Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Right and Wrong Ways of Shopping Online

Today, we shall be discussing an aspect of life in Estonia that every enterprising resident has encountered, and everyone else has at the very least bitched about: buying stuff in the US. (I'll be talking about electronics, because that's what I have experience with.)

There's a number of reasons why certain things cost a lot more in Estonia. One of them is market segmentation: the manufacturer will sell for volume in one market and for margins in another. The US consumes a huge number of goods, and there's also more competition. On this side of the Atlantic, people don't buy quite as much vacuous crap; plus there are obligations such as warranties (the EU mandates a minimum warranty of something like a year on all goods, whereas in the US you'd be lucky to get 30 days without having to pay for an "extended warranty"), taxation differences, etc. All this means that manufacturers tend to set higher prices for their goods. In fact, there's a rough rule of thumb that a product will have the same numeric price tag - in USD over there, in Euro over here.

More importantly, manufacturers are really annoyed when people circumvent these limitations. This is why US warranties are often not honoured abroad, even if the manufacturer has an official repair centre in the country and sells the exact same device locally, warranty and all. (There are differences between policy and practice - I've talked to people whose US-sourced cameras were routinely serviced at nominal or no cost by the Canon affiliate in Tartu, and I've also talked to people whose laptops with "worldwide warranties" were denied repairs because the person who brought them in was not an American on a business trip.) This is also part of the reason why Amazon.com has the line "Currently, item can be shipped only within the U.S." in the description of all of their electronic components. The other part of that reason is that Amazon has subsidiaries in Europe, and would prefer you shopped there, and paid higher margins to Amazon as well as Apple.

For Estonia specifically, there is the added problem of us being a very small market. It's mostly not worthwhile for manufacturers to set up a presence here, they just sell the franchise to a local company. The reason an iMac costs $200 more in Tallinn than in Helsinki is because the Apple stores here are actually all iDream or iDeal - local companies that buy small volumes of stock at less than Apple's best wholesale prices, then add their own costs and as much profit margin as they can get away with on top of that.

Fortunately, you can get around all of this. There are companies in Estonia that will buy an item for you in the US, ship it here, take care of all the paperwork, etc. But these schemes involve a lot of extra steps that make the goods expensive, often more expensive than an equivalent that you can get right here, so they are mostly used by people who are looking for a highly specialized niche product that simply is not available in Estonia by any other means - people for whom getting exactly what they want is more important than the cost. (I've never seen a company like this advertise its services for more than a few months at a time, so there's a good likelyhood that such companies just go out of business, or offer the opportunity as a sideline to their main revenue generator.)

These days, there are also ways to buy things from the US directly. B&H is the biggest one I've seen - a store in New York City that started out dedicated to professional photo & video equipment, but now does most of their business online. They will actually ship anything in their (quite expansive) stock anywhere in the world, including Estonia - and if you choose a slightly more expensive shipping method, they will even have their partners deal with customs on your behalf.

Both of the options above, however, involve paying customs duties. It still makes sense on some purchases - the B&H site was pointed out to me by someone who wanted to buy a Canon 50D semi-professional camera, 13 700 EEK delivered to Estonia versus 16 800 EEK at a local supplier. But the true bargain hunter will want to bypass the Tolli- ja Maksuamet entirely.

Here we come to the bit that made me write this entire article. Because in buying electronics from the US, there is a Right Way and a Wrong Way.

The Right Way is to find an acquaintance who happens to be going to the US for whatever reason, and ask them to bring back the gadget for you. I brought a MacBook Pro back for a friend this summer - even with Washington DC's sales tax and whatever SEB charged me to use my credit card abroad, the final cost out of my bank account was 14 000 EEK and change; even half a year later, the same model in Estonia costs over 18 000. The first time I went to the US - years ago - I was bringing back not just the MP3 player and digital camera I got for myself, but a suitcase full of special equipment for my employer's technical support center, and a snowboard. (The snowboard was for a colleague who was returning to Estonia a week later, but couldn't bring it himself because he was already carrying a full desktop tower PC and a huge, professional CRT monitor.)

The Wrong Way, if you're buying anything expensive, is to get it from eBay and have it shipped to you privately.

Postal packages have a declared value for their contents. If the value is below 150 Euro, the Estonian customs authorities won't even look at it - this means that you can buy books, CDs and DVDs from Amazon.com without any trouble. (Actually, even purchases from Amazon's main site will be shipped from the German warehouse half the time if the delivery address is within the EU, but that doesn't happen every time and you shouldn't count on it.)

If the declared value of the package is more than 150 Euro, it will be subject to import duties, equal to the local VAT. 20% right now, but it was 18% years ago, when I was receiving a shipment from India containing spare parts for two thousand inflatable dildos. (It's a long story.) There's also an administration fee attached - the threshold used to be a lot less than 150 Euro, so I've been in a situation where the fee was more than the tax itself. You can find the full set of customs rules for postal packages here, or a partial bad translation into English here.

Finally, here's the Really Wrong Way: you can buy an expensive piece of goods in the States (or on eBay), and try to outsmart the Customs Board. You can have the goods delivered to a friend in the US, who will resend them to you directly, marking them as a gift and declaring a very minor value. Murphy's Law dictates that the package will be lost in transit (more likely than not, stolen by a postal worker en route - a friend in Canada has taken to labeling all his packages "educational materials" on the assumption that the same Canadian posties who appropriate expensive-looking boxes are fundamentally uninterested in education), at which point the international postal system will either shrug, or refund the sender the $1 declared value of the package and tell him to have a nice day.

Then you can do the thing that is not just Wrong, but annoying, the thing that a friend of mine has been whining about all day: buy an expensive piece of electronics via a third-party vendor on eBay, have the vendor declare the package as a gift, then explode in righteous indignation when the Customs Board says, "no, this is actually something you bought, so yes, you'll have to pay the equivalent of Estonia's VAT on it". If, as my friend, you've also selected a private delivery service such as FedEx and UPS and didn't want to pay them to deal with Customs on your behalf, you'll also experience all the joy of getting a bureaucratic institution governed by bysanthine local and international regulations to pay attention to you as an individual - exactly the sort of entity that a Customs authority has absolutely no interest in accomodating.

What annoys me isn't the attempt to get around the Customs rules. The Estonian version of the regulations has a paragraph that specifically addresses eBay purchases with a dubious declared value: A non-commercial package is a goods package that is sent by a private party from a third (non-EEC) country to an EEC resident on an ad hoc basis, contains only goods intended for the personal use of the recipient and his family (such as gifts), whose type and quantity do not indicate a commercial purpose, and which the sender is sending to the recipient for free. (My translation, their emphasis.) Thus, an iMac that the recipient's American cousin received, unboxed, played around with, placed back in the box and sent to Estonia along with pictures of the cousin's new baby and a bag of home-baked chocolate chip cookies is something the authorities should not be taxing. An iMac sent by someone for whose effort you paid, is not a gift or a delivery of your own property - it is a purchase, and as any purchase in Estonia, it is subject to local VAT. (For bonus morality, see this site, which talks about state sales tax on Internet purchases in the US in terms of whether the recipient is benefitting from the services provided by the state and paid for by the taxes.)

I am annoyed by people who claim some sort of ideological high ground for downloading movies & music from the Internet - "information must be free", "copyright is unfair" etc.: just admit that you're doing it because you can, it's convenient and there's an infinetisimal chance of ever getting caught. In the same way, I am annoyed by people who claim the Customs Board is being unfair to them by not accepting their argument that an eBay transaction somehow constitutes a delivery of personal-use property, not a purchase of goods from a commercial seller. It's disingenuous, and it makes you look like a twat.

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Monday, October 05, 2009

The Slightly Used Book Shop

I've often said that there are only a few international consumerist icons that I really wish existed in Estonia, and that among them are Subway (the sandwich place), and Waterstone's bookstores. I have a vocational disorder where I cannot read a book in translation if I know the original language - I keep getting distracted by the artifacts, keep going "I see what you did there". The selection of English books in Tartu and Estonia in general, while significantly improved in recent times, is still inadequate for my requirements. Half of my baggage coming back from the States was dead tree.

Yes, there's Amazon, but a)shipping gets expensive, and b)I still enjoy the experience of visiting a brick-and-mortar bookshop and browsing through the tomes. It's probably ironic how, in the age of the Internet, physical books are still so eminently popular. Popular enough, in fact, to fall under the "80% of everything is shit" maxim. For proof, go no further than the guest segments on The Daily Show.

I saw something in NYC that is even better than Waterstone's, or Barnes & Noble, or Borders. The biggest bookstore in Manhattan does a very brisk business in second hand. They actually have a section and staff dedicated to buying back people's books.

This is an idea that, I think, would be extremely beneficial to Tartu. I have actually considered doing it myself, except for the fact that I am far too lazy to handle all the minutiae of starting up and running a small business; I would need to find a really good manager and stay a silent investor type myself. (I do know a person who'd be perfect, but that very character quality means she's already quite busy with various organizational duties.) But I genuinely think that a slightly used book store could be successful in this town. Tartu has an Apollo and a Rahva Raamat, and the university bookshop, but beyond that it's just antique stores with derelict wares. There must be others like me in this town, people with shelves stuffed with books they enjoyed once but probably won't re-read in the future. If, say, the average new English-language paperback costs 150 EEK, my shop could buy them back for 50 and sell for 75. And we don't have to limit ourselves to English books, the point rather is to offer a cheap alternative for modern, mainstream literature, in any (physical) form. How many times do you think we would re-sell the same Harry Potter volume, collecting a profit each time? I gather that US videogame stores have been doing quite well off that model.

And no, I wouldn't be competing with libraries: they have a limited selection, aren't motivated to keep up with demand, and come with a built-in obligation to return the book by a certain deadline. Ownership just feels good.

Until I get off my ass and make this happen, however, here's the next best thing: BookMooch. It's the book version of an idea some friends and I threw around for a while, the International Beer Exchange - the point was to mail a bottle of your local brew to someone far away, and get a credit that you could use to request a different flavour from elsewhere. (I even owned the domain internationalbeerexchange.com for a while.) My plans for the Slightly Used Book Shop did actually involve providing the service across Estonia, using the SmartPOST network. BookMooch is a more Web2.0 community-ish affair: you list the books you no longer want, and people can show their interest. You send off the book, and get an arbitrary credit that you can use to request another book from someone else. Encouragingly, Estonia is actually already represented quite well, with around 60 books currently available.

Here's my page on that service. Sign up, and tell your friends about the service!

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Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Still Unconvinced

The conclusion of the Th!nk About It project. Check out the video at the bottom, it's hilarious, a much better execution of stereotypes than that "Union of Subsidized Farmers" crap.

Comments on that page please.

FWIW I'm going to vote for IRL; I'm not a huge fan of anyone, but at least I can respect Tunne Kelam for bothering to hang out at Tartu's main footbridge at 9am on a Thursday, handing out free coffee to passersby. (The coffee is horrible, but I did score a rather cute EPP-ED bottle opener.)

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Monday, May 18, 2009

The Thousand Dollar Car Theory Still Holds

The Mazda RX-8 was launched in the early 00s, and at the time, I really thought it was close to the perfect car. It was a rear-wheel drive sports coupe, looked really good, and was relatively practical; in fact there was an ad campaign for it saying that if you tried hard, you could actually justify it to your spouse as a family car.

I liked it so much at the time that I made myself a promise. Obviously I couldn't even come close to affording the RX-8, but others bought them, and of course new cars depreciate rapidly - especially expensive sportscars from non-prestigious brands. I told myself that when I was 25 - which seemed like a long way away - I would buy one. Even if it was used. Even if I would have to pay it off until I was 30.

I turned 25 a little less than two weeks ago.

Unfortunately, the RX-8 has a serious flaw. Its engine is unusual, a completely different engineering solution to regular piston motors. It's called a rotary engine, or a Wankel after the German who invented it. I won't go into detail, but basically it is smaller and lighter than a piston engine, but produces more power. The downside is that because of some inherent problems with Wankel's design, it's not terribly reliable. Reports from RX-8 owners suggest that the engine tends to break down catastrophically after 100,000km, even with careful maintenance. If the RX-8 had come with a regular engine, such as Mazda's 2.3-liter turbo from the MPS line of cars, it would be perfect; but it doesn't. An RX-8 that has done around 30,000km costs about twelve thousand Euro in Estonia today; not completely outside the realms of my budget, but not the sort of money I'd feel comfortable spending on an inherently unreliable machine, despite the fact that I don't drive that much. (My current car has done around 25,000km in two and a half years, and the bulk of that has been on the Tallinn-Tartu freeway.)

However, I would still like to keep the promise to myself. And it appears that the Estonian Volkswagen dealer got an unusually large shipment of the new Sciroccos. Now, I like the Scirocco: it looks good, and it's based on the VW Golf GTI, which is considered one of the most fun cars this side of something fundamentally impractical. (People who write for car magazines have repeatedly stated that on real-world roads, a Golf GTI will certainly be able to keep up with a Ferrari.) In Estonia, today, VW will sell you a Scirocco with all the equipment you need for less than 20,000 Euro. For a car in this class, that's bloody cheap, and VWs keep their value quite well as used cars, and hey, my mortgage interest rate dropped like a brick in April, didn't it?

I was in Tallinn this Friday on other business anyway, so I went to the main VW dealership and test-drove the Scirocco. The one they had was the top-end model, with the turbocharged engine and DSG gearbox - the best automatic gearbox in the world right now, by general consensus of people who know about these things.

My first reaction was that I was right to aim for the cheapest model, with the less powerful 1.4 twin-charged engine (which is still powerful enough to force me to contribute to Estonia's ailing budget), and manual gearbox. I've had the argument with Mingus, who dismisses the common argument of manuals giving better control, because with an automatic you always have both hands on the steering wheel - and that's safer. Honestly, I can't refute it, and the DSG was really awesome. I simply enjoy driving a stick shift more.

But honestly, even while I drove the Scirocco down the back roads of Tabasalu, I couldn't feel it. I wasn't experiencing that wonder, that sense of do want that I would need to justify the purchase. I spent over eight thousand kroons on my little aluminium HP laptop, which was more than the competition, and I didn't strictly need it - but the satisfaction from owning something genuinely awesome was worth it.

It's the same thing, every time I drive a new car. It's great, sure, but it's not mind-boggling; it's not an order of magnitude better than whatever I am driving myself at the time. I had the same experience with a Suzuki Grand Vitara, back when I had a 1988 Honda Accord; the Suzuki was quiet and comfortable, but dog-slow in comparison. Modern cars are just too heavy to take advantage of the power, and neither do they have the ability to filter out the imperfections of our roads - certainly they don't provide the difference to match the price increase compared to a ten-year-old car. Yes, a new one will be more reliable - but, if you choose your ride carefully, a used one will not be more expensive to run than the maintenance costs of something that still has to be serviced at the dealership to keep the warranty.

It's odd that, for such a gearhead, I am having such trouble getting properly excited about something as nice as the new Scirocco.

PS. The guy I talked to at the dealership was a real pleasure. Friendly, active and competent. I feel like an asshole for deciding against the Scirocco, so if you're looking for a new car these days and have been disappointed with the customer service levels at most dealerships, go to Saksa Auto Pluss in Tartu (corner of Aardla and Ringtee) and ask for Allan Ainson. And I think there are some really good discounts on most VW models these days.

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Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Do Want, Assorted

It's spring and the gadgets are coming. HP has finally released the HD-screen version of the 2140, and I want it. I've got a 2133 right now, as long-time readers might remember; it's by far the best notebook on the market in terms of build quality, and has an excellent keyboard that I have typed very long texts on. The trouble with the 2133 is its dog-slow CPU. The 2140 has an Atom CPU, which means it's faster and lasts longer on the same battery. It also has a larger screen, in the same outer casing. Up until now the screen they offered was a meager 1024x576, but the new one is 1366x768 (same pixel count as the 2133, but 10.1" instead of 8.9").

I just tried the configurator on HP's website and a 2140 with the HD screen, six-cell battery, 2gb RAM and a 7200rpm hard drive came out to $684 (sans Windows). That's less than I paid for my 2133 a year ago, and it's the top hardware they have. The 2140 is even available in Estonia; let's hope they get the HD model in stock soon.

Meanwhile, I keep drooling over cameras. The Sigma SP2 is what compact cameras should have become ages ago: a really good sensor in a small body. It has no optical zoom, but it shoots in RAW mode, so at 14mp you can just crop to taste. Still, it costs $649, and ultimately I don't need all those megapixels; what compact cameras really need is a very, very good 2mp sensor. (How many photos have you printed in poster-size, in your life?)

This should appear in Europe soonish as the Canon 500D. It's the 50D's sensor in a 450D body. Desirable for a second, but ultimately I will probably have to wait for Micro Four Thirds cameras to drop in price. I need a tilt-screen, and the entire SLR concept is useless for digital cameras; its point was to show the same image in the viewfinder that would be captured on film, but now you can just export the signal from the sensor to the LCD, before it gets captured in full detail. Micro Four Thirds keeps the high-quality sensor and swapping optics of DSLRs, without the extraneous bullshit, and in a smaller package. Since there are companies making adapters that let you fit standard Nikon/Canon lenses to MFC bodies, that's definitely the way to go. Until then, there are things my Canon SX10 can do that I still haven't learned to use properly.

By the way: the keyboard on my N85 broke and became unglued. Apparently it's a common problem, a design flaw. I like the hardware on the N85, but the build quality is atrocious compared to the 6500C I had before, and the phone itself is a lot more expensive. So while I'm waiting for Tele2 and Nokia's warranty to get back to me, I've ordered an Ericsson T39 off eBay. 344 EEK including shipping, and two batteries. It's old, and it's eminently cool.

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Monday, December 15, 2008

Feeding my "ooh, shiny!" reflex

Anyone want to buy a Mazda? I've had my car up on auto24.ee for a month now. Spent some money getting it into shape for the technical test, which it passed with flying colors - and then realized that I've had it for almost two full years now. In that time I've put less than 20,000 km on it, and most of that was a couple of extended trips to Riga and a lot of time spent on the Tallinn-Tartu road. Most Estonian bloggers will have bad things to say about that road, but honestly, it's an acquired skill. You have to get used to driving the best part of two hundred klicks on a windy, dark, icy dual carriageway. One can always tell a driver with extensive experience on the Freeway of Death, because they don't blink if a car bears down on them on a kamikaze overtake before getting back into its own lane a few inches from their bumper.

Other than the black bumper (ripped off the old one in a parking lot, decided not to paint the replacement - good decision, retrospectively) and a few other scars, there's nothing really wrong with the Mazda. The point is simply that it's a big family hatchback, and I hardly ever drive with a passenger, let alone more than one. In the winter, it takes me longer to scrape the ice off the car than to actually drive to work. I have no pressing need for a 626, and I'm a bit bored with it. I suppose I might as well drive it until it explodes, but just in case, I put it up for sale. The price is probably higher than I'd actually expect to get for it, but it's the one I would let the car go for.

Thing is, I've been looking at the ads, and there doesn't seem to be much to replace it with. I don't, strictly speaking, need a car - in Tartu I can just as easily walk everywhere, and the occasional cab ride would still come out to a lesser cost than the petrol, insurance and maintenance on the car. So the replacement would have to be something special. I don't want to get a big car loan, just out of a general sense of imminent apocalypse, otherwise there's a sweet WRX STI wagon being offered in Tartu, with 15,000 km on the clock, for the price of a middling Kia. Without external financing, and assuming I could either sell the Mazda or trade it in, my budget stretches to maybe fifty or sixty thousand kroons. And the sad thing is, in that price range, there aren't really many cars that are worth the hassle. For a '93, my Mazda is stunningly comfortable (I'm reminded of this every time I drive someone else's car of a similar vintage), as fast as I could practically need it to be in Estonia, and depressingly reliable. It has that Japanese econobox quality, there are plenty of small niggles that make me think of getting something newer, but ultimately there just aren't enough things wrong with it to justify throwing it out. It's never, to use the favourite expression of Rolls-Royce owners, failed to proceed. Almost anything else in this price range will be, at best, marginally more comfortable, fast, or reliable. Though many will be more cool than a dirty-green, fifteen-year-old Mazda with an unpainted front jaw. But even then there are pitfalls. For example, I would never buy a BMW. Objectively, I know that they are fine cars, but I really don't want to be the sort of person who drives one.

I used to be a massive gearhead, but like a lot of people in deepest, darkest December, I guess I just find it hard to get excited about anything these days.


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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Nordic Mobile Media

Nice conference, a lot more interesting and useful stuff than I expected. Not entirely sure what I was doing there - the organizers wanted someone from my company to attend, put my presentation in the conference booklet, but never asked me to actually stand up and talk. (And covered my expenses. I'm pretty sure my employer didn't pay any attendance fee.) Played stomp the teacher a bit, but not too much - actually the best reflection of the quality of the speakers. Some boring stuff, and Aspiro's mobile music spiel was so much buzzword bingo.

Salient points:

1) I brought this up back at Mobile Monday a few weeks ago, and I still maintain that mass SMS campaigns are ridiculously annoying - and it's only the carrier that can do them cost-effectively, so the carrier gets the bad will. A very pleasant lady from Tele2 asked me for my card to give to her people so they'd stop sending me SMSes about concert tickets; so not the point. Opt-in is only there to alleviate the carriers' collective conscience and get the EFF and its ilk off their backs: most users will tick the box somewhere without really thinking about it, and aren't too likely to go and demand to be taken off the list. I've been with Tele2 ever since it was still Q GSM (in fact I still have my original SIM card from 1998 as a souvenier), but fuck if I know their customer service number off the top of my head. My point is: the bad will appears in the second that your user receives the spam text. Don't tell me that it's actually opt-in and it's dead easy for me to get off the list. Too late, you've already pissed me off.

2) The dude from Elisa (not the same dude that offered me a quarter of a million kroons to write a service that ties in all manner of blog platforms, social networks and photo sharing sites through their existing APIs to be used from the mobile phone, but then this one was sober) assures me that the Estonian networks aren't going to run out of bandwidth in any foreseeable future, even if flat-rate 3,5G broadband takes off massively. He also assures me that theirs really is flat-rate, that they aren't really enforcing the 3GB per month limit in the contract, but I expect that will change when people in Võhma start torrenting. Apparently the entire Tallinn-Tartu road will get 3G coverage within a year. Cheers mate - the Kõu backhaul in the intercity coach's free WiFi sucks donkey balls.

3) I'm the compleat skeptic at these events, and I'm sure I'm annoying a lot of folks, but I believe it is a necessary service. Almost two decades ago I played the runt in a holiday production of The Emperor's New Clothes at a major Tallinn theater, and my job was to run out and shout: "The king is naked!". Now I do conceptually the same, except I'm asking "Where's the money?". I don't believe in Web 2.0 business models. I'm sure Rubberduck gets very nice revenue from all the carriers buying their Mobile TV solution, but ultimately they're just enabling a fundamentally idiotic proposition, and sooner or later the music will stop. Like it has for Joost. Then again, I'd watch Ze Frank on my shiny new N85 (as long as it doesn't max out my shiny new 500GB-per-month data plan), and I'm really not their target audience.

4) I love John Strand for the ability to stand up in a conference hall, say "I've been in this business for 14 years and have never been wrong", and not get pelted by rotten tomatoes. I'm sure he sees the same people from the carriers over and over again at these things, and I'm sure some of them are dying to just shout YES YOU FUCKING HAVE. (Disclaimer: whether he's actually ever been wrong is beside the point.)

5) Ultimately the future of mobile marketing is a banner on your phone's standby screen, and until we get there, everything else is just New Media wankery. It makes me sad, but no amount of user annoyance will stop it, because the carriers control the selection of handsets and their embedded content. Vodafone and Orange are very nearly there, except I don't think they've started rotating ads for third parties yet. All it takes is a heavy subsidy on a glamourphone, and equipping the cheapest plans with free data within the walled garden (a.k.a. not taking the piss), and the user base will eat it up.

6) Meanwhile, if you have to advertise on mobile, stick to the professionals who know how to set up a decent audience-participation exercise - I can see how those would work, and the case studies certainly look impressive. But for heavens' sake, NO MORE FUCKING BANNERS!*

7) I was almost the least appropriate attendee at the conference - a lowly Senior Technical Writer surrounded by CEOs and division heads - but I was representing a diversified multinational corporation with a 1,5 billion pound market cap. I know it's wrong, but there's just so much sarkastic pleasure to be derived from going "uh huh, good luck with your widget company!". In my defence, Jan Rezab looks like he's fucking sixteen.

* If I dare to show my face at the next MoMo, will I get bitchslapped by the Estonian carriers and their awesome Mobile Reach Package?

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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Went to Mobile Monday. Saw some mildly interesting presentations, including one by a reassuringly competent person from Tele2's head office called Josep Nolla. Properly underscored the lamentable fact that Estonians, on the whole, cannot do public speaking for the life of them.

The three main mobile operators in Estonia have joined forces for mobile advertising, offering a joint package - you can buy banner space on all of their WAP portals from a single source. It's expensive, 400 EEK for a thousand impressions; they're claiming a clickthrough rate of 2% to 7%, and a conversion rate of up to 25%, which means you will expect to pay about 80 EEK in banner costs to sell a single widget. Fine if you're selling flatscreen TVs, not so much if you're selling train tickets.

The Tele2 bloke showed an interesting case study of targeting people with an SMS campaign, but failed to answer my question satisfactorily. See, when I get text messages, it tends to be for two reasons: either it's a friend telling me something, or the bank telling me some money just arrived. So I tend to give a lot of attention to incoming SMSes. Consequently, I am disproportionately annoyed by SMS spam; and that is only practiced by my carrier. The carrier can afford to do mass text campaigns, because texts have the highest margin per cost of any mobile service. To Tele2, it's just 160 bytes of data sent to my handset. To anyone else, it's 2.50 EEK per mailing. SMSes have the exact same barrier that is considered to be the only effective (if theoretical) solution to spam: micropayments per message. Not too much trouble for individuals, but prohibitive to spam networks sending out millions of messages at a time.

The panel's answer was that the user alienation factor can be overcome with targeting - sending me only promotions I'd be genuinely interested in; but my rebuttal to that is, in that case, why is he, mr. Nolla (being Tele2), still spamming me with rock concert tickets?

The other issue is that WAP sites are getting more and more elaborate - which is fine, 3G network speeds make browsing rich sites acceptable, but the bastards are still metering traffic. If Tele2/EMT/Elisa want to show me banners, and funnel me to promo websites, and then charge me for the privilege of downloading their banner to my phone, they're taking the piss. But apparently we'll see proper flat-rate data added to operators' plans within next year. Inshalla.


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Wednesday, October 29, 2008



I got my top-spec HP Mininote from the States a few months before they were available in Estonia (and at a useful discount, too). I love it, but its one weakness is the crappy Via C7-M CPU. Otherwise it's awesome: loads of storage (120gb), loads of memory (2gb), very good keyboard, outstanding screen, quite decent battery life, and the all-metal body rocks.

I'd been waiting for them to announce the next version, expecting a shift to the Via Nano - a competitor to the Intel Atom chip that seemed every bit as good in tests. With more CPU power, and Via's superior power-management expertise (the C7-M is meant to compete with ULV Celerons, and blows them out of the water) the Mininote MkII would have been the ultimate portable machine.

Instead, what HP has done with the MkII is fix the one weakness the old model had, and make it inferior to the old model in every other way. Worse screen, worse battery life, less storage, less RAM, plastic case... Way to FAIL.

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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Who do I know

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Things I've accomplished in three days of vacation

1) Meet a new blogger - specifically Colm and his charming fiancee Eeva. Met up for lunch at the Place, where he regailed Justin and me with tales of Irishness, such as the experience of crossing the UK national border while having red hair, and the ultimate purpose of the Irish army (to guard all the weapons from being stolen by the IRA). While he objected forcefully that no Irish person has ever been known to actually utter the phrase "top o' the mornin' to ya", he does write "ye" in his emails.

2) Got excellent customer service at the New Yorker store I blogged about previously. I bought a jacket from them and the zipper broke. I was actually considering just getting a clothes repair place to put it a new zipper, but that would not have been blogworthy, so I went back to the store to complain. To my complete amazement, not only did they take the garment back (despite it being past the 14-day no-questions-asked return period - of course this was not a question of wrong size or style, but of an actual fault in its manufacture), but they gave me my money back. That's right: no dicking around with months of expert assessments and repairs, no store credit - cold, hard cash. I'm sure Mingus's worldview has just shattered.

3) Saw a couple interesting crawlspaces while prepping my team's nightgame. I might do an article about some of these prime locations after the game.

4) Shaved. I'm told I look completely different without facial hair.

Early tomorrow morning, I'm getting on a coach and buggering off on a two-week Eurotrip. Tartu to Barcelona and back again, with stops in exciting locations along the way. Stay tuned for trippin' bloggery.

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Friday, August 29, 2008

Tasku Revisited

Like it or not, the opening of the Tasku mall is the talk of Tartu and will be for a while. Being the compleat yuppie, I am not immune to its lures, and so you may have to endure further reports. In the words of a forum signature I once saw - if God is inside us all, then I sure hope he likes tacos, cause that's what he's getting.

The most significant item in Tasku's assortment is not the cinema, although that is very welcome indeed; it is the New Yorker clothes store. A chain that I have not seen in Estonia before, it occupies one of the largest spaces and differs in important ways from the Seppäläs that it ostensibly competes against.

It seems to be aimed predominantly at teenagers, which I suppose is a wise move, but also carries sizes and styles fit for an older crowd. The key to its appeal - and you will have to infer the extent of this appeal from the fact that I am writing about clothes in the first place - is a combination of very reasonable prices and fashions which are just a little bit more distinctive than what you would find elsewhere. It seems to commoditize an overall boutique aesthetic, but at a basic-casual price point. It's not entirely without competition, I've been shopping at Cartini for years, but it's new, different, and big. I walked into New Yorker after work today, and came out with a winter jacket. It's fake leather, but it's close enough, looks good on me, and cost about a fifth of what the real deal would have been even at a cheap place like Cartini. Since the only truly practical aspect of a leather jacket - the fact that it'll protect your skin if you fall of a Harley - is somewhat lost on me, I am prepared to take a chance and eating the price.

Furthermore, New Yorker brings a few new and very commendable touches to the shopping experience. I was annoyed at first to see a shortage of cashiers, but somehow the two blonde girls at the single checkout desk were managing to keep the Friday-evening crowd moving along at an acceptable clip - which is little short of stupefying for one with experiences of Hullud Päevad combat. Their shopping bags are free, and far more pleasing at a tactile level than the plastic ones at Kaubamaja; they try to avoid the expense by stressing environmental concerns, making the point that their bags are actually valuable and they would be very grateful if you brought it back for recycling the next time you stopped by Tasku. Whether that'll happen often enough is beside the point: I applaud a stimulation of that sort of mentality. And the most pleasant innovation is something no Estonian store has ever been known to do: New Yorker has a no-quips, 14-day return policy. If the garment is as-new, they'll actually give you your money back.

With the opening of this new store, Tasku and Tartu seem to have become the entry point for something which is long-overdue in this land: civilized retail.

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Tartu in your Tasku

The Tasku shopping center opened at noon today. There's been relatively little fanfare, considering; maybe the developer, already over budget, could not spare the cash for publicity. Maybe he decided - not unreasonably - that people will come and check out the new glass blob right in the middle of town anyway. God knows the construction has been getting in everyone's way long enough.

The verdict from ambling around it with the crowds on my lunch hour: meh. Unlike most malls, designed to let you shop for absolutely anything, Tasku is almost entirely a collection of clothes shops. Officially they call it a fashion and recreation center; there is no general store, no electronics stores (except for the Apple outlet, complete with bowls of fresh apples and trays of apple crumble for the opening day visitors). I vaguely remember something about a Rimi back when they first started construction on the new mall, but it's not there. A smattering of eateries at least makes Tasku useful as a lunch destination.

There are two things in Tasku designed to draw in a crowd at least somewhat different from the teenagers that will gravitate to the mid-market ragshops: the Rahva Raamat bookstore and the Cinamon multi-screen cinema. The cinema is a very welcome addition to Tartu, but there is a potential problem: while Tasku does have a decent-sized parking structure attached to it, you will definitely not be able to park long enough to go in and see a movie without paying for it. That is definitely a competitive advantage that the old two-screen Ekraan theater has over the flashy new Cinamon.

The Rahva Raamat is big and impressive, but in terms relevant to me and the readers of AnTyx, pointless. Their selection of English-language literature is woeful, barely matching that of the Apollo bookstore in Kaubamaja. Maybe they will expand it, but for now it looks like a stunningly bad move. I refuse to believe that in a city like Tartu, between its expats and students, there is no market for English books. (There isn't much native-Estonian literature that I am interested in, and I absolutely cannot read translations, it's a professional hazard.)

Tasku will certainly serve a useful purpose, but it was supposed to be the end-all be-all mall. Which it isn't. It's just another link in the inevitable Kaubahall-to-Zeppelin axis of consumption that is downtown Tartu.

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Friday, August 22, 2008

Surely you must be joking.

The iPhone 3G goes on sale in Estonia today.

At ridiculous costs. The device itself is actually quite cheap for what it does - from 1500 to 4000 EEK - but that's with a two-year plan at 550 or 890 EEK per month. While I do actually know people who spend as much on their phonecalls each month, let's look at what the plan gives you: 100 or 250 each of minutes within the EMT network, SMSes, and megabytes of traffic. Nevermind that for a device designed to show full-fat websites at 3G speeds, 250 megabytes per month is nothing. Fortunately EMT hasn't gone completely American-moronic, because they do log calls by the second instead of rounding them up to the nearest minute - which is the mindfuck behind plans with enormous numbers of "free minutes" in them - but the first time you call a non-EMT number, you're paying extra, above and beyond your already really expensive plan. At least the extra pricing is relatively cheap: 1.75 EEK per minute for calls, and 2.50 EEK per megabyte.

Because you can actually terminate the contract early, it's possible to calculate the actual cost of the device, purchased legally from EMT: 10,5 thousand kroons for the 16GB model. Over a thousand dollars.



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Monday, August 11, 2008

Local News

Estonians are buying up Georgian wines in a show of support. Best thing you can do, really - guaranteed to benefit the Georgian nation rather than any political movement, so it is good irrespective of any doubts you might have as to who caused what. In conflicts such as South Ossetia, no side is ever completely innocent. I recommend the Akhasheni Marani, should be available in Selvers - a very good semi-sweet red.

Parliament is about to go into an emergency session to draft a joint statement on Georgia. An emergency session can be called with support from no less than a fifth of the Riigikogu (21 members). The session has been endorsed by all represented parties, except for Keskerakond. Vilja Savisaar's official statement to the press was, let's wait and see and gather information and not rush into things. Wouldn't do to piss off the Russians.

UPDATE 1: Meanwhile, Ansip is trying to get to Georgia. Might just be PR for now, but if he does show up in Thbilisi, that'll be a great move on his part. Compensating for political ineptitude with personal bravery; could be worse, and he's doing the right thing when it counts. A commenter on Postimees: "When the Russians came here, did anybody help out?" That is exactly why we need to be involved in Georgia.

UPDATE 2: There is a humanitarian aid flight being put together by Estonian Air, the Red Cross and various other local relief agencies. The Estonian Reserve Officers' Association is apparently putting together a team of 90 volunteers that will be on the flight and will distribute the humanitarian aid, as well as help out relief efforts on the ground. The email that I saw specifically mentioned that the group would absolutely not be involved in combat, but otherwise should be prepared for anything, including hostile fire. The email also says that perhaps the presense of Estonian reservist volunteers in Georgia will serve as inspiration to NATO. I haven't really heard of the group before, but it is certainly a good sentiment.

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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Get Smart

It's odd to think that it has been over a year since I got my apartment - and almost two years since I made the decision and signed the papers for it. It took me quite a while to get some furniture in it, because I was picky. An artist friend came up with an idea for the interior, and putting together the correct set of furniture was nontrivial. It had to be comfortable, functional (there isn't enough space in my little studio for fanciful decoration), and above all, interesting. I've spent two decades in a Lasnamäe tower block, and I spend all day in a bland office, but I could control my environment with the apartment.

There was one bit of furniture that I was missing until yesterday. I had been using a ghetto arrangement of boxes and trays in its stead, because I just couldn't find anything worthwhile in my price range. With a bit of disposable income from a freelance job, I finally fixed that. So, since I've talked about customer service recently, I figure it's worth actually praising the companies that deliver remarkably good service.

The item of furniture itself was bought from ON24, one of many online furniture shops in Estonia. It is distinguished by a special marketing trick: if you register an account, you start accumulating a small credit - something like 25 EEK per month, and occasionally they have campaigns where you'll get a bigger chunk of credit as a one-time deal, for signing up to a newsletter or something. This credit can then be used for up to a quarter of the price of an item you're buying from the store. The point is that you sign up long before you actually start buying anything, and they get to send you targeted ads. They might sell emails to a spam list as well - I didn't check the T&Cs, and since I gave them my spam-catching email, I didn't particularly care either.

Anyway, they had the exact item I wanted. I got to save a very decent chunk of money thanks to the credit. The website said the item would be delivered within six weeks, which I more or less expected, since it was from a small Estonian manufacturer of designer furniture and it seemed logical that they would make these things to order. In the event, I got a call from them saying they got the item a month early, and could deliver it ASAP. Which was nice. Good work, ON24. Recommended.

My other recommendation is the delivery outfit, SmartPOST. These guys are setting up a country-wide network of drop boxes in malls and shopping centers. I'm guessing they are targeting e-commerce websites who are not being trusted with people's addresses, or intend to do discreet shipments. The idea is that the seller leaves a package in one of these postbox affairs, and sends you an access code by SMS. You come to the mall at your leisure, punch in the code, and the box containing your item opens up. The obvious gag here is that the service will be of particular convenience to drug dealers (you can even leave a mail-order package in the box and the customer will use his credit card to pay a set amount before the goods are released), but actually it does solve an important issue - that of delivery times.

Estonians love to shop online, that goes without saying. There are a number of home delivery services, and they are affordable enough. The problem is that they have the same business hours as anyone else. You can order your stuff to be delivered to your office, but there are any number of legitimate reasons why you might not want to do that; say, it's a bulky item that you do not want to be dragging home afterwards, or you've just ordered an inflatable dildo from eBay. Otherwise, you have to wait for the courier to call you, then rush home to pick up the package. I've done that many times, but I live in Tartu, and can get from work to home in five minutes. What if you live in Lasnamäe and work in Kopli?

Anyway, the post box network is not quite online yet, so in the meanwhile SmartPOST is acting as a regular delivery outfit. Except they're better than the competition, such as ELS or DPD. When my package arrived at their central sorting, I got an email with a link to a web form, where I could select from multiple days, and then choose whether I wanted the package in the morning, afternoon or evening. Or I could leave a plaintext message for them, explaining what time would be convenient for me. In the event I selected Monday evening, and was told the package would arrive at my home at 18:11 +- 30 minutes. Actually the courier was twenty minutes early, but waited for me to get there. And whatever the size of the package, SmartPOST will deliver it to your home - literally. Other delivery services I've used only included delivery to the front door, if you wanted help getting your couch or grand piano or whatever up the stairs you had to pay extra. These guys will, apropos of nothing, set the couch down in the room where you want to keep it.

I am not in any way affiliated with either of these companies, but they did provide remarkable customer service: good enough that I am remarking upon it. ON24: excellent response to customer inquiries (fast and to the point), and a genuinely useful customer loyalty program.

SmartPOST: rilly klevur, akshully.

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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Sing Praises

I'm a blogger, and thus, by definition, a critic - but I do try to be constructive, and I take real pleasure in praising a job well done. In the spirit of that, I have had some really, really good experiences with zebra.ee - an Estonian online shop selling all sorts of electronic bits. I've used them before to buy an Xbox 360 wireless controller (for my gaming PC, natch - allows me to get the most out of my big LCD TV and my awesome red leather couch), and they did a great job. Their main line of work is small-wholesale sales to corporate IT divisions, but their website does allow single item purchases fulfilled directly by GNT, the big warehouse that brings most electronic components into Estonia and serves a lot of the retail shops.

So now, I have a new toy. Retail price for this is at least 4000 eek, and that's at the house of ill repute that is K-Arvutisalong. Zebra.ee sold it to me for 3260 eek, including delivery to my door in Tartu the next morning. Brilliant.

Now you lot, who are reading this blog, will need to suggest cool destinations for the new gadget. ;)

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Friday, May 16, 2008

In every port in the world...

you will find Estonian beer.

I'm sure Mozambique has a port...

A somewhat odd brand, created for export by Tartu's A. Le Coq (hence the signature pyramid bottles) and completely unaffiliated with the Wiru Õlu factory. The latter were quite good sports about it actually, saying they didn't mind - it was just free advertising for them.

I still remember the cognitive dissonance of seeing a bottle of Türi Vodka in a San Diego supermarket - at a price far exceeding the familiar output of its middling Estonian manufacturer.

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Still Alive

Surgery went well. Out of the hospital now. Feeling vaguely like Doctor Who after a regeneration cycle ("huh, new teeth"). Wondering how long I will be pissing green for.

No solid foods for six weeks. Hopefully not being hungry will help; also, the really awesome Kenwood smoothie machine I have at home. Looking forward to trying various ways of crushing berries in liquids.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

One Year Anniversary

Exactly one year ago today I moved into my new apartment. :)

Long day. Productive. Most of the results imminent on Baltlantis.

Best swag at Tallinn Motorshow: Nissan's USB memory keychains; Citroen's press pack CDs in cool ejector jewel cases that I'll be using for my own disks.

Most impressive part about Tallinn Motorshow: an Icelandic bloke from the support team that got Jeremy Clarkson to the North Pole in a Toyota Hilux. Complete with the actual car.

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Do Want, Vol. 3

So the HP 2133 has more or less launched, and the reviews have been trickling in. I'm fairly certain now that it's the one I want. It falls down on two things only: the CPU is a bit shit, and the bigger battery makes it bulky and irregular-shaped. To be honest, I can live with it; and the early reviews as well as the announcement of UK availability has answered a very important question. Yes, there will be versions with Win XP. This means that I can easily go for the cheap 1gb RAM version with the slower hard drive, as I have spent four years with a Duron 1300, on 128mb RAM, running XP Pro, and I even played games on it. NFS Porsche Unleashed and GTA 2 (I still hold that GTA 2 was by far the funniest and most creative one of the entire series).

The new 9-inch Asus is comparatively far inferior. It's a little bit narrower, but has a much smaller keyboard, worse speakers, worse screen resolution, and inadequate storage at best (up to 20gb on the fancier versions, compared to 120gb or 160gb on the Hewlett-Packard). Supposedly the Asus will have a touchscreen and/or Apple-style gesture touchpad and/or built-in GPS, but I'm not quite as impressed by those as I am by a half-decent keyboard. Also, it seems that Asus has dumped its one unassailable advantage, by choosing not to ship with Atom processors in the beginning. I'm sure it's a smart business decision for Asus, but the evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of the HP. It's also prettier.

I've also had a chance to finger a MacBook Air at the Apple shop here in Tartu. It's nice, and I'd give it more serious consideration if it didn't cost over $2200 in basic spec.

Bonus story: the weirdest thing I've heard in a very, very fucking long time - Tanel Padar's 'Welcome to Estonia' (cover of James Brown's 'Living in America') sung in Russian. Reinars Kaupers, the guy from Brainstorm (who I saw live in Tartu on April fucking 28th last year, and who are brilliant) uses his soft Baltic accent to great effect in Russian; Tanel Padar just sucks completely.

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Monday, March 24, 2008

Memories of a Postsoviet Childhood

Chiquita. Not the bananas themselves - the stickers. You couldn't really get bananas in the Soviet Union (a fact made all the more ironic by their cheap ubiquity today), so when you got a hold of one, you treasured it. Eat it slowly, and completely, chewing the tasteless flesh off the inside of the skin, and then peel off the Chiquita sticker and put it on your desk or some other prominent piece of bedroom furniture, to remind yourself and others that you are a happening frood with access to bananas.

At about the same time, a bit later maybe, empty drink cans were all the rage. It was ages until you could get soft drinks in cans in Estonia, in the first years of independence the only thing that came in cans was beer - and then it was expensive imported beer. I don't think my parents have ever been beer drinkers anyway, but even for other kids my age, colorful cans were an awesome thing to possess.

It must have been '88 or '89, when my dad went to Sweden, and brought back a whole bunch of bananas. They were still green, and were left to ripen in the kitchen cupboard. Dad's return really was better than Christmas. A pencil sharpener in the shape of a cartoon car for me, a remarkably tiny electronic calculator for my sister, and - gasp! - a twin-deck Siemens stereo cassette player. Its recording capacity, built-in microphone, and the ability to copy tapes directly was truly remarkable.

I'm only 23, but the world around me has changed unbelievably.

Postsoviet - because Estonia in the late 80s was not entirely Soviet any more.

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Thursday, March 20, 2008

Easter Weekend

Will be in Tallinn this weekend. Any capital bloggers fancy a pint?


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Friday, February 22, 2008

Who needs SSD?

This baby is going straight to the top of the Do Want list.

I haven't gotten an Eee PC so far for two reasons: the screen is desperately tiny, and it has preposterously little storage. An ultraportable device is, by definition, a device I will use for entertainment on the road, and that means music & video. I can handle a lack of an optical drive, but I need more storage than that. Even an SDHC card would not bring the Eee PC's total storage levels to an acceptable level.

I keep getting into these discussions regarding music players. I've always had to stay ahead of the curve in terms of music storage; at first it was a portable CD MP3 player - a Samsung YP-55 that had the worst skip protection ever. But in '02 I went to California and was introduced to Fry's Electronics, which I walked out of holding a Creative Nomad Zen.* It had an aluminium shell, magnesium frame, and a 2.5" laptop hard drive inside. Ever since I have not been satisfied with any device carrying less than 20gb. I went on to have a couple of Archoses after that.

People keep saying that hard drives are inferior to Flash memory, because solid-state storage has no moving parts and is therefore shock-resistant. Here's the thing: today's 1.8" hard drives, the ones designed for pocket devices, seem absolutely good enough. Not only have I never had a 1.8" drive fail on me, I have never heard of anyone who had a drive failure. The hard drives that I saw crash and burn were all fullsize 3.5" inch ones that spent their lives in stationary tower cases. Actually, that's not quite true: the HD in my Dell laptop started making weird noises and was replaced under warranty.

Both my Archoses are fine, and the Nomad Zen was perfectly operational when I crashed my car and left it somewhere in the twisted wreckage.

A 1.8" hard drive, currently available in sizes up to 80gb at least, is good enough for any ultraportable device. It's also cheap.

SSD is expensive and small. It is also shorter-lived than a hard drive, because solid-state memory is designed for a limited number of read-write cycles - this is a big reason why the Eee PC ships with Linux; Windows XP's constant swapping shortens the SSD's lifespan. And it doesn't really provide any more real-world reliability.

Now, SSD is still a cool technology that deserves to be developed further and made cheap & ubiquitous. But as long as the price per gigabyte is an order of magnitude higher than a hard drive, I don't want it. I want an Eee PC with a bigger screen, more RAM and at least 20GB onboard; HP's case design is a nice bonus. I don't care if it really has a VIA C7 instead of an Intel chip; I spent four years running XP Pro on a Duron 1300 with 128mb RAM and onboard graphics. If they can really sell the HP Compaq 2133 for $630, I want one.

Whitey's going down.

* I was in San Diego on a business trip, and got two hundred bucks in per diem (the company wasn't allowed to pay me a salary, since I was there on a B1/B2 visa). Since they also provided food, board and entertainment, I hardly ever needed to spend my own money on anything. So I used that, along with my own cash, to stock up on electronic toys. The funny bit was that the cashiers at Fry's had absolutely no fucking idea how to ring up $500 worth of merchandise without a credit card. Looking back on it, I expect they thought I was paying with drug money.


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Sunday, February 10, 2008

Cheddar Gorge

Originally uploaded by Flasher T
Not only has it survived two months in the unrefrigerated bowels of the international postal system (plus a week or two in my fridge), but is, indeed, delicious.

Probably won't get through all of it on my own. Anyone? BuellerJustin?

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Whoever has the most stuff when they die, wins.

Not much going on in Estonia these days. So many people have been taking pot shots at the new labour legislation that it now bears a striking resemblance to a collander, and there's apparently a new Chancellor of Justice that everyone is more or less happy about. Everyone is worried about the economy, but with the exception of a few isolated incidents like the Kreenholm closure and the fall in rail transit volumes, nobody's actually all that inconvenienced so far. 2008 is supposed to be the year when the economy bottoms out, and then starts a slow growth again. Petrol prices are ridiculous. We're not happy, but it looks like the economy is going to get away with a soft landing after all. The State of the Union is str.... no, sorry, that's wrong.

Having largely and purposefully ignored the holidays this year (I didn't even bake any piparkooks!), I have found myself with a bit of extra cash, which I splurged on a nice, shiny new TV. It's an LG, 32", and I snagged it in a special offer for less than 8 grand, or 500 Euro, which is quite a deal. Movie night in Tartu, anyone?

They also gave me a Viking Line gift card with the TV. I've been to Helsinki exactly once so far, on a day trip, and I have a slight problem thinking of any worthwhile sightseeing over there, other than the Kiasma museum and the statue of Mannerheim in front of it. Suggestions?


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Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Do Want!

UPDATE: Bump - new stuff added.

Mostly as a reminder to myself, but also as a tip for anyone attending a birthday of mine or some other such event - a list of stuff I want but can't be bothered to buy myself (to be updated as appropriate, in no particular order):

1) Transformers - Super God Masterforce DVD set

2) Don Johnson Big Band - Don Johnson Big Band

3) Don Johnson Big Band - Breaking Daylight

4) Don Johnson Big Band Original Burn Black T-shirt (XL)

5) Top Gear Nurburgring Nipple T-shirt (XXL, black)

6) Stroopwaffels 12x8-pack (or any large quantity come to think of it)

7) Bionic Jive - Armageddon Through Your Speaker

8) E-type Loud Pipes Tour or Metal Tour T-shirt (XXL; I have both, but wouldn't mind more!)

9) Independent MC Support T-shirt (XXL; not exactly sure how to go about buying it!)

10)Tom Bihn Empire Builder shoulder bag, in Black/Black/Steel, with an Absolute Shoulder Strap and size 4 Horizontal Brain Cell

11) Ze Frank League of Awesomeness Black on Black T-shirt (XXL)

12) Evil for Evil (by K.J. Parker)

13) Dynomighty Bandoleer Bracelet (with Extras set)

14) Unicomp Customizer 105 Raven Black keyboard

15) Sony Ericsson W950i phone

16) Logitech diNovo Edge keyboard (yes, it's the second keyboard on the list; the first one is for my desk, this one is for my couch.)

17) MagnoGrip magnetic wristband

18) Room-sized RC helicopter, damage-proof (rubber body, apparently).

19) Kenwood SD101 retro barmixer, red. (Perfect gift: too expensive and impractical for me to justify buying it, but it's enormously awesome and I really want it.)

20) Philips Cucina 3-in-1 combination sandwich/waffle/meat grill.

21) Genius LuxeMate 810 Media Cruiser keyboard (cheaper than the DiNovo and far more badass)

22) Lemon press. Ingenious, and a solution to a problem I've properly been having (i.e. laziness).

23) Sun Jar. Obscurely useful and intrinsically cool.

24) Self-irony. I wantz it.


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Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Author, in Need of a Haircut

Yours Truly
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
Now everyone can see what Giustino meant. :)

I am very rarely happy with pictures of myself, and this is that rare occasion. In fact I wanted to download the picture right away, and as I fumbled with the big DSLR, I knocked my phone off the desk. It's a Motorola V500, a clamshell, and it was open; it landed face-down and broke the hinge. No worries; it was three years old, almost to the day, and I have been looking for an excuse to get rid of it.

So now I have a Nokia 6500 Classic. Over two years ago, I wrote about the lack of killer features in mobile phones these days. To be entirely honest, I'm still not convinced; the camera and Bluetooth were the last technical innovations that I thought were really desirable. GPS might be the next one, but it's not mainstream yet. Other than that, in three years there has been almost no progress in handset design. The one thing that's relatively common in phones today, but wasn't when I bought my V500, are sensor buttons, and they suck. I've never kept a phone as long as I kept the V500, and that's because there was no phone meanwhile that I really wanted.

I've never liked Nokias, either. They're decent phones, but extremely default-choice; I've always thought Nokias are bought by people with no imaginations. I've never owned a Nokia, in fact. I've had various Motorolas (including a T191 which was actually an Acer), Siemenses, Ericssons - before they were bought by Sony - but never a Nokia.

But I do like the 6500c. It's thin, it's metal, it's got an amazing screen (although my V500 had a really good one as well), and it looks awesome. And for once in my life, I get to use all the gigantic infrastructure that Nokia's market penetration has created. Long before the iPod got an entourage of third parties manufacturing accessories in translucent white plastic, Nokia allowed people to customize their phones with ringtones and wallpapers and games, and absolutely everything exciting to do with mobile phones came out on a Nokia first. Now, I get to enjoy that.

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Thursday, November 15, 2007

The Last of the Soviets

For all my European posturing (for I am neither convincingly Estonian, convincingly Russian, nor convincingly Jewish) - there is that part of me, the part established in the first seven years of my life in the Evil Empire's Switzerland and the confusing, irrational mess of a society it turned into in the early 90s, that will remain Soviet. Hell, I even got to wear a school uniform for a few months in 1st grade!

And the reason I'm saying it is, I've been eating mandarins. English-speakers will know them as tangerines, but for the purpose of this discussion, they're mandarins. And I've been thinking that the Soviet legacy will finally die with the last person on Earth who subconsciously, inevitably equates the taste of mandarins with New Year's Eve.

It's an aspect of the economy of the Soviet Union: citrus, like most other fruits you couldn't grow locally on your allotment, was a rarity. Oranges were even more rare than mandarins, because there were more places in the SU where mandarins could be grown industrially. You couldn't go to a shop at any time of the year and buy some citrus. Such things were sold only occasionally, in batches.

People could get rarities through their jobs, though. The big corporations tried to instill loyalty in their workers by sending out raiding parties, scouring the warehouses and various shady connections for deliciousness. On major holidays, you would get a package from work, with things for your kids.*

And mandarins were one of those things: you'd get them in the packages, and you'd get them in the shops, just before New Year - the technically secular form of the pagan Winter Solstice and imperialist Christmas. Something exotic, and very un-wintery, to put on the celebratory table. Then you'd sit there, watch the Blue Flame show on TV (baby blue was the predominant color of Soviet New Year, for some reason) and wait for the coming of the Näärivana (or Father Frost, if you'd like) - a theatrical school student hired by the trade union that your parents belonged to.** You had to recite a poem for him before he'd give you your present.

The scarcity of the Soviet time, the deficit - which I never really felt in its worst form, because in the late 80s Estonia was a much better place to be than the rest of the Soviet Union - served to curb the consumeristic impulses, to an extent. Western tradition of Christmas involves a pile of stuff under the tree, lots and lots of presents. But for me, it's always been one gift; that one thing, which was usually not so much expensive as unattainable, that I could wait for and finally get, just past midnight. Then I'd go out with my father, and we'd set off the fireworks; actually fireworks are a much later thing, in the Soviet days it was bangers - cardboard tubes with a rope that you'd pull, and it would set off a small powder charge inside, spraying confetti all over, and maybe even a little present that you'd have to search for in the snow.

That said, at least there were a lot of holidays to get one present for. New Year's was the main one, but there were also two Christmases. The Catholic Christmas (as it was always referred to in Russian, despite Estonia being a Lutheran country - for what it's worth) was celebrated along with the rest of the country. This was the true pagan holiday, the Winter Solstice, a time of quiet joy with the family, irrespective of your religious affiliation. Then there was the Russian Christmas; the Orthodox church still used the Julian calendar, where everything was offset by two weeks compared to the official Gregorian one, so Christmas fell on January 7th. And then there was the final triumph of holiday spirit over reason and logic: Old New Year, celebrated on January 14th. All these were worth a present, though not all of the presents were equal. But it's the very fact of a present that counts.

All these holidays were so draining on the population, that they were referred to as simply "the New Year holidays". It was common knowledge that any business transactions, any negotiations or requests, had to be delayed until the end of January. During the New Year holidays, the Soviet Union just stopped.

*This is one of those improbably strong Soviet traditions that is still going on, in Nordic, Western Estonia after nearly two decades. My employer - big enough to actually be a faceless corporation - still distributes gift bags of Kalev candy to employees' children at Christmas time. Along with the informal celebration of March 8th as International Women's Day, and the fact that the Latvian border guards in Valga will still address you in Russian and not English, it's proof positive that the regular people are deep down both willing and able to let go of the insults and injuries of the past, and keep the positive bits.

**It was a lucrative, sought-after job. My former boss told me about his exploits as a Jõuluvana, doing some door-to-door promotions, long after the SU had burned in flames. It was the duty of nearly every head of family to offer him a shot of vodka, and he had no moral right to refuse.

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Monday, November 12, 2007

300th Post!


I sincerely hope there's nobody anal enough to count them, because Blogger's dashboard might actually also count the ones that are still in draft stage, in which case this is not the 300th post published on AnTyx. But let's just pretend it is, anyway.

Days like today is why I own a car in Tartu. I live alone, and I'm within half an hour's walking distance of my downtown office, which is doable even in the freezing winter months. I'm now much more conveniently serviced by public transport than at my previous rental apartment. It would definitely be cheaper to take the bus than drive around, usually alone, in my relatively enormous '93 Mazda 626 liftback, which consumes about 15l/100km in Tartu urban driving, because I only do about 70km on my tiny commute, in traffic, and it always runs cold. I now need to buy winter tires for it, then find out what I need to fix up for the MoT coming in December, and insurance runs out in early January (when I'll have owned the same car for a full year - OMG!). It's a really expensive proposition.

But on days like today, when it's snowing with a cold wind, and it's dark, and slippery, and generally unpleasant - it is an indescribable pleasure to scrape the ice off your windshield (takes longer than the actual drive home), get inside, put the heater on full, turn on the stereo, and carefully inch along the treacherous streets to the wail of the over-revving engine and the cricket staccato of the ABS brakes, driving past the poor, miserable bastards waiting for the bus.

Worth every penny.

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Saturday, November 10, 2007

Politically Conscious

Politically Conscious
Originally uploaded by Flasher T
My commenters say the best thing Estonia can do is open up trade with Georgia. Well, I'm doing my part. :)

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S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Võru

South Estonia, especially Võru county, is a place hiding many interesting things - and many interesting people. There is a Barclay Hotel in Tartu, named after Barclay de Tolli, the Russian army general from the Napoleon wars. It is located in the building which, in the Soviet days, used to house the headquarters of the South Estonian Military District. The presidential suite of the hotel used to be the office of the district commander - one Djohar Dudaev, later on the first president of rebellious Chechnya.

There's also an urban legend about nukes in Võru. I thought it was improbable, myself - strategic munitions so close to the Western border - even though the Raadi airfield near Tartu was designated as an emergency strip for Soviet nuclear bombers. But stranger things have happened. Below is an account by a friend who grew up in Võru county.

There were as many as eight Soviet military objects in Võru county: a surveillance station in Meremäe, a communications unit in Mõniste, missile bases in Sänna and Nursi, firing ranges in Nursi and Kubija, an airport in Ridali and another missile base in Palometsa.

Nursi and Sänna were the nuclear missile sites. In Sänna, at least one of the cupolas of the underground launching silos should still be there, although access to the base is restricted now. Both bases stored intermediate-range ballistic missiles - R-12/SS-4 - targeted to cities in Belgium, Germany, Denmark and Norway. The R-12 Dvina missiles were exactly like the ones deployed to Cuba in 1962.

A missile was actually fired to Novaya Zemlya once from the Sänna base, without the nuclear warhead, supposedly, but this fact has nevertheless a highly gasp-inducing factor.

The missiles were removed from Sänna and Nursi around 1988-89, although yeah, there are all sorts of stories about how some of them were left behind, hidden away with other weaponry. Around 1999 people became sort of paranoid about some supposed secret storage facilities...

When the missiles were gone, most of the Russians living at the bases quietly left as well, and local farmers couldn't have been happier. They explored the sites and brought all kinds of stuff home with them and used it in their households. Some barracks were never restored either, and roughly about 6-7 years ago, some local schoolboys went to Nursipalu and brought with them a huge glass jar filled with mercury, which was stored under a layer of petroleum. The word is that those glass jars were in abundance there. I wonder what these were used for.

Another interesting fact is that although the nuclear parts of the warheads were removed a long time ago (some warheads still remained, but without the radioactive stuff - some local farmers have made use of these as bee-hives, actually), they are still conducting radioactivity surveys regularly, the last one was apparently in 2001-2002.

As far as the urban legends go, people do talk about the high incidence of leukemia in Nursi.

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

More Tea, Viktor?

It's September 22nd; not only is it the Day of Atonement, but also the day when Soviet forces entered Tallinn back in 1944. The day when shit is expected to hit the fan. Things seem to be quiet in Tallinn - the WWII veterans, along with Russian and Belorussian embassy officials attended a somber flower-laying ceremony at the military cemetery where the Bronze Soldier is now located. Ahead of today, Klenski was officially banned from - well, breathing, really. There's another Nashi protest in Moscow, but that's not news.

In a celebration of today's utter un-newsworthiness, here's a post about something completely apolitical.

Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books, has a famous essay describing to Americans the proper way to make tea. Here's the article, if you haven't read it or don't remember it well. Master Adams makes a few very good points, the central of which is that people who don't think tea is a wonderful drink have simply not had a good cup of tea. However, he makes use of several cornerstones of the British understanding of tea which are utterly misguided and impede the proper enjoyment of the noble drink.

Earl Gray. It's very British - it is, after all, named after an earl - but it is not tea proper. Earl Gray is flavoured, the tea mixed with an aromatic oil. As the oil is natural, the result of some dignitary's experimentation centuries ago, Earl Gray is not treated with the same contempt as modern flavoured tea bags that come in caramel, strawberry, and other utterly chemical varieties. It is still a ruse, though.

Tea bags. The British like them, and have spent a lot of engineering effort (that would be better spent on a new Jaguar) making them behave in a particular manner. So far they have failed. My British friends have attempted to convince me using the finest of these contraptions, a vaguely pyramidal thing that comes in boxes (and isn't flat-packed), but even that deteriorates the taste far too much. Tea bags are convenient and I use them sometimes in the office, but if you're going for really good tea, they simply won't do.

Milk. If you only have enough gumption to challenge one aspect of British tea, challenge milk. While some people actually like the taste of Earl Gray (though I find it vile), and tea bags have the justification of convenience, putting milk in tea is absolutely inexcusable. A lot of milk in tea will produce a specific flavour, that you might find intriguing and worth a try at least, but that is not proper tea. A little milk, the way the Brits do it, completely strips away the flavour of tea, and you end up drinking something murky-brown. Tea with milk is liquefied cardboard.

There is a better way to make tea. If your intention is to sample the full flavour of the drink itself, unleash the sensation of the plant, then you will need what my father makes, that which is singularly responsible for my appreciation of the art: Russian tea.

The beauty of Russian tea is its purity; it carries exactly one unorthodox step, and otherwise sticks to the absolute basics. It thoroughly encompasses the nature of tea as a social drink, a stimulant, and a savoury treat.

Russian tea requires the following tableware:
  • A kettle*
  • A pot
  • Teacups** and teaspoons
  • A sugar basin
  • A small tray.

It also requires the proper kind of tea. There are two aspects here. First, it has to be free leaf. This is non-negotiable. But don't just grab something that doesn't come in bags! You might end up with crushed tea, and that's horrid. Crushed/broken/granulated tea is worse than even tea bags. It's a homogenous mass that has gone through pulverizing equipment, and this means that the tea leaves are cut with stems - if you're lucky - or with random biomass like wood chippings. The stems do actually have the same compounds as the rest of the plant, so crushed tea provides the strength and the color, and it's cheap. But it doesn't provide the taste, or the aroma. Be absolutely sure that what you have is actual free leaf tea. It has to have large, long, dry chunks, and be a bit crunchy.

The second aspect is what kind of tea to use. Black tea, obviously, and not Earl Gray. But even black tea has varieties. The simple answer is it doesn't matter: they all come from the same plant, it's just a matter of processing. Just grab a decent brand - Dilmah is a safe choice for a newbie. Your keywords otherwise are Darjeeling or Orange Pekoe. The latter doesn't have bits of oranges in it, that's just a reference to the color it has in TV commercials. Both these types are actually pure, unflavoured black tea - exactly what you want. Don't use English Breakfast Tea! It's black and unflavoured, but it's a cheap mixture designed to be drunk at the time of day when your sensory receptors haven't recalbrated to the physical universe yet.

Now, next up is the tricky part, that which makes the tea Russian. Whereas normally you would make all of the tea in a pot, then pour into a cup and drink, the right way here is to use the pot for zavarka - the concentrate. You mix your own tea in your own cup: put in a bit of the concentrate and add water by preference. This does not deteriorate the taste of the tea, because it's still drawn out of the leaves by boiling hot water right there and then; but it allows you to vary the strength of it. This is where the social aspect comes in. A pot of zavarka, along with a kettle, lets each person have the tea at the strength they enjoy most.

The ratio of free tea leaves to water for zavarka is the same as the ratio of coffee powder to water for regular drinking coffee. Remember, you're going to be diluting the tea a lot! Plus, I'm talking about dry volume: dried tea leaves have a lot of volume but little weight and density. Use teaspoons. If you use 4 tablespoons of coffee for a half-pint (quarter-liter) mug, put 4 tablespoons of tea in the pot and pour a half-pint of boiling water over them. (Use this ratio - 4 teaspoons of leaves per 250ml of water - as your default.)

An important point, one that Mr. Adams got right: the water has to be boiling when it hits the leaves. It's not just a matter of temperature; boiling is a process whereby bits of water turn to vapour, and this really helps to draw out the tea from the leaves. You can pre-warm the pot to make sure the water still boils for a few seconds once it's in; using a clay/china pot helps immensely. It's also useful to keep the water boiling in the kettle for a little bit before pouring. Go and put your kettle on: can you hear bubbling noises for about 5-10 seconds after it switches off? Excellent, that'll do.

(Note: you have to let the zavarka pot stand for a few minutes. This lets it become strong enough. In the meantime you can refill the kettle to have a lot of hot water for everyone, and call them to the table. The beauty of Russian tea is that you can drink it for a long time: the zavarka keeps the proper taste for a couple of hours, and as long as you have hot water on the table - not necessarily boiling - it still tastes good.)

Now you can go ahead and drink the tea. Experiment with the ratio of zavarka to water; start with 50/50 and adjust. (50/50 is actually a strong mixture, but you're doing this to fully feel the taste.)

Obviously you can't add milk to Russian tea, but you can add lemon. The canonical way is to cut a circular slice (use a half-circle if a full one doesn't fit in your cup, but really half-circles are for tequila), put it in the cup, and pour tea over it. Just like Mr. Adams with his milk - of course you can't scald lemon, but the pouring of strong, hot zavarka will draw our the juices better. Once you've put in the zavarka and water, feel free to poke the lemon with your spoon, press it against the bottom of the cup, crushing the individual cells. This is - again like Mr. Adams - socially unacceptable, but I learned about good tea from my parents when I was little, and I still like doing it. You can also take the butt end of a lemon and squeeze it over the cup. It doesn't have an adverse effect on the tea. In fact, when I get the flu, one of the best medicines I know is a nice, hot mug of tea with the juice of half a lemon squeezed into it.

Actual lemons are best, of course, but I've had acceptable results from cooking-spec lemon juice. Not the sweetened drinkable stuff, and not the concentrate used for baking - just organic squeezed juice. I use it for convenience, along with my tea-making set: a kettle, and a glass pot that has a leaf-holder in the middle. The pot sits on a hotplate that keeps it from cooling down, and can be used to pre-heat it. That makes up slightly for it not being china.

If you just use a regular clay pot, you'll probably get a few loose leaves in your cup. There are devices to avoid this - little net things that clip onto the spout - but don't bother: it's part of the experience. Otherwise, add a bit of sugar if you want it, and you're ready to drink!

* The more culturally curious of readers may be vaguely aware of the samovar, a massive copper keg with a place to start a small fire, and a spout at the bottom. There were electric samovars in the Soviet days, even. They're impressive-looking, but have very little to do with the taste of tea, so don't worry about it.

** Another classic Russian thing is to pour your tea into the saucer, then sip it from that. It's a way to cool down the tea quickly, since there's a lot of surface area to the water. Please don't try and do this. It's only for professionals, and rudimentary anyway. As far as I can tell, it's an artefact from the samovar, where water could actually end up superheated. For the full experience, you should still use fairly small clay cups with saucers. Or, to be exceedingly Russian, use a glass mug in a silver holder. You can find them in most Russian souvenier shops, just between the five-in-one dolls and the figurines of bears swigging vodka.

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Friday, September 07, 2007

Obligatory Jesus Phone Post

I held out as long as I could, but I wrote this extended comment, and figured no blog would be complete without an iPhone post.

Mobile Opportunity is wondering* why Apple slashed the price of the top-end iPhone by a third and discontinued the cheaper model, only a couple of months after its launch.

There are two explanations that pop up instantly. One is that they are unhappy with only having sold half a million units or so, and not being on target for their stated goal of ten million devices. This is unlikely, because Steve Jobs' personal reality distortion field aside, they must've built in the sort of profit margins that would make the project work with far lesser numbers.

The other is that they are shit-scared of the Nokia N95 finally coming to the US in a local spec. The Finnish device is fundamentally superior in both gadgetry and regular voice/SMS functionality. Certainly Nokia also has the advertising budget to push the phone: remember, this is a company that sells to the end user a million devices a day. And yet even they don't seem to be able to take on the Apple halo. While there is some overlap in the audiences, the N95 is still largely targeted at the sort of hardcore geek who runs Linux on his home machine and worships functionality, while actively despising the glamour focus of Apple products.**

The Mobile Opportunity guy suggests tentatively that Nokia's rash of new music-oriented models might have Apple spooked. But I'm fairly sure it's not the Nokia rollout bothering them: this is not the first time the reindeer herders tried to make dedicated music phones, in fact the XpressMusic sub-brand has been around for a while. It's certainly not the bottom end of Nokia's new range, those are targeted at SonyEricsson's strong Walkman line.

No, the answer is the release of the iPod Touch. That's where they are expecting their demand to shift. The iPhone is not actually very good as a phone: people buy it because the design and the double-touch UI make it viscerally desirable. I'd venture to say that a prevailing majority of iPhone buyers would actually prefer a video iPod with a full-face touchscreen and WiFi, and use whatever well-designed 3G/HSDPA phone they get for free from their carrier.

People who want the iPhone because of the looks will get the iPod Touch, with twice the storage for the same price, and people who want the hottest mobile gadget on the market will get the black N95.

**Full disclosure: my home machine runs on XP.


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Saturday, April 21, 2007

Home Stretch

So, eight short months later, and my apartment is ready. I'm moving in on Monday, which means that I'm having to think long and hard about what to do with it.

In the spirit of doing things that are slightly out of my nature, I've decided to take the absolute minimum of stuff with me when I move. The new apartment is a bit smaller than my current rental, but the use of space is a lot more efficient; however, it has a lot less storage space. Here I have a balcony and a couple of wall closets where I can simply dump stuff for later reference; there, I will not have the luxury. It is a brand new, modern building, a break with the incompetence and limitations of Soviet architecture. It's even got an unorthodox color scheme, contrived by an artist/interior designer. The point was that the foundation would be grayscale, onto which background I can then add wild and lively colors as I see fit. It came out great - very warm, unoffensive, classical rather than retro. I said it's unorthodox because most of these new apartments - as indeed most deep renovations these days - either end up with either a bland shade of beige, or lose all self-control when faced with a Pantone book. There's an apartment in another building, same floorplan as mine, that is painted a magic marker sort of neon-green. Boggles the mind, really.

But now, I need to figure out the rest of the stuff in the flat. The problem is that such sense of style that I myself possess is calibrated negatively. I mostly get the sensations of "hell no, definitely not that". The upshot is that I rarely end up with things I really like - rather, by process of elimination, I end up with things I can tolerate. I'm not non-conformist for the sake of rebellion itself, not in this case at least, because this is where I'm going to be living, so I need it to be comfortable and practical; at the same time, I despise both the prevalent conservative style and the prevalent modern style in furniture. The former is decadent enough to be offensive, the latter is impractical enough to be preposterous.

I've got two days to trawl Tartu's shops and come up with something acceptable. Wish me luck.

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Thursday, April 12, 2007

Putin Pudding

Now in Polonium-210 flavour!

(Via Kitya Karlson, RU.)

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Sunday, April 01, 2007

Day of Fools

Best gag yet is Delfi's newscast, featuring items like the Bronze Soldier being repositioned in Tallinn Bay where the statue of Kalevipoeg was supposed to be; a glass sarcophagus will be erected in its place, housing the giant chocolate bear that Laima, the Latvian chocolate factory, will present to the people of Ruhnu island. (Trust me, if you follow the local news, these make a lot more sense.) The anchor is Liis Lass, the Estonian equivalent of a Paris Hilton, taking her clothes off throughout the show. Hell, it's a way to boost viewer numbers!

Meanwhile I've been in Tallinn for two days now, and still have three days to go before I leave for Iceland. It's been over a month since I was last in the capital, and I am starting to feel once again that this is no longer my home town. It's also a very different city to drive around. Tallinn is only four times as populous as Tartu, but feels far larger. In Tartu, navigating involves figuring out where your destination is; in Tallinn, it involves figuring out how to get there. Tallinn traffic is a lot more intense (although nowhere near as bad as Riga), but most parts of the city are connected by thoroughfares with a minimum of traffic lights. Any trip by car is based around the arteries. The consequence of this is that you stop thinking of it as a single area, and start considering it as a set of plains, separate locals between which you can only travel on a main road. It is akin to the feeling people get in London when travelling by Tube: the physical proximity of objects is less relevant than the links between them on the Underground map.

Saturday afternoon, I found myself in an industrial back yard, phoning my friend the postal delivery driver, asking how to get from the Kristiine shopping mall to the Mööblimaja furniture emporium. I knew that they were very close and I vaguely knew which sidestreet I needed to take, but I got lost in the jumble of old houses and one-way streets in Haabersti - even though I regularly navigate similar terrain in Tartu.

The reason why I was going to the furniture shop is that my new apartment is ready ahead of schedule; I'm due to move in at the end of April, which means I'll have a massive rush right after I get back from my holiday. I need to figure out how to fit all the requisite stuff into a 36-square-meter apartment; or rather, I need to figure out a way to pack the maximum functionality into the minimum amount of furniture, where the furniture must still look good to my rather critical taste. This is compounded by the fact that I have only once been in a display apartment of the same floorplan - done up in a truly mind-boggling neon green, something between a magic marker and a high-visibility jacket - and I have no idea how the conservative-but-unorthodox color scheme that Nerva came up with for me is actually going to look. The concept was to do everything that can't easily be replaced in grayscale, and then add color with the furniture and art. The walls alone are three different shades of gray - and if Nerva had negotiated more than three different colors with the builders, it would have been more - plus the kitchenette furniture in its own variation. I still think it's going to be very nice, and an asset whenever I sell the apartment, but the sort of capability I want of the apartment is not easy to fit into the floorspace of a bachelor's semi-studio.

Still, I am starting to get a general idea of how to get it done. My birthday is coming up in early May, and I intend to have a great big party to celebrate it along with my housewarming. AnTyx readers are all invited. :)

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

(Two) Reasons Why You (Might Want to) Buy a Mac

The Register, a prominent British IT tabloid, has graced us today with an opinion piece listing ten reasons to buy a Mac. I read it with great attention, as I have so far singularly failed to be convinced by the hot new toy. I don't even have an iPod. On the other hand, I'm a fairly experienced PC user. I've installed countless machines from zero, replaced bits of hardware, etc. I also like to think I have a fairly good bullshit detector. The Register article set that one off.

So, in typical blog style, a response.

1. The MacBooks have aluminium cases, so they can take a fall and keep going.

This is not a reason to buy a Mac instead of a PC. This is a reason to buy a laptop with a full metal frame & case instead of one made predominantly of plastic. I've never dropped my Dell so far, but I've done bad things to my MP3 players, and I agree that an expensive gadget benefits greatly from a full metal jacket. There are PC laptops with metal cases.

Anyway, if you drop a laptop, you are very likely to fuck up its innards, in which case the sturdyness of the case becomes academic. You'll easily kill a hard drive or the screen panel, even in a MacBook.

2. Macs have those cool commercials which make them look better than PCs.

If you're a hipster with a trust fund - maybe. If you're an actual human being... Try telling a girl at a party that you have the computer advertised in that really awesome commercial, and see where that takes you.

3. You can hook up two Macs with a single cable, over FireWire, and the hard drive of one will be fully visible an external drive on the other.

This is, actually, awesome. It's something I'd quite like to have on my computer. Only works with two Macs though, so it won't help if you're moving stuff from your old PC to the new Apple machine, or if you want to pull something off of a friend's PC laptop.

4. It comes with drivers for a lot of smartphones and a syncing utility, built-in. And there is a third-party tool (at an extra cost) which makes the Mac talk to PDAs and Windows Mobile devices.

This is the consequence of a dire shortage of drivers for OS X. Whereas with a PC, all the software you need - drivers and utilities - come on a CD at the bottom of your smartphone's box. Proprietary syncing packages often suck, but vastly superior enthusiast-driven Open Source alternatives are only a short google away.

So the argument comes down to "the Mac can do what your PC can, and almost as well!".

5. The Mac is now based on x86 architecture, so it can use common components. This makes it cheaper than earlier, PowerPC-based Macs. Plus there are software tools that allow game developers to add support for Macs to their games.
  • iMac with a Core 2 Duo 1.83Ghz, 512mb RAM, 160gb hard drive and a 17-inch LCD: 15,990 EEK (1021 Euro).
  • PC with a Core 2 Duo 1.83 Ghz, 1gb RAM, 250gb hard drive, low-end 256mb video card, plus a 17-inch LCD, plus Vista Home Premium: 14,135 EEK (903 Euro).
Local prices, and the cheapest off-the-shelf Core 2 Duo box I found in a cursory look. The PC is cheaper and technically superior. The fact that the Mac is not as expensive as it used to be is not really a reason to switch.

As for games, the ease of creating ports doesn't even enter into it: even if Half-Life 2 comes to OS X, without mainstream and high-end dedicated video acceleration hardware the Mac will not be a viable gaming platform. To get any sort of video card at all in an iMac, you need to spend preposterous amounts of money.

6. The Mac comes with a lot of bundled applications for manipulating media.

So does Vista. What Vista can't do, or can't do well, you can find an Open Source package for.

7. Mac laptops go to sleep and wake near-instantly.

Excellent. Wish my Dell's XP Pro could do that.

8. Vista may be pretty, but OS X has been this pretty for ages.

Uh-huh. But Vista is pretty now. Why should I switch away from all the software and practices I'm used to?

9. You can run Windows on a Mac. Well, unless the Windows license agreement says you can't.

So what - I'm paying 50% extra for inferior hardware, then have to pay more for dual boot software, then have to pay for a Windows license, and I'm still doing software piracy? For what - a fancy case mod?

If you're not too squeamish about license agreements, you definitely want a PC: thanks to torrents and copy-protection cracks, every bit of software you've ever wanted (Vista Ultimate, Office Pro, the latest Photoshop with all the extras, all the new games...) are out there, for free.

10. You'll feel smug, having bought a Mac. You can't feel smug for buying a PC, whatever it is.

Quite on the contrary, I felt very smug indeed, having bought a gaming rig based around a hundred-Euro Opteron 144, which has run at 3Ghz for a year now, and is as fast as any single-core CPU out there. If you want to feel smug about overpaying for a slow computer that isn't compatible with 90% of the machines out there, so be it.

But I'm sorry, mr. Tony Smith, I'm not convinced.


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Saturday, February 17, 2007


Originally uploaded by Flasher T.
Went out to see my future home today. The factory actually builds each apartment as a set of modules (or a single module, in my case) and assembles them on location. I'm not allowed on site until all the work has been complete, but the idea is that inside, my little half-bedroom apartment is already painted, with the kitchenette assembled. They'll be putting on the outer panelling and hooking up the utlities, installing home appliances etc. until June.

I'm actually very happy that they are doing the full-surface siding - it's the fourth house of this development (in an eventual set of Seven Dwarves), and the first three just have white plastic on the first two floors. This should look much cooler when it's done.

Kodumaja, the company that makes these, is a Tartu operation, although most of their business is in Scandinavia. So far my experience with them has been quite positive.


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Sunday, January 21, 2007

Snowed In

So, I bought a car... 

First one to guess the make & model right, gets everlasting glory.

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Monday, December 11, 2006

The Sad Bastard Christmas Set

This, I kid thee not, is a matched pair. For the second holiday season running (that I've noticed, at least), you can buy a bottle of Johnnie Red and get a miniature Canadian spruce in a pot for free.

The little piece of glossy cardboard sticking out of the dirt holds care instructions, suggesting that the tree be repotted in a bigger receptacle soon, and in the spring, as soon as the winter chills have passed, it be planted outside. Eventually it is to grow into a lovely, cone-shaped, classical fairy-tale Christmas tree up to seven feet tall.

Which is, of course, just some conscionable copywriter attempting to cut down on alcohol-related suicide spike around the end of December.

The weekend bookstore run landed me with Nick Hornby's "Long Way Down", which is a book about a quarter of sad lonely people failing to kill themselves on New Year's Eve. It's this sort of little coincidence that you notice. The night before I got on an airplane for the first time, or rather three airplanes in succession for a 20-hour trip to San Diego, I watched Pushing Tin, a movie with John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton about psycho air traffic controllers.

Nick Hornby is best-known for High Fidelity. I read the book once, and saw the movie countless times. It has John Cusack in it, and Jack Black. Cusack is a very Christmasy actor, overall. He did that film with Kate Beckinsale.

If I was an existing movie star, I'd be Jack Black.

There's a girl some hundred-odd miles north of where I'm sitting, who would be Kate Beckinsale. Even though she says she'd be Mila Yovovich.

Years ago, around this time of the year, a girl said she'd started to worry about me killing myself. (Months earlier I had told her I loved her; did it in the most cowardly way imaginable, seconds before getting on a bus to another country. I expected her to tell me to sod off, but she didn't. She waited a couple months for that. A few weeks after that, I couldn't talk to her.) I thought to myself that the girl had a bit of an opinion of herself; I'd had much better reasons to kill myself, and didn't. She'd hurt me deeply, but in the grand scheme of my life, she didn't rank.

So no, I'm not going to wash down a tin of painkillers with that bottle of Johnnie Red while looking at my little Christmas tree.

(The Kate/Mila girl and the suicide girl are two entirely different girls, you understand. Polar opposites in most ways, though I met them under similar circumstances.)

I don't really think I've done badly in my life so far. Not objectively. And I'm used to being alone. Spent the first eighteen years of my life around people I never specifically liked, on a personal level, and put a fair bit of effort into being able to live alone for the last four. I've got a job, and I've got friends who like me. Saw six of them after the bookstore run on the weekend. (Well, OK, some were spouses.)

Still, I can't help feeling miserable when I'm alone on Christmas and New Year's Eve.

Gam zeh ya'avor.


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