Tag Archive for 'USA'

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.

You need to be persistently adaptable

Tim Bull has recently written an interesting discussion point on when is the right time to innovate. In a post titled “Steam engine time“, he asks:

If innovation is a process of the right idea, in the right place and at the right time, how do we judge what the right time is and measure what is going on around us to hit the right spot?

Some would say luck has something to do with it, although I believe that is the perception from an outsiders point of view. In my eyes, a core set of attributes are required for innovation.

Consider this quote from Calvin Coolidge, 30th president of USA:

Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘Press On’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.

I think Tim is wrong to ask when is the right time, because innovators understand their environment, adapt to it – and then push until they get there. Persistence and adaptability, in my eyes, are two crucial aspects needed in a person or even a country or company, for it to successfully move forward. However whilst persistence is key – you need determination to push forward despite the barriers you are going to encounter – adaptability is the real secret to successfully innovating.

A case-study: multiculturalism in a flat world
Although I was born and bred in Australia, I have been brought up under a very strong Greek influence. With an Australian-born father, and a fresh-off-the-boat Greek mother – I have lived a life straddled in two cultures. Going to an Anglo-Saxon school, yet at the same time doing Greek classes at 9am Saturday (but leaving early for my schools footy games) – I grew to resent Australia’s multiculturalism policy. Without going into too much detail because this will turn it into a political discussion and detract from the point I wish to make – I disliked the fact that Greeks in Australia refused to integrate into the local culture. The Australian government’s stance of officially supporting Multiculturalism, which does things like pay for that Saturday morning tuition, was to me a stupid policy.

Fast forward to 2005, when I visited the Balkans as part of my nine months traveling around Europe. Serbia’s story is one of the saddest stories in Europe. Walking around the city of Belgrade, interacting with its inhabitants, and just generally experiencing Serbia – you realise you have come across a hidden gem in Europe. Yet once you look at the statistics and talk to some of the educated, you understand otherwise: a basket case situation that has little hope.

Serbia, like a lot of other countries I discovered in my travels, have a cultural problem: they can’t let go of the past. Millions of people have died over differing interpretations of history. The Republic of Macedonia’s identity is entirely staked on the fact they are situated on the lands of Alexander the Great. Identity to the nation states of Europe, is in history. And challenges to that history, and their identity, has led to some stupid wars affecting millions of innocent lives.

So guess what? I now think multiculturalism is the best thing my country could ever do, for the simple fact we can never have a fixed identity – what it meant to be Australian 50 years ago looks very different from what it looks like now. In Europe, identity is based on ethnicity with a fixed identity tied to history, language and a religion. In Australia, our identity isn’t allowed to be based on a certain ethnicity, and forces us to find common ground on what really matters like our way of life. If it wasn’t for the policy of Multiculturalism, we would be turning into one of these static nation states within Europe who become fixed as a certain point of time. The Greeks are still mourning over the Turks capturing the Great City of Constantinople from them in 1453 (which is why Tuesday is the unlucky day of the week for them). Yet for the countries like Australia, who don’t have much of a history – they are not locked – and consequently look forward, rather than back. Multiculturalism is a crucial ingredient to our success, because with all that diversity, it means we are constantly evolving our culture to the times without any one group fixing it. And with a globalised word, Australia’s ability to adapt to circumstances will be a key competitive advantage we have over countries.

If you don’t agree with me, have a read of Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat – a book a entrepreneur/intrapreneur suggested I read. This guy who told me about the book was a German from Argentina, working for an Indian company to set up the company’s presence in Turkey! He told me that after he read that book, he quit his job and got himself into his current role. He faced the facts, and adapted his career.

Adaptability as success
You’re probably wondering what I am trying to get at, but to tie it back to my point about adaptability, successfully innovators need to constantly adapt to their environment. What happens with people once they get an idea, is that they spend all their time trying to fit it into a world that once existed, only for the world to be a entirely new place. Successful innovators need to constantly evolve their ideas, to the changing circumstances.

In October last year, I made a proposal at my firm to implement a new technology. For the months leading up to that point, people had to some extent talked down my idea and some even flat out rejected it. October however had me find the right person to hear my idea. And yet if I look at what I originally had thought, and what it is now – it is almost a completely different thing. Because when I pitched my idea, I was asked “why” it works and “how” is it different from anything else. It was that ‘why’ question that had me spend countless hours researching and understanding – adapting – my idea to the scenario being presented to me. I successfully made my business case, because I was given the opportunity to reframe my idea and adapt it to the circumstrances I was presented. Had I not adapted my original idea and vision, I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing now.

Of course, I could have summed up the above by mentioning Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Survival of the fittest, right? Adapt to the Green forest like that Green lizard that looks like a leaf, and you’ll find some food (rather than being the food yourself). Adaptability in life is a key critical success factor; and with innovation, it is the hidden factor that on the outside and in retrospect by others, gets attributed as luck.

Update 20/6/07: Catching up on some reading, I just came across a great posting by Marc Andreessen, an internet pioneer, who talks about the four types of luck and which nicely complements my thoughts above.

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!

Faraday Media – Particls

This series of blog posts – wizards of oz – is to highlight the innovation we have down under. So I begin with Faraday media, a Brisbane based start-up that launched their keynote product today,

Particls is an engine that learns what you are interested in, and alerts you when content on the internet becomes available – through a desktop ‘ticker’ or pop-up alerts.

Value
1) It’s targeted. Particls is an attention engine – it learns what you want to read, and then goes and finds relevant information. That’s a powerful tool, for those of us drowning in information overload, and who don’t have time to read.

2) It catches your attention. Particls is based on the concept of ‘alerts’ – information trickles across your screen seemlesly as you do your work, like a news ticker. For the things that matter, an alert will pop-up. The way you deal with information overload is not by shutting yourself out – it’s by adjusting the volume on things that you value more than other things.

3) The founders understand privacy. They started the APML standard – a workgroup I joined because it’s the best attempt I have seen yet that tackles the issue of privacy on the internet. For example, I can see what the Particls attention engine uses to determine my preferences – lists of people and subjects with “relevance scores”. And better yet – it’s stored on my hard-disk.

4) It’s simple. RSS is a huge innovation on the web, that only a minority of users on the internet understand. The problem with RSS (Real Simple Syndication), is that it’s not simple. Particles makes it dead simple to add RSS and track that content.

Conclusion

Why the hell doesn’t Fairfax acquire the start-up, rather than wasting time creating yet another publication (incidently in the same city) that we don’t have time to read. In my usage of the product, I have been introduced to content that I am interested in, that I never would have realised had existed on the web. In my trials, I have mainly used it to keep track of my research interests, and despite my skepticism about how ‘good’ the the attention engine is, it has absolutely blown me away.

And it’s not just in the consumer space – a colleague (who happens to hold a lot of influence in enterprise architecture of our 140,000 person firm) was blasting RSS one day on an internal blog – saying how we don’t yet have the technology to ‘filter’ information. I told him about Particls – he’s now in love. If a guy like him, who shapes IT strategy for a $20 billion consulting firm, can get that excited – that’s got to tell you something.

Study finds 3 out of 10 people don’t use the internet

A fascinating study which indicates to me how early stage the internet as infrastructure is, was recently published. It says how 29% of all U.S. households (31 million homes) do not have Internet access and do not intend to subscribe to an Internet service over the next 12 months. Even more interesting, is the reason why these people don’t have internet access.

Forty-four percent of this group, are “not interested in anything internet”. Seventeen percent are “not sure how to use the internet”. In other words 18% of all consumers in the worlds leading nation with internet access and usage, don’t see the point in using the internet. Couple this with the fact that the developed world which hasn’t got the infrastructure to connect yet (but over the next decade will), means there is still a ridiculous amount of growth going to occur in the internet space.

Mass media execs: if you are stuggling now for audience share against this new medium, good luck to you in five years 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’

Russia

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

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

A bear. Near the river in St Petersburg

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

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

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

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St Petersburg is architectually awesome

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Moscows metro: deep, man.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The long road to Iran via Turkey

Turkey. Was meant to be a transit destination, and this is now my 8th day! Three days in Istanbul, a day of travel to get to Trabzon where I spent two days, another day to get to Dogubayazit via Enzurum, and when I finish this post – a full day getting out of the country (even though l am right near the border – I was been roped into helping a local Kurd). The bus trips have been as fun as an adult circumcision, but despite being totally disengaged as a traveler, it still has been an interesting trip.

I arrived in Istanbul early Saturday morning, groaning that the ticket office I needed wouldn’t open until Monday. The hostel was literally a match box (how they fit the beds is beyond my comprehension) that had not been cleaned since, well, never. But despite this there was a hot but stupid Brazilian girl, and a German dude that I become friends with as we were entertained by the Brazilians stupidity, so that made it more bearable.

?Ѭ?stanbul

Istanbul. Damn big.

The German guy had just spent a year working for an NGO in Bangladesh. Yes he is also asking "why" as well now – He’s turned into an avowed capitalist after seeing what he saw. It turns out both our fathers have had former lifetimes as ladies men, but I think his dad takes the cake. His Romanian father is a musician that travels the world bonking women. My friend is son number 12. No one knows but the father how many sons he truly has. "Are you really son number 12?" I would ask for the fifth time. "You very amused by zis, eh?". God yeah.

I picked the hostel because it is in the heart of modern Istanbul near Taksim square, which was a good idea because it is totally different from Sultanahmet, the tourist area. The street is a pedestrian area, filled with shops and consulates dating back from the Ottoman Empire when these grand buildings where once embassies. Apart from walking up-down Istiklal street like a million times, I also got a taste of Istanbul nightlife with the German. Worst hangover ever.

Fishing in the Golden Horn

Having seen what travels on Istanbul’s waters, I don’t suggest seafood in the city.

Istanbul is grubby, congested, and disorderly. But I love it. I don’t know what it is, but it just stands out as one of the most amazing cities I have ever visited, a class I put alongside New York and London. There was a Turkish law that said that if you could build your house in 24 hours, you could claim the land. This resulted in a mass migration from heartland Anatolia, and today no one really knows how many people live in the city. To say 10 million is an understatement. Try 15-20 million.

Trabzon is a cool city as well, founded by Greeks thousands of years ago – the name is derived from the Greek word for "table", because the city sits on the mountain…like on a table. It has always been a historically important city as it lay on the Silk Road, as well as its impressive positioning protecting it from invaders. Today the focus has shifted from East to North, as it trades with Russia and the caucus region. You only need a glimpse of the port to know it is an important one.

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Along the Black Sea coast of Turkey, a mountain range follows it. This picture is on the far west of Trabzon – no wonder it resisted so many invaders.

Both cities are distinctively European in appearance, and spirit. It was only once I got lost in the suburbs of Trabzon that I saw women covering themselves head to toe and even then it was rare – only a few really old ladies. In Istanbul and in the centre of Trabzon it is very rare to see women cover themselves. People look European as well. It was not uncommon to see blue eyes. Actually I was shocked to see how European Turkish people looked. Coastal Anatolia is as European as they get.

Sumela Monastry

Sumela Monastry, which stands at the foot of a steep cliff, about 45 kms outside of Trabzon. Despite undergoing many changes since its founding, they say it first began during the reign of Theodosius I (AD 375-395). It took an hour to walk up the cliff. Monks are crazy people.

Heading inland, things are a bit different. The head to toe covering of women is a tad bit more common, but again, it mostly seems like the older generation. The head scarf is a lot more common, but it looks more like a fashion statement than a statement of fervent religious belief. The people look a bit more Arab as well, but as I found out last night, the Arab-Turkish look is because of the Kurds. One Kurd I met reckons there are 30-35 million of them, in a country with a population of 70 million. No wonder the Kurdish issue is so sensitive in Turkey.

On the bus from Trabzon to Enzurum, I was confirmed you don’t screw around in Turkey. Going on mountains so high up that there were cloud formations next to us, the bus suddenly made a sound like the bonnet had just been scrapped badly. I never found out what exactly happened apart from seeing some scrapings on the side, but what amused me was what happened after the scraping. First of all, all the men were outside, talking and looking very knowledgeable about what to do. Then, a passenger smacked the bus driver, and they got into a brawl. Then, the traffic police came. And another police car. And then a military van with five guys with big guns, four of which guarded the road. Another police car drove past but he was told to move on because they had enough support. Then, a shitty car with what appeared to be a high-ranking military officer, turned up. He poked around, walked around like he was important, and then had his door opened by one of his soldiers. He gave me a look as he was leaving that resembled like a "respect my authority!". I just gave him the kiss my arse look.

And the bus one and a half hours later left. All that for a traffic report? It reminded me of when I was in Trabzon, walking in the suburbs whereby a good 10-15 police cars one after the other came out of their car lot, presumably to deal with some important crime like a bank robbery or fetching a cat from a tree. Point being: Turkey has a lot of military and paramilitary with nothing to do not far from you – don’t test them! The amount of military bases in Eastern Turkey further proves this.

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Turkey has such a diverse and stunning geography, which bears similarities to all the countries I have seen so far combined.

Last night, tired like all buggery, I arrived in Dogubayazit. Some guy called Gerkum led me to a cheap hotel, and I was then passed on to Martin the hotel attendant. Martin than took me to a restaurant, and the staff there entertained themselves as I burnt my mouth with Kurdish food. Apparently, it’s called Kurdish viagra. I haven’t got a female companion to test it but God am I paying for it today – I don’t think a virus has the chance to exist in my body right now because of how strong the curry was (it was like packed curry with some flavouring).

Uploading my photos and writing this entry, Martin found out I had some basic internet knowledge. Two long hours later, we created a site with pictures. Wasted my day meaning I will get to Iran later rather than earlier, but if he gets at least one new customer I suppose it was worth it. Kurdish people are the friendliest people I have ever come cross as well. Maybe a bit too friendly – the 19 year old owner of this Internet cafe likes to talk and it is taking forever to write this entry.

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A proud nation, even though the issues of secularism and the Kurds, seem to challenge and bring conflicting views of what it means to be "Turkish"

Back in Trabzon, I was chatting with the hotel dude whilst eating breakfast. I don’t know whether it is the international male language, or if guys I meet are repeatedly testing my sexuality – because people always bring up the subject of women with me. He was telling me how Russian women are very beautiful. I said Turkish women were very beautiful as well, but he replied "Yes pretty, but only for marriage, not fun". Trying to make the conversation a little more meaningful I asked if people were religious in Turkey. He said they were, but not like how they were in Iran. "In Iran…make changes….like Christianity…you will see when you go". He then left the room with me trying to understanding what he meant by that. I didn’t have the chance to find out, but whatever his negative view of Iran is, I hope I can prove it wrong.

PS. On the toilet issue debate, the Muslim way is so much cleaner. Having said that though, I have completely redefined the relationship I have with my left hand.

Gallipoli

Humanity. Identity. And youth. Those were the three unspoken themes that permeated the atmosphere at Gallipoli, the site at which 90 years earlier, soldiers from Australia, New Zealand, France, Britain and Turkey fought in a battle that lasted nine months but would forever haunt the site. Militarily, this battle brought bloodshed on all sides. Culturally, however, it would come to define the modern Australian and Turkish states ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú creating a legend that would affect us to this day.

Background

Even in ancient times, Byzantium was a very influential city. It controlled trade and shipping that would pass from the Black Sea and Anatolia, to the Mediterranean ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú the junction that connected Europe to the Silk Road. So strategically important was its position, that the Roman emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire there in 325 AD ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú where it ruled the world supreme for a thousand years. In 1453, the Ottoman?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s finally invaded the impregnable city with a new technology ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú canon fire ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú and made the since renamed city ?¢‚ǨÀúConstantinople?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ the capital of her vast empire.

In 1914, the Ottoman Empire ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú now on its last legs ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú had joined the Germans in the First World War. Constantinople, like it has always been, was a strategically important city. To capture it meant that the Allied armies could eliminate the Ottoman?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s from the war, as well as control the key black sea trading route ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú ensuring a starved Russia could get supplies and support, as the Western side of her belly was cut off by the Germans. The Gallipoli peninsula led into Constantinople, and if the Allies could capture the Peninsula, they could make their way up to Constantinople and achieve their objective. The outcome of this battle had huge ramifications for all the sides fighting, as it could have broken the stalemate on the western front.

Kamal Attaturk was the commander in charge of the Ottoman army at the Gallipoli peninsula. His success in defending his homeland, made him a national hero, and no doubt played an important factor in him becoming Turkey?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s first President in 1927 ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú whereby he oversaw the remnants of the Ottoman Empire in Anatolia modernised and completely revitalised into the powerful country we see today.

Of the Australian and New Zealand forces fighting there, the battle has became a symbol that defined two young nations, as up until then, their colonial past was the only identity that they had. They were known as the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, and the acronym to those words has come to represent a commemoration for fallen heroes; and for Australia, the uniqueness of her culture and people.

Ninety years later ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú the memorial ceremonies
The memorial consisted of three parts. The first part was the Dawn Service, which started at 4am. Later in the morning, the Lone Pine Service was held, to commemorate the Australian troops ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú as five of the seven Victorian crosses awarded were due to acts performed at this site. And afterwards, the New Zealander?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s held their service at Chanuuk Bar, which was the highest ground reached by the Anzac?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s.

The Dawn Service was held in an area called North Beach, which was just above Anzac cove. The area was held in a space the equivalent of a football field. The crude estimate that 14,000 people were there was based on the assumption two people could fit in each square metre. A lady who was handing out programmes, said that of the 19,000 printed, 17,000 had already been handed out at 12am ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú when not even three-quarters of the attendants had arrived. Add to the fact that there were literally thousands of young Turkish people swarming in the masses – it would not be unreasonable to say that 20-25,000 attended this year?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s service.

A local Turkish girl teased me, because she had one layer of clothing and was fine. I on the other hand had three layers, and was numb, shaking and could only concentrate on breathing and keeping warm from the winds, which made the five-degree Celsius climate feel like minus five. As someone who had only recently come from Australia?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s March climate, to experience Turkey?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s April chill, I stood perplexed at how men my age and younger – a military historian claims to have discovered a soldier aged 14 and nine-months – had to jump out of boats into the water and onto these fields. And then dig a hole, where they had to eat, shit and fight out of for the nine-months that followed.

The ceremony itself was nice. It probably would have been more enjoyable had we not been in the cold for so long. Nevertheless the light show, which was to simulate the sun-rise as the Anzac?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s landed on the shore, was quite spectacular. The rugged and steep hill behind us and which was 100 metres from the shore – simultaneously lit up in portions, as a flashing multi-coloured light projected from a corner near the water on our front left. It was dark, but there was also a full-moon which gave the shore an eerie feel. The lightshow against a backdrop of darkness was surreal; and the deathly quiet during the show, with the speaker system booming the voice of the narrator, definitely made an impression to those there.

After the Dawn Service, most people climbed the hills to Lone Pine. It was here that everyone who attended would agree was the highlight of the experience. Sitting in what was like a mini stadium ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú the 4,000 seats were full, and the ground was covered with people. John Howard, the Prime Minister, made an early arrival and did his rounds through the crowds. He was greeted with a standing ovation and cheering ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú which he lapped up every moment off. However when the same treatment was bestowed on Kim Beazley ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú the opposition leader ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú he may had realised that it was more larrikinism than respect when he heard those cheers.

After five false starts, a Mexican wave did a complete loop, including the armed service band, whom dropped there instruments to give a very precise and uniform wave. However what had me startled was that it would not stop. Every few minutes, I would notice the stand directly opposite me stand up, again, and after the wave had passed me six times, I started to wonder if it would ever end. It did, but that?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s only because we were busy asking all the dignitaries to give us a wave, which would have a stand erupt in cheering and laughter when they did

Dignitaries were plenty. From Australia, we had the Prime Minister, Opposition leader and quite a few members of the Federal Cabinet. Victoria?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s and Tasmania?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s premiers were present, and Prince ?¢‚Ǩ?ìChucky?¢‚Ǩ? Charles was in attendance (but no Camilla). Top military brass from Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the UK, Turkey, France and I am sure a few more filled the official chairs. In fact, some many ?¢‚ǨÀúdignitaries?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢ came, that they ran out of official chairs ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú much like how the entire day panned out ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú a gross underestimation of the amount of people that would come.

An interesting observation was how Australian democracy was being represented overseas. When the Prime Minister gave the speech at the Dawn Service, it was the opposition leader that was to lay the wreath for Australia. Our ?¢‚ǨÀúhead of state?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢, represented by chucky, had no role of importance other than a token prayer (and only at the Dawn Service). The Australian head of state ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú the Governor-General, with the current holder of the office also a former military officer ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú was nowhere to be seen.

It became evident that the things Howard spoke about, and by the way the ceremony was organised, that he was doing more than just a memorial service ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú but was trying to shape an Australian psyche. He laboured to have us acknowledge sacrifice, mateship and courage as Australian virtues?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú but he had no trouble having us understand larrikinism, as was evident with the master of ceremonies repeatedly having trouble controlling the crowd.

The Service at Chanuuk Bar was a long walk up, which was a sobering experience to see how the New Zealand troops were able to get so far. Whilst I did not attend the service, people reflected that it was not as good. The noise generated by the Turkish children passing by to their buses, as nearby they were celebrating their own ?¢‚Ǩ?ìVictory?¢‚Ǩ? of the battle, made it apparently difficult to enjoy the moment

Overall Observations
The thing that struck everyone who attended, were the amount of young people present. Most of the crowds were Australians based in London on working holidays or GAP-year students working somewhere in Europe. An older contingent of retirees made their presence felt, and it seemed that for all except the tour-guides, it was a first-time experience. Nearly all that I spoke to wouldn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t have come to Turkey had it not been for the 90th celebration. Although everyone also said, they would definitely be back again.

Another thing that struck us as strange were the amount of Turkish people there. In recent years, the battle has raised in national importance in Turkey ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú and questions are being raised by the younger generation as to the amount that died (there is no Turkish burial site). There were boys and girls there from all over Turkey. Some where there just to see what the fuss was about. Pretty much all of the young Turkish men there, came because they think Australian women are easy to pick up. Whilst it annoyed me and I am sure other people how the Turks in attendance didn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t show much respect by keeping quiet and stationary during the Dawn Service, it was startling to see so many other young Turkish children on the walk up to Chanuuk Bar. Even nicer was the warmth both nations showed each other in their interactions, a thing confirmed to me in Istanbul where all the shopkeepers who realised I was Australian, would tell me how much they liked Australians. Sure they were trying to sell me something, but they seemed genuinely respectful.

Australian poets and songwriters have long lamented that when the last ANZAC would die, the importance of the day would be lost in history. The last Australian ANZAC has died, however I wish that some of those artists could have been there, as they would realise a fresh generation of young Australians would carry the tradition on ?¢‚Ǩ‚Äú although for different reasons. Being surrounded by so many Australians, in a foreign continent where some had not heard an Aussie accent since they were in Australia, gave everyone a warmth. However being in a crowd of Aussies, laughing and cheering together, and nodding our heads at things that the Turkish tour guides didn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t understand, did something else. It made you feel like an Australian. And it made you feel glad you were one.