Trust networks and squid-ink risotto

I have a nasty suspicion this is what I sound like to my colleagues…
Back home here in Budapest, salve we have a semi-embarassing American ambassador: George Bush’s cousin, seek George Walker. He’s a nice enough guy, drug I’ve heard, even with a sense of humor. However, as the Prez’s cousin, one wonders about his qualifications for the job**. Nevertheless, George (the Prez) seems to like him, or at least feel a familial draw, because he’s decided to pay him a visit here in Budapest.

Dropping in on your cousin seems like a friendly thing to do, doesn’t it? Let’s review: currently I’m sitting in my office listening to helicopters circling the downtown. Instead of taking five minutes to walk to work this morning, I took nearly half an hour; I live in the sixth district and must cross one of the major arteries of the city, Bajcsy-Zsilinszky, to get to work. Turns out you can’t cross Baj-Zsil right now: no pedestrians, no car traffic, no nothing. The fifth district, where POTUS is headed for very important slabs of Eszterhazy torta, is surrounded right now with a triple ring: cops, another line of cops, and a throng of hapless Pestieks trying desparately to get to work. (The fifth district is Budapest’s Wall Street, so much of the banking and associated companies are within the ring of cops. As is my office.) I joined a group of sweaty, briefcase-clutching investment bankers moving from crosswalk to crosswalk, pleading with the cops to let us across to our offices. Finally, we found one who ushered a group of us from Erzsebet Ter to Oktober 6th, obviously an act of mercy. All this rumpus is of course following on the three day towing extravaganza that has cleared the inner city (including my street) of thousands of parked cars. The length of Bajcsy, Deak Ter, etc have been under police wraps since Monday night. And on top of that, all the guests in the Meridian Hotel on Deak Ter got uncerimoniously booted, no warning, on Monday night to make room for crowds of buzz-cut guys with ear pieces Subtle. Of course, maybe it is a decoy, and POTUS is actually staying elsewhere.

The real question, raised by the ever-astute Favorite Husband last night, is: where does it end? What’s actually reasonable for a state visit? Is protecting the life of POTUS worth shutting down public transportation for hours, preventing people from working, closing Hungarian airspace, bringing in a rocket-proof motorcade and American helicopters, a thousand security dudes on top of all the Hungos who are going to be involved? What’s a reasonable expense for the American and Hungarian people to bear? I live in a flat that overlooks Bajcsy where POTUS’s rocketproof limo drove moments ago: my living room window is a perfect sniper’s perch, as are thousands of others along the street. (Note to Secret Service: that’s not a threat to POTUS, just an observation.) Would it be reasonable to make everyone who has a Bajcsy-facing window leave their apartments while POTUS drives by? Would it be reasonable to clear the downtown entirely and shut all businesses for the day? Do George and George really need to eat goose liver together in Budapest if it causes all this fuss, disarray, and inconvenience?

Two observations: based on the comments I heard on the street going to work, the anti-Bush rally planned at 4 pm this afternoon in front of the US embassy on Szabadsag Ter is probably going to be a lot bigger than it would have been if POTUS hadn’t pissed off so many Pestieks by coming to town.

The second observation is that this POTUS has taken a lot of flak for not traveling enough, for staying home in America and receiving our allies in the White House. Following this experience, I have to say that I think this may have been one of his better decisions.

*POTUS= President of the United States, for those not into Secret Service lingo
**Continuing the theme, our next ambassador is slated to be George’s (the Prez) ex-girlfriend.
Burma’s State Peace and Development Council is at it again. Mizzima, order an online publication covering all things Burma, reported two days ago that users inside Burma are reporting blocked access to Google search and gmail. For those who follow the Burmese government’s desire to control their citizens’ information access, this is perhaps no surprise: the Open Net Initiative last year released a report on internet filtering in Burma that noted a significant filtering rate of sites hosting information on government opposition group, Burmese information, and email service providers. (Concerned for the nation’s morality, the SPDC also blocks porn and gambling sites.) Also blocked were specific searches for filtering workarounds, like the one ONI tested on Google for “SMTP+POP3+tunnel”.

Burma, of course, is not alone in filtering the internet (although the presence of a single state-run internet service provide makes it spectacularly easy, as well as filtering systems like those provided by Fortinet that the ONI reports the Burmese government started using last year.) China is regularly in the news as the Great Firewall cuts further and further into the online freedoms of Chinese internet users. Equally distrubing is the realization by smaller countries that what works for the giants could also work for them: Ethan Zuckerman recently wrote about Ethiopia’s apparent blocking of a mainstream blogging service, and the subsequent yawning non-coverage in mainstream media over this watershed event. The problem, as he points out, is that it’s really difficult to verify exactly what’s going on in a repressive country, exactly what’s being blocked, etc. Ethan gives a good description of the work ONI is doing, including the painstaking detail that needs to go into it in order to be accepted. Particularly when you have a few state-owned ISPs serving a country, blocking and unblocking sites is really quite easy; what you end up with a population that isn’t going to trust gmail, yahoo, or hotmail as a reliable service. What this means is that they will tend to use local (reliable) email services, which are more easily monitored by the state.

Documenting internet filtering in repressive countries is crucial. Equally crucial is proactively educating these populations, particularly people involved in civil society who desparately need to get information in and out of repressive countries, on how internet filtering works, the risks they take in information gathering and distribution over the internet, and what simple tools and techniques are available to them to circumvent censorship. That’s not a small order: most activists are passionate about their issues, not about technology. Many serious activists aren’t part of the international NGO jet set: they don’t speak English, and they need to receive training, tools, and handbooks in their own languages. Finally, the great majority of people who live in Burma, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, China, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and so on can’t travel outside their countries to learn these things, and trainings within are clearly dangerous for all involved. How to deal with all these issues is an ongoing puzzle, although quite a few smart people have started thinking about innovative ways to address these situations. Secure NGO in a Box, which I’ve written about here before, is one of those efforts to put localized information and tools into the hands of those who need it. Still missing is the training piece that needs to go hand-in-hand with the set of tools (although the Secure Box team has done a good job of writing a manual for beginners that is intended to be used alone), as well as an answer to the reaction time issue. In the game of cat and mouse that repressive governments play with internet filtering, civil society is so far always in the position of playing catch-up.
I’m about to leave for a week of vacation in Croatia’s golden port city, information pills Dubrovnik. Aside from admiring the beauty of the ancient walls and the blue, drugs blue Adriatic, unhealthy I also want to eat well — squid ink risotto, fried calamari, clams in white wine and garlic…all of these top of the list of reasons to head down to seaside Croatia from landlocked Hungary. I’ve spent this morning scanning the web for restaurant recommendations in Dubrovnik, and I find myself stymied once again by the complications of sifting through online information.

Conventional wisdom tells me that I should be using my trusted online networks to find this information, and indeed, I have turned to the places I normally would for restaurant recommendations, that is, sites that I trust to give me some good reviews. I started with Saveur magazine’s online archive, moved on to Chowhound, Gridskipper, and TimeOut. I checked Dubrovnik on Technorati to see if anyone had blogged about restaurants recently, and Dubrovnik/food/restaurants on Flickr to see if anyone had usefully tagged photos.

The result is not that great, an hour later, and has led me to consider (as I often do when I’m looking for travel information) what a hit or miss operation information searches and relying on trusted networks are when, in reality, you don’t have a trusted network in place. Here’s a quick run-down of what I found:

Saveur, my most exalted, trusted source, is not in any way a member of the read/write web. They publish a dead-tree magazine, and they put those articles online. That said, they are absolutely the best, and have never, every failed me in any of my travels from lobster pasta in Venice to mind-bendingly good tapas in Xerez, Andalusia. Unfortunately, they’ve never written on Dubrovnik. So cross that one off for this trip.

Chowhound, my next best source for recommendations, troubled me this time around. Chowhound is a site for people who consider themselves “foodies”, and the “chowhounders” do their good work by sniffing out small, unknown restaurants. Their very useful discussion forum can sometimes yield epicurean gems. The problem with Chowhound is that it’s largely a US-based site; their international discussions are not, in fact, very trustworthy. In a search for Dubrovnik, I found lots of discussion threads, but when I cross-referenced the recommendations on the discussion threads with a guidebook I have (the always-useful but not culinarily-minded Lonely Planet), I found almost 100 percent overlap. That is, the so-called chowhounds who were writing about Dubrovnik were not sniffing out new, unknown local joints, but were in fact commenting on the restaurants already in the guidebook that just about everyone who visits Crotia has in their backpack. There’s certainly utility in that, but … if the users on Chowhound are simply discussing what Lonely Planet has already recommended, I wouldn’t rely on them as experts; it’s not a trusted network after all. And indeed, there are no Croatians posting on Chowhound that I saw, which is really unfortunate. (The other kind of recommendation on Chowhound for Dubrovnik are the “I went to a great little restaurant down a back street near the port, but I can’t remember the name” variety, which are just kind of irritating. Please, don’t bother.)

On to Gridskipper, which does list Dubrovnik as one of its cities “on the grid”; however, the only restaurant recommended there is not qualified in any way — the writer just says it’s “one of the city’s best”. Well, maybe, but when I search online I don’t find other information on it or recommendations for it. So that really wasn’t so helpful, and I realize that when push comes to shove (am I going to get into a cab and cross the city to go to a specific restaurant) I don’t really trust Gridskipper on restaurant issues — or at least not on this one. Since there’s no context for the recommendation, and I don’t know who the writer is, I’m skeptical.

TimeOut is semi-useful, but they want us to buy the dead-tree copy so the information is light. I do trust TimeOut, but again — not really the read/write web. I’m just going by their single writer’s recommendations.

The noise on Technorati around Dubrovnik is too difficult to sift through — lots of link factories or advertising come back, so I give up. Flickr yields, as usual, a wonderland of beautiful pictures of Croatian seafood when I do my search, but there’s no associated information with any of the pictures (i.e., where did you eat that gorgeous shrimp?)

The moral of this story is that I’ve ended up a bit stymied. No online source that I really trust has led me to good restaurant options in Dubrovnik. I’m now planning to call up a friend who’s a tour guide and was in Croatia with a group a few weeks back for her insights, and then go out and buy a copy of another friend’s book on Croatia, Annabel Barber’s Visible Cities Dubrovnik.

I think the reason I find this long tale interesting is because of, well, the theory of the internet’s long tail that Wired’s Chris Anderson and others have written extensively about over the past two years. The theory, which I largely agree with, is that web 2.0 allows for incredibly rich information geared to very niche markets or demographics (foodies traveling to Dubrovnik, i.e.); related thinking revolves around the idea that trusted communities will form around these niches, and that the read/write web allows everyone to join those communities as both a consumer and producer of information. That’s great, again, I largely agree with that.

The problem I see is that some niches which are transitory, and some niches aren’t. I am going to care for a long time about data security and human rights organizations, and it’s worth it for me to build a community of trust around that issue. I only care this week about good restaurants in Dubrovnik, and it really not worth it for me to build or join a community of trust around that. Nevertheless, I want to be able to dip into online communities who do care about that issue when I need to know more about it — and yet, I’m not really in a position to evaluate who is a trusted source in a specific network. How do I know that so-and-so poster on Chowhound is reliable? Why should I trust the person who recommended to Gridskipper that X restaurant in Dubrovnik is excellent? So, one of the downsides I see with the beauty of niche information is the inability of an individual to be involved in as many as they want to, or need to, be. I think that what comes out of this is more and more recommendation systems a la Slashdot or Digg that are geared in a very niche way. However, a lot of sites will need to be rebuilt to put those kinds of tools in place….so I still see a long haul ahead of us for making the read/write web truly useful. These kinds of experiences are a good reminder to me that, no matter how fast it seems like we’re moving on communications technologies, we’re still taking baby steps. And that’s why I’m heading out now to buy Annabel’s book to take with me this afternoon to Dubrovnik.

PS: If any of my five readers have a suggestion for where to eat in Dubrovnik, leave a comment!

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2 thoughts on “Trust networks and squid-ink risotto

  1. Janet, I just found your blog and have little to say except 1) hi, and 2) I’ve got a friend who’s about the foodiest (currently a writer/editor for the Food Network, used to work for Saveur, FCI grad, etc.) and who might be able to offer light on your problem. Let me know if you want me to put you in touch.

    Me, I tend to be happy with VirtualTourist and a grain of salt. Or even just the grain of salt.

    exes and ohs,

  2. Be sure to stop at Mali Ston, a hamlet along the coast north of Dubrovnik, at the beginning of the Peljesac peninsula which leads to Korcula.

    Once there have a lengthy mean at one of the superb fish restaurants.

    Be sure to ask for the mixed shells Dalmatian sytle. Life changing experience guaranteed.

    The also make the other specialities: squid Dalmatian style, black squid risotto, etc. But the mixed shells are out of this world.

    Before or after, go for a swim at the little cove which is 15 down the road on your way towards Korcula.

    Stay the night at the romatic Hotel Ostrea (but be sure to book, its small and not easy to get a room).

    I don’t know if this gets to you in time, but if it doesn’t you have a reason to go back.