Archived entries for reality

The customer is always…

Ah, customer service in Belgium. We meet again.

The first was trying to replace a faulty Blackberry. The man in the shop was all too happy to replace it…with a cheaper model.

“Not a problem, sir. I can give you a Blackberry 9360 instead. Free of charge.”
“…but that model is about 200 euros cheaper, with fewer features and no touchscreen.”
“It’s a very reliable device, sir, we’ve had to order some more of these models due to the big demand from our customers. It’s your lucky day, though, sir, because I’ve just got a new delivery in. Today, in fact.”
“…great, but it’s not the model I’m looking for. I’m actually looking for the one that’s the same as the Blackberry I’ve got at the moment.”
“Which model is that then, sir?”
“The 9790, as I said at the beginning of this phone call.”
“If you’d like to come into our shop sir, I can replace that model for you, no problem.”
“Thank you. Is three o’clock this afternoon convenient?”
“Perfect, sir. See you then!”
“Just to confirm…you do have the 9790 in stock?”
“Let me just check sir….no, sir, sorry, we’ve got none of those models left I’m afraid. I was expecting more to arrive, today, in fact. Can you call back next week?”

Picking up a parcel here can also be equally trying. I’d been left one of those “We Called In But You Were Out” pieces of paper, which instructed me to go to the post office after a certain time on a certain date and my post would be waiting. So off I went.

“I’m sorry, sir. Your parcel isn’t here.”
“But it says on this piece of paper that it will be ready to collect after 11am today.”
“Have you checked the date properly?”
“Well, my diary’s usually pretty spot-on at telling me the correct date. That’s it’s killer feature, you see. Never lets me down. So yes, that’s today’s date.”
“I’ll just check my calendar…yes, you’re right, it’s the fourteenth.”
“Well, I’m glad we’ve got our dates aligned. What about my post?”
“I have no idea. Maybe the postman forgot to drop it off this morning…it could be that, couldn’t it?”
“I don’t know! I don’t work here, you do!”
“Can you call in at the same time tomorrow?”

Need an authorised technician to fix your TV?

“Hi, is that the Sony Service Centre?”
“Yes.” (No immediate offer to help, then.)
“I’ve got a Sony flat screen TV which needs looking at, would it be possible to request an appointment with one of your engineers?”
“Yes.”
“…OK, thanks. Would he be able to come here on Friday morning, say ten o’clock?”
“We only carry out service repairs at the Service Centre.”
“So you don’t send technicians out to fix things? I have to bring the TV to you?”
“Yes.”
“Slight problem there…it’s massive, this TV. It’s not like I can just pick it up and waltz over with it.”
“We only carry out service repairs at the Service Centre.”
“OK, thanks for being so flexible. Goodbye.”

How about you? How’s the customer service where you live?

Knowledge in the night

I’ve been experiencing a lack of sleep recently, due to a recent illness. I’d like to think that I’m one of those people who, upon confronting a sleepless night, gets up and starts to write rather profound ideas or poetry, inspired by the stillness of the moment or the rare opportunity to delve undisturbed into the depths of the soul.

I need…to discover the very purpose of this fleeting existence, to discover what brings us here and to speculate our ultimate destination.

I need…to put into words what it means to capture a breathtaking view, to experience the fresh scent of a new Summer’s day, or the life-affirming laughter of close friends.

I need…to pee, actually.

I suppose I am, in some respects, doing philosophy late at night. I’m questioning the foundations of knowledge, namely, trying to work out if I really know I need to go.

“Do I really want to go now? Can I wait? Should I wait? It’s cold out there, maybe I don’t need to go at all, and it’s just my body’s way of telling me it’s bored and it would rather be sleeping, thank you very much.”

When he wasn’t pondering the nature of justice, I’m sure Socrates must have asked himself similar questions.

I didn’t spend too much time on these epistemological queries, though; I would have wet the bed. If I’d have tried explaining to my exasperated girlfriend that Socrates made me soak myself, I’d be writing this with a blunt crayon and a special bracelet.

Towards the Eternal Conversation

Well, if 2008 was the Year of Facebook, it looks like 2009, judging by what everyone’s been talking about during the first few weeks, will become the Year of Twitter. As much as I like new technology, however, there are certain limits to what I consider to be the sort of useful applications which actually make life that little bit easier, or a bit more fun, which is why I haven’t really “got” the Twitter craze. It escapes me in much the same way that I never felt the need for mobile phone  ringtones. Why bother? You either pick up within two seconds, in which case it’s not so much a “ringtone” as just a “ringt-“. Let it play and by the time we’ve all appreciated your electronic, tinny-sounding rendition of a song that wasn’t much good to start with, the caller has lost patience and hung up. It’s the same thing with those little desktop gadgets you get which tell you what the weather is like; you can click on it to open a new window on your computer or you could, hang on…just open the real window and look outside!
For me, Twitter falls into the same category, into a drawer marked, ‘What’s The Point?’. The buzzword seems to be “microblogging“, the New Thing To Do, which is essentially about publishing short text updates about what’s going on in your life. Each entry is a “status update”, or ‘Tweet“, some of the new terms for telling everyone how you’re doing.

Why, though? Surely this will lead to us all becoming like that mad old man in the train station who mutters to himself about everything that he’s doing because he’s convinced that German spies are still listening in to his every word:

“I’m just sitting down on this bench now.”

“I had chip sandwiches for tea last night, you know.”

“Status code Red, Sergeant! Target seen purchasing a suspicous item, codename “Flapjack”. Ready to roll out the next phase of Operation Platform Three. Stand by, gentlemen.”

The point here is that that something like Twitter doesn’t offer you the sort of social feedback that you would get if you said these sort of sentences in real life, to real people. Without the human checks and balances that let you know when and whether something is worth saying, what’s left is simply a license to report everything that goes on, no madder how mundane or trivial, because it’s been marketed as What the World Wants To Know.

If you believe the hype, your old friends are eager to hear that you got to bed at 2am last night; your distant relatives are now back in touch, thanks to this marvel of modernity, and can rejoice in the news that you’re away right now in your third meeting this morning, “LOL”.

It seems like there’s a sort of dichotomy going on at the moment when it comes to people who are connected to the Internet. On the one hand, everyone seems to be so concerned about online privacy, and about just who has access their personal information, whether they can accept the content of their emails being monitored and so on.

Yet on the other, people are only too willing to divulge their personal lives, whether this is broadcasting information about themselves via their personal profiles on social networks, uploading and tagging their photos, their videos, or, most recently, reporting their every actions and thoughts at regular intervals, all day, every day. You could argue that this latter sharing is “controlled” by the people using the service, but it affects other people “outside the loop” as well. We’ve all, I’m sure, met people who have been told that they are “on” Facebook, even if they themselves have never signed up to the service, because they’ve been tagged in a photo, a video, or somewhere in the maze of all that user-generated content that makes up today’s online communities.

The sheer volume of information that we upload to these sites seems to me to be less about control and more about something opposite, an almost uncontrollable urge to communicate as many things about our lives to as many people as possible.

So what’s next, after “microblogging”? With the way things are going, my guess is that the next phase will be “Omniblogging”, in which users forget even the discreet pauses between updates, until what’s left is just a constant, unedited online stream of consciousness, from every device, all the time, about everything.

By the way, have you heard about that other resource they’ve been keeping quiet about all this time? It’s being used all around the world, by millions of people on a daily basis, and what’s more it’s also completely free to use: it’s called “Silence”.

Rain and reflections

It’s that time of year again. Time to reach into the attic, among the big jumpers, mattres springs and those other objects you have absolutely no recollection of purchasing, and get down that dusty old box labelled “Things To Do This Winter”. Like the class bully on the first day of a new term, autumn came along this afternoon in the form of a fierce gale, broke my umbrella and told me just what it thought of my summery memories and long, lazy evenings on the terrace. Not to mention just where I could shove my new sunglasses.

So in the spirit of getting through Winter by taking on something new (always a good way to keep going through the dark days ahead), I’ve started attending a philosophy class, with the School of Philosophy, having studied something of the subject at university. It’s quite different, though, because whereas my studies involved looking at the original texts of Plato, Hegel and friends, this course has an emphasis on the more practical side of things. So it looks at, for example, how to take a philosophical statement such as “It is easier today to triumph over evil habits than it will be tomorrow” (Confucius) and discusses how and why this might be the case. Then the class is encouraged to put this into practice during the week, to look at, say, doing something that needs doing immediately rather than putting it off until another time, and so testing Confucius’ theory in an everyday setting. The idea is that you then at the next lesson discuss the results, and try to work out why a certain philosophical idea worked or didn’t work. To learn philosophy by living it.

It’s only been the second week so far, but it’s certainly been enjoyable. I like the idea of sitting around and giving feedback on how useful, or not, these ideas have been. For me, it’s taking philosophy back to its original purpose of questioning assumptions and trying to talk through the deeper meaning of what goes on in our lives on a regular basis. It’ll be interesting to see what impact the course might have on my usual winter mood of complaining bitterly about the cold and the rain. Why, I might ask, am I feeling angry at the icy rain that’s trickling down the inside of my shirt? Will I be able to see the bigger picture if I’m shivering wreck waiting for a tram that’s 20 minutes late? I can’t wait to find out.

Towards my thousand-yard-stare

Apologies for the lack of entries of late, I’ve been doing a bit of travelling, most of the visits for the first time. Some photos, if you’re interested, can be seen in the picture gallery.
Of course, in an ideal world I’d be sitting here with a full-length beard, several battle scars from my daring encounters with the darker side of human nature and a glass of strong whisky to take the edge off the flashbacks. Alas, we can’t all be Indy, which I suppose is why my “scars” comes from a Gillette razor and I’m sipping a cup of mint tea. I can see it now: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Ginger Nuts.

I went to Slovenia, to an awards ceremony (European inventor of the year) in Ljubljana, the capital, where I interviewed a man who invented what he called “telepresence” surgery. The is essentially a robotic machine guided by a surgeon, with the robot arms capable of performing incredibly precise operations and even, to my amazement, able to cancel out tremors in the surgeons hands. I also spent a good 15 minutes trying to explain what a flapjack was to a poor shopkeeper who clearly didn’t have any, had probably never heard of them in his life.
“OK, so you get oats, and…oats, you know, like the farmer grows in his field. Farmer…the one who has the fields and the sheep and drives a combine harveste…do you know what? A Mars bar will be fine.”

I went to Ireland, for a wedding, which was held in this gorgeous castle near Warrenpoint. I’d never been to Ireland or Northern Ireland, so it was an extra treat to spend a day in Dublin and then take a bus over the border. Gorgeous country. We had to sleep in Dublin airport, though, which wasn’t too much fun, but hey, we saw the sun come up. Well, Zoe just sort of watched it sleepily but of course I had to take some photos. OK, in hindsight perhaps I didn’t to take quite so many arty shots of, er, the luggage trolleys bathed in golden orange or, um, the nicely lit airport stairs. Yes, OK, we were a tiny bit late (“Look, there it is! Check in…check in for Brussels, yep…is now closed.”) but it’s part of the adventure really, running for the plane. I could even hear the Indy theme tune as we sprinted past gate 5, looking for gate 42.

Then to Bath, to visit my brother, a BBQ (someone had a BBQ, I mean; I didn’t go and visit one) a chat with his friends, and a chance to relive students days. Long summer nights lazily cooking sausages and talking about the girls on the psychology course. Piles and piles of notes, textbooks with carefully constructed but essentially pointless bookmarks, look at all the colour highlighters I’ve got! That night last week, what were we drinking, was it two for one on lighter fluid? D’you remember, we all go so wasted we all ended up sharing a bin outside the police station, waiting for Spar to open.

Also to Oxford, more student days, a visit to my sister who’s finished her first year. Watching the posh students celebrate graduation or, in some cases, trying to absorb the shock of that truth (universally known) that it’s possible to have too much of a good time:
“I mean, yars, OK, vomiting onto old Perkins during class wasn’t the most frightfully clever thing, but I mean, come orn, they’ve gorn and shown a jolly good sense of humour failure with this “you are forthwith suspended” nonsense. Tell them they can’t, Father!”

Last night I was in Germany, a quick trip over the border to watch the Euro 2008 final between Germany and Spain. It was great fun (despite Germany losing to Spain) trying to order things in rusty Anglo-German (“Now vee vould like der bill, bitte”) and struggling to lift, let alone drink, huge tankards of Kolsch beer. For my first visit to the country it was certainly a memorable experience, watching a football final accompanied by the surround sound of loud Germanic chanting and the constant presence of those red, yellow and black flags.

Four new countries, three months, catching up with two siblings and recalling it all in one blog entry. Less Indy, more “Mint Tea”, but it’s still been a fast-paced few months.

Knight of the Order of the Thistle

I’ve been thinking about establishment. Partly it’s because, in my new job as a journalist on EU affairs, I’ve been in contact with several MEPs and commissioners and this morning I was taking pictures of the president of the European parliament for a feature on, yep, you’ve guessed it, electric bikes.

What also prompted these thoughts is the fact that the “in-house” style at the magazine follows the same style as the Guardian newspaper, i.e. to use lowercase words wherever possible. Writing in this way got me thinking about titles and honours and the establishment in general.

It’ll be interesting to see how my opinions change as I come into more frequent contact with politicans and heads of different organisations. At the moment, I still read a title like “Professor Sir Gilbert Knockbottle OBE PhD FRS LLM FRCP KCB PRA MSTA” with a certain amount of awe, even though I know that for a lot of these titles, it’s a case of approaching the right people with the right words and the right wine.

The other day I was trying to get in touch with somebody who is a professor and a knight, and again as I was dialling the numbers I thought about what I was going to say to somebody who was considered of great importance both in society and also in academic circles, i.e. on paper, both brilliant and charming. I’m not a particularly tied to social convention as such – I’ve worked for Greenpeace, for example – but there’s something about knowing that this person was an established authority that makes me want to make a good impression.

My guess is that the more time you are able to spend on the “inside” – in government departments, royal colleges, academic circles, international institutions and so on – the more you become aware of the tricks used to build up a favourable reputation. Perhaps I’ll come across these tricks the more contact I have with EU officials. Of course, there are exceptions where genuine hard work merits proper recognition. However, I have my suspicions that most post-nominal letters might turn out to be less about long-term committment and more about long-life Chateau Latour.

In This House…

It’s a time for change once again. Last week I was informed that I had successfully obtained a position as a journalist with The Parliament magazine, which was fantastic news for me because it’s a continuation of similar sort of work to that which I’d been enjoying for the last 5 months at the European Parliament in Brussels. So now that I’ll be getting an income, I was finally able to move flats and have ended up in a place that is very near to where I used to live but is a single appartment rather than a shared house.  Which will be a new experience, because I’ve never lived alone before. I’m imagining myself, three months down the line, with all these little routines that will establish themselves, unhindered by the need to accommodate other people. I might end up, for example, doing the ironing at exactly 6pm in the evening, then when people ring up and ask me out for a quiet Sunday drink it’ll be: “Hate to disappoint you but I’m afraid it’s Ironing Hour.” I wouldn’t be surprised if I end up with a fridge stocked in alphabetical order and when asked about the large plant that’s in my room, reply with: “Oh, that’s Horace. He’s quite moody so don’t get him talking about politics.”

Also I have been given about one hundred rules from the landlady. Not just the usual regulations you would expect, for example about keeping the front door locked. No, these are, it seems, rules which are so obscure that it is almost as if they were specifically put in place to be forgotten, and consequently broken. Rules about windowsills, carpets, when to open the curtains. The flat is above a doctor’s practice, and I hope the landlady never finds out that one particular memory that stands out from my previous work in hospitals is the occasion when I set the bank alarm off. For the second time. I just hope that here I don’t unwittingly lock the patients in the waiting room or mistakenly direct an ill person to the downstairs toilet instead of the doctor’s surgery.

Right now I’m being extra careful, making sure that, yes, the windows are shut when I leave and that this time I didn’t wrench the door of the wardrobe off its hinges within my first half-hour; at least with housemates I have the chance to explain that, no, I don’t know how on earth I managed to do it either but would they please just hold this while I look for the missing wall bracket/fuse box/fire extinguisher. This time, I will be shouting at Horace the Plant in exasperated tones, urging him to not just stand there but help me to try and put this back in one piece again….

Pillow talk

Personally, I don’t worry too much about pillows. However, I may be in a minority here,
judging by last weekend’s trip to IKEA to help a friend move into her new flat.

As we wandered around the vast warehouse, I wasn’t allowed to go and look at the kitchen knives until I had answered concerns regarding whether or not I thought a bright blue towel or a bright yellow one would go better in the bathroom; a 15-minute lecture on towels and their spiritual role in domestic life (or something) and I discovered that my opinions had to adopt a rather more substantial form than “It doesn’t matter.”

The matter of the towels was eventually settled after several hundred years deliberating the respective merits of the colours blue and yellow, and then choosing pink, and we moved to the pillow section. Now, I’m all in favour of a good selection to choose from, but this was the sort of confusing array of options that ensures that you might possibly leave with a pillow, but certainly with a headache and, if you really pay attention, perhaps the beginnings of a mild obsessive disorder.
What are you looking for in terms of “pillow height”?
What is your preferred shape and durability?
Do you want your pillow to retain its fluffiness after many washes?

I wish they’d explain the price difference, perhaps with one of the features written in bold being something like “The Gosa Krama: get to sleep a whole 30 minutes quicker.” This would help prevent those tedious discussions:
“Why is this one six euro more?”
“I don’t know. It’s a bit bigger?”
“No, no, look. Look here, the dimensions are the same.”
“Well…maybe it’s better material”
“They’re both filled with polyester. What’s going on?”
“I don’t have a clue. Pillow marketing isn’t actually on my Top Ten list of-”
“You don’t care, do you? You would if it was YOUR choice.”
“If it was my choice I’d live in a tent in the mountains.”
“You go and do that, Hippy Child. I’m going to find an assistant.”

You might think I’m exaggerating here, but IKEA even have an online version in which you are presented with a range of similar options in order to find your perfect quilt or pillow.

Ironically, though, you don’t actually need any of these pillows to get the good night’s sleep that they claim to provide. A quick trip round IKEA will soon see to that, pillow or no pillow.

Confrontations with the Clinically Insane

I think it might be a wise idea if I carry a card around with me. Unlike a business card, which usually makes its appearance after the champagne and chit-chat (“Ha ha, yars, yars, you must come round and look at the tennis lawn sometime”), it would be the first thing I hand to other people. For their own safety. It would serve to lessen the impact when they find themselves, sometime later, in the sort of situtations in which the most prominent thought seems to be, “Why on earth didn’t I just stay at home and tidy the kitchen?”

The card would, in other words, act as a sort of personal disclaimer. A wallet-sized ‘You Have Been Warned’ notice. It would say something along the lines of, “Being friends with Matt carries certain risks. It is likely that you will encounter people several stations too far from Sanity Central. Stay alert.”

It had, up until yesterday, been a relatively “nutter-free” existence in Brussels. Most people I met were fairly stable, apart from, say, the people who decide to fix you with a solemn stare for the entire metro journey, or anyone who’s a member of ITS. Yesterday afternoon, after a walk exploring the area just north-west of where I live, I decided to meet my friend, a Spanish girl called Pilar, for a coffee at Grand Place. It was just after 5pm.

We met near the market, and were walking down one of the streets, looking for somewhere that was fairly quiet, away from the Bank Holiday crowds. As we were walking, a man passed us and spontaneously produced a gesture that looked like he was swatting away a fly in front of him…very violenty. Pilar and I exchanged a look, and we turned around out of curiosity, as you do when these things happen. As it happens he had also stopped, about fifteen meters away, and was looking at us.

He was standing next to a builders’ skip, inside which were broken up blocks of concrete. One of which, he picked up, and made as if to throw the block right towards us. At this point, Pilar grabbed my arm and screamed. Maybe this is what he was hoping for, because he didn’t throw the block at us, but continued to stand there with it raised in his hand, staring with malice. At the time, I was at a complete blank, I just stood and stared at him, gripped with fear and disbelief; of course, the moment we felt sure he wasn’t going to throw it, we got out of there like lightning.

Shaken, we found a cafe – the criteria having been narrowed down to, “somewhere, anywhere” – and gradually were able to joke about it; the event would become “something to tell the grandchildren.” It got me thinking, however, that perhaps I ought to advise the people I meet to consider something in addition to my personal details: some personal insurance.

(Regarding my journalism training, this last week, among other things, I’ve been dealing with serious organised crime.)

Downpour

I’ve just been caught in really heavy rain, on my way home. I tend to get the giggles in the first few minutes of a really big downpour, and I think it’s nervous laughter. An incredible volume of water is falling down from a great height, thrashing around in whichever direction the wind happens to be going; you’re temporarily blinded by the water in your eyes and deafened by the unique white noise that rain makes. Rain, like all weather, makes no distinction between people, and in that sense is quite a useful reminder of who we really are. As you’re standing under a tree, waiting for an appropriate moment to try and run a bit further, you might exchange a quick glance with someone you meet; a silent acknowledgment of shared vulnerability. Regardless of your social status, age, race, language, sexuality, political beliefs, habits, and so on, in the struggle for protection from natural forces you are simply a human being. What hits us is not only rain but also reality.



Copyright Matt Williams© 2006–2014. All rights reserved.

RSS Feed. This blog is proudly powered by Wordpress and uses Modern Clix, a theme by Rodrigo Galindez.