Archive for September, 2012

iPhone 5 First Impressions

September 30, 2012 Leave a comment

The latest iPhone seems to have gained mixed initial reviews. While the overall tone has been very positive there have been a couple of issues which have in some ways diminished the overall experience. First there is the Maps app which has received some quite justified criticism. Then there are a few other minor issues such as light leaks and scratches which would probably not even be mentioned on any other phone, where the expected level of perfection is a bit less.

I was in line on the day the phone was released here in New Zealand so I was one of the first to get one. This is not a cheap phone at over $1200 (for the 64G model subsidised on a plan) so is it worth it? I have used it extensively since I bought it three days ago so I think I can present some initial thoughts. First, I have to say this is my third iPhone and replaces an iPhone 4 which in turn replaced a 3G. I am a dedicated Apple user so I am biased although I do occasionally use Windows PCs and Android phones in my job.

Anyway, here are my thoughts so far…

First, this phone feels perfect in your hand. It is very light and very thin and the screen size is just about right. Some people think that bigger phones, such as the Samsung Galaxy, are better but I disagree. There is an optimal size for portability and usability and I think the iPhone is just about perfect. Clearly some people might prefer slightly bigger or smaller screens but remember that it’s easier to make a big phone than a small one and there are very good reasons Apple have kept the size down.

Speed is really impressive. Compared with the iPhone 4, apps just launch super fast, animations and scrolling never stutter, and the overall feel is really snappy. The processor still has just 2 cores but they are very fast and the 3 graphics cores also help a lot. And having a full 1G of RAM no doubt helps the general performance too.

The screen is very good. The resolution, brightness, saturation and colour accuracy are excellent although there is still the classic touch-screen problem of reflections. When you look at the display it looks real – it’s hard to believe that you are looking at a screen. About half of my programs use the bigger screen and the rest just have black bars a the top and bottom, but hopefully all the apps I use will be updated soon.

The camera is far better than the one in the iPhone 4. I am quite impressed with the sharpness and low noise of the images that the rear 8 megapixel camera captures. The panorama mode is very easy to use and does a really good job of creating a complete seamless image, although there are inevitably some weird distortions when producing panorama photos of enclosed spaces like a room.

The new Apple earbuds work really well for me. They sound good, with much more solid bass than the older models, and they fit fairly comfortably. I have stopped using my moderately expensive Sennheiser phones because the Apple ones actually work better!

I have used Siri (voice control) a bit and it works well most of the time. There is no setting for a New Zealand accent so occasionally the system has problems, especially with the NZ pronunciation of “i” (apparently we really do say “i” more like “u” than “e”!) I am using the British accent which seems to work better for me than Australian or US. It will be interesting to see if I use this function much in the future but it has a lot of potential.

Apple should have released the Maps app as a beta and kept the old Google-based Maps app for a while. In some areas the new app is awesome but sometimes you get into areas where the satellite maps are poor, plus there are many errors. Building a service like this from nothing is a huge job and I can see that this will be great when it’s done, but it’s not so good just now!

Other minor criticisms I have seen on the internet haven’t affected me. I see no light leakage, I have no scratches (I don’t use a case or screen protector), and the camera has produced no weird purple tint for me. There will always be a small percentage of any new device with problems and people do have far higher expectations of Apple than other brands (and quite rightly too because Apple is a premium brand) so I think if similar issues occurred in other devices they wouldn’t even be mentioned.

So in summary, after a few days I just love the iPhone 5. Not only is it the coolest phone on the planet, it is the coolest device of any type.


Keystone Cops

September 26, 2012 Leave a comment

Some commentators have described the New Zealand police and security services as being reminiscent of the Keystone Cops. To check the accuracy of this claim I watched some Keystone Cops movies on YouTube and I disagree. Both are incompetent, both are ridiculous, but the Keystone Cops are funny whereas the New Zealand authorities are just sinister!

To be fair I have to say that the New Zealand police do a moderately good job most of the time and no one would say their job is easy. Also most of the stupid and sinister behaviour has been directed from senior management, so the actual cops who do the work aren’t to blame.

