Thursday, 29 March 2012

The Israeli Werewolf


Sarah asked:
Interesting you post this today as I was about to ask for a follow up on your remark in the previous post about going into aggressive Israeli mode with the real estate agent.
I wondered if you could elaborate your thoughts on what the differences are in the two cultures where it is acceptable in one and not in the other. Is it here in Australian culture and just passive aggressively hidden. Is it effective when you use it in Australia or does it turn people off to you?
Also if you can bring this side of you out when needed does it mean are you suppressing it the rest of the time in the work place and at home or is it not a natural side to your personality that you have to bring out when back in Israel?

I was breaking my head trying to think how to best approach this question when help came from an unexpected source.
There’s this guy I often end standing next to on the platform as we wait for a train to come and take us home at the end of our work days. Both he and I stand roughly where the train’s doors would end up when the train arrives so we can board as quickly as possible (and thus also maximize our chances for a seat). The guy has a trick strategy, though: as the train approaches he steps forward, beyond the yellow safety line; and once it becomes clear where the door would end up he makes his way there, ahead of all the other would be passengers still behind the line. The strategy works: he’s almost always first on the train. That is, unless he has me in his path: when I see him about to step into “my territory” I step forward, too, but unlike him I do not make any other move to break the unofficial queuing system behind us. All I do is block him; by now he learned there is no point in trying to push me to the side (yes, he tried).
Why am I going through these motions? I suggest a lot of it has to do with being raised an Israeli. I got to develop strategies for optimizing my place in a queue without violating the rights of others on one hand, and on the other hand I take measures to prevent others from breaking queuing ranks. You know what else? The other day this guy I’m talking about arrived at the station with a friend. I was not in the least surprised to hear the two speak to one another in very Israeli Hebrew.
The question of what it is with Israelis and aggressive behavior at queues can be easily expanded in scope to ask the more interesting question of what it is that drives certain cultures a certain way. I will try and offer some speculations there, but before I do so I will offer an argument as to what is definitely not a contributor to cultural differences: there is nothing inherently anti queue in the Israeli pool of genes; anyone born and raised in Israel would be at least aware of the local queuing culture regardless of demographics, and most people would join the game. My proof: try standing at a German queue and you will find it very similar to the Israeli experience.
Now that we’ve eliminated one explanation let me go back to the question of cultural drivers. Having been raised an Israeli, then having lived in Australia to the point of considering myself an Australian more than any other nationality, and having also been extensively exposed to English culture through my extended family, I think I qualify to contribute to this discussion.  That is, something more than the basic cry over the dreariness of British food. As I will be mostly comparing impressions from these three cultures I will politely ignore cultural catalysts such as literacy levels despite their significant impact: this is because of the generally equal playing field our scope is limited to with three affluent Western societies.
With that in mind, I will offer the following main cultural contributors in what I see as descending order of impact: weather, congestion and history. Weather affects everything from available food to general stress/distress levels and generic levels of extrovert-ness vs. introvert-ness. Congestion has direct impact to how often one needs to interact with others, and in effect how often one needs to tolerate others / struggle with others. History invokes the cultural heritage card, as is the case with England and its ridiculous love affair with the monarchy as well as tea. The latter, while so well rooted you’d think it goes back to the days of the Roman Empire, is actually a recent affair; which goes to show how myths can entrench themselves ever so easily. In the case of Israel, the history of the Jewish people causes what I consider a not too unreasonable “they’re all out to get us” complex that filters down through various positive feedback mechanisms to the level of the individual. That same individual goes to lead a life feeling eternally prosecuted; couple the heat, sweat and congestion and you get a nation of people you don’t want to mess with. And you definitely don’t want to queue up with them.
In comparison, Australia is tranquil and easy going. The average weather is easier to tolerate (disclaimer: Melbourne winters are a killer!) and one is generally left to their own devices, for better or worse. However, does this mean that Aussies are better than Israelis? As I have already stated, my answer would be a definite “no”. Australia is repeatedly proving itself to be a nation where selfishness rules, as symbolized by the Liberal party (currently in federal opposition but leading the poles by a mile). Between treating asylum seekers like criminals, discriminating against minorities in job recruitment or forcing dominant faiths upon others at public schools, Australia has its dark side too. The main difference? The average Australia is rarely required to expose their teeth in public, unlike the Israeli who is well trained in doing so. This gives the well versed Israeli an advantage in confrontational scenarios: they’ve been to that movie before and know what to do and how to behave, whereas the average Aussie can be a tad clueless for a while until they lose their inhibitions.
Needless to say, I am generalizing here. While I will never claim not to have practiced immoral activities, I will do my best to respect and withhold a well behaved queue and have done so even as an Israeli. On the other hand, the process of Australization is making some sort of a hybrid of me: the same processes that affect Aussie culture, the weather/congestion/history and all, are now affecting me just as they affect everyone else around me. I am, I can safely say, much less edgy about my way; I do not feel as if I need to look behind my back, so to speak, as much. There are negative implications there, too: my skills as a driver have significantly deteriorated since migrating to Australia’s relatively open roads. Driving here is much less challenging with people not constantly trying to cut me off; over time I forgot how to deal with challenging road scenarios.

I have broadened the discussion rather than provide a direct answer, but I think I did address the original question. We can continue the discussion in the comments.
If you have any other questions or suggestions to this blog, feel free to drop them by.

Image by Cia de Foto, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Late Summer Blues

During past years we got to this particular point of desperation we’re currently at around mid winter; this year we’ve been lucky enough to hit it at the ebb of summer. Between two repeat bouts of a particularly exotic brand of gastro our four year old contracted at kinder, we’ve been quickly reminded of the woes of handling a sick child while the sun is still shining and the weather is still pleasant: the frequent visits to the doctor, the financial costs of doctor visits and lab tests, staying off work and with our son at home, our shrinking sick leave allowances, and the extra effort keeping up with work takes. Added up, there is a significant mental toll here: even if the sum of our activities may not look like much, it is exhausting.
This highlights how disconnected workplaces are with their claims of taking work/life balance into account. I was recently offered a certain assignment which, for reasons I do not want to make public, I preferred not to take. The irony comes from the justification raised in order to convince me: if I was to take this assignment, I was told, I would be in a position to create a name for myself [a work].
Obviously, this argument and the people making it assume that creating a name for myself is a positive thing. I, however, beg to differ. Why? Because of my personal circumstances.
When repeatedly faced with positive feedback circumstances applying to my son’s health, creating a name for myself is not at the top of my agenda. When my son keeps on catching one bug after the other because of his weakened immune system, and when I catch the occasional bug from him, and when just going to work becomes a struggle, creating a name for myself is not my top priority.
Instead, my top priority is stability. My top priority is knowing that I have a safe job I can count on. Typically, such reliable and stable positions are not the positions one would embark upon when one sets to create a name for oneself; name creation is a risky venture that could see one toppled just as it could see one establish a “name” for themselves. Me, I do not seek to have to search for a new job in the near future; I want to be where I currently am for the long run, and steering my way out of establishing a name for myself is by far the safest way of doing so. (At this point I will add it looks likely I will be forced to take this new assignment whether I want it or not.)
Note I am not only arguing that, given my current personal circumstances, the “create a name for yourself” motivation is wrong. I am also arguing it is very wrong, in the sense it is oozing of ignorance concerning my personal circumstances and history. If establishing a name for myself was to be high on agenda, I would have gone back to Israel years ago; Australia’s technology sector is no match for Israel’s. Even if the particular strength of the Israeli tech sector is unfamiliar the average Aussie (and I don’t expect it to be anything but), it is also quite clear that the job I currently hold is not a job one would take if name establishment was high on one’s agenda. However, as clear as the fault appears to be, I am not trying to accuse anyone here: we are all trapped here, slaves to office etiquette. Consider this before you go on thinking I am blaming my managers: do I have the balls to look my managers in the eye and say to them what I am saying here?
The source of the problem is easily identifiable because it’s one of those hidden elephants in the room: corporate culture has taught us we should always strive to climb up the corporate ladder, or at least be perceived to do so, or – in the worst case – appear to want to do so (if only for the sake of playing the game). If you’re none of the above then you’d be labelled a non team player and stuck with eternal corporate stigmata. The reality, however, is different: most of the time, most of us prefer stability in our job department. Most of the time, most of us go to work not because we love doing so but rather because we have to do so in order to make a living. The latter is as legitimate a motivation as anything could ever be; why do we need to pretend otherwise?

Image by Kymberly Janisch, Creative Commons license

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Readers' Requests

In my blogs I have long raved about the virtues of author and blogger John Scalzi. With your permission I will do so again.
One of the better ideas Scalzi has implemented in his blog is a yearly week of posts dedicated to readers' requests. Some of Scalzi's better posts are produced during this week, like this gem of a post in which he explains why he's happy he happens to be a male. If you were after a demonstration of Sclazi's wit, observation and sense of humor, look no further.
Me, I have neither Scalzi's wit nor a measurable fraction of it. Yet the thought of posts stimulated by readers' requests does have its appeal. I know this could be a total catastrophe, but if you have any ideas you would like me to blog about let me know and we'll see how it goes...

