Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Business as Usual with Australia Post

Personal circumstances prevented me from reporting the following on a timely manner, yet the gravity of the situation begs the matter to be aired: for the first time ever, Australia Post has been failing to deliver us with our mail. However, more than just a story of an error, the following is the story of an organization going to the dogs as it outsources its core services and as money becomes the only thing that matters to this government owned company.

Perhaps our story starts during the summer holidays. Going away for a week, we left an order with Australia Post to withhold all our post deliveries while away. For this pleasure I had to pay Australia Post $20. While I consider the sum outrageous - that's $4 per day! - I still paid. After all, a pile of mail on our doorstep during summer holidays reads like an open invitation to would be burglars.
Yet despite the effort and the moneys we were still wronged. We came back from home holidays to discover a big package residing next to our door. Goddess knows for how long it’s been there. I called Australia Post’s call center to complain.
After a brief investigation, held while I was put on hold, I was told that the source of the problem is to do with us having one postal distribution center catering for our letters and another for our packages; it appeared only the former was notified of our request to withhold mail delivery. Caroline, the representative with whom I talked, tried to end things at that. I however, insisted that as a customer I should not care how Australia Post fulfills its duties, I just know I did not get what I paid for. Caroline forwarded my message onwards.
Ten days later an Australia Post representative left a message on my mobile informing me my $20 will be paid back to me. The cheque arrived a couple of days later.
The issue still remains, though: during three out of four times we used post withholding services, we still ended up receiving packages (on the fourth time we were not expecting packages to begin with). In all three cases we got our money back from Australia Post, but the point is obvious – Australia Post is unable to deliver on its core services, despite charging an arm and a leg.
As we found out, that was only a prelude. Soon we were to face Australia Post’s revenge.

During the same summer holidays I was talking about before I went shopping online three times. I bought a book from BookDepository, a bag from Ozgameshop, and a hoodie from Woot. Note all three are reputable overseas online shops, with the first and the third being owned by Amazon. These are not your mysterious one hit wonder sellers.
Alas, when three weeks passed since the time I should have been receiving these packages and none had arrived I started asking questions. Specifically, I was wondering whether this is more than a coincidence. I called Australia Post. I was told I shouldn’t worry and that I should ask the senders for tracking numbers, which should be available on all packages sent to Australia from overseas.
Great advice, only that it was wrong: all three sellers told me that in order to reduce their shipping costs they do not use tracking. So, a week later and still without a package in sight, I called Australia again.
On 19 February I spoke with Darren. As usual, he tried to get rid of me, but I insisted. Eventually he agreed to email an inquiry to the postal distribution center handling my packages, with that center having 10 business days (!) to reply. Boy, emails are sure slow at Australia Post!
On 23 February I decided to take the initiative and check with the post store near me whether they have any packages for me that I failed to know about. They didn’t.
On 26 February Australia Post finally called me with its answers. To their credit, they called me three times: first they left me a message, to which I called back and spoke with Mallory who told me the postal distribution centers (both of them!) claim no mail of mine is with them and nothing is held back. Later Christina called to tell me the same thing, and add that Australia Post cannot help me without tracking numbers.
Turned out Australia Post was lying to me.
Two days later, on 28 February, we had a guest at our house: David from our Australia Post store. Not the store near us, heaven forbid, but the one 2.5 kilometers away where (as per the grueling saga reported here) Australia Post has been sending our packages to over the past six months or so.
David actually took the initiative: he noticed that a package sent to our address was deferred by the delivery guy, who labelled our address as “moved” and avoided delivering us the package. David had rightfully found the delivery guy’s actions suspicious: since when does the delivery guy decide regarding people moves? He therefore decided to check things for himself, and stopped by our house after work on his way home. Luckily, my wife was there to accept the Woot hoodie with the following label on its packaging:

Needless to say, I was furious. I was just told there are no packages awaiting me, but here is one. Not only did I have it in my hand, I also had proof Australia Post had determined we had “moved” and thus avoided delivering us our packages. I immediately called Australia Post.
This time I spoke with Kerry. Kerry suggested I contact the senders so they can request an investigation (as the ones who actually paid for the postal service, only they are allowed to make such a request). I refused: clearly someone at Australia Post was tampering with the delivery of my mail; why should I wait on an overseas company initiate an investigation?
Eventually, but only after I made it clear she will not get rid of me that easily, Kerry agreed to call David’s post store for more details. David wasn’t there by now (I knew that; he was on his way home when he dropped by our place), so she spoke with Frida instead. Frida told her they have no other packages for us. At this point I will note how Australia Post conveniently removed clients from being able to call post stores directly: one can only contact them by phone through the Australia Post central call center, which – as you can gather by now – is geared towards getting rid of customers rather than helping them.
Regardless, if I was to find out more about the situation I had to talk to David, and the only way to do so was to call Australia Post again during David’s working hours. I did so on 4 March and found myself spending half an hour on the phone. According to David, with whom I was unable to speak directly but only through the mediation of the Australia Post call center, the contractor delivery person delivering our packages from the postal distribution center was responsible for writing we had moved on our packages. He was thus responsible for failing to deliver us our packages. Without tracking numbers there was nothing they could do to help with the other two missing packages, but the call center woman emailed the postal center again asking them to talk with the delivery guy to ensure this doesn’t reoccur and to look after my packages in general. Finally, I was assured there will be no more problems with the delivery of my packages.
Yeah, right. Guess what? Australia Post has lied to me. Again.
Two days after this latest promise was made, on 6 March, David was at our doorstep again with yet another package labelled “moved” in the delivery person’s handwriting:

This was actually a newer purchase I had made through eBay (I bought Dockers pants from a USA seller). I did it on purpose, because the seller promised to use tracking numbers. However, David beat the tracking to the post, pun intended.
If before I was angry, now I was furious. I immediately called Australia Post, again, to speak with Cassie. I held nothing back this time around, accusing Australia Post of stealing my packages and then lying to me about it. Cassie told me the matter would be referred to their “Back Office”, who deal with investigations. I should hear back from them within 5 to 10 business days (read: a week or two).
Exactly two weeks later, on 20 March, I got the call from Australia Post’s Peter.  According to Peter, after liaising with our postal distribution center they have identified the delivery person was under the impression we have moved. They do not know gave him this impression and they could not explain why the delivery person’s impressions matter in the first place. However, I was assured for the third time, by now the matter has been sorted. As for my two missing packages? There is nothing they can do about them. Nor could Peter advise on how to prevent similar mishaps in the future.

And that’s the story. Since this last interaction we have been receiving our post alright, with the obvious issue of us receiving packages to a post office 2.5 kilometers away while there is another office 100 meters from us. I make sure to fuss over this each time I pick a package up; by now the ritual is set:
  • I complain,
  • The post office people tell me to call the call center and complain,
  • I tell them the call center is all about getting rid of people and not about helping,
  • They shrug and laugh it off, clearly knowing exactly what I’m talking about.
More interestingly, when I pressed them further I was told that since deliveries were outsourced to contractors these contractors do whatever they feel like doing. I was even told the contractors threaten the post store people when the latter accuse the former of not doing things properly.
What does this leave us with? This leaves us with an organisation that, at its core, has some good people working for it. As much as I have an issue with Australia Post I cannot forget David taking the initiative twice and showing up at our door at his own time and by his own means to deliver us our mail. If this is not going above and beyond, I don’t know what is.
However, the whole affair leaves Australia Post to answer some serious questions:
  1. Could the whole matter of the disappearance of our packages be the result of a personal vendetta from the delivery person accused of delivering to us when we asked for post to be withheld? The timing of the incidents suggests this is a viable hypothesis.
  2. How come contractors are allowed to do whatever they feel like? As in, decide when people move houses, or decide which post store they leave packages at?
  3. When did the call center turn from a source of help to users in distress to a source of lies and incompetence, specializing mostly in deferring customers?
  4. Why is communication between various branches of Australia Post (delivery people, stores, distribution centers) so slow, inefficient and inaccurate?
There is no doubt in my mind Australia Post is a sick organization that’s been made corrupt through bottom line driven policies. Its behavior stands in stark contrast to the two shops I bought from, BookDepository and Ozgameshop, who quickly refunded me for packages that were lost through no fault of their own.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Evolution of the Personal Organizer

Malden Open

At 4th grade I found myself overwhelmed. I knew too many other kids, specifically kids in my class, to be able to memorize everyone’s phone numbers. The solution was to create my very first contact list in a tiny personal phone/address book I “borrowed” from my father. That point in time also marked another important event: since that very first personal implementation of the documentation of personal information, I started thinking of problems with the way I do it and ways of improving it. The bug hasn’t subsided since; quite the opposite. You know me, I cannot be satisfied with anything: as time goes along I have more and more data to document, and even stricter demands as to how this data is to be documented.
The next step up from the written page came to this early adapter during the nineties through the then magical electronic personal organizers. These gadgets were revolutionary to a degree: they allowed their users to type their information in through a tiny keyboard, thus enabling features such as sorting, error correction and text searches. However, the key problem with these gizmos was that you couldn’t get your data out: Lost the device? Or better yet, battery dead? My condolences.
Come the late nineties a new generation of these personal organizers came about in the shape of the Palm Pilot. That new gadget had the additional ability to talk to an application on your PC and synchronize its data between the two. In addition to Palm’s own application, synchronization was possible with Microsoft’s Outlook. Thus the backup problem was solved, as long as one remembered to synchronize their gadget. Or was it? What was to happen if your PC broke down or better yet got stolen?
The solution there arrived during the early naughties with the introduction of the first ever smartphones (even though they weren’t called that at the time). In retrospect these Pocket PC (Windows Mobile) gadgets were horrible to use, but it was during their reign that cloud computing first emerged (even if no one called it cloud computing at the time): this Goodie Two-Shoes of a search engine company that just revolutionized the world of Internet mail through its introduction of Gmail, a company called Google, now offered Pocket PC users to sync their contacts with their Google account. Lost your gadget? PC got stolen? No worries, your data is safe with Google. At Google they did no harm back then.
The rest of the story is more widely familiar. Apple came along with its iPhone, turning what used to be a personal organizer booklet into what everyone knows today as the smartphone. Cloud computing also came in big, with companies out there begging users to come and enjoy their free products and store their data with them. They even offer apps that allow the seamless synchronization of your data across gadgets, computers and the cloud. Surely you’ve heard of some of them: there’s Google with what we now know as Drive, Microsoft with its Skydrive, Dropbox and Evernote, to name just some of the more famous players in the field. But how do you choose between them? And what criteria do you apply in order to make an educated choice?
Somewhere along the way a new concern has emerged: security. Some of the cloud services of the time did not use encrypted channels as they transferred my data along (and some still don't do it to this day). Given the sensitivity of some of the data I was bringing with me, I started limiting the storage of that data to services such as Evernote where all communications is always encrypted.
Gradually I realized my bigger concern is privacy. I want my data to remain mine and only mine; I don’t want it intercepted on the way, I don’t want anyone to be able to hack their way into my cloud accounts, I don’t want my data sold to anyone, I don’t want targeted ads shot at me based on my personal data, and I also don’t want my data handed over at the whim of some crazy government out there (without naming names I will say “Patriot Act”). So, what can I do? These new needs of mine made the playing field that much more complicated: there is a reason why all these companies wanted me to store my data with them, and that reason is usually because of them making money out of my data. That is certainly the case with Google, for example (not to mention Facebook). The better companies, as far as I was concerned, were those who made their money out of tempting me to invest in better facilities than the free account they lured me in with. Say, companies like Dropbox or Evernote.
But how does one distinguish between these? The way I see it there are two ways for the user to make an educated choice here. The first is to rely on public record: what do the records tell us about specific cloud companies? You will find, for example, that almost all of them have been hacked to one extent or another. The level of extent is important, because it makes a difference whether the hacker hit a wall of encryption or whether they were able to steal data Sony style. You will also see that companies such as Dropbox, which took pride in having nothing to do with the data users uploaded with them, have been found to actually have a thing or two to do there. I will let you judge on the extent and on whether it matters; the point is the need to be informed.
The second tool at our disposal is the privacy policy. Usually this is a long and tedious document, but if you do read it carefully you will be able to get a glimpse of what happens with your data once you give it away to a cloud provider. Evernote recently updated theirs and I took the bother of reading the policy: it is quite good, but it still allows Evernote to access your data under certain conditions, albeit relatively extreme. The point, though, is that while data is encrypted between you and Evernote, it is not encrypted inside Evernote. Employees of theirs can see your stuff.
On the face of it that is not all bad. The same level of security applies to our bank accounts; while there are a few things more sensitive than our bank account we tend to be generally happy with that. Then again, who knows where the data is stored? It could be anywhere – that is what cloud computing is all about. And who knows what a rogue employee at a cloud computing company somewhere in a country I do not know can do with my data?
Luckily there are options to address that worry, too. Kim Dotcom’s new Mega service promises to encrypt everything you store with them at the source (you) to such a level Mega has no idea what it’s storing. I heard doubts about that claim, though; more importantly, there are no smartphone facilities for Mega yet while I have found its website rather annoying. Then there is SpiderOak, who offer a service very similar to Dropbox’ yet more sophisticated: they, too, claim to have no idea what they are storing for you as everything is encrypted all the way from your PC. They are not perfect either, with comparably poor smartphone apps, but I have found their facilities otherwise good (their support in particular).
Ultimately, it seems the solution to my problem has been in my hands all along. Using the open source TrueCrypt encryption application (Windows, Mac & Linux) allows the creation of encrypted file containers. In them one can put whatever data one wants, and as long as one chooses a decent password one is secure to a level that even the NSA should find hard to crack. Stick one of those TrueCrypt containers on Dropbox, install an app that allows your smartphone to decrypt TrueCrypt’s encryption on your smartphone (like Disk Decipher for the iPhone), and you are good to go. Cloud storage and full synchronization of your data without anyone knowing what’s in there.
My only problem with that last option? Smartphone access is limited to read only (as in, writing my updates back is only possible if I let go of the TrueCrypt encryption). It is also important to note this solution is much more hassle unfree than, say, simply using Dropbox or Evernote without TrueCrypt’s help. I suspect ways to improve the situation would be found, eventually.
I also suspect it won’t take long till I have further demands that would make the latest personal organization solution I have implemented defunct, too. As with everything, the most important thing is for you to be aware of the ins and outs and make the best educated decisions that applies to your case.

Image by Kerry Lannert, Creative Commons license

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Dealing with Apple Crap

Lightning to USB Cable

One of the more annoying ways in which Apple works to raise more money from the fools who buy its products, fools such as I, is by creating new standards and forcing them upon said fools. First we had the Micro SIM but the industry caught up; lately the iPhone 5 brought along the Nano SIM and the Lightning connector.
It is the latter that is the most astonishing. As in, why couldn’t Apple align itself with everybody else and start using Micro USB connectors? No, it chose to force its fools to buy new cables and accessories instead. Accessories which it offers for stupid amounts of money ($15 per cable, as far as I know).
So I went and spent $3.50 to get two Lightning cables on eBay. They arrived yesterday, causing me to drain my iPhone’s battery (through game playing) just so I could test one of the cable’s at charging. And… just like the aftermarket iPhone cable of the old standard I bought about a year ago to serve in my car, it failed. Charging would start and stop erratically, probably the best recipe for destroying the iPhone's non replaceable battery. I have already contacted the eBay seller asking for my money back.
There is a bigger problem here. On one hand, buying the accessories from Apple feels incredibly foolish - $15 for a silly cable? On the other hand, the cheap replacements from eBay’s vast line-up of Chinese sellers are generally of crap quality. It’s not just the cables: the iPhone 5 lookalike headphones sold on eBay for less than half of Apple’s $35 price are also much less than half as good; they just look similar, but they are certainly not similar in quality.
I’m still calculating my options, but trending towards a makeshift solution. I already bought tiny convertors that allow me to charge my iPhone 5 using a Micro USB cables. That purchase cost me $2, and it allows me to use Micro USB cables to charge, sync and play music in the car via my iPhone. Now all I need is a good cheap source of Micro USB cables; guess I'll try eBay.

Yes, I know. So be aware: Be aware of what you tie yourself into when you buy Apple, and be aware that stuff coming off eBay is all too often fake crap.

Image by Seth Anderson, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Spotify for Video

Netflix at home

Although video games are threatening its position (just ask our son, the Skylander), movie watching is still what we consider our primary source of entertainment at home. We may be spending more hours on TV shows, but it is the movies that have all the glamor.
A couple of recent experiences caused me to rethink my movie watching strategy. First, as I mentioned here, we had a nasty night with Batman and it was nasty not because of some evil villains; it was nasty because a scratched rental Blu-ray disc wouldn't let us watch the movie in peace. Second, due to road work, the other week I found myself spending more than twenty minutes in the car as I was struggling to approach our video rental place in order to return a disc.
Obviously, something has to be done here. And we all know what the solution is: what I would like to have, and what most other Aussies I know would like to have, is an all encompassing video streaming service. A video library that would allow us to choose what we want to watch whenever we want to watch it and on our device of choice, but without the need to venture out in traffic and struggle with defunct pieces of BPA rich plastic. A sort of a Spotify service for videos.
Problem is, Australia doesn't have such a service.
But America does. It's called Netflix, and it is so popular there that a third of all American Internet traffic is Netflix traffic. It even demoted bit-torrent from its top spot there. So how do we get from Australia to Netflix?
There are three problems along the way of getting there. First, there are the studios, who are so thick headed they wouldn't dare establish a Netflix like service at Oz (but they will complain about Ozzie piracy!). Second, some studios are already scared of Netflix' power, and perhaps through taking lessons from the way Amazon fooled book publishers they decided to retreat from Netflix and open their own services (e.g., Warner). This leads to frustration: you pay the fees but you can't watch the stuff you want to watch just because it happens to come from the wrong studio. And third, because of this all crazy situation, Netflix is blocked from Aussie access.
Or is it? It turns out that the only thing really blocking Aussies from the promised land of a 12,000 titles long catalog is geo-blocking. All one needs to have in order to override that is an American proxy server or an American VPN service (I have one!); then you need to provide an American address (I have one! Besides, it's easy to make one up). Oh, and a credit card. Any credit card will do, it doesn't have to be American.
That is it - come up with these and you can start awatching. I am severely tempted.

Image by MoneyBlogNewz, Creative Commons license

Monday, 20 May 2013

Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?

I always suspected that eventually I will incur some collateral damage for expressing my opinions over the Internets. I did not suspect it would come from the direction it came from.
This morning my brother emailed me an ultimatum. What he said, more or less, is that I have been displaying low level intelligence, I have been a shame to my family (including my wife), and he is ashamed he has helped me with my migration to Australia. Unless I change my ways, he will limit contact with me to discussions of my father's ill health.
My chief crime, in case you were wondering, is posting photos from Israel and adding negative commentary to them (given the timing, I suspect he was referring to photos such as this, this, this, this and that). To add fuel to the fire, he claimed I spare Australia from similar criticism.
Although this is not my main purpose with this post, I will dedicate a bit of space to dismantling his arguments:
  1. First, I admit having an overall negative opinion concerning Israel; if it were otherwise I probably wouldn't have made all the effort required to leave that country. It is obvious to me Australia is a much better place to live in for many a reason, many of which are obvious to my brother, too. After all, he chose to live here, too.
  2. Regardless, I fail to see how leaving a place implies not being allowed to criticize it; by this logic none of us are allowed to pass judgement over North Korea either. This argument stinks Orwellian.
  3. Even though I think Judaism (and all other religions I am familiar with) are dangerous nonsense, I do not go inside synagogues and shout my opinion out loud; I respect the rights of those practicing Judaism to practice their religion. By the same token, if my brother doesn't want to hear my opinions he doesn't have to enforce the obliteration of my web resources; he can just, you know, ignore them.
  4. My brother is ignoring me actually saying some positive things about Israel from time to time.
  5. He is also ignoring me criticizing Australia a lot. Obviously, he does not read this blog; neither does his inability to locate it and my other web presences bid well for his Googling skills.
  6. Besides, since when do the crimes of Australia compensate for Israel's? (Repeat: North Korea, Orwell.)  
  7. For that matter, my brother can easily find me criticizing other countries, too, chief amongst which is the USA. The USA is a country I love a lot and owe a lot too, but also a country from which I have been seeing a lot of scary stuff come out lately. Why should I shut up when I see the country that sparked this child's imagination several decades ago go to the dogs?
At the core of it all comes a simple argument. I am of the opinion that criticism is an essential ingredient on the road to improvement; criticism of one's country, and the awareness it requires, is the true sign of patriotism. Blind acceptance of leaders and traditions is for fools to be had.
But my brother chose not to address my arguments. Instead, his attack too a personal approach: shooting the messenger and applying personal pressure. When someone argues this way they are either saying they are too ignorant to argue properly or they admit their side's lack of foundations.
More importantly, I believe very strongly that everyone has the right to say whatever is on their mind. By the same token I also believe that everyone else has the right to tell them they are stupid idiots. I did the first and my brother did the second, which is perfectly fine, but my brother did more: he tried to block me from expressing my opinions through the threat of severing contact with me. This is not a threat I will take lying down; this is exactly the type of thing that burns my fuses the fastest.
Besides, can I truly be expected to change my opinion because I know someone doesn't like them? It is technically impossible.

Truth is, my brother and I have been drifting apart for many years now. We have grown to be very different people who share little in world outlook and opinions. It was probably just a matter of time until a rupture came along; as it happens, it took a particular difference of opinion for it to finally erupt.

Friday, 17 May 2013

How to Vote Guide

Aussie Dollars

It is only a hundred days or so before PM Tony Abbott steps into his new office. It is therefore only understandable that people are already starting to talk the “how are we going to vote” talk.
Back in Israel such conversations had much more substance. In the Israel I had left, voting was generally based on a simple concept: everyone around us wants to kill us, so how do we best avoid this fate? If you believed the better survival course was along the path of peace you voted left; if an “let’s kill them all” ideology reverberated better with your heart, you would vote to the right.
Perhaps tragically, Australia lacks any immediate existential threats, be it real or perceived. I thus hear more and more people reporting their voting preferences coming down to something along the lines of “Liberals promise to do this thing which would give me $200 extra, whereas Labor promises to do this thing which would give me $150 extra, therefore I’m voting Liberal”. Such arguments became even more popular now that the Baby Bonus (a competitor for the silliest middle class welfare concept ever) has been abolished to the disappointment of many an Australian voter.
I can’t take it when such conversations pop up. I pop myself up, asking the people involved whether they are really going to base their vote on such petty nonsense, paying total disregard to the slight matter of policies? Don’t you care about things like global warming or asylum seekers? However, raising these questions only further exposes my UnAustralian roots. For everybody around here knows people vote with their back pockets; how dare I shatter their comfort zone by suggesting they are short sighted selfish bastards?
The selfish bastards that will land Tony Abbott his new office shortly*.

*Not that Labor is much better, but did you ever stop to consider voting for a smaller, not yet corrupted party? If enough of us do so then we actually might get somewhere. Somewhere better. I mean, just check out how successful some independents were last time around.

Image by InfoMofo, Creative Commons license

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Game of Thorns

Game of Thrones

Perhaps I am not following him as carefully as I should, but the first time I heard the USA ambassador to Australia say something meaningful was when he criticized Aussies for downloading Game of Thrones en masse. As in, downloading without paying via bit-torrent: as Torrent Freak’s numbers show, Australia is ranked #3 in the world when it comes to downloading this series; per capita, Australia is the capital of the known universe.
I find it amazing that of all the things to criticize Australia for, Mr Ambassador chose the piracy of a popular TV show. A popular TV show that during its first two seasons was aired only to cable subscribers and only after a huge delay. What, don’t we have other slightly more burning issues to deal with, like asylum seekers or global warming?
It's also amazing the ambassador is fluent in the latest statistics published by a website called Torrent Freak. In other words, if one was wondering in whose pockets the American government is and could not be bothered to ask Kim Dotcom for an answer, Game of Thrones and the American ambassador to Australia provided us with an answer.
It is important to note the reasoning behind the ambassador's plea. While in past years Aussies were unable to legally watch Game of Thrones without significant delays, this year (season 3) things are different. First, Foxtel made sure to air the episode within a few hours of their American broadcast. That's pretty respectable, it has to be said. And second, iTunes is offering the episodes to Australians at the same time as Foxtel, asking $35 for the season's ten episodes. Who could ask for anything more?
Well, I do. First of all, the Foxtel option is quite expensive. Assuming one is not interested in anything else this cable provider airs, then the cost of watching Game of Thrones translates to about $100 a month (and that's without installation costs). Not the best value for money ever. Then there is the matter of the money going into Murdoch's coffers, one of the last places I'd like my money to go to.
As for iTunes. Well, there are some good reasons why I never bought into the iTunes idea and waited for Spotify to come along before I opened my wallet for online music. iTunes is pretty limited: all videos are DRMed, and can only be watched on an Apple device or on a Windows PC with iTunes installed. Want to watch your stuff on an Android device or a Linux PC? Want to avoid installing the mess that is iTunes on a Windows PC? Well, you're out of luck. In other words, iTunes ties you down to the Apple environment, and there is no reason for one to do so voluntarily. However, the true iTunes killer arrived in the news today, when we were told that Foxtel applied the monopoly rights granted to it by HBO to prevent iTunes from airing Game of Thrones without delay (see here). Yes, that will give us a good reason to stop downloading!
Indeed, it seems as if the studios will do everything possible to encourage piracy. Take Warner, for example: it chose to take its contents away from services such as Netflix in order to run its own Internet channel. The logic is obvious: who would want to subscribe to a central repository of videos when one could subscribe separately to each studio's separate channel? I suggest we learn from Warner and split Spotify apart, too.
This is a clear case of dumb & dumber. The only question is which of these two the American ambassador chose to associate himself with. As for Australia, it will continue to download for all the good reasons it has been repeatedly provided with.

Image by Cyol Ternyan, Creative Commons license

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Things to Learn from Israel

I would like to dedicate a post to some of the positive things I have seen during my recent visit to Israel. It’s not like I’m abandoning well established habits of knocking Israel down. Instead, this is an attempt to show that in some respects there is a lot to be learned from other countries, even if these countries are in stress.
First, I would like to clarify I am only going to talk about things I have seen with my own eyes during this last visit of mine. That is, there is much more to Israel than what this post covers, at least when compared to Australia; significantly lower cost higher education is a fine example that springs to mind. I choose to focus on what I could see with my own eyes during a ten day visit where I found myself saying "I wish Australia, or Melbourne in particular, was like that".
Bearing those clarifications in mind, let’s have a go.

Public transport:
Public transport made some significant inroads in the Tel Aviv area. First, there are regular train services to the airport (hear that, third world Melbourne?).
Second, it is incredibly easy to find your way around the public transport system. A Google search will not only tell you what buses you need to take to get from here to there, it will also point you to the stations and tell you when you should expect your buses to arrive. In some cases you can use apps to tell you exactly where the buses are (as in, you can see them moving on your smartphone's map). While this last feature proved unreliable in other cases, it is still way ahead of the facilities available to Melbourne’s public transport users.
I will put it this way: it appears Tel Aviv has invested in its public transport, whereas Melbourne does the minimum it can to sustain its services at their historical level of service. This week’s state budget brought the message home as firmly as it could go: $8 billion for a new toll road of dubious value, nothing for public transport.

Electric bicycles:
They’re all over the place in Tel Aviv, with people of all ages riding them to get from place to place. Couple that with lots of bicycle lanes created on the sidewalk (as opposed to the far more dangerous road), and we have ourselves a very effective way to get from place to place. Which, you know, is the whole point of bicycles.
Or is it? Because in Melbourne you have to wear lycra and participate in at least three triathlons a month to be allowed to be seen riding a bike. With a relatively few inner city exceptions, bicycles are not a mode of transport; they’re a social statement.

The streets of Tel Aviv allowed me to witness a sight I had all but forgotten existed: the sight of children playing in the street. More importantly, the sight of children playing without adult supervision in the street. I commented recently on this matter in a book review here, but suffice to say I consider the sight of children playing a very good indicator for a healthy society.
In contrast, at Melbourne you can actually get the impression there are no kids about. You do not see them on the street, at least not on their own; you see them being ferried around by their dedicated chauffeurs, riding at the back of their armored aircraft carriers. You see them guided by adults into playing footy or cricket. But you don't see them simply playing. You do not see children being children.
The problem is that keeping the children away from harm's way is a self fulfilling prophecy. We keep them supervised at home because we are afraid for their safety even though, statistically speaking, they do not have much to fear outside (or at least they used to not have much to fear outside). However, by keeping children inside, we are making the experience of venturing out for those few that do go out much more dangerous: there will be less sympathizing kids around and more room for preying adults to do their thing uninterrupted.
The case of children playing unsupervised outside is a case where Israel clearly has the upper hand over Australia, or at least Melbourne.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Next Gen Console Blues

Game consoles and their sizes

This year is poised to be the year of the next generation game consoles. We’ve already seen the Wii U released at the end of last year; the PlayStation 4 was sort of announced a couple of months ago; and the next generation Xbox (the Zbox?) will be announced shortly on the trail of many a leak. The question is, which would be the one to get?
Upon the release of the previous generation of consoles I said here the Wii was the most interesting one, and I think I was right. Its controller was the main bit of news from that (this) generation, and follow-ups in the shape of the Kinect clearly point the finger as well as the rest of the body towards the shape of things to come. Alas, the Wii U is a disappointment: loaded with painful DRM that deters me from moving ahead from my Wii, lacking in games I can’t already get on my PS3, and now seeming to lack the grunt required for future games like Mass Effect 4.
The PlayStation 4 is off my list, too. By now I have accumulated too many reasons for hating Sony, and with the PS4 lacking backwards compatibility I see no reason to remain loyal.
Which leaves the Xbox. While I cannot be said to adore Microsoft, I don’t mind them at all when they have a good product on their hands; in the case of this new Xbox, that seems to be the case. The Zbox is rumored to come armed with the next version of the Kinect, as well as the strongest hardware around (that is, better hardware than the PS4; that's the opposite of the current state of affairs between the PS3 and the Xbox 360). There was controversy regarding the requirement for an always on Internet connection, but this week a Microsoft leak (undoubtedly deliberate) stated the Zbox will not require an always on Internet connection for the sake of performing tasks that should not need the Internet. Amongst such tasks they listed the likes of single player gaming or Blu-ray viewing (with the latter being a new feature to the Xbox world).
It therefore appears as if the Xbox is the winner.

Or is it? It could just be that there is simply no winner amongst this upcoming generation of consoles.
For a start, unlike previous console generations, the gap between the upcoming one and the current one is not going to be that big. For example, the PS3 is already capable of 1080P gaming; the PS4, therefore, will only offer marginal improvement. That is the reason the current generation has been around longer than its predecessors, and that is also the reason why I am going to wait with my purchasing decision until the next game I cannot do without is released only on the new generation of consoles. That game will probably be called Mass Effect 4.
More importantly, the console makers are trying to use this new console generation to achieve certain goals I consider unethical. It is already known Microsoft patented the upcoming Kinect to be able to count the number of people watching stuff in the room so as to charge more if it deems too many are around. It’s not only ludicrous theft from our pockets in the name of the holy copyright, it is a gross invasion of our privacy. And how long would it take before the same camera is hacked to allow anyone who wants a view of our living rooms?
The next piece of evil dealing is the attempt to use the new consoles in order to eradicate the existence of a second hand games market. Already too many games (did I say Mass Effect?) rely on single use codes to certain features in order to reduce the attraction of used games. However, now we are talking about taking things further, which – together with piracy - is the whole point of the “always on” Internet debate. Sadly, the lack of a market for used games would severely damage my gaming: I often buy games because I know I can easily sell them when I’m tired of them or if I don’t like them. Then there is the whole aspect of second hand games driving prices down to the benefit of all consumers. Most importantly, I consider it a basic right to be able to do with my stuff as I see fit, and I refuse to let some company dictate what I can and cannot do with stuff that’s mine. IKEA would never dream of telling me what to do with one of its chairs once I buy it, so why should Sony and Microsoft regard themselves eligible to the task?

Perhaps the alternative lies in abandoning the console market altogether and going back “home” to the PC. In PC land I can build whatever machine I fancy (albeit at probably double the cost of a new console, if not more); I can also enjoy cheaper games. By now I can easily connect any PC to my TV, too.
I see myself having two issues with the PC option. First, I do not like Windows and all the messing around that is required around maintaining a Windows PC (and Windows 8 is particularly awful). Second, PC games are still, and for understandable reasons, keyboard/mouse oriented. Me, when I do my gaming, I like to sprawl on the sofa, not sit on my office chair huddled on top of a keyboard. The experience is simply not the same (note I do not claim it to be inferior, just different).
On the other hand, all my problems could be solved instantly if Mass Effect 4 – and for that matter, all future games – would be released on the existing generation of consoles as well as the future one. But what are the chances of that happening?

26/5/2013 update: Now that the Xbox One has been officially declared, we seem to know it is actually inferior in hardware to the PS4 (see here). We also know it would be mutilated in Australia because non of its live TV features are going to work here. Then again, who watches live TV anymore? The Xbox would be mutilated everywhere. Concerns regarding always on Internet and the demolishing of the used games market still very much exist despite some weak denials.

Image by hsuyo, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Troublemaker Begins

School Zone

It appears as if once again I am going to be the pain in the ass that points a finger and asks the questions no one else would. I guess it’s the type of thing that requires bloody foreigner DNA, the kind of thing that indicates yet again how ill fit I am with the Australian mainstream. Unaustralian would be the Tony Abbott way of describing my standing.
It all started with us parents receiving an email from our son school’s parental committee. The letter informed us of the following:
The Mother's Day stall is on [...]. All children will be brought to the hall by their class teachers and given the opportunity to buy a gift for their mum. All gifts are $7. Please help your child to remember to bring their money on [...].
My wife alerted me to this email first; when I got to read it my blood boiled. Basically, in order to acquire more contributions from us parents, our son’s school and its ancillaries seem happy to apply extortion techniques. And extortion it is: unlike the usual demands for contributions we have been receiving from school on a weekly basis, this one comes with a veiled threat: don’t pay us, and we’ll ensure you child is marginalized. The way I read the email, it tells me I should give my child $7 to spend on a Mother’s Day gift at school or stand the risk having him pointed at by the rest of the kids who did get the money from their parents. By the way, all of this is to be done at school, under teacher guidance, and during mandatory school time.
I immediately emailed my son’s class teacher, who then took it to the school principle, who clarified only the group of kids with money will be taken to the stall while the rest of the kids are at school assembly. No, I am not happy with this clarification at all, mostly because school assembly is held at the same hall this stall is at.
I now intend to take the matter up with the parents who came up with this lovely idea in the first place. What is clear, though, is that this is the start of a new troublemaking career for me. Between this and SRE/CRE (Special/Christian Religious Education), due to start next year, I suspect my picture will soon star in school’s target practice sessions.
I also suspect that soon enough my son would prefer me to go against my character and keep quiet.

Between the writing of the above post and its publication I got to have further email correspondences with the parents’ committee, school and the principle. The bottom line is that I was told, politely, to F off. I didn’t expect it any other way, but it doesn’t mean I needn’t have made my stand.
I do think it is worthwhile to note neither the school principle nor the parents' representative bothered to address my arguments concerning the use of extortion and the use of school for commercial purposes. I therefore know the level of the people I am dealing with here.

The last email from the principle referred to me as “Moshi”. I would have said this takes the mispronunciation of my name to new levels if it wasn’t for the very common rate at which I encounter this mistake.

Image by ChrisM70, Creative Commons license

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Religion Showing Its Face

Last Saturday, exactly a week ago, happened to be my last day at Israel.
One thing I had to do before returning home was return the local SIM my friend gave me, the SIM that allowed me to remain in constant touch with the world via the Internet. As I approached my friend's house I saw this guy standing right next to the house's outside fence, looking around but doing nothing. The guy was wearing a Kippa.
As I got close to the apartment building's electric door so that my friend could buzz me in I noticed I was being followed. The guy stood ten centimeters behind me. Once buzzed in, he sneaked in right after me, then followed me up the stairs. His destination was the apartment right next to my friend's, where he was greeted.
Let me translate to you what happened here. This guy was a religious Jew, and as such he took it upon himself not to mess with electric circuits on a Saturday. This includes the circuit that buzzes an apartment from below as well as the circuit that opens the electric door at the building's entrance. In similar fashion, the people whom the guy was visiting were not allowed to buzz him on or even get down to open the door for him. They were locked inside, he was locked outside, and only a heretic - someone like yours truly - could save their day. If that is not stupid, if that is not dumb, then I don't know what is.

Now you could dismiss the above as stupidity that is limited to Judaism alone, but I beg to differ. Sure, Judaism has some soft spots when it comes to stupidity, and the forbidding of all dealings electric is a sure sign of Bronze Age rules failing to predict the future. However, it is not like other religions are exempt: to one extent or another they all have their special rules, designed to generate that cozy feeling of group belonging.
Christians may not watch out for the Sabbath as fanatically as a Jew, but they still spend the best part of their weekend at church. Both are wasting their precious time upon this earth.

A good question was thrown at me when I was telling this story at work. If the Sabbath is so restricting, I was asked, what does a Jew do if a person's life is in danger? Someone quickly stepped in to explain that in such a case the Sabbath can be broken. I, however, did throw another complication in.
I let my colleagues know there is some severe debating amongst believing Jews on the matter of breaking the Sabbath in favor of saving the life of a non Jew. Such questions arise, for example, in the Israeli army: something happens and an Arab gets hurt on a Saturday. Should a Jewish medic break the Sabbath to help the Arab?
In a manner that would turn most people into antisemites, I can report here that whereas any sane human being would argue that helping someone whose life is in danger should be at the top of anyone's agenda, numerous rabbis have ruled the Sabbath is more important than the life of a gentile. Even worse, many of those who ruled in favor of saving the gentile's life do so not because of the humanism in their veins but rather in order to avoid the generation of antisemite perceptions (yes, they do explain themselves in detail).
If that is not stupid, not dumb and not ignorant, I don't know what is. And it could have only come through the wonder of religion.

Friday, 3 May 2013

A Vision of Humus

I have a dream.

Having recently completed another humus tour of Israel, I am once again dumbfounded as to the lack of good quality humus in Australia and at Melbourne in particular. With all the Israelis and Arabs around one would expect humus aplenty; instead all we have is ready made stuff at the supermarket that tastes like it was ready made and is full of preservatives. That's complimented by tasteless mash one can get at restaurants here and there. The real thing, however, is nowhere to be seen nor tasted.
Something needs to be done to rectify the situation.
It then occurred to me: why don’t I do something about it? Why shouldn’t I take the initiative to fix the problem?
The answer is clear: lack of capital. However, it does not stop me from dreaming. And by now I can say I have a vision! I have a dream!
In my dream I open a humus restaurant. For perceived authenticity’s sake I call it Abou Gadro; Abou Dylan doesn’t sound ring well (in case you don’t know, “Abou” in Arabic stands for father-of).
I will interrogate several humus experts from Israel at the price of a business trip, and buy their secret recipes off. Then I will secure the supply of fresh chickpeas. We shall start by renting an inner city place in a cool area populated by the young and generally conscience, the type that prefers not to deal with dead animals. We will market Abou Gadro's humus as a quality budget meal out, a vegetarian meal that's good for you. For variety's sake we will offer various serves of humus, including humus with ful (broad beans) as well as falafel.
Hype takes over, and soon enough Abou Gadro expands all over Australia, selling humus everywhere from the mine pits of Western Australia to Canberra’s Parliament.

We can do it with a little bit of help. Are you with me or against me?

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Flying Hell

 I will repeat myself, just in case you haven’t been reading my blog lately: flying sucks. And I can say that again, despite my frequent flying days being long gone, by virtue of putting three more flights under my belt as I flew from Israel back to Australia.
Each flight has its own story; and then the stories combine. My flight out of Israel was delayed due to technical problems with the plane, making the next connection a razor sharp affair and raising concerns as to whether my suitcase will make it. Luckily, ground crews were waiting for us to rush us through liquids' security theater. My next flight, with Turkish Airlines, had me wondering just how far the airlines wishes to go in its plight to secure the coveted "most uncomfortable economy class seat ever" title. Then, on my last flight, I had the joy of facing off a group of passengers that was so keen to sit together they threatened me with frequently getting up to the toilet just so I leave them my aisle seat.
An empty threat, I told them, given the sits were so tightly bunched together – Cathay Pacific truly made an effort to distinguish between its premium economy and regular economy classes – that getting up on my feet at every possible occasion was a blessing. Indeed, I have to add: nowadays economy class seats are so cramped I do not see the point of touch screens and on demand movies. It is virtually impossible for me to stare at a screen that is a mere 10 centimeters away from my face for more than a couple of minutes. Let alone give a movie a decent chance to prove itself.
The question, then, is what can possibly be done to improve the flying experience and turn it into mildly tolerable without having to take a second mortgage for the sake of business class seats. There are a few options there.
First, airports seem to have greatly improved over the past couple of years and now the majority offers free wifi. This includes Bangkok airport, where wifi required a short manual registration; Tel Aviv, where the wifi worked but refused to accept any of my VPN services (and thus relegated me to non sensitive browsing, as I did not want my credentials sniffed over an open network); and Hong Kong, where wifi was available throughout the airport – even at the toilets and the gates. The notable exception was Istanbul airport, by far the worst in my journey, which did not offer wifi nor any other worthwhile ways to spend one’s time with. Talking of airports, I found Tel Aviv’s shopping options to be by far the best; Hong Kong’s, which was clearly aiming too upmarket with its shops, was quite the disappointment. Tel Aviv was also the only airport that did not require me to dispense with all my liquids, by far the stupidest security demand ever; Hong Kong, on the other hand, had a special anti duty free after shave guard at the plane's door, browsing through passengers hand luggage to make sure they did not dare smuggle liquids on board. Apparently, this was to satisfy an Australian demand, but hell - how overzealous could they be!
Once on a plane I turn to my gadgets in order to address the two most critical issues on board a flight: boredom on one hand and the generally hostile environment on the other.
My main tool for fighting boredom, given the previously mentioned uselessness of movie watching, was my Kindle. Alas, on one flight the reading light did not work. There is also another problem with reading: there is just so much of it I can do, especially when tired to the level of tiredness one gets to after not sleeping for a couple of days worth of journeying under hostile conditions. I therefore find lighter forms of entertainment are due.
My vote regarding the supply of such lighter forms of entertainment goes to a light, smallish tablet with strong batteries. A tablet I can play games on, listen to music through, watch my videos on, and also read from. In other words, I want a retina display iPad Mini, a device that doesn’t exist yet. The first thing I have to say with regards to this iPad Mini is apologize for my use of Apple’s marketing term “retina display”; I hate such bullshit language. However, having played with my father’s iPad 2 I have to acknowledge its screen is vastly inferior to my iPad 3 and iPhone 5’s. Second, nowadays an iPad would almost mean I no longer have to carry my too big to use on a plane Mac Air along (although nothing yet can replace a full blown computer with a proper keyboard, especially a small & light one like the Mac Air, once the plane has landed).
The next thing to do is address the plane’s hostile environment. There is not much one can do regarding the foul dry air or the food that had my stomach raising sensations I had never felt before, but something can be done about the noise. That something is headphones.
My favorite headphones are of an open design. Although these have qualities that allow them to offer the best sound headphones can offer, they are useless at blocking ambient noise. I therefore carried along my wife’s AKG K450 closed headphones, which did prove vastly better than the iPhone 5 headphones I also had along. However, those particular AKG headphones are mini ones, designed for portability, and therefore they could not provide tight sealing. This makes me wonder as to whether I should put my money on a worthwhile pair of high quality, audiophile grade sealed headphones, like the Sennheiser Momentum. Or would it be better to invest in Bose’s noise cancelling headphones, which despite mediocre sound quality do offer excellent noise cancelling according to anyone who bothered trying them on board a flight? Both are similarly priced at $300 (although one could get the Momentums for significantly less); the question is just how worthwhile noise cancelling is.
In my view, as an audiophile, having better sound quality counts more than noise cancelling. Perhaps the right solution is in the form of in ear monitors such as the Shure SE 215 ($100), ear plugs that do not offer noise cancellation but rather fit ergonomically around the ear so as to block external sound?

As I write this I am still fighting jet lag. There seems to be only one good cure there, lots of sun exposure. However, between Melbourne’s autumn and work that proves too rare a commodity. I will note, though, how we tend to ignore this lingering effect of the evils of flying.

2/5/13 update:
In my overview of airports I neglected to mention Melbourne's. It's quite bad, actually: starting from airport access (no trains, third world style), moving through no free wifi and poor, ripoff priced, shopping options.
Security theater wise, Melbourne now has its own porn scanners. It was the only airport along my journeys where I have stumbled upon these vile redundant contraptions. It seems like at this stage not everyone is asked to go through them, though. I've seen some people going in, but I wasn't asked (and obviously, I did not stop to ask for the privilege).