Thursday, December 31, 2009

Media player: EN391TV

This is an interesting media player. My son got it for just AUD$49 from PC Case Gear (the hard disk is purchased separately). It serves as a HDD docking station, connected via USB2.0 cable to a computer. You can connect it to a TV and play all your media files. It even comes with a remote control. I tested it out today by comparing it to my existing MVIX media player, which I bought for ~AUD$300 more than a year ago.

For $49, I wasn't having very high expectations of the EN391TV. After trying it, I must say I would be happy to recommend it to anyone without a media player at home. It is very easy to use, it can play most of the formats I have (primarily ISO, JPEG, MP3, AVI, MPG, WMV, etc, etc), and the video quality is as good as played from my MVIX player, although JPEG looks over-saturated and could do with some tweaking on the TV display. It doesn't have a cooling fan, so it is completely silent.

It's so simple to use that I didn't even have to refer to the manual. To transfer files, just connect to the computer using USB cable. The computer immediately recognizes it as a hard disk. To connect to the TV, just use the RCA cables provided. Switch it on, and it shows you all the files you have. Click on any to play. If it is a music file, it will pay music. If it is JPEG, it will go into a slideshow, and so on. PLAY, PAUSE, STOP, FF, etc, are all there on the remote, but you can also operate it without the remote using the buttons on the docking station itself. Left on the computer, it can be used as a swappable hard disk. Or take it with you on a trip and you don't have to carry all your individual CD's or DVD's. It even has a built-in SD card reader to play your photos. I will not ditch my MVIX player for this one because the MXIV is conveniently networked to all my computers, but I will be perfectly happy to use the EN391TV media player.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Myki: Brumby's political timebomb

I am convinced that the Myki ticketing system is going to be a hot potato for Premier Brumby in next year's election. Despite Transport Minister Lynne Kosky trying to spruik up the system with rhetoric, the system is far from being ready to release. It was done so yesterday only because the Victorian government is too embarrassed to admit it has failed to keep its promise to have the oft-delayed project finally launched by 31 Dec 2009.

From personal experience in managing software projects, it is very clear to me that Myki is far from ready to launch. There are just far too many un-met deliverables, the most critical of which is that the touch system on unwired transport (trams and buses) do not work properly. This is no small matter. In project management practice, the touch system would be considered critical enough to warrant testing right at the beginning of the project; i.e., at least 5 years ago.

If only 20% of commuters use trains only, while others use a combination of train, tram or bus, then common sense says Myki cannot be considered close to being ready when it is only useable on trains-only for now. From reports of test runs to top up tickets at the train stations, the failure rate is typical of software in an "alpha" run. "Alpha" testing is carried out when a software is newly written. After the obvious bugs are ironed out, then the software is released for beta testing to uncover more subtle bugs. In the case of Myki, the system looks like it is at alpha testing stage. It is a software developer's suicide attempt to try and release a software under such conditions. Even beta testing is done under carefully guarded conditions before it is deemed ready to launch. To have an idea about beta testing, think Microsoft and Windows releases.

As for Transport Minister Lynne Kosky, her answers to the press only show how unfamiliar she is with the project. Either she is too busy with other ministerial functions, or the Myki project is not high enough on her list for her to be too intimately informed of its progress. It is no wonder the project keeps slipping; the project appears to have taken on a life of its own. As stakeholders, Premier Brumby and team should have held tighter reins on Myki's progress, with periodic reviews on milestones and key stages. Looks like the only string they are capable of pulling in this case is the public purse string.

Monday, December 28, 2009

My new camera bag: Lowepro Fastpack 200

I like to do some research before buying something. There's a certain thrill about gathering information and making the best decision. There's always lots of choices and often the best choice depends on the individual user's needs. After some research, I narrowed down my choices to the Lowerpro brand, and the models Trekker, Slingshot, or Fastpack. Each of these models are available in different sizes. Lowepro is to camera bags is like Manfrotto is to tripods. I ended up buying the Fastpack 200 for these reasons: When I go out on a photo shoot, I will be selective in what gear I need to carry and it will be weight-limited so as not to bog me down. The Mini Trekker carries a lot of lenses, but will probably be left at home to house my gear rather than carried around on trips. The Slingshot is great for fast access but has only one strap which makes it tiring to carry for a long period of time.

Fastpack 200 is just the right size and the right design for me. I can carry it as a backpack. I can have fast access to the side pocket. The general compartment above the camera compartment is useful to carry anything on a day trip, or to carry more gear (like chargers, flash guns, filters, or even a back-up camera). I took it to a wedding yesterday. Left on the floor, I could access the top compartment easily. When following the guests around, I could carry the bag on one shoulder and fast-access the side pocket to grab my camera. Plus, I still have lots of room left over for future acquisitions.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Boxing Day shopping

Everyone shops for presents for others before Christmas Day. Then they shop for themselves on Boxing Day. That's Dec 26th, if you are not familiar with Boxing Day. That is the biggest sale day of the year. This is what happened in Melbourne yesterday. It seems like everyone wants to go to the Chadstone Shopping Mall, which is the largest in Melbourne. I am not sure about the other big malls, but the smaller ones don't seem to have that pull. I am not a shopaholic. In fact, my eyes get dry and tire very easily inside a shopping mall. My legs grow weary after a short walk. I feel uncomfortable with sales assistants waiting to pounce on me the moment I show the slightest interest in a display. I happen to like looking at cameras and mobile phones. Boy, do they love to pounce on you when you go near one of these!

Anyway, back to Boxing Day sale... I decided to go to two places yesterday with my son who simply loves shopping. First, we went to Chapel street. It was a pleasant experience. The shops were nice upmarket ones. They were not crowded and there was no shopping frenzy. The discounts were genuine. If ever there was I time I wouldn't mind shopping for clothes, this would be THE time and THE place to go.

Next, we headed for Chadstone Mall. The cars going there were backed up more than a kilometer long. Inside the mall it was as crowded as a fun fair. You'll find the same shops here as in Chapel Street, but vastly different crowd. Department store like Myers and David Jones were like giant flea markets. While Chapel Street was a pleasant experience for me, Chadstone Mall had the opposite effect. Unless you already had in mind what you wanted to pick up, I suggest you stay away from a Boxing Day sale at Chadstone. I did manage to part with some money on a few good buys, but it was mostly in Chapel Street.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Postal strike - civil service in revolt?

Civil service has lost its meaning these days. As I recall growing up in Malaysia, civil service has a different beat to a private service. If you are a public servant, you work for the government. The government takes care of you in the form or job permanency (i.e nobody loses his job in the civil service). Along with complete health care for you and your dependents, you also get a pension when you retire. As for strikes, this is simply out of the question. The private sector, on the other hand, operates on a supply-demand basis. The pay is based on market value, but there is no absolute job security, health care package, or a pension to look forward to. If you are not happy with your employee, you can go on strike or you can quit your job.

The public sector typically comprises essential services (although many countries have privatized a large portion of this, often to the detriment of the public). As such, it is my personal opinion that public sector employees should not be allowed to go on strike if it means crippling the smooth running of a public service. The government, and therefore civil servants, hold a monopoly in all essential services. To turn this monopoly into a bargaining chip for pay rise demands is just holding the public hostage. To be fair to civil servants in Australia, the condition of service has become very "private sector-like", hence it is not surprising that the same private sector malaise (e.g. strike actions) also affects the public sector.

The postal service is a very important public service. Before the advent of the internet, it was the primary means of communication for every single person living in even the remotest part of the country. Even now this role is still very important. Nobody should be using his privileged position, as a civil servant with monopolistic power, to hold the public hostage at any time.

Monday, December 21, 2009

What about iPhone apps?

About 30 years ago, Apple Computer's founder Steve Jobs envisioned the Newton as a personal digital assistant that will be able to give you information at your fingertip. It was essentially a hand held, portable computer. The product did not catch on due to the infancy of the technology, but the word PDA (for personal digital assistant) lived on and for a while became a popular commercial product sold by other companies. That was until mobile phones got smarter and moved out of the role of a phone and into the role of a PDA. So now we have "smartphones", of which the iPhone is currently the most popular one. With the iPhone, one can download an endless number of apps (small applications), some for just a small fee. The apps turn the phone into a store house of features. Unlike a computer program, the apps are usually simple to use and their portability makes it very handy for people constantly on the move.

I do not have an iPhone but I have a Symbian phone that essentially does the same thing. After some time, I found that I do not really need many of the apps I have installed. After all, there is a time for everything. If I want to look up a restaurant, I find it better to sit in front of my computer before setting out, rather than drive out unprepared and start seeking out a restaurant on my phone. If I want to go somewhere unfamiliar, I would google it on my computer before leaving the house, rather than having to rely on a GPS.

Having said that, it is handy to have certain apps to carry around with you. I love being able to look up the dictionary just about any time when I need to. I love having the calculator handy. I love being able to take notes on my voice recorder. I love being able to read an electronic book or play some games when I have some time to kill. All these functions exist simply as apps in my smartphone. I think smartphones are here to stay for those who are tuned in to this technology. For those who are not, here's a tip: you can get a perfectly decent mobile phone for anything between AUD$40-80, instead of shelling out more than AUD$200 for a smartphone that will only confuse you with all kinds of unnecessary features.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Graffiti writers

I took a train down to the city today. As usual, one is entertained to graffiti-littered walls all along the way to the city. Today is the first time I saw a group of graffiti writers in action. They did not seem too concerned that train travelers are actually witnessing their act. It looked like the group was taking their own sweet time to do the "job".

As a way to fight graffiti vandalism, I suggest that local councils display a phone hotline at all places where graffiti writers are prone to strike. This should be in a prominent position where passersby can see from a distance and where it is out of reach of the graffiti writer. Hopefully this will send a strong message to would-be graffiti writers and discourage them from carrying out their acts.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

New hybrid Camry

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is very proud of bringing the production of the new hybrid Camry to Australia. This means more job opportunities for the locals. Added to that is the fact that Kevin is a self proclaimed champion of the environment. The hybrid Camry will cut down on fuel consumption by a third, owing to the use of hybrid technology.

I think the government can do better. If we are really interested to cut down on fuel consumption, why not encourage the use of a smaller car? Nissan used to have a marvelous model called the Sunny which was very popular in Malaysia about 30 years ago. It was about the size of today's Corolla. It had big bumpers for direct front and rear impact. This car was truly the people's car: it was cheap to buy, cheap to run, and cheap to maintain. And it almost never gave any problems. So why are the big car makers making big-engine cars, only to improve the efficiency by a third? A Nissan Sunny would have cut down by two thirds the fuel consumption without any fancy technology. Better still, a motorized bicycle would run circles around a car and save on road congestion and parking shortages. Yet the government is silent on all these ideas.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Cheaper mobile alternative

I am convinced that TPG has a much cheaper mobile phone plan than Optus (and Telstra too, for that matter). On TPG's $19.99 plan, you will get $300 worth of calls. In comparison, Optus charges $49 for $330 worth of calls. Or, if you choose Optus' $19 plan, you'll get just $50 worth of calls.

That is not all. Consider also:
1. Optus charges 80c per min plus 35c per flagfall. TPG charges in 30sec blocks at 40c per min and 35c per flagfall. If you call for less than 30 sec, Optus takes from you $1.15 while TPG takes from you $0.75.
2. If you are on TPG broadband service, you just pay $15 to get the $19.99 plan. Compare that to Optus' $49 for more or less the same amount of calls!
3. In TPG mobile, you can download data (i.e web, email) at 5c per 10kb, which will be counted towards the $300 worth of calls. In Optus, you will have to sign up separately for this service and pay over and above the cap value.
4. TPG has no contract. You can terminate any time. Furthermore, in TPG you can check your usage call-by-call online, anytime. In comparison, Optus provides you a convoluted bill at the end of each month which is extremely difficult to interpret. I often find dubious charges in Optus bills that are difficult to comprehend.

Forget about "free phone" offers from Optus. You can work out for yourself that it is not free. If you are interested to change over to TPG and start saving on you mobile bills, here's a tip: you can use any Optus-locked or Virgin-locked phone on TPG Mobile without having to unlock the phone. Oh by the way, you cannot use Blackberry on TPG Mobile. I was told by TPG that you cannot use iPhone, but on the internet forums I found that it can be done. More research required on iPhone.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Disappearing services

Some years ago I bought a supplementary health insurance policy from Australian Unity at a shop in Glen Waverley. Yes, all claims were handled over the counter then. I also remember going to an AGL office to apply for my electricity supply connection. Nowadays you cannot find such offices anymore. You have to telephone an anonymous person. You cannot see the expression on their faces when you try to lodge a complaint. It is a faceless, expressionless, anonymous voice that we get to deal with. If you cannot settle any matters over the phone, you are left out in the cold as you would be at the mercy of the service provider. Yes, theoretically you can choose another provider, but then they all behave the same way. Is society regressing or moving forward with advancement in technology? In my opinion, the public is shortchanged. As more and more companies move into providing faceless service, they have not passed the savings to the public.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Idiot Law

There are many laws which I cannot understand why a sensible lawmaker would introduce. Therefore I call such laws the Idiot Laws. They seem to be made by idiots for the benefit of idiots. For example, if a burglar breaks his leg while burglarizing your house, you will be penalized for not keeping your house accident-safe. How about this: some years ago if a kid suffers an injury in the playground, the local council can be sued. What followed then was that all the public playgrounds became closed to the public. Fortunately a law was quickly implemented to repeal that "idiot law". Here is another: teachers are not allowed use the cane to punish a student. As a result school discipline in Australia is a joke by Asian standards.