Making memories: being a photography volunteer

Chris is a PCC progressive calisthenics instructor

As part of my fitness interests, I filled in on photography for part of a recent London PCC. That’s “Progressive Calisthenics Certification“, the only instructor course in the world focussing on the bodyweight discipline inspired by Paul Wade’s Convict Conditioning. (A book that changed my white-collar life.) I’ve taken the course myself, and had a blast being behind the camera – and would like to think I added value for participants too.

If you’re interested in volunteering on photography at a fitness event – whether it’s the calm of yoga, the madness of CrossFit, or a bunch of Jason Bournes doing martial arts – some tips might help. Here are the basics.

Framing the subject

First, get equipped. Bring a pro camera if you can, or at least prosumer. All cameras are good these days – but the main thing you’re looking for is speed of the snap.

That means a camera that can take in light fast enough to freeze a scene with action in it, then resets quickly, so you can take the next one without a wait. Sequences of images – like a headstand that starts from the kick-up, continues with the hand balances, and ends with the fall into a crumpled heap – look great, but you can’t do them if your camera takes five seconds to cycle between snaps. Phone cameras (especially iPhone and Samsung) can work surprisingly well; they’re optimised for off-the-cuff snapshots.

Bring more than one camera, and spare batteries if you can. (I used three plus an iPhone, and emptied every battery.) Such a belt-and-braces approach lets you snap all day without worrying about juice, and amid all the blurred fails you will capture some unexpectedly great images.

Arrive early to test. All gyms have different levels of photofriendliness. Sheeny white walls look different to gritty corrugated iron; fluorescent lighting can wash out skin and make the uber-healthy look like The Walking Dead. And if the sun’s shining, a course that takes place partly or wholly outdoors carries a whole different set of challenges. Experiment early with camera settings and find a configuration that flatters your subjects.

Al Kavadlo demonstrating side lever

Al Kavadlo demonstrating side lever

Setting the scene

A few words on general approach. At a certification, you are not a war photographer, however many walking wounded surround you by day’s end. Like Hunter S Thompson, go gonzo, get involved. The best certifications are deeply social events; they’re emotional, tribal, joyous even. So be part of the team, and roar along with the crowd.

That means making eye contact, talking to people, leaping in to say yes when people want a snap. You are not “documenting” the event; you are “creating” what used to be called Kodak Moments, little memories. Smile a lot, learn as many names as you can, and make everyone aware you’re available for them. You can tell from their eyes when they’d like you to aim your camera. Do so; it’s what you’re there for.

On the flipside, some people are camera shy. So make the promise clear at the start of the day: if anyone is offended by a shot you’ve taken – delete it, the moment they ask. It’s no big deal. If someone thinks a shot is too embarrassing or unflattering to Share, the deciding vote is theirs, not yours. Always respect people’s privacy. Unless it’s the instructor, in which case take as many embarrassing shots as you can(!)

Never a truer word

Never a truer word

Don’t overcurate. Obviously, kill off blurs and misses. But don’t worry too much about leaving in some questionable quality. Maybe your shot of someone’s L-sit cut the participant’s head off, but maybe the framing also captured a smiling face elsewhere that’d make the ideal Profile Pic with a bit of cropping. Let your audience do the curating instead!

Last, make sure you know where to put them. (For some photos, that’ll be “where the sun don’t shine”, but not all.) The standard for certification courses tends to be a Facebook album. The Chief Instructor or a keen participant will either have set it up him/herself or know where it is.

Sort out permissions-to-post early in the day, and when the day’s done, post your pictures to the group as soon as possible. That means within hours, not days.

Tricks & tactics

Last, a few tips for making your album worth looking at.

The basic tactic is think people, not crowds. By day’s end you’ll have (too) many shots of the class as a whole, listening to an instructor’s brief: don’t worry about a shortage here. But the most memorable shots tend to be closeups, people pulling cool moves or interacting in pairs or trios. Shots featuring one person alone aren’t necessarily the best choice: half the visual fun of a front lever happens below the bar, on the faces of the people watching.

So get in there. Don’t hang on the sidelines. Walk right up to people, hang off the Swedish ladder, stand on the vaulting horse to get a more interesting shot. Try to make sure you get at least a few pics of each participant as principal subject, in a pose or move they’ll be proud of.

Obviously, don’t shove your lens in anyone’s face – particularly if they’re executing an HSPU – but make sure you don’t miss anyone out. Some people will be more awkward in the lens than others. Try to make sure everyone goes home knowing they’ll see themselves in the album a few times … and feeling good about it.

The caveat, of course, is maintain situational awareness. Up close and personal is where the best shots are, but you do not want to be in the way of someone coming out of a headstand hot. (Trust me on this.) Just be mindful of who’s in your vicinity – think of yourself as a guest in their space, not someone participants have to move aside for – and you’ll be fine.

There’s another reason to get up close and personal: it stops your autofocus wandering. If you’re on the sidelines zooming in on the woman doing a terrific floor lever, there’s no surer thing than someone else will be coming out of a handstand in front, and you’ll end up with a pin-perfect snap of a random leg instead, with Leverin’ Linda a blur in the background. So try not to use zoom, however user-friendly today’s cameras make it; use your body to do the zooming instead. (Hey, functional movement is the whole point of fitness, after all.)

Use interesting angles! Nothing’s worse than the same setpiece of the gym hall with the same crowd in it, repeated over and over. So look for unusual angles that capture the fun. Get below and behind the guy doing the pullup, so you can see the triceps straining. Tilt the camera so the back lever guy’s diagonal. Shoot the parallel bars from floor level. Use apparatus, climbing the scaffold so you can capture a scene from above.  Get down and party, frame a subject through a doorway, kneel and crouch and slide around. Who says you shouldn’t get a workout?

Snap first, think later. Participants are learning, not posing; if you wait one more second for that move to look better, the move will most likely be over. So never hesitate over the shutter button. And take more shots rather than fewer; using more space on your SD Card doesn’t cost you anything. As experienced photographic assist Michelle Steenhuis says, “There’s no going overboard when it comes to photos!”

Look for the “story shot”. That pic of someone topping out their first muscle-up is terrific. But adding to it is the pic a second later, when they’re high-fiving the planet with the Face That Says Whoohoo. iPhones even have a default of taking three shots, separated by a second, that string together into a fun animation. Take as many of these shots as you can.

Remember everyone loves bloopers! Most people don’t mind their fails being shared; everyone’s learning, after all. So treat the faceplant the same as the perfectly executed skin-the-cat. These photos can be a lot of fun. (Of course, if someone does ask for a Delete … do it, without protest.)

Finally, don’t fall in love with your own camera. Offer to use theirs! Everyone will have a phone they want to capture some of their moves on. Particularly at end-of-day, when everyone wants photos of themselves for their Instagrams. A surprising number of people are a bit shy about asking, so don’t wait – offer straightaway without being asked. It’s a great help in building those memories.

And remember to have fun, folks!

Doesn’t sound hard, does it? Volunteering on camera is easy and pays you back with a whole lotta love. (The smiles I saw on people’s faces when they learned their last day would have a photographer after all were worth the earth.)

If you believe in the subject being certified, practice it yourself, or even teach it, your act of volunteering might mean knowledge of that subject spreading to someone who’d never heard of it. Maybe that person will take up the activity. Maybe they’ll attend a course themselves. Maybe it’ll change their life. All because of a photo they saw of a friend having fun.

Which, when you think about it, is the whole point of volunteering. So volunteer. You’re about to make someone’s life a lot better.

Chris Worth is a London-based copywriter and trained progressive calisthenics and kettlebells instructor who recently published the workbook for effective freelancing 100 Days, 100 Grand, available at Amazon and in 30,000 bookstores worldwide. He knows business backwards, finance forwards, and technology inside out, with interests in adventure travel and extreme sports. If you need campaigns, copy, or content, contact him here. This article also appeared on Medium.

Simple solutions to complex problems: target the hardcore criminals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.

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…

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?

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.

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.

Adventures in Spread Betting: episode 1

The interesting thing about financial spread betting is just how unlike betting it is. It's amazing how few "City traders" actually work in the City.

Betting on spreads – where you’re given bid/ask prices by your spread betting provider, and you wager a sum per point on how far and in what direction the price will move outside this range – is classed as gambling in the UK. But since you can back your decisions with all the normal tools of the financial business – technical analysis, corporate fundamentals, information – spread betting isn’t really about gambling, any more than poker’s about gambling if you know where all the aces are.

However, it’s not really about investing either. (You’re not buying a share; you’re contracting with a bookie about where its price will go.) Spread betting is really about trading. Buying cheap and selling high, like every form of mercantile exchange for 30,000 years. Like a bank extending you credit, you can trade on the margin: with most bets your provider will only ask you to front 5% of your total exposure. And you can use leverage to magnify your wins (betting £10 a point, a penny’s rise in share price gives you a thousand times that in profit) meaning the profit opportunities are large. Of course, the downside is just as big – which most people find out very, very quickly.

(One resource I use a lot is this site: http://www.financial-spread-betting.com/. It’s got a huge array of articles on pretty much every aspect of spread bet investing, including stuff about other exotica like CFDs.)

I’ve been FSBing a day or three a month for the last six months, and just starting to get into it seriously. It’s something I thought I’d enjoy; I never expected it to get vocational. But when I looked back on trades the Why of it became obvious. I don’t have a gambling mentality; in twenty trips to Las Vegas I’ve sat down at a blackjack table precisely once. But I do have an affinity with charts and patterns – the trends and trajectories of technical analysis. In spread betting, that’s what you’re really betting on – herd behaviour, not the fall of a dice or the turn of a card.

I wrote a thesis on behavioural finance once; the way human biases affect markets is a subject I know a lot about. In addition, the complexities of financial derivatives that keep most people out of the game – the calculations around stops and limits, the patterns of market timing, when to go on margin and how far to pull the leverage – are, at the scale I’m doing it, simple enough to fit on a spreadsheet.

Now I’m starting to trade seriously I’ve decided to blog my wins, losses and learnings – keeping it open keeps me honest. As with all writing, the critical thinking it forces will help me develop a trading strategy – patterns that work, patterns that don’t, places where my own cognitive biases get in the way. In two years or so I hope to be trading for a consistent monthly profit; note what matters here is consistency rather than number of zeroes. Here goes nothing…

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.

Things you don’t see every day

 Something I’ve never seen in ten years as a Londoner: a fully-laden gravel & sandbags open-bed cargo train, with open-platform steering wheel and everything, going through a Tube station! Of course, I knew such things must exist – it may be twenty storeys beneath the streets but it’s still a railway – but it just felt weird, seeing heavy industrial equipment moving through the clean-tech, electrically operated, sanitised cool hiss of the Jubilee Line.

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.