Of course the exact issues I’m talking about are the ones centered around the Kim Dotcom case. I have already blogged about how concerned I was about the totally unnecessary and disproportionate raid on the Dotcom mansion. That was bad enough but now it turns out that he was being illegally spied on as well.

People are rightfully worried about the effect of criminal activity on their lives. We rely on the police to keep crime under control and, as I said above, they do an OK job of this. But we should also be concerned when the police themselves become the enemy. Not only that but in these days when so many important services, including the police, are being cut how much did this spying and invasion of a private citizen’s home cost? A fortune, I suspect.

And why was all of this necessary? Was it because Dotcom was (allegedly) running a drug empire? Or organising political assassinations? Or was he involved in some other serious crime potentially resulting in death, injury or massive fraud? No, he was accused of having some music stored on his servers. That was worth spying, wiretaps, helicopters, armed police? Really?

So yes, after this pathetic debacle the police (including the Organised and Financial Crime Agency and Government Communications Security Bureau) do look like an ominous version of the Keystone Cops. They are running around hitting each other with their truncheons, and accidentally shooting the good guys instead of the bad (metaphorically speaking of course – at least so far) just like the orignal Keystone Cops.

It’s like a classic silent movie, but not a fun, amusing one. No, this is very, very dark comedy.

Sharing the Wealth

September 25, 2012 Leave a comment

My waitress at lunch today was wearing an “I love Obama t-shirt.

I asked her if she could explain Obama’s wealth distribution plan to me.

She said, “It means that he will tax the rich and give it to the poor like me.”

I said, “No, it means … well, let me show you. Here is your tip. You worked for it – but I’m going to take it from you and give it to that sweet old woman over there to help pay for her lunch.”

I got up and walked over to the sweet old lady, gave her the money and left.

The waitress’ jaw was still hanging when I left.

How’s that for sharing the wealth !!!

That was a story (I presume I wasn’t expected to think it was real) I was sent from a “friend” who is a right-wing nut job. I don’t use that term lightly, this person really is a nut. He thinks global warming is a conspiracy, he thinks Obama isn’t an American, he thinks Obama is a socialist, all the standard drivel these half-wits seem to want to believe.

But is there a certain amount of truth in the story? Does it really represent the probable outcome of the Democrats’ wealth redistribution ideas? I don’t think so. Here’s another story which I made up (just like they did) which might represent reality a little bit better…

My waitress at lunch today was wearing an “I love Romney t-shirt.

I asked her if she could explain Romney’s wealth distribution plan to me.

She said, “It means he will tax everyone evenly. Those who work hard and make lots of money won’t have to give it up to the rest.”

I said, “No, it means … well, let me show you. Here is your tip. You worked for it – but I’m going to take it from you and give it to that fat middle aged man over there. Oh, and he doesn’t even need to pay a tip because he worked harder than you for his money. Do you know how I know that? Because he’s got more than you and if he’s got lots of money he must have worked hard.”

The waitress said, “but that’s not fair, he’s already got a lot more than I have.”

I replied, “Maybe so, but he clearly deserves it. Can’t you see that he makes a much greater contribution to society than you do? If we didn’t give him extra money he would probably want to live somewhere else.”

The waitress was surprised by this and said, “But he’s a drug dealer, he has numerous pushers who work for him and he supplies half the addicts in this city. People who criticise him tend to disappear and if his dealers don’t sell enough drugs they do too.”

I said, “So he’s an entrepreneur. He provides employment to many people and provides a service many people are prepared to pay for. He is perfectly within his rights to take reasonable action against those who don’t perform, isn’t he?”

I could see the waitress was beginning to see the point of my argument but she couldn’t admit I was right yet. She argued, “He does nothing all day except direct his drug dealers and hit men to do his dirty work for him. Anyone who tries to set up in competition usually gets an offer they cannot refuse!”

“Ah excellent”, I said, “that’s the capitalist system operating efficiently in a free market with fair negotiation between parties. You don’t want the government to come in an interfere with the enterprise he has set up using his own talent and money, do you? Or are you a… socialist!”

I could see she had no answer to this because no one wants to be a socialist. I took her tip and gave it to the fat man. He made a note and said he would expect regular payments from her in future. I think she finally saw how true business talent works!

