Archive for July, 2004
Georgia part 3: moving around in Georgia
The train from Tbilisi to the Black Sea coast is Big, very Big. Twice as wide and twice as tall as any train I’ve experienced. Also twice as slow, at least, pulling that great hulk of space with the power of pure Georgian electricity. Are Russian trains this big, or was this train converted from a cargo tranport? Whichever, the space was well used. Before we left the wide aisle filled up with a thronging bazari of bread, drinks, more bread, magazines, and one old spritely woman draped with flashing beeping electronic toys. Saleswoman thronged the platform, selling through the windows; mostly it was women creating the informal markets sprawled across the city.
Tbilisi Train Station itself is a huge hulking, space age sweep of a structure. The upper level offices, like the upper decks of an ocean liner, but given over to a patchwork construction of refugee apartments from the western conflicts; the whole thing a derelict heaving space ship, readying for take off to some new Georgian future.
We heaved out of the station imperceptibly, and were on our way. It was pleasant. We gorged on a basket of raspberries from the market (which might have later given us severe stomach illness, but they were so tasty). The train was kitted with TVs and ran a music video show, in Russian and Georgian, and then from people’s interest what I think is a well-known Georgian film about a well-known Georgian myth-history. In the opening scene, the hero chases down an out of control horse and carriage, saves them from dropping off a cliff, but ends up diving over himself into the river below before the passengers can even thank him. Seems to sum up much of ideal Georgian culture.
The electricity went out for the whole country, just as the train neared the Black Sea coast and short of Batumi. The conductors responded in fine bureaucratic fashion, by not telling anyone anything and sitting down for a smoke. We eventually figured it out, by the mass exodus from the train to the nearby bus stop.
Now there are private minibuses everywhere. Yes there are public buses in Tbilisi, repaired so much in bits and pieces that little of the original remains in the rusting wheeled containers. The private minibuses work extremely well. Flag them for a pickup from any point on the route, and call for your stop any time. They get crowded, but are cheap and plentiful enough. There’s no agency controlling how many buses on a route, or how often they run; this emerges from agreement and conversation among the drivers and to meet the daily and seasonal fluctations of rider demand. The spike in this free market wet dream is that the routes, the direction through the city and the designated number, are “owned” by government officials who demand payment in a mobile fiefdom.
The other problem with minibuses is that they are a favorite spot to rob tourists (the streets themselves are pretty safe). Or at least (2) attempted robberies in our case. These were intercity routes, the countryside and mountains a cover. The first time, I noticed 3 guys dressed in all black unsubtly oriented themselves around us as we waited for the minibus. I was sure they had designs when the lead dude took some sunflower seeds from an old woman sunflower seed seller, without payment. Sure enough, they boarded the same bus as we. I just held tight to the bag, until Anna asked for the water and luckily this was just the thing. I pulled out the water, but didn’t stop there and pulled out the toilet paper with a flourish, then some dried fruit. TP is great, they stopped the bus and left.
The next lame robbery attempt happened in the mountains, from Batumi to Borjomi. Four dudes flagged down the bus, the driver hesitainting to slow. Anna got a phone call, then suddenly one guy got up in this packed minibus and made like he mistakingly pathetically dropped a bunch of coins around our seat. Guess he wanted us to get up without our bags for a rummage around. He didn’t get anything, but it was unnerving, they were more physical. Everyone was aware of them, so they quickly got off. The other passengers were great with recovery, we started sharing food. Fresh hazelnuts, still wrapped like presents in green leaves and shell.
Mainly in Tbilis, we took taxis. Traffic, and taxis especially, take a very fuzzy approach to lanes, lights, and other vehicles. Taxi drivers are very religious, fervently crossing themselves at passing churches. It’s wise, because driving is absolutely insane and dangerous. Being a pedestrian is also dangerous, a mad dash to cross unpredictable traffic. Apparently, there’s a subway in Tbilisi, though it makes no impression on the city landscape and was unnoticed.
Anyway, here’s a more official view on transport in Georgia from the World Bank.
Tragically, a colleague of Anna’s at FOE was in an accident with a minibus in the mountains, flipped over to avoid a head on collision. We hope she recovers well!
Simulations for my dissertation were running the entire time I was off traveling. It’s a variation of webworld, for modeling the effect of evolution on the structure of ecosystems. This simulation methodically tested variations in the original model, concerning the rate of species mutation. The model is stochastic, so by repeating the experiment numerous times, the hope is to derive some statistic trends. This is similar to the methodology of “real” biological research; for evolution and ecosystems, it is eons faster on a computer.
But it’s not that fast. Ideally this sim would run about 10 times more. And I’m wishing for access to a cluster or supercomputer; no chance right now.
For accessing this level of computing power, a distributed network would be great. Again, the problem is access, but in a different way. Distributed computing, like SETI@Home, Folding@Home, etc@Home, depends on attention and excitement of the contributers. It also requires specialized programming and trust that the program is safe and not resource intensive (this isn’t always done well either).
Ok, there’s many distributed computing platforms, which probably solve some of the technical problems. But how to get participation? Usually, these are probably deployed within a company or department. What if your network is much looser (say the Blogosphere) or even other people who also have a need for big computing power.
These platforms need extension, to incorporate commerce and reputation. The distributed network would be made up of people, who themselves have occasional needs for this scale of computing. Access to the power of the network could be granted in two fashions. One, you could purchase computing time from other users. Offer some rate per some number of instructions, rather than computing time which would be highly variable. Two, by offering background computing on your system over the long term, you can then gain access to the network for an intense, short term. Or potentially, some combination of money and reputation could be offered.
This is too large a request for LazyWeb. I’m not ready to even start building something like this — but I do wish is just existed.
Is today your lucky day?
Update: Anna arrived in the UK and our familiar bacteria, on a later flight with Georgian Airlines. And straight to the doctor. She’s feeling fine.
Thanks for asking, but no, actually today is not my lucky day. Let me
relate to you the events. Anna has been in
Tbilisi Georgia volunteering with the local Friends of the Earth
office. Last week, she contracted a serious stomach virus (meat for
sale in the bazaar, the only source in Tbilisi, is left out in the
open, unrefrigerated), so we needed to make emergency changes in her
travel plans so she can get back to the UK and receive competent
medical care. Our travel agent is STA Travel, which as you’ll see is
simply a training ground for idiots. After a day’s worth of confusion from STA, they arranged for her to fly out
tonight, and because it’s last minute, the ticket would be issued at
the airport. I was suspicious about the plan to pick up tickets at 1 am
at Tbilisi Airport, but STA was confident.
Guess what? She packed up
everything, paid her electricity bill, and went to the airport to be
told that KLM doesn’t issue tickets at the airport. Called KLM, and STA
hadn’t even submitted full details of the ticket. It was simply
impossible. So now she is waiting until 3am for Georgian Airlines
ticket office to open, where she may be able to buy a ticket to Paris,
then onward to the welcoming arms of Heathrow. Hopefully! Makes me want
to jet up to Manchester (STAs offices) and pay them a personal visit.
By this point, Anna has settled into a sort of delusional mirth that’s very handy for this kind of situation and I am keyed up to speak with customer service tomorrow morning.
Georgia part 2. Walking down the street, you are a guest
It is jarring to be disconnected from the consumer oriented landscapes
I live with in the UK and US, no matter how much I’m disinterested
normally. Retail is not absent from Tbilisi, but certainly very limited
and available only to the elite. Society is oriented differently, not
necessarily in a more ideal, caring community way that might be
imagined. It is closer to just ensuring survival, and consumption of
essentials is centered around the bazari and the innumerable grey
market entrepreneurial kiosks. There are upscale “supermarkets”, about
the equivalent of corner stores here, which we just found necessary.
The strange thing about these places is when shopping as a foreigner,
you will have someone shadowing closely throughout the store, staring
at every choice off the shelves. We couldn’t decide if they were there
to be extremely helpful or to prevent shoplifting; probably a mixture
of the two and maybe inseperable in some way. The abacus is still
widely used, even when a calculator is right at hand.
Foreigners from the “west” are still a bit unusual these days, even
with Georgia’s long history of being a hospitable world crossroads.
People on the streets have no embarrassment in staring at foreigners
walking down the street. And there are so many men on the street,
without work they congregate near places where their buddy managed to
land a job. It must be entertaining and educational to simply see the
subconcious communication of body movement. In the bazari, once they
smell that you are buying and slightly confused, the competition for
your attention is intense.
After a week, we did manage to affect a manner and bazari strategy
which made us much less interesting to the locals. There’s something in
the looseness of the shoulders and the arms, and you have to look with
your eyes, not your head. It helps to know where your going too. Taking
in the street scene by just rotating the eyes gives a sense of
objectivity, this kind of internal quiet that reveals drama and newness
normally absent in self-absorbed familiar surroundings.
