Thursday, August 28, 2008

The death of shame

In several recent posts on here I have mentioned the fact that the doorway to our building is being used by drug addicts as a nice place to shoot up the crap that they seem intent to destroy their lives with. Mrs Velkyal and I went to watch the football last night, and en route from our traditional pre-match drinks in Jama to the pub we watch the games in, Zlata Hvezda, we noticed the same vials and syringes in a passage through a building as we see most mornings when we go to work.

Mrs Velkyal remarked that perhaps it is not an increase in drug abuse in the city, but rather the fact that we are more aware of it - in the same way that when a woman is pregnant, all her acquiantances seem to get knocked up as well. While I can see the validity of her argument, hoping of course it is not some rather unsubtle hint that she wants to start a family already, I am not convinced.

When I arrived in the Czech Republic in 1999 it was still ok to smoke pot in public, indeed many pubs and clubs had an almost permanent funk in the air which has thankfully gone in these less permissive days. But it is only recently that I have seen people shooting up with any regularity, in broad daylight and with no sense of shame. Even this morning on my way to the metro station to come to work there were a couple of girls sitting on a bench in the park around the railway station quite openly prepared to take a hit.

I think what shocks me most about the junkies in our area is not the fact that they leave their rubbish lying around in the street, but rather that they have no sense of shame - indeed they almost flaunt their anti-social behaviour in the full knowledge that few people will comment or do anything. It was Dietrich Bonhoffer I believe who commented that the reason bad people win is because good people do nothing, and still that rings true today. While I wouldn't want to label the junkies as "bad" people per se, I do feel that in rejecting the norms of society they have forfeited their right to the protection and benefits of the state.

Our society has become so "rights" obsessed that we have forgotten the responsibilities inherent in the nature of society. In our well meaning attempts to create a safety net for the disfortunate in the welfare state, we have created a hammock for the lazy, the unscrupulous and the downright corrupt. Our culture is now one of abrogated responsibility and the enfeeblement of civil society, where good, ordinary people look the other way and expect the powers that be to solve their problems for them.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Marketing mesmerics

This is somewhat related to my previous post about how the human race is becoming less and less connected as a result of technology, in particular mobile phones and other "communication" devices. On Friday last week the Czech Republic saw the official launch of the iPhone onto its market; on Thursday night, Wenceslas Square was graced by a queue of some 400 people waiting to get their hands on the latest in mobile phone wizardry.

I have to admit that I am always staggered at the stupidity of people who want to stand in the cold just so they can boast of being one of the first owners of some plastic and metal which lets them talk to a random "friend" in Australia who they "met" online. Even more staggering to me is that people seem to think that a phone will somehow revolutionise their lives, someone even suggested to me that it was great to be able to watch videos on it. Maybe I am a total luddite, but isn't the cinema a great way to see films, especially if you go with your friends, have a couple of beers before hand and maybe a curry on the way home? Or even renting a DVD, getting a crate of ale and inviting some people round?

Within a purely Czech context, I read today that the iPhone which has been released here doesn't support the Czech language, as such all the menus and features are in English. Also if a Czech speaker wants to write an SMS to a friend, it is impossible to turn off the predictive software, so you end up with English words. So you have to tip your hats to Apple for failing to provide a key service to the Czech market for this product, especially relevant when you realise that 10% of all SMSes globally originate from Czech mobile users.

And the price for the basic 8Gb piece of gizmo lunacy? Without a subsidised contract, 12,000CZK which at the current exchange rate is $750, current price for the same iPhone on Amazon? $284. Could someone explain to me how it is possible to justify the iPhone at almost 3 times the cost on the Czech market than the American? Are not the production costs the same? Sure it costs a bit to transport products, but buying the 16Gb version from is the same price as the 8Gb version in the Czech Republic and unless I missing something, salaries are much better in Germany and the USA than here in Prague.

To add a little perspective, 12,000CZK is half the average net monthly salary in Prague, outside of the city it is closer to two-thirds the average salary. I assume there are very few people in the US earning just $568 a month - under $7000 for full time work, or that many Germans have salaries comparable to the average Czech salary. So how do you justify the price tag?

Because idiots will believe the hype and splash the cash. Sometimes I despair.

Making a fuss gets things done

I noted on a previous post that in recent months we have been finding syringes and other drug taking paraphenalia in the doorway of the building we leave in. In the last few weeks this has got worse as several times Mrs Velkyal and myself have come home and the junkies have been in the doorway quite openly and casually shooting up. Yesterday I came home at 17.30 and there they were, quite openly filling their veins with crap. So as usual I rang the police, they came, moved them on and when an hour later I went to meet Mrs Velkyal, there they were loitering on the street. Just after I called the police, I sent our landlord a message to let him know.

A major part of the problem has been the herna bar on the ground floor of the building - a herna bar is basically a pub with slot machines which is usually open 24/7. Just yesterday I was discussing with Mrs Velkyal and a couple of other residents that we could get a petition raised of residents to have the bar shut down, or look into getting their licence revoked on public safety grounds.

Three or four hours later I received a message from the landlord to say, thank you for calling the police, that he knew the situation was bad and that he had cancelled the herna bar's rental contract. So hopefully in a month or two the place will be closed down and the problem solved.

The closing of the herna bar is also an opportunity, unfortunately not one I can take because of our plans to cross the Atlantic. We live in an area which is enjoying a lot of inward investment, with the main railway station being renovated, new businesses moving into the area and of course the large number of tourists in the area. Thus for someone with a little nouse and the intention to set up a higher quality establishment, this soon to be vacant bar space would be an excellent investment.

But today I am just enjoying the fact that making a fuss gets things done, rather than meakly sitting in the corner saying "but what can I do"? I am also enjoying the fact that we have a really fantastic landlord who takes on board the concerns of his tenants.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Disconnecting People

On the bus into work this morning I had a thought, yes it happens occassionally and yes it hurts. I thought to myself that in this age of technological advance the human race is becoming more and more isolated, despite the protestations of the likes of Nokia that they are "connecting people". Not only are we becoming isolated from people around us by living in our technological bubble where we communicate only by SMS, Skype or email, but technology is also impoverishing our ability to live with people different from ourselves.

In particular I was thinking about internet dating sites, and the kind of adverts you get on them - you know the thing, "blonde 45 years young mother of 2 seeks soul mate, must be......". Has our world in its headlong rush to be "modern" forgotten the simple pleasures of going to the pub and meeting random strangers? I have a softspot for the "going to the pub" approach as that is how I met my wife, who is in many ways my polar opposite. Would she have replied to a classified saying "nearly 30 football fan seeks woman, must like beer, football, loud music and in-depth philosophical/religious/political discussions"? I am not so sure. My wife asked me in return if I would have answered an ad for "27 yr old wannabe homemaker searching for a hard working male with good sperm and sexual ability, must be clean cut, willing to listen to hours of drivel and likes the paranormal". Hmmm, quite. Yet here we are, and as I just said to her, thank god for pubs and being forced to talk to people.

Technology is making us a less human, less forgiving society where a person can be rejected simply because he or she doesn't share our values and interests. For our world to truly progress we need to rediscover the people around us, the community that we would in any other age be part of. For us to build "tolerant" societies we need to be actively engaged with the people around us, to realise that just because the neighbour likes jazz rather than rock doesn't make them any less worthwhile; just because someone didn't go to university doesn't negate their intelligence; just because someone likes the same sports isn't a basis for a relationship.

I was encouraged this week to read that only 5% of British people don't know their next door neighbours by name, I imagine in Prague that would be the exact opposite.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Freedom for all Ossetians

With the crisis in South Ossetia, I find it interesting that so few people are asking a fairly obvious question - what about North Ossetia? North Ossetia is in the Russian Federation, on the other side of the Caucus mountains which divide Russia from Georgia. Ossetians are neither Georgian nor Russian, as such a nation state for the Ossetian people must surely be considered as a solution to this problem.

Monday, August 11, 2008

End of a hectic summer

This summer has been somewhat hectic, but this week my wife starts her final year at the school she works in (how strange is that, saying “my wife”?) and so I guess the summer is coming to an end. Naturally it has been a momentous summer, we got married, jetted off to Tunisia for our honeymoon and one week after we came back my wife went into hospital for a scheduled operation to remove a lobe of her thyroid, on which there was a rather large tumour – thankfully benign.

I must admit that my wife being in hospital just a few weeks after the wedding wasn’t one I particularly relished. I am not very good with medical things at the best of times, unless of course it is medicinal whisky. The day of the operation was quite possibly the longest I can remember – the wedding day went by in such a flash. I was practically on a knife-edge waiting for news that everything had gone ok. Everything went very well, and although for a couple of days she looked like the bride of Frankenstein, she was soon up and about. Even just a few hours after the operation, in between vomiting, she was bright enough to crack a few jokes.

As for the wedding itself, as I already said, everything went by in such a blur – but it was the happiest and best day of my life – yes even better than May 25th 2005 (for those not sure, I will give you a hint, Istanbul). But everything went so well. The ceremony was wonderful – although when the official declared that we had considered our “property rights”, we both almost giggled. Everyone seemed to get one famously, the reception was a blast and Chris made it from the wastes of Kazakhstan, happy days.

Our honeymoon was spent in Tunisia, one of the most liberal of Muslim countries on earth and officially one of my favourite places. Any country that can effortlessly mix North African cuisine with a French attitude to life has to be a good place. Part of me was a little nervous, the wife being American and there having been some Islamic fundamentalist activity in the country. But everyone we met was awesome and genuinely seemed happy to meet an American – usually followed by the question, “but why you come to Tunisia”? I sometimes wonder if politicians and idealists cause more problems in the world than they solve.

This week is also the beginning of the official end of summer, or as I prefer to call it, the first day of the football season. I am not a big fan of the summer, mainly because of the absence of competitive football – and before anyone says, “well what about the Euros?”, Scotland weren’t there so they don’t count. The first day of the season also has a greater meaning for me this year, it marks the beginning of my final football season in Prague. Hopefully by the end of it Liverpool will be celebrating number 19, an FA Cup and a Champions League. We can dream.