Monday, May 30, 2011

Why your council rate goes up every year

Perhaps this is why Australia needs more migrant workers. Here is a picture of four workers standing by a patch of wet cement. They might be having a field conference, guarding the wet cement, or simply waiting for the cement to dry. Another worker, not in the picture, was sitting inside a truck. It is no wonder that the council rate always goes up faster than inflation. (If this is your own home, you will just need to pay for one tradie to come and lay the cement all by himself.)

Podcast, a portend for movie-on-demand?

Back in 2004, podcast was just getting ready for prime time. It seemed like such a good idea then; you could download a podcast and listen at your convenience. It seemed logical that among the broadcast audience there would also be a percentage of people who would want to have the option of downloading content for later enjoyment. Goodbye to conventional radio and welcome to 21st century podcasting.... or so it seemed. Today you'll hardly find anyone who has ever listened to a podcast.

Perhaps you could blame it on the Youtube, which came around just a year later. But then perhaps not. Youtube took the world by storm and it had nothing to do with podcast's success or failure.

So will movie-on-demand become a commercial success? Will it go the way of podcast or will it go the way of the Youtube? It is not easy to predict what the market wants. Prime Minister Julia Gillard is certainly banking on the success of movie-on-demand. She has committed AUD$43billion to make sure every Australian has equal access to it, whether they want to or not.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Morningstar Estate, Mount Eliza

Here is another one of those places I have discovered in Victoria through my association with photography.

Today I made a trip to see Peter Dwyer's photography exhibition. It is held in a chapel (first picture) in the Morningstar Estate in Mount Eliza. It is near Frankston, about 50min drive from my house. Peter Dwyer has been to our club before. I must say I enjoyed the exhibition, which consists of 60 beautiful images.

Apart from the exhibition, the visit to the venue was a treat in itself. Little did I expect to find myself in the courtyard of a cluster of grand old buildings. It could have been a setting straight out of the Jane Austen era. The chapel, although not much to look at from the side view, is quite a charming old building. Inside, you are treated to a high ceiling and you can still find adornments that has inspired many a worshipper. There are even a few pews, which are still in polished condition. The others may have been removed to make room for the exhibition. Out of courtesy for the exhibitor, I did not take any pictures inside the exhibition room. 

(all pictures taken with my camera phone)

Saturday, May 28, 2011

The incredible shrinking telephone rates

Not many of you will agree with me that telephone charges are reducing at a rapid rate, unless like me you are in the habit of constantly scouting for the lowest rates. I take special delight in visiting the frontiers of low cost telephony.

(Lycamobile and Lebara, while still cheap for overseas calls, has raised its prices for local Australian calls. It stinks of anticompetitve behaviour (read: collusion). Stay away from these two)

A friend of mine introduced me to Fring, which works pretty much like Skype. Fring can be installed on most mobile devices and across various platforms. You can install Fring on Android, iPhone, and Symbian platforms. (That said, another friend sadly found that it was not suported on Android 2.1). Fring gives you the ability to make video call or voice-only call, while FringOut works on prepaid credit, which you can use to make calls to non-Fring phones.

I installed Fring on my Nokia E71 phone. I also bought FringOut credit. As my phone runs on free 3G (thanks to TPG's generous $1 mobile plan), I can make Fring calls through Wifi at home, or through 3G away from home.

Now for the cost. There is no flagfall charge. Calls to Australian landline is 2.1c per min and to Australian mobile is 9.5c per min. The only way to beat this super cheap rate is to install Fring on the other end. Fring to Fring calls are free. Forget about paid-Skype; it costs 3-4 times more than Fring for local calls.

How does this compare with VOIP?
MyNetFone charges 12.5c per min to landline (untimed and no flagfall), and 24c per min to Australian mobile (plus zero flagfall).

(For your information, FringOut calls to Malaysia landline is an incredile 1c per min, and to Malaysia mobile is 3.3c per min. As for quality of the call, it varies. I am happy enough with it, but I have yet to find out how consistently good it will be in the long run)

Updated on 30 May 2011
The quality of Fring cannot be depended upon. It is useable, but not good enough to carry on a conversation for long without wanting to fring wring somebody's neck.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Where did The Incredible Shrinking Man go?

You may have seen the movie called "The Incredible Shrinking Man." The story is about a man who was affected by a radioactive cloud, which caused him to slowly shrink. He kept on shrinking until eventually he was reduced to atomic size, as implied at the ending of the movie. I always wondered where he went after that

Have you noticed how things have shrunk into atomic size? A long time ago music was stored in a reel of tape. The reel was later reduced to an 8-track cartridge, which actually contained 8 songs in a cartridge roughly the size of a VHS tape. This later shrank to a cassette tape, which is the size of a cigarette pack. Around that time too, vinyl records gave way to CD, which later gave way to the USB stick player, which could store thousands of songs in something the size of a thumb drive. Eventually, everything has been reduced to digital data, which can be stored in the cyber "cloud." In essence, we have reduced physical music media to atomic size "ones and zeroes" that reside in a non-physical world - the world of cyberspace.

Therefore I deduce that is where The Incredible Shrinking Man went. He went into cyberspace.

Monday, May 23, 2011

VAPS Muster in Phillip Island

I spent the recent weekend in Phillip Island, attending the annual VAPS Muster; i.e. the Victorian Association of Photographic Societies. We had a wonderful time and the weather was very accomodating. I submitted one print and one EDPI; they didn't do too well. It was all in good fun, anyway.

What I get most out of trips like this is the feeling of being inspired, in addition to picking up some tips every now and then. The speakers were good, and so were the workshops. It was also good to look at the work from all the other clubs. This gives me an idea of where I stand and what I could do to improve for next year's competition. An important consideration is what the trend is and what the judges want to see, rather than what is technically sound.

The atmosphere was jovial, the food was good, and I got to see a lot of Phillip Island that I have never been to before. Trips like this really help me to learn a lot about other photographers too, such as their specialties, their equipment, and their shooting techniques.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Discovering the joy of radio

"When I was young I listened to the radio.... waiting for my favourite songs...." (The Carpenters)

It is probably difficult for children nowadays to fathom what it is like not to have instant access to their choice of songs all the time. When I was a teenager, collecting song albums was something not everybody could afford. Listening to the radio was a popular pastime. Radio stations actually published in advance the songs they were going to play. People gathered around the radio and waited for their favourite songs to play, just as The Carpenters used to sing. People actually listened to the radio, not just have it play in the background while they multitask in their busy schedule.

Several years after that I bought a shortwave radio. It was fun to tune in to stations far across the oceans. Through crackling reception in the middle of the night, I could hear people speaking in different languages; yes, real people talking in real time. It was a fantastic feeling to hold in my hand the ability to tune in and listen to strange voices coming from all over the world. However, I must admit that radio surfing was not a popular thing to do during my time.

Now I discovered that my new mobile phone comes equipped internet radio.What a pleasant surprise! In an instant, I have access to tens of thousands of radio stations, with more than 7000 from the US alone. Listening to American broadcast brings back memory of the time I spent in America. I could tune in to Malaysia and be instantly transported back to my country of origin. I could listen to the sweet chatter of foreign languages I do not understand, or imagine myself in Timbuktu or Bollywood.

In addition, my mobile phone also comes with free-to-air radio. Although I have a radio at home and in the car, it is great to have one in the pocket as well. Late at night when everyone is asleep, I could tune in to my local stations and simply relax in bed until I am lulled to sleep.

Unlike preselected music, with radio, you never know what you are going to get (er, Tom Hanks said that over a box of chocolates). That is what makes radio listening interesting. To hear a long forgotten tune come back to life always have me longing for more. I would feel the joy of rediscovering radio all over again.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Vlingo for my Nokia E71

Having bought a mobile phone with a qwerty keyboard, I thought it would be really neat if I didn't have to use it. This might sound ironical but it is true. I actually found an app called "Vlingo" that transcribes speech into written words. I have only installed the free version, whereas the paid version takes it one step further into creating text or email messages right from start to finish.

To surf the web, I just have to hold the voice key/mute button and just say a few words. Then it will open up a pre-chosen browser and show me the search results.

To dictate a message, I press the same voice key/mute button and hold it down. Then I say "Note" and start talking. When I release the button, the speech is transcribed into text. It does a pretty accurate job too. (If it doesn't, then blame it on your foreign accent)

Having created a message in my Note application, I can then send it out as an SMS message or an email message. What do you think of that?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Is he/she nice?

When asked if a person is nice we often think of the nicest thing the person has ever done. Nothing can be further from the truth. The best way to see if how nice a person is, is to see how "un-nice" he can be in a given situation.

While working in the post office yesterday a man came in to submit his passport application. The man was with his 4-year old son. We made some small talk about his son and he seemed like a really nice person. That is, until he found out that he was given the wrong information about how his form should have been printed out. Apparently he had taken a couple of hours off work to come into the post office. I was not attending to him, but I heard him slam something on the counter. He ranted about how much it cost him to come in, only to find that he had wasted his trip. He wanted the name of the person who gave him the information the day before and he threatened to complain to the postal authority. He was a different person from when he first came in.

We often think the best of a person's character when we first get to know the person. It is only after knowing the person for a long time that we begin to see his real strength and weaknesses. I am not saying this is a bad thing to do. All I am saying is that if you are going to strike a long term relationship with a person, you don't really know what he is like until you have seen the worst of him, or how "un-nice" he really can be.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Window dressing

Used as a figure of speech, window dressing implies something done deceptively to make accounts look better than they actually are. Window dressing is a sign of lazy or incompetent management.

When you work in a corporate environment, at the end of the fiscal year, you often hear staff complaining that when inventory runs low they are not allowed to replenish properly. When an existing staff resigns, he or she is not replaced. Money becomes tight. Staff becomes stressed. Suddenly the company seems to be running on an all-out tight budget.

In my opinion, this is a sign of lazy and incompetent board of directors. These people are paid the whole year round to run the company properly, not just to window dress the financial statement for presentation to the shareholders. This is deceptive behaviour.

The other deceptive behaviour is raising prices. This is fine when real competition exists with  other companies because it shows that you have improved on your product or service and you deserve to be rewarded. A good example is Apple Inc. However, when no real competition exists or there is strong collusion between competitors, the board of directors takes the lazy way out to increase profit without actually improving on cost, productivity, quality or service. Examples are the telecommunication companies and (especially) the utility companies. They take it as their God-given right to increase prices every year. This is the lazy way to increase the company's profit without doing anything. Is this the way of capitalism? No wonder America is in dire straits now.

After the fiscal statement is prepared, life returns to normal down at the office floor, the factory floor, the retail floor, or wherever the bottom floor may be. The board of directors can rest for another year now, having secured their pay rise and bonus. Who needs to work?

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Best time to upgrade your mobile

This is a great time to upgrade your mobile phone. The last one month or so has a seen a dramatic drop in prices of some of the older models. I upgraded my Nokia N73 to the Nokia E71. The E71 was one of Nokia's cutting edge smartphone when it was launched in November 2008. Yes, it is a bit dated now, but the price has dropped from its launch price of $299 to $199, and now to $129 just a month ago. Along with that I have also noticed a number of other models selling at big discounts.

Nokia might be losing out in the smartphone war but I am still one of its remaining fans. The E71 (see picture), at its now-attractive price of AUD$129, is packed full  of features that you can only find in phones twice the price. Its connectivity includes 3G, WiFi, bluetooth, infrared, and USB. It comes with a free 2GB memory card. I would choose the qwerty keyboard buttons over a touch screen one anytime. The software platform is Symbian OS 9.2, Series 60 v3.1; Nokia's latest. On this platform, one has access to all the useful apps that anyone could possibly need. I have installed and tested out Fring for video calls, Email, Audiomail, and a few other apps. I have yet to try out many other exciting ones. The call card scanner is great; with one scan it reads the name, phone numbers, fax, and email, and lets me store these into my contact list with one push of a button.

This phone certainly lacks nothing as far as I am concerned. An iPhone or a Galaxy user will sneer at the small screen. But small screen is good; it draws less power and the screen is less likely to break if accidentally dropped. And nothing beats the physical qwerty keyboard for typing out a quick email or an SMS.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The effect of an understated CPI

Consumer Price Index is not a reliable cost of living indicator anymore. These days it is more of a political tool to be used to temper inflation rather than indicate the level of inflation. Simple stated, the CPI has a major impact on the Reserve Bank interest rate policy, which in turn sets the pace for the economy to slow down or rev up. However, the CPI is anything but fixed and reliable. The basket of goods and services that make up the CPI is constantly revised, often to make it lower than it actually is. Usually the items that cause it to go up are quietly excluded.

The effect of understating the CPI is twofold. One, it allows businesses and large corporations to restrain wage increases. Two, low CPI justifies the Reserve Bank setting low interest rate. This causes the economy to keep firing on all cylinders. Everybody is supposed to be happy. It is a magic bullet. The government gets re-elected, election after election, for doing a good job. Big corporations get low interest rate and a wage-subdued labour force. Migrants are happy to come, and everybody has a job. Of course, something has to give, doesn't it? Sure it does; the inflation genie is looming large behind the smokescreen. So if you are wondering why a 3.3% CPI increase feels more like 30%, you are probably right.

See this interesting article recently published in The Australian: