The Greeks drove me to it. Last night, under the cover of conference quietness, I sneaked into the Apollon hotel store room and stole a waiter uniform. I’m not proud of it, but I am proudly wearing it today one for simple reason – I want my own coffee and water, and I don’t want to have to wait 10 minutes for it to be served to me.
It’s amazing quite how much animosity a Greek waiter in a posh five-star hotel can portray with his eyes but I was at then end of a full blast when, already late for a workshop, I circumvented the sophisticated system of standing in a three-people-deep scrum waving empty coffee cups, by trying to reach around and fill up the cup myself. I thought that since he was pouring a water at the other end of his domain, he wouldn’t notice or care. Not to be.
Greek service continues to befaddle me. Getting the bill takes longer than cooking the food. And despite the express promises of the hosts that they would make quick grab-food like fruit and sandwiches available for busy delegates – you have no choice if you want food than to sit down to a restaurant meal.
It’s become treasured knowledge that the bar (and restaurant on the first floor) of the hotel opposite – the Amarilla – serves food fast. So yesterday a secretive stream of conference folk legged it across the road, braving the rain in order to be able to eat before they had to head back in to a meeting. It’s a serious problem: I literally did not eat anything from 8am to 8pm on Monday because I didn’t have an hour to spare during the day. On the Sunday, I didn’t eat lunch until 4pm.
I also know for a fact that a much commented-upon put-down by a panelist earlier this week was because they hadn’t eaten and felt cranky. After they had eaten, this person proceeded to apologise for the remark to anyone that asked why they had said it. I found out because I was planning to highlight the comment in an article. Having suffered the pangs of hunger the same day, I have self-censored myself.
You want a conspiracy theory? The club sandwiches in the main hotel bar area – the fastest food in the hotel with an average 20-minute service (minimum time with scoffing: 45 minutes) – cost 15 euros. Yes, 15 euros. And you can’t even grab it – it has to be held on a plate, speared with a toothpick in a desperately effort to hold it together. Take that pick out and you can add another five minutes.
Why the obsession with time? Because at any given time, there are three workshops going on and a main session. There is one gap for half-an-hour between 1pm and 1.30pm but apart from that it is straight through from 9.30am through to 7pm. Because there are four things going on, you are forced to make snap decisions – and then, having sat in one workshop for 15 minutes and realising you have probably chosen the dullest of the four, you then have to up and leave and try your luck elsewhere.
I can go on and on like this, typing away while words drip in my ears but it might be useful to do what every meeting needs to do: be punchy.
- People are talking and learning: particularly the developing countries. In *some* rooms, the relaxed atmosphere has allowed people to ask those stupid questions they are too afraid to ask but which 50 percent of the room secretly want to ask.
In the anti-spam session, an African ISP asked “so, how do I apply a spam blacklist?” Suddenly, out come the links, the presentations, the business cards – problem solved in five seconds. In other meetings, countries are asking questions about opening their networks, sorting out their basic Internet infrastructure, and the people that have been through the experience five or ten years ago can immediately explain the best way to do it, and so avoid all the pain they went through. The value of this is extraordinary.
It’s not just the developing countries that are learning – one grizzled Net veteran said he had no idea until the meeting what a poor job the Net community had done in communicating with others.
- Falacies flattened: People just haven’t been talking to one another. Alot of people from a lot of countries have widely inaccurate views about what others think and how the system of the Internet works. The Africans sometimes think the West are to blame for a lack of networks in their countries. In fact it is often because there is a massive shortage of qualified engineers in Africa. But after a bit of brushing up against one another, a business card is exchanged, and the details of a previously poorly attending training session in their country are handed over. The same is happening across the conference.
Even Valerie D’Costa – a highly respected government official from Singapore who no-one can claim is unaware of Internet issues – told us that she was taking back alot of ideas to her government about how to improve their approach to the Net. Ask to give an example of who she had learnt from, she was unequivocal: “Taiwan. They have a strong and active civil society that contributes to ICT. I hope we can emulate that.”
- Questions: Questions are often more powerful than answers. And the one thing the IGF is allowing is people to ask questions? Difficult questions, forgotten questions, thought-provoking questions. This is the first time that the tight-knit Internet community have been shoved into a wider Net world of people. The average Net user is still nowhere to be seen, but a lot of people that who do attend IETF meetings, ICANN meetings, RIPE meetings are here – and it has opened things up. There are also a lot of questions being asked.
The truth be known, the answers have not been as good. And that leads to the cons.
- Moderators: The main session is too much work for one moderator. There are too many people on the panel, there is too much information being fed to them from a variety of sources, and they have to do it for three hours straight. It’s just too much and the debates suffers because of it.
In the workgroups, the moderators are too weak. They do not have the journalistic edge required to move things along, extract information and move on. Put bluntly: they are too afraid of being rude, and too intellectual to cut off a stream of thought once the main point has been made. The result has been that many workshops, border on boring.
And the real indication: workshops have consistently run out of time before the audience has been able to interact. And that was the WHOLE POINT of the workshops – discussion and open debate. In too many cases, the workshops have been taken over by the experts on auto-pilot. And it is only the moderators that can fix that.
- Powerpoint sedatives: There should have been a ban on Powerpoint. Make no mistake – Powerpoint is evil. It encourages people to get out the old presentation (fresh in 2001), stick a new front page on it and give the self-same talk they’ve given to a dozen different meetings and then settle back. As soon as those slides appear, it is death to discussion and free, innovative thinking. One attendee sitting through Bob Kahn’s Handle presentation (I don’t mean to pick on just Bob Kahn – there are plenty of offenders), confessed that she had fallen asleep. It was early afternoon and she had had a full night’s sleep. This is not an approach that will solve the Internet’s problems.
- Top-heavy panels: Too many people on the panels means less dialogue, not more. It has also resulted several times in people that don’t know what they’re talking about being up on stage, sat next to an expert, who should have been given more time. The 16-people panels is a disaster and the IGF is a success *despite* them, not because of them.
Stephen Spielberg’s Duel in a Greek hotel room
I should mention here by the way that I have somehow ended up in a long-distance battle of wills with my hotel’s cleaner. It all started when I got back to my hotel room, on Saturday, and found that I didn’t have the two large towels (I only really need one, but that was one more than I had).
I went to reception and asked if I could have two towels. I should have known something was up when all he was interested in was the room number. No promise the deliver them but he made sure he had the right hotel room. The towels never showed. I dried with the small hand-towels and decided to let it go. But the next day, although the big towels were there – the bath mat had gone.
I had a strange sense at the time that there was something funny going on here, but I put it down to paranoia. Until the next night. The towels were there – all of them. Except when I went to dry myself after a shower in the morning, I discovered that the big towels are in fact hand towels, hanging to look like big towels. Now, what cleaner accidentally puts small towels on a rail that they have stick big towels on for months?
Still not convinced? At the same time I first mentioned that I didn’t have any large towels, I complained that I couldn’t open the glass doors to the balcony – I needed fresh air. The night before I had literally attacked the catch with a knife in a fruitless effort to get an the chair outside with a nice view of the hills in the cool night air. Couldn’t get it open.
The next night, I try again. Nothing. And I wasn’t pussy-footing about. I systematically tried every combination of locks and pulls and they all failed. Brute force nearly saw me put my hand through the glass. And then I noticed… the chairs and table on the balcony had been rearranged. They had been in the middle on the balcony, now they were pushed up against the left wall.
I’m not sure how to say this but: a psycho Greek cleaner is playing mind games with me! And believe me, after 12 hours in a conference centre talking about Internet governance, that is not a comforting prospect. God only knows what I will discover tonight. I am taking some protection.
Wired and wild
I got it! I finally got a wired connection up the front for the official blog watcher. It has taken three days, conversations with the organisers of the conference – both United Nations and Greek – a discussion with the hotel’s conference manager, three arguments with Greek technicians, two arguments with Greek TV (sitting on a far Ethernet exchange) but finally it was Patrick Foltstrom – the man from Cisco that rebuilt the hotel’s entire wireless network and so earned the respect of the Greek technicians who finally did it. I was told flat-out that there was no way I could get an Ethernet cable for the 10th time. I took the engineer to Patrick. “If there is one person in this room that needs to have access to the Internet it is the person who is watching the blogs online – he is this man.” I came back from lunch – and there it was. I have never been so happy to see a Cat5 in my life.