Tag Archive for 'personal'

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5 observations of how social networking (online) has changed social networking (offline)

Just then, I had an image get shattered. A well respected blogger, whose online persona had me think they were a very cool person offline, is infact, a fat geek with an annoying voice. I can pretty much cross off the list that he can relate to experiences of how Facebook is mentioned in trendy nightclubs on the dancefloor.

Another thing I have noticed: all the major commentators & players of the Internet economy, are usually married, in their 30s or 40s, and almost all come from an IT background.

Don’t get me wrong – the industry has a lot of people that are a goldmine with what they say. They challenge my thinking, and they are genuinely intelligent. But although they are users of web services like Facebook or MySpace – just like the rest of society – they are people experiencing these technologies in the bubble of the technology community. Their view of the world, is not aligned with what’s actually happening in the mainstream. No surprises there – they are the early adopters, the innovators and the pioneers. It’s funny however, that comparable to other services (like Twitter) the adoption amongst the tech community for Facebook has been slow: it was only when the developer network launched that it started getting the attention.

What I want to highlight is that most commentators have no way in the world of understanding the social impact of these technologies in the demograghic where the growth occurs. We all know for example, Facebook is exploding with users – but do we know why it’s exploding? A married man in his 40s with a degree in computer science, isn’t going to be able to answer that, because most of the growth comes from single 20 year olds with an history major.

So what I am about to recount is my personal experience. I am not dressing it up as a thought-piece; I am just purely sharing how I have seen the world take to social networking sites and how it has transformed the lives of my own and the people around me. I’m 23 years old, the people in my life generally fall into the computer clueless category, and I have about 500 Facebook friends that I know through school, university, work, or just life (about ten are in the tech industry).

1) Social networking sites as a pre-screening tool
Observation: I randomly was approached by a chick one night and during the course of our conversation she insisted I knew a certain person. Ten minutes, and 20 more “I swear…you know xxx” – I finally realised she was right and that I did know that person. For her to be so persistent in her claim, she had to be sure of herself. But how can someone be sure of themselves with that piece of information, when I had only met her 30 seconds earlier?

I then realised this chick had already seen me before – via facebook. I know this is the case, because I myself have wandered on a persons profile and realised we have a lot of mutual friends. In those times I would note it is bound to happen that I would meet them.

Implication: People are meeting people and know who they are before they even talk. They say most couples meet through friends. Well now you can explore your friends’s friends – and then start hanging around that friend when you know they know someone you like!

2) Social networking sites getting you more dates
Observation: I met a chick and had a lengthy chat with her, and although she was nice, I left that party thinking I would probably never see her again as I didn’t give out any contact details. That next day, she added me as a friend on Facebook. In another scenario, there was a girl I met from a long time ago and I hadn’t seen her since. We randomly found each other on Facebook, and I’ve actually got to know the girl – picking up from where we left off.

Implication: Social networking sites help you further pursue someone, even though you didn’t get their number. In fact, it’s a lot less akward. Facebook has become a aprt of the courtship process – flirtation is a big aspect of the sites activity.

3) Social networking sites helping me decide
Observation: There was a big party, but I wasn’t sure if I would go because I didn’t know who would go with me. I looked at the event RSVP, and I to my surprise found out a whole stack of people I knew were going.

Implication: Facebook added valuable information that helped me decide. Not knowing what people were going, I probably wouldn’t have gone. Think about this on another level: imagine you were were interested in buying a camera, and you had access to the camera makes of your friends (because the digital photos they upload contain the camera model – as seen with Flickr). Knowing what your friends buy is a great piece of advice on what you want to buy.

4) Social networking sites increasing my understanding of people I know
Observation: I found out when a friend added me on myspace, that she was bisexual – something I never would have realised. Being bi is no big deal – but it’s information that people don’t usually give up about themselves. Likewise, I have since found out about people I went to school with are now gay. Again – no big deal – but discreet information like that increases your depth of understanding about someone (ie, not making gay jokes around them). I know what courses my contacts have studied since I last saw them, and what they are doing with their lives. I also know of someone that will be at one of my travel destinations when I go on holiday.

Implication: You are in the loop about the lives of everyone you’ve met. It’s nothing bad, because these people control what you can see, but it’s great because there are things you know, things you know you don’t know, but now you can find out things you didn’t know that you didn’t know.

5) Social networking sites as a shared calendar
Observation: My little sister is currently going through 21st season – back to back parties of her friends. One of the gripes of 21sts when organising them, is overlap with other peoples. Not only that – but also the physical process of contacting people and getting them to actually RSVP – it’s a pain. However unlike my 21st season experience from a few years ago, my sister has none of these issues. This is because Facebook is like one big shared calender. Another example is how I send my congratulations to birthday friends a lot more than I have in the past because I actually know its their birthday- due to fact our calendars are effectively pooled as a shared calendar.

Implication: Facebook has become an indispensable tool to peoples social lives.

6) Bonus observation – explaining the viral adoption of Facebook
I have a few friends that don’t have Facebook. You can almost count them on the one hand. And when you bring it up, they explode with a “I’m sick of Facebook!” and usually get defensive because so many people hassle them. In most cases, they make an admission that one day, they will join. The lesson here is that Facebook is growing because of peer pressure. The more people in someone’s network, the more valuable facebook becomes to them. When they say 40 million users, it’s actually 40 million sales people.

God bless the network effect.

On the future of search

Robert Scoble has put together a video presentation on how Techmeme, Facebook and Mahalo will kill Google in four years time. His basic premise is that SEO’s who game Google’s algorithm are as bad as spam (and there are some pissed SEO experts waking up today!). People like the ideas he introduces about social filtering, but on the whole – people are a bit more skeptical on his world domination theory.

There are a few good posts like Muhammad‘s on why the combo won’t prevail, but on the whole, I think everyone is missing the real issue: the whole concept of relevant results.

Relevance is personal

When I search, I am looking for answers. Scoble uses the example of searching for HDTV and makes note of the top manufacturers as something he would expect at the top of the results. For him – that’s probably what he wants to see – but for me, I want to be reading about the technology behind it. What I am trying to illustrate here is that relevance is personal.

The argument for social filtering, is that it makes it more relevant. For example, by having a bunch of my friends associated with me on my Facebook account, an inference engine can determine that if my friend called A is also friends with person B, who is friends with person C – than something I like must also be something that person C likes. When it comes to search results, that sort of social/collaborative filtering doesn’t work because relevance is complicated. The only value a social network can provide is if the content is spam or not – a yes or no type of answer – which is assuming if someone in my network has come across this content. Just because my social network can (potentially) help filter out spam, doesn’t make the search results higher quality. It just means less spam results. There is plenty of content that may be on-topic but may as well be classed as spam.

Google’s algorithm essentially works on the popularity of links, which is how it determines relevance. People can game this algorithm, because someone can make a website popular to manipulate rankings through linking from fake sites and other optimisations. But Google’s pagerank algorithm is assuming that relevant results are, at their core, purely about popularity. The innovation the Google guys brought to the world of search is something to be applauded for, but the extreme lack of innovation in this area since just shows how hard it is to come up with new ways of making something relevant. Popularity is a smart way of determining relevance (because most people would like it) – but since that can be gamed, it no longer is.

The semantic web

I still don’t quite understand why people don’t realise the potential for the semantic web, something I go on about over and over again (maybe not on this blog – maybe it’s time I did). But if it is something that is going to change search, it will be that – because the semantic web will structure data – moving away from the document approach that webpages represent and more towards the data approach that resembles a database table. It may not be able to make results more relevant to your personal interests, but it will better understand the sources of data that make up the search results, and can match it up to whatever constructs you present it.

Like Google’s page rank, the semantic web will require human’s to structure data, which a machine will then make inferences – similar to how Pagerank makes inferences based on what links people make. However Scoble’s claim that humans can overtake a machine is silly – yes humans have a much higher intellect and are better at filtering, but they in no way can match the speed and power of a machine. Once the semantic web gets into full gear a few years from now, humans will have trained the machine to think – and it can then do the filtering for us.

Human intelligence will be crucial for the future of search – but not in the way Mahalo does it which is like manually categorising pieces of paper into a file cabinet – which is not sustainable. A bit like how when the painters of the Sydney harbour bridge finish painting it, they have to start all over again because the other side is already starting to rust again. Once we can train a machine that for example, a dog is an animal, that has four legs and makes a sound like “woof” – the machine can then act on our behalf, like a trained animal, and go fetch what we want; how those paper documents are stored will now be irrelevant and the machine can do the sorting for us.

The Google killer of the future will be the people that can convert the knowledge on the world wide web into information readeable by computers, to create this (weak) form of artificial intelligence. Now that’s where it gets interesting.

BarCampSydney2

Things I learned at this BarCamp

  • It was a very different crowd from the first one.
  • It’s so easy to network – it was as difficult as breathing in, breathing out! I gave a presentation, and as a consequence, I had people throughout the day approach me and introduce themselves.
  • In the morning, collaboration was a bit of a hot theme. John Rotenstein from Atlassian asked the question of how do people define collaboration: “when two or more people work together on a business purpose”, was my answer. We agreed. Everyone else, kind of didn’t.
  • How to raise money – was the afternoon’s theme. Great points were brought up by Marty Wells, Mike Canon-Brookes and Dean McEvoy who led the discussion.
  • Some things mentioned:
  1. Aussie VC’s lead you on. “Nice idea- let’s keep in touch” is their way of not burning bridges
  2. VC’s work in a cycle that are in five or so year cycles – raise money at the beginning of the cycle
  3. Rule of thumb: give 30% away on the first round, 30% on the second round
  4. Advisor’s that give out Comet grants work on a 2% commission of future venture capital that you raise.
  5. No one understands the advertising market – everyone in the room wanted something they could read to learn more (check back here soon – I promise!). For example, Google’s adwords programme is largely supported by the property market – the mortgage lending market that is affected by the current credit crisis, is going to affect start-ups relying on adsense as the money drops out of these ads.
  • I met Jan Devos, who randomly approached me and blew me away with what he has done in his life. Basically (and from the age of 17), he created an implementation of the MPEG4 compression technology (for non-tech readers – MP4 as opposed to the older MP3) and he licenses out the technology to major consumer appliance companies like Samsung, who incorporate the technology into their products.
  • I met Dave O’Flynn – self-described as a “tall Irish red-head” developer; Matt June – a former Major in the Australian military, and now pursuing a project based around social innovation; I discovered Rai of Tangler is a commitmentphobe; Mick thinks he can skip most of BarCamp because he thinks organising a wedding is so hard; Mike Canon-Brookes over beer revealed he is a Mark Zuckerberg wannabe; and Christy Dena one of the lead (un)organisers of the conference looks completely different from the person I thought she was!

I got a positive reaction to my half hour session on five lessons I have learned on successful intrapreneurship due to a large internal project I started at my employer, with people throughout the day getting into a chat with me about it. Richard Pendergast, who is starting a online parenting site, said he was going to write a blog on one the points with his own personal battle of creating credibility. Glad I helped! I said to him I was going to blog what I talked about it so we could turn it into a discussion, but I have decided, this exam I have to sit in 12 8 days might need to start getting my attention. Anyway, here were the five points I made, however given the discussion during the session by everyone, is a very rough framework as people brought up some great points when talking:

1) It is a lot easier to seek forgiveness, than permission when doing something in an organisation. Or in other words, just do it.

2) Be proactive, never reactive. By pushing the agenda, you are framing the agenda for something that works for your project. Once you start reacting to others, your idea will die.

3) The more you let go – the bigger your idea will get. Use other people to achieve your vision. Give other people a sense of ownership in it. Let them take credit.

4) It’s all about perception. It’s amazing how much credibility you can build by simply associating your idea to other things – and which in the process, builds your own personal brand to push through with more later on.

5) Hype build hype. Get people excited, and they will carry your idea forward. People get excited when you communicate the potential, and have them realise it.

Thank you to all those involved – both the organisers and the contributors – and I look forward to the next one.

Half the problem has been solved with time spent

On Thursday, I attended the internal launch of the Australian Entertainment & Media Outlook for 2007-2011. It was an hour packed with interesting analysis, trends, and statistics across a dozen industry segments. You can leave a comment on my blog if you are interested in purchasing the report and I’ll see if I can arrange it for you.

One valuable thing briefly mentioned, was the irony of online advertising.
Continue reading ‘Half the problem has been solved with time spent’

Tangler

This is the second post in a series – wizards of oz – which is to highlight the innovation we have down under, and how the business community needs to wake up and realise the opportunities. I review Tangler, a Sydney-based start-up that has recently released their application to the world as a public beta.

Tangler is a web-service that enables discussions over a network. Think of discussions with the immediacy of Instant Messaging (it’s easy), but with the persistency of a forum (messages are permanently stored). Discussions are arranged into communities of interest (groups), which are further broken down into topic areas. Click here to see a video overview.

Value

1) It’s a network application. Although it’s got a great design, and looks like a funky website, the real power of this web service is what it’s working towards: discussions over a network. Imagine a little widget with the topic “What do you think of Elias Bizannes?” placed on my (external) personal blog, my internal work blog, my myspace/facebook/social networking page, as well as it’s own dedicated forum on the Tangler site. A centralised discussion, in a decentralised manner. That’s big.

2) It’s community has great DNA. Communities are not easy things to build – my own experience on a getting-bigger-by-the-day internal project has shown that it is a complex science, touching everything from understand motivational theory to encouraging the right kind of behaviours (policing without policing). My usage on the site has shown to me that the active community building currently occuring, is on the right track. Anyone can hire a code monkey, wack on some flashy front-end, and say they have a great product. But not anyone can build a strong community – even Google struggles on this (the acquisition of YouTube happened largely because of community, because the YouTube community beat Google’s own service). Tangler’s community is already turning into a powerful asset – the DNA is there – now it just needs exposure, and the law of cumulative advantage will kick in.

3) The founder and staff are responsive to its community. I posted a question on the feedback forum, to prove this point: I got a response in an hour, on a Saturday. The staff at Tangler are super responsive – which in part, is due to the real-time discussion ability of the software – but also because of their commitment. As I state above – the value of Tangler is the community of users it builds – this type of responsiveness is crucial to keep its users satisfied to come back, because it makes them feel valued. Additionally, the community is driving the evolution of the application, and that’s the most powerful way to create something (adapting to where there is a need by the people that use it)

4) It’s a platform. What makes Tangler powerful, is that it encourages discussions around niche content areas. Make that niche content, being created for free. Low cost to produce + highly targeted content = an advertisers dream. Link it with a distributed network across the entire Internet (see 1 above), and you’ve got something special.

Conclusion

Social networks, which is what Tangler is, are characterised by:
1) the existence of a repository of user-generated content and
2) the need of members to communicate.

Tangler’s user-generated content and communications web make them an interesting fit for both media conglomerates and telecommunication companies (but for different reasons). I see a Tangler acquisition as a no-brainer for the big Telco’s. Integrating a social network like Tangler into Telstra, builds on the synergy between the communication needs of social network users and the communications expertise and service infrastructure of the communication companies. Unlike voice calls that are a commodity now, the Telco’s need to take advantage of their network infrastructure and accommodate for text-based discussions, which can be monetised for as long as the content exists (with advertising).

The challenge for Tangler however – as with any other Internet property – is that the scale of the audience of social networks determines the nature of the relationship with a communications company. Micro-sized social networks are not interesting to communication companies. Massive social networks are, but history has shown they would rather be partners than be acquired. To be attractive to the big end of town, Tangler needs to show to have a scale large enough to grow as a business but not too large to dictate the terms of the business.

My observations conclude me to think that they will be a hit once they open up their application to external developers, which will relieve the development bottleneck faced by their resource and time constrained team. However they shouldn’t rush this, as I still think their performance issues are not completely ironed out yet. An open API would be taken up by its enthusiastic community who are technologically orientated. Not too mention the strong relationships the CEO and CMO have forged with the local web entrepreneurial and development community in Australia.

My boss is currently doing a secondment as acting Finance Director at Sensis, Telstra’s media arm. Maybe I need to organise a catch-up with him, before these guys get snatched up by some US conglomerate!

Pricks

If you don’t have a valid e-mail, Facebook forces you to verify it, before it removes those annoying CAPTCHA boxes.It’s a pretty standard thing for websites to do this.

Now, it’s telling me, I have to verify my mobile phone number – even though I have been regularly using the service for eight months.

bastards

This is not about verifying my identity – it’s about forcing me to give up my personal information. Bastards.

Aw shucks – my baby is four years old

When I was at university, I started a Journalist’s Society around 2002 (the publications came under the brand “idMedia”). After some time, I jumped on the new media bandwagon (print is expensive, internet is cheap!) and among other things, started a weekly publication that developed a following of hundreds of people. Since I left uni in 2004, another two editorial teams have gone through, and today, the fourth generation of the News Digest is alive and kicking!

The rendering is horrid, and I really should upgrade their wordpress installation (which I regret converting to WP now – I did it to save them time in coding a template, but instead it has completely changed the type of content that gets pumped out). This is what it looked like back when I was at the helm.

But I am going to leave it be and let them do their own thing. The last few years, I’ve known the people that ran it but this year, I don’t. The true test that you’ve built something sustainable is if it can stand on it’s own. If you can take away a personality, and it still works, it’s been institutionalised. That’s cool.

Whether it lasts, who knows – but I sure as hell left that Society financially sustainable – time to invoice their bloody server hosting…

I’m on the APML workgroup

As Chris announced, I’m now a member of the APML work-group. So the question, is why have I joined it? Because profiling is huge. People are only starting to get to grips with the loss of privacy on the web – I suppose an externality of an electronic world. I remember reading about some guy who posted on a marijuana bulletin board in 2000, and that it still comes up in Google searches. Prospective employers, prospective girlfriends, prospective anything – he now cannot control the information that he was once a pot head. It’s like someone watching you get changed, and you don’t have the option of pulling the curtain. Privacy, is about giving you the choice to use that curtain – whether you’re an exhibitionist or not!

Something a lot of people arn’t aware of, is the amount of data other companies are collecting – and you can’t control it. You reading this blog posting – I can find out what browser you have, what city you are viewing this from, who your Internet service providor is – heck I even know what version of windows you use. And I’m not even trying to profile you – think about Google or DoubleClick that know of every website you visit by placing a cookie on your computer.

Why do people want to collect information about you, known as your “attention data”? Because they can profile you – and when you can profile someone, you can personalise the experience for them…and target their advertising better.

The APML standard does a very simple thing: it allows you to control your “attention”. It’s still early days, and although there are some smart people discussing some deep issues on it, everyone on the work-group is still feeling their way of where this standard is going to go.

If you have thought about targeted advertising – and if you don’t you should – I would watch this standard. Or better still, start discussing it – this is a huge opportunity to set things right, before the Internet dominates our lives.

Bulgaria

Having checked the map, I’ve realised that my trip-to-be isn’t really Eastern Europe in as much as it is Central Europe. And the term ex-Eastern Bloc is so passe. So let me start again: Greetings from the ex-commie bastard countries, before they turn into capitalist prick countries! Oh, I am excited!
The doctor ordered I stay in Greece another 10 days to recover, since my last blog posting. She could feel my anger, and did not charge for the session. The next visit, although better, she said I needed another month to fully recover – on top of the previous 25 days I had, locked up in Athens with rare glimpses with the outside world. Fearing for her life, she said it should be okay for me to leave. The next day, I was on a train north.

St Alexander Nevskis cathedral

Orthodox Christian iconography, at the big mother of a church in Sofia. Love them. And so does the Vatican, which sells them – the churches may disagree on doctrine, but they both know what sells well

So what to say about Bulgaria? The women are ridiculously hot (even the store mannequins looked good); the country is ridiculously cheap (and apparently, those two facts are not mutually exclusive, as I explain below). And I have never said the word “ridiculous” so many times, to describe a country.
I spent two days in Bulgaria’s capital – Sofia – and four in a former capital – Veliko Tarnovo. Sofia was pleasant; VT was great but could have been 10 times better if it wasn’t raining. We spent two nights hoping it would clear up, and I had to spend another night there because my bus to my next country broke down on the way. Unfortunately the day I left was also when it started clearing up, but I figure I will explore the country another time.

P1030883

Managed to get some pictures on my last day. The castle at Veliko is built on one of the three hills that the city sits on.

I enjoyed Sofia because it was bustling with people, had chic areas to hang out, and I had trouble trying to spend my money – always a good sign! In VT, despite the rain, I had some good company. I had met two British kids – Lydia and James – in Sofia, and said to meet them in VT. Although they left the day before me, they arrived at the same time and found me as I was walking to the hostel in VT, with a taxi driver that had no idea where they wanted to go. ?Ѭ? was wondering why it took them an entire day to get here, and they explained. In Bulgaria, like in Albania, they shake their heads sideways for ‘yes’ and up-down for ‘no’. Put simpler, the opposite to the rest of the world. So when on the bus the previous day, they asked the bus driver if the current stop was VT. He shook his head sideways, to indicate yes. The kids read it as a no. And so they spent the night on the Black Sea resort of Varna, a few hours from where they had originally planned to be.

Although it was raining, Lydia and James – who had met one week earlier but looked like a married couple together (something I think a lot of travelers can relate to when traveling alone) helped pass the rainy days with me. Lydia with her slapstick humour and James with his political incorrectness, wit, and political incorrectness. We found this amazing restaurant and we would eat there all day whilst laughing. On more serious discussions, James and I would reminisce the good old days of the British Empire, and how good the times were with slavery. James and I realised we are also a compatible writing team, as we discovered when writing an entry in the guest-book, and we are currently brainstorming a book we promise to write for the growing travel market. The book is called “Islamic Jihad on a shoe-string” or how to blow shit up on the cheap, for the budget traveler. I think we may have cornered a niche market here.

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The food was unbelievable. And ridiculously cheap: this dish cost about Five Lev or Three Euros. Also, they iron the tables with table-cloths when re-setting. Maybe that is what Sydney restaurants are missing?

Bulgarians look different from the rest of the people that inhabit the Balkan peninsula. Like the Serbs, there is a hint of Slavonic blood in them, but their unique look is obviously more dominated by other tribes. There is obviously some Thracian blood in them, but there is also a Turkic central-Asian look, from the Bulgar tribes that migrated in the 7th century AD. They have this characteristic round look, as in round face – like a teddy bear face. Having said that, there is also the sharp nose, sharp face look. Either way, they look different. And on the highly charged issue of Macedonia, I have to say the Macedonians do look a little different.

Sofia is located near the Republic of Macedonia’s border. It was picked as capital, because of the wishful thinking that one day Bulgaria would be reunited with “Western Bulgaria”, with Sofia as the capital in the middle of the country. Bulgarians claim the neighbouring Macedonians are actually Bulgarians, that speak a dialect of Bulgarian. I personaly find the Macedonians to be a little more Slavic in appearance. Either way, it’s a hotly contested issue. Maybe if the Bulgarians learnt how to move their heads for yes and no like the rest of the world, there wouldn’t be such a communication problem when discussing senstive issues like these? I was very confused when talking about the subject.

P1030850

Veliko is bu?Ѭ±lt on these hills. It was a strategic city, as it lay on the Rome-Constantinople road.

Bulgarians are very pro-Russia. In fact, when most of the commie bloc countries in the north where trying to get out of the Warshaw Pact, the Bulgarians voluntarily asked to be a part of the USSR in 1973. Whilst cheap Vodka may have something to do with it, the “we love Mother Russia” view is probably also due to the historic relationship with the Russians, where the Russians liberated the Bulgarians from the Ottoman Empire in 1878.

Russian church St Nikolay

Russian Church, built by the Russian Ambassador in the 1800s. They reckon he thought the Bulgarian Orthodox Churches spooked him, so he needed some Real McCoy Russian spritual protection

Squashed by the Byzantine Empire, supressed by the Ottoman Empire, and ‘liberated’ by the Russians – the Bulgarians are slated for joining the European Union in 2007. People don’t seem to understand why, nor care. The owner of the hostel at Sofia that I stayed at, reckons Bulgarians don’t have a deeply rooted culture of democracy. The concept of being an independent state isn’t a concept they understand. Whilst they are very proud of their culture, they are not so proud about their country. He reckons Bulgaria needs to be ruled by someone, because they don’t know better themselves.

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Sofia city centre.

Turbo folk music seems to be popular, music that has swept the Balkan states. I was told in Serbia, everyone hates it but it seems to be popular in Bulgaria. The girl at the VT hostel hates it as well, saying it is a bit like American R’n’B music with cars, naked girls, and sex. My Serbian friends claim it is nationalistic propaganda music. With short skirts and girls, I think I now understand how propaganda works.

And finally, a funny story. Was taking pictures.

St Alexander Nevskis cathedral

Actually, this picture to be exact

And a young man in a business suit asked me for the time. Then, he gave me his business card. It was too funny to refuse the card.

Medical control!

"non stop"

The card he gave me. Notice “non-stop”, ” medical control” and the generous discount.

Unfortunately, that is all I have to say. Blame the rain. Currently in Turkey and lovin’ it.

Macedonia

This is driving me nuts. I have just spent the last hour or two going through my e-mail, and my Internet-cafe neighbour is having cybersex with some Arab. Actually, I think he is in Turkey, but she has been showcasing some Arabic words. She started with teaching him Macedonian – yelling “da! da! da! (yes! yes yes!) – and now she has mellowed, calling him her ‘lotus’ and asking “why has this happened to us, I want to be near you. Honey” whilst smoking a cigarette. Think of a phone-sex line, where there is a fat woman on the other end moaning and groaning. Except this girl isn’t fat – just ugly. And really loud. Really fucking loud. Damn it, I did it. I tried to not swear in case any kiddies are reading this, but I feel some much better now. FUCKING SHUT UP.

Okay, much better.

Ohrid. Pictureresque.

Macedonia has been quite delightful (Greece get over it – I am not calling them Skopje, or the (Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia). I got in Friday night, and tomorrow morning (Wednesday) I will be leaving my temporary home for the last few days, in Ohrid. Ohrid is described as the tourist Mecca of Macedonia. Lots of Churches here as well, which goes back to Ohrid’s historical importance. It is right beside Lake Ohrid, which is approximately 2-3 million years old, and is one of the world’s oldest lakes and the Balkans biggest. Given its age, there are a lot of unique biological aspects, like that freakin’ animal that sounds like a baby laughing. It took me half an hour to work out it came from the lake.

“I love you honey. I. Love. You” Can someone please get this girl a vibrator?

Ohrid is a great tourist destination. The Old Town looks like any modern cosmopolitan city’s shopping arcade, with the latest fashion, jewellery stores, and cafes and restaurants abound (although funnily, about 90 per cent of these restaurants either have ‘Pizza’ in their name or make it a focal point of their menu). It is very scenic with the surrounding hills, and the lake. But the best thing is the cost of living: my first two nights were in a fully equipped private apartment, which cost the equivalent of 10 Euros a night. My remaining three nights were in a private room in the Old Town, for about six Euros.

And then there was the food. You could eat yourself silly and not want to think about food and drink for another 24 hours, with just 10 Euros. A main meal, like lets say – Pizza – costs about 100 Denars. My Hungarian Goulash tonight cost 150 Denars (60 Denars to the Euro). Add a few drinks, and a salad, and you could pay 300 Denars (five Euros) and be very satisfied. There are high-speed internet cafes all over the place, asking for one Euro an hour. Why I am so surprised, is that although the cost of living is comparable to Albania, the place looks every part like a modern European city (unlike Albania, which is a permanent pile of rubble and construction). And minus the foreign tourists; whilst plenty of Australians come, they are all ethnic Macedonians. I stood out like a sore thumb with the locals. I would like to think it’s because I am a good looking guy, but I think it’s just because I looked so different to everyone. Although I must admit, the women did tease a lot…

Yes, it is true. The women here are beautiful. And they definitely know how to shake that arse. Apologies to all you feminists out there, but if you are wondering why you are 35 and still can’t find a husband, maybe you should learn from your Slavic sisters when it comes to style. Unfortunately I have been told that I missed out this year – the fashion this year is tight jeans with stomach showing. Last year it was mini-skirts with g-strings showing. Just as well I came this year – I had enough trouble trying to conceal my grunting at the glamour?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s walking past me.

Chruches. Everywhere in Ohrid.

However for every positive, there is a downside: the men. Absolute scum bags. Not all, but a lot of con artists. I was seen as a walking money bag. You would as well, if you worked a minimum wage job in any developed country! The problem, as everyone would complain to me, was the economy – which I suppose is why Eastern European countries and the Balkans are famous for these con-artists, as their economies are still a mess. Half the people I spoke too dreamt of one day leaving – however the other half were very proud of the country. I think my second landlord, was the most eloquent in explaining this to me.

Nikola is a 38-year old university graduate (in economics), working for the police as an investigator. Actually, he was in a team of six that was selected by the US state Department for anti-terrorism training, so this guy is no monkey. He has three kids, and a modest house in the Old Town, where he rents the top rooms for some extra cash. He, like everyone else, said the economy was very weak, with no developed export markets and no opportunities for work. The wages are super low – Natasha, a girl from a tourist office, was telling me she gets paid 200 Euros a month. Eljah, a pimple-faced 18-year-old tax driver whom I used several times as my personal chauffeur, says 200 Euros is a lot – he said he averages about five Euros a day.

However unlike Natasha and Eljah, Nikola realises this is just temporary and is willing to sit it out. “Every country has problems at different stages. In this age for Macedonia, it is the economy”. He sees it as a temporary phase as the country develops itself. However what we both agreed on was that Macedonia desperately needed to be part of the European Union (EU) for that ‘phase’ to ever pass. However with the French and Dutch rejecting the new EU constitution these last few weeks, it might mean it will take longer than hoped. (It will happen – as Nikola said, the EU has become too strong to just disappear now.)

I become very fond of my afternoon chats with Nikola. Despite the fact he hasn’t used English since primary school, I could feel his English improving by the minute, as we used sign language to have conversations about global imperialism and the rise of India and China (and America?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s future), as well as what Macedonia needed to do to get ahead. If anyone was watching the time when I was saying Macedonia needed to look at emerging industries, not old economy industries such as biotechnology against agriculture – I think they would have died laughing. How do you explain biotechnology to someone who doesn’t speak English?

Macedonia is a fairly small country, with about two million inhabitants. The country gets bullied around by its neighbours because of its size, and its economic dependence on countries like Greece. However the economy is the only bad thing about this place, and it is only bad if you want to live here. If you want a holiday, I highly recommend Ohrid. It is four hours from Thessalonica in Greece.

As for my experience in the country, it has been okay. I went to a nightclub on Saturday on my own, which was a little weird, because I have never been to a nightclub on my own. I had to pay five times the normal cover charge (like I cared, it was only five euros). I met some girls there who were very playful until the drunk mafia guy came. He was a Melbourne-based Macedonian, and he had a gun on him. He got me free drinks, so I wasn’t complaining. However, I wasn’t arguing with him either.

Macedonian flag

But I have had enough being the rich tourist amongst all the other tourists, I have to get out of here. I better go and pack my bags – my bus to Nish in Serbia leaves in just over three hours!

Update:Who would have thought, that a 5am bus trip to Skopje (transit point for Nish), would have me sitting next to a tall, blue-eyed, blonde-haired, beautiful woman who was super intelligent and from a wealthy family (a rare thing in itself in Macedonia)? We got cosy on the bus and spent three hours talking non-stop! But the reason I am including this update is because she was able to explain something to me which finally helped me understand a major issue, and which I think deserves to be included on my posting about the country.

Macedonia is now being divided into two versions – traditional Macedonia, and the Albanian Macedonia, whom refuse to integrate into the local population, and adopt the country’s traditions and culture. There was a big war in North Macedonia in 2001, and a treaty was signed. We are not talking about some petty differences here. There are some huge tensions, which I sensed, but didn’t understand. The war is still recent memory, and it doesn’t seem like the issue is resolved. Something bad is brewing.

There is a a lot of racism in the country over Albanians. Why you may ask? Well it is not the Albanians that have settled and adopted Macedonian life, but the refugees and illegal immigrants that flooded the country during the Kosovo war. Ethnic Albanians now constitute about 20 per cent of the population, and have become such an influential group, that the country has to accommodate for them. The Albanian language just recently became an official language of the country, and various other measures have been put in place, which quite rightly, are making the population quite angry. As Karolina lamented, she feels like she doesn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t know what her identity is. To get a pubic sector job, she is required to learn an entirely new language! It is a bit like the Hispanic situation in America, where all these illegal immigrants that crossed the border from Mexico, have become such a powerful minority, that the politicians are scared of them. And like the Spanish kids, they refuse to speak Macedonian and speak only Albanian.

To cut a long story short: we haven’t seen the last of the Balkan wars. The South of Serbia, and the North of Macedonia will be on our television screens in the near future.

As for Macedonia’s economy, she was also able to explain a few things to me as she is an economics student. It appears the country is trying too hard to satisfy EU requirements to become a European Union member – rather than actually make any efforts to develop the country itself. It seems like pretty much all of Macedonia’s problems, stem from the former Yugoslavia. With respects to the economy, what she meant was that all the industries and factories were in other parts of Yugoslavia – not present-day Macedonia. The result was that the disunion left the country with an inheritance of nothing.