Saturday, 31 January 2015

Off to the Races

Thus endeth another school holiday season
And beginneth another year at the races.

Monday, 26 January 2015

We Never Truly Talked

This time last year turned out to be the beginning of the final chapter in my father's life. Around this time that final deterioration in health took place, after which it was emergency rooms and then nothing. People tend to remember their beloved's calendar date of death, but I don't care about such things; as far as I am concerned, this time last year was when the person I recognised as my father was taken away.

Recently, a friend of mine recommended I listen to the new album by Geva Alon, an Israeli singer.
Other than the fact it is in Hebrew, which means most of you reading this post will dismiss it by default, I cannot say it is a direct hit on my personal taste buds. It does seem to grow on me the more I listen to it, but you can judge for yourself:

As you can see (if you're not geoblocked), track #4 is called Abba, or - father - in Hebrew.
If I found the rest of the album more of a miss than a hit, this song is a direct point blank hit. The song has the singer recalling memories of his father: listening to exaggerated war heroism stories, rowing side by side on a boat. The memories are separated by the chorus, which repeats a single line - "we never truly talked".
And that, in one song, is a fine summary of the memories I have of my father. There were his stories of heroism, blatantly exaggerated as they were, and there were the occasional things we did together - like rowing a boat. But we never did truly talk to one another. By the time I was mature enough to seek a proper conversation we either had too much physical distance between us or simply never managed to find the right opportunity; you don't just spontaneously delve into deeply revealing conversations, not even with your father.
And the tragedy is that now he is dead, and while I long for such a conversation I know that I missed my chances, all of them. There will never be another opportunity for a proper conversation; the only thing I am left with for comfort is that 10-15 minute phone call I had with him, accounting the daily ritual of sending my own son to school, just before he lost his consciousness for the very last time.

Friday, 23 January 2015

Biggest Online Danger

What is the biggest danger to your digital self?
In these post Snowden days, it seems obvious the answer is a mix of government and commercial threats. When I look at the matter from my own selfish point of view, though, the answer seems to be narrowed down further.

Yes, the most obvious and powerful threat is that of the NSA (and its Five Eyes partners, including the GCHQ and the Australian Signals Directorate). The NSA is a threat because it gobbles up everything we do online; there is little hiding from this all powerful monster. Even encryption is not the cure for all, now that we know the NSA has its ways for acquiring passwords and isn’t phased by VPNs.
However, as threats go, the NSA is rather impotant. What does it do with all of its data? Mmm… Let me think [scratching my head]. Oh, I got it: Nothing!
Yes, nothing. Did the NSA stop any acts of terrorism? No.
Did the NSA stop the Sony hacks? No.
I would therefore argue it is obvious the NSA’s sole purpose with gobbling up our data is to simply scare people from dissenting. As in, China has its great firewall but the West has the NSA; both are there to serve the exact same purpose.
And if you had any doubt that data collection and retention is all about submission and intimidation, spend a minute familiarising yourself with the fate of journalist Barrett Brown.

Next up on most people’s lists is Facebook.
Here’s an evil organisation for you, a company devoted to sucking as much privacy out of its users in order to sell them to the highest bidding advertiser! Or even to the lowest bidding one. Or anybody out there, for that matter; Facebook just wants money.
Sure, Facebook is a threat to privacy. However, if one is seriously concerned about Facebook, one only needs to not register (or delete their profile if they’re already in). Sure, there is public pressure to be connected, but is it serious? In most cases it’s purely up to the user to determine whether their privacy is worth the prize of Facebook.
Sure, Facebook can get you even without you registering. Your real life friends who do register, and that’s the majority of your friends, will upload your info to Facebook when they allow it to access their contacts list; they will probably upload some photos of you and politely let Facebook know who it is they took a photo of. That’s bad, but not exactly “the biggest threat ever”.

Which brings me to the regular number 3 on most people’s lists: Google.
It doesn’t take much to figure out Google combines the worst of the NSA and Facebook. Here is a service that gobbles up most of what you do online by virtue of you doing it while either logged in to Google, using Google’s search facilities, or using websites that talk back to Google through all sorts of various means (e.g., Google Analytics).
Unlike Facebook, however, the threat of Google cannot be avoided. This week alone I noted how a health care provider has been using Gmail to convey sensitive information. Also noted was a school holiday program company running Gmail internally with children's health and government related information passing back and forth. Sure, I can wage war and inform them that what they are doing violates my privacy as I have never signed for Google to share my data when I signed for a school holiday program; but in this real life, who has the time? They'll probably have no idea what I'm talking about in the first place. It is so much easier to give in.
Google is effectively unavoidable, and that is why I consider it the biggest danger to my digital self. By proxy, it is thus the biggest danger to my privacy, period.

I’m not going down without a fight, though. I haven’t been using Google’s search services for a while now, opting instead for DuckDuckGo, StartPage or Disconnect (the latter two allowing me to use Google’s superior search engine without the privacy sacrifice). Now I can also [happily] report the retirement of my Gmail email address.

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

Friday, 16 January 2015

Australia Post for the LOLs

Australia Post is an institution that keeps on giving. Not just letters and parcels, but also headaches.
In this post I am about to repeat several of its misdeeds. Nothing this blog hasn’t seen before; it’s just that their ongoing nature and their concentration over a brief period of time – this holiday season – makes them stand out.
Enjoy the ride.

Affairs start with Australia Post sticking its own junk mail brochures (like the one in the above photo) into my post box. Twice within a month. And that’s despite the fact my post box bears a very distinctive “No Junk Mail” sign.
Clearly, Australia Post deems itself above the law.

Next, we have the ongoing saga of Australia Post failing to honour the post withholding service they had sold me. At the hefty price of $25 for 6 days of mail withholding, if I might add; you sort of assume that with the price comes quality, especially when I'm paying them not to deliver my post, but that assumption does not apply with Australia Post.
Historically speaking, Australia Post had failed to withhold my mail three straight times before. After the third “we will be alright next time, we swear” promise I escalated the problem to the relevant governmental ombudsman. Contact with Australia Post was lost during the following proceedings (an affair that has also been raised to the same ombudsman), but before that had happened Australia Post managed to assure me the problem will not happen again.
Well, it did. Not only wasn’t my mail withheld, I also received urgent reminders to come and pick up parcels that should have been withheld before these parcels are returned to their senders.
Naturally, for Australia Post, the parcels awaiting me did not do so at the post office that’s a hundred meters away; they waited at the one that’s two and a half kilometres away. Clearly, Australia Post holds the convenience of its customers to its heart (an organ it had lost several years ago).
So I left work early and made my way to that post office at the earliest opportunity. Whether or not my post should have been held, I clearly did not want it to be returned to its sender. Alas, upon my arrival to the post office I was greeted by a locked up door and a tiny sign explaining that Australia Post has an extra day off / holiday today, thank you very much.
I’m all for days off. I really am. But I assume this extra holiday did not come out of the blue; the card telling me to attend the post office specified the branch’s opening times (by the day of the week!) but failed to mention any such extra holidays.
I can see Australia Post’s line of thinking there: Hey, make them travel 2.5 kilometers just so they can appreciate us having a day off and them not!

The matter of retrieving my post before Australia Post vanishes it was still a clear and present danger, so I made my way to the same post office the next day. I was greeted by Mark, who gave the Urgent Pickup Notices I handed him a second look, as if telling me off for my slackness.
“Are you aware”, I asked, “that the delivery of my post should have been withheld?”
Without blinking, Mark replied saying that post withholding applies only to letters and not to parcels. “I beg to differ”, but I left it at that. A minute later Mark returned with my post and an apologetic look, asking if I would like the complaint contacts. Don’t bother, I told him, I all over that.
With all due respect to Mark, why did he feel obliged to make that blatantly false statement that he had made? It’s not the first time I hear bullshit along Mark’s lines from an Australia Post employee asked to explain their failure to withhold post delivery. No one is blaming you personally, so just shut up; lying makes you and Australia Post look even worse.

One would think me picking my post up would be the end of the affair, but then again one is dealing with Australia Post.
Three days after I picked my package up I received another urgent notification in my post box urging me to come again (to the 2.5 kilometres away branch) for a package that will be returned to sender tomorrow.
So I went.
There I was asked whether I have paid the branch a recent visit. When I confirmed that was the case they informed me that I have already picked this urgent package up. So I asked – as one would – why it was, exactly, that they sent me a pickup notification three days after I already picked my stuff up?
Now, I assure you I am not making the following answer up. No one can make sh*t like that up:
The answer the woman at the Australia Post branch gave me? “The notification was held up in the mail”.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

