Mobile phones overseas

I was chatting with some friends over dinner last night and realised I had forgotten to share a little tip I learnt when last overseas.

Nokia E71Anyone who has travelled abroad with global roaming will recognise there’s a large cost for convenience. If you’re an Australian who is travelling in say, Singapore, and one of your mates in Australia calls your mobile, and you answer, your mate will be charged for the Australian portion of the call while you’ll be charged for the international (Australia to Singapore) portion of the call. This means taking calls overseas can be an expensive past time, especially if it’s your mate who talks and talks and talks, before you can even tell her you’re overseas!

It’s a slightly different story for text messages (SMS). In most countries, it’s free to receive a text message on a foreign phone so texting has been the communication method of choice for travellers. The catch, of course, is the cost of texting on your Aussie phone while on foreign soil. The last time I checked with my Australian carrier, it cost 75 cents to send a text message while overseas, which is a good three times the cost of a text message in Australia.

After a day of sending about fifteen text messages to a friend while I was on foreign soil, I realised I blew through more than ten dollars very quickly. I then remembered I could email! While the cost of data while roaming overseas is much more than when back home, it’s much cheaper than texting. If memory serves me correctly, I pay around 1 cent per kilobyte and given the 160 characters you can type into a text is much less than 1kb, the data rate can go a long way. (Obviously there’s a communications overhead and you could get in trouble if you decide to download that 2 megabyte attachment from the office.)

So there’s my tip. If you’ve got a BlackBerry or email-enabled phone, it can be much cheaper sending emails overseas than texting. (Oh, and if you’ve got a GPS-enabled phone, the A-GPS feature that uses the data network helps you find your way around really quickly!)

Ah, the sound of music

I was in London the other week catching up with some friends. After lunching at the Borough Markets, they suggested we take a leisurely walk along the Thames to check out the amazing architecture and art at St Paul’s Cathedral. Little did I know they had a sneaky plan. Little did I know I was being set-up as a pawn in their desire to hear piano music on the sidewalk.

London piano
God Save the Queen

London, like other towns around the world, has installed a bunch of upright pianos around the city. They’re located in popular areas such as Millenium Bridge and Soho Gardens, and they’re free for the public to play. Given London’s habit of grey drizzle, I’m not sure how long the pianos would last but sure enough, as we walked up the Bankside Jetty and onto Millenium Bridge the familiar object became larger and larger. I found myself trapped by three friends who forced me onto the piano stool. Not really sure what to do, I let go of my bag and found myself paying tribute to Queen Elizabeth II with God Save the Queen. I guess old habits die hard and even though Australia has had its own national anthem 1984, many Australians are still fond of Betty Windsor.

What a great idea: providing instruments in public spaces for the public to play! We already provide public furniture, amenities, maps, light posts; why not instruments?

Man, it feels good

Kenneth taking a swing at The Baseball Center NYC
Kenneth taking a swing (in skinny jeans) at The Baseball Center NYC

I’ve been spending the last few days in New York City, enjoying the great summer they’ve been having here. When I was here earlier in the year, one of my friends suggested I visit The Baseball Center NYC to try my hand at batting against their automatic pitcher. Unfortunately I ran out of time so the much-anticipated visit had to be delayed until my next trip to New York.

Earlier this week, with view to escape the warmth and humidity outside, my brother and I decided to see if we had what it took to be baseball stars. We arrived at the centre, paid up for a one hour session, and headed downstairs to the cages. I wasn’t sure what to expect. When they mentioned cages, I immediately thought of chicken cages, so I was much relieved when I saw they were about five metres wide and eighteen metres long. At one end was a large green machine housing a basket of balls and an automated pitching arm; at the other end was a triangular marker on the floor.

Here's what happens when you get too enthusiastic
Here's what happens when you get too enthusiastic

My brother went first, adjusting his helmet before entering the cage. Boom. The machine threw a ball and it hit the padding attached to the fence. Boom. The machine threw another ball and it hit the fence again. Kenneth was determined to properly hit the ball. The next time he connected, and connected, and connected. After about twenty balls, he had got the swing of things, connecting most balls, and now trying to work out how to direct the ball. Some went way up, others hit the side fence, a few hit the ground before bouncing up. Oh, and that sound. That metallic ping when the bat connected with the ball!

After about twenty minutes, it was my turn and I was nervous. Kenneth got the hang of this so quickly and I didn’t want to be shown up by his natural ability with racquet sports. It took me a few more goes than him before I connected but found the feeling fantastic when I did. Gee, it was good; seeing the ball move towards you, taking a swing, connecting, hearing the ping, and seeing the ball get air.

I want to do it again!

The joy of the ocean

Bramston Beach
Bramston Beach

My last weekend was fantastic; I spent it in Tropical North Queensland, enjoying Bramston Beach and its surrounds. I must say, the whole process of getting away, even for a short weekend does wonders for the mind. Even though some people get stressed out about getting to the airport, waiting for the flight, and squeezing into a small seat, I find the whole process quite relaxing, especially when you know you’re going away for leisure.

My Saturday morning was the highlight: still waking up early at 6.30am to the sound of breaking waves on the beach; walking up and down the beach with the sun steadily rising; admiring the distant islands. It really was idyllic and helped clear my mind from the stresses and strains of the week before. The rest of the day was no different: driving into Cairns; having brunch on the wharf; milling around the organic markets at the wharf-side centre; snoozing in the afternoon; finding a Chinese restaurant in Innisfail; losing a whole lot of poker chips.

For those of you who are need of refreshment, you could do much worse than than taking a short trip to enjoy the climate, coast, and hinterland of Tropical North Queensland.

Build it and they will come

Third generation Toyota Prius
Third generation Toyota Prius

One of the feel good movies from the  late eighties was the Kevin Costner film, Field of Dreams. Costner stars as Ray Kinsella, a cash-strapped American corn farmer who hears a voice say, “if you build it, he will come”. His mind envisions a baseball field, and despite his perilous financial situation, he ploughs ahead, with his wife’s support, to build a baseball field on his farm. Before long, a bunch of baseball greats who were banned from the game from their role in the 1919 World Series appear on his field, as part of Kinsella’s childhood baseball dreams come true.

Today, many carmakers face the same predicament: they have heaps of blueprints for oversized cars and SUVs; they have inefficient factories and expensive pension schemes to service; they’re facing the global financial crisis, with some up to their eyeballs in debt; total consumer demand is contracting; there are too many car brands and dealers. Yet, despite all this, there’s an unstoppable desire by normal every day people to ensure our environment is sustainable for future generations.

Is it any surprise then that Toyota’s new third-generation Prius, a hybrid motor car, has been large success? Launched earlier this year, it already commands a waiting list the envy of any General Motors or Chrysler dealer, and this is the dual-motor version! (The third-generation Prius features a petrol and electric motors.) In 2015, Toyota expects to launch a fully-electric car, one that’ll plug into the power grid much like your mobile phone. The reason for Toyota’s success here is the many years they’ve spent recognising the environmental trend and responding to it in a tangible way that’s appealed to customers. They’ve invested in hybrid, electric, and plug-in hybrids as they’ve realised different models will work with the different political environments in various countries. Toyota’s work in creating a highly aerodynamic car has also paid dividends; people really notice when you’re driving their distinctive Prius hybrid, compared with their US-market Camry hybrid. (The Prius has its own body shape while the Camry hybrid shares its body with the conventionally-powered Camrys.)

It just goes to show, if you build what the customer really wants, they’ll buy it! (The tricky part is working out what they want.)

Will the NBN be really that fast?

Earlier last month, the Federal Government announced it would establish a new company to build a “new super fast” National Broadband Network (NBN). The NBN is meant to provide 90% of Australian homes, schools, and workplaces with a 100 megabits per second connection to the internet. Taking eight years to build, it’s meant to create over 25,000 new jobs and cost a total of $43 billion that’ll be jointly funded by the Commonwealth and the private sector. Some analysts later worked out, based on providing a reasonable return to the private sector investors, the cost per subscriber for access to the NBN would be around AUD200/month.

I got pretty excited about this: I currently pay around AUD70/month for a cable modem connection at home that gives me about 8 megabits so we’re talking about a pipe that’s 12 times larger for around triple the price. (My cable provider advertises download speeds of 8 megabits but I’ve been assured by my more technical friends in reality I actually receive a fraction of this.)

That was until I read this week’s edition of The Economist. In an article about internet television, the correspondent explains how, in Japan, he currently pays USD60/month for a 160 megabits a second connection from his local cable company. Yes, you read that correctly. Today, in Japan, you can get a 160 megabit connection to the internet for USD60/month, and in the US, there are a bunch of cable companies who charge USD140/month for a 50 megabits a second connection.

Now we Australians are being told it could take up to eight years to build a massive network that’ll only provide 100 megabits. Am I missing something?

While I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments of the Federal Government, if we really want this to be a ground-breaking Snowy Mountains-like scheme, maybe we need to aim for something higher. The idea of simply providing double the capacity of our American friends over eight years doesn’t sound that appealing, much less so the idea of getting 60% of what our Japanese friends can receive today for a fraction of the price.