Monday, 30 July 2012

R-Views 6

Day 106 - I am a librarian

Yesterday my other blog celebrated its sixth year of constant reviewing with a post summarizing the best of this past year. In other words, who needs the Oscars when one can simply head to my reviews blog?
In past years I had replicated that summary post in this blog as a way to promote my reviews. I won’t do it this year for three reasons:
  1. A link is enough.
  2. If I need to change something about that post (e.g., correct some spelling) I only need to do it in one place.
  3. That other blog is doing fine; it is this blog that could benefit from promotion.
Happy new year, reviews blog!

Image by cindiann, Creative Commons license

Saturday, 28 July 2012

The Game of the Name


I get this question so often I virtually have a script written. “What is it with that name of yours”, they ask. So I answer.
You know that Moses guy from the Bible, I ask them. Well, his name in the original Hebrew version of the Bible was Moshe.
To those that don’t shrug me off as a weirdo and actually seem interested, I continue. The reason why the name has changed is to do with the Bible, as you know it, first being translated to Greek before it was translated to English. The Greek don’t have an sh sound, so it turned into an s; and they have a habit of adding an s to the ends of names. Hence Moshe morphing into Moses.
Occasionally, I get a reply along the lines of “I’m a Christian and I didn’t know that”. To those people I continue to elaborate. You know this Jesus guy? Well, his mother didn’t call him Jesus when she wanted him to clean his room; his original name was more like Yeshua. Only that the Greeks don’t have a y sound, so they replaced it with a J. That, plus the other changes, result in Jesus.
“Wow, I never knew that.”
Exactly. You have a whole belief system that you gladly adopt and worship, but you never really bother checking its history beyond the Sunday School level? I call that being irresponsible. Of course, one can clearly see why the investigation of historical facts behind the belief system is actively discouraged: once that happens, there is no way a person would be able to avoid doubting*.

*My conclusion is supported by Dan Dennett’s research with priests turned atheists. The common thread among them all is the beginning of doubt as they started learning the history of the scriptures they were previously taught at the childish fairy tale level. See page 23 of this PDF paper.

Image by jaj, Creative Commons license

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Moving Galaxies

Gadget temptation is getting to me again, and this time the culprit is the Samsung Galaxy S3 Android running smartphone. With its quad core credentials and flashy big screen I can’t avoid fantasizing about putting my hands on one. On the other hand, should I stay loyal to the Apple brigade and wait for the iPhone 5 instead?
To help put some construct to my deliberations I thought I’d gather all the relevant information in order to make the decision making as evidence based as possible. Here goes my comparison between the two units, the Galaxy S3 and the currently theoretical iPhone 5. I know I am not alone in contemplating the move from iOS to Android, so I hope you enjoy the following show of deliberations!

  1. Availability: The S3 is available here and now; the iPhone is rumored to be released during September. Winner: Samsung.
  2. Price: Kogan is currently selling the S3 for $590, delivered. The iPhone would take a while before it makes itself available outside of telcos’ plans, and then it would take a while till its price drops to sane levels. I suspect I would be able to buy it, under my terms of conditions for what constitutes a decent price by my book either during the pre Christmas sales or come February 2013. It would still be more expensive than any of its Android competitors, that’s the Apple guarantee! Winner: Samsung.
  3. Migration cost: Moving from iOS to Android would require me to repurchase some of the apps I’ve invested in. The GPS apps I got for my iPhone, for example, are worth around $100 on their own.
    On the other hand, the iPhone 5 will feature a new connector, which means existing docks and cables will not do; the S3 simply uses the same micro USB connector every other device manufacturer out there is using. Winner: Apple.
  4. Specs: Both phones sport / will sport a quad core CPU. The S3 has 2GB of RAM while the iPhone is rumored to have just 1GB. Between them, though, I suspect things are going to be pretty equal in the specs department. Winner: draw.
  5. Screen: At first I thought the 4.8” screen on the S3 would be too big. It didn’t feel too big when I actually got to hold it (and take the above photo of me holding it); it felt excellent. That is mostly because of the narrow margins at the top and the bottom of the phone, at least when compared to current crop iPhones, making the ratio of screen size to overall phone size quite good. The screen’s quite flashy, too; it might distort videos, but I think it would do my reading much good.
    The iPhone? Current iPhones feel totally pathetic in comparison to the S3 screen. However, the iPhone 5 is rumoured to do better, with either a 3.8” or 4” retina screen (sizes vary by the rumor). Alas, both sizes wouldn’t and couldn’t compete with the marvellous S3. Winner: Samsung.
  6. Storage: Rumors say the iPhone 5 will feature a 128GB model. Me, I’m totally indifferent; I go with the smaller storage capacities for their affordability. It is there that the Samsung clearly beats the iPhone by offering a Micro SD expansion slot, where the 32GB card I already own will gladly store tons of offline Spotify content for me to listen to! Winner: Samsung.
  7. Battery: Apple doesn’t want you to tinker with its devices and, goddess forbid, service them yourself. The S3, on the other hand, features a user replaceable battery. Given batteries are easily and cheaply available on eBay, and given that a quad core smartphone's battery will probably not make it through a day, that is a major advantage. Winner: Samsung.
  8. 4G: At the moment 4G is an advertising gimmick, available in limited areas to Telstra users and potentially made available later to Optus users (for the record, I am an Amaysim user; Amaysim uses Optus bandwidth). However, things will probably change and 4G will become more important than it is now. When considering the lifespan of my future smartphone, 2-3 years, 4G becomes something to reckon with. Currently, the S3 does not feature 4G, although I suspect it is only a matter of time before 4G models become available. The iPhone 5, on the other hand, is rumored to support 4G; however, it is not clear whether 4G support would extend to the 4G networks erected in Australia or whether it would be limited to American 4G networks, as is the case with the iPad 3. Winner: Apple.
  9. Operating system: In the past I have criticized Apple’s closed architecture quite a lot here, while often praising Android’s open architecture. However, by now I think we have a much more equal playing field: Apple have relaxed things, and with the aid of the cloud I no longer feel enclosed; on the other hand, Android is clearly not the Linux like public property it was touted to be. What we end up with are fairly similar operating systems, but there is some fine detail worth discussing.

    As it currently is, I consider the iPhone’s iOS 5 superior to the S3’s Ice Cream Sandwich (Android 4); the functionality is the same, but the Ice Cream is significantly clunkier. On the other hand, Jelly Bean (the next Android release) is already available (but not on the S3 yet), seeming to offer much smoother operation and some improved functionality. This improved functionality leads me to argue that I consider the Android platform much more flexible when it comes to potential future innovation than Apple’s. iOS’ other advantage, iCloud, is generally equaled through various cloud measures provided by Google and Dropbox.
    When the dust is settled, I prefer iOS for one simple reason: it is a much better "fire and forget" system than Android. There is no real need to root/jailbreak the phone, no need to spend much thought, everything just works from the minute you switch it on. It may come with a price tag of reduced flexibility but it means a lot to me: it means much less frustration; it means I don’t need to spend time mastering my phone; I can just use it as the tool that it is. Winner: Apple.
  10. App ecosystem: There can be no denying Apple’s superiority in the app department. Not only is its iTunes app store much more crowded than Google’s Play, it is also superior on quality. I know Android fans would hate me for saying it, but the quality advantage seems clear to me; I would say it’s the result of having to ensure apps work on a wide plethora of phone models made by a wide plethora of manufacturers, as opposed to Apple only having to take care of a few models under its direct control. It’s probably for unrelated reasons, but I find simple Internet browsing much easier on the iPhone’s Safari browser than anything Android has to offer. Winner: Apple.
  11. Privacy: I hate what Apple stands for as much as any sane person would, but lately they have been thoroughly eclipsed in the being evil department by Google. Apple may be as greedy as hell and may also overprotect its closed architecture, but at least it is not getting into our personal lives. Google, on the other hand, is systematically collecting information about everything we do on the web, and since its recent self announced privacy policy change it will not hesitate to use its knowledge to make a buck. Given that everything you do on an Android phone is done while logged in to one’s Google account, the potential danger to one’s privacy cannot be underestimated. Forget the “do no evil” – Google is outright dangerous. Winner: Apple.
  12. Longevity: The S3’s screen features Corning Gorilla glass, meant to last tougher shocks, but the iPhone’s rumored to equal it there (unlike the current crop of iPhones). On the other hand, iPhones feel much better built than the flimsier crop from Samsung. I would put my money on the iPhone lasting better in the confines of my pocket.
    Aside of physical longevity there is also the matter of software longevity. By virtue of not having too many models out, Apple is still supporting my three year old iPhone 3GS (albeit through iOS iterations that greatly reduced its effective battery power). Android models, on the other hand, seem to be forgotten a year or so after their initial release, fading amongst the wide ranks of models out there. Software upgrades are still possible through rooting and going for the likes of CyanogenMod’s offerings, but that’s the kind of warranty defacing tinkering one is politely and eloquently deprived of with the iPhone. Winner: Apple.
  13. SIM card: The iPhone 4 was the first mobile to require a micro SIM card. It was a pain but we adapted: my current Amaysim SIM card is modular, able to function as both a normal SIM as well as a micro one. The iPhone 5, however, seems set to stir things up yet again through the utilization of a new standard, the nano SIM card! Yet another headache from Apple as it tries to maximize profits and telco tie-ins at the expense of the consumer. Personally, this means I will need to wait till I can put my hands on a nano SIM, then wait till my number is migrated from my current SIM to the new one… Why do I need to bring this headache upon my head?
    The S3, by the way, uses the “I can live with that by now” micro SIM. Winner: Samsung.

Those other competitors:
You may ask why I am limiting the Android side of the comparison to the Galaxy S3 alone when there are several other flagship contenders. The answer, in short, is that it would take a lot for me to put money on an HTC smartphone (even if they already have 4G models around) given my experience with two of their models in the past, especially my experience with HTC's their post-sale warranty support. I can break my phones up myself without resorting to their help, thank you very much.
Another viable competitor is the Google Nexus smartphone, now available at ridiculously good value for money levels ($360). The Nexus already sports plain vanilla Jelly Bean support and does not have all the crapware manufacturers like Samsung add on top of the basic Android layer. Sounds good, but… Personally, I don’t like the device’s look and feel, mostly in the sense that it feels too flimsy/plasticky. John Scalzi’s Google Nexus broke down (here) after just a few months of service (refer to its acquisition date here), providing supportive anecdotal evidence to my premonitions. Mostly, though, it comes down to the hardware: the S3 is much better equipped (e.g., quad core vs. dual core), which means that in this field where models are made obsolete by the minute the S3 stands a better chance of feeling viable a few months longer.

I am afraid to say there are no clear winners in this comparison. Make your own minds up based on your requirements and your priorities!
Personally, I love the Samsung Galaxy S3’s hardware side of things, but I will sorely miss that fine edge of quality iOS has over Android (yes, even if iOS may lose in overall functionality). At the moment I am still contemplating: should I go for the sexy device that’s already here and is reasonably priced, or should I wait for a more expensive device from a company that poses a much reduced risk to my privacy? Then again, I can always keep on using my iPhone 3GS a few months longer till either it dies or some game changing fact enters the scene.
It is interesting to note that my personal dilemma comes just as Apple’s latest revenue announcements are found to disappoint financial markets (see here). The disappointment is directly related to the iPhone 4S lagging behind its competition. It does appear as if for too many of us, the iPhone 5 is going to arrive to the scene much too late.

