Friday, 30 March 2012

Making My Mornings Mine Again

A couple of weeks ago, I decided that my mornings were not working for me. I was arriving at work feeling slightly rushed and resentful, I was missing my walk and I was generally not feeling the love from life. So I admitted my faults to myself and another human being (in the team, who asked me how I was and I said "my mornings aren't working") and then became ready to change, having already taken an inventory. It's all about the train times. The next morning I woke up at 05:30 instead of 06:30 and caught the 06:46 instead of the 07:46. This propeller is a symbolic tribute to the airplane hanger / factory that used to be here before Cineworld took its place. I walk across the Cineworld car park every morning.)

No race for a seat. Room to tap on my netbook. Walking across Waterloo bridge (note time on clock) I realised my pace was a relaxed stroll rather than a press to make a deadline and that I was feeling way better: the walk belonged to me, not the timetable.

I parked myself in the Caffe Nero near Holborn Underground and tapped away for about forty minutes, strolled over to the tube and arrived at work feeling unrushed and already having had a useful, personal morning.

This photograph was a Saul Leitner moment. Someone branded Holborn, St Giles and Bloomsbury as "Midtown", which isn't all that pretentious when you consider that it's full of offices and is a mad rush all day. That's what the "Yum" sign is about.

So I'm going to go on doing that for a while. Especially after I get over this f.....g cold and cough.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Richard Curtis On Love, or Not, Actually

It's said that English - read, London-based - movie critics don't like Richard Curtis's films. It's something about the way he doesn't have guttersnipes and pony criminal types yelling at each other all the time. His casts are almost always pretty people who have enough money for poverty not to be the driving force of their lives, and they have good manners, nice voices and a sense of humour.

I'm referring to his three masterworks: Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, and Love, Actually. 

Let's deal with Notting Hill quickly. The only think I can remember from that film with affection is the fruitarian joke: "so this carrot..." "...has been murdered. Yes." The movie ends with Hugh Grant persuading Julia Roberts to stay in England - presumably forsaking not only all others but also her career. This really doesn't happen. In a huge way. A discreet affair perhaps, but not marriage and children. Way too many economic inequality issues. It's a fantasy, but it didn't need to be. The heroine could have been a British actress who went over to Hollywood and had a couple of big movies, but was losing her novelty in and attraction to the industry and was looking for a way out. British actresses who make big time movies have a habit of coming from middle-class places like Twickenham (Kiera Knightly, Clare Forlani) and would plausibly settle for a bookshop-owning Hugh Grant, if there was more money or connections knocking around. With that story they don't get American money for the movie, but you get the point I'm making. Even if we insist on actually Julia Roberts, we could have had a real friendship with a little nookie, and then a to-the-point but kind scene where she has to say goodbye. She can explain that she has obligations "I'm not an actress, I'm a small corporation. Actually, not that small." ("You look petite to me.") Again, you get the point. And you could keep the fruitarian.

But no. Love between pretty people is a fantasy. 

Love, Actually was supposed to be a ghastly, sugary Christmas confection with a cast of pretty faces and only one poor person in sight - and she had a job. As Prime Minister Hugh Grant's tea lady. I don't know about you, but the film I saw was a meditation on the hopelessness of love and desire. Skip the Hugh Grant-Martine McCutcheon story - that was there so Griffin Mill could have a happy ending. There's nothing wrong with a happy ending: it lets you get away with all sorts of cynical stuff in the second act.

Quick, name one couple who actually have a believable resolution. That's right, the body doubles John and Judy. Oh, and the Laura Linney character having her life taken over by her brother. Where there is disappointment -  the Alan Rickman  / Emma Thompson marriage or Colin Firth being cheated on by Sienna Guillory - it's real, and where there is happiness, it's a total and obvious sham. Everything from the idea that there's another woman on the planet who looks like Claudia Schiffer to the idea that hot American girls would fall for a Basildon burke is a rampant nonsense. Sam the schoolboy finally kisses Joanna his American crush as she's leaving the country. This looks like a win if you're really not paying attention. It isn't. She's on the other side of the Atlantic. No Joanna nookie in Sam's future. You just got fooled by that "or you'll regret it the rest of your life" bit. That's a consolation prize. The Hugh Grant - Martine McCutcheon story is there to make the rest look almost plausible. If he'd left it out, the utter unreality of the other stories would be running all over your Christmas cake. This leaves John and Judy. The not-so-pretty real people who are shy but attracted. This is hopeful and believable. 

Which brings us to Four Weddings and a Funeral - a film which should live in blessed memory for being one of the very few that actually makes London in particular and Britain in general look like somewhere you might want to live. The prettiest couple in the movie - Hugh Grant and Andie McDowell - are the ones least certain about how they really feel, most distracted by anything else in their lives and most tentative about committing. Kristen Scott Thomas - an Englishwoman so elegant she had to move to France to survive - is hopelessly in love with Hugh Grant, who barely even knows she's there (and it's a tribute to everyone's acting that we believe that). Everyone else, however likeable in short doses, are twerps, shy, dorks, thumping crass idiots and braying shelias - think of the "ghost of girlfriends past" scene (which is the most important in the film). It is such people who fall in love and walk down the aisle - not pretty people with self-doubt. (Note, "pretty people with self-doubt" is a tautology: pretty implies self-doubt.)

I doubt it's the "author's message" that only the crass and the below-the-pretty-line people can fall in love and marry. I'm guessing it's something he's seen and found makes a useful skeleton for a script. It is, after all, comforting for the majority to see themselves winning in the game of love while Hugh Grant only gets to the end in what any fool can see is a fantasy. It lets Curtis set his characters up for us to laugh at them while seeming kind in the end. There is one movie where the pretty people do fall in love, and we believe it, and that's Four Weddings. The last act of that film is one of the neatest pieces of dramatic plotting ever put on the screen. Everything comes out of the characters, which is where good drama comes from, and it calls on a principle we can all believe: if you're not in love, you shouldn't get married. 

Monday, 26 March 2012

I'm A Million-Dollar Programmer

I've long believed that I'm at my most valuable when designing and coding software for my employers. Getting in the outsiders does result in a more polished and bullet-proof application - but then they get to use tools that I would never be allowed to use, like actual programming languages.

The other day I received this e-mail... (starts)

Hi All,

Unfortunately we’ve not been successful in securing the history for the XXX data feed. The main reason is due to the £1m cost and extra 3000 man days required to deliver this. The key benefit for having the history is to feed into the XXX pricing model but on balance, accounting for the additional cost and prolonged delivery of the feed, the decision has been made not to bring the history across from this source.

The history will start to build when the feed is implemented in July but history should already be building up in (system name)...

What you need to know is that the work we were asking for was the productionisation of some routines that a co-worker runs on a Monday morning. I wrote the routines in about four days, which update tables I created and data-filled about nine months ago. That exercise - including documentation and manuals - took about four calendar months, so maybe 40 working days (I had crud work to do as well). It did build on some other exercises I'd done, count maybe 20 working days for those.

I do not get paid £300 / day. Not even close. We have asked how this was arrived at, but silence as there been deafening. Half of it will be for £400 / day "project management" and "design". That's why you have in-team analyst/programmers like me: it's way cheaper and faster. My managers have sent this up the chain saying "look how much value the smart people who work for me create". I'll go for that.

Need I tell you that these numbers come from a Big Name management consultancy and our own IT people? What I said to my managers (but not the high-ups) was: what else are they lying to you about?

Friday, 23 March 2012

On Freedom of E-Mail Expression

I write a weekly commentary about the competition's price changes. I use a sharp style, speculating about why the change might have been made and how important or effective it might be. I've been working in this market for a long time now and I'm fairly confident I can call the changes with a high degree of accuracy. People actually like my "edgy" tone and comments.

Recently I expressed a dim opinion of a competitor's change - saying that it was simply too small to make any difference to anything: margins, positioning or customer perception. This was included in a regular newsletter compiled and sent by a colleague  that circulates confidentially. He incorporated my comment and sent out the newsletter.

Someone sent this back...

"Thought I should point out that we are in a 50/50 joint venture with XXXX and I am not sure that we should be referring to their offerings in quite this manner. As equal partners they would probably not appreciate the tone. Perhaps some feedback to give the YYY team for their future updates."

My first reaction was "oh shit - I've overdone it. The boss will be round muttering at me in a moment." I didn't apologise or explain to the sender, let alone the competitor, and just left it for a while. 

About twenty minutes later, I found myself in possession of a pair. I sent this back to my newsletter colleague...

"We may be partners in a joint operation, but not in the sales arena. XXX run their own business and they take customers from us – they are a leading competitor for our best customers. I don’t see them backing off our customers because we are 50-50 partners in a joint venture - I see them offering the second most aggressive rate in the market.

Individual people may be upset by our opinions, and while that might be understandable on a personal basis, it’s not a professional response. Pricing and propositions are highly public activities and need a thick skin.

We’re as entitled to express an opinion about those decisions as we are about the decisions of ZZZ or anyone else. We’re also entitled to express it as we choose. Do we really want to be the kind of company that only expresses its real opinions in speech, and whose internal communications are anodyne twaddle that’s therefore read and trusted by no-one?"

My colleague agreed, pointing out quite rightly that the newspapers often say much ruder things. and we decided to carry on. No-one of weight has said anything.

It would have been so easy to back down and moderate my approach in future. So easy to agree that we shouldn't express the slightest criticism - by content or tone - of anyone we were even vaguely associated with. So easy to think that maybe the competition knew something we didn't. 

The point isn't that I might be wrong. The point is in the last sentence. "Do we really want to be the kind of company that only expresses its real opinions in speech, and whose internal communications are anodyne twaddle that’s therefore read and trusted by no-one?" Nothing thrives in denial, except confusion, politics and distrust. 

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

On Pleasure, Dopamine, Oxytocin and Bullshit Therapy (Dear Diary 3)

Recently I read David J Linden's book Pleasure: How Our Brains Make Junk Food, Exercise, Marijuana, Gernerosity and Gambling Feel So Good. For a pop science book about sex, drugs, gambling and other pleasures, it's a refreshingly Vulgar Evolution-free and judgement-free treatment of the subject. (If you're a man, the stuff about women's sexual responses is going to freak you out: if you're a woman, it will be perfectly normal.)

There are only a few books I've read and recognised myself in. Melodie Beattie's Codependent No More of course, and Janet Wotitz' Adult Children of Alcoholics. Linden's description of how addicts respond to pleasurable events felt like the answer to why I react the way I do, or rather don't, to what are supposed to be pleasures.

Addiction, it seems, comes with its own brain chemistry. The counter-intuitive part is where the addict gets less pleasure, not more, than the Normals, from whatever it is. Addicts don't do dopamine as well as the straights, and it's dopamine that gives you that, well, whatever it is that you feel when you have sex, or see your baby, or whatever. I have no idea, because I don't feel it. All that stuff Normals think is wonderful and pleasant and makes their days worth living through get this reaction from me: "well, uh, it's... okay. I guess. Yeah. It was all right." And that's not because I'm trying to be cool or am afraid of showing my emotions or can't engage with the world or any of that guilt-tripping therapy crap - it's because I don't get the chemical high the Normals do.

I don't do oxytocin either, and if you don't produce or respond well to oxytocin, you're not going to experience a lot of bonding urges. It's not fear of commitment, or being vulnerable, or being known, or being rejected or any of that blame-the-victim therapy garbage - it's because I don't get the bonding chemical surge and reaction that Normals do.

If I were inside a Normal's body, I'd feel like I was blissed-out by the slightest thing. If they were inside mine, they would feel that they had gone to a hell where everything was an effort and nothing was a pleasure, and a shoulder-slumping weights of willpower was needed to do the simplest thing.

Linden says that the research suggests that what keeps the addict going isn't the pleasure - that's what keeps the Normals going. That feels like my life. The addict keeps going on anticipation. Addicts hope against all experience that the next time will feel, not better, but whatever it is they are supposed to feel to make it all worthwhile. Whatever it is the Normals feel. We never do feel it: drugs, booze, food, a moment of peace and tranquility under a blue sky - these are all respites from the weariness, the un-satisfaction, the sheer effort of grinding out day after day for no good feelings whatsoever.

This explains why the majority of people are over-weight, under-exercised, don't go beyond pop-culture, are innumerate, and so incredibly self-satisfied: they are blissed out just from waking up. Achievement takes a huge capacity for dissatisfaction, and you can't be dissatisfied with a brain full of dopamine making you feel good at the slightest trivial thing you do.

I'd rather be sober than drunk, clean rather than high, single than divorced or in a worn-out marriage, and if you knew what Normals look like to me, you would not want to be a Normal. But anticipation only works until the day you stop believing, then the weariness sets in. That's where I am now. I don't believe that anything will make me feel better, or even make me feel anything except
uncomfortably numb. And I don't know when it changed.

Monday, 19 March 2012

When There's Always Someone Who Comments Are Sour Grapes

So there’s an article by James Whittaker, who it seems is a software development superstar, about why he left Google. He didn't like the way Larry Page had responded to the success of Facebook by turning Google from a tech company that happened to make money from advertising to an advertising company that happened to do tech. Whittaker had the reputation to be able to walk into another job - at Microsoft. 

Buried away on page 4 of the comments is this from a Daniel Redman (who he?)

I'm sure it was completely unbearable to work at one of the most powerful companies in the world, well-documented as having the best employee benefits.  I hope the truth is that you actually got let-go and are bitter, rather than you're beating up your former employer for allowing you to lose your passion.  Either way, sounds pretty childish if you ask me.  

In any comment string to an article about why someone found Situation X unattractive and left for Situation Y there’s a snark like this. This one just got me riled enough to comment.

First off, it’s downright rude. I don’t mind vigorous and colorful language and commentary, I use it myself. Calling someone “childish” is neither vigorous nor colourful. It’s a Parent sneering at a Child. Second, it’s nasty. Hoping that someone was let go is just unpleasant: I’ve been made redundant more than once and there are only a couple of people I dislike enough to think would benefit from the experience. It’s also rather shallow: anyone who thinks that a market-leading salary and benefits can make up for doing something they don’t believe in and have the choice of leaving, is a little, well, inexperienced. Salary and benefits make up for bad jobs, products and managers only when you can’t find somewhere else to go (which is the position a lot of people are in).

Seems to me that Mr Redman is sucking up a lot of pain where he works. People who have no choice but to suck it up hate it when those who have a choice exercise it publicly. Now why would that be?

What’s puzzling is why anyone would post their pain so publicly. Actually, my psychiatrist tells me I have to stop saying things like that. Anyone who would post their pain so publicly has a head the rest of us would be better off staying away from.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Dear Diary (2)

(Continued ranting...)

All sorts of things used to make my life better, some for the moment and others for longer: hanging out with people, booze, movies, TV, books, music, chocolate, sex, women, food, blue skies, sunshine and warm air, beaches and noisy waves, and now and again doing stuff that makes the house feel more like home. Holidays are an odd thing which I enjoy more in the memory than the doing - except for the bit where I'm dining someplace like Chez Phillipe - because taking a holiday on your own is just slightly harder work than you might think.

I feel like a man who is slightly hungry all the time because he doesn't have the money or the time to eat well enough. When someone offers him a decent meal, he has to say NO. Why? Because he doesn't want to be reminded of what it's like to eat well and feel satisfied: it would make the hunger he's going to feel after his temporary benefactor has gone feel even worse. Now it's a permenant dull ache he's used to, but having something to contrast it with would bring back the sharpness and the pain and the sense of being deprived.

An addict does everything for two reasons: The High, and Stuff To Do When Waiting For The Next High. It doesn't really matter what that Stuff is: work, hanging out with your mates, watching TV, cleaning the bathroom, walking in the park... it's all just passing time. Some Stuff is better than other Stuff, but it's degrees of Stuff. It's not The High. Sometimes something I think is going to be Just Stuff turns out to give me The High, but that's rare. Stuff has no meaning to an addict: style, cool, yes, but no meaning. Sometimes hanging out with the guys gave me The High, and others it didn't.

I'm not supposed to be aiming for The High anymore. I'm supposed to be finding the purpose of my life in serving others and the Will of God As I Understand Him. I never did get that bit of the Program. Take away The High and it's all just Stuff. As a good Nerd, I can get a High from problem-solving and cool stuff, I don't need drugs or booze. Sunsets will do, or clear air and beautiful distant views. The catch is that my body still wants company. Bodies have lives and needs of their own. Get me a warm female body to be next to, it says. Get me someone to hang out with and get sweaty with. And my head and heart says that it isn't going to work out like that. My head and heart can't see the benefit at all. Neither wants to feel The High from desire that's going to be requited and all the rest of those feelings, only to know that it isn't going to happen again.

What's different this time is that I can't be bothered to do the displacement activity I used to do. Stuff I Thought Would Make My Life Better: decorating the house, visiting the few people left in my life, going for walks (a time-honoured displacement activity which only really works when the weather is good or the scenery is spectacular), going to the RA, Tate Modern, National Gallery or the National Portrait Gallery. I could explain it by the cold weather, ten weeks of viruses and colds and coming back tired from the gym, but I know that's not it.

(And it ain't stopping yet...)

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Dear Diary (1)

(Okay, I am going to go on about this stuff until I come out of whatever it is... you don't have to read it)

There are times when I don't know how or what I'm feeling. These are not good, because I put on weight. If I weigh too much, my body fat is too high, so my blood sugar levels start to rise. When that happens, I can't think straight, my legs break out into blotchy patches and I get infections in my nose at regular intervals. This does not happen to you, which is why you can afford to be a little vague about how you're feeling. Also, you can get drunk Friday evening and I can't. Going to Meetings helps a little with this stuff, but in the same way that Paracetomol helps with a fever: when the effect wears off, I still have a fever. (You have a hangover.)

I know how I feel about the new office. It sucks. No-one liked it when we arrived, no-one likes now, and the people who have been there for a year still don't like it. Don't mention the blocked toilets, the ineffective aircon, and the fact that it looks like a modern-day workhouse, except with computers and strip lighting. It's run on "Workwise", which I may have ranted about before, which means no-one has assigned desks (not even the top management have assigned offices), and we put our bits and pieces away in lockers at the end of the day. Even in primary school, I had a desk. The essence of Workwise is that we are not supposed to feel like we belong there. Which sounds really... healthy and motivating.

I know how I feel about Shoreditch and the City: the City is an industrial estate and Shoreditch is a grim part of town with some mid-market shops and restaurants. It is not hip and the only thing it's on the edge of is civilisation. I'm going to do some posts on this when the weather gets warm enough to make street photography pleasant and you'll see what I mean. Soho, Covent Garden and the West End are home to me in a way that only central Amsterdam, the Marais / St Germain and the East Village / Upper West Side are. Spitalfields is not even real.

I miss walking through Covent Garden to work. Walking up Archway to get the Central line at Holborn is just about okay, but anywhere east of the Chancery Lane isn't. Walking through the City drains the joy from my soul and I have to use all my concentration to dodge the rushing drones. Anyway, a twenty-minute brisk walk to the office is one thing, a twenty-minute brisk walk to a tube station to take a train to the office is another.

This stuff isn't the mystery problem. Sex, women and relationships aren't the mystery problem either. A problem, sure, but not a mystery. Being the ACoA that I am, I'm missing the drama and dysfunction. The management are making remarkably sensible decisions around my part of the business. I got a good grade in my appraisal. The working environment might be physically shoddy, but in every other regard it's relaxed and professionally casual. Nobody is watching clocks, and it's the quality of your work that matters, not the quantity of your time. (Yes, I know, sounds like heaven.) Sick though it sounds, we ACoA's feel uncomfortable in such circumstances.

(Oh yeah... there's more to come)

Friday, 9 March 2012

Moral Litmus Test

Here is a simple question:

You put your iPhone 4S down on the cafe table and go to the toilet. When you come back, it's been stolen. Is this your fault?

Highlight the space below for the answer.

If you said yes, congratulations. Living in England has stripped you of all sense of moral responsibility and replaced it with the blame-the-victim mentality of the powerless. Secretly, you love bullies, criminals and people who just take what they want; you hate good manners and thoughtfulness. You are a policeman who regards criminals as local features rather than responsible adults, a bank saleswoman who thinks that "caveat emptor" means it's the buyer's fault if they were suckered, the teacher who asks the victim what they did to set off the thug.

The right answer is that it's the thief's fault.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Outsourcing The Dirty Work

There was a very good article in the Guardian last week about Wonga. In case you've been on Mars the last couple of years, Wonga are a payday loan company which, according to who you listen to, has just spent £12m on advertising to make loan sharking look respectable, or so that decent people wouldn't have to go to loan sharks again. A payday loan is generally taken to be less than £500 for less that 30 days. If you have enough credit with your bank and manage your money with even a little sense, you will use your overdraft facility. Payday loans are for people who don't meet those criteria: low-paid, erratically-employed, bad with money or just downright irresponsible.

Personally, I think that the clearing banks - especially those owned in large part by the Government - should be made to extend short-term overdrafts to the low-paid for no charge. Compared to what they lose lending to dodgy Irish property companies and southern European governments, and to what they pay in fines and rebates for mis-selling, the lost interest on a few million quid for ten days is a mere trifle. But that's enough of that.

This is the bit that caught my eye: "The company offices are filled with around 60 mostly young employees, dressed down in internet startup style. There's a personal trainer, employed to take staff running in the park for twice-weekly fitness sessions. A senior team dealing with people who can't pay back their loans are in another basement room ("Don't ask me why Moira has got a Barbie on her desk") but there are a further 100 people in a callcentre in South Africa, charged with ringing people to urge them to repay their loans.Staff say this is a fun place to work. [The CEO's] has a starkly minimalist white office, with white leather sofas, without any papers (everything is digital) or really anything except a bottle of Evian, a bottle of Carex hand sanitising gel, and a huge print of Che Guevara."

The reason the call centre is in South Africa isn't because it's cheaper: there are cheap call centres all over the north of England and Scotland. It's because they want the dirty work done as far away from the shiny front offices as possible. If the sixty mostly young employees had to hear the one hundred debt chasers in action, it would not be a fun place to work for more than a week. It would be painfully obvious what the real work was, and who the customer really is. Wonga seem to be in a state of chronic hypocrisy about who borrows from them. 

I don't like outsourcing. It exports jobs and imports poverty in the form of low wages. It's a fact of business life, and it's not clear that Western economies have the capital to reconstruct China's manufacturing capability back home. Manufacturing may be a lost cause for that reason, but service jobs should be kept in the UK. Outsourcing your dirty work is doubly nasty.

I've had a couple of calls from agents looking for an analyst to work at payday loan companies: the Yanks have read the smoke signals and are setting up over here. I had to think for a night before I could get my personal feelings straight. I can't make a good living from selling to poor people. I'm comfortable fleecing the rich (I don't deal with the rich, but I would be if I was), but not the poor. Fleecing the poor is what governments make Revenue and Customs do, it's what the Welfare State does. Bad company.

Monday, 5 March 2012

This Year's Challenge?

In my first couple of years at The Bank I was always feeling as if there was six month's work for me and then I would be out, as the job would be done. My manager at the time told me that it didn't matter: exactly what we did would simply change, but there would always be work. He lacked the re-assuring bedside manner to deliver the message with conviction, but it's turned out to be very true. In the last three years, I've moved from pricing implementation, to reporting-centered MI, to projects intended to fill in some large gaps left by the IT and data people, to insight analysis, and my latest incarnation is now apprarantly as a product manager. No change in job titles, but some quite real changes in function. The sail of my job description swings with the organisational and political winds.

A little bit of background. When I started working at The Bank, it was dominated by the retail sales function, along with every other financial services company for the last thirty years, which is why the FSA is fining them now over insurance and will be fining them later over Added Value Accounts. Specialist functions such as pricing and product development trembled at the thought that what they had done might have reduced sales. (The same sales the FSA are saying shouldn't have been made.) There was no room for creative thinking about products or promotions: all anyone wanted was a edge on stuffing more down the customers' throats.

It took a change of top management to see that maybe there might be a better way of running things, and sometime last year, product management was duly granted a divorce from sales. It's taken a while for the management to work out what that means for how and what they contribute. The result is that I have become a product development guy with a sideline in insight-focused MI. No more regular reporting, no more projects to make up for the shortcomings of the IT function. A couple of weeks ago, in a fit of absent-minded doodling in a meeting followed by Powerpointing the next afternoon, I put together a product outline that people think is a neat idea and needs developing. By me. It's dawning on me that I should be thinking about spending much of the rest of this year developing and shepherding through the NPD process (pretend The Bank really has something that deserves the name for the moment). Which means I have to look like I'm actually a part of what happens there, and I'm not sure I want to be that. Because what has happened there has attracted a lot of attention from the regulators. Do I really believe it's a different organisation? Has Daddy really quit drinking?

The change in priorities is probably a good thing, because I'm getting tired of working round the limitations of The Bank's IT and data capabilities. It's time other people developed some serious chops, or were hired to provide some. If there was some cool software to be used, or a new language to be learned, I might feel more reluctance, but our three-year-old Chinese laptops use Windows XP SP4 and Office 2007. We don't have access to a real programming language - thought VBA deserves less sneers than it gets. So I'm ready to move on. It's very probably this year's challenge.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Keep Feeling Fascination

I buy fashion magazines and I have done ever since forever. Not obessively, but more frequently than the average Aston Villa supporter. I'm not interested in women's fashion. If I was, I would read Vogue, and I don't, exactly because it really is all about the frocks. When I say fashion magazines, I mean i-D, Ten, Pop, Dazed, Dansk, Zoo and the like. Not all of them every month, but at least one of them.

I like looking at the girls. Editorial fashion models are not, however, the kind of girls boys are supposed to like looking at. From time to time I've wondered about that, but not so I'm worried about it. It took reading Ashley Mears' excellent book Pricing Beauty to let me understand what was going on. Editorial models are not chosen to be generically good looking: they are chosen because they have The Look. It's about individuality, personality, a touch of fierce, and being on the edges of mainstream ideas of attractive and good-looking. Editorial models are about being walking modern art. (I don't find Generic Catwalk Girl any more attractive than you do.)

'Fit' and 'hot' are for catalogues, calenders, retailer websites, mass-market companies, Yoga and health magazines. If you want to be hit in the eyeball by the difference, go into one of the Soho fashion newsagents: look at the girls on the front of the edgy magazines and then at the yoga and health magazine covers. The Yoga Fit women look pleasant, and trim, and bland - like someone else's wife. The editorial models look as if they are going to be Trouble and Wilful and occasional Amazing Sex. That's The (Editorial) Look.

In real life there's a thing called The Look as well: for me, it's about sex and fascination. I don't mean a bubbly Mark One Fit Girl - though they are perfectly good company. I mean whatever it is that makes me look twice, and then again, and then maybe cross the line to creepy old man (or perhaps "Oh my god, that's the first time a man's looked at me like that for six months"). There's no formula for that Look, and you and I would very possibly disagree on a given example.

I enjoy the sight of a Yummy Mummy, a Mark One Fit Girl, or an NSNF (Nice Smile, Nice Figure), but they don't make my pulse skip a beat and remind me that my life is missing something. They don't make me think of hotel rooms, damp sheets and doing it just one more time just because. It's the girls and women with That Certain Something who make me feel the emptiness of my evenings. It's the women with a look, who reward being gazed at, who fascinate me, it's those women who make feel the empty evening that waits for me every day. As well as being an addict and alcoholic, I'm an aesthete, and for me a woman is both a person and an art object.

Days can go by, even weeks, and in the limited commuter-groove life I lead I never see one woman with The Look(s), except in magazines or on the Internet. And in real life, I know she's a person, with hang-ups, baggage, attitudes, bad experiences and that make it impossible for someone to maintain a stable, long-term, ring-signalled relationship. The same for me, of course, and it makes both of us wonder if whatever good times there might be will be worth the effort and the bad times that surely will be.

(Both pictures in Spring 2012 Tank Magazine.)