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As a sophomore, I was thinking about spending a semester “abroad” in LA, but my employer at the time and good friend Scott told me that this place wasn’t for me. He told me that it was dirty, overcrowded, superficial, drained your energy, and invariably enticed you to dye your hair blond and fill your lips with collagen. I ended up studying abroad in London instead, but I always remained curious about this strange place called Los Angeles.

Olvera Street is the oldest part of LA and testifies of the city’s Hispanic heritage

Scott was right. The City of Angels is one of those places in the US that I very much enjoy visiting but where I don’t see myself staying. Like New York, LA offers more than you could take in just a few days:

The Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard is as crowded and touristy as Times Square. Rodeo Drive is as jaw-dropping glamorous as Fifth Avenue. The Walt Disney Concert Hall is as impressive as the Guggenheim. Beverly Hills, with its multi-million dollar houses and palm-lined boulevards, is exactly what you see on TV.

The Mexican marketplace at Olvera Street offers souvenirs and sweets

When I imagined LA, I used to think about the movie industry, the music industry, the fashion industry, and the luxurious houses of America’s highlife. I used to think of starving artists struggling to make their breakthrough and rich businessmen living a thrilling life. But in fact, there is a whole other LA that I saw. I saw what seemed to be two distinct cities: an American and a Mexican city.

To my surprise, Los Angeles carries very old Hispanic heritage. It’s history began with the establishment of a Spanish mission in 1782 – El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora Reina de los Ángeles. From 1821 to 1848, the town was under Mexican rule. The influx of English and continental Europeans came in the 1880s and to a great extent changed the face of the city. More recently since the 1920s, the immigration of Mexicans and other Hispanics to the States has been steadily increasing, and data shows that LA receives the most such immigrants out of any city in the West. Therefore, LA is being increasingly influenced by the Latino culture anew.

Pico House is the oldest hotel in LA, constructed by the last governor of Alta California, Pío Pico in 1870

It was very interesting to see the old part of LA: El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument, only a short walk from Downtown.  My friend Irinka and I visited Olvera Street, which is painfully cheesy but still cute with its colorful souvenir shops and stands with mouth-watering sweets. We saw the oldest house in LA, Avila Adobe, and the city’s first grand hotel, Pico House.

Built in 1818, the historic house museum Avila Adobe is the oldest residence in LA

Later, though, we had an even more authentic contemporary experience.  We took a 50 minute trip by public transport from Downtown LA to Citadel Outlets in East LA. Now this was very different from the city we had seen earlier: many of the signs were in Spanish; the cafes offered Mexican food; many of the girls were dressed as latino divas. East LA clearly carried a Hispanic vibe.

We didn’t have much time to explore that part of town because it was getting late and dark, but I wish someone had told me that East and West LA are so different – I would have probably spent less time in Hollywood!


After having shown Oriana Bulgaria’s nature and ethnography, I had to give her a lesson in history too.

Russian church at Shipka

From Plovdiv, we headed north towards the Balkan mountain range and the Shipka Pass. We stopped at the town of Shipka in the foothills of the mountain to pay a visit to church dedicated to the Bulgarian-Russian military friendship during the war against the Ottoman Empire.

I explained to Oriana that for about 500 years, from the 14th to the 19th century, Bulgaria and the entire Balkans were part of the Ottoman Empire. Under their yoke, our culture, language and religion were heavily suppressed; nevertheless, we did not lose our identity as a distinct people. After a series of riots and with the great help of our “Slavic brothers”, the Russians, we eventually won the liberation war, which lead to the intervention of the Great European Powers and the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Shipka Memorial

Today, the memorial on Shipka peak reminds us of great battles. In 1877-78, the Russo-Turkish War, this was the main pass through the Balkan Mountain Range: the north of Bulgaria was the stronghold for the advancing Russian army, while the south was still occupied by Ottomans. Thus, it was up to the Bulgarian volunteer troops to guard the Shipka pass from the Turkish hordes until the arrival of the Russians. The poet Ivan Vazov eulogized the key battle: when the ammunition ended, the brave Bulgarian soldiers started throwing every empty gun, knife, and stone at the Turks at the foot of the peak, and when even those weapons ended, the Bulgarians lifted up the dead bodies of their fellows and threw them at the enemy.

On the way to Veliko Turnovo, we stopped to take pictures by a sunflower field. We visited Etar, an ethnographic and cultural town-museum, and Bozhentzi, a village with historical significance, which in recent years has become a place of escape for many public figures.

Sunflower fields near Shipka

Oriana was interested to know more about communism, so I told her what I tell all Americans who ask me about it: it’s nothing like what you studied in school.

Back in those days, people felt more secure: my grandmother says she always had enough food for the family, a secure job, enough time for vacation and opportunity to send her children to summer camps and trips. Yes, they didn’t listen to Western music and didn’t wear jeans, but that’s not as important, is it?

Veliko Turnovo over Yantra river

My mother and her friend started recalling stories from their teenager years, like the time when they had to hide from their parents and sneak into the basement at night to listen to the forbidden radio stations from Western Europe. Lidia remembered when as a schoolgirl, her headmaster penalized her because she was wearing long socks and had teased her hair: an indecent, Western manner.  Years later, my mom had to save money for several months to be able to buy a Beatles vinyl record.

We arrived at Veliko Turnovo in the afternoon. Veliko Turnovo is the old capital of Kingdom Bulgaria and bears the signature of the Asenevtzi dynasty, who liberated the country from Byzantine influence in the 12thcentury. One of their greatest feat of arms is that they stopped the advancement of the Fourth Crusade, which was presumably sent by the Church to protect Constantinople, but in fact looted our lands and conquered the Byzantine throne in Constantinople. The Bulgarian tzar Kaloyan captured the crusader and new emperor of Constantinople, Baldwin, and locked him up in a tower near the Tzarevetz fortress in Veliko Turnovo.

The Asenevtzi Dynasty

Oriana was particularly impressed by the unique museum-church surrounded by fortress walls at the top of the Tzarevetz hill. We were also hoping to watch the audio-visual night show at Tzarevetz, but alas, they didn’t have it that day. Oh well, Oriana needs a reason to come back, right!


King Simeon's Saragyol Palace in Rila Mountain, a wooden royal residence used as a hunting lodge.

Borovets is the biggest mountain resort in Bulgaria. Located at the foot of Musala peak in Rila, less than an hour away from the capital, the resort is a magnet both for the fans of extreme winter sports and those who seek the coolness of the mountain in the summer.  In addition to the excellent ski-slopes, the resort offers horse-back riding, mountain biking, golf, hiking trails, and some interesting opportunities for sightseeing. To me, the “palaces” of Borovets are a telltale of the Bulgarian entrepreneurial thinking and practices.

The King’s Hunting Lodge

Borovets is the oldest mountain resort in Bulgaria. It used to be the haven of relaxation for the noble and the rich. In 1914, the Bulgarian king Ferdinand I built his summer hunting lodge here.  In 1946, the monarchy became a republic after a referendum conducted under Soviet pressure. The royal family was banished and the lodge was nationalized.

In 2001, the former king Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who was only nine years old at the time of the flight, returned to Bulgaria, won the parliamentary elections to become the prime-minister, and regained his rights over the property his family owned before 1946. This restitution was very controversial because it wasn’t completely clear what belonged to Ferdinand’s heirs, what belonged to the state, and what belonged to the institution that mediated between the two. The public debate continued when it became clear that absurdly, the Bulgarian government had by mistake (!) returned to Simeon more property than what he had originally claimed. The value of this property is somewhere about 160 million euro and includes 2100 hectares of forests around Borovets and parts of Rila’s highest peak.

The 5-Star Palaces

This five-star hotel in Borovets was notorious fame

Today, there are several “palaces” in Borovets. The resort, as too many other Bulgarian resorts, has been overbuilt with huge hotels that might be completely full during the winter season, but remain empty during most of the year. Such hotels are the projects of megalomaniacs with a distorted vision for the development of the resort.

The problem is that Borovets is full of 5 and 4-star hotels, yet its infrastructure is horrible: roads are bad, the sidewalks and sweeps of grass are untidy, weeds grow in the fountains, there is not enough street lights or maps with directions. Some of the closed-down restaurants (seasonally or permanently) look scary and run-down, and one simply doesn’t feel secure walking by them. Apparently our businessmen invest in luxurious hotels forgetting that tourists will have to leave their premises at some point and will encounter surroundings that do not live up to their expectations.

The financial crisis is probably partially responsible for the many abandoned hotel construction sites and empty apartment buildings that lack tenants and buyers. On the other hand, such unfinished projects invariably suggest shady affairs. One such popular case is a palace-like hotel built by one notorious mafia boss who was later shot dead abroad. While the police was investigating the origin of the mobster’s fortune, his wife sold the hotel and thus legalized the profit from the sale.

This problems and controversies around the resort are a pity because the nature surrounding Borovets is truly awe-inspiring.

Only one of the many lifts in Borovets

Borovets, Rila Mountain

***

Did you see my photos from the Seven Rila Lakes?


Interesting facts you will learn from this video:

  • Sofia (at that time called Serdika) is 1700 years older than Brussels.
  • Emperor Constantine the Great was considering Sofia for the capital of the Byzantine Empire, but eventually chose Constantinople. He said “Serdika is my Rome”.
  • The oldest functioning church in Europe is St. George’s Rotunda (326 AD). It is right next to the Bulgarian presidency.
  • In the 4th century, Serdika was the spiritual capital of the Christian world.
  • The Boyana Church frescoes are considered to be the portents of the European Renaissance.
  • At the age of 28, the Bulgarian architect Petko Momchilov won a competition against Gustave Eiffel.
  • The Square of Tolerance is a unique place in Sofia: within less than 300 meters, you can see temples from the world’s four major religions: a mosque, a synagogue, a Catholic cathedral, and an orthodox church.
  • More steel was used for the construction of the National Palace of Culture than for the Eiffel Tower. The building was erected for the commemoration of 1300 anniversary of the founding of the Bulgarian state.
  • Sofia’s motto is “Grows But Does Not Age.”

I just came back from the best ski resort on the Balkans, Bansko! Bansko is a charming town in the north-east part of the Pirin mountain, situated at the foot of peak Vihren (2914m). The town’s unique architecture, combined with the new hotels, the entertainment establishments, and the modern ski and snowboard facilities, makes Bansko a favorite winter destination for foreign and Bulgarian tourists.

In total, the ski slopes in Bansko are 70 km long, and with the help of my ski instructor, I’m proud to say, I conquered almost 10 of them! Not only did this patient, dedicated person teach me how to fall, stop, and turn (in this order), but he also introduced me to a key skiing concept: après-ski.

Après-ski refers to the socializing, eating, drinking, dancing, and general merrymaking after skiing. I don’t know how they do it in the Alps, but in Bulgaria, après-ski takes place in a mehana: a tavern-like restaurant with a huge wine selection, a grill, and often times, with live folk music. And what better way to celebrate the joy of the beloved winter sport than with good friends, hot mulled red wine, and a traditional Bulgarian meal! Here are several of my favorites:

Let's begin with the quintessential Bulgarian dish, Shopska Salad: fresh cucumbers, tomatoes, and onion, roasted red peppers, lots of sirene (white feta cheese), parsley, and a kalamata olive.

Continue with warm agneshka chorba (lamb soup). Notice the clay bowl and the table cloth with folk motifs.

A sach is a hot clay plate. The Banski sach meal can contain a mix of different meats and vegetables. This one has two types of sausage, aubergines, zucchini, tomatoes, carrots, onion, peppers and mushrooms.

There should always be meze on the table to go with the hot mulled red wine from the Melnik region. Here you see sirene (white cheese) and two types of lukanka, one of which is the famous Banski staretz ("old man from Bansko".. I hope it's not what it sounds..). After all this food, you don't need any dessert!

What else happened in Bansko?

This town is famous not only for the great mountain resort, but also for its rich history and culture. Here, on August 21st 1901, the Bulgarian revolutionary Yane Sandanski kidnapped the American missionary Elen Maria Stone and held her for six months until the attention of the whole Western world fell not only on the kidnapping but also on the fate of the entire Balkan peoples after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Read my previous post to learn more about the international crisis known as the Miss Stone Affair.


Today, September 17, Eastern Orthodox Christians commemorate the day of the martyr Sophia and her three daughters Faith, Hope, and Love (in Greek, Pistis, Elpis, and Agape; in Bulgarian, Vyara, Nadezhda, and Lyubov).

Sophia was a pious woman who lived in Rome under Emperor Adrian (Hadrian), in the first century AD. She had named her daughters after the main Christian virtues, faith, hope, and love.

When Emperor Adrian found out that the family openly observed Christianity, he ordered them to offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods. When they refused, the emperor ordered that the young girls, age 12, 10, and 9, be tortured until they rejected Christ.  The girls were killed in the name of their religion and became martyrs. After Sophia buried them, she prayed for three days by their graves and finally died herself, believing she would join them in Heaven.

In our culture, this day is the “name day” of those who bear the names Sofia, Vyara, Nadezhda, or Lyubov, and they receive guests at home.  All Bulgarians celebrate, so that their families are healthy, happy, and filled with love.

Today, we also celebrate the holiday of our capital, Sofia. We have chosen this day to honor our city, although Sofia was not named after the martyr Sophia. In fact, the name of our capital signifies Wisdom. In Greek, Aghia Sophia means the Divine Wisdom of God.

So today, I want to tell my mother, Lyubka, that to me, she signifies All the Love in the World.

Честит празник, мамо!


Today is a national holiday celebrating the Unification of Bulgaria. On September 6th, The Principality of Bulgaria (Княжество България) and Eastern Rumelia (Източна Румелия) were unified into а common state.

The Congress of Berlin in 1878 put an end on the Russo-Turkish War and resurrected Bulgaria after almost 500 years of Ottoman yoke. It divided Bulgaria into an independent state, the Principality of Bulgaria, stretching from the Balkan mountain range to the Danube, and an autonomous state within the Ottoman Empire, Eastern Rumelia, an area between Rila, Rhodopi and the Balkan. The third part of Bulgaria, the region Macedonia, remained entirely in the Ottoman Empire. The reason for this separation was that Great Britain and Austria-Hungary feared restoring Bulgaria to its previous huge territories and providing its new ally, Russia, with too much influence.

In bright orange: Principality of Bulgaria; in light orange: Eastern Rumelia

Naturally, the Bulgarians were not happy with the new arrangement. Their strive for unity after the decay of the Ottoman Empire became part of the Eastern Question.

In 1880, the  Bulgarian Secret Central Revolutionary Committee was created, and its main task was to unify the Principality and Eastern Rumelia at first and then to aid the unification with Macedonia. BSCRC’s leader was Zahari Stoyanov. The Bulgarian Kniyaz (prince) Alexander I Battenberg himself was patron of the movement.

September of 1885 was marked with riots in Eastern Rumelia, the most famous of which is the riot in Panagyurishte. On September 6, Rumelia’s militia itself took over the governor’s office in Plovdiv. The governor, being a Bulgarian patriot appointed by the Ottomans, did not resist and surrendered Eastern Rumelia to its Bulgarian brothers. Kniyaz Alexander I signed the unification.

The followed diplomatic pressure from England and Russia, both of which expected the short-lived nature of the separated Bulgarian state, prevented the Ottoman Empire from sending troops to Eastern Rumelia. The Unification was a fact. But this was only the beginning of the Macedonian Question.


Did you know that the face of Europe would have been very different today if it hadn’t been for the Bulgarian khan Tervel who saved the Christian world from Arab invasion?

By the early 700s, the Arabs had conquered most of the Middle East, Mecca and Medina, Jerusalem, Syria, Damascus, Persia, Cyprus, Egypt, Cartagena, Spain, and Lisbon. By 716, they besieged Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, both by land and by sea. Europe had never seen such difficult times. It was about to be crushed by two Muslim fists, one from the West and one from the East.

Bulgar Khan Tervel accepts gifts of gold and silver from Byzantine Emperor Justinian

Constantinople was barely holding after three years under siege until a miracle happened. On August 15th, 718, the Bulgar Khan Tervel took the  Arabs by surprise. The Bulgar army annihilated the invaders, who didn’t return to the Balkans for at least a few centuries. Thus, the Bulgar khan became not only the savior of the Byzantine Empire, which in fact had always been its greatest enemy, but the savior of the entire European Christian civilization.

What would’ve happened if khan Tervel had not stopped the Arabs at Constantinople’s gates? Some historians think that the European society, and therefore most of the world as we know it today, would have been heavily influenced by the Islamic culture. Khan Tervel was called “Savior of Europe” and canonized as a saint by his contemporaries (although Bulgarians became Christian under King Boris a hundred years later).

Why have these historical facts, which were once known to all Europeans, been slowly disappearing from history textbooks? I don’t know, but I recently heard the theory that when Bulgaria joined the Communist bloc, Western Europe turned its back to her in many aspects, and this resulted in the omission of important historical truths.

Many believe than the Madara Rider was carved into the rock in honor of khan Tervel (read my previous post).


Less than an hour from the capital Sofia, near the village of Skravena at the foot of Stara Planina, or the Balkan Mountain Range, I discoverd the marvelous “Zdravetz” horse riding-school. The owner and horse trainer, Zdravko, believes that nothing relieves the stress and charges us better than a “journey in time on the back of a horse”.

There are no laptops or cell phones in Zdravko’s home. There’s only the mountain, the horses, the tents, and the good friends.

Zdravko’s front yard is in fact an open-air horse school. His guests can put up tents near the horse rink. There is also bar with a grill and a pool table for the tired cowboys. I didn’t take a dip in the swimming pool because it’s for the kids from “Zdravetz” children’s summer camps, but I did take an arching lesson with Zdravko’s son. We used an old Bulgarian recurve bow with rabbit fur decorations on the sides. Such a bow is very suitable for horseback rider hunting in the forest and was used by the Proto-Bulgarian Bulgar nomadic tribes (see pictures of the Bulgar warriors).

Zdarvko’s twelve horses roam free in the field and the wood behind his house. In the distance, there is an old church and just under it, the remnants of another, ancient church where archaeological excavations are soon to begin. We climbed a little bit further up and saw the breathtaking view of the valley’s fifteen villages. On the sides of every mountain passages, there were ruins from old Thracian and Roman watchtowers that used to guard the road passing through the valley.

This time when I went there, Zdravko showed me how to balance on the horse, amble, and trot. He promised me that in only a few more lessons, he and his friends will take me on a ride up the mountain trails. On a horse in Stara Planina, he said, you will  remember your true Bulgar past.


The Bulgarian alphabet is a Cyrillic alphabet and, since Bulgaria’s accession to the EU in 2007, the third official alphabet in the European Union. You can find Cyrillic letters on the euro bills side by side with the Latin and the Greek letters.

Cyril and Methodius holding a scroll with the Bulgarian alphabet. A mural by the Bulgarian icon-painter Zahari Zograf

Most Slavic nations use the Cyrillic alphabet: Belarusian, Bulgarian, Russian, Serb, Macedonian, Montenegrin, and Ukrainian. Some non-Slavic nations also use it: Moldovan, Kazakh, Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Mongolian, the people of the Caucasus and Siberia. It is also the official alphabet of the Church Slavonic language of the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Church.

The Cyrillic alphabet is a simplified version of the Glagolitic alphabet. The Glagolitic alphabet was created under the orders of the Byzantine Empire and the Byzantine Church to be spread among the Slavic peoples, as an antidote to the Latin alphabet and the influence of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Glagolitic alphabet was created by the scholars Saints Cyril and Methodius, brothers born in Thessaloniki. In the 890s, after a few years of persecution from the Germanic clergy and the Pope, the brothers’ disciples found asylum in Bulgaria. They created the Cyrillic alphabet in order to aid their new patron, tzar Boris I, in spreading Christianity among his people. Read more about Boris I, the ruler who Christianized Bulgaria and enlarged it greatly.

Cyrillic script

The literary school of the Bulgarian Empire was very prolific. Volumes and volumes in Old Bulgarian language using the Cyrillic letters were spread across Eastern Europe, thus spreading literacy and knowledge among the Slavic nations.  Today, the Church Slavonic resembles Old Bulgarian, but the Cyrillic alphabet used in different countries has adapted to fit the needs of the ever-changing local spoken languages.

We Bulgarians believe that our language and the Cyrillic alphabet are at least in part our legacy to the world (I have to say in part in order to avoid criticism from overly patriotic Bulgarians as well as criticism from opponents of the historical evidence).

On May 24th, we celebrate the Slavic alphabet!


Yane Sandanski was born in 1872 in Vlahi, near Melnik, Bulgaria

 

What the world today calls the “Miss Stone Affair” is an exceptional story of national duty, revolutionary ideologies, bandit means, international crisis, great manhood, and sturdy womanhood.   

Miss Ellen Maria Stone was an American Protestant missionary from Roxbury, Massachusetts who arrived in Bulgaria in 1878. This was in the time immediately after the Russo-Turkish wars when Bulgarian gained back its independence from the Ottoman Empire after five hundred years of yoke. Still, the Treaty of Berlin of July 1878, did not grant full independence to all regions of Bulgaria, which gives rise to a new movement for the autonomy of the Bulgarian regions Macedonia and Odrin from the Turkish rule.   

In 1901, the revolutionary organization IMORO (Internal Macedonia-Odrin Revolutionary Organization) was suffering from utter lack of money, so its leaders resorted to kidnappings for ransom of rich persons as a means to earn money for the cause.   

On August 21st, after a three day ambush, Bulgarian revolutionary leader voivoda Yane Sandanski, together with Hristo Chernopeev and Krustio Asenov and their cheta (revolutionary group) kidnapped Ms. Stone on the way from Bansko to Gorna Djumaya, Blagoevgrad region. The men took Katerina Stefanova, Tsilka, as a maid for the 55-year old American missionary, and later found out that she was pregnant in the fifth month. The abductors demanded 25,000 golden Turkish lira (about 110,000 USD) and held the women for six months until they received the ransom.   

His troops come in support of the Bulgarian army officers

 

Now don’t be scared. Both women were in good hands. Yane Sandanski was not only a fervent patriot and a fierce opponent of his repressive ottoman enemies, but he was a man of his word and a charismatic, noble leader. Born in Vlahi, a village near Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria, Yane Sandanski believed that the Bulgarians in the region of Macedonia should riot against the Empire and should found an autonomous state in a greater Balkan Federation. Today, he is a common hero for both Bulgarians from Bulgaria and Macedonians from the Republic of Macedonia. One of the most beautiful cities in Southern Bulgaria is named after him.   

Yane Sandanski ‘s cheta took great care of the two women (Ms. Stone spoke Bulgarian) and kept them safe in Vlahi. According to memoirs, Sandanski did not let “a hair fall from their head” and even organized a feast for Ms. Stone for one of her American holidays, Thanksgiving.  Some sources say that Ms. Stone developed a Stockholm syndrome: she fell in love with her abductors and their noble cause.   

Meanwhile, the affair became an international crisis situation. The States were reluctant to negotiate with the outlaw organization or with the Bulgarian diplomacy. The protestant lobbyists were pressing the US Senate. The American public had to raise the ransom money from donations, and the press became very interested in the incident with the American and her pregnant maid. The world’s attention fell on the strained Macedonian-Turkish relations and the unhappy fate of the Balkan peoples after the Treaty of Berlin.   

In February 1902, the ransom was finally paid and the women (with the baby, which was successfully delivered) were set free. Upon her return in Massachusetts, Ms. Stone held numerous lectures on the Macedonian issue and called the public to action in aid of the revolutionary movement. In her memoirs, she calls Yane Sandanski “the good man.” Both I and Ms. Stone consider him by no means a bandit, but a hero, because we understand his righteous motives.   

He was killed in 1915. His famous thought were engraved on his tomb: "To live means to struggle: the slave for freedom, and the free man for perfection"

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