Thursday, December 23, 2010

My kind of engineering

Vientiane, Laos. October 2010

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Cricket posting

English person: "Yeaaahhhhh. It's amazing. Our cricket team has thrashed yours. I bet you are really appalled and upset this morning. Your team is crapppp!!!!!

Australian person: Yes. I've known this for months if not years. While we would love to win the Ashes back, I am not dramatically more upset than I was yesterday. The decline of my cricket team is a more a long running, endless agony of the soul than anything sudden.

English person: Surely this must come as a surprise to you. It does to me.

Australian person: No. Also, Ricky Ponting is an idiot who should have been sacked in 2005. I've known this since 2005. Really astute people have known it longer. Now please go away.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

The UEA is an even scarier place than I thought

Dubai. January 2010

Abu Dhabi, October 2010

Really, should American fast food chains even be allowed to operate in places like this?

Monday, November 01, 2010


My inkjet printer had run out of ink. A seller on ebay offered me "compatible" cartridges for about half what Canon were charging, so I ordered a set. They took a couple of days to arrive, the seller gave me positive feedback on ebay before I received them, and my printer is working perfectly with the new ink cartridges. All good.

However, as well as the full cartridges, the seller sent me a return envelope with a prepaid postage label with an address in Coventry, and the words "KEEP PLANET GREEN. Recycle empty cartridges" on it. It was pretty obvious what was going on. The seller wanted me to send him my empty cartridges so that he could fill them with ink and then sell them to somebody else.

This is fine, of course. In fact, this is good. If someone is making a living doing this, well done and good luck to him. (The absence of an article between "KEEP" and "PLANET" makes me think he is Slavic, and probably Polish. Once again, good). Interesting, though, that he thinks that the best way to encourage his customers to send him their empty cartridges is through Green guilt-trippery. He might be right. Personally I would prefer he simply stated "Please give me your empty cartridges so that I can refill them and sell them to somebody else" or (best of all) "Please return your empty cartridges and I will give you £1 off your next order".

That said, I put my empty cartridges in the envelope and popped them in a postbox. He gave me good customer service and is most welcome to them.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Update: If anyone has been wondering, this is the Kurilpa Bridge in Brisbane, Australia. I suffered laptop death recently, and somehow as a consequence, the spiel which was intended to go with this picture never got posted.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Ways of looking at things

I had a bad accident last year. I was wearing shoes with soles with poor traction. I slipped when going down some stairs. I put a hand out to stop the fall and did this. I had pretty much everything on that list except for re-fracture, compression neuropathy and tendon rupture. I was in a lot of pain for about nine months, but this is now mostly gone. I have regained the ability to do everything I normally do on a day to day basis (touch type, for instance), but I have some problems doing anything that involves strength in my left hand.

In any event, I was having lunch with a friend yesterday. I explained the above.

"Can't you get it fixed?"
"Not at the moment, no".
"What do you mean?"
"Not at the present level of technology".

He looked at me for a moment, and the I guess he acknowledged that this was reasonable. It is absolutely the right way of looking at things though. In things such as artificial body parts (an artificial joint and perhaps artificial tendons to go with it) and surgical techniques, the rate of advance is sufficiently fast that one must consider it with respect to your own health.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Some additions

In February, the great thing of Singapore still had cranes on it.

It is much taller than it appears from these photographs, by the way. I am a long way away from it in all three cases.

Friday, July 30, 2010

God bless globalisation

I am an Australian who is regularly resident in London. I am sitting in an Irish pub in Bucharest, drinking Danish branded beer (probably brewed locally) and watching a rugby match between Tonga and Fiji on the television.

Seriously, we need to get Romania into the six (seven) nations as soon as possible.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

A bit of a racket.

My electrical supplier is Scottish and Southern Energy. (This company came to be after a merger between Scottish Hydro Electric and Southern Electric. Operations appear to have been fully merged, but both brands are still used, presumably due to petty intra-Britain nationalism, so you get your bill from Scottish Hydro if you live in Scotland and Southern Electric if you are in England). I pay by direct debit. I had set up a direct debit to pay £40 a month when I moved into the flat, and up until now that seems to have covered my electrical usage.

Yesterday, however, I received my latest electricity bill. It stated that my account was £110 in debit, and that therefore my payments were to be increased from £40 to £58 a month in future to make up for this. I was puzzled by this, as my previous bill had shown the account at approximately zero and I had spent a significant time out of the UK during that period with all my electrical devices turned off. It was thus barely credible that I was using 70% more electricity than last year. Therefore, I examined the bill more carefully.

The bill was not based on a recent meter reading, but instead was based on an "estimate". I went and read the meter myself, and actual usage was a good deal less than the estimate. As far as I can tell, lacking an actual reading Scottish and Southern simply made something up on the assumption that I was using more electricity than I had done previously. Having done that, they used this entirely made up number to justify increasing my monthly payments.

I called the customer service number on my bill, and I was interrupted perhaps a quarter of the way into describing the situation, and the nice Scottish lady on the other end of the phone asked me to simply tell her the correct reading and she would fix it, which she did. My direct debit payments were switched back to £40 a month. I was slightly concerned, however, by the extent to which she seemed to understand the problem before I even explained it to her. It's almost as if it happens a lot.

I would be intrigued to know what would have happened had I not done this. When the meter was read, would my payments be reduced to move that (now massively in credit) account back towards zero, or would the credit balance be allowed to continue increasing as the debits continued to exceed the actual cost of usage? If so, this is a nice little way for the company to get its customers to fund its working capital requirement for it.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Unimportant observation of the day

Once upon a time, a young Scottish lady with who I was a little enamored (okay, a lot enamored - sad story) told me about how as a child she had doubted the existence of dolphins. These were apparently creatures from imaginary stories, like the tooth fairy. This was not a childhood belief I was able to share, because I lived near the Australian coast, and schools of dolphins swimming past were something I commonly saw. Once in a while I would see whales, too.

What makes me remember this now is that I was having a conversation with someone recently and the subject of penguins came up somewhere. (Perhaps we were talking about Linux). The person observed that penguins were exotic and strange creatures to him, and I observed that "Surely you must see them off (and on) the coast of Scotland sometimes". This observation was seen as somewhere between odd and hilarious.

Thanks to Wikipedia, I have since discovered that penguins for some reason only live in the southern hemisphere. For me, penguins are like dolphins. They were quite common where I grew up. In the evenings as I child I would see and hear them running along the beach in the distance. Once, we had one in our bathtub for a few days, as it had managed to get caught in a fishing net that had been washed up on the beach, and my father had rescued it in the hope that it would get better and he could let it go. (If I recall quickly, it was loud and vicious). Until now, I had made the assumption that penguins were pretty common on a much larger portion of the coastlines of the world than is in fact the case. I am usually pretty intolerant of people who assume that the whole world works in exactly the same way as the small bit of it they are familiar with, but in this instance I was guilty myself.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Yesterday, my mobile phone rang. I answered the call. There was a pause, Clearly some computer somewhere was waiting for me to pick up before connecting me to someone in a call centre.

"Good afternoon. Am I speaking to Dr Jennings?"
"I am calling from that manages your mobile phone contract with O2"

For odd regulatory reasons, when mobile phones were introduced in the UK, the mobile networks - Vodafone and BT Cellnet (now O2) - were not permitted to sell their own services at retail. Instead, other companies were required to do the actual selling of mobile phone contracts, and were required to manage the customer relationships and provide the after sales service. Later entrants - Orange, Mercury One2One (now T-Mobile) and Three - were never subject to this requirement, and the requirement was dropped for the original two operators in the mid 1990s when the third and fourth operators entered the market. However, some of the odd characteristics of the British mobile market that exist to this day are a consequence of this original policy. The independent mobile phone retail business remains unusually large in this country, and although Vodafone long ago bought out all other organisations managing its customer base, O2 did not completely do so. Thus my customer service relationship with O2 is indirect and via another company.

"Dr Jennings, we have noticed that you are near the end of your contract, and we have analysed your usage patterns and we think we may have different tariffs that might be cheaper for you than the one you are on. So I would like to tell you about those and if you like we could also upgrade you to a new phone"

Basically, they wanted me to sign up for another lengthy contract. They may or may not have actually looked at my usage patterns. The deal they gave me last time was actually so good that I doubt they were going to offer me anything better, but I am usually at least interested to see what companies will offer me.

"Dr Jennings, before I can proceed further I need to check your identity. Can you please tell me your date of birth and mother's maiden name".

I pause for a moment

"Your security system is not acceptable. You cannot simply cold call me and then ask me to give you personal information"
"I have this information in front of me already. I just need to confirm your identity".
"If I were to call you, I would know who you were and that I could likely trust you, because I would have looked up your number somewhere reliable. Therefore it would be reasonable for you to ask me for personal information. When you have called me, the situation is reversed, and it is not reasonable, because I do not know your identity".

Clearly this is not in his script

"This is standard procedure"
"Then it is a very bad procedure. I actually believe you are who you say you are, but having such a procedure in place encourages bad practices. In fact, it is so incompetent that I am tempted to cancel my phone right now. Good bye".

At that point I hung up the phone. I immediately wished I hadn't been so hard on the guy, as he was just working from a script, and the incompetence of his employer wasn't his fault.

This is absolutely terrible practice however. One should never give personal information to someone from who one has received a cold call and whose identity one cannot confirm. Legitimate companies encouraging or requiring customers to do this makes customers used to doing it, and makes it easier for the genuinely dishonest to commit crimes. The fact that large companies with who you trust your personal information are not able to understand that the situation is different when they call you from the situation when you call them is really quite troubling, too.

Monday, May 17, 2010

On April 21 this year, I was in Odessa, on the Ukrainian Black Sea coast. I was booked on a scheduled Ryanair flight from Katowice in Poland the following evening at 8.25pm. For the few days before this, I had been in the Western and Southern Ukraine. In that time, most European flights, including all in and out of the United Kingdom and in and out of Poland had been canceled, due to the ash cloud from the eruption of the Eyjafjöll volcano in Iceland, and I had spent those days wondering exactly how and when I was going to be able to return to London. As April 21 went on, I kept checking the internet. As the day went on, it became clear that Ryanair was definitely going to resume flights the next day. I needed therefore to head for Poland. As it happens, Katowice is a long way from Odessa. I had allowed myself to roam as far as I had because I had not expected flights to resume any time soon, and there were interesting things further east to see.

Still, though, at 6pm on April 21, I was not too worried. I had 27 hours to get from Odessa to Katowice airport. In a way, I was slightly disappointed, because Crimea and Moldova were both within reach, both
were intriguing destinations, and I had no particularly pressing business in London before May 2. However, I had a confirmed seat on the flight on the 22nd, and I was unsure what the consequences would be if I missed it. Thus I did not want to miss it.

There was an overnight train to Lviv leaving at 7pm. I purchased a second class ("kupe") sleeper ticket for this train. I would figure out the rest of the journey when I reached Lviv.

As it happened, there is no need for suspense. I did ultimately make the flight home. At midnight (London time) on April 22nd, I was in my own bed in my flat in London. The story of what happened in between is, however, a peculiar one, involving well traveled Russians, less well traveled Russians, alcohol, cannabis, smoked fish (none of these mine), jitneys, agriculture with animal pulled ploughs, external borders of the Schengen area, snow, cigarette smuggling (some of this mine), helpful Polish bus drivers, poor Polish trains and good Polish motorways, and a very expensive, frantic and fast last minute taxi ride, in which the success or failure of a 27 hour journey all came down to five minutes. This post is the story of that journey. However, before anything else I need to explain the circumstances that led me to be in Odessa on that Wednesday afternoon in the first place. Let me digress for a few paragraphs.

I visited Eastern Ukraine, specifically Kiev, last year. In Kiev, I received lots of advice that I should also visit Lviv, on the basis that it is a beautiful city. Mixed in with this was the suggestion that Lviv was somehow more "authentically Ukrainian" than Kiev, Kiev being more Russian (or perhaps Russia being more Kievan). Certainly parts of Kiev last year did have some of the nouveau riche flashiness of over-blinged people going into nightclubs and badly built modern apartment blocks that were constructed in a recent construction boom that had just horribly flamed out that I at least associate with recent years in Moscow and St Petersburg. And Kiev is full of the architecture a westerner imagines when he hears the word "Russian".

That was one factor. Another was that until recently I had not visited the Balkans and South-Eastern Europe much. However, a trip to Bulgaria (mixed with the important "Where can I get a cheap flight to this week?" ie luck factor) a couple of years ago led to another trip to Bulgaria, a couple of trips to Romania, and a couple of trips to Croatia. Suddenly I found myself visiting the remains of the Austrian Empire, and of course the region where empires (Austrian, Ottoman, Lithuanian, Polish, Russian) for a long time collided. In six months I visited Wrocław (not Austrian since 1740s, but you can feel the Austria in the cafes), Sibiu and Cluj-Napoca, and then the Austrians' favourite Adriatic seaside resort of Opatija, now in Croatia but once again you can still feel the Austria. All these places are in different countries, but you can feel the common history in the architecture, the food, the coffee, and the beer. Lviv (then Lemberg) was once a great city of that Austrian empire. This was a central city of that great cultural and intellectual explosion that followed Jewish emancipation in the 19th century, and then of course later this was pretty close to the centre of the unspeakable mass murder of the Holocaust. Just why the supposedly civilized heart of Europe felt the need to tear itself apart in such an unspeakable way, I don't really know. And just how the birthplace of Ludwig von Mises managed to be ruled by the Soviet Union for 50 years is another of those great mysteries and ironies of Europe and the twentieth century.

So, that made two reasons to go to Lviv. When I have two different reasons to go to a place, it goes to the top of my destination list. As it happens, there are no direct flights from London to Lviv. One can get there on discount airlines if one is willing to change in Dortmund, or in Timişoara, or in Kiev, but the change leads to expense and hassle. Alternately, Lviv is not far from the modern day Polish border. One can fly to Poland and get the train. Flying to Poland is easy.

The nearest Polish city with an airport is Rzeszów. I was able to get a cheap ticket to Rzeszów on April 13, but tickets back were more expensive. I was not in any particular hurry to get back, and I discovered that Ryanair would give me a ticket back from Katowice on April 22 that was very cheap. Katowice was further into Poland, but I had a couple of things in that part of Poland that I wanted to do. The Czartoryski Museum in Krakow was closed when I attempted to visit it last year, and it would be nice to stop in and see its great collection. Plus, I wanted to make a second visit to Katyn memorial in Katowice, that I previously visited in 2007. Since then I have learned more Polish history, which would perhaps make my reaction different than then. Secondly, although the bulk of what was lost in my sad hard drive failure have been recovered from various backups, those from that trip are some of the sad lost photographs, and I wanted to retake some of them. So, although traveling to Katowice involved further travel, there were enough reasons to do this travel that I did not mind too much.

However, events overtook me. Polish president Lech Kaczyński and his large entourage including most of the General Staff of the Polish armed forces, the central bank governor, and many other senior Polish officials died in a plane crash near Katyn two days before I was due to arrive in Poland. I spent a day in Rzeszów. The people of Poland were clearly enormously upset by what had happened, but life went on. Since 1989 Polish policy has been aggressively pro-Western, and Poland is now a modern, sensible, stable country. I bought a charger for my laptop in a large Tesco store. Not far from this were outlets of the two French hypermarket chains Carrefour and Leclerc, along with other stores. Lines of succession to the Polish presidency, central bank governorship and military command were all clear, and everything worked well. Poland is modern, stable, and relatively prosperous, and the country was having nothing remotely resembling a crisis.

However, the country was in national mourning. It felt almost like intruding on someone else's grief. I headed for the Ukraine. I had a number of good days in Lviv. The city looks like a central European city rather than a Russian city, although it is alas now one of the poorest of all central European cities. The Austrian influence is once again strong. The beer is superb, but the wine terrible. Lviv is a city of churches. Christians there have many choices, with there being about six major forms of Christianity to choose from, three in communion with Rome and three not. Lviv was once also no doubt a city of synagogues, but (alas) we know what happened there. I enjoyed the visit, but this is not what I am presently trying to write about.

I had been a few days in Lviv. European airspace was closed, President Kaczyński's funeral was going to be in Krakow and half the leaders of the world might or might not be attending. In any event, Googling I should have done before booking my flight indicated that the Czartoryski Museum was still closed. It appeared it might be weeks before I could get home. So, I changed my mind about where I was headed, and went further east. A Czech had recommended I visit Odessa while I was in Chernobyl last year, plus I am a cinema buff, and for a cinema buff there are famous things to see in Odessa.

I was hoping there would be pram rental somewhere nearby

That wasn't in the movie.

Plus the city had by repute wonderful Art Nouveau architecture. Plus I had never seen the Black Sea before. If I was genuinely stranded for some time, I could perhaps see Crimea, and the Black Sea coast of Romania. And the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria. And even if I was delayed a few days, I could stop in Moldova as I headed back to Poland. I try to visit one at least profoundly weird place each year, and Transnistria would be a good one for this year.

However, none of this eventuated. Flights resumed just in time for my scheduled trip home. On April 21 I found myself needing to be in Katowice in 27 hours. Thus I boarded the train to Lviv.

There are three classes of ticket for overnight trains in the former USSR. The cheapest, 3rd class, is called platzkart. Platzkart carriages contain 54 beds. There is very little privacy, inadequate toilent facilities, and travelling platzkart has a certain reputation. ("The basic layout is essentially a copy of the old slave ships, or perhaps the GULAG camps"). However, travelling this way is very cheap. 2nd class is kupe. Carriages contain 9 compartments, each containing four beds, with an upper and lower bunk on either side of the compartment. There is more privacy, and more comfort and space. Tickets cost about twice the cost of platzkart - for a journey from Odessa to Lviv my kupe ticket cost the equivalent of about £10. 1st class is spalny wagon, which consists of compartments containing two beds each. This costs three or four times as much as kupe - not hugely expensive by western European standards, but a considerable premium. So, I choose kupe. I bought a ticket to Lviv. Even this is not always easy when timetable information in the station is entirely in Cyrillic, you have no common languages with the railway staff, and the very badly paid staff themselves received their customer service training in the Soviet Union. But I managed it.

Of course, in a kupe carriage, you share a compartment with three other people, and it is luck as to who you get. I prepared myself for the journey. The custom on long Eastern European train journeys is for passengers in the same train compartment to have something resembling a picnic in the compartment. People pack food - often things like cheese, bread, and cold meats - and these things are shared at meal times. I went to a shop near the main train station and purchased some bread, cold sausage, cheese, and tinned fish, and was prepared for a little socialising if the people sharing the compartment were friendly. I also made sure I had a charged laptop with a spare battery, the previous evening's episode of Lost on the hard disk, an assortment of movies, and a couple of good books.

So I was ready. I boarded the train and was guided to my compartment. There were three other people with me: a respectable looking married couple about my own age, and a younger man. I sat down. The younger man insisted on speaking to me and the other passengers incessantly in Russian. There was a lot of beer, vodka, and a few inscrutable food items on the table. His breath smelled of something including but not limited to beer. He insisted on talking incessantly for the half hour or so I sat there with the two other. The married couple sat there largely in silence with rather stern expressions on their faces, although the husband greeted me in accented but quite decent English.

After about a half hour of this, the married couple got up departed the compartment. The younger drunk Russian stayed for a bit longer, and attempted to get me to share his beer. After a while I perhaps foolishly took a swig. A few minutes after this, he attempted to get me to share the marijuana he had stashed in his sock. He wasn't just drunk. I declined on the marijuana. After a time he also got up and left the compartment. (Yes, he was probably Ukrainian rather than Russian, but as a state of mind, one enters Russia when one gets on a train anywhere in Russia, Ukraine, or Belarus. One just does).

Not long after this, the husband (but not the wife) of the other couple returned. As it happened he spoke very decent English: accented when he spoke but his comprehension was excellent; the sort of English that someone has when he has spent time working in places and environments where it is useful to be able to speak English and where it has been picked up along the way. He asked me where I was from. When I told him I was Australian he commented that my English was easy to understand. Many Australians speak heavily accented and idiomatic English, but I didn't. I spoke heavily accented and idiomatic English for a couple of sentences, and we both laughed. He told me about his travels in the Middle East and Asia. We compared notes on Dubai and Malaysia. He seemed a nice bloke - exactly the sort of company one hopes for in a train in a foreign country.

However, this was not to last. His wife soon returned and they had a discussion in Russian. I was told that they were going to a compartment in another carriage, as "he" would undoubtedly return soon, and they needed to get some rest. I was not unsympathetic to their point of view, but I was not pleased by this development. Given the choice of sharing a compartment with two sensible people and a drunk and stoned Russian nutter, or with just a drunk and stoned Russian nutter, I knew which I preferred. This clearly showed on my face. My English speaking friend translated one last phrase from his wife, directed at me. "Good Luck".

Of course, I was not expecting good luck, and I did not get it. My drunk and stoned friend returned a while later. By this time I had settled down on my top bunk with a book, but he still wanted my attention. More incessant speaking. Attempts to slap my hand with his hand. Attempts to shove beer and vodka in my direction, followed by more incessant talking and unpredictable reactions when I refused. After about half an hour of this, he departed again, thankfully.

In order to comprehend the full experience of the rest of this journey, more of the customs of Russian train travel need to be revealed. Firstly, each carriage has a provodnitsa (provodnik if male, but they usually seem to be female) who is an attendant who checks tickets, provides bed linen, cleans compartments, offers coffee at the start and end of the journey, and is generally in charge of the carriage. Secondly, overnight trains make long stops. At a major station the train may stop for up to an hour in the middle of the night. When this happens, vendors selling food, drink, and other items appear on the platforms of the station, and passengers often get off to buy items from them.

Consequently, my journey developed a rhythm. My obnoxious friend would come into the carriage and irritate me for half an hour or more, before getting restless. At that point, he would vanish to somewhere else on the train for a time. If there was a stop, he would clearly leave the train. Shortly afterwards, he would reappear in the compartment with various items, and would talk incessantly in Russian and would thrust whatever he had bought in my face, and perhaps attempt to high-five me again.

What can I say? Having two smoked fish and a bottle of Ukrainian beer thrust in your face at midnight when you are trying to sleep is one of those things that is perhaps better to write about later than to experience at the time, although admittedly it does make for a good story later.

The next phase in the rhythm would be that the items that had been purchased on the platform at the stop would be placed on the table in the compartment, and my obnoxious friend would again get restless and wander to somewhere else in the train. At that point the provodnitsa (who was aware she had a problematic passenger) would come into the department and take away all the beer, vodka, illicit drugs, smoked fish etc that were on the table. There was no direct confrontation - just a sort of attempt to moderate the problem. In one of these intervals I got my laptop out, and managed to watch Lost. I pulled the memory card out of my camera, and was just starting to sort out my holiday snaps when my friend returned, so I put the laptop away as I did not know how he would respond. Similarly, I was reluctant to get out my own food, as I did not know whether he would demand some as part of Russian train etiquette, or any of a number of other weird reactions.

At about 1am, the provodnitsa came in, made my obnoxious friend's bed, and then clearly went somewhere else and encouraged him to come back to the compartment. She then spoke to him for what seemed like about an hour in the sort of way a particularly patient mother would speak to a particularly troublesome small boy. I could only think, what a horrible job. If you behaved like this on a train in western Europe, you would be thrown off the train at the next station, and likely be greeted by police who would take you off and throw you in a cell. However, in the Ukraine, the only power apparently available to the provodnitsa is to attempt to pacify the passenger. She has apparent authority, but is backed up by very little power or actual authority.

In any event it didn't really work, for after she left, so did my obnoxious friend, and his cycle of going, coming back and being annoying continued. I was concerned that at some point he would vomit and/or urinate, but thankfully this did not happen, a small mercy I suppose.

At about 3am, after yet one more such incident, I finally lost my temper. After another attempt to gain my attention, slap hands with me, and share beer with me from my friend, I got up and swore at him, loudly and in English. I cursed him. I cursed his mother. I cursed his country. I expressed the view that the Mongol sacking of Kiev in 1240 had been not nearly comprehensive enough for my liking. I managed to use pretty much every obscenity in the English language that is not a racial epithet. I responded to being slapped by slapping back. He made a gesture suggesting I join him in the corridor outside, but nothing came of that.

And oddly enough, soon after that he did finally go to bed again and fall asleep. I got a little sleep myself, too, but it was only a few hours to our arrival in Lviv at 7am. The provodnitsa woke us at that point. My obnoxious friend at this point insisted on buying me a cup of coffee, and shaking my hand as he left the carriage.

However, when I left the carriage, I was shattered. I had hoped for a restful night, and I hadn't got one. I walked off the train, and it was very cold. I sort of struggled to the nicest lounge in the railway station - the one with the admission charge and Wifi. I sat down and had a coffee. After a while I got out my laptop and attempted to check train times. After a bit of struggling with websites, I discovered that there were two trains a day from Lviv to Przemyśl on the other side of the Polish border, one at 23.59 and the other at 7.18. It was about 8.00am. I could have made the 7.18 after arriving in Lviv, but I had been too shattered to think about it at the time.

Actually, it was worse than that. Some of the carriages on that 7.18 had actually come from Odessa, on another train that had departed there at 6.13pm the previous evening. I could actually have gone to Przemyśl directly from Odessa. But, as I said, figuring out the timetables in Cyrillic had not been easy.

On the other hand, two trains a day. That Silesian corridor between Lviv and Wrocław was once one of the centres of the Austrian and then Prussian empires - one of the most advanced and populous areas of central Europe. Now, two trains a day.

But of course there were road options to get to Przemyśl, and I still had 13 hours in which to get to Katowice. It was only 400km. The main bus station in Lviv, was, however, about 8km south of the city centre. I could get there by getting a couple of trams. I got one to the centre of Lviv. Another would get me to the bus station. It seemed my best bet.

However, after the first tram, still shattered. I passed a cafe where I knew there was power, Wifi, more coffee, and a good breakfast to be had. I went in.

Over breakfast, more googling. Websites suggested that entering Poland from Ukraine could be difficult, and that buses could be delayed "up to nine hours". Other websites suggested that crossing the border on foot could be a good deal faster, if you had an EU or other rich country passport. Also, it was possible to get a marshrutki - a privately owned minibus that goes when it has enough passengers and stops when and where passengers ask - what transport nerds in other countries call a jitney - to Shehyni (Шегині). Of course, this went from the main train station. I therefore got another tram back to the station, and after wandering around for a bit found the marshrutki with "Шегині" on the front.

Photo by Mark Boyd

The ride to the border took an hour and a half. We went down an adequate road with a major European route number through many picturesque towns with beautiful churches and agriculture. There were many horse drawn vehicles, and fields being ploughed with animal and human labour nearby. This place is poor. Still, I was moving in the right direction. One of the cardinal rules of the ancient Confucian art of going with the flow (travel version) is to take any opportunity to move in the right direction, and I was moving in the right direction. I was concerned that I was going to have difficulty crossing the border.

As it happened, no problem. I got to Shehnyi. The queue to cross the border by road was extremely long and slow. The border features a lot of fencing and barbed wire, with a no man's land in the middle. This is an external border of the EU and of the Schengen area. This is a serious rich/poor border. 20 years after the end of communism, Poland is in many ways a fairly normal western country. Ukraine, not.

Photo by Mark Boyd

I walked across. Immigration turned out to be childishly simple, for me, anyway. As at many European borders, there were two lanes, one for "EU, Swiss and other EEA passports", and one for "Other passports". They may as well have just said "Poles", and "Ukrainians", or even "Rich", and "Poor". I was traveling on my British passport, so I walked down the EU line, which took me straight to the front of the line. The "non-EU" line was long and slow. My hunch is that if I had produced my Australian passport or an American or even a Brazilian passport, I would have been directed down the "EU" line. The global apartheid that allows people born in some places to move freely and people born in others to not move freely was as starkly evident has as anywhere I have seen. In truth, this was the starkest Rich/Poor border I have ever seen. Last time I crossed the Mexico/US border on foot I was made to queue like anyone else. American border guards go for equal opportunity humiliation, and that is perhaps fairer, if less convenient to me.

However, having gone through immigration, I still had to go through customs, and that was what this was all about. The entire purpose of this checkpoint is to prevent people smuggling cigarettes. Everyone crossing the border was getting their luggage searched. Everyone was carrying two packets of cigarettes - 40 cigarettes in total.

As it happened, this was perhaps a problem for me, as I was carrying 200 cigarettes. I occasionally bring cigarettes back to the UK for Thaddeus Tremaine, on the basis that they are much cheaper in many of the places I visit than they are in the UK. I had bought some in the Ukraine for him, and had assumed I would be able to bring the 200 cigarettes I am permitted when I enter the EU by air. I suddenly had a problem.

I decided that I would try the "Who, me? I am British." trick. The cigarettes were in the bottom of my rucksack. The official asked me "Cigaretten?" or something similar in something resembling German. It was clear he did not have much English. I could say "yes", and be asked how many, or I could say "no". However, that would be lying, and in such situations it is very important not to lie, as this can lead to trouble. Therefore, I instead said "Only a few" in the hope that he would not understand. This worked, but he still gestured for me to open my bag. I opened the compartment with my dirty underwear and socks in it. That worked well, and he gestured for me to close the bag without further checks. I walked on.

I was in the border crossing at the small Polish town of Medyka. Border crossing points are like military bases - they have the same shabby prefabricated look worldwide. This was no exception. There was a small supermarket, a few bars, some shabby shops selling vaguely Eastern European themed trinkets, money changers, etc.

One thing that was relatively unique to here was that there were a large number of elderly Ukrainian women, all holding two packets of cigarettes and one bottle of vodka to people who walked past. The Ukrainian side of the border was so poor that it was worth these women's while to queue for three hours in the cold in order to make a profit consisting of the difference between Ukrainian and Polish taxes on two packets of cigarettes and one bottle of vodka. These things are not expensive in Poland. The profit for such a journey would be less than $5 - possibly a good deal less. Middle aged and elderly women are the people who hold the country together - I saw this on the train and in many other places - and I felt a certain sympathy that comes from getting a poor lot in life.

I did something impulsive. I walked up to the nearest of these women, and simply handed her the relatively small amount of Ukrainian currency I had in my wallet. This was not much - the equivalent of six or seven dollars - but I just felt like doing it. She looked at me with surprise, but took the money.

However, ten minutes later, I realised that had not perhaps been a great idea. I had very little other money of any kind on me, and there were no cash machines near the border. There were plenty of money changers, but that was all. And there was no frequent transport - no jitneys here. Being a modern western country means that the state runs (or at least regulates) public transport, so obviously it is a lot worse. There were a few white minibuses carrying workers of various kinds to pre-arranged destinations. I could probably have done a deal with one of these people to take me to Przemyśl, but I had no cash. This was still insurmountable - "Take me to a cash machine in Przemyśl and I will then pay you" can be communicated, but these people spoke little English and it was relatively difficult to communicate. It would have been easier to have just held up some banknotes and asked "How much". If I had kept the Ukrainian money, I would have been able to change it to Zloty and I would have had less of a problem. However, I hadn't.

I did have about four Zloty ($1.20) on me, however, and there was a municipal bus, but it only came once every couple of hours. So I waited. I had no money, but (as it happened) I had some cold sausage, bread, cheese, and tinned fish with me, so I made myself lunch.

In a way this was worth it, because in that time, I saw something. A black van pulled up near the border. The black van was mobbed by elderly white haired Ukrainian women, thrusting their cigarettes and vodka through the windows, and being handed small sums of money. This went on for about sixty seconds. At this point another van, with some sort of official logo and flashing lights on top pulled up and honked its horn. The elderly Ukrainian women dispersed. There was no attempt to detain or arrest anyone - merely to stop the women onselling their cigarettes. The black van drove slowly off. I gave the driver the thumbs up. He smiled.

It was better than that, though. As this went on, the skies opened and snow fell. I felt like I was in a cold war movie.

I waited the hour and a half. The bus came. I had soon traveled the 10km to Przemyśl Glowny railway station, noticed that there was a train going to Wrocław at 13.42. Great. Everything was under control. I might even have the chance to quickly visit the Katyn memorial in Katowice before heading for the airport. I bought a ticket. The ticket seller was a helpful young woman who looked like she was paid reasonably and had decent working conditions. I had about 45 minutes. I went from a brief walk around Przemyśl: another of those nice central European cities. Nice church. Nice square. You could spend a nice couple of days here. I found a cash machine, and a bar, and ordered a Żywiec. The beer was good and cold. Seldom have I enjoyed one more.

I got out my laptop and my camera. My hand brushed across the side of the laptop, and felt a memory card sticking out. I swore. I had put the laptop away hurriedly when the drunk Russian returned to my compartment in the middle of the night, and I had not returned the memory card to the camera. Thus the photographs of the border and its barbed wire, long and short queues, and the snow falling on the cigarette smugglers had not been saved. (Just why my otherwise splendid camera pretends to take photographs when it has no card, I do not know). I did not swear as savagely as I had in the middle of the night, but I swore a little bit.

Still, that was life. Things like this happen occasionally. It was still a good story. I have borrowed a couple of photographs that I did not take myself for this part of the journey, but the loss of the photograph of the two vans, one being mobbed by elderly Ukrainian women in the snow is a shame.
I boarded my train.

There were way more stops than this. False advertising.

Soon, I realised that this train was not going quickly. Still, I had five and a half hours, and the distance was less than 300km. Not to worry. On the other hand, I was starting to wish I had checked the arrival time of the train in Katowice. And there was clearly no way I was getting to the Katyn memorial. Still, the train plodded along. It may have been quicker to get the bus, as Poland has spent more money on roads than railways since freedom. Eventually, though, we got to Krakow, At 5.30pm. There was still no problem if we were in Katowice by 7.00pm, and it was only 80km. I was getting a bit nervous, but it still seemed doable. I knew there was a bus service from Krakow to Katowice airport, but I did not know the times. The road from Krakow to Katowice is extremely good (this is the most densely populated area in Poland), and the bus would get me there pronto, but I did not know if there was one at the right time, so I stayed on the train. There was a bus every half hour from Katowice to Katowice airport, and I would surely be there in time. In the worst case scenario I could get a taxi.

Short as the last section of the journey was and important as the city pair was, the journey was really not fast. A nice girl of about 20 carrying a case containing a stringed instrument got into my compartment at Krakow. Her boyfriend helped her onto the train with her luggage, kissed her and seemed to wish her luck in Wrocław, and left the train. I said hello in English and she smiled and greeted me warmly back. She studied sheet music as the train went on. Wrocław contains a particularly beautiful concert hall. I imagined for a moment that she was going there to play, but she probably wasn't.

The journey from Krakow to Katowice is a strange one. The first section is in beautiful rolling hills in the valley of the river Vistula. Krakow itself is a heartbreakingly beautiful city. The train on the next platform was going to Oświęcim, a place better known outside Poland by its German name, and another reminder of the terrible history of this part of Europe.

The train then goes through the Upper Silesian Metropolitan Area, the largest metropolis in Poland. This is an industrial heartland that was built by the Prussians and Germans, and then later run in that delightful way that communist governments ran industry. In 1989 it was one of the most polluted places on earth. Poles from elsewhere still make faces and express puzzlement when you say you have been there.

Now though, it is a strange mixture of industrial, urban, and other. You pass through one centre of communist housing, then you pass the somewhat desolate (but recovering) forest, then an older town with a beautiful church, then a coal mine, then repeat, not necessarily in the same order. As you approach Katowice itself, the urban sections get larger. Katowice itself contains international hotels, shopping streets, bars and restaurants, small shops, large malls, and all the things you find in a civilized urban environment. It is a modern western city. I rather like it.

But there was no time to like it in this instance. The Upper Silesian metropolitan area is a federation of 14 cities, and the train seemingly stopped at all of them, traveling very slowly between. Eventually we got to Katowice station. I wished the nice musician girl a good day and sprinted off the train. I went to another cash machine and withdrew money for cab fare. The bus to the airport was due to depart in a few minutes. It was a nice modern bus, and would generally have been a highly efficient way of getting to the airport, but it was 7.35pm, my flight departed at 8.25pm, and I had no idea how chaotic the airport was going to be, given that this was the first flight to London in a week. Ryanair had stated that gates would close 40 minutes before departure rather than the normal 30, and although the 30 is not normally enforced if you have checked in online, I had no idea what the situation would be. Given I was rushing for my original scheduled flight that had not been cancelled, I was concerned that the consequences would be severe if I missed it. Perhaps I would have to wait for days for another flight with a seat. And I had no idea how much I would be charged if so.

So I jumped into a taxi and asked the driver to take me to the airport. The taxi was a new silver Mercedes. Katowice airport is about 55km from the centre of the city (although it is in the metropolis). There are motorways all the way. The driver instantly realised that I was in a hurry (or perhaps he just liked driving his silver Mercedes fast, as this is what it was designed for), so we sped down the motorway. I watched the meter tick over at high speed. 50 Zloty. 100 Zloty. 150 Zloty. This was as expensive as taking an equivalent taxi journey in Germany. Poland is generally cheap, but if you behave like a rich European you will be charged like a rich European, and that includes staying in an international hotel of getting a Mercedes taxi to the airport. 200 Zloty. 250 Zloty. 300 Zloty.

And it was still a bit more than that when we got to the airport. (And yes, subsequent research indicates that this is several times what that journey should have cost. This does not encourage me to use more taxis in Poland in future. However, I was in such a hurry that there was not a lot I could do about it). But we got there, at about 8pm. The success of a journey of 27 hours had ended up coming down to a frantic last fifteen minutes. I had not withdrawn enough money, so I rushed to another cash machine, went back and paid the driver, went through security, and got my belt horribly caught in my trousers as I desperately tried to take it off to put it through the X-Ray machine.

At that point, though, the security guy made a gesture that translated roughly as "Relax". He could see my flight boarding in the distance, and there was still a queue and there was really no trouble making the gate in time. I didn't quite relax, but I slowed down. A Polish immigration guy scanned my passport. I walked to the gate and boarded the plane. At this point I could relax. I would be asleep in my own bed that evening. As I was.

It was a stressful but interesting journey. And it ended well. I could have done without the taxi fare at the end (which, incidentally, cost more than the train from Odessa to Lviv, the marshrutki to the Polish border, the bus to Przemyśl, the train to Katowice, the flight to London, the train from Stansted Airport to London, and the bus from Liverpool St Station to my home, put together). But one is hit by an unexpected expense once in a while, and the taxi driver got me to my flight, for which he has my thanks.

Comversation in pub.

"You charged me £2.70 for my pint of Tuborg, but you have a Monday special and it is £2.05"

"Er, sorry, I forgot about that...... Actually, you asked for Fosters."

"No, I definitely asked for Tuborg.

"No you didn't"
(Michael is given a refund of 65p, regardless of the difference of opinion).

"Look, I am Australian. There is no possible way I could have ordered Fosters"

A story

A few years ago, in the days before netbooks, I purchased one of those really expensive miniature Sony laptops. (It cost well over a thousand quid, and it turned out that both the build quality and after sales service were, in my opinion, terrible. But I digress). One of the selling points of this laptop was that it was the smallest laptop available that contained an optical drive. In order to fit the optical drive, they had to find the smallest drives possible. These were made by Matsushita.

Now, when the DVD region coding system was invented, hardware manufacturers paid lip service to it but didn't try hard to enforce it. Thus we have DVD players that can be unlocked by entering a magic code or by flashing alternate firmware. (In a lot of cases, the source code of the firmware was oddly easy for hackers to find). In the case
of DVD drives for computers, hacked firmware is often widely available, as is software to get round the region coding. (VLC has such workarounds built into it, for instance). The only company that took the region coding seriously was Matsushita, and their DVD drives generally still cannot be unlocked. Matsushita also built the thinnest

Therefore, ultraportable laptops (including my Sony) were just about the only laptops available with DVD drives with region coding that could not be unlocked.

Now, who were the likely customers for such laptops. Well, affluent people who travel a lot, and often take their laptops from one region to another. In fact, the sorts of people who might often find themselves feeling a little lonely in foreign hotel rooms, and who might really like to go and buy a DVD in a local shop before watching it on their laptops. If they wanted to watch a movie on their laptop, they could either download the movie over the internet illegally or go and buy a pirate DVD. Pirates are always careful to remove region coding from their DVDs as they know it annoys their customers.

One can only salute the great genius of the companies who gave us this. One funny thing, though, is that when I tell people it was a Sony laptop, people say "Oh, that's because Sony owns a film studio". However, it isn't. Sony do make DVD drives, and Sony drives have region coding that is easy to disable. (Sony did not makes drives thin enough for my laptop, though, which is why they were not in this instance using their own drives). The hardliners are Matsushita, who did at one point own Universal Studios, but who sold it in 1995. Go figure.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Engineering, or Michael expresses his exasperation with the Italians (again)

In the middle of 2008, I purchased myself a "bean to cup" coffee machine. The point of such a machine is that you put unground coffee beans in the top and espresso comes out the bottom, basically. I purchased such a machine from the Italian company Gaggia, a very famous brand in coffee. This machine made wonderful coffee, and I finally achieved my long term wish of being able to make myself as good an espresso or latte at home as I can get in a good cafe. It was a fine purchase, and I was very happy with it.

However, late last year, half way through making me a cup of coffee, something horrible happened to the coffee machine's boiler, and it would no longer make coffee. However, as the machine came with a two year warranty, I called the manufacturer, and they said that they would send packing materials, I could then arrange for DHL to pick it up and they would repair it for me. For the then, though, I was stuck with cafetiere coffee and occasional trips to the Algerian cafe down the road (as previously discussed).

I didn't actually manage to send the machine off to them until early February, as I was abroad for most of January. However, once I did, I heard nothing from them. A couple of weeks ago, I called them, and I was told that "There is a backlog in importing parts from Italy". This was a little annoying, but I kept drinking cafetiere coffee, shrugged, and worked on the basis that Italians will be Italians.

Today, though, I received a call from Gaggia explaining that my coffee machine was "beyond economic repair", and that rather than repairing it they would be refunding the money I paid for it. The model is superceded, so apparently the option of simply giving me another one no longer exists. I can of course live with this, but in truth my preference would simply be to have the machine working again. As I said, the machine made superb coffee. I shall just have to buy a new machine with the refund.

Having decided that, a conversation I had with Perry de Havilland a few months back (as a consequence of my mentioning how happy I was with my Italian coffee machine) came to mind. Essentially, he told me that "In Germany, the most prestigious coffee machines are Italian. After all, the Italians know far more about coffee than we do". However, "In Italy, the most prestigious coffee machines are German. After all, the Germans know far more about engineering than we do".

I think I may be buying a German coffee machine.

Sunday, April 04, 2010


On Samisdata, I have writted a piece that purports to be about the leg before wicket rule, but is actually about climate change science. I may have stretched things a bit, but I am amused that I was able to do this.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Two different years

As I have mentioned, my end of year photo posts obey a fairly strict set of rules as to what is included. In addition, they have no explanatory text other than the locality, country, and month.

However, I like to squeeze occasional oblique connections between photos in if I can. For instance, this set contains two pictures of music halls designed by celebrity architects. Also, the two consecutive cathedrals with twin spires are not adjacent accidentally. (People in England sometimes see Poland as a little grim. I don't find it that way myself, and a beautiful Polish cathedral next to a beautiful Parisian cathedral is a nice comparison).

Consider these two photographs.

Huelva, Spain. December 2009.

Baiona, Spain. March 2010.

Unfortunately, these were taken in different years, and so cannot be placed in the same essay. This is a shame. The first photograph is of the Columbus memorial in Huelva, Spain, at the point where the Rio Tinto meet the Rio Odiel. Columbus' voyage began (on August 3, 1492) from a point close nearby, perhaps a mile away across the Rio Tinto in Palos de la Frontera. The monument is absolutely enormous. I have never seen a larger statue celebrating a secular figure anywhere (look at the door on the bottom left), although of course it is presented in a religious style to presumably suggest there was something holy about his mission. The message intended by the size, though, is approximately "Here we commemorate the greatest man in history".

The second photograph is of the Columbus memorial in Baiona in Galicia, where Columbus' ship the Pinta arrived on March 1, 1493, providing the first news to Spain that Columbus had found the New World, although at that point it was still believed to be the Indies. Columbus himself was not on the ship: he was on the Niña, which arrived in Lisbon on March 4. (Both ships then proceeded back to Palos).

I didn't travel precisely to see these monuments, but as it happened I was relatively nearby each of them, and upon learning that I was, I was interested enough to then go and see them. Whereas it took the Pinta seven months to get from Huelva to Baiona, it only took me three months. And interestingly enough, I travelled far, far more miles in between.

These two photograps would have been perfect to stick in an end of year posting without explanation and see if anyone got the connection. There is, I think, just the right amount of not quite obvious about it. As it happens, there are replicas of the Pinta in both places, and another theoretical option would be photographs of the two ships. But this would be too obvious.

In any event, the arbitrary end of the year got in the way so it is all theoretical.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

It's European

When I go out, I carry a fair bit of stuff. A cellphone or more commonly two. Usually a netbook or a full sized laptop. A bit of reading material. An iPod, perhaps. Accessories. A set of earphones. Perhaps an external microphone. Perhaps a camera. I have just replaced a USB 3G modem with a cute MiFi portable router. In winter, perhaps a sweater or other things to keep me warm. Perhaps an umbrella. Perhaps I will soon be carrying an iPad, which may or may not be replacing some of the other devices.

To carry all this stuff, I use a backpack. I have a Swissgear backpack, which I also use as my one piece of luggage if I go traveling for anything less than a week.

However, on a day to day basis, this is actually too big and heavy for what I need. I takes up too much space on trains, and I bump other people. And it is mostly empty. What I need is something smaller with perhaps a shoulder strap, and a few different compartments to stow all my stuff.

Of course, there is a name for this kind of thing. It is called a handbag. The ladies have solved this problem years ago. Having looked at a few of these things lately, I am discovering that the fashionable ones are getting larger, and have all kinds of compartments for weird electronic devices. Some of these things are really quite nice, and I have in some instances looked at them quite enviously.

Is the world changing, or am I just being overcome by metrosexuality?

Sunday, February 28, 2010


Patrick Crozier and I recently recorded a conversation about the following of English football outside Europe - particularly in Asia. This can be found here

And, on Samizdata I have been trying to be enigmatic. The story behind this is that several years ago, after I posted one of my annual recaps, there was a joking discussion in the comments trying to figure out what I was doing in those places. One suggestion was that I was a secret agent, and that someone should perhaps attempt to compare my movements with assassinations and other mysterious events around the world. This was amusing. However, in January this year, it happened that I was in Dubai at the exact moment (presumably Mossad) were staking out a particular hotel for an assassination. In fact, I walked past the hotel in question at 3am on the day before the assassination, purely by coincidence. I didn't take a photograph of the hotel in question, but the blurry photograph I posted is of a place quite close. So, for once, my movements did coincide with such an event.

I am not sure this post worked though.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


I was in South East Asia recently. In a few days I visited Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam. I was traveling on an Australian passport, and I needed visas for Vietnam and Indonesia.

In the case of Indonesia, I was able to get a visa at the border, which is basically just a shakedown exercise in which I had to pay $25 to enter the country. Indonesia recently had a scandal in which officials were apparently hiding the existence of a $10 visa for up to seven days, charging people the full $25 charge that applies for up to 30 days, issuing the seven day visa and pocketing the $15 difference. The government solved this corruption problem by abolishing the $10 seven day visa, thus making things better for nobody except the government. Thus I had to pay $25 for just a day's visit, although I didn't realise this until I got there.

In the case of Vietnam, I was able to get a visa at the airport on arrival. This had to be approved in advance. This approval can only be obtained through local travel agents in Vietnam. What one does is send one's passport details to a travel agent in Hanoi over the internet (and pays them a fee - I paid $20). The travel agent then sends the details on to the government, which issues a letter to the travel agent saying that the visa on arrival has been approved. The travel agent then e-mails you a scan of the letter, and you bring this with you to the airport. Once you arrive in Vietnam you pay another $25 fee to the government at the airport, and they issue your visa.

This all seems entirely pointless (and the necessity of the travel agent as a middle man strikes me as dubious), but these sorts of shakedown exercises are actually a big improvement on some of the queuing at consulates and other weird practices at peculiar hours that I have been put through to get visas in the past.

In addition, whenever I entered a country I had to fill out one of those silly forms giving my name, address, name of hotel and other kinds of information that nobody is ever going to read. These forms are big on asking where you are staying for some reason. Often enough I haven't finalized this when I arrive, or I am planning on spending three hours in the airport before heading somewhere else, or such, and so I have mastered the art of simply writing down something that sounds plausibly like the name of a hotel in that city. (In cities I visit regularly, I sometimes use the names of real hotels I am not staying at).

Sometimes you have to keep one part of the form in your passport between arrival and exit, with unknown consequences if you lose it. (In the world's shittier countries, the consequences are "pay a bribe", but in truth I wasn't in the world's shittier countries). I entered Singapore a total of five times and had to fill out the form each time. On one occasion crossing from Malaysia to Singapore, I had no pen on me, but somebody else had left one with purple ink on the desk, which I used to fill out the form. When I got to the immigration desk I was told that it had to be blue or black. The immigration officer was sympathetic and actually made a phone call to see if he could accept the purple, but in the end I was sent back to fill it in again. I shouldn't be hard on Singapore specifically, here. By the standards of the region their procedures are smooth, and they provide free sweets. I do wonder what they do with all the forms though. The principal border crossing between Malaysia and Singapore is crossed by something like a hundred thousand people a day. I cannot imagine that anyone reads any of the forms, let alone all of them, particularly given that most of the same information can be read electronically from people's passports.

The other hassle of traveling in this part of the world is all the different currencies. Specifically, every country has one. One has all the hassle of obtaining local currency, not withdrawing too much, spending all or most of it before leaving the country, and not running it with one last thing to pay before they will let you leave the country. (What is it with "You have to pay the airport tax, and no, we don't take credit cards. In fact, we only take Altarian dollars", anyway).

When I first came to Europe, it was like this too. Different currencies in each country. Lots of border formalities. Even sometimes the need for visas. (Australians needed visas for France and Spain as little as a decade ago). Silly forms. Most of this is gone, now. The Euro and the Schengen agreement have made my life a lot easier. The only people with separate currencies and silly forms are largely now the British, and people like the Russians and Ukrainians. They don't bother me as much now that I am a British national and I live here, but they bureaucratic instinct has become strong in this regard. The EU single market does make Europe a much easier place to travel around. In this regard, I wish ASEAN would follow.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The following is a sidebar to this post I have written for Samizdata
Portugal has existed as a state since Afonso Henriques, Count of Portugal, achieved independence from the Kingdom of Leon (one of the four kingdoms generally considered the predecessors of modern Spain) and declared himself King Alfonso I of Portugal in 1139. At that point Portugal only consisted of the North of the modern country, but Alfonso pursued a series of conquests that expelled the Moors from much of the south of the modern country. Olivenca fell to Alfonso in 1170, but was retaken by the Muslims in 1189. In 1230, Olivenza was taken from the Moors by the Knights Templar in 1139, ultimately being absorbed into the Kindom of Castille, predecessor to modern Spain. It was reclaimed by Portugal in 1297, during the succession crisis following the death of King Sancho IV of Castille, Leon, and Galicia. Olivenca then remained Portuguese for more than 500 years, although Portugal was in Personal Union with Spain (ie the same king ruled two multiple kingdoms that were theoretically separate) from 1580 to 1640.

In 1373, Portugal signed a treaty of perpetual friendship with England, that remains in force to this day. In 1510, the Ajuda bridge was built across the Guardiana river to the nearby Portuguese town of Elvas. In the war of Spanish succession (that took place between 1701 and 1714), Portugal sided with the British and Prussians against the Spanish and French, in accordance with the treaty of 1373. Olivenca was held by Portugal, but there was fighting in the area and the Ajuda bridge was damaged and made impassable in 1709.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Some endings take time

In December, I blogged happily about the prospect of receiving new (if unneeded) hardware for free. Alas, though, it did not work out, and I had to send a letter to customer service

In mid-December, I received a (paper) letter stating that Three's network had been recently upgraded in my area and that if I wished, Three would provide me with a new modem at not charge, to take advantage of the faster network. I called the phone number given in the letter and arranged to be sent the new modem. Several weeks later, the new modem had not arrived. Therefore, on January 13, I called Three Mobile again to enquire where it was. The person I spoke to told me that the address that showed up on his computer for my account was my old address (postcode SW18 1DB) that I left in June last year. This was odd, as all correspondence from Three (including the letter that started this) has been sent to my new address (SE1 5HH) for at least six months. He stated that the modem might have been sent to my old address also, and that he would escalate the matter and investigate, and would call me back within two days. This was satisfactory to me. However, he did not call me back within two days, and did not in fact call me back until January 19th. This was not satisfactory to me, and if I had known he would take this long to get back to me, I would have told him not to bother. On January 19, I was in Australia, and when he called me it was 3am local time, and paying considerable roaming charges to receive calls. After a conversation of several minutes that cost me several pounds to have, he eventually told me that it would not be possible to deliver the modem when I was not present, and that I should therefore arrange again to have it delivered when I was back in the UK. I am now back in the UK. I am still using my old modem, which works perfectly but presumably at slower speeds than would a new modem. I am still perfectly happy with the service I am receiving. If Three had done nothing whatsoever, I would have no complaints. However, Three somehow managed to waste my and your time, and to cost me money to achieve nothing whatsoever. That said, if you are able to give me a new modem to increase my broadband speed, I would still find this useful. In fact, if you are able to provide me with one of your MiFi modem/routers instead of a standard modem, I would find that even more useful. I am actually very close to the end of my contract, and would agree to renew the contract for another 18 or 24 months if this is necessary to do so, although I do not wish to lose the particularly low monthly rate I am presently paying (£5 a month for 1Gb).

Thank you

I wonder if I can manage to get fancier hardware out of them than they originally offered? Or am I just leading myself further down the rabbithole?

Thursday, January 14, 2010


I so totally need to see this


Dubai, UAE. January 2010.

Friday, January 08, 2010


My fancy, expensive Italian espresso machine has broken down. It is still under warranty and everything should be fine soon, but this leads me to the problem of where to go to get my needed doses of espresso. I am living in Bermondsey in South East London at the moment, which is ethnically rich, but has only a few patches of what might be called "globalised London": those areas that are filled with national and particularly international chains of stores, trendy Italianate cafes patronised by yuppies, and that kind of thing. One area that does qualify is Borough, which has its fair share of Starbucks and Caffe Nero outlets, plus other places with Wifi and espresso that are adjunct to fashion museums. It's a nice area, actually. I might consider moving there when I have a bit more income.

One place that almost qualifies is Greenwich, which is today a mixture of traditional working class, people who work at the financial office complex at Canary Wharf, people associated with the various museums and historic sites there, and has also had enough brownfield sites and regeneration that a certain kind of boutique business can operate there. (For instance, the Meantime Brewing Company, which makes specialty beers - quite an ambitious company that you would describe as "independent" but is now a bit too big to count as "boutique"). Anyway, this was one place to go for coffee, so on one day between Christmas and New Year, I went there for coffee. Many businesses were closed but there were lots of tourists around, so the obvious coffee venues with sort of okay coffee (Starbucks and Costa) were packed with people and I went looking for somewhere else as I wanted to avoid the crowds. As it happens, Greenwich is yuppified enough to have Starbucks and Costa, but not so yuppified as to have decent independent coffee shops.

I ended up wandering to a cinema. The Greenwich PictureHouse is one of those cinemas that looks like an arthouse but mostly plays mainstream Hollywood films, and is ideal for those sorts of customers who wouldn't deign to walk into a multiplex but none the less want to see Avatar. I don't tend to go there to watch movies - if I want mainstream Hollywood there are cheaper places with different ambiance but equally good technical presentation in South East London. There is a decent chance of finding an acceptable cafe in such a cinema, though, so I went in hoping to find one. As it happened, there is a Spanish tapas bar in the same building, with a door going directly from the tapas bar into the lobby of the cinema. I went in and asked if I could simply sit down and have a coffee. The waiter's response was "of course" and I sat down and had an excellent Spanish style cafe cortado.

The funny thing about this is that I asked if I could sit down and just have coffee. In a tapas bar in Spain, I wouldn't dream of asking such a thing, as it would be assumed and in fact the bar would be full of people doing just this, or just having a small glass of wine or beer. In Spain there would be a bar as well as table seating, and I would probably sit at the bar. At this place in London, no bar.

Tapas restaurants in London are a little odd. People tend to order tapas style dishes from a printed menu in the way they would at some other restaurant, and to make a full meal of them in one place. They might order a few dishes to share, or they might order these same dishes to consume individually. The Spanish custom of having one small dish with each drink doesn't seem to apply.

I confess I find this general rigidity between "restaurant", "cafe", and "bar" in the UK (and my native Australia, too) rather annoying. I find the Spanish drinking culture far more pleasant than the English drinking culture. You drink over a longer period of time, and you drink small glasses of wine or beer. You also constantly eat little items of food with your drinks, so that "Consume huge quantities of alcohol on an empty stomach" thing that exists in England doesn't apply. (As the place where you would go to consume coffee is the same place you would go to have a beer, it is much easier to (say) drink coffee when you are in the company of people drinking alcohol and you wish to refrain from doing that, too). Tapas works best when you have a large number of bars in a relatively small area of town, and you hop from bar to bar having one drink and one small item of food in each. In some parts of Spain (Madrid, parts of Andalucia, Leon, and the Asturias) the tapas is free: you order a drink and an item of food comes with it. This of course leads to waiters sending complex messages to you about whether they like you are not by what they give you, but it is none the less a nice tradition.

Relatively little of this translates well to London, particularly when you only visit one venue. Which leads to my doing things such as ask whether it is okay to sit in a tapas bar and ask whether I can just have coffee. Many of the people just down the road might have liked to do this, too, but for mostly cultural reasons they didn't.

The other place I have found myself drinking espresso is an Algerian cafe in Old Kent Road. This place sells excellent coffee for half the cost of Starbucks, and people at the other tables are either eating French style pastries or African style chicken dishes with rice. There is a television at the back of the room which is usually showing France 24 (which is full of programs about the minute details of whatever is going on in the EU) and occasionally showing African football matches. (Algeria are playing in the African Nations Cup tomorrow, which might make it a fun afternoon to go there, although it is greatly sad that terrorist scum have ruined that tournament). The background volume in the cafe is a mixture of French and Arabic. It's a no hold bars ethnic place: people of an Anglo background are barely an afterthought. However, as is normally the case, it's completely friendly if I walk in. I am just someone who wants a coffee and my money is as good as the next person's.


Sunday, January 03, 2010

How I am not cool

The scene: Sydney, Australia. The year 2000. Michael is talking to a girl

Girl: Have you been to Soho?
Michael: Soho in London, SoHo in New York, or Soho in Hong Kong? Yes in all three cases.
Girl: No, the club in Darling Harbour.
Michael: Oh.

(Girl loses interest and wanders off)

Blog Archive