Free

This weekend I did something I’ve been meaning to do for a long, long time: got rid of all my books.

Well, not all of them. A couple of cherished volumes remain. An edition of Ulysses I was given at 16;  a few textbooks peppered with notes from b-school; rather too many graphic novel trade paperbacks, my guilty pleasure. (If you so much as think Kapow or Biff, I’ll hunt you down; “Sandman” and “100 Bullets” are high art.) But I think I’ll get rid of even those, in time.

Because I’ve completed the transition.

All those word-filled bricks everyone keeps forever – because they’ve owned them since teenhood, or make a shelf look dressed, or plan to read sometime but never get around to – are now boxed up into giveaways.

My literary life’s now entirely digital, and I couldn’t be happier.

My KindleI came late to Kindle, buying a fondlepad only in 2011. But now there’s a hundred volumes on there, including a fair few I owned already and bought again for the convenience, and it’s started me reading again because it’s just so simple. I don’t pay heed to the Booker list or Times Literary Supplement; too new (literature needs time to let the good bits bubble up) and the pop-science works are too bulky when released and out of date when they reach paperback. Business strategy books come and go, and any good review gives you their main ideas; ninety-nine out of a hundred you never need to read and even fewer are worth keeping, while investment texts tend towards thousand-page epics that put too much weight in my backpack. My Kindle is as close as I’ll ever get to an addiction, because…

I’m all about the kilograms.

Minimalists don’t own much. Storing everything I own during a year away took a single lock-up cube a metre and a half along each side. And most of that – eight 50cm cardboard boxes, about four hundred kilos – was bookware, the old fashioned ink-on-paper sort with spines that crease and dogears that take decades to delete themselves.

The photographs I own that use paper as their substrate… fit into a small worn envelope. I haven’t bought a single CD since I came back to the UK early this century; all went onto my hard disk years back. I don’t buy DVDs any more; what’s the point in the era of LoveFilm and NetFlix? (And the 400 or so I bought in more stuff-obsessed times fit into two wallets if you strip away the boxes.)

But books … they were my last holdout. About six hundred of them, masses of fiction and nonfiction amassed over thirty years.

The travel guides went first. In a summer of injury I surfed the globe in DK’s illustrated technicolour instead, and never lost the habit. But they’re gone now. Then textbooks, many on stuff that just interested me at the time: molecular biology, nuclear physics, electronics and nanotechnology and supramolecular chemistry. A step closer to the bestseller lists came the popsci: Gleick and Deutsch and Dawkins, papery chaos reduced to bits and forced into extinction. Then a torrent of penguins: Dickens to Melville and and Burroughs to Pynchon, Shakespeare to Thompson and Wolfe. (Not because I don’t want them, but because I’ve got them in a format without heft or inertia; classics in particular cost pennies in e-book format.) Gibbon was declined, and fell; no element of Euclid had solid reason to remain choate; Plato and Aristotle failed to justify their existence. Old Oxford anthologies – monster kilobricks of two thousand pages apiece, six of them – crumbled into memories flakier than a Don’s potato. MBA Required Readings got skipped; Operations textbooks were surgically removed.

With every handful heaved cartonwards, I felt a little more free.

And I hope this is the way we’re all going.

A state of mind where we can all be free. Footloose and open to opportunities, living lives free of compromise beholden to no-one.

Free of the suffocating paperstuff that weighs us down and anchors us in one place because it creates too much inertia to do anything else.

Too many educated people are in thrall to their libraries, their natural impulses to explore held in check by the gravitational pull of a hundred groaning bookshelves. I’ve seen apartments in this town where every wall is covered and doors only open as far as the stacks huddled behind them allow. Old people yellowing in synchronicity with the foxing on ancient hardbacks: best case = lost in the words they love as their lives trundle towards midnight, worst case = trapped by them and prevented from giving the world beyond a last hurrah. I’ve seen young people already circumscribed by what they own, life choices inexorably narrowed because they’ve got too much stuff to carry around.

Where are they going? To the Sahara. There’s a lot of decent reading in there, and a charity’s willing to take them off my hands. A part of the world where, sadly, too many maniacs with too few ideas are running amok. Men who follow an apocalyptic antithesis of my idea: that only one book matters, and no other knowledge should be allowed.

They burn ancient libraries that give the lie to Africa being a land of oral tradition. They shoot girls in the head for going to school. They contort ancient beliefs into laws that benefit themselves, and rule by terror and blood. These men must be stopped.

Perhaps by throwing a few hundred kilograms of books into the endless desert, a boy who’d otherwise pick up an AK and a headful of hate will pick up a book instead. And step onto another path.

Perhaps today, I’m stopping one bullet from being fired in ten years’ time. And that can only be a good thing.

Felicity J Lord: a tale of a tragically incompetent lettings agency

Working outside London much of the last year, I rented my house in the capital through supposedly reputable, but in reality appallingly inept, lettings agency Felicity J Lord. This ditty documents my (frustrating) experiences over the past year.

In my opinion, it’s been not merely the worst estate agency, but in fact the worst company of any description I’ve ever dealt with: F J Lord seems bumbling and clueless to a level barely imaginable in today’s competitive environment. (Including, at the actual time of writing, failing to return any of four calls inviting them to ponder on whether they should, on the final day of a tenancy, perhaps be performing certain acts related to their business.)

Anger and frustration have long since been replaced by a sense of resigned shaking-head acceptance. So to reflect the cloud-cuckoo approach to business practiced by this most Alice-in-Wonderland of property companies, I’ve put my complaint in verse. (To be read in the meter of that Gilbert & Sullivan classic, The Modern Major General’s Song from Pirates of Penzance.)

Felicity J Lord: A Modern Major General Lettings Catastrophe

 

It started with a contract, and the little bit of paperwork

For Residential Shorthold, simple job for any lettings clerk

But even as the doc was signed the future trouble reared its head -

Mistake in rent (I noticed) proved the contract hadn’t been re-read.

 

In truth the indicators of a possible catastrophe

From people too incompetent to double-check a Spelling Bee

Had been there from first viewings as the designated agency

Drove up and waited shyly to inform him they’d forgot the key.

 

Then as the Tenants signed their names the problems start to pile up,

We say we’ll take a 5% upfront and then take twice as much,

Calls left hanging and our anxious landlords kept on tenterhooks

It takes six weeks from fault report to get us in to take a look!

 

Our left hand never has a clue what righty might be doing now,

The smallest task resulting in a constant escalating row

We keep our landlords so frustrated many let the errors pass -

Perhaps that’s why we say hands-on: we need both hands to find our ass.

 

As if to prove our Agency is unfailingly blooper-prone,

Each month we write in error to the owner of the letted home.

No wonder that our landlords think from F J Lord they should take flight -

We’re so inept it takes twelve months to get a direct debit right!

 

Yet through it all we have the cheek to charge the highest fees in town

To us a landlord candidate is little better than a clown

And when they ask to justify what they see as extortionate

We smile and say effectiveness is not a part of our remit.

 

The grossest errors and mistakes; throughout it all we take our fee,

As if we were a shining Modern General Lettings Agency

But competence remains a word that we do not epitomise,

We understand some customers just give up and emit loud sighs.

 

Since Britain’s in a triple-dip you’d think that all its companies

For customers would kiss the air and fall gratefully to their knees

But F J Lord exists on oddly non-converging business vector -

Servicing its customers more badly than the Public Sector.

 

And so today the disgruntled composer of this witty verse

Phoned F J Lord in tears of joy with words that needed no rehearse

The tenancy is ending and there’s no more painful work to do

F J Lord of course seemed shocked, as if it didn’t have a clue!

 

So that’s the story (with perhaps a pinch of gentle poem license)

Of F J Lord, whose tasks are hardly on a par with rocket science

Handing viewings, signing forms, and thenceforth just collecting rents

An easy job description, done with laughable incompetence!

2012: moments to remember

2012 wasn’t a bumper year for the UK – hitting the third trough of a triple-dipper, socialism and its henchman the Public Sector on the rise  (again), and business and consumer confidence beating their foreheads against the wall sobbing.  But it was an OK year for me.

(Of course, my definition of “ok” is any day I don’t get pushed under a Tube by a maniac or clusterfucked by hordes of slavering zombies. Deep down, I’m a happy person.)

The year went too quickly, of course: something hits the fast-forward button on your life once you pass 25 . I didn’t jump, didn’t do a tri, didn’t go to Krav, yet it seems mere minutes since I did all three regularly. Getting back into them (and a few new sports) is a goal for 2013.

But as for the things that stood out for me in 2012:

  1. e1499e106I fought zombies in an abandoned shopping mall.Thank you, ZED Events, for making it the most atmospheric experience of the year.
  2. IMG_2156I went Mac, after two decades in the PC paradigm. Two things stood out: how painless it was – the only things I had to learn were Illustrator and a few keyboard shortcuts – and how much smoother life is now.A solid-state hard drive, that beautiful Retina screen, and simpler backups all made it a decision that’s added 20% to my productivity.
  3. snapcityIt was a year of spread bet trading. Bringing together my knowledge of business fundamentals, technical analysis, and cognitive biases started to work and I’m now consistently profitable at around 1% a month, albeit from a small pot: that’s => the averaged returns from even the best hedge funds.How? Because I’m doing it on small scales, trading derivatives I know well. I now believe any garage investor can beat any top City manager in percentage terms, if you don’t have outsiders to satisfy.
  4. IMG_2558I had another great odyssey across the southwest USA, driving the “Grand Circle” out from Vegas. And realised that for all my years travelling Asia and Europe, the Mojave and its hinterlands are my favourite part of the world.Perhaps I’ll go there for ever… someday.
  5. My KindleIt was my Year of the Kindle. I can’t remember when I last picked up a paperback, but it wasn’t in 2012. I’m gradually putting my entire library onto that little grey slate, including some big textbooks and anthologies (tip: read them on Retina instead) and don’t expect to ever buy anything between hard covers again.Three large bookshelves of old-world print, soon to disappear from my already uncluttered life.
  6. IMG_3152I learned to climb. And found it as satisfying as skydiving: the way when you’re hanging off a wall leaning towards you, grasping odd-shaped protuberances and distributing your weight for least energy, you have to live entirely in the moment.No matter how bad your week, an hour on something vertical wipes it away. 2013 will be a year of bouldering.
  7. gJQAFbeOEX_galleryAnd of course, the London Olympics happened all around me. I didn’t expect it to matter, but it did. The way strangers smiled; the dreamy playfulness of each day in those two brief weeks in summer; the satisfaction of being a citizen of the host nation and knowing that, yes, we got it right.

In science there were some big discoveries too. With the Higgs Boson, another building block in our understanding of physics clicked into place. At the other end of the scale, the number of extrasolar planets we know about is heading towards 1,000 – with 7 now confirmed as being in their stars’ Goldilocks zones. These planets have ground to stand on, perhaps atmospheres to breathe, liquid water on their surfaces. Perhaps there’s life on them. Perhaps there’s life on all of them. One day, we’ll know.

But the moment that mattered most in 2012?

Rewind to the Olympics. As Mo Farah won the 5,000m, I made to turn down an overloud TV. Clicking the remote did nothing to quell the ecstatic cheering, And then, I realised it wasn’t the TV.

It was a city on its feet outside my window, joy in its heart and fire in its blood, the whole of London cheering as one.

Happy 2013!

In praise of White Van Man

220px-White_vans_OxfordHe gets a lot of stick for his black-and-white politics. His attitude to the taxman is somewhat less than servile. And the way he drives earns a lot of ire. But I’m a big fan of White Van Man.

White Van Man is the working-class (stress working) male who spends much of his day in and around his vehicle. He’s the builder with your new front door in the back, the handyman hooking up your plumbing, the removals guy lugging your mattress across town for a quick fifty. He’s usually white, left school in his teens, and gets a bit lost on the finer points of Keynesian economics, yet he’s more cheerful (and more resourceful) than a senior manager at any FTSE-100 member. And that’s why I like him.

White Van Man is that freak of nature in today’s society: someone who doesn’t demand anything more than the most basic of safety nets from the government. He’s not a parasite, not even a socialist (although he may vote Labour.) He works hard, often for himself; his days start at dawn and his kids are often asleep by the time he gets home. But he doesn’t complain.

White Van Man pays his taxes. (Although perhaps a smaller percentage than the tax code strictly specifies.) But his needs aren’t high; he doesn’t march on Whitehall when his pay hasn’t risen in a year like Britain’s ultra-mollycoddled Public Sector drones. He wants a hospital for his parents, a school for his kids, maybe a house where the rent leaves a fiver left over for chips, and… that’s about it.

He doesn’t expect anything he hasn’t paid for – and he often pays more tax, more consistently than any other group. His earnings of £25-50k deliver around £5k a year to the Treasury and much more to the broader economy. Think about it: a self-employed builder putting up a conservatory a week increases the nation’s housing stock by a million pounds a year. A gift that keeps on giving for decades on our overcrowded island, even if you abhor those forests of uPVC wrapping Britain’s suburban brickwork.

And he keeps on doing it, in all weathers, in conditions most salaried workers would consider appalling.

Yet White Van Man doesn’t ask for much. He likes to watch the football, enjoy a beer, do his job with a minimum of hassle. And all he needs to do it is to be left alone. He wants the freedom to make the odd off-colour joke; to hold views offensive to some groups without being prosecuted for them; for the traffic cop to show a bit of understanding if it was an empty motorway in good weather.

He wants a bit of give and take, a bit of common sense to apply, without having to worry about a twenty-point Code of Conduct or densely worded contract. These opinionated, chain-smoking, sarcastic men are the backbone of Britain, if you treat them well.

I always let White Van Man out at busy junctions; after all, I’m on my way to a comfortable office, he’s got to make a one-hour delivery slot or his family goes hungry. I’ll add extra for a job well done and make sure they’ve got all the tea and biscuits they need. I won’t load extra tasks into the brief or be late for him, because all he wants out of life is to get home by 7 to watch Arsenal.

