Sunday, 30 November 2008

The present of presents

Last year, roughly with similar timings, I talked about the future of presents... Now, with credit crunch, global financial and economic crisis (well, crises), something triggered a short typing exercise about the here-and-now, the present, of Xmas presents.

This morning on the BBC News we had the chance of being enlightened by money experts and members of think tanks (yes, it was wall-to-wall expertise, in glorious widescreen)... Enlightened about whether we can have a nice Christmas while we may not be able to splash out on presents the way we used to.

I just find it astounding, truly astounding, that this topic even comes up, let alone that 'experts' and think tank mini-tanks (well, she looked like one... how nasty of me) have to tell us the obvious: YES, you CAN have a nice Christmas without a Himalaya-size pile of presents in quadruple copies that then will make you queue all January to bring back to shops as unwanted gifts (and yes, people nowadays give gifts with receipts as they EXPECT that most of the gifts will be duplicates, triplicates etc. and you'd have to taken them back).

We heard the experts stating the wonderful obvious, but forgotten basics: Christmas is about family, being kind and loving, atmosphere, getting together etc. etc.

I'm not saying for a moment that finances under the Communist regime were the worst imaginable - there were and are many areas of the world where the former Romanian standard of living can seem utterly luxurious...

But... in that particular misery, I remember having GLORIOUS Christmas celebrations... Before we all started to be re-programmed into thinking that a smashing Xmas is about piles of as expensive as possible presents, the emphasis was about knowing the other person, lovingly picking something that he/she will absolutely love... simple things... and besides things, the hours and days spent together, with a meal as festive as we could put together from the food rations saved up over many weeks and months in the freezer... Endless list of things and utterly immaterial things that made us happy at Xmas.

I wonder whether the experts paraded this morning on the BBC managed to convey the obvious message, that only such experts could state...

The closest I've seen anything and anybody come to the long forgotten, former ideal of Christmas was the John Lewis advert. Apart from the brilliance of it, the final and inevitable slogan had to be there and it said: If you know the person, you will find the present.

And that present, my fellow & dear non-experts in human nature and the quantum physics of Xmas, can be anything, even something as untouchable as time itself.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Social networking

Nope, not of the traditional kind (you know, that ancient form of social interaction arising from being outside the walls of your house, being in contact with real people, building social skills, acquiring vital intuitive skills when it comes to your own safety etc.

This is about two pieces of news that, with remarkable synchronism, popped up recently.

One was about a girl that is so addicted to Facebook that has to be treated for it... She not only spent immense amounts of hours in front of the computer, doing 'social networking', but also went into a frenzy of acquiring 'friends'. She set her alarm clock to wake her up every two hours each night, so that she could check whether eh was marked as 'friend' by some more people. At the point where the parents had enough and also realised that this is pathological, she had more than 5000 'friends'.

The fact that she had no concept of what the real meaning of the word 'friend' is and well, she seemingly never had a real one, is a secondary aspect.

Why? Well, there was that other piece of news. There is a new social networking website set up specifically for children as young as five.

Now... trying not to be old fashioned, but there are some facts that are coming to light in countless sociology and psychology studies. Not just the obvious facts (that all this prohibits children from developing 'normal' social skills and learning to interact with real people), but also some quite interesting novelty items...

It seems that the huge amount of time spent in front of the computer also seriously reduces the kids' ability to develop orientation, combinatorial and manipulation skills important for the three-dimensional space they inhabit. It seems that they actually, genuinely, are affected by a vast amounts of time spent processing information conveyed via an eminently two-dimensional medium.

This trend is gathering momentum in Eastern Europe, too - what started as a genuine 'wow' due to internet and travel opening up the previously so impenetrable real or virtual borders, has now taken over.

There is also a third little news gem... regarding the UK at least... The game consoles have now outsold any other home electronics device.

Again, not being old-fashioned... but some things will not change in our world(s) and one, as a kid, has to have basic skillsets to deal with it. Yes, some skills are now more important than centuries or even decades ago... but we are not talking about what has more merit currently: being able to fence or being able to fix your printer driver in Windows. Clearly, things have moved on and one has to adapt.

But there are basics, and that's where the studies show just how tragicomic the situation is becoming. We still have to be able to play, interact, stay safe and survive, socialise, explore, experience, touch, love... in the real world populated by real people.

Looking at these results and news, one has to think that it is no accident, and it is a self-reinforcing process, that almost 80% of UK parents don't dare let their kids go alone for more than 100 yards radius around the house...

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Modern and ecological

These are two words pinched from the speech of the Romanian Minister for Transport.

He was referring to trains, as he was explaining how worried he is about the future (of the planet, as clearly nobody in the Romanian Government has any worry for the present nor the future of the country... at least they act like that). Plus, he recommended everybody to use the trains as much as possible.

So there are 'rational and worried' persons like him, thinking of greener public transport. Good.

The only slight problem is... reality.

Romanian trains are in a terrible state - if you don't feel traumatised while traveling on them, then definitely must visit any toilet at random. The smell, sights and sounds are beyond the ability of this humble blog to describe.

These would be small problems. But the statistical fact is, based on yet another great (and this I didn't mean sarcastically) report, that 40% of the railway network is also in a state of dangerous degradation. Trains have come and are coming off the tracks, according to the report - and 5000 kilometers of railways, 15000 switch points, 3200 bridges are in desperate need of repair and/or are way beyond their expiry dates. Due to the huge debts that the railway authorities have toward the electricity suppliers, in countless stations the old-fashioned printed cardboard tickets are sold at candle light. NO, I am not kidding.

While this is the state of the infrastructure, and again let's not mention the conditions in which you have to travel on these so-called trains, let's not forget what the environmentally conscious traveler would have to PAY for the diabolical services. Or for getting killed on those railways...

One quick comparison was reported in the press and it is perfectly representative, as anyone traveling on the trains that still exist can testify (because many services on important routes have been discontinued).

To get from Bucharest to Arad, you have to spend 106 new Romanian Leis (RON). It takes you 10 hours, in conditions and temperatures that again would not describe. Try them, seriously. It's good for survival courses.

To fly from Bucharest to Arad in incomparably more civilised conditions and in one hour, costs you 20 RON more.

Dilemma?

I am glad that the Minister is concerned about greener travel and future of the planet.

Could he, please, 19 years after the Revolution and billions of euros diverted into their own pockets, be worried about the diabolical PRESENT of that country??

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Faith in fakes

OK, this time Umberto Eco will definitely have me... for using his non-fictional book title here.

Anyway... this entry concerns a certain infamous extreme right character, unfortunately so well known to many... namely Corneliu Vadim Tudor. Ah yes, him, his name you can find in a few previous blog entries, too.

His latest stunt is of such philosophical beauty, that one wonders: is there any more need to prove how one can not believe one single word that leaves this person's (extreme) mouth?

This time, and this is of universal significance to any tendentious politician anywhere, he didn't take even basic care of presenting information in such a way that it doesn't immediately become obvious: it is, once again, a fake.

He presented a document, which was 'proof' how a journalist reported him to the Securitate, during the 'Golden Era'. And the subtext here is that poor honest and righteous him suffered during the Regime, look, even certain well-known past & present journalists have been informers and reported him to Securitate.

The only monumentally idiotic problem is that the document at first (and then closer) glance is an... idiotic fake.

Not only it uses spelling that only came about much later than the document is dated, but also it was obviously produced on a computer with state-of-the-art printing and word processing... none of which was available at the time when the report was taken down by the Securitate.

Furthermore he claimed, when confronted with the obvious questions, that the document may be a transcript from the Securitate files... This theory then falls down on several aspects: those documents were never transcribed, only photocopied... and any copy whatsoever would have had to wear the stamp of the authorities...

Well, details, political electoral manipulation, tragicomedy, stupidity etc. all aside... This incredible 'character' is one of the 'key' political figures, his entire career being marked by breathtaking (but often stupidly obvious) distortions of reality... coupled with extreme right views.

So yes, he does trigger emotions... but sometimes he is just plain hilarious, and shows just what 'key' figures can bring themselves to, in an environment where anybody can get away with anything, even if reported in the press.

Anyway, I am off to continue laughing my head off... had to stop that while typing.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Basics

While the election campaign in Romania is in full swing (maybe a swing not as wide as the one across the very large pond... but much more tragicomic), some interesting statistics also saw the light of day, together with articles on how candidates use anything and everything from cookies with their portraits to garbage bins with electoral messages painted on them...

Well, the new statistics are about basics. Water, more precisely.

Yes, it is a very 'rural' country in many ways. Yes, it is very agricultural. Yes, there have only (?) been 19 years since the Revolution.

But... while the 'elite' is preoccupied with robbing the country blind, they only divert the EU funds to projects that hold some value in a popularity contest (the Mafioso mayor of Tirgu Mures said no to a funding offer for modernising the water treatment plant, because it was ... well, invisible act... but spent large sums in replacing perfectly good pavement with stonework and endlessly repainted street signs many times in the city centre, just to keep his friends' companies happy with pointless but juicy contracts). A director of a school rather spent the money on pointless artificial grass surface of lowest possible quality than to invest in the heating which is so diabolical that both teachers and pupils freeze their bits off every winter... Appearances ARE everything.

So no wonder, that at the end of 2008, in a so-called EU country, a Douglas Adams-ian 42 percent of the population is drinking dangerously polluted water. Nitrates often are found at such dangerously high level in the water, that children promptly get sick. And this is happening not just in God forgotten rural areas, but there are abysmal statistics on water quality even in such cities as Cluj-Napoca, right in the middle of Transylvania.

Some 60 million euros were used from EU funds now to solve, locally, some problems that simply read like something out of the most God forgotten parts of the third world. Well, 60 million euros are a drop in the ocean.

In conditions where the basic infrastructure (where it exists... as vast number of communities still drink from wells) is so out of date that everything seeps out of the pipes and everything seeps into them, why does one wonder...

In 19 years, although to be fair, it is a short period of time for a complete overhaul of the most basic things, most of the effort was spent on painting a facade towards the EU, milking everything for profit (after all, two key senators have virtually removed 2 counties' forests for illegal timber exports... and made billions in local (old lei) currency in just 6 years...).

If someone expects old or new funds to be spent on basics like drinkable water, can wait a few more decades probably...