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Sebastian Trzcinski-Clément
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9 Years at Google – And the Beat Goes On

Wow, another year passed again, with a lot of travel and a number of lessons learned or still in the process of being digested. And yes, some lessons arose from the experience of disappointments as I’ll explain more below. This year, I’ll talk again a little bit about hiring before switching to writing about the the skills I’m looking for in program managers – you’d be surprised: I am convinced most people are theoretically capable of having them but... alas. I’ll also share my thoughts on when and how I think it’s possible to be demanding, up, down and across hierarchical levels.

Surprisingly enough, despite a number of reorganisations at various levels, I managed to keep my teams relatively stable. I still lead our developer relations teams interacting with communities of developers and which are based on the ground across Asia, Africa and the Middle East; I also still lead the truly collaborative “Intelligence” team, which defines processes to automate the collection and the tracking of data and metrics to best analyse and improve the efficiency of our programs. Now that doesn’t mean churn was completely avoided, whether for personal or low performance reasons. In fact, the number one challenge I still have is not related to my work in emerging markets or any of the additional difficulties I’ll share below: it’s all about constantly keeping a strong pipeline of potential candidates just in case – because it’s actually never “just in case” even when all positions appear to be fully staffed. It’s mathematical: the larger my team, the higher the absolute number of people leaving – and yes, I still don’t fire fast enough, even though I’ve possibly become more critical when it comes to hiring, a key skill I had mentioned in last year’s post https://goo.gl/DzATl1. By the way, I’m eagerly hoping to get my well-deserved “250+ interviews given” badge some time over the coming year, after having already received the “best interview feedback” award a few months ago – woohoo.

So in the spirit of feeding my pipeline, if you’re a very good project manager with some developer relations experience and willing to both work with me (have I lost you on that one?!) and be based in Dubai, Istanbul, Lagos, Nairobi, Johannesburg, Bangalore, Singapore, Jakarta, Seoul or Tokyo, send me an email so I can consider your application, should a position open up (some of those locations already have a position open, check http://google.com/jobs for more details).

You’ll note the emphasis on “very good” project management skills in my previous paragraph. We are several thousand program managers within Google. The least I can say is that I’m not impressed by the skills we have – despite hiring people with elite and diverse backgrounds. It’s a shame because most of those roles don’t require all the codified processes and jargon one would encounter in other companies. Seriously, I don’t care a lot about six sigma, strategic frameworks, agile or scrum techniques and what not if you are not capable of writing proper English and if you are not responsive nor genuinely collaborative. You don’t even need to know how to use any project management software beyond a simple spreadsheet.

Spreadsheets, did I say? Yes, only those – but why are they so ugly when I open the ones created by program managers? It’s so easy and takes no more time to present things nicely (if anything, one would gain time: a clear mind is most certainly more likely to generate a clear output). But let’s talk about the real aspect that bothers me with program managers at Google: why is it so difficult for some to take proper meeting notes, capture action items, methodically follow up on them without missing deadlines or otherwise giving status updates, document things in a clear fashion, and be responsive over email? There’s really not much more to that. And yet I have to raise my hands in despair (imagine the tentacles up in the air of the octopus icon in Google Hangouts https://goo.gl/2DB6wp). I’m not even asking to go the extra mile (although I always appreciate it when people work with passion and don’t consider they have a 9am to 5pm job), simply basic skills that honestly any white-collar employee should have (we ultimately all manage projects). Perhaps add to those skills the ability to know how to use basic functions in Spreadsheets. Yes, I’m talking about sums, counts, ifs,... push it to index/match and you’ll be considered a half-god… Apps Script coding – even just one line – will grant you god-like status, I wish I were joking but I’m not.

There are some remarkable employees out there, including on my team. Yet I feel a lot of my time goes into reminding people across Google of those basic expectations. As always, I don’t give up easily. Even if I have learned a little bit to choose my battles (http://goo.gl/e7a2I9), I still enjoy coaching people (http://goo.gl/5c6sVJ) although I need to more quickly give up on those who stubbornly do not take notes, do not act on the feedback at all or merely didn’t request for help in the first place (well, if you report into me, I won’t give you that option – am I bossy? no, not at all, I’m simply the/your boss. C’mon, it’s just a joke and it’s not even mine). Beyond not giving up, and despite being told “it will never work” or that “executives know the problem exists but don’t want to fix it”, I’m still motivated to take my pilgrim’s staff and develop a training program for my fellow colleagues. I also intend to have a number of tools and processes that my team and I set up over the years reused across the company (automated action item trackers, target setting, metrics and dashboards, document templates, you name it).

I could find excuses but I’d rather admit that I haven’t systematically coped well with the frustration of being slowed down – or seeing others slowed down – because some others are incompetent or simply don’t pay attention. In a fairly unusual way to my habits, I used my long-earned credibility to bang my fist on the table. I didn’t do it literally but the F word did come out of my mouth a few times (a trusted colleague is thankfully keeping count of that number). I’m not a fan of swearing at all, although it can get a point across if used (very) rarely and appropriately (I have sometimes failed in choosing those moments) – that’s probably controversial, especially in an American company, although I’m not suggesting to be insulting but to allow frustration to be expressed when people are being stubbornly uncollaborative. I sometimes make use of that technique in my personal life: since most people view me as serious (you can replace that by weird, awkward, not fun, whatever you like), the minute I do or say something seemingly crazy, the surprise effect is all the more important and guaranteed. Just like if I suddenly start mentioning I’m considering to run for France’s presidential elections: am I joking or am I not? You have to know me a little bit to know the answer – but by default, I’d suggest you take me seriously.

Coming back to my initial topic: I had initially written that I thought I had not experienced as much politics as the last year in my time at Google – but reading the post of last year (https://goo.gl/DzATl1) seems to indicate it remained constant. No, I don’t think the culture has evolved in a negative way over the years, I believe it’s mostly due to specific team dynamics which I’ve observed in my organisation and in other departments in which I’ve been coincidentally involved. It sometimes sadly feels as if we play a game of musical chairs, moving people around instead of out. Bad behaviour needs to be called out – but it’s so difficult for some to do that when some managers turn a blind or naive eye to those issues, or worse, retaliate against the whistleblowers, further entrapping them in the role of scapegoats. For the record, I’ve interacted with about 300 people at various levels in different departments over the past year so I’m not necessarily referring to my current manager (hello, David). My best advice in those situations is to do whatever it takes (ethically, duh) to build a strong relationship with one’s manager to then be able to have enough credibility to highlight problems – that has always worked for me, whether I personally liked or disliked the manager I had.

Now it’s true that I’m (very) demanding – I have high standards. To make them clear, I had written a document which explained what my expectations were (they weren’t anything scary and team members generally appreciated the transparency). But at the same time, I’m caring. I’m available to indirect reports and temporary employees who regularly talk to me in one-on-ones. I care enough to follow up and find solutions to most issues that come up – not always, but most often, I should think without false humility. I think it’s because I’m caring that my team allows me to be demanding because they know that I help them shine as individuals and as a team. As an ex-director at Google wrote, “caring personally makes it much easier to do the next thing you have to do as a good boss, which is being willing to piss people off”. I fight for my team without hopefully making the classic mistake of designating other teams as enemies: I’d rather focus on the positives, on the great work to be highlighted, on the opportunities to be seized, on the workarounds to be creatively found, than on pointing fingers at others or ranting about issues without offering solutions (please: if you come to me with a problem, also come up with one possible solution). It’s a tricky balance for sure, sometimes it is even inevitable to mention the names of those who are acting in toxic ways.

It can get tiring to manage people, to listen to their problems (including their personal issues), or to find the best people who can make my work life easier. I can’t say I dislike it but I do need to sleep more – it was only in the course of last year that a close friend observed that my birthday happens on 24/7… and I’m pretty much active and working 24/7 indeed… The double irony is that I’m typing a first draft of this post on a red-eye flight from the US to Europe when I should be precisely getting some sleep. Every day I am telling myself “I am someone who goes to bed at midnight” – and every day I clock off at two or three in the morning. Why, but why?! I’m so disciplined at work with self-imposed structure… but there are so many more things to learn and discover outside of work too!

On a more positive note, I’ve met new, interesting, passionate and kind people (I can’t stress enough the importance of kindness; I was pleasantly surprised how some had even softened and grown more amiable over time). That’s one welcome aspect of my work: always meeting new people, internally and externally. I’ve forged some strong work relationships with a few people which add to the necessary renewal of my motivation every day – even if my total compensation is going down for the past two years despite obtaining constantly better performance ratings (wink at my manager for fixing that)! External opportunities keep abounding too: it’s always very tempting to get out there and start something new, big and exciting – speaking of which… Let’s see if I’ll make it to ten years at Google though, I’m still our number one fan of our products and I have some(!) remaining work to do here. Oh and thank you for reading but you should now seriously get back to work, the break’s over!

PS: if you want to read more about what I learned in my previous years at Google, head over to the following posts
– 5 years: http://goo.gl/lti06 on passion and opportunities
– 6 years: http://goo.gl/e7a2I9 on learning which battles to fight
– 7 years: http://goo.gl/5c6sVJ on coaching employees
– 8 years: https://goo.gl/DzATl1 on people – the manipulative ones, the takers and (hiring) the great ones

PS2: thanks to Melina, Marcus, Dushyant, Marie, Jessica, Dirk, Laura, Sami, Aída, Antoine and Roy for reading drafts of this post – and engaging in an interesting centithread discussion. Unsurprisingly a common feedback was for me to get some rest. I’ll think about it next time I sleep – next session planned on 1st April from seven forty-five PM to 1st April at a quarter to eight in the evening.
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Good on you......... 
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The Edge of Uncertainty

"Good job!" is the most harmful praise a master can give to their apprentice, according to both Argentinian chef Francis Mallmann in Chef's Table (https://goo.gl/QW9kHD) and Terence Fletcher, the jazz instructor in Whiplash (https://goo.gl/WlfJyz).

It's undoubtedly a prerequisite for the student to first master the art, to acquire the technique of his craft. Yet, by merely copying everything he learns, by wanting to emulate the teacher, he will not find his "own language". For Fletcher, being one's best isn't even good enough: it's all about being "the" best, perfecting art to a subliminal point, to a point of rupture with expectations, with conventions, with one's physical and mental barriers. For Mallmann, there's "only one way" when the trainee has achieved his best: "it's down" – he therefore has to leave, find his own path, however winding and uncertain, perhaps even daunting, it can prove to be.

If anything those masters teach their disciples by keeping the torch of knowledge and expertise lit, it's to "live with much freedom", to decide for themselves and understand that "nothing is impossible". Yes, Fletcher's students and Mallmann’s apprentices would love to continue working for their teachers, however different their styles prove to be; they passionately crave for their blunt, sometimes violent, feedback.

Being able to tell the truth, "even if it hurts", is a value that both masters hold close to their heart. When asked by a close friend why Mallmann seems distant, the latter replies he doesn't enjoy talking with him anymore. As for Fletcher, he doesn't hesitate to immediately leave the music room when disappointed by the student's performance – or to (almost literally) kick students lacking confidence out of his band.

That proximity in philosophy between the two teachers, a fictional character in one case and a real-life cook in the other, may surprise. The latter comes across as a bon vivant, someone viscerally kind and very visibly enjoying and communicating the pleasure of practising his craft: "there has to be a festive feeling about the work", it's even something very romantic for him to interact with his team or sensual to use fire as an element of his cooking. Fletcher, on the contrary, is highly critical to the point of being abruptly obnoxious. He cares so much that no imperfection can be tolerated, leading him to erupt in anger and to hurl music stands at his students.

However different in their leadership styles, both teachers attract bright students, some with the firm but hidden belief they will one day surpass their master. It's difficult not to be attracted to a burning flame. But then, they are encouraged to "make choices", to learn to break the rules. Yes, there's an inevitable risk to be burnt – is that the price to pay to become truly free?

PS: the photo was taken in a small Mediterranean restaurant in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California – food and impromptu music combined!
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Rapaiz quando vir sua foto , pensei que estava delirando mas logo vir que não estava na verdade eu ainda não tinha visto uma beleza tão rara quanto à sua vc é lindo.
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Charminar’s Charm in Hyderabad

I was – intellectually – fooled. But what happened? Let’s go back in time.

In the 16th century, the Qutub Shahi dynasty ruled over the kingdom of Golconda in southern India. They – or their architects and countless numbers of workers, rather – left impressive mausoleums now left mostly unattended in a peaceful setting (https://goo.gl/0Fipqf). But before dying their sometimes brutal death (parricide anyone?!), they also founded cities, like the one of Hyderabad in 1591. Charminar, literally meaning the “four towers” in Urdu, was built soon after, right at the centre and was to become the most recognised and iconic landmark of Hyderabad.

It wasn’t initially obvious to me what Charminar represented. With its four grand arches, it gave the impression of a 20-metre wide square fort guarding the entrance of the city. Was each tower a mirador watching the surroundings? The clock was also a confusing element, an almost anachronistic one in fact, since minute-accurate clocks were just getting invented in Europe at the time – and indeed was the clock added to Charminar only at the end of the 19th century.

They were no towers: they are 56-metre high minarets crowned by bulbous domes. And you probably guessed it by now, Charminar is actually a mosque, although the praying area was initially well hidden at the western end of the open roof, while the other part of the roof served as a court.

Of course, I wouldn’t have been fooled if I had known that the monument had been built to commemorate the beginning of the second Islamic millennium year. But here’s the treacherous trickery: Muhammad migrated to Medina in 622, an event known as Hijra, marking the beginning of the Islamic calendar… a calendar which year consists of lunar months, that is 354 days and not 365. So the year 1591 in our Gregorian calendar is indeed a thousand lunar years after the year 622. Argh, somebody help me!

Stuck between hordes of terribly slow families, I took the 149 winding steps up to the upper floor. I calmed my impatience by admiring the stucco decorations all around the balustrades and balconies, as well as the decisively Indo-Persian architecture of the arches of the granite structure.

I then decided to take “revenge”. Since I’m habitually shy, not always daring to take portraits, I planted myself at the intersection of one of the minaret’s inside arches and clicked away anyone who would pass, no permission asked. But then, as the only European around, I didn’t get unnoticed for long... and was instead asked to take pictures of those very same families, hahaha!

PS 1: the answer is 5433.
PS 2: oh, what was the question, you ask? Simply the (Gregorian) sum of all the numbers in this post. I gave a lot of them, I thought it was pretty obvious. I’m a freak.
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,吢
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Options: Conversion, Slavery, Payment, or Death

Quiz time: which of the following statements are wrong?
– Islamic State fighters and supporters are not all psychopaths
– Islamic State supporters take religion very seriously
– the proclaimed caliph, Baghdadi, actually descends from the rightful tribe of the Prophet, the Quraysh
– the establishment of a caliphate requires all Muslims to immigrate
– your only options if you don’t submit to the caliph are: to die, be a slave, or pay a tax (you don't necessarily get to choose)
– the Islamic State will survive and likely continue to attract overseas fighters in droves, as long as it continues to expand its territory
– religion has to do with the motivations of the Islamic State, as much as other political, social and economic factors

If you believe that any one of the above statements above is wrong, then you’re in for a big surprise: they are all correct. This enlightening piece (http://goo.gl/iqkMty) by journalist Graeme Wood in this month’s edition of The Atlantic Magazine will give you a lot to think about. Why you should read it (you won’t because you’ll find it too long – makes me think I should finish my draft post on “the currency of paying attention”)?
– because the journalist couldn’t be ideologically further from the atrocities and ideology of the Islamic State, and yet got the informal stamp of approval from some of the group’s thinkers on his article
– because you will see how political correctness and a little brainwashing don’t make for a good understanding of what’s going on nor for elaborating the more relevant response
– because, alas, it won’t change anyone’s opinion and “those in charge will ignore” the prophecies written 1,400 years ago and rigorously followed by the Islamic State, “and screw things up anyway”

Yes, the Islamic State draws its roots from a literal and medieval-age, even learned, interpretation of Islam, that includes slavery, crucifixion and beheadings: it is undeniably Islamic. No, it’s not the only flavour of Islam – even al Qaeda’s version is different, to the point that its leaders are considered as apostates by the newly-found caliphate (the irony). Yes, it’s a perfectly coherent belief system, once one accepts its foundational axioms. No, nobody can tell for sure whether supporters of the Islamic State truly believe in what they profess but then nobody can say anything about anyone’s beliefs, so let’s just stick to what they say, write and do, shall we? Yes, other religions have also proven to be strong motivators for raping and killing and doing all sorts of other wonderful things. No, not all Muslims support the Islamic State, far from it (200 million Shia are already marked for death just because Shiism is considered an “innovation” for the Islamic State, and therefore regarded as apostasy).

The Islamic State is following the prophecy and example of Muhammad: it’s claimed, obsessively, seriously, across the board, loud and clear. No other group in recent history has been more faithful to the Prophetic model – and that’s what makes it fascinating. Of course, other political, social and economic factors have fertilised the soil on which the Islamic State has grown. But denying the millenarian group’s religiosity, to which legitimacy they have just as anyone else for their own beliefs, will simply lead us to continue underestimating it, devising absurd plans to counter its expansion. In fact, the group is completely predictable because it rigorously follows a known ideology: they are in “offensive jihad” – expanding into countries ruled by non-Muslims – an aspect of Islamic law that most Muslims thankfully don’t consider (yet) applicable. We should have identified those expansion intentions sooner. We haven't. Now we’re stuck with the least worst option: to slowly bleed it by containing its expansion with air strikes, constraining it to the almost-barren land it occupies, which will not kill its ideology but its emotional appeal. Invading on the ground? Don’t even consider it: past interventions in that region only opened up the space for such radical groups. In fact, the Islamic State would love to see Western soldiers on its soil, confirming their suspicion that the West is embarking on a “modern-day Crusade” to kill all Muslims.

So: claiming that the Islamic State is un-Islamic would be completely counterproductive. For most Muslims, slavery may not be legitimate in today’s world but it cannot be condemned without contradicting the example of the Prophet… which would be an act of apostasy. The debate is happening within Muslim ranks though (for it would be absurd for non-Muslims to tell Muslims how to practice their religion, even if it’s certainly worth reading the Quran before talking about it – http://goo.gl/pXBEW). But reform or other interpretations could take different paths – in fact, Salafism is another ultraconservative, uncompromising literal version of Islam, but it focuses (first) on personal purification, in principle detaching itself from politics, before considering the expansion the “land of Islam”. There’s perhaps not much point in debating on the ideological front though: people are already convinced, entrenched in their own opinions. But understanding what they believe in can help in opting for better solutions, while avoiding political correctness in the process.

Brace yourselves. We’re not at the end of terror attacks committed a little bit everywhere on the planet, including by people truly motivated by their beliefs, with the vast majority of victims actually sharing a different interpretation of the same belief. But that’s unfortunately part of mankind's history and implacable future – and in the case of the Islamic State, unlike al Qaeda (hoping it doesn’t join forces, just like Boko Haram recently did), its focus is on the “nearby” enemy, not (yet) some distant towers in another land. It doesn’t mean we can’t prevent some of those attacks but they will undoubtedly happen, time and time again. If at least political correctness – and perhaps ignorance – were not blinding most pundits and other so-called experts, if it were not leading states to stir things up and make mistakes, we’d perhaps be slightly less worse off. Just perhaps.
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Awesome photography
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(No) Home

I’ve become somewhat of an ascetic wanderer. While I do have an official residence in the administrative sense of the term, a place where I sleep and get my mail delivered, it’s a far cry from the kind of place I would call “home” – because I travel quite a bit for work and for leisure, I’m only renting my place, and I’ve even sub-let a couple of rooms. Perhaps the only location I could have described as “home” was the family house before all hell stopped breaking loose (http://goo.gl/MfEikt) and my mother was forced to give it away to be able to pay off ten years of half “rent” owed to my father, even if he had been forced out of the house upon court decision. By an ironic twist of events, the house is now exclusively his. But that house will have had anyway forever been anchored in the past of my childhood, and not in the present or the future of my own life.

Simplicity and minimalism are probably what define my style of living nowadays – my interests lie less in material things than intellectual and in the realm of lived, physical experiences, although I can still appreciate a nice piece of furniture or equipment. But I just don’t need to own it. In fact, I want to be able – I am able – to move anywhere pretty much instantly without worrying about a piece of property somewhere (yes, Bali is still on my mind: http://goo.gl/35JISv) or, by extension, worrying about any responsibility tying me somewhere.

It didn’t use to always be the case that I didn’t care so much about having a “home”. More than ten years ago, I would tear apart pages from home decoration catalogues to keep track of inspiring designs for a future home. And since my parents had built their own house, it was indeed on my mind to also architect my own cosy place: a big library with all the books I read and loved even if I paradoxically don’t like to read things twice (there are so many good books to read and extend my wisdom from), a warming fireplace for those cold winter evenings, a cinema room to appreciate a good old vintage film by Kurosawa, an acoustical room for playing the piano or appreciating music across all the audible frequency spectrum.

I was reminded of that old dream twice, in rapid succession over the past few months. First when I was fortunate to visit an extraordinary private mansion on the borders of a lake up in the mountains. Every room was opened by thick wooden doors rounded at their top, stone and wood were interlocked all around the house, an imposing chimney gave the impression that a single fire could keep the place warm all winter long, an impressive living room highlighted the largest TV I had ever seen and which I thought was perfect for screening films… until I entered the dedicated cinema room! Heck, there was even a lift inside the house and an outdoors jacuzzi (imagine watching the silent stars above, naked in hot water while the snow is falling). Yes, it was too grandiose (I haven’t even described a tenth of that mansion) but you had to hear my interjections of surprise every time I entered a new room.

The second time I was reminded of that dream of having a home – or is it more about feeling at home? – occurred shortly afterwards when I visited the Casa Batlló in Barcelona. Also a private mansion, originally built in 1877, it is nowadays open to the public for a hefty fee (more than twenty euros!). It’s special because the architect who completely renovated it in 1904 was world-famous Antoni Gaudi, whose masterpieces sprinkle Barcelona. The colourful ceramic-tiled exterior of the building is already quite extraordinary, as if coming out of a fairy tale. Interpretations abound: is it the surface of a lake with water lilies? Are these protruding balconies the skulls or masks of djinns trying to peer into my mind? Are these the big eyes of a dinosaur or of a dragon, which back is represented by the roof? Do watch this fantastic video of a light show projected on the façade of the building – and let your imagination wander with the help of the (mostly! you’ll see why) appeasing music: http://goo.gl/wIV8Um.

Gaudi also designed some of the furniture – check out the funky overhanging lights – and went to the extreme of crafting his own font to name the rooms (that’s an F on one of the pictures of the album). Retractable slits in wooden panels cleverly serve as natural ventilation system. And what about this romantic fireplace, with seats carved on each side of the chimney? There would be so much more to say, from the oval windows to the arched loft and the central blue-tiled well. Notice carefully how the blue shade of the tiles gets lighter as one goes down the staircase: less light reaching the lower levels, it thus allows to create a homogenous blue atmosphere throughout the well. How ingenious!

For some reason, I was attracted to the round corners of every room and ceiling: it was that detail in particular that made me wonder how it could be easily replicated in any other building (maybe through the use of some plaster?) to break the harshness of monotonous horizontal and vertical lines of any traditional room. In the back of my mind were the Blanco Renaissance museum in Ubud (http://goo.gl/35JISv), or the Guggenheim museum in New York (http://goo.gl/NBMafO), which interest not only lies in the works exposed but also in the architecture of their building. And then I was thinking of an old idea of mine about creating new “castles” or anything that would drive tourists to visit them – anticipating that countries like France may actually need to invest more on tourism infrastructure and attractions to better prepare for the inevitable demise of traditional powers in favour of the emerging ones. Anyway, it’s part of my political programme that will probably never come to light, another one of those buried projects that come back up to the surface every now and then, never wanting to completely die.

From Paris to Barcelona, from New York to Ubud, from Zürich to London, home to me feels nowhere and everywhere at the same time. It perhaps depends on whether that home is shared with someone special, I don’t know anymore. Or maybe it is that “one never reaches home, but wherever friendly paths intersect the whole world looks like home for a time” (Frau Eva in Herman Hesse’s Demian, chapter 7 – http://goo.gl/2gkW3B in German, http://goo.gl/RvM1My in English).
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Interesting
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Hiring!

Do you have the chops for working with me on a personal project? I’m looking for someone creative, resourceful, a little bit technical, and capable of being completely independent. Read carefully what follows before applying.

Motivation
I have taken 100,000 photos and written 200 stories, with many more on the back burner. Is there anything that could be done with them? The person I’d like to work with is expected to come up with creative answers – and execute on them – with me. I just don’t have the time to work on this on my own.

Context
Here are some data points which made me – and should make you – ponder:
– $0.20 per year per photo is what uploading some photos on a stock photography website seven years ago (and none since) earned me on average, although the amount has been dwindling downwards in the last couple of years. Of course, I can’t claim that my 100,000 photos are all worthy of being sold, although you’d be surprised how I was able to sell the same photo multiple times by only flipping it… You can do the math and see the potential of merely considering the sale of photos on stock photography websites.
– all of my 100,000 photos are tagged (with EXIF and IPTC metadata), most of them are also rated (from zero to five stars), and they’re all already uploaded privately to my Google Drive
– cross-posting a tiny selection of my photos and stories on a new blog hosted on Blogger, as an experiment, generated some modest advertising revenue
– 350,000 people follow me on Google+ although only a tiny percentage actively engages with my content (about 10,000 passively view the content and 0.5 out of every 1,000 followers actively engages with it). Even without increasing participation, is there anything I could provide of more value to that audience, or any other online or offline audience?

Goals
I don’t necessarily need the money this project could generate but it could for instance fund photography or writing contests, or the printing of photo books or photo canvases to be given away. Of course, I wouldn’t be unhappy if the project garnered enough momentum to be self-sufficient, beyond generously rewarding your efforts and results. I’m however more interested in doing something extra out of those existing and future photos and stories, seeing them live, be transformed, reused in creative and interesting ways.

Job description
The list is not necessarily exhaustive and not everything is expected to be achieved. I’m counting on your creativity to come up with what “needs” to be done at the intersection of your own passion and my goals:

Coding:
– creating a website or an app (exhibition-style, game, anything), or simply a storefront (preferably using existing photo storefronts or otherwise creating it from scratch)
– translating photo metadata into English (IPTC data are in French but you don’t necessarily need to speak French)

Processing photos:
– highlighting photos, grouping them by themes, post-processing them

Writing and being creative:
– adapting or transforming my 200 stories into new works e.g. designing mashups on Google+, creating an ad-based blog or website, printing photo books, canvases or cards
– helping me draft new stories or rewrite previous stories (in particular correcting grammatical errors)
– trying out cross-posting on various platforms, possibly adapting formats

Selling and marketing:
– proactively selling some of my content online or offline
– experimenting with different ways of increasing traffic and sales
– suggesting high-quality but still cost-efficient giveaways based out of my content e.g. photo books and canvases

Branching out:
– partnering with other photographers and writers on concrete projects
– launching a thematic exhibition (by country, style, etc.) or partnering with existing ones, in various countries (with an obvious bias towards southeast Asia)
– connecting this project with another of mine regarding cultural photo-tours (high-end tours in an exotic country to both be enthralled by the cultural guiding and learn how to go from automatic to manual mode on one's camera)

What you would get from me
A unique work experience – it may or may not be for you. People working for me either appreciate my demanding style or hate it. Beware, I have no tolerance for slack behaviour, even if this is a personal project. But I’ll be actively mentoring you, giving you plenty of feedback, and will be treating you as a sparring partner. Again watch out: the pace is going to be quick and intense, and that’s perhaps no surprise that I work at Google (http://goo.gl/DzATl1). I’m a perfectionist and that will drive you crazy if you’re not like me. I take things seriously so you have to find your fun in working on this project – and be able to recharge. One more thing: my humour is lame, but you’ll probably laugh because it’s so lame.

Requirements
Most importantly, you need to understand and embrace the goals I’m trying to achieve, as well as truly appreciate the content I produce. Without passion, I can do nothing for you. In addition, you need to:
– be able to work completely autonomously and move forward even without clear direction 
– have excellent English writing skills (correct grammar, absence of typos)
– be able to code in HTML, JavaScript, possibly also in PHP (I scripted my metadata tagging code in PHP) 
– have post-processing skills (Photoshop or Lightroom)
– suggest ideas which are both creative and feasible
– propose a ”reasonable” compensation structure (see below)
– ideally live in or near Zürich, Switzerland (but working remotely is also possible)
– ideally have access to a good Internet connection (for manipulating large volumes of photos)

Compensation
That’s up to you to suggest but I would expect it to depend on your time commitment or on the actual results that you’ll get. For instance, I could pay you a salary if you’re fully dedicated on this project for a period of time we’d agree upon. Alternatively, you may wish to be bold and be compensated merely upon getting results e.g. percentage on the gross margin of all sales and ad revenue on the first few months post launch. Be creative and we’ll negotiate.

How to apply
Send me an email at networkseb@gmail.com with a link to a well-structured Google document (please give me commenting rights) explaining:
– what you understood of the goals of this project
– why you’re interested in working on it
– the ideas you have in mind and how you plan to implement them (I do expect a clear plan with timelines and realistic projections)
– the time you are capable of committing, when you’d be able to start and in which timezone you’re located in
– a summary and brief examples of your coding abilities and photo post-processing skills
– your background only as relevant to the project
– how you’d like to be compensated

The deadline to apply is set on 31st March, 2015, at midnight GMT, after which I’ll possibly conduct interviews with a shortlist of candidates. To make it more fun, I’ll automatically exclude the last application I receive before the deadline. I also reserve the right not to select anyone, nor to reply to your application (even if one of my clones probably will). And no need to be upset if you’re not selected, I have a bunch of other projects in store for which I’m equally happy to pay for them to be launched.

PS: did you notice that the photo I attach to this post is that of an elephant?! I took that photo almost exactly five years ago at the Elephant Festival in Jaipur, India… a fond memory.
PS2: my clones are unfortunately not eligible to be considered for this role, they lack a little bit of that human creative touch.
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I'm looking forward to seeing how this develops. Shutterstock's premium ($500) stock photography site also comes to mind: http://www.offset.com/
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Darth Vader’s Swim with Turtles

In these times of Star Wars frenzy, I have to make a revelation: no, I am not your father – you’re thankfully quite a number to read this so I’d have a tad too many children, although I’m a guy so technically I do have millions of little Sebastians available… but I digress as I barely started my post and the thought is slightly creepy too. So: I may not be your father, but I am… Darth Vader. Yep, that’s right, Darth Vader himself. Well if not himself, at least my heavy, slow breathing in a snorkelling tuba would clearly give me away or indicate some family connection, you have to give me that.

I felt at peace though, swimming in the straits between Gili Air and Lombok island in Indonesia – but my breathing initially clearly wasn’t. I was still breathing more rapidly than necessary. I knew I could finally relax but I had to consciously focus on slowing my breathing down.

Slowly inhaling air through my mouth – my nose was stuck in the snorkelling mask I was wearing – I started mentally counting up to the number six. I then held my breath for two seconds, before slowly expiring for another eight long seconds. The deep sound of air flowing through the tuba resonated in my ears, I sounded more and more like Darth Vader (or maybe like a whale, that would probably be a more accurate comparison), but thankfully my panting didn't disturb anyone nor the creature right below me.

I had suddenly remembered this breathing technique from a cute little squarish book full of simple quotes and relaxation methods. Too much of a rational mind, I had never been very keen about the topic of meditation, mindful introspection and other semi-Eastern voodoo-style stuff; Sam Harris's Waking Up, a Guide to Spirituality Without Religion had however started to open up my mind a little, before I got my hands on that anthology of quotes and other simple, occasionally simplistic (but does it really matter if they work?), suggestions.

Oh and if you didn’t have enough of Darth Vader references, check out those Darth-Vader-looking Japanese-made tuk-tuks from my trip in Thailand (https://goo.gl/PYZFaO) or those hilarious photos of Darth Vader in everyday life situations, going shopping or brushing his teeth (http://goo.gl/f9bIfa).

The beloved sea creature was calmly feeding itself, grazing algae and sea grass. I had been looking for turtles for a few days now. It's only when I finally saw one from close up that I realised how their shell camouflaged itself so easily with the brown-yellowish colour of the almost completely dead coral and of the sea grass it was feeding itself from.

Okay, let me admit how lame I was in finding those turtles: they were more than one metre (three feet) in diameter... so yes, I really wasn't very good at detecting their subtle, lethargic movements. Most times they were submerged a mere metre below the surface, their rugged-edge carapace dangling and hitting rocks as the sea was ebbing and flowing. I couldn’t really mock them for being entirely focused on eating, not worrying about waves carrying them away: I was myself so intent on going into the sea that I blindly walked on the dead coral, fins on my feet, falling down like a clumsy clown and hurting myself against the sharp rocks every time a slightly bigger-than-expected wave would come crashing in.

I did eventually figure out a technique: walking backwards into the sea (no, it wasn’t quite moonwalking à la Michael Jackson but “almost”) and, just as importantly, taking the time to identify the areas where the coral had been blown up to let boats come alongside the shore. So if you ever travel to the eastern side of Gili Air, get in about a hundred metres north of Satu Tiga cottages where a few boats are anchored, let yourself drift with the currents, and get out at the little white flag that signals the blown-up channel right before the beach walls. Swim right at the frontier between the coral and the deeper sea where all the tropical fish of all colours and sizes – yes, including things that look like mini-sharks, yikes – love to swim around.

Temptation to swim with the turtle holding onto its hard carapace was high – I never watched The Little Mermaid (“it’s for girls”) so the closest analogy would be Aladdin and his flying carpet (no, I didn’t say the turtle was a carpet, argh!). So did I do it? I’m not sure I want to make you more jealous – or risk being demonised because turtles should be left undisturbed. Let’s just say I “accidentally” brushed against its large, paddle-like flippers. I followed the turtle as it swam away: it was quite a feeling to be able to swim at the same pace as the sea mammal, with no one and nothing else around except that beautiful uniform blue colour of the deep sea in the background. My heart leapt in small bursts of joy as one turtle led me to another, and yet another, and when their large beady eyes seemed to stare at me for a few seconds. Those days were good days for Sebastian.

At the surface of the sea, boats were whizzing around. Children were playing football on the beach – I would dismally lose later on but, to be fair and because I have to find a scapegoat, a player on my team attempted useless headers, literally planting his head into the sand without even touching the ball, what the heck – well, it’s not tomorrow that Indonesia will be on the world map of football (sorry). Tourists were tanning under the sun, sipping some watermelon or pineapple juice. The turtle couldn’t care less about all those mundane activities. It couldn’t be bothered by my presence either.

Once replete with its meal of dirt-coloured sea grass, the turtle broke the surface one last time to breathe one big gulp of air – and immediately dove vertically straight towards the floor of the deep blue sea. Sometimes I wish I could also disappear in some other-worldly pleasant-blue reality, away from feelings of responsibility, away from silly issues. Perhaps I should instead remind myself of that Buddhist analogy as regards to inner tranquillity: down there, far below the waves and the twirl of everyday life, it is always peaceful and quiet...
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How I Became a Tuk-Tuk Driver

“Ouch, my arm, my arm!” I screamed in pain. “Are you okay, mum?” I shouted immediately after. I couldn’t see her, my face was against the ground and my head stuck in my helmet. I was in shock after my scooter had just slipped on a dirt track, my mother being on the passenger seat. I was really worried I had badly injured my mother – but thankfully she only had superficial bleeding wounds all across her leg and foot.

I had ridden thousands of kilometres in all kinds of conditions, up volcanoes (http://goo.gl/xGvvTb), in the night, on tracks full of potholes, on sand (http://goo.gl/Ei0RHv), down slopes so steep I had to ask my passenger to step down, under torrential rains or under the blazing sun (protecting myself from it in desperate ways: http://goo.gl/zJZZLw), from Thailand to Indonesia and Vietnam. Call it luck or call me a safe rider, I never had a single accident. And here I was in the middle of the Cambodian countryside, thirty kilometres away from Siem Reap, calmly riding the scooter at fairly low speed in sunny weather on a red-dirt track with its fair share of potholes.

My memory is confused. I’m not sure if I had been slightly disturbed by a single motorbike coming the opposite way while I was trying to avoid those potholes. I don’t know what happened. I just fell on the right side. Within minutes, what seemed like a peaceful countryside with a few houses on each side of the road became filled with dozens of people, most staring at us while a few others provided some Tiger Balm, rubbing it directly onto our open bleeding wounds (I don’t know what would be less recommended, between not using such a balm on open wounds versus rubbing it with the dirty hands those kind teenagers had). After an hour of sitting on the side of the road under the noon sun, and having apologised to my mother at least a thousand times, I tried to find the strength to pick up the scooter and continue on our journey to some distant Khmer temples. Alas, I couldn’t even turn the handle, my right arm was hurting too badly.

Stubbornness defines me well. It took all of my mother’s convincing power to persuade me that I had to give up and accept the offer from teenagers to ride us instead to the hospital. On the way back though, I made them stop to get the smashed mirror repaired. Two hours after the accident, I was finally at the hospital – I would come out of it exactly as I entered: with dirty, bleeding wounds; and feeling just as much pain in my arm, having had to request an X-ray which thankfully showed that I didn’t break my arm. I learned afterwards that I should have gone to a private clinic instead. Oh well. I only had to bear with a very sore arm and wrist for about four weeks… and a delightful group-A β-hemolytic streptococcus infection (what a lovely name, isn’t it? I’ll think about that name when and if I have children one day – aren’t they parasites sometimes?!), which took close to two months to get sorted out (my mother can tell you more about it, she had the pleasure of self-contaminating herself a few more times).

But I obviously couldn’t give up on my idea of riding independently and not having to rely on anyone else to guide me around. Two days after the accident, my mother and I were on bicycles, riding south of Siem Reap towards the lake’s floating village. I pretended I was okay by throwing my weight on my other arm (my mother is going to kill me when she reads that and realises I was actually not well enough).

Less than a week later, I was down in Kampot, known for its fine pepper and lush greenery by the river. There were a few things to visit in the surroundings. My mind never stopping, I had suddenly thought that if I could rent a whole tuk-tuk, I wouldn’t risk slipping like I did with the scooter since it would be much more stable. In addition, I would perhaps not need to strain my right arm as much as on a scooter. I therefore set forth on a mission to find a tuk-tuk driver who would be happy – or rather, not too terrified – for me to rent his vehicle.

I was laughed at a bit, but I kept walking throughout town, shouting across to various drivers I encountered to make them stop and “talk to me, please, I’m a bit weird but yes, I really want to rent your entire tuk-tuk”. Phone calls were made and finally a yellow-painted tuk-tuk, that I am immediately baptised “yellow submarine” in my sick brain, was my reward. Followed an intense negotiation and a deal was struck at $15 for a full 24 hours – which amount I would then easily recoup by selling seats to other tourists, mwahaha (fellow countrymen, what’s more, but they still had a “good” deal). The driver was patient enough to explain to me how his manual-gear motorbike worked. I had indeed never ridden one of those bulky Russian Minsk motorcycles and it took me a bit of time to figure out how to avoid stalling – notice by the way how different those tuk-tuks are from the “Darth Vader” ones in Thailand (https://goo.gl/PYZFaO) or the traditional ones in India (https://goo.gl/GyJtRq). But it was fun to set myself that challenge, succeed in getting what I wanted, and ride my big toy like a big boy.

And that’s how I became the first (wide-smiling) tourist ever to drive a tuk-tuk in Cambodia.
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Embracing Vulnerability

Was it love? They didn’t know what to believe, between their respective words and their own conflicted feelings. Both had been through previous relationships, satisfying ones which had made them happy but which had now ended, ending well, perhaps ending too well to be able to be open again to living experiences both negative and positive with someone new.

They weren’t of the same age, they had at times opposite attitudes towards life, they maybe even had different aspirations. Heck, they didn’t even live in the same city. Yet both knew something greater could flourish from the exciting sparkles their differences produced. Vulnerability was something they had always successfully hidden from their friends and colleagues. They were maybe too proud to admit their stubbornness, even if they were a little disconcerted with the uncertainties of life and its endless opportunities in all possible directions, but they seemed to irremediably come back to one another, reading in each other’s eyes the profound affection they shared for one another and the fulfilment they could touch at the tip of their fingers.

Was this the life of the newly-wed couples and women I photographed in Vietnam? Had they left someone behind or were they in love? Would there be a Florentino Ariza waiting for his loved one at the twilight of their lives, like in Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera? Or would pride or shame be in the way, just like Salman Rushdie’s mother who exchanged the love of a man for the love of her at-the-time unborn children, and who wasn’t required to – but did – live lonely once her husband had died and her ex-lover still wanted to see her again (in Joseph Anton: A Memoir)?

C.S. Lewis: "To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung, and possibly broken”. Happiness and vulnerability are often the same thing. A certain degree of safety is perhaps necessary at first, just like some amount of water, soil and light is necessary for a flower to start blooming; but life is also subject to the changing weather of our complex imbroglios, of our annoying postures, of our inevitable ups and downs: isn’t it also the embracing and possible overcoming of those conflicts that makes a bond gradually stronger?

C.S. Lewis goes on: “If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with your hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable”.

My own heart is more than a little bruised by now. And I’ve hurt people in the process, sometimes even without realising it (yes, I’m that bad). While I’m deeply sorry for causing pain – and I always struggle ever forgiving myself – I cling to the belief that I have learned, that I am still learning, what it means to love, that it’s also acceptable to take risks even when I am scared, that it’s perhaps even preferable to not overthink everything to be able to simply enjoy life, alone or with someone special. That the truly worst-imaginable scenario actually never happens… well, maybe I shouldn’t say that, my opinion may have changed upon watching Relatos Salvajes (Wild Tales), a recent Argentinian film of tales depicting fairly extreme human behaviour.

The last story of the film, a wedding party, is truly memorable: once things start going wrong with the bride having doubts about her husband’s fidelity (http://goo.gl/TKedQn), you have no idea how bad it’s going to get afterwards. Remembering her evil dance with his ex, the “sympathising” cook, and the disheveled half-drunk groom slowly and terrifyingly picking up the cake knife, I can’t stop smiling… although I perhaps shouldn’t, especially after having seen another, different but still delightfully scary, film, Gone Girl. Tip for men: first question on a date should be whether she has watched that film – if yes, run for your life, you’ll be forever thankful (I know I joke a lot, but that’s some serious advice). I cannot help but end this post by sharing this awfully sexist quote which made me laugh a bit too much when I first came across it: “Life is a bitch – and then you marry one.”

PS (1st May): as an ironic twist of fate, the day I published this post on embracing vulnerability was the day a colleague of mine died on Everest as a consequence of the earthquake in Nepal. I knew +Dan Fredinburg only a little, having briefly worked with him seven years ago at Google. When he was asked what was the greatest risk he had ever taken, this was his response, which moved me to tears when this was shared with me a few days ago:

"While climbing Carstensz Pyramid, the tallest mountain in Oceania, a fellow climber fell, lost a lot of her blood, and nearly died of hypothermia. Had we returned on the 6 day trek through the jungle that we used on the way in, she would have certainly died. To rescue her, I smuggled her through Grasberg Mine, the largest gold mine in the world. Along the way, we risked being shot by mercenaries, had our friends kidnapped and held hostage, and then were ultimately arrested and imprisoned inside a jail inside the gold mine. And I was on Mt Everest this year when an ice serac fell into the icefall and killed all but my team on the mountain. Afterwards we executed body recovery and then climbed back down through the damaged route. But these were mostly calculated risks.

If I had to select the greatest risk I've taken in my life, it has been to throw myself into a romantic relationship with someone to reach a point of deep, illogical and visceral love. To a point where emotion and human connection overpowers any reason and safety. To be vulnerable psychologically and emotionally. This is real risk, with the greatest reward."
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The Red Nose Is Real

She didn’t believe I was “real”, whatever that meant. So I challenged her, also to prove to myself that I do exist: I’d give her five minutes of my time on the bridge next to the central railway station – and then I’d start my Sunday walk. She didn’t turn up – so much for the challenge. Maybe I was too ugly looking for her to dare approaching me. Had I forgotten to take away my mask (http://goo.gl/7076Dd)? Or maybe she didn’t exist. But my attention had simultaneously been attracted by the people swarming towards the lake. I set forth and followed them, only to be soon reminded of a tradition that is well alive every winter in villages and towns across Alemannic Switzerland: the carnival (or “Fasnacht”).

I had a bit forgotten about it, because of my frequent travels, also because I don’t always get out on weekends (when would I have the time to write and read and process photos otherwise?!). Yet it’s a fond memory of those first few years after I moved to Switzerland, discovering this tranquil country and its peculiarities, sometimes contradictory, which gradually made me attached to this adopted homeland (but where really is home? http://goo.gl/mE9wCO). Carnivals abound, celebrating the time before the start of religious fasting or alternatively welcoming the springtime, shooing evil ghosts and dark spirits away.

Just a year ago, I had attended the slightly disappointing Saint Patrick’s Day in San Francisco (http://goo.gl/wM7aXh). But the carnivals in Switzerland are truly joyful and musical moments, completely involving locals, hot drinks distributed and sweets thrown from the parade chariots, both free of charge which must be pretty much the only free things in Switzerland together with the air one breathes and the city bikes during the summer season. And unlike Sydney’s Mardi Gras parade (bizarrely having nothing to do with Shrove Tuesday, especially considering it’s a gay and lesbian festival – maybe it’s because French sounds better?!), there’s enough space along the streets to get up close… the only thing is that you would probably not want to get up too close, for fear of being grabbed by some monster or tricked by some other jester (http://goo.gl/BXkMRF).

For some reason, Zürich’s parade always includes a delegation of Peruvian and Bolivian dancers which is certainly a surprising and contrasting scene. I can however assure you that the costumes and dance steps were completely faithful to Latin American tradition, for having witnessed one of those very festivals in Cusco (http://goo.gl/JKRLz). It suddenly makes me want to travel back there, on a motorcycle à la Ernesto Guevara (http://goo.gl/hqV5Lo)... let me finalise that resignation letter.

I didn’t get harpooned by a monster or thrown into a rolling bathtub full of confetti, thanks to my photo-taking strategy of hiding behind innocent children. I did grab one of those red noses though which now allow me to “trick or treat” single women at their homes. Oh wait, that sounds creepy. Okay, let’s just say next time you see a man with a camera and a red nose, that guy is “real” – his lame sense of humour too.
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吢哒①
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The Tipping Point

The warm rays of the sun were reverberating on my beautifully-tanned skin and piercing through my transparent-blue eyes. I parted the sea with my hands, elegantly stepping onto dry, white, soft sand. Beads of water sparkled as they dropped from the strands of my hair and trickled down my sculptured body. With barely a flirtatious wink at the pretty girls ogling me, I picked up my camera and started gracefully jogging on the beach, flexing my amazingly-shaped muscles. My run was precisely calculated so I would arrive at my sunset photo spot exactly on time.

ShkreeechShkreeechShkreeechShkreeech – that’s the sound of the VHS tape rewinding – because it’s not at all how it happened.

Imagine instead my right leg full of (thankfully healing) wounds from a scooter accident ten days earlier in the middle of the Cambodian countryside (a story in itself, maybe for another time: https://goo.gl/GeyCNk), my left side with three visible warzone-endured-like scars (what, did I hear someone say “sexy”?!), and it wasn’t seawater sparkling but stinky and sticky sweat. Oh, and since I haven’t been allowed to practice sports in the previous months, I was panting with my tongue sticking out (okay, I’m exaggerating on that one, the rest is however true, quite unfortunately). And the only people who could potentially observe this heroic scene were a couple meditating in lotus position on the beach… and with their eyes closed.

Anyway, I picked up pace, keeping an eye on the rapidly declining sun on my right. Five months had already passed since my double pneumothorax surgery (http://goo.gl/7K93i8), yet I couldn’t avoid thinking about it as I was running on the beach. To this day, I still have a hard time realising this happened to me – one wants to believe in one’s invincibility – although I since had that minor scooter accident.

On this warm January evening, the only lingering pain in my wrist didn’t prevent me from enjoying the pleasant one-kilometre jog, carefully avoiding to trample on my new little friends, the sand bubbler crabs (http://goo.gl/H0QnGf). For I had earlier noticed a beautiful junk boat anchored near the beach, one of those traditional sailing boats which used to dot Halong Bay in Vietnam (they have since been replaced by nondescript white motor-propelled boats). I would picture in my mind a pretty sunset photo with the silhouette of the boat, drowned in a reddish atmosphere, not without reminding me of Louis Toffoli’s Istanbul painting (http://goo.gl/BcP6bW). Actually looking for a link to that painting made me discover a whole series closely resembling what I eventually photographed (http://goo.gl/aKnofM).

Of course I wasn’t the only one wanting to capture the “perfect” sunset shot, although I’m perhaps a little more stressed – let’s say, meticulous – than the average photographer: I strive to frame a harmonious composition, not just capturing the sun itself as in too many dull shots. Sometimes the sun doesn’t even need to be in the frame to render magical instances (see the picture in a previous post titled “Four elements”: http://goo.gl/8vkMIi). I was also very lucky: I didn’t think I had ever seen the circumference of an orange sun so distinctly drawn out in the sky, although examining my catalogue of photos more carefully made me realise I had already witnessed similar sights during my trips to India. Luck struck twice: I couldn’t remember having yet observed the ring of the sun touch the flat horizon of the sea, clouds or pollution obstructing the sun in most other places I had been to (for instance in Tanah Lot in Bali, Indonesia: http://goo.gl/63NjBL).

As the sun disappeared behind the planet’s horizon, amateur photographers headed back to their bungalows. Fatal mistake, the sunset light would still reveal some surprising scenes. To be continued...
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The Secret Lives of Sand Bubbler Crabs

“The path to grandeur starts by assembling tiny forces” – Seb Tzu in The Art of Beach War

The cannonballs were ready, the trenches perfectly dug out. Thousands of cannonballs had been methodically prepared and lined up around the trenches, awaiting to be hurled at the enemy’s fortresses. The time had finally come for the army of tiny sand crabs to claim their territory back from the race of human beings by attacking their sand castles. And if any of those children dared approaching too close, the crabs would snap right back into their circular trench holes.

But the battle never took place.

The crabs and the little children suddenly realised that external forces risked overwhelming them. The minuscule crabs hid into their tiny burrows; and the little children ran to their mothers’arms.

The tide came back up and washed the sand cannonballs and fortresses away.

Interlude. The tide ebbed away.

“Knock, knock, anyone there? I won’t kick you, I promise!” It did take me some fourteen years to realise that those poor things do have a brain and actually feel pain (read comments on a two-year old post about Thailand’s beautiful hermit crabs: http://goo.gl/7Wwyn). “I’m just here to take pictures of you”.

I completely lied down on the sand – connected to Mother Earth if you will (I will stop with innuendos right away... bad, bad Sebastian). That section of Otres Beach, near Sihanoukville in Cambodia, was a clean stretch of white warm sand. I waited quietly for the adorable one-centimetre-wide crabs to reassuredly come out of their burrows again. Those tiny crabs only exist in parts of southeast Asia but one has to pay attention to actually notice them on the beach. In addition, the light of the sun is often so strong that they appear to be the same colour and pattern as the sand. But upon closer inspection, and some post-processing, it’s possible to discern that these crabs are actually… blue and orange!

The nervous crab I was waiting for cautiously checked multiple times whether it was safe for it to emerge from its circular hole. It then resumed its very peculiar feeding activity, for it had already finished digging its burrow out, having removed all the sand till the tunnel reached the water table. It therefore started sifting through sand particles, pushing them to its mouth with one of its claws, trying to find the even more tiny edible coating at the surface of sand grains. Yummy.

It became even more interesting afterwards. The crab rotated the sand in its mouth and once the accumulated sand became too big, the crab disdainfully kicked the neatly-created round pellet of sand behind it. The crab then moved on to scraping the next teeny-tiny chunk of sand nearby, moving radially away from its burrow. Those so-called “sand bubbler crabs” are actually quite ingenious: by creating little balls of processed sand, they thus make sure not to chew on the same sand from which they had already extracted all the organic matter from (see this short video for some live action: http://goo.gl/AIV5X0).

Suddenly, the crab sensed danger: the sea was near, once again. The crab instantly disappeared in its burrow.

The tide came back up and washed the sand pellets, and me, away.

Interlude. The tide ebbed away.

Many crabs emerged from their holes, as if they had synchronised their swift movements. They started creating and discarding little same-sized sand spheres once again, not without reminding me of Sisyphus’s rolling of a boulder all the way up a hill before seeing it roll back down again – except that the crabs at least fed themselves before the sea would disintegrate everything.

The radial motion of the crabs led to the formation of sand ball galaxies on the beach. Crab-drone technology had not been invented yet. The crabs could therefore not grasp the beauty of the ephemeral art they were creating. Individually, a crab’s output didn’t matter. Add another crab’s output and that collaborative harmony started looking meaningful, even pretty. There is something comforting in the aesthetic observation of the parallel movement of the industrious crabs and of the intricate patterns drawn on the sand.

Look too closely and you’ll only notice the individual sand pellets. Stand up and they become indistinguishable, leaving the observer’s imagination run free to interpret those gradually-emerging constellations. This improvised art reminded me of Pointillism, that nineteenth-century technique of painting in small, distinct dots of complementary colours, juxtaposed to eventually form an overall image. If you’ve never heard of that style, give a look at the very first work, Baigneurs à Asnières (http://goo.gl/YNJ8bG), of the creator of that technique, Frenchman Georges Seurat, although I find Paul Signac’s Palais des Papes (http://goo.gl/7O6Vi8) more pleasing to the eye.

It’s as if not mixing colours on a palette but instead keeping them separate allowed the artist to paint something more ”pure”, more powerful. There’s both an emotional and rational explanation for why some view Pointillism that way. Emotional because the colour blending is achieved by the eye and the brain as opposed to being achieved by the brush – and quite naturally the brain is considered as superior to mere objects. Rational because it’s the same optical principle used in TVs: mixing independent rays of light is additive since each coloured ray corresponds to a frequency; so simultaneously projecting red, blue and green lights produces a white light. On the other hand, mixing paint is subtractive since the resulting colour is made up of all frequencies not absorbed by each pigment; so simultaneously mixing cyan, magenta and yellow produces black paint.

Maybe there’s a lesson to be taken here: would it be perhaps worth preserving some independence between things or people, and find ways to complement them, hoping that something beautiful will emerge, instead of seeking to blend or unify them? Aristotle’s saying, "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts”, should perhaps consequentially be extended to express that this is only true when the parts are not merged? How can one also tell that the combination will be complementary, additive and not incoherent, destructive? Is it a risk worth taking? And what’s the real risk anyway: feeling disappointed or hurt? being laughed at?

Being mocked, hmm... for the related anecdote, the name of that painting method – Pointillism – was initially given by art critics to mock it, although even Van Gogh adopted elements from it. I don’t know why that name stuck though, even if the negative connotation has since disappeared: after all, Seurat had given a name to the technique, coining it as “Chromoluminarism”, which does perhaps sound a bit too technical.

I however like Seurat’s scientific approach to his art. According to him, colour could be used to generate emotion, just like music could use variation to obtain harmony (coincidentally, I discovered there’s something called “Punctualism” in music which then reminded me of this interesting graphical way of representing music: http://goo.gl/3Q7aVN). So neo-impressionist painters, as they were called, codified this art: joy and happiness would be depicted with warm colours and lines going up, while sadness would be painted with dark and cold colours and lines going down.

Connecting the dots, excuse the pun, or rather the sand balls, excuse the double pun, with my little crabs, they were for sure far from worrying about such artistic considerations. There is something a little distressing about the lack of appreciation of art though, let alone when it’s subject to quick disappearance (let’s call this “Snapart” maybe).

If Seurat had counted on leaving a legacy beyond painting, he would have been disappointed. Both of his children died at young age. In fact, Seurat himself died a mere seven years after he invented Pointillism, of the same illness that would then cause the death of his little son two weeks later. Seurat was 31.

The tide came back up and washed the little crabs’ art, and Georges Seurat, away.
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Wonderful pictures of the crabs! Sad we don't has them here in Colorado. Thanks for sharing. The macros are excellent! 
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What I write about

Most of my posts are true stories with pictures of my wanderings across the planet, from Peru to Thailand and many other countries in between. I don’t really have a permanent home anymore: I live with little and I travel a lot thanks to my exciting and privileged job at Google. Drafting those stories, selecting and processing photos take about three hours for each post – that is why I don’t spam you more than once or twice per week with my posts (and you won't see any annoying hashtag or ostentatious embellishment), and that is also why your +1s and comments are encouraging.

An index of all my posts, classified in many ways, is available for your perusal. If you can’t be bothered to go through that index, why don’t you take a look at my photos of various animals (hermit crabs and no, I don't kick crabs anymore; Andean condors; Borneo kingfishers; dolphins in Bali; monkeys in Thailand), stories of my family (my grandpa, my late grandma, the cord, Litsa), famous landscapes (Machu Picchu, Borobudur, Bromo volcano), awkward places (underground mosque, water palace, salt ponds, circular Inca terraces, Buddha's head entrapped in a tree, a hotel for bees, long-necked women), my most popular posts (Javanese dancers, Thai dancers, tropical birds) or just sunsets (in Thailand, in Indonesia).


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I can be sarcastic, I listen, I check facts (I'm Zetetic – I just love this word and love words in general), I'm an organisational freak, I read and I take humble stabs at writing, I watch movies, I cannot go on without music, I love photography (check my photo albums), I travel most of the time (otherwise my social life is mainly limited to playing badminton once a week when I'm not undergoing surgeries), I'm a citizen of the world, I pay attention and have come to deeply enjoy speaking in public, always trying to enthuse my audience. I don't drink (not even coffee), I don't smoke – and never did. I'm kind but I'm a bit stubborn (okay, maybe more than a bit – my siblings think I’m Sheldon Cooper while others say I have a vague resemblance to Tom Cruise).

I'm a quiet person but I am always bustling with (crazy) ideas and stories. I kiss slowly (I'm a Frenchman, but does being so mean anything? Maybe it does since I can relate to bleak chic) and I don't feel like having children. I'm somewhat of a tormented soul too – my school of thought is Camusian-Nietzschean-Cynic. Trying to be hedonistic too (I fail miserably), which is not contradictory with caring for and helping others, sometimes being a positive deviant.


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