Monday, 29 February 2016

I Play Video Games

This weekend I finished a video game I was playing on my iPad, Hero Emblems. It was fun; I played the last battle together with my son, and we deployed the much dreaded "super defence" tactic to beat two bosses in a row.
According to the game stats, I spent 45 hours on this game, a game that cost me $1. In comparison, I spent much less time on all the my recent PS4 A Titles combined, a list that includes prestigious games such as Fallout 4, Star Wars: Battlefront, and Project Cars. Games I spent hundreds of dollars on.
Clearly, the latter are way better games than Hero Emblems. Fallout 4, in particular, won every Game of the Year award I am aware of.
Even more clearly, none of this glory matters. At this particular chapter of my life, accessibility matters much more than quality. Being able to have a short go at something in between doing other things is the one thing that still allows me to play a video game; with Fallout it takes an hour just to warm up. Me, I rarely get a straight hour of gaming anymore.
I would love it if game developers take notice of the fact. I already had one iPad game, World of Tanks Blitz, win my Game of the Year award last year; by all objective accounts, Hero Emblems should walk all over Fallout this year.

Hero Emblems image used under the assumption of fair use

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Apple, the Champion of Privacy

You might not be aware of it, but as we speak Apple is entangled with the FBI in a struggle to determine whether it [Apple] should or should not devise a backdoor that would allow authorities to hack their way into an iPhone 5C. This is a big deal, for the simple fact things won't end there; it is already obvious more iPhones are on the waiting list. It is obvious other countries, like Russia or China, will follow shortly on the "let's put Apple under pressure" agenda. And it is obvious your average criminal will nose around, too.
In other words, Apple, in this current standoff, is the Champion of Privacy for all smartphone yielding people in the world. No matter where you are or what smartphone you use, eventually the outcome of this case will trickle down to affect you in person.
It goes without saying that I am firmly on Apple corner's in this fight. Any security cyber expert worth a cent would agree. It's just that the FBI is waving that good old "terror alert!" flag to scare enough people out of their wits in order to create an actual controversy.
It's just that I wouldn't have picked Apple, a commercial company whose only interest is making a profits, as my champion.


On the other hand, there are things to be said on behalf of Apple, especially since Tim Cook took over from Steve Jobs. I'll give you a couple of examples.
A couple of months ago I attended a design workshop at my local Apple shop. It was free, and it was clearly designed as a plug for the iPad Pro, but it also taught me a couple of useful things. [And as per the iPad Pro, there really is very little reason for the average person to acquire one, although I wouldn't mind at all if Tim cut down the price to reasonable levels so I could play World of Tanks Blitz on a 13" tablet.]
The thing that surprised me about the workshop was that my fellow students were all elderly people who, quite clearly, knew nothing about design. The situation clarified itself at the end of the workshop, when one of them turned to the instructor and asked him by first name, "what are you doing next week?"
As it turned out, there is a group of retired people in my area that meets up regularly for Apple's free workshops. I would say it's a win-win; they are armed with their iPads and such, while Apple gives something back to the community.
The other week I visited that same Apple shop again to sort a minor thing out (Apple is currently running a product recall on Aussie power plugs). Welcoming me at the entrance was a very disabled Apple employee on a wheelchair. He might have been disabled but he helped me just like any other Apple employee would have. It's just that one hardly encounters disabled employees in the retail industry! It is therefore important to applaud Apple for what it is doing here.
So yes, I know Apple is a company that works on a very capitalism based greedy framework. It's a company that avoids paying taxes, a company that has legions of underpaid workers employed under grim conditions on its behalf in China, and a company that uses minerals obtained through questionable means from war torn countries. As do all other notable companies in the industry.
Sometimes, however rarely, the interests of the public and the interests of a company align. Which is why, at this moment in time and against this particular background, Apple stands out as a likable company.

Image by EFF Photos, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC 2.0) licence

Monday, 22 February 2016

Me and My Big Kalashnikov

Before we delve in to the story I want to share, allow me this exposition in which I stereotype about the average Aussie's perceptions of the Middle East.
As things are, my appearance often triggers Aussies to ask me where I'm from. I used to be cheeky and reply with anything from Melbourne, Holland and Craplakistan, but nowadays I'm too tired to play around so I usually say what they really want to hear - Israel.
The catch is with my particular pronunciation of the letter R. To that average Aussie, it sounds as if life what I'm saying is actually "Islam".
The further catch is, many said Aussies are unaware of the non existence of a country called Islam.
Which brings me to this post's story, taking place at a parents/children forum.


One of the children was playing with a PC and searched up images of assault rifles. As it happened, Google filled the screen up with images of AK-47s (aka Kalashnikovs). While that child's parent was still in shock, the child turned to me and started talking about the images.
I detest guns & ammo, but because I do not think being explicit about it would turn that child off guns I tried the more sophisticated approach and told him that I actually had one of these. An AK-47, that is. Yes, I really did: for two weeks of my Israeli army service I was carrying an AK-47, and in the best traditions of army boot camp I even slept with it.
I never got to discuss the negatives of the guns. That parent was shocked; my comment left her mouth open. She cut me off to start asking me where I'm from, which - as explained in the exposition above - did not help matters. She proceeded to ask if ASIO was keeping an eye on me, to which I explained that my army discharge paperwork was all submitted to Australian immigration authorities as part of my visa application.
It didn't help much. For all intents and purposes, I was a terrorist. And I was engaging her child.

For the purpose of discussion, let us ignore my big mouth or the wisdom of sharing my personal relationship with an assault rifle for a minute. In my defence I will simply state I was trained on several other weapons. None of which changes the fact that I am definitely not a terrorist and, now that I am not forced by the state to hold a gun, actually consider myself a pacifist.
My point is the state of fear, or rather terror, that the average Australian is at. Contrast that with the actual danger that Australians face from terrorism, and you'll have yourself a big mystery.
Thing is, it's not a mystery at all. There is the matter ignorance in the ways of remote parts of the world, yes, but there is also the fear that feeds into that. And when we have the government, particularly that of former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, doing its best to make the most of this fear for its own self interest, then we should not be surprised with what we end up with.
It is not like the average Australian is an evil racist. It's just that between ignorance and abuse, they end up racists despite all the good intentions.
This is exactly how we find ourselves in a state where both major parties support the overseas processing and torture of asylum seekers while 70% of Australians are perfectly content with that. This is how we got to a state where the government excuses itself from accusations of a 5 year old asylum seeker being raped in the government's overseas detention facilities by stating it was actually a 7 year old.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Let's Dance

While never ranked as my top performer, David Bowie was always there for me. I may not like him as much as I do Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin, but I unlike them he has been there, active, for the whole of my life thus far. Just like them (and only them), I carry the bulk of his discography on me all the time, which does say something.
Regardless, David Bowie death hit me hard. I thought I'd take the opportunity to analyse how this man and his music integrated with my life over the years.

You know that old RockWiz adage, the question they ask each participant? "What was the first album you ever bought with your own money"? Well, if memory serves me right, my answer to that question is David Bowie's Let's Dance. As ever, the full story is more complicated.
Times were simpler back then. Music was not half as accessible as it is now, a Spotify / Apple Music / YouTube search away. I had my older siblings record collection at my disposal, but for my own stuff I had to rely on radio, and that primarily came out of Israel's Reshet Gimel station top hits daily radio show at 3:00PM - "Chadash, Chadish U-mechudash". I recall it being anchored by Shosh Atari and produced by Tony Fine, bless them. That hour of music was our Top of the Pops of the time.
The times were times of conflict. Michael Jackson's Thriller controlled the scene, crushing all opposition. Us of the alternative aspirations were left to admit defeat. At least until a new combatant entered the scene, Bowie's Let's Dance. Nowadays we may regard that album as eighties pop, but it sure didn't feel like that at the time; it was the official rock n roll answer to Jackson's pop.
Everyone knew that year was Jackson's. Bully Jean was, and still is, a good song; definitely the song of 1983. But this was war, and in war all is fair. So when the yearly charts were scored, Bowie's local Israeli flocks all enlisted to help their singer of choice win "Israel's Official" yearly charts at Reshet Gimel. Modern Love had shoved Billy Jean into second place. Us cool people won.
For me, that meant spending the entirety of my savings on a piece of vinyl was worth it.
What I remember next was the sense of disappointment. It was cool for the album to start with the three hits I loved so much, Modern Love, China Girl and the title track; but the rest, they weren't as good. And Let's Dance itself didn't sound like it did on the radio; the album featured its longer version. Thus yours truly was initiated On the differences between a good album and some good hit songs.
Don't get me wrong, though, I was content with the music; it's just that this was the manifestation of all my savings, so I sort of expected musical nirvana. At least some type of nirvana.

Let's Dance was still the in album to listen to for a while. Until, that is, my best friend and next door neighbour LS (now a celebrity published author) told me the news: Let's Dance might be the latest fashion, but if you really want to know David Bowie you need to listen to Hunky Dory.
So I booked myself a visit and left him a blank cassette of mine (what evil pirates we were!). I couldn't say that Hunky Dory blew me off my feet, but it was good, and it definitely had more creativity to it. I liked it.
The most notable feature of Hunky Dory was the way I listened to it. Those were the days when cassettes (and tape players) would often fail, so I made myself a backup copy to actually listen to while the "original" cassette was well looked after. Only that those were the pre digital, pre double cassette player days; my playing copy was made by placing two cassette players next to one another, one playing and the other recording. Just in case anyone refers to those days as "the good old days".

Days went by, CD technology came in, and vinyl lost favour. I actually gave my [small] vinyl collection to a collector friend, Let's Dance included, as I started building my own substantial CD collection.
My next encounter with Bowie came during my university days. I was working on an assignment with a fellow student at her home while her husband, a substantial music collector of affluent taste (read: very similar to mine) played us his recent purchases of remastered David Bowie CDs. He played Hunky Dory, which brought back memories, but more importantly he played Ziggy Stardust. The latter left me smashed: that was awesome music!
I did what I had to do and added those two albums, and a few more classic Bowies, to my own collection. Ziggy Stardust quickly established itself to my Very Best Albums of All Time list, where I still consider it to hold third place. [If you have to ask, it's behind Dark Side of the Moon and Abbey Road.]

Yet, it has to be said that while I was re-finding Bowie's old classics, the man himself was busy producing new music that sounded pretty bland and unimpressive.
Even Bowie's 2013 effort was pretty mundane and forgettable. But Bowie is Bowie; he persevered, and come late 2014 he released an EP that finally made me pay attention to the greatness of Bowie once again. It was Sue's fault: jazzy, creative, wonderful.

Then came late 2015's Blackstar - the best thing to come from Bowie since, well, since Ziggy Stardust, if you ask me. Bowie was back in my life.
For good, as it turned out, since he died just a few days after I synced Blackstar [the album] to my phone.
Bowie was not the only one to mature with Blackstar. Listening to this excellent new album got me to revisit the Bowie catalog, noting things I was too young and inexperienced to notice before. Things like the aboriginal angle in the Let's Dance video. Or Omar Hakim's drumming in the Let's Dance album, clearly demonstrating his Jazzy roots (you may be acquainted with Hakim's drumming through Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms, too). Or Stevie Ray Vaughan's guitar, especially when considering that back in 1983 no one heard of Vaughan. Yet Bowie always had his eye on the future. And me, I'm so old and wise.

My personal David Bowie story might not sound like much, but it means a lot to me.
I recall repeatedly expressing surprise at just how badly I took my father's death. It was suggested to me that one possible explanation for that feeling is due to the fact my father has been there throughout my life; now that he's gone, it feels like an essential part of life has been removed. Frankly, I tend to think there is sound logic in that argument.
Well, the same goes For Bowie. David Bowie and his music have been there throughout my musical life, going through the normal cycle of ups and downs everything in this universe goes through. Unlike others who left an impression upon me , Bowie was there all along, evolving, changing with the times while others withered and failed. And now, music without Bowie, the permanent feature that was always there, feels the same as life without my father.
Ultimately, the question I ask myself is why. Why did Bowie bother being there for all these years, always trying to renew himself? I think Let's Dance provides us with an answer to that question, too. To quote from Ricochet,
And who can bear to be forgotten?
Don't worry, Mr Jones, I won't be forgetting you any time soon.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

The Immigrant Song

I think it was trying to think of how I would fare at an old people's place that made me realise the blindly obvious: I will never be an Australian.
No matter how long I live here, I will never like the typical [Anglo] food that dominates proceedings wherever the lowest common denominator food is the only option. I will never enjoy alcohol the way Aussies do. I will never follow their sports. And yes, as a result, it would always be hard for me to make new friends.
I am not accusing anyone here; this is just what the immigrant's experience is like. I made my choice: while I tick all of the above mentioned boxes in Israel, I know I definitely do not want to reside in there. And I know that liking the food and liking the sports are not the only factors that determine whether one feels one belongs.
But I do know that, eventually, that feeling of being out of place would overwhelm me. It's just that at Australia that would happen many years later.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

The Windows Experiment

Question #1: What would I do if my iPhone got stolen?
Answer #1: I would buy a new phone.

Question #2: What would I if my Mac got stolen?
Answer #2: I would buy a new Mac [after securing a second mortgage].

Question #3: What would I if my Windows PC was stolen?
Answer #3: I would lose sleep over all the data it carried on its hard drive, data that is now easily accessible to the thief or anyone that gets their hands on the hard drive some time along the way.

IDE Apple Hard Drive

The noticeable differences between the above answers are to do with encryption. iPhones come encrypted by default; the encryption of a Mac's drive is part of its initial setup and is done as an afterthought. But on Windows? Ay, caramba!
If you have yourself a Pro Windows licence then you can set BitLocker up and live life like you had a Mac (at least in the hard drive encryption department). Most of us end users are not thus privileged, though, and we only have a Home Windows licence. In other words, we get screwed. Or rather, the security of our data is screwed.
The exception to the rule is a [very] modern PC running Windows 10 and locked with a Microsoft account (i.e., a Hotmail/Outlook account). If your Windows PC answers some very specific and rather demanding hardware requirements, Windows will encrypt your drive and allow you to stop worrying about the day after it got stolen. [There are still some privacy concerns associated with this scenario, but these do not apply to the bulk of households.]

Alas, Microsoft's encryption scheme seems to have skipped yours truly. My relatively new gaming PC, a machine powerful enough to run the most demanding of games, is deemed incapable of encrypting its drives by our Seattle based friends. Thanks a lot, Microsoft.
I know I can use third party solutions; but why should I bother with the extra administration chores and all the issues that come with product updates when Ubuntu, OS X and even my bloody phone take care of me without me even noticing it in the first place?
Also consider the situation in which the average consumer considering her next PC purchase is. What options are available to her if she wants to determine whether drive encryption will work or not? Nada. None.
Just in case you were wondering why there is no chance in hell I will run anything sensitive on a Windows machine.

Image by Carl Berkeley, Creative Commons (CC BY-ND 2.0) licence