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Previously I was working on a web application on a secret government project for Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise. When meeting people for the first time, it’s natural to enquire about respective hobbies, musical tastes and careers. When the inevitable subject of careers comes up and the question of what one does for a living is thrown up in the air, it’s nice for a change to be able to say “I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you” and really mean it. Okay, not really mean it, unless your eyebrows join in the middle and you have a history of being reminded of things you don’t remember saying, things you don’t remember doing, and waking up some mornings with a headache, unable to remember where you were last night or in fact where you are right now and oh my God, are those bloodstains??!!!! Okay, not really mean it, but it’s nice to be working on something labelled so confidential that it cannot be discussed. This is ideal during job interviews where they ask you to elaborate on the details and you tell them that you could, but only in exchange for their life.

As a consultant, I’m essentially a nomad of the vocational world and the first day of work at a new company is always thrilling. I have to admit that the first few times it was quite nervewracking, like anywhere you visit with the onus of expectation on your back. The first few days are probably the easiest because you’re meeting everyone for the first time and the only big task you have is trying to remember the names of all the new faces you’ll be seeing around for some time. Maybe the first few days they too will notice a new face and come talk to you. A good many of them will ask you your name just to be polite at first before progressing up the relationship rungs from acquaintance to friend. I always thought my name was a curse when it came to meeting new people. On average it takes a stranger three attempts to get the pronunciation correct. In fact, when I used to temp I used to introduce myself as “Tom,” just to smooth things over, in the knowledge that I wouldn’t be around long enough for them to (bother to) learn how to say my name properly. But no hard feelings really, because that is the ephemeral life of a temp. I would continue to see my name as a curse till a few years ago when I realised it was actually a powerful tool at measuring whether someone really wanted to be my friend or was just being polite to keep the dynamic of the workplace silken. I found a pattern in those who bothered to ask me how to pronounce my name. These were the people I would remain in contact with long after my time on the project ended.

In the Hayao Miyazaki anime, Spirited Away, long after her parents had been turned into pigs, the young protagonist Chihiro signs a contract, giving possession of her name away to Yubaba, a large lady with an oversized head and a monstrous baby. She is living a recruitment agency’s dream of being somewhat of an exclusive employer in the spirit world and in exhange for a job, she takes a one-off payment of a person’s name (She does this by literally picking off the characters of a signee’s name from the paper with her fingers). Eventually, that person forgets their own name and unbeknownst to Yubaba’s subterfuge of being an equal opportunities phantom employer, subsequently comes under her control. There are many other revelations in the film, but I really like the statement that it made; that our names though mutable are a part of us and if you lose your name you too will become lost and over time will forget who you are. That’s why names are to be respected. If they are mispronounced, they will lose their meaning and in the persistence of time will become a mere label for fruit that has long become bitter. I’ve often been asked what it’s like to have my surroundings change frequently and have been asked for tips on the best way to deal with meeting new work colleagues. My advice is simple. You won’t be expected to remember each and everyone’s names, but you will be expected to pronounce each and every one of them correctly. So the next time a friendly face calls upon you, take the time to learn the name of the person it’s attached to and respect that one thing they’ve been carrying their whole life.

Of all the industries I’ve worked in, the best work-related stories come from Customs and Excise. They are a force that exists purely due to the natural phenomenon that if you tell someone they cannot have something, they will want it even more. And with Her Majesty putting a ban on many items, there will always be that incursion of people trying not to draw attention to their smuggling compartments. From working with some of Her Majesty’s best I’ve learned of the perils of searching through goods. I’m not just talking about the obvious dangers like explosives. I’m talking more about the kind you wouldn’t want to get caught by your parents with: Pornography. And not the regular variety, but the illegal stuff you wouldn’t ever want to see; the kind of titles the dark prince himself keeps in his locked cabinet. Unfortunately, if a search yields DVDs or any other media suspected of forbidden content, it is the customs officer’s job to sit through a full viewing to ensure it is all legitimate under Her Majesty’s sky. This often means a customs officer may have to sit through full pornographic features to ensure they’re not hardcore. Of course, they must be professional during this. I mean, it’s against protocol to fast forward through it and they absolutely must not enjoy the material they’re reviewing. I’m sure it must have been a struggle trying to pretend you weren’t enjoying something when you secretly find it so awesome that your eyes were desperately trying to dart around the room surveying for someone to high-five. I heard some of them required therapy.

I heard of this one time a man protested against yet another viewing of suspected hardcore gay pornography, giving the reason, “I can’t watch this. I have a wife… and kids.” Dude, why protest now? Are you afraid that The Da Vinci Load* and it’s witty homosexual puzzles will finally throw you over the edge, resulting in your spouse and children feeling dejected after you claim that the penis is mightier than the sword, whilst replacing your regular evening-wear with assless attire made of leather? That’s all okay, we’ll have you reassigned to something else then, because you’re not even meant to enjoy it. Enjoyment is against the rules. That’s why if there’s any suspected cache of regular guy-on-girl hardcore porn, you can rest assured the job would go to someone asexual who hates men and women.

*This is actually a real title. No, check. Real titles. There are actually two by the same name; one being the usual heterosexual comedy take on things and the other an all-out gay remake. And though I’m as excited about seeing them as I am about seeing their original Hollywood counterpart (read: could definitely go through life never seeing it and still be an unchanged man with no regrets), I have to admit I’m curious about how its protagonist Robert Langdon would have looked with both a dodgy mullet and a dodgy moustache. I’m told one of the movies also has some award-winning dialogue to match up to Dan Brown’s original repartee. My favourite so far is, “Ladies, every time you let a guy nut in your snatch just because he’s a professional skater or drives a Mitsubishi Lancer with Chinese writing on the side, you are polluting the social soup.”


 
The Future of Publishing.
Wed 17 May 2006 ~ 21:45

There should be an unearthly machine that one could wear and attach to the skin, whose sole function is to automatically record every little great thought or idea conjured up its wearer’s mind. And although each of these machines was calibrated by high-quality content engineers to differentiate between the sublime and the mediocre, and by language engineers so that the captured memoirs are succinct and eloquent, it would still have a manual override function that allowed a record to be made every time its wearer determinedly flourished a phantom digit. And like all great and useful devices it would be Universal Mass Storage compliant, meaning it could plug straight into any terminal and be recognised instantly on any platform. Every evening one could download a transcript of the great bits of one’s day, conveniently transcribed in one’s first language (i.e. the one you dream in), fire it up in one’s favourite text editor and find whole sentences ready to be copied, pasted and published.

This is the future of publishing. This is the way it will be one day, but till then one must figure out the correct words to use in the correct order because one is not as efficient as those highly paid engineers.


 
A World Without Coke.
Tue 04 Oct 2005 ~ 17:26

Quantum was at the bar ordering the drinks that we would be imbibing in the name of my departure from the Shire. We figured we might as well start the proceedings since we were the first parties to arrive, plus his recent evening run had broken the needle on his water meter. He’s the tallest one in the office and possibly the slimmest too, so he’d be the prime candidate to don a fuzzy helmet if the need to clean any pipes arose. He maintained his physique through a strict diet of food low in saturated fat and low in calories. He’d also managed to cut out chocolate completely from his diet, which is truly amazing considering he’s only 21 years old and surely was yet to sample all the delights of the Belgians and the Swiss. Would have been even more amazing if he had a double dose of the X chromosome, but let’s just keep that within the right context.

I never truly did the calorie-counting thing before I came to the Shire, but when you work in a team where everyone spends a defined portion of their day reading the side of lunchable consumables, you’d want to fit in too! I wouldn’t dream of giving up chocolate this side of the millennium but I must admit I’ve gotten way more conscious of foods to take in lesser quantity. I mean, I’d still eat what I normally eat, but keep the calories close to the suggested 2500k per day. That means less snacking and less gorging. Having done this routine for most of this year, by now it’s no longer difficult. No more “eating therapy” and no more “an apple cream glazed tartlet with meringue and dusted sugar a day keeps the doctor away.” This will be in good morals till I go to Asia next year, during which I will be feasting like a portly king that had been kidnapped from his throne for 10 years.

Smoke continues to cascade upwards through the air as though we were drinking in orbit with a leaky roof. The faint sound of indeterminate 80’s revival pop ushers into both the era and the room from mounted speakers. Quantum raises his hand at the bar.

“Can I get two Leffes and a Coke?”

Leffe is a brand of Belgian beer, coming in a variety of flavours, including apple, lemon and orange. Fruit beers are the most deceptive of the beer kingdom. Asides from trying to convince you that they are a legitimate part of the “5 a day” fruit and veg that nutritionists insist must be taken daily (certainly by the 3rd portion/pint), they’re sweet, fragrant and smooth enough to go down in one esophageal contraction. This makes good hide of the fact that they’re usually over 6% alcohol by volume. <digression>If you get the chance and appreciate ambrosial beers, do try Florisgaarden Honey. As the name suggests, a honey beer, and not too dissimilar from the Mead the ancient Teuton grooms were allegedly allowed to drink by the bride’s father for the 30 days following a full moon wedding; hence the term, “honeymoon.”</digression>

We opted for a Blonde Leffe, for that classic golden 6.6% fix. This otherwise normal command was met by the barman-cum-barboy, with a look of wonder before he set off to fulfil the request. We peripherally watch him as he takes out a couple of glasses and fills them with golden draught whilst we fill the gap in the universe with a short conversation about muons and gluons. Setting the two beers on the counter, he makes eye contact with Quantum.

“And what was that other thing?”
“A Coke.”
“A what?”
“You know, a Coke.”

Yes, at that moment it seemed like Coca-Cola was just a dream and that we were waking up to the reality of a world that Coke forgot. In my eyes, a world without Coke wouldn’t be as disastrous as a world without any form of Cola. Worse still, if they banned regular sugar-containing Coke and only permitted artificially sweetened Coke, which is wonderful if you’re after something with less than 5 kcals and less than 5% the taste of regular Coke. The Diet Vanilla Coke is OK because it tastes kinda like cream soda, but nothing like Coke. The Diet Coke with Lime is OK because it tastes kinda like limeade, but again, nothing like Coke. I’ll have to do some research to check if all that aspartame in place of sugar in your diet is at all beneficial for your organs as it is for your Body Mass Index, but it seems that any further flavours of Diet Coke that will appear in the future will basically be like the Coca-Cola Company’s undercover venture into the shady underworld that is the non-Cola market. And I wonder how much the tips of the tongues of diet-drinkers have been dampened. Does diet Cola taste appealing because they have succumbed to the saccharine notion that they are replacing the taste of sugar in their diet? Would having them hold a sugar cube in their mouth result in a face long enough to attract a horse?

In the 5 months or so that I’d known him, I’d never seen Quantum have regular Coke or Pepsi. It had always been Diet Coke or Pepsi Max to accompany a healthy lunch. Never fruit juice, always low-cal Cola. He’s another example of someone who eats healthy meals, eats their fruit and veg (although granted, a good proportion in the form of fermented wheat), takes their vitamins, doesn’t smoke, gets regular exercise, but is at the mercy of their one and only vice; the diet Cola.

“That’s all you want? a Coke
“Yes.”
“And nothing else?”
“Erm, yes.”

I remember Quantum and I looking at each other in confusion. I quickly scanned the bar for any crude signs indicating that they do not serve non-alcoholic drinks after 7pm or a contractual obligation stating that hog bites must be puchased for every couple pints of beer. None. So it might be worth mentioning now that the italicising of “Coke” here is to reflect Quantum’s near-Geordie (read: denizen of near-Newcastle) accent. If you’re familiar with the dialect, you’ll know exactly what the substitution of extended and shortened vowels into a typical Londoner’s accent sound like. Having finally achieved confidence in Quantum’s order, the bartender leaves the counter again and approaches the inverted bottles of Russian devil juice secured to the walls. He returns and before proceeding to ring up the order on the till, he smiles and places on the counter, a cork.