Thursday, December 29, 2011

More travel

My 2011 travel photoessay is here. The previous five are here, here, here, here, and here.

The rules for how many photos I post are here. The stretches this year are that Ceuta is part of Spain (although disputed by Morocco), Gagauzia is part of Moldova (although a special autonomous region that declared independence at the end of the Soviet Union, but eventually came to an agreement with the Moldovans due to not having the support of the Russian army in the way of the Transnistrians, and Sabah and Sarawak are part of Malaysia, although having considerably more autonomy, and their own immigration rules, due to having been historically somewhat reluctant to join Malaysia upon the formation of the country. (Sabah's autonomy has been weakened to the point where it was touch and go really here, but it still definitely remains in the case of Sarawak).

Of course, I also saw lots of graffiti in Bucharest this year claiming that Bessarabia (ie most of Moldova) was part of Romania, and relations between the two sights are rather fraught, so one wonders where the borders in this part of the world will be in a couple of decades. On the other hand, one of the most telling things I saw all year was the lighting on the respective sides of the river Prut separating Romania from Moldova. Both sides of the river are populated, but the Moldovan side got dark at night, while the Romanian side was lit up like any populated area of at least moderate wealth. That evening was one of the hairiest evenings I have ever had on my travels, to tell the truth. At some point I might tell the story.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Linguistic observations

When I started using the internet and related networks (long time ago now - late 1980s) it was pretty much an entirely English language thing. The critical mass was pretty much not there for much to happen in foreign language forums. What did happen was in Usenet, and although much smaller clusters of non-English Usenet groups did exist in certain places (German, for instance), even if I had wanted to use them they were not generally brought into Australia anyway.

Things moved on, and when the web and blog became dominant, the non-English net did become a bigger deal, but it was isolated. Multilingual people who did want to be heard in the English word would generally blog in English. A few people would maintain multiple versions of their blogs in different languages, and blogosphere in other languages became very extensive, but a blog tends to be in a single language.

What I am finding interesting in the world of Facebook and Twitter, though, is that these are somehow much more multilingual media. People who speak more than one language seem to be happy to update social media in a mixture of languages, and which they use depends on context. Many conversations are in a mixture of languages, too. I know lots of multilingual people, because that is the sort of life I live, and my Facebook and Twitter updates now contain streams of Swedish, Albanian, and Spanish, amongst other things. From time to time I find myself using Google's translation tools to figure out what is being said. The etiquette is different, too. If you a comment in Spanish on an English language blog, people will tell you to stop it. In a conversation on Facebook, though, the onus is much more on you as a reader to figure out what it means.

I will be interested in seeing whether the social networking companies respond to this. If I set my reading language to English, will they offer me some automated system where they look at my feed, observe the languages of comments and attempt to translate them for me, possibly alongside the original. Will we eventually reach a moment where machine translation is so good that the language variations in such a feed will go away again. Not for a while, I think.

For the moment, though, I find that as an English speaker I am peering into a world that exists for a great many people but not for me. Multiple languages are one of the regular facts of life. Conversations can be in multiple languages, and can change almost from sentence to sentence. However, for much of the English speaking world, things are not like that.

I have that mental block that tells me that learning a second language is so hard as to be almost impossible. This is probably silly, as much of the world has managed it. In contrast, I would see learning, say, calculus, as very easy. On the other hand, most of the people of the world have not managed to do this.

Update: To that, I would add that I follow far more of the western European languages than I do the Russian or the Hebrew, both of which also appear in my streams in reasonable amounts. I can read Cyrillic when I have to, but it is work. I have no idea whatsoever how to read Hebrew. Both, I know, can be translated using Google language tools. However, both seem foreign enough that I generally will not do so. I can understand enough Spanish or Swedish to be tantalised, so I then do take this to the next step.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Rugby World Cup 2011

On Wednesday I recorded a podcast with Brian Micklethwait, Patrick Crozier, and Antoine Clarke, in which we discussed the 2011 Rugby World Cup, which is about to reach the quarter final stage.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

More travel related mental skills.

Over the summer, I have been to Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Macedonia, Albania, and Kosovo. With the exception of Slovakia and Kosovo (which use the euro, each of these countries has its own currency. Also, with the exception of Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech republic, each of these countries maintains its own immigration controls. Travel is thus like it was in western Europe 20 years ago. There is lots of messing around with passports, money changers, and pockets full of strange coins. Like western Europe 20 years ago, it is all done in the context of a peaceful and relatively civilised environment, but there things are hassles.

However, when I am in a country, I am extremely adept at keeping track of exchange rates. When I am quoted a price in local currency I know exactly what that is in Sterling. I am very careful, and I don't let anyone play any tricks on me, as people in touristy places will try to do. (In non-touristy places, generally they won't. One of the interesting facts about travel is that you are generally safer - at least from petty crime - in places where tourists do not go, as the pickpockets and bag-snatchers that prey on tourists do not exist in such places.

However, when I leave a country and its associated currency, I forget the exchange rate pretty much instantly. There is usually no value remembering it, as even if I do visit the country again, the exchange rate will be different. The exception is if I come back to the same country a week later, as one might if doing a circular trip. In fact, this happened to me in Macedonia last month. I flew in and out of Skopje, but I spent most of the trip in Albania and Kosovo. When I got back to Macedonia, I couldn't remember the exchange rate, and had to look it up again.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Mental games

When I travel, I am usually very good at separating the "getting there" and "getting home" parts of a trip from the trip itself. At the end of a trip, I am very experienced at figuring out precisely when I must stop sightseeing, having lunch, talking to friends or whatever it is I am doing and must head for the airport. There is a precise moment when I change into going home mode. After this, my focus is entirely on the journey. Before that, my focus is not on the journey at all, other than knowing that there is a moment coming when things will change. As another way of putting it, I do not allow myself to become stressed by the journey until I need to.

Except, last Monday I didn't manage this. I spend Sunday night in a hotel in Prizren in Kosovo. My flight was from Skopje airport in Macedonia. The journey from Prizren to Skopje takes three hours by bus - probably two to two and a half hours by private car. I was taking the bus.

There are two direct buses a day from Prizren to Skopje. These go at 5.30am and 9am. For some reason there are none after this. I got the 9am bus. The journey was uneventful, other than that I spent three hours on a bus. I was thus in Skopje at midday. I didn't need to head to the airport until maybe 4.30pm or 5.00pm. There were one or two things in Skopje that I could have gone to see, but I had been to the city twice before and had seen most of the sights already, so things were not *that* pressing. I was hungry, so I sat down in a cafe beside the river, and had a steak and a beer, and read my book for a bit. I had been traveling for a little over a week, so I was a bit tired, but I discovered that I did not want to get up and sightsee. Apparently I had been mentally in "going home" mode since boarding the bus in Prizren at 9am. So I had another beer and kept reading my book, but I didn't feel completely relaxed. Apart from a brief detour to a supermarket, I kept reading until about 4.30pm, at which time I headed to the airport. No real hassle, but upon reaching the airport I discovered that my plane was 75 minutes late.

Actually, by the time the plane left it was around two hours late, and rather than getting to Luton airport at 9pm, we arrived at 11pm. There were still trains running to London, but by that time they were stopping at all stations rather than running as expresses. And due to the Thameslink 2000 Programme works, they were stopping at St Pancras rather than running through to London Bridge. So, I had to get a night bus from King's Cross to South London. No problem, but more hassle and slower than just getting the train. I was in bed by 1am - not bad given the arrival at Luton at 11pm, but still a slower and more stressful journey than if I had arrived at 9pm. And I was exhausted, since I had been traveling since 9am.

The funny thing is this. If there had been a bus from Prizren to Skopje at 2pm, I would have managed to stay in holiday mode rather than travel mode until about 1.30pm. I would have been mentally far fresher when I got home, as the total journey time would have been shorter. The fact that I spent four hours and some in the middle of the journey simply sitting down and eating, drinking and reading didn't help. This was travel time.

Although there are only two buses a day from Prizren to Skopje, there are many buses throughout the day from Prizren to Pristina, and quite a few from Pristina to Skopje. I probably could have left Prizren at 12 if I didn't mind changing buses in Pristina. The total time on buses would have been longer, and there would have been more opportunity for something to go wrong, so I was right to get the direct bus at 9am. However, if I had done this and nothing had gone wrong, I almost certainly would have felt less exhausted when I finally got home, despite the greater complexity of the journey.

The mind can play funny tricks.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

On Budweiser

While discussing Czech beer in the last post, I mentioned that Budvar beer is widely available in Slovakia, but did not touch upon probably the most interesting trademark dispute I know of, which is over the use of the world "Budweiser" to describe beer.

There are of course two Czech cities that have given their names to extremely well known beers. One is the city of Plzeň (Pilsen in German), which has given its name to Pilsener. This is a fairly straightforward instance of a place name that has become a generic name. The word pilsener today does not mean "Beer from Pilsen", but is simply used as the name for a particular style of beer. The EU in recent years has tried hard (often excessively, in my opinion) to reclaim European place names on the way to becoming generics names using laws about Protected Designation of Origin, but "pilsener" is too far gone for this. The word does not imply any particular beer, or any particular origin for the beer. Ask for a Pilsener in the Czech Republic or Slovakia and you will get a beer from Plzeň, but this will not likely happen anywhere else. Breweries in Plzeň do not have exclusive use of the word, but nobody is going to stop them using it, either.

The other city known for its beer is Budějovice (Budweis in German). The story here is more complex. A Brewery named Bürgerliches Brauhaus Budweis was founded by ethnic Germans in 1795, and was describing its beer as Budweiser ("Beer from Budweis", in German) since at least as early as 1805. This beer was later exported to the United States and was clearly being copied when Anheuser-Busch started brewing their "Budweiser" in the US in 1876.

A second brewery, now named Budvar, was founded in Budějovice in 1895. This company also called its beer "Budweiser" when it exported it, probably due to the face that this word was already famous. In Czech, it would have been described as "Budějovický", and this name was used domestically.

The three companies fairly early on got into arguments over the name, and in 1911 they came to an agreement that Anheuser-Busch would have the rights to the name in North America, and the two Czech brewers would have the rights in Europe.

However, in 1945, the Czech lands came under communist rule, ethnic Germans were expelled, both breweries were nationalised, and German names were seen as undesirable. Bürgerliches Brauhaus Budweis, the more German of the two breweries, was renamed "První budějovický pivovar Samson", and stopped using the "Budweiser" name. I think that Budvar continued using it, particularly for exports to Germany, but I am not 100% certain of this.

In any event, after the Cold War ended, Budvar started exporting again in a big way, and this coincided with Anheuser-Busch expanding too. The two breweries have been fighting each other over the trademark ever since. Beer lovers often express sympathy for Budvar in this dispute, on the basis that the trademark surely means "Beer from Budweis", and also Budvar makes better beer. I am personally not so sure about this, as Anheuser-Busch actually does have a prior claim to the name than that of Budvar, and their size is probably more responsible for the fame of the name than anything else. In addition, although Budweiser does mean "Beer from Budweis", Budweis is no longer the name of the town, which is Budějovice. The truth, though, is that we have a very unusual case in which two companies have very long standing, legitimate claims to the same trademark.

Courts in Europe have tended to favour Budvar's claim to the trademark, and courts in the US have tended to favour Anheuser-Busch. This is probably fair, given the 1911 agreement. In Britain, the courts have ruled that both companies may use the name, and that consumers are smart enough to tell the difference, which is a refreshingly grown-up verdict. In countries where Budvar does not have the rights to the name, they tend to call it Budějovický Budvar, which means the same thing in Czech. (In North America it is sold as "Czechvar", as even this is apparently too much for Anheuser-Busch), In countries where Anheuser-Busch does not have the rights to the name, they brand their Budweiser simply as "Bud".

But what about the Czech brewery that does have a prior claim to the name to that of Anheuser-Busch, the brewery originally known as Bürgerliches Brauhaus Budweis, which changed its name again after communism to "Budějovický měšťanský pivovar ", an exact translation of its original German name? Well, after communism, this company also sought to re-establish its traditional trademarks, and also started using "Budweiser" in the names of many of its beers. However, it only did this in markets where it had an unambiguous right to do so, and has largely stayed clear of mighty trademark disputes with Anheuser-Busch. The brewery still exports, though, under all kinds of names. ("Samson", "Crystal". "Boheme"). So funnily enough, the brewer which probably does have the strongest historical claim to the name is the least inclined to actually use it.

As is happens, my local Tesco stocks their beer, in this instance branded as "Boheme 1795". The fine print on the back of the bottle does mention that the beer was brewed in Budějovice, but the bottle also has "Pilsen" in much larger letters on the front. The beer may be approximately a pilsener in style, but I can't imagine this thrills the people in Budějovice that much. "Pilsen" is a word that anyone is free to use, however.

And yeah, it is good beer. Quite similar to Budvar, actually.

Friday, September 09, 2011

On beer

I am just back from an eastern European trip. In 19 days I visited Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova (including Turkic speaking Gagauzia and the largely Russian speaking city of Balti), western Ukraine, southern Poland, and then the Slovak and Czech republics. I consumed a reasonable amount of beer on this trip, because the weather was very hot and the beer was very cheap. (The price bottomed at about 30p for a half litre in the Ukraine). I always drink local beer when travelling, both to see what it is like and because it is usually much cheaper. (A basic beer from one place becomes a premium beer when sold in another country). The beer was all good. Mostly I was drinking national brands in Bulgaria and Romania. In Moldova, I was drinking Moldovan national brands in Romanian speaking parts, and Ukrainian national brands in the Gagauzia and the Russian speaking parts. In Chernovitsi in the Ukraine there were lots of interesting and local beers (including some excellent wheat beers) as well as the fairly bland Ukrainian national brands. It would seem that even after Stalin committed genocide and then relocated vast amounts of population, the beer making skills taught by the Austrians have survived.

In southern Poland, mostly Tyskie and Zywiec. National brands, but some regional variation. (Both those beers are Silesian. The third big national brand in Poland is Lech, which comes from Poznan, and you see it less in the south). Although this area of Poland was ruled at times by the Austrians and the Prussians, the Germanic style beers have not survived there to the extent that has happened in the western Ukraine.

None of this was bad beer - particularly not those lovely local Ukrainian beers - but a lot of it was large brewery lager. I was struck by how much better the beer was when I crossed the border into Slovakia and then into the Czech republic. Velvet divorce or not. the Czech beers are still much consumed in Slovakia. The two "national" beers one sees a lot are Pilsener Urquell and Budvar. There are always local Slovakian beers available too, usually somewhat cheaper than the Czech stuff. When I crossed the border into the Czech republic, there actually seemed to be an even greater focus on local beers, and less Pilsener and Budvar. Things were much more like what one sees in southern Germany. There will be a local brewer, who makes a number of different styles of beer (but all local brewers make the same styles). And in the territory of that brewer, that is what you will get.

Of course, the third Czech beer that one sees a lot outside the former Czechoslovakia is Staropramen. This was nowhere to be seen. This is perhaps like the way Australians don't drink Fosters or Danes don't drink Carlsberg. Ask a Czech for his opinion of Staropramen and he will tell you it tastes like cat's piss. I think this is a little hard on it, actually.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Customer service

I have a 2007 model 15 inch Macbook Pro. This has served me extremely well, and it withstood rough treatment: it has been carried round South America (and other places) in a backpack; it was dropped once during an airport security screen, and a child once pushed it off a coffee table in a hotel on the Costa Brava, amongst other, lesser things. Its hard drive had to be replaced after the Costa Brava incident, but apart from that it has kept working just fine. So really tough, rugged construction.

However, in recent times it has not always been terribly willing to wake from sleep mode, and yesterday I found that it would not boot at all. When I pressed the power button, the hard drive and fans would spin and the power light would come on, but that was as far as it would go. No classic Mac startup sound, and nothing on the screen.

If the computer was beyond simple repair, well, it didn't owe me anything. I don't really want to spend the money on a new laptop now, but on the other hand, those new 13 inch Macbook Airs look awfully nice. But there was no harm in taking the laptop into the Apple Store to ask someone to look at it.

So, I did this. The guy at the genius bar commented that my laptop looked particularly "well used". (The words I would use are "beaten up"). He attached a diagnostic tool to my USB ports, and looked at his screen intently as he typed things into his computer. After doing this for a couple of minutes, he observed that this was one of the more interesting cases he has seen in a while, and told me that there were known faults with this model and that as a consequence the logic board would have to be replaced. As this was a known fault and Apple's suppliers had provided sometimes faulty parts for this model, there would be no charge to me for the repair. I was asked to sign a form, which amongst other things stated that there was a £600 charge for this repair which in my case would be waived.

There are known issues with the graphics card on my particular model, but these are not the precise symptoms I was seeing.

Still, though. They are doing a major repair on a seriously beaten up three and a half year old laptop that never had Applecare and they are not charging me for it? I once had an IBM Thinkpad that failed three months out of warranty and that was that, even though I later discovered that it was common for that particular model to fail in that particular way. I have to say that Apple are being particularly awesome, here. Not only are they doing an expensive repair, but if they had shaken their heads and simply said that they could do nothing, I would not have been upset and I would have probably gone downstairs to look at new models, so they also possibly cost themselves an immediate sale. I am rather awed.

Unnecessary Complexity.

Cory Doctorow of Boingboing (amongst other things) was naturalised as a British Citizen a few days ago. On Twittter, he expressed curiosity as to why on his citizenship certificate had the words "BRITISH CITIZEN" typed in, rather than bring one of the things printed on the blank certificate What else could it be?

Various people pointed out there there are various kinds of British nationality. I went through this process myself a few years ago, and I was curious and investigated the matter (too) thoroughly. The story is this. Every time I explain how one particular class of British nationality came into being, I will capitalise its name.

Prior to 1949, there was a single status of "British Subject" held by everywhere in the British Empire over which Britain was sovereign. There was also a status of "British Protected Person", for people in places with a British mandate over which Britain was not formally sovereign.

From 1949, independent Dominions and Colonies becoming independent created their own national citizenship statuses, and a new status of "Citizen of the UK and Colonies" (CUKC) was created for those who remained. The expression "British Subject" was retained as a carry-all for all citizens of Commonwealth countries, but it was the actual national citizenship that mattered. Generally, when a colony became independent, citizens of the new country did not retain CUKC status, although, there were a few situations in which some of them did. People in that country who were British subjects but did not gain citizenship of the new country generally did retain CUKC status. There were a few cases in which everyone in the independent country lost their British citizenship but not everyone received citizenship of the new country. Such people were British Subjects but not CUKCs. Finally, there was one case (Ireland) in which people who had lost British citizenship were invited to apply for British Subject status if they wanted to retain it.

When British Protectorates became independent, citizens of the new independent countries generally became citizens of the new countries, although there were a small number of people who for various reasons did not. These people remained BRITISH PROTECTED PERSONS, and still do.

In 1981, the Thatcher government decided to reform all this, and a various new classes of citizenship were created. The big change were that people CUKC status were split into three groups.

- People associated with the United Kingdom (including the Channel Island and the Isle of Man) became BRITISH CITIZENs.
- People associated with a still extant British colony became British Dependent Territory citizens (later renamed BRITISH OVERSEAS TERRITORIES CITIZENS). (BOTC)
- People associated with neither of these things (i.e. people who had gained citizenship and had for some reason also retained British citizenship became BRITISH OVERSEAS CITIZENS).

British Subject status was renamed "Commonwealth Citizenship" for everyone who was a citizen of a Commonwealth country, which left only those who had been British Subjects but not citizens of any commonwealth country (mostly in the Indian Subcontinent and Ireland) holding that status.

Only British Citizens and British Subjects associated with Ireland had the automatic right to live in the UK. It was (and is) possible to have BOTC status and British Citizen status simultaneously. BOTCs connected with Gibraltar have always had the right to obtain full British Citizenship by application in addition to BOTC status. (After the Falklands War, Falkland Islanders were given full British Citizenship in 1983, but I shall get to this in a moment).

Of course, at that time, the vast bulk of people who became BDTCs (later BOTCs) were in Hong Kong, and cynically, the purpose of the whole exercise was to deny Hong Kong Chinese the right to come to Britain prior to or after the handover of Hong Kong to Chine in 1997. I can't imagine why you would actually want to deny prosperous people from one of the world's most entrepreneurial places the right to come to the UK, but Margaret Thatcher did. As a slight sop to the Hong Kong Chinese. yet another type of British Citizenship was created in 1985. BDTCs in Hong Kong were allowed to register to become BRITISH NATIONAL (OVERSEAS) after they lost their BDTC status in 1997.

Once the job of screwing the Hong Kong Chinese was complete, the British discovered that they had no great objection to the small number of people in Britain's few remaining colonies from living in Britain, so in 2002, everyone with BOTC (unless it was associated with the British Sovereign bases in Cyprus) was given full British Citizenship, and people born to British citizens or anyone else permanently resident in any remaining colony was from that date a British Citizen by birth. This essentially duplicated a law that had been passed for the Falkland Islands only in 1983.

Essentially, almost everyone in the few remaining British Colonies (except for those bases in Cyprus) now has both full British Citizenship and BOTC status. Apart from the Cyprus thing: BOTC status has only one use. Although the British government has granted British Citizenship to virtually all remaining colonials, it has not delegated the power to naturalise people as British Citizens to colonial authorities. It has delegated the power to naturalise people as BOTCs. Once someone has been naturalised as a BOTC, they can then apply to Britain for registration as a British Citizen. This is normally granted, but the Home Office has a theoretical right of veto. (Gibraltarians have access to a route to British citizenship for which there is not right of veto given the the British government under the 1981 act, but nobody else does.

So, what does that leave us with:

British Citizenship is the normal kind of citizenship.
British Overseas Territories Citizenship is citizenship of Britain's remaining colonies, and is usually held concurrently with normal British Citizenship.
British Overseas Citizenship is for people who slipped through loopholes in the process intending to deny them citizenship during decolonisation, and were disenfranchised later.
British Protected Persons are people who slipped through loopholes in the process intending to deny them citizenship during decolonisation, but came from protectorates rather than colonies.
British Subject Status is for people who lost British Citizenship during the independence of India without gaining Indian or Pakistani Citizenship, or is for Irish people who wanted to remain British.
British Nationality (Overseas) is for the Hong Kong Chinese.

All of these except for the first two are residual categories of citizenship that it is not possible for new people to obtain, except perhaps in the case of a child born of parents with one of these statuses who does not obtain any other nationality at birth. It is only possible to be naturalised as a British Citizen or a British Overseas Territories Citizen, and these are the only things that could have been typed on Cory Doctorow's certificate. As people being naturalised as British Overseas Territories Citizens are normally naturalised in the Overseas Territories, there is some doubt as to why there is a need to leave a space for "British Citizen" to be typed on the form. It would presumably create less work by simply having a different certificates for those very rare to nonexistent occasions when BOTCs are naturalised in the UK.

One further question is which, if any, of the other types of citizenship are of any use to people holding them. Only British Citizenship automatically gives the right to reside anywhere. British Subject status gives you the right to live in the UK if that status is associated with Ireland, but BOTC status does not by itself give you the right to live anywhere: residency status of the particular overseas territory (colony) is normally granted separately. The British government will grant you a passport if you hold any of these statuses, but if the passport states that you have a citizenship status that does not give you the right to live anywhere or conversely anywhere that will take you if you are deported, other countries are likely to make the visa requirements onerous, and they do. The exception to this are British National (Overseas) passports, which are fairly easy to travel on as they indicate that you come from and (almost always) have the right to live in Hong Kong, which is a prosperous place.

And of course, the final thing is how does this all relate to the European Union. Well, under EU law, the following people are British Citizens for the purposes of also being EU citizens: British Citizens, excluding those associated only with the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man; British Subjects associated with Ireland, and BOTCs associated with Gibraltar. Falkland Islanders and Bermudans are automatically EU citizens, but Manxmen aren't, unless they have an association with the United Kingdom. To gain such an association they either have to have parents or grandparents who were born there or have such an association, or they have to have lived there for a time, which they easily can do as they have full British Citizenship rights in Britain. Just not in the rest of the EU.

And I am rambling.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

In which Michael possibly reveals himself to be a travel snob

A couple of days after the riots broke out in London over the weekend, Prime Minister David Cameron rushed back from his holiday in Tuscany to deal with the situation, or something.

Seirously, what is it with West London British luvvydom (something Cameron can't help but seem to want to belong to) and Tuscany and Provence. Yes, beautiful places. Yes, good food. Yes, good wine. Lots of interesting ruins and old buildings. Worth visiting once or twice. But, frankly, dull. Do they all go there together in summer every year?

Couldn't they just, sometimes, go somewhere a little more interesting. I am not expecting our ruling class to holiday in Gagauzia, but perhaps once in a while they could go as far as the other side of the Adriatic? Croatia is nice. Equally good food, although perhaps slightly iffier wine. Possibly even more beautiful scenery. Equally wonderful ruins. Not even dramatically less Italian. Cheaper. (Okay, Peter Mandelson has been hanging out with dubious Russians in Montenegro, but I am not sure if he counts).

I am perhaps going off at a tangent, but David Cameron in Tuscany has started me thinking of the movie Love Actually, written and directed by super-Luvvie Richard Curtis, back in the days before we started comparing him un-ironically to the Khmer Rouge.

In this film, a writer played by Colin Firth takes what is all considered a remarkably long time to fall in love with his Portuguese housekeeper Aurélia, played by Lúcia Moniz. After she has returned to her family, he realises that he loves her and so rushes after her to declare himself. We see him arriving at Marseille airport and rushing to the restaurant run by her family, where he manages to successfully propose to her in broken Portuguese.

With all respect though, huh? Marseille airport? He pursues a Portuguese woman back to her family in Provence? Okay, there probably are Portuguese families running restaurants in France, but Provence? Why not chase her back to Lisbon? Or Porto? Beautiful, cinematic cities both of them, either of which would look really nice in a couple of establishing shots. (In fact, I first visited Lisbon after seeing it so beautifully shot in Fred Schepisi's movie of John Le Carre's novel The Russia House in order to see if it was actually that beautiful a city). Or perhaps she went to Lagos to cook bacon and eggs for English package tourists? Or she went to Pinhão to tread grapes with her bare feet? Or at least something and somewhere that might indicate that Richard Curtis realises that Portuguese people come from Portugal, and that the world outside London and the Home Counties does consist of slightly more than just Provence and Tuscany?

(In retrospect, I now think that the movie would have have been improved by Lúcia Moniz pulling out a button, pronouncing that she was putting nenhuma pressão on Colin Firth over the pegada de carbon of his flight to Provence and then causing him to explode into pink mulsh, but I suppose that was too much to hope for).

At this point I am getting a further sense of missing John Major. He at least knew where Portugal is.

Friday, August 05, 2011


Pilllip II of Macedon National Stadium, Skopje, Macedonia.

The aforementioned Phillip was the first of only two national managers who led successful European campaigns.

(Skopje is in a bowl in the mountains and is a smoggy city. Getting clear photographs is sometimes difficult).

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Etiquette for the modern world

I was having lunch in a nice London restaurant with a female, foreign friend of mine. She wanted to tweet, SMS, update her various friends and social networks to tell them where she was. However, she was doing this using highly expensive roaming on her Swedish smartphone.

On the other side of the table, I was using my local, inexpensive data allowance on my smartphone. Seeing what she was doing, I quickly turned on the portable WiFi hotspot on my own smartphone, so that she could share my local data allowance and did not suffer the expensive data roaming charges that she was incurring.

Was I honour-bound as a gentleman to do this? Or should I instead spend my time mounting a campaign against the horrific roaming charges imposed by phone companies?

Update: As a further issue to ponder with respect to this trivial and largely absurd question, what should one do when one party, er, leaves the table for a few minutes? Portable WiFi hotspots have very short range, so if a gentleman leaves the table (particularly if his destination is in the basement) should he in fact leave his smartphone on the table so that the lady can continue to use his WiFi, but in doing so also slightly increase the risk that the phone will be stolen by the urchins of the East End? The fact that such a moment is likely to be the occasion when she is most likely to want to use it is pertinent, surely.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Patterns persist.

If you map Mobile phone conversations of today, you get The Nine Nations of North American as envisaged by Joel Garreau in 1981.

Smart guy, Garreau. His other book Edge City probably helped me understand the modern built world more than any other book I have ever read.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Chinese telephone companies.

I left a comment over that The Register that got a little out of control. If anyone wants to hire a telco analyst, I am available.

In the mid 1990s, there were two 2G GSM mobile networks set up in China, one by the incumbent operator China Telecom, and one by a new company China Unicom. (We say "new company", but all these things were and generally still are state owned).
In 1999, the mobile assets of China Telecom were split off to found China Mobile. The advantages of being part of the incumbent fixed line operator up to that point were such that China Mobile was by far the market leader by then, a position it retains to this day. (China Mobile is by far the biggest mobile operator in the world). At the same time, more assets of China Telecom were spun off as China Netcom to build high speed internet infrastructure in China - i.e. to be a large ISP.
On order to supposedly compete with fixed line services, China Unicom was also given a Wireless Local Loop (WLL) licence. For this, it used the IS-95 CDMA technology developed by Qualcomm in the US, which was being sold as a WLL solution at that time as well as being a fully featured cellular system (as used by Verizon and Sprint in the US). China Unicom were highly aware of this, and thus used the WLL licence to build a second mobile network.

Meanwhile, the Chinese had decided that they did not want to pay huge levels of royalties to western companies to operate 3G mobile phone services, and decided that they would develop an "indigenous" 3G standard called TS-SCDMA to be used in China. (In actual fact, this was originally developed by Siemens to be possibly used as the European 3G standard, but this lost out to W-CDMA). While this was being further developed and made ready for use in China, no 3G licences were issued for use in China.
Thus, approaching the 2008 Olympics, there were no 3G services in China, and the Chinese were concerned that China Mobile was too dominant, and they were concerned that their "indigenous" 3G solution had not been launched yet, and they were embarrassed by the prospect of foreigners coming to the games and discovering that there was no 3G service, and they retrospectively decided that what was better was to have a number of telcos competing on both wireless and fixed line services rather than separating by function.

Thus the industry was reorganised:

China Mobile was awarded a TD-SCDMA licence, and ordered to roll it out at once.

China Unicom was given a W-CDMA licence compatible with the rest of the world, and was forced to buy China Netcom so as to offer fixed line and wired ISP services. China Unicom was forced to sell its IS-95/CDMA network to China Telecom.

China Telecom was instructed to buy China Unicom's said IS-95/CDMA network, and upgrade it to 3G speeds. (China Unicom had already done this to some extent).

Thus we have three mobile networks, the biggest of which has 2G GSM and a strange, 3G network using a standard used nowhere else that few people use and which doesn't work very well, but which has most of the customers. (There is no number portability in China, so customers don't often switch network). The second largest, China Unicom, has the combination of GSM and UMTS/W-CDMA that most iPhones are designed for, and that is why they have been the only network offering the iPhone until now. (Apparently several million people use unlocked iPhones on China Mobile's 2G GSM network in EDGE mode only).
And you have a third mobile network, which uses CDMA/IS-95 as used by Verizon in the US. Apple's introduction of a phone for Verizon earlier this year didn't quite solve the problem, though, as the use of a SIM is optional on CDMA, and China Mobile uses a SIM and Verizon doesn't, and the CDMA iPhone 4 does not accept one. Hence we have had to wait a little while for that problem to be ironed out. My assumption is that the new iPhone(s) that we will see later this year will solve that problem.
China Mobile is going to use 3GPP LTE for 4G phones, as apparently are everyone else in China. At that point all three carriers in China will probably carry the iPhone, but we won't see that until late next year at the earliest.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Etymological puzzles.

When staying in hotels in Asia, it is quite common to find that the hotel will offer a "baby sister service". This is exactly the same as a baby sitter, of course, and the expression makes sense because in places where people have large extended families, it is a task that is often by performed by a sister. "Baby sitter" doesn't appear to make much sense if you are a non-native English speaker, so the phrase has been transformed into another similar sounding phrase that we would see as incorrect, but which makes more sense in the context.

Similarly, perhaps, in Malaysia and Indonesia one will often stay in an institution called a "rest house". This is a place of accommodation that lacks the full facilities of a hotel, basically. The name makes perfect logical sense - this is after all a house in which you rest. I do wonder, though, whether the word actually comes from people with limited English mishearing the word "guesthouse", and thus converting it into something slightly different.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Photo composition moments

I was looking for a nice contrast of things, and I thought that the bullring in the foreground, an in some ways fairly typical spanish city in the middle, and a long line of cranes indicating that this is indeed one of Europe's most important ports in the background was nice.

Algeciras, like Felixstowe, is one of those ports that is not historically very important but is a very major point now due to its strategic location. The really large ships on the route through the Mediterranean and Suez Canal to Asia are not going to divert to Valencia or Barcelona, so they stop at the very bottom of Spain. Containers can then be transferred to smaller ships to head north or elsewhere, or onto trucks or trains to be taken to other points in Spain. (When container shipping arrived in UK, another reason why much of the shipping moved from London to Felixstowe was that the Port of London was very heavily unionised and Felixtowe wasn't. I am not sure if a similar factor came into play in Spain, given that the alternative of Cadiz is also famous for its labour disputes and militant union men. in any event, Algeciras is now the key port.

With respect to the photo, having taken it I then realised that I also had the Rock of Gibraltar behind the port, and it is always delightful to get more in the photo that you intended.

Of course, "hub" seaports (in which containers are unloaded from one ship to another, or possibly other modes of transport) are like hub airports. Location is important in the sense that they need to be very conveniently on the route from A to B, but local markets are possibly less important than the strategic location and efficiency of a port. The busiest container port in the world is in Singapore, which is a significant but not very large market in a perfect location at the end of the Straits of Malacca. (The two Chinese ports of Hong Kong and Shenzhen - essentially two parts of the same urban area with a border down the middle - are each individually close to Singapore in terms of size, however. Combined they are massively busier).

Algeciras on the Straits of Gibraltar is a perfect place for such a port, but so is Tangier in Morocco. (The Indonesian island of Batam is as good a place as Singapore, too, but building a major port in Indonesia is just too hard). And as it happens, there is an enormous project to build a gigantic port in Africa, directly opposite Algeciras, the so called Tanger-Med, port, actually about 40km east of Tangier. I visited it the day before I visited Algeciras.

Well, when I say visited, I mean "went past it in a bus", actually, so my photographs are perhaps a little lacking because of this. However:

It's actually a lot bigger than that - I was only able to get a certain amount into the photo. In fact, when complete, it will be much bigger than the port at Alegiras on the Spanish side.

There is a lot more under construction, too. Plus there is an extensive motorway system heading south. When the port is complete, it will be the largest and hopefully busiest in Africa. To some extent it is to compete with Algeciras - in terms of transferring containers from one ship to another, Tanger-Med will be more modern and will have lower cost and (hopefully) more flexible labour. As well as that, the port is about trade between Africa and Spain, Europe, and further afield, and this is all good too.

Spanish registered truck, there.

One hopes that this is actually a sensible project, and that it will aid African development and international trade in a significant way. This of course requires efficient management, relatively free markets, the rule or law, and reasonably low levels of corruption. The port is apparently being built with government money, and run by "a private company with public sector privileges". That sounds like an invitation for trouble, but is probably no worse than the arrangements by which many ports are run. One does also wonder from who the Moroccan government has borrowed the money. There is a reservoir of cheap capital that is used to fund Arab infrastructure (and other) projects that is ultimately based on the huge oil wealth of the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. Like all mispriced capital, such money can be useful if you are trying to borrow money to finance and build a sensible business, but the mispricing also tends to encourage bubbles, rentseeking, excess, and an ultimate collapse under a mountain of debt. Given the strategic location of Tanger-Med, a sizeable port is sensible, but one hopes that massive overbuilding has not occurred. The story of EU aid for infrastructure projects in Spain and Portugal was starting off with sensible projects, and ending up with absurdity, and one hopes that this is not similar.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Impressing the Swiss

Last week, I spent some time waiting for a bus at this road intersection in Croatia. The direct bus from Bihać in Bosnia goes to Zagreb, but as I was going to Zadar, I had to get off at the intersection and wait for the bus to Zadar.

As I was waiting, I found a mobile phone in the gravel beside the road. It was switched on. The menus were in German, and the phone (and SIM) were branded with the Orange network. I threw it in my bag, and thought little more of it for the moment.

However, when I got back to London, I realised that I still had it. I couldn't switch it on again, because the SIM in the card was PIN protected. However, when I put my own SIM in the phone, it worked fine. The phone was not network locked. After a little navigation through the menus, I managed to switch the phone to English language mode. There were a few SMS messages stored in the phone (in German, and apparently describing a trip to Bosnia) and of course there were phone numbers stored in the address book. However, these were all in national format, without a country code. Numbers that were clearly people's mobiles were of the form 07xxxxxxxx. A number entitled "pizza" was of the form 08xxxxxxxx. A business number, presumably.

Now, whose phone was it? Orange do not have a network in Croatia or Bosnia, and the phone was set to German. So the phone belonged to another foreign visitor. Orange do not have a network in Germany either, but they do have a network in Austria. Many, many Austrians visit Croatia - they used to rule it - so my first guess was that the phone belonged to an Austrian. However, a quick check of the Austrian telephone numbering system indicated that Austrian mobile numbers have the form 06xx, and 07xx and 08xx are all kinds of extraneous services rather than regular numbers. So, German speaking but not Austrian or German. Who then?

Further checks indicate that Orange does own a network in Switzerland, 07xx does denote mobile numbers in Switzerland, and 08xx is used for free and shared cost services often used by businesses. So, Swiss.

At this point I am on a roll, and national stereotypes come into it. I would expect a Swiss person to try to return my phone to me, so I am going to make an extra effort in return. (I might not do this for certain other nationalities. On the other hand, strangers have on occasion gone to some trouble to return lost phones to me, so in any event one wants to return the favour, as it were). There is also a sense that if I do get in contact with a Swiss person, that the contact will then be uncomplicated and hassle free, due to their being Swiss. I don't have the name or number of the owner of the phone, so I look through the names in the address book. One of them is listed as "Mama", which sounds promising. Mama's date of birth is listed in the phone as some time in 1970, so Mama presumably is okay with being sent text messages. (She also has children old enough to lose phones while travelling in the Balkans, despite being younger than me. Perhaps I need to get a move on with certain aspects of my life. But I digress).

I look up the country code for Switzerland, which is 41. I change the (national) number for Mama into an international number, and send two text messages (in English) to the number, stating that I found a phone belonging to one of her children in Croatia, and that if provided with an address, I will return the phone.

The next morning I receive a phone call from Switzerland. A young man speaking excellent but (slightly) accented English tells me that I have his girlfriend's phone, and is slightly amused when he discovers it is in London. ("Ah. 44 is England"). He gives me an address in the Swiss town of Chur, capital of the canton of Graubünden, near the Austrian border and just south of Liechtenstein. I haven't been to Chur, but I have been quite close nearby. Interestingly enough, Graubünden is the only canton of Switzerland where the Romansh language is spoken. I doubt Samsung make phones with Romansh menu options (although Linux probably has Romansh options). However, as the town's name was spelled "Khur" by the man on the phone, and that is the Swiss German spelling, I guess the phone did in fact belong to a German speaker.

I actually verified the address with Google Maps before sending the phone, and as Google gave the name of the town as "Chur" (the standard German spelling), that is what I used. I suspect it will get there.

Unfortunately, I missed something, of no relevance to the problem of returning the phone, but still irritating. The Swiss telephone numbering system mixes geographic and non-geographic numbers in an ugly way, and as it happens 08x, is used for freephones, shared cost numbers, and the town of Chur, for which the code is 081. As it happened, the pizza shop actually had a local number, so I should have been able to figure out that the phone came from Chur. However, I wasn't looking carefully enough, all I really wanted to know was the country, and I was not expecting the number system to be that inelegant.

Attentive readers will also probably suggest that it would have been simpler to simply read the SIM number off the SIM, obtain the mobile country code from the SIM number, and find out that it was Swiss that way. This is true, but the SIM number is in tiny writing, and my eyesight is not as good as it used to be.

Friday, April 08, 2011

A general frustration

When I posted this piece on Samizdata about getting held up in airport security and missing a flight yesterday, my thought was that I was perhaps being a little self-indulgent and I would be taken to task by someone in the comments for this.

Nothing like that though. Just sympathy, and many, many more insults for airport security policies.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Feel the me

Sadly, I am definitely one of these.

Me in Turkey last week: 15 inch laptop, iPad, Kindle, Android phone, dumb phone, digital SLR, two additional lenses, external card reader and spare memory cards, one headset.

Monday, February 21, 2011

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