Further, added on 27/7/12:
Here’s an attempt to reprise on my personal choices. I will do so by citing a couple of personal facts which I avoided mentioning before because, well, they’re personal and therefore non universal:
  1. I am a Mac/Linux user who hardly ever touches a Windows PC outside the office. There can be no denying iTunes offers a much smoother experience on the Mac than it does on Windows.
  2. I use Apple’s AirPlay quite a lot. In fact, it is my primary source of music, streaming Spotify from my iPad and my iPhone. Sure, there are ways of using AirPlay from an Android phone, but again – it’s much easier on the iPhone.
  3. Even if I get an Android phone I will still be present in the iOS arena through my iPad. This means extra costs will be an ongoing affair as I maintain both environments up to date.
Given all of the above, my current course of action is to wait for the iPhone 5. If my iPhone 3GS breaks before the 5 is accessible then I will replace it with an Android, potentially capitalizing on the Google Nexus’ cheap price and its lack of buggy crapware; surely, by the time it breaks down the iPhone 5 will be accessible!
And who knows, maybe the iPhone 5 will sport a decent screen size after all.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Your Privacy, Sold

The New York Times published an article dealing with Acxiom. This is a company that makes its money by selling you, or rather information it had collected about you from 1,500 different data points. You are not alone, by the way: Acxiom maintains information about some 500,000,000 of us (ain't the figure nice when one is presented with all those zeroes?).
What New York Times is telling us about this Acxiom is amazing in a grotesque sort of a way. When asked to provide personal data, the company responded by saying it could only provide basic info; however, the company acknowledges it will sell the more detailed info, in aggregated form, to companies willing to pay for it. First, I think they're lying; if the data's there because it's collected then the data's there to be provided. Second, and more importantly, to the best of my understanding Acxiom is in breach of Australian privacy laws, laws that require those who gather and maintain information about people to turn that information in at a personal request.
Somehow, though, I am not "concerned" about Acxiom's ability to do business in Australia. Why? Because their ex CEO in Australia is non other than MP Andrew Robb (see here). According to The Age's profile on Robb, the Liberal front bencher who is set to become a prominent federal minister if the next elections go the way the polls say they would, Acxiom is a "direct marketing" company. I guess this type of euphemisms is just one of the many ways in which politicians protect the companies that make them their money even when it is clear the public would detest everything those companies stand for.
In other words, if Australian media was half as good as it should have been, characters like Robb would have no way of getting elected. As it is, the Robbs of this world are in full control of the media. Obviously, we live in a healthy democracy.

Image: ABC Hungry Beast

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Electronic [F]arts

Mass Effect figures 

This blog has gone again and again on the virtues of the Mass Effect game. I have discussed some of the game’s downsides, too. In this point I want to focus on these downsides, particularly those that do not relate to the contents of the game itself. I doing so because think I can identify a trend.
Let us run a list of the issues I have identified thus far:
  1. Multiplayer mode requires a special activation code. You get a code when you buy a new copy of the game, but your ability to resell the game is severely hampered by the $15 asking price for a multiplayer code. In effect, this activation code acts like most other forms of DRM, preventing buyers of the game from truly owning it.
  2. DLC (downloadable contents) may be released on time in the USA, but at least for Australian PS3 users they are released at least two days after their advertised release date. It's nice to receive additional contents, but why should non Americans be left in the dark and treated as after fact?
  3. Mass Effect 2 merchandise (as per the above photo) is being sold as Mass Effect 3 merchandise.
  4. Mass Effect 3 merchandise are sold together with special codes that are supposed to unlock special features in the game’s multiplayer mode. These features have literal cash value on them, dollar prices and all. However, although the merchandise is sold without any disclaimers, I was told after the fact and after much chasing up that these codes only work for the PC and Xbox environments; in other words, they are worthless for PS3 users.
Now, can you see the trend, too?
In case you haven’t: Electronic Arts, the distributer of Mass Effect, seems to have an insatiable appetite for its customers’ cash. So much so that commonly accepted codes of ethics fail to stand in its way. It’s quite a pity games as good as the Mass Effect series have to come our way through companies as nasty as this.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Office Windows

Now here’s an organization that will never hire me if they were to ever Google me (don’t know if Binging me would be as effective): Microsoft.
Microsoft has announced its first ever quarterly loss. It was actually a trick of accounting, but who cares? Tim Cook surely doesn’t. I therefore thought the time is ripe for me to share my 2c on where Microsoft’s flagships are heading.
The first of these flagships is Windows. With Windows 8 scheduled for an October release, we’ve been subjected to quite a lot of news and predictions. A lot of the hoo-ha is to do with Windows finally showing up to the age of the tablet. The operating system would be there, and so would Microsoft’s own tablet, dubbed Slate (pictured). But would that really be the case? Could this new tablet achieve a crack in the iPad’s dominance of the tablet market?
My prediction is that it won’t. I could be wrong, of course, but my prediction is based on the fact that Windows’ main drawcard is going to be its dominance at the office. CIOs would much rather get a Windows tablet than they would an iPad (even though Australia has certified the iPad for government use). What Windows won’t be able to boast is an entire ecosystem of contents and apps that’s tailor made for tablet use, which is where I predict its downfall would come: most organizations, especially the larger ones, would be using legacy systems that have no way of working well on a tablet (take banks and their mainframe applications as an example). Microsoft can release the flashiest tablet ever, but it would still be severely crippled in most offices; on the other hand, Apple would still dominate the consumer market.
Moving on to Microsoft’s next dinosaur of a flagship, Microsoft Office. Yes, the product whose mediocrity keeps on annoying me on a daily basis even after Windows has mostly stopped doing so (mostly because I was able to avoid having to administer it at home, mostly because I’m now a Linux/Mac user). One of the headline features of the soon to be released Office 15 suite is its built-in ability to save your work on the cloud. Now, as far as I know, when Microsoft says “cloud” what it actually means is its server farms in the USA and in Singapore.
The problem? Both these places are not particularly friendly when it comes to caring for the privacy of the stored data. With Singapore it’s because of the nature of the local regime, with the USA it’s because of a mix of lax privacy legislation and the good old Patriot Act that effectively allows US agencies free access to the data. And as we know, access it they do.
At the personal level, I am not that fussed. If the USA wants to bore itself to death by looking at my online documents then let them have it. Others, like Iceland’s Birgitta Jónsdóttir may beg to differ, and they are well within their rights (and the world owes the likes of Jónsdóttir a great debt for the exact reason the USA is now on her tail). More to the point, big organizations might have a problem with this cloud service: Australian government, for example, would be legally unable to place its info on Microsoft’s servers without breaking Australian law. Businesses of a large caliber would hesitate putting their intellectual property at risk.
There could be workarounds. Microsoft may partner local Telstra for Aussie hosting (something they failed to properly do till now). Most obviously, organizations may disable the option of saving to the cloud. Then again, if that is the case, then why should they bother rushing to upgrade to Office 15 in the first place?
Times could be interesting for Microsoft. It could be that today’s news is a harbinger of quarters to come.

