Alex Grech's blog

Monday, December 31, 2007


1. What is it about New Year's Eve, that makes you stop and take stock and wait for something to happen and then realise that it isn't going to, unless you really go out of your way and rock the boat and do something dangerous, impulsive. Or downright calculated.

2. I've written 10 new year resolutions. Some are scary. I read somewhere you should print and tape them to your desk so you cannot run away from them. I'll store mine on my laptop.

3. What am I scared of? Phone calls in the night. The inevitable.

4. I love being a father. My son is still at an age where he asks me questions and waits for an answer. He is already a better dancer and wordsmith than I can ever be.

5. If I find a cartoonist, I will finally get the story we've called 'Oink the Pig' actually written. Instead of just woven in our heads, in laughter, on the way to school, each morning.

6. How to learn from mistakes, grow a skin, move forward without listening to all the voices clamouring for attention.

7. How to move forward. Period.

8. If you have words, you can wriggle out of trouble as much as you can land yourself in it.

9. You do not have to be next to me for me to think the world of you.

10. Count your blessings. We're still standing. Here comes the new year.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Digging into Facebook

There are nearly 14,000 Maltese who have a Facebook account. Five weeks ago, when I started thinking about this snippet, there were 8,000.

Facebook is the Internet site of 2007. In October, Microsoft spent $240 million for a 1.6% equity stake, valuing the company at a whopping $15 billion. With 34.5 billion page views in September, according to comScore Media Metrix, Facebook is now www.strategywothe fourth most highly trafficked Web property worldwide. Together, with the iPhone, Facebook was the Internet story of the year.

What nobody can say for sure is whether Facebook will be as popular in 2008. Such is the fickle nature of social networking sites that the next big thing may be round the corner: Google recently announced its Open Social network.

I wanted to understand why the Maltese are taking to Facebook in their droves, when they can pick a phone and meet a mate in 30 minutes for a drink and a chat. And why people keep sharing the most mundane and (sometimes) intimate details of their lives with online ‘friends’.

So I asked six questions to 13 friends within my Facebook network. I spread the mix, to make sure there was nothing much in common (except that I knew them all). 12 Maltese, 1 Canadian in Gozo, from all walks of life: sales & marketing executives to businessmen, students, a technologist and a published poet. This is some of the chatter that came back:

Joining Facebook tends to be a collective of peer pressure, curiosity, professional obligation and boredom. Facebook helps people rediscover old friends and keep tabs on those living overseas. Or those anywhere else with an Internet connection and time on their hands.

Facebook is an addiction, a guilt trip, a time-waster, a laugh, a glorified Hi5 for adults. We find ourselves trapped in our need to communicate: we check our email continuously; we get mad if we forget our mobile; and, now, there’s Facebook. Many use it like SMS or Twitter, with fingers rattling on a keyboard to keep up with hundreds of ‘friends’ from all walks of life. It's an incredibly powerful virus which motivates people to infect their friends and colleagues.

Voyeurism and narcissism appear to be key drivers. Girls inevitably change their profile picture on a more regular basis than the boys. We are an ego-centric, nosey nation, and now have a licence to pry quietly into other people’s lives and what makes them tick. Exhibitionism is a major characteristic of contemporary life. Except that on Facebook, you're only exposing yourself to the people you choose, as opposed to the entire web.

You can also lose yourself in your kind of crowd. Join’ Michael Mifsud for President’ (869 members and growing). Or groups managed by restaurateurs, rock bands, politicians, journalists, socialites and lonely hearts. Throw a virtual sheep, send a zombie kiss, order an electronic ice cream or play Scrabulous with your grandmother.

Concerns about privacy are growing. Employers use Facebook to search and measure up current and prospective employees. Some may already be paying the price in terms of lost employee productivity without knowing it. And others have been quick to see the branding opportunities. Paraphrasing Shakespeare… all the world’s a stage, so potentially anyone and everyone is your audience. Act with caution.

Not everyone is convinced that all is what it seems to be. Who’s a friend? Are friends counted in numbers or shoulders to cry on? Are the ‘friends’ on your list simply contacts, or merely trophies? This is one facet of the internet: trying to personalise, even embody, contacts that could well be anonymous. Facebook can also stand for currently bored, lustful, socially unfulfilled or generally avoiding real life.

Yet surely there’s no easier device around to help you organise a party, share your videos and pictures, market your talents, illustrate your life, let people know your every mood swing. I found out about the lovely Café Brasil concert at MITP because ‘Indri Mangu’ set up a Facebook Group for the occasion. New friends to Facebook are regularly greeted by older ones with the rousing ‘what took you so long to get here?’ There must be a reason for being here, surely?

The Facebook backlash has started. Credit information group Equifax said members of sites such as MySpace, Bebo and Facebook may be putting too many details about themselves online, and putting themselves at risk of identity fraud. Fraudsters could use these details to steal someone's identity and apply for credits and benefits. About 80,000 people in the UK were victims of identity theft last year, at a cost to the economy of £1.5bn. Facebook’s own new Beacon Advertising Service added to concerns about privacy issues. On 6th December, Mark Zuckenger, the Facebook founder ate humble pie and apologised for the way Beacon had been launched. People simply don’t want their personal data used for commercial purposes without their permission – even if the company using it is as familiar a travelling companion as Facebook.

Despite its success, nobody is quite sure if Facebook is here to stay. While many profess an inability to live without it, the same people think that like all technologies, Facebook will eventually be surpassed. It's the latest in a long line of social networks, starting from Friendster and, most recently, MySpace. Like all trends, the 'cool kids' will move on to the next big thing, and the masses will follow. Such is the fickle, transient nature that something deemed indispensible this year may well be old hat next. Just like the bar that was impossible to get into last summer and is not quite in vogue this year.

It’s as if our life cycles just got accelerated.

Maybe Facebook is just another indicator that being Maltese simply means being part of a global goldfish bowl. We use social networks like everyone else does. We will always run in herds to the next best thing, a time-poor, utility generation. Or maybe we’ve run to Facebook because the ‘cosy’ Maltese parochial life is long gone, as we spend more time in front of laptops, speak to fewer people in the flesh, pry over their shoulder online and gauge our social life success in terms of numbers of online friends. We long to feel connected in an age when one inevitably feels disconnected. There is a lot of talk, but much of it is mundane, and not of all of it may be true. We may be creating virtual online selves to make up for other things that we find lacking in our real lives.

Or maybe, we’re just smart, on the ball, and live full lives. Like millions of others, we are now connected, but on our own terms. The new glue for our social networks is online conversations. We’ve just become as good as anyone else in making our voice heard, assuming someone is really listening.

I suspect this conversation will keep going for a while longer.

More Facebook conversations here.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Saudade do Rio

It's been a while, since I posted anything here. Blame it on life, living, and a growing sense of what Talking Heads used to growl about. Say something once.. why say it again?

I was dragged out of hibernation by Lily, who edits Manic, a magazine for the Independent. This piece appeared there a week ago. It gave me an opportunity to get out of my current skin. And be in a place I am now linked to, that I need to go visit, again. Because it is a place that serves as a mirror to the canvas of my life.

When the rains come, I long to escape. A year ago, I succumbed to a growing sense that time was running out for doing things on impulse - and escaped to Rio for the year end.

Rio. The word alone triggers a chain of postcard clichés. That Duran Duran video. Jesus on Corcovado with his arms sweeping over Sugar Loaf mountain. Carnaval. The land of samba, the tanga, verde e amarelo, beautiful football, beautiful people and all night parties. Then the other Rio... the dark underbelly of violent crime, drug culture, corrupt police, Central Station and City of God.

Everything about Rio is a contradiction
. It’s all black or white. You will either love it or run away fast, murmured the Sicilian seated next to me, as the Varig flight touched down at Tom Jobim Airport. He was in Rio for his 15th visit.

Rio is a full frontal assault to the senses. You wake up suddenly to the sound of bird song or a street vendor selling water melons. You leave an Alexander Calder exhibition downtown, walk round one block and find a cow tied to some railings. Everything is cheek by jowl. The ocean and the sand and the great curves of the beaches with the elegant high-rise hotels and apartments. And glued, on the hills, at the edge of the forest, in full view of the privileged, is the scar of the favelas.

You have to quickly get into the swing of things
. Especially, if like me, you only have 14 days to burn. I was told to leave my watch and credit card at home and to dress ‘poor’. We’re lucky – we tan quickly and blend in.

But we’re not Cariocas. To understand them, you have to first understand something about their music. And then, start tuning to the rhythm of their conversations. And finally, you will notice the way they hold themselves, the way they walk. And how they dance.

Music is ageless. I watched the legendary Caetano Veloso play under a yellow moon in a cauldron called the Circo Voador. At times he was pure nectar, sometimes his backing band made Nine Inch Nails seem tame. At Trapiche Gamboa, kids aged 15 to 70 sang and danced the night away to the uplifting samba of Galo Canto’ and several litres of Chopp. The next morning, Alexandre, dentist cum samba connoisseur, turned up with a boxful of CDs because I’d said I really wanted to get into mu’sica brasileira.

Rhythm is everywhere. Someone is always tapping away on a table, waiting for a coffee, humming a tune. Women have hips, and use them to killer effect during a samba. In Laranjeiras, every Saturday afternoon, musicians meet up in the little square and play for hours, in return for a drink, or two.

Sometimes, things get weird. An impromptu trip to an exhibition of graffiti art led us past the market and the saffron shops and men in string vests and the black mamacita smoking a big joint in an alley. That was when I realised the exhibition venue was the Hotel Nicacio, and that ‘Sex Art’ was a project by local artists to paint the walls of a thriving brothel.

You need to watch your back. Car journeys are planned to reduce the number of potential red light stops, and the risk of car-jackings. One Sunday, en route to the amazing La Plancha, a kid not older than 7 ran in front of our car as we cruised to a red light stop in broad daylight. He took one look at us and raised his t-shirt over his head for a second. Then he juggled three red balls high above his head. Leo lowered the window a hairline crack and handed two reais to the kid, who flashed a white grin and scampered to the side as the lights turned green. “What was that all about?” I said. “That’s to show us he didn’t have a gun,” said Brunno, as another Tom Jobim number purred. It was only later that Leo told me his mother’s Toyota was bullet-proof.

Eating and drinking is great value. Think fruit, juice, fish, rice and beans, finger food, real Brazilian coffee. Nothing quenches your thirst quite like agua de coco. Or a Guarana’. Or a cachaca. Or a chopp.

Rio is a beautiful, colourful mess, with Cariocas as its glue. Skimpy lycra bikins and havaianas jostle for space with nail parlours and cosmetic surgeons. Hedonism is institutionalised - on every beach, on every paved sidewalk. From Copacabana to Ipanema to Barra. On an apartment on the 21st floor, you look over Lagoa, and wonder if you are in a dream. Because even favelas twinkle in the dark.

Sometimes, when I am stuck in a jam, I close my eyes and succumb to a saudade for Rio. A longing for what is now gone, but which might return in a distant future.

Pencil in 2014, when the beautiful game goes to Brazil.

Go to Rio.

Before you lose the urge to do things on impulse.

My top 10 things to do in Rio

Before you get to Rio: befriend a local. Find someone on Facebook. That way you stay safe, don’t get hassled by street vendors and live like a carioca.

1. Get a snapshot with your own Personal Jesus at Corcovado. Pinch yourself when you do your slow 360 degrees.

2. Settle down for the evening at the Academia da Cachaça in Leblon. Try the cachaça with honey. And then the 30 other variants. Try the feijoada. Watch the laughter.

3. Go body watching on a beach. The best beaches are further away. The best bodies tend to stay central.

4. Cross the bridge to Niteroi. Feast your eyes on Niemeyer’s MAC, the most beautiful museum on the planet. Drive to the top of the mountain and face the city across the bay. Be brave, tag on to a hang-glider buddy and jump over the edge.

5. Watch the posers and rollerbladers at Avenida Atlantica on a Sunday. Follow up with a detox breakfast of juice and pancakes at Ipanema. Or head straight to Boteco Belmonte in Flamengo for pasteis and empadas.

6. Take the rattling trolley at Santa Teresa. Have lunch at Sobrenatural. Go back in the evening for some ice-cold Chopp at Bar do Gomez. Hug strangers.

7. Roam downtown. Buy saffron in the market. Find some peace in the Royal Portuguese Reading Cabinet. Peek into the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil. Sip tea in the elegant Colombo café.

8. Hire a car and in two hours you are in Buzios on the Costa do Sol. Stay at the Pousada dos Gravata’s in Geriba’. Open the door to your room, and you’re on a sandy beach.

9. Go and dance with the multitudes at Trapiche Gamboa. Watch a samba school rehearse. Do your funky chicken.

10. Spend your last night watching the sunset at Ipanema. Make a wish. Life is beautiful.