In fruitless search of excellence

I’m deeply pro-EU, but the recent appointments of two EU officials leave a sour taste.

I mean, look at van Rumpuy. Would you be quaking in fear and awed by his power if summoned to his throne-chamber? You’re not exactly thinking, “All is lost! It’s Emperor Palpatine all over again!” are you? Even less would you be overwhelmed by admiration of his bottomless well of humanity and compassion, the steel-trap nature of his intellect, or the sagacity of his decisions. Not big on the personal presence, the ex-Belgian PM. And the name – “Herman van Rumpuy” – sounds like a movie baddie, but from a kid’s cartoon rather than a Bond flick. His personality is marked by a complete lack of ability to influence others or make hard decisions, and entirely defined by a weak-bellied love of consensus that blows with the prevailing wind.

And you can tell that just from a photo, can’t you?

The two nobodies – a almost comically bureaucratic Belgian and an uncharismatic British peer with little frontline experience – illustrate precisely what’s wrong with EU decisionmaking, even beyond the undemocratic way in which such appointments are made: there’s no sense of excellence. A candidate simply has to be acceptable to everyone; it’s never driven by merit, much less vision or ambition. It’s the worst kind of public sector jobsworthism: box-ticking, quota-filling, Buggins’-turn mediocrity.

The EU is an incredible achievement. Despite the headlines about corrupt accounting (true) and outdated subsidies (also true) it’s bound together 27 nations, many of whom have been at war with each other for much of their history, into a freely trading bloc that adds a percentage point or two to each member’s GDP and create business opportunities for everyone. The great mistake of Europhiles was to think it needed to be something more: a federal superstate with its own parliament and president.

Perhaps, ultimately, the appointment of these two nonentities is a good thing: it’ll demonstrate just how little influence “Europe” has over world affairs, and the whole bloc will settle down into what it should be: a unified economic area with free movement of goods, services, capital and people. That’s what we need: the freedom to grow our economies, not “leadership” from Brussels. And the best thing about van Rumpuy and Ashton is that nobody’s ever going to listen to them.

Of ancient Constantinople


Seat of the Eastern Roman Empire, capital of the Byzantine world, a city of stunning architecuture and infrastructure back when London was barely a village!

I’ve been here 72 hours now and I’m enjoying being on the road again. The only thing I don’t like about my post-MBA life is I’ve less time for travel (the interesting kind, anyway) so even four days out is something to be treasured. And treasure this city is. It’s a museum of humanity’s first millennium. If you had museums where the exhibits kept trying to sell you ornamental rugware.

There are a lot of people in Istannbul, as I noticed when I went off-piste earlier today and threaded through narrow streets in some very poor areas. And it’s intoxicating. The throng of massed humanity crammed between decaying Ottoman walls held together by faded posters scented with the grilling of fish and lamb.

But if I tried to sum up impressions of Istanbul in one word, it wouldn’t be the usual cliches of heat and dust. Above all, Istanbul is blue.

A blue that isn’t everywhere, but is always around: tiling the edges of mosques, rippling over the Bosphorus, a tint in the air over the Marmara Sea seen from my hotel’s rooftop breakfast bar. A blue that spices every experience.

And it’s between those filaments of blue that you understand Istanbul today.

A city with soaring tower blocks a klom or so from the coastal peninsula, and a swoopy new tramway picking its way between urban centres. Yet where people are cooking food on open fires and spooning spices from merchants’ heaps a metre away in the shadows they cast.

The streets are still narrow and full of mysteries. The bazaar is huge and the workshops that fill it are still nearby; this city still lives in an age where people made things near where they lived and sold them from their front rooms.

And best of all, Istanbul has geography. With the two great monuments of Haghia Sofiya and the Blue Mosque plus the steep slopes of the streets as they roll down to the harbour, it’s harder than you think to get lost here. Don’t worry about east and west; just orient yourself with up and down and you’ll get where you’re going.

Istanbul’s a great town, and I’m glad I made it out before winter sets in. Aside from the heady streets, the museums are terrific and the food’s a real catch.

What’s more, it’s been my first experience of London City Airport. Despite it being my local ‘port, I’d never used it before: the geography of the Thames means it’s three river bends away as the crow flies, and the planes take off away from town, so I’ve just never been aware of it.

But you soon realise that the UK’s appalling air travel infrastructure isn’t a problem with airports per se; it’s just a problem with BAA. London City is managed by a different company, and it really shows, with fast check-in, great transport links, and a smooth passage onto your plane. These people’s business is to get you in the air, not (as with BAA) send you shopping. And the LCY guys have just bought Gatwick. Good things ahead.

Shibuya comes to London

I have many memories of crossing the gigantic X outside Tokyo’s Shibuya Station that gave rise to the new pedestrian scramble at Oxford Circus. Just what our capital needs: a rare move away from the over-controlling bossiness of New Labour schemes, and towards an emphasis on personal responsibility. Studies show such junctions reduce traffic accidents while increasing capacity, which – if you’ve ever spent 15mins negotiating this single junction on a Saturday – can only be a good thing.

Wake up to what?

This is a rather strange ad, sending out a somewhat mixed set of messages. Obviously raising awareness of male rape is a Good Thing – but who’s the victim and who’s the attacker in this photo? Was it kept deliberately ambiguous to avoid flack from Britain’s largely anti-gay black communities (i.e. the suggestion is that the black guy’s raping the white guy) while still ticking the all-important diversity box?

But there are other issues. Who on earth goes around with “Wake up to rape” actually written on his T-shirt? Do rapists get reduced sentences if they signal their intentions first? I mean, you wouldn’t want such a person serving you breakfast in bed.

And if he’s the victim, the other guy seems more in the role of seducer than violent attacker. Do male rapists habitually nuzzle their victims’ necks in institutional-looking bathrooms before committing the crime? Or get their kit off before the victim’s been secured, as the shirtless black guy seems to imply? I just don’t get it.

Which means, unfortunately, neither will this ad’s intended audience: young males from the lower socioeconomic groups. Yet another well-intentioned public service ad that’s cost several thousand pounds of taxpayers’ cash falls totally flat.

The only thing funnier than the bonkers Daily Mail is its equally over-the-top readers. Take a look at this report on how M&S’s £10 Meal Deal – which includes a bottle of plonk – is apparently unwise because it encourages couples to share a bottle of wine a night.

This “British Liver Trust”, whatever that is, is doing itself a disservice – by attacking people who drink a little more than clinically advisable (which is itself sensible given we have to live in Brown’s Britain) it’s ignoring the far bigger problems of cheap booze and girls-drink-free that start the problem in motion among teenagers.

Four or five units a night “unwise” for men? Perhaps – but not by much. And the side benefits of regular drinking – optimism, joie de vivre, the way the world looks better through the bottom of a wine glass when your house is worth less than your mortgage, your taxes go unthanked into countless New Labour schemes, and a raft of services from rubbish collection to road repair now have to be paid for direct from your pocket – make the tiny additional risk to your digestive system worthwhile. In fact, they make living worthwhile.

Besides, most middle-class couples I know would regard the offer as giving them an EXTRA bottle to drink in addition to the one they’ve already got out of the garage…

Did ANYONE actually throw a Windows 7 party?

My word. I’ve only just seen the actual video Microsoft made to promote its “Windows 7 Launch Party” campaign, and I’m utterly flabbergasted at just how excruciatingly awful it is. It’s destined to be a true cult classic, even if the spoof versions are almost as funny.

We have a term for this in the marketing biz: “Adland”. Adland is that strange place agency people go where the reality distortion field around the product is so vast you think people will actually behave as you want them too. Whose idea was it? Who at Redmond actually thought people would think it cool to sit around each others’ kitchens and use Windows 7??!! They’re in Adland.

First off – the over-obvious nods to “diversity”. Yes, white folks, Windows 7 is so cool that black people will enjoy partying with your elderly relatives! And what’s great, too, is that everything’s so “informal“! In fact, the younger woman is so certain of this she uses the word “informal” at least seven times during the video.

But the best part – the most self-consciously, toe-curlingly, mood-strainingly terrible part – is the dialogue and the forced actions of the actors trying to pretend their laughter is a natural occurence.

These lines are actually spoken:

“It’s best to install Windows 7 several days in advance of your party”, with approving nods around the kitchen table.

“Of course, you don’t actually have to do all the party activities to use Windows 7.” – and the astonished gasps when the geeky white guy says he did THREE activities… holding up three fingers to demonstrate his counting ability. Whoa!

And how about that unintentional slip by the older woman:

“Of course, it’s all up to us (correction) you.” As if the embrace-and-engulf strategy had accidentally been put in the script and she corrected herself.

And how about this for data security policy: “It’s best to just leave your computer on and let people mess around with it!” Remember, it’s INFORMAL.

Then near the end:

“Of course, the serious part. Decide what you’re going to do a few days in advance, watch the videos, read the handouts” – oh, this sounds a bit FORMAL!

And the black guy: “It’d help me to remember I’m not a salesman at this party.” Bet he is in real life though; he’s not going to get rich for his acting ability.

Anyway, as they say in the video, “Have fun out there!”

Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle

I’m now a third of the way through Neal Stephenson’s grand cycle of Europe (and America too if you include Cryptonomicon as the fourth book after the trilogy) and enjoying it.

I don’t read much fiction these days, sci-fi even more rarely. But Stephenson’s moved on from his Snow Crash and Diamond Age phase of pure sci-fi – and anyway, he always transcended the author (wrongly) credited with kicking off cyberpunk*, William Gibson, in the same way Gibson was eclipsed by Bruce Sterling. Stephenson is roughly the same height above Sterling as Sterling was above Gibson.

For Gibson was, ultimately, a bullshitter. Brilliant with language, fantastic with storytelling (his short stories, written when he was a young man in his 30s, remain terrific twenty years later) but he was making stuff up: knock it, and it didn’t sound solid. Gibson never used the Internet, had no mathematical smarts or engineering training. His work, while poetic and artistic, never had technological rigour. You could feel the electrodes on your forehead, smell the ozone burning off the batteries, but you’d never learn how any of it worked.

Stephenson, by contrast, is a true Geek. An expert Linux user before it was cool, you can finish a Stephenson feeling confident that, if sucked through a wormhole to WWII-era Philippines or the court of Louis XIV, you’d actually know what to do and how to behave. Anyone who publishes an entire book about booting up a Unix desktop (OK, so it was a Wired article first) knows a thing or two about technology.

Stephenson’s got faults – as he slyly admits, calling his eight-book sequence “The Baroque Cycle”. This is not minimalist writing. Vast chapters are devoted to exchanges of letters, diarist musings, extended descriptions of places and people, while nothing much happens as narrative: this is literature for the pleasure of reading, rather than the excitement of storytelling. You’re not experiencing a narrative, you’re experiencing a world. It’s less reading a novel, more playing Second Life.

But that world he creates – by meandering around in a vast forest of verbiage, never quite getting to the point – is absorbing. You don’t just smell the shit in 17-century London streets; it flies off the page and hits you in the eye. Unexpected outcomes, like a heroic figure spending years as a galley slave, happen with regularity, constantly keeping you off guard; events you thought had happened turn out to have been cyphers for the events that really happened. And so on. In short, it’s a lot like real life.

The fourth book, Cryptonomicon, was published years before the trilogy (and I read it around ’99 I think) but Stephenson keeps the nods to the future non-obvious most of the time, maintaining a distinct non-McGuffin-ness that most Hollywood producers could learn from. There is a lack of depth to characters, their personae being defined by their circumstances of birth and world events they get caught up in, rather than innate characteristics. But perhaps that’s how it really happens. Most great events happen to other people. Few Englishmen even noticed the French annexation of Britain, or the Norsemen some centuries prior, or … in the same way, the Great Fire of London and the Revolution of 1688 are presented as canvas, not oils. London, after all, was then just a sizeable village; there was nothing in Britain to match Venice, or even Madrid, still less Versailles.

And Stephenson makes it real. I think I’ll plunge into Book II (Confusion), but I warn you Neal: I expect a bit more narrative this time, or I won’t make it to System of the World.

* Gibson the founder of cyberpunk? Yeah? Ever readJohn Brunner’s “Shockwave Rider”? That was where it started.

Whatever you do, don’t feed starving Africans

Excellent article on why giving food aid to Africa simply distorts the incentives that’d let them help themselves. It’s rare today to see journalists actually saying the difficult things – thanks to Britain’s newfound culture of yob speak and mob rule – but perhaps this represents a turning point.

Spirit of ’79

It’s deja vu all over again! I can’t help but feel heartened by the tsunami of strike action about to hit the UK. Because just like the Winter of Discontent of my childhood, a Labour government – nominally Socialist and in support of a unionised workforce – is getting the crap kicked out of it by unions. Strikes, strikes, ballots, and more strikes, every place you look.

And once again – as if anyone seriously needed further proof – the myth of New Labour, and the lies of Socialism in general, are in steaming bloody chunks on the beaches. Strike, you trumped-up over-indulged public sector posturers, and together let’s make Brown’s defeat next year a truly crushing one.

Being a moderate Muslim must be really hard

I was sitting on my rooftop in the early hours thinking just how hard it must be to be a moderate male Muslim in Britain today.

Strange to be thinking this. (And a strange place to be thinking it in, but that’s just me.) Atheists like me resent religionistas in general, with some justification. Let’s face it, their cries for “equality” usually translate as “give me special treatment”. Every week brings a fresh parable of some random book-basher’s indignant posturing that she should be allowed to violate well-trodden statutes because some particular imaginary friend demands it. And I’m sick and tired of pandering to their endless whining. Religionistas, we’re all just folks. You. Are. Not. Special.

But I’ve travelled a bit in the Muslim world. Spent hours gazing at beautiful friezes, smiling at friendly faces and well-disciplined children. (The food’s terrific too.) And felt totally safe, even at dusk in neighbourhoods wracked by poverty and pain. (I couldn’t say the same in the chavster estates of London or Manchester.) “Real” Islam is a tolerant and rewarding way of life, and if people choose to believe in ancient stories to soothe the pain of real life, then I’ve no reason to stop them.

However, if your community – your family, your mentors, your whole life – is a pinched-off bubble separated culturally and geographically from the British mainstream, being moderate is difficult… because radicalism is a constant bubbling undercurrent among your peers, driven by the usual factors of poverty, education, limited opportunities and frustrated ambitions.

Most British Muslims crowd into the lowest-income 25% of the population. Rates of employment for women are dismal, as are rates of pay. 80% of Imams (the robed guys who conduct the sermons in mosques) are from outside the UK; most speak no English and have no intention of learning. Every Friday is a hours-long diatribe about the wrongness of Western ways and the superiority of a prophet’s ancient blog. (It’s a cracking piece of literature, admittedly.)

Consequently, any practicing Muslim who just wants to live-and-let-live as a UK citizen is caught up in an undertow of insinuation, intimidation, and outright threats for being “un-Islamic”. It’s there in aggressive looks whenever you visit the Mosque. It’s there in the street from groups of bearded young men with nothing better to do, in the fearful glances from shopkeepers under pressure to shun you.

This attack stance is straight out of the Karl Rove Operations Manual: hit your opponent where he should be strongest, so he spends his energy defending where he shouldn’t have to. For British Islamism, that chapter runs: We are better Muslims than you. There is a correct way to sit, a correct position to sleep in, a correct way to drink a glass of water. (These are actual examples related to me by a moderate Muslim.) All spoken with an undertone of menace: if you don’t do it this way, you’re not a proper Muslim. “This way”, of course, meaning “Our way.”

It’s a clever strategy, because you can do a great deal with relatively few resources. All you need is a few angry young men with a grudge, a charismatic preacher or two who’ll become a major part of their lives, and you’ve got the small platform from which you can exert leverage. Even if – as with Islamism – what you teach them deviates from the script big-time. (The Koran, beyond argument and in all circumstances, absolutely forbids suicide, for fuck’s sake.)

But for a lot of young men with the wrong type of education (many Muslim kids go straight to the madrassa after school) and not much hope of a decent job, that undercurrent – you can “right” these “wrongs” – is very powerful. Most young men will find it attractive. The feeble-minded ones will sink into its maw. A few – the angry ones – end up doing something silly. And the key factor – that it’s easier to pander to the extremists than fight them – gets stronger.

One well-known French school, known for its tolerance, had hundreds of students from various ethnicities happily practicing Islam at home. Yet it took just fifteen fundamentalist families, using their daughters as proxies to force other young women into headscarves and burqas, to practically shut the place down. Now of course its headteacher is being accused of ‘intolerance’ for banning such behaviour.

One recent UK story was celebrated as a victory of community engagement: an Imam, worried about the activities of a young male mosquegoer, had called in the police, who’d found bombmaking evidence. Great, said the press. But the extremist turns out to have been… a Western convert to Islam without extended family in the mosque. Puts a different slant on the story, doesn’t it?

There are stories of how recent immigrants from Bangladesh and Pakistan are shocked, shocked at how fundamentalist their British-born cousins can be.

This is how these people work. Take advantage of tolerance, show no tolerance yourself, and raise a hullabooloo if anyone tries to stop you.

These young people live in Britain and are expected to abide by British rules, yet they’re unequipped for doing so. Cloistered and corralled into a social scene that involves few people outside the family and mosque, they’ve got little stake in the nation that surrounds their ethnic ghettoes. And why should they follow the rules, when those rules seem so distant and irrelevant to their everyday lives?

And those are just the problems a moderate Muslim faces within his own community. Outside, the pressures forcing you back in are even stronger.

Just try being a spokesman for moderate Islam. The British public tends to conflate “Islamism” (a political philosophy) with Islam (a religious way of life). So if you dare to be a spokesman for moderate (i.e. real) Islam, the Daily Mail will villify you as an appeaser and your cobelievers will shun you as an apologist. By speaking up you’ve basically painted a big circular target on your chest.

And yet, despite the pressures, a fair few manage it, and are capable of living their lives as “real” Muslims: kind and gentle with a live-and-let-live attitude. The same attitude, perhaps, that let Salah-al-Din allow Jerusalem residents safe passage back to Europe, when those same residents had left the Muslim population in small bloody chunks just a few years before.

But such moderation is in real danger from the enemies within, and I see no way of stopping them.

Hmmm, lousy 3G internet access today. And furthermore I know the reason.

Google Maps on my phone can show me my location even without GPS, by triangulating between nearby mobile masts. Previously it’s put me a few streets away: not bad, within half a km or so. But last night, I noticed it put me several klicks downriver – and the position kept changing, flickering between two sets triangulated co-ordinates a number of postal districts apart.

What this means is that whatever mobile mast used to be closest to my house has been out of commission – either under repair, or taken away altogether. Which is kicking my mobile access down to GPRS speeds; the web feels like the mid-nineties. If it’s the latter, I need a new phone provider.

With free texts for life I’d SAVE LESS THAN £5 A MONTH, so stop making such a big deal out of it

It’s not getting worse, it’s just not getting any better. I’ve just seen the latest ad in a mobile phone company’s excruciating attempts to be down with the kids.

“I’d text everyone I’ve ever met and throw a big party”? What the FUCK? “People I didn’t like enough to even spend the 5p or so on a text message before are going to come to a party thrown by me because I’m so fucking special“.

Like the “Superbands” one before it, it’s painful to read: a demographic-obsessed marketing department executive (I’d bet money this is client, not agency) ends up sounding like a parody of the self-obsessed teenager she imagines her audience to be. And once again, an ad ends up sounding quite mind-numbingly awful. At least the choice of media is appropriate, although ideally this ad would be pasted on the inside.

The twist in healthcare marketing

At first glance, healthcare marketing contains a conundrum: you’re marketing a dream of perfect health, yet you don’t want your customers to have it.

After all, doctors and hospitals make money by seeing patients, conducting diagnoses, and performing treatments. Healthy people don’t spend much time in hospitals. Healthy people are unprofitable people.

Based on this premise, healthcare marketing should be all about the fun things in life. Your local hospital would run campaigns exhorting the thrills of dangerous driving and how great it is to end your day with a dose of the dragon and a borrowed needle. (That’s your orthopaedics and liver disease clinics filled right there.)

You’d have surgeries hosting the All-Britain Binge Drinking Championships and offering free rotgut to all comers. Hospitals would have unfussy street prostitutes on standby for whenever the STD clinics looked a bit barren. Savvy young marketers would ‘accidentally’ ensure well-off residential streets were well strewn with broken glass and strange chemicals.

And the greatest campaign of all would involve a containerload of sharp rusty objects, a spraycan of Ebola, and a crowded High Street.

Hey, it’s ultimately no different to bars offering free nuts. To keep ’em consuming, you’ve got to keep ’em thirsty.

However, there’s a flaw in the above, related to second-order effects: the healthiest people are also the most likely to go in for the treatments with the highest profit margin.

The ideal patients at the small private hospitals that insurers use are affluent ABC1s who visit their doctors regularly, squeeze their soft parts anxiously for signs of lumps, research every tabloid health finding on the web, and don’t stay out in the sun too long. They’ll detox for a week after every night out and have every funny mole excised.

These people will be up for any treatment a doctor recommends, whether it’s vital, useful, or merely precautionary, as long as they know about it.

Owning this demographic is basically a license to stick a vacuum pump in their pockets and suck until all you get is lint.

So the real goal of healthcare marketing is, conversely, to keep people neither well nor unwell, but better-informed.

A marketing programme that put together the right triumvarate of information – medical research, statistical demographic analysis, and trends over time – might pick up ten million customers in its first five years, because it’d be free. Call it “The Hundred-Year Plan” for living a long and healthy life, little treatments and surgical procedures every year or two instead of a couple of big ones whammoing into your calendar and changing the course of your life.

Maybe it’d be a CRM programme, based on some concept like “The Ideal Man” and showing you quarterly how close you are to the ideal. It’d be informed by data like the average mortality rate and disease profile for people of your social background in your geographic area. Your life would become a game of getting close to the ideal. Healthcare would be seen as a lifestyle, not an intervention.

You could even tie things up with a major supermarket chain. A line of fresh veg and fruity Ready Meals made fresh that day, maybe with extra vitamins and minerals mixed in instead of sauces and salt sachets, selling consistently because the supermarket knows exactly how many people will buy them.

Your phone pings one Monday. “It’s 8am. Shove a slice of watermelon up your ass for ten minutes. This will reduce your chances of rectal whateveritis by 50% (click here for statistics). Next reminder: 4 weeks. To book a consultation on rectal whateveritis for just £150, click here.”

And: “Click here to buy a watermelon.

I can’t see a single insurer playing this game effectively. (I mean the game of turning healthcare into a managed relationship, not the game of shoving melons up your ass – fun as that might be to some.) And very few hospital chains.

Market health in the right way, and you end up with the most profitable customers of all: the “worried well” who are keen to maintain health and who are most likely to seek genuine information and preventive/elective treatments at their hospitals. Preventive/elective surgery is the most profitable, and insurers are happy to pay for it, since such work makes their customers less in need of major (unprofitable) treatments later.

Seen in this way, healthcare marketing’s about the best form of marketing you can do: genuinely trying to do the right thing for your customers. Hmmm, I wonder who’s going to do it?

Aaargh! They’re going to lose us the election!

Stop, Conservative Conference attendees, you’re getting it all wrong!!!

The speeches yesterday were truly aaarghworthy.

1. New jobs not attracting National Insurance costs. First, what exactly is a ‘newly created job?’ One that becomes empty and you have to fill, or a new job role? This will be ‘gamed’ by companies renaming empty roles to take advantage of the NI cut. And of course this whole thing creates additional complexity and administration costs across the board. AAAAARGH.

2. Tearing up the Human Rights Act. It’s far from perfect, but it’s far too late for a ‘British Bill of Rights’; life’s a lot more complex these days and it doesn’t allow simple constitutions or declarations any more. (A flaw of democracy.) And this’d give more mettle to the Tory anti-Europe, who are going to be Cameron’s biggest problem anyway. AAAARGHH.

3. Getting tough on benefits. This absolutely needs to be done, but not DURING THE PARTY CONFERENCE, idiots! I mean, the weak and the workshy are PRECISELY the group mostly strongly attached to Labour; if only a small percentage of them swing at the election, we’ve won. Everyone knows the public finances are going to be savagely trammelled due to a decade of New Labour profligacy. But don’t fucking talk about it on stage! DOUBLE AAAARGHHH.

Or is this a tactic? – fed up with a century of cleaning up Labour messes when in government, have the Tories just given up?

Hand squidgers: a worthwhile investment

Probably the best £7.95 I’ve spent this summer has been on a hand squidger* from my local Decathlon.

It’s a spring-loaded grip thing that you squeeze with one hand, to strengthen your grip and exercise fingers. I’ve got it set on 30kg and do 3 sets of 11 with each hand on the way to work. After four months of injury-enforced lack of exercise – during which I softened into a bulging fleshy sack of butter, a shadow of my former self – this one little exercise alone has brought a perceptible increase in hand strength and a noticeable definition to the arms, in just a month of doing a daily five minutes. Awesome.

* Yeah, I know there’s another word for it. But they should call it a hand squidger.

Mechanical evolution

I lost my old Leatherman Wave years back, and recently found it again in the box of nuts and nails and strangely-shaped flange brackets that lurks in the garage of every household. In the meantime I’d re-equipped with a new Charge. And it’s interesting to see how a decade of listening to customers has evolved the Oregon company’s designs.

Looking at the Wave first. It was the first multitool to use outside-edge blades that folded out on the opposite side to the pliers; at the time this was exotic, but it’s now become standard across many Leatherman tools and a fair few other brands. It worked for customers, so they rolled it out. But the original Wave had an issue: all those hinges made it flex too much when using the pliers, so the hinge end on my new Charge is much beefier. All four main blades are slightly wider, longer, and more strongly anchored in the frame, too.

Locking the four big blades in place while open was a useful part of the Wave; on the Charge, they’ve applied this to pretty much everything, with all the bits and pieces needing a solid click or press to fold them back in. The blades have evolved in subtle ways, too: there’s a hook on the bonesaw and the smooth edge has a much bigger nailnick for one-handed opening. Little useful bits that make it better.

The scissors – probably the most common tool I use: I travel with this thing a lot – are stronger on the Charge; perhaps other people use them a lot, too.

The big innovation has been in screwdrivers. Instead of five separate screwdriver tips on the Wave, the Charge has two drillbit-style slots into which a range of bits can be inserted – and you can close the tool with bits in place, so you can always carry around a basic foursome of eyeglass tools, crosshead and flathead. (There’s a box of bits available.)

Lastly, the silly little lanyard (a ‘blade’ that’s a small metal loop for attaching the Wave to stuff) has been dumped, and a gap on the frame used for connecting a separate, larger ring. This is more useful, because I can keep that ring hooked to my keyring all the time, and just connect the tool to the ring when travelling so I’ve got a single bunch of ‘metal stuff’ to stow away from laptops and phone. Sensible and functional.

Of course, my only complaint about Leatherman persists: no corkscrew. But I can live without being able to open corked bottles, as long as it’s not for too many days.