Image by (I Am), Creative Commons license

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Renters' Rights

Despite the rental house we moved into recently being virtually new (or perhaps because of it?), we’ve been managing a long list of faults with the place. To name a few, we have lights that won’t light up (replacing the bulbs didn’t help), water leaking to the kitchen through the kitchen extractor fan (to nicely splash across electric kitchen appliances), and the likely possibility of having something very alive living inside our roof (probably a possum, potentially rats).
Now, if this property that we are living in was mine, I would have treated each and every one of these issues as quickly as possible. It’s the right thing to do for one’s health as well as one wallet, because things like water coming into the house can quickly escalate into major damage while animals can nibble their way through surprising niches. My record is clear on such matters: to give but one example, when we first bought our house I had a roof specialist over to perform all sorts of maintenance tasks that were in no way urgent but I considered essential if only to ensure we never have to climb up our roof during a stormy night.
Alas, we are not the masters of our current domains. Every problem we find is reported via email to our distinguished real estate agent, who – in the best of cases – forwards the news to the landlord. And that’s it, really: nothing seems to get done from that point onwards.
I have expressed my general opinion on real estate agents here before, and frankly this latest bout of incompetence does not lead me to go softer on them. As in, for someone whose job it is to manage properties, you would expect them to have a go at doing a decent job; or should you? I have recently asked for an update regarding the lighting problem we’ve reported more than a month ago. The agent’s reply? “Have you tried to change the bulbs?” Come on, can’t you even run a simple Excel sheet to track the issues in each of your properties? What is it that you actually do for your money?
I’ll tell you what it is the real estate agents do. As they self-proclaim, they “stand by the landlord”. The meaning of this slogan seems rather ambiguous at first, like all good slogans, but it became vividly clear to us since we’ve started renting a place to live at: it means the agent will do jack shit to help the tenants, because, let’s face it, once they’re in the contract there is no going back for them. The landlord, on the other hand, can always move to another real estate agency and remove an income stream from our beloved agent.
So what can we do to address the issues that bug us? I don’t really know. On one hand, we want to keep to the better side of our landlord: we know we are going to break our lease agreement, and we don’t want them to be [too] nasty to us when it happens. On the other hand, we are paying a lot of money to lease this property that we live in, and we expect to get something in return.
Thus far my strategy for handling the truly agonizing problems has been to nag the agent with daily emails and the occasional call. When that didn’t help I switched on to my Full Israeli mode and threw a very aggressive phone call in, the type that is generally unacceptable to pure blooded Aussies. During that phone call the agent surrendered the fact the landlord is obliged to sort out “urgent” problems within 14 days; the definition of “urgent” remained ambiguous, though. Yet it is exactly those non urgent issues that are bugging us now, the type of issues we can live with for a few days and even weeks but not months. There, in that department, we seem to be at the complete mercy of our agent and landlord. And that sucks!
My previously mentioned observation, stating that real estate ownership represents the class divide of Australian society, is getting firmer and firmer.

Image by cdsessums, Creative Commons license

Wednesday, 21 March 2012


Finally, I was able to conclude the basic calibration of our new TV. It was worth the wait and the effort: the picture, although not half as flashy as it was on its factory setting, is much more realistic and comfortable on the eye. When playing quality material the difference shows: it shows on DVDs (although it also clearly shows DVDs should now go the way of the dinosaur) and it shows on Blu-rays and other high definition material. I have never seen Call of Duty this spectacular!
This post is here to urge you to do the same for your TV. I will point out some of the differences between the pre and post calibration in an attempt to show you how wrongly set your TV probably is: our TV’s color setting defaulted at 50; through my own visual estimates I reduced the setting to 38; but the properly calibrated setting, the realistic looking one, had the color set to 19! How wrong could I be? (And how wrong could the TV manufacturer be!)
Assuming I managed to convince you of the need for calibration, or at least arouse your curiosity, here’s the how. Basic calibration, like the one I have done, is really easy: I just used the THX Optimizer available on virtually all THX certified DVDs (alas, I don’t recall seeing them on Blu-rays).
You put your THX certified DVD in your player, navigate to the THX Optimizer section, follow the instructions for calibrating your TV using the provided test patterns, and then sit back to relax with your TV looking like you’ve never seen it before. The only catch is the need for a special filter to adjust the color setting with (that was the reason why my calibration was held up), but that can also be solved at a minor expense by ordering special “glasses” from THX.
Allow me to qualify myself and make it clear the THX Optimizer calibration is quite basic. For a thorough calibration of your TV, there is no substitute for getting a technician that knows what they're doing and carries proper analysis equipment. With this equipment they should be able to adjust the color temperature of your TV across the range, something manufacturers seem intent on not doing (they tend to make everything appear bluer than it should be; the exception is Samsung on some of their higher quality sets' Movie mode).
Allow me to also say that you may not even need to perform the calibration yourself. If your TV is a mainstream model from a reputable brand, you should be able to Google your way to a reputable source that tells you exactly how to calibrate your TV for reference viewing. My point is simple: there is no excuse for a non calibrated TV, really.
I take note that my newly calibrated LED backlit LCD panel TV’s picture now looks much more similar to my old rear projection TV’s. Which is a good thing, because that old TV was properly calibrated, too. Most notably, the picture looks less “video like” and more “film like”; I like it better this way.

