Ce mă macină…

De obicei nu scriu în română aici, aşa că poate ar trebui să mă prezint, şi, făcând asta să vă spun o poveste, una pe care ar trebui să o recunoaşteţi.

Am 28 de ani. Unii îmi spun că sunt bătrân, alţii că sunt tânăr, Eu ştiu doar că am fire albe şi în cap şi în barbă dar desenele animate încă mă mai fac să râd. Prima mea amintire este din ziua în care am priceput în sfârşit cum se pronunţă simbolul ‘g’ din cartea de poveşti mare şi verde pe care o folosea mama pe post de material didactic. Aveam 3 ani şi urma să merg pentru prima oară la cămin unde în prima zi am plâns de disperare că mama m-a lăsat acolo, am învăţat să mă leg singur la şireturi precum şi două lucruri esenţiale pentru supravieţuirea în comunitatea în care doar ce intrasem: doamna grasă se chema “tovarăşa” şi “toate cuburile de lemn sunt ale lui Alin” – mi-a zis Ionel, unul din noii mei prieteni de joacă, şi portavocea acestui Alin. Vedeţi voi, în grupa mijlocie de la căminul la care am fost, Alin era un soi de baron local, trebuia să ai mare grijă în relaţia cu ţâncul de patru ani pentru că alţii care voiau să se joace şi ei cu cuburile insuficiente pentru câţi copii eram, nefăcând diferenţa între bine şi rău, te-ar fi bătut crâncen la un ordin de-al lui Alin – doar doar le-o permite mai multe cuburi tip “poartă”. Când resursele sunt puţine e uşor să-i învrăjbeşti pe cei mici şi iată cum ia naştere corupţia.

Nu a trecut mult timp şi după o vacanţă de iarnă m-am întors la cămin. “Tovarăşa” ne-a spus ca de aici înainte se cheamă “Doamna”. A fost o vacanţă plină de evenimente – cutia mare cu un perete de sticlă de pe nişa bibliotecii se chema “televizor”. Mic şi îndoctrinabil ţopăiam pe canapea strigând “Ceauşescu România! Ceauşescu România!”. Am aflat peste ani că motivul pentru care tata nu era acasă a fost că plecase de fapt la Timişoara unde începuseră evenimentele din Decembrie 1989, nu din zel revolutionar ci pentru că fratele meu mai mare era acolo la un concurs de şah, şi totodată, în mare pericol.

Acum la 25 de ani după amintirile astea le privesc cumva de sus, în ansamblul lor. Au urmat zile negre pentru România, resursele puţine nu fac ca doar copiii de grădiniţă să fie manipulabili. După crima săvârşită împotriva a doi bătrâni fragili care nu mai erau nici un pericol pentru noul stabiliment, şi pe care poporul român ar fi meritat să îi vadă judecaţi riguros cu adevărat spre deosebire de linşaţi odios, puterea a căzut în mâinile FSN (Frontul Salvării Naţionale), un nou partid stat. S-a creat o stare de fapt pe care unii nu erau pregătiţi să o tolereze, sigur aceşti nemulţumiţi nu puteau fi decât nişte “golani” care în nerecunoştinţa lor de fascişti drogaţi au ocupat paşnic piaţa Universităţii.  Alin, scuze, Ion Iliescu îi denunţă ca atare şi îi cheamă la arme pe minerii din Valea Jiului, care, aliniaţi în spatele lui Ionel, zis Miron Cozma, descind asupra Bucureştiului înarmaţi cu bâte şi topoare făcând măcel printre tinerii din piaţă. Ion Iliescu iese la televizor din nou şi le mulţumeşte pentru devotamentul faţă de ţara care de pe acum se confundă cu personajele noului regim, cu promisiunea implicită că vor primi cuburi.

Sigur duşmanul din interior devin acum golanii intelectuali, o ţintă facilă având în vedere că terenul împotriva lor fusese pregătit bine în 40 de ani de comunism, aşa că “IMGB face ordine”, “noi muncim, noi nu gândim” şi “nu ne vindem ţara” devin titluri de glorie printre copiii grădiniţei noastre. Cele mai bune minţi ale societăţii îşi fac bagajele şi părăsesc ţara care aparent nu îi vrea.

Au trecut câţiva ani şi nucleul FSN-ului scindat după mineriade în mai multe partide este încă la putere sub forma PDSR (Partidul Democraţiei Sociale din România). Deşi aceşti lideri ai revoluţiei deţineau controlul total asupra instituţiilor statului în urma alegerilor din 1992, la 6 ani după Decembrie 1989, românii încă nu au un răspuns la întrebarea “Cine a tras în noi?” – până şi copiii de grădiniţă îşi pun întrebări când îşi văd familia măcelărită, nimeni nu plăteşte şi cumva tot nu au cuburi. Iese Emil Constantinescu în 1996 şi este ales pentru că promite un guvern de tehnocraţi care să pună ţara la cale. Guvernul Ciorbea trage concluzia crudă în adevărul său că va trebui să “strângem cureaua”, tot ce merge în pierdere trebuie închis dacă nu e de interes naţional sau restructurat. Locuri de muncă de la care muncitorii se aşteptau să iasă la pensie se evaporă iar în 1998 minerii îşi dau seama că încă nu şi-au primit cuburile promise cu ani în urmă şi pornesc pe jos spre Bucureşti. Într-o ironie a sorţii sunt opriţi la Posada de către forţele de ordine care acţionează decisiv salvând stabilitatea fragilă a unui stat aflat în spasmele unui tratament aşa zis, de şoc – aproape la fel de important ca în 1330.

Democraţia însă nu e matură şi guvernele cad unul după altul din pricina neînţelegerilor din interiorul alianţei CDR (Convenţia Democrată din România). În decursul celor patru ani de guvernare însă, România se aliniază din punct de vedere al politicii externe pe cursul aderării la Alianţa Nord Atlantică şi integrării europene – evităm astfel “calitatea” de membru CSI (Comunitatea Statelor Independente) formată din foste ţări membre URSS – e un moment istoric în care voinţa naţiunii şi-a spus cuvântul şi care rezonează până în zilele noastre – nimeni nu îşi permite să i se opună public. Cu toate acestea măsurile necesare pentru a putea fi acceptaţi ca şi candidaţi la aderare sunt aproape insuportabile, statul plăteşte sume fabuloase în plăţi compensatorii către noii şomeri şi nucleul CDR – Partidul Naţional Ţărănist Creştin şi Democrat intră în colaps şi se pulverizează. Emil Constantinescu nu candidează la preşedinţie şi ai mei au de ales între Ion Iliescu şi Corneliu Vadim Tudor. Doare tare însă tribunul nu este o opţiune.

Noua guvernare PDSR nu se poate opune noii politici externe în mod făţiş însă o poate întârzia. privatizările se fac într-un mod cel puţin discutabil de către guvernarea Năstase, şi vreau să dau ca exemplu doar uzinele Aro Câmpulung vândute firmei americane Cross Lander, de care nu am auzit de loc până sau de atunci, pe suma infimă de $180.000 în 2003, adică echivalentul a poate zece apartamente în Bucureşti. Deşi contractul prevedea investiţii de $2.000.000, noul proprietar a vândut practic uzina la fier vechi, transformând oraşul Câmpulung într-o localitate fantomă, şomerii nu primesc plăţi compensatorii nefiind disponibilizaţi de stat – fapt pentru care nimeni nu a plătit până în ziua de azi.

Adrian Năstase apare cu familia la emisiunea “Duminca în familie”, între două telenovele sud americane pe postul Antena 1 (sper că a început să se lege acum). Am 18 ani şi încep să îmi dau seama că se incearcă prezentarea stilului său de viaţă de înaltă societate ca fiind echivalentul unor noi standarde – un soi de Fernando Colunga (eroul masculin al telenovelei Usurpadora transmisă de acelaş post) al României, şi este declarat Românul Anului de către însuşi Mihai I, ultimul mare reper moral al neamului cade în mocirla corupţiei pentru a-şi recupera averea.

