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Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Glasshouse, by Charles Stross

book cover I am going to go ahead and say that I didn't like Glasshouse. To be fair, after the amazing achievement that was Accelerando, my expectations from Charles Stross were quite high, but I believe this book was quite frankly badly written.

The story is set somewhere in the distant future, after "the Acceleration" which permits easy transport and energy generation through wormholes that instantaneously and safely connect two points in space. This permits creation of anything from pure energy that is just harvested directly from stellar coronas, for example. This further allows for people to choose their bodies at will, making them male, female, changing the shape, the functionality, the species, etc. While being 3D printed like this, one can also make modifications to one's brain and thought patterns. Software, like malicious worms, can infect "gates", the machines that record and create matter, and proliferate through the brains of victims that unwittingly went through those gates.

So far so good. The hard sci-fi background set, I was expecting something amazing. Instead, it's about some whiny person who gets into an experiment to recreate the "Dark Ages" (read "our present") in order to fill in knowledge gaps of the period and discovers he got more than he bargained for. I thought that the idea of the book was to describe the present through the eyes of an Accelerated person, revealing the ridiculousness of the rituals and hard set ideas that hold us back - and it certainly started like that - but in the end it was impossible for Stross to keep up with it and everything devolved in a silly detective story that made no sense in any period, especially the far future.

My review thus denounces this book as clumsy, both in the chaotic change of direction and pace and in the writing style. The only good thing about it: it was rather short.

Monday, September 28, 2015

JRC in Ispra - an external perspective

I have finally returned home from a two year period working for the Joint Research Center of the European Commission, based in Ispra, Italy. I usually don't publish my places of employment on the blog, but this is special, because I know there are very few sites one can get an honest opinion about it. I have not been employed by the EC directly, but through a proxy company that also contracted me as an independent contractor. There is much to be said about that, too, but my main point is that in this tiered society I was the "external contractor", which had a meaning of "lower caste" in most administrative circles and even in some personal ones. But since this will be a long post, let me do it properly.

Also, some people have told me that they thought my post to be biased and subjective. They are right! It is my own personal perspective and I cannot guarantee that any of it is remotely true. Even to myself. Because sometimes I think nothing is real. It's all in my head. Including you. Wait, where did you go?


You can't believe the location of the JRC in Ispra when you first get there. Yes, you probably knew that Ispra is like a small town in the middle of nowhere, but you didn't expect your future workplace to be situated in a huge, green park. After you go through the impressive security gates (which anyone with a little skill can pass through unimpeded) you see trees and grass and some medium sized buildings in their midst, few and widely spaced between them. To understand better, at odd hours when there were fewer cars going in and out I saw wild hares, foxes and even a badger on the premises. I have an entire collection of flower and mushroom photos taken from the place, but it's too big to publish here and I am not sure I am allowed to, since there was a vague "no pictures" sign in the outside parking lot.

That being said, the entire area is placed next to a small patch of forest. In fact, people who come for the first time to JRC (and are not externals) can be housed in the Foresteria, which is like a student housing place, with large spaces, but bad accommodations, where you pay a percentage of your JRC salary as rent. Myself I was housed in Millennium Residence, a small motel like thing situated right in front of the JRC main gate. I don't drive, so it was great for me. Ispra is right next to Lago Maggiore (which, in case you are trying to translate from Italian, is a big lake, but not actually the biggest lake in the area), so you have a lot of opportunities for walks and drinks by the lake and stuff like that. Great, right?

Now comes the bummer, once you exhaust the few things you can walk to and from in the area, you realize that you are screwed without a car. There are a lot of restaurants in the area, more than they should be - because of the JRC there, but their quality and pricing vary wildly. Plus, when I say "area", I am talking places you get to by walking at least 15 minutes. Of course, a bike helps tremendously, but everything in the region is ups and downs; it may take a while for getting used to. Forget about anything else fun. In Italy, everything closes at around midnight. There is only one club called ANPI, which is like a reminiscence from the war era, one bar - which is great but small, a bar-restaurant next to the lake called Cafe del Lago (ask Mauro there for a Sputtafuoco focaccia sandwich and say the Romanian guy sent you ;) ) which is acceptable, but closes early and the Club House, where people go to drink a cup of tea and have decent Internet. Oh yeah, I'll get to that in a moment.

With a car, though, you have access to numerous places in the region, from touristic locations to some beautiful wild zones. There are bigger towns with bigger distractions, though not that big. Not having a car, I am hardly the guy to talk to you about that. Maybe others will fill in the blanks in the comments section.

A big problem with the location is how to get there. The closest airport from Ispra is Milan-Malpensa, which is relatively close by car, but impossibly long by anything else. Assuming you reach Malpensa at the right time, you would take three trains to get to Ispra in more than two hours. If you take a cab, you get to Ispra in half an hour, but you pay at least 50EUR for the trip. If you weren't an external, you might have access to a cab company that can be used by JRC employees only. The good news is that there are people that work as clandestine taxis in the area. A trip to Malpensa usually takes 30EUR with these people, and they are nice folk, they can wait for you at the airport and since they live in the area it is much more convenient for them as well. Just ask around and you will find someone who knows someone.


When I first got to Ispra, the place where I was living had no Internet. I went from two broadband lines in Bucharest to nothing in one day. I spent my weekend mapping the Wi-Fi connections in neighboring Ispra and Cadrezzate. At one point I found a spot in an intersection where, if you kept the cell phone up, you got the Wi-Fi connection from the Club House (which was at least 500m away). Moving one meter in either direction from that sweet spot terminated the signal. It was like magic and, while I was getting my mail there and people were staring at me from their cars as they were passing by, I wondered if it wasn't some Internet withdrawal induced hallucination.

Inside JRC, the Internet is good, if you are not in a "secure network" which filters all your access through a 1984 style firewall that doesn't allow you to open games, proxy and VPN programs distribution websites, hacking, weapons or other such suspicious sites, whatever that means. Even so, the download speed is huge and you can have a decent experience at work, if your boss would allow it.

After a while they installed Internet at my residence: an ADSL line that was supposed to be shared by all people living there. There were like 20 apartments, so even with perfect bandwidth distribution that amounted to about 40KB/s. There was not a perfect bandwidth distribution, let's put it like that. And even so, the speed from the provider was not always full on. I had days when the entire bandwidth of the building was around 30KB/s in total. And I am talking about the download here.

Other options for Internet in the area include cellular Internet and EOLO, a system that requires you to install a satellite-like dish. Since the owners of the building did not want to allow that, I was stuck with ADSL, like in 2000. Cellular Internet might seem appealing, if you don't intend to download movies or Linux distributions or whatever, but their subscriptions there are idiotic to say the least. They give you a 10GB allowance, for which you pay like 15EUR (I think), but when you finish it, you need to wait for the month to end to get other 10GB. You cannot buy more than 10GB, either. So you go to them, money in hand, tell them you want to pay for more Internet and they refuse you.

You ask me how I survived in the middle of nowhere with no Internet for six months? I made a program to search for everything I was interested in and download it in a file so I could read stuff at my house from an USB stick. Yeah, that happened.

Also, if you are thinking about watching TV to learn Italian... not gonna happen. All the channels that you are likely to have available are in Italian, even in most hotels, and the quality of the Italian TV is abysmal. Let just say that when I first turned the TV on at night - hoping for better programming - I found Ambra Angiolini with the show "Generazione X", which only aired around 1995.


What life? Heh.

Italians are really strange from a Romanian point of view, but not so, apparently, for the neighboring countries - which probably makes Romania strange. The weirdest cultural shock for me were the hours and days of service. For example, you have to eat lunch at 12:30, you have to eat dinner at 19:00. If you get terribly hungry at 15:00, your only option is a supermarket: all restaurants and most bars are closed. Likewise, if you want service during lunch hours from a non-food related business, you will find them closed for the duration. They also have something called "giorni de chiusura", days in which the business is closed. Makes sense, since restaurants would have a lot of business in the weekend, but not so in certain days. But you never know when that day is. Usually it is somewhere on Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday, but you might walk by and find them open because they were closed the day before or something. Hint: always keep the phone numbers of the restaurants you want to revisit. And speak Italian.

