Wednesday, 22 January 2014

I like you more, dear, but my time belongs to another

This is probably the closest briefing of my response to the founder of one of the many social networking services that I am registered with by have no time to use. In a personal message today Malte Zeeck asked for my honest feedback on the reasons for my "absence" from InterNations.org.

In a smart marketing move, Zeeck listed how he and his team has tried to make InterNations more attractive and useful to its expatriate members around the world: expanded reach in 190 different nations in more than 300 Local Communities; thousands joining InterNations' private community week-by-week; interesting, high caliber people; top-quality information; and lively forum discussions. And he did not miss to remind me the one thing that I truly like most about InterNations: its offline side. "Our Ambassadors regularly organize offline events in many cities around the world as our members love to meet face-to-face and get to know each other better at InterNations get-togethers, first-class parties, wine tastings, lectures, etc..," Zeeck wrote. Now, how cool does that sound, and how much sweeter a concept than Mark Zuckerberg's cyber-world dreams?

Yes, I like it more. And yet, indeed, I do not use it at all. Meaning: not a single status update for years, no reply to numerous inquiries by interestingly sounding/ looking men/women, not a single visit to face-to-face InterNations get-togethers. Nothing. All of a sudden Zeeck's question intrigued me more than the usual marketing inquiry. Why, indeed, did I not use the network, whose concept and ideas in principle suit me better?
 
There was a short answer: Facebook. But I gave Zeeck a longer one, in which I self-analysed my own e-networking behaviour. Here it is, for the sake of science, business and curiosity:

Thanks for inquiring and sorry about not being able to use a social networking service that appears superior in concept and approach to 'mass consumption' services as Facebook and Twitter. In fact I truly appreciate your effort to step up offline communication with the ambassadors and so on - it is much more human and natural this way. Well done!

Yet, I am not using it actively indeed. And the reason is that I have no time and capacity left for it. I deal with social and political campaigning, journalism, expert contributions and media research on both national and international level and this leaves me with just enough time to spend with my kids and family. Frankly, I have practically turned Facebook into my primary environment for both personal and professional communication. Mind you, I am no big fan of Facebook, ideologically and conceptually. But with over 1500 real contacts there, Skype and good old email, I am fully equipped with information channels. No, I am grossly overloaded! I do not use TV and radio for years now - it all comes via Facebook.

Information overload and time pressure prevents me from using all other social networks where I have profiles, apart from LinkedIn.  What might help your analysis perhaps: even without doing anything, I appear active on two of them: Twitter and Google+, both of which parasitise my hyperactivity in Facebook. Twitter has some level of integration with Facebook, so my status updates appear as twits as well; and Google+ almost automatically republishes my posts in Blogger.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The Lost Island: Seeking to Dispose of Recycling House Waste in Buda

Google street view: the lost recycling waste 'island' on  Miko u. January 2012
Some time before New Year the recyclable waste collection 'island' near our house in Budapest suddenly disappeared. Just before your imagination gets wild, an 'island' is the bureaucrats' slang for a bunch of containers of various colours where residents are supposed to drop their previously selected recyclable garbage. Something we had been doing systematically since we moved into the neighbourhood, and had sort of got accustomed to. And now, bang, it was gone. Vanished. Missing from its steady place on the corner of the Vermezo Park, in the Miko u. - Krisztina Korut intersection. From one week to the other, it simply wasn't there, and I felt stupid with, two bags full of plastic, glass, cans and paper, on my way to the train station, and without any place to leave them. Others before me, who had apparently been in the same ridiculous situation, had simply dropped their selected waste on the sidewalk, right in the place where the containers had been for years, forming an unaesthetic pile. What does one do? Well, I walked a few steps to the nearest public dustbin, and hanged the bags on it - someone should inevitably collect them, sooner or later.

I remembered writing my first message to the First District Council, enquiring about the location of this 'island' back in 2007, just after we had moved in our flat. They wrote me back  then, kindly and in English. So I tried the same, using the contact form of Budapest's Municipality:

Üzenet: Dear Budapest Municipality,
As a house-owner and resident of District I, on Attila ut 75, I noticed that the local separate waste collection 'island' on  Miko utca disappeared some 2 months ago. Where are we supposed to dispose of separated recyclable waste, which is piling up? My contact phone is <...>.
Promisingly, a confirmation arrived back almost immediately, informing me in English that my message had been registered and assigned a number. So all I needed to do was wait. It was December 20, 2013. Soon after we left Budapest for a lengthy Christmas and New Year trip. But I remembered about the lost 'island' on the first day after we returned home - I simply had no idea where to dispose of the selected recycling garbage. Trying to keep it at home sounded infeasible. So with no hesitation I dropped it in the general waste collection bins at the entrance of our house. Other neighbours seemed to have done the same and in the following days the bins suddenly started filling up much quicker than before.

On January 17 the expected reply arrived into my email box - in good English, signed by Domokosné dr. Burza Eszter, Head of Public Utilities and Environment unit at the Department for City Management in Budapest. Impressed, I read:

To inform you the waste collection island was pulled down by the Local Municipality of the 1st district’s request. In the 1st district you can be found other waste collection island places, which will be operate until September 2014, when the house hold collection of the separate waste (paper, metal and plastic) will be start in your local area.

1The list provided the following locations, quote to quote:
  •  Kosciuszkó Tádé utca, next to CBA department store; 
  • \between Krisztina krt. - Attila út; Lánchíd utca parking place - Öntőház utca;   
  • Sánc utca - Mihály utca; and  
  • Somlói út 51. supporting wall before.
Here is what I wrote back:

Thank you for your kind reply. I studied the offered alternative recyclable waste collection 'islands' and realised that the nearest location is about 15 minutes of walking distance (one way) from Attila ut 75, and even further away from nearby areas of the Buda Castle District. This is inadequate for the purpose of daily recyclable waste disposal, which amounts to about half of the overall amount of waste generated for a family of two parents and 3 children  in pre-school and early school age - such as ours. As a result we have been forced to interrupt a well established practise of selective waste collection, and began unfortunately disposing all of our waste in the general community waste collection bins of our house.

Other families in the neighbourhood appear to be in a similar situation, as disposing of recyclable waste in this neighbourhood has become intangible since the sudden removal of the Miko u. 'island.' This led to: obvious doubling of the amounts of garbage disposed daily; overfilling of the green collection vessels in the house; subsequent spillage of odour and waste that create unhygienic living environment; and epidemiological risks. A similar situation can be observed in neighbouring houses. No information or instruction of any kind has been provided to the affected households, which undermines people's confidence in Municipal services in principle.

I would therefore kindly request your action for:
- coordinating with the municipal service providers the urgent restoring of recycling  waste collection possibility for the Attila ut/Miko ut neighbourhood and the adjoining parts of the Buda Castle District; and
- promptly communicating with the affected community, instructing it how to best maintain recycling collection habits and dispose of the selectively collected waste.

This time I Cc-ed the exchange to the Waste Management Working Group (HuMuSz) - a renown NGO in Hungary, requesting their assistance. I also offered my help as an environmental communications expert to the municipality's team. This story is to be continued, I suppose.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The Power of a Price Tag


Two bulbs, one price.
It all started because of the rain this morning . Emese complained that it is too dark in the dining room where she usually works from home – and no surprise so, with  only one out of three bulbs in the large Tiffany-styled lamp above the table actually working.  So there I was, on an urgent errand to bring home light bulbs from the corner CBA. Trivial as it sounds, I found there two types of plain light bulbs – a fancier Eco “Save 30%” one, and a more generic looking bulb. Shame on my green consciousness, I immediately reached for the later, expecting it to be cheaper. These simple bulbs do not seem to last long anyway, so it makes little sense opting for a fancy one is all that I can say in my defence. But to my astonishment both bulbs appeared to cost the same: a discouragingly expensive 629 HUF, that is slightly over EUR 2.

This made me take a closer look. The first bulb is packed and labelled as Emos Classic Eco Halogen and is produced in the Czech Republic. The second one has generic packaging with no brand name, no energy saving label, and no 'Eco' sign and is marked as produced in Hungary.  All other functionality parameters of both products are exactly the same. Both items are sold for the same price - although positioned in separate shelves, with different price tag codes, but one and the same product name:  'Emos Eco', and an identical end price of 629 HUF.

A nearby shop attendant assured me that what I see  is not what I see, and that in spite of all visible differences, both products are Eco Emos Hallogen,  as indicated on the shop's price tag. With Emese desperate for light, I bought both of them and made sure to carefully collect the payment receipt where the products clearly appear under the same name. First thing I did at home was to take a photo of all this mystery. Second, I wrote to Emos.eu whose contact pages are impressively accurate, with the names and emails of responsible officials. Presenting myself as a free-lanced journalist and blogger covering consumer and environmental advocacy issues  for a number of websites and mainstream media in Hungary, Bulgaria and other EU countries, I described the issue and inquired photo attached:

  • could Emos confirm that the two products are indeed the same, in spite of the different information on the package;
  • if so, please explain briefly the discrepancies in labelling; or
  •  if not so, please explain the possible reasons for such misleading product placement and the actual origin and price for the second product?
 
The reply arrived almost instantly – and this is where I really start liking Emos. Mr. Gergely Gurály, Managing Director of EMOS HU Kft, in charge of business activities with CBA, called this a “strange case” and confirmed right away that the second product is not one of Emos’. He kindly promised to inquire with the shop owner. Helpfully, he also passed on a comment by Emos’ Country manager for Slovenia and Hungary Mr Michal Novotný: “on the other side we see that they sell other bulbs than ours” – the other side standing for the Czech headquarters, apparently.  Some fifteen minutes later Mr Gurály reported that the store’s owner was first of all “very sorry for this inconvenient situation,” and will be checking what could have happened, because “it is very strange for him as well, as they are using BARCODE readers, and these are different products with different EAN.” EAN is the long barcode number on every product, I learned.
 
Instead of just leaving it there, to what may easily turn out to  be a sheer price tagging mistake in the shop, I dug out the box of the the second bulb from the paper-recycling bin (yes, the lamps were already shining above happy Emese’s laptop) and gave it a more thorough examination. This is when  I noticed the tiny print on one of the parts that could only be seen after a consumer already opened the box. It reads: GE Hungary Kft, and a street address. Bingo! Equally well hidden on the other cover of the box I spot a tiny index: 13188445 SBOX 42W HALO A/CL/E27 240V BX 1/10 GR. Each of these letter and number combinations supposedly says something about this product.  Yet I could not find it in GE’s online product catalogue. To be sure no stone was left unturned, I submitted an inquiry through GE Hungary’s web contact form  with one simple question: how much does this bulb normally cost? For if it is in fact cheaper than the other, then the wrong price tag in the shop works in fact against GE’s generic looking product – everyone would prefer a more superior looking Emos bulb for the same price I suppose.  

Before GE could have responded, a third message arrived from Mr Gurály, conveying the owners’ explanation that the matter was of an administrative failure in the shop’s IT system, whereby the staff attached the EAN of the Hungarian (GE product) article to the EMOS article product card as a secondary EAN.  The shop owner reportedly asked for my apology, and is willing to pay me back the price difference – which is fair enough. So apparently my original suspicion that a cheaper product is tagged with a misleadingly high price was confirmed. I would suggest that CBA could also instruct their staff how to handle customers’ inquiries more carefully, but this might be too much to wish for I suppose. So this is where this story ends, pointing at how easy it is for a retailer to shift the marketing of a product one way or another – and suggesting an interesting line for further inquiry into the impenetrable secrets of marketing and retail. For now that  think about it, this is not the first time that I come across products tagged for retail under different names.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Basescu's Green Failure



Anti-green talk is becoming a common act of despair for a certain quality of East-European leaders who have long lost the battle for decency in politics. By piling up false and ungrounded accusations against the Green movement, [Romania’s] President Basescu is in fact publicly resigning from his duty of serving the public’s interest. Just alike a myriad of post-socialist politicians of the past two decades, he is openly betraying people’s dreams for democracy, good governance, local entrepreneurship, health and clean nature. Instead, they have been turning Romania and other countries of Central Easy Europe into dirty lawless extraction fields for the profits of multinational corporations and local oligarchs, mostly controlled by the criminal structures around the former regimes’ secret services like Securitate. It is their shady deals, non-transparent business practices, and dirty technologies exploiting the pristine natural resources of Romania and the rest of  the region, that Basescu is trying to back, not the interests and prosperity of his fellow citizens.  In vain! For Romanians, just like all European citizens today, have the right to protect their natural environments, and the power to stand up for it against their untrustworthy political representatives, and move on without them in a green, sustainable and equitable Europe.

Earlier this week Romania's President Basescu made the following statement, translated by Bucharest-based of environmental journalist  Raul Cazan:

  "You know, this is, if you wish - I do not want to offend anyone - a sort of delayed environmentalist reaction. Environmentalists were extremely vocal, in the ‘70s and ‘80s in Europe. They have lost the battle against the need for development, be it in Italy, France or Germany. Therefore they are not very strong today, because they are not very credible. We can not remain as in the eighteenth century, we can not preserve everything, because development obliges us to find solutions that will allow us, on one hand, to go forward, and on the other hand, to affect the environment as little as possible with this advancement of ours. I would say, for example, what would Italy have done if environmentalists had been successful, because the whole country of Italy is a protected monument, right? They would not have built any highway. What would have France done with its nuclear power plants? It has 80% of the energy generated by nuclear power plants. The ecologist idea is overdue and I do not exclude the possibility that environmentalists that failed in the rest of Europe to find Romania as an area in which to practise what they could not achieve in their countries. So I think things are extremely complicated, in the way we approach them now."

Basescu's comments were made after over 10 days of environmental protests on the streets of Bucharest. The rallies, reportedly of unprecedented scale, are against the government’s controversial decision to greenlight the construction of an opencast gold mine near the Transylvanian town of Rosia Montana.  Over 8,000  marched across the capital on Sunday, carrying signs reading “I love nature, not cyanide” and “Corruption equals cyanide.” According to police, 6,000 demonstrators also rallied in the major Transylvanian city of Cluj and 900 people gathered in Brasov, RT.com reported.The controversial project of Canada's Gabriel Resources Ltd intends to extract over 300 tons of yellow metal and 1,500 tons of silver from the gold mine that has been known since Roman times. According to the campaigners, the quarries would destroy four mountain peaks and three villages out of 16 in the local municipality, and will involve the use of around 12,000 tons of toxic cyanide per year.

These events are in striking similarity to what is happening in neighbouring Bulgaria. Environmental protests against a controversial amendments to the Forestry Act lead to mass scale protests in June 2012, which then escalated by the year's end, causing the resignation of the centre-right government of Boyko Borissov in the spring of 2013 and preliminary elections. After taking a narrow win in them, a new government was formed, backed by the Bulgarian Socialist Party, the Muslim-minority based Movements of Rights and Freedoms, and nationalist-populist fraction Ataka - just to  be confronted in turn by ever larger protests, as soon as it appeared to serve a shady industrial and media mogul's interest. Disillusionment from traditional political parties whose leaderships act in favour of industrial and economic interests and ignore the public ones, is common for the region of Central and Eastern Europe.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Support for Genka Shikerova

Photo: BTV
Genka Shekerova was one of the most interesting and inspiring participants in my PhD research back in 2010 when I performed participant observation in BTV's newsroom. She was also the only one who agreeed to be cited for the purposes of my research with her name, as her work identifies her perfectly: she is the author of The Concrete Gardens documentary, the best and most acurate dissection of the rotten processes that turned Sunny Beach from a green result to a jungle of concrete, lawlessness and crime. I had an opportunity to express support to Genka about two weeks ago, when she and her co-host of BTV's morning show were pressurized by Lutvi Mestan, the chair of ruling coalition member DPS - which stands for Movement of Rights and Freedoms in Bulgaria.

Less then a week later I received another alarming information about Genka. The South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO), an affiliate of the International Press Institute (IPI), expressed concern about a reported attack on a vehicle owned by Genka Shikerova. Shikerova’s car was set on fire on Monday evening in what is suspected to have been arson. Shikerova told viewers of her show on Tuesday morning that the vehicle was parked in front of her home in the Geo Milev district of Sofia when it was set ablaze and that the vehicle was destroyed, SEEMO's press release reads.

SEEMO Secretary General Oliver Vujovic commented: “This is not the first time that the car of a journalist or a media company has been damaged in Bulgar11ia. Such incidents are used in the country as a means of threatening journalists. I urge the state authorities to investigate this case.”
He added: “I also call on authorities in Sofia to solve the cases of previous attacks on journalists. As we know, no one has been charged in relation to a number of cases of violence against journalists in Bulgaria in recent years.  Further, I urge all EU institutions in Brussels to do more to protect the security of journalists in Bulgaria. Attacks and pressure on journalists in any EU country, including Bulgaria, are not acceptable."

Monday, 5 August 2013

Tracing the post from Bulgaria to the UK


Tracing a posted item online is nothing new or exciting for Royal Mail clients for years already. But being able to do the same on the web site of Bulgarian Posts is new to me. Particularly when it concerns a posted item which  needs to arrive to England by a strict and fast approaching deadline - my PhD thesis in this case. And when the origin is Byala - a Black Sea coastal town where postal service is, well let's say, quite traditional.


'Traditional' here stands for something that has been experienced by generations of tourists along Bulgaria's coastline ever since the birth of mass tourism somewhere in the early 1970s. Since back then the tiny understaffed and poorly equipped postal stations in small towns and villages all of a sudden had to handle increasing numbers of visitors during the summer months when the Black Sea's sand dunes became one of Eastern Europe's best known holiday destinations. Tourists were flocking in endless queues in front of ancient looking phone boots or tiny cashier windows, experiencing WW2 technology and impolite services. For good or bad, Byala's post office still looks quite the same, with its opening hours limited to the morning only. And while the advance of mobile phones and the internet has cut on the phone-boot queues, new post office functions keep attracting visitors in fairly large numbers. These include SIM cards and satellite television sales, money transfers - including retirement pensions and other social benefits, and good old post office merchandise, such as good old postcards, but also cosmetics and other small consumer items. As a result of seemingly wrong office and labour organisation one of two clerks sits idle most of the time behind her counter, strictly refusing to invite and serve customers queueing in front of the other one.

This means that every visit to the post office, for even a most innocent operation like buying stamps, promises to take easily a quarter to half an hour of waiting. The fact that the clerks seem to struggle with computer technology and are now apparently learning to use keyboards doesn't make things easier. In addition, on this particular August 29 when I had to post my three hardbound thesis copies to the Open University in Milton Keynes, one of the clerks had an intern, to whom she kept explaining tediously each of the simple operations that she was performing, and a visiting supervisor from Varna was standing in the office observing, while also chatting up casually with everyone.

Yet, after my usual thirty minutes of waiting time I was able to reach the relevant counter and place the neatly packed package in it. "You know it needs to be open so that we can check what's inside," the lady muttered while moving it to the electronic scale. I did not, apparently, otherwise I would not have glued the envelop. But there was little reason for regret, as the package appeared to weight some 12 grams more than the 2 kilos maximum allowed limit for a postal package. I declined a kind invitation to have it mailed as a parcel, having read on the posts' website the previous night that there is no priority delivery for parcels, and that would probably mean missing my delivery deadline set by the Open University's Research School. Luckily the same counter could sell me two brand new 'bubble' envelops and I retrieved from the counter to re-pack my thesis copies and re-label the new packs. Another customer took my place in front of the counter and did not vacate it until about 15 minutes later - during which time he managed to send 4 recorded letters to various countries.

I then kindly let a young man receive his 40 BGN money transfer, with which he claimed he had to catch a bus to Sofia that was leaving in 15 minutes. It took ten of them for the women behind the glass to release his money, he then rushed in the street. Ten minutes later I realised that his wallet full of IDs and other plastic cards was left behind on the counter. "He will come back for it," the clerk concluded peacefully, while collecting it. My time to send the dissertation had come. I handed the two open envelops to her through the tiny opening in the glass. "We are now checking if this are really documents," she explained to the intern who was staring at the packages. Then she pulled the stripe and sealed the envelops. "The two can go together, as one delivery," the clerk explained again, this time a bit more hesitantly. In any case, ten minutes later I was the happy owner of a tiny payslip with two bar code numbers printed on. With international priority and return receipts the overall price I paid was 58.10 BGN - roughly about 23 GBP for the two packages. Relieved and almost proud I left the post office, assured that my envelops will make the mid-day post to Varna.

And they did, I realised a week later, that is today. Lead by curiosity, but also a little but anxious whether my thesis is bound to arrive where it is supposed to on time, I decided to trace it online - not even sure if such service is offered by Bulgarian Posts. But it is! Following the Track and Trace button on the right side I was able to type the bar code number from my payslip and learned - both in Bulgarian and English that:
  • on the very same day's afternoon, July 29, at 16:45 the mail was received in Varna;
  • on the same night, at 02:56 past midnight on July 30, it arrived in Sofia "in good shape";
  • eight minutes later, at 03.04 am, my thesis was already in the international exchange office in Sofia; and 
  • the latest record from 05.05 am on July 30 says "Insert item into bag (Otb) and Send item abroad." 
Here is where the trace of my thesis ended, as far as Bulgarian Posts were concerned. So I thought it worth checking its path on the Track and Trace web page of  Royal Mail.  The same bar code produced an encouraging report:
  • Delivered! 
Under it, in smaller type, it clarifies that "Your item, posted on 01/08/13 with reference RI087770163BG was delivered in BRINKLOW PDO on 02/08/13." No exact hours mentioned. From all I know, this means that it took over 24 hours for the two envelops to arrive on English soil by air, and then another day to get to Brinklow, where I suppose the post depot in Milton Keynes is. Royal Mail then thanks me for using their International Signed For™ service - not that I have any idea what it is.

What seemed like a happy end needed one final check - has my thesis actually arrived to Research School?

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Sofia rallies for transparency and decency in politics

Photo courtesy of Petya Raykovska / Dnevnik
Sofia saw a truly inspirational moment on July 18, 2013, as a pro-democracy, pro-European, pro-human rights march stopped at the monument of Vassil Levski, the visionary hero who integrated the same ideals in Bulgaria's 19th century national liberation movement. It was his birthday, and hope for making Bulgaria the 'transparent and holy republic' of his dreams seemed closer than ever to hundreds of thousands of Bulgarians who have rallied for over a month demanding the resignation of the incumbent Prime Minister, popularly nicknamed Oligarchsky. Sofia has seen a hot summer, with marches taking place every evening since June 14, 2013, gathering more and more people in the streets of the capital and other Bulgarian cities. The government they seek to remove is seen as a being dominated by oligarchic interests, namely those of Bulgaria's Corporate Trade Bank, which has gained might over the past years, purchasing mass media outlets and business companies, including former state telecom and tobacco production monopolies VivaCom and Bulgartabac, with the help of Bulgarian state-owned company deposits and Russian capitals. The cabinet was formed after the preliminary elections in May 2013 with the backing of Bulgaria's Socialist Party, Turkish minority's Rights and Freedoms Movement, and popular nationalist  Attack, neither of which appeared to truly care of anything else but the money and the power. And as the former (Centre-Right) government of Gerb had not done much better before being toppled by an earlier wave of public protest back in February 2013, it seems that new politics is needed in Bulgaria: done by people and parties who stand for their ideologies, rather than profits, and have nothing to do with the former State Security.