Image by Denelson83, GNU Free Documentation License

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Dictatorship at Work

Sadam Mercury 

What would you think of yourself if you were to find out you’re willingly living in a dictatorship? Not merely a dictatorship that tells you what to do, but also a dictatorship that tries to dictate how you think as well. It sounds horrible if not impossible, but most of us take part in such dictatorships. We just call it “going to work”.
I find it strange that in this day and age where we pride ourselves of our freedoms and our choices we’re still willingly putting ourselves under dictatorial regimes for most of our conscious hours. We wage wars to free others from non democratic reigns, but we shut up or don’t even realize what it is we’re putting ourselves through when we go to the office in the morning. An office where we are tasked with stuff we often do not have much of a saying about; an office where we are even strictly taught how to present ourselves while forbidden to express our genuine inner thoughts. If you ask me, that’s the perfect theocracy: it’s as extreme as theocracies go in the sense that it even reaches through to dictate the way you think, but all the while it is considered an achievement to be at a position where such a theocracy accepts you in the first place.
As I am writing this post I am at a relatively privileged position. A recent organizational structure change at work has meant that recently I have been spending a significant portion of my office time researching, analyzing and performing several other tasks that I actually find interesting. However, it is exactly this position of privilege I’m currently at that is making me think: given that change is always in the air, what would I be able to do when the winds blow the other way and I am asked to work on stuff I do not enjoy much, or perhaps even dislike altogether? I suspect this is the type of fear citizens of dictatorships worldwide are feeling, albeit more extensively given the physical risks to their lives.
I would therefore throw the glove for truly democratic workplaces to pick up. It seems to me as if organizations offering true cooperative environment to their employees have the potential to be something truly special. Yes, I would like to see myself working at such a place.

Image by Sol, re, mi, Creative Commons license

Check Our Second Floor Up

Saturday, 17 March 2012

On HDMI Cables

I have been conned recently: I ended up wasting $50 on buying a fake HDMI cable at eBay. In particular, I thought that I can get the Monster Cable top of the line connector, the M2000HD, for less than a quarter of its normal USA price (Australian prices are always too inflated to make any comparison worthwhile). Shortly after ordering the cable I remembered reading how Monster was annoyed at the proliferation of fakes, which sent me looking at their website. There they have extensive resources on fakes and look-alikes, enough to make it clear beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was wronged. I should have known better, really, before I fell for the too good to be true.
My incident is currently being disputed with PayPal. Although I’m the last to expect anything good to come out of PayPal, I am aware of past cases where they refunded the buyer upon the buyer providing proof of destroying the fake product. In my case, I would have to provide a photo of the fake cable after I tear it to pieces. Should be fun!
The real question I will try answering with this post is this: why did I bother looking after this particular HDMI cable anyway? Aren’t all HDMI cables the same?

Well, the simple answer is no: HDMI cables are not all the same, even if physically they are all compatible with one another. That is, you can take a $5 HDMI cable and connect your PlayStation 3 to your TV with it, and you can do the same with a $1000 cable; however, it is highly likely the quality of the picture and the sound will tend to be better with the latter.
You don’t have to take my word for it. The performance of HDMI cables can be measured and assessed using regular lab electronics (check this example for reference). What the measurements show is the often significant level of distortion in the analog representation of digital signals communicated via HDMI cables, to a degree that this digital signal may be wrongly interpreted at the other side of the cable. Or rather, you will see the wrong picture / hear the wrong sound (or, if this happens often enough, your equipment will just go blank as it loses sync).
While errors in the digital signal are relatively rare, timing errors are a different matter. Jitter, the phenomenon where you receive the right signal at the wrong time (even nanoseconds matter with human hearing), has become an epidemic in the context of HDMI. Any audiophile would tell you the best way to ruin the sound of a CD player is to connect it via HDMI. It gets even better: the more information you cram down your HDMI’s cable’s throat, the more problem prone that connection would be: transferring the normal output of a DVD through HDMI is not the same as transferring the output of a full blown 1080P Blu-ray with a non compressed 7.1 soundtrack.
Can something be done about these problems?
Yes. First, you can shop around for home theater components with good, low jitter interfaces (and this website’s reviews will gladly point you in the right direction).
Second, you can do your homework and choose your HDMI cables well. Sadly, reviews rarely measure cables’ performances; however, most hi fi reviewers do provide subjective sound quality advice, and once you cross reference several trustworthy sources you should be fine. Or at least that was the course of action I took after my eBay failure…
I ended up choosing the AudioQuest Pearl HDMI cable (pictured). I have had a good relationship with AudioQuest over the years: my main speakers are connected with their cables and have been for more than a decade now, as did my analog components (during the days I actually had analog components). In my opinion, AudioQuest represents relatively good value for money when it comes to hi fi. The particular HDMI cable I chose, the Pearl, has received glowing reviews from What Hi Fi (where it was named the best HDMI cable for 2011). Oh, and I got it for much less than I paid for that fake Monster Cable…

