Simple Solutions to Complex Problems: take away their votes

According to The Economist, Britain now spends £175bn on welfare, mostly housing benefit and income support. In a country of 30m taxpayers. C’mon guys; every taxpayer paying £6000 a year of someone else’s rent isn’t sustainable.

So here’s another of my simple solutions to complex problems: if you rely principally on government assistance – say two-thirds or more of your household inflow – you don’t get to vote.

My simple solutions are all about making one change, then getting out of the way and letting second-order effects work. (Note they’re simple ideas, not simple to implement.) Let’s take a look at the effect this change would have.

First, the vast bloc of voters whose votes are essentially purchased rather than won are instantly out of the equation. (It wouldn’t be party political, either. Older voters tend Tory; younger claimants towards Labour.) Politicians can form policy with a much longer-term view.

For example, the great pensions problem affecting much of the developed world would disappear in 10-20 years. With upping state pensions no longer a vote-winner, it’d probably be replaced by something contributory and defined-benefit… perhaps not individual accounts, but “notional” accounts that show you how much you’ll get in retirement based on what you pay in. Everyone becomes responsible for their own retirement; these people don’t count as receiving government support, and retain their vote. Simple.

Then there’s welfare. If you want to vote for a party that puts money in your pocket… well, you’ve got to work. It’s the ultimate incentive, to a genuinely concerned citizen, to get a job and make sure their government assistance, if needed, comprises less than two-thirds of their household income. (It’d also make corporations behave better; wage structures are often cynically set to take advantage of availability of housing benefit rather than get workers off it.)

This works because it’s not a black or white policy. Plenty of people are genuine workers, but by circumstance or accident have to rely on a certain amount of help. They’ll continue to get that help. But if they want to affect policy in the most basic way, they have to do some level of meaningful economic activity. The two-thirds level doesn’t even affect that many people; probably less than two million.

And over a decade or two, policy will become less knee-jerk. Without a couple of million of society’s less useful to skew the ballot, the country’s financials will improve sustainably. Policy can be constructed from proper data rather than tabloid lobbying. And the UK will get back to work, driving economic activity from the right source: people’s hard work, not state spending.

It’s so simple. But like all my simple solutions to complex problems… somewhat harder to implement.

The 99kg challenge

Ready for a fast journey using the contents of a backpack? Call Chris does Content.Having just got rid of 80% of my library, I’ve set myself a new challenge: by the end of the year, everything I own will weigh less than 99 kilograms in total.

Why? Because it’s refreshing. I’ve always been a minimalist, but home ownership and relative affluence lead to surprising volumes of clutter in your life, and I’m no exception – most people would be happy all their possessions fitted into a 25 sq ft cupboard, but for me that’s a crushing gravitational pull that anchors me in one place and puts a brake on opportunities. Never have anything in your life you couldn’t walk away from in ten minutes.

Even with that attitude, it’s not going to be easy. I own a couple of big items: bikes, a heavy punchbag. So the challenge is going to include big decisions: one of the bikes is a classic XTR’d Orange Clockwork from 1991, a 10kg chunk right there, and I’d be loath to part with it despite riding it perhaps once a year. But that’s the point. When your possessions own you, it’s time to get rid of them. Simplify, simplify.

IMG_2156Of course, technology makes it easier. CDs, DVDs, books, magazines are now all weightless, spread across hard disks and Kindles. And my laptop itself weighs in at barely a kilo. So all the lumpy stuff that grows on bookshelves is easy to part with; just rip and organise. While clothes are easy, too: a couple of suits and shirts for smart, a dozen identical black T shirts and half as many 501s for everyday. The shoe rack needs culling, but at 15 pairs I’m hardly Imelda Marcos. Not quite the Jack Reacher lifestyle, buying $20 of clothes every few days and discarding them rather than laundering, but they’ll fit in a single bag.

And there are caveats: I’m not going to include furniture, or kitchen appliances, or my car, or the house itself. (After all, those things can be sold or rented out with ease, providing assets and cashflow without the burden of occupancy.) So 99 kaygees looks like a doable, if slightly stretched, goal.

But ultimately, this isn’t about weight or possessions or lifestyle; it’s about simplicity. When you own less, you worry less about what could happen to it. The stuff you do keep gets used and worn out without getting precious about it. Living in a house without valuables means you need less insurance. Worry less about crime. Spend less time cleaning. Enjoy small spaces more, because the clutter’s gone. Not to mention the savings you make when you move house, or refresh your wardrobe. You’re automatically spending less, because you’re using the few things you own to their theoretical limit.

The 99kg challenge is the essence of Zen: a few good things, central to life and appreciated fully.

And after that? Maybe a 9kg challenge…

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!

Bowie back in business

Ha ha, it had to happen: Bowie’s back, taking the music business by surprise. No announcement, no tour dates, not even a Tweet: it’s just what he’d do, isn’t it?

That’s why some reviewers saying the new song doesn’t break new ground the way so many Bowie albums did (the plaintive vocals of “Heathen” come to mind). They’re missing the point. The art here is in the way it fits with music’s environmental context. In a world where the most minor talents are turned into celebrities on TV shows, and success in music is about how many Tweets you send and sex tapes you release, the ultimate act of rebellion against the system is …. releasing a new song without any fanfare whatsoever.

Who else could do it? Pink Floyd, yup. Kate Bush, certainly. But in the end it took Bowie to make the leap. I rarely listen to music and buy perhaps 20-30 iTunes a year, but I’ll be buying this one.

Bowie’s return is a look at how music happens, not what it sounds like. In that respect, it’s all Bowie. And I wouldn’t mind guessing there’ll be a big surprise on the album, too: what if this mournful ballad is the only slow song, and the rest of The Next Day is a throwback to Scary Monsters or Tin Machine?

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!

Costing the Jack Reacher lifestyle

Jack_Reacher_posterOn the surface, a lot of guys will find the Jack Reacher lifestyle attractive: self-sufficient loner, no ties or responsibilities, just a rugged individualist living life his own way. A fair few of us without many ties to government will empathise. But is it reasonably possible?

For example, I’ve spent a large chunk of my working life overseas and today work for myself;  I file a tax return and maintain an address and that’s about it. Conceivably I could hit the road tomorrow – just me and a laptop – and effectively drop off the grid except for a few client emails and a bank account.

So if your basic driver in life is to be left alone, today’s always-on, everyone’s-connected world makes it possible in principle. But here’s the kicker: Jack doesn’t do Web. He draws his military pension at Western Union and carries, no phone, no laptop, nothing to take advantage of APEX fares on online-only deals with.

So let’s look at it from a more practical angle: what does the Jack Reacher lifestyle cost?

First, let’s recap what we know of Jack from the film. (I haven’t read the books, so to all Reacher fans: apologies if what I say doesn’t reflect the character in print.) Jack makes even the way I travel (a month-long trip into a laptop bag) look like I’ve hired a team of Sherpas and a herd’s-worth of steamer trunks: Jack carries nothing, nada, just the shirt on his back. (And he’s only got one of those).

Wearing the same jeans and shirt every day means they’ll wear out faster, and taking the ass-kicking into account he probably needs to replace them every two months minimum. Let’s say his wardrobe costs are $50/mth. (I’m assuming cheap shoes, which he’ll wear out often.)

Furthermore, Jack travels by bus: without ID it’s the only option open to him. Greyhound discontinued its Discovery Pass a while back, so Jack now needs to pay for each trip separately. Without a phone or web skills, he’ll be buying the most expensive kind of fare – at the station, just before the bus leaves.

So his seat on those glorious obloids of Americana that criss-cross the American continent is probably costing him upwards of $25 every couple of days; sleeping on the bus saves a night’s accommodation of course. Let’s say his bus tickets total $200 a month. That’s a fair chunk out of his pension already.

Next, overnight accommodation. Jack’s a military man, so spending the odd night under the stars counts as fun for him. He’s also one for the ladies – the film has an oddly gratuitous scene early on with the requisite brunette-getting-out-of-bed-topless content – so doesn’t always need to pay for a motel.

However, he’s not the  kind of drifter so funky that rats ask if there’s a window to open. (Remember, the ladies like him.) So he needs a shower at least every 48 hours and a launderette to scrub the blood out of his jeans every, oh, two hours or so.

This is where the costs start to mount: let’s say four motels a week, anything up to 20 a month, and even in the mega-cheap USA that’s a big chunk of change for someone who can’t get the online deals. Even in summertime, when the livin’ is easy and the women are just like the livin’, he’s realistically spending at least $800 a month in beds he’s had to pay for.

Whoa, we’re up to $1050 a month and Jack hasn’t had lunch yet.

Fortunately for Jack, the USA is the world’s premier destination for cheap calories – although how you maintain a Krav-fit body on lard and carbs beats me – so his budget doesn’t need to be too high here. Let’s say he always gets the $3 breakfast special, picks up a Big Mac for 99c, and ends the day with a $10 steak’n’beer at a dive bar to fuel himself for the inevitable fisticuffs outside later. Call it $420 in basic subsistence.

On top of that – surely at least a few of the laydeez that take a shine to him need a drink bought first? Call it $50 a month. (Jack tends not to splurge on a date.)

So technically Jack can survive spending $1520 a month.

But we’re missing a lot of things here. Without even a Wal-Mart bag’s worth of travel gear, he has to use the cheap half-toothbrush and sachets of shampoo available in motels – and many motels charge for such items these days; they sometimes gouge you. (Plenty of mid-to-high-end hotels across the USA have never heard of shower gel.)

So when Jack’s scrubbing other people’s body fluids off his perfectly-defined abs, he’s doing it in the most expensive way imaginable: buying fresh toiletries every day. (Come on, he doesn’t carry spares in his jeans pocket – as anyone who’s “liberated” the odd sachet from a hotel knows, that leads to disaster.) And that can’t be less than $5 a day when you add up disposable razors, decent exfoliant and the odd self-suturing needle. Another $150 in cold hard cash down the plughole.

We’re up to $1670, and that’s just basic necessities.

No second beer for him, no movies, no bowling, no gym membership. Life isn’t worth living! We can assume Jack’s not big on the auteurs, but he must spend something on stuff not strictly needed for continued existence; perhaps $200 a month.

So the absolute minimum needed for a Jack Reacher lifestyle – as spartan as humanely possible – is $1870 a month. While Americans pay a lot less personal tax than us in the UK – all the USA’s financial troubles stem from this, taxing like a small state yet spending like a big one – it’s still the best-case take-home from a salary of over $26,000. And Jack’s on a pension, so our disbelief isn’t willingly suspended yet.

So let’s move onto Jack’s income. In percentage terms a US military pension is one of the best deals out there – index-linked and backed by the State, available to veterans as young as 37. But while Jack’s a retired military policeman, I doubt he completed the 30 years service needed for a full 75% final salary arrangement (does Westpoint count?) and probably isn’t a reservist; you tend to need a permanent address for that.

So his monthly draw is probably lot less than the $35,000 a lucky few might get – and taxes (how does he file, I wonder?) continue to be levied. So let’s stretch a point and say Jack takes “home” about $2000 a month. He always uses money-service offices to draw it, which charge at least 5%, so he’s spending another $100 a month in fees alone. Which makes his income around $1900 a month.

So: it’s a close-run thing – but yes, Jack Reacher can afford his lifestyle on his pension. The question is, could you?

Which, of course, is the ultimate irony. This rugged individualist is entirely reliant on his public sector pension. Because these days, only public sector pensions (the defined-benefit kind still reasonably common in public service, anyway) are index-linked, rising each year with the cost of living. Reacher’s $2000 a month will rise, and keep rising as he gets older. He has to worry about a lot of things… but not about inflation eating away his livelihood.

Which makes people like me – building their own pension pots, doing everything they can to grow a investment worth enough to provide an income in retirement – far bigger risk-takers than our Jack. Nothing’s index-linked in our world, there are no government guarantees or cost of living hikes each year. Far more than Reacher, we private sector people are utterly alone.

Still an insult, no longer an offence

Finally! The word “insulting” has been removed from the UK Public Order Act’s offence of “threatening, abusive or insulting behaviour”. It’s about time: like all laws written with the best of intentions, it’s been abused time and again to bring people who merely disagreed with a litigious person into a cowed defensive posture.

It’s not far enough – British law still favours people with “beliefs”, constantly letting them off societal and legal obligations simply because they made a big noise about their imaginary friend in the sky. (Witness the way “faith schools” are allowed to discriminate based on what ancient text pupils’ parents prefer, or the way an organisation sending 26 people to the House of Lords is allowed to deny people a certain job rank simply because they’re female.) But it’s a step in the right direction.

Introduced in the 80s, the law’s been abused by countless thin-skinned people who think anyone criticising their beliefs should be jailed. (Interestingly, some of the biggest numbers of both plaintiffs AND defendants in such case have been Muslims. Proving once again that religion is principally a divisive force, something for playing up our differences, not bringing us closer together.)

So at last, UK citizens are once again free to voice nonviolent opinions and concerns as they please. Can I just mention that you are stupid and ugly and your mother dresses you funny?

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.

My guess: Romney to win 285-253

My hopeful prediction for the 2012 US election.

My hopeful prediction for the 2012 US election.

The BBC is one of various websites offering this fun graphic. It shows how difficult it’s going to be for Romney to win the White House… but, influenced by my own wishful thinking and a bit of psephology, here’s how I’m calling it.

Why for Romney? The party of religionistas and rednecks – not my favourite people at the best of times. But what America, in common with the entire Western world, needs right now isn’t vision or leadership so much as… a good accountant.

And if you look at how Romney handled healthcare in Massachusetts or spreadsheets in Salt Lake City, there’s only one choice. Romney is the man to balance the USA’s books – not his opponent, a nice-but-left-leaning statist whose answer to everything will always be “More Government”.

OK, polemicising over. As usual it’s all in the swing states, and nobody’s going to argue with my general shape. What I’m arguing with poll-wise is that the Republicans seem more fired up this time: my guess is that they underestimate Romney’s support by about 1.25%, with Democratic support falling off by the same amount. As predicted by every pollster for months, it’s all down to Ohio.

I call Pennsylvania for Obama. Romney’s made it a target in recent days, but I think its 20 Electoral College votes are far too much for the Mormon guy to hope for; the Dems are over 4% ahead. (I’m using polling data mainly from Politico, which tends to lean leftwards – a good foil for my rightward tendencies.)

Florida’s 29 votes though, I’m giving to Romney. Simply because he has to have them. But it’s also barely 1% behind in polling; get-out-the-vote should deliver the state for the Republicans. (Fairly this time.)

I’m also giving North Carolina to the Red team. It’s at the limit of my poll readjustment, but I don’t think the intelligentsia in the research triangle around Raleigh are going to cancel out the hordes heading to rural polling stations. 15 votes for Romney.

Virginia is a easier case: even Politico’s calculating barely 0.3% in Obama’s favour, so I’m calling its 13 votes for Romney.

Nevada’s six, however, I think sit on the Blue side. Much has been made of the Latino vote, but I think the retirees who’ve moved en masse to the beautiful desert also count for a lot… sadly not enough. Vegas goes to Obama.

Colorado I’m calling Republican. A 1.5% polling gap means a lot to play for in get-out-the-vote, and the snowy state has a lot of a) New Money who’ll vote Republican and b) Disgruntled blue-collar workers who voted for Obama last time but won’t tonight. 9 for Romney.

Iowa is the odd one: a white-bread rural State that’s far more finely balanced than its demographics would suggest. It’s right on the edge with a 2.5% gap, but I’m calling another six for Romney.

Wisconsin, though, seems to be staying Democratic. It’s odd – outside the liberal bastion of Madison it never looked very blue to me – but the polling gaps are wide, so it’s 10 more to Obama.

Which leaves the Big Prize: Ohio. It’ll also be among the first states to declare, which means we’ll basically know the result early on: if it stays Blue it’s all over bar the shouting. The gap seems alarmingly large in polling, around 3%, so this one is on the edge. A comfortable win for Obama and he’s got it in the bag. (A comfortable win for Romney means somebody cheated.)

But something about those 25,000-strong crowds last night suggests something odd’s going to happen. All my guesses today are based on what happens in Ohio.

Of course, the only thing I’ve got right here is the admission that I’m likely to be very, very wrong. But that’s elections for you.

I’ll be watching USA 2012 through the night… good luck America, and enjoy your democracy.

Kindle Fire: up in smoke?

I love my Kindle with a passion. In less than a year I’ve got whole libraries on there; I get The Economist delivered to it; I’ve put a library of classics referenced by historical era and geographical origin on it that I’m sure I’ll get round to reading someday.

But I won’t be buying a Kindle Fire. And usability expert Jakob Nielsen has put his finger on why.

The Fire is a tablet, not an e-reader. It’s a computer, a general-purpose device. And any jack-of-all-trades instantly loses the stuff that makes it special, just as a camel is a racehorse designed by committee.

With my bog-standard Kindle, it’s some gestalt of the e-ink display (no backlight, just like paper) and the few bars and buttons (they turn a page, do nothing else); it feels like a book, reproducing the experience of reading without the silly (Hi, Apple!) cheese-graphics of wood-grained bookshelves and leather-stitched edging. Just as 80s-era text adventures gave you the feel of wandering around Zork without a graphic ever being needed, a Kindle celebrates the book by not trying too hard to be one. It’s a bluesman, not a cheesy tribute band.

And yet, of course, I’m tempted. I like hi-res colour screens more than most people (I run a full 2880 x 1800 on the Windows partition of my Mac.) And the Kindle Fire is new, always appealing to a techhead. But I’m older and wiser about these things today, because…

… I’ve been here before.

About a decade ago, seduced by a colour screen and animated apps, I traded my PalmPilot for an IPAQ. (Remember them?) At first I was excited by the colour screen and a version of Windows that fitted in my pocket (sort of); something that could run Word and Excel as well as keep my calendar.

The excitement lasted all of two days. It wasn’t even a week before I started missing my Palm.

The Zen-like simplicity of the Palm 5 (the last one I owned) was what the IPAQ – and today, the Fire – is missing. The Palm really fitted in your pocket, and didn’t even weigh you down. The battery lasted for weeks. The black-and-white screen and crisp text just worked. It had that essential subset of functions you needed each day with the option to add more only as you wanted them. No palmtop or phone has ever been as useful as my little Palm, and I miss it even today.

The Zen of e-reading is the same, as long as you stick to the e-readers. Don’t ever assume reading a novel on an iPad or Fire is going to be the same experience: they’re heavier, more complex, and backlit, more tiring on the eye than any e-ink page and not like a book.

To be honest, I’m not sure how big I am on the whole tablet phenomenon to start with; I’m a content creator, whereas most people are content consumers, and pads are for consuming.

And there’s the rub. Seduced by the splash of colour, pads and tablets may well kill off e-readers: not much room for a specialist in a world of good-enough generalists. The Kindle phenomenon won’t go away, but reading books on a backlit screen with fixed pagination just isn’t going to be the same; if it was, all books today would be published in PDF. e-ink companies are already having problems; electronic paper just isn’t glamorous enough for a world that doesn’t read much. But I’m not making the same mistake I did a decade back.

I’ll keep on loving my Kindle, and may well be loving it long after the technology is obsolete.

“Looper”: sheer loopiness

And this week’s Sneak-Out Wednesdays movie is… Looper!

For the first 30 minutes, I honestly thought it was a turkey. It commits that laziest of all directorial sins: the narrative track that explains the film for those in the audience who shouldn’t really be let out unsupervised. (“I’m too untalented to show you, so I’m going to read it out instead.”) It probably came from a focus group rather than the Director’s hand, but it’s intensely annoying nonetheless.

Fortunately, after the first half hour the director gets the upper hand over the focus group again (there’s definitely going to be a Director’s Cut) and it turns into this amazing piece of art. Tarantino on his best day would have trouble getting close.

I didn’t come with high expectations. Time travel films annoy me, travelling the arrow backwards being one of the few things that’s really impossible. But let’s face it, a world where Bruce Willis speaks French and Mandarin is already pushing the disbelief scale skywards…. and the subgenre’s so full of hackneyed cliches I didn’t think there’d be much creativity here.

But somehow Rian Johnson pulls some real characters out of the Kansas canesugar. It’s believable how a young runaway might grow up into a jobbing assassin trained to kill without motive or reason and think himself the Man for doing it. There are the right motives for jumping into a time machine when you’ve got a chance to escape. The whole narrative is well-constructed and pretty coherent within its own frame of reference. (Although I’d have taken a gun back with me, Bruce.)

The way Joseph Gordon-Levitt presumably trained for days (possibly fixed in post) to get just the look of a young Bruce Willis in his eyes for one of the film’s opening sequences … the way his older self might still find the killer within him unreconstructed after all… I’m not giving anything away here; this much is in the trailer and voiceover. But there’s a couple of not-quite-foreseeable plot twists – and I left the cinema happy. 8/10, Rian Johnson.

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.

Abu Hamza: the trouble with believing in freedom

Hmmm, not sure how I feel about Hooky Hamza being extradited to the USA.

An appalling little toad defined by hatred and bigotry? Yes; his “sermons” have turned many young British muslims into jihadist scum. A failure as a man? Yes – five of his wastrel sons are convicted fraudsters. A workshy shirker? Yes – his huge family lives on benefits. A costly nuisance? Yes – he’s cost the British taxpayer about £3m.

But… all his crimes so far (for which he’s been held in prison for years) are for what he says or thinks or reads… not acts of violence he’s actually committed. (If there’s a case for these extraditable crimes of actual terrorist involvement, why isn’t he being prosecuted in the UK?) Being an unpleasant little fucker isn’t a crime; if it was, we could empty a fair few buildings in my neighbourhood into the nearest jail.

What it comes down to is this: in the mother of all Parliaments, the cradle of law and human rights, we are arbitrarily detaining someone without trial for … holding unpleasant opinions. If we truly value freedom of speech, we must be prepared to defend it at its least savoury edges. (For this reason, “incitement” shouldn’t even be a crime. “I did it because he told me too” isn’t a mitigating defence; Nuremberg established I was only following orders isn’t an excuse, even under compulsion.)

Sometimes, believing in freedom of speech leaves a very bitter taste.

Let’s look at what he’s spent years in jail for. Owning a “terrorist manual” – i.e. a book. “Preaching prejudice” – i.e. speaking freely about his beliefs. “Inciting hatred” – i.e. talking to a willing audience.

There’s a case for saying we shouldn’t extend tolerance to those who are themselves intolerant, and treating this guy humanely is perhaps not the way natural justice would have it. (Many men in Britain would enjoy ten minutes in a locked room with this beardie weirdie.) But if we believe in democracy and the rule of law – that we subsume some of our gut feelings to a system evolved over centuries, a system that tries to treat everyone as having equal rights – it’s legally very troubling.

Not that I’ll be queueing up outside Belmarsh crying miscarriage of justice – he’s stolen enough from the UK taxpayer to deserve a life in the American prison system, and good riddance. (Extradition fully concords with my personal sense of justice, but that’s not the point I’m making here.) But ultimately, being civilised requires us to think carefully about these things.

Otherwise, all we have is what the muslim world suffers from – the rule of a thuggish mob too feeble-minded to negotiate the modern world. And I believe we are better than that.

Goodbye Neil Armstrong

Don’t forget as you read the Sunday obits, folks: all those pictures of the Apollo 11 crew on the Moon are of Buzz. That’s why I thought I’d put a shot of Neil here, reflected in Buzz’s gold visor as he took that famous photo. (“OK Neil, you can take the first step if I can be in the big photo.”- not.) Neil Armstrong reflected in Buzz Aldrin's visor

Despite his military background, Neil wasn’t ultimately a hero or adventurer: he was a scientist. That’s why there aren’t any decent pics of him on the lunar surface: taking holiday snaps just wasn’t part of the mission. A mission that involved over 50,000 people.

Apollo may have been driven by politics rather than rational scientific enquiry. It may have been appallingly uneconomic (taking something like 4% of US GDP.) It may not have done much “good science” – a tradition that, with the near-useless ISS vanity project, continues to this day.

But the outcome was the same: for a couple of glorious years in the 60s and 70s, we walked on the Moon again and again. Goodbye, Mr Armstrong, and – bloody good show.

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!