Tandemul Ion Iliescu/Adrian Năstase ia sfârşit în 2004 şi meciul la alegeri devine Adrian Năstase versus Traian Băsescu, ajuns candidat al alianţei D.A. (Dreptate şi Adevăr) în urma renunţării la candidatură de către Theodor Stolojan. Evenimentul este atât de teatral încât e aproape comic, însă Băsescu e mai carismatic decât platul Stolojan şi sunt de acord cu mutarea deşi poate nu cu mijloacele. Cu toate acestea alianţa DA are mult de muncă în a convinge electoratul că circul şi instabilitatea din perioada 1996-2000 nu se vor repeta. Întâmplarea face ca peste graniţă, la Kiev să aibă loc mari demonstraţii anti neo-comuniste – aşa numita Revoluţie Portocalie – Viktor Yanukovich demisionează în favoarea unui curent pro vestic şi idealurile acestei revoluţii paşnice sunt adoptate de dreapta din România – Băsescu este preşedinte însă răul a fost deja făcut. În 2004 aderă ca membrii cu drepturi depline ai Uniunii Europene: Estonia, Letonia, Lituania, Polonia, Republica Cehă, Slovacia, Ungaria, Slovenia şi Malta. România şi Bulgaria mai au de lucru mai ales la capitolul Combaterea Corupţiei – dosarul Aro e deja dat uitării după doar un an iar morţii din ’89 se întreabă în continuare după 14 ani “Cine a tras în noi?”

Prim ministru este Călin Popescu Tăriceanu – preşedinte al PNL (Partidul Naţional Liberal), aflat într-o postură mai puternică prin prisma acestui fapt decât predecesorii săi CDRisti, care nu deţineau control asupra partidelor lor, nefiind membrii cu funcţii de conducere ai formaţiunilor respective, îşi revendică dreptul de a-şi exercita puterea executivă în ciuda încercărilor lui Băsescu de a fi “preşedintele jucător” pe care l-a promis alegătorilor. Conflictul devine personal iar guvernarea Tăriceanu este profund marcată de această rivalitate. Cu toate acestea, România devine membră a Uniunii Europene la 1 Ianuarie 2007. Ne îmbrăţişăm în casă pentru că ne-am culcat simpli români şi ne-am trezit cetăţeni europeni a doua zi.

Evenimentul este umbrit de faptul că suntem totuşi încă sub lupă din pricina corupţiei – pe mânerul lupei-plici scrie “clauză de salvgardare”. Românilor nu le pasă însă – “în sfârşit au venit cuburile şi o să ni le dea” – tot de grădiniţă suntem însă am intrat la şcoală. Noi la grădiniţă am învăţat că numai intr-un singur mod se pot obţine cuburi aşa că, odată cu ridicarea vizelor pentru vestul Europei ne-am dus să luăm jucăriile altora, nerealizând ca între colţul de ruşine pe care îl cunoşteam şi nota scăzută la purtare există o diferentă fundamentală numită consecinţe. Descrierea României s-a extins ca urmare a comportamentului nostru în afara graniţelor de la “ţara săracă de la marginea Europei” la “ţara săracă de la marginea Europei… populată de hoţi”.

La această şcoală numită UE ni se predă faptul că un stat de drept membru al Uniunii trebuie să aibă în componenţa sa câteva instituţii independente fundamentale pentru bunul mers al lucrurilor. Sunt lecţii pe care doamnele profesoare Franţa şi Germania le-au învăţat şi ele la rândul lor prin lunga experienţă de la fondarea Consiliului Europei în 1949 şi până astăzi. Aceste instituţii se numesc la noi Curtea Constituţională, Agenţia Naţională pentru Integritate, Direcţia Naţională Anticorupţie şi Curtea de Conturi. De notat este faptul că acestea sunt instituţii ce ţin de Puterea Judiciară – unul din cei trei piloni ai statului democratic alături de Puterea Executivă (guvernul într-o republică parlamentară sau administraţia prezidenţială într-una prezidenţială) şi Puterea Legislativă.

Noi nu am avut de ales şi măcar pentru a primi o notă de trecere am implementat aceste instituţii, ele nu existau în grădiniţa tranziţiei, Puterea Juridică se subordona Puterii Executive ceea ce în perioadele 1990-1996, 2000-2004 şi 2008-2012 s-a confundat cu instituţia preşedintelui şi în cazul guvernărilor PDSR/PSD cu unicul partid important pe care se baza această putere – Justiţia era subordonată politicului. A se citi “dacă îi place lui Alin de tine, poţi să te joci cu cuburile şi să baţi pe cine vrei”. Cei care s-au folosit de această subordonare pentru propriul interes şi au subminat prin ramificaţiile economice şi sociale ale acţiunilor lor progresul poporului român trebuie să plătească,

Spre deosebire de perioadele 1990-1996, 2000-2004 însă, guvernările de dreapta 1996-2000 şi 2004-2012 nu au beneficiat de majorităţi covârşitoare, aşa numita linişte care ni se vinde acum ca un fapt benefic, în spatele careia se poate ascunde orice mârşăvie. Dimpotrivă, opoziţia puternică a încercat să scoată la iveală toate neajunsurile puterii şi invers. Aşadar, confruntarea politică deschisă şi mai ales echilibrată ca raport de forţe este deocamdată singurul mod pe care îl cunoaştem ca şi conducător la crearea instituţiilor unui stat de drept. Unde un “stat de drept” înseamnă un stat în care Puterea Judiciară este egală ca raport de forţe cu cea Executivă şi cea Legislativă. Cele trei trebuie să funcţioneze ca instrumente de control reciproce între ele fără a se abuza, iar când abuzurile au loc, ele să fie expuse public şi nu muşamalizate de dragul “liniştii”. Aşadar, orice încercare de schimbare a acestui raport de forţe dintre puterile separate dar egale ale statului constituie după părerea mea un atac la adresa lui, şi la adresa mea ca cetăţean al său cu drepturi egale asupra cuburilor pe care mi le asigură indiferent de toanele lui Alin (drepturile cetăţeneşti şi drepturile omului).

România este din nou pusă în faţa unei alegeri. Duminică fiecare Român cu drept de vot va hotărî dacă merge la vot sau nu. Este capital ca ei să se prezinte în număr cât mai mare. Astfel, orice fraudă din partea oricărei dintre părţi va avea o pondere mult mai mică decât în cazul unei prezenţe scăzute, vocea naţiunii se va face mai bine auzită.

Odată luată hotărârea de a vota suntem însă puşi în faţa alteia. Pentru mine Alin nu e o opţiune.

Airplanes, a cabbie and a metalhead – a story.

(Before you start reading I encourage you to click here (opens a new tab) it will add to the point I am trying to make and is genuinely good listening – headphones are advised)

 

A while ago I went to the Romanian Aviation Museum during an open museum night event in Bucharest. It was surreal. Rusty old MIGs and Yaks out in the yard and a few better looked after soviet era aircraft in the hangars, ’50s uniforms, old posters and a IAR 80 piston fighter that saw combat in World  War 2. No guides, you just strolled around and took in what and how you could – the atmosphere made complete by old black and white communist propaganda newsreels playing on the loudspeakers, cold breeze and dim lighting. I gained a new appreciation for the pre flybywire, laser/radar guided missle fighter pilot. These were young men just out of their teens who decided they wanted to make a living by strapping themselves to a jet engine surrounded by a paper thin tin can going five to six hundred kph while being shot at.

I thought about what it would have been like, just looking back through the engine exhausts through what would’ve been a twenty some foot long and twenty inch thick pipe filled of high velocity high temperature gas only separated from the pilot by maybe a few inches of airframe – it gave me chills, the wind notwithstanding. It made me think about how all these aircraft were designed on actual paper without the benefit of CAD and the effort that went into their conception and construction – the lengths people go to to destroy one another.

It got cold and we decided it was time to go so we called a cab and continued talking about what we had seen, we played War Thunder at the time so we had some very broad idea of the planes and could tell a MIG from a YAK without having to read the cards. As the cab eventually arrived the discussion shifted from aircraft to cold war politics and I explained to one of my friends why there were no American planes in the museum and shared what I knew about what was going on in ’50s and ’60s at which point the cab driver decided he had a clue and chimed in his views.

He was a well built guy in his 40s maybe, so he would’ve been born in the late 60s or early 70s, The revolution of 1989 probably marked the half way point in his life, in more ways than one. He seemed fairly confident in what he was talking about but his language was coarse and he honked at more than one girl on the street as we were driving along. Our discussion carried on (everyone lived a fair distance from the museum) and cold war politics gave way to EU talk. This guy had nothing but scorn about the fact that we were members, too much regulation, business (meaning petty crime) is much more difficult nowadays so he’s not doing as well as he used to be. This kind of nostalgia is fairly common, and not only among shady types, I often hear people say they’ve never lived worse. I sit and listen and feel perplexed, I try to remind people of things like the rampant inflation in the early 90’s to the tune of 300% in 1993 and that we make more money and enjoy better products these days. Meat is no longer regularly infested with all kinds of gut worms or who knows what else and, in general, food as an example, is much safer. People are so resistant to order and doing things by the book that they forget the alternative was years on end with no indoor heating and frequent power cuts, even after the fall of communism.

I let the cabbie know how I felt about some of these things and he seemed far from convinced even angry that this kid was telling him so bluntly that he was simply wrong on practically every point he tried to make. Left with no arguments he started to ask about me, where I was from what kind of music I listened to and eventually, inevitably how long it took to grow my beard, all aimed at trying to find some weakness he could exploit to regain face. I answered my favorite band is Iron Maiden and as expected he started telling me how much more of a fan he was than I could ever possibly know, how he’d been listening to metal since I was in diapers and the like, to which I answered that it was far more likely we had been aware of Maiden for about the same amount of time give the fact that I spent a lot of time in my older brother’s room when I was little. “Yeah well you know they’re nothing special, guitars and hair all commercial stuff they’re all alike” meaning in fact “there is no base for you to like them because you do not understand the workings of the real world therefor you are naive and I am not hence I win this one… kid”. I started explaining why Iron Maiden are not on par with Van Halen or KISS given the amount of political, moral and educational weight of their lyrics, not to mention superior music – that Maiden have been with me my entire life and that to this day I find that there is still a lot to discover beneath Eddie and the hair. Maiden are a band that has not stopped creating higher and higher quality albums (with the single flop of Virtual XI) since 1975. All of these albums have a central individual theme that ties into a world view which I agree with, a world view expressed in new in interesting ways with each new release – separated by years of work.

I say agree with and not subscribe to because my way of thinking is not so much influenced but rather in tune with the way they choose to express their ideas.

It is true that I am not able to recite band membership for every year of its’ existence or know the exact order of songs in every album, but that does not defeat the fact that I have what has so far been a lifelong appreciation for their music and message. A message put simply of disdain for religious dogma, war and exploitation on the one hand and a celebration of literature, freedom of thought and human dignity on the other. These are the reasons Iron Maiden is my favorite band.

Fast forward a few weeks and I was cycling in the park with a friend of a friend. I was wearing a Maiden shirt (don’t worry, I only have three) because it was the first that came to hand. We decided to stop and buy some water from a stand near the entrance and lo and behold this long haired dude and his gothqueen girlfriend were tending the place. “Oh look another Maiden shirt, that’s like what five today?”. I could almost hear “poser” coming out of her mouth, but maybe it was my imagination. I said:

‘yes it’s my favorite band!’

‘yeah well do you know what the gravestone sais’

‘Aici zace un om despre care nu se stie pre (sic) mult’ -I said without hesitation- ‘yes it’s in Romanian isn’t that neat?, It marks the grave of the Benjamin Breeg character in the album, nice touch’

‘yeah well I’ve seen them more times than you you know, six total’

I wanted to say something like “yeah well meanwhile Bruce Dickinson flies airliners for fun while you’re selling Cokes and snowcones to soccer moms in the park with your forty year old princess Bathory lookalike sidekick, go you fanboy” (see my post on why role models are stupid) but I thought better of it and just said ‘cool, I’ve seen them once, you win’

My friend and I went on our way and discussed the episode and agreed it’s probably people like that who make us not really want to have anything to do with fan clubs and the like.

Why people insist on this kind of oneupsmanship and dick measuring is beyond me. Is it more beneficial, on a personal level, to tattoo a band name onto your knuckles than to truly listen to what they have to say and judge not the surface but the depth of what they stand for, to realise whether indeed they stand for anything at all. Is it not better to take what is valuable and weigh them not by the minutia of their personal life but by their work and ideas? Are the latter not really the only way they can contribute to your person?

 

 

Cycling.

