Thursday, 29 May 2014

Reading in the Age of the iPad

You might have noticed my book reading throughput has plunged in the past six months. Not that I was ever reading as many books as I'd like to, but now I'm reading even less. What has happened during these months? I got myself an iPad that's always with me, that's what.
Whereas the previous three years were spent with a Kindle device that would do books very well and not much else, now the books are facing stiff competition. The key thing about the iPad is that it doesn't do just one thing, it does many; and by doing many things on a single platform, it invites further focusing. As in, whereas before I would read paper magazines and conduct my work using paper written notes, now I'm paper averse. I don't want to carry anything other than my iPad. Lucky for me, and unlucky for the books, the iPad happily complies.
This leaves me in a world where my RSS reader, Twitter, news, magazines, comics, games and the whole goddamn web are always at my fingertips. At first there was a shock, but with time some order seems to have firmly established itself: the RSS gains top priority; Twitter is good when I only have little time but want to quickly know what's the latest going ons in the world; magazines seem to be my preferred weekend reading material; news are skimmed through regularly in the morning (seriously, Twitter is so much better for news); and games, well, who's got time for them?
Between all of the above, there is very little time left for books. It's books that suffer the most because they are virtually the only reading material that is immune to ageing. All the rest expire: a magazine will be replaced by the next issue and news comes in and goes on an hourly basis. But the books, they just stay there.
So where do books fit in to my schedule? There's my train rides to work, where elusive 3G means Internet applications are a waste of time, and there is the occasional lunch with the iPad. But that's it. The result? I read during almost every bit of spare time that I get, it's just that it's usually not books that I am reading.

Image by alex lang, Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0) licence

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Thank You, Abba

On the morning of my father's funeral, my mother approached me to ask whether I would like to say some words at the ceremony. I was caught off guard: previous Jewish funerals I have been to did not include speeches, so I never even considered the option to exist. Now there was hardly enough time for me to cook something worth serving. Besides, the stuff I could come up with proved way too personal and thus unsuitable, given the crowd of mostly unfamiliar people.
I thought my blog was a much better place for what I had to say.

I have a son whom I dearly love, probably more than anything else in the world. Yet with all of the effort I have been making towards becoming a good father, I still keep hearing him telling me he doesn't love me, he doesn't enjoy doing things with me, he never enjoys spending time with me, and other gems of appreciation. I hear it on an almost daily basis.
It is easy for me to love my son, but it is hard to persevere when I have to listen to those words as they come despite all of the efforts and all of the sacrifices I have been making. I have to remind myself that I was no better than my son. I, too, failed to appreciate what my father had done for me till decades later. Only when I became a father myself did I realise the full extent of his efforts. Only now can I see how his actions have helped to shape me into the person I am today.

Nowadays I am familiar to many as the gadget person, the computer man, the guy that knows everything about every gadget that's out there. One of my first ever big time gadgets was my Atari 2600, the games console that started it out for video gaming at home. I had one; you see, my father bought me one. But he bought me more than that: at an age where game cartridges were prohibitively expensive and hard to get, I had the distinct pleasure of owning the largest number of Atari games in my group of friends. [The exception were friends who owned pirate cartridges; and yes, the irony does not escape me.]
Clearly, my father recognised his son's love for computers. A couple of years later, when the Atari's light faded and the very first personal computers came out, it became clear that one such computer has to be acquired for the benefit of this child. But which?
Those were the pre Internet days; my father and I had to do our research the hard way, by collecting information from books and magazines and by visiting shops. We've been to the lot during those months: we investigated the Apple II, the Commodores (both the VIC 20 and the 64), the Radio Shack TRS-80, the Texas Instrument (I forgot the model's name), the Atari 400 and 800, the Sinclair (ZX-81 and Spectrum), the BBC, the Lynx, the Amstrad, and probably a few more. We were often just on the verge of buying one but then didn't. In retrospect, our time together, running these investigations and haggling over prices, was probably the best quality time I have ever had with my father.
Eventually we chose a model my father could afford, the Dragon 32. Other than price, the main reason for this particular and seemingly eccentric choice was the advanced version of the then new Microsoft Basic that came built in. It made the Dragon the ideal partner to learn programming with. And program it I did, quite a lot, if only because the Dragon lacked the games that the then dominant Commodore 64 had so many of. I did lots of Basic programming, and I even taught myself to program in Assembler for the Motorola 6809 CPU that the Dragon used to have.
My father had a dominant role in turning me into the computer Inspector Gadget I am today.

