Sunday, 28 April 2013

Going Home: Theme of the Local Hero

I believe this is appropriate to the occasion:

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Homeward Bound

Back when I was in high school I used to declare that I expect to die of a heart attack by the age of 40. The reason why I said what I said was the physical toll in the form of tension that each test in school (and later, university) took on me. That toll is responsible for me not exploring higher educational achievements than the ones I have acquired (coupled, of course, with my general disregard for the way our educational systems, sorry - grade factories - work).
Some of my friends are still holding me up to my former words and claim I cannot be trusted. This current visit to Israel allows me to respond back: given the events that have transpired over the past month or so, I can confidentially state the reason I managed to defy predictions from times of youth is directly related to me moving over to live in Australia. Australia holds two benefits over Israel: first, and most obviously, it is a much better place to live in. Second, and closely related to insight gained this past month, Australia puts the bulk of my family half a world away from me.

Still, as much as I enjoy having a go at Israel, I do have to remind myself it holds some distinct advantages over Australia. These include:
  1. High quality humus.
  2. Roasted sunflower seeds.
  3. Humus with Ful (Ful being Arabic for broad-beans). Being that this is my favorite way for consuming humus I think it fully deserves a category of its own.
  4. People pronounce my name properly.
I can continue joking as much as I like, but there is one genuine quality that Israel holds high above Australia: Israel is the home of my best friends, people that - in my eyes - continue to prove again and again how special they are to me.
Today I bid them farewell, again. I don't know if they noticed the tears under my sunglasses.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

What the Hell Am I Doing Here?

I have been mentally collecting my impressions throughout my ongoing visit to Israel, but I think the best way for me to convey my message is to simply recall tonight's events.
After finishing at my father's hospital tonight at 20:00, my sister took me for dinner. I expected something quick and simple, but instead she took me to the center of Tel Aviv to eat in this really cool place, at least judging by the number of people crowding to eat there. Only that I could not be bothered, not in the least: I couldn't stand the crowds, I couldn't stand the density of people so close to me, I couldn't stand the noise of the traffic, I couldn't stand its smell, and I wasn't particularly in the mood to eat the particular food the place was offering: cool and artistically made sausages, burgers and chips. It brought back memories of how the need to hang out at the cool places, something I don't practice much in Australia. I think it comes down to the contrast between me and prevailing Aussie culture first, by the general lack of consensus regarding matters of coolness in Australia, and - years later - by virtue of being a parent. I ended up ruining my sister's night and choosing not to eat anything.
Yes, I know. I'm a creep, I'm a weirdo. Besides, I wanted to go back to my parents' place so I can watch Bayern Munich take on Barcelona in the European Champions League semi finals. At home these matches are either in the middle of the night or at times I should be concentrating on getting to work, so this was an opportunity to watch a promising football game as it should be watched.
As it should be watched also implies eating roasted sunflower seeds along with the game. That's the way football games are meant to be watched, at least by my childhood's experiences, and that's one of the privileges I lost upon moving to Australia: everyone should know the biggest drawbacks of the land down under are the lack of proper humus first and the lack of good quality roasted sunflower seeds second. And probably last.
I even had my sister drop me off in the middle of a junction sporting several all night shops, but alas: of the four shops I sampled only one was selling sunflower seeds, and those on offer were of visible poor quality. It seems that in my absence sunflower seeds have gone out of favor, or at least lost a lot of the favor they once held.
It turned out sunflower seeds were not the last let down of the night. The football itself was less than stellar (hence me typing this while the match is still ongoing). It's not that the game itself was up to no good; it's not of stellar quality but it's not bad either. The problem is with me: I have changed, and the football I used to enjoy watching so much does not speak to me the way it used to. In other words, years of football deprivation in Australia mean that I moved on to no longer care much for football in the first place. I do have to add I find the Israeli commentator (Yoram Arbel, in case you know him) way too talkative; again, the more subtle Aussie commentators have managed to spoil me over the years.
I have mentally noted plenty of other issues I have with the State of Israel, chief of which seems to be the rearing of religion's head above my memories of a much more secular country. It starts with perceived increase in the visibility of religious people and food places advertising themselves as Kosher in a city, Tel Aviv, I remember as religion free. But they all contrive to poke the same message deep inside my head: the country I grew up in and spent most of my life in can no longer be regarded as my country. True, I am very far from the Australian mainstream just the same; however, Australia is mature enough to let me live the way I want to. Australia is my home now, and not just because it's a much better place to live in; it is my home because that is where I now fit. There can be no doubt about that anymore.
Israel is different. Israel is a country that constantly pushes one message into my head: I don't belong here.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

The Best Thing About a Visit to Israel

EL AL 757 4X-EBV

The best thing about a visit to Israel is that it is a visit. That is, you come, you stay a bit, and then you politely F your way off. This visit expiration date is important, because immediately upon arrival I start feeling along the lines of "when am I getting the hell out of here"; this time around the feeling is boosted with "I want to be back with my wife & son".
Which is exactly why I'm annoyed at the privilege of knowing I've got a set return date being taken away from me through industrial action at Israeli airports. Currently, no Israeli airline flights are taking place, and there are also scheduled breaks to the activities of foreign airlines (including Turkish Airlines, with whom I'll be flying).
This visit is sure going down a downward spiral. I keep reminding myself that at the end of the day I am still the holder of the best document ever conjured: an Aussie passport.

Image by caribb, Creative Commons license

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Scent of Israelism

Israel Postage Stamp: Welcome to Israel

There is something unique to Israelism that can tell you it’s around. After many years of fresh air I could smell it again as I approached the gate at Istanbul Airport that was to lead me to the final leg in my journey from Australia to Israel.
The gate was already full of Israelis, many of them orthodox Jews (judging by their old style attire). As it happens, I arrived in the middle of an argument between two such orthodox guys and a secular man. The subject of discussion was the recent Israeli elections, and the secular guy was bemoaning of the orthodox’ voting habits. As if to prove his point, at least by my own personal views, one of the orthodox men announced in pride he voted for Benet (a right wing religious and pro settlers politician) while the other boasted voting for Baruch Marzel (a guy I deem fascist and vile). The already poor quality discussion soon turned worse when the religious pair attacked the secular for his views: how could it be, they asked, that we have evolved from apes? (Bear in mind it sounds worse in Hebrew, where there is no proper word to distinguish between apes and monkeys.) Their winning questions, as far as they were concerned, was: who was the first man [human], then?
Like its good friend, “what is the meaning of life”, theirs was a fine example for a bad question. Bad because it’s a question that already assumes an answer, a question where the person asking already “knows” there was a first person to begin with. Well, if they know the answer already, why bother asking?
The answer is, of course, that there was no explicit first man. Neither a first woman. Each of our ancestors looked distinctly like its parents. However, if you were to sample your 100,000th grandparent you would see someone looking very ape like (forgive me for making it sound as if us humans are no longer apes); and if you were to go much further down the line you would meet a fish like ancestor. Go even further and you’ll meet a super grandfather who was (and perhaps still is) a bacterium.
My point, however, has nothing to do with science. My point is you won’t such arguments between perfect strangers who happen to share a country of residence in any gate other than the one heading for Israel. And it says a lot about what it is to be an Israeli and what Israel’s culture is like: the aggressive, no holding back nature; the explicitness; and more importantly, the sense of superiority over other nationalities/religions. Welcome to Israel!

Image by karen horton, Creative Commons license

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Have a Nice Flight

 Let's cut the crap: flying is a horrible experience we would happily remove from our lives. No one has fond memories of their holiday because of the flight there or back; one only remembers flying for the pain that it is. You are, after all, confined to many hours at a time inside a noisy claustrophobic box, surrounded tightly by people you don't know and breathing badly processed air. The only thing we can do to improve the experience of flying is to pay more so as to gain better distractions: better food, better seating, better entertainment, or just a better itinerary. That is, a shorter one.
It occurred to me that flying is entirely negative through my experience with Turkish Airlines, the company that has now taken the crown for the worst airline I've had the displeasure to fly with.
Bad experience started long before the flight. For some odd reason, Turkish Airline won't let my travel agent book me seats; all the agent could do was raise a request for an aisle seat. When I tried to call Turkish Airlines' Sydney number I gave up on being held for too long, leaving messages instead; no one bothered returning my calls. When I tried the online check in, a day before my flight, I got error messages: either because the website uses Java, which I block, or because it's just broken. Regardless, something ain't right.
At the airport I learned Turkish had given me a window seat. I had to go to a special desk the next airport on my itinerary in order to fix things up. To their credit, Turkish was very good at this fixing.
Then came the flight itself, on a very aging (or very poorly maintained) Airbus A340. My reading light didn't work, which meant I couldn't use the Kindle I counted on to spend my time with. Then I noted that of the four toilets in economy class, two were tagged as broken. That broke the toilet to passenger ratio to something higher than 100 passengers per toilet! For reference, when I worked on planes' interior design the acceptable minimum was considered more like 55 passengers per toilet.
Then there was the horrible service. I arrived to find the highly coveted emergency row seat I was given was a blessing in disguise, with me seated right next to the flight's screaming baby. Flying alone with his mother he was cute, but he obviously presented a problem to the mother upon her having to go to the toilet and such. So to the baby's visible disappointment, I ended up looking after him a bit. That is, that the temporary relief did not come from the direction of the crew whose job it is; no, they didn't even leave the baby anything to eat. Oh, and the blanket I contributed for the baby? I didn't get a replacement. Then there were some very poor performing main meals.
On the "positive" side, the crew knew quite well how to disappear into their hidden resting place whenever their time was up for that. At least they looked after themselves; they didn't seem to to much for the passengers. Toilets were poorly maintained, running out of soap and low on paper for hours, while passengers were deferred from accessing business class toilets and sent to the back of the plane.
Overall, Turkish Airlines is clearly not in the same class as Singapore Airlines or Thai. I can also say I learned something from flying this time around: I learned that flying is best avoided, and I learned that a stopover may not be such a bad idea. Because, as it was, flying for more than twenty hours with hardly a sleep and with bad connections thrown in between is just horrible.
And I didn't even mention the excruciating security.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

You can go with this, or you can go with that

Tree Panorama

Deeply ingrained habits of mine went through a change this past few months. I noticed it at first during our January holidays.
Arriving at Sydney, I took my SLR out to fire shots away. Along the way I stumbled unto occasions where I used my iPhone instead, just because it was already in my hand and much faster to deploy. And as time went by, I noticed that I was carrying the SLR in its bag along with me but never actually opening that bag; virtually all of my photography is now done with the iPhone.
I haven’t touched my SLR since January. By now I’m relying on my iPhone to deal with my photography needs. What used to be a crappy last resort camera on my iPhone 3GS had turned into a marvelous black swan in the shape of the new iPhone 5.
Is there a price to pay for the convenience of the iPhone? There sure is. A modern SLR can take a photo under virtually any condition, while the iPhone is limited under extreme light, relative darkness, or just heavy light and dark contrast. Then there is the matter of quality: a comparison of the Sydney Opera House photos I took using both contenders leaves no doubt as to who delivers best. There can also be no doubt as to which is the more versatile.
But still, I find the iPhone 5 camera to be the winner:
  • Its camera is good enough not to attract attention to the quality of its shots.
  • It doesn't break my back.
  • It is always there, in my pocket, two clicks away from taking a photo.
  • It can actually produce photos of superior quality than an SLR. Granted, under very specific conditions, but conditions I do encounter - such as very close range macro photography.
  • It allows for elaborate photography, such as panoramas, that takes ages to process from multiple shots on the SLR. Check the above image for proof that decent quality can be achieved: we actually had a version of this photo printed on a 100cm*50cm canvas, and it looks great.
  • It allows me to do most of my photo processing on the spot, using various applications including the likes of Adobe Photoshop. I'm thus saving hours of post processing time later.
  • Its photos are automatically transferred to my iCloud account the next time I visit a wifi. They're not only backed up, they're also waiting for processing on my Mac.
  • Its fixed wide angle lens forces me to move around in order to create a proper composition, instead of standing still and playing with the lens' zoom. Pathetic, I know, but I feel more active.
I will still use my SLR for those specialty shots or when quality matters more than anything. For the rest of the time, the vast majority of the time, the sheer spontaneity of the iPhone make it my default camera of choice.

Friday, 5 April 2013

When Apples Fail


There are two sad things about owning many Apple gadgets the way I do. The first is me owning many Apple gadgets. The second is that once one owns that many, one is likely to encounter failures. Lucky for me, I got to test what takes place when an Apple turns rotten first hand.
It happened the previous Saturday. I woke up and as usual reached for my iPhone to check on the state of the world around me. All was well, as it usually is; or so I thought. Eventually I noticed that while the wifi was working well, the phone was stuck searching the Amaysim (Optus) cellular network. I checked my wife's phone (an Android), and that one had good reception. So I moved on.
I reset my phone to no avail. I switched it on and off to no avail. I took the SIM card in and out, to no avail. I recovered the phone from backup, to no avail. I reset the phone's network setting, at the price of having to redefine many a setting, but it didn't help me either. It looked like my new iPhone 5 was broken.
I went to Apple's website and followed the not so clear support path it offers. Eventually I got them to activate a support call on my behalf and a nice Apple representative to call me. The first thing she said, however, was that support calls cost $40 unless the phone is less than 90 days old. I politely explained what I think of this extortion: my phone was 93 year old, as she should know - I bought it from Apple's own shop and they took the all of its details from me already. Also, given that my problem is clearly covered under warranty, I cannot see why I need to pay them anything. Now, support me if you will, or tell me where else I should go.
She turned over to her supervisor who approved of her talking to me without charge. Alas, She could not offer me any workaround I did not already try; hers was a repeat of all the steps I already took. What she did do, however, was book an appointment for me at the Apple shop nearby. My appointment time was less than 90 minutes away.
I packed my iPhone 5, its SIM extractor pin, its cable, and my Mac Air (with the phone's backup) and made my way to the shop. As with everything at an Apple shop things are crowded but very well orchestrated - indeed, the best orchestrated consumer affair I am yet to witness. I went in to my appointment with one of them "Apple Geniuses" a few minutes ahead of my slotted time.
The guy was very nice and professional. His iPad listed everything Apple knows about me and my iPhone as well as the steps to address my problem with. He also knew what went on during the previous support call and did not waste my time trying to repeat it.
The first thing he did was try a different SIM. That, indeed, is my main quarrel with the iPhone 5: with it using esoteric nano SIM cards, one cannot just switch SIM cards to check whether the phone is alright or not. One also cannot easily switch between SIMs even when all is well and the sun is shiny.
Alas again, the SIM wasn't the issue. So he went to try a different thing called a DFU reset (Google it if you will; it is, essentially, a stronger reset performed by resetting the smartphone while its connected by wire to iTunes. It is important to stress that the iTunes version used by Apple at its shop is incapable of copying over stuff that's on the phone. Nice to see Apple looking after its customers' privacy!). While the reset was taking place, he told me that in his opinion it wouldn't help; without saying another word he went to the side and got a box containing another iPhone 5 to replace mine with. I don't know if that replacement iPhone was new or used. It is, however, important to point out Apple was ready to replace my device.
Alas, I did not get my replacement; the phone recovered well from the DFU reset. I sat there as the recovery process from my backup took place for the next ten minutes or so (there was the suspicion the problem was with the data in the recovered image), but that was it - my phone was ready to go back home.
I noted two things while working out my phone's recovery. First I noticed the line of people by my side with their specific and esoteric iPhone problems: phones that revert to voice control for no particular reason, for example, or plenty of phones with broken screens (by my small sampled survey, that is the most popular problem around). It was interesting to watch because normally it's hard to encounter a faulty iPhone, yet here I was in the good company of many a bad iPhone.
The other thing I noted was the uselessness of the iPhone backup. It restores the data of all the apps and settings that I had at the time the backup was made, but it does not have the apps themselves. Thus, once again, I needed to download all my apps and have them installed. On the positive side, once I had them they seemed to "jump" to where they used to be at backup's time. Another quirck: while my personal ringtones were there and seemed to be in use, my phone was found ringing in its default Apple sound; I had to change the ringtone choice and change it back again for "my" ringtone to work. Obviously, an iOS bug.

What can I say in conclusion?
I will say that I had my phone up and running, with Apple's help, within less than two hours of me reporting the problem over the phone. One cannot expect to receive better warranty service. And were my phone not to recover, a replacement was already in the waiting. The comparison between that and my HTC woes less than four years ago is inevitable: HTC had me taking long drives to drop my phone and to pick it up, had me waiting two weeks in between, and in general failed to fix my phone altogether - I got rid of it while it was still under warranty. I will never buy an HTC again, but I will buy Apple.
Apple was not without fault, though. Its nano SIM is a pain in the ass, and it demanding $40 for support calls is a joke. Surely Apple can start talking to people first and only charge them money if the issue at hand is not warranty based?
Altogether, an experience I would have been better off not having, but an inevitability in this gadget probe era. An inevitability that was managed fairly well by Apple.

Image by Rego -, Creative Commons license

Monday, 1 April 2013

The Good Word

Since I normally like using these pages to complain about the lackluster things around me, I thought I'd dedicate a post to the opposite. I thought of mentioning cases where I have been encountering stellar service. It won't take as much space as a complaint because there is not much to elaborate on, but it is worth much more:
  1. Amaysim: Every time I get to contact my mobile provider of choice I come out happy. Their support people are local and sound like such (for some reason most overseas call centers sport incredibly bad lines), they know what they're talking about, and for whatever reason they always seem to come up with good solutions. While the rest seem to specialize in robbing and upsetting their customers (here's to you, Kogan; not to mention Telstra and such), Amaysim seems enthusiastic to keep them happy.
  2. Officeworks: Every time I visit an Officeworks shop with some esoteric printing requirement that I conjure, their staff seems to go out of their way to please me and then some (as in, point me towards options I didn't even think about). Given these are probably not the highest paid people ever, I wonder why they are so motivated Regardless, I like putting my trust in them.
Note no one paid me for this post.

Image: Amaysim