dal niente

Month: December, 2011

Happy Holidays!

Happy Holidays everyone!

I was talking a bit to my parents and sister back home through some emails, and they just had a few of their Christmas parties. This is the second time I’m away from home for Christmas. This year I celebrated with [CM] in our Sydney apartment (all the roomies were out of town). It was nice. About two weeks before Christmas, we decided to go to some “Christmas Factory Outlets” to see if we could get our hands on a Christmas tree somehow. It turned out that all the 150$ models were sold out, and the cheapest thing we could find was close to 200$ for something that didn’t look all that great. Being citizens of the 21st century though, we used the internet. We found a 7 foot tall tree for about 27$ AUD (about 27 American/Canadian dollars) and had it delivered– it arrived about 4 days before christmas, just enough time to spare so that we could buy some tinsel and some ornaments. We cooked like mad for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, and truth be told, I’ve likely gained almost double digit pounds over the last week. But ah, it was delicious.

Meanwhile, back in Montreal, I got some less enthusiastic reports. (Don’t read this part if you don’t want to hear griping.)

I remember what it’s like to have holidays back home– it’s a marathon. If you read my blog back from exactly about a year ago, you’ll probably find that every year it’s a similar story. It’s a story of hecticness and family drama. It reaffirms one of my observations about Asian families– they might have really strong Confucian bonds, but sometimes, perhaps it would be better if the clan would just break up and go their separate ways, instead of subjecting themselves to annual, traditional torture.

And that’s what it is, really. Family I mean. The family you’re born into are the people you’re supposed to give first priority to, to take and give the extra punishment to.

But why?

For a long time, several years in fact, I was always the peacekeeper back home. I tried to maintain healthy relationships not just between myself and others, but between others and others. It comes down to whether or not people want to change though– I can’t make people like eachother. I can’t make people any less rude, any less annoying, or any more sensitive to eachother, unless they want to change.

This year, my dad tells me that he got really offended at the Christmas dinner because the extended family was making fun of the church that we go to. Now I know that a lot of you readers aren’t religious, and that there’s more than a few Catholic haters out there, but that’s beside the point– if someone believes in something, whether it’s religion, or if they like basketball or football or they do ballet– you watch what you say about it in front of them. Yes, you’re entitled to your opinion. But when you’re in my dad’s house, invited over for Christmas dinner, cooked by my Catholic family? Show some respect. Have some fucking class.

It seems to me that in any situation where you’re a guest, you make a certain amount of effort to be nice to the host. I’m not saying kiss ass or keep up facades, but there are basic rules of tact that say that you be sensitive of what you’re saying, and know your limitations. And of course, at the end of an evening, you say “thank you.” My dad seemed really upset that after cooking basically all afternoon and cleaning up after the event, he didn’t even get so much of a thank you. Nevermind the cost or the time– just a bit of appreciation, maybe?

I know that I am always saying that people should work on themselves, and that we shouldn’t worry too much about what others think, or how we affect them– but I advocate strength and independence of opinion because in most contexts, we’re supressing our own potential. This isn’t the right situation where people need to be strongly opinioned (or, for that matter, offenseive), nor is it the right time to show off independence. It’s Christmas. It’s time to show some connection with family– to make efforts to treat eachother well, because for the rest of the year, we don’t even talk.

I guess it’s a sobering reminder that for all the things in the world that need changing, the truth is that our own homes, our own family clans, are in disarray to begin with. Where are the values? What are they? Where is the sense of pride of becoming stronger, more respectable people?

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Traditions

Yesterday, [CM] and I set up a Christmas tree. It’s been years since I’ve set up a Christmas tree. Back home, my mom and sister would take care of this kind of thing. Around Christmas time, I’d cross by the basement one day and there it was, automatically all tinselled and lighted and everything.

It’s the first Christmas that CM and I set up together. It’s nice to do this kind of thing, I think– sets up this feeling of belonging somehow.

