Remain or fade

The big day is here. A referendum that should never have happened, forced by a minor extremist party, allowed to happen by intellectual lightweights in government. The EU Referendum decides whether Britain keeps its seat at the table or is pushed outside to listen through the keyhole. So despite my libertarian leanings I’m voting to stay.

This is why. (Note: I have Masters training in finance, statistics, and behavioural economics, so while not a pro, I’m at least an informed amateur). Here we go:

Pretty much everyone believes a Brexit means economic difficulty for a while. Opinions as to how bad it’d be vary, but nobody – Remain or Leave – is pretending it’d be hugs and puppies by Monday. With even Leavers generally agreeing there’ll be a year or two of pain.

Now while we can predict broad economic outcomes a few years out with some accuracy (it’s called the Short-Term Debt Cycle) nobody can predict much beyond that.

So: there is 100% agreement we’ll have a couple of painful years -a timescale we can predict. Versus a 50% belief we’ll grow faster afterwards – a timescale that can’t be predicted.

In other words, Remain’s economic case is grounded in reality, whereas Leave’s is based on wishful thinking.

Someone on the street offers you a choice of £10 today, or a 50% chance of £12 in five years. Which would you take?

If you like Gaussians, then assuming the first guess falls within two SDs and the second within the third, this means there’s over 95% chance the economy is best off with Remain, versus less than a 5% chance it’s best off with Leave.

Based on simple statistics, the economy is better off if we Remain. Because a Remain vote is grounded in solid reality, whereas a Leave vote is wishful thinking. If you’re voting on the economy as I am, Remain is your best choice.

How a normal guy reviews tyres…

Marketing carries endless choices. Where to go. How to get there. And who to share the wheel with. That's where I come in. 07876 635340.Today , I took a deep breath and stumped up for four new Michelin Cross-Climates.

While I clock up a few miles and have driven everywhere from the USA’s Route 66 to dirt tracks in the Indonesian jungle, I’m mostly a weekend driver. I’ve never been on a test track and can’t test under controlled conditions. (Not without attracting attention from SE8’s finest, anyway.) And like most ordinary motorists in the UK, I’ve got other things to do than worry about those black bits of rubber at the corners.

MICHELIN Cross-Climate 225/45 XLs on Audi A3So in contrast to the petrolheads of EVO and the flash of Michelin’s own marketing, my opinion’s that of a normal guy driving an almost-normal car. “Almost normal” because my Audi is a small car that feels like a big one. A 3.2L V6 up front and permanent  4wd with all the gubbins makes it heavier than a hatch but ultra-stable, while the horsepower keeps it fun. (I rarely use the flappy-paddle shifters, but love having them there.)

I’ve kept it years longer than I should, simply because it feels indestructible. But punctures are a hazard in my part of town, and I hate maintenance. So my rims wear something solid and reinforced.

The newly-launched Cross-Climates (purchased using the usual great service from Blackcircles) look exceptionally tough – even the garage guy said they looked “really grippy” – and however they perform, they look just great.

But do they work?

Yes. Brilliantly. And not in the way you’d think.

First off, these tyres are QUIET. None of the road roar you’d normally get from fattish 225/45s, certainly not what you’d expect from a tyre designed to play well on snow and ice. (Across much of Europe you need to change your tyres every October and March. These “Cross-Climates” are marketed as a year-round tyre, without the compromises you’d normally expect from using a Winter tyre in the hot and dry.)

Besides the hush, they feel more surefooted than any of the ContiSports I’ve had on over the years. They stick to the road like velcro. Not so much gliding over the tarmac as feeling their way along it, with barely a whisper. A bit of “fun” away from some traffic lights showed the grip starts from standstill; there was no sense the power wasn’t getting to the wheels fast enough. Did I say they’re quiet?

It’s a warm, dry day here in southeast London: not the conditions a Winter tyre is designed for. But driving around for an hour-plus, I didn’t notice any performance hit at all from the Winter capability… in fact, they felt better than any “normal” Summer tyre I’ve ever driven. Ultimately, don’t consider this model in terms of Winter or Summer; look at it as a great tyre, forget the time of year. I like this rubber.

 

(Disclaimer: I write the odd marketing brochure for Michelin (among other players in the automotive sector) but they’re not my contract client, did not ask for this review, and offered no payment or other benefit. I chose and paid for the tyres myself.)

Champagne at the Shard

My alma mater WBS opened its London outpost at the Shard today, and I got in a quick chat with London Mayor Boris Johnson.

Boris Johnson opening WBS at the Shard

Don’t be fooled by his loveable buffoon image; Boris demonstrated he’s the smartest and best-educated politician in Britain today, ad-libbing a speech that combined Warwick’s connection to Shakespeare, its former lord’s role as kingmaker (referencing Henry IV Parts I-III), and the value of business education, to the City of London and its continued success attracting global investment. Long live Warwick!

Why should right-wingers support the Living Wage? Try £10bn on GDP

The political map has moved on since French nobles sat to the left or right of the King, but most would still class me as a classic Right-winger. So why do I support a wage floor for the UK – and not just the minimum wage, but a Living Wage and beyond?

Targetting low wage earners...After all, I laugh in the face of unions (economic wrecking balls) who you’d think would be working towards the same goal. And my contempt for the Labour front bench – a mob of jerk-offs and whack-jobs incapable of simple sums – is total. I believe Occupy is shorthand for “Stand and deliver” and that Russell Brand is an overhyped self-indulgent uber-flake, circle-jerking the right-on juice for an audience of Guardian journalists. (Well, no argument there I suppose.)

Yup, the British Left is a joke, and the Conservatives aren’t that much better. I’m a hardcore Libertarian, in the extreme top right corner of the Nolan Chart. High social freedoms and high economic freedoms for all, and the main job of a small government is to protect those rights, not take rights of its own. The rights of society must stem from the rights of the individual, otherwise it’s just masters and slaves.

(As every State that’s ever dabbled in Communism discovers.)

And that’s why my stance is unusual. Isn’t the free market about invisible hands, supply and demand, efficient allocation of capital and all that? Libertarians are supposed to support laissez-faire. A minimum wage is a market distortion, and, the dogma goes, market distortions are always bad.

I still believe that. I’m a Libertarian even among Libertarians. But I also want to live in a civil society. And one of the few arguments against a Libertarian society is that it might not be a civil one.


Just to get things straight: I’m not developing a social conscience here. (Perish the thought.) Don’t worry folks, I remain a self-centred, individualist, rat-racing me-first Social Darwinist who glorifies the I over the We in true Objectivist tradition. Enlightened self-interest is the only personal philosophy that makes any sense, and darling Ayn got everything right, including not liking Libertarians. I enjoy BioShock for all the wrong reasons and Cormac McCarthy’s Judge ranks among my favourite fictional characters. And now we’ve got that sorted…


… anyone working fulltime at the lowest pay grade should be able to afford a decent life.

Let's bang some rocks together. Chris does Content.Not a life of luxury. Not a life of eating out every night – or even once a week. But a roof over your head and cash for Asda, with enough left over for a change of clothes and a broadband connection, isn’t asking much. And that’s all anyone needs to get onto the ladder of self-actualisation. The dignity of work should be matched by the dignity of pay… because those dignities give you the opportunity to pull yourself up.

And a society of 60m people with those opportunities is a successful, economically dynamic one. That’s the kind of place I want to live in.

So let’s look at what really matters to a small-statist: what does it cost?

The answer: a lot less than you’d think. And the benefits are enormous.

Back of envelope: the cost to employers worst-cases 58bn. That’s if Britain’s 12m lowest earners get £9.15 an hour. But many of them work part-time, bringing it down to £26bn or so. And some earn Living Wage already. (Including, to their credit, many local councils – although it’s easy to be generous with other people’s money.)

That brings us down to £22bn on the cost column. And the good news continues.

Because increasing these wages won’t make the jobs go away. Most low-wage jobs are non-exportable. They’re the cleaners, the waiters, the guys who sweep your streets and mix your drinks. You can’t outsource these jobs to Vietnam. A living wage won’t reduce employment.

What’s more, many employers among our EU neighbours already face real costs above this premium: try employing someone in, say, France. Britain’s beyond the economic stage where human labour is a costed commodity; low earners don’t make aircraft engines or devise new drugs. A living wage will have no effect on Britain’s global competitiveness.

Looking for that 360 degree view? Call Chris.Third, most of these extra costs can be recharged directly to customers. Anyone paying £2.50 for a Latte can afford £2.62, and if you begrudge the guy with his hands in your toilet an extra two quid, you need to rethink your priorities. I estimate £15bn of that £22bn moves straight into the revenue column; a living wage carries little real cost to employers.

So we’re down to a £7bn real cost to employers. What else?

Well, surprise surprise: put an extra £400 a month in people’s pockets, and they spend it on stuff. That £15bn charge-out becomes a £15bn economic boost. Which means greater sales for the companies who employ them. Leading to economic growth, higher employment, higher VAT receipts at the Treasury, and an increased feel-good factor among the teeming hordes. Would that cover the £7bn and bring the real cost of this change down to zero? I think so. (And yes, I’m aware how Keynesian this makes me sound. Suck it up.)

There are other benefits. A reduced need for Housing Benefit. A lower bill for income support. And a greater incentive to get into work; that extra £98 a week might, who knows, persuade some lard-assed wasters away from the Sky box. And with the minimum income of a full-time worker – over £18,000 – now significantly greater than most people can score from the Social, the number of people claiming benefits would fall anyway. It’s all good when work pays. An extra £3-4bn boost to GDP?

These positives, of course, also reduce the appalling complexity of Britain’s welfare state. All the edge cases – what percentage of this guy’s rent should we cover? How many hours of this woman’s childcare? – go away, and with them the armies of functionaries who adminster them. (Maybe they can all get jobs in Starbuck’s instead.) A living wage means a smaller State. What’s that, £1bn off the Public Sector payroll?

So there you have it: I estimate a living wage carries a £5-10bn benefit to the UK economy. Not far off a full percentage point on growth. Are you listening, Osborne?

Freelance consultant? Why you should take credit cards

Pay online by debit or credit card.Professional services like consulting and copywriting aren’t sectors you’d expect to accept credit cards; you can hardly imagine a sharp-suited ex-McKinsey guy or interim marketing director whipping out a card reader. Or can you?

I’ve recently started taking credit cards through my site Chris does Content, and it’s had a surprising effect. Not so much for longstanding clients on retainer (although they have the option) – but in the first month after setting up card payments I’ve had several clients buy single days of my creative consultancy by card.

Why? I’m guessing three things matter:

To escape the hassles of overseas PO’ing. With the vast majority of consulting-type tradespeople limiting their market to their own country or city, taking cards expands your market with little effort. (The clients who’ve taken it up so far are in France and Taiwan.) I’ve always had an international roster, but not everyone’s lucky enough to have a background and contacts in Europe and Asia; taking cards exposes you to that broader audience.

To enable faster response. If someone’s putting me on their credit card, I know they need stuff fast – and if schedule allows I can usually move them to the front of the queue. With basically zero argument to be had over payment cycles, a exchange of emails is all it takes to get things started; how’d you like 2,000 words of SEO’d up copy 24 hours after first contact? Can do.

To take advantage of extreme discounting. I’m currently offering a 25% discount for one-off projects paid for by card, and it seems to benefit both sides – the client gets a competitive price, I get paid in 3-5 days instead of the 60-90 day payment cycles many EU businesses work on.

If you’re on your journey towards being a six figure freelancer, it’s a useful addition to your payment options. Give it a go!

Adding a second dimension: the Nolan Chart

500px-Nolan-chart.svgThe Nolan chart gives form to what happened in the EU elections… and why those you’d think of as right of centre, like me, aren’t happy with its swing rightwards.

Politics isn’t a single Left-Right axis; it’s a boston box, with both small-state and big-state variants of Left and Right. I’m a hardcore libertarian (NOT “liberal”), at the extreme top-right: favouring high personal freedom and high economic freedom. On the left side, the bottom left would be socialism and the top left traditional liberalism.

The UK’s big three parties each occupy one quadrant: Lib Dems top left, Cons in the top right, and Labour bottom left. As nominally centrist parties, each is in the approx centre of its quadrant, with Ed Miliband’s lot maybe slightly further southwest and David Cameron a bit further northeast.

UKIP (and the other far-right parties that won on Sunday) often call themselves libertarian, but are actually pretty low on personal freedoms. (As we’d find out if they exercised real power.) So all belong at the bottom right, many of them at the extreme southeast corner.

Seen in this context, Nigel Farage’s success is easy to understand: he simply saw the open marketspace and moved into it. Politics, like life, can often be understood by the dynamics of marketing.

New Gabe Rayner short story, “Worked Out”, up at Amazon

workedout_thumbA short story featuring my business consultant action hero, Gabe Rayner, is up at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk for your Kindle.

In “Worked Out“, Rayner’s in the mood for some R&R after a conference in Miami. The miniskirted nymphet beckoning him over gives him some ideas, but they might not be what you’re expecting…

… and if you promise not to tell, the ebook’s also FREE as a download in .mobi (Kindle) or .epub (iBooks) format.

Hundred days, hundred grand: a fun work goal

Hey there, marketers! I’ve had an idea today, and I’d like one thousand of you to listen. Broader upside is that it delivers £10,000 to charity, but let’s get the self-indulgent stuff out first…

…since turning indie novelist I’ve led a dreamy life. A cycle of eat-sleep-create, true to myself and answerable to no-one. I’m a solitary type who spends a lot of time inside his own head, so the last year – teaching myself the principles of narrative fiction then writing my first stories – has been one of the most enjoyable.

Only problem: your income takes one hell of a whack.

00_2birds_100px700,000 books are published each year. But worldwide, I’d bet fewer than a thousand authors scratch a living wage from fiction. And perhaps only 200 earn more than a top-tier copywriter in a major market. (That’d be me.) Writing the commercial prose used in a single campaign typically earns its creator more than Britain’s median earner makes in a week… while 99% of books sell fewer than 100 copies, making the author less money than would fold. (Er, that’d be me, too.)

So it’s been a great year, but with the principles of fiction now baked into my brainpan, every thriller novel and sci-fi short from now on – and there’ll be many – just counts as practice. (I can’t call myself “good” until I’ve got a million words out.) I need a fresh goal to rebuild my cashflow. And since this is me here – the guy who combines touchy-feely words and hard-quant numbers – every goal needs numbers attached.

Starting 01 April, I’m aiming for 100 days to reach an annualised income of £100,000.

It sounds a lot. But in a market like my hometown, the thing about a six-figure income is how small it is. A hundred grand could be just three clients. But it takes work. This isn’t get-rich-quick, folks.

Here’s how I plan to do it. And how you could do it, too.

Looking for clear market space? Take a walk with Chris.Any sales exec knows selling is a numbers game. There’s a mountain of skill involved in closing a deal, but most of the time, the guy with the best sales figures is the guy who made the most calls. To get the small number of retainer clients it’ll take to rebuild my roster, I’m counting on approaching 1,000. And since I can’t count on my scintillating personality getting me over the hump (I am the world’s worst networker) this means a campaign.

I’m not talking about a bought-in list; strike rates for cold names are below 0.01%. I’m talking about 1,000 individuals with a marketing budget, each connected to me by someone I know who’s consented to be used as a reference. That’s the In that gets me in their Inbox. So where to start?

It means work. And the place to start is LinkedIn. That’s 434 connections, roughly half in my native UK, connecting me to most of the companies I want to approach. And there’ll be an individually worded letter to each one, in my own voice.

This is where the resource costs start. Even the cheapest content mill I write for pays 20p a word, and these letters top out around 500 words a throw. So that’s £100,000 of effort going in. Which dwarfs the cost of printing and posting, even given some won’t go out on a proper sheet of paper.

I’m counting on averaging ten letters a day. More on weekdays to take weekends off. And they’ll be personal letters. There are some common paragraphs, but there are three or four paras that aren’t replicable page to page. Stuff like:

  1. A para on who you are, and what you want to do for them (THEM.)
  2. A para on how you heard of them – your contact, their job ad, whatever.
  3. A para showing you understand their business or sector, with proof.
  4. The separate email to your contact, telling them what you’ve done. It’s only polite.

That’s four custom paras, of maybe six or seven in total. (Not much space for anything else save the sig.) And I need perhaps a 1% strike rate. That’s all.

To see why, let’s look at clients I’ve had in the past. One paying £1000/mth for a 3,000 word article for their website. One of which pays an occasional £1500 for a small research project. Two paying over £2,500/mth for a programme of activity around a monthly marketing campaign. Two others paying £1,750 each to have 3-5 days/month reserved for them.

And with my max day rate of £600 – top tier, but not over-the-top by London standards – it doesn’t take too many of those to hit an £8k/mth run rate.

(When I was an agency creative clients paid upwards of two thousand Euros, and that was a decade-plus ago. (One or two advertising celebs charge two grand today, but you could probably count them without taking your socks off.)

And to add punch, I’m making a commitment: if I get there, 10% of that income for one year will be donated to charity.

Works starts today. If you’d like to support me – or do it yourself! – share this post on Twitter, with the hashtag #100days100grand. Here’s my Tweet to retweet.

SFF: one F too many

If there’s one thing I really hate, it’s the way the fiction business conflates Science Fiction with Fantasy.

SFF is not a genre. Science Fiction is not Fantasy, okay? If Fantasy has a role, it’s as Sci-Fi’s less respectable cousin. A burger and shake for preteens before they graduate to something crunchy and interesting like a Dozois anthology. Sci-fi writers have worked for decades to be a genre that even has a less respectable cousin; that extra F hasn’t earned the right to be there.

I accept there’s an argument the other way. You could say a dwarf and an alien share conceptual DNA (now there’s an image to conjure with.) And when it comes to “magic”, Fantasy has its vanishing spells while Sci-fi has teleports and hyperdrive.

But I maintain that’s moot, because most SF at least tries to ground itself in natural law; the physics of a space/time warp, the excitement of photons in a death ray. In good SF, hyperdrive isn’t a get-out; it’s an integral part of the plot. It’s what allowed the human species to spread out over a thousand worlds without fragmenting into separate societies. Or, in other narratives, what caused it to fragment.

Sci-fi is rooted in realities. Even if that reality is a speculative extrapolation of engineering and physics. Much SF recognises the frailty and weakness of the human, and the greatness of applied learning that lifts us above our Earth and onto the surface of alien worlds.

By contrast, Fantasy’s characters draw heavily on cheat factors – lost kings and highborns, warrior tribes and evil overlords. They’re fairy tales, stories for children not adults, not worthy of respect the way a Bear novel or Dick short is when it explores the future of technology and returns a commentary on what it means to be human. (Of course, Star Wars was a fairy tale, but the point holds.) Sci-fi is self-aware, in a way Fantasy never seems to be.

Other worlds. The only one we've been to.Of course there’s a lot of bad SF out there, just as there’s a lot of bad Fantasy. (And bad romance. And thriller. And…) Because good sci-fi takes serious effort to write. You’ve got to create a believable storyworld that’s both complete in itself and consistent with the world we know, physical laws and evolution and cosmology. (Even at this early stage in the human adventure, we know a fair bit about physics.)

One of the few “good” Fantasy series – JRR Tolkein’s – is readable precisely because he grounded his monsters and magic in laws we feel hold true: the laws of living languages. The vast majority of Fantasy doesn’t feel the need, while almost every Science Fiction novel does. And Fantasy’s dragons and swordplay are a steaming pile of garbage as a result.

“SFF” is an abomination. Let’s drop that extra F, and leave Fantasy to the people who want to read about dwarves and buried treasure.

Fitzgerald, Fagles, or Lattimore?

thucy-751915I’m a Kindle fanatic, but I go for quality rather than volume, and today I’m kicking off my selection of the Greek and Latin classics. Obviously the trio to start with is  Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey with Virgil’s later Aeneid – but which translation?

Well, the first decision is easy. These epic poems were chanted (long before they were written down) so the prose translations don’t do it for me: I want a sense of how the ancient languages worked. Despite being written in different languages five centuries apart, all three epics used dactylic hexameter. (DUH-duh-duh DUH-duh-duh DUH-duh-duh DUH-duh-duh DUH-duh-duh DUH-duh-duh) – so I’d like a version that nails the odd drumbeat of those 20ish syllable lines. What’s more, Homer wrote the oral sagas down compactly; scholars say the Greek doesn’t waste a word.

So I’m looking for a verse translation that’s not florid or flowery. Three big names come up: Robert Fitzgerald, Robert Fagles, and Richmond Lattimore.

Richmond Lattimore was both a translator and poet and worked before post-modernism introduced interpretative translating to a broad audience. His Iliad and Odyssey are reportedly as pin-perfect as English can come to ancient Greek: syllable counts and line lengths are constant, as in the Greek.

Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.
Even so he could not save his companions, hard though
he strove to; they were destroyed by their own wild recklessness,
fools, who devoured the oxen of Helios, the sun God,
and he took away the day of their homecoming. From some point
here, goddess, daughter of Zeus, speak, and begin our story.

He’s also the only big name who hews to the same line count, a huge achievement: any line of Homer corresponds to the same line in Lattimore. For this attention to detail and structure, plus the way his spare English and beats reflect the chants of thirty centuries ago, he’d be my first choice. One issue with Lattimore: he never did an Aeneid.

Robert Fagles is the rock star of Homeric verse: there’s a grab-bag of modern coinings in his verse, and it’s all pretty good stuff. Apparently though he takes a few liberties with his translation; it’s far more a transliteration than Lattimore’s.

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bringing his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod blotted out the day of their return.
Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
start from where you will sing for our time too.

His line lengths all cut the mustard, and the vowels make it more of a tone poem than Lattimore’s. Also, Fagles translated the Big Three, so a real contender.

Robert Fitzgerald takes a slightly different perspective: look at how different that “Sing in me… and through me tell the story” is in sense to Fagles and Lattimore. Fitzgerald also plays havoc with Greek meter to make his English work: this ain’t a poem for chanting.

Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
of that man skilled in all ways of contending,
the wanderer, harried for years on end,
after he plundered the stronghold
on the proud height of Troy.
He saw the townlands
and learned the minds of many distant men,
and weathered many bitter nights and days
in his deep heart at sea, while he fought only
to save his life, to bring his shipmates home.
But not by will nor valor could he save them,
for their own recklessness destroyed them all
children and fools, they killed and feasted on
the cattle of Lord Helios, the Sun,
and he who moves all day through heaven
took from their eyes the dawn of their return.
Of these adventures, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
tell us in our time, lift the great song again.

As such I’m not going for Fitzgerald’s work. So which: Lattimore or Fagles?

Well, Lattimore didn’t do an Aeneid, and neither writer, unforgivably, is available from a single imprint on Kindle. (Cover designs and consistent formatting shouldn’t make a difference, but do: I love seeing a nice grid of those Penguin Classics covers on my screen.)

But the precision-translation of Lattimore’s more to my taste, so he’ll be my choice for Homer’s epics. While I’m trying out Fagles’ Aeneid (having read his Iliad and Odyssey decades ago.) Of course, the sensible thing is to buy both.

A foray into fiction

00_2birds_100pxMy first bit of fiction, Two Birds, is now up at Amazon. It’s Kindle-only, but you don’t need a Kindle to read it – there are free reader apps for your phone, iThing, Mac or PC.

It’s a short novel featuring Gabe Rayner – the first business consultant action hero! If you’re minded to give Gabe a go, I’d be grateful for all comments, criticism, and (especially) reviews on my author’s page (I write under my pen name, Mark Charteris). Download the book from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk. Thanks!

 

Enough of the dancing, already!

By creating a video of herself dancing around her office at 4am, this girl found a creative and innovative outlet for delivering her resignation letter.

NOT.

The video is overlong, moves too slow, and says nothing of significant importance worth the viewer’s time. But worst of all, it’s yet another example of the laziest trend in advertising: If in doubt, put some dancing in.

Dancing. From big-budget broadcast to web virals, it’s all many of today’s young creatives seem capable of. “Yeah, let’s put some dancing in this one too! We haven’t done dancing for about, oh, one, maybe even two campaigns!” Dear me, kids today. A true race to the bottom, without concern for the most important person of all – your audience. 

I would estimate the standard of creativity required to get a job in a decent ad agency these days is no more than a third of that required twenty years ago. Evidenced by the cooing of her video viewers about how “creative” this girl is.

Look, SHE JUST PLUGGED IN HER FUCKING IPOD AND JIGGED ABOUT FOR A FEW MINUTES. There is precisely ZERO creativity in this work. THIS. IS. NOT. CREATIVITY.

It’s not entirely their fault – agencies these days want content producers and graphics designers. People who execute with craft, but never develop the “ideas gene”. That set of skills that lets them examine a marketing strategy and crash concepts together until they snap into the perfect line and visual that deliver the perfect impression to your audience, rewarding consumers for their time.

The market for copywriters and art directors – people who combine their skills to deliver epic and original concepts – seems smaller these days. But this fucking asskissing cocksucking catch-all of JUST PUT SOME FUCKING DANCING IN AND CALL YOURSELF CREATIVE has got to stop. Kids, STOP. THE. MOTHERFUCKING. DANCING.

 

Simple solutions to complex problems: target the hardcore criminals

The USA’s “black budget” – the part of security spending outside scrutiny, including the NSA’s spy-on-everyone programmes – is now an incredible $59bn. All of it unaccountable with the figure rising each year. There’s a much better way to achieve national security – one that preserves civil liberties for the law-abiding while creating half a million jobs for no net increase in cost. The solution: focus on the actual criminal.

Let’s look at some UK figures first. In England & Wales, a hardcore of 5000 people commit around half of all crime. Raise the set to 100,000, and you’ve basically covered all crime except the odd parking ticket. Assuming the same dynamic applies to the USA, that’s 25,000 people on the Most Dangerous List and half a million on the Watch List.

(The USA locks up a lot of people for life who’d merely be cautioned in the UK, so the actual figures might be higher, but the principle holds.)

The simple solution to this complex problem: for $59bn you could pay over a million people a decent salary to watch one person each.

That’s it: all these new employees do is follow one specific lawbreaker around, day in day out, reporting on what they do and who they’re doing it with. Infringement of civil liberties? These people are known criminals; they’ve already demonstrated their lack of interest in civil society. And the upside – no need to listen in to everyone in the world’s emails and calls – is a far greater prize.

Imagine: the ancient legal principles dating back to the Magna Carta – the right to be free of unreasonable search or seizure, to not be detained without reasonable suspicion – actually coming back into force, regaining the rights we’ve all lost since 9/11.  Big win for the honest citizen.

The cost structure is appealing, too. Many of those 0.5m offenders will be low-risk and nonviolent. (There are plenty of people in jail across the USA because they got caught with a joint at 18 or slept with a girlfriend aged 17.) So watching them like a hawk wouldn’t even be a full-time posting: the odd phone call and app check-in would suffice.

This means the hardcore ones could then be assigned up to a dozen Watchers each: experienced professionals whose sole job it is to stick closer to the offender than their own shadow. There’s an excellent career path for a young Watcher. In your first years on the job, you get Mildred Who Once Took a Bong Hit Near a Window. With a bit of seniority, you get assigned to Fred Who Repeatedly Drives Uninsured. Five years in, you’re into Boris the Bag Snatcher and Mohammed The Hate Preacher. Stay in the job long enough, you might even get the worst of the worst, a tax-and-spend socialist or something. (OK, but you get my point.)

That’s my simple solution: target the people who actually do crime. Civil liberties get respected once again: the lawbreakers earn credits based on how long they’ve stayed on the straight and narrow, giving both watched and Watcher aligned incentives. The jail population shrinks by two-thirds overnight; over a million people return to society within strict limits. It also erases the artificial distinction between criminal and civil law – which in the USA and UK doesn’t really exist in practice anyway, with 1% of the population in jail and white-collar crimes being charged under Terrorism legislation.

We don’t need a secret security apparatus watching our every move, where everyone is a suspect and your thoughts are used against you. We just need to do the sane thing – watch the criminals.

 

 

Method Writing

944620_10151825472503200_1656221356_nYou’ve heard of Method Acting, where an actor “lives” his character even off set. (Daniel Day-Lewis spent months in a wheelchair for “My Left Foot”, although I hope Anthony Hopkins didn’t take it too far during “Silence of the Lambs”.) I’m a Method Writer.

Method writing is where, as an author, you do your R&D by doing the same things your characters do. In thriller fiction, that means you climb vertical walls, jump out of planes, explore dark alleys late at night and treat the London landscape as as free-runner’s playground. (That’s me in the skydiving pic – in the middle of the FC*, yellow striped jumpsuit.)

Several prepress proofers have commented my protagonist is an amped-up version of me. Not an ex-cop, not ex-military, just a normal business consultant with an unusually self-actualised approach to … reading stuff on the Internet and putting it into practice.

Perhaps it’s why my first novel’s a thriller, rather than my natural preference for sci-fi: I can’t exactly take a One-Day starship piloting experience as research material. (Ouch, just realised how limiting that sounds. Of course I can; there’s a dozen great space-trading MMORPGs out there.) But if this book’s to be any good, I believe the second-most important thing (after telling a good story) is to get out there and do what you’re writing about for real.

 

* FC = Funky Chicken. A “random” skydiving formation usually done as a celebration. (In this case my 50th jump some time back.)

Taking a year off: a 365-day stretch goal

Things happen in threes. Not for a reason – reasons are just narratives we impose on the world to make sense of it – but when three connected things happen in the same month that all push you in the same direction, it’s worth thinking about the big decisions of life and what you really want out of it.

I’ve been a copywriter a loooooong time. Thanks to knowing tech just when marketing it got big – and maybe, just maybe, being a decent ideas-into-words guy – I’ve been on the top tier of my market for twelve years plus. Among the hordes of freelancers who infest London’s marketing services agencies and departments, I’ve always had an edge: maybe nothing more than a head for numbers and an understanding of organisational behaviour, but it means clients hire me for “the hard stuff“. And the hard stuff’s always paid better.

But like all small businesses, I have rough years: yesterday, my bank pulled a credit line I use as breathing room in the two slow summer months. That’s the kind of thing you can huff and whine about. Or see as a sign. I’ve felt bad about my £50-a-day extraneous expenses for a while; nobody needs to eat breakfast out, everybody’s capable of prepping their own lunch, and few need to spend £90 a month on a gym with free towels. Tyler Durden taught us to let go of that which does not matter, and my life was becoming simpler already. That’s Sign One: the financial driver. Living a great life comes cheap if you don’t live it by others’ standards.

Sign Two was a change in behaviour: in the last year I’ve unaccountably started reading fiction again. The good stuff: Dozois’s anthologies, Chandler and Child, Elmore Leonard right back to his pulp cowboy yarns in the 50s. Plus a lot of texts on narrative structure and character dev. To amuse myself I’ve been scratching together a novella the last two months that’s nearly ready for prime time. (Sci-fi is my first love, and I run a fiction site with 2,500 fans: that’s what’s known as “an audience”. But what sells in the mainstream male market is thrillers.) That’s Sign Two: fresh skills.

Sign Three conects the two: for no reason I foresaw, I’ve just converted my garage into a home gym/office/studio space, adding a wodge of value to the house and opening up opportunities to rent a room out. With the place paying for itself I can survive working for “real” clients just a couple of days a month, if I feel like it. As a home gym the new space works great; as a writer’s garret it’s awesome. Sign Three: the infrastructure.

The new garret, sorry, I mean garage.

The new garret, sorry, I mean garage.

So: an incentive to reduce my outgoings… an infusion of new skills… and a ready-made place to put them to work. Together, that’s more than signs: it’s Life swinging a sledgehammer against my skull and saying DO THIS.

That’s the stretch goal, summer to summer. From 1 July 2013 to 30 June 2014 I conceive, write, and improve my first full-length novel, publishing an initial novella end of July 2013 as a taster and tester. A month to plan and structure, eight to write 500-1000 words a day for a target of 160,000, and three to shave and scrub before it hits Kindle. Well, why the hell not?

If I can’t do this, I’m just soft and lazy. (People wrote great novels by candlelight in freezing attics.) And if I can’t do this after two decades being paid to write stuff, I’m just not cut out for it.

Either way, the next 365 days will tell me.

Life is amazing. And I’ve a feeling it’s about to become even more so. Sign One gives me a reason to cook with aplomb, to work out using two meanings of “free weights”, to carve up the calendar with even greater discipline. Sign Two shows the way to take something I found easy to the next level, in a way that lets you gather criticism and feedback constantly. And Sign Three gives me a lifespace precisely the right shape and size. What’s not to like here? The adrenalin’s pumping already.

Today, a life that was already pretty satisfying becomes even better. A story of how extreme self-actualisation leads to things that improve yourself… and adds something to the world as a whole. And the best thing in life is that there’s no top floor in what we humans are capable of.

Which, by the way, is the theme of the novel.

Watch this space.

One Good Muslim

To donate to Help for Heroes, a UK military charity, all you have to do is text HERO to 70900.

To donate to Help for Heroes, a UK military charity, all you have to do is text HERO to 70900.

Here’s an idea. In the wake of a soldier’s murder by Islamic maniacs, two people have been arrested for a heinous crime: Tweeting. I’ve no idea what these two idiots Tweeted – presumably some racist claptrap – but it made me think.

Every day, in thousands of mosques and madrassas across Britain, imported Imams – often non-English-speaking and with no real conception of British society – spout sermons of hate containing the most incendiary anti-Western rhetoric imaginable. Much of it aimed at white people. Burn them, kill them, cut their heads off. The sort of stuff that’d see you down a cop shop before your feet touched the ground. If you said it in an open forum, instead of a semi-public space in a foreign tongue.

Perhaps someone – just one per mosque – could note such things down, translate it into English, make a complaint. Anonymously if necessary.

After all, these are the men providing the toxic narrative that turns under-employed young men into raging jihadis filled with hatred. Taking down the men they see as teachers is the first step towards bringing them productively into British society, instead of forever raging at its fringes. Perhaps they’ll never come all the way in – but that’s ok. One of the truly great things about Britain is the way it’s big enough for a great many cultures to live side-by-side, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

And no, this idea isn’t “racist”. If you think it is – I ask: what race is Islam, then?

Is it South Asian? A lot of people in the deserts might dispute that. Is it Arab? I know plenty of Persians who’d take issue there. And there are millions of Muslims in the regions around Russia that gave their name to the term “Caucasian”. Islam isn’t a race, it’s a belief system. And thankfully in the UK we’re allowed to question, criticise, even insult a belief system without falling foul of the law. (There are many belief systems I criticise, including Nazi ideology, socialism, the tooth fairy and the Flying Spaghetti Monster.)

If you’re a mosque- or madrassa- going Muslim who speaks English, why not familiarise yourself with your local police station’s non-emergency number or its online equivalent today, record accurately any racist comment your Imam makes at his next sermon, and report it once you get outside? Include the name and address of the mosque and the name of the Imam in your complaint, plus the date and approximate time the comment was made.

Is there, in every Mosque in Britain, just one good Muslim who could help?

The Hundred Year Club

Here’s an idea I’m developing: a plan for living a healthy lifespan of 100 years.

Here’s my reasoning. I don’t want to die – ever. But attaining immortality is like any other human endeavour; it’s a project of many parts. So the first part is to work out what it’ll take to be independent, healthy, and productive at 100.

Which is hardly a ridiculous goal. Take Sir Norman Foster, in his 80s but with the body shape of a far younger man. Compay Segundo from Bueno Vista Social Club, active at 90 when the documentary was made (and who lived another five years.) Designer Robin Day, star of British design in the 1950s, worked into his 90s. What’s more, I’m from long-lived genetic stock on both sides: no heart disease, no cancer, no addictive tendencies.

In short, I’m in with a good chance.

It’s even possible the major problems aren’t medical. Albert Camus’s notion that the only real philosophical problem is suicide. In other words, is there enough in life to make it worth living? Can you stay relevant to the world as you age? Can you continue succeeding on terms true to yourself? Will you want to? A positive mental attitude is as important to hundred-year-clubbers as broccoli and bicycles.

And there’s a longer-term goal: anyone under 50 today who manages to live to a hundred may never need to die at all.

A full understanding of the human genotype and phenotype, complete control over cancer, custom cell repair, personalised telomere editing, in-body diagnostic nanotechnology, and other medical advances that aren’t even concepts yet may eliminate death as a medical condition altogether. Life-threatening cancers can be spotted in childhood, kept in check until they’re worth dealing with, and whacked with a designer drug keyed to your genome alone. Badly dividing cells can be snipped out with molecular shears, ejected from your body, and a fresh pair cloned without you ever needing to do anything about it. You’ll still need to take care of your body, but unlike today, it won’t eventually wear out with use.

Yes, it sounds farfetched. About as farfetched as transplanting major organs did in the mid 20th century. I’m in the Hundred Year Club.

The trouble with Harris & Hoole

There’s a new chain of coffee shops in town, which I’d normally regard as a major event: I like coffee but limit myself to one cup a day, so it’s got to be a good one.

I recently tried Harris & Hoole‘s London Bridge outpost and it’s exactly what a hip independent coffee shop should be: chalkboard menus, boho chic decor, unbrushed wood and sunny smiles. Even the server was an ideal representation of a Seattle/San Francisco hipster chick, all short hair, snakehips and big geek-glasses. (I thought she was hot, although to complete the vibe she was presumably gay, or at least bi-curious.) Perfect.

And then you taste the coffee.

Oh, dear.

It’s so bad you can taste the Tesco in it.

Yes, Harris & Hoole isn’t independent. It’s a venture by the supermarket giant, and it shows everything that’s gone wrong with Tesco in the last 3-5 years. There’s nothing wrong with a coffee shop owned by a supermarket; I shop at Tesco all the time. But I used to be a fanatical Tesco fan, and now I only go there because it’s nearby. It fell so far, so fast, so obviously that the brand just hollowed itself out.

I stopped loving Tesco about three years ago, when its boardroom cost-cutting showed up too much in the food. Today I buy the basics there, wine, maybe the odd bit of deli, but most of my £70+ weekly spend now goes to Waitrose. (Which I need to get in the car for.) Harris & Hoole illustrates why.

If you launch a coffee shop, it should really be about the coffee. That should be the single thing you concentrate on first, the one thing you don’t subject to salami-slicing on costs; there are lots of coffee shops out there, so the bean’s got to be special. Yet it’s the most characterless, bargain-basement discount filter drip I’ve ever tasted. And – sharing this with Starbuck’s – it wasn’t bloody hot. I know the marketing rationale: keep it cool and they’ll gulp it and get out, faster table-turn. Well, they succeeded: I gulped and got out. Trouble is I won’t be going back.

Oh, Tesco, you came so close. If only you’d put the resources that went into studying the Seattle scene… into the one thing that mattered.

£100k to £10m: a ten-year project

ad73b-37barsinbunkerGiven my modest life goals, I’ve been thinking about how achievable a rich but not ultra-rich level of wealth really is for the average middle-class taxpayer over the course of his working life. So I’m exploring a challenge-to-self: can one individual, operating alone with a job and a bit of capital, build a £10m wealth portfolio in ten years?

It doesn’t involve following some get-rich-quick scheme. (Nobody who gets rich quick ever does.) It’s about doing the right things: developing solid client relationships, doing the right kind of work, understanding your market. Most of all, it’s about the numbers: credit leverage, asset allocation, yields and margins and revenue streams. It sounds like complex financial stuff, but it’s not. Remember there are only two questions in finance, the cost of capital and the return on it. The assumptions below are reasonable: around 5% capital appreciation, 4% cost of capital, reinvested profits and average rental yields.

I’m not the type who employs people (people suck) so owning a big business is out of the question; startups come with such a high risk factor it’s not reasonable to build this strategy on a business anyway. So this is more about what’s possible for a lone wolf. Someone intelligent and self-actuated, but without infrastructure beyond the benefits of living in a stable nation like the UK. I can’t remember a time when I lived without risk (there’s a factor of seven between my worst and best-earning years); the novelty of this strategy is that it takes risk out, aiming for a positive outcome without requiring assumptions multiple SDs from the mean.

Here’s what to do. (As if I needed to say it, this isn’t financial advice; it’s a hypothetical plan I want to follow myself and you should ignore it totally. I don’t really want you competing with me for hot properties.)

Year One: the setup year.

You need a solid income, whatever it’s from: regular salary, sales commissions, client retainers, whatever. It doesn’t need to be a six-figure monster: my plan needs £60-80k. A high-but-not-skyscraping salary for the UK, not even in the top 1% of earners. If you can only hit £40k or so, it’s still possible but it requires a change in mindset. Cancel the Sky subscription, rent your spare room, sell the car and take the bus. Act like the low-income person you now are. People live healthy lives in the world’s priciest cities for under £20k.

Intertwined with this is your credit rating. All the big ratings agencies allow consumer access: Experian, Equifax, CallCredit. Check your score. If it’s low, take active steps to raise it; not much less than a top-decile credit score allows the balance of credit and yield in this plan. Your goal for this year is to have £100k in investable assets in two years, most of which you’ve got already in less investable forms.

Year Two: the savings year.

With discipline a careful worker can save £20-30k/yr. By Year 2 you’re looking to make first use of it. The only longterm asset capable of paying for itself is property; most great fortunes are built on it. My preference is for small freehold houses in secure locations;  land has been a well-regarded asset for 5,000 years, and things like management fees in flats can eat away huge amounts of cashflow. Furthermore, with no-one living above or below to worry about, risk is minimised.

Britain’s property websites allow awesome depth of research; leverage them. My plan involves two shabby but structurally sound 1/2-bedroom homes, on a good street in an up-and-coming area, in a sweet spot like London’s Zone 2 near a Tube. Too fiddly to attract commercial investors, most private buyers get turned off by stale decor, and the market is spotty enough there are bargains at the edges. Find them with a ruthlessly critical eye. It’s not your house to live in, it’s your asset to sweat.

Let’s say costs are around £200k each. Allow a £40k deposit for each plus £20k for stamp duty and solid kitchen and bathroom refurbs, then approach mortgage vendors with your credit rating, income statements, and deposit. Spend two months refurbishing both. Use all the tricks – constant flooring throughout, lots of brilliant white paint, and little touches like making sure all lightswitches and sockets are the same type and free of paint flecks. (I’ve just done this to my own house and it raised the rentable value by £200 a month.)

Two mortgages of £160k carry repayments around £2200/mth. Renting the houses to young professionals brings in around £2600/mth, and capital appreciation another £20k on paper over the first year. Two primary goals are answered: you want capital growth that outpaces inflation (as London’s market is likely to do longterm) and loan repayments covered about 120%. You control a £420k portfolio that pays for itself and your £100k of initial capital has earned a 25% return on paper: you’re on your way.

Year Three: we’re in business.

You’re still saving. And it’s getting easier since you’re pulling in an extra £5k or so from rentals. By December there’s £40k to buy a third Buy-to-Let. (Let’s say it costs £210k.) Your first two properties add £20k to your equity during the year; your portfolio’s past £600k. And we’re just getting started. The biggest risk is to lose sight of the ten-year goal, sell up and splurge: Rule One is that these are long-term assets that grow over time, even while you’re driving a hatchback and watching basic satellite. If you have a surplus, use it to pay down mortage sums to increase your equity.

Year Four: do it again.

The prices are higher, but so are the rents you can extract. (One reason property works as an investment is that it builds in inflation: rents and capital appreciation tend to track.) At the end of the year the portfolio spans four properties and over £1m on paper; it’s producing a solid surplus of over £1000/mth in rent and in the next 12 months will rise £50k in value. The plan is starting to show concrete results. You need to look at tax planning here: your surplus of rental income over interest costs is now significant and the authorities look at this very, very closely. Be open, be honest, but explore all options for carried interest and remortgaging with your financial advisor.

Year Five: that sustainable vibe.

After another year, we’ve reached the halfway milestone: not portfolio size, but a self-sustaining buying strategy. The 40-50k to purchase each additional property is now mostly covered by rent yield: your portfolio is now pulling itself up by its own bootstraps. You’re using money to make money. Portfolio size: around £1.5m, with a third of it equity.

Year Six: the Long 15.

There’s a way to go, and on paper you’re less than 20% of the way there, but there’s a story behind the numbers. Your sixth purchase, taking price rises into account, puts your portfolio in the £2m range with free cashflow of over three grand a month. You’ve been working and earning a long time with few luxuries, but – hey – what are luxuries? The luxury to do what you want each day beholden to no-one: that’s luxury. And you’re better than halfway there.

Year Seven: getting lucky.

By the end of this year you’re at the point where the equity in your portfolio balances your remaining debt, at about a million each way. (If this sounds a lot, remember you’ve funded it to the tune of £350k or so out of your own pocket plus another £350k in reinvested rents: if you neglect capital appreciation for a moment, your return is less than 50% spread over seven years, not much better than a good savings bond.) Of course you DON’T neglect capital growth, which has been around £350k too, and 14% per annum taking it all into account is a far juicier average.

Year Eight: rolling in it.

With your mortgage repayments starting to bite into the capital sums you borrowed, the yield curve is looking good: you’re bringing in twice as much each month in rent payments as cost of capital, with your equity to debt ratio seeing two-to-one on the horizon and you’re comfortably a millionaire after liabilities.

Only one million? Yes – don’t forget tax. Britain has been good to you: it’s the UK’s strong institutions and stable government that gives investors and residents the confidence to come here, supporting your rental market and your capital appreciation. In most places in the world this can’t happen. Look at tax not as a cost, but as your contribution to civil society.

Year Nine: the end in sight.

Portfolio size: over £3.5m. Gross income over costs of over £10,000 every month, with over half your loans paid. With nine properties under your belt by year end, about as many as you’d want to handle working alone, it’s time to start planning the endgame: what you’re going to do in another year or so.

But it’s also time to start congratulating yourself: you may have deprived yourself of Lamborghinis and Breitlings, but let’s face it – they’re just stuff. You’ve probably discovered you don’t need them anyway. It’s time to give up work and concentrate on your portfolio.

Year Ten: the finish line.

No purchase this year, but your portfolio’s valued over £4m and the income allows you to pay down all remaining mortgage amounts. The tax implications here are  sizeable: make sure you make provision for all the tax… your contribution to the social stability that’s enabled your plan to work over the decade.

Outcome: you own £4m of net assets outright, plus a revenue stream of over a quarter of a million pounds a year: another £4m of Net Present Value right there. Over the next year, £250k of revenue plus a further £200k of capital appreciation give you a track record a larger scale investor will look at: an asset delivering stable returns close to £500,000/yr is the sort of thing pension funds get interested in.

All options are open now, from a straightfoward sale to exotic derivatives that securitise your assets and income streams. Remortgaging the lot gives you very high returns over costs (at least six percentage points) due to competitive loan rates now available to you. For the rest of your life, you can enjoy the returns associated with a £10m fortune while steadily accumulating an actual £10m in capital value. The work is done: your portfolio will climb to £10m over the next few years without further work. You’ve made it.

Of course, this plan assumes you find the right properties, capture the right lending deals, keep it rolling and disciplined over multi-year periods. But that’s the point. Not everyone can do it. And for people prepared to put in the work, research the market and sweat the small stuff… there are rewards.