Monday, 27 April 2015

The Quest for the Best

A lot of important affairs dominated the news this weekend. An earthquake in Nepal had so far killed several thousands and surely left an impression on the lucky survivors. Australia celebrated the 100th anniversary of the landing of its soldiers on the shores of Gallipoli with rites that seem to fill a gap as Australia’s official religion. However, despite these important events, this compromised homo sapiens was mostly deliberating one single issue: why is it that while I have a camera I love and consider excellent, I cannot stop thinking about buying another camera?
Deliberations started on Friday night. In general, I keep myself up to date with photography developments; I know exactly what equipment I’d love to have. This Friday night’s visit to Costco, however, revealed a kit involving what I consider to be the best camera for me at the moment at a very attractive price. I knew I wanted the camera but did not wish to rush in with my credit card just because Costco has it in stock; I decided the wise thing to do was to go home and think about it.
Thinking is pretty much most of what I did over the following weekend. Why do I need the camera in the first place? What advantages would it give me over my current camera? Etc. There can be no denying that camera I had my eyes on produces better photos than my current one, but is it worth the admission price? Am I ready to make the sacrifices that come bundled with this new camera, mainly as extra bulk and weight when compared to my current camera?
Ultimately, I concluded there was essentially one factor and one factor only involved in the decision making process. There is no doubt spending the money to buy the new camera represents poor value for money given my current camera; I would even say very poor. However, that new camera? It’s the best there is out there for me, and that – being the best – is what matters. It’s all that matters.
Once it occurred to me that it’s my ambition to have “the best” that is guiding me, it also occurred to me that this ambition has been guiding me both elsewhere and over the years. I always wanted the best, and I always paid the price – financial and more – for that. I can bring numerous examples to the table, from the very first SLR I bought decades back to, yes, the person I am now referring to as my wife.
It goes without saying that the term “best” is a loaded one. There is a level of subjectivity to the term, with one person’s best far from being another’s. The case of my camera deliberations offers a fine example, but the point is made far clearer with a car analogy. Pick a hundred people and I doubt you would find one who will not support the notion that a Ferrari is a better car than the car yours truly is currently driving. Yet I will beg to differ. A Ferrari may be cool and all, but it is also impractical. I doubt it would do well in the school drop offs and pickups that dominate my car’s routine. I also have no doubt it would perform poorly at my supermarket’s parking lot. It also costs a bomb; I can’t afford a Ferrari as my second car.
Which is to say, cost matters. A Ferrari may not be the best car for me, but there are clearly millions of houses out there in this world far superior to mine. The thing about these houses, though, is that they are so unaffordable there is no point in dedicating thoughts to them. If I went home to deliberate the camera purchase over the weekend, imagine the length of deliberations required to contemplate the acquisition of my dream (swimming pool as the living room’s centrepiece) house.
The only argument against "the best" that holds, as far as I am concerned, is that of time. What is best today will not be the best tomorrow. The camera that is good today will not be the camera that cuts the cheese tomorrow. As in, remember when the iPhone 3 was the best, indeed the only, smartphone in town?
So, having dismissed the arguments for subjectivity and cost (2 out of 3 isn’t bad), my conclusion was reaffirmed: I am severely motivated by the will, the need, to have the best.

With that in mind, I made my way back to Costco on Sunday afternoon with clear and present intentions.
I made it through the stormy Sunday parking queues (easy: just aim to the far side). I made it through the entry queues (did not bother getting a shopping trolley). I got the ticket to the camera at its display. I waited ages to pay for it. I even joked with the obviously jealous guy at the till, explaining I was spoiling myself with a gift. I then made my way to the merchandise pickup desk for my new camera.
The lady took my ticket and, eventually, came back with a rather smallish box. I was ready to take it and disappear, but she explained she has to open it to make sure the bundled memory card is included. Fine with me.
The memory card was not included. Worse, I had to point out that the other promised components of the kit were missing, too. Oh, said the woman, and then disappeared for a few minutes (making me really popular with the queue of people now behind me).
She came back with an apology. Manufacturer’s error, she said; we can’t sell you the camera. WTF, I said (politely): you have a display selling this kit, you just took four digits out of my credit card, and now you’re telling me “no”? How come you’re still offering it for sale?
I had a point, she admitted to that. She called another woman and ordered her to remove the product from the store. And after some more toing and froing that further enhanced my popularity with the people behind me in the queue, she gave me a refund.

It’s not like I rarely use the four letter word, but this fuck was a particularly justified fuck, if only for the waste of time and emotions. But mostly for all the build up. I am genuinely surprised by how this simple matter of shop inventory issues has left me devastated. And shattered.
I won't elaborate here, but it really did.
I guess I should look at the bright side: the case of the quest for the best camera ended up giving me one of the best lessons one can imagine on the fallacies of our consumerism culture.

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

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Globally Roaming

It seems as if humanity is getting close to that ideal of travelling without disassociating oneself from society. I’m referring, of course, to the concept of global roaming.
Travelling overseas is a great mind opener, no doubt about it, but unless your last name is Rockefeller or unless you’re willing to dedicate a lot of your travel time to locating a local SIM then you will have to accept that international travel means no phone and no internet. At least not whenever you want it to be there; the occasional free wifi is nice (do use VPN to protect yourself!), but forget about relying on your map app if you find yourself spontaneously lost.
But those assumptions proved to no longer hold us in their death grip. For the first time, I have experienced travel as it should be. To use more spectacular language, our family felt like it's had its own Star Trek Communicator experience.
When the rest of the family recently paid a visit to the UK and France, I stuck a Globalgig SIM card in the wife’s phone. That SIM was my first glimpse into a future not as encumbered by greedy-bastard companies: my wife was able to seamlessly use her phone in Australia, both before and after departure, as well as in the UK and in France. There was nothing to it; she reported changing to Orange and back upon crossing in and out of France, but as far as services are concerned she enjoyed Internet connectivity on her phone throughout.
As she, and everyone else for that matter, should.

23/4/2015 update: I will note that a couple of days after this post, Google had announced its Project Fi. Said project, currently in prototype stage, allows users to seamlessly roam between 120 countries (and unlike Globalgig, that list includes Israel!). As we say in Australia, noice!

P.S. My son can now confirm Netflix UK works in the UK exactly the way it works at home.

Image by NASA HQ PHOTO, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0) licence

Friday, 17 April 2015

Infinitesimal Calculus Demonstration

One of the assignments I took upon myself while the rest of my family was away, on top of binge movie watching and throat slitting (aka playing Shadow of Mordor), was cleaning. I spent many an hour – days altogether – carefully cleaning the house. I won’t claim to have managed to bring it to a state where licking the floor could be considered advisable, but I think I made a difference.
It showed. My son’s first words, upon entering the house (after more than an earth day of flying!) were “Wow, the house is so clean!”
And then he dragged his feet in, bringing along all sorts of muck from the outside, and started spreading his stuff all over the place again.

Thus the mathematically infinitesimal nature of the states of cleanliness and orderliness have been proved in the real world.

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

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Mobile Phone Planning

“The horror” is the famous last line from Apocalypse Now. It is also an exact description of my feelings upon hearing how much money most of my colleagues spend on their mobile phone plans. I therefore thought I’d share my own approach, with its very low costs, so that you can reflect whether you can cut your mobile bills, too.
Before we start, a bit of a disclaimer. While you may think it is the case, I do not consider the post that follows to be some sort of a “tight arse’s guide”; I do not hold myself back when it comes to using my smartphone. It’s just that I happen to use it in ways that do not cost me much money. If you think that’s what being a tight arse means, good on you; I think that’s what being smart means, because I can go and spend my money on things I really like as opposed to making rich and often scummy companies richer.

When you pay for mobile phone services nowadays, you are paying for the following:
  1. Your smartphone,
  2. Internet access,
  3. Phone calls, and
  4. Messages (aka SMSs).
Let’s examine my approach to each of the above.