Image: Microsoft

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

What? Headphones

Music in the Digital Age readers, this is what you bought me. Thanks! #SR80i #gratitude

You see them under every fresh tree: the youth of both sexes enjoying music through some hip, colorful, brand of headphones. The question I couldn’t stop thinking of was whether these kids know something I don’t or whether these headphones, primarily of the Beats by Dr Dre / Monster line, are the victims of fashion.
In the name of science I made my way to a Harvey Norman to try these headphones out. Armed with an iPhone loaded with my favorite music, with which I am quite familiar, I tried listening to some of those fashionable gadgets. My first impression with the Dr Dres should come at no surprise: they are heavily tailored to boost bass frequencies. The problem there is that the resulting effect is not as nice as boosting low frequencies on proper bottom reaching speakers: your stomach doesn’t shake when you listen to headphones. The other problem is that, obviously, this boost represents a distortion: if the artist wanted low frequencies to be elevated this way, they would have done so in their original creation; they wouldn’t have waited for Dr Dre to step into the picture.
My second impression? Those colorful Beats headphone, the ones most popular with the kids, sound awful! They sound the way old transistors sound when played from the next room, not the way headphones that sell for around $100 should. True, their active noise cancellation works well, but it only works to make the otherwise dreadful reproduction of music even more obvious.
Things got significantly better when I got to try the $400-$500 products in the Beats range. They still suffered from elevated lows, but they were offering good musical reproduction overall. Something that could, to one extent or another, compete with my set of $100 headphones.

Before telling you all about my great headphones and how smart I am for choosing them, let’s pause for a few paragraphs to discuss what’s the deal with headphones in the first place. Clarify the misinformation with some simple facts, as they say.
Headphones come in three main shapes and sizes:
  1. Headphones that cover your ear, disconnecting the listener from the environment (to one extent or another).
  2. Open ended headphones: These cover your ears but do not block them from external sounds. For example, instead of the tight seal around the ear the above headphones use, open headphones use foam to cushion the ears.
  3. Earbuds: Those small headphones you push down your ears.

You might want to suggest the need to add a couple more headphone types to this list: the passive noise cancelling headphones and the active noise cancelling headphones. I would beg to differ: the latter are not a class of headphones but rather an attribute of the headphones.
Passive noise cancellation is probably the product of an overly creative marketing department. It is simply another term to describe headphone that block the listener from the environment, which means you won’t find passive noise cancellers of the second type but you will with the first and the third. Indeed, every pair of headphone belonging to the first type are “passive noise cancelling” ones; it’s just that not all marketing departments choose to sell them that way.
The active noise cancellation headphones are significantly more sophisticated. The easiest way to identify them is by the fact these headphones are powered (i.e., they have batteries). They work by utilizing microphones that listen to background noise around you and then generating the opposite sound in the music they play so as to cancel that background noise. As before, it is obvious such designs would work well with some types of headphones but not the other. In practice, active noise cancellation can have remarkable effects on steady background noise (like the type you get when flying), but they’re next to useless when it comes to dealing with variable noise, as when you’re next to a group of loud talkers.

Now that we can pretend to understand what types of headphones exist out there I can go back to my personal preferences. Before I go down that path I do want to emphasize there is no silver bullet and everyone can have their own preference. There is, however, the slight matter of fidelity where differences can be measured and objectively assessed.
When all is said and done, my preference is to go for the second type of headphones. It's a matter of comfort, the comfort I don't get when there are seals around my ears, as well as being able to be aware of the environment around me while still enjoying my music. Environmental awareness counts when one is crossing a road, but also when one is working, which is where I tend to do most of my listening. On the other hand, this type of headphones performs rather badly at the street, in the sense it allows background noise to interfere with the music. As for earbuds, I don't know which ears they are meant to fit but they certainly don't fit mine - they keep on falling off. They also inject sound directly into the ear, which exposes the ear to potentially higher damage from excessive sound levels than the other headphone types.
With that in mind, my choice of headphones are the Grado SR80i (pictured). They are not the best headphones ever, but at $100 at Amazon (where I got them from) they are excellent value for money. The point about them is that they come from the affordable audiophile point of view: they're very retro, and between their thick cable and the length of their thick cable they are not meant for portable use. As I said, I listen to them mostly at the office, sitting at my desk.
If you are after a more portable friendly design that offers a good combination of sound and value for money, the AKG K450 (currently selling for $66 at Amazon) are great. Other AKG models aren't bad, either. The K450 are sealed headphones and they are rather smallish (or is it that my head is too big?), but starting with their carry-box they are very portability friendly.

Thus this post comes to a close. If there is any message I wanted to convey then this is it: do not fall for trends, but rather choose your headphones wisely based on what they are meant to achieve and based on actual performance. You will pay less, and you are also likely to enjoy better sound. Win-win.

Image by Dubber, Creative Commons license

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Guest Post: The Audiobook Experiment

Somewhere near the turn of the century, my wife bought me a portable CD player so I could listen to audiobooks on the way to/from work. I’ve ‘read’ three books that way, but it was too inconvenient.
A couple of months ago, I thought about it again, and it seems that it should be much better now – I can put many books on my MP3 player which takes up much less space than that cd-man and lasts longer battery-wise.
First problem – what book should I try? My main problem with audiobooks is that listening to a story takes too much time. It’s not like I have anything better to do in the 15 minutes I walk to the train station, but I worried that I wouldn’t enjoy the book as much.
So I’ve decided to go with a familiar book, where I wouldn’t have to worry about missing a sentence, and I’d find it easy to listen in small chunks, and went with Agent to the Stars, which is not only my favorite Scalzi so far, it’s also read by Wil Wheaton whom I like.
I went to (now, an Amazon company) and bought it for a whopping $22. I put it on my Kindle just to see that it works, and I was able to listen with no problems (except that it runs through the battery much faster than a text book).
Then I tried to put it on my old mp3 player, and run into a DRM problem (ah! Now I’ve got your attention). Audible use their own format, and while they support many different types of mp3 players and other mobile devices, they don’t support my old mp3 model.
I went and bought a new mp3 player for about double what I paid for the book (and if I remember correctly, about a third of what I paid for my old mp3 player back in 2006). I picked the cheapest one they had in the store that was also listed on the Audible site (it’s important to note that it wasn’t really Audible’s fault that I just assumed I’d be able to get the book in mp3 format and play it anywhere – they never said it). It worked fine.
I listened to ~8 hours of Agent to the Stars, the last two of which in the car (I had to drive to work that day), using an AUX cable (which I got for ~$4 more). It’s still a great book, and I’ve enjoyed Wheaton’s delivery, but I’m not sure what I will do next.
I can get the books for ~$15 if I read often enough (they have this monthly subscription deal), but it’s still much more expensive than Kindle books, especially if I limit myself to books I’ve already read (which mostly mean that I already own).
Then again, it is a great way to pass walking or driving time.

BTW, if you want to try, you can join Audible though Amazon, which will give you one free book. You can download the book and then cancel the subscription, costing you nothing (I assume you’d only be able to do it once). Then again, I’m not sure what you need is another way to ignore the world around you.

Guest post contributed by Uri
Image: Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Who Stands for Us?

Most people probably haven't heard of it, but the Australian Government's Attorney General has released proposals that would significantly revolutionize our privacy. That is, if there can be anything left of our privacy after this legislation is introduced. You can read what Delimiter has to say about these upcoming draconian measures here; the one sentence summary is that the government would like to maintain a log of all our online activities for two years, as well as be able to easily access our encrypted files. I would argue that these measures are far worse than Stephen Conroy's famous Internet censorship agenda.
Australians have until early August to respond to the proposals. That's quite an outrageously short time to respond by, given the impact of the proposals and the large scope of documentation that a proper reply would have the responder read through. The Pirate Party has already asked for an extension to this deadline (here), only to get a joke of a reply (here).
My position? Once again we are asked to sacrifice some of the very basic privileges that democratic society takes for granted in favor of some elusive security threat. That's George Orwell to you, pure and simple. I think we should all stand up and tell our government what we think of these proposals.
The problems with the proposals are, literally, too numerous to mention. There is no abnormal security to Australia; if there was we would have known about it, and as it is Australia is pretty secure, thank you very much. Therefore, there is no reason to impose such measures on us. Second, what will the government do with all the data it would collect? Does it really stand a chance of digging anything important out of these logs? Third, the technicalities of collecting such vast amounts of data are far from simple. They would kill the smaller ISPs and would make our access to the Internet more expensive overall. In effect, we would be taxed. Fourth, those logs of our activities? They're going to be a major target of interest to all hackers and would be hackers.
By far the worst aspect of this upcoming legislation is the philosophy of it. Essentially, what the government is saying is that it needs to collect data on everything we do online because we are all potential criminals. They are asking for this capability because the logging of everything we do online is achievable.  Now, most Australians will hear of that, shrug their shoulders and continue with their lives. Most Australians are too busy working for a living and serving their families to pay this much attention. However, most Australians would respond with a roar if they were told that their bedrooms are being bugged and recorded for everything that's being said and done there. Now, what is the difference between what the government is proposing to do and this bugging of our bedrooms? The only difference is that the former is technically feasible while the latter is not. However, by the way the government is behaving, it is clear they would love to bug our bedrooms if they only could; the thinking behind the two is the same.
Sadly, it is clear this legislation will pass. Both major parties hate each other's guts, but both automatically vote in favor of everything that has the "security" label about it. Sadly, the Australian public will mostly go unaware of this legislation coming through in the first place, because that good old institution that is supposed to keep it aware - the media - is crumbling apart. Hear the news and read the papers and all you will learn is that the carbon tax would soon murder our economy, perhaps even before asylum seekers arriving here by boat are going to invade our homes and rape our daughters.
Who, then, is standing between us and legislation such as this? Well, the sad truth is that there are not that many who truly protect Australia and its democracy. One such protector is Senator Scott Ludlam, the Greens representative from WA. He is influential and he is a guy I am happy to cheer for, but he plays second fiddle as far as initiative and quality of response go to the Pirate Party. It is the Pirate Party and its activists whose voices are being heard over the media with regards to these matters: they are the first to respond, they are fairly loud given their lack of political clout, and most importantly - the quality of their replies is such that it is referenced by all interested stakeholders, including Ludlam himself (who is not shy of referencing and calling for Pirate Party help). [The EFA, I am sad to say, is all but dead - at least when judged by the volume of its response.]
This weekend the Pirate Party is holding its yearly conference in Melbourne. You can watch it streamed live here. The quality of discussion at the conference is simply amazing: there is serious stuff debated there, with quality arguments thrown in. There is much passion, too: the people there care about what they argue for. And most importantly, there is an open door for everyone to say what they have on their minds and there is utter transparency to every process. In other words, witnessing the Pirate Party conference was quite an eye opener for me: politics can be done right, if given a chance.
I am proud to be a member of the Pirate Party, the only political party out there that seems to care for the stuff that really matters. Give them a chance: you might be surprised at what they have to say, too. They may have an intimidating name, but when looked at properly one would clearly notice the Pirate Party stands for very mainstream values - values that the major parties all but forgotten.

Image: Pirate Party Australia, Creative Commons license

Thursday, 12 July 2012

People Say I’m Crazy

Medical Questionnaire

Our work newsletter has this questionnaire we let new employees answer as a sort of an informal introduction. I was always tempted to answer the questions myself, but then again I am never going to be a new employee at my current place of work again. It therefore looks like this is going to be the only forum I can let go and answer.
So here we go. I took the work related questions out; I also tried to keep my answers to the spirit and format of a work questionnaire rather than the truly meaningful life discussions this blog normally runs with.

Friends say I am …

Opinionated, but I don’t know.
They also say I can’t put a good word in about myself.

Things that make me mad are …
People telling other people how they should live. Particularly people telling me how I need to live my life.

Things that make me happy are …
My son, when he’s asleep or when he’s a good boy. The former is much more reliable.
My wife.
Computers, but only when they’re good boys.

Books I have enjoyed reading include...

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins is probably the most enlightening book I have ever had the pleasure of reading. More recently, I have enjoyed Lawrence Krauss’ A Universe from Nothing, a book that uses the latest cosmology has to offer in order to explain the creation of the universe we live in. Couple that with Darwin’s On the Origin of Species and you have yourself the complete guide to how we got to be here.
In the fiction department I usually go with science fiction, where my favorite author is John Scalzi. Scalzi’s latest book, Redshirts, takes the good old world of Star Trek and turns it into a cleverly amusing pondering on existential matters.

My favourite toy growing up was…

As a toddler, I had a tricycle tractor I couldn’t be separated from. Until, that is, my parents forcefully did just that. They compensated by getting me an Atari 2600, the first in a long line of computer gadgets; the rest is history.

I’d be lost without my…
In the literal terms, my smartphone and its location services. I am well and truly appreciative of the wonders of modern technology that allow me to have the information I want whenever I want it.
In the more philosophical terms, I'd be lost without my wife. A couple of my best friends would apply, too; they may be far away physically, but they have a tendency to be there when I need them.

I support ???? football club because…

One of the more notable ways in which I am UnAustralian, other than my dislike for alcohol, is my absolute lack of interest in popular Australian sports. That includes the AFL.
The football culture I grew up on has me supporting London’s Arsenal football club. I am, however, very cynical about the way money has corrupted my favorite sport. It did force me to evolve to a level where I don’t take my team’s wins/defeats too personally.

If I was a car I’d be a…

Trabant: Noisy. Polluting. A collector’s item.

People think I look like…

A primate of the Homo sapiens species.

If I won the lottery I would…
Be very surprised, given that I never bother filling lottery forms. The math is simple: as investments go, lottery is a losing one. I prefer to make my money the old fashioned way: I go to work.

