Monday, 30 September 2013

Inspect Your Gadget

If my mind was your average CPU then my paranoid notions would be turned into interrupts that I’d regularly ponder upon. One such interrupt would concern my next job: am I ready for the day after tomorrow when I no longer have a job? But there is another, more inspiring yet similar interrupt there, too: what can I do so that the stuff I do for a living is also the stuff I would like to do, period?
There is a big catch there. We all want to do the stuff we love doing, but usually we have to take compromises along the way because we are unable to monetise our dream fulfilment. In other words, no one would be surprised to know I am unable to find anyone who would pay for me to play Mass Effect or watch movies. The trick, therefore, is in finding something that fulfils all the following conditions:
  1. It has to be something I like doing, preferably really like doing;
  2. It has to be something I am [relatively] uniquely good at, and
  3. It has to be something others might find beneficial to the point where it is better for them to pay me to do the job than do it themselves.
Coming up with potential qualifiers to the above offers plenty of room for creativity. The one answer that seems to constantly look me in the eye is: gadgets.
I dedicate a lot of my spare time to the exploration of gadgets. The definition of gadgets varies from audio stuff through video, computers and smartphones; my definition of “gadget” is a device that processes information, is generally used for entertainment purposes, and tends to cost a bomb.
 I can and I do regularly offer advice on which ones to get, where and how to get them, how to set them up, and most importantly – how to use them. You can argue that in this age of the Internet anyone can do all of the above, and I would agree with you; but in the real world I receive constant reminders to the fact this is not the case. Whether it’s fixing someone’s ill behaving computer, removing viruses, teaching people how to use their smartphones, setting things up, installations – it’s all happening. By now I’m used to being identified as the person to ask in matters of gadgetry and internets, but there is clearer evidence for my reputation at hand. I was informed by multiple sources of a board meeting where a manager was told off for ill configured gadgetry and ordered to “go to Moshe” to address the matter. And I did. And it took me two minutes.
This last example provides shows my services can have the potential to be a source of income. But there’s more: I think of my father in law losing his smartphone a day after I offered to lock his Android with a passcode for him, and the anxiety he went through till his phone was found. I think of various family and friends whose PCs are so full of malware I would never dare put a password of mine in; surely, using crippled computers costs them, both in time and in finding themselves the victims of fraud (as has happened through Java vulnerabilities). I think of the people who want to take control of their online privacy but do not have a clue where to start. I think of the relatives I know who spend fortunes on the latest and greatest, only to buy themselves an expensive brick because they have no idea how to use their latest gadget (this particular issue applies, in descending order of size, from TVs to smartphones). And I think of all the people I know for whom I could save hundreds were they to consult with me before purchasing their gadgets.
All of the above have two things in common:
  1. They did not consult with me at the right time, and
  2. Consulting with me would have saved them money. In most cases that amount of money can be easily measured.
In other words, all I need to do to start my own gadget advisory is make people realise I can save them this money, and that my services would cost less than going blind. But how do I do that?
At this stage I was thinking of a very low key affair. After all, it’s not like I have time for this. First, need to find what I need to do in order to fulfil the legal obligations that come with taking money out of people. Then, second, I’d be ready to start my marketing campaign. And since this all idea is more for fun rather than money, at least at this stage, I was thinking of putting out a website offering local gadgetry help and seeing where the wind blows. This will also give me an opportunity to learn how to erect a website from start to finish all on my own (I will probably use WordPress).
Caveats? Sure. I suspect there will be plenty of issues for which I will not only not know the answer, but will also fail to be able to find the answer. For someone offering generic gadgetry advice it is hard to expect familiarity with the full range of stuff out there. Plus there are definite gaps in my knowledge base, with Windows 8 being the most obvious. I will also lack the means for dealing with hardware failures. Still, I do not see problems there of a grade that tell me this is all a pipedream and I should move on.

Given this is all at the dream stage for now, requiring a major [cataclysmic] event to trigger major efforts, I find daydreaming names for this gadget business of mine a rather entertaining affair. So far, though, my mind seems locked on Inspector Gadget.
With that name being taken, I find myself thinking along the lines of Inspect Your Gadget. The logo would feature a smartphone put under the magnifying glass.

