Twelve skills for surviving in the postnuclear wasteland

If we’re really headed for a nuclear apocalypse, would you want to survive? I would. And if you’re not zonked into your component molecules by the blast itself, so would you. Survival is a natural human instinct.

But today’s civilised city-dweller, with his supermarkets and indoor plumbing, isn’t naturally equipped for life in the postnuclear wasteland … much less thriving, building a new life and business adapted to the radioactive desert. What if we changed our perspective? What if we treated life in the radioactive aftermath not as decades of torment, but as a decades-long Burning Man festival? Here’s my guide to the skills you’ll need; you’ve got 3-5 years to develop them.

1. Understand radiation.

The postapocalyptic landscape will be populated by slavering hordes of two-headed mutants, right? Nope. This one’s first because of all the aftereffects of a nuke, radiation is the most misunderstood.

It’s not the eternal bogeyman, blighting the world and its chances of recovery forever. Nor, if caught in the eye of the firestorm, will you acquire superpowers as many expect. It’s time-limited, unevenly spread (the road may be safe, the bushes alongside it deadly) and follows predictable patterns guided by relatively few factors like the weather. Knowing where the safe areas are ups your survivability quotient hugely: one woman in Hiroshima survived to old age despite being just 300m from the epicentre.

Alpha radiation can basically be stopped by a wet paper towel; Beta by a sheet of tinfoil. Both fall to survivable levels in just a few days, even near your local Ground Zero. The one to watch is Gamma (the only one of the big three that’s actually radiation to start with) and fallout, the dust and smog of the fireball’s afterbelch. The basic rule: put mass between you and the source, and cover your skin including your nose and mouth. (Lead isn’t necessary: it’s the mass in lead that makes it useful, not any property of lead itself.)

The most dangerous radioactive material is the stuff you ingest, so keep facemasks and wet towels to hand when you go out. Of course you’ve stocked up on Geiger counters: learn the units (rems or sieverts) and the difference between a count and a dose, which will tell you where you can go and for how long you can stay.

Fallout doesn’t stay dangerous forever – it falls to about a thousandth of its potency within two weeks and a ten-thousandth within three months – so the length of time you need to hole up isn’t beyond the pale; the main risk longer-term is how much of it gets into your body. Just never let your dosimeter leave your side.

2. Learn to build and fix.

2a. Build. Even if your house was outside the detonation radius, a timber-framed econobox isn’t much protection against desperate radiation-ravaged maniacs – so you need four walls and a roof that can withstand the inevitable nightly firebombings. (This one’s high on the list, because you die more quickly from lack of sleep than lack of food. Getting somewhere secure to spend the night is a priority.)

Carpentry and smithing smarts are great, but remember to learn some heavy-lifting skills like how to assemble a pulley or cantilever a platform. Mechanical advantage will help you do great things. But first, if you’re approaching a big project – let’s say a steel-walled compound with floodlighting and barbed wire – you need a sense of the bigger picture. Read a book on architecture, and learn the principles of how masses enclose spaces for human habitation. It lets you start with a plan. Then read a couple of engineering texts on statics (basically, how forces and loads act on each other) and dynamics (moving parts) and you’re ready to experiment.

Then revisit your DIY skills. The basic ones aren’t hard. How to measure and saw and drill, how to nail and screw and bolt. Plus some extra bits: working with bearings and gaskets and washers, all the simple helpful elements developed by engineers that make things work better. (After all, you’re building, not bodging – with the bonus of no planning regulations to comply with except the laws of physics.)

A basic toolset is worth listing.

For small jobs, I swear by my Leatherman Wave: a pocket-sized toolbox that should always be with you, as should a Zippo or matches. And you can’t beat a Stanley knife, the snappable-blade one, for basic scratching and scoring. Larger, but still backpackable if you’re out and about, are a folding spadesawaxepick, wrecking bar and machete:  those from Gerber are excellent. And of course a flashlight.

A decent adjustable workbench – sadly, Black & Decker’s once-great Workmate is now a cardboard-and-plastic parody – makes a base, with a vice and measuring tools. Plus a measuring tape and spirit level of course.

In your lockable tool trunk back home (guard it well) should be a (solar) charger and its reasons for being: electric drill, nailgun, circular saw, and angle grinder, with all the bits. Among the manually-powered stuff, include some heavy-duty wrecking bars, saws in multiple sizes, a pick, shovel, hoe, and sledgehammer, a set of screwdrivers, a set of spanners, pliers, some claw hammers and big scissors. If you like working with metal, an oxyacetylene torch lets you cut and weld, about as useful a skill as you can have in the wastes – if not, a heatgun for melting plastics together and cleaning surfaces helps. Add lots of consumables – nails, screws, duct tape, glue, sealant, paracord – and a big book of DIY tricks. You’re set.

Practice with brackets, hinges, clamps and clips to join different masses together; experiment with rubber strips and sealant to see what works best in the gaps. Think modular. Countless modern building supplies are designed to go in fast and do one job well, from No More Nails to that old favourite duct tape. Learn how different materials work together, and find a set of a dozen things you can get results with, whether it’s breezeblocks, planks of wood, or concrete sections. (That list is then your action plan every time you go scavenging in the wasteland.)

When planning your postwar home base, remember it doesn’t need to be underground or have fancy airlocks and filters; it just needs insulating mass, all its cracks and gaps blocked with sealant, and all the openings sealed against dust. The carbon paper you find in oven hoods is great.

Getting ambitious, if you’re able to move them shipping containers are brilliant. Weatherproof, room-sized, stackable and lockable with nonporous walls, you can build substantial dwellings with them; many have ductwork inside you can run cables and hoses through. (The downsides to container living are heat, noise and condensation due to single-skin walls, but that’s something you’ll fix early). Also, a container on each side of your living space stuffed with rubble makes an excellent radiation shield. What you really want is a half-dozen TEUs buried beneath a mountain of concrete in a defensible position, but that’s not something you can establish before Zero Hour itself, so knowing how to improvise is the next-best thing.

2b. Fix. Buildings are largely static structures; in the wasteland you’ll need dynamics too. How to gain mechanical advantage through pulleys, gears, levers and cantilevers; how to rebuild engines so you can generate power and get around the blighted landscape. The human body’s an incredible machine, but other machines can leverage it.

Consider learning about simple vehicles. Bicycles, motorbikes, jetskis, Jeeps, Land Rovers, old VW Beetles, the Lotus 7, microlights, light aircraft, paragliders : they’ll all be good choices in the wastes because they’re beautifully simple. (A large percentage of all Bugs and Rovers ever built are still on the roads.)

These vehicles are simple enough to be comprehended and repaired by a single skilled person with the right knowledge, and robust enough to give service for decades. Something with wheels will make you a force to be reckoned with in the wastes; something with wings gives you range far beyond your home base. (There’ll be plenty of blacktop to land on.)

3. Establish your health.

Avoiding death and disease in the first place is a lot easier than curing them. Keeping your body in balance – with exercise, diet, vitamin and mineral supplements – is your greatest defence against death in the wasteland: in a world where a small cut results in life-threatening infection, knowing how to use medicine and its trappings is a vital skill.

So learn the natural products with medicinal value and where to find them, starting with honey and lemons (natural antibacterial and disinfectant). Because you can grow your own First Aid.

But at the core of your post-nuclear health plan should be keeping yourself and your environment clean. Squeaky-clean body and breath make life in the wastes feel a lot less toxic, while scrubbed floors and walls dispel fallout and bacterial risk. Sodium hydroxide, sodium bicarbonate, and sodium chloride are your three basics to work with; they may sound like complex chemicals, but caustic soda, baking soda, and salt aren’t actually that hard to find in any blast-torn supermarket. (For speed, use the “Looting 8 Items or Less” lane.)

There are dozens of recipes for cold-mixing soap, toothpaste, and cleaning agents; find a few and learn them. (Of course, all this assumes your skin is not sloughing off in great papery sheafs in the aftermath of the blast.)

Health isn’t just of the body: a disciplined and calm mind is an equal or greater tool to a strong and fast body. Yoga soothes both body and mind and builds old-age flexibility you’ll need for your long years in the wasteland: no retirement homes or health insurance now. (Just don’t mistake a radioactive crater for a Hot Bikram class.) Meditation might help shut out the desperate wails of a thousand feral children hammering on your steel-clad door. Of course, after the blast you may be in a trance-like state already.

4. Learn how to purify water.

There’s always water around, whether it’s a tarpaulin harvest at dawn or a filthy puddle. Making it drinkable takes surprisingly little gear: filter papers, a big steam kettle, some plastic piping. All can be improvised out of the spoils from any burned-out DIY store. (A repurposed immersion heater is ideal.) It won’t be Perrier (unless your wasteland scavenging turned up a few carbon dioxide cylinders) but it’ll be clean and drinkable, and with a steady supply you can make yourself the most popular guy in the wasteland. However, there’s one thing about distilled water: it tastes disgusting. (More correctly, there’s an absence of taste most humans dislike.)

One idea is to do what people did in the Middle Ages: drink beer instead. You can get a hundred pints from a few kilos of malt and it’ll store at room temperature for months; face one end of a shipping container onto the street, and you’ve opened a wasteland bar, where you can trade information and food with fellow survivors. Making yourself indispensable to the postapocalyptic community is a sound survival strategy.

5. Learn how to generate electricity.

Nothing will lift your jaded spirits like the sputtering into life of an LED bulb with no bills to pay at the end of the month. Arguably this comes before growing food, because with electricity you can extend the day and the season, make ice, cook from cans, keep food cold and yourself warm. All the things that make life worth living. Just 5kW can power your well-insulated shipping container home.

If space allows, ambient solar and large-capacity batteries are the way to go, silent and low-maintenance with ways to get hot water, too. (There’ll be tons of solar panels around and no planning regulations to stop you using them.) Today’s panels can generate around a hundred watts per sq m peak, meaning you’ll average about a third of that… needing rather a lot of panels to fill all your needs. But ultimately your first step is some first-year physics on AC, DC, volts and amps and how batteries work. A single day of learning now can result in decades of comfortable life during those dark nuclear winter evenings.

6. Learn to grow vegetables.

Anyone with a kitchen garden knows it doesn’t take much land to produce crateloads of beans, carrots, potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, squashes – and it’s even easier to grow the things that make eating them worthwhile, such as herbs. Vertical growing and greenhousing (you need glass to keep the fallout off anyway) make it possible to feed a family of four from a tenth of an acre: that’s a square just twenty metres along a side, an area you can wall off and cover with glass in a week.

If you have a chance, grab a few open-bed shipping containers, pile pallets inside in steps, cover the top pallets with a ton or two of soil, and lid them with salvaged windows. (The pallets create space underneath from which you can irrigate and nourish the soil; with lighting you can even have three “floors” of mini-fields per container.) Instant secure food factories, built from a template you can repeat and scale.

(Pay special attention to soybeans. Tofu is the perfect nufood: compact, portable, protein-packed, and goes well with almost anything. You can live on the stuff if needs be, with nothing more than a crate of seasonings and some oil.)

That’s why you learned to generate electricity first; a greenhouse can be lit and heated to moderate your growing cycle year-round. In postapocalyptic times, organic growing will come into its own: learn about it. How placing certain plants next to each other fends off bugs; how crop rotation can replenish the soil for the next round; the proportions in which you can grow different plants together for maximum yield. Fresh organic produce every day will be a principal reason you’ll not only survive, but be happy as a wasteland survivor.

7. Learn guns and self-defence.

How to handle weapons, and how to handle yourself. There’s going to be some bad people out there… and if you’ve trained yourself to get stuff, plenty of others will want to take it away from you. Krav Maga is a skill that lets you fight off attackers quickly even in groups; you can learn it at home with a punchbag and dummy, although it’s best put into practice in class. Perhaps its biggest benefit, though, is simply the physical confidence Practitioners acquire: fewer people will mess with you in the first place.

In close quarters at a time when the law’s become history, there are some tools to magnify your fighting smarts. Brass knuckles, blackjacks and switchblades are small and deadly. A larger blade is as much a tool as a weapon; even swords may make a comeback. But where the best defence may be a good offense, you’ll need muscle that works at a distance, too, and that means being able to use things that go bang. (And ideally knowing your way around an ammo recycling bench.) Before law and society break down, you may want to acquire a crossbow or longbow; they’re legal today and you can reuse the ammo. Expect archery skills to be prized post-nuke.

In guns, everyone has their preferred loadout, but five guns should answer most situations. (All illegal or hard to obtain this side of the Atlantic, but hey, we’re planning for lawlessness.) First up is a handgun, something tried and tested like a Glock or Beretta, with plenty of spare magazines and 9mm ammo. (You carry this one all the time; it’s for unplanned situations.)

Your second workaday weapon is a shotgun. Leave sawn-offs to the movies; go for something 24″+-barrelled in 12-bore, ideally a semi-auto with tube magazine. (A decent-length barrel allows a decent-size tube – some hold up to a dozen shells – and the more shells up your sleeve the better; box and drum mags are harder to carry.) There’s a big choice of rock-solid ones: the Spas-12, the Mossberg 500, the Remington 870 are all provably awesome.

A shotgun is basic because unlike rifles or handguns, it lets a beginner aim at targets more than a few metres away and actually hit them. The spread pattern at 50m can reach several metres, enough to make a glare-crazed pack of feral dogs think twice. A shotgun is also the ultimate modular weapon: slugs and beanbag rounds turn it into a short-range rifle or a nonlethal deterrent, while more exotic ammo takes you into sci-fi territory (there’s even a Taser shell out there.) Ammo is valuable in the wasteland and a weapon that lets you scatter a gang of scoundrels with one shot should never be far from your shoulder. (Take this one everywhere beyond your barricaded front door.)

Third and fourth, some sort of assault rifle – even a spray ‘n pray AK-47 will do – for when you can afford to plan your To-Do list in advance, and a long-barrelled sniper rifle – the Barrett .50 is top dog here – for when acting at a distance is an option. (Keep both these back at your base; they’re mission-specific.)

Lastly, a submachine gun like an H&K MP5 makes a solid companion for when you need to shock and awe the slavering feral gangs that roam your territory into submission. If you never learned to shoot before the bombs dropped, start by remembering the basics:  aim without anticipating recoil, squeeze don’t pull, and train yourself to lift your finger immediately. Short bursts are where it’s at. (This last one’s also mission-specific: basically, whenever you need to go room-by-room.)

8. Learn how to capture and cook animals.

This is lower down the list, because understand your days of enjoying animal protein three times a day are over. Even if you’re a farmer by trade, the concentrations in which fallout will accumulate in mammalian tissues preclude raising cows and sheep even if you have the grazing space. It takes a hundred kilos of vegetable matter to make one kilo of beef; it’s just not feasible to farm large mammals post-apocalypse. (Especially if you want to maintain your green principles: remember “free-range” now means “Someone else’s dinner.”)

So the only animal protein available in the wasteland will be wild. Don’t expect to see many rats, cats, or dogs the month after the apocalypse, while chickens in barns are the low-hanging meat: so overbred they can’t even walk. (Bernard Matthews will go down in wasteland history as a god.) Bambi will be a memory, since deer are relatively easy to bring down in the assymetrical confrontation with an armed human.

Foxes and rabbits will be numerous, suddenly freed from human population control measures, but you’ll earn your meal: they’re wily. Longer term, when farming returns, the best fleshy crops aren’t the conventional ones: ostrich will be the rich man’s staple meat, rabbits will be mass-produced, and pigeons will be battery-farmed. (The birds get big on scraps, the leporines reproduce without encouragement.) The one large mammal with a future may go Oink: pigs are such useful creatures for waste disposal the economics may just work. If you acquire a few, remember the closer animals are to us genetically the more diseases you can catch from them. Pigs are very close, so sear that pork to a crisp.

The key skills here – slitting and slicing – transfer well from species to species, so learn how to seperate skin, flesh, bone and organs and how to use the various bits profitably. (There’s a lot of meat on just one rabbit if you know how to get at it.) Learn to slay and love offal, and you’ll be able to enjoy fresh meat when you see the opportunity.

9. Develop a cash crop.

This is where you stop surviving and start thinking about thriving again. An economy of sorts will arise even if 99% of the world’s population is wiped out; buying and selling stuff is a basic human driver. So you need something you can sell, with a large target audience (starving humans), and that ideally doesn’t cost anything but labour to produce. With a cash crop you can keep yourself supplied with other of life’s essentials: meat, wine, 9mm Parabellum, anything.

You might try wheat, rice, or potatoes, but in the lawless wastes an excellent saleable crop could be hemp. (Cotton takes a lot out of the soil, and it’s not as if you can afford to let land lie fallow for a year.) You can sell marijuana to take the edge off life under a burning sky; you can weave the stalks into textiles people can use for clothing and bedding; you can turn the remnants into burnable biomass.

Whatever cash crop you decide on, do it well. You’re not subsistence farming here; you’re bringing to market an exciting new product and want to max-out your profit margins and consumer surplus. Develop sound operational processes with a Continuous Improvement ethic, thinking constantly about how you can reduce your resource costs while upping quality.

Nurture an audience of repeat customers and incentivise the best with discounts and dealership opportunities. Get hold of some dyes, seals and stamps, and brand your product in a non-easily-copied way: your packages then become a trusted name, enabling you to start wholesaling to a network of retailers. Whole communities may become economically dependent on you, with a stake in keeping your brand valuable. (At worst this gives you a few rings of fleshy cannon fodder to use up when rivals try to “chip away at your competitive advantage”.)

Build as much brand equity into your crop as you can, to prevent it becoming a commodity: it’ll help maximise your ROI while everyone else is hardscrabbling. In the wasteland, you can survive… or you can thrive. Other options: tea, grapevines, tobacco and their higher-margin finished goods further up the value chain.

10. Have a wealth strategy.

In the first months, “wealthy” will mean anyone who drinks clean water and has all his skin intact … but before long, systems of barter will give way to conventional economics, simply because portable, fungible stores of value are more convenient. Once your income stream is working, think about how you can leverage it towards actual wealth. Gold coins, silver ingots, single-carat diamonds, even antique books or bottles of wine in a pinch: things that are small and have broadly recognised value in today’s society.

Find out where such things are (a  list of safe-deposit offices is a start) and how you can acquire them in the event of a nuclear catastrophe (hint: demolition bar). Even better, start building your stash beforehand. Society will arise anew, and when it does, there will be wealth and poverty once again. As you progress from survivor to citizen again, you’ll find wealthy is better.

11. Get connected.

What they (erroneously) said about DARPA’s “Internetwork” in the ’60s will eventually prove true: the Internet will survive a nuclear war. Enough people will escape the big firestorm that there’ll still be thousands of people in Britain capable of setting up a radio station, or booting a server, or understanding IP. Those first post-apocalyptic IP nodes won’t stream video and there’ll be no Google, but they will form the beginnings of the next Web, and every node that gets added rebuilds it faster.

Perhaps it won’t even take a year before a few thousand people with laptops are stringing social networks together with wifi and retrofitted satellite dishes. Perhaps the key drivers of search, trade, jobs, news, and human interaction lead to new global websites and the next wave of fortunes, before it’s even safe to return to the cities. Civilisations come and go, but the Internet won’t die until the second-to-last node is destroyed. Find out who’s starting the revolution, connect to them early, and keep yourself at the forefront as the world rebuilds.

12. Keep your mind alive.

Last – but not least. Survival and thriving are of the mind, not just the body. You need to stay self-actuated, remember what life’s all about. Even if Britain turns into a toxic wasteland, it doesn’t have to be a cultural one.

Under your flickering LED lightbulb, enjoying a rare rabbit stew and a joint from your personal crop of an evening, devote an hour or two to reading. And watching, and listening, experiencing the shows and songs of the Old World. But it’s one thing you have to plan for in advance. The main threat to electronics isn’t the blast but the EMP, which will silently deep-six every phone and computer for kilometres around. (Believe me, nobody will be calling from the blast radius to say they’re on the train.)

A few well-stuffed laptops, Kindles, iPods, USB hard disks wrapped in thick layers of heavy foil under corrugated iron in a locked basement will still work after the blast: your cellar may become your generation’s Library of Alexandria. So if you unwittingly find yourself custodian of ancient knowledge, remember to pay it forward.

If you’re part of a community, teach the children, train the adults. Try to ensure the learnings of society get passed on to the next generation, so we can salvage as much as possible of what we lost. In doing so, your survival becomes part of a larger idea: that a ragtag bunch of survivors can be a civilisation again.

As a final word, the most important survival skill you’ll ever acquire is a positive mental attitude. The ability to live in the moment while looking forward to each new day; to enjoy small tasks while building towards larger results. That’s what’ll sort out the men from the boys in the wasteland. And I plan to be one of them.

POSTSCRIPT: The images on this post are from My Fallout New Vegas Tour, trips I took in 2011 exploring the real-life locations parodied in the game “Fallout: New Vegas”. If you enjoyed this blog, take a look at that one too! – Chris

Google AdWords: expect to pay

Root-and-branch marketing across all media. 07876 635340.Google’s AdWords is an amazing business: an intrinsic part of the pricing model is that prices automatically rise to the maximum level the market can support. As a marketer, that means Google isn’t leaving much on the table – what economists call “minimal consumer surplus”.

But there’s a flipside: the maximum the market can pay also means AdWords delivers the lowest utility the market can bear. Unless you stick to the shadows of ultra-rare keywords in undiscovered market space, the service is always priced just below the level where it’s not worth it.

So what does that mean for small marketers like us?

First, it’s that AdWords will be expensive. Eyeball for eyeball, for instance, it’s pricier than a superbowl ad, and much more expensive than local radio. (Radio is always one of the best deals in media, incidentally.) If your market’s restricted by geography, as most consulting-type businesses are, take a look at traditional media: a 5,000-envelope snail mailing may well deliver better results than AdWords. The rule in this space is that “something happens” – a client turns up, a big new booking arrives – about once every thousand customer touches; expect 4-6 projects from your 5,000. Such a mailing will cost north of £3k, so you need each project to be over a grand to make it worthwhile.

(Of course, most consulting work comes from repeat business; find guys you get along really well with and they’ll still be paying you a decade later. That’s where the value is; a £3k mailing that brings in £3k of billable hours isn’t a breakeven, it’s an investment. Because one of those guys will like you enough to use you again.)

But AdWords still has value for a small marketer. Namely that it’s easy to control. You can create, change, and test ad executions in two shakes; dial your budget up or down; experiment with different times of day or sets of keywords. But because you can get started on a budget of a few pennies a day, many marketers make the Big Mistake of thinking it’s a cheap option.

The trick to making it function is to work backwards. Let’s take some figures.

Let’s say you’re in my business: a jobbing copywriter. I’ve got some built-in advantages – a decade in the world’s top agencies gives me some heft, while parallel skills with buzzwords like predictive analytics and information architecture position me a few rungs up from the average ex-agency type. But by contrast, being a lone wolf by nature means I’m hopeless at the schmoozing and networking that leads to new client contacts. While working at a higher pay grade, I’m fishing in a smaller social pond.

So key is to know what you’re looking for. A “good client”, for me, is a midsized company (up to 250 people or £50m in turnover) doing something interesting but complex. (Often you find these in the technology or financial sectors.) These tend to be companies where internal marketing resources are stretched, or who can’t afford the £80K+ cost of a senior marketing director… giving them an incentive to make good use of outside resources. (With the absolute minimum cost of employing a junior professional being £30k+, they can afford a much more senior person on a part-time basis, especially one who doesn’t need a desk.)

So what does it take to win a £30k client with Google Adwords? Answer: at least £5,000. That’s a budget that puts you in the top few percent of all AdWords spenders.

Of course, you might get lucky. But I’ve done it half a dozen times over the years, and on average, a big new client – the sort who pays a retainer for an agreed set of services month after month for a year plus, a client you can learn and grow with and give ever more value to as the journey progresses –  will cost you £5,000 to acquire and another £5,000 in resources to retain. (The second £5k: we’re talking pitch projects, meet-and-greets, learning curves and outright freebies. I shortcut part of that with my free £1000 offer.) That’s £10,000 you need to invest for every new client win.

That’s why most freelancers don’t make any money. They just can’t make the investment.

Let’s look at the figures. My ideal client profile describes perhaps 15,000 companies in the UK, perhaps 50,000 across Europe. That’s surprisingly few in a zone that contains tens of millions of businesses, even given that my capacity is about 4. With half the world’s population using Google, you’re going to waste a lot of clicks and pageviews before any of them stumble across your value proposition. Count on a campaign running for three months before you get a solid sniff.

In that time you’ll have a few thousand clicks and your ads will be shown several million times across Google’s Search and Display networks. It’s all worth it, but you have to make a lot of upfront investment before it pays off.

Because that’s Google’s value: once you get a real lead, it’ll really be a real lead. The gap between someone idly clicking your ad, and actually dialling your number for a chat, is a huge mental commitment. By the time someone’s heard your voice, the odds of them becoming your client are a lot better than 1-in-10. (Once I went a whole year with every single first contact leading to a paid project.)

But on average, count on every new longterm client costing a third of that client’s first-year gross to acquire.

AdWords. It isn’t cheap. But it has coverage. And if you make the investment, it pays off forever.

Money: how much is enough?

How much money would make you happy? I’ve got an exact figure: £3-5m. But why?

First, it’s realistically achievable. A salary beyond two but within three SDs from the mean, some investment and tax planning savvy, and long-term property and equity markets that regress over time to a steady 3-5% or so make it do-able for any intelligent individual. Hitting your mid-30s – and the midrange of the upper tax bracket – means that with discipline you can save £10-20k a year into tax-free pension plans and newbuild rental properties. With property especially, a yield-financed mortgage gives you capital growth with the cost of capital covered, leaving you ready to make the next investment two years later. A few such ratchetings over a decade or so, and you’ve got a portfolio the right size, albeit at 3:1 debt-to-equity. Some years later, as rents repay capital, the job is done.

Second, it doesn’t make you play the wrong game. Quite deliberately. The “game” – in which everyone with real money, the £20m-and-up folk, is a participant – is nothing more than one-upmanship, and as an ultra-minimalist I have no interest in yachts or Lears or mansions. That’s good, because £5m isn’t enough to buy them. (An ex-private banker once told me what really unites the ultra-rich is that they never have enough cash; it’s all leveraged into keeping up with the Joneses.) Keeping to single-digit millions lets you live your life in the world that matters, not the one that ends at a certain postcode boundary.

Third, you can still stay anonymous. Once you get above £5m in assets you start popping up on various radars: the likelihood of being sued, for example, goes up exponentially. I like to stay in the shadows, just another face in the crowd. Because that’s a freedom no ultra-high-net-worth individual has: your anonymity, once lost, can never be recovered.

Fourth, it’s a proper capital sum. It’ll keep you going forever without ever having to eat into the capital. Just 4% growth a year covers longterm average inflation plus a six-figure annual income; your total wealth keeps pace with price increases while giving you an incentive not to munch the seed corn. And if anyone in the world says they can’t live on a hundred grand, I pity them for the tremendous complexity they must have in their lives. (How many alimony cheques was that sir?)

Fifth, it’s small enough to manage yourself. It’s a property portfolio of a dozen decent London flats that deliver a six-figure income in addition to capital growth. It’s a book of equities that grow at 3% in the long term. Or, if you like risk, it’s a spread-betting account where a disciplined set of strategies can hedge each other and never result in a margin call. Big enough to take advantage of any opportunity.

Note the theme here? It treats wealth not as a figure, but an attitude. It’s about knowing how much is enough, and when it’s ok to stop.

Perhaps that’s the secret to life.

The coming apocalypse: seven billion reasons

705px-Operation_Upshot-Knothole_-_Badger_001Some say I’m cynical. Actually I’m not: all I do is try harder than anyone else to see the world as it really is. Here’s the truth of it: I’m a happy person. I think the UK is the greatest place in the world to sleep soundly, build a business, or be a citizen in.

Which is why if I’m negative on tomorrow, it’s worth a shake.

And I am negative. Not for my personal situation, but for the world as a whole. Because I can’t stop thinking of where the megatrends are going. All the social and economic factors that collectively decide what’s going to happen seem to be pointing one way, and when the streams cross, there’s only one outcome.

We’re heading for another world war, on a 3-5yr timescale.

I’m not talking a regional conflict, or even the assymetries of Iraq and Afghanistan. I’m talking the Hundred Suns scenario, global thermonuclear war, toxic wastelands from Los Angeles to Leningrad and tribal affiliations co-opting civilisation. Consider the evidence… then consider how they interact when they all happen together.

nuclear-explosion1. Our unrepayable debt. The “rich” world owes approximately thirty-two trillion US dollars. And it’s expanding 1.7 percentage points faster than its economies are growing. Britain alone pays nearly a billion pounds a week in interest on its borrowings. You can’t pay back amounts like that in a New Normal of low growth. You can’t inflate it away, either. Not with households throttling back spending, companies hoarding cash, and central banks around the OECD keeping interest rates low. Our trillions of dollars, Euros, pounds and yen in debt are crushing us.

2. The attitudes preventing progress. Despite our debt, the West’s citizenry is clapping its hands over its ears – whole populations with a rising sense of entitlement on both sides of the Atlantic that everyone’s needs must be catered for, without limit, forever, paid from government coffers. (Who fills those coffers? Er, nobody much.) And they won’t vote for anyone who can solve it. Nobody wants to do the right thing, and a billion Westerners do nothing but stand around with their hands out and their mouths open.

3. China is peaking, not rising. It might seem unstoppable; in fact, the big red blot is already on a downward trend. All the IP-stealing, all the Fake Banks, all the new money – nothing there is sustainable or backed by real assets. The Communist Party took a gamble a couple of decades ago, betting they could keep the illusion going for enough years to bootstrap the country to real prosperity: it almost worked, but the West is getting wise to it, and its companies are starting to be recognised for the straw men they are. The tensions this is creating within China – mass unemployment, wealth inequalities, political impotence – will only have one result: a strike outwards by an uncontrolled military. All it’ll take is one sea captain to make an ill-advised landing on an island inside the fantastical nine-dash-line, and NATO gets dragged in. China is the flashpoint, and a billion Chinese will want someone to blame.

4. The Islamic assymetry. The Muslim Brotherhood – a more cohesive and on-message global organisation than Karl Rove’s Republicans in the Bush years – has quietly stepped into the chaos of the Arab Spring, and is putting its people into positions of power across the Arab world. But a day is coming when the West no longer needs the oil that finances our “real” enemies like Saudi Arabia. (The ultimate source of most terrorist financing and investment in mosques and madrassas staffed by imported imams who pour hate into frustrated youth all day, every day.) Meaning this quiet consolidation across the Ummah is happening without schools, without jobs, without prosperity to take the edge off their frustration and rage.  And the Muslim world will start to see extremists as the way out. Terrorism won’t be a few million fanatics, tacitly supported by a few hundred million sympathisers and opposed by the rest. We’re heading for one billion extremists, today’s assymetric war on terror multiplied a thousandfold, pushing political resources beyond reason. A billion Muslims will turn on us, and on each other.

mid-Greenhouse_George_Early_Fireball.ogv5. This angry Earth. Whether or not global warming is inevitable, cyclical, or chaotic, you can’t be pumping a billion tons of noxious gases into our atmosphere each year and expect any good to come of it. 80% of the world’s population lives near coasts; the majority of their homes are beneath the waves with just a few extra metres of sea level. (The amusing thing here is that it’s happened before; we conventionally think civilisation is just a few thousand years old, but there are coherent societal structures – cities – on the ocean floor over eighty thousand years old that used to be on the shores. The only reason this isn’t widely known is that historians aren’t generally scuba trained.) Pressure on the West to do the right thing, while the developing world has a license to keep doing wrong, creates no incentive for anyone to do anything, and a billion Africans who never caused it are already feeling the heat.

6. The end of the rains. There is no Peak Oil, but there is Peak Water. We’re drinking the deserts dry and desalination is too energy-intensive to replace freshwater sources; few cities outside the northern temperate zone are genuinely viable, and those that are are at risk of drowning in brine. Water is a scarce commodity, and billions in the South are already thirsty.

7. The fall of democracy. The compact between citizen and State is broken; with professional politicians inhabiting our Houses and psephology now so advanced a pollster can predict an election with 100% accuracy in every US State, politics is turning ever more polarised – concentrating on the extreme edges, the swing votes, only the few thousand people who can affect the result. The US Capitol is partisan beyond belief; younger democracies in Asia and Africa are just family and tribal businesses working under a pretext. Government has been co-opted by the fringes, and we can’t do anything about it.

When you take all these trends together, there’s only one logical conclusion: it won’t be a crash, but a war.

War is how China’s leaders will deflect attention from their failings. War is how the West will forget its debt. War is how the angry young men of the deserts will fill their time.

There won’t be ground invasions: there’ll be a few days of skirmishing, then someone in China will miscalculate and take it nuclear.

Then there will be blood.

Hundreds of millions will die. Billions more will suffer. Nations will dissolve; tribe will build wall against tribe; family will fight family. Packs of feral children will run naked in the toxic streets, and we shall hunt them for food. Society will be deleted, and there will be no Undo button.

atomic-blast-imagesSome regions may escape. There’s no obvious reason South America will be dragged in, but that continent is at risk of becoming one big narcostate anyway. Australia’s leaders may take the hard decision not to support NATO, and escape the nuclear carnage: Mad Max will tread the fallout everywhere but his homeland. India may go on being India, in all its chaotic complexity, although I expect Pakistan to take its chance once the birds are in the air. But for Europe, North America, the Middle East, and Northeast Asia, decimation is the only outcome.

And maybe – just maybe – it’s for the best. (And not just because a nuclear airburst is the most beautiful thing imaginable.)

We can’t inflate away our debt, stop China stealing, make Muslims respect us. We just can’t. As with every great crisis, the best solution may be to start over.

I’ll survive; probably even prosper, given the opportunities every great upheaval presents. (Chris Worth, Marketer to the Thames Valley Wasteland.) But I worry about the rest. Billions will suffer pain, all because we couldn’t make the few big decisions that really need taking.

Watch this space.

All you need

Big sky and a broad outlook. That's your marketing strategy. Visit chrisdoescontent.com.The ultra-minimalist lifestyle is neither easy nor painless. It requires focus, resolve, a constant attention to detail, and most importantly the skill of letting go. It’s about asking yourself a question – Do I Need That? If So, Why? – many times a day. But once you’ve got it, the freedom and agility your life gains is awesome.

Here what I think I could live with. Not quite Jack Reacher, with only a toothbrush and a billfold in his pocket, but it’ll fit into a midsize backpack.

– Hot laptop (currently a MacBook Retina) with a lot of movies, music, games, and TV shows you might get around to watching someday 

– Kindle with large library of classics

– Phone

– Camera with a big zoom

– Pocket-sized backup disk

– Cables and connectors, global adapter 

– Leatherman Wave multitool

 

– 6 black T shirts

– 3 pairs of Levis: 1 x black, 1 x blue; 1 x lightweight summer pants

– Berghaus non-hoodie

– Levi’s short coat – smart enough for day, warm enough for cold

– 9 sets of socks and underwear to include 1 x cycling shorts, 1 x running shorts, sports socks

– 1 pair of smart black leather walking shoes, Church’s or Cheaney

– 1 pair of casual shoes, velcro and canvas

– 1 pair of lightweight running shoes

– Towel

– Sheet sleeping bag

– Drawstring bag for laundry/2nd bag backup

– Knife. Fork. Spoon.

– Radius toothbrush

– Mach 3 razor and blades

– Factor 50 sunscreen, abrasive skin rub, good moisturiser

– Resistance bands for workouts

– Roll of kitchen paper towels (you never know how useful they are until you do it)

 

– Small Wenger backpack with many, many pockets

– Passport

– Pencil and paper

– Debit card

– If they were legal: brass knuckles and a switchblade

In total it weighs around a dozen kilos and fits into a small travel pack. And it’s all you need.

The simple life

I had a fantastic life in my 20s. I lived in the great cities of Asia and Europe; flew B-class, stayed in Five Stars, built a network of contacts and clients that keep me gainfully employed to this day. The last few years working for myself haven’t been like that. So why don’t I miss it?

The answer comes when I meet people from my past, people still living the expat dream. Not to put too fine a point on it, they’re not candidates for a Greek sculpture. Plump. Soft. Too much hotel food, too many redeye flights. There’s a softness about them that makes them… lacking in something, somehow. Often, their world is narrower than people who lack a passport: they clock up 100,000 Miles and a dozen cities a month, but they stay in the same big-box hotel chains, visit the same expat bars, eat in the same restaurants. Few have the backpacking mindset that started me off on my ten-year journey in the 90s.

Another ten years out, these people look ten years older. Greying. Frownlines. Serious. They’re basically dead people who just haven’t stopped moving yet. Worried about their futures, families, legal matters and pension expectations. Many are in denial.

Whereas my only worry is that I’ll explode under the pressure of my own awesomeness.

Being me is just amazing. I pity the rest of the human population for not being me. I don’t want wealth’s trappings: in fact, I’m getting rid of as many as possible. I don’t want a yacht. A plane. Or even a big house: my little patch of London costs little to run and less to keep clean. What I do want, though, is to remain self-actuated.

Look at what I actually do for a living. I work on a few longterm clients I know well; I add value to property in little chunks; I look after my little pension pot and spread-bet the markets for fun. And, er, that’s about it. It’s all me; I don’t really rely on (and am not beholden to) anyone else. My total costs in life hover around £2k a month and the rest is gravy.

Health, learning, the ability to live in the moment. No real worries in life. That’s wealth.

Is life, perhaps, one long journey towards becoming self-actuated?

My 1200-ish punch-and-kick workout

punchbag-757181

An uppercut bag is best for this, allowing both kicks and punches from all positions.

I do a bit of Krav Maga, a flexible combat art from Israel. A lot of it’s drawn from boxing, and I like it because a) it’s simple, no bowing philosophical stuff; and b) it keeps you in great condition, pushing you into a balance of strength/speed/stamina in both core and outer.* With my heavy bag re-exposed from beneath moving boxes, I’ve restarted my thrice-weekly solo whackathons… two months and I’ll be back in shape!

Here’s my routine, latest iteration of a workout I’ve been swapping and substituting for several years to find something complete. You can do it at your own speed and take as many breaks as you need; even slowfight or shadow it if you want. It’s about 1200 blows, takes about half an hour, and the sweat should be pouring off after three minutes.

(Caveats: first learn the basics – how to stand, how to throw a blow: the jab, cross, roundhouse, hook and hammer. And warm up first; just a few minutes of stretching will do it. Without these you’ll overpunch and hyperextend. Don’t know what hyperextension is? Your shoulder will.)

Why do it? It’s fun and gets you fit. But the real value is psychological: whether you’re male or female, knowing how to strike a blow gives you a physical confidence most people don’t have… and the resolve to do it for real if you ever need to.

1st set of 200: Jabs & crosses:

Face bag.

— 66: fastjab-jab-jab, fastjab-jab-jab (3 x 11) (left-left right)

— 66: fastjab-jab-jab, fastjab-jab-jab (3 x 11) (right-right left)

— 66: jab-jab cross, jab-jab-cross (3 x 11) (left-left-right)

…for 200 total

2rd set of 200: Forward and backwards kicks:

Facing bag.

— 66: 3 x 11 front roundhouse (one-one-one, two-two-two etc) leaning back, other foot at 45deg, then change foot for 66 total

Back to bag.

— 66: 3 x 11 first back roundhouse leaning forward (one-one-one, two-two-two etc)  then change foot for 66 total

Facing bag.

— 66: 3 x 11 forward kick (one-one-one, two-two-two etc) with ball of foot into groin, then change foot for 66 total

… for 200 total

3rd set of 200: Backwards punches: 3 sets of a 3-punch combo of 33 each fist:

Stand with back to bag.

— first back KNUCKLEpunch straight vertically up over shoulder,

— then backwards roundhouse with SIDE of fist/arm,

— then backwards downwards groin punch with OUTER side of fist.

…. each set of 3 repeated 11 times with each fist (one-one-one, two-two-two etc until eleven-eleven-eleven)

…for 200 total

 4th set of 200: Elbow & knee blows:

Use elbows and knees to strike.

— 33: hands behind head, roundhouse with elbows at head height going left-right-left then right-left-right 11 times (1x 33)

— 33: burst forward bringing knee upwards to groin going left-right-left then right-left-right 11 times (1x 33)

— 66: backwards elbow blows: straight back to groin, rear roundhouse to torso, other arm roundhouse to torso then change sides (2 x 33)

— 66: attack forwards with elbows: driving forward and up from prone, driving forward and down from raised position, forward (2 x 33)

… for 200 total

5th 200: Hooks, uppercuts, hammers

Facing bag.

— 66: left-right-left x 11, then right-left-right x 11

— 66: from keeling or crouching, 3 x 11 uppercuts each hand (2 x 33)

— 66: downward hammerblows from arm raised (3 x 11 each hand)

…for 200 total

6th 200: Side, ground, and knee kicks:

Lying down with feet towards bag.

— 33: Lying on back: kicks: roundhouse to shins  going left-right-left then right-left-right 11 times (1x 33)

— 33: Lying on back kicks: straight forward sole kick to shins going left-right-left then right-left-right 11 times (1x 33)

— 33: Prone kicks: half-roundhouse from low kneeling position, flipping yourself half-over going left-right-left then right-left-right 11 times (1x 33)

— 33: scissor blow: scissor the bag with one foot striking slightly higher to bring opponent over (3 x 11 alternating foot each kick)

— 66: Side kicks (lean over and kick out and down without kicking leg away from line of body) try not to put kicking foot down for each set of 11 (3 x 11 each side)

Once everything feels nicely embedded in muscle memory (i.e feels instinctual, what coaches call “unconsciously competent”) you can start combining moves, like a rear roundhouse where you swing a 180 then forward kick plus a cross then carry on round to 270 for a nice elbow to the torso on the way back to 180. Hell, buy another bag and imagine they’re multiple attackers. Try it. It’s killer!

* And of course c) It lets you think you’re Jason Bourne.

Simple Solutions to Complex Problems: take away their votes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 99kg challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And after that? Maybe a 9kg challenge…

Free

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

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

Because I’ve completed the transition.

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

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

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

I’m all about the kilograms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Felicity J Lord: A Modern Major General Lettings Catastrophe

 

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

For Residential Shorthold, simple job for any lettings clerk

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

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

 

In truth the indicators of a possible catastrophe

From people too incompetent to double-check a Spelling Bee

Had been there from first viewings as the designated agency

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

 

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

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

Calls left hanging and our anxious landlords kept on tenterhooks

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

 

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

The smallest task resulting in a constant escalating row

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

To us a landlord candidate is little better than a clown

And when they ask to justify what they see as extortionate

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

 

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

As if we were a shining Modern General Lettings Agency

But competence remains a word that we do not epitomise,

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

 

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

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

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

Servicing its customers more badly than the Public Sector.

 

And so today the disgruntled composer of this witty verse

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

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

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

 

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

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

Handing viewings, signing forms, and thenceforth just collecting rents

An easy job description, done with laughable incompetence!

Bowie back in business

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

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

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

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

2012: moments to remember

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the moment that mattered most in 2012?

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

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

Happy 2013!

Costing the Jack Reacher lifestyle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So technically Jack can survive spending $1520 a month.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still an insult, no longer an offence

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

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

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

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

Circle: healthcare through a glass darkly

Sometimes, investing is really simple. You just look at the numbers, then look at the people.

My former client Circle‘s CEO resigned yesterday, and his statement – full of qualifiers about how “the board had agreed” – delivers a clear message that he was pushed. A few big numbers confirm why. I decided two years back Circle had no longterm future, but my concern now’s with the broader effect on private providers.

We’ve got to have more private provision of public services. But if Circle fails, the fat cats of Britain’s bloated public sector will think they’ve won.

Ali Parsa was actually a decent guy (for an investment banker) with a heroic personal story, and many of the people I worked with there were highly intelligent and qualified. People with a vision of private providers edging out inefficient public sector organisations, saving the NHS from itself. It was a good vision.

When Circle was my client, I poured in far more time and resources than they ever paid for. (Until I was pushed out by a rather odd newcomer, who herself lasted about a year I think.) I believed in the vision and enjoyed working on it. But what clinched Circle’s fate for me was the Hinchingbrooke contract: a £1bn poisoned chalice.

My opinion: Circle needed a big number on its balance sheet to keep investors hot. And £1bn is a big number. But Hinchingbrooke is a big hospital – far too big – and spread over ten years, £100m a year to keep it going with the capacities and commitments agreed didn’t look likely. As that’s become clear, the share price has been falling, hitting a nadir around a quarter of its launch price.

There’s nothing wrong with the vision. The issue for me was Circle’s culture. What it never had – in my opinion – was enough of “the boring stuff”.

What’s the boring stuff? Effective management structures and chains of responsibility, roles and resource planning and basic management accounting. Taking its traits from Parsa himself (as all companies do) it preferred a seat-of-the-pants, on-the-fly approach, resulting in vast energy going into minor decisions and an office culture that was more battlezone than bureau, clever people often taking decisions outside their expertise and projects withering on the vine whenever a Next Big Thing came along. Just like an investment bank. (I’ve had investment banks as clients, too, and what happened in them wasn’t so much people management as crowd control.)

It was chaotic… but everyone felt that if they’re working this hard, they must be achieving something.

And they did: Circle single-handedly shifted the debate on private provision of public services. (Like any organisation, the NHS has bloated over time. Far beyond Bevan’s remit, into a monster that thinks it can do everything, without the market mechanisms that tell you what’s useful.) With this news, I’m concerned it’s going to shift the debate again – back in the dastardly public sector’s favour. The union bosses are already crowing.

(An aside: have you seen UNISON’s office building? This supposedly public-service-inspired organisation has the most luxuriously appointed headquarters outside an African dictator’s gin palace. Nobody loves the trappings of wealth quite like a socialist.)

If Circle fails at Hinchingbrooke (the first NHS hospital to be taken over by a private provider) it means the public sector workers who hate private business will consider the case closed. Politicians will listen to them. And the debate will remain poisonous for decades. No private provider will be allowed to run public healthcare services again, and the NHS will keep sucking taxpayer funds into its gaping maw until it destroys us all. 

I’ve been mentally short Circle since Day One; knowing the company’s personality and finances, I thought – and still think – Hinchingbrooke will be the death of it. But I hope against hope it can succeed – because if Circle fails, the public sector will think they’ve won.

In praise of White Van Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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