Tag Archive for 'flickr'

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New measurement systems need a purpose

Chris recently proposed a new measurement system for attention, after yet another call to arms for a new way of measuring metrics. This is a hard issue to gnaw at, because it’s attempting to graple at the emerging business models of a new economy, which we are still at the cross roads at. Chris asked us on the APML workgroup on what we thought of his proposal, which is interesting, but I thought it might be better to take a step back on this one and look at the bigger picture. Issues this big need to be conceptually clear, before you can break into the details.

Television, radio, and newspapers are the corner stone of what we regard as the mainstream media. For decades, they have ruled the media business – with their 30 second advertising spots, and “pageviews” (circulation). Before the information age, they were what the ‘attention economy’ was. None of those flamin’ blogs stealing our attention: content and advertising flowed through to us from one place.

The internet is enabling literally an entire new Age of humanity. A lot of the age-old business models have been replicated, because we don’t know any better, but people are abandoning them because they are realising they can now do so much more. So the key here is not to get too excited on what you can do – rather, we need to think why what we need to do.

Let me explain – advertisers sold their product on a TV/radio commercial, and a newspaper page, because it guaranteed them that a certain amount of people would see it. Advertisers advertise because they want to do one thing: to make money. It’s just how capitalism works – profit is god – so do what you can to make higher profit.

But back then, the traditional mainstream media was the only way they could reach audiences on an effective scale. However advertising on the Sunday night movie is the equivalant to dropping a million pamphlets out of a plane, hoping that the five customers you know that would buy your product, end up catching it. Back then, no one complained – it was the best we could do. It sucked, but we didn’t know any better.

The internet changed that.

Advertisers can now target their advertising to a specific individual. They don’t care anymore about advertising on a mass scale; what they would rather is advertising on a micro scale. Spending $20,000 on 10,000 people you know that want to buy your product, has a much better Return on Investment than $2,000,000 on 1,000,000 people – of which 10% don’t speak the language of your ad, 20% aren’t the target group for your ad; and 30% are probably offended by your ad and will ruin it for the 40% they you were targeting in the first place.

Sound crazy? Well Google making $10 billion dollars doing just that is crazy.

So now that we have cleared that up – let’s get back to the issue. We now know one of the reasons why we need measurement: advertisers want to target their advertising better. Are there any other reasons? Sure- sometimes people want to measure what their audience reads for non-monetary reasons – they could just trying to find out what their readers are interested in, so they can focus on that content. Statistics like that is not narcissism – it’s just being responsive to an audience. Or then again, it could be pure ego.

So when it comes to measuring content, there are two reasons why anyone cares: to make money, or to see how people react to your content. However it’s the first type that is causing us problems in this issue. And that’s because how long someone spends on your content, or how many people view your content, is no longer relevant as it was in the mass media days. What is relevant is WHO is reading your content.

I don’t think you can have a discussion about new ways of measuring the way content is consumed, without separating those two different motives for measurement. I like Chris’s proposal – knowing how long someone spends reading my blog posting is something I would find interesting as a blogger. But that’s pure ego – I just want to know if I have a readership of deep thinkers or random Google visitors that were looking for a picture about shorts skirts. (As an aside – one of my pictures is the number one Google image result for “women in short skirts” – thank God it goes to my Flickr account now, the bandwidth that used to eat up was crazy!)

So before we come up with new measurement systems, lets spend more time determining why we are measuring. Simply saying we are better measuring what consumers are giving their attention to, is only part of the problem. We need to first determine what value we obtain from measuring that attention in the first place.

The power of feedback

Validation of a persons self-worth is a key aspect of being human. Why do we like praise, but not criticism? Because the former validates our self-esteem, the latter contradicts it. Insecure people tend to seek more validation from other peoples opinions – because they need other peoples opinions to validate their self-esteem. Wonder why the modest don’t boast? It’s because their validation is not derived from having to tell you so that you know. They already know you know, and if you don’t agree, they don’t care – they’re self validated.

However no matter how secure you are with yourself, everyone loves a bit of validation – it’s just some people need it more than others, or possibly, we all have different ways in how we validate ourselves. Some fish for compliments on their looks; others validate themselves through great achievements. Validation of who we are, is what drives almost everything we do. That’s why an atheist should never bag out religion to a believer – the argument about whether God exists is irrelevant; what is relevant, is that by criticising the existance of a religious establishment, you are actually criticising a person’s self-identity that has been built on that establishment, by effectively de-validating their belief system.

Motivation systems are complex, and I by no means claim to be an expert – but I do know, that the power of feedback is one of the most effective ways of motivating an individual, especially when it comes to content creation. In the context of web-services, recognition and validation are key: people will stick around on your site, if they feel a greater sense of self-worth because of it.

There are two ways people feel validated on online communities: analytics and responses. Analytics in the sense of statistics: page and profile views, unique visitors, popular content. Most bloggers arn’t really making money out of their blog – so why is software that provides statistics on their readership so popular? Because knowing people read your blog, is a form of validation. A bit like how an insecure teenage girl feels validated by the attention she myspace profilegets from sleazy older men. Right now, I am writing this blog entry because a reader asked if I could write more about the interaction between psychology and successful web start-ups. His comment validated my opinions, spurring me to write more on the subject.

Likewise, Myspace users will post a “Thanks for adding me” comment on a new friend. Why? Because it means more people will visit their profile. The reason I can say there are ulterior motives to just thank someone, is because they could have said “thanks for adding me” as a private message. So it then begs the question of why do they want more people to visit their profile? Because people get an ego boost seeing their page count go up.

Statistics to something you’ve created, are a quiet form of feedback. The more views, the more validated you feel by that. Popularity is a great feeling!

A second type of validation, is a bit more direct: it’s through the interactions with people. When people create content – photos, blog postings, whatever – nothing is more satisfying for them than a comment.

Features like Flickr’s recent activity are also apparently, what makes it so addictive. Again – it’s a form of validation. By responding to something someone has created, you are giving value to that creation – that feedback can make someone justify the effort, by providing recognition.

Sometimes the most powerful way a boss can keep their employees satisfied, is by a simple “thank you”. Recognition for effort expended by someone, can sometimes be all that someone needs to keep going.

Think you have a killer web2.0 app? You might. But unless a user feels like they are getting feedback on their existance and content creation, their first visit will likely also be their last. Feedback feels good. People want to feel good. So go and make them feel good about themselves.

Social networks as the new e-mail

The other day, I received my first spam message within Facebook, which I thought was reminiscent of the Nigerian scam

Please if you are reliable and Interested in been a commissioned rep with our company we will be glad but you have to be a Trustworthy person. We have sold out to major galleries and private collectors from few parts of the world. We have been facing serious difficulties when it comes to the payment method, i.e The international money transfer tax for legal entities (companies) in Latvia is 25%, whereas for the individual it is only 7%.There is no sense for us to work this way, while tax for international money transfer made by a private individual is 7% .That's why we need you! Branches have been set up in few countries,and the head branch in UK.we are working on setting up a branch in the states, so for now i need a representative in Canada, America,Asia,New Zealand,and Europe who will be handling the payment aspect. so all you need do is cash the Payment,deduct your percentage and wire the rest back.</p> <p>JOB DESCRIPTION? 1. Receive payment from Clients 2. Cash Payments at your Bank 3. Deduct 10% which will be your percentage/pay on Payment processed. 4. Forward balance after deduction of percentage/pay to any of the offices you will be contacted to send payment to(Payment is to be forwarded either by Money Gram or Western Union Money Transfer).

But unlike spam I would get in my e-mail inbox, I could actually check the profile of the user that sent the message to me. It was empty and a dud – which is how I could assess it was spam. Spam through a closed social networking site like Facebook has very different implications to e-mail spam: it’s accountable.

Unlike e-mail spam, you don’t know who is sending it. Sometimes, the e-mail spammers can make it look like it comes from a certain company you trust (like your bank). This also to some extent happens on myspace, whereby spammers do up their profile and deceivingly make it look like a real profile when it isn’t (ie, a pretty girl with her interests filled out – but as soon as you click somewhere, it takes you to a porn referral site). Facebook is different, because people can’t modify their profiles (yet) like you can on myspace, so the person sending the message is a lot more accountable to their true identity. You can judge how real they are by the amount of friends they have, information in their profile, and postings on their profile from other people.

Profile comments are the key aspect – no comments, suggests a fake account – because you can’t fake friends to post real discussions. A spammer would need to create a few dozen profiles, to replicate the thread of discussion via peoples profiles, so that it could make someones profile look “real”: that’s a lot of effort that a computer robot can’t do on it’s own.

A new way of communicating

Aside from this, there is something more interesting: I rarely use e-mail to communicate with friends anymore. Messages or comments/wallposts are now the new way of how people communicate. In the old days, people would forward a funny video – now they “post a bulletin”. People post “notes” and tag their friends if they are mentioned in the note – a bit like writing a story, and alerting those who are involved to have a look. It’s the equivilant to sending an e-mail to a group of people – but leaving it somewhere where all your other friends can have a read as well if they want. That is huge – this open style of communication is something e-mail never did.

I’ve previously written how the “post a comment” feature is one of the most powerful features of social networking sites. When I say these sites are the new e-mail, it’s not just messages that are the means of communicating – it’s actually mostly through these profile comments that people have these discussions. The interesting thing about this new way of communicating, is that two people can be having a discussion, however all their friends can monitor the conversation. For example, I made a tongue-in-cheek comment of a Ukrainian friend of mine on her facebook profile wall, and another mutual (Ukrainian) friend saw the comment and joined in defending Ukrainians!

Social networking sites work because they are creating a community feel, where people interact within a tribe or small village that everyone knows each other, and they communicate in what is like a open forum. If it’s one thing I am sure of, these sites are no longer fads: they are a positive evolution of the Internet as a communications medium. It appear solutions to e-mail spam with clever algorithms that can filter messages arn’t the way forward; the solution is to be found in new ways of communicating, and that is what social networking sites do really well.

The reason for success on social networking sites

Friendster was the first site I noticed the “post a comment” feature now so prevalent on the social networking sites. I remember thinking it was a way for others to know what your reputation was (like eBay). Interesting, but no big deal I thought – I couldn’t imagine it being used that often.

Then MySpace came around.

Continue reading ‘The reason for success on social networking sites’

Building a (sustainable) business

One of the highlights at Bar camp Sydney, held on March 3rd 2007, was a presentation by Martin Wells and Mike Cannon-Brookes on “How to Start a company”. Both men have a lot of wisdom to share, which was worth every penny (no pun on the fact the event was free). However despite an awesome presentation that covered a lot of ground, there was one slide that in particular annoyed me. It bothered me so much that I wanted to say so, but I thought it might be better to let it be because the guys were doing an otherwise great job.

My problem was slide number two. It listed four companies as ‘ideal’ start-up businesses for all those in the room. Those companies were Flickr, Del.icio.us, YouTube, and MyBlogLog. Why I had a problem with that, was because if that is what web entrepreneurs are being told to look up to, then we have a bit of a problem.

Continue reading ‘Building a (sustainable) business’

Finale!

I’m back! After 35 weeks of backpacking, partying, and avoiding reality – I’ve returned back home, surprising nearly everyone. (My parents answered the door 12.30 at night – only 24 hours earlier, I had an argument with them on the phone that I was determined to fly to Syria – they nearly had a heartattack. On both counts!) The reason I am back is because my employer, well, said so. Unfortunately, it meant I had to change my trip quite drastically (no Middle East, and not the rest of Eastern Europe). Fortunately, I was dying to come back home – I was very much over travelling, and was counting down the days I would end the trip. Travel is a life-long thing, not a “lets-see-everything-now-before-I-have-the-2.4 kids- and-a-mortage”. Just in case you were wondering, after Budapest I caught a train to Belgrade to see some friends, and then flew to Athens to catch up with family.

jeep

My new car – seriously. Bank loan was approved today, I pick up this 2004 Jeep wrangler next Wednesday.

Five days after I arrived, I started full-time work in a Graduate-entry position at PwC – where for an intense two weeks, we were being trained on things I already knew as I have previously worked at the firm (it was still tiring though). Now, I am on my first week of three weeks of holiday (it’s a hard life!), and I am busy catching up with friends, and organising myself for what is literaly a new stage of my life. Oh, and recovering – I think my pneumonia is trying to make a comeback because I am so exausted – I probably have bronchitis. Doctor said I was fine when I first arrived, but the PwC training really took it out of me when I should have been relaxing.

…Jesus, I just did some quick arithmetic, and over my 35 weeks, I visitied about 25 countries and twice as many cities, villages, and islands! Talking about my trip has become tedious, and I am finding it difficult to tell people things – partially because, I don’t know where to start.

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After my work’s Christmas Party (theme was “Bollywood” by the way), I went out to the city, and as I had my camera on me, I could not resist taking this photo. I found this guy on the streets of Sydney. I reckon he had a good night.

The travel bug in me is completely dead. But like Lazarus – expect it to come back one day. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen. Merry Christmas!

Poland, Prague and Budapest

When it comes to my blog, I love using regions. Updating it, whilst is valuable in retrospect, is an absolute pain in the arse when I have to write them. For that reason, I have created a new region of the last three countries on my trip. Poland, Czech Republic, and Hungary – I dub thee the "Visegr?ɬ°d Three" (Slovakia, you be quiet now). Thinking back on those nearly three weeks, the memory is a bit scant, as it was just one big drinking binge. But it turns out I have an audience on this blog, so I’ll pretend I learnt something. I spent about 11 days in Poland ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú although I regard three of those days as ‘bad hangover’ days so I don’t think they should count. Of those 11 days, four were in the capital Warsaw, four in Krakow (with a day trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau), and another three days in Wroclaw (pronounced VROTZ-wahf). In the Czech Republic, I spent four days in Prague, and in Hungary about three days in Budapest.

All three of these countries are very different from each other: the Hungarians are descendants of the Magyar tribes that swept across Europe terrorising the continent until they settled there, and later ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú the Hapsburg Empire (which became the Austro-Hungarian Empire), a dominant force in central Europe during the late Middle Ages that lasted until WWI. The Poles are Western Slavs, and together with the Lithuanians after a Royal marriage that sealed the deal, had an empire that stretched from the Baltic and Black seas. The people of the Czech Republic, inhabiting the ancient lands of Bohemia and Moravia, are linguistically and to a lesser extent ethnically related to the Poles. The Czech people have been invaded by Hapsburg’s, Nazis, Soviets and tour groups. They may not have dominated Europe like Hungary or Poland, but they have always been valuable territory for the empires that held them.

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Corner of a building in Prague

What makes these three very different countries so similar however, is their location. The Czech Republic is smack-bang in the middle of Europe, and together with Hungary and Poland, are a large component of Central Europe. The significance of this is that Europe has a very rich history, and heck, if you are in the middle, it means you’ve been involved in almost everything that has touched the continent. For example, their locations has meant that none of the local problems have remained local: when Czechs rejection of the Roman Catholic Church in 1418 resulted in the Hussite Wars; the revolt against the Hapsburg’s in 1618 started the horrible Thirty Years’ War; the annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938 was the opening scene to WWII; the reforms of the 1968 Prague Spring, led to tanks and soldiers from all over the Eastern Bloc to suppress it; and the peaceful overthrow of the government during the Velvet revolution stands as a model for freedom-seekers, such as the recent revolutions of Georgia, Ukraine, and Armenia. Lets also not forget that before Franz Ferdinand was the name of a band, it was also the name of the Hungarian prince that was assassinated by a Bosnian-Serb in Sarajevo – and is what sparked World War I; whilst Poland experienced the brunt of one of the greatest and most horrific wars of our history (WWII) – evident to the modern traveller by visiting Warsaw and Auschwitz-Birkenau . These three countries play no small role in the European story.

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"The one who does not remember history is bound to live it through again" – George Santayana

Something that striked me about Poland was the law enforcement, and the observance of the law. A simple example is the pedestrian crossings ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú in most cities I have visited, you get either one of three types of driver attitude towards them: the type that will stop once you have started crossing (Sydney); the type that won’t stop, but swerve around you as you cross (Tehran) and the type that make you wet your pants, as you run across like a headless chicken to avoid being hit (Athens ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú with the complimentary verbal abuse whilst you run). In Poland however, I merely had to look at a crossing, and a car would slam on the breaks! Another example was when I visited the Russian markets in Warsaw, and my friends and I were going through some pirated CD’s to buy (which may I add, looked more professional than a CD in a record store). As we were looking, the men and women quickly hustled us, and in two seconds, had the CD’s completely out of view. A few seconds later, a police officer strolled by. When he was out of sight, we were able to resume our commerce. Turns out, as they showed us later, they have a sophisticated monitoring network, where they know the exact movements of police near them so they won’t get in trouble. Whilst the funky headsets and organisational skills impressed my two companion friends, I was more stunned by the event itself: copyright enforcement to me is a sign that a country is very well developed. For these guys to sweat when the police officer walked by, tells me you’ve got a very well functioning government enforcing the law. That is the basis for a strong economy ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú especially for something as abstract as intellectual property, which is the basis of a certain buzz word that will solve all our problems like your paycheck and grandpa’s erectile problems.

On the right bank, the Red army stood there, as the Nazis demolished Warsaw

On the right bank, the Soviet army sat there at they watched the Nazi’s burn Warsaw to the ground – the Soviet’s were meant to be on the same side as the Poles. People speculate that Stalin let the Nazi’s do all the hard work, and crush any resistance, so that he would have a clean slate when he occupied the city.

Unfortunately the only "New Economy" thing about Poland, is that they actual have a free market now. And it’s not going down to well: unemployment is high. One of the most talked about backpacker stories, is the Krakow-Prague overnight train ride, where you get gassed while you sleep, only to find all your valuables missing in the morning. A Polish guy in Wroclaw, told me that the worst line of them all, was the Wroclaw-Prague line I was about to get on in one hour (needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep that night). The theft of course, is because of the high unemployment ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú estimated at 18 percent by this guy I talked to.

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Right next to the Warsaw train station: a funky new building

I found Polish people to be one of the highlights of my trip there. Watching the people in a Polish nightclub became one of my favourite pastimes, as the way Poles dance amused me. I am not saying they are bad dancers, but simply, different from other places. Women for example, seem to have an inbuilt hip-shaking movement which is incredibly sexy, but also seems just a natural as someone breathing. The men on the other hand, are so enthusiastic ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äúwith a big cheesy grin, and they dance like they are skiing a ski-slope. Very amusing.
Without resorting to specific examples, the general vibe of the place was very positive. When you travel, you create a lot of theories, my most recent one was that countries that were formally oppressed, have very grumpy locals. But the Poles shut that theory down in flames, as I found everyone to be smiling, laughing, and generally happy. Possibly also a little smart-alec ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú in Warsaw, all the strip clubs are located on (Pope) John Paul II Street.

Despite the positive feeling I had from the place, at the back of my mind, I could not forget the atrocities these people had to face. Warsaw is a city that was razed to the ground by the Nazis (as the Soviet’s sat watching) ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú travellers visiting the city moan how ordinary it is, but when you think of its history, you see things differently, and appreciate the Polish spirit. For example, they painstakingly rebuilt their Old Town, with only pre-war pictures and paintings to guide them. The city felt eerie for me. Krakow is a much more beautiful and vibrant city than Warsaw, for obvious reasons (it wasn’t bombed). But everyone visits Krakow, so you probably knew that already. I had a friend that I used to work with in Sydney, that lives in Wroclaw, and I really liked that city as well. Both cities have amazing Market Squares (Krakow’s is the largest in Europe ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú Wroclaw not far behind) and they both have an atmosphere in their old towns which I really liked (locals strolling by, entertainers, tacky shops and restaurants). I arrived in Wroclaw at 11pm, and my friend dumped my bags at the local hostel so we could party: Wroclaw and Krakow, like any other university town, is a bit of fun as well. All the Poles I met in Wroclaw, had come from other cities in Poland, and would tell me how much they loved the city and how it is the best one in Poland (Krakow comes close, according to them).

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Krakow during Independence Day, also known to us as Remembrance day (November 11)

Auschwitz and Birkenau are something else ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú where it is estimated estimated that between 1,100,000 and 1,500,000 people were murdered by the Nazi’s. I ended up touring the sites on my own, missing my friend’s group tour, but which instead turning into a more powerful experience for me as I did it on my own. I was surprised I didn’t get as emotionally affected as I thought I would, but then again, I consider wanting to punch a wall on two separate occasions as minor outbursts. What made be sick was the evidence of children being killed ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú as 12 years old children were treated just like the adults. What really got to me, was seeing a presentation of children shoes. That is, children aged no more than five years old. Walking around Birkenau, which was where most of the exterminations took place, was chilling (and it was a lot of walking ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú the site is 171 hectares large). It became very dark when I was touring the huge site, and visiting the compounds of the prisoners and seeing their living conditions, was something that made it hard for me to swallow. Seeing the ruins of the furnaces and gas chambers on Birkenau, as the Nazi’s attempted to cover their crimes on their retreat, just reminds you how recent all of this was.

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The Nazi’s tried to cover up evidence of the killings that occured, by blowing up the gas chambers and furnaces

When I met up with my friends later that night and shared our experiences, they told me how angry they were to see the Jewish children fly the Israeli flag around ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú their point being, it is that nationalism that created conflicts like this. That is usually something I would say, but I don’t really share that sentiment. Sitting in on a Jewish memorial service where the furnaces were in the dark as I wound up my tour on Birkenau, was definitely an experience I am glad I had.

Half the reason I went to Prague was to visit Veronika and Pete ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú two old friends and workmates. The rest of the reason was because I just had to see what the fuss was about. Just as I suspected, not much ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú a great city, but way too much hype. It has one of the best integrated transport systems I have been on, and the buildings are very pretty. But that’s exactly the problem with Prague: it’s pretty. It’s a place you visit with your girlfriend, on a weekend away. Having said that though, as my friend Petr showed me, it’s way too much fun for the single (and not single) man.

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Prague’s city centre – the big building is the national library, me thinks

Veronika and Pete miss Australia because of the friendliness of ordinary people. As a contrast, Veronika would complain how clique and rude Czech people were. She reckons, and she is by no means an ugly girl, how hard it is to meet people at a club ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú everyone goes out with their groups of people, and refuse to socialise with other people, because you just don’t do that. Foreigners provide a breath of fresh air to Czech people, because they can break out of that clique.

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Prague: pretty.

Pete also reckons the emphasis on looks here has created a bulimic culture amongst women. He puts the figure at every second or third girl – and a quick look around the club proved him right, as all the girls looked unrealistically thin. On a related conversation I had with this American I met at the hostel who was about to start teaching English, he says how back in the States, everyone raves on about how beautiful Czech women are. However he says they are not beautiful but just skinny! "Everyone is so fat in America", he was saying, "that they see a skinny girl and they go gaga here".

The Soviet museum in Prague deserves a mention. Seeing the communist posters to inspire workers, made me realise how similar communism is to capitalism, with slogans talking about ‘efficiency’ and ‘output’. It was funny to see words I had always associated with capitalism, on a communist poster.
Watching a video about the failed 1968 revolution left me feeling mellow. A pop group mentioned in the video called the Plastic Group of the universe (I am sure it sounds better in Czech) used these lyrics: "Throw away your brains, throw away your hearts. Throw away everything that makes you human, and become pigs". For me, those words really help sum up the things I have learnt about communism and Nazism in the last month. Having just read Stalin’s biography, a quote on the wall helped sum up what took me 500 pages to find out as to how he could do what he did: "One death is a tragedy; one million a statistic". Like a spoilt seven year old with divorced parents, the Stalin’s of the world can get away with murder, because they don’t feel the consequences of their actions as no one will reprimand or tell them. And yet even Stalin was capable of breaking down, when his son was captured by the Nazis ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú because the suffering of the war then became personified with a familiar face. There is no such thing as monsters in history ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú only people detached from reality. It’s not hard to smack them back, it’s just that some need to be smacked harder than others.

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Budapest’s House of Horrors on the other hand, annoyed me. Of all the museums I have seen detailing atrocities of the Nazis and communists, this was the most extravagant of them all, but also the worst. It was too fabricated, and too glossy. When you are talking about horror, take the gloss out.And while we are on it – Budapest as well, was very different from Prague, and as a city I much preferred it as it had more character. Although a girl that helped me at the train station, said she hated it: good for a few days, bad for living here.

My experience with Hungarian people was something else as well. Whenever I was with a group of friends/travel companions, I always saw the rudeness of Hungarians. But in the few times I was alone, I found Hungarian people to be very nice and friendly. Even though I regard Hungarians as friendly, the incidents of rudeness really stuck in my mind ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú like for example, a guy at the ice-rink, literally shooing this woman away, like she was some intruder to a military base, when she inquired when it re-opened.

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Budapest’s parliament

Hungarian’s also just look different. Maybe it’s my historical knowledge that helps colour my perceptions, but if there was one word to describe them it would be "warriors". The men looked very different, very rough and tough. They were also weird: when I went to the baths with some of my female friends, there were incidents when men would just stare. Sure, my friends were pretty, but no one stares like that unless you are a psychotic.
Budapest definitely ranks as one of the most memorable cities I’ve been to, and one which I would put top on the list to visit again. The city has a character which I think all the former Ottoman Empire lands have, like Belgrade and Sarajevo. The baths are an amazing experience, and I really wished I had more time to do the rock-climbing tour underneath the city. It is hard to talk about cities as to why you like them, and it can be done, but this blog posting is getting way to long.

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Budapest’s Heroes square

Something I didn’t mention at the beginning of this posting, was one other similarity the three before-mentioned cities have in common: the are all new members of the European Union. And rising stars whilst they are at it. According to a study published by The Economist Intelligence Unit, the Czech Republic ranks as the third most attractive country in the world for off-shoring, after China and India. Whilst cheap labour has something to do with it, the location of the country and its relatively well developed telecommunications and educated workforce help contribute to this.

But notice I said location was an important factor. Like before, the location of these three countries at the centre of Europe’s next big empire (the EU) means that they are again in the spotlight. Expect to hear about these three countries a lot more in the future, as the Visegr?ɬ°d group play catch up to the rest of the developed world.

Russia

My first experience with a Russian, was on the flight from Dubai to Moscow (connection from Tehran). She was my flight neighbour – a twenty-something singer-musician. She didn?Ǭ¥t say much, although she was taking a swig of her bottle of vodka every five minutes. I presumed she had a serious flight phobia.

Turns out there was no phobia. And that bottle of Vodka was three-quarters finished by the time the plane took off. Apparently, she drinks a bottle a day (I always thought it was an apple a day that kept the doctor away?). And what I thought was a quiet neighbour scared of flying, turned out to be a sarcastic alcoholic who started getting a little too friendly.
Half-way into the flight I decided to put her in her place and end the advances, which made the rest of the flight fairly awkward. But nevertheless, I had just had my first Russian experience: alcoholic, sexual, and incredibly sarcastic. Was this a premonition of the days to come?

A bear. Near the river in St Petersburg

Walking across, I saw this fuzzy bit of hair. I thought to myself “that’s a damn big dog”. I walk to the other side of the wall, and it turns out it was a bear.

I had an awesome time in Russia. I spent about ten days there, however to say Moscow and St Petersburg are Russia, is like saying London and Paris are Europe. Needless to say though, alcohol, sexuality, and every type of Russian stereotype you can think of, did feature prominently on my trip.

Russia and alcohol
The contrast between Iran and Russia with regards to alcohol is as startling as say, Osama being elected as the new Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. You can get a bottle of Vodka for practically the same price as a bottle of water. But it is not the cost of alcohol that left me shocked – it was the amount of alcohol Russians drink that shocked me.
An example was on my last day in Moscow, I was on the metro coming from the suburbs with my two buddies from the hostel. On the train, we started talking to some girls next to us – because they looked like they were not a day over 14, and drinking what looked like alcohol (one was also a dead-set ringer for Avril Lavinge). Turns out they were 18, but even so, the legal drinking age is a few years more. It was about 2pm on a Sunday afternoon, and these girls were drinking a 12 per cent alcoholic energy drink. They were also a bit pissed. And no one on the train found this unusual at all.
The streets are filled with people drinking in the middle of the day, like a woman causally having lunch with a beer. It’s not just excessive alcohol, but just a lot of alcohol! Kiosks in Moscow that dot the streets with food and beverages, are also stocked up with alcohol. Alcohol is literally everywhere. Even a seasoned Aussie drinker like me couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable at the drinking culture.

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St Petersburg is architectually awesome

Russia and sexuality and beauty
When someone would ask me what my ideal woman looked like, I never knew how to answer that question. In the 30 minute metro ride I had when I first arrived from Moscow airport to the hostel, I saw 28 versions of my ideal woman. Enough said!

I met this dip shit Australian at a nightclub, who been working in the security business for the last eight months. I felt like hitting him because it was such an imbecile, but he did say something that sums it up pretty well (when asked why he likes it so much here): “Because the women are beautiful and the men are ugly”. A little harsh, but so true. Women go out of way to display their femininity – which I suppose is something all European women do, but Russians definitely are a cut above the rest. In boiling hot Iran, all women have to cover themselves completely. In barely five degrees Russia, women are wearing skirts that you see on a beach party. And apparently they even do it in the middle of winter at minus twenty degrees weather.

As for sex: how many times do you go to a nightclub and there are professional strippers on the bar? This one club in St Petersburg, I would be dancing, and then there would be an announcement every hour or so. Everyone would gather around an elevated stage with a pole, and watch the five minute routine – men and women alike watching a strip tease dance that repeatedly left my tongue on the ground. When finished, the disco music would start again, and everyone would resume to dancing as if nothing had just happened.

Women in Russia - freezing, and yet they still wear short skirts

I asked a member of the female species why do they wear such short skirts, in such cold weather. Answer: “Because it looks good”.

Russia and stereotypes
Forget the stereotypes, this is what I experienced: Russians are educated, cultured, and will go out of their way to help a stranger. My shock of this last fact was exacerbated by how I was not expecting people in large cities like Moscow and St Petersburg to be friendly – which are the largest and fourth-largest cities in Europe respectively. A typical example, was when I caught the train to the city centre from the airport. Moscow’s metro is the best in the world – which also means it is bloody complicated, especially for someone still learning the Cyrillic alphabet. I got off the wrong metro station, and asked a man where the hell was I. In his limited English he told me to follow him and walked me to the next station where I was meant to be connecting at – a five minute walk completely out of his way. This is but one example where people went out of their way to help me.

They say that when in Rome, you do as the Romans do. And it?Ǭ¥s not just for experiencing the culture, but for safety reasons as well – you don’t want to stand out as a tourist. But stand out I did. My drunk neighbour on the flight had also made the comment that I looked different. Apparently “American”. Still trying to work that one out.
Fortunately, I didn’t have any problems even though I had foreigner written on my forehead and I did have a bit of fun with it. But the homogeneity of the population is amazing, and people that look different like the people from southern Russia, are constantly pulled up by police on the street for passport and bag checks.

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Can you see it, on my forehead? It says “I am a foreigner”

Actually, a slight tangent: in St Petersburg, a university professor from Cambridge university, tried to pick me up. To cut a long story short, I had coffee with him, whilst he attempted to impress me, and invite me back to his apartment for drinks and to see his jacuzzi. The reason I am mentioning this story, is not because of how disgusted I was that a lonely gay man twice my age tried to pick me up, but rather to vent my anger with him because this is my blog and I’ll cry if I want to.
During our discussion, he complained how the Russian academic staff at the university were all straight, which was a weird thing as everyone back in England in his architecture department is gay. And how it bothered him, how they treated him differently. I completely agreed with him, and how bad it is homophobia is so strong here – ever since I got over my schoolboy homophobia, I have always supported gay rights. But then he said two things that made me angry.
The first thing was how he likes St Petersburg because everyone here is white. He doesn’t like the coloured people he has to mix with in London.
The second thing, was how impressive the architecture is in the city. What makes it so impressive, is that the Tsars had millions of slaves dying to make this grand buildings – something a western European ruler would never be able to get away with. And that is what makes them even more special.
So here I am with one of Europe’s leading academics (apparently), sympathising with his inequality, and yet he goes on in the same breath to say how good it is to be in a city full of white people which was built by generations of rulers who had no regards for human life. I felt like getting up and yelling at this maggot to go shove a communist sickle up his arse.
However gay rights are something Russians are not exactly supportive. I had a few conversations with some girls on several issues, and it is interesting to see how traditional minded they are. Point being, how socially conservative the youth are ( just imagine what the adults are like!).

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This church in Moscow took 44 years to build, and was later knocked down by Stalin. They recently rebuilt it, using modern technology, in just four years. The interior is amazing.

Then again, the gay thing might have something to do with the fact that there are ten million more women than men in Russia! Settle down though boys – some statistics a friend of mine dug up show that the numbers don?Ǭ¥t actually skew until after age 33 – there are actually slightly more men than women before that. Yet the numbers do imply the affects of three of Russia’s biggest problems: AIDS, Booze, and Chechnya.

There were an estimated 860,000 people living with HIV at the end of 2003 in Russia, and this figure looks set to increase. It has the highest HIV epidemic in all of Europe, although numbers do appear to be falling. The affects of such a disease, especially with an aging population though – is bad.
Alcohol is a serious problem. When Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign was launched in 1985, within two years life expectancy for men increased 3.2 years for women and 1.4 for women. Those improvements have since been lost, but it does tell a sad story. Russia, with a population of 143.2 million, has 2.37 million registered alcoholics. The average quantity of pure alcohol per person is 8.7 litres. That’s like everyone in Russia drinking 53 ml of Vodka a day.

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Moscows metro: deep, man.

Chechnya is a topic sensitive to Russians. Especially given the terrorist attacks on ordinary Russians by Chechnya’s militants wanting independence. Vladimir Putin recently said he wishes all Chechnyans are flushed down the toilet “We?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢re going to chase terrorists everywhere. If we track them down in a loo, we will rub them out in the loo, too.” This is the head of the government saying this. The fact he can get away with it – and also the reason why he said it – shows how much the war has affected the Russian psyche.
However the wars no doubt have had an impact on population numbers, especially with men who are the ones sent to war. Between 150,000 and 160,000 people have died in the two wars in Chechnya, according to Taus Djabrailov, the head of Chechnya’s interim parliament. The toll includes federal troops, rebel fighters, and civilians who died or went missing during both the first conflict (1994 to 1996) and the second, which began in 1999 and continues today. (Source). And lets not forget Afghanistan, which was Russia’s ‘Vietnam’ in the 1980s.

Mr Putin is also busy putting together the third Russian empire. People don?Ǭ¥t know who it is that controls their country, but as my friend Vera said, one more step backwards and she is out of there. Russia is a country in transformation. A strong man is needed to reorganise a country of its size, seeing as its democratic institutions have grown organically from a sick Soviet Empire (or rather, they have been re-branded as democratic). But a dictator is a dictator. The English-press in Russia seem to buzz with theories on how Putin will hold onto power, as he is legally restricted to two presidential terms. Given the nature of power, it is fairly obvious he will not let go the reigns of the government. However his decision on how he does this, will have huge ramifications on a country struggling to recreate itself.

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The double-headed imperial eagle, and the communist star – symbols of two former Russian empires. Wonder what Vladimir is cooking up for his new empire

Economically, the country is not healthy, reliant on oil and arms sales. Apparently 80 per cent of the country’s wealth flows into Moscow – which really makes me wonder what life must be like in the rest of Russia. One set of figures about wages I heard were as such: the average monthly salary is 9000 rubles. A doctor is payed about 3000 by the State (however his secretary probably gets 5000, because she is privately employed). Nine-thousand rubles is about 415 Australian dollars, 315 US dollars, or 260 Euros.

Those numbers are low, but it doesn?Ǭ¥t shock me that much, because I have been to a lot of poor countries where the wages are very similar. But what shocked me was that these are figures for people in Moscow. And in Moscow, I found the prices to be comparable to Sydney and New York. In Australia, the average monthly salary is $4,300 – ten times more than what I was told as the average salary in Russia/Moscow.

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You throw money over your shoulder for luck, and the babushkas behind you desperately catch the money. There are more billionaires in Moscow than in any other city in the world, and as you can see, plenty of poverty as well

Russia has one of the worlds richest histories, although a very brutal one as well. A visit to European St Petersburg makes you stagger at the cultural richness of the country, and Moscow’s fast paced, hedonistic consumer lifestyle, makes your head spin to think this was once the communist nerve centre of the world (communism? where?!)

If Russia’s leading two cities have transformed that much in 15 years, I am looking forward to see what it will become in another 15.

Iran

Iran proved to be an interesting trip. I was invited one night to an Iranian house for tea; on a separate occasion I was invited for dinner with a family, and provided a bed to sleep in. One day I was there, a group of university girls approached me, took me for tea, and the next day took me shopping and sightseeing. They made sure I didn’t pay tourist prices for the things I bought, and they paid for pretty much everything that day. I kept thinking to myself the scenario – girls picked me up off the street, paid for everything, and insisted on carrying my bags. Where has Australia gone wrong?

However, my entry into Iran wasn’t as smooth as I had hoped. I had to put up with cab drivers and bus operators whose low level of intelligence was matched inversely by the high level of bacteria in their armpits. I discovered I was not able to get a flight out of the country to my next destination – a crucial assumption for my entire trip (although I did manage to get one later – double price however). And a little more problematic – having two of my $100 US bills being identified as counterfeit – a slight problem considering I had no access to any other means of money, as credit cards don’t work and international links to banks like mine in Australia, don’t exist.

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This money was meant to pay for my trip out of the country. And they say the mafia’s operations doesn’t affect the ordinary person.

My first few days in Iran were marked with me being in an absolutely negative mindset, and I was enjoying myself as much as one would when sharing a prison cell with a big fat sex-crazy cell mate called “bubba”. Fortunately, the moment I left Tehran, my trip changed. Negative experiences, turned into memorable ones. Though memorable does not necessarily mean fun at the time, as I experienced in Shiraz.

I flew into Shiraz from Tehran to save time (flights are cheap), and after finding a room, I started walking around the city. I didn’t go very far before I could sense someone behind me watching my movements. After a few minutes, an Iranian guy approaches me and starts a conversation: he was a little hard to understand (he sounded drunk) but I didn’t think much of it. He was extremely excited to meet me, to practice his English and to learn about Australia – a place he wants to migrate to. So I had myself a guide – Rezer starting showing me the sights as we talked, and after the bazaar, took me to a mosque which is one of the most important to the Shi’ite Muslims. We were inside, with me absolutely stunned by the beauty of the interior (the walls and roof were covered in crystals, and the strategic placing of the lighting gave the room an amazing glow). As I am looking, head up and stunned, Rezer pulls out his hand, and he says slowly: “These are my tablets. I have psychological problems”.

The dude with mental issues who would not leave me alone

The amusing thing about this picture, was that when he looked at the picture afterwards, he was scared of himself. I had to reassure him that his big eyes in the picture did not make him look freaky (when in fact, they were normally bigger, and he looked damned freaky when they were).

It is an interesting moment to be experiencing one of the most mesmerising shrines you have ever been to, and to find out your companion of the last hour is mentally unstable. As we left the mosque, I subtly asked why he needed the tablets. “It’s to calm me down.” I didn’t show any reaction, as if it is an every-day thing for me to find out I’ve got a wacko right next to me. He liked the way I reacted to the news, and declared how much he liked me now. Whoopee.

The tour continues, and en-route to the ‘final’ bit of sight seeing I had agreed to – where we would be overlooking the city – we walk by the local mental hospital. Speaking very softly, and in remarkable detail, he was able to tell me which sections of the hospital housed what type of ‘crazy’ person. “These are the people that are really, really crazy, and can’t live in society by themselves and need lots and lots of help”. A curtain is quickly drawn on the top left of the building. “See, that was a crazy person. In that section that is where the people who shit all over the floor stay and make a mess all over the place”. I was tempted to ask how he knew all this, but I didn’t want to provoke any negative reactions. I insisted we continue, so that I could end this tour as quick as possible. On the way to our final destination – he insists we call his sister so that I speak to her. She was nice, but quickly ended the call, as if this happens on a daily basis. The tour continues.

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The city of Shiraz at night, by the gateway of the city.

When we first met, he asked me about the differences between Australia and New Zealand. Half an hour later, he asked the same thing. After the fourth repeated question – where had I just come from – I noticed a pattern. He had completely forgotten what I had told him 10 minutes earlier.

We get to the top, had some tea, took some pictures, and I showed him my photos. He asked about the difference between Australia and New Zealand, and he asked to see my photos (again). He asked where had I just come from, and whether he could see my photos (for the third time). I told him I have already shown the photos to him. He insisted in taking me to my hotel. I said no thanks. We make it back to the spot where I met him in the centre of the city, and he said just quickly to show me the outside of the castle there. I agreed reluctantly, saw the very important picture he wanted to show me (the devil being defeated by someone) and then I said I really had to go now. He then began asking when I would leave, and if we could meet the next day. I said no. He asked if he could see me at the bus station to send me off. I said no, again. He asked at about what time will my bus leave. I said I didn’t know.

“Can I kiss you now?” he asked. “Excuse me!?” I exclaimed. He continued, “Can I kiss you and hug you?” I replied by saying I did not feel comfortable, because in my culture, men don’t show affection like that. He continued, “But I want to hug and kiss you because I really like you and I love Australia”. Time to leave I thought, and I started making my way, saying goodbye over my shoulder. He waved good-bye, and then he yelled “wait a second, I need to tell you something”. I stopped and listened. He then asked if he could see my pictures again. “You already saw them I cried out for the fifth time. “Can I please hug and kiss you?”, he asked again “No! Goodbye!” I shouted, and I started walking very fast. I could sense he was watching me, so when I made the corner, I bolted and got lost in the crowd.

The Iranian experience
Geographically, Iran is amazing. The locals are very proud of the fact that their country has four seasons. Apparently, at any time of the year, there is a place in Iran that is experiencing one of the four seasons. It quite literally is an all-round tourist destination, because it has amazing deserts, sensational mountains, beautiful forests and waterfalls, and so much more.

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The gutters in Iran fascinated me. This is in Tehran, where it was practically a waterfall.

Historically, Iran is as rich as they get, and it has the infrastructure for mass tourism (everything from cheap and plentiful accommodation to widespread use of English language (in signage and in understanding by the locals), and even tourist offices everywhere that matters. There is no country more suited for tourism, and despite having every reason to visit the country, there are practically no tourists. A lot of people there don’t quite understand how their civilisation – which stands with the greats of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome – has been forgotten by the world. The Persian Empire started as one of the three Aryan tribes to inhabit Iran before it ruled the Ancient world (Iran in Farsi, means “Aryan”). Whilst the Arabs dominated the country for 600 years, something which a lot of proud Iranians resent because it ‘bastardised’ their country, their history stretches into the middle ages and this century – until the Revolution, where the Shah was forced to abdicate. There is absolutely no reason, in my mind, why you should not visit the country – and every kind of reason to visit (with the exception of maybe nightclubbing) .

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The Government-led propaganda effort is very over-the-top. This is at the former US embassy, now known as the Den of Espoinage. It has a set of murals on the southern wall depicting Iran as an American colony, and then images showing a war led by Ayatollah Khomeini, who saves the country

The people in Iran are the friendliest I have ever met. Practically all the people I met in the country approached me on the street for a chat (I stood out like a banana would in a green salad), and those that helped me went completely out of their way. My perception about Islam – now that I have seen it in practice – had made me realise how beautiful the religion is, and how misguided Western civilisation is in its perceptions, especially in the post 9/11 world. I think of the mass media in how it contantly asks questions along the lines of ‘Can Islam and democracy work?’ – I now realise how ridiculous that theme is, and depressing because it just proves how ignorant we are. (Although, why it doesn’t work in Iran is because the clerics are unaccountable – an Islamic democracy is different from an Islamic theocracy – the difference being elections and media scrutinty, both non-existant in Iran for the clerics).
More importantly, visiting the country has made me realise how amazing it is. As an Iranian told me: “We are not Afghanistan!”, which seems to be a good way to summarise how the world sees this country. Yet telling the locals this view, shocks them, and with good reason, as the country although a little rough around the edges, is just like a European country with an oriental flavouring – and at a fraction of the cost. There is nothing wild and adventurous about travelling in Iran – to tell you the truth, it was a little too easy. There is one thing however that made my blood freeze: crossing any road – you’ve just got to close your eyes and hope for the best.

Nomad

A nomadic couple in Southern Iran, near Firuz Ab?ɬ¢d. Couples like this herd their sheep from one green pasture to the other. I am not sure what the correct transliteration is, but it sounds something like Ashel-yer.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is about as Islamic as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) is a Democratic Peoples republic. Whilst the people are religious, the government in Iran, controlled by the clerics, is an authoritarian government thinly cloaked under the veil of Islam. The place is a police state – where military check-points between cities are frequent and security is tight. I went to visit a friend at a university, and was angrily denied entry. Although I later befriended the guards, the fear of my presence was amazing. (Although there apparently were some British students that broke into a university and created a fuss recently…it also didn’t help that I was in Kashan, which has a nuclear reactor neaby and the local authorities and population had been forbidden to admit it existed until it was found two years ago by international inspectors.) Being shown around the city of Tehran on my final night, with a guy who is an registered tourist operator – we were denied access to see the other side of the new Foreign Ministry building – a historic building (I thought it was fair enough, but he doesn’t understand why). Security is tight in the country, enforced by no fewer than three levels of enforcement.

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You don’t mess around in Iran.

As well as the police and the military, there are also the Revolutionary Guards, known as Sepah – a parallel secretive military outfit to the actual military, albeit with a different function. Sepah is the personal police unit of the authoritarian clerics ruling the country. They are the people that ensure there is no threat to the establishment. Apparently, you can do anything in Iran now, just as long as it does not threaten the establishment – that is why satellite TV is not a problem (as in it is technocally illegal, but not enforced), but journalism on the Internet in the form of blogs (like this) are heavily monitored. The abuse of power is disgusting: an example was with a friend, we saw about 40 men gathered around having a dispute. Apparently, these men wanted to build a Mosque in their local community. Right next to the proposed site, was Sepah’s local barracks – Sepah was not letting them. The barracks were huge as it was, and this patch of land was useless for military purposes. My friend told me that he believes Sepah was denying the request so that they could have a basketball court. Is this what an Islamic Republic is about? The themes of Orwell’s Animal Farm resonate strongly, the only difference is that the communist party is replaced by Islamic clerics.

Alcohol

Alcohol is not legal (although plenty of people do drink). Heroin is also very popular.

During the Iran-Iraq war – a war that has had a huge impact on the society – a friend tells me fifty percent of the budget was allocated to the military. Whilst the war has ended, I would not be surprised if the figure is higher than most countries during peace time in terms of military spending. It is interesting to see how the state can control the population, through the military, and this is how it was explained to me: A guy I met reckons 70% of the men pre-military service want change, as in another revolution. Another guy I met reckons the figure is 90% of the entire population, and a third person says 80%. Whatever the figure, I think you get the idea – people want another revolution. The thing is though, men can only get their passport after they have completed two years of military service. I was told though that whilst 70% want change, when they do their military service, that figure drops to 30%. Following military service, parents force their sons to get married. Actually, people want to get married because sex before marriage is a criminal act – and all the men I met claim how much it drives them crazy.

But when you have a family to support, revolutionary feelings die down. You just don’t care so much about the oppression, in so much as the welfare of your family. With apparently five million people working for the government (figure unverified), these people also don’t want to stir the pot, because finding a job is hard in the country, due to the weak economy. I short – everyone detests the government, personified by Sepah. But people can’t do anything about it. I find it ironic, that a half dozen separate people told me that they and everyone they know, believe and think the days when the Shah was in power were happier times. I met so many intelligent Iranian’s, both students and academics, who knew the visa regulations of all the countries in the West: Canada, Australia, USA and England. For those that can leave, they are voting with their feet -and figures run into millions of Iranians overseas.

Mosque

Iranians sure know how to build a shrine. Pictures will never do the mosques I saw any justice.

On two separate occasions, from two completely different groups of people, I was told that they believe Iran is a colony of England. The first time I heard this I was shocked – the second time stunned. A joke I heard, was how an Iranian made car, had it parts made in England, and was assembled in Iran, whilst the clerics have the parts made in Iran, whilst being assembled in England. Historically England has used the clerics in the country as a means of controlling the country, and that apparently is a fact, according to a friend who had done a lot of reading of history. A commonly held belief is that the US and English wanted the clerics to control the country (ie, supported the revolution), because with its natural wealth, it had the potential to be a world superpower – but by oppressing the population, the West controls the resources without an overly ambitious Shah challenging their power, which is what it was becoming to look like in the 1970s. Iranians feel betrayed by their government – what other explanation could there be why Iran is not living up to its full potential? I was told 60 per cent of the worlds oil supply has to pass through Iran in the south. (And looking into it, I think he was referring to the Strait of Hormuz, whereby 90% of the regions oil transits, which equates to 60% of the worlds seabourne oil, and an amazing 40% of the worlds total oil.). And it’s not just oil, it’s gas as well.

Esfahan

Esfahan is a relaxed city, and one of the most beautiful ones I have ever visited.

Iran accounts for ten percent of the worlds oil, as well as a large amount of natural gas – the energy of the future. However those are the figures of today; there are also the figures of tomorrow. The Caspian Basin, to the North of Iran, apparently holds 200 billion barrels of oil – second in size to Saudi Arabia – with the potential to increase global oil output by 25 per cent. And of the three proposed routes, Iran is the cheapest, and shortest. Iran is one of the most important countries for oil (and gas, they are second only to Russia) in the world – for actual oil, and its positioning for transport – both now and increasingly for the future. In the light of those facts, I think I understand what the Iranians mean.

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The Internet is censored. Search engine results of “hot sex porn”, “Salman Rushdie” and “How-do-I-get-out-of-this-bloody-country” were randomly blocked

The country receives five billion dollars of foreign investment a year – Iranian officials believe they need double that amount to have the country develop fully. But I wonder how much of that figure goes to the energy sector. Not only does the country need a hell of a lot more money, but it needs it to help invest in civilian industries, not just energy which benefits the regime. There are sanctions on the country, and it is the ordinary people that are hurt by them – not the ruling dictatorship.

People want a revolution. But will there ever be one? People, on the whole (as I am told by everyone), hope so. But it looks unlikely. Hope is in the actual democratic aspect of the government, whereby reformist representatives are battling an uphill fight. However with the recent election of the hard-line Mayor of Tehran as President, this will be a huge set back to the reforms by the previous President. More cynically, as I was told by one person, is that it won’t make any difference: whenever someone gets elected, they shave their beards (symbol of the establishment) and claim to change and improve things, when in reality they are just as bad as the previous people.

Blue Bridge

Iranians sure know how to use lighting to enhance their structures at night. Esfahan has a selection of bridges that look magnificent at night.

I really feel sorry for the Iranians. The world, due to the mass media, has got a completely wrong perception about the country – although a little rough around the edges, it is a safe and developed (but poor) country. The people are being oppressed by a power-hungry regime, that has interpreted the Koran to suit them (apparently, there is nothing in the Holy Book requiring women to cover their heads – all women have to wear headscarf’s, and not doing so is against Iranian law – although faces are allowed to be shown). The economy is crippled by the power games being played by their government, where the ordinary people pay for any hardship imposed by the international community, but the regime receive any benefits – especially in the wealth generated by the energy sector. (For example, if an Iranian finds oil on their property, the government owns it, giving nothing to the Iranian.)

Artist

One of many artists, who painstakingly hand-paint their creations, with small brush strokes

An interesting thing I noticed about the Iranian economy, is how it is growing. Whilst China, for example, is getting foreign investment to grow, Iran (like India) is growing internally – which in the long term, is a lot more powerful. The Iranians are developing industries, from automobiles to airplanes as well as tourism (arrivals by March 2006 will see 25% more tourists, according to officials). They are, for example, creating energy trading markets to compete with the US controlled exchanges in Europe – actions which give it global influence. The recent decision to value its oil in Euros, not only will change the dynamics of global oil but also global economics, by weakening the might of the US dollar. However, there still needs to be a lot of work to be done: the airline manufacturer complained in a newspaper report how Iranian airlines don’t want to use their planes, citing credibility and reputation with going with Airbus. However, when explaining why they should use the Iranian-made planes, the manager says that although the plane holds less passengers, and takes longer to fly – they state the benefit that “it takes seven minutes less time to load the plane” as a good reason to buy the plane. For some reason, I think there is another reason why the airlines don’t want the Iran-made planes (they suck). But I think it is still impressive, that there are even attempts to develop industries like this, which are dominated by the Americans, Europeans and Russians. If Iran grows its economy to the levels of the developed world, one thing we can be sure of is that it will be puling its own strings – and possibly of other countries as well.

Carpet

Carpet makers in Firuz. This carpet is three by six metres, and will sell to a carpet shop for 900 Euros. This is the final week of the three month project. How do they know when to put what coloured string to create the impressive design? It’s done by memory of an image, apparently.

How to overthrow the government
In Iran, it costs ten 800 Rial for a litre – that’s about ten US cents. In Australia, we pay at least 100 cents for one litre. Despite the fact that the cost-of-living is very low (a pricey meal for three in a classy hotel restaurant costs $15), even the Iranians admit that the price for petrol is dirt cheap. With petrol prices increasing, something needs to be done. I am really keen on buying a V8 sports car, which consumes a lot of petrol. And so in a bid to ensure I get cheaper petrol, I advocate we invade the country and open up the oil there, so that I can afford to run my car. I don’t really care who gets the honour – heck, I’ll even help the French have this one – but something needs to be done for my energy needs. And so, I present to you, my plan on making sure I get cheaper petrol.

It is simple, and it doesn’t require any invasions. Complicated diplomacy is unnecessary. And best of all, it’s guaranteed to work because it is based on history. The answer, my friends is tax.

The Persian wars started because of high taxation. The French revolution, started because of tax. American revolution? Tax. That’s right, it is all about tax, and there are plenty more examples. So for the next Iranian revolution, we need to make the clerics tax the bullshit out of the average Iranian – afterall, it was a rotten economy that ruined the Shah. The people will revolt, and I will get cheaper, western-controlled petrol.

So how do we do such a thing? Again, very simple. We need to make ordinary Iranians rich, and the government broke. Because when you are rich, you have wealth. And when you have wealth, you want to keep that wealth. Any attempts to tax it or take it away, is going to piss the Iranians off. Especially when it is going to fund something you don’t agree with.

Shiraz bazaar

Standard issue bazzar shot

How do you make the government broke? Through war. Iran is part of the unrecognised Kurdish region. If the Kurds in Iraq breakway to form a Kurdish country, and take a bit of Turkish Kurdishtan, they will also go for the rather large bit in Western Iran. Iran has a better-then-you-think military, so best not to get the overstretched Americans involved with this one. Europe will support the war, because a Kurdish country will weaken Turkey – making it less of a big, poor Muslim nation entering the EU. A smaller population will make the Turkish admission more bearable and less threatning. The Russians will also support the war privately because Iran is enegry competition. But also it will push up orders for Russia’s defence industry, as Russia and China supply Iranian military needs (funny how dictatorships around the world, no matter the ideology, can find friendship).

There is nothing like a good old border war to send the government broke, pressuring the governemnt to raise taxes to fund its activities. There is a 10% Sunni minority that are also a little pissed off – for example, they can’t hold government positions or even become university professors. A Kurdish war, and an internal war will do wonders. And what about those islands in the south that are disputed territory with the Gulf States? Back to history, empires always end when they can’t control their borders, and haven’t got the means to defend them (for lack of cash). Let’s get the boys in Bahrain and the UAE to stir the pot down south.

Now the harder bit, how do we make Iranians rich? Afterall, you can’t tax the poor.

Drop the sanctions – they are making the Iranians poor, and are not affecting the regime. Develop tourism, because it is a industry with huge potential, and will enrichen the people, not the regime. Tourism will also help what the US-government controlled Internet and world wide web will do: inject foreign influence. A B-Grade movie I saw on a bus, which was a prison version of fightclub, actually came from America. Although it was poorly dubbed in Farsi, there is one thing the propaganda office can’t control outside snipping sex scenes: the images themselves.

When an Iranian girl sees a western movie, with western women in their new fashions – or the women visiting the country – do you think it doesn’t have an impact? There already is a revolution in Iran – socially. Whilst the men don’t grow beards if they don’t support the regime, and sport short-sleeve shirts which were previously frowned on, women are being a lot more daring with their fashion. When the revolution first happened, all women were covered head-to-toe is this black garmet with only their faces showing – called the Chador. However not any more. Whilst that outfit is still popular, a good fifty percent of women are quietly non-conforming – and this isn’t restricted to any age either. I saw women wearing pink coats, that although fulfilled the modesty requirements, I can tell you now it was a very creative interpretation of the requirements. A modest fringle is allowed with the headscarf – however the definition of modest seems to mean half the head with most Iranian women! Sometimes the women were being so “extremist” I almost felt obliged to say something!

Social revolution

Times are changing. Whilst mosques and universities mandate women to cover up a bit (this girl is most likely on the way to uni, as her dressing is inconsistent), most when they can, shake off the bland black and satisfy the law with the absolute minimum. And it’s not just in fashion: vanity is also on the rise. The amount of women I saw who had just had a nose-job was ridiculous.

So there we go. For cheap oil and gas, the stage is set. People want a revolution – they just need some help. Whenever someone criticises the regime, they are pulled down for being “Anti-Islamic”. People need an excuse to revolt – high taxation is the answer. The current international policy of isolation suits the Mullahs, because it keeps the people poor and dependent. Let change it to suit the people – visit Iran as a tourist and encourage the revolution.

Hope