Image by giltay, Creative Commons license

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Hanging Off on Hangouts

One of the joys of having my wife and son overseas involves getting to test out various means of communication. There are tons of messaging services out there, but the crown jewel comes in shape of services allowing for video calls. Amongst these I considered Google Hangouts to be the best, by virtue of the fact it allows moving between text messaging and video calls seamlessly. I thought so highly of Google Hangouts I even turned a blind eye to the way I think of Google as the slayer of all that is private, I did not care about my calls being shared with the NSA, and I created the Google+ profile necessary for using the service.
And now I’m here to tell you I have deleted Google Hangouts from my phone, deleted my Google+ profile, and have no intention of using the service in the foreseeable future. Here’s why.

Yesterday I had a half hour long video chat with my wife and son using Google Hangouts. I was having dinner at home and using my iPhone 5 through my wifi, enjoying reasonable quality picture and only one disconnection throughout. I could not avoid noting how bad the call was to my iPhone’s battery: I could see the battery indicator draining before my eyes; I could feel the phone getting hot. There was also a strange "swirl" constantly swirling at the display’s top left side, usually an indication for 3G use. It couldn’t be; I was on wifi. So I attributed it all to iOS 7 eccentricities, given the new operating system’s main feature thus far seems to be poor battery life.
However, there's more to iOS 7 than battery flattening. At least a bit more. One its new features is the provision of a breakdown of cellular usage per app. That is, it tells you how much cellular data bandwidth was consumed by each app. Androids have had this for years now, but iPhones for less than a week. As part of my getting to know the new operating system I went in to have a look.
Lo and behold what I found there! According to my iPhone, it spent 300MB of 3G on Google Hangout. That’s impossible, I thought: I was on wifi! But it had to be, given this call that I've had being the first time I used Hangout’s video facilities, and being that nothing but video can consume so much bandwidth in the few days that passed since I upgraded to iOS 7.
In order to cross reference and verify what went on here I went to my 3G provider’s app. That gave me the confirmation I needed: it told me how my phone consumed 300MB of 3G during the exact time my Google Hangouts call was taking place!
So, to summarise my findings, Google Hangouts achieved the following on my iPhone:
  1. It drained 40% off my battery in half an hour,
  2. It used 3G while I was connected to wifi,
  3. And it used 300MB of data for a bit less than half an hour of video calling.
I admit that wifi fallouts might have been possible, but even if that was the cases it appears as if Hangouts failed to revert back to wifi when it could. I also do not know if the wifi to 3G problem is Hangouts or iOS related. I don’t care, though: something very dodgy was at hand, and I am not about to linger about. I ceremoniously deleted Google Hangouts and all Google+ related affairs.

Other than Google Hangouts being the compromised smartphone video calling service it proved out to be, the problem is the alternatives are compromised, too.
First there’s Skype: I’ve been using it for years, but – how shall I put it? – ever since Microsoft took over, call quality is deteriorating fast. For example, last night I called my parent’s home line; after three disconnections in five minutes they gave up and called me back on the normal phone. (Yes, there are people out there who still use “just phones”). Skype also requires me to keep its app constantly running in the background in order to receive calls, something I will not do (the competition relies on notification services instead).
The best video call service I am aware of is Apple’s FaceTime. When I used it this week to talk to my wife at the UK, 3G to 3G, it took 37MB for a 12 minute call. Picture quality was impeccable, and when the connection was dodgy for a bit it reverted to voice only on one side of the call in order to keep the conversation going – it did not disconnect!
Problem is, FaceTime is an Apple only service that can only be used on Apple devices. Further, if you had it configured on the same Apple account in different devices you own, you won’t even be able to make intra-devices calls. Regardless, FaceTime is the clear winner here for sheer quality as – once again – Apple proves to have a special knack in that department, putting Google and Microsoft to shame.

Google Hangouts image copyrights: Google

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Copyright Is Dead, Long Live the Pirates

Yesterday I attended Copyright Is Dead, Long Live the Pirates. I wasn’t seeking longevity, but rather sat as an audience member at this Wheeler Centre run debate hosted at Melbourne Town Hall. For what it’s worth, I got my ticket to the event through EFA, where I am a lifetime member.
The event's format was pretty straight forward: three debaters on each side try to convince the audience for and against the proposition at hand, namely whether copyright is dead. At the end of proceedings the audience is asked to vote for the winner, and a comparison is made to the audience's opinion upon entery. Given the subject matter I think it is pretty obvious which side I’m on; it was also pretty obvious nothing short of a miracle could sway me to embrace copyright. And it doesn’t take a Richard Dawkins to know that by their unnatural nature, miracles cannot happen, really.

Speaking for the pro piracy side, if I can refer to it this way, were Suelette Dreyfus, Simon Groth and Angela Daly. Dreyfus, an author made famous by a book about hacking that involved Julian Assange, started proceedings by telling us how putting copies of her book online boosted her sales by order of magnitude from the mildly successful 10,000 she sold prior to that. In effect, she repeated a point Cory Doctorow often makes, which states an artist’s biggest problem is obscurity, not piracy.
I will not delve further into the pirate’s side of the arguments; these are all things I have discussed here before. I will, however, confess to Daly being my favourite speaker. It wasn’t only her charming accent – probably the best I’ve ever heard, both melodic and clear – but rather her saying exactly what I would have said were I in her position. Only she said it much more eloquently than I ever could. Then again, being that Daly is an EFA board member, similarities of opinions and approaches are only to be expected.

What hit the most last night was the sheer blandness of the arguments coming from the other side, the pro copyright people. Frankly, I think I could have done a better job than them at explaining copyright’s benefits. Regardless, they were disengaged, they failed to engage, and their arguments were often pathetic.
Speaking first for his side was Michael Fraser. His approach was academic in the bad sense of the word, the one that made me dislike uni: he was talking slogans and quoting laws, unable to explain how these actually apply to the message he was trying to convey concerning copyright’s viability. Gems included "Copyright is a foundation for freedom of expression", a "basic human right" without which "a creator is imprisoned". Wait, it goes on: "Without copyright, independent creation is impossible”; because we know God had to have copyright by his side when he wrote the Bible.
Moving on, “no one is above the law. Negating copyright is negating the very foundation our civilisation is based on”.  Fraser finally stepped away from the realm of the cliché when he asked why we respect the rights of companies such as Google to make money, but disrespect the rights of the artist; he did, however, fail to note that this artist of his is the only member of the free market asking for special privilege for monopoly through this thing called copyright
Speaking next for copyrights was Lori Flesker. Flesker claimed to be disgusted by pirates, which means she is disgusted by the majority of the Australian public: virtually everyone is a pirate today, even if they don’t know they are, and with 37% of the adult population admitting to piracy (see here) I suggest she wears a gas mask. Yes, I have such problems as well; I am not that happy with the majority of Australians choosing Tony Abbott as their Prime Minister. However, there are reasons that made people vote the way they did, just like there are reasons why people pirate; people are not inherently disgusting.
Flesker moved on claims of dubious truthfulness. For example, she claimed rumours concerning pirates spending money on contents are a myth, and that she has the research to prove her claim. Regardless of it only taking one pirate buying contents to prove her wrong, here’s evidence indicating that not only do pirates pay for contents, they pay more than the rest of the public. Flesker then expressed surprise at people not resorting to legal alternatives, and even quoted Foxtel’s new Presto service as an example. She forgot to mention Presto is yet unavailable (or are we talking biblical miracles here, with the service solving piracy before it even started?). She also neglected to mention other aspects, such as Presto charging $25 a month for a service vastly inferior to the USA Netflix’ $8, or that Foxtel is directly responsible for cutting off most legal alternatives for downloading in Australia (including Apple’s offering of Game of Thrones episodes).
Countering the proposition that artists actually benefit from piracy, Flesker brought the example of Thom Yorke removing his music off Spotify in protest for the poor money they give the artists. I agree, Spotify and most of the other streaming services often abuse the artists; but since Spotify works well within the framework of copyrights, what does that have to do with piracy? Surely the blame is shared with record companies giving artists’ rights away to Spotify?
Last, but not least, Flesker claimed that copyright is not that bad to live with. Does anybody here know someone who has been jailed because of copyright, she asked. Well, yes, I do: how about Kim Dotcom? Or Aaron Swartz? But most importantly, is she seriously suggesting copyright’s merit by virtue of the fact it is yet to put someone we care for in jail?
The final pro copyright presenter was Elmo Keep. Hers was a rather bizarre affair: complaining as she did against the artist being robbed of well deserved income, she directed most of her criticism towards big companies like Apple and Amazon who took over the markets for music and books. Failing to notice how artists were shafted well before Apple and Amazon came along (Dreyfus, for example, quoted receiving $1 off every $20 book she sold), Keep expressed opinions that would put her well within the framework of the Pirate Party: it is only because of the narrow vision of the copyright industry and its insistence on DRM that these particular two villains gained the power they did.
Living up to her side’s standards, Keep did not refrain from clichés. She claimed there won't be any creation without copyright and that those claiming otherwise are anarchists or fools; and she referred to piracy as outright theft, which – as the lawyers on her side should tell her – is outright wrong.

Given proceedings, audience votes were hardly a surprise. Whereas at the doors the audience polled at 39% for piracy, 36% for copyright and the rest undecided, the final results were an “overwhelming” win for piracy. Yours truly apologises for not getting the actual final figures.
No, I do not think much of this vote. To be completely honest, in some respects I do not even want to see copyright dead: I do not want to see others claim ownership of stuff I have created, for example. Pirate Party policies do not call for the killing of copyright, either. Regardless, it is clear the copyright legislation we have today is broken in dire need of repair.
I would say it is also clear salvation will not come from Australia, being the minor league player it is. I concur with Rick Falkvinge who sees salvation coming from Europe. Either that or from the inevitable collapse of the financially overstretched USA (as discussed here), only that in that particular case we will have plenty of other things to worry about.

At the personal level, live tweeting of last night's event with the support of Asher Wolf and Brendan Molloy meant I now have several new Twitter followers, including some big names. While I do not think this would make me a candidate for the position of Apple’s next CEO, the whole affair did give me a glimpse of the personal price I have been paying for the pleasures of parenthood.
The only reason I was able to attend Copyright Is Dead is my wife and son leaving me home alone to go on an overseas trip. Upon their return, just a week away, I’ll be back to my normal inglorious child caring routine. While it would mean no more Copyright Is Dead nights for me, it will not mean I will stop standing up for what I consider right.

Image by Gary Denham, Creative Commons license

Monday, 23 September 2013

Home Alone

It’s hard to believe these words are actually coming out of my keyboard, but it feels weird for me to be alone. Which is the way I am going to be while my wife and son are overseas on a family visit.
Dealing with this abnormal situation takes getting used to. The first night felt really weird: on one hand I could do whatever I wanted to without having to take anyone into consideration for the first time in years, on the other I found myself terribly missing the absent family members.
Luckily for me, the family quickly stepped in to fill up the gaps. My mother called, taunting me for my loneliness and, as usual, comparing my paltry performance in the field of friends acquisition to my brother’s encyclopedia of ever ready friends. That is her way to indicate how wrong I was to move away to friendless Australia, while politely ignoring the fact I did not have many friends in Israel either; I’m just not the type of person to have many friends. I’m also not the type of person to call everyone I know a “friend”, Facebook style.
Then I talked to my sister, who suggested I use the opportunity to dine out and see some live music shows. Again, suggestions that best suggest how little my family knows me: I have been generally avoiding live music because my ears can’t take it. As for dining, I like to eat but I consider it a mostly social activity. The food I like best comes cheap and is very casually consumed.
So what did I do on my first solo weekend day? I went to attend Melbourne’s Software Freedom Day. It was a nice event featuring nice presentations, an event where I could immediately feel at home, surrounded as I was by geeks. Geeks of a grade that can actually make yours truly appear cool. And before you ask, there were women, too.
I mentioned the presentations were interesting. Even more interesting was the fact that, in retrospect, I can attest to being able to present some of the event’s topics myself. Since I’m probably not the only attendee able to make such claims, I suggest the power of Software Freedom Day events does not come from their program but rather from being able to put likeminded people in the same room. However, that observation leads me to think that group of likeminded people should take the next step: instead of discussing things most of us already agree about, let us discuss what we can do together to change this world for the better. Which is exactly what a group called The Pirate Party is already doing.
My Software Freedom Day ended prematurely. In between presentations they had 15 minute breaks. Now, you know me, I spent my breaks mostly in the company of my phone. However, having not taken my reading glasses with me, it did not take many a presentation + break to get my head hurting. It is now perfectly clear to me that the headaches I have been complaining about during the past few months are all vision related. That is pretty much it: from now on, I cannot afford to do anything more than very casual reading without my glasses. It’s sad news, but it’s also good to know that I am living in an era where such glasses are easily procured so I can continue doing my reading despite my eyes’ protests.
Eyes aside, my answer to my mother, sister and everyone else is the same. I will use my time on my own to do the things I like to do the most which I cannot do in the company of my wife and son. As it happens, a lot of the charm of being on my own comes from the fact I am on my own! If you ask me, acquiring the skill to be comfortable with nothing but oneself for company is one of the more important attributes of a well balanced person.
This Sunday I did something I used to specialise in once upon a time in a galaxy far far away: I got up past midday. That was cool.

Image: Software Freedom Day, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

...On the Floor

In my previous post I tried to unload some of the initial shock of discovering I might soon be jobless on to my blog. This time around I want to try and analyse the implications this potential future has in store for me. I want to do so because I think these implications show more than just what my future might be: they tell us a lot of where our society is heading for.
The most extreme post-losing-job future is one of long term unemployment. Although the job marketplace does not look stellar, that particular possible future remains unlikely. There are various mitigation options there, ranging from taking the opportunity to flip some burgers to taking personal business initiatives I wouldn’t otherwise take being the risk averse person I am. The latter come with high risk, but offers high potential for job satisfaction and could just be financially viable. The opportunity to move my career towards greener pastures could mean that losing my job might be a blessing in disguise.
The more likely alternative has me finding short term contract work. This is where the market is heading at the moment: with government being the largest employer, and with government cutting down permanent positions and running under policies forbidding new positions to be established, the entire job market is heading down that path. This is classic Liberal Party policy that, in classic Liberal Party fashion, can lead to significantly higher financial rewards. However, it comes at a price: while contract work usually pays more than permanent work, it lacks the ability to take one’s employment for granted. One is essentially always on the job hunt.
Superficially, always being on the job hunt doesn’t sound too bad. It can lead to better performances from people always seeking to impress their employers. However, it also means one has to spend significant energies securing a work spot, energies that come off capacity that might have been used on the job itself instead. To the contractor, the potential for higher rewards comes at the price of higher uncertainty. Me, I hate uncertainty.
Uncertainty can hit you when you least expect it. It can come in the form of personal health problems; it can come in the shape of health issues for the people you care about the most; and it can materialise in the demands of parenthood, which do not always align with one’s career plans. Me, I have experienced all of the above; I suspect that you, being human and all, have experience at least some of them. The point is, I do not want to have to worry about my income at a time when I’m hit with a surprise tumour (to name but one example); I suspect that neither do you. You may not worry about these things in your twenties, perhaps not even in your thirties, but life does catch up. Sooner or later you will.
To me, the loss of my current job is almost certain to imply the end of an era where I could take my job for granted and be able to focus on life as long as I am out of the office. Losing this ability is the thing I’m afraid of the most when I consider the prospect of losing my current job. However, losing this ability will only be putting me in the same playing field most people are at, especially the younger generation: this is the world we have established for ourselves in the past two decades.
Me, I’m a conservative. I want to live in the past.

Monday, 16 September 2013

Heads Will Roll...

I've been to that movie before. It's highly likely you've seen it, too: through this and that, rumours of upcoming layoffs start popping at one's place of work. As the rumours become more and more substantiated, one can feel how people switch into survival mode.
And that's where I currently am. Again. It's a sign of the times, really: the concept of a job for life is truly dead and gone; it is just a question of time for the majority of us till the grip reaper comes for our job. Nowadays this usually takes place in the shape of some clever org structure dropped from high above, which adds to the general claustrophobic mood: some know more than others, some less, while some are actively involved in the planning. Who's going to be the winner and keep their job? Who will lose? Who is the friend and who is the foe?
I guess it's time to polish up my CV. There's also that online CV called LinkedIn, but I doubt anything will come out of an investment there other than further erosion of my privacy. On the other hand, the job market out here doesn't look that great; if I'm out there, might as well come out with guns blazing.
For now I'm just hoping the veil of uncertainty would be removed quickly so that I can tell which way my ship will be sailing.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

The Curse Continues

Hell. Yes.

I finally put my hands on a copy of Skyrim the other week. Skyrim, in case you don’t know, is a video game set in a Dungeons & Dragons like universe and puts its hero – you – on an anti dragon quest of personal development. It also happens to be the game that most people claim to be the best release of 2011. Two years later, I was able to get it for my PS3 for only $20.
What do I make of it?
Well, it seems like a decent game with an open universe plenty big enough to explore, on the way encountering many characters and going on all sorts of varied quests. But…
But the characters are, well, a bit ugly. Even after investing time on the creation of mine. And the graphics? I’ve seen better. And the character interactions? They tend to be one dimensional; I am yet to find a character I care for much. They’re all simply there to send me/guide me on quests.
Let me narrow my problem down for you: my problem with Skyrim is that it’s not that other game, the game many deem as 2012’s best game. It’s not Mass Effect.
Sure, you get an open world to rammage through. But none of the people you meet have half the depth of Mass Effect’s characters. Characters that became household names. Characters I found myself caring for.
I like Skyrim. I suspect I will play it a lot. But ultimately, I can’t avoid feeling I’d enjoy playing the real thing yet again instead.

This is not the first time I am encountering the “not as good as Mass Effect” syndrome. However, Skyrim is by far the most acclaimed game in which I find myself suffering as I play.
Perhaps my problem lies in my approach. Perhaps I shouldn’t have named my Skyrim character Shepard and designed her to look like my FemShep?

Image by Megan Morris, Creative Commons license

Thursday, 12 September 2013

I Read, Therefore I Am

iPad in Bed

What is the meaning of life?
That’s probably the question most often raised by people on a quest to boast depth. It is also, as my colleague Richard Dawkins likes to point out, a clear case for a badly raised question. It is a question that already assumes there is a meaning to life in the first place. Fact of the matter is, there is zero evidence out there for the existence of an inherent meaning to life. That, however, does not mean there is no meaning in life; it’s just that any meaning life may have is the meaning that we give it ourselves.
I am not short on such meanings. However, ongoing critical health issues with numerous family members made me thing the matter in depth in an attempt to systemize my thoughts. Throw in stronger signals of my own aging into the mix, and you will see why there is nothing like the realization of my own mortality when it comes to motivating me to make the most of the life I have and love so much.
In particular I found myself wondering about old age. I do not want to end up at an old people’s place where my entire life consists of being taken out of bed in the morning, getting fed, and being taken back to bed in the evening (while, in between, getting bathed by others and shitting in a nappy). It’s awful, and while most of us don’t want to think about it, fact of the matter is many of us reading this post will end up living not that dissimilar a lifestyle; especially now that we have fewer children and those children tend to spread across the globe. This future is coming for us, rest assured; the lucky ones will be those that die quickly with some heart attack or something.
My question therefore turned out to be: at what stage will I consider my life not worth living anymore? When will I feel comfortable ordering my caretakers to flick the switch on the euthanasia machine that I sincerely hope our society will allow for those that choose to use it?
Between this question and the question of what gives meaning to my life, it did not take me long to reach my answer. I derive a huge chuck of meaning from getting to know the world I live in; I derive most of that knowledge through reading. I will therefore answer that on the day I am no longer able to read in any shape or form, without any prospect of regaining that ability, is the day I should be allowed to call it quits. I will also argue that it would be the duty of any person who truly loves me to help me with the flipping of that switch, but that is another story to keep in mind for another day.
In the meantime, I would like to recognize just how important reading is to my life. It is important for me to make that observation, because – as one can tell from the quantity of book reviews I got to write over the past seven years – I do not get to read many books. Or rather, I do not read enough books. Fact of the matter is, for every book I read there are ten or more I would like to read but never get to.
Fact of the matter is, also, that I read a lot. I read tons. It’s just that most of my reading is not book based, it is article based. If you were to examine the statistics on my RSS reader you would see that on an average day I read more than 50 articles and clear double the amount. When you add Twitter links and newspaper/magazine reading to the equation, you will find reading to be the elephant in my room.
It is no coincidence; this reading is what makes me the person I am. The articles are mostly there to tell me about the world I live in, and the books are mostly there to expand the horizons of the world I live in. Both are of utmost importance; take them away from me and I will no longer be me.
I read, therefore I am.

P.S. Spare a thought for all those who want to deprive me of my reading by putting blocks and hurdles in my way. I’m referring to you, the Copyright Industry. Amongst many sins, you are also responsible for depriving meaning out of people’s lives.

Image by F Delventhal, Creative Commons license

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Top Grossing Playlists

News is telling us Spotify is being sued for allowing users to create playlists similar to song selections on compilation CDs. The lawsuit is based on a paragraph from American copyright legislation that says
"collection and assembling of preexisting materials or of data that are selected in such a way that the resulting work as a whole constitutes an original work."
If the order in which intellectual property is sorted matters, then I suggest a new way to comfortably make a living:
  1. Create playlists to your heart’s content, and
  2. Sue everything that moves while claiming you thought of these playlists first and therefore own the intellectual property that is the playlist’s order.
What I’m trying to say, in the context of this lawsuit, is that I think stupidity speaks for itself. And oh, how stupid copyright is!

Image: My son's playlist on Spotify. Consider yourself warned in case you dare come up with something even remotely similar!

Monday, 9 September 2013

Don't Let the Bastards Track You Down

In a recent post I discussed the rather scary experience of realizing just how much the Internet knows about me through no fault of my own. That post dealt with how my personal information was found to be given away by others. However, fact of the matter is that whenever I or anyone else surf the Internet, we're bleeding personal information left and right without even knowing about it.
Behind the scenes, companies collect all sorts of stuff about you through [almost] every website you visit. With some notable exceptions like Wikipedia or DuckDuckGo, goddess bless them, the vast majority of websites out there send information about you to third parties that collect and cross reference your information. And we do bleed information at every site: they can tell what our IP address is, thus potentially identifying us; they can tell what PC and browser we use, often to great detail; and they can tell where we are located, often with GPS like accuracy. And if you happen to be logged in to a service, such as Google or Facebook, then they would be able to associate that information they have gathered with a name. Your name.
Almost everything out there takes part in collecting your information. Newspapers, shops, they’re all in for a bite. Even this blog, hosted on a Google platform, will collect information about you towards Google’s coffers. Add it all together and you can see how these tracking companies can build a very detailed and accurate profile about the online you: they know what you did last summer. Who needs the NSA when a weather app can do the exact same job?

The good news is that there are defensive weapons in our arsenal with which to protect ourselves. There are actually quite a few; I have already discussed some of these means here. This time around I will focus on tools that deal with trackers directly. In particular I will look at services that acquired the reputation of being most effective, Ghostery and Disconnect.
In their basic form, Ghostery and Disconnect are incredibly similar. Both offer add-ons to the PC web browser you should be using (either Firefox or Chrome), that contain lists of trackers better off ignored. Once you land on a website, say this one, Ghostery/Disconnect will detect it is trying to send info back to Google and stop that from happening. Thus they do not prevent tracking, they also make your Internet faster. Once you start using them, you will be amazed to see how much tracking goes on in the background of the sites you like to visit the most!
They are not without fault, though. The main fault is that in many cases the operation of the website depends on its tracking working as designed. For example, I found Flight Centre’s website will not deliver me a quote as long as its trackers were subdued. Same goes for this blog: if you block Google’s tracking, it won’t allow you to search the blog. Luckily, both Disconnect and Ghostery allow users to whitelist sites or momentarily disable their add-ons at will. You can also decide which trackers you want disabled and which not; in my opinion, Ghostery does a better job there.
Which brings me to choosing between the two, as there is no point in having both running together. In my opinion, Ghostery offers the slightly better product in the sense it offers more tailoring tools. However, I also find Ghostery more buggy, particularly on Firefox; I had to reinstall Firefox twice before giving up and installing Disconnect instead (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I will note it is highly likely the problem is not directly with Ghostery in the first place but rather with it colliding with other add-ons, but still: the point is we have two good products to choose from, both of which happen to be free.

Wait, I hear you say. Who cares about the PC environment anymore anyway? We do most of our Internet stuff on our smartphones/tablets nowadays!
True. The good thing is, Ghostery and Disconnect have solutions for you there, too. Only that in the mobile department their approach differs.
On its side, Ghostery offers iOS users a web browser called (wait for it!) Ghostery. If you use it, you will enjoy the same blocking you enjoy on your PC. However, there are two catches: first, Ghostery’s browser is quite buggy and not half as capable as Safari. Starting from the look and feel, you will notice it is in another league – a lower one. Second, many if not most people’s mobile Internet action takes place through apps rather than a proper browser; these people are not catered for by Ghostery.
Luckily, Disconnect comes to the rescue with a product called Disconnect Kids. The name is misleading: this is not an app for kids, it’s an app for everyone; it comes from the legal loophole where, by American law, companies are forbidden from tracking kids under 13 but can get away with it if they can’t tell whether the person they are tracking is a kid or not. What Disconnect is trying to say is, let us all be kids!
Their app works in a rather brilliant way (read here from the horse’s mouth): it installs a profile on your iPhone/iPad that detects traffic heading towards the most notorious of Internet trackers, and simply directs that traffic to oblivion. Thus not only does Disconnect Kids protect you from tracking, it also reduces the burden on your mobile Internet connection.
The disadvantage of Disconnect’s approach is to do with the absolute way in which it works. Its mechanism prevents subtlety; you either block a tracker or you don’t, with little in the way of flexibility (changing a profile takes a while and requires more than basic understanding). This implies you won’t want to permanently block Google’s trackers, because if you do so you will probably find too many things not working as they should. You will get annoyed at Disconnect Kids, disable it, and then the whole point of the affair would be lost. As a result, Disconnect Kids will only deal with some 20 trackers (Ghostery’s app, in comparison, deals with about a thousand).
Still, the point is that the combination of Ghostery and Disconnect on an iOS device offers better tracker protection than a “naked” device. And unlike some of their competition, both Ghostery and Disconnect have no access to your data and offer extremely simple privacy policies.
I would say that having Ghostery or Disconnect on your browser is a must; having both on your iGadget is, too.

Image copyrights: Ghostery and Disconnect

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Vote Well

It started. Two days before the elections we are told he will be easily won, Tony Abbott finally started telling us about some of the things he will do. For example, he tells us he'll cut funding for public transport:
Mr Abbott has previously said the Commonwealth should 'stick to its knitting' and fund road projects not commuter rail.
He would also introduce UK style opt out Internet censorship, with opt out lists that can be used against those who do and mandatory software installed on our phones to make sure we comply. Luckily for us, Malcolm Turnbull was there to put some water on the initiative. For now. But given this is what we learned in one day, the day in which the Liberals started telling us what their policies actually are, one can see where the wind is blowing.
The question is, what can we do about it? Lucky for us, we can still vote this Saturday. Even if Tony gets elected to be our PM, we can still do our best to have senate presence guiding him the right way. Following is my two step guide for achieving that - my personal guide for voting well:

Step 1:

Step 2: 
Vote below the line, starting with Pirate Party Australia as your top preference, and moving on with the parties that actually stand for making the world a better place to live in. Say, the Greens.

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Cherish Your Preferences

Back when I lived in Israel I knew there was a very severe threat to my democratic vote: was I to vote to a party receiving too few votes, below the minimum threshold required for getting into parliament, my vote would be wasted. This minimum threshold made sense in its ability to prevent the disproportional extortion power tiny parties had when it came to the formation of a governing coalition (in Australia this process is referred to as the formation of a minority government; in Israel it happens to be the norm). Recently, Israeli legislators increased the threshold to 4% in a bid to eliminate the existence of Arab parties in parliament, but the repercussions go even further. They basically mean it is much harder for new forces, new ideas, to grab political foothold.
Australia is on some other parallel plane of the rigged elections continuum. On one hand it offers preferential voting, but on the other its House of Representatives’ geographically based voting ensures it is extremely hard for anyone outside the two big parties to get elected.
Further enshrining the two party system is the procedure for senate voting. There we have legislation makes it intentionally hard to vote below the line. One is “urged” to do the actual voting at the polling booths, as opposed to vote by mail; however, at the booths it is virtually impossible to rank all 97 senate candidates in order and still manage to come up with a valid, error free, vote. The fact one can protect oneself by voting both above and below the line is a well kept secret. Clearly, the bigger parties want the voter to simply vote for them above the line and rely on their preference schemes.
We do not have to follow their agenda, though. We are not fools. Each of us needs to remember our vote is powerful, and an Australian vote is even more powerful: unlike other countries, such as the Israel I started the post with, we do not have to cast a single vote for a single party; we have the power to express our exact preference. This allows us to vote for smaller parties without having our vote “wasted”; this allows us to shape our vote to the exact form our political opinion inclines to. Allow me to explain through an example.

See this image? Can you tell me what is wrong with it?
First I’ll tell you what isn’t wrong. Scott Ludlom, running for a WA senate seat as a Greens representative, is certainly worth anyone’s vote. As his op-ed here explains, he is one of the few politicians to see through the cunning and work towards a better Australia in a better world.
I do not know whether the above image was meant to be serious or not, but I can clearly see its problem. There is no such thing as “I usually vote Pirate”!
I am a member of Pirate Party Australia and I can tell you I generally vote for the Greens. The reasons are simple: This one is the first ever elections where Pirate Party Australia ran candidates; at this point, the party is not running any Lower House candidates. The Greens, therefore, get my House of Representatives vote by default.
My claim goes further, though. I do not simply vote for the Pirate Party Australia for the senate either; I cast my personal set of preferences. That set can have Pirate candidates first, but it can also have Greens candidates immediately afterwards; in such a case, chances are my vote would actually count for the Greens candidates.
My point is simple. Australians have much more than the power of a single vote. Australians have the power to express their exact, detailed, voting preferences. Do not waste these powers by going for the quick and easy “win” of ticking one of the big parties above the line just so you can get back home from the polling booths as quickly as possible for another beer at the barbie.