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)
Consultant

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)
Consultant

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.

And:

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.

Phew!

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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Crisis in Georgia: Call Kevin Rudd

August 11, 2008

Georgian ProtestorsMy first introduction to the former Soviet Republic of Georgia took place in a Moscow restaurant in 1994. I, along with a group of students, were taken there by our hosts to experience the delights of Georgian cuisine and wine. The alcohol flowed freely, course after course was brought to the table. Georgian music played in the background; as it so happened, our table was on the other side of the room from a Georgian wedding reception. The bride and groom began to dance as the tempo increased, and then the entire wedding party joined in. My memory is slightly hazy, but I do seem to recollect getting up and then being exhausted as I collapsed into my hotel bed.

A pleasant evening, albeit mostly spent unconscious, is not an altogether atypical way for a love affair to begin. Georgia is one of those places I wished to visit; Tbilisi is supposed to be very charming, and steeped in history.

That dream, however, is more distant now than ever. The weekend’s news brought images of horror from South Ossetia, Gori, and Abkhazia; hitherto, Georgia’s history has been as tragic as it has been rich, and it appears that this long road is stretching onward.

There can be no doubt that Russia is in the wrong in this instance. Georgia did try to assault the separatists in South Ossetia, and this was a terrible error. If Russia had merely sent their troops in to the war zone, and secured it from further Georgian incursions, then there would be little to talk about. However, the Russians have significantly widened the conflict by bombing civilian areas in Gori, which is not within the combat zone, and also by opening a new front in the other separatist area, Abkhazia. Additionally, the Russian navy has attacked Georgian ships in the Black Sea.

Georgia has since proclaimed a unilateral ceasefire and begged for the conflict to stop, but Russia has refused to halt their incursions. Russia has made it clear that nothing less than the removal of Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili will do, even though he was democratically elected.

This move not only threatens Georgia’s life as an independent nation; an important oil pipeline running from Azerbaijan to Europe goes through Georgia. It’s the only significant pipeline from the East that bypasses Russia. If this falls under Russian control, then Putin will have sufficient leverage to blackmail Europe. Furthermore, other nations which have shown an independent streak, such as Ukraine, cannot help but wonder if they are next.

The West is in no position to help. If this incident proves anything, it shows once and for all that the doctrine of pre-emptive strikes is an absolute failure. America has so many resources pinned down in Iraq and Afghanistan that the idea of offering military assistance to Georgia is laughable at best; furthermore, Bush’s profligacy also means America is broke, and thus has no economic leverage. Dick Cheney and George Bush thundering darkly about severe consequences is the tantrum of the impotent, a flaccidity made all the more acute by the imminent replacement of the American administration.

Europe cannot help either; while the efforts of the French diplomatic corps have been outstanding, their exertions are taking place in a context where the the European Union has a variety of opinions on how to deal with this. No doubt the Poles, Hungarians and Czechs are looking worriedly at Russia’s new assertiveness and want to stand firm. The Germans obviously want to try and lessen the tension. Overall, however, Russia’s control over energy supplies makes Europe a client rather than a creditor.

There is only one nation that can possibly make Russia stop with a single phone call: China. The Chinese have so far not played a role in this crisis; however, it could very well be that they are annoyed that their Olympic “coming out party” has been darkened by this conflict. This irritation, and the opportunity for further gains in prestige could make them act positively.

To achieve this, however, the West will need an emissary. There is only one choice that springs to mind: Kevin Rudd, Prime Minister of Australia.

Prime Minister Rudd has been one of the quiet success stories of 2008; if power stems from legitimacy and intelligence, then he is stronger than many of his counterparts in charge of larger nations. He has a sizeable majority in Parliament, his popularity ratings, although they’ve taken a knock in recent months, are still high. Furthermore, he was elected in December 2007: he is at the very start of his term, not lingering in twilight. Additionally, unlike President Bush, who has managed to offend the Chinese every single time he mentions human rights, Rudd has skillfully framed the debate in terms the Chinese appreciate: having a degree in Chinese literature, history and language helps. Rudd is fluent in Mandarin (he even has a Chinese nickname, “Lu Kewen”), is well acquainted with Confucius, and once served as a diplomat in Beijing. Thus he was able to give a tough human rights speech at Beijing University without suffering damage in the eyes of the Chinese leadership; rather, Australia appears to be well regarded by Beijing. Australia also has some actual leverage: they are one of China’s largest suppliers of raw materials.

This combination of power, knowledge and understanding simply does not exist elsewhere in the West: Rudd is definitely the man to send to President Hu Jintao to ask for his intervention. That said, Rudd will need to offer an incentive. As unpalatable as it may seem, the West will likely have to suggest that peace talks take place in Beijing under Chinese mediation. This would be a powerful symbol of China’s increasing importance and the West’s increasing impotence: in other words, it’s an acknowledgment of present realities. This would be deeply unpleasant for the United States and the European Union. However, sometimes saving lives matters more than pride; and perhaps “Lu Kewen” could convince the Chinese that the partnership of one western state (probably Australia) would help any negotiated settlement to stick.

The alternative to diplomacy is grisly; the Chechens provided a model for how a small nation can wage a bloody guerilla war against Russia, and it is entirely possible the Georgians could resort to the same tactics. No one wants to see Tbilisi shot through like Groznii; no one wants to see another incident in which Russian schoolchildren are murdered as they were in Beslan. This fate can be avoided, but only if the crisis is approached with imagination, compassion, tolerance and yes, humility. One can only hope there are enough of these qualities left in West…and in the East.

