Thursday, 28 February 2013

Chuck Versus The End

The event we have been dreading the most lately will soon be upon us. We have started watching the fifth and last season of Chuck, and given this one is actually half a season long (12 episodes) the end is imminent. What can we do about it? How do we soften the blow?
In order to address this most horrific of problems, the ultimate end of a favorite TV show, we have reintroduced an old tactic: watching movies. Thus lately we have been renting Blu-rays like crazy, an act I have been rather reluctant to perform given the average quality of the average Blu-ray rental movie is not so great (criticism aimed at Hollywood rather than the Blu-ray format itself).
So we’re back to watching movies. And me, I’m back to reading at a proper rate again.
In other words, we are back to our a similar leisure time routine as the one we used to have before embarking on our home extension project. It only took me a year to get back there…

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Prisoner Y

X Marks The Spot

The latest revelations tell us in great detail the story behind the saga that is now known as Israel’s handling of the case of Prisoner X. For that elaborate story, feel free to go here, here and here. Try the second link if you can only be bothered with the executive summary. I have to warn you, though, that all these linked sources are in Hebrew; you can use Google Translate to stick their URL in and read the story in your preferred language.
Assuming you went through the links and read the story, let me ask you this: do you think Prisoner X was a traitor? Do you think he deserved death? Do you think he deserved imprisonment under unprecedented conditions, his identity totally hidden from the press and the public? Would you say he deserved the full weight of the Israeli judicial system on his face? My answer to all of the above would be “no”; in fact, given the information in the links I would say Zygier is innocent by my book. Don’t know if I would have liked to make friends with him, but see him end up the way he did? Never.

With that in mind, pay attention to the judge conducting the investigation into Zygier’s death. Despite looking into the matter for a year and a half (!), she never bothered visiting the actual prison cell where the death took place (read here). Exemplary.
There’s another point raised in that last link: Israel is yet to deny the existence of additional Prisoner Xs. One wonders how long it would take before we learn of Prisoner Y? Or Z? And for that matter, how would we label them once we run out of letters?
Let us hope you are not to find yourself labelled Z1.

4/3/13 update: It was interesting to read today of a similar case to Prisoner X, the case of Bradley Manning (see here). Indeed, the similarities are striking; it seems obvious that both Manning and Zygier are victims to some major organizations trying to keep the public oblivious of their wrongdoings through silencing anyone who would dare speaking.

Image by Mr. Ducke, Creative Commons license

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Four Eyes Only

Self-Portrait 3/12

During my early teens my eyesight started deteriorating. At some stage or another I decided to start wearing glasses in order to resharpen the world; within a couple of years it was no longer a matter of choice. I got to the stage I had to wear glasses. Not only in order to drive, but in order to get along with life in general.
Years later I solved my vision problems through a laser eye operation. I have been known to declare I do not recommend this operation. There is the obvious financial reason – it’s stupidly expensive – but there is more to it. While helping me get rid of glasses, it introduced new issues such as dryness to the eyes. Generally speaking, my lesson was “do not cut my body unless it is utterly necessary to do so”. (I learnt a similar lesson before from the tattoo I had done; much good it did me.)
Why am I telling you all of the above? Because nowadays I feel like that early teen at the beginning of the post. And the thought of eventually going back to wearing eyeglasses? Not so appealing. Quite unappealing, actually.

Image by Paul Stevenson, Creative Commons license

Friday, 22 February 2013

What a difference a year makes


This time last year we were living at a rental place while our house was extended.
This time last year I started chewing my fingers again, after several years of holding myself back. Chewing them big time.

This year we are in our now extended home. We are not going anywhere (we can't afford to!).
This year I used the calmness of January’s school holidays to calm things down with the chewing. Once again my fingers look like they belong to a human rather than a zombie.

Not that everything is easier. The whole prepare school lunch box / drop son at school in the morning / pick son up from school in the evening is hard. It’s hard because no day is the same as the one before, unlike the good old childcare routine. It’s also hard because it makes for very long days, by the end of which I’m as energetic as Chernobyl’s reactor.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Reading in a State

Small Old Book - FuijiFilm Finepix S2950

The other day I picked up my Kindle for the first time in two weeks. I was taking the train home and thought I might do some reading, for a change. Guess what? For the first time that I can recall, my Kindle answered with its “battery totally empty” message.
That is pretty much the story of my reading ever since the school year started. I moved over to doing what I have been doing this past few weeks on the train instead of reading: plug the headphones to my iPhone, surf the net, listen to music, watch some videos.
Yet this annihilation of my reading experience in the face of superior gadgetry is worth analyzing. I would say it is the result of two factors: the current lack of truly exciting books in my pipeline coupled with unprecedented Internet accessibility. Between the iPad at home and my new iPhone 5, the Internet was never easier to access; and when the Internet is accessible its tempting fruits are too low hanging for this Eve to resist.
I tried counteracting with a book I have been saving for such a crisis, The Android’s Dream by John Scalzi. Yet even Scalzi could not pull me away from my iPhone; it appears as if this specific book just doesn’t make me go all warm and fuzzy the way most of the rest from this author does. On the positive side, the newly released Homeland from Cory Doctorow is a guaranteed winner given its themes and author.
I suspect salvation will come when the retina display iPad Mini finally comes out (crossing my fingers for a March release, as some older rumors said): while it would definitely enhance the Internet temptation factor, it will also provide a decent ebook platform. There are lots of comic books out there waiting for me to read them on a tablet! I could actually do some reading in between straying off to the darker alleys of the Internet…

Image by ladytimeless, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Prisoner X Marks the Spot


Two weeks ago a new starter at work started talking to me about Israel. Obviously Jewish, they were mentioning, amongst others, that Israel must be a great place to live in. I told them what I think of Israel; signs of heartbreak could be seen on their face.
Yesterday I took part at a numeracy workshop held by my son’s school in order to help parents with their children’s studies. Our two hour long tour's guide told us they just came from a visit to Israel. There were only two guys in a room full of mothers, yet the instructor “volunteered” yours truly first. They then moved on to ask where I’m from in Israel, I answered, and then they told me how great Israel is. You know me, I don’t muck about; I told them in one sentence what I think of Israel. Yet again I got that sad look on the face.
As the above two examples demonstrate, the pattern repeats itself rather too often. Non Israeli Jews recognize me, either by name or accent, to be a member of their exclusive club. With that recognition comes the automatic assumption that I regard Israel as the pinnacle of creation. When they realize they are in the wrong something cracks; second thoughts about everything they believe in creep in. For at least a brief minute their entire perception of reality is on the brink.
No, I do not understand this automatic association between non Israeli Jews and Israel. It is as if a Jewish person is not allowed to criticize Israel. Worse, it is as if Israel is the true representation of these people; yet, if that is the case, why don’t they pack up to go and live in the country of their dreams? Maybe then they would realize there are some significant differences between being Jewish and being an Israeli.
Me, I want neither Judaism nor Israelism. After all, I left Israel for a reason and at a hefty price. As for Judaism, while I cannot escape the cultural impact it had on me, I think describing the culture I grew up on as Israeli would be much more accurate. Racially I may still be Jewish (definitely so by Hitler’s standards), even if the actual racial profile of Jews today is made of a mix of everything; hardly anyone can boast a bloodline that comes purely out of the small number of Jews exiled from Israel a couple of millennia ago. And if your definition of Judaism relates to religion then you should know I’m all for equality: I despise all religions the same.
I do wonder if these Israel oriented Jews realize what they look like in the eyes of any other citizen of the country they hail from. In other words, can Australia’s Jews complain about racial prejudice when they declare themselves to be Israel’s first and Australia’s second? When they pledge allegiance to a country they hardly know much about over the country they grew up at and by any rational account belong to?

Case in point: the whole affair of Prisoner X. Australian Ben Zygier who relocated to Israel, seems to have worked for the Mossad, then got secretly imprisoned and died in jail under dodgy circumstances. Zygier represents all the problems I’ve talked about thus far; his family’s silence on the matter, coupled with the deafening silence from the Jewish community here in Australia and Melbourne, only seems to further prove my point.
What astounds me is that Australian Jews can still express their unconditional affection to Israel when the latter proved itself perfectly capable of throwing one of them in jail, make the rest of world unaware of the guy’s existence, and enforce total silence on the matter. These are tactics worthy of Stalin.
Israel’s judicial system should take a deep long look at itself in the mirror. And so do this world’s Jews.

P.S. If you ask for my opinion on the best coverage of the Prisoner X saga (actually, it should be called Detainee X;  Zygier was never convicted), I would point at the this Hebrew speaking blogger.

Image by Ilana Tamir, Creative Commons license

Thursday, 14 February 2013

A Taste of America


We finally landed in the USA this Saturday. Sorry, did I type USA? I meant Costco.
We weren’t alone; hordes of fellow Melbournians flocked around us, clinging to their shopping trolleys. They have to: these beasts are nothing like your average supermarket trolley; they’re more like their 4WD gas guzzling giant cousin. So big the rear wheels are fixed, making them steer like a car.
Yet we needed the big leviathan. We spent $700 at this first visit to Costco. Sorry: we saved to the tune of $700 on our credit card. There are savings to be found at each corner, and they all start when you buy more!
It seems everyone I discuss this Costco phenomenon with is curious. I will therefore move on with a high level review of the Melbourne shop.

As stated, I was looking forward to my Costco visit on account of their white goods. Well, now I can report local white goods resellers have nothing to worry about. While Costco does host the occasional white good, their range is minimal and their prices do not appear to be unobtainable elsewhere. In some cases Costco is even worse, selling a PS3 for $400 at a time when JB Hi Fi was advertising them for less than $250. Things are a bit better with TVs, where there are more [older models] to choose from; but again, the prices were not at the realm that a little bit of haggling or finding that special discount that is always available somewhere could get you.
The photography section was interesting, offering print and speciality photo printing services for prices at about 30% to 50% off Harvey Norman's. Assuming the quality is similar (haven’t tested it), that is definitely an attraction. Bear in mind, though, that most speciality orders would have you visit the shop twice. There is always a Harvey Norman near you, but a Costco?
The rest of the shop is more mainstream supermarket/warehouse like, whose unique nature stems from (a) carrying relatively smaller number of catalog items compared to the shop’s size, (b) the ginormous size of said catalog items, and (c) the relative ubiquity of American brands that are otherwise unavailable or rare in the land Down Under.
The first thing we noticed were the chocolates, the sweets and the snacks. You can buy them in sizes ranging from buckets to standard oil barrels. With prices that make one want to start one own collection of oil barrels these are hard to resist: we bought a treat bucket for our son, for example, and thus far it proves successful in getting him to eat his vegetables (“finish your veggies and you can get a dip”). Me, I bought a whole sack of crisps. Actually, two sacks, in case of a pending zombie apocalypse. Starvation is no longer on our agenda for the upcoming year.
The plot thickens, though. We got our supply of dishwasher powder for the next year and then some, but we could not say the same about washing machine powder: while Costco stocks the brand we use (Omo, probably the most popular in Australia), they only stock the basic type for top loaders and front loaders; they do not stock the “sensitive” type, which is the one we prefer to use.  In toilet paper, you can buy yourself a huge pile of them – and given that I’m full of shit I was always dismayed at Aussie supermarkets always selling me them in tiny portions – but alas, Costco did not seem to stock toilet paper made of recycled paper. Again, we are back to our regular supermarket.
Size is definitely an issue, too. What are we going to do with all the Colgate Total toothpaste that we now have? It will last us almost two years. Or the rice bran cooking oil: a few weeks ago the wife bought half a liter at the supermarket for $5; at Costco we bought 3 liters for a bit over $10. That’s a great bargain, but what are we to do with all that oil? It would take us years to go through it, which erodes the financial benefits given that we are be paying interest for our mortgage and storage space does come with a cost.
Moving onwards, the Costco’s fresh food section is impressive. If you are happy to buy in bulk, you can get anything from fresh cakes and pastries to whole fish that seem to have been only recently alive. If you are planning on hosting people over, or running your child’s party at home, look no further than Costco – nothing can beat it in price, period. What about the rest of the time? We are currently finding ourselves in that great battle to beat the expiration date on all the fresh food we just had to buy. Had to, because you know – when you buy more, you save more.

Given this overview, do I recommend Costco? As with most things there is no black and white answer here.
Yes, the prices are good, but not always. Fresh bread and many other products are still better priced at Aldi, where the portion sizes are more reasonable, the shops are nearer and no $60 yearly membership fees are required.
On the other hand, if you really do need large portions, say when entertaining, then go for it. Better yet, if you can find friends to share the spoils with, Costco might offer not only potential discounts but good socialization opportunities. You might laugh, but to this socially disconnected person this is not an opportunity to ignore.
Then there is the matter of environmental friendliness. Costco finds it worthwhile to import German made Swiss cheese and sell a kilo in Melbourne for roughly $13.50. Given that Victoria is a milk product manufacturing giant by its own rights, this has to raise some question marks: how can it be that such a move is financially worthwhile? And what about the carbon footprint of importing fresh and cool products all the way here – do they do it by sea, or, heavens forbid, is it all flown in? Hell, we deserve a zombie apocalypse.
It’s not like Aldi doesn’t import stuff. Its chocolates are usually European made, and its cereal that I ate this morning came from Belgium. Yet Costco seems to raise the bar much further with bucket loads of stuff imported from the USA, from pretzels to chips. All the while similarly priced Aussie alternatives are clearly available elsewhere. Why should the Australian economy agree to this American invasion? I suspect the answer lies in the trade agreements our government is so proud of. Remember to keep feeling proud when you lose your job.
Buying in large quantities is already introducing some quality issues. For example, my wife announced today that the liter of balsamic vinegar she got from Costco is "crap". Fine; I consider vinegar a chemical weapon I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. However, we are still about to throw away more WMDs than Sadam ever had. WMDs that cost us more money than, say, a small 100ml bottle.
Last, but not least, there is the problem of obesity. I don’t know about you, but I am no Tony Abbott; I’m a human being. When I have bags of snacks at the house, with their salt and fat, I will eventually succumb and do what was meant to be done with them albeit at too quick a pace for comfort. I will eat them, especially when expiration dates start ticking. Couple cheap prices and being forced to buy in bulk, and you get a ticking bomb; my stomach is already showing some evidence of overfilling less than a week later. Our will powers are simply not designed to deal with Costco scale temptations.

Back to my original question – do I recommend Costco? And my answer is yes, but for very specific items. Do your shopping list and do not stray from it; calculate exactly what you need and you might even be able come true on the joke and save more by buying more. I bought white t-shirts for work that I couldn't find elsewhere and a quilt like thing for the sofa that we wanted for winter, both for prices unimaginably low. Good purchases can be found! Oh, and try to buy ethically.

As a sidenote, if Costco is – in one way or another – a mirror into American society, then the image reflected is a problematic one.
Now you’ll have to excuse me. I’m off for a snack.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

A Proposal to End All Proposals

The famous actor Valentino was born around this time of year, and for that reason I will be dedicating this post to this hero of the silent film era. As has been my practice recently, I will be doing so with the aid of the TV series Chuck.
I will start with a question that many a film tried to answer already: how do you bring down one of the best spies in the world, a woman who never lets her emotions stand in the way of her mission targets, a woman that’s always heavily armed and won’t hesitate to use those skilfully, a woman who proved again and again her ability to detect the slightest sign of danger, a woman so fluent in martial arts she even beat the best Thai kick-boxer at his own art, a woman for whom jets are always available for two way trips across continents at the shortest of notice?
If your answer is James Bond then you’re in the wrong. Sarah Walker would eat James Bond for breakfast and then move on to the main course.
No. The answer is a very simple. You propose to her. Yes, the way to slip under the world’s most skilled spy unnoticed is through a wedding proposal; that will turn her clueless! There is a scene where Chuck organizes a wedding proposal featuring bands, horses and carriages and even (if I remember correctly) elephants. Sarah, however, notices nothing (!). Then there is another scene, here, where Sarah discovers Chuck's proposal plan. Like the good woman that she is, she does nothing with that information. After all, it is the man's job to propose; the woman is there only to say "yes", isn't she?

Which brings me to ask: Proposals – WTF?
It seems to me as if people are taking the entire concept of the wedding proposal as an inevitability. Apparently, the proposal comes with its own strict set of rituals, most notably involving the man doing the proposing, organizing some special event for the event, the bent knee, the diamond ring, and the ideally surprised woman. In the context of Chuck, once series 3 had Chuck and Sarah finally expose their feelings to one another, their season 4 wedding became the running theme. I was hoping for more, though: I was hoping for Sarah, being the super agent that she is, to tell Chuck what she thinks of this entire proposal thing in this age where women are meant to be equal; that in this day and age it is a silly affair; that diamonds are acquired with the blood of many a poor people and that there is nothing special about carrying a piece of carbon on one’s finger. At the very least I was hoping for Sarah to do the proposing. But no – in Hollywood, we do it the conservative way.
Talking about women being equal in contrast to the men doing the proposing, I will ask another question: Weddings – WTF?
Yes, you heard it. Why do people that love one another need an official ceremony and certificate to love one another? Why is a wedding day described as [usually the female’s] most important day of life? What’s the big deal if about half the marriages don’t last? And why are gays, on the face of it representing the opposite of conservatism, in such a rush to get married?
Don’t get me wrong. If someone wants to get married, they should be able to, be it gay or straight. What I am questioning here is not the right to marry, but the need people have for getting married in the first place. It’s an archaic institution that, by now, does not mean much – no, not even to the strictest of conservatives (don’t tell me they never divorce or cheat on their partners). So – what is the point? And why is a cool series like Chuck pushing this Stone Age institution on us while glorifying it?
Sarah Walker, you have disappointed me greatly.

And now for something completely different.
You may as well ask me how come I love Chuck so much given all the criticism I have been pouring over it on these pages. I will answer with the following clip, which – with the aid of the rest of the episode surrounding it – made us LOL last night.

(There is a better version of this clip that does not allow embedding here)
If you still don’t get it then consider this: after more than 70 hours with these characterless they become more than fictional; they become, to one extent or another, friends. And with that in mind: Happy Valentino Day!

Monday, 11 February 2013

Always On My Mind


The idea of fans taking things into their own hands and coming up with their own finals for a piece of work they like sounds one of those silly new Internet social media fads. Marauder Shields is one such case, providing a lot of what fans have been missing with Mass Effect 3’s original ending (which I personally found adequate) or the Extended Cut (which, by now, I consider too superficial).
The Marauder Shields concept expanded with time. What started with parody comics has evolved into a full fledged storyline with its own sound and video production. I have been enjoying it quite thoroughly lately.
One of the faults Marauder Shields sets out to address is the rather passive nature a lot of the Mass Effect 2 characters take upon themselves in Mass Effect 3. Sure, each of them has their farewell, but it feels like an add-on rather than the active part that others have. Probably the most notorious example is that of Miranda’s, the character who owns the second biggest role in Mass Effect 2 after Commander Shepard but takes only a rare guest appearance role in the third episode. While the writers’ original intention is clear (they take the main love interests away from Shepard in the second episode and bring them back for the finale hence leaving no room for Miranda), that does not help the fans.
Thus Miranda takes a central role in Marauder Shields. And thus, between me reading this comic, playing Mass Effect and watching Chuck, I get to see the face of Yvonne Strahovski during the bulk of my leisure activities. This past weekend it was actually during the whole of my leisure activities. Not even in the heydays of my Harrison Ford and Arnold Schwarzenegger fandom did one person dominate my reading, playing and watching as much. (I will ask, just to be on the safe side: Strahovski doesn’t do recorded music, does she?) Not to mention that in the stardom scales of clout, particularly the non geek realms, Strahovski is a minor and virtually unknown character (and parsecs away from the likes of Solo/Jones/Deckard and The Terminator). I am pretty sure none of the regular readers of this blog ever heard of her before I started mentioning her name on a regular basis here; however, given the above insight, it’s no surprise I have been mentioning her a lot.
I find it rather scary. Then again, I find us getting towards the final end of Chuck’s episodes even scarier.

Yvonne Strahovski

Overdoses aside, there is another Strahovski related insight I’d like to discuss. It’s related to another theme running through this blog lately, the Twitter accounts of the rich and famous.
After a bout of original enthusiasm I realized the latest adventures of these gentle folk is not as rewarding as, say, the insight that the likes of Richard Dawkins or Leslie Cannold provide me over Twitter. Indeed, I don’t even have to fetch these heavy guns: Hollywood stars may bear the occasional good joke, but generally their inputs are significantly poorer to those of the teachers, writers and activists I follow. Hardly ever is there worthy competition.
Not unexpectedly, Strahovski is one of those stars I follow. After all, anyone related to Mass Effect is at least a demi god by my current account keeping. Amongst these demi gods, Strahovski’s Tweets stand out for their relative rarity and cryptic nature. I suspect I (together with many others out there) can give her a few basic lessons on the art of self promotion; then again, perhaps she’s at a position where she couldn’t care less? After all, I’m not the figure who played next to Robert De Niro in a major film release, took a central role in a 90+ episode TV series, took part in a Broadway play and played a major role in the best video game ever.
Some people do not need promotion. Movie stars probably live in these vast mansions of theirs by the Californian sea, indulging themselves by their swimming pools and living a life of no worries (in between divorces). Or do they?
Well, yesterday Strahovski went out with an atypical and therefore noticeable burst of five consecutive tweets, shot faster than Sarah Walker could cock her pistol or Miranda launch biotic attacks (see here, here, here, here and here). All were complaining about next door’s dogs howling her out of sleep. Perhaps the life of the movie star is not as idyllic as I have been imagining it to be? Worse, perhaps their lives aren’t enviable at all: after all, no one has been keeping me awake at night (other than Strahovski & Co through me playing Mass Effect) since our baby stopped doing so years ago. In other words, perhaps my life is superior to that of a Hollywood Star’s?
Just a thought.

Yvonne Strahovski image by vagueonthehow, Creative Commons license

Sunday, 10 February 2013

"The purpose of education is not to validate ignorance, but to overcome it"

I have been recently accused by relatives of robbing away my son's childhood. The fault? Telling my son the truth. The truth about there being no such thing as Santa and the truth about there being no evidence whatsoever for this thing we commonly called "magic".
Let's dedicate three sentences to the small mindedness evident in the accusation. I have any reason to promote the Santa idea to my son: that character has nothing to do with the culture I grew up on. Moving on, I have to say I’m pretty proud of my son’s ability to stand unshaken at these relatives' pro Santa arguments. It also has to be said that it wasn’t us parents that drove our son away from childish concepts of “magic”: it was entirely him, driven by the need to know how things work. I suspect the difference between my son and other kids was the ease of accessing good information: historically, kids had to rely on what their parents tell them; my son can pretty much watch any video he wants to, and his choices usually come down to “how X works”.
Two generation separate the said relatives and my son. I take two things from this clash of the old generation with the new. First there is the matter of feeding bullshit to a child in order to get them to accept, a bit later, the bigger bullshit in the room – religion. Given the relatives at hand are believers, they obviously lack the ability to fully discriminate fact from fiction (as evident in subsequent discussions on the story of Baby Jesus, a glaring fabrication). Since they already accept one form of supernatural magic, accepting others does not take much. My son is different, though: he has no reason to accept magic in the first place. Magic is the lazy person’s answer; he wants to know reality.
Which brings me to my second taking: when given the choice between reality and magic, my son went for the former. Why? I suspect some of it is because the real can be seen and felt. When he sees a video about electricity and can then experience it by playing with a torch or licking a battery, it makes a difference. However, I argue there is more to it: I argue that the tales of magic invented by humans pales in comparison to what the real universe throws in our direction. Can Santa compete with supernovae or black holes?
As far as I can tell, all I did was let my son think things up for himself and make his own choices. His choices seem very clear to me, and I already told him how proud I am for him standing up for these choices. Not by insisting, but by arguing for them.

Which brings me to the matter of child abuse as it manifests itself in the form of parents feeding their children’s heads with crap. Physicist Lawrence Krauss seems to agree with me on this point, as per the video below:

To put things in the contents of the discussion I started this post with, feeding my son’s head with bullshit is a form of child abuse. What is the point of in the first place? Conforming to a certain old style concept of childhood some people have formed in their heads? Or setting things up so as the child would be able to accept religion later? I suspect a bit of both.
Moving on, I found PZ Myers expanding the definition of child abuse even further interesting. Although I beg to differ with him on the grounds of some parents being unable to perform what he’s asking them to do, he does set an aspirational target worth setting.
The universe is magical enough as it is. There is no need to stick to traditions for the sake of tradition; just enjoy what this world has to offer during that one precious life you have to enjoy it with.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Buy More

The first Costco in Australia

Since Costco first opened in Melbourne, I have been subduing a secret desire to visit this shrine of consumerism. On one hand there is the anthropologist in me that wants to see the depths humanity can plunge into; on the other hand there are the lingering thought on what magical items that Lost Ark containment hanger like shop may be holding? Could they, for example, already have retina display iPad Minis in stock?
Thus far that desire has been subdued by access and parking issues around the single Melbourne location. And that $60 admission price. However, watching Chuck the way we have been lately, with its Buy More and its Large Mart, does wet one’s appetite. Let us not forget the irresistible slogan behind Buy More:
When you buy more, you save more. And when you save more, you can buy more. And when you buy more, you save more. It all starts when you BUY MORE.
This last weekend, having watched The Watch – a film that, in many respects, revolves around Costco – was a tipping point. I haven’t stopped nagging the wife to approve a visit since.
Things, however, are not that trivial. Costco does represent a lot of the worst of consumerism. To put it in other words, the satire that is Buy More is there for a reason. Does anybody really need giant sized everything? Cheap stuff – is it really good for us, given the damage that the “use once, then throw away” culture does to the environment? And what about local shops, many of them lack the power to fight off this supersized rival?
All are good arguments, but I can argue in favor of Costco too. The supermarkets of Australia are dominated by two companies of no lesser clout, at least in this continent, than Costco. Woolworths, for example, also happens to be the number one operator of gambling machines. Do not tell me they beat Costco in the ethics department.
And what about the market for white goods? I know where to shop around for computers, I know where to shop for groceries (Aldi), but what about a fridge? In that realm, the Aussie shopper is limited to the likes of the devil and/or the devil.
I am pointing a finger at that class act of Australian shopping, Harvey Norman. Shops where the salespeople never fail to not know much about the products they are selling, be it a TV or a table. I am using personal examples here: we recently bought a dining table from Harvey Norman, and it turned out the salespeople misled/lied to us regarding its country of origin and the trees used to construct the table. Just the other week we visited a Harvey Norman to look at Dyson vacuum cleaners; we were interested in the product, but the salespeople treatment we got was enough to drive us away. And what about that two faced puritan ruling the chain?
My point is simple: if the ethics are questionable, the service is bad and the salespeople ignorant, I might as well buy my stuff for less. I might as well go Costco.
Who knows, one bad weather weekend day we might just drop by for a visit. Unless our TV or fridge break down first.

Image by KMJPhotography (TillyDog), Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Modern Man

Old School

The story of a child’s first day at school or the story of the modern concept of manhood?
The big day, the end of the school holidays and our son’s very first day at school, arrived last Friday. Weather aside, it started out well, getting dressed and all while taking photos.
Leaving the house we started encountering signs of tired behavior. This strap needs strapping even when it doesn’t, feet dragging, you know – the stuff kids excel at. I didn’t think much of it. When we parked it got a bit worse, but still – nothing out of the ordinary. The deliberately slow walking does get on my nerves, though. Yet when I took the photos all was fine: posing, making faces. I wasn’t walking my son to school, I was accompanied by the king of the cool.
We got right outside the class and my son met his kinder friends and parents after not seeing most of them for the better part of the past two months. Some chats, lots of bragging, all went well. Then the teacher opened the door and said we could come in.
Kids poured in, a bit of chaos. I notice my son is crying.
“Where did you hurt yourself?”
-Unintelligible reply-
“Where did you hurt yourself?”
“I don’t want to be here. I never wanted to be here. I told you I don't want to come here.”
Oh, it’s one of those things.
Fellow parents and friends came in to offer their advice and consolation. They could afford to do so: mine was the only one crying. Not that it helped much. I gave up, gently pushed my son into the class, and told him he has to go in.
The teacher noticed the star of the show and quickly joined in the conversation. Two sentences later my son stopped crying; ten seconds later he was captivated by a typewriter (“Abba, what’s that?”). Two minutes later he approached the teacher, asking for a tissue. Teachers: we should pay them less because we want the worst.
When I came to pick him up a few hours later I had the most cheerful boy in the world on my hands. But all this pretending to be cool and then cracking it? Now I know he’s a man. A modern day man. He’s a man, yes he is, and I can't help but love him so.