I learned to ride a bicycle when I was about eight years old. It wasn’t mine. A friend had gotten a brand new Chinese made BMX look alike. It was blue and everyone thought it was really cool. Everyone wanted to give it a go and my friend relished the power of choosing who could go and who couldn’t. Because turns were few and far between it took a couple of days before I could get those vital second and third pedal strokes in that really make you move, and balance was a huge issue. About a week later I managed to turn (on purpose!) although I couldn’t quite turn ‘around’ without a lot of space so I had to stop, clumsily and on occasion with the help of a wall or garage door, pick up the bike turn it around and then ride back to where everyone else was trading all sorts of trinkets to the owner to get a turn.

I really wanted a bike of my own at that point, everyone did, but it was decided it’s far too risky to let a child ride one of those contraptions anywhere near where cars are and then the fad kind of faded and I lost interest. The crucial thing was that I had learned to keep balance though, and not look at the pedals which meant that in a way I stopped fighting the bike for control and started adjusting to a new balance paradigm.

Ten years later I still hadn’t had a bike of my own and I hadn’t ridden one in years but I was visiting my brother in France. In the garage there were two bikes. I had to do it, I just had to. ‘Well can you ride?’ he said ‘Of course I can pff’ I said. I picked up the one that looked nicest and off I went downhill without checking the brakes or the handlebars and found myself speeding toward his neighbors’ parked cars. Still remembering how to do things I tried to turn away but the handlebars weren’t fixed to the fork very well and a 45 degree turn on the bars turned out to be a 5 degree turn on the wheel, the brakes didn’t work so here I was going 20km/h downhill fighting for control toward a very expensive Renault and no way of stopping. There was nothing to it, whatever I did I knew this was going to hurt so I decided that I had to fall, so I did. The road was fairly smooth though so nothing broke but I got the nastiest looking scratches all over the left side of my body, oh and there was a fairly loud noise. My brother came out running to see what had happened to me, I was already up and said something along the lines of ‘It’s just a flesh wound’ so he wouldn’t get too upset. The fact was it kind of hurt but I’d had worse things happen to me.

The next day I picked up the other bike, which was in far better condition technically and off I went to the park. I managed good speeds and even jumped off the crests of small mounds and never fell again… I also saw first hand that the French really do sometimes just stop and empty their bladders on the sidewalk eww.

It was only a couple of years ago that, as an adult earning my own living I decided to get a bike after having rented a 24kg proverbial truck in the park. I still have it, it’s not a Cube or a Trek, it’s a Decathlon brand Rockrider 5.1 I spent ~EUR300 on but it’s mine and I’ve ridden about 1800km on it to date.

Cycling is an immensely gratifying passtime and once you are passed the learning curve you realize that you become one with the bike when you are in the saddle. All you have to do is think about doing something and it happens, without your having to consciously go through the process of doing it, like walking – imagine what would happen if you had to think about raising your leg and putting it in front of the other taking care to shift your weight to the one on the ground each time you had to take a step. In this sense the bike becomes an extension of your body, it enhances what you can do without being invasive and the sense of achievement after a long ride is second to none that I have experienced.

That said, what prompted me to write this post is the fact that yesterday I took part in the Bucharest Critical Mass ride that happens every last Friday of the month with a friend. 200 cyclists on a grand tour of the city for a couple of hours with a small police escort. There was surprisingly little in the way of opposition from drivers although there were a couple of them who didn’t take too kindly to us slowpokes crossing the intersection. The sense for me was that people were curious as to what we were doing, and taxi drivers were especially courteous. There was camaraderie and respect, most people followed the guidelines and I couldn’t think of a better way to spend an evening.

Post Christianity.

I am an atheist. There are places in the world where saying that openly comes with severe consequences; because it is a departure from an idea that has been one of the pillars of human cultures from the beginning of time – that a being beyond the scope of our understanding is the ultimate explanation to everything that we cannot rationally explain. In saying that I am an atheist I also expose willingly a bias which you would no doubt have noticed on your own throughout the text below.

Rowan Williams is a cleric, decidedly not an atheist. He is the former Archbishop of Canterbury. While not an equivalent of the Catholic Pope (the Monarch is the head of the Anglican Church), his former position was that of an archbishop foremost among equals, he spoke in the name of the Anglican Communion.

To put this into a little bit of context, the Anglican Church was formally created when Henry the Eighth  became “the only supreme head on earth of the Church of England” through a law called the Act of Suppremacy in 1534, thirteen years after the Lutheran split. It is however argued that the Church in England had a local identity long before this date due to it’s remote distance from Rome as well as the cauldron of culture which was England in the Dark and Early Middle Ages. That said, one can infer that there is a revolutionary identity to this otherwise traditional Church.

It is with these facts in mind that I recently read about something Rowan Williams said not two days ago, speaking not from his official position of Archbishop of Canterbury from which he stepped down in 2011, which may have been a little too revolutionary, but from that of a cleric nonetheless and that is: “Britain is now a post Christian country”. It made me dwell. It is a remarkably profound statement, and knee jerk reactions by the likes of David Cameron who replied “au contraire” only serve to underscore this.

He meant that even though people are nominally Christian, the vast majority do not actively practice and even though it is a part of the national psyche to be Anglican, people are really only ever in church for rites of passage, baptism, marriage and funerals.

I live in a large city. There is hustle and bustle, everyone is in a hurry to get where they’re going because they have to be someplace else after they get there. There is little time for soul searching even though, judging by the number of churches in the capital we are a staunchly Orthodox country. Our priests dress in increasingly more elaborate garb the higher the rank, and we take pride in the beautifully painted monasteries in the Romanian half of Moldova. People still do go to church and flock in their tens of thousands to kiss relics on special occasions of the Orthodox calendar, but there is a real distinction between the rural and urban populations in this sense.

It is in this context that I was recently invited to a wedding. A friend, whom I have known my entire life is getting married. There was a formal invitation, and the service will be held in a church and will be performed by a priest, just like my brother’s and my father’s and my cousin’s et cetera. These are people who, I think, do not really believe in an omnipotent, omniscient and wholly perfect God who created the Earth seven thousand years ago and suddenly decided three thousand years in that he got it wrong and had to drown everyone to start with a clean slate. No, for the most part they are rational people who can tell myth from falsifiable hypothesis.

And yet, they all made a conscious decision that, yes, “I want to be the protagonist in this religious ceremony even though I don’t really believe God physically took one bone from Adam and made a whole Eve out of it”. What’s more is that I too wouldn’t have it any other way. If I am to marry, I would like some kind of ceremony, the mayor/ship’s captain is not enough. Why is that? It’s completely irrational, why is it important at all to me?

I asked myself this same question when my father died. There was an Orthodox funeral, people came, there was chanting, flowers, superstitious wine spilling, everything you can come up with. Why? He’s dead, it won’t change that fact. Why would making a certain sequence of pressure waves pass through the air of this concrete building make a difference in whether or not he goes to heaven, if indeed heaven exists. Will God punish the individual that was my father if I do not describe the shape of a cross with my hands three times? What if I only do it twice? Not at all? Why do I have to do it with my tongue? Why are these things relevant? I thought of believers as either gullible or stupid, and of priests as either stupid or charlatans. I still think that this is true to some extent but I am no longer as militant about it.

I’ve come to the conclusion that it is the ritual itself that is important. The more elaborate the better. It not only binds us to our community as social creatures but provides a sort of ‘loading screen’ if you will, allowing us to progress from one perceived stage of our lives to the next. Before the ritual I had a father, I didn’t afterward, it helped come to terms with that fact and I contend it’s something that we all experience when we go through a religious right of passage.

Neuroscience has shown that this is not just a cultural phenomenon, something that we have consciously construed. There is such a thing as a religious center in our brains, an area that lights up in the lab when we are having a religious experience, when we have feelings of intense spirituality. I can’t say that I understand the detail of the science involved but the jist is, it is as much a part of who we are as love and fear, without it we would be less human. It is something our evolution came up with to avoid us asking too many questions about the world and concentrate on dinner, because dinner means we live to procreate while a starry eyed kid looking up at the night sky in the savanna with lions around would not.

All of that said it is however important to realize that much of the way we are built as humans does limit our potential to achieve our goals of a better life for everyone and solving the world’s problems. We are warm blooded animals which means we consume a lot of energy and therefore require a lot of food compared to say a juvenile Komodo dragon who weighs about as much. This means feeding seven billion of us requires some ingenuity. The fact is you can’t really make it rain fish. Prayer will not stop an asteroid impact and you can’t repent your way out of a pandemic. We need to ask questions, it IS now a matter of survival and so we must recognize our limitations in order to overcome them and I think that is exactly what Rowan Williams did.

Role models are stupid.

We tend to measure up against each other. It’s called having a competitive nature. We love doing it. “Manchester is better than Liverpool” or vice versa. “Nelson was better than Napoleon”. “Newton was better than Einstein and both were certainly better than me”. “I should be more like Patrick Stewart or Morgan Freeman” They can be fictional too… “That Aragorn, he’s a hansom fellow and he’s good with a sword too… I suck with swords.” This is counterproductive.

In idealizing our role models, past or present we tend to take from them that which brings us closer to understanding why they are great – their flaws and by extension, their humanity. Could Newton have come up with the theory of relativity and phrased in in the same way as Einstein? Maybe… But the fact of the matter is that Newton was not Einstein, he lived in a completely different time, he was a mystic obsessed with finding the philosopher stone, and in his spare time he revolutionized natural philosophy, which is not to say that he placed as great a value on it as he did on his alchemical pursuits – he was a product of his time and it could be argued that “Principia” would never have been written or published had it not been for the insistence, friendship and patronage of Edmund Halley, who DID see the true significance of it.

The principles of Newtonian mechanics are fairly simple. So simple in fact it’s taught in 7th grade here. It is within the power of a child thirteen years of age to understand and demonstrate this understanding by writing the mathematical formulae and arguing the proofs. Was Newton therefor any different than you and I? You could say “well he thought of it first” and this is true, maybe. He was certainly the first to publish an academic paper about it, and he was the first to make clear sense of it and show it to the world, but this involved the participation of others. It is also possible, because the man named Newton thought of it, that others have or could have, but simply did not come by the set of circumstances necessary to either realize the revolutionary nature of their insight or bring it before an audience that might, or who may not have had the inclination.

Mihai Eminescu was a 19th century Romanian poet. The greatest literary mind our nation has ever known, it is taught. In a novella called “Sarmanul Dionis” – “Miserable Dyonis” in a philosophical tour de force, he tackles the issue of perception, among other things. The question of whether when you say something is red, would what you are seeing be something that I would also call red, or would it be my green? I asked myself this same question in second grade, having never read his works, I never told anyone because it never really came up in conversation after that and when I did read the novella I was rather amazed that that same idea had been thought of so long ago that I was somehow no longer special, less individual and more a collection of random thoughts that just so happen to exist together in this particular arrangement – thoughts that may be part of who other people are.

While personal experience is by no means indicative of truth, but rather a possible clue to a way forward in the pursuit thereof I too often hear from others this idea that something is beyond their comprehension or ability. To quote a cliche “genius is 99% hard work”. The quote leaves room for doubt, maybe it was the scientist in Einstein who thought one could never be sure, but can only establish degrees of certainty.

We instead tend to focus on this infinitesimal but comfortable and convenient doubt about our own potential to excuse ourselves from the hard work we must endure to achieve true greatness. This is the danger of role models and why it is stupid to assume they are greater than us. It is the pursuit of our insights and dreams that distinguishes the great from the many rather than the ideas themselves, the 1% is in fact there in everyone.

By ignoring this fact and failing to recognize one’s own individuality we end up in a uniform society, and by uniform I do not mean flat, but rather a patchwork of uniforms. We tend to think that “every generation has its’ way”. The 80s had strange hair, the 90s had full denim suits and somewhat less spandex, Generation Y has their Apple gear and thick black glass frames, metalheads have their long hair and “fuck you” attitude. These are all uniforms, worn by those who would define themselves by a certain idea, an idea that was voiced by someone else, which they may agree with, and which may be perfectly reasonable, but that does not and cannot encompass all validity.

It is far more beneficial to include all experience into one’s world view and try to make sense of it with this enhanced “dataset” than to automatically dismiss that which is foreign because it does not fit a predefined model of who we think we ought to be

 

 

 

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 $2.000.000.000 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 $2.000.000.000 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.