Friday, September 30, 2005

Petrol (reprise)

So, it actually happened. Driving back on the A14 after a weekend away, I passed a petrol station selling diesel at £1.01 a litre. Unlike a few years ago when petrol hit 84p and it felt like the world was about to end, this landmark was met with astonishing apathy. There were protests but only small ones, and no blockades. Yes, there were shortages of petrol, but only because everyone suddenly decided to fill up “just in case”.

I overheard a couple of people at work saying they’d filled their cars up with petrol ahead of the protests and were shocked how much it cost. This made me laugh. Firstly, it was clear that neither of them ever filled their cars up normally, something I just can’t understand. Secondly, they were amazed that it cost them over £60. You can’t physically fit £30 of petrol into my car let alone £60, so I’m guessing they drive gas-guzzling monster cars quite unlike my lovely 45mpg ultra-nippy Ford Fiesta. And finally, because I didn’t fill my car up but waited a week after which the price came down again. I have to say I felt rather smug.

But what’s really amazing is just how little difference £1 a litre has made. You still see 4x4s on the road making short trips into town to go shopping or take the kids to school. You still see 90% of cars on the way to work with just one person in them (including mine.)

If high prices are the economy’s way of sending us a message, it’s clear that we just don’t get it!

Footnote: for those of you in the US, £1.01 a litre is equivalent to $6.50 a gallon in US prices. However standard unleaded in the UK is 95 octane compared with 87 in the US so it's not really a fair comparison. £1.01 was the highest price I saw; at the place I go to, apart from a week or so at 94p, the price of unleaded hasn't ever gone over 90p.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Waking up alive

The last few days have been somewhat stressful. I found out last week that my Grandfather, aged 88, was in hospital with pneumonia. It turned out it wasn't pneumonia, it was a problem with a valve in his heart which was blocking and meant he was getting fluid in his lungs. The only way to fix it was via open heart surgery, otherwise his life expectancy was 6 months to a year.

The surgery went ahead yesterday. I should point out here that my grandfather lives 3000 miles away in New Hampshire so I didn't get to see him before surgery. Well, after not being able to get to sleep, and waiting up late last night to see if there was any e-mail from the family in the US to say how the operation went, I awoke up at quarter to six to find out that the operation went very well and grandpa was awake and happy.

That lead to a few happy tears and a big thankyou to God. I'd been praying that I'd be able to see him again, and I'd got all my friends at church to pray for him too. Well, God is Good.

That wasn't the only thing that was going on either. I had to leave work with a terrible migraine on Tuesday, my body's way of saying it can't cope. (I drove home too, and thanks only to God I didn't get into any accidents and wasn't even sick in my car). And then on Tuesday evening a close friend was rushed to hospital. Thank God, it turned out it wasn't anything serious, but they didn't know that at first.

I gather that when some people have hard times, they ask, where is God in all this? But for me it's the opposite. When things are at their worst, when even the simple task of getting from one day to the next is too much to contemplate, that's when I most appreciate God. When everything else goes bad, God is all I have left to cling to, as he alone never lets me down. Thank you Jesus!

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Changing Jobs

Believe in yourself and others will believe in you.

I got a new job recently. Well, it wasn’t that recently, it was three months ago now – how time flies! But it feels recent. I’ve made a list below of 11 points which might be of use to anyone in a similar situation. But first, the story.

It came about through an amusing quirk of timing. I had decided after three-and-a-half years at the company that it was time to move on. I spoke to a few agencies and just had an interview lined up when my employer announced they wanted to make half of the staff redundant. This put me in a bit of a quandary: I wanted to go, but had nothing to go to. I’d always said, both to myself and others, that one should never leave a job without having another one lined up. But it was a lot of money, and I also knew that by going I’d be able to save the job of someone else who didn’t want to leave. So (after a bit of discussion with God, my wife, and a few friends) I took the plunge, took the money, and joined the number of the unemployed.

In the event, it took me three weeks to find a job, after which I went on holiday for a week and had a week doing not – very – much. And the three weeks I was searching were a really enjoyable time! My previous experience of unemployment came many years ago, when I’d just graduated. Back then I felt no-one would want to employ me because of my lack of experience, and fell into something of a slump. This time, after 10 years working as a programmer or similar jobs, I was confident that I would have no problem finding people who wanted me. And what a difference that made!

I guess I treated finding a job like a job. I decided quite quickly that it was a job I really enjoyed. I spent maybe two or three hours a day working, then the rest of the time I could do whatever I liked. Every morning I’d look at the job websites – and were the two I found useful. I looked for any new jobs which broadly matched my skills, rang up the agency, sent CVs, etc. I spent most of the time telling people how brilliant I was, and I think that was what I enjoyed most about it!

It took me just three weeks from my last day at the old job to the day I was rung back with an offer – on a job I really wanted, too. Two weeks later (after a nice holiday in Wales) I was in my new job. I know I was lucky and it’s not like that for everyone, but nonetheless I thought I’d share some of my observations for the benefit of anyone else who might be in the same situation.

(1) I was surprised to find that the jobs listed on the two websites I looked at changed every day. I had thought they would stay the same for weeks, but every day new jobs appeared. So I looked at the sites every day. I also got them to mail me jobs as they were posted, and rang up agencies about the jobs as soon as I saw them. More than one person said in a surprised voice, “we only just posted that one.” Being first in the line can only help.

(2) I took a very broad view of my skillset. Rather than deciding that I was mainly a C++ programmer, or wanted to work in Java, or whatever, I looked at any job which I felt I could do 80% of. My CV listed everything I could do (and all in two pages). It read like a long list of stories: in this job I did these amazing things, with a couple of sentences for each. The things were chosen for the impact they had, the different skills they showed off, and for how proud I was of the achievement.

(3) From writing the CV and otherwise, I somehow convinced myself that I was brilliant, albeit in particular ways and not every way, but brilliant in my niche. This I think is hugely important. It’s a lot easier when talking to someone to pick up what they think of themselves than what they’re actually like. If you think you’re brilliant, so will the prospective employer. I have a long list of people I’ve worked for who have told me I’m brilliant. There are also a few who have thought the reverse. I can learn from them, but fundamentally I don’t take the criticism to heart. I am what I’m good at; what I’m bad at is what other people are good at. 1 Corinthians 12: the ear is not useless simply because it cannot see, nor the eye because it cannot hear.

(4) I’m not the most organized person, so I kept a list on the computer of every job I’d rung up about, the agency name, contact, phone number, brief job details, and how far I’d got with it. When I rang up and was told to “ring back on …” or “I’ll get back to you”, I made a note to myself to ring back after a particular date – give them a couple of days if they said they’ll ring, or wait until the time they said, but don’t wait for ever. If nothing else, it shows you’re serious.

(5) I enquired about something like 18 jobs, and spoke to about 15 different agencies. On one or two occasions two agencies were advertising the same job, but it seemed that mostly each company used a different agency. Simply talking to one or two agencies is no longer the way the industry works, and I guess central sites like jobserve and cwjobs have encouraged a proliferation of agencies.

(6) Some of the agencies were brilliant, some were not. Little things like: do they understand the job description, do they get back to you, how much can they tell you about the company. I didn’t let the quality of the agency put me off applying for the job, after all if they got me a job I wouldn’t complain. Fortunately, the one which got me the job was one I was really impressed with throughout.

(7) Most agencies were very friendly and complementary about my CV. One or two suggested changes in emphasis of skills for particular jobs, which lead to one CV turning into two or three, but the changes were only minor. One was really rude about it. Luckily this was after I’d spoken to several others. I sent them a version with a few changes in it, but didn’t go much further with them. They may have had a valid point, at least concerning the job they were advertising. But everyone else had been very positive. Don’t panic, and don’t let bad comments crowd out good ones. State of mind is very important.

(8) Everyone will tell you differently how to write a CV. Mine worked; it got people talking to me, it got me a job which suits me. Listen to all the comments but write your own CV. My comments are in point 2 above. They got me a job – but then some people don’t like stories so it wouldn’t work for them.

(9) Of the group of us who left at the same time, three found jobs relatively quickly. I found an interesting trend here. We all found jobs which used quite different skills from our previous roles. I had many years C++ programming and a few years of Java (and 3 months VB); now I’m using 75% VB and 25% C++. One guy blagged a job which I know he doesn’t have the skills for, which I thought about going for but decided against because I didn’t have the skills, and which was a great job. I think while programmers may define themselves in terms of very narrow, deep, skills – 10 years C++, 5 years Java, whatever – it’s actually more important to be able to learn quickly, adapt to new environments, interact with people, and know enough about a wide range of things to be able to work with them and learn on the job. Transferable skills and soft skills are rarely listed on job adverts, but actually they’re most of what get you the job and what make you a success in the role. So the job says 10 years of C++. There will be many candidates with 10 years C++; what else can you do which makes you better than them?

(10) I plugged a telephone in to the socket in the study, next to the computer – don’t know why I’d never done that before. It meant I could surf for jobs on the internet, ring up agencies, and chat through details, all the while without leaving my PC – where I could make notes, keep a diary of whom I needed to chase up when, work on my CV, play games, etc. I was “live” all the time. My study became my office, my centre of operations. I could make a phone call and have all the information I wanted at my fingertips. Brilliant!

(11) Most of all: Believe in yourself and others will believe in you. If you only take point from this piece, this is the one.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Incitement 2

Is it just me, or would that make a great name for a rap band?

Sorry, the blog was getting a bit heavy :)

Incitement to ...

The law is an ass, as the saying goes. Laws try to ban people from doing things we consider bad, but before they can do so, they have to define what we want to ban. Sometimes this is easy, sometimes it’s very difficult; and lawyers grow fat on the ambiguity.

The recent hunting debate was a good example. Like most people, I consider making sport from the suffering of animals to be barbaric. I’d like to see foxhunting as sport banned. (Incidentally, I don’t have a problem with using packs of dogs for pest control against foxes or any other kind of pest; it feels like a good natural solution). The problem is, I don’t think it’s possible to make a law which defines exactly what I think should be banned and what shouldn’t. I deeply dislike the “Countryside Alliance” with their right-wing, “we know better” agenda. But when they say they feel the hunting ban law is stupid, unworkable, and the result of ignorance and prejudice, I would have to agree. (Ouch, that hurt!)

The same applies with the current proposals to ban incitement to religious hatred and acts glorifying terrorism. They arise from a desire to pass laws against things we find unacceptable. But how can we define these acts? I personally believe that Muslims will be condemned to eternity in hell (just like anyone else who doesn't accept Jesus as Lord, Saviour and God), but I don’t hate them as people and wouldn’t want anyone else to either. Would the law allow me that? If so, I’m sure the “evil clerics of hate” would find it just as easy to get around it by choosing their words carefully.

Glorifying terrorism is even harder to define. What is terrorism? Would those like me who admire the tradition of civil disobedience count as glorifying terrorism? What about those who celebrate the terrorist acts of Americans during their war of independence, or of the French Resistance during world war II? What about Michael Collins and the Irish uprisings of 1916? What about the SAS? They act outside the law almost by definition. And if we our definition of terrorism now includes state-sponsored terrorism, was not the invasion of Iraq a state-sponsored terrorist act?

I am a pacifist and don’t believe in killing people. Most people would disagree, and feel that at least under some circumstances, killing can be acceptable. Probably a majority would even support those like the Resistance who do so to fight against governments they feel are injust, corrupt and evil. But there’s the catch. In their eyes, the bombers in Madrid, London, New York and Palestine are all doing precisely that.

If a law is passed to allow prosecution of those who glorify terrorist acts, I cannot believe it will be used even-handedly, even if it is used at all. That cries against all my instincts of fairness. I believe the US constitution even explicitly prohibits it - equal treatment under the law.

Instead of trying to pass more stupid laws like this, they should just go the whole way and ban Islam. Now that would be REALLY stupid.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Is there anybody out there?

Another first for me. I got a comment! That means someone actually read something I wrote. Scary! But cool. I haven’t exactly gone out of my way to advertise, but I’m sure I always hoped I wasn’t just talking into space. Maybe I’ll have to think before I write now. That said, it’s not as if I do that when talking to people face to face …

Anyway, if anyone else reads this, comments are very welcome.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Death and Taxes (2)

The “flat tax” is a trendy topic these days. It seems most popular with right-wingers and wealthy people. No doubt they like the idea as it means them paying less.

These are the same people who talk about the benefits of “small government”. In all the discussion about the ideal size of government, people tend to forget what the point of government is in the first place. Why do we have law and order rather than chaos? Why have government rather than anarchy? The reason is simple. Government exists to protect the weak from the powerful.

Government works when it does this. If a nation’s farmers can grow crops without the fear of men with big sticks taking away the fruits of their labour, then the country will grow more food. If you can develop a brilliant piece of software without the risk of being outcompeted by an inferior product backed by a huge corporation with masses lawyers and marketing people, then everyone gets better software. Those with money and power can buy this kind of protection and have little need for government. The “little people” cannot. They have just as much to offer the world as anyone else, and it follows that the world is a richer place if they are allowed to contribute. But they can only do that if they are protected from those who would see them as consumers and workers rather than competition.

What is true at a national level is also true at an international level. This week sees discussions about the future role of the UN. I believe exactly the same principles apply. The world needs a government capable of protecting the weak against the abuses of the powerful. That can mean preventing citizens against genocide. It should equally mean protecting weaker nations against stronger. And in particular, against the most powerful nation of them all.

Death and Taxes

I heard a fantastic comment on Thought for the Day a few months ago, reproduced here. The author was James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool. It followed on from his earlier newspaper article.

The idea is simple: don’t tax work; tax the use of non-renewable resources. There's no way I could put it as well as he did, so I won't try - have a read of the links above.

But hey - how’s that for an idea of a flat tax?

Thursday, September 08, 2005

The Big Easy

New Orleans. What a terrible tragedy. A city of a million people flooded, destroyed, evacuated. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like. It’s pointless trying to compare this with other natural disasters, but whichever way you look at it it’s terrible.

Of course the human suffering is the worst. Every one of the thousands of people who died will leave a big hole in the lives of everyone around them. Hundreds of thousands of people are homeless, and likely to remain so for months.

It seems petty by comparison, but I wonder what the long-term cultural effect of this tragedy will be? From what I understand, New Orleans has – had - its own unique culture quite distinct from the rest of the South. I’ve never been, but I’d have liked to. I would still like to. What will happen to that culture now? Will the city ever be rebuilt and re-inhabited? Will it ever feel like the same place again? I won’t attempt to compare the potential loss of a culture with the human suffering that’s been experienced, but it would still be a terrible loss.

I pray that the city will be rebuilt and will come back to life stronger than ever. I’m reminded of Nehemiah and Ezra rebuilding Jerusalem after a generation in exile in Babylon.

In the meanwhile, I'd like to try to do my bit for New Orleans culture by trying to do some Creole cookery and inflicting it on some of my friends. Alas, with my cookery skills it’ll probably be an insult to the place. I dare say to do it properly you have to be born into it and spend years learning. But it’ll be my way of remembering the city after it’s disappeared from the news. For anyone who fancies doing the same, I found a brilliant recipe site: which is both highly intimidating but also inspiring.

Wish me luck! If I have any success I might post how I get on.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005


Clearly the shock of being an unpublished author was too much for me! That really was a long time ago, and what have I been up to in the meanwhile? Well, that'll be another post if I get around to it. On past evidence that's not terribly likely. Instead here is a poem I wrote a while ago which I still like.

I want to change the world
- but I don't know how
I want to change the world
- but I am just one person
I want to change the world
- but I don't want to get in trouble
I want to change the world
- but I have a job
- a wife
- a family
I want the world to change
- and I am waiting.