Thursday, 29 December 2016

Good Games

What makes a good game good?
That’s a loaded question, but I will focus it further in order to be able to hold a discussion. I am talking about video games, mostly, given that this is the area where we see can visibly see most gaming innovation. Further, given that this year saw little originality in the big name blockbuster video game releases, I will focus on mobile video games - an area where, in my humble opinion, we have seen much innovation.
If we look at the top iOS games from the past two years, Reigns, Mini Metro, Lara Croft Go and Severed, I think the answer to the above question is glaringly obvious. They are all simple games, really, that are based around a simple core idea - a quality referred to in the industry as “game mechanic”. In Reigns you make yes/no decisions in order to optimally balance four contradicting factors; in Mini Metro you are constantly solving a more and more complex transport optimisation problem; in Lara Croft you play the classic game of Go with a twist, just as in Really Bad Chess (another great game) you play the classic game of chess with a twist. And in Severed you play “just another” RPG but with original graphic presentation and combat mechanics that work really well on a touchscreen.
My answer to the above question, what makes a good game good, is therefore: it implements a good idea well. And that is it, really; everything else is extra padding on top.

Which takes me back to the game that I probably liked the most this year, the aforementioned Human Resources Machine. I liked it because its well implemented idea was the gamification of machine code programming, which, in turn, brought back memories of the days when I used to do that very thing.
I like to think that the really great games earn their greatness through being more than good games; they are also good pieces of art. And it is that element of Human Resources Machine that captured me by making me think thoughts. It made me think “why not”; as in, I have done this [machine code programming] before, why can’t I do it again?
And it occurred to me that, while I have been away from the coding world for a long time, I can still do it. Languages might be different, environments might be different, but the concepts are still the same; technically speaking, I am able to produce a Reigns like game by myself with relatively little upskilling effort. The actual work would consume a lot of my time and require significant funding to achieve without my family starving as a result, though.
I even have some nice ideas to play with, too. I don’t think they’re Mini Metro good, no, but they sure pack enough heat for me to truly enjoy myself while at it.
And why not, really?

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Products of Our Time

My son has been asking me questions lately. He wonders how come people migrating to Australia massacred the indigineous population. He wonders why people have driven animals such as the dodo into extinction. I try to be a good father and relieve him from the burden of worrying about historical events, and I explain that the people who did those atrocities acted as per the values and culture of the time. I tell him that back then, dark skinned people were not considered people; non Christians were not considered people; animals were considered soul less beings; etc. But I add that today we are different because we know better.
That is what I tell him. Me, I like to think that I would have been above standard. I’d like to think that if I were a German, I would save Jews. If I was a white plantation owner, I would set my black slaves free. Because I’m that kind of a guy, you know. I’m a good guy. I like to be able to look myself in the mirror.
Clearly, I’m deluding myself.
Fast forward the tape a century or two forward, and consider what future generations will think of ours. Forget about global warming; they would file us in the same folder we file the executors of human genocide for a crime that takes place everywhere, all the time, without much of a whisper from any but a select few. I am talking about our handling of domesticated animals.
Consider what we are doing to them. We constrict them in tight ghettos, make them live their entire lives with hardly an option to move, force them to live in their faeces, separate mother from child, and then kill them in well engineered mass production facilities so that we can enjoy their meat. Every year, billions of animals are butchered this way after living short and incredibly miserable lives so that we can have a good meal. What is this if not genocide?
I am a product of my time. Try as I may to reduce my consumption of meat, milk and eggs, I find it all but impossible not to be seduced by the aroma of bacon or the lure of cheesy pizza.
So tell me again, in what way am I better than those slave owners of yonder?

Thursday, 15 December 2016

True Blue

What is patriotism? That is, if I am allowed to sharpen the question, who is the real patriot? Is it the person who stands to their nation’s call at every opportunity?
Looking at Australia’s own history, acting this way is clearly a fool’s errand. We celebrate the heroism of Australia’s soldiers at Gallipoli, but at the same time we acknowledge the foolish nature of the escapades there - as big a hero as the Aussie digger was at Gallipoli, that guy should not have been there in the first place. The same applies for Vietnam, and if we fast forward Iraq, too. Even key Republican figures, including president elect Trump, admit the war in Iraq has been a mistake; by proxy, the same applies to Australia’s involvement there, too.
So who is it, exactly, who is the true patriot? Is it the guy who answered the call and went to fight that foolhardy war because that’s what his country said, or is it the person who protested against the war in the street and got arrested for it?
I’m firmly on person B’s side of the equation, given that I am a member of that minority that considers nationalism to be one of humanity’s greatest illnesses. But even if you disagree with me on nationalism, as you probably are, you’d have to concede that true blue patriotism can come in many shades.
Which is why I truly do not get the fuss Americans are making over Colin Kaepernick and his refusal to stand up to the national anthem. Seriously, if this is the one problem in this world of ours that troubles you, you’re in an awkwardly privileged position. A national anthem is just a collection of musical notes, the same way a flag is just dyed fabric; any meaning it holds is meaning given to it by us, and if Kaepernick refuses to give it the same meaning as the majority of other Americans then good on him. Last I’ve heard, we take pride in being able to make autonomous decisions.
But it gets worse. I was under the impression the whole Kaepernick affair is old news, forgotten by now through the mighty eclipse called Trump. Turned out I was wrong: the Pentagon and non other tweeted the other day against him. They then deleted their tweet, probably upon realising they broke the law by getting themselves involved in purely civic affairs, but the point has been made. The strongest army in the world, by far, and one in control of a nuclear arsenal that can wipe our planet clean, considers true patriotism the act of doing what one is told without daring to ask any questions.
America is so fucked up and, by proxy, so is the rest of this world.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

My friend published a song on Spotify

And you should listen to it because it's really good:

Between the touching lyrics, the voice miking and the minimalist (sort of) presentation, the song really reminds me of PJ Harvey's Rid of Me.
My only concern with the song is figuring out the circumstances that made her write such a song.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Diet, Rinse, Repeat

Veteran readers of this blog would know that 2015 has been the year unintentional weight loss for yours truly. Since then, my diet life is going through a more or less regular routine: a structured and generally healthy diet during the school terms, followed by rupture and chaos as school holidays befall upon us. Planning falls out the window when we venture places where controlling what food is available and when becomes harder.
The catch, then, is when I get used to the school holidays’ uncontrolled binge eating habits but seek to go back to the more health friendly (and weight friendly structure). You would think that would be hard; I’m here to tell you it is, but it’s not.
The pattern repeats itself. A couple of weeks into the new school term I decide that enough is enough and I cannot allow myself to continue gaining weight. The problem that requires solving is that I get used to the school holidays' binge eating habits pretty quickly; going back to healthy eating habits requires breaking the newly acquired bad habits.
Again and again I have found that all it takes to regain control and rehabitualise myself is one day where I plan exactly what I will eat and when. I go through a day where all I can think of is the pantry; maybe a second day of such thoughts, maybe not; and that is it. Within two days max I am all of a sudden perfectly happy with eating less as long as that also means eating well.
The catch is with “eating well”. The benefit of this well planned diet day is that, at the end of the day, the world feels such a better place to live in. It’s not only that I am no longer bothered by the contents of the pantry I missed out on; it’s the fact that eating well just feels good. I’m sharper, mentally, and every cue my body sends my brain is informing me that things are going great, thank you very much. Eating healthy, especially cutting the sugar, feels good.
Up until the next school holidays, when the deck is reshuffled.

Monday, 5 December 2016

Ride of the Podcast

Quick heads up: this post is another one in that series of posts on how technological breakthroughs that affect our lives break the ground for further technological breakthroughs that further change our lives.

I have previously expressed much rejoicing at the discovery of noise cancelling headphones. The kick comes from the fact they allow me to listen to stuff on the train, on a plane and on the street without having to pump up the volume to ear bleeding levels. It is almost as if I’m home, lounging about.
This breakthrough made me try formats that I haven’t really attempted before. Up till now, I used my daily commutes to listen to music, for the sole reason that music still works as a background activity when swamped by noise, while the likes of audiobooks are an utter failure when every second or third word are incomprehensible.
I still have a problem with audiobooks, though. I still think that in order to properly give a book the attention it deserves, I need to do nothing else but read the book. Podcasts, however, are more casual, so I gave them a go. Yet it proved a pain to keep tabs on the latest podcasts I should be listening to.
Enter Castro, a $6 iPhone app with a simple trick up its sleeve that all the rest of the podcast apps fail at (to the best of my knowledge): it groups all your favourite podcasts in a single chronological queue, allowing you to pick the episodes you actually want to listen without having to check each subscription separately. That is to say: Castro ushers in podcast nirvana. More importantly, Castro has revolutionised my daily commutes.
But why stop with podcasts? I am also a magazine reader. Why can’t I read my magazines while commuting? Or, better yet, why can’t I have my magazines read to me while I commute? Enter the Voice Dream Reader app, an app that will happily read you PDF files or other non DRM type text files in a manner that is significantly better than your average automated voice. Voice Dream is on the expensive side of apps, though, and I will also warn you its default Aussie voice is rather crappy; pick the American male voice for the single voice you get for free when purchasing the app (to get additional voices on top of that one free one you will need to make the dreaded in app purchase).
I can’t say the Voice Dream experience is as good as having a human read to you. Far from it. Aside of the automated voice’s inherently dumb nature, it will also read page numbers and such. But still, it makes for better use of one’s commute time while allowing me to significantly increase my "reading" capacity.
And yes, I still listen to music.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Recruiting for Development

A long time ago in what seems like a galaxy far, far away, I used to climb up the food chain at work. That is to say, my career was taking off and rapidly so. And the fastest way to make that possible was to get another job offering a higher up position, which is what I did several times in the course of a few years.
But yeah, that was at another time and another place. Things are different nowadays. For each advertised tech position there are hundreds of applicants, many of which armed with multiple diplomas and bucketloads of experience; the job market is very competitive. There are also fewer opportunities, but that is mostly the result of this former Israeli still eyeing the Australian technology market using old Israeli eyes; Australia has but a fraction of the high tech market Israel can boast. And me, I have changed, too; I am older than I used to be, no longer the type that would accept regular 11 hour working days and blindly do my employer’s bidding.
That is exactly why, in today’s job market, one can only get a new job for something one has already done before. From the employers’ point of view, why should they take a risk on some unknown guy developing and growing into a job? They want the tried and tested.
To which I will say: wrong way, go back!
My argument is simple. Can anyone honestly suggest that a worker can truly flourish, prosper and grow by doing the exact same thing they had already done before?  I would argue this is a recipe for grey, stale, organisations; not for organisations that seek to thrive in today’s ever changing scene. Especially not in the technology market.
By then way, a side effect of this  recruitment policy is that one can only climb up the career food chain internally, as opposed to by finding a new job. Which makes the whole thing slower. And, going back to the theme of being older, makes life much harder for older job applicants because these are seen as too experienced to take on the junior positions but, on the other hand, unsuitable for higher order jobs if they haven’t performed them already.

Consider this trend in the face of other, even deeper social trends: people having longer careers through the fact we now live longer and there is not enough money in pension funds to cover us all. Or the generic speed in which life around us has been changing, mostly through technological breakthroughs. Anyway you look at it, the implications are sad.
It is already the case where one can no longer rely on the same profession throughout their working career. People my age can grapple with this matter in one way or another; for people of our children’s age this is a matter to be taken for granted.
However, knowing that career transitioning has to take place and enabling such transitions are totally different matters. As we’ve already seen, employers do not allow for easy transitions, not even in the same line of work. Therefore, transitioning to another profession means stepping back in income and status, a very hard thing to do for someone who already been there and done that (and by now probably cares for a family and a mortgage). I guess I am not the only one facing this problem; that expert steam engine mechanic had to deal with this matter back when the four stroke engine made headway. But surely our society should have developed since the age of steam to take care of its citizens as they go through that mandatory change?
Consider the future of humanity under this specific prism. Imagine what things would be like when technology allows humans to live for 150 years. If we already had such people among us, how would our society deal with people who grew up to operate steam engines or horses and carriages?
Now consider that the world we live in is going to move into driverless cars within the manner of a couple of decades. In our world, driving is the most common job people do for a living. How, exactly, are we going to find jobs for the masses of unemployed people our latest technological breakthrough will forge? Or for the masses that take care of them through diners and motels? Is there enough demand for unskilled work to fill the gap left in this world? It doesn't look like it.
The only solution I see for this problem is breaking the equation we have been living under since the agricultural revolution. I argue that, in this day and age of affluence, perhaps we should disconnect between having a job with living entitlements.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

State of the Play

A couple of trends have been combining together to deeply affect my [video] gaming experience. I have been talking about it here a lot, but always as a side show; I thought I'd dedicate a post to the matter instead.
The trends I have been talking about are:
  1. I have no time for anything anymore, playing included.
  2. I have been growing sick and tired of the mainstream video game releases.
I will elaborate a bit.
Having no time to play does not really mean having no time to play. What it really means is having higher priority things to do ahead of playing games. At the same time, I fully acknowledge the importance of playing: humans need playtime, especially younger humans; and while I no longer qualify as young, I do think that keeping a young mind is something I can still aspire to. I also fully recognise that I would not be the person that I am without gaming.
The effect of having to squeeze gaming in between tasks of higher priority (many of which suck, BTW, but as an adult I can no longer avoid them) is that my gaming activities now need to fit in between these so called higher duties. This means I cannot afford to hold hour[s] long gaming sessions; at best I get 15 minutes here and 15 minutes there. If I do get an hour long session, and I did get one this weekend (accidents happen, I guess), then that session is unexpected and I am not actually aware of the fact I have an hour to play till after the fact.
This, in turn, impacts the games I am playing. Deeply so. Things like turning the TV and and waiting for the PS4 to boot are luxuries I cannot afford. Things like levels that take more than ten minutes to complete between saves mean that I am forever stuck in tutorial levels. By far the most crucial ingredient of a good video game for me nowadays is: instant action.
If you pause to think for a moment what this means, you would see the answer I have found to my problems: the iPad. It's always nearby. There are no boot times to talk about with the iPad, and with its solid state memory not much in the way of waiting times (at least not by PC standards). Throw in games designed for the mobile environment and you get at the exact place I am at now in my gaming life.

But there is the rub, too. Read that last sentence again to see where I am heading at: "games designed for the mobile environment".
By far the biggest name games on my iPad are ports of games designed for other environments. Take Rome Total War as an example, simply because it is my most recent iPad game purchase (for the record, this has been the third time I have bought this game). It's a great game, don't get me wrong; it's also nice to select your troops and order them with your fingers, basketball coach style. But is it the ideal game for mobile? Clearly not. Rome Total War still suffers from being a game of a scale that is too big for mobile (as its 4GB size indicates). It is also not the ideal game to play, say, during a train/tram ride.
There really aren't that many games that do their mobile platform the justice it deserves. Banner Saga 1 & 2 work seamlessly on mobile but are too big in scope. Grand Theft Auto has mobile incarnations but, as great as these games are on console, they're just not there (starting with the touchscreen pretend controllers). And let us not ignore the huge mammoth in the room, the fact the vast majority of mobile games designed for mobiles have been built around the dreaded in app purchase mechanism, where you either have to fork out an unforeseen amount to get anywhere or you have to really enjoy the grind.
Frankly, looking at my own iPad, there are but a few games properly designed for mobile: Mini Metro, Severed and Lara Croft Go offer fine examples of the breed. Sure, there are many more, but not as many as one would think when judging the size of the AppStore.

Could salvation be found elsewhere, though?
Eventually, yes. But for now, I do urge you to review the following list of the current blockbusters out there (which I am copying from Target's "Amazing 4 Day Gaming Event (25 November till 28 November while stocks last"). See if you can detect a pattern:
  • FIFA 17
  • Titanfall 2
  • Battlefield 1
  • Dishonored 2
  • Watch Dogs 2
  • Destiny (The Collection)
  • Call of Duty Infinite Warfare
  • Elder Scrolls V Skyrim
  • No Man's Sky
  • Deus Ex Mankind Divided
  • Uncharted 4
  • Rise of the Tomb Raider
In case you failed (seriously?), I will point out that out of the above, only one single game - No Man's Sky - is an original release. All the rest are sequels of sequels, or even worse - remakes of old sequels. To quote the Bible, not my most favourite book ever (the ending sucks and the sequel is just boring), there is nothing new under the sun.
To say that the world of gaming is fucked up would be an understatement, especially when one considers how harshly No Man's Sky was received. True, Sony had a lot to do with that through the way it teased us with this game, but still - what would you have preferred? Yet another linear open world adventure story with a white male protagonist in his thirties?
I know the gaming market speaks, and very clearly so, against me on this. Which is exactly why I choose to close myself from the world as I strategise my approach to the design of a new London Underground in Mini Metro.

True, the gaming world is not as bleak as I portray it to be. There is a lot of original stuff out there, like the Hacknet I recently mentioned or 80 Days or Lumino City. And have you tried board games on the iPad? It is as if the device was created for that specific purpose.
Yet the overall direction is clearly wrong. I am sure I am not the only one out there whose gaming needs are totally ignored by the market; pretty much everyone my age would be. So come on, get off your sequels train, and deliver something good for a change!

Saturday, 12 November 2016

Confirmed: a vote for Trump/Brexit is a vote for racism

Being the opinionated person that I am often lands me in trouble. Like when trying to apply for a job while constantly fearing people would Google my name and then immediately put my application on their Over My Dead Body pile.
One such provocative argument of mine was/is to do with Brexit. Specifically, I have argued that a pro Brexit vote is a racist vote. I do so for two reasons:
  1. Whoever voted for Brexit puts themselves in a camp full of racists, the camp all the racists called home. That, on its own, does not make one a racist, but it should trigger an alarm call with every decent person.
  2. Clearly, the main reason argument for Brexit is xenophobic / fear of the immigrant. Forget about the whole "more money for the NHS" bullshit, no one bought it for even a second; people are not that stupid. That was just the fig leaf for the real reason.
The above two arguments did not, however, prevent me from being told to shut up whenever I thus accused otherwise fine and distinguished folks of racism. How can they be racists when they are, for all other intents and purposes, fine and distinguished folks?
Coming to my rescue is my colleague* John Scalzi. Through one of his many lovely analogies, Scalzi explains exactly why a vote for Trump (and by proxy, Brexit) is a vote for racism. Whatever else the Trump voter might argue in defence of their lack of racism, the fact they have voted for a clearly racist candidate indicates that as much as they hate racism, they hate it much less than they like the other things this blatantly racist candidate stands for.
Which is my way of saying: stop reading this and do rush to read Scalzi's arguments, ASAP.

*Not really. We met in person, but there is no reason in the world for him to remember me.

Friday, 11 November 2016

PAX Picks

Having dedicated a post to the atmosphere of PAX, I would like to dedicate another to my favourites of PAX. Which, for me, narrows down to board games and video games, both of which I hardly get to play because I do not have time for anything in my life anymore; let us refer to yours truly as a collector of games rather than a gamer per se.

In the card game department, which I consider an offshoot of board games, we stocked up on the latest Magic the Gathering has to offer. I have a problem with Magic, being an elaborate mechanism to suck my money on a yearly basis that it is, but I will grant it much fun and an incredible balance. Virtually every game my son & I play comes down to the wire, and by now we have played with numerous decks (I did mention yearly purchases, didn't I?).
The side effect of those yearly updates, variety and balanced play is that we never seem to seek out to play Magic, but whenever son & Co do play we greatly enjoy it. Those "ooh, how do we interpret the rules now?" moments we used to stumble at are now gone, with Magic offering us quick but meaningful fun.

Moving to proper board games, what games did this collector of board games find attractive? Narrowing down to games that would work well with the family (thus taking adult only contenders such as T.I.M.E. Stories out of the equation), there were three games I came out spending my money on:
  • Islebound, for what seems to me like great art in a joyful game.
  • Mission Red Planet, for generating the impression of being a light version of Alien Frontiers.
  • Star Trek Panic, for taking the simple mechanics of the Castle Panic game and fitting them well into the Star Trek universe (specifically, the Captain Kirk incarnation), red shirts et al.
We also spent a long while observing PAX' X Wing tournament action, being that we play this game ourselves. It was an education to see others practice the art; most competitors came equipped with a Bunnings toolbox containing their favourite vehicle (all but one went with Darth Vader's Tie Fighter), looking very professional like and making me wonder what else they packed in that toolbox of theirs. Sandwiches, perhaps? [I'm sorry, but you have to be an Israeli to get this joke.]
While X Wing matches started and finished all around us, the one match that we randomly picked to observe in close quarters had us witnessing two players trying very hard to outflank one another but failing to even fire a shot once during the half hour we stood watching before deciding to try our luck elsewhere.
It was quite an educational experience; X Wing can be dead simple, if one likes it to be that way, but clearly heavy just the same.

The biggest ticket items of PAX are meant to be video games, but I will disappoint you and state I did not care for the biggest ticket items. Nor for VR, for that matter; I can see how VR adds a new dimension, but what I couldn't see are games that made me go "wow, I need that".
If I were to ignore Mini Metro, a game I already knew about and cannot stop recommending, I will point at two locally made games that my son, my friend and yours truly all took note of separately. Which says something.
  • Defect is a PC/Mac/Linux game that has the player building a spaceship (not too unlike FTL) and then taking it for a fight. The catch is that, eventually, the ship gets taken away from you and you need to design a brand new ship with which - wait for it - you will be fighting your previous ship. So you better do better the next time around!
    The dev stood there next to his display, selling Steam codes of his game for $10. I bought one for myself, thank you very much, but I am still bashing my head against the wall for failing to figure out what a great gift this game could have made if I was to buy five or ten more such codes for my friends. Once again I am being made aware of just how much of an idiot I am.
  • The other game I noted (and then bought) is Hacknet, another PC/Mac/Linux affair. The great thing about this game is its basic idea:
    You know hacking? It's generally immoral and also illegal. But, if you're into computers and such, and especially if computer security is something you deal with (yours truly raises a hand), the begging question is how can one practice this dark art without harming a soul and without risking a thing in this world?
    The answer is, of course, through video gaming. How come I didn't think of that myself? I'm such an idiot.
    Moving on while trying to stick to the constructive side, Hacknet is a game that simulates real life computers, code and all, and challenges you, Player 1, to go ahead an hack.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

Modern Age Gifting

I have noted before how consumerism has turned material gifts into a completely wasteful affair whereby someone spends their hard earned money on buying me a gift whose manufacturing depleted precious earthly resources, involved several species going extinct, and forced human slaves to work under unearthly conditions. Only for me to go "WTF" and immediately pass the gift to the nearest [charity] bin.
Most other humans seem far more delighted than I am with the act of receiving material gifts, which does cause me to ponder where it is, exactly, that I stand from the crowd on this one. My latest gift seems to have provided some insight: Expertise is a key factor.

Allow me to explain with a short example. As people go, I am an expert in gadgets. I know my smartphones, to point at one specific niche in the galaxy of gadgets, and I have a firm opinion on each and every common model out there (to the point you can tell what phones I do not have an opinion on are worth). Now, for argument's sake, let us say you're terribly generous and decide to get me the smartphone many claim to be the best out there at the moment - it certainly won accolades for having the best camera for a smartphone: the Google Pixel.
If you gave me one of those, thinking you're oh so generous and expecting me to be eternally thankful, you would probably be totally surprised to find me annoyed/angry at this gift. And not because I think you shouldn't spend so much money on a gift (which I do, but that's not the point); instead, it's rather because I'm holding views that the bulk of society considers eccentric and most cannot even imagine concerning privacy. As far as these peculiar views concerned, I would not touch a Google device (or a Google service, for that matter) with a stick. Not even a very long stick.
In other words, I would never - ever - even consider using that precious gift of yours. And it is all down to the facts I know my gadgets and I know how and what Google does with information it collects from Android users.
To make a long story short: Buying me a smartphone is a dangerous idea because I am an expert in this area.

Sure, you can still give me a smartphone and win my eternal love if you happen to buy me the smartphone I actually want. But what are the chances of you actually hitting that G spot by accident? And what are your chances of doing that before I actually do so myself?
The sentence "don't even think about it" seems to have been contrived for this purpose.

When all is said and done, the above does not mean you can never buy me a present I like. It just means that you shouldn't buy me a present belonging to my area of expertise.
So no, don't buy me a smartphone. But you can certainly find tons of video games lurking at the fringes of my areas of interest; to name but one recent example, it is only through a friend noting how great the PC game Mini Metro is that I grew to anticipate its iOS arrival (and what a great iOS game it is!). Similarly, there are entire galaxies of excellent books out there I'd love to read if I only knew of their existence (but please, don't get me ebooks with DRM).
To conclude, in this age of relative affluence gifts are no longer measured by their monetary value. Your Google Pixel might cost a grand but, through sheer anger, holds negative value for me. The true gift, I therefore argue, is not in the fact that someone spent tons of money to get me something. Rather it is in the fact that someone opened my eyes to a corner of the universe I was entirely oblivious to up to that point.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Notes from PAX the Fourth

Melbourne fourth PAX event is still ongoing, but I thought I'd drop my 2c about the thing that is clearly the best of everything to do with PAX Australia: How nice everyone at PAX is.
It is quite amazing, actually. The place is crowded but you never hear shouts or notice anyone trying to bypass a queue in some creative way. Everyone is busy but you can still catch a presenter for a detailed chat about this question you just have to ask (I'm speaking from experience here). And with my son, it is probably the first and only place in the world where everyone - everyone - treats him like an equal as opposed to "a little boy".
I love it.

Yesterday I attended a panel discussing violence at video games. The six panelists were all proper authorities, researchers and professionals (three of them were professors).
While discussing the channeling of aggression, one of the professors noted that the crowd of video gamers present is probably on the least aggressive side of the aggression spectrum, suggesting that - in the case of a conflict - absolutely no one is going to be punched here. The worst thing that could happen to anyone at PAX is getting hacked.
Further on the same theme, another presenter was an AFL psychologist who described her job as channeling players' inherent aggression towards the right channels (I assume this means the rival team). She admitted her ignorance in the gaming arena she was present at, so in order to see how much she has in common with us PAX lot she asked for a show of hands of anyone playing Aussie Rules.
In a crowd of several hundreds (I estimate circa 300), 3 people raised their hands. That's 1%. In Melbourne, the capital of AFL. That is, literally, unheard of.
The PAX crowd is, indeed, unique.

I feel I have matured through my four years at PAX, too. Nowhere is this clearer than my video game preferences.
I seriously fail to see the attraction in the fifth sequel of game franchise X, the second sequel of game franchise Y, or the remake of the not so old Skyrim for that matter. I watched the presentation of the new 4K PlayStation and I was amazed by the quality of the picture; but the two games they've demoed? They're nothing we haven't seen before. Who gives a shit if I could see the intricate details of the heroine's hair flying in the wind?
Screw the blockbusters with the tens of millions in marketing budget and the armoured personnel carrier parked outside for promotion. You suck. To say I will take Mini Metro over all of you combined would be the understatement of the year.

And since I have just invoked the name of a favourite indie title, this old and wise in the ways of the IT industry person is now going to give a personal tip to the indie development industry.
Attending several panels dealing with indie development and talking to indie developers in person, I could not avoid noting just how amateurish their professional practices seem to be. Ask any IT person about their project management practices and they will always complain on just how things never seem to be done right. Well, compared to us corporate folk, used as we are to working in a disciplined corporate environment where project plans and estimates are mandatory before anyone dares opening the wallet, these indie developers seem totally reckless.
Sure, it is this recklessness that gives their products that spark that corporations can rarely achieve. But if they seek to survive to make their next fancy project, they could and they should learn a lesson from those who have been there longer.
And yes, if you read this and you want to borrow on this old person's experience, I'm here to help!

Friday, 4 November 2016

Why we need to be able to break the law?

I will get straight away to providing you my answer.
News told us the other day Americans are finally allowed to hack their own devices. Up until this point in time, breaking the DRM (for example) on devices that you have bought fair and square constituted some sort of a legal infringement. Say, you bought a PlayStation but wanted to run games that Sony didn't want you to; or, you're a farmer, and you wanted to services your John Deere tractor yourself instead of paying an arm and a leg to the manufacturer. Now you can do both.
It seems common sense that you should have always been able to do these things; after all, they are yours, you paid hard earned money for them. After all, no one tells you how to sit on a chair you bought of IKEA or whether you just wanted some firewood, so why should they care about your PS3? But the law told us otherwise.
Now, can you imagine the law being amended in the first place if it wasn't for a multitude of people operating at its shadowy end, demonstrating again and again how dumb this law is?

We learn it again and again. Laws that we now consider absurd, such as woman = their man's property, or dark colored people inability to vote, or - going back further - slavery, were all abolished through the efforts of people working at the twilight of those laws. People who, let's be blunt, broke the law.
Now consider the surveillance society we are already living in and the surveillance society our esteemed leaders would gladly establish if we just let them take those few extra measures to reign in terrorism. In a society such as that, no one would be able to keep in the dark edges of the law. No one would be able to demonstrate that breaking the DRM of our devices is actually quite a positive thing to do.
Do we really want to live in such a society?
I pity the citizens of the UK, with their CCTV cameras per capita records. But the reality is, the rest of us are not too far from Orwell's vision either.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

An Ode to Twitter Friends

Having recently spent a post and your time discussing how having guests over has helped me figure out important facts about my identity, I would like to note another discovery made through the same visitors. To start with the TLDR summary: it's to do with the importance place my Twitter "friends" hold in my life.
There is no real eye opening insight to be had in the rest of this post. It was simply a case of me noting how often my reply to a certain question or my contribution to a conversation would start with "according to this person I know from Twitter...". When this happens as often as it did/does then it is clearly beyond the realm of statistical errors and firmly into meaningful parts of my life.
I discussed Twitter before and mentioned it being great because it allows me to tap into the lives of people I look up to for one reason or another. Say, favourite authors (e.g., John Scalzi), favourite intellectuals (e.g., Leslie Cannold, Richard Dawkins), favourite journalists, etc. But there is more to Twitter than that.
I now propose the extra spicing comes from interacting with Twitter people. True, I never held a meaningful interaction with Scalzi or Dawkins over Twitter (nothing beyond a simple reply or a "like"). I did, however, hold meaningful interactions with plenty of others. And over time, some of these others have established a firm hold on my personality, to the point that although I am well aware of the fact I will never hold a meaningful face to face relationship with them (at least nothing more serious than randomly bumping into them), I do consider them friends. Or at least important stakeholders in that entity that is legally referred to by my name.
I do not believe the dictionary offers a word to describe such "friends" with. I was suggested the term pen-pals, but I do not know if that applies here. What I do know is that through these interactions with people my world has grown so much bigger. Using Twitter, this run of the mill male gets to see the world through the eyes of women, gay, religious, philosophers, feminists, writers, InfoSec experts, and much much more. If there is a niche one is interested in, eventually one would find a venue for two way interactions in that area with someone over Twitter.
The scary thing is that all this might come to an abrupt end if Twitter's plans for selling itself come true and, instead of being the great tool it currently is, Twitter establishes itself into yet another tool in the surveillance / online advertising economy. Indeed, Twitter seems to be its own worst enemy; instead of enjoying being the tool it managed to have become, Twitter - the company - is trying way too hard to become something it's not in order to "increase share holder value". File under capitalism failure.
For now, I will enjoy the present and thank all my Twitter friends for making a difference. A personal difference on yours truly.

I will note the above was written prior to Twitter's announcement about the end of Vine's life.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

On the matter of the iPhone and the headphones

A lot of ink, mostly of the virtual type, has been spent on Apple's removal of the headphones jack from the iPhone 7. I already stated that the underwhelming nature of this phone's release - the fact it's actually an iPhone 6S-S, and the removal of the headphones jack being its most notable feature - has cured me of any will to invest in this new phone despite my current phone being a 4 year old brick masquerading as a smartphone.
However, in my opinion, Apple hasn't been dealt justly with regards to the headphones jack's removal. In my opinion, things are much worse than what we have sort of been stabilised to agree about with regards to Apple's headphones enforcement agenda.
Sure, we can use Apple's supplied adaptor in order to continue using our wired headphones. We can't listen to music while the phone is charging, at least not without the help of yet another dongle, but let us assume for now that is manageable.
Where I think matters are much worse is with the microphone. Most of us use our headphones not only to listen to music, but also to answer calls. My particular noise cancelling headphones come with the added bonus of cleaning out the phone call for both sides, making it a true pleasure to use the headphones for this particular purpose. But no more, says Apple!
The problem is, the iPhone's Lightning connector is digital while our headphones are analog. In order to deal with that, Apple has stuck a digital to analog converter in the dongle it supplies us so we can continue listening to music on our "old" headphones; what it did not do, however, is stick an analog to digital converter in there, too, so that our headphones' microphone can continue working. For that matter, it did not include measures so that the volume and other controls our headphones tend to come equipped can continue working.
Technologically speaking, the compromise is understandable. It has been a major achievement for Apple to cram a digital to analog converter in that tiny dongle it is already providing. But the begging question is still very much - why did Apple decide to bring us down that path in the first place?

iPhone 7 Plus

I can hear the Apple fans arguing the time is ripe for wireless headphones. If you believe that, I have some hot air to sell you.
As the owner of a couple of Bluetooth headphones, I can tell you life is not that glamorous on that side. Using the headphones proves far from "switch it on and they'll just be there"; more often than not there are pairing problems, especially at busy locations. Similar frustrations creep when the headphones just stop working. Or, for that matter, when their battery runs out.
Then there is the matter of sound quality. Bluetooth headphones are more or less limited to a bandwidth of 256kbps, which is nice and dandy for most but not for an audiophile. Even Spotify provides me with music at 360kbps, not to mention Apple itself selling lossless, better than CD, grade music. Sure, you can argue you don't feel the difference and I will empathise. I, however, can feel the difference; not always, it takes good headphones and a quite environment, but I have plenty of both, thank you very much, to consider sound quality vital.
And last, there is the matter of price. The better Bluetooth headphones out there cost $400 or more: I am talking about the Bose QC35, the latest generation of the Parrot headphones (or, for that matter, previous generations), and the Sennheiser Momentum 2. By the way, none of which can compete, sound quality wise, with wired headphone of the same price or even half the price.

I will therefore state the following without prejudice: screw you, Apple, for what you have done.

Image by Kārlis Dambrāns, Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0) licence

Sunday, 23 October 2016

The Long Goodbye

I recently had a short chat with a close friend who recently lost his father. I noted how, several years later, I'm still troubled by the loss of my father on a daily basis. My friend's answer opened my eyes to a potential answer for why this is the case (beyond the obvious fact that the loss of one's father is one of life's more traumatic experiences).
I now argue the fact we, my father and I, never had a proper farewell was a big factor. And I am not referring to the fact I wasn't physically present when my father died; I am talking about the lack of closure when he was still in the game.
We often tell one another the obvious, stating that we should tell our parents or other loved ones how much we love them etc. I don't know about your parents, but in my case such an endeavour is pretty hard - borderline impossible - to achieve in a meaningful way beyond the token effort of saying "mother, I love you". How often do opportunities to say such a thing without sounding like or being perceived as an idiot arise?
For a start, I am virtually light years away from my parents, culture wise. I cite my views on religion as the most obvious indication there: they see/saw themselves as Jews and then as Israelis, whereas I refuse to let the accident of birth determine my worldly prospects. I am an atheist, and while I identify with Jewish stuff on many levels, I will never do so on religious grounds; similarly, I am not one for nationalism, considering it and religion a couple of the world's main sources of malaise.
Second, how exactly do I initiate a conversation with my parents? They were never the sort with whom one can hold a meaningful discourse about anything. Add the physical distance between us and things grow worse. I notice the phenomenon with others, too; when we're away from one another we tell ourselves that we will chat when we meet, in the mean time settling for FaceTime/Skype conversations with limited success because the members of the older generations are often less than capable in the technological department. And on the infrequent occasion we do meet face to face, our conversations seem hell bent on sticking to the mundane "how are you today" level.
Charles Stross summed it up well in a recent post of his. The trouble is that we are too different from our parents. It's not like we're working at one frequency and they're at another; the quick turning of history's pages over the past century means they come from the age of the telegraph while we hail to the 802.11ac goddess. We cannot bring ourselves to communicate using morse code, and they have no idea how to set their wifi up (or why they need it in the first place).
The result is communications that mostly misfire. And feelings of missed opportunities. But these are the natural result of the fact that the times, they are a-changin'. I'd argue that if you are lucky enough to not have this friction with your parents, then you're either lucky to have unnaturally progressive parents or an unlucky person stuck in a time that's not yours to have. For the rest of us it's Communication Breakdown.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

I know what I like and I like what I know

We recently had guests staying over with us. As a side effect of having people of a significantly different culture to mine in close proximity over a significant enough period of time, the experience is quite an eye opener. In my particular case, this glimpse of lives lived differently provided conviction and security to the notion that my way of life, as reflected by the choices I have made, is indeed my preferred way of life. True, that last statement sounds obvious, but is it, really? Can you truly claim that the things you do in your life are really the product of your own preferences, the direct and exact results of some plan you've formed?

Kenneth Branagh describes the character he portrays in the excellent (what an understatement!) series Wallander as "an existentialist who is questioning what life is about and why he does what he does every day". I may not be a murder investigator whose personal life is ruined by exposure to abnormal violence, but I do share the approach to life with my fictional Scandinavian counterpart. I do often ask myself if what I am doing every day is the right thing, and I do wonder what I should be doing instead.
I started noticing differences between my wills/wants and conventional wisdom in my childhood already. At the time, the dominant leisure activity after school was over and done was getting down to the street/park for some outdoor play, usually involving [foot]balls. I've enjoyed that, but with time I tended to gravitate more and more towards reading books inside. The introduction of the Atari 2600 games console, and later the personal computer, dealt a knockout blow to outdoor activities.
As I grew up, the default leisure activity for most people switched into "going out". You know what I'm talking about: going out for a movie, for dinner, or for some other type of entertainment usually provided to us by others. I like that, too, but I could not avoid noting how I often preferred to buck the trend and read a book. With time this changed from books into anything that taught me about the world; let's call it non fiction as a catch all phrase. That contradiction between others and I made me feel uncomfortable: what is wrong with me that I do not seek the entertainment everyone else seems to favour so much, and instead I prefer things that others actively avoid? How many of us count learning about the world as their prime leisure activity?
My answer to that question defaulted into "this is what I end up doing not because this is what I actually prefer to be doing but rather because I have no choice". I told myself I have no choice because I do not have the willing partners for going out on town, and later I told myself I have no choice because I need to go to work, and more recently I have been telling this to myself because my parental duties did not leave me with much of a choice. What I never did was stand up to myself and acknowledge that what I am doing is actually the exact thing I like to do best, and to hell with everyone else's preferences.
That has changed. Seeing life through other people's eyes helped me go out of the wardrobe, so to speak. Now I am openly saying that, yes, I actually prefer to stay at home and learn about the latest in technology over going out. Yes, I prefer learning new tricks with computers and playing around with computer programming. Yes, I thoroughly enjoy playing board games like Carcassonne to watching a musical. Yes, I wholeheartedly prefer to watch an episode of Wallander over the latest trash Hollywood blockbuster. Yes, I much prefer to analyse music's finer qualities on my hi fi to a live venue where the seats are uncomfortable, the toilets stink, and the sound is crudely amplified to ear bleeding levels. And yes, I'd take an intellectual discussion over most forms of passive/light entertainment.
I can continue on and on about where I now confidentially stand without feeling the need to kiss up to what others' preferences anymore. But I will conclude, instead, by citing this blog and my other reviews blog: for a person who is occupying himself with existential questioning of life as his main pursuit and prime source of happiness outside of his direct family, these blogs of mine are the inevitable conclusion. Reviewing a book, or analysing certain aspects of my life the way I have been doing here, are by far the easiest tools available to me to achieve my goals with. 

Sunday, 9 October 2016

My Favourite Israeli Song

A recent tide of Israeli music in Spotify has resulted in it finally, at last, after many long years, featuring the song that is probably my favourite Israeli / Hebrew speaking song ever:

In case you don't do Spotify and can't access the above embedded song, the song I am talking about is called Carim Abdul Zamar from the band Mashina. It is taken from the band's first album, released in 1985.
I do have a couple of notes to go with the song.

First, a bit of personal history.
When this record from Mashina came out, it was a big hit in Israel. Virtually all the songs became hits in their own rights (perhaps with a single exception).
I still remember how, coming out of a Friday night cinema experience featuring Iron Eagle 5 (or some other ultra inferior film experience) with one of my best friends, we bumped into another best friend who came out of a live Mashina show that turned out to take place right next to our cinema.
We were disappointed; we didn't even know that show was on. He, on the other hand, was excited, telling us how - during one of the songs (Ballad For A Double Agent, if you have to know) - the singer took out a giant carrot from under his coat and threw it at the crowd. Yes, it was all happening, and we weren't invited.
Luckily for all three of us, school took us to see Mashina later that year. During school time! And a year or two later, it took us again, thus probably making Mashina into the band I've seen live the most times.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, I would like to explain why I like Carim Abdul Zamar so much. After all, music wise, we are not talking here about a Beatles competitor.
I guess I like the song because it reminds me of the Israel I sort of remember growing at. It's got its oriental themes but it also got Western rock.
The lyrics are nonsense, made up of gibberish, Hebrew, Arabic, English, French and even German - but that's the nice thing about the song. In the Israel I grew up in one would know, more or less, all these expressions from all of these languages (with the notable exception of the gibberish). No, I do not speak French, for example, but I was exposed to a lot of French cinema (way more than the average Aussie is exposed to); I did not speak Arabic, but we did study it at school and Arabic expressions and swearwords did feature in our daily lives.
Nothing special, I know, until I compare things with the current state of Israel, as recently sampled. Nowadays, Israel is a country where the Jewish population actively distances itself from Arab culture as if it's inferior. Gone is that joyful spirit that allowed the mix of words that turned out into a fun song evoking one of the best [Muslim] basketball players ever to grace this world.
But at least I got my song on Spotify now.

Monday, 12 September 2016

The Courage to Buy a Smartphone

Another year, another iPhone model is released, and once again I'm contemplating what smartphone (if any) I should buy.
For the past four years I have been happily using an iPhone 5. It is archaic, it is tiny by today's standards, and in many ways it is a brick; it literally takes a couple of minutes for me to be able to initiate a phone call. Luckily for me, I hardly ever make phone calls. Even better, I do the bulk of my heavy lifting with a powerful iPad, which relegates the phone mostly to texting duties (in my case, Signal and Twitter), music playing, and navigational duties.
There are definite benefits to my particular smartphone/tablet use cases. Take gaming, for example: unless there is a good reason to do so, such as multiplayer games, I do all of my gaming offline. This way I can enjoy the game without giving the games the opportunity to send private information of mine back to the third party trackers, Facebook and the lot. In other words, I can play privately, the way playing should be, without the risk of missing calls on my phone.
I will add that, in similar vein, I do try to minimise my use of apps while online to a few core apps. Most apps (think TripAdvisor) send tons of information to third parties, whereas the exact same functionality can be derived through using a well protected browser instead without the privacy surcharge.
Still, even I can acknowledge that I am being limited by my phone. The time has come for a new one. The question is, which?
Normally, the answer would be "the latest iPhone". But the iPhone 7 makes it really hard for me to spend $1500+ on. As weird as it may sound, that is entirely the fault of Apple and it's silly product launch.

Sure, the iPhone 7 is a good phone. It has a powerful processing unit, probably the most powerful around. It's got a nice camera, too. What it doesn't have, though, is a good reason for people to pick it over any other phone.
In contrast, and in what seems to be the daftest marketing move in the world, Apple has told us that it courageously removed the phone's headphone jack. Did it give us a good alternative? No; it can stick those EarPods it's planning on selling us up its nostrils. If these are anything like the existing EarPods, they sound like shit. I have my headphones, I have many, and I have made my choices; through a complete lack of coincidence, they are all wired models (with the exception of one $10 pair I use for late night gaming).
Essentially, what Apple is doing is telling me to f- off. So I will. And I will mock them in the process.
I will add there are already multiple conspiracy theories doing the rounds with regards to Apple's removal of the headphone jack. One that I consider more than a mere conspiracy is Apple trying to outbid payment dongles such the ones coming from the likes of PayPal. These often utilise the headphones jack. All is fair and love and trying to promote Apple Pay, I guess.

Given Apple has been making numerous strategic moves to secure Apple Pay's future, and given Apple knows the fragility of its current position where its income is too exclusively dependent on iPhone sales, it seems more than likely Apple sees its future in the financial services arena. Think General Electric.
Regardless of this particular conspiracy theory, I think it is safe to say the main reason behind Apple removing the headphones jack is its usual control freak, walled garden, nature. Maybe they already gave up on beating Android?
Whichever way you look at it, It is very hard for one to justify spending $1500+ on a product one mocks. Courageously mocks, to be accurate.

So which phone should I get, then?
If you are a security conscious person, and I argue you should be, your choices are limited to either iPhones or Google Nexus devices. The reason is simple: only these models receive regular security updates. And there is always a new vulnerability being found (Apple had a serious one a couple of weeks ago, Android a couple just a couple of days ago). The catch is that once a vulnerability is published then every dumb hacker wishing to make a name for themselves can now utilise it. Whereas, prior to exposure, the hack was limited to probably the NSA and a few others (in the case of the Apple vulnerability, it is known to have been sold off by an Israeli company to a Middle Eastern dictatorship where it has been used against dissenters and journalists).
At this point I will praise Apple (and praise it again, quite warmly) for its efforts in keeping phone up to date ad secure. Take my iPhone 5 as an example: this phone is in its fifth year of operation now, and it is still running the latest iOS version and receives all the security updates.
Moving from security, if you are a privacy conscious person, and I argue you should be, you would steer away from anything Google on account of the mind numbing amount of information that Google collects and passes on about its Android users. In case you haven't noticed, Google is an advertising company; and what makes this multi-billion behemoth tick and ground the [advertising] competition to dust is the amount of stuff it knows about you. Bottom line, every service and every product Google delivers has collecting your data as its ultimate purpose.
So, what phone, then?
I can give up, buy a cheap but flashy Android like the Xiaomi Mi Note 3, not do anything critical on it so as not to care that much about security, and do my best to brick Google out of the way. But that would be putting my head in the sand; the first thing I will do on my phone is emails, and email account security is critical. Similarly, one cannot use a Google phone without Google.
An iPhone 7? Maybe, but not because I want it; only because it does seem like the only sane choice (together with, it has to be noted, the much smaller iPhone SE).

Which means that, at the bottom line, I will be doing my best to squeeze another year off my iPhone 5. I really hope it doesn't fully brick itself later this week when I upgrade it to iOS 10. Plus, it's got that revolutionary headphones jack!
I also hope next year's iPhone will do better than the 7. Headphones or not, Apple can still get me to throw money enthusiastically down its greedy claws with a design that actually gives me something I haven't had before. I know I'm asking for a lot, but - historically speaking - Apple used to be the company that delivers historical products. Maybe it still is.

I found the above image on Twitter. I have no idea who owns the right for it, but I am allowing myself to reproduce it here under fair use.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Welcome to the Machine

There is an iOS game called Human Resource Machine that's a typical iOS puzzle game. Or at least that's what it tries to pass as: you play an employee at a dystopian company who has to follow the dumb rules in order to go up the food chain. The game got good reviews noting its cleverness, so when it was discounted to $1 I took the plunge.
What I quickly discovered, playing Human Resource Machine, is that no matter what the game tries to pass as, what you - the player - are actually doing in this game is CPU programming, Assembly/Assembler style. In order to solve puzzles you conduct activities that are 1 to 1 equivalents to loading CPU registers, adding CPU registers, and managing the special register that controls which memory byte the next CPU command will be read from.
And oh this brought back memories. Back in "my days", if you wanted to do anything properly sophisticated on your first gen accessible home personal computer (a Dragon 32, in my case), you had the choice of either the second incarnation of Microsoft Basic (slow and fairly limited!) or Assembly. Thus I got to play in Assembly and learned a lot about my Dragon's Motorola 6809 CPU in order to get there. I still remember some of the books I used: "The 6809 Cookbook", "Language of the Dragon".
I did some nifty things. I wrote my own Assembler compiler in Basic, programmed the graphics for my own Phoenix arcade game lookalike, and wrote a calculator program in Assembly.
Assembly had this charm to it. Programming in Assembly meant you have to think just like a CPU, and the direct nature of that had an effect on me. To program a CPU you need to think like a CPU, and you don't get to identify with a computer any better than that.
Perhaps that is why I'm not doing too badly in Human Resource Machine.

This rekindling of an old flame made me ponder about the things that drove me away from the world of Assembly programming and into the world of the mundane. Why, over the years, did I abandon the extraordinary that I used to have?
I think the answer is clear. High school, with its demands for grades, did not leave me with the time to experiment with my personal interests. My high school maths teacher, probably the worst teacher I ever had, pretty much decimated any interest I might have in maths. Then came Israel's mandatory army service, which disconnected me from the normal living world for several years. And then came the peculiar demands of Israeli universities at the time, which mandated deep maths studying - the subject high school burnt me at - in order to go deeply into programming. I chose a much less riskier subject.
In other words, the conventional education system killed any spark of independent thinking I might have had. That dystopian vision of the corporate world in Human Resource Machine is embodied in real life through me.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

An Affliction

This blog would like to apologise for not posting much lately. It puts the blame on an extreme affliction of extreme busy-ness.
In the meantime, here is competing theory concerning the absence of posts:

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Notes from a Small Country*

It is the custom of this blog to file in a report after each visit to Israel in order to document changes. Changes in Israel, changes in my perceptions of Israel, and through the analysis of the above changes in yours truly. With that in mind, allow me to summarise this particular latest visit of mine to Israel with the words of my mother: "Go back to where you are comfortable". Because if my mother can finally acknowledge I no longer belong in Israel...
You might already guess the following review will not compliment Israel much. There are several reasons for that, with me visiting at the peak of a boiling summer probably being the most crucial. However, what I would like you to bear in mind is that the purpose of this post is not to pass derogatory comments towards Israel but rather to cite the differences between the Australian (or rather Melbourne) standards I am used to and those of what I was used to until I left Israel. That, and pointing out how much Israel has changed since I left it (a lot!).

[Photo: Kosher certificate, "photography forbidden"]

With utmost certainty, I can attest the reason for the bulk of my lack of Israeli comfort lies in the heat. Tel Aviv summers are bad, and it is my impression is that they are getting hotter/worse. Not because of global warming, not because I came in from Melbourne winter, but because of the congestion. I could literally feel the heat trapped in between buildings and by the the vast slabs of concrete and pavement that cover everything.
Don't know why they need weather forecasts during Israeli summer. I can tell you what it would be like tomorrow: hot.

To this visitor, Tel Aviv seems like a one big construction site. Major roads have been dug up to cater for a future underground train (hear that, Melbourne?). Empty patches of ground have largely gone extinct, replaced by towers (as opposed to mere buildings). And existing building have been patched with additional floors added on top. The view from my mother's kitchen, once overlooking significant patches of Tel Aviv with one single tower to come between kitchen and sea, is now dominated by the next door building's extra floors and a lineup of towers that greatly diminish any appreciation of the sea beyond.
The trouble is that all these buildings carry people. And these people tend to carry cars.
Where once one might have had to drive around a couple of streets to find parking, I have now experienced (on multiple occasions) how people are forced to wait in a waiting list queue next to a pay car park and hope for parked cars to leave and make some space. I would call that insane if it wasn't the natural evolution of growing populations and growing resources.
Tel Aviv of today seems a place where one is stuck in a traffic jam the minute one gets out of one's garage. With the bulk of cars sporting scratches and bumps, one does wonder how badly this congestion shows itself in road fatalities.

I could see the look on my Israeli friends' faces when I complained about the noise. It said "what the hell is this weirdo on about?"
But I could feel it.
By six AM each morning I would no longer be able to sleep due to the constant hum from the outside world. When listening carefully, that hum would break down to traffic noise, the sound of people going about, as well as construction site noise. Regardless, the noise contamination represents a huge contrast to Melbourne, where the predawn silence can strike as horror movie creepy and where birdsong is often my wake up call.
I could feel it through music, too. At first I thought my speaker was broken; music simply did not sound half as good as it did before. Gone were the finer details, butchered was the dynamic range. But then it occurred to me: the speaker is just the same as it was before, it's just that the ambient noise level is so much higher.
To file under "a side effect of congestion".
[Note to self: you idiot, you have a phone app that measures sound levels and you forgot to use it.]
[Disclaimer: heat is responsible for worse sounding music, too: the hotter air is thinner and thus not as good at sound conduction.]

Books can be written about the Israeli driving experience. I will start by noting that, in my humble opinion and as a gross generalisation, I find the Israeli driver leagues better than their Aussie counterpart. Not because of superior genes or anything, but rather because the Israeli driver is like a crack commando soldier that is constantly practicing under extreme heavy fire and has to hone their skills to survive [and arrive at their destination], whereas the Aussie one can drive half way from Melbourne to Sydney on the wrong side of the road with little repercussion.
But this also means that the Israeli driver is a killer. If one intends to change lanes, one will receive an immediate beep! from one's side to inform one where one can stick one's intentions. If stops to allow pedestrians to cross at a crossing, one will receive an immediate beep! beep! from one's behind to suggest that, perhaps, these crossers are subhuman and one should consider running them over as a reward. If one starts to drive, one receives a beep! If one stops, whether to daydream or because one has arrived at one's destination, one receives a beep!.
It really is beep galore, Israel, and it seems contagious. Once someone decides to beep their car, others around will join in, as if trying to jointly compose a symphony. No one knows why cars beep anymore in Israel, they just do and constantly.
I sought a portable pedestrian horn just so I could join the orchestra, but alas they do not seem to sell one yet. Probably because Israelis do not like noise contamination.

George W is famous for saying "you're either with us or against us". Israelis seem to have taken W's words at heart and implement them in the way the speak.
I noticed two camps of Israelis: those that speak and those that shout. The first are nice to interact with; they feel human. The latter feel the need to ensure they bulldoze the person they are attempting conversation with. They are not particularly angry at you or anything, it's just that in the atmosphere of noise and beeping cars they have learnt that if they want to increase the probability of receiving attention they need to raise their volume. So they shout. By default.
I could not believe it, but my mother seems to spend the longer parts of the afternoon being shouted at. She doesn't go about seeking controversy or doing evil, she just lies on her comfy living room chair and switches the TV on to watch the afternoon's current affairs stuff. It's just that the bulk of the people on those shows belong to the default shouters.
I made sure I hide in the remote parts of the house during the afternoon. I have a problem with being shouted at.

It took one visit to the doctor, to get my mother's medicine prescriptions, to remind me of what the concept of "queuing" stands for in Israel.
I suspect that if I asked you to picture a queue in your mind, you would conjure an image of people waiting in line. Well, an Israeli queue is different; it's more like a rugby scrum. Only that this is no scrum between two opposing teams but rather a scrum where every person is their own team.
Instead of a line you have the queuing folk surrounding the service provider in a tight circular formation. Instead of order, along the lines of First In First Out, you have the scrum constantly studying one another to detect a weakness. Once such weakness is identified (no Israeli should fall for that old "I'm just here for a prescription" lie), the identifier shall strike to grab the attention of the service provider and win their personal match. And if you don't play rugby, well, good on ya, sucker!
Israelis have ways of making the service provider feel the pain of letting others wait. While waiting at a seeds/nuts shop (a popular form of snacks in Israel, although not as popular as it used to be) I noted how everyone waiting in the scrum around the guy currently being attended was busy picking seeds out of the trays and munching as they were impolitely waiting. Fuck hygiene, it's only thirty five degrees, what are the chances of spreading disease this way?

Since we've discussed food hygiene, I should add that - generally speaking - I much prefer what passes for food in Israel to the Australian preferences. Spices are not to be frowned upon in Israel, as well as the concept of taste. Luckily, Australia has its immigrants to set things right from its stomach numbing English origins, but with the rise of the white fascist parties in Australia that can no longer be counted upon as a given.
Also, it seems like nowadays wholemeal pita bread is pretty much everywhere in Israel, making my most favourite foods - hummus & Co - much healthier to consume.
What puzzles me, though, is the matter of pricing. Generally speaking, supermarket foods cost the same as in Australia or slightly below (there is variance, of course; some things cost much more). However, all non food stuff seems to cost way more than it does in Australia. And, to add a particular twist to the equation, restaurant food is vastly cheaper than in Australia.
I thus found myself consuming hummus like there is no tomorrow and paying only $8 for the pleasure; some times I pay more just for the coffee in Melbourne.
As for the most important matter of coffee: aside of the fact it is not an enjoyable beverage when the outside world is as boiling as your cuppa, it seems as if what passes for coffee in Israel is way weaker than the Melbourne equivalent. I would also note more "flexibility" in the definition of what different types of coffee stand for, whereas in Melbourne serving a latte instead of a flat white is punishable by beheading.
Still, as much as I love coffee, I'd pick the rich hummus ecosystem over the best of coffees any day; one of the worst things about visiting Israel is that it really takes a while before I can bring myself to consume what passes for hummus in Australia.
Sadly, all the points Israel earns in the culinary department evaporate because of one factor: the Kosher factor. Most non Jews don't realise, but for food to pass as Kosher it needs more than pig avoidance. For example, one is not allowed to mix meat with milk (no cheeseburger for you) and one is not allowed to cook on a Saturday (though the religious have all sorts of creative ways to cheat their god on this one).
Back in the Tel Aviv I remember, non Kosher joints used to be the majority. Things are different now, perhaps due to the economics of changing demographics. The Kosher places hold the vast majority. Which is fine when dealing with hummus, and is fine given shutting places of commerce for one day of the week and giving employees a bit of a break is not a bad idea at all. But it is shit all the rest of the time!
The people of Israel simply do not know what they are missing. It is as if religion had color blinded their tongues.
When even the non Kosher restaurant try their best to still cater for the less zealous, the food is compromised. When getting to bacon in the first place is hard, then one can forget about experiencing the finer nuances of bacon. Yes, if one seeks to then one can get their hands on pretty much all types of food, even milky bacon on a Saturday; the problem is with the seeking. In Australia you don't need to seek; the food just comes at you, beckoning you to try. The chances of missing out on greatness are thus greatly compounded.

Now we're getting to the meat of it.
On a couple of occasions I had people, upon learning I'm visiting from Australia, issue me with a dire warning. According to these experts who have never been to Australia, there is a severe antisemitism problem Down Under. Even worse, give it thirty years or so, and the Muslims will take over Australia just like they already took over Europe.
Historical accuracy aside, I agreed with them that there is rampant racism in Australia. However, I continued, the racism expressed towards Jews is nothing compared to what Muslims have to go through [and I will note I had said this before Pauline Hanson got four senators elected].
When I was a kid, I remember that parents used to tell kids off for saying bad things about Arabs. "You don't talk this way" was a common way of dealing with such talk in the Tel Aviv I grew up in. Nowadays, it seems the most common expression in the Hebrew language is "...and still they complain about us discriminating them", said with regards to the treatment of Israeli Arabs and the grossly obvious - if you ask me - discrimination against them. As that common expression testifies, racism is deeply ingrained into Israeli society. It is taken for granted. The problem, according to the majority of Israelis I have encountered, is not the racism; it is that the Arabs are complaining against the racism. I'm sorry, but this stinks, badly.
The view that holds [Jewish] Israelis above the rest is dominant. For example, when news broke out that Theresa May is going to be the next British PM, the only angle in the news coverage was whether "good for Israel". The same applies to the Trump/Clinton USA elections; who gives a shit whether Trump is a fascist, the only thing that matters is the way he is going to regard Israel as Mr President. The contrast with Australian news coverage could not be more obvious [though I do need to add a disclaimer concerning the Murdoch news outlets: I refuse to acknowledge their existence].
The problem with the racism is that it is pumped at Israelis relentlessly through the news. It is hard for a person to disconnect themselves from the constant bombardment of news getting shouted at them in Israel, impossible to take a break and disconnect oneself from the world (which is pretty much the default state of being in Australia). And when all one hears is a one dimensional continuous chain of inputs on how the Arabs want to kill us all, the result is as expected. Yes, international news coverage often sins in its portrayal of Israel as a force of pure evil, but the Israeli media does not do Israelis much favour, either.
Israeli society is in a pretty toxic state.

And in contrast...
Arriving midway on my journey back from Israel to Australia, I made my way to the terminal from which I was to hop on my flight to Melbourne.
It was quiet. Queuing was a polite and orderly affair. Personal spaces were respected. People were smiling at one another.
I wasn't home yet but it already felt like home.

*I couldn't help it, I'm in the middle of reading the latest [delightful] book from Bill Bryson.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Why Is Global Warming?


I was recently describing a science fiction book to a friend. "It is set in a dystopian world", I said (more or less). "Isn't every [science fiction] book set in a dystopian universe nowadays?", he replied (more or less). And he's right; with science fiction mirroring the society we live in, it should.
Take global warming as an example. We know it's coming and knew it for decades. We can already feel its effects. We know the cataclysmic effects it will have if things go on the way they are. Yet we are doing bugger all about it. And why is that?
First of all, half of us humans are too busy with basic survival to be able to afford too much concern for worldly matters such as global warming. It's hard to think what the world would be like in a few decades or a century or two when you don't have food on your table (and we don't know whether there is a table there in the first place). That's Maslow for you.
Problem is, if we set our focus on the First World, the picture does not get any better. Just have a look at how our allegedly informed public is going about its way.
In the USA we are facing the distinct possibility of a fascist coming into power through not much more than the power of his speech as he massively capitalises on people's ongoing frustrations [and fear of everything non white]. In the United Kingdom (what a euphemism!) we had the majority vote for Brexit on account of clearly false promises made to them mostly by a person who has, as a direct result of those lies, been promoted to the Foreign Ministry job. I will add that, to this outsider, the vote seems to clearly reflect the xenophobia of the older / physically remote / ignorant folk of the UK, who - admittedly - have been marginalised by their own government and chose to release their anger on the bloody foreigners.
Is Australia any better? No, it clearly isn't. Just a couple of weeks after Brexit we reelected a government that threw away tens of billions of dollars so as to not deliver us an NBN project, all the while reciting to the public that they are the financially responsible choice that would do our economy good. And we took them for their word while totally ignoring the 40 billion evidences that are staring us at the face every time a YouTube video is buffering or our Netflix is pixelating.
If we can't deal with that shit, how can anyone expect us to be able to deal with global warming?
We are on the brink of dystopia. Some of us already know this, so they go ahead to write science fiction books.

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

Monday, 8 August 2016

Census Night for Australia

As you may be aware, tomorrow is Census night at Australia. All Australians will be required to fill out a survey and answer a slew of mandatory questions about themselves (only the religion question is optional).
As you might also be aware, this will be the first Australian Census where people's names are going to be retained and regularly matched against other databases. It is, to the best of my knowledge, the best organised government data mining intrusion into normal people's lives yet; mandatory data retention is already there, but at least it is not perceived to have the same power to link us to everything.
Anna Johnston, currently a privacy consultant and previously the Deputy Privacy Commissioner for NSW, wrote the following article regarding this Census. With her permission, I will reproduce it here:

Why I’m taking leave of my Census: a privacy expert’s reluctant boycott

Dear Magistrate,
In case the ABS is prosecuting me for non-completion of this year’s Census, I thought I should explain to you my reasons why I have decided that a boycott is the only moral position I can take.
The short version is this:  Yes to a national snapshot.  No to detailed data-linking on individuals.  That’s not what a census is for.
I have wrestled with what my personal position should be.  I am normally a fan of the Census.  It has an important role to play in how we as a people are governed.  As a former public servant with a policy and research background, I believe in evidence-based policy decisions.  As a parent and a citizen, I want good quality data to help governments decide where to build the next school or hospital, or how to best direct aged care funding, or tackle indigenous disadvantage.
But as a former Deputy Privacy Commissioner, and a privacy consultant for the past 12 years, I can also see the privacy risks in what the ABS is doing.
Months ago I wrote an explanation of all the privacy risks caused by the ABS’s decision to keep and use name and address information for data-linking, in the hope that reason would prevail.  I was assuming that public and political pressure would force the ABS to drop the proposal (as they did in 2006 when I was Chair of the Australian Privacy Foundation and we spoke up about it).  Lots of people (as well as one penguin, the marvellous Brenda, the Civil Disobedience Penguin), are now coming to realise the risks and speak out against them, but right now, just a few days out, it looks like the ABS is pushing ahead regardless.
There are those who say that we shouldn’t boycott the Census because it is too important.  To them I say:  Bollocks.  (If you pardon my language, Your Worship.)  We know where that ‘too big to fail’ argument leads: to more arrogance, more heavy-handed treatment of citizens, more privacy invasions.
And there are the demographers who say the Census data should be linked to other health records like PBS prescription records, because if we as patients were asked for our identifiable health data directly, we would refuse to answer.  To them I say:  Hello, THAT’S THE POINT!  It’s my health information, not yours.  You should ask me nicely, and persuade me about your public interest research purpose, if you want access to my identifiable health records.  Maybe then I will say yes.  But going behind people’s backs because they would refuse their consent if asked is not what the National Health & Medical Research Council’s National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research is about.
This morning I suddenly realised: the ABS is behaving like a very, very bad boyfriend.  He keeps on breaking promises, pushing boundaries and disappointing you, but you forgive him each time.  You don’t want to call him out in case then he gets angry and dumps you.  So you just put up with it, and grumble over drinks to your girlfriends.
And this bad boyfriend keeps saying these reassuring things, like “oh we’ll only keep the data for four years”, and “the names and addresses are in a separate database”.  To that I say:  Nice try, but that’s a red herring.
Although there are certainly heightened privacy and security risks of accidental loss or malicious misuse with storing names and addresses, the deliberate privacy invasion starts with the use of that data to create a Statistical Linkage Key (SLK) for each individual, to use in linking data from other sources.  Please don’t believe that SLKs offer anonymity.  SLKs are easy to generate, with the same standard used across multiple datasets.  That’s the whole point: so that you can link data about a particular individual.  For example, Malcolm Turnbull would be known by the SLK URBAL241019541 in the type of datasets the ABS wants to match Census data against, including mental health services (yes, mental health!) and other health records, disability services records, early childhood records, community services records, as well as data about housing assistance and homelessness.
Anyone with access to these types of health and human services datasets can search for individuals by generating and searching against their SLK.  All you need to know is their first and last names, gender and date of birth.  Scott Morrison is ORICO130519681.  Kylie Minogue is INGYL280519682.  Deltra Goodrem is OOREL091119842.  Now tell me that privacy will be absolutely protected if Census data is coded and linked using an SLK as well.
Never mind four years; the ABS could destroy all the actual name and address data after only four days or four seconds – but if they have already used it to generate an SLK for each individual Census record, the privacy damage has been done.
(Oh, and that line about how “we’ve never had a privacy breach with Census data”?  To that I say:  Great!  Let’s keep it that way!  DON’T COLLECT NAMES.)
So I say no.  No.  I am not putting up with that bad boyfriend any longer.  I believe in the importance of the Census, which is why I am so damn pissed off (sorry again Your Worship) that the ABS is being such a bad boyfriend to the Australian people: trashing not only our privacy, but the value of our data too.  It’s time to break up with them.
I have come to this decision with a heavy heart.  I am normally a law-abiding citizen.  Plus, I don’t really fancy facing a $180 fine for every day that I refuse to comply with a direction to complete the Census, with no cap on the number of days.  (Seriously, what kind of heavy-handed law is that?  Are you really going to keep hitting me with daily fines for the rest of my life, Your Worship?)
I know that I could give the ABS misinformation instead.  Say my name is Boaty McBoatface and that I am a 97 year old man living with 8 wives, that I have 14 cars, my language at home is Gibberish and that my religion is Jedi.  Giving misinformation is a common, rational response by about three in ten people who want to protect their privacy when faced with the collection of personal data they have no choice about.  Of course, that is also a crime in relation to the Census, but at least that one maxes out at an $1,800 fine.
But I won’t do that, because I do believe in the integrity of the census data.  I don’t want people to have to give misinformation in order to protect themselves.  We shouldn’t be placed in that position.
The definition of ‘census’ is “an official count”.  I actually want to stand up and be counted.  But only counted; not named or profiled or data-matched or data-linked, or anything else.  The privacy risks of doing anything else are just too great.
I have thought about just refusing to provide my name.  But even if I don’t give my name, if the ABS is determined to link my Census data with other datasets, there would be enough other information in my Census answers (sex, age, home address, previous home address, work address) to let them proceed regardless.  It won’t be enough to protect my privacy.
So until the ABS reverses its decision to match Census data about individuals with other datasets about individuals, I am not going to answer the Census questions at all.
I am sorry, Your Worship.  I don’t like being forced to choose, because I believe Australians deserve to have both good quality statistical data for government decision-making, AND their privacy respected.  But on Tuesday night, I will choose privacy.
The Census should be a national snapshot, not a tool for detailed data-linking on every individual.  Now convict and fine me if you disagree.

Yours sincerely,
Anna Johnston

I would like to point out that I am very much against what is going here with this Census. However, on the other hand, I am also a law abiding citizen who would very much like to continue being a law abiding citizen (and is also very much afraid of getting into any sort of trouble with the law). The Census is thus rendering me helpless: I can appreciate its importance and the need for the data it collects, but I also feel the need to protect my family from the gross privacy (and security!) violation it represents. I therefore have no idea what my best course of action with regards to the Census is.
At a more philosophical level, this dilemma illustrates the need for people to be able to work at the shadow of the law in order to be able to correct it when it is wrong. And laws are often wrong: slaves were legally enslaved, women were legal chattel, and being gay used to land you in jail up until not that long ago. Even if you disagree with Johnston and I about the Census, you have to agree we should be able to debate it and - if push comes to shove - that may involve breaking the law. Just the way Johnston says she is about to (note: not me; I'm a chicken).
So the next time you here people justifying bulk surveillance of the type Edward Snowden exposed, or you happen to hear one's Attorney General uttering the "nothing to fear, nothing to hide" justification for such measures [while wearing CIA cuff links], do feel free to call their bullshit out loud.