Friday, January 29, 2010

Discrete and discreet

These are two words that are easily mixed up. Discrete means separate and distinct, while discreet means showing prudence, circumspection, and modesty. To be indiscreet is to show lack of discretion, which may be the reason why it is so easy to get these two words mixed up.

Paying $3.95 to have a photocopy certified

On Feb 15th 2010 Australia Post will begin charging AUD$3.95 per page to certify a duplicate as "True Copy". This service has hitherto been free to customers, as is done in pharmacies, police stations, etc. Some places discreetly displays a charity box nearby to enable you to return your gratitude.

Perhaps Australia Post and lawmakers should think through this a little. People will be shocked and disgusted when they hear of this brashness. They will go elsewhere to have their copies certified for free but will still come back to the Post Office for other business because it is an essential service and a monopoly. Perhaps that is just what Australia Post wants: to stop providing this free service by introducing a high price.

Here is my take. If a customer pays for the service, will Australia Post be held accountable for any fraud arising? It is very easy these days to scan a page and then use an image editing software to change a word or two before printing out a "copy". It would be hard for anyone to detect it if the word is buried in a detailed legal contract. Lawmakers should consider doing away with certifying "True Copy". Any organization that requests for a copy should make the copy themselves when presented with the original. In the old days, photocopy machines were big and expensive; these days they are small, cheap, and are in every office. Better still, since everything is computerized these days, the organization that wants a copy should just scan it into their data base. Save the trees. (What happened to the practice of simply stamping "DUPLICATE" over the documents?)

Why I think the Apple iPad will succeed

By now anyone who has an interest in gadgets or computers will have heard about the iPad, which is unveiled by Apple Computer two days ago. If you haven't, think of the iPad as an over sized iPod Touch. Microsoft's Tablet PC flopped on the market about nine years ago, so how will the iPad be different? (Microsoft is now developing another tablet PC called the Courier, expecting to release it in mid-2010. Looking at what the Courier does, I don't think Microsoft will ever be able to get the product right, so I am just going to talk about the iPad for now.)

The iPad is a marvel in design. It is not just the pieces of innovative technology that makes me think this way. Apple Computer has cleverly designed into the iPad the features necessary for it to drive their vision of changing the way people use information technology. I am certain the omission of USB port and of a big capacity hard drive are not an oversight, but a deliberate effort to change the way people will use the iPad.

I suspect the iPad is targeted at an untapped market, namely the non-I.T. savvy people. I have seen many of such people comfortably using the iPhone. They surprise me with their ease at opening up one app after another, look up an address, or show off their digital photos. These people are actually using a high tech gadget without realizing the significance of it. In the same way, I can foresee many computer-phobic people easily adopting the iPad to do the same things the rest of us do on a regular computer (e.g. email and web surfing). This is in addition to the countless number of apps that the iPad can do. Similar apps, if they exist, are far more cumbersome to deploy on a computer. Apple Computer has got the iPad form factor right and it is targeting not so much you and me, but those who missed out on the I.T.revolution. That is why I think the iPad will succeed and Microsoft will still be trying to figure out what went wrong with their Tablet PC.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Sleek and slick

On Jan 21st I wrote a blog about the Ipod Touch. I used the word "slick" to describe the iPod Touch, but I have since corrected it to "sleek". You see, a few days ago I was reading the ads in the newspaper and there were two different ads in which one used "slick" and the other used "sleek" to describe their products. Upon checking the dictionary, I am quite sure the intended word is "sleek", which means well-groomed and neatly tailored. Many people mistakenly use the word "slick which usually is used to describe something slippery. That also includes a "slick salesman", which I'm sure you'll know what I mean!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Saving your mobile phone

Are you having problems with your mobile phone? You might want to replace the battery.

My Nokia N73 played up a few months ago. Even after charging it overnight, I found that it would switch off by itself in the middle of the day. At first I thought I had forgotten to switch it on, but in time I realized that something was wrong. I was inclined to believe that the phone was faulty and that I needed a new one. Anyway, I found that I could get a new generic battery for ~AUD$10, so I gave that a try. This time, the phone didn't shut down by itself, but the battery would suddenly run down in the middle of a conversation. I thought this further confirmed the phone was useless. But since the symptom was different from the first battery, I felt it was worth trying out with another new battery. This time I bought it from eBay for AUD$11. I am happy to say the phone has been working like new ever since I got this third battery.

My son's phone (a different model) also showed the same symptom as the second battery I had. He also thought he needed a new phone. Instead, I got him a new battery from eBay for AUD$9. It solved the problem rightaway.

I believe that the electronics in a phone far outlasts the lifespan of a battery. I believe that many people unwittingly throw away their phones after a few years when they could have just replaced the battery. The marketing strategy of service providers makes it very tempting to go out and get a "free" phone and a new plan every two years. The phones are by no means free. Those plans that look cheap, e.g. $19 per month, have very low cap values and most users end up paying much more than the $19 per month. Save yourself some money; buy a new battery the next time your phone plays up.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Ipod Touch envy

I bought my daughter a 64GB iPod Touch recently. As I always do before buying any gadget, I studied the product thoroughly and gave it my full blessing. It is really sleek and I could feel a sense of envy of the Touch over my humble Nokia N73 smartphone. I am talking about the apps and all the cool things the Touch could do. It did cross my mind to get one for myself.

Well, the envy phase lasted about two weeks. I am never a games person. I am really only interested to use the practical tools like dictionary, camera, voice recorder, video player, electronic book reader, and such. So I proceeded to removed most of the games from my N73; my applications run faster now, and I am still as pleased with the N73 as ever. To seal off my "iPod Touch- envy", I asked my daughter to show me how quickly she could take down some notes on her Touch. She opened up the notes app, and proceeded to use the QWERTY keyboard on the screen to type something. Cool. In comparison, I pressed 2 hotkeys on my N73 and I could immediately take notes without typing anything. I rest my case. My iPod Touch envy period has ground to a halt. Yes, the iPod is really cool, but I'll stick to the N73 for quite a while yet. And it takes fairly good pictures and can email photos to my photo blog.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Incident at a fruit store this morning

While at a Vietnamese fruit market this morning, I heard a man shouting at one of the shop assistants. Apparently the shop assistant saw his daughter touching the cut watermelons on display and she tried to stop her. The man claimed his daughter was pinched on the arm. The sales assistant apologized unreservedly, but the man just wanted to vent his anger. That would have been the end of the scene, except that the owner of the shop came into the picture and denied right away that the little girl was pinched (and the owner wasn't even there to witness it). I spent another few minutes half-amusedly witnessing the exchange of words, which went something like this....
Man: Your assistant pinched my daughter.
Owner: No, she didn't
Man: Yes, she did. See, my daughter is crying because she was pinched.
Owner: How do you know she was pinched?
Man: My daughter told me. She is a kid. Kids don't lie.
Owner: Do you always believe that kids don't lie?
Man: Yes, I do.

I can't help thinking that the two adults were acting like kids. The man's assertions were incredulous. One, his daughter could have cried out of fright, rather than out of being pinched. Honestly, she did not scream at all; if she was really pinched that hard. Two, kids don't lie? I'll have to think about that.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Cheap drugs for addicts?

In Australia, you can find injection rooms in some places where there are many drug addicts. The government's idea is that by providing this facility, it will help keep addicts out of trouble and thereby improve peace and security in the area. Soemtimes you will also hear people arguing for drugs like marijuana to be made freely available so that it will bring the street price down. The say that drug addicts will find a way to get their fix no matter what, so why not just oblige? Then there will be less drug-related crime, these people believe.

In my opinion, the people who advocate cheap or easy drugs are taking a very narrow view of the problem. In the broader view, drug abuse does not destroy just one life; it also destroys the family. By trying to eliminate the availability of drugs, it is hoped that fewer people will exposed to it and become addicts. It is not just about making it difficult for an addict to obtain it. It is about making it hard for everyone to get it. I think the advocates of easy drugs need to get this straight.

Friday, January 15, 2010

A fat wallet

Ever noticed how fat wallets have grown these days? It is not because people have grown richer; it is because people are carrying plastic cards for all kinds of purposes. Typically there are several bank cards, a health care card, an identity card, a driver's licence, a club membership card, a retailer's discount card, etc. When credit cards were first introduced perhaps 35-40 years ago, they are touted to replace paper money. While the credit card has invaded everyone's pocket, the use of paper money is still as prevalent as ever. You cannot find a payment counter that doesn't also do cash transaction.

I try to keep my wallet as thin as possible by minimizing the number of plastic cards I carry. Even then, it is still too bulky for my liking. Working at the post office, I see people opening their wallets all the time. The typical wallet or purse is fat and crammed full of plastic cards. Every now and then, I'll see someone frantically pulling out one card after another as he or she tries to locate a card to make a payment at the counter. All is not lost yet... there's the smart card or digital wallet in the horizon which promises to integrate many cards into one.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Life changing moments

Can you recall any of your life changing moments? Sometimes something that seems insignificant at that time can turn into a life changing moment when you look back years later. I recall a time when I was just a few years old. I still remember that day clearly in my mind. My 6th Uncle (on my mother's side) came to visit. I don't recall him visiting us at any other time during my childhood, but it was on the fateful day that something happened that will have long lasting impact on my life. My uncle was in his late teens or early twenties at that time and he was taking a course in electronics. On this visit he brought along a sound recorder and proudly got the family together to see what he could do. The technology at that time uses magnetic tape that is wound from one spool to another as you record (like a movie reel). The recorder itself was quite an impressive mechanical contraption that preceded the cassette recorder, which some of you may still remember about . I sang a nursery rhyme after much coaxing. Other than that, I never saw or heard about the recorder again. It must have been quite a short lived career aspiration for 6th Uncle.

Years passed and I find that recording audio, video, and still images (photography) has become a deep-seated passion in my life. I cherish the ability to record and preserve moments of history, so that I can revisit it over and over again. The memories can be preserved forever. My beloved family and extended family will never fade from my mind. My passion grew from that life changing moment when 6th Uncle came to visit.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Mobile phone for older folks?

Older people have a problem reading the small text on a mobile phone. It is not funny. As there is a large percentage of the population who are old enough not to care about features other than the ability to make a call and read the SMS, I wish Nokia or somebody would step up to the task. Here's my take: the phone doesn't have to be tiny, or pretty. It just needs a big LCD screen and a big key pad. The text should be customizable to different sizes using a physical button that works like the volume button. Yes, the ringer has to be loud too. Perhaps it should have a socket to plug in an earphone, for good measure. What do you think?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

French PM wants to ban the burqa

French PM Francois Fillon wants to ban the full Islamic veil through legislation. As there are existing laws on individual rights, his wish may not be a simple one. One cannot insist on his right to be different and at the same time for everyone else to treat him as if he is not. As long as differences between two people exist, one must accept that some friction is inevitable. The question is how big the "friction" is.

If I migrate to Congo and then choose to behave differently, dress differently, and insist on my right to do so, what reaction do I expect to get from the locals? In my opinion, if a person chooses to create differences between himself and others around him, he will most likely get some negative reaction, whether he is of the same race or not. Any ethnic group that wants to minimize the real or perceived threat of racial/cultural/religious discrimination should also work at eliminating the differences.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Sony Bloggie MHS-PM5

This is the Sony Bloggie MHS-PM5 camcorder. It has just been released by Sony in direct competition to the Flip UltraHD. The Flip has a couple of features I like over the Bloggie: Flip UltraHD uses AA batteries, and it has a brighter F2.4 lens, while the Bloggie uses proprietary battery and the lens is F3.6.

Apart from those two shortfalls, the Bloggie beats UltraHD hands down, based on design and specs. The Bloggie lets you take 5MP still pictures; it has image stabilization, it is thinner, it has a larger LCD (2.4" vs 2.0"), and it has a bigger digital zoom (4x vs 2x).

Most significantly, it has a very useful 270degrees swivel lens. One of the most useful things you can do with this is to lay the Bloggie flat on a surface when you don't have a tripod. You can then tilt the lens to the required direction, and start recording to your heart's content. I wish Sony had thought of providing a foldaway support, so that you don't have to carry a tripod with you. With that, you can stand the Bloggie upright and it will be less likely to pick up any vibration noise from a table.

In the line of fire

The Herald Sun newspaper recently interviewed a number of people from different ethnic background to see if they thought Australia was a racist country. You can guess which ethnic groups feels the strongest about this issue. I am not about to take sides here, as this is a very sensitive issue. In this blog I just want to make a point with reference to the recent fatal stabbing of an Indian man and the furor this has unleashed in India.

Indian news reporters should take note that Indians in Australia dominate certain segments of the local employment scene, such as petrol stations, fast food chains and taxicabs. These industries, in particular, carry very high risks due to the high amount of cash involved (for petrol stations), wee hours (for fast food chains), and high personal exposure (for taxicabs). I might be wrong, but perhaps it is no coincidence that many Indians have been attacked as they stand in the line of fire, so to speak. It may be useful to look at the other employment areas where Indians have a significant presence, such as certain Centrelink offices, Immigration offices, and banks. Do the Indians in such places face any more violence than the other ethnic groups? I can't say for sure, but I think the reader should think about this and decide for himself.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Flip camcorders

As my interest in SLR grew, my interest in camcorders waned correspondingly. I thought I would never take a serious look at another camcorder again. However, A few days ago the Flip Mino HD camcorder accidentally caught my eye as I was surfing the internet. Pure Digital introduced the Flip Mino in June 2008, succeeded by the MinoHD, and more recently, the UltraHD (rrp US$199). With high definition and H.64 compression the norm these days, video quality has become much more acceptable. The camera is low cost, simple to operate, records on Flash memory, and has a convenient USB connector that flips out when needed. The camera looks like a mobile phone and is held like one when recording. It is therefore very un-intrusive when used in public places. (People become very sensitive when they have a heavy duty SLR or big video cameras pointed at them Not so with a camera phone.)

The Flip form factor must be very successful, as evidenced by heavy weight challengers introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas right now. They are:
Sony's Bloggie PM5 (rrp US$170)
Kodak's Playsport (rrp US$149)

Almost as small, but sporting a flip-out LCD screen rather than a flip-out USB connector, are some very enticing new models, such as:
Sony's MHS-CM5 (rrp US$200)
Sanyo's Xacti VPC-CS1 (rrp US$399).
(Older models (such as from Aiptek) have been around for a long time but their video quality precludes them from serious users.)

A Christian's relationship with God

I know that many people still continue to grapple with the issue of whether salvation is by works or by faith. Once a believer has accepted Christ, can he lose his salvation? Putting it another way, if a person has accepted Christ and Christ lives in him, does that mean he should not have the capacity to sin anymore?

The relationship between a believer and God is very easy to understand if we were to think of the relationship between a child and his parent. As a father to my children, I consider my children as being permanently mine. Nothing can change that. I will love them no matter what they do to hurt me or disappoint me. Likewise, once a person has accepted God into his life, the Bible says he becomes a child of God. He has become heir and co-heir with Christ. Nothing can ever break that relationship. As it is only natural that a child desires to please his parents, likewise it is with God. As children of God, we want to do things that please God. God wants us to trust and obey Him, just as it would make me very happy when my children trust and obey me. That is the simple truth.