And beyond that, the resourcefulness of White Van Man means makes him a valuable friend. He’ll know someone who’s selling a fridge, or can tile your outside wall, or can get rid of that overhanging tree your neighbours complain about. (Or the neighbours themselves, depending on which part of town he’s from.)

That’s why I always try to make life a bit easier for White Van Man…. and why you should, too.

The secret of business: they’re not clients, they’re friends

If there’s one phrase I hate, it’s “personal friend”.

Why? Because people who use it are drawing a distinction between the friends you have in life and the friends you have at work – let’s call it Facebook Versus LinkedIn. After a decade earning a living the most honest way there is – charging other people for what I do, no employment contract, no pack drill – I’m not sure there should be a difference.

The reason: business is personal. Same with “business ethics” or “professional courtesy”; ethics and courtesy shouldn’t be trammelled by whether the other party signs remittance advices. People are people, irrespective of whether they’re in a suit or floral boardshorts.

When I emerged from a career break a couple of years back – putting on the black suit again after a year of corporate finance and business strategy –  acquiring and retaining customers suddenly became really, really simple. You just make friends with them.

It might sound unprofessional. In fact, it’s the height of professionalism.

Because if you treat every client as a close friend, you’re more likely to deliver what they need from the relationship … and be honest when you can’t. (I’m not superhuman; I have deadline crunches and resource issues, same as you.) Treating clients as friends may be a philosophy, rather than a business strategy – but it’s a pretty good business strategy, too.

It means working on a client because you want to, not because it earns money. (If your first thought of a client involves getting paid rather than looking forward to seeing them, you’re not there yet.) With new clients I’ll often invest months of ideas and execution before there’s a monthly retainer on the table. But once that’s nailed I tend to keep that client for years; I’m still working with people I first met during my decade as an expat, years ago. Why? Because they see me as a friend, too.

It doesn’t mean I don’t care about the money. I love money, and want as much of it as possible. But the best way to grow your client base is to make sure people think well of you; there’s an economy around friendship as tangible as real markets, and being in demand is the natural outcome of being an honest dealer.

If a friend drops £10, you pick it up and give it back.

If a friend buys a round, you buy one back.

And if a friend asks how much you fronted for the taxi last night, you don’t double the fare because there’s a profit in doing so.

Treating clients as friends means you never play games with your client’s budget; you’re psychologically incapable of it, because friends don’t do that. And every business decision becomes simple, too. You take or reject a new client based on whether you like them, nothing more.

It goes against every b-school text and financial projection ever written. But it works.

In ten years and around 600 projects, I’ve had precisely seven go bad. On each occasion, it was someone I had a bad feeling about in the first moments of knowing them – this person’s not a friend. You don’t like them. Get out of there – and ignored it. You can’t fit it in a Boston Matrix or plot it on a Gaussian, but it’s the easiest thing in the world to do: trust your instincts.

Of course, there’s a glitch if you want to grow: this approach doesn’t scale. (Forget mass customisation and CRM; those are facsimiles, not the real deal.) There’s a limit to how many friends you can really call close, perhaps only 20 or so. But in creative industries like mine – any sector that relies on that essential fraction of human talent that can’t be mechanised – those 20 can deliver an income that buys a top-1% lifestyle anywhere in the Western world.

(Over 100,000 people in the UK are responsible for a budgetary spend over £100,000 a year. That’s £10bn of friendship-derived spend, of which you need an amazing 0.001 or 0.002%.)

Peter Drucker once said the whole of business is nothing more than the acquisition and retention of a customer. And that’s easy easy. Really easy.

Just make friends with them.

London 2012: So, how was it for you?

The flame’s gone out. The confetti’s on the ground. The last leathery throat has rasped its signature anthem. Perhaps the closing ceremony had some odd musical choices – the house only started rocking when the dinosaurs came out, proving today’s youngsters can’t hold a torch to Who and Floyd even when they’re covering. (Even Eric Idle got the house rocking.) And the less said about those mascots, the better.

But in the light of the morning after, with the London Olympics still fresh in the reddened eyes and twitching footfall of ten million Londoners, everyone’s asking: how was it for you?

Here’s my list (doubtless one of thousands): 9 great things about London 2012.

1. The city resplendent.

For everyday Londoners like me, it’s been a surprisingly pleasant two weeks. The Tube’s been busy at times and hilariously crowd-free at others, but life for most people went on without hassle, with the added frisson of genuinely feeling part of it all. At the opening ceremony it was fun to open the window every time the volume rose on TV and hear the real thing happening a klick or two downriver.

I didn’t go to a single event, but if you were out and about in town this last fortnight, you were in the games. Strangers struck up conversation; eye contact signified warmth not aggression; everybody smiled. London was a great place to be.

2. The opening ceremony.

Let’s face it, it was a work of genius. Perfect choreography, proper narrative, and an ability to laugh at itself in a way the Chinese or Americans could never match.

On a limited budget in a time of crisis, the curtain-raiser sent the watching billions a message: this is Britain.

3. The rainbow of faces.

The Games proved that opportunity exists in Britain for everyone, whatever’s written in your genes… if you push yourself to achieve something. (Not force others to pander to your proclivities.) On “Super Saturday” the three most noteworthy golds went to a Somali Muslim immigrant, a mixed-race woman, and – shock horror – a ginger. And I’ll bet it’ll just get better as the Paralympians come out to play.

The Games delivered a slap in the pursed kisser to every ethnofascist and religionista with a chip on his shoulder, showing them that if you feel downtrodden or oppressed, it’s entirely your problem. London emerged as the most diverse and tolerant city on earth.

4. The deafening silence from the public sector.

Days before the Games, the headlines were ablaze with predictable threats from the unions: Tube drivers, airport officials, I think even Bob “the Dinosaur” Crow made an appearance, desperately trying to hold Britain to ransom yet again. Yet the coddled millions of Britain’s bloated state sector stayed strangely quiet.

Perhaps the cotton-cossetted hordes have got it into their heads that if people dislike them, perhaps it’s because they’re just not that good. That maybe they should start delivering better services, instead of whining about their lot. And admit that maybe, just maybe, it was more fun being part of the party than trying to stop it.

5. The confirmation that competition works best.

Everyone points the finger at G4S’s staff undershoot as a failure of capitalism. In fact, G4S was the perfect example of why capitalism works. The company’s facing tens of millions in fee cuts, far more in years to come as its biggest customers write it off as a toxic brand. G4S will shrink, adapt if it can, and come back stronger, having learned the lessons.

How different to public sector provision, where a failing department usually gets more resource poured into it. The reason the London bid succeeded in the first place was because LOCOG acted like a good capitalist: ditching its first boss and bringing in Seb Coe. The Games celebrated the  marketplace.

6. The architecture.

The Pretzel, the Pool, the Park: the way a swampy disenfranchised sector of London’s gained a skyline is awesome. These buildings give focus and direction to an area that badly needed it: just a bit more shoving, ensuring the social capital gets properly used in the decades to come, will make the legacy real.