Image by PixelBrain, Crative Commons license

Monday, 4 February 2013

Online Public Record

The Barrister's Dream

I already discussed people putting incriminating material over the web for all to see before (see here). I will do so again to show how far this phenomenon can go.
You probably don’t know the actress/model called Jillian Murray but I do, virtually: she is the face of Mass Effect’s Liara. According to Twitter and Instagram, Jillian Murray is/was doing jury duty on a murder case. One can expect to be limited when discussing one's jury duties over the web: there is always that rightful fear such discussions will affect decisions (then again, I don’t get the jury system to begin with).
Murray, however, seems unaffected: in this post she tells her fans how she wants out of jury duty; then, following someone’s tip, she admits to declaring herself a racist as a way of getting out. Aside of noting how people not associated with the trial immediately guessed color is an issue (what does that say about American society?), I will note what we have on our hands here: we have a 28 year old celebrity actress announcing for the public record that she’s a racist. I would expect more from anyone, never mind a public figure.
I don’t think Jillian Murray is dumb. We probably don’t share fields of interest, but some of her other social media inputs suggest there is more to her than good looks. On the other hand who knows, she might even be a proper racist outside of court (although I really do hope she isn’t; aside of racism being a taint on the world and a sign of ignorance, it would taint Liara!). However, I fail to understand how a public figure allows themselves to potentially tint their reputation with racism in this way. She might be 28 now, but this thing could have an effect on her when she’s 58 and her current talents are ancient history.
People, be careful what you put on online. The rule is simple: unless you are willing to stand up for it, do not put it online. Because at least until the zombie apocalypse comes, it will be there for posterity.

Image by bonnetmaker, Creative Commons license

Friday, 1 February 2013

Playing Video Games

If you were to examine the music I am listening to this time of year, you would notice the name Lana Del Rey starring. And if you were to check which of Del Rey's songs I listen to the most, including through various remixes, then this is the song you would come up with - Video Games:

It's hard for me to account for all the things that make this song work on me as well as it does, but I will give it a try. First there is the voice: I'm a sucker for the female vocalist, but this one's lower tones (with the intentional squeak dropped in) is pure magic. Then there is the carefully calculated orchestral accompaniment - every time that harp goes something goes inside me. The result? Video games doesn't only get to me in my head, it gets to me physically - I can feel my heart missing a beat and my body shivering. Rarely does music have such an effect on people.
As an audiophile, Video Games provides me with plenty to think of. Listening to the song on Spotify at 320 kbps through my iPhone 5 and my Grado headphones, Del Rey's crescendos are alarmingly distorted. Clearly, the iPhone - which is otherwise one of the better portable listening devices out there - lacks the power to drive my headphones. Even when I listen on my hi-fi I can notice the slightest bit of distortion, the type that comes when the amplifier is overstretched. Outside of the opera world it is rare to find a voice that stretches my stereo as badly.
Then there are the lyrics.

On the face of it, Video Games is a song I should like by virtue of it invoking one of my favorite pastimes. Check my recent posts and you will see how much video games mean to me. Then there's those soul melting gems such as "heaven is a place on earth with you". However, listen to Del Rey's lyrics properly and you will see a different picture.
The image Video Games creates is one of a content couple that, despite professed attractions, has the male character ignore the female one. He prefers his fast car and, obviously, his video games; she, on the other hand, does not seem to truly know her man. This is not your ideal happy family.
The problem is that the song reminds me too much of myself. It is dead easy for me to sink into my video games; I won't even mention the time I otherwise spend on the Internet. Clearly, there is a lot of escapism in these activities of mine. In my mind, this happens for reasons clear as mud: being a space commander saving the galaxy is probably the only method at my disposal to add gloss to an otherwise ordinary life of a mortgaged guy spending most of his wakeful time in a generally boring job. Something has to give; some people go for sports, others drink, but for me video games are one of the easiest and most rewarding channels to direct this frustration through.
I am obviously one of many. In a world that is growing more and more specialized with growing levels of automation it is also clear this is a problem that is only going to grow worse in both quantity and severity. I clearly see an escalation on the other side, too: the video games of today will grow so sophisticated and so indistinguishable from reality people would prefer them over real life. Would you be able to blame them if, say, in one they are poor and unemployed but on the other they're the hot shot that gets the sexiest girl (I'm succumbing to Hollywood stereotypes here) they can imagine?
The way I see it, the real problem here is not video games. The problem is a world that is growingly indifferent to the needs of people, a world that is profit oriented rather than human oriented.
I will stop here for my dose of Video Games.