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Bad Boy

4 min read

This is a story about being naughty...

Fluffy doggo

If you're thinking about what you're going to get me for Christmas, I'd like a tame raccoon or squirrel. But, I know that I've been a bad boy, so I've been crossed off Santa's list. There's a black mark against my name.

How do you know a 'wrong un' when you meet one? How do you know a lost cause? How do you know that somebody's got an evil streak?

I once begged the police to punish me. I was convinced that I was a bad man and I should be locked up. The police have cautioned me four times, but never brought a prosecution. The police deal with bad people every day, don't they? Cops & robbers; cowboys & indians; goodies & baddies; right & wrong; innocent & guilty. If anybody knows what a bad lad looks like, it'd be them, wouldn't it?

But what about all my victims?

Obviously I've shoplifted, pick-pocketed, mugged, defrauded, burgled, assaulted, vandalised, robbed and generally gone on a crime spree, leaving a trail of misery in my wake.

Except I haven't.

Maybe it's a question of morality. Morality is absolute, not relative, isn't it? If a billionaire steals an apple that was the only food that a whole starving family had to eat, that's exactly the same crime as the father of the starving family, stealing an apple from a billionaire who owns all the orchards. Theft is immoral, always. All crimes are equally bad.

Presumably, if there are gods and they smite the wicked, anything shit that's happening to me is all part of some divine comeuppance for my evil deeds?

However, the evidence doesn't show that. Despite being a desperately bad boy, who's misbehaved like crazy, it seems to have done little to destroy my health, wealth and prospects. I certainly don't want to take my good fortune for granted. I'm well aware how close to disaster I've been and I know how much assistance I've received from some lovely people. But... doesn't the conventional wisdom say that I should be disowned, excluded and thrown onto the bonfire of human bodies that we make with anybody who strays from the righteous path?

Lock up your daughters!

In fact, you're probably better off keeping your daughters away from the kiddie-fiddling priests who claim to be moral authorities and pillars of our society. Your children can't 'catch' my mental illness. I'm not an active promoter of dangerously deadly deeds. I don't leave cyanide-soaked baby rusks lying around, and drop HIV-infected hypodermic syringe needles all over the place.

Is there something intrinsically attractive about a bad boy?

Why would anybody want to get close to somebody with flaws? Why would you be drawn to somebody who's sad, vulnerable, lonely, sick?

We know that kittens and puppies instil protective instincts in us, so why shouldn't the same be true of a homme fatale? If I wasn't rescued when I was on my knees, I'd be dead. If all the 'best' boys are taken, then what's the next best choice? Do you go for one of the second-rate options, or do you find a broken one and fix him up?

It's said that men find a woman they love, and they hope they'll never change, but they do. Women find a man they love and they hope they do change, but they don't.

Wouldn't it be good if you could find a bad boy and turn him into a model boyfriend; a perfect partner?

"You knew what I was like when you married me" said I, never.

I tried so hard to re-shape who I was - to bend and twist my personality - to please my ex-wife, but it was the wrong thing to do. I tried to please my parents; to impress them. Waste of fucking time.

'Good' and 'bad' are labels that other people want to attach. Behaviour is amoral, because it's driven by circumstances, environment, upbringing, instinct, natural urges and evolved biases. We have strong views about things that other people should or shouldn't be doing, but we want freedom for ourselves. Our moral code is defined by our own unique moral compass.

So, if you think your kids are being naughty this Christmas: the question is not "how can I control this naughty child and make them do what I want?" but instead you should ask yourself "what is driving their behaviour and what do they want?"

For my part, I've decided I'm going to drink lots of Tizer, bite people, scream, pull the ornaments off the Christmas tree, refuse to sit at the table, repeatedly say "I want sweeties" while crying lots and not let anybody else play with the toys.

 

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Forced Labour

9 min read

This is a story about slavery...

 Two Weeks of Selfies

Do you have to run just to stand still? Does it seem like no matter how hard you try, you just can't get ahead? Why is it that the only time you're going to get to enjoy any leisure time, is when you're sick and old?

Even if I owned my own home outright, I would still need to pay council tax, gas, water, electric and sewerage. Even if I grew all the vegetables I needed and never left my plot of land, I would still need to raise a significant sum of money every single month.

Let's assume that I had solar panels, wind turbines and I heated my own water using firewood from my own trees. Let's assume I got water from my own well, and I operated my own miniature sewerage plant, so I could release my processed effluent back into the water table, without breaking environmental protection laws. I would still have to pay council tax.

I don't object to council tax. Council tax pays for the police, who will protect my self-sustaining home from being burgled. Council tax pays for the fire service, who will come and douse my house with water, in the event that it should catch alight.

If I never leave the house, I grow everything I eat and compost everything I waste, then I have no use for dustbin collection, and I have no use for street lighting or roads. I have no use for car parks. I have no use for regular parks and recreation grounds.

Furthermore, I have no use for schools or libraries. I certainly have no use for councillors, council officers and other civil servants.

Let's assume I surround my land with a 15-foot electrified fence, topped with razor wire. Let's assume that I install a sprinkler system, and have my own high-pressure hoses and firefighting training. I would still have no exemption from paying council tax. Paying council tax is my civic duty, because of the air that I breathe in a particular county.

This isn't a rant about how "taxation is theft". I'm just pointing out that there's no such thing as a free man in the United Kingdom. Somebody will always want something from you, even if you're minding your own business, being totally self-sufficient and working in harmony with nature and the land.

Very few people would be able to buy a sufficiently large plot of land to be able to grow enough trees to give them a lifetime's supply of firewood. Also, you're going to need somewhere to grow all those vegetables you're going to eat. You're probably going to need greenhouses and polytunnels to grow more frost-sensitive fruit & veg.

There's capital expenditure necessary to buy a wind turbine and a lifetime of spares for any repairs. Solar panels don't come cheap, and they have a finite lifespan. You're going to need a shittonne of batteries, so that you can store energy for when it's not windy or sunny.

You're going to need a well insulated house with a wood-fired boiler to heat hot water as well as to keep you warm in winter. Your home is going to have to be super energy efficient, because you don't have much electricity, so you'll use LED lighting and cook on a wood-fired stove. You won't be able to use a washing machine, dishwasher, tumble dryer, electric oven, microwave, electric hob, hairdryer, electric heater or other electricity consuming units.

Then, to keep your smallholding running, you're going to need tons of tools and machinery. Doing it all on your own means you'll want a petrol-powered rotivator, strimmer, lawnmower and a bