Sunday, 29 April 2012

The Ubuntu Party

The latest semi annual release of Ubuntu took place last week. This particular release is of particular interest by virtue of the fact this one is a Long Term Support (LTS) version: it's meant to be supported over the next five years, and by virtue of its nature and the way it was made it is also inherently more stable than the other three Ubuntu releases in the operating system's biyearly release plan. However, an event that would have been a cause of much anticipation, the release of the latest Ubuntu LTS saw me relatively indifferent.
There are three main reasons for my less than excited welcoming of Ubuntu 12.04 LTS (also called Precise Pangolin):
  1. Unity: The Unity interface that has been dominating Ubuntu releases for the past two years is a pain in the @ss. Hard as I try, and I do give it a chance every six months, I simply do not see how this interface is helping me as a user; it actually achieves the exact opposite, coming between me and the stuff I want to do with my computer on a regular and frequent basis.
  2. Performance: While Ubuntu is still slick and smooth compared to Windows, it is not the slick performer it used to be. Particularly not when running on netbooks, an area where Linux used to have a clear performance advantage.
  3. The Mac factor: My personal perception of the world of computing has changed significantly since I got myself a Mac. The Mac seems to be offering the best of both worlds: stuff that's available for Windows is generally available for Mac as well (with the notable exception of games, but that does not bother me personally); while stuff that's available as open source software for Linux is generally available for the Mac, too. In addition, Mac OS X offers Ubuntu's biggest advantage over Windows: the ability to forget that you're dealing with a computer and just do whatever it is you want to do with the computer.
    The Mac is not perfect in this department. Security is an issue and then there is the very bothering fact it is owned by a company with a track record of self interest and disregard for its users: a company that, for example, will not admit to vulnerabilities such as Flashback till hundreds of thousands of Macs have been compromised, and even then fail to respond adequately. Being of true open source nature, the way Ubuntu is, comes with definitive advantages. Problem is, most of the time one doesn't see these advantages; one tends to be blinded the easy life that comes with owning a Mac instead.
The picture is a complex one. I am using Windows, Mac OS X and Ubuntu all the time. I cannot, however, escape noticing that my Mac tends to be the computer on which I try and do the bulk of my computing activities at home. From pleasure to work, the Mac consistently provides the best platform for me to do my stuff.

Image: Ubuntu

Thursday, 26 April 2012

Lazing on a Wednesday Afternoon

It feels a bit of a circle of life thing: I don’t think I got more than 10 meters further away from my bed yesterday. I only took my pyjamas off for the benefit of a shower, after which I put it back on. What a lovely day to spend a day!
Or is it? Back in my bachelor days I got to spend many a day in roughly that fashion, getting out of bed to have breakfast at 14:00. Back then it used to feel nice to charge my batteries up but this waste of my time used to irritate me: would I be doing so much nothing were I to have someone to do stuff with?
Now I suffer the opposite problem, with life being so demanding I hardly have time to rest. Instead I suffer from constant sleep deprivation as I struggle to do a bit of the things I enjoy doing on top of the things I have to do. Spending a public holiday doing virtually nothing, a miserable rainy public holiday in particular, feels like winning some sort of a trophy.

For the record, the day was far from being wasted. For a good few hours the whole family was united as we watched my Mass Effect 3 adventure come to an end. I think I can say with much confidence that this has been the best video game I have ever had the pleasure of playing. I might have finished its single player campaign once, but it sure hasn’t seen the last of me!

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Remember the ANZACs


What is it, exactly, that World War 1 was fought for? History tells us the war was the result of rampant imperialistic tendencies (see Wikipedia’s take here). To me the Great War seems the most wasteful war ever, a war fought as a direct extension of a family feud within the single royal family that dominated Europe at the time.
That, however, does not seem to be the view shared with most Australians. The point cannot be better made than through the mouth of a child, asked why the war was fought during a TV news item on ANZAC Day preparations. There the boy said the soldiers fought for our freedom.
There, in one word – “freedom” - is my problem with ANZAC Day celebrations. Oh how easy it is for our leaders to twist the pages of history and load them with contemporary meaning! The lengths they would go in order to prepare new generations, so that when this group of middle aged men decides the time has come again for our younger generation to sacrifice itself in some meaningless war they’d be able to get away with it and even portray themselves as freedom fighters!
If you were to ask me what the value of ANZAC Day is then I will say this. ANZAC Day should be a day to remember the horrors of war and the sacrifices made on behalf of the soldiers fighting those wars, whether Australian, Turkish or any other nationality. It is understandable when the focus is put on the Aussie side of things, but we need to take into account the other side whose land was invaded; otherwise all we will be saying is that our imperialistic cause was superior to the Turks’, when it is clear both are silly. The main purpose of this remembrance should not be the infusion of our nationalistic feelings with some extra fuel, but rather the realization we should never let the same happen again: we should not be led into war by the whim of any authority, be it a politician or some royalty.
From Vietnam to Iraq, Australia's record in being led into another's silly battle is quite poor. Thus when we are asked to send our armies to a place like Afghanistan we should ask why. At the moment we do not ask this why question loud enough, while politicians either sides of the fence are repeatedly confirming the commitment of our soldiers to their causes. As long as we let them do that without proper account we cannot look ourselves in the mirror and claim to truly remember the ANZACs.

Monday, 23 April 2012

This Mortal Coil

Eyam tombstone 

Christopher Hitchens said that at the birth of his first child he met his funeral's coordinator for the very first time. Reflecting back on the birth of my own son, it occurs to me I have reached similar conclusions at the time but for different reasons.
I don’t know what your expectations of the modern world of medical care are, but for some reason or another I expected my newborn to go through some very thorough examinations following his birth. We should make sure everything’s alright with this newly assembled collection of fragile limbs, and if there is something wrong we should fix it quickly, shouldn’t we? Perhaps I have read too much science fiction in my time, but I sort of expected the baby to be taken to some device that would scan the atoms in his body and ensure there aren’t any stray molecules in there.
What did I get instead? I got the obligatory weighing and length measurements and that was it; no atomic scans or anything. Nothing I would define as conclusive testing. The conclusion is inevitable: from this point onwards, other than a push here and a pull there, the baby’s body owns the responsibility for the wellbeing of the person it contains. Modern medicine, with all of its grand achievements, is still firmly in the business of cutting and pasting.
Thus I was reminded once again of the fate that awaits us all at the end. Children, it seems, are the best reminder we have of our own inevitable mortality.

Image by Duncan~,Creative Commons license

Sunday, 22 April 2012

That Old iPhone vs. Android Question

An apple with the logo of Google made with laser 

A question that has been bothering this blog for a while but which hasn't been discussed lately is that greatest water cooler discussion ever: which smartphone should one buy, an Android or an iPhone? I thought I'd offer my latest views on this matter.
I would like to start by explaining why I'm dismissing the other contenders. Windows Phone 7 has been there for two years now and is still not managing to take off, while Blackberry has probably been there the longest but has run out of fuel and is heading for a crash that perhaps already took place. Which sort of leaves Android and iOS (iPhone) on the table.
I will start with my conclusion: the way things seem to be heading, I suspect my current iPhone will be replaced, eventually, by the latest generation iPhone. Given that I have been championing the superiority of the Android operating system quite heavily in the past, I will now explain my revised opinion.
The way I see it, there are three factors involved here:
  1. The functionality factor:
    High level speaking, Android gives its user more power than iOS; that power comes at the price of not offering as slick an out of the box experience as the iPhone. However, between the latest iOS 5 and the latest Android's Ice Cream Sandwich versions, the differences between the operating systems became drastically smaller. The iPhone, for example, now offers synchronization and upgrades sans an iTunes running PC. There really isn't that much of a difference between the two operating systems anymore in this age of the cloud: Google Maps' navigation facilities on the Android are comparable with those from the free Waze app, music can be listened to from the cloud via various services, Flash is no longer supported on any mobile platform, and tethering is now available on the iPhone.
    It therefore seems to me the choice between the two comes down to the environment one is already invested in.
  2. The iPad factor:
    The matter of environments we already have vested interests in brings me directly to the matter of the iPad. Why? Because in the same way most of us have ourselves a smartphone, most of us will also have ourselves a tablet. If we don't already have one then we will have one shortly; it is inevitable. It is our destiny.
    If you agree with me that tablets are in our near future, then you would surely agree with me those tablets will be called iPads and will come from Apple. The reason is simple: the Android platform is yet to offer anything that comes even close to the iPad's tablet experience. True, tablets like the Asus Transformer Prime offer significantly superior hardware in certain respects, but it is also makes it clear there is more to a tablet than its specs.
    The inevitable entrance of an iPad to our lives means we have vested interests in the iOS environment. From that point onwards the path to an iPhone is much better lit.
  3. The Google factor:
    During the time I preached the virtues of the Android platform I was under the impression that Apple is the evil company trying to milk as much money as it can out of us. All the while, Google was the "do no evil" friendly champion by our side. That impression has changed somewhat over the last year or so: while Apple is still evil, Google can no longer boast superiority; it is, in many respects, just as bad. In certain critical respects Google is even worse: by holding a lot of information on us and our preferences in life, and by clearly doing its best to abuse that information in favor of its bottom line, Google had become as despicable as Apple but much more dangerous.
So, were my iPhone to break down tomorrow, would I buy the iPhone 4S? I don't know. I really like the bigger screens on Androids like the Google Nexus, screens that make the iPhone look rather pathetic in comparison (retina or not). The Google Nexus' price advantage would also be a factor: Kogan is currently selling it for $430  compared to $650 for the iPhone. On the other hand, that price difference also speaks volumes of the way Android models disappear into the abyss so quickly after their release while the iPhone seems here to stay.
I'll put it this way: an iPhone 5 with a bigger screen and a quad core CPU should reign supreme.

