Tuesday, 30 October 2012

What is wrong with this picture?

What is wrong with this photo on the left? It took a while till it occurred to me.
This photo of my son & I was taken at our recent holiday on Hamilton Island. My son just got out of the pool, dried and got dressed while I was reading a book on my Kindle. So far so good.
Then it occurred to me that, when viewed at its original quality, this photo allows its viewers to read the text of the page of the book I was reading at the time. In other words, this photo may constitute a copyright infringement! And we know what the deal is with the scum that infringes on copyrights: They ruin our economy. They get honest people laid off. They are pedophile, murders and rapists combined!
I don’t want to be a pedophile raping murderer, so I sought the advice of the Australian Copyright Council on the matter. In particular, I wanted to check whether this photo of me reading a book constitutes a copyright infringement or whether it is considered to be fair use.
Unlike the USA, Australia does not have a “Fair Use” clause to its copyright legislation. What it does have are Fair Dealings allowances (refer to this Australian Copyright Council document here), and to the best of my understanding they come down to this: the use of copyrighted material may be considered a fair deal if it is for either research/study, criticism, parody, news reporting, or professional advice. Clearly, my photo above does not fall into any of these categories: it is simply a holiday picture.
I might find my break elsewhere, though. As the same document states, if I am using “less than a substantial part of the material” for my work [photo, in our case] then I do not need to bother with permissions and all; my photo would not be considered a copyright infringement. So I went looking to see what constitutes a “less than substantial part of the material” in the eyes of the Australian Copyright Council and found this document of theirs.
Common sense tells me my photo is completely meaningless, but that is not what the Australian Copyright Council is telling me. What it says is that, essentially,
The concept of a “substantial part” is judged by whether or not what you want to use is important, essential or distinctive.
Alright then, how are we to make this judgement?
The quality of the part is more important than the quantity or proportion. The part may be a “substantial part” even if it is a small proportion of the whole work, particularly if it has resulted from a high degree of skill and labour.
Ooh, now I need to judge the quality of the specific page my camera caught. It’s important for me to do so, too, as per this example:
There are many court cases about whether using part of a work infringed copyright, such as the case where the court held that reproducing 4 lines from a 32 line Kipling poem infringed copyright.
In other words, a layman like me could have no real confidence here. Posting this photo might be completely innocent or it might turn me into a raping murderous pedophile, but unless I employ the services of an expert lawyer I will never know which of the two I am. The matter may only be settled at court, a place I do not seek to find myself at.
For added complexity, I will ask myself a question on which expert lawyer do I need. Do I need one specializing in Australian law, because I am an Australian and I manage my online presence from Australia? Or do I need an American one, because my domain is a .com one and the corporations hosting my material are American? People in the know might be able to answer this question, but regardless: the layman does not stand a chance. The result? Publishing your own content without a cartel to hold your hand in the process is a very risky affair.

Or maybe the actual case is that our copyright legislation is evidently and totally screwed up when an innocent family photo by the pool can be regarded as the cause of such mischief? Think about it.
Think of this, too. That page of the book is not the only object in the photo. I am wearing designer sunglasses, both my son and I wear designer shirts, we are sitting on a chair designed by someone, and I am reading an ebook off a very sophisticated device designed by a company called Amazon. In the background there may be a building designed by an architect. The inclusion of none of those would constitute a copyright violation; there would not be a photo that doesn't breach copyrights in the world if that wasn’t the case. So why is it, then, that the same cannot be applied to books, or for that matter music or film?
It is clear only very specific forms of creativity are recognized by law to have property like attributes. It is therefore this very specific focus that clarifies the whole affair reeks of artificiality.

P.S. I am under the assumption my quoting off the Australian Copyright Council’s forms constitutes a fair dealing since this post is all about criticizing it.
P.P.S. If you think this entire post is a frivolous act of hot air on my behalf, I recommend you read this bit of news, the essence of which is that none other than Sony is being sued for quoting nine words out of a book in its film Midnight in Paris. If Sony with its army of lawyers can be sued for nine words, what is to become of the rest of us?

Monday, 29 October 2012

Improve your Internet privacy

University of Maryland Brain Cap Technology Turns Thought into Motion

My mates at EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) have published a very useful article on how to reduce online tracking. This is actually one of our biggest problems, as online users, so paying attention is worthwhile.
The problem we tend to hear of the most, when it comes to Internet and privacy, is maintaining one's anonymity online. The answer there is that nothing online is truly anonymous and that everything you publish on social networks like Facebook is, in effect, public. You might be the most careful person in the world, but your online friends are out of your control.
The other problem, the one that's less talked about, is how each and every one of us is being tracked while using the web. Essentially, most websites you visit plant a cookie on your browser; that cookies collects information from other websites you visit and cross references are made. Even if those sticking these cookies on you do not know who you are, as in name and address, they will know quite a lot about you fairly quickly: what your interests are, where you shop, etc. Things that your mother wouldn't know, or rather - things you'd rather your mother wouldn't know. Want an example? Were the doctor to tell you that you have a tumor, these cooky collectors would be the first to know - because the first thing you'd do once your home from the doctor would be to Google the news.
So, what can we do about it? That article above tells you a thing or two on how to lose the trail. I recommend you read and implement what it says, but do note: it will make your life slightly harder, since you will need to login to some of your regularly used websites each time you restart your browser. Also note some websites have a problem with being forced to a secure connection, the way one of the EFF recommendations stipulates.
P.S. It's also interesting to note EFF provides instructions for Firefox and Chrome browsers only. This is no coincidence: there is value to open source solutions or open source based solutions such as these two above what may be offered by the likes of Microsoft and Apple.