Lets go today

There was an interesting idea I read about “fault.” It’s more interesting in the way that it reflects on the modern emphasis of “logic.”
So, imagine that there’s this billboard on the side of the road, and it’s advertising something. 50% off shoes at this particular factory outlet or whatever.

A lady is driving along this road, sees the sign, takes her eyes off the road for 2.5 seconds to look at the details of the sign. Then continues driving, and later goes to that place to take advantage of the sale.

Now, a second lady is driving by, exact same road conditions. Looks to the sign, takes her eyes off the road for 2.5 seconds. When she turns her eyes back to the road, she suddenly realises that traffic in front of her has stopped—and too late, she smashes into the motorcyclist in front of her. The cyclist gets crushed between two vehicles and sustains a serious injury to his spine that paralyses all four of his limbs for life.
Now, how would the real world handle a situation like this?
Chances are, the motorcyclist will sue the lady for the injuries sustained. This is a category of injury called “catastrophic injury.” Chances are, the amount of money that she’s going to be sued for is going to totally break her wallet.

So the question is—why is it that she should be sued? What did she do wrong?

Was it the act of hitting the motorcyclist? But, you see, that was an accident, wasn’t it? The whole nature of an accident is supposed to be that it wasn’t intended. However, someone might reason causation—that the motorcyclist would not have been injured, if not for the actions of the driver.
So are we saying that people should be held responsible for all accidents they cause? How careful does someone need to be?

Society tends to draw arbitrary lines of causation. If we argue that the accident is that lady’s fault for looking away from the street, then—what about that other driver that looked away but didn’t hit anyone?

If the crime is looking away from the street (because that might cause an accident) and not the accident itself, then both ladies would be equally guilty. Yet, because of random dumb luck, one lady got away with it, and society wouldn’t think twice about it—while another one will probably spend the rest of her life paying off lawsuit debts.

It brings up the question of just what you think is fair, I guess. And in the event of bad things happening, maybe it highlights that all too often, we look for people to blame.

It really just depends on how you want to draw the lines.

It strikes me as interesting that nowadays, there so much stigma around being a smoker. It’s unfashionable, nowadays. So i f someone sees you smoking and they didn’t know that you smoked before, the first bit of conversation that comes out is something along the lines of: “You know that’s bad for your health right?” or “How long have you been smoking?”
The basic conversation that comes out of a revelation of someone’s smoking habit usually has to do with some sort of automatic righteousness or higher horse by the people who don’t smoke.
But really—what is the issue?

First of all—is it anybody’s business when someone decides to smoke? People might say it’s something to do with an unhealthy lifestyle—but there are so many things to do that are unhealthy. We can each rich food, we can live sedenentary lives.

Am I saying that we should never point fingers anywhere, because we’re not pointing for the right reasons?
No. I think it’s necessary to make accusations, right or wrong, because that’s the only way that our theories of better ways to do things will ever be tested.

But I do think that if we want the privilege of being able to be judgemental, we need to accept that we ourselves will be judged and processed according to the systems that we propose. And, we need to realise that if we ever chose a system, a way of life, we ought to champion it, otherwise not live at all.
In large part that means submitting to criticism, and paying the dues we need to evolve our causes. It means working as much, if not more, on ourselves as we do others. Otherwise, we’ll experience “the disconnect”.

I think everyone knows what I’m talking about when I talk about “the disconnect,” even if I can’t describe it properly. Everyone knows what it is. We spend our whole lives finding a way to connect with ourselves, and with others.

The means by which we achieve this are tailored to fit—but not by anyone but ourselves. I can probably be sure of one thing though—we won’t be able to maintain the connection if we don’t think for ourselves, and if we don’t take responsibility for the way we think.

