
First, a status update: Steve, the Telstra sub-sub-sub-contractor, visited us on Saturday. He dug our nature strip up, and concluded that our rental house’s provisions for Telstra cabling are too short. In other words, the pipe laid down under our concrete driveway when that driveway has been concreted finishes up under a lair of concrete rather than going a meter or so further to reach the nature strip. Talk about bad design and/or cheap execution; that has been the story of our experience with this rental place of ours. As I said here already, I am of the opinion this is no coincidence but rather a symptom of the ongoing Australian class warfare hostilities exchanged between those unable to afford buying their own home and those doing their best to exploit them.
Anyway. I mentioned I had thoughts on our ADSL-less experience. The situation doesn’t only limit us in the entertainment department; the effects are much broader. Limited bandwidth Internet access, which is in effect what we have through having only expensive wireless Internet at our disposal, is very effectively limiting our ability to work from home. In broader terms, it is limiting our ability to communicate with the world: when even simple tasks, such as researching LED lighting for our original home (that's currently being renovated), becomes a slow and torturous task when done through an Optus networked tethered iPhone, both the research and us suffer.
Now, imagine the Internet was taken out of our lives altogether. The way I see it, our household would stop functioning altogether. Communications with our overseas family would be severely restricted due to cost, working at home would be impossible, and any negotiations with companies or government would have to take place over the phone or post. The inefficiencies would mean that our life as we know it would totally change, to the point of us having to cut back on basic necessities – work – in order to accommodate for the inefficiencies. My point is simple: the Internet is essential to modern day living. Obviously not as essential as electricity, yet essential it is; definitely not optional.
Now, consider if you will legislation asking to disconnect households from the Internet when allegations of piracy surface. Such legislation is no fantasy: it is fact in countries like France and New Zealand, and in the USA such a policy has been agreed upon by all the major ISPs. Even here in Australia we had ISPs make such a voluntary offer to the copyright industry, who turned them down expecting more (!).
Think of a not so unlikely scenario where a household is disconnected from the Internet because its teenager downloaded a film. The parents probably never knew what hit them; they may have received warnings, but their Internet illiteracy means they are in no position to know better. Besides, brave is the person seeking to tame a teenager! Alas, if the copyright industry had its way, that family would be left out of an essential service.
Consider further. When someone breaches the law in any other way, no one is saying “let’s disconnect their household’s electricity” or “let’s disconnect their water”. Both electricity and water are essential to the execution of any crime, just as an Internet connection is essential to the execution of Internet piracy, yet no one ever asks to punish those near the culprit with blackouts. For some odd reason or another, the copyright industry is trying to sneak the notion that this collective punishment in the form of the disconnection of another essential service, the Internet, is perfectly fine.
It isn’t. No collective punishment is. It’s about time the copyright industry started looking itself in the mirror before setting out to hurt us blindly.

Image by Frank Codispoti, Creative Commons license

Monday, 20 February 2012

What's the Name of the Game?

Autumn Leaves Letterpress Wedding Invitation

This is another post in the long established tradition of posts highly likely to offend some of my closest friends. I will still go ahead with it, because as Christopher Hitchens said, one cannot be half a heretic. I do not think that keeping my thoughts inside would make for better friendships; in contrast, I think that better friendships are formed when all the cards are on the table, for better and worse.
With that in mind, let us quickly move to the toxic subject of women’s last names. In particular, the taken for granted habit where women take on their husbands' names upon marriage.
I will leave the discussion of the marriage institution for another time. What is clear, for now, is that this habit of women taking their husbands’ names comes from the not too distant past, barely a century ago, where women were generally considered their husbands’ chattel. If that is the case, then why do women still do it?
I would argue they do it because they are still living in a male dominated world, a world in which the women’s right revolution still has a while to go before true gender equality is taken for granted. My problem, therefore, is not with women taking their husbands’ names, but rather – why do they choose to take their husbands’ names in the first place when they should know better?
The answer I expect to get from most women would be the same as the one I get from non believing Jewish friends when they’re asked why they still circumcise their sons: social conventions. To which I will answer – so what?
Social conventions have been proven wrong many times, if not most of the times. Remember that social conventions regarded women as inferior property till a hundred years ago, and blacks as inherently inferior till much more recently – if not within your life time then certainly within your parents’. I won’t even venture to discuss where social convention used to have religion and the key role religion played in peoples’ lives, roles that even the majority of today’s believers would cast aside in favour of the secular state. Yet all these changes had to come after some sort of a struggle; no power holder gave up their power out of their own free will (a sad testimony indeed for humanity as a whole). What I am therefore trying to say to the women of the world is that our world, their world, your world would not get any better without you sticking up for yourself.
If I try and dress myself in imaginary women’s clothing, I guess I would consider taking my husband’s name were my last name to be along the lines of FuckMeUpTheAss and my husband’s something as exciting as Wildstar (note I fully acknowledge many of us really like it up the ass; that goes with what I am trying to say here). Such a contrast does not apply to most marriages, though, which brings me to conclude with this statement: women will never find themselves truly equal until they stick up for themselves, and the first theatre for such a confrontation should be the one involving the person they love the most. If you fail there, expect to fail everywhere.

Image by Sarah Parrot, Creative Commons license

Friday, 17 February 2012

Life Without ADSL?

Wireless Router 

The plumber finally arrived at our rental house on Tuesday morning. He fixed this, he fixed that, he did a lot of things and he was really nice; turned out he's our landlord's brother.
It's amazing what effect some of the things he did have made. By drilling a hole he allowed us to use our washing machine properly, instead of it sitting in the middle of the room (where we were afraid it would scare away potential replacement renters once we break our lease agreement). More interestingly, the toilet tap that stopped leaking made a huge difference to our sanity. Finally, we can relax at our house. Finally, we can sleep at night without hearing the sound of someone constantly peeing in the next room. Finally, we can start calling our new rental place home. Or can we?
Over the last couple of weeks I spent many a thought on determining when it is, exactly, that one can finally declare oneself settled at a new house. You may have your own categories; with me, it used to be the moment the hi fi was all set up and ready to go. That point in the evolution of our hi fi was achieved a week or so ago, albeit without the rear surround speakers (whom rental regulations prevent us from properly deploying). Regardless, it is clear the hi fi is no longer my critical factor.
The critical factor is the Internet, and I can feel its critically by virtue of the effect of us not having ADSL yet, the result of our house not having a phone connection yet. We have the Internet: as I'm typing this, my Mac Air is being tethered through my iPhone; we also have a proper wifi hotspot. But it's not the same: the gig a month I'm getting on my phone is nothing compared to my Internetting needs, and the 1GB per $10 I get on the wifi hotspot is too expensive for me to be able to afford using the Internet as much as I want to. We are, in effect, under strict rationing: YouTube action is severely restricted, there's no iView, no uploading of photos of videos, no downloading of anything, system updates are left to critical stuff only, and I'm left depressed. I need my Internet unrestricted! What good is Spotify coming to Australian shores if I can't listen to it?
The problem is that our house has not been wired to the street, where Telstra can meet it with its phone services. The builder (through his aforementioned brother) told us there are wiring provisions from the house to the street, but these end up under the footpath - which has to be broken for Telstra to connect us. And who is going to pay for that? And how much would it cost? And would it be worthwhile for us to pay if we're only planning to live here for some six months?
I don't know. I might be wiser tomorrow, when the Tesltra sub contractor of the sub contractor of the sub contractor (I shit you not!), Steve, told us he'll be paying us a visit to assess the situation. I truly hope he would prove to be a Steve Austin. Till he does, consider me unsettled.

Image by, Creative Commons license

Thursday, 16 February 2012

Gadgets Galore

We may have had a week from hell. We may have just moved places, we may have just had our souls mortgaged to the bank till way past our death, and we may have had our son at hospital. Nothing, though, will prevent new gadgets from stepping into our lives, not even at times like this. Three of them did during this very week; here is their account.