Image by missha, Creative Commons license

Thursday, 19 April 2012

No Alarms and No Surprises

One thing that didn’t surprise me much is the way the media covered the Global Atheist Convention. There were some favorable reviews coming in from the agnostic/atheist/secular camp, but there was also the usual wind coming in from the religious side.
Take this as an example for the latter, an opinion article written by a Christian that dared entering the lions’ den and lived to tell of his miraculous survival after being locked in together with 4,000 atheists. We are used to religion falsely claiming ownership of morality despite the obvious fact none of us want religiously run morality (Sharia law, anyone?) that is so grossly out of touch with our modern values (Judaism, for example, is yet to renounce slavery; how can it when doing so would clearly defy the word of its god?). Now, however, it seems that Christianity claims ownership of the concept of gathering to hear leaders talk: no, that is something that should only be done at churches, says our humble opinion expressing Christian. By his account, an atheists’ convention should have us sitting in a circle and playing Snakes and Ladders. Silly me, I thought I was coming in to the convention in order to hear what cutting edge scientists and philosophers have to say to me.
The article then goes on to say that atheists who attended were mostly Anglos (true), but that in contrast churches are full of a variety of races. Is it such a big secret, I ask, that the better off one is, the lesser the chance you would find one in a church? And is it such big a secret that the well to do people in Australia happen to be mostly Anglos? The problem is not with atheism’s appeal, the problem is with the inequality of Australian society. The church’s problem, on the other hand, is that the more educated a person is the less religious they are, and for very obvious reasons.

This matter of relative ignorance brings me to the following. Not an obscure opinion article, but rather proper mainstream mass media coverage of the convention. It cannot be any more mainstream than an interview at Channel 10’s morning show:

My problem is with the interviewer asking Jason Ball, one of the convention’s organizers and a very active atheist (may the Flying Spaghetti Monster bless him), whether he thinks Christians are stupid.
Ball was trying to be polite. I won’t be: can anyone seriously suggest that all two billion or so Christians living on this world are stupid just by virtue of being Christian? Can anyone seriously suggest that Michelangelo was a moron? Or that Isaac Newton was dumb?
There is nothing intrinsically stupid about being a Christian. Even though I consider the idea of Christianity itself stupid, the reality is that the vast majority of Christians are so not because of personal choice on the matter but rather because their parents are Christian. Once indoctrinated it’s quite hard to release oneself from the shackles of religion for many a reason (which Dan Dennett discusses thoroughly here). Besides, it is very human indeed for one to hold countering opinions, as is obvious with the case of religious people who also happen to be scientists. It’s virtually guaranteed we all hold some opinions that counter one another; this, however, does not render us all stupid yet. I strongly suspect the ratio of stupid Christians is roughly the same as the ratio of stupidity in the general population, assuming affluence is taken out of the equation.
At last week’s TV debate Richard Dawkins explained why the “why are we here” question is a silly one to ask (it’s a question that already assumes an answer, in the sense it is already assumes there is a purpose to us being here). This “are Christians stupid” does not fall under the same category of questions that shouldn’t be asked in the first place; it just falls under the category of questions that don’t project too well on the person asking them. I would be worried if my four year old asked me that question; seeing the question seriously raised on prime time TV is enough cause to raise questions about our society as a whole.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Richard and I

Richard Dawkins 

Yesterday I left my wife and child at home, packed my guilty feelings (and my camera) and headed off to finally take part at the Melbourne Exhibition Centre’s Global Atheist Convention. Following is a fragmented and personal description of the day’s events, the direct result of having too many things to say but not enough time to devote to a cohesive description.

The Train Ride

I took an early Sunday morning train in order to arrive at the convention around 8:00am. As one can expect the train was mostly empty; however, I and multiple others did have the pleasure of sharing a carriage with a collection of drunks busy drinking and fellow inspirational people high on their meths. While no violence took place it was a scary ride: one could never tell what those control-less people are going to do next.
Where was the police? I suspect they were busy setting up speed cameras to fine people going 2km/h over the limit. Seriously, though: with trains going at a half hourly rate on Sunday mornings, and with high levels of post Saturday night intoxication in the air, does it really take a genius to figure out police patrols on the trains might be a high yield operation?

Registration was a breeze (give ticket, receive badge and program). As I was wandering around fellow sleep deprived kindred spirits I was surprised to find a PZ Myers actually on his own and working on his iPad. PZ Myers, in case you don’t know, is one of my favorite bloggers and probably the blogger I’ve been following the longest. Naturally, I couldn’t help interrupting him with a question that has been bugging me for a while now.
No, he said, hiding his annoyance at the interruption fairly well, he did not mind having the photo of his I took at the previous Global Atheist Convention (two years ago) being used by Conservapedia. I was relieved: when dealing with celebrities, it’s hard to tell when one crosses the threshold between being a fan and a pain; Conservapedia took that even further by providing a particularly nasty description of PZ Myers while using fans’ resources for its cause. Resources that, by virtue of their Creative Commons license, are not exactly in line with conservative’ agenda.

My Richard:

Let us not go around the bush. The convention’s main attraction, by far, was Richard Dawkins and the opportunity presented for me to come close to greatness in the flesh and, perhaps, grab a bite: a photo, a chat or a signature. Dawkins, as far as I can tell, is the only living major source of inspiration to my life: no, not only because of his defiant stand on matters of secularism, but mostly because of his incomparable ability to popularize science, explain it in a manner that even I can understand, and demonstrate its implications. The Selfish Gene is a beacon for these qualities, a book that works on so many levels.
So, what was I to do? Signatures came off the agenda: I’d love Dawkins’ agenda on my copy of The Selfish Gene, but that copy is now in storage (we're renovating); I would love a dedication to my son on his The Magic of Reality, but that book is stupidly large and heavy to carry around. Besides, Dawkins’ book signing session took place the day before and I missed it.
A chat? What could I possibly tell Dawkins he hasn’t heard before without making a fool of myself? A.C. Grayling proved the point by standing right next to me and offering to answer questions; all I could do was take photos and a short video.
So I went with the easiest, the “take a photo” option. I was lucky: in contrast to previous days, where Dawkins was alleged to have sneaked out a bit before the breaks, he chose to stay till the end. Which meant that as the break came he was surrounded by fans. Before making his polite getaway I did manage my brush with glory and a few up close and personal photos. If you ask me what Dawkins is like from close range then I will say two things: first, he’s starting to look his age, which is a bit of a worry. Second, he strikes me as a well meaning shy guy, the type that wants to get the work done but doesn’t want all the bells and whistles that go with being a celebrity.


In typical fashion I was, like most of the people around me, was on Twitter throughout the day. It was interesting to note the tools of the trade the average atheist brought along: everyone has a smartphone by now, but almost every second person had a tablet (I didn’t just say “iPad” because I saw a single Samsung there, too). A few had laptops, and my impression was that they were the pros of the lot (as in, most of them were presenters). The laptops were all (and I mean it - all) made by a company with the logo of a fruit on their lead. The majority were Mac Airs.
Back to Twitter. There were virtually hundreds of people I know through Twitter around me, but other than the slight few with actual photos on their profile I could not identify them in person. I guess this is a new problem to be faced by people of the information age, but it does raise the question of the validity of Twitter or other social media based interaction. On the positive side, yes, I did see a lot of familiar faces from Twitter, and even chatted with a few. As in mouth moving chats.
Between reading tweets and chatting up people (as much as this anti social can just engage with people he’s unfamiliar with) I had my go at twitting, too. One of those tweets said:
Seems the consensus around #atheistcon is that @LeslieCannold's presentation has been the strongest thus far (despite using PowerPoint)
If only I could have foreseen the trouble this tweet would bring! My PowerPoint jibe was a joke made because Cannold asked for PowerPoint help the other week and I replied by asking why she’s using the tool in the first place given the existence of superior tools (i.e., Keynote; Cannold's a Mac user). Alas, that was not the way the tweet was interpreted; it resulted in Leslie Cannold receiving criticism for using PowerPoint, which is the last thing I was aiming for. I wanted to flatter her but ended up causing her to be on the defense. And me? I was deemed a troller, and to be honest it’s probably the right interpretation. Seriously, shame on me.
Thus I find myself having to apologize before Leslie Cannold for the second time this year.

Sam Harris:
If you were to ask me, the best presentation of the day was made by Sam Harris. Deviating from his plan to present on The Illusion of Free Will he ended up presenting about death and the way society deals with it. By now I’m used to taking Harris for granted: The Morale Landscape changed the way I regard ethics; Free Will and preceding work changed the way I regard free will. So why should I be surprised if Harris makes me rethink the way I regard death? Given the popularity of this blog’s posts on matters of death, I hope Harris further develops his ideas. A book, perhaps?
I do have to add Harris’ presentation was good despite its second half, where he ran a five minute long (perhaps even longer?) meditation session with the crowd. Were we at an atheist convention or at some post modern alternative health guru’s show? I could see where Harris came from but I didn’t appreciate his particular take.

High quality catering was provided, making it obvious atheists are made mostly of carnivores who like to think highly of themselves. Or rather: Vegetarian offerings ruled the day, but it was the meat serves that seems to have vanished off the face of the earth. Even I, a professional eater used to eating at least several times a day, only managed to secure one meaty sandwich! Oh, the shame.

Muslim Protest:
During lunch we were treated with an extra show: outside the entrance to the Melbourne Exhibition Centre was a small group of protesting Muslims. They were of that scary Muslim stereotype, dressed in traditional garbs with beards and all. To their credit they were peaceful; however, the signs they carried told of a different story (see here, here, here and here).
That protest was beneficial in one respect: it convinced me that the problem with Islam is very much present in Australia, too. Thus far we’ve been dodging it, but one day we will have to face it. Given the not so polite way the protesters were promising certain people an eternity in hell as well as referring to yours truly as mentally ill, I would argue that day will dawn soon.
Another question popping to my head had to do with free speech. I’m all for free speech, but I’m not for using free speech to threaten other people with. I therefore wonder about the legality of the protest and whether the police should have had a private word with the protesters; Were I in Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s place I would have liked to see them behind bars. Those people were proof for Hitchens’ arguments on the poisoning effects of religion. My answer to these fellow apes would probably come in the shape of me reading Hirsi Ali’s most famous book, Infidel.

The Grand Finale:
The convention concluded with a concentration of so much brilliance on a single stage I am lost for words to describe how it made me feel to be but 15 meters away. What started with a tribute to Christopher Hitchens ended with some great minds having a chat. Allow me to recount my heroes: Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss (physicist, lately in charge of keeping me up to date on cosmology and author of A Universe from Nothing), Sam Harris (neuroscientist and philosopher) and Daniel Dennett (professor of philosophy and author of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, amongst many others). Wow! I doubt I will ever be that close to such a concentration of wisdom and IQ. Yes, I gave them a standing ovation. Yes, I had tears in my eyes; the only improvement I could suggest was to add an extra chair for A.C. Grayling.
Attending this atheist convention definitely gave me a sense of belonging that mere Internet connectivity cannot provide yet. I know, many others get the same feeling by going to church; if one wants to equate a church of blind wishful thinkers stuck to their Bronze Age philosophies to this gathering of people united in their will to critically look the universe up with eyes wide open then so be it. To me that difference makes all the difference in the world. Thank you, dear wife, for a wonderful gift.

Friday, 13 April 2012

The Great Debate

By now, Monday night’s Q&A debate between Richard Dawkins and Cardinal George Pell (video and transcript here) has acquired mythical status in the blogosphere. Unjustifiably so, if you were to ask me.
For a start, I don’t understand why Dawkins chose to take part in this debate in the first place. He often explains why being dragged to such debates with the religious gives his opponents the ability to claim equal status to the world of science that he represents. He was also very obviously jetlagged, and in general had the approach of the astute intellectual for whom stooping down to addressing the half truths sprayed by Pell was a waste of time. Don’t get me wrong, I totally sympathize with Dawkins here, and I suspect he agreed to debate for the sheer PR value and for the promotion of the secular values he champions (and how very glad I am he does!). However, in my opinion such a debate cried for someone of the Hitchens approach: the inhibition-less Hitchens would have totally flattened Pell.

Personally, what I took from the debate came entirely out of Pell’s mouth (after all, I am as well versed with Dawkins as one can aspire to be). It included gems such as:
  1. The church was the liberator of women.
  2. Jews are stupid.
  3. The Germans were the main victim of World War 2.
The one genuine lesson I took also came from Pell’s mouth. When he explained how the Eucharist changes into the flesh of Jesus without appearing to do so, he said
I understand it, according to a system of metaphysics. It was spelled out by the Greeks before Christ came, which we have adopted and that is there is a substance which is the core of a being and it is revealed to us through what are called accidents.
And what a wonderful lesson in the silliness of Christianity did he give us in the process! Check this out: Christianity has adopted a philosophy called “metaphysics” from the Greeks. This implies metaphysics is older than Christianity, which implies the Christians chose to take some of the Greeks’ beliefs for granted (metaphysics) but not the rest of their beliefs (say, the gods of Olympus). By what right can Christianity claim that metaphysics is valid while Zeus is invalid? What evidence does Christianity have in favor of metaphysics that does not also favor Athena?
It is also interesting to note that metaphysics is still considered valid despite any evidence to support it and despite it being at least two millennia old. Christianity can have faith in that, yet it has problems with evolution, physics and cosmology. Christianity thinks there have been no improvements to our understanding of the world since the days of the Greek Empire.
It is obvious that once we look at Christianity beyond the Sunday school level, its foundation-less shambles are nothing but a grotesque joke.

