Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Devonport auto show

The other day, while driving home, I was struck by a strange conglomeration of surprise and surprise at my lack of surprise. Here's a photo:

My surprise: Hey, there's a Corvette. You don't see many of those here.
My lack of surprise: Huh, (look carefully now) it's got a California licence plate.
My surprise at my lack of surprise: It's got a California license plate???

Okay, I'll admit it, we drove right by the turnoff to our house so that we could tail them. We had to get a picture. Unfortunately, my cellphone was the best we had. I was driving, and Roni didn't know how to use the camera on my phone. Sorry, this was the best picture we could get.

Anyway, upon closer inspection we realized that, not only was this a California registered Corvette, the steering wheel and driver were on the traditional American side of the vehicle. Very odd.

We thought about following them and asking them about their car and why they had it in Devonport, but we decided that would make us look too stalkerish. In retrospect, anyone who loves their car enough to ship it to New Zealand probably wouldn't have minded bragging on it to a couple of American emigrés.

Corvette rhymes with courgette, which is what they call zucchini here. Messed up, huh?

Monday, January 22, 2007

Living in the 'net boondocks

The stages of culture shock are reasonably well known:

1. The honeymoon stage ("gee ,everyone / everything is so different and nice")
2. The irritation / anger stage ("why the heck do they do that?")
3. The rejection stage ("oh, it's kiwi, it must be bad")
4. The integration stage ("eh, when in Rome. . .")
5. The reentry stage ("Were things really like this before I left?")

I preface this entry with the qualifier to point out that things could really be worse. We live within a 5 minute walk of the beach. I get a great view of the Hauraki Gulf and Auckland's majestic harbor bridge when I walk down the driveway to the mailbox.

Ultimately, however, this story is fixed somewhere between points 2 and 3 on the culture shock list. Those who are faint of heart and those who are enamored with New Zealand's telecommunications infrastructure are advised that this author intends to express some particularly vitriolic sentiments about New Zealand telecommunications.

First, a little history: When we arrived in New Zealand, one of the first things we did was to look for a café with wireless internet access. Auckland, City of Sails, home to approximately 1.2 million people, is a modern, cosmopolitan city. By contrast, Missoula is a city of under 60 thousand, surrounded by a vast expanse of rural. In Missoula, the coffee shops have offered free wireless internet, or 'wifi,' for several years. In fact, Missoula's wifi hotspots came to several local bars and even to the Mount Olympus of microbreweries, The Kettlehouse. (As an aside, people sometimes ask us if we miss anything from the States that they could send. Yes. We miss Double Haul IPA from the Kettlehouse. It comes in shippable cans.)

The state of wifi in Auckland, however, was a bit different as we soon found out. We stopped into a handful of non-Starbucks coffee shops along Queen Street, the cosmopolitan center of Auckland, and asked, "Do you have wifi here?" Most responded, "Huh"? A few responded, "Uh, no."

Hmm. . . This doesn't look promising. Well, we needed to tell the family that we made it alive, so we swallowed our pride and went to a Starbucks. "$10 / hour for wifi?! " Well, that clearly wasn't going to be sustainable. So, we economized on internet usage and found other internet cafés that were (*cough*) less posh than your average Starbucks (and not even in the same ballpark as our local coffee shops in Missoula).

We went through a dark period in Wellington when we ended up buying dial-up access just so that we could search for jobs online. But, I found work and we moved into a slightly more permanent apartment. We could get broadband! In our own house!

We were so excited, we hardly even cared that our broadband was:

1. incredibly slow
2. required us to pay for a phone line that we didn't need or want
3. limited the amount we could download (In Missoula, like most places in the US, broadband is unlimited)
4. cost twice as much as the service we left in Missoula (above and beyond the $30/month phone service that we didn't really need).

This was all okay until a variety of factors led to us moving north from Wellington to the warmer and much less windy climate of Auckland. Upon planning our cross country move to Auckland, one of the first things we did was to schedule a service move with Telecom for our phone and Internet. We were very explicit about timing. I was planning to take some time off to do some personal skills development, and the Internet factored heavily into those plans. We didn't want any screw-ups. We called well in advance.

Fast forward to our arrival in Auckland. After a long hard day's drive, I decided it would be nice to kick back, check my e-mail, and catch up the news. So, I plugged in our networking stuff and got ready for some much deserved web surfing.


Okay, let's do some troubleshooting (as you know, I'm rather proud of my Shaolin-like computing abilities.). About 2 minutes of troubleshooting later and I've decided to see if I can even get a dial tone off the phone line. I plug in a phone and listen. "Hey, hon! I can hear the ocean in here." Frack.

The next day, we go to the neighbor's apartment, introduce ourselves, and ask to use her phone to call Telecom. While we're making small talk with our neighbor, we ask her if she ever has problems with her phone. "Oh yeah," she says, "Since we had a big lightning strike last year, everyone in this area has been having odd problems."

Oh, boy.

I reach Telecom, report the fault, and they tell me that it's going to be over a week before they can get a technician out to look at the problem. I, downtrodden, hang up. No, wait! I come from America, land of consumer activism. Didn't a Montanan just win a New Zealander of the year award for her work in consumer advocacy? She even lives up here in the North Shore!

The next day, I called back to Telecom and very politely told them my predicament and asked them if there was any way they could expedite the technician. (Word to the wise: always be friendly with anyone you speak to at any tech support group. Being rude exponentially decreases your chance of a favorable resolution.) "Yeah, we can get a technician out in 3 days." Not the best, but better than the previous estimate. I take it.

Finally, Telecom Technician Day comes. We are elated. After digging around at our jacks for a while, and poking around outside, we have a dial tone and Internet! We are elated. . . .

Later that day: "Does it seem like things are really slow?" I ask. "Yeah, it does," says Roni. "Does it seem like a lot of pages won't load on the first try?" I ask. "Yeah, it does," says Roni.

I get back on the phone with Telecom and explain the predicament. They say they'll get a tech out in about a week. Yay.

Technicians come, technicians go. I estimate I've called Telecom about 15 times in the last month and a half. I think Telecom has sent a half dozen technicians. I have case numbers with Telecom's technical support, Xtra Broadband's (Telecom's broadband partner) "advanced ADSL helpdesk," Telecom's customer support, and one of Telecom's line repair outsource providers--plus a couple other case numbers that I can't remember where they go to.

Last week we had a very friendly line technician come to our apartment. He determined the problem was definitely not in our house, but in the main line servicing the area. "Oh yes, that lightning strike last year really caused a lot of problems in this area," he explained. Unfortunately, he couldn't really do anything. It was another group's responsibility, and (wouldn't you know it?) he can't see the fault anymore anyway. Of course he couldn't see the fault; our DSL connection drops intermittently. He told us to let them know if we continued to have any problems.

I've decided I need to ramp things up a little. I started using a network tool called 'ping' to determine when our connection goes down. (I apologize to the techies for the oversimplified explanation. I also apologize to the non-techies for the overly technical explanation.) Basically, what I've been doing is saying "are you there?" to Telecom every three seconds for 24 hours at a time. If Telecom responds, I know that our connection is still up.

In one 24 hour span, our connection might drop as few as 20 times. 10 hours in to the current test, it has already dropped over 40 times. D'oh!

"Pinging" doesn't just tell me how often our connection drops. It can also tell me how long it takes information to cross our scratchy lines to Telecom. The time it takes for us to talk to Telecom would not make a satellite internet provider proud. (Satellites beam a signal over 22,000 miles and are notorious for high latency pings.) Ouch.

We can't even carry on an instant messenger conversation without frequent interruptions. A common conversation looks like this:

Friend: "Hi, Peter. How's it going?"
Peter: "Great. How are you doing?"
Friend ". . ."
Friend ". . ."
Peter: "Are you there?"
Friend ". . ."
Peter: "Damn."

There are plenty of reasons to move to NZ. If you are an IT professional or must otherwise rely on an internet connection for your livelihood, New Zealand probably isn't right for you.

Anyway, I called back to Telecom today to let them know that, yes, I'm still having the problem. They're going send a tech out sometime next week.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Beef...oh, so THAT'S what's for dinner!

Continuing on with our "Things to Eat in New Zealand" thread of blog entries, we have a few new gems for all of our devoted readers. Some of you may remember the Great Wallaby Incident of '06 we wrote about a while ago. Well, for all of you living in cattle country, here's another meaty wonder just for you.

Peter immediately started laughing in the grocery store when he saw this and snapped a picture with his cell phone. I just sighed; I had seen this before in other supermarkets. What has the world come to? And just what were these sausages made of if not beef? They had no ingredient label, so my mind just had to wander through all of the worst case scenarios as we walked by the sheep's kidneys toward the kleenex isle. The best thing I can say about these sausages is that they were much cheaper than any of the other items in the meat case. Needless to say we didn't get any.

We also saw this product near the checkout stand. Part of me actually wanted to by a box, just to compare it to the original. I know that they call raisins 'sultanas' here and that it probably tastes exactly like it does in the States, but still. Unfortunately, like most of the imported food here (and a lot of it is imported), it cost way more than I wanted to pay for it. We're in the process of sifting through the markets to find the cheap and healthy locally produced food. It's not proving an easy task, but since when is anything healthy or responsible easy?

I'll end this post with nod to all of you Futurama fans out there. I actually found this product at a dairy (aka convenience store) in Wellington. Not only was is Bachelor's brand food product (conjuring up images of Fry living on specially formulated brown stuff in the year 3000), but it claimed to be the UK's favourite mutilated vegetable matter.

My official review is mixed. It was better than I expected it to be-reminiscent of the condensed Campbell's split pea and bacon soup I loved as a kid-but still a cylindrical mass o' mashed vegetable that tasted just about as good as something like that can. I would only recommend this product to people with a nagging and sick sense of curiosity who also have $2.50 to spare.