Madrid: Second Impressions

Now that I’ve been here a month:

FANTASTIC PEDESTRIAN LIFE

The clip below shows some of the pedestrian streets branching off from Puerta del Sol. I’ve been too busy boning up on my irregular verbs to study recent Madrid history, but gather that callers-of-shots here are determined to put people and transit before cars in the city center.

Pedestrian streets in central Madrid

Pedestrian streets in central Madrid

Please follow this link to the Open Street Maps original and mouse around a bit. The streets in gray are either pedestrian-only or pedestrian-mostly. In the central city, I can walk nearly a mile from Retiro Park to Plaza Mayor without dealing with much auto traffic.

The summer sun doesn’t set here until 9:30 at night, and Madrileños seem far more fond than Americans of strolling their parks, plazas and walkways. The result: a central city renaissance for the heel-and-toe traveler.

Saturday on Calle Preciados in Madrid

Saturday on Calle Preciados in Madrid

(If reading in Southern California: picture a busy afternoon on the Third Street Promenade, and imagine the cheery vibe extending to dozens of fictive car-free streets throughout Santa Monica.)

MANY ATTRACTIVE RESIDENTS

A world-traveled chum once remarked that Southern Europeans seemed to have stood first in line when Odin handed out the handsome pills. He meant Italy. He should have included Spain.

That’s a generalization. Madrid includes old, young, plump, thin, short, tall, and plenty of viejito feos like your distinguished scribe, but the knock-out rate per capita is still plenty high, and I don’t want to commit the journalistic sin of staying mum about so conspicuous a trait because I don’t know how to describe it in a PC way.

I think you’d notice if you were here.

No, I’m not going to include an educational photo.

BACK TO L.A. AIR

Madrid has restricted auto traffic and embraced pedestrian-friendly streets largely to combat notorious air pollution. It’s ahead of L.A, but not by much. Expect plenty of cars. I’ve dealt with an occasional itchy throat since arrival, miss San Francisco breezes.

LIFE IN A REAL TRANSIT CITY

In 2014, a Madrid Metro rep proudly described her city’s metro to me as the best on terra firma. I wouldn’t be that generous, but it doesn’t trail far behind Europe’s best, and is thus light years ahead of what I was used to in California.

Madrid Metro at Principe de Vergara station

Madrid Metro at Principe de Vergara station

Compare this superimposed-on-the-street-grid map of the Madrid Metro to a similar map for BART of Northern California.

Zoom in to a mile, 2,000 feet, 1,000 feet. Snoop around a bit. BART offers close proximity between stations on Market Street, and nowhere else in San Francisco. In contrast, the Spanish strap hanger can count on a short walk between metro stops at points all over central Madrid.

A subway doth not a complete transit system make. I might form a less charitable view of transit here if dependent on an un-touristy, work-a-day bus line to shepherd me to or from a job. That said: a metro is usually a city’s transit backbone, and metro expansion costs in Madrid have been far, far lower than conquerable costs in the U.S.

Please look at that Google Maps overlay again. Zoom in close, check out the distance between stations; join me in feeling happily dazed by how easily I can get around my new home without a car.

In San Francisco, I braced myself for a long, dismal bus ride to admire the greenery at Lands’ End or Golden Gate Park. For food shopping, I used my car. In Madrid, I can ride the metro to Retiro Park or Casa de Campo, and shlep groceries home from whichever next-to-the-subway El Corte Inglés superstore strikes my fancy. (Although I’d expect to pay less and choose from a larger variety at the employee-owned WinCo Foods warehouse I patronized last, a mere 5,750 miles west in California.)

Madrid Metro Callao station on Gran Via

Madrid Metro Callao station on Gran Via

I visited European transit Valhallas in 2014 and 2015, but this is the first time I’ve actually lived in one. I’m still pinching myself.

City transit isn’t perfect: a Madrileña complained of malfunctioning escalators, just as U.S. strap hangers do, as well as transit strikes timed to coincide with the tourist season. She still expressed shock and amusement when I shared my photo of an unusually gruesome New York City subway station. No metro stop in Madrid is nearly as filthy.

ENGLISH SPEAKER AS POTENTIAL VIP

Madrid is not especially quick with an English phrase book. Regard this as a potential negative for the monolingual U.S. tourist, who may struggle to be understood at off-the-beaten-track stores and hotels.

For me, it’s mostly a plus. I arrived as an intermediate Spanish speaker, am delighted to do almost all of my yakking in the native tongue. Further: many Madrileños are eager to learn English, and will flock to the native speaker willing to participate in intercambios, either through Conversation Exchange or one of Madrid’s many language exchange meetups.

OLD CITY CENTER, NEW SUBURBS

‘Old’ is relative.  Even central Madrid is a babe in the woods next to Athens or Rome. Some of the suburbs, however, are new even by U.S. norms. An intercambio partner recommended an apartment in the quiet, affordable Moratalaz district on the #9 metro line. Moratalaz sprang into life in the 1960s.

TOD at Artilleros station in Madrid

TOD at Artilleros station in Madrid

The photo shows the proximity of an apartment complex to Moratalaz’ Artilleros station. I will hand off once again to an online Google map, invite you to visit the same corner in Street View and scroll north on Vinateros.

See all the multi-story brick apartment buildings? Pure TOD … and, to a naysayer, I suppose: pure transit gulag.

I strolled this neck of Vinateros a few days ago. I harbor an unusually strong distaste for the draping of laundry on apartment porches, but otherwise found the nabe as potentially appealing as my intercambio pal suggested. Dull, perhaps. Uniform. Far less spacious than car-dependent American tract houses. But livable.

Idealista shows what can be rented here. A euro is about $1.10 USD. (Please discount the abominable quality of the photos; for reasons unknown, Spaniards post some of the most wretched ‘rental available’ shots I’ve ever seen. Antoni “we own the image” Gaudí may spin in his grave.)

(Caveat: I haven’t visited other TOD neighborhoods here, don’t know what I’d think of them.)

A WORRIED, OFTEN PESSIMISTIC SPAIN

I have not set up camp in an untroubled country.

Millenials met at intercambios cast doubt on the hardiness of economic recovery here. Jobs are in short supply, they say, pay poorly and ask a lot. Peers who long for the fixed-for-a-lifetime gigs of their parents’ generation are dreaming of a security that Spain no longer offers.

News reports describe Germany as the land of opportunity. A retiree with a secure income stream may move to Madrid, sign up for Spanish classes, cast pleased eyes on the tourist-centric street life seen at Puerta del Sol. Career-minded young Spaniards have to quit their own country, wrestle with unfamiliar grammar in Berlin Deutsch classes.

I’m quite fond of my new home, at least so far, but am not trying to make a living here. That matters.

* * * * *

More photos:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/36217981@N02/albums/72157648793450795

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Gear for Long-Haul Travel

A little over a year ago, I described myself as a ‘carry on at all costs’ flier. No longer! I arrived in Madrid in early July with a one way ticket and no return plans, had to prep and pack for a far more distant horizon than in journeys past.

Pre-trip research suggested I buy some new stuff. I’m mostly glad I did, shall describe my successes below.

I usually loft a suspicious eyebrow at product plugs in a blog, and can’t blame you if now suspect the world-wandering Bald One of moonlighting in stealth PR. It ain’t so, and I’d swear as much on a Unitarian hymnal, but that’s just what I say, right?

Use your own judgment, trust me or not, as you see fit.

HP OfficeJet 150

HP OfficeJet 150

HP OFFICEJET 150

16.5 x 9.7 x 8.6 inches, under ten pounds, and it didn’t leak ink in the suitcase. You’ll risk a straight jacket at Camarillo if you try to hardcopy a dissertation out of this gizmo, but it scans and prints short docs with ease. I have found it to be untemperamental, and was grateful that Linux recognized it as soon as I plugged in the USB cable. I presume, but don’t know, that it works as well with Windows and Mac OS.

Paper to be printed goes in on top, above the HP logo. Paper to be scanned slides in under the logo. I ignore the touchscreen at right, control the OfficeJet through Linux software, didn’t have to deal with special drivers or proprietary software. I plugged it in and it worked.

Etekcity scale

Etekcity scale

ETEKCITY TRAVEL SCALE

I completed my last of many lifetime diets about ten years ago, when my aging metabolism needed several miserable months to shed a mere fifteen pounds. “You’re not going through that again, Tim,” said I then to myself, and meant it. I watch my weight like a TMZ celeb watches a Q rating, sound unforgiving sirens if it climbs even a few pounds out of the desired range.

I want a trustworthy scale.

Etekcity doesn’t call this a ‘travel scale.’ I do. I have found it to be fussier than heavier conventional scales owned in years past, but a 3.9 pound shipping weight meant I could reasonably expect to shlep it onboard in checked luggage.

Mine wants a flat surface to sit upon. If I can press any corner and detect a wobble, it wants to be moved somewhere else. I step on it once in the morning, wait while its electronic innards decide what I weigh, then don’t step on it again until the next morning. If I insist on stepping in it again two minutes later, the little batteries are likely to deliver a different reading. (Perhaps they’re catching their breath.)

A travel scale. A far, far cry from a human-sized balance beam scale. As a travel scale, first rate. Not for a forever home, or at least not for mine.

Photographed with a one euro coin, to show relative size.

Marsona TSCI-330

Marsona TSCI-330

MARSONA WHITE NOISE MAKER

You’ve showered, unpacked, checked in (not in that order, I hope), crawled under the covers, and now discover that you can audit your neighbor’s cell phone yakathon through paper-thin hotel walls.

What to do? A box fan would drown out the yak and let you sleep, but flight attendants would snicker if you tried to stuff one in the overhead.

Consider this one pound (ahem) ‘travel sound conditioner,’ shipped with adapters for worldwide power sources. I think the Marsona’s settings for ‘rain,’ ‘waterfall’ and ‘surf’ all sound only slightly better than TV test pattern static, but I have used the little dealie (in conjunction with earplugs) with a 230V, Type F outlet in Spain and a 110V, Type A outlet in the U.S., and don’t regret the purchase.

Briggs & Riley Spinner

Briggs & Riley Spinner

BRIGGS & RILEY LARGE EXPANDABLE SPINNER

The four sturdy “spinners” make this bag as nimble as such linebacker-sized luggage is likely to get, and an interior compartment deftly handles dress coats and slacks. These deluxe bags were overkill for a one way flight to Spain. I wasn’t sure that the visa would come through when I bought them, thought it wise to prepare then for extended travel.

That said, even if I wound up not needing the quality: first rate equipment. I got what I paid for.

VPN (VIRTUAL PRIVATE NETWORK)

I can go online on the road by tethering my laptop to my smartphone or by using wi-fi. My smartphone connection is secured by the cellular service provider. The wi-fi connection may not be secure at all. In my email list managing days for TransitPeople, I expected at least one missive a week from a hacked account, likely hijacked while the innocent victim entered account information via wi-fi.

To stave off snoopers, I can use wi-fi with a “virtual private network,” or VPN. NordVPN, Private Internet Access and other commercial VPNs operate global networks of servers. I fire up wi-fi, then hook up to a VPN server in Singapore, France, Barstow, the Clintons’ bathroom closet, as I see fit. A lock appears on the network connection icon on the taskbar. Web sites see traffic coming from the VPN, and not from me.

I expected configuration headaches, but found ee-zee online instructions for setting up VPN in Linux, presume that similar handholding is available for Windows and Mac users. An account goes for $40 – $70 a year. Free VPNs haven’t been charitably reviewed; I haven’t tried one.

Two caveats:

(♦)  Online nogoodniks eagerly employ VPN to mask identities, and some major sites balk when first accessed from a VPN address. I can use gmail with VPN, but not from an email client, at least not right away; I must first log on via web, presumably to assure Google that the password-holder from the unfamiliar VPN server is really me. Facebook and other sites present a captcha screen, insist that I prove I’m not a robot.

(♦)   Set-up requires some technical chops. Not a lot, but some. I suggest sounding out a geekily inclined friend.

U.S. GLOBAL MAIL FORWARDING

I have gone paperless wherever possible, have canceled every regularly-arriving hardcopy missive I could think to cancel, but still expect some materials to be sent to my old San Francisco address. Said materials shall now be forwarded to U.S. Global Mail. My $150 one year subscription entitles me to a U.S. address and online account access. When paper mail arrives, I can pay to have it opened and scanned, can then eyeball it from abroad.

U.S. Global Mail looks well run, and staff promptly field phone calls. That’s to the good. To the bad: they wait until the last screen of the sign-up process to inform you that you’ll need to upload picture ID and a notarized form 1583 to receive forwarded mail from USPS.

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Tracy, California: First Impressions

(Or first impressions this century: I once feared Tracy and the whole San Joaquin Valley as a hitchhiker’s no man’s land in my ride-thumbing college years, have yet to forget an eleven hour wait for a ride in North Fresno.)

Tracy is a city of about 87,000 in the agricultural flatlands east of San Francisco. I am in temporary digs here while awaiting paperwork for a move to Spain1, naively anticipated a rural whistlestop far removed from Bay Area bustle.

Tracy's Harvest of Progress statue, with Altamont Hills in background

Tracy’s Harvest of Progress statue, with Altamont Hills in background

Wrong! In the 1970s, maybe. Not anymore.

TRACY MAY SOON BE DEVOURED BY THE GREATER BAY AREA

Travel out this-a-way and you’ll see what I mean. The driver exiting the easternmost Livermore fringes of the “San Francisco Bay Area” at noon can expect all of fifteen minutes of open country on the Altamont Pass before hitting outer Tracy of “Central California” at 12:15. That’s not much of a greenbelt between regions.

I hatched an informal survey question — Has Tracy become part of the Greater Bay Area? — and posed it to about a dozen locals. Votes have leaned about 2 to 1 “no” … but not 10 to 1, as I might have expected in years past.

My favorite response came while querying two fellow congregants at the Stockton Unitarian Church. One nodded, said, “Oh, it’s getting there,” but was refuted with an emphatic “No!” from an usher.

The usher explained: Tracy has attracted many settlers who want it to be part of the Bay Area, said she. They buy in, discover that they can’t endure the marathon freeway commute, sell out a few years later.

Farmers Market in downtown Tracy, California

Farmers Market in downtown Tracy, California

Another local introduced an acronym: BAT, for Bay Area Transplant. Letters-to-the-editor writers fulminated often about BATs in years past, but gave up as more BATs moved in, became neighbors.

The BATs likely came for affordable homes. I drive past a freeway billboard hawking new construction, look it up online. 4 bedrooms, 3 baths, American Dream houses: around $200 a square foot, vs $987 in San Francisco, $475 in Walnut Creek. At a picnic in Micke Grove Park, I meet a Bay Area widow who had to short sell after her husband’s death, and chose an all-cash, debt-free buy in Central California instead of a mortgage elsewhere. A retired Santa Clara native marvels at the empty acres behind his Stockton property. The picnic host fled San Jose after a steep rent increase.

I shop at vast, concrete-acred WinCo Foods, stroll among a pleasant cultural mélange: a linebacker-shouldered blond in John Deere t-shirt, lugging six packs to a big-tired pick-up; a turbaned Sikh and clan; occasional hijabs; a likely Berkeley refugee, rummaging for credit card in a tote with Feel the Bern button; many, many families.

Tehal at Gurdwara Sahib temple in Modesto, California

Tehal at Gurdwara Sahib temple in Modesto, California

Absent, however: the overtly gay, and some extravagances of youthful fashion that are commonplace on Valencia Street. BATs may have diluted Tracy’s rural roots, but still take a low profile here.

TRACY IS CAR COUNTRY

My digs are near Naglee and Pavilion Parkway, which intersect acres for four surrealistically vast mall properties on Tracy’s northwest corner.

I’ll link a map.  Mouse around a bit.

Pavilion Parkway in Tracy, California

Pavilion Parkway in Tracy, California

Home Depot is here, as are Staples, Macy’s, many car dealerships. Target is here, too, but looks like a pint-sized mom n’ pop next to the Walmart. Fate may have decreed that I spend my last weeks on native soil amidst development most often stereotyped as American. I take a spring afternoon stroll on asphalt, across adjoining parking lots, with gas stations and big box stores on the horizon, beneath the rippling stripes of American flags.

Everyone drives here. Even the Starbucks offers a drive-thru lane for profligately idling SUVs. The nearest BART metro station is twenty-five miles west, and internet wags promise wailing and gnashing of teeth to weekday commuters who hope to park there.

West Valley Mall in Tracy, California

West Valley Mall in Tracy, California

This corner of Tracy is much more autocentric than older city neighborhoods, but I still can’t imagine any serious getting around by transit. I may have driven more in a month here than in several years in San Francisco.

TRACY IS OVERWEIGHT

Is this observation related to the first two? Who wants to cook or hit a Pilates mat after dodging SUVs and semis on the daily slog home from Hayward, or Walnut Creek, or wherever the steering-wheel-clutching BAT punches a timecard? One is T-I-R-E-D. Lane changes on the 580 were work-out enough. Quick energy comfort food is what one craves, easily obtained from stuffins’-drippin’ megaburgers with four figure calorie counts hawked by fast fooderies next to the 205. Gorge now, worry about the scale tomorrow. A BAT might get all of an hour of rec time before hitting the sack for the next day’s commute.

I want to write charitably, with sympathy. I was overweight in my teens. I have stood pat at 175 for ten years because my last real diet was so miserable that I swore afterward never to slide again, and haven’t. But those miseries were endured to lose a mere fifteen pounds! Some I see on my mall strolls are more than a hundred pounds overweight. Their bodies heartlessly conspire to hold onto every ounce, to doom them to obesity until death.

Route 205 freeway exit in Tracy, California

Route 205 freeway exit in Tracy, California

Many in Tracy may be obese because they aren’t BATs, because they are the great-grandchildren of farmers who once sweated over tractors and tills, and could expect to burn through any calories consumed. I don’t know. I imagine the ghost of Lathrop J. Tracy himself grimacing at the sight of his town’s overfed progeny, courting diabetes, atherosclerosis, osteoarthritis as they lumber with overtaxed hearts on outraged joints through pastry aisles. Their bodies are like prisons.

HAS BAY AREA INFRASTRUCTURE PLANNING FAILED?

My S.F.-to-Tracy car trips have fostered a bleaker take on the Bay Area’s transportation underpinnings. It feels like a catastrophic fait accompli: bad enough to have done real harm when I moved south for a Los Angeles teaching career in 1992, little improved since.

San Francisco included some 735,000 souls in 1992. It numbers 130,000 more today, a near 18% increase. The populations of Alameda, Contra Costa and San Mateo county have grown by about 24%, 34% and 16% in those twenty-four years, respectively.

Not a whole lot has been built to move the extra humans around. BART sprouted a couple of spur lines, an SFO extension and an Oakland airport connector. Caltrain grew; Alameda County picked up a couple of ACE rail stations. How much else? I have been able to ignore worsening congestion while gallivanting around San Francisco aboard Muni. (Which has either improved in recent years, or impressed me more.) I haven’t been able to ignore it while traveling between San Francisco and Tracy.

I don’t expect to drive to the East Bay from S.F.’s south side during any workday hour on a weekday without hitting a wall of traffic, usually as far south as the 101’s Vermont exit. Westbound traffic is worse; I could practically count pebbles in the asphalt while inching toward the Bay Bridge toll plaza. I usually do not hit smooth sailing in the East Bay: I cringe with saucer eyes and gritted teeth in my slot in the thundering, seventy mile an hour stampede, which may remain dense past Livermore.

I long for a transit alternative, know of no good one. I’d need two shuttle buses to get to Tracy’s ACE station, then would have to hop on another bus to bridge the route gap between ACE and BART. Maybe three hours one way travel time, and not much choice about when I’d go. Or, I could duke it out with the other drivers who lust for a parking slot at BART Dublin.

Something that was supposed to happen here didn’t happen.

Or, to be fair: not nearly enough of what was supposed to happen actually happened. I picture a fire fighter without a hose, gamely chucking pint latte cups at a raging inferno.

* * * * *

I wish more attention were paid to the economic costs of the Iraq war.

Unitarian Church in Modesto, California

Unitarian Church in Modesto, California

I admit to tangent taking here, a comparison of apples to oranges. Millions not flushed down the Baghdad donniker certainly wouldn’t have become magically available for transportation projects. But numbers are available, can be compared. Americans insensitive to the war’s hideous humanitarian costs might at least care that their pockets have been picked, and remember that pocket picking in meditations on failing infrastructure.

The war cost about 2.2 trillion dollars. Roughly twelve of every hundred Americans is a Californian. Figure, then, that twelve percent, or 264 billion of that 2.2 trillion got took from the Golden State.

Subway construction costs range all over the place: $65 million a mile in Madrid, $417 per mile in Stockholm, a whopping two billion a mile for the Second Avenue subway. I’ll pull an unabashedly unreliable number out of a hat in the air, say $500 million a mile in urban California.

California’s 264 billion on the Iraq War — an incurred debt now, a done deal, in accounts payable; a past tense disaster, like a full facial tattoo bought on a binge drunk — would have paid for 528 miles of metro. Split that with L.A., and these already committed dollars could have funded an increase in BART’s system size of … oh, gee whiz! … around 250 percent.

Here’s a map of the BART system grid:

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bart-map.png

BART map (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bart-map.png)

Make it grow 250 percent in that fertile imagination of yours. Remember, you’re not using new money. The Iraq War cheerleaders already spent it for you.

Do you think it might make your Bay Area commute a little easier?

* * * * *

1 Or have been; my visa came through yesterday.

Please wish me well in Spain. A related post may be premature; I ain’t there yet.

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Marrakech: First Impressions

Marrakech is two places: the walled, labyrinthine, thousand-year old Medina, and the relatively modern city that sprawls around it.

The airport, train station and plush hotels are in the outer city. The Medina has all the tourist color: mules tugging carts through open air souqs; alleys twisting between pink adobe riads; passersby in hijabs, djellaba, fezzes and other exotic-to-Western-eyes clothes; the bustling Jemma el-Fnaa central plaza.

Wood carver in Marrakech Medina

Wood carver and chess pieces in Marrakech Medina

* * * * *

“But I wanna stay right in the Medina!” say you. “I’ll bet it costs an arm and a leg!”

Au contraire, fellow tourist; it probably costs less. The Medina is chock full of traditional Moroccan homes — aka riads — that have been converted to lodging. My riad had consistent hot water, which put it a notch ahead of a riad described by fellow tourist Angela.

Here’s a pic of my room’s ready-for-the-Ritz-Carlton air conditioner:

Air conditioner in Marrakech riad

Air conditioner in Marrakech riad

Looks like an A-OK air conditioner to you? Stay in the Medina. Think it too primitive? Look for a ritzier hotel in the outer city.

* * * * *

I didn’t get lost in the Medina, which makes me an odd character. (You already knew that.) The narrow, winding, curlicue streets were designed a millenia ago to confuse invaders.

Musician in Marrakech Medina

Musician in Marrakech Medina

This post describes my high-tech Medina-roaming technique. If it fails to appeal, consider adding a safety cushion to Marrakech itineraries; you’re likely to get lost eventually. Don’t expect to buttonhole locals for navigational help, unless you speak French or Arabic.

* * * * *

The Medina’s charms are constantly despoiled by the raucous buzzing about of motor scooters. These maraud through the narrowest alleys at all hours, threatening life and limb of natives and visitors alike; pedestrians must hug the right side of alleys to avoid being clobbered.

Motorbikes and pedestrian in Marrakech Medina

Motorbikes and pedestrian in Marrakech Medina

I was brushed by a couple of motorbikes, but never decked, and am confident I would have survived a collision. The bikes are dinky, after all, can’t gain much tourist-walloping momentum in the serpentine streets.

Outside the Medina walls: different story. The pedestrian is imperiled by speeding, multi-ton cars and trucks, might be sent off to browse that big Lonely Planet book rack in the hereafter. Marrakech traffic is shepherded by lights, signage and crosswalks, but was still the worst I’ve encountered in my wanderings to date.  I suggest that travelers with little ones contemplate alternative destinations, and that those eager to visit despite my warning memorize an unspoken, irrefutable and ruthlessly enforced rule for all tourists navigating rampageous traffic, in Marrakech and elsewhere:

Don’t get hit.

* * * * *

Like Istanbul, Morocco is firmly ensconced in the Muslim world; the CIA puts the figure at 99%. I heard melodious prayer calls every morning before dawn, and occasionally passed groups of men in prayer while wandering the city, like those in these three shots on Flickr.  (But no women? Read these two articles and your knowledge will be as inadequate as mine.)

In the Marrakech Medina

In the Marrakech Medina

Moroccans treated me splendidly, in Marrakech, Casablanca and points between. I heard no grumbles from fellow tourists of slights or discourtesies. Only after my return did I discover a decade old survey indicating that many Moroccans regard America with disfavor.

* * * * *

I heartily recommend the ONCF train from Marrakech to Casablanca, despite the bottomless toilets found therein. I bought my ticket without wait or effort at Gare de Marrakech the day before I left, chose between bihourly trains for the three and a half hour ride.

First class car in train from Marrakech to Casablanca

First class car in train from Marrakech to Casablanca

Here’s the car you’ll sit in if you ride first class, as I did.

* * * * *

I felt too often that I was gawking, and may hesitate to return for that reason.

I speak no Russian or Greek, but didn’t feel so different from the Muscovites and Athenians around me while strolling their cities or riding the metro. In Marrakech, I faced a cultural chasm I couldn’t bridge. The country is poor, with a GDP of $3,250 per person and a 67% adult literacy rate, a notch below India and Angola. I struggled to relate to the natives in so-unfamiliar-to-me dress, and too often caught myself regarding them as I might regard costumed theme actors at Disneyland: two dimensional, not completely human, part of the picturesque scenery, as if dressed in fezzes and djellaba to entertain me.

Mule and cart in Marrakech Medina

Mule and cart in Marrakech Medina

Tourists bring money, often the most lucratively obtained money to be had, so many natives play to that audience: bringing snakes to the Jemaa el-Fnaa, for instance, not because anyone seriously tries to charm snakes but because a chuckling blond with a Fodor’s guide will pay a few dirham to photograph a local holding one.

But: that’s where the money is; tourism is a major national industry, brought in nearly seven billion USD in 2013. If I want to help the Moroccan on the street, I can support a charity like Amal, or simply encourage you to visit and spend money there, and keep my misgivings to myself.

* * * * *

Practical information: No visa needed by Americans for visits under ninety days. INWI will sell a prepaid SIM card for your smartphone at the airport; I think you’ll find a Maroc booth here, too.

Jemaa El-Fnna in Marrakech Medina

Jemaa el-Fnaa in Marrakech Medina

With that prepaid sim and a GPS signal, you can dare a ride on the 19 bus into the Medina. Without GPS, you’re likely better off taking that first trip by cab. The Medina interior is a much steeper challenge for the GPS-less visitor than the more modern Marrakech outside the Medina walls.

I did all my Marrakech getting-around on foot after that first 19 ride, but still congratulated myself for bringing along a city bus route map, just in case.

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One More Linux User

Still mortified by those gnaw marks on the keyboard from a rage-making experiment with Linux last decade? Consider giving the OS another try; Linux has matured. I switched last summer, endured far less grief than expected, now rarely boot into Windows.

Virtualized Windows 7 in Linux

Windows 7 running in Linux Mint through VirtualBox

Warning: this post is geeky. If you don’t know or care what a “Linux” or “OS” is, I’ve already kept you too long.

WHY I SWITCHED

My saga began in mid-2015, when little blue pop-ups began to appear near my Windows 7 start menu. The pop-ups announced that I qualified for a free “upgrade” to Windows 10. Lucky me!

I didn’t want Win 10, irritably clicked the pop-ups closed.

Some time later, I noticed that a huge, hidden sub-directory had metastasized on my hard disk. $Windows.~BT, it called itself. Online research indicated that this gargantuan six gigabyte directory housed the never-requested Windows 10. Microsoft had downloaded it to my computer without permission.

A much younger Tim might have interpreted this stealth download more charitably. So they want to get all the computers on the same page; is that so terrible? Gee whiz, they’re giving it away free!

An older-and-homelier Tim did not interpret the stealth download charitably at all. I did some research, discovered that Win 10 includes mandatory updates, data sharing described as a privacy nightmare, and a new forty-five page service agreement that bequeaths unto Microsoft rights to, according to the EDRi: “collect everything you do, say and write with and on your devices in order to sell more targeted advertising or to sell your data to third parties.

Unh unh; deal me out. I might be wed-by-shotgun to Big Data when using the ‘net, but don’t want to start seeing ads for budget burials and casket clearance sales if I vent about a sick relative to a word processor diary file. I steeled myself for a sure-to-be-miserable transition to Linux.

LINUX? GNU/LINUX?

Linux now drives fewer than two percent of desktop computers worldwide. Its official mascot is Tux, an obese, sedentary penguin of doubtful sobriety. Promotional material often suggests an OS that is similarly dreamy and half-baked, like a Rube Goldberg unicycle pitched unseriously for a weekday commute.

This PR misleads, spectacularly. GNU/Linux — the oft-omitted GNU for the work of Richard Stallman, and Linux for Linus Torvalds — is the free, open source spawn of legendary UNIX, the Big Daddy OS that powered Bell Labs mainframes when Bill Gates was still playing tic-tac-toe on a terminal. 90+% of supercomputers run Linux. Google, Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, IBM and other big companies run Linux. Linux or UNIX lurks under the hood of your MAC OS desktop and both Android and iOS smartphones. GNU/Linux-son-of-Unix was born to multitask, to juggle multiple users, to assign file permissions and user hierarchies.

But, early “distros” of Linux for personal PCs were geeky, fit only for computing cognoscenti. I gave one a whirl over a decade ago, couldn’t make it print, chalked up personal Linux as a hobby project.

HOW’D IT GO THIS TIME?

Much better.

I downloaded the friendly-to-newbies Linux Mint distro, experimented with a rarely-used laptop, then swallowed hard and let Linux create a “dual boot” configuration on my workaday computer. (A calculated risk; had the install borked, I would have faced a messy clean-up.)

On start-up, I now see a menu similar to the one below, allowing me to boot into either Linux or my old Windows 7 set-up.

GRUB dual boot menu

GRUB dual boot menu

Linux went smoothly online, recognized my twin LCD displays and several external drives, pushed pages out of a laser printer, and scanned pixels on a flatbed photo scanner. I couldn’t get it to talk to a sheetfed document scanner.

How about software? I liked Linux’s free browsers, e-mail clients and LibreOffice word processor as well as anything I used in Windows, and configured a Windows accounting program and address database to run under Linux via the Wine and CrossOver apps. Wine is free; Crossover cost sixty bucks.

That left my photo enthusiast software. I coughed up $130 for a new Windows 7 license, and used Oracle’s free VirtualBox to configure a separate, virtualized, OS-within-an-OS under Linux. VirtualBox did not configure itself effortlessly, required some unpleasant under-the-hood settings changes, but now handles all the Windows chores I regularly need to get done. I can still boot into my original Windows 7 set-up, as I did before downloading Mint, but often don’t do so for weeks at a time.

A VERDICT?

I’m glad I changed, but wish I hadn’t had to.

Linux may be faster, safer and arguably more elegant than Win 7, but I don’t like launching a virtualized PC to run photo apps, and judge Linux printer and scanner utilities as cruder than Windows equivalents. I live with rough edges I didn’t deal with last year.

But I also no longer compute in fear of my own OS. I’ve switched to a platform I can use and augment for years to come. Linux won’t try to hang an advertising ID on my personal PC (I don’t think), or railroad me into an “update” with onerous privacy terms and compulsory updates.

Many folk sit at a computer only to use big dollar Win only or Win/Mac apps like Avid, InDesign, AutoCad, Photoshop, Illustrator or Quickbooks. These users may be joined at the hip to Redmond or Cupertino, and I wonder if Microsoft counted on their unhappy allegiance when specifying the “features” of Win 10.

Other users shrug off privacy concerns, foolishly or not. Still others will feel as I do about privacy, but balk at attempting big system changes. What if the dual boot configuration hangs, for some reason; what if you can’t get into your computer anymore? I have nuked hardware in past experiments, struggled to make things right afterward.

I can share only my own experiences. I suffered far less in the transition than expected, and encourage frustrated Linux experimenters of years past to at least give the penguin another look. (An easy method: download the free VirtualBox for your current Windows computer, then install an also-free Linux distro and dink around in it. Don’t like it? Uninstall VirtualBox.)

AN AMUSING DISCLOSURE

I own shares of MSFT. Microsoft stock.

I don’t recommend stock picking, choose my own only because I don’t want to be a fractional owner of Altria, Lorillard and other unsavory-industry companies through an index ETF. (Consider this list of excluded companies from the bank managing Norway’s sovereign wealth fund.) Surely I could own Microsoft! Didn’t I admire Bill Gates for his philanthropy? Hadn’t I relied on Microsoft software since MS-DOS days?

Companies change. I don’t think this OS bullying is kosher, wish it were illegal, now contemplate selling MSFT and swallowing a capital gains tax to stay within my own ethical parameters.

But a part of me thinks I have a right to stand pat.

I have fled in horror from the flagship product of a company I own shares in. I believe (but can’t prove) that Microsoft is hard selling their new OS mostly because they can get away with it, that they crave software-as-service wampum to plump income statements and EPS figures, and thus boost the price of my MSFT shares. MSFT is up almost 19% for 2015. New revenue streams may send it higher in 2016. Earnings conference calls must be festive.

I’ve paid for this change. I don’t feel safe booting into my legal, licensed Windows 7 installation anymore. I’ve turned off automatic updates, safely or not; I research every update that Microsoft suggests to insure it won’t try to sneak Windows 10 onto my system. I’m an OS refugee.

Maybe I’m entitled to make some money off the deal.

* * * * *

Update:  All shares of MSFT sold, 1/4/2016.

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Budapest: First Impressions

“Bad trip idea, Tim,” I thought, and grimaced as my dilapidated Soviet-style metro creaked into yet another gruesome station on the M3 line.

By Christo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Christo, license CC BY-SA 4.0 (creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

This was my first trip to Budapest, and my ride-in-from-the-airport impressions boded badly. Clunky bus to the subway, unpromising countryside, metro stations like the one above.

Resigned to a lousy visit, I disembarked downtown, climbed to street level …

Budapest Parliament

Hungarian Parliament Building in Budapest

… and thereafter thought no more negative thoughts for beautiful Budapest. Never before have first travel impressions so misled.

Consider yourself forewarned. Give the city a chance before bolting back to Ferihegy International.

* * * * *

A mercifully short summary of Hungarian miseries endured in the century past:

(♦)  Allies overran Hungary after World War I, downsized the nation from twenty million to eight million.

1956 banners on graves at Kerepesi Cemetery

1956 banners on graves at Kerepesi Cemetery

(♦)  Hitler strong-armed fence-sitting Hungary into lining up with the losers in World War II, then invaded in 1944.

(♦)  The Soviet Bloc claimed Hungary after WW II, killed thirty thousand while crushing a valiant rebellion in 1956 — a date still memorialized on hand-placed gravestone banners in Kerepesi Cemetery, as in the photo — and went away quietly in 1989.

Hungary has been a calmer place since, but a tour guide agreed that a life among such rapid ideological scene changes might encourage cynicism.  Consider Memento Park, tucked off in the suburban city outskirts: a now-kitschy collection of communist-era propaganda statues, likely of far less appeal to locals than to tourists.

Statue at Memento Park in Budapest

Statue at Memento Park in Budapest

That stuff was presented seriously to John Q. Budapest, not so long ago. How might I feel as an American while chaperoning Hungarians to, say, a boutique museum recalling the Dubya years: pasting up a host’s game smile while describing that oh-so-quirky 2000 Florida ballot count, or the endlessly replayed propaganda footage we Americans saw of the toppling Saddam statue in Firdos Square?

A nice yuk for an uninvolved Budapestian, perhaps; not so funny for me. The only local I saw at Memento Park was the amiable clerk who sold me a souvenir CCCP passport. That probably doesn’t evoke many smiles in Budapest, either.

* * * * *

Budapest built the second metro on terra firma, and the first on the European continent. I now kick myself — figuratively, at least; it’s hard to get my heel that high while typing — for missing stations on the M1 line, built from 1894 – 1896.

Tram passes Museum of Ethnography in Budapest

Tram passes Museum of Ethnography in Budapest

“Excellent” is my rating for city transit services overall. Most metro cars are spiffier than the clunker that ferried me into town on the M3.

* * * * *

I’ve gotta work this in somewhere: I took a 3:30 a.m. cab from my hotel for a wee hours flight to Frankfurt, and was amazed to see so many Hungarians still strolling the city at that hour.

* * * * *

Budapest = hilly Buda, east of the Danube, and flat, urban Pesht — that’s how they say it; with an ‘h’ — to the west. The closer you get, the more the distinction matters. The two cities became one in 1873.

* * * * *

Practical information: I put my smartphone online quickly with a prepaid SIM card from a Vodafone desk at the airport, but suffered occasional connectivity issues in town. Budapest offers no transit IC card (that I know of, anyway), but I had no trouble buying a seven day travel card from the airport’s BKK desk (and soon learned to have this card ready while entering the city’s metro, no Shangri-La for fare cheats).

Overlooking Chain Bridge, Danube and Parliament

Overlooking Chain Bridge, Danube and Parliament

The frequent-running 200E bus ferries fliers from the airport to the Kőbánya–Kispest station; get on at the terminal, ride to the end of the line.  I found no use for Budapest-specific transit apps, but moovit fired up at the Kelenföld vasútállomás bus pad, gracefully shepherded me to Memento Park.

* * * * *

Yes, many posts of late, and no, not written for any particular reason. We retirees can yield to whims.  Merry Christmas!

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Unenthusiastic About Marijuana

He was about eighteen, pudgy, stoned; I wondered if he’d keel over in the BART car. But he managed to lurch upright when his Balboa Park stop came up, and that’s when I spotted the logo on his tote bag.

Cannabis Cup. The big marijuana fest at the San Francisco Cow Palace. That explained it. He’d transfer on Geneva, ride there on the 8.

I was getting off at Balboa Park, too, that afternoon last June. I queued behind him as the train droned to a stop, discreetly surveyed his peach-fuzzed cheeks, doughy limbs and glazed, TV test pattern eyes.

How did that Kurt Vonnegut lament go, about a youth spent building model airplanes and masturbating? It fit him. At least he wouldn’t be asked to pose for eventually-regretted event photos. Any savvy weed promoter worth his campaign contribution book would know enough to limelight someone else. This kid looked like a loser.

Probably not such a good joke for his parents.

* * * * *

No, you’re not reading a diatribe against marijuana legalization. Maybe weed should be legal. Maybe other drugs should be legal, too. They used to be. I haven’t done the research, defer to objective, un-bought folk who have.

You read only a public expression of my lack of enthusiasm. I feel as little enthusiasm for new casinos, and fatter ad budgets for state lotteries. A state may need lottery money, but anyone bright enough to call shots statewide must understand how cynically a lottery leeches money from the gullible poor. Such folk also must know how regularly the marijuana used harmlessly by some earns top-of-the-marquee billing in sagas of the Regretted Life: smoked every day while bombing out of college, turned to while gaining thirty pounds in post-divorce depressions, exuding fumes and ashes to stage set gradual declines, muddled capitulations, failures. Promoted as bold! daring! barrier-breaking!, and usually sized up in the long run as just another unromantic bad habit.

But oh, gosh, look at the money to be made on the stuff!

A barrier is coming down. Twenty-three states now permit medical use of what was flat out criminal only a few decades ago. California’s marijuana hauls in seven times more cash than the grape crop. Big Weed has money and motive to fund PR campaigns and bankroll pols.

How many Hummers could you buy with a legal weed monopoly in a middle-sized burg that still doesn’t have one? Remember: early cashers-in get a lock on exclusives, snap up the best seats. Corrupt the pols, corrupt the press; hire a young Artie Samish to ghost write a mayoral speech like:

Not one day passes here at Suckerville City Hall without a call from a worried mom or dad, concerned that medical marijuana intended only to alleviate the suffering of the gravely ill might somehow fall into the hands of our children. Parents, please rest assured: I have personally investigated state dispensaries, and concluded that only the professionals at Mercenary Medical will insure that their purely therapeutic products are issued …

… and so on. A monopoly franchise, moat protected; anyone who wants a legal blunt in Suckerville gets to go through you. What equity or real estate investment can offer that kind of return? All you have to do is juice the folk who need juicing and cough up an occasional donation for kids’ baseball uniforms, or maybe Suckerville’s substance abuse clinic.

Maybe some amoral would-be investors aren’t prepared to capitalize on that opening-right-now door for legal weed. Not to worry, greedy sociopaths! Other doors may open in years to come. Today public opinion would massacre anyone trying to promote legal heroin. That door might crumble eventually, and many tenders-of-big-poppy fields will watch for first signs of wobbly hinges.

* * * * *

Or have I stenciled too many DARE presentations into teacher lesson plan books, become a closet Puritan?

Many gray hairs shrug off youthful dalliances with weed (and with some other drugs, for that matter). Astronomer Carl Sagan smoked pot. So did entrepreneur Richard Branson, travel guru Rick Steves. I might be amused by straight-from-the-Physicians-Desk-Reference product names like Grand Daddy Purple, Old Mother Sativa and (my favorite) Trainwreck, but they don’t give the lie to claimed medical benefits. Consider this article about therapy for a former L.A. city councilman.

Still: I smelled weed on San Francisco’s south side more frequently than in any other place I’d visited, including Freetown Christiania and Amsterdam’s Red Light district, and those exuding the smell invariably looked as ripe for a drop through life’s cracks as this youth. The aging, prune-cheeked single on the 14 bus, with a People sticking out of a clutched-on-lap grocery sack, in sativa-stinking cardigan. The two-steps-out-of-a-homeless-shelter trash digger, wheezing on a roach next to a liquor store. Legal weed promoters want me to look at the Sagans and Bransons, but what I see on the street are the fall behinds.

I’d never met anyone on the city’s south side with a single good word for the weed dispensaries. Baggy-jeaned “patients” could walk out with legal weed, sell off dime bags on the clinic corner. Pure neighborhood nuisances, but the tax bonanza clinics kept getting approved, and local pols seemed remarkably inconsistent in opposing them.

* * * * *

He was on his way to the inbound 8 stop, all right. I caught up with him in the tunnel under Geneva, took a last, pitying glance as we approached the stairs. Perhaps younger than eighteen. A decent-enough looking kid. Maybe he hoped to Meet Someone at the festival — who wouldn’t, at that age? — but he’d be too wasted to talk to her. No, he’d sneak a smartphone picture of her instead, stare at it later in front of the bong.

Had I forgotten that long ago evening with my pothead roommate Jim? The evening that the poor bastard had finally gotten a date, cleaned up the living room, fussed over his long hair and clothes, presented a Jim I’d never seen before … only to quietly fetch his pipe after she stood him up, and toke up in front of the TV. No youtube or Netflix for a stoner to zone out with, not in the seventies! He’d probably watched a Gilligan’s Island re-run.

The boy was behind me now, walking with a deliberate, robotic gait. Attaboy, young man; concentrate on the essentials, that was how you did it when loaded; one foot in front of the other. Probably all a big laugh to him now, but eventually he’d be thirty, thirty-five (thinning hair, changing face, tougher to keep the weight off; you’ll see, kid, you’ll see) and perhaps still driving a cab or punching a cash register, thanks to all those on-the-bong hours, and maybe those long-ago weekends at the dope festivals wouldn’t be remembered so fondly anymore.

No, not such a good joke for his parents. But look at the bright side: he was probably ripe pickings for some predator-eyed entrepreneur at the festival. He’d come with the tote, hadn’t he? He had money. Someone would want it.

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Istanbul: First Impressions

(♦)  Istanbul ranks with Athens and Rome as a ‘must see’ for history buffs. King Byzas, Constantinople, Suleiman the Magnificent and the Ottomans: ancient humans were busy here.

I hadn’t understood this, frequently pictured myself with a dunce cap while conducting pre-trip research. ‘Course, I’m the same guy who hadn’t known that cricket is popular; you’d expect such dummy-hood to extend to other matters.

Vendor near Hagia Sofia in Istanbul

Vendor near Hagia Sofia in Istanbul

(♦)  The other-worldly splendor of some city mosques is un-ignorable. I don’t doubt that Istanbul provides temporary shelter to its share of unappreciative passers-through: business travelers interested only in post-conference highballs and fornication; grumpy teenage dragged-alongs who care only that Turkish hotel voltage won’t fry their Xboxes.

Even these philistines will be dazzled by mosque architecture. You can’t not notice those domes and minarets, can’t not be impressed.

Interior of Hagia Sofia in Istanbul

Interior of Hagia Sofia in Istanbul

(♦)  I spotted many tourist herds clunking along after banner-toting tour guides, and relatively few lone wolf sightseers like me.  Why?, you may wonder, in a city that struck me as safe and friendly.

Two possible reasons:

#1: English speakers are few and far between outside the Sultanahmet district, airport and big league international hotels. I had no trouble getting around with a GPS signal on RMaps and a transit map, but still communicated often in pantomime.

#2: Sultanahmet district tourist hunters. These free market champions know English all too well, and are paid in commission for steering prospects to local vendors. Others work solo as sellers of tourist bric-a-brac.

Stray dog at Blue Mosque in Istanbul

Stray dog at Blue Mosque in Istanbul

Unchaperoned pedestrians who exude even a whiff of Lonely Planet or Rick Steves can expect to be hailed aggressively and often. (e.g.: Excuse me, my friend! You look American! What is your city, my good friend?) A charitable inch given in response will be ruthlessly leveraged into soon-regretted furlongs. Predator Pete’s Used Cars might send hard sellers to Istanbul for advanced training.

I know how to say ‘no,’ can say it rudely when I have to, but dislike treating fellow humans this way, and thus suffered before the withering attention of the tourist hunters. I twice had to flee comfortable seats to escape them.

(♦)  Istanbul is full of stray dogs and cats. Authorities tag the ears of canines vaccinated for rabies, otherwise give them little heed. Turks may feel that a stray’s hungry, dangerous life in the elements is better than no life at all.

I’d be surprised if Pew Research or some other egghead-y screed couldn’t correlate strays per capita with poverty, homelessness and other undesired metrics, will stand my ground in regarding such cast-asides as a bad sign.

(♦)  Turkey is probably a good place to shop for a Turkish rug. Sorta makes sense. You may fruitfully join such shoppers, but only if you do real homework before your trip, arrive with budget and shopping plans, and are prepared to cart your new pride and joy home with you.

Rug merchant near Grand Bazaar in Istanbul

Rug merchant near Grand Bazaar in Istanbul

(♦)  Ninety-eight percent of Turkey’s seventy-five millions are Muslim. I heard mosque prayer calls every morning from my hotel, and will guesstimate that between a quarter and a half of female passersby wore hijabs.

I’m always eager for a chance to make a public fool of myself, and may eventually do so here by pontificating at length on impressions of the Muslim world. In the meantime, I’ll confine myself to the following:

Before my travels began, I regarded women in hijabs with sympathetic apprehension. I pitied them for the likely miseries endured in airport security lines and rural regions, but never would have exchanged pleasantries with a woman wearing one.

At the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul

At the Spice Bazaar in Istanbul

Today, I don’t hesitate. The hijab means they’re Muslims. So far as I can tell, that’s all it means.

I feel differently about the less frequently seen niqāb. Not practical, not fair, too unwieldy, and arguably not Islamic.

(♦)  Some may advocate a boycott of Turkish tourism. President Erdogan has cracked down hard on Kurdish rebels, likely while expecting only wrist slaps and florid speeches from a West desperate for Turkish help on refugees and ISIS. I knew and still know next to nothing about Turkish politics, didn’t feel I had reason to skip the trip.  Feel free to think less of me; maybe you should.

Tram at Eminönü station in Istanbul, with Yeni Cami in background

Tram at Eminönü station in Istanbul, with Yeni Cami in background

(♦)  Practical information: TurkCell and Vodafone will sell a prepaid SIM card for your unlocked cell phone at Istanbul airport. The Havalimani metro station is downstairs at the airport; visitors can buy an Istanbulkart IC card from a station machine, employ it on metros and trams while in town.

Update, 12/29:  Americans will need a visa.  I grabbed one from Turkey’s easily navigated e-Visa site, suffered so little that I forgot to mention the visa before clicking ‘post.’  (Costs twenty bucks, though, and the resulting print-out will be one more piece of paper that can’t be forgotten before the trip).

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Scouting Honest Reviews Online

A quarter hour spent reading this post will inform you of my far-from-perfect approach to IDing legit reviews online.

WHY IT MATTERS

The press has finally paid some attention to bogus reviews; witness this article, describing the market for such prostituted praise on Fiverr. Such articles can persuade innocents that Something Is Being Done, that reviews will henceforth be more trustworthy.

Lo dudo, dear reader, lo dudo mucho. Try plugging ‘review’ into the Fiverr search box; you’ll see. And those offers are just from the small fry. I’d be shocked if a corporate VP can’t read between the lines of a PR agency pitch to, say, “communicate product benefits to internet users” or “enhance brand image online.”

I have no evidence to back up such cynicism, still trust wisdom gained from decades as a grown-up. A national magazine ad campaign can cost as much as a Belvedere château. How much does it cost to click ‘post?’

Bogus reviews are too cheap, too profitable, too influential, too tough to catch. That VP doesn’t have to spell out what she wants to a gig-hungry PR agency. “Never write what you can say, never say what you can wink” made Aphorism for a reason.

If in doubt, please read this former boxing manager’s description of the reading-between-the-lines phrases he once used to fix fights:

You call up or visit the gym of any trainer who represents “opponents,” and have the following exchange:

“I’ve got a middleweight who could use a little work.” [Read: His fight shouldn’t be more than a brisk sparring session.]

“I got a good kid. But he ain’t been in the gym much lately.” [He’s out of shape.]

“That’s OK. I’m not looking for my guy to go too long.” [It’s got to be a knockout win.]

“My kid can give him maybe three good rounds.”

And that’s it. Your fighter’s next bout will go into the record books as a third-round knockout victory.

MY TECHNIQUES

I presume that most fake reviews are still relatively unsophisticated. Puff your client’s stuff, occasionally slam competitors. Those fakes are low-hanging fruit. My odds of finding bonafide reviews sink as the fake-a-loo pros try harder to fool me.

I ignore the reviews on the first page, assume that the biz or PR agency will make sure these are 4s and 5s. If they aren’t, I may have found a biz that doesn’t game reviews (or that bounced a check to the agency that does).

I click ‘poor’ and ‘terrible’ reviews, look at review dates. If they’re old, I might ignore them. If they’re new, I review the reviewer. Has he written many reviews? Does he complain for a reason, or because a hotel 86d him because his smuggled-in pit bull bit the maid who touched his smoldering hookah?

I presume that the most valuable reviews may be in the middle ranges; counterfeiters can’t significantly puff or sink star ratings with 3 star posts. I weed out 3 stars that may accidentally-on-purpose work in a plug for a competitor — e.g., Oh, I guess ABC was okay, but golly gee, my pal said XYZ is way better, and it’s on sale, too! — and study the rest, with an eye for structural product or facility problems mentioned by many reviewers. Thin hotel walls cost money to fix.

The safest bets may be facilities and products that have been widely reviewed for many months without recent, believable 1 and 2 star blackballs. I rarely find them, but I look.

HOW LONG WILL MY TECHNIQUES WORK?

Not much longer, and a candid fake-a-loo reviewer might convince me that they don’t work now for some products. I can’t see through a determined fake. A PR agency might carefully groom posting histories for a herd of thousands of fake accounts.

Some consumer benefits are short-lived. I got much more from online reviews when the ‘net was relatively new.

I see an opening for ‘old school’ media that shepherded consumers in the days before URLs and email. A company could patiently build a rep as a dispenser of honest advice, and profit thereby. Alas, many will think it more fruitful to pretend to be honest advice providers, and to cash out before being unmasked.

I apologize, younger readers: you were volunteered by birth into an often difficult world.

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Tale of Three Prepaid Local SIM Cards

I fed data to my smartphone in Europe and Africa last month through prepaid local SIM cards bought at three airports: Turkcell in Istanbul, Vodafone in Budapest, Inwi in Marrakech1. I mostly camped happily with what I bought, and am encouraged to share my SIM swappin’ experiences by the blank stares beheld when yakking about such swaps with other travelers. Your continent-roaming codger may know little about this stuff, but others seem to know even less.

THE BASICS, INADEQUATELY INTRODUCED

SIM stands for subscriber identity module. SIM cards slip into a tucked-away slot on your smartphone, allow the gizmo to connect with T-Mobile, Verizon, AT&T, the provider of choice.

Micro SIM card photo by Brett Jordan

Micro SIM card photo by Brett Jordan

You crave a photo. Cute little bugger, isn’t it?  Kudos to Flickr user Brett Jordan for the shot.

If your phone is unlocked and can fathom communication protocols to be encountered abroad (as can my modern smartphone), nothing prevents you from swapping in a local standard, micro or nano-sized SIM to go online overseas at affordable rates.

WHAT I USED TO DO

I used Verizon global services, as explained in May.

Bucks up? First class flier? Look no further. The bandwidth might have been premium priced, but all I had to do was fire up the phone after touch down; global services Just Worked.

T-Mobile and other U.S. providers also offer global plans. I haven’t tried them, can neither praise nor pan.

WHY I EXPERIMENTED

I had a ticket to Morocco, not covered by a Verizon data bundle. If I didn’t swap SIMs, I’d pay a bank-busting $2.05 per megabyte. In contrast, I could shell out a measly $20 in Marrakech for a prepaid local SIM card providing several gigabytes.

In for a penny, in for a pound: I decided to SIM swap in Istanbul and Budapest, too.

SO HOW’D IT GO?

I referred often to a SIM wiki while researching my trip, and browsed city-specific tripadvisor travel forums to learn what cell provider kiosks I’d find in different airports.

Istanbul: I found kiosks for Turkcell and Vodafone after clearing passport control. I picked Turkcell, showed my passport, signed some forms, paid a now-forgotten price in the $20 range, and received my Turkcell card, with assurances that it would go live within an hour.

It didn’t go live in an hour, or for my remaining two hours of wakefulness that evening. I brooded about back-up plans while I hit the sack, but discovered the next morning that I wouldn’t need them: the Turkcell SIM had come magically to life. The smartphone start-up messages and settings menus looked as they always had in the U.S.. I had more cheap, prepaid bandwidth than I’d ever need, could tether the smartphone to my computer, watch all my fave Flintstones youtube channels right at the Blue Mosque. What a wonderful way to experience a great city!

Budapest: I looked for and failed to find a Magyar kiosk, followed directions to a Vodafone booth in another terminal, and there consulted an amiable clerk with time to hold a tourist’s hand, as no other customers vied for her attention.

She wasn’t surprised by the wait for Turkcell service, said that prepaid SIMs usually fire up immediatamente, but can lie dormant for — get this — as long as forty-eight hours.

I showed my passport, signed more forms, received a wad of fine-printed paperwork for the circular file, and a Vodafone SIM card. The clerk showed me how to enter a new Access Point Name in a settings menu.

Voila! A Vodafone-engined data connection, that came online instantly and ran without hiccups.

Marrakech: My moment of truth. I’d had my Verizon SIM to fall back on in Istanbul and Budapest. I was in Africa now, understood the hurt that a $2.05 per megabyte charge would put on my wallet, expected to be smartphone-less if I couldn’t succesfully swap SIMs.

I found an INWI booth, showed my passport, collected more circular file paperwork, and a SIM card. The clerk couldn’t get a local phone number to ring, but I still bade her thanks and farewell after successfully loading web sites in a browser. I had data and a GPS signal without a wait, as in Budapest.

ALSA 19 bus at Marrakech airport

ALSA 19 bus at Marrakech airport

Said GPS signal encouraged me to ride the 19 bus into town, guided me via RMaps through the winding, twisting spaghetti strand streets of the ancient Medina — intended to confuse, when plotted a thousand years ago — as easily as I might have shuffled to a Thousand Oaks strip mall. That GPS signal on RMaps helped me rescue a UK tourist, helplessly wandering the Medina maze with nearly useless Google Maps print-out .pdfs on a tablet computer. (What good are such print-outs if you can’t find street signs?) He was a bright, friendly twenty something, but had obviously never heard of a local SIM.

I contemplated a transitophile post after helping him, my inadequate knowledge notwithstanding.

DISADVANTAGES

  • Requires some technical chops, as likely was obvious while reading this post.
  • Adios, existing U.S.A. phone number. Your local SIM comes with a brand new phone number, wanted or not; you won’t be able to take calls or check messages on your U.S. line without popping in your U.S. SIM card.
  • One more chore to deal with at the airport after arrival. The local SIMs often aren’t plug and play, so you’ll cool weary heels if other customers are ahead of you. No fun after a 10+ hour red eye.
  • One more step to research before your trip. You’ll want to know in advance what cell provider kiosks to hunt for after clearing passport control.
  • That potential delay for connectivity. I depend on my smartphone, don’t want to wait two days to use it. Googling delay ‘sim card activation’ produces few leads. I have my Turkcell experience to go on, and the words from that Budapest Vodafone clerk.
  • SIM cards are tiny, easily misplaced. You won’t lose your U.S. SIM if you don’t swap and leave it in the phone.

* * * * *

1 I haven’t sold the Verizon shares mentioned in my May post, and own Vodafone shares, too.  Vodafone was the equity I purchased, incidentally; I received the VZ shares after Vodafone sold its Verizon stake in 2014.

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