Thursday, March 29, 2007

Life under a flight path

Even relatively small airplanes make a lot of noise when they are only a few hundred metres above your bedroom.

Monday, March 26, 2007

The trading room

The first time I walked past it I stopped in my tracks. 'That room is awesome,' I said out loud.

My colleague beside me hummed nonchalantly in concurrence (he's been here a while, so he's part of the in-crowd already). I didn't know it would be there, although in hindsight of course the global headquarters of large bank would have a trading room the size of an airplane hanger.

It sits in the belly of the compound, occupying a huge chunk of the five-storey structure that joins the towers into one complete, money-making beast. From where I park my bicycle every morning underneath the east tower, I make my way west by passing along a hallway that overlooks the trading room.

Broad windows provide a panoramic view. The glass is tinted to deter photography; a discreet but clearly posted sticker of a crossed-out camera further sends the message home. I guess I won't be bringing my medium format rig to work anytime soon.

The room is nothing but row after row of workstations panelled with four or five monitors each. On one wall, a big LED panel shows a feed of the latest commodity prices, and on the far wall, an enormous, multi-coloured, glowingly back-lit map of the world reminds everyone, I guess, that world domination is the name of the game. The effect, seeing the banks of monitors lined one after another, is the inescapable feeling that the people down there must know what is going on everywhere in the world, all of the time. If the Illuminati still exist, surely they are the occupants of this very room. There's no running around and screaming like on the Wall Street floor. Everyone is very calm and quiet as they go about buying low and selling high everything the world has to offer.

I have a shaky personal relationship with capitalism. My schoolboy days were full of enthusiasm for the revolutionary approach to destroying the world as we know it. This has mellowed over time, rather like a good malt whisky, to an appreciation of the finer things that prosperity can bring. Do we have any better way to live than the one global capital provides? Is there really a more enlightened path to follow?

While I would never agree that greed is good, I've seen enough markets - from gleaming air conditioned malls to remote highland stations two-days walk from anywhere - to feel pretty comfortable with the basic principle they all share: buy low and sell high. Not quite a commandment, but definitely a hallmark of the human condition.

Anyway, whatever my conflicted thoughts on the matter are, it's irrelevant given my current view from the walkway between the towers. From here, there's no doubt about it - the trading room is a sight to behold.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Salary scale humour

Companies here normally hire temps and give them permanent contracts after a three-month probation. Last week the bank finally offered me a contract, after a delay caused by changes that emerged from higher up in the hierarchy (more on that later).

A few days after the offer was made, my manager and I met with our human resources liaison to discuss the terms of my contract. The HR staffer, an attractive young woman, took me through all the details involved. She told me that my salary scale was going to be set at level 6.9.

What? That's awesome!

I almost asked if I could keep this number even if I got a promotion, but I let the moment pass. The HR staffer went on to discuss pension contributions and holiday pay, but my attention span doesn't stretch that far so I just sat there thinking rather sheepishly how even though my actual salary sucked at least my rank was a number worth having.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Where I am

Where I am in my mind:

Winning races.

Rejecting some fool.

Where I am in reality:

Going up or down?

Friday, March 16, 2007

Mean, median, average

Banks do make a lot of money, don't they? 2006 was another record-shattering year for the world's top financial corporations. Shortly after starting work I see a story online announcing that at Goldman Sachs the average annual bonus for staff members will be US$622,000. For a moment I'm delirious and announce to the colleagues sitting around me that we're all in the money and can start planning for our retirement, next week.

A few bemused looks, a couple of blank stares.

Two realizations hit me: we don't work for Goldman Sachs, we work for some cheap-ass Euro bank; and while math was never my strong suit, I seem to recall that there can be sizable gaps between an 'average' bonus and a 'mean' or 'median' one. The guys in the mailroom maybe get $75.50 or something, while the CEO takes home $53.4 million on top of his regular salary.

We all ponder that number quietly. Some shuffle papers on their desk, others gaze longingly out the window. The only sound is the laser printer spitting out some more copy. We go back to our work as peon's of international capital.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

My colleague is funny ha-ha

Almost as soon as I start work on my first day, it's evident my main colleague is a very funny guy who finds great humour in the absurdities of corporate culture. At opportune moments he grabs phones and says silly things into them, for example.

Maybe, just maybe, I can do this.

Friday, March 9, 2007


This image of an abandoned building in the process of being pulled down is marred somewhat, as it looks like a still taken from a TV screen. That's because it's a photo of a photo.

The original is a very high-quality transparency shot on an old 6x9 folding camera, reproduced by holding the large negative to my laptop screen and snapping a digital photo. As you can see, this is not a high-fidelity means of reproducing slide film.

Sadly, this is the only image I have on film of this building, which has since vanished from the earth along with two other towers into a pile of concrete dust and long, twisted spaghetti strands of steel.

This group of deconstructed buildings is right next to the student housing block where I now live with my wife and son, having arrived in the city a few months ago. We did not expect grand accommodations, and we were not surprised. In fact, our building is so old and decayed it is rumoured to be coming down next year. Living here, now, is therefore inescapably depressing. The cracked and crumbling cement walkways outside the building are a constant reminder we live in a condemned space.

Shortly after arriving, I decided to photograph the nearby de-building site, which consisted of three old office towers, long abandoned, covered in graffiti from top to bottom, inside and out. I was inspired partly by my distaste for the apartment where I live – I have a long-held antipathy for mass housing – and partly by my general ambivalence for the urban environment. Too much cement, the depressing ice-solid shit of modernity that it is, let’s tear it all down.

So I got up early one winter morning and stuffed my two new-but-old medium format cameras into an undersized shoulder bag. My tiny digital camera would serve as a light meter. I walked across the road to a small oasis of trees that graced the backside of the old buildings. The site was fenced off, but not secured, so it wasn’t hard to lift one of the posts from its holder and squeeze my way in.

My first stop was immediately below the building you see in the photo at the top of this post. From underneath its belly, I pointed the heavy camera skyward and shot a series of huge airplanes, 747s and A340s, just as their noses appeared to touch the already crumbling walls of the top floors (those who know photography understand how a telephoto lens compresses distances, so it really did look spectacularly dangerous, particularly in this post-9/11 world). The image below, sadly, is just a small commuter or business jet.

Next I walked carefully, along piles of broken stone and cement blocks, to a building as-yet untouched by the wrecking ball. It was gutted, long ago, and full of graffiti from top to bottom. I made my way slowly upward, stopping every few floors to take photos of the artwork on the walls and outward to the surrounding urban sprawl. I reloaded the film in my main camera once, my fingers now trembling from the cold, then went right up to the roof.

What a feeling, to stand at the top of a completely deserted building site. To be near the centre of a crowded European city, one of perhaps a million nearby humans, and yet be so immediately alone. I snapped a few more photos and took a moment to look out at the horizon and ponder my place in the world.

After a few minutes I glanced downward, considering new angles for my mission. Outside the de-building site, a police vehicle crawled slowly down the street.

Holy shit! I was trespassing on a building site that had large signs outside saying ‘don’t come in here’ (albeit in a language foreign to me). What’s the fine for trespassing anyway? Did some local spot me and call it in? They’re so fucking rule-abiding in this country, you never know. I hauled my aging out-of-shape ass down sixteen flights of stairs, puffing like a criminal in the dock by the midway point. No elevators in the belly of this skeletal beast.

By the time I squeezed back out the fence I had a big shit-eating grin on my face. That was fun, and a little risk thrown in just made it all the more so.

And the photos? Well, the images included here are just the digital proofs I shot to measure the light. The real images were on film. Or were they?

Like I said at the top, there’s only one. I loaded the film incorrectly in my main camera (an old machine but a new purchase), and shot about 24 frames on the paper side of 120 film. You don’t need to know much about film photography to know that shooting on paper doesn’t leave you with much.

Just like the buildings, those photos are all gone, save for the memory of what I saw through the viewfinder.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

The overseas contract

Most often, life as an expat means you live either way above your means, or way below them. My scruffy face has been on both sides of this coin – mainly the latter. Slumming as a young intellectual in the backwoods of Asia, I didn’t care that most of my friends at home were moving their way up the socio-economic ladder. I busied myself with exciting, non-remunerated tasks like learning a tonal language and spending late nights cavorting with dangerous people from the wrong side of town.

I was happy with that, and figured I could make money… whenever.

That moment came exactly three years ago, when I found out I was going to be a father. Being an expat now meant getting an overseas contract from a government or a multilateral agency. The overseas contract, if you don’t know, is the holy grail of overpaid, underworked extravagance.

Your salary? Bank it – you’ll be dining off your living allowance. Housing? Covered. Insurance? Covered. Business class travel? Check that shit off the list too.

Get yourself a big old house with a maid and a gardener, maybe even a driver if you’re lucky. Sunday afternoons by the pool, gin and tonics to keep you cool. Hey, they don’t call it imperialism for nothing.

Swell timing saw this contract come my way exactly six months before junior arrived. The next two years went by quick though, and when my wife got some low-paid but career-building work in Europe, we packed up the bags and off we went.

No overseas contract, however. Wow, Europe sure is pricy without a living allowance. I work at a bank, for fuck’s sakes, and we still come to the end of the month with a flatline for a bank balance. We live in a housing project, and I never leave home without my supermarket bonus card.

The other day I stopped to buy some veggies and almost had a coronary at the price of greens in this part of the world. I chose the cheapest option I could find – brussel sprouts.

I then went home to discover my wife had already been shopping, at a different supermarket. She had bought some veggies as well.

That’s right – brussel sprouts.

So now we had two big bags of brussel sprouts to chew through over the next week. After about the third day of eating the bitter little fuckers, it really started to sink in how far we’ve fallen.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

A game of green ghost

Do you believe in ghosts? I don't. But my childhood friends and I would play a game called green ghost, a slightly more sophisticated form of hide-and-seek. The green ghost would hide, and the others would carefully search him out. If the ghost jumped out and caught you, then next round you were a green ghost too. This would continue until one person remained, and they were the winner of the game.

You faced a dilemma with green ghost - play it safe, stay near home base and go for the win? Or venture out and search for the ghost? That's the riskier approach. But it's a game right? So do you play to win or play for fun?

I played for fun, so I searched out the ghost as far as my little neighbourhood could take me. I kept searching for ghosts right through my teens and into my twenties, and I landed in a far corner of the world with a head full of big ideas and a camera slung around my neck to record all I found. And yes, the journey itself was the destination. True words indeed. Oh I was far from home now, Toto. Chasing ghosts became a full-time job.

But life took an unexpected turn and before I knew it, the camera turned into a keyboard and work became a series of hollow office rooms with boring furniture, endless meetings, jargon-laced reports and just words, words, words. I went from Asia to Europe, but that didn't help much. If I can just find a way to recreate some of those childhood games and adventures, maybe I'll be alright. It's just takes a bit of imagination, right?

The tower

Every morning I descend into the very belly of the beast, the evil empire of my idealistic youth, the monument kapitalist carved from raw stone. Surely not mortal constructions, these two cold towers in slate and petrol gray. I arrive on a bicycle, oddly enough, and enter the first of the towers by walking my humble vehicle down a long, steep ramp that leads from a hidden corner of the building toward an enormous shuttered, underground gate. Every morning I imagine there will be menacing guards in black chainmail - orcs maybe, or hobgoblins - armed with long pikes, their steamy, fetid breath emerging from deep behind thick iron visors. A ghastly, subhuman face peaks warily from behind the gate, asking for my pass.

But sadly it's not that dramatic. I stop my bicycle halfway down the ramp and swipe an id card over a small black box. The heavy gate goes clang-clang-clang as it opens for me. And I'm in.

My vision of the place - a dark stronghold dealing in economic despair, an unholy bastion of global finance, a big-ass evil castle - retreats momentarily as I busy myself with wheeling my bicycle through the parking garage to the nearest empty rack and slotting the front wheel in place. It’s normally crowded with bikes already so I have to jimmy around other people’s handlebars and seat posts. I lock the back wheel clamp, of course, before making my way to the next set of secured doors. It's a maze alright. They're trying to trap me...

Wait. What the fuck am I doing here? Who gave me an id card to enter the headquarters of one of the world's biggest financial firms? Do I actually work here?

Well, my dear reader, if the answers were simple, I wouldn't need this journal.