Monthly Archives: July 2009

Man flaunts US-Cuba travel ban, fails to get arrested. I get confused.

Today I was alerted (by World Hum) to a fascinating story about a US citizen who is trying his hardest to get arrested for his flagrant breaches of the US-Cuba travel embargo:

Mytchell Mora, a 39-year-old freelance entertainment news producer, said he told U.S. customs officials he broke the law after flying through Costa Rica home to Los Angeles early Friday….Mora is trying to make a point, hoping to get arrested or cited after his fourth trip to Cuba so he could challenge the country’s travel ban, which he says discriminates against anyone who isn’t Cuban-American and punishes Cuba’s people, not its government… Mora said he hopes he may still be cited so he can challenge the policy in U.S. courts. [AP]

I started writing a post about how fantastic I thought this was.

Then I got pre-occupied with politics, and thinking that maybe – just maybe – strangling a cruddy government is good for its people in the long run, however crap it is in the short run. Perhaps the ends justify the means.

Then I thought that surely visiting other countries should never be banned, because cultural exchange makes the world better. And surely a country can learn just as much from its visitors as its visitors can learn from tourists. And therefore, in a horrible way, an oppressed people can realise how much they don’t have. Perhaps this will make them angry. And rebellious. A good thing.

Then I thought that actually tourist cash can inadvertantly reinforce a rotten status quo, by making people happier (richer)  and less likely to rebel.

Then I thought that it doesn’t matter if tourist cash makes opressed people more likely to accept the status quo because, in many cases, there’s nothing they can do, so they might as well be happy.  And it is desperately unfair for a people to be deprived of food or medicine becuase of a shitty governenment.

But then I thought that hungry and ill people are more likely to overthrow a government.

Then I decided to stop writing.  That is all.

Video Breaks for the Guardian

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Here’s my latest travel video for the Guardian, in which Ilgin and Selin of PukkaLiving.com take me on a street food tour of Istanbul.

I’ve been recording a number of videos for the Guardian recently… here’s the rest:

Le Cool Lisbon took me on a tour of the city

• I visited the ‘independent republic’ of Uzupis, in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, with InYourPocket.

Aktivist Magazine showed me around the once rough, now exciting district of Praga in Warsaw.

• I went a little bit loopy at Blow Up Hall 5050 in Poznan, billed as the ‘most futuristic hotel in the world’.

• Guiseppe Intelisano of the Sicily’s Villa Sonia showed me around Catania’s food market.

On the telly: Me on Working Lunch

I’m a totally massive celebrity these days. Look at me talking about hostels at 12:12, and then answering viewer questions after 23:50.

Projection

more about “555 KubiK | facade projection | on Vimeo“, posted with vodpod

Incredibly impressive pojection onto the facade of Hamburg’s Kunsthalle. See more of urbanscreen’s videos here.

Recent work

One of the main reasons I set this blog up was to archive things I’ve done. Mostly so my Mum only has to go to a single website (otherwise she gets in a terrible muddle). I’ve been a bit lazy about this, so here’s a recent cluster:

For the Guardian:
• A live TwiTrip of Brighton, followed up by a map and write-up linking to tweeted tips and images.

• A map of the Guardian’s favourite British campsites of the summer so far.

• A budget guide to European cities, for the Guardian Money section.

• A hotly-debated blog about London becoming a “bargain” destination.

• A short piece on the launch of Google City Tours, and why it might piss off Blackburn.

For the New York Times
• Another hotel review, this time of the Circus Hotel in Berlin.

Freelancer pushed, editor queries the market, Big Blog makes move?

Paul Carr, a popular tech writer, has had his column axed by the Guardian. This was announced, of course, via tweet:

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The Twitterverse is suprised, and a little upset.

Guardian Technology editor queries the market:

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There. He’s said it. The freemium model is broken (Murdoch would say “malfunctioning”). We can’t afford the freelancer, so how much would you pay for him?

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“paid-for bundle”, eh? My, this is happening quickly.

Meanwhile, has Big Blog already made a pitch for the freelancer?

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Probably not… Paul Carr’s lastest (now final) column was laying into London’s startup scene, something the above blog editor is rather in to.

***UPDATE 21/07:  Oh look, Carr did indeed join TechCrunch. Perhaps Arrington is deliberately cashing in on the Guardian’s losses – they haven’t exactly been seeing eye to eye recently. Also see here, here, here, here….***

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The future of journalism, and why Beauty is still searching for a new Beast

The recession has supercharged the debate on the future of journalism.  It’s not a new debate by any means.  I recently came across this visionary four-year old post by Jeff Jarvis based around a comment from Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger at the time. When the company bought brand new newspaper presses in 2005, he noted that “they may be the last presses we ever own.”  Jarvis’s post was a harbinger of where we are now… print is diminishing and news organisations are coming ever closer to the day when paper distribution might have to be jettisoned.

I found the post via a précis of a recent panel at the Guardian discussing journalism’s challenges in the 21st Century, in which there were obvious echoes of Jarvis’s predictions, amplified by four years of one-way movement in the industry.  When Emily Bell, the Guardian’s director of digital content, was asked whether it mattered if there was no paper version of the Guardian in the future, she said no.  When influential blogger Sarah Lacy was asked about print newspapers, she replied bluntly…

“Shut ‘em down now. They’ve been dragging it out this long. They need to force figuring out the next model instead of dwindling and slowly dying.”

The no-brainer
This panel, and indeed Jarvis’s post four years ago, highlight two important things.  The first is the notion of delivery.  The internet and social media have dramatically changed the landscape in which news is consumed and distributed, a process that has slowly but irreversibly eroded the old, monolithic delivery method: paper.  An un-arguable truism.

But this doesn’t mean journalism is bound for the dustbin of history, it means that the old delivery method is.  The real question is about finding “new wrappers” to replace the old ones.  And the new wrappers should be whatever they need to be… according to what is being wrapped, and how the people want it to be wrapped.  If there are still people who want news in paper form; give it to them in paper form.  If the content is more suitable to blog form; give it to them in blog wrapping.  If they want to be part of it, and interact with it, and help make, analyse and perpetuate it, and the news organisation wants this too…give them the full social media blitzkrieg.  Eventually the former will die out, and the latter will take over.

What’s the big debate? The King is dead.  Long live the King.

The real debate
Problem is, how do we fund this brand new purpose-inspired (and demand-inspired) method of distribution, especially when the demand also stipulates that content should be free?  The debate has been raging for years, and yet this increasingly urgent problem still hasn’t been solved. Four years ago, Jarvis predicted that:

“The biggest challenge is to train advertisers that online is more valuable than print because more people are there and they are more engaged in getting what they want, and so advertising there is more efficient and should be worth more.”

The advertisers still aint trained.  Online ads still aren’t yielding the profits the internet evangelists were hoping they might.  As Robert Scoble noted on the panel, even Techcrunch, one of the web’s most wildly popular blogs, makes the majority of its money from charging admission to its conferences, not through ads.

This might still be a generational thing: the shape of the billboards are changing much quicker than the attitudes of the advertisers.  Maybe they’ll catch up, and all will be rosy.  Or perhaps, more worryingly, the advertisers have spotted a fundamental flaw in the new billboards.  The financial return isn’t as big as they were promised it would be. Problem is, if the adverts don’t want to be there any more, the billboards become redundant.

Ever since advertising became the central pillar of all news organisations’ business models, the causality has been fixed: without adverts, there are no news organisations. And if the adverts don’t fit into the new modes of delivery, then you have a big problem.  It becomes a Brave New World without a backer.  All of your courageous, ground-breaking new wrappers for journalism, all of your participatory debate and democratisation of the news process… it’s all very wonderful, but you just can’t afford it.  Beauty can’t exist without the beast.

This is the “malfunctioning business model” that Rupert Murdoch has talked about.  It doesn’t add up.  Reader demand and industry innovation has pushed journalism into a position of beautiful unprofitability. 

But Murdoch’s suggested solution doesn’t work either…charging for content that people, indeed customers, have come to expect for free can’t work when there is a gargantuan resource in the same market that will always be free – the BBC.  If you have something that people just can’t get elsewhere, fine, they will pay for it.  But when you don’t…

Another suggested solution is associated money-spinners: surround your news product with profitable book clubs, branded dating sites, reader offers and so on.  In this way the news content becomes a loss leader. But good businesses strive to make loss leaders as cheap as possible, and good journalism doesn’t come cheap.  Sure, news organisations can cut costs by regurgitating news wires, taking PR freebies, cutting down on freelancers, and using as much user-generated and crowd-sourced content as possible.  But over-reliance on these cheapo means will gradually decrease overall quality.  And once the quality has gone, what’s the point? 

So what’s the secret potion?   Lord knows.   But what is becoming increasingly clear is that the future of journalism debate isn’t about the future of journalism, it’s about the future of journalism’s business plan.

Related posts: Twitter as tapas, and Twitter as the bog killer
Journalistic pace, and why fast and slow aren’t mutually exclusive

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Surveying survey season…is Tokyo the most expensive city? Or Oslo? Or even Luanda?

The Angolan capital of Luanda.  The World's most expensive city?  Photograph: <a href=

The Angolan capital of Luanda. The World's most expensive city? Photograph: Yan Boechat / Some rights reserved

Yesterday I wrote a blog post over at the Guardian about a new survey that shows London slipping downwards in the ‘world’s most expensive cities’ stakes.  It got quite a response (and somewhat predictably, turned into a London vs. the rest battle).

But this survey isn’t an isolated incident.  It’s part of a season. Each year, analysts across the globe crunch numbers and poll like maniacs, jostling for survey superiority. So I thought I’d survey the surveys.

The subject of the Guardian blog was the Mercer survey that announced Tokyo, a perennial chart-topper, as the world’s most expensive city, knocking Moscow off it’s budget-bludgeoning perch. The study measured the comparative cost of over 200 items in 143 cities.  London dropped 13 places to 16th. Conversely, New Zealand is offering brilliant value at the moment, with Aukland and Wellington coming in cheaper than Dacca, Nairobi and Lusaka, the capital of Zambia. Apparently.

ECA International, another bunch of number-crunchers, think differently. Their June survey, which calculated visiting costs across the globe, found Luanda in Angola to be the world’s dearest, closely followed by four Japanese cities and Copenhagen. Of the fifty cities surveyed, they found Barcelona to be the cheapest.

Confused? Well there’s more. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Cost of Living survey found Tokyo top in March, with Paris in third, and Bucharest bottom. Their most recent Big mac Index, which works out the relative cost of a burger across the globe (and is the poll which I feel holds most weight), found Norway the biggest rip-off and Malaysia the biggest bargain amonst the countries surveyed.

Burgers aside, the Economist also rated Vancouver at the most “liveable” city two months ago. Not to be outdone, arbiters of mod con cool Monocle Magazine (a magazine created by Tyler Brûlé, former owner of Wallpaper) this month awarded their ‘most liveable city’ award to Zurich.

What have we learnt?  There are a lot of surveys out there.  Perhaps we shouldn’t read too much into them.  But while we’re not reading too much into them, let’s argue about it.

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VegBagGate: The Aftermath, and how to steal a bag from Stansted airport

This Saturday, upon returning to Stansted airport from Turkey on Pegasus airlines, my bag didn’t turn up on the carousel. Ominously, my girlfriend’s did, having survived the transfer from Antalya at Istanbul’s Sabiha Gökçen airport.  When transfer bags miss connections, they usually do so en masse.

Even more ominously, a bag was left circulating on the carousel which looked very much like mine. I opened it. Inside I found a dozen or so random documents mostly written in Turkish, and lots of vegetables – there was okra, string beans, corgettes, and other unidentifiable greens.

My immediate suspicion was that I had been stung. Someone had made off with my bag, full of expensive electrical items (a laptop, an HD camera, a Flip video, video tapes containing commissioned work for the Guardian etc), and left me with the ingredients for a ratatouille.

Narrowing the search
Before implicating VegMan, I had to make sure my bag had got to Stansted in the first place.  By the end of the day, having spent all evening on the phone to Pegasus airlines’ representatives in Antalya and Istanbul (I wasn’t prepared to wait for the standard bag tracing procedures to creak through their motions), I had worked out that my bag had indeed been on both flights – the exact amount of bags that were supposed to be on the flights had made it on.

VegMan had my bag, I was bloody sure of it. But by the end of Sunday night, there was still no contact from him.

At this stage I put myself in VegMan’s position, assuming that VegMan was a dastardly criminal. I have grabbed a bag that looks a bit like mine from the carousel. Bonanza! It’s full of expensive stuff. Ok, I’m going to get a call fairly soon telling them that an irate man from north London believes that I have his bag, and that mine is at Stansted. “Oops,” I’ll say, “my mistake, I totally forgot to pick my bag up, I was in a terrible rush you see. But I certainly didn’t pick up anyone else’s bag.”

The Stansted police fail
I rang Stansted police, explained what was going on, and asked their advice in the event that VegMan claimed not to have picked up my bag. I was shocked at their response.

First, the police lady explained that there was no way to conclusively prove that my bag had been put on the aircraft, despite the airline having said so, and that therefore it came under the description of “transit theft” which is near impossible to investigate. I’m fairly sure this is rubbish, but anyway. I was told that at best they could give me an incident number.

I argued that if VegMan (when he surfaced) claimed that he didn’t take my bag, surely CCTV cameras could show whether or not he left the airport with a bag. Her response, in as many words, was “Do you know how long that would take? Do you really think we can go through CCTV footage for everyone?”

How to steal a bag from Stansted
Incredible. A giant loophole. Going on what I had learnt, stealing a bag from Stansted was remarkably easy. 1) Buy a standard-looking roller bag, and load it with vegetables. 2) At the arrival airport, grab a bag that looks like yours, and exit swiftly. 3) When the airline, or the baggage tracers call to inform you that they have your bag, and that a remarkably similar bag has gone missing, simply state that you totally forgot to collect yours, but certainly didn’t pick up anyone else’s. 4) The police cannot be bothered to check whether or not you left the airport with a bag, therefore there is no possible case against you.  5) Return to villain cave.

You might think I’m being irresponsible writing this, but I feel it’s something that needs to be exposed. 

What actually happened
VegMan surfaced, thanks to a little prodding.  I had recorded his name from the baggage tag, and, using ingenious skill (a nameless official let it slip, although I’m fairly sure he shouldn’t have) learnt the name of the travel agent VegMan had booked his flights through.  I spoke to said agents, and told a little white lie – that the police were involved.  They weren’t to know that the police wouldn’t have been bothered.

The agents tracked down VegMan first thing Monday morning. VegMan, who still hadn’t deemed it necessary to report the“mistake”, admitted that he had my bag.

Then it got silly. VegMan was given my phone number in order to return my bag. But VegMan doesn’t speak any English, so the correspondence came through his wife. VegWoman called me and said she was en route to Stansted to pick up the VegBag. Great.

But was she returning my bag?  No, it was still in the boot of VegMan’s car. Obviously. She said she would bring it to me “in the next couple of days”. I told her that she was in possetion of my property, and that I wanted it back pronto.   VegWoman became aggressive, saying that she “didn’t have to do anything”, and hung up.

I rang ahead to the Lost Luggage department at Stansted, and Stansted police, to request that the VegBag bew withheld from VegCouple until they had returned my bag.  Leverage.  The police agreed that it could be withheld.

VegWoman threw a fit at Stansted.   A very brave woman called Norma at Standsted Lost Luggage stood her ground.  If they wanted their okra, they’d have to take it from Norma’s cold, dead hands.  Then VegCouple disappeared. Norma couldn’t see them any more.  I must have called VegCouple a dozen times thereafter, without answer, or to be hung up on.

At this stage, I spoke to Pegasus again, explaining the standoff.   Bizarrely, it transpired that they actually knew VegMan – he was a journalist who had dealt with their UK PR team.  They were very embarassed and promised they would make the switch for me, avoiding the horrific possiblity of some kind of clandestine handover.

They sent a courier to the VegCar to collect my bag, which arrived back with me last night at 6pm, with all contents enclosed.  Rapturous scenes.  The switch wasn’t Pegasus’ prerogative, it was VegMan’s, and for this I must thank them.  Meanwhile, VegCouple were reunited with their vegetables, by now surely a little flaccid.  That’ll teach them.

Phew
Eventually, nothing lost, but a worrying insight gained. VegBagGate has been a cautionary tale. It turned out that VegCouple were more idiots than criminal masterminds, but as described above, if they’d been the latter, they could have got away with it. I hope that my experience highlights this.  Because I’ve lost track of anything else that it highlights.

In conclusion, it is highly possible for a bag swapper to have their vegetables, and eat them. And it really shouldn’t be.

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