In anyway, as guests, we were treated unbelievably well, by friends
from Friend of the Earth to helpful strangers on the street bridging
wide verbal and non-verbal language gaps. Anna was taken for food and
drink, at steep prices for the locals, and practically had to battle to
pay for her own share on the fourth night out. Looking for a cash
machine in Batumi, a bus was signalled and given directions across town
— and this was without much fear of an obvious situation for a scam.
Georgians on the whole are very honest and trustworthy with foreigners
(despite their own internal and now embattled corruption). And
incapable of receiving thanks. After we’d been helped, it was over;
there was no need for the usual ceremony of appreciation, it must
already be understood.
Romano, our guide in the mountains around Borjomi, mentioned that he’d
been told before how incredibly helpful and welcoming Georgians were.
But he said it with no recognition himself; to him, this was the way
things were done and not any kind of special effort. He did talk with
pride of the ancient welcome and special relationship of Georgians and
Jews, so there is an awareness of this being exceptional. Jews have
been in Georgia for over 2,000 years, with many old synagogues (and
without the security presence you’d see most anywhere else these days). And it’s not like the Georgians are happy with every foreigner that moves from being a guest to settling down — they don’t like Armenians
or Turks or Russians. Maybe it’s the long connection of both Georgians
and Jews being literate cultures. Or maybe the Jews never tried to rule over the Georgians, like pretty much every other foreign presence over
Georgia part 1. Some introductions and some eating
Immediately, Georgia was different. Last Fall, this country just barely registered on my awareness, due to the opening track of The Beatles White Album. Then in November, a non-violent Rose Revolution blew Georgia briefly into the world spotlight and thousands of Georgians onto the streets of Tbilisi. Anna wanted to work there this summer, so I planned a short visit. No one had heard of it, they wondered what we’d do in Atlanta (if only! I’d visit eats). Even a friend from Turkey (which borders Georgia) couldn’t place it. So we started researching. Georgian is one of 14 world alphabets. The second Christian country (after Armenia). On the ancient Silk Road. Stalin was from Georgia. They were well known for drinking heavily throughout the Soviet Union (think about that). They make long toasts. Their problems with electricity spawned a documentary. There are plans to build an oil pipeline from the Caspian to Black Sea, basically slicing Georgia in two.
Obtaining the visa request form was a byzantine introduction. The form is available from the London Embassy website, behind a login/password. To obtain the codes, I had to phone a number with a 70p/min surcharge and listen to a two minute recorded message til the very end, when the code was read off quickly. I was informed that the code was only valid until midnight, when it changed. My pulse quickened. Someone on the embassy staff seemed to long for the intrigues of the Cold War. Perhaps these codes were leftover from the Soviets, and they were putting years worth of extra codes to good use. It’s hard to see how the 1.40 per call could compensate for the pain and expense of changing the message and codes each day. A head slapping, beautiful combination of beauracracy and scam.
Tbilisi itself is not great on first impressions. My flight (as most flights) arrived in the dead of night, to a huge queue at immigration (Anna had suggested I run from the plane). Baggage was rotated out on the carousel, then stopped. Someone came around and took all the luggage off, onto the floor. The process was repeated several times. Outside, I met Anna and our driver, and we chugged off onto wide, desolate, crumbling Soviet highway. Rotting monuments and hundreds of small kiosks, remnants of Georgia’s thriving Communist era black markets and all selling a slightly different combination of soda and cigarettes. By endless towers of apartments through empty inner city streets, we came to Anna’s apartment in the “swanky” part of town. The streets broken or completely unpaved, piles of trash and wild dogs roaming, a loose donkey and crowing roosters. Yet inside, it was a comfortable place.
One of the first things to do was eat. This was tremendously fortunate. Georgian food is really distinct and delicious, plentiful and cheap, and all the ingredients incredibly fresh. It’s not often you get to try an entirely new cuisine. Grilled pork and chicken, plum sauces and tomato sauces with cilantro, eggplants with walnuts, fried cheese, the sweetest cucumber and tomato salad. Semi-sweet cold red wine. Breads, they are masters of breads, with several regional varieties, soft and chewy golden, and one corn bread that retained heat like a stone from the fire. In the morning, loaves are distributed ad-hoc — we saw a car trunk filled with bread and more piled into the back seat. The bountiful agriculture of Georgia was evident at the bazari, centrally housed in a huge concrete block. Vistas of repeated produce of pears, peaches, raspberries ($1 per kilo!). Incredibly delicious and fresh. The meats however are kept out in the open, which explains are multiple epic battles with stomach illness. Still, the Greens Movement of Georgia (where Anna is working) initiated the vast improvement of keeping chickens and pork on tables, rather than lying on the floor of the bazari.
more to come this week…
I’m back from Georgia, so much too write about, hopefully soon. Here is my overdue wrapup on Blogtalk…
Blogtalk 2.0 has finished, I’m in the air above Austria, and there’s some time to write on these intense two days of the conference (though this won’t be posted until next week after my returning from Republic of Georgia). The core point is to meet people — the online collaborators, the writers I subscribe to, the tool makers, and new people — build connections and friendships that may lead on to other things. I find it challenging to meet so many people, it such a short time, and make good connections, and I added to that the challenge of my largest public speaking engagement yet. All went pretty decently I think.
Finally met Matt and Paolo, both generous collaborators from the myRadio days, and it looks like we have an opportunity to work more in the future. Johannes Gruber, my partner in producing Mapping Blogtalk. Ming the Mechanic. Lee Bryant, who gave me some holiday tips for Bosnia. Met Phil Wolff again, he managed to transmit some Kerry campaign excitement. Roland Tanglao and his two Canadian friends, both with interesting location-related projects. Bru, who produced the MT-Location plugin. JJ Merello, who presented on his “Cajones” maps and, along with me, also managed to avoid getting a fine on Vienna’s smooth running transit system. Jane Perrone from the Guardian, from whom I fielded my first journalist cross-examination ;).
There were many more people I chatted with, many with great feedback on Mapping Blogtalk, and the concepts of Location and Weblogs from my talk. Seemed to generate need ideas in a lot of people, that’s fantastic. Not that I can remember much while I was standing in front of the room. I learned loads from that experience, and look forward to sharpening my presentation skills.
Among the presentations, I was most engaged by the several case studies. Lee Bryant gave a great presentation on building and incorporating a weblogging into the communication system for UK mental health professionals. Barbara Ganley, a teacher of Irish literature, gave another great report on how she introduced weblogs into her classroom. Stephanie Hendrick and Therese Örnberg presented on their work with the Same in Lappland during the 399th winter market. Jane Corrone’s talk on Guardian weblogs was also insightful. From the conceptual side, ‘Weblogs as Jam Sessions’ provided such a great metaphor.
Still, I think I’ve had plenty of talk about weblogs for the moment. Luckily, I had a small chance to get to know Vienna. What a beautiful city, civilized and accomodating. From the air, it’s so much more coherent than other European capitals, without the metropolitan sprawl. Beautiful buildings on every corner, and free wi-fi from the center of the Museum Quartier. CityBike program, that unfortunately didn’t take foreign credit cards. Italian ice cream and beer.
I’ll be at BlogTalk 2.0, in Vienna, Monday and Tuesday. My presentation is on things location and weblog, and will go in depth on the things I’ve worked on. One of which (with Johannes Gruber) is Mapping Blogtalk, a collaborative map of Vienna, built using worldKit and Moveabletype. So far, the map is going really well, over 100 annotations!
Tour de France RSS
Are there any RSS feeds that are covering the Tour de France? Seems ideal for keeping up with a month long sport event ,.. Ah excellent, just found a Tour de France weblog.
Yahoo Groups -> RSS -> My Yahoo
Yahoo Groups has add “Add to My Yahoo” links. We worked on spreading these links throughout the Yahoo network, since it was much easier to personalize in the context of browsing, then going through edit screens. (I suppose this is still true of RSS Aggregation. Directories haven’t been very useful…).
The cool thing is that My Yahoo hasn’t resurrected the Groups Module, rather Groups is simply providing a link to subscribe to messages in the My Yahoo RSS aggregator (This was a suggestion in my original review of the myy aggregator). My Yahoo itself may have had nothing to do with this; it could just be the initiative of the Groups group.
The RSS aggregation infrastructure has enabled seamless personalization across the network, with next to zero additional engineering. A lot of my job used to be building specialized systems to move data from one part of Yahoo to another.
These RSS feeds from LabourStart “Where trade unionists start their day on the net.” reminded me of an idea from my first days at Yahoo. My Yahoo was heavily based in stock and financial information, so I saw my goal as improving the breadth of personalized information. In the stock portfolios module itself, I wanted to include a little fist icon next to companies that were experiences labor conflicts, strikes, protests. Guess what? Didn’t happen, Yahoo had its own labor problems. Well, with RSS, etc., perhaps it won’t be long to someone builds a conscientious stock market monitor.