Wednesday, 26 October 2016

On the matter of the iPhone and the headphones

A lot of ink, mostly of the virtual type, has been spent on Apple's removal of the headphones jack from the iPhone 7. I already stated that the underwhelming nature of this phone's release - the fact it's actually an iPhone 6S-S, and the removal of the headphones jack being its most notable feature - has cured me of any will to invest in this new phone despite my current phone being a 4 year old brick masquerading as a smartphone.
However, in my opinion, Apple hasn't been dealt justly with regards to the headphones jack's removal. In my opinion, things are much worse than what we have sort of been stabilised to agree about with regards to Apple's headphones enforcement agenda.
Sure, we can use Apple's supplied adaptor in order to continue using our wired headphones. We can't listen to music while the phone is charging, at least not without the help of yet another dongle, but let us assume for now that is manageable.
Where I think matters are much worse is with the microphone. Most of us use our headphones not only to listen to music, but also to answer calls. My particular noise cancelling headphones come with the added bonus of cleaning out the phone call for both sides, making it a true pleasure to use the headphones for this particular purpose. But no more, says Apple!
The problem is, the iPhone's Lightning connector is digital while our headphones are analog. In order to deal with that, Apple has stuck a digital to analog converter in the dongle it supplies us so we can continue listening to music on our "old" headphones; what it did not do, however, is stick an analog to digital converter in there, too, so that our headphones' microphone can continue working. For that matter, it did not include measures so that the volume and other controls our headphones tend to come equipped can continue working.
Technologically speaking, the compromise is understandable. It has been a major achievement for Apple to cram a digital to analog converter in that tiny dongle it is already providing. But the begging question is still very much - why did Apple decide to bring us down that path in the first place?

iPhone 7 Plus

I can hear the Apple fans arguing the time is ripe for wireless headphones. If you believe that, I have some hot air to sell you.
As the owner of a couple of Bluetooth headphones, I can tell you life is not that glamorous on that side. Using the headphones proves far from "switch it on and they'll just be there"; more often than not there are pairing problems, especially at busy locations. Similar frustrations creep when the headphones just stop working. Or, for that matter, when their battery runs out.
Then there is the matter of sound quality. Bluetooth headphones are more or less limited to a bandwidth of 256kbps, which is nice and dandy for most but not for an audiophile. Even Spotify provides me with music at 360kbps, not to mention Apple itself selling lossless, better than CD, grade music. Sure, you can argue you don't feel the difference and I will empathise. I, however, can feel the difference; not always, it takes good headphones and a quite environment, but I have plenty of both, thank you very much, to consider sound quality vital.
And last, there is the matter of price. The better Bluetooth headphones out there cost $400 or more: I am talking about the Bose QC35, the latest generation of the Parrot headphones (or, for that matter, previous generations), and the Sennheiser Momentum 2. By the way, none of which can compete, sound quality wise, with wired headphone of the same price or even half the price.

I will therefore state the following without prejudice: screw you, Apple, for what you have done.

Image by Kārlis Dambrāns, Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0) licence

Sunday, 23 October 2016

The Long Goodbye

I recently had a short chat with a close friend who recently lost his father. I noted how, several years later, I'm still troubled by the loss of my father on a daily basis. My friend's answer opened my eyes to a potential answer for why this is the case (beyond the obvious fact that the loss of one's father is one of life's more traumatic experiences).
I now argue the fact we, my father and I, never had a proper farewell was a big factor. And I am not referring to the fact I wasn't physically present when my father died; I am talking about the lack of closure when he was still in the game.
We often tell one another the obvious, stating that we should tell our parents or other loved ones how much we love them etc. I don't know about your parents, but in my case such an endeavour is pretty hard - borderline impossible - to achieve in a meaningful way beyond the token effort of saying "mother, I love you". How often do opportunities to say such a thing without sounding like or being perceived as an idiot arise?
For a start, I am virtually light years away from my parents, culture wise. I cite my views on religion as the most obvious indication there: they see/saw themselves as Jews and then as Israelis, whereas I refuse to let the accident of birth determine my worldly prospects. I am an atheist, and while I identify with Jewish stuff on many levels, I will never do so on religious grounds; similarly, I am not one for nationalism, considering it and religion a couple of the world's main sources of malaise.
Second, how exactly do I initiate a conversation with my parents? They were never the sort with whom one can hold a meaningful discourse about anything. Add the physical distance between us and things grow worse. I notice the phenomenon with others, too; when we're away from one another we tell ourselves that we will chat when we meet, in the mean time settling for FaceTime/Skype conversations with limited success because the members of the older generations are often less than capable in the technological department. And on the infrequent occasion we do meet face to face, our conversations seem hell bent on sticking to the mundane "how are you today" level.
Charles Stross summed it up well in a recent post of his. The trouble is that we are too different from our parents. It's not like we're working at one frequency and they're at another; the quick turning of history's pages over the past century means they come from the age of the telegraph while we hail to the 802.11ac goddess. We cannot bring ourselves to communicate using morse code, and they have no idea how to set their wifi up (or why they need it in the first place).
The result is communications that mostly misfire. And feelings of missed opportunities. But these are the natural result of the fact that the times, they are a-changin'. I'd argue that if you are lucky enough to not have this friction with your parents, then you're either lucky to have unnaturally progressive parents or an unlucky person stuck in a time that's not yours to have. For the rest of us it's Communication Breakdown.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

I know what I like and I like what I know

We recently had guests staying over with us. As a side effect of having people of a significantly different culture to mine in close proximity over a significant enough period of time, the experience is quite an eye opener. In my particular case, this glimpse of lives lived differently provided conviction and security to the notion that my way of life, as reflected by the choices I have made, is indeed my preferred way of life. True, that last statement sounds obvious, but is it, really? Can you truly claim that the things you do in your life are really the product of your own preferences, the direct and exact results of some plan you've formed?

Kenneth Branagh describes the character he portrays in the excellent (what an understatement!) series Wallander as "an existentialist who is questioning what life is about and why he does what he does every day". I may not be a murder investigator whose personal life is ruined by exposure to abnormal violence, but I do share the approach to life with my fictional Scandinavian counterpart. I do often ask myself if what I am doing every day is the right thing, and I do wonder what I should be doing instead.
I started noticing differences between my wills/wants and conventional wisdom in my childhood already. At the time, the dominant leisure activity after school was over and done was getting down to the street/park for some outdoor play, usually involving [foot]balls. I've enjoyed that, but with time I tended to gravitate more and more towards reading books inside. The introduction of the Atari 2600 games console, and later the personal computer, dealt a knockout blow to outdoor activities.
As I grew up, the default leisure activity for most people switched into "going out". You know what I'm talking about: going out for a movie, for dinner, or for some other type of entertainment usually provided to us by others. I like that, too, but I could not avoid noting how I often preferred to buck the trend and read a book. With time this changed from books into anything that taught me about the world; let's call it non fiction as a catch all phrase. That contradiction between others and I made me feel uncomfortable: what is wrong with me that I do not seek the entertainment everyone else seems to favour so much, and instead I prefer things that others actively avoid? How many of us count learning about the world as their prime leisure activity?
My answer to that question defaulted into "this is what I end up doing not because this is what I actually prefer to be doing but rather because I have no choice". I told myself I have no choice because I do not have the willing partners for going out on town, and later I told myself I have no choice because I need to go to work, and more recently I have been telling this to myself because my parental duties did not leave me with much of a choice. What I never did was stand up to myself and acknowledge that what I am doing is actually the exact thing I like to do best, and to hell with everyone else's preferences.
That has changed. Seeing life through other people's eyes helped me go out of the wardrobe, so to speak. Now I am openly saying that, yes, I actually prefer to stay at home and learn about the latest in technology over going out. Yes, I prefer learning new tricks with computers and playing around with computer programming. Yes, I thoroughly enjoy playing board games like Carcassonne to watching a musical. Yes, I wholeheartedly prefer to watch an episode of Wallander over the latest trash Hollywood blockbuster. Yes, I much prefer to analyse music's finer qualities on my hi fi to a live venue where the seats are uncomfortable, the toilets stink, and the sound is crudely amplified to ear bleeding levels. And yes, I'd take an intellectual discussion over most forms of passive/light entertainment.
I can continue on and on about where I now confidentially stand without feeling the need to kiss up to what others' preferences anymore. But I will conclude, instead, by citing this blog and my other reviews blog: for a person who is occupying himself with existential questioning of life as his main pursuit and prime source of happiness outside of his direct family, these blogs of mine are the inevitable conclusion. Reviewing a book, or analysing certain aspects of my life the way I have been doing here, are by far the easiest tools available to me to achieve my goals with. 

Sunday, 9 October 2016

My Favourite Israeli Song

A recent tide of Israeli music in Spotify has resulted in it finally, at last, after many long years, featuring the song that is probably my favourite Israeli / Hebrew speaking song ever:

In case you don't do Spotify and can't access the above embedded song, the song I am talking about is called Carim Abdul Zamar from the band Mashina. It is taken from the band's first album, released in 1985.
I do have a couple of notes to go with the song.

First, a bit of personal history.
When this record from Mashina came out, it was a big hit in Israel. Virtually all the songs became hits in their own rights (perhaps with a single exception).
I still remember how, coming out of a Friday night cinema experience featuring Iron Eagle 5 (or some other ultra inferior film experience) with one of my best friends, we bumped into another best friend who came out of a live Mashina show that turned out to take place right next to our cinema.
We were disappointed; we didn't even know that show was on. He, on the other hand, was excited, telling us how - during one of the songs (Ballad For A Double Agent, if you have to know) - the singer took out a giant carrot from under his coat and threw it at the crowd. Yes, it was all happening, and we weren't invited.
Luckily for all three of us, school took us to see Mashina later that year. During school time! And a year or two later, it took us again, thus probably making Mashina into the band I've seen live the most times.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, I would like to explain why I like Carim Abdul Zamar so much. After all, music wise, we are not talking here about a Beatles competitor.
I guess I like the song because it reminds me of the Israel I sort of remember growing at. It's got its oriental themes but it also got Western rock.
The lyrics are nonsense, made up of gibberish, Hebrew, Arabic, English, French and even German - but that's the nice thing about the song. In the Israel I grew up in one would know, more or less, all these expressions from all of these languages (with the notable exception of the gibberish). No, I do not speak French, for example, but I was exposed to a lot of French cinema (way more than the average Aussie is exposed to); I did not speak Arabic, but we did study it at school and Arabic expressions and swearwords did feature in our daily lives.
Nothing special, I know, until I compare things with the current state of Israel, as recently sampled. Nowadays, Israel is a country where the Jewish population actively distances itself from Arab culture as if it's inferior. Gone is that joyful spirit that allowed the mix of words that turned out into a fun song evoking one of the best [Muslim] basketball players ever to grace this world.
But at least I got my song on Spotify now.

Monday, 12 September 2016

The Courage to Buy a Smartphone

Another year, another iPhone model is released, and once again I'm contemplating what smartphone (if any) I should buy.
For the past four years I have been happily using an iPhone 5. It is archaic, it is tiny by today's standards, and in many ways it is a brick; it literally takes a couple of minutes for me to be able to initiate a phone call. Luckily for me, I hardly ever make phone calls. Even better, I do the bulk of my heavy lifting with a powerful iPad, which relegates the phone mostly to texting duties (in my case, Signal and Twitter), music playing, and navigational duties.
There are definite benefits to my particular smartphone/tablet use cases. Take gaming, for example: unless there is a good reason to do so, such as multiplayer games, I do all of my gaming offline. This way I can enjoy the game without giving the games the opportunity to send private information of mine back to the third party trackers, Facebook and the lot. In other words, I can play privately, the way playing should be, without the risk of missing calls on my phone.
I will add that, in similar vein, I do try to minimise my use of apps while online to a few core apps. Most apps (think TripAdvisor) send tons of information to third parties, whereas the exact same functionality can be derived through using a well protected browser instead without the privacy surcharge.
Still, even I can acknowledge that I am being limited by my phone. The time has come for a new one. The question is, which?
Normally, the answer would be "the latest iPhone". But the iPhone 7 makes it really hard for me to spend $1500+ on. As weird as it may sound, that is entirely the fault of Apple and it's silly product launch.

Sure, the iPhone 7 is a good phone. It has a powerful processing unit, probably the most powerful around. It's got a nice camera, too. What it doesn't have, though, is a good reason for people to pick it over any other phone.
In contrast, and in what seems to be the daftest marketing move in the world, Apple has told us that it courageously removed the phone's headphone jack. Did it give us a good alternative? No; it can stick those EarPods it's planning on selling us up its nostrils. If these are anything like the existing EarPods, they sound like shit. I have my headphones, I have many, and I have made my choices; through a complete lack of coincidence, they are all wired models (with the exception of one $10 pair I use for late night gaming).
Essentially, what Apple is doing is telling me to f- off. So I will. And I will mock them in the process.
I will add there are already multiple conspiracy theories doing the rounds with regards to Apple's removal of the headphone jack. One that I consider more than a mere conspiracy is Apple trying to outbid payment dongles such the ones coming from the likes of PayPal. These often utilise the headphones jack. All is fair and love and trying to promote Apple Pay, I guess.

Given Apple has been making numerous strategic moves to secure Apple Pay's future, and given Apple knows the fragility of its current position where its income is too exclusively dependent on iPhone sales, it seems more than likely Apple sees its future in the financial services arena. Think General Electric.
Regardless of this particular conspiracy theory, I think it is safe to say the main reason behind Apple removing the headphones jack is its usual control freak, walled garden, nature. Maybe they already gave up on beating Android?
Whichever way you look at it, It is very hard for one to justify spending $1500+ on a product one mocks. Courageously mocks, to be accurate.

So which phone should I get, then?
If you are a security conscious person, and I argue you should be, your choices are limited to either iPhones or Google Nexus devices. The reason is simple: only these models receive regular security updates. And there is always a new vulnerability being found (Apple had a serious one a couple of weeks ago, Android a couple just a couple of days ago). The catch is that once a vulnerability is published then every dumb hacker wishing to make a name for themselves can now utilise it. Whereas, prior to exposure, the hack was limited to probably the NSA and a few others (in the case of the Apple vulnerability, it is known to have been sold off by an Israeli company to a Middle Eastern dictatorship where it has been used against dissenters and journalists).
At this point I will praise Apple (and praise it again, quite warmly) for its efforts in keeping phone up to date ad secure. Take my iPhone 5 as an example: this phone is in its fifth year of operation now, and it is still running the latest iOS version and receives all the security updates.
Moving from security, if you are a privacy conscious person, and I argue you should be, you would steer away from anything Google on account of the mind numbing amount of information that Google collects and passes on about its Android users. In case you haven't noticed, Google is an advertising company; and what makes this multi-billion behemoth tick and ground the [advertising] competition to dust is the amount of stuff it knows about you. Bottom line, every service and every product Google delivers has collecting your data as its ultimate purpose.
So, what phone, then?
I can give up, buy a cheap but flashy Android like the Xiaomi Mi Note 3, not do anything critical on it so as not to care that much about security, and do my best to brick Google out of the way. But that would be putting my head in the sand; the first thing I will do on my phone is emails, and email account security is critical. Similarly, one cannot use a Google phone without Google.
An iPhone 7? Maybe, but not because I want it; only because it does seem like the only sane choice (together with, it has to be noted, the much smaller iPhone SE).

Which means that, at the bottom line, I will be doing my best to squeeze another year off my iPhone 5. I really hope it doesn't fully brick itself later this week when I upgrade it to iOS 10. Plus, it's got that revolutionary headphones jack!
I also hope next year's iPhone will do better than the 7. Headphones or not, Apple can still get me to throw money enthusiastically down its greedy claws with a design that actually gives me something I haven't had before. I know I'm asking for a lot, but - historically speaking - Apple used to be the company that delivers historical products. Maybe it still is.

I found the above image on Twitter. I have no idea who owns the right for it, but I am allowing myself to reproduce it here under fair use.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Welcome to the Machine

There is an iOS game called Human Resource Machine that's a typical iOS puzzle game. Or at least that's what it tries to pass as: you play an employee at a dystopian company who has to follow the dumb rules in order to go up the food chain. The game got good reviews noting its cleverness, so when it was discounted to $1 I took the plunge.
What I quickly discovered, playing Human Resource Machine, is that no matter what the game tries to pass as, what you - the player - are actually doing in this game is CPU programming, Assembly/Assembler style. In order to solve puzzles you conduct activities that are 1 to 1 equivalents to loading CPU registers, adding CPU registers, and managing the special register that controls which memory byte the next CPU command will be read from.
And oh this brought back memories. Back in "my days", if you wanted to do anything properly sophisticated on your first gen accessible home personal computer (a Dragon 32, in my case), you had the choice of either the second incarnation of Microsoft Basic (slow and fairly limited!) or Assembly. Thus I got to play in Assembly and learned a lot about my Dragon's Motorola 6809 CPU in order to get there. I still remember some of the books I used: "The 6809 Cookbook", "Language of the Dragon".
I did some nifty things. I wrote my own Assembler compiler in Basic, programmed the graphics for my own Phoenix arcade game lookalike, and wrote a calculator program in Assembly.
Assembly had this charm to it. Programming in Assembly meant you have to think just like a CPU, and the direct nature of that had an effect on me. To program a CPU you need to think like a CPU, and you don't get to identify with a computer any better than that.
Perhaps that is why I'm not doing too badly in Human Resource Machine.

This rekindling of an old flame made me ponder about the things that drove me away from the world of Assembly programming and into the world of the mundane. Why, over the years, did I abandon the extraordinary that I used to have?
I think the answer is clear. High school, with its demands for grades, did not leave me with the time to experiment with my personal interests. My high school maths teacher, probably the worst teacher I ever had, pretty much decimated any interest I might have in maths. Then came Israel's mandatory army service, which disconnected me from the normal living world for several years. And then came the peculiar demands of Israeli universities at the time, which mandated deep maths studying - the subject high school burnt me at - in order to go deeply into programming. I chose a much less riskier subject.
In other words, the conventional education system killed any spark of independent thinking I might have had. That dystopian vision of the corporate world in Human Resource Machine is embodied in real life through me.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

An Affliction

This blog would like to apologise for not posting much lately. It puts the blame on an extreme affliction of extreme busy-ness.
In the meantime, here is competing theory concerning the absence of posts:

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Notes from a Small Country*

It is the custom of this blog to file in a report after each visit to Israel in order to document changes. Changes in Israel, changes in my perceptions of Israel, and through the analysis of the above changes in yours truly. With that in mind, allow me to summarise this particular latest visit of mine to Israel with the words of my mother: "Go back to where you are comfortable". Because if my mother can finally acknowledge I no longer belong in Israel...
You might already guess the following review will not compliment Israel much. There are several reasons for that, with me visiting at the peak of a boiling summer probably being the most crucial. However, what I would like you to bear in mind is that the purpose of this post is not to pass derogatory comments towards Israel but rather to cite the differences between the Australian (or rather Melbourne) standards I am used to and those of what I was used to until I left Israel. That, and pointing out how much Israel has changed since I left it (a lot!).

[Photo: Kosher certificate, "photography forbidden"]

With utmost certainty, I can attest the reason for the bulk of my lack of Israeli comfort lies in the heat. Tel Aviv summers are bad, and it is my impression is that they are getting hotter/worse. Not because of global warming, not because I came in from Melbourne winter, but because of the congestion. I could literally feel the heat trapped in between buildings and by the the vast slabs of concrete and pavement that cover everything.
Don't know why they need weather forecasts during Israeli summer. I can tell you what it would be like tomorrow: hot.

To this visitor, Tel Aviv seems like a one big construction site. Major roads have been dug up to cater for a future underground train (hear that, Melbourne?). Empty patches of ground have largely gone extinct, replaced by towers (as opposed to mere buildings). And existing building have been patched with additional floors added on top. The view from my mother's kitchen, once overlooking significant patches of Tel Aviv with one single tower to come between kitchen and sea, is now dominated by the next door building's extra floors and a lineup of towers that greatly diminish any appreciation of the sea beyond.
The trouble is that all these buildings carry people. And these people tend to carry cars.
Where once one might have had to drive around a couple of streets to find parking, I have now experienced (on multiple occasions) how people are forced to wait in a waiting list queue next to a pay car park and hope for parked cars to leave and make some space. I would call that insane if it wasn't the natural evolution of growing populations and growing resources.
Tel Aviv of today seems a place where one is stuck in a traffic jam the minute one gets out of one's garage. With the bulk of cars sporting scratches and bumps, one does wonder how badly this congestion shows itself in road fatalities.

I could see the look on my Israeli friends' faces when I complained about the noise. It said "what the hell is this weirdo on about?"
But I could feel it.
By six AM each morning I would no longer be able to sleep due to the constant hum from the outside world. When listening carefully, that hum would break down to traffic noise, the sound of people going about, as well as construction site noise. Regardless, the noise contamination represents a huge contrast to Melbourne, where the predawn silence can strike as horror movie creepy and where birdsong is often my wake up call.
I could feel it through music, too. At first I thought my speaker was broken; music simply did not sound half as good as it did before. Gone were the finer details, butchered was the dynamic range. But then it occurred to me: the speaker is just the same as it was before, it's just that the ambient noise level is so much higher.
To file under "a side effect of congestion".
[Note to self: you idiot, you have a phone app that measures sound levels and you forgot to use it.]
[Disclaimer: heat is responsible for worse sounding music, too: the hotter air is thinner and thus not as good at sound conduction.]

Books can be written about the Israeli driving experience. I will start by noting that, in my humble opinion and as a gross generalisation, I find the Israeli driver leagues better than their Aussie counterpart. Not because of superior genes or anything, but rather because the Israeli driver is like a crack commando soldier that is constantly practicing under extreme heavy fire and has to hone their skills to survive [and arrive at their destination], whereas the Aussie one can drive half way from Melbourne to Sydney on the wrong side of the road with little repercussion.
But this also means that the Israeli driver is a killer. If one intends to change lanes, one will receive an immediate beep! from one's side to inform one where one can stick one's intentions. If stops to allow pedestrians to cross at a crossing, one will receive an immediate beep! beep! from one's behind to suggest that, perhaps, these crossers are subhuman and one should consider running them over as a reward. If one starts to drive, one receives a beep! If one stops, whether to daydream or because one has arrived at one's destination, one receives a beep!.
It really is beep galore, Israel, and it seems contagious. Once someone decides to beep their car, others around will join in, as if trying to jointly compose a symphony. No one knows why cars beep anymore in Israel, they just do and constantly.
I sought a portable pedestrian horn just so I could join the orchestra, but alas they do not seem to sell one yet. Probably because Israelis do not like noise contamination.

George W is famous for saying "you're either with us or against us". Israelis seem to have taken W's words at heart and implement them in the way the speak.
I noticed two camps of Israelis: those that speak and those that shout. The first are nice to interact with; they feel human. The latter feel the need to ensure they bulldoze the person they are attempting conversation with. They are not particularly angry at you or anything, it's just that in the atmosphere of noise and beeping cars they have learnt that if they want to increase the probability of receiving attention they need to raise their volume. So they shout. By default.
I could not believe it, but my mother seems to spend the longer parts of the afternoon being shouted at. She doesn't go about seeking controversy or doing evil, she just lies on her comfy living room chair and switches the TV on to watch the afternoon's current affairs stuff. It's just that the bulk of the people on those shows belong to the default shouters.
I made sure I hide in the remote parts of the house during the afternoon. I have a problem with being shouted at.

It took one visit to the doctor, to get my mother's medicine prescriptions, to remind me of what the concept of "queuing" stands for in Israel.
I suspect that if I asked you to picture a queue in your mind, you would conjure an image of people waiting in line. Well, an Israeli queue is different; it's more like a rugby scrum. Only that this is no scrum between two opposing teams but rather a scrum where every person is their own team.
Instead of a line you have the queuing folk surrounding the service provider in a tight circular formation. Instead of order, along the lines of First In First Out, you have the scrum constantly studying one another to detect a weakness. Once such weakness is identified (no Israeli should fall for that old "I'm just here for a prescription" lie), the identifier shall strike to grab the attention of the service provider and win their personal match. And if you don't play rugby, well, good on ya, sucker!
Israelis have ways of making the service provider feel the pain of letting others wait. While waiting at a seeds/nuts shop (a popular form of snacks in Israel, although not as popular as it used to be) I noted how everyone waiting in the scrum around the guy currently being attended was busy picking seeds out of the trays and munching as they were impolitely waiting. Fuck hygiene, it's only thirty five degrees, what are the chances of spreading disease this way?

Since we've discussed food hygiene, I should add that - generally speaking - I much prefer what passes for food in Israel to the Australian preferences. Spices are not to be frowned upon in Israel, as well as the concept of taste. Luckily, Australia has its immigrants to set things right from its stomach numbing English origins, but with the rise of the white fascist parties in Australia that can no longer be counted upon as a given.
Also, it seems like nowadays wholemeal pita bread is pretty much everywhere in Israel, making my most favourite foods - hummus & Co - much healthier to consume.
What puzzles me, though, is the matter of pricing. Generally speaking, supermarket foods cost the same as in Australia or slightly below (there is variance, of course; some things cost much more). However, all non food stuff seems to cost way more than it does in Australia. And, to add a particular twist to the equation, restaurant food is vastly cheaper than in Australia.
I thus found myself consuming hummus like there is no tomorrow and paying only $8 for the pleasure; some times I pay more just for the coffee in Melbourne.
As for the most important matter of coffee: aside of the fact it is not an enjoyable beverage when the outside world is as boiling as your cuppa, it seems as if what passes for coffee in Israel is way weaker than the Melbourne equivalent. I would also note more "flexibility" in the definition of what different types of coffee stand for, whereas in Melbourne serving a latte instead of a flat white is punishable by beheading.
Still, as much as I love coffee, I'd pick the rich hummus ecosystem over the best of coffees any day; one of the worst things about visiting Israel is that it really takes a while before I can bring myself to consume what passes for hummus in Australia.
Sadly, all the points Israel earns in the culinary department evaporate because of one factor: the Kosher factor. Most non Jews don't realise, but for food to pass as Kosher it needs more than pig avoidance. For example, one is not allowed to mix meat with milk (no cheeseburger for you) and one is not allowed to cook on a Saturday (though the religious have all sorts of creative ways to cheat their god on this one).
Back in the Tel Aviv I remember, non Kosher joints used to be the majority. Things are different now, perhaps due to the economics of changing demographics. The Kosher places hold the vast majority. Which is fine when dealing with hummus, and is fine given shutting places of commerce for one day of the week and giving employees a bit of a break is not a bad idea at all. But it is shit all the rest of the time!
The people of Israel simply do not know what they are missing. It is as if religion had color blinded their tongues.
When even the non Kosher restaurant try their best to still cater for the less zealous, the food is compromised. When getting to bacon in the first place is hard, then one can forget about experiencing the finer nuances of bacon. Yes, if one seeks to then one can get their hands on pretty much all types of food, even milky bacon on a Saturday; the problem is with the seeking. In Australia you don't need to seek; the food just comes at you, beckoning you to try. The chances of missing out on greatness are thus greatly compounded.

Now we're getting to the meat of it.
On a couple of occasions I had people, upon learning I'm visiting from Australia, issue me with a dire warning. According to these experts who have never been to Australia, there is a severe antisemitism problem Down Under. Even worse, give it thirty years or so, and the Muslims will take over Australia just like they already took over Europe.
Historical accuracy aside, I agreed with them that there is rampant racism in Australia. However, I continued, the racism expressed towards Jews is nothing compared to what Muslims have to go through [and I will note I had said this before Pauline Hanson got four senators elected].
When I was a kid, I remember that parents used to tell kids off for saying bad things about Arabs. "You don't talk this way" was a common way of dealing with such talk in the Tel Aviv I grew up in. Nowadays, it seems the most common expression in the Hebrew language is "...and still they complain about us discriminating them", said with regards to the treatment of Israeli Arabs and the grossly obvious - if you ask me - discrimination against them. As that common expression testifies, racism is deeply ingrained into Israeli society. It is taken for granted. The problem, according to the majority of Israelis I have encountered, is not the racism; it is that the Arabs are complaining against the racism. I'm sorry, but this stinks, badly.
The view that holds [Jewish] Israelis above the rest is dominant. For example, when news broke out that Theresa May is going to be the next British PM, the only angle in the news coverage was whether "good for Israel". The same applies to the Trump/Clinton USA elections; who gives a shit whether Trump is a fascist, the only thing that matters is the way he is going to regard Israel as Mr President. The contrast with Australian news coverage could not be more obvious [though I do need to add a disclaimer concerning the Murdoch news outlets: I refuse to acknowledge their existence].
The problem with the racism is that it is pumped at Israelis relentlessly through the news. It is hard for a person to disconnect themselves from the constant bombardment of news getting shouted at them in Israel, impossible to take a break and disconnect oneself from the world (which is pretty much the default state of being in Australia). And when all one hears is a one dimensional continuous chain of inputs on how the Arabs want to kill us all, the result is as expected. Yes, international news coverage often sins in its portrayal of Israel as a force of pure evil, but the Israeli media does not do Israelis much favour, either.
Israeli society is in a pretty toxic state.

And in contrast...
Arriving midway on my journey back from Israel to Australia, I made my way to the terminal from which I was to hop on my flight to Melbourne.
It was quiet. Queuing was a polite and orderly affair. Personal spaces were respected. People were smiling at one another.
I wasn't home yet but it already felt like home.

*I couldn't help it, I'm in the middle of reading the latest [delightful] book from Bill Bryson.