Cancer.

It’s not often one gets to witness a moment in one’s own life quite as graphically as I did today. An ethereal window into the past opening and closing like a camera shutter recording every minute detail of the event, remembered or not – it is there.

The phone rang and she answered it. I could not hear what she was saying and I could not hear what she was being told, but I saw.

An intelligent innocent girl of twenty three, slightly pale skin transformed in front of my very eyes. I was able to pinpoint the very moment it fell. Her lower right eyelid slid discreetly toward the inside of the socket, a brief instant of surprise as her eyebrows raised, and a red hue started spreading from the tip of her nose to cover her face. A vein in her temple swelled slightly and her eyes convulsed as if a sharp blow struck her in the stomach.

No more than half a second later the news left her auditory cortex and fell through the gaping hole the impact had left to crush her very soul. She burst into tears and everyone rushed to her side. The noise of “be strong”, “he’ll pull through… you just have to believe” and the remarkably stupid “technology has come a long way these days” was already starting to build and I could see all of her hopes and aspirations shattering and turning to dust. I suddenly remembered every agonizing nuance of that call I got four and a half years ago… the shivering knees I couldn’t control as I made my way back to my cube and the disbelief I wanted so desperately to cling to. I felt I had to say something to her, the loneliness of receiving that news is hard to describe. “I know exactly what’s going on in your mind right now… I’m right here if you need to talk”.

My father looked at me and said it was “childhood’s end”. I resented it at the time, who was he to tell me I couldn’t be a kid anymore, take a look in the mirror you’ve got bigger problems than mine. But he was right. Nothing will ever be the same again, the age of innocence was fading, like an old dream. No one can help you, you have to help yourself, deal with it on your own. Nothing anyone says makes any difference, it’s all noise and you feel like you are all alone in the world. It relentlessly torments you with remorseless intensity and there’s nothing anyone can do about it except for you, and you realize even if it somehow goes away completely, you’ll have to deal with it again sooner or later. You realize you can never hope to beat it although with time, you may be able to tame it.

Everything has changed, forever.

Time goes by and the reality sinks in, day after day you confront it and hope for the best while preparing for the worst. Cancer is kind in that way – it gives you time. You grow numb and by the time its’ over whichever way the coin falls you’ve changed to become a completely different person. You realize just how finite you really are however larger than life you make yourself out to be in your mind. Welcome to the real world, it sucks, you’ll love it. How can you not? It’s all you have, all you can hope to have and choice is an illusion.

You calm down and you start tentatively looking back over your shoulder, you gain a new found respect for the fact that you exist and learn to cherish it and enjoy it for what it is rather than live in perpetual expectation of what you want it to be.

Life teaches you lessons and you take them in and you grow and you live. You wake up every morning to a new dawn, you breathe it in and the colors of the world start coming back and although the light has changed it still fascinates you. You either embrace it or you close yourself off and become miss Havisham, it is entirely up to you because, like it or not, you are now in charge.

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Intolerance is built into the Internet.

It’s funny how sometimes a repeat of the same action can bring new insight into a subject that is only loosely related. I got a Twitter account today, you can follow me @kirksminutia. I’ve created a lot of accounts for a number of services over the years, it was not my first time. I even had to create one to write this blog, it’s a rather trivial action. The first thing I did was follow a couple of friends and some of the more prominent people I’d like to keep up to date with on the off chance they might link something interesting, as well as my favorite YouTuber. In other words, people I like.

The internet allows us to do that – find other people who share the same interests and connect to build what we define with the very suburban term “communities”. It is clean and attractive. Get online, share, make friends, engage, move the world we’re told. And it does work. If Egypt, Lybia and Tunisia taught us anything, it’s that it does work. The last century’s advances in communication and transportation technology are arguably the most important changes in the way we live our lives since the first city, or fire.

We cluster together in groups large or small and allow our ideas to brew and grow without interference. It’s so often a case of one figure preaching to the choir which in turn, knowingly and willingly or not, sends out missionaries to attract more followers and the thing grows like an amoeba. We call it the internet but it’s not a neat and organised fisherman’s net. It’s a mess of bird’s nests made of fishing line. You know, the kind that whales choke on. In fact the DNS system is built in exactly that way. Small networks with lots of internal connections use a much smaller number of connections to tie in to other networks.

