Saturday, May 12, 2007

Pro-EU government at last

I spoke to soon - coalition agreement between “democratic” or “pro-European” parties was reached yesterday (Friday) virtually in last possible moment as the government has to be elected by Tuesday, 15th May midnight as it takes about 2 days to call the Parliament session and elect the government. I must admit this comes as great relief as I don't believe either government with Radicals or new elections would be desirable outcome.

Belgrade stock exchange had about 16% of its value wiped beginning of this week at peek of the crisis (about 1 bn EUR) and virtually all of it has been regained on Friday morning before official news was floated about coalition agreement. It will be interesting to see who made money on this move when information about buyers (normally 3 days after the trade) gets published.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Same old story in the East

"Same old story in the East, no news in the West" were the words of song written by Bora Đorđević in socialist times. I started this blog day before Serbian Parliamentary Elections. Elections were finished long time ago but they, so far, failed to produce government. It looks unlikely that they will produce coalition of so called “democratic” or “pro-European” parties. Alternatives are government with Serbian Radical Party or new elections. If no government is formed by 15th May new elections must be called within 60 days.

Key question is whether there is enough support (more than 50%) in Serbian electorate for path that leads to EU. This path assumes reforming state security services and engaging in process of arresting remaining International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia fugitives and accepting fate of Kosovo as determined by UN. Both of those issues create fertile ground for nationalists and previous elections did not give clear mandate for either option (EU or nationalist).

Yesterday some people watched directly televised session of the Parliament. It was too much for me, I watched few of those events since 14th Congress of Communist League of Yugoslavia in January 1990 to sessions of Bosnian parliament in 1992 that effectively foretold of coming calamity. Democracy in Balkans failed too often in producing reasonable governments. Elected majority in Bosnia effectively lead country to war. It could be argued that same happened in Croatia and Serbia. It doesn’t look likely that Bosnia will get government any time soon that will consist of non-nationalist parties but I hoped Serbia would escape this with last elections – this is still up in the air but I’m less of an optimist now.

“May you live in interesting times “– says misquoted Chinese curse. I had my share but it looks like more is coming ...

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Finally here

Before we left Auckland for Belgrade, I promised to myself that I will not get irritated with anything we encounter, because things are as they are and I'm not making a living from complaining about new host country. This principle got tested in last 2 weeks with our stuff finally arriving. It took us 11 days to get container through the customs and there are few points to be made about moving to country with practices somewhat incompatible with what you got used to in ex-British colony:

  • Always use shipping company from your destination country, they know local rules and this is what counts.
  • Even though you would like to buy peace of mind with door-to-door service it is worthwhile finding out more about transport and regulations - this way you could cut your cost to half, save few weeks of shipping time and bit of your nerves
  • Make itemised list of valuables in form acceptable to customs officials of your destination country. Removals company will not do this for you.
  • Here is why:

    I found that shipping cost of a container from New Zealand would be roughly half of what we paid for full service.

    When container arrived it was in my name rather than in Jelena’s. This was a problem since Jelena had authorisation from Serbian consulate in Sydney to import goods without customs duties as she was working in foreign country for more than 3 years. Change of ownership of a cargo once it arrives was a loophole promptly closed by Serbian officials in order to curb dubious practices of the past.

    Customs Department under Milosevic regime was state within state and was generating hefty foreign exchange for the government and officials. Funny enough, I found brochure in Customs office with independent review of their services based on interviews with importers and it was, in general, stating that importers perceived that there was less corruption in the service. However in 60% of cases some form of bribe is used (!) – It was impressive to see that government department would print something like this at their own cost.

    Next issue was that MSC (Mediterranean Shipping Company) used train rather than truck to transport container from Thessaloniki (Greece). If goods are transported with the truck, they get cleared at the border and container can proceed directly to its final destination. True, train is cheaper, but in case of transport of personal effects to Serbia you will be liable from unloading of container, loading to truck that takes stuff to Customs depot, unloading truck and storage of your goods. This, apart from money, takes some time. I’m sure this is the case with all ex-Yu countries are the same with exception of, maybe Slovenia now in EU.

    To make it more fun container also arrived to “Terminal for legal entities” rather than “Terminal for physical entities" (individuals). To allow Customs to proceed with the procedure this required approval from managers of both departments.

    We also required invoice for the shipping. Another problem – cost of shipping was higher than declared value of the goods. My freight forwarder (špediter in Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian) said that this would confuse customs officials. BTW freight forwarder is a person that you absolutely need and that your door to door service will not cover. This is a guy that navigates dodgy bureaucracy for you.

    As my brother said it is door to door but you must pull your door bit closer. I heard about the case when they dropped stuff in front of apartment building door arguing that it did not state which door.

    And finally, paintings and books. We imported Jelena’s paintings to NZ from Serbia few years ago. This required extensive paperwork from Ministry of Culture. You would assume that presenting same paperwork would do the trick? Of course not, we needed original export customs declaration from few years ago...

    Serbia is quite regulated place and, on face of it, this leaves little manoeuvring space. In practice this is bit different – nothing is possible, but, on other hand, everything is possible.

    Container arrived to Belgrade on Monday, 9th April – which was of course Easter. This was 12 days later than scheduled (MSC). We finally got our stuff from Port of Belgrade on 20th April.

    Movers were something else. We live on third floor of building built in 1936 (it looks like there was a huge building boom in period 1932-1939). There is no lift in the building and each floor is about 4 meters high + 2 meters of stairs on the entry. This meant moving 148 items weighing 5 tons in total 14 meters up by hand. We got 2 youngsters and after Maori boys that handled moving in NZ I admit I was bit sceptical. Half way through they were helped by another guy, who is I found, high school teacher supplementing his income with bit of work on the side (7 NZD an hour but it could be as low as 4 NZD an hour for this kind of job). I also found that truck driver has degree in Mechanical Engineering. Clearly there is some human capital to be released here.

    Finally – we are quite happy with our new apartment. We are 400 meters from Marina’s primary school and Iva’s daycare, 200 meters from Jelena’s sister, 1200 meters from Jelena’s work, 400 from fresh produce market, 800 m from Kalemegdan 400 m from from Knez Mihajlova and numerous other facilities like theatres (apparently 39 of them in Belgrade), bookstores, movie theatres etc.

    If you ever end up in Belgrade this is where we are:

    Dobračina 21

    Sunday, March 25, 2007

    Exit, Bruce Sterling and Chemical Brothers

    One thing I was looking forward to was going to Exit Festival. In the past they featured my favourite musicians Hernan Cattaneo and Underworld.

    I was trying to figure out who is playing on Exit Festival this year and I stumbled upon Viktor Marković blog. To my surprise I found that Bruce Sterling now lives in Belgrade. With William Gibson,(my favourite SF writer) he is one of the founders of cyberpunk. Cyberpunk is related to, now retreating hacker subculture. In years when I got interested in computers and programming, it was something else than good corporate career. You can grasp some of this from his freely available book Hacker Crackdown.

    He is Belgrade resident from January 2006 and here is his take on Belgrade:

    A Tribute To Chemical Brothers has been setting daily rhythm for months now. I am really keen to see Chemical Brothers playing in Belgrade on 13th June (my wedding anniversary!).

    I am going to watch Serbia play Portugal in Euro 2008 (soccer for uninitiated) qualifiers on Wednesday 28th March. Local side lost 2-1 to Kazakhstan yesterday so it will be interesting to see what can they pull off (or not) against Portugal (they trashed Belgium 4-0 yesterday). I watched Bosnia win over Norway (2-1) today - Bosnian commentators where ecstatic - this doesn't happen often enough.

    Rugby is not popular at all in these parts, but I happen to live in Dorćol suburb and local team won Serbian rugby league in 2005.

    Tuesday, March 13, 2007

    Another first by Nebs

    Nebojša (Nebs for english speakers) is an old friend. We first met in Amateur Software Club (ASC) in Tuzla in mid 80's. It was 10 years after famous Homebrew Computer Club and technology we were talking about was as exotic. For some reason, at that time, importing of computers is socialist Yugoslavia more expensive than NZD 500 was forbidden. Nebs was the first guy we knew to have Sinclair QL and also first guy to make money in IT. This was on one of the last Voluntary Youth Action (no reference for this socialist Yugoslavia phenomenon on the wiki or anywhere else - strange mix between backpacking and kibutz, thousands of youngsters would spend a month sleeping in makeshift dormitories and working for free on infrastructural projects with key benefit of proximity of teenagers of opposite sex) - anyway Nebs held computer course on one of those events and got a decent consulting fee.

    We met next time in South Africa in '92. Again he was the first guy I knew that used off-line video editing. No wonder large percent of our immigrant friends became video editors. I even tried to persuade Jelena to get involved in the trade. It was classic arbitrage opportunity - we could get hold of software and hardware that was required to learn the trade - and hence get jobs that were in short supply. Even my career was started like this. I got hold of copy of Visual Basic 2.0 at end of' '92 same company where Nebs was volunteering (or working for no adequate pay should I say). I read VB Tutorial cover to cover and wrote simple Windows game and this was enough to get a job in Investec.

    Well, Nebs has done it again - this time being first Bosnian sailing around the world and produce 24 episode TV series Around the world (click on the previous link!) that is currently screening on BHT1 (Bosnian state TV). Check out the web site - some of the material is on YouTube. Well done Nebs!

    Tuesday, March 6, 2007

    Postcards - Part 1

    One of skills in high demand in Belgrade is ability to do parallel parking. Yesterday I was challenged - this was only available parking spot in few blocks.
    Payments for parking are done using by texting your registration plate to parking service - 1 hour of parking is then charged to your mobile account. Enforcement is done using handheld terminals that can check if you paid the parking. We are fortunate to have residential address in Stari Grad (Old City) so we can get cheap monthly ticket.

    I mentioned earlier Coffee Dream and fact that you get Speculaas cookies. It looks like this Speculaas is of local variety. I figured out this by image of Praroditeljka (great-grandmother) from Lepenski Vir.

    I keep on finding curious translations from Serbian to English all over the city. I couldn't help myself photographing this one:

    This should probably say Archaeological Site Vinča.

    Thursday, February 22, 2007

    Sydney Postcards

    Sydney Harbor Bridge and Sydney Opera House must be one of the most photographed sites. However, once you are in vicinity it is difficult to resist temptation to take few snapshots. This photo was taken by Jelena from Milsons Point ferry dock, just in front of Luna Park.

    Jelena’s shot of Opera house.

    I have seen Sydney Opera House on numerous photographs but I have always been intrigued by tilling and was keen to see it from close distance and feel it.

    Saturday, February 17, 2007

    First Impressions

    Belgrade greeted us in gray smoggy nightgown, deciding not to get dressed up that Sunday afternoon. We flew small turbo-prop airplane from Vienna (460 km by air) and cleared baggage reclaim and customs in record 5 minutes.

    It is unusually warm for this time of the year (last few days was above 12C) and even though it might sound cold by southern hemisphere standards it is not. You dress up for serious cold and once you get inside shops or apartments you are welcomed by heat wave of 22C - 24 C.

    Good news is that Jelena got the job that prompted us to move on a short notice. This will anchor us in Belgrade for some time. My job can be done from almost anywhere which gives me flexibility that we tend to use quite often.

    Marina started going to school. It is a tall order for her since she arrived mid-year (schools here start in September) and she has to learn Serbian and Cyrillic script (similar to Russian alphabet). Kids start school here in September after they are 6 so she would, according to her age fit into 1st grade. However she completed 2 years in NZ so they decided to put her in 2nd grade. This did not work out well as she has too much to catch-up so she will go to 1st grade from Monday. Idea is that she builds language foundation first and then teachers can see where she fits.

    Iva will hopefully start in daycare next week. She learned to say “Nedam moje” I “kako si lepa” (“You can’t have it, it is mine” and “you are beautiful”). Other than that she can’t say and understand much Serbian. However she seams extraordinary happy as she is spending all her time with cousins, aunt and uncle.

    Part of the city we are intending to settle is called Dorćol . Being a migratory type for years I struggled to understand need of my wife to live exclusively in this part of the city. Now I finally understand. There are many reasons (good schools, proximity of commercial and cultural and points of interest, educated population) but as main one I can see is possibility to avoid Belgrade traffic.

    Other cities might be congested but Belgrade is something else. It feels like you are in a blood stream of pre-heart attack patient. Level of stress and sheer chaos on the street are best avoided. Taxies are cheap (less than 5 NZD to most of central locations, becomes quite cheap if you are sharing) and are reasonable solution if you need to move around on faster pace than walking. One word of warning – pedestrian crossings are nothing more than aggravating circumstance in court once someone runs over you. Don’t expect cars to even slow down while you are standing on pedestrian crossing. In return, pedestrians might start running across the street at any time and place – so be careful if you are driving.

    I am really impressed with some cultural aspects of living in Belgrade. One of the first tasks was a search for a good coffee. Traditionally it should be possible to get good espresso and any frequented cafe but I got used to lattes and takeaway coffee.

    I strongly recommend Coffee Dream. They have every coffee known to the man and quality is superb. Apart from quality and quantity couple other things did win me over: they serve glass of water with the coffee (this is standard in Serbia), waiter greets you as you walk in and you order from waiter rather than walking up to the bar and ordering there (also standard in Serbia), they change ashtrays often (standard, although I decided to quit smoking so this will not make much difference), they play really good music (it was Shade and some Brasilian music) and they serve Speculaas with their coffee (Cookie is here a standard, however not speculaas).

    Greenet is Serbian equivalent of Starbucks and more. With 5 locations in central Belgrade Greenet is becoming local franchise associated with coffee.

    Local publishing, bookstores, theatres, art galleries and comming 35th Belgrade Film Festival are definitely worth mentioning but more about that in following posts.

    Monday, February 5, 2007

    Balkan Collider

    What you find fascinating depends on your understanding of particular set of ideas. This stands true for art, history, literature, computer science or high energy particle physics (list could go on but I’ll stop here).

    In this sense Balkans (now called South Eastern Europe in politically correct manner) is something akin to collider – strong forces accelerate particles and collisions of those particles create events that generate myriad of data for scientist to analyse.

    This area still did not settle down. Next event on horizon is independence of Kosovo.Last month elections in Serbia produced expected outcome. Voters are split between extreme nationalists and pro-European (whatever that means) parties. No main stream party is ready to accept outright secession of Kosovo and it will be very difficult to form coalition government under those circumstances.

    Independence of Kosovo as precedent might have some ripple effects on Bosnia and post Soviet republics. Potential membership in EU might have stabilising effect in this region. Unfortunately there is enlargement fatigue in EU and these prospects look distant.

    For sanity reasons I decided to ban myself from reading day to day news on this subject. Although it feels fascinating like live history reality TV, it can be emotionally draining experience if you get too involved. However avoiding it altogether might not be possible once I return.

    I found different view of history in A history of Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific (or on Amazon ). I read this book shortly after I arrived to New Zealand. Primary focus of the book is formation of identities in this region. Although it might feel that there is relative lack of events in regional history there is underlying complexity of relationships. This becomes evident once you have read book like this. It would be useful to apply similar approach (study of identities) in Balkans and I’m yet to find a book that covers this subject in same manner.

    Monday, January 29, 2007

    Move: lessons learned

    • It is difficult to find estimate online how much will move cost you
    • Shipping companies prefer Full Cargo Load (FCL). For 6 foot container (content of 3 bedroom house excluding vehicles, cca. 30 cubic meters) will cost you about NZD 14,000 to Belgrade. I assume most of other destinations will be bit cheaper (20,000+ km by sea and 800 km by truck component).
    • You can't deal directly with shipping companies, so you have to go through agents

    2005 FORD MONDEO
    Description: Sedan 4dr Auto 4sp 2.0i
    Red Book Code: FORD05AQ

    Condition: Good
    Kilometres: 15,000
    Trade-in Price: $14,800
    Private Sale Price: $19,500

    • It is much easier to sell Toyota than Ford
    • Dealers generally add 30 to 35% markup on vehicles (could be more) – you are much better off buying privately and selling privately and getting mechanical breakdown insurance (NZD 800 for 3 years if you shop around).
    • If you sell car within 6 months of purchase you virtually paid off nothing after adding booking fees, insurance and interest which is high in beginning. Don’t buy expensive car if you plan to sell it in few months – rather buy something cheaper to minimize your loss.
    • If you are selling car on Trademe put it on auction (other option is just an advert). Unless you are selling vintage car almost nobody bids online. Having closing time for auction will prompt buyers to contact you. If auction expires (price to high) you can restart it within 14 days at no cost. IMHO it is worth putting start price same as reserve as rarely anyone does this – it makes it easier for buyer.
    • One way tickets can be almost half of price contrary to popular belief that they are not much cheaper.

    Friday, January 26, 2007

    Enterprise Application Development Books

    Work colleague asked me to recommend books on software development. This is short recap on books and articles I found helpful.

    I started developing Object Oriented software in ’97. At that time OO was a developing field and there was not much written on developing Object Oriented enterprise applications. Situation is much better now. There is huge variation in quality of published books and some of those that I will mention stand out as “classics”.

    One of first books I read was Object Oriented Modeling and Design (1990, Jim Rumbaugh et al. ). Notation used in this book is OMT, which later on became basis for UML .Although some material might be dated, most of it would still be relevant. Patterns for Object to Relational Mapping were discussed.

    I found number of interesting articles on Object Mentor site, particularly articles written by Robert C. Martin. Most of those were later published in the book Agile Software Development, Principles, Patterns, and Practices. It would recommend you read following articles:

    If you are new to UML I would recommend reading related articles on the same site.

    Any OO book list would be incomplete without mentioning classic work Design Patterns: Elements of Reusable Object-Oriented Software (1995, Gang of Four). This must be most exciting book of all times that I have read. At the time I got it we were struggling big time with concepts in our OO design. What is most striking about this book is model of thinking that you adopt when you start applying patterns. These are everyday situations that you face doing Analysis, Design or coding. It is worth coming back to this book over and over as you develop understanding of problems you face in software development.

    In recent times another classic work emerged: Patterns of Enterprise Application Architecture (2002, Martin Fowler). This books brings patterns closer to enterprise applications. One of most exciting patterns is Domain Model. This pattern leads to creation of OO model representing business domain used in your applications. From early days it was my assumption that this is only valid way of developing OO enterprise applications. This equates to notion of problem domain and solution domain in Object-Oriented Analysis and Design with Applications (1993, Grady Booch). BTW I found this book a hard read at the time and although it does contain number of interesting concepts I would recommend you don't spend too much time reading it.

    This subject is further developed in Domain-Driven Design: Tackling Complexity in the Heart of Software (2003, Eric Evans) . This is a must read if you want to apply OO to enterprise applications. There is a very good debate going on Domain Driven Design Group (Yahoo) on applying DDD.

    Another book you might consider reading after this book is Applying Domain-Driven Design and Patterns: With Examples in C# and .NET (2006, Jimmy Nilsson). This covers more practical approach to applying Domain Driven Design.

    Benefit of books like this is development of common vocabulary and frames of reference for software development team. Although silver bullet doesn’t exist and you will need to apply yourself to understand business problem first these books give you powerful set of tools to tackle issues you will find in enterprise application development.

    Saturday, January 20, 2007

    The Feeling Begins

    Dates are all set: movers are coming on 31st January and we are flying on 9th February. I expect furniture to arrive mid April. Good news is that we can "house sit" apartment next to Jelena's sister until April.

    I had a look at local property market and feeling is that prices doubled in last 4 years (I did not have a look at any hard market data). Mortgage market looks quite buoyant: Euro denominated loans and 20% government guarantee take out most of the risk from lenders. Interest rates and payments are relatively low (still out of reach for general population). You can find interesting payment calculator here: fields from top are mortgage amount, deposit, monthly income, term.

    Some analysts point out to discrepancies between supply (3,500 apartments per year) and demand (apparently 50,000 apartments) as a key reason for price increase and believe that with return of larger construction companies prices should drop. I would not hold my breath for that - good example how far market can go is Zagreb. Croatia has much higher per capita GDP (USD 8,000 vs. USD 3,200 for Serbia) but salaries in Serbia are increasing on much faster pace than GDP. It is also a question of market segmentation, exclusive property in Belgrade can be more expensive than equivalent in Auckland, NZ.

    Serbian parliamentary elections are due to start in few hours. Politics is a source of great frustration (for a reason) for anyone from these parts. Focus of these elections was more on economy and issues that affect everyday life than on politics of people of heaven (see Lazar of Serbia: Aftermath and Myth). After reading Serbian newspapers and websites I struggled to go to sleep for hours. It looks like Serbia is moving away from abyss but you can still get vertigo if you dare to look over the edge.

    I'm not looking forward to prospect of going to winter. This winter in Europe looks particularly mild which takes away excuse that we could catch up with some winter sports activities.