Monday, 29 April 2013

April Interviews - Part Two

And barely needed any of it. The test was entirely about the spotting and correcting syntax errors in DATA steps and drawing very simple-minded conclusions from some toy data. Most of the interview was about the kinds of issues that a mid-level account manager with some basic data skills would handle. Exactly, in fact, the kind of person that the other two candidates were. The interview and group exercise were entirely focussed on what we "insights" we might sell to the clients. Since their product, if indeed you could call it that, was not about using personal data to communicate with people, but selling aggregated data to corporate and state users, I was frankly struggling. The commercial use of "big data" is exactly about communicating with individual consumers, even if there is the occasional attempt to hype applications to economic and social trend-spotting. (If that stuff had half a snowflake's chance in hell of yielding useful results, the hedge funds and investment banks would be wooing Cathy O'Neill and her ilk with serious money. If they are, she's not telling.)  However, at the point of the interview process I was trying my best, and was troubled if at all by the comparative composure of a tall young lady I shall call The Blonde, because she was. Even at the time I thought she looked like someone who knew she had a lock on the process. Perhaps at EE there's a presumption in favour of the internal applicant. Her first words on meeting, after the introductions were "Oh I didn't know they had advertised it externally". 

The next day I went to my tweve-step meeting in Chelsea for the first time since the weather got stupid cold. Whatever it is in those rooms that lets the unconscious work and communicate with the rest of the brain started to do its stuff, and it started going through the interview. I was very angry for a couple of hours the next evening. Banging-the-steering-wheel-shouting-obscenities angry. Not because I wasn't going to get the job, but because the whole process was a fraud. The job title was "Data Scientist", which is pretty much accepted to be a role that requires a mixture of data handling, statistics, interpretation and presentation and all at a fairly high level. What I had had was an interview for a position known as "The Account Blonde". This is usually a young woman with a pleasant manner, docile enough to rote-learn the company ideology, and with just enough tech so she can talk the talk and do a little walking of her own. Occasionally the Account Blonde is a guy, but only rarely. Account Blonde is a commercially important role, but not one for which you would hire anyone with the chops to be a Data Scientist.

So what was I doing there at all? The EE guys had reached the point where they were pretty sure they needed their first Account Blonde, but they had a slight reservation. So why not put out another ad for the type of person they think they might need, and run the two side-by-side? Compare, contrast, inform their doubts and make a decision. This has happened to me before, and I can understand that, but contra to the proverb, the more I understand, the less I forgive. (I think the proverb is about not condemning one partner in a  marriage for having an affair until you've me the other one.) It's deception and it's thoughtless.

Would I even think about another job at EE now? Well, let's see? What evidence do I have about them? Oh yes. They advertise jobs they have no intention of filling. The only person who has a positive experience is the Blonde who got the job. If I'd got it, she would have rightly felt cheated. This approach is pretty much guaranteed to burn goodwill planks at one or other end of the bridge. I was being used as a pace-setter. 

Describing the emotional roller-coaster ride I had that Tuesday is a little difficult, because of what it says about me and my life right now. I had moments where I was thinking "Jesus Christ I want that job, I want to get out of here, I could use the money, hell it will change my life" and other moments when I was thinking "Mmmm, Paddington, travel and maybe longer hours". But mostly it was stuff around the "I really want that job". And all on the inside. No-one to share with. I don't usually share this stuff anyway, until the results are in. Nobody sounds more cluelessly desperate than someone talking about their hopes for the outcome of a job interview. Even writers sound more convincing and grown-up talking about rejections and speculative meetings than wage-slaves do talking about their interviews. 

One advantage of Being On The Program is that one gets a Higher Power. Inside the rooms, this is an idea we understand implicitly. Outside the rooms, it is at best New Age twaddle. In my case, let's say that it meant that, however incoherently, I recognised that having more money and changing my job was not what I needed to do to improve my life. That I was trying to distract myself, and that I was lucky I didn't get an offer I would be sorely tempted to accept. Instead I need to accept that I have enough to improve the quality of my life, though I may not know how just yet.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

April Interviews - Part One

Sometime at the end of February I refreshed my LinkedIn profile, the CVs I have on Monster and Total Jobs, and sent an e-mail out to all the agents I have ever contacted since 2000. The mails got a couple of replies and about ten bounces confirming that Andrea Smith no longer works at Wherever Recruitment. Refreshing CVs on Monster and Total Jobs got a bunch of calls from agents who work entirely on search terms that they probably don't really understand, and that gets irritating quickly. 

Then I got two leads through the guys at Salt. One was for an analyst's role at Barclays Business, the other for a "data scientist" role at EE (Everything Everywhere, the T-Mobile + Orange merger mobile operator). Salaries were at least 20% more than I'm making at the moment. Barclays is based in Docklands (okay commute, lousy for easy access to West End after work, sterile location) and EE in Paddington Basin (okay commute, reasonable access to West End after work, sterile location). Both recruitment processes started with telephone interviews.

Who thinks those are a good idea? Where the hell do they think the candidate is when they take the call? During working hours as well? Since I work in a full and busy open-plan office, there is no way I can do an interview there. We don't have spare meeting rooms. I had to go down to the impressively marble but cold foyer of the building to take the call. I'm on a mobile, not a land line, so reception isn't always good, I spent some of the time praying they didn't think I was deaf. One of them even asked me "what gets you out of bed in the morning". My answer was "fear of poverty, a need to pay the bills and I can't lie still. So seriously, I blah blah blah". They still wanted to see me.

Barclays have a two hour interview (three if they add a test). I had twenty minutes to prepare my thoughts on acquiring a portfolio of credit cards. The tricky bit was calculating the interest charge on cards that paid off in full ten days after the bill. The math isn't difficult with one simple assumption about the spending rate, but it's tricky when you're trying to assemble the full P&L and think about options for working the portfolio as well in twenty minutes. We had a good stand-up discussion in which I didn't hold myself back ("Ah yes, competition. They really must introduce that into retail banking one day"). While I have the option, I'd rather not pretend to be different. They accepted I knew what I was talking about, which permanently surprises me, as I have and no formal training in this darn industry. It's all hearsay and rumour. In the end they picked up that I could live without ever working in financial services again, and had issues with people who thought it was cool to stay at the office until seven in the evening, and gave the job to someone else. Quite rightly.

Next step with EE was an online intelligence test. Again, where the hell do they think I'm doing it? At home after a long day and commute? I did it over the wifi in the Eat near the office. Thirty minutes and I was exhausted by the end. I missed a couple and didn't complete it. However, that's okay, as these tests are usually age-adjusted. A long while ago I knocked Raven's Progressive Matrices so far out of the ballpark for my age that the guy running the course looked at me funny for the rest of the day. Since I was up against, at least, some Polish programming hot shot, I more or less wrote myself off as a worthy tryer. So they told me the hot shot flunked the test and I did okay. Would I take an interview? It would be a SAS test, an interview and a group exercise. 

At that point my SAS was scrappy at best. I had about five days to do something about that. Old school. Books. Notepad. Pen. Write write write. I suddenly found reasons to use SAS at work. I had been reading Der and Everitt anyway - an excellent book. Suddenly the syntax of PROCs became clear. I could remember that the table after DATA was the output table and I needed either INFILE (path), SET or MERGE to define the input table. I even remembered %macro (name)… %mend (name). I had done a lot of this before, but it had slipped onto tape memory. I revised in the pizza place across the road from the Roundhouse before seeing Nofit State, I revised on trains, at home, everywhere.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

This Post Intentionally Left Blank... It's Complicated

Normal blogging will be resumed shortly. I'm off to Lisbon this weekend. All sorts of stuff has been going on in the last three-four weeks, and it's not quite over yet. In the meantime, here's a song...



First time I heard this, the chorus hooked me...

I don't know what's worth fighting for
Or why I have to scream
But now I have some clarity
To show you what I mean

I don't know how I got this way
I'll never be alright
So I'm breaking the habit
I'm breaking the habit
I'm breaking the habit tonight

I'm not sure how he's breaking the habit, the video suggests by jumping off a roof, but I assume he's getting with some kind of program. Given the general tenor of Linkin Park's songs, that seems unlikely,  but given Chester Bennington's history, it's not as far off as it might seem.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Seether, Forsaken

You know how you hear a song and think "that's okay". And then three weeks later it's on repeat and seems to express something important about your life and the way you're feeling, but you don't know exactly what? That's exactly what happened with this little ditty from South African post-grunge/alternative metal band Seether.


God knows what's going on with me that the lines

So hold me down
If I feed I'm stronger
I don't feel no longer

I'll never believe in you again
I'll never forgive those things you said
My only relief is gone and dead
I'll never forsake myself again

should raise goosbumps. Maybe I'll find out.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Street Art Around Shoreditch

It's been a long while since I've ventured out into Shoreditch, as it's been just too damn cold. It was half-warm this lunchtime, so I did, and caught some street art I hadn't seen before. Also road works have their own look. How many pipes containing what unmentionable stuff is this?

Monday, 8 April 2013

Little Bits of Winter in April

Yesterday the weather was just warm enough to get every third garden-owner out with the mower for the long-overdue post-winter first cut of the grass. I'm still not quite sure how I made myself do it. It has been so cold that no-one in the whole town wanted to do anything more than go to work and go home. God alone knows what the poor bloody tourists thought of London this Easter.


My posting has been fairly lengthy and heavy of late, and that's going to ease off for various reasons. From top to bottom: how hip you need to be to ride that bike I do not know; two views of a sudden flurry Thursday lunchtime in the alleys behind Bishopsgate; look closely and that's hail on the grass outside one of the buildings at the SAS Institute outside Marlow.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

A C Grayling - Traitor To The Working Man

"Egregious crap" is a term that should be used more often, but never lightly. "Traitor to the working man" is the same. A C Grayling's piece in the March 30/31 edition of the FT is both egregious crap and proves him to be a traitor to the working man. 

A C Grayling is what someone who doesn't know anything about philosophy would think a philosopher looks like and maybe sound like. His books have titles like The God Argument: The Case Against Religion and for Humanism, or The Meaning of Things: Applying Philosophy to Life, or What is Good?: The Search for the Best Way to Live, or even, for Christ's sake, The Good Book: A Secular Bible. He has written a proper book, An Introduction to Philosophical Logic, but seems to have gone the pot-boiler route after that. He is Master of the New College of the Humanities, which is a private undergraduate college with a bunch of brand-name academics, whose degrees are awarded by the University of London.

"Austerity helps us recognise the splendour of sufficiency" is the title of the piece. "Try to look at the bright side of our current misery" is the sub-head. Columnists don't usually have control over the sub-head, but I bet he wishes he had had in this case. 

"Austerity" according to my five-year old Macbook Pro, means "difficult economic conditions created by government measures to reduce a budget deficit, esp. by reducing public expenditure" or "extreme plainness and simplicity of style or appearance" or "sternness or severity of manner or attitude". My living quarters would be described by many as "austere" as would the way I dress. Austerity-as-style is, if handled with sufficient panache, a good way to go, speaking as it does to seriousness and self-discipline not shared by people who have several different shades of carpet on their floors. The  Amish, on the other hand, take it too far. That's Good Austerity.

Bad Austerity is when governments cut back needed spending and employers reduce the real value of their payrolls and make their staff use increasingly older and less effective equipment to meet the ever-increasing demands on products and services. Good Austerity would be cutting back on boondoggles, luxury and ineffective spending. But we don't get that kind of austerity. We only get the Bad kind.

"Is austerity a bad thing?" Asks our philospher-entrepreneur. And he answers "Not always. The austerity years of the second world war and its aftermath were surprisingly good for people; calorie restriction meant flat tummies and robust health, at least for those not smoking the lethal cigarettes of the day." Pardon? Have you seen photographs of those people? Of the bombed-out streets and the tattered interiors? Can he remember that this country was so poor for decades afterwards that there were still bomb sites in Covent Garden in the mid-Seveties and in East London in the mid-Eighties? Can he remember that in those Good Austere times most people took baths once a week and thought it barely necessary to wash their feet daily - unless they were miners. As for "robust health" - is he kidding? Look at those photographs of cheeky East London blokes again. They aren't sixty, they are forty. People wore out fast in those Good Austere times.

He continues: "It might be highly pleasurable to meet one’s friends in a fine restaurant, but to meet them on a park bench in the sunshine has almost all the good of the experience." Um? One meets one's friends in the local Pizza Hut in the evening because one is stuck inside an office or a commute when the sun is shining - if it ever will shine again in this benighted country. Where and when can normal people meet their friends "on a park bench in the sunshine"? Where in Wembley exactly? Or Hoxton? Or Hanworth? And are they meeting those friends hungry or replete? And no, I'm sorry, unless the park bench is in the Parc du Chateau in Nice or the parc du Buttes-Chaumont in Paris, I'll go with a pleasant restaurant, though I suspect by a "fine" one, Prof Grayling may mean "Michelin-starred", which is a little forbidding for me.

And then we get this: "Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher of antiquity, said that the truly rich person is he who is satisfied with what he has. Think that saying through. How rich one is, if content with a sufficiency; how poor, with millions in the bank, if dissatisfied and still lusting for more. Enforced austerity, as in a major economic downturn, might teach what is sufficient, and how one might be grateful not to be burdened with more than is sufficient." The Stoics were a bunch of Roman millionaires and billionaires, should you be wondering. Those guys had as little to teach ordinary people then as they do now. And how convenient that wage slaves don't need more, or even as much as they had last year, but all they do need is a state of mind, to be satisfied with what they have. I wonder if Mr Sainsbury takes that as payment for bread? As advice to parvenu millionaires, it has a certain use in pointing out that there's a time when a hundred million is enough and you need to think about charitable works. As advice to someone on the median (male) UK salary of £28,000 a year gross, it's simple callousness. Or plain stupidity.

Be content with what you've got. Advice from someone who fancies himself part of the ruling class to people he considers slaves. How dare you want more. So you can send your children to a school where they might learn something. Or have a property or business to pass on to them. Or so you can go see Shakespeare live or spend a weekend away in a "fine hotel" to re-ignite the marriage that is asphyxiating under making-ends-meet. Understand the true meaning of the government cuts that took away your carer, or your meals at home, as the "opportunity to live more richly" as Professor Grayling says austerity really is. Then you will be happy.

Yeah. Right. You get first swing at his skull. Then it's my turn on behalf of all the philosophers whose good name he besmirches with such craven lackey propaganda. Then we go for the editor who let it get printed.

Monday, 1 April 2013

March 2013 Review

If you asked me, I would have said March was a complete dud. Too cold to go anywhere or do anything. And snow. I saw Broken City, To The Wonder and Parker, at the movies, and Shut Up and Look at the ICA. I saw Eva Yerbabuana, Rocio Molinas, Tomatito and the Ballet Flamenco Andalucia (feat: Rocio Molinas in an entrancing performance) at Sadler's Wells. Sis and I had lunch at Byron, Islington, before the Ballet Flamenco performance, with the snow rushing outside and every child age six in north London inside. We went to Maki in Richmond for a Saturday lunch for her birthday. I had a curator's lecture and tour of the current Kurt Schwitters exhibition at the Tate Britain. I also added a weekday lunch at Galvin Cafe du Vin in Spitalfields Market to my 'been there-eaten that" list.

I took the hurting arms to my osteo, Taj Deoora on Harley Street, at the start of the month, and a fine job of getting rid of the majority of hurt she did. I had a Thai massage later in the month to keep my back happy. I've settled into a new routine at the gym, starting with fifteen minutes jogging or interval sprinting, ending with fifteen minutes abs and core, and two of chest / back/ shoulders each time, three sets of three different exercises. I got some very good advice from one of the trainers about posture and style, which I have been following and it's making a difference. To make any kind of progress on the Quest For A Pull-Up, I put a bunch of counterweight on the supported pull-up so I could feel the muscles in my back doing the work, and then I'll cut down the assistance. Towards the end of the month I bought a bunch of quality food supplements - multivitamins, vitamin D and Fish Oil - partly to see if I noticed the difference from the Boots versions, and in the case of Vitamin D, because with this weather, we all need it. I moved on to a low-carb diet, about which I have already written.

I treated myself to a Macbook Air, which I've been thinking about forever. I left the gym one Thursday evening, turned right up Regent Street and bought the thing. A week or so later I bought a really cool leather case by Decoded from the Covent Garden store. I spent more hours in the last two weeks of the month than I would care to count re-drafting a play I wrote a couple of years ago. Also, I treated myself to a fancy haircut at equally fancy prices by an Art Director at Taylor Taylor on the Commercial Road. Very good it still looks as well.

My (one) staff member left at the end of the month and I have to break my skull against the vacancy intranet to get an ad up for her replacement. And I went on a two-day course about modelling with logisitic regression at the SAS offices in Marlow. That was a real eye-opener in so many ways.

The monthly music download from Amazon was: Memory and Humanity, by Funeral For A Friend; Where You Want To Be, by Taking Back Sunday; The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, by Brand New; Lies For The Liars, by The Used; and Songs for Imaginative People, by Darwin Deez. Yea emo guitar bands! I read Common Errors In Statistics by Good and Hardin, and polished off a scholarly impressive book on Archimboldo.

Oh. And I had two telephone interviews for jobs paying about a fifth more than I'm making at the moment, and took an online aptitude test in the Eat branch in our building at 09:00 one morning, because there's nowhere to do that in the office. I was taking tea after work in Machiavelli on Long Acre, and the recruiters handling the positions called, and then came to have tea to meet me and talk about the roles. What a world this is now.

But if you asked me, I would have said March was a complete dud. Everything felt like I was grinding it out. That's what cold does.