Thursday, September 12, 2013

How to evolve from being a business into being a scam: Part 2. Mobile phone companies.

I complained the other day about the charges that both my British and Australian banks hit me with when I want to move and convert money to and from Australia, and the need to engage the services of an intermediary - in this instance an FX broker - in order, essentially, for the cost of getting my two banks to interact with one another to be more reasonable. At the end, I made a comparison with mobile phone companies, in that both sets of companies screw their customers without mercy for relatively infrequent services that the customers may not understand well, regardless of how trivial are the costs to them.

The analogy holds even more closely, though. The bank is essentially using the excuse of an international service to charge through the roof. How I resolve this is to make a local transfer (no charge) to the Australian bank account of the FX broker through the Australian payments system, the FX broker changes the money for me in the FX markets (modest charge), and the FX broker then makes a local payment to my British account (no charge).

As it happens, in recent days I have had the need to make quite a few mobile to mobile telephone calls to Australia. I have a contract with one of the four big network owning mobile phone companies in the UK. (I won't single the company out - they are all much the same). I could simply dial the Australian number on my phone, but once again the charges would be absolutely outrageous. It doesn't cost the mobile company dramatically more to terminate a call abroad than it does to terminate a call in the UK, but the charge to me is vastly more.

So, what do I do? Once again, I engage the services of an intermediary. I use a call forwarding service. I dial a British number from my mobile, which then asks me to dial the Australian number. I dial the Australian number, and then the call is connected. The call forwarding service then charges me a much smaller amount than the mobile company would directly.

The same thing has happened here, pretty much exactly, as with the bank. The amount of money the mobile phone company is making from customers who do not understand how the system works, and/or do not understand to what extent they are being overcharged, and/or lack the ability or desire to cope with the hassle of using an intermediary is such that they are willing to forgo the business of the customers who do understand this.

At the moment, though, they are only forgoing some of the business. I still have an account with a major high street bank, and I still have my main mobile contract with one of the four big operators. The reason is that for the regular, mainstream, local services that I need, it's very difficult to function without them. In a world with fewer barriers to entry, the intermediaries that I engage for my international transactions would start to compete with the larger operators on their other services as well, and competition would then force everyone's prices down. That isn't really happening, though. The mainstream players face too little competition on their mainstream services, and the niche players remain niche players.

(Two further observations on this. Firstly, yes, I could use an MVNO like Lebara who specialise in international calls. This would give me cheaper calls without having to go through the business of dialling a call forwarding service. Yes, indeed, but these companies only really work for people who want a phone for which all their calls are international. For those of us who are mostly domestic customers, who make some international calls (especially to mobiles) and who want the convenience, monthly billing, customers service etc of the big operators, they fall short. Anyway, they use the big operators' networks (and are so at their mercy, ultimately), so they are just a slightly different kind of intermediary to the call forwarding services. Secondly, it is undoubtedly true that large corporate customers of both banks and mobile phone companies are able to negotiate better deals than individuals, and not get screwed in quite the same way. This doesn't help me, though).

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

How to evolve from being a business into being a scam: Part 1. Banks.

Both my British and Australian banks charge me utterly outrageous exchange rates when I want to convert money between AUD and GBP. (We are talking something like 5% in spread and commission). As it happens, I am not going to pay $100 to you to change $200 - $20 is more reasonable - so I have to go off and use an independent FX broker. (Mine is based in New Zealand, BTW. I had to go through all the standard anti-money laundering crap of sending copies of my passport and utility bills before they would accept me as a customer, but they have themselves been excellent).

The fact that large banks have become organisations that will screw their customers outrageously at any tiny opportunity that they can find - often because they know that the customer is doing something complex that he does not really understand and does not know how to shop around for (or - better - which regulations make it difficult to shop around for) is a big part of why people hate them so much. You sort of know that you are being screwed, but don't know quite how.

Mobile phone companies (also much too close to the state, and also much too heavily regulated by regulators who have been captured by the phone companies) are very similar in terms of how they will screw you. In some ways they are practically banks themselves, too.

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

UK LTE networks

We now have three of four British mobile networks (EE, O2, and Vodafone) offering 4G/LTE networks. Just looking at the SIM only pay monthly tariffs (which are the cheapest), none of them are offering anything offering 4G data for less than £21 a month. 

Even that is a plan on EE that offers only 500Mb of data a month. To get a plan with a decent data allowance you are up for £26 a network on all three networks.

The fourth network, Three, is not launching until December - delayed probably because the bulk of their network is going to be running on 1800MHz spectrum that EE were required to divest as a condition of the T-Mobile/Orange merger, and transfer of this spectrum was delayed by the conditions of that merger. Three have said that they will not have special pricing for 4G and that customers will simply be able to use 4G data on their current tariffs. This means their cheapest 4G tariff (including 500Mb of data) will cost £6.90 a month, and their unlimited data tariffs (the cheapest of which costs £10.90 a month) will continue to operate with 4G. None of the other
operators are offering unlimited data on 4G at all

Therefore, the only network offering unlimited data will be offering it at approximately half the price of the cheapest tariff of any kind offered by anyone else.

There were always two ways to go with the introduction of 4G: you could use it to attempt to raise monthly spend from customers, or you could use it to try to increase market share. It was always likely that Three - having the lowest current market share - would go for the latter. That this would lead to such enormous price disparities as this was not expected by anyone, I suspect. I don't think Three expected that the other operators would try to make 4G quite as expensive as they have.

One possible caveat that may exist is that I have only been talking about tariffs that have been publicly advertised. There does exist a secret world of unadvertised tariffs that exists alongside the advertised ones. Some of these are offered by networks to their large business customers, and others to customers who ask to leave the network. Often this second category take the form of "Loyalty discounts" in which an advertised tariff is reduced by £x per month for the life of the contract if the customers signs for another minimum period). It may be that EE, Vodafone, and O2 are offering such discounts now, and "4G cheap" or "4G at no extra charge" is a sweetener being offered people who are talking to the customer retention departments. If not now, this will likely happen when Three have their LTE network online. Plus I am certain large corporate customers are negotiating to find the best possible deals, as they always do.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out. One possibility is that too many people go for Three's offers, and they find themselves hitting capacity constraints. If so, they may have issues, as they have what appears to be an adequate amount of spectrum, but are not as well served as Vodafone or EE. (O2 have by far the lowest amount of 4G spectrum of any of the four operators, which is why high price rather than market share might be the way to go for them). Curiously, also, 2x15Mhz of 2600MHz spectrum was bought by BT in the recent auction, and this would be very valuable to either Three or O2 if they hit capacity constraints at some point. It will be interesting to see how this comes into play, as it inevitably will at some point.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Kutaisi airport public transport information.

Kutaisi airport in Georgia is a new airport, with relatively few flights at present. However, due to Wizzair's direct flight from Kiev, it is now the cheapest location to arrive in if you are coming to the Caucasus from Europe. It is not easy to find out information about local transport to and from the airport, so I hereby place this information on the internet, hopefully to help other people.

The simplest way into Kutaisi is simply to get a taxi. A fare of about 25 Georgian Lari (£10, $15) seems to be the going rate. Whether locals get a cheaper price and/or taxi drivers will try to get away with charging you more if they can remains to be seen. On the other hand, the distance is about 20km, so this isn't particularly unreasonable.

When I arrived on January 28, there were two public minibuses (marshrutkas) waiting outside the terminal, one going to Batumi (2 hours away) and the other going to Tbilisi (four hours away). I don't know if such services go after every flight, but they are likely useful. Of course, they also likely go in the other direction, but when and where they depart from in Tbilisi and Batumi is not information I was able to find out, even with the help of a Georgian in Tbilisi. (as the Tbilisi bus goes in the direction of Kutaisi, it is likely possible to ask the driver to take you to Kutaisi for a few Lari, but I suspect that this depends on how full the bus is).

However, the key piece of information is this.

Kutaisi airport is on the main highway in Georgia (Georgian Highway number 1, European route E60), in the sense that you walk out of the terminal and past the car park, and the exit to the carpark turns straight onto the highway. Locally, this is the road from Kutaisi to Samtredia. (The airport is actually closer to Samtredia). To get into Kutaisi, you should stay on the same side of the highway as the airport terminal, and flag down the next marshrutka going in that direction.To get from Kutaisi to the airport, you should get the minibus to Samtredia, and ask the driver to let you off at the airport.

This should be simple, once you know this. (To get from the airport to Samtredia, cross the road and flag down a marshrutka going in the opposite direction. There is a bus shelter at which to wait).
Similarly, to get to Kutaisi airport from Tbilisi, you should get a bus to Samtredia and ask the driver to let you off at Kutaisi airport. (Getting on the bus to Poti likely works, too). Coming from the coast, get on the bus to Kutaisi, and ask the driver to let you off at the airport. In a pinch, get off at Samtredia, as this is much closer to the airport and going all the way to Kutaisi will involve 20km of backtracking.

When I was there in January 2013, there were no money changing facilities or ATMs at the airport. As the airport was brand new and still being finished at the time, this might be rectified soon. If not, this is unlikely to be a problem if the service you are boarding terminates at wherever you are going, as there are many money changers and ATMs in all Georgian towns, and getting a little money to pay the driver at the end of the route is feasible. If you are getting off in the middle of a route, this might be a little more problematic, and there is something to be said for having a few small denomination euros or dollars handy. (Good advice anywhere). If none of this works, appealing to the kindness of strangers is also likely to work. Georgians are very warm and hospitable people to visitors, and are likely to be sympathetic.

Update (19/2/13): I see that Wizzair have just announced that they are increasing the Kiev route to daily, as well as adding flights from Kutaisi to Warsaw, Donetsk and Kharkiv. That Warsaw flight is going to make it even easier for those of us trying to get to the Caucasus from Europe. Hopefully, the increased traffic will also encourage the owners of the airport to, say, install an ATM.

Further Update  (11/11/13): I went to Kutaisi airport again in late October. There is now a company (GeorgianBus) providing timetabled bus services to and from Tbilisi and Batumi to meet every flight at Kutaisi airport. They have a desk at the airport that sells tickets and accepts credit cards, tickets can be bought in advance online, and I highly recommend them. I also saw a local Kutaisi city bus (number 777) arrive in the carpark at the airport and leave while I was there. I suspect that this means that there is also now a timetabled bus service to Kutaisi, but I cannot vouch for this 100%. The airport now also contains a Tourist Information Desk that also changes money, cafe/bars both before and after security, and a kiosk selling Georgian mobile phone SIMs. Two things lacking are an ATM and a duty free shop, but there still appears to be some work going on on the airport terminal. Basically, though, this airport now has most of the regular facilities found in airports. There is no particular need for special preparations any more.

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Parking meters in Old Pasadena

This article on how the history of parking policy has influenced the built environment in Los Angeles is fascinating. Intriguingly, it tells the story of the parking meters in Old Pasadena, with which I had a run in in 2007. Apparently I was caught by famous parking meters that have much aided city cohesion and promoted urban charm. Certainly I was completely unaware that Old Pasadena had been a rough neighbourhood only a few years previously. When I visited, I thought it was very nice.

It is interesting, though, that a lengthy, in depth article on the subject chooses to use as a particular example something that I encountered in person, and which affected me enough to make me blog about it at the time.

Of course, what annoyed me in 2007 was not that I had to pay for parking - I put money in the meter - but the incredible efficiency of the enforcement. I received a parking ticket even though I returned to my car no more than two minutes after the meter expired. If I was a resident of Pasadena and visited regularly and was aware of hyper-efficient parking enforcement, I would not doubt have got back to my car two minutes earlier, or put slightly more money in the meter to start with. This one happens when one travels. You don't always understand local norms, and you can sometimes get in trouble due to it.

Friday, February 03, 2012

They are still doing it after all this time.

An old complaint, but I live in the UK and most of my family live in Australia. In such circumstances, the DVD is the perfect gift for birthdays and Christmases and such. It is inexpensive, lightweight and easily mailed, and provides you with an opportunity to give a thoughtful gift if you understand the tastes of the recipient.

That the movie industry (with its stupid region coding) actually tried (and tries, to some extent) to stop me from doing this, just boggles the mind. Seriously, this is an industry that is too dumb to live. (I make no comment on the morality of anything, merely on their dumbness).

Monday, January 30, 2012


Last week, I was in a car, being driven south along the Israeli coast, from the Lebanese border in the direction of Acre. We were of course driving south, but my mind kept telling me we were driving north.

The reason for this is because the coast I have done the most driving on is the east coast of Australia, and when you are driving with that coast on your right, you are going north.

However, there is more to it than that. The water looked similar to what you find off Australia. I am used to the Mediterranean having tiny little waves, if any, but there are some quite decent waves hitting the Levant in winter. There appears to be a bit of an Israeli surf culture, to. (Wherever there is a surf culture, there will be Australians around, too. One of the charms of the slightly storied but twee French resort of Biarritz is to turn a corner and find an Australian surf shop / cafe that could just about be in my home town of Wollongong). There are rock platforms in the water of the Levant, too, some of which have rock swimming pools cut out of them in a way that is also common in Australia. And there are eucalyptus trees - native to Australia - on the shore. (Oddly enough, possibly the first time I ever heard of the state of Israel as a child was when I was told that native Australian eucalyptus trees had been introduced to the relatively barren land of Israel, where they had grown well in a similarly harsh climate to that of Australia).

So it felt like the Australian east coast. However, that still wasn't it. I have driven along other coasts in the past without the unutterable sense that I was driving in the opposite direction from the one I was. After a moment, though, I figured it out. The issue was the sun, which was over the sea in a south-westerly direction from me. In the northern hemisphere, the sun is in the south, and in the southern hemisphere the sun is in the north. So the sun in the afternoon driving south in Israel was at a very similar angle to the sun in the morning driving north in Australia. And a check just now tells me that Sydney is at a latitude of 34 degrees south, whereas Haifa is at 33 degrees north. So exactly the same angle. Interesting.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

More travel

My 2011 travel photoessay is here. The previous five are here, here, here, here, and here.

The rules for how many photos I post are here. The stretches this year are that Ceuta is part of Spain (although disputed by Morocco), Gagauzia is part of Moldova (although a special autonomous region that declared independence at the end of the Soviet Union, but eventually came to an agreement with the Moldovans due to not having the support of the Russian army in the way of the Transnistrians, and Sabah and Sarawak are part of Malaysia, although having considerably more autonomy, and their own immigration rules, due to having been historically somewhat reluctant to join Malaysia upon the formation of the country. (Sabah's autonomy has been weakened to the point where it was touch and go really here, but it still definitely remains in the case of Sarawak).

Of course, I also saw lots of graffiti in Bucharest this year claiming that Bessarabia (ie most of Moldova) was part of Romania, and relations between the two sights are rather fraught, so one wonders where the borders in this part of the world will be in a couple of decades. On the other hand, one of the most telling things I saw all year was the lighting on the respective sides of the river Prut separating Romania from Moldova. Both sides of the river are populated, but the Moldovan side got dark at night, while the Romanian side was lit up like any populated area of at least moderate wealth. That evening was one of the hairiest evenings I have ever had on my travels, to tell the truth. At some point I might tell the story.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Linguistic observations

When I started using the internet and related networks (long time ago now - late 1980s) it was pretty much an entirely English language thing. The critical mass was pretty much not there for much to happen in foreign language forums. What did happen was in Usenet, and although much smaller clusters of non-English Usenet groups did exist in certain places (German, for instance), even if I had wanted to use them they were not generally brought into Australia anyway.

Things moved on, and when the web and blog became dominant, the non-English net did become a bigger deal, but it was isolated. Multilingual people who did want to be heard in the English word would generally blog in English. A few people would maintain multiple versions of their blogs in different languages, and blogosphere in other languages became very extensive, but a blog tends to be in a single language.

What I am finding interesting in the world of Facebook and Twitter, though, is that these are somehow much more multilingual media. People who speak more than one language seem to be happy to update social media in a mixture of languages, and which they use depends on context. Many conversations are in a mixture of languages, too. I know lots of multilingual people, because that is the sort of life I live, and my Facebook and Twitter updates now contain streams of Swedish, Albanian, and Spanish, amongst other things. From time to time I find myself using Google's translation tools to figure out what is being said. The etiquette is different, too. If you a comment in Spanish on an English language blog, people will tell you to stop it. In a conversation on Facebook, though, the onus is much more on you as a reader to figure out what it means.

I will be interested in seeing whether the social networking companies respond to this. If I set my reading language to English, will they offer me some automated system where they look at my feed, observe the languages of comments and attempt to translate them for me, possibly alongside the original. Will we eventually reach a moment where machine translation is so good that the language variations in such a feed will go away again. Not for a while, I think.

For the moment, though, I find that as an English speaker I am peering into a world that exists for a great many people but not for me. Multiple languages are one of the regular facts of life. Conversations can be in multiple languages, and can change almost from sentence to sentence. However, for much of the English speaking world, things are not like that.

I have that mental block that tells me that learning a second language is so hard as to be almost impossible. This is probably silly, as much of the world has managed it. In contrast, I would see learning, say, calculus, as very easy. On the other hand, most of the people of the world have not managed to do this.

Update: To that, I would add that I follow far more of the western European languages than I do the Russian or the Hebrew, both of which also appear in my streams in reasonable amounts. I can read Cyrillic when I have to, but it is work. I have no idea whatsoever how to read Hebrew. Both, I know, can be translated using Google language tools. However, both seem foreign enough that I generally will not do so. I can understand enough Spanish or Swedish to be tantalised, so I then do take this to the next step.

Friday, October 07, 2011

Rugby World Cup 2011

On Wednesday I recorded a podcast with Brian Micklethwait, Patrick Crozier, and Antoine Clarke, in which we discussed the 2011 Rugby World Cup, which is about to reach the quarter final stage.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

More travel related mental skills.

Over the summer, I have been to Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Macedonia, Albania, and Kosovo. With the exception of Slovakia and Kosovo (which use the euro, each of these countries has its own currency. Also, with the exception of Poland, Slovakia, and the Czech republic, each of these countries maintains its own immigration controls. Travel is thus like it was in western Europe 20 years ago. There is lots of messing around with passports, money changers, and pockets full of strange coins. Like western Europe 20 years ago, it is all done in the context of a peaceful and relatively civilised environment, but there things are hassles.

However, when I am in a country, I am extremely adept at keeping track of exchange rates. When I am quoted a price in local currency I know exactly what that is in Sterling. I am very careful, and I don't let anyone play any tricks on me, as people in touristy places will try to do. (In non-touristy places, generally they won't. One of the interesting facts about travel is that you are generally safer - at least from petty crime - in places where tourists do not go, as the pickpockets and bag-snatchers that prey on tourists do not exist in such places.

However, when I leave a country and its associated currency, I forget the exchange rate pretty much instantly. There is usually no value remembering it, as even if I do visit the country again, the exchange rate will be different. The exception is if I come back to the same country a week later, as one might if doing a circular trip. In fact, this happened to me in Macedonia last month. I flew in and out of Skopje, but I spent most of the trip in Albania and Kosovo. When I got back to Macedonia, I couldn't remember the exchange rate, and had to look it up again.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Mental games

When I travel, I am usually very good at separating the "getting there" and "getting home" parts of a trip from the trip itself. At the end of a trip, I am very experienced at figuring out precisely when I must stop sightseeing, having lunch, talking to friends or whatever it is I am doing and must head for the airport. There is a precise moment when I change into going home mode. After this, my focus is entirely on the journey. Before that, my focus is not on the journey at all, other than knowing that there is a moment coming when things will change. As another way of putting it, I do not allow myself to become stressed by the journey until I need to.

Except, last Monday I didn't manage this. I spend Sunday night in a hotel in Prizren in Kosovo. My flight was from Skopje airport in Macedonia. The journey from Prizren to Skopje takes three hours by bus - probably two to two and a half hours by private car. I was taking the bus.

There are two direct buses a day from Prizren to Skopje. These go at 5.30am and 9am. For some reason there are none after this. I got the 9am bus. The journey was uneventful, other than that I spent three hours on a bus. I was thus in Skopje at midday. I didn't need to head to the airport until maybe 4.30pm or 5.00pm. There were one or two things in Skopje that I could have gone to see, but I had been to the city twice before and had seen most of the sights already, so things were not *that* pressing. I was hungry, so I sat down in a cafe beside the river, and had a steak and a beer, and read my book for a bit. I had been traveling for a little over a week, so I was a bit tired, but I discovered that I did not want to get up and sightsee. Apparently I had been mentally in "going home" mode since boarding the bus in Prizren at 9am. So I had another beer and kept reading my book, but I didn't feel completely relaxed. Apart from a brief detour to a supermarket, I kept reading until about 4.30pm, at which time I headed to the airport. No real hassle, but upon reaching the airport I discovered that my plane was 75 minutes late.

Actually, by the time the plane left it was around two hours late, and rather than getting to Luton airport at 9pm, we arrived at 11pm. There were still trains running to London, but by that time they were stopping at all stations rather than running as expresses. And due to the Thameslink 2000 Programme works, they were stopping at St Pancras rather than running through to London Bridge. So, I had to get a night bus from King's Cross to South London. No problem, but more hassle and slower than just getting the train. I was in bed by 1am - not bad given the arrival at Luton at 11pm, but still a slower and more stressful journey than if I had arrived at 9pm. And I was exhausted, since I had been traveling since 9am.

The funny thing is this. If there had been a bus from Prizren to Skopje at 2pm, I would have managed to stay in holiday mode rather than travel mode until about 1.30pm. I would have been mentally far fresher when I got home, as the total journey time would have been shorter. The fact that I spent four hours and some in the middle of the journey simply sitting down and eating, drinking and reading didn't help. This was travel time.

Although there are only two buses a day from Prizren to Skopje, there are many buses throughout the day from Prizren to Pristina, and quite a few from Pristina to Skopje. I probably could have left Prizren at 12 if I didn't mind changing buses in Pristina. The total time on buses would have been longer, and there would have been more opportunity for something to go wrong, so I was right to get the direct bus at 9am. However, if I had done this and nothing had gone wrong, I almost certainly would have felt less exhausted when I finally got home, despite the greater complexity of the journey.

The mind can play funny tricks.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

On Budweiser

While discussing Czech beer in the last post, I mentioned that Budvar beer is widely available in Slovakia, but did not touch upon probably the most interesting trademark dispute I know of, which is over the use of the world "Budweiser" to describe beer.

There are of course two Czech cities that have given their names to extremely well known beers. One is the city of Plzeň (Pilsen in German), which has given its name to Pilsener. This is a fairly straightforward instance of a place name that has become a generic name. The word pilsener today does not mean "Beer from Pilsen", but is simply used as the name for a particular style of beer. The EU in recent years has tried hard (often excessively, in my opinion) to reclaim European place names on the way to becoming generics names using laws about Protected Designation of Origin, but "pilsener" is too far gone for this. The word does not imply any particular beer, or any particular origin for the beer. Ask for a Pilsener in the Czech Republic or Slovakia and you will get a beer from Plzeň, but this will not likely happen anywhere else. Breweries in Plzeň do not have exclusive use of the word, but nobody is going to stop them using it, either.

The other city known for its beer is Budějovice (Budweis in German). The story here is more complex. A Brewery named Bürgerliches Brauhaus Budweis was founded by ethnic Germans in 1795, and was describing its beer as Budweiser ("Beer from Budweis", in German) since at least as early as 1805. This beer was later exported to the United States and was clearly being copied when Anheuser-Busch started brewing their "Budweiser" in the US in 1876.

A second brewery, now named Budvar, was founded in Budějovice in 1895. This company also called its beer "Budweiser" when it exported it, probably due to the face that this word was already famous. In Czech, it would have been described as "Budějovický", and this name was used domestically.

The three companies fairly early on got into arguments over the name, and in 1911 they came to an agreement that Anheuser-Busch would have the rights to the name in North America, and the two Czech brewers would have the rights in Europe.

However, in 1945, the Czech lands came under communist rule, ethnic Germans were expelled, both breweries were nationalised, and German names were seen as undesirable. Bürgerliches Brauhaus Budweis, the more German of the two breweries, was renamed "První budějovický pivovar Samson", and stopped using the "Budweiser" name. I think that Budvar continued using it, particularly for exports to Germany, but I am not 100% certain of this.

In any event, after the Cold War ended, Budvar started exporting again in a big way, and this coincided with Anheuser-Busch expanding too. The two breweries have been fighting each other over the trademark ever since. Beer lovers often express sympathy for Budvar in this dispute, on the basis that the trademark surely means "Beer from Budweis", and also Budvar makes better beer. I am personally not so sure about this, as Anheuser-Busch actually does have a prior claim to the name than that of Budvar, and their size is probably more responsible for the fame of the name than anything else. In addition, although Budweiser does mean "Beer from Budweis", Budweis is no longer the name of the town, which is Budějovice. The truth, though, is that we have a very unusual case in which two companies have very long standing, legitimate claims to the same trademark.

Courts in Europe have tended to favour Budvar's claim to the trademark, and courts in the US have tended to favour Anheuser-Busch. This is probably fair, given the 1911 agreement. In Britain, the courts have ruled that both companies may use the name, and that consumers are smart enough to tell the difference, which is a refreshingly grown-up verdict. In countries where Budvar does not have the rights to the name, they tend to call it Budějovický Budvar, which means the same thing in Czech. (In North America it is sold as "Czechvar", as even this is apparently too much for Anheuser-Busch), In countries where Anheuser-Busch does not have the rights to the name, they brand their Budweiser simply as "Bud".

But what about the Czech brewery that does have a prior claim to the name to that of Anheuser-Busch, the brewery originally known as Bürgerliches Brauhaus Budweis, which changed its name again after communism to "Budějovický měšťanský pivovar ", an exact translation of its original German name? Well, after communism, this company also sought to re-establish its traditional trademarks, and also started using "Budweiser" in the names of many of its beers. However, it only did this in markets where it had an unambiguous right to do so, and has largely stayed clear of mighty trademark disputes with Anheuser-Busch. The brewery still exports, though, under all kinds of names. ("Samson", "Crystal". "Boheme"). So funnily enough, the brewer which probably does have the strongest historical claim to the name is the least inclined to actually use it.

As is happens, my local Tesco stocks their beer, in this instance branded as "Boheme 1795". The fine print on the back of the bottle does mention that the beer was brewed in Budějovice, but the bottle also has "Pilsen" in much larger letters on the front. The beer may be approximately a pilsener in style, but I can't imagine this thrills the people in Budějovice that much. "Pilsen" is a word that anyone is free to use, however.

And yeah, it is good beer. Quite similar to Budvar, actually.

Friday, September 09, 2011

On beer

I am just back from an eastern European trip. In 19 days I visited Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova (including Turkic speaking Gagauzia and the largely Russian speaking city of Balti), western Ukraine, southern Poland, and then the Slovak and Czech republics. I consumed a reasonable amount of beer on this trip, because the weather was very hot and the beer was very cheap. (The price bottomed at about 30p for a half litre in the Ukraine). I always drink local beer when travelling, both to see what it is like and because it is usually much cheaper. (A basic beer from one place becomes a premium beer when sold in another country). The beer was all good. Mostly I was drinking national brands in Bulgaria and Romania. In Moldova, I was drinking Moldovan national brands in Romanian speaking parts, and Ukrainian national brands in the Gagauzia and the Russian speaking parts. In Chernovitsi in the Ukraine there were lots of interesting and local beers (including some excellent wheat beers) as well as the fairly bland Ukrainian national brands. It would seem that even after Stalin committed genocide and then relocated vast amounts of population, the beer making skills taught by the Austrians have survived.

In southern Poland, mostly Tyskie and Zywiec. National brands, but some regional variation. (Both those beers are Silesian. The third big national brand in Poland is Lech, which comes from Poznan, and you see it less in the south). Although this area of Poland was ruled at times by the Austrians and the Prussians, the Germanic style beers have not survived there to the extent that has happened in the western Ukraine.

None of this was bad beer - particularly not those lovely local Ukrainian beers - but a lot of it was large brewery lager. I was struck by how much better the beer was when I crossed the border into Slovakia and then into the Czech republic. Velvet divorce or not. the Czech beers are still much consumed in Slovakia. The two "national" beers one sees a lot are Pilsener Urquell and Budvar. There are always local Slovakian beers available too, usually somewhat cheaper than the Czech stuff. When I crossed the border into the Czech republic, there actually seemed to be an even greater focus on local beers, and less Pilsener and Budvar. Things were much more like what one sees in southern Germany. There will be a local brewer, who makes a number of different styles of beer (but all local brewers make the same styles). And in the territory of that brewer, that is what you will get.

Of course, the third Czech beer that one sees a lot outside the former Czechoslovakia is Staropramen. This was nowhere to be seen. This is perhaps like the way Australians don't drink Fosters or Danes don't drink Carlsberg. Ask a Czech for his opinion of Staropramen and he will tell you it tastes like cat's piss. I think this is a little hard on it, actually.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Customer service

I have a 2007 model 15 inch Macbook Pro. This has served me extremely well, and it withstood rough treatment: it has been carried round South America (and other places) in a backpack; it was dropped once during an airport security screen, and a child once pushed it off a coffee table in a hotel on the Costa Brava, amongst other, lesser things. Its hard drive had to be replaced after the Costa Brava incident, but apart from that it has kept working just fine. So really tough, rugged construction.

However, in recent times it has not always been terribly willing to wake from sleep mode, and yesterday I found that it would not boot at all. When I pressed the power button, the hard drive and fans would spin and the power light would come on, but that was as far as it would go. No classic Mac startup sound, and nothing on the screen.

If the computer was beyond simple repair, well, it didn't owe me anything. I don't really want to spend the money on a new laptop now, but on the other hand, those new 13 inch Macbook Airs look awfully nice. But there was no harm in taking the laptop into the Apple Store to ask someone to look at it.

So, I did this. The guy at the genius bar commented that my laptop looked particularly "well used". (The words I would use are "beaten up"). He attached a diagnostic tool to my USB ports, and looked at his screen intently as he typed things into his computer. After doing this for a couple of minutes, he observed that this was one of the more interesting cases he has seen in a while, and told me that there were known faults with this model and that as a consequence the logic board would have to be replaced. As this was a known fault and Apple's suppliers had provided sometimes faulty parts for this model, there would be no charge to me for the repair. I was asked to sign a form, which amongst other things stated that there was a £600 charge for this repair which in my case would be waived.

There are known issues with the graphics card on my particular model, but these are not the precise symptoms I was seeing.

Still, though. They are doing a major repair on a seriously beaten up three and a half year old laptop that never had Applecare and they are not charging me for it? I once had an IBM Thinkpad that failed three months out of warranty and that was that, even though I later discovered that it was common for that particular model to fail in that particular way. I have to say that Apple are being particularly awesome, here. Not only are they doing an expensive repair, but if they had shaken their heads and simply said that they could do nothing, I would not have been upset and I would have probably gone downstairs to look at new models, so they also possibly cost themselves an immediate sale. I am rather awed.

Unnecessary Complexity.

Cory Doctorow of Boingboing (amongst other things) was naturalised as a British Citizen a few days ago. On Twittter, he expressed curiosity as to why on his citizenship certificate had the words "BRITISH CITIZEN" typed in, rather than bring one of the things printed on the blank certificate What else could it be?

Various people pointed out there there are various kinds of British nationality. I went through this process myself a few years ago, and I was curious and investigated the matter (too) thoroughly. The story is this. Every time I explain how one particular class of British nationality came into being, I will capitalise its name.

Prior to 1949, there was a single status of "British Subject" held by everywhere in the British Empire over which Britain was sovereign. There was also a status of "British Protected Person", for people in places with a British mandate over which Britain was not formally sovereign.

From 1949, independent Dominions and Colonies becoming independent created their own national citizenship statuses, and a new status of "Citizen of the UK and Colonies" (CUKC) was created for those who remained. The expression "British Subject" was retained as a carry-all for all citizens of Commonwealth countries, but it was the actual national citizenship that mattered. Generally, when a colony became independent, citizens of the new country did not retain CUKC status, although, there were a few situations in which some of them did. People in that country who were British subjects but did not gain citizenship of the new country generally did retain CUKC status. There were a few cases in which everyone in the independent country lost their British citizenship but not everyone received citizenship of the new country. Such people were British Subjects but not CUKCs. Finally, there was one case (Ireland) in which people who had lost British citizenship were invited to apply for British Subject status if they wanted to retain it.

When British Protectorates became independent, citizens of the new independent countries generally became citizens of the new countries, although there were a small number of people who for various reasons did not. These people remained BRITISH PROTECTED PERSONS, and still do.

In 1981, the Thatcher government decided to reform all this, and a various new classes of citizenship were created. The big change were that people CUKC status were split into three groups.

- People associated with the United Kingdom (including the Channel Island and the Isle of Man) became BRITISH CITIZENs.
- People associated with a still extant British colony became British Dependent Territory citizens (later renamed BRITISH OVERSEAS TERRITORIES CITIZENS). (BOTC)
- People associated with neither of these things (i.e. people who had gained citizenship and had for some reason also retained British citizenship became BRITISH OVERSEAS CITIZENS).

British Subject status was renamed "Commonwealth Citizenship" for everyone who was a citizen of a Commonwealth country, which left only those who had been British Subjects but not citizens of any commonwealth country (mostly in the Indian Subcontinent and Ireland) holding that status.

Only British Citizens and British Subjects associated with Ireland had the automatic right to live in the UK. It was (and is) possible to have BOTC status and British Citizen status simultaneously. BOTCs connected with Gibraltar have always had the right to obtain full British Citizenship by application in addition to BOTC status. (After the Falklands War, Falkland Islanders were given full British Citizenship in 1983, but I shall get to this in a moment).

Of course, at that time, the vast bulk of people who became BDTCs (later BOTCs) were in Hong Kong, and cynically, the purpose of the whole exercise was to deny Hong Kong Chinese the right to come to Britain prior to or after the handover of Hong Kong to Chine in 1997. I can't imagine why you would actually want to deny prosperous people from one of the world's most entrepreneurial places the right to come to the UK, but Margaret Thatcher did. As a slight sop to the Hong Kong Chinese. yet another type of British Citizenship was created in 1985. BDTCs in Hong Kong were allowed to register to become BRITISH NATIONAL (OVERSEAS) after they lost their BDTC status in 1997.

Once the job of screwing the Hong Kong Chinese was complete, the British discovered that they had no great objection to the small number of people in Britain's few remaining colonies from living in Britain, so in 2002, everyone with BOTC (unless it was associated with the British Sovereign bases in Cyprus) was given full British Citizenship, and people born to British citizens or anyone else permanently resident in any remaining colony was from that date a British Citizen by birth. This essentially duplicated a law that had been passed for the Falkland Islands only in 1983.

Essentially, almost everyone in the few remaining British Colonies (except for those bases in Cyprus) now has both full British Citizenship and BOTC status. Apart from the Cyprus thing: BOTC status has only one use. Although the British government has granted British Citizenship to virtually all remaining colonials, it has not delegated the power to naturalise people as British Citizens to colonial authorities. It has delegated the power to naturalise people as BOTCs. Once someone has been naturalised as a BOTC, they can then apply to Britain for registration as a British Citizen. This is normally granted, but the Home Office has a theoretical right of veto. (Gibraltarians have access to a route to British citizenship for which there is not right of veto given the the British government under the 1981 act, but nobody else does.

So, what does that leave us with:

British Citizenship is the normal kind of citizenship.
British Overseas Territories Citizenship is citizenship of Britain's remaining colonies, and is usually held concurrently with normal British Citizenship.
British Overseas Citizenship is for people who slipped through loopholes in the process intending to deny them citizenship during decolonisation, and were disenfranchised later.
British Protected Persons are people who slipped through loopholes in the process intending to deny them citizenship during decolonisation, but came from protectorates rather than colonies.
British Subject Status is for people who lost British Citizenship during the independence of India without gaining Indian or Pakistani Citizenship, or is for Irish people who wanted to remain British.
British Nationality (Overseas) is for the Hong Kong Chinese.

All of these except for the first two are residual categories of citizenship that it is not possible for new people to obtain, except perhaps in the case of a child born of parents with one of these statuses who does not obtain any other nationality at birth. It is only possible to be naturalised as a British Citizen or a British Overseas Territories Citizen, and these are the only things that could have been typed on Cory Doctorow's certificate. As people being naturalised as British Overseas Territories Citizens are normally naturalised in the Overseas Territories, there is some doubt as to why there is a need to leave a space for "British Citizen" to be typed on the form. It would presumably create less work by simply having a different certificates for those very rare to nonexistent occasions when BOTCs are naturalised in the UK.

One further question is which, if any, of the other types of citizenship are of any use to people holding them. Only British Citizenship automatically gives the right to reside anywhere. British Subject status gives you the right to live in the UK if that status is associated with Ireland, but BOTC status does not by itself give you the right to live anywhere: residency status of the particular overseas territory (colony) is normally granted separately. The British government will grant you a passport if you hold any of these statuses, but if the passport states that you have a citizenship status that does not give you the right to live anywhere or conversely anywhere that will take you if you are deported, other countries are likely to make the visa requirements onerous, and they do. The exception to this are British National (Overseas) passports, which are fairly easy to travel on as they indicate that you come from and (almost always) have the right to live in Hong Kong, which is a prosperous place.

And of course, the final thing is how does this all relate to the European Union. Well, under EU law, the following people are British Citizens for the purposes of also being EU citizens: British Citizens, excluding those associated only with the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man; British Subjects associated with Ireland, and BOTCs associated with Gibraltar. Falkland Islanders and Bermudans are automatically EU citizens, but Manxmen aren't, unless they have an association with the United Kingdom. To gain such an association they either have to have parents or grandparents who were born there or have such an association, or they have to have lived there for a time, which they easily can do as they have full British Citizenship rights in Britain. Just not in the rest of the EU.

And I am rambling.

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