Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Simplicity

Hard not to notice a new advert on a pregnancy testing gizmo. It is oh-so-digital. Oh-so-advanced. And very, very simplified.

They say, significant proportion of women misread their test results on 'usual' kit. Surely, they should have used the golden phrase, 'next leading brand'.

Ergo this new super-gizmo gives clear, simple, plain English output in single words on the display.

So let me see. Somebody checks what may be one of, if not the most important test result of her life. But fails to pay attention and read correctly a colour, a beep, a bar, a plus or minus sign, a whatever previous and gradually digitised gizmos displayed as test result.

Now we replace it with a word. Hmmmm... I know literacy statistics are nothing to be proud of nowadays, but if a + or - sign is misread by someone (the only way to achieve that is to not look at the display at all, while watching Eastenders and ignore the all-important test result that may define or re-define her life), then why is a word clearer and simpler?

The manufacturers really should have admitted: look ladies, we really ran out of all ideas, we really had the advertising catastrophy equivalent of 'Colgate Total' where we can not put more on our slogans or claim more silly features... so we give you a revamped LCD display with two possible words on it.

Monday, 28 January 2008

McQuestionable

It seems that after McDonalds failed to revamp itself as a 'healthy food' joint, now they try their muscles (or flabs) on a social plane. They shall be giving out diplomas in the UK, hard not to call them McQualifications.

They say they really give a good training to the staff and that these diplomas will be basically equivalent to A-levels.

Considering how A-levels are an absolute joke (the statistics show a year-on-year increase, into the ludicrous percentiles, of students passing A-levels with several A and A+ grades, while their general knowledge on anything and heaven forbid specialist knowledge on subjects is not only truly shockingly absent, but that vacuum is also combined with incredible snotty arrogance), how will the McDonalds diplomas fare?

It is offered as a viable alternative and they say employers will be able to take seriously the diplomas.

Ah yes. It does look like a genuine effort to improve something, give some training in some ways - and with the wishful renaissance of vocational training (after all, it is amazing to live in a country where automatically everybody wants to go to University, then when they leave so-called Universities, many can not spell monosyllabic English words any more), it is certainly something to consider.

But please, don't talk McQuestionably about this McQualifications or McDiplomas. If the genuine diplomas are such, that we interview engineering students for 9 months to find one single person that can link together in his head two concepts and can synthesise one single new original thought, then we train them up for 2 years to become useful employees, just what serious trust should we have in a McDiploma??

Thursday, 24 January 2008

42

Nope, not the meaning of the Universe. Unless the UK Government is in such harmony with the latter, that they model their new law proposals on its true meaning...

Now they finally unveiled the much talked-about proposal on extending pre-charge detention for terrorism suspects to a maximum possible 42 days. Currently we have 28 days as maximum, after much controversy.

I lived in a society where one was guilty until one proved oneself innocent. Where no justice system elements were involved in pre-charge detention and one may not have been given any reason for being held.

It is amazing to re-visit that in a historic democracy. Currently, the 28 days are already the longest period in the Western (democratic) World. So UK is, once again, leading in something (deplorable).

It is anti-constitutional but it is in the interest of the safe free world, apparently. Investigating terror suspects takes a lot of time, hence the new request to extent the already Stalinist law further.

I would like to see what calculations they made? How can it be justified as an extension of 14 days?

They quote the complexity of the investigations and drown us in many figures. So please, why not provide a simple arithmetic, even field theory or quantum equation for the resulting extension period?

Maybe... all they did was read parts of the Douglas Adams book and the magic new number was born. Even that would be a much more acceptable avenue towards a totally unacceptable law than what is being claimed as the basis for it.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Common sense campaign

It would have been 'anti-obesity campaign' but having read the new Government initiative, it really should be about common sense.

UK obesity statistics, including the one on children, are scary. The happy news is that Eastern Europe, very much including Romania, is also aligning itself very rapidly with the glorious 'Western' eating (engorging) habits.

The mania about fat-free food has not yet hit them, but in the UK, it's taken amazing proportions. Even yoghurt has to be fat-free, and people, if they ever read one single biology class paper in their lives, would realise how vital a normal level of fat intake is in the daily diet. And one does mean vital. But thanks to media and political initiatives, the perception of the true problems and true problem food types is totally skewed.

People picking up their fat-free youghurt to shave off that zero point something percent of fat from their daily food intake should look at just what amount of sugars these foods contain. Sorry to break it to you all obsessed fat-reduction maniacs, but you will put on serious pounds engorging the fat-free alternatives that often contain several times the sugar amounts found in the 'normal' equivalents.

Also, there is a very deep hypocricy at the core of the manufacturers and retailers signed up vividly and loudly to the healthy food campaigns. Even the most basic 'healthy' variants of foods often cost 3 times the amount of the normal ones. So you pay a huge premium for not being saturated with hydrogenated oils and a long list of what Krusty the Clown would call 'cloggers'.

I am nowadays convinced that my dark rye crackers contain gold (and surprised that in that case I am still alive despite heavy metal poisoning...) - because their price suggests that these are made not of the simplest and least processed base ingredients, but of the most rare and expensive ones.

It is very profitable to launch health food campaigns paired with ludicrous price tags attached to really (and not desperately ridiculous made-up) healthy foods. It is profitable to get people obsessed about certain foods that are then bought with such extreme misconceptions that these violate basic biological laws (see role of fatty acids in the body) and putting premium pricetags on those, too.

While more and more pupils get A and A+ in biology, our collective common sense when it comes to actually healthy eating is becoming a trace element in daily life.

And of course, in terms of how much we eat, well, a writer recently said that nobody wanted to publish his most miraculous diet book. Well, diet sheet. It said 'eat less and do more exercise'.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Noise-free, grope-free

There are 'quiet zones' on our trains - you can unwind, the use of personal stereos and mobile phones being banned in these train carriages. Actually, to be exact, there are signs about this fact.

It is remarkable how then homo sapiens, traveling as train company staff between let's say London and the South-East, applies these rules. If you happen to just type an email or SMS on you mobile, or fiddle around with your PDA in absolute quiet serenity, he will absolutely point out that you are in a quiet zone.

His or her Babbage machine mind perceives the signs and grasps that those devices can not be used. The 'why' and 'how' eludes these minds - namely, the point of these signs and the quiet zone is to prohibit eminently non-quiet use of whatever electronic device, especially talking on a mobile.

While these great minds, trained by their managers on the rules and their enforcement, fail to make distinction between utterly quiet and harmless use of some totally numb device, they also fail to realise that the 110 dB chatter emitted by e.g. loudly screaming (they call 'chatting') teenage girls or half-drunk 'lads' in particularly annoying parts of the audio spectrum is also in direct violation of the Quiet Zone.

But as the sign and their managers' instructions only told them about potentially sound-producing electronic devices, the deafening sound waves emitted by biological machines running on hormones and/or alcohol are, in the staff's minds, perfectly in harmony with the whole point and essence of a Quiet Zone- and countless times they walked past the zoo after shaming some poor passenger who was reading his emails.

Now I am reading on the fact that Mexico City started grope-free buses where women can travel in peace, not being molested by men. The buses are 'women only' and the scheme has been tried out previously on subway trains.

Now I'm just wondering... if the staff there had the same IQ as train staff here who enforce literally the signs in the Quiet Zones and ignore deafening human (well, animalic) vocalisations, then we might have a situation on these buses where 1. groping women will indeed not be allowed, 2. men found onboard will be thrown off, 3. shooting or rehearsing for a full-on group porn scene on, between and behind the seats will be perfectly OK - and ignored by eagle eyed staff walking through the passenger areas...

Monday, 21 January 2008

Personal data

Slowly, the meaning of the term 'personal' should be rewritten in dictionaries as a synonym to 'public'. At least in the UK.

Reason is that the sum total of people, whose personal data was lost, stolen, left on the side of a road, sold to somebody, mismanaged and leaked into public hands, is building up to the population of the country.

25 million people who claimed child benefit had their data 'escape'. Other set of data from the driver and vehicle licencing agency also 'escaped'. Now 600 000 recruits' data was stolen on a laptop of a Navy officer. In some cases, data was on unencrypted CD-Roms...

Now, while we talk about biometric data, ID cards and all the rest, huge databases to hold all of our details, maybe we need first to inject, pummel, infuse some common sense into governmental officials?

The same Government that talks about building a safer society, with strictly guarded personal data, security issues needing introduction of Stalinist methods, maybe could show an absolute minimal care for the (already too much) personal data it holds on people?? The contrast between their pseudo-Stalinist strive and utter incompetence could not be stronger than after the sequence of total blunders of the last 3-4 months.

Some said on the news, that the problem is that there are too many manuals and thousands of pages of processes to follow about such sensitive data. Really?

How about a short document, to just list absolute common sense? For example, one entry could be about not leaving a laptop with ultra-private data in plain sight, in a car?

Thousands of pages of tedious processes and manuals could be much reduced to the mere requirement of having TWO braincells and being able to fire signals from one synapse to another.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

One for the theorists

It seems that the BA flight that touched down (to mildly put) 'short of the runway' at Heathrow ran into technical difficulties with the engine controls. Official report to come later, but as it was the same day that Prince William (one of the engines that powers tourism to London, mostly to Buckingham Palace and mostly by teenage girls or girls with very teenage minds) had piloted a plane.

The instructor gave him the controls for the first time and the news editors were torn between the headlines: BA flight crashlands, Prince William flies and does not crash land.

Now for the conspiracy theorists that wrote, published, discussed, made films about, or for that matter, just sat at home meditating above some kilotonnes of Walkers crisps and beer about various scenarios whereby we did not land on the Moon, the Titanic did not sink, well, something else sunk instead of it, Princess Diana was whacked by the Royal Family etc. etc., so, for those theorists I extend my deep disappointment.

Come on guys, how come you did not think of maybe Prince William piloting that Boeing 777? Surely, with a gentle flexing of your stunning imagination, you could have reasoned: he is way too royal to pilot some tiny tuna can of an airplane, surely they gave him the controls of something big. Size does matter. And then maybe we had a stunning cover-up of him crashlanding the Boeing at Heathrow.

Come on guys... compared to your best gems in the last few decades, surely this is an easily crazy and crazily easy (and equivalently blatantly stupid) theory to make up? What are you waiting for? We are gasping for some bestseller on this subject... now that the Diana inquest-related media diarrhoea has cooled down for a little bit.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Invisible connections

A BA flight landed short of the runway today. Major oops, but fortunately no casualties and according to some uncomfirmed reports, the plane lost all power just before the landing, meters from the runway.

This really isn't the item to trigger a blog, especially not on this particular blog. But... one phrase catches one's eye when looking at the Scotland Yard statement.

It says (actually, reassures): "There is nothing to suggest at this stage that the incident is in any way terror-related".

Well, if we dragged Occam's razor into this, then it in itself would have led anybody to the same conclusion. And glad our media and PR people of whatever entities ensure we do think of invisible connections, what would our current world be without artificially fuelled paranoia? After all, the above statement and those like it don't reduce paranoia- they ensure the latter seeps into the thought processes even when otherwise would not come anywhere close to one's mind.

But, as per a previous fire where a similar statement was published, it is remarkable how during 'quiet periods' when the media is not saturated with absolutely immediate disaster scenarios or speculations on these, even facts and events utterly disconnected from 'war on terror' have to be connected to the latter somehow. In these cases, by reassuring (?) statements like the one above.

We can not have any normal reaction to anything any more. We can not intuitively, instinctively or factually conclude something accidental, mondane or in some cases banale.

We have to be reassured, it seems, that an event was caused by something most mondane, accidental, 'such if life', tragic, tragicomic, unfortunate etc. (depending on the case), all these being things that would be the first items occurring to anybody seeing the news items.

We, in the post-9/11 world, according to our media have to be explicitly told and allowed to think of the ordinary triggers for a nasty event.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Words

Illiteracy statistics or what percentage of 16-17 year olds in UK and Romania that have difficulty with reading are interesting.

But... what catches one's eye is the fact that in the UK at the moment, almost half of 16-25 year olds said that they have not read one single book last year.

There was an argument that well, recently our main visual inputs have changed - the sources of information are TV, computers and the internet. True, if one considers how literally the sources of information have changed. I wonder who would read War & Peace from a PC screen...

It's just sad, and gosh this sounds like my grandmother- but she was an astute lady, that reading is to this extent confused with documentation and thus argued that the 21st century ways of documenting on something mean that reading a book is obsolete.

There will be information, lot of it, in a novel - different times, cultures and people. Just that it needs imagination. I never met anybody with zero imagination who loved reading literature, although I realise this is the inverse theorem.

Unfortunately, we substitute imagination with ready-made and perhaps too abundant visual stimuli. Video games stimulate imagination, some say. Really? Being overloaded with information is hardly that. If anything, has the absolute opposite impact.

Attention span has also reduced itself to mere minutes - so how do we expect a kid to find reading anything other than an effort?

Monday, 14 January 2008

Cynicism

I am a little bit angrier today than usual. John Simpson and the BBC, in defiance of Mugabe's ban on the BBC, managed today to provide us with an exclusive report on Zimbabwe, a country that is, still, falling apart.

The anger is not about the report and its content - those trigger much different emotions from the empathy end of the scale. My anger is about the remark I heard, stating that here we go, John Simpson and the BBC really made some money with this exclusive.

I have watched John Simpson's work for many years during which I had the absolute privilege to have regular access to his materials aired on BBC and personally, after having seen so many different ways of presenting events, I can only and only have the highest respect for this man.

I could have a personal take on what somebody from within some earth-shattering event feels about media people managing to get close and report on what is going on, but that would not be really the subject to dissect here. I could mention that when we were barricaded in my high-school as anti-Hungarian ethnic pogrom was raging outside the walls in March 1990 in my hometown in Transylvania, Romania, the New York Times reporter spending a day with us was not looked at as someone there to make some good money from his interviews. That was the last thing on anybody's mind stuck in the reality of those few bloody days.

The insinuation that John Simpson, somehow, yet again risking his life (and it's a fortunate miracle that he is still alive after the so recent close brushes with death), is there to make some dubious profit, is not just idiotic, but raises some questions - these questions are the things fueling my anger today.

Isn't it remarkably ironic, that we, consumers of Big Brother, made-up celebrities that are absolute non-entities, believers of every single piece of blatantly made-up media hype on real and mostly unreal things, we, consumers and believers in all this, end up questioning cynically even the genuine tours de force in professionalism, empathy and deep humanity?

The same people that made the remark on John Simpson's material probably are part of the crowd that questioned and passed similarly absurd remarks on Audrey Hepburn, frail, battling with cancer, a shadow of herself, but still so full of energy and inner beauty that we could still only and only see her as the radiant being of Roman Holiday, Audrey, ill and thin as a toothpick, apparently making profit out of her charity work done in Africa (?!) in her last years and months.

The list could go on, but then this would not be a short blog entry.

I am just contemplating the apparent paradox: people, unshaken in their faith in fakes and the often openly made-up falsehoods the media feeds them every single hour of every day, are unshaken in their belief that unquestionably genuine acts of humanism and professionalism bordering (or sometimes unfortunately crossing the border of) self-sacrifice are actually some act of ego-centric fame- or money-making.

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Mind The Gap

Tea kettles 'could get hot'. Staircases say 'mind the step'. If, in my train station's case, it only warns me on the first step and I do mean step in singular, I could technically sue them if I stumble on the 3rd step. 'Mind the gap', says repeatedly the voice in the underground, in case we don't notice 6'' gap between the platform and the train. 'Please take your belongings with you', says the voice on the train, in case we leave our bags and get off the train without them. Plastic bags can be lethal. Trampolines manufacturers are blamed for not warning parents who mounted them near metal railings and kids bounced onto them.

It is funny, tragic, irritating, downright infuriating... or all of the above. But beyond the utter stupidity of the messages, there lies the incredible need for these.

Something that Eastern Europe progressed with very rapidly was this ineptitude and inability of the 'new Man' (oh, political correctness, 'person') to survive in the world we created around us.

Romanian kids on school trip in Transylvania asked the teacher, why isn't there a warning sign near a cliff, anybody could fall down. Yes, my child, indeed - but hey, let's put up railings and signs around every ridge and every cliff of the Carpathian Mountains. Their common sense and ability to survive are so lacking, that now there has to be at least one teacher for every 10 kids. Even so, the teachers often give up and no longer go on mountaineering or trekking excursions, as many kids often nearly kill themselves in situations that any sane person with some common sense and intact self-preservation instinct would not even get close to.

We are breeding a new kind of person. Watching what happened during a Bakerloo line banal powercut in the London underground system one can not help feeling: my gawd, common people have lost all common sense. Basic, fundamental presence of mind and instinct go missing and are replaced with total reliance on warning messages, guidance notes, legal disclaimers.

We really are becoming robots, but not with positronic brain as some Asimovian character would have, but, at most, a Babbage machine in its place.

Even the meager washing up liquid in the kitchen is there to protect us. 'Dettol protects. Fact.' says one advert. Soap no longer washes, it 'protects you and your family'.

If even these objects are protecting us from some unspeakably danger, is it difficult to ease ourselves into a cosy feeling of everything, every sign, message, advert, voice recording protecting us. We just have to obey robotically - surely, we don't have to exert ourselves with seeing (a gap or stair or abyss) even. There are signs, thank god.

Without them, if we survive, we have the right to sue.

At least, with great serenity, I can see kids in Romania and the 'West' aligned perfectly, the former having progressed greatly and live in perfect harmony with a world that is there to protect them. Relying on your own senses and brain is no longer necessary.

But my child, mind the sign about minding something, otherwise... trouble.

Saturday, 12 January 2008

... And Less

Since, as per previous blog entry, we are so desperate in dressing up industrial quantities of emptiness and in true post-modern fashion wishing to turn lack of value into value, absence of signs into a sign, lack of content into not just content, but unmissable and must-see, must-hear, must-consume content, convincing ourselves that around us there is more content, more value, more heart & soul in what we consume... do we actually have less meaning in messages that try to build that false conviction?

Saw the other day an advert for yet another fruit juice with some more added whatever - and the exact phrasing was that 'research suggests it may help with' this & that. Suggests, not proves. Doesn't help, it may help. The meaning of the phrase meant to make us buy & drink this even healthier stunning product is reduced to something so close to zero.

Another slogan reads (in translation) 'The new taste of tradition'... No comment.

A new shampoo (actually, re-packaged and with 20% extra something that, if product lifecycles would not have to be desperately renewed every 6 months or so, would have been added in from the beginning into the bottle) claims 70% more shine. Compared to what? Another brand? the hair of somebody walking past you in the street? Or the hair of someone who has not seen shampoo in his/her life?

No, this advert doesn't even resort to the classic comparison with an elusive 'other brand'. It just states a relative increase of something, but compared to an unknown and utterly absent reference point. Even, impossible reference point and impossible scale.

You may have a sequence of adverts about cosmetic or Omega 3 oil-enriched butter, bread, even cornflakes. Each claims to be N % better than the next leading brand. The resulting vector from plotting the dubious inter-relationships and comparisons claimed by the pack of TV meaninglessness is zero.

Futurama captured it all perfectly in an episode: 'Grandma's old fashioned robot oil' (note the cosy, warm words suggesting personal, hand-made goods that emerge from a warm bread-smelling kitchen) is 'made with 10% more love than the next leading brand'.

But the maximum lack of meaning trying to increase our perception of, or even belief in, increased values, content, essence, price, benefits etc. does not only live in advertising and the world of consumer goods.

A slogan in a hi-tech company recently told its employees about the strategic objectives of the department they work in, that it wishes to become 'the coolest software execution environment in the industry'. Yes, it is literal quote.

It would be impossible for any strategist and/or corporate communications manager to explain to me (or anybody sane) the meaning of that sentence. Any attempt would (have to) stop at the point of trying to translate 'coolest' into the world of software engineering as a tangible, usable strategy buzzword.

Yes, as we desperately have to feel we get more out of everything around us in our post-modern life, we have no other choice than resorting to messages that say and mean less and less.

Friday, 11 January 2008

More

No, not the Pink Floyd album title, but something that hit me while reading some musings by Umberto Eco in his Faith In Fakes, and something that, again, Romania is rapidly aligning itself with.

Gone are the days where we had one new film arrive to the cinema per month. By new, I mean something often dug up from archives and seen for the first time in Romanian cinemas of the 70s-80s. Gone are the days when we had a new film shown on TV, chopped into 2-3 parts due to an overall 3-hour long TV broadcast per day. One new book every few months.

We want more. In everything. And we have more - infinitely more in every way, if we believe what is said on posters, the cover of books, CDs and DVDs innundating every minute of our lives.

Not that I'm complaining - I myself almost can't believe my own memories of spending 4 years to hunt down a copy of a rock album in the Romanian 70s-80s. Now, a few clicks on Amazon. Tada.

Do we have more? Every new film that is released, whatever its quality, has at least 4 stars on the posters. Has at least one quote from a magazine, saying 'Film of the year' (in January even...), 'Instant classic', 'Unmissable', 'Must see'. One month later nobody remembers those utterly forgettable films.

The status reports in the London underground show 'good service' when the trains just about run per normal schedule. My dear friend, normal service is not something awesome and does not have the extra sweetness of it being extraordinarily 'good'. It is just normal. But our threshold has been much lowered.

We, to quote Eco, don't say 'another coffee please', we say 'more coffee please'. The newsreaders at a commercial break don't say 'we continue after the break', they say 'more to come after the break'.

Visual sequences are split into multiple windows of different angles of camera, parallel events, sped up, slowed down, spun around - even the most banale visual information has to look like it really is something much more when presented in ways that make cleverly banale use of technology. 5.1 audio is not enough, we need 9.1 to truly immerse ourselves in so many speakers that make acoustic space a ridicule.

We want more. Heck, we need more of everything. Not in materialistic sense (that, too of course, but here we talk about those very non-material things... goodness, quality, value, soul, heart, virtue, character).

And by god, they do gives us more. Or so it seems, MORE is shining its promising light at us from every book cover, film poster, CD and DVD packaging, magazine review.

Unfortunately, real soul, quality, goodness is only present as trace elements on the streets. So, every publisher, media person, designer, marketing guru (or lame apprentice) innundates our senses with the overblown, amplified, extraordinarily ordinary and sense-numbing flood of desperately hyped quality, value, goodness in widest sense, trying to convince themselves and us that what they are flogging at us is not utterly forgettable, soulless and brain-numbing crap most of the time.

Wherever we look, we have MORE... Do we?

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Transactions

On the funnier side of transition and evolution, one gets exposed to an unexpected side-effect of currency changes. Recently (well, in 2006) 4 zeroes were chopped of the old Romanian currency, the Lei - and the New Lei (or RON) has been issued after that.

Slight problem is, to this day there is a very insufficient quantity of coins. What happens, is that walking into shops, you may get the following given as change after cash payments (all from personal experiences in 2 town centres over 18 days period):

- they can't give change. Round it up to nearest integer
- you get a chewing gum or two
- you get a little envelope of instant coffee
- you get 2 tablets of Vitamin C cut from a sheet of blister-packed tablets. Don't ask how they calculated it in the pharmacy
- you get an apple, although you bought 1.5 kilos of bananas

After a few days, I asked whether I could bring a handful of chewing gums and instant coffees as payment for something, answer was a firm NO (they must have thought I'm mad, but come on, surely transaction could work both ways? Anyway, my sarcasm clashed with the very limited sense of humour of the shop assistant).

On the other hand, in an environment of distrust, you also have easily the situation that happened to me (only once) - namely, a 200 RON banknote was rejected at the till, because she didn't know about this being issued and did not trust it being genuine.

Maybe, in a few years, people would know and trust their own currency - provided sufficient banknotes & coins are issued to actually encounter them in all shapes & forms in everyday life...

Sunday, 6 January 2008

On progress

Progress is an odd thing. Whatever means one uses to measure it, the picture can look radically different by just an alteration of the reference point...

Many people still complain about how things have not progressed at a macroscopic level in Romania. But... with comparisons with the aspects of the 'West' that many people do not and can not know without lengthy in-depth exposure to the latter, I would say many things have aligned themselves remarkably well to that elusive 'West'.

There is huge progress made in spiritual matters. Salman Rushdie's fascinating novel (with a misleading title for those eternal bigots of this world), the Satanic Verses, has been finally translated to Romanian and published. The Romanian Orthodox Church (!) has published a declaration by which it condemns the publication and consider the novel and the whole matter outrageous. Several TV channels have quoted the fact that Rushdie was sentenced to death by Khomeini because of this book. Sweet partial truth. And also, great to quote Khomeini in 2007, on a TV channel of a claims-to-be democratic and enlightened nation. The fact that the sentence has been lifted and Rushdie could come out of many years of hiding has been omitted. Sorry, but just what does the Orthodox Church have to do with this novel or Ayatollah Khomeini's fundamentalism or the ludicrous, out-of-the-dark-ages former sentence on Rushdie? The connection is simple. They had a look at the title. That was IT. Not more, not less. It was sufficient to resurrect thinking from the 10th century and blast away grand and utterly stupid remarks in the media. So, we have progress.

Simon Heffer in the Daily Telegraphy wrote eloquently about the UK education system. Not just about how 16 year olds can barely read while passing with flying colour the grid tests they have been trained to pass, but also, more importantly perhaps, about the often irreversible attitude to life. How they have a passive outlook onto the ordinary trials of life and are either reluctant to assimilate new things, or in worse case, have an apprehension towards what normal people exposed to real life would call the necessity for continuous learning.

In this sense, Romania is well aligned to even the UK... Secondary and high-school students have developed a deep aggression towards learning, their system of values centres around the rights they have (and the absolute lack of responsibilities), material things (one is measured by which iPod model he/she has, not by the ability of being able to even read) and how social networking can solve anything in life. They are not immoral, that would mean violation of known moralities... They are simply amoral. Hearing opinions like 'what is the point in learning anything if stealing and corruption solves everything?' are difficult to process or contemplate, in the context of just what society is being prepared. They, especially kids of the nouveau riche, have rights and no responsibilities.

There is also progress in historical and political thinking. In 2006, the national survey conducted by THE Romanian TV channel, TVR1, has shown that on the list of the Top 100 great Romanians, the fascist dictator Marshal Ion Antonescu came out as No. 5. Codreanu, the founder and key figure of the Iron Guard that assassinated many (even high-profile writers) and were an ultra-fascist paramilitary organisation from the 1930s onwards, was also on the list at No. 21. Progress? Yes, the latent and hidden extreme right has flourished remarkably. Just think of the memorable and well-organised ethnic pogroms of March 1990 in Transylvania, the current declarations of such luminaries as Corneliu Vadim Tudor (who exhales the breath of very musky and distant 10th century), then 16 years later seeing such ultra-nationalist and fascist names on the top list is highly educational for those with the ability to see the true trends of a society, not the hyped bullshit and political masquerades.

Not for a moment one says there isn't genuine and huge progress in terms of economics, politics etc. But... these other sides of dubious 'progress' must be taken into account by any responsible and lucid person.

Few more experiences

Afte a detour into a fresh EU reality, it was undoubtedly educational to see the way in which civilisation (modern or post-modern) can be brought to its knees by forces of nature.

Snow storms of the magnitude experienced recently by Southern Romania would bring any city to a halt. So they did in Bucharest. Quite fascinating, though were the aspects of '70s mentality resurfacing.

Watching local news, it was very interesting to see how several airlines could absolutely and totally abandon their passengers on Otopeni (Henri Coanda) airport in Bucharest, for more than 40 hours. The recent Heathrow story repeated itself, but magnified by a factor of almost 3. This time, too no basic provisions or care were given to hundreds of passengers stranded at the airport, who slept on the floor. There was nobody that could be contacted from those airlines. If there were no personal accounts and extensive local footage available, one could think it is indeed some overblown sensationalist media frenzy. But, unfortunately, my own personal experiences over the last 17 years of 'new world' and 'new attitudes' matched everything seen on the screen, live.

Other aspects of the all too well known '70s mentality were filmed and supported by on-the-spot interviews. The funniest (with its mental mechanism so well known to those who lived for several decades there) was when a bus stranded in the snow, blocking the whole avenue was not helped by a crew who watched the entire thing from their bulldozers. When asked, they said nonchalantly, that 1. their boss was on holiday so nobody could tell them what to do, 2. they belonged to a different sector of the capital, so this had nothing to do with them. In other towns, the problems were blamed on the mayors, who happened to be in various places on holiday. In their absence, how could anybody figure out what to do with the precious and vital equipment lying around idle, that could have been used to clear the snow in so many places?

Deja-vu? To some? These are the things that take generations to change. And one would venture over sensitive territory, when mentioning that churches were kept closed and the local 'popa' was nowhere to be found, at the same time that gas station personnel had the good spirit to let people in, after they spent many hours (in some cases, 1.5 days) in cars blocked in the snow - so that they can at least sleep a few hours in warmth.

It is easy to see macro-economic indicators that make the EU feel good. But another thing is to see the street-level reality, where a change in certain people's mentality is actually slowed down or even prohibited by the example set by the 'new circles' of money and/or power. The level to which the latter bring selfish and utterly inconsiderate attitudes to everything and everybody often put the feudal landlords to shame.

Should I mention the case, in my hometown, suffered through by hundreds of children and unfortunately, factual, where the friend of the high-school principal got a contract to install artificial grass on the school football field, and hence having been the recipient of the money that any sane person would have spent on sorting out the absolute absence of heating in that school? Priorities, common sense... these are words that sound very old-fashioned when many things are purely run on the basis of 'social networking'.

The other illustrious gentleman holding in his hands the power of grabbing contracts funded from EU money has installed via his company new electricity meters and fuse boxes in many streets. Looking at them, one if filled with a sense of absurd. The important thing was to get the huge sums of money, then spend it on cheapest and worst possible equipment - the sight of fuseboxes for each family being brought out into the street (!) instead of being at least sheltered in the courtyards and blockflats, so completely exposed to everything and everybody, under flimsy plastic covers was not surreal, but hyper-real. I'm sure the infrastucture renewal money was not exactly meant to be spent on such inconceivable and utterly stupid solutions. Ah well, profit margins were much higher this way.

Everybody is made of homo sapiens material, with its typical frailties. But Homo Balcanicus has ways of reinventing the surreal in this new habitat.