Computers were not my only love. As a child, I loved reading; I was probably the only member of my family that did. Science fiction was my first love at the time, but as every native Hebrew speaker in love with the genre would know, there is that much science fiction to be read in Hebrew.
Thus, at around the age of 12, I asked my father for a special gift. I asked him to get me my very first proper book in English. I could not think of any particular title, so I asked him to get me the book of the film that revolutionised this child's life: The Empire Strikes Back.
My father was working and residing in Manhattan's midtown at the time. I remember his account: he went looking for the book here and there but could not find it. Book sellers kept telling him to try this speciality book shop at the World Trade Center (aka the Twin Towers). One day, after work, he made his way there on foot, after which he called - an international call, a rare and expensive achievement those days - to inform me of the acquisition.
The Empire Strikes Back turned out to be a lesser book than I expected. However, it also turned out to be my first proper English book read. I remembered how I struggled reading through a book where I failed to understand a word per sentence on a good run and much more on most runs. But I persevered. Nowadays, virtually all of my reading is in English. I read a lot, too. I live at an English speaking country, I speak English in my household, and I make my living reading and writing in English. But it was my father who helped me with that initial push that made all the rest possible.

Support for my reading did not end there. During my earlier years my father and I established this ritual: every year we would go on our pilgrimage to Tel Aviv's yearly Book Week sales festival. The agenda was well known to the both of us: I would ask my father to buy me every second book that I would see; my father's job was to agree to buy me only those for which my pleas were convincing enough.
We did well, the two of us. On an average Book Week expedition I would end up with around 10 books. Not bad for a one average income family; there could be no doubt I was spoiled.
However, the real fun came later, when the support for my reading habits got a boost. There came the stage when my father would no longer settle for me dragging him about and telling him which books I want; he would make his own recommendations, based on what he read. And it's not like we shared common tastes in reading, but for me he would venture into the realm of science fiction. I got to read some nice books due to my father's recommendations, some - like Roger Zelazny and Fred Saberhagen's Coils - proved to have a lasting effect.

It wasn't all rosy. That average single income I was telling you about meant that often my father was unable to satisfy my whims.
Take driving, for example. Even though I wasn't excited about the prospect of learning to drive myself, my father arranged for me to have lessons and paid for them all. And you know what? I loved it. I probably loved it way too much for my own good (reminder: public roads are not racing circuits).
Problem is, while I was probably the first amongst my group of friends to get their drivers licence, I was also the only one I knew who did not have a car waiting for them to drive.
I remember my frustrations. I remember being annoyed at my parents. I remember trying to satisfy myself by buying a small RC car (probably the closest I will ever get to a Porsche 911). But I also remember not really being able to complain much when my father was driving his old Volkswagen Beetle, and very frugally so. He managed to get exactly 30 years out of that car.
I could never accuse my father of withholding me for his own selfish sake.

How could I complain, really? When the time came for me to study in university, there were no questions about it: my parents supported me all the way. Specifically, my father paid all my university fees (note that although they seemed high at the time, they were significantly lower than the fees charged in Australia, either before of after the Liberals' proposed budget of evil). This allowed me to both focus on my studies, which I found generally quite hard, as well as to spend the money I did earn on the simpler pleasures of life. At the time, and in contrast to the majority expectation of spending money on booze and girls, these came in the shape of hi fi gear, CDs and laserdiscs.
Was I selfish? Sure. But those expenses allowed me to survive through several years devoted almost in their entirety to studying hard.

