Monday, January 30, 2012

bonus culture

A suitcase full of money went through the window yesterday. One million pound, just thrown away. There is no finder and no one will directly benefit from it, nor will the man with the dynamic arm miss his loss much – it's peanuts on either side. But the surrounding story is nevertheless quite intriguing.

Late in 2008, the Royal Bank of Scotland was bailed out by the British government when it ran out of cash as a result of the wildly testosterone-fueled and ultimately doomed takeover of the Dutch bank ABN Amro. Stephen Hester took charge as chief executive on a contract negotiated between him and the new owners, the government.

Last week, it became known that Mr. Hester was expecting a bonus payment of nearly one million pound, and the outrage was nearly universal. How can he, in times of austerity, when the economy is double-dipping and regular workers see their real income decline, take a dip in the warm pool of gratuitous luxury?

The outrage was predictable; the story fits too well with the established greedy-banker-narrative. But as I see it, Mr Hester is entitled to his bonus. He negotiated a contract with a company that was quite eager to have him aboard and got a generous pay package. If I were in the situation, I'd bargain for the best deal possible, too. In any negotiation, in fact, I'd bargain for the best deal. Everyone would, and those who wouldn't, should.

The blame for the bonus, if it is unjustified, doesn't lie with the employee taking it but with the employer handing it out. The employer in this case is the government, at least indirectly. But even though David Cameron, the Prime Minister, argues against million-pound bonuses at state-owned banks, there was little he could do. The contracts had been signed.

The contracts were signed by the previous government, Labour. In an example of insuperable political hypocrisy, it's the voice of the current leader of Labour, Ed Milliband, that calls loudest on the government to withdraw the bonus. No apologies that Labour had dispensed the millions in the first place.

Labour, curiously for a nominally workers' party, has bought into the City's dictum that the financial industry needs the brightest minds. It is often argued, mostly from inside the financial sector, that outrageous pay packages simply reflect the difficulty of attracting top talent. That it hasn't worked out so well over the last decade is not part of that logic. That bright minds are needed just as much in the sciences and in engineering is conveniently ignored. But who will make the discoveries that will form the foundation of the country's prosperity? Who will build the bridges into the future?

Political posturing and lobbying is not surprising. What surprised me is that no one looked at the reasons behind the bonus. What justifies the bonus? In my naive way, I'd think a bonus is justified for exceptional results, for a performance beyond the call of duty. Measuring this is always difficult. But we're talking City of London here. Profitability, employment figures, the health of the balance sheet, and tangible benefits to society are only of secondary importance. What matters is the share price.

British bank shares

The graph above shows the development of the share price of RBS (blue, shaded) since the arrival of Mr Hester at the helm until last week, overlaid with corresponding graphs for the bank's direct competitors. In a bit more than three years, Mr Hester managed to destroy 50% of the value of RBS, which is better than what his counterpart at Lloyds Banking Group did (-80%) but not as good as the effort of the CEO of HSBC (-24%). Barclays plays in a different league (+32%). Credit to Yahoo (+36% over the same period, not adjusted for dollar-pound variations) for the numbers. Note that the two worst performers are cocky Scottish banks. On that evidence alone, support for the independence of Scotland with all the responsibilities this entails should be overwhelming in England.

In light of these numbers, it's hard to see how a performance bonus could be justified. But maybe it was a bonus just for showing up. This is becoming increasingly popular, as ridiculous as that sounds (unless you get it). Just today, unions negotiating on behalf of London Underground workers (ticket office staff and engineers, among them) rejected an offer of £500 per head for working during the Olympics – on top of the regular salary – as inadequate. Everyone else working in public transport has already got a better offer, goes the complaint.

Here, my story draws to a close. Maybe Mr Hester didn't want to associate with tube station staff and bus drivers. Maybe he didn't care about the million pounds one way or another and much preferred to get out of the media's cross hairs. In either case, he decided to decline the bonus and get on with it, though how long he'll stay at RBS is anyone's guess.

Sunday, January 29, 2012


As I get ready to watch Revolutionary Road (which the BBC generously put on the iPlayer the other day), I contemplate the drinks options. Last night, I watched Open Range. That was an easy one. I had whiskey, a Bushmills Black. The glass unfortunately finished the bottle. I'll have to restock next weekend at the airport.

When I started college, the idea of strong spirits revolted me. I had friends who casually mentioned their well-supplied liquor cabinets, the drinks they would prepare and the necessary ingredients. It made me shiver. Drink is nothing to brag about.

I still didn't get it when I was in Utah, though there was not much to get there. For a friend in lab, I once ran contraband across the Zion curtain in the form of a bottle of Lagavulin because the hooch was much cheaper in Germany. It was beyond me that anyone would spend 40 euros on one bottle. Later, a Scottish friend of a friend let me sample a few of his treasures – disgusting without fail.

My eyes were ripped open at another lab member's housewarming party when a colleague brought a bottle of Herradura Añejo. I had tried tequila before, in margaritas mainly, but the colleague requested shot glasses. "Don't mix this stuff", he said, "and don't toss it." Like silly aunts, we started sipping with pointed mouths. It was incredible. A bottle of Herradura has since been with me most of the time.

Then, when I left France, a student gave me a bottle of Balluet Très Vieille Réserve which years later, when it was empty, compelled me to go on a trip to Cognac and visit Mr Balluet's distillery. I booked checked luggage for the trip back and brought three bottles home with me.

Cognac was on my mind before I started watching the film but when I checked my reserves, I realized that there were only two bottles remaining. What happened to the third? Gone already? But no worries, it's been a year and a half.

With alcohol it is just as with meat – I'd rather have something better and a bit less of it. I guess that holds true with many things in life. There's nothing wrong with a glass of good booze every now and then, but for many that's too difficult to manage. England is apparently the world leader of binge and puke.

I didn't open the second bottle. All in its own time. There was one other option, a memory of a trip to Portugal last year. And so with a small glass of 20-year-old Croft tawny, I sat down in front of the screen and hit play.

Revolutionary Road was delightful as historic documentation – work desks without computers; salesmen speaking letters into dictaphones, not for voice recognition by the word processor but for transcription by the typist; everyone smoking, in their homes, at work, in restaurants – and amazing for its fatal clash between dreams and reality. As entertainment, it came a bit heavy but moving slowly it gave me plenty of time to finish this post.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

easy option

A phone call brought it to a head. This has been going on for too long, and still the smokescreen persists, was the complaint. There wasn't much I could say in return. It was all true, all points were valid and needed immediate addressing. Flucha hung up and I got going writing, remedying past injustices.

The trigger was the New Year's post where I envisioned the year to come, sketching the things that might happen and letting a projection of myself dream a bit. As befits my blog, the freewheeling vehicle of my vanity, I wrote only about myself. Today, over the course of a long conversation, I realized what it means to look at the result with the eyes of the mysterious other person that has been implied long enough but never mentioned explicitly.

I didn't go to Cornwall by myself. Frequent trips to Marseille were not taken solely for the beauty of Provence. A we that keeps cropping up as if it had a will of its own. Three indicators that things are not as they used to be, that they are in fact very different from when this blog was started. The list could be expanded ad libitum.

I've been with Flucha for several years, the last of it, thanks to the vagaries of academic careers, long-distance. Continuing despite the separation was not an easy option, but quick and reasonably priced direct flights between London and Marseille made it at least bearable. Now we stand stronger and with a vision for the future.

Here in London, I've three months left. My search for the ideal next position hasn't led to it yet, but I'm not fretting. My goals are high; I would never settle for second best, never in any context. If I have to take a break from work for a month or two, the world wouldn't end. Life, in contrast, might even improve – once make the journey down to Marseille one last time, with all my possessions in tow.

All posts of this blog are filed under the fictionalized label. That's what it says on the tin – or, to be precise, at the top of the page, directly below the title. But this post is less fictionalized than any other, and certainly much less than the appalling post that, by a tortuous chain of events, led to this one.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

questions remain

The things that happened this week in relation to the story that I'm telling didn't follow the conventions of logic, leaving me baffled as much as the story has baffled me since it started more than five weeks ago. But it has now reached a conclusion. I made a few more calls to the Orange call center in Belfast and received a few from them. I was surprised that up until the end, there were still people that I hadn't talked to. The call center must be a sizeable operation.

Last week, the state of things was that there was something wrong with my phone line, that the fault was external and that an engineer would have to come by to fix it. Things had, in other words, not moved since the first engineer had come to my flat a month earlier, a time that can be called, with some dramatic flourish yet accurately, last year.

As the fault was external, the engineer wouldn't need access to my flat. Hearing this came as a relief. After all, I had waited for an engineer in vain twice before. But I knew that my relief was of the religious kind. It flew in the face of observable facts. Yet I clung to it.

On Wednesday, I got a call from an engineer who told me rather cheerfully that my fault was very nearly fixed. In fact, it might possibly be fixed already, and would I mind letting him in to verify that? I was at work; it was the early afternoon. "I'll see you in half an hour", I replied, not wanting to give him the chance to miss another appointment, and rushed home through dense sheets of drizzle.

Every now and then, I complain about work in acadmic research. Sometimes I get profoundly disenchanted. Jobs are precarious for the most part. Instead of building cohesive and efficient units, it is universal policy to drive staff out after a few years. Pay is low relative to qualifications. But there are undeniable benefits to this line of work as well. Freedom is treasured highly. I have my own projects and organize my efforts and time to my own best judgment. If something more important than work comes up, it can take immediate priority, currently running experiments permitting. The time missed in one part of the day can simply be made up for later. This flexibility might even be beneficial to the outcome of work because experiments often involve periods of waiting and can extend beyond the eight hours of a working day.

At home, I still didn't have a dial tone, and two-and-a-half hours later, when night had fallen and nine-to-fivers pack up and go home, the engineer told me he'd have to be back to finish the next day. "There's no need for you to be here. I'll call you when everything is done."

The next morning, the London winter drizzle from the day before was gone, replace by hard rain from low clouds that looked bottomless. The engineer looked miserable as he lifted the cover from one of the cable jointing manholes, bracing himself for a day in the trenches of hard work as I was off to a dry though occasionally rather smelly lab.

That night, my landline was restored. I had a dial tone and could make calls. The internet was back as well. I called Orange, partly to report the successful completion of the work and partly to say goodbye to a group of people that had become an ersatz social network to me. After all, I had spent more time with them than with my family since my phone went down. It hadn't registered.

"Are you sure you are with Orange", the lady on the phone asked me when I had given her my phone number and a bucketful of personal details for security purposes. I almost cried, it was so cruel. But I managed to convince her and close the case. Or so I thought. The next morning, I got a call from a familiar voice, Ashling enquiring about the status of my phone line. My problem might be fixed, but chaos still reigns at Orange.

At least my phone's working. I'm happy about that, obviously, but I'm inordinately happier that I don't have to deal with this anymore. It wasn't a battle taking strength and determination, it was a war of attrition where nothing I did seemed to make the least difference, and it was just by pure chance that I got my way. The call center worker were friendly without fail, but I never got even a single word of apology.

Sunday, January 15, 2012


The woman in my seat is voluminous and on the wrong side of youthfulness. She advertises her despair at the physical tolls of aging by copiously applying the cosmetic equivalent of masking tape – in bright orange. Heavy fashion accessories dangle from neck and hair, her face is covered in thick paint, and a dense fog of volatile chemicals shrouded her figure. She was the exact opposite of the city I was leaving.

Marseille is ageless, old beyond numbers and concern. The Phoenicians traded in its harbor when the Romans were still too young to be let out on their own. Marseille is unbothered by appearance, refreshingly aloof in questions of style or fashion. It's also a mess: chaotic, dirty, colorful, rushed and confused.

In contrast to most other French cities, Marseille doesn't try to hide its minorities and sequester its social problems in the banlieue. There are monstrous high rises at the periphery and neighborhoods best avoided, but the mess and jumble isn't contained. And it doesn't just spill over. It's everywhere; it belongs. Deprivation is as much a part of life as is wealth. The city, a mosaic in time and space, accommodates all.

With the stolidity of age comes an imperturbable confidence, the lack of any pretense, a sense of being down to earth because the earth is the only thing of permanence. The conviction of having seen it all, over the centuries, nullifies any attempts at grandeur. Marseille doesn't have to prove anything.

This afternoon, I saw a fine example of this self-assurance in Mazargues, a marginal part of town, far from the center but not exactly a suburb. There, a neighborhood pizzeria was called Top 20. Consider, for a moment, the kind of message this name sends. The place doesn't claim to be Numero Uno or even Top 10. Here, people don't mind being associated with top 20, somewhere above average in other words. Maybe just about average, if you think about it, maybe a tick below. Ok, towards the bottom, to be honest, but certainly not last. And even if, who cares?

Earlier, I had woken up to a fine morning, to the eternal summer of the Mediterranean where the cold January air is always mellowed by a hot sun. It felt like vacation. The sea lapped against the shore in gentle waves starkly at odds with all the upheaval and violence these waters had witnessed over the millennia. Away from the sea stretched the Provence in unlimited scents and unbelievable color, a region to come back to and stay.

Life isn't so generous. With the sun setting, I was on my way back to Gatwick where, on the way out a few days earlier, I had felt compelled to ask the boarding pass inspector at the entrance to security whether everyone was on strike or still on lunch break. The departure hall looked abandoned, as if evacuated after some unspeakable incident, but the line I found myself in was epic, and largely immobile.

"It's Friday afternoon, sir", the wallah replied. "It's always like this." If this had been a tightly scripted movie I would have feigned incredulity. "How come you not only know about the problem, but also about its recurrence, and still you haven't asked your supervisor to assign more staff to remedy the situation?" Instead, in the stupor reserved for situations where a brain is an impediment, I crawled on. There was enough time to make the plane even in a slow line, but not enough to engage in futile discussions.

The lady from the beginning, by the way, had been in the wrong seat. Muttering the French of the oppressed and enraged, she moved into her middle seat and let me slip across to the window. As I fell into my seat, the cloud of perfume left behind by her departure condensed on my glasses and in my throat, depriving me of vision and oxygen.

I fell momentarily unconscious. When I recovered I found my neighbor dig through a PowerPoint presentation of corporate vacuousness from the world leader of flavors, as every slide proclaimed. The woman could have been senior secretarial staff or senior management. The difference is hard to tell at the best of times, and with the hot air in front of her, all bets were off.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


The day began auspiciously enough. Before I had as much as walked down the road outside my house, I saw two BT vans going by, purposefully, it seemed to me. Around the corner and still within shouting distance of home, I saw a BT engineer kneeling before a small roadside cabinet not unlike the wayside shrines you see in Catholic countries. The man wasn't praying, though. He was up to his elbows in a dense tangle of wires that spilled through the open doors of the cabinet, unplugging and reconnecting the sockets that were visible behind. Was that the exchange that the Orange service guys kept talking about? I admit that I have only a vague idea of a telephone exchange, one colored by personal experience from many years ago.

In the summer of 1996, two friends and I spent three weeks in Romania, walking and hiking in places that were not simply off the beaten path but squarely off the map. The country had come out of the dark ages of Ceaușescu and then gone through six years of confusion that went unnoticed by the outside world. Spending our summer there was a plunge into the unknown for the three of us, a true adventure.

The first week we spent walking through the countryside of Transylvania, connecting, by a chain of footsteps, villages that had, only ten years earlier, been home to families of German descent that had lived there for generations. They settled there as early as the 12th century, some dropping out of the Crusades to lead a quiet life in the countryside, others actively recruited by the King of Hungary. Their presence at the fringes of the Western world became an important security concern. The threat of the Ottoman Empire was looming over centuries. The Transylvanian Saxons, as they were known, found safety by encircling their churches with up to three defensive walls, turning them into veritable fortresses that could shelter the entire village for weeks and stall the progress of armies from the east.

By the time we got there, most ethnic Germans were gone, thanks to a law allowing anyone claiming German descent to gain German citizenship. But a few were left, and with the help of sketchy directions, we searched them out. Every time, we were welcomed, sheltered and fed with the warmth and generosity that come with true poverty.

In the village of Biertan, famous for having the mightiest fortified church of all, our rural walk was nearly over. The next day, we'd see a town for the first time in a week. While my friends improvised an evacuation hospital and treated, like true heroes, the blisters on their feet with sewing needles, I decided to call my dad and reassure him that we were still alive, not evident at a time when the evening news in Germany were dominated by Romanian organized crime.

I stepped into the post office and communicated my wish. No problem. The lady behind the counter swiveled in her chair until she faced a cupboard. She opened its doors, put a headset on and began to plug cables into gleaming sockets. The setup in front of her looked rock-solid. Beside the brass sockets and heavily snaking cables were wooden knobs and enameled plaques. Early in the 20th century, Romania rolled out was then the most advanced telephone system in the world. In 1996, I understood the concept of quality and durability.

The lady talked to the next lady down the line (names of cities were the only thing I could understand) and adjusted the position of the cables in front of her according to what the person at the other end, sitting in front of similar kit, was saying. Over the next forty-five minutes, the lady swung from exchange to exchange, stringing together the segments that would build my connection. Even if I hadn't talked to my dad in the end, watching her work the magic of telecommunications (before it had become entirely black-box) would have been worth it.

So – and this is quite a mental leap – maybe the guy on his knees was fixing my line. But I didn't care. I as said yesterday, I wasn't going to pursue the matter any further. Too much time and money have been wasted already. But then in the afternoon I missed a call from Belfast and then, a second later, got another, from the same number. It was Stephen from Orange. He wanted to follow up on the fault report.

Things were looking up, he said. The problem had been fixed. The evidence? He was calling me on my landline. My reminder that all my calls are forwarded to my cell phone put a bit of a dent in his good mood, but he stayed optimistic. "Please check that you have a dial tone tonight. I'll call back tomorrow to see if we can close this fault."

I opened my door with considerable anticipation tonight. I tiptoed into my living room and carefully approached the long-neglected phone. I picked it up. I pressed redial and then the green call button. There was a moment of silence. I held my breath. The moment stretched. The silence only broke when I slammed the phone back into its cradle. Nothing had been fixed. Ten minutes later I realized that my internet is now also gone, and with it my second line. This is not the last post on the subject.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

part two

In many regards, I intensely dislike change. What works, works, and there's no need fiddling with it. I would never replace gadgets because they've become superseded technically. The PowerBook I write this post on hails from early 2003. Obsolete is too harsh a word. If clothes have done their job ten years ago, there's no reason they shouldn't do so today, provided they're not ripped to shreds. My sweater of highest confirmed age is one my dad gave me for Christmas of 1990. Its age shows; it's certainly not something I'd wear every day, but to me it exudes the dignity of a revered elder, and I take it for a stroll from time to time.

In other regards, I can't do without change. I hate it when continuity slides off into boredom, and I'm usually gone before that happens. Frequent relocations are one consequence of this. Getting explosively enthusiastic about something and then dropping it a little while later (Arabic, anyone?) are another. This need for change and diversity is also reflected in the topics of this blog. Most of the time, there is not even the most tenuous connection between subsequent posts.

Today, things are different. This post seamlessly continues the previous one. My home phone is still broken. I wasted two mornings waiting for an engineer to show at my flat when I could have been working, advancing my career or, at the very least, playing football, which I missed on Monday because I didn't make it to College on time.

On Monday I waited until noon, one hour before the latest possible arrival time of the engineer, before I called Orange. I couldn't take it any longer. I should have called earlier. The call-center wallah told me the engineer hadn't been able to contact me – despite my cell phone's being on and with me all morning. Before I could schedule yet another appointment, the connection went, an annoyingly frequent occurrence in these ill-fated service calls.

I called back, going through a routine that has become painfully familiar: "Welcome to Orange! Please listen carefully as our options have changed." I listen carefully, and they're still the same as a few minutes earlier. I punch two and then two again and am on hold. Thankfully, the loop of an inebriated village pub choir belting The twelve days of Christmas has now been replaced with assorted pop music samples. Then the soft voice of an Irishman's "Hello, how can I help you" (without a question mark), followed by the confirmation of my home phone number, full name, first line of address, postcode, and, if extra diligence is taken, the first and fourth characters of my online password. By now I've paid a pound for the call and have received nothing in return.

But another appointment is quickly scheduled. "How about tomorrow morning, 8 to 1?" — "Yes", I say, and have the wallah read my cell phone number back to me so there's no chance of another miss. I have at least one more day of the pleasure of getting my landline calls forwarded to my cell phone.

What I've found out so far is that telemarketers don't exist anymore. These days, machines do the job, not just the dialing but the actual calling as well. Tapes (what a quaint notion, I realize) start playing in my ears, yabbering about purchasing insurance and obscure banks dealings. What's the hope here on the caller's side? Who is so emotionally deprived to converse with a recording and subsequently engage in a commercial transaction with it? I guess the cost of this kind of business is marginal; any turnover will be profit. But how can the success rate for the caller be any higher than zero?

This conundrum unresolved, I sat on my dining-room table by eight o'clock this morning, my cell phone (profile: outdoors) at arm's length, waiting for the engineer. After a hearty breakfast and some reading, the clock struck eleven and there had been no progress. Afraid to be stood up again, I called Orange – same options, same security questions – and was reassured by Paul that the appointment had been scheduled and that the engineer would come by.

I was not reassured. I asked Paul, and then asked again, to call BT Connect and confirm that the appointment was still on, that it hadn't been lost in a busy morning like the previous day's. "No worries", I was told after suffering through another two minutes of assorted pop samples, "the engineer is on his way. He will be at your flat before 1pm." He never arrived.

At this point, the question of whether Orange or BT Connect is more painfully incompetent could be debated with passion. Orange has friendly automata as call center staff, good for a conversation but not exactly helpful. And it can't fix a telephone line it provides and (at least indirectly) charges for even after three weeks. BT Connect has engineers that don't call when they're supposed to and do when they're not. Sounds like a tie, but I don't care. I have now given up on my landline. I don't need it anyway. It was never worth the trouble. The few people that call me there will get an email with my second line's number. It won't make a difference to them. And with my internet service, nothing will change either. That's a good thing.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

phone blues

Early in the second half of December, my landline died on me. I didn't notice it at first. I don't get many calls on it, and then most are from telemarketers whose absence from my ears I wouldn't miss. Then my dad called one evening and wondered where I'd been the night before, and the night before that. I had been home, I said. He insisted he had called – every half hour from eight to midnight on both days, as he likes to exaggerate – and no one had picked up.

That's when I noticed that calls to my landline were lost in the ether, ringing at a number that was, at least temporarily, inactive but gave no indication of the fact to the unfortunate caller. On my side, I didn't have a dial tone. The line was dead.

Curiously, my internet was still working and with it my second line, built on IP technology and my primary phone for outgoing calls. I sat down and called Orange, my service provider. Unless national and most international calls, which are included in the DSL package, this service call wasn't free. This is Europe, after all, where service costs extra. At least it didn't take long. After clicking through a few options, I quickly talked to a person, audibly of Irish descent and eager to help.

"Can I call you on your cell phone?" Ashling asked and with "there are a few tests I need to run with the line", he walked me through the obvious troubleshooting that I had already done. "Is the phone plugged in? Please connect the phone that's working directly to the socket. Still no dial tone? Looks like there's a problem with your line. We're going to send an engineer by to investigate. No, you don't have to do a thing. We'll get back to you by Wednesday, 6pm. Is there anything else I can do for you?"

There wasn't, and with Irish warmth he hung up, but not before promising to forward my landline calls to my cell phone, a mixed blessing if there ever was one. I was suddenly made aware of all the credit advisers, insurance agents and medical malpractice investigators that spend their afternoons calling potential victims. But I could also receive my family's and foreign friends' calls wherever I was.

On Wednesday afternoon, I talked to Orange again. They had by then firmly established that my line was indeed faulty. To trace and, ultimately, fix it, a BT Connect engineer needed access to my flat. The earliest appointment they could give me was the next day in the morning, between 8 and 1. I was stunned by yet another example of staggering efficiency but couldn't take advantage of it. The next morning I'd be flying to Germany, out of town until the 28th. "How about the 29th in the morning? Would that work for you?" the guy on the phone asked, with an Indian accent this time. "Have a nice Christmas, sir."

Things were well on their way, I felt. The problem was all but solved. Unfortunately, things haven't looked that good since and the problem of the broken landline has developed into a confusion of Kafkaesque proportions. Here's what happened:

On the 29th in the morning, a wink after 8 o'clock, I stepped out briefly to get breakfast, dashing to the Cooperative across the street to buy rolls and juice. I was gone for five minutes max. It might have been that in that time, the engineer came to my door, ringing the bell with increasing desperation. Or maybe he came later and the doorbell didn't work. Either way and curiously for someone in telecommunications, he didn't call my cell phone, which I held in my hand throughout the day. I had to call Orange for another appointment, which was promptly scheduled for the next morning.

Quickly after arriving the next morning, the engineer had established that the fault was external. He called a sidekick with whom he'd try to fix it there and then, but after two hours of waiting and working, it turned out there was more to it than had met the eye. The engineer would have to come back with the right tools and parts. "Please call your service provider to keep the forwarding", he reminded me before he left.

Then it was New Year's Eve and I was off to see the fireworks when I noticed another message on my phone. Some rambling about my landline that was so low that I didn't understand a word and could hardly make up the sense later in the quiet of my flat. I called Orange again on the 3rd and found out that the file that had been opened upon my reporting the fault had been closed. Enough time had passed for the line to be repaired. "But it's still dead", I retorted weakly and a parallel world of problems opened up before me.

"We have to do some quick tests", the service guy told me, with an Irish accent again. "You need to get off this line. Could you please give me your mobile number so I can call you back?" My insisting that the fault had already been established as external was of no use. Tests were run. My phones were found working. My line wasn't. "Regarding charges", Kenny said when all was done, "I must inform you that you will incur a call-out charge of up to 150 pounds and labor charges of 100 pounds an hour if it turns out that the fault is caused by your equipment." — "If I hadn't already agreed to that, the engineer wouldn't have come out the first time around", I replied, and the joke wasn't entirely lost on him. "BT Connect are dealing with the problem. You don't have to do a thing, but call us in a week if it's still not solved."

That same day in the afternoon, I get a rather irate call from a BT engineer. Justin claims an appointment and is angry that I'm not home to meet him. I'm at work, but later in the evening I call Orange again. I'm sure my phone bill has ten quid of service calls on it by now. Stephen, gentle and soft-spoken, another Irishman, is incredulous. "We did not send that engineer. No one should have come by your flat. But BT asked us to confirm that the fault is still ongoing. Could you unplug your DSL box tomorrow morning and plug the phone directly into the socket. We need to run some tests."

"You ran tests this morning", I say weakly, feeling the devastating impotence of Joseph K. in The Trial. Stephen is more upbeat: "Those were quick tests. Now we need to do further diagnostic testing. We will call you tomorrow after 9 to let you know."

The call from Orange never materializes, but a day later, the phone still out of work, I get another call from a BT engineer. It's around lunchtime. Pete has an appointment for that afternoon, 1 to 6, and wants to know if I'm ready. I'm working, and tell him so. "Please get in touch with your service provider, which is Orange", Pete says, clearly in the loop, "so that another appointment can be scheduled. An engineer needs to come to your premises and measure from the socket to check what has been done previously." I don't have the strength for a reply.

That evening, last night, I call Orange again. Patrick, with the soothing lilt of all Irishmen, is there to help me. What has happened to the world, I wonder. A few years ago, the Irish made fortunes flipping properties as if they were pancakes and now they outcompete the Indians for call-center work. Patrick is thorough. "We need to do some tests", he begins and I lose it. "You don't need to do tests", I interrupt him rudely. "You've done tests three times already. An engineer has been here to establish the fault as external. What you need to do is to fix things. You need to send someone out to fix my phone."

"That's no problem", says Patrick, unperturbed, all service, and I jump at the chance to let off more steam. "No, it is a problem, and it needs to be fixed." After this, I pull myself together. It's no fun yelling at an Irishman. They're just too gentle and kind. Patrick gets me an appointment for Monday morning, and this is where the story currently stands. It's been three weeks and my landline is still dead.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

new year

The first week of 2012 has almost run its course, the first workweek in any case, and it's time to follow convention, however belatedly. Happy New Year! Wishes of health, success and happiness shouldn't know a season or need a specific occasion, but it's time for them, and more: resolutions, plans, hopes.

I don't do resolutions, but I have great hopes. As I've mentioned a yawn-inducing number of times before, this year will be a year of great change for me. This alone wouldn't be worth mentioning. If I can do anything, it's change. What's new is that I still don't know what these changes will look like.

Previously, I've always known at least half a year in advance where the next step would take me, enough time to prepare and shift my mindset. Maybe that was luxury; maybe I had it too good. Whatever it was, this time is different. My current job will fill my days with things to do and my life with meaning for a paltry four more months. The future beyond that is still unwritten.

Maybe that's a good thing. Maybe hopping from one sorted-out situation to the next, seamlessly and painlessly, was keeping my wild side sedated. Maybe I need to go all they way to the end and look into the void beyond. What turn might my life take if I suddenly found myself unemployed and bound by no obligation or schedule?

It's not exactly a prospect I yearn for. London is not a place I can afford for too long without a salary, but a move makes sense only if I know where I'm going. While predicaments beget opportunities and problems can open their victims' eyes to creative solutions, I'd much rather prefer to sort things out before complete meltdown strikes.

On the other hand, I could do with a chance for profound self-inspection or time for the things that are currently suffering from undeserved neglect: hobbies, infatuations that burn hot but fizzle out too quickly, and long-suppressed interests. A few months of freedom, a cabin by a lake, a sabbatical of sorts, to find out which unimportant things are important in my life, what I would like to do more of – at the expense of other possible activities.

This is where hope comes into play. The perfect progression of 2012 would see me interview successfully for a new job deep into the tail end of my current one and be offered a position starting somewhere in the second half of the year. I'd pack my bags and decamp to wherever life takes me and rip through a few months of something close to the uninhibited hedonism of my student days (with one notable difference). And then I'll dig with mad enthusiasm into a new challenge. That's what a happy new year would look like.