28 September 2011

Talk to Me

Like all developed countries, Australia has an extensive telephone network. But I do not think Australians like telephones. Let me share my reasons.

Today, everyone here seems to prefer text messages and emails. I am unsure what everyone has against talking, but there appears to be a long history in Australia of not embracing the telephone.

Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876. The first telephones were installed in Australia in 1880, shortly before the hanging of bushranger Ned Kelly. Evidently, Ned kelly was bigger news at the time than the arrival of telephones.

According to reports, for the first 50 years after telephone service became widely available in Australia, most Aussies continued to use the telegraph to send and receive messages. I thought this may have been because Telstra was running the network and service calls were routed to India where they had not yet learned to speak English, but I am not correct. Perhaps, the first telephones were installed in Tasmania, like the NBN, and local residents lacked electricity, but this is also inaccurate. The initial phones were installed in Melbourne. Maybe the first phones did not connect to various sports facilities in Melbourne, which would cause local residents to question their value. Regardless, I guess Aussies evidently were just slow in embracing the telephone for whatever reasons.

Around 1901, the Postmaster General of Australia took control of the telephone and telegraph networks and hired 16,000 new employees, which accounted for more than 90% of the Federal bureaucracy. Ultimately, the staff rose to 120,000. With so many bureaucrats and politicians involved, maybe this helps explain the complexity of the system today.

In the US, all phone numbers are 10 digits consisting of an area code of 3 digits and a local number of 7 digits. When calling out of the area, callers need to dial a 1 before the area code. Within an area code, the three digit prefix is normally not required. Pretty simple.

In Australia, most local numbers are 8 digits – not sure why they need so many with so few people. There is a preceding state code of 2 digits with the first digit being “0.” Now it begins to get complicated.

If you are calling within a state, no state digit is used. If you are calling between states, both state digits are used. If you are calling from out of the country, only the second of the two state digits is used. So the number of required digits depends on where you are calling from.

Mobile phones have their own state code – 04. So a mobile phone in Melbourne has the same prefix as a mobile phone in Sydney. But when calling in Australia, you always must use both prefix digits even if you are in the same city or calling another mobile user. However, if you are calling from out of the country, you drop the first digit (0).

So if the phone number is 03 1234 5678 and you are calling from within state 3, you call 1234 5678. But if you are in state 2, you call 03 1234 5678; if you are out of country, you call 3 1234 5678 unless it is a mobile phone number in which case you always call 04 1234 5678 unless you are out of country in which case you call 4 1234 5678. Confused? We are just starting.

In Australia, there are also “non geographic” numbers. There is an emergency number (000) which is like 911 in the US, but there is a second emergency number in Australia for hearing impaired (106) and a third emergency number that is unclear why it exists (112) that can only be used from mobile phones. 000 can also be used on mobile phones but maybe the Y generation that only owns mobile phones wants a special number.

Community service numbers are only 4 digits (unless they are 8 digits) and start with 11. Network service numbers are 3, 4, 5, or 6 digits and start with 12. Neither community service or network numbers has a state prefix. If you are a community service organization (or network of some kind), the telephone company does not care where you are located.

Numbers that start with 13 can be either 6 digits or 8 digits (1300) and cost less than normal numbers to call, although how much less is unclear. Evidently, the owner of the number pays more for a six digit number than an eight digit number. This is really clever. I wonder why they don’t make all the standard numbers 15 digits but charge more for shorter numbers that are easier to remember? In New South Wales, the Transportation Department issues really ugly yellow licence plates for cars but makes standard white plates available at an extra charge, so there are good precedents for charging more for less.

Like the 1-800 toll free numbers in the US, Australia also has toll free numbers. It is just not as simple. They can be 10 digit numbers starting with 1800 (like the US) but they can also be 7 digit numbers starting with 180. I don’t know if they charge more for the 7 digit numbers but I would not be surprised.

Australia also offers “premium” numbers that begin in 19 and are generally 4 digits (maybe all are 4 digits but that would be too consistent in my experience). I wondered what “premium” services meant and inquired. It appears to include a variety of services such as SMS services, recorded messages, psychic consultations, and even phone sex. That is what the Government believes to be “premium” services and set aside its own number code. Numbers that begin with 19 allow the owner to charge the caller.

I think the primary purpose of land line phones today is for telemarketing. I have a land line that I never answer because it is always telemarketing people or computer generated sales messages. I cannot eliminate the phone line or I will lose my cable TV (thank you Telstra). I hate it when I do answer and some pretend friendly voice asks my how I am feeling. My friends all call my mobile phone.

I think we should be able to charge telemarketing firms for calling us. All numbers should be premium numbers and allow for user charges. Why permit someone to charge for psychic consultations but give telemarketers a free ride?

So using a telephone in Australia is not that easy. Why is it so complicated? Someone told me it was designed so possible invaders (like Japanese in WW2) could not use the phone system when they arrived. I do not believe this. I think it is just a system designed by 120,000 bureaucrats and politicians. The phones look the same as in the US, but the dialling is different and much more complicated.

And if someone does not know me but wants to call me on my land line and sell me something but are unsure of the number sequencing, just try 19xx and don’t hang up until you are out of money.

06 July 2011

The Joys of Flying

Air travel has always been a challenge; I dispute those who claim to remember when flying was pleasant or comfortable. Certainly enhanced security procedures have added to queues and time requirements, but there were always uncertainties, delays, and hassles. I recall a delayed Eastern Airlines flight one time. A fellow passenger called Domino’s Pizza delivery and ordered a pizza from his first class seat. The order taker at first objected in case the plane departed before the pizza guy arrived, but the fellow traveller indicated it was Eastern Airlines after all and they never left on time. The pizza guy agreed and 45 minutes later the pizza arrived and was shared with all in first class. Of course, this was before security required boarding passes in the US.

I have flown a lot in my career; one million plus miles on two different airlines, elite status on anything with fixed wings, and enough harrowing experiences to make me appreciate whenever I arrive safely. I remember when Gold Elite was a desired status; now replaced by Platinum, Platinum Plus, Super Platinum ….

I still get nervous when I fly. Recently, for example, I flew to Russia. I grew up during the Cold War, and as I passed through Russian immigration I had visions of improper paperwork (actually I was warned by the Russian Consulate about my documents) would result in a trip to a Siberian gulag. Fortunately, I passed through without incident this time.

For most travellers, the difficulties start with the trip to the airport. What did you forget? Are you going to miss the plane because of bad traffic? Will there be room in the overhead bins for your carry-on luggage? Are you going to be relegated to a centre seat between 2 obese passengers and potentially be suffocated or squashed to death? If you have ever been “pinned” to your minimalist seat between 2 over sized seat mates, being so squeezed is not a happy memory.

Arriving at the airport late is a typical phobia. It does not help that virtually all airports including those with 30+ million passengers typically have only 2 driving lanes accessing the departures area. There must be an airport design manual somewhere that limits access lanes to 2 regardless of traffic volumes. The only sure way to avoid airport traffic in most cities is to go when the planes are not flying; which seems counterproductive. Mondays and Fridays are especially bad.

Inside the airport, the check in process has become very impersonal; the smiling agent has been replaced by a machine with a video screen. I used to plead with the human agent for better seats – bad back, Mother died recently, whatever excuse seemed likely to elicit sympathy. I think the agents kept a few seats available for passengers with the best stories. It is impossible to negotiate with a machine, however.

Airlines do not like luggage. Go to Europe for 2 weeks, and the airlines seem surprised when you bring a few changes of clothes. The cardinal rule of flying is to NEVER CHECK BAGS. When you check a bag, only 2 things can happen: 1) you will wait an extended period of time at baggage claim for your dented, scratched, or damaged suitcase or 2) the airline will lose your bag. There are no good outcomes possible when you check bags.

I once watched a TV documentary on what happens to lost bags in the US. Evidently, they are sent to a warehouse in South Carolina (or maybe it was Georgia) and then sold. The TV reporter went to the warehouse and discovered that many of the bags had name tags. Maybe the machine that routed the bag to the wrong destination did not read so well.

Since checking bags is a bad idea, the only option is to carry them on board. Most airlines have a miniature basket at check in with a sign indicating all carry-ons must fit within the small basket. Everyone ignores this warning; most briefcases and handbags would not fit much less a suitcase. But everyone with carry-ons then feels guilty and at risk of having their bag seized so no one complains about other things; I think it is a plot by the airlines to muzzle dissent similar to totalitarian governments.

Since 9-11, security has become every flier’s nightmare. I think airports must be better at raising capital to buy stuff than paying people to operate what they buy. Most airports seem to have 8-10 metal detectors and screening X-ray equipment, but there are usually only 2 or 3 lines open. Why buy so much stuff if you are not going to use it? My old school in Chicago could probably use the metal detectors if the airports don’t use them.

Maybe if the airports had more money – not sure why they need more money based on the prices in the airport gift shops – but if they do, I have a proposal.

As long as all passengers must be X-rayed, why not offer dental or bone X-rays as passengers pass through security? Have a gimpy knee? Get an X-ray emailed to you from airport security for an additional charge.
Carrying this idea further, security could offer a more powerful MRI line. Have a head ache? Get a brain scan at the airport. This could revolutionize health care and vastly increase preventive medicine while funding more operating security lines at airports.

Another idea to expedite the flow of passengers through security would be to replace human operators with machines. Robots would be purchased at the time the X-ray equipment was purchased. If the robot/machine detected something improper or unacceptable, they could shoot the offending passenger with a type of paint gun, marking the guy for human follow up. I guarantee passengers would be very careful about not breaking any rules or packing suspect goods.

At the very least, security lines should be divided into separate lines. One line would be for potential terrorists and one for non-terrorists. The Boarding Pass would identify what line you are assigned to. Governments already categorize passengers by threat potential based on intelligence and predictive models; why not formalize this and let the non-terrorists pass through more quickly with less scrutiny? Customs facilities often have 2 lines – one for people with nothing to declare and one for guys who are afraid of being caught. The principal is similar.

Security procedures vary greatly in different countries. In Russia, passengers wait outside in the summer heat or winter cold waiting in long lines to be screened. Russia does not want terrorists in the airport common areas.

In India, they often screen outside too but then they have everyone’s papers checked by 9 separate guys. I guess India tries to create jobs by making life difficult for air travellers.

Generally, there are several key universal strategies to move through security more quickly regardless of the airport or country. Let me share a few based on my years of observation.

1. Avoid lines with older people, baby strollers, and women with big handbags or lots of jewellery.
2. Pick lines with men in suits – they have navigated the process before and are experts at moving through lines more quickly. Women seem more contentious and determined to do things correctly even if it takes more time.
3. Avoid young children but look for young adults in line ahead of you. The latter group often wear flip flops instead of shoes and have few material possessions to set off alarms with.
4. If the guy at the monitor has a helper to move passengers and bags along, this rates a “tick.” If he or she is both managing the line and watching the monitor, it could be a long wait.
5. Avoid monitor watchers who look unhappy or irritated.
6. Avoid monitor watchers who look engaged, focused, or contentious.
7. Seek monitor watchers who appear high on drugs or day dreaming.
8. After passing through the metal detectors, locate the guy with the swab who checks for explosives. Always keep another passenger between you and the bomb guy.

To improve your on board flight experience, here are a few additional tips.

1. Always ask for an aisle seat unless you intend to sleep the entire trip (window seats are better for sleeping). If someone obnoxious sits next to you, the aisle offers an escape when airborne. I always think if the plane crashes, guys in aisle seats stand a better chance of a quick exit and survival; but my friends tell me if the plane crashes it does not matter where you are sitting.
2. It is better to be seated near the front but not in the second row. Airlines often put crying babies in the bulkhead first row. Slightly older kids (age 1-3) tend to throw things at passengers in row 2 also.
3. Sitting in the back of the plane near the toilets is not pleasant. If the toilet smell does not disturb, the constant noise of flushing will keep you awake, and the lines of waiting passengers will preclude any privacy. Finally, you will not be allowed to leave the plane until everyone else has vacated. Sitting in the back is the airline’s form of punishment.
4. Never sit next to anyone who checks whether there is an air sick bag in his or her seat pocket.
5. Never sit next to anyone who asks for a seat belt extender. He or she is too fat and will spill over into your already cramped space.

The on board service quality varies by airline. Once I took an Aeroflot jet to Russia. The plane was a new Airbus that looked like any other airline plane of the same model. The flight attendant greeted me and asked if she could take my coat. All good so far. I gave her my raincoat, and she proceeded to wad it up and throw it into an overhead bin. Evidently she was schooled to ask for the coat but must have missed the class on what to do with the coat.

That reminds me of the time my son, Andrew, and I were in a coffee shop in Poland. With Andrew translating, I asked if they had American style brewed coffee. They said “yes.” Then I asked if they had decaffeinated coffee. They said “yes” again. So I requested a cup of coffee, ½ decaf and ½ regular brew. They replied “we don’t have that.”

Food service on airlines is always a challenge. Some airlines still serve meals on domestic flights like Qantas and Continental, and most serve meals on international flights. Most airline domestic flights, however, offer pretzels for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Some airlines even charge extra for food; it is truly a measure of desperation for someone to buy airline food.

Eventually after fighting traffic jams, impersonal check ins, long security lines, narrow seats, cramped leg room, crying babies, and overpriced snacks, passengers usually do arrive at their desired destinations as planned, unless there is a mechanical problem with the plane, bad weather, missed crew assignments, employee union actions, or other malfunction. And if the passenger violated the cardinal rule of air travel and checked luggage, he or she will have the usual 30-60 minute wait at baggage claim assuming the bag was not lost. But we have all learned to accept this process and have even become accustomed to it. At least we are not bound for a Siberian gulag – so things could always be worse.

08 January 2011

A Perspective on Australian Rugby

I have lived in Australia for more than 2 years compared with decades in the US. I like sports but am more versed in the subtleties of baseball and American football than I am in the nuances of cricket and rugby. Last year I wrote an essay on the unique and unfamiliar game of cricket. I thought it was about time to tackle impressions of Rugby, from an American and less knowledgeable perspective.

There are two schools of rugby played in Australia: “Union” and “League.” I am unsure of why there are two different leagues with different rules and styles; but I do sense that Union followers think League players are a few rungs below criminals on the prestige ladder of life. I understand Union rugby is played in schools, and League rugby is supposedly played in prisons, but this was told to me by a Union supporter.

I did attend a couple of games between the national team of Australia (the Wallabies) and the national team of New Zealand (the All Blacks). The All Blacks usually win, even though the Wallabies coach is from New Zealand. I am not sure why the All Blacks usually win, but I have some possible reasons after attending a few games.

The All Blacks evidently get their name from the fierce Maori warriors from New Zealand who fought off the British. A Wallaby is a midget kangaroo. So the game is staged as warriors vs. short, two legged marsupials.

The All Blacks dress in black and look like they were schooled in the dark side arts. The Aussies dress in green and yellow uniforms, which connote the image more of environmental conservation than combat. So, we also begin the contest as the Ninjas vs. the Greenies.

The All Blacks begin the game with a fierce looking war dance called the Haka, where they hiss, and scream, and stick their tongues out at the Greenies. It represents a fierce Maori islander war dance, and is menacing if you’re not accustomed to the experience.

The Aussies counter with a rendition of the song, Waltzing Matilda, which seems to be a tale about a guy who was dies after doing something with a sheep – I have not asked my Aussie mates for a clearer explanation of the lyrics. This is a little hard to understand the rationale, but I am just a new visitor. I do think the New Zealand team has the advantage in setting the stage for combat.

Both games I attended, the Wallabies played well but lost, which unfortunately seems typical. As I understand it, the All Blacks tend to become too confident after winning so many times, that they lose the world championship every four years when it is held. So maybe the midget kangaroos are just lulling the warrior ninjas into over confidence and are planning the big upset.

I have a couple general observations about rugby (both League and Union). The players are in really good shape. They are constantly running like soccer players but they are also tackling and bashing into people like American football players. Unlike American players, they do not typically use protective equipment; which makes me even more appreciative of their conditioning and toughness.

The other observation is that all the rugby players seem really ugly. I do not know if they were ugly before they played rugby – maybe that condition led them to their aggressiveness – or if playing rugby made them ugly. This is kind of an Australian version of the “what came first, the chicken or the egg” riddle.

The only 2 rugby guys I ever saw that did not look ugly was a retired Wallaby captain named John Eales and the captain of the All Blacks named Dan Carter. Maybe the teams have an agreement not to disfigure the other team’s captain.

I always thought Rugby was a fast game with non-stop running and passing. It appears that the game’s coaches have become more conservative, and the game is evolving into defensive battles with field positioning of paramount importance. It reminds me of good NFL defensive teams that win games by capitalizing on the other team’s mistakes instead of offensively scoring points. It makes for a more boring game, with the victory decided on penalty kicks rather than successful tries (i.e. touchdowns).

There are frequent game stoppages in rugby. They are not planned (like a 2 minute warning in American football); they are the result of many different kinds of penalties and many injury time outs. There are more and varied penalties in rugby. My favorite is “failure to roll away.” Evidently, after a guy gets smashed into the ground dragging down an opponent and gets stepped on with cleats and kicked, he only has seconds to roll out of the way of the offensive player. That is adding insult to injury.

When a player is injured, he is carried off the field and into a room not visible to the fans. Usually, the injured player emerges later and resumes playing. I wondered if they had some kind of bionic laboratory like they do on Startrek; but someone supposedly more knowledgeable than me said they just sew up the guys and send them back. I wonder.

Rugby fans seem more passionate than cricket fans. I suspect it is because both groups of fans consume considerable beer, but the Rugby fans have less time to consume so they drink faster. Cricket fans seem to eat stuff with their beer also, while rugby fans seem less willing (or too cheap) to pollute their beers with condiments.

Rugby is a fun sport to watch if the teams are offensive minded. Like all Aussie sports, it is a good time to have a beer and bond with colleagues and mates. Just don’t try to play rugby (unless you’re already ugly and don’t mind stitches and an occasional bionic repair).

01 January 2011

Australian Sport: the Tie that Binds

After living in Australia for more than 2 years, I have come to appreciate the seminal role sports play in the Australian psychic. When I lived in the United States, I always thought Philadelphia represented the epitome of sports culture. I was in Philadelphia recently after the NFL Eagles won a come from behind football victory over the archrival NY Giants. I asked someone if local fans were still talking about the recent game; he replied all the radio stations were still replaying the last 5 minutes of the game so the fans could savor the victory over and over. But I think Australia even surpasses Philadelphia in its focus on sports.

Every international culture seems to embrace sporting contests, and this appears to have been the case throughout history. When I visited Mayan ruins in Latin America a few years ago, I was surprised to see courts for a ball game (similar to a team handball evidently) prominently located in these ancient cities. The contest was the highlight of major festivals, according to my guide. Oddly, the winning team was sacrificed to the gods. I assume this was considered a privilege of some kind; otherwise I doubt if the competitors would be playing with sufficient enthusiasm.

The Romans filled the Coliseum with thousands of spectators cheering the gladiator’s fight to death or the carnivorous animals chasing the ultimately disadvantaged peoples, or other competitions. One exit gate was just used to remove dead bodies.

Unlike the Mayans or Romans, the Aussies do not kill winners or losers; it is the 21st century after all. But the Aussies do worship their teams and follow individual players with intense focus. Once I was stranded in the Whitsunday Islands off the coast of Queensland, directly in the path of a Category 5 cyclone (aka hurricane). My colleagues and I huddled around the television watching for news of the approaching monster storm. When the news did come on, the news reader spent most of the time describing the off field escapades of a rugby league player in detail and then mentioned briefly the cyclone was due to hit the islands over night. There are clear news priorities here, and sports behavior trumps cyclones.

I previously thought that the prevalence of sports in US culture was considerable. For example, there is a major NFL football team in most major US cities. In the New York and San Francisco metropolitan areas, there are actually two teams; but Los Angeles still lacks a team. By contrast, the Melbourne, Australia (population 4 million) metro encompasses 10 AFL teams. In Sydney, where league rugby is more popular, there are also 10 professional rugby teams. Where the US major cities have an NFL team, the major neighborhoods within Melbourne and Sydney have their own “footy” teams.

Similar to the US, Australian sports coverage on television is almost non-stop. In Australia, there are at least 12 24-hour exclusive sports stations on cable TV excluding European based channels. In the US, excluding paid per view and subscription channels, I can think of 6 such stations. And the US has 300 million people while Australia has about 22 million. There are more people living in Texas or California or New York than live in Australia. There are global cities with more people than live in Australia, but I feel certain Australia has more sports teams and more TV sports.

There are several seemingly peculiar aspects to Australian sports if you are not a native here. Americans, in particular, will have difficulty understanding or relating.

Firstly, ties are acceptable and often even applauded in Australia. Americans like winners, and games do not end until there is a winner and a loser. By contrast, a test cricket match extends for 5 days and can end in a draw. Imagine watching the same baseball game for 5 days and then being told no one won. Cricket is a bid odd, but the acceptance of ties extends to other sports as well.

In is not unusual for soccer matches to end in a tie. But last year the AFL Grand Final footy game, which is the equivalent to the US Super Bowl, ended in a tie. 100,000 fans descended on Melbourne for the game to decide the 2010 champion. When the regulation time was up and the scores were the same, did they play overtime? No. The game was officially over and the league scheduled a new game to be played the following week. Imagine the NFL telling the fans in Miami or wherever the Super Bowl was played that the game would be replayed and everyone needed to return the following week.

Another factor that surprises me is the names of many of the local teams. In the US, teams are generally named after fierce animals (lions, tigers, panthers, etc.) or peoples known for their combat skills, bravery, or toughness (Indians, Patriots, Steelers). Australian team names include fierce animals too but they also include more benign characters. The only AFL team in Sydney is the “Swans.” The national Rugby League final last year was between the Dragons (okay) and the Roosters. Guess who won? The famous Aussie movie star, Russell Crowe, owns a rugby team called the Rabbitohs (i.e. The rabbits). In the AFL Grand Final, the Magpies (a domestic bird) beat the Saints.

In addition to the AFL (Aus. Rules Football), cricket, rugby (Union and League – two leagues with different rules) and soccer, Australia follows and supports many other sports including tennis (the Australian Open is one of the big 4 Grand Slam tournaments), golf (several PGA leaders are from Australia), sailing (remember America’s Cup 1987), car racing, motor bike racing, kayaking, volleyball, basketball, and some unique sports such as net ball.

Australia is also very focused on horse racing. The biggest race, the Melbourne Cup, is held in November each year on a Tuesday. It is a holiday in the state of Victoria; elsewhere business stops at noon so the employees can bet and watch the race. It is the only day each year; certain kinds of bets are legally permitted in pubs. The Melbourne Cup is somewhat like the Kentucky Derby in the US, although the Derby is held on a Saturday and the viewing audience does not include virtually every person in the country.

When I first arrived in Australia in 2008, I sought to meet the major Australian based investors as soon as possible. During my second week in country, I had meetings with representatives of several major investment funds based in Melbourne. One fund manager looked at me and said, “Welcome to Australia. My only advice is do not support Collingswood.” After I left the meeting. I turned to my colleague, Ian, and asked, “What the hell is Collingswood?” “No worries,” he relied. “It’s an AFL team near Melbourne.”

The preoccupation with sports is not limited to investment managers, however. When I visited the remote Tiwi Islands off the coast of Darwin, I asked a local villager what religion was most prevalent among these seemingly isolated natives. He replied, “two religions – Catholic and AFL football.”

So I have learned to live in Australia is to live in a sports focused society. If you’re a new arrival here, please consider my advice for adapting to your new environs:
1. Do not become upset if your game goes for days without a winner or loser.
2. Don’t even try to understand all the laws of cricket – no one does.
3. Drink lots of beer – it makes the time pass more quickly and eliminates inhibitions to meeting new people.
4. Don’t make fun of the team’s names, and
5. Don’t support Collingwood.

If you follow these simple rules, you should be ‘right.‘