Sputnik and tomorrow's living room

I’ve never given much thought to the evolution of modern telecommunication save to marvel at how clever my smartphone is (and I can safely say that I am only using it to about a tenth of its full capacity). I am old enough to remember the old dial-up phones with receivers so heavy that you needed a shelf nearby on which to rest that elbow. I can still recollect the freedom that came with the advent of the cordless phone and the even greater sense of freedom I experienced when I realised that it worked outdoors, too. As for the mobile phone… I can remember the brick my mate Gerry had in Dublin back in the late 1980s – one of the first car phones – I never did think it would catch on.  Today, my phone would talk to me, if only I could find the button to press to make this happen.

IMG_2837 (800x600)At the heart of global telecommunications sits the ITU (the International Telecommunication Union), one of the oldest international organisations in Geneva. Its job is to connect all the world’s people… [to] allocate global radio spectrum and satellite orbits, develop the technical standards that ensure networks and technologies seamlessly interconnect, and strive to improve access to ICTs to underserved communities worldwide.

In Geneva as part of the policy immersion phase of the Capacity Development Programme in Multilateral Diplomacy for Pacific Island States, a visit to the ITU was on our agenda. And it was fascinating.

IMG_2855 (600x800)This fully interactive exhibition – ICT Discovery –  maps the progress of telecommunication through the years. And perhaps unusually, it encourages visitors to touch and feel and poke and press. You can pick up a tablet at the start and compete against others in the gaming area or simply wander through the 90-minute tour, engaging with each element as you move along. It’s well signposted and very detailed. The years fell away when I saw the Nokia P-30, which came out in 1989, and weighed in at a hefty 800 grams (nearly like holding a bag of sugar to your ear). Or the Amstrad PPC512 from 1988, with its 8 MHz processor,  52 kB memory, 9-inch screen (non-backlit LCD), two floppy disk drives and one hour of battery life. And in 1988 it was a marvel. PPC stands for personal portable computer, by the way… and here I am complaining about the weight of my laptop.

IMG_2848 (800x600)IMG_2850 (800x600)Seeing the evolutionary path of technology laid out in one room is really quite impressive. We tend to take so much of it for granted even if stopping occasionally to marvel would give us a healthier appreciation for just how good we have it. The replica of Sputnik 1, the first satellite in orbit around the Earth, launched back in 1957, is a sight to behold. I’d imagined it to be much bigger than its 58 centimetres. To see something of its size and realise that during the 92 days it was in orbit, it went around the Earth 1440 times… and then to realise that this happened more than 50 years ago? The mind boggles. And a quick view into the future was equally jawdropping.

IMG_2859 - Copy (800x600)Being in the company of Pacific Islanders – from Fiji, Vanuatu, Cook Islands, Samoa, and Solomon Islands – made it even more inspiring. For them, a region that includes ca. 30 000 islands in the Pacific Ocean, only 2000 of which are inhabited, communication is vital. Eighteen countries and territories lay claim to a total of 550 000 square km of land spread over 180 million square km of ocean, comprising 36% of the Earth’s surface. With these distances in mind, good telecommunication can literally be a matter of life or death.

If you’re in Geneva, check it out. ICT Discovery, ITU, 2 rue de Varembé, Geneva  +41 22 730 6155 [email protected]​ The tour is free but reservations are required.


Taken for a ride

TripAdvisor has just published its list of the ten most expensive tourist cities in the world. I was surprised to see that Geneva didn’t rate. I’ve just been there and found it to be horrendously expensive (I nearly choked on my €20 basic chicken salad and drank every dredge of my €5 coffee).

IMG_2863 - Copy (800x600)It’s the first city I’ve been to where hotel rooms are cheaper at the weekend than mid-week; the city is a global business and policy-making hub. The UN was buzzing all week, but on Saturday, the only peacocks visible at the Palais des Nations were the feathered kind.

Had I been travelling from London, or even Ireland, perhaps I wouldn’t have noticed how extortionately priced everything is, but coming from Hungary, it was a really loud cha-ching!

I was with a group from the Pacific Islands, many of whom were in Europe for the first time. Imagine my shock and quadruple it to get even a semblance of the beating their wallets were taking. They asked about living in Budapest, whether it was as expensive as Geneva, and not for the first time I found myself talking about the relatively inexpensive cost of living I enjoy. (The operative word here is ‘relatively’.)

Expats in Hungary have a standard of living many couldn’t ever hope to have at home. The lucky ones on expat packages can live well, very well. Those with local-employment status don’t do so badly either. Even those freelancing and invoicing externally do well enough. If you know the city and know where to go, your forints can go a long way.

Yes, there are restaurants where the cost of dinner for two would pay for a flash weekend in Bucharest. There are bars where you could have a three-course meal in Skopje for the price of a cocktail. There are shops where just one outfit would set you back the equivalent of three month’s groceries. But all in all, we have little to complain about.

And yet…

At Keleti recently, arriving by train from Bratislava, I overheard a taxi driver bargaining with a couple of tourists heading for the Marriott. They thought they were getting a good deal at €20. A straight run down Rácóczi and then right? I’d have thought €5-7 would be more like it and I said as much. But they were on holiday, they said, and they had the money to spend. I was torn between a quiet admiration for the driver who got them to stump up that sort of money and a somewhat louder disgust that, regardless of how much money they were toting around and how eager they were to part with it, they were being ripped off.

When I first arrived in town, I suspected there was some sort of Hungarian language tax – if you didn’t speak it, you were a foreigner. If you were a foreigner, you had money. If you had money, you were charged more. I preferred the idea of a language tax to facing the fact that I was getting the sort of preferential treatment I could have done without. Years later, there are still transactions in which I enlist the help of Hungarian friends rather than pay the ‘special’ rate for something or other. But these days, I’m a little savvier.

I noticed in a taxi the other day that I was showing on the meter as a külföldi (a foreigner) but now if I’m taken for a ride, I know I’ve no one to blame but myself.

First published in the Budapest Times  27 June 2014