Salute to Shanaze Reade

August 22, 2008

If there is one Olympic athelete who embodies the spirit of absolute refusal to accept mediocrity or second-best, it is the British BMX racer, Shanaze Reade. Here is a video introduction to this great sportsperson:

BMX rider Shanaze Reade – Team GB – Beijing 2008

Shanaze unfortunately did not win the women’s BMX racing final, nor did she receive a medal. She was second place up until the last race; she risked everything to try and win gold. Unfortunately, this did not work out: she not only crashed, according to the BBC, she broke her hand in the process.

However, she is only 19, so it is entirely possible she will return for the London Olympic Games; I certainly hope she does. Her pursuit of excellence will surely be rewarded one day; her daring and courage should be saluted today.

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The Dash for Mediocrity

August 22, 2008

SalieriI am fairly glad that the end of the week is nigh, and that the following Monday is a holiday in the United Kingdom. It has been a depressing five days, and the in-built languor of summer’s end was heightened by a conversation I had with my boss on Wednesday.

Company confidences forbid me from revealing too much detail about what was said, but I believe I can relate the conversation’s overall flavour. As we talked, there was a Swedish word that kept springing to mind: lagom. Lagom means “adequate” or “sufficient”; it is a unique Swedish virtue insofar as it relates to personal ambitions and acquiring wealth. The idea is that a country ought to be rich, but that wealth should be spread sufficiently around to discourage envy and forbid injustice.

However, I got the sense that my boss had somehow flunked a Swedish class and come away with a twisted meaning of the term. It was as if he took it to mean “meritorious mediocrity”. It’s all right to be average, to be just adequate, to simply make do. Worse, it’s all right just to copy others; being original, in the bossland variant of lagom, is dangerous, because no one else is doing it.

My perspective is rather different: if everyone else is doing it, then what makes you better? What is there to encourage people to remain loyal to you? What is there to protect you when an innovator does come along? Not much, in my view.

I’ve been through this before; in a previous job, I worked for a travel firm. The managing director wanted nothing better than to copy the market leader as closely as possible. I had to put a stop to several redesigns of our website intended to achieve this, as the recasting was likely to violate copyright. The innovations that I wanted to achieve, for example, developing technology so that one could book “non-linear” holidays (i.e., arriving and departing from a different destination), were put on hold. We had to be lagom, be like the others, nothing more.

It would be comforting if this condition was merely confined to technology; however as I can see in my daily struggles as a budding author, it appears lagom is creeping into other sectors. Doing something that does not adhere to an existing template of success, makes trying to land either an agent or a publisher particularly difficult. A note for those who starting out their careers in writing: if you want to make life easier for yourselves, find a successful author, and write a piece that is an extrapolation, continuation or lies in parallel. We have seen a lot of fiction promoted as being “the next Harry Potter” or the “next Dan Brown”: I’ve seen an example of the latter that was so carefully orchestrated that even the book cover looks like it is yet another in Dan Brown’s series. I’ve also seen stands in Waterstones bookstores that were designed to promote new books by mentioning their “relationship” to the Potter books.

So what’s wrong with being lagom? It is no recipe for survival; the reason why speaking to my boss was depressing was precisely because I had seen the consequences. The travel company I worked for was sold off, and has been bumping along the bottom ever since: as I feared at the time, there was no reason for people to go to a copy when they can get the original. There is nothing to bind visitors to my present company’s offering, if we don’t do something which makes us special in their eyes. Publishers are finding, I believe, that pushing something as a copy of Harry Potter only goes so far; it rarely achieves the geyser-like rush of something fresh. Grasping for certainty in mediocrity is pushing the law of diminishing returns to its utmost.

The continuing struggle of becoming and remaining original requires a different discipline: it means that there has to be a tolerance for failure, the development of patience, and the maintenance of a constant flow of new ideas. Western societies are having a problem with this, in general: perhaps we have been conditioned to the uniform flows of mass produced goods, and thus conformity is susceptible to being confused with quality. However, the diversity that an anti-lagom strategy provides means that companies, publishers and writers have a chance to develop particular niches, upon which their long-term survival can be based.

For example, a lot of firms are tackling the problem of green energy. Each appears to hope that their solution will be the “big answer”; however, their products appear to be a series of little answers, and each will have their own niche and use in producing carbon-free energy. For example, it was reported in the Economist that one firm has found a way of using solar energy, in combination with cobalt and phosphorous, to create hydrogen. Will this work in cars? No; however it shows promise in providing energy for buildings. Another firm has developed a bacteria which can turn waste into a form of crude oil; will this provide the answer for producing petrol in the future? No, because the bacteria work too slowly; furthermore, carbon emissions from continuing to burn oil are undesirable. However, this may provide a substitute for petrolchemicals that will be required in the future. General Motors has been trying different types of batteries for vehicles; will this answer all transportation problems? No, but it may take care of certain types of driver, for example, people who live in cities or suburbs, and thus drive short distances. Each has a role to play, a piece in the puzzle, and each company providing a solution can profit by playing a specialised role.

Diversity, originality and excellence creates a world of solutions, rather than a planet full of copycats. Yes, there is the possibility of failure: not all of the energy solutions, for example, will be either economically or environmentally viable. But copying others creates the potential, if not the certainty, for being an even larger debacle. In the 1990’s Sun Microsystems decided that their strategy insofar as its Solaris operating system was concerned, was to maintain its proprietary nature; this strategy copied Microsoft Windows, which the CEO Scott McNealy felt was a recipe for success. This allowed Sun to charge ridiculous amounts of money for software and hardware at the start of the internet revolution; however, the Linux and FreeBSD projects pushed forward by being different. The fact that they were Open Source meant they could benefit from being mutated into specialised distributions. Solaris was left in the dust; it was only made Open Source very late in the day, too late, in fact, to be useful to Sun, which is now only a shadow of what it once was.

Trying to be original instead of lagom can be frustrating and soul-destroying; it is definitely swimming against the tide. But at least it has logic in its favour: it was not being lagom that created the solutions that so many are willing to copy. Rather, it was courage, originality and fortitude, and acceptance a certain element of risk.

Those who continue to dwell in the lands of mediocrity are courting disaster. Becoming irrelevant is a dreadful fate; I cannot help but think of the end of the film “Amadeus”, in which the aged, insane and terribly average composer Salieri proclaims himself the “patron saint of mediocrities”, and thereafter is wheeled around an insane asylum, blessing the dissolution and madness around him. Thank God for this forthcoming weekend, because at least there is an opportunity in one’s own time to avoid staring this fate in the face and time to gather myself up to fight it again when I get back to work.

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More Cold Call Absurdity

August 20, 2008

I decided to give myself a vacation from all the cold sales calls I’ve been receiving. The way I did it was simple, I forwarded all my calls to voicemail: the people I really want to hear from have my mobile number anyway.

Unintentionally, this has become a fascinating experiment in how far people will go in trying to push cold call sales. My email box has suddenly become stuffed with queries. Here’s the most recent example, with names changed to protect both the guilty and the innocent:

Hi (my name),

I thought (developer name) may be of interest to you. He is a strong C# developer with strong Web Services who lives in (my company’s town). I understand you having been looking recently for a developer with these skills. (developer name) is finishing for us at (company name) in (nearby location) and wants another contract in the local area. (developer name)has built various websites both for (famous company) as well asin his current role at (company name) and has enjoyed working in the sector. He is available at a daily rate of £400 per day inclusive of charges.

Would you like to speak to him in an initial telephone chat ?

(evil consultant name)

Note: I have not requested that the evil consultant actually look for anyone, nor do I have any vacancies available. The tone is also subtle in suggesting I somehow know her. As I don’t, I had no hestitation in replying:

Please take me off your email distribution list. Thank you in advance.

About five times out of ten, this is enough for the mails to stop. However, not in this instance. I got the following a few minutes later:

Hi (my name),

I’ve been actually trying to get hold of you for the last week. Your not on a general mailing list as I dont work using general mailers.
What number can I reach you on ?

Kind Regards,
(evil consultant name)

This caused my office colleagues to break out into a fit of hysterical laughter when I read it aloud.

That said, I did try to be measured in my response:

(evil consultant name) –

I have been deluged with phone calls from a variety of firms – emarketing, recruitment, etc – since a former director of this company unfortunately gave out my name and other details. I have, as such, instituted a strict policy of not taking any unsolicited correspondence from any firm. I would be most appreciative if you would respect this policy.

Thank you in advance.

Yours sincerely,

(my name)

There, I thought, that’s that. Unfortunately, no – this arrived a few minutes later:

Hi (my name),

I can appreciate alot of agencies know your name, (my company) have a history of taking on .NET contractors for at least the last four years and I really am in a position to help. One of my current contractors has been approached for a role, he is engaged for another six months at (famous company) on a C#.Net project. I have 56 contractors working currently working on sites such as (famous website #1), (famous website #2) and other related e-commerce business.

With my extensive background in placing .NET professionals over the last 4 years I have an unsurpassed database of people I know who can deliver on Projects. Crucially I know the differences between an AGILE, OO or Waterfall Project. Technically I know if a contractor has built a web services, is exclusively winforms or hasn’t done C#’.

I realise my initial way of contacting may not be to your liking, but I really think I can offer you a quick efficient service whereby you don’t have to spend your time sifting through cv’s and doing large number of interviews.

When would you be able to catch up for a quick call or a coffee.

Eagerly awaiting your response

(evil consultant name)

Now let’s analyse this situation: I’ve not only made it clear that I don’t like being contacted in this manner, but that I’m being deluged by such contacts. I have also said that I don’t take unsolicited correspondence; yet they are pressing on in the same vein. This browbeating form of doing business is hilariously absurd.

Another form of this spamming now comes in “pseudo-newsletters” – here is a sample, entitled “Who Said The Internet Phenomenon Was Over?”:

Dear (my name)

Those of you who like to be kept up to date with current affairs in the IT world tend to see the success it can bring with being efficient in doing this. Therefore, I’m sure there were a few raised eyebrows at the latest news that Microsoft’s Windows OS may soon be becoming a thing of the past!!!!

The basis behind this is from the news that Microsoft are developing radical software that is set to eventually replace windows. Midori (the new OS) is to be built from the ground up and be internet based to reflect how we use our PC’s at home, at work or for communication purposes.

Midori is set to revolutionise how computers are going to work, and a successful transition for this would be seen through companies having skilled employees with good web skills. This will enable yourselves to have a head-start in using the new OS and have an edge over competitors who aren’t aware of future trends,

This being the case, the need for Web Developer with up to date skill sets is soon becoming a must for small and large businesses to maintain their competitiveness and secondly help their company moving forward with the times.

I am currently representing a number of candidates for contract and permanent work for all skill sets that will match your company. Day rates for contractors tend to start around the £300 mark and top end candidates could work for anything for £500+. Permanent candidates are negotiable on salary and would have to do with the whole package rather than the salary alone.

I look forward to hearing from you in regards to any Developers needed for your organisation, contract or permanent as I am confident I will be able to offer you a good service in terms of candidates and criteria to your needs as a business.

Many Thanks

(another evil consultant)
Web Development

Given that my business, such as it is, is technology, yes, I do know all this, thank you very much. Trying to lure me in with a newsletter is not appreciated.

The common element is desperation; this does indicate the job market is having problems, and some of these firms are about to get murdered. Most of them have a very limited lifespan even under favourable economic circumstances. I do feel sorry for these people to a limited extent, but really, if all the energy, drive and effort used to hammer sales out of unwilling customers was used instead to deliver groundbreaking services that everyone wanted, then perhaps capitalism could be said to be working instead of delivering mind-numbing absurdity on a daily basis.

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Beijing Paranoia Strikes Again

August 18, 2008

Liu Xiang in PainThe Games of the Paranoid Olympiad continue; however the air of unrelenting terror is only getting worse. By now, the story of how Liu Xiang, the hurdler, pulled out of the 110m race is well known; what has been less well described is how far he pushed himself before he realised he couldn’t do it.

According to the films I saw, he went through his paces and was hobbling; he discovered quite early on that his Achilles tendon was injured. According to the BBC, however, he was told by his coach: “If you don’t win in the Beijing Olympics, then anything you do for the rest of your life will mean nothing”.

So, Liu took his place on the starting blocks. A false start by a Dutch hurdler confirmed that he wasn’t going anywhere: he hobbled painfully for a few steps, then turned and limped out of the competition.

The BBC took some random shots of the faces of the Chinese crowd: to say they looked disappointed is to understate matters by a wide margin.

The Chinese athletes’ absolute fear of failure has been a feature of these games: Liu is only the latest example. An even more terrible instance was in an article I found this morning. It has the ominous title “Athlete Berated Over Bronze Medal”:

China’s state broadcaster has come under fire after a veteran Olympic shooter was interrogated on TV for only getting bronze.

Beijing’s ruthless demand for perfection was highlighted when Tan Zongliang was made to squirm on China Central Television after missing out in the men’s 50m pistol competition.

Even though it was his first ever Olympic medal, he was harried until he bowed his head and admitted he had “let his country down” for not getting gold.


In the interview, a CCTV journalist asked Tan: “In your first shot you only got 7.9 points. What is the reason for this?”

“I was maybe a little bit anxious,” the 36-year-old replied, before adding: “Overall my performance was fine.”

“But you came into the finals leading on points,” the reporter chipped away. “The result really is a shame. Feel bad?”

The reporter continued the grilling until Tan lowered his head and apologised to his motherland.

It’s no wonder that any Chinese athlete that wins gold has a look of relief, any that wins a silver or bronze medal looks nervous, and any that washes out looks terrified. I know the British ladies who lost out on gold in the quad-rowing race over the weekend were upset, but it was not going to be possible to beat the Chinese, who were obviously rowing for their lives. Meanwhile, Louis Smith, who won Britain’s first medal in gymnastics for over one hundred years (a bronze in the pommel horse) is a national hero. This bodes well: London 2012 should be an altogether more relaxed, pleasant, if less disciplined affair: good, if hyper-organised means treating people like this, then all hail anarchy!

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Coventry Wins Gold!

August 16, 2008

Coventry WinsFinally, after winning silver medals in the 400m Individual Medley, the 100m Backstroke, and the 200m Individual Medley, Zimbabwe’s Kirsty Coventry has secured gold in the 200m Backstroke, her final event. Not only did she do it in world record time, she has successfully defended the title she first won in Athens.


Her success has attracted interest from the press, in particular there was a very interesting article from the Sydney Morning Herald, entitled Golden girl who united Africa’s pariah nation, which begins by stating:

EVERYWHERE she competes, every time she wins an event, popular Zimbabwean swimmer Kirsty Coventry is asked the same questions. Does she still live there? If not, how often does she go back? And, inevitably, what does she think of the economic and political situation?

Patiently, politely, the 24-year-old smiles and explains that she has lived in the United States for several years, in Texas and now in Alabama, where she won a sports scholarship to Auburn University, home to one of the US’s most successful swim teams.

That she returns two or three times a year to Harare, where she was born and attended a convent school and where her mother and father, Rob and Lyn, still run a household chemicals company. She is inevitably mobbed by crowds at the airport and her parents are forced to switch off their telephones.

On the politics of a country, with a pariah President, Robert Mugabe, an annual inflation rate of 150,000 per cent and a population of 13 million starved of food, fuel and employment, she is diplomatic. “Things are not that good. People are hurting. Even the President understands there must be change.”

Last time she went back to Harare, she had one gold, one silver and one bronze; this was very awkward for Mugabe. I can imagine that her three silvers and one gold, plus her world records, will make matters even more awkward for him. But uncomfortable for Mugabe is delight for the people of Zimbabwe.

Even so, she’s not going to rub it in his face. It speaks well of her intelligence and courtesy that Fox Sports Australia said she could be an ambassador, as they stated in their article, “Coventry relies on power of one to effect change in her homeland”:

FEW athletes have to walk as fine a line at the Games as Zimbabwean swimmer Kirsty Coventry. Somehow she has to represent her country with pride but without condoning the excesses of the Robert Mugabe regime, which have reduced much of her country to chaos and poverty.

Her ability to walk that line, while maintaining an outstanding competition record, suggests that Coventry, 24, has a future in diplomacy if she so chooses. Despite countless invitations from the international media to speak out against the Mugabe Government during her career, she remains apolitical.

In any event, Ms. Coventry deserves a round of applause as a truly great Olympian, as a representative for her country and its aspirations, and as a individual of character and merit.

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Proud to be an American

August 15, 2008

American flag and eagleFor those who are not in the United Kingdom or don’t watch television, the BBC has replaced its normal “Breakfast News” show with “Olympic Breakfast”. This week, it’s been the first thing I see after I stumble bleary eyed from my seductively comfortable bed.

This morning, the programme featured the tail end of the women’s individual gymnastics competition. Historically, this has not been my favourite event to watch: I can’t help feeling that I’m witnessing the active exploitation of a bunch of underage girls. Furthermore, I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental or comforting that the majority of their coaches appear to be older and male.

That said, I watched with interest as America’s Nastia Liukin (who thankfully was coached by her father) and Shawn Johnson won the gold and silver medals. It wasn’t their performances that particularly grabbed me, although they were brilliant, and I must admit I was touched by Shawn Johnson’s barely suppressed tears after just missing out on the gold. However, what caught my attention the most was how I felt after I heard the crowd begin to chant “USA! USA!”

I’ve been watching the Beijing Games every spare moment that I get; most of the time, if a Chinese athlete is in play, the local crowd shouts “China! China!”. In some instances this has been a deafening roar; I recall in particular how a women’s badminton match was so dominated by this cry of patriotism that it must have been difficult for the competitors to hear the referees.

Under normal circumstances, I’m mildly embarassed by the shouting of “USA! USA!” at sporting events. It is perhaps a function of having lived in Europe for over half my life: the idea that one has to support one’s home country by shouting its name seems odd. With the exception of football (soccer) matches, British people tend to make do with just waving a flag for the television cameras. However, there it was this morning, “USA! USA!” – and it was comforting.

It may be because of the setting. Beijing has done a very professional job in hosting the Games, though the half-empty seats indicate a serious lack of the joie de vivre which normally accompanies any Olympics. That said, it is not easy to escape the knowledge that this is a less than free country we’re peering into: the nervous face of the bronze winning Chinese female gymnast this morning spoke volumes. I’ve seen this tension in other events: the shouts of “China, China” made a pair of rowers work in 34 degree Celcius heat till it looked like their lungs would explode. A male Chinese weightlifter looked similarly on edge to me; it was a shakiness that broke into a smile of relief (rather than joy) after a successful lift.

These athletes know they are on the spot, and theirs is a regime that has a low tolerance for failure or imperfection: the rather callous manner in which they replaced a schoolgirl who sang the best with one who looked the best for the Opening Ceremony spoke volumes. The Chinese state behaves as if people are tools, a means to an end, not as individuals who have merit and worth in and of themselves.

“USA, USA” sounds like a rebuke under these circumstances. No one except the most blinkered patriot would dare say that the United States is a perfect country; as an American living abroad, I get to hear about its faults more than most. But I would like to attribute many of my attitudes and beliefs to my origins, including my convictions about the value of egalitarianism, the idea that we all have rights, and my faith in individuals’ ability to achieve self-actualisation.

When I see that a colleague of mine has been swindled by a former landlord of his, my first response is to say, “Sue them!” Go forth, get justice, don’t back down till you do! This is an overtly American idea.

When I discover that people are rising in position or standing due to who they know rather than what they know or what they’ve achieved, I am outraged. This too perhaps is an American instinct.

When I witness something as simple as a little girl being denied the chance to perform to billions around the world merely because her face is deemed a bit too pudgy and her teeth a bit too crooked, I want whoever responsible to pay with more than a few strips torn out of their career’s hide. This yearning is likely also American in its vehemence.

Behind it all lies an idea that is elegantly expressed in our Constitution’s preamble: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union”. Note the words, “more perfect”; with this phrase, the Founding Fathers say utopia has not been achieved. Rather, it is a drive, and an instinct that has been put into the nation’s DNA from its very start. What matters is working towards that “more perfect Union”, and “more perfect” justice. It is not a destination, but a journey.

Yes, the odyessy sometimes gets terribly skewed. It’s not at all wrong to say that for the past eight years that a massive detour has been taken, and so many signposts of our progress have been removed. Sadly, even in a “more perfect” society, progress is not in a straight line. But at least America can and should know better. This is the first step towards being better.

Extensive repairs are necessary. We’re in a world where more nations are like China than they are on the “more perfect” road. The brutality we’ve witnessed in the conflict between Russia and Georgia shows how thin the veneer of peace and civilised behaviour can be. A new thesis is emerging, which states that individual justice does not matter so long as economic growth is achieved; the implications for individual liberty to say nothing of the global environment, could not be greater.

Other nations know this, and rightly afraid. The reason why Barack Obama got such a rapturous reception when he visited Berlin, Paris and London is simple: while Bush has damaged America’s reputation, the ideas that America represents are not dead, and Europeans want America to stand for hope and inspiration once more. Obama, under these circumstances, is a symbol of restoration.

I am an American and proud to be so; more specifically, I am proud of much of what we are, and even more proud of what we are supposed to be. This is not a pride that implies superiority, but confidence, not perfection, but a commitment to the pursuit of excellence. Hopefully this year will be one of signs, symbols and deeds that plant the seeds of patriotic renewal, so America can carry on the journey it was meant to continue.

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Revenge of the Cold Called

August 14, 2008

While it’s not generally possible in a business context to do too many nasty things to cold call sales people, the same rules do not apply when one is out of the office. Fortunately, in Britain, there is a Telephone Preference Service which is supposed to act as a barrier to unwanted marketing calls; this is by and large successful, but still, some ignore the rules.

Vengance is justified; the most skilled crusader against the scourge of unwanted telephone calls is the comedian Tom Mabe. Here follows one of his bouts of verbal jujitsu with a telemarketer, which hopefully will encourage the individual to change his career:

How to deal with a Telemarketer by Tom Mabe

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It’s a Cold Call World

August 14, 2008

TelephoneOne of the most irritating aspects of my job is that I receive many speculative sales calls. I’m more unfortunate than most in this regard: a director who has since left the company gave away my name and direct phone number, and this information has been seized upon by unscrupulous firms like a school of piranha devouring a cow.

I recently received one of the most ridiculous ones yet: yesterday, I was offered e-marketing services from someone who claimed to know my predecessor.

“I’m just phoning him to give him an update as to my whereabouts…we were going to do some work together,” he said.

“I’m afraid he’s been gone a while,” I replied.

“Oh? I was sure I spoke to him 4 months ago.”

“He’s been gone since October.”

After this rather unpromising start, he barrelled forth into a long spiel about how his e-marketing services could help me. The stench of bovine excrement wafted from his pitch; I could visualise the individual at the other end of the phone, seeing him as rather young, perhaps a recent graduate in Media Studies (translation: “unskilled”). It was likely he was under the whip hand of some supervisor who was demanding he make sales. I know the type; I have had bosses that were so desperate to make sales or improve margins, that they were willing to engage in outright trickery: in a former place of employment, I was instructed to tack on a £15 fee for plane tickets, which would not become evident until the end of the online booking process. The idea was that this “fee for processing” would enhance the margins. I said no. This same boss also wanted to have the default option for car rental checked to “Yes” in the same process; again, I said no, and found evidence which had indicated his previous attempt at this same deception had led to actual losses. This boss spent much of his life demanding sales, saying “sales” over and over, as if driving his people into the ground was going to make these revenues magically appear.

As much as I could sympathise with the salesman, I really didn’t need his services, nor did I think his company should be encouraged in following their present approach. I politely turned him down; he demanded to know where my predecessor was, and why my phone hadn’t had its answering machine message changed to indicate that he had left.

“I haven’t bothered to change it, because I get deluged by calls like this. Bye.”

I hung up.

Such calls represent an increasing portion of my working life; I get between 20 and 30 of them per week. I often am in the middle of a thought when they occur, and they tend to derail my work. In my experience, recruitment firms are particularly bad: one gets the impression that they’re all operating out of garden sheds and tack on “Professional” or “International” onto their names in order to make it seem like they’re in Canary Wharf rather than sitting amidst bags of compost in Slough. Furthermore, virtually all the calls are the same: the salesperson tries to indicate that I somehow know them, and that their firm is as established as Plymouth Rock…or at least the Blarney Stone.

Sometimes I test whether or not the salespeople the human: my methodology is simple, I merely inform them of how many calls I receive and guage their reaction. The human beings are apologetic and break into nervous laughter; “how am I doing?” one of them asked, and started chuckling. Another young lady similarly threw away her script and expressed her sympathy.

More often than not, however, they steamroll on; I have no vacancies available, I state this up front. However this makes no difference: they continue to try and shake me, as if my business necessities can be directed by the needs of the garden shed crew rather than what we require. A recruiter I spoke to yesterday turned desperate and frightened: he was begging with me, pleading with me that he was somehow different. Ironically, by acting this way, he only managed to sound the same as the rest. In his favour, at least he didn’t outright lie: a firm I never heard of rang not too long after, saying that I told them to speak to me at around this time. I did nothing of the kind.

For me, this is the clearest demonstration yet that the British economy is in dire trouble. I’m not talking about the present credit crunch and stagflation, though the news from the Bank of England yesterday was not encouraging. Rather, this is indicative that the shift from a manufacturing to a service economy has been abortive; while those with actual skills are doing all right, those who didn’t have an interest in technology or science are being left behind, and are now fighting over scraps in sectors that have low costs of penetration. As the young lady candidly informed me, all you need to start a recruitment firm is a telephone and a computer.

This indicates difficulties in other ways; there are very few recruitment companies which show any differentiation whatsoever. In fact, I’m having trouble thinking of one. This speaks of a lack of strategic vision: the emphasis is on pounding sales out of the ground and squeezing the blood from every stone, rather than rethinking the entire approach.

Not only is this failing to generate sufficient activity to grant these firms anything other than a mayfly existence, it isn’t serving the needs of skilled personnel. Six months ago, I did have three vacancies to fill; however, the candidates thrown my way by recruitment firms were by and large unsuitable. In fact, it was clear that my brief had almost been totally ignored. In the end, only one of the three vacancies was filled by using a standard recruitment firm; to make matters worse, I’ve since been informed that this recruitment firm has approached my new employee after he passed his trial period to see if he was still happy.

My experience as a candidate was also an unhappy one. I used a recruitment firm in obtaining my present role, but the gentleman I dealt with was, to put it plainly, a psychopath. When I turned down the initial offer as being too low, he phoned my office, going through the switchboard, rather than calling my mobile; had my boss at the time intercepted it, it could have spelled real trouble. Second, he then proceeded to scream and berate me for not accepting the offer. In the end, I had to directly negotiate with my present employer.

No entrepreneur is exploiting this wretched state of affairs. If capitalism is so dynamic and so capable of change, then why has something as dreadful as this not been altered? In fact, why is it getting worse? The truth be told, the emphasis on quarterly results, getting the money no matter what, even if it means cheating and lying, leads to a situation where imagination is viewed as a luxury, and strategy is measured in minutes, not years. Some countries’ business cultures, such those in Japan and the Netherlands, do take a longer term view, however one hopes they aren’t squeezed out by the “animal spirits” that seem to drive behaviour here in Britain and the United States. After all, we are crashing into the buffers because of it: the economy is not generating the right sort of value, it’s not producing the right sort of jobs, it is skewed towards speculation in all endeavours, which leads to short term booms, and as we’re experiencing now, very painful slowdowns. It also means that the environment is completely ignored in the pursuit of profit, which has a cost that can’t be measured in mere pounds and pence.

I am skeptical that policy makers are thinking about the practical, day to day issues of the economy in this manner; they’re too busy tinkering with interest rates and pushing up pass rates on A-level exams. I suspect that for the moment, the dreary cold call world will continue. My response will be to continue to hang up.

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Beijing Paranoia

August 12, 2008

In a previous piece, I wrote that the Beijing Olympics were typified by an air of paranoia, due to the desire to ensure everything was pristine. I must admit to having been surprised by the lengths that they are willing to go.

First, we have an item from the BBC’s Jake Humphrey:

I thought about telling you how desperate China seems for these Games to look absolutely perfect – a lady was even hoovering the pavement outside my hotel this morning!

But that’s not all – it’s just emerged that the Opening Ceremony contained a fairly insidious fraud, namely this:

As it turns out, the little girl was just lip-synching, as the UK Daily Telegraph reports:

Chinese officials have admitted deceiving the public over another highlight of the Olympic opening ceremony: the picture-perfect schoolgirl who sang as the Chinese flag entered the stadium was performing to another girl’s voice.

The girl in the red dress with the pigtails, called Lin Miaoke, 9, and from a Beijing primary school, has become a national sensation since Friday night, giving interviews to all the most popular newspapers.

But the show’s musical designer felt forced to set the record straight. He gave an interview to Beijing radio saying the real singer was a seven-year-old girl who had won a gruelling competition to perform the anthem, a patriotic song called “Hymn to the Motherland”.

At the last moment a member of the Chinese politburo who was watching a rehearsal pronounced that the winner, a girl called Yang Peiyi, might have a perfect voice but was unsuited to the lead role because of her buck teeth.

This is a pretty despicable thing to do to a young girl, however, “officially”, she’s OK with it:

“I am proud to have been chosen to sing at all,” she is reported to have said.

It’s not like she could have said anything else, however.

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In Praise of Kirsty Coventry

August 12, 2008

Kirsty CoventryThe Olympics are not supposed to be political; or rather, politics should be a minor consideration, given the spirit of openness and generosity that ideally will prevail through the expression of the Olympic ideal. Sport, it is believed, can unite nations that otherwise are suspicious of each other, if not at each other’s throats. After all, we even saw an act of reconciliation between Georgia and Russia after the 25m pistol shooting event in Beijing: the bronze winning athlete from Georgia, embraced her silver medal winning Russian counterpart during the awards ceremony. Both stood together and called for peace.

Now that I’ve gotten all those lofty platitudes out of the way, I can state the truth: the Olympics are deeply riven with politics. China did not spend $40 billion on the Beijing Olympics because it thought it would make a profit. Nor do hard up nations like North Korea divert huge resources into sport because they think it’s fun. Competition between nations is seen by a number of regimes as a means by which to express their superiority. We saw this particularly during the era of Communism, and previous to that, in the ostentatious displays of Nazi prowess during the 1936 Olympic Games. Sport is in fact a weapon, whether it is trying to show that men of iron are being forged in the blast furnace of a new socio-economic system, or in mass displays of exquisite “harmony” and unity.

In my opinion, however, the best sort of Olympic political statements are those which are entirely unintentional. This leads us gracefully to the case of Ms. Kirsty Coventry, a swimmer from Zimbabwe.

As has been well reported, Zimbabwe is a basket case, plagued with hyperinflation, racial tension and violence. Mugabe has brutalised his own people in a most stark fashion for years; most recently, he threatened and murdered his way to re-election as President. Fortunately he has been so naked in his power grab that the rest of Africa has been compelled to put pressure on him to mend his ways. Thanks to this diplomatic push, there are negotiations presently going on between the regime and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, which may yet yield a power-sharing arrangement. In the meantime, it is still fair to describe Zimbabwe as a “troubled” country, more down and out than up and coming.

Enter Ms. Coventry. She first made her mark in the 2004 Olympic Games, winning a gold, a silver and a bronze in the pool: she is a backstroke specialist, although she appears ready to try almost any event. As she is white, she represents a different face to Zimbabwe, and is the most visible example of a minority that Mugabe has made much hay out of despising. Her success has put the old dictator into a mightily uncomfortable position: in 2004, he had to grudgingly admit that she is their “golden girl”. The reactions of average Zimbabweans were even more effusive; as an indication of their continuing spirit of defiance against the regime, many went so far as to suggest, via the New Zimbabwe publication, that she should be given a farm. In a country riven with violent disagreement, she is, whether she likes it or not, a focus for unity; the fact that she has steadfastly refused to abandon her citizenship for probably far more lucrative arrangements in another nation (she attended University in the United States), has only enhanced her reputation.

Ms. Coventry herself has maintained an air of supreme modesty about her achievements. When she arrived to a triumphal welcome in Harare in 2004, she merely said: “This is awesome! I want to thank you all so much for your support…my race strategies I need to improve on, so I can go faster; I have the medals, but I don’t have the world records yet.”

Furthermore, she is generous with advice to the next generation of swimmers, as this video demonstrates:

casey getting her fly evaluated by kirsty coventry

So how is she progressing in Beijing? Rather well: she has so far won two silver medals. The first was in the 400m individual medley, an event she apparently does not consider her speciality. She obtained the second silver in the 100m backstroke; she recorded a new world record in this event during the heats. Shortly, she will be defending her Olympic title in the 200m backstroke competition. She is already the greatest Olympian to come out of Zimbabwe; I personally hope that a bit more gold will be added to her lustre.

Furthermore, with a bit of luck, a negotiated settlement between the government and opposition will be completed by the time she goes home. As I’m sure she would agree, it’s one thing for her achievements to be one item among many for Zimbabweans to celebrate, it’s quite another if they are the only blessing her countrymen have to cherish. The “princess of sport” (as her countrymen call her) should have the luxury of not being a political figure; it is a distinction she well deserves.

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Picture of meI'm a Doctor of Creative Writing, a husband, a son, a brother, an uncle, a published novelist, a technologist, a student, and still an amateur in much else.

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