Image by University of Maryland Press Releases, Creative Commons license

Sunday, 28 October 2012

In Need of a Break

21-06-10 Cause I'd Rather Pretend I'll Still Be There At The End ~ Explored #1

The alarm clock was attacking me for 15 minutes this Friday morning before I even reacted, quite a rare occurrence for yours truly. An obvious sign, if you ask me.
I was under the impression that once our home extension project finishes things would calm down, but thus far they haven’t, really. I know that my messing abouts on the Internets and my playing Mass Effect comes with a price, but still – I’m getting record low sleep times over too long a period.
Clearly, it’s time for a break. Xmess could not come any sooner.

Image by Bethan, Creative Commons license

Friday, 26 October 2012

Don't let Amazon walk over you

DRM PNG 900 2

The matter of DRM in general and in its application to ebooks has been discussed over these pages before. Personally, I try and avoid the purchase of DRMed products to the best of my abilities, but some times avoiding them is just too hard. I manage myself without buying games from Sony’s PS3 store (games that are only playable on the specific console they were purchased on and under the specific user account they were purchased with, so if you move to New Zealand or your PS3 is broken – tough). However, I do buy iOS apps, read Amazon Kindle books and listen to Spotify.
This week, Amazon stood up to remind me exactly why I have a problem with their DRM. My biggest problem with the Kindle format is Amazon's ability to delete previous purchases off readers’ devices, an ability they exercised to remove copies of 1984 (!) from Kindles a few years ago. They said they won’t be doing it again, but guess what? They did: An Amazon user found her ebooks were deleted (read here). Her specific crime, in the eyes of that great Amazon eye in the sky, is unclear; however, it seems as if she bought ebooks she shouldn’t have been able to buy at her country using a fake address. For the record, I do so myself and quite often; looking over the Internet, it is fairly obvious this is quite common a habit, particularly with people living outside the USA.
The media started picking up on Amazon as a result, as it should, and a few days later Amazon climbed down the tree and reinstated the ebooks it took away. As this article summarizes quite well, the main lesson the whole affair served is to remind us that “our” Kindle books are not really ours; we might think we bought them, but in actual fact we only rent them, or more accurately license them for our personal use.

That’s great and all, but we don’t have to take this sitting down. There are several steps you can take to protect your collection of Kindle ebooks and prevent Amazon from being able to take them away.
The easiest thing to do is to download all your ebooks to your computer. It’s as easy as installing the Kindle application, offered by Amazon for free, on your Windows PC or Mac and downloading the ebooks. From that point onwards, you can keep your actual Kindle ebook reader offline and copy your books via a USB cable from your computer to your reader. You won’t be infringing any copyrights, laws or user agreements doing that.
The alternative is all conquering. You can download all your Kindle books and then remove their DRM (there are numerous ways of doing it; the easiest and the freest uses the Calibre software and some plugins, as explained here). Once you do this your ebooks are properly yours: no one can take them away from you anymore. Back them up and sleep tight! On the downside, while breaking down the DRM does not infringe on copyrights (unless you actively choose to share your ebook afterwards), you will be breaking user agreements and in some countries laws against tampering with DRM.
The matter at hand here, the legality of breaking DRM, is quite serious. Consider this: you bought an iPhone and wish to jailbreak it; why shouldn’t you? I understand special provisions in American law allow for just that, “just” being the key word here; you’re not allowed to break DRM on most other things, including things that are properly yours and you can resell. I consider that lunacy: why should anyone care to intervene with the way I privately use my own devices? It appears all is fair in that war against piracy that the contents industry is waging, including our basic human rights of possession. But because the contents industry is able to buy the laws it wants, this is the reality we are now facing.
Which brings me to my third and last suggestion for overriding Amazon’s Orwellian superpowers. Granted, Amazon’s Kindle ebook reader is a great device; however, no one is forcing you to feed it with books purchased at Amazon. There is nothing preventing you from shopping elsewhere and then uploading your ebooks to the Kindle, potentially with Amazon’s own help. Look out for non DRM sources: last week, for example, the oddly named Humble Bundle of ebooks proved a mega hit, selling a collection of 13 science fiction and comic ebooks for as much as you’re willing to pay – and without DRM. What more can we ask for? Obviously not that much; it is no coincidence the two week long idea earned $1.2M.
Eat your heart out, Amazon.

Image by listentomyvoice, Creative Commons license

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Love is the Tenth Wave

It was a hot day when we landed on Tuchanka. Firebase Giant was the name of our location, according to that elusive of a shuttle pilot; elusive, I say, because the guy was in an awful hurry to disappear off the face of the planet. He left us with only a simple set of instructions: important artifacts, find and secure them!
I assume some high ranking no gooder off some forsaken species decided some artifacts retrieved from a highly radioactive world might help us fight the Reapers. Don’t ask me how; I’ve been in this business of retrieving war assets and clearing out enemies from middle of nowhere slime holes for dozens of sorties by now, and they all amount to the same: we come, we hurt, we kill, we go away to come back another day. If that is the meaning we give our lives, what is the point of living anyway? Perhaps we should let the Reapers get on with it and show ourselves out in the name of having a conclusion to our story?
Maybe it’s weariness accumulated over centuries that brings this defeatist thoughts to my head. I don’t know. What I do know is this: when I have a problem, I like blowing it on the head. With a mallet. The Reapers are a problem, and me? I am in the vanguard, blowing their heads off to the best of my ability and hoping someone’s life, in some parallel universe, has just been made better.
At least I’m not alone. I hate going out there alone: sure, it could be fun, but most of the time I find myself back on the shuttle ahead of schedule in rather too tattered a form. It’s good to have a team to back me up, even if I’m the one who is always at the front.
I may have not been alone that day but I sure felt estranged. Accompanying me were a reclusive Salarian struggling about with his gigantic sniper rifle and a human armed to the teeth and covered with so much armor I needed to check the Internet to make sure he was a male sample. Majnoon, I said to myself, this one is going to be a hard one, with only three of us strangers to cover the whole base.
What do you know? Just as I was wondering about the party we will soon be having, Cerberus decided to drop in – literally. As they usually do, come to think about it. Only the Goddess knows how they, or one of the other types of galactic scum, always manages to show up exactly after we do. It is as if they are there just to give us a hard time! Count on me – once I find that traitor who tips them I’m going to turn all electric blue on their ass. Then they’ll see just how not so soft Asaris are!
Enough with the chitchat. A wave of troopers was upon us, disembarking on the other side of the base, and I wasn’t about to let non founding Council species take all the glory. I charged… then I charged, hitting the first Cerberus squad with so much force three of them never knew what hit them; the rest were crying about their casualties, helping me locate them for one charge after another. Whatever got left off after my charges was taken care of by my Piranha shotgun.
Wave after wave these fascist humans came at us, and stronger and stronger they grew each time around. Engineers setting up their lethal turrets, sentinels with their shields, well hidden Nemesis snipers, giant Atlas mechs, even elusive ninja Phantoms – they threw it all at us, but to no avail. Between us three we chopped them into little pieces, and easily so. Sure, I had to lob a grenade or two to get away from a nasty situation here and there, but we were doing fine. We had Cerberus on the run.
Then came the tenth wave of attacks. My sisters in arms found themselves cornered; they managed to take an Atlas with them, but that was their last hoorah for a while. The rest of the attack, the strongest thus far, had just one subject to focus on: me. Worse, if I was to succeed in our mission, I needed to quickly collect four data transmissions distributed all over the base. Vastly outnumbered, under a tight deadline and with no one to cover me, I did what us Asaris do best: I ran.
Off I went, seeking relative shelter, trying to attract the stray Cerberus agent to follow me; in a one on one situation they never stood a chance. Lucky for me, there was always one to fall for the trap; once they did the result was always the same. First there was the sound of my biotics charging, second came the sound of that dark energy released as I hit my enemies across the battlefield with the full might of my biotic charge; and with those strong enough to survive that initial assault, the loud clanking of my gun soon followed to provide the third and last hurrah.
Grenades proved their worth in releasing me from potentially tight corners, taking care of huddled groups of enemies. Yes, I took hits, but I was quick on my guerrilla style, always retreating to charge my shields up and look for more grenades. I did well; clearing one transmission area after the other, I managed to get all four. I killed more than 75 of Cerberus’ best that wave, 50 of those with biotic charges alone. I survived.
That last engineer and his turret, I took them with two grenades. The first one missed, doing minor damage. The second, however, was a point blank hit. With that, my squad mates were able to re-join me after what must have seemed to them like an eternity.
Another wave came, perhaps even more ferocious than its predecessor, but our objective was already complete. Our shuttle was on its way and all we had to do was hold on for a couple minutes more. We did, and then some; all three of us were successfully extracted.

It might have been just another mission for everyone else, but it wasn’t for me, though: that tenth wave, that insurmountable mountain. I doubted I would ever come back from that one, all on my own. But I did, and that made all the difference.

