Six Degrees of Separation and politics.

Six or fewer steps along the lines of “of a friend of a friend” separate you from me, or any other person in the world for that matter, yes including the kid from “sceptical third world kid“, look it up, it’s interesting.

With that in mind, if you are in any way familiar with Romania, or just took a passing glance at European news this past few days, you will know that last Friday something bad happened. At last count 32 people have died as a result of a fire in a night club, and more than 100 people were injured, a large percentage of whom are in a bad way.

Now, I don’t personally know any of them. But I do know people who did, and who have been touched in a very personal way by what happened. The entire nation is touched in some way – how could they not be. Tragedies happen all the time all over the world – boats capsize in the Mediterranean, people get shot in Syria but this time it’s close to home.

I was talking to a friend the other day who said its’ a rather hypocritical response given the amount of suffering in the world, to so energetically mourn just these people, and I suppose in the grand scheme of things that would be true, save for six degrees of separation.

So if emotion can be carried as a form of radiation in this… we’ll call it a field of human relationships (don’t read too much into the metaphor, it breaks down horribly after a while) it’s only natural for the effects of an event to measure higher if your measurement instrument is closer – that doesn’t necessarily mean African refugees don’t matter, it’s just that it’s farther away in the web – we don’t decry the potential destruction of civilisations when Type 1A supernovae occur, we just use them as standard candles to measure astronomical distances, and we don’t call that cynical, even though on an absolute scale – it is.

Speaking of cynicism.

What happened, as far as we know (the inquiry is still under way), is that small fireworks used on stage by a band ignited the soundproofing on a support pillar which then set the soundproofing on the ceiling on fire, chaos ensued and people were injured and died.

For this set of circumstances to come to be, several things have to occur. First someone has to have an idea to start a club, for this they need a company which they have to register and get the relevant local government approvals. For the local government approvals to be possible a national legislature has to pass laws to that effect. These laws have to be enforced by local and national authorities, otherwise they are worthless.

In a country such as Romania of which I am a citizen, we have come to mistrust the rigor of this enforcement and (suppositions follow, take with a pinch of salt) the higher you go in the age pyramid, the more of a percentage of the population you will find who is not hostile to this state of fact, but rather content that this is an immutable part of who we are. The lower you go however, the more the idea becomes unpalatable.

Given the situation we can perhaps conclude (the jury is still out mind you) that several corners were cut in order to get the business going and to keep costs down and beer cheap enough that people would come, this included skimping on fireproofing and the use of flammable materials. Colectiv is one of many clubs in downtown Bucharest, and I contend that many if not all have done the same.

The owner is probably guilty and should go to prison. But he is not alone. In order for this appalling set of circumstances to converge several government officials in different branches would have had to either be exceedingly incompetent (which is guilt enough on its’ own), or corrupt, or both.

As of late the environment in the public square has been filled with the strong momentum of a national crusade on corruption, I would even venture to say that the seeds sown in 1989 into the body of this nation have started to mature into an actual backbone – people are protesting all kinds of things out in the streets, but corruption most of all, and most vigorously.

Since Friday night a silent hatred has been brewing. Thousands of people have been marching, giving more blood than ever before, getting involved on social media (the number of conspiracy theories is only an indicator I hope of the number of actually sane people who are actively participating) and as of the time of writing, 20.000 people by some reports are clamoring for the prime minister’s and the interior minister’s resignation in front of the Government Palace, and all around Bucharest, this nation has a voice that is growing from the proverbial grass’ roots.

The people out there tonight are making sure the friends of their friends did not die in vain, and I am proud.

Advertisements

Leg pain – and a girl.

I tore a calf muscle about a couple of weeks ago. Football is quite physical, and being a goal keeper doesn’t quite shield you from injury. About a week later I realized it was more than just sore muscles and the doctor said I probably have a tear, rest your leg, use ice to cope with the swelling and if it hurts too much, paracetamol is enough of a painkiller.

One never quite realizes how debilitating injuries can be until they are faced with the fact. Walking is an adventure. When it doesn’t quite hurt and you become a little bit overconfident your muscle twitches in strange ways, the pain is instant and punishing of any such transgression. There is no real treatment, aside from the aforementioned rest and ice packs. Ice is interesting, cold things hurt, and then strangely they start to burn I found out.

Suffice to say I’ve been living with varying amounts of leg pain for the past fortnight. My colleagues at work have taken to calling me dr. House and I am awaiting the cane I was promised in order to help with my recuperation.

Today I went to work for the first time, not having moved much beyond my studio door for the past few days. I really didn’t know what to expect but my leg and I had a deal, I would behave if it would behave in return. The walk to the subway took longer than usual, but the deal was working. He grumbled and twitched a little bit as I went down the two flights of stairs, I relented and used the handrail.

We’re good pals, my legs and I, we’ve been places and done things that most people on the train probably haven’t, it’s part of what got us in this little squabble, but not her, she looked different from the rest as she was getting ready to board the train. Sure she was short, but that backpack can’t have been light. Her cheeks were flushed with the spring sun still glinting into her blue eyes as she walked into the train. I leaned over to check my leg for painful spots as I do every now and again when a pair of feet appeared next to me. Light brown leather shoes, gently wrapped around slender ankles, no stalkings or socks.

I leaned back and there she was holding onto the bar, well this is odd I’m in the handicapped spot, my leg is a mess but I should probably leave her my seat when she refuses someone else. She is exceedingly pretty with her short brown hair tied up like that.

We somehow both noticed the kids next to us talking about their driving tests rather coarsely at around the same time. I caught her peaking at their phone, and she caught me catching her, and we didn’t let go for a few seconds, until people had to get off at the next stop and she maneuvered to remain in the same place despite her enormous backpack.

I knew the next stop was the exchange, I hoped she was headed for the train station and not the airport and would linger on for another few minutes. I pushed myself to look again and there she was looking back blinking now and again, once for every new digit in my heart rate, and hers no doubt as she became flushed again.

The train stopped, the automatic voice said the words, the doors opened and without letting go of my eyes she smiled playfully and walked away. Should I stay or should I go? I should stay… safe travels subway girl.

Eating out.

I woke up at seven in the evening today. It had been a wonderful night. It was dark outside and I realised I didn’t have much of anything to eat around the house so I thought I’d pop outside for a breath of fresh air and some contemplation, on my own.

I have just moved here and I don’t really know the neighborhood very well but there is one place that I do like. It is unfortunately located within the food court of a large supermarket, one of the most stressful places for me.  But, I thought to myself, it’s fairly late in the evening, few people will be there, it will be interesting.

Now, I don’t live in what’s called the safest part of town, but it’s not too bad either, all that happened on the ten to fifteen minute walk there was that I saw a bum peeing on a grafittied up wall, practically within the focus of a streetlight – little Paris indeed. Few cars on the street, people trying to catch a bus home in almost dark stops and walking home with cheery little kids back from a trip to the colorful mall.

It looks like it’s finally warming up outside so I ended up undoing the zipper on my jacket only to wonder at the silhouette of my own shadow walking in front of me. What was once a short kid walking home from school in uniform with a square leather backpack is now a hooded anonymous figure beneath the streetlights of the big city with but a lit cigarette to ironically show that a living man hides within, no one knows who I am or where I am going, and that’s alright.

The place is almost empty by now, the few people I see are mopping the floor or closing down their stores, some turn their gaze to me as I let down my hood and head for the place I want to eat, ‘I might be a bit late’ I think to myself ‘but that’s alright too’. There are customers on the one table though so I ask the smartly dressed head waitress whether I can sit down for dinner or whether they are getting ready to close. She smiles with her eyes at my ingenuity and tells me they don’t close until midnight and encourages me to take a seat.

The place is closed off but large windows allow you to see into the middle of the food court. People finishing their meals and putting on jackets before they head for home, fast food workers bantering as they push along carts of supplies, somehow always with a smile as they chat among themselves. It’s a Sunday so their weekend is shot but somehow they still find ways to be cheerful, and you can tell it’s genuine, not a customer to fake it towards in sight.

Some of the restaurant staff are getting ready to leave as well and I overhear them asking one of the waitresses what’s wrong, she looks like she’s had a bad day, but she’s determined not to share the details and just tells them to stop asking. She brings me my beer and ashtray and tells me that my ‘Penne al salmone’ will be served shortly. I am now the only customer.

The food was excellent, light yet filling and full of Mediterranean aroma, complimented by the rugged but soft addition of smoked salmon. I was half way through my beer by the time it arrived, and open to culinary suggestions. I am really starting to like this place. I finish up my food and start typing away at a message with a piece of warm foccacia in my other hand and lay back. I take in the sights and sounds and can almost feel the air of content around me. Life seems to agree with people working here, at least in this snapshot. I wave and the head waitress brings me my check. ‘I’ll use my card please, and please may I have a pen?’, ‘A pen?’ she smiles ‘Yes, please’

I was going to write it on the back of the receipt but she brought a piece of paper too, which I thought was rather thoughtful ‘An excellent meal, thank you. A smile for the young lady whom no one knows what is wrong with’. I leave a customary tip, put on my jacket and pull up my hood, walk away to the sound of echoing giggles from what I counted to be everyone in the scene behind me.

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.

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?