The Agony and the Indifference

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It’s often said that no news is good news, and in the software business, when it comes to system upgrades, no news really is very good news indeed  True, after months of intense creative work (for, after all, software design is an art), one might hope for a little adulation, but I’ve long ago learned to hitch my emotional needs to more dependable areas of life. A well-judged cheese soufflé will almost always inspire acclaim, or a nicely burned bitter-sweet tarte tatin.

As we grow, we learn to avoid risking our feelings. If I were to attempt a novel, or learn the Strauss Oboe Concerto all over again, and play it at the Proms with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra, then I would be suicidal if the best response I got was indifference. But I’ve learned that in the world of business software, silence is the best you can hope for. To the experienced ear it can sometimes sound like adulation.

I was thinking these regretful thoughts in view of our impending release of Version 6 of time@work, our software for Professional Services Organisations. We’ve completely reworked the GUI (Graphical User Interface) so that it looks much nicer, at least by today’s fast-changing standards. How long it will be before we must change it again to avoid new sneers of disapproval, as its look and feel fall from fashion, I cannot predict. And it may be that the early 2010s will make a comeback (as the platform heels and long swirly skirts of the 1970s have done) and we’ll simply have to change it back to what it was. But you have to keep up, and we certainly left it a little longer than we should.

‘That’s not cool enough for our users,’ was the kind of remark I was having nightmares about hearing from potential customers, and existing ones. Business software has too look as nice as Facebook if you want anyone under thirty to use it. Or worse than the overt sneer or the snide remark, there’s just never hearing from potential customers again.

But now with Version 6 we’ve put that unpleasantness firmly behind us. At least I think we have. At least for a while. But the thing is, you can never really know. The sneers and snide remarks need no longer be feared but you can’t expect a warm shower of praise in their place. Silence and indifference are as good as it gets.

We’ve done some early upgrades of the system for our own company, and for an important client. Only two out of our 100 plus users at LLP Group provided any unsolicited feedback – very positive, as it happens. Others, when pressed (by me, and therefore under duress) admitted that we’ve produced a much improved interface, though none of them used the word ‘cool’. As for our clients, they simply remarked that it’s okay.

But, then, that’s all that one can expect, and I take it as ‘admiring with faint praise’ rather than ‘damning with faint praise’. When I think about it, I’m probably as ungenerous as the next man about similar things, so it would be hypocritical to complain. The fact is that IT and Business IT are invisible and unremarkable when they’re working well. A new version of time@work will never be like the latest video game, or a new model of iPhone. Timesheets have yet to become a pleasure for anyone, even if they’re a necessity for a professional services organisation. If the software isn’t actually unpleasant to look at, or isn’t actually difficult to use, that’s a very considerable achievement.

So, lovely though acclaim may be, I know it’s a great achievement to have achieved indifference, and I mean that seriously. We all know how badly software upgrades can go. That there are no complaints, that nothing went wrong, can feel, after thirty years in the business, almost like ecstasy

The Synagogues of Szeged and Subotica

If you’re bicycling through southern Hunganry and the adjoining (formerly Hungarian) province of  Vojvodina in northern Serbia, you can’t but be aware of the terrible displacements and atrocities that have been committed in the region by one ethnic, religious or cultural group against another over the last several centuries, and even quite recently, nearby.

One such atrocity, the Nazi murder of the Jewish population of the region, stands out. So, still, do the beautiful synagogues of Szeged and Subotica, both of which I saw earlier this week. They are a stark reminder of the sheer size of the Jewish communities in these two cities, communities which, as I understand it, are virtually non-existent, or very small, today.

The synagogue in Szeged (1907) is the fourth largest in the world, and the second largest in Hungary, after the Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest. It is in good condition and is used as a concert hall as well as for worship.

The synagogue in Subotica (1902), inspired by the great Hungarian architect Odon Lechner, was built for a community that numbered around 3,000 at the time. It’s another great example of Hungarian art nouveau.

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Both great buildings are evidence and poignant reminders of the Jewish life and culture that must have been part of everyone’s everyday life in these and other cities in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans until the 1940s.

But I write about this mainly because I am intrigued by the language of the memorial tablet placed outside the Subotica Synagogue:

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The  Jews, it says, ‘perished in fascist death camps.’ So, it seems to imply, that had nothing to do with the local populations, or local hatreds. It all happened in a faraway place.

The description places the blame on ‘fascism’, as if anti-Semitism was, and is, principally a matter of political ideology, rather than something with darker, less intellectual origins (an irrational hatred that lay at the heart of Christian European culture for centuries)- something that can be ‘educated’ away, and blamed on specific political leaders rather than on the population at large. Of course, I may be maligning the people of Subotica. I don’t know if they were exemplary in their protection of the Jewish community (as Serbia was, in general) or not. Even if so, the description is misleading. The murder of the Jews was not a ‘fascist’ crime. It was not a German crime. It was a Nazi crime, inspired by the leaders of the Nazi party and supported by millions of others, in Germany and elsewhere, who shared their hatred.

The inscription dates from 1994, a time perhaps when Communist ideology was still lingering in the country (Yugoslavia still?) and it was convenient to wipe the slate clean and claim that in the absence of ‘fascism’ the danger no longer existed.

But I remember a train journey I made from Belgrade to Budapest in the summer of 1987, when both Hungary and Yugoslavia were still nominally communist. I talked for an hour or so with a pleasant middle-class lady who was eager to practise her excellent English. For some reason we got onto the events of the Second World War and I asked a few questions about Jewish survivors, and about the scale of the transportation and murder of the region’s Jews.

‘I know it was awful,’ she said. ‘And it’s awful that the Jewish communities were almost entirely destroyed, but you know we never really liked them.’

So much for the eradication of the irrational by political re-education! Anti-Semitism was not specifically a fascist phenomenon.

 

 

 

The Turning World

There’s a story that goes around Central Europe about a man called Pavel, or Pal, or Paul, who was born in Austro-Hungary, grew up in Romania, lived briefly in Ruthenia, and Hungary, worked in the Soviet Union and died in Ukraine. All without ever leaving his tiny village in Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia. Given the monstrous behaviour of those who trample across remote corners of the world, he must have been a master of tact to have survived at all. He probably spoke at least a dozen languages fluently.

It’s an unfamiliar concept for a British Citizen, that our nationality and allegiances might change around us, but we may soon, if Scotland achieves independence, have to accept a change of citizenship (United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland).

I thought of Pavel, Pal or Paul yesterday whilst in the Serbian city of Subotica, just across the border from Szeged. It’s a town that’s been stamped a dozen or more times into my passport, since it lies on the rail and road routes from Budapest to Belgrade. It’s actually a charming small city, replete with the usual fin-de-siècle art nouveau town hall, banks, shops, churches and synagogues (no mosques, as far as I know).

It’s a town that has endured many ‘affiliations’, to use a term that Wikipedia uses, most of them probably not affiliated by choice.

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Terrible atrocities have been committed in the city, by one ethnic group against another, whilst enforcing one affiliation or another, not least by the Nazis and their henchmen against the city’s 3,000 Jews, transported and murdered in Auschwitz.

I stopped to eat two slices of pizza, four cups of tea and a plate of tiramisu (all quite permissible when one is cycling nearly 100 km a day), and since I like to practice my imperfect Hungarian I asked the waiter if he spoke the language. He did, he said, since one of his parents is ‘Hungarian’ and the other ‘Serbian’.  I made a half-hearted attempt to order ‘hot black tea with cold milk on the side’ in Hungarian, but he greatly preferred to practice his excellent English, which, in any case, put my poor Hungarian to shame. But since it’s a fashionable concept I asked him how he ‘identified’.

‘I am a Vojvodinian,’ he said.

If you’re not aware that Vojvodina is a place, you might think this as absurd as identifying as a Vulcan (which certain people do (and who are we to judge?)).

But in fact it’s a clever ruse, and the best possible answer if you come from a place that everyone else has trampled over. Vojvodina is an identifiable region but, sadly (or wisely?) never one that was affiliated only to itself.

 

Chastened, haunted, defensive but defiant

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The Chilcot Inquiry has delivered on its promise. It has been uncompromising in its criticism of the conduct of Blair’s government and the individuals who comprised it. At a press conference this afternoon Tony Blair appeared chastened, haunted and defensive, but nevertheless defiant. I believe he made a disastrous and arrogant error, taking the country to war ‘in good faith’, without full discussion in cabinet, but it was brave of him to face his critics today. He will go down in history as a man who made a disastrous foreign policy judgement that has caused immense suffering and set back the cause of peace in the Middle East, just as Anthony Eden is remembered for Suez, and David Cameron will be remembered for the referendum.

In an implicit plea for sympathy, Tony Blair talked about how the decision to go to war in Iraq haunts him every single day, and that he goes over it again and again, obsessively, still certain that in the light of what he was told (who was he talking to?!), the decision was the right one. We all know what guilt feels like.

Historical judgement is rarely delivered as rapidly as in this case. Was there as through an investigation of the Falklands, or Suez? Though there has been angry complaint at the seven years it has taken Sir John Chilcot and his colleagues to research the causes, conduct and aftermath of the Iraq War, rigour was absolutely necessary. It took as long as it had to take, and its judgement is final.

The problem with Tony Blair was always ‘faith’, whether good faith or bad faith. So certain was he of his own moral compass that others’ opinions, or the weight of evidence, or the lack of it, held no sway at all. He looked for the evidence that would justify his moral intervention in the world, forgetting for more than a moment that politicians more often choose between evils, and that ‘doing good’ with military force is almost always bound to fail.

But he insists that he would make the same decision today, and to some extent that captures the arrogance of his approach to government. He ran government in a presidential manner, imposing his own will and ‘good faith’ on his colleagues. That’s what happens when you aright too much of the time, and powerful for far too long.

And how wonderful it is to know that Robin Cook, Charles Kennedy, and yes, Jeremy Corbyn, are vindicated, though only one of them lives to enjoy the moment.

 

 

Chemical Gin

I bicycled today from Kecskemet to Szeged. I took a wrong turning in the morning and found myself cycling across fields (see dog leg below).  But I never turn back, in the belief that there’s always a way through. Until, one day, of course,  there won’t be. But today there was.

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Kiskunfelegyhaza made an unpronounceable lunch stop, and I met a delightful Dutch couple who were bicycling the border of the Roman Empire. They had a book about it and had a splendid device that attached it to the handlebars. Trust the Dutch to be so well prepared.

Szeged, three hours later, announced itself too early, raising hope in my heart and a desperate last gasp vigour in my legs, when there were still seven kilometres to go. And then there was another sign, and then another, and then another two, one of them a socialist realist monster. But the tease is worthwhile.

Szeged is definitely worth persisting with and crossing fields for. It’s the most elegant and relaxed city in Hungary, home of paprika and salami, and other agricultural products, and home to one of the great universities of the country. It’s changed hugely since I first visited in 1987 and consumed a Government-manufactured gin, in a very shabby bar, that had a dampening effect on me and my friends for at least two weeks.

I’m staying at the Tiszavirag Hotel, where I stayed last year on a hideously rainy day in June. It’s one of the most wonderful hotels in the country, perhaps the world, and serves the best food in the country. If I were not a driven person, I would stay another day or two. But got to get on.

Although you might have difficulties in finding an excuse to visit this city (though they did a Flying Dutchman in the open air a few weeks ago), this hotel makes it worthwhile. I’m afraid I’ve reached that stage in my life, when the hotel is as important, even more important, that its location.

Tomorrow, I bicycle towards Novi Sad, but more importantly, it’s John Chilcot’s day. With any luck our former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, will have been savaged by teatime and in handcuffs by dinner time.

 

Seven Days of Solitude

A hundred years would be too many, but I must admit that I look forward to seven days of solitude, bicycling in the Carpathian basin from Kecskemet to Belgrade. Just yesterday I was engaged, with my partner, in manufacturing cucumber sandwiches for thirty guests at a summer music party in Prague, as well as two kinds of chicken, baked salmon, Elin’s beetroot and apple salad, roast squash, Caprese, beans, and so on (see Outcooking Julie).

The host insisted on a proper English tea, with chocolate éclairs, lemon cake, Victoria sponge and shortbread biscuits, as well as mounds of cucumber sandwiches, though he rather spoiled things by offering champagne as well as three teapots of  Marks & Spencer’s Gold Blend.

As it happens, I’d never before made that insipid classic of the British tea table, and though I consulted widely on the web, I don’t think that my first attempt was perfect. Everything needs to come together – salted, drained and finely sliced cucumber, firm white bread, and butter soft enough to spread and seal. I added a dusting of mint and provided a separate plate of cucumber sandwiches with Marmite, to amuse the British. I kept them waiting – the sandwiches, I mean – for no longer than an hour. But they were all gone in forty-five minutes, so I must have got something right, even if they were structurally insecure and wouldn’t have passed muster at the Ritz.

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And whilst the guests were entertained by the distinguished pianist, Jordana Palovicova and the distinguished baritone, Jiri Polacek (regaling the guests with Schubert, Beethoven, Chopin, Sibelius, Debussy and Rogers & Hammerstein), the tea had to be swept noiselessly away to be replaced by a savoury first course, and then during another forty minutes of classical music, by a heap of desserts. The party began at four, but it took the host’s oboe playing to drive the guests to their beds. The last left at ten, but the host insisted on clearing and tidying before bed, so I had only four hours sleep before waking to catch the 7.52 to Budapest from Prague.

Nyugati Palyaudvar

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Of course, it’s not quite solitude. I carry my phone and PC and will be in touch by voice, text and email with all my worlds, but bowling along those splendidly flat roads across the puszta, with the wind at my back, and no risk of drizzle, I shall feel free.

I reached the market town of Kecskemet (named after a goat) at about eight this evening, by train. It’s a lovely town, but a stroll and dinner on a terrace do it justice.

Admire the Town Hall by Odon Lechner, Hungary’s most famous Romantic Nationalist architect.

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Tomorrow, Szeged (capital of paprika), via Csongrad.

 

 

Get Naked and Go to Work

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The West likes to poke fun at Alexander Lukashenko, Belorussia’s strong-man President. True, he’s been sporting a slightly silly moustache (and ruling the country autocratically) for nearly twenty-two years, but this week, Belorussians themselves had a chance to poke fun at him when their President seemed to ask them all to strip naked at work.

“Innovations, IT technologies, privatisation — it is all clear. We’ve conquered all of them. But in the end, it is very simple: one should get undressed and work,” he told a conference in Minsk last week.

Analysts of Russian say that the 61-year-old Mr Lukashenko probably meant to say “develop” instead of strip off, as the two verbs sound very similar.

(So much fun has been had with the ‘naked’ word that everyone seems to have taken it for granted that Belorussia has indeed conquered the worlds of IT and innovation, but I believe this is very far from the case. They’re still using floppy disks.)

Citizens, ever obedient, have this week taken him at his word, at least the word they chose to hear. Fortunately the weather in Belorussia has been kind.

Lukashenko is very much his own man, and remains a man of the people, despite his long tenure as President, and very much a man of the Belorussian soil, too. See him digging potatoes at his dacha:

BUT…my Belorussian colleague, Evgeny, tells me that Lukashenko didn’t actually say what everyone says he said. The two words – for develop and naked – sound almost the same. Evgeny pronounced both words in front of me and to my uneducated ear the words sounded identical. Apparently Lukashenko’s diction isn’t crystal clear (he is still a man of the soil), so it’s understandable that some will have heard the more improbable word. Evgeny (no great admirer of Lukashenko) is adamant that he said ‘develop’, not ‘naked’.

But, even though he didn’t say it, someone clearly thought it would be funny if he was thought to have said it. In fact, it is all the more interesting that the citizens of Belorussia permit themselves to laugh at their President.

This is him saying what he said. Judge for yourself.

Belorussians themselves enjoyed the joke, but, as far as anyone knows, Lukashenko has remained unamused.

So, don’t believe everything you read, see, or hear in the media. Even the BBC got the story wrong. It is typical of the running dogs of imperialism and the decadent lackeys of Western capitalism that they should wish to see a good man ridiculed.