Tales from Bishkek: Far from the madding crowd

Fleeing the turmoil and nonsensicality of recent events in Europe (the UK’s utterly shambolic and farcical Brexit referendum, the ensuing political meltdown and the tragic terror attack at Istanbul’s Atatürk airport, through which my wife and I had transited, not 2 days earlier) and wanting to go off-line for a while, what better than a trip to Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, that intriguing little country in central Asia, situated along the Silk Road, south of Kazakhstan.

Respecting a standing arrangement, to visit the in-laws every second year, this particular visit also coincided with the birth of my stepdaughter’s 3rd child, initially planned for 2-3 days after our arrival in Bishkek (one week later and much to the daughter ‘s consternation, there was still no sign of the baby).
The other reason for going to Bishkek this year was that my wife and daughter had recently acquired some real estate. Paperwork needed doing, the newly acquired real estate needed renovating and builders needed persuading, this was my job, that work time doesn’t rhyme with vodka time, even if the conveniently placed corner shop lady was more than happy with the workers’ patronage, because, well that’s what “Convenience” means in Bishkek.

Convenience, as in…

Popular some 50 or 60 years ago in Western Europe, before the arrival of the mega supermarkets, little street corner “Convenience stores”, that flourish in Kyrgyzstan, are now something of an anachronism in most western urban or suburban areas – if you’re curious, I’ve written at length about these Convenience stores in my book “Destination Bishkek – especially when the said “Convenience store” is often nothing more than a circa 70 cbm shipping container courtesy of the “China Shipping” conglomerate, with a facade and air conditioning, parked on some street corner. And if you’re wondering at the “unusualness” of such installations just remember that the Kyrgyz are a traditionally nomadic and pragmatic people so let’s say the containers are just replacing the traditional “Yurt”. Actually, there are so many shipping containers in Bishkek – just go to Bishkek’s Dordoi bazaar to get an idea – it’s a wonder the Chinese, themselves, aren’t wondering where all their shipping containers have gone. And if you still can’t imagine a shipping container being used for something other than its primary function read up on the East London container city complex.

For me as a westerner, going shopping in Bishkek, whether at a convenience store or at one of the bigger “Narodny” stores, is like a kid in a sweet shop. I love discovering the local and regional products (i.e. from neighbouring Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and China). Sure, you can find universally familiar brand names, American sodas, French shampoos, Swiss chocolate bars, German brand coffees, Turkish beers, etc. but what’s more interesting is trying the local products*, sausages, smoked fish, pastry goods, salads, cheeses, dairy products, cakes and drinks and because the exchange rate is so favourable for westerners, shopping is (still) very cheap. It’s a standard of living related issue and what may shock a western visitor is that while there are obvious signs of social distress Kyrgyzstan has its 1%ers who are doing extremely well. In fact, in some ways, it’s a bit like the US, without Walmart.
* NB. while I tend to steer clear of the clothes, basically because, made in China, the quality is lower compared to clothes in Europe, I do recommend carpets, tableware, household articles and most of all the crystal, China porcelain tea and coffee sets and sundry metal dishes and bowls.

The taste

Discovering local food products is fun but comes with a caveat. The quality isn’t always up to expectations; origins are vague and contents approximate. For all the bickering going on in Europe, and specifically in the EU, and even more specifically in the UK, regulating the origin, descriptive and content of products has gone a long way to ensuring that sausages actually contain a guaranteed quantity of sausage meat and that when a cheese is labeled “Dutch” it really does come from the Netherlands and not from some factory somewhere in Russia or Kazakhstan.

Originating from Kyrgyzstan, it affects my wife, each time she goes back to Bishkek, to see the quality of the foodstuffs changing so. As an example take the German style breakfast Schinkenwurst sausage sold in Bishkek. The sausage used to contain large chunks of real ham in with the processed meat. Now there is less and less “real” ham and more and more “processed” meat. The aforementioned Dutch cheese doesn’t come from Holland and the industrially produced, 10 cm long, Hovis style Russian bread – always a symbol, always a barometer – is such that I personally prefer the local Kyrgyz bread.

I suppose if you eat such foods each and every day, it’s a matter of taste but even though food is still cheap in Kyrgyzstan it does make you wonder what the foodstuffs would be like if EU-style regulations dictated their production. Would food be more expensive? Certainly. Would food be healthier? Perhaps. Explaining to people, earning very basic wages with minimum social protection that it’s for their benefit might take time and be difficult, very difficult. It took the EU decades and a lot of coaxing to eventually align member states to the same standards and if I research further I’m sure I could find examples of where the EU has exerted influence over non-member countries, eager to trade with the EU, to adopt certain of its standards, e.g. health, safety, education, or forego access to the EU’s trade market.

Good local cooking

One of my other favourite pastimes in Bishkek is eating in the local,  i.e. frequented by the locals, canteen style, no frills, honest worker food restaurants serving generous portions of regional dishes, though not necessarily of Kyrgyz origin, such as Lagman, Pilaff, Ganfin, or Bortsch washed down with a natural homemade fruit juice called Compot and/or tea and all that for 5 USD for 2!
(NB. Don’t look for bottled water or sodas either in such canteens… you’re more likely to something called Kvas, the Russian equivalent of a Coke, made from plants, with a slight taste of liquorice or Schoro, a fermenting (no spelling mistake) cereal drink but that’s it).

And just why would I prefer such a non-descript canteen to a more upper market downtown eatery? Because, for having worked a long time in the hotel and catering trade, and for having had my own restaurant, it’s frustrating to be treated like a tourist, to be fleeced, overpriced, short-changed and badly served in a downtown restaurant.

It’s tempting to make generalities about the Kyrgyz people and the local Russian people in Kyrgyzstan but as a rule and although apt at trading, they, generally, have no feel for the finer points of, let’s say, customer satisfaction. You are there to leave your money or get parted of it (I’ll explain this in a bit). One good example of this is the flourishing local used car business. The locals love trading big powerful cars, mainly Mercedes, BMWs, Audis and SUVs of any brand (“bought” in Germany and/or the Baltic countries, e.g. Lithuania) and I suppose this replaces horse trading but go into any shop and the notion of service with a smile is an alien one, especially when for lack of customers you interrupt the shop assistant while they’re watching a local/Russian soap opera or chatting on the Russian Facebook.

The expression “A fool and his money are soon parted” has never made more sense to me than in Kyrgyzstan, except that here fool rhymes with foreigner. A hard thing to say? Perhaps. In any case, when in Kyrgyzstan I try not to look like a pigeon but a +100kg/1,86m white, albeit tanned, male Caucasian Gaijin does rather tend to stand out in a group of locals. Whether you’re asking for Aspirin at the local pharmacy, or ordering a beer in a shopping mall bar there’s a chance you will get short-changed. So one word of advice, be streetwise, be on your guard and if you don’t speak the language, go with someone who does and you’ll enjoy the experience all the more.

To finish on this particular subject, when in Bishkek my all-time favourite occupation is taking a Marshrutka to one of the local bazaars, of which Bishkek has many: Osh, Ortezai, Madina and of course: Dordoi. It’s a real journey into what Bishkek is really like, rather like the North African souks. Along time ago my wife used to have a stall – a container – in the Dordoi bazaar and she often tells me stories about the people and their techniques for selling. I also notice that she keeps a particularly tight grip on her handbag and is forever telling me to pay attention. She will even occasionally tell me to come and stand next to her using a tone that urges immediate compliance.

As a side note. When in Bishkek I strip my wallet of everything unnecessary: driver’s license, fidelity cards, photos and the such like but when visiting a bazaar everything else is removed as well, leaving just some cash for shopping so that if the wallet does get lifted then tough on me. I’m out-of-pocket but not by much and everything of value is safe elsewhere. No, the real pleasure in visiting these bazaars is in the experience. It’s not quite Moscow rules but there is always someone watching you and if you don’t pay attention well, then say goodbye to some personal belongings. In such a closed environment with all the hustle and bustle, you will get bumped into any number of times and any one of those encounters is potentially an attempt to test you and maybe rifle your pockets or shopping bags.
Finally, I like to think I’m a physiognomist and I like observing people and situations and have subsequently seen or have been able to negotiate situations that had I not have been paying attention could have gone differently. You can’t avoid or avert each and every situation but I like to think it’s a good way of putting into practice what I’ve learnt at one of those on-the-job “E.I.”, “Empathy” and “Situation Management” training courses most of us go on during the course of our working lives.

Post scriptum. And if you’ve got this far and are wondering whatever happened to the baby we came to Bishkek for (and bless you for asking) I can say yes, my step-daughter gave birth to a blue-eyed, 3 kilos something, 50 cm baby girl in the early hours of the day we were to fly back home from Bishkek. What a magical finish to our stay in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.

 

Footnote: for readability sake, all Russian names have been typed phonetically.

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Posted in Everyday life, Society, Voyages | Tagged ,

Digital Hydras

Have you ever felt that something not quite tangible is happening and you can’t quite put your finger on it? Well, I have that feeling at the moment about what’s happening today in the digital world. It’s happening and if you’re paying attention the tell-tale signs are there to prove it.

Just as I was starting to feel that Apple, Alphabet/Google, Amazon, Facebook, Uber & Co… and Microsoft (still in the race, but only just, with their operation ”Windows 10 as a Service”) were slowly but surely stifling all competition and neutralizing all opposition, on their way to uncontested and indisputable world dominance, a series of events are happening that might just help re-establish some semblance of free enterprise and level the playing field for high street/corner shop type business models.

So what is happening and who is doing it? Let’s start with Apple. Due to market saturation, Apple iPhone sales are dropping double-digits. The house that Steve built is also facing difficulties in China where manufacturing costs are now higher than in certain parts of the US and where the Chinese government has banned the sale of iTunes Movies and iBooks Store services. Donald J Trump is threatening, if elected, to force Apple to bring manufacturing back to the USA which, if the Trump succeeds, would, according to one Tech analyst, result in a price surge of iPhones of approx. 66%. And to top it all the US Senate is investigating the company’s tax practices.

Alphabet/Google. While Alphabet’s X Lab is literally looking to achieve immortality, by finding a cure for ageing, the European Commission is, a) looking into slapping Google with an antitrust charge which if successful would result in a €3.4 billion fine, approximately 6,4 times the fine the EU imposed on Microsoft (€561 million) in 2013  and b) the European court of justice is backing the right to be forgotten and is obliging Google to respect and execute requestor demands to have all information concerning them deleted from the web.

Amazon, everyone’s favourite producer, wholesaler, retailer, carrier, publisher, and web service provider. Out of all the digital giants Amazon is the only one in the news because workers, in Amazon’s German warehouses, strike for better work conditions. Apparently, not everyone gets coconut flavoured mineral water, free meals or gym facilities,
The EC also want to investigate Amazon for breach of rule concerning cross-border trading and as if that wasn’t enough, Donald Trump is lambasting Jeff Bezos for using the Washington Post for his own private political agenda, a moot point. The Donald might have a point but you have to admit, sales statistics show that the WP is doing considerably better since Bezos bought it!

And to finish with: Facebook. The social media platform with 1.65 billion monthly active users, and counting, isn’t really worried about the occasional online complaint. No, what apparently worries or rather mystifies Facebook is that certain authorities do not share the company’s benevolent vision of Internet for all. Facebook wants to position itself as a one-stop shop, where you access the web, read the news, make purchases, engage with businesses and stay in contact with family and friends without wasting time Googling and Bing-ing.

The European Commission (EC), have an issue with this benevolent and charitable vision, saying that Facebook isn’t respecting certain prerequisites, such as the user privacy and data protection, which the EC suspect are being exploited for commercial purposes. That the EC recently adopted (in April 2016) the General Data Protection Regulation, and nullified the so-called Safe Harbor data protection directive, is a detail for Facebook. They’ve one data center in Lulea, Sweden and soon a second one in Ireland, and can move European user data around as much as they like because the data stays in Europe.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the puddle, the US Senate Commerce Committee is requiring some explanations from Facebook concerning allegations that news curators are suppressing conservative leaning news articles from their “Trending News” sections. It’s a fair question except that when you look the typical FB user you could be forgiven for thinking that if the “Trending News” sections contain more “New York Post” or “Daily Mail” than Right-wing media then it’s only reflecting user character, morals and culture. And at the end of the day, as long as it stays within predetermined legal boundaries, Facebook is a social media platform-cum-commercial enterprise and, until otherwise constrained, does what it pleases.

So, go on and tell me I imagining it. There is no eurocratic entity trying to maintain a semblance of free enterprise and safeguard the world from the unrestrainable market dominance by a small group of mighty digital giants (There can be only one, McLeod) and there is no populist Hercules, or Xena, trying to rid us of an all-consuming digital Hydra before it subjugates the world.

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Opinions

Opinions! Everyone has one and you know what? We all love sharing an opinion. Opinionating and gossiping, it’s hard-wired in our DNA and has been ever since Lucy walked the plains down in Africa.
And what an era we live in. Today we have Social Media to give the world and their dog a soapbox to stand on and voice an opinion, you even feel a little wiser after reading some of them.

For others though, well, sometimes you wonder, not because the article was particularly bad or biased but because it simply wasn’t relevant, for you. It was one of many that get written and published on subjects such as “5 ways to play mind games with your boss” or “Decode British etiquette (and avoid getting ruthlessly stared at as you push your way to the coffee machine)”.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m the first to get on my soap box and comment on a topic in a blog <uh, hum> not many people will ever read. I also happen to believe that a) there’s no age limit to learning, b) that age is no guarantee of intelligence and c) good advice can put even a jaded professional back on track. It’s for that reason I’ll give everyone a chance but I’ll take a good thought-provoking article by an experienced peer over a Dr. Travis Bradberry special any day, not to mention any article about how I should sign my emails.

Just so there’s no misunderstanding. For having written a few articles myself, I make a point of never shooting down the writer, just the chosen subject. I’ll even offer an opinion on the style but as a boss once told me “if it’s not relevant then why write about it”? OK, I hear you. It might not be relevant for me but it might be relevant for a Millennial. But come to think of it, why a Millennial? After all, they’ve just finished 4+ years in college, they’re educated, tech savvy and have wordplay so let them “Disrupt” established email etiquette if they want to.

Millennials

Gen_TimelineSource: Common Sense Advisory, Inc.

Talking of which. I see the need for categorizing niche market products like green diesel or vegan cheese but why this obsession with sticking a label on a Generation? Oh, I get it! The phone rings: “Hello Mr. “Gen X”. May we interest you in a pension scheme or some retirement real estate in southern Spain? Or, “… and just so you know, moving forward, we’re processing your résumé using our new, “Next-Gen-Tech” “HRaaS” software. That way, we’ll be able to process your profile and get the company’s answer back to you a lot quicker!” Great! And the imponderables in all that?

As a side note. If recruiters worry about “Quality of End User Experience” then one way of assuring customer satisfaction would be to highlight the human touch, flexibility and organic processing over next generation technology. Before anyone reacts, I know some who do go out-of-the-box and they know who they are but I’ve also had my share of recruiters, or their databases, who’ve confused my candidature with someone else’s. And while I’m about it. It really isn’t encouraging to learn from an HR “Expert” that, due to cost reductions, “Next Gen Tech” AI algorithms soon will be parsing job-seeker profiles.  that’s one slippery slope they have there.

I know your secret, uh, pain point!

Still on the matter of recruiting, I just finished reading an article on LinkedIn by a recruitment specialist and “INfluencer”, followed by the comments, offering, as to be expected, a totally different but very reasonable HR rationale. I like reading these articles and their comments because the insight is always good for the taking, elaborating on and re-sharing (echo chamber, here I come), even when not needed immediately.

I can’t profess to being an expert on the subject but writing an article about pain letters as if they were the cure for cancer seems a bit risky, unless, of course, the candidate is an expert business analyst with 30 years’ trade experience. Personally, I’d advise against writing a pain letter to a prospective employer telling them what their problem is and how they, a job-seeker, can change the situation. At best it’s brave and ambitious, at worst its pretentious and somewhat arrogant to pretend that one single job-seeker, alone, could turn a company’s fortunes around… Alone? Bad plan!

Personally, I’d use a different approach. Use psychology and emotional intelligence (know your contact and their environment), show proof of win, experience, and/or adaptability, expression, culture, motivation and know a bit about the company and its market position. What better way to showcase a candidate’s value-add, even for a Millennial “Gen Zer” … “Millennial” is so last year!

Posted in Everyday life, Society, Work | Tagged , | 1 Comment

The wonderful world of IoT

Online

When talking IoT and digital connectivity to a data management professional, especially the sales variety just watch the body language. For them it means data centres, hybrid cloud, virtual machines, hyper-converged systems, in short, revenue. For most consumers, though, Internet of Things is still science fiction, except that when you stop to think of it, it’s already happening, as recent news articles about self-driving cars is proving. Personally, I’m still wondering why, in 2016, we are only just getting round to making a refrigerator talk when Arthur C Clarke and Stanley Kubrick teased me with Hiltons in space, cool looking space clippers, Moon habitation and manned flight to Jupiter in their epic 1968 science fiction film 2001: A Spaces Odyssey.

Got Milk?

OK, so maybe Sci Fi writers of the period couldn’t have predicted events such as the 1973 oil crisis, the fall of the Soviet Empire, Pan-Am’s bankruptcy, AGW (Anthropogenic Global Warming) and so on, or maybe they could but thought better of it. The fact is, smartphone owners are only just getting used to their favourite health app textually suggesting they take the stairs instead of the lift. We are still at that stage where we would probably freak out if the fridge called us up in supermarket to say that, you’re out of milk and butter, and as you’re at the Dairy counter, you’d better take some more.Hal9000

The thing is, while most consumers are trying to grasp the concept of health Apps verbally engaging them – imagine the scene, “Dave, should you really be putting cream in your coffee? You haven’t achieved any goals recently – the data industry is upgrading its infrastructure – cue for a discreet plug – and shrewd marketeers are researching ways of monetizing some very insightful data, data protection laws permitting.

OK, so maybe it’s because I didn’t get my trip in a super space clipper, yet, but, while I get Smart TVs, when I read the hype around some other digitally connected appliances I can’t help being dubious. Plus on top of that and perhaps because I work in a data management and globalization strategy environment, I have no illusions about how Marketeers use the valuable insight gained from cozy chats in front of a semi-intelligent but perfectly receptive TV.

Mind-boggling potential

There’s a whole new industry developing to cover the Zettabytes of global data available today, an industry offering data management, collection, transmission, storage and analysis solutions. Take Amazon as an example. What started as a simple online retail business, in 1994, morphed into a completely independent, self-sufficient, sector-disrupting supply chain offering everything from Prime TV, fresh fruit & vegetables, vinyl records to cloud services and data management facilities (I’ll skip the space travel bit). And you know what? I can perfectly live with the thought of Amazon, plus a few select others, retrieving my data but I balk at the thought of Facebook doing the same! Irrational, isn’t it? Well no, I can handle Amazon’s redundant Ad suggestions based on items I purchased recently because, even if they have categorized me by purchase type, wallet, Geo location etc., I have something to show for it, whereas with Facebook, well read on.

Still have doubts how clever minds quickly find ways to monetize an activity? Think about this next time you’re looking at those carefully engineered Ads that appear on the right of favourite social media webpage, before you even click “Post”. If sharp minds could create high-frequency, nano-second algorithmic trading and disrupt the Stock Market just imagine what some equally sharp mind could think of to bring advertising to you via your digitally connected e-devices. Soon high-frequency nano-second adverts will be punctuating, real-time, communications between the fridge and your smartphone, offering you special promotions on selected products at the milk counter you just walked past. Surprised?  Well you shouldn’t be, product packagings have RFID chips containing data fed in by the producer. Imagine the scene: a shopper with a smartphone and a certain App installed on it walks past a specific product, the product’s RFID chip alerts the smartphone App and a “Take two, Pay one” e-coupon pops up on your smartphone screen, clever, huh?… Extreme Couponing just changed playing field.

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A case for Uberization and your role in shaping the future

While Social Media is focusing on the battle raging around the world between traditional cab/taxi services (Hackney cabs, you like ‘em or you don’t!) and “Sign Up to Drive” services a more disruptive change is taking place: the uberization of banking institutions and healthcare services.

Now while I happily subscribe to uberizing today’s banking system, and essentially any service that removes middlemen (and often inexplicable commissions and margins) standing between the consumer and the service provider, disrupting the healthcare system in yours and my favourite country poses some deeply ethical questions. Can the medical profession rethink itself and come to terms with something as fundamental as replacing a physical visit to the local GP or MD by an on-line consultation? Should insurance companies act as facilitators in the uberization process? Do health schemes need to be profitable and what form should any profit take? Many healthcare systems today are facing some complex issues, For example 1) rural desertification and the resulting closure of medical cabinets, clinics and local care centres. 2) overcrowded and understaffed A&E units, because patients object to waiting months for an appointment with their local GP, 3) resistance to any national, federal or centrally run system, a resistance aggravated by what people see as ubiquitous but redundant bureaucracy, and absence of any form of corporate style governance in what is essentially a non-profit making public service.

Pandora’s Box

I know this is opening a Pandora’s Box to all sorts of arguments, for and against, and I know it irritates a lot of qualified people, with +7 years medical training and six figure college fees to pay back, to hear that people would rather consult some on-line medical dictionary, or worse, Wikipedia, than their local GP/MD. The fact is though, and this partly due to the above mentioned problems, its more convenient, and alluring, to go on-line instead of sitting around in some doctor’s waiting room or A&E unit for an overworked nurse or a physician to have a look at them, and we all have scary stories about sitting around in A&E units.

There’s no doubt, there’s room for innovation and while I, personally, believe you should never substitute a qualified medical opinion with something out of Wikipedia (especially when you have a rabbit’s bone blocking the esophagus and are turning blue in the face), I can see why people may do so. Perhaps the solution to this would be to create an on-line access to a local qualified professional, using Google Maps, Skype or similar applications, it might be a viable solution, in particular when the nearest doctor/clinic is some 50 or more miles away.

OK, so I hear the first questions: Who’s going to pay and why would anyone want to pay for an on-line consultation anyway when all you have to do is open Taber’s online Medical Dictionary? It’s a valid point but think about it, most state healthcare systems are by definition state sponsored so simply signing in on-line to the service would already assure payment to the MD. For those preferring private health schemes, these would already offer payment solutions such as PayPal, Apple Pay etc. And what about the treatment or medication? Well let’s think about it. If the MD prescribes immediate treatment an ambulance would be dispatched and either dispense first aid or take the patient to the nearest clinic. Alternatively, if the MD simply prescribes medication some enterprising 03rd party, delivery hero service would drop the medication off at the doorstep. Unworkable? Not necessarily, there are plenty of stories of kids who ran errands after school and made a business out of it because they were motivated and knew how to take it to the next level.

The good, the bad and the AI

Looking at the bigger picture there really is no reason to think that uberizing whatever as a service will rob honest workers of a job or that Robby the Robot will be hosting next Monday morning’s staff meeting instead of Todd, the team lead. Fortunately, we have tech and industry leaders such as Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos or Tim Cook, who, having secured their own places in history, are now offering counsel and insight on almost every imaginable aspect of technological innovation. And how reassuring to see them publicly intervening in matters of net neutrality and data privacy.

Whatever you think about uberization, AI, or the future in general for that matter, the fact is innovative services or technological breakthroughs aren’t always the result of some hoodie wearing billionaire’s eureka moment. Things, good or not so good get created every day and as a famous Vulcan once said “May I say that I have not thoroughly enjoyed serving with humans? I find their illogic and foolish emotions a constant irritant” … my bad, I meant, “Computers make excellent and efficient servants, but I have no wish to serve under them”. In other words, if the thought of having your daily life (and personal data) controlled by some Facebook style cyber-intelligence panics or irks you, get off your butt, react and do something constructive about it. And while you are doing that, take comfort (or Schadenfreude) from the fact that even the best laid schemes of mice and billionaires may go awry, as we saw recently in India.
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Edit/addendum. After writing this post I read an insightful article courtesy of Vala Afshar (@ValaAfshar / http://www.huffingtonpost.com/vala-afshar/about disrupting yourself. I read it and felt it confirmed, in better words, what I’ve always thought about a) entitlement and b) not being a victim. Read the article to see what I mean.
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Beware of the Button Pushers!

A thought occurred to me the other day: And what if some obscure Machiavellian entity with a hidden agenda deliberately spread some very debatable ideas and theories around just to see what the universal reaction would be.

You may think I’m exaggerating and maybe I am however, the examples are legion and as far as I’m BigBrotherconcerned, fall into three categories:
1) The ones that happen every day but are so specialised only the initiated spot them
2) The ones that target a larger but specific segment of the public, say skype subscribers or Pop Culture enthusiasts, with notably the recent “Back to the Future 2″ (21.10.215) day, and finally…
3) The button pushers, the howlers, the ones that never fail to get the entire social media up in arms, such as a recent study published on behalf of the WHO, or again anything relating to climate change.

Again, there’s a whole host of examples and even if some are just jumbo sized blunders it does raise the question as to whether these [calculated acts] aren’t just part of some algorithmical endeavour to  measure humanity’s mood, and morale. Would it, the unnameable entity, be trying to see how far it or they could push limits before the Webizens donned their “V” masks? Sounds very big brother-ish does it? Well let me tell you a story.

The day Humanity let out a collective sigh

A few years ago, I was sitting having lunch with some colleagues in the canteen at my work place of the time. It was late autumn, yes, I’m sure of that, and while digesting lunch we started discussing the favourite topic of the time, the forthcoming and much/overly publicized Mayan doomsday rendezvous: 20.12.2012, which of course we all laughed at, didn’t we?

Never the less, it was a godsend of a subject and a super playing field leveller to boot. Firstly, anything to avoid answering some sticky questions from senior managers about recent team results and objectives during lunch and debating theories or attempting to debunk the latest sensationalist Cable TV disaster docu-fiction or Ancient Alien TV show on the subject seemed a great alternative. Secondly, it was a habit and, I think, a great team building exercise that allowed everyone, the space of an after-lunch coffee, to talk peer-to-peer among some rather smart professionals about something other than business.

Anyway, there we were, enjoying our expressos, discussing doomsday scenarios and wondering if it was worth opening an office there and then up the nearby Alps when somehow the conversation transitioned from December 2012 to September 2001. This probably happened when someone mentioned that if the volume and character of tweets circulating on the subject was anything to go by a lot of people were apparently taking the matter quite seriously, at least as far the calendar calculations were concerned. This was the perfect cue for me to mention in passing that some government agency, state service, or hegemonic IT concern was very probably, thanks to Tags, “#Hashtags” and various other trackers and beacons, monitoring the tone of such comments and messages, much as they did September 12 2001. This stopped the conversation dead and I almost panicked on seeing the frowning faces around the table. Either I had spoken in some exotic language, or the affirmation was too incredible to believe. As everybody present was an experienced language service professional I opted for the latter and started explaining how back in September 2001 some data analyst in Washington, Mountain View or Redmond, had noticed a serious upsurge in number of messages transiting their servers originating from people chatting in IMs, forums and online communities about the attack on the twin towers.

ZeitgeistAccording to this same data analyst, the tone of the content was so overwhelmingly “Sad” it was as if the world had just let out an enormous and universal sigh of grief and despondency. Still seeing the looks of confusion around the table, I quickly added that even at that time, long before LinkedIn (2002), Facebook (2004) or Twitter (2006),  Internet services, interested in capturing the Zeitgeist, … and Digital Fortresses, with other agendas, were already intensively collecting and processing data from the Web, in search of intelligence for whatever advantage it would bring. Data processing has come a long way since its [known] beginnings over seventy years ago and whatever your thoughts on Edward Snowden Big Data has gone mainstream and will, thanks to Cloud and those that facilitate its use, play a ubiquitous role in our lives, at least until the next librarian or whistleblower provoked shift in technology.

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But whatever happened to annoyances.org?

They’ve killed annoyances.org and before you say “Who?” or  “And?” read on to understand why the demise of a long-standing source of support is so symbolic of the era for computer enthusiasts such as myself, and don’t be fooled by the “…will return shortly” bit, it’s been that way for some time now.Conspiracy theory alert Yes, a page has turned, no wait! An era has come to an end, an era that saw computer users like me blithely take the lid off a PC and fiddle around inside. And what made me do such a reckless thing? Why Annoyances.org of course! They provided support and tips for me for every OS from Windows 95 to Windows 7 and now they’ve gone! Fortunately, you can still access their material via the internet archive Web Archive… for the moment.

Windows 10 brings the curtain down on an era during which I would merrily strip down, tinker and rebuild a PC with the malice and the technical skill of an eleven year old. Finished, an era where whoops of joy punctuated howls of rage and frustration, and hours were spent, but never wasted (all was documented), sitting staring at a dead PC or at the winking cursor of the dreaded BSOD trying to figure out what to do next. Finished the days of changing a PC’s BIOS just to see what happened!

The Infamous Blue Screen of Death

Finished, the days when I would happily reformat one of my PCs and transfer the data from another PC using an ethernet cable simply because I had the time and felt up to the challenge. Finished the time when I would delete command programs in Windows Explorer and then go into MS-DOS to reinstall them. Finished the days of downloading some freebie crack, complete with embedded bug, and the resulting post-crash re-installation.

Windows as a Service

Yup! Windows 10’s arrival heralds the end of “Computering” and the start of “Device utilization”. Why bother trawling the web for the latest 03rd party tweak to make an ailing Compaq Presario, Dell Dimension 4600 or Samsung NC10 go that little bit faster. With Windows as a Service, Microsoft & Co have almost, if not yet totally, removed all need to pimp a PC … haven’t they?

Gone is also the need, take the cover off my Sony VAIO laptop to add more memory, I mean, who needs more physical memory or a faster processor when providers are offering gigabits of free Cloud storage and online apps? In fact, the last time I did anything vaguely technical on a PC was a couple of years ago when I bought a USB-to-IDE/SATA adapter to extract the data from a terminally declining HP Pavilion dv7 laptop. And you know what? I could have repaired the black screen myself but the sad fact is that I couldn’t be bothered, I preferred to pay out 350$ for a VAIO laptop plus 10$ for the IDE/SATA adapter and guess what. The Dell Dimension 4600, with its 80GB HDD & XP Home OS, bought in 2005, outlived and outworked the HP laptop by several years, and that in spite of the fact that I’d stripped it down and rebuilt it several times myself.

Incidentally, it’s the same with my 3-year-old Samsung Tablet 10.1. I’ve absolutely no urge or motivation to root the device to install some app that might stop the screen bugging every time I load Firefox but why should I? If Firefox bugs there are other browsers, if my AV pushes too much full-page advertising in my face then I’ll get another and when I’m tired of my tablet I’ll sell it on eBay.

A Brave New World

We live in a society where we change a device every two years, not because we need to but because we’re consumers and because enterprising ventures appear out of nowhere to help us do just that, consume. And because that’s the way of the [business] world, these potential money generating, and aspiring unicorn ventures inevitably get absorbed by bigger structures, such as the hegemonic GAFA (called GAFAM in French to include Microsoft). Through such acquisitions, this “Hegemony” are now influencers, trend setters and demand generators for billions of users around the world. More importantly, by undertaking various “Philanthropic” actions they are present in numerous other spheres of activity and interest and have an impact on a lot of what goes on our lives today, with all the pain points and challenges, big or small, that comes with such prevalence. [1] [2][3]

Times have changed since Microsoft released Windows 3.1 and if we can consider IoT and Cloud based services as viable next steps in everyday, general public e-device utilization it’s probably thanks to people like Sir Tim Berners-Lee who, and I quote, “challenged colleagues at MIT to invent a fundamentally new and better way to deliver Internet content” [4].  This led to the optimization of the data flow process, which in turn facilitated access to, and the downloading of everything online from Napster mp3s, in the early 2000s, to the images in this post.

It’s tempting to criticize GAFAM for their, perceived, domination of everything related to our daily consumer habits but the reality is, e-consumption went global some time ago but why be negative about it? There’s still a place for “Opensourcers” and people with differing viewpoints, even GAFAM has recognized this and the chances are that maybe, just maybe, computer enthusiasts like me will still be able to talk about “Computering”  and not just “Device utilization”.

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