Wednesday, 26 November 2014

All the glitters is not gold

Netflix is on it's way Down Under and the locals are excited.  And so they should be.

For years, our best TV option was Foxtel, which, like most monopolies, kept a tight reign on the channel packages and pricing.  It's no coincidence that the whiff of Netflix coming to Australia sent Foxtel prices tumbling.

After more than a decade of devoted Foxtel channel flicking, I ditched it a few months ago in favour of Netflix.   While Netflix has yet to launch in Australia, it seems about 200,000 Australians like myself have been getting Netflix by subscribing to the US version and working around the geo-blocking.

Now I'm no tech head, but I found it all surprisingly simple using the instructions outlined here.

So apart from being much cheaper than Foxtel (I'm talking a total of $13 a month total compared to Foxtel's previous $60), there's more content than you can poke a stick at and it's available ad free and on demand.

As I've delved into Netflix, I've loved the choice and freedom, but I've also discovered that just because it's on Netflix doesn't mean it's any good.

A prime example of this is the horrible/addictive TV viewing that is Bridalpasty.

Yes, this show is a bad as it sounds.   I think you can guess the premise: it's part Extreme Makeover, part Bridezillas and part Survivor.

Originally screened in 2010 (and surprisingly never commissioned again), Bridalplasty is a US reality TV show where 12 engaged women compete to win a dream wedding, complete with plastic surgery procedures.

The husband-to-be of the winner does not see his fiancee for months until the wedding day, by which time she has been nipped, tucked and sucked within an inch of her life and is probably considering an upgrade in the life partner department.

Each week, the engaged ladies compete in a series of challenges of questionable importance: flower arranging, cake selection etc.  The winner of each of these challenges gets one of the many plastic surgery procedures they want.

Given the lengthy surgery wish list each of the participants have, from breast enhancements through to liposuction and nose jobs, you'd mistakenly think you were dealing with some of the world's most hideously deformed women.
This is Cheyenne, her before photo and her surgery wish list

Each week, the bottom two losers are up for elimination, with the the remaining contestants choosing who should stay by "RSVP-ing" and siting at their bridal table during the brutal elimination ceremonies.

Once the most unpopular wannabe bride is identified, she is sent away sans cosmetic enhancement and accompanied by the cutting final words of the show host: "Barbara, you'll still have your wedding, it just won't be perfect."

You could do a thesis or two on the terrible messages this show sends: from perceptions of beauty, body dysmorphia, the role of a wife, narcissism, and what constitutes a perfect wedding these days.

Still, it's a highly addictive show thanks to the inevitable tantrums, back-stabbing and constant stream of contestants being wheeled back from the operating theatre.

Looking good!

Bridalplasty not only serves as a great reminder of how not everything on Netflix is cinematic gold, but also how, just like with free-to-air television, if you're not careful you can easily get sucked into watching pure and unadulterated crap.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Global travel mysteries

Call Jessica Fletcher, the Famous Five and Sherlock Holmes because there's a pile of travel mysteries just waiting to be solved.

They've been burning away in the back of my mind for some time now, but having just returned from a work trip to Melbourne I've been reminded of some of the inexplicable and baffling things we often face while travelling.

Grab your magnifying glass and finger print kit, and let's see if we can crack some of my top five travel mysteries.

Mystery 1:  Why do hotels still charge for wifi?

It's like they're operating in 2004 and a reminder that if they could find a way to charge for soap and sheets they probably would.   Worse still, it seems the more you've paid for your hotel room, the higher the internet access fee.  I've been in Moroccan desert camps and Vietnamese jungle tents and still been able to access free wifi, but check into anything above a three-star hotel and you could be charged more than $20 for 24 hours.  

Mystery 2:  Why are there phones in some hotels' bathrooms?
Who are you desperately wanting to talk to on that corded phone hanging next to the loo?   And who on earth wants to take your call while your in the middle of doing your business.  No one.  That's who.

Mystery 3:  Why does the Australian accent sound so ocker overseas?
Is it something to do with the atmosphere in other parts of the world?  Sort of like an aurora borealis, but for sound?  No matter where you are in the world, you can pick out an Australian before you see them and everyone suddenly sounds like Alf Stewart from Home and Away.  Stone the crows Shelia!  It's just not right!

Mystery 4:  How do some people make it out of their front door, let alone out of their country?
Recently I was on a flight from Australia to London and sitting next to this German lady who had started her journey home from New Zealand.  She had no idea about the onward flight to Berlin she had been booked on, including which airline the flight was with, and from which terminal or time the flight left. So when we arrived in London she just started asking anyone official looking when the next flight to Berlin was.  How on earth did she make it to New Zealand and did she know she was in New Zealand when she was there?

Mystery 5:  Why don't people fill out their immigration cards before they're standing at the front of the immigration queue?
There's a reason why airlines hand out those immigration cards on the plane, often some ten hours before you land.   But you'll still see those people standing in the immigration queue at the final destination, frantically riffling through their bag trying to find their passport number, count how many kids they have and work out how long their staying in the country.  

Mystery 6:  Why do Australians sprint to the duty-free shop after landing?
You'd think the shop was on the verge of running out of rum and cigarettes the way some Aussies run from the arrival gate and into the store.  As international tourists stand by wondering what all the commotion is about, inside the store it's reminiscent of war-time rationing where desperate hordes clutch their new-found bounty like it's the last loaf of bread.  It's best to remember that it's duty-free goods, not free goods.

Sadly I feel some of these travel mysteries will never be solved.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

What leaders leave behind

The leaders of the G20 countries have breezed into Brisbane this week and, for those who didn't abandon the city for the coast, spotting these celebrities has become the new sport.

Obama's moved into the Marriott,  Putin's holed up at the Hilton, and Merkel's somehow found her way to Caxton Street.

It's safe to say it's unlikely we'll see such a collection of world leaders bobbing around Brisbane again in the near future.

No doubt in the days, weeks and months ahead, many will be pondering: was it all worth it?

After all, leaders are ultimately judged by what they leave behind.

We saw this recently with the passing of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam and former Premier Wayne Goss.  Australians' outpouring of grief and accolades for their achievements is something unusual when talking about our politicians.

At risk of bandying around the phrase "they don't make them like they used to", it does seem hard to believe we'll put on similar displays when the current batch's time is up.  For some I think we'll struggle to remember who they were at all.  Or worse, remember them for all the wrong reasons.

I'd like leaders to be painfully aware of the need to leave a positive legacy; that they've somehow left the place in a better place then when they found it.

And for those leaders who can't do that, perhaps their best bet is to leave behind a massive tomb so people simply can't forget you.

Napoleon's tomb
The tomb of French leader Napoleon Bonaparte provides the perfect example.  

Napoleon was originally interred on Saint Helena, where he was exiled, but today lies in Les Invalides, Paris, in a big red sarcophagus that sits in the centre of a expansive and decorative hall.

The man himself... subtle
Hopefully the grander the tomb, the more fondly you'll be remembered.  Right?

The dome ceiling under which Napoleon now lies
While few history books cast an overly glowing light on his rule, today he can rely on the soft sunshine streaming in from the golden dome under which he now lies.

Napoleon's clothes on display
Given one of the many things Napoleon is remembered for is his short stature, I can't help but wonder if there's some overcompensation at play in the grand display?

Let's hope the leaders of today won't need to resort to such tactics.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Watching the Wall fall from afar

As unlikely as it may seem, ripples from the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago today were felt as far away as the tiny town of Warwick in Queensland.

At the time, we had Karsten, a year 11 German exchange student, staying with us.

As if the shock of landing in the middle of regional Queensland wasn't enough, it came at a time when this massive, history-shaping event was unfolding back in his home country.

A remnant section of the Wall
Watching the Wall come down on TV, you could see Karsten's disappointment grow.

I can imagine friends asking him today where he was when this major national event took place: "Did you go to the Wall to help smash it brick by brick?"

"No.  I was in Warwick," he'd have to reply, probably with a tinge of bitterness and regret.

The history of the Berlin Wall has always fascinated me as it always seemed to me like one of most absurd concepts in history: completely encircling and shutting off an entire part of a city.  An act that immediately divided families, blocked people from their workplace, and suddenly made it deadly to get to a part of the city they may have once roamed.

Fast forward a decade or so and I was desperate to track down any remnants of the Wall while visiting Berlin for the first time.

One of the Wall's former guard towers

It was the early 2000s and Berlin had clearly had enough of the Wall imposing itself on the city and were happily forging on with the future.

Dozens of construction cranes loomed over former East Berlin, particularly over the strip of land that the Wall formally occupied that was now valuable inner city real estate.  On the way out were the drab and decaying Soviet-inspired buildings to make room for new shiny glass towers.  Capitalism had arrived.  

An outline of where the Berlin Wall once stood
However, I could find sections of the original Wall.  Miraculously, these sections hadn't been smashed up and sold to tourists.  

I imagine the Berlin Wall has become like Jesus' wooden cross - there are enough alleged "original fragments" sitting around the world to recreate these objects a thousand times over.

Thankfully, a campaign to save Wall remnants was beginning to gain ground.
The campaign to save parts of the Wall
One of the most poignant reminders of the Wall was a simple row of white crosses, then located on the Tiergarten fence, near the Brandenburg Gate.   It's a memorial to those died while trying to cross the Berlin Wall.  

Chris Gueffroy was the last person to be shot trying to make his way to West Berlin - just nine months before the Wall came down for good.

An original carnation of White Crosses memorial

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Walking through an online wonderland

It's the start of November so I had better get cracking on my Christmas shopping.

While Christmas might be a good 50 days away, in reality there's only about 35 shipping days.

You see the big question this year isn't who's been naughty or nice, but who's doing free shipping to Australia or not.

I'm on hunt for perfect presents that present themselves without me having to step foot inside a shop.

Continuing last year's online theme, I'm tracking down online stores that offer interesting and quirky gifts.  You see most of my family are adults and I figure if they really wanted or needed something they just would have bought it.    So instead, I'm going down the unusual path to find gifts I didn't even know existed.

There's always eBay, but the problem with eBay is that it's not great for browsing.  You need to have some idea what you're looking for.

Here's some of the other sites I've found, but I'm always open to recommendations!

1.  Think Geek

Initially I thought this was just the domain of pubescent boys, but apart from the Star Trek jumpers and Game of Thrones figurines, it has some great gadgets and tech-centric gifts.  

2.  MoMA Store

This online gift shop from New York's Museum of Modern Art is a treasure trove of nifty homeware, apparel and design pieces.   A place to shop for that someone who has everything.

3.  Not On the High Street

This site, like Etsy, is a marketplace where lots of people list the wonderful handmade things they've created.  Lots of unique gifts you didn't know existed and it offers gift suggestion for people based on their personality.

4.  Hard to Find

Offering free shipping within Australia, this website, as the name suggests, specialises in beautifully designed pieces.

5.  V&A Shop

Once again, the online shop of London's Victoria & Albert Museum has some nifty pieces you're unlikely to find in K Mart.  From homeware and stationery to jewellery, its collection has an old world charm.