October 19, 2014

My amazing father-in-law passed-away yesterday morning. I wish I could say it was a peaceful transition to the next world, if there is one, but it wasn’t. It was harrowing. Not pretty. All of the core family were at his hospital bedside those last few hours and at times he was lucid enough to talk to his wife of 45yrs; he best summed it up when she said think of our times on the Italian coast: the warmth, the sun, the wine, the sea breeze … Ken, being a Yorkshireman, simply said “Sorry, love. I can’t. This is shit.”

And he never - well, rarely - swore. His saddest utterance at the end being “I can’t stop breathing.” He so desperately wanted the pain to end. I went to the wonderful nurse on duty several times to ask her to administer him more morphine, and the final time I went to her she confirmed he had gone and the oxygen was switched off.

At last, silence. He was finally at peace.

He was a truly incredible man - he’d overcome/endured numerous illnesses over the past decades yet finally succumbed to recently diagnosed pulmonary fibrosis. There is no cure, we were soon to discover. He was of an era of engineers that could make or fix anything. We need 3D printers now because such people no longer exist. One Ken was worth a million 3D printers.

So, he’s gone. His imposing frame - so battered but seemingly invincible - suddenly became a sunken shell, with that jaundiced pallor and waxy skin you’ll only know if you’ve seen and touched the recently deceased. The last time I had such an experience was just a few years ago when our 17yr old nephew suddenly died of a hitherto unknown heart condition.

Age makes little difference - within minutes we all become simply another cadaver.

So, increasingly, much of everyday modern life seems trivial and meaningless. I’ll soon be yet again serving drunks at the bar and wondering if I’ll ever get a ‘proper’ job again.

I guess it doesn’t really matter, either way.

With thanks to the wonderful staff of Ward 5, Huddersfield Royal Infirmary and to Ken, my father-in-law, for teaching me about the joys of being part of a loving family.

He’ll be sorely missed.

October 15, 2014
Creating Wealth - and Jobs.

Isn’t really happening, is it? In fact, do you know anyone who actually creates wealth and, most importantly, jobs?

A recent statistic showed that the biggest employers in the world were either involved in the military, retail, fast-food, or (the one noble entry), the British National Health Service.

This pretty much reflects the dysfunctional nature of our society, economy, culture: we are either preparing for war, buying crap we don’t need, eating crap food that we certainly don’t need, or trying to get our weary bodies fixed as a result of the damage caused to us by modern life.

Not that long ago, everyone you knew either worked in a factory or an office. A few worked in an odd thing called retail but that wasn’t a real industry. Nobody you knew worked in media or finance. Yet, somehow, we survived. We even prospered: the swinging 60s that are so fondly remembered for encapsulating all we wish life to be (fun, work, money, optimism, freedom, aspiration) was a decade devoid of industries (sic) that we now see as essential to modern life and the creation of wealth. And jobs.

They’re not. And they don’t.

Let’s get this straight: society’s ills are not going to be remedied by a proliferation of independent coffee-shops. Nor by a wave of boutique venture capitalists. Nor by artisan software startups.

Bespoke cupcakes once promised salvation, but that dream was short-lived…

The supply-chain of life’s meaning has been irrevocably broken and we are desperately trying to apply old economic principles to the contemporary world we have created.

It’s not going to work.

The factory’s long gone; converted into retro industrial kitsch offices and apartments for hipsters who won’t ever create anything real. The hipster will pop to the independent coffee-shop on the corner, maybe buy a cupcake, and return to his ergonomic desk and ponder writing some more code for an app that will most likely serve no real purpose and never make a profit, let alone create jobs/wealth.

Thus, the self-appointed masters of the universe bankers have manipulated the pseudo-economy (now it is no longer a real thing anyway) and ‘make’ money from money, and the remaining mere mortals still solvent ‘make’ money from their homes spiralling in ‘value’ - an asset of worth only because it is a currency for proof of our existence, to be traded with others on the same merry-go-round.

All the time nobody actually does anything of any real merit.

The swinging 60s is but a distant memory; a time we look upon so fondly yet we have let all our values from that time erode to the point where real economics is considered nostalgia.

So, we now have the service-industry niches as our sole growth employment sector - work which is typically low-paid, menial, pointless. An utterly circular function: pour a drink, collect the dirty glass a few minutes later; wash, rinse, repeat.

Nothing has been created, it leads to nothing - transient, vacuous. So much work, so little purpose. Zero reward. Survival. This is our future, serving the increasingly elite few who have disposable income and because they have all they can buy, their only method in gaining a daily consumerism-fix is via the frequent patronage of service-industry establishments. And how many of them have accrued their money by creating wealth and jobs?

Good luck to those with a comfortable lifestyle - it’s an increasingly rare luxury - but just how sustainable is any of this and how uncomfortable will our fractured society become before it finally breaks?

I responded to an online question the other day, via Gary Chou’s Twitter, asking how I felt. I simply replied ‘empty’.

I sense many feel that same way. Maybe to go forward we need to look backwards to the 60s for example. Why do we always assume progress is a good thing? This blinkered endorsement of everything ‘tech’ bestows upon us is myopic; society best functions when we can see and understand what we and our neighbours do for a living; we are now so detached from real work we have nothing to talk about, no hope, no aspirations.

The 60s hope and optimism was reflected in the vibrancy of the youth - the future. Most had decent, honest, well-paid jobs. The youth of today have worthless degrees that are a huge debt for the rest of their lives, with little chance of ever securing a meaningful job. The service-industry beckons for most of them.

We have all become the aspiring actor working in Hollywood - serving tables until that big opportunity comes along…

Dream on.

October 7, 2014

Part of my current work inevitably often exposes me to people who are drunk - sometimes they are very drunk and rather distasteful to deal with, frankly. I had one particularly horrendous episode earlier this week which has really shaken me and made me desperate to return to my IT/business career, or anything - anything - else.

What really intensifies the obnoxious and insane nature of such scenarios is the fact that I am totally sober, of course; my being on nightshift bar duty/etc. I still enjoy a glass - or three - of red wine on my evenings off, but my perception of alcohol/people has changed dramatically since I’ve been in this role.

Sobriety in such environments immediately makes one an outsider and also enables one to have control and perspective. This has made me realise how when we are inside a situation which is wrong we fail to see our errors because we are drunk with the group-behaviour of what we are doing - the silo-mentality combined with peer-pressure is a corrosive force.

Thus, the VC cannot see the madness in valuing yet another startup at $6m; an investment banker thinks it normal to boost the stock of an ailing company in a stagnant economy, or they will IPO a tech company for $20bn because it’s ‘cool’; the politician sends arms to an enemy to defeat the latest enemies (my enemy’s enemy is my friend distorted logic); the actor believes they need a $10,000 watch to convey their worth.

Try and step outside.

See the madness around you.

Be the sober one amongst the drunks.


September 30, 2014
The Internet of Things…

Is you. Nothing more, nothing less.

Pseudo-tech companies (see my recent blog, ‘Vanity Matrix’) are embracing TIoT as a way of proving (sic) they are relevant; enhancing our lives in a tangible way and so dispelling the cynical view of some that most of the apps/devices that they offer for our latest iAmulet or iTalisman are nothing more than a transient, worthless, consumer trinket.

Just imagine, your fridge re-ordering milk when it senses you’re running low. Sit in smug awe on your train journey home, knowing you can remotely adjust your home thermostats, room by room. Sleep safe at night knowing your smart-watch is uploading your latest physiology data to your doctor. Delegate your relationships to an app; relieve your soul via virtual mentor; find a restaurant by recommendations from people you don’t know. It’s no longer a dream - it’s reality!

You get the picture.

True tech is transformative, ideally in a positive way for mankind. True tech is hard: it’s tangible and impacts our lives physically every day. Pseudo tech is vacuous and often pretentious; desperate to find ways to justify that billion dollar valuation. It doesn’t have a factory, or an artisan workshop - it’s a few hipsters with iMacs writing some code. Don’t be told otherwise - coding is pretty damn cheap and risk-free when compared to doing something ‘real’.

This is the difference between true and faux tech companies.

The greatest asset in TIoT is you. And others. For pseudo tech companies in the context of you as the product; in real tech companies you are the enabler. Big difference. Do you want to be a data-source or a person?

That we can immediately witness and discuss protests in Ferguson or Hong Kong and within minutes understand what has catalysed such events, and feel an empathy for the people involved - people like you and me - is what we need to embrace: the opportunity is finally with us for real change, and empowerment for all. But, to do so, we need to ensure we don’t end up using this amazing era of connectivity simply for the digitising of mundane analogue functions.

To be sold the notion that such apps/devices are liberating is disingenuous. They are not, they are simply a distraction from the real issues that are brooding in our society, regardless of where we live, our culture, our status.

Use TIoT to learn, share, communicate. To help. To enable change.

We are all in this together; the plutocrats, technocrats, and autocrats would prefer we continue to focus on the latest shiny new app avatar on our smart-phone/watch. Nothing will change if we do so, we will simply further digitise our lives and souls and waste the unique opportunity that is before us.

The Quantified Self? Think more about The Quality of Self - for you, and others like you.

September 28, 2014
Ever Get The Feeling You’ve Been Cheated?

So uttered - well, snarled - John Lydon (Johnny Rotten) of The Sex Pistols, concluding their last gig, in SF, 1978…

He had - has - a point. I don’t for one moment believe he was referring in isolation to the gig, for whilst it may have not been the best concert ever, it delivered exactly what was promised: a somewhat chaotic, visceral death-rattle sensory assault from the dying days of both punk and the ‘pistols. Punk saw the sense to kill itself whilst it was still a nascent force - anger is an energy; entropy didn’t appeal - it was so intense, so angry, it couldn’t sustain itself just for the sake of it.

The A&R folk from the record labels jumped on the bandwagon long after the moment had passed and proceeded to market to the youth pale imitations of what punk represented.

It didn’t last long; imitations rarely do.

So, why do we entertain the notion of being ‘sold to’? Can we not for ourselves identify what we need, what we want? The advertising industry was happy with its media/consumer stasis of TV, print, etc, until the new media of the internet came along - suddenly, it saw the need to penetrate every possible new media iteration. Or so it told its clients; which was handy, as it meant they had a whole new high-growth revenue stream to wallow in - and one again with no tangible metrics/analytics for a RoI on the client’s millions of dollars being spent ‘to advertise’.

Advertising, like banking, government, and SV startups, sees no need to concern itself with sordid little matters like the value of money.

I sometimes wonder if Facebook is nothing more than a vehicle contrived by a cartel of advertising executives around the world, hyped to ensure they have a platform to spend their gullible clients millions of dollars on, and so keep their agencies in the lifestyle they’ve become accustomed to.

Look at the huge success of the supermarket chain, Aldi, in Europe - and especially in the UK, in these times of austerity (the new normal) they have crushed the advertised-to-hell legacy giants and their associated ‘premium’ brands within. Like most shoppers at Aldi my wife and I don’t have a clue about the brands we buy in their stores - we just know they represent remarkable value and taste/work as good as the ‘leading brands’ which cost 3-4 times more. It’s a no-brainer.

Aldi’s own advertising is humble, witty, and almost apologetic. It realises it’s a token tradition and not correlated to their sales growth.

Similarly, but at the opposite end of the spectrum, the prestigious restaurant/hotel where I work (now that my IT/business career is seemingly in abeyance), is always very busy - it doesn’t advertise, and it is pretty expensive, but the ‘product’ is impeccable and word of mouth continues to ensure its success, year after year.

You don’t need to sell something that has merit and is relevant.

Certainly, companies such as McDonalds et al need to advertise like hell - if you’re selling a crap product that people don’t need, in a market rife with similar crap products, your only differentiator is your visibility to the half-witted consumers that comprise your target demographic.

So, do you ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?

September 25, 2014
You Can’t Buy Class.

Watching The Sopranos just now, the Cold Stones episode, reminds me of how elusive class is, and how you can’t buy it; neither can you build it or retain it (if you had it), as you desire. Its anointed, so treasure it; maybe then you’ll have a chance of attaining and keeping it.

Everything has its apogee. I guess mine was about 2006 - I had finally found and married the love of my life and was about to get $1m funding for my startup (the former is doing better than ever, the latter lies dead on a cold USB, somewhere). The Internet’s was with Twitter - the only new communications channel since TV; all else is noise/pale imitations.

NYC’s was circa 1996 - broken glass policy kicked-in, 9/11 was years away. London peaked about 1990 - then hubris and greed well and truly consumed it. Apple? 2008. Cars? The Mini, 1962. Ironically, much as I am ambivalent about Paris, and the absurdity of the French economy (sic/oxymoron alert) - it still has class.

Bravo, Froggies! You even have/had the 2CV, also; which was actually better than the Mini. Don’t tell anyone I said that.

Asia, et al, try and build (buy) status and class - it doesn’t work that way, guys. The latest tallest building? Who gives a fuck? If you hadn’t noticed, the Eiffel Tower, the Chrysler Building, Big Ben … well, they’re not very phallic; they exude simple class. A gentle touch we’ve long lost (see my Brands and Placebos posting from a few months ago if interested in such ramblings). The Shard in London? Just another fairly tall building, with the token ubiquity of an ‘edgy’ design. Yawn…

London, New York, Paris. The 3 most iconic cities in the world, to this day. Yet, I’d tender, only Paris truly warrants that mantle today.

Carmela sees - and is rightly in awe of - the innate beauty of Paris and tries to reconcile that with her faux classical style at home in NJ. Her sense of wonder and disquiet is palpable: it’s both humbling and frightening when you realise your work has been in vain.

What’s next?

September 22, 2014
You’re Dying.

Don’t get too upset: we are all dying, of course; even that arrogant rich chap, with a trophy-wife on his arm and in his bed. His time is finite and who knows, with his hedonism he will probably shuffle off his mortal coil ahead of you…

Once again, my wife and I have been visiting the hospital a lot, lately - my wife’s father is already a pretty poorly guy and recently was diagnosed with pulmonary fibrosis. Not great news. Anyway, he’s been in hospital on oxygen 24/7 for over a week now. He’s just 65yo so should be enjoying his retirement years. Fat chance of that it seems. Yet, when one looks at some of the other patients on his ward, and tearful visitors walking - stumbling - to and from the car park, we realise he is in a pretty good place at the moment, relatively.

It’s certainly ironic timing, as this developed when I had just re-established contact with my own father, after a period of purdah that lasted some 16 years. I won’t delve into the reasons why, now (not that I can fully assess/understand the reasons why anyway), but it seemed to stem from my needing to lash-out and punish someone for the absence of a mother in my life; he was the only recipient I could think of as God didn’t factor in my life back then, so I couldn’t blame him.

My mother was gravely ill much of her life and died when I was 10 years old. Because of this I have no - none - recollections of my mother - the only evidence of the two of us together being a solitary faded photograph from 1961; she is healthy at that time and looking with love at her one year old son - me. She is stunningly beautiful in the picture. This only added to the pain and sense of loss that developed within me as I grew older, manifesting itself with my severing contact with my father when I was 36 years of age. It wasn’t my dad’s fault that she died/my loss, my absence of memories. He suffered too, but I was too young to notice/care. When he re-married in 1996 I guess this was also the catalyst for my petulance; his wife is a fine person and has made him happy - I can now see how good this is and am happy for them both. Maybe if I had a sibling I could have rationalised things better at the time. Anyway, what’s done is done and it’s time to move on.

I am now 54 years old, and hopefully a tad wiser with regards to life and death. Conversations with my dad are good and we spend ages on the phone discussing motorcycles, cars, aviation, etc - his favourite topics, and also mine from the time we were together. At 80 years of age he still rides his Norton motorcycle (and others!), but had to stop flying a few years ago. It is nice having these chats, re-connecting, before either of us leaves this earth, as we all will.

It’s obvious, really, death, yet we consider thinking about it to be a dark thing; the danger here is it leads us to think time doesn’t matter - we have all the time in the world. We lose perspective.

Tell that person you love that you love them. Try to not row; if you do, make up as soon as possible. Embrace friends and family and don’t get too despondent at the small niggles in life that can sometimes consume our minds and emotions. Be nice to strangers; read Desiderata every few days. Be thankful you are healthy and safe and pray (in a secular/non theological way if you wish) for those who are suffering - and there’s way too many people in that situation. Don’t spend all your time bloody online. Live life.

Take care and enjoy life.

It’s better than the alternative.

September 16, 2014
Whatever People Say I Am, That’s What I’m Not.

So goes the title of the Arctic Monkeys’ debut album.

I’ve never really thought too deeply about the meaning of such an obtuse statement; being quirky Sheffield lads, humour/ennui comes in many guises; as their subsequent career and worthy success testifies.

However, I’ve been thinking about it of late: not just because I love their music and love Sheffield (having lived there many years, and also being a Sheffield Wednesday fan, like the Arctic Monkeys), but because I can begin to understand, now, what they were intimating at in that title: ‘You might think you know me - what I am, where I’m from, what I can do, but you really don’t have a clue. Don’t judge me.’

I’ve blogged a few times over the past few months regarding my current employment in the hotel/restaurant business, since the demise of my startup/consulting work and peripheral projects I’ve been involved in - all painfully stumbling down dead-ends. It reached the point where any income at all/any kind of work was better than banging my head against the wall as an ‘entrepreneur’ - fortunately, I was introduced to some part-time work at a local prestigious hotel/restaurant and I seized it, as an interim solution.

Well, a year on and my erstwhile tech/business career remains stalled, so I am still here. Thankfully, the people here are wonderful and although much of what I do is repetitive and menial, poorly-paid, and requires working anti-social hours, it has enabled me to learn a lot about people - and myself.