Photo: AudioQuest

Monday, 12 March 2012

Mission Accomplished

Ice Kachang! 
It took me almost six months, but today I can proudly say I've finished processing all of our last European holiday photos and videos! The results of those ~24GB of raw data are on display at Flickr and YouTube.
This achievement of mine unlocks the following features:
  1. I can finally move on to processing the photos I took since we came back from [those] holidays.
  2. I can put my mind to creating something creative out of all our home renovation photos. For example, I try to take a photo a day of our house, from the same position, so as to be able to show the building's progress; some sort of an animation film can be generated there.
    Disclaimer: I'm getting to the point where our house does not fit the frame of my phone's camera anymore.
  3. Our European holiday photos were the last to be loaded and processed on our Windows machines. From this point onwards, all of my photos will be processed on my Mac or on one of my Linux machines. The relief of being able to put Windows behind me in favor of significantly superior operating systems is significant!
On a Lighter note:
Over the last year or so I have been processing my photos using Adobe Lightroom. The tool has quite a learning curve, and it definitely takes me more time to process my photos with Lightroom than it used to in the old days (where Picasa was my tool of choice). Probably an order of magnitude more.
However, there can be no comparison between the end results. It is becoming obvious that the more I experiment with the tool the better the photos come out. Indeed, in this day and age one cannot be said to be truly embracing digital photography without putting one's hands into some serious photo processing.
These pro and semi-pro tools are getting to the stage where they are becoming accessible/affordable to virtually everyone. At this point I will add that Adobe recently came out with Adobe Lightroom 4.0, which now includes (amongst others) facilities for authoring photo books. Given that Adobe used the opportunity to cut its product's price by half, I am seriously considering an upgrade.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Taking the Myki

Like many of my fellow Melbournians, I was recently forced to try my hands with using a Myki card on our distinguished public transport system. When I say “forced” I mean it: through the Baillieu government removing all sale points of the Metcard other than the stations themselves, the risk of having no ticket to go home with has risen significantly enough for me to look at the less greener fields of the Myki.
When I say “less greener” I mean it: we all know how badly the Myki project was managed, and how buggy its final deliverable is. But there are other aspects that are often ignored, such as Myki collecting a nice database on where and when the people of Melbourne were as well as their travel habits. As always, little attention is paid to this privacy nightmare. Think about it this way, though: if I was to knock on your door and tell you that from now on I would log all your car trips for you in a database you have no access to, am I to expect anything but a punch to my face? Yet we allow Myki and our State Government to get away bruise free.
The main topic of this post is not the discussion of privacy matters, but rather the tale of what took place when I was forcibly coerced into embracing the Myki system. In simpler words: here is the tale of what took place between Myki and I as I started using it.

The Myki system has been in production at Melbourne since 2009. During January 2010 the State Government decided to give Myki cards away for free (they usually cost $10), so I got myself one. I did not, however, use it or do anything with it up until a week ago when I determined I can no longer avoid it.
Already having a Myki card in my wallet, the next step I needed to take before using the card in anger was charging it with money. Our saga begins there…
I went to the Myki website, logged into the account I had established two years ago, put my credit card info in, clicked the “Confirm” button, and… And the site crashed. I wouldn’t have minded if that had happened at any other point of the transaction, but when it happens at the time of confirming my credit card it is rather worrying: was I charged or wasn’t I? The Myki site couldn’t reliably tell me.
In the spirit of sportsmanship I went in again a tad later, and this time around my Myki got charged. So to speak, that is, because the confirmation screen told me it would take up to 24 hours for the money to reach my card:
On the other hand, the confirmation email that was sent to me in parallel told me it would take at least 24 hours for the money to reach my card:
Given that the only way both the confirmation screen and the email can be right is if it takes the transaction exactly 24 hours I was rather puzzled. As in, puzzled as to how a facility that has been used by hundreds of thousands of Victorians for over two years cannot get such simple text coordinated across its emails and website. I will also say that the mere fact it takes so long for the money to get through indicates a badly integrated system in the first place: I have been ordering at since the mid nineties, and it was always able to show me my purchases on the spot (and neither did it ever crash in the middle of a financial transaction).
Arriving at the train station the next morning in a rather insecure form, I tried my Myki card just for the sake of it. I touched on for the very first time! It turned out the money got to my card in less than 24 hours and I was beeped in.
At the other end of my travelling I touched my card off, as they say. And? And nothing happened! I wasn’t let out. I was not particularly surprised by this failure, as I have been witnessing dozens of disgruntled Myki users locked out of exiting the train station over the years. I didn’t expect it to happen to me during my first ever use of the Myki, though. What a welcoming!
Like many other before me, I went to the help of the station’s attendant. He took my card, got out of the station, touched it on again, went inside through the now open gate, and handed me my card back. I touched off again (after waiting the queue all over again) and this time it worked. Again, it worked – but with lots of uncertainty in the air for this first time user. Does it mean I’ll be charged twice? And given that I touched on before, what was the deal anyway?

That was the tale of my entrance into the heart of Myki darkness. The main message I take out of my experiences is that the system is not production ready; yet it has been in production for more than two years now and is actively being forced on us as of early 2012. Clearly, none of the relevant decision makers have been using Myki; they just get some high paid consultancy to write them an ass covering report, and move on through their lives with the aid of taxpayer funded cars.

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Settled Down

Trust me on this: parting the Red Sea has been easier than getting ADSL to work at our rental address. But as of yesterday it’s finally there (ADSL, not the Red Sea), slowing down the Internet for the rest of you!
Sadly, we won’t be enjoying the full on Internet experience yet. My ADSL modem/router, a Billion BiPAC 7800N (pictured), decided to quit its wifi service after only six months of service. This otherwise brilliant piece of hardware has now been with Billion's technicians for three weeks, and I do have to say I am less than ecstatic about their customer service. Routers are notorious for breaking down under heat stress, and the least a manufacturer can do is ensure its customer receive good warranty experience.
The problem I have with the Billion experience is one of transparency: I was ordered to surrender my faulty gear at the shop I bought it at (what if I bought it at, say, Sydney?); from that point in time and up until that shop calls me back to say they got my gear back, I have no idea what’s taking place. Worse, I have no contact point other than the shop itself to give me status updates. The shop told me to expect a four week turnaround, but even if that turns out to be accurate it’s less than a worthy substitute for a transparent procedure. Needless to say, it’s also pretty long, forcing the customer to acquire a replacement modem/router.
To compare, my previous D-Link modem and router served me for around seven years (!) and were retired due to their oldish specs. I’ve already established that Internet access is, at this day and age, an essential service. The way I see it, the least Billion could have done was to supply me with a replacement modem/router while they took mine for fixing. That didn’t happen, so I will put things this way: I doubt I’ll be buying Billion again, no matter how good their products are when they actually work.
Lucky for me, I was too lazy to sell my old D-Link ADSL modem on eBay, so I have a [slower] backup. Couple that with my recently purchased Airport Express and I should be able to cruise along till the significantly superior Billion makes its return.

Hopefully now that I’m fully back to unrestricted access of my drug of choice I’d get rid of the shakes. Hooray.

Image: Billion

Sunday, 4 March 2012

No Comment


Over the last few weeks I've been receiving complaints from readers regarding the rigorous process that leaving comments on my blog has become. I totally sympathize: as someone who comments a lot on my own blogs, I appreciate that Google's newly introduced tough measures imposed on those wishing to comment on my blogs are quite painful.
So I figured enough is enough. and decided to cancel the security verification that's currently required if one wishes to enter a comment. I went to my blogs' setup pages, looking for that particular parameter, and... I found out that Google removed it altogether. That is, Google took this parameter out of the blogger's hands. Ooh, there's another reason for me to move to WordPress! In retaliation I reverted back to the old Blogger interface (the one that predated Google desperately trying to make everything look like Google+). There I found the setting still existed!
Thus I cancelled the word verification requirements for entering comments on my blog. I hope this won't open the floodgates on spam, but in the mean time - entering your comments here should be much easier.

