Friday, 28 December 2007

One year of EU

Almost one year since the EU membership descended on Romania. Looking at it again, closely, it is still fascinating how under the surface showing radical changes, the essence of things stay unchanged.

There is a fight against corruption. At the airport, posters advertise the EU-funded anti-corruption agency and its contact numbers. If you ring those, to report any act of corruption, you have to give your name, address and contact number. If you dare to do this, then you might get beaten to a pulp next day by the gracious maffia who you reported on... or your house gets burnt down with or without you being inside... depends on luck. These do happen and happened, in an ultra-corrupt country such 'agencies' manned by similarly corrupt and well-connected people are a joke. A very bad one.

And the new generation is also being educated and prepared for the future. Almost one quarter of all high-school kids have at least one parent working abroad, while the kids are being brought up by their grandma, cat, dog or pet mouse. Number of adolescent criminals are growing exponentially. Systems of values change and disappear on many occasions. Several friends teach in quite good high-schools, where morals and discipline have fallen apart to such an extent, that parents asked whether there is any point of spending on the kids' travel to school, since most of the lessons are not held in the absence of... pupils who barely turn up.

Teachers turn out to be people with zero qualifications, about to be nominated vice-principals, when it accidentally becomes evident that their only reason for even existing at a given school is their contact with the head teacher or administrator.

Who knows who is still THE driving and defining force of Romanian everyday life. Internet bandwidth is too puny to just list the stories collected from people in industry, business and education just in the first 4 days of visiting.

People in the new circles of power, or those who were placed there by their contacts, exhibit a typical and so well-known attitude towards the most basic human, consumer or any rights. One example was most recently the Romanian airline Tarom, who left 200 passenger stranded at Heathrow airport for 15 hours, with ZERO information on their flight, nobody was contactable in London or Romanian offices, and even airport authorities could not find one single person from this illustrious airline to find out any information from. It turned out that the only contact number that was alive had a voicemail asking them to phone back between Monday and Friday, during office hours... Those who know about the most basic responsibilities of any airline might find the above at least as absurd as many other facets of Romanian authorities, but we have known these manifestations all too well.

EU is here. Ghosts of the past, though, mentalities strengthened by ultra-corrupt environments and a world where no longer immorality, but amorality dominates, are alive again and well...

One can not be idealistic, but 17 years after the changes, one sees how the 'new world' has firmed up... and regardless of EU dogmas, it will take generations to change mentalities that govern every aspect of everyday life.

Saturday, 15 December 2007

Naturalisation

The cost of applying for British citizenship has gone up again (hurray, I hear reverberating from some distant British National Party dungeon, pardon, office).

A test is needed for permanent residency, too. With a different brochure for studying questions on the essence of British life, and one would have to buy this, followed by the brochure for naturalisation test.

Fine. Obviously, Home Office has to cover the costs of their recent scandals around... well, just about everything they do.

But... I am wondering... wouldn't it be much better to have the following test applied, after which much less people would want still to settle here than the amount that go through the test:

- watch any town centre on a Friday night, around 11PM, preferably around clubs and bars, but not necessarily. If the sights of that surreal zoo that gets unleashed on the streets is not a deterrent, then proceed to stage two:

- get a train ticket and try to get to a destination 50-60 miles away with a maximum error margin of 15-20 minutes

- then try and fly into or out of Heathrow such that you sit for less than 1.5 hours on the ground while they try to find a slot

- then try and send 10 parcels with Royal Mail, as first class packets, see how many arrive within the 1st class delivery time - or at all, for that matter

- then, as grand finale, drive on the M25 in any direction and try to get somewhere with a maximum margin of error set to 30 minutes

- as all else fails, try to cycle in most of the cities without getting killed, along imaginary cycle paths- and when you do see a real one, don't be too shocked and fall off the bike... and get killed

- then to unwind, read the front pages of the Daily Mail and The Sun.

After these basic steps, one would have a) a very good understanding and picture on life here, b) would have a resilience and tolerance level that truly deserves to be rewarded.

Just one note on that, if you do file an application, see if they lose it together with other tens of thousands of passports and files while they are 'optimising' their offices.

If they don't lose it, then just rest assured that all your personal details will be lost later on some non-encrypted CD-Rom, together with other millions of people's details.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

The present and future of presents

Christmas is upon us, again... BBC says 50% of gifts bought by men for their girlfriend or wife is returned, which certainly explains why queues at customer service are longer in January than in the pre-Xmas mad rush...

Now there are two fundamental failings at the roots of this...

One is that many spend more time with their Facebook profile than getting to really know their partner. After all, real persons are so tedious and complicated sometimes.

On the other hand, maybe it is about how uncomplicated we are now. With the mega-hype in media, steering our consumerism and focusing it onto those few mega-must-by-hit-trendy-cool-awesome things, no wonder everybody receives N copies of the same few things.

15 copies of Harry Potter book and/or DVD. 5 iPods. 10 copies of the latest Gawd knows what 'instant classic' movie that nobody will remember in 3 months' time, although it got 5 stars in every single publication desperately trumpeting the must-see instant classics.

This is the world of Philip K. Dick's Mold of Yancy. A society where there is freedom of thought and expression, but 99.9% think alike and express themselves in the same way.

How about for once think outside the box? or get to really know the person and think up something? even MAKE something for him/her.

It won't be on the Amazon best seller list. It won't be on the must-buy lists of shops screaming at you as soon as you step in.

Something human - I guarantee it won't be returned in January.

For me, personally, who never in his entire life heard of people keeping the receipts of the gifts and supplying them to the happy (?) recipient of them in case they need to return it, this practice is truly incomprehensible.

But that's what we became. Pipelines of must-buy-trendy-hyped goods that end up traveling through us, with us, from the shops into our hands, under the Xmas tree then back again to the shops in January.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Back to school

Based on today's news on yet another school reform, I am compelled to go back to the topic of Mr. Brown's passion - education.

Interestingly, as generations of politicians in the UK name education their passion, somehow our kids are plummeting on international rankings (in terms of literacy for instance).

We are again debating, what amount of stress will be induced in kids if they are tested at what age. Experts debate arbitrary numbers, all keeping themselves on the cautious side of things, just in case kids will grow up marked for life by their oh-so-terrible education system.

Well, interestingly, if one looks around Europe (let's not get the US into this picture... they are renowned for their amazing education system...), kids grow up in many systems that are based on tests, random continuous checks on their level of knowledge, etc. etc. Somehow, they did not turn into psychological wrecks and they successfully applied and got into top universities of the world.

The one thing that does make them very different and heaven forbid to have that in the UK: they, by the age of 14-15 at the most, learn what it means to put in an effort for just about anything in this life that they want or need to achieve.

I watched in the UK students whining and being depressed about 13 hours per week on average, with Wednesdays kept free for sports. Not for a moment I'm saying that my education was perfect, but when we had 38-40 hours per week for 5 years, plus projects, then we learnt what it means to WORK hard for something. If, of course, by that time we did not pick up that thought or realisation in school.

I heard students whining about how a 9AM lecture ruined their day. How they are under immense pressure. How it is unbearable sadism what they have to put up with.

And while kids and these more grown-up sized kids are being sooooo protected by the softer and softer education system, while parents see them for maybe 1-2 hours per day as they are chasing what can be only called the postmodern lifestyle, they are indeed changing and reaching a point where not only they can't read and spell, but they think they really are the centre of the Universe.

They have rights. Full stop. Duties, obligations, come on - who heard of those? Those sound like words that apply pressure, need responsibility etc. And just where and when would they get used to it, if all their childhood and adolescence was marked by the pinnacle of education systems that protected them against ANY stress...?

I am looking forward to next year's A level results again. I am sure they will improve even further without the lads and lasses being less and less stressed out by... oh yes, LIFE.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Situational power

In one of the management models there is the concept of situational power. A person, who might be very low down on the foodchain could have absolute power in certain situations, overriding those who are much higher in the hierarchy. For instance, a bouncer could refuse entrance when approached by a top hotshot.

I collected below just a few of my favourite examples of situational power, these are combined with perfect idiocy of a little person arriving at his/her own interpretation of some rules. The rules are about counter-terrorism and safety measure, the places are a few London airports and the times vary...

1. My absolute favourite: I am going through the security check with a small, perfectly transparent plastic pouch which is waterproof and has a zipper on top. The lady says: Sir, do you have toiletries? I show here the thingie. She goes: you have to put it into a transparent plastic bag, Sir. You guessed it - after phases of stupefaction, then arguing (but careful not to raise my voice and get arrested for assault on staff, in this case utterly stupid staff), then surreal laughter, I complied. I put my transparent small bag into a larger, semi-opaque (!) plastic bag she handed to me, and went through security.

2. Tightened security after 2nd failed car bomb in Soho. I am flying out that morning, one person checks my passport and boarding pass. Another is standing in the corridor, literally 3 feet away. As I walked past him, he asks me for my passport and boarding pass. In disbelief, I show them to him. And me being me, I could not restrain myself from making the comment: If you think your colleague is illiterate or you don't trust him, why don't you stand behind him, peer over his shoulder - and the queue would be half this long??

3. Random shoe checks. 2 lanes don't check them, one is checking them. For ages. I can see it for 10 minutes which ones checks and which doesn't. When queried, after having picked the shorter queue, she said: because of regulations, we are doing random checks. 1/3 of passengers were to be randomly checked that morning. Random check, my dear lady, does NOT mean checking for hours only 1 queue and not the other 2.

4. My larger toothpaste tube was 1/3 empty, but I was asked by the person who was holding it up for a spot check: is it under 100ml? I had to make the point with simulated hesitance, that I hope, the tube says clearly 100ml and 1/3 is missing, so you tell me if I am correct...

I find my sarcasm at 6AM in the morning, sleepless and flying to yet another stressful meeting is not much appreciated by staff with situational power...

There is such a thing as regulation and safety. Then there are people with an IQ of 10 points, who re-re-re- and over-interpret their simple instructions...

Sunday, 9 December 2007

Education

Education, education, education... Yes, it does sound familiar to people who lived under Ceausescu and Tony Blair, as both illustrious leaders used the very same slogan in their speeches.

Just that while the statistics of A grades achieved at A-level exams goes up every year, one can look around and find brilliant examples of just how the young in our society get cleverer every year.

The gym staff, all three having graduated with diplomas in sports sciences (yes, plural, not just one science... they must be veritable Leonardos of our time), can't spell even monosyllabic words in their mother tongue. Calendar spelt consistently calender is OK, it has too many syllables and their spellchecker must be broken. But 'peek' was spelt several times as 'peak'... and it was really a peek into next week's gym class programme, and not some mountain summit.

Two lads in the train, all sporting latest Dolce & Gabbana glasses (yes, the very new fashionable ones, that are exact copies of 1950s style glasses, but that's what happens when even fashion designers run out of ideas...) and well-dressed, clearly not from the slums, were chatting about how one earned almost 2 pounds in a bet by counting lorries on the motorway and charging 1 pence for each spotted lorry. The other trendy entity snapped: come on, that means you counted almost 2000 lorries.

I'm sure both had A in maths.

A public school-educated lad who regularly goes yachting with his dad, having watched a documentary on St. Petersburg, was stunned and asked me: when did they have time to build those palaces? I was a bit stumped, but then he explained that he is wondering how they built so many palaces in the few years since communism fell. Oh God, I wish I was making this up.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Constitution? What's that?...

After many months of twitching that followed many months of debate on how long somebody can be held without charge and without anybody from the legal system being involved if one was arrested as a terrorist suspect, we have again a push for extending the 28 day period agreed last time.

There is no tangible / quantifiable evidence that supports the request for a 2 week extension of this so far agreed period. But we live in a free country, of course, with a historical democracy and we have nothing to do with Stalinist modus operandi of police forces.

It does not matter what we use as excuse. Terrorism law, the greater good, whatever. The fact is, under the Constitution, any such measure that leaves the courts out of the equation is... well... unacceptable.

I remember a place and time when these things, under different keywords, were the norm. Glad to see again arbitrary and fundamental violations of human (and Constitutional) rights in a so-called free country.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Things made easy

In the 'instant coffee' culture, where anything in life can or at least could be achieved by adding something to hot water (in some cases hot air...) and stir, without effort from the person, now some more bastions have been demolished.

Finally, among the adverts one reads in the underground stations of London, breast enlargement has been added. You can read about some new shows and restaurants and watches and fashion items for Xmas... and tada, plastic surgery made easy!

A girl shown in bikinis before and after the operation. Plastic surgery is really at par with any consumer item we may wish to pick up casually from a shop.

There is some outrage about this in medical circles, too as it makes the procedure look easy and casual, but on another level, altering our bodies has now finally openly been said to have become just another quick act of shopping. You can order it on a website, too...

Monday, 3 December 2007

Teddy bears and humans

The teacher who named a teddy bear after Mohammed (innocently following the suggestions of the kids) and was imprisoned has now been pardoned after considerable international outrage.

While wondering about the entire affair and its many serious and downright tragicomic aspects (and takes in the media, which are also serious or just tragicomic...), was musing about just what brings an insult.

That teddy bear was one representative of a very docile, serene, meditative species, the species of all teddy bears populating nurseries and rooms everywhere. Very reliable, very stable, with a firm and honest approach to the world around him. Why is therefore giving that name to a teddy bear an outrageous insult?

In comparison, giving that sacred name to a person, well... if a teddy bear's moral conduct is questionable and its ability to live up to that name also very questionable, then surely, humans are not exactly better?

Teddy bears do no fall into sin all the time, might fall off a sofa sometimes. They do not say heretic things and do not act them out. They certainly don't murder, torture and just generally torment others (teddy bears or humans or pets)... They don't destroy the planet either, their carbon footprint throughout their life is zero.

So many things can't be said about humans and can be said in praise and reverence of teddy bears. So... who are less suited to bear (pun intended) that sacred name?

Sunday, 2 December 2007

Saving the planet

While sympathetic to the core ideas, the following simply can not be avoid bringing an odd grin to one's face if the person has been through some interesting past experiences in a very different part of the world...

So just a few parallels infused with that strong deja-vu feeling...

Ceausescu used to claim that cutting electricity for several hours a day was saving the country's economy. The truth was that the population's electricity consumption was infinitesimal compared to what his industrial monsters consumed. But now, we hear all the preaching about household waste, with the possibility of even being fined in future for 'too much' of it. Please compare the percentage of household waste and what industry, in particular construction industry dumps on landfill sites - the statistics are educational and show a nice resonance with the tactics of that Genius of the Carpathian Mountains.

While we had heating and electricity cut, we were helping with the glory of communism that never really arrived, thank God. Again, any energy saving that the entire population did (well, was forced to) was infinitesimal compared to everything else. Now, I hear that in order to save the planet, it would be good if I set the central heating a few degrees lower and put on a jumper. Literally quoting from TV advert. Have I seen this warped 'individuals helping the great cause' thinking befor, where actual figures demolish any such overblown over-zealous propaganda?...

It is somehow ironic to travel 1500 miles and 17 years in space & time, respectively, then find the same propaganda but with different keywords, the only common thing being the contrast between the apparent message and the unforgiving hard figures that demolish the propaganda arguments.

The company I work for now also introduced surcharges for travel, in order to offset the CO2 footprint of air travel. The company will invest in green schemes with the extra money that for now, goes on the cost centre one claims the expenses from, but has to go on my personal credit card rather than the corporate one. OK, but... please somebody compare the 2% CO2 emissions with what cows (oh dear let's not count humans) emit per year. Interesting figures again.

I am all for the great and good cause, but would be stunning not to operate with false and manipulative propaganda targeted at the 'little people' while the true problems lie elsewhere.

Oh did I say, over the Summer water crisis (when millions of cubic meters of water leaked into the ground continuously anyway due to the terrible state of the water companies' infrastructure), not only I could not water my garden with a garden hose but... was also told by same overzealous TV propaganda to only flush toilet if absolutely necessary.

No comment. But again, a deja-vu from another world I thought I left behind in time & space.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

Recycling

Oh no, this is not about garbage... Well, maybe it is. Actually, it really is.

While a recent Cadbury chocolate advert with a gorilla drumming away, so inspired by Phil Collins's In The Air Tonight, relaunched that old track and it's selling again like hot bread (well done Phil), there are other things recycled again.

Take That re-formed. No, not reformed, that would mean something new, something of a reformation. Oh no. Just re-formed. Spice Girls quickly re-formed, too. Duran Duran, also. And now, with a delayed reaction, hurray! Boyzone also re-formed.

The storage capacity of the blog server would not be enough to store the rants one could have on the state of current pop/rock scene. But... it's truly tragic, when even pop so runs out of ideas that the only notable event can be the resurrection of some 70s/80s/90s act.

It is the musical equivalent of a remake. Of a very, very bad remake. At least remakes are based on film classics, but these pop-remakes are based on... gosh, is there a word in English that would be really descriptive for it?

Phil must have had a terrible dilemma... Will he sue for the gorilla that imitates his drumming and even has the earpiece in his left ear, in true a la collins style? Or... maybe just sit back and listen to the sounds of the royalties piling up.

Boyzone and other such mass murderers of what one in old-fashioned way would call music can not even rely on a re-launch of some 'classic'. Well, they, like other re-formed gems, release a 'best of' once again, but...

It is truly postmodern, that anything (re-)released nowadays has immediately the labels: unmissable, stunning, must-see, must-hear, instant classic etc.

It really is a desperate over-compensating attempt (see textbook psychology applied to pop art emptiness) of the pop industry, whether it is music or film or whatever. Deep down, they know how empty it all is - so anything under 5 stars in dubious magazine reviews will not do.

I know from experience, not just personal but collective experience, that teenagers can get hooked and can appreciate the 'real thing'. I don't even care how snobbish it may sound, and it only sounds snobbish because it is relative to the absolute dismal low point of the curent music and film scene.

But these teenagers, in a free world, having the incredible luxury of being able to access anything anywhere at any moment, grow up to have their aesthetics defined by re-launched re-formed musical and visual vacuum of a Boyzone, a Spice Girls.