And Seb Coe – just appointed as Legacy director – is a terrific choice for the job. Unlike the sad birdcage of Beijing, the Olympic landscape is set to leave a real legacy.

7. The way marketing took a back seat.

Being a marketer myself doesn’t make me any keener to see stadium and arcade an infinite loop of logos, and how McDonalds and Coca-Cola can sponsor sports with a straight face mystifies me. So it was great to see just how far below the horizon the brands were: they were certainly present, but weren’t in-your face, helped by the BBC being principal broadcaster in the UK.

Of course, this wasn’t true globally (Twitter #nbcfail for how not to do it) but in their home city, the 2012 Olympics were about games, not brands. And rightly so.

8. The realisation that Britain’s actually brilliant.

It’s been less than 12 hours since The Who turned off the amps, but something’s… different around here. The UK ignored a gurgling recession, a mountain of debt inherited from Blair and Brown, the cries of a media desperate to sniff out disaster.

There’s a sense of YES! We can do stuff like this. We’re not second-rate Americans, or death-spiralling Europeans. Britain can do pretty much anything.. and better still, it can take anything. The UK has rediscovered its backbone.

9. You.

Even if you weren’t there, you were “there”. The shared sense of excitement was for real, and if you felt it, you made the games, as much as Mo or Jess. The best thing of all about London 2012 was … you. Yes, you with the surprised look on your face. You pulled it off!

Thank you, Seb Coe and LOCOG. Thank you, athletes, for entertaining us and demonstrating the unconquerability of the human spirit. Thank you, volunteers, for every smile and wave on a thousand street corners. Thank you, performers and creatives, for bookending the whole thing with two great acts of artistic direction. Thank you, stadium crowds who cheered and stomped – whoever and wherever you did it, they heard you.

London forever!

Battling the zombie apocalypse in…. Reading

The Zombie Shopping Mall Experience! A derelict shopping centre in Reading, filled with actors playing the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse… the infection is taking hold, and this mall is one of the few places that may contain the cure. Armed with Airsoft pump-guns, played mostly without light, and with missions that include actual CCTV feeds in a control room and tinny Tannoy music conjuring up visions of B-movies, it all feels very real: a first-person shooter in real life

It starts the moment you step inside a back entrance to the mall. Filling in half-humorous medical declarations, the lights die and the banging starts outside… then it’s haul ass to the safe zone to be equipped with vests and weapons. The initial missions are led by the “cops”: leading you through the parts of a shopping centre you don’t normally see, back corridors and storage areas that connect the retail stores. These areas are the most fascinating (well, second most) part of the experience: the warren of tiny rooms, eerily empty now, all dark and most with conveniently hazardous tables and shelves to hide behind… or be ambushed from. (One of my three “deaths” took place in a derelict toilet.)

Zed Events: The Mall 10th & 11th August &emdash; There’s a fair bit of running: the organisers try to create a sense of chaos. Like Romero’s 70s zombie flicks, the terror of the experience is in its crushing normality: a child’s ball pit, a helter-skelter, the detritus of a thousand Saturdays. With a twist: several areas are outfitted as makeshift medicentres and refuges, and there’s a variety of human body parts scattered around for emphasis.

The later missions are the blind leading the blind: no cops, no guides, just two big teams of 8-10 players retrieving objects from various locations around the mall. Of course, it doesn’t take long (with team members checking into rooms and peering down corridors) for the teams to be split. And when you end up alone (which is often) in the lower levels inanimate objects like a greeter’s station take on genuine menace. What’s beyond? Your flashlight doesn’t reveal much, except your location to the denizens of darkness.

Then, of course, there’s the zombies themselves.

They’re a mixed bunch, as they’d be in real life: biting is a great societal equaliser. There’s a doctor, a riot cop, some students, a businessman, a few women (whom I felt really bad shooting.) Several are clad in body armour and take 30+ pings to take down; the only way is to work in groups, setting up impromptu execution squads to pepper the kevlar-wrapped undead from several directions.

My first death happened in the light: two attackers boxing me into a corner, without the fire rate to hold them off. (I made it theatrical; the zombies are game.) It’s a large building and there are plenty of times you just don’t see any friendly faces for long minutes; the dread of being in a dim corridor and hearing zombie growls coming from nearby doorways produces genuine cold sweat. My second death happened here: a single zombie advancing towards me, me fresh out of ammo, and nobody around to hear my final gurgle.

It’s a great experience: you work up a sweat, have fun doing it, and get a surge of fear/thrill/panic that lasts halfway into the afternoon. But more than that, it’s set me thinking about the philosophy of zombies, why we find these unthinking creatures so much scarier than (say) a random killer in a hockey mask. It’s the way they’re not humans, but used to be. That even the worst of them retain some vestige of humanity; that even the best of them just become mindless killers post-bite.

I have a standing joke that I’ll only live in a zombie-proof house; no windows on the ground floor, lots of locks, preferably a gate and escape route. (The reason is that a zombie-proof house is proof against more everyday risks, too, like burglary or breach; it’s a simple strategy that pays big dividends.) In the end, that’s why zombies are scarier than vampires or werewolves: they’re human but inhuman, combining a savagery that’s all animal with a passion for blood that’s never sated. And that’s why things like The Zombie Shopping Mall Experience matter. It’s not all games, you know.

And perhaps the funniest moment: when one of my trainers made a squeak on the floorpaint. Bear in mind she’s an actor surrounded by mutant zombies … the heavily-armed police deputy gasped with a, “f*&k me, was that a rat?”

Going Mac: the first 72 hours

It’s been three days since I landed on Planet Mac, and so far it’s been a pleasant experience. First thoughts…

1. The biggest issue is still with Windows. Outlook for Mac works just as well, but importing 12GB of data took effort and hasn’t quite worked properly. Why, for example, does anything in the Inbox not import with attachments? And why don’t root folders import one-on-one, slotting your Calendar from the PC into the Calendar on the Mac? Instead  it creates new folders, and on Calendar I see no way of transferring 10 years of appointments into the Mac root Calendar folder.

2. Anything out of the ordinary is abnormal. A Mac likes to store things in particular folders. Well, so do I, and my preference is for separate volumes – which I’m having difficulty pointing various Mac applications at. Which means I’m storing data on an “open” machine protected only by a password, for the first time in a decade. Today – having just upgraded to Mountain Lion – I’m encrypting the whole disk as a stopgap.

3. The screen is as beautiful as expected, and I haven’t even cranked up the resolution to max yet. Office for Mac, unfortunately, doesn’t handle Retina yet, and multiple pages of text onscreen don’t look especially better than on my old Dell. I’ll see how it looks with Windows on a partition soon. 

4. What’s with the keyboard? Mac keyboards lack a lot of keys; no obvious hash symbol, no forward delete, and other keys that could have been used for this stuffed with symbols nobody ever uses (I don’t even know how to pronounce § and `, much less know when to use them.) Not a criticism; Macs are different. I just don’t know why such obvious and user-friendly innovations aren’t in play; Apple is normally attentive to this stuff.

5. Dragging good in some ways, bad in others. I’m learning the multitouch trackpad and already finding it useful; instead of large limb movements being needed to shift the cursor to the Back button, a single-finger swipe in the right direction is all that’s needed. But other things that are simpler in the Windows world (like deleting a file by highlighting and hitting “delete” don’t work, and I can’t think why; it’s such an obviously useful feature.

That said – I’m enjoying my excursion, and expect to make it my normal work environment from now on. Fanboi alert!

Going Mac: the why of it

After two decades in the PC paradigm, I’m going Mac.

I’ve been in the Windows world, with brief diversions into Linux, since before Windows existed: my first PC ran MS-DOS and I pasted on Windows 3.1 around 1994.  Excluding ipoddery, my total time at a Mac keyboard totals perhaps ten minutes. At times, I’ve been anti-Apple; the silly fanboi culture that surrounds the childlike logo still puts me off.

Yet my order’s in processing and a maxed-out Macbook’s arriving early August. I find myself reading, with interest, articles headlined The Real Reason Macs Before 2011 Can’t Use Airplay Mirroring in Mountain Lion. (No, I haven’t a clue what it means either.)

The reason’s simple: that screen.

I’m a resolution junkie. On a series of 15″ laptops I’ve run 1600 x 1200 since 2003; since 2008 I’ve had 1920 x 1200 on a solid Dell workhorse that’s given the highest ROI of any machine I’ve ever owned (over four years of essentially all-day, every day use: thousands of hours and millions of words of copy put together in offices, universities, airports and coffee shops. I frequently have three full A4 pages lined up across Word; people squint over my shoulder and ask if I can actually read it. (Yes, I can; I’m a copywriter with the pixel-perfect eyesight of a young art director.)

Onscreen real estate is productive – which means profitable. Within reason (my reasoning I mean – I’m already beyond sensible limits) 2880 x 1800 will let me scan and dive into eight full A4 pages of text, even editing it right there at that res without having to play around.

Other choices come into play. In a world of Clouds and SaaS and Wifi there’s no real problem using a Mac these days even when most of your clients use PCs; I spend most of my time in Office and Outlook, which at present are actually a version ahead in the Mac world. And I’ve got a lot of obsolete software on my Dell I need to wean myself off; some applications are over ten years old.

I’m carrying baggage I don’t need. And if there’s one thing in life I hate, it’s baggage.

While another factor is Windows 8. I’ve seen it and it works great as a phone/pad operating system, but I’m less sure about its usefulness on my workaday laptop. Interfaces that look great in films or presentations (Tom Cruise waving his arms around in Minority Report) don’t work in real life; nobody wants to spend eight hours at a desk expending physical energy instead of intellectual, and Windows 8 is designed for touch, not typing.

The Mac will let me start afresh, a whole new perspective on space, time … perhaps even life itself. (I’ve heard that on a Mac you don’t need to “install” applications; you just drag them into a folder called… Applications. It can’t be that simple, surely?)

For this reason, I’ve decided to go the whole hog and use my new Mac as a Mac. (My original plan was to install Windows and use it as a PC: no real change in my working life but I gain beautiful new screen. Several reviewers state the best Windows laptop these days is… a MacBook.) But the only two hurdles – three if you count learning Mac stuff in the first place – seem leapable.

First, my ten-plus years of Outlook data (I live my entire life in Outlook; every day’s scheduled in two-hour increments and I’ve got colour codings for every client and activity) can be exported (I think). Might need to draw on some expertise from the Mac community – there’s probably more than one way to lug a 16GB .pst file into Mac Outlook 2011 – but I can’t believe such a thing isn’t doable.)

Second, the strong encryption I use (my hard disk’s scrambled at preboot level and the Pentagon couldn’t get in when the power’s off) has Mac equivalents hitting the market soon. (TrueCrypt, freeware that’s been well tested with the bonus of being open source, doesn’t yet encrypt beneath the boot on Mac OS, but it will soon – and it does everything else my PC crypto does, with much the same choices of hashing algorithms.) With the upcoming Mac OS (Sabre Toothed Polecat or something) a few other things click into place.

So, aside from keeping an old Windows 7 (or perhaps 8) on a Bootcamp partition for backup, I have no real reason to remain in the Windows world. It’s going to take some getting used to…. but perhaps not as long as I think.

I’m going Mac.

Freestyling: the mark of a true Londoner

Tube logoIt’s not about your ability to delete homeless people from your field of vision. It’s not about having a minimum of three locks on your door, or believing £30 is a reasonable sum to spend on a takeaway. No, being a true Londoner is about …. freestyling!

Freestyling is the skill of staying upright on the Tube without holding on to straps, poles, or parts of other people’s anatomy – “riding” the floor of the train as if it were a surfboard. (Of course, we’re assuming the surfboard is huge, dry, stops every couple of minutes, and is shared with a hundred people. Use your imagination.)

The rewards for doing so successfully are enormous – out-of-towners gaze at you in amazement, recent immigrants to the capital look mournfully at your smug no-hands-ma poses, and you’ll have the chance every couple of rides to prevent an attractive female person hitting the deck in a tangle of heels and miniskirt, for which she’ll be duly grateful. (Or alternatively, enjoying the amusing sight of less-attractive people spreadeagling themselves on the floor with a thump.)

So, as a service to Londoners who haven’t quite got the hang of it all, here’s A Tube User’s Guide to Freestyling! First I’ll cover the basic techniques.

The Tube User’s Guide to Freestyling

Basic skills

1. Be a tripod. You have three legs, not two. (Stop sniggering at the back.) Instead of thinking of your stance as a two-dimensional line, do what martial artists do: feel how balanced you are and compensate a couple of times a second. As the train sets off, slows, or makes one of those inexplicable stops in the tunnel that happen about ten times a journey, see the spot on the floor that offers most support and move your weakest foot there. Three legs is the most stable arrangement for any chair or table; be a tripod.

2. Keep it moving. The game’s to stay upright, not resemble a statue in the British Museum. The physics for this is “metastable” (the movements, not the statue); keeping yourself slightly dynamic can combat any Circle jerk or Northern rattle. Keep your weight forward on the balls of your feet (balls being a necessary component of Freestyling on the older lines) and always, always keep your body supple and joints unlocked. You are a coiled spring ready for anything, not a life model. Keep it moving.

3. Think about it. However good the thing on your Kindle, keep one thread of your mind focussed on your stance. Some stops (hi, Northern after rushhour!) are stamp-on-the-brakes sudden and there’ll never be any warning. Board each train as if there’s a brick wall across the track that the driver can only see once he’s within ten feet. (On older lines, this is partially true.)

Imagine there is a metal pole, floor to ceiling, in the carriage. (Er, OK, there really is, but if you were holding onto it you wouldn’t be a Freestyler, would you?) In your imagination, you are circling slowly around this pole; it’s there if you need it. Keep that vertical pillar in your mind and you’ll tend to stay upright.

4. Laugh at losers. On every train, at every start, there’s at least a couple of people in every carriage who seem baffled by the basic physics of it all: when the train starts off, a body will attempt to remain in place, leading to said body stumbling in a direction opposite to that of travel. It’s too late for these people: they will never learn, so it’s okay to laugh at them. It’s not too late for you.

Over the next few blogs I’ll look at the individual characteristics of each Tube line and the advanced techniques needed to successfully Freestyle each. More later!

When one disused missile silo just isn’t enough

I’ve always had a thing about subterranea, and my Fallout New Vegas Tour last year reawakened an interest in missile silos. There’s a tiny subculture Stateside of people who’ve bought these monuments to Cold War military budgets as unusual living accommodation… and one day I want to join them. (Hey, it’s one hell of a holiday let.)

An Atlas-F site: think of it as a pretty big house with a ABSOLUTELY ENORMOUS BASEMENT.Why do I like them? It’s something about the contrasts: the big-sky vastness of the American West, pockmarked by hidden concrete bunkers whose sole purpose was to rain down Strangelovian death on people thousands of miles away. (Or, to take the realpolitikal view, to prevent the need ever arising.)

It’s such a science-fiction cliche – the innocuous shack or wooden door leading down to a cathedral-sized space within the earth – but the pointy bit here is that such things actually exist. Hundreds of them, dotted around mostly-abandoned Air Force bases, from sea to shining sea. Designed to take a direct hit from an airburst in the megatons, they were the strongest structures ever built by Man… perhaps the strongest structures man will ever build. (Cold War budgets aren’t coming back anytime soon.)

Like walking through a graveyard, the few signs above ground create a sense of wonder. Who were these people? What drove them to attempt such feats? What are the stories of that which lies beneath? 

I first travelled across that landscape at 20, and I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of it. To own a parcel of it isn’t even an unattainable dream: there’s a lot of land out there, and in parts of the US 3,000 acres cost less than a one-bedroom London flat. But it wouldn’t quite have the melodrama without a missile silo on it. So my needs are simple and specific: an Atlas-F.

If your idea of a missile silo involves a big trapdoor in the desert with a rocket blasting vertically out of it, it’s the Atlas-F you’re thinking of. They cost an incredible sum to build – over $400m in today’s dollars –  yet their operational lifetime was just a few years; the fearful pace of development during the 50s and 60s made many obsolete even before the bomb went in. With no appeal except as novelties, they change hands today for under US$500,000. (In case this sounds like a bargain, consider: many of the silo tubes were imploded or flooded to discourage trespassers, and I know of no case where the tube itself has been remodelled.)

With an Atlas-F, you get a bit of land above ground, the “Command Centre” to convert into a dwelling, and – down a subterranean corridor – the missile silo itself, minus its erstwhile resident. Many are within commuting distance of major cities; the surburbs sprawl broader today. Most of the Atlas rockets eventually got used for peaceful purposes – launching satellites and whatnot – but their amazing garages remain. Gigantic Euclidean solids under the earth, temples of technology to a war that never came.

I saw one years ago, and the sense of being somewhere Man was never supposed to be is hard to describe properly. So that’s my goal: to own an Atlas-F site.

And now, what comes onto the mMash of the Titans. They didn't make many of these; even the Cold War had a budget limit.arket but a Titan-1?

There’s always a bigger fish.

The Titans were the biggest land-based nuclear missiles ever – able to deliver their megatons of radioactive death to any point on earth. A Titan site is basically an Atlas F site… in triplicate. THREE enormous vertical cylinders, a huge fuel dump and machine shop for each, plus a command centre complex, all connected at deep level by half a mile of tunnels. Now that’s what I call a project!

And one of the very few ever built is on sale. If only.

Unfortunately the price is over £2m. And let’s face it, remodelling the equivalent of three 17-storey skyscrapers through a hole in the sand is one hell of a development project. My dreams continue…

Why Nations Fail: not a book review

A great new book provides a useful further confirmation as to why socialism and the left wing in general are wrong: Why Nations Fail, by Darren Acemoglu and James Robinson. (Although the authors, as academics and probable lefties, may not like their work being seen as a vindication of global capitalism.)

The book’s main idea: whether a nation turns into a prosperous land of citizen-stakeholders, or a lawless wasteland with a venal elite, is all down to how its institutions develop.

If they’re “inclusive” – applied to everybody equally, as Britain’s broadly are – rule of law and economic growth happen as a natural consequence, because everybody’s got a stake in things getting better. If institutions are “extractive”, sucking power out of the hands of the public to serve an empowered minority – as in much of Africa and Asia – the pie never gets larger, and all you get is a gaggle of guys in sunglasses seeking an ever-greater share of an ever-shrinking pie.

In the second case, even revolutions rarely change things for the better, since once the rebels are in the presidential palaces they tend to need extractive institutions to cement their newfound powers.(Hi, Big Men of Africa!) Acemoglu and Robinson use countless examples, both in their book and on their blog – from Argentina’s early success and current basketcase status, to why China will fail in the long term despite its apparent juggernautism today. (That’s something else I agree with: Chinese mercantilism will not lead it to global leadership, the Yuan will not become a reserve currency, and it will all end in tears around 2020. Call it a Big Short.)

But there’s no reason for us Brits to feel smug. Because whether countries go one way or the other depends on some very, very small nudges near the beginning. For example, I’ve long thought that the reason for Britain’s dominance of the world in the 19th century was a simple and subtle accident: the fact that British adventurers were allowed to be in business for themselves, rather than acting as agents of the State like the Conquistadores. English Kings and Queens of medieval times were weak, and didn’t really get to order the merchants around…. which led to us developing the boundless potential of big empty places full of promise, like North America and Australia. We weren’t better by nature; we became better thanks to a happy circumstance. There wasn’t anything deliberate or insightful about it, but Britain nudged itself in the right direction around 1600, and became perhaps the most inclusive and successful nation that ever has, or ever will, exist.

Fuzzy-thinking Labour and Liberal voters (is there any other kind?) will doubtless disagree with my take here. After all, doesn’t “inclusivity” sound more like the all-are-equal dream of the Left, and “extractive” sound like fat cats getting rich off the back of the masses?

But this is down to what (I feel) is the great misunderstanding of the Left: life isn’t a zero-sum game. Nor should it be. There is not a fixed amount of work to be shared out among workers (the false reasoning behind France’s 35-hr workweek), nor a set volume of wealth that must be divided equally (the apparent belief of Britain’s grab-it-all public sector.) Equality of opportunity does not mean equality of outcome. In an inclusive system, anyone can start a business … but not everybody will prosper from it. (If the outcomes are guaranteed, there’s no reason to work hard at anything.) Some fail, some succeed, the markets allocate capital accordingly, and the system pushes itself upward. In the capitalist system, an “inclusive” system, the pie gets bigger.

It’s why Stalin, Lenin, Mao, Castro, the Kims, and champagne-swilling charlatans like Marx were wrong. It’s why the worst of British leaders, like Blair and Brown, were wrong. It’s why today’s woolly-minded lefties like “Gogglehead Ed” Miliband are wrong. But of course, plenty of people like the comfort their wrong views provide… like Britain’s wrongheaded public sector. We won’t get rid of the scourge of leftism for a while – but in the long run, it hasn’t a chance.

Things you don’t see every day

 Something I’ve never seen in ten years as a Londoner: a fully-laden gravel & sandbags open-bed cargo train, with open-platform steering wheel and everything, going through a Tube station! Of course, I knew such things must exist – it may be twenty storeys beneath the streets but it’s still a railway – but it just felt weird, seeing heavy industrial equipment moving through the clean-tech, electrically operated, sanitised cool hiss of the Jubilee Line.

The Slow People

Sunshine smiles over a spring-infused London, and the West End is warm and bright for the first time this year. I wander the streets freely, buying a T-shirt here, an Americano there; I am satisfied with life. But one thing mars this perfect scene.

A writhing, weaving, suffocating mass of organic matter infests the ancient streets of our capital. Like a Wellsian red weed, they enfold and engulf the cityscape, living prophylactics reducing its diverse qualities to a generic mulch.

I call them The Slow People.

They are everywhere. Moving with all the pace and alacrity of a Jamaican snail with some heavy shopping. When there’s clear paving ahead, they stay Slow, never seizing the opportunity to be Fast. When the crossing man lights up green, they hesitate. Often, groups of Slow People stop dead to engage in discussions concerning  matters pertaining to Slowness, preventing decent citizens from progressing. Families composed of Slow People tend to walk four abreast, blocking entire sections of pavement and turning Saturday’s vitality into mere Throng.

What defines The Slow People? Simply: they DO NOT WALK FAST ENOUGH. Their pace befits a Sunday ramble, not the world’s premier city. They move among us, but they do not belong with us.

Slow People come in all shapes and sizes; no group stands out. The old and infirm are excused my reasoned scorn; their membership of this group was not their choice. But the obese are not. Obesity, after all, is Your Own Problem. And while not all Slow People are fatties, all fatties are Slow People.

What’s wrong with these people? Exchanging two burgers for one bowl of green leaves three or four days a week is not a huge hardship; it costs nothing and will extend your life. (The developing world must look with bemusement at the number of TV shows in the UK about… people who are sad about having too much to eat.) 

Yet Slowness is not due to biology. Plenty of septugenarians and up traverse the streets with a sprightly gait and intelligence shining from their eyes; obviously their attitudes remain young. Being a Slow Person is in the mind.

And Slow People, of course, tend to breed Slow Children. The phenotype of being a lard-assed salad-dodging gut-bucket is, sadly, a persistent pattern in the modern industrialised world; but even among those of a healthy BMI there are plenty of Slow People. You see Slowness emerging in the limbs of their children; an ambling slouch without purpose or direction, like seaborne organisms doomed to a life of chance encounters with plankton, incapable of independent locomotion. Slow People cannot forge any distinctive path in life; they merely allow life to carry them along.

The Slow People are not going away. They may, in fact, get Slower.

They are The Slow People.

How to do meetings

(Repost of an old blog from my former blogging provider!)

There’s an expression I use in meetings when people are engaging in wishful thinking instead of solving the problems at hand. When they’ve come to a convenient break in their flights of unproductive fancy, I jump in with:

‘…and while we’re in Lollipop Land, I’d like a pink-maned pony to ride across the candyfloss clouds.’

In other words, I run a tight meeting. Get me leading a table and you’ll see decisions made and minutes acted on with a clear sense of purpose, everything tight as a drum. It’s not hard. Here’s how I do it.

1. Set a start time. And keep to it. It’s far too easy to lose 30 minutes or more waiting for stragglers to arrive. If the meeting starts at 10am, start it at 10, and anyone not there loses the right to be involved. They’ve missed the Chocolate-Frosted Choo-Choo that brings them to the meeting room, and they’ll have to stay over in Lollipop Land.

2. Communicate the meeting’s purpose. All meetings should have ONE purpose and ONE major outcome. Meetings are to decide things, not discuss them. If people start wandering off track, ask them how that conversation is contributing to the meeting’s purpose – or give them the line above. You may as well mention Sugarcane Mountain while you’re at it.

3. Tell people what their role is in the meeting. In other words, make sure everyone knows their area of responsibility. And don’t let them step outside it – because perversely, the best performers at work are often the worst at meetings: experts tend to think their expertise reaches beyond their area of knowledge, and will grab any opportunity to demonstrate this. Don’t let them. Every Yummy-Scrumptious Pebble on Lollipop Land’s beaches is different, but not one has more than one flavour.

4. Tell people it’s okay not to come, and that if they don’t, decisions will be made without them. You don’t want anyone there who doesn’t need to be. It’s perfectly possible to do this diplomatically – ‘If you feel this would not be a good use of your time, please tell me and I’ll cc you the minutes’. And while they’re in Lollipop Land, they can get you a cookie.

5. Practice lock-out for latecomers. People must understand that the meeting fulfills a business purpose and that if they miss it they’re preventing that purpose from being met.

6. Have a chairman. All meetings need a leader. And that’s not just a note-taker (ideally someone else takes the scribe role) – the leader introduces topics, summarises decisions taken, gets agreement, and moves down the agenda at a set rate.

7. Specify a finishing time. More important than you think. Few meetings need longer than an hour; most can be done in 30mins, and plenty can happen by phone or IM without travel involved. There’s no need to take the Choo-Choo all around Sugarcane Mountain when you only want to go as far as Gingerbread Station.

8. Issue the minutes. A single page with a title, participant list, date and time, a paragraph, and bullet points of what was done. The most important is the one-paragraph (even better, one-line) summary of what the meeting achieved, which should always include context of what needs to happen as a result of that decision.

9. Keep your eyes on the clock. If the first agenda item of 6 takes half an hour, you’re in line for a three-hour meeting – which is too long. Agree a set time at the start – say, ten minutes per agenda item. If the strawberry-shortcake clock in Lollipop town centre strikes 12, you might be stuck in Lollipop Land forever!

10. Close the meeting properly. When the end time approaches, the chairman should summarise the decisions and firmly close the meeting. If you let the conversation wander aimlessly or peter out, you’re on the fast track to Sugarcane Mountain. If you’ve dealt with everything early, then close the meeting early! ‘Fill all the time’ is never a meeting objective.

Lastly, the best advice of all: don’t go to meetings! At least 75% of meetings are unnecessary. Cancel three meetings a week, and you’re putting a whole morning’s worth of time back in your day. And over time, the quality of the meetings you do go to will rise – because people will assume if ‘the guy who doesn’t go to meetings’ is there, it must be important.

What’s driving Britain’s public sector strikes: it’s all about risk

There’s not much argument about the figures any more. Median public sector pay+benefits: £619/week. Median private sector: £479/wk. Average public sector retirement income: £5,600/yr. Average private sector retirement income: £1,115/yr. These are official statistics not tainted by bias; indeed, since they’re from a civil service source the only bias could be towards the public sector.

Yet hordes of people with a claim on the public purse are coming out on the streets tomorrow. Waving placards about how unfair it is that, in straitened economic times, they might actually have to contribute a bit more to get benefits averaging 4.5x more than the average private sector worker receives. (That 4.5 figure is the one that really matters. To put it into perspective, the total NPV-adjusted pay and benefits bill for the 6m people in Britain’s public sector is more than the bill for the entire 23m-strong private sector. 6m people cost as much as 23m private ones. And these people have the gall to call themselves hard-done-by.)

So for any private sector worker, the principal question is: why? Why? Why? As a self-employed person for whom Risk is a middle name, I’d like to think the answer is “greedy bastards”, or “ungrateful wankers”. But it’s a bit deeper than that.

The reason public sector workers are striking tomorrow is due to their total lack of understanding of risk.

Risk in its most basic form: the understanding that things can happen that are outside your control, and you can manage for it, but not eliminate it. People in the public sector don’t “get” this. Ensconced in a nannying culture that protects its workers from the real world, they don’t quite connect the realities of macroeconomics with what arrives in their pay packet.

Why? Maybe because it’s just too big, the numbers too vast to comprehend. (After all, a single public sector organisation – the NHS – is the world’s third-largest employer, all on its own.) But this is the problem. Without an understanding of risk, you can’t function effectively as a society. It leads to bad decisionmaking. Inefficient resource allocation. Outcomes that improve lives for a cossetted minority, at the expense of bankrupting the economy.

(And yes, I know what this sounds like. But the banking crisis was a result of the same thinking: the risk-reducing nature of an implicit government guarantee allowed banks to borrow at unrealistically low rates. Once again, well-meaning public policy was responsible for a bad outcome.)

Being an effective human being means understanding that sometimes bad things happen, and you’ve got to deal with them. (It might not be your fault. But it is your responsibility.) Public sector workers bleat repeatedly about how the economic crisis “wasn’t their fault”; well, whether that’s true or not, you can’t suspend reality because of it. Public sector spending as a share of GDP has been rising for years – and under the last Labour government went wild. There are areas of the UK where the public sector is three-quarters of the economy.

And this can’t be sustained, because the public sector doesn’t create the wealth that’d sustain it. Any more than taking out £200 on your Visa card makes you £200 richer.

Not getting to grips with risk is why we stop our kids climbing trees (because they might fall), prevent our policemen saving a drowning pensioner (because they might get cold), and wrap simple decisions in layers of law (because people might not understand what they’re doing.) At the heart of all these well-meant rules & regs is a fallacy: that there’s a way, somehow, of eliminating risk from our lives. There isn’t.

We should not protect people from their own decisions, because doing so stops them understanding the consequences.

This is why the public sector today is such an obstinate beast – throwing up its hands in horror at being asked to make or take a couple of percentage points in cuts. Public sector: would contributing an extra 3p in the pound to your own pensions (tomorrow’s basic gripe) really be such a hardship? If you believe it would, ask any self-employed person if they’d like a guaranteed £5,600 a year on retirement, rising with inflation, every year, for the rest of their lives… for about £48 a month. They’d jump at the chance.

But because private sector workers have a better understanding of risk, their next question will be, “How can the country afford it?”

We can’t. And it’s stupid to pretend we can.

So the government’s threat to withdraw the existing (generous) offer is the right game to play. It’ll teach public sector workers that actions have consequences; with any luck, tomorrow’s strikes will backfire on them – badly. (As the transport strikes did last summer; notice how quiet Bob Crow’s been recently?) And they’ll end up with a worse deal than they could’ve got by not striking.

Fingers crossed. Make no mistake, Nov 30 is a showdown. And it’s all over a basic concept: risk.

The Roots of marketing

Apparently the judge in Levi Roots’ Reggae Reggae Sauce case thinks “Marketing involves persuading people to purchase particular products my accentuating the quality and utility of the products or services concerned.

My word. If there was ever a sentence that proves the law’s an ass, this was it.

The argument’s about who cooked up the sauce first. This judge is shocked, shocked that the sauce is not, in fact, an old family recipe developed over decades by Grandma Root from Jamaica.

Wow, what a sweetly innocent view; I’m not surprised Britain’s legal system so often seems divorced from anything I might call “justice”. I’m happy for Judge Pelling though: what a pleasantly rose-tinted life he must lead.

For Judge Pelling, even a simple supermarket visit is an affirmation of the goodness of Man. Selecting a box of “barn eggs”, he thinks fondly about the happy chickens inhabiting the bucolic meadow on the box.  Picking up some fish fingers for his grandchildren, he gives silent thanks to the kindly sea captain and the crew of underage sailors who caught them, tossing their nets over the side of a three-masted schooner. On family holidays, he has a choice of cookies, but always goes for “America’s Favourite”, because it must be true, right?

As for the case itself, nobody can prove one way or the other who cooked up the first batch or wrote down the recipe. But that’s missing the point: a recipe for sauce, written down on a sheet of paper, isn’t a business asset. There are thousands of jerk sauces cooked up every week in London kitchens alone, and you know what…

… they’re all good. I’ve never met a jerk sauce I didn’t like. And most of the middle-class white people who buy Roots’ wares couldn’t tell the difference between any of them. They’re not buying a tasty sauce for tonight’s chicken; they’re buying the story of a characterful black guy who once strummed a guitar on a TV show.

(Remember, “Dragon’s Den” has nothing to do with business, any more than Fox has anything to do with the news. It’s entertainment, plain and simple.)

Business is about stories. When people buy into the story, they buy the products. So marketing, for the vast majority of products, is about telling those stories. Whether the marketing is successful or not depends on how effectively you can lay a story down in the minds of your target audience. Consumers are smart and savvy, and they pick the stories they want to believe in.

Oh, how I wish there were more people like Judge Pelling. If all consumers were like him, we marketers would rule the world.

When does a good concept make a bad ad?

One of these ads is good. The other one is bad. Why?

Pope and ImamThe concept is classic Benetton: shocking and iconic. This time it’s about clashing cultures. The first execution – the Pope kissing a Muslim cleric – is shocking in the right way, because it’s got a message: two religions not noted for their, er, *tolerance of alternative lifestyles* coming together in a liplock.

Fair enough. Even if you recognise the individuals, this isn’t an ad about two men; it’s about two belief systems coming together, and that’s a reasonable subject for an ad campaign.

(Actually, since both believe in supernatural beings it’s really only one belief system, but we’ll let that pass.)

The second ad, however – featuring Hu Jintao and Barack Obama – isn’t a good ad. Because this time, the execution isn’t about a clash of cultures, however different China and the US may be. It’s now just an ad about two straight men having a gay kiss, no more shocking than party lesbians in the West End on a Saturday night. (Well, OK, just a bit more shocking.)

And the message is lost, overshadowed by the actors.

Just goes to show: a campaign concept can so easily be obscured if you don’t get the execution exactly right.

In a display of the same intolerance both religions display towards gay men in real life, the Pope/Imam execution’s apparently been withdrawn after complaints.  (Benetton won’t mind; nothing builds a brand like having your ad campaign in the headlines.) While the politicians can continue slurping away, although I’m surprised Chavez the Chavster hasn’t said anything yet…