Yes, I love Mass Effect, and yes, I thought I might try my hand with posting some fiction. Despite, or perhaps because, I am crap at it (writing fiction, not Mass Effect; well, maybe both).
I had to start with “it was a hot day”, because I started one of my first school essays (was it 5th grade?) with those very words. The rest of the story is there to tell of an above average exciting night of playing Mass Effect 3 multiplayer, a night where – unlike many past experiences – I was left alone to carry the burden of the whole team and actually managed to pull it off. It’s exciting; it’s the stuff of legends.

Since the above is nothing but Mass Effect fan fiction, I would say its copyrights belong firmly with Bioware.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Well To Do

Lowest funded state

One, even an adult, can learn a lot from childcare. Just the other week I had a conversation with a carer at my son’s childcare that turned out to be quite illuminating.
Somehow we got to talk about teachers, and then we got to talk about the salaries teachers receive. My partner in chat was quite proud: as a senior, she reported to earn “in the fifties”, boasting that our particular childcare was a relatively high paying one. She was proud: she was making more than her partner, she told me; then again, “he’s working in manufacturing”.
With that I received a cold reminder for just how screwed up our society is and how detached people like yours truly can be from this rather messed up nature of things. I can complain about this and that but, overall, I know I am doing well: while I would like to go traveling around the world several times a year, flying first class all the way, I am not really short of any material need nor want. I took a severe paycut when I moved to Australia, but still: I am, for example, typing this on an f-ing MacBook Air!
My life has me worried so much about work, being a good parent, the latest gadgets and my best tactics for my latest Mass Effect multiplayer character that I forget what it’s like for many – the majority of people around me – that are not as privileged as I am. People whose contemplations probably do not include the virtues of the latest iPad or whether or not their new smartphone will support AirPlay.
The trouble is that too many of us happen to be as forgetful. That is exactly how we end up living in a society where the people we hand the caring of our children, our most valued “possession”, to people earning peanuts. Surely we cannot expect to get good results in return? After all, the CEO earning hundreds if not thousands what her employees do justifies it on the need to motivate her performance; assuming that is correct, we are actively demotivating carers and teachers. Not to mention nurses and many other people to whom we often owe our lives.
No, I do not think CEOs need to earn much more, if at all, than their employees. I do, however, think that inequalities in our society are one of the biggest dangers we are facing, right up there with global warming. And I think I got further evidence for the sad reality our world is ruled by an oligarchy of well to do male oldies that cares only for itself and couldn’t care less about the people that actually do the work. We, however, should be better than this.

Image by tubagooba, Creative Commons license

Monday, 22 October 2012

Driver's Seat

It might offer mildly inferior sound quality, but there are many advantages to Spotify over CDs. Not the least of which is the ability to listen to Nirvana’s Nevermind without those excruciating 16 minutes of silence separating the last track in two. At home, I’m playing Spotify wirelessly to two destinations; at work I listen to Spotify through a very nice pair of cans. That leaves me with a missing link: the car.
That problem was solved the other weekend through the installation of a new car stereo, one with a USB input. I could get a Bluetooth capable car stereo but chose not to: not only do they cost more, not only is sound quality slightly compromised, not only does it drain my smartphone battery, it was that constant pairing / switching Bluetooth on and off and the phone that I couldn’t stand. So we went with USB, which allows us to play music from our iPhone and Android phones as well as from USB sticks. The unit also features a microphone input, which pretty much renders it a universal player.
The thought of replacing the car stereo felt weird. Once upon a decade or two ago, car stereos were all the rage; one had to look after her stereo for fear of theft. Today, in this age of the smartphone, I guess no one cares anymore; you get the unit that came with your car and you live with it. Besides, it’s too much of a hassle to replace the existing car stereo with a new one, isn’t it?
Well, it isn’t. I used the services of an installer that came to my house and did all the work for me. The guy was an hour late on a Saturday and his eyes told me his previous night was far more exciting than mine, but he did a fine professional job. I have to say I was rather disappointed to see that car stereo installations still meant sticking bits of wire to one another with masking tape; I expected humanity to be better than that by this century. Still, all’s well, including the steering wheel controls.
Sound quality is quite good, for a car, and the presence of much powerful amplifiers to the ones our car came with is clearly evident in the tightness of sound and the ability to notice sounds that were never there before. On the annoying side, the stereo comes with an “iPod control” feature, that means my iPhone starts automatically playing iPod music when I connect it; only that I want to play Spotify instead, you dumb radio player, which necessitates a ritual of terminating the iPod app and starting Spotify instead. I could solve it by getting rid of iPod music altogether, but I would like to keep my Beatles + Pink Floyd + Led Zep on me at all times (you know, the music you can’t get on Spotify).
Quirks aside, I am very happy with the new car sound. My son is happy, too, with the flashy unit, so there you go: each for our own reasons, we are both looking forward to some long drives now. Perhaps most importantly, this investment we made in our car speaks of us intending to keep it for a few years more. I don’t see why we shouldn’t keep it: in its seven plus years of service, Our Car™ never gave us any problems. I know I’m going off subject here, but there are cars that can’t boast that achievement during the first year of their lives.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m a happy man, and with Spotify in the car I’m even happier. Music has a way of doing it to me.

