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.

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

The Death of Flickr

You might have heard Yahoo has finally managed to sell itself to Verizon. I won't get dragged into a discussion about its sale price being about a tenth of what Microsoft offered just a few years ago. What I do want to discuss is Flickr.
I have been a Flickr user for about a decade. I stopped using it about a year ago, when it became clear this online photo album service will be handed by Yahoo to the highest bidder just as soon as it can find a bidder. It is a bit of a pity since I have around 20,000 photos uploaded to Flickr, my de facto photo album, all tagged and everything; overall, I had sunk hundreds of hours into my Flickr account.
Now I am almost certainly going to delete my Flickr account altogether rather than see it falling into the hands of Verizon, a company not known for looking after the interests [and privacy] of its users. Not that Yahoo was particularly great in that department, but Flickr did have a privacy policy far superior to the competition from Facebook or Google.
Upon its deletion I will no longer have photographic online presence. Sure, my photos are still going to reside online somewhere on account of the cloud backup service I am using, but they will not be available for the world to see. Then again, the world never cared much for my photos; the friends and relatives for whom I originally set my Flickr page up never really cared for it. I can't blame them; the lesson here is mostly to those who really think the photos they upload into their Facebook account hold any value to anyone other than Facebook itself. People are just over-flooded with media these days, and one should not think their stuff is in any way more special than the rest.
Where the loss of my Flickr photo album would represent a loss is in the online world losing a massive trove of Creative Commons licensed photos. My photos have been used hundreds of times, if not more, by others; it would be a pity to deprive the world of this asset, as minuscule as it is in the grand scheme of things.
Alas, it is now clear to me that the whole notion of managing a photo album on the cloud is more than a bit presumptuous. We knew, long before Snowden came along, that everything we put online might come back to bite us. And we also know that the companies offering to look after our photos are not doing it because they like our beautiful eyes.
I now acknowledged that the person who started a Flickr account, more than a decade ago, was a naive person living in a naive Internet world. Back then, Google was a "do no evil" goodie and Facebook, no one had heard of Facebook; Yahoo was a King of the Internet who offered to look after my photos for a small fee, and I took them upon that invitation. But two things have happened since: the world grew cynical and I, I became an outright cynic.
Goodbye, Flickr. I loved you but now I am going to kill you.

Flickr image is in the public domain