Image by miss miah, Creative Commons license

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Rules of Privacy Etiquette

How Europe is dealing with online privacy 

An interesting article by George Wright in The Age talks about rules for social etiquette on matters of privacy over the Internet. Namely, how to avoid damaging the privacy of others through whatever it is that you're doing on the Internet. The sad fact is that while one may take all the precautions in the world, the hapless actions of a generally well meaning friend can quickly bring all these efforts to ruin (e.g., the friend letting Facebook upload the contents of their smartphone's contacts information).
First, a disclaimer: I have been guilty as anyone with these things. On one hand I am definitely more aware now of these issues than the majority of people, while on the other hand I am quite active in the social media scene (blogs, photographs etc) so I can easily damage my friends' privacy through the slightest errors here and there.
Next, I would like to quote the privacy etiquette rules specified by the article (while wondering if I am breaking copyrights as I do so?). I've dropped my own notes in brackets:
  1. Don’t offer other people's information, even inadvertently. Before you wish someone a happy birthday or anniversary, check to see if they have set that in their profile. If in doubt say nothing.
    [In general, I try to avoid mentioning birthdays as birth dates can easily be used for identity theft, at least in Australia.]  
  2. Don’t get specific.
    [I often get specific about myself; I try to avoid being specific about others, but I suspect I slip too often.]
  3. Don’t tag photographs. Leave it up to the person to tag themselves if they wish.
    [In recent years my practice is to tag the first name only, under the assumption there are too many "John"s in this world but only a bare few that matter to me and whom I want to be able to easily locate amongst my photos. Needless to say, the number one step to take when it comes to protecting your friends' privacy (and yours) is to avoid posting your photos in forums that treat them as company property, such as Facebook or Picasa. Ownership matters!]
  4. Don’t break the scope of the message (No Gossip clause) - If a story or piece of information was shared between a small group, Do not re-share or cut and paste it into other networks.
    [I couldn't agree more. I have a good friend who regularly takes my photos out of Flickr and posts them by email, thus pissing me off on a regular basis. He's not doing anything illegal and his distribution list is limited, but still - he's creating multiple copies of my original, and in the process we all lose control of the photos' whereabouts.]
  5. Check your profile regularly, see if any fields that you have set as empty have since been “helpfully” filled in by the software making inferences.
    [This is otherwise known as "The Facebook Rule", although it definitely applies to LinkedIn just the same.]
  6. Agitate against the rule that real names must be used.
    [This is otherwise known as "The Google+ Rule".]
Indeed, I think these are good rules to follow and I recommend you do. I would also love to hear what you have to say about these rules and my interpretations/notes: I really hate the feeling I get whenever I realize I've infringed a friend's privacy.

Image by SaFoXy, Creative Commons license

Friday, 2 March 2012

Utility Blues

Always write angry letters to your enemies. Never mail them.

Those reading my Twitter feed recently might have already familiarized themselves with my frustrations, generated by the various utility companies I have had the dubious pleasure of interacting with during our recent move. With the exception of the water company, they have been failing me one by one with stuff that is at the very core of the services they are meant to provide. Through their failures, they have me waste hours of my time each week chasing them up.
It is therefore my pleasure to name and shame the following:
  1. Telstra: The joys of chasing them up and the “professional” services granted by some of their technicians have already been detailed here.
  2. Simply Energy: This gas/electricity provider sent meter men in before we moved in to our house in order to connect us, then sent us a letter saying we’ll be disconnected in a week’s time (their excuse: “it was a standard letter”), and then sent us a letter saying our gas will be disconnected because they can’t find the meter. WTF? What did the meter man do when they came to see the place, water the garden? And how could they miss the gas meter that’s right at the driveway’s entrance? My joys with Simply Energy are still ongoing, with them seemingly unable to post or email me my welcome pack despite repeated requests.
  3. RACV: For some reason this established insurance company is having problems listing my possessions (even though they've been listed at previous policies) and sending me my up to date insurance policies. Yes, despite repeated requests (a familiar theme there?). They also complained that I paid them on the day they asked me to pay them on, simply because that day happened to fall on a weekend and they didn't get the money till later. Surely they could have looked at their calendar before specifying the payment’s due date?
There’s more to name and shame, like our ADSL provider, but I’ll leave it for now in order to focus on one provider in particular. A provider that seems keen on failing us at any possible opportunity. Or rather, a provider that never misses a chance to fail us. That provider is Australia Post.
By now we have a regular ritual with Australia Post. Every time we go on holiday we ask for our post to be withheld; that’s for security reasons, to prevent would be burglars from figuring out we’re not home through the pile of mail at the post box. Alas, each time we come back from holidays we find a pile of boxes at our door step. This triggers what is by now a workflow I am well familiar with:
  1. I call Australia Post to ask what’s going on.
  2. They never call me back despite promises.
  3. I wait for their “10 to 14 business days to call you back” elapse to call them back again.
  4. They tell me they have slapped the hand of whoever it was that should have withheld our post.
  5. I ask for my money back (withholding post for around two weeks costs around $20!).
  6. They’re surprised by this request.
  7. Eventually, after a month or two, I get my money back.
It’s like clockwork – we’re going through the same movie every time we go on holidays.
We are not on holiday now, though; we just moved houses. As part of the move I paid Australia Post $75 to have my mail redirected from the previous address to the new one. Does it work? Of course not. Disregarding mail items without our explicit names on them, which are still delivered regularly (virtually all are junk), we still get the occasional important letter that slips by to our old address. Say, a bill that needs paying. Effectively this means I have to check my old post box regularly, but then what was the point of those $75 that I paid in the first place?
The recent highlight came in the form of a package sent to us months ago by my Israeli parents. It was sent to our old address; we haven’t heard anything about it till we received a note telling us to pick it up from the post office yesterday. The catch, or rather, the catches?
    1. That notice is one of those “final notices”, where Australia Post is telling us they’ll destroy our item if we don’t pick it up soon.
    2. This implies Australia Post actually notified us of this package’s arrival before. Well, they didn’t: they didn’t leave any notification at our old post box, nor did they at our new one.
    3. Now we have to pick the box up from the post office near our old address, some four kilometres away from where we now live. That’s when Australia Post has two perfectly fine offices much nearer to where we now live, the place where we paid $75 to get our post forwarded to. And I thought the purpose of postal services is to brings the packages to us rather than bring us to the packages.
      As I said, Australia Post never misses a chance to fail. Their failures, as well as the others’, should be at the top of our minds every time we contemplate things like, say, moving. At the higher level, these failures indicate that both government monopolies as well as the competitive free market where competition is supposed to keep service providers on their toes don’t work. Somehow, it’s always the little person at the end that gets screwed. You know, us.

      Image by Alicakes*, Creative Commons license

      Thursday, 1 March 2012

      Atheism for the Religious

      My record on Alain de Botton is pretty clear: I like the guy and look forward for new books of his to get published. I like him so much I awarded him with best book of the year award (here) and best TV program of the year (here). Even a book of his I did not like much, Architecture of Happiness, has had profound impact on my life in the sense that it was a major contributor to the huge renovation/extension project we’re currently going through. Thus when a new book release from de Botton was promised, Religion for Atheists, I was looking forward to it with great anticipation.
      You can understand why. First, the realization that de Botton belongs to my own camp – we’re both atheists – does something to my de Botton enthusiasm levels. Second, it does sound like it would be nice to hear what this otherwise inspirational and insightful person has to say about religion, doesn’t it?
      Then the book got released and controversy followed. It turns out de Botton deviated from the line of recently famous books on religion written by atheists, books like The God Delusion and God Is Not Great. It turns out de Botton is saying atheists have a lot to learn from religion, pointing at education and architecture as worthy examples. He went on to bash New Atheists ala Richard Dawkins and, for what it’s worth, ala yours truly.
      Thus far de Botton did nothing to make me avoid reading his book. I don’t mind constructive criticism, and who other than de Botton can offer such? I don’t mind reading proper criticism of Richard Dawkins, simply because I find the Dawkins’ case so well presented and so thoroughly supported by rational evidence as to totally destroy any counterargument thrown at it thus far. I’m at a point where I so thoroughly agree with Dawkins I’m bored with myself: the only disagreements I could identify between us are to do with his love of cricket and dogs. So sure, I would love to see someone have a proper go at Dawkins.
      But then I bumped into this CNN article on de Botton, where he makes the following claim:
      Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is "true."
      And that was the deal breaker.
      You see, I love the truth and I value it. I think it’s immensely important. Call me a paranoid, but when I’m on board of a jet flying more than ten kilometers up in the air I like to think the instruments are telling the pilot the truth. When I get an x-ray I like to think the output is a truthful reflection of what's inside of me. When I’m taken to court I like to think that the justice bestowed on me is based on the truth rather than, say, someone’s whim. I can go on, but if you’re after the ultimate case for the value of truth I would dearly recommend Carl Sagan’s Demon Haunted World, one of the better books I ever had the pleasure of reading.
      Truth matters, and by definition everything else is bollocks. Including, for that matter, a book written by a pop philosopher whom I otherwise like. It is clear to me now that de Botton’s arguments are not founded on anything I would find reasonable, and for that reason I do not see myself buying or reading his latest book.
      Religion for Atheists? Sounds to me more like apologetically selling atheism to the religious.

       Image: Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton