Nigerian Scam from Linkedin

March 2, 2014
A recent example of typical Nigerian scam attempt. This one was originated by somebody who contacted me initially through Linkein, asking for my private email address to discuss an investment proposal. I gave him my “dirty” email address, and he wrote:
From: [Scammer]
Sent: Saturday, March 01, 2014 1:46 PM
To: me
Subject: RE: Hello Francesco Metalli,
Hello Francesco Metalli,Thank you for your reply.

I have some money I want to entrust to you for investment purposes. The amount is US$12 Million dollars and it is currently in a foreign finance warehouse in Abroad (WHAT A JOKER, HE EVEN FORGOT TO FILL IN THE COUNTRY HERE!).

Please could you advice me on the best kind of business you would want to investment the money? (POOR ENGLISH TOO…)

Note: A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and a Non disclosure Mutual Agreement letter will be drafted by my lawyer for all parties to sign. I shall delegate my representative to meet with you for further discussions on my behalf. (I GUESS THIS IS TO MAKE IT FEEL MORE OFFICIAL…)

Please treat with utmost confidentiality and thank you for your continued cooperation. Call me for more clarification.

Find link below. (HE MEANS THE PHONE NUMBER)

Await your quick response.

Scammer name and tel number

+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
NORMALLY I WOULD JUST ADDED THIS GUY TO THE JUNK LIST AND FORGOT ABOUT IT, BUT I DECIDED TO PLAY ALONG FOR A BIT. SO I REPLIED AS BELOW:
From: ME
To: SCAMMER
Subject: Re: Hello Francesco Metalli,
Date: Sat, 1 Mar 2014 14:00:05 +0100

Hi (SCAMMER NAME),
thank you for the rare opportunity.
I have a wonderful investment idea, related to the development of technologies to recycle non homogenous plastic residuals into homogenous material to be used for building and road paving. This revolutionary concept would allow reducing the dependence on environmentally unfriendly concrete and tar, and in the same time reduce the amount of non-biodegradable waste.
Looking forward to receiving the funds in order to start in the above project.
Kind regards
Dott. F. Metalli (YEP, I AM A DOCTOR TOO…)
BASICALLY I PROPOSED A FAR FETCHED, MULTI BILLION DOLLARS AND ASKED FOR THE MONEY…
+++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
HE REPLIED ALMOST IMMEDIATELY…
Hello Francesco Metalli,Thank you for the prompt reply with your brief investment idea. I will be very much interested in the development of technologies to recycle non homogenous plastic residuals into homogenous material. (NICE COPY AND PASTE MATE…)

Please do you think this investment will yield us good profit?  (AHUM, WHAT SHOULD I SAY HERE? THINKING, THINKING…)
I don’t know how serious you are? (VERY SERIOUS TO HAVE A GREAT LAUGH AT YOU)
When do you think we can commence this investment proper? (PROPER? WHERE DID THIS GUY LEARN ENGLISH???)

I will want us to commence this investment as soon as possible. (YEAH SURE BABY…)

Note that a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and a Mutual Non disclosure Agreement letter will be drafted by my lawyer for all parties to sign. (HE REPEATS HIMSELF HERE…)

Kindly include your full names, address and your cell telephone number in your reply to enable talk on telephone. (HAHA! THIS IS WHAT YOU WANT, MY PHONE NUMBER! AND WHAT HAS MY ADDRESS TO DO WITH THIS? JOKER…)

Please call me.

Await your immediate reply.

Best regards,

ETC ETC
++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++
AND WHAT FOLLOWS IS THE LAST PIECE OF THE STORY… I ALREADY GOT BORED OF THE WHOLE LOT, SO I JUST ASKED FOR THE MONEY,…
Hello George,
please rest ensured that he investment will yield a more satisfactory profit. (TRIED TO MIRROR HIS ENGLISH HERE)
I will proceed in sharing all information required after receiving from you a sign of goodwill, equivalent to half of the sum discussed (6 Millions US dollars). Please let me have your full name, address, bank reference details and prepare to wire the above sum to an account in Abroad. (OOOPPPSSSS, I FORGOT TO FILL IN THE NAME TOO – LOL!)
Kind regards
Francesco Metalli
I THINK HE GOT THE MESSAGE… HE DID NOT REPLY….
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Do you still need an IT department?

May 13, 2013

Do you still have an IT department? Probably yes…

Now ask yourself the question – why is it still needed? Between outsourcing, hosting, service providers, cloud, big data (whatever that means), LSA’s, compliance, distributed computing, virtualized environments and a large number of other great advancements (sic), your IT guys are, in many cases at least, just passing papers from one side of your desk to the other, with the odd need to unclog a printer or two during rainy days.
If you are following the latest trends in IT efficient management, you have discovered long ago that outsourcing everything outside of your business is “the way to go”. If you did not, your CFO certainly did, because by moving a single number (IT costs) from fixed costs to general expenses is one of those simple tricks that make the balance sheets look soooo much better.

Mind you, the amount of money is quite the same if not more, it just sits in a place nobody notice, together with a few other interesting things like pencils, paper trays and replacement wheels for the corporate echelon chairs.

As your data is in cyberspace, your systems are hosted somewhere by somebody, your comms are taken care of by some very compliant entity and your software development is efficiently performed by somebody who you never saw and you probably don’t want to meet, what’s the point of having an internal IT function, really? If you ask them what is going on, they have to ask to somebody else anyway. If something don’t work, they can’t fix it. You don’t really need an experienced somebody to call your SP and ask a simple question, right?

The above is obviously intended as a joke. However, my crystal ball has told me just today this is going to happen – soon

Cyprus solution – defeating the purpose 101

March 26, 2013

As you probably heard of read, a “solution” was reached on Cyprus quite recently.

Basically, it was decided that the rescue of the country would have come to a price, namely the legalised stealing of money from Cyprus banks. First they considered taking money from everybody, now they are thinking of stealing money only from the “big ones”, with a threshold set at 100K Euro. This is just today’s new, but it could change tomorrow. Banks remain closed, which means that if you need money for grocery and your money is in Cyprus, you are condemned to famine.

The first point to make of this incredible story is that, irrespective of everything else, a political decision is forcing a number of citizens to have no access to their money. You might be interested knowing that this kind of measure is typically applied in criminal cases (seizing the result of criminal activities) or in cases where the single individual has been judged to be unable to manage itself, aka incapacitated.

In this particular case, not only there is no judicial decision whatsoever, but the measure has been applied to people who are, pending proof of the contrary, innocent and perfectly capable. In other words, the decision does not fit any legal standards I am aware of. It is fair to say that, from a practical viewpoint, until banks in Cyprus open again, the money they have in their custody has been nationalized.

From a more general viewpoint, the Cyprus story is interesting because it creates another precedent (not the first one) where individual wealth is taken away while (and because) it is deposited in a bank. You probably remember that bank related issues, either direct of indirect, where at the basis of the financial crisis that strangled the so-called developed world for the last many years, from the time of the collapse of Lehman Brothers to be more precise.

From that time, there has been an increasing mistrust in the whole financial world, spanning from structured products (based on selling repackaged debt) to state and company’s obligations, to loans, to stock and other investment tools. That mistrust has caused a partial freeze of most investment activities, with disastrous consequences on the economy of all countries involved. As investments stopped, so did economic growth, affecting employment possibilities for millions of people.

Common sense at the level of a layman like myself would suggest that, in order to jump-start the economy, the financial sector needs to come out of the post-Lehman shock and start lending money again, doing something that banks are traditionally supposed to do.

The Cyprus solution goes in a direction that is diametrically opposed to common sense. Not only a nationalization of private wealth takes place, but it affects savings, hence going far beyond than impacting “risky” business. We are talking about robbing mum and dad of the money they need to live, again for the fact that they were kept in a bank instead than buried in the garden.

Now, we could argue that a threshold at 100K affects mums and dads who fared decently well, not exactly needy people. But, as it is obvious, since the whole story has been decided at political level, outside of any judicial process and law, what keeps now any government from nationalising money at a much lower threshold? What would keep now any entity to steal wealth beyond the 10K instead of 100K? Where is the limit?

In this case, the sky is the limit. And that explains why Cyprus banks are still closed – they know that as soon as they re-open their doors, a bank run will take place across the board, including those who have far less than 100K. I would not be surprised if such a bank run is already taking place in other countries, moving massive amount of money from European countries to abroad, safe from government theft. But this is only a theory, at least for the moment.

The fact remains that, in today’s Europe, the legal, publicly known means to extract money from citizens have been de facto abandoned in favor of unilateral political decisions, taken in the night, very much like burglars normally operate.

So, if the purpose of this action was to avoid the bankruptcy of Cyprus, the mean used defeats it completely. Whatever amount of loan will Cyprus eventually get from the ECB and IMF of this world, whoever has money in Cyprus will take it out of the country at the first possible occasion, leaving the banks empty of cash and therefore bankrupt. Once Cyprus banks will be bankrupt, they will need a bailout from the state, which will require additional emergency loan. But this time around, there will be nothing to steal. Hence, any further loan to Cyprus will have to be unsecured, which means that the Euro currency will further devaluate. As explained in a previous article, the more the Euro devaluates the more the European economies, already battered by years of myopic politics, will shrink.

The Cyprus solution has not only demonstrated that money in any bank is not safe. It has also proven that it is by now ok to steal it through a political decision, and it has further demonstrated how desperate the EU is. Since most of the money in Europe is coming from non-European clients (as European clients are left with very little of it), and since without that money all European banks would be bankrupt in a day or less, it is easy to imagine what could happen next.

It is clear, and every day becoming clearer, that there is no strategy whatsoever in EU decisions. The only viable solution, to abandon the Euro and to revert to national currencies, has been again swept off the table preferring yet another ad-hoc, short term intervention which will shortly create immanent damage to all those involved.

It was more or less one century ago when in Germany, also strangled by a financial crisis, also due to debt (strange coincidence), the local currency became so worthless than thieves were stealing the basket containing millions of German marks and leaving the money – the basket had some value, but the money was just paper.

Unless EU politicians and IMF bean-counters come to their senses, remembering financial management and economy 101 at the time of university, the Euro seems to be destined to the same death.

The Euro issue and the European one

March 19, 2013

Lots of people keep struggling in the attempt to understand what is the basic issue with the Euro currency. Here my views on it, based on a layman common sense methodology…

If you follow the money from the beginning, it becomes pretty clear what happened in the past and what will happen in the future. Let’s start from yesterday, when the Euro was introduced.

The EU, when introducing the Euro, has basically decided that all countries members of the club were going to have the same kind of economy – stable, with a balanced import-export, financially healthy, and so on. So, from a purely financial viewpoint, German and Greek economy were considered to be equal as the way they were operating.

Quite obviously, the above is an heresy – everybody with a bit of knowledge of different European economy would have understood from the beginning that the basic assumption was wrong. The results however were pretty clear.

Greece, Spain, Portugal and Ireland, with Italy and Cyprus, were used to create a continuous internal deficit, by selling government debt to its citizens. In that way, they were financing fancy stuff like pensions at 45 for public employees, infrastructure works, lack of a proper taxation system and a few other things. The more the State was indebted, the less its currency (the Greek Dracma for instance) was worth. The less it was worth, the more the country could export as concurrency prices to other countries. In the case of Greek, the country could offer cheap tourism to the wealthy Germans and UK people.

The same was applied to all countries. Irrespective of the amount of debt produced by each country, the deriving issue was limited to the internal economy and solved by a continuous process, market lead, of de-evaluation of the local currency. In the worst case scenario, the local currency would have reached such a low market value that the debt with parties outside of the country would have become worthless, realising a default. But, since external parties could have negotiated a loan to Greece on the basis of a weak currency, they could have imposed conditions geared to avoid that the default could take place, or stopping lending money altogether.

The system in place was based on one-to-one agreements between States – so Germany could have accepted to loan money to Greece against, for instance, a tax friendly approach to German companies and products (Ireland did this after the introduction of the Euro with some US companies, becoming a very wealthy economy for a while). In other words, the existence of local currencies made it possible to negotiate and to re-balance obvious unbalances in wealth between different economies.
Following the money, you would have seen that Nikos, Greek citizen, would have had a decent salary within Greece, not paying taxes, but buying State obligations against a decent interest. So the Greek State would have had income not from taxes but from selling debt to its citizens. When the Greek government decided to spend more money than available, it would have gone to say Germany and proposed a deal like outlined above. German money, converted into Dracmas, would have flown into Greece, keeping the balance within a certain range. Nikos would not have felt the effect of that deal as long as he did not try to buy other currencies or products or services based on other currencies, as they would have been too expensive for him. He would therefore prefer buying local products and services, keeping the economy afloat.

The introduction of the Euro took away completely the possibility to rebalance unbalances between economies. The Greek government, when lending money from outside of Greece, must deal in Euro – the same currency as everywhere else. As a result, the more the Greek State borrows money, the more the value of the Euro decreases – and not only for Greece, but for everybody, including Germany. The same applies now also to internal debt. While before the internal Dracma based issue could be considered, to an extent, a Greek problem, now it has become a European problem. Imagine Greece selling its debt against say 10% interest rates. Nikos would buy tons of it (instead of paying taxes) in order to preserve his wealth and build a pension. But the debt Greece is selling to its citizens is now not a Greek debt. As it is based on Euro, Greece is actually selling something that can be defined a common good – European wealth.

Left unchecked, Greece and other countries continued to sell debt internally and to borrow money from external sources, and in doing so decreasing rapidly the value of the common Euro currency. As a result, Europe had to pay through its nose for most critical resources like oil, steel, and many other things that are in insufficient quantity in Europe. Since the Euro decreased in value v. other currencies, in particular the US dollar, the Greek decision to build a fancy motorway between nowhere and nowhere in Greece is now being felt by all other nations using the Euro to deal with international non European partners. As a consequence, Europe decided that since all countries are in the same boat, thanks to the Euro, all countries has to paddle in the same direction and with the same rhythm, the so-called stability pact and the infamous 3% ceiling to “internal” debt which is by now not internal anymore. On paper, it makes perfect sense. The message was clear, do not overspend OUR money. But there was something that the European bean counters did not consider…

The basic assumption, as described at the beginning, was that the various European economies were somehow similar. So Germany for instance assumed that each country could have financed its needs (like pensions) with the income derived from taxation, which in turn is related to the economic power of each country’s economy. Greece, and other countries as well, soon realize that the amount of money they have available to finance stuff they are already doing is far above what comes out of taxes. Since they cannot borrow money anymore, they have one solution only, to raise taxes in order to pay for debt they already made – pensions, public salaries, road maintenance, public services in general.

The deriving tax hike depress the economy, for two reasons. To start with, a higher taxation always results in less investments and in more risk. Nikos could have considered starting a business (and produce money) with a 10% gross margin… but with a 3% gross margin after taxes, it is simply not worth it. Secondly, the money deriving from taxes now flow out of Greece and go back to the original lender, Germany and the EU in general. Nikos sees its salary and pension going down and stops buying. The companies relying on Nikos purchases go bust the one after the other, creating unemployment and therefore less money produced in general. Prices are going up, further depressing the internal market, and making Greece non competitive – remember now a week in a Greece tourist resort is in Euro, and it became so expensive tourists simply move slightly to the south for sun and sea. Money coming from taxes decreases, and so the amount of money repaid to Greece lenders.

So Greece becomes officially insolvent, every day more so. Its economy grinds to a halt, and the EU is left contemplating a debt issued to Greece that simply is not going to come back anytime soon. This in turn makes the Euro weaker – exactly the same result before the stability pact, but now the matter is much worse as the Greek economy, already weak before, is now completely gone.
In short, the stability pact fails completely to achieve any result – it makes in fact the situation more complex as it destroys economies and creates mistrust in the Euro – the “internal” debt in Europe affect the Euro just like the “internal” Greek debt affected the Dracma before the Euro. Greece is bankrupt, and the Euro value would go down the drain in a day if Greece would be declared in default. This would impact all European countries, including the richest ones, those exporting in particular.
The EU, as the sum of all European economies, decides then to lend money to Greece and to other countries against even tighter conditions. Nikos now has no money and he is very angry. His anger, misdirected against Germany (and not against previous Greek governments) goes on world TV, and the mistrust in European ability to fix the mess it created increases exponentially.

Furthermore, there is a question related to the origin of the money now lent to Greece to avoid it goes completely bust – where is it coming from? A part of it comes from the richest European countries, obviously. Another part comes from external parties buying “European” debt. And a third part comes from simply printing more money (but nobody talks about it, the European version of quantitative easing).

It is fairly easy to see that the bottomline of the whole sad story is a devaluation of the Euro and an internationalization of a localized problem. Before the Euro, Greek problems were limited to Greece and to its voluntary lenders. After the Euro, Greece problems are for all European countries and for voluntary international lenders.

The impact of the Euro on Greece is already now impacting all European countries. In order to avoid Greece default (which is in fact already happened), all European countries are paying for Nikos pension. In order to do so, all European countries have already raised taxes, which in turn depressed all European economies. The value of the Euro decreased against all other currencies in net terms (so without considering other factors) and caused an import continent like Europe to pay more than before for needed resources not available locally, which of course depresses economy even more. Thanks to the decision of expanding the EU to nations barely in the position to produce anything worthwhile (the so called east European countries), most of Europe now has more debts than anything else. This is the present, more than the future.

Since European economies are shrinking, very much like Greek ones did before, Europe will soon need serious loans from outside. Consider that the Greek problem is, from a global perspective, a relatively small one. There are other countries which are in deep troubles. France, for instance, has been already downgraded. Italy is a well-known mess. Germany has already reached its limits (and passed them probably) in the ability to finance Greece through the EU. Strangled by the need to offer products and services in Euro to the rest of the world, and the need to repay an impossible amount of debt, the known PIIGS economies continue to spiral down as non competitive on the international markets.

Since the Greek conditions have now become an European issue, it is easy to see that the next step in this story is an European default, or better said, a Euro default. The combination of factors already in place will decrease the value of the Euro, every day more. This will eventually lead the EU to become insolvent against its current lenders, particularly the external ones. Since there is already a lot of money in EU debt that has been sold to people like Russians, Chinese, and US, the EU problem will increasingly become a worldwide problem, affecting all countries either directly or indirectly.

For those who have ever been climbing a mountain together with others, all connected to the same rope, it is very much like having an increasing number of climbers unable to hold on to the rocks with their hands and being supported by those who can. How much weight can the remaining ones keep holding, and for how long?

If we look at it in its true terms, the issue here is that there is only one rope – the Euro. In a situation like the above, an experienced climber would just order the ones hanging to nail a spike in the rock, hang to that and leave the rope before the whole group goes down. The group would split in two, with the strongest ones reaching safety and then arranging a rescue mission for those still hanging.

Translated in European terms, the solution is quite the same. Countries that are in difficulties (the PIIGS) must simply leave the rope and re-introduce their local currencies. EU debts must be frozen for any foreseeable time, and external debts repaid as soon as possible to avoid that the Euro debacle takes a serious toll worldwide.

If you think about it, such solution takes care of a number of issues. First of all, it would allow Greece to start selling its products and services to others on competitive conditions. The Dracma, if reintroduced, would have very little value against most other currencies, and would allow the country to be born again as a preferred tourist location worldwide. This is what Greece is and what it has always been. The internal debt issue would become again a real internal one, without affecting everybody else. Freeing the Greek debt would allow the Greek government to decrease taxation and jump-start its economy.

Germany, on the other side, would have to take a temporary hit on its borrowings to Greece and the EU. However, since Greece is now a dirt-cheap country and since it is now possible to negotiate favorable conditions (also due to the currency difference), it could use Greece as a very competitive production site for German products and industries, very much as they already do with other countries in Asia and in Africa, but with some serious logistic advantages. The same applies to all other non PIIGS countries. Although their debt could possibly never been repaid as such, the economic advantages deriving from one (or more) European country that are as cheap as much farther destinations will in time compensate for any temporary losses.

The Euro as a currency would, once the troublesome PIIGS countries are out of it, reacquire value, helping exporting countries (the richest ones) which could decrease taxation and start stimulating their internal economies, for everybody’s benefit. All countries not demonstrably able and strong enough to access the Euro currency club would have to follow the Greek destiny.
The above is, in a more simplified form, very similar to the “two-speeds” Europe that has been proposed already in the past, but with a difference. What this proposal is all about is to recognize the existence of great differences between European countries and to act according to those. One part of Europe, the more stable and controlled ones, could very well decide to keep the Euro if they want to, on condition that their economies is indeed marching at the same pace and in the same direction. This would in fact create a smaller monetary union, healthy this time, with all the advantages that such union carries with it (and there are many). All those left out of it would get back to their own currencies, and be left free to do with their economies and countries whatever they like. I can easily foresee Greece becoming again a tourist paradise for wealthy Europeans, free to devaluate the Dracma when they see it fit, to borrow money from anywhere if they want to on conditions that depend on market movements and not on political desires and wishful thinking. Should countries like Greece go back to their bad habits, they would default as many others did before them but without creating pandemic consequences.

Would all the above be a failure for the European dream?

It is perhaps advisable to look back at the origin of such dream. It started with the dream of a Europe of peace. It was expanded to a Europe as common market, where goods and services could have been traded freely. Up to then it worked very well. The introduction of the Euro was a logical next step, but it was taken too soon. Similarly, plans to transform Europe into a place with common fiscal, agricultural, political and social policies is far too soon. Europe is not “one place”. It is made of dissimilar countries, each with their own peculiarities. Whoever travelled just a bit across the continent knows it much too well.

The Euro, in the way it was introduced, was a mistake and for a number of reasons. Its partial dismantlement will be embarrassing, for sure, and would carry consequences for everybody. Among those, however, there will be massive positive ones, that most commentators keep ignoring. There is a common understanding that Europe and Euro is almost a synonymous. That is not true and the many years of Europe without Euro witness for the possibility to have the one without the other.

The practical PM #1 – a non-project

November 27, 2012

I had the fortune (or misfortune, depending on the point of view one prefer using) to observe up close and personal a manual case of project non-project. As long as I know, this is a new paradigma – and if it is, I would like to mention it is the result of my personal lucubration.

Here it goes…
Once upon a time there was an enchanted castle and a beautiful but unlucky princess… No, cancel that, rewind…

Once upon a time a certain company (hereinafter called Bigandfussy) decides, after years of feet dragging, to rationalize one of its most important internal functions, and to introduce an automated system to consolidate and manage a relatively small, but arguably quite important, amount of data.

The data in question is held in – guess – Excel spreadsheets, a number of them. Obviously, none of them follows any common rationale and they are not interconnected in any way, hence information is messy at best. So messy indeed that it is very difficult to use it, if possible at all, to great frustration of many.

However, a certain solution is already in place within Bigandfussy, used for completely different reasons, and managing completely different information. Probably because of the fact that there is no connection between the to-be-reached end result (still barely defined at the time of the decision)  and the solution in question, the latter is selected as perfect candidate to solve, “deus ex machina” the issue at stake (also quite confused anyway).

It goes without saying that such decision is taken only after a thorough, inconsistent and slightly hallucinated  analysis of day 1 requirements.

On paper, the project is very simple. The spreadsheets contain all information needed, and in the right format. If it was not that there a few of them and not synched in any way, Excel could easily manage the full information life-cycle. The underlying processes are already in place as well (who does what, who does do nothing, when, how, etc.) So apparently it is a case of taking all spreadsheets, clean them up, migrate the data to the “new” solution and voila, the job is done.

But Bigandfussy is not named like that by chance. Experienced beyond belief in the rare art of complicating simple matters, internal “experts” begin to take several mission critical decisions – all wrong.

To start with, the whole exercise (additional development,  migration, testing, deployment and so on) is estimated to be too small as effort to justify the classification of “project”. The fact that nobody, at the time such a decision is taken has a single clue about the non-project duration, is irrelevant… Or better, very relevant, but immaterial as the decision was taken anyway. There is a long and sad story behind the way Bigandfussy decides what is “effort” – let’s keep it for next article, should we?

Hence, Bigandfussy happily start this activity without any of the safeguards offered by their self-conceived internal project management methodology. This is so complicated, cumbersome, ineffective, and nightmarish as a whole to keep several thousands experienced PM awake at night for many years, but at least, it is decently clear on the overall idea of “project”. One-time activity that must be managed and controlled in order to ensure it will eventually deliver something useful. Since this is not a project, the latter does not apply.

The second great decision that is taken is to postpone data consolidation to after completion of the project, pardon, non-project.  The creation of a workable interim solution, possible with a very few work days, is swept from the table as soon as presented, on the basis of a perfectly pear-shaped reasoning – we don’t want to invest time in consolidating many spreadsheets in one – and then migrating that one into the new solution – when we can “migrate” only once – from many spreadsheets straight into the solution. As you might have guessed already, there is no way in the world this many-to-one move can be achieved – the data sources are all different, there is no common data structure, a fair amount of well-known errors, duplications  and other assorted absurdities… all leading to the the fact that an intermediate in-between consolidation will be needed anyway…

The third and greatest decision – a real piece of genius – is to create a user requirement document open to half of the world to comment. Imagine  – a huge bucket is passed on to practically anybody who can remotely be somehow connected to the non-project, and each and everyone of them gets the chance to add whatever they want to the design of the new solution.

As a result, the user requirements on day 1 fits on one A4. On day 10, a simple consolidated database has grown enough to require a serious dent in the Amazon forest each time it is printed out (at Bigandfussy EVERYTHING is printed out – no exception).

Besides the size of the document, the complexity of the solution also grows to unprecedented heights by the day. After having thrown in all possible requirements a normal person would conceive from a database of any form, all internal policies and procedures are split into atoms and thrown into the requirements as well.

The fourth decision, by now quite obvious, is to make the whole exercise open-ended. As this is a non-project, it has none of the basic requirements of a project – including the need to actually start doing something for real and deploy the solution, eventually. When the latest and fanciest fantasies of person A have found their way in the user requirement documentation, these must be “validated” by everybody else – but everybody else is free to add some new stuff, which obviously need to be validated as well and… I think you got the picture…

As the non-project moves on, and the business requirements keep growing with the speed of light, there are a few people very happy and other people really unhappy.

To the first group belong a vast array of consultants, business analysts, software developers, non-project managers, and creators of new and fancier user requirements. The more the projects drags on, the longer they are paid for producing nothing else than meetings and additional documents (should I mention free sandwiches?). To the second group belong the rest of Bigandfussy employee, at all levels, who finds themselves after many months still deprived of a feasible way to manage that small amount of critical information they need to carry on with their own job.

This little story made me think a lot, and convinced me (once again, I was already convinced before) that project management is quite simple IF some basic rules are taken into account. When the basics are ignored, even one of them, the chance the project will ever deliver anything are slim if any.

I have looked into probably hundreds of projects as of today – from the small ones like this to multi-million solutions deployed internationally – and I always find the same recurring issues, time after time. If there is anything that happens consistently and reliably in project management is some people’s ability to ignore years of experience and best practices in a heartbeat…

Oh, before I forget – the non-project at Bigandfussy has been running already for more than one year. Nobody knows what its cost is and will be at closure – if ever. After all, a non-project does not have the need of cost management, does not have a schedule, or scope.

All good fun…

Illusions and disillusions

August 22, 2012

It is quite normal for people to become victim of illusions, expecting things to work out in a positive way and having to recognize, after some time, that the very same thing have panned out in a completely different way. It is the illusion and disillusion cycle, one of the most feared mechanisms in nature due to the devastating effects it can have on a person.

The basic reason why this mechanism is in place and works so unfortunately well is that people is by nature optimistic. Being optimistic explains why we try to do new things, take risks, insist, and eventually succeed. It also explains why the human race is by far the most successful on this planet, non considering other forms of life without opposing thumbs.

As natural born optimistic, we all begin doing things with the expectation that it will work out. But, a fair question would be, does that mean that we are constantly living into a world of illusions?

In a way, yes. We expect that there will be a next day every evening, air to breath every few seconds, and a way to zap to a different channel when they play advertisement on TV. Statistically, there are a few positive things we can reasonably assume will be there when we need them.

However, the idea of illusion cannot really be applied to these aspects of life. Short of an UFO invasion, there is no particular reason to doubt about the air and the day after. Advertisement companies will figure out one day a way to disable the TV remote, but they are not there yet.

The illusion I am waffling about occurs when we start doing things we know could go wrong, we know why and possibly even how, and what could be the consequence. In other words, when there is a more or less calculated risk involved. That is the time where people looks at the new venture in all its ugliness, uncertain if it is a good idea to take the plunge.

Because of our natural resistance to change (which acts in this case as a self-defense mechanism), it takes a lot of effort to cross the thin line between shaking one’s head and forgetting about it, and committing to the chance of winning or losing a tough battle.

Depending on one’s character and personality, many of us go through a complicated, unconscious process of screening out enough risks, to the point that the overall idea seems reasonable enough to start with it. The amount of screening needed to get there is very variable. Some, the naturally born enthusiastics, screen really fast before jumping on the band wagon. Others need to eliminate so many risks that most probably they will not get to start at all.

By the time a new venture is started, especially when it is full of unknown unknowns, it is quite normal that there is little objectivity left in place. Risks have been eliminated (swept under the carpet, that is), or ultra-positive factors have been computed into the equation to re-balance everything to the right level.

In other words, an individual often starts a new venture on the basis of a distorted vision of reality. Wearing heavy pink glasses, we walk towards the raging fire convinced that it is flowery meadow. The illusion is there.

Up to this moment, despite the screening, the self-deceit, and the large number of neurons that sacrified themselves to get there, nothing really terrible happened. Spirits are high, walk is brisk, the wind of victory is in the air. It gets increasingly warm, though…

The big question now is: when will this pink-glasses wearing individual realize that things are not going as planned? There are several scenario’s possible, which are critical to understand where this blog is going to.

The question ” how far will he go” has to do with the amount of damage a person accepts to endure before re-analyzing the whole scenario and start to look at things without the pink glasses. This is the disillusion phase.

A few will start pretty soon. Their approach was very calculated from the start, with more planning than enthusiasm, and as soon as strange and peculiar things start to happen, they would give it a good second look. Intense transpiration, difficulties to breath, and a pungent smell in the air will be more than enough for this group to think  “Whoa! Hold your horses, pardner, something’s wrong here”. This people will immediately take off the pink glasses, realize they are going to get into troubles soon if they keep going, and start backpedaling in no time to safety. All the time spent into planning, considering, screening and weighting risks and opportunities is lost – but marching ahead is simply not an option.

A large number of people would sustain some injuries before realizing they are in troubles. They did not think about the whole matter in a very organised fashion – often these ones start marching on the base of an overall strategy (let’s go north, through that meadow) instead of a precise plan. They wear the pink glasses and realize the need to take them off when the strategy they follow start costing them a little bit too dear for their taste. Their enthusiasm is not directly connected to the meadow, but to going north. If the meadow happens to be on fire, it means they will have to go through the woods instead. Longer walk -darn!

Some others, the most enthusiastic and wild ones, will sustain serious injuries before taking a run to safety. These folks only plan was to get to the flowery meadow, non matter what. You might have heard the expression ‘ a lifetime experience’ – that is what they see.  They have very large and thick pink glasses on, and to be sure they don’t go off they have chained them around their neck. They realize pretty late they are on fire, but keep walking accepting the fact that the ‘lifetime experience’ is worth the pain. They turn back only when the thick pink glasses are melt by the scorching heat. Their moment of disillusion comes late, and leaves deep marks.

What I found extremely interesting to notice is that there is a fourth group of people, whose behavior defeats one of the most basic traits of human nature, self-preservation. It was a striking discovery I made a long time ago, but rationalized only recently. This group, that I called the suicidals, is sometime represented by the majority of the people who started the walk, the largest group of all. They don’t stop and keep walking in the fire until they burn to the bones.

They are not insensitive to pain. They are not harder than anybody else, and they suffer immensely while advancing in the scorching heat. But why do they do that? What happened to the pink glasses? In which phase are they in?

Some feel intense pain, smell the smoke, see the flames but are unaware of the overall concept of fire. They perceive the pain but do not rationalize the fact that they are burning alive, and keep walking. Each single element (the heat, the fire, the pain) are perceived as single entities and accepted as what are generally called “facts of life”, or “shit happens”. This group does not need the pink glasses anymore, so it is irrelevant if they are still in illusion or disillusion mode. If you would ask any of them why they are partially charred, lost some limb, all their hair and they are blind, they would look at you almost in disbelief and reply something along the lines of  “it is quite normal this to happen when you walk about, you know”. Similar expressions would include “it comes with the territory”, “part of the job”, “it happens to everybody” and alike. For this group of people, the only thing being strange (and slightly disturbing) is that YOU ask such stupid questions. Do not be surprised to receive pressing requests to leave them alone and mind your own business. And especially be prepared to have conversations like the following:

You: You know, you are on fire and you don’t really need to…

Him: What fire? There is no fire. It is just a bit hot. I know have lost both legs. But I can still walk, so what’s the problem?”

You: well actually a lot of people, including myself as you can see, lives in the fresh, have both legs, and walks too… aren’t you in pain?

Him: of course I am in pain! And I don’t care there is people who has both legs and live in the fresh! Those guys are born lucky, but I was not, you know? So now get off my nose and let me walk, I already lost enough time because of you, with your inane blabber about fires and stuff. Nonsense, everything is perfectly OK!

Others have taken out the glasses, realized they are in deep troubles, but thanks to another example of distorted thinking keep walking anyway. This group is represented by those who are the most resisting to change, who thought the longest about the first step of the walk, and took the largest bet with themselves. The reason why they keep walking is that they do not want to go again through the pain of deciding on a different plan of action – they walk by inertia. Mentally surrendered to the fact that they are going to die in the fire anyway due to the injuries already sustained, what is the point of turning back? This group is far beyond disillusion – each single person has given up on everything – the illusion, the pink glasses, their own life. Nothing is left there to save, there is no way back, nothing makes any sense anymore, even stop walking is too much of a change.

A typical conversation with one of these would be:

You: hey, you know you almost reduced to ashes?

Him: yeah…

You: … maybe is it time to turn back?

Him: nah…..

You: why?

Him: too tired for that stuff….

You: if you keep going, you will die!

Him: yeah, so?

You: have a great day

As you can see, the only difference between the last two groups is given by the reason why they keep walking, not by the fact that they react to the fire. Both don’t react at all, and as strange as it can be, will not react whatever happens. They are stuck into the fire, they burn, they are in pain, but there is no way they will ever decide to change their destiny.

If you have read till here, make a little exercise with yourself just now.

Apply this whole story to:

Your job

Your relationships

The place where you live

… anything else you mind thinking about…

Some other conversation examples…

John, 42, employed. Me: happy, John?  – Nah… – Wazzup? – Overworked and underpaid… – Find another job? – Nah… – Why? – Just a few years and I will retire… – You need other 23 years to retire, mate… – well, it is not that bad after all… –

Jane, 45, divorced with children. Me: fancy a drink tonite? – Nah – Got other stuff to do?  – Nah – So why not a drink? – Nah, prefer to stay alone – do you like being alone? – Nah, it is a pain – If you don’t go out, you won’t find company, you know? – Nah, going out is a pain too…

Roger, 26, employed. Me: how do you like this place?  – horrible… – what’s wrong? – everything, really, I hate it – Considered moving? – Nah, I work here – you can find a job somewhere else – yes, well, I thought about it, but…  – but what? – Ah, you know, all places are the same anyway…  – so you stay here, in a place you don’t like? – yeah, guess so…

Mary, 34, married. Me: what happened? – oh, a bit of a discussion with Robert (husband)… – you got a black eye, was it him? – yes, it got a bit out of hands… – it is the third time this month, Mary… – I know, it happens when he drinks too much… – I saw yesterday with another woman, you know?  – yes, he has a few friends… – why do you stick with him? I don’t get it… – He is a good guy… and we have been happily married for so long…

Enjoy

Euro crisis for dummies

August 13, 2012

 

The family Euro is quite large. They live in the same house, they share all common spaces, but they have separate quarters – a bit of privacy is always welcome.

In order to maintain the property, they all agreed to contribute to common expenses proportionally to something nobody quite understood, and which is always a source of quarrels. Some believe it is a question of space, some want it to be in relation to income, etc. Anyway, they got to the point where every year they give some money to a common bank account. 

There are several interesting characters in the Euro family. Otto, for instance, is a squared, sturdy guy who lives to work and is quite wealthy. He is a bit of a nuisance as he believes in law and order, not much of a fun… appreciated however for the fact that he has the money and keeps its business in good order.

Andrew is a bit of an outsider. He belongs somehow to the family, but he keeps himself to himself, and does not share many of the habits and quirks of the others. 

Then there is Antonio, Nikos, Francois, Alejandro, and a few others.

Things used to go nicely for the Euro’s. They were working together, trading with each other and with other families in the surroundings – especially with the large USD family. As a family, they were fairly wealthy.

At a certain point however bad news started to arrive, one after the other. Aengus and Alejandro building businesses go into troubles, both for the same reason. They simply built a lot of stuff, and borrowed a lot of money to do so, before they knew somebody wanted to buy what they were building. As a consequence, they ended up with a lot of empty buildings nobody wanted and a lot of debt they could not repay.

Nikos got in troubles as well. Without saying anything to anybody, he borrowed as well large amount of money, but instead of building something he used the money for parties and expensive stuff that was really not needed. 

Nicola did something quite similar as well as Carlos (Alejandros’ cousin).

So within a short time, the Euro’s discovered that instead of being altogether quite well off, they were full of debt. Banks were knocking on the door every other day, and the other families started to become quite suspicious of the Euro’s… How is it possible they did not discover about Nikos? And, more importantly, how many other dirty secrets were still to be discovered within the Euro’s? Is Francois still ok? Andrew? Otto? 

The Euro’s were quite embarrassed. They actually knew that Nikos was doing funny things, and that all others were living on borrowed money, but to keep up the appearances of a nice and friendly family, never intervened. 

So the family council was called together, to discuss what to do. Clearly, the presence of so many disgraced members was not doing any good to the family… After long discussions, it was decided that the family would have paid the debts, but that the Nikos and other indebted members would have repaid the family in due time. The idea was to avoid that banks would have started to hit on the other family members (Otto and Francois in particular) and that the other families would have stopped their dealings with them. 

So far so good, if it was not for the fact that unfortunately Nikos and Alejandro have a few more skeletons in the closet. Nikos in particular, despite the fact that a helping hand was thrown at him, keeps spending a lot of money in parties, more or less like before. Alejandro in the meantime keeps discovering that the amount of mess involved in the by now defunct building business grows with time, and needs a helping hand too.

Otto and Francois start feeling like a lemon – they keep paying to keep these guys afloat, but the more the time passes the more it looks like a black hole, and expanding fast.

The UDS family, and by now other families as well (the Yen one) grow increasingly worried. To them it does not make sense that such a thing could possibly happen, especially considering that they lent also money to the family to keep the same guys afloat.

After a while, the amount of people throwing money at the family is really large. All families, in a way or another, are now creditors and the amount of confidence in the family’s ability to get out of the mess decreases by the day.

It does not help at all the fact that the bean-counter hired by the family to  make sense of the mess keeps shouting every other day that either things are quite ok despite appearances or that a fantastic new plan to solve the whole lot is in the pipeline and will be presented soon. 

The real bummer is that the fantastic plan in question always resolves into lending new money to the by now bankrupt members of the family, and the fact that the money in question keeps coming from borrowing money from somewhere else.

To experts around the world it looks like everybody is feeding with cash a large black hole of nonsense, and instead of reducing it, it grows larger. BTW, this is what black holes do – the more they feed, the more they get bigger and need food. This simple matter seems to escape from all bean-counters now on the case, and loads of money keeps flowing in the wrong direction.

The whole story goes from bad to worse when, to save face, the various lenders, bean-counters, and the very same family members start to argue that they do not lend money anymore – they do something else and highly complicated that the mass cannot really understand. Lots of people look and smile, without actually understanding much of it, while others look with horror to the “solution” in question. 

Without spilling the beans, everybody started to print money – as simple as it is. Since the whole show is now governed by bean-counters, and since they think in terms of figures and are quite comfortable in ignoring the plain reality of the issue, their priorities is to get the figures right.

Everybody knows that the more there is of something, the less it is worth. So diamonds are quite expensive, while manure is not worth a lot. Money works the same way, and an ever-increasing amount of money is “created” to be thrown in the black hole. The fact that the money get burnt in the black hole does not mean there is less money – in bean-counting terms, the way you use the money does not affect the amount of money around, even if you burn it into a stove.

So this is where we are today. The various families got entangled into a mutual game of borrowing each other money that is too complicated to follow anymore. The family members keep burning money in various ways and with different names, but it all go into ashes. Business does not get any better either.

What is worse is that the appetite to lending money to all these people is steadily decreasing. Even Otto, the richest one, start to have problems convincing others to lend them money to be thrown into the furnace. Francois is tight-lipped on the story, while a few others highly suspicious characters (like Antonio) are talking a lot but they do very little else than borrowing money themselves.

This dynamic is now well understood by the most. The only showstopper to actually fix the mess is what is arguably called “political”. It works like this.

The family simply cannot afford to say that a gigantic mistake was done and need serious correction. Otto would lose face (and a gigantic amount of money), Andrew and Francois idem, and by now also other families have put so much money into this circus that they cannot call it as it is – so it continues.

And yet, it would be easy enough to fix it. From a family perspective, kicking out the members who have created and continue the mess would zero the issue – banks would not knock anymore of the family’s door. Nikos, left without money, would have to go to sleep under a bridge for sometime, think long and hard how to fix its own problems, and come out of it, one day, clean.

Other family members in the same situation would be given a nice deal – the bridge, so Nikos does not feel lonely. Those who threw money into this sorry story would have to take a huge loss, but what is left of the Euro family is now guaranteed to be a lot more solid and reliable than before. Business can start again.

 

School of life

August 12, 2012

Beating the streets, meeting with the worst the world has to offer, suffer, get depressed, stand up again and keep fighting to find a balance…

It sounds like a lot of work and, believe me, it IS a lot of work. It takes its toll as well, every experience leaves a mark, sometimes a scar, sometime a wound that never heals completely. You end up spending your day thinking if it is worth it…

Than eventually, silent as a thief in the night, there it comes. The moment of grock, you find the balance. Get awake one day and you know what and why it is like it is. You know what is possible and what is not. You learn the shortcuts, the bypass, the traps. It all falls into place and you simply know it.

Somebody calls it Nirvana. The interior peace. As close as paradise you can get on hearth.

Well, maybe it is a bit exaggerated. It still stinks, at least most of it. However, you win your doubts, your fears and uncertainties, you realize what is your place in the chaos all around you. This does not mean you like it… But it means that a shroud of the shoulders is all what it takes to avoid the pain, looking for next good thing – and now you know there are good things around.

It is a mix of personal expectations, sense of purpose, logic, and keeping a lid on the fair but overwhelming feeling of being just in the wrong place, and doing just the wrong things.  It happens to the best of us, and it tends to happen a lot to those, like me, who are always looking for something better anyway.

Nothing wrong with that, as there is nothing wrong in being happy with whatever life throws at you. Each has advantages and shortcomings.

I think that the bottom-line is to never surrender, even when you know that every single time you try something it will probably end up in another disappointment.  Getting frustrated and start wondering if there is something wrong with you.

What I learned in my school of life is that there is nothing wrong with me. There is nothing wrong in general. It is all a question of chemistry, tastes, preferences, and compatibility between what you do, who you are and where you are.

A lot of people I know are basically unhappy. They are unhappy because they feel they are not in the right dimension, but if I ask them what is exactly the problem, all I get is a mix of undefined feelings, strongly encapsulated in in words like ‘destiny’, ‘faith’, and a general approach of having given up on doing anything different.

It is quite interesting to observe how people react to change… or to the need to change. Most of the times you get an immediate refusal, fear, discomfort to the overall concept of moving from where they are. Even popular proverbs reinforce this – like if you leave something to do something else you know what you leave but you don’t know what you find, and alike.

It is a very wrong way to look at it. It creates laziness, lack of direction, sense of defeat.It creates dissatisfaction and sadness.

As a consequence, loads of people drop out from the school of life. To avoid the effort and pain involved in learning, which goes through a constant trial and error, they just try to get happy with the bear minimum they can afford to live with, and stop there.

Quite unfortunately, it rarely works. The bare minimum lasts a very short time, and it soon becomes insufficient. But having decided that the school of life is too hard, they find themselves between a rock and a hard place, squeezed between being unhappy and refusing a move.

 

Too big, and it always fails

June 8, 2012

You know the say “too big to fail”? It’ s rubbish, and exactly the opposite is true – it is too big and it WILL fail.
How do you recognise something that falls in that category? Being so big, you wonder, it must be hard to figure out…

In fact it is perfectly simple. Use the flag system.
Lots of policies and procedures? Cost control based on 5+ layers of useless authorisations? Absolute morons buliding empires and not being fired irrespectively of the number of mistake they produce? Totally insensitive to the need to actually deliver anything and focused on processes? Most of activities dedicated to avoid a disaster coming from inside? Hiring top talents to do PA jobs? Doing facetime as mantra for most employees?

You got ANY of the above, and you know you are in a company that simply lost it – and lost it badly.

This does not mean it will fail tomorrow, though. After a while companies of this kind become similar to diamonds – nice to see, big name, hard as a rock. But as hard as they can be, diamonds break, often due to sudden changes outside of it.

And so are many big companies, truly disfunctional, almost dead inside, but before they fail completely something must happen to act as a catalyst. And when the event occurs, they go down real fast.

The point is and remains that anything becoming too big becomes as well too complex and delicate, difficult to manage and govern, lacking insight, becoming inflexible as a glass.

There is a maximum size any company can grow to before the above materialise. A finite number of people, management layers, meetings per day, and discussions at the water dispensers is always present.

Some examples? Do you need an external advisor to know it ain’t working? Are you having pre-meeting meetings? Do you spend most of your time navigating internal issues? Then it is already too big. Customer focus might be already gone off the window, and a bunch of beancounters are already driving the company towards an early grave.

Nothing replaces direct observation of a company to understand in which waters is travelling. Sparkling new building, artworks at the wall, and fashionable desks made of mahoni wood for management do not say much.

The balance sheet even less – we all know it is almost pure fiction to start with.

Look at people… what they do, how they walk, how they talk. And not the well trained top management layer, which has years of experience in faking and manipulating reality. You need to look at the workfloor. There is all the truth you need.

Brussels – “the beating heart of Europe”…

June 5, 2012

Broken streets, maniac traffic, obnoxiously useless public offices at all levels, bizantine laws, crime, dirt (it is not illegal to urinate on the streets, can you imagine the stench?), strikes for good reasons, bad reasons, solidarity or just because they are in no mood for work, Socialism (centre de solidarite, or translated a hang out place for people on benefits, paid both with my tax money), 50% plus taxes, 21% VAT, horrible weather…

I could go on for a while or two, and after having discussed my impressions with a number of people, including Belgians, there is a clear consensus on the fact that Brussels is a dump.

