Monday, 31 August 2015

Papers, Please

On Friday morning my Twitter feed burst into a life of its own. Australia’s Border Force, whatever that is, has announced it will be joining hands with Victoria Police and public transport authorities in Melbourne in order to conduct Operation Fortitude. "Anyone crossing paths" with the Border Force, the press release said, will be asked to demonstrate their visa status.

Several observations came quickly to mind:
  • What happened to due process, as in the assumption of innocence?
  • How is this farce going to be implemented without it turning into a clear case of racial profiling?
  • Where is the common sense in stopping so many people for the sake of catching the infinitesimal percentage of visa violators lurking in the thick of the Melbourne CBD?
As the CEO of the Always Picked at the Airport’s So Called Random Security Checkups Club, this truly pissed me off. I can live with the farce theatrics at the airport because, hey, I hardly fly; but what does this new initiative mean for my daily life? Is each train ride going to be like that airport nightmare?
One can also clearly see where things have to go from here: in the name of efficiency, we will shortly be wearing our IDs on us. It won’t be long till I have a Star of David on my forearm as I am relegated to the carriages normally reserved for cattle.

I wasn’t the only one worried about this initiative. The Friday lunch room at work was shared between a Russian, a Chinese and I (all perfectly legal Australians) when the TV broke the Fortitude news. The Russian noted how even in the lesser parts of Russia he never encountered such attitudes, and commented that when asked for his visa he will ask if MasterCard is accepted, too. The Chinese guy was clearly worried, noting his paperwork is safely at home and wondering what he would have to do when stopped.
You know what this whole thing felt like, for me? It felt like being back in Israel. A country where you have to present yourself at the entrance of each shop. Where not carrying the right paperwork could land you in big trouble (the fact this is almost exclusively implemented against Arabs does not matter in the least).
Me, I agreed with myself on an approach of peaceful protest. I know my rights; officers can stop me if they have reason to believe I have done something wrong or if I am on public transport. Border Force people can ask for my papers if they have reason to believe there is something wrong. Given there is nothing wrong, I made sure my phone is set to take videos with minimum clicks and my Periscope app is up and running. Any delegate of the authorities that stops me will get the Internets to watch them live in the act of unreasonable behaviour.
Oh, and I have my favourite lawyer on my iPhone's Signal app.

But then came Melbourne’s hour of glory.
By 14:00, several hundred protestors surrounded the Flinders Street train station and prevented the Border Force from executing their plans. The latter had to be evacuated after changing to civilian clothing. It was all very Melbourne like: if you look at the photos you will see many if not most of the protestors were holding cups of takeaway coffee. These are my people that fought for me! (While, I should add,  I was away working.)
The whole operation got untangled, then cancelled, very quickly. Soon we heard hiccups from upstairs denying the operation was ever planned (jokers, the lot) but failing to explain the ministerial approvals it had received.
In my opinion, Australia got lucky: the Liberal dummies in charge chose to open their scare campaign at the capital of Australia’s multiculturalism, a Greens seat. Had the Dutton & Abbott comedians initiated their scare campaign at a less tolerant spot – pretty much anywhere else in Australia – chances are I would have ended up wearing my Star of David in a month or two.

I am sure the war is far from over. The Liberals are clearly on a war mongering scare campaign to rescue their ailing polls with. However, what was also demonstrated through this Melbourne Spring demonstration is the power of ordinary people to organise themselves and fight back. Which explains exactly why our government is hot in its pursuit of the implementation of data retention measures with which it can control and oversee our use of the Internet.

Papers Please image copyrights belong to 3909 LLC. I highly recommend this game (I play the iPad version).

1/9/2015 update: Author Richard Flanagan, whose book The Narrow Road to the Deep North I had recently discussed, has some very wise words to pour over this Border Farce.

Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Musical Interlude

Here's proof having some Mass Effect weapons at hand can always be of some use:

To which I will add that whoever manages Lana Del Rey's musical career and product branding, they are doing an excellent job.

