26 July 2006

Romanian Epilogue

I have to say, I really liked Romania. I came with low expectations, because my Bulgarian friends and colleagues tend to bad-mouth their neighbor to the north, but found their warnings to be unwarranted. Transylvania is especially pleasant, but even Bucharest is worth seeing. Its broad streets and boulevards are crowded with cars, but at least you can negotiate the sidewalk—which you can’t always do in Sofia. There are ostentatious projects like Ceausescu’s People’s Palace and beautifully maintained parks, but I mainly enjoyed the hustle and bustle of big city—again, something Sofia is not.

That being said, I didn’t find Romania to be very tourist friendly. It seems like all people want to do is pry lei (or Euros) from foreigners. Taxi cab drivers are always hesitant to tell you what the price of a trip is going to be, but when pressed they give a price 3 times higher than it’s supposed to be, after which you bargain down to half of that (or, if you’re good like Mike, back to the correct price.) Compounding this problem, there are currently two currencies in circulation the old leu (ROL) and new leu (RON); the new leu is worth 10,000 old lei (about $2.84.) Prices are officially listed in new leu, but everyone still refers to old leu prices, so if something is 10 lei, they will say it costs 100,000 or just 100. Adding to the confusion, after a couple of purchases, you will always be paying with mixed currency—you have to remember 10,000=1, 500,000=50, and so on. I am convinced they are trying to keep the old currency around as long as possible in order to confuse people (and rip them off.)

Below are some pictures from my extended weekend in Romania. These are courtesy of Mike’s camera, since none of my cameras work anymore.

Piata MareThis is a time-exposure I took of the fountain on Piaţa Mare in Sibiu. Mike says this piazza was a muddy mess last winter, but—as you can see—they did it up right!

Mike & I at Lac BaleaThese are Mike’s Romanian friends (you know I’m bad at remembering names), Mike, and myself at Lac Balea. Yes, that is snow in the background!

Glacial Valley at Lac BaleaCheck out this winding, switch-backed road set in this beautiful glacial valley—looks like a car commercial, doesn’t it. Good for cycling too; we saw numerous cyclists climbing and descending.

Mike, landlord, and his TrabantsMike and his landlord, Joseph, with his two East German Trabants. The blue one is a 1979 model and the (newly painted) orange one is a 1990! See any difference? Of course not! Only a capitalist would make changes to a perfectly good car from year to year just to befuddle the poor consumers and make them pick up the additional cost of re-tooling the factory. ;-)  Joseph is retired and spends his days tinkering around with these and other projects. He is of Hungarian descent, and speaks a little bit of German.

23 July 2006

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

Mike, my MBAEC colleague in Romania—and who I went sailing with last month—is finishing his assignment in Sibiu, Romania, so this weekend was the last possible opportunity for me to visit him—and therefore Romania. So Thursday morning I boarded a plane to Bucharest, and then took at train north to Transylvania (cue the spooky music.) No, actually, Transylvania is one of the cleaner, more bucolic and well-preserved parts of Eastern Europe—I am really impressed. Sibiu, the city that Mike lives in (until Monday,) is undergoing a revitalization that is turning it into a picture-postcard of what you think an old European town should look like. BTW, Sibiu is also called Hermannstadt, because of the large ethic German population that lived in this area until recently—in fact it is still common to hear German spoken here.

Saturday we drove to the mountains for a little relief from the sweltering heat. Mike’s friend/colleague has a car so we drove up to Lac Belea, a pond nestled near the crest of the Carpathian Mountains. Climbing above the tree line, we entered a broad, glacial valley where remnants of last winter’s snow packs were still melting in to rivulets that joined into a mighty stream that threw itself into the valley below in a magnificent waterfall—all quite breathtaking. Despite the rugged surrounding, the road up (with its numerous switchbacks) is in a very good shape, which is one thing I can say for Romania in general—they have invested a lot more in infrastructure than Bulgaria since the end of communism.

Tomorrow, we go to Sighisoara where Mike finishes his last project, before we head to Bucharest. I return to Sofia on Tuesday and Mike leaves Romania on Wednesday. It was good to have an American friend here to show me around, talk about sailing, and to share our gripes about the development industry in general.

As you can tell, I’ve returned to the original purpose of this blog—namely a travelogue—after briefly flirting with being a technology pundit in the previous post. I’ve got to admit, I was feeling pretty heady on Thursday when this article rose to #3 for a while on Reddit.com and hit Digg.com. I conservatively estimate (based on up-votes and comments) that between 1000 and 2000 people read it over the last 72 hours—I think I really hit a chord with Internet users—but now my proverbial “15 minutes of fame” are over.

19 July 2006

Email is broken

I have recently come to the conclusion that the current Internet email infrastructure is broken, and can never be fixed.

Like you, I am beleaguered by junk email (spam) flooding all of my email accounts. My primary email comes through the Mozilla Thunderbird client, which has a powerful Bayesian filter that I’ve trained by marking spam as “junk.” It then compares the words (and other elements) of incoming email with the ones I marked as junk, and the good ones (not marked as “junk”.) Eventually it becomes very good at discriminating against spam, which automatically goes to the junk mail folder. I occasionally check this “junk” folder for false positives (legitimate emails incorrectly determined to be spam—something that rarely happens) and click on the “not junk” button, training it that these are OK.

I recently received the following strange spam email. It wasn’t trying to sell anything, it didn’t even contain a link; it just contained the following excerpts from a story:
sopping wet from head to toe. I locked myself in a stall, got my flask,
faster. He was flying now straight down, at two hundred fourteen miles per
something like a vessel, like a glass jar with blue syrup. We looked at it
The next night from the Flock came Kirk Maynard Gull, wobbling across

I’ve seen a paragraph or two of generic text like this at the bottom of emails selling Viagra, debt refinancing, etc. It’s an attempt to make the email look more “normal” to Bayesian filters, and therefore not get automatically marked as spam. But this one didn’t make any sense; why would anyone send out millions of useless messages like these?

Well, I think I’ve figured it out: this is likely a concerted effort by spammers to cause our Bayesian filters system to mark more false positives, which will then make us either abandon it, or spend a lot of time sifting through our junk folder (hopefully pausing on one of their subsequent spam mail.) Therefore, if you receive an email like this, DO NOT mark it as spam, just delete it; otherwise, you will start to get false positives (i.e. emails from acquaintances may get marked as spam.)

BTW, the way these spammers operate is to propagate a virus or Trojan horse that compromises thousands of machines around the world to become unwitting “spam-bots” churning out spam at their command (remotely.) The distributed nature of this system makes it nearly impossible to strike back in any meaningful way. These creeps are then contracted to send out millions of emails by shady business people selling questionable product. These “businesses” purposely create websites in the guise of shell identities with incorrect or missing contact information to avoid the onslaught of negative emails, phone calls, faxes, and personal visits they would otherwise receive from millions of irate email users—point being: don’t waste any time and effort to complain.

My real problem is not so much with these ingenious people, but with the few idiots who actually respond to these offers. Coming from the direct mail sector, I know that you generally have to get a 1% response rate to make a mailing profitable (covering printing, postage, and list rental cost.) However, since emails have $0 printing cost, $0 delivery cost, and a $0-$3 per million list cost; you can still be quite profitable with less than a 1 in 10,000 response rate. Therefore, to the idiots out there who think that male enhancement products really work, or that you can get safe Viagra without going to your doctor please, PLEASE, do us all a favor and don’t respond to these emails, just Google these products and find a less-slimy vendor to do business with!

[UPDATE] I’ve posted this to my favorite social book-marking site, reddit.com, where it has started an interesting discussion. My detractors think that these messages are just dumb mistakes by the spammers; I would agree, but I’ve seen 3 separate instances of this now. Obviously, if these emails sounded more like your standard friendly email, it would be more effective at subverting Bayesian filters (even though these get quite specific—tailored to the way your friends write.) But I suspect each one is unique (to prevent filtering at the ISP level,) and coming up with millions of real email conversations is practically impossible. Therefore, I propose they just take excerpts from literature found online—so as not to sound like ad copy. The other issue is that most spam originates from this part of the world (Eastern Europe & Russia) bereft of native English speakers.

In any case, it looks like the spammers are not satisfied with just reaching a dim-witted audience, they want to make sure that tech-savy Internet users will have to eye-ball their (clients') offerings as well—which makes no sense.

13 July 2006

Name Day

Today is my name day (Имен Ден.) This is the day that your name sake saint was born, and is celebrate like another birthday. Practically, this means I will take chocolates to work this morning (черпия), and—because this may be the only chance I have to celebrate it in a place where people understand the significance—I will have a small party at my place this evening.

Actually, it is not a Bulgarian name day, since Joel is not used in this part of the world; but this practice is known to a lesser extent throughout Europe. I found out about my name day from this site. Check it out, you may have another day to celebrate too!

07 July 2006

Jet Crash

I submit the following for your amusement—another gem of Bulgarian journalism.

Irish Teen Killed in Jet Crash in Bulgaria
Top news: 7 July 2006, Friday.

A 17-year-old Irish boy died in crash between two jets in the sea near Bulgaria's northern resort "Golden Sands".

Varna police reported that the accident took place on Friday around 2 pm some 100-150meters away from the coast. Two Irish brothers aged 15 and 17 rented the jet.

According to preliminary reports after the crash the teenager was smashed by the other jet. The most probable reason for the crash was speeding.

The two boys and their parents were on holiday in Bulgaria.

Sofia News Agency. 7 July 2006.

As you may know, my brother has had his pilot’s license since he was 17, so I flew around with him when we were still teen-agers. Therefore, my first thought was “you can rent jet airplanes in Bulgaria? Cool!” Then l realized they were talking about jet skis or wave runners. My favorite part of the story is “…probable reason for the crash was speeding.” No, I’m pretty sure the cause was that they crossed paths!

Of course, I don’t want to make light of the terrible tragedy that has befallen this family; just the reporting.

04 July 2006

Happy 4th!

I hope you all are enjoying your 4th of July. Here in Bulgaria, we call it Tuesday1—it’s a normal workday. However tonight, all eyes will be focused on the World Cup semi-final game: Germany vs. Italy. Obviously I will be rooting for Germany, and trying to get my Italian friend, Barbara, to face the TV and watch—she is convinced that she can jinx her own team by watching.

It’s funny how we Americans actually think that the Super Bowl is a big deal, and that we actually put any credence into the claim that there are 3 billion potential viewers of this event. Let’s face it, there are only 300 million Americans from which to draw an audience for this obscure sport most of the world calls “NFL.” Football (or soccer, as we call it), on the other hand, is played by and followed by nearly every male on this planet regardless of nationality, background, or wealth. Even the most dilapitated hovels in the poorest ghettos around world will glow blue tonight as a significant percentage of the world’s population sits on the edge of their seats and cheers for their favorite team (or at least the one they hate the least.)

That being said, you all know I’m not much of a sports fan, and quite frankly find this a bit tedious at times—well, at least it's only 90 minutes long. Now, if the field was half as big, and goals occurred at least every 15-20 minutes I might get more excited.

1 Stallone, Sylvester. Rocky. 1976. Adrian: “But it's Thanksgiving.” Rocky: “Yeah to you, but to me it's Thursday.”