Monday, September 27, 2010

Two Birds on an Apple...

Anybody who ever spent more than ten minutes reading my blogs will have already known that for too many years I have been an Apple fan and a customer, whereby, the last 10 years at least, I've been more than a fan... almost an obsessively outspoken Apple defender about all their products... most of which I own! In other words, you'd have to find a very sound anti-Apple case to convince me against their merits...

However, I am still sane and just, I think. Meaning, if fairness proves otherwise, I'll choose fairness. So, I recently had my own share of anti-Apple feelings. After all these honeymoon years. Actually, for the first time ever. Listen to this:

A good personal friend of mine, whom I also converted into Apple for phones, routers, iPods, iPads and (in the meantime) MacBooks, ordered on the net a few protective cases for the iPhones of her siblings. The order was placed via eBay in the Netherlands. Apparently, the selling company is shipping its goods from Hong Kong but trades via eBay... The cases cost only a few euros each, my friend told me. There's nothing in this internet transaction that would suggest there is a problem with the supplier. On the contrary, the perception in Europe is, since Ebay sits on top of it, all would definitely be legit. I also heard that quite a few buyers purchased products from the same supplier and received them in Belgium without any hassle. So, how on earth can you know that something's wrong with them?

Days later, instead of receiving the cases, my dear lady comrade received a fancy letter by a lawyer Firm -- Bird & Bird... I'm not kidding, their email domain is (sic) -- threatening her with legal action unless she did something about this particular internet order. Distantiate herself from it, that is to say...

They said the Hong Kong company infringes Trademarks (n° 2593663 and 6387203 - anybody got a clue what these are?) with its products and designs, the trademarks belonging to Apple. That's fair enough... but, how could any of us possibly know this when shopping anything on the net?

They said that the Belgian Customs stopped the further shipment of the goods and informed the 2 Birds... To this day, the recipient of the delivery has not received any notification from Belgian Customs that something was not right with the transaction.

The Birds also threatened her with legal actions unless she wrote to them in registered mail or fax (registered mail would probably cost in postage stamps more than the two protective cases, mind you).

I am not aware how she'll eventually react to this incident. I told her to take legal advice and push the case in viral fashion thru Apple forums, blogs, and alike.  The Birds obviously went beyond their way to scare an innocent citizen. In all honesty, I don't understand the Belgian Customs authority either. In the worst of cases, they should at least inform their own law abiding citizen, who is one of the millions among us in a silent crowd, who pay the bleedin' taxes that pay their fat civil servant salaries.

It sounds to me like a scene from "1984"! In the name of trademark infringement, Big Brother Apple, its Bird lawyers, and our beloved and most respected Belgian Customs Authority, all three joining force together to prohibit a simple citizen's reception of her ordered goods. They also asked her to make additional costs (mailing/faxing) for rejecting her ownership rights of the goods. I won't be surprised at all if she gets so pissed about Apple altogether, and never spend a penny on any of their products in the future, and also make sure others (like family and friends) don't do this either... Also lose her scarcely remaining confidence in her own government and its practices... However, these days the latter would be no news to any of us living in this brilliant country.

In my own mental image of Apple, I'd have imagined this particular supplier-to-customer dialog to have gone the following way:

"Dear customer... we have been notified by the Belgian Customs that illegal products were about to be shipped to your address... we regret to inform you that we are in legal actions against your Hong Kong supplier for infringement and malpractices ... unfortunately your ordered products need to be destroyed at the Belgian Customs site... we are very sorry for that... as a token of appreciation for your loyalty to Apple we'll offer you an amount discount to cover your loss should you decide to buy any Apple product of your choice...We thank you for your business and loyalty to Apple... Sincerely..."

That's the Jobs Apple that I'd understand and support. Not the one who resorts into actions like this by a bunch of lawyers with... feathers.

I bet the two Birds have no idea how to tackle Apple customers at all... other than play Big Brother macho big dog game! I wonder whether Jobs is aware of his external lawyer practices vis-a-vis innocent end customers. I despise lawyers! Always did!

I only wish my friend was living in the US, and that Apple tried that trick over there. As a low key low noise obedient Belgian she'll probably give in to that arrogant threat and they'll get away with it the cheapest possible way, they think! In the US she'd simply sue back. I mean, there are shiploads of class actions running against Apple at any given moment, mostly for ridiculous and non-existent causes (like the antenna-gate, among others), right?

It's just a phone !!!

iphone4 Unreal3 iOS4

Gif animation of a number of shots I captured when playing the Unreal Engine 3 showcase Epic Citadel on an iPhone 4.0. What else are we going to see in our lifetime is unimaginable, for sure.

Freedom for Scotland! Simply hilarious!

Mille fois thx to Shaun for pointing me to this. Oh, the mysteries of the English tongue. Makes Stephen Fry turn over in his grave (after his death of course... he's still alive and kickin' the poor bastard, and about to act in a police thriller as Mr. Holmes...)

Monday, September 20, 2010

A short walk in Bamyan…

Jean-Louis (in his early forties) is an extraordinary human being that used to work for me long time ago, when he decided to quit US Corporate life and join the Belgian Corps Diplomatique in South East Asia. From Thailand to India to Afghanistan where he currently manages an NGO section, redesigning the new Afghan government rules and procedures. A born lover of all things nature, he used to travel on his bike long distances from Europe to Africa to the Far East and more. On a bike! I wouldn't last from our house to the center of Oudenaarde, the city I live these days (2 miles down the road). He travelled with his female partner tens of thousands of miles during long months! On a twin bike! That he actually built himself to the purpose.

Working in Kaboul during the last five years, he recently explored the Bamyan valley, west of the Afghan capital. All on his own. He grabbed the holiday opportunity of Eid, the end of the recent Muslim Ramadan, and there he was, flying a 'hip' Soviet made helicopter from Kabul to the Bamyan region first, bargaining a taxi next to bring him to the mountains that he was about to hike (an hour's cab drive, that is) and for the rest he relied upon his own (survival) experience to explore such desolate parts of the planet. I wish I was a webcam fixed on his shoulder to see what he saw... Forgot to mention, JL is an excellent writer too. So he described his trekking adventure in a 'newsletter' that he shared with friends and family.

I'm privileged to have been given his permission to blog that piece, for your reading pleasure:

A short walk in Bamyan…

‘Are you off for Eid as well?’, my boss queried as I shoved the travel authorization form under his nose.  ‘I’ll be the only one left here.’ ‘Your mistake’, I thought – but didn’t say so. ‘Bamyan? What are you going to do in Bamyan during Eid?’ ‘Trekking.’ ‘Trekking? Really?’ He sighed and signed.

For some reason, the regular flight had been cancelled and so there was no plane when I arrived at the airport. Who wants to go Bamyan just before Eid? Only me apparently, and then a woman who was working in Ghost, just next to Bamyan, who also wanted to holiday in Bamyan over Eid, but her NGO had not allowed her to drive the 379 km road from Chagcharan to Bamyan, and so she had been forced to fly to Kabul first. I guess she was as happy as I was to see that our carrier had hired an old ‘Hip’ helicopter in a sort of last-minute action designed to honor our booking.

Allow me to make a small digression on helicopters here. Helicopters are great. The ‘Hip’ is a NATO designation for the omnipresent Mi-17 transport helicopter: if you see a transport helicopter in Afghanistan, you can almost bet it’s a ‘Hip’. The ‘Hip’ troop transport helicopter is not to be confused with its very lean and very mean sister: the ‘Hind’ attack helicopter, which the Soviets used in ‘hunter-killer’ operations against the mujahedeen. Those who have read ‘The Afghan’ (Frederick Forsyth’s action-packed international thriller) or Muhammad Yousuf’s ‘The Bear Trap’ (a somewhat more real account of events) will imagine those scenes now.

The Russians had to design the ‘Hip’ as well as the ‘Hind’ helicopter for their war in Afghanistan because the ceiling of their Mi-8 helicopter – the Soviet Union’s war horse at the time – was limited to 4,500 m only. The ceiling of both the ‘Hip’ and the ‘Hind’ is a good chunk higher – 6,000 m – which is probably what one needs in Afghanistan.

Now, history is history of course, but it is interesting to note that the ‘Hind’ – in its current Mi-35 version – actually still ranks as one of the fastest and most powerful helicopter gunships in the world, even if it is said that, in 1986, a modified Westland Lynx helicopter finally managed to break the absolute record it had set in terms of speed back in 1978: 368 km per hour over a 15/25 km course (the Lynx apparently managed 401 km/h). However, the ‘Hind’ is still one of the fastest machines in the world and it’s surely not out of fashion. In fact, it is interesting to note that the Afghan Air Force got money from the US to buy six refurbished ‘Hind’ helicopters from the Czech Republic in 2008 and that, since May 2009, they’re actually being used to accompany the Afghan Air Force’s ‘Hip’ troop transporters which bring Taliban-fighting troops in the theater when and wherever needed now.

An Eid doll...
It is often strange to see how history – to some extent – tends to repeat itself here in Afghanistan, and so this is – to me at least – a case in point, although the Taliban haven’t come up with the Stinger reply as yet (one wonders why because those Korean-built copies should not be all that hard to get by).

Back to the ‘Hip’. The ‘Hip’ is not out of fashion either. It’s – quite simply – the world’s most popular transport helicopter. The Mi-17 factories in Kazan (yes, the little know Russian republic of Tatarstan still boasts the single largest helicopter factory in the world) and Udinsk, aka Udinsk (Siberia’s third largest city – but I am sorry I can’t answer the question why would want to produce helicopters there), produced more than 12,000 pieces of them. Its empty weight is 7,100 kg , and its two turboshaft engines deliver 2,250 horsepower each to ensure the bird can lift an additional 4 tons. Nevertheless, all of these impressive numbers did not prevent me from feeling slightly unnerved about the way the machine shook and rattled when we took off. I couldn’t help thinking that the UN’s white Mi-17s parked at the heliport a bit further were probably in better shape, but then the UN is the UN of course.

Upon arrival, I waved my co-passenger goodbye – she disappeared in a car of her NGO – and I walked down to Bamyan’s main bazaar and taxi stand, where I tried to haggle the price down for a ride to somewhere near the Koh-e Baba range.

The Koh-e Baba mountains dominate the view south from the Bamyan valley. Anyone who has strolled around there will agree that they are quite some distance walking, so anything I could cut down I wanted to.

The taxi driver started at one hundred dollars and – for some reason I didn’t get really – all the other drivers seemed to agree that was the only exact and just price really. ‘Laken Koh-e Baba unja ast !’ (But Koh-e Baba is just there!), I tried to point out – but to no avail. Unfortunately, a plain-clothes policeman from the NDS had noticed me and so he started meddling as well. As his questions were becoming more and more irrelevant – I had showed him my passport, visa, work permit and NGO card already, so there was nothing more I could do for him really – I suddenly felt I had no choice but to settle for an outrageous 30 US dollar and so off we went. The 20 km dirt road to a little village called Alibeg was quite bad indeed. Still, the one-hour drive obviously wasn’t worth the money and so the driver was all smiles when I paid the agreed price and started walking.

The jagged Koh-e Baba peaks – all close to 5,000 m, above or just below – were about 15 km away from Alibeg. An energetic two-hour walk – I was really glad to be out of the office – through alpine meadows – or their Afghan equivalent at least – brought me 1000 m closer to them, in vertical elevation that is. By now, it was getting late and so I threw off my back-pack and pitched my tent.

After a night full of bad work-related dreams (the effect of the altitude I guess), I started the rougher bit and, about one hour later, I arrived at a little glacial lake. It was fed by, and marked the start of, a huge glacial moraine. I walked around a bit, a bit daunted by the sight of the terrain, but so I had no choice but to start clambering – not easy with a 20 kg backpack, if not more because, besides tent, sleeping bag, food and other essentials, I also carried six liters of water as well.

Alibeg was already way beyond the treeline. Now I had reached the snowline. One can Google the following definition of a glacial moraine: ‘a mass of earth and rock debris carried by an advancing glacier, or left by it at its front and side edges as it retreats.’ It was obvious we were talking a glacier in retreat here. Nevertheless, it was damn tough to get through, if only because of all the deep crevasses. At irregular intervals, I could also clearly hear the noise of underground streams fed by the huge masses of snow and ice around and underneath. Nothing to worry about it, but so my walk had – obviously – become a real mountain walk: these weren’t hills anymore. After three hours, I finally arrived at the center of a cirque.

Those of you who do hike from time to time will know what I mean. Others should Google ‘cirque’ now: a cirque is a ‘semicircular hollow with steep walls formed by glacial erosion on mountains.’ It’s usually the head of a valley, so the end of it all really. I looked around: the steep walls were close to being vertical, and I was amazed at the masses of ice and snow which defied the law of gravity by managing to cling to them. There was plenty of ice and snow that had been somewhat less defiant also: the huge concave masses of snow at the bottom of those huge rock and snow faces made it pretty clear to me that avalanches were very frequent here – perhaps not in this season but surely in the spring and summer.

The reality of what I had slowly started to think while trying to make my way up here started to fully sink in: this approach to the Koh-e Baba peaks was not feasible – not now and not for me at least. I could – perhaps – set up camp here, and then back down and try to climb up sideways again, without luggage, but I felt uncomfortable with leaving my gear behind. More importantly, I reminded myself of the fact that I don’t have any real climbing experience and that– when everything was said and done – I was out on my own and so I should not invite any mishap – read: accident.

I looked around and up and down repeatedly: the jagged peaks were only another 500 – or 750 meter maximum – higher up, but these walls could not be scaled and they were topped by what looked like razor-sharp edges. Damn it! So close! 

I struggled about fifteen minutes with all the existential questions which arise when a man sets a goal for himself but then finds himself confronted with insurmountable obstacles which he should have anticipated but didn’t. Then I turned back.

trekking Afghanistan BamyanWhen I arrived back at the glacial lake, I felt exhausted, and I realized I was probably less in shape, and less well acclimatized, then I thought I was –which helped me to finally convince myself that I should give up. I had another three days left, and the important thing was to spend them well. I knew that the mountain range north of Bamyan, behind the Buddha niches, was much and much ‘friendlier’: 4000 to 4400 m only, and not as jagged as the Koh-e Baba range. I had done a number of stiff  one-day walks up and down there already – and I had always wanted to spend some more time there, and so why wouldn’t I do that? It would be less heroic than climbing the Father of Mountains (which is what Koh-e Baba means literally), but also fun for sure. The alternative was to try to find another approach, but there was really no guarantee it would work somewhere else. I realized I would simply need more time to explore the approaches somewhat better, and that would take time – a lot of time, which I didn’t have.

I dozed off on what – without any doubt – was the highest patch of grassy land miles around. My dreams that night were much better (nothing work-related this time at least).

The next morning I walked down. A well-trodden path brought me to an ingenious system of irrigation canals which greened the entire girth of a wonderfully quiet and peaceful valley downstream. The village people were surprised to see me, and keen to engage in conversation while – at the same time – keeping a polite distance, which I appreciated because it was a nice contrast to the kind of curious crowds which somewhat more adventurous tourists usually have to endure in South Asia. The women were – as usual – extremely shy, but the children showed off their fanciful Eid costumes. They really looked like dolls, strangely at odds with the rural environment, with the black kohl lining their eyes and their hands fully henna-ed.

It was still Eid and, because I wanted to respect local customs and not offend anyone, I sneaked into a field near Bamyan to fuel up without anyone seeing me: dried soup mixed with cold water as a starter, bread with canned tuna as main course, and I mixed water again – this time with Gatorade powder – as desert. All damn primitive (I only take the trouble of bringing a stove when in a group) but it sure does the trick of a quick re-start when needed.

Indeed, I didn’t feel like camping in the midst of civilization – which is where I was, as evident from the towering Buddha niches – and so that meant I had to cover another 10 or 15 km or so before I could pitch my tent again. I thought of buying bottled water in one of the shops but just ended up filling my big water bag from a water pump. I threw the required number of iodine tables in, and off I was.

The valley on the right hand side of the Buddha niches brings one to the Khwaja Ghor gorge, after walking through another nice green valley. That gorge brings one up to like 3200 m or so. I spent another restful night, at a altitude which was much lower than the previous two nights. That obviously did wonders in terms of acclimatization, because the next morning I was up, in no time really, on the 4000 m high whitish plateau which overlooks the Bamyan valley from the north, even if the last climb involved a rough clambering up scree slopes – but it was all nothing compared to the effort it had taken me to get across the glacial moraine I had been struggling with the day before. Part of it was the terrain, but I also felt the altitude didn’t bother me anymore.

The highest peak in the range north of Bamyan is only 4401 m, so – to my chagrin (men always want to impress by setting stupid goals, don’t they?) – it is lower than Europe’s highest mountain (Mont Blanc is 4810 m), and much and much easier to climb.

All peaks here north of the Bamyan valley have a very gentle slope, except for two or three rougher ones. You actually can’t see them from the Bamyan valley bed: the small 4000 m plateau hides them for the observer below, and the 4401 peak is separated from the plateau by a huge canyon. I knew that, and so my objective now was just to head west and go for the second highest peak in the range, which is anything between 4300 and 4400 m (its slope is so gentle that the map doesn’t mark a precise summit point).

It only took me an hour or so to reach the top, where I was surprised to find the remnants of three heavy machine-gun posts, one on each side of the mountain, as well as a small Russian field gun, which looked over the canyon I had not wanted to cross. I suddenly realized how strategic this location was: the position dominated all of the mountain passes and valleys around it and – for a short while – I suddenly shivered at the thought that its approach might have been mined. However, it was obvious that the routes I took were used by shepherds as well and so I was not all that worried.

I enjoyed the 360° view for at least half an hour and then collected some of the larger caliber bullet cases that were lying around. Too bad one can’t take them out of the country as a souvenir: I tried it two times but they don’t pass the X-ray scan at the airport in Kabul. The officials who operate the scanners there seem to have developed a very sharp eye for that.

Despite the fact that I tried to re-assure myself that shepherds probably also used the very same routes I was using, and that the rocky ground would make it very hard – if not impossible – for anyone to bury mines underneath, my heart did beat somewhat faster as I made my way down. I pitched my tent about 1000 m below, on a tiny patch of grass near a small spring. I felt good: it had been a beautiful day.

The next day I walked through the Dara-e Yakhi valley, which took me down from the main range. The main obstacle was dogs: the scattered mud houses down the valley are defended by huge fighting dogs while their owners are working in the fields – or what goes for them: it is obviously not easy to eke out an existence here. My walking sticks proved to be useful deterrence weapons in the Afghan dog fights I had to go through. Fortunately, like in a real Afghan dog fight, it never actually developed into a bloody scene: the only question was which side would back off first. I was glad when I had passed that stretch though: I’ve had many encounters with dogs in remote Himalayan areas but I must admit that I’ve never encountered anything that resembles those huge Afghan monsters.

Three km north of Aq Robat, a prosperous rural village about 30 km northwest from Bamyan, I hit the road again but, as expected, I met with little traffic – none at all actually. I groaned, as I didn’t feel like walking all of the way back. Fortunately, after two hours, I entered the Dara-e Sabzuk valley through a gorge and, as I went down along the steep road, a 22-year old Bamyan Radio journalist on his motorbike stopped and started chatting, as he wanted to practice his English. He offered to take me to Bamyan and, although I felt somewhat guilty over-loading his rickety Iranian 125 cc machine, I took the offer.

‘So, how was it?’, my boss asked. ‘Nice’, I told him, ‘but I didn’t manage Koh-e Baba, and so’ll need to go back at some point in time.’


Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Facetime... on your face!

If this is possible, then, what next? Faster framerates, for sure. This guy uses internet satellite transmission and talks in Facetime with another dude on shore, under the convenience of a WLAN. The former sails with his boat somewhere between Honolulu and the US West Coast in the most isolated area of the Pacific. 1500 miles on any direction and no shore to reach. Plain Waterworld water! And facetime works! Pretty cool! What am I sayin'? Freezing cool! The coolest!

I tried VC once, with a friend, sitting opposite me at a Brussels restaurant, each of us using a Nokia 3G enabled phone. Other than the screen being a pathetic 50 x 50 pixels (or less, who remembers now?) the quality was so far below par, by any conceivable standard. Pure VC fail! Compared, the Facetime YT clip embedded here is plain and simple Starwars material! I can't wait to get some friends with Facetime iPhones/iPods to VC with (or, is it FT?!).

I know, some say you can already do better with Skype and, or iChat, but imagine you'd have to boot up your Windows or Mac box first, then launch Skype, also inform the other party to do the same, if that is practically possible, of course... you get the picture. I know some people owning specialized Skype phones to eliminate the need of a PC for that, but the monitor screens that I saw them using were as pathetic as Nokia's, in the example given above.

Rumors have it that Apple is working on porting FT to all its devices and computers, offering a viable alternative (and far sexier, of course) to Skype. They'd be enhancing iChat for this, insiders say... Early next year we might see some of that. Thinking that this telecom strategy is gonna cost you nada zip after all, provided you are located inside a wifi umbrella (or footprint, whatever...), then I don't see why use anything else. Unless you're as old and ugly as I am (or worse) and it's early in the morning, and you're half-asleep with your teeth in a glass water on your night table, when the phone rings... and you look like... shit!?!


Monday, September 13, 2010

The AppleStore at the Opera (Paris, France)

I wouldn't miss any opportunity to drive to Paris, especially when, as it happened, I got the unique chance to meet two dear cousins of mine, Kostas and his spouse Mahi that I haven't seen in years... Being both doctors, you see, they came to attend an International Congress on thyroid "stuff" (that's all I know and far less I understand, mind you). This time Mahi came to Paris as one of the Congress keynote speakers, as she happens to be a leading expert on the subject, and she occasionally pitches in events like this.

This morning however, when the cousins were busy paying the dues at the congress, Rita and I went shopping at the Galleries Lafayette (is there anything else???). However, instead of following her in the shops, I walked about fifty meters (say yards) down the side street to find the second Apple temple of His Jobness in the Grandest Metropolis of the whole French speaking world. BTW, the first shop Jobs ever built in Paris can be found at the Louvre, the only suitable place in the capital to put such a thing. I also heard that Apple plans to build a third store in Paris, at Vélizy of all places, a suburb south west of the Peripherique. I almost fell off the chair when I heard a genius saying that! Jesus Mary and Joseph! If they can put a store at Vélizy, they can put one in freakin' Brussels as well, can't they! Morons! Have you ever visited Vélizy? Unfortunately, I have, folks! And will never go back there, trust me! Incidentally, there happens to be a Texas Instruments facility at Vélizy too... that might perhaps explain my inexplicable fury!

ParisAppleStoreI eventually ended up spending quite a few hours at the Applestore, waiting for Rita to come back from harvesting my credit cards at the Paris equivalent of Harrods (Printemps and G. Lafayette, that is). In the meantime, I shot a few clips of the interior, of the customers, and the Apple Geniuses training those who wanted to be trained, and all this with my iPhone 4. I then put them clips together with iMovie, added titles and transitions, and some background music, while muting the original clip sounds (these were actually sort-of sheer noise from the shouting clients - rushing to buy the last available iPhone and iPod Touch, nooot? ) Finally I used the free store wifi and uploaded my Spielberg marvel into YouTube. Enjoy it here folks... All done with a "stupid" iPhone, right? Ain't that something? It used to take me days to do that sort of thing, and in far lesser quality mind you, some 15 years ago. Using 3 to 5X more expensive gear. And now, I done it all with a... phone for cryin' out loud! I mean, what else is the future still gonna bring about? Are we going to talk to a darn mobile gadget, tell it to go shoot some scenes on its own, and it will then serve us with a whole bleedin' movie? How far is the media gadgetery going to still improve in the future? What else are they gonna come up with? Makes you wonder...

I'm so pleased to have convinced cousin Kosta too, to go buy an iPad soon. After a five minute demo yesterday, he couldn't believe his eyes about what he saw happening on the little tablet. He just wanted one on the spot. "Mahi, you gotta buy me one of these!" he said. A childlike wonder shone inside him. And he's already consumed the best part of 61 years, not to forget! The miracles of technology! But Kostas does medical miracles too. He therefore deserves such a beautiful gadget, doesn't he? Sure does!

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Ο Λευτέρης ο Αθάνατος

A dear friend from the days we attended high school in Alexandroupolis together, more than 40 years ago, calls me the other day: "You're not gonna believe what I'm about to tell ya", he sez... "I just brought you from the fatherland the most improbable gift you could think of!". I am like, "Euh... what's that?". He continues, "Remember Lefteris? Lefteris Hapsiadis? Well, I brought you a book, his second indeed... with a personal dedication to you, written by his own hand, true story! He remembers you, no doubt about it!". I was speechless! I didn't know what to say!

I can't remember to have ever read so fast any book, anytime before. I almost swallowed every bit of every page like a spoonfull vanilla sweet Greek-style, submerged in cold water. All 365 pages from cover to cover. And then, I went on to read it from the start, all over again! I was like I wanted to memorize the darn thing... At the same time, I can't think of any other book I ever read that raised so many personal emotions in me. Such spanned from loud ROFLMFAO laughters (along with tears mind you), to sobbing... and back to laughs again. I swear these were some of the most moving personal emotions I experienced in many years (that'd also include opening boxes of my favorite Apple gadgets). And all that by just reading Lefteris' book. He's such a gifted and authentic writer and poet, yet never technically trained to become one! It happened to him like this. Almost by accident... The thing that drove him to literature was his genuine love for authentic Greek music. The Greek equivalent of the negro Blues in North America. The rebetika. The music of the tough, the street-fighters, the vagabonds. The Cool!

Lefteris was a rather simple but smart kid in our high school class with one rare virtue that not many among us, the rest of the class, could claim we had to any (traceable) degree: humility. We could never (at least I didn't) imagine the immense talents hidden in this little boy with family roots from the north of Asia Minor, Pontos. Having read the book first, I felt a strong urge to find out what he looked like these days. The little shot appearing on the inside cover of his book didn't offer what I was looking for. I just wanted to recognize his staring, like it was engraved in the deepest regions of my neurons, that faint smile and deep expressive eyes looking at mine, with the humility I knew of. I jumped to the net and, almighty God bless Google images, I found his picture just like I wanted it; it was saved unthankfully in the lowest possible pixel resolution and jpg quality, having been captured and posted from a Delta channel clip, sometime ago. I eventually managed to rework it somehow (with sketching filters from an iPad app) in what you can admire above. Click it for a larger and sharper hyperlinked version...

This picture captures the essence of his character, I can modestly claim. The same humility I have known 45 years ago! With a faint smile. Like he says, people from Pontos don't laugh... only faintly smile. It's true! He was the stereotype of an authentic smiling Pontios...He's got a rebetiko mustache of course that he probably had to add to his persona during his so many years of rebetika career as an authentic lyrics writer, one of the best born in the country. With scores of golden and platinum vinyls and CDs sung by the likes of Dalaras, Alexiou, Kazantzidis, Terzis, Dionysiou, Angelopoulos and many others. Who could have ever thought of that? And I didn't know shit about it! Honestly! Shame on me!

The rebetika is a form of Greek pop-music with roots in Asia minor (I think) from around the same period African-American blues started taking shape in the singing of Robert Johnson and his malted milk, almost 100 years ago. The core rebetika instrument was the bouzouki. A magic instrument that carries in its sound all things Aegean! Originally the music was monotonous (just a few notes all over again as Manos Hatzidakis once claimed on a radio program in the 60ies). Their lyrics were formed from everyday spoken dialects simple and deeply allegoric. Reflecting the pains and struggles in the daily life of the poorest, the hungry, the homeless, the drug addicts, the pick-pockets. Streets and bars were filled with 'da man' machos, cool street-fighters... the legendary mangas! Like I said, lyrics were simple, notes were simple and unsophisticated, but yet quite pure, and extremely powerful. The Mangas dialect sounded very much like present day Laconic. ἢ τὰν ἢ ἐπὶ τᾶς (Spartan mother talk). In few simple words rebetes were able to sing book volumes long of emotions. Such was the power of the Greek language that has grown up for so long, over three thousand years... and counting!

Lefteris was born the same year as I, in 1953! By simply absorbing rebetika lyrics almost from his cradle, from the very moment he started reading at all, and without attending specialized college courses on Greek literature, other than our high school classes that the rest of us attended too, he managed, almost 80 years after rebetika came to be, to write lyrics with similar simplicity and power. What came out of his pen were authentic, strong and deeply meaningful rebetika lyrics that left listeners stunned. Many of his songs became modern day classics and the vast majority of contemporary Greeks promptly sing along as a national passtime. "Kapia kapou kapote", and "Mia einai i ousia", are two legendary examples of such rebetika marvels. Lefteris seems to have grasped profoundly the inner mechanisms and messaging powers of this popular song form. And turn his experience into a renewed rebetika expression with as powerful themes and messages as the original sounds almost a century ago. Simply marvelous! If you happen to be born and bred in Greece, you'll also be privileged to grasp the deeper meaning of Lefteris' talents. Only then could you possibly feel what I'm trying to say, and probably not being too successful in getting to it...

Needless to say, his book(s) are also written the same way. Like rebetika lyrics! True to the bone, full of human emotions and feelings, like pain, empathy, courage, love of acting honorably (filotimo), the sentiments of a first-love deep infatuation, love of parents for their siblings, love of children for their parents, deep and honest love among friends like same blood brothers and sisters... If you come to think of it, that's quite a peculiar form of da man macho, cool, and vagabond life forms... but such were the authentic "pure blood" Greek Manges in the early days... they might have pulled a stylet to cut an adversary's carotid in a heartbeat, but they usually carried a heart of gold softer than butter... ("gentleman" could even be an appropriate English translation of mangas in some peculiar sort of way)

It would take me far too long here to describe all the elements of original writing that Lefteris brought to the legacy of Greek literature by the way he structured and presented his storytelling in this book, called "the vagabond angel" (ο αλήτης άγγελος). I'd only mention that all characters and most events he describes are real life persons appearing in the book with their real life names in actual events that took place. However, he eventually turns them almost into fiction in the most bizarre and original plot: in a given moment, the hero, Lefteris himself, gets attacked by a gang of junkies and murdered; upon his arrival at the gates of Heaven, he manages to convince St-Peter to accept him in Paradise after all (one of the funniest passages in the book based upon a hit song of his, Mia einai i ousia). But being himself as we know him, he also manages to have the Paradise Gatekeeper let him return back to earth for a month, and visit friends and places he didn't see ever since he got sent to heaven.

The book ends while Lefteris rushes to return back to Paradise in-time before St-Pieter's allowed cut-off time of thirty days, by flapping his angel wings, when he subsequently falls all the way down Mount Penteli and breaks most his bones. I loved that passage, when he is being rushed with an Ambulance to KAT, the famous Athens hospital specializing in heavy accident orthopedics. In KAT he finds a compatriot of his from Alexandroupolis, being the head orthopedist surgeon, a doctor known to perform miracles, Lefteris writes. The name of this wonderful man: Kostas Bobotas...

Good ol' Kostas. My first line cousin he happens to be from my father's side. I'll meet him tomorrow in Paris where he'll be attending a medical congress with his wife Mahi, a celeb endocrinologist MD herself too. I promise you, we're going to have several good drink toasts on Lefteris! Well done bro. I feel so privileged to have known you!