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.)