Friday 11 November 2005

Surfing the dotcom wave

In my job as an IT consultant for a largish consultancy, I got involved in a project where the primary pitch to the client was along the lines of:

"build an e-commerce website, the stock market will love you for it."

It was true, this was 2000 and the market was still enjoying the early hand-holding stage of its New Economy romance. Any venture with the prefix e- attracted press and cash like a new popstar, and everyone was scared they were going to miss the boat. The second part of the pitch was:

"you're a very traditional [read bureaucratic] company, you can't do e-commerce, you should build a separate business with a separate culture to succeed, we can do it for you".

Classic consulting of the type my company just doesn't do, we seem to prefer to spend our time building systems rather than spouting about the latest fads, and certainly never believe that we're best placed to do the high level strategy consulting. Amazingly the client agreed to all of it, the proposed budget was chicken feed for them, and they believed in our evangelical salesman. He gained their trust and they bought his ideas.

A team was born, and I joined it. About twenty young, excitable, consultants and a few client staff started bouncing off each other to build the venture. Our first home was the top floor of our client's headquarters. We worked in a small, cramped, sweaty office, piled high with coffee cups, paper stacks and air conditioned by the incessant whir of server cooling fans. Our room was surrounded by senior managers' offices, quiet oases of beige carpets and long forgotten good-employee prizes. We were a team blessed by the New Economy and we rebelled against the unwritten rulebook of the stuffy residents; we dressed down, stole printer paper from resentful PAs, listened to music while we worked, smiled and laughed, played Half Life and Quake after hours.

Needing to move out from the parental home, a modern, glassy, open plan office in Reading was procured; blue carpet, table football, comfortable chairs, decent coffee. Now we had our own space to work, play office football, blu-tac data models to the walls, fill up with McDonald's wrappers.

The venture gathered momentum faster than anyone expected, a CEO, a CFO, a COO, a sales team were all appointed, and we in the development team rolled on and on. We built prototypes, converted prototype to system, padded and patched, suggested and added features, pointed out problems then solved them.
We worked like never before, wrapped up in a world of belief. None of us were motivated by money, even if the project came to rule the web, as external consultants we wouldn't get options or IPO bonuses, we didn't even get paid overtime. None of us cared much for glory either, although my tail wagged hard when praised.

Our eyes weren't shrouded as to the harsh realities of the new e-commerce world - quietly we would say it was doomed to fail, the user figures on the business case were almost certainly unachievable. It didn't matter though - we were wrapped up with hacking and hacking until the damn thing worked. Our need to deliver what we knew we were capable of overcame anything that could have stood in our way.

And underneath all the corporate funding and consultant bullshit we felt the same as the garage start-ups and the dotcom pioneers, those entrepeneurial spirits who fed off their own ambition and self-belief when all others doubted them. Clearly we weren't in the same league - we had job security and plenty of support from our bosses - but we got caught up with the same dizzying vibe, we worked 15 hour days for weeks on end, we came in at weekends, we were on call at 2am, we worked, played and (a few) slept together.

At the point we launched we knew we were the greatest team in the world, we could have landed a man on Mars within six months if only NASA asked. It was a great website, built on a great idea, and we built it slickly and brilliantly. We gleamed and shone in the glorious bright light of our own creation. Omnipotent, we had bent the world to our will.

Later, the world bent back. The venture has subsequently failed, a victim of corporate cold feet as the winds of recession blew through the paper thin walls of the New Economy. The all-conquering team has scattered and moved on. Even the domain name has dropped off the DNS Servers now, typing the URL into a browser will send a few lonely packets pinging through the gateways and routers with nowhere to go.

And five years on, even knowing that it ultimately failed, I'm proud enough to know it's the best work I'll ever do.

Thursday 13 October 2005

Some notes on the relative adhesiveness of post-it notes

For a good portion of my life to date, I thought I would change the world. Maybe I'd invent a new form of transport, such as cars on legs or the hover bike. Perhaps I'd write a novel that quietly and unfussily became a life changing favourite of millions. Perhaps I'd rival Lance Armstrong for domination of the professional cycling calendar. With age my grandeur driven dreams are scaling back; I'd settle for being a junior cabinet minister or assistant manager of a non-league football club. But I still seize the chance to change the world for the better whenever I can.

And so it came to pass that I made a suggestion to our company procurement department that we get some better Post-It notes, as the packs that fill our cupboards only barely qualify for the adjective adhesive and have the embarrassing habit of fluttering from the wall like autumn leaves as long workshops drone on and on. In a transparent attempt to shame me, my suggestion did not disappear into the normal corporate black hole and I got a response:

we would like to conduct a small trial to determine the stickability of different post-it notes. We propose putting up sheets of both brown paper and white paper in a meeting room, and placing '3M Post-Its' and the Banner equivalent on them to compare. We can leave them overnight and next morning count numbers that have fallen and/or curled to determine whether there is any significant difference between the two. We would like you to be present when we put stick them all on & count them the next morning.

It didn't even end there, they've now actually conducted the trial and I am simultaneously smug and appalled that experimental evidence has backed up my assertions. My hopes and dreams have come to this then. I should be developing a domestic cold fusion reactor, instead I'm trying to persuade my employer to switch supplier of small slightly sticky bits of paper. Next week: biros.

Saturday 8 October 2005

How to fill a long gap in friendships

Over a long enough time period, nothing happens to anybody. For proof, conduct the following simple experiment: phone a friend you haven't spoken to for at least six months and ask them what they've been up to, chances are they will reply something similar to "ah, nothing much". If you're me the conversation will then die, and you will have to invent a dinner that has just finished cooking, a sudden knock on the door or a small housefire as an excuse to hang up and end the embarrassing silence. Social faux pas aside, I hope you concur that I have proved nothing happens to to anybody.

Now try this experiment: phone another friend you haven't spoken to for at least six months and ask them "what did you do yesterday?". Don't accept a short answer, genuinely quiz them about where they were when they woke up, how they got to work, what happened to them during the day. Lo and behold, plenty of things happen to everybody all the time. If you listen to people's answers and ask them plenty of follow up questions you can cover hours of conversation with this one simple question and avoid the awkward silences that pervade my Christmas reunions.

Monday 27 June 2005

Back to bachelorhood

Compared to our previous (two? three?) separations, this one was remarkably free of histrionics. Neither tears nor angry words clouded the final severing of ties, just a fug of inevitable and knowing sadness that surrounded us as we sat in the quiet Monday night pub and she said the words that despatched me to singledom. Her face normally carries a pale sheen of anxiety when she's about to break bad news; a patina of stress and bottled-up emotion laid over a foundation of worried sleep. Her skin looked healthy this time and there was a previously absent calm certainty in her voice that invested her words with weight and credibility.

After a mostly fun year of weekends and nights together, I'd suspected that the next step in our relationship would be make or break. By December, I predicted to myself, we would either be choosing curtains together in Peter Jones or individually working out whether to send each other Christmas cards. We'd not really talked much about the future, and I sensed a certain reluctance on her part to bring it up in conversation. In the end, my account in her ledger book slipped into overdraft. Despite my numerous and regular credits, I incurred a large debit by falling short against the unspecified measures she uses to size up husband and father material. Comparing our relationship with those of her friends she decided to write off the debt.

So, I'm a little sad and lonely again, albeit with the faintly amusing knowledge that we've split up several (three? four?) times before and I've passed through precisely this painful rebuilding process. That knowledge doesn't comfort me now, as we wordlessly pass by in the office, or as I scroll over her name in my phone book, but it anchors me to a certainty that I will be OK again soon. Time will heal me.

Saturday 18 June 2005

Drive By Truckers

Based on a sample size of one gig and two albums, I am confident in my assessment that the Drive By Truckers are peerless rock gods.

Barry introduced me to The Dirty South, their latest album, praising it and playing it on one of our innumerable trips to the hills. It didn't stand out that much alongside all the other folk/rock he subjects me to on those long car journeys but when he offered me a spare ticket to a rare London gig I thought it would make an interesting departure from a normal week night out.

At the small and sweaty Camden Lock, in a not-quite-full venue peopled by middle-aged rockers, slightly misplaced London fashionistas and a baffled me, the five Truckers sauntered out unassumingly on stage and then took control of the evening. Every rock and roll cliche came true in the small gap between where I listened slack-jawed and where created their tender and ferocious sound. They played with such obvious enjoyment and drunken exuberance I was converted from dispassionate observer to whooping and hollering participant in a rock and roll night out.

Languid, lazy and loud, they passed a bottle of whiskey between them during songs and drank liberally. Each of them got steadily drunker, swaying crazily as they played and finding emotion and heart to drive out their songs. Patterson Hood, excellently named core of the band, howled and raged and captivated me as he told his stories.

The only other remotely comparable gig I've ever been to was The Pixies touring Surfer Rosa seventeen years ago. I've waited half my life to see another gig of similar quality. When the five Drive-by Truckers swaggered off just after eleven, I hit a high that stuck for two days.

What the energising live experience didn't reveal, but repeated listening to any of their albums surely does is their abundant talents as lyricists. It's not just Patterson Hood who can write a mean set of words, all three guitarists seem to be equally capable. With a poetic economy, they paint vivid pictures of Southern American life. From cheery anthems about Steve McQueen or dirt track racing, to sad tales of suicide attempts and the woe of a dirt poor life in a wealthy society, even 6,000 miles of cultural separation can't hide the versimilitude of their tales.

They're playing more gigs in the UK later on this year, go and see them.

Monday 21 March 2005

A thank you note from the unknown wedding guest

Hi there,

you don't really know me. I'm your best friend from when you were five, our mums kind of kept in touch and so you had to invite me to your wedding. Or maybe I'm a close school friend's new boyfriend. Perhaps I just wondered off the street, you didn't seem to mind. Anyway, I wanted to thank you for the great time I had at your wedding.

I enjoyed the ceremony. I could only just pick you out of a police line-up if pressed, so it was hardly an emotionally charged experience for me, but you chose some good readings and it was all clearly heartfelt and blessedly short. The bride looked beautiful, but perhaps she's always gorgeous, I've got no history to compare it to.

Your great aunt's an interesting character isn't she? As I didn't know anybody else and she looked lonely I wound up talking with her for over an hour whilst the photos were being taken. Once you get past her hearing problems she's got plenty of tales to tell; life in colonial India, her work as a court stenographer, her late husband's radar research. She even invited me round for tea if I'm ever passing through Hampshire, I've no intention of taking her up on the offer, but it was nice of her to invite me.

The photographer was a nice guy too. I tried to keep out of his way whilst he was doing the candid shots, I thought it might be a bit disconcerting for you to look back on your wedding pictures in four years' time and see a guest you can't begin to place.

Eight hours into the day I wound up chatting about you with a couple of your friends and the best man (Greg? Craig?). You'll be pleased to hear that even after six pints and several glasses of champagne they had nothing bad to see about you or your wife. You sound like a lovely couple.

I've been to many weddings in the last few years. Some invites came from close friends, some from once close friends, and a few, like yours, came from someone I'm only poorly connected with. There's fun to be had at any free party, particularly from dancing freely and without embarrassment. But it's a furtive pleasure, freighted with a little guilt that I've taken up a space you could have offered to someone more directly connected with you. I was always slightly concerned your face would turn from delight to bafflement as you scanned the ranks of your closest friends and family and spotted me, the unknown. Fortunately you never did.

Thanks again, I had a great time. And best wishes for your new life together. I look forward to exchanging some empty pleasantries at your first child's christening.


Saturday 19 February 2005

Pandas are rubbish

For convincing proof that atheists must be correct, look no further than the panda. A glamorous icon for the WWF and cuddly toy of countless pre-pubescent girls it may be, but it's also clearly the worst designed animal ever.

Pandas munching bambooConsider: the average male panda weighs 100kg, that's bigger than me and nearly half the size of my flatmate. Its padded paws (the panda, not my flatmate) hide fearsome claws and vicious incisors line its mouth. It is, in short, plenty capable of killing and eating tasty mammals and reptiles (the panda, not my flatmate, although he probably could do). Yet, a few million years back, pandas decided to give up eating meat and focus instead on bamboo. Whatever prompted their decision to become vegetarians - a dodgy madras, a flyer from Greenpeace - dietary efficiency was not a consideration; they can only extract about 20% of the nutritional value of the green shoots they cram into their mouth. They shit nearly pure bamboo. They have to spend almost their entire day eating. True, there are days I'd like to spend doing nothing but eat, but I'd rather the smorgasbord contained more than a selection of fibrous shoots.

Consider also: not only are they famously rubbish at getting jiggy-wid-it, they are also utterly stunned by the only occasionally resulting act of childbirth. In the video they show at the Chengdu panda research centre a birthing mother is so stunned at the child that is launched metres out of her that she jumps two feet in the air and then starts knocking the mewling pink infant around the floor with her huge paws and an inquisitive look. The staff rush in to pick the baby up before the mother damages it.

And consider: pandas have opposable thumbs. Well, sort of, they've adapted their wristbones so they can clutch as if they had thumbs. We developed opposable thumbs and a few million years later we've managed to create Timmy Mallett and the Nokia 6230. They develop opposable thumbs and a few million years later they're still sitting on their backside eating bamboo.

So the panda. Proof that either God does not exist, or he takes a very hands-off attitude to animal design.

Thursday 20 January 2005

My postillion has been struck by lightning

Chinese food at a street marketAnd another thing while I'm on the subject of the Chinese language: it's impossible to speak. Well, obviously it's not impossible, 1.3 billion people are currently proving me hopelessly wrong, but you can't just flick through the language section of a guide book and just pick up some useful phrases like you can with European languages*. You don't know that to start with though, so it's easy to convince yourself that Chinese is like all the other languages you've attempted on holiday. Flicking through the the pinyin gives you nothing to contradict your initial belief; spicy chicken is simply gong bao ji din. That looks pretty straightforward, how difficult can it be to order? You spent a week in Sardinia without any Italian language and got by just saying prego and molto bene, Mandarin looks a cinch.

Foxed copy of the Lonely Planet in hand then, you march into a restaurant, hold up four fingers in case the waitress has difficulty counting the number of people standing directly in front of her wearing enormous brightly coloured down jackets, and are shown to your table. The waitress stands expectantly by you, pen and pad poised to take your order. Tea, you think, tea would be nice, and a check of the food and drink section at the back of the guide book reveals that tea is simply cha. With confident smile, you beam at the waitress, "Cha" you say. You are pleased, like a proud parent at a school sports day, you've let your linguistic offspring out into the free world to measure its ability against everyone else.

There is a pause, then, slow as sunrise, utter incomprehension spreads across the face of your friendly server in place of the frantic scribbling and indulgent smile at your funny accent you were expecting.

"Cha?" she says. You nod and repeat, with only slightly less confidence, "Cha". Then you nod some more, emphasising how sure you are of what you've said. Nod, I am an experienced world traveller, nod, unafraid of foreign languages, nod, I require refreshment through tea, nod, "Cha!".

"Cha?" she says again, still uncomprehending. And no matter how many times you repeat "cha" to her, she cannnot understand you. Eventually, exasperated, you point at a teapot on a nearby table, and suddenly she's all smiles again, laughing and nodding and repeating "cha" to herself, seemingly in exactly the same way you were just saying it. Soon tea turns up at your table and you start to wonder how you're going to order the mixed sichuan hotpot with cow intestine, fish heads and snake you wanted.

I knew beforehand that the spoken Chinese dialects were tonal, but I had expected that if I walked into a restaurant and said cha with incorrect tone, context alone would make the meaning clear. Yet it seems that most Chinese, except perhaps those who can speak a foreign language, cannot make the link between words that seem like homophones to us. The concrete example I read in the Rough Guide listed ma, which, dependant on intonation, can have one of several unconnected meanings including mother, horse or hemp. For all I know then, we could have been walking into restaurants and, instead of asking for tea, vehemently and repeatedly insisting on paint or demijohn or hubris with all the attendant confusion such actions would cause in any other language.

Me shaking hands with a localI'm no linguist, but I'd guess this is because homophones in languages that use the Roman alphabet tend also to be homographs (or near homographs), helping us to distinguish between spoken versions of eg, to, too, and two, partly based on context and partly because the written representation helps us see that we must select from multiple meanings to correctly parse sentences. Whereas when the language is written using logograms neither meaning nor written representation allows for a simple conceptual connection between the various intonations of cha. Consequently the waitress has no way of making the mental leap between what she's hearing you saying - "waistband" - and the homophone that makes more sense given the context - "tea".

Fortunately it turns out you can eat extremely well in China by pointing at whatever it is you'd like to eat. Just don't go into empty restaurants without English menus unless you're prepared to take a tour of the kitchen with the chef.

* Phrase books always strike me as remarkably dumb beyond a certain point. Whilst it's useful to know how to say 4 people or toilets pretty much everywhere you go, anything more advanced than Do you have a room for the night? is just asking for trouble. One phrase book I found before I went to China had a section on conversational gambits such as Tell me about irrigation techniques in your area. or How do you prepare your food? Whilst undoubtedly great for small talk with any rural smallholders or sichuan chefs you might bump into, without advanced Cantonese there would have been no way of interpreting the answer. Far better to adopt the approach I used with several taxi drivers whereby both people babble happily in their native tongue with much gesticulation and neither person really cares if they're understood or not.

Friday 14 January 2005

Talking' n writin'

Incomprehensible, but prettyOn a freezing cold minibus, driving over icy freeways from Xi'an to the wondrous Hua Shan, the Chinese Vincent d'Onofrio lookalike sitting next to me is whiling away the hours like any Western teenager - ferociously texting on two phones simultaneously. As I watch over his shoulder, fascinated, he is filling screen after screen with Chinese characters using just a standard numeric keypad. I have no idea how he's doing it.

The spare and elegant efficiency of the Roman alphabet, with its tiny set of written symbols capable of supporting every word known to man and plenty more besides, can be fully appreciated when compared with the beautiful mess that Mandarin seems to be.

If I were running a project to design the written representation of a spoken language and my technical architect came back with written Chinese I'd be livid. Each morpheme has its own symbol or logogram, and by some counts there are 60,000 such logograms. According to the Lonely Planet, even the well-educated will only use or recognise about 10% of that ridiculous figure.

How on earth can it work? What do you do when you come across a logogram that you've never seen before? If I write the word 'flirble' you would at least have an idea at how to say the word. With written Chinese, while meaning might be apparent from the context or the symbol itself, the strokes contain no guide at all to pronunciation. And how could you look it up in a dictionary, an action which would require some form of ordering understood by all.

The ever excellent Wikipedia tells me I'm not the first to be baffled, and attempts have been made to Romanise the language in order to open up China to those of us weaned on the abc's. Historically, despite government support, Romanisations have failed to achieve widespread adoption amongst the population due to the difficulty of coping with the numerous homonyms and a lack of any real benefit in changing. But it turns out the chunky guy on the bus next to me is using pinyin, the current government endorsed Romanisation, to create the amazing strings of characters I can see building up on his screen.

Maybe Nokia and the non-stop thumbs of the latest generation will succeed where linguists and academics have so far failed.