Image: ABC

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Picking on Christianity


With the Global Atheist Convention just around the corner (this coming weekend, actually), I wanted to devote a post to answering a simple question: of all the religions, why do I tend to pick on Christianity in particular or at least more than the rest?
First, a brief clause to explain why I pick up fights with religions in the first place. I tend to describe myself as an atheist; however, this description is flawed. It is glaringly wrong: since neither I nor anyone else can ever hope to disprove the existence of gods (in most of the shapes or forms humans tended to imagine them to be), I can never have absolute confidence in saying there is no god. I can, however, argue that the probability of gods being there, in particular the gods humans came up with, is so low that I can confidently live my life with total disregard to the concept, the same way today's Christians disregard the belief in Zeus. Indeed, disregarding I do: while agnostic by definition, I am also clearly an anti-theist both in attitude and in actions. The problem is, saying I’m an agnostic with anti theist tendencies is a bit long in the tooth; saying I’m an atheist tends to convey the same message in a much clearer fashion.
So yes, I pick on religions. They are begging to be picked upon, even the seemingly tame ones. Dalai Lama? He’s all cute and cuddly, but the aura fades fast when one bothers to hear what homophobic message he carries. And no, the guy’s not exactly a feminist. However, there are good reasons why I don’t pick on other religions as much: with the exception of Judaism, I don’t know enough about religions other than Christianity. That includes Islam, the elephant in the room, although in Islam’s case there is the fact I avoid picking on it because I would like to die of old age; a sadder testimony for the quality of a religion cannot be provided. Yes, I am fully aware that the more militant side of Islam is a small minority, particularly in Australia; they are, however, still quite powerful, at least in the way their message is projected through Western societies. There is also too much silence coming in from the moderate Muslims when it comes to keeping the troubling minority at bay.
Now we’re coming to my main argument. I pick up fights with Christianity because more than any other religion Christianity tries to impose itself on me, an Australian living in what is alleged to be a secular country. Secular my ass is probably what I want to say through the following examples:
  1. When Richard Dawkins is brought to Q&A to debate atheism with a religious leader, they brought a Christian one to counter him (Cardinal George Pell). They did not choose, say, an Imam.
  2. The work newsletter sent to my work inbox before Easter had an item on “how do other Christian cultures and nationalities celebrate Easter”. It did not talk about what other cultures do around Easter time, but rather narrowed things down to what other Christians are doing – effectively assuming that I’m a Christian myself.
  3. My calendar contains two Christian holidays, Christmas and Easter, but nothing from any other religion.
  4. My head of state, the queen, is also entitled the protector of Christianity at her kingdom. I know she’s irrelevant and all, but she’s still officially there, on my passport and everything.
  5. With the exception of Julia Gillard, all our Prime Ministers have been Christians. The guy who seems likely to replace her next year, Tony Abbott, is so much of a Christian he scares the shits out of me.
  6. When my son goes to state school next year, he will be indoctrinated with Christian dogma and non other unless I actively opt him out.
I can go on and on, but the point should be clear: Christianity is actively doing its best to impose itself upon Australia. As an anti-theist agnostic I will do my best to push it back, and that starts with picking up opportunities to demonstrate the flaws of the Christian system of belief.