Apple Airport Express
It’s scary, I know, but I am venturing further and further into Apple land. What can I do if they’re the ones that have the better products?
The need I have is music streaming. The bulk of my music listening is online nowadays, via Spotify (rumoured to officially land on Australian soil within less than two months), and if I want to listen to Spotify through my hi fi I need to have a computer connected there. I have been using my oldest netbook for that very purpose for a while now, but this solution does have issues.
First, and very obviously, a netbook is not a great audio device in the sense that it was not designed with audio quality in mind. It’s got all sorts of circuitry crammed into it that pullotes the sound signal, and its headphone output socket is the cheapest possible. Then there is also the annoying need to have the netbook located near my receiver, at a position that is not the nicest to linger at while choosing my play list.
Mind you, there are distinct advantages to using computer memory as your source component. Computers have an advantage over CD players in that they do not depend on the transport’s motor speed, which tends to vary a lot as the disc turns. That varying speed creates what is known as the jitter effect that is the main culprit of digital sound, that is the phenomenon where you hear the right sound but at the wrong time. Even the slightest nanosecond error makes a difference there! The particular netbook I’ve been using, the very first Asus Eee PC 701, has an extra advantage. It runs on solid state drives which – as my ears have been repeatedly telling me – produces much cleaner sound than anything with a hard drive. I suspect it’s to do with the interferences caused by the spinning disks, exactly the type of things that contaminate sound.
There is a solution out there that brings the best of both worlds, and that solution is Apple’s Airport Express. In general the airport express is a wifi router, but it’s got an edge: you can use it to connect your wireless network to powered speakers (or, in my case, the hi fi receiver) via a digital (Toslink) or analog connection. You can also connect it to any USB printer and have that printer become wireless, which is an added bonus.
The Airport Express is rumoured to have decent D/A converters by its own rights (that is, a chip that turns the digital signal on a CD or an MP3 track into an analog signal you can listen to). In my setup I did not test that, though: I connected it via its optical output to my receiver, which has a pretty good D/A converter of its own (a proper hi fi grade one). This means that I eliminate the jitter that comes from mechanical interfaces such as an inconsistent CD motor, I eliminate the noise that comes from mechanical hard drives, and I rely on the best D/A converter at my disposal. The result? MP3 tracks never sounded as good. They’re not CD good, but they’re the closest I’ve ever heard them. Of course, the next step would be to stream CD quality sound through the Airport Express!
The main problem with the Airport Express is that it was designed by Apple. That is, it was meant to be limited to playing music streamed from a computer running iTunes or from an iPhone/iPod, and that’s it. There is a piece of software you can get for Windows and/or Mac called AirFoil that allows the breaking of this artificial barrier and streaming anything from your computer to the Airport Express, but it will cost you $25. Similar workarounds exist for Android.
Things are much worse in Linux: Ubuntu is rumoured to be able to deal with Airport Express with a minor tweak, and there are plenty of articles out there telling you how to do it; the problem is, despite many an hour of effort I am still unable to stream anything from Ubuntu to my Airport Express. Anything other than silence, that is. I suspect the problem is to do with firewall settings, but regardless it severely limits my options for using the Airport Express.

Aldi PVR
Three and a half years ago we bought our first (and till now, only) hard drive PVR for more than $300. It completely changed the way we watch TV, with us hardly ever watching anything live anymore. Alas, with time our PVR started to break down here and there, with both the remote and its hard drive developing pervert like behaviour patterns.
Aldi presented us with an interesting solution in its special buys for this week: a $35 high definition set top box with PVR features through its USB output. At that price, and given Aldi’s return policies, I went ahead and got a unit to try.
I think it’s great! It does everything our old PVR did; it’s got better user interfaces; it runs sound through its HDMI output (our old one requires a separate optical cable for the sound, with HDMI serving the picture only); and it also does many things our older PVR can’t.
For a start, it plays AVI and MP4 video files you connect through its USB connection (not to mention music tracks and photos). This means we can use it to watch any manner of videos through our home theatre, instead of using much more expensive and equipment (like our PS3) for mere playback. Our electricity bill should tell the difference there, but there are catches: the PVR's processing power is too meagre to allow you to rewind a video (say, when you missed out on a sentence).
Next there is the fact that you can take any recording it does away from the device to watch elsewhere. Our new PVR records in the mts format that’s supported by VLC, which means we can watch off the air recordings on any computer (or smartphone) and even take recordings with us wherever we go.
And third, unlike our old PVR with its built in 320GB hard drive, this new tiny PVR allows us to connect any USB storage device to it. We can record on a USB stick or we can connect a proper hard drive if we wish; and if the hard drive fails (as our old one often does), we can connect another.
If you’re after disadvantages, than the $35 asking price will mean you are unable to use services such as IceTV to program the PVR automatically or from afar. The unit you get is obviously cheap and clunky (remote included), and has some unexplained tendencies to accept one hard drive but reject the other on a seemingly random basis.
Still, it's $35!

2.5TB external USB drive
Last, but not least, comes the new external hard drive we bought to use with our new PVR. Let me repeat it again for you: a two and a half terabyte box the size of a paperback, which I bought yesterday for $150! Given that I paid much more for a 125MB drive two decades ago, I cannot avoid feeling awe at this technological feat that Western Digital was able to bring into my house at such an affordable price.
Think about it: with this capacity, we can stick all of our videos ever into this single box, plus record stuff off the air to the death, and then watch them all through our new PVR. Who needs Apple TV like streaming, with necessary quality compromises to deal with wireless formats' inability to stream high definition video at full quality, when you can put all the videos you ever wanted on this small box and play it through another small box?
Alright, I admit that streaming makes things easier in the sense that it skips the step of copying downloads into the hard drive. But you have to admit, too, that this hard drive + PVR setup is one big Titanic of home entertainment.

After this post has been written we received an external DVD drive I've ordered online a few weeks ago. It's a Samsung unit which we got for $30 from OzGameShop.
I'm sure it will serve our army of netbooks + Mac Air very well. Not that I need optical drives much; it's just that I noticed the only one we had is on a 64 bit laptop, and 64 bit operating systems have certain software compatibility issues that prevent them from reliably running the 32 bit software I use to write DVDs with. At this price, it was cheaper to get a DVD drive than to struggle with software replacements.

Images: Apple, Aldi

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

The Language of Football


It was the great philosopher Wil Anderson that first pulled me by the shoulders to tell me that language matters. In his stand-up act Wilosophy, Anderson used the example ofglobal warming and how we’re being spun out of it by politicians and business as usual stakeholders who like us to refer to it as climate change instead. In other words, our opinions on certain matters are often shaped through the language we are exposed to: are they refugees or are they queue jumpers?
The ability of languge to shape perceptions is not limited to spin, of course. Take, for example, the reading the prose written by those with elevated mastery of their language skills. Have a look at Christopher Hitchens, for example: a person I’ve heard Richard Dawkins, himself not a fluke, describe as “well read”. It definitely shows in Hitchens’ writing and his ability to convey complicated nuances with much precision.
Alas, the problem remains: we “the people” are too susceptible to language manipulations thrown at as with the help of the media. Actually, I will argue that the media itself is often the problem, and not only with Murdoch like cases. Take football, for example: why, do you think, didn’t the sport that is known through most of the world as football but is also known as soccer fail to become more popular in countries such as the USA or Australia?
Ronen Dorfan, my favorite sports blogger, came up with an interesting theory there (see here for the Hebrew original and here for the Google translation to English). Dorfan argues against the popular argument that football goes against American culture, and reminds us that Americans are comprised of enough immigrants from football/soccer loving countries to ensure the sport’s popularity despite potential cultural clashes. According to Dorfan, it is the big sports networks that hold football back: they’ve invested a lot of money in cultivating the NFL and other classic American sports, and have no interest in investing more money in other sports that would not see their incomes made larger but would rather divide their income across disciplines.
The beauty of Dorfan’s theory is that I can clearly see it applying to Australia. Have a look at the population of Australia: the vast majority are immigrants, the majority are recent immigrants, and the vast majority have migrated from football’s strongest fortresses (England, to name the most obvious). Clearly, culture is not to blame for football’s relative lack of popularity in the face of local codes.
If culture is not the issue then what is it that holds football back in Australia? As I have argued here before, I would say it’s the media with its demeaning attitude to football. More than other sports, football tends to be covered for its lesser sides: violence, the bogan nature of its supporters (racism always works!), or the relatively low figure score line when compared to AFL or rugby (as if that’s a disadvantage by definition). However, the simplest way for them to downgrade the sport is through the use of language: whereas the sport wants to be known as football, and even has Football Federation Australia running the show at the national level, the media would still have you call it “soccer”. Normally, when someone wishes to be called by a certain name, say “Moshe”, you would call that someone by the name of their choice even if it makes your tongue twist; not so in the case of football. Not when the majority of media reporters are ex AFL or rugby people, who know nothing about football/soccer other than that the day football becomes too popular is the day their income would be in danger. And that’s a strong motivation to apply the language tool for!

