Learning Chinese

August 25, 2008

Closing CeremonyThe Beijing Olympics have ended just as flamboyantly as they began. I watched the Closing Ceremonies with interest and a tinge of sadness: after all, the Games have provided the bulk of my entertainment for the past two weeks, and the success of the British athletes has provided me with a timely set of “pick me ups” just when office life was stagnating.

The BBC has done a fine job, but I thought that the broadcasters were a bit too obvious in their admiration for the Chinese. The announcers were more than effusive in their praise of the new “Bird’s Nest” stadium, the transport facilities and the overall organisation of the Games. Yet, there were disturbing items as well; for example, there was an undercurrent of militarism in the use of the People’s Liberation Army in the flag raising and lowering ceremonies. As the BBC noted, without a hint of sarcasm, the synchronisation of vast numbers of people was a Chinese skill that had been so well developed, the only nation that did it better was North Korea. The theme of “harmony”, which the government was so keen to stress, was also worrying: who gets to determine what “harmony” means, who decides the basis of “harmony”? Inevitably, this was probably decided by the uniform apparatchiks who sat in the balconies of the Birds’ Nest. Their dark suits, starched shirts, and bland ties made the presence of the rumpled and scruffy London Mayor Boris Johnson oddly reassuring.

The Games had their wonderful aspects, however; the outstanding British medal tally is one thing, the performances of Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt are another. Unlike superstars in the past, both Phelps and Bolt appear to have a true sense of humility. Phelps does not present himself in a manner that suggests he believes he is the “greatest Olympian”. Bolt said his contribution to sprinting had been marginal. Heroes with so little ego are generally difficult to find; to see two at once is hugely refreshing.

Bolt’s predecessor in spriting dominance, Michael Johnson, was a BBC commentator. During the Closing Ceremony, he said perhaps the most true statement about the Beijing Games: “Prior to this the world didn’t know China, now we do.”

Yes, we do. I think the most important bit of information the Beijing Games has provided is precisely what kind of regime China is, and what it wants.

Sinology is a subject which attracts a great many scholars; I know people who have gone to Beijing and Harvard to pursue advanced degrees to learn more. But at the heart of what the Chinese regime wants and what it is, is a very simple idea: the ruling elite wants to build a strong country, and they will be both absolutely ruthless and pragmatic and achieving it.

I know that it is fashionable to get wrapped up either in the Communist symbols and rhetoric, or to hint that China is essentially fascist. Both of these interpretations miss the point entirely. This is not a regime that has a particular, world-embracing ideology at its core. China is not particularly communist, nor is it active in spreading Marxism abroad. Nor is it fascist; it is not engaged in the lives of its citizens at anywhere near the same level of Fascist Italy or Nazi Germany. In a fascist state, there is a requirement for the citizens to be active participants in the party and community; in China, so long as one does not get involved in politics, one can expect to be left alone.

If anything, China has copied post-war South Korea, as it was ruled by General Park Chung-Hee. For those who are not familiar with this era or the man, General Park was the head of a ruling junta, who pushed through the rapid economic modernisation of the country. He demanded that the Koreans work extremely hard for little wages; the central idea, however, was to build up South Korea, make it so strong that the North could not take advantage, and make it so rich that stability would be ensured. General Park was eventually assassinated and a democratic system put in place; however, there is more than an echo of this approach in the Chinese approach to national power.

As previously stated, they simply do not care about anything else. Communist ideology can go hang if it means China is not a great industrial power. The Little Red Book may be revered, but it is like a children’s story at bedtime if it doesn’t allow China to become the world’s creditor, and translate that financial power into a larger military. The environment, human rights, national self-determination can all go to blazes in this scenario because their benefits to a direct increase in the strength of the Chinese nation are unclear at best.

Building up this power is an end in and of itself; there is no quantification of how much power is enough power, just China must continue to develop it, and nothing must get in the way, lest domination by foreigners, as was prevalent in China in the early twentieth century and nineteenth century, will return.

The regime’s fundamental ruthlessness is obvious in how the Tibetians are treated; the suspension of investment in the countryside in the name of the Olympic games is just as blatant. As reported by the Washington Post, the regime was content to let farmers crops go unirrigated to ensure the setting of the Games was idyllic. The Olympics was a power exercise, an attempt to dazzle the world with Chinese prowess; the plight of a small farmer didn’t have such a direct cost to benefit ratio.

That said, the regime does allow personal prosperity, largely because this too increases the power of the nation. The wealthy are soldiers in China’s cause, able to spend cash abroad in the purchase of the trappings of the West. This opportunity does give a form of legitimacy to the regime; but the regime only cares about formal legitimacy insofar as it gives them freedom of action to pursue their goals.

This singlemindedness should concern us all. While there is no coherent ideology behind it, no striving towards a “good” society, it is a very practical philosophy which has attractions. We are seeing this take hold in Russia whereby Putin is aggressively using his control of energy supplies; on a lesser scale, Cuba is starting to liberalise its market in order to emulate the Chinese model. Perhaps, the propoents of this model state, personal liberty is not all, particularly when it means others can get one over on you.

We are not at a point yet where this thesis has been proven. However the Olympics have shown how late in the day we are. China has all the trappings and technology of a modern nation; it is working day and night, pushing itself, straining itself, to get the raw materials to build itself up into a superpower. Unlike the Soviet Union, it is not encumbered by a ridiculous edifice of central planning which will bring it down; in China, the animal spirits run free. This implies it will be more resilient, and as they concern themselves less with the environment, they have less of an incentive to do what’s right for the planet than we will. They may indeed take advantage of our steps to curb economic growth in order to preserve the planet; our sole hope is that the ecological issues thrown up by the Beijing games make them think again. Power is not all. National strength is all well and good, but if the world in which a nation is pre-eminent is nothing but a wasteland, then it is an exercise in pointlessness. Perhaps these thoughts reside in the minds of the apparatchiks; it’s difficult to tell. We know China, but we’re still in need of education, because it’s obvious we don’t know enough.

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Sport Saves A Nation?

August 23, 2008

Tia HellebautOne of the lesser reported stories of 2008 has been the continuing political turmoil in Belgium. In June 2007, an election was held: for nine consecutive months afterwards, the politicians found it impossible to assemble a working coalition to govern the country. Finally, a deal was struck putting the controversial Christian Democrat leader, Yves Leterme, into the hot seat as Prime Minister.

Because no devolution agreement was possible between Belgium’s French speaking Walloon and Dutch speaking Flemish communities, Leterne tried to tender his resignation in July. Had King Albert II accepted it, it is likely that the country would have been paralysed by a constitutional crisis. The situation remains precarious; Erik Jones, a columnist for the Guardian, wrote on August 20th:

…there is a real sense that something fundamental to the continuation of Belgium as a country is at stake. The constitutional matters are only the beginning. Questions about how much power should be devolved from federal to regional level, or about whether voters in communities around Brussels should cast ballots in Flemish or in French are difficult, but not impossible, to resolve.

I lived in Belgium for a time and understand both French and Dutch; the diversity of the country was part of its appeal to me. Belgium has not only Dutch speakers and French speakers, it also has a small German speaking enclave, and immigrant communities in Brussels (a particularly large one comes from Morocco). The idea that such a culturally rich country that has existed for nearly 180 years would suddenly crack apart is a blow to the notion that identity can be something larger than a particular linguistic or ethnic group. If Belgium, largely peaceful and relatively prosperous, cannot hold – what then for the European Union? Or nations like the United States, which have large segments of the population that are culturally dissimilar?

As such, I am a supporter of organisations such as Pro Belgica, which strives to keep the country together. Indeed, they have to pull themselves together for their own sake. As Erik Jones noted:

The stalemate cannot go on forever. While Belgian politicians have wrestled with their constitutional and political demons, the world economy has taken a turn for the worse, pulling Belgium down with it. As a result, growth has slowed, the country’s balance of trade is negative for the first time in over a decade, and inflation is among the highest in Europe (and running faster than any time in the 25 years). Indeed the situation has deteriorated so rapidly that Belgian policymakers have been unable to keep up. When Leterme announced his government’s planned economic programme in mid-July, the press immediately pointed out that his assumptions were outdated and his calculations flawed. The fact that the Belgian planning bureau produced those calculations only last May was no excuse.

Finding a symbol around which the Belgians could unify might help the situation. Although the King has been heroic in his efforts to keep the nation together, there needs to be a “feel good” figure, who could show the Belgians that they’re one nation after all.

Today, that figure may have emerged: Ms. Tia Hellebaut, a former pentathlete turned high jumper. She produced a jump of 2.05m which was sufficient to win her the gold medal, the first gold medal in athletics for the country since 1964. This was an added bonus on top of the silver won by the Belgian team (Olivia Borlée, Kim Gevaert, Hanna Mariën and Elodie Ouedraogo) in the women’s 4 x 100m relay. If the politicians of Belgium have any sense at all, they will seize upon this success, and public accolades for Ms. Hellebaut and the 4 x 100m team will be forthcoming.

There are discussions in Britain as well as other countries about the value of elite sport. Belgium could be a test case; with a bit of luck, it may provide enough of a patriotic kick to save a nation.

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Leo McBiden

August 23, 2008

McGarry BidenWhile I and many others are trying to grasp Obama’s reasoning behind his choice of Joe Biden as a running mate, it is worth mentioning that there is a certain logic to this for fans of “The West Wing”.

It’s already been said that Barack Obama has similarities to the “West Wing” character of Matthew Santos, which is not entirely surprising given that one of Obama’s advisors was a consultant to the show’s writers. Both Obama and Santos are relatively fresh and are from a minority community. Both are charismatic. Both are excellent public speakers. Both needed someone with more experience to balance the ticket.

Santos’ vice presidential pick was Leo McGarry, the former White House Chief of Staff. This was not an obvious choice given that he was both a recovering alcoholic and valium addict: however, he was experienced, came from a Catholic working class background, and had extensive foreign policy expertise. Among his personal quirks was a love of expensive suits; as Charlie, President Barlet’s aide noted, he always bought them from Saville Row.

Biden is also an older statesman who came from a Catholic working class background. He developed extensive foreign policy experience as the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee. The quality of his wardrobe has been noted by Newsweek’s Howard Fineman:

He is a fancy dresser–given to stick pin collars and French cuffs…

Both, however, have baggage. In McGarry’s case, his baggage included not only his past substance abuse, he also had a physical ailment: he had suffered a massive heart attack prior to being chosen. Because John Spencer, the actor playing McGarry, died of a heart attack, it was decided to have McGarry pass away on the fictional Election Night.

In Biden’s case, his infirmity is less serious in terms of his overall health, but much more damaging in terms of the campaign: as Fineman also stated, “he likes to talk”. Too much. But then again, Leo McGarry was not portrayed as the greatest campaigner either.

There are, of course, differences: McGarry had military service and experience as Secretary of Labor, which makes him theoretically superior to Biden. Biden on the other hand has an excellent family life (McGarry is divorced) and no financial or sexual scandals to haunt him.

However, the logic in operation behind the fictional Santos’ pick and the actual Obama pick remains quite similar. Add in the element of the conflict in Georgia, which echoes the problems faced by President Bartlet in Kazakhstan, and the similarities between fact and fiction become even more compelling. This could definitely be the “West Wing Election”.

One final note: for those who don’t recall the result, Santos won. Take it as an encouraging omen.

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Say It Ain’t Joe!

August 23, 2008

Obama and BidenIn 1919, the Chicago White Sox, one of the greatest baseball teams in American history, conspired with a series of gamblers to throw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. They did it for money: the owner of the Sox, Charles Comiskey, was notoriously stingy towards his players and incredibly self-righteous, and this combination proved lethal. After the fraud was uncovered and the players put on trial, according to legend, the famous White Sox outfielder “Shoeless Joe” Jackson was confronted by a child outside court. The young lad plaintively cried, “Say it ain’t so, Joe!”

“Well kid,” Shoeless replied, “I’m afraid it is.”

Jump to ninety years later; now, I’m sure I’m not alone in wanting to invoke a similar phrase in a very different Chicago story. Say it ain’t Joe, Barack, say it ain’t Joe!

To merely write that I’m disappointed by this pick is an understatement of similar magnitude to saying that Usain Bolt has got a bit of acceleration. Or it’s like saying that Mozart could rattle off a tune now and then. Or it’s akin to saying that Paris Hilton is partial to boys…every once in a while.

This is a hideously bad pick; I do not expect Barack to reverse it, because to do so would entail more damage than the choice does in the first place. However, in order to move on from this decision, there needs to be honesty about Biden’s weak points and strong points.

To be absolutely fair to Biden, he has been around for quite some time; tenure does breed experience, and he probably has a deeper insight into how Washington runs than Barack does. Secondly, Biden has, as head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, valuable experience in foreign policy. It is also clear that Biden can be tenacious in attack when it is required.

These obvious strengths, however, do not counterbalance Biden’s just as obvious weaknesses; what is more, some of his “virtues” may actually create problems for Obama.

If there is one overriding theme to which Barack has clung, it is “change”. He is on record stating that “too often, Washington is a place where good ideas go to die”. Given this, he was the “anti-establishment” candidate; now he has just brought one of Washington’s longest serving veterans into the fold. It remains to be seen if this is a contradiction; however if Biden now embraces the message of “change”, it has the potential to look odd, given his long years in Washington. He will be asked, and perhaps rightly, as to why didn’t achieve more “change” while serving the people of Delaware.

Furthermore, like every politician, Biden has had to tack with the prevailing wind. The longer a politician serves, the more times he has had to make alterations in his positions in order to remain viable. It is a mystery as to why this has not yet turned into a liability for McCain; there is little doubt that this will become a problem for Biden.

For example, while Biden has rightly renounced his vote on the Iraq War, he did vote in favour of it in the first place, unlike Obama, who opposed it from the start; furthermore, most news sources state he is more “hawkish” than his new boss on the issue. This impression is based on a cumulative assessment of his votes and statements; this will be extremely difficult for him to throw overboard.

Beyond this, Biden has genuine negatives. We are living in an era of sound bites, and as any good politician knows, one has to exercise supreme discipline in what one says, because any statement has the potential to be interpreted by the press in a negative way. Obama could say, “I love puppies” and the press could interpret this as an attack on cat owners.

Senator Biden lacks the fundamental self-control and awareness to operate in this era. This handicap was on display back in 1988, when he campaigned for President: for one of his speeches, he borrowed a few phrases from British Labour leader Neil Kinnock. In fairness to Biden, he did credit Kinnock in most of the instances in which he used the Welshman’s words. However, he either forgot or had a slip of the tongue, and did not state the appropriate verbal footnote at one of his engagements, and this was seized upon by the press. His Presidential hopes went up in smoke shortly thereafter.

He has also apparently learned nothing since then; during his short-lived 2008 Presidential bid, Biden refered to Obama as “clean” in a manner that could have been construed as racist. While no one genuinely thinks Biden is a bigot, it did sound patronising, and it fatally damaged him once more.

Biden creates these “target rich” opportunities and cannot stop creating them; scanning the news sources this morning, whether from Britain, the United States or elsewhere, show a startling uniformity in this one aspect: Biden likes to talk. He will continue to speak, apparently, long after it is prudent. This is highly dangerous.

I can imagine the retorts from Obama’s advisors: there is talk that Biden’s Catholicism will attract Catholic voters; however, this is difficult to see, given that this is (rightly) not something he wears on his sleeve. It has been stated that he will attract blue collar voters, given his modest background and Scranton, PA origins; it is difficult to square this idea with his present lifestyle and penchant for sharp suits. All in all, the first rule of picking a Vice Presidential candidate, “do no harm” has apparently been thrown overboard for “do nothing particularly useful”.

It may be that my distance from the internal machinations associated with this decision means that I am entirely wrong: I certainly hope so. It could very well be that the relationship between Obama and Biden is so strong as to render any negatives worth bearing, and the air of solid partnership will wipe away any doubts. However, it could also be that this is one test that Barack has flunked: he could have picked a Vice Presidential candidate to appeal to the nation, or to the editorial board of the Washington Post. Picking someone like Governor Schweitzer of Montana would have been an example of the former, picking Biden smacks of the latter. Again, I hope I’m wrong. For the moment, however, I’m digesting this uneasily. That said, tomorrow, I’ll want to get a bumper sticker which reads “Obama / Biden ’08”.

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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)
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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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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