Image: Sony

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Running Errands with a Child

Riding with the Kids

A couple of notes on the matter of running errands with a child, say a five year old, by your side:
  • Be prepared to find yourself serving in the role of a portable coat hanger. Or rather, a generic item holder, because in my case I found myself today holding items ranging from hoodies through water bottles to remote control tanks.
  • That dreaded "I need the toilet" moment? It always comes in the least comfortable moment. Especially if just prior to that, when a comfortably clean loo was just nearby, you asked your child if they need the toilet. Indeed, I would raise a suggestion for a guaranteed Ig Nobel award winning research: do kids have the superpower to tell when their parent would be least comfortable with their request to urgently go to the toilet?
I've said it before and I'll say it again: they don't tell you these things when they say how lovely parenthood is. That said, it's not all bad. There are obvious benefits to doing one's errands in the company of a charming young fellow who obviously looks up to you.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Navigon Going Nowhere

A few months ago I reviewed the state of offline turn by turn navigation apps available for the iPhone, and ended up generally recommending Navigon Australia as the all-around best. Now I am here again to tell you to avoid Navigon like the plague. Since Navigon is now owned by Garmin, you may as well conclude the latter isn’t that great either.
The rest of this post explains why I am issuing this warning.

Back in April I purchased Navigon for my iPhone and added an in-app purchase of traffic updates. It doesn’t say anywhere how long this traffic update service is meant to last; I hoped it was forever, but competing navigation apps sell yearly updates and I therefore wouldn’t be surprised if that is what Navigon/Garmin sold me.
Upon the recent release of iOS 6 for the iPhone, Navigon released a new version of its Navigon Australia app. As with most living iPhone apps, this version was meant to cater for the updated operating system as well as the new iPhone 5. It came with a nice bonus: a free map update. Great news, isn’t it?
Well, no. The map update was nice, but the version update also brought some nasty side effects along for the ride.
The first of these issues was that the Google address search no longer works, claiming the Internet connection is down even though it’s not. It sounds like a petty complaint, but think about it: you need to search for an address, but you can’t do it through the app; you have to go to Safari, do your Google search, then go back to Navigon (and wait for it to start!), then type that address manually while hoping you got it right. Being that it’s all done on a tiny smartphone keyboard, the whole affair can easily add five minutes or more to your travel time.
The second problem is even worse. Traffic updates stopped working altogether, again under the claim there is no Internet connection. However, as the above image shows, there is clear 3G signal that works for other apps; indeed, traffic updates fail to work even when connected through a wifi network. All the while other Internet related updates, like the weather at your destination, do work. Go figure!
It's not like I am the only Navigon user facing these problems. App reviews at iTunes reveal a horde of users encountering the very same problems. Given the nature of the issue at hand, Internet connection failure, it is clear we are talking of a very basic problem with the app: something Navigon should have stumbled upon while testing its release.
Still, no fix seemed to come from Navigon while bad reviews poured down like monsoon rain. I contacted Apple, asking for my money back, but they told me my purchase has been made too long ago and referred me to Navigon’s support. I contacted Navigon asking, again, for a fix or my money back. First they messed me about, then they asked whether I tried reinstalling (I did, twice) and changing roaming settings (I did, they had no effect whatsoever, and neither should they). Eventually they claimed to have opened a support call for me and asked me to wait for that to conclude; I asked how long I should expect to wait and was told “up to 3 days”; it’s been a week now and I’m still waiting. I got the point, though.

So, to conclude, what do we have here?
First, we have a case of an excellent navigation app, Navigon, that seems to have gone to the dogs ever since it was purchased by Garmin. Going to the dogs includes releasing extremely buggy versions as well as dishonoring paid for promises of service (e.g., yearly traffic updates failing to survive six months).
Second, Apple cannot go scot-free on this one either. I made both purchases with Apple and through Apple, and Apple was happy to take 30% of the spoils. They cannot say “oh, you’ve made the purchase too long ago”: that defense won’t work when, say, I buy Apple hardware and that fails me within less than 6 months. Consumers have statutory rights, so why should these right disappear the minute we talk software and services instead of hardware? Apple cannot enjoy the benefits of copyrights on one hand and avoid getting its hands dirty with the responsibilities that come with that on the other. One of major selling points of the Apple ecosystem is its supervision; clearly this case demonstrates the supervision is limited to supervising the cash flowing in.
What a shame.
In the meantime, if you are after a reasonably priced offline navigation app for Australia that does offer free map updates and won’t blatantly infringe on your privacy, my recommendation would go with MetroView.

7/11/2012 update: Navigon appear to have fixed the problem, acknowledging it to be related to its servers (and not, as their helpdesk originally tried to advocate, the roaming settings on the iPhone). According to them, the app needs a reset; in my case I had to uninstall and reinstall it.

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

My Family Sticker

I think I can safely assume that by now you, too, are tired of those ubiquitous "My Family" stickers glaring at you from the back of every second car. They always portray a perfectly happy family, a family that's cool at doing cool things. Where is the tired hunchback glaring at his computer sticker, I ask?
I kept on asking and asking until I decided to take matters into my own hands. Yes, I went ahead and did my own My Family sticker. It's as real as it can get, in that it is a portrait of the things I care about. Without further ado, here it is for your viewing pleasure:

Now this is something worth sticking up the back of my car!

For the record, the image portrays three of my home grown Mass Effect 3 multiplayer characters: Majnoon, an Asari Vanguard (and by far my favorite character); Betty, the Batarian Soldier; and Volvo, the Volus Engineer.

Copyright notice:
Although I was the one that took photos of my TV screen and edited them into the above form and shape, I strongly suspect the rights for the above images are still firmly with Bioware, makers of the Mass Effect game whose characters these are. I doubt Bioware would mind the free publicity I give them; they seem to promote creative fandom (and good on them for doing that!).
Therefore, please consider the copyrights to the above image to be held by Bioware / Electronic Arts.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Academic Epidemic

for promotional purposes

An RMIT university student, assigned to my son’s kinder as part of her studies, approached me the other week. “Your son has some great ideas”, she told me, “and I was wondering whether I can take photos of him as part of my graduation work.” Sure, I said; as in, why not help a student? It’s not like I wasn’t one myself (and it’s not like I wasn’t aching for any help I could get).
“Great! I just need you to sign this form.” And with that she went on to produce an official RMIT form stating boldly that by signing on the dotted line I give RMIT the “irrevocable right to [do everything they want with the photo] and [claim full ownership of the photo]” (as specified in advanced Legalese). I stopped there and informed the student I will not sign such a form. She was clearly disappointed but kept smiling at me in that made up way one has to get out of Israel to witness (in Israel I would have been told exactly what my mother did to make a living). I went on to explain why but it was obvious I was talking to the deaf.
So here’s the deal. Why on earth does RMIT require the right to do everything with the photo when all it needs to do is have the right to incorporate it in low level academic work, a right I would have gladly given them? Why do they need to reserve the additional right to, say, run a worldwide advertising campaign for recycled condoms featuring my son’s photo on the neon signs of Times Square and Piccadilly Circus?
Then again, why do they need to use these signed forms in the first place? I already gave the student my approval to use my son’s photos for her work; I trusted her. However, once introduced to these forms, written by obviously overpaid lawyers, that trust went up and disappeared like a fart in the wind.
What we have before us is an example for how this lawyer guided thinking ruins trust and good relationships between people. While serving what, exactly? Nothing but those lawyers, their likes and their jobs, if you ask me. It certainly doesn’t improve the world of academics or society in general.
The incident also demonstrates the fallacy of the copyright driven content industries. By pursuing as non nonchalantly as it could to grab full copyrights of the student’s photos, RMIT deprived itself of content it only needed for pure academic work. But just like record companies hardly ever care for the artists, RMIT couldn’t care less about its student. The real victims here? It’s not only the student, whose life was made slightly harder; it is the whole of society, whose advancement is held back by people speaking advanced Legalese and making a killing as they do.

Image by opacity, Creative Commons license

Thursday, 11 October 2012

In the Dark of Night

As a modernly sheltered little child, my son is not used to being out when it's dark. Thus we found ourselves last night on a drive back from IKEA (don’t ask) holding an in car discussion with the five year old on just how different the world is when natural light is absent. Then my wife raised a question to my son, involving a TV program he watched earlier that day. The question was, why is the night dark?
I jumped the gun and answered that it is because the universe is finite.
My wife waited patiently for me to finish and offered that it is because the earth spins around itself.
And that, in a nutshell, is all you need to know about the effectiveness of our individual parenting styles.

Now, for a proper answer to this seemingly simple question, have a look at this:

I can’t think of a better example to show how far asking a simple question lead you.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

The iPhone Battery Experiment

I have recently reported on my decision to keep using my iPhone 3GS instead of spending north of $800 on a new iPhone 5. I can already report my attempt at retro smartphoning will not last beyond the upcoming year, not necessarily because my 3GS won’t last but rather because Apple has made it clear its upcoming iOS 7 will not support the 3GS (neither will it support the iPhone 4, for that matter).
Still, in order to be able to happily live the year ahead with my 3GS I thought I would have its battery replaced. The reason is simple: when my iPhone was brand new its battery used to last me 4 days between charges; now it doesn’t even last 24 hours. It’s still manageable because I tend to spend enough of the day at home, not going anywhere, to comfortably charge my phone; however, I still find myself restricting the way I use the phone so as to avoid draining the battery while away.
So I invested $50 in having the battery replaced, an affair that took a technician less than 15 minutes. (You can do it yourself, if you have the tools and the replacement battery, but it’s a bit too tricky for my taste – to the point of not being worth the financial savings.) And now I am here to report how my newly renovated phone feels like!
In one word: it feels the same. Sure, I can tell there’s a different battery in there, but the performance is still, effectively, the same – less than 24 hours of capacity and all. In other words, I have wasted $50 of my hard earned money.
What did I learn from this experiment? I learned that my policies of avoiding battery abuse may be paying off in the sense that my rechargeable batteries tend to last longer than they do with others (disclaimer: better batteries could also explain the phenomenon). More importantly, I caught a glimpse at the side effects of the ever “improving” operating systems running the iPhone. That is, with the hardware being the same, iOS 6 saps the battery three to four times faster than iOS 3 did three years ago. I do wonder what goes on in there to create such a major difference.
Of course, I am to blame just the same: it's not only that the new iOS sucks more battery; a lot of it is to do with me and the way I use my phone. It is fairly obvious there are more uses for a smartphone today then there were three years ago.
In other words: times are changing, but the battery stays the same.

