Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Five Bs I loved in Istanbul

I just spent five days in Istanbul with my family (I am doing another post on the travel details since I have a few useful Istanbul tips). We loved Istanbul, even if it was a challenge with an eight-month old. So here is a quick rundown of the things I really appreciated there:

1. Baby-Friendly
Istanbul is definitely not baby friendly in any conventional way. The streets are steep, pedestrian sidewalks narrow at best (but often non-existent). In the hilly neighbourhoods (all of Istanbul we saw) there are often uneven steps on the pavements, forcing the stroller onto the road. There, cars and motorcycles speed by, honking horns.

Hagia Sophia museum guard plays with babyBut Istanbulians love babies. Everywhere we went with the baby the people were unimagineably warm. When I walk around Bratislava with the stroller (and especially with the baby sling) I get a lot of smiles and some friendly comments but few people would engage with the baby. In Istanbul the BABY was the centre of attention. Everybody everywhere smiled, made sounds (in the photo the guard at Hagia Sophia baby talks the baby in the sling), people would come up to pat him on the head, sometimes kiss his hand. Waiter and shop assistant would pick him up and carry him around, entertaining him. Every parent (unless, of course, you are particularly worried about communicable diseases) knows how gratifying it is when people show love for their child.

What struck us was that this was most often men (in Bratislava it will usually be women) although the explanation may simply be that most people out were men. Our baby loved the attention but also this made our job of keeping him happy throughout the day a lot easier.

2. Beyoğlu
Whether luck or my obsessively extensive, professionally biassed travel research, we picked the right neighbourhood in Istanbul. We stayed in Cihangir, a part of the Beyoglu district between the well known Taksim Square and Kabataş.

Beyoglu was once the seat of Greeks, Jews, Levantines and Armenians but aparently declined after all of these people left Turkey. But it is now a vibrant mixture of gentrified and run down, residential and commercial, Turkish and Cosmopolitan.

We loved it from the amazing Art Nouveau architecture, through stunning Bosphorus views through neighbouthood shops, bakeries, restaurants. There was such a healthy mix of modern and authentic. People out late into the night and just a good vibe.

We simply enjoyed walking around the neighbourhood and that's what we did the most in our five days in Istanbul. We briefly ventured into the glorified Sultanahmet across the river but felt much more at home in Beyoglu.

3. Bidets
The Turks are so civilised. In our hotel but also at the Airport, in restaurants and at the Grand Bazaar there was always a bidet built in to the toilet (or a separate water outlet for the same purpose in the so-called Turkish toilets).

A bidet is used for intimate personal hygiene - it is a stream of water directed at your behind, which lets you wash rather than just wipe after using the toilet. I am embarrassed to say I had never used one prior to this visit to Istanbul but now I am determined to have one installed as soon as we get a chance.

Having seen their ubiquity in Turkey I am sure Turkish people must look funny at the rest of us when travelling abroad. Of course, the above assumes that people actually use the facilities but then, if they didn't use them I think they probably would not spend the extra to install them everywhere?

In the photo from our hotel the bidet attachment is running (the stream of water in the middle of the bowl). You operate it using the valve on the left.

4. Bad Driving
Especially on our first day I was always worried for our safety - you have to be constantly on the look out because Istanbul taxi drivers drive fast, as do other locals. There is no courtesy in traffic - you see an opening, you move. If you wait everybody starts passing you by.

Cars will make U-turns in the most unlikely places. There will be cars parked on pavements or so close behind each other that you cannot cross the road in between.

Yet in this aparent chaos there seems to be order. Perhaps the lack of rules keeps people on their toes but everyody we saw driving did really well. Cars would squeeze through narrow constrictions and drivers skillfully maneouvred their way through traffic.

My theory (which I first explored in Holland where as a pedestrian you had to be constantly on the lookout for bikes) is that the heavy traffic helps preserve people's faculties into their old age. After getting into the every man for himself mentality I actually liked dealing with the traffic - I felt every road crossing made me a stronger man.

5. Baklava
I am a fan of cakes, which are less sweet. I like my chocolate dark and my bananas green. I constantly harass the baking (read older female) part of my family to cut the amount of sugar in their cakes (usually, using half the sugar in the magazine recipe works just right). This would, of course, make me an unlikely candidate to enjoy the ultimate in sweet cakes - Turkish baklava.

Thin layers of filo dough, chopped pistachios and other nuts and rich sugary syrup. Sometimes chocolate, sometimes (I am not sure about this one) condensed milk? Amazing stuff. The Turks really have this down.

On about day two of our Istanbul stay I bought two pieces of baklava and was hooked. Every subsequent day the number of pieces of baklava I ate grew exponentially. I tried baklava from a large commercialised bakery, from numerous smaller vendors and ended up liking the locally made fress Cihangir Bakery baklava best.

We bought about three boxes to take home as gifts and for our own use the night before departure, then felt this was not enough and bought another few boxes on the day of departure. In duty free, we bought two more just in case.

Come see me, I will show you what I'm talking about.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Countdown to 2008 Elfyourself

This year the elves will be back - only three days to go! On November 17 you can again upload face shots of family and friends to and turn them into dancing elves.

The problem with ElfYourself last year was that it was unclear how this massively successful viral campaign benefited its financiers (an office supply chain I still prefer not to name here). Simply said very few of the people who liked the campaign actually remembered the office chain - many in fact thought it was the other (better known) office chain that was behind the campaign.

I can't wait to see whether and how the makers of ElfYourself have taken the criticism on board this year.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Disqus Now Installed

Having seen Disqus in action on I have decided to experiment with it a little on this blog.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Renting an apartment from Izumi von Hardenberg, Beware.

UPDATE: This story had been up for a few hours and already people have been coming looking for "Izumi von Hardenberg complaint". There seem to be many of us! Please leave a comment if you've been ripped off by Izumi.

I have been meaning to write up my recent experience trying to rent an apartment for a week in New York through an Izumi von Hardenberg of the website (also operating through, advertising on, craigslist, and many other places). This is a frustrating episode that takes a good half hour to tell in person and is filled with twists too funny and weird to believe.

Photo by Flickr user Ed YourdonAt the same time, I wanted to get this information out to other potential victims of Izumi's crazy bait and switch antics and perhaps save someone from what we had to go through (and possibly save them a lot of money). There are other reports on Izumi von Hardenberg on Rip-off Report (a search for Izumi von Hardenberg on the website shows up more and yet more can be found with the alternative spelling Izumi von Hardenburg), based on what we experienced I believe every single one of them.

Izumi advertised an apartment at on Craigslist. I emailed her on September 8 asking about availability from October 2 and she confirmed it was available but suggested upgrading to another property she called Most luxurious Times Square 3-bedroom 2 bathrooms Apartment No. 1, quoting it at $440 per night for three people.

I confirmed I wished to book. She suddenly increased the price to $460 per night, claiming that information on her website was out of date (conveniently ignoring that she had quoted the rate herself in email a day prior). After a bit of negotiation she agreed on a price of $3075 for the whole week (works out $440 per night) and requested that I send her a deposit of $1050 on PayPal (the deposit was to be 30%).

I felt uneasy simply sending money to a random address. I asked that she at least send me a PayPal request specifying what apartment the deposit was for, ideally from an email address associated with the website I was booking through.
"No need to worry we do this as business, we have many apartments, just sent money request email us after you pay. Izumi",
came the reply.

Following her PayPal request I sent her $1100 to secure the most luxurious apartment on September 11.

On September 19 Izumi wrote requesting our names ASAP for authorization in the building.

On September 23 suddenly this message arrived:
Thecheap Apartmentsnyc to me - 10/2-9 SORRY THE CHANGE OF APARTMENT N4K
We're sorry we have landload problem at the apartment you booked, can you instead take a 3bedroom 2 full bathrooms 43rd street and 8th avenue? It is basically the same, except for 4 block ddiffence and it is close to the Times Square . We're sorry let us know ASAP

I think I can let our subsequent email exchange speak for itself.

Andrej to Thecheap, Sep 24
Hi. This is a very unpleasant surprise. Can you please send photos and description of the other apartment?

Thecheap Apartmentsnyc to me, Sep 25
Can you email me about the pictures tomorrow? I will get them then

Andrej to Thecheap, Sep 26
Hi, I am emailing about the pictures.
At this stage we have little choice due to timing - we will take the apartment unless there is some major problem with it.
Please let me know how and when we will get the keys. We are arriving at Newark at 1 pm on Oct 2 and making our way to the apartment.

Thecheap Apartmentsnyc to me, Sep 27 - Re: 10/2-9 SORRY THE CHANGE OF APARTMENT 3w $380 and 58th 2br $380
We're so sorry We lost the 3bed as well. So now what we have available is 58th st 2br 2nd ave, 3 nights 10/2-5 $380/night and 10/5-9 2br 47th st and 9th ave, also $380/night. If you can book this I'll arrange transportation between apartments. Pictures attached is 47th st and 9th ave 2br

Thecheap Apartmentsnyc to me, Sep 27 - 10/2-9 I'm working on if you could stay at 3bed 2 bath whole time
Please email me your phone number. 3bed 2 bath whole time, as originally planned, so please give me 1 day and I'll email as soon as I know. Please fill out meantime.

Thecheap Apartmentsnyc to me, Sep 27 - 10/2-9 n4k 10/2-9 3p 3bed 2 bath $3075 including cleaning deposit $1050 Everything is set at this apartment
Everything is set at this apartment 360 west 43rd st, apt.n4k Please fill out below, do you need airport pick up?

Andrej to Thecheap, Sep 28
Hi Izumi,
Thank you for sorting this out.
If you are charging us the same price, we expect the apartment to be of the same standard as originally agreed (high speed internet connection, conveniently located near public transportation – access to many major subway lines is available within few minutes, luxury 600-thread count 100% Egyptian cotton sateen sheets and premium Avanti towels, views). Please confirm this.
Regarding the airport transfer, how much do you charge?
Kind regards,

Thecheap Apartmentsnyc to me, Sep 28
Hi, the problem is the internet, since it is a new apartment, cable is not there yet, is this a problem with you? You can get internet at starbacks, about $35, which I will pay and you get access for the whole month, or I'm sure there is wireless from neighbors in the apartment, let me know ASAP. If this is absolutely important to you then we may have to change the apartment.
(high speed internet connection, This is a new apartment and cable service is not installed yet, but I believe you can take neighbor's wireless conecction --Is this very important to you?
conveniently located near public transportation – access to many major subway lines is available within few minutes, Yes, 42 nd and 7th ave, 7 lines there, 2 blocks away
luxury 600-thread count 100% Egyptian cotton sateen sheets and premium Avanti towels, Yes
views). Just city view, 4th floor
Please confirm this. Neark $55 each way

Andrej to Thecheap, Sep 28
Hi, we will be three persons each with a computer and will need to connect at least twice per day each. If we can reliably connect to a wifi in the building, we will be fine but if not it will be a major inconvenience. In that case we will need three starbucks memberships and some compensation for the coffees we will have to keep buying to be able to sit around.
Also no cable means no TV?? Either way a discount is in order, since you had advertised views, roof deck and what not.
Regarding the airport pickup, if the price you quoted is per vehicle (not per person), we would like to order the pickup

Thecheap Apartmentsnyc to me, Sep 28
Please contact Adonis for pick up, $55 for the entire car. We'll check out the wifi, and I'll buy you 3 starbucks connection, and I'll give you $10/day for coffee. However this is more expensive apartment, rent there is $5000/month since it is closer to Times Squrae. Is this o.k with you?

Andrej to Thecheap, Sep 28
Thanks for the prompt reply.
1. How or where do I contact Adonis?
2. Ok on the rest
Best regards,

Great, right? Izumi did cause us a little stress but she did get us sorted in the end. WRONG.

On Oct 1, a day before our arrival, Thecheap Apartmentsnyc wrote:
Sorry somebody who booked 8 months ago contacted me today. I didn't have them in my booking, but they did pay 8 month ago. So I have n4k 3bed available 1 day, buts can you take other apartment apt. 1 below 10/3-9, it is not as nice or as big, but only $360/night and it does have high-speed internet ready. We're very soory, just let us know:Pictures attached

Andrej to Thecheap Apartmentsnyc, Oct 1
Hi, Ms. von Hardenberg or whoever sends these unsigned emails,
This is beyond belief.
Please provide us with what you have repeatedly promised or provide us with adequate compensation for having to exchange over 20 (!) emails to book an apartment to find out two days before arrival that the fourth apartment you have offered us is not available and you intend to move us between two apartments neither of which meets the criteria of what you originally confirmed and took over $1000 Paypal deposit for!
This is the worst accommodation service I have experienced.
Please let me know ASAP.

Thecheap Apartmentsnyc to me, Oct 1
adequate payment, how much you can pay for the 2br below? normally $360 the 3bed is $460/night, how much total are you willing to pay?

Andrej to Thecheap Apartmentsnyc, Oct 1
Hi, we are willing to pay the $3075 including cleaning charge for a 3 bedroom apartment of the standard you originally took our deposit for! We were not looking to save more money.
We do not wish to move apartments and we were not looking for a 2-bedroom. We will stay the week for $1500 and just forget about this whole experience or we will pay you the full price listed for this 2BR place on your website ($299.99 plus $20 per night per person more for more than 2 people), which makes it $2240 but will feel at liberty to publicize this ordeal in full detail.

Thecheap Apartmentsnyc to me
Hi, I will look for a better place to stay because I can't do $2240, give me till tomorrow I just asked my assistant to look for a place.

Thecheap Apartmentsnyc to me, Oct 1 - 10/2-9 Really sorry we messed up
Really sorry we messed up, right now only apartment we have is 2br below 10/6-9. I will find a place for 10/2-6, if Ibed is o.k, then I have a place 6th ave and 50th st, sleeps 5 people 10/2-6 and if you can take the 2br then we can do $250/night. Just so sorry our booking system got so messed up. Or I can recommend you a hotel 10/2-6, and I pay you $100 relocation fee, just let me know ASAP, we still have time to locate an apartment 10/2-6 Really Really sorry.

Thecheap Apartmentsnyc, Oct 1 - 9/2-9 Very odd proposal 4 days $900 Can you call me 917 362 9280?
Very add proposal, and I know you'll be very inconvinienced, however the price is really good. We can do 3bed 2 bath 1 night 9/2, then 2br 34th st 3 nights 10/6-9 and for the total of 4 nights I can do $900 Then I'll find you a hotel 3 nights. The best is priceline, you can pick up stuff starting $200/night, even if you take 2 rooms, still like $400, let me know if you need my help locating a hotel. We're really sorry to put you through this. Sincerely apologize. Can you call me?

Andrej to Thecheap, Oct 1
I just tried to call. It is now the morning here and you're probably asleep.
I insist you provide us with accommodation for the seven days we have paid a deposit for. We will move once, if necessary.
My phone number is XXX XXX XXXXXX, call me as soon as possible.

Thecheap Apartmentsnyc to me, Oct 1 - 10/2-9 I found a place for 3 nights 10/2-6
W18th st and 8th ave only $300/night, so your total is $1800 oppesed to %3075 It is inconvinient to move, but you save lots of money you can use it for dinner etc. Let me know ASAp, I have to make a deposit to secure this

Andrej to Thecheap, Oct 1
We have money for dinner. You do not mention size of place, etc.

Andrej to Thecheap, Oct 1
Hi, I have been trying to call at the number you sent me yesterday since about 8:15 your time this morning.
We will take any reasonable apartment you can get us. Please call me at +XXX XXX XXXXXX ASAP.

Finally, after hours of trying (from 8 am Izumi's time, got through to her about 2:30 pm) we spoke. I was livid. Izumi suggested we take a 3-bedroom for one night, find a hotel for the next three nights and move back to a 2-bedroom for the final three night. "You find us a hotel!" I insisted. "You took over a thousand dollars as deposit for a week, now you are taking no responsibility!". Izumi hung up. I called back. She never responded to anything I said, beyond saying "Right, right, right, right, right" a few times.

She then suggested she would book a one bedroom apartment for the three in-between nights for us. I said ok, if the apartment is of decent standard and there is room for the three of us (adult males) to sleep. She said something about sofa beds and then asked if one of us could sleep on an air mattress. I said fine but then she said we would have to pay for it, because she would have to buy it and bring it there...

After we hung up, Izumi called back. She politely asked that when we arrive at the apartment N4K on 360 west 43rd street, we should not tell the doormen we were renting anything. "Just say you are going to N4K. Call me if there is a problem." This reassuring exchange of course meant we were unsure the whole way on the plane whether we would even get into the building... This blog post, titled Beware of Izumi von Hardenberg, explains the reasons clearly, though.

Anyway, this was the final arrangement:
Thecheap Apartmentsnyc to me, Oct 1
I booked 1br, they have my credit card info, so please don't cancel:If you have any problem with this call me 917 362 9280 while your stay, but we already comfirmed everything right now, you have nothing to pay except $900
1.10/2 360 west 43rd st apt.n4k Alley will meet you there Call Adonis from the airport, if your flight is late you have to call adonis and aleey, otherwise $30/hour late fee check out before 11:00a.m
2. 10/3-6 1br balance $900 cash 304 west 18th, apt.1 11:00a.m at the apartment
XXXXXXX XXXXX-Contact (o) XXX-XXX-XXXX check out 12:30p.m
3.10/6-9 605 2nd avee, apt. 3 check in 12:45p.m 33rd and 34th street, please press apt.3 combination key downstairs 6052
alley will meet you there, call him if you're late check out 11:00a.m 10/9, leave the keys on the table, DOOR UNLOCKED

We were met at the airport by Adonis, the driver recommended by Izumi. A really nice and friendly guy (mentioned favorably by others in one of the rip off reports) took us to the first apartment. On the way he called Izumi's assistant Alley, who was supposed to meet us there. Funnily enough Alley had no idea there were guests checking in - he said he was there just to take pictures. This probably explained the perfunctory cleaning obvious on our arrival, as well as the obviously reused sheets...

Next day instead of sightseeing we made our way to the one bedroom apartment. No one was there to meet us at this decrepit looking Hell's Kitchen building a superintendent simply let us into the apartment. The place was small, contained just one double bed in the bedroom and two extendable sofas, which seemed too old to extend. Moreover, there was obviously not enough room to actually extend both.

We waited around for 25 minutes. I called the number given to me by Izumi two or three times but there was only voicemail. I called Izumi. "How come there is no one there?" she asked. She asked for the number for the owner she had given me. "Izumi, you will call me back? We are waiting here, we have other stuff to do." "Yeah," she said.

We waited for another 45 minutes, anger building up. At 12.15 we split, checked in to a Starbucks, bought wifi access and started looking for a hotel. We ended up at the Sheraton Manhattan for three nights (later moved to Ameritania near Times Square).

We tried to get a portion of our deposit back through the PayPal dispute resolution procedure (#PP-557-215-363).
"Our investigation into your claim is complete. As stated in our User Agreement, the claims process only applies to the shipment of goods. It does not apply to complaints about the attributes or quality of goods received. Therefore, we are unable to reverse this transaction or issue a refund." (I resent how PayPal handled this - their dispute form contains no fields covering payments for services, so I had to check weird boxes relating to goods and had no way of knowing my claim was lost from the start due to these choices).

I have emailed Izumi today asking for $700 back (the $1,100 deposit less a payment for the one night we did stay at her apartment). I will also, based on one rip off reporter's recommendations, try to contact PayPal again. Friends of mine have recommended a New York-based lawyer who will review the case and see if there may be legal recourse. In addition I have thought about writing to coop boards at the buildings whose addresses I know that Ms. von Hardenberg is renting out the apartments (most likely illegally).

I had never thought I could fall for this kind of scam, having extensive experience with the short-term apartment rental industry here in Bratislava. Although expensive, this is indeed a lesson for me. I had seen some of the rip off reports before I sent Izumi von Hardenberg money (unfortunately only those under von HardenbErg, not the ones under von HardenbUrg) and actually felt reassured (since they indicated Izumi was for real, even if she smoked inside her non-smoking apartments). Finally, there was a definite cognitive bias at work - I wanted to believe in this Most luxurious New York apartment even though I had a feeling in the back of my head that it was too good to be true.

We still had a great stay in New York. Even if we end up not getting any of our money back, I will remember Izumi warmly for the lesson she's taught me.

If you've managed to read this far, please help! Link to this post with the anchor containing the name Izumi von Hardenberg so that other people will be able to read this if they Google Izumi.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Google to Slovak Adwords advertisers: cancel your account with us now!

Ass Wipes by Flickr user Teamperks
Google emailed its Slovak Adwords advertisers today to tell them that before the country changes its official currency to Euro on January 1, 2009 they must cancel their accounts and create new ones manually.

"Since you Adwords account uses the currency SKK, we request that you cancel this account and create a new account using the currency EUR" (my translation). And if you do not do this by November 30, your ads will stop showing.

Your new account cannot use the same login as your old account (unless you change it for the old account first), you will lose whatever history your ads have accumulated and have to reenter all your campaigns manually.

Come again, guys? I know we are not the largest market in the world but still, saving thousands of your customers
  • hours of frustration
  • losses stemming from each ad having to start anew without its history and quality score
  • hassle of not being able to access your account history
could be worth you while.

I think some advertisers will not bother - the kind of people who have had a small campaign running unchanged with a relatively small budget for months without monitoring or changing it. But there are some websites which have little choice and must use ads on Google to remain competitive. Their owners will have to give in to Google's caprice.

Google, let it be known that your failure to invest the day or two of programmer time required to migrate the accounts to the new currency without inconveniencing thousands of users is BAD KARMA.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Five things I disliked in New York

1. All the ice
It's not healthy! I used to go to a gym. The owner once saw me drinking cold water while working out and came to yell at me. He said drinking cold water was like pouring cold water in a furnace. I can sort of see the logic. In traditional Chinese medicine (which I am a fan off) cold is also seen as potentially harmful (of course, my mother knew that long before I met my first acupuncturist). Since so many Americans don't even have health insurance, they should lay off the ice for their own good.

2. Aggressive salesmen
"Hi Sir, How are you doing today?" "Fine. Thanks." "Do you have any questions?" Shit. Dude, if I had any questions, I would have come up to you and asked. Right? Now you've actually chased me away from this section of the shop. I know it's arrogant of me but I just tend to assume the sales people will be there when I need them without introductions and the like.

3. Hidden taxes
This happened to me over and over in New York: I decided to buy an item and it turned out more expensive than labelled. I bought a computer at J&R, received a special discount and still ended up paying more than the original price. Or I would get the correct change ready to try to get rid of all the useless one cent coins just to find out I will actually end up with more of those coins. I know the taxes go to the state and not to the seller but still, why not just include them on the label? In our neck of the woods, THE STATE would step in and make this mandatory (the way mobile operators can not advertise prices without the VAT included).

Reservoir Dogs by Flickr user Varanaus4. Tipping
In 1997 I was in New York as a poor student. At one point we simply could not afford leaving the (then) requisite 15% tip. The waiter came running after us to ask very aggressively if there was anything wrong with the service he had provided. These days, many places will add on a tip (18% I saw this time) automatically for parties of five or more, or six or more people. I understand that waiters are paid less than the minimum wage. But to me the tip should remain an instrument to reward extra effort, not an entitlement. Like with hidden taxes decent waiter wages (perhaps reflecting the pretty much mandatory 10% tip level) could well be included in the sticker price. As a side note, only on my last day I realised the percentage should be calculated from the PRE-TAX price so I had been actually tipping more than I wanted to the whole time.

5. Overwhelming size
I will admit it. I am bumpkinly (definition: awkwardly simple and provincial, as in "bumpkinly country boys"). I used to think of myself as an urban dweller but defining urban on Bratislava's scale. In New York I felt outnumbered. So many cool places to go (NOLITA, anyone?), so much to do, so much going on, so much choice in everything... I think if I lived there I would end up becoming a very local resident of one of the neighbourhoods. But the idea of so much going on so nearby all the time frustrated me.

Coming up next on this blog's New York debriefing series: getting screwed out of a $1,100 deposit by an Izumi von Hardenberg who had promised us The Most Luxurious Three Bedroom Apartment in Times Square.

Friday, 17 October 2008

Five things I liked in New York and miss in Bratislava

1. Free water in restaurants
I am a fan of good hydration. Here in Bratislava you have to keep ordering small (0.25l) bottles of water at EUR 1-2. In the US they charge more for your meal but keep your glass full (although I wouldn't mind if they eased up on the ice a little).

2. Nice food priced reasonably
Unlike here you do not need to eat at posh places to get great food. Moreover, there is always not one great restaurant of each kind but several to choose from (which, of course, explains why they are priced reasonably). I ate outstanding Thai, Ethiopian or Sushi, all at places that weren't expensive.

3. Regulated taxis
Never thought that I, the free market champion, would admit this but taxi regulation seems to work. Unlike here in Bratislava you will not be picked up by a rattling Skoda Felicia and you know what the price will be if you hail any of the thousands of yellow cabs. The drivers always knew the way and the bullet-proof barrier allowed you not to converse if you did not wish to.

4. Easy credit card payment everywhere
You can easily charge a cab ride, charge up your Metrocard to use on the subway or pay for a bottle of water. For smaller purchases you don't even need to bother with entering a PIN Code or signing, you just swipe and go.

5. Compliments from random strangers
This happened a number of times during my 12 days in the US. The bartender the day after my arrival told me I had a great jacket, as did a TSA screener who helped me put it through x-ray (credit belongs to my wife Sona who chose it for me). A barrista at Starbucks thought my Threadless Urban Goddess t-shirt was "dope" (pick one up for only $9 right now) and a Northwest flight attendant told me she loved the hat Yuval gave me. Two hicks on the subway asked a young man with siliconecollagen-filled lips for the name of the next stop and then complimented him on his sunglasses. Couldn't really imagine strangers in Bratislava complimenting you on anything.

Look out soon for my list of five things I disliked in New York.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Google Chrome Market Share by Year End?

I do not particularly care about the new Google browser called Google Chrome but I was told by my sources soon there are going to be people searching for information on Google Chrome's market share. Hopefully, they may stumble across this humble blog ;)

The launch of Google's browser is interesting in the light of its financial support for the Mozilla Foundation, the makers of the fabulous open source Firefox browser, which is massively popular among the web's chattering classes.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Wouldn't you be a cheerleader for competition?

BMW Designer working on new 7-series clay model
You know how the new BMW 7-series was designed? Teams WITHIN the company competed on individual design elements. Makes sense... (via

Monday, 11 August 2008

Rebiana from Stevia is Coke's New Sweetener

Stevia plant by Flickr use Hebam3000 under GPL
Something big is going on if Coke replaces a key ingredient, huh? Diet Coke is now going to be sweetened with an extract from the Stevia plant.

I read up a little on the Diet Coke sweetener history (courtesy of Wikipedia) and learned that Coke had started using Nutrasweet in 1983 but used to blend it with saccharin to reduce cost. Apparently, saccharin is still used in Diet Coke in drink fountains to make it last longer.

Coca-Cola Light outside of the US may contain different sweeteners (and hence does indeed taste different, as Americans living abroad like to complain) such as cyclamates, aspartame, and acesulfame potassium. I'd rather not know what those things are.

In my Brandeis years I went through a Diet Coke binge period - used to buy 1.5l bottles on sale for $0.79 (and sometimes even cheaper) at the Waltham Shaw's. I am glad to say I have gotten over this but nonetheless, I look forward to taste-testing the new Stevia-sweetened Coke.

By the way, there is a political angle to the story: stevia supporters say there is an Aspartame lobby, which had worked hard to delay FDA approval of stevia's safety.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Towel battle looms

I've only ever read about the battles for sun beds taking place at holiday resorts around Europe. Apparently older German holiday makers are willing to get up way early to stake out their bed by placing a towel, even if they never use it later in the day. The English are usually their arch enemies in this arena.

No idea where Slovaks stand in these but should get a chance to try in Mallorca later this month, according to the hotel reviews. We are by no means early risers so our only chance may be to use our cute baby to befriend an older German couple who would then claim sun beds for us when they get up at 6:30.

UPDATE: A middle-aged Swedish couple (the woman was topless the the hotel pool) helped us. She commandeered her husband to move the sun umbrellas around for the baby. Bliss.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Surely they ARE crazy - Slovakia's Price Board before euro adoption

For personal and business reasons I try not to follow current Slovak news in detail. But occasionally a detail passes through the filters...

The Slovak government is excessively concerned about businesses abusing the currency change to increase prices.

In comes the price board. They will clamp down on them Euro-introduction profiteers! The Minister of Finance will report to the board monthly and the board will take action should a business try to increase its prices around the end of 2008.

At least the government gave up on trying to make price manipulations during switch to the euro a criminal offense.

Slovakia will officially adopt the Euro on January 1, 2009. For two weeks both the Slovak crown (koruna) and the Euro will be used. The exchange rate was fixed in July to SKK 30.126 to the Euro.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Markets are tough, Slovak bank clients learn

Before the Slovak crown's exchange rate to the Euro was fixed (to 30.126 crowns per euro) two major Slovak banks offered clients deposit instruments with high guaranteed interest rate.

Of course there was a reason these deposits carried rates over 5%, well over one percentage point above any other similar guaranteed deposit. The deposits included a speculation on the Slovak crown's eventual fixed rate to the Euro.

In July the exchange rate was revealed. The crown ended up stronger to the Euro than most had expected even a few months ago. Suddenly, Slovenska Sporitelna bank Grand deposit clients are finding out that they will be making their 5+ % interest but their deposit will be converting at the fixed rate of SKK 32.5 per EUR (the same rate applies to clients of the "Premiovy vklad" at Slovak Volksbank).

At Slovenska Sporitelna a 100,000 Sk in the Grand Vklad (which also drew a 500 Sk fee at the start) will become EUR 3,231. Had they kept their cash under the mattress they would be converting to EUR 3,319 (via eTrend). Aside from the fact that these deposit reportedly attracted about 3 billion crowns, a 2.65% loss is not a bad price to learn a bit about how the markets work.

People and companies are coming forward claiming they were not properly shown or explained the fine print. The obvious lesson: if it sounds too good to be true (or is so much more attractive than the competition in a relatively competitive market) there is a risk. And risks sometimes do materialise.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

When you get sick in Croatia, do as the Croats do?

Once on a trip to Croatia one of the group needed treatment for a sore throat. A friendly seaside town pharmacist matter-of-factly recommended propolis drops. Croats take them and apparently experience relief.

In Slovakia we use an aluminium acetate and tartrate ointment (a vinegar and wine-related substance, judging by name) to treat swelling. Fair enough, except the internet only contains some 20+ references to the compound by its Latin name, all coming from Czech pharmacies. Does not seem to be used anywhere else.

I am not talking grandmother's recipes rakija compresses here (traditional wine brandy compress used in Croatian homes to reduce fever) but the kind of stuff a doctor prescribes and pharmacist recommends.

You can only dream of what health benefits would come from interchange of these guaranteed-to-work 'national' remedies.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

Tatra Banka, careful about any single-sided moves!

I have complained about Tatra Banka's new, secure but user-unfriendly "solution" for logging into its Internet Banking: the Tatra Banka Card & Reader (I have even had to apologise for insulting Tatra Banka's PR agency, because I had thought anyone writing favourably about the card & reader must have been paid off).

I never activated my card & reader after learning I would never be able to deactivate it again - I will not let my bank force me to lug around a calculator that doesn't fit my wallet just because they think it's secure.

Things have been pretty quiet on the Card & Reader front since the initial campaign introducing the ugly device. I sort of hoped the bank had backed down after learning customers were not all that excited about the new "solution". I noticed they started putting the calculator inside their branches in a glass case on a marble pedestal, which was exactly where I thought the device belongs.

Suddenly, in language reminiscent of orders from the politbyro I learn that Tatra Banka is going to force clients onto the new solution: they have issued "binding procedures" with the threat of "unilateral automatic changes by the bank" (that's my translation, their translator says "the mentioned settings can be changed automatically by bank single-sided." - their bold)

Here is my pledge: once you try this on me I will automatically and single-sided close my current account, move my mortgage to mBank (which can authenticate me pretty well without any stupid devices), return my credit card and never look back.

Friday, 27 June 2008

Welcome to the dot anything world

A paradigm change in WWW navigation is coming (though different from what I had imagined) - ICANN will soon start selling rights to new top level domains (TLDs). The potential ramifications are massive - for surfers, marketers, SEOs.

What's a better domain to market BMWs:
a. or

How about the .club or .air to market clubs and airlines respectively? Personally, I would love to get my hands on a good .video site, for example.

The pricing has not yet been announced although there is speculation that setting up a new .something could cost between $100,000 and $500,000. Obviously a modest sum for large brands, which can then use TLDs to create sexier URLs for individual business divisions (us.coke, diet.coke...). Imaginable for larger cities and regions, which can recoup the cost by reselling domain names (think or and of course for attractive generics (.casino, .mortgage, .hospital).

Depending on how liberal ICANN will be this could hurt the value of existing domain real estate ( vs but possibly also help it through drawing broader attention to domaining. I expect users to warm to the new URLs fast as they actually may be easier to remember and make more sense.

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Veoh's got guts show me this screen:

Apparently, Veoh has ended service in my country (and about 165+ others) due to a low concentration of users (!?). These users are now crying out - witness the 500+ posts on the Veoh forum thread.

Who gets blocked? Most of the world including populous places (Malaysia, Brazil), influential places (current holder of rotating EU presidency Slovenia) and rich places (Luxembourg, United Arab Emirates).

Users reported they received no advance warning and were unable to move their videos hosted at Veoh elsewhere.

Since Veoh seem to maintain official silence about the move beyond repeating the low concentration of users non-explanation we can only speculate. Are we talking bandwith problems? Copyright issues (non-US distribution of content Veoh has from CBS, Viacom's MTV Networks, FEARNet, Billboard, Ford Models, NCAA Football, US Weekly, TV Guide according to Wikipedia)? Something else?

Whatever it is it seems like a desperate move. Obviously it is going to hurt and anger many innocent users - including users from the "chosen" 33 countries traveling abroad and living abroad. This undoubtedly carries a cost in loyalty and the people who view and post videos on Veoh do have a choice when it comes to sharing videos.

I wouldn't be all that surprised to see Veoh go down completely if they are doing badly enough to mishandle this sensitive issue (via Newteevee).

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Competitive Webmastering in the 21st Century - How much is your domain worth?

Do you own any internet domain names? How much do you reckon they are worth? How do you figure out? Who do you ask?

The market is becoming more liquid but perhaps the overall economy matters a lot. Especially in the US. And perhaps we are living the age when the petrodollars migrate online. Bypassing us, going straight to web 2.0.

Perhaps you own a website. Perhaps your registrar owns it.

Perhaps you could own a website, still get a decent address. Maybe the same type of area as where you live - a little run down, perhaps, but a lot of cool people around. Perhaps not.

Website valuation is not a science, it's an art. There are markets and you can sell to them. Some of the smart people do.

Anyway, this rant must end now.

Friday, 30 May 2008

Up in arms over Vegetka

I've been meaning to blog about this for a while (in fact adraft version of this is about a month old). There is a very special place in the centre of Bratislava at Laurinska. Is is called Vegetka and everyday at lunch time you will see a long queue outside.

Tourists stop in surprise trying to figure out what everyone is waiting for (Let's Go 2002 readers know). For years I had walked by feeling sorry for the people in the line - I thought they couldn't afford or were to cheap to go for one of the 119,- Sk lunch menus at various central restaurants.
Boy was I wrong... One day Daniel (who blogged about Vegetka in Slovak recently) convinced me to come along and since then I eat my lunch there as often as I can, usually at least three times a week.

Vegetka is like a canteen. While in the line you have to look at the menu posted in Slovak (and English) a few times along the walls. After waiting in line for 10-15 minutes you order at a cash register. The blond lady at the cash register (Majka) is extremely efficient and doesn't suffer slow people gladly. When I manage to rattle off my order really fast I see a little approving smile. She hands you a receipt which you then hand in to the two Anickas at the window. Hope that they are having a good day since otherwise the main Anicka occasionally hurls mild abuse, especially at regulars.

20 different meals, freshly cooked, in the very centre and at a reasonable price. A loyal crowd of office people (including local Rolex-wearing lawyers and bankers on days when they don't send their secretaries to bring in a Vegetka lunch), students, pensioners, artists, intellectuals come daily to eat delicacies like (quoting from today's menu): Springs roll with sauce piquant and salad, Mushroom goulash with sauekraut and dumpling, Spinach dumplings with cheese and sahmpignons, salad... There was a lot more of course.

Anyway, our development-friendly city leadership (led by Draco Malfoy look-alike Andrej Durkovsky) decided there was better use for this prime space after decades of dietary dining (in Vegetka and the adjacent Dietka with dietary meals) when the lease ends for the owner of Vegetka. To justify an end to the popular restaurant the city played along with a clever ploy of the majority owner of the Motesicky Palace building: CDC "voted" to increase payments in the reconstruction fund from all owners of spaces in the building to the point where the city would have to pay SKK 900,000 (USD 45,000) per month (!) for the Vegetka space. The city then said it will give preference to a tenant who will pay this absurd sum on its behalf. Conveniently, CDC, is willing to do that - no surprise since as a majority owner it can decide on the use of the money in this fund. Lest you should be confused, CDC became a majority owner in the building not through buying at market rates but through series of purchases at sub-market rates indirectly (?) assisted by the city.

Slovaks in general and Bratislavians are complacent and rarely rise up in protest. The city has ruined our sky like by allowing construction of a skyscraper by the New Bridge, sold off various attractive pieces of real estate under questionable conditions but no one has done much.

But now that the bullying mayor figuratively speaking tried to take our lunch (saying the reason was the qeueing people didn't look good in front of tourists) there was an outcry and a petition can be signed online and in person in front of the restaurant. Newspapers are up in arms (no surprise since the journalists eat with us too). There was a band concert to support the restaurant and several well known persons spoke up publicly.

Whether this will save the restaurant from a money-hungry bunch with no respect for anything but their own account balance is questionable but perhaps it will teach us to take initiative earlier next time someone tries to rob us of something as dear.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

Must take stance on China

I spent over a third of my life in a country that wasn't free. Although I was a child I can clearly remember some aspects of political ill-liberty. I also remember how much it mattered to us that people on the outside cared - if someone jumped the fence they were welcomed as political refugees and there were people in free countries openly calling out the totalitarian acts of the state.

I therefore feel an obligation to say publicly I believe it is not OK to pretend things are OK in China. I desire to learn about China. With the little I know I long to learn more about the country, culture, cuisine. I know there are massive differences in cultural attitudes to both individual and collective rights and some practices that would be unacceptable in a Western liberal democracy are the norm fully accepted by the people.

But I don't care who wins the Olympics and I don't care if parallels with Berlin 1936 are realistic or not. Whether the Olympics are big, lavish , flawless doesn't matter - they still take place in a totalitarian state, which suppresses many individual freedoms and executes people without due process on a massive scale. Any leader of a liberal democracy who appears at the Beijing games, and perhaps even every sportswoman or sportsman who takes part dignify the Chinese communist regime.

P.S. The photo is from an award-winning campaign for Slovak Amnesty International by MUW Saatchi & Saatchi.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

PR agency posting fake comments? Don't get caught!

Just read an embarrassing Czech story: a blogger uncovered four non-existent girls posing as 'members of the public' blogging from the IP address of a PR agency to promote a bank's new product. Of course, it does not take an Edelman screw up to know this takes place all over the place - although only a portion of the cases are ever uncovered. In this case, like often, this was a 'private activity' of an intern and the PR agency (Bison & Rose) had no idea.

Fake reviews of all sorts are rampant in the travel business and really, logically anywhere stuff gets reviewed (semi-)anonymously online. My pet peeve is the website of the UK Guardian newspaper on travel called Beenthere. I follow the reviews on Bratislava ever since someone posted a genuine review of one of our websites (here). Soon our competitors went crazy posting their own reviews of their own sites.

Now you ask how I know they are fake? And why should you trust me ours is real? Easy, Sherlock, real easy. Our reviewer MikeP has actually posted other reviews, some are lengthy and they cover a number of destinations and his profile contains a photo. The other reviews are usually one off affairs or the 'reviewers' have posted a few short spammy 'tips' on the same day.

The lesson here? If you wish to give yourself favourable publicity in the social media either make the effort to be a real user or at least work shrewdly to cover your tracks. Here are a few important tips to help PR agencies avoid embarrassment:

1. Keep a few active social media profiles around - some social media sites (e.g. Digg) discount inactive users algorithmically, elsewhere it is the community that shuts up the abusive new users. The best way to make your posts credible and make them stick is to have profiles that are or look real - regular posting, consistent behaviour.

2. If you must pick names or photos, be careful (not like the Czech blogger who used on of the top Google image results for 'girl', showing the Debian girl posted here, which was easy to track down - the girl in the photo is a Cambridge PhD. student quoted as being "pretty upset"). If you are going to do this on a grand scale, plan ahead with changing your IP addresses or at least not using ones easily traceable to your company (lots of fake Wikipedia entries get uncovered through IPs traced to the company doing the embellishing).

3. Watch your language - real people don't talk like PR pros, so if the review contains PRish funny speak it is probably written by someone who speaks it.

4. If you ask who cares probably no one real does - in the Czech bloggers' case these young women were raving about a new banking product, but I mean who (other than a few geeks) would care about this stuff?

5. Along the same lines if it sounds too good to be true it probably is - again real people don't go around raving about boring stuff.

Your competitors are clever and will dig deep to undo your efforts, so you might as well not bother if you are not going to do this right.

Monday, 14 April 2008

Don't Elfyourself, buy a stapler instead

I was a bit surprised to see that you can no longer Elf Yourself and your friends at This campaign generated quite of bit of buzz in general over the Christmas holidays and some criticism in internet marketing circles since many marketers couldn't see how the massively popular campaign was benefiting the office supplies chain who made it (I will not name them or link to them here just so you can guess who they are because research shows most people don't remember).

Elfyourself was hilarious (see this random video or search Youtube for elfyourself if you by any chance missed the elfs completely). Through a very innovative and usable flash interface it allowed you to enter face shots of your friend, fit them onto elf bodies, and send out links to the elfs singing and dancing.

I am not sure I like the current move: I went to Elfyourself with an objective and instead I was told Elves are gone and the office supplies store is still here. Of course, no 'elf scent' on the landing page and a disappointed potential future client who did not care for a stapler.

Now I wonder, are the elves gonna be back for the third year in a row next Christmas? Should they have left the application alive during the year? Should they have dealt differently with telling us the application is not on during the year? How would you play this?

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Ryanairisation of Skyeurope?

Skyeurope is my favorite airline. It is a Bratislava based low cost (although less Bratislava-based than it used to be as it shifted many of its flights to Vienna) and has done miracles for tourism in Bratislava and for economic development in Slovakia.

Once I visited Milan with my UWC classmate Bela. We flew Ryanair one way and I returned on Skyeurope so I was sort of able to compare these two airlines head to head. My conclusion was that I will never fly Ryanair again if I can avoid it.

I prefer paying a little extra for:
- not having to stare on an emergency evacuation chart printed on the back of the seat in front of me,
- being able to recline my seat back that very little bit,
- not having to spend hours in the cabin decked out in aggressive nasty yellow plastic,
- being treated with a little respect and not having to pay absurdly efficient charges for everything like having a check bag.

Skyeurope was better on all of the above counts, with comfy leather seats, friendly staff and a reasonable pricing structure.

I was therefore very disappointed to learn today that Skyeurope is introducing Ryanair-style charges for checked bags. You pay EUR 5 if you register the bag online, EUR 10 through the callcentre and EUR 15 at the airport. Of course this is essentially a price hike in a world where you can't really travel with a carry on since it is not allowed to take your shampoo, toothpaste, etc.

I know Skyeurope has had to work hard to turn a profit and a lot has changed but this seems to me like it's the spirit of Skyeurope changing. Perhaps I am old fashioned or spoiled but I hope there are more of us who mind and the move will not make sense economically in the longer run.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Happy to be an Orange customer today

I am happy my mobile phone is from Orange rather than T-Com today, having read this. Wow.

Get rickrolled while rickrolling is still in!

I was rickrolled today as part of an April Fool's Day blog post. If you have been rickrolled within the last 48 hours and know exactly what it means, please don't click through!

You shouldn't click on any Youtube featured videos today either, since you could well get rickrolled.

Also, if you have not rickrolled your friends and family, do so now because the word is out both in the New York Times and Wikipedia.

Friday, 28 March 2008

Real estate lies with short legs - Bratislava apartments for sale

There is a Slovak saying "A lie has short legs" - meaning it will not get away very far. I find it so hard to understand why lying is endemic among the real estate agents here in Bratislava. There are just so many misleading adverts for properties on sale. Over the last few years I have looked at hundreds if not thousands of real estate listings, especially apartment listings in Bratislava, I have dug around looking at the same apartments on offer from various real estate agents and here is a brief list of how they usually mislead:

1. Apartment size - it is very common to list square metres including areas that definitely do not belong. Most usually the cellar will be included, often balconies, too. It is pretty common for the agent him- or herself not to know if the metres cited include cellars. In my book saying that a 73 sq.m. apartment is 84 sq.m. because of a cellar located four floors below is a blatant lie.

2. Floor - advertising often omits to state clearly than an apartment is on the ground floor, it simply does not mention floor at all. This is just misleading.

3. Location - for apartments near and even far from the Old Town, the agents check Old Town as location to make people searching for Old Town Apartments look at their offerings.

The frustrating thing is that you will eventually find the truth out and inevitably lose faith in the agent. Why do so many of them take this short-sighted view?

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Two ways to date a beauty queen - or three brunettes

Rich men date beauty queens more often than average, I would assume based on my cursory reading of the Slovak tabloid press.

Perhaps it is my naivete but I had always assumed it is because beauty queens are after rich men more often than average women and of course, succeed in befriending rich men more than average.

Today I realised there is a whole another mechanism at work: rich men make the women they date into beauty queens. A Slovak journalist/blogger claims he found out in advance (Slovak blog post) that No. 12 - Sandra Manakova would win the Slovak 2008 Miss Universe (ahead of two other brunettes including my favourite, 2nd Vicemiss Lenka Hindicka).

The blogger and journalist for a leading tabloid tells an entertaining story of how he reported on a regional round of a beauty contest by the same former Miss Czechoslovakia Sylvia Lakatosova where the jury was handed down the 'correct' result at the end with the three winners being either the daughters of influential businessman or girlfriends of contest sponsors.

He also claims that objectively there were more attractive blonds in the final 12 of the Miss Universe Slovak Republic deserving of being in the top 3. Of course, letting three brunettes win a beauty pageant in a nation that believes pure Slovaks are tall blondes is political - many commentators are up in arms.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

Don't believe what you read - this is just the Internet

I abhor the Slovak UPC. In my book they are the most customer-unfriendly provider among the telecom/internet/cable operators I've had to deal with. They provide miserable customer service and have been doing so for the many years I've been their client. I remain a customer (and have in fact even signed up for a new two-year contract) because I presently have no choice (UPC is the only broadband provider with speed over 1.5 Mbit in my part of Bratislava).

It's not that problems arise - that happens with all sorts of service providers. It is that UPC is a mean, malicious company that likes to resolve problems by the book where its book calls for screwing you over where they can. Their behaviour draws on their local near-monopoly position - they change their prices all the time but only announce them a month in advance where it takes a month to withdraw from old contract.

I have a looong list of complaints that have been dealt with incompetently. I have been given conflicting information by different people on the same day and have been talked down to by mighty customer service reps.

Here is my latest: I wanted to transfer my old landline phone number to UPC (yes, I keep a landline for reasons I have explained before). I was told by someone from UPC (I don't know if it was by telephone or in person at their customer service centre or by the technician who installed our cable modem) that I can transfer the old number. They said UPC does not charge anything, only the old hegemon Slovak Telecom (now going by the name T-Com, I think) does. Fair enough. I checked on the internet today - the UPC's official price list for the UPC Telephone service contained no charge for transferring a number from another provider.

Today I called about the switch. Suddenly it costs SKK 1500 + VAT (about EUR 55) to transfer the number on UPC's end. Yeah, really? Why is it not in their price list? Well, because it's only on the internet. The whole 'internet' is in internet provider UPC's mind only for informative purposes, anything they publish on the internet is not binding and does not have to contain all details - you find out if you click the Legal Information link on their site. They are happy to provide more detailed (read 'correct') info in person or by telephone.

Well, I think UPC sucks, big time. I think any customer-service oriented company should stand by the prices it publishes on its internet website, especially if the company is an internet services provider. Therefore, if you are in Slovakia and have a choice, I genuinely recommend that you look at the alternatives. Of course, this internet post is only for informative purposes and does not have to contain all details - talk to me in person or by phone if you need more information.

Monday, 25 February 2008

Slovak Consumer Culture in 2008 - Not Quite There Yet

I get my car serviced not in Bratislava where I live but almost an hour away in Dunajska Streda. The man who sold me the car strongly recommended I drive there because the dealership is a lot smaller than the one in Bratislava, has a family atmosphere and treats the Alfa Romeos with the loving care they deserve.

I've been to Dunajska Streda's Dunauto to get my car serviced twice and was more than satisfied both times. There was a family atmosphere and everyone I dealt with was extremely polite and professional. During my second visit for a quick winter check up a friend came along. The service technician drove us into the city in my car so that we can have lunch and came back to collect us later, of course at no additional charge. He recommended a restaurant as well.

The problem with Dunajska Streda is the distance. Especially when I have to leave the car there, it will cost me four hours of driving plus the cost of a rental car plus gas. And time is tight these days.

So I was pleased to hear Bratislava's only Alfa dealer Auto Impex received new competition in October. Auto Valusek, a large dealer in all sorts of cars, entered into Alfas and opened a new dealership. They advertised on billboards.

My Alfa is now overdue for the 80,000 km checkup and not having to invest that half day to go to Dunajska Streda would be nice. So I called to ask whether they offered any incentives for new clients to switch from their existing service providers. It's 2008 and Slovak consumer culture is maturing but staff at the dealership still found my question rather surprising. You mean a discount so that you switch to a completely new dealership from the one you have been always going to? "I am not aware of such an 'akcia'"... Oh well I guess it's back to Dunajska Streda for the family atmosphere :)

Saturday, 16 February 2008

I love competition - watching Slovak ING and mBank fight it out in savings accounts

Although we have quite a few banks in Slovakia (12 retail banks according to a list on the National Bank's website) I believe competition in some segments is quite weak. Even the best among them can sometimes cause its clients quite a bit of frustration. (also see my column in SME about banks not being nice).

It was therefore with high expectations that I and many people I know watched the entry of mBank, an internet bank based in Poland that entered the Slovak market late in 2007 based on EU legislation allowing banks to offer services in other EU member states without needing to obtain a national licence.

In a (Slovak retail banking) world with fees for the wildest things (such as receiving money in your account or closing the account) mBank introduced a current account and savings account without any fees.

I opted for their savings account eMax - it's an account without any fees or major limitations even allowing a debit card. It launched last year with a very competitive 3.4% gross interest. I don't actually have the account because mBank procedure worked through a courier which never actually reached me with the account contract (called on a weekend and then once during the week and never called again).

Luckily for me mBank's offer obviously attracted a lot of clients away from ING Konto, ING's product very similar in scope (unlimited savings account, which however only allows sending money to your designated transaction account at another bank). ING once offered very attractive interest rate but in late 2007 they were running at a not-so-appealing 2.7% (less our 19% flat tax, of course).

So mBank launched and a few months later suddenly the long stuck ING Konto rate moved to -- you guessed it - 3.5% (compared to mBank's 3.4%).

That was a while ago and it was a relief for me - it meant I did not have to go chasing after the courier to actually sign that mBank contract.

Today I was driving through the New Bridge and saw a new mBank billboard: they have now raised eMax's interest to 3.7%. Obviously not worth it for me to chase after the additional 0.2% (works out as 0.162% net after taxes or 162 crowns p.a. on a 100,000) but nonetheless: I love competition...

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

What will happen when Yahoo Site Explorer stops to function

There are not that many functional tools for finding links left - Yahoo Site Explorer rules and is the most frequently referenced tool.

Google Webmaster Central is great for finding out your own links but what about finding your competitors'?

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

More on Card and Reader

Bloggers among UK Barclays Bank's customers went ballistic last year after the bank rolled out a Card and Reader solution similar to Tatrabanka's I ranted about yesterday.

I griped about the new security device - a card and reader issued to me involuntarily to use with internet banking transactions. My main gripe: the poor, poor user experience. I would need to carry the bulky device, which won't fit in my wallet, with me to log in to Internet banking. The branch office refused to issue me with a second one (even though I offered to pay for it).

An anonymous but kind reader pointed out in the discussion on my blog post that Barclays Bank in the UK introduced a similar solution in 2007 (on different hardware from another manufacturer). In the Slovak blogosphere the response has been largely favourable, orchestrated by Tatra Banka's PR. Bloggers who previewed the card reader seemed to like it. Unlike me, though, they probably don't make tens of online payments from numerous locations.

I have now had a chance to read up a little on the response of Barclays's customers (anger and a petition against the new device) as well as on actual security reasons for introducing the card and reader solution in general.

So let's look at the positives. Masabi, a company, which offers a security solution for transactions explains incredibly well what the key vulnerabilities in internet banking are. Simply having a password of some form (e.g. a pin and perhaps a code from a grid card) is easy to compromise: someone finds out your passwords and can transfer funds out of your account easily.

A stronger standard is a two-factor protection solution (also known as 2FP), which combines something you know (e.g. a password) with something you have (e.g. a card reader and credit card or a SecurID). The problem is these can be compromised too with something called a man in the middle (MITM) attack - someone inserts themselves in the internet connection between you and your bank (e.g. by hacking into your wireless router or running a compromised wireless router), serves you a page pretending to be your bank's, lets you enter the one-time password generated from the SecurID or card reader with card and uses it to authorise another transaction (not the one you intended). If I have lost you here, do read the Masabi blog entry linked to above.

A card and reader solution as employed by Tatra Banka addresses this vulnerability by making you enter the account details and amount for each transaction into the card reader, which then generates a unique code for this very transaction. Pretty damn secure and pretty damn clunky.

What then? How does this security/usability trade-off resolve? Here are my thoughts:
1. Even some of the weaker solutions are good enough for most situations. Tatra Banka presently uses a code sent to my mobile phone for me to sign in to the internet banking application (a form of two channel protection). This can be compromised only if someone simultaneously knows my password and gains access to my mobile phone.
2. Barclays uses the device to sign in and authorise payments to new recipients - i.e. if you have paid into an account number before, tha banks does not require you to authenticate the transaction. This seems as a pretty sensible key to sort higher risk transactions from lower risk.
3. You must recognise that in as much as bank fraud online has costs, making hundreds of thousands of people (clients) carry an undesirable device and punch in numbers in has costs too in terms of their time and convenience. You can transfer some of the risk onto the client and let him or her decide how much security they desire. You can do this either by letting them take some of the fraud risk if they opt to use online channels or, even better, in my opinion, simply charging them more if they refuse to use the clunky, secure solution (or rather giving a discount to clients who agree to carry around the calculator and punch in all account numbers and amounts twice).
4. You can build a statistically acceptable (i.e. less secure than the extreme version but secure enough on average to keep bank online fraud losses bearable) solutions by combining the existing elements judiciously and only requiring high security on selected transactions. Like with (much less secure) credit card payments, if something seems fishy, you can simply call up the client on the phone and check. Also, in Tatra Banka's case, you can reduce some of the costs of using the device e.g. by allowing clients to have multiple devices - if I have one for my home and one for the office, I at least don't have to carry it around every day.
5. Let the device actually be usable as a calculator, if it looks like one, it may make it more worthwhile for some people to carry around (if I was the smooth type in a suit with a briefcase, I guess I wouldn't mind as much but I don't always carry a bag around).

If you do this the Tatra Banka or Barclays way do not be surprised there will be many clients frustrated and pissed off (UK's Independent newspaper column predicts Barclays may lose customers to banks which will skip this technology and wait around for the more usable next generation). Barclays has been clever about letting its users not use the device if they get too upset (see the comment by VW). Some clever guy in the UK hooked up the reader to an SMS board, stuck his credit card in permanently and can now receive the required code by SMS.

P.S. I read lots of discussions in various UK forums. Here are a few additional points to consider. What happens when you a. lose your card, b. lose your reader when travelling? What about visually impaired users?

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Back with more Tatrabanka ranting - the Calculator

UPDATE Jan 22, 2008: I have corrected the text below to make it clear that I have no information that someone paid bloggers to praise the Tatrabanka 'calculator'. What I meant was that I saw several favourable reviews of the device, which seemed as if they were paid for without any disclosure of the nature of the deal and found a blogger (linked to below) who felt the same way.

A representative of the PR agency, which carried out the calculator's PR campaign emailed me saying that the agency simply provided the device to bloggers for testing. My contacts confirm this.

I apologise to Tatra Banka and its PR agency Neopublic Porter Novelli for the unintentional insinuation - it seems that unlike me and, the bloggers praising the 'calculator' genuinely liked it.
What better way to get back to blogging in 2008 than with more ranting on Tatrabanka - my bank. I am being forced to use an immensely impractical 'calculator' to access my internet banking under the pretext of making my transactions safer. Tatra Banka is the first in the Slovak market to introduce this ingenious 'card&reader' solution - they brag about it all over and even apparently paid young and naive Slovak bloggers to 'review' it and say how great it is. and have provided the device in advance to young bloggers who have given it pretty good reviews. So what if it makes a few clients angry?

Anyway, as soon as I realised the details of this evil device I've come to call the calculator (it looks like one, with buttons and a screen, but of course no calculator functionality) I called Tatrabanka's Dialog phone line and gave the poor soul on the other end of the line an earful - I asked them to pass my complaint on to someone in charge and received no response. I also visited Tatra Banka's website devoted to promoting this ingenious solution and submitted a complaint through their form (no response). Hence I am unloading here.

I believe Tatrabanka has a special position among sophisticated clients in Slovakia (although I have no hard statistics on this). Having started from scratch in the early 1990s after the end of one party rule Tatra Banka used to be very different from the post-Communist banking dinosaurs.

It had a fresh, blue image, young friendly faces and a functioning internet banking platform. Having a Tatrabanka account is almost de rigeur among web savvy Slovak companies for these and other reasons. At our company when we send out invoices about three quarters of our clients who are all web-aware have Tatrabanka accounts - a network effect must be at work here, since having an account in the same Slovak bank reduces bank transfer time from two days to instantaneous.

I have been banking with Tatra Banka since 2000 and after a brief and aborted experience to switch to Unibanka (now Unicreditbank) Tatrabanka remains the only bank I use (not count the ING Konto, a super and unmatched savings account). Ocassionally I get frustrated with them but usually a trip (or two) to the branch resolves matters - that's what puts them apart in my mind from other Slovak banks I've had experiences with (there were many - Ludova banka, Slovenska sporitelna, Vseobecna uverova banka, Unicreditbank).

Enough of an introduction. Right now, Tatra Banka has made me very frustrated - they have made a move that directly inconveniences me and makes their award winning internet banking unusable for me.

Over time authentication procedures for Tatra Banka internet banking have evolved - from using a Grid Card to sending a code to my mobile phone by SMS on login. For payments no additional authentication was required. However, to get over a daily transfer limit of Sk 100,000 a SecurID was used - a small credit-card sized token displaying numbers on a LED display.

SecurID had its disadvantages - notably the one Daniel found where once you used the number for a payment you had to wait up to a minute for a new number to appear for your next payment even if you were fast enough to enter two payments within that amount of time. Nonetheless, a satisfactory solution for my needs. I carried it around in my wallet and used it to make transfers whenever needed and wherever I needed.

Then, suddenly a few weeks ago I pulled my SecurID out of my wallet to find the LED display cracked - fair enough after carrying it in my back pocket for several years.

Enter the Calculator

Tatra Banka no longer issues SecurIDs - it is now pushing its new, market leading solution, which is much safer, much more overhyped and much more bulky. You get issued a card reader (made by Swedish Todos), size of a credit card but five times thicker. Why does this make me angry?

The 'calculator' cannot be carried around in your walet because it is to bulky and fragile. Unless you carry a purse you must keep it in one location - at home or at the office. I bank at Tatrabanka both privately and with the company so I would like to use it at both locations but the bank will only issue one of the little miracles to me.

The 'calculator' makes you work harder - to enter a payment you must type in the account number and the amount to generate a verification code. This is a hassle - account number often have 10+ digits and it is bad enough to have to type them in once. Of course, this would be no big deal because you can turn the use of calculator on and off - you can keep it off unless you need to exceed the SKK 100,000 per day.

But here comes the catch: once you turn it on for authorising individual payments it will automatically become the method of authorisation for logging in to the internet banking and it CANNOT be turned off anymore. In other words, once you use it you are stuck either carrying it around or stuck without access to your accounts online.

According to a press release of the calculator producer the calculator "in the future will be the only authorization tool for all its banking channels". Well let me tell you: this is not a future I look forward to and I will start looking for a bank that cares a little more about the comfort of its clients.

P.S. Apparently I am not the first to notice (link to blog in Slovak) that the 'calculator' is a hassle and that someone apparently paid bloggers to rave about it without disclosure. although several Slovak bloggers have given it highly favourable reviews at launch time without stating explicitly whether or not they have been rewarded for their efforts.