Sunday, December 28, 2008
What the fuck is Edicy?
Edicy is one of a number of startups funded by Ambient Sound Investments, which in turn is the corporate invocation of the enormous pile of money received by the four Estonians who were in on the ground floor of Skype. I only became aware of it because of a fellow Esto-blogger who got hired to work for them.
What Edicy does, ostensibly, is give you a nice, simple web page editor. It's all done inside the browser, in a cute Web 2.0 sort of way. You know - widgets. Awesome! I thought. It was about time for me to add a page to antyx.net advertising my freelance translation and documentation services, and with Edicy, I could use a very clean and well-color-coded template, just typing in my own text. It even had a rudimentary blog engine, though obviously I didn't need that. I muddled around with the page creator for a bit, but there were bugs in the interface, and I couldn't see what I could do with the page, except leave it there as a numbered placeholder. And, as usual, I was wondering how these folks intended to actually make money off the product.
It is said that history repeats itself thrice: once as a tragedy, again as a comedy, and furthermore for the dumbasses who didn't get the point yet. Time has passed from that early beta stage, and now Edicy is a full-on product. And the product it is, is goddamn Geocities.
Remember Geocities? Cast your mind's eye a decade back, when Al Gore had just invented the Internet, and we were all eager to grab a part of that action. The premier way to leave a mark was to have a Geocities homepage, where you could use a pink swirl image as a repeating background, a MIDI for background music, and post pictures of yourself and your goddamn motherfucking cat.
Geocities was the tragedy. MySpace was the comedy.
(Full disclosure: I might have gotten a Geocities page, but I never really used it. Even back then, I was 1337 enough to code my homepage in Notepad.)
Edicy is Act Three. In their current, presumably finished state, they will let you make a mostly-text page with some nifty browser-based tools. Except you can't do much with it when you're done. What I expected is some sort of export facility, where they would give you an index.html and a folder with all the images and CSS files, with relative paths in the code, so you can simply upload it to wherever you want. Ideally they'd have some sort of generic hosting integration, where you give them your FTP details and they do all the hard work - kind of like I use the Blogger engine to automatically publish static HTML pages to the antyx.net webhost. No setup or knowledge of PHP and chmod required.
Edicy won't let you do any of that. Instead, you have three options. You can publish your page at prefix.edicypages.com - just as the easiest way to use Blogger is to have a prefix.blogspot.com. That's fine for blogs, but personal homepages died out mercifully with the first dotcom crash. The online presence of a regular person these days is on facebook, which doesn't offer an easy-to-remember URL, but does offer a lot of other vastly superior interaction tools (including a perfectly functional search by name, gender and general vicinity). If you have your own website, it will probably be for some kind of business promotion purposes, and at that point you better fucking have your own domain name. It's 2009, you bastard. Godaddy will get you a domain for seven bucks, and webspace is cheaper than toilet paper.
This isn't even Googlepages, which at least has some air of fanboyism about it. I don't approve of Google worship, but at least I understand the mechanism of trying to attach oneself to the aura. But this is Edicypages, and what the fuck is Edicy?
Of course, you don't have to stick to edicypages, just like you don't have to stick to blogspot. Except here's the big difference: Blogger will let you do things with your blog for free. If I wasn't already paying for hosting, I could point the antyx.net domain to Blogger's servers, and none of you would notice a difference, or care. But I have this overarching feeling that the way a blog engine is supposed to work is to generate static HTML that gets published on a webserver that I control, so I do that. It means I can't use some of the newest Blogger widgets, but it's a free service and the important functionality is still there, so I don't especially give a shit.
But Edicy is not like Blogger; it's not one of those Web 2.0, advertising-supported ideas that I loathe so much and criticize for not having a discernible source of revenue. Oh no. Just as Skype charges its users to call regular phones, Edicy will offer its pageholders a premium commercial service.
Enter Edicy Pro. For a small fee, they will host your text-and-images homepage and make it accessable from any domain (that you have to buy separately, of course). They will even let you download the page! And give you priority support!
And the cost? Depending on the length of your commitment, 4-5 Euro per month.
My own web host, the unassailably awesome Tantum.ee, will give you a gig of web space and 25 gigs of traffic per month for eight euro a year. By broadband standards, a gig doesn't seem like a lot, but let me put this into perspective: I only changed up from their cheapest package when the site first got slashdotted and I ran into the traffic cap, which back then was something like 3gb per month. And yes, their hosting package does include a site builder.
Also, I checked: the output of the Edicy page builder is clean HTML. You might need to grab their CSS files as well, but otherwise, open your prefix.edicypages.com page, View Source and save to Notepad.
I mean no offense to Sehr, and I certainly appreciate that they have thought about revenue sources, but OMFG, this is preposterous. Makes me wonder about the whole ASI incubator: the other startup of theirs that I am aware of is a self-customizing RSS feed.
Saturday, December 27, 2008
Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Providing that you still have a stable income, you've probably seen mostly good things from the global financial crisis. The most obvious benefit is the price of oil, which has lost two thirds of its peak value. It's a good thing for us, but it's been playing havoc in Russia, where the state suddenly no longer has near-unlimited disposable income to pacify discontent. The Russian budget is designed with a market price of $70/barrel in mind; I've seen numbers that suggest a fall to $30 in 2009 would create a budget deficit big enough to swallow up all of Russia's foreign-exchange reserves. Even with oil at $40-45, and a fundamentally uncompetitive industrial base, the Russian economy is screeching to a halt. People are already quite unhappy.
One of the things that the Kremlin has done is try to protect the car industry. The VAZ factory, one of the biggest integrated manufacturing facilities in the world, has only survived on lasting demand in the domestic market because of trade tariffs. Importing a three-year-old family hatchback into Russia will cost several thousand Euro just in excise fees. Anything older than seven years old is prohibitively expensive - and yet a VW Golf that's spent a decade trundling along the autobahns and villages of Westfalia is still immeasurably superior to a factory-fresh Lada.
Still, not everyone in Russia buys Russian cars. A number of assembly plants have opened inside the country, some - like the Ford factory - providing not only jobs but subcontracts to local parts suppliers, others simply attaching bumpers and seats to semi-knocked-down vehicles to satisfy a loophole. But there is another source of cars in Russia: Japanese imports.
Russia's a ridiculously big place, and a lot of it is quite remote, but probably the most isolated city is Vladivostok. Established largely as a base for imperial Russia's Pacific fleet, it is located in the southeastern corner of the country, closer to China, North Korea and Japan than any other significant Russian enclave. After the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse of infrastructure, Vladivostok turned out to be of little interest to anyone out west. The population, some half a million people, survived through a single revenue stream. Vladivostok became the staging area for used Japanese cars, popular throughout Siberia, but as far as Moscow and St. Petersburg as well. Japanese tax laws mean that keeping cars past a certain age is more expensive than replacing them, so there is a steady stream of perfectly serviceable vehicles that need to be taken off the island. China and Korea have their own auto manufacturing industries, Australia is too far for shipping, but Vladivostok is right there - and a five-year-old Toyota that was a salaryman's pride and joy beats the hell out of a domestic deathtrap, even if the wheel is on the wrong side.
One way or the other, everyone in Vladivostok earns a living from the steady stream of cars being loaded onto freight trains and shipped westwards. So when new tariffs were announced, to be introduced from the beginning of 2009 and shutting down the nearly-new import business almost completely, the city would not have it. When Putin and Medvedev said they'd replace the Russian East's Nipponese fleet with discount Ladas, it was received as an insult.
People took to the streets. As a response, Moscow sent its crack troops: the Ministry of the Interior's own, personal SWAT team. On December 20th, after earlier protests, the people of Vladivostok assembled in a central square, around a Christmas tree, and sang carols. Understanding the rules of the game, they did not bring anti-government banners or bullhorns. As long as the crowd didn't get overtly hostile or political, the local law enforcement would not stop them; everyone in the city was equally worried.
Except the federal government could not tolerate any organization, any large mass of people standing up for their rights. On December 20th, the cops on scene were not locals, but OMON Zubr. This was Moscow SWAT, the same group used to guard international summits and crack the skulls of marching skinheads.
When, shortly after the Bronze Soldier riots in Tallinn, the Kremlin roughly shut down opposition protests in its big cities, it was an ironic contrast to their accusations against Estonia. But I said back then that we should not be complaining too loudly about the treatment of the Marches of the Dissenters, as they were called; most of the people involved were decidedly unpleasant characters, with whom we emphatically did not need to align ourselves. The actions of the federal police at that point showed simply that Russia had no moral right to complain about anyone else; they were no better.
But the protesters in Vladivostok were not neonazis or anarchist radicals, nor even people with a deep-seated hate of the Putin administration. These were apolitical folks, enraged not by propaganda, but by a howlingly terrible decision that would rob them of their livelihood. It wasn't even the result of incompetence or mismanagement, nor the loss of windfall oil profits, that was going to do them in, but a conscious decision by the ruling clique to protect a rotten industry that is spewing inferior product, which nobody in their right mind would buy, given a choice. The people of Vladivostok had every right to take to the streets; and the central government's reaction proved that they aren't just no better than us - they are, self-evidently, far, far worse.
Photo source, video source. Bonus story: the moderator of Russian LiveJournal's biggest car community apparently was contacted by the FSB and asked nicely to delete any posts about the import tariff protests.
Friday, December 19, 2008
Pale of Settlement
This seems to be confirmed by the catalogue of the Estonian Jewish Museum, pointed out by the guy who used to run Estonia in World Media. You can find the catalogue itself here, and in the short overview of the history of Jews in Estonia, it mentions:
Pale of Settlement - the region of Imperial Russia, along its western border, in which Jews were allowed permanent residency. Estonia (Estonia and Livonia) were outside the Pale of Settlement.
Decree issued by Nicolas I ordering forced conscription of Jews. All Jewish children over the age of 12 were ordered into military service (became Cantonists). One of the three garrison (military) schools was in Tallinn.
Certain Jews, e.g., First Guild Merchants, long time tradesmen, people with higher education, discharged soldiers (Nicolas soldiers) and their family members and descendants were given the right to live outside the Pale of Settlement. As a result, the Jewish population in Estonia rose sharply.
So, as I'd suspected, Jews only began to settle in Estonia in any significant numbers in the middle of the 19th century. Mind you, they seemed to make themselves welcome: almost two hundred Jewish men had fought in the Estonian army during the War of Independence, and after the country was secured, Jews were one of the national minorities to be granted cultural autonomy.
Estland points out this quote from the catalogue:
“Estonia is the only East European country where Jews are not discriminated either on the government level or in the every-day life. …The cultural autonomy is in full force and gives the Jews lead free and dignified life, according to their national and cultural principles.” („The Jewish Chronicles“, London, 1936)
Thursday, December 18, 2008
According to the handy guide from Postimees, the following:
- Companies can fire people with less notice, and at a lesser cost. Anyone who's worked for the company for less than a year gets 15 days' notice; under 5 years - a month, under 10 years - two months, over 10 years gets you three months.
- The cost of downsizing an employee is 1 month's pay. If they worked in the same company for at least 5 years, they get an additional month paid for by the state, and if they worked there for at least 10 years, the state pays for two months.
- Unemployment insurance payouts for downsized employees are 70% of the last salary for the first three months, then 50% for the rest of one year. After a year, you just get the regular unemployment benefit, which now rises from a flat 1000 kroons per month to half of the minimum wage. Which is still not really enough for survival.
- If you quit, rather than being fired, you get 40% of your salary for a year (previously you got nothing). But only if you've contributed to the unemployment insurance fund for at least 4 out of the last 5 years.
- There's no extra pay for working after 6pm or on weekends (though that doesn't mean the death of overtime - there's still a 40-hour work week in effect). The graveyard shift gets you time-and-a-quarter, up from the previous 20%.
The upshot is that companies will have an easier time getting rid of unproductive or unnecessary workers, while employees will generally have more financial stability after getting canned. There is still a limitation, you can't live off benefits indefinitely (the absolute minimum will buy you a month's worth of rice and ramen, at best), but overall I can see how it would be beneficial to the economy.
Unlike the controversial French laws, this one isn't so much intended to give companies the confidence to hire new staff, as allow them to restructure and increase the efficiency of their process. This has been the principal complaint about the Estonian workforce - that its salary expectations had been growing out of sync with rises in productivity. The other problem was the sheer lack of manpower in key areas; so in the context of the financial crisis, this legislation does at least seem like a step in the right direction. It places additional demands on the budget, but it actually gives both employers and employees more confidence in the areas that count, while encouraging people to improve their skills and efficiency.
Then again, I'm a 24-year-old IT specialist who's never applied for any state benefit. I'm not the one they're all worried about.
Monday, December 15, 2008
Feeding my "ooh, shiny!" reflex
Other than the black bumper (ripped off the old one in a parking lot, decided not to paint the replacement - good decision, retrospectively) and a few other scars, there's nothing really wrong with the Mazda. The point is simply that it's a big family hatchback, and I hardly ever drive with a passenger, let alone more than one. In the winter, it takes me longer to scrape the ice off the car than to actually drive to work. I have no pressing need for a 626, and I'm a bit bored with it. I suppose I might as well drive it until it explodes, but just in case, I put it up for sale. The price is probably higher than I'd actually expect to get for it, but it's the one I would let the car go for.
Thing is, I've been looking at the ads, and there doesn't seem to be much to replace it with. I don't, strictly speaking, need a car - in Tartu I can just as easily walk everywhere, and the occasional cab ride would still come out to a lesser cost than the petrol, insurance and maintenance on the car. So the replacement would have to be something special. I don't want to get a big car loan, just out of a general sense of imminent apocalypse, otherwise there's a sweet WRX STI wagon being offered in Tartu, with 15,000 km on the clock, for the price of a middling Kia. Without external financing, and assuming I could either sell the Mazda or trade it in, my budget stretches to maybe fifty or sixty thousand kroons. And the sad thing is, in that price range, there aren't really many cars that are worth the hassle. For a '93, my Mazda is stunningly comfortable (I'm reminded of this every time I drive someone else's car of a similar vintage), as fast as I could practically need it to be in Estonia, and depressingly reliable. It has that Japanese econobox quality, there are plenty of small niggles that make me think of getting something newer, but ultimately there just aren't enough things wrong with it to justify throwing it out. It's never, to use the favourite expression of Rolls-Royce owners, failed to proceed. Almost anything else in this price range will be, at best, marginally more comfortable, fast, or reliable. Though many will be more cool than a dirty-green, fifteen-year-old Mazda with an unpainted front jaw. But even then there are pitfalls. For example, I would never buy a BMW. Objectively, I know that they are fine cars, but I really don't want to be the sort of person who drives one.
I used to be a massive gearhead, but like a lot of people in deepest, darkest December, I guess I just find it hard to get excited about anything these days.
Sunday, December 14, 2008
Now with more Europe-ness!
Recognition is always nice (and it was them who found me, rather than me applying for participation), but in all fairness it should be interesting as well - seeing more of the Eurocracy machine, up close & personal, and then trying to figure out how it affects us, as well as how to make people back home care.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
Direct democracy FTW?
The reason that online voting hasn't been very popular yet is that ID cards need several things to be used for the sort of authentication that the government IT network needs. You need a physical reader - which are cheap and available in any electronics store, as well as built into some new laptops - and you need certificates, which can be obtained online through a fairly quick and simple procedure. But the biggest problem is that you need to have your set of PIN numbers for the ID card. There's one short number for authentication, and a longer one used to sign documents digitally. You get these numbers in an envelope along with your ID card, just like you get your bank PIN.
The difference is that you use your bank card all the time, and with Chip&PIN authentication, you type in the number all the time, whether at a cash machine or in a shop. The ID card's PIN you don't use every day. In fact the only time you'll have to enter it, is when you are confirming your identity online. With the exception of people exchanging important, signed documents, and people regularly transferring large amounts of money (you can't send online bank transfers over 5000 EEK - a little over 300 Euro - without secure authentication), you just don't need the ID card's PIN in everyday life.
And the upshot is, interestingly, the same as what I said about SMS spam: the inconvenience is easy to eliminate, but most people aren't bothered enough to eliminate it. (You can get new PINs at any bank branch; but how often do Estonians walk into a brick & mortar bank branch these days?)
Now, with Mobile ID, that could change. I don't use Mobile ID myself (I don't think Tele2 supports it yet), but if the PIN is the same as your phone, and you don't need a separate reader - if the authentication is done purely on the handset - then we can actually expect the vast majority of eligible voters to have the ability to cast their ballots early and often.
The important thing is that the cost of running a vote is decreased significantly. It would be technologically feasible to transfer more and more decisions to a referendum. Estonia would approach that theoretical ideal of government: the direct democracy, where decisions would be made not by representatives, but by citizens themselves.
Your question for today: would that be a Good Thing?
Wednesday, December 03, 2008
Nordic Mobile Media
1) I brought this up back at Mobile Monday a few weeks ago, and I still maintain that mass SMS campaigns are ridiculously annoying - and it's only the carrier that can do them cost-effectively, so the carrier gets the bad will. A very pleasant lady from Tele2 asked me for my card to give to her people so they'd stop sending me SMSes about concert tickets; so not the point. Opt-in is only there to alleviate the carriers' collective conscience and get the EFF and its ilk off their backs: most users will tick the box somewhere without really thinking about it, and aren't too likely to go and demand to be taken off the list. I've been with Tele2 ever since it was still Q GSM (in fact I still have my original SIM card from 1998 as a souvenier), but fuck if I know their customer service number off the top of my head. My point is: the bad will appears in the second that your user receives the spam text. Don't tell me that it's actually opt-in and it's dead easy for me to get off the list. Too late, you've already pissed me off.
2) The dude from Elisa (not the same dude that offered me a quarter of a million kroons to write a service that ties in all manner of blog platforms, social networks and photo sharing sites through their existing APIs to be used from the mobile phone, but then this one was sober) assures me that the Estonian networks aren't going to run out of bandwidth in any foreseeable future, even if flat-rate 3,5G broadband takes off massively. He also assures me that theirs really is flat-rate, that they aren't really enforcing the 3GB per month limit in the contract, but I expect that will change when people in Võhma start torrenting. Apparently the entire Tallinn-Tartu road will get 3G coverage within a year. Cheers mate - the Kõu backhaul in the intercity coach's free WiFi sucks donkey balls.
3) I'm the compleat skeptic at these events, and I'm sure I'm annoying a lot of folks, but I believe it is a necessary service. Almost two decades ago I played the runt in a holiday production of The Emperor's New Clothes at a major Tallinn theater, and my job was to run out and shout: "The king is naked!". Now I do conceptually the same, except I'm asking "Where's the money?". I don't believe in Web 2.0 business models. I'm sure Rubberduck gets very nice revenue from all the carriers buying their Mobile TV solution, but ultimately they're just enabling a fundamentally idiotic proposition, and sooner or later the music will stop. Like it has for Joost. Then again, I'd watch Ze Frank on my shiny new N85 (as long as it doesn't max out my shiny new 500GB-per-month data plan), and I'm really not their target audience.
4) I love John Strand for the ability to stand up in a conference hall, say "I've been in this business for 14 years and have never been wrong", and not get pelted by rotten tomatoes. I'm sure he sees the same people from the carriers over and over again at these things, and I'm sure some of them are dying to just shout YES YOU FUCKING HAVE. (Disclaimer: whether he's actually ever been wrong is beside the point.)
5) Ultimately the future of mobile marketing is a banner on your phone's standby screen, and until we get there, everything else is just New Media wankery. It makes me sad, but no amount of user annoyance will stop it, because the carriers control the selection of handsets and their embedded content. Vodafone and Orange are very nearly there, except I don't think they've started rotating ads for third parties yet. All it takes is a heavy subsidy on a glamourphone, and equipping the cheapest plans with free data within the walled garden (a.k.a. not taking the piss), and the user base will eat it up.
6) Meanwhile, if you have to advertise on mobile, stick to the professionals who know how to set up a decent audience-participation exercise - I can see how those would work, and the case studies certainly look impressive. But for heavens' sake, NO MORE FUCKING BANNERS!*
7) I was almost the least appropriate attendee at the conference - a lowly Senior Technical Writer surrounded by CEOs and division heads - but I was representing a diversified multinational corporation with a 1,5 billion pound market cap. I know it's wrong, but there's just so much sarkastic pleasure to be derived from going "uh huh, good luck with your widget company!". In my defence, Jan Rezab looks like he's fucking sixteen.
* If I dare to show my face at the next MoMo, will I get bitchslapped by the Estonian carriers and their awesome Mobile Reach Package?
Monday, December 01, 2008
When life gives you lemons,
It's become something of a minor tradition for me to post examples of genuinely good customer service here at AnTyx, and I believe it is important, just because the overall level of service in Estonia is so shit. Lately the company I've been most impressed with is Citroen.
I used to read a lot of British car magazines, and they mentioned that Citroen became really popular in the UK, among the youth, essentially for a single reason: it would pay the buyer's insurance for the first year. And insurance for n00b drivers in the UK is ridiculously expensive. So the company is not a stranger to pleasantly practical incentive schemes.
In Estonia, they've countered suspicions of poor reliability by providing a four-year warranty (only Kia has a longer one), and free breakdown cover. Recently, as the credit crunch has halved the new car market in the country, they've gotten creative. At first they advertised their new (and actually pretty good) C5 with 0% financing, which is a bloody good deal. That one's run out now, but their new promotion might be even better: buy a new expensive-ish car until the end of the year, and they promise to cover all your financing payments until the end of 2009 and the year's KASKO comprehensive insurance payment as well. The deal includes registration and and winter tires, so presumably you'd just have to pay for the third-party insurance (which is only about 2-3k per year, depending on your driving history) and the petrol.
If I'm reading this right, it's not just a deferrment of payment - they will actually pay all the costs. Now, obviously there are points here which make the deal far less costly for them than it is practical to you - for example, if it's their own corporate financing scheme, the first year's payments would be mostly interest anyway - but this is still money that you would otherwise have to pay. On something like a decently-specced C5, including the KASKO cost, you're looking at something like 60k off, and a year to figure out how you're getting out of the crisis. Overall, that's a ridiculously good deal. Kudos.
Mind you, it might be the dealership's handiwork. The same company that sells Citroens in Estonia also does Hondas, which have had in-house financing for a few years now, to good effect. Their latest scheme is a fixed, low monthly payment on all new Civic hatchbacks, irregardless of trim level. Obviously there's a difference in the initial deposit, but you can have a really nice (and for that reason, slightly depressingly common) family hatch for only 2900 EEK per month, which is less than my '93 Mazda will end up costing me once I finally sell it.
The Honda deal's nice, but I'm mostly impressed with the Citroen one: creatively offering the buyer a discount that he will get the most value out of, rather than one that will be the easiest for the dealer.
(Disclaimer: I have not been paid for this blatant advertisement in any way, but if either Catwees or Veho Eesti would like to send me a C5 for a long-term test, I promise to be their bitch and say as many nice things about them as they require.)
Sunday, November 30, 2008
First Advent Sunday
I'll take "odd programming choices" for 200, Alex...
Thursday, November 27, 2008
New Heights in Social Awkwardness
Went into Selver today, and there was a sampler counter with a whole bunch of tiny salad bowls on it, but no attendants. The management had decided to spare people the discomfort of acknowledging a human being when they're getting their free stuff, so instead they put up a suggestion box and a stack of paper slips where you could write if you liked the new kind of salad or not.
Monday, November 24, 2008
Snowstorm in Tartu
Snowstorm in Tartu
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
Sunday, November 23, 2008
Good Skiing Weather
Rural households all around the country, mostly in the north, have lost power - around 32,000 in all, as of Sunday night. Fellow blogger Colm reports that his girlfriend's parents' home has lost water as well; the utility companies are saying that some repairs won't get done until the storm is over, and that won't be until tomorrow night. Colm suggests a significant demographic spike circa August '09; approved.
Still, the cities are holding. Here in Lasnamäe, we have power, water, heat and Internet connectivity, so all the basic human rights are covered. The Christmas market opened in Town Hall Square today. Tartu seems alright as well, but my boss just called and said that it took him three hours to get from Tartu to his house, which is usually a 20-minute trip.
The airport has shut down, as has the ferry traffic. The highways are essentially impassible. Still, as the old saying goes: summer in Estonia is ten months of poor skiing weather.
Webcam of Vabaduse Väljak in Tallinn
Wednesday, November 19, 2008
The three main mobile operators in Estonia have joined forces for mobile advertising, offering a joint package - you can buy banner space on all of their WAP portals from a single source. It's expensive, 400 EEK for a thousand impressions; they're claiming a clickthrough rate of 2% to 7%, and a conversion rate of up to 25%, which means you will expect to pay about 80 EEK in banner costs to sell a single widget. Fine if you're selling flatscreen TVs, not so much if you're selling train tickets.
The Tele2 bloke showed an interesting case study of targeting people with an SMS campaign, but failed to answer my question satisfactorily. See, when I get text messages, it tends to be for two reasons: either it's a friend telling me something, or the bank telling me some money just arrived. So I tend to give a lot of attention to incoming SMSes. Consequently, I am disproportionately annoyed by SMS spam; and that is only practiced by my carrier. The carrier can afford to do mass text campaigns, because texts have the highest margin per cost of any mobile service. To Tele2, it's just 160 bytes of data sent to my handset. To anyone else, it's 2.50 EEK per mailing. SMSes have the exact same barrier that is considered to be the only effective (if theoretical) solution to spam: micropayments per message. Not too much trouble for individuals, but prohibitive to spam networks sending out millions of messages at a time.
The panel's answer was that the user alienation factor can be overcome with targeting - sending me only promotions I'd be genuinely interested in; but my rebuttal to that is, in that case, why is he, mr. Nolla (being Tele2), still spamming me with rock concert tickets?
The other issue is that WAP sites are getting more and more elaborate - which is fine, 3G network speeds make browsing rich sites acceptable, but the bastards are still metering traffic. If Tele2/EMT/Elisa want to show me banners, and funnel me to promo websites, and then charge me for the privilege of downloading their banner to my phone, they're taking the piss. But apparently we'll see proper flat-rate data added to operators' plans within next year. Inshalla.
Sunday, November 09, 2008
I still don't think Daniel Craig looks comfortable in a tux, but now he seems to fulfill the promise of those steel blue eyes by learning how to play the proper Bond - not yet suave, but sufficiently nonchalante. Supremely confident and infinitely competent, he represents the presumption that keeps monarchy alive in the 21st century, that there is a need and a use for an independent moral authority. This Bond's duty is not to M. and not to the Prime Minister, but to his country and to the free world; he is the agent in Her Majesty's Secret Service, and I am not talking about MI6. Both the screenplay and Craig's performance supported the viability of the myth of Britain as a cultural export.
Quantum of Solace missed some of the core features of a 007 film - the gorgeous Aston Martin DBS was woefully under-utilized, and Q. failed to make an appearance at all, but I am only realizing that as I write this now; therefore, the film is a success. It had the visibly insane villain, part of a sinister secret organization, with a grandiose, but semi-viable plan to hold the world for ransom. It had the exotic Bond girl, with a stand-by tying into the dream of England. It had the characters of spies who stayed true to their ideals, even as others around them fell from grace. And it had action scenes that managed to be exciting without resorting to fashionable gimmicks like parkour (although I do wish they would stop with the Bourne-style shakycam photography).
It even managed to give a satisfactory explanation for the title to those who cared to look for it. So thumbs up to Quantum of Solace, and a hearty "welcome back" to Bond, James Bond.
Friday, November 07, 2008
Old Money, New Money
Old Money, New Money
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
I don't remember exactly when the white coin was phased out and replaced with the yellow, but I think it was before the paper 1-kroon note was taken out. Certainly some time before Germany adopted the Euro.
The other coin is the brand new 2008 mint, with the 90th Anniversary logo.
Monday, November 03, 2008
Isamaa Veteran Rescues Nightwatch Martyr
Comments on BL, please. Would you have done the same?
Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Is it Schadenfriday yet?
Quote of the day:
"None of this is currently outlawed by German authorities, but many commentators have described it as bringing German capital markets into disrepute."
Capital markets still have repute? Really?
Early Onset S.A.D.
Ansip's support is down massively. I think the only thing keeping him in power right now is momentum, and the mutual hatred between Savisaar and Laar. Ansip got into the top seat almost by accident, as the minority PM in a mostly KERA cabinet, after Res Publica finally shat itself; he was acceptable because he was irrelevant on the scene up to that time, drawn from the party list after Siim Kallas took his alleged ten-million-dollar ass down to Brussels. No coalition with Savisaar as the Prime Minister would have been tolerated then, and none will be now, but there's no way in almighty fuck that Edgar will be the number two to Mart Laar.
Meanwhile it has been less than two years since the parliamentary elections, and Ansip has squandered away not only his own mandate, but the credibility of the Reform party as well. Part of his support was the anti-Russia vote, but Reform are the blokes we turn to when the economy needs to be sorted. The balanced budget was a landmark, and failing to get one done for 2009 is a failure in what people entrusted the governing party to do. We don't care what sort of creative regulation or back-room wrangling with EU commissioners you need to do: we just want to cast our vote and have you lot sort it. When the real estate market imploded, the initial reaction was they had it coming. Estonians love their Schadenfreude, and seeing developers and speculators lose their shirts made us feel warm and fuzzy inside. Plus there was a chance we'd all afford better homes now. But then the world financial system imploded, and suddenly it's all doom and gloom. Estonia is still in a far better position to survive the crisis than a lot of New Europe (and some of Old, in fact), but Reform was supposed to sprinkle their magic fairy dust and allow this country to fiddle while the rest of the world's economy burned. Without that, it's time to start playing "Pin the tail on the squirrel".
Meanwhile I'm hoping that Edgar will run for MEP, and if he does, I am absolutely not kidding, I will vote for him. The existence of the Centrist party as an object of shared hatred is necessary to the balance of Estonian politics, but those people really need to get rid of Great Uncle and start thinking about a platform. Savisaar has aged badly, and seems to be accelerating in his decline into the sort of dementia last seen in the early-80s parade of short-lived Secretary Generals of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Hardly a day goes by without Edgar or one of his lieutenants doing a Nelson Muntz impression. YOU'RE NOT HELPING! Opposition needs to be constructive, and the only words coming out of Edgar's mouth when inflation spiked were "let's borrow money and spend it, and that will make everything better"; shortly followed by the howlingly moronic plan to institute special grocery shops where people will be able to buy food at a discount, compensated by the municipal budget. Yes, that's right: Edgar's suggestion for people not having enough money to buy food is to take people's money and pay a lot of bureaucrats to hand some of the money back to them. Seriously: go suck on a Werther's Original.
Again, opposition needs to be constructive, not malicious. The electorate already has malice covered.
I got my top-spec HP Mininote from the States a few months before they were available in Estonia (and at a useful discount, too). I love it, but its one weakness is the crappy Via C7-M CPU. Otherwise it's awesome: loads of storage (120gb), loads of memory (2gb), very good keyboard, outstanding screen, quite decent battery life, and the all-metal body rocks.
I'd been waiting for them to announce the next version, expecting a shift to the Via Nano - a competitor to the Intel Atom chip that seemed every bit as good in tests. With more CPU power, and Via's superior power-management expertise (the C7-M is meant to compete with ULV Celerons, and blows them out of the water) the Mininote MkII would have been the ultimate portable machine.
Instead, what HP has done with the MkII is fix the one weakness the old model had, and make it inferior to the old model in every other way. Worse screen, worse battery life, less storage, less RAM, plastic case... Way to FAIL.
Sunday, October 26, 2008
The State of Real Estate
The State of Real Estate
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
Monday, October 20, 2008
Comments on Baltlantis, if you please.
Thursday, October 16, 2008
Leadership: Ur Doin It Wrong
This amused the Londoners greatly, but actually I find it a sign of a functional society. Nobody in Estonian government gets an armoured car. (The security service finally got one, for visiting dignitaries, after a decade of borrowing them from the Finns whenever necessary.) The President's motorcade is his stock Audi A8, with an SUV as a chase car - and maybe a police cruiser for special occasions. You may occasionally find the Prime Minister strolling down the quiet street that his Tartu house is on.
The reason I'm bringing this up is that apparently in America now, you cannot get into the White House unless you have a letter from your congressman - not even for the guided tour. And that's disfunctional. If you are a nation's leader and you need to be protected from that nation - ur doin it wrong.
Ah! I hear you say. But what if there is a nutjob out there who gets off on killing high-profile figures?
The answer is: this is the same misguided logic that leads to headscarves and burkhas in fundamentalist Islamic societies. And as a percentage of the population, I imagine there are far more nutjobs out there who get off on raping women.
If you want to kill a president because it gets you off, you are insane and most likely unable to function in society, so odds are you will have been caught long before you actually pull the trigger. If you want to kill the president because he is destroying the country, well, you shouldn't, but I still want the president to be worried about you. I want that possibility to influence the president's decisions.
But isn't a "good" leader to some, a "bad" leader to others?
No. That's not a good leader; that's a good ideologue. An enormous and vital part of a leader's job is doing things which are unpopular, but necessary. A measure of a good leader is not getting assassinated over it.
"How is it that membership in a security alliance founded in 1949 is seen as the only way a state bordering the Russian Federation can survive?"
Because NATO is a codification of the military component of a Western alliance. The world is no longer separated into the spheres of superpowers, but it certainly is separated into spheres of value systems, and for all the differences that Provence might have with Alabama, the democratic West (involving Australia and Japan) would far rather stick together than take their chances with China, Russia or Iran. As the US continues its misguided imperialist adventures, Europe continues its 60-year policy of avoiding war at all costs, bar the surrender of its values (which is why there are German troops in Afghanistan and Swedish troops in Kosovo). Global diplomacy is a dance around the elephant of war, not talking about it outright, but letting the other guys know you're carrying a ten-gauge. In this situation, NATO is not so much an alliance as a statement of intent. NATO membership is an indication that the country has chosen a side, should an all-out conflict erupt. History may not be completely cyclical, but the war in Georgia has proven empirically that Russia is willing and able to attack, with military force, a country within its imagined sphere of influence. That the country in question poses no credible threat to Russia is irrelevant.
"Why should those pesky Estonians continue to poke the Russians in the eye, when they can just be good boys like Pekka up north?"
Because Pekka was in bed with Adolph. Yes, anyone who's studied history understands that it was a forced measure after the West abandoned Finland in the Winter War, and yes, the Finnish section of the siege of Leningrad was the one that let vital supplies through. But the independence of Finland is no proof whatsoever of Russia's ability to play nice with its neighbours. The Soviet Union did invade Finland, and it did win that war, albeit with a massive loss of life and resource! After the peace treaty, the Finns were under no illusion whatsoever that Stalin had a continued intention to fold Finland back into the Russian Empire, and only delayed this project because he had bigger problems to deal with, down south. Which is why they turned for assistance to the only force that seemed capable of stopping Russia - no matter how evil that force was. Just because Finland broke her alliance with the Third Reich at the first sign of Allied competence, early enough to be claimed by the West in return for abandoning most of the Austro-Hungarian empire, does not excuse the exceptional Norsemen's behaviour.
So we can either deny the Finnish model, and throw our lot in with America and Britain, and hope that there will be an Admiral Cowan around for the next blowout; or we can adopt the Finnish model, and open up a class at the Tartu Flight College dedicated to plowing Sukhoi Superjets into the Gazprom tower.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
Obligatory US Election Comment
Hmm, this makes an eerie sort of sense: when McCain was stuck in a Vietnamese prison camp, he made a deal with the devil; he would get out, return to the US, become rich, marry a beautiful woman, have a successful career in politics, and eventually become President of the USA. For this, he surrenders his soul.
Now that he is at the end of his life, he suddenly realizes what an enormous mistake he made. Although he cannot give up on the deal directly, he is actually doing everything he can to tank his own campaign, so the Devil's promise remains unfulfilled and McCain's soul is redeemed.
Monday, October 06, 2008
Not Nearly the Same
I think I'm just gonna disable comments on posts mirroring BL, since it will get a lot more out of extra pageviews than me...
Thursday, October 02, 2008
The Conquering Author
The Conquering Author
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
Wednesday, October 01, 2008
Arles inadvertently and poignantly underscores the ridiculousness of the Estonian real estate market, as I spot a sign in the window of a house for sale. In the old town, in a sidestreet between the Roman arena and one of the more significant churches, sufficiently away from the touristy bits but still well within strolling distance of everything, it carries an asking price of 113 000 Euros – or some 1.7 million kroons. Sure, it looks like it’s no more than a relatively solid box at this point, for three floors and a 60m2 terrace in a seemingly great location in the bloody South of bloody France, they are asking about the same money as a semi-decent two-bedroom apartment in Tartu (or a broom closet in Tallinn). Suddenly and inexplicably, my thoughts turn to my pension fund.
Another blast down the autoroute and a night in what is by far the seediest F1 hostel yet, and we set off for Grasse, a town just uphill from Cannes and home to the French perfume industry. We are given a tour around a perfume factory and an extended sales pitch; I’m sure this is good product at a great discount, but I have no use for it.
We proceed to Nice, and I am forced to admit, it rather is. I have a cafe au lait on the Promenade des Anglais, just so I can later nonchalantly mention having done so to strangers, and stroll around for a couple of hours. Yes, the water really is beautifully, inexcusably blue.
The coach climbs into the hills and circumvents Monaco, which we glimpse from a high vantage point (I give my camera’s zoom function a workout). The rest of the day is spent in a hard blast right across northern Italy, including a gas station stopover, where I chat to the pilot of an old BMW 5-series with English plates and a lot of sponsor stickers on it; they were in a charity race from England to Rome and the beamer had broken down irrevocably.
We stop for the night at a campsite outside Venice (and when I say outside, I mean on the nearest bit of continent). The dug-in old caravan is, curiously enough, a marked improvement on the F1 motels, although not enough to make me understand why people insist on hauling these things about the countryside, when the not inconsiderable purchase price of one will likely cover the cost of charming little hotels for many a year’s worth of vacation. I briefly consider growing a Jason Lee moustache.
I am extremely impressed by the history of Venice, which was an independent state – and a pretty significant one at that – from the early 5th century and until the unification of Italy in 1870. That’s a span of more than fourteen hundred years, and the fact that Venice’s statehood usefully exceeds that of the Roman empire is an excellent example of the very pertinent idea that it is better to expand one’s influence through trade than through conquest – a point that cannot be made well enough these days.
The city of Venice itself is an interesting place to have visited, once, but no more than that. I was especially interested in it after I read an excellent book set there – Joseph Kanon’s Alibi – but these days it seems to have no purpose other than a tourist trap. Maybe I’m jaded, but once you’ve seen St. Petersburg and Amsterdam, the canal infrastructure is not in itself awe-inspiring, and that part of the world is not short of old palazzos anywhere. Unless the San Marco cathedral and the relics contained therein carry a special significance to you, Venice does not seem to contain anything spectacular. Still, I stretch the limits of the Italian I acquired in Rome and grab a gelato just off the Ponte Rialto. It’s excellent.
We blast north, across a significant chunk of Italy and into Austria. I’ve not had much regard for Austria before, suspecting that it was the result of God’s early experiment at giving Germans a sense of humor; the result was so gruesome that it had to be encased in mountains, for the sake of the rest of humanity. I had an Austrian for a boss, back when I sold inflatable dildos on eBay, and the most interesting fact I learned from him was that in Austria, your academic degree is literally part of your legal name. He had „Magister“ in his passport, and said that while he wouldn’t need to immediately change his documents when he got his doctorate, it would indeed be changed to „Doktor“ when they expired and got replaced.
My adjusted assessment of Austria is based almost entirely on a view from the autobahns, but I have to say, it wasn’t half bad; somehow I got the impression that unlike Germany, Austria does not take itself too seriously.
We stop overnight just over the border in Czech, in an old pile still carrying the pride of 80s Eastern Bloc interior design. The next day sees us cover all of Czech and most of Poland, including a ridiculous amount of time spent in Warsaw traffic. We stop twice, both times in a Tesco; the first is still in Czech and I take the opportunity to grab a bottle of beer, because you really have to. It helps the time go by, but when we pull into another Tesco in Poland, I am groggy and not entirely sure what I’m doing there. The rapid change from Czech koruns to Polish zlotys gives me an appreciation for Euros: travelling around the continent and having to adjust to new currency at every rest stop would drive you insane.
Saturday, September 27, 2008
Who do I know
Justin? Mingus? Anyone?
Andorra was scheduled as a day trip, because it is actually quite a long way from Barcelona – about four hours by coach each way. It is far more impressive in the journey than in the arrival, as the climb up through the Pyrenees takes you through the sort of scenic, rustic villages that you would think of, but hardly actually expect to find. The state itself uses the Euro and is jointly governed by the French head of state and the bishop of the nearest big congregation (on the Spanish side), but is resolutely outside the EU. This means borders, but also an independent tax policy, and that is very significant for goods normally subject to heavy, centrally mandated excise fees. People come to Andorra for booze and tobacco, but also other kinds of shopping.
The coach drops us off at a mall next to a highway, and we are told we have two hours for our retail needs. The mall may be impressive for a community of 70,000, but it is completely devoid of individuality or charm; think Võru Maksimarket. I buy a bottle of Crema de Catalunya and ponder the electronics selection, apparently a year or two behind the rest of Europe. Most of the others in the group take advantage of the lack of excise, returning with cartloads of cheap(er) booze. While it’s true that storing a crate of vodka in the cargo hold of a coach is probably the least troublesome way of shopping for ethanol on a holiday, I suspect that this is mostly due to a single specific factor: it makes Tallinners feel like all those reviled Finnish vodka-tourists.
Mercifully the trip does not conclude there, and the coach rumbles into downtown Andorra la Vella (as if it has any other sort of town). In a fit of glaring, stupefying incompetence of the tour guide that has been dragging along since Estonia, regaling us with occasional stunted passages of Wikipedia wisdom read out over the stereo, we are given less than an hour to wander through the streets of the tiny capital, during the specific period that half the shopping district shuts down for an extended lunch. I spend the time running around frantically, trying to find an open electronics store that has a Canon 450D in stock – since getting a 50D from the States is proving tricky, I was willing to settle for a good deal on a lesser body. I find a shop that is willing to sell it to me for 550 Euro, in kit form, which is some three thousand kroons cheaper than it retails for in Estonia; but the camera is physically in a branch that doesn’t open until half an hour after the coach leaves. As we depart, I am angry, and don’t bother to hide it. Still, Andorra is to be appreciated for its architecture, which is endearingly local. On return to the hotel, I go down to the seaside and fulfill my Catalan quota by consuming a paella and a sangria (or two).
Friday is a free day, and I’m feeling a bit too lazy to go back to Barcelona on my own, so instead I take in the area’s last great attraction, Marineland. Filled not with American soldiers (yes, I realize how awful a pun that is) but with dolphins, sea lions, and an assortment of the less trivial birds. The free shuttles from Calella and back leave some five hours at the destination, which is way too much since I’m not particularly interested in the attached water park. Still, dolphins are intrinsically awesome, as I’ve known since San Diego, and my patience is rewarded as I catch the later tropical bird show, and am called as one of the volunteers; an improbably large and polychromatic parrot-type creature is placed on my outstretched arm and I am told to give it a kiss on the beak. I go along with the act, and for my troubles the bird is made to perch on my head; before you ask, no, there are no photos, and if there were, I would not share them. Still, as something to have done at some point in your life, it’s fun.
Tomorrow afternoon we pile into the coach and begin the long five-day trek back home, via southern France and then Venice, the latter of which I am certainly looking forward to. Expect wifi to be sketchy.
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Montserrat itself is a proper small town, albeit centered on a church. It has a couple of hotels, a supermarket, and lay accommodation for the various personnel that keep the tourist trap running. The church itself houses something called the black Madonna – literally, an icon of the Madonna as a Maur. Apparently it is faintly scandalous, but Montserrat is far enough out of everybody’s way that the practice was allowed to continue until it became tradition. I go into the church, but there is a mass in progress so I do not disturb the faithful by shuffling around.
I go into the handful of buildings making up the rest of the compound, and take an easy trek up to a vantage point, then come down to the railcar station. Montserrat proper is accessible from civilization-level by both road and rack-rail, and there is a little rail/cable arrangement leading from it up to the summit of this particular Pyrenean peak. I buy a return ticket.
At the top there is a small museum and three separate hiking paths. I go about half way up the simplest of them, on the other side of the mountain from the Barcelona freeway, and return, feeling vaguely disappointed that I do not have enough time for the 50-minute walk back down the mountain to the main compound. I will definitely need to come back here.
With half an hour before departure, I look through the gift shop for an appropriately hip black T-shirt, but instead settle on a tin of black tea and a bottle of monk-sourced booze, plus a sampler of various kinds of honey. I don’t even mind the price-gouging: whoever lives here and keeps this amazing place in good condition despite the throngs of tourists deserves my money.
We return to the hotel, and I make another attempt at Calella’s supposed major bookshop. It’s not Sunday, and it’s not siesta, yet the stubborn reality of steel shutters contradicts the promise of the opening hours listed on the door. Fuck ‘em. I go to a newspaper stand, search for a British car magazine without success, and pick up a Grisham paperback. That night there is a fireworks show on the beach, the culmination of a week-long festival, most of which we have missed. The show is quite cool, actually. After 11pm, the town is appreciably younger, as the retiree set is replaced by school trips.
Wednesday is our big day-trip into Barcelona. The Sagrada Familia is very cool, but located in what looks like a mildly disreputable residential area, not to mention covered in construction works; the church is being built completed on donations alone, although apparently the Spanish government promised it would make up the shortfall necessary to finally have it done by 2026.
Barcelona is big and feels healthy; the city buses carry red-and-yellow striped flags, in the same sort of way that Tallinn’s trams are adorned by two little flags whenever a particularly important foreign dignitary is visiting. With all the local pride, Barcelona definitely feels like the capital of Catalunya rather than a metropolis in Spain. I wonder about the region’s self-identification. They already have their own Internet domain; I suspect that the only thing stopping them from seceding is the sheer uselessness of aggravating the rest of Iberia. Between EU policies that would be binding anyway, and the heavy autonomy that Catalunya seems to enjoy, it seems to have as much independence in practice as it cares to claim.
For a closer look at Gaudi’s legacy, we go up to the Guell park, something very akin in concept to the Villa Borghese in Rome – a vast green space on what was the edge of the city when the industrialist for whom it’s named envisaged it as a community for Barcelona’s affluent. Only about five of a planned fifty stately homes has so far been completed, so the park remains a pleasant public recreation spot, with bits of impressive Gaudi sprinkled about. I find that I have taken quite a liking to pleasant hikes through moderately angled bits of nature.
The coach takes us down to Barcelona’s sprawling port complex and the statue of Columbus, on what is thought to be the spot where he first set foot on Spanish soil. We are given some time to stroll down the city’s main tourist street, the retroactively inevitable La Rambla. I make it up to Plaza Catalunya and back down again via sidestreets, eventually emerging with a copy of CAR Magazine; between that and a couple of the less suspect paperbacks from the hotel’s used book exchange, I feel confident I have enough reading material to see me through to the end of the trip. We have a quick look at the Olympic stadium, a place of some significance for Estonia because this is where Erika Salumäe received her gold medal in cycling, a significant affirmation for what was in 1992 a country with little outside recognition and even less faith. They hoisted the Estonian tricolor upside down, too.
Returning to Calella, I spend a couple of hours online, working on my stockpile of podcasts for the return trip. As the evening rolls in, I briefly consider attempting the gastronomic rape of the hotel’s dinner service, but decide against it. Food prices here can vary greatly: I paid over 15 Euro at a tourist trap in downtown Barcelona for a tapas-sized portion of fried shrimp in batter and a coke. (Tapas, the new thing that latte-sipping Guardian readers in Islington have been obsessing over, is indistinguishable from what Tartu pubs call an õlletaldrik – an assortment of unassuming, but functional snacks. The shrimp were fine.) Back in the hotel town I walk down to the nearest steak house. This being Catalunya, bull country, I feel obliged to go for the beef, but my ongoing quest for protein without lard steers me toward the mushroom sauce that comes with a very decent (and impressively huge) piece of pork. With chips and salad, plus a beer, the entire meal costs me less than 13 Euro. If the restaurant can make a profit on that, I feel even more appalled at the pile of inedible dung that my hotel has the gall to charge 9.50 for, without providing so much as tap water to wash down the crud. Still, the town of Calella feels a lot more agreeable after a pint of the local lager.
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
The earliest example of this idea that I have encountered was in a Roger Zhelazny novel, which I read long ago, in translation, and do not remember the name of. It has also served as a significant world-building element for Tad Williams’ Otherland, John Scalzi’s Ghost Brigades, and I’m sure many others; the most recent one I have read is Iain M. Banks’ Look to Windward.
All SF novels that use this idea inevitably concern themselves with a case of two instances of the same identity existing, and interacting. But that was never as interesting to me as the question of whether it is, in fact, immortality.
The problem is a lack of continuity. Ghost Brigades is the second book in a trilogy, and in the establishing work, Scalzi comprehensively evaded the issue by declaring that in his world, a consciousness could only be transferred directly into a clone (albeit a heavily modified one). The mind was never copied, it was transferred, and the original body died, even if physically it was still perfectly viable.
In Otherland, the advocate of the technology, developed specifically for immortality, expounds that it does actually involve copying a mindstate and storing the copy inside a computer. The advents are encouraged to kill their physical bodies and minds at the moment of the transfer; not because the technology necessitates or results in it, but because the two consciousnesses would continue to exist, in parallel, and would diverge due to unsynchronized experiences.
In Look to Windward, mindstate backups are commonplace and accepted as a form of immortality; a restored creature is considered still the same one, just missing a few days or months. The society of the world takes great care to ensure that no two identical constructs are walking about the universe at the same time, but there is no natural barrier to that, and it does occasionally happen.
To me, this does not constitute immortality, because I am not convinced that the reconstituted entity can be equated to the original (except in circumstances carefully contrived to show that it is, such as Scalzi’s original interpretation – a masterful cauterization of a nagging question that was irrelevant to his story and only served to explain how a 75-year-old wreck of a human could be quickly turned into a supersoldier). If a copy is taken of me, my personality, thought patterns and memories, and stipulating that the copy is perfect in the context of the argument, then that copy could be used to create another iteration of me that would be indistinguishable to other people. For anyone grieving upon my demise, it would certainly be an acceptable resolution. But I continue to exist beyond the backup point, and when I die, what happens to the self-aware me? To suggest, as Banks and Zhelazny do, that the dead me simply wakes up somewhere else with a case of amnesia, is entirely unsatisfactory. Me-2 is the same person in the regard of everyone else, except me.
This bothers me, because it is the absolute biblical definition of soul. The line of reasoning presumes that there is some absolutely unique focus for my personality, inextricably linked to this body, and that if a copy of me is created with the exact same memories and thought patterns, a sentient, self-aware creature that is indistinguishable from me either biologically or behaviourally, passing any Turing-style test, then it will still not possess my soul. Atheism precludes me from accepting the idea of a soul, but then I am not entirely limited to perception – I can conceive that there are forces at work in our physical universe that cannot be perceived by current technology. An atheist should be willing to consider any falsifiable idea, and perhaps there is some mechanism whereby two copies of a consciousness cannot exist; where a restored backup is no more than a vessel that then draws in the departed soul. This would actually be a decent premise for an SF novel, though I believe it has been done at least partially.
But until such a mechanism is discovered and made to work, let’s get back to a world without souls. The question remains: is the death of a personality that was then restored to an earlier backup an actual death? For practical purposes it isn’t, the question is purely subjective, since it is a given in this scenario that the backup is indistinguishable from the original, minus the memories between the points of backup and death.
If it is indeed death, if an expiration of a sentient consciousness is a permanent loss despite the creation of identical one, then where is the line drawn? I know, in this scenario, that when I die, someone will wake up later who will be convinced he is me. In this case, is short-term amnesia effectively death? Remember, soul does not enter into it. Do I die if my streak of continuous self-awareness and experience of the surrounding world is broken, even temporarily? If the answer is yes, then do I die every time I fall asleep?
If it is not death, then what is the value of human life, and how much effort should we really put into sustaining it? The history of our society proves that in the short term at least, no suffering is unendurable; for every tragedy, there is an example of someone who got through it, and if everyone was sure that they will wake up in a week/month/year in a new, healthy body, without any memory of the pain, why wouldn’t you take the ultimate decision whenever faced with anything greater than an inconvenience? And not just physical pain, either. Had your heart broken? Kill yourself and leave a note asking to be restored to a version from before you met her/him. Sidestepping tragedy becomes simply a question of leaving enough assets behind to cover the cost of restoring yourself. And it might just be covered by your health insurance: with economies of scale, restoration could just prove cheaper than treatment.
But if you have no soul, then why restore? In our existing society, a single human life is worth more than anything except another human life. Yet a lot of lives, lived to their natural extent, turn out to have been inconsequential. The value of human life is therefore not only a recognition of infinite, invaluable potential in every human being, but also a safeguard against human lives in general being treated lightly; our history has taught us that this is one slippery slope that cannot be tread upon.
But if mortality ceases to be a certainty and becomes a choice, then how easy will the choice be? Certainly it should be in each person’s power to decide if they will be restored or simply left alone. If a merciful society gives everyone the ability for immortality, then a thinking person will inevitably have to make the crucial self-assessment: is my life worthwhile? Do I deserve the effort and energy it would take to put me back on this Earth? Do I actually matter?
This is the hardest philosophical question of all, but it occurs to me that irrespective of technology or faith, everyone needs to ask it.
Monday, September 22, 2008
Viva la Wifi
Germany was a merciful blur, and France is a massive improvement – at least in the evening, when we get off the autoroute and make our way through Lyon and beyond. The mountains are beautiful. Even the gas station food is miles better. (Incidentally, best thing I’ve bought at a gas station on this trip was a bottle of vanilla milk at a Polish Statoil.) It’s sunny and warm and the trip is beginning to justify itself.
Coach travel can be wearing, but after three days on the road I am surprisingly unphased. The key seems to be content: music, podcasts, books, and movies on the laptop, which now seems to have mercifully regained its proper 4,5-hour runtime on a single charge. Air travel is perhaps too quick, as you skip the sensation of actually going somewhere, unless you are crossing an ocean. Chalk it up to youthful optimism (if there is such a thing), but watching Europe roll by outside my coach’s panoramic window, I feel like I’m seeing my country. In much the same way that I need to grasp a city to be comfortable in it – to have a mental plan of it – overland travel allows one to grasp the EU, make it more than a heady concept. Everyone should do this at least once, but if you have any choice at all, avoid Poland. While Germany has ridiculously good roads and Lithuania and beyond just doesn’t have that much traffic volume – unless you’re enough of a fool to try getting through downtown Riga – Poland is the bottleneck. It would be far less frustrating to take the party boat to Stockholm, then blast down to Malmö and take the Öresund tunnel to Copenhagen.
Since you are reading this only now, obviously the Orange wifi did not work. Was not present in any discernible form. Still, the gas station food really is quite good: two Agip runs have yielded a passable ham & cheese sandwich, a box of really quite fair salad, and a slice of genuinely spectacular strawberry & coconut cake. That is well beyond the best that I could scrounge up in an enormous German supermarket. I’m sorry if I don’t have any better insights on France, but I only ever saw it from the tarmac.
On the fourth day, we cross the Pyrenees and finally enter Spain, where gas prices instantly drop 40 Eurocents per liter. For my American readers, that translates to about three hundred bucks per gallon, and I cannot describe the joy I feel in being able to make that gag, after suffering a decade of poor currency-exchange humor.
Our first stop is the Dali museum in Figueres. You would need to have either read a lot of the Antyx archive or spent time with me in person to properly appreciate my loathing for what grew out of modernist and particularly surrealist art, and the rest of you will simply have to believe when I say that Salvador Dali was the dude. His museum, an old theater building that he bought and converted, is layed out to subtly block suspicions of postmodernist twattery by starting with Dali’s more conservative pieces. He could, and did, paint both photorealistic images and ones that stun the viewer with their sheer technical prowess; stand there and smell the accomplishment. With an unassailable background like that, he was perfectly justified in dismantling the conventional wisdom. Besides which, he was the compleat rockstar, and still deeply and passionately loved his wife for the entirety of his life. As a sign of respect, I buy a T-shirt.
Our coach winds its way down the Costa Brava until it reaches our staging point: Calella, one of a series of tiny tourist towns on the Catalan coast. The hotel has wifi, mercifully, although only in the lobby – which is unfortunate, as I would have loved to make good use of my room’s balcony, blogging in the breeze. The hotel, like much of the town itself, leaves an odd impression of vague inauthenticity. While there are some ancient bits here and there, Calella mostly seems to be an amalgamation of hotels constructed some time in the last two decades. The age of a hotel can be roughly judged by the availability of power sockets, increasing as people started to carry more electronic gadgets; the Regency Hyatt in Jerusalem, an impressive pyramidal pile from the Seventies, scandalously offers pretty much none, despite claiming a five-star rating. This one is three stars, and doesn’t blow my mind. It is as if its crew had a guidebook to comfort that they studiously implemented, without ever truly understanding its essence. Some aspects, such as the painted concrete walls and naked flagstone floors, may just be a southern peculiarity, a way to keep the inside cool; but I do wonder how come this place, a resort hotel in a resort town, expecting its patrons to stay for a week or more, manages to feel less cozy than the Best Western Grand Hotel in the village of Bollnäs, where I can’t really imagine people staying for more than a day (there is nothing to do in Bollnäs for more than a day, even if a few thousand Swedes somehow manage to spend most of their lives there). My expectation of what a three-star hotel should be like is based on the Baron Hotel in Reykjavik; no three-star hotel in a Western European country should be worse. Hell, my B&B in Rome had in-room wifi.
That evening, we get back on the coach for a brief run down to Barcelona, to watch the fountain. The spectacle involves music (something classical that I recognize and really ought to know the name of) and color-filtered spotlights placed under the surface of an exceedingly elaborate system of pipes; the water dance is something truly to behold, and I say that as a skeptic who is rarely impressed with anything. If you want a more impressive experience of staring at some water, you will need to go to Iceland and look at waterfalls. There should be a picture or two on my Flickr.
The next day, it is overcast and (relatively) cold with a strong suggestion of rain. I grab a coat and go explore the town, walking down to the beach and then taking a progression of stairs and trails to hike the full 118 meter elevation of something called Los Torretes – the remainder of a couple of signaling towers used by some military or other in the mid 19th century. The towers are not intrinsically impressive, but the views are quite nice, although spoiled by the overcast weather. I may not be as extreme as Kristopher when it comes to walking, but I descend with a mild sense of achievement and amble around the town’s shopping district, desperately looking for reading material in English. (I have underestimated my reading speed and am almost done with the books I brought from home – and there is still the way back to Estonia to deal with.) I return to the hotel and kill time until dinner sitting in the lobby with my Mininote.
The hotel package comes with breakfast and dinner. Breakfast is acceptable, although that is too simple to get wrong, but dinner is an ugly smorgasbord of greasy fried meat, unimaginative salad components, and suspect desserts. Since my surgery, I do not eat very much, and therefore prefer to make each meal an experience; the hotel’s policy of emphasizing quantity over quality is directly at odds with that, so in the future I think I’ll skip the hotel dinner altogether and wonder out into town for something more interesting. Maybe a nice seafood paella.
(Incidentally: there is an email in one of my various inboxen dating from July 1st, from undoubtedly one of my most treasured readers, asking for a status report on the surgery and weightloss. The short answer is, it’s fine. An elaboration is in the works.)
Nach Berlin and Beyond
Poland is bits of brilliant interstate bookended by stretches of dual carriageway in a very odd fashion; the autobahns appear to start from nowhere and lead nowhere. Germany, as seen from the road, is essentially featureless, and I look longingly at the posh bahnstormers in the left lane; I want to come back here with my own car. We stop for a late lunch at a massive strip mall on the Berlin bypass, basically a bigger Lõunakeskus – think of the Rocca-al-Mare mall in Tallinn and you’ll be about there. I trawl the shops and remark again upon the lack of visible counterculture in Western Europe. I have lost some 30kg since my surgery, and can now expect to find appropriate sizes in most big clothes stores, but as I walk around C&A – chosen because it doesn’t have stores in Estonia – I am disappointed: same drab stuff, nothing worth buying even at a bargain price. The electronics are marginally cheaper, but we’ll be doing a run to Andorra, Europe’s VAT-less shopping paradise, so I hold off. Besides, fucking Germans probably wouldn’t accept my Visa card anyway.
The F1 hotel outside Leipzig is conceptually impressive – just short of being entirely self-service. For 26 Euro per night per room, whether it fits one person or three, it is certainly good money. But I’m suffering from information withdrawal. Only the threat of horrifyingly expensive mobile roaming charges stops me from hooking up my mobile to the laptop. If Tele2 offered an m-pilet type deal on pan-European roaming – a fixed fee for 24 hours of unlimited data – you would have been reading this article a lot sooner.
Sunday, September 21, 2008
Up & Down the Via Baltica
One last stopover at a truck station, and the last chance to buy stuff for Estonian money. I eye the cans of Jim Beam & coke; not yet, but I don’t kid myself – I’ll be drinking before the day is over. There is a flask in my rucksack filled with Maxime Trijol VS.
I’ve surprised people with this trip, but then that’s kind of the point. It’s something that I would not have normally done, and it’s a new experience, which is the thing I’m really after right now.
Blew right through Latvia without slowing down; driving below the banks of the artificial lake east of Riga is unsettling, although not a big deal – I’ve seen the naughty side of 170km/h from the passenger seat of a Kia Pride in the Netherlands. Somewhere on the Internet is a picture of me rubbing the asscheeks of a bronze kid with his finger in the dike, as it were.
Got pulled over by border guards crossing into Lithuania, but fortunately nobody had forgotten their ID cards. Stopped for a late lunch at a combination roadside diner, museum and mini-zoo (ostriches and ponies, but might have been more). I’m tempted to remark that a lot of these roadside attractions in Latvia and Lithuania are log cabins, but then I remember that so is the Kükita Grill, my favourite eatery on the Tallinn-Tartu freeway – a dedicated truck stop that proves a universal truth: the best food and the best coffee will be found not where they are a matter of poshness, but where they are a matter of necessity. Three cheers for trucker fuel.
This is officially as far south as I have ever travelled overland, and it’s only 2pm. I’m very impressed by the coach’s progress, and keep thinking about driving down here on my own. The One Lap of the Baltic idea is still alive and kicking, but needs a relief driver, and to be honest, a better car. I’m working on it. Just hope the stock market bounces back.
It might be all in my head, but somehow I always notice a difference in the weather between Estonia and Latvia; Lithuania in the late afternoon is appreciably warmer than Tartu, or Tallinn, or Pärnu were this morning. Looks largely the same in terms of scenery though. We’re basically sticking to the Via Baltica, the main artery from Tallinn down to central Europe, renovated for EU cash. We are also getting further and further from civilization: WiFi is desperately thin on the ground. I’m hoping the hotel on the outskirts of Warsaw has it. Coach travel leaves a lot of free time to blog.
Just saw my first speed camera. They keep threatening to introduce them in Estonia, but haven’t so far, to my knowledge.
Closer to Poland, the landscape flattens out, far more field than forest. The Baltics have an established identity as small countries, but look at a map of Europe, and with a slight trick of distortion their total area will be roughly on par with that of Germany or other large European nations. Consumer goods manufacturers tend to lump us together as well – this is not entirely justified, as there are significant differences between Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, but together we are a market of some 7 million people – as much as Sweden.
This point is driven home as we cross into Poland, through by far the most elaborate border post yet. Maybe Germany’s will be bigger still, but this used to be the border of the Soviet Union proper, and while Poland was part of the Eastern bloc, it was a significantly different animal. The greatest difference is population density: Poland is a very large country, but with some 30 million residents, it also seems quite full. While it is conceivable to get from the Polish border all the way up to Paldiski or Sillamäe (for the cargo ferries to Sweden and Finland respectively) without driving through the heart of any population center, the road to Warsaw is a succession of towns and villages. I half-remember a story on the radio about some Polish townsfolk who were up in arms about delays in the construction of a bypass that would take transit traffic out of their community, but it’s a drop in an ocean. For all the transit business Poland does (2 euro per day for every heavy vehicle, that’s without a penny spent by crews in local shops and gas stations), its section of the Via Baltica seems curiously organic.
It is oddly, perhaps disturbingly comforting to spend fifteen hours on the road and end up in Poland just to stop off at a combination Statoil and McDonalds – exactly the same sort of place that we started from in Tartu. Wherever you go, you always know where to find a kabanoss. Makes you feel like a proper European.
Our Statoils have WiFi though.