Image by nvog86, Creative Commons license

Sunday, 7 October 2012

All You Pirates Hide Your Faces

Shiver me timbers :-)

Here's something for you to think about during this upcoming week: you're a pirate!
I'll put it another way:
  • Did you record any TV program off the air before and up to 2006? If you did, you have infringed on Australian laws and should therefore consider yourself a pirate.
  • Did you record any TV program off the since 2006 and kept it after watching it once, or - heavens forbid - watched it more than once? You have infringed on Australian law and should therefore consider yourself a pirate.
Given you almost certainly did one of the above, and probably both, you should consider yourself personally responsible for the utter destruction of the Australian cinema industry. That, after all, is what we are told each time we watch a DVD, Blu-ray or go to the cinema. Given that members of the Australian cinema industry have kids, and these kids are worse off because of you, you should consider yourself child molesting scum. Obviously, by the same logic you can feel free to consider yourself a rapist or a murderer. Probably both.
Alternatively, you can conclude Australia's copyright legislation makes no sense.

Image by ...-Wink-..., Creative Commons license

Friday, 5 October 2012

The Future TV

We won’t stop till we save earth!
That is to say, I won’t stop until I play the whole Mass Effect trilogy of video games from start to finish. It's now possible, with Mass Effect 1 finally released on the PS3. The Christmas release will have us forced to buy the whole trilogy to get our hands on the series’ first episode, but I suspect an individual release would follow shortly.
This tiny bit of news concerning the re-release of a 2007 video game has some interesting implications on me. First, it means I don’t have to play the game on a Windows PC, an experience I was not particularly looking forward to. And second, there are direct implications on the choices we will be making when the time comes for us to buy our next TV.
Our last escapade in the field of TVs had us buy a cheap big TV. Currently we are using this TV on our reference system and our old and very broken rear projection TV at our lounge. The latter is not expected to last much longer, hence the relevancy of holding a discussion on our future prospects. I will start by analyzing the situation.
My target with the purchase of a new TV would be to get a proper reference quality TV, relegating our current cheap but big set into lounge duties. Normally, when I use the word “proper” in the context of a TV, I refer to picture quality and almost nothing else; that is, nothing but size. That implies either getting ourselves a projector or a quality plasma TV.
This brings me back to Mass Effect, or rather the question Mass Effect puts forward: would a projector or a plasma TV truly be the best answer for my needs? The answer is that they used to, but now my needs have changed.
I already expressed my dismay with mainstream American cinema. As my reviews blog testifies, we have severely cut the number of crap movies we get to watch. Cutting down on American cinema also meant cutting down on the number of Blu-rays we get to watch, because it is the latest American release that is easily available on rental Blu-rays and not much else. The other trend is that we get to watch less TV/movies overall, a trend I suggest to be the result of two factors: the “we don’t have time / between careers and parenting we are always tired” factor, and the “we have better alternatives on our hands in the shape of ebooks and tablets”.
Whichever way you put it, picture quality is no longer the main event of our TV watching. Given my constant need for Mass Effect fixations I would argue plasmas are out (due to the picture burning potential of video games) and LCDs are in, be it LED backlit or conventional. A projector? Sure, that would be a nice gimmick, but I dare you to try playing a video game during day time on a projector and see if you can get away without a headache.
It therefore appears that the TV for me would be a middle of the range LCD model, probably from the likes of Samsung or LG (not because they are middle of the range manufacturers but rather because their TVs are good!). I suspect the main point of contention would be size: my wife seems to disagree with my natural philosophy of “there is no such thing as [an affordable] TV that’s too big”.
For now, though, I see no pressure to rush and replace our existing cheap LED TV; it will do an excellent job taking me through my favorite video game trilogy. That is, if I can bear letting Mass Effect 3’s multiplayer mode a break, which hardly seems to be the case at the moment (they are actually releasing an expansion for it next week!).
Given our mortgage, I cross my fingers for the old rear projector to live long and prosper. There's no rush.

Mass Effect Trilogy image: EA

Thursday, 4 October 2012

A Curse on Australia Post

Australia post #dailyshoot #Adelaide

For some unseen reason, Australia Post seems to be desperate. The problem is that it’s throwing its desperation at us.