When I engage in conversation with customers - or colleagues who don’t know my past - often people are surprised, and wonder how I got to where I am. I don’t readily discuss much of my past as it can sound like bullshit, frankly, in the context of who people see me as now.

I’m not the person you think I am. I’d like to be somewhere else, utilising my skills and experience, but, like many others, all I can find is service-industry work - which I am thankful for, trust me. As I said, I’m lucky to work in a beautiful environment, with wonderful colleagues.

Yet, I feel it now defines who I am in the world - and I don’t like it.

I expect more of myself, and desperately feel the need to be building products/companies - creating wealth and jobs. Our time here is limited and I am terrified of going to my grave with my most recent legacy being ‘he did laundry, set breakfast for the guests, poured drinks, cleaned the bar, monitored the CCTV cameras, and was good with the customers.’

Jesus, that terrifies me. Is that it? My eulogy?

Sure, I’m also - most importantly - ‘a good person’ I like to think/am told. But, for me at least, that is not enough.

Getting back to perceptions: when strangers finally extract some of my background from me, they typically think I must be doing this as ‘something to do’ - a paid hobby, almost - my having ‘clearly’ retired very early in life and just wanting a bit of a no-hassle part-time work. Typically, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at this point in our conversation. Sometimes, I am even mistaken for being the owner of the establishment - which is both flattering and amusing.

In summary: Work does define who you are; I don’t need to cite Maslow here, I am sure.

Anyway, I don’t like who I am right now.

This is a problem.

September 15, 2014
Medium/Well Done.

Listening to BBC Radio 4 the other day (I tend to flip between 3, 4, and the World Service) I was reminded just how beautiful a medium the radio is for learning; so often radio is perceived as primarily being the domain of music we can forget its power to communicate a diverse range of topics in just the space of a couple of hours.

Learned guests, passionate communicators, vox pop, true thoughtful reporting/journalism (remember that?) - radio can embrace it all and segue from poetry to politics in moments, holding you transfixed in a manner neither the internet nor TV can compete with.

The beauty of being able to read, drive, daydream whilst looking out of the window, whilst still absorbing a radio transmission is unique: it doesn’t demand attention from all our senses - it directly taps into our brain in a unique manner - TV requires we accept the distraction of noisy visuals often irrelevant to the narrative. As for the internet - well, now that is a demanding source of information - it insists we interact with it at many levels, and all for a frequently one-dimensional sensory experience. If we spend too much time interacting and playing ergonomic games our ability to learn is compromised.

Radio enables us to switch-off surplus actions/senses and so better absorb and think - to become detached from the here and now: free to imagine.

Stimulation and inspiration can often come best from sources we all too often consider antiquated.

Turn on, tune in, drop out.

Try it.

August 6, 2014
You’re Never Alone…

@om recently wrote a piece on the challenge of simply sitting still: being offline, absorbing the environment one is within. The luxury of no interruptions and thinking of nothing other than the moment, if one so wishes.

We are so accustomed to the ‘always-on’ environment we have begun to see it as an enabler rather than an intrusion. How did we cope when the world of the Internet was constrained within our desktop PCs? Did we feel compromised?

No, of course not.

Never before have we had something that is so wholly pervasive in our lives, so we have no empirical reference-point to understand the implications to our mental state in the longer-term.

Then again, maybe we have, which I will come to in a moment…

Apps have become our constant companions. Why read a book, or phone somebody - or simply sit in silence for a while - when we can skim from one virtual environment to another in just a few seconds? Does this enhance our lives or simply serve as a distraction? We reach for an app like we once reached for a cigarette.

The voice in our head is now the voice of thousands of people, all vying for our attention; whether or not this is sustainable I do not know but I’m pretty sure it’s not the apogee of civilisation. Maybe we are just at an intersection of how we are evolving in how we best utilise such technology.

The only parallel I can think of in terms of personal/social ubiquity is the cigarette. Now of course a somewhat frowned-upon habit, it wasn’t long ago that the cigarette was depicted as the great social-enabler; something to sooth our souls, to prompt conversation, to make one appear cool by partaking. Like the smartphone, the packet of 20 was packaged in a manner that meant they could always be by your side - ‘you were never alone’, as one of the brands back then (Strand, as I recall) promised you…

Remember how not that long ago every bar/restaurant was a haze of people smoking, sharing cigarettes: for many they were a vital social tool. Is that the stage we are now at with smart-phones?

If we had needed to go and sit at a desk to consume a cigarette I guess the habit would not have become quite so popular, before its demise. Ironically, the surge in our mobile online desire - an addictive need, for many - has pretty much run parallel to the decline in smoking.


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