My father's support did not end there. It continued long after I started working properly for myself, earning much more than he ever did and enjoying perks like company cars.
He fully supported my decision to move to Australia. When other family members were urging me to come back to Israel, he would repeatedly tell me to ignore them and remind me that I have made a wise move ("עשית בשכל"). And it wasn't just morale support that my father was providing: he was the one that took care of all the loose ends I left behind in Israel. Over the first few years following my departure, he collected all the money I had here and there - pension funds, the works. That money later became the money that allowed us to pay for the deposit on the house that we are now living in.

I do not know if my son will ever look back to appreciate all the hard work I have been doing for him. Frankly, I do not think it matters; I do not do what I do in order to gain appreciation, I do it because I love him and because I want him to be a good person. I do, however, try to learn from the mistakes of the past: even though there is much room for improvement, I do spend much more time with my son than my father did with me.
There is always this catch, though: given that my son and I tend to do things that I like doing, simply because I am the one in the position to dictate what we are doing in the first place, I am worried about pushing my son too far towards where I feel safe rather than where he does. In this regard, my own father provides much inspiration.
As anyone who ever stood in a queue together with him would know, my father was no saint. But when it came to supporting me into becoming the person I want to be, the person I am today, there was no one who stood by my side as long and as loyally as my father. And for that, I want to say thanks.

Image by Jake Brewer, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Local Warming

I have distinct memories from my arrival to Australia. It was the month of May, and it was freezing cold. The sign might have said I landed in Melbourne, but as far as I was concerned I just landed at Antarctica.
The trauma remains. I dread Melbourne's winters and their bleakness. I hate the months when I get to work in the morning and it's still dark and when I leave work in the evening and it's already dark. I hate not being able to see the sun shine through the clouds for weeks on. And I hate the month of May, for being the harbinger of this months long calamity.

But this May? This May was (and still is) a joke. There was hardly a day I needed a coat. These past three weeks there wasn't a day I didn't find myself wearing nothing but a t-shirt. This May has been warmer than most Aprils!
If I, a guy who hasn't been to Australia for that long, can note the changing weather patterns already, then what does it tell us about this calamity we call global warming?

Image by Milica (in English Militza i think), Creative Commons licence

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Inappropriate Nativity

We recently received a damning report about our son's performance at school. It got me quite annoyed, this report, but not because it said my son wasn't doing well at school; it annoyed me because the report included all sorts of feedback that school never bothered to provide us of its own initiative.
One of those damning inputs we have received talked about our son discussing "topics that are not age appropriate e.g. Religion theories - what is true etc [sic]". Thus, according to our school, asking existential questions to do with the core of our view of the world is inappropriate if one is a child. What a great educational institution our school turned out to be!

Obviously, my son gets these things at home. However, the reality is we do not discuss religion in detail at home much. My son is familiar with many of the scientific theories on how we got to where we are today - the big bang, evolution by natural selection - and probably more so than the bulk of most adults. But religion is rarely discussed.
One religious thing we did find ourselves discussing on several occasions is Jesus' Nativity story. Probably because he has been exposed to it since his early childhood, and probably because he gets re-exposed to it every year around the time of Christmas.
A repeating theme, whenever my son mentions this story, is him questioning the star that showed up in the sky and pinpointed Jesus' birthplace. How can a star achieve that? How can it show up all of a sudden? How come it didn't swallow the earth given stars' size and gravity? These are the types of questions he asks.
I tried to explain that if you believe in these things then you believe the all powerful God can create some sort of a star that qualifies for the purposes of the story. However, I also point out that the story is much more acceptable if we read it from the point of view of the sheep herding nomad tribes from which the story originally oriented. These folks had no idea what stars are; they did not even have the capacity to imagine what they are. To them, the stars were dots up there in the sky, and the sky was probably conceived as some sort of a ceiling that's hanging a few hundred meters above the [flat] ground. There was no way they could have a clue as to the real scale of distances involved here.
When one conceives of one's environment in such a way, the story of Jesus' star makes perfect sense. The problem is, today we know better; today we know what the true nature of stars really is. Yet most of us are taught to take the Nativity story at face value. Most of us, especially those taking CRE (Christian Religious Education) at school, are actually taught this story.
But when some of us stop to ask questions about this obviously badly made up story, then those people are labeled "inappropriate".

While on a roll here, I would like to note religion fails not only in its made up stuff. It also fails in the stuff that's absent from its scriptures.
It's nice of God to tell us about the stars that guide people and all. But if God is so almighty, why couldn't he tell us about electricity? Or radioactivity? Or basic astronomy? It is perhaps telling that on the few occasions the Bible does try its hand in science, it gets it wrong. As is the case with declaring a value of 3 for Pi.
But yeah, kids should not ask questions about that. That would be inappropriate.

Image by Cliff Muller, Creative Commons licence

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Dialog with Australia Post

Readers of this blog will know of my ongoing love affair with Australia Post. After all, it has been well documented (starting here, then here, and also here). As the administrator of this blog, I can report these Australia Post related posts happen to be quite popular, hits wise. I therefore want to use this forum to report the dialog I recently had with Australia Post and let you draw your own conclusions.

The story, this time around, started on a day I was sick and stayed home. In the afternoon I went out to check my mailbox, only to find one of those cards informing me the postman was here with a package that could not be delivered (because I wasn't home, of course). I now had to pick the package up from an Australia Post outlet.
Let us ignore the fact I was actually home and could have taken the package were the postman to actually knock on my door. Instead, let us focus on the other problem, the recurring problem I have reported here before: this Australia Post outlet, the one I was supposed to pick the package from? It was not the outlet that's 200 meters away from my house; nor was it the outlet that's 2 kilometres away. It was rather the one that is 3 kilometres away!
It gets worse. According to the card, I had only 5 days to pick the package before it was returned to its sender. Even worse, that 3km outlet is only open Monday to Friday, 9 to 5. In other words, if I want to pick my package up, I need to do so rather quickly, and in the process I would have to miss out on work.
When I attended said 3km outlet I did what I usually do at an Australia Post outlet: I complained. Only that this time around the answer was rather interesting: the people at the outlet were just as puzzled as I was at the sight of me attending their humble abode. They gave me my package, claiming it was a postman's error.
With no one to turn to, I set my frustrations free through Twitter. I have done it before; however, this time around I actually received replies from Australia Post. Following is our Twitter exchange, embedded from Twitter (which means that parts can disappear if either I or Australia Post delete our tweets):

  • Your truly:
  • Australia Post:

  • Your truly:

  • Australia Post:

  • Your truly:

  • Australia Post:

I will let you judge Australia Post's replies for yourself. Personally, I took note of the following:
  1. I'd like to note I did not take note of Australia Post's spelling errors. These are common in Twitter exchanges, especially when typed on a phone.
  2. Up until now, the only form of reply I received from Australia Post was through their call centres. These, however, were more into getting rid of me rather than replying to me; it is therefore nice to see someone from Australia Post actually trying to address my complaint through arguments. Definitely an improvement.
  3. When all is said and done, it seems clear to me that my problems - and the problems of many others whose feedback I gathered - are the direct result of Australia Post's attempts to cut costs. More specifically, they are to do with outsourcing their services, in this particular case couriering. It is obvious the couriers are not measured on good service, but rather on throughput.
What do the above conclusions imply? In my opinion, they are indications of privatisation gone wrong. Just as Melbourne's public transport system offers poor levels of service, despite usually standing up to government KPIs, so do Australia Post's outsourced services suck. And I wouldn't be surprised at all if I was to learn that the Nathan answering my tweets is a member of some sort of an outsourced PR team.
The remedy is obvious. Australia Post's core services, such as postal delivery, should be handled in house. Like all core infrastructure services, such as roads and communications, there is little to be gained from privatisation. There is, however, much to lose.

Image by Arturo de Albornoz, Creative Commons licence

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Future Titles

I recently caught myself coming up with new titles for this blog, titles that would better reflect my current state of mind. The top contenders are:

  1. Lost in a Changing World (a quote from a Genesis song)
  2. I Used to Think (think about it!)
  3. Traces of Nuts
  4. Not Banging Calculus (a literal translation of a Hebrew expression that translates, roughly, to "don't give a fuck"; I think it fits this blogger's general mood, at least when blogging)
What do you think? Personally, I'm in no rush to make any changes. The novelty might have worn off, but I quite like The Descent of a Man; it says a lot about me.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Great Expectations

Son: "If we had a 3D printer, I could print a marble run."
Yours truly: "Within your life time, you would be able to print a house. Or a car."
Son: "Or a marble run!"

Kogan recently started selling 3D printers to the Aussie consumer at $700.

Image by Keith Kissel, Creative Commons licence

Monday, 12 May 2014

Budget 2014-2015

The Liberal’s three step plan for implementing its policies on an Australian public that would generally reject them is nothing short of brilliant:

Step 1: Scare the public into panic stations
They did that already before the elections with the refugee scapegoat, and now they’ve done the same with the budget. Nothing has changed, really, but through a simple change of assumptions that they’ve made at their own whim (see here) the Liberals were able to get away with declaring a budget emergency.

Step 2: Offer seemingly objective solutions
By creating a seemingly objective review of Australia’s financials, the Liberals managed to make the public consider their ideological approach as if it was a mainstream expert’s one. It took two things: establishing a committee with a very formal, expert sounding yet meaningless title, the “Commission of Audit”; and populating that committee with people that render it nothing other than a neoliberal think-tank.

Step 3: Execution
That’s where the budget for 2014-2015 comes in. It’s obviously no good for the average Aussie, but it sure as hell conforms with Liberal party ideology (little or no government, take from the poor and give to the rich). Brilliant.

And in other news, we are at war with Eurasia!

Image by Stephen Rowly, Creative Commons licence

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Keeping in Touch

I know I can be a rather peculiar person, but in case you require further proof you came to the right place: it is hear that I will state I find phone calls a rather intrusive pain. Sure, I can see the frequent need for them, and sure, I enjoy having a nice chat with a nice friend. But in the more general sense of the word, being required to stop everything I am doing for the benefit of someone else, dedicating my complete attention to someone far away just because they happened to feel like grabbing it at that very moment, is generally not an experience I look forward to. Not in my current and permanent state of having no time for anything.
I mention my attitude to phone calls because the subject of keeping in touch with friends, particularly via Facebook, was raised recently on this blog. Specifically, I asked for a Facebook like social tool I can use to keep in touch with friends without having my privacy sold to the highest bidder. The question I want to discuss today is what shape should that tool have, based on my assumption that Facebook's current shape isn't that great.

Why am I saying that the functionality offered by Facebook isn't that great? There are numerous reasons, but they all narrow down to the way people tend to present themselves on Facebook. There is very little negativity on Facebook; everything is perfect on Facebook; there is tons of nihilism on Facebook; and overall, there is this tendency to market a perfect version of yourself.
The reasons for this behaviour are obvious: we all censor ourselves to one extent or another when we address people, and when one addresses a large and varied group such as the bunch of Facebook friends one has accumulated over the years then one has to be on the safe side. Therefore, one has to go with the flow and share stuff that, generally speaking, I couldn't care much for.
I solved my personal censorship problem through this blog. Here, in this forum, I am way past the point of thinking twice before offending people or worrying whether something I post online will hurt my chances of future employment. I pretty much narrowed things down to avoiding private matters; everything else is open game.
Some of the problems with Facebook can be solved by being able to control exactly who is on the receiving side of one's posts. That, however, stands in contrast to Facebook's money making model, so we should not expect to see such abilities receiving much attention any time soon. However, such functionality exists in other services.

Which brings me to my preferred way of keeping in touch.
Basically, I think there is no one best tool for keeping in touch with one's friends. It's rather a collection of tools, from phone calls through emails to some sort of a messaging service. But the one type of service I consider the most fitting for most purposes is the type of tool that allows sending texts and photos to selected contacts. Such a service combines several advantages: the messages stay between you and their specific audience; receiving such a message does not require one's immediate attention; however, the messages are "pushed" upon their recipient, who - unlike emails - receives a brief un-ignorable notification.
We all know services that perform exactly what I'm talking about here. Most notably, we all heard of Whatsapp. Alas, Whatsapp was recently gobbled by Facebook, and although they promised since not to make significant changes to their privacy policies their existing policies contains enough loopholes for me to not trust them. Besides, the recent case of Moves, an app that was purchased by Facebook, promised not to change its privacy policies but then did it anyway.
For now, my preferred service is definitely not Whatsapp (I deleted my account shortly after the Facebook acquisition), but rather Telegram. Sure, Telegram is not free from security concerns, but they certainly have a good start. I'll put it this way, they seem better than anything else I can use on my iPhone with any hope of having friends using, too.
Well, it's either that or I buy myself a Raspberry Pi to run my own Diaspora.

Image rights: Telegram

Thursday, 8 May 2014

The Best Moments of Our Lives

The Champions League supplied us with some interesting surprises the other week. Guardiola's Bayern lost at home to Real, while Atletico continued its unbeaten run. It was nice, but for the first time in years I felt at a loss: I had no one to discuss these surprises with. You see, the routine for such football games was for me to analyse them over a phone call with my father. Only this time around I no longer have a father to share my analysis with. Who am I going to report the referee's a wanker to now?

It shouldn't have come as a surprise, but it did: the loss of my father manifests itself in mysterious ways. It's those little things that are no longer there that hurt the most, now that the initial shock over the death had somewhat faded. These little things probably hurt more than expected because of their surprise factor.
The seemingly meaningless loss of a football analysis partner made me try and recall the last time I spent quality time with my father. As in, the last time we did something nice together outside the confines of a hospital. As it turns out, that last time was us eating out at a fish restaurant located at an Israeli shopping mall.
At the time I did not make much of the occasion. Sure, there were numerous family members with us and the food was great. But I am not this world's biggest fan of shopping malls, it was a hot summer Israeli day, and my father's car broke down on the way back. In other words, at the time that particular experience did not feel like the momentous historical occasion it turned out to be; it was just another chapter in the lengthy book of my strained relationship with my parents.

Plenty of more words can be written about the wisdom of hindsight. What I take from this experience, and that's a taking that is there to be taken regardless of hindsight, is the importance of the present. Who knows when we will ever get to do this thing we are currently doing once again? Perhaps never.
The lesson, therefore, is to cease the day. But what does that slogan mean in the first place? How does one cease a day?
I'll tell you how not to cease a day. There's this saying along the lines of "live today as if it is your last day". But can we really live like that on a regular basis? I don't know about you, but if I knew today is my last day I'd probably prefer not to go to work; I'd spend more money than I would any other day; and I might even try a cigarette. The point is, I would do all sorts of things I should not really be doing if I was to live a while longer because they would hurt me.
My interpretation of ceasing the day is different. That office corridor chit chat, that cup of coffee with a friend? Those seemingly meaningless moments, the fillers? They all need to be savoured. We need to make the most out of them, because these brief moments are the moments that make up a life. These are the moments that make up friendships. Accumulated, these are the moments that make us who we are.

Image by Chris Lofqvist, Creative Commons licence

Sunday, 4 May 2014

The Privacy Badger

It doesn't take much to make me shudder. Lately all it takes is the sight of people using unprotected browsers, particularly those on their smartphones, to access the web. Many of them don't care, but the vast majority is totally oblivious to just how it takes part in massive tracking operations by massive companies each and every time it accesses the Internet.
I have discussed this problem on these pages before. Thus far there were two core protections one could deploy to defend one's privacy from all this tracking: various internal browser setups, as described here; and tools such as those provided by Ghostery and Disconnect, as described here. I will add that since the last time I mentioned Ghostery, their free Ghostery application for iOS started offering Ghostery grade tracking blockages on everything one does over their iGadget (as opposed to receiving protection only when using Ghostery's own browser app). The caveat, though, is that this all inclusive protection is available on wifi connections only and only on newer iGadgets (my old iPhone 3GS, for example, does not enjoy this type of protection). Mobile Internet usage over 3G/4G still suffers.

This post is here to report a third player joining the field occupied by Ghostery and Disconnect. And this player is Electronic Frontier Foundation, or EFF (adequate disclosure: yours truly is a proud EFF member). The advantages of EFF joining the scene are clear: EFF's record in standing for the rights of users speaks for itself; and unlike some other players, EFF is not in it for the money.
The product EFF brings into the scene is called Privacy Badger. Essentially, it's another tool for blocking naughty trackers; the catch is in the way it works. Unlike Ghostery or Disconnect, which check your Internet connections against a regularly updated blacklist of offensive trackers, Privacy Badger is a learning tool. If I understand its operation correctly, it allows all new connections in; however, once it notes a connection being active in more than one website, it identifies it as a tracker and blocks it. Given the way it works, there is some potential for Privacy Badger's functionality to be greatly expanded.
At this stage, and we are talking about a recently released alpha version here, Privacy Badger is available only as an add on for Chrome and Firefox. Sadly, there is no support yet for mobile platforms, and according to what EFF is saying we should not expect to see support for non open source browsers (your Internet Explorers and Safaris). I suspect iOS will see nothing out of Privacy Badger, which is probably my biggest gripe.
What do I make of Privacy Badger? It is too early for me to offer an opinion that matters. Privacy Badger has the potential to be the best privacy tool out there, especially given its potential for non intrusive blocking. However, at this stage I think it is too early to put one's entire trust in this tool. One area where Privacy Badger contradicts my normal way of work with the Internet is when it comes to keeping cookies: while I set my browsers to delete all cookies when closing, Privacy Badger relies on cookies being gathered to do its work. I can change my habits to enable Privacy Badger to do a better job, but in my opinion I am better off sticking to my more paranoid ways than putting my trust in this new tool.
I therefore still consider Ghostery to be my preferred and overall best counter-tracker tool (most obviously in iOS!). That said, I did install Privacy Badger on my browsers and I am keeping an eye on it.

Image: EFF, Creative Commons licence

Friday, 2 May 2014

The Casio Man

Once upon a time when I was a boy of single digit age, my parents went on an overseas visit. Back then, at least as per my family’s background, that sort of thing was regarded as a once in a lifetime event. I soon received a postcard (remember those?) reporting a gift they got me: a digital watch. For the time, a digital watch was probably the peak of personal gadgetry one could aspire for. And I got to have one!
Mine was not just any digital watch. According to that same postcard, “my” digital watch had a beeping alarm, it beeped at the mark of every hour, and at 12 o’clock it beeped 12 times!
I remember feeling puzzled about this whole 12 beeps at 12 thing. Why would I want my watch to do that? In particular, why would I want it to wake me up at midnight? I could see the need for an hourly reminder: in the Israel where everything happens, there still is the sacred custom of standing still by the radio to hear the latest hourly news flash. But 12 times at 12?
Lucky for me, it turned out my parents did not understand what the guy at the shop told them. Sure, my new watch beeped quite a lot, but I was soon able to subdue it to my will. That particular watch, one of the first ever Casio digital watches, stayed with me throughout the bulk of my school years. In fact, it started my long term mutual career with Casio watches.
Remember those bulky Data Bank Casio watches, the type that’s now making a comeback as geeky retro? Well, I had me not one but two of those. The first, able to memorise some 50 names and phone numbers, served me through the bulk of high school. Who needs to sneak in notes to copy from during tests when one could fiddle with one’s watch? The second, a water resistant model, served me through my army years. And the university days that followed…
I had myself a Casio hiatus when, post uni graduation, I suffered from severe ego inflation. Casio was not good enough for me anymore; I wanted an expensive Swiss watch to go with that “I am the king of the world” state of mind. It took way too long for that Titanic to sink: For a while there I actually toyed with the idea of getting myself a Rolex, even though I thought – and I still do – that they look like sh*t. Who cares what they look like, it’s a status symbol.
I am happy to report I grew up, eventually. Tired of the Swiss made bulk and the lack of functionality (a watch that can only tell the time is not the right watch for this Inspector Gadget!), I went looking for... watches. Without thinking much, I was caught out by the colourful line-up of Casio again. Roll forward a few years to the past month, and I got myself another colourful Casio – sort of a psychological compensation for all the recent family grief. But a nice good watch, with a compass (that I already have on my phone), time zone support (that’s already on my phone), alarms (the phone’s much better there), stopwatches (did I mention my phone?) and a thermometer (that my phone doesn’t have, but which constantly tells me it’s about 30 degrees when I wear the watch – it’s good to know I’m still alive and warm!).
Thus my story with watches went through a whole circle in order to convince me I am, and always was, a Casio person.

It’s interesting to note I bought my new Casio watch during a year in which Apple is expected to debut its own iWatch, or whatever they’re going to call it. Was the latest Casio a sensible move, given my history with iGadgets and my complete and total imprisonment in the Apple camp?
On one hand, I do not see the fuss over smartwatches. What could they offer that my phone isn’t already offering? On the other, I suspect a Jony Ive led Apple would not be stupid enough to release a smartwatch for no good reason. Specifically, it looks like Apple is going to aim at the fitness market.
Will I want a watch that tells me how lazy I am? Probably. Eventually.

Image by brandon shigeta, Creative Commons licence

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Musical Interlude

In order to distract myself from thinking of my father or pondering the pending reestablishment of my career in unemployment, I thought I'd dedicate a post to the music that has been moving me lately. Given that I am an album type person, here are my favourite albums from recent times:
  1. Arctic Monkeys - AM: Up until AM, I did not count myself as a fan of the Arctic Monkeys; if anything, I had a problem with their style. AM went to better travelled realms of rock, which suits me fine. The opening track, Do I Wanna Know?, features this basic guitar riff that reminds me a lot of Cream's Sunshine of Your Love. And that's a huge compliment.
  2. Arcade Fire - Reflektor: Produced by that guy from LCD Soundsystem, this one is fairly original. For a while I could not stop listening to the title song; since then I fell in love with a couple of other tracks.
  3. The War on Drugs - Lost in a Dream: If you've listened to Kurt Vile's latest album last year, you would probably count this project of his (and his partners) to be a direct sequel. There are no major hits in this one, just a wonderful atmospheric tapestry of music. A great album for people that love albums, it also happens to be playing as I'm typing.
  4. Valentin Stip - Sigh: This ambient album provides for excellent background listening. It certainly proved its worth aboard long flights. Interestingly, Spotify radios based on this album produce excellent background music.
  5. EMA - The Future's Void: This album from this singer I have never heard of before took me by total surprise when I heard its opening title (embedded above). Lucky for me, there is more like it in the album that follows. Probably my favourite album at the moment.
  6. Real Estate - Atlas: Probably the weakest of the albums listed here, but still fine, easy to digest, alternative music. Again, good for flights.
  7. Angel Olsen - Burn Your Fire for No Witness: A tormented singer with penetrating voice? Check. A great lineup of melancholy songs? Check. A good album that proves my sensitivity to the female voice yet again.
  8. Beck - Morning Phase: I am not one of Beck's biggest fans, if at all, but I do like how his albums vary. The guy does not shy from exploration, and with his latest album he stumbled upon a rich vein. Another album that proved excellent some 11km up in the air.
To those who do not mind jazz, here are a couple of albums that have been with me for more than a year now and show no sign of letting go:
  1. Melt Yourself Down - Melt Yourself Down: To be honest, I don't know how to classify this album; "crazy music" is the best I can come up with. Regardless, this album has been the best [musical] surprise that happened to me lately. My son loves it, too.
  2. Sons of Kemet - Burn: A bit more traditional than Melt Yourself Down, Burn still offers original jazz with a sound I've never heard before. I find I keep coming back to this album, which has to be a good sign.