The first manifestation of this desperation arrived upon our move back home from the place we rented. As required by the real estate agent, I filed a request to transfer my post from the rental place to our old/new home.
Shortly after filling this application in we started receiving junk mail claiming to be directed at us from Australia Post. We also started receiving “help packages” from Australia Post, designed to help us with the move. In practical terms, by the way, this "help" meant more junk mail. That raised the question: WTF?
I checked the forms I filed with Australia Post for the mail forwarding services. They say “check here if you do not want to receive marketing material” (you got to love those double negatives!), which I checked. They also clearly say “sign here if you want help with the move”, which I clearly did not sign. So what is going on here?
The letters offering us help with the move come with a phone number one can call to ask for this “help” to cease. I called the number and the first option presented to me was “dial 1 to request Australia Post to stop sending marketing material”; I dialed 1. Then I was asked to enter all sorts of numbers identifying me, and then I was automatically transferred to an entirely different help line where I spoke with a person. A person who seemed obviously ignorant of the whole junk mail cessation process. It took me 15 minutes over the phone to explain the problem, get them to seem to understand what I’m complaining about, and get them to say they will do something about it.
To summarize: Australia Post unilaterally decided to sell me a service I specifically asked not to receive and then made it hard for me to stop receiving the service. I am not the only victim here: there are companies out there that paid Australia Post to deliver me something I did not want.

The second sign of Australia Post desperation took place today before my wife’s eyes. A delivery van parked at our driveway and left a note in our post box. Turns out, according to the note, that Australia Post tried to deliver us a package but we weren’t home, so they left us a note. Only that they never really tried to deliver the package, they only left us a note saying so!
Worse, we are now required to pick the package up ourselves from a post office that is not the one near us but rather one that is several kilometers away. In other words, great service all around!
I don’t necessarily blame the courier with everything here. It seems obvious they are only responding to the unworkable quotas put on them by Australia Post. Given these couriers are now driving generic vans, it seems obvious the whole affair has been outsourced and some severe throat cutting is taking place all around.
But wait, the story hasn't finished yet. We called Australia Post to ask them to transport the package to the post office near us; we were told to call again after 14:00, when the package was expected to be delivered to the faraway post office.
We called again. This time we were told it would cost us $6 to have our package transported to a nearby post office. We explained it was their own fault, to which the initial answer was that we are to blame for the courier not being able to deliver the package in the first place. We were told that "they are not allowed to open gates", which is either bullshit (they used to open our gate all the time) or a brand new regulation designed to save time.
When we continued pressing the matter over the phone we were told that there are three post offices "at our vicinity", and that as far as Australia Post is concerned a package for us may be left in either three. Note how elegantly Australia Post has been dealing with us: they invented a new regulation (new, because we used to always receive our deferred packages at our nearby post office), and applied it in a manner that cannot be challenged by us little folk. Given the address of the post office was printed (not handwritten) on the back of the card the courier left us, their plan is obvious: concentrate everything in one place so as to save the courier time. Who cares about measly things such as service, or accommodating for the needs of the public - the people that actually own Australia Post?

The lesson I take from this is to try and minimize my interaction with the obviously desperate Australia Post. The problem is that it’s not like I, or any other Australian for that matter, has much of a choice. No, I don’t think competition and the free market could solve this problem; I think Australia Post simply needs to be allowed to do what it should be doing instead of having it turned into a “for profit” enterprise. Australia Post is not for profit; it’s for us!

Image by Leshaines123, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Radio Free Wallet

A selection of rfid blocking duct tape wallets and passport covers

Despite many Android phones sporting them, no one in the market for a smartphone makes their purchasing decision based on whether a specific model has an NFC (Near Field Communication) chip. I strongly suspect NFC will remain in the doldrums up until Apple decides to pick the technology up; at that point we might see people actually using their phone as a smart wallet.
However, there are still some uses for NFC equipped phones. One of them is the demonstration of how easy it is for such a phone to read the information off a credit card or passport that happens to pass by. Say, 10-20cm away from the phone. I have to qualify my statements here and declare I have never seen such a demo myself but rather rely on hearsay (for better and worse, I’m stuck in Apple land).
Still, that was enough to make me take measures. My newly purchased wallet, a replacement of the one I’ve been sitting on for the past eleven years, is RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) protected. That is, it has a layer of metallic mesh that prevents magnetic fields from going in and out of the wallet, thus preventing my cards from being read while they’re in the wallet. I would say an even greater need for such protection is required for protecting one’s passport, and yes: there are RFID protected passport holders to be found (like this one, chosen for its color as well as for the football manager).
There are some obvious disadvantages to RFID wallets. They are expensive compared to regular ones and there are less to choose from, implying relative lack of choice. However, the way things are going I suspect RFID wallets are going to be something we will all be taking for granted in the not so distant future. I’m just a bit ahead of the curve.

Image by quinnums, Creative Commons license