Andalucia Steve the dream

Work. What is it Good For?

(Apart from the money)
A work colleague from long, long ago recently got in touch to wish me a happy birthday. I don't want to blow smoke up his arse but if I drew up a list of people I'd met in my life blessed with both high mental agility and being a good hang, he would be top percentile. In our email exchange, we both waxed sentimental over the team of extraordinary people we used to work with all those years ago.
This got me thinking. I've had quite a varied and somewhat chequered career in public and private companies of various sizes in various countries, or indeed online, with no particular country at all. The thing that struck me is that one doesn't remember the money. It's always the people, their interactions and incidents that stick in one's mind, which in some ways a better indicator of what makes a particular period of one's career good or not.
I hardly remember my first job at all. It was really just the first thing that came along and I was all but bullied into it by the sour-faced woman in the job centre. It was in a factory that manufactured 'architectural metal' which is unbelievably dull. I was appointed as the 'works clerk'. I soon found out I was really just a go-between, relaying the dictates of management in the office to the workers on the shop floor, then batting back their discontent to the boss. It was an extraordinarily dry, uninspiring job and I lasted about five weeks. The only memory of any richness that stays with me was a prank played on the first of April. There was a young labourer working there who clearly wasn't the sharpest knife in the drawer. He used to cycle to work and always brought his bike inside the factory and parked it in a particular place. The prank was simply that his colleagues hid his bike. The poor guy went to jump on his steed to cycle home for lunch but it wasn't there. He started ranting, running around asking if anyone had seen his bike. Looking on as an outsider, it seemed mildly amusing but all his work-mates were creasing up in fits of hysteria. Eventually I had to ask someone what was so funny. A chap told me "We did exactly the same thing last year. Daft bastard still hasn't twigged it's April the first!" 
Humour is a great thing to have in a team, as it binds people together. There was plenty of "esprit de corp" in my next position that arose as a variety of gallows humour. I snagged a three month summer job working in what used to be known as the local 'dole' office, where folk would come to sign the famous 'UB40' form to declare themselves out of work and therefore eligible to receive benefits. In actual fact, the UB40 was only one a several types of form used for people that depended on the type of their employment. For example, actors who were in and out of work all the time, had a yellow form and were known as casuals, but I digress. Anyway, there was never a dull moment in the dole office. With several hundred members of the public coming in every day we saw all walks of life from Royalty (we had a Baron signing on) to tramps. These were the days before security screens. It wasn't unusual to be verbally abused, spat it and occasionally, violence occurred. One guy who was refused benefit showed his displeasure by returning to the office with a bag full of refuse which he emptied out all over the floor. On one occasion my supervisor was in an interview with a claimant who slit his wrists and sprayed blood all over her. There was clearly then an 'us and them' dynamic between the public and the staff. It was curious to feel this social pressure from outside the team, strengthen the ties between the people within it. Very soon I was bonding with my work-mates, playing in their five-a-side team, going out boozing and swapping stories about the events of the day of which there were many. This must be a phenomenon that happens in other walks of life like the police, fire service etc. I was only there for the summer but when I left, I felt curiously closer to these people than most of the kids I'd been at school with over the past seven years. 
I had several jobs in the Civil Service. Once you get in it's hard to leave! I was in the Ordnance Survey for a while. If I had to rate all my work experiences, excluding the contribution of people, this was probably the most enjoyable because of the travel. I was part of a small unit with a surveyor and two labourers and each day we would pitch up at eight in the morning to get the day's assignment. It was a bit like Mission Impossible! We never knew where we would be going until we jumped in the van and hit the road. We were limited only by the geographical bounds of our area, SE8H, which covered a big chunk West of London, kind of a square from Slough to Wembley, down to Dorking and Guildford. I found getting out and about everyday enormously enjoyable, as was the unpredictability.  I never knew if I would be clambering up scaffolding on a new build block of flats or measuring the distance between street furniture that was the scene of a recent traffic accident. Variety is the spice of life! The public were always curious about what we were up to. During one routine survey a guy came up to me and asked if we were building a new bypass. I assured him it was just a remapping job but he wouldn't let it go.
"I know! You can't tell me. I completely understand, but it's a new road isn't it? All these buildings will be coming down. Come on now, don't deny it, no names no pack drill!", and so he went on, putting words in my mouth, convinced that his little town was soon to be flattened by bulldozers. Eventually I leaned into him, and glancing conspiratorially right and left, I winked and said,
"Loose lips sink ships".
He returned a gleeful smile and doubled-tapped the side of his nostril, which I considered was to indicate that our little secret was safe with him, at least until five minutes later when he would probably share it with the rest of the village. Such are the joys of working with the public.
My last and longest Civil Service job was in the Department For National Savings as it was then called (now re-branded as NS&I). I was there for about twelve years and  met a lot of bright, interesting people, some of whom I am still in contact with today. This was a much larger outfit such that from our ranks we were able to put together a half-decent rock band. Despite a rewarding social life though, I felt frustrated by continuing pay and promotion freezes. In 1995 the boom was clearly going to be the next big thing and I wanted to be a part of it. So I left the service and became a freelancer.
Working for one's self is a double-edged sword. While one has freedom, with that comes responsibility, the most problematic of which was to actually find work. I'd planned to be a web consultant, however I was a little ahead of the game. I thought it would be a piece of cake to get clients as there were so few people at the time who knew how to build websites. As I found when I started hustling for business, there were very few people who knew what a website was nor why it could be of value to them. I eventually fell back on more familiar IT support roles, grabbing bit of work here and there which kept me going for a year or two. It was really all down to sales and marketing and I quickly came to realise that I wasn't very good at either!
Then I had a stroke of luck which led to me joining the company I mentioned at the beginning that prompted me to write this piece. A relative phoned me one Friday afternoon. He said he had a friend that had a start-up business in Richmond and they were looking for people. He gave me their number and I phoned straight away. I exchanged a few words with the guy who answered the phone and within minutes I was on my way to work. They were so busy they wanted me to come right away. I was with them for two and a half years. It was a blast. 
The way they hired me was not untypical. Most people seemed to be there through word of mouth, networking or even chance meetings. One of the owners had apparently met the General Manager at a trade show and pretty much hired him on the spot to run the thing. I later learned the company had been formed by some high-ranking ex-Dell employees. They had a business plan and didn't seem to find it hard to find funding. As the company grew, many bright and interesting people came on board. It was a broad mix of people from super-brainy graduates like my mate to plebs like me, but everyone seemed to fit in and bring something unique to the table and nobody was denied a voice. It was a joyous time.
I should mention at this point, that this company revealed another important factor that can make work enjoyable beyond money alone. There is a special energy and dynamic working in a start-up company which can be its own reward. When you go to work in a well established outfit, each day knowing that the challenges you face will be little different from the day before, well, there is something a little soul destroying about that. In a start-up, things are much more fluid and one meets new challenges all the time which can be quite thrilling. I met an accountant from America who was seconded to us for a while there and he told me he only ever worked for new companies for that reason. Once things are organised and setup to run, he told me that he was out of the door, off to work for the next one.
Regrettably the UK branch in which I worked later folded with much of the management moving to the larger, American twin of the company. I didn't want to move to Texas so I decided to move on and set up my own venture. 
I'd met a graphic artist while I was there who seemed to know what he was doing and also claimed to be a sales & marketing whizz, so we decided to join forces to setup a web design company. We worked out of a small subsidised office in Kensington and this time I found myself in the right place at the right time. This was 1998 and everyone wanted a website. Pretty soon, we were the ones doing the hiring. I must say I found being at the top of the company generally far less rewarding than being down below. There were endless meetings and far less of the coal face work that I'd enjoyed as a programmer. However one thing did reward me more than anything work related, either before or since. It was a surprise that came like a bolt from the blue.
I arrived in the office early one morning to be greeted by a young lady we employed as a designer. She had lots of seemingly ancient slips of paper written in 'Copper Plate' spread all over her desk. She explained to me that it was her intention to buy a house with her boyfriend. The documents in front of us were share certificates given to her when she was born. She was trying to figure out how much she would be able to sell them for in order to raise the deposit. I suddenly had the epiphany that the company I had conceived of, co-founded and was a half-owner of, was actually going to be paying for someone's house! It gave me a strange sense of satisfaction and pride that I find difficult to put into words. I've never had children but this must be something like hearing your child's first words or seeing their first steps. Several more employees later obtained mortgages against the salaries we paid them and each time I was really blown away by the feeling.
My business partner and I disagreed over some fundamental issues over the direction of the company and I eventually sold out to him and moved to Spain. My career has slalomed most unpredictably since then, mostly downhill and never bringing forth anything like the job satisfaction that I experienced in the first half of my career. These days I far prefer to be playing my bass guitar than working in an office, though who knows? If an interesting opportunity came along with the chance to work with nice people, I'd probably jump at the chance!

Getting Old is Rubbish!

OK It's my Birthday. Go Easy With Me!


Happy birthday to me! I've reached 58 which is in some regards an admirable milestone. From the Paleolithic era to the days of early modern England, a male commoner like myself would have been considered exceptionally lucky to see out his thirties. Most of the credit for this probably goes to vaccines and antibiotics, though the stable social period through which I've lived has seen little in the way of war and much in the way of an affordable, nutritious diet which has probably helped a lot.

Grateful though I am then, I can't help feeling a little less like celebrating my birthday as each year passes. One doesn't realise it but as a youngster, time appears to pass incredibly slowly. Then, as we age, the years soon start whizzing by faster than a Japanese bullet train. This is due to a phenomenon that I've mentioned before (in Things that wind me up ) called Weber's law. Weber noticed that how we humans perceive change, varies in proportion to the thing being measured. Although a year is always the same length, when we are children we compare a year to the total years we have lived, five or six of them or whatever. As we approach retirement, we maybe compare a year to say sixty or sixty five years. We can't but help then, thinking that years are getting shorter. Our perception of the length of a year varies logarithmically as we age. It is quite chilling to extend this notion, as author Anne Rice did in the 1984 Gothic novel 'Interview with a Vampire', to a life-form that has achieved immortality.  The vampire Louis in the book describes the ' terrible tedium of a perpetual earthly existence', as the years become centuries and the detachment from mortals grows, and as the world changes and the vampires do not. Imagine years passing as seconds. What a horrible thought!

OK you might think I'm writing this from the perspective of some grumpy guy who 'got out of the wrong side of the bed' this morning. You would be right. I just got my first spam-email for a funeral plan. That makes me feel more than just old. It makes me feel 'one foot in the grave' old!

It wouldn't be so bad if it was just a case of the years accelerating before our eyes but they seem to do this with such malice. I saw a meme on Facebook the other day which captured this very succinctly. It read "Getting older is just one body part after another saying 'ha ha, you think that's bad, well watch this!"

Temporary Kings is a novel by Anthony Powell, the penultimate in his twelve-volume novel, A Dance to the Music of Time. It was published in 1973 and remains in print as does the rest of the sequence. In the penultimate book of the sequence, Powell describes ageing as like being increasingly penalised for a crime you haven't committed.

It certainly feels like that My first pubic hair scared the hell out of me at aged ten. More recently I discovered my first grey pube which nothing on earth had prepared me for. One wonders what is next? Male-pattern pube-baldness? I hate to even Google it!

Alexander Smith wrote "An essay on an old subject" which captures the mood of ageing far better than I ever could. He starts with "The discovery of a gray hair when you are brushing out your whiskers of a morning—first-fallen flake of the coming snows of age—is a disagreeable thing. So is the intimation from your old friend and comrade that his eldest daughter is about to be married. So are flying twinges of gout, shortness of breath on the hillside, the fact that even the moderate use of your friend’s wines at dinner upsets you. These things are disagreeable because they tell you that you are no longer young,—that you have passed through youth, are now in middle age, and faring onward to the shadows in which, somewhere, a grave is hid."

Another insightful piece about ageing was in something written by Ernest Hemingway which I read years ago. In fact it was so long ago I can't even remember if it was from a book, an essay or possibly someone else's recollections of him. I've been trying to track it down but without being able to remember any of the key words or phrases other than 'wine' I've had little success, as this is a topic he raises often. Anyway, the general gist was that he considered it a travesty of life that, as one ages, one learns to appreciate more and more the value of a good wine, while at the same time one's body conspires to reduce one's ability to drink the stuff. Having had the odd bout of gout I know what he means. Thank god for Allopurinol. There is a big slice of virtual birthday cake to any wizardly researchers out there who are able to locate the source of the original quote.

Being a bit of an introvert I've never much enjoyed the concept of celebrating my birthday with a party or other get-together. It seems oddly narcissistic to say "This is all about me" and to force my friends to come along, buy me gifts and express their liking of me and sing to me for no other reason than that is what birthdays are supposed to be for, i.e. sucking up to me and kissing my behind. I'm really much happier with a simple message on my Facebook wall, or maybe a valued card from those rare and special people who are not online. The less fuss and the less reminder that I'm getting older, the better I like it!!

Ex-pat cravings

The crazy things I miss from blighty


For my first visit to Spain my wife and I were lucky enough to be invited over by a friend who had moved over to Alicante in the previous year. He kindly offered to shows us a few locations up and down the Costa Blanca. One thing stuck in my mind from that visit. One day we popped into an English grocers shop and my friend happened to spot a box of cornflakes. These weren't ordinary cornflakes but the fruity ones with added strawberries. What happened next left quite an impression. My friend retired to the car, opened the box of cornflakes and started cupping handfuls of the dry cereal into his mouth with tears of joy coming down his face. He explained these were his favourite brand and that he had not had them for a year or so since he was last in the UK!
Now that I'm a Spanish resident myself I completely understand how he felt. While I never get homesick for England, every now and again, a flavour or a smell can trigger an unusual response in the brain. Like Proust's Madeleines dipped in tea, they can open a neural pathway with surprising efficacy, transporting one back to a different place and time. Sometimes though it happens the other way. One imagines the place and the time which in turn reminds one of the taste or smell which stimulates the craving. I've lost count of the number of times this has happened to me. Typically I'll think of an event like a Christmas celebration, which will remind my of a beverage like ginger wine. Once the flavour and smell of the ginger wine gets in my head I'll be unable to shake it off. I'll trawl around the supermarkets here to see if there is anything similar. Then when inevitably I find that there isn't I'll go online to shop for some, only to be defeated by exorbitant delivery charges. Then I'll hit up YouTube and start typing "how to make ginger wine"...
The first big bump in the road after first moving to Spain was that I found myself living in a remote village that was far, far away from a decent curry house. Not only that but I was really surprised by the paucity of spices used in Spanish cuisine. They just don't do hot and spicy food over here. So a process began of teaching myself how to cook Indian food and sourcing ingredients. I'd brought some dried chillies and coriander seeds with me and surprised myself by successfully planting and growing these. I discovered cardamoms were available through a local health-food shop. Also, I came across a Moroccan bric-à-brac shop which had a small shelf of spices from which I was able to source a few things. Bit by bit I was able to get everything together, and using the invaluable book, 'The Curry Secret' by Kris Dhillon, I was able to recreate the good old-fashioned British Indian restaurant experience in my own home. I shed a tear myself when I cooked my first perfect Chicken Tikka Massala!
This was over fifteen years ago and things have moved on. My local supermarket carries fresh coriander and ginger these days. However there are still many items that obsess my senses from time to time. Fresh cream seems to be unknown here. They only do the UHT stuff or horrible squirty cream. Clotted cream is pure fantasy. I often dream of kippers, smoked mackerel fillets, custard powder, Colman's mustard, instant desserts like Angel Delight, pickled onions, Vesta Chow Mein with crispy noodles, the list is endless! Most of this is crap, processed food, but such is the way my brain is wired, these happen to be the ones that take me back to the past most effectively.
When I moved to Andalusia a decade ago I found the situation little different. There are places near the coast where British and Asian groceries can be sourced. As I don't have a car, and the bus ride would be a round trip of about 25 euros, I rarely bother to make the journey.
Fortunately online purchasing has gradually made the availability of many items possible, though some online retailers either won't ship to Spain or charge a lot for postage. Even Amazon didn't have an online store in Spain until as late as 2011 but now it is possible to order some items through them at a lower cost of delivery than getting them sent from the UK.
A better solution over the years has been to inconvenience friends of mine to bring stuff over when they come to stay. Fortunately I've known many folk with holiday homes here who have volunteered their services as my spice mules, squeezing all sorts of things from poppadoms to tamarind paste into their luggage. My most trusty trafficker, Lynda has brought hundreds of items over for me in the past, but alas she is retiring this year, having made the sensible decision to base herself over here permanently. Respect and many thanks for your years of loyal service!
Really she couldn't have picked a better time to hang up the shopping bag, since this year I've discovered a couple of online Asian grocers specialising in the Spanish market, carrying a much wider range of items than I've ever seen before, and with reasonable delivery charges. For the first time in almost two decades I can order everything from rasmalai to frozen samosas with more spices available than you could shake a cinnamon stick at!
In case these websites are of interest to my fellow ex-pat sensation-seekers, here are the addresses:

A Growing Lifetime of Not Understanding

The older I get, the less I seem to understand, but I don't think its just me!
I rarely visit the UK, but the last time I did I confronted one of those new-fangled self-service tills in a shop for the first time. It confused the hell out of me! I had to get my niece to show me what to do. This was particularly embarrassing because I'm supposed to be a techie guy - Computer Steve - the dude who has been bothering microchips since the early seventies. The odd thing is that while this is factually correct, the world has progressed while my understanding of it has become increasingly muddy.
I'm not talking about things I don't understand about life in general, like why women fashion hats out of towels at some point during the process of taking a shower, or why dogs don't chew their food whereas they're so adept at chewing on furniture. I'm specifically concerned with the wall that has been growing between man and machine since electronics has been migrating from analog to digital.
If you are old enough to remember the 1960's this wall didn't exist. If you owned a radio or a TV, the chances are it had two dials - one that turned the volume up and down, the other which tuned the device through different channels. There was also a good chance that these were labelled 'volume' and 'tuner' in English. 
The first suggestion in my world that things were about to get ugly came with the Cassette Tape recorder. Do you remember those? We used to use them to record the top 30 pop songs on a Sunday night. A tune I remember fondly was Queen - Seven Seas Of Rhye which was as near as I got to liking heavy metal back in the day! Anyway, the thing that was lost on me and probably many others at the time, was that the controls on these machines had a language-independent interface. This allowed the manufactures to streamline tooling so they could basically knock out the same machine and sell it to different countries with the minimum of changes, perhaps with just a different mains plug and user manual. This was a subtle but important turning point as it meant we, the great unwashed public, had to start  learning a new language of symbols. (The posh word for this is semiotics but lets not get ahead of ourselves).
Now a cassette recorder wasn't rocket science but it was more complicated than a radio. One had to express forward/back, stop, record/play and pause. This was done with the use of symbols and sometimes colour, with the red being used to signify record. Us old folk have had forty years to forget how we first learned this interface but I understand it still foxes kids today when they see a Sony Walkman for the first time. 
Household appliances of all kinds have undergone similar 'progress' since those heady days. Our washing machine back then was so simple a child could use it. There was a dial that had labels in English that said meaningful things like 'wash', 'rinse' and 'spin'. The washing machine I use today has a dial with dozens of signs on it that look as though they were invented for the purpose of confusing the hell out of me by some insane professor of Aztec hieroglyphics! Fortunately the Devil's spawn was already here when I moved into the house, so I just leave the dial where it has always been, throw my washing in, switch it on and hope for the best! Seems to be OK but God only knows what all the other settings do. As for the washing instructions they put inside clothes, don't get me started!
It's the same thing with steam irons. No idea! Turning the dial clockwise seems to make them hotter but as for the other symbols, not a clue!
Things really started to get mysterious when appliances became digital. An old analog microwave oven was a joy to use. There was just a timer and a power level control - easy. Does anyone really understand the interface on a conventional digital microwave? Weird images of chicken drum-sticks and steaming bowls? I would never buy a microwave with an interface like that, but I had occasion to use one a few years back, and in the absence of a manual (or anyone else that was in possession of the sacred knowledge of how it worked), I eventually managed to cook some popcorn after about five minutes of trial and error, randomly pushing buttons and trying my best to gauge the results.
The removal of language in favour of internationalization is only one of the problems. The other is that all signs are not equal. If it were just the case that a picture represented something recognisable, things wouldn't be too bad. Think of a public toilet for example. There is an image of a man, an image of a woman and an image of a person in a wheelchair. It's not easy to confuse these icons for the things they represent in the real world.
Icons however are only one of the three categories of sign recognized in semiotics, the study of signs. The other two are symbol and index. Icons are reduced depictions of the object they represent, such as our toilet folk. Symbols however are signs that represent an object without resembling it.  Most national flags are abstract symbols, which clearly represent a national identity without imaging a real thing (there are exceptions - some flags may contain stars, lions etc but for the purpose of the example I'm talking about plain flags with just lines and colours). Indexes are pointers to a concept that often cannot easily be represented directly, e.g. drawing three horizontal squiggly lines doesn't look much like water but it does suggest a river or sea and maybe used to indicate water, swimming, tide and many things water related. 
All three types of sign are found in the earliest cave paintings dating back hundreds of thousands of years. The paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger has been doing a study of the objects represented in engravings and paintings in caves across the world and has discovered that all the designs can be reduced to a basic 'vocabulary' of 32 separate signs. She mentions in her excellent and fascinating TED talk on the subject that "There is a striking lack of diversity in the earliest rock art from France and Spain to Indonesia and Australia". The thought that the outlook of people across the human world hundreds of thousands of years ago could be expressed in 32 signs is a sobering one. Hold onto it while I describe what happens next in my story.
Computers, as you will know, are a lot more than glorified adding machines. Since the early days of punch cards and paper tape, the interfaces through which we connect to computers has been gradually evolving. From my earliest contact with them during the 1970's until the middle of 1980s, all interaction was mainly through a 'terminal' model, where one would see a command line on a screen, type in commands and get the answer back as lines of text. Later, many alternative custom graphical interfaces came and went but the one that endured was called the WIMP interface (standing for windows, icons, menus and pointers - or mice and pointers depending on which version of computer history you believe). This found its way into the Apple Macintosh in 1984 and other home computers such as the Atari and Amiga until eventually being reinvented by Microsoft as their flagship interface, Windows.
I was a command-line ninja having been a Unix programmer who had worked in this type of environment for so long, so I personally found the move to a graphical user interface a very painful one. Implicit in all these interfaces was the dubious conceit that they represented your desktop and the items within it, such as files, printers, waste-bins and so on. I couldn't see what was intuitive nor useful about say, clicking my cursor on a file and dragging it onto the printer to print it. In my experience, dropping a physical A4 document onto a the top of a physical printer or photocopier would not induce the latter to print, so why should it be so on my computer? It really took me decade to get my head around it.
Meanwhile the academic thinkers in the process of constructing the Tower of Babel we jokingly refer to as Computer Science had another trick up their sleeve. The number of printable characters back in the 60's was originally a lowly 128, due to the limited bit-length of early computers (the size of the blocks of numbers the computers were able to work with at a low level - this grew over time time from 8, 16, 32 to 64 etc as technology improved). The size of the possible 'alphabet' was extended throughout the years, but the huge uptake of computers internationally and the need to represent different character sets such as Japanese Kanji text meant a complete overhaul of how characters were represented was in order. The boffins came up with Unicode, a standard which is now used to represent hundreds of thousands of characters. 
Now you will probably be aware that techies used smiley symbols 🙂 back in mainframe days. When mobile phones became a craze in Japan during the 1990s, their phone manufacturers extended this idea and ran wild with it creating the sub-culture of the emoji, those crazy little images that almost substitute for text in messages exchanged by young people. This soon spread beyond Japan and cutting a long story short, emojis are now represented across technical platforms worldwide using the Unicode standard. They are now mainstream!
Smartphones didn't come out until I was well into my forties, by which time the last thing I wanted to do was learn yet another interface. The gestures, swiping and pinching all baffled me for some time. I still get the shivers If I have to copy something from one app to another on my phone or have to print something out, but I'm getting there. 
My Waterloo however is messaging. I sometimes get messages, especially from young people, that look like they were copied from the walls of an Egyptian tomb. Icons, symbols and indexes all in the shape of modern emoji. I know what they are, I just can't figure out what they mean, because there seem to be thousands of these things. When I see them I often think back to Genevieve von Petzinger's fundamental 32 character vocabulary and wonder how old I actually am, because I often feel nearer to our cave-dwelling, stone-age ancestors than I do to our couch-dwelling Generation-Z!