Image by beefy_n1, Creative Commons license

Sunday, 12 February 2012

In These I Trust

Our washing machine running in the middle of the room, secured by masking tape, is probably the best teller of our recent house move story. While it symbolises all that is and has been shitty with our move, it occurred to me that I should counter it and dedicate a corner post to those who proved reliable and trustworthy in these dire times:
  1. Our Car: I have been the proud owner of a station wagon for several years now, but nowhere did it shine as much as with the house move. There are but a few things that won't fit in its enormous and easy to handle flat back; between its reliability and ease of use, Our Car™ has been one of the few things we can rely on not to fail us and properly support us.
  2. Wifi Hotspot: Fitted with a prepaid Telstra iPad SIM (don't tell Telstra!), our wifi hotspot made sure we're never without a reliable Internet connection. It's still no substitute for the throughput an ADSL connection can bring, but at least we're not stranded.
  3. Each other.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Running on Stress


What a shit week we've had! This one has to qualify as one of my worst ever. For the purpose of letting steam, here are some of the highlights:
  • Moving from our house to a rental place, with all the packing and the mess this comes with (and with a four year old to boost the challenge).
  • The builder doing our original home's extension deciding to start knocking bits of our house down before we finished getting all of our stuff away. The annoying catch is: we could have moved the things out on time. We didn't, because the builder assured us he'll only be doing little things on the outside; guess he changed his mind once he saw we're out, but in changing his mind he created a load of additional work for us at a time when we can do without. On the positive side, the mess he made helped us realize how wise it was to move out.
    [I do want to make it clear that nothing our builder has done so far could make me think he's anything but a nice guy; it's just that in this case, his enthusiasm got the better of him. It happens to us all.]
  • Various nagging issues with our rental place that are at best addressed in a less than satisfying manner by our landlord and at worst are not addressed at all. I spoke about our washing machine adventures already (we gave up on a solution there; the landlord is too much of a pain, so we settled on positioning the washing machine at the middle of the room and securing its hoses with masking tapes to the sink). Problem #1 at the moment is a running sink in the toilet room, which should be a two minute washer change for a plumber but sees our landlord messing us about for over a week with false promises.
    To take us back to the washing machine saga for a minute, there was a point during the middle of the week when we realised the landlord is not going to move a centimeter to help us out. I snapped, at at 21:00 decided that we are going to have the washing machine running that night, by hook or by crook. We did the masking tapes unwound, we connected everything, I went out on a drive at 21:30 to get some washing powder, we had a bit of a leak on the landlord's precious furniture, but at the end of the day [night] we had a working washing machine. Because a line in my sanity that was threatening to crack was in danger.
  • Overall, the notion that we did not do a good job choosing a rental house.
  • Spending a week without a mailbox, wondering whether we're missing out on important letters.
  • The lack of a bath at the new place is proving stressful to our child, and as a result to us, too.
  • The health of our son. This one issue deserves many a post; even he had noticed that he gets more sick more often than his friends. This week things have peaked with us rushing to hospital for fear of appendicitis. We spent a whole day at the emergency room and then the following morning seeing a hospital paediatrician. With regards to the current affair the verdict is still open; on the positive side, we are now seeing an expert specialist that is probably in the best position to help us see to the bottom of this ongoing affair. Not that I hold my hopes too high: uncertainty seems to be the dominating notion.
  • The utility company sent us a letter congratulating us on the move, and letting us know they will be sending a meter guy to do the reading so we can get disconnected as soon as possible. Yes! When I called, panicking, the explained it was a standard letter and nothing is getting disconnected.
  • Telstra phone connection: The technician that came to install our phone knocked on our door. "Is this the phone cable?" he asked, pointing at a cable popping out of the wall and forgetting to say hello or anything alike. "Maybe, I don't know" I answered. "Jesus Christ", he said, and ran away (literally) to cry to his boss. Eventually he did do some work, but we still don't have a working phone (and, by extension, no ADSL), we have no idea when we will. Telstra, on its side, is already billing us for a phone we don't have - which means their service is still as crappy as their reputation says it is, but I still need to chase them up for it.
With all that's been going on I spent the week running mainly on stress. With appetite suffering through all that is happening I guess that comes naturally; however, I doubt this will do us any long term favours. If anything, it looks like the saga is just starting to unfold.

This post was significantly revised/expanded on 11/2/2012.
Image by bottled_void, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

The Aussie Class System

Naturally clean

I think it is safe to say we chose badly.
I am referring to our choice of a rental house to move into while our home is being extended. In retrospect, and even though we only received the keys to this new residence of ours just a few days ago, it is obvious the place has some severe issues. We will learn to live with these issues; it’s not like we moved to a dump. Regardless, I do consider the analysis of the reasons that drove us to this failure to offer some interesting insight.
Here goes.

Failure #1 – decision making under pressure:
Upon entering our new place immediately after signing its lease contract, it immediately became clear to us the place is too small for our needs. It will do, but we will have to be creative with our storage solutions – too creative for comfort. Why did the place that looked so attractive to us when we inspected it seem unsuitable to us at present?
In my opinion the answer is to do with human psychology. The place we ended up renting happens to be one of the very first we inspected; by the end of this process, which saw us looking at around twenty properties, our observations skills were much sharper. It seems as if the mental comparison we were making between those first places we looked at and the latter wasn’t as good as we thought it to be; in retrospect, it was clearly biased. Since we there was no motivation for us to cheat ourselves here, the experience seems to shed some non complimentary light on our perceived ability, as humans, for rational decision making.
Any human limitations we might have are fully exploited by the professionals – my much beloved real estate agents – as they sell prospective renters a place. Starting with the restriction of property inspections to 15 minute long sessions, some of which are fairly crowded, various basic Selling 101 techniques are applied on the customer in order to prevent rational decision making and push for the rash one. Who cares if, after you’ve made the financial commitments, you find your new place to be not as rosy as you thought it to be? Certainly not the real estate agent.

Failure #2 – the new house factor:
We should have thought of it before (but we obviously didn’t). There is a price to be paid when moving into a brand new house, and that is the unavoidable encounter with various teething problems that only the first tenant will ever have to deal with.
By far the most striking of these teething problems is the way in which the washing room seems to have been designed so as to avoid the accommodation of a washing machine. There is a compartment one is meant to place the washing machine at, but that compartment is blocked from above (leave your top loaders behind!) and no drainage facilities are provided. Who was the idiot that came up with this design?
In typical fashion, the real estate agent started telling us how people don’t use top loaders anymore due to water inefficiencies and how people "she knows" turned very creative with masking tapes when it came to the running of washing machines at their rental properties. They’re good at talking, aren’t they, the agents? They aren’t good at doing, though, because as I type we are still unable to run a washing machine (and unable to solve the problem ourselves as we are not allowed to touch a rental’s hardware).
Plumbing problems are not limited to the washing room. It appears a special talent was hired to do the plumbing on this house of ours: yesterday the bathroom tap started leaking; by night time it was running freely. You don’t need to manually operate the tap at our place – it’s automatic! Then there is the kitchen tap, which feels more like the gear stick on an old Fiat.
Dumb design issues are not limited to the washing room, though. The shower is fitted with a screen that has a fashionable gap in the middle, allowing one to spray fashionable water all over the place while showering. Winning the “dumbest design feature of all” competition, though, are the trees planted along the very narrow and lengthy driveway leading to this rear unit house of ours: trees, in case you didn’t notice, have branches that like to expand. Who cares if they will grow to render the driveway unusable?
There is a recurring theme with all these problems: there is no way one can be expected to pick on them during a 15 minute inspection.

Failure #3 – greed:
Greed has its stamp anywhere you look at our new house. It is imprinted on the washing room, a room built using leftover kitchen furniture instead of being designed the way a washing room should be. It is in the look and feel of every little item, designed to look flashy and fashionable but falling apart the second you touch it (did I mention the toilet lever?). It is in the thin walls and windows that reflect the weather outside quite accurately, albeit with a somewhat less windy presentation.
Greed is reflected in the way the house has been described to us by the real estate agent: not as a brand new house built at the edge of an existing house (as Google Maps and Bing photos clearly show), but as a recently refurbished house. Greed is reflected in the house not having a phone socket installed, the agents signing forms saying it does, and then us having to do all the chasing around (eventually earning the right to install one socket!).
Greed is reflected in the house being offered for rent without it even having a mailbox of its own. Greed is reflected in the house’s tiny rooms, meant to make the place sound appealing when looked at on an Internet page but not when actually trying to store stuff inside.
The story is clear. Our new house is a classic investment property, built with short term thinking to maximize the revenues of its owner before they rid themselves of it when house prices rise again. We were not knocked off our feet in surprise when the agent told us our landlord is a developer; it’s the classic Australian real estate story of the rich buying old houses to erect new ones with the least possible effort so they can take full benefit of Australia’s twisted taxing system, a system where the ownership of a house becomes, in effect, a very low risk money printing scheme.

It is now clear to me there is a three tier class system in Australia:
  1. Those that own their own house as well as investment properties (tax benefits make the mortgage issue meaningless).
  2. Those that only own their own house.
  3. Those that can’t afford ownership and have to rent.
We won the privilege of feeling this class system in the flesh by virtue of sampling third class from the heights of the second. We sampled greed, and we sampled the greed motivated process to drive lowly renters into financial commitments they would rather not make if they were able to think through rationally. And like a well crafted Ponzi scheme the wheels keep on turning, grinding the meat of most Australians as it rolls along a delusionary endless downhill spiral.

Image by dhammza, Creative Commons license

Monday, 6 February 2012

Brotherhood of the Like Minded

It occurred to me I share a rather unique quality with three of the four prestigious guests I would dearly love to have for dinner at my place (as discussed here, these are Richard Dawkins, Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov and Christopher Hitchens): like those three, I qualify as Jewish by most people's reckoning yet I am also an outspoken atheist. I suspect this is no mere coincidence. I suspect there is something in the Jewish culture and the Jewish circumstances that drives people to where they end up at, and in many cases - and more than any other cases - sends them to become my intellectual role models. One can argue that being a Jewish atheist almost qualifies as some sort of a litmus test.
Which brings me to another subject altogether.
I would like to conclude my trilogy of Twitter related posts by pointing out an interesting peculiarity.
As should have been made clear through my analysis of the way I use Twitter (see here), Twitter is a social media tool that, amongst other things, provides likeminded people with tools to socialize with. Unlike Facebook, the “other” big time successful social media tool, those likeminded people you can potentially socialize with do not have to be connected to people you know.
What I find interesting is the explicitly stated attitude of many of the people I consider my likeminded on the subject of Twitter vs. Facebook. People’s contempt for Facebook and praise Twitter has almost become a litmus test for me: if they share this particular opinion with me, then the chances of us being like minded are surprisingly high. (Note that despising Facebook is not necessarily synonymous with not using Facebook; for many reasons, Facebook is viewed by many as a necessary evil.)
I would just like to list a few of these outspoken people down:
  • Cory Doctorow
  • John Scalzi
  • Renai LeMay
  • Jacob Appelbaum
  • Yossi Gurvitz
  • Various Pirate Party members

Why did I list these people? Because these people happen to be amongst my favorite Twitter personas. Why are these people amongst my favorite Twitter personas? Because we are likeminded.

Public Domain image (Litmus Paper) by Chemicalinterest

Thursday, 2 February 2012

My Twitter Using Guide

Having recently expressed my love to Twitter on these pages, I thought I should put in a post explaining the way I use the tool. Not because I do anything special that others don’t, not because my usage pattern is in anyway unique, but rather in order to demonstrate the power of Twitter to non users.
The problem with Twitter is that it’s disrespected. As in, what can anyone say that is of any meaning when one is limited to 140 characters? Yet while that previous statement may sound derogatory, and indeed it conveys my thoughts prior to having tested the Twitter waters, in retrospect I can say the statement conveys all that is powerful about Twitter, too. Because it’s “anyone” that can tweet, one is not subject to Facebook like daylight robberies of one’s privacy: people can tweet under any name they want, with no Google to enforce the use of “real names”, whatever that concept may be. People can even tweet under multiple names. Moving on, the 140 character limit is not as limiting as it may sound when one can provide links, yet it allows readers to skim through many tweets conveying numerous messages the way a top paid executive would skim through management summaries. In other words, Twitter is a true micro blogging service in the sense of it allowing users to read many posts quickly, but also giving them the option of diving into the depth of things if they wish.
On to the next Twitter misconception, the one about following and followers. If you look at my Twitter profile at the moment this post is written you would see that I follow some 210+ people and that I am being followed by ~140 people. Both figures are misleading. To start with the latter, many of those so called followers of mine are not real people: they include various suspiciously good looking young girls with an unexplained urge to date me, as well as all sorts of companies that seek my reciprocal following in order to build their online street cred. Me, I do reciprocal following when it is clear to me that the follower has something of interest to say to me; given that a lot of my authentic followers come as a result of the likes of Leslie Cannold or Graham Linehan retweeting me, a lot of those do appeal to me by virtue of being like minded.
As for the 200 or so that I am following: the reality is that my day is not long enough for me to read their stuff. Most of my tweet reading is done through a series of lists, each focusing on one specific area of interest; the rest get the occasional skim through the top ten most recent tweets, enough to let me figure out what is going on with the world at any given moment in time.
It really is these lists that I am using that present the bulk of my interest in Twitter. They include things like:
  • Friends: People I know or have known on a personal basis. I guess this list makes things feel like Facebook in the sense that the people here are the people that would have been my Facebook friends if I was to have an account there. However, unlike Facebook, there are but a few people I know personally that, as far as I can tell, use Twitter.
  • VIPs: People in whose tweets I am so interested I don't want to miss any of them. The list includes the likes of the aforementioned Cannold, but when I look at the other people in there I find myself rather surprised. The list includes various atheists, politicians, IT people, reporters, authors, activists; however, teachers seem to be the most dominant group. One more thing: people that tweet too much are not included in the list; the whole point of this list is to make following a select group of people feasible.
  • IT: This is where I follow all (and I allow myself to say "all") respected IT news sources, from The Verge through Gizmodo to The Guardian's tech news. Given the majority acts as not much more than a pipe for media releases there is a lot of repetition, but as mentioned - I can tell what's going on pretty quickly just by skimming through the list's top items.
  • Pirates: A list of like minded activists in the piracy/copyright/privacy/open-source arena. The list allows me to keep myself up to date with the scene that probably interests me the most.
In addition to lists, I often track a particular topic by following a particular hashtag. For example, during the recent War on the Internet public event, I had the live video stream running in parallel to the #WOTI tag on Twitter. I was watching the event and reading live analysis as it went along, which was pretty cool.
My tool of choice for following my lists and my favorite topics is Tweetdeck. Since Twitter took over Tweetdeck the latter lost much of its functionality, but the core is there and it's better. No longer running on the Adobe Air platform, Tweetdeck offers Windows & Mac versions as well as a Chrome browser app that's perfect for Linux. It's quite powerful yet easy to use.
Last, but not least, Twitter offers direct and secure messaging between people who follow one another. Unlike normal tweets, these are not visible to the outside world. That is, with the exception of the USA government, who likes to put its hands on secure communications (but then again, they do not limit themselves to Twitter; Google and Facebook are abused much more often).

If I did my job well enough I might have even convinced you to start using Twitter. If you do, let me know so I can start following you.

Image: Twitter

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

That Special Smell

crazy armpit-smelling friendsSome statistics on the process of our application to rent our next home:
  • Overall, we have formally applied to six different properties.
  • With each property we submitted two applications in conjunction, the first with my name and the second with my wife’s.
  • As you can tell, I have a "bloody foreigner" sounding name; my wife’s name is a proper Anglo one.
  • With those six applications we've made, five estate agents bothered to call us back.
  • Of those five that called us back, four called my wife’s number.
  • The only real estate agency that called me happened to be located in the area where most of Melbourne's Jews are concentrated.
That whiff of racism in the Australian air, it’s always there.

Image by jekert gwapo, Creative Commons license