Thursday, 26 November 2015

Gifting in the Digital Age


It is the time of the year of merrily throwing your money away at greedy merchants, but this time around I cannot avoid noting how hard buying a meaningful gift to your loved one has become. And it’s all the Internet’s fault!
Think about it. No one wants plastic discs anymore, so there goes the idea of buying music; there is no such thing as recorded music gifts in the age of Spotify & Co. Unless your loved one is really nuts about Adele or Taylor Swift (hint: I’m not).
The same goes for DVDs and Blu-rays, with the extra touch of DVDs being an obsolete format (low definition analog) and Blu-rays are soon to be replaced by the 4K Blu-ray format. That is, the format that will render your old Blu-rays obsolete while making you wonder why you ever bothered pouring your money on those coasters.
Even books suffer. Most people I know have long left the dead tree versions behind. So focusing on ebooks, there is the matter of which supplier one goes with so as to match the one(s) used by the receiver of the gift. The supplier question is not that trivial given they all come with their baggage. Said baggage includes all sorts of evil geo blocking (can be quite painful when the subject of your gift is not in your country), DRM and user tracking. Seriously, I don’t know if I want to receive the gift of a book that spies on me.
My point is simple. If your gifts tend to revolve around consumable media, then nowadays you are pretty much limited to speciality books. It’s a large category of all sorts of printable stuff, but it is still a niche category. It’s that and video games, pretty much. Step out of the consumable media world and you’re firmly back in the world of junk gifts that most people will either never use / throw away eventually / sell on eBay come Boxing Day.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Stab, Rinse and Repeat

From Hell's heart, I stab at thee! Prague, Czech Republic

The current wave of violence in Israel brings forth some disturbing news. A 70 year old was stabbed by a Palestinian boy; a young girl was stabbed by an adult Palestinian. The immediate reaction of any sane person is something like “how could they do such a thing?”
Clearly, such actions could never be justified or legitimised. However, I would like to offer my two cents on how the Palestinians can still do such things. I’m talking more than the knee-jerk answers along the lines of “because they don’t have fighter jets that can drop a bomb weighing a ton and indiscriminately destroy a street block with everyone in it, children and elderly included”. Which, by the way, did happen in the last Gaza conflict and caused casualties not dissimilar to the ones Israel is currently facing. Both sides are horribly inhuman, it’s just that one side has better technology; one dreads the day the other side catches up, because it shows too clear signs of lacking ethical inhibitions.
I promised to go beyond that, though, which takes me back to my own Israeli army days. I spent the bulk of these at the West Bank, where I witnessed in first person the pretty horrible conditions that most of the Palestinians there live in. Being that they were still able to see how the other side lives, they could see exactly what they were missing. The result is hate.
It’s a hate of a calibre most of us cannot fathom. I have seen it in their eyes, in pretty much the eyes of everyone of the streets of cities like Nablus or Hebron or Tulkarem that looked at me. Especially with the children and the younger folk; the adults are generally too busy with the daily chores of making ends meet. It is hate of a magnitude that made it clear they would have flailed me alive and severed my limbs one by one if it wasn’t for the gun I was carrying the protection I generally had around me. And I am talking about myself here, a forced conscript who meant the Palestinians no harm and did them no harm either (Israeli soldiers who wish to inflict harm on Palestinians have ample opportunities to do so).
I severely doubt the situation at the West Bank has improved since my own army days. Which brings me to conclude that, yes, it is this hate that drives Palestinians to stab helpless kids or old people. It is no justification for committing such horrible acts, it is just the force that drives them.
Clearly, whether you’re an Israeli or a Palestinian, this is a horrible situation to live with. The trick for dealing with it is not finding who owns the higher moral ground, as is commonly done over the media and on the Internet, because even if there was a clear winner I doubt the other side would simply capitulate. The challenge is to change the situation so that the motivation for violence, be it of the horrible or even the “less” horrible (because the stabbing of a middle aged male adult is no fanfare either), is gone.
It is here that I believe Israel is holding the keys to any potential improvement. I argue that without substantial improvements in the lives of Palestinians, controlled as they are by Israel, there will be no end to the violence. On the other hand, well off content people will rarely bother to go out and stab a young girl (though all societies still have their criminals). However, the current Israeli state of mind is the exact opposite; it deals with violence through escalating the deployment of force. Thus the circle of vengeance continues.
In other words, Israeli society seems content, for lack of a better word, with living the way it currently does. That current state of living has it paying the occasional violence tax, a tariff where a young girl or an old guy are sacrificed at the altar of maintaining the current state of affairs with the Palestinians. It’s like road toll: it’s sad and all, but we’re still using our cars, thank you very much. And when all is said and done, as per the result of elections after elections, Israelis are fine with this state of affairs.

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

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Dental Advice

Brushing my teeth 2

A few posts ago I complained about the conflicting advice we have been receiving on the life and death matter of healthy diets. I would like to do something similar in this post and complain about the feeble advice we have been receiving on a closely related matter: dental health.
Check this Guardian article dealing with how to look after one’s teeth. Notice anything odd?
I did. For as long as I remember, I recall being told to brush my teeth as quickly as possible after eating, so as to reduce the time during which nasty bacteria + nasty chemicals in the food I ate get to spend munching over my teeth. That advice seemed particularly useful when drinking Coke: don’t let Coke’s acidic nature ruin your teeth, rush off and brush them!
Now, however, we are told differently. We are told that by brushing our teeth immediately following the consumption of acidic foods (not just Coke; also most fruits), we are meant to wait a while before brushing our teeth. Otherwise we are at risk of not only brushing the acid and junk, but also brushing our teeth’s own protective layer away! How long is “a while”? Depending on who you read, that period ranges from twenty minutes to one hour.
So yeah, I have a problem with that. A couple of problems, actually:
  • I understand that, as we learn more, health recommendations can change. Science is constantly evolving. However, if we do have this knowledge now, why isn’t it commonplace? Why aren’t dentists all over the world actively advising us on the correct scheduling of our teeth brushing activities?
  • In order to protect our teeth during those times we are not allowed to brush them, we are told to rinse our mouths with water or – better yet – fluoride rich mouthwash. Cool.
    However, last time I looked, the fluoride rich mouthwashes available to consumers are dominated by brands such as Listerine. Have a look here at the history of Listerine and you will note it served many purposes before focusing on its current marketing incarnation of mouthwash. More specifically, it contains quite a lot of alcohol, a substance we have good reasons to avoid gurgling in our mouths for minutes a day. In other words, there are pretty good medical reasons for consumers to avoid washing their mouths with the mouthwash solutions available to them.
Dear dentists of this world, what gives? You are letting us down, mates.

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

Sunday, 15 November 2015

On the Matter of Ad Blockers

Ad blockers were the hot topic once Apple released iOS 9 with its ability to cater for ad blockers. It was the first time a company of Apple’s clout stood behind a mechanism for defying ads, standing out firmly against Google (and poking a finger in that advertising company’s eye, no doubt). Indeed, Google did the exact opposite when it banned Disconnect from Google Play.
I did not see the point in joining the discussion back then simply because my position is, and has been, quite clear. I changed my mind and will do so now, if only to commemorate the fact Firefox now offers anti-tracking facilities by default (but only in private browsing mode). Again, we have a company that stands up in the face of Google and its ever so popular Chrome, the browser that helps Google track your every move.

So, what do I think of ad blockers?
Before diving in, let us remember the pact we all signed with the devil with regards to our Internet usage. In general, we have all come to expect the Internet to supply us with free services and contents; we pay for those services through our exposure to ads.
Only that things are not that simple. There is more to these ads than a single word can suggest:
  1. We’ve all seen ads that assume too much and ruin a website’s core experience. The worst of that tide has been stemmed, but the problem is still very much there.
  2. Through the politics behind the ads, mainly advertisers distrust of websites telling them how much exposure an ad has received, the world of online advertising is now controlled by third party companies that both place the ads at websites and then provide the statistics to the advertisers themselves. It did not take long before these third parties realised they can increase their income by cross referencing between multiple websites we visit, thus ushering the birth of online trackers. In turn, these trackers follow us around the Internet and build a very detailed portfolio of what each and every one of us stands for. That is exactly how companies like Google and Facebook makes their billions.
    As an anecdote, and in order to illustrate how far user tracking goes, check out this recently revealed tale of ads that track you across devices by emitting ultrasounds.
  3. Even worse than privacy defying tracking ads are the security holes that are there to let hackers take over your computer when ads utilise highly exploitable technologies such as Flash or JavaScript. This is not a theoretical problem: such trojans have been distributed through Yahoo, and more recently through a company offering counter-ad-blocker technology (yes, you read that right). Simply put, if you do not protect yourself with ad blockers, you are leaving yourself exposed to security vulnerabilities.
So there you go. I do not necessarily mind the ads themselves, as long as they are not too obtrusive. On the other hand, I do not recall ever paying attention to online ads, so I can see the problem faced by advertisers when it comes to attracting our attentions. In other words, I would prefer a “user pays” world, and I try to follow that rule when opportunity presents itself through services such as Evernote or fruux. Given most of the Internet still relies on ads, tracking and gaping security halls, I will heavily defend myself with ad blockers, thank you very much.

Adblock Plus image is in the public domain

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Australian Sportsmanship

The following post has been published here before. For some reason it was relegated into a back page; I therefore chose to re-publish it here.

Brick Warriors' Crutches

Spare a thought to the sport obsessed Australian. At least those obsessed to bodily harm levels.
I used to work with a guy whose entire leg was basically metal, the result of a football tackle gone wrong. “But it was worth it”, he used to say about the tackle that is still giving him so much pain. This month alone, a work friend has been booked to a shoulder operation (tennis is to blame) and the daughter of a work colleague is on crutches (tennis is to blame, again).
What’s wrong with you, people?
Not that I am in any position to offer criticism. Not when I’m dead, prematurely, from lack of exercise. And not when bodily harm does not stop me from the things I like doing, like messing around on computers.
My obsessions are no better than anyone else’s. But still, take it easy, people!

Image by Josh Wedin, Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0) licence

Wednesday, 11 November 2015


Several weeks ago, a 21 year old New Zealander’s endeavour for the past five years or so has ceased, taking down one of the world’s most popular websites with it. Known to the world as YIFY (and later YTS), this guy was in charge of uploading some 5,000 movie titles into the bit torrent network. He did it in a timely manner and with quality that soon established itself as the benchmark for all pirates. This quality had his facilities used by Popcorn Time, the pirate version of Netflix, as well as running the world’s biggest bit torrent tracker facilities.
In other words, YIFY was easily the top individual pirate on the face of this planet. He was the Dread Pirate Roberts of our world. And yet the copyright monopoly, openly assuming responsibility for YIFY’s takedown, remains awfully quiet about its victory.

Pirate Ancestor

Interesting news aside, the question I would like to ask is – what is, exactly, the copyright monopoly’s end game here?
Let us assume we live in their perfect world, a world in which not only YIFY is taken out but all other movie pirates as well (note there is no shortage of those; while YIFY stood out from the crowd, he certainly wasn’t on his own). In this perfect world, where are people expected to source their videos from?
As puzzled as you may be with this question’s seemingly obvious answer, let us examine it.
If your answer to the question is “get the DVD”, then I would challenge you by noting no one in this day and age is interested in accumulating plastic real estate anymore; anyone who tasted the flavour of online streaming, Netflix style, will attest to that.
Then there is the matter of cost: if you’re only interested in watching a movie once, it makes no sense to spend north of $20 on said piece of plastic. Especially given plastic’s obsolete nature: in a world moving towards 4K, DVDs still offer some 500 lines of resolution in NTSC/PAL (remember those?); and if it’s Blu-ray that you’re into, there is a new standard coming in shortly, given the current standard’s inability to support 4K. Also, in the not so distant past we used to be able to rent plastic for sensible fees, but your local Blockbuster went the way of the non avian dinosaur shortly after Netflix entered the scene.
So shut up and stream your movie, you say. Not that easy, I answer: Netflix holds a library where one can always find something to watch, but it is still only a library that will rarely host the movie you actually want to watch (especially if that movie is a recent release). The current trend is to further entrench this sickness, with CBS about to launch its own Netflix style “solution” that will be the only legal way for people to stream its upcoming Star Trek series.
iTunes may be the solution for me, I hear you say; unlike Netflix, it does have recent releases, and its modus operandi is not that different to the Blockbuster of old. True, but at least in Australia iTunes’ pricing is far from reasonable; renting a movie costs three times what I used to pay at my local Video Ezy, RIP. Worse than the price, though, is the usability: last time I tried to “rent” a movie off iTunes, it asked me to wait 5 (!) hours for that movie to download. Sorry, Apple, but that’s not acceptable.

What I’m trying to say here is simple. A world where piracy is absent would be a world where we are all taken back to the pre-VHS days, a world where most of us can only hope to watch a movie at home when that movie trickles down to network TV. No one wants to live in such a world anymore, not even the copyright monopoly (do check the figures out; you will see most of its profits nowadays come from home viewing, not from the cinema).
Instead of the copyright monopoly trolling down pirates, it should stop to think what people actually want. They figured that one out for the music world, more or less, through services such as Spotify. It is about time they do the same for video.

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

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

They can take our freedom, but they can never take my bacon

Last week was all about bacon and sausages now being labelled carcinogenic by the UN. Seriously, there was no news there; it's not like we did not know processed meats are full of nasty chemicals, nor wasn't it like we were unaware of the dangers of cooking barbecue style.
The UN's message itself, talking about research now indicating a very strong link between these foods and cancer, got mostly misinterpreted too. But hey, mass media was never particularly good at communicating science to the masses, and through the ongoing failures of our education systems the masses are largely incapable of interpreting the nuances of a complicated message. This is not the first time science had a problem communicating with the public, nor would it be the last.

With that out of the way, I would like to focus on what this post wants to focus on.
Time Magazine dedicated a lot of pages to the latest gastronomic revelations. Amongst others, it published the following counter - as in, enough telling us what we shouldn't eat, tell us what we should eat instead!
Here's what Time had to say about that:

Item #4 was the one that attracted my attention the most. Eggs.
It wasn't long ago that we were told, probably over the pages of Time, too, that eggs are to be avoided due to their high concentration of fats and cholesterol. So, what gives?
Don't get me wrong, I'm all for changing one's mind in the face of new evidence. My point, however, is that the particular area of "the recommended diet" seems particularly susceptible to such changes of the mind. We routinely hear different messages about different food items, and those messages are often contradictory. A year ago, did anyone even know this thing called kale even existed?
It's a similar story with sugar. We hear some people saying it's bad, while on the other hand the mainstream authorities are still pumping the good old line of "fat is thy enemy". But the latter seems awfully silent about their recent egg u-turn...
So, again, what gives? What should Ms & Mr Average do? What should they eat?
Maybe we will get to find the answer to this question once enough commercial self interest is removed from the equation. Till then, a lot of us are going to suffer unnecessarily though this cloud of misinformation.

Image copyrights: Time Magazine, used under the fair use assumption

Monday, 2 November 2015

PAX AUS 2015

A couple of years ago I was thoroughly impressed with PAX breaking into the Australian scene. Last year was a bit of an eye opener; I didn’t really enjoy the experience. This past weekend I’ve made my way to the third PAX armed with those now wide open eyes and also the virtues of experience. I knew what to expect.
I will sum it up: best PAX experience ever.
Now for the details.

The core event is based around allowing people to sample the future. One can play all sorts of soon to be released video games. So I will come out in the open and state: thank you very much, but I don’t care. I do not see the point of queuing in a way too noisy environment for the dubious pleasure of a limited experience at something I will be able to have a proper go at in two months’ time.
I know, mine is the type of cynicism that comes with age. In the same vain, I am not interested in hearing what the latest celebrity gamer’s current favourite board game is. That said, I will admit PAX is clearly aimed at an age group younger than me.
Nothing in the above implies I am unable to have fun at PAX. It’s just that I need to find my own brand of fun. As it happens, most of this fun came from being able to acquire on overview of what’s available in the gaming arena (including video, card and board games) and then trying my hand with a proper, guided, go. While that type of experience is generally unavailable for video games (exceptions do exist), it is certainly available for card and board games. And yes, some gems have been identified!
It is also nice that this whole affair takes place at a very nice environment. Despite the gathering of a large number of people and the congestion that comes with that, nowhere were ugly scenes to be found. Despite queuing there was never any pushing or attempted overtaking. Everyone was just so nice! I will be blunt: this so different to the football stadium experience proves all those who claim video games rot kids’ minds and/or turn them into psychopaths wrong. It’s actually the exact opposite.
As to my top PAX experience? As before, it involved direct exposure to indie developers, and particularly the Toronto based crew of three from Vagabond Dog, makers of the wonderful Always Sometimes Monsters (available on Steam and iOS). I even used the opportunity to ask them for tips on how to get myself employed by the Toronto based company I’d very much like to have as my next employer. Plus they even gave my son a free shirt! [Yes, PAX is a very kid friendly affair.]

Next year I shall return to PAX in greater numbers.