Tag Archive for 'results'

Facebook users: more and more in just four months

I am currently doing some research for an analyst report at work, and I thought I might update my November findings of how many Facebook users there are.

The total is within the ballpark figures of total users (Mix08 panel indicates around 65million from memory) so listing seems fairly complete, with maybe less than million missing for small countries not listed.

I found some of the results impressive, especially given the user growth in less than four months- even in countries like the US and Australia which I’d thought would be peaking. Sweden appears to have a bit of Facebook fatigue with canceled accounts, and looks like fundamentalist Saudia Arabia has a bigger userbase then tech-savvy Russians showing.

facebook users march08 update

Don’t get the Semantic Web? You will after this

Prior to 2006, I had sort of heard of the Semantic Web. To be honest, I didn’t know much – it was just another buzzword. I’ve been hearing about Microformats for years, and cool but useless initiatives like XFN. However to me it was simply just another web thing being thrown around.

Then in August 2006, I came across Adrian Holovaty’s article where he argues journalism needs to move from a story-centric world to a data-centric world. And that’s when it dawned on me: the Semantic web is some serious business.

I have since done a lot of reading, listening, and thinking. I don’t profess to be a Semantic Web expert – but I know more than the average person as I have (painfully) put myself through videos and audios of academic types who confuse the crap out of me. I’ve also read through a myriad of academic papers from the W3C, which are like the times when you read a novel and keep re-reading the same page and still can’t remember what you just read.

Hell – I still don’t get things. But I get the vision, so that’s what I am going to share with you now. Hopefully, my understanding will benefit the clueless and the skeptical alike, because it’s a powerful vision which is entirely possible

1) The current web is great for humans; useless for machines
When you search for ambiguous terms, at best, search engines can algorithmically predict some sort of answer that partially answers your query. Sometimes not. But the complexity of language, is not something engineers can engineer to deal with. After all, without ambiguity of natural languages, the existence of poetry is impossible.

Fine.

What did you think when you read that? As in: “I’ve had it – fine!” which is like another way of saying ok or agreeing with something. Perhaps you thought about that parking ticket I just got – illegal parking gets you fined. Maybe you thought I am applauding myself by saying that was one fine piece of wordcraftship I just wrote, or said in another context, like a fine wine.

Language is ambiguous, and depending on the context with other words, we can determine what the meaning of the word is. Search start-up company Powerset, which is hoping to kill Google and rule the world, is employing exactly this technique to improve search: intelligent processing of words depending on context. So by me putting in “it’s a fine”, it understands the context that it’s a parking ticket, because you wouldn’t say “it’s a” in front of ‘fine’ when you use it to agree with something (the ‘ok’ meaning above).

But let’s use another example: “Hilton Paris” in Google – the worlds most ‘advanced’ search engine. Obviously, as a human reading that sentence, you understand because of the context of those words I would like to find information about the Hilton in Paris. Well maybe.

Let’s see what Google comes up with: Of the ten search results (as of when I wrote this blog posting), one was a news item on the celebrity; six were on the celebrity describing her in some shape or form, and three results were on the actual Hotel. Google, at 30/70 – is a little unsure.

Why is Paris Hilton, that blonde haired thingy of a celebrity, coming up in the search results?

Technologies like Powerset apparently produce a better result because it understands the order of the words and context of the search query. But the problem with these searches, isn’t the interpretation of what the searcher wants – but also the ability to understand the actual search results. Powerset can only interpret so much of the gazilions of words out there. There is the whole problem of the source data, no just the query. Don’t get what I mean? Keep reading. But for now, learn this lesson

Computers have no idea about the data they are reading. In fact, Google pumping out those search results is based on people linking. Google is a machine, and reads 1s and 0s – machine language. It doesn’t get human language

2) The Semantic web is about making what human’s read, machine readable
Tim Berner’s Lee, the guy that invented the World Wide Web and the visionary behind the Semantic Web, prefers to call it the ‘data web’. The current web is a web of documents – by adding this extra data to content – machines will be able to understand it. Metadata, is data about data.

A practical outcome of having a semantic web, is that Google would know that when it pulls up a web page regardless of the context of the words – it will understand what the content is. Think of every word on the web, being linked to a master dictionary.

The benefit of the semantic web is not for humans – at least immediately. The Semantic Web is actually pretty boring with what it does – what is exciting, is what it will enable. Keep reading.

3) The Semantic web is for machines to interpret, not people
A lot of the skeptics of the semantic web, usually don’t see the value of it. Who cares about adding all this extra meta data? I mean heck – Google still was able to get the website I needed – the Hilton in Paris. Sure, the other 60% of the results on that page were irrelevant, but I’m happy.

I once came across a Google employee and he asked “what’s the point of a semantic web; don’t we already enough metadata?” To some extent, he’s right – there are some websites out there that have metadata. But the point of the semantic web is so that machines once they read the information, can start thinking like how a human would and connecting it to other information. There needs to be across the board metadata.

For example, my friend Michael was recently looking to buy a car. A painful process, because there are so many variables. So many different models, different makes, different dealers, different packages. We have websites, with cars for sale neatly categorised into profile pages saying what model it is, what colour it is, and how much. (Which may I add, are hosted on multiple car sites with different types of profiles). A human painfully reads through these profiles, and computes as fast as a human can. But a machine can’t read these profiles.

Instead of wasting his (and my) weekends driving around Sydney to find his car, a machine could find it for him. So, Mike would enter his profile in – what he requires in a car, what his credit limit is, what his prior history with cars are – everything that would affect his judgement of a car. And then, the computer can query every online website with cars to match the criteria. Because the computer can interpret these websites across the board, it can evaluate and it can go back to Michael and say “this is the car for you, at this dealer – click yes to buy”.

The semantic web is about giving computers the information to be able to interpret data, so that it can do what they do really well – compute.

4) A worldwide database
What essentially Berner’s Lee envisions, is turning the entire world wide web into a database that can be queried. Currently, the web looks like Microsoft Word – one swab of text. However, if that swab of text was neatly categorised in an Excel spreadsheet, you could manipulate that data and do what you please – create reports, reorder them, filter, and do whatever until your heart is content.

At university, I was forced to do an Information Systems subject which was essentially about the theory of databases. Damn painful. I learned only two things from that course. The first thing was that my lecturer, tutor, and classmates spoke less intelligible English than a caterpillar. But the second thing was that I learned what information is and how it differs from data. I am now going to share with you that lesson, and save you three months of your life.

You see, data is meaningless. For example, 23 degrees is data. On its own, it’s useless. Another piece of data in Sydney. Again, Рuseless. I mean, you can think all sorts of things when you think of Sydney, but it doesn’t have any meaning.

Now put together 23 degrees and Sydney, and you have just created information. Information is about creating relationships between data. By creating a relationship, an association, between these two different pieces of data – you can determine it’s going to be a warm day in Sydney. And that is what information is: Relationship building; connecting the dots; linking the islands of data together to generate something meaningful.

The semantic web is about allowing computers to be able to query the sum of human knowledge like one big database to generate information

Concluding thoughts
You are probably now starting to freak out and think “Terminator” images with computers suddenly erupting form under your computer desk, and smashing you against the wall as a battle between humans and computers begins. But I don’t see it like that.

I think about the thousands of hours humans spend trying to compute things. I think of the cancer research, whereby all this experimentation occurring in labs, is trying to connect new pieces of data with old data to create new information. I think about computers being about to query the entire taxation legislation to make sure I don’t pay any tax, because it knows how it all fits together (having studied tax, I can assure you – it takes a lifetime to only understand a portion of tax law). In short, I understand the vision of the Semantic web as a way of linking things together, to enable computers to compute – so that I can sit on my hammock drinking my beer, as I can delegate the duties of my life to the machines.

All the semantic web is trying to do, is making sure everything is structured in a consistent manner, with a consistent dictionary behind the content, so that a machine can draw connections. As Berner’s Lee said on one of the videos I saw: “it’s all about creating links”.

The process to a Semantic Web is boring. But once we have those links, we can then start talking about those hammocks. And that’s when the power of the internet – the global network – will really take off.

Understanding the Facebook poll feature

A little while ago, I was lucky to catch a Facebook poll, as a way of advertising its new poll feature. As a follow up from that experience, I thought I might purchase my own poll to validate its effectiveness. Here are a few of my observations:

1) Answers appear to be clustered

One of the interesting things about the poll feature, is that it is real time. You are getting answers as people vote. You select what type of people you want to target, and Facebook will then quiz users of that criteria by putting the poll on their homescreen. Something I noticed however, was that answers seemed to come in together followed by a gap. I also noticed that these answers that come in groups, usually have similar responses.
clustered yes

I appears that users are highly responsive to a poll. If it appears on their survey, a lot of people appear to answer it. I know this because I specifically targeted my poll to Australians, in the middle of the day when I wouldn’t expect people to be using facebook.
The placing of the options seems to affect the results. I suppose anyone that has studied polling before, would probably know the order of a ballot heavily influences the poll. This appears evident here. Usefully however, Facebook allows you to randomise the poll so that different users see a different order. However as is demonstrated above, with this clustering, its groups of users that see a different order, not individuals

2) Facebook users appear to be more male, and younger
Something I noticed in my previous blog posting on the poll feature, was that there appeared to be more males answering. This seems to have happened occur with this poll as well, and indicates to me that Facebook’s population of users have a higher male base – which is unusual given that women generally outnumber men in society.

fcfb2

It should also be noted that there is no age groups option for people above 50 years old.

3) Takers of the poll appear to be a genuinely random population
The reason I picked 200 people, was that that is the minimum amount a poll needs to be before it can statistically be considered accurate to represent a population. However as I was able to obtain data as the poll was running, it gave me insight into how random (and representative) the population that took the test was.

Below is a screenshot half way through, as well as the final result

results half wayb

fcfb1b

The results for the poll are almost identical. Without reading too much into it, that tells me the conditions of the test were genuinely random.

There are a few other things I noticed, but this isn’t me trying to promote a Facebook service, and will leave to make your own analysis in combination with the other Facebook poll I blogged about. I just want to highlight that for absolutely nothing, you can get an insight into a market in literally hours.

IBM recently released a report saying that the Internet has overtaken TV, changing the dynamics of the advertising industry, and that they see the role of advertising agencies in the future to go “beyond traditional creative roles to become brokers of consumer insight

Facebook is an amazing company because of the amount of data it holds about the population in various societies. And for a fee – the rest of the world can take advantage of this as well. Welcome Facebook – the world’s most competitive agency for consumer insight.

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.

Facebook poll: how many friends do you have?

One of Facebook‘s new features is the ability to create surveys, targeted to certain groups of people within the community site. One caught my eye today, which asked 1,000 random people “How many friends do you have?”. Although I am not sure of the conditions this poll was conducted under (ie, did only Australian’s see it?), 1,000 random people should theoretically be a fairly representative sample of the entire population.

Whilst the results immediately show some interesting information on the typical size of a person’s network (which is a discussion in itself), I am equally fascinated by the specific genders and age breakdown of people who answered the poll and the correlation with their network size. One theory I have of why people spend so much time on the site, is because people ‘collect’ friends. They are constantly discovering old friends through mutual friends – a friend’s list leads a person to another profile where they may discover someone they have lost touch with. Check the results first, before I continue:

Poll on

Facebook poll breakdown

Facebook poll breakdown by age

Some of my interpretations of the results

  • Despite being open to anyone since late last year, university students still dominate the site as over half the survey was answered by people in the 18-24 age bracket
  • About 46% of males and 49% of females have over 200+ people. It’s impossible to have 200 ‘friends’ – no one can physically see 200 friends on a regular basis This tells me Facebook is now more about ‘contacts’ and keeping in touch with people you know. This makes it more than just a closed network of your close friends and more of a networking tool – validating what some commentators have been saying of late. I could spend a whole blog post explaining the implications of this, but basically, this means facebook is ‘the’ social networking site now and it’s only going to get more entrenched due to the law of cumulative advantage.
  • Of people aged 35 and above, 70% have under 99 friends – which is only the case of 41% of people aged 25-34, and 19% of 18-24. This is interesting, because the people in the 24+ age group didn’t have facebook when they were at university (which is why 18-24 is so dominant in this regard). Over time, you would expect the age groups to be fairly synchronised – in fact older people would have much larger networks. This tells me despite all the hype, Facebook is still not mainstream – there is a heck of a lot more growth to occur.
  • …and leading off where I started the blog posting: the fact that more males answered the poll (53%) – despite women generally outnumbering men in Western countries – implies men are more interested in knowing how many friends people have. So if you tie that with my ‘friend collector’ theory means more men spend time ‘collecting’…in other words, men stalk more!

Thoughts on attention, advertising, and a metric to measure both: keep it simple

Advertising on the Internet is exploding. Assuming you accept my premise that the Internet will be the backbone of the world’s attention economy – then, I am sure you can see the urgency of developing an effective metric for measuring audiences that consume content online. Advertisers are expecting more accountability online and there is increasing demand for an independent third-party to verify results. But you can’t have accountability and there is no value in audits, if one place measures in apples and the other in bananas.

The Attention Economy is seriously lacking an effective measurement system

Ajax broke the pageview model of impressions, the one billion-dollar practice of click-fraud is the dirty big secret of pay-for-performance advertising, and the other major metric of using unique visitors (through cookies) is proving inaccurate.

It sounds crazy, doesn’t it? The Internet has the best potential for targeted advertising, and advertisers are moving onto it in stampedes – and yet, we still can’t work out how to measure audiences effectively. Measurement is broken on the Net.

(Although I am focusing on advertising, this can be applied in other contexts. An advertising metric is simply putting a monetary value on what is really an attention metric.)

Yet when we look at the traditional media, are we being a little harsh on this new media? Is the problem with the web’s measurement systems just that it is more accountable for its errors? After all – radio, television, and print determine their audience through inference which are based on sampling methods and not actually directly measuring an audience. Sampling is about making educated guesses – but a guess is still a guess.

Maybe another way of looking at it is that the old way of doing advertising is no longer effective. Although we can say pageviews are broken due to AJAX, the truth is it was always an ineffective measurement system, as it was based on the traditional media’s premise of how many viewers/subscribers theoretically and potentially could see that ad. As an example of why this is not how it should be: when people visit my blog via Google Images, they hang around for 30 seconds. People that search for business issues on the web that I write about, like stuff you are reading right now – spend 5+ minutes. If both are equal in terms of page views, but the later actually reads the pages and the former only scans the content for an image – why are we treating them equally? My blog is half about travel, and half about the business of the internet, which is why I have two very different audiences. Just because I get high page views from my travel content, doesn’t mean I can justify higher CPM’s for people that want to advertise on internet issues. Not all pageviews are the same – especially when I know the people giving me high pageviews, arn’t really consuming my content

Another issue is that advertisers are so caught up on who can create the most entertaining 30 second ad, that the creativity to get people entertained has ovetaken the reason why advertising happens in the first place: to make sales. The way you do that, is by communicating your product to the people that would want to buy it. If I placed advertising on this blog, from people who want to do web-business related stuff, they should only pay for the peope that read my blog postings for 5+ minutes on the Attention economy, not for the Google images searchers who are looking for porn (my top keywords, and how people find my blog, makes me laugh out loud sometimes!).

When we create a metric that measures attention, lets be sure of one thing: the old way is broken, and the new ways will continue to be broken if we simply copy and paste the old ways. New ways like click-through ads that appear on search results, and account for 40% of internet advertising is not how advertising should be measured. The reason is because it is putting the burden of an effective advertising campaign, on a publisher. Why should a publisher not get paid, with the opportunity cost of not using another ad that would have paid, because of the ineffectiveness of the advertisers campaign strategy at targeting?

When measuring audience attention, lets not overcomplicate it. It should be purely measuring if someone saw it. As an advertiser, I should be able to determine which people from which demograph can see it my ad – and yes, I will pay the premium for that targeting. If it turns into a sale, or if they enjoyed the content – is where your complex web analytic packages come in. But for a simple global measurement system, lets keep it simple.

Concluding thought

If I stood at the toll booths of the Sydney Harbour bridge naked, some people will honk at me and others won’t. If I can guarantee that they can see me naked, that’s all as a publisher I need to do. It’s the advertisers problem if people honk at me or not. (Not enough honks means as a model I should still get my wage. They just need to hire a better looking model next time!)

Patents: more harm than good

When I was in Prague two years ago, I met a bloke from Bristol (UK) that very convincingly explained how patents as a concept, are stupid. Because alcohol was involved, I can’t recall his actual argument, but it has since made me question: do you really need a patent to protect your business idea?

Narendra Rocherolle, an experienced entrepreneur, has written a good little article explaining when you should, and shouldn’t, spend money to protect your IP. Racherolle offers a good analysis, but I am going to extend it by stating that a patent can be dangerous for your business, and not just because of the monetary cost. Radar Networks is my case-study – a stealth-mode “Semantic web” company, that has received a lot of press lately because apparently they are doing something big but they are not going to tell us until later this year.

Continue reading ‘Patents: more harm than good’

Albania

Benjamin Franklin once said: “Certainty? In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes”. Well, I have another two certainty’s to add to the list: Japanese tourists are everywhere, and cab drivers are scum bags worldwide. But rather than complain, I want to tell you the stories I heard for this enigmatic country.

I have just spent three days (and two nights) visiting Albania. Whilst I was only there for a short time, I was satisfied in what I learnt, and absolutely fascinated. I stayed in Saranda, which is a port-city at the south of the country, near the Greek border. It is opposite the Greek island of Corfu. I stayed in an area called “exsamilia” which means ‘six miles’ – the six mile stretch of land under Saranda, which ends where Corfu starts. Deep rural territory! The south of the country is very Greek influenced, and I had to rely on my Greek for the entire time of my trip. Not only has Greek always been popular in the South, but some one-million plus Albanians (and that is a conservative estimate) have lived in Greece for some period of time. The people I stayed with, fled the country when the Iron curtain finally fell in 1990, and like so many others, recently returned to begin a new life.

Albania is one of the world’s most misunderstood countries – and I emphasis the mis-understanding of its people. Until 1990, it was a communist country run by the iron-fist of Hoxha (pronounced”Hodja”), as first-secretary (pronounced “dictator”). Access to the outside world was completely shut off, and Hoxha created a country that was so similar to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four that it sent a shiver up my spine. His death in 1985, which is still being lamented, led to the country becoming the last domino to tumble in Eastern Europe’s communist downfall.

Under Hoxha’s rule, organised religion was banned. The entire population was spread out into small villages, with freedom of movement prohibited, even to the next town. Agriculture was collectivised. People were paid a daily wage of 200 Lekke, with no one in the country receiving more than 500. Young men served in the military, for I think three-years, and had to do nine-days annually again to retrain them with new weapons and methods. The country was turned literally into a military state, as there was a constant fear that Albania’s neighbours would invade. Cinema’s were available, but forget about love stories: the only movies shown were ones that where with the party line, namely being war. Television was first introduced in 1970, as an outlet for the governments propaganda. The 'bunkers', which served As entry points into the nations underground tunnel network
A tunnel Network connects the entire country, with small-domed bunkers dotting the country side for entry/exit into the tunnel networks. You would see these bunkers in the most remote, unpredictable areas.

If you criticised the regime, you were done for. If you forcefully pushed a woman in any sort of form, good-bye you. There was no crime, no criticism. Everyone lived like one big family. People felt safe; however they would wet their pants when I would ask about the Secret Police. It seems old habits die hard – such was the fear in the country.

Despite what people think, there was democracy. Polling booths opened at 6 and closed at 6.30. You could vote for anyone you wanted, as long as they were a legally recognised political party: which for all that time, was only the communist party. Election results for the communists always turned out to support it 99.98 per cent of the time. The other 0.02% were grandmothers who dropped their glasses. Although even if there were opposition candidates, I would not be surprised if, by their own free will, a majority would vote communist. They had been convinced to be happy with what they had.

As I said earlier, a daily wage consisted of 200 Leke. With 300 Lekke, you could buy 15 kg of bread, to give you an idea of the cost of living. To pay off your debt to the government for living in an apartment, you simply had to work one day a month. Theoretically people worked eight hours a day, starting at 7am, although most would doze off, clocking a few hours and spending the rest of the day chatting. They worked seven days a week. There were opportunities for entertainment, and there were no restrictions on procreation! But with such work hours, no one stayed out late. In fact, if you were seen out past 12am, you were in trouble. You would be criticised as being lazy and against the country, and you would be put in the prisons. To this day, no one knows what happened in those prisons.

When foreigners would come into the country, or Albanians studied abroad to help with a skill shortage, they had to get their story right before they came in. They were told to tell everyone that the outside world is a mess. There is no electricity, clean water, pure lawlessness. They were told to say Albania was one of the luckiest countries in the world. Given that Albanians had no contact with the outside world, is it any surprise Hoxha is treated like a god?

In 1990, the communists were ousted. The country basically turned into a barbaric society of lawlessness. In 1997, over 70 per cent of the population lost their savings in pyramid schemes, which resulted in nationwide uproar. Groups broke into the military barracks, and guns were stolen. There was open street warfare on the roads. People would shoot at someone, just for the sake of target practice. As such, in 1990 and 1997, you saw a large majority of the population spread to neighbouring countries. One guy I met left with his friends in the winter, and trekked through the mountains to get to Greece. It snows a lot in winter in Northern Greece. But they were desperate.

Having been to Greece several times since 1990, I grew up with the Greek racism. That they were cunning, thieves, and no-good people. I believed that to the day I got into Albania. Even though I don’t like to think of people as unequal, I just always had this perception that Albanians were scum. How wrong was I! And how wrong is racial tension in the rest of the Balkans, where Albanians are shunned. I have never in my life been treated with more respect and hospitality. Although I had a negative experience with a taxi driver when the bus dropped me off at the border, that was only because he over-charged me – but this was more a case of my inexperience as a first time traveller rather than him being a bad person.

Everywhere I went, people would shout me drinks. Even my taxi drivers! On my way out of the country, I had to catch a bus for Corca to Progradec. During that one hour or so, I sat next to a middle aged Albanian man. He did not speak English or Greek; I did not speak Albanian. So we had a conversation purely with sign language. He knew ten words in English which helped, however four of those consisted of “I don’t speak English”. Once we got off the bus, he insisted I go to his house for a coffee. There his son, who spoke English, could translate. They then told me, after ten minutes in the house, that they would drive me to the Macedonian border in the wife’s brother?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s taxi, free of charge!! I saved about 10 Euros, as well as the hassle of trying to find transport to the border. Who would do that in Sydney?

At no stage, did I ever feel unsafe, or disrespected. In fact, everyone took a genuine interest in looking after me. The people I stayed with literally treated me like their son. The people I met along the way, were extremely worried about the next stage of my journey without their help. They would go out of their way to help me. The only thing I was worried about, was trying to work out the right-fare for a cab fare, but I only had to worry about that once, at the beginning. The cost of living is incredibly cheap there – I was told I was ‘ripped off’ by this restaurant at Saranda: I paid the equivalent to five euros, and was absolutely stuffed!

A lot of the young hate communism. But the old, or rather people 35+, think of the old days with nostalgia. There are two reasons for this: poverty, and security.

For people born in the communist state, that knew of a country with complete security, harmony, and equality. When capitalism and democracy came in, they saw lawlessness and inequality. Young girls who previously could walk around the country in perfect security, have been poached for prostitution around the Balkans. People are living in extreme poverty, and are being forced to fend for themselves. We may find it absurd how people like them prefer communism and totalitarianism over capitalism and democracy, and yet we need to see it though their eyes: their experience in being ‘free’ has turned their country in an anarchy. What so free about not being able to feed and protect your family?
The inland landscape during my bus trip

Albania has got the cleanest water I have ever swum in. It also has the most beautiful inland landscape I have ever seen. My bus trip took me along roads I didn’t think roads could go, along mountains. Imagine two mountain ranges, separated by a valley 100 metres wide. And in that valley, a stream and sometimes river would run, with the ground completely covered in farm land. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to take great pictures because the bus was moving, and when I realised I should take a picture, we had already passed the best bits. It really was breathtaking.

I think Albania has got massive potential. Not just as a tourist destination however. During communism, religion was banned. Organised religion is one of the biggest set backs of modern society, because it was a form of control imposed by empires 2000 years ago. The traditions, hatred and history constrain us to this day. As an Orthodox Christian, if I was to marry a Catholic Christian, my family would despair. In Albania however, if you are a Muslim, and you find a person you are happy with who is Christian, you have the full blessings of everyone. Whilst spirituality is an important part of the human dimension, organised religion should not be separating us. Despite Albanian’s economic problems, and inexperience in democracy, I think they are an advanced society, whereby all citizens are genuinely equal. In fifty years time, we will be seeing them as a model.
A mosque and Church, recently built as they were all demolished during communist days, standing near each other in perfect harmony

The elections next month are on everyone?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s minds. Whoever wins, people are predicting that it will be a hung parliament. The feeling with people is that the centre-right New Democracy party needs to win, to give the country stop steps forward, rather than backwards, as the communist party is doing. These elections will be the crucial thing to see whether it take 5 or 50 years for Albania to get itself together.

I am currently in Ohrid in (the Former Yugoslav Republic of) Macedonia, the tourist Mecca of the country. It really is beautiful here, and I am still experiencing, so I better get off this computer and find some English speaking locals. And as they would say in Macedonian, “ayde ciao!”.