Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Microsoft 's foray into the phone market

Microsoft is reportedly about to spend big in an attempt to break into the mobile phone market. They are telling people that they are going to spend US$400mil on the coming launch of the Windows Phone 7, and will probably spend into the billions when other costs are added up to support an ecosystem much like the Apple apps or the Android.

What do I think of this? I think it is a sign of desperation. This may be Microsoft's last attempt and belated effort to fortify its OS dominance by extending it from desktop to mobile phones. If it fails, the days of the OS stranglehold are over for Microsoft; Android-based products will start to overtake netbooks, and eventually even desktops . That is the reason for this desperate attempt with the Windows Phone 7 launch.

Microsoft is increasingly finding itself sidelined in the high tech race. Years ago, it tried to dominate the entire IT world by buying up any company that might grow into a threat. For some time it was able to rein in all competition due to its stranglehold on the computer's operating system. The IT world has since moved on, and Microsoft is chalking up more failures than success. Its attempt with the Zune to challenge the iPod failed to become a serious threat. Its Xbox has to work hard to keep its share of the games market. Its 15-year development of the "tablet PC" resulted in a few product launches but no takers, while Apple's iPad became an overnight sensation. That must have sent Microsoft's tablet PC development team into a serious bout of soul searching.

Now Microsoft is again trying to spend its way into the high tech fore. If history is anything to go by, I seriously doubt this will work unless it has a mobile phone product that can surpass what the best mobile phones can offer. About fifteen years ago Motorola cohorted with Apple to pour hundreds of millions of dollars into PowerPC advertisements, in an attempt to unseat Intel. In the end, consumers were not swayed and people still made their choice based on the CPU's performance. Microsoft is going to learn the same lesson too. Since it does not have a track record of surprising the world with any innovative products, chances are Microsoft is unlikely to pull a rabbit out of the hat this time.

Monday, August 30, 2010

A hung parliament for Victoria?

In the coming November state election, I wish to see the same result as the federal election we just had; that is, a hung parliament. Both Premier Brumby and Opposition Leader Ted Baillieu are simply not doing their jobs. Brumby has been accused by his own MP of being out-of-touch with the people, and I think that is being very generous with his words.

I have this bone to pick with Brumby. He cannot be trusted to manage even privatized projects, let alone the state economy. Massive blowout in costs has become the norm. Is that his way of getting projects approved (quoting low), and then compensating private companies who have signed contracts to undertake the project? Railway stations which were budgeted at $20mil became $55mil a few years later, while a comparable one in Marshall was actually built for $5mil around that time when the $20mil figure was proposed. In Malaysia where corruption is rife, the cost of a megaproject is budgeted up front - albeit at many times the real value due to corruption - and then remains that way, completed and delivered. Here, we have a tender process and the project is awarded to a private company to run. Then for reasons unknown to all of us, the private company is allowed to claim higher costs. The desalination plant was costed at $3.5bil; yet a few days ago the papers mentioned $5.7 cost. The ill-managed Myki project cost has already shot into the stratosphere, yet still has no launch date in sight. The list goes on and on.

Next, either Brumby is not honest or he really does not know what is going on under his nose. In the western suburbs rail project, the government has been caught scheming to reduce the options for affected residents to object to the rail line. His cohort Planning Minister Madden is under attack for running a sham consultation process on the Hotel Windsor high rise development. There is now a call for a probe into allegedly "fake" patrol cars to falsely boost police presence (a 2006 election promise).

As for Ted Baillieu, I think he is not vocal enough in highlighting the government's mismanagement. Shouldn't his job be to watch every step of Brumby's ways? Australia has a unique political system whereby the losing opposition party is paid out of the public purse to run a shadow government. Ideally, the shadow government should view itself as a watchdog, not an underdog.

Technology isolates the individual

We now live in a world that is more connected than ever, no thanks to Facebook and Twitter. Yet many individuals are more alienated from the real world - the physical network of friends - than ever before. The trend probably started way before Facebook and Twitter, so let me go back a little.

I guess it must all have started with the Sony Walkman. Prior to the Walkman, people would gather together around a radio or a hifi system as they listened to their favourite hits. When the Walkman came, many people were seen wearing the earphone. This created an invisible space around them. Just put on the earphone and they are shut inside their own world.

The personal computer then became more and more a personal item as costs came down. People started to do more things on the computer. Like everything else, too much of a good thing is bad for you. Now we pay our bills online instead of going outside and meet people; we email one another instead of talking on the phone; and we seek information online instead of consulting with one another. Can you see how we are shrinking into a shell that we have built around us?

