Andalucia Steve

...living the dream

A Growing Lifetime of Not Understanding

The older I get, the less I seem to understand, but I don't think its just me!
 
I rarely visit the UK, but the last time I did I confronted one of those new-fangled self-service tills in a shop for the first time. It confused the hell out of me! I had to get my niece to show me what to do. This was particularly embarrassing because I'm supposed to be a techie guy - Computer Steve - the dude who has been bothering microchips since the early seventies. The odd thing is that while this is factually correct, the world has progressed while my understanding of it has become increasingly muddy.
 
I'm not talking about things I don't understand about life in general, like why women fashion hats out of towels at some point during the process of taking a shower, or why dogs don't chew their food whereas they're so adept at chewing on furniture. I'm specifically concerned with the wall that has been growing between man and machine since electronics has been migrating from analog to digital.
 
If you are old enough to remember the 1960's this wall didn't exist. If you owned a radio or a TV, the chances are it had two dials - one that turned the volume up and down, the other which tuned the device through different channels. There was also a good chance that these were labelled 'volume' and 'tuner' in English. 
 
The first suggestion in my world that things were about to get ugly came with the Cassette Tape recorder. Do you remember those? We used to use them to record the top 30 pop songs on a Sunday night. A tune I remember fondly was Queen - Seven Seas Of Rhye which was as near as I got to liking heavy metal back in the day! Anyway, the thing that was lost on me and probably many others at the time, was that the controls on these machines had a language-independent interface. This allowed the manufactures to streamline tooling so they could basically knock out the same machine and sell it to different countries with the minimum of changes, perhaps with just a different mains plug and user manual. This was a subtle but important turning point as it meant we, the great unwashed public, had to start  learning a new language of symbols. (The posh word for this is semiotics but lets not get ahead of ourselves).
 
Now a cassette recorder wasn't rocket science but it was more complicated than a radio. One had to express forward/back, stop, record/play and pause. This was done with the use of symbols and sometimes colour, with the red being used to signify record. Us old folk have had forty years to forget how we first learned this interface but I understand it still foxes kids today when they see a Sony Walkman for the first time. 
 
Household appliances of all kinds have undergone similar 'progress' since those heady days. Our washing machine back then was so simple a child could use it. There was a dial that had labels in English that said meaningful things like 'wash', 'rinse' and 'spin'. The washing machine I use today has a dial with dozens of signs on it that look as though they were invented for the purpose of confusing the hell out of me by some insane professor of Aztec hieroglyphics! Fortunately the Devil's spawn was already here when I moved into the house, so I just leave the dial where it has always been, throw my washing in, switch it on and hope for the best! Seems to be OK but God only knows what all the other settings do. As for the washing instructions they put inside clothes, don't get me started!
 
It's the same thing with steam irons. No idea! Turning the dial clockwise seems to make them hotter but as for the other symbols, not a clue!
 
Things really started to get mysterious when appliances became digital. An old analog microwave oven was a joy to use. There was just a timer and a power level control - easy. Does anyone really understand the interface on a conventional digital microwave? Weird images of chicken drum-sticks and steaming bowls? I would never buy a microwave with an interface like that, but I had occasion to use one a few years back, and in the absence of a manual (or anyone else that was in possession of the sacred knowledge of how it worked), I eventually managed to cook some popcorn after about five minutes of trial and error, randomly pushing buttons and trying my best to gauge the results.
 
The removal of language in favour of internationalization is only one of the problems. The other is that all signs are not equal. If it were just the case that a picture represented something recognisable, things wouldn't be too bad. Think of a public toilet for example. There is an image of a man, an image of a woman and an image of a person in a wheelchair. It's not easy to confuse these icons for the things they represent in the real world.
 
Icons however are only one of the three categories of sign recognized in semiotics, the study of signs. The other two are symbol and index. Icons are reduced depictions of the object they represent, such as our toilet folk. Symbols however are signs that represent an object without resembling it.  Most national flags are abstract symbols, which clearly represent a national identity without imaging a real thing (there are exceptions - some flags may contain stars, lions etc but for the purpose of the example I'm talking about plain flags with just lines and colours). Indexes are pointers to a concept that often cannot easily be represented directly, e.g. drawing three horizontal squiggly lines doesn't look much like water but it does suggest a river or sea and maybe used to indicate water, swimming, tide and many things water related. 
 
All three types of sign are found in the earliest cave paintings dating back hundreds of thousands of years. The paleoanthropologist Genevieve von Petzinger has been doing a study of the objects represented in engravings and paintings in caves across the world and has discovered that all the designs can be reduced to a basic 'vocabulary' of 32 separate signs. She mentions in her excellent and fascinating TED talk on the subject that "There is a striking lack of diversity in the earliest rock art from France and Spain to Indonesia and Australia". The thought that the outlook of people across the human world hundreds of thousands of years ago could be expressed in 32 signs is a sobering one. Hold onto it while I describe what happens next in my story.
 
Computers, as you will know, are a lot more than glorified adding machines. Since the early days of punch cards and paper tape, the interfaces through which we connect to computers has been gradually evolving. From my earliest contact with them during the 1970's until the middle of 1980s, all interaction was mainly through a 'terminal' model, where one would see a command line on a screen, type in commands and get the answer back as lines of text. Later, many alternative custom graphical interfaces came and went but the one that endured was called the WIMP interface (standing for windows, icons, menus and pointers - or mice and pointers depending on which version of computer history you believe). This found its way into the Apple Macintosh in 1984 and other home computers such as the Atari and Amiga until eventually being reinvented by Microsoft as their flagship interface, Windows.
 
I was a command-line ninja having been a Unix programmer who had worked in this type of environment for so long, so I personally found the move to a graphical user interface a very painful one. Implicit in all these interfaces was the dubious conceit that they represented your desktop and the items within it, such as files, printers, waste-bins and so on. I couldn't see what was intuitive nor useful about say, clicking my cursor on a file and dragging it onto the printer to print it. In my experience, dropping a physical A4 document onto a the top of a physical printer or photocopier would not induce the latter to print, so why should it be so on my computer? It really took me decade to get my head around it.
 
Meanwhile the academic thinkers in the process of constructing the Tower of Babel we jokingly refer to as Computer Science had another trick up their sleeve. The number of printable characters back in the 60's was originally a lowly 128, due to the limited bit-length of early computers (the size of the blocks of numbers the computers were able to work with at a low level - this grew over time time from 8, 16, 32 to 64 etc as technology improved). The size of the possible 'alphabet' was extended throughout the years, but the huge uptake of computers internationally and the need to represent different character sets such as Japanese Kanji text meant a complete overhaul of how characters were represented was in order. The boffins came up with Unicode, a standard which is now used to represent hundreds of thousands of characters. 
 
Now you will probably be aware that techies used smiley symbols 🙂 back in mainframe days. When mobile phones became a craze in Japan during the 1990s, their phone manufacturers extended this idea and ran wild with it creating the sub-culture of the emoji, those crazy little images that almost substitute for text in messages exchanged by young people. This soon spread beyond Japan and cutting a long story short, emojis are now represented across technical platforms worldwide using the Unicode standard. They are now mainstream!
 
Smartphones didn't come out until I was well into my forties, by which time the last thing I wanted to do was learn yet another interface. The gestures, swiping and pinching all baffled me for some time. I still get the shivers If I have to copy something from one app to another on my phone or have to print something out, but I'm getting there. 
 
My Waterloo however is messaging. I sometimes get messages, especially from young people, that look like they were copied from the walls of an Egyptian tomb. Icons, symbols and indexes all in the shape of modern emoji. I know what they are, I just can't figure out what they mean, because there seem to be thousands of these things. When I see them I often think back to Genevieve von Petzinger's fundamental 32 character vocabulary and wonder how old I actually am, because I often feel nearer to our cave-dwelling, stone-age ancestors than I do to our couch-dwelling Generation-Z!
 

Why I came to Spain

What am I doing here - well people do ask sometimes!
First Year in Spain 2003
 
Python sketch comes to mind - Shopkeeper "Why are you here?" Customer "Why are any of us here, its all so meaningless really..."
 
This might go back a bit further than you imagined. Europe was a mystery to me that revealed itself slowly over many years.
 
I cherished home a little too much as a kid. I grew up in a working class cottage with dad the janitor, mum the cleaner, grandad the ex-sailor/bricklayer and sister the audio-typist. I didn't know anyone 'foreign' or anyone who had been abroad. The world came to London to play us at footy in 1966 and we of course won. I had a 'World Cup Willie' in my Christmas stocking that year. Everything seemed cosy and local! 
 
Then something weird happened. One of my sisters moved further away due to her husband getting a better job. I'd never countenanced the idea of moving for such an unimportant thing as work before - what on earth were they thinking of? Looking back on it I had an insular mindset, but that was about to change. It turned out the cottage we lived in was tied to my father's job, and when he retired in 1973, we had to find another place to live. 
 
By this time I'd become dimly aware of the existence of Europe, primarily through TV There was the Eurovision Song Contest, It's a Knockout and European football, all of which I now know were designed specifically to create the awareness I was experiencing. Also my sister's husband's career was taking him all over Europe and we would get strange phone calls of the type "I'm pulling my hair out here - I've got three Hungarian executives coming around for dinner and I don't have a recipe for goulash!" My horizons were slowly broadening.
 
Our neighbours in the new house were a nice old couple with two bright young sons, Tommy and David. The boys were both toolmakers which was a much sought-after skill in the early 1970's. Due to Labour's 84% tax rate they both decided to leave Britain. David emigrated to America but Tommy went to live in Alicante in Spain. This fascinated me beyond measure. I couldn't believe this guy was going to relocate to a country the spoke a different language. This was really the start of a new mindset for me where I looked at the concept of international mobility and the pros and cons of living in Britain and living abroad. The subject haunted me thorough-out my adolescence. It seemed difficult to relocate abroad for work but the notion of retiring abroad was something I'd already considered was going to happen, even though I'd not been overseas myself yet.
 
On one occasion I remember sitting in a very dull A-level physics lesson and a thought struck me. Given current interest rates, how much capital would I need to acquire in order to live off the interest rate if I went to live in an inexpensive Mediterranean country? I did the sums and worked out I'd need about £100k. Though that was a chunk of money back then in the late 1970's it was achievable. Much of the next decade would see me revisiting this figure, adjusting it for various expenses as my naivety about the true cost of living was replaced with experience, as soon after, I started work.
 
One of my early jobs was a summer spent with the Department of Employment as it then was. I was a temporary administrative officer in the local unemployment benefit office and as such I had to attend a week of training. Part of the course covered the reciprocal rights that existed for workers in Britain and the EU. There were many of these but the one that lept out at me was that as an unemployed Brit, it was my right to sign on as unemployed and receive unemployment benefit was respected by the EU. I remember asking the tutor in disbelief, "So that means I could go to say, Italy for a month looking for work and sign on over there". Yes was the reply. From then on I really started to pay attention to this EU business. This sounded great!
 
However I didn't actually set foot in an EU country until 1985 when I went on holiday to Lanzarote. Then I was smitten. It wasn't just the weather, though that was pretty good. It was the smells, the taste, the vibrancy of the colours - everything seemed better than blighty. I later learned the vibrancy of the colour in sunny climbs is not one's imagination but a fact due to colour being a function of the quality of light, a fact noted by Leonardo Da Vinci many centuries ago. [Quote from the notebooks of Leonardo https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/The_Notebooks_of_Leonardo_Da_Vinci/V]
 
Since we see that the quality of colour is known [only] by means of light, it is to be supposed that where there is most light the true character of a colour in light will be best seen; and where there is most shadow the colour will be affected by the tone of that. Hence, O Painter! remember to show the true quality of colours in bright lights.
 
I had many subsequent holidays to Greece, Cyprus etc, and while my wife was busy working on her tan, I'd be looking at the price of property and the work opportunities for possible emigration. The problem always came down to income as I didn't have any easily translatable skill at the time that I could use to find work abroad. 
 
Then in around 1989 I changed jobs and started working IT. At first I was trained as a small-systems developer but after a few short years I found myself working in the latest 'big thing', the Internet.
 
While still working in government I started working at home as long ago as the early 1990s. I was running a Unix computer network at the time and there were certain jobs that had to be done while everyone was offline. I'd previously been doing these on the weekend earning a bit of overtime, but I hated the commute - there were less trains than during the week and more likelihood of meeting a group of drunk footy fans on the way to a game. So I had a word with my boss and pointed out that if I he let me dial in remotely to do these jobs from home, I'd only charge him for the hours I was on-line and not for any travel time. He agreed and over the next couple of years I became a part-time teleworker. 
 
During the decade of the 90's the Internet became vastly more important with the development of the web. I voluntarily retired from government, setting myself up as an Internet consultant, which eventually led to me co-founding a web design agency called Datadial Ltd which is still running today. 
 
Towards the end of the decade, on another holiday in Lanzarote I met a chap who caused me to rethink my plan to retire abroad. He was a Brit who retired to the island on a police pension. We had a conversation about the Spanish language.  He had been there a number of years and could hold a conversation in Spanish well enough to identify the accents folk had from different towns in the island. He impressed two things upon me.  Immersion was essential and each decade that goes by it gets exponentially harder to learn Spanish. So the notion that one would wait until retiring at 65, coming to Spain to live and starting to learn the language was a fantasy. I've since found that to be true. Clearly the longer I waited the harder it would be. Curiously I went back to the UK, started to learn Spanish, but unlike previous occasions where I'd read a book for a week then put it down out of boredom - I kept the learning up month after month. I'd clearly made a decision that this was going to happen.
 
I was not very happy working in the company I'd started. My business partner and I had various differences of opinion as to how things should be done. Also the notion that the longer I waited, the harder it would be to learn Spanish was niggling away at the back of my mind. Finally in 2003 I hit upon a solution. I was working at home a lot of the time anyway since my role as technical director meant a lot of time was spent in software development.  I decide to let my business partner effectively take over the reigns of the company while I relocated to Spain. I would keep working part time on a reduced salary. Once agreed the move became very simple. I sold my house and within three months I'd moved to Spain. I was living the dream.
 
Incidentally I'd been battling away learning Spanish for nearly four years at this point. I wasn't very good. 17 years later I'm still not very good, so I hate to think how bad my Spanish would be if I'd waited any longer. Much to my chagrin, my wife, who had been brought up in a Polish speaking household and excelled at French and German at school didn't do any preparation before moving to Spain but was fluent after about three months of getting off the plane!
 
A lot has happened since I moved here. I've gone through two long term relationships, lost a house due to the financial crash and been through lots of jobs. I've worked as a software developer, translator, estate agent, labourer and a busker! Today I'm clinging on by my finger-tips, hoping the exchange rate doesn't do any more harm to the tiny income I get from the UK. Like many Brits here, I really didn't believe Brexit would happen, but now it has, I'm so glad I made the decision to come to Spain when I did. Hopefully I will retain the rights conferred on me from the EU by virtue of being a Spanish resident next January which is much more preferrable than if I were living in the UK and about to have those rights stripped from me. The one thing that sticks out as a problem for us expats is Freedom of Movement. It looks as though we're stuck in our chosen country of residence because we're British passport holders. After January 2021, unless a deal emerges to the contrary, I couldn't go to say, Germany and apply for a job as easily as I could pre-Brexit, which is something I had considered as I see a lot of adverts for jobs in Germany with my IT skills.
 
My battle with the language continues. In another blog post I'll explain some of the issues that make the language in Southern Spain so difficult (possible title - The Gargoyle People - that should get you thinking!)

Spanish Bureaucracy

Often cited as the least favorite thing about life as an ex-pat, bureaucracy is the bête noire of living in Spain
 
A viral video appeared on social media video a while back that took a humorous look at the nature of administration in Spanish offices.
 

 
All the issues in the video, the plethora of documents, the need for copies, the importance and finality of the rubber stamp, will be familiar to those of us who live here and bear the scars of many battles in the offices of local and central government, utilities and even many commercial organisations such as car-hire companies (which can be one of the worst IMHO).
 
An illustration of the frustrations associated with Spanish administration is my recent attempt to pay a water bill. How hard can it be? A lady knocked on my door and presented me with a 'notificación providencia de apremio' an urgent notification. This is a registered document which I had to sign for. Sent by the office that collects money on behalf of the water board, it contained advice of an outstanding bill. I've been in the process of trying to get the bill in my name and the money taken from my bank account for some years, but that's another story! Anyway, the notification doubles as a bill and contains a bar-code with which I can go to the ATMs of most Spanish banks to make the payment in cash. I was just off to the shops and since the bank was on the way I decided to strike while the iron was hot.
 
I went to the cash-point, scanned in the code and was greeted with the message 'The payment date of the bill has expired'. I laughed out loud. This was less than 15 minutes after I'd signed to say I had received the damn thing!! So the next day I had to visit the office to get another document. I took this one to the bank, scanned it into the machine and got another message saying 'Sorry but I cannot issue you with a receipt at the moment'. The message disappeared after a few seconds and returned to the previous screen inviting me to scan the document in. I was clearly in a loop as there was no option to escape by paying the bill without a receipt. Mired by thoughts of impending doom I entered the branch and joined the queue. After a quarter of an hour I reached the teller and explained I wanted to pay the bill but the machine wouldn't let me. 
 
"I can't pay it here for you, you must use the machine" the lady replied.
 
From previous visits I'm familiar with her lust for automation which I presume she sees as work avoided for her.
 
"I've just tried, it doesn't work" I said, trying my best to appear genuine and pathetic at the same time, in the hope that she might take pity on me and actually choose to help instead of scowl at me which had been her posture so far.
 
"OK I try" she said and frog-marched me outside to the machine. She stood over me while I repeated the same steps I had previously taken and unsurprisingly achieved the same result. 
 
"The machine is not working. You will have to use another bank." she said and returned to her lair. So I trudged off in search of another bank. First world problems I know but kill me now!
 
It's worth noting that this bar-code malarkey is relatively new. In the past one had to take such bills into the bank in person. Since the 2008 crash all the banks seem to have introduced measures to restrict the days and hours during which cash payments can be made, so one would, for example, have to wait until the next Thursday and join a long queue between the hours of 8:30 to 10:30 and deal with the teller face-to-face. It was a grim affair. 
 
I recall an incident regarding this in Murcia a few years ago. Cutting a very long story short, I'd found a renter for a property that was just about to get its electricity cut off. He gave me a wedge of cash as a deposit, so I went to see the electricity people and got a chit to take to the bank to clear the outstanding bill. I took it to the Santander bank but the gentleman refused to take the payment because it was on the wrong day. I should point out the bank was empty except for he and me. I asked to see the manager. He said he was the manager! I remonstrated with him for a good ten minutes, pointing out the imminent demise of the leccie supply but he remained smugly resolute - he didn't want my money!! It was nearly closing time and, realizing that I was achieving nothing (other than entertaining this chap's fantasy of how he would treat people were he a guard in a Nazi concentration camp), I decided it was prudent to leave in search of another bank. Fortunately a nearby branch of La Caixa was more accommodating. I understand why banks have these rules to streamline transaction activities in order to reduce costs etc but Jesus wept, whatever happened to 'the customer is always right?'
 
Incidentally there appears something institutionally evil about Santander. A friend of mine visited the local branch with his elderly incontinent mother a while ago. She was 'took short' and asked if she could use the staff toilet. They refused. Her son pleaded but to no avail, so they had to forego their place in the queue so she could be taken elsewhere for a pee. The branch closed down some months after. Karma is believed to be the cause.
 
Another incident of bureaucratic madness got my gander up recently. Very kindly and proactively, the department of health in Andalusia sent me a letter offering me the opportunity to volunteer to take part in a regional colon cancer screening programme. I was thrilled to be included and immediately returned the letter signifying my agreement to be so. Soon after, I received a screening kit through the post. One is instructed how to take the sample (not a great deal of fun) and to return it to the local medical centre, recommending a Monday or Thursday. This I did. The medical centre lady quizzed me when I brought it in to make sure the sample was fresh - apparently it only lasts a day even when refrigerated.
 
Some weeks passed and I was sent another kit and a letter saying something had gone wrong with the previous specimen. So once again I waited until Wednesday evening, did my sample, popped it into the fridge and brought it to the medical centre the following morning, as again the accompanying letter said to return the sample Monday or Thursday. This time there was a huge group of people queued outside, but I caught the lady's eye in the hope of dropping my bag of shit and making a run for it.
 
"Can I leave this with you" I said,
 
"No" she said, and officiously tapped her Bic on a paper notice that had been sticky-taped to the door,
 
"Colon sample deposits Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday 8:30 to 9:30" she said.
 
"You won't take it?" I pleaded. Then another woman in a white coat chimed in.
 
"Tell him to come back in the morning..."
 
Her colleague pointed out tomorrow was Friday so I wouldn't be able to come until Monday, by which time the sample would have expired. The other lady said it looked as though I would need another kit. Both health workers lost interest in me and drifted back to their business without really giving me a satisfactory answer as to what I should do.
 
Then an old lady in the queue took to scolding me, wagging her finger and reminding me it was 'Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday only - 8:30 to 9:30', as though this was blindingly obvious to all, however half-witted, not least the old hags like her who have nothing else to do all day save occupy queues at the local medical centre. I reveled briefly in the contemplation that due to her advanced years, the blight of her visitation on humanity would soon be at an end. Then I took my leave. 
 
It's hard to nail a common theme in such anecdotes, though I submit that while the Spanish are normally the most lovely, kind, helpful humanitarians one can imagine, put them behind a desk (or a steering wheel, or handle of a Zimmer frame) and it's as though they have taken a large swig of Dr Jekyll's potion. Fronting such people with the straight-jacket of computer systems magnifies their power creating an edifice that at times seems completely unscalable. A friend recently remarked on how impenetrable Spanish Government websites are to human navigation. He's not wrong. A week of exploration has gone by and I'm still trying to figure out how to get my hands on another colon cancer testing kit!