There are many other areas of life where Italians do things regimented like that, not only in opening hours. If you invite an Italian to your home because you are cooking something, they will insist they come at 12:30 or after 19:00. They simply do not get hungry somewhere in the middle. The dishes are clearly marked in the menu as "primi" and "secondi", meaning first and second, so you know the order in which to eat them, but then there are the drinks/food combinations as well: what to drink with what food, what not to drink and eat after or before something and so on. I have been told of laws from the Mussolini era remaining in their codex, like you are not allowed to congregate in groups of more than five people or something and stop on the sidewalk or if you want to have a party of more than 20 people you need to notify the police. They have a lot of behaviour rules as well, clothing rules, they fucking have rules about anything and everything. And then they tell you "Oooh, this is Italy!" meaning that rules are there to be broken. Still, lots of rules are being followed.

If you are young and you are thinking about wild parties and sex orgies and dancing and stuff like that, forget about it. There are no young people in Ispra, if they can help it. Even the people in the JRC, when they throw parties, you have to first be "in the know", meaning you are part of a group that organizes this kind of things, and then you have to expect something really meek, since all of the people you are partying with are colleagues, or friends of colleagues and there is no sport in JRC greater than gossip.

There are solutions, like getting into your car and going to Milano or Varese, or knowing nearby clubs. Again, I am not the guy to ask. The people that I have met were either not discussing it or not having much of a "life", in the social sense of the word.

How did I do it? Eventually I met a group of misfit friends and we often met at lunch or dinner for many a beer and discussions about software programming, politics and movies. And sex and drugs! We were discussing the lack of them.

Food and drink

Oh boy, I could write a whole novel about what I think of the Italian food style. Most of it would be ranting, though. So I will try to keep it civil here.
If you like pasta and pizza, you are in heaven in Italy. Of course, Ispra being close to Milano, people will tell you that you are "in the North" and that people are good here, but the food is not. They will endlessly compliment the food of the southern regions, telling you that the food you eat is nothing compared to something similar done a few hundred kilometers down. Asked how come they don't move the food from there to "the North" (I felt like I was surrounded by Starks, I swear!) you will hear that the water, the air, the very substance of the universe and the laws of physics and chemistry change based on the region of Italy you are in.
I call bullshit. Moreover, I hate pasta in almost all of its incarnations. And I am using words like incarnation because I am mostly a carnivore and when I am not I favor tomatoes, garlic, onions, chilly peppers, fried potatoes. None of that is abundant in Italian food near Ispra. When you ask for a steak you get a half a centimeter piece of meat that would envy any well beaten piece of schnitzel, when you ask for pizza sauce they give you oil, not tomato sauce, they use so little garlic that you need to always ask for it extra, they don't use fresh chilly peppers, only dried ones or already cut ones - for the pizza, and their ideas of tomato is either pasta sauce or some cherry tomatoes that seem to have wondered off on your plate by mistake. Ask for a salad and you will get green salad, carrots Julienne and the olive oil+balsamic vinegar thing to prepare it. OK, they might use other ingredients over that, but they are things like: nuts, a bit of grana (dry cheese), rucola, two or three cherry tomatoes, etc.
Paradoxically, in Italy I also ate the tastiest steaks, but you have to find the places that cook these. You have to look for T-bone steaks, what the Italians call "costata". Filetto is another term for a tasty piece of beef. The best is the Fiorentina, which is usually sold at 4.5 euros for 100 grams. Two out of three restaurants that have costata on the menu do it badly. And I am not talking about the "oh, I know food and this is not so good" kind of Italian boasting, but they are so cooked or so thin that I couldn't enjoy them. Talking about the meat, the Italian word for meat is "carne", just like in Romanian. However, for them the term is almost exclusively used for beef steaks or maybe pork. Tired of pizza with a thin layer of dough, a lot of cheese and a few ingredients sprinkled over, I once asked for "pizza con carne" which they absolutely assured me they have not and gave me the weird looks. When asked what about salami, sausage, chicken, fish, pork they looked at me even stranger "of course we have those". The poor waitress thought I wanted a pizza with a beef steak on it... which I did, but apparently they don't do that.
Italians don't know what a soup is. In fact, I was so shocked that I had to look at the Wikipedia page just to see that I am not the one misusing the term. They have a thing called "minestrone", but they don't call it a soup. Sometimes you find something called a soup, but they are all creams, like boiling a plant and then putting the result in the mixer or putting a dust from an envelope in boiling water. Also, things called "zuppa" are not actually soups. It gets very confusing. Enough to say that if you are looking for a soup like in Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey or even China, you can't find it.
Garlic. Ahh, some people are extremely sensitive to garlic and while I understand their discomfort when someone smells of the thing, I mostly pity them for not "getting it". Yes, I am a hypocrite, as well. However, in Italy that is the norm. People would smell garlic off you, wonder why you put garlic in this and that and talk about "we use garlic in Italian cuisine, just the other day I used a clove in one dish and the whole family enjoyed it". OK, maybe using a whole bulb for my evening meal is excessive, too, but surely this fear of garlic is unwarranted. In fact, I read an article about the old days of the Roman empire where the poor people and slaves did not have a lot of things to eat and they could only afford cabbage and other garden stuff like that. And since cabbage usually tastes like crap by itself, they used a lot of garlic to spice it up. Therefore the "citizens" (read "people from Milan") thought that the smell of garlic was a sign of poor social status. Now, if I think about it, there were very little restaurant dishes with cabbage, as well. Even the kebab (if you could find it anywhere) was made with green salad leaves. Yuck!
And talking of kebab: actual Turks doing actual Doner kebab were making these dick sized and shaped things in Italy where they put a few ingredients and called it a kebab. Shameful!
The best part of Italian food for me were the cheeses. Really diverse and really different from what I am used to. For example if you want something like feta - which is the average type of cheese in Romania, you need to buy the Greek one from the supermarket, Italians don't have that. Instead they have all kinds of stuff. Try them all, you won't regret it.

For a while I really adored a small place next to my house called La Fornarina. There were these really nice people from the South that were making huge steaks and I enjoyed being "part of the family". However, they were crap at business management and quickly failed. Too bad. Now the only regular solution in the area is Miralago. Ask for Deborah and tell her the Romanian sent you ;). After a lot of experimentation, we ended up lunching every day at that place. They don't know what a steak is, though, but the pizza is great and the daily menu is very cheap and very tasty and different every day. For a nice steak and really hot chilly peppers, you need to go to a place called David's Club in Dormelletto. And what do you say when you get there? Say the Romanian sent you, of course. Special mention for Il Vecchio Castagno, which is an agriturismo in Ranco. Ask for the antipasti menu, which is a combination of 6 to 12 different types of food, some of them quite exotic.

For the drinks, I really enjoyed the Italian grappa. It's like a brandy made of what is left of the grapes after being squeezed to make wine. The taste is really different from grape type to grape type and I found out that I usually like the grappa made from the grapes of the wines that I don't like. And viceversa. Whenever I felt like bringing something from Italy to my friends and relatives at home, I brought them grappa and cheese. The wine is good as well, however you need to know what to order. I found out that the most expensive wines I did not enjoy, while some cheap ones were perfect for me. Probably because instead of sipping I was drinking them. I found this technique to work with a glass of water: you take a sip of a Chianti or something more special and you feel the taste. Then you take a sip of water and clean your palate, then you sip the wine again. It works, but I prefer the drinkable wine.
One funny anecdote is about me trying to buy wine from the supermarket in the first days I moved to Italy. In Romania we have a label hint on every wine saying if it is dry, sweet or somewhere in between. In Italy this hint is missing. Since I didn't know any of the wine makers or types, I just took two Chiantis (thanks, Hannibal!) and the only wine that had a "secco" label on it, a wine called Florio. When I got home and tasted it, it felt like I poured honey down my throat. It was awful. If you read the Wikipedia page you will see that there are three varieties of this wine which is mostly used for cooking. The sweet one is two and a half times sweeter than the dry one. Damn Einstein and his relativity!
And speaking of sweet, almost everything else in Italy is a sweet liquor. And I mean disgustingly sweet. Moreover, because of a bias in understanding the terms, in Italy if something is bitter or sour, then it is not sweet. So whenever I was trying another brand of Italian drink I would ask "is it sweet?" "Noooo!" and of course it had like half of it just sugar. They had something called "Latte di suocera", which was 75% alcohol. I tried it, sure that something that high on alcohol couldn't have been sweet. Guess what was the rest of 25%! Campari and Aperol are nice, especially in what Italians call a "spritz" which is not wine and water, it's something made with prosecco. My advice: if you haven't tried it before, ask for a bottle of mineral water next to your Aperol Spritz.
One really annoying feature of the alcoholic landscape in Italy (and indeed, every country around as well, including Austria) is that beer is around 5 euros a pint, more than wine, more than grappa, more than any spirit. I mean you go to a bar and you pay 10 euros for a liter of beer. That makes understandable the habit of bars and restaurants to bring you free food with your drinks: you pay a lot more on drinks than on food. You have a lot more variety of beers, like a lot of Belgian beers and artisanal beers, but those you pay even more for. The pint of normal beer in bars is a least 4.5 euros.

The best bar in Ispra (and probably around) is San Martino. Alex the bartender (sorry, I couldn't help make a Misfits pun here) is a great person and a very good bartender. Ask him for his cocktail recommendations and, naturally, tell him the Romanian sent you! You pay rather much on a cocktail, but usually it comes with a full plate of food. Sometimes it is easier (and cheaper) to eat there in the evening.

The work

Now we get to the real deal. You've learned about how to live in Ispra, or how to at least survive, you've learned where the town is and what and where to eat and drink. Those are my favourite past times next to being on the Internet, so it figures. But what about the work? What about the thing that I came all the way from Romania for, leaving my wife to wait for me back home?

The first positive thing about the work was already said: the JRC looks like a park. Now, you need to know that will not last. Why? Because of the reason why it was done like that. You see, when I first came in, my first thoughts were of the sci-fi TV show Eureka, where a guy inadvertently finds himself in a town where the US has secretly stashed all the brilliant scientists, an enclave of knowledge and magic like science where everybody, without exception, was exceptional (see what I did there?). When I saw the vast green of the place I thought some brilliant workplace architect imagined the best way to place buildings in order to maximize the well being of the people hard at work inside the JRC. Well, no. The JRC was home to a nuclear reactor. That is why there is so much security and that is why, wait for it, the buildings are so spread out over a large distance. In case of a nuclear accident, this would allow people to get a lower dosage of lethal radiation - statistically, of course; the nearest people would be screwed. In fact, now that the reactor has been decommissioned, they are building these huge office building like structures that they plan to move everybody into in the near future. These buildings are not only ugly, but they are not even functional: offices have too few power outlets, you get no cell reception in the middle of the building and they are going for the "transparent office space" thing, where anybody from the building can, with little effort, see what you are doing and what's on your screen. But yeah, it is still a positive thing so far.

The second positive thing is the money. Let's face it, if you go to another country to work, you also go for the money and the money is huge. Especially for a Romanian that has to pay a fixed amount of tax as an independent contractor. Not so for a regular person, though. Within the Italian tax framework, a person paid that much needs to give more than half of it to the state. Similar for many other countries. In fact, it may be the norm. Is clearly better than being a software developer in Italy, because they are paid shit, but still, do you know that the permanent position bosses get almost twice what their external employees get and pay almost no taxes whatsoever?

The third positive thing is the people. The hiring process is thought as to get people with experience in their fields. What that means is not that they know a lot, but that they worked a lot with other people and nobody killed them yet. So you can meet a lot of interesting people if you put your mind to it.

That's it. Outside of the Internet speed, I can't think of anything else positive in the JRC. So here come the negatives. I hope you have the time. Otherwise bookmark this, get something to eat, it will be a long read :)

The absolute worse thing in the JRC is this tiered social system. You get the employees of the European Commission, permanent position people who have been there since forever and will continue to be there till their retirement. It is the reason why they are called "permanents". They are paid a lot and they pay almost no tax. Another tier is the "externals", independent contractors that are contracted through intermediaries for a fixed duration, maximum of 6 months, that will be renewed as the JRC sees fit (to a new 6 month period, and so ad nauseaum). That was me. It means that at every stage of the project your boss can simply not renew your contract, effectively firing you, but without the hassle of going through any legislative hurdle. You also get no insurance, paid vacation or sick days and you need to handle all your own finances: accountant, taxes, legal things. Somewhere in the middle are the "grantholders". As opposed to externals, they were not requested for a specific job. Instead, these poor gits have studied and applied for a grant in the JRC, making the effort to get in and be accepted in this wonderful place of research and knowledge. They have a longer contract, usually three years but it can vary, and they are more like employees than the externals, with more benefits, but having also more rules to follow as a result.

This tiered system is absolutely destroying any chance that real work will be done in JRC. I have met only a few people who were content with their work environment, everybody else was ranting to no end of the idiotic conditions in which they have to try to work or pretend to work. Grantholders join the place and their handlers don't know what to do with them and so assign them meaningless tasks. There was one case where a girl tried to get in the JRC, came for the interviews, all on her own money, got through all the tests and requirements, all of three months of effort and wasted money, only to be told that the position she was applying for was cancelled. Externals, on the other hand, are requested for specific purposes - like most software developers in the JRC, since there is no software research in there. But the specificity of the requirements are some of the time just the title of the project. Projects, you see, are different inside the JRC than for the outside world. Instead of having a set of requirements and a time period in which to achieve said requirements, the JRC projects have a budget. Someone was convinced that the project is good for something, so they gave them a budget and now the money must be spent. The general goal of the manager of such a project is not to finish on time and on request, but to keep the project running indefinitely.

Of course, for each of these projects and teams, the task of managing them cannot be given to externals, they need to use a permanent position for it. These people, as explained above, have no real chance of leaving the JRC. The only non voluntary options are a really disturbing mental breakdown, serious illness or death. Some colleagues were actually wondering if dying while being employed would actually make the position available, or the corpse would continue to do the same job as before since the requirements and indeed the training for the job of manager of a project are nil. The only worries of such a person is how to go through the bureaucratic hoops to ensure the annual budget.

You must understand, I am not describing only my work place or my boss, I am not ranting against a specific person here. I don't even think my boss was such a bad guy. The issue is systemic, as observed and described by countless people. The permanents were not born monsters, they are turned into soulless creatures by this grand experiment that should be considered on par with the Stanford Experiments and most of them are utterly pitifully incompetent.

This social layering is visible at every stage of working in JRC. When an external enters or leaves the JRC, they need to validate their electronic card at the entrance; the permanent just waves it joyously. In fact, they tried to enforce the rule of swiping the badge for all people and the response was this hysterical "what is this climate of distrust? Are we robots or animals to be obligated to do this every day?" coming from the permanent syndicate. Of course, that means that, in their view, externals are either less than human. The JRC has this eating place called Mensa. I have not mentioned it in the previous sections because I think it's a disgrace. The food is almost decent, the prices are kind of low, but it feels like livestock feeding. Also, if you are an external, you have to pay a 1.3 euro extra for eating there. Permanents do not. There is a medical station inside the JRC, in case you are sick or something. I have never tried it, but I understand that it only functions for permanents. And so on and so on and so on. Rarely have I seen an environment of such potent social toxicity.

Now getting back to management: they are hiring people for positions of software developers, but they didn't even consider hiring people for the job of software management. It is the same in any domain, I am sure, but for software it is paramount that the person leading the project understands what that project is about. Instead, only a vague requirement lingers in the air, like the smell of a fart, and the daily worry of the external worker is to satisfy the emotional needs of their boss. I am using the word boss, because manager implies some sort of training in the science of management. The daily worry of the boss is different, trying to move any ounce of responsibility on the shoulders of the employees (I am not joking, stuff like "boss, should we do it like this or like that?" "you are the expert, you should choose!") and still convince themselves and others that they are relevant somehow. Stuff like "I don't care if they ask for deliverables, you still have to be in the office for 8 hours every day!". Yuck!

A year in and there came a new "papal bull" from the heads of the EC requiring a list of yearly deliverables for each project. The JRC was in chaos, as many permanents felt the pressure of having to declare what they were going to do before they do it! Maybe even plan ahead some things. Possibly even understand the technical underpinnings of the projects they lead. The chaos lasted for a week or two. I wondered why people seemed to relax suddenly. I got my answer a few months later when someone told me the story of their manager coming to them and asking them to "do something for this deliverable point that I forgot to remove". Get it? They had to give a list of deliverables, but they could edit it at will. In the end, even after "forgetting to delete" one of the goals of the project, all they needed was some document saying that they did something, no matter what.

The result is that you, as a worker, slowly lose relevance yourself. As the world goes forward, you remain behind, even forget what you knew when you came in. You have to make continuous efforts to read stuff, work at home and, most of all, force yourself to not damn it all and start pretending to work like everybody around you. The pressure to just play the game and lose any human connection with the work you do is very strong though. Even days when I did almost nothing were stressful (if not more so) because of the realization that I was losing my self as my life was slowly wasting away. For this reason, I don't recommend working there unless you need the money or a place to rot away in while doing something pleasant outside work.

Another very bad thing about the JRC is the group politics. Like in every bureaucratic environment, there is politics, but usually it is at the personal level. Someone is trying to advance in ranks, to shit on someone else's head, to position themselves closer to a more relevant person or project. However, the politics in JRC are about groups that are doing everything by themselves. Trying to use the results of another group in your work is not only frowned upon, but provokes fits of anger from people thinking you are trying to steal their thunder and butt in on their whitepaper or whatever. As a software developer I was spared of many of these things, but I have heard quite a lot from the more "scientific" levels of the JRC. Even with software, there is not and probably never will be a situation where you create a library with a useful purpose and share it with all the JRC somewhere. This type of policy makes collaboration all but impossible. In place of a community of researchers, happily sharing and creating knowledge, you get little groups of people unaware of what others are doing, often working on the same thing in a different way and closely guarding their rights to put their names on things they publish.

Politics is worse even at the personal level in JRC. Working on a project basically on your own and then having your boss tell you that everybody in the team needs to be in the whitepaper name list is bad enough, but I have seen that the only real criterion of worth in a team is to "play nice" with your boss and the influential members of your team. People who were finishing work early and "were caught" watching YouTube videos were considered bad workers, while people who did nothing but mindlessly watch the screen all day were seen as conscientious. The "grapevine" was strong in JRC. How would you feel to meet people for the first time and see that they already have formed an impression of you because people, many times your own boss, was gossiping with others? This was a common thing in JRC and Mensa was like the main gossip club. I am certain that some people went to the Mensa in order to remain socially relevant and to be "in the loop" rather than for the dismal food.

The last but not least negative thing is the futility of work in the face of bureaucracy. In Romania there is the saying "I am working for the state. I pretend to work, and they pretend to pay me". Imagine that times 28 and this is what it is like to work in a truly international project for the European Commission. I have worked for two different projects while in JRC and the first was something nobody wanted to see work (especially the supposed clients, because of "national interests" - read this as "people wanting to keep their useless jobs") and the second is doomed to failure because there is no way the data produced by it wouldn't hit a political wall when "an EC software is gathering data about my country". Actually, I hope the second project works, although I cannot see it ever ending or reaching any meaningful result.


What else is there? I talked about an apparently idyllic working place, corrupted by human pettiness and social imbecility. I talked about great resources, squandered on meaningless work and the good people reduced to angry ranting drunks by it. I talked about a country that values silly things and looks only inward, instead of opening to the vastness of the world around it. The only thing I can think of saying is opportunities. Don't squander them.

Occasionally you will see something new that could expand your horizons. A foreign language class, a cooking class, a festival somewhere, learning to ride, going to the gym, the possibility of love, whatever. And, working as an external in Ispra, always asking yourself if you will spend more than another six months here, if the boss won't fire you, the project won't suddenly remain without a budget or if the wife will have a fit and demand you come back, you will convince yourself that you don't need it, that it can wait, that you can't spare the time or that you are not sure you want to spend the money. That's bull! Take the opportunity, learn whatever new you can, not because you have all the time in the world, but because you actually don't! Exactly because you might be gone at any time, you need to seize the moment.

For me, that's the only regret. I made great friends, I had fun as much as I wanted, I could have done more at work, I am sure, but I made a decent effort, I enjoyed the solitude as much as I enjoyed the company. But I return with little but money and the knowledge I've detailed in this post. As for JRC Ispra... it felt like prostitution. I was making money for being fucked in the ass, and if I would have stayed any longer, I would have been convinced that somehow I deserve it.

Friday, September 25, 2015

My Incredibly Wonderful, Miserable Life: An Anti-Memoir, by Adam Nimoy

If Adam Nimoy's name sounds familiar to you, it most likely is you recognized his last name. Yes, he is Leonard Nimoy's son and, ironically, he sounds as happy as the son of Spock probably would have sounded. However, My Incredibly Wonderful, Miserable Life is not, as one might expect, a whining account of what it means to be the offspring of a celebrity, but a heart wrenching anecdotal account of Adam's personal life, going through parenting, addiction, divorce and trying to pull himself together. The book is a collection of very short and stand alone chapters which feel like, and probably are, Alcoholic Anonymous stories about himself, just as raw and open as one might expect from the floor of a meeting of people following the 12 step program.

My personal opinion is that I absolutely loved it. As any good autobiography, it teaches something beyond a mere story, it reveals. I enjoyed the book not as a Star Trek fan, but as a human being. This stuff is not easy to get, at least not for me. I recommend it highly.

Kill Decision, by David Suarez

Not as complex as Daemon, Kill Decision still manages to impress, thrill and terrify with the very believable subject matter. As for the other two previous books by Daniel Suarez also covers the subject of technology disrupting the political and economical makeup of our society, this time focusing on unmanned autonomous killing drones and it also draws ideas from multiple very real and very interesting scientific fields.

I don't want to spoil anything, but it is mostly a book about the good underdogs fighting the all powerful bad guys, so in that sense it is most like FreedomTM than Daemon. It doesn't have a twist in the middle of the story, either, changing the perspective of the subject matter, it is a simple and by the book (pardon my pun) technological thriller. Perhaps that sounds a little disappointing, but it was a fascinating book and I finished it in mere days while also travelling abroad and visiting Italian cities.

I highly recommend it, not so much for the story directly, as for the multitude of subjects it touches, the sense of eye opening knowledge and the terrifying feeling that everything that happens in the book is not only realistic, but possibly happening as we read.

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

FreedomTM, by Daniel Suarez

Book cover FreedomTM is the sequel, or rather the second part, of Daniel Suarez's Daemon, which I've reviewed previously. While Daemon spooked me with its realism, FreedomTM does away with all that and changes both pace, scope and plot. I guess Suarez had this in his head from the beginning of starting the book, but I didn't see it coming. Be warned, if you have not read Daemon, this review is going to have some serious spoilers.

You see, from a technological thriller, the book directly goes into socio-economic commentary and from a dumb AI engine that treats the world as a computer game, we get an Agent Smith Emperor of Dune kind of thing, which recognizes humanity as the scourge it is and assumes the role of the solution. Suspension of disbelief is almost impossible as you see "the good guys" surviving death (repeatedly), the bad guys being bad just because they can and being defeated with deus ex machina kind of solutions, and technological solutions solving every problem humanity ever had or could have. FreedomTM is the software developer's wet dream, where the algorithm that rules all other algorithms is not only possible, but implemented and bug free.

That doesn't mean that the book is bad. Far from it. I liked it a lot. However, compared with Daemon, it's like an American blockbuster movie cop out from a situation that is dramatic and full of tension: everything is going to be alright. Instead of maintaining the tension and having the reader on the edge of the seat, so to speak, everything gets explained in the first part of the book and the rest is just dedicated to epic conflict. Oh, and some completely unnecessary and quite difficult to believe romance. In fact, quite paradoxically, I will suggest you do not read FreedomTM immediately after Daemon. Instead, live with the daemon inside of your head, let it make you think about possibilities and wonder about what could be coming next, then, maybe, read the second part.