Sunday, 30 March 2014

Thank You

As I am about to have a go at going back to normal life, I would like to thank those who helped get through the past year. A year marked by my father's health issues and culminating in his death.
First, I would like to thank my direct mangers at work, who allowed me to do everything that I thought I needed doing with regards to my family, no questions asked. Not having to worry about the work side of the equation was a major relief in an otherwise unrelenting year.
Second, I would like to thank all the friends who supported me in the process. This includes those commenting on this blog as well as friends keeping me up to date with things. Most of all, I would like to thank the friend who came to greet me at the airport and put a local SIM in my hand when I landed in Israel for the funeral: it took me a long while till I registered who it was standing in front of me, but his help and good will did go a long way. I don't know if he'd be happy with me naming him here, so I will settle with saying this friend has had a very successful guest post on this blog in the past.
Last, I would like to thank my wife for her relentless support throughout the period. When I disappeared to Israel she had to pick up the slack, and whenever I needed help she was the first to offer it.
I consider myself a very lucky person to have had the support of all of yous.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Everybody's got something to hide except for me and my monkey

By now I am used to this certain routine: I get to chat about the wonders of the Internet with somebody; through this and that, I explain my fears of the likes of Google, Facebook or any of the other companies tracking my every online move; and in reply I am asked, "So what? What are you so afraid of?"
Well, the following clip from the American 60 Minutes provides some background information. Amongst others, it also demonstrates some of the reasons why we should all be afraid of the total decimation of our privacy.

In case you cannot be bothered to watch through the clip, I will let you know it shows how online data brokers allow the highest bidder to buy people lists. That is, lists of people with certain traits: gay people, people with certain religious inclinations, people with political attitudes, and people in certain financial conditions.
Call me a weirdo, but I do not want to find myself on someone's list without having a saying on the matter. Whether you are an atheist or a young earth creationist, whether you are a left winger or a right winger, the choice of whether others should know about it should be yours and yours alone; it should definitely not be made through some online aggregator who notices what your Facebook likes are and what books you buy at Amazon.
People may still say "who cares". But today they chase the gays; in the history of recent countries considered to be the bastion of democracy we have people being chased for their political opinions; the list can continue. One day, it would be your turn to appear on a list you do not want to appear on.
Be prudent. Look out for your online identity, because sooner or later it would affect your offline identity just as well.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

I'm Having Trouble Breathing In

Back in Australia, I can report that if my flying to Israel in order to participate in its normal grieving rituals was meant to help me get over my father's passing away, it failed. It doesn't take much to get the discomfort going, just a few thoughts or a glimpse at some of the memorabilia I brought back with me. Things like some of the driver's licences my father had collected over the years: he was always proud of being able to drive almost anything.
Under all of this discomfort there is still that prevailing thought that my father should have had some few more good years in him. Perhaps, if it wasn't for that silly fall, or if it wasn't for that lacklustre medical treatment he had received (no, we're not suing, but yes, I am definitely accusing) he would have still been around enjoying decent quality life. Then, perhaps, we would have been able to do things together, like the things we didn't really make an effort to do back when everything was alright.
Yes, these thoughts can drive me crazy. Maybe the whole notion is crazy to begin with? Maybe it's just me not being close enough, physically, to witness the gradual decline in my father's health that's to blame? Maybe I'm going through the standard grieving motions, but it's just that I'm inexperienced in the process?
I don't know. What I do know with significant certainty is that going back to work and the life's normal routines is going to be hard.

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Dark Side of the Mourn

I'm actually quite impressed with some of the things I have seen me during my current visit to Israel. Perhaps I'd even dedicate a post to these, eventually. In the mean time, I'm still on mourning mode, and during the past week I have been engaged in a customised version of the Jewish mourning ritual called Shivaa (that's "seven" for you): members of the deceased's immediate family convene at the dead person's house for seven days, while friends and family visit to offer their condolences.
True, I am not known for paying Jewish customs much credit, I do have to admit that this particular habit is an effective way for one to come to terms with a recent loss. Especially when the praying and the religious aspects are stripped away from the ritual and the human aspect is thus emphasised.
That said, I do have some things to complain about - hence this post.

First there is the common greeting uttered by well wishing visitors upon arrival and departure: "may you not know further sorrow". I appreciate the good intentions, but seriously - the only way I'm going to lead a life devoid of sorrow, at least of this kind, is if I happen to die before anybody else. Fuck you, then, if you think I'm going to sacrifice myself like that!
Yes, I know that the people greeting us with this greeting are just trying to be polite when they simply repeat what they heard at previous occasions; let he who always thought deeply about everything he/she says cast the first stone. What troubles me much more are the things that some of the visitors say when they actually think of what they say.
And those things can include all sorts of gems, much of which filled with racism. During the past week I've been hearing complaints about Arabs taking "our" jobs, about the dangers of black refugee people from Africa (amongst which is them taking "our" jobs), and about the inferiority and inherent mischief of people from the Philippines (many of which happen to be employed in Israel as carers for older people). Beating everybody else to the post was one elderly woman claiming all of the above at once while adding that she is a Holocaust survivor. Obviously, she learnt a lot from her own personal experience.
Wait, there's more. A veteran politician, a former number three in one of Israel's leading parties, was telling me of the treacherous nature of left wing voters (amongst which I was while I was still voting in Israeli elections). Not only was he shaming me, which frankly I couldn't care less about, he was also shaming the person whom we were both supposed to be mourning, a person who has been known to say that this is not the country he fought for as he turned from the right side of politics to the left.
Last, but not least, was a friend who decried Christians as stupid. When questioned we found his conviction to be based on his experience with one Christian school mate who scored poorly on two school tests. With the case against Isaac Newton & Co thus so clearly settled, yours truly was left contemplating him marrying a woman of a Christian background and - much worse! - him even having a son with her.
It is important for me to add a disclaimer: those racist, bigoted people I am complaining about were a minority. Most of our visitors came and went having positively contributed to the experience. Yet I could not avoid noting that these foul mouthes visitors were generally able to drop their lines without losing much in the way of respect; some even won a lot of it for their words.
Given I am a guest here myself with this not being my party to administer I tried to avoid conflict. When I protested I did so gently; I either politely noted my disagreement or the left the room. I would, however, die much more peacefully knowing that these assholes will not attend any mourning sessions conducted on my behalf.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

What If Games

Understandably, our family is engaging in playing through multiple alternative endings to my father's recent death. The starting point is a pretty miserable last year that ended badly; the question is what choices could have been done to prevent the final outcome or at least improve my father's well being. Would my father be alive and kicking now if we were to choose on Medical Operation B instead of Medical Operation A? Everyone knows there are no winners in this game and that it all amounts to nothing more than wild speculations, but that eternal need for closure trumps over most logic.
The process of family and friends gathering together for post funeral grieving turned out to supply us with interesting insight. Given the theme of the event, people tend to be more open than they normally are towards sharing their personal experience. What we learned from this sharing is that there are a lot of people suffering through severe health issues out there.
Most interesting, though, was the personal story of a friend who told us of his adventures with his aging father. As fate would have it, both fathers suffered through incredibly similar circumstances. Both had the same background condition, both suffered the same injury that triggered the whole cataclysmic chain of events, and both even ended up at in the same old age care institutions at the same time. The only differences? That friend's family chose Medical Operation B instead of Medical Operation A.
Pouncing on this information, we were extremely interested to know what the outcome of B instead of A is. Alas, the results are not as clear cut as we were hoping they would be, not to mention not that nice to hear of in general: the father is alive, yes, but his quality of living is far below what I would consider a life worth living.

Naturally, this grief acquired insight got me thinking. Now I think I can summarise my conclusions at the bullet point level:
  • Nature is a harsh mistress. Calamity is just around the corner for each and every one of us. Modern civilisation protects us from nature's cruelty most of the time, but eventually the inevitable will catch up on us.
  • This old age thing is serious business. Things we would totally disregard in our younger years can have huge implications once one passes the mid sixties.
  • As much as we would like to think that we always have choices between good and bad, that is not the case. It is just a matter of time before all the choices before us are bad ones.
  • It is also just a matter of time before control is taken away from us. We could lose control only briefly and die of a heart attack, we could - like my father - have a year from hell, or we could lose "it" and live more like automatons for decades. Regardless, at one stage or another we will no longer be in control of our lives.
What do I make out of all of the above? That we should cherish and make the most of each and every day when we do have control and when things do work out our way, because this is the only break we will ever get. There are no save games and no additonal lives to count upon in case of a mistake; there is just this one, and we should make the most of it while we can. The time is now.

I will leave you with a few words from Richard Dawkins. Surprisingly [or not], he seemed to have arrived at the same conclusion I have:

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Beethoven and I

That dreaded phone call had finally arrived. It's not like I hadn't been expecting it, but it did not mean I was ready to be told my father had just died.
The funeral took place today. It was only the third ever funeral I've had the displeasure of attending, but for reasons that will probably never be clear I had the company of Beethoven, amongst other friends, by my side. Whereas my uncle's funeral, almost two decades ago, had his 6th symphony (or rather, the storm part) running through my head, the soundtrack this time came from the 7th second movement.

I am not in the mood for further deliberations at this point in time. I'm sure that will come, eventually,  probably in the not distant future.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Religious Tensions

Times are challenging, I mentioned that before. Uncertainty about my father's situation is causing general paralysis to our lives, while at work I don't know what I dread more - going to work in the morning or finding myself laid off, which happens to be the latest [surprisingly popular] fashion.
In the middle of all of that, I would like to take a step back and note how religion helps elevate family tensions. It all comes back to the collision between yours truly, a firm atheist, and the rest of my Israeli family, seculars who tend to lean back on tradition when times get tough.
The first point of contention is the funeral. The family insists I attend it; problem is, no one knows when it will take place, exactly. If we were to ask the doctors, it should have already taken place two or three times. Given circumstances prevent me from staying too long in Israel, this leaves me on permanent standby, suitcase packed, for the next flight to Israel. Why? Because Judaism treats a dead body as a contagion that society needs to get rid of (read: bury) as soon as possible, leaving me up to 48 hours to arrive at the funeral. Flying from Australia to Israel is never a trivial affair, and the prospect of doing so within an hour's notice (not to mention the extra cost) is not something I look forward to.
Especially when I don't care that much for attending the funeral in the first place. No, the prospect of a traditional Jewish funeral featuring prayers from an orthodox rabbi who never knew my father, with the potential of me being asked to take part in the praying, does not appeal to me. Not even when mixed with jet lag. I suppose the ceremony would feel to me the way eating pork would feel to a believing Jew: a violation of anything one believes in. You may urge me to bite the bullet and go through the motions, but there is more to it: by taking part in this ceremony I will be giving the nod to traditions that treat women like second hand goods, to name but one fault. That's not something I plan to have on my conscience. Have your ceremonies, just leave me out of it.
I am repeatedly told this ceremony would be my father's last honour; I refuse to accept that call. Clearly, the ceremony is intended for the living: the whole serenading of prayers along the lines of "god full of mercy" is there in order to alleviate doubt in The Faith at the time the worst that could happen happened. The victim itself is no longer there in the first place. Me, if I want to honour my father, I would prefer to do so by reading the original Winnie the Pooh to my son; one of my favourite childhood memories has my father reading me this book in funny animal voices. And yes, I already practiced such reading to my son in the past.
I can list many more ways to remember my father with, but that is not the point. Once the funeral is over there will be a period of seven days when friends and family visit my father' house to express their consolation. Again, this will involve prayers; again, a male only affair; again, I do not plan on taking part. This attitude of mine almost got me punched by a friend of my father's attending the ceremonies after my uncle died; back then he missed. There's no doubt he'll be there again this time around, perhaps waiting to have a second go at a now not so agile a target. My family never told him off for his violence; it certainly told me off, though.
So there you have it: religion unveiling the lesser side of humanity. If only people could look death in the eye for the natural phenomenon it is, instead of deluding themselves in the wishful thinking circus of the heavenly ever after, we would be able to get on with our lives and make the most of them while we still can.

Image by Randall Niles, Creative Commons licence

Sunday, 9 March 2014

State of the Nation

I haven't said much about politics on these pages lately, which should have been rather surprising. Since Tony Abbott and his Liberals (with a capital L, who happen to be the exact opposite of liberals) took charge they seem to actively ruin every good thing they can put their hands on. How come I'm silent? I think I was silent because there is so much crap going on, I'm overwhelmed.
Luckily, I do not need to speak for myself. WA Greens senator Scott Ludlam has done that for me, and done it exceptionally well. So, without further ado, here is what I think of the current state of Australian politics:

To put things in context, Ludlam's speech was made ahead of his upcoming campaign for reelection. Which presents me with a fine opportunity to say why I haven't gone out of my way to support the Pirate Party's ongoing WA senate campaign: I think Ludlam is doing an excellent job, being by far Australia's most important elected official. I think if Ludlam fails to get himself reelected, the results would be tragic to the whole of Australia. Last year's elections have made it very clear his position is on the line. Therefore, I think it makes more sense for the Pirate Party to stand behind this candidate, no matter how green he may be (which, in my opinion, is not bad to begin with), rather than compete with him.

Back to the original topic at hand, another Green - you may have heard of him, his name is Bob Brown - published an article to counter Tony Abbott's famously dumb "loggers are the ultimate conservationists" speech. Have a read of Brown's words on The Guardian here.

Friday, 7 March 2014

We were never being boring

A brief post to explain the relative rarity of posts in this blog lately.
Recent times have been challenging for all sorts of reasons, but these challenges definitely culminate in my father being in critical condition and treated at in intensive care facility for more than a month now. We do not know how long it would take, but one thing is clear: he is not going to get out of this one.
While these events offer inspiring opportunities to discuss father to son relationships or philosophise on euthanasia related matters, I find the stress too overwhelming to offer my wit on these pages. Concentration is hard to come by these days. Interestingly, I find the stress to be good at consuming spare time, too.
For now, expect fewer postings here. Stress seems to be more effectively relieved through movie reviews and photo processing.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

How Open is Open?

If just the other week I stood here preaching the virtues of open source and how failures such as Apple’s now infamous “goto fail” could never happen there, this week I am standing here to eat the hat I was wearing. As reported in ArsTechnica (see here), an even bigger crypto failure has been found in Linux, a failure that pretty much allows anyone who knows how to see through encrypted stuff. And by anyone we are probably talking the likes of NSA, GCHQ, their Australian signalling-whatever-you-call-them counterparts & Co. Probably not criminals, though, otherwise I suspect the fault would have been traced earlier.
It’s the magnitude of the failure that’s impressive. It seems to have been there for the past ten years, but unlike Apple’s failure it was open to public scrutiny throughout. That public scrutiny, however, did not prevent another piece of awfully written, and even worse-ly tested, code from sticking around.
Smells fishy? It does to me. For such a vulnerability to persist for so long, one of two things needs to take place. Either the repository of experts able to examine the code is surprisingly small, or that panel of experts is under the control of the powers that be. Neither option is particularly encouraging.
I can go on offering conspiracy theories and speculating how probable they are or aren’t, but one point seems clear. Linux is currently running the majority of this world’s servers. With such a huge vulnerability existing for such a long while, we can take it for granted that the US government knows most of what has been taking place on these servers. In other words, almost every piece of information about us is open for some elusive government organisation to read.
George Orwell is smiling in his grave.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

The Expensive State

It's been a while since we came back from our criss cross across Tasmania holiday, but it looks like it will take a while longer before I finish off processing all the photos and videos we brought back from our trip. We did get more than 1500 of those, after all. Still, that does not mean I cannot say a few things about Tasmania already.
The most obvious thing, at least to my eyes, was its price. As in, Tasmania proved to be an expensive state. It is obvious in most things, such as fuel at the gas station costing more than at Melbourne or food at the supermarket being dearer than we're used to. Most of all, though, it showed in the great sums we had to depart with upon booking accommodation for our stay.
It was rather scary. We were planning along the lines of staying at cheap motels for the like of $100 a night; what we did not count on was those hotels, as well as most other accommodations, converging into an almost fully booked state more than two months ahead of the school holidays. It was literally taking place before our very eyes: we were trying to book a place to stay at the centre of Hobart; while we were looking around those places ran out of capacity; we moved over to look at a suburban motel; that got fully booked over the next two days. Which left us with two options: either book outside of Hobart altogether (and still open the wallet wide), or open the wallet incredibly wide for a place at Hobart itself. We ended up doing a bit of both.
You may argue that we were witnessing market economy at work. As in, demand went up, supply was restricted, hence prices went up. I get that, but there is a limit as to how much I am willing to get that; when we end up paying $200 a night for a shit motel room, I get annoyed.
The bottom line is that our Tasmanian holiday was severely hampered by this phenomenon across two fronts. First, the cost of our holiday almost doubled expectations. Second, we found ourselves moving from one accommodation to another almost on a daily basis, which is rather tiring: think of all the packing up we had to do, and think of our child being rather annoyed and driven extra tired. No wonder he describes our Tasmanian holiday as "the worst holiday ever". We disagree, but regardless - it would take a while longer before we will be heading back to Tasmania.

Tasmanian accommodations are not all bad, though. One thing we could not avoid noting is almost every place we stayed at offered free wifi, and most of those offerings proved quite useable.
International readers may be dumbfounded at why I am fussing over wifi access, but the reality is that by Australian standards such gifts are very rare. It is not the standard for Australian accommodations to offer wifi access, at least not without totally unreasonable fees.
From our point of view, we found our wifi hotspot rather bored during our Tasmanian adventures. Which was good.

My last specific Tasmanian note concerns beaches. My brother told me many years ago that in his opinion, some of Australia's best beaches happen to take place in Tasmania. That's not the most common sense of observations, given that Tasmania is the southern most part of Australia and thus the coldest; but I have to agree with my brother on this one, even while qualifying myself to note we were privileged to visit Tasmania at peak summer.
There are several reasons for this unexpected Tasmanian advantage. There aren't that many people around to ruin the beaches, for a start: it is amazing how few people populate the most spectacular of Tasmanian beaches, but it is not that amazing once you realise how relatively few people populate Tasmania as a whole. Then there is the fact many of those beaches face the north, giving them maximum sun exposure. Sure, the water is colder than cool, even at peak summer, but my new wetsuit (from Aldi!) proved an effective wonder of technology.

How would I sum Tasmania up? Given that we did run around most of the accessible parts of the island, I consider myself qualified to venture an opinion. We could not shake the feeling we were visiting England: between the naming of places, the styling, the greenery and the irrational affection to the old and the traditional at the price of basic functionality it is safe to say Tasmania should have been called Old England (as opposed to New England).
Yey my opinion of the state is overly positive: Tasmania is quite a spectacular place to visit. Sure, the coffee isn't half as good as Melbourne's and everything's expensive, but the ratio of spectacularness to populatedness is in the New Zealand scale.