Saturday, 30 August 2014

The never-ending Freedom Trail

There's a steady stream of people following a 4km red-brick path through the streets of Boston.

Welcome to The Freedom Trail - the city's pedestrian track that passes 16 locations deemed significant to the history of the United States.  

Boston's Old State House - that balcony was where the US Declaration of Independence was read for the first time
While I'm familiar with the broad overview of US history, I suspect some of the graveyards, churches, buildings, statues and even a ship mean more to Americans who have lived and breathed their country's history since birth.

Still, even a foreigner like myself can appreciate the events in Boston that led to the US Declaration of Independence and some of the first sparks of the anti-slavery movement.

However, one of the most surprising and interesting finds along the Freedom Trail is the New England Holocaust Memorial.

The New England Holocaust Memorial

It's striking as it is six tall glass columns - each one representing a major concentration camp -  made even more evocative with a continual flow of steam rising up through them.

One of the six columns

Each column attributed to a major concentration camp

You can walk through the glass columns and note the six million numbers engraved onto the glass - each representing the six million Jews killed during the Holocaust.

The Boston connection?  Well, that's best explained by this eloquent inscription.

Between 1933 and 1945, the Nazis created a regime of hate and victimisation in Germany that eventually consumed most of Europe.  Driven by racists beliefs, they killed as many as 11 million men, women and children in their quest to dominate Europe and create a "pure and superior" race. 

The Nazis singled out the Jews for total extermination - their very existence to be erased from history and memory.  Before their defeat in 1945, the Nazi regime murdered 6 million Jews - more than half of Europe's Jewish population.

Those who have perished have been silenced forever.  Those who witnessed and survived the horrors carry with them the burden of memory.  Through their voices, we seek to comprehend the acts of inhumanity that can stem from seeds of prejudice.

To remember their suffering is to recognise the danger and evil that are possible whenever one group persecutes another.  As you walk this Freedom Trail, pause here to reflect on the consequences of a world in which there is no freedom - a world in which basic human rights are not protected.  And know that wherever prejudice, discrimination and victimisation are tolerated, evil like the Holocaust can happen again.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

My slant on San Francisco

"Stand there and let me take your picture so I can upload it to Facebook and let people know you're in San Francisco," the father said as he thrust his unwilling child in front of his smartphone.

I wonder how many followers this child has on Facebook.  Probably more than mine I'm guessing.

It's also alarming to think that no one in the world would know this child's whereabouts without his regular Facebook updates.

But this father and son scene is just one of vignettes unfolding at the bottom of Lombard Street, San Francisco's famous "crooked street".  

People are risking life and limb standing in the middle of the road to take a selfie with the windy street in the background, while a conga line of rental cars slowly snakes its way down the steep 200-metre stretch.

The ridiculousness of Lombard Street
While it has some nice views and pretty gardens, it's slightly bizarre to be standing there just looking at... a street.

Lombard Street joins the Golden Gate Bridge, the seals at Pier 39, Alcatraz and the host of other attractions San Francisco is renowned for.  But in my little trip to the Californian city, I've discovered a few other sights that caught my eye.

The Age of Enlightenment
There seems to be a high concentration of spruiking Christians around Union Square.  This guy came armed with a headset mic, views about the "evolution lie", and evidence that dinosaurs weren't real.  I didn't stay for the whole show, but I did catch one point he was making: dinosaurs weren't real because "the word dinosaurs was only coined in the 1800s".  Compelling.

The Arts
There really is nothing like the theatre to broaden... the mind.  Sadly, I didn't catch this show but I'm hoping it comes to Brisbane.

The Firies
These guys and their trucks are all over the city, but even more so when I was there thanks to a magnitude 6 earthquake.

Cable car craziness
I wonder if any locals actually use the cable cars that run up and over San Francisco's hills?  During the day they're clogged with tourists clutching a rail with one hand and a camera with the other.   At key stops, people wait in massive lines just for the chance to take a ride.  It's the amusement park ride you take without going to an amusement park.

Steep and deep
The San Francisco street map is deceptive.  A "short" walk a few blocks may mean having to scale a thigh-burning street or two.

A touch of Europe in California
The Palace of Fine Arts makes me temporarily forget I'm in America at all.

Global warming come early?
The folks at this houseboat community at Sausalito (the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge) clearly aren't climate change sceptics.  

Serenity now!
When the (ahem) friendly and sane San Franciscans get a little bit too much, the tall coastal redwoods of Muir Woods offer a touch of nature and a chance to escape.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Dial "T" for Terrible

I must be the first person to become a new Telstra customer in a very long time.

I assume this as I watch well-meaning Telstra staff stumble and trip their way through the process of signing me up.   It feels like opening a new account and connecting a new customer to the internet are tasks they've never had to do before.

Yes, in case you haven't figured it out already this post is a rant about Telstra, joining all the other blog rants about Australia's largest telecommunications carrier.

To be fair, I really thought I was doing something simple.  I just wanted to connect to cable broadband. Sadly, I only had one provider to choose from - Telstra.

I was a Telstra customer years ago, but like so many I tired of the cost and poor service, and jumped ship as soon as some competition came along.

What with their jazzy new ads and jingle, I figured Telstra had changed their ways and it would all be different this time around.

It's not.  It's the same.  Possibly worse.

Here's six reasons why:

1.  The Waiting Game
All the staff must be off filming those ads with Jessica Mauboy, Magda Szubanski and Jimmy Barnes as every phone call to Telstra has involved a lengthy period on hold.  If you're going to dial, clear your schedule for the next hour.  Let's just say you'll become VERY familiar with that jingle as it is piped down the line.

Even on Telstra's 24x7 Live Chat you get the feeling you're sitting in a big virtual room all by yourself as different consultants come and go leaving you to wait.

This is how I amused myself waiting 30 minutes for a consultant to come back

2.  So many departments, so little clue
Part of the reason you're on hold a lot is that even deceptively simple questions like"how much is the plan I am on?", involves a journey through several departments.  It may be one of the country's largest private companies, but they make government bureaucracy seem like a lean and efficient machine.

There's the Accounts team, the Bundles team (?), the Bigpond team, and so on.   Don't worry, you'll soon become familiar with all of them as you get passed around the company.  This is because it seems all these different departments are the holders of little pieces of information about your account, but not enough information for just one of them to be of any use to you.

3.  Things that make you go Hmmm 1
Today I was a little bit surprised to receive a call from Telstra confirming my appointment next week when a technician, sometime during a four-hour period (does he not have a phone?), is going to come to my house and connect my cable broadband.

I was surprised because this was the same appointment I cancelled two weeks ago and the same cable broadband I connected to about 10 days ago and have been using ever since.   A quick check of my account might have revealed that I've actually used about 10GB of that cable broadband they were going to connect.  

4.  Things that make you go Hmmm 2
Speaking of connecting, I was assured the "self-installation" of cable broadband was very simple.

"You just pop in the CD that comes with the modem and it does it all," the Telstra peeps assured me.  How wonderful!

When the CD repeatedly crashed after I put it into my Macbook, I figured it might be scratched.  So I downloaded the dedicated Apple version of the installation software from the Telstra website, but that crashed too.

"Oh, the Apple self-installation program doesn't work on Macs," a Telstra rep later confided in me.

5.  Things that make you go Mmmm 3
Trying to navigate the self-installation riddle, I rang Telstra hoping they could talk me through what I needed to do.  Afterall, my previous ADSL provider Dodo had done this quickly and efficiently.

"Oh no, it's very complex, particularly if your using a Mac. You're going to need a technician to visit in a couple of weeks," a Telstra rep said.

Undeterred, and a little cranky at this point, I pressed the rep and two minutes later I was connected.   I was happy to have my internet, and also happy I didn't pay the fee required to have a technician come out to perform this two-minute task.

6.  Want cable broadband?  Great!  Here's your home phone line!
Much like the ubiquitous free set of steak knives that comes with the AbMaster 2000, it seems any Telstra product comes with a free home phone line... whether you want it or not.   I ditched my home phone years ago and really just wanted cable broadband.   I was told it was pretty much impossible to get cable without a home phone and/or it would cost so much more to have cable without a home phone line.

So now I've got a home phone line, but don't bother calling it as there's no phone connected to it.

Look, I probably shouldn't gripe.

The cable broadband works and the Telstra staff have been as helpful as they can be during the countless phone calls and emails I've had with them sorting it out.  

And now that they've had their experience of connecting a new customer, I'm sure it will be much smoother for everyone else that follows.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Any way but LA

My passport is primed and my bag is zipped.

Later this week I head to the US and I'm looking forward to exploring more of the country.

And if I'm really honest, I'm particularly looking forward to not travelling through Los Angeles.

I haven't disliked many places I've been to on my travels, but there's something about LA that has left me cold on the two occasions I've been there.

So much so that in planning this trip, I did extensive research on how I could avoid LA altogether - no mean feat given most flights from Australia go directly there.   That's why I've ended up travelling with Air New Zealand to San Francisco via Auckland.

Like most visitors, my first taste of LA began at the unfriendly and unpleasant LAX airport.   It's a place where both staff and travellers seem perpetually angry,  you seem to gravitate from one security screening queue to another, and where having a three-hour connection time might still be cutting it fine.

However, I appreciate that cities are more than their airports so I was willing to put that aside and keep an open mind to discover the delights of LA.

My first mistake was using the public transport - both rail and bus.   At the time this seemed like the logical option to explore the dense LA sprawl, but as I was to find out it involves encounters with snarky bus drivers and crazed commuters casually hurling abuse at each other.  

LA Union Station
It wasn't long after stepping on board my first train into town during broad daylight that I started to feel decidedly unsafe.  I've wandered the streets of Cairo at midnight, trained through Russia, and journeyed through Turkey, India and Morocco, but I realised it was probably here on this suburban LA train that I would meet my end.

Walt Disney Concert Hall in Downtown LA

Arriving in Downtown LA did little to calm my nerves.   It was a midday on a weekday and there were plenty of people around, but everyone seemed so hostile.

The mood shifted from angry to desperation when I arrived at Hollywood Boulevard.

The Walk of Fame and Chinese Theatre were there to greet me, along with a bunch of terrible impersonators pressuring passersby for a tip and people trying to sell bus tours of movie stars' homes (well, of movie stars' high fences and thick hedges anyway).  While the Hollywood sign might have been in the distance, I felt as though I had encountered more movie glitz and glamour in the frozen vegetable aisle of my local supermarket.

Having given up all hope of finding anything attractive about LA, I headed to Santa Monica.  In comparison to the rest of LA, this place is a small slice like heaven.   With a nice beach and pedestrian-friendly streets, this little enclave feels like somewhere you might want to actually spend some time.

Now I'm willing to admit that maybe I've completely missed all the amazing things LA has to offer.   But for now, I'm happy to do without and avoid the place completely.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

The big breakup

It's over.

The love is gone.

We've been living in the same house but we just don't spend as much time together as we used to.

So after more than a decade together, Foxtel and I are "consciously uncoupling".

Sure, there's been good times with The Golden Girls reruns and the like, but if we're honest the spark has been missing for a while now.

When we first got together it was like my world opened up.  I moved from having five channels to dozens.  It was dazzling and intoxicating.

I couldn't wait to get home and be together.  I would record more television shows and movies than I would ever have time to watch.  It was my world.

Over the years, I started to notice the repetition.   The same shows, over and over.   Just how many Real Wives of (insert city) can there be?

To try and spice things up, Foxtel tried to change by adding new channels and new shows.   But I didn't care for dance moms, tattoo parlours and cooking programs.

Then I started to notice how this love was beginning to cost more and more.

I wasn't looking for another, but then I met Apple TV and Netflix.

This duo has it all: Apple TV seemed so flexible, while Netflix (still technically not available in Australia) seemed so forbidden and thrilling.  (And at $7 a month, a Netflix subscription is also about a tenth of the cost of a basic Foxtel package).

They just... get me.   They let me watch any episode from any season of hundreds of shows, and at a time when I want to.  It just feels so liberating.

Foxtel, I'll always treasure the times we've shared, usually on the couch over a meal and a bourbon, but by the end of the month it will be over between us.

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Trash treasure hunt

I'm hearing noises in the night.

Things being moved.   Things being dropped.

It seems to be coming from the street.

Either the possums are hyperactive or it's our annual Council kerbside collection.

My neighbourhood has started early and every day we've been dumping pieces of furniture, appliances and all manner of junk on the kerb ready for collection.

By night, shadowy figures cruise the streets looking for "gold" among the rubbish.

They'll be sorely disappointed in my neck of the woods.   This year's collection should be renamed "dump your mattresses on the footpath" as there's a hardly a house without a Sealy Posturepedic adorning the driveway.

Judging by the state of these mattresses there's a growing level of incontinence in the area or people have been butchering animals on their beds.  It's not a pretty sight.

I've never felt compelled to join in on the "treasure hunt".  I tend to think there's a good reason why that 1960s couch, TV, table leg or whatever has been dumped.   I don't think I need to rifle through it to verify.

Don't get me wrong.  I'm happy to reuse, recycle and "upcycle" as much as anyone.  It's just that this stuff is clearly junk and just because it's free, don't make it right.

But clearly I'm in the minority judging by the nightly slow-crawl of cars and utes around the neighbourhood.  It may be dark and cold, but these folks are ready to swoop like a seagull on a hot chip.

Perhaps they've been inspired by Antiques Roadshow and live in hope of stumbling across an original Van Gough painting or Louis XV chair in among the stained mattresses.

My neighbours are also keen to get in on the act.  It's like a second Christmas for them.

They've just put the junk they collected from last year's kerbside collection back out on the kerb for someone else to "enjoy".   Try as they might, they couldn't find a use for it during the past 52 weeks. This has left a little space in their garage and their hearts for the next round of trash hoarding.

Instead of the Circle of Life, this is more like the Circle of Crap where neighbours just swap useless stuff until the entire community agrees that the item really is junk and should actually find its way to the tip.

Of course I wish the nightly scavengers the best of luck during this year's Festival of Detritus, but if someone you know presents you with a "new" (but slightly yellowed) mattress... walk away.