Orange you glad I didn’t say Pelephone?

Orange has a nifty iPhone app that shows you exactly where they're ripping you off

Earlier in the week I wrote about my new iPhone 4S. I took a rather crafty approach in obtaining the phone. The local cell phone operators – Orange, Pelephone and Cellcom being the largest – are more than happy to give you a phone for “free” along with a plan with a minimum price of NIS 200 – NIS 250 (about $50-$65) a month. That fee, of course, includes a “hidden” charge where you pay for the phone over a period of 36 months; so the actual price of the phone comes to more than $1,000.

But that same phone is available from Apple in the U.S. for $700-$800, depending on how many gigabytes of memory you want. If you’ll be in the States or have a way to get a phone brought over from the old country, you can save several hundred dollars.

That was especially the case for me. I’m not a big phone talker. I needed a new phone (my ancient decidedly-not-smart Ericsson would unexpectedly just shut off, so I frequently missed calls) and I liked the idea of not having to carry a separate iPod and paper calendar.

My average talk and SMS bills have averaged about NIS 75 ($20) per month (true, now stop laughing already). All I needed was a cheap data package so, for example, I could use Waze to monitor traffic conditions or check email when I was away from a WiFi connection. That could result in a savings of at least NIS 100 – NIS 150 a month. Do the math and you’ll see that, in addition to getting the phone cheaper, I’d be doing pretty well over the three-year period.

With great optimism, I entered the Orange store in Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood and asked for their minimum data plan. I was delighted to learn that I could get 250 MB/month for just NIS 24 ($6.50) above my regular plan. If it turned out I needed more data, a full gigabyte was just NIS 42 ($11). Sign me up, Scotty.

Imagine then my surprise when I received my first bill and the price for the data plan was not NIS 24 but NIS 38. What gives?

We called Orange. The polite customer service agent checked and assured us that there was no such thing as a NIS 24/month plan, that the NIS 38 was correct, and there was nothing we could do about it, short of going into Orange and confronting them in person. Nothing I like more than a round of verbal fisticuffs in Hebrew

Now, we had asked the salesperson at the Orange store for the deal in writing, but she refused. “It’s all in the computer.” This is a common tactic (friends at other cellular providers report the same thing). I don’t know if it’s even legal. Silly us for being trusting in the first place.

Now, without the great optimism of the first trip, we headed back to Orange. By some great luck, we got the very same salesperson. She appeared as startled as us by our bill. “Yes, it’s NIS 24/month,” she said. But the computer didn’t agree. Apparently, there had been a glitch and the first time around the computer was offering an old price that had already been discontinued. When she tried to fix our bill now, the NIS 24 option simply didn’t appear.

She seemed genuinely apologetic, but we were determined to get something out of the inconvenience (waiting for the Orange representative on the phone, driving back to the Orange store, waiting in line, etc – that had to be worth something). She offered us a refund for the first month. I demanded six.

“It’s impossible,” our salesperson said, not looking so apologetic anymore. “The computer won’t let me.” Sure, I thought to myself. Then the computer “suddenly” obliged and we settled at three.

The salesperson then suggested that we upgrade our plan. “You’ll save money,” she said, doing her best to coo us into compliance. We spent the next 20 minutes running calculations – cell phone plans are so convoluted they’re nearly impossible to decipher.

Let’s see: the new plan cost 38 agorot a minute for calls with 50 minutes free between Orange subscribers. We were paying a very high 89 agorot a minute but with 100 minutes free between family members and another 90 minutes free to other Orange users. One plan had the data package built in to the price; in the other it was extra.

And what’s to guarantee that, if we switched, once we got home we wouldn’t discover the same bait and switch?

Ah, but here’s where that new iPhone came in very handy. Before we started the conversation, I surreptitiously opened the voice recorder on the phone. The entire exchange was now preserved for posterity…or battle.

In the end we decided to stick with the plan we already had. And I have no idea if making a recording like this is even legal or admissible in court. But I don’t imagine it would ever come to that. After all, you can just switch to another carrier. I’m sure that would work out much better…right?


ISRAEL21c goes to college

“Four years ago, two students came to my office and said they really wanted to do a business-related trip to Israel,” he tells ISRAEL21c at the Jerusalem hotel where he and 18 students stayed for part of the recent spring-break trip. “I was in Israel in 1990 but, like most people, I knew little outside the cultural, the religious, the conflict. When I started doing research I was surprised to find how Israel was thriving.”

Malter began fashioning a full-semester course that begins with six weeks of learning about Israel’s economy, its industries, its politics and culture. The 2009 book Start-Up Nation by Dan Senor and Saul Singer is the primary text for the class.

“ISRAEL21c is a recommended resource,” says Malter. “I get [the newsletter] every week and find it incredibly helpful in staying current so I can introduce the latest advances in Israel directly into the classroom.”

Malter is assistant dean for student development and strategic initiatives, and he is also a member of the Israel Business and Technology Committee in St. Louis. “ISRAEL21c gives us good relevant information and helps us see what types of speakers and events we want to bring to the St. Louis community,” he says. “It has a really good balance of business and high-tech news – it’s very comprehensive.”

Jennifer Glick, a sophomore from the Chicago area, said she heard Malter talk about the course when she was visiting the campus in her senior year of high school. “I thought it sounded amazing and I knew I wanted to take it if I went to Wash U, and it actually was one of the reasons I decided to come to Wash U,” she tells ISRAEL21c.

“I had visited other schools that had study-abroad programs but I’ve always loved Israel and looking at it from business perspective was something I really wanted to do.”

Prof. Steve Malter and his students at Better Place.

Antony Santiago from Houston says that before the class he thought of Israel as “just a nation that warred with those around it. So when I came here it really changed my mind, because I saw how it’s really innovative and creative.”

He especially enjoyed the group’s visit to Intel-Israel in Haifa (“They have ‘clean rooms’ where no dust can reach the silicon they operate on”) and Better Place, the electric car network.

“At home I’ll be able to tell my parents and friends on campus that Israel is a bountiful nation with very interesting and active people,” says Santiago.

All the students blogged daily ( during the journey. And when they return, each will do a final project analyzing a particular Israeli industry, looking at its challenges and opportunities and comparing it to a similar US industry.

Wash U has a semester exchange program with IDC-Herzliya (, where 12 American and 12 Israeli students pair up to plan a startup company.

“We hope to put together some additional collaborations with IDC,” says Malter.


Parent apps

They’re not just new parents, nor are they merely a couple, one of whom is a physicist/amateur computer programmer and the other a Arabic literature and comparative religion university lecturer.

Jerusalemites Miriam Goldstein and Michael Feigenson are now app developers, having created two apps that will appeal to the new parent set, all part of Parents2ParentsApps, their “mom and pop, family business that creates mobile applications for parents. We build apps that answer our own needs as parents, and strive to make them useful to others and as user-friendly as possible,” writes Michael on their website.

Perfect Timing was their first app, using FAM, the Fertility Awareness Method, to help learn about and identify and chart natural family planning. They found the method helped them get pregnant easily, and the app is an easy way to keep all the information in one place.

Once their son was born, they came up with Sound Sleeper, a white noise app that can identify when a baby wakes and play a selected white noise — ocean, rain, car ride, even the sounds of Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market — to lull the baby back to sleep.

As I always say, whatever works. And now I know why they always seem so happy and rested. Smart.

REM returns to Israel in the form of Robyn Hitchcock

REM returns to Israel in the form of Robyn Hitchcock

Peter Buck and Robyn Hitchcock on the left

In 1995, I got fired from a job. It was the first job I’d had in Israel and the first time I’d ever been fired from anything. Suffice it to say I was pretty despondent on that day.

REM saved me.

The night after I was laid off, my favorite rock band REM was playing in Tel Aviv. I had decided not to go – the tickets were too expensive – but after getting canned, I decided I needed something to cheer me up and take my mind off of the fact I was newly in Israel with two kids, a wife in ulpan and no foreseeable income. I went with my good friend Eliot who was also a massive REM fan.

REM has since broken up (a real shame because, after 10 years of producing mediocre records, they finally roared back into relevance with Collapse Into Now). But the band was back in Israel, in a way, this past weekend in the form of Robyn Hitchcock. I got a chance to catch them with my still good friend Eliot, and made possible by Israelity colleague and buddy David Brinn.

Robyn Hitchcock has been around for ages – in the late 1970s he headed up a proto-punk band called The Soft Boys. He had a number of college radio hits in the early 1980s with a band he called The Egyptians.

Now here’s the REM connection: in the last few years, he’s put together an occasional recording and touring band with REM guitarist Peter Buck. Calling themselves The Venus 3, they more often than not sound scarily similar to REM.

Buck is the master behind REM’s jangly pop bright guitar sound that was the band’s staple coda in its early years. That was ever present in The Venus 3’s original songs, and it happily bled into versions the band performed of early Hitchcock material too.

Hitchcock is no Michael Stipe – I’ve never liked the former’s voice that much – but his lyrics are keen, the music catchy and he has a quirky troubadour-like stage presence.

I wasn’t commiserating over any particular setback Saturday night when we went to see The Venus 3 Tel Aviv’s Barby Club. That  made the show pure pleasure rather than the compulsory catharsis of 17 years ago.

This was Hitchcock’s second time in Israel in less than six months. He played an acoustic set late last year at Tel Aviv’s Ozen Bar. This time out he was fully electric.

Hitchcock has a pre-rock star connection to Israel too: he spent time on a kibbutz in 1971.  Come back and visit soon, Mr. Hitchcock – and don’t wait another 40 years.

Eliot wrote a great review of the show for The Jerusalem Post.

Here’s a short video clip I made of the show.

Here’s a link to a full-length 1985 REM concert that showcases Peter Buck’s jangly guitar at its creative heights.

Falling in love again (not what you think)

Find every Israeli radio station online in one iPhone app

You may have noticed I didn’t post as much last week as usual. It’s not because I’ve been traveling overseas or that I’ve been sick. No, I’m in love…

With an iPhone.

Yes, my wife knows. She’s been very understanding, even when I take my new device to bed with me (ostensibly for “doing work”). She even looks the other way when I coo sweet nothings into the microphone for Siri, the iPhone 4S’s sexy female digital assistant, to schedule reminders, set up meetings and search the Internet (“Siri, show me a picture of a gecko” – yes, it really works!)

Like any good gecko…er geek, I’ve filled my new iPhone with the latest and greatest apps, including quite a few Israeli-made products. If I want to figure out how to get somewhere by bus in Jerusalem, there’s JeruBus. If my travels are farther afield, the “Bus Line” app brings me the whole country (although the functionality is pretty funky – you search for a route number and it gives you all bus lines in the country matching that number – i.e., the 14 bus in Jerusalem, Safed, Ashdod and Beit Shemesh…not all that helpful).

I’ve installed both Fring and Viber to make phone calling cheaper, and Israel365 to deliver a daily dose of inspiring Israeli photos. I found a local dog sitter on Janglo’s mobile app, and Haaretz is the place I go first for news about Israel, since they are the only one of the big English-language news sites to have an app (visiting a news website on your smart phone is so 2008).

My favorite app, though, is not Israeli at all, but has great value add for us Middle Easterners. It’s called Tune In Radio and it lets you stream just about every station that’s on the Internet. This includes web-only broadcasters like Israel’s Radio Free Nachlaot and Rusty Mike, but also terrestrial radio stations that have an Internet stream.

The coolest part is the “local radio” tab, which uses your location to find all stations near you. It accurately located every Israeli stream (from Galgalatz to the student station from the IDC in Herzeliya) as well as a few Arabic-language surprises like talk radio station Radio Sawa and Radio Bethlehem.

Like the “Israel loves Iran” campaign that’s tearing up Facebook, Tune In Radio is doing its small part to go beyond the conflict. It may not bring peace now, but the app has managed to get the bickering parties onto the same (app) page.