Saturday, April 9, 2016

Take a deep breath

As a insulin-dependent diabetic (Type 2), a primary challenge has always been to figure out the right amount of Insulin to take, and deal with the fact that injected insulin, despite being referred to as “rapid”, has a 4-hour absorption curve. That means that if I had a meal but didn’t take enough insulin, I’d be stuck with the elevated blood-glucose level for another 4 hours. As this happens to me fairly often, this is quite detrimental to my health, long-term.

A few months ago, an amazing company by the name of Mannkind released the perfect solution – Affreza…inhalable insulin with a super-rapid acting time of less than an hour. Finally, I can take an insulin correction and have it take effect within minutes rather than hours. In addition, this gets rid of the need to tear holes into my flesh (not to mention worrying about sterility, disposing of used needles, and finding a place to perform the injections while out of the house without freaking people out).

So, if you’re a diabetic and never heard of Afrezza, go ask your endocrinologist about it…it WILL change your life! However, when I first tried Afrezza, I ran into an unpleasant and detrimental side effect…coughing. Afrezza comes as a powder that you inhale deeply, and my body’s defenses against foreign bodies flared up, causing me a severe cough that led to the Afrezza powder being coughed-out before it had the chance to do its work. Today I want to share not only the news about Afrezza, but also my way of handling the challenge.

After speaking with Mannkind and other Afrezza users, I learned that a cough is not uncommon, and most people get used to the powder and stop coughing within a few weeks of continued use…so if you’re coughing, don’t give up on it…fight though it and you should get used to it pretty fast. If not, however (like me), I did figure out two tricks.

The 1st trick is that drinking some liquid after inhaling seems to suppress the cough. This can be water, juice or anything you like drinking. The only trick is to be able to hold the cough for a few seconds until you can get a sip in. Using this method, I was able to avoid coughing 90% of the time.

A few weeks later, though, I found an even more effective way. As it turns out, my cough-defense can actually be fooled into “thinking” I’m OK by simply coughing AHEAD of taking the medicine. By intentionally coughing once or twice before inhaling the Afrezza I was able to get myself to be “coughed out” enough so that when I did inhale the drug, I wouldn’t cough at all! I’ve been using the 2nd work-around for months now, with great satisfaction. Now Afrezza works for me 100% of the time, and as a result, I’m very close to 100% balanced, with a super low HBA1C values (probably even better than most pump users).

Hope you find Afrezza to be useful, and the above tips useful as well!

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Washington democratic Caucusing 101

This entry is a little late for the 2016 elections, but having gone through it recently, I feel this info might be useful next time around and worthy of noting down for future voters.

Why caucus? Well, if you have to ask that, you might have come to the wrong place, but generally, the answer is that it’s a way to be much more influential in the election process. In the general elections, a person’s vote is one out of hundreds of millions, but in a caucus, it’s relative strength is much stronger and therefore, a better use of one’s time.

If you are outside Washington State, keep in mind that the process is somewhat different in different states, so the info below may not be accurate for your region. Same goes if you’re a republican, as the Republican Party has a different process.

The Democratic Party splits the country into several levels, starting with the top (national), through the State, congressional district, county, legislative district and finally, precincts. At the precinct level, anyone can attend, and if they are of legal voting age (or will be at the actual elections), they can vote as well. It is recommended to pre-register on the Washington democratic website (, but not required – you can also do this at the event itself, but you should at least use the site to figure out where your precinct’s caucuses are held (typically somewhere in your neighborhood, like a school or other public venue).

Caucuses are typically held on Saturday, usually starting at 10am. Depending on how busy and active your town is, crowding might be a challenge, so I recommend arriving 30-60 minutes ahead, especially if you’re arriving by car and need parking.

Once you arrive, you will have the chance to register and sign-up if you haven’t done so online yet. This includes either signing up to be a voter generally, or signing up to the caucus itself (or both, of course), so if you’re legally allowed to vote but haven’t registered yet, this is a good place to do it.

The caucus, also referred to as a “convention”, things will typically start with a 30 minute introduction, where a local volunteer will read out the precinct names and provide some other high-level info, and then ask the people present to move-off to their precinct tables. This varies by location, but precincts are typically around 50 people each, so the location would typically have many tables setup, sometimes all in one big room, and sometimes in several rooms. Rarely any place has actual tables that can seat 50 people, so some people will have to stand up (if you can’t due to personal limitations, I’m fairly sure someone at the table will give you his or her seat…we are all friends at the caucus!).

Each precinct must have a chair-person, which requires some training, so it typically will be someone from the organization assigned to your precinct. The chair-person can be anyone, really, so don’t expect anyone too formal – it could easily be your neighbor’s 17 year old son or his grandmother. There’s no dress code to the entire thing either, so most people just show up in their daily jeans and t-shirt, including the chair-person.

The chair-person will have an envelope with forms and a “script” to go through the process, and will start by collecting the registration forms. These are supposed to have your full details, as well as the name of the candidate you support, and whether you are willing to be a higher-level delegate for your precinct. In the 2016 caucus, the online forms many people used actually told us NOT to fill this section, which was a mistake that led to some contention. If this happens again later, make sure you DO fill out those details.

What does being a higher-level delegate entail? This is typically a second caucus, a few weeks later, with selected few delegates from each precinct representing and voting for their candidate at the legislative-district convention. What starts out as millions of voters at the precinct level slowly thins out to be less and less people at the higher levels, until reaching the national level, which is about 5000 delegates total. If you continue to step-up and get elected, you might end up going to the nationals (typically somewhere on the east coast) and that’s pretty much the epitome of being involved in the process.

The chair-person will collect the forms, and ask for someone to volunteer to be a secretary and take notes of the caucus, as well as a tally-person who will help count forms and numbers for everything. Once the forms are collected, the tally-person will count how many votes each candidate has, as well as how many people volunteered to be delegates to the next level. Often times, there are at least a few people who are yet undecided (“uncommitted”), and the chairperson would then offer the people at the table an option to say something generally or specifically to the undecided. This is the real meaning and purpose of the caucus, and while time is usually limited, there should be at least 20-30 minutes available to discuss and deliberate.

Different precincts have different numbers of delegates, and for each delegate, there must be an alternate (in case the delegate can’t make it for any reason). Depending on the vote count, the number of delegates for each candidate varies. For example, if your precinct has 50 voters, and assigned 6 delegates, then if one candidate has 33 votes and the other has 17, the 1st candidate will have 4 delegates and the other 2. The Chair person’s packet includes information on how to calculate the number of candidates, of course.

If the number of delegate volunteers isn’t sufficient to cover the required number of delegates and alternates, the chairperson will ask the table for more volunteers, though it’s often the other way around – there are more volunteers than needed delegates. In such a case, the chairperson would ask the table participants to vote on the candidates. If you feel your precinct might be in such a situation, and you really want to be a delegate, the common practice is to talk to your own neighbors (who are in your precinct) ahead of time to find those who support you and/or your position, and might show up to vote for you to be delegate.

Once all the delegates and alternates have been selected, the chairperson would hand out certificates to each, noting their precinct, name and role (primary or alternate), and the caucus should be concluded. Later on, as the democratic org website is updated, more information would be provided about the next level, and it’s up to each delegate to find out where and when that is, and show up to continue the process.

At my caucus this week, I was selected as delegate, and I will blog about that experience afterward as well, on April 17th or a little later.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Land of opportunity

Land of opportunity
As an immigrant who has integrated well into 21st century America, many friends ask me about living here, usually as part of their own quest or aspiration to immigrate to the USA. To help future friends and colleagues get the right info, rather than relying on them asking the right questions (and me, remembering all the details) every time, I’ve decided to put it all down in writing. Here goes…
Where to live
When moving to the US, pretty much everyone sets their eye on either New York or Los Angeles. Other prime targets are Boston, San Francisco, Florida, Washington DC and Las Vegas. These are the most populous and well-known cities in the country, and therefore sound to many like “the” place to be. One thing to remember is that the high demand leads to a major competition for resources. Residents compete for every job, every parking spot, every house, every lane on the street, etc. Businesses compete for every customer and every dollar. The result is a dog-eat-dog society and the proverbial “rat race”. This is even worse for new immigrants, who have to deal with learning a new culture, geography and language. Truth be told that while costs are higher in the more popular cities, wages are higher too. However, in the big cities, the delta between the costs and income is smaller, leading to an overall lower quality of life.
In other words, I strongly recommend against taking up residence in those cities and focus your attention on the lesser known and less populous regions. Texas, for example, is a great target to consider. It has plenty of work, open spaces, decent prices, and the only downside is the heat (which can actually be an attraction for Israeli and Indian immigrants, who might be used to the heat). Another great option is North Carolina, which also offers plenty of opportunities but without so much competition. Other than those two, the US has over 40 other excellent states with thousands of cities that, despite not being ‘the big apple’, still offer every possible modern convenience. Even if you have to wait a couple of years for Justin Bieber to sing in your city, isn’t getting a nicer house and spending less time in traffic worth it? I think so, and this is why I picked Seattle.
Housing in America
America is a big country, and so generally speaking, land is abundant and cheap for most of the country. The exceptions to this are the high-demand cities New York and San Francisco. Like anywhere else, residence is cheaper the farther you go from the city center, but still, the primary form of residence in the US is in houses (as opposed to apartments). Apartments do exist, but most Americans live in houses, many of which are over 200 square meters (2150 square feet). The costs vary in different regions, but the general average is that in major cities and their suburbs, you can rent a small apartment for around $1000 a month, and a sizeable house for around $2500. As you go farther away and into the “middle” (states like Montana, Wyoming, Utah etc), prices drop significantly, and a similar house would cost only around $1500. Then again, in good old San Francisco, you can expect to pay upwards of $6,000 for the same exact thing. Another common form of residence is the “town-house”, which is a small-footprint house that goes upwards. This format allows sizeable houses to be built in areas that are in high demand, like major cities. The cost is typically a little less than a regular house, and these places typically have a tiny yard, or no yard at all.
The residence rental market is highly developed in America, with millions of families who live as renters throughout their entire life. To cater to this market, house owners use management companies to manage their property. These companies collect the process the rent and taxes, maintains the property, and basically isolate the owner from the tenants…for a fee that’s around 10% of the monthly rent. Also, there are many real estate companies who build housing complexes that they rent out individually. Such companies have an office for the complex-manager and his team, who do all the management and maintenance. All this leads to a very streamlined experience for the renter, which makes it easy and convenient to live as renter for many years.
For those who prefer to buy a residence, things are trickier. Unless you have the cash in hand, getting a mortgage in the US requires a “credit rating”, which new immigrants don’t have (it takes time to build…more about that later), as well as a down payment of at least 10% (preferably 20%) of the house’s cost. Another challenge with buying a house in the US is that when getting a mortgage, the mortgage company will examine your finances very thoroughly (to protect themselves from fraudulent buyers who can’t really afford what they are buying). This can come back to bite you, as you will have to explain in detail not only your income, but also the money you have for the down-payment. If you got that as a gift from your parents overseas, you’ll need to get some tedious paperwork to prove that.
Being a home owner carries the advantage that you can get a tax-refund on the interest you might pay for your mortgage, but the disadvantage of having to pay homeowners tax (usually around 0.1% of the houses’ cost per month), homeowners insurance (typically around $1000 a year), and of course, whatever maintenance expenses show-up along the way. Another thing to keep in mind about houses is that maintaining one is a lot different than maintaining an apartment, and there’s no single and simple way to learn how-to. For example, how to deal with a woodpecker that has decided to hammer the wall on the other side of your bed, or what to do if your gutters get clogged up (they do every year or so) or how to continue living when you have a power outage for 6 days (not uncommon in many parts of the country). My advice for any new immigrant is to NOT rush into buying a house. Instead, I recommend living at least a year in a rental apartment or house, which will give you a chance to learn more about how this country works, as well as traffic patterns which might steer your house selection and may not be obvious at first.
Earning and working in America.
Salaries are usually listed yearly in America, and before-tax, so it’s not always easy to understand what kind of money you’ll be ending up with. Also, many places pay salaries twice a month instead of once (this can affect your cash-flow, positively or negatively). The taxes you pay on your income vary by state, county and city, so some areas have very low rates (as in, just Federal income tax) like Washington and Alaska while others have much higher rates, like California and Oregon. In addition, most state have a ‘sales’ tax (comparable to the V.A.T that many countries have), which can be up to 9.45%. This is still low compared to countries like Israel, which charge almost 20%, but then again, some states like Alaska and Oregon has none at all.
As you probably know, America requires all citizens to file an annual tax report. This means that citizens can elect to not pay income tax during the year, and just pay the total sum annually. This also means that a significant number of residents get a tax refund after they file, and many others have to pay additional sums at that time. The American IRS also requires everyone to report about assets held outside the US, so immigrants who have houses or large bank accounts overseas are required to report, and sometimes pay taxes on that money.
The world-famous American “capitalism” has made the US great in many ways, but it also means that the law is frequently on the side of the business, and not the employee. If you come from a European or otherwise socialist country, the realities of this might seem harsh. For example, in many states, you can get fired from your job for ANY reason…or for no reason at all, and most states you’re not entitled to a notification period or for severance pay. Likewise, an employer has very little requirements related to employee benefits (for example, an employer doesn’t have to give you paid time off, or even sick-days). Then again, if you open up your own business and hire employees, the same laws will protect you as an employer, and help you screw your employees and make more money. Hopefully, you will choose not to exploit them too much. The US is world-famous for have better work-life balance than many countries, though it pails compares to some European and south-American countries. Things are actually pretty bad for people in the retail industry. While corporate employees often get as much as 7 weeks of paid vacation and a 40 hour work-week, retailers often work 10+ hours days and 7-day workweeks, with little options other than be patient until they move up the ranks or get some other corporate desk-job. From watching TV, you might get the impression that Americans are very laced-up, square and strict in the workplace, but that’s not always true. There are many friendships established at work, and it’s not unusual for someone to mutter a “fuck” or “shit” at work, even in meetings or presentations. Still, there are many places with harsher conduct code or policies where you would have to call others “Sir” and “Ma’am” and wear a suit-and-tie all the time.
Life expenses
In America, materials are cheap, and man-power is expensive. This means that the stuff you buy is affordable (TVs, computers, food and other stuff), but getting work done by human beings is very expensive. For example, a plumber or carpenter often charges upwards of $100 per hour. If you come from a country where getting an interior car-wash is simple and common, you’d be surprised to find it can costs hundreds of dollars in the US. This is also why medical services and education cost huge amounts of money here.
If you’re curious about routine expenses and costs, here are some general examples. Keep in mind that they vary from area to area (for example, heating is hardly needed in California, but is a major thing in Alaska, obviously).
  • Internet. Typically $50-90, depending on speed and service type (DSL, Cable, Dish, fiber etc)
  • Cellphone. Typically $30-50 per line, depending on smaller to larger providers
  • Home phone. Typically $30 a month. Can be cheaper if bundled with internet and cable TV.
  • Alarm system. Typically $20 per month
  • Trash. Typically $30 per month
  • Electricity. Typically $80-100 a month, depending on season and regional climate.
  • Gas. Not used anywhere. Can reach $300 in harsh winters if used for heating
  • Water. Between $70 to $160. Higher end is for those with yards or gardens that need watering.
  • Sewer. Usually separate than water, around $65 per month
  • Cable TV. Starts around $20 and can reach over $100 for a wide range of channels. Can be cheaper if bundled with internet and phone.
  • Gardening. Depends on your area, usually around $80-100 a month. Can reach hundreds for large homes.
  • House cleaning. Typically 70-90$ per visit.
  • Baby Sitting. Typically $12 per hour.
Other regular costs are day-care for young kids and private-school for older kids (many prefer that, as its higher quality education than public schools). This is typically $1300-1800 per month, which can be very hard if you have more than one kid. Public schools (free) are from age 6, and in some places, from age 5. Many parents who want child care as early as a few months old have to figure out a way to pay for it.
A major expense to most families is health insurance. News article sometime makes it seem like health in America is terrible, but the reality is that for most people, it’s actually very good. The health industry is huge and very rich, so for those who do have health insurance, things are usually very good. There are certain people who can’t get health insurance for various reasons, but those are a small minority. Health insurance pays for almost everything, even bariatric surgery and psychotherapy, and although there are situations where the insurance may refuse to cover something, this is also a fairly rare situation for most people. One thing to keep in mind is that the best health insurance is given to employees by their employer (some even give it for free) and those who are unemployed or self-employed may be in a tougher spot. Typically health insurance starts off at around $200 per month per person, and high-end plans can cost upwards of $600 per person. For low income families with many kids, even the low-end insurances can be a major burden, of course. Most people pay around $350 per person. All insurance plans have a deductible, just like a Car insurance has, and this means that healthcare does cost money above the monthly costs. Usually, the out-of-pocket is capped so that you don’t end up with huge debt, but the caps are typically a few thousands per year for a family. This means that if several medical events happen all at once, you might find yourself paying a lot.
Food is relatively cheap in America, especially with chains like Costco, Sam’s club and Cash-and-carry, which sell stuff in large boxes, suitable for long-term purchasing or large households. “outside” food, especially fast food is so cheap that it’s often even cheaper than cooking your own food (for the cost of veggies for a large soup, you can typically buy 5-7 meals at McDonalds, for example). Costo operates a prepared-food counter in each branch which sells food at incredible prices (for example, $10 gets you a huge pizza that can easily feed 6 people).
In some circles, Americans have a reputation for being unfriendly and cold, but that’s not very true. Some of them are, but that depends mostly on where they are rather than some ingrained cultural thing or genetic makeup of the population. If you choose to live in an area where there’s less competition for resources (as mentioned earlier, as farther from the high-demand cities of NY, LA etc), you would find that people are friendly, outgoing, caring and fun. Another reputation is that Americans’ are ‘square’, but that’s also not the case, and a lot of them are fun-loving and open. Another major factor in is how open YOU are to assimilating in your new environments. Being an immigrant is tough and scary to many, and a lot of people deal with it by retreating to what they know. Many immigrants socialize almost exclusively with their own race/culture, and spend most of their energy and time on replicating the environment they are used to (TV, movies, literature, food and other commodities of their home country). Many don’t bother learning English properly, not to mention refining their accent or exploring American culture, and all this often leads to poor assimilation and an increasing feeling of loneliness. My advice is to go against your instincts and do the opposite. Keep your food and a handful of close friends, but try to meet and develop relationship with the locals (not necessarily people from work) and explore the local culture as much as you can, from reading the news in English (not your native language) to getting used to watching TV and movies without subtitles.
Marriage and family
Immigration is often a huge blow to marriage. At first, everything is exciting and new, and people are overwhelmed by the abundance of material luxury. However, this rarely lasts more than a few months. Many immigrant families have only one working parent, with the other typically unable to work due to Visa limitations and/or language and culture barriers. The non-working parent often becomes a stay at home mom or dad, and that’s also fun at first. You get to spend time with the kids, rest more and build a nice home. However, usually within a year, this gets old and tensions start to build. Home-life becomes boring and repetitive, and the stay-at-homer often starts to feel lonely and depressed (the other parent being successful and happy at work only makes things worse), and oftentimes develops strong nostalgia for home (where everything was so ‘great’…). With that, the home parent starts to develop a desire to go back to the home country, which is rarely met positively by the working parent. This kind of situation often leads to a break up, or to artificial (and usually false) means of bolstering the marriage such as moving to different residence, or having more kids. Needless to say that this rarely works out. One way to prevent that is to make sure that both parents work, even if the work is only volunteer-based or part time (sometimes developing an art-form is a good substitute). Good emotional intelligence and open communications is also key to preventing tension and false pretense build-up.
Similar issues can develop with kids. Kids above the age of 6 typically have active social life, and aren’t happy about starting fresh. Often times, parents deal with that by presenting the move as temporary, which often puts the kids in a problematic place. They don’t want to bond to their environment, and instead, spend their time and energy waiting for the move back (sometimes pushing and nagging their parents to go already). This can also be detrimental to the success of the relocation, as well as to the marriage. My advice is to set clear and correct expectations, and don’t define the move as temporary unless you have a very specific return plan (many immigrants have a rough idea on the length of their stay, but later on find it very hard to actually start the move-back process, and end up staying much longer, and even forever).
This is pretty much it. I could probably write much more on the topic (and someday, I might expand this), but this is the basic stuff that should be kept in mind. Some of it is positive, and some not so much, but if I wasn’t clear – if you make the right choices, living in the US is a LOT of fun, and has a quality of life much higher than most countries in the world (even those who are higher on various ‘quality’ charts that papers like to print). If you do right by your family and actively work to take a full part of the country and the culture, you too can live like a king!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Simple Remote control with HTTPLauncher

As a system engineer, the ability to remotely control computers has always been high on my priority list, and even though there are plenty of solutions on the market, they are all pretty complicated to use, or too cumbersome. They typically involve installing a dedicated client, and even those that are built-in windows like Remote Desktop are not ideal since they are not designed for automation.

I’ve finally decided to design a solution of my own for this – HTTPLauncher. It’s fairly limited, but it’s very easy to use, simple to install (just copy it to the target machine, and run it!) and very light at 71 KB.

Other than remote controlling a computer, this tool can also be integrated with other stuff, like Arm Suwarnaratana’s Home-automation bridge, and this integration allows you to perform tasks on the computer by issuing voice-commands to Amazon’s Echo device (Alexa). I’ll talk more about that in a later post.

Here’s how HTTPLauncher works:

1. You copy the executable and configuration file to a computer that you want to control.

2. You run it

3. On another computer (which could be ANY device that has a browser, including any Smartphone on the market), you type a URL into the browser, with a command embedded in the URL.

4. The target computer executes the command as-is

The command you put in the URL can be any standard Windows command, like you would type into the Start/Run dialog. This could be launching an application, running a script, and pretty much anything you like.

Naturally, this kind of thing can be VERY dangerous if some hacker gets into your network, so I also embedded some security measures:

1. The command has to have an authentication token. The default token is 39ed173-b77a-5e41-812d-7be9e992f920, and you can change it by editing the configuration file that comes with the application.

2. The launcher will reject commands that match one of the words in the Black List (for example, Format, Del, Delete). You can edit and expand the list to your liking.

3. The launcher has a delay of 3 seconds (configurable) between executing commands, so trying to brute-force the authentication token would take forever.

4. The launcher limits the command length to 120 characters (configurable), so that even if the password is somehow broken, it limits the things the attacker can do remotely.

The syntax for issuing a command is:

http://<target IP or hostname>:<target port>/<token><Command>

The default port is 8008, and you can change it in the configuration file, alongside the other stuff I mentioned earlier. The command comes right after the token, without any separators and delimiters. For example:

http://ErezBedroomPC:8008/39ed173-b77a-5e41-812d-7be9e992f920c:\program files\skype\skype.exe

As you can guess, this launches Skype on the remote computer. Note that you need to specify the FULL path to the executable! Similarly, you can close the program remotely, though that’s a little more complicated. Programs don’t normally accept a command to exit, but you can do this by using the system’s TaskKill utility, which is built-into windows. To use it, you would issue a command like this:

http://ErezBedroomPC:8008/39ed173-b77a-5e41-812d-7be9e992f920c:\Windows\System32\taskkill.exe /f /im skype.exe

When you run this, the browser will convert the spaces to %20, but that’s OK – the Launcher will be able to understand it, and it will also convert back-slashes to forward slashes. You can also use it to execute commands that aren’t executable by launching them with a CMD. Keep in mind to specify the full path to the command prompt. For example:

http://ErezBedroomPC:8008/39ed173-b77a-5e41-812d-7be9e992f920c:\windows\system32\cmd.exe /c dir "c:\temp" >c:\documents\FileList.txt

Note that I’m using /c as a parameter for CMD, so that it closes after it executes the command. You can use /K instead to leave the window open if you’re having trouble for debugging purposes. You can also examine the log created by the launcher to see what it did, and if it ran into errors.

Finally, keep in mind that these commands can be launched from anywhere! While the server-side (the launcher itself) is for Windows computers, the web requests that run the command can be launched on ANY browser that’s connected to the same network. For example, you can save the URL URL http://ErezBedroomPC:8008/39ed173-b77a-5e41-812d-7be9e992f920c:\Windows\System32\shutdown.exe -s -t 1 as a bookmark on your phone, and just visit it to tell your computer to shutdown. In fact, If you dare publish the target computer through your router to the public internet, then you can even do these things remotely from anywhere in the world, without installing any other special software (to be clear…the security measures on the launcher are, in my opinion as a cryptography engineer (***), NOT sufficient for a public-facing remote-control tool…so I do NOT encourage, condone or support doing this!).

Hope you like the tool!

*** I’m also working on a more business-oriented version of this engine, which will support more advanced security options, like HTTPS connections, White-listing commands, White-listing remote IPs, Hashed password, Central config file and more. Once it’s ready, I’ll release it and details on the blog. If you have ideas for other security measures or features, please drop me a line.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Citizenship be gone

About 7 years ago, my wife and I won the American green-card lottery and moved to the USA. 5 years later, per the standard waiting period, we received American Citizenship as well. Even before that, it was pretty clear to us that once we become American citizens, we will want to renounce our Israeli Citizenship, and a few days ago, we completed that process. I’m sharing my experience here for the benefit of those who want to do it as well.


Several of our friends and relatives were surprised to hear that we were doing this. Some even took it as some kind of betrayal. Well, everyone has the right to have an opinion, but the main issue is due to the fact that an Israeli Citizen cannot travel out of Israeli without a valid passport. This leads to a string of administrative work that can end up badly in several ways. Here are some of them:

1. That’s 3 extra passports to keep track-of and renew every few years

2. Any travel to Israeli requires carrying a double stack of passports – double the space, double the stuff to safeguard.

3. Common strikes at either the ministry of interior and ministry of foreign affairs jeopardizes the ability to renew passports on time. Example.

4. Spelling means trouble. For example, last year my wife was detained for 2 hours in Israel because our last name is “Benari” on American documents and “Ben-Ari” on Israeli ones.

However, the main reason we did this was the Israeli Army. As you know, being an Israeli citizen includes the mandatory army duty for my son. We would, of course, file the paperwork to dismiss him when he’s at the right age, but this can go wrong in various ways. For example, this horror story about such a mishap is a stark warning of what the “benefit” of citizenship can amount to, as well as this one.


Renouncing the citizenship is, in theory, only a matter of filing a form and paying the fee ($92), but in reality, there are some complexities.

1st, this is one of those asks that require the requestor to visit a consulate in person. For those living close to a consulate, like residents of Boston, LA, NY and other locations, this would not be a big deal. For those living farther, such as me (Seattle), this requires some planning and some major expense. We did a 2-day trip to San Francisco, so that if something didn’t work out on the 1st day, we could come back the next day.

If you were thinking of just taking care of this on your next visit to Israel, this is not actually possible. This sort of request can ONLY be filed abroad. There are over 100 consulate offices world-wide, so with any luck, you can just pick one at a nice destination and have a family-vacation at the same time.

Secondly, if you have children, this can make things more complicated. For kids under age 16, the parents would include the kid in the request. Israeli law requires that any citizen of Israel who has a kid born abroad registers the kid with the Israeli government (which grants the kid citizenship). While this isn’t strictly enforced, this might trip-up the process. If the ministry of internal affairs is aware of the child (***) the consulate staff might refuse to accept your application because you failed to register your child. If, like me, you had to spend hundreds of dollars to go to the consulate, you might want to avoid the risk and register your child before filing the application.

*** I don’t know what info or data the ministry collects regarding citizens, so this is more a case of paranoia than anything else. I suspect that the existence of a child can be flagged somewhere in their computers, and they might become aware of the kid if you travel to Israeli with him

Luckily, you can register the child on the same visit to the consulate. This can be tough, as the consulate requires that you show a birth certificate that has an apostille authentication. That’s not equivalent to the regular stamp or signature that birth certificate have, and would typically require you to specifically ask for it from your local Department of State office (this can take a couple of weeks to get).

By the way, you can download the various forms you need here.

Taking the trip

If getting to the consulate requires a special trip, don’t forget to prepare and take everything with you. You would need:

1. American passports

2. American certificate of citizenship

3. Israeli passports

4. Child’s birth certificate with Apostille authentication

5. Forms for registering the child

6. Forms for renouncing the citizenship for you and spouse, and any kids above 16 YO (no need for kids under 16)

7. Multiple payment forms. The consulate can take a credit card, but I’d advise to bring cash and checks as backup

8. If there has been any name changes in the family, bring supporting paperwork.

Some consulates are busier than others, so try to figure out what lines you’re expecting. Most people who go to the consulate take a while to finish their business, so even if there were only 4 people behind you, you can get stuck for an hour or more.

I would also advise filling up the forms ahead of time, so that you don’t end up missing info, or writing hastily and unclearly on them. I actually loaded the form into Word and filled the details in print, and also brought a few extra copies just in case I spilled coffee on them or something.


Spending time and money getting to the consulate only to find that something is missing or wrong can be very annoying. However, most consulate employees have a very good service attitude and can help work out stuff. For example, when I made my visit, my son’s birth certificate didn’t have an Apostille stamp, but the consulate staff allowed me to get a new one and send it to them via FedEx. This way I was able to complete the process without having to travel again. If you run into a hiccup, try to think positively, and work with the consulate staff with the “what would it take to do this” approach rather than getting angry and confrontational.

Another hiccup I ran into was that the ministry of internal affairs needed a proof of foreign citizenship for all 3 of us. We did give ours during filing, but the consulate forgot to get our son’s, so after 3 months of considering the request, the consulate contacted us and asked us to send over a passport copy for the kid. You can avoid this delay by making sure you’re giving the consulate all the paperwork they might need, if they fail to ask for some.

After the trip

Once the paperwork is filed by the consulate, the ministry of internal affairs needs to review and approve the request, and each request is personally signed by the Minister. This means that it takes about 2-3 months for this to go-through, and you will be notified by the consulate (not directly by the ministry) about the results. Assuming the request is approved, the consulate will call you personally and ask you to send them your passports and Israeli ID cards. Once they receive your passports and IDs, they will mail you back a document confirming your status. This last step can take another month. For us, the whole process from setting foot in the consulate to getting the final certificate took 5 months.

The document you receive will be a standard Israeli ministry of internal affairs blue paper, saying that your citizenship has been revoked, plus a second page showing any kids who were part of it. You will receive 2 copies per person, and they look like this:


As you can see, the document clearly states that you need to display this paper when entering or leaving Israel. It is unclear to me whether the border-patrol computers will ever be updated with my status. A relative of mine says he needs to show the paper every time, even though it’s been 30 years since his citizenship was revoked. Upon my next visits to Israel, I’ll update this if I have more information.

I want it back!

So what if, after a few years, you suddenly have a change of hearts and want your citizenship back? Well, I’m not familiar with anyone who has done this, so the following is speculation, but the law of return specifically says that any Jew has the right to receive an immigrant Visa, with the only exceptions being if the person has acted against the Jewish people, or is a danger to the public or the state. That means that if you ever change your mind, you should be able to go back to Israel, get citizenship and even receive the benefits of a returning resident (תושב חוזר). Whether the ministry of internal affairs recognizes your special circumstances and give you a hard time is anybody’s guess. I believe that they won’t, and even if they did, this wouldn’t prevent you from visiting, living and working in Israel. The law says that you would need to apply for a Visa for those things, but I’m being told that beyond border patrol, this is rarely actually enforced.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Truth, justice and the American way

Last week I had the honor of serving on Jury Duty for the Seattle superior court. As I was preparing for this and participating, I was surprised to see how little info people actually have about this, so I decided to write it up for any future jurors.

The jury duty starts with a random selection done by the county. They have a computerized list of every resident of the county, and every period, they select a group of people from it. Only 18+ American Citizens who are residents of the county can participate, but the list the county has sometimes has errors (for example, my wife was selected for Jury a few years back, before we were citizens). If someone receives a jury summons while not meeting the criteria, they can and should respond to the summons via the mail, stating the error or issue. One can also ask to be excused if they are out of the country or have other reasonable excuse (no, you can’t ask to be excused because you’re busy watching the Tonight show).

On the day you are summoned for, you are asked to show up at 8am, which is quite early (I had to get up at 6:15 to make it on time), but on later days you can show up at 8:45. I live in Sammamish and the court is in Seattle, so that was quite a way off. The court recommends using public transportation, and so do I. While using my own car would be more comfortable, it wouldn’t actually save time as driving alone would get me stuck in traffic, and parking around the courthouse is limited and expensive. The courthouse is next to Pioneer square, so virtually every major bus line goes there and there are no less than 3 lines from my town directly to the court. I took the 6:40 bus and arrived at the court at 7:40.

At the courthouse, you have to go through security screening, so it’s best to make sure ahead of time not to bring anything problematic (like pocket knives) and to wear a belt that’s easy to remove. I was able to get them to use the wand-scanner instead, but only after a bit of argument. Then, it’s off to the Jury assembly hall, which is a fairly large place, lined up with chairs (soft and comfy ones!) for about 200 people, I estimate. There were plenty of available seats.

At 8:20, a court clerk began a presentation, which took about 30 minutes and included a movie outlining various principles of the law, and how a Jury works. I’ll detail some of this further down. After this, they started calling people for trials. The way this works is that the court has one or more trials each day, and for each, they need a certain number of jurors (typically 20-30). When they summon the Jury weeks before, they don’t know how many trials will be on the specific day, so it can go either way...some days only a handful of people are picked and the rest dismissed, and other days many or most of the people are used. Sometimes they even run out of jurors and have to pick more from the next day’s batch. While waiting, we were also asked to fill a form with some personal details like my place of birth, workplace and job (this would be used by the attorneys later if I get picked for a trial).

The court computer picks up random names of people from those who showed up, and the clerk calls them out. These selected then go up to the courthouse, and the rest continue waiting in the assembly room. As the day goes on, there might be more trials, and more rounds of calling people out. Once people have been called out for all the day’s trials, the remaining people are typically dismissed. On my day, there were only 3 trials and I didn’t get picked for any of them, so by noon, they dismissed me with several dozen others.

While waiting to be called, the assembly room is fairly nice and convenient. They keep a good temperature, they have a bunch of vending machines and a kitchenette I could use to put or prepare food. There’s also a water cooler and an “office”, which is a separate room with desks and power outlets, where people can work if they choose to. There’s also unlimited free WIFI access throughout the place. All in all, a pretty nice environment, and everyone is very nice and friendly. It’s clear that they really care about the well-being of the jurors and don’t take them for granted, even though it’s a mandatory service.

Jury duty is defined as mandatory 2 days, which means the process I described above continues to the next day. If you weren’t picked up on the 1st, you are supposed to show up the next day and as they court goes through trials that are scheduled for that day, you might get picked for one. If during the 2nd day you aren’t picked either, then you’re free to go. In my case this week, there weren’t any trials scheduled for the 2nd day, so all jurors that started their service with me and didn’t get picked were told that there’s no need to show up on the 2nd day and we’re done. Lucky us! We weren’t actually old this on the day, but rather through the court’s phone hotline and website, which is updated on a daily basis.

Since I wasn’t picked for any trials, the next section is a tad more vague, as it’s based on the info we were provided (and my understanding of it) and not my personal experience.

Once a group of Jurors is picked for a trial, they are sent upstairs to the courtroom where the trial is to be held. At that point, the judge assigned to the case instructs and guides the jury members about the case and the law related to it. This includes specifics about the case and the defendant, as well as meeting the lawyers representing both sides (defense and prosecution). The judge also provides an estimate of the trials length, and then gives each juror a chance to ask to be excused due to “undue hardship”. For example, if you have a planned trip that will collide with the trial, or if you have some business or family matter that will complicate your life significantly, you can ask to be excused. Then, it’s the lawyer’s turn to interview each of the jurors. This is to allow them to get rid of jurors who might have bias, or in other ways make the trial “unfair”. Essentially, lawyers use this to eliminate jurors that decrease their chance of winning, or lead to a more severe punishment. For example, if the defendant is accused of rape, and a certain juror has been raped in the past, she is more likely to treat the defendant harshly, and so the defense lawyer would prefer her to be excused.

During the interview process, each of the sides can excuse a juror for a “good” reason…or for any reason (meaning the real reason is uncool, embarrassing or otherwise better be left unsaid). The number of jurors that could be excused for “any” reason is limited, though, so as to not encourage too much of that. The number of people that can be dismissed for a good reason is not limited, so sometimes after both defense and prosecution are done, there aren’t enough jurors left and they have to call the jury assembly downstairs and ask for more people (this actually happened during my service – they initially had 90 jurors, but that wasn’t enough and so they called in 30 more). I’m not sure how they determine how many actually jurors are needed for each trial, but the panel actually includes one or more “standby” jurors, which can be called in in case one of the jurors needs to leave mid-trial for some reason. The common opinion is that defense lawyers usually excuse highly-educated people (especially those with legal education), as well as people with extensive trial experience. They also don’t like people who are pro-death-penalty and in general, anyone who is very assertive or strongly opinionated about anything (because these

Once the jury panel is finalized, the trial can begin, and once all the evidence and witnesses has been introduced, the Jurors’ go into the deliberation room, where they need to elect a “leader”, who steers the deliberations, finds info from the judge or lawyers when needed and ultimately also reads out the verdict. The deliberations might require the verdict to be either a majority decision, or unanimous, depending on the issue. Criminal cases typically require the decision to be unanimous, while civil stuff usually only requires a majority vote. Once a decision has been reached, the court re-convenes and the jury leader reads out the verdict. At that time, the jury is dismissed to return to their families and/or workplace.

So…I got off pretty quick this time. I spend about ½ a day waiting in the assembly room, and was then dismissed for the day and told to not come back for the 2nd day. I’ve heard that Jury duty is rare in Puget Sound, so I might be scot-free for a decade. I guess time will tell!

Friday, June 26, 2015

Break up with your mechanic (Honda Pilot and other heavy cars break issues)

For a number of years now I’ve been the proud owner of a Honda Pilot. That kind of size fits me really well, as I’m pretty big fellow. However, there’s one downside to owning the Pilot, which also applies to several other big vehicles. Stopping heavy vehicles takes a lot of breaking power, but many SUVs such as the Pilot are equipped with relatively-small breaks that aren’t really fit for the job. When you break the car, the strain causes the breaks to heat-up, and if you break extensively (for example, if you drive a lot in a hilly area), the breaks overheat and the metal plates known as break rotors start to deform. When this happens, you start to feel the car vibrate when you break. At first, it’s just minor shaking when breaking at high speeds, but as time goes by, it can become noticeable even when slowing down at low speeds.

How soon this happens depends on your driving and where you live. For people who drive a lot down the hill, this can start to happen within a year of buying the car. The “fix” for this is “turning” the rotors, during which the rotors are taken out and get a run-over with a lathe, which grinds a layer off the rotors and returning them to their former smoothness. Unfortunately, this isn’t really a fix, because not only will the rotors heat-up and deform again, they will actually do so faster as they are now (thanks to the turning) thinner and more sensitive to the heat.

A better fix is replacing the rotors with new ones, but if you just get regular rotors, you’re buying yourself a year or two at the most. About half the cost of either replacing or turning the rotors is the labor, as taking apart everything takes about 1-1.5 hours (auto shops often charge 100$ and up per hour). Usually, the deformed rotors also wear-out the break “pads” faster, so most mechanics will recommend replacing these too (some will outright DEMAND it).

When my previous Pilot had this issue, I paid a mechanic about $440 for the whole thing, including parts, labor and taxes. However, when I needed to do this again a year later, I decided to not take the lazy and expensive way out, and researched my options a bit better. Here are my lessons, and hopefully, this can save you too some money and heart-ache.

The 1st thing I learned is that there’s actually an even better fix – Drilled rotors. This is something that’s typically done to Race cars to improve the break’s performance. This entails drilling about 20 holes in the rotor, which allows it to cool faster. With race cars, this improves the reliability of the breaking system, and for us home users, it improves the cooling, which means the breaks can sustain more action before deforming. This doesn’t mean it’s foolproof…if you drive down all the way down from Mr. Rainier, they will still heat up and possibly deform, but for normal driving, drilled rotors will last much longer. Another thing that can be done to rotors is “Slotting”, which entails making deep grooves in the rotor. Slotting also improves the performance, although lesser so than drilling.

This doesn’t mean you drill your rotors yourself, of course. There are many break manufacturers who offer drilled, slotted or Drilled & slotted rotors. Some better known brands are DBA, StopTech, Power Stop, ACDelco, Raybestos and Brembo.

Below you can see regular rotors, slotted rotors and then rotors that are both slotted and drilled:


If you go to your auto shop and ask, they should be able to get you such improved rotors, but as I’ve found out, parts cost a LOT more at ALL car shops. I’ve literally called up dozens of them, and they all quoted me upwards of $150 per rotor, plus around $35 per break-pad, plus labor and tax. My solution? Buying online!

Sure, buying car parts online is scary. It’s hard to know if the part is good or not, and it can be hard to know if it will actually fit your car. It’s also hard to know if you really bought everything you need, or whether you’ll find out last-minute that you’re missing a part. Well, being Frugal can be stressful, and I can’t recommend this to everyone, but even if you do go and get the parts at a garage, make sure you shop around and haggle down the price. If a set of drilled and slotted rotors and pads can be had online for $190 (shipping included), there’s no reason a mechanic should charge you $500 for it. Their typical excuse is that it’s the price “their computer” gives. This is bullshit, of course…if they stick to a supplier that is charging them twice the market value, they are screwing themselves AND their customers, and they won’t lift a finger to get you a better deal, find another place. Most cities will have dozens if not hundreds of shops, and since replacing your rotors is usually not very urgent, put in the time to shop around. By the way, Amazon’s site can actually tell you whether a certain part fits your car. When you search for stuff like break rotors or break pads, you can tell Amazon which car you have, and it will tell you. Power Stop is a highly rated maker of breaks, and they are very affordable, and also offer kits that include a full set of rotors and pads that’s cheaper than buying separately. Below you can see the fit guide. My kit was this.


Next thing to consider is labor, of course. Replacing rotors is one of the simplest jobs for a mechanic. It’s not “easy”, but there are really no variables or diagnosis. With the right tools and experience, a mechanic should be able to complete this (replacing 2 rotors and pads) in 1 hour. Without the right tools (for example, without a good lift or an impact-drill to remove the bolts), it could take 1.5 hours, but absolutely not more. A decent car shop should charge no more than $100 per hour, and it’s worth asking explicitly how much labor this job is, and how much they charge per hour. If they want more than $150, then you’re dealing with crooks. Again, to be clear…this isn’t one of those things where there’s “quality”…it’s not like a Doctor doing heart surgery. Replacing breaks is more equivalent to a nurse putting on a bandage, and there’s no reason to pay a lot for it. If the mechanic charges more because he has 80 years of experience…than he’s just playing you for a fool.

Personally, I know how to do this sort of work myself, and I could have stopped there, having spent $190 on a full set of parts, but I decided that at my age, I shouldn’t break my back and risk getting hurt (I’m a tad clumsy with the tools), so I decided to go ahead and pay for someone to do the work.

Most shops I asked don’t want to give up the nice margin they make on parts, and refused to do the work with parts “from dat damn innernayt”, and others tried to deter me by proclaiming they can’t warrant the job if it’s not their parts. I told them all to get lost, as they were quite a few shops that were happy to do the work (in fact, several even SUGGESTED I get the parts myself to save costs). The one I picked was a local company called CTU. Their benefit? They COME TO YOU (hence the acronym CTU). They charged me $90 for the work (which was already lower than most others) and performed this in my driveway quickly and easily. This way, I didn’t have to waste time driving around or waiting around for the job to get done. Furthermore, they actually were happy to do this on Sunday, so my car was getting fixed as I was watching a good episode of CSI.

The CTU I’m referring to works around Kirkland, Washington, but comparable companies usually exist all over the country. You might need to look them up on YELP or Craigslist (type “Mobile Mechanic”). Naturally, they can’t make all kinds of repair on the go, but for stuff like breaks, changing a battery, lights and stuff that doesn’t require specialized equipment or parts, this kind of service is super convenient.