23 November 2007

Australian Federal Election: John Howard's track record examined

US readers please note: In Australian politics the 'Liberal' Party are actually centre-right, the equivalent of the UK Conservatives. Go figure!

The long-suffering Australian public, weary of election propaganda, are always granted a few days advertising silence before a Federal election. I’m sure that doesn’t bother the major parties much, as meaningful debate has long-hence descended into the battle of the soundbite, and reductio ad absurdum underlies the core messages on all fronts. I’ve never understood why our politicians, particularly on the Liberal benches, are so convinced that the Australian public are stupid, but their belief is certainly borne out by the Vox Pop at an Adelaide McDonalds this morning:

Bloke 1: Howard’s the best Prime Minister Australia’s ever had.
Bloke 2: Huh?
Bloke 1: I mean, the Labour parties just about unions and shit
Bloke 2: Huh?

Bloke 1 has certainly been paying attention to first core message of the Liberal Party—Unions are bad, and anything associated with them is bad. It’s a simple message which has garnered considerable sympathy for decades. Problem is, it’s such simple-minded nonsense. Unions and almost all those associated with them should be able to stand up proudly in public and defend a magnificent history of standing up for the rights of workers. Like all large organisations, unions occasionally suffer from bureaucracy and corruption, but to suggest that is the norm and the average Australian should be frightened is just a ridiculous and contemptible notion.

The Liberal Party’s other core message is that they have a strong track record on economic management, so why change? This argument would appear to have some merit, if one believed that governments really have that much influence over the economy. But they simply do not. The global economy and market factors have little or anything to do with a national government’s policies, which are nearly always responsive. And interest rates are controlled by the Reserve Bank of Australia, not the government of the day. So the economy is basically a moot issue—there’s almost no credit at all to the government, and the Labour Party’s attacks on interest rate hikes are equally ill-directed, except in their criticism of Prime Minister Howard’s promises. Clearly Howard should not have promised that there would be no such increases as it’s completely out of his control.

And while we’re talking about track records, let’s look at factors outside of the economy—the Tampa affair, weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, treatment of refugees, climate change, the list goes on. Economy be damned—these are the important issues that shape our world and define Australia’s place in it. On these issues the Liberal government has been consistent—consistent in its shameful avoidance of truth and compassion and its grovelling to the pathetic neocon agenda of the current US administration. It’s an approach that has endangered Australian troops in an illegal and ill-thought war, has made Australian civilians targets of terrorism, has ill-equipped us to deal with the environmental issues that are critical to our very survival and has led to a general reduction in the respect Australia receives on the world stage, at least outside the US.

It’s a great track record, John. Thanks for reminding us of it, and making Saturday’s decision even easier. All the best in your retirement, and I hope you get a nice cushy diplomatic posting. I hear Afghanistan and Iraq may be available.
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6 November 2007

Melbourne Cup post mortem

Well no winners this year. With Maybe Better a late scratching and the unfancied Efficient hit the front just before the post, eebahgum's remaining 5 rated horses wended up 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 8th and 9th. Not a bad result, but a miss is as good as 3200 m, and this was a veritable miss. There's always next year. I hope you did better than I.Go to eebahgum!

Melbourne Cup tips 2007

Late scratchings: Gallic & The Fuzz

It's Melbourne Cup day again, so here is the obligatory tips posting. Last year, my ratings included the first four horses over the line, a hard act to follow.

It's another tough race this year, not because there's a massive field full of class horses, but rather because we have been spoilt by some real class over the last few years in horses such as Makybe Diva, and there's no-one even approaching that standard this time round.

On top of that, rain in Melbourne over the weekend has softened the track considerably. But the track is now rated dead, and it's fine and breezy in Melbourne today, so it's almost certain the track rating will be good come post-time.

The usual small gaggle of highly fancied, but largely unknown imports completes the puzzle. I always reason that trainers and connections do not waste their time and money flying halfway across the globe if their horse is not a serious contender, but Vintage Crop aside, I have been wrong by virtue of this logic more often than not in the past.

But of one thing we can be reasonably certain, and that is Melbourne Cup winners almost always have good form in their last couple of starts. I don't want to overstate the importance of the Caulfield Cup, Mackinnon Stakes and Saab Quality races, but they do give a pretty fair indication of form, and lead us to the inevitable conclusion that MASTER O'REILLY is the horse to beat in this field. The heavily backed Irish stayer PURPLE MOON may only have finished sixth in the Caulfield, but was coming home impressively and will run the distance. He also has the brilliant Damien Oliver on his back, which is enough to convince me he is a real chance. That riding change comes from his connections not being happy with the 6th place ride in the Caulfield by Kieren McEvoy. They were obviously expecting more.

After those two, last years third placed MAYBE BETTER has claims, as do ZIPPING and SCULPTOR. I've also been impressed by the overseas form of bottom weight MAHLER. Though he hasn't shown much in Australia so far, the news from his trainer this morning is that he has settled over the last few days and is ready to peak, though I am a little concerned that he doesn't have a top jockey aboard, which may be an indication of his trainer's expectations. Expect him to try to lead at some point though.

So in summary:

Likely winner:

In the mix:

Best long shot:
SCULPTOR which has real form yet is showing $28 on the TAB as I write. Expect it to shorten considerably, but it's great value at the moment.

As always, take the usual disclaimers as read, don't bet anything you can't afford to lose and send me a cut if you win. Happy punting! Go to eebahgum!

29 September 2007

Australia's 'Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader' reviewed

Australian television has recently hit a new low with the first airing of the Oz version of Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader. That the show lacks any form of originality can be seen merely from the title—in Australia, the terms ‘Grade 5’ or ‘Year 5’ are used, rather than the American ‘5th Grader’. Channel 10 is obviously low on talent, so they have stuck Rove McManus into the hosts chair, a man hailed by more eloquent critics than I as “the least funny comedian in Australia’. Indeed, Rove is true to form—he talks a lot and only manages to raise a smile on his own face.

As for the show itself, it’s inane, clich├ęd nonsense of the highest order. The premise of the title is stupid, as obviously the comparison alluded to is not one of intelligence but knowledge. Even then, the premise turns out to be false, because there is no competition between the Year 5 students and the adult competitors. Rather, the kids are there to assist the adults in winning money—they’re all on the same team.

The questions are ridiculously drawn out, in the style of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, and Rove insists upon borrowing from that show’s host, Eddie McGuire, by constantly describing the simple act of answering a simple question as “locking in your answer”. A piece of advice, Rove—if you are the least funny host on Oz TV, Eddie is no funnier, and a whole lot less likable, so perhaps he’s not the best person to be emulating.

The first episode only managed to maintain a semblance of entertainment by virtue of its supporting cast. The kids were generally bright, chirpy, enthusiastic and likable, and the first contestant, Elka was a good looking blonde with a range of quirky facial expressions that were passingly entertaining. And although she was forced to look at the camera at the end of her stint and admit “I’m not smarter than a fifth grader”, she didn’t look very depressed by this admission because she’d just won $100,000 for a few minutes easy work. Assuming that the kids didn’t walk away with the same kitty, then who was the smarter?

Australian Quiz shows are generally pretty pathetic affairs, in which half-literate hosts grin their way through stupid questions fired at largely dumb contestants for huge amounts of money. Even long-running classics like Temptation have got dumber over the years. The ABC’s Spicks an Specks is a lone oasis in the wilderness, but where are the truly cerebral programs like the BBC’s exceptional QI, or the old ABC classic Mastermind, which actually celebrated the intelligence and knowledge of intelligent, knowledgeable people?

Today’s quiz shows on Australian commercial TV are clearly aimed at making couch potatoes at home feel smarter. This one will do that, and may even boost the ego of the family dog, cat or goldfish.
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13 September 2007

Why isn't 'dipslay' in the dictionary?

Come now, Messrs Oxford, Webster, Collins et al. Why isn't the word 'dipslay' in your dictionaries? Anyone who has worked as a tech writer would be extremely familiar with this commonly used word. And although it's not to be found in dictionaries, almost everyone would know what it means. I have often used the word in conversation with other tech writer friends, appreciating its clumsy yet beguiling naivety. I'm clearly not the only one, as a quick Google search shows 18,000 occurrences of the word on the web, despite the fact that spell-checkers tend to insidiously target it.

So how can you have a word added to a dictionary? Unfortunately you can't just send it in to Merriam-Webster and have them list it. To quote from their website FAQ:

...the selection of which words to include in the dictionary is not based on personal preferences or popularity-contest-style votes; it is based on usage. Simply put, to gain entry to the dictionary, a word must be widely used in a broad range of professionally written and edited materials over an extended period of time. Any word that has sufficiently widespread use in such publications is eligible for dictionary entry.

On that basis, dipslay is surely a shoe-in. It occurs in a gazillion professionally written and edited manuals, several of them, no doubt, written and edited by me.

So, esteemed fellow travellers in the blogosphere, let's help raise dipslay to its rightful place in the dictionaries by using it as often as possible. Perhaps it can become the first typo officially recognised as a word in its own right, a title it surely deserves more than the much more commonplace but rather vulgar 'teh'.
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1 September 2007

If you wanted to play critic, there’d be a lot you could criticise about The Bourne Ultimatum. There’s not really that much story that we weren’t privy to before; several situations are borrowed from the second film, which, coupled with the obligatory and always annoying flashbacks may be a good hook for first-time viewers but falls flat for fans; Bourne repeatedly walks into situations of peril that he could just as easily have walked away from; neither dialogue nor performances will grip you; and there’s still that lingering doubt about that ‘nice young man’ Matt Damon playing a tough guy assassin.

But action flicks are ultimately about suspending disbelief. The most successful of them encourage us into just the right amount of suspension. Too little and we’ll be picking the film to bits before the opening titles have faded. Too much and we’ll have forgotten the experience before the closing credits.

Judging by the looks on the faces of those who watched it with me, The Bourne Ultimatum gets it just right. As the last scene faded no-one was dissecting the plot. Instead they were recovering their breath, laughing in that particular way that indicates a mix of cheer and release, or just forming their lips into the shape “Wow!”

Because when all is said and done, The Bourne Ultimatum is a roller-coaster ride into absurdism, which manages to also keep some hold on reality, or at least that variant of reality that occupies the continuum between our fantasies and paranoias. It’s a frenzy of hand-held camerawork and tight, choppy editing which occasionally pauses long enough so that you can hear the pounding in your temples, before careering headlong into the next sequence. Along the way, we are treated to some scenes that will doubtless become cinematic classics—perhaps the most exciting car chase sequence ever (move over Ronin), and the absolutely gripping early scene in Waterloo Station.

This was undoubtedly the most exciting two hours I have ever spent in a movie theatre, which makes any form of quibbling rather pointless. Instead, I’ll just join my “Wow” along with the others and urge you to see The Bourne Ultimatum. Firstly because it’s fun, and secondly because every future film in the genre will in some way be measured against it.
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28 August 2007

Harry Potter hilarity!

My son's friends have discovered this little gem on YouTube, and we've been watching it continually. Little things for little minds, as my dear old Dad used to say!

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Paypal’s new logo. What do you think?

Paypal are in the process of giving their website a new look and feel, and with it comes a new logo. There’s no question the previous one looked a bit old-fashioned, even when it was new. Rather than a complete redesign, Paypal have used the same type and style, just got rid of the outline. I think it’s a little more modern looking, preserving the integrity of the brand, whilst moving it forward a little. It’s hardly earth-shattering, though. And given that tens of thousands of sellers are probably hosting the current logo on their own servers, it will take months or years for the old logo to completely disappear.

I’m in two minds about this one. Is it really worth the effort for so little change? Is it a missed opportunity? Tell me what you think, by way of a comment or through the poll at the top of the right column.
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22 August 2007

Arsenal takes the Crossbar Challenge

An entertaining little clip for all Arsenal fans. It gives just a little insight into the players' personalities and the positive spirit within the club.
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16 August 2007

How I lowered my cholesterol

I’m not paranoid about cholesterol, but when my GP told me understatedly that my levels were “just beginning to be a cause for concern” I was, well, rather concerned. It is, after all, my goal in life to hang around as long as possible, for my kids, for all those people who haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting me, and perhaps just to annoy those who dislike me.

I’m no medico, so I’m not about to give a primer on cholesterol (you can find a good one here). But the gist of it is that there are two sorts of cholesterol, Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL) which is BAD because it ends up in your bloodstream and can clog your arteries, and High Density Lipoprotein (HDL) which is good for you because it counteracts the LDL cholesterol. Most health authorities agree that your LDL cholesterol should be no higher than 5.5 mmols/litre, and I’d reached 5.6. The GP told me not to panic, as I was reasonably fit, not overweight, not a smoker or heavy drinker, although on the negative side, my father had suffered from diabetes. He advised simply keeping an eye on things, and monitoring my diet more closely.

So I did that. I reduced my fat intake, especially fatty meats, cut out butter in favour of margarine, and cut down fried foods a little. I also increased my aerobic activity and dropped a few pounds. 6 months passed and my next test showed my LDL levels down to 5.3 mmols/litre. Progress, but hardly earth-shattering.

Then I made two more changes to my diet. I started using margarine which had added plant sterols on my morning toast, and I increased my avocado intake to 3 or 4 a week.

Less than three months later I saw an ad in the paper requesting volunteers for a cholesterol study. They specifically wanted fit and otherwise healthy people in their mid 30s with LDL levels of 5 and above, and there was a reasonable financial incentive on offer. I went in for the initial tests, and waited 2 weeks before they rang me with the bad news—I was ineligible for the study because my cholesterol was too low. In three months my LDL was down from 5.3 to 4.3.

Of course, I have no idea which was the more significant, the avocado or the sterol-based margarine. I still have avocado reasonably regularly, but I’ve stuck with the margarine enthusiastically, and of the various brands available I have come to particularly like the taste of the Flora variant with Olive Oil. Several years have passed, and my cholesterol is still well in check.

The usual disclaimers apply—I am not dispensing medical advice, just sharing my experience, and your mileage may vary, so do talk to your GP. And it must be noted that plant sterol margarine is fairly new on the market, so no-one knows what the effects are of consuming it daily for many years. But apart from that faint glow I have at night, so far so good.Go to eebahgum!

14 August 2007

The Maltese Falcon revisited

Yesterday I had the pleasure of taking my son to see The Maltese Falcon on the big screen. I have seen the film at least 4 times before , but was still bristling with excitement beforehand, tinged with just a little trepidation as to how he would cope with ‘film noir’ at the tender age of 10. I’d prepared him by emphasising that it was a dialogue-driven, rather than CGI-driven film, and that it was not in colour. “What, none of it is in colour?” has asked at one point. Er, no, absolutely none. It is film noir et blanc, or at least, various shades of gris, in presentation if not in content.

Although it was late and he was weary, I am glad to report that he liked the film, giving it “less than 4 stars but more than 3 and a half”. On that basis, I think he preferred it to Shrek 3, which we are agreed was pretty awful, with untold money being spent on CGI where a decent writer may have been more useful, but less than Spiderman 3. I guess, in the balance, that should be considered a victory.

I, on the other hand, had expected to be underwhelmed by a film with which I was already so familiar. Instead, I was completely wrapped in every moment of it on the larger screen, drawn into Bogart’s every sneer and smirk, irked by Peter Lorre’s sinister simpering, beguiled by Sydney Greenstreet’s deep, yet threatening reasonableness, and almost seduced by Mary Astor’s beguiling dishonesty. Characters complex, yet without depth, each one almost psychopathic in his or her lack of emotion and sympathy. And with a sympathetic audience around me, the sheer brilliance of the writing seemed compounded. Even out of context the many of the lines seem magical:

BRIGID O’SHAUGHNESSY (MARY ASTOR): He has a wife and three children in England.
SAM SPADE (HUMPHREY BOGART): They usually do, though not always in England.

SAM SPADE: We didn’t exactly believe your story, Miss O’Shaughnessy. We believed your two hundred dollars.
SAM SPADE: I mean, you paid us more than if you’d been telling us the truth, and enough more to make it all right.

SAM SPADE: When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it!

KASPER GUTMAN (SYDNEY GREENSTREET): I distrust a close-mouthed man. He generally picks the wrong time to talk and says the wrong things. Talking’s something you can’t do judiciously, unless you keep in practice. Now, sir, we’ll talk if you like. I’ll tell you right out, I’m a man who likes talking to a man who likes to talk.

KASPER GUTMAN: I distrust a man who says “when”. If he’s got to be careful not to drink too much, it’s because he’s not to be trusted when he does.

KASPER GUTMAN: Well, Wilmer, I’m sorry indeed to lose you, but I want you to know I couldn’t be fonder of you if you were my own son. Well, if you lose a son, it’s possible to get another. There’s only one Maltese Falcon.

SAM SPADE: Yes, angel, I’m going to send you over. But chances are, you’ll get off with life. That means, if you’re a good girl, you’ll be out in twenty years. I’ll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I’ll always remember you.

SAM SPADE: All we’ve got is that maybe you love me and maybe I love you.
BRIGID O’SHAUGHNESSY: You know whether you love me or not.
SAM SPADE: Maybe I do. I’ll have some rotten nights after I’ve sent you over, but that’ll pass.

I looked up Falcon in my Halliwell’s when back home, and found it had 3 Academy Award nominations in 1941, but no wins. Then I remembered that another one of my favourites was released in the same year, Citizen Kane, one of the handful of films which could legitimately lay claim to being the greatest film ever. What bad luck for Falcon, I thought, then discovered that the film that had cleaned up at the 1941 Oscars was, in fact, the now very dated-looking How Green was my Valley.

But The Maltese Falcon has not dated, only matured. And as Hollywood has moved from silent film, to talkies, and somehow back again to a new age of pseudo-silent film through CGI-driven blockbusters which no longer exalt acting or screenwriting, the black bird seems to have been given new wings.
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18 July 2007

Desperate Australian Government resorts to terrorism card in last-ditch attempt to hold power

It’s a well-known truism of politics that if the people are unsettled or insecure they tend not to change governments. It has worked for Australia’s Howard Government in the past, when they deliberately played up ludicrous stories of babies being thrown overboard by refugees (whom they’d rather label as illegal immigrants or potential terrorists from the outset), and bought into the ‘weapons of mass destruction’ fiasco. Now, with the polls against them in an election year, they’ve decided to once again try and scare us with the terrorism threat.

For those of you not familiar with the saga let me give my 25-word (-ish) summary. Unexploded bombs discovered in London/associated terrorism suspect found with borrowed SIM card/SIM card traced back to Indian (Muslim) doctor Mohammed Haneef in Queensland hospital/doctor held for some time without details of actual offence being revealed to public, then finally charged with “recklessly providing resources to a terrorist organisation”/Federal Immigration Minister undermines court process by talking a great deal about the case, and whilst revealing no substantive facts regularly hints at secret info he has that makes it clear the man is of unfit character/Magistrate’s Court grants him bail pending hearing, clearly believing that he’s not much of a threat/Minister decides that he will be locked up in immigration detention anyway and his visa suspended until he can be expelled.

Now maybe this fella was up to no good, or at least knew people who were, but there was I labouring under the misapprehension that we had some sort of rule of law in this country. Instead I find the government can overrule that, as well as taking punitive action against someone on the basis of as yet unproven allegations. And whilst this evil-SIM-card-lending-threat-to-all-we-hold-sacred is to be detained and exported, the Australian Wheat Board’s A$300 million bribery scandal in Iraq seemed to pass gently by with no heads being patted, let alone rolled.

The Immigration Minister, Kevin Andrews, suggests that he is "acting in the national interest and about matters that go to national security". But far from making us feel safer, this should make all Australians feel very, very insecure indeed. This is the same government which completely failed to assist its own citizens detained overseas for years on beat-up charges in luxury accommodation in Guantanamo Bay and committed to military action in Iraq on beat-up allegations. ‘Be Alert not Alarmed’, they beseech us, whilst trying their utmost at every turn to terrify the populace by inventing new reds to place under our beds.

The Howard Government's history is already a shameful litany of lies and cover-ups, any one of which should have appalled the Australian people enough to kick them out years ago. And although these things have undoubtedly damaged our international reputation, they’ve generally buoyed the government’s political fortunes at home. But the credulity of the Australian people seems finally to be wearing thin, and I believe, and earnestly hope, that the government’s handling of the Haneef affair will be seen for the politically motivated, self-serving action that it is, and ultimately the final nail this government’s coffin.

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17 July 2007

Bargain fountain pen from Charles Hubert, Paris

I've always been a lover of fountain pens, and seem to take greater pride and care in what I write when holding one. Of course, it sometimes bumps into the keyboard when I'm typing, but that's the price I pay. Bad jokes aside (they'll be back later, I'm sure), my increasing computer use over a decade has tended to mean I write less with my hand, and my handwriting tends to reflect. But very few things match the feeling of writing on good paper with a substantial fountain pen. Over the years I've had (and lost) several Parkers and Lamys, and a lovely silver Shaeffer with inlaid gold nib (the best pen I've ever written with—I hope the person who pinched it from the Adelaide Uni games room in the mid 90s has made good use of it).

My current FP is a magnificent titanium-barrelled Cross Townsend, with the top of the line gold Extra Fine point. It's long and weighty, with a mirror-like finish that demands constant polishing. With that XF nib, it's not the smoothest writer ever, and it also tends to leak just a little. But it is a thing of elegance and beauty, which, because of my predilection for losing pens, has only left the house once in the dozen years I've owned it.

Not the most useful day-to-day pen, then. That tasks falls to a stylish red lacquer Parker Sonnet II ball pen (my second, of course) which I like very much, but I've been in a nib and ink mood recently, which has sent me to the web looking for FPs once again.

Following in the tradition of great pens such as Parker and Waterman, which hail from France, I came across a good looking fountain pen on eBay the other day called Charles Hubert, Paris. At the price it was clear that we weren't talking Paris, France, but Paris, China, but in the seller pictures as well as those at isellpens.com the entire range looked very well made. So I spent my $40 Australian plus P&P and acquired this little beastie, its finish reminiscent of the Sterling Silver Parkers, only in turned stainless steel:

It looks pretty well-finished in the pictures, doesn't it? That's because it is. Everything lines up nicely, the chroming is excellent and the cap clicks on and off very nicely at both ends. Clips are often a tell-tale sign of cost cutting, but even this is stylish and neatly finished. The nib, labelled 'Iridium Point Germany' looks good quality, and whilst its thickness is not labelled, I'd call it a Medium point towards the narrower end of that continuum.

In the hand it feels very solid, although the centre of gravity is a little high up the shaft for my liking with cap unposted, more than 8 cm away from the nib out of a barrel length of 12 cm. By contrast, my slightly longer Cross has a lower centre, and therefore just seems to take a fraction less effort to direct across the page. But I'm splitting hairs here, even if the price differential (which is almost ten-fold) were not taken into account. When I first picked up the pen, the black part of the barrel also seemed a little short, so that my fingers were riding up onto the fatter stainless steel section. This was a little uncomfortable, but I've quickly become used to it.

The nib is reasonably stiff and still a little scratchy having only been used for a week, but with the standard un-marked ink cartridge that came with it, it's a nice writer, with good, even inkflow and solid colour. When I get a higher quality cartridge in it things can only improve. And so far there has been no leakage or ink build-up on nib, finger-wrest or inside the cap, a problem which has always quietly afflicted my Cross.

Overall, the pen oozes quality, is fun to write with and I can afford to take it out of the house. At the price it is an absolute bargain, and I suspect the same could be said of others in the range, which I will explore further. Highly recommended!

You can source these pens from my Australian eBay seller, Selectview, who offers good prices and service or at www.isellpens.com.
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10 July 2007

Deal with eBay negativity using Toolhaus and Firefox

Following on from my previous post about ebay negatives, let me introduce Toolhaus—my favourite tool as a buyer on eBay. Just type in the name of a seller and it shows all their negative/neutral and withdrawn feedback, uninterrupted by those pesky positives. This, as Bowie would say, is the Nazz!

Just look how it seems to polarise eBayers. Some (most) seem to love it, but you get comments such as “That site is HORRIBLE and a disservice to EBay users. I understand the intention but it is very dangerous and produce (sic) more harm than good”, “I hate that toolhaus thing. Lame. “ and “That site is digusting (sic), what is it, lets find the bad side of sellers and exploit it”. Hey, anything that “digusting” must surely have merit!

And there’s a little plug in for Firefox that makes Toolhaus even easier to use by adding quick access to the tool to your right click menu. Just point at a seller’s eBay id, right click and Bob’s your auntie’s grandmother’s poodle. If you are using Firefox, and of course you are, download it here.

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Ebay feedback—reading between the lines

Newbies to eBay are often misled into putting too much faith in eBay feedback numbers. On the surface 99% seems like a high number, but in reality could be telling a very different story, particularly if the seller is moving high volumes.

So my advice to eBay newbies is to forget about the percentage and look instead at the number of negative/neutral and withdrawn feedbacks and their nature. For example, I came across a seller the other day who had a feedback rating of 98.8% based on 3,500 transactions. This tells me that there were a lot of people who were not impressed, in fact 43 negatives, more than 60 neutrals and dozens of withdrawns. And when I looked through the comments, I noticed significant patterns, falling into the three or four usual groups. People were complaining about slow despatch, receiving the wrong items or items in bad condition, excessive postal charges and items being despatched from Hong Kong though advertised from the UK.

Now, I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, and even the most conscientious seller can make honest mistakes from time to time, so I do not expect sellers to have 100% feedback. But when you get the same feedback for the same problems over and over, you are a seller to be avoided. In the case of my example seller, it was clear that he was breaking a number of eBay rules. He was a Hong Kong seller who was pretending to be based in the UK; he was lowering the buy price and padding out the P&P unreasonably, a favourite trick of Hong Kong sellers; and he was selling stock he didn’t actually have. He was also selling some crappy product, but that, alas, is not against eBay rules. Caveat emptor, as always.

Interestingly, this seller’s answer to disgruntled buyers was always to try and discredit the buyer. “Another deadbeat buyer” he would opine repeatedly, or he would defend his excessive padding of P&P by encouraging buyers to look at the overall cost. Of course, that’s not bad advice in itself, but it’s still against eBay rules to sell an item that is clearly worth $300 for $0.99 plus $299 in postage. But his most amusing defence was to say “If this were true... why would we have such good feedback?” Er, I’m looking at your feedback, mate, and all I see is 150 or so very annoyed customers.

Of course, 98.8% of buyers are apparently happy with this seller, who is certainly not an extreme case as eBay sellers go—many are far worse. But even that positive feedback is misleading because most sellers refuse to leave feedback until the buyer has done so. This is, effectively, a form of blackmail. In fact the buyer has fulfilled his contractual obligation in an eBay transaction as soon as payment is received by the seller, and it’s at this point that sellers should leave feedback, as, indeed, a few of them do. Hats off to those people, but eBay should build this into its system and force sellers to leave feedback first, in my opinion.

Ebay has recently introduced the option for buyers to leave detailed feedback on four aspects of a transaction: item description, seller’s communications, speed of posting and postage and packaging cost. Whilst the overall feedback is visible to the seller, this detailed breakdown is not, so you could theoretically avoid a bad seller blackmailing you by leaving positive overall feedback and then very poor detailed feedback. It’s a major improvement, and will work very well if buyers use 4/5 stars as the benchmark for a good transaction and only award the fifth star in exceptional cases. I think ebay is to be commended for this initiative, but I’d still like to see sellers forced to leave feedback as soon as payment is received.

In my experience, the vast majority of the sellers I have dealt with have been honest and remarkably efficient, and I am constantly amazed by how many people seem to live at the Post Office, ready to despatch my orders the nanosecond I press the Buy button. Reading between the lines of eBay feedback will help you identify these people before you buy and avoid the others.

In my next post I’ll point you towards a great tool for analysing negative and neutral feedback. Watch this space :-)
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2 May 2007

Silly idea of the week: Sony Vaio keyboards

Sony Vaio notebooks have traditionally been stylish, highly specced machines, but one has to wonder what Sony were thinking with their current keyboard design. All current models seem to have very square keys. They look neat and have a reasonable feel, but they are quite awful to type on. If you’re one of those typists who cleanly hits the middle of the keys each time, then you’ll probably not mind them, but the rest of us will be constantly catching the edges of other keys until the backspace key becomes well worn.

The three most important aspects of a laptop are, to my mind, the things one actually interacts with — screen, keyboard and pointing device. Most trackpads are abominations, the new shiny screens are great to watch movies on (for which you have a TV), but awful for working in almost any kind of lighting, and now Sony are trying to neuter the keyboard as well. Is this progress?

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1 May 2007

My new Samsung Blackjack has arrived!

A week ago I took possession of a shiny new Samsung Blackjack on Telstra's NextG network. I love it, and it's the best set of compromises I can find at the moment, but it's far from perfect. My full review will follow in the next few days, as well as extensive tips on what add-on software to try and what cases to use to protect your investment. If you're thinking about investing in a Blackjack, Treo, MotoQ or phone enabled PDA, and let's face it, who isn't, stay tuned!

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Escalator Etiquette

Mahatma Gandhi suggested that you could tell a lot about a society from the way it used escalators. That's a slight paraphrasal—I think his original statement mentioned animals rather that escalators, but the idea, I'm sure you'll agree, remains the same.

By that criteria, my hometown of Adelaide is in a sorry state. Unlike London, or Sydney, or any other major city in the civilised world, people do not stand to one side to allow faster moving traffic clear thoroughfare. Instead, they just stand there like zombies on a day trip to the big smoke. And unlike many cities, there are no helpful signs here to dissuade people from this behaviour.

Surely this is a little thing, I hear you say. You may well be right, but because I have little else to gripe about today, I prefer to see it as emphatic evidence of a far deeper societal malaise. Have these people no manners or common sense? Are they utterly oblivious to the needs of others and to the world about them? Is it selfishness, lack of education, drugs or just simple stupidity?

And is this an Adelaide thing, or does it happen in your city too? Ben Harris at Metroblogging Bangkok bemoans the cummulative time lost in his life waiting for people while they prepare to mount escalators. What is your escalator experience?

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7 April 2007

No thanks, I already have one

The premises of an old brothel in Adelaide have recently gone on sale. According to the estate agent, they’re a good buy at around A$2 million. For that you get a small 5-story building with a penthouse flat, swimming pool and spa, not to mention a whole lot of history.

The local paper, that bastion of social conscience and erudite insight, The Advertiser, has a daily Vox Pop in which they asked passers-by whether they would consider buying a former brothel. One of the respondents said that, although she did invest in property, she would not buy this one because she was “looking to diversify her portfolio”. I guess you can only have so many of a good thing.
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2 February 2007


Hello, Ned Ludd here.

Almost 20 years ago I remember bumping into a close acquaintance at the university library. We had a brief 'how's uni' conversation, during which time he asked me several questions, and affirmed my responses with the odd "Right", "I see" and "That's great". As we wound up and he turned away I realised by the wire emanating from his left ear that he was wired for sound and probably hadn't heard a single word I said.

That was near the beginning of the portable music revolution, when we revelled in a technology known as the audio cassette, which many of today's mp3meisters have never even seen. Different time, then, but same issues--yet another nail in the coffin of civility and social interaction. Today I lined up at the local supermarket and both the shoppers in front of me were chained to their ipods. The first at least offered some grunt of acknowledgement to the checkout operator, the second was too immersed in the metronomic pounding in his ear drums to even be that gracious. In other public places such as trains and fast-food joints, basic civilities like after yous, pleases and excuse mes are passing into oblivion as increasing numbers of people have their ears shut off to the outside world, and their minds soon follow.

Whilst I am a technology junkie, I cannot understand how this can possibly be seen as progress. Let's catch it whilst it's still a trend and before it becomes normal. Let's reinforce the notion that it is simply rude to be wearing headphones whilst talking to people, and even when in a public situation where incidental conversation might occur. I know that many communications courses teach people to talk less and listen more, but I think they mean 'to each other'!