Friday, January 8, 2010

How to spend your school holiday

Once a school teacher described me as having an inquisitive mind. At that time I did not think much of it; perhaps I even thought it was not accurate observation. The dictionary defines inquisitive as "eager for knowledge or intellectually curious." It is now perhaps 40 years since that time, and when I look back at myself, I think the teacher was right. I was actually quite eager to learn things. When I was young, I wanted to do everything: I wanted to be able to play basketball, and strum the guitar. I wanted to be able to paint, to take develop photographs, to repair a car, to make wooden furniture, etc. I wasn't satisfied with just doing something new; I actually wanted to know the theoretical side of it as well. Every school holiday was an opportunity to learn something new... if only I could find somebody to teach. Over time, I generally learned a little bit here and there. It was only during the recent years after I have "semi-retired" from active career that I could devote time, energy, and resources into some of these unfinished pursuits.

Nowadays young people have lots of opportunity to learn new things through the internet. They also have more disposable family income. They are also more exposed to the material world. Unfortunately, with these opportunities also come distractions that never existed before. Kids are exposed to computer games and other electronic toys that are designed not so much to challenge the human ability as to entrap the young in order to enrich the makers. The world of real games and real sports is now replaced with virtual games and sports that appear out of the Wii console, the PS3, or the iPhone. My advice to you is, get back into the real world. Whether you are old or young, pick up a new skill this holiday.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Image capturing - the new "instant literature"

What is happening with photography? Is image capturing and photography one and the same? My opinion is that while photography as a hobby still remains as one, the wider scope of image capturing has drowned out the world of photography in the mind of many people. I feel it is important to differentiate between these two. In the following, keep in mind that images and video are used interchangeably for the sake of discussion.

Firstly, let's consider what image capturing is. I propose that human communication has simply progressed from spoken to written, and now to visualized form. In visualized form, image capturing and image dissemination is fast maturing, thanks high speed broadband and smart phones. Of course, digicams still illuminate the way. Facebook and Youtube have become the new printing press, from which images and video clips are dispensed to the whole world. The ability to share images instantly is simply another form of communication; it is not photography in the pure sense of the word (i.e. "painting with light"). Image capturing for communication is what many, many people are now engaged in, even among many of those totting a camera everywhere. Perhaps one day, learning how to handle a digital image will be as important as learning how to read or write.

Secondly, consider what photography is. Photography to image capturing is like what poetry is to prose. Photography attempts to draw out the beauty of something seen. It is an art. It requires years of practice in honing the skills. While the public can generally tell a good photo from a bad one, a real photographer can truly appreciate the beauty of a masterpiece. A great photograph radiates beauty; whereas an ordinary image simply conveys visual information.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Political maneuvering

One reader to The Age newspaper wrote: "At last, democracy in action. Reading that the Government's ridiculous decision to destroy our green wedges and further turn our once most-liveable city into a monstrous urban sprawl is being put on the back burner, due to Coalition and Greens resistance, is a breath of fresh air." (Comment and Debate, The Age, 6 Jan 2010)

We must remember this is election year. The same government of John Brumby changed the rules a few months ago to enable developers to fast track their projects and removed the power of local councils to raise any objection. This was met with resistance from many council members, but nothing was done about it. Now in a run up to the state election (in November this year), some political maneuvering appears to be under way. The reader recognized it was the same government that initially proposed to turn some of the existing parks into housing estates. However, he was too quick to commend the government for listening to the people now. Personally I am skeptical. I believe it is just a political move to appear to listen to the public while the election clock is ticking. Once it has secured another term, we will see another round of brash actions not necessarily what the naive public had bargained for in the election. I recall clearly that Brumby's predecessor Steve Bracks, just before the election, promised that Eastlink would be a toll-free road. Within a week after being re-elected, Steve Bracks brazenly announced that "there is no such thing as a free lunch." We all know Eastlink is now a toll road. John Brumby was Steve Brack's Treasurer then.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Stabbing death of Indian man in Footscray

A young Indian, 21-year Nitin Garg, has just been stabbed to death in West Footscray. Naturally there's an outpouring of feelings from the public, with India quickly condemning the killing as being racially motivated. This premature conclusion is justifiably so, yet we now know that on the same night another non-Indian was also admitted to the same hospital with 6 stab wounds.

I think we should all pause and think of our own unspoken reaction to this incident. Do we see this just as a piece of news and it has nothing to do with our lives? Or do we judge that the killer should be given benefit of the doubt and thereby we opt for political correctness in reserving our "judgment"? Or do we take sides with the racial discrimination debate, while ignoring the fact that the victim's chest had been sliced open and the wound runs from his abdomen to his heart?

Somewhere in Nitin Garg's home in India, a family's life has been irreparably shattered. The grief of his parents cannot be fathomed, except by one who has lost a child before. Emptiness fills the home that once looked forward to his return, and now painfully dreads the coming back of his remains. I am sure if we put ourselves in the shoes of his loved ones, no matter what our initial reaction to the killing may be, deep in our heart we are all human and we have compassion for one another.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Shooting in Raw format and making it work

I have always assumed that when I set my camera to shoot in medium size Jpeg+Raw, both the Jpeg and Raw files are recorded at medium resolution, thereby helping me to keep the file sizes small. Well, I've just found out that I was wrong. While the Jpeg file varies between different settings, the corresponding Raw file remains at maximum resolution all the time. Since the Raw file is several times larger than the corresponding Jpeg file, if the camera has very large resolution, all the Raw files will be huge no matter what size you set (I am assuming all cameras work the same way for Raw).

I am now changing my workflow to just shoot in Raw and forget about wondering whether to set at maximum resolution for a potentially winning shot, or set to small resolution to preserve hard disk space. After the shoot, I use Lightroom to view my photos and make minor tweaks. Finally I "export" all the images into the Jpeg resolution of my choice, and keep only those Raw files that are worth keeping. This work flow would be tedious in Photoshop. Using Lightroom, I was able to tweak about 1,500 Raw files from 8 different shoots in about 2 hours. The tweakings were just on minor cropping, straightening, white balance, exposure, and fill light. I also selected certain Raw files to keep, and deleted off 95% of the unwanted Raw files. I am very pleased with this work flow, and I am very pleased with what Lightroom can do to facilitate this work flow.

Are Coles and Safeway competiting?

I am almost certain there is no real competition between these two grocery giants. Between them they control 80% of the Australian market. The reason is very simple. In a market-driven model, true supply and demand are constantly at work. Businesses are supposed to compete with one another and thereby keeping prices in check. When a business is able to arbitrarily increase its prices and still get away with it, market forces is no longer at work. It may appear that Coles and Safeway are competitors, but do they really compete? Towards the end of 2009 I could see that suddenly many items have a noticeably higher price tag. The local newspapers report that grocery prices in Australia is the second highest among the developed countries, yet Coles and Safeway can seemingly continue to increase prices at their whim and fancy without fear of losing out to any competitor. The reason they can do this is that a duopoly situation has emerged whereby Coles and Safeway have learned to co-exist, happily dividing up the market between just the two of them.

How to contact your local MP

Every year I get a fridge magnet with the address and contact numbers for our local Member of Parliament. I have never given it much thought before, but now I can see how useful it can be. Distributed by the office of the local MP, there's also telephone numbers for various government agencies such as the fire department, ambulance, nearest hospital, etc.

My local MP's email address is . If you feel strongly about an issue, it should be interesting try to email her and see what kind of response you'll get. As for me, you may wonder why I put my opinions into a blog rather than write to the MP. I can only say that I am a writer and I have many opinions to express, but I am not a cause champion.