I will leave you, however, with the song I've been playing the most these past two challenging weeks. A song that makes people note just how good this band called R.E.M. is/was:

I will finish off by noting that one John Paul Jones did the classical arrangements for the song. You might remember him from a little known band called Led Zeppelin.

Friday, 21 August 2015

The Deforestation of the Amazon

I assume that by now you've heard of and probably read the New York Times article discussing the working culture at Amazon. Assuming that article is correct with its facts, then here is the worst example known to humanity on how the human spirit could be torn apart in the name of efficiency and productivity. And I do tend to suspect those facts are correct, given Amazon's record and given Jeff Bezos being the libertarian that he is (note the difference between that and civil libertarians).

Books from amazon

It did make me think, this article.
When they told us how smartphones are made by slave labour and reported the suicides at Foxconn, where iPhones tend to get assembled, I dismissed it. It's not like I had a choice: pretty much all gadgets nowadays are made of blood. You can have your moral ground, but you'd be stuck at a prehistoric era.
Then when they told us of the harsh conditions at Amazon's warehouses, where workers' movements and packing throughput are measured while temperatures are rising, I managed to convince myself to dismiss it because all jobs at these levels tend to suck in one way or another.
Now, however, I hear that Amazon is having a go at white collar workers. Now is when I cannot dismiss it anymore, because now they're after me.
So yeah, I'm two faced. But at least I recognise the fact.

I do not doubt for a second that my record as an Amazon consumer is yet to be concluded. I do, however, plan on reducing my Amazon intake as much as I consider reasonably possible, and that includes purchases from Amazon subsidiaries such as Book Depository or Woot.
The more important fact to recognise is that Amazon is not alone in this game. None of these companies that try and portray themselves like they were your best friend really is. Apple, Google, Twitter, Facebook, Microsoft, they're all the same shit - they're all there to make money, and they will probably even argue that they are legally bound to cross the threshold of what a reasonable person would consider ethical.
Any significant improvement in the way things are has to happen at the political level. With the USA being as capitalist minded as it is, and with the USA in control of the world and its culture, I cannot see that happening any time soon. Indeed, I see the opposite taking place right in front of our eyes in the shape of the TPP agreement.

Image by Aurelijus ValeiĊĦa, Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0) licence

Monday, 17 August 2015

Aussie Standards

One of the reasons I wouldn't want to live in the UK is the houses. I don't know if you managed to survey many of those yourselves, but I will give you the gist of it: the vast majority of UK houses follow the exact same design. A design loyal to the technology and economic state of affairs the way they used to be about a hundred years ago.
No wonder these people are stuck in love with their archaic monarchy.

Question is, are we any better?
I will argue that the way we build our houses tells us a lot about who we are. What our values and aspirations are. We've covered the UK; now let us have a look at Australia and Melbourne in particular.

Timber Floors and New Krslovic Homes

The first thing you would notice when you step into a Melbourne home during winter is that it's cold. Not as cold as the outside, but compared to what most people consider normal indoor temperature - even during winter - your Melbourne residence would feel quite cold.
There are multiple reasons for this cold. Melbourne goes through extreme temperature variance between seasons and sometimes between the hours of the day; the same house has to deal with both wintery temperatures less than ten degrees as well as summer temperatures above forty. Melbourne houses tend to also be fairly big, which implies heating them up is no simple affair.
Most of all, things come down to Melbourne homes being built to lower standards than their international cold climate colleagues do. Whereas the average UK home is built of double bricks, the average Melbourne home is built of one layer of bricks and a layer of plaster. When Scandinavia utilises double and triple glazing as standard, Melbourne is still mostly built with one. And so on.
It comes down to Melbourne's, and Australia's in general, high cost of labour. And it also comes down to Australia's, in general, low cost of energy; it's cheaper to build a flimsy house and heat it up ferociously, though without much efficiency, than it is to build a house that will look after its own temperature.
Or is it? The world is changing, and Australia seems to lag behind. In yet another arena.

The other week we surveyed a huge apartment building currently being built in our area.
The vultures, otherwise known as real estate agents, circled around us demonstrating their goods in their attempt to go for the kill. Yet, as nice as the apartments were, and they were nicely built at a very nice area, they were simply too small for people - whether singles or families - to happily live in.
It was funny to witness the lengths the builders went through in order to prevent would be buyers from noticing they are like Gulliver at the land of Lilliput. All fittings are smaller: the sinks are smaller, the toilets are smaller, the showers are smaller. To top it all off, we were informed that the buyers of these apartments will even receive a free fridge! We were not surprised to see this was a 300 litre fridge fit in a custom made enclosure; no normal fridge could fit those apartments.
Hundreds, thousands of such apartments are being built in Melbourne as we speak. Apartments that no one really wants to live at. Apartments where only people stuck with no better choice will end up at.
So why do such apartments get built in the first place? They are there because they are not designed to enrich the lives of their residents; they are there in order to lure the prospective property investor, or rather to turn normal folk into official Australian Investment Property Owners. That's all there is to it; no more and no less.
If there ever was a telltale sign for how far Australians can be driven by their greed, it is in the apartments they build for themselves. Those apartments will be there for decades to come, making the lives of our younger generations and those that follow miserable and ensuring they remember us not as fondly as we would hope.
And we let it be the case, driven as we are by short term greed.

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

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Security Dos

The last couple of weeks have seen an unprecedented amount of computer vulnerabilities surface up into public knowledge. All Mac users, we have been told, are exposed to a certain online vulnerability that they simply cannot escape and chances are Apple will not fix in the foreseeable future. Android users have been hit with one unavoidable security vulnerability after the other, all of which quite severe, with hardly a hope of rectifying the situation - the direct result of an eco system featuring thousands of different devices distributed through numerous telcos that couldn't care less about the security of their end user.
What can a simpleton user do in the face of such overwhelming odds?
The results pretty much speak for themselves. Most users do not do enough. Most users actually have no idea what they can do. For most users, having an up to date antivirus software that gives them a green tick of approval is all that is required in order to consider their PC environment safe.
Well, it isn't enough.
The fact of the matter is, if one wants to stay on top of the latest computer security hazards, one has to spend a lot of time keeping oneself informed with the latest news as well as on keeping one's computing armada (all PCs, smartphones, tablets and gaming consoles for a start, not to mention the latest in the Internet of Things) up to scratch. And even that does not guarantee anything come the next vulnerability, or come a vulnerability that the world is simply unaware of.

As depressing as the above may sound, this does not mean that one needs to turn the other chick. Leave that to Jesus; you can still put up a fight. There are actually several simple things you can do, things that will help reduce your personal risk significantly - to the point of being able to consider oneself almost (but never) in the clear.
Here are the three top measures you can take in order to keep on top of your online security, as recommended by yours truly:

1. Keep your devices and applications patched up with the latest version of everything:
Make sure you install the latest updates to your PC/smartphone/etc operating system as soon as these updates are released and up to the latest patch available. Do the same to the applications you use, particularly those that use the Internet: your web browsers are the classic example.
Note Microsoft releases most of its security updates on what it calls Patch Tuesday, the second Tuesday of the month; make sure you run your Windows Updates shortly after. Adobe has, by now, synchronised itself to Microsoft time, publishing its releases at the same time. Apple has a less regular release schedule but it will let you know when its gadgets are ready for an update. Ubuntu stands clear of the field, regularly checking for all relevant updates and handling all relevant updates at the same time seamlessly in the background while requiring not much more than a mouse click.
Android stands out as the black sheep of the family, as already mentioned. If you do go with Android, I would recommend buying a model that guarantees being able to receive regular updates - say, Google's own Nexus models. Beware of buying your Android gadget through a telco, because that telco will hold you back from updating your device later on.
What good is keeping your device up to date this way? After all, especially with Apple, keeping it up to date will also mean sacrificing battery power and speed?
The answer is simple. With each patch that's being released, the latest round of security hazards and vulnerabilities is taken care of. At the same time, due to them being taken care of, they also become public knowledge. Thus, at the same time that a solution is being offered to the public, the various rogue elements of the electronic world are offered a raw list of vulnerabilities they can try and exploit through the large ranks of everybody out there that fails to keep themselves patched. And exploit they will; you can count on it. It's a rule of nature.
You do not have to put yourself in the ranks of the exploited. Patch up. Avoid the non patched like the plague that it is.

2. Use a password manager
I have discussed password managers here before. Password managers offer two key services: they let you easily maintain long and complicated passwords of a grade you will never be able to remember on your own, and they let each and every such password be unique.
In turn, this helps you in two ways. Nowadays, when passwords get lost, that usually happens in the form of a massive database leak at the company holding on to your password. Usually, if those companies are up to their game, the passwords will be hashed - meaning, it will take some effort of behalf of the hacker to actually know what your password is. If you use a strong password created by a password manager, as opposed to a simple dictionary word (like "password"), there's a good chance that hacker would never be able to put their hands on your actual password. It's a maths game; the hacker's "guess the password" utility can only guess so many options during the hacker's lifetime. A good, password manager generated password, will take them a few billion years to guess using today's hardware. We can live with that.
Occasionally the hackers will get your password, though. Too many companies like Sony and Adobe exist out there, keeping your passwords as plain text. This is when having unique passwords helps. In most of the latest rounds of online identity thefts, the reason the hackers were able to get into people's accounts was to do with the fact those people used the same password on multiple websites/devices. That will never happen if you use a password manager!
I have recommended 1Password here before. It's actually free for iOS devices, but it will cost you on a Mac or Windows. LastPass has recently reduced its prices, now offering free services; you pay to get your passwords synchronised across devices.
Do have a look into such a product, it would be one of the best things you'd ever do for the sake of your online security. Sure, password managers do not negate all risks; they actually introduce new ones. But the fact of the matter is, you are much safer in the hands of the security experts from AgileBits (makers of 1Password) than in your own humble hands alone. You should exploit their expertise to your own benefit!

3. Disable
This last measure is simple. If you don't need something running on your computer or your gadget, disable it. Better yet, remove it.
You're asking for examples. I'll give you two.
Adobe Flash is something you should be able to live without nowadays. Lately it also happens to be our major source of security hazards, with even Yahoo ads injecting malicious codes into web pages of the most popular of websites. YouTube is where most of us needed Flash before, but nowadays YouTube and most video streaming websites have moved on to HTML 5, clearing the path for you to get rid of this up to no good hazard. And if you really think you still need Flash, do yourself a favour: disable it. Modern browsers like Firefox and Chrome will give you the option to prevent Flash contents from running without your specific, direct, approval. Use that option!
My second example is Java. Ever since Oracle took over Java from the setting Sun, it failed to deal with security properly. As it happens, you're in luck: hardly anything out of the corporate world uses Java anymore (a lot of stuff uses JaveScript, but that's a different animal), so the chances of Java's removal having an effect on you are minimal. Indeed, most modern browsers no longer have Java, by default, and even Apple got rid of it a couple of years back. As far as I can tell, the main implication of removing Java on a home user nowadays is Minecraft - which is why I got my Minecraft on a console rather than a PC.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Australian Decadence

Talking Head

By now we’ve more or less stopped laughing at Agriculture Minister, Barnaby Joyce, rather miserable uttering concerning the decadence of gay marriage and the potential economic effects on trade with Asia were such acts allowed.
Yeah, stupid. But Bronwyn Bishop took over in that department. 
If we stop mocking the sheer stupidity of Joyce, we can pause for a little on the view that stupidity represents. Essentially, Joyce is saying that we should not care for basic human rights or general right from wrong; all that matters is the bottom line, and if trade might get hurt then, well, we should all shed a tear for the gays amongst us and plough on.
Is that a good representative for the values Australia should stand up for?
I argue Joyce did not speak in a vacuum. He said what he said because his crowd, the generic Australian voter, votes through their back pocket. The majority of people I speak with do not care for right or wrong at the polling booth, they care for what their vote will earn them. Negative gearing, subsidies for private schools, superannuation discounts for the rich – they know these are all wrong, but they will vote for them anyway because they benefit from them. And screw everyone else.
If you ask me, this is Australia’s true decadence.

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