Hating a Dream Job

This story on the BBC reminded me of something:

Despite having earned millions of dollars and winning eight Grand Slam titles Andre Agassi now admits that he hated tennis.

That something James Hamilton wrote about a couple of years back, the idea that a highly paid successful sportsman might not actually like his job.  It had never occurred to me before, assuming as I’m sure most people do that sportsmen are happily raking in millions as they go about living their childhood dreams.  But as James says (in a post that is well worth reading in its entirety):

But football draws into it men and women – more and more of the latter as the game grows – who are extremely gifted at it, and able to work hard enough to develop that talent, but who aren’t actually interested in it and don’t enjoy it. Fans can miss this, because we all wanted it so badly ourselves as kids (and do you find, as you get past 30, that your fantasies contemplate retirement, your fantasies hang up their boots, your fantasies start taking coaching badges?). But it’s perfectly possible to be international standard at football and not care about the game at all.

You can live the dream and find it’s your nightmare job; and then you find that no one wants to listen or sympathise. Footballers can’t complain about anything – all that money! what more could they want? except the things that we all really want and need: an honest day’s work, and then the sleep of the just. But how many footballers fetch up with the sleep of kings?

I guess I’d never thought of sport as like any other career, which most people choose because it happens to be what they are reasonably good at.  But it stands to reason, to a point anyway.  How many people do you know in a well-paid job which they hate, but stick at it because of the money it brings in?  I’ve known a few.  Of course, the trick is to find a job which you enjoy and pays well, but there’s usually queue for them.  I’m lucky and like my job a lot, and it pays very well provided you’re prepared to live in shitholes and forget about a normal family life.  But there are plenty of people who get attracted into law, accountancy, investment banking, and management consulting because of the huge salaries and end up hating it, but don’t know what else to do.  That’s the other reason why I’m lucky: I’ve always known I would be an engineer, right from the time when the 3 or 4 tests I took at school each spat out Mechanical Engineer, Civil Engineer, Electrical Engineer as my first three most suitable careers based on the boxes I’d ticked.  In fact, I knew even before that, when I used to take apart anything which could be taken apart to “see how it worked”.  I rarely did see how it worked, and whatever it was never did so again.  Little has changed.  I never said I was a good engineer.  Anyway, an awful lot of people take a long time to figure out what they want to do and some never really know, and simply stick to what pays well, or at least enough.

So why shouldn’t a top sportsman like Agassi find himself in a similar situation?  Could he do anything else, and if so, did he know what that was?  Having discovered he was brilliant at tennis, did he have time to see what else he was good at before his career took hold of him?  For me, it’s one hell of an interesting concept and I’m sure there are far more sportsmen – and probably actors and rock stars too – who hate what they do but are too good at it to stop.

Why Some Countries are Poor

“Why do some places prosper and thrive while others just suck?”, asks P.J. O’Rourke at the start of Eat the Rich, “It’s not a matter of brains.  No part of the earth (with the possible exception of Brentwood) is dumber than Beverly Hills, and the residents are wading in gravy.  In Russia, meanwhile, where chess is a spectator sport, they’re boiling stones for soup.”

By the end of his book you’ll be laughing a lot, but his conclusions are somewhat vague.  Although he identifies the mechanisms by which some countries are either doing pretty well or doing very badly, he doesn’t ever quite manage to answer his own question.  Which is fine, because the book is a hoot.  But here’s my take on things.

Having done a lot of observing people, lots of people, in different countries on three continents all going about their daily lives, I reckon the success or otherwise of a country depends pretty much entirely on the ability of any two people of that country picked an random to trust one each other.

When I have seen populations being an awful lot poorer than they should be, which adequately describes most of the places in which I have worked except for Kuwait where people were an awful lot wealthier than they should be, the lack of trust is evident.  Here’s an example.

When I was living on Sakhalin, my wife was working in a brand new hotel located bang in the middle of Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, the regional capital.  The hotel was owned by three local gentlemen who had made their fortunes, using fair means or foul, in Sakhalin’s lucrative fishing industry.  Attempting to diversify their portfolio, they decided to go into the hotel business.  The diversity idea was sound enough, but they didn’t know much about hotels.  The top floor, which offered lovely views of the mountains behind the town and a terrace to boot, was earmarked to be used for storage.  The bar was going to be in the basement.  Somebody talked some sense into them and the bar ended up being located on the top floor, but if anyone wonders why the windows are so small given there is so much worth seeing from them, that’s why.  The hotel was built by a Chinese outfit to a pretty decent standard, and it’s fair to say the initial phase of the project looked to have gone all right.  Some ripples were felt when the hotel management company hired to run and staff the place went bankrupt, and shortly afterwards franchise talks with the Ramada chain fell through (I suspect when it dawned on the Russians that franchise agreements don’t involve parent groups doing something for nothing and presenting your books for frequent inspection is part of the deal), but generally things got off to a good start.

Unsurprisingly, things were not to last.  Had the Russians been sensible they’d have stuck a management company in charge, given them an expected rate of return, and turned their attentions to other ventures.  Instead, typically, they decided that heading a fish mafia had given them all the experience needed to run a supposedly international standard hotel and started getting involved in the day-to-day activities.  First they decided they didn’t need so many western managers, so they were shuffled off, and one of the Russian’s daughters installed as General Director.  Any management decision, such as whether to pay the waitress three kopeks an hour more, had to be approved by them, and it usually wasn’t.  The General Manager’s job, which after a couple of years was handed to somebody more local, maleable, and cheap consisted of running about doing whatever the owners’ wanted him to do that particular morning.  They sacked the head chef, replacing him with a Russian who had little experience and even less interest.  And so on.  After two years the hotel had failed to maintain the standards reached when it was launched with such fanfare.

But that’s not the point of the story, as the owners would have made buckets of money from a hotel in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk in the middle of an oil boom.  However, the hotel was only part of the project.  The owners had in their minds an entire complex built in three or four phases, which would eventually comprise the hotel, offices, and a leisure centre complete with swimming pool.  Phase 2 of the project was the construction of an office block adjoining the hotel, and it was well under way when the hotel opened.  Built by the same Chinese company which did the hotel, the office block was nearing completion in late 2007 at a time when office space was at a premium and there were still plenty of western and Russian companies coming into town looking to set up.  My wife, who was in charge of sales, had numerous enquiries as to when the building would be finished and discussions even took place regarding floor space, layouts, etc.  Connected by a corridor to the hotel, this would have been the premium office location in town, and by extension the whole island.  But it was never finished.  Work stopped in late 2007, and when I last went there in October 2011 it was still in exactly the same state – about 95% complete – although starting to deteriorate.  The scaffolding, the shipping containers in the yard around the back, the windows with the polythene protection still on, were all exactly as it had been when work stopped.

What had happened was one of the fishing bosses had decided to bail on the project, for reasons unknown.  What followed were months of squabbling about how much his share was worth, coupled with petty tit-for-tats which did little to improve the experience of the hotel’s customers and staff.  No agreement was reached, and nobody was prepared to put any more money in to finish the building, so it just stood there, uncomplete, deteriorating, and earning nobody anything, for years.

It doesn’t take much to realise that this inability to reach an agreement was monumentally stupid on the parts of all involved.  Now this wouldn’t happen in the US or UK, for two reasons.  Firstly, a Brit or American would compromise.  Despite the reputation Americans have for cut-throat business practices, they will take a hit if it means the overall business venture will progress.  There is no ego, pride, or loss of face at stake if the bigger picture shows everybody winning.  This is not the case in most of the world, where “face” matters.  Anyone who has attempted contract negotiations with a Korean engineering company, for example, will know that for a Korean to concede anything in such a situation is akin to admitting his dick is small and his wife deserves somebody more manly.

But the Russian society which often rewards strong-armed machoism over quiet compromise is not the main reason why Russian business is in such poor shape.  The reason is nobody trusts one another.  In the US or UK, the conundrum with the office block would be solved by the party who wants to leave finding an outside buyer for his share.  With little more than a few pieces of paper and a lawyer or two, his ownership of the project could pass to a complete stranger who would be confident that if the venture made money, he would be rewarded.  Not so in Russia.  No outsider would buy into a project with people who he didn’t know personally, as he would assume – correctly – that as soon as the money was invested he would either be strong-armed out or the others would disappear, never to be seen again.

And this reluctance to trust others in Russia is why the place never develops to its potential.  In the US or UK, if you have a business idea, you can issue bits of paper in return for which random strangers will hand over money to get your idea off the ground.  If you make money, so do they.  This means the income expected in the start-up period is limited only by how many people you can persuade to invest, and this can be up to any number you can think of.  In Russia, who do you get to invest in your new business venture?  Nobody is going to invest in a stranger’s business, as contracts in Russia are meaningless and the courts as bent as the Moskva river south of the Kremlin.  If three people do get together and pool their money, usually each one is looking to rip off the other two out of fear that they will be looking to rip him off.  And most of the time this is not paranoia but an accurate assessment of the true intentions of his new partners.

As a result, the income which can be expected during the start-up of a Russian business is limited to the savings of the sole proprietor, whatever his wife brings in from her day job, and whatever else he can scrape together from deals on the side.  Russians don’t even trust their own families, too many of them including a wayward brother or uncle who is likely to make off with the contents of the safe to fund a weekend of casinos and vodka in Vladivostok.  This is why the Korean Sakhaliners do so much better in business than the ethnic Russians in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, much to the disgust of the latter who thought the whole thing was unfair.  The Koreans trust each other within the family, and given their families were large and inter-marriage common, a new business can pull in the efforts and cash of four or five adults rather than some poor sod on his own.  How can a country expect to develop its medium-sized businesses – the backbone of any nation’s economic development – when nobody can be anything other than a sole proprietor?

The same is true of Nigeria.  They trust each other even less than the Russians, which is why any business you see is either owned by a government official or well-connected foreigner, or it’s a bloke in flip-flops walking the streets with a sewing machine on his back.  Or a woman with a baby strapped to her back and 10kgs of bread balanced on her head.  If any Nigerian asked another to invest in his business venture in return for the promise of future dividends, everyone would think he’d gone mental.  Or if the proposed investor actually ponied up the cash, they’d think he was mental.  This utter lack of trust between Nigerians is ever-present in the lives of expats.  Everything must be paid for right now, in person, and in cash.  I’m sure Lagos’ traffic problems would halve overnight if Nigerians didn’t insist on seeing somebody in person at the time of a business transaction.  Even my own employer prefers to have expats sat in traffic for an hour carrying hardcopies of forms between offices rather than trust its employees to send a faithful scan.

Many workers here have an accommodation problem, including all the drivers.  The reason for this is all landlords insist on having one or sometimes two years’ rent paid up front in cash.  Few drivers can afford this, so they ask their employers (i.e. the expats) to loan them the money.  Nobody in their right mind would loan them the money as there is a very high risk – and this has happened – that you’d never see your driver again.  But they do have a problem, because they cannot raise enough for the rent, leaving them with nowhere to live which isn’t three hours from where we all stay.  But I started to wonder why, given that there are dozens and dozens of them in this position, why they didn’t form groups and get somewhere together.  Each one of them seemed only to consider getting a place all on their own, which when you think about it is nuts.  No British student would live on their own, and most people in the UK continue to houseshare for the first 2-3 years after they get their first proper job.  Getting your own place is simply not affordable on a low salary, so you jump in with some others.  I asked my driver why he didn’t gather up a few others, pool their cash, and pay down the first year’s rent.  “I want to live by myself,” he said.  By the tone of his voice he seemed gobsmacked by my suggestion.  I didn’t pursue it, because pointing out that he couldn’t afford to live by himself would have been stating the bleedin’ obvious (they currently all sort of shack up in a day-room on the first floor of the residences).

But I don’t think it’s an aversion to sharing per se which stops them doing the obvious, it is simply that they do not trust each other one iota.  Probably if they gave all their money to one person to pay the landlord, they would never see him again.  Or he would do a deal with the landlord to allow only him to stay there and not the others.  Or he would not tell the landlord about the arrangement at all, and would just move in on his own and lock the door.  Or the landlord would not be comfortable with 3-4 men in his apartment as he could easily be out-muscled, so sharing is probably forbidden anyway.  Or each would worry that one day they’d come home from work and find one of the others has cleared out everyone’s possessions and skidaddled.  Or a combination of all of the above.

Whatever it is, this lack of trust keeps people poor and miserable.  Be it supposedly wealthy hotel owners in Russia or lowly drivers in Nigeria, if people in a country cannot, will not, or do not trust each other whatsoever, that country will not be going very far.  And trust being mainly a cultural thing, changing a country’s fortunes in this respect is going to be near impossible.  I don’t hold out much hope of the office block in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk being occupied or Lagos’ drivers finding somewhere comfortable to sleep any time soon.

The BBC: 15 years behind

From the BBC, ten days ago:

Former dual-code England rugby international Jason Robinson has revealed his battle with depression that saw him turn to Christianity.

The 37-year-old said his lowest point was while he was at league side Wigan.

“I was playing so well at the time I had some money in my pocket, I had all the things that I thought would be the answer,” he told BBC Radio Manchester.

It was during his time at Wigan that his friendship with former All Black winger Va’aiga Tuigamala set him on the path to finding religion.

This was known to pretty much everyone following rugby league in the mid-90s, and anyone who followed Wigan.  He used to talk about it all the time, and continued to do so when he switched to union in 2000.  Here’s an article in The Independent from five years ago:

The example that he himself followed was that of his Wigan team-mate Va’aiga Tuigamala, who arrived at Central Park in 1994 when Robinson was downing bottles of vodka for fun. “I couldn’t work out why he was so happy. He turned up every morning with a smile from ear to ear, yet he didn’t drink, he didn’t smoke, he didn’t sleep around, he didn’t have the nicest car in the car park. It was when I finally realised what brought him such contentment that I realised it what I was seeking myself.”

And the change Tuigamala brought about in Robinson was being reported way back in 1996.

Perhaps this is one of the changes brought about by the BBC’s move to Salford: decade-and-a-half old stories from the north-west being rehashed as news.

The Demise of Jean-Claude Van Damme

Flicking through the film listing on the flight back from Thailand a few weeks ago, I noticed they were showing a film featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme.  Does anyone remember him?  I do.  When I was a teenage boy he was one of the biggest stars around, and we all thought any film with him in was awesome.  I think I’d probably grown out of him around the time of Time Cop in 1994 and had barely heard of him since.

But a while back I did a portable hard-disk swap with a friend which contained all my old favourite Van Damme films from the late ’80s and early ’90s and so I decided to watch a few of them again when I was bored.

Somewhat unsurprisingly I found them to be utter tosh, but they are unintentionally funny.  I mean, they’re so bad that they become almost good.  Maybe that was the secret all along?  These films were rated 18, but did anyone of that age who wasn’t a complete retard actually watch them, let alone enjoy them?  I watched most of them when I was about 15, which shows you how tightly controlled the videos finding their way into a boarding school TV room was.  If the teachers hadn’t been so busy wife swapping…

Anyway, where was I?  That’s right.  Somebody obviously had it in for Van Damme’s career right from the off, somebody in the wardrobe department.  Here’s a scene from Bloodsport (1988).

He’s been decked out in cowboy boots, grey chinos which are too short, a black vest, and a cheap looking short leather jacket with the sleeves rolled up.  Who the hell rolls the sleeves up on a leather jacket?!  Were fashions really this bad in the ’80s?  Of course, the black vest came in handy in a later scene where Van Damme shows off his muscles as he smashes his fist through some bricks.

But couldn’t they have achieved this without our Belgian hero wearing his trousers like Obelix? No wonder he sunk without a trace halfway through the ’90s.

Wonderful Wodehouse

One of the few advantages of being stuck in Lagos traffic for over an hour each working day is I get to read an awful lot, and thanks to my newly procured Kindle, I have a never-ending supply of books, especially those which I always meant to get ’round to reading.

A few weeks ago I downloaded a P.G. Wodehouse collection.  I’d read two of his novels before, and had been mightily impressed.  Still, nothing caused me to laugh out loud so suddenly and for so long as this passage from one of the Jeeves and Wooster stories:

“I suppose everyone has had that ghastly feeling at one time or another of being urged by some overwhelming force to do some absolutely blithering act. You get it every now and then when you’re in a crowded theatre and something seems to be egging you on to shout ‘Fire!’ and see what happens. Or you’re talking to someone and all at once you feel ‘Now suppose I suddenly biffed this bird in the eye!'”

That last line still has me laughing as I read it now.

Besides which, how true!  Where on earth does this urge come from?  Is it the same urge, which I for years thought was unique to me, which you get when you look over a cliff or off the stern of a ship and you think “Now what would happen if I jumped off here…” when it is damned obvious what would happen but still you come away thinking you did pretty well to restrain yourself.  Is there a name for this?  Or an explanation?

No such explanation is required for why P.G. Wodehouse makes me laugh.

Nokia’s Demise Unsurprising

There has been a fair bit in the news lately of Nokia’s troubles, and the likelihood of the company having to lay off several thousand people as they try to arrest what looks to be a terminal decline.  Whereas folk losing their jobs is not very nice, if any of those soon to be joining the dole queue were involved in the development of their N86 model, then I’ll not be shedding any tears for those particular individuals.  It seems that Nokia’s troubles are not the result of wrong-headed acquisitions or overstretch; rather, everyone seems to think it is the company’s failure to develop a smartphone within 4 years of their competitors.  That may be the case, but in mine it may be even more simple than that: their phones are shit.

When I bought the N86 just over 2 years ago, it was their flagship model and the fourth or fifth Nokia I had owned.  Other than a company Ericsson in 1999, I’d not used anything else.  Even though I am still using the thing now, I am unlikely to buy another Nokia again.  Here’s why.

1.  When you charge it, a bright white LED comes on at the top of the phone, which cannot be turned off.  I’m sure I’m not alone in that I charge my phone at night and use it as an alarm clock, meaning it is beside my bed when I am sleeping.  Or rather, trying to sleep.  Kind of hard to nod off when you have some stupid, wholly unnecessary, bright white light shining six inches from your eye.

2.  Emails are by default saved in the phone memory, as opposed to the much larger mass memory or memory card.  All the phone’s operational functions run off the phone memory.  I have looked, but I am pretty sure there is no way to save emails anywhere other than the phone memory.  When you download emails, you have two options in the settings: headers only, and all text plus attachments.  There is no option to download only the body text and not the attachments.  Nor is there an option to save the attachments somewhere else, which was a feature on the HP iPAQ* PDAs back in 2004.  What this means is that if you have a lot of emails, or somebody sends you one or two big ones, the phone memory gets full and the phone stops working.  It locks itself up to the point that you cannot go into your emails and delete the big ones, so you have to go into the file manager and delete something else from the phone memory, such as a game.  But you can only do this after restarting the phone, which takes several minutes and sends up 3 or 4 low memory warnings which if you try to clear lock the phone up.  So if somebody innocently sends you a large email and you happen to pick it up on your N86, you spend the next 5 minutes waiting for your phone to restart after which you have to delete something you probably wanted to keep.

3.  When the memory runs low, the phone stops working properly.  One of the symptoms is when you leave your phone alone and try to do nothing at all, an “Error in Selected Template”  warning comes up, and prevents you using the phone for a while.  This wouldn’t be so bad if it popped up when you were actually trying to do something, but it appears the phone flags it up when trying to do something of its own accord.

4.  The processor is just too damned slow, and the phone keeps crashing.  Opening the email application takes between 5 and 10 seconds.  If you try to switch quickly from emails to read an SMS message, and then reply to that message, the reply-to screen will take anywhere up to 15 seconds to load.  If you try to switch between emails and the web, chances are your phone will crash.  Most of the time it cannot be rebooted by pressing the power button, you need to remove the battery.  I have to do this about 2-3 times a day in normal use.

5.  The phone thinks it’s being clever by automatically selecting any new wi-fi connection as the default – and only – connection for all subsequent web surfing.  So if you have it set on “Always Ask” and you go to Starbucks and try to connect to their wi-fi, it will ask you which connection you want to use.  But the phone will then change the settings from “Always Ask” to “Always use Starbucks wi-fi”, meaning when you go home and try to connect to your home network, it will start looking for Starbucks wi-fi.  It wouldn’t be so bad if the phone told you Starbucks wi-fi wasn’t available and would you like to select another?  But no, instead it says “WLAN not available, cannot complete operation” or some such guff, and you have to go into the internet settings to put the damned thing back where you had it in the first place.  Also, the general connectivity of the phone to wi-fi networks is rubbish.  For some reason, my phone won’t connect to my home network, even though my laptop and everyone else’s phone has no problems.

6.  If you try to amend any of the connection settings when a connection has recently been attempted, you get an error along the lines of “Cannot access database at this time.  Please try later”, as if you’ve stumbled across a website hosted on a Nigerian server.  This is almost as stupid in its inaccuracy as Microsoft Windows Media Player’s “Server Execution Failed”, which seems almost to be a randomly generated excuse.  They’d be better off saying “Wank Programming Error”.

7.  The interface with Skype is rubbish.  When Skype tries to find a connection it suggests them one at a time, up to a maximum of 3 attempts.  If the connection you want to use happens to be outside the top 3 in the phone’s connection priority list, you need to go and amend it so that it is.

8. The automatic screen alignment detection takes an age to function, and sometimes it doesn’t work at all.

9.  The phone is not sealed very well, so within a week of buying it dust had appeared behind the screen.  This gets steadily worse over time.

10.  The phone sometimes does something of its own accord which drains the battery in a matter of hours.

Now I don’t know if the phone performs as badly across all its functions, as I only use it for making calls, sending messages, picking up emails, and waking me up in the morning.  But if this was the best Nokia could offer when Apple was already selling the iPhone, it’s no wonder the company is in so much trouble now.

* So much for Apple being the ones to prefix everything with ‘i’.  I’m surprised somebody hasn’t sued over this.

More Shite Music Played Loud

A few years back I made this observation:

The volume of the music being played by a neighbour is inversely proportional to the quality of the music.

I went on to say:

I am convinced that those who play music stupidly loud in apartments or houses are those who fail to get positive attention by the normal method of not being a complete prick.

Little has occurred in the time since I wrote these words to give me cause to change my mind.

I am currently sitting on my balcony in Thailand having to put up with blaring music from the block opposite.  The occupants of the apartment appear to be two men in their late 50s, lily-white, unfit, bald, and sporting recent tattoos and some swarthy chap with hair down to his arse who looks to be in his 40s but thinks he’s still in his 20s.  I’m not sure what nationality these twats are, but I’d put a strong bet on their being American or British.  Each has a Thai hooker girlfriend in tow, and it is probably for their benefit that the music is being played.  And sure enough, the music is utter shite: commercial house from about 15 years ago.  Stuff like Encore Une Fois and a remix of The Key, the Secret.  We were all listening to this stuff during my second year in university, and we knew it was naff then but at least it was current.  Now we have blokes old enough to be my dad – who would have been past 40 when it was fresh – playing it off balconies in Thailand.  I mean, don’t they have any Rolling Stones CDs?

Like I said, I’m sure this is all done for the benefit of  the women they have lolling about the apartment, who regularly get blind drunk and scream the place down.  It smacks of a desperate attempt to appear young, or at least cool, to girls who really couldn’t give a shit who or what you are so long as you’re dispensing ready cash.

I’ve quoted Stephen Leather’s Private Dancer in a previous post, and I could have quoted a lot more:

I’ve never yet met a sex tourist who I’ve found the least bit entertaining or interesting…sex tourists in the main are men who would find it difficult to get a half decent girl back in their home towns.  You think that just because you’ve sat in the economy section of a long-haul flight for a day that you’ve suddenly become a fascinating person? Think again.

Words which would be lost on these dickheads living opposite me, I’m sure.