Facebook buys Oculus VR and why I shop at the corner store.

It’s all over the place by now. I don’t get excited about things. It’s a habit I’ve developed, I don’t claim to have invented it but the jist of it is that the less you expect from people the fewer things you are likely to be disappointed about. Every once in a while though something brings a tantalizingly great promise and everything points to that promise coming to fruition.

I’ve quietly been following Oculus Rift since I first heard about the kickstarter about a year or so ago. It looked GREAT. Notch was backing it, all the makings of a great technology looked like they were coming into place, and best of all it was open, like Wikipedia.(read my previous post on why that’s a good thing) which meant it was no strings attached if you could pay roughly $300 for the hardware. An effort surely, but worth it if you are genuinely interested and it’s something you feel will enhance your life in some way – and it certainly would make gaming a lot more interesting. Now that Facebook has bought it, I feel like I’ve dodged a bullet by not pre-ordering.

I used to have a Facebook account. I don’t anymore because as so many people in so many comment sections have put it: If it’s free and social, you’re not the customer, you are the product, and I will not have my life traded for profit. Used to be that villains would ask: “your money or your life” and people would have the good sense to pay up, somehow that has now changed and they are all too happy to plaster every minute detail of everything they do onto the internet. Companies like Facebook take this information and attempt to use it to make a model of who you are and then sell this model on for profit. I do not understand how people do not see anything sinister about this business practice and how so many continue to knowingly expose themselves in this way.

I live in Romania, that’s poignant because up until 1989 we had the most murderous secret police of the entire communist bloc, save maybe for the NKVD in Stalin’s days. They would spend enormous resources looking for dissent in any shape they could find it and being picked up off the street and shot in a forest on the outskirts of Bucharest for harboring anti communist views was a real possibility if you weren’t remotely famous. Neighbours could be informants, at least one person in your high-school class was one for sure, you could not trust anyone… even family. And here we are today, willingly ratting ourselves out to an extent beyond Beria’s wildest dreams back in the 50s, just so we can look at pictures of cats.

I shop at a corner store downstairs from my building. Two sisters own it. One of them has a daughter about five years old. I say hello when I walk in and they know who I am. Things are slightly more expensive there than in the Cora across the street, by about 5-10%. They have some things I could find for a lot less in Cora. But they don’t have a metal detector at the door, they also don’t scan my body for radioactive tags when I walk out the door just in case I’m a criminal. Bouncers don’t force me to seal my backpack into a one time use plastic bag also just in case I’m a criminal. Sure they have security cameras, but that video only gets watched if something happens, no one is actively watching where in the store I wonder just to see what colours (coulours autocorrect C O L O U R S) I’m most attracted to and what scents entice me the most. No. My money goes toward feeding that kid and putting a smile on her face. They teach me how to do a better job at my own work, and to them each customer really does matter, because their bottom line isn’t a ten digit number and money is a means to an end, not the end itself.

What does this have to do with next generation virtual reality gaming Kirk?

Oculus Rift was pitched to backers as a technology by gamers, for gamers. Independent developers like Mojang flocked to support the concept and bring it to market in a way that would make it self sustaining. It should have become an independent platform to support a virtual revolution showcasing a rejection of big budgets and monolithic money grabbing companies like EA and Sony. What happened was that greed won out yet again. People say that $ is a lot of money that can be invested into the product and that this is now making Oculus VR a household name. This ignores the fact that Facebook shares make up $1.600.000.000 of the sum. How do Facebook shares help the product? The rest also went to the relevant stake holders in the company. The $ was not an investment, it was a price. Facebook has yet to invest a single cent into the company and judging by the reaction of gaming communities (Project Valkyrie by CCP – the flagship of Oculus Rift comes to mind here) nails are already being driven into its’ coffin. No one in these crowds would touch anything that has anything to do with Facebook with a bargepole, let alone flog $300 at it.

To turn a profit on this investment Facebook will ask you for “your money AND your life” and from me, they’re getting neither.


Working in a call center – What is Empathy?

I like my job. It’s not what I dreamed I would be doing at this age as a kid. Not that I gave much thought to it at the time, but it does have its’ interesting peculiarities. Chief among them is the ability of an agent to exercise empathy toward the person on the other end.

This is a much easier thing to do over the phone than other means of support like e-mail or chat. So what is empathy? Your company’s trainer will tell you its’ the ability to understand the customer’s issue and to “put yourself in their shoes”. I contend this is only partially correct. You do need to understand the issue and you do need to understand why it’s important to them, but empathy goes farther than that. You have to be able to tell what mood they are in as they are calling. This is not something you have the luxury of determining during the call. The first thing they say and how they say it is your first indication, and be prepared for their mood to change throughout the call.

Your trainer will tell you to use words like “I understand” and “I’m truly sorry about the situation” and I often hear colleagues using these phrases as if they were a surefire way to ease the caller’s anxiety, but they are often said as a knee jerk response to what they are hearing and almost always end up sounding unnatural and fake. This only goes to exacerbate the problem as even though they are having an issue with whatever service you are supporting the assumption that “most callers are stupid” is at least misguided and at worst simply wrong.

This goes both ways, a caller may assume that working a support job is a simpleton’s occupation. Start your call with a flat greet that sounds like you’re in a speed reading competition and you’ve already made the first step toward convincing them that their innitial assumption is true. Your greet must sound like a real person speaking. It serves a threefold purpose.

Firstly, the caller receives a confirmation that they have called the right place, so speaking really quickly for the sake of your average handling time will defeat this purpose. This informational scope also includes the fact that they hear what your name is. This is important because the caller may or may not receive a survey about how you did. If you want a good grade, the first step is making sure they remember who you are.

Secondly, your greet will establish who is in control of the conversation. If you speak too slowly or sound nervous in any way, the caller will pick up on this and will assume control themselves. This is not entirely a conscious decision on their part as you must understand a call is a dance – it takes two to tango, but someone has to lead and since you are the one who knows the process that needs to be followed to achieve a resolution, you MUST lead the call. If this does not happen the caller will ask you to do certain things that you are not proceduraly able to, since they are in charge, not complying with their demands is a kind of insubordination and you will be deemed unhelpful, incapable, or worse a robot, a monkey or what have you – clearly not great for your survey results.

The third function of your greet is displaying confidence, and how likely you are to provide real, meaningful help. A greet that is expressed on a single flat note will not only not achieve this but will make the caller less likely to understand any difficulties you may face throughout the call such as the need to place them on hold, or not being able to fulfill their request due to procedure, because in their mind, they are dealing with a person who is following a script. Scripts are not something you can change and so they are faced with a situation that is likely to frustrate them unless they take drastic action, in this case being mean or dismissive or asking to speak to your supervisor. Good luck on your survey.

Empathy goes both ways. You need to know what the caller expects from you not strictly from a service point of view but from a conversational point of view, and at the same time you must act in a manner that is likely to elicit their understanding. Empathy is not pity, it is respect. Ending up in a situation where you have to say something like “sir, please understand that <insert inability statement here>” is a clear indication that you have failed at this task.

So exercising empathy starts with the very first few seconds of the call, likely the most important ones, as they determine the entire course of the interaction. Your work is not over though, you have to carry this throughout the call and gauge the caller’s attitude continuously. Are they jovial? Serious? Chatty? Formal? How old do they sound? Where are they from? Sketch a rough portrait of what you think they look like in your mind. How would you really be talking to this person if it was real life?

You will be told that being a professional means leaving your day to day problems at the door. This is not just an empty saying. Empathy does not mean just putting yourself in someone’s shoes, it means being someone they respect whom they believe can help them. There are very few callers who will be uncooperative from the get go, after all, they called you and not the other way around and one can say that you start the call with a neutral satisfaction index. Often times you will be faced with types of people you may not necessarily like. You need to put this aside and focus on the task at hand and from the moment you pick up the phone, start looking for ways to be that person’s closest friend, if you’re good it won’t last that long, and if you’re really good you’ll have a blast doing it.

The virtues of not acting on impulse.

I was angry today, very angry. Those who know me would say that is very unusual as it takes quite a lot to set me off. I wanted to scream, yell and break things. In the end I put on some loud music and played air guitar for about a half hour. I realized just how irrational it was and in the middle of singing along to brutal heavy metal I dissected the feeling in my mind. Why did I feel this way? What was the causal relationship between what had just happened and the very physical feeling of intense scorn I was experiencing. Why should it be that this emotion should dominate my psyche when it was clearly irrational?

Darth Vader had a point – let the hate flow through you, do not resist it, let it flow so that it does not settle.

Why? Quantum physics tells us that the mere act of measurement changes the properties of that which we measure. I decided to put this to the test in what was admittedly a less scientific experiment on myself. I systematically arranged the facts about what I was feeling in the truthful order in which they unfolded. The music made me feel the elation that music usually does, when we like it, and dissecting my feelings into their component parts stripped them of their power. It took about ten minutes of this exercise to regain my usual composure.

I have had the fortune of burying more people my age (whom I knew personally) than is usual for someone below thirty years old and not living in a warzone. I say fortune because it exposed me to death, it is no longer a myth to me. Three of these people committed suicide.  The latest was sometime this week and when I first heard the news I tried to remember the man. It had been over a year since we last spoke. He seemed to be a rational person, mild mannered and respectful. It struck me that he spoke correct Romanian without having to try, which is rare.

A mutual friend who knew him better than I did spoke to me of a depressive character and an existence rife with insecurity. It only took a more severe bout of deep depression and the local crematory was in business a couple of days later.

Suicide is a strange thing. The same friend said he somehow felt similarly but thought “I’ve already bought the ticket, might as well stick around for the show, it’s not going to last forever”.  We all have moments in our lives when we feel like we just can’t take anymore and it seems like an attractive solution. All over, as quick as your chosen method can deliver the result.

The first person in my life who committed suicide was sixteen at the time. It was not her first try either. I admit I had somewhat of a crush and it was all kind of surreal at the time. It felt like I could have done something to prevent this. I was one of the two or three people in our class who knew why she’d missed school for a month in the first semester. She was smart and we shared similar tastes. One night she decided it was all too much and resolved to end it. We all learned a lesson during the events that followed, and it wasn’t just that drowning and being under water for two days makes your body swell like a cheap tampon. No, we got to witness the aftermath of a family losing their only child. We got to watch a mother bury her daughter and the seemingly unbearable desperation of being unable to make her wake up. We got to witness the reality of choosing to die on purpose.

What’s more is that this lesson continues. Twelve years later the problems we faced in our teens seem trivial and remote. She missed these twelve years by leaving the cinema early and it is painfully clear to me that she never got to really appreciate whether the movie is any good, she only saw the intro and decided the lead’s partner was going to ruin it. Turns out that guy was just an extra with a single line though.

The decisions we make in our lives can have a profound effect not only on ourselves but on those around us. It can be easy to act on a gut feeling, at the time it’s the most attractive solution to whatever conundrum life throws our way, and while taking too much time to act can be an equally debilitating course I think it always pays to stop and take a look at yourself when in a crysis.

Stop, drop and roll.


Why I am not a nationalist.

Nationalists these days call themselves Euroskeptics. It’s popular. It’s the safe word to use in polite company, something you can say when people ask you how you feel about your government, and it is suicidal.

The jist of the idea behind Euroskepticism is that a farmer in Cornwall knows best how to run his farm and his facon de faire may be different from that of a farmer in Transylvania. Whatever the case may be, they both definitely know better than that pompous European Commission on Agriculture in Bruxelles. There is no need, they say, for a unified policy on the subject because every farmer knows what’s best for himself.

While this may be true, not every consumer knows what’s in the farmer’s produce and the farmer doesn’t always know what’s best for his livestock, he’s a farmer not a veterinarian. Not only that but if a produce market in London sells Romanian potatoes I am quite certain consumers would like some kind of guarantee they weren’t grown in a bed of pure manure. The EU provides safeguards against abuse in a very open market. These do not always work as we saw in the case of the horse meat scandal, but they do make for a very neat paper trail which can be followed to find the flaw, and this was done in months rather than the years it would have taken without the close integration we have.  Here was a case of a boring issue where Europe pulled through for the consumer but got very little credit.

What does this have to do with nationalists Kirk, you’re ranting man, get a grip. Well it does. Farming regulations within Europe are a local issue. They are about ensuring standards are met throughout the union so that competition is fair within this space. They are also in place to protect European consumers from products, which would fall below these standards, that are imported from outside of the Union. So in essence, they have nothing to do with who wields power and everything to do with quality products which we can trace from store shelf to raw materials source every step of the way in every single case – from cheese to beef that isn’t beef. This is a unified European policy that works.

Right, nationalism.

There are however issues that we do not agree on. One of them is foreign policy. Case in point, the Ukraine crysis. While the protests in Kiev were in full swing, three European foreign ministers, individually representing France, Germany and Poland traveled to Kiev to settle the matter once and for all. (Mind you this was later construed to seem like they had the European Foreign Affairs Commissioner, Baroness Ashton’s blessing, but I submit to your consideration that they acted unilaterally).  This was a blunder on many levels, not least of which because it seemed to back a movement whose only claim to legitimacy was the fact that people had died in supporting it. One need only point to the Colombian FARC to see that this policy was flawed. It could not claim to represent a majority of the Ukrainian people as no elections were held.

Why is this important? The UK did not have a voice in these dealings. As a member (though reluctant) of the European Union it should. What was the result? Events evolved into the current situation and it is William Hague’s turn to pick up the baton and speak on behalf of either the UK, or in conjunction with the US, or the UK within the EU, one cannot be quite sure. What is clear is that on the one side of the issue stands Russia, with a clear policy, a clear leader and a focused approach to the situation while on the other we have an entity vaguely defined as the West, which is scrambling desperately for cohesion in this highly volatile situation.

European (read, that represent countries which happen to be a part of the Union) leaders are wrangling for preeminence in defining what line we should follow as a group based solely on their need to maintain their own countries’ status within the EU to the extent that the broader implications of the outcome for the block as a whole are being ignored.

Debating the relevance of independence from Bruxelles at a juncture in our history when each individual state is vastly outgunned economically politically and I dare say militarily by a much greater power flexing its’ muscles right on our doorstep thus becomes an exercise in self harm on behalf of each European nation.

Nationalism was a great idea in the 19th century. It described a world in which people governed themselves in opposition to the rule of empires headed by despots and autocrats. We take pride in the accomplishments of that era and cherish our independence and self rule. But it is an outdated idea for Europe to adhere to in a world of super sized economies fueled by vast resources that are no longer part of European empires.  Nationalism in this context is a counterproductive position to take given the limited capability of individual states to effectively deal with issues of this magnitude.