Of calisthenics and kettlebells

This post originally appeared on Medium.

 

If you're taking a leap into the unknown, call Chris does Content.Like many men in trades that involve more sitting than spearfishing, I’ve overcompensated for my clean-hands job with a lot of physical stuff. I’ve snowboarded and sparred, climbed tall walls and swum cold rivers, fallen through clouds and wondered under the waves. But there’s a problem.

I play action hero wannabe for the same reason as other men in that affluent gap between youth and old age: to feel alive. To get that zing that stems from being active, of hearing your breath in fast gasps with your heart hammering a hole. Enriched and overjoyed with the blood-rush thrill of the NOW.

And you know what? (Deep breath): none of it matters.

It’s true that on every jump or dive, there’s one moment of perfect freedom. An utter happiness where the world shrinks to a bubble around you and everything you ever wanted is right here, right now. And for a few rare souls, those moments are enough. (I can list thirty jumpers and surfers who live under canvas on minimum wage, just to keep dropzone or beach up close and personal.)

But for most, these adrenaline-hyped extremes are drug, not food. Just a release valve for the bottled-up frustrations of the everyday. And as with any Class-A fool’s gold, living solely for the next hit shovels a high opportunity cost onto the rest of your life.

That was the problem: covering up life’s negatives takes a lot of time, needs a lot of effort, and uses a lot of equipment. It hides everyday frustrations; it doesn’t solve them.

So here’s a thought: instead of living for the release valve, why not focus specifically on what’s pent-up, and try to use that instead? Not work to push it aside, but to turn your pent-up negatives into positives?

Let us re-pent.

Targetting low wage earners...As anyone who’s ever clenched a fist or grit their teeth knows, pent-up is a physical sensation. A negative one. It’s frustration with the everyday that puts the ache in your head and the battery acid in your gut.

But it’s still energy. And energy can be redirected.

That’s why my change strategy didn’t lead me towards another degree or tackling a Great Books list: mind and body are one. And with a sit-down job that involves thinking, fattening up my brainpan wasn’t the problem.

Or rather — bear with me here — it was the whole problem, but working on it would’ve been the wrong solution. Because a great many mental problems stem from incorrect maintenance of the physical self. And given that many trappings of modern life — sitting in chairs, sleeping on mattresses, taking hot showers — are habits the human animal never evolved for, it’s fair to conclude that for most of us, our bodies are in greater deficit than our minds. (Affluent living gives us comfort; it doesn’t give us health.)

So about a year back, I went all Walden on extracurricular activities. Strip it back, start from nothing, find an “extreme sport” so sturdy and spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life. Starting with the question: what can you do starting with nothing?

Three principles guided me.

onwall-blackandwhite

First: build-up not wear-out.

A lot of extreme activities carry a health warning. You need to be fit to do them; they don’t make you fit. In fact, they wear you down. A professional boxer trains a thousand minutes outside the ring for every minute within it and takes a month to recover from twelve rounds. The actual fisticuffs are the why of her training, not the what.

So whatever I chose, it had to be something whose practice led to healthy, physical improvement: a means as well as an end. Not an activity that simply enabled another activity — building up in order to wear it down again — but a what, in and of itself. Not a why.

Second: no equipment.

I haven’t done any studies, but I’d bet money there’s an inverse relationship between what people spend on physical activity and what they actually get out of it. (Beyond that brief hedonic buzz of the buying decision.)

My purchase history is littered with gear and gadgets bought in the heat of fads: I’ve forgotten what some of them even do. Animated discussions about the merits of Widget A versus Add-on B may be fun, but they mistake the activity itself for an obsession with the stuff around it. And don’t get me started on big-box machines at the gym. (tl;dr: they don’t work.)

So it all got dumped. The ideal home gym doesn’t deck the walls with a dozen Yorks; that’s the ideal hotel gym. (The one nobody uses.) The ideal gym is in your head. All you need to go there is two square metres of floorspace.

So the second question I asked: what life-enhancing activity can you do without gear? (As you’ll see later: I cheated. But not by much.)

Third: no preparation needed.

Self-help gurus are big on motivation. But motivation has high barriers to entry. You swear you’ll get out for a run, but it’s raining outside. You make an exercise plan, then get disheartened because it was too much, too soon. You bought the gym membership — more fool you — but it’s a half hour drive…

…and then you subscribe to someone else’s bullshit. CrossFit? Dance party. P90X? Wasteful overkill. Insanity? Self-flagellation. The only exercise that works is the one you actually do. (CrossFit, in particular, follows the Reverse Fight Club Rule: you must never stop talking about fucking CrossFit. And when you’re talking about it, you ain’t doing it.)

In fact, the only thing worse than fluoro-clad infomercials on the late night channels is the way even professionals measure the purported goals of fitness. BMI (Body Mass Index) is bunkum; it doesn’t measure muscle, aka “the bit that matters.” (Yes, a measure so broadly accepted it’s on the website of Britain’s monolithic NHS treats muscle and fat as the same thing.) So is five-a-day; that was an ad campaign, not a health study. And so is most of “nutrition science”. (It focusses on what’s in food, not the far bigger question of how your body takes it up.)

I had a gym membership for years; the kindest thing I can say is that the juice bar served good coffee. So I went the other way on that whole motivation thing: I wanted an activity that needed no motivation whatsoever. No times and dates, no dress code, and nowhere to go. Just get up and get in the zone straightaway, stay there or leave as you please.

Marketing from its heights... to its depthsIn the living room, naked

What this meant was an activity that a) delivered the endorphin whoosh, b) led to greater health, and c) could be done in the living room. Naked.

I found one. In fact, I found two. And it started with…

… a fucking push-up.

Yes. A pushup. The opening salvo of progressive calisthenics.

That was my new extreme sport. And if “calisthenics” just conjured up images of fluorescent legwarmers and star jumps — as it will for anyone who remembers the 80s — reread progressive. The methods aren’t 30 but 3,000 years old, and if they worked for the Spartans they’ll probably work for you.

That’s why less than a year ago my latest “extreme activity” found me leaning palms-out against a wall, exerting an absurdly easy pressure to push myself standing.

A lifetime of levelling up…

Yes. It starts like that. Against-the-wall pushups.

10 reps with perfect form? Easy. 2 sets of 10? Still easy. But try 3 x 50, with the same textbook precision. It gets strangely hard. You will sweat. You will tire. You will lose form. So you need focus, and fitness, and fortitude. All of which prog cali builds over time.

Programmes vary between four and eight basic moves per workout, each move concentrating on one area but engaging the whole meat puppet. If you get bored, each move has isometric and plyometric variants (aka “planking” and “jumping”) and add-ons for small muscle development and fine motor control. Each variant enables the next; each set builds a base for those beyond.

fail3 copyThat’s the progressive bit: you start easy and build on each move, in a upwards sequence of steadily-harder variants and reps that will take anywhere from three months to a lifetime to complete. (If you thought gathering XP, unlocking perks, and levelling up came in with games consoles, think again.)

That’s the beauty of starting from zero: the only enabling equipment is your body, and the only goal is moving it better. It’s less about exercise than about training a skill. Doing it right demands no less mental dexterity than formation skydiving, but without the need to stuff two hundred square feet of cloth into a rucksack first. (Actually — goes a skydiving joke — you don’t need to do that to skydive…just to skydive twice. But I digress.)

At the peak are superhuman moves like the back bridge and the headstand pushup, of which fewer than one in 10,000 people could complete a single rep. And somewhere, in every workout done correctly — even a tra-la-la toe-balance in the supermarket queue — is that zero-point of Zen peace, a thrilling calm in a vortex of exhilaration. Waiting to be found.

And isn’t that what extreme activities mean to us deskbound action heroes? Doing stuff anyone could do…but few actually do?

…with the level cap modded out

I‘m not doing human flags or pistol squats yet. But the benefits along the way are no less extreme. I like being able to do one-handed pushups. I like having a grip strength not far off my bodyweight. The achievements and goals at each level and progression standard, the perks you feel unlocking as lazy flesh firms up and underused muscle sings, make the connection between mind and body overt.

Hey, it might take me three years to reach Level 10. But three years of ever-increasing health? I’m up for that.

Screen Shot 2012-11-04 at 11.43.28That’s what sets up the Zen moment in prog cali. The sense you’re climbing a hill whose gradient always matches your skills and where the summit’s always in sight. The knowledge there’s no “you” beyond the patterns of your nerves—that we have no existence outside our flesh-cradled bones — isn’t some abstract philosophism; you feel it, the way a child at play feels it. It’s obvious. We’re all just sacks of chemicals, and how they slosh around covers the sum totality of human experience.

Being self-actualised — the prime takeaway of any extreme sport — is nothing more than knowing what those chemicals can do…and how to give them a nudge.

And when you do, the torments and setbacks of everyday life simply get turned to a lower volume. Every moment of every day carries the opportunity for moments of supreme peace. In the chaos of a commuting crowd, you find yourself grinning. You’re among them, but somehow above them.

(Even physically. Like Yoga, only more so, the stretches and holds of prog cali pack dense muscle around your spine in addition to prompting you to stand up straighter. The average human can expect anything up to five centimetres in height gain within a year or so.)

Look for the nothing

Hey, I’m not saying prog cali will ring your bell. It just works for me. All I’m saying is, if you’re addicted to the rush-and-a-push of weekend adventure to dissolve the strains and pains of 21st-century life, try starting again from zero.

You can even cheat on the no-equipment thing. My daily moments of inner peace aren’t quite naked any more; I’ve got into these things:

chris_kettlebell

The inevitable kettlebell bit

I added these cannonballs-with-handles mostly because I boulder (it’s like rock climbing, but without the altitude) and wanted to boost my grip. But in my mind, it’s on song with the Zen of Cali. You still need focus, you still need form, and everything builds from a small number of moves. For me, just two do the trick. (If it matters, they’re called the Swing and the Get-Up.)

One ‘bell sized to you replaces more than an entire weights bench; it replaces most of the big-box machines, too, with something that actually works. If you’re doing cali daily, a ‘bell adds a bit of spice.

I love my kettlebells as if they were my children. Small, rough-hewn, cast-iron children. But never forget: if putting the zing in everyday life is your goal, you really don’t need anything at all.

So the kettlebell pic’s here for honesty. To show that once you’ve found your zero, you don’t need stay there. Few of us really want to spend our lives loincloth-clad on a mountaintop, and few of us need to. Life’s full of great pleasures beyond those moments inside your head; if you live in your head all the time, you lose the context that gives those experiences meaning. And that leads me to the best part…

Still extreme, still Zen

…changing your outlook on life like this doesn’t stop you doing the other stuff. It just changes its purpose, positively. And, of course, it makes you better at them.

I still love the taste of a cloud. I still thrill at the sightseeing sixty feet underwater. And wherever there’s a rough wall, I look for the holds. But I don’t do them for the Zen moment anymore, because now I can get that anytime.

I’m going race car driving next weekend. But don’t worry — it’s just for fun.

Screen Shot 2013-01-20 at 16.23.50 copy

Four guys I’ve never met kicked off my journey to the zero, one of whom may not even be a guy: Paul WadePavel Tsatsouline, and Al and Danny Kavadlo. Buy their books! (I’m not affiliated to them in any way.)

Societal discounting: why white male privilege doesn’t help me

I was chatting about white male privilege recently. Let’s start by stating outright: I know it exists. I’m pretty chuffed I was born male, middle-class and of european extraction. But here’s my hypothesis: it doesn’t help me as much as you think it does.

And a bit of research backs it up. But first, the theory.

White male privilege exists

It started with a throwaway thought: that the benefits of being white and male, while real, are already “priced in”.

Priced in is a finance term, meaning those who buy into a benefit aren’t getting as much value from it as you might think. Value is “priced in” when expectations of future profit are already fully reflected in the stockmarket valuation of a company.

In other words, buy that stock now and you’re unlikely to make a profit on it. The expected benefits are already part of the stock price.

But its benefits are “priced in”…

How does value get priced in? By a basic financial mechanism: discounting.

Since the benefits of buying a stock or share are in the future—and the future is unpredictable—investors balance their expectations of profit by applying a discount factor to those forecasts, usually a percentage.

The higher the risk of not making a profit, the higher the discount rate. A couple of percent per year for a Fortune-500 company, high double digits for an Internet startup.

Discount factors take expectations of profit down a peg or two. And that’s a good thing.

… and society, knowing this, discounts it

I’m arguing that society recognises the existence of WMP, and applies a discount factor to its treatment of white males that reduces the benefits of being white and male.

I call this balancing effect “societal discounting“. (Hey, it sounds nicely sociological—a bit fuzzy and obscure—so it’s halfway to academic acceptance already.) White males enjoy a status perceived as privileged… so societal discounting acts to “takes them down a peg or two.”

Which wouldn’t harm a lot of white males, me probably included. But how does societal discounting actually work?

One trait of societal discounting is the tendency to not take any protests of prejudice experienced by white males seriously—he’s a middle-class white male! What could he possibly complain about?—and seeing white males as fair targets for levels of bigotry unacceptable when expressed towards any other demographic.

That paragraph will probably make some people angry. If you’re one of them, breathe, because it’s not meant to. I’m not sure of the degree to which societal discounting reduces the benefits of being a white male, but I accept it probably isn’t 100%.

But you’re doing it. Even if you’re a white male yourself.

This discounting negates the benefits of being white and male

Societal discounting is why it’s okay to publish a blog titled “The White Guy Problem“, deriding a behaviour that’s entirely unpleasant, yet not at all confined to white males. (And which, happily, only an ignorant fraction of any community indulges in.)

It’s why Salon republishes a feminist post singling out white males’ inability to “listen to the experiences of others”. (I’m not going to diss the writing style: its author never intended it as more than a Facebook status.) If you make it down the page, one sentence jumps out:

“[you] are being infantilizing. . . You are not taking someone else’s reporting of their own, lived experience as accurate.”

The author is right as far as she goes. But would she listen to the “lived experiences” of white males with the same degree of open-minded empathy she wants from them? Could she have aimed this valid advice at any other group without being tarred as a bigot?

But she directed it at white males, towards which almost any degree of prejudice or racism seems to be okay. (Maybe she hedged her views at the end of the article, but these pieces tend to run long copy: I’ve yet to make it to the end of one.)

It also happened in the chat that inspired this blog. The conversation was civil, but when I mentioned my “priced in” idea, the consensus quickly arose as an implicit and unquestionable understanding: I was one of those white males. Part of the problem. In inevitable sequence came the accusations of misunderstanding (true) and trolling (false.)

This is societal discounting in action. Understanding that white male privilege exists, and taking actions to discount it back towards some more reasonable norm.

And if you’re surprised by that word “reasonable”, then you haven’t been listening.

Maybe societal discounting is the right thing to do. Maybe white male privilege really does create such a distorting effect that discounting it back towards the mean is entirely reasonable.

Next, some research findings.

Some non-academic, non-controlled, non-peer-reviewed research

Back-of-envelope research needs easily accessible data with a reasonable chance of finding something in it. What follows isn’t statistically valid (although it is statistically significant) nor qualitatively appropriate. In other words, it’s a judgement sample rather than a rigorously controlled one.

So I’ll note here: I have some training in econometrics, and use modelling and analysis every day. I do understand the limitations of a sample. So unless you know your CI from your SD: whatever your complaint about my data or findings, I’ll already know it.

TV sitcoms and semi-comedies were my data landscape. (Cue laughter track.)

Why? Because comedy tends to a) magnify societal mores, and b) lag a bit behind the times. (Statisticians might call them a judgement sample of society.) Sitcoms aren’t exactly a mirror of society; they’re more like a shaving mirror, emphasising further bits that already stick out. Soap operas would work too, but I’ve never watched any.

In an attempt at control, I chose them all from the last 20 years, from both the UK and USA, and with a mix of characters from diverse backgrounds. This meant classics like The Cosby Show and Fresh Prince got nixed, but The Simpsons and Buffy (known for strong female characters) made the cut. I found 61 in total.

Why sitcoms were no laughing matter

The results were startling. Of those featuring a white male lead character, in 84% of cases that character had a negative trait—and the trait was remarkably consistent, over two-thirds strongly biased towards a bumbling nature or loveable idiocy.

Just 18% featured a female lead character with a negative trait—and in 8 of these 11 shows, the trait came from a range of comedic stereotypes (the scatty blonde, the socially inept nerd) rather than a consistent characteristic of idiocy.

There was another finding. A random subsample of plotlines demonstrated that of the shows featuring a bumbling white male lead character, that trait substantially defined the plotline of many episodes. (Think of how often Homer’s idiocy is saved by Marge’s better nature.)

The cod conclusion: societal discounting against white males is an integral, unquestioned norm in the media we consume.

It’s okay to make fun of white males, in ways unacceptable about other ethnicities or genders.

White males reading this might feel aggrieved at this finding. I don’t. Because I understand why it happens. It’s just societal discounting, taking white male privilege down a peg or two. (Bear in mind most of these shows, including those featuring ethnic and minority characters, are written and produced by white males. British and US comedy shows aren’t exactly a feminist plot.)

And society hasn’t exactly collapsed because of it, has it? I laugh at The Simpsons too, you know.

But here’s the kicker: it’s okay

In discussions about sexism or racism, my experience is that of many white males: I’m either not allowed an opinion or seen as part of the problem. My own lived experience is discounted, by the same people who say I should be listening to theirs.

And you know what? Understanding societal discounting, I’m okay with that.

Because I am, after all, still white and male. Still defined by my ethno-cultural background. A quick scan of my Kindle reveals a great many white male authors and surprisingly very few women or people of colour. The writer most in tune with my personal philosophy was female, and I admire Toni Morrison, but I realise I’ve never read any of her books whole.

However, I did live overseas for a large part of my life, where I was a minority in race and mother tongue. I went to university in my 30s, on a course where white males were a tiny minority. Today, I live in one of Britain’s most diverse neighbourhoods; my (non-white) partner has suffered serious racism although she never let it slow her down.

So I do know a bit about this stuff. I’m not perfect, but hey—neither are you.

Modern society treats white male privilege as damage and routes around it. This blog won’t get lauded as a piece of social commentary, or even accepted as valid. Because if you’re non-white, non-male, or have ever experienced prejudice, you’ll discount it.

And that’s ok.

Adding a second dimension: the Nolan Chart

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

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

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

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

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

This mailing to a cold list got 19% response. Here’s how I did it.

It might not look much. But this one-page letter to a cold list (part of my 100 Days, 100 Grand project) returned an incredible response rate… between ten and twenty times what a snail mail campaign usually delivers. (And hundreds of times what you’d expect from anything beginning with “e-“.)

One director called it “the best piece of direct mail [he’d] received since starting the agency“.

As an exercise in navel-gazing, here’s the text of the letter… with my notes on why I think it worked.

Chris's letter to a self-built database of inbound marketing agencies.

The letter itself. Note extreme mailmerge fields.

Opening para: making friends

Nobody writes proper letters any more, do they? The kind you open without a click. Scribble notes in the margins. And delete with a crumple. When you do get a proper letter, you notice it.

Ah, the kick-off. It breaks most of today’s rules: no upfront offer, no call-to-action. It’s a preamble.

But… it interests you, doesn’t it? A straightforward truth: you don’t get personal letters any more. A real person wrote this, thinks the reader. And I’m guessing most of them got past this para without aiming it into the circular file. Takeout: before establishing your offer, first establish you’re human.

Body copy: setting the scene

I noticed «COMPANY». Because you're sky-high in SEO for "«CUSTOMPARA1»". (As I am for "London copywriter".) I'm writing in the hope you'll notice me. Because your "«CUSTOMPARA2»" approach syncs with what I do: custom copy for content marketers.

This para’s where I swing in the big guns: extreme personalisation in the mailmerge fields. (With a parenthetical riff on my own SEO rank.)

«CUSTOMPARA1» is the search phrase I used to build my list: the first few pages of Google results are, by definition, hot prospects. While «CUSTOMPARA2» is the agency’s (they were all agencies) approach to its work lifted from its website. (It’s usually a punchy portmanteau term like attract-convert-repeat.) So we’ve established rapport: I know what they do, and I took some effort to find out.

Callout 1

Add chrisdoescontent.com to your list of freelancers...

Now here’s the first part of the offer, centred and highlighted as if with a yellow pen. It only took two paras to get here, and it jumps off the page – most importantly, it tells the reader what they’ve got to do. Something a surprising number of mailings forget.

The support act…

Why use me? Because I've done a lot of what you want. My stuff combines fresh ideas (I'm an indie novelist on the side) with experience gained at top-10 ad agencies (200+ campaigns and 1000+ articles across Asia and Europe.) All backstopped by research methods from a top-1% MBA that keep the insights solid. That's why clients use me for years and stay friends forever. More at chrisdoescontent.com/what.

Once your reader’s interested you need to give them a reason to stick around, so I added the backup. Hard numbers and facts are what work here; your readers are getting down to business, and the touchy-feeliness of the intro is over. (Well, almost.) Yes, I do what it says on the tin. Now questions are forming, it’s also time for a link.

… with backing dancers

While I haven't worked for clients on your roster, like «CUSTOMPARA3» or «CUSTOMPARA4», I have created campaigns and programmes for big names like «CUSTOMPARA5». I'm mostly B2B, in tech /media /telecoms, finance, healthcare, automotive and aerospace. Know-how that may be of use to you: hit the ground running and all that...

Into the mailmerge forest again. The data here took ages to extract. <<3>> and <<4>> are the names of actual clients on the prospect’s roster. There’s no fast way to build metadata like this; until The Semantic Web hits its stride (at least another decade) trawling through websites by hand is the only option.

And <<CUSTOMPARA5>> is a handpicked selection of my clients – clients which match as closely as possible the sectors the prospect operates in. I’m moving in closer with every sentence.

...but it's pricey, right? Nope. Try £450 for a 1,000wd+ research paper or consideration content, less for snacks and snippets elsewhere on the nurturing pathway. Or £225 for a 500wd listicle with metadata. And turnaround times that can drop to 24 hours if your deadline's hot.

It’s time for go in for the kill. Content marketing – the point of this mailing – is price-sensitive, and while I try not to compete on price, it’s a reality of this space. I simply worked out what I need to work up a killer article (half a day min) and priced it in.

You can lean on me for teasers, pages, posts, blogs... Buzzfeeds, featurettes, infographics, and newsletters... microsites and Case Studies and White Papers. The whole kit and caboodle, with metas, tags and links whomped up and ready to go. I've worked on platforms from WordPress to HubSpot to Uberflip to SlideShare, in formats as diverse as PPC, ePub, and XML. I'm also conversant with 12 CMSs, HTML5 and CSS. See chrisdoescontent.com/portfolio for the exhibit.

Notice I used a couple of buzzwords in the previous para – listicle, metadata – to show I’ve got a grip on social and content marketing? They were warmups.

In this most verbose paragraph in the letter, I list the applications and formats I think they work with, and will expect me to know. It’s filler, but solid filler.

Callout 2

...and get your first content marketing brief answered for FREE

Again highlighted, the second of the 2 callouts communicates my offer without anyone needing to read the body copy. (As any good piece of marketing should.)

Closing para and call-to-action

But there's one thing you don't get: hassle. Contact me with a brief; I'll write you a sample you can use at no cost. I'm on 07876 635340 or chris@chrisworth.com; current availability's about 9 days/mth. Let's talk.

It’s time to sign off. All the boxes are ticked here: offer front and centre, with a note that subtly communicates further proofs (I’m available, but not too available, ‘cos that’d mean I’m no good.) Hammered home with a homily.

Do I need to mention the letter was personally signed? My wrist’s still sore.

Footer block

PS. You can download a PDF of this letter from chrisdoescontent.com/?attachment_id=«xxxx». (All right, proper letters don't work for everything. Let me know if you went all TL;DR on me.)

Every sales letter needs a PS. This one adds a neat trick: I uploaded each individual letter (not the template) to my site, and the reader can download the exact letter he received by clicking a unique URL. I finish the way all sales letters should: with a chuckle that gets the reader’s head nodding.

How could it be improved?

envelopesBeing self-critical is a good trait for any copywriter, so here’s what I think I did wrong.

First, I should have put the offer in the postscript somehow. People still scan down to a PS before they get into the body copy. And using the too long; didn’t read euphemism was borderline; while agency bosses are web-savvy, they don’t always speak geek.

Second, the transition between the opening and second paras doesn’t quite hit the mark. I talk about letters being noticed, yet when “I notice them” it’s not because I got a letter. Small stuff, but it’s lapses like these that make tears in a piece of copy’s overall fabric.

Third, the backup in the middle. Lengthwise it works, but I’m divided as to its density. Too much jargon? Am I sounding clever rather than intelligent? On the edge.

But ultimately, this letter worked for me, so you be your own judge. And if you’d like me to do some content marketing for you – or just write you a sales letter or two – contact me here.

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

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

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

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

Hundred days, hundred grand: a fun work goal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SFF: one F too many

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twenty five years on from Rushdie we are too frightened to say we are scared

Excellent piece on the corrosive fear of consequences that’s infested every corner of a timid British media.

Nick Cohen: Writing from London

British publishing is now such a neurotic and hypocritical business there are stories it cannot cover. Nor should it try. When journalists, writers and artists can’t be honest with their audience, when they can’t even be honest with themselves, silence is preferable to the damage their double-standards bring.

Last month our media commemorated the imminent anniversary of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie by trying and failing to report the threats to the life of Maajid Nawaz, the chief executive of Quilliam Foundation. In a vindication of Kipling’s “once you have paid him the Dane-geld/you never get rid of the Dane” fanatics are after Nawaz not because he satirised the founding myths of Islam, as Rushdie did, or projected sexist verses from the Koran on to a naked woman’s body, as Theo van Gogh and Ayaan Hirsi Ali did, but because – brace yourselves – he tweeted a picture of Jesus…

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Fitzgerald, Fagles, or Lattimore?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kahnemann’s Prospect Theory: a summary in one graphic

Human behaviour isn’t that hard to understand if you do the work. And my favourite theory of it involves Cognitive Biases: the core emotionally-led behaviours that drive the decisions we actually make, rather than the decisions that might be more rational.

Cognitive Biases are rooted in Kahneman and Tversky’s Prospect Theory, which was crucial to my MBA thesis some years back. (Nice of him to summarise his life’s work AFTER I’d ploughed through the academic literature.) Basically, it’s an add-on to Expected Utility Theory (where we take risks based on the outcome we expect) that draws in Cognitive Biases (the emotional factors that govern what we actually do.)

While the concepts aren’t hard, there are around a hundred Cognitive Biases recognised in human psychology, making it hard to summarise with any rigour. But there’s a great diagram in Thinking, Fast and Slow that brings its three key points together.

prospect-theory

First, note the y-axis, “Psychological value”. That takes account of the human factor Expected Utility doesn’t: £500 has different perceived value to a pauper and a millionaire, so setting this axis for your audience – the  “base rate” on which they make decisions – is key.

Second, note it’s S-shaped. If you’re winning, it takes a lot more wins to get the same flush of excitement you did on your first win. (Diminishing returns are what keep sensible adults at slot machines for hours at a time.) The perceived utility depends on how much utility you’ve got already.

Third, note it’s not symmetrical. This illustrates the biggest Cognitive Bias of all: Loss Aversion. (We tend to resist losing a lot more than we accept winning; it’s why investors ride their losing stocks down, while selling their winners while they’re still rising.) Loss Aversion is at the core of much human behaviour.

And that’s it. In tune with my theory that you only need one good book to understand 90% of any field, that’s all any marketer needs to know about Cognitive Biases and how useful they can be in understanding customers. If you’d like some of these principles applied to your own marketing, contact me.

A foray into fiction

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

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

 

Enough of the dancing, already!

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

NOT.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Simple solutions to complex problems: target the hardcore criminals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Method Writing

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

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

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

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

 

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

Taking a year off: a 365-day stretch goal

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

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

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

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

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

The new garret, sorry, I mean garage.

The new garret, sorry, I mean garage.

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

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

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

Either way, the next 365 days will tell me.

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

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

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

Watch this space.

Presidium Commons in… The City

More City of London than Citadel – but doesn’t the Sky Garden atop London’s latest skyscraper look a lot like the Presidium Commons? You be the judge. Full article at the London Evening Standard.

Screen Shot 2013-06-06 at 15.35.47

Screen Shot 2013-06-06 at 15.35.30

Well, I am the guy who once did a tour of the Mojave Desert to honour an XBox game…

One Good Muslim

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hundred Year Club

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

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

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

In short, I’m in with a good chance.

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

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

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

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