Archive for November, 2011

TV industry takes aim at foot, fires, then complains that it can’t walk

The Business/Media section of today’s Australian had a special cover page dedicated to heralding the next step in television through IPTV (that’s “Internet protocol television”).

IPTV battle lines drawn | The Australian.

FOR more than half a century the humble television has commanded the attention of millions of families around the world. Yet despite our inextricable attachment to the box, the complaint that “there’s nothing on TV” has persisted for just as long.

The days of those complaints and the one-way nature of the television are numbered as the ubiquity of high-speed internet access ushers in a new era of a more connected broadcast medium through the adoption of IPTV, or internet protocol television, a technology that streams television and video services via the internet direct to your computer, TV or game console.

This all sounds great, but should hardly be coming as a newsflash to… well… anybody. The beginning of the last decade saw the music industry almost collapse as file-sharing technology and increased download speeds made it possible to share and download music across the globe for free.

Yet it was still somehow a shock when the exact same thing happened to the TV and movie industries. Somehow, during the whole experience that the music industry went through, it did not seem to register that they may need to start re-thinking their distribution models.

In fact, it seems like they still haven’t done that.

The (pretty mediocre) interactive guide that The Australian put together is far too generous to the existing TV providers, aside from the ABC, who are genuinely embracing technology in an effective way. As for Foxtel:

By far the most comprehensive offering but also the most expensive. It will be interesting to see how Foxtel heads off the likes of FetchTV, Optus MeTV and Quickflixs who are increasingly making inroads on their territory.

Well, they got one thing right, Foxtel are the most expensive. Most comprehensive though? Not quite. Here’s the biggest problem that none of the coverage recognised: the most comprehensive offering is the entire Internet.

The reality is that anyone with a computer and a half-decent broadband connection (the best kind available in Australia, unless you have the NBN, in which case you can add “exorbitantly expensive connection”) can watch almost any TV show or movie that has ever been made in HD whenever they feel like it and for free.

There is no reason to subscribe to the overpriced Foxtel monopoly when there is a better service being provided free-of-charge. Meanwhile, Foxtel has added the ability to record shows on IQ, as well as some pay-per-view movies and a piss-poor catalogue of online downloads, all of which barely amount to any effort to compete with online services.

The main issues are still there:

  1. Aside from the extremely limited “Foxtel downloads”, customers are confined to the single TV that is connected to the giant Foxtel set-top box through a wall outlet.
  2. Customers are completely restricted by what Foxtel thinks they should be watching at any time, unless they have recorded a series as it airs onto a very limited hard drive or they want to pay extra on top of their $100 per month subscription for a pay-per-view movie.

In other words, Foxtel are charging more money for a worse technology.

No company is in Australia is yet providing the business model that would work: a subscription-based service allowing a certain number of hours of viewing depending on your package and providing as comprehensive a library of on-demand viewing as possible. For anything besides live TV, there is simply no reason for a distributor to dictate when their customers can and cannot watch a particular show.

If Foxtel in particular does not start updating its product soon, it will be gone in a matter of years. The industry as a whole needs to seriously wise-up before it gets defeated by progress.

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Three “oh dear” moments and a cancer-proof rat

You know those moments when you just have to stop and shake your head? I had three of those this morning.

The first one came in a revelation about the internet strategy of Occupy Wall Street. Their social media people are beating back corporate power by… using WordPress instead of Facebook. Because apparently WordPress is not corporate.

How Do You Code a Movement? – Rebecca J. Rosen – Technology – The Atlantic.

From early on, they chose not to use Facebook, but to rely on WordPress and other open-source platforms. As Jake DeGroot, one of the movement’s web developers explained, “I think one of the major pushes to make our own is the fact that the movement is so heavily based around the check and balance of corporate power.” Relying on sites such as Facebook, they felt, placed them too much under someone else’s control.

This, by the way, is nothing against WordPress, who do an awesome job of letting people like me have sites like this (thanks WordPress!). While we’re on OWS, for those of you who didn’t see Samantha Bee from The Daily Show taking them on earlier this week (before Mayor Bloomberg genuinely took them on and kicked them out), I recommend watching this clip, it’s pretty hilarious. Note that Australians can’t watch it because Foxtel are idiots who like to fight progress. Kind of like Qantas’ workforce.

With so many in Australia who are seemingly driven to prevent new technology from actually being used, it coule be a mystery why so many people want to flee here from troubled Middle Eastern countries. Well, that is until you start reading what it’s actually like in these countries. That said, with all these debates about boat people and mandatory detention, it seems like a bad idea to actually make that move.

This leads me to my second moment, in the middle of a brilliant piece of reportage on Syria by the Guardian‘s, James Harkin:

Amid deserted shops and military patrols, one of the few journalists to gain access to Syria’s troubled central city encountered a world of guarded conversations and shadowy rumours amid the funereal silence of a military lockdown | World news | The Observer.

There have been rumours of kidnaps, he says – paramilitaries from the president’s own Shia Alawite sect who tell drivers to go down a certain road and then kidnap or kill you. You can avoid getting hurt if you stay at home all evening, but it’s no life. “If this keeps up I’m going to emigrate,” he says. “Maybe to Australia, until things get better.”

Oh dear. He has no idea what he’s getting himself into.

And the third moment? Well,  it kinda had to be an Israel one, didn’t it?

So while everyone else in the world seems to be protesting for their right to prevent members of the public from using public spaces, a few of our more seasoned protesters just West of the Jordan River figured they would take a bus from Jerusalem to Ramallah to protest the racist, discriminatory, Apartheid, neo-Fascist Israeli policy of requiring travel documents to cross borders. Hitler himself couldn’t have been so cruel.

However, Jerusalem Post columnist/editor Liat Collins pointed out a tiny fact that they may be overlooking when it comes to buses from Jerusalem.

My Word: Not-so-easy riders – JPost – Opinion – Columnists.

Shouting unimaginative slogans about apartheid, the protesters pointed out that they cannot travel freely from Ramallah to Jerusalem without the correct permits, or an Israeli-identity card.

Jews, of course – no matter what papers they are carrying – cannot travel on a Palestinian-owned bus to Nablus, or Shechem as it’s been known in Hebrew ever since the Bible put it on the map.

That, apparently, is not considered discrimination.

This is also true for the “Riders'” ride by the way — Arabs need travel documents to get to Ramallah, Jews aren’t even allowed in. Where’s this “Apartheid” now?

While I still have you here, you may be interested in an ugly rat that can’t get cancer.

There’s a problem with the colonies of naked mole rats that Rochelle Buffenstein carted down to her new lab in Texas four years ago. Unlike mice, which die of cancer by the crateful, not a single one of her animals has ever developed a naturally occurring tumor. Nor has any other naked mole rat seen anywhere in the world.

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Israel, women, haredim and the halacha of apartheid

As I have covered before, the Arab world has recently been going through a cultural gender-identity crisis as the backwards and oppressive thinking that pervades the region is taking a growing economic toll. The principal opposition to modernising Arab culture in general comes from political Islamists who genuinely idealise a 7th Century way of living, although they do allow special dispensation for some of the 21st Century’s developments (mostly its weaponry). Sadly, unlike most other unsavoury trends in the region, this wave of intolerance that is sweeping the Middle East is not passing over the doors of the Children of Israel.

Following on from this story about the High Court ruling against the forced separation of men and women in public streets, it seems that the Haredi community are continuing to champion the “Apartheid Israel” label and fiercely battling to keep the fairer sex off the airwaves and at the back of buses. I kid you not.

‘Gender segregation practices are ‘apart… JPost – National News.

Religious IDF soldiers also refused to listen to women singing at an army event because of a prohibition within Jewish law of listening to women sing in person.

A complaint was submitted to the broadcasting authority about the exclusion of women on the haredi radio station Kol Berama, and the issue of gender-segregated buses in haredi neighborhoods has also not been resolved.

[MK Tzipi] Hotovely made her comments during the first-ever hearing of the Knesset Committee for the Advancement of the Status of Women into the issue, initiated by MK Einat Wilf (Independence).

“The committee… sees the exclusion of women as apartheid which contradicts the values of the state of Israel and Jewish law,” Hotovely said. “We have to fight this phenomenon of radicalization that is being expressed through the exclusion of women [in public life], because it seriously injures [the rights] of women and society as a whole.”

… The committee said that it would be asking that Egged and the Transportation Ministry provide within three months a document detailing any occurrences in which the ruling of the Supreme Court outlawing gender segregation on buses is infringed.

MK Orit Zuaretz (Kadima) was also present at the hearing and further proposed that Egged demand that its drivers complete a form whenever any incident of segregation occurs.

Oh, and I’ll add to that: off billboards.

Jerusalem mayor battles ultra-orthodox groups over women-free billboards | World news | The Guardian.

Jerusalem’s secular mayor, Nir Barkat, has pitted himself against the city’s swelling ranks of ultra-orthodox extremists by demanding that local police enable women to reclaim their position in the public domain.

Over recent months, women’s faces have disappeared from billboards across the city amid mounting pressure applied by the powerful ultra-orthodox lobby, who find the female image offensive.

Several advertisers have erased female models from their posters in Jerusalem. Elsewhere in Israel, the winter campaign of Israeli clothing brand Honigman features a model cosily dressed in winter knits. In the capital, the woman’s head has been removed from the image, leaving just her arm and a handbag.

This kind of thing has no place in Israel. It’s backwards, it’s harmful to society as a whole and, most of all, it’s un-Jewish. This stems from an insular and extreme community that is more than happy to piggyback off the rest of society when they receive their welfare cheques, but otherwise do everything that they possibly can to isolate themselves (many of them are not even Zionists). Fortunately, some are speaking out. Here’s haredi Rabbi Chaim Amsalem explaining why the encroaching gender Apartheid is un-Jewish.

The traditional Jewish approach to wo… JPost – Opinion – Op-Eds.

Let me begin by making a clear and loud declaration for all to hear: There is absolutely no basis in Jewish law for the separation of men and women on buses or public streets.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, the greatest Orthodox halachic authority of the 20th century, made this very clear in his responsa, where he ruled that there was no problem with riding the New York subway, where men and women are often pressed together in very tight quarters. This applies all the more so when simply sitting in close proximity on a bus.

Aside from the fact that Jewish law certainly allows men and women to sit together on the bus or walk on the same side of the street, there is actually a specific halachic transgression that occurs when such extreme actions are taken … even according to the warped understanding that Jewish law does mandate the separation of men and women in these circumstances, there would certainly be no justification for demeaning a woman by forcing her to move to the back of the bus.

Granted, Jewish law does mandate the separation of men and women during prayer and specific other times, but nothing beyond that. The Torah opens society to women and cautions that it is the man’s responsibility not to “stray after your eyes.”

But this isn’t just about buses. This is about growing extremism in the haredi world, part of which includes the demonization of women.That is the reason in certain neighborhoods the Clalit healthcare fund has stopped giving children stickers with pictures of little girls on them, and the reason some haredi newspapers will not print pictures of women. Some go as far as doctoring photos in order to remove women in adherence of this policy.

… Right at the beginning of Creation, the Torah says God created one being in the following way: “Male and female He created them.”

If there was only one being, why does the Torah say “them” and describe it as both “male and female”?

The Talmud explains that God fashioned an original being which embodied both male and female characteristics and then separated that one being into two. Why? Why didn’t He make them into separate male and female beings from the start?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, one of the most prominent Orthodox rabbis of the 19th century, explained as follows: “So that what was previously one creature was not two, and thereby the complete equality of women forever attested [to].”

… But our tradition goes even beyond demanding equality.The Talmud teaches that the Jews were redeemed from slavery in Egypt due to the merit of Jewish women, and that the women did not worship the golden calf or believe the negative report of the spies about Israel. Our salvation in the Hanukka and Purim stories came because our women rose to the occasion. According to our tradition, women have binah yeteira – an increased ability to understand and comprehend. That quality has saved the Jewish people throughout history.

 It is almost prohibitively difficult to penetrate haredi society and they will only ever listen to internal debate, so it is hugely important that people like Rabbi Amsalem are empowered. Aside from the looming possibility of an Iranian nuclear warhead, the single biggest threat to Israel most certainly comes from within.

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This is seriously starting to threaten Israeli democracy

Uzi Landau, Yisrael Beitenu MK and Israeli minister for infrastructure (who recently visited Australia, incidentally) spoke yesterday on the new reforms to the Israeli High Court that his party are trying to push through.

I find what he said terrifying.
Judicial selection reform postpon… JPost – Diplomacy & Politics.

I think that over the past 20 years, the behavior of the Supreme Court, and the legal system in general, has become a mistake of the democratic system.

We need to change this matter on a basic level.

I think that if the Supreme Court justices knew how to act in an orderly matter, without imposing themselves into issues that don’t concern them, without interfering with the actions of the Knesset, or the actions of the government, and if they were less politically motivated in their decisions, then the current selection process would remain.

But, the problem is bad, and we must deal with it.

Just to explain the context behind the bill he is talking about, this is not the only change that they are making. The coalition is introducing dramatic reforms to the judicial selection process to give them more control over who is appointed and to get their friends in.

Peres: Israeli right-wing bills are ‘digression from democracy’ – Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News.

The Knesset approved on Monday evening a bill proposing to abolish the rule that a justice cannot be appointed Supreme Court president unless he is at least three years short of the mandatory retirement age of 70. The bill would pave Justice Asher Grunis’ way to becoming Supreme Court president. Fifty-two MKs voted in favor, 35 voted against the bill.

Grunis is seen as a conservative judge who mostly refrains from intervening in decisions made by the executive and legislative branches, and is thus popular with right-wing politicians. But when Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch retires at the end of February 2012, Grunis will be five weeks short of three years from retirement.

Another bill, dubbed ‘the Sohlberg bill,’ and sponsored by MK Robert Ilatov (Yisrael Beiteinu) was also approved. The bill would change the way the Israel Bar Association’s two representatives on the Judicial Appointments Committee are selected. Currently, the bar’s national council picks both; the bill would require one to be the bar chairman and the other a member of the bar’s internal opposition.

The bill paves the way for Jerusalem District Court Judge Noam Sohlberg to sitting on Israel’s highest tribunal of justice. Sohlberg, who lives in the settlement of Alon Shvut, has in the past been criticized for rulings thought to infringe freedom of the press.

This is following the bill a few months ago that was passed for the purposes of prosecuting the political enemies of Avigdor Lieberman and his Beitenu party. I have to lay this out in stark terms. Under the impetus of Beitenu, the Israeli Knesset is doing the following:

  • If they have a political enemy who says things that they don’t like but is technically doing nothing illegal, they pass a law that makes that person’s conduct illegal and then prosecute.
  • If they are supporting things that are in fact illegal, but are blocked by the courts, they pass new laws so that their cronies can be appointed into judicial positions to approve their activities.
This is exactly the kind of pattern that sees a democracy slowly slide into dictatorship. The two most fundamental elements of a democracy are the freedom of speech and an independent judiciary that can hold the government to account. Elections are not up there, the most important thing is that people can debate and scrutinise the government and the government is subject to the law, not the other way around. If judicial independence and free speech are taken away, Israel will cease to be a democracy.
I am actually terrified by this.
I do want to qualify this. The other bill being passed regarding restrictions to foreign funding of NGO’s is a good idea.

Israeli NGOs brace for restrictions on foreign funding – Haaretz Daily Newspaper | Israel News.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had already announced support for one of the bills, sponsored by two members of his Likud party – MKs Tzipi Hotovely and Ofir Akunis – which would cap foreign governments’ contributions to “political” non-governmental organizations at NIS 20,000.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, meanwhile, is throwing its weight behind the second initiative brought forth by party MK Fania Kirshenbaum, which would slap a 45 percent tax on foreign governments’ donations to NGOs ineligible for state funding.

Damn straight. I find it hugely problematic that millions of dollars of foreign government money flows tax-free into Israel every year, particularly as a lot of it goes to organisations which work to undermine Israel as a state. When foreign governments are involved, it is not an issue of free speech, it’s an issue of foreign policy. European countries funding anti-Israel activists within Israel is essentially a form of diplomatic warfare and it is perfectly legitimate for Israel to deal with it as such.

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Why the South Pacific could be the next Middle East

Mark Landler gives a run-down on the Naval face-offs that are starting to kick-off around the world. This is something that has not been such an issue for the last couple of decades, mostly because America had (and still does have) unassailable hegemony over the waters. That said, the Chinese have just built an aircraft carrier and Turkey is definitely posturing for dominance in the Eastern Mediterranean – provoking Israel in particular.

A couple of observations:

  1. It’s lucky that the US is taking this seriously, that needs to continue. The US cutting defence spending would give China carte-blanche to dominate the South Pacific and forcibly take all of the oil and natural gas fields there.
  2. This poses a direct threat to Australia. It is very much against our interests to have the Chinese navy pushing us back from South-East Asia. It is imperative therefore that we maintain a strong military alliance with the US.
  3. Obviously the world’s energy problems and the attendant violence is now moving away from the Middle East (or at least no longer isolated to that region). Again, this is concerning for Australia – our immediate neighbourhood could well be the next major conflict zone if the world goes the wrong way.
  4. The infographic from the article was also pretty good.

A New Era of Gunboat Diplomacy –

For China, the South China Sea has long been crucial as a supply route for oil and other raw materials to fuel its economy. China’s claims have deep historical roots, dating from the 1940s, when Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists drew a dotted line in the shape of a cow’s tongue extending south of China, embracing most the sea and two disputed island chains, the Paracels and the Spratlys.

Quarrels over these hunks of volcanic rock wouldn’t matter much, except that China, Vietnam and the Philippines are running into one another in the race for oil. Last spring, in two separate incidents, Vietnam accused Chinese vessels of deliberately cutting the seismic survey cables of an oil exploration ship. A former American official said his nightmare scenario would be a Chinese warship’s firing on an Exxon oil-drilling ship.

If the South China Sea is simmering, then the eastern Mediterranean is seething. There, claims to huge natural-gas reserves off the coast of Cyprus and Lebanon have raised tensions with Turkey, which occupies half of Cyprus, as well as with Israel. Cyprus and Israel are drilling for gas, angering Turkey. The militant Islamic group Hezbollah, in Lebanon, has threatened to attack Israeli gas rigs.

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Dead Sea’s bid can’t float: it’s no wonder

Ok, I’ll admit that this post is here mostly because I wanted an excuse to use that headline, but this seemingly mundane news actually has an interesting lesson. Three separate bids by Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority all failed to secure the Dead Sea a place in the final list of natural wonders:

Dead Sea’s bid as a new wonder is dead | JTA – Jewish & Israel News.

JERUSALEM (JTA) — The Dead Sea was frustrated in its bid to become one of the New 7 Wonders of Nature.

Though it was running in the top 14 finalists on the last day of voting, it was not enough to make it onto the final list.

… Israel sank more than $2 million intp a global public relations campaign to win the contest. According to figures released by the Government Advertising Bureau, some 285,000 people visited the Dead Sea website this month, and at least 1.1 million have visited since the start of the campaign.

Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, who all abut the sea, ran separate campaigns. The lack of regional cooperation is being seen as one reason that the site did not break into the top seven.

What was going on there? Well: Israel and Jordan are technically at peace but being seen as cooperating with Israel in any way is still political suicide in the Arab world (even if your country is actually very hostile to Israel – read: Saudi Arabia); the Jordanians and the PLO have not exactly been on speaking terms ever since that whole Black September thing; and the Israelis and the Palestinian leaders are unable to even be in the same room as each other these days, let alone coordinate a multimillion-dollar campaign for a shared natural asset.

In a way it’s lucky though, since the Dead Sea isn’t doing too well these days and there may not be much of it left in the next few decades, as this picture below shows. All of those beautiful skin products are draining this “natural wonder”.


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Why the carbon tax will stress us all out

Apparently carbon dioxide’s more radical younger brother, carbon monoxide,* has a calming affect in cities. Ergo, reduce carbon pollution (and unlike CO2, CO is genuinely pollution) and we’ll all be a little more stressed.

Of course, CO is also quite toxic (it’s the gas that kills you when you leave your car running in a confined space) but who cares? We can all relax.
What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Calmer? – The Shmooze –

Prof. Itzhak Schnell of Tel Aviv University’s Department of Geography and the Human Environment has found that low levels of CO gas can have a narcotic effect on those who inhale it, helping them better deal with the pressures of city living. In particular, he found that the CO helped them cope better with high noise levels in urban settings.


*Yeah, for anyone who has studied chemistry, pun intended. And I’m so sorry…

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This is why we’re losing jobs (Video)

Of course there are factors like globalisation and outsourcing, but really it’s not that. Watch the video below. In a way it’s awesome, and in a way it’s a pretty scary view into the future.

via Gizmodo.

So the question is: how long will it be until these things actually replace bartenders? Who needs to hire 5 staff on $40k a year plus super when you can just buy a few of these things?

The reality is that traditional “working class jobs” are disappearing because they aren’t needed, we have technology that can do what people used to do, but cheaper, faster and with less mistakes.

Also, a lot of work that used to be done for us is subtly being shifted over to us – as Craig Lambert pointed out in Sunday’s New York Times:


Our Unpaid, Extra Shadow Work –

The conventional wisdom is that America has become a “service economy,” but actually, in many sectors, “service” is disappearing. There was a time when a gas station attendant would routinely fill your tank and even check your oil and clean your windshield and rear window without charge, then settle your bill. Today, all those jobs have been transferred to the customer: we pump our own gas, squeegee our own windshield, and pay our own bill by swiping a credit card. Where customers once received service from the service station, they now provide “self-service” — a synonym for “no service.” Technology enables this sleight of hand, which lets gas stations cut their payrolls, having co-opted their patrons into doing these jobs without pay.

Examples abound, helping drive unemployment rates. Airports now have self-service check-in kiosks that allow travelers to perform the jobs of ticket agents. Travel agents once unearthed, perused and compared fares, deals and hotel rates. Shadow-working travelers now do all of this themselves on their computer screens. Medical patients are now better informed than ever — as a result of hours of online shadow work. In 1998, the Internal Revenue Service estimated that taxpayers spent six billion hours per year on “tax compliance activities.” That’s serious shadow work, the equivalent of three million full-time jobs.

For more on this, there was quite an interesting debate a few weeks ago sparked by an article by CNN columnist Douglas Rushkoff called “Are jobs Obsolete?“. the Economist said no, they’re just changing, Phil Bowermaster thought that we just need to be more entrepreneurial and Arnold Kling took it further by arguing that the economy is compensating by adjusting itself to a state with less defined jobs and adding more people willing to do these.

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