Whether it’s gaming communities, some comedian’s Twitter feed or 4chan and Anonymous, this is the pervasive nature of the web. In fact if all of these were jihadists, the CIA would call them cells.

Why do I think they are the same? Well let’s take the “freedom of religion” vs “freedom from religion” argument that has come to the fore in the US in recent years. I have my own opinion that I may discuss (read “tell you about”) in a future post. Both crowds have been “sharing” and “engaging” and “moving the world” among themselves for decades writing books and posting inspirational jpegs on Facebook day after day. There is no real discussion (not that I think the contention even deserves one) and people like Rush Limbaugh and Richard Dawkins are always constantly preaching to the choir. One is a radio host and the other is an academic, you would think the distinction would be quite clear but they are both equally dismissive about the other group in their rhetoric. Book titles include things like “Evolution debunked” and “The God Delusion”, clearly not aimed at convincing the opponent of the error of his thought process but rather a collection of argumentative ammunition for the masses to use against each other. This behavior does not foster dialogue – it breeds intolerance.

It is the same kind of tribalism that pits Call of Duty players against Battlefield fans. Wowheads versus Eve capsuleers. Muslims versus… well everybody. Romanians versus Magyars and the list can go on. Neither group is willing to actively put themselves in the other’s place without the prejudice of a foregone conclusion and the flaming continues on bulletin boards, forums, twitter, facebook, you name it. All these labels do is make people forget they are individuals and the Internet turns slowly but surely from a place where ideas are put out in the open for everyone to see and consider to one where they are increasingly more radical and intolerant.

This is why my favorite website is Wikipedia. A place where knowledge comes first. Your university professor will chide you for listing it as a source. He’s right, you shouldn’t, any idiot can change an article there, but at the same time every article is peer reviewed and constantly revised. You should never blindly trust it. Instead check on it on more than one occasion, some things may have changed, look for statements that are referenced, check the source, is it trustworthy? That is a decision you will have to take for yourself, on your own, with your own judgement. Intellectual responsability is a part of being a mature human being, be one and quit trolling.

Working in call centers – the factories of our time

This is what I do. I don’t call it my career but the fact is I have been at it for quite a while. I haven’t done it all but I have done plenty. Sales, retention, technical and hardware support, I’ve been a coach and I’ve taken the tough supervisor calls. I’ve even told a customer, on behalf of the company, that we would not do business with him anymore

It is a job that anyone can qualify for but that few can actually do well. Only some of these will be tough enough to last beyond six months and fewer still who can find any pleasure in it.

I am one of these dysfunctional few.

Since it seems that lately working in these places has turned into a kind of right of passage for the young Romanian undergraduate looking for financial independence I thought it a good thing to try and shed some light on the subject.

Call centers are diverse beasts. There are sweatshops which’ll have you call two to three hundred people a day on the off chance that one or two will buy what you’re selling. These places are usually pretty obvious from the first time you go for an interview. The “office” is a glorified garage and the interview is conducted in plain view of the other agents. The noise is beyond description, the carpet is full of coffee stains and the furniture is in woeful disrepair. Avoid under any circumstance. It will be the most soul destroying thing you will ever have to do.

There are mid level companies that specialize in business process outsourcing for overseas customers. They will typically have a wide ranging portfolio of projects in diverse industries and some of their clients will be companies you may have heard about. This is their major bargaining chip when trying to sell you the job: “you will have the opportunity to work in a multinational company which will look great on your CV later”. If your education means anything to you, steer clear. These places are in fierce competition with each other and the more cheap talent they can get a hold of the better. Monthly employee attrition rates are a major consideration in their business model and once you’re in you’ll be faced with the reality that they can always find someone with the exact same skill level they require of you who has already submitted their resume.

You’ll be in a situation where your experience is largely dictated by your boss rather than the company. There are those managers who will put some effort into building a solid team of people who complement each other well and who will do their damnedest to treat you fairly. The truth of the matter is that these people are rare and it is purely a matter of chance. At the end of the day, if they can’t “fix” an agent in three months you will be right where you started. Four months experience is more of a liability on your resume than no experience.

The caveat here is that although these employers will work you hard and squeeze every last drop of productivity out of you, they will not usually break any laws. You’ll be paid on time and the fluid environment makes for advancement opportunities if you’ve got your eye on the ball. They enforce strict discipline and for those of us who were never conscripted in the army it can be a very maturing time. I repeat myself but avoid unless desperate – at 21 it’s not worth sacrificing your studies for this work experience.

Finally there is the large multinational. Companies like Oracle and HP have a large presence in Bucharest and most of it revolves around support services and programming. There are others but these two are some of the more well known employers. I am not going to talk about these two companies specifically as I have not experienced the environment first hand. Generally though, the pay is good and the working conditions are dignified. These are specialized positions which require certain skills beyond language and being “a team player who can build and maintain good professional relationships”.  Some experience in the previous category of employment may be required before they will consider you for a position but that does not mean exceptional candidates are not eligible.

Working in a call center can be a challenging proposal. There are many pluses which are often overlooked and which I will strive to accurately describe in future posts. There are also many pitfalls you can stumble into on a personal level. I would venture to say this is an important part of our current services oriented economy and it should not be overlooked as a possible career path. Like anything else however it should be looked at with steely rather than googly eyes.

There are several good employers in Bucharest and all one has to do is persevere in their pursuit. Always remember that starting work before you have your BA puts you at risk of never graduating leaving you with only a high school education, hardly sufficient in today’s highly competitive job market and a handicap that is very difficult to rectify once the deed has been done.

What is meaningful?

Commuting gives a man time to think. Maybe too much time. Seven minutes to the subway, during which time I may or may not stop at the store. It may be cold or windy depending on the wiles of winter. Three to four minutes waiting for the subway either numbing the boredom with soundless video on the overhead screens or listening to the same forty or so songs on my phone. Here it comes, will I fit in the sardine rollercoaster or will I be proud and refuse the humiliation for another few minutes?

Twelve minutes to the exchange and the doors open. It’s my morning exercise, half a mile of pedestrian NASCAR underneath the city. I draft, I accelerate and I overtake but I am never the guy who steps on your shoes, I know you’re cranky this morning, I haven’t had the best night’s sleep either and we’re both off to the same grind. For this one three minute part of our day I understand you, fellow human.

If I played my cards right during the race I step onto the platform and I’m at the very spot where the fifth door from the back will open. I am not in front of the door, I am just to the side. The tide of people from inside the caterpillar parts the five deep phalanx of suits and dreadlocks but I am in the ideal spot to pop inside and grab a seat as soon as the last of them is out, well done me.

As the doors close and the train moves off into the tunnel I contemplate the enormous uselessness of my accomplishment. Here lady, sit down, I don’t want it anymore… It’s meaningless. I tap the rhythm of the song quietly onto the floor as if it could somehow disturb the mass of fellow cattle lurching in harmony to either side of the car as the wheels echo loudly in the caverns.

Eighteen minutes later and it’s the last stop, all out. Close to a thousand people funnel to two subway exits and I wonder whether there’ll be a queue at the pastry place right before the exit – I like their croissant.

So is this all there is? I’ll be doing it in reverse in eight and a half hours but maybe I’ll have some company.

Why do I feel like I’m wasting this time? I couldn’t possibly read, I could miss a stop, that would be disastrous. Sometimes I arrogantly ponder the problems of the world as though one so little as me could even scratch the surface. The whole journey I’m bombarded by all kinds of messages being pushed into my face whether I like it or not, it feels like being herded, Avon, American Hustle, Vodafone – it’s so eclectic, so noisy. so futile. And then there are these.

SAMSUNG

True graffiti, not a hundred square meter mural, or an overly complicated and colorful tag, the things you would be tempted to call urban art. No, this is true graffiti. A simple, vulgar message written in haste, maybe on a dare late at night when the subway car was empty. Whether I agree with the message or not is beside the point (it is a crude jibe at our prime minister). Who are you targetting this toward? How will your message be seen? Will it be taken at face value and somehow go viral sparking a revolution against this administration? What is your intent? What was the dynamic in that group when they decided it was a good idea to write this on the inside of this door? Does it mean anything to you or did you write those particular words for lack of anything better? Were you expecting to sway people on the fence about the issue? Did you honestly think that it would? Do you know how much scrubbing it takes to get that marker off? Is this the only place that you did this? Are you on some sort of political graffiti spree? Why? What were your other options? WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

The shortcomings of democracy.

One of my friends read my previous post. The discussion that ensued lasted well into the night. We are not from the same country and so our views tend to be quite different about a number of things though sometimes they magically converge allowing us to discover the utility of debate. This was not a Bill Nye vs Ken Ham confrontation.

While this was going on, one of the people who have stumbled upon this blog mentioned something very important in the one comment to my last post. “The Athenians didn’t have it so great either (…)” they said. And I agree. I had mentioned them because ancient Greek democracy serves as the template to our own systems. We do not share all of the details of theirs but the concept is the same.

The one pervasive complaint everyone shares about the way government works is that the people who make it up are incompetent for the most part. Sometimes you can get lucky and have someone in charge who knows what they are doing, like Bismark. Now Prussia would hardly live up to the standards of a democracy nowadays. The most important point being that they did not have universal suffrage, and it was really democracy by the elite or, if you want to get technical, an aristocracy.

Make no mistake, Bismark was a dictator, but what sets him apart from Stalin or Hitler or others is the fact that he was not a madman. He was a nation builder however. Germany would not be what it is today had it not been for this man. Not a perfect leader, but one who could find compromise and who managed to unite the many Holy Roman states under one rule (Prussian rule) – a sum greater than its’ parts. In fact he did such a great job the nation he built was annihilated twice and within fifty years came back to the forefront of Europe.

Speaking of Europe. Why is Europe so sluggish? Why does it feel so far removed from the electorate? And why are Europeans so skeptical about it?

The answer is that it is obscure. Europe is run by a modern day elite who is not directly accountable for what it is doing. People feel that Europe meddles in their country’s internal affairs far too much. Additionally there are several layers of bureaucracy between the government and the governed. It is highly decentralized when compared to say China or the USA in terms of decision making.

That is to say even though rules come from Brussels and signatory states have to abide by them, there is no unitary foreign policy, domestic policy, immigration policy and this list can go on but it should end with “there is no head of state”.

I am making it harder and harder to believe that I am a proponent of a united Europe but since you have come this far I feel I should redeem myself.

I have so far described some of the issues the electorate has with Europe. There are those who also have a problem with the electorate however. It too is distant and out of touch. Take the Ukraine crysis for example. Mark Mardel (the BBC’s North America editor) wrote this piece today. It is remarkably alarmed for a Brit. In it he deplores the failure of the west to recognize the importance of the events.

Speaking from a rather more humble position of a citizen of Romania who does not work for an international news corporation I share this feeling. The people around me are far more concerned with what online clothing stores have on offer and where to get one’s nails / hair done, or how attractive the new girl is than they are with events that are likely to shape the future of us all. In fact, the only meaningful conversation I am able to have on the topic is with two of my closest friends and a Frenchman (a white Caucasian Frenchman immigrant to Romania, welcome to the Twilight Zone).

While personal experience alone does little to serve in the pursuit of truth, save for an indication of possible fact I submit that this is a widespread phenomenon in Europe, and much of the western world. This is our democracy, built on universal suffrage.

Universal suffrage is based on the assumption of universal education. It is in theory a system whereby an educated citizenry is able to make informed decisions about the issues being put before them for a vote. It sounds great on paper and it would be in practice if we could be confident people are actually educated. Note that I used the term educated rather than intelligent. Education is a formative process involving assimilation of factual knowledge as well as the reasoning skills to interpret this knowledge in ways that make sense. I again submit to the reader’s consideration that a non zero percentile of the electorate does not conform to this definition. In fact, an important part of the electorate does not conform to this definition.

Many of us see voting as a chore that we choose to humor the government in performing when in fact it should be a duty. A duty to ourselves and our children to vote responsibly and to consider carefully the choices we make.

Our politicians are mediocre because they are chosen from among the mediocre while the capable shy away from public service for fear of being embroiled in inconsequential power play that a mind concerned with real issues cannot stomach.

My my Kirk, you are angry… and you are patronizing, what do you propose we do?

Every country in the European Union organizes a national testing session once a year. Here it is called the Bacalaureat. Other places have different names for it but essentially it is a series of tests which gauge a high school graduate’s knowledge and reasoning. Sound familiar? I believe that people who are unable to pass this test should forfeit their right to vote until such time when they are able to resit the examinations and receive at least passing grades.

I do not believe people who have no grasp of mathematics, Europe’s geography or history should be allowed to participate in the decision making process as their vote is equivalent to casting dice at best and highly susceptible to very directly targeted manipulation at worst. Additionally, one should not be allowed to hold public office without having received a high mark in this examination for the same reasons. Those who thus become ineligible can always resit the tests just like they can now and become fully recognized citizens at any point in their lives.

Culling the electorate in this fashion will not only improve the quality of the votes but also reduce the need to have the number of representatives that we currently have from the ridiculous current total of 766 to a number that allows for less anonymity and much more relevant scrutiny by a voter base who is more informed than the one in our current model.

Should such a proposal ever be considered? Would you vote for it? Why? Leave a comment in the comment box below and let me know your thoughts.

Ukraine’s house of cards

I read BBC news. Daily. They are biased toward euro skepticism. It does well to counter my euro optimism and I think between the BBC news website and a little bit of my own digging I can get as accurate a picture of what’s going on in the world as you can by just sitting in front of your computer. It isn’t perfect and I think I could probably do a lot better to acquaint myself with the realities whizzing by around me.

As I am writing this, twenty six people have died since the violence started yesterday. These were members of the Maidan movement as well as law enforcement. We all know what Stalin said, it is cliche by now. These were people, like you and like me. They had families, hopes, aspirations, embarrassing memories of that one time at band camp. They were all alive a couple of days ago and are now dead.

Protests like this have been happening all the time. Group A wants something to change, they may or may not represent a majority of the population. The government says no, there is a standoff, a spark, and then broken lives. All in the name of political change. Which side you take is entirely a matter of opinion. There is very little to distinguish a right choice from the wrong one and indeed, often times, such a distinction is nonsensical as the contention is in fact about a conflict of interests between the groups.

Case in point, the Ukraine came to the spotlight of international news eight years ago when the so called Orange Revolution ousted mr. Yanukovich (yes the same man) from power under similar conditions, though without the loss of life. The politics devolved and the main protagonists of that event have all but disappeared. Today Viktor Yushchenko is not an active voice in the movement, and Yulia Tymoshenko is confined to a prison cell from which she occasionally makes statements that fall on deaf ears, both in her own country and abroad.

Eight years of political power play in Kiev and the Ukraine is back to square one, something of a future case study on the cyclic nature of history. We follow the developments and we argue back and forth about who is in the right and who is in the wrong, making statements, informed or not about how things should be and what is to be done.

Which brings me to the title of this article. How accurate is the Netflix show (I should find the book)? Surely it’s fiction and characters and plot features are great exaggerations of what actually goes on in our democratic systems. What I find is always lost in the narrative is often at least as important. We are never shown Zoe Barnes’ funeral, we really barely know her and the only attention her death is given is as an expose of NSA spying through the developments that follow. It wasn’t necessary you will say, we already came to know Peter Russo, it’s all the same. In this case, two is a statistic.

The fact is we all too rarely consider the reality of death and the toll that is being exacted. The coroner has to put her body back together… The initial report of the death toll in Independence Square came from a doctor who was in the protest camp. He was tasked to take care of these people, and there was little to nothing he could do for them. He would’ve had to do this in the blistering cold, acrid smoke of burning rubber, raging fires and in the chaos of a riot police raid on a fortified camp full of exhausted but determined… what?… Activists? Terrorists? Protesters? Hooligans?… People.

While I believe that we should be masters of our own destiny the truth is that there are probably far too many of us for representation to work the same way that it did for the Athenians. Individual voices become statistics. Individual ideas become abstract ideology that we attach to with varying levels of conviction, and only the loudest are heard. We elect one from among the loudest whom we most agree with and then it is out of our hands. Whether they meant what they said or not becomes irrelevant, they have the power now. The only way we know of for a group of elected people to govern is by means of politics. Yes the very same kind of politics that happen in your office, just with higher stakes and consequences that are farther removed.

Democracy is the least bad system of governance that we have been able to come up with up until this point. The Ukraine is now showing us why that is the case. I salute you neighbors, and I hope that it is not in vain.

Eve Online is not a second job.

Controversial I know, yet this is the kind of statement that keeps people away from MMOs. You could say that they get played a lot and that some people play them more than they should but I will retort with “people drink wine more than they should” wine itself is not a bad beverage. Just like anything else, one should find a way to strike a balance. You can abuse anything and it will be bad for you.

Before I started playing Eve Online I was playing World of Warcraft. I stopped at the end of Cataclysm due to a number of reasons ranging from it no longer being something I enjoyed to the realization that I had spent one out of the last three years of my life literally sat in front of my computer playing my paladin. It was my way of socializing, I made at least one good friend, and spent time with my geographically remote family (Yes). I do not regret this, but it was time to move on and explore other things.

Now, if you are remotely familiar with basic arithmetic that translates to on average eight hours a day which is in fact a full time job. I was juggling this time with an actual full time job and sleep. Some days I played more and some I played less while some I didn’t play at all but all told it was a lot.

I continued to play other games though, rather more casually, and I rediscovered that single player games are fun too. Skyrim was good and so is Kerbal Space Program but ever since I heard about it the first time I had always wanted to play Eve Online. No one I knew was interested though so I ended up putting it off for the longest of time. I finally decided to set up a trial account and give it the old college try.

I was hit with an overwhelming amount of information right from the start and it was quite shocking, though understandable – the game had been developing without me for the past eight years so really no surprise there.  I ended up not getting a subscription after my trial ran out as I felt I was nowhere near confident I could play this fascinating game well. I had even started to believe that maybe it was true wowheads bring capsuleers mean IQ down.

I never really lost interest though and I kept on reading the forums, online guides, watched Youtube videos and was loosely aware of the current in game politics of the time – everybody likes some intrigue.

It took about a year to work the courage back up to to start another trial, this time I had a plan – I was going to be an industrialist, I would build ships and I would make lots of ISK and the game would pay for itself due to the PLEX mechanic. I focused my entire trial on as many industry skills as were available for trial accounts and ended up with about 300 million ISK in my wallet at the end. I thought that was not half bad but soon realized 300 million is really not that much.

I played about as much Eve as I had done WoW for a couple of months but I was far less engaged. You can mine and watch a movie or read, or spend time with your significant other you see. On top of that there is no traditional leveling, your character gains skills in real time whether you are online or not so really when you are playing you are there just to have fun. There is no grind if you are smart about your choices.

Some time went by and I decided to join an NPC null sec group and my entire game changed. The difference in types of people you meet around the Eve universe is staggering. These were laid back guys who play casually, all have jobs and some even have multiple children. Ages range from late teens to late fifties and we have a blast at the weekends.

So there you have it, about seven hundred words in, you’ve been introduced to my MMO history. So why doesn’t it feel like a job Kirk?

Well, I still do industry, I do exploration and until recently I had a player owned station which provided constant passive income. I am not what you would call space rich but ISK is a non issue due to the fact that I have a grasp of the game’s core PvE concepts and through some research I know what I have to do to make enough that both (yes both) my accounts are payed for via ISK income only and I can afford the inevitable loss of ships. The key is engaging with people, start relationships, honor promises and play the meta game. My industrial activity has now shifted from hours of having the client running in the background mining to five minutes a day buying minerals to keep my manufacturing queues going and selling off the product. Sometimes I have to haul but its’ far from what you’d call a full time job.

My main income is from exploration. The last intensive DED site spree I did was several months ago in September, and I am still living off of those proceeds – it took about a week of five to six hours a day exploring. Aside from those five minutes a day I am very rarely online now as the game allows you to take long breaks while still progressing your character. I keep in touch with my Alliance out of game and I am aware of what is going on. I log on when numbers are essential if I can. Nothing is compulsory and everyone understands that.

All things considered I feel that Eve is in fact being misrepresented as one of those games people with no social life whatsoever play. If my previous post has not convinced you about the ridiculousness of such a statement regarding any game, I hope that to some extent this one has maybe cleared up a few things about EVE. It will hurt and you are likely to fail the first couple of times. Eve is unkind to the easily offended and those who would not persevere to overcome obstacles, but once you’re across those tough first couple of months, it all becomes very clear… And a great gaming experience. Fly safe!