Friday, September 30, 2011

Outsourcing My Charity Work Part 2

Outsourcing Charity Work 2

Last week I set my students the homework of choosing someone for me to loan money to on the charity website My Monday lunchtime class is two banker women. When I got to the next lesson, I was pleased and relieved to see the students had prepared little presentations.

My students do what I tell them! I am all powerful!

The first option was Turbat from Mongolia. He wanted money to buy a wider range of stock. My student had chosen Mongolia because she'd been there on holiday. "It's a very wide country and you have to drive a lot, and there are no restaurants on the way. So he could do a deal with travel agencies. They'd stop their buses outside his shop and they'd buy things there, and he'd pay a commission. And he wants to buy a van. He could do a delivery service and be a courier while his wife runs the shop." 

She was full of ideas of how the guy could improve his business, but they were her ideas. I wished Turbat had said all that. Instead, he just stood in front of some shelves of Coke. Was his plan just to buy Pepsi as well? Oh, Turbat, you have to give us more info!

So I chose to invest in Dara Sun. That's this guy:

He's Cambodian and works in construction. He wanted 500 dollars to buy construction equipment for his business. The student who chose him impressed me because she'd chosen someone with some financial data for me to chew on. "His income is six and a half dollars a day, and his wife makes two and a half dollars a day. He spends sixty dollars a month on food, eight on electricity and twenty on other expenses." Detailed!

The student scored more brownie points when I asked how she chose Dara. "First I searched for the Field Agent with the best Risk rating. This one has a five-star rating and a really low delinquency rate." Wow! She was really looking after my money. Why do bankers have such a bad reputation?

So, as promised, I went home to send my money through the internet and into Dara's pocket. The process was very simple. I already had a PayPal account, so in a couple of clicks it was done. (You can also use credit cards and stuff.) There was an option to donate a bit towards as well, to help them run the website and that. Fair enough. I stumped up a dollar for them. Total cost - 17 British pounds.

The next page on the website asked me what I wanted to do when the guy repaid the loan. You can either get it credited to your Kiva account and relend it, or donate it (with good tax breaks in the US). You can also withdraw your money. I'm going to relend mine, keep it circulating around the world doing good.

Soon after, I had a new mail in my inbox. In short, it thanked me for being one of the bestest, most generousest people in the world, and linked me to a new page on the website for amazing people like me who lend money. The page is called My Portfolio and has some graphs and stuff on it.

It kinda makes me feel bad that I don't invest in women.

Next - The IT Crowd

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Mastering Online Dating: Part Six

Mastering Online Dating: A Daring Adventure

I rewrote my Plenty of Fish profile because the obnoxious one was funny but off-putting, and I wanted to start actually meeting chicks. On my new profile, I used this Helen Keller quote as the heading:

"Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing." The rest of the profile fit that theme.

My research led me to believe that you should include a 'call to action' in your profile. That's why adverts finish with 'call now' or 'call today'. So I wrote this at the end of my profile:

Join the adventure. Write to me!

After improving the profile, I spotted a hot babe and decided to try it out. She had great hair and in one of her pics she was wearing an Arsenal shirt. She claimed to love men who watch football.

Suspicious, but whatevs. I wrote:

Hey, I liked what you wrote on your profile, even though there wasn't much detail. The Arsenal shirt is a huge problem, though. Can you try again with something sexier, like Manchester United?
Next, I chose a very attractive 23-year old and wrote:

Hi, I read your (short) profile... You sound normal enough. Now tell me what's REALLY wrong with you! ;)
To a cute girl with a nice smile:

Well, you sound like you might be more than just another pretty face. Something tells me that you're probably getting about 50 emails a day from loser guys saying things like "Hi, I'm freshly divorced from my seventh wife, have 5 kids I never see... but the good news is that I have a good chance at finally getting a job when I get out of prison..." etc.
In any event, I'm a teacher, have my life together, and I'm more than the usual amount of interesting and funny, so you'd better like to laugh.
You sound like you might make an interesting friend, so let's get together for a cup of something delicious and some interesting conversation... if you think you can handle it, that is!
I forced myself to send the same message to the prettiest girl on the site, who I'd been cyber-stalking like a maniac since I signed up. I made a slight change in that I sent it as a proper message instead of as a quick message - the quick messages all ended up with the subject line 'hi'. So lame! I didn't know! No-one told me!

Couple of days later the only responses I was getting were from Nigerian scam artists. What the hell is wrong with women? They go to parties to meet guys and sit huddled in the corner. They go online to meet guys and never write or respond. Why? 

Me raging at online dating
It was both a blow to my ego as a man and as a writer. How were they not seduced?

I decided to try and use Nick's profile. Nick is the husband-to-be of Cecile. They met online, making him a trillion times better at this game than me. But Cecile told me that, in fact, she was more or less the only woman who replied to Nick in months of him trying.

Worrying! If I'd known that I might not have started the whole thing. This project could end up as a damp squib.

But I still had some places to go. I could send follow-up mails to girls who didn't reply to me the first time. Then there were other websites I hadn't tried yet, including the most important one in Switzerland, ("where Switzerland falls in love"). And my failures had forced me to come up with a different approach, which I was ready to try.

Next - Zoosk and Cold Reading

Friday, September 16, 2011

Outsourcing My Charity Work (

Outsourcing My Charity Work

I came across the website somewhere or other, and was quickly intrigued. It's a microfinance portal. Microfinance is where some farmer in Bangladesh wants to borrow a hundred dollars to buy a cow. He sells cow eggs until he can repay the loan, at which point he's richer by one cow. (Something like that, anyway. I'm not a farmer.) The loans are too small for normal banks to deal with. I knew all about that. Good project. Nothing to do with me. Until I found Kiva.

The Kiva site brings normal people like me in 'contact' with the guy who wants the cash. When you visit the site, you see the real faces of the real people who want your money. You like them, you send them 25 dollars, they get it, they grow their business. A year later, or whenever, you get your money back, and lend it to someone else. Or take it back, if you need it.

Hmm. Interesting. I like the idea of my spare money circling the world making lives better. The guys asking for money don't have my good looks or incandescent talent, but they are good family people who work hard and have a simple dream. I like that.
Leonard is a 41 year-old businessman. He is married and blessed with five children. For the last five years, he has been managing a hardware business to support the family. He has employed three people to help him to manage the business. In the next 5 years, he wants to open another outlet of his business. His dream is to expand his business and to improve his living standards. 
It's my kind of project, because I'm loaded, but hate giving money to beggars or normal charities. Beggars because they just want to buy cheap beer (or once, when I worked in a corner shop in Manchester, turpentine), and charities because a big fraction of the donation goes to marketing and management.

So I was totally sold on the Kiva concept. There was only one problem - choosing who to give my 25 bucks to. My solution was typically elegant (AKA lazy). I made it my students's homework to choose for me. They had to find someone they liked, and pitch their choice to me in a short presentation. I didn't know what to expect from them. Would they take it seriously? It's kinda weird homework.

I didn't want to micromanage them, but I did give them a couple of pointers. In particular, I wanted them to take notice of the Field Partners. The Field Partners are they guys who work in developing country X and go round interviewing the entrepreneurs and checking they have a business plan. Obviously, they are key to the whole process.

Next - The First Presentations

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Mastering Online Dating: Part Five

Mastering Online Dating: Storms and Scams

I met with French online dating expert Cecile, and showed her what I'd written so far. After laughing uncontrollably in a crowded vegetarian restaurant for ten minutes, she then decided I'd done it all wrong.

"You should make fun of the women, too," she whined, "Not just the men."
"But the women are articulate, sweet-sounding people who just want to meet someone. Their spelling and grammar is nice and normally they write cool, interesting things."
"That's not true."
I showed her some profiles. She realised I was right. Nevertheless, she gave me some potentially useful feedback. "You should remove the funny picture of you in a jester costume." I agreed, and replaced it with this:

Your Face Here
I suddenly had an amazing inspiration for my username - instead of Better Than Perfect I would go with FunStorm. A storm of fun! But it had been taken. Stupid horny men taking my ideas!

I also got Cecile's opinion on my Metrodate profile, to which I'd finally added some text. After some minor arguments and revisions, it looked like this:

The next morning, I had two responses. One was a proper message, and one was a 'flirt'. Flirt seems to be a button you can click to let the other person know you're interested, but without doing any work yourself. Both the message and the flirt were from women who wanted my email address. Huh? Weird.

I did a quick search for 'online dating scams' and got this:

It's likely to be a scam if your correspondent asks you to go straight from on-site messaging to Instant Messaging (IM), or regular email (they don't want the evidence of their scamming to be visible to the site administrators as they will normally be kicked off)

Well, that fit the bill. But I tried to make the most of it. I sent fake woman A the email address of fake woman B, and vice versa. Hopefully they'd email each other asking for money transfers to be made to Western Union to unlock funds for blah blah blah.

A quick look around and I identifed a few common factors with the profiles that were probably scams - they talk about God, or wanting a god-fearing man, or use biblical language in general (is that how people talk in Nigeria?). They're often widows. For a good model of a Nigerian scam artist, look on this site and scroll down to the bit about Bryant Harris.

Next - A Daring Adventure

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Asterix in Spain: Latin Jokes Explained

A bigger, better version of this article now appears on my new Asterix site - click the white link just above this article. The one that says 'Everything Asterix'.

The new site is extremely beautiful, by the way. It's probably going to win an award and be preserved by UNESCO.

Monday, September 05, 2011

The Clock, by Christian Marclay

The Clock, by Christian Marclay

Paris, September 2011

I had decided to visit Anais in Paris in one of her between-boyfriend periods. She's one of those women who gets a boyfriend and then vanishes. After they break up, she emerges from her cave, shields her eyes from the sun, and starts calling and messaging her friends. I always know when she's single because she 'likes' my blog posts and writes to me. This autumn seemed to be one of her out-of-cave periods, so what better time?

"What do you want to do when you get here?" asked Anais, "Because there's an exhibition about clocks. This Gnarles Barkley guy took bits of movies about time and sliced them all together. And it's all synchronised with the actual time. It seems amazing." It sounded like the perfect thing to see in Paris and complain about. I wrote, "That sounds pretentious and annoying. What could be more French? Let's do it." "I'm never talking to you again EVER," she wrote back.

I arrived late on Friday. French cuisine is the best in the world, I am often told, mostly by French people. Anais chucked a frozen pizza in the oven. Don't get me wrong, I was grateful. But if you want to dispel the myth that French food is inherently good, then eat a French frozen pizza.

On Saturday morning we went to the The Clock exhibition at the Pompidou. My plan was to watch it for ten minutes, pacify Anais, and then go outside and make fun of the French. The installation was like a cinema - screen at front, dark, every sound and movement annoying. There were a few comfy chairs in the middle, all occupied, and a few people sitting on the sides and at the back.

There were a few clips from movies and TV shows - Patrick McGoohan looking at his watch, De Niro in uniform barking orders in front of a clock, someone asking Chris Rock 'what's the time?' After a few minutes I realised that The Clock exhibit was exactly as Anais had described. 24 hours of mini slices of film history, painstakingly researched, sliced into place, and at times skilfully juxtaposed (one man knocks on door, a different man in a different movie enters). I had a mental image of the artist rolling into bars bleary-eyed and scoring chicks through his use of the words 'concept', 'movie', 'project' and 'installation'. My derision levels started to rise.

But... but somehow it was... ace! I felt bad about enjoying the horrid pretentious French art, but I couldn't help it! Fortunately, it wasn't French. Christian Marclay is Swiss-American. So that was better. But it was still a silly post-modern concept taken to a ludicrous extreme. Why was I having fun?

First, on a superficial level, you can play the game of naming the movies and TV shows. I'd seen loads more than Anais. [Presumably she only watches movies which are a) four hours long b) in French and c) about a man who lives in a box, where the box is a metaphor for Jacques Chirac's foreign policy.] In the first five minutes, I recognised Mission Impossible (the TV one), Minority Report, and loads more.

Next, a lot of the clips are dramatic. At three o'clock a woman will lose her house. At three oh two, some tense criminals will jump into action. At three oh four James Bond will try to disarm a bomb. Time, time, time! Merciless, uncaring, implacable. Accompanied by great acting. Sigh...

Then you've got a roll call of Hollywood A-listers through the ages. We saw Johnny Depp, William Shatner, Nick Cage and Cher, that guy with the broken nose from the 50s, the guy who did the voice on Thriller, John Cleese, everyone! You see a young Mel Gibson and an old John Wayne. Cinephile joy!

There's always something happening so you have no time to think 'what might come next'? But sometimes The Clock rewards your instincts - I hoped to see something from Back to the Future, and was moderately thrilled when I saw Marty and Doc next to the big clock in 1855. 

And Anais and I had seen the movie Jumper when she'd visited me in Prague. And there it was, right there on the screen! Hayden Christensen standing at the base of Big Ben holding an umbrella. Romantic or what? If you're into that kind of thing.

And, of course, there's the artistic merit of the piece. I don't want to encourage these mad artists by praising their demented concepts, but I'll make an exception here. The importance of time, the ubiquity of watches, electronic timepieces, clocks, and time - you don't leave the exhibit without thinking about it all. We live and die, bathed in time.

I'd expected to hate The Clock, yet was mesmerised. But we were both hungry. "Let's go get some food, then come back and watch it for ages," I said. In Anais's mind, that was probably the sexiest thing I'd ever said. However, it seems Anais and I don't appreciate art in quite the same way. Every time a new 'minute' came on screen, she checked her phone to see if the time matched. That's what an education in La Sorbonne gets you!

We left, and ate.

Pizza Hut was full, so we tried the Frenchest place we could find, Le Escargot. After being asked to move table (from a table for four to a smaller table, even though the place was almost empty) I had a mediocre walnut salad followed by a tough beef blob with a bit of cheese on top. Served with American fries. I'd have been underwhelmed to get that in a pub in Moss Side. But yeah, French food is great. Best in the world. Etc.

After that, we strolled back to the Pompidou hoping to spend a while watching time go by in dreamy fashion. "Christ!" I whinged, "Look at the queue! What's that all about?" It seemed the snobby French cultural elite had been spreading the news - Clocks was both en vogue and de rigeur. "Stupid French snobs! Let's come back later."

We went, and went back, and realised we'd had very good timing in the morning. The queue was longer than ever. I drank a 1664 Blanc and joined the stupid bloody French queue in a foul mood. At least three thousand bloody rude French people tried to jump the line. The greatest living Frenchman is the guy who works at the front of that line. He shrugged at would-be pushers-in, and wagged his fingers at people who would pull a fast one. For me, at least, it was love at first shrug.

After a painful wait, we got inside and watched more time. It was brilliant. We watched more than an hour, which makes The Clock at least fifty-nine minutes more interesting than most pieces of art I've ever seen.

Then, we ate again. My starter was extraordinary, but the meat in my main course was dry and the cocktail was odd. Nice place, though.

Sunday, back at the Pompidou, hungry to see more time on screen, we were disconcerted to find coachloads of people milling around. It took a full minute for me to realise what I was seeing - the queue now stretched from inside, through the front doors, and out into the big plaza, where it doubled back on itself. Christ on a bike! There were about six hundred people waiting!

I didn't want to wait three hours to see the thing. Maybe the artist would put it on the internet or something. It would, genuinely, be one of my favourite websites if he did.

Before I left Paris, Anais took me to have crepes. Merde! My 'chopped steak' was a hamburger, clearly cooked from frozen, and my crepe was as dry and tasteless as my waitress was hot and sultry. Next time someone tells me how great French food is, I'm going to give them both barrels of my shotgun of scorn. And next time someone tells me about some mental art that's going on, I'll think twice before dismissing it.

If The Clock is showing in your town, eat, drink, go to the toilet, and spend a good many hours there.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Mastering Online Dating: Part Four

Mastering Online Dating: Trying More Sites

I decided to let my 'annoying jerk' profile swim in the Plenty of Fish sea for a while, and moved onto another site, Metrodate. It's much smaller than PoF, but size isn't everything. Just ask someone with a micropenis, e.g. me.

I used the name better_than_perfect again. I added one normal photo and one of me dressed like a court jester. I captioned it 'My Work Uniform' and decided to add it to Plenty of Fish, too. Women like fun, right?

My Work Uniform
Metrodate has a lot of fields you can fill in describing what you're looking for. In my research, I read about a guy whose theory was that if you are super-selective, women will be more interested than if you say you'll take anything. I decided to test the theory.

The Internet told me that the average height for a woman in Switzerland is 164cm, which is 5'4" (the same as in the UK). I decided my dream woman should be at least 170cm, but no more than 175cm. She's also a non-smoking atheist. And widows need not apply!

Since I was testing the super-selective thing, I decided to be a bit more socially normal with regards to the profile text. Hmm... what to write?

Instead of thinking for myself, I decide to go into the chat room and meet some chicks and outsource the work to them (by asking them what I should write). I logged into the chat, and it was a sausage-fest. Frustrated guys were screaming at each other to 'fuck off and die'. The only 'woman' in the chat had a listed age of 100. It was a guy in New Mexico pretending to be a girl, and not very well. I logged out of the chat...

Instead of writing my profile, I checked out some chicks on the site. A couple were suspiciously hot. One was supposedly aged 25 but looking for a man aged 40-85. Huh? 85? Really? Really?

I remembered why I never gave online dating a chance before - because it's full of Nigerian scam artists. I sighed and vowed to continue the experiment.

Next - Storms and Scams