It got worse. Computer games came along and became an inescapable pastime that simply ate into mealtime, and rolled over into bedtime. Instead of having real physical activities, children and adults alike engage in simulated actions on the screen. As if that is not enough, Facebook and Twitter came along. I am not saying these are all bad per se, but it is how some people have driven these to the extreme that is causing them to become isolated from reality. They gradually become disengaged from the physical world, slowly losing their circle of friends. Is the human population going back into the caves?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Would I edit my photos for competition?

Today I went to the Geelong Art Gallery. Our camera club organized an outing there to view the Vigex Photo Exhibition. It is an international-level exhibition, thus boasting entries from all over the world. At this exhibition I realized that all the photos, except those in the Nature category, have obviously been photoshopped. Thus I am now more amicable to image editing in competition photographs. I now accept that it is perfectly alright for a photograph to be "tuned up" before it is ready for competition. Everybody does that. Even in the film days, post processing enhancements were done in the darkroom. Thus we have the terms "dodge" and "burn" in image editing which originate from the film days.

On the same token, a photographer may forgive himself if his shots are never going to be "picture perfect" straight out of the camera. It should also be recognized that a digital photographer without Lightroom (or any other image editing software) is like a film-days photographer without a darkroom.

Is motorized transport a necessity?

It was about 30 years ago when I was studying in Taiping. At that time there were bicycles everywhere. Housewives rode their bicycles to the market every morning. Schoolchildren rode bicycles to school. Even courting couples rode around on their bicycles, adding further proof to the age of innocence.

Taiping is not much bigger today than it was 30 years ago. The streets are full of cars and motorcycles now. Bicycles are seldom seen. Motorized transport has certainly taken over our legs. It is now difficult to get from one place to another due to heavy traffic. Parking bays are few. So why have people abandoned the bicycles for cars and motorcycles? I cannot think of a good reason, as the town has not grown much at all. The same transformation is seen in other towns, save for the sleepy hollows. Sadly, nobody seems to miss the bicycle at all, while they nonchalantly contend with the traffic, day after day.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Google Buzz; what I think of it

Today I just noticed the Buzz when I opened my Gmail. I clicked on the demo to learn more. I was quite horrified by it, really. I quickly disabled it. Buzz is Google's answer to Facebook (of which I am also not a fan). I find it very intrusive. I don't want to be so connected to cyberspace that I cannot have a moment of peace to myself. Like Facebook, Buzz allows you to quickly interact with your cyber network when you find something you want to share. I can see there will be a lot of idle chatting ("sharing") and I wouldn't want to waste precious time like that. It is far better to have real face-to-face interaction with friends. I mean, it is good to be able to "connect" with friends who are far away, but it is a different thing altogether to connect with people from school or work. We all need time to be alone. We need to refresh our mind with peace and solitude.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Headache over your laptop? Have a tablet.

Of course I am talking about the tablet PC and not the medicinal tablet. With iPads gaining popularity day by day, a host of Android-based tablets are also on the verge of making their debut on the market. Laptops typically running on Microsoft operating systems are so-yesteryear. They are heavy, expensive, and require a great deal of technical support. As I am typing out this blog on my laptop, I am grumbling to myself about the narrow viewing angle of my LCD display. I can't really place the laptop on my lap. The viewing angle just doesn't work. So I place it on a table to type. Now I wonder why I don't just go back to my desktop, which has a good standalone display and a proper keyboard.

Fast forward a few years into the future... I can see myself using an Android-based tablet. At home I would plug into a big display screen and a proper keyboard. I assume such a feature would be available by then. When on the move, I would just use it as a regular tablet PC. There will be no need for a desktop or a laptop. Goodbye to all the messy cables behind my computer. Goodbye to heavy laptops. Goodbye to Microsoft?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Photoblogging fun

Many people have a camera in their mobile phone, but few go beyond taking the occasional snapshot and leaving the image in the phone. Photoblogging is a great way to quickly upload your image to a website. These day, one is usually offered a Facebook app with the smart phone. I tend to shy away from the Facebook scene, preferring to use a more mundane blog site such as the Phlog.

My photoblog site has a link on this blog page. Phlog is a no-nonsense and no-advertisement site. The newest pictures are displayed at the top, and you can edit your subject header and caption at any time you like. I really like the ability to email my pictures directly to the site. The spontaneity of it makes taking pictures with the mobile phone so much more fun.

(Note: TPG Mobile provides a limited amount of free data on the $1 plan, which I blogged about recently; see "Cheapest mobile rate in Australia. Perhaps it is time to start your own photo blog!)

Sold (out) on solar

On 21/Jun/2010 I wrote a blog called "Sold on solar". I would like to update the information there with this sequel: sold out on solar.

Aussies have really been sold out by the solar generating scheme. By "sold out", I don't mean the solar panels are out of stock. I mean there something fishy going on. AFTER installing the solar panels, I received a letter from the electricity supplier to say that I will now be charged a new tariff that is tailored to homes with solar panels. This tariff goes by a different rate for different times of the day and it is significantly higher than my existing one. I believe the rates are set in such a way so that what is generated and sold back to the company is quickly negated by the extra tariff. What a sham! The government subsidizes the solar panels by thousands of dollars, and Labor-iously (pun intended) promotes the carbon trading scheme, only to have the electricity suppliers steal all the benefits from the consumers. Labor Party deserves to lose the election this year!

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Ground Zero mosque

For many years I have watched the first world countries being victims of their own self-imposed righteousness. In particular, when it comes to issues of religion, the governments of these countries staunchly and blindly stand by their constitution, even though the world at large plays by a different set of rules.

Take for example the issue of the proposed Ground Zero mosque. Muslims in America want to build a big mosque near the site of the former World Trade Centre, which was destroyed by the Muslim terrorist group Al-Qaeda. Despite strong condemnation from her own people, the government insists that they have the right to build the mosque. US President Obama and New York Mayor Bloomberg (himself a Jew?) signalled that they will not stand in the way.

Many things are wrong here. Firstly, Obama and Bloomberg only operate by the constitution but not as leaders of the people who placed them there. The people might as well have elected Hal (the supercomputer in Space Odyssey) to run the country. As leaders, Obama and Bloomberg fail to listen to the people they lead. The constitution is written by men and continuously revised by men. Let the people decide if they want it changed and put this up for debate.

Secondly: uneven playing field. While the US government allows the Muslim population to have equal rights, Muslim nations play by a different set of rules. At best, non-Muslims in these countries are subject to discriminatory laws. At worst, they are persecuted and face the severest penalties for no crimes at all.

Thirdly: tunnel vision. Though the US has superior military intelligence, it fails to see that it is not drawing the battle lines right. While it is fighting physical battles, it has forgotten what a Trojan horse can do. Perhaps they are just simply too scared to talk about it.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Cheapest mobile rate in Australia

The newly introduced TPG's "Pay As You Go" mobile phone plan has got to be the cheapest one around. For just $1/mth, you are entirely on a pay-as-you-go plan and the rate is far cheaper that any prepaid plan you can find. The cost to make a call to a landline or a mobile is 10c per min, plus 10c flagfall (computed in seconds).

In comparison with the next cheapest rate, VOIP service provider MyNetFone charges 20c per min, no flagfall (computed in increments of 1 minute).

Next up, I think reseller Lebara gives a pretty good rate too: 15c per min, plus 25c flagfall (in increments of 1 minute). Although significantly higher than TPG's, it is a lot cheaper than other prepaid mobiles (e.g. Optus).

If you think flexicaps are cheap, think again. Vodafone's $29 cap gives you $150 call credit, plus $150 vodafone-to-vodafone talk time. $150 sounds like a lot, but you have to pay 80c per min, plus 39c flagflall. If you make 2-min calls each time, $150 will last you 75 min. In comparison, with TPG's plan, $29 will give you 96 min (2-min calls, at 30c per call).

TPG's plan does not require you to sign a contract, or commit yourself to a $29/month usage. It is truly the cheapest mobile rate in Australia. In Australia we are all paying far too much for our mobile phone usage, so spread the word around! I have already swtiched. Just tel. TPG at 13 14 23.

Best ebook reader?

While looking at all the new electronic book readers that are fast making their debut in the market, I have formed a strong opinion on what would consitute the "ideal" ebook reader. You can imagine my delight when I found one that ticks almost all the boxes. It is called Kogan 6 (http://www.kogan.com.au/shop/ebook-reader-6-e-ink-screen/).

These are all the features I like about it:
Electronic ink: long battery life; low power (no heat generated)
Low cost: introduced on 21/7/2010, it costs only AUD$189; among the least expensive ereaders.
Open format: it boasts a wide array of formats; practically almost any format there is!
Music: it can play MP3 while you read
Pictures: it can display jpeg pictures in 16 shades of grey (state of the art)
Expandable memory: with built-in 2GB of RAM, you add up to 32GB in the SD slot provided.
Size and weight: the 6" screen is just the ideal size, and the eight is a mere 228g

Page turning is reportedly very fast. It runs on an ARM 9 processor, with Linux 2.6 for OS. Yes, the specs are great and the price is right. I can only wonder about the build quality, since you cannot view any display unit in the shops. This product can only be bought online. And, for a change, it is made in Australia!

(Tempted as I was with the specs, I placed an order for the Kindle Wifi instead. It costs about the same and has more or less the same form factor. As this is going to be my first ereader, I took no chances but went straight for a product that will be my benchmark for any future ereaders)

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Notes to myself: "bokeh" workshop

Bokeh is the term used to describe the fuzzy backgound in a photo. It is a well known special effect in photography. Last night at the camera club we had a practical session to learn all about bokeh. From the picture, you can see how the set up was done, followed by my very first shot on the top right. After improving on my settings, I managed to shoot a better picture (bottom left). Finally, with the help of a little cut out to cover the lens, I managed to get some nice maple leave shaped-bokeh!

I must add that despite all my readings about bokeh, the hands-on I had last night really helped me to get a good grasp of bokeh. Lesson: to be successful with bokeh, one really needs to push the limits of the lens aperture. Next, focal length also contributes to the effect. Finally, the ISO can also make a difference. I actually had one shot where the higher ISO dims out the bokeh and I had to dial down the ISO, so that I could drag the shutter speed to get a brighter bokeh.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Generosity and charity

These are two important words to mull over. Generosity is often thought of in terms of money, although it is also sometimes associated with the giving of time. In terms of money, big philanthropists like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet easily comes to mind as having given away huge amounts of money, both in dollar terms and in the percentage of their wealth. Who can fault them?

It is interesting therefore to note that the bible says: "If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing (1 Cor 13:3)". This is what charity means. Charity comes from the Latin word "caritas", which means altruistic love. Charity is benevolence towards others less fortunate than ourselves. It is an attitude of kindness and understanding towards others. On the other hand, generosity is a subset of this feeling of charity and altruistic love. One can be so generous as to give all he possesses to the poor and surrender his body to the flames, but if he has not love, he has gained nothing.

By all means, be generous. Only do it with love, with an attitude of kindness and understanding towards others. Be charitable, not just generous.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Car MP3 player

Here is a nice little gadget to fool around with. It is labeled as a "Car MP3 player", for want of a better name. Once it is plugged into a cigarette lighter, it starts to play the songs in either a thumb drive or an SD card, which you have to separately purchase and upload with songs. Shown above on the far right is my thumb drive. 1GB thumbdrive can store almost 300 songs.

The music is transmitted through the air to the car radio in FM wave. The audio comes out of the speakers in your car just like a normal radio reception. You can tune the FM frequency to match whatever FM frequency you choose on your radio. Once set, it remains unchanged. It even remembers which song you last played and continues from there the next time you use it. An LCD display on the player shows you the song title, the FM frequency, and the track number of the song. As an added bonus, the player comes with a remote control (not much larger than the size of a credit card), complete with battery.

Finally, you must be wondering how much this costs. I picked it up at the PC fair in Malaysia for RM$20 (= AUD$7). What a steal! As for the quality, I am quite happy with it. The sound is clean and it is as clear as any good FM reception that you get from a radio station.

Friday, August 13, 2010

House auction in Australia

I attended a couple of house actions this morning to see how hot or cool the property market is now. The first house attracted no bidder, opening at $780k. This house is very old, so it is probably targeted at someone who has in mind to build a new house on the 771 sq m of land. At the peak, this would have easily sold above $800k. The second house (in a different suburb) is only 5 years old, single storeyed, and in a very modern neighborhood. This house attracted 3 bidders, and was finally passed in at $640k. It was not sold under the hammer, as the owner had in mind a higher reserved price.

What do I make of this? Well, the market has certainly cooled a lot, with the noticeable absence of mainland Chinese bidders. So it is true that the governments previous policy of allowing foreigners to buy into the market did create an unrealistically strong demand and a huge inflation in house prices.

What hasn't change is the way house auctions are conducted. It is all to the advantage of the seller, and indirectly, the estate agents (who benefit from playing up the market). First of all, I have noticed that while the auctioneer tries to induce people to bid up the price, the buyer is not told at which price the owner is willing to sell. The impression given is that if you are the last bidder, common sense tells you that you have won the bid. Isn't that how auctions are supposed to go? But no, the auctioneer will hang on to the last bid, and then go and talk to the owner. Then he will come back to say if the house is "on the market". If it is, the bidding continues from that level.

In the case of the second auction I attended today, the three bidders were genuinely bidding against one another in good faith and at reasonable price level. Yet in the end, the final bidder did not get the house, but only got the "first right" to talk to the owner to further negotiate. I think the auction rules ought to be re-written.