Other thingies of relevance… Two languages, French and Dutch… no, three, including English (Brussels has one of the largest expat communities in Europe, for obvious reasons…)…. however… people speak French… Dutch sometimes, if and when they went to school (!) or they are coming from the right ex-colony… English… well, the EU people does, the rest refuses more or less (how French!). Not to mention of course the hundreds of… languages? dialects? whatever… that you hear every day from the huge immigrant population (most of it on benefits), that provides colour and smell (especially smell) to this beautiful city.

Traffic… Belgians are genious in city management, no worries about that. Picture this, if you can:

Monday mornings traffic is jammed from the border (all borders) to wherever else – it is simply solid. Cities are unreachable. You can literally spend 4 hours in a car to drive 50 Km. Or 2 hours to drive 5 in Brussels. I actually opted to park the car and go for dinner a couple of times, it was hopeless.  It remembers me very much of Nairobi… Friday afternoons is exactly the same – duh, what a surprise… Every single day there are incidents by the dozen… red lights are optional, trams have the legal right to run you down (no joke, they have precedence on ANYTHING), taxi drivers are, quite obviously, slightly stressed and characterised by their almost complete unawareness of the city – in other words, they get lost. Parking places are at a price (steep) – but it is not so simple as saying “I pay, I park”. Noooo, you need to follow a detailed procedure, that involves you being a Belgian citizen, to park for more than two hours… the machines do not accept coins for more than that time…

Being a socialist country, Belgium provides a lot of public transports – busses, metro, trams… sounds good? Well, busses drive on the same congested streets as everybody else… Trams are often stuck at cross roads… The metro is ok, however it is full of people who jumps in and start to shout how unfair society is, excuses him/herself for disturbing, and then goes around collecting money from everybody who is silly enough to finance such a nuisance… pleasant… did I already mention the public urination practice? Metro locations are one of the most preferred destination for the thousands of incontinent anti-social members of the public.

If you drive from the Netherlands to Brussels, you will notice a number of lamp masts that are cut at 1 meter high and covered with a cyan foil… elsewhere, the very same masts are getly resting in the area between carriages… You know what? They have all been sawed away because they were so rotten that were falling down – a typical example of Belgian maintenance – do not fix it, do not replace it – just cut it away and forget about it….

As all this was not enough, during certain periods Brussels shuts down part (or all, if you are out of luck) of its city tunnels (the only way to avoid the small streets, always jammed), and together with that, just to make sure nobody has a gram of doubt about their planning skills, also a few motorways in/out of the city. As you can by now imagine, the moment where all this is going to happen is not known, so when you make travel plans concerning Belgium and Brussels in particular, count in increments of hours, not minutes. Ah, don’t forget… Belgians have learned from France how to assist the motorists providing directions – means they don’t. They shut down a road, and good luck in finding an alternative one – it is not their job to assist you…

This is the place where the EU institutions are seated. I can reach the Commission and the Parliament walking from my office in 15 minutes… This city should be the image not only for Belgium, but for Europe. And to an extent it is indeed a good example of what Europe is… dysfuntional, messy, leazy, dirty, and bankrupt if it was not because of… Europe.

You should see the massive new buildings the EU is putting together just in the centre of Brussels – monumental structures meant to host thousands of tax-free eurocrats busy in making sure that Europe remains what it has always been – an old, decrepit lady.

While in the Netherlands, I heard a lot of stories about Belgium and Belgians… as Sint Thomas was my teacher, I always told myself “first see, then believe”. Well I can tell you I see it every day, and every day I am literally stunned by the leazyness, incompetence, approximation, stupidity I see around me. Unbeliveable, and mind you – I saw a few things in my last 45 years around in the world.

People is used to it… a bus driver who closes the bus to make a private phone call leaving people in the rain… Gigantic potholes in the streets, left there by construction works that probably will never continue (you can ask, but nobody will know), public employee who, after hours cueing at the Townhall, tell you cold face that YOU did not bring the right documents so you have to cue again… and it is useless to point out that it is nowhere written WHAT are the right documents to start with. Where internet shopping is alien as a concept…highly suspicious as well… Where banks “lock’ your corporate account, without warning, because they have not followed their OWN procedures…

Since however Belgians are most of the time on holiday, they don’t really care. When on the job, their professional mantra is “it is not my job”, leaving you hanging out dry. When actually working, or doing something that qualify as work, they use common sense and efficiency as things to unclog the toilets (and sinks, why not). I cannot blame them completely… low wages, associated to the need of maintaining armies of parasites coming from half of the world (solidarity it is called) by huge taxes does not help keeping people motivated. Just a few days ago, an important member of one of the Belgian governments declared himself surprised of the fact that so many companies were closing down… guessed? The same crazyness applies also to businesses… the overall idea of business risk = more earning is, in Belgium, an authentic curse – immoral, anti-social, non-socialist (it’s not the same), non-democratic (did not quite understand that one though) and uncivilized. That is probably why there are very few businesses and lots of (unemployed) employees… plus those living on benefits, which are really a lot.

There are also nice things of course… the “manneken pis”, a ridicously small statue of a pissing boy (bad example for the populace). Beer is good. You can find enough chocolate here to fill three lifetimes of obesity… if you are a smoker, this is your place, everybody smokes here… rain is falling horizontally, so you can save on raincoats – they make no sense. You can even buy second-hand computers and GSM phones in shops (in the centre!). To get checked for a ticket on public transport is a rare evenience… so you can travel for free in most cases. You like mud? Dogshit? Dust? Cheap half-burnt diesel fumes? Trucks parked in the middle of the streets? Brussels got it all, and much more. A paradise for the half-suicidal person, and a proven proof that life is not that good after all, so why keep postponing the inevitable?

Do you think I am hypercritical? Come and see. But not on holidays, that is too easy. Sure, you could be robbed, cheated by the hotel or taxi driver, loose hours in the worst trafic I ever saw besides Rome and Delhi, but this is still too easy…

Try to work here. Try to make sense of a 50% tax rate, where even the best accountant in the country gets confortably lost in translation trying to figure out how much money you could get  – net – at month end. Try to open a company. Or simply to register yourself at the Townhall. When you feel you are ready to either kill somebody, start crying in despair, or just leave, give me a shout. I will help you leaving, bring you to the station (if there is no strike, if the train leaves from the place it is supposed to leave from, if reasonably on time, if aliens do not abduct it, etc.).

Me? I have managed my way in Lagos, Lima, Jakarta, Guatemala, Jeddah… Brussels is just another developing country on my long list.

And then, of course, I am stubborn. A pure woodenhead of a guy. Hard as a brick. And always keen to learn that there is no end to worse.