Tag Archive for 'property'

You don’t nor need to own your data

One of the biggest questions the DataPortability project has grappled with (and where the entire industry is not at consensus), is a fairly basic question with some profound consequences: who owns your data. Well I think I have an answer to the question now, which I’ve now cross-validated across multiple domains. Given we live in the Information Age, this certainly matters in every respect.

So who owns “your data”? Not you. Or the other guy. Or the government, and the MicroGooHoo corporate monolith. Actually, no one does. And if they do, it doesn’t matter.

People like to conflate the concept of property ownership to that of data ownership. I mean it’s you right? You own your house so surely, you own your e-mail address, your name, your date of birth records, your identity. However when you go into the details, from a conceptual level, it doesn’t make sense.

Ownership of data
First of all, let’s define property ownership: “the ability to deny use of an asset by another entity”. The reason you can claim status to owning your house, is because you can deny someone else access to your property. Most of us have a fence to separate our property from the public space; others like the hillbillies sit in their rocking chair with a shot gun ready to fire. Either way, it’s well understood if someone else owns something, and if you trespass, the dogs will chase after you.

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The characteristics of ownership can be described as follows:
1) You have legal title recognising in your legal jurisdiction that you own it.
2) You have the ability to enforce your right of ownership in your legal jurisdiction
3) You can get benefits from the property.

The third point is key. When people cry out loud “I own my data”, that’s essentially the reason (when you take out the Neanderthal emotionally-driven reasoning out of the equation). Where we get a little lost though, is when we define those benefits. It could be said, that you want to be able to control your data so that you can use it somewhere else, and so you can make sure someone else doesn’t use it in a way that causes you harm.

Whilst that might sound like ownership to you, that’s where the house of cards collapses. The reason being, unless you can prove the ability to deny use by another entity, you do not have ownership. It’s a trap, because data is not like a physical good which cannot be easily copied. It’s like a butterfly locked in a safe: the moment you open that safe up, you can say good bye. If data can only satisfy the ownership definition when you hide it from the world, that means when it’s public to the world, you no longer own it. And that sucks, because data by nature is used for public consumption. But what if you could get the same benefits of ownership – or rather, receive benefits of usage and regulate usage – without actually ‘owning’ it?

Property and data – same same, but different
Both property and data are assets. They create value for those who use them. But that’s where the similarity’s end.

Property gains value through scarcity. The more unique, the more valuable. Data on the other hand, gains value through reuse. The more derivative works off it, means the more information generated (as information is simply data connected with other data). The more information, the more knowledge, the more value created – working its way along the information value chain. If data is isolated, and not reused, it has little value. For example, if a company has a piece of data but is not allowed to ever use it – there is no value to it.

Data gains value through use, and additional value through reuse and derivative creations. If no one reads this blog, it’s a waste of space; if thousands of people read it, its value increases – as these ideas are decimated. To give one perspective on this, when people create their own posts reusing the data I’ve created, I generate value through them linking back to me. No linking, no value realised. Of course, I get a lot more value out of it beyond page rank juice, but hopefully you realise if you “steal” my content (with at least some acknowledgement to me the person), then you are actually doing me a favour.

Ignore the above!
Talking about all this ownership stuff doesn’t actually matter; it’s not ownership that we want. Let’s take a step back, and look at this from a broader, philosophical view.

Property ownership is based on the concept that you get value from holding something for an extended period of time. But in an age of rapid change, do you still get value from that? Let’s say, we lose the Holy War for people being able to ‘own’ their data. Facebook – you win – you now ‘own’ me. This is because it owns the data about me – my identity, it would appear, is under the control of Facebook – it now owns, that “I am in a relationship”. However, the Holy War might have been lost but I don’t care. Because Facebook owns crap – as six months ago, I was in a relationship. Now I’m single and haven’t updated my status. The value for Facebook, is not in owning me in a period of time: it’s in having access to me all the time – because one way they translate that data into value is advertising, and targeting ads is pointless if you have the wrong information to base your targetting on. Probably the only data that can be static in my profile, is birth-date and gender – but with some tampering and cosmetics, even those can be altered now!

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Think about this point raised by Luk Vervenne, in response to my above thoughts on the VRM mailing list, by considering employability. A lot of your personal information, is actually generated by interactions with third parties, such as the education institution you received your degree from. So do I own the fact that I have a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Sydney? No I don’t, as that brand and the authenticity is that of the university. What I do have however, is access & usage rights to it. Last time I checked, I didn’t own the university, but if someone quizzes me on my academic record, there’s a hotline ready to confirm it – and once validated, I get the recognition that translates into a benefit for me.

Our economy is now transitioning from a goods-producing to a service-performing and experience-generating economy. It’s hard for us to imagine this new world, as our conceptual understanding of the world is built on the concept of selling, buying and otherwise trading goods that ultimately ends in us owning something. But this market era of the exchange of goods is making way for “networks” and the concept of owning property will diminish in importance, as our new world is will now place value on the access.

This is a broader shift. As a young man building his life, I cannot afford to buy a house in Sydney with its overinflated prices. But that’s fine – I am comfortable in renting – all I want is ‘access’ to the property, not the legal title to it which quite frankly would be a bad investment decision even aside from the current economic crisis. I did manage to buy myself a car, but I am cursing the fact that I wasted my money on that debt which could have gone to more productive means – instead, I could have just paid for access to public transport and taxis when I needed transport. In other words, we now have an economy where you do not need to own something to get the value: you just need access.

That’s not to say property ownership is a dead concept – rather, it’s become less important. When we consider history as well, the concept of the masses “owning” property was foreign anyway – there was a class system with the small but influential aristocracy that would own the land, with the serfs working on the land. “Ownership” really, is a new ‘established’ concept to our world – and it’s now ready to get out of vogue again. We’ve now reached a level of sophistication in our society where we no longer need the security of ownership to get the benefits in our life – and these property owners that we get our benefits from, may appear to yield power but they also have a lot of financial risk, government accountability and public scrutiny (unlike history’s aristocracy).

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Take a look at companies and how they outsource a lot of their functions (or even simplify their businesses’ value-activities). Every single client of mine – multi-million dollar businesses at that as well – pay rent. They don’t own the office space they are in, as for them to get the benefits, they instead simply need access which they get through rental. “Owning” the property is not part of the core value of the business. Whilst security is needed, because not having ownership can put you at the mercy of the landlord, this doesn’t mean you can’t contract protection like my clients do as part of the lease agreements.

To bring it back to the topic, access to your data is what matters – but it also needs to be carefully understood. For example, access to your health records might not be a good thing. Rather, you can control who has access to that data. Similarly, whilst no one might own your data, what you do have is the right to demand guidelines and principles like what we are trying to do at the DataPortability Project on how “your” data can be used. Certainly, the various governmental privacy and data protection legislation around the world does exactly that: it governs how companies can use personally identifiable data.

Incomplete thoughts, but I hope I’ve made you think. I know I’m still thinking.

Climate change: forget the science, it’s real for the market

I recently sat through a two hour presentation on climate change at work. My employer this year (a big four firm) has been mobilising to respond to the market with a climate change solution for our clients – and the things happening are amazing. They want to be first-movers in what is a huge business opportunity. Even through I have had dealings with people on the climate change team, it wasn’t until I sat through this presentation that a few things clicked for me: climate change is real. And I am not talking about the science – it’s real for the market economy.

I wouldn’t be doing any justice if I attempted to explain what I learned, however I will explain something that was a big realisation for me. This guy that spoke is a world expert, and he reckons more has happened in the last eight months of his career regarding climate change than it has in 25 years of his career. To understand why, is to understand the realisation of the markets.

Increasing shareholder value

If it’s one phrase that sums up corporations working within the framework of capitalism, it’s about “increasing shareholder value”. It’s a term that is mocked because we are sick of hearing it, but it essentially explains the market: investors make money by putting their money where they can generate more value for their buck. Value creation is the centre of everything – a start-up company generates value through innovative new products that people buy; a tax agent generates value by reducing your tax expense; a real estate agent generates value because they can sell your property at a higher valuation. In the context of corporations, people make money in companies through returns: a higher share price means a higher value of that share or piece of property. Companies are judged on their profits because more profits reflect a higher return an investor gets from that entity; just like a home being sold, it reflects the additional value they can generate from that piece of property they own.

Profits reflect shareholder returns, which come in two forms.

1) dividends, which are cash payouts from profit distributions to shareholders. An investor wants higher profits, because it means more cash for them on their existing shareholding – it reflects a better return on their investment.

2) retained earnings, which is when a company doesn’t pay the dividend but holds it so they can fund future growth. More profits, means extra cash to invest to generate more growth in the entity, which ultimately means more value. If you buy a share for $1, and the company grows and your share is now $2 – you are a happy chappy because you’ve effectively doubled your money.

How climate change now has a price

Lets say we generate x amount of carbon tons a year. The objective of climate change, is that we can reduce the amount of x with time, and then get to the stage where we can grow sustainably, which means for every x we generate, we can offset that bit of carbon so as to to generate a net of zero on the environment. That’s called sustainable economic growth.

Lets say y is the amount it costs to remove a ton of carbon dioxide. Meaning y represents the expense of generating carbon. So if you times x with y – that equals the amount it will costs to remove the carbon dioxide we generate so that we have a net impact of zero on the environment (or at least, the cost to reduce emissions). If the government forces you to reduce your emissions, like they force you to pay taxes, that expense has now become very real.

How much a ton of Carbon Dioxide will cost is a big issue yet to be settled, but as you can tell y is an important number because it determines how much it costs for you to reduce your carbon footprint. A very conservative estimate is that it costs 25 US dollars to remove 1,000 tonnes of carbon. The reason I say conservative is because more recent evidence suggests it is actually a lot more than that (I think he quoted 40 euros). Using the $25 figure, he said that it will cost us $15 trillion to remove carbon dioxide. There is so much pressure on governments from voters, lobby groups and the like, that governments (like here in Australia) are going to mandate that you offset your carbon emissions each year. The Kyoto agreement is saying a 60% reduction from 1990 levels by 2050 for example.

Now as an investor, I am thinking my investments have a share of the pie of a $15 trillion expense that they have to pay each year. That’s expensive. Expensive stuff reduces my profit. Reducing my profit means lower returns for my investments (ie, lower dividends, lower retained earnings to fund growth). Holy crap – this climate change thing is eroding shareholder value. Crap crap crap – I want to start knowing what my investments are doing to tackle this future expense. I want more accountability, alongside the financial reports that companies are mandated to provide (and which tells us about profit).

And that is exactly what the investors that control $41 trillion dollars – one third of the worlds money -are currently saying.

So much more to say, but I just want to share that point: climate is real economically and the environmental cost is being built into the market mechanism. There are a lot of issues that are yet to be resolved, but you’d be stupid to start ignoring the massive developments occuring, because its getting nearer to an agreement where it will affect every transaction we make in our economies.

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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.

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!

People think like two-year-olds

A few thoughts:

1) Property ownership is one of the central tenets of capitalism.

2) At work, I am involved in a special assignment. Throughout the initiative, I’ve caused a lot of friction with various groups because it was perceived that I was infringing on their “territory”.

3) Myspace allows users to customise their profile however they want. And people do.

4) My two-year old niece is going though a stage where everything is “hers”.

5) Capitalism works better than any other economic system; my firm is very successful as an organisation; Myspace is a run-away hit; my niece is a happy baby.

Notice a trend? The only difference between you and a toddler is that you don’t say “mine” every time someone takes your toy. Want to get peoples’ support or to buy your product? Then remember this: property and giving people a sense of ownership is how us humans work. We take comfort in what we can control.

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.