Regarding Apple

Random Notes on Mac

The idea that we should have to pay over 30 dollars per month on cellphone bills is absolutely ludicrous. I’m not sure what the situation is like in the USA, but in Canada and Australia, that’s pretty standard I think. If you’re doing anything with a data plan, you’re more than likely paying over 50, actually.
At present, I’m using an iPod touch for my communications needs. That might sound strange—but between having Wifi at all my workplaces, at school and at home, I just don’t need a phone. Everyone nowadays has facebook on their mobiles anyway, it’s pretty much the same thing as using SMS. I even use my iPod to do calling—video-calling via Skype. I also use it on a weekly basis to call back home, using LinPhone and a Montreal VOIP account. KIK messenger handles the instant messaging. Emails, calendars, all that, it’s all covered too.

I guess what I’m getting at is this: why are people so eager to throw away money? There’s lots of free software solutions out there. It takes a bit of tweaking of lifestyle, sure. But there’s lots of ways to go about life just not spending so much.

I have mixed feelings about being a Mac product user to be honest. I’m not denying that mac did a lot of really cool things for the computing world—but generally, I try to be an ethical consumer and Apple’s track record is a bit sketchy at times. The whole issues of multiple employee suicides at iPhone manufacturing plants in Asia comes to mind. That being said, it’s hard to say which tech companies are truly less sketchy—I just know after reading “I, Steve” at the library that Steve Jobs, though brilliant, sounds like a total asshole.

On the other hand, apparently Bill Gates is in Sydney—he was asked to comment on how Jobs, before his death, made some comments about Gates being uncreative and never having contributed anything useful to the tech world. Gates’s answer was along the lines of “well, back when I was chairing MS, MS accounted for a much larger proportion of the machines out there than MacOS. It’s natural that Jobs would be hard on us. I respect him a lot, and I think that he’s done a lot of great work during his lifetime.”
Really classy. Not surprisingly so, actually, despite the bad rap that MS products get (including people from me); everything I read about Gates seems to suggest that he’s a pretty nice guy.

Teaching Heirarchies

Working in an office is like being a part of a zoo. As I mentioned when i first started here, I’ve never really been part of the “cubicle culture” before. There are some similarities to working at the hospital, but the main difference is that while I was on a 3 person administrative team to support medical staff, here, I’m part of a 10 person administrative team, and we share the office with another 50 teams (also of administrators).

It’s kinda cool then to just overhear conversations. There’s this one guy for example from programming. I don’t interact with him, because my side of database management doesn’t connect with his department, but he sounds like he’s a real keystone to the company. Not only do I see him occasionally debugging through dual screened code, but I hear him going around and liaising as an analyst between the programming team, and non-programming teams (such as customer support, sales, and marketing). It’s pretty cool to see that someone can be so well rounded—I hear explanations go through him that make no sense because they’re so technical, but he manages to make it all make sense to the non-technical people.

That’s definitely an admirable skill. In a sense, it is the very essence of teaching—communication.

I think there’s a lot of stigma out there that comes with the words ‘teaching’ and ‘learning.’ The prevalent attitude is that a student sits down and shuts up while the teacher talks at the student. It’s true that there’s been a lot of education and workplace reforms over theyears to make delivery methods more efficient and to improve the overall well-roundedness of the ‘student’ so that they don’t just become “book smart,” but at the end of the day, people automatically think certain things when you mention a teacher-student relationship.

Teaching and learning is all about communication. It’s about effective transference of information. Someone who is a good teacher is someone who is able to communicate ideas effectively, while a good student is one who manages to soak it up well. But it’s not a one way street really—I mean, you can teach yourself, for example, and there is a feedback connection whereby the teacher learns from the student.

In the case of this ‘keystone’ programmer dude, he’s not a teacher—although he’s a ranking employee who is higher than the average employee, the way that he presents himself is at the service of others. That’s interesting—because he doesn’t treat himself so much as a gatekeeper as he does a facilitator.

It’s a very different hierarchy functionality from, say, most martial arts schools.

Time

Next semester will be kinda full. I’ve only got 4 classes, but with the Go club and the Faculty Rep thing going on, along with a part time job… it’s packed. I’ve made sure that I’ll have some free time for myself– a couple of days per week, I only have one class, and I’ve got wednesdays off– but I’m kinda saving those for random things.

It’s really hard to resist renewing my internship at the NCYLC. The work there is really interesting and challenging. But frankly… I don’t really want to schedule my one day off per week. The kickboxing club wanted me to promise I’d be there too… but time is on such short demand! In the past, I’ve always had the bad habit of signing up for too much at once.

There are so many things I want to do while I’m studying law here… so little time though.

Gaming

I picked up Final Fantasy XIII a couple of weeks ago and have been taking some time to play it lately. It’s a very nice looking game– the music is taking a bit of time to grow on me, but for a game that’s completely dubbed, it’s not half bad voice acting. The game feels extremely linear, but that might not be a bad thing yet– it reminds me, in a sense, of Metal Gear Solid 4 because it feels more like an interactive movie than a game. We’ll see how the game rates in a week from now when I’m deeper into it. I can say right now though that I find the characters’ personalities to be more interesting in this game than they’ve been in a while, and if anything, I’m a sucker for character driven naratives.

I haven’t playing much baduk lately, kinda been taking a break. Since I’ll be running the club next year, I kinda feel this need to bring some new ass kicking to the board when I return– but for the past few months, I’ve been stuck in a rut. I can’t seem to break the 9 kyu ceiling. I have been changing things up a bit though– I’ve been studying some board scenarios and even reading a few books on basic technique. I guess the refinement process is taking it’s toll though, because my normal style of playing baduk is like ‘street fighter baduk,’ in the sense that I lack technique, and play a lot more from battle experience and scarring than from theory.

That path though got me stuck, so now I’m going to see if I can backtrack a bit, install some technique, and then try and get back into streetfighting. I haven’t played much in the last month, so hopefully that’ll be enough to reset all the experimental bits and let me fall back on my true form– no sense in trying to modify my method if my method to begin with isn’t consistent, after all.

Toolbox

I am a huge fan of Google in general. I feel that they’ve done incredible things software side that has really changed the way that we look at computing. That said, it always surprises me when people compute without knowing much about … well, the consequences of computing. I suppose it actually shouldn’t surprise me, considering how the point of modern software development is to increase accessibility and ease of use in general– but I’m not necessarily talking about the programming bits. I mean things that are equally important on a social and security level.

Things like how Google tracks your usage habits, or, if you turn it on, your location. A few years ago when Latitude came out, I turned on the location tracking for a whole year or two. Google just kept on logging my location, something like every 15-30 minutes. It was a bit of a nerd experiment to me– and sometimes, I find it fun to show people the results. I was at work yesterday. One of the projects I’m working on has to do with a layman’s translation of the Terms of Service (that thing you agree to whenever you make a new online account) for Facebook, Youtube and Twitter. I pretty much know those agreements inside out now. The subject came up with my coworkers: “Things we agree to without knowing.” That lead to “things that can be done with your data after you agree.”

While the Latitude location tracking features of Google are mostly opt in, I showed them the results of a year of location data just for the fun of it. Latitude offers a “Dashboard History” API… what this basically does is use algorithms to analyze your location data. Then it makes a series of pretty educated guesses based on extrapolation of this data– it figured out where I like to eat, where I live, where I work, and it also guessed what kind of stuff I like to do on my vacation.

When i showed this to my coworker, she was absolutely horrified. The Latitude thing was probably a bit much, but in general, she had a hard time believing that Google used information like that. Things like how the ads served to her were based on her search preferences, because Google was watching, and that she’d get different results even if she entered the same terms that I did.

The Google example is just one of many though. This disconnection from the nature of the tools we use isn’t limited to the internet and legal issues regarding terms of service. There are a lot of things that we don’t know, or don’t take the time to find out more about. Our daily routines have become, in large part, a series of “I Agrees” by acquiesence.

Think of things environmentally– we buy electronic products that are extremely toxic. We don’t really think about where they go after the lifecycle we’ve paid for them– we that because we’ve paid for them, we’re entitled to whatever it is that we bought. But normally, what if you built something yourself?

If you built yourself a house from scratch– what would you do with all the dirty your dug up? All the scraps of odds and ends that you didn’t use? Pay someone to get rid of that too? And where would that go?

Money has really given us a unit– not just of credit and trade– but really, it’s almost like a unit of energy. Money represents work. And somehow, the markets have evolved in such a way that people who manage money can make money from money– trading virtual units of work/energy in such a way that they don’t have to do much of it.

This practice isn’t limited to the rich investment bankers– you do it to. You do it every day. You get added value whenever you buy something because a lot of the costs of what you’re doing are offset on the world. For instance– I’ve often heard people say that it’s okay to leave the lights on. After all– you pay the electric bills: so as long as you’re willing to pay, it’s fair, isn’t it? You’re not getting anything for “free.”

But you are, actually. Because companies who provide you with that electricity are offsetting the costs on the environment. Rivers are used as giant heat sinks for nuclear plants. Forests are run down do run mining operations. You could make a whole list of the incredible costs it takes to set up an energy company– but who pays for the environmental damage?

Similarly, buying a product– probably any product— probably gets you good value because of some race-to-the-bottom competition of Asian manufacturers who shoulder the costs in human blood, just because they don’t have the employment protection that we do in the West.

So what can be done? It’s virtually impossible to live without taking more than we’re entitled to– the very fabric of western civilization is built on the dream of getting more for less. We can’t reverse that easily. And I’m part of it. But perhaps the first step towards working towards sustainability of the human race might be to consider what’s in our toolboxes.

Consolidation of Commonwealth Anti-Discrimination Laws

For anyone wondering what the project is in response to, you can find the document here:

http://www.ema.gov.au/www/agd/agd.nsf/Page/Humanrightsandanti-discrimination_AustraliasHumanRightsFramework_ConsolidationofCommonwealthAnti-DiscriminationLaws

As to the NGO that I’m working for, you can find our website here:
http://www.ncylc.org.au/

NGOs

So, I’ve been working for an NGO for about a month now, pro bono. A few thoughts.

These organisations are insanely underfunded. I think that’s the main thing. Now that I’m part of the process, I understand how lobbying the government for legislative reform works– but the incredible thing is that it’s usually a handful of individuals who are doing crazy hours micromanaging. To put it in perspective, the organization I work for represents one of the few national children’s legal voices in the country– so when the federal government is thinking of proposing a consolidated anti-discrimination legislation, they made a call for submissions regarding the topic. There are over 50 questions that the government poses, and wants answers from the submissions. Our NGO is basically going to tackle 4, 5 tops.

Despite that the NGO I work for is a pretty active and well known one, the fact is that a submission of incredible inportance for human rights in australia is being worked on by only 4 people– the overseeing solicitor, who is directing the initiative, the NGO’s director, who is offering general, high level guidance, and two unpaid interns (one of which is me).

So…. we’re talking about possibly one of the biggest reforms in anti-discrimination law in the past 20 years– and the task falls on essentially one lawyer and two student volunteers?

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the state of activism.

Everyone goes out on the streets and bitches and moans about how this or that needs to be done– so then, why are we only 3 people working on this huge project?

Because people are doing the fashionable, hipster, bitching and moaning. I was kind of reluctant to point fingers too hard at first, but now that I’m knee deep in the politics of it, I’m ready to point away.

For those of you who want to make changes– “spreading the word” isn’t enough. You people need to put your educations and skills to good use– be efficient with your efforts, and attack surgicially. Show some discipline for your causes. Learn to play this game, because there aren’t nearly enough people on this team who are walking all that talk.