The waitress’ jaw was still hanging when I left.

How’s that for sharing the wealth !!!

Full Steam Ahead!

September 24, 2012 Leave a comment

An OECD study has showed that New Zealand is near the bottom in all measures of child poverty. Why? Because since 1984 we have destroyed this country by following unworkable, unfair, and totally counter-productive neo-liberal, laissez-faire economic policies. Those policies have been implemented by by both National (who would traditionally be more enthusiastic about them) and Labour (although generally to a lesser extent, except for the 1984 so-called Labour government who started the whole thing).

Things clearly aren’t working, so what does our government do? They ramp up the same policies which have been a miserable failure for over 25 years! How long do we need to follow these stupid and immoral ideas before we realise there has to be a change?

But prime minister John Key and the rest of his evil cronies don’t care. The facts don’t interest them in the least. They just want to continue along the ideological path they have set. It’s full steam ahead for their rudderless ship which has no lookout and has no idea where it’s going.

What is so great about free markets anyway? Today hundreds more people lost their jobs as another mine was closed. Ironically mining was one of the industries which this government said would save our economy. But they don’t care because they aren’t looking at reality. No, they’re reading the latest chapter of the great book of neo-liberal ideology – straight from Cloud Cuckoo Land. Or is it now called Planet Key?

I always thought the government was here to govern, but that idea just isn’t popular any more. Our government prefers just to stand to one side and watch people lose their jobs, die from preventable diseases caused by poverty, and disappear overseas to countries with more pragmatic leadership.

But according to Key and Co everything will be good. All we need is more of the same and things will improve. Would we believe such unfounded assurances from anyone else? If you bought a car from a used car salesman and it wouldn’t start would you believe him when he said it would start if you just try again tomorrow? Well there’s more hope of that than the Key government saving this country.

The strangest thing is that many people still want to vote for National. I can see why the rich would do that, at least the ones who don’t care about anyone except themselves (the majority). I can see why conservatives would to that, because they vote National whatever the facts. But why would anyone else want to? It sure beats me!

Brought Into Disrepute

September 22, 2012 Leave a comment

A recent news story here described how a teacher from a Catholic School was fired because he supported a protest by pupils of the school. The protest was against comments about same sex marriage made in the school newsletter by the school’s principal.

The specific problem seems to be that employees, while they are entitled to hold any opinion they wish, shouldn’t make that opinion known if it conflicts with the core values of the company or organisation they work for. Or maybe it is more just that employees shouldn’t bring their employer into disrepute.

I think it’s an interesting issue. Should employees be able to criticise their employers, or their workplace in general, if they think it’s justified? Or should they just keep quiet no matter how bad things get? What about if there’s something illegal happening, surely that should be reported? What about something legal but potentially dangerous?

I think that most people would concede that there are situations when an employee should take action even if that contradicts the organisation’s policies or values, or even if it brings the organisation into disrepute. But there are other situations where criticism could be used for trivial or personal reasons, or for purposes related to “office politics”.

So the question is does this situation, which effectively involves a moral issue, fit into the category where it is reasonable to disagree with the official position?

First I would have to observe that the Catholic establishment is hardly in a position to dictate morals given the constant stream of child abuse cases its clergy are involved in. I would also point out that the protest was against the principal’s opinion in the newsletter and not necessarily against an official policy (although that point isn’t clear from the information I have).

So in many ways the principal making his bigoted opinion known was what really brought the school into disrepute, and Catholicism in general has little credibility because of its well publicised atrocities. And yet the school still thinks that a teacher trying to help students make a moral point is the bad person here? Maybe the real issue here is not that the teacher brought the school into disrepute but that he highlighted the disrepute it had already been brought to.

And that’s generally the issue in every organisation and why the management don’t want to enter into any meaningful discussion with their employees. In many cases the management are wrong and cannot defend their decisions. So the last thing they want is for their incompetence or corruption to be highlighted and having a rule about “bringing the organisation into disrepute” might be just an easy way to hide the problems they created.

In my experience everyone knows this and discussions between management and employees I have heard of generally finish with the more senior person just telling the junior one what is going to happen without really justifying it. They don’t justify it because they can’t and they don’t have to – being in management is like a “free pass” to do stupid things without any meaningful checks.

But getting back to the specific example here. In the school’s defence I should say that many parents who send their children to a Catholic school have certain expectations about the opinions and values prevalent at that type of school (whether those values are good or bad is irrelevant) so maybe rejecting socially progressive but contentious issues, such as same-sex marriage, is justified from that perspective.

In my opinion the correct response to disagreement is to engage in reasonable discussion on the issue and point out why the person disagreeing with the official line is wrong (if they are). And if that can’t be done would it not be reasonable to re-examine the official line just in case it actually is inadequate in some way?

But, as I said above, that almost never happens. The same issue occurs in every hierarchical organisation from governments down to community committees. For example, I’m sure the process of governing the country could be greatly improved if every party member’s opinion was taken into consideration and dissenting views were not only tolerated but encouraged. But of course, that would never happen because almost every management structure isn’t there to get the best result but to maintain the privileged position it already enjoys. The last thing they want is change which makes them accountable.

And that, dear readers, is why the world is such a messed up place. The most corrupt, self-serving, and incompetent people (as a rule) are in positions where they can actively suppress the opinions and contributions of more moral, competent, and magnanimous people.

How do we fix it? We can’t, but we should all be aware of how the system works and be aware that those people who bring their organisations into disrepute are more likely to be heroes rather than villains.

The Problem of Religion

September 17, 2012 Leave a comment

I try to avoid following the common stereotyped arguments used against distinct groups of people especially when those arguments are based on ethnicity, gender, age, religion, politics, philosophy, or any other belief. Of course I don’t always succeed and I do tend to be critical of religious groups and conservatives more than others. I think this is justified, but that is debatable.

I have regularly defended the people that the political right like to portray as being the cause of all of our problems: the unemployed, the left, unions, and Muslims. Yes, even though Muslims are members of one of the world’s biggest religions I have still defended them against what I thought were unfair attacks from conservatives and others.

I don’t like Islam, but I still object to people bundling the moderates in with the extremists, deliberately exaggerating the threat of Islam, and criticising Muslims for doing the same things which Christians have done in the past (and in some cases continue to do today).

But there is a limit. There is a point where any argument for religious freedom and tolerance is surpassed by the argument which says that a religion just has too many problems, causes too much violence and intolerance, and on balance just isn’t a good thing for human society as a whole.

Maybe that limit has been reached now. Some groups within the Muslim religion have been responsible for unacceptable behaviour in the past: the riots over the Danish cartoons, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the 9/11 attacks, amongst many others, and now the latest wave of violence – ostensibly as a result of an insulting movie – is affecting the world.

I have watched the movie “The Innocence of Muslims”. It is laughably pathetic and more of an insult to the Christian group who had it made – by a producer of pornographic films apparently (honestly, you couldn’t make this stuff up, but this is where religion can take people) – than anyone else. A sensible approach would have been to laugh at it and point out how ridiculous it made the makers look.

But that wasn’t what happened. Instead a bunch of religious fanatics – very few of whom had even seen the movie – went on violent riots across the world. When your whole life is based on an absurd belief you will always react irrationality. That is the danger of religion.

So that really gets one thing out of the way: Islam, like all conventional religions, is nonsense. It’s based on mythology with a bit of history thrown in, but so is Christianity and all other religions, so that isn’t necessarily an argument specifically against it.

Conversely, like all other religions, Islam adds variety and cultural diversity to the world, and it gives many people a philosophical and social basis to their lives, so it is a good thing from those perspectives.

Whether Islam itself is a religion of peace or not is debatable. But what isn’t debatable is that a huge amount of violence occurs around the world because of it. Whether the motivation behind the violence is political, social, or economic is irrelevant, the fact is that religion is used as a motivating factor to make people do hideous things.

I would like to present some quotes here which illustrate my point…

Religion: It allows perfectly decent and sane people to believe by the billions, what only lunatics could believe on their own. – Sam Harris

Those who believe absurdities will commit atrocities. – Voltaire

It is hard to free fools from the chains they revere. – Voltaire

I think these are very true, but a quote means nothing on it’s own so let me try to justify the truth of these and say why I think they are relevant.

If you examine what religious people actually believe it is ridiculous. If anyone had these ideas and genuinely believed them without being part of a religious group they would probably be labelled insane. Note that this criticism applies fairly equally to all the world’s “great” religions, including Christianity and Judaism. I realise there are people who only take the religious stories as metaphors but are they really religious? I don’t think so. So I think the Sam Harris quote is well supported.

Rational people rarely resort to violence. I’m not saying it never happens because sometimes the only rational approach to an attack by an irrational group is to use violence in defence. But as soon as people start believing something which is absurd they can be manipulated into doing atrocious things. The history of Christianity is littered with examples. Anyone who is irrational enough to believe in witches can easily be convinced that murdering them in a terrible way is OK, for example. So I think the first Voltaire quote is also supported by both history and current events.

There is no doubt that many people become prisoners of their belief system. Their religions tell them what they can and cannot do, what they can and cannot believe, and even how they should think about the world. Religion is the ultimate prison and I believe the prison the whole western world was thrown into by the Church during the Dark Ages is the greatest atrocity even committed on the human race. Now it is the Muslim’s turn to be imprisoned by their religion but, as Voltaire observed, you cannot be freed from a prison when you believe the prison is really a paradise.

There is a case to say that Islam is the greatest threat to the world today. Not because it is particularly bad as a religion or because Muslims are more evil than any other group, but because it has got to the point where it is taken too seriously and has too much power, just like Christianity did during the Dark Ages. If anyone who supports greater power for other religions – Christian conservatives for example – want an illustration of why they are wrong they should just look at the Islamic world today.

Is that where they want to go? Really?

iPhone 5

September 16, 2012 Leave a comment

Apple recently announced the iPhone 5. Is it a big deal? Is it just a slightly improved iPhone 4 (or 4S) or is it something more? Well I can’t speak from experience yet – the iPhone 5 isn’t available here for a couple of weeks – but I can still make some initial comments before I get one.

Yes, I will buy one because I buy every second new iPhone. That cycle corresponds to the 2 year plan finishing with the cell network company I use. I would always buy new Apple products unless things changed radically. If Apple stopped making great products and Google or Microsoft overtook them I would need to look at changing. But that hasn’t happened yet.

So what about this new phone? There’s nothing truly revolutionary there so this is more an evolutionary improvement on the existing product rather than something really new. But the small but significant improvements in the hardware should give Apple the opportunity to create more functionality using the operating system and individual applications.

If you haven’t already heard, here are the improvements included in the iPhone 5…

Support for “fourth generation” ultra-fast LTE cell communications – which unfortunately I have no idea when or where I will be able to use – but the faster dual-channel 802.11a/b/g/n wifi running at up to 150Mbps will be welcome.

A bigger screen, capable of displaying true HD with the correct aspect ratio. The screen is taller than the earlier one but the same width. It has more pixels, of course.

A faster A6 processor – almost double the speed of the already fast iPhone 4S – and faster graphics capability – also about double the speed, which will be great for games.

Improved cameras. With higher resolution on the front camera, and better optics, noise reduction, and stabilisation, on the main back camera. There is also a built-in panorama mode (previously available in extra apps only) and better high definition video capture.

A thinner but taller and lighter case (by about 20%). The weight and size are an impressive achievement because anyone can make a bigger phone (isn’t that right Samsung) but it takes skill to make one smaller and lighter. Also more of the case is aluminium which should make it more difficult to break (although the current phone is already surprisingly robust).

Various other improvements such as more microphones to provide noise reduction, a new easier to use dock connector (of course it is annoying to have a new connector in some ways), and new earbuds which will hopefully be better than the existing ones (which were a weak point in the old iPhone experience).

Some people might be disappointed that Apple haven’t included NFC (near field communications, used for pricing and purchasing but not well standardised yet) and wireless charging (available in a few other phones) or any other new and exciting features, but just adding new features has never been Apple’s way of doing things: they add technologies which are already fairly well defined and concentrate on the total user experience. That’s what this phone seems aimed at.

Once I get the new phone I will report back here with my real world experience so if you are considering “investing” in an iPhone 5 check back early October.