My guess: Romney to win 285-253

My hopeful prediction for the 2012 US election.

My hopeful prediction for the 2012 US election.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The secret of business: they’re not clients, they’re friends

If there’s one phrase I hate, it’s “personal friend”.

Why? Because people who use it are drawing a distinction between the friends you have in life and the friends you have at work – let’s call it Facebook Versus LinkedIn. After a decade earning a living the most honest way there is – charging other people for what I do, no employment contract, no pack drill – I’m not sure there should be a difference.

The reason: business is personal. Same with “business ethics” or “professional courtesy”; ethics and courtesy shouldn’t be trammelled by whether the other party signs remittance advices. People are people, irrespective of whether they’re in a suit or floral boardshorts.

When I emerged from a career break a couple of years back – putting on the black suit again after a year of corporate finance and business strategy –  acquiring and retaining customers suddenly became really, really simple. You just make friends with them.

It might sound unprofessional. In fact, it’s the height of professionalism.

Because if you treat every client as a close friend, you’re more likely to deliver what they need from the relationship … and be honest when you can’t. (I’m not superhuman; I have deadline crunches and resource issues, same as you.) Treating clients as friends may be a philosophy, rather than a business strategy – but it’s a pretty good business strategy, too.

It means working on a client because you want to, not because it earns money. (If your first thought of a client involves getting paid rather than looking forward to seeing them, you’re not there yet.) With new clients I’ll often invest months of ideas and execution before there’s a monthly retainer on the table. But once that’s nailed I tend to keep that client for years; I’m still working with people I first met during my decade as an expat, years ago. Why? Because they see me as a friend, too.

It doesn’t mean I don’t care about the money. I love money, and want as much of it as possible. But the best way to grow your client base is to make sure people think well of you; there’s an economy around friendship as tangible as real markets, and being in demand is the natural outcome of being an honest dealer.

If a friend drops £10, you pick it up and give it back.

If a friend buys a round, you buy one back.

And if a friend asks how much you fronted for the taxi last night, you don’t double the fare because there’s a profit in doing so.

Treating clients as friends means you never play games with your client’s budget; you’re psychologically incapable of it, because friends don’t do that. And every business decision becomes simple, too. You take or reject a new client based on whether you like them, nothing more.

It goes against every b-school text and financial projection ever written. But it works.

In ten years and around 600 projects, I’ve had precisely seven go bad. On each occasion, it was someone I had a bad feeling about in the first moments of knowing them – this person’s not a friend. You don’t like them. Get out of there – and ignored it. You can’t fit it in a Boston Matrix or plot it on a Gaussian, but it’s the easiest thing in the world to do: trust your instincts.

Of course, there’s a glitch if you want to grow: this approach doesn’t scale. (Forget mass customisation and CRM; those are facsimiles, not the real deal.) There’s a limit to how many friends you can really call close, perhaps only 20 or so. But in creative industries like mine – any sector that relies on that essential fraction of human talent that can’t be mechanised – those 20 can deliver an income that buys a top-1% lifestyle anywhere in the Western world.

(Over 100,000 people in the UK are responsible for a budgetary spend over £100,000 a year. That’s £10bn of friendship-derived spend, of which you need an amazing 0.001 or 0.002%.)

Peter Drucker once said the whole of business is nothing more than the acquisition and retention of a customer. And that’s easy easy. Really easy.

Just make friends with them.

Goodbye Neil Armstrong

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

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

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

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

Battling the zombie apocalypse in…. Reading

The Zombie Shopping Mall Experience! A derelict shopping centre in Reading, filled with actors playing the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse… the infection is taking hold, and this mall is one of the few places that may contain the cure. Armed with Airsoft pump-guns, played mostly without light, and with missions that include actual CCTV feeds in a control room and tinny Tannoy music conjuring up visions of B-movies, it all feels very real: a first-person shooter in real life

It starts the moment you step inside a back entrance to the mall. Filling in half-humorous medical declarations, the lights die and the banging starts outside… then it’s haul ass to the safe zone to be equipped with vests and weapons. The initial missions are led by the “cops”: leading you through the parts of a shopping centre you don’t normally see, back corridors and storage areas that connect the retail stores. These areas are the most fascinating (well, second most) part of the experience: the warren of tiny rooms, eerily empty now, all dark and most with conveniently hazardous tables and shelves to hide behind… or be ambushed from. (One of my three “deaths” took place in a derelict toilet.)

Zed Events: The Mall 10th & 11th August &emdash; There’s a fair bit of running: the organisers try to create a sense of chaos. Like Romero’s 70s zombie flicks, the terror of the experience is in its crushing normality: a child’s ball pit, a helter-skelter, the detritus of a thousand Saturdays. With a twist: several areas are outfitted as makeshift medicentres and refuges, and there’s a variety of human body parts scattered around for emphasis.

The later missions are the blind leading the blind: no cops, no guides, just two big teams of 8-10 players retrieving objects from various locations around the mall. Of course, it doesn’t take long (with team members checking into rooms and peering down corridors) for the teams to be split. And when you end up alone (which is often) in the lower levels inanimate objects like a greeter’s station take on genuine menace. What’s beyond? Your flashlight doesn’t reveal much, except your location to the denizens of darkness.

Then, of course, there’s the zombies themselves.

They’re a mixed bunch, as they’d be in real life: biting is a great societal equaliser. There’s a doctor, a riot cop, some students, a businessman, a few women (whom I felt really bad shooting.) Several are clad in body armour and take 30+ pings to take down; the only way is to work in groups, setting up impromptu execution squads to pepper the kevlar-wrapped undead from several directions.

My first death happened in the light: two attackers boxing me into a corner, without the fire rate to hold them off. (I made it theatrical; the zombies are game.) It’s a large building and there are plenty of times you just don’t see any friendly faces for long minutes; the dread of being in a dim corridor and hearing zombie growls coming from nearby doorways produces genuine cold sweat. My second death happened here: a single zombie advancing towards me, me fresh out of ammo, and nobody around to hear my final gurgle.

It’s a great experience: you work up a sweat, have fun doing it, and get a surge of fear/thrill/panic that lasts halfway into the afternoon. But more than that, it’s set me thinking about the philosophy of zombies, why we find these unthinking creatures so much scarier than (say) a random killer in a hockey mask. It’s the way they’re not humans, but used to be. That even the worst of them retain some vestige of humanity; that even the best of them just become mindless killers post-bite.

I have a standing joke that I’ll only live in a zombie-proof house; no windows on the ground floor, lots of locks, preferably a gate and escape route. (The reason is that a zombie-proof house is proof against more everyday risks, too, like burglary or breach; it’s a simple strategy that pays big dividends.) In the end, that’s why zombies are scarier than vampires or werewolves: they’re human but inhuman, combining a savagery that’s all animal with a passion for blood that’s never sated. And that’s why things like The Zombie Shopping Mall Experience matter. It’s not all games, you know.

And perhaps the funniest moment: when one of my trainers made a squeak on the floorpaint. Bear in mind she’s an actor surrounded by mutant zombies … the heavily-armed police deputy gasped with a, “f*&k me, was that a rat?”

Going Mac: the first 72 hours

It’s been three days since I landed on Planet Mac, and so far it’s been a pleasant experience. First thoughts…

1. The biggest issue is still with Windows. Outlook for Mac works just as well, but importing 12GB of data took effort and hasn’t quite worked properly. Why, for example, does anything in the Inbox not import with attachments? And why don’t root folders import one-on-one, slotting your Calendar from the PC into the Calendar on the Mac? Instead  it creates new folders, and on Calendar I see no way of transferring 10 years of appointments into the Mac root Calendar folder.

2. Anything out of the ordinary is abnormal. A Mac likes to store things in particular folders. Well, so do I, and my preference is for separate volumes – which I’m having difficulty pointing various Mac applications at. Which means I’m storing data on an “open” machine protected only by a password, for the first time in a decade. Today – having just upgraded to Mountain Lion – I’m encrypting the whole disk as a stopgap.

3. The screen is as beautiful as expected, and I haven’t even cranked up the resolution to max yet. Office for Mac, unfortunately, doesn’t handle Retina yet, and multiple pages of text onscreen don’t look especially better than on my old Dell. I’ll see how it looks with Windows on a partition soon. 

4. What’s with the keyboard? Mac keyboards lack a lot of keys; no obvious hash symbol, no forward delete, and other keys that could have been used for this stuffed with symbols nobody ever uses (I don’t even know how to pronounce § and `, much less know when to use them.) Not a criticism; Macs are different. I just don’t know why such obvious and user-friendly innovations aren’t in play; Apple is normally attentive to this stuff.

5. Dragging good in some ways, bad in others. I’m learning the multitouch trackpad and already finding it useful; instead of large limb movements being needed to shift the cursor to the Back button, a single-finger swipe in the right direction is all that’s needed. But other things that are simpler in the Windows world (like deleting a file by highlighting and hitting “delete” don’t work, and I can’t think why; it’s such an obviously useful feature.

That said – I’m enjoying my excursion, and expect to make it my normal work environment from now on. Fanboi alert!

Going Mac: the why of it

After two decades in the PC paradigm, I’m going Mac.

I’ve been in the Windows world, with brief diversions into Linux, since before Windows existed: my first PC ran MS-DOS and I pasted on Windows 3.1 around 1994.  Excluding ipoddery, my total time at a Mac keyboard totals perhaps ten minutes. At times, I’ve been anti-Apple; the silly fanboi culture that surrounds the childlike logo still puts me off.

Yet my order’s in processing and a maxed-out Macbook’s arriving early August. I find myself reading, with interest, articles headlined The Real Reason Macs Before 2011 Can’t Use Airplay Mirroring in Mountain Lion. (No, I haven’t a clue what it means either.)

The reason’s simple: that screen.

I’m a resolution junkie. On a series of 15″ laptops I’ve run 1600 x 1200 since 2003; since 2008 I’ve had 1920 x 1200 on a solid Dell workhorse that’s given the highest ROI of any machine I’ve ever owned (over four years of essentially all-day, every day use: thousands of hours and millions of words of copy put together in offices, universities, airports and coffee shops. I frequently have three full A4 pages lined up across Word; people squint over my shoulder and ask if I can actually read it. (Yes, I can; I’m a copywriter with the pixel-perfect eyesight of a young art director.)

Onscreen real estate is productive – which means profitable. Within reason (my reasoning I mean – I’m already beyond sensible limits) 2880 x 1800 will let me scan and dive into eight full A4 pages of text, even editing it right there at that res without having to play around.

Other choices come into play. In a world of Clouds and SaaS and Wifi there’s no real problem using a Mac these days even when most of your clients use PCs; I spend most of my time in Office and Outlook, which at present are actually a version ahead in the Mac world. And I’ve got a lot of obsolete software on my Dell I need to wean myself off; some applications are over ten years old.

I’m carrying baggage I don’t need. And if there’s one thing in life I hate, it’s baggage.

While another factor is Windows 8. I’ve seen it and it works great as a phone/pad operating system, but I’m less sure about its usefulness on my workaday laptop. Interfaces that look great in films or presentations (Tom Cruise waving his arms around in Minority Report) don’t work in real life; nobody wants to spend eight hours at a desk expending physical energy instead of intellectual, and Windows 8 is designed for touch, not typing.

The Mac will let me start afresh, a whole new perspective on space, time … perhaps even life itself. (I’ve heard that on a Mac you don’t need to “install” applications; you just drag them into a folder called… Applications. It can’t be that simple, surely?)

For this reason, I’ve decided to go the whole hog and use my new Mac as a Mac. (My original plan was to install Windows and use it as a PC: no real change in my working life but I gain beautiful new screen. Several reviewers state the best Windows laptop these days is… a MacBook.) But the only two hurdles – three if you count learning Mac stuff in the first place – seem leapable.

First, my ten-plus years of Outlook data (I live my entire life in Outlook; every day’s scheduled in two-hour increments and I’ve got colour codings for every client and activity) can be exported (I think). Might need to draw on some expertise from the Mac community – there’s probably more than one way to lug a 16GB .pst file into Mac Outlook 2011 – but I can’t believe such a thing isn’t doable.)

Second, the strong encryption I use (my hard disk’s scrambled at preboot level and the Pentagon couldn’t get in when the power’s off) has Mac equivalents hitting the market soon. (TrueCrypt, freeware that’s been well tested with the bonus of being open source, doesn’t yet encrypt beneath the boot on Mac OS, but it will soon – and it does everything else my PC crypto does, with much the same choices of hashing algorithms.) With the upcoming Mac OS (Sabre Toothed Polecat or something) a few other things click into place.

So, aside from keeping an old Windows 7 (or perhaps 8) on a Bootcamp partition for backup, I have no real reason to remain in the Windows world. It’s going to take some getting used to…. but perhaps not as long as I think.

I’m going Mac.

Freestyling: the mark of a true Londoner

Tube logoIt’s not about your ability to delete homeless people from your field of vision. It’s not about having a minimum of three locks on your door, or believing £30 is a reasonable sum to spend on a takeaway. No, being a true Londoner is about …. freestyling!

Freestyling is the skill of staying upright on the Tube without holding on to straps, poles, or parts of other people’s anatomy – “riding” the floor of the train as if it were a surfboard. (Of course, we’re assuming the surfboard is huge, dry, stops every couple of minutes, and is shared with a hundred people. Use your imagination.)

The rewards for doing so successfully are enormous – out-of-towners gaze at you in amazement, recent immigrants to the capital look mournfully at your smug no-hands-ma poses, and you’ll have the chance every couple of rides to prevent an attractive female person hitting the deck in a tangle of heels and miniskirt, for which she’ll be duly grateful. (Or alternatively, enjoying the amusing sight of less-attractive people spreadeagling themselves on the floor with a thump.)

So, as a service to Londoners who haven’t quite got the hang of it all, here’s A Tube User’s Guide to Freestyling! First I’ll cover the basic techniques.

The Tube User’s Guide to Freestyling

Basic skills

1. Be a tripod. You have three legs, not two. (Stop sniggering at the back.) Instead of thinking of your stance as a two-dimensional line, do what martial artists do: feel how balanced you are and compensate a couple of times a second. As the train sets off, slows, or makes one of those inexplicable stops in the tunnel that happen about ten times a journey, see the spot on the floor that offers most support and move your weakest foot there. Three legs is the most stable arrangement for any chair or table; be a tripod.

2. Keep it moving. The game’s to stay upright, not resemble a statue in the British Museum. The physics for this is “metastable” (the movements, not the statue); keeping yourself slightly dynamic can combat any Circle jerk or Northern rattle. Keep your weight forward on the balls of your feet (balls being a necessary component of Freestyling on the older lines) and always, always keep your body supple and joints unlocked. You are a coiled spring ready for anything, not a life model. Keep it moving.

3. Think about it. However good the thing on your Kindle, keep one thread of your mind focussed on your stance. Some stops (hi, Northern after rushhour!) are stamp-on-the-brakes sudden and there’ll never be any warning. Board each train as if there’s a brick wall across the track that the driver can only see once he’s within ten feet. (On older lines, this is partially true.)

Imagine there is a metal pole, floor to ceiling, in the carriage. (Er, OK, there really is, but if you were holding onto it you wouldn’t be a Freestyler, would you?) In your imagination, you are circling slowly around this pole; it’s there if you need it. Keep that vertical pillar in your mind and you’ll tend to stay upright.

4. Laugh at losers. On every train, at every start, there’s at least a couple of people in every carriage who seem baffled by the basic physics of it all: when the train starts off, a body will attempt to remain in place, leading to said body stumbling in a direction opposite to that of travel. It’s too late for these people: they will never learn, so it’s okay to laugh at them. It’s not too late for you.

Over the next few blogs I’ll look at the individual characteristics of each Tube line and the advanced techniques needed to successfully Freestyle each. More later!

Iron Sky: don’t mention the…

After a six-month contract that kept me occupied pretty much fulltime, I’m back to being an independent. Working in town and out of suit and tie, this can only mean… the return of sneak-out Wednesdays*! This week at one of the few cinemas taking a punt on Iron Sky.

I went on the basis it’s the first cinematic release funded by crowdsourcing, and wanted to see if collaborative development had worked – the community also had input into set design and character bios. (It’s not “bunking off for the afternoon” it’s, “Continuing Professional Development”.)

While everyone applauds the *model*, it’s been getting mixed reviews *as a film*…. and when I hit the Prince Charles Cinema, it was obvious from the bums on seats that the business model hasn’t quite worked. This was a geek-only cinema with NOT A SINGLE GIRL IN IT. So my expectations started low, and I had a pleasant surprise: it’s so stupidly funny I enjoyed it straight off the bat.

First off: the cinema itself. The Prince Charles Cinema is a hidden gem: tiny, atmospheric, and what a *real* cinema should be: close and intimate. Less about watching a film and more about the popcorn-infused experience of going to the movies. it shows a lot of reruns you wished you’d seen the first time around. Go there: rents are high around Leicester Square and it needs you. 

But anyway, the film. In 1945, a Antarctica-based bunch of Nazis decided the best place to vamoose was not South America but … the Moon. And they’ve been there for 70 years, waiting for the right moment to return.

The enjoyable thing here: I expected to be annoyed by the way they skipped over the huge difficulties of living on the Moon – recycling air, growing food, building giant swastika-shaped bases etc. Not to mention getting a few hundred people there in the first place.

I’d have appreciated a ten-minute montage showcasing those first years on the lunar surface. The cramped conditions in the saucers … the breakthroughs by the scientists when their CO2 scrubbers and hydroponics worked … the gradual ascent into functioning machinery and mining the Helium-3 … the first Nazi children giving their first Seig Heils as their society developed an economy. But the film’s premise is so laughable you forgive it the dropped balls.

It’s perfectly acceptable that the Nazis don’t have any more trouble living on the Moon than, say, the Amazon. The gravity doesn’t appear any different to Earth’s, and Moon-born people don’t have any problem adjusting to the crushing weight they’d feel. The steampunk look just about allows suspension of disbelief; after all, during the Cold War ICBMs went into space with no more computing power than an abacus. But there are other errors. Air-breathing petrol engines appear to work just fine on the lunar surface. They’re on the dark side, yet the giant base is clearly bathed in sunlight. And in one shot, controls on the Nazi spacecraft are clearly labelled in English. It may have crowdsourced $millions, but this is still a low-budget independent film.

However, the plot goose-steps along at reasonable pace, and the moments of comedy – “In case of emergency break to hear National Socialist anthem” – mostly work. Sometimes it goes overboard (although whether a film about WWII-era Nazis living on the Moon can go over the top is debatable): the US President isn’t a parody of Sarah Palin, it actually is Sarah Palin.  And the ending is brilliant. Whether or not you’re into the whole Nazis-on-the-Moon genre, support independent film and buy the DVD.

And of course, apologies to my girlfriend. It’s impossible for a Brit to go to a film featuring German dialogue and not speak in an accent for hours afterwards.

* All right, Mondays. But I work so many weekends that my monthly cinematic escapes can legitimately take place any weekday.

Queues at Heathrow, Q’s for the unions

Summer’s on the way, and just before a public holiday the news is full of two-hour queues at Heathrow. How convenient… for some.

And as usual, Britain’s journalists are completely missing what’s really happening here: Britain’s unions want the queues. Here’s why.

Let’s look past the talking heads to some basic drivers of human behaviour. You’re a union baron wanting to secure yet more pay and benefits for your members. (Most of whom don’t vote in favour of strikes, but that’s by the by for union bosses – nobody plays faster and looser with inclusive democracy than a committed Socialist.)

Now Labour’s out of power and the days when you could rock up to Number 10 and be invited in for beer and sandwiches are long gone, the main tool at your disposal is striking.

And if you’re looking to strike, lengthy queues at Heathrow beforehand would make it look justified, wouldn’t it?

So that’s the crux of it: who, here, really benefits from long queues at Heathrow? Not the government; they’ll shoulder the blame. Not, of course, the customers: we’re talking unions here, whose only attitude to customers is fuck the lot of ‘em. The only people to benefit from apparent undermanning are the people planning to go on strike.

That’s why the queues last forever: a deliberate act by the lefties to screw Britain’s economy … for the benefit of its own members.

Eyewitness accounts from passengers confirm that at busy times there have been just two desks open to process arrivals. They may have had manpower cut by 10%, but that still leaves a lot more than two immigration clerks. Which makes it obvious what’s really happening here: Britain’s over-unionised, ultra-bloated public sector is cynically engineering a crisis to make itself look like a victim.

I don’t see why anyone’s surprised, really. It’s all the public sector ever does.

When one disused missile silo just isn’t enough

I’ve always had a thing about subterranea, and my Fallout New Vegas Tour last year reawakened an interest in missile silos. There’s a tiny subculture Stateside of people who’ve bought these monuments to Cold War military budgets as unusual living accommodation… and one day I want to join them. (Hey, it’s one hell of a holiday let.)

An Atlas-F site: think of it as a pretty big house with a ABSOLUTELY ENORMOUS BASEMENT.Why do I like them? It’s something about the contrasts: the big-sky vastness of the American West, pockmarked by hidden concrete bunkers whose sole purpose was to rain down Strangelovian death on people thousands of miles away. (Or, to take the realpolitikal view, to prevent the need ever arising.)

It’s such a science-fiction cliche – the innocuous shack or wooden door leading down to a cathedral-sized space within the earth – but the pointy bit here is that such things actually exist. Hundreds of them, dotted around mostly-abandoned Air Force bases, from sea to shining sea. Designed to take a direct hit from an airburst in the megatons, they were the strongest structures ever built by Man… perhaps the strongest structures man will ever build. (Cold War budgets aren’t coming back anytime soon.)

Like walking through a graveyard, the few signs above ground create a sense of wonder. Who were these people? What drove them to attempt such feats? What are the stories of that which lies beneath? 

I first travelled across that landscape at 20, and I don’t think I’ll ever get bored of it. To own a parcel of it isn’t even an unattainable dream: there’s a lot of land out there, and in parts of the US 3,000 acres cost less than a one-bedroom London flat. But it wouldn’t quite have the melodrama without a missile silo on it. So my needs are simple and specific: an Atlas-F.

If your idea of a missile silo involves a big trapdoor in the desert with a rocket blasting vertically out of it, it’s the Atlas-F you’re thinking of. They cost an incredible sum to build – over $400m in today’s dollars –  yet their operational lifetime was just a few years; the fearful pace of development during the 50s and 60s made many obsolete even before the bomb went in. With no appeal except as novelties, they change hands today for under US$500,000. (In case this sounds like a bargain, consider: many of the silo tubes were imploded or flooded to discourage trespassers, and I know of no case where the tube itself has been remodelled.)

With an Atlas-F, you get a bit of land above ground, the “Command Centre” to convert into a dwelling, and – down a subterranean corridor – the missile silo itself, minus its erstwhile resident. Many are within commuting distance of major cities; the surburbs sprawl broader today. Most of the Atlas rockets eventually got used for peaceful purposes – launching satellites and whatnot – but their amazing garages remain. Gigantic Euclidean solids under the earth, temples of technology to a war that never came.

I saw one years ago, and the sense of being somewhere Man was never supposed to be is hard to describe properly. So that’s my goal: to own an Atlas-F site.

And now, what comes onto the mMash of the Titans. They didn't make many of these; even the Cold War had a budget limit.arket but a Titan-1?

There’s always a bigger fish.

The Titans were the biggest land-based nuclear missiles ever – able to deliver their megatons of radioactive death to any point on earth. A Titan site is basically an Atlas F site… in triplicate. THREE enormous vertical cylinders, a huge fuel dump and machine shop for each, plus a command centre complex, all connected at deep level by half a mile of tunnels. Now that’s what I call a project!

And one of the very few ever built is on sale. If only.

Unfortunately the price is over £2m. And let’s face it, remodelling the equivalent of three 17-storey skyscrapers through a hole in the sand is one hell of a development project. My dreams continue…

Why Nations Fail: not a book review

A great new book provides a useful further confirmation as to why socialism and the left wing in general are wrong: Why Nations Fail, by Darren Acemoglu and James Robinson. (Although the authors, as academics and probable lefties, may not like their work being seen as a vindication of global capitalism.)

The book’s main idea: whether a nation turns into a prosperous land of citizen-stakeholders, or a lawless wasteland with a venal elite, is all down to how its institutions develop.

If they’re “inclusive” – applied to everybody equally, as Britain’s broadly are – rule of law and economic growth happen as a natural consequence, because everybody’s got a stake in things getting better. If institutions are “extractive”, sucking power out of the hands of the public to serve an empowered minority – as in much of Africa and Asia – the pie never gets larger, and all you get is a gaggle of guys in sunglasses seeking an ever-greater share of an ever-shrinking pie.

In the second case, even revolutions rarely change things for the better, since once the rebels are in the presidential palaces they tend to need extractive institutions to cement their newfound powers.(Hi, Big Men of Africa!) Acemoglu and Robinson use countless examples, both in their book and on their blog – from Argentina’s early success and current basketcase status, to why China will fail in the long term despite its apparent juggernautism today. (That’s something else I agree with: Chinese mercantilism will not lead it to global leadership, the Yuan will not become a reserve currency, and it will all end in tears around 2020. Call it a Big Short.)

But there’s no reason for us Brits to feel smug. Because whether countries go one way or the other depends on some very, very small nudges near the beginning. For example, I’ve long thought that the reason for Britain’s dominance of the world in the 19th century was a simple and subtle accident: the fact that British adventurers were allowed to be in business for themselves, rather than acting as agents of the State like the Conquistadores. English Kings and Queens of medieval times were weak, and didn’t really get to order the merchants around…. which led to us developing the boundless potential of big empty places full of promise, like North America and Australia. We weren’t better by nature; we became better thanks to a happy circumstance. There wasn’t anything deliberate or insightful about it, but Britain nudged itself in the right direction around 1600, and became perhaps the most inclusive and successful nation that ever has, or ever will, exist.

Fuzzy-thinking Labour and Liberal voters (is there any other kind?) will doubtless disagree with my take here. After all, doesn’t “inclusivity” sound more like the all-are-equal dream of the Left, and “extractive” sound like fat cats getting rich off the back of the masses?

But this is down to what (I feel) is the great misunderstanding of the Left: life isn’t a zero-sum game. Nor should it be. There is not a fixed amount of work to be shared out among workers (the false reasoning behind France’s 35-hr workweek), nor a set volume of wealth that must be divided equally (the apparent belief of Britain’s grab-it-all public sector.) Equality of opportunity does not mean equality of outcome. In an inclusive system, anyone can start a business … but not everybody will prosper from it. (If the outcomes are guaranteed, there’s no reason to work hard at anything.) Some fail, some succeed, the markets allocate capital accordingly, and the system pushes itself upward. In the capitalist system, an “inclusive” system, the pie gets bigger.

It’s why Stalin, Lenin, Mao, Castro, the Kims, and champagne-swilling charlatans like Marx were wrong. It’s why the worst of British leaders, like Blair and Brown, were wrong. It’s why today’s woolly-minded lefties like “Gogglehead Ed” Miliband are wrong. But of course, plenty of people like the comfort their wrong views provide… like Britain’s wrongheaded public sector. We won’t get rid of the scourge of leftism for a while – but in the long run, it hasn’t a chance.

Twinings TV campaign: so wrong it’s not even funny

What on earth do the Twinings folk think they’re doing? Their latest commercial’s completely out in Adland.

Now, these are beautiful ads (there are three of them). And I’m all for showcasing new songwriting or singing talent. (Life can be hard for those who warble and strum, so if any young creative can snare a big brand to license her cover versions to, all well and good.) But the marketing team at Twinings need to be tied to a tree and slapped repeatedly about the head with a drawstring pouch filled with wet teabags.

These ads aren’t just wrong for the brand. They are fractally wrong*.

Take Twining’s previous campaigns featuring Stephen Fry. The great man’s not my cup of – well, y’know – but his plummy Englishness perfectly complemented a no-nonsense, down-to-earth brand with a pleasant sense of humour. The writing was brilliant, with Fry complaining how long it’d taken traditional Twinings (it opened London’s first tea shop in the 1700s) to get into the new-agey fruit teas that appeal to a younger (and predominantly female) demographic. Best of all, the ads sold the product, not just the brand. I’d never bought Twinings before Fry got involved, but pretty soon after my hand strayed a shelf down in the supermarket.

These ads, however, are “artsy”. Art for art’s sake, not because it does the right thing for the brand. And they’re always obvious. They happen when an art director sees a particular visual treatment leafing through awards annuals, and decides to use it in her next campaign, no matter what. It’s why you regularly see ads for totally different products with similar artistic treatments… and why no French TV spot ever features anything more than happy children and brightly coloured balloons. (Bit of a navel-gazing market, French-language TV.)

But think about a tea drinker. Not the most creatively rip-roaring individual, is he? Probably older, a bit traditional, might even believe the Daily Mail represents the voice of Middle England. I dare you to show this ad to any tea advocatenot the people who drink it in the office or on the building site, but the 20% of tea drinkers who buy 80% of all tea. And ask if they think that’s a refreshing representation of their brand.

The only reaction you’ll get will be, “Er?”

It’s WI members in Bournemouth and retired doctors in Tunbridge Wells who build a brand like this, not questionably literate 20somethings working out of an excitingly-painted repurposed warehouse in East London. You can’t drive sales with ads that appeal only to people in Shoreditch.

(The oddest thing is that these ads come from AMV/BBDO, and David Abbott (the ‘A’ of AMV) absolutely personified the intelligent tea drinker. No sense of their own heritage, young admen today. If you haven’t heard of David Abbott, think of Economist headlines. But I digress.)

There are, horrifyingly, other executions. I haven’t seen the one with the girl rowing across a stormy ocean (apparently a metaphor for life’s ups and downs) but my girlfriend has, and thought it was for sanitary towels. (Well, at least she got the stormy reference. Now that’s what I call “assisted recall.”)

These ads will doubtless win awards; that’s the awards game – make something beautiful. But they’re not good ads.

You tie the Twinings marketers who approved this to a tree, and I’ll bring the kettle.

* Wrong at every conceivable scale of resolution. Zoom in on any part of this advertising strategy, and you will find messages just as wrong as the entire advertising strategy.

Oh, Tesco: where did it all go wrong?

After yet another fruitless lunchtime sandwich-search in perhaps the most depressing supermarket I’ve ever been in, I asked the office “Does anyone else think Tesco is going downhill?”

Cue more nodding faces than a dubstep concert. (Or wherever the kids are going this year. I dunno, yesterday a 22 year-old said my “sex was on fire” and I didn’t get the ref.)

Tesco used to be my favourite supermarket, but it’s out in the open now: something’s gone badly wrong at the Big T, and I’m not sure it’s recoverable.

My fallen hero, there’s a simple problem: your food is crap.

Which hurts, because I know how difficult it is to do retail and Tesco is awesome at it. If I accidentally enter an Asda or Lidl, with their hunched masses of shuffling slackjaws – or worse, that TV woman slapping her bottom – I jerk backwards and grab the nearest blunt and heavy instrument*, thinking the zombie apocalypse has begun. Tesco has always felt like my supermarket, the place I’m happiest to invite into my kitchen.

(Waitrose is great, too, but the feeling I need to break out my tux and give my shoes a polish before entering is always a drawback. I mean, have you been to the Canary Wharf one on a Sunday morning? It’s more a dating club than a supermarket. They’ve got a wine bar and oyster restaurant right there among the aisles!)

Plus: Tesco does great credit cards. And of course it has ClubCard, probably the most worthwhile pointsback programme anywhere: some quarters I get thirty or forty quid in no-hassle vouchers in the post. (As a copywriter I’ve even written a few of their brochures, and enjoyed the experience.)

I think the chain started ossifying around the time it launched that ad campaign featuring talking trolleys. (You see two shopping trolleys in a park and what do you think? Blighted environment, that’s what.) But I think the real rot got a grip some years later, around 2009.

The shelves are well-stocked. The prices remain competitive.

But every dinner that began its relationship with you in Tesco is, today, a huge disappointment, isn’t it.

(Note the lack of question mark ending that last sentence.)

Tesco, oh Tesco. Did you really think we wouldn’t notice?

At the moment I’m working in cities a hundred and fifty km apart, and the limitations of a weekday rental make me more dependent than usual on stuff that’s top-oven-friendly. But the misses these days aren’t just outnumbering the hits; they are totally eclipsing them. Here are a few examples – and they weren’t hard to find.

Case Study #1: The not-so-Finest Pizzas. Has anyone in the Tesco boardroom actually eaten one of these things? If you drench one in olive oil and fresh herbs before cooking, it’ll be, at a stretch, just about edible… IF you also obliterate your palate with Dave’s Insane Sauce or something first. I mean, they cost up to £7 and they’re as blandly unsatisfying as Moshi Rox to a death metal fanatic. Appalling, especially when next to them on the shelf is Pizza Express at 2 for a fiver.

Case Study #2: A bunch of tasteless jerks. What on earth are those “Jerk [insert meat]” cartons that appeared around Q3? A box of lonely bones with a grain or two or rice spooned in? Trust me, the Carribbean contains few people who would recognise that ill-hidden strip of flesh under the jerk as chicken – and nobody at all who’d identify another dish as goat. What a shame; goat’s such an underrated meat and you’re turning off consumers at their first go. It’s an insult to goats (as well as to anyone who’s ever enjoyed a proper Jerk sauce.) I suppose I could make gelatine, but…

Case Study #3: The “Yes, We Mystery Shop in Marks and Spencer” Finest Meal for £10. The idea’s sound: main course, side dish, dessert and wine for a tenner. (I will make an allowance for the common supermarket lie “Serves 2”; everyone tells that whopper.) But my meatballs were like leftovers from a leather tannery. My potatoes had the generic consistency of yellowed lard. I don’t know what Gu thought it was doing, throwing that gritty white cake-like substance into the ring (I forget its name, but it doesn’t deserve to share space with their great chocolate puds.) And the wine? Come on folks, you wouldn’t sell that for £7 in real life.

Case Study #4: The Appalling Mr Hom. Tesco, this “Ken Hom” guy is widely known as a guy who can’t cook for toffee (including cooking toffee) – in America, a nation where half the population eats a minivan wrapped in carpet for breakfast. What’s your fascination with him? You’re not shy about pulling outside suppliers up by their bootstraps. Yet there, in the “Ethnic Food That Doesn’t Come In Jars And Isn’t Polish” section (okay, you call it “Chinese”) you give prime shelf space to a range of fried rice, spring rolls etc that are just appalling. Have. You. Ever. Actually. Tried. One? If your local Tesco isn’t open, go round the back and chew on a cardboard box retrieved from a dumpster to get an idea.

Case Study #5: I won’t rip you a new one over the takeaway sushi; supermarket onigiri are just too easy a target. But: if Lidl did sushi…

Case Study #6: A troubled relationship with alcohol. Now, most supermarkets are bad at wine (Waitrose excepted) but you’ve got noticeably worse since 2010. The white wine aisle is an endless acreage of Chardonnay, Chardonnay, and more bloody Chardonnay. If you’re really lucky, on the end of the aisle will be a chenin blanc, which is of course [Chardonnay]. There are other grapes, you know. I won’t go into here how alike the wines are – there’s barely one under £20 with any personality – because that’s just the market; most people like what they know. But c’mon, a little smoke or spiciness wouldn’t go amiss.

With great regret, it’s time to short Tesco. Could my future be that supermarket you never really notice… Sainsbury’s?

* Unless it’s the bottom. I mean, you can get arrested for that sort of thing.

The Slow People

Sunshine smiles over a spring-infused London, and the West End is warm and bright for the first time this year. I wander the streets freely, buying a T-shirt here, an Americano there; I am satisfied with life. But one thing mars this perfect scene.

A writhing, weaving, suffocating mass of organic matter infests the ancient streets of our capital. Like a Wellsian red weed, they enfold and engulf the cityscape, living prophylactics reducing its diverse qualities to a generic mulch.

I call them The Slow People.

They are everywhere. Moving with all the pace and alacrity of a Jamaican snail with some heavy shopping. When there’s clear paving ahead, they stay Slow, never seizing the opportunity to be Fast. When the crossing man lights up green, they hesitate. Often, groups of Slow People stop dead to engage in discussions concerning  matters pertaining to Slowness, preventing decent citizens from progressing. Families composed of Slow People tend to walk four abreast, blocking entire sections of pavement and turning Saturday’s vitality into mere Throng.

What defines The Slow People? Simply: they DO NOT WALK FAST ENOUGH. Their pace befits a Sunday ramble, not the world’s premier city. They move among us, but they do not belong with us.

Slow People come in all shapes and sizes; no group stands out. The old and infirm are excused my reasoned scorn; their membership of this group was not their choice. But the obese are not. Obesity, after all, is Your Own Problem. And while not all Slow People are fatties, all fatties are Slow People.

What’s wrong with these people? Exchanging two burgers for one bowl of green leaves three or four days a week is not a huge hardship; it costs nothing and will extend your life. (The developing world must look with bemusement at the number of TV shows in the UK about… people who are sad about having too much to eat.) 

Yet Slowness is not due to biology. Plenty of septugenarians and up traverse the streets with a sprightly gait and intelligence shining from their eyes; obviously their attitudes remain young. Being a Slow Person is in the mind.

And Slow People, of course, tend to breed Slow Children. The phenotype of being a lard-assed salad-dodging gut-bucket is, sadly, a persistent pattern in the modern industrialised world; but even among those of a healthy BMI there are plenty of Slow People. You see Slowness emerging in the limbs of their children; an ambling slouch without purpose or direction, like seaborne organisms doomed to a life of chance encounters with plankton, incapable of independent locomotion. Slow People cannot forge any distinctive path in life; they merely allow life to carry them along.

The Slow People are not going away. They may, in fact, get Slower.

They are The Slow People.

How to do meetings

(Repost of an old blog from my former blogging provider!)

There’s an expression I use in meetings when people are engaging in wishful thinking instead of solving the problems at hand. When they’ve come to a convenient break in their flights of unproductive fancy, I jump in with:

‘…and while we’re in Lollipop Land, I’d like a pink-maned pony to ride across the candyfloss clouds.’

In other words, I run a tight meeting. Get me leading a table and you’ll see decisions made and minutes acted on with a clear sense of purpose, everything tight as a drum. It’s not hard. Here’s how I do it.

1. Set a start time. And keep to it. It’s far too easy to lose 30 minutes or more waiting for stragglers to arrive. If the meeting starts at 10am, start it at 10, and anyone not there loses the right to be involved. They’ve missed the Chocolate-Frosted Choo-Choo that brings them to the meeting room, and they’ll have to stay over in Lollipop Land.

2. Communicate the meeting’s purpose. All meetings should have ONE purpose and ONE major outcome. Meetings are to decide things, not discuss them. If people start wandering off track, ask them how that conversation is contributing to the meeting’s purpose – or give them the line above. You may as well mention Sugarcane Mountain while you’re at it.

3. Tell people what their role is in the meeting. In other words, make sure everyone knows their area of responsibility. And don’t let them step outside it – because perversely, the best performers at work are often the worst at meetings: experts tend to think their expertise reaches beyond their area of knowledge, and will grab any opportunity to demonstrate this. Don’t let them. Every Yummy-Scrumptious Pebble on Lollipop Land’s beaches is different, but not one has more than one flavour.

4. Tell people it’s okay not to come, and that if they don’t, decisions will be made without them. You don’t want anyone there who doesn’t need to be. It’s perfectly possible to do this diplomatically – ‘If you feel this would not be a good use of your time, please tell me and I’ll cc you the minutes’. And while they’re in Lollipop Land, they can get you a cookie.

5. Practice lock-out for latecomers. People must understand that the meeting fulfills a business purpose and that if they miss it they’re preventing that purpose from being met.

6. Have a chairman. All meetings need a leader. And that’s not just a note-taker (ideally someone else takes the scribe role) – the leader introduces topics, summarises decisions taken, gets agreement, and moves down the agenda at a set rate.

7. Specify a finishing time. More important than you think. Few meetings need longer than an hour; most can be done in 30mins, and plenty can happen by phone or IM without travel involved. There’s no need to take the Choo-Choo all around Sugarcane Mountain when you only want to go as far as Gingerbread Station.

8. Issue the minutes. A single page with a title, participant list, date and time, a paragraph, and bullet points of what was done. The most important is the one-paragraph (even better, one-line) summary of what the meeting achieved, which should always include context of what needs to happen as a result of that decision.

9. Keep your eyes on the clock. If the first agenda item of 6 takes half an hour, you’re in line for a three-hour meeting – which is too long. Agree a set time at the start – say, ten minutes per agenda item. If the strawberry-shortcake clock in Lollipop town centre strikes 12, you might be stuck in Lollipop Land forever!

10. Close the meeting properly. When the end time approaches, the chairman should summarise the decisions and firmly close the meeting. If you let the conversation wander aimlessly or peter out, you’re on the fast track to Sugarcane Mountain. If you’ve dealt with everything early, then close the meeting early! ‘Fill all the time’ is never a meeting objective.

Lastly, the best advice of all: don’t go to meetings! At least 75% of meetings are unnecessary. Cancel three meetings a week, and you’re putting a whole morning’s worth of time back in your day. And over time, the quality of the meetings you do go to will rise – because people will assume if ‘the guy who doesn’t go to meetings’ is there, it must be important.

What’s driving Britain’s public sector strikes: it’s all about risk

There’s not much argument about the figures any more. Median public sector pay+benefits: £619/week. Median private sector: £479/wk. Average public sector retirement income: £5,600/yr. Average private sector retirement income: £1,115/yr. These are official statistics not tainted by bias; indeed, since they’re from a civil service source the only bias could be towards the public sector.

Yet hordes of people with a claim on the public purse are coming out on the streets tomorrow. Waving placards about how unfair it is that, in straitened economic times, they might actually have to contribute a bit more to get benefits averaging 4.5x more than the average private sector worker receives. (That 4.5 figure is the one that really matters. To put it into perspective, the total NPV-adjusted pay and benefits bill for the 6m people in Britain’s public sector is more than the bill for the entire 23m-strong private sector. 6m people cost as much as 23m private ones. And these people have the gall to call themselves hard-done-by.)

So for any private sector worker, the principal question is: why? Why? Why? As a self-employed person for whom Risk is a middle name, I’d like to think the answer is “greedy bastards”, or “ungrateful wankers”. But it’s a bit deeper than that.

The reason public sector workers are striking tomorrow is due to their total lack of understanding of risk.

Risk in its most basic form: the understanding that things can happen that are outside your control, and you can manage for it, but not eliminate it. People in the public sector don’t “get” this. Ensconced in a nannying culture that protects its workers from the real world, they don’t quite connect the realities of macroeconomics with what arrives in their pay packet.

Why? Maybe because it’s just too big, the numbers too vast to comprehend. (After all, a single public sector organisation – the NHS – is the world’s third-largest employer, all on its own.) But this is the problem. Without an understanding of risk, you can’t function effectively as a society. It leads to bad decisionmaking. Inefficient resource allocation. Outcomes that improve lives for a cossetted minority, at the expense of bankrupting the economy.

(And yes, I know what this sounds like. But the banking crisis was a result of the same thinking: the risk-reducing nature of an implicit government guarantee allowed banks to borrow at unrealistically low rates. Once again, well-meaning public policy was responsible for a bad outcome.)

Being an effective human being means understanding that sometimes bad things happen, and you’ve got to deal with them. (It might not be your fault. But it is your responsibility.) Public sector workers bleat repeatedly about how the economic crisis “wasn’t their fault”; well, whether that’s true or not, you can’t suspend reality because of it. Public sector spending as a share of GDP has been rising for years – and under the last Labour government went wild. There are areas of the UK where the public sector is three-quarters of the economy.

And this can’t be sustained, because the public sector doesn’t create the wealth that’d sustain it. Any more than taking out £200 on your Visa card makes you £200 richer.

Not getting to grips with risk is why we stop our kids climbing trees (because they might fall), prevent our policemen saving a drowning pensioner (because they might get cold), and wrap simple decisions in layers of law (because people might not understand what they’re doing.) At the heart of all these well-meant rules & regs is a fallacy: that there’s a way, somehow, of eliminating risk from our lives. There isn’t.

We should not protect people from their own decisions, because doing so stops them understanding the consequences.

This is why the public sector today is such an obstinate beast – throwing up its hands in horror at being asked to make or take a couple of percentage points in cuts. Public sector: would contributing an extra 3p in the pound to your own pensions (tomorrow’s basic gripe) really be such a hardship? If you believe it would, ask any self-employed person if they’d like a guaranteed £5,600 a year on retirement, rising with inflation, every year, for the rest of their lives… for about £48 a month. They’d jump at the chance.

But because private sector workers have a better understanding of risk, their next question will be, “How can the country afford it?”

We can’t. And it’s stupid to pretend we can.

So the government’s threat to withdraw the existing (generous) offer is the right game to play. It’ll teach public sector workers that actions have consequences; with any luck, tomorrow’s strikes will backfire on them – badly. (As the transport strikes did last summer; notice how quiet Bob Crow’s been recently?) And they’ll end up with a worse deal than they could’ve got by not striking.

Fingers crossed. Make no mistake, Nov 30 is a showdown. And it’s all over a basic concept: risk.

The Roots of marketing

Apparently the judge in Levi Roots’ Reggae Reggae Sauce case thinks “Marketing involves persuading people to purchase particular products my accentuating the quality and utility of the products or services concerned.

My word. If there was ever a sentence that proves the law’s an ass, this was it.

The argument’s about who cooked up the sauce first. This judge is shocked, shocked that the sauce is not, in fact, an old family recipe developed over decades by Grandma Root from Jamaica.

Wow, what a sweetly innocent view; I’m not surprised Britain’s legal system so often seems divorced from anything I might call “justice”. I’m happy for Judge Pelling though: what a pleasantly rose-tinted life he must lead.

For Judge Pelling, even a simple supermarket visit is an affirmation of the goodness of Man. Selecting a box of “barn eggs”, he thinks fondly about the happy chickens inhabiting the bucolic meadow on the box.  Picking up some fish fingers for his grandchildren, he gives silent thanks to the kindly sea captain and the crew of underage sailors who caught them, tossing their nets over the side of a three-masted schooner. On family holidays, he has a choice of cookies, but always goes for “America’s Favourite”, because it must be true, right?

As for the case itself, nobody can prove one way or the other who cooked up the first batch or wrote down the recipe. But that’s missing the point: a recipe for sauce, written down on a sheet of paper, isn’t a business asset. There are thousands of jerk sauces cooked up every week in London kitchens alone, and you know what…

… they’re all good. I’ve never met a jerk sauce I didn’t like. And most of the middle-class white people who buy Roots’ wares couldn’t tell the difference between any of them. They’re not buying a tasty sauce for tonight’s chicken; they’re buying the story of a characterful black guy who once strummed a guitar on a TV show.

(Remember, “Dragon’s Den” has nothing to do with business, any more than Fox has anything to do with the news. It’s entertainment, plain and simple.)

Business is about stories. When people buy into the story, they buy the products. So marketing, for the vast majority of products, is about telling those stories. Whether the marketing is successful or not depends on how effectively you can lay a story down in the minds of your target audience. Consumers are smart and savvy, and they pick the stories they want to believe in.

Oh, how I wish there were more people like Judge Pelling. If all consumers were like him, we marketers would rule the world.