Monday, 9 April 2012

Finding My Way

As a person who used GPS technology to navigate my way around a foreign continent more than a decade ago, I have had my share of GPS devices: on my smartphones, on dedicated devices, on my bicycle even - I had a lot. The question that's always been relevant is which GPS should I get? That question has been troubling me lately for a very worldly reason: our existing Tomtom Start unit is now two and a half years old. Originally purchased for $180, it would cost me less to buy a new one (they're now selling for less than $80) than to update the map that is getting sorely out of date.
At this particular point in time the question comes down to whether I should acquire navigation software for my smartphone of choice or whether I should utilize a dedicated device to the cause. There are pros and cons each way-
Pro smartphone:
  1. You only need to carry one device.
  2. You get free map updates whenever there is a software update (at least that is the case with the better navigation apps around).
  3. Because smartphone hardware tends to be of better quality than your average dedicated GPS from the likes of say, Tomtom or Garmin, the overall user experience can be significantly better. For example, the re-planning of a route takes much less time on a modern day smartphone. Not to mention the capacitive screen, a smartphone norm that only comes with the most expensive dedicated satnavs.
  4. Free turn by turn navigation apps are available.
  5. Navigation apps come in two flavors: ones you can use offline (like Tomtom) or ones that use a 3G connection to update as you go (like Waze or Google Maps for Android). Google Maps actually goes further by letting you download a route so you can use it offline. The advantage of this choice is in the ability to land somewhere new, acquire a local 3G SIM card and drive your way. After all, you would want that SIM anyway for Internet access! However, this limits your navigation to areas with cellular network reception - exactly why the offline solutions tend to have the upperhand.
  6. Even if you prefer the none free navigation apps, they're still cheaper than buying a dedicated device.
  7. If your smartphone is out there already, you can use it to do other stuff - like, say, play music.
Pro dedicated GPS:
  1. It comes with its own windscreen suction cup.
  2. They're easier to deploy.
  3. It won't kill your smartphone's battery (a rather precious resource).
  4. It the suction cup fails and the device falls, you would still be able to tell the tale through your smartphone.
  5. You're not locked to a particular smartphone eco system (e.g., Android, iOS).
  6. Some of the more expensive models offer bonuses such as hands free calls and even texting (via voice recognition; not that it ever works, at least for me).
It sounds like the smartphone is the winner. One only needs to look at sales records to see it clearly is. I, however, still prefer the dedicated option: that battery factor is important, and I am also worried about my smartphone's longevity given the way my iPhone heated up upon extended navigation sessions. The problem is, once one is used to a modern day smartphone, using a slow reacting resistive screened GPS device feels so last century! So, which GPS should I be putting my hands on?
Tomtom has its Go Live range with capacitive screens. I'm particularly attracted to the World model, featuring North American, Western Europe and Australia/New Zealand maps as well as traffic updates. The problem with the Tomtom is the maps: keeping these up to date costs a lot!
Garmin comes to the rescue, sort of, by offering a product that sells for $375, a cool $100 less than the Go Live World. It's called the Nuvi 3450LMT and its pictured above. It's got the capacitive screen, it doesn't have the 5" screen or the world maps, but it does have free lifetime map updates as well as free lifetime traffic updates. Assuming I have a bit less than $400 in my wallet to spend on a GPS device, that would be my device of choice. No world maps? Guess I'll use my iPhone for those, just like I did very successfully already while running Navfree.
My only problem? I don't have $400 to spend on a GPS at the moment. Guess the Garmin would have to wait till a major road trip of an excuse.

Image: Garmin

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Easter Thinking

Cristo Redentor

This blog has already seen my expressions of contempt towards some of the basic ideas Christianity has thrown our way. Sure, suggesting we turn the other chick sounds lovely but it's totally impractical and absolutely no one practices it absolutely; we are all lucky that is the case or Hitler would have been ruling us all. Yes, none of us qualifies to cast the first stone because our personal histories are full of sins, but would we have any shred of a justice system if we were to follow Jesus' sexy sounding advice there?
As problematic as I find the above ideas, they all pale in comparison to the Christian ideas celebrated at Easter. One may well say Easter is a dumb celebration. Allow me to explain:
Allegedly, Jesus died for our sins on Easter Friday after being tortured and crucified. I can identify with the sorrow there: whether one assumes Jesus was a real person or not, there are still plenty of people in this world who have suffered similar fates. The nasty part comes, however, with the claim that Jesus died for our sins. Say that again? How can anyone's death clean my sins in that great heavenly accounting scheme of god's? It doesn't take much contemplation to realize the only god who would manage such a bloody accounting system of blood for sins is a god no one would want to have; certainly not a loving god. Then again, that is no secret: after all, it's the Christian god that created us flawed and is threatening us so we'd be perfect.
Then there's the whole part about the resurrection on Easter Sunday. If Jesus had been resurrected, then why fuss so much about his death? Sure, he suffered, but as we all know it's not like his suffering has been in any way unique. Christianity alone has afflicted more suffering through the Inquisition; at least Jesus got away with it. For him, a god, the whole death/reincarnation must have been his most exciting day at the office since he thought up the rules behind quantum physics. Whoever agreed to wipe our sins away at Jesus' death must be cursing their luck.
The ideas behind Easter are not your philosophical nitpicking the way contemplations on how many angels fit the eye of a needle are. These ideas are at the very essence of Christianity. In my opinion, the fact people still believe in Christianity despite its very shaking foundations is a clear indicator to how little people think about what it is that they believe in. After all, it's not that important; it only represents what believers consider their basic system of morals.

Image by Roberto Moretti, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Massive Effect

A few weeks ago I decided I’m a bit fed up with all the video games I have. I needed something fresh!
With Skyrim still selling for $55 I decided to go for the cheaper Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. I didn’t like the first Uncharted much, but the third one was rumored to be better. Indeed, I can confirm Uncharted 3 on the PS3 is a very entertaining game: it’s like watching an Indiana Jones film with you taking part in the action. Minor bugs, such as NPCs running into walls and such, are more than forgiven.
Just when I thought I’ve achieved my goal I saw Good Game’s review of the new Mass Effect 3 and read Delimiter’s review of the game (a Guardian reprint, actually). It looked like this one might be special, so much so that I opened my wallet to pay the $60 asking price for a new A List release at Ozgameshop (mind you, it’s still way better than the price at the [physical] shops). Having received the game and played it, I can confirm Mass Effect 3 is something special. In my opinion, it’s the best video game I have ever seen.
There are many reasons why the game is great. Gaming wise, Mass Effect 3 combines the best of different genres: it’s [almost] a first person shooter in the action department, it’s a tactical battle game in the sense that you’re also commanding a squad, and it’s a role playing game in the sense of you developing characters and skills as you move along. The plot seems nonlinear (I haven’t played Mass Effect 3 long enough to confirm that), with decisions changing the flow of the game: not just in which battle you’d be fighting next, but also with your character’s involvement in gay relationships (to name but one example).
That last point leads me to Mass Effect 3’s main strength: it is an incredibly rich game. It has a rich plot through which to stir and it allows characters to develop their own characters (excuse the pun). Indeed, Mass Effect 3 can be played in several different ways: you can choose to play it as an action game, you can choose to play it in a story mode that leaves you to make the tactical decisions (thus guaranteeing progress through battles), and you can choose a combination of the two.
Overarching the gaming experience are the rich visuals. I have never seen so much detail in so many environments, from space battles to Call of Duty like encounters. Simply roaming around your Enterprise like spaceship and bumping into characters on the way presents a wonderful experience! I cannot recall any video game with looks as good as this. My only criticism? Mass Effect 3 plays at 720p resolution on the PS3 (in comparison, Call of Duty manages 1080p; Uncharted is also a 720p game).
I cannot say Mass Effect is my all time favorite game, at least not at this stage. It’s hard for anything to compete with the ongoing attraction FIFA games present or the visceral experience of the Call of Duty series. However, I can clearly see myself sinking into the Mass Effect 3 world for weeks if allowed to. Never has the virtual world looked so good!

Image: EA

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Family Phobias

"iPaid too much"

For crying out loud, what is my family’s problem with technology?
Several months ago I reported on the success story that my Israeli parents’ iPad has become. We hold regular video chats and my four year old, who previously did not know who they were, has grown accustomed to their “presence”; occasionally, he even asks to talk to them. However, that is pretty much all my parents are able to use their iPad for.
Despite repeated attempts by several parties, they are still totally clueless as to how do anything else with their iPad. While one of our friends’ two year old has her own iPad and operates it at her leisure, my parents have no idea how to email, how to install apps, or how to use any other app already on their iPad. The word “waste” comes to mind.
It gets worse. I asked them to take their iPad with them as they visit a relative, so we can hold a video call and I can see the relative’s place. Things were fine up until I asked them to look around the place using the iPad: it sounds ridiculous, but they were unable to bring themselves to hold their iPad like a camera and point it at places. This is not ridiculous, it’s pathetic, particularly when recalling my father’s glorious history as a photographer – he used to have a fully manual Nikon F1, for goodness sake!
Departing from the iPad, the saga continues. This week my mother was unable to call me on the normal phone: even though she had my number, she did not know her international dialing code (normally she calls me through pre-programmed buttons). The woes continue with my in-law side of the family: one part gave up on Skyping us years ago due to minor issues with their wifi, issues that can be solved in a matter of minutes through a plug in the wall network extender; as a result my son has pretty much forgotten who they are. Another family member with whom we Skyped in the past seems unable to Skype us again since her PC setup has changed; however, while she does have an iPhone that’s glued to her hand she is, for some unfathomable reason, unable to bring herself to install the Skype app for the iPhone. Instead she prefers calling us directly from her mobile, with all the cost and call quality issues that involves (including the reduced frequency of conversations).

Given the above I could be excused for assuming my family is in some sort of a vendetta complex, perhaps in retaliation for me moving to Australia. Perhaps that is the case.
However, I think the cause is different. I think the cause is tech phobia, or rather: fear of the unknown. We’re all at fault here: whenever we do not understand something, we prefer to either ignore it or apply some sort of wishful thinking around it (check out the way our religions deal with death for a fine example). The same applies to technology: they don’t understand it, so they pretend their lives are better without it.
Thing is, it’s not. In this day and age – remember, we are living at the Information Age – being disconnected comes at a price. It comes at measurable financial costs, it even costs a lot more on some less easily quantifiable fronts such as health, and it also comes at the cost of missing out on their grandson/nephew/relative knowing who they are and vice versa.
If we look at the implications of this phobia to society in general, it explains exactly why science is regarded the way it is. Despite all the benefits science has given us, like longer and more comfortable lives (as well as iPads), most people will still hold their religious beliefs in higher regard. The same religious beliefs that gave us... nothing but the Dark Ages. Most people will still default to treating science with contempt, and many if not most people will put their faith in totally unfounded “alternative health” options instead of the tried and tested. Indeed, alternative medicine's popularity is so high it gets refunded through Australia's private health policies. And the reason for this display of willful ignorance? The same phobia that prevents my family from using an iPad.

Image by modenadude, Creative Commons license