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Review: “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” starring Brendon Fraser

August 10, 2008

Dragon EmperorSome movies are not intended to be high art. Before the invention of television, this was often the case: the thirties, forties and fifties were littered with throwaway films with forgettable characters and laughable story lines. The most extreme examples were the movies that were made to work with the traditional red lens / blue lens 3-D glasses. Usually these “high tech” films were much of a muchness, involving weird creatures reaching out for the audience.

The raison d’etre behind these movies, (and for the sake of argument, let’s call them “Saturday Matinees”), was that they would entertain for a couple of hours and leave the audience feeling as if they got their money’s worth. Mostly these films are now remembered by a few enthusiasts, many of whom are merely reliving their childhoods.

In this sense, “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” is part of a long tradition. It is a silly, ridiculous “Saturday Matinee”, but if one can park one’s intellect at the cinema door, it is reasonably entertaining.

The film begins with a tale of how China became a unified country under the leadership of a ferocious Emperor (portrayed by Jet Li). Fearing that he would not live long enough to do what he set out to do, he calls upon a sorceress to make him immortal. She then falls in love with the leading general of the Empire; the Emperor kills the general, and in revenge, she turns him into a clay figurine, and his army into the famous “Terracotta Warriors”. Obviously, anyone with a respect for history will be left weeping if they take this portion at all to heart. While it is true that the first ruler of a United China was ruthless and did want to become immortal, he tried to achieve this by drinking mercury rather utilising black magic; the parable of his rule ending earlier than it should have due to the pursuit of eternal life is worth putting into a much grander movie.

After the phony history, the film changes to a scene in Oxfordshire in 1946, some years after the last in the Mummy series finished. Rick O’Connell (played by Brendan Fraser) an American adventurer and gunfighter, is in retirement along with his wife Evelyn. She, apparently, has given up archaeology in favour of writing Mummy-based pulp fiction. I appreciated this plot point, as it was a symbol that the film wasn’t taking itself too seriously.

Sadly, however, Rachel Weisz, who had played Evelyn in the previous films, is gone, replaced by Maria Bello. Ms. Bello does her very best to fill Ms. Weisz’s shoes, but she lacks the vulnerable, hesitant quality that Ms. Weisz brought to the role, which in turn made her so compelling.

It is quickly established that both O’Connell and Evelyn are bored with retirement and long for adventure. It is also made clear that they are estranged from their grown son, who is shown working on an archaeological dig in China and who, predictably, finds the tomb of the First Emperor. It is somewhat difficult to ignore the motifs borrowed from other films: the father / son estrangement echoes Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the adventurer bored in retirement scenario has been used so often that it is almost a cliche. Furthermore, Fraser and Bello do not look nearly old enough to play the parents of their on-screen son Alex (played by Australian newcomer Luke Ford); neither “father” nor “mother” has a single grey hair.

Thanks to an immortality potion contained within a diamond vessel, a ruthless general (who bears a passing resemblance to Chiang Kai Shek, the ruler of Nationalist China) manages to wake the Emperor, who begins tearing up Shanghai in a long chase involving bronze horses, and a truck full of fireworks.

At this point the film gives up any pretence of seriousness, and the brave band, joined by Evelyn’s feckless brother (played by John Hannah) and guided by the mysterious Lin (played by Isabella Leong) wanders into the mountains to prevent the Emperor from finding the “Pool of Immortality” in Shangri La. Predictably, Alex and Lin have a stormy relationship, however the squalls are unrealistically brief and Lin bursts out telling him, “I love you completely!”. The sorry bunch then have a gunfight with the Emperor and the evil general at a tower which points the way to Shangri La. As an added treat, the film throws in the least convincing computer generated creatures (ostensibly they’re Yetis), that I have ever seen. Rick O’Connell is hurt in the fighting, with a blade through the back, and he must be taken to Shangri La and healed with the “Waters of Immortality”, a direct rip off of the healing properties of the Holy Grail in “Indiana Jones in the Last Crusade”.

Needless to say the Emperor gets his hands on those same waters, he becomes whole again, and he revives the Terracotta Army, who will become also immortal if they cross the Great Wall; we’re never told why this is the case. But again, there is more fighting, more gunplay, more people sliced open, stabbed, crushed and sliced to pieces. John Hannah gets the hell out of Dodge and decides to go to Peru as there are, in his words, “no mummies there”. As he’s sadly mistaken, we, the audience, have the last laugh as the lights go up.

I must admit that I was chuckling as I left the theatre. After all, the film’s take on Chinese history was so daft, I wondered how they managed to convince Mr. Li, Ms. Leong and Michelle Yeoh to appear in it. I was also curious as to how the producers managed to avoid the ire of the Chinese authorities given the ridiculous portrayal of post war Shanghai. It’s shown as a town full of bright lights and swinging bands, when it should be an unhappy, torn up city that is dealing with the aftermath of Japanese occupation and the dread of civil war. We get no inclination of the real life conflict between the Nationalist (Kuomintang) and the Red forces; the modern forces we do see are presented as a “paramilitary” group.

But obviously this film was not intended to educate or to enlighten; it was there to pass the time in a pleasant way, just like the Saturday Matinees of previous eras. Yes, its based upon a lot of recycled themes. Yes, its very silly and over the top. Yes, the actors could have sleepwalked through their scenes and it wouldn’t have made any difference, but if one needs a movie loaded with mindless, colourful entertainment, this fits the bill.

This statement, however, comes with a caveat. It was a motif of the Mummy films of the past that the creature was impossible to kill, and thus a sequel was always in the offing. In this case, lest ridiculousness becomes a burden, it is perhaps best to let this series rest in peace.

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