Image by mdid, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Green House

Green House 1

Our current home renovation/extension project involves several environmental measures I thought I’d list here for prosperity’s sake. Perhaps others will find illumination here; others will perhaps illuminate us.
Before starting with the list, I think it is important to consider why we took these measures in the first place. We didn’t go through the lengths we went through just because of our altruistic greenish natures; a lot of it was pure selfishness. A problem we noticed with virtually every two story house we’ve been to in Australia is that the lower floor is freezing during winter and the upper floor is boiling in summer. A lot of our green efforts were made specifically in order to mitigate the phenomenon. Some of the rest were made in order to reduce running costs, while others were made in order to have a nicer, healthier, environment to live in.
With that in mind, here is a brief overview of some of the things we’ve done:
  • Insulation: We went above the building requirements for a 6 star home to have ourselves thicker external walls (and thus slightly smaller living areas). The insulation should not only help with temperature regulation but also with blocking noise, albeit to a limited degree. In other words, mass counts when it comes to insulation, but mass comes at a cost.
  • Formaldehyde avoidance / low VOC (volatile organic compounds) preference: In order to create a healthier environment, we aspired to use building materials with fewer amounts of poison in them. Primarily, we aspired to build without MDF. That aspiration materialized through the choice of wood for the house’s foundations, doors, vanity units, shelves and other building materials. This particular aspiration of ours was probably the hardest to implement: while Europeans standards agree with us, Aussie standards are light years behind. In other words, if I had a dollar for every tradesperson that gave me the look when I asked for a low VOC solution I would have probably been able to buy you all a few non alcoholic drinks.
  • Environmentally friendly paint: If you know what you’re after, you can get paint that contains much less toxins. We made our choice but were still very surprised when we visited our house while it was being painted and couldn’t smell paint at all! How refreshing! On the negative side, these paints cost more and require more layers (read: more money on paint, more money on the painter) to produce similar results to what normal, toxic, paints would produce.
  • LED lighting: As discussed here, we chose LED lights from Brightgreen that are probably the best in the market. They are supposed to be cheaper to run in the long term, but the blow to the wallet is a serious one (and given that IKEA sells four halogen downlight bulbs for $12, I seriously doubt the long term money making effects of LEDs). However, the main advantages – other than the obvious ones of carbon footprints – are to do with much cooler lighting and lighting that does not attract insects. Yes, you read it right: our LEDs do not emit light in the spectrum that drives insects crazy. Or so they say.
  • Bamboo flooring: Bamboo is better than wood because it’s much harder than normally available wood, does not require forests to be taken down, regrows much faster (it’s a type of grass), and goes through much lamer chemical processing. On the negative side, it is relatively cutting edge, which can create headaches. Go with a reputable installer and you would pay much more than you would a wooden floor.
  • Windows: With windows being a weak spot in a house’s insulation, we planned ours carefully. We went for fewer windows on the north/west sides than we would have otherwise liked, and we got a “special” window on the south to help bring in cooler air during summer [note to readers from the northern hemisphere: the sun shines on Australia from the north]. All our new windows are double glazed PVC ones.
  • Cooling: As much as I dislike cooling, Melbourne is notorious for its 40 degree January-February days. Besides, heat will always accumulate upstairs. We therefore took measures to be able to separate the lower floor from the upper one, and installed evaporative cooling for when there is no escaping the heat. Air conditioners are much better at cooling, but they are a carbon imprint abomination and are very expensive to run; I also don’t like their type of cool that often gets me sick when transitioning from the outside to the inside and vice versa.
  • Solar hot water: Aided by a gas booster. In Israel everyone has solar hot water; in Australia, which is no less sunny (with the exception of Melbourne winters), solar hot water is the exception. I suspect that would change soon.
One item you might thought missing from our list is a rain water tank. It’s not missing; we didn’t go for one. The reasons for avoiding one are simple: we do not water our garden at all, so we don’t need one for the garden; on the other hand, re-plumbing our toilets to support rain water would have been too complicated and costly an affair.

Image by Hammer51012, Creative Commons license

Monday, 9 July 2012

Four Deaths and a Funeral

I’ll apologize in advance for yet another Mass Effect post. However, the game has been at the center of my life for a few months now and is looking to be there for a while longer. Posting about the game therefore complies with this blog’s mission statement.
Another apology is due for this post's numerous Mass Effect 3 bloopers. Be warned!

The promised Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut had finally reached Australian PS3 shores on 5 July, more than a week after it was released in America and a day after it was promised for Europeans and “the rest of the world”. Even then, it was not made available through the game itself, but rather required me to go to the PlayStation shop separately and outside the game. One would expect more from Electronic Arts (EA), the biggest player in the video game world.
Now that I played the Extended Cut in various iterations I can confirm that it had turned what used to be the best video game ever into a mildly better one. It does so by providing closure as opposed to ambiguity, and it does so by letting the player make their own choice on an ending – as befits a game whose main claim to fame is it putting the galaxy’s fate in your hands. There are a few questions raised by this now extended game which I would like to discuss.
First, Electronic Arts and developer Bioware have failed to unambiguously explain how readiness scores affect the ending. Readiness, to those unfamiliar with Mass Effect 3, is a score you got not by playing the normal campaign Mass Effect 3 is famous for, but rather for playing its multiplayer mode and/or a couple of iOS/Android games/apps. The higher the readiness, the more detailed and better the ending is supposed to be. While EA announced readiness requirements have been lowered, the iOS Datapad application has stopped working roughly together with the release of the Extended Cut. It seems EA cannot do things right from start to finish.
Regardless, the household still converged to watch the ending[s]. Perhaps the best indication for Mass Effect’s impact has been my wife forbidding me to play the Extended Cut without the whole family there to witness the event. Together, we noted the improved closure around supporting characters: whereas before a lower readiness score would have you witness a dead Liara as you make the final run towards the Citadel, the Extended Cut has the Normandy come in to rescue the wounded and leave Shepard alone to take care of business. Clarity is further improved at the very ending[s], all of which have the Shepard we know and love dead in one heroic way or another (note that's not completely accurate but it's close enough; it's a bit sad the developers couldn't come up with more variety).
Which brings me to ask: how are we going to have a Mass Effect 4 if Shepard’s mostly dead?
One way of solving things is by reviving Shepard. After all, she/he has been dead before. Another way is to create a subplot of a game involving one of the other characters. There is no shortage of worthy characters to follow up on, but whatever course the plot would take we will have to go through some process of being underwhelmed: having just saved the galaxy from an extremely powerful enemy, a subplot would always feel “sub”.
Of course, there is also the option of closing the shop after this third episode. It would mean finishing on a high; on the other hand, it would also mean leaving this whole established Mass Effect world behind, which would be a bad way to deal with an investment as well as a waste of a world that competes and in many ways beats sci-fi worlds such as Star Trek's and Star Wars'. Being the greedy company it is by reputation I doubt Electronic Arts would let this milking cow go. I have to say that as a fan, our interests match: it is clear Bioware has the ability to come up with worthy goods. Let’s say early 2014, shall we?
Till then, let us kill some more Collectors!

Mass Effect 3 Extended Cut image by Electronic Arts

Further notes added on 11/7/12:
I have to say something about the Extended Cut’s “destroying the Reapers” ending, one of the four potential endings, even if the price is offering a huge blooper. This is the only ending where we receive a sign for Shepard still being alive in his normal human form. However, this is also by far the silliest of the four endings:
  1. Being the Shepard is part machine himself, as we are told, how come he’s still alive? It seems the only one to pay a personal price for destroying the Reapers with this ending is EDI, which is a bit of a cheat given the way all potential endings are supposed to come at the price of a major trade-off.
  2. The ending has us witnessing a memorial service for Shepard on board the Normandy. They even carve his name to put on their on board list of KIAs. Only then do we get to cut to a still breathing Shepard. Now, didn’t it occur to the residents of the Normandy that perhaps they should take their lovely spaceship and search the Citadel’s wreckage for Anderson and Shepard’s bodies? Potentially before running any memorial ceremonies? I can see where this would lead to: a Mass Effect 4 where Shepard, the only living thing on board the Citadel, has to forage for food and make a living for himself while the rest of the galaxy plays business as usual. “He saved the galaxy, but now – can he find enough food for lunch? And this time, it’s personal!”
It has to be said: The Extended Cut is an improvement, but it is still suffering from many of the problems inflicting the original ending. “It doesn’t make sense” stands as very valid criticism.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

The Novel


I have been entertaining the thought for a while: the thought of writing my own novel. It is one thing to think about writing and another to actually write one, but recent bouts of lengthy train rides left me daydreaming ideas.
The big idea I came up with is about a guy. At first glance, this guy seems bad, corrupted and almost evil; as we read along we find he's none of the above. He may be defying various religious traditions, such as some of the ten commandments, but when looked at through the test of the actions our guy takes it is clear he's fine. To clarify, this ain't no autobiography; I will, however, borrow ideas and events from my real life (as well as that of others).
Obviously, there are some severe problems that need to be overcome with this novel idea of mine:
  1. I can't write: Sure, I can express myself in writing. But can I write to a level that makes others want to pay to read me? I don't think so.
  2. I don't have the time to write a book: We're talking of a much greater investment here than blogging. And it's not like the internal drive to blog is going to subside while I mess with novel writing.
  3. Filling up a book: It's one thing to have an idea or several ideas, but it's another thing altogether to develop these ideas to a level one can fill a book up with (say, 50,000 words). Just to indicate at the gravity of the situation: up to this sentence, this post was made of ~250 words; I only need to fill up some 400 look alikes that make sense, are properly connected and are well written to have my own book. Not a trivial affair.
Difficulties firmly in mind, the idea of writing a novel is a nice idea to toy with. I already have a working title: "Not His Finest Hour". I have a firm idea on a beginning, some ideas for the middle, and a fine idea for a grand final - featuring the resurrection and a Steve Jobs that goes back to the helms at Apple.
I strongly suspect that these ideas and these thoughts will be the only thing that ever comes out of the idea of writing my own novel. Then again, what is the difference between this idea of mine, that won't get anywhere, and most of the things we embark on during our daily lives? I'll tell you what the difference is: one is fun and educational to think about, while most of the rest are mundane.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Land of the Free, Limited


By now, any self aware citizen of the earth will know that a very few of us live in actual democracies where every person is equal. It does not take much to know this is not the case: starting with the rather empty line of hot shots convicted for the GFC and moving onwards, it is clear there are the A class people in this world and then there are little people. The vast majority of us are little people.
Those big people, who we got to call "the 1%" during the past year or so (even though they're probably much less than that), are using the power of our governments against us. This happens everywhere. The latest example I have stumbled upon took place in Israel, where an army electronic surveillance vehicle was brought in to eaves drop on a peaceful and very legal protest at the center of Israel (see here). By far the worst offender seems to be the USA, with repeat examples of extremely silly behavior on behalf of the authorities as they go out of their way to subdue people: There is the ongoing pursuit of activists associated with Wikileaks, such as the now routine airport harassment Jacob Appelbaum has to go through or the seizure of private tweets made by Icelandic politician Birgitta Jonsdottir. There is the list of people sent through to Guantanamo for daring to wear Casio F91W watches (see the list maintained by Wikipedia for yourself here). I can go on and on, but the point should be clear. The problem is that the USA weighs more than any other country on such matters, and for two main reasons: first, by virtue of its heritage and what it is supposed to be standing for, land of the free and everything, the USA stands as a beacon for all other nations on matters of freedom; second, and as a direct result of the first, whatever the USA allows itself to do, its satellite countries - the UK, Australia and Israel included there - will soon follow suit. And follow they do: pay attention to all the help Julian Assange, guilty or not, is not getting from Australian authorities to see the point. Or the attention high profile criminals like this lady are getting from the police for daring to take part in a very legal pro Assange protest.
The USA & Co are attacking the activists, even though it is clear those activists are innocent (and are actually supported by millions of Westerners, Americans included) for a simple reason: subdue the activists and you will subdue all resistance before it has a chance of shoving its head above the mire. The problem becomes personal if you happen to be one of those targeted activists; otherwise one can continue living while pretending nothing is taking place. This is where I am starting to have a personal problem with the USA.
I am no activist. Other than tweeting and blogging I don't do much in the activity arena; I'm too lazy to do anything substantial. However, that might be enough in the eyes of American authorities: they have been known to keep an eye on those following Wikileaks on Twitter (count me in), they have been known to keep an eye on Pirate Party activists, and they have been known to keep an eye on activists such as Asher Wolf with whom I have some virtual associations through Twitter.
The question I ask myself is whether the above is enough to get my computer confiscated and searched the next time I arrive for a visit to the USA? Or will some person of authority decide that I should be the next Richard O'Dywer to pay a personal price despite breaking no law, just to make an example of and scare others? I don't know. The truth is that I very much adore the USA, the first foreign country I have ever visited, the source of many an illumination (Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, John Scalzi) and the source of much of the technology that makes my life so enjoyable. Any act of terrorism is as far away from me as it is from O'Dywer, Wolf, Jonsdottir or Appelbaum. Yet that is exactly the problem.
Until the USA comes clean and changes course I see no reason to want to visit the country. They have the attractions, they certainly do, but the number one criterion for me choosing a holiday destination is not going to a place that would have me constantly worried. The USA certainly does.