I will start with Internet access.
For my iPhone, I buy a 10GB data pack of Optus 4G from Amaysim at $100 that’s valid for a year. I set my phone up to perform all backups and iCloud interactions through wifi only, and I do all my system and application updates over wifi too. Acting this way does not bother me in the least; particularly for larger downloads, the relatively unreliable nature of mobile connections can be a major pain. This 10GB actually lasts me a year, but I will concede that if you’re on YouTube a lot or if you stream lots of music that may not be the case. If that is more of an accurate description of you, have a look at buying a 2.5GB data pack a month from Amaysim at the cost of $20 instead.
For my iPad, I buy a 1GB data pack of Optus 4G from Globalgig at $10 a month. As with my iPhone, I set the iPad to do the heavy lifting over wifi. More to the point, the slight extra cost of Globalgig gives me two things Amaysim does not: Globalgig allows tethering from an iPad, which Amaysim doesn’t (thus allowing the iPad, with its strong battery, to act as a pretty decent wifi hotspot); and Globalgig’s SIM can be used for global roaming at truly reasonable costs.
Globalgig does have its drawbacks. First and foremost, it offers data alone; you do not get a phone number with Globalgig (but that’s perfectly fine for an iPad). Second, for reasons defying sanity, Optus will not let Australian users set the Globalgig APN on iPhones, thus attempting to prevent users from using their data in Australia. That’s incredibly stupid, though, as there are various ways to bypass this limitation (the easiest of which is to simply visit this website, which will get you an APN profile installed on your iPhone). Lastly, Globalgig only has monthly data packs, which means there is [almost] always some unused allowance in there that gets wasted.
Whether you choose to use Amaysim of Globalgig, note my phone bills start at $10 a month or below. The only disclaimer I will add here is that if the extra coverage offered by Telstra is important to you (say, if you live in rural Australia) then you will have to pay substantially more.

Let’s move to making phone calls.
The reality is, I do not make a lot of phone calls. However, the calls to landlines and mobile phone numbers that I do make are done over Skype.
With Skype Premium, I am able to buy 5 hours a month of phone calls to landlines and mobile phones in all the countries I care to call at about $3. Since Skype cards are often available at supermarkets under 50% discounts, I am able to make all the phone calls I want to make in a year at around $15, plus the negligible consumption of data that comes with that. Yes, a year’s worth of phone calls for $15.
There are disadvantages, of course. Call quality over Skype can be less than brilliant; then again, this is the case with all mobile phone calls (but probably less so with conventional ones). Skype does not support 13 or 1800 numbers, at least not without extra fees. Last, but not least, we now know that Microsoft has handed the NSA the encryption keys to Skype, which pretty much means our friends at the NSA/GCHQ/your local spy agency are listening in to our calls. Does that bother me? Sure it does! However, if you are under the illusion your normal mobile or landline calls are not tapped by the NSA & Co then, by all means, do enjoy your life at Dreamland.
Being an iPhone user, the bulk of my calls are actually made over Facetime to other Apple users. Like Skype, Facetime relies on the Internet to communicate the message. Apple claims Facetime to be secure, but I severely doubt this PRISM partner is telling us the whole truth. What I will say about Facetime is that its call quality is far superior to Skype’s or, for that matter, conventional phone calls (be it landline or mobile).
Last, but not least: If you do fancy having a truly private conversation – that is, having a chat without the participation of your friends from the NSA – then I’d recommend using Signal (or its Android counterpart, RedPhone) to make the call. Unless you were handpicked by the NSA for personal targeting, a privilege probably not reserved for common people like us, then those Signal calls you’d be making will be the first truly private mobile phone calls you have made in decades. As Edward Snowden told us, encryption works!

The topic of Signal brings me to the last criteria, messaging.
It is true that, from time to time, I do need to send an SMS to someone. Someone like my dentist, sending me an ultimatum to “reply with a Y or your appointment is cancelled”. But those SMSs cost me 12c a pop through Amaysim.
The rest of the time I use either iMessage, Telegram or Signal. Lately it’s been Signal for 95% of the time, being the most secure messaging platform for both Android and iOS. As with VOIP phone calls, the cost in data is negligible.
SMSs are for people stuck in the 20th century who want their messages to be read by the NSA, like to be limited for space, and prefer to pay tons for the privilege of sending poor quality photos.

So there you have it: the confessions of a person using an iPhone for around $12 a month and an iPad for $10, and using them a lot. I contest you to point me towards something better; I would actually appreciate it if you were to do so.
I do admit to ignoring the elephant in the room, which is the cost of the smartphone itself. I buy mine outright, but many – most – people are driven to plans simply because they cannot afford the outright cost of a phone. Especially for Apple users, and especially given the poor Aussie dollar at the moment, I cannot blame them; I’m speaking here from a position of privilege. I would, however, urge you to compare the cost of your smartphone plan to mine over the course of the smartphone’s life in order to help convince you regarding the significant merits of choosing my approach. You’d be hundreds, if not thousands of dollars, richer at the end; and if that is the case, then perhaps the sacrifice of buying a phone outright is worthwhile?
I’ll finish with a tip on how to save a third of the cost of your smartphone: do not replace it every two years; wait another year to make it last three. No harm will come to you in the process.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Festival of Comedies

This year I have done something I haven’t done for a very long time. That is, since becoming a parent. I have attended the Melbourne Comedy Festival! Yes, having one’s family overseas can accommodate for interesting opportunities.
I’ve seen Wil Anderson’s new show, Political Wil (lots of Tony Abbott jokes); I’ve watched Arj Barker (“put a filing cabinet in your toilet and sort your shit out!”); and I’ve attended a Chaser’s refugees show. That last show had the interviewee report that in order to avoid a Fatwa on his head, he chose to hide in Toorak – where no Muslim is to be found [it's Melbourne's most expensive suburb]. Apparently, Toorak is a place where what women do all day is get facials; it was claimed Toorak women get more facials per day than porn stars.
So yeah, it was fun.

It was also an interesting experience from the anthropological point of view. Walking across the city for the shows, I could not avoid feeling I’m standing out. I was swimming in torrents of kids, with the odd exception of some old people; clearly missing from the crowds were people of your typical family rearing age. Which, to my mind, raises an important question: shouldn’t society do more in order to allow parents to, like, have a life?
This is a serious question, the answer to which is more than “get yourself a babysitter”. Babysitters are cool and all, but they turn a comedy watching night into a three digit affair, which defies the whole point of having a life in the first place. Spontaneity, and thus ease of jumping into things, is of essence here.
This is also a financial matter, if the neoliberal in you prefers to look at things through the eyes of the market. Think of all the potential income that’s lost through parents not being able to spend as much money as they would like to on going out!
Then again, I might be barking up the wrong tree here. Stepping out of one of the shows, I felt tired and wanted nothing but go home and have a rest. I checked my watch: it was 9 o’clock*.

*Yes, the cynic in me would like to add that when all was said and done, I think I would have enjoyed the comedy much better if I was watching it on my TV in the comfort of my living room, legs up on the sofa instead of imprisoned by a tight seat designed for maximum patronage (thus acting as some leftover medieval torture device). I do think the comedy is better appreciated at home; the going out factor is more to do with socialisation rather than pure entertainment.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Total Recall

For a while now I noticed this strange phenomenon that blogging has caused me. Intense experiences that have been bugging the back of my head for years seemed to fade into the oblivion once I discussed them over these pages.
I’ll give you a couple of examples. I mentioned (here) a nasty experience I’ve had with my school music teacher. In that same post I also recounted the tale of me refusing to read from the Torah at a synagogue. Both experiences were key moments in my life, at least the way I used to perceive them. Yet since I mentioned them here, and pretty much immediately after, I seem to have forgotten all about them.

The other week I read this article, talking about the necessity to suppress old memories in order to be able to learn new ones. It occurred to me there and then: Through my blog I was able to put these incidents aside, effectively forgetting about them. Through my blog I was then able to get on with my life.
As achievements go, not bad.

Image by Ehsan Khakbaz H., Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence