One thousand, two thousand, three thousand – SHIT!

Hmmm, just learned that there’s a ‘theme’ for the Saturday night event during the Great Warwick Jump course. The theme is… SUPERHEROES.

The Skydiving Club has obviously not thought this through.

I mean, undergrads aren’t the most organised of people, so many of them will be looking for things to make costumes out of on Saturday afternoon.

Now, what article of clothing is commonly worn by superheroes? A cape. And what is a cape? A large area of…. brightly-coloured billowing fabric.

So they’ll be looking around for a source of large areas of brightly-coloured fabric, to cut a cape-shaped piece out of.

That would be…. PARACHUTES.

Yes, the skies over Lincolnshire on Sunday will be ABLAZE with the death screams of plummeting undergrads with cape-shaped holes in their canopies.

I estimate that due to this decision (presumably taken by the social secretary of the Skydiving Club) we’ll have a higher-than-average ‘wastage factor’ this weekend. (Separate this from ‘wastedness’, which will be high anyway.

I must find the social secretary of the Skydiving Club and give her a good spanking.

Why am I not more worried about jumping out of a perfectly good aeroplane

I’ve got to have SOMETHING to get my mind off the MBA between projects finishing and exam week, so I’m jumping out of a plane or two this coming weekend. (It’s possibly unwise to be watching clips like this, although I prefer them to the less ‘interesting’ jumps: it just demonstrates that even after 2 unlucky strikes you can still come through.)

I hoped it’d put some action and adventure back into existence; living at Warwick U’s pleasant enough, but life has lost its dark, exquisite edge. There’s just no acid-etched tingle of fear and risk clawing at your soul, and we all need that just to remind us we’re alive. Without it, life’s just… existence. And mere existence isn’t worth the effort.

I’m jumping solo; hoping to get my freefall license this year, and you need a minimum of 17 solo jumps to get it. And there are enough female undergrads taking part to give ‘The Great Warwick Jump’ a whole new meaning if the Saturday night party goes well, phwoooaaar. But, I mean, 4000 feet? You barely need a parachute for that.

Power to the People

When they cut the power, the People must make Power of their Own.

Beard-stroking liberals aren’t a common sight on commercially-focussed Warwick University – and least of all at the ultra-capitalist Business School – but when the electrons stopped flowing today, things got uglier than a hairy leftie on a bad hair day.

Yes, there were power cuts across campus. Possibly connected to the ‘quake last night, where 5000 students woke up and… fondly thought they had company. In the dusty aftermath, this top-tier university acquired a third-world electricity network for the afternoon.

In the MBA section, the lesser syndicate groups were walking out in disgust, stripped of their power by… lack of power. Hardier syndicates gamely stayed on, forgetting the PCs and PowerPoints and resorting to… actual conversation, can you believe it.

There were demonstrations of undergrads in the darkened corridors, chanting “WHAT DO WE WANT? NET PRESENT VALUE! WHEN DO WE WANT IT? NOW!” in Chinese accents. OK, only joking, but the point is made.

The coffee machines were off. The security-carded doors were open to all. (Yes, ALL. Undergrads in the postgrad wing. Science people taking shortcuts back to Lakeside. Even… shock horror… LIBERAL ARTS TYPES?!!) Civilisation, truly, neared its end today. It was a strange kind of chaos: quiet, accepting, yet utterly apocalyptic, like the 2000 neocon takeover of the US government that set the USA’s respect in the world back 75 years.

And when at last the power came back on, we felt… cleansed. But at the same time, slightly disappointed. Our NPV and ROI focussed lives had been given a taste of what it’s like to live… off the grid.

And some of us, perhaps, liked it a little.

Quaking in anticipation

I thought something happened last night! Remember waking up to a shaking room, dazedly concluding someone was under my bed shaking it, and drifted back off to sleep.

(It’s perhaps a measure of how thrashed I was that I didn’t consider the fact of someone being under my bed to be worth further exploration.)

Sheesh, a 5.3 earthquake in the UK after 25 years. Just what’s happening under the Earth’s crust these days?

China, girls, and undercover economists

Just back from a talk by Tim ‘Logic of Life’ Harford at the Warwick Economics Summit. As he explains the strange wisdom-of-crowds groupthink behind subjects as diverse as speed dating and prison populations, I’m looking around the room and noting further evidence of two trends in British education: girls and China.

Most of these kids are Economics students. Now Economics isn’t quite as much a ‘boy’ discipline as physics or chemistry. But it still feels vaguely masculine…. yet more than half the students in the room are female. It’s in keeping with a general decline in males participating in higher education in the UK.

What does this mean for the next generation of British males? There’ll be a surfeit of highly-educated women fishing in a shrinking pool of educated men; this means an increase in women ‘marrying down’ and a rise in the existing trend of males feeling underpowered, directionless, and trapped. It looks like Fight Club got it right. What I’m seeing in this room today could lead to a breakdown of society within 20 years.

The other influence is China. Approximately one in four students in the room is of Chinese extraction. The economics of China itself, of course, answer this – mainland China long ago outstripped Hongkong as the UK’s source of foreign students – and its growing middle class, a natural tendency towards education, and the sheer gravitational pull of a country short of a million accountants (to quote one example) will keep Britain’s business schools chocka with Chinese for decades to come. There are economic reasons for top universities like Warwick to accept them, too: they pay international student rates, which are much higher than it can charge locals.

So there are economic outcomes and drivers for both the situations I see in the lecture hall this morning.

But what does this bode for Britain?

A new elite of female leaders, but an underclass of sub-educated men, and the birthrate dropping to zero among ethnic white British as a result? And will the gap be filled by immigrants from India and China? I don’t think so; those countries have enough opportunities at home for bright young graduates. Much of Britain’s population growth at the moment is due to recent immigrants having larger families; unfortunately, the sectors of British society having all the kids aren’t the ones creating wealth. The unemployment rate among British Muslims is three times higher than the general population, yet they have many more kids for the taxpayer to support. The incidence of NEETs (not in education, employment, or training) is growing, yet the chav sector, too, has higher birthrates and they have their kids young.

So it’s a depressing snapshot of Britain’s future. A shrinking labour pool in the middle, a foreign elite at the top, and an expanding Bottom Thirty Million being supported by the State. It looks like life for the UK’s hard-squeezed middle class is only going to get tougher.

I think my first evening out with the Skydiving Club went surprisingly well

After my first social event with the skydiving club, I have learned several things about today’s undergrads.

1. 87% of the conversation is about alcohol. Unsurprisingly.
2. Only 9% is about sex. Surprisingly*.
3. The entertainment possibilities of helium-filled balloons are truly endless.
4. They use the word ‘random’ approximately 6 times in each sentence.
5. They don’t run for midnight buses, even when the driver is jolting forward impatiently.
6. After a few drinks the fact I’ve got nieces their age becomes immaterial.
7. Even those who’ve accidentally triple-booked for Valentine’s Day are pretty nice.
8. Coventry town centre isn’t a bad place when you’re in a group.

But the Skydiving Club are a pretty good bunch: surprisingly un-jocklike for what’s after all a fairly extreme sport (jumping out of aeroplanes.) I’d trust any of them to pack my chute any time (except perhaps tonight, when most are the worse for wear.)

Roll on first jumps course…

* Although the Terminator story almost made up for it.

Doing my dirty laundry in public

In this case, literally. It’s stupid how fast you build up a suitcaseful of clothes when you’re studying / working / doing stuff up to 18 hours a day, even when you wake up at 3am (as I’ve been doing, for some odd reason, the last month or so.) In the meantime, the pile of textbooks awaiting reading is too huge to contemplate. What is this, school or something?

They’re BACK! Yaaaay!

A rush of hope re-enters my life. The swan couple, which I thought had been cruelly cut in half over the winter, has reappeared! Yes, instead of one bereaved swan, there’s now a pair again, sailing up and down the lake as a couple.

Maybe the second swan was late back after its winter break, or just had some stuff to take care of down south and told the other to go on ahead. Maybe they had a tiff, and are back together after some me-time. WHATEVER. The swans are a couple again, and that’s all that matters.

Order has been restored to the lake. Yaaaay!

Nearly went under… but not quite

It sucks to be me this week.

My work, study, and personal lives are all COMPLETE crap right now. I’m down to about a third of my usual energy, the sheer frustration of scheduling projects and meetings is leaving precisely zero hours for actual study, I’m more undecided about the future than I’ve ever been. Not to mention I’ve lost a WHOLE THREE MINUTES from my 1600m time and my heart’s stuffed with a writhing mass of blackness even a twenty-year-old Executive Stress Relief Consultant from Latvia can’t cure.

Life sucks this week. And then it got worse.

There’s a pair of swans on the lake near the postgrad block.

Only one of them returned from its winter break. Plowing forlornly back and forth beneath the little bridge, lost without its partner, unable to take Warwick Lakeside any other way.

And it all but broke me. I stood there for five minutes, quietly sobbing.

I can deal with all the project work, the hundreds of pages of reading, the demands of clients back in London, and the – let’s face it – that ‘other thing’ that happened this week. But the death of a swan just pushed me over the edge. It was the sight of its bereaved partner, and being reminded of what my suddenly-solo avian friend had just realised: life has no purpose, no reason, no goals or targets or Key Performance Indicators, save those we impose upon it. Life is without meaning.

The cold, infinite, suffocating dark goes on forever, and we are alone.

Tonight I’ll buy a small bottle of wine and pour it into the lake, remembering what shouldn’t be forgotten. I hope those swans had at least a year or two together before tragedy struck.

Goodbye, my aquatic friend. You helped me feel something.

I have not had a hangover like this for some considerable time

Grurp. Stonking hangovers are a very rare event for me these days, and I suspect it’s connected to the vodka shots that I participated in after red wine over at Heronbank last night. (These things always seem a good idea somehow at university flat parties.) Gotta clear this up or I’ll lose a whole day.

That was an alarmingly large baked potato I had in the Arts Centre this lunchtime

There’s nothing like a mile in the pool after a few hours in the lecture hall, but when I got out I was HUNGRY, and thanks to an overrun it was too late to head to University House. Pity, since Mondays is often a lasagne verde day and the cooking down there is surprisingly good for what’s basically a student canteen.)

My backup option was the Arts Centre. There’s always a few baked spuds left, and whoa, the one I had was HUGE. It was like eating a carbo-loaded rugby ball. Not the best thing to eat at lunchtime when the afternoon’s going to be a manic rush of assignments and presentation prep bracketed by runs to the laundrette; even now, 4 hours later, I can feel its starchy vastness sitting in my stomach as if I’d swallowed it whole. Man, that was one HUGE potato. And as for the helping of cottage cheese – let’s not go there. It’s almost enough to put me off dinner, but for some reason I’m feeling in dire need of protein…

In the mood for action

Out on the road, getting a few two-legged kloms in since the pool’s closed today, just me and Nikeplus. And thinking.

Much as I’m enjoying my time at Warwick, I am looking forward to getting back to London. The bright lights, the thronging crowds, the galleries and museums and architecture. Even the Tube; I still get a buzz out of taking a train through the Earth’s crust. Not because it’s better, but because it has action. Excitement, adventure, really wild things, 24-by-7-by-363*. I love London precisely because you can’t get used to it.

Life isn’t fun unless it resembles a movie script starring you. Every passing vehicle should hint at the possibility of dark secrets inside (even if you know they’re Russians). Every door without a brassplate should hide billions in wealth (think of those anonymous offices in Mayfair.) After dark should be full of delectable pleasures in still-smoky underground dens, dawn light tinted with both regret of the previous day and hope for the forthcoming one. Life should be a riot of conflicting emotions, intense experiences to cut that searing pain of mere existence that never goes away.

I’ve joined the Skydiving Club and I’m doing my first solo jumps in March. Jumping out of a moving aeroplane at 4,000 feet will take the edge off, but a tightly-governed thrill ride isn’t the same as being in a theatre of action, where anything could happen and it’s up to you to survive and thrive.

As HC said, life should contain constant action. Inside my head I’m an action hero, even if it’s limited to pacing campus after dark, wearing black trenches, and leaping the desks instead of going round them. Action. I need action.

(Aside: I’m seriously disappointed that nobody has replied to my class spam asking my MBA cohort to join me at 4000 feet. There are at least two guys apart from me fitting the action hero sensibility – Si***** and Io*** and you KNOW who they are – but neither has responded.)

If I walk down the street and only three or four bullets get fired at me, I find it hard to stay awake.

But skydiving will assuage the emptiness a little. And it’s surprisingly cheap. “Subsequent jumps are cheap” (hopefully that’s not because second jumps are ‘subsidised’ by people who paid for a second jump but, er, didn’t quite excel on their first.) Although it’s wrapped up the cotton wool of British Health & Safety: why, for example, do you have to wear a crash helmet? If at the end of a 4000ft fall your head’s pointing downwards, you’ve got certain issues a fibreglass hat isn’t going to fix.) Skydiving has some action, but it isn’t Action.

So that’s why I think that after I graduate, I will return to London, even though my shoebox of a house down there could be exchanged for something detached with four bedrooms up here. London means Action. And without action, you’re already dead – you just haven’t stopped moving yet.

(*363 because the trains stop Dec 24 and 25 and nothing happens.)

The day it rained forever

It’s been raining at Warwick University since Thursday.

I’ve been back at ‘school’ a few months now, but tonight really felt like it. Because it was my first session in the Humanities building, one of the original University buildings from the 60s. It was so like going to comprehensive school in the 80s I almost shivered with the naughtiness of it. The same pale cream crumbling paint layered ten coats deep over sills and windowframes, cheap green paper towels in the toilets, overcooked radiators blasting dry eco-unfriendliness, and blackboards. Yes, proper blackboards with real chalk.

And the smell. Magnified by the rain, the smell is everywhere. The smell of teenagers: cheap perfume, stale sweat, boiled cabbage, free-range hormones and old socks. The Humanities Block is a proper Skool. The Business School’s beautifully geometric building is so fit-for-purpose it just couldn’t be any better: a song of cool lines and orderly corridors, and being in this other building reminds me that most people in British education don’t have it so good.

It was fun, though (the French class I sort of missed last week) and added to the sheer weirdness of being a university student in my 30s. I hope I have a few more weird experiences like this before September comes.

Down and dirty in the SU

I don’t quite ‘get’ Warwick’s Student Union.

At any one time, half the bars and kitchens are either closed or devoid of customers. And the opening times seem fairly random, too. For instance, there’s a paid-entrance party on at 11pm, so the whole downstairs area shuts down at 10pm and everyone has to leave and come back again.

The crowds seem equally elusive. I’ve walked through here on Friday evenings and the place is packed; other times, like this Friday, it’s practically empty. Us postgrads obviously don’t have that finely-tuned undergrad sense of where the Happenings are. Nine bars and six restaurants at the last count, yet it’s always odds on the place you’re heading for will be shuttered.

Tonight it’s a party to welcome the new crop of exchange MBAs from Mannheim, and they’re a little… different to the last lot. Man, these guys are TALL. It’s like talking to trees. And not just the guys: the girls are so statuesque I half expected modelling agents to be scouting the joint.

Seeing their heads jutting above the less-lofty Warwickers make it look as if the entire cohort has been transplanted into Sherwood Forest, and the illusion’s even more appropriate when you consider the rainstorm outside is somehow penetrating the ground floor of this 3-storey building… via the roof. (Makes me wonder what this dripping water went through to get here.)

We enjoy a ‘few’ beers, and end the evening upstairs in The Graduate pub. The appalling weather has created some interesting olfactory effects, and the floor – let’s just say it has noticeable adhesive qualities. But there’s still time and room to chat to our new colleagues, about their motivations, their dreams, their hopes for the future. (Actually, those involve beer too.)

The things they say in the Learning Grid

For a top-flight educational aid, some of the little signs and notices in Warwick University’s Learning Grid are a bit ambiguous.

What, for example, is implied by

“Student Advisors are here to help you with anything.”

Really? Anything? (All right – find me a girlfriend!) And the followup advice to ‘look for the blue T shirts’ didn’t help either, since there was a pile of them near the entry turnstile and their conversation wasn’t up to much.

“Please eat hot food in the atrium.”

As if we had no choice. (“Man, I’m gonna have to leave this atrium! One more mouthful and I’ll burst!”)

“There’s no such thing as a stupid question in the Grid.”

Now there’s a red-rag-to-a-bull question. “Excuse me, why does Superman wear his underpants over his tights?“)

I love the Learning Grid.

I think that I shall never see, a life so lovely as a tea… cher

What a life it is to be an academic.

I’ve been in a university environment over three months now, and I can safely say there’s a reason so many lecturers seem so happy. I mean, compared to the hardscrabble, living-on-the-edge, risk-filled rollercoaster of private business, being an academic is one seriously cushy number. Sometimes I feel like one of HG Wells’ Morlocks accidentally emerging from his hellish subterreanea and glimpsing the verdant paradise above.

First off, academic life is fun. Just imagine the work environment of the average don. You spend time either with people who defer to your superior knowledge (students) or who share your interests (departmental colleagues.) Being an academic is like one long Sunday afternoon in the park with friends.

You get financial security too. Maybe the salaries aren’t great, but plenty of academics do private consulting at high rates – and additionally, as civil servants, many academics get an index-linked pension: the gold-plated sort that pays out an ever-increasing, inflation-proof amount without you having to pay in increasing sums. Someone recently calculated that the average private sector manager would need to build up a pension pot of ONE MILLION POUNDS to enjoy the same payouts as the equivalent civil servant. Being an academic means never having to worry about your dotage.

You get a great living environment. Lots of academics live in subsidised housing, some right here on campus: the dreamy, intellectual atmosphere of the ivory towers, combined with annual influxes of young people to keep your ideas fresh. Academics get everything but free backrubs from naked maidens, and I’m pretty sure even that’s on offer in the Humanities block. (How come the OB guys always seem such happy souls?)

And the work itself? Well, given that academics always note their ‘research interests’ on their CVs, isn’t that a bit like… ‘doing what you enjoy‘? Your job involves reading and writing about the stuff you like the most? Does that even qualify as a job? Either way, being an academic offers a great working life.

Of course, you’re allowed eccentricities as an academic that the private sector wouldn’t let your feet touch the ground for. The scruffiest jeans and jumpers, and barely decipherable handwriting? And some of these eccentricities cost the taxpayer serious money. At Warwick, the maths guys came out in open rebellion some years back, about… the whiteboards in the Maths Department. (They liked blackboards and chalk.) At huge expense, the whiteboards were replaced with blackboards, just to satisfy a bunch of numbers freaks’ fits of pique. Being an academic lets you do your own thing, all the time.

Furthermore, under the UK’s RAE grading system, you only have a ‘performance review’ every FIVE years, and even then it’s based on just your best FOUR pieces of work. Four pieces?!! In five years?! You could just spend six months producing four really good bits, then goof off for nearly half a decade. Unlike the private sector – with its quarterly earnings requirements, its downsizing habits and its dog-eat-dog culture – being an academic lets you thumb your nose at performance standards.

Oh, what a life is it to be an academic!

Twelve months later

It’s been a strange sort of year, 2007.

I was at a crossroads last Dec 31, having realised I didn’t want to be a solo marketer any longer but with the alternative (being an outsourced marketing department and recruiting a team) not looking any better.

A month in the desert the previous summer had reconnected me with the planet, but Q3/4 were horrendous as a result. A single full month away in five years had decimated a great roster. I spent Dec 31, 2006 wondering what I’d be in a year’s time. Off adventuring for the last time? Working overseas again? Dead drunk on the London streets?

What I never thought, though, was that it’d involve becoming a University student.

But here I am: living on campus at Warwick University a few minutes from the gleaming white geometry of the business school. And just three months outside the madness of London has made everything clear again. I now know what I want to do next.

Here are my goals for 2008:

To rejoin a team. Being solo works when you have no commitments, but when you’re selling your time it’s hard to make year-on-year upticks to your bottom line, and I’m not getting any younger. So I want fresh resources to leverage: people, technology, capital, in order to make a bigger difference. And that only happens in organisations. So the lone wolf has to rejoin a pack.

To get international again. It’s seven years since my work took me outside Europe; side trips to Asia and Africa and America have been just that: holidays. However pleasant having clients in Paris / London / Madrid may be, I miss the business travel that marked my calendar for my first working decade. So whatever I work on next, it’ll have to be something that works across borders.

To reconnect with technology. Working with consultancies is great, but to really see how business and markets interact you’ve got to understand the technologies: why Ajax is exciting (hint: it enables Web 2.0) why UDWDM is a p-shift (hint: it steps up to mass broadband) and why the iPod has nothing to do with selling hardware (hint: it’s about control of media distribution.) So I need to re-involve myself in TMT, which in the last year – without a single digital agency as a client – I’ve missed.

To play strategically. I’m sick of clients whining about my day rate; whatever I earn in my next role will be related to what I do for the business, not what I can squeeze out of their marketing budget. If I want six figures and an option on 1%, I’d better be able to demonstrate additional turnover attributable to my actions. And with the stuff I’m learning on the Warwick MBA, I’ll be able to do it.

And of course, sluicing into all that is a more basic goal: to be a better person. To be less cynical. To network with people more, even useless ones. To tolerate fools more gladly. To gather points of view before taking one. To chase material success less. To listen and understand rather than dismiss and judge.

It’ll be hard. But – with five new course folders on the shelf, with titles from Corporate Finance to Modelling & Analysis – I’m in the best place to start from.

Happy New Year!

This is really boring

3.30pm and I’m ready for dinner. Dear me, living on a deserted university campus is worse than spooky; it’s BORING.

I mean, I should be appreciating a few days of doing my own thing, catching up with consulting work (gotta pay those tuition fees somehow) in the peace and quiet. But somehow I can’t settle properly. Normally I enjoy being alone, but ‘alone’ to a Londoner means the anonymity of the city, being alone in a crowd, not alone because there’s nobody else about.

Let’s see: I’ve had all the baths and showers one can usefully have in an afternoon, checked email more times than is healthy, and completed not one, but two tax returns (personal and business) but I’m still REALLY REALLY BORED. I think I’ll have an early dinner.

Dead in the water

There must several hundred aquatic birds living at Warwick U, mostly of the breed in this pic, but plenty of shorter-necked ducks and a pair of swans too.

Which raises the question: how come I’ve never seen a dead one?

I mean, your average duck has a lifespan of a couple of years at most, which means a couple of ducks a week should make their last quacks. Yet I’ve never seen so much as a wobbly one wandering about at Lakeside.

Do ducks bury their dead or something? Where are the dead ones?

I am alone, totally alone

I am alone in the flat.

Sixteen rooms along the corridor and I seem to be the only one here. The joint’s deserted. There’s a howling wind outside, and the windchill factor’s pushing the mercury well below zero in the darkening gloom.

It’s at times like this my comic-booky imagination takes over, and the particular situation that comes to mind is Infocom’s Lurking Horror game from the 1980s.

I loved Infocom’s games. Text adventures, the old ‘GO NORTH’, ‘TAKE LANTERN’, ‘YOU HAVE DIED ANOTHER GAME Y/N?’ The best were as immersive as any great novel. It’s something today’s youth – with their turbocharged graphics, billion-triangle rendering engines and Hollywood-standard photorealism – would never understand, the same way the Facebook Generation will never comprehend how thrilling Usenet was.

It started with Zork, a Dungeons’n’Dragons fantasy born on the earliest mainframes. But I preferred the later games. There was one set in an Eastern Bloc country, another set in a circus, so real you could smell the urine-stained concrete and the greasepaint-flecked sawdust. There was one set in a hi-tech city where you never played a character, just took viewpoints from what your antagonists typed into terminals or passed in front of CCTV cameras; another sent you on a Kafkaesque journey to get a single form signed-off through a maze of bureacracy. Frustration, fear, and bewilderment laced those games. That’s what was so great about them.

Lurking Horror was set in a University, during a blizzard. You had to get across campus using hidden tunnels under the school, but the sense of foreboding it created was as dark as HP Lovecraft; I shiver thinking about it, even now. Because when you’re at a computer screen, your back’s always turned to anything creeeping up behind you…

And tonight, seemingly alone in a building designed for 600, I feel the same icy finger on my spine. Exquisite.