PC Speakers

Having recently discussed some alternatives for getting better sound out of your flat TV panel, here’s a bit of a diversion into the matter of achieving quality sound out of one’s PC.
Inner Fidelity, generally one of my favourite references when it comes to headphones, recently reviewed three PC speakers with some audiophile aspirations/credentials. As far as I am concerned, they are all on the too expensive side of PC speakers; I also doubt their quality can compete with a USB DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) coupled to high quality headphones. However, the review does indicate at a couple of interesting trends:
  1. It does seem like 5.1 speaker options for the PC are on the decline while high quality stereo is turning into a market lucrative enough to get some big names in.
  2. All three models reviewed here have their built in USB DAC. This means they can, at least on paper, re-clock the digital signal so as to reduce jitter.
    Jitter is a term referring to hearing the right sound signal at the wrong time. Empirical evidence suggests the human ear is quite sensitive to such distortions, thus turning jitter into the bane of digital sound. I do wonder, though, whether PC speakers are capable of the fidelity it takes in order to be able to pick up on the effects of jitter. Regardless, it is an interesting development.
The existence of PC speakers utilising USB DACs made me wonder. I realised what I would really like to see in this area are headphones that can reduce jitter by re-clocking the digital signal from my smartphone (as opposed to a PC's USB output). That would pretty much mean we can all enjoy Class A audiophile sound wherever we are.
To the likes of Meridian and Sennheiser I will say this: You can do it!

Image by Jason Grey, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0) licence

Thursday, 8 January 2015

The Miracle of Jesus

My favourite coffee place, the one that makes all other coffee taste like hot sh*t soup, had recently outdone itself. The place brings in a variety of single origin coffee beans from all over the world and roasts/prepares them at the premises on a daily basis.
This time around they got beans from a new Brazilian source named “Bom de Jesus” (or something along these lines). They sold it to us addicts under the label of “Brazil”, but I immediately saw right through them and labelled it Jesus Coffee. To our delight/amazement, it turned out this Jesus does not turn the other chick; this Jesus will bring you back from the dead and make you feel like you’ve never been more alive. Turn water into wine? No, this Jesus turns water into an elixir. We informed the proprietor of the coffee place, whose signature evident on all his creations (through sampling alone he drinks 18 cups a day), that he had outdone himself.
The next step was to procure some of Jesus for home consumption. Usually, the coffee place packs its excess beans and offers them for sale, but Jesus was unique; Jesus was an experimental first run, and therefore not enough of Jesus was produced to allow beans to be sold. Nevertheless, we are not just any customer! That coffee place owes me for making every person on every project I have worked at become a regular customer. So we asked for a Christmas special, some Jesus in a bag. The owner generously delivered, packing more like half a kilo into the usual 250gr bag.
A friend and partner in heritage, also a big fan of Jesus [the coffee], got his bag as a Christmas holiday special. The kind it takes in order to pass through the holidays unscathed while our good coffee place is shut. He kept me up to date on his progress through Jesus. It soon became clear there is a challenge at hand: will there be enough Jesus to last through the whole 8 days of holidays? Will the tiny, precious, amounts of Jesus make it through? It soon became clear nothing but a miracle will make the cut for Jesus.
And I am here to tell you that a miracle did not take place.

* All of the above is factually correct, although I did take poetic liberties when I declared the holiday break to be 8 days long.
** The above text treats certain mythical characters in a way that some may consider blasphemous. Yet I am not afraid to post it. However, this absence of fear does not apply to all religions. This post is therefore dedicated to the victims of a certain Parisian attack on free speech.

Friday, 2 January 2015


We made arrangements this year to go and watch the New Year fireworks right from where they’re launched. I don’t know why we have grown accustomed to associating fireworks with a specific change of the date on the calendar, but nevertheless this occasion allows the young member of our family to have something explosive to look forward to.
Naturally, there were tons of people at the venue. In order for my son to see anything, I had to pick him up; lucky for my son, his is a tall father, so he had a better vantage point than most of the people around us. As it happened we ended up watching the fireworks together chick to chick.
That marvellous father/son experience made me think along the lines I have been thinking a lot this past year, i.e., reminiscing my recently departed father. Looking back at my personal catalog of son/father glorious moments with me being on the side of the son, I could not avoid noting how precious few these are. Which immediately translates into how important this particular experience of chick to chick fireworks marvelling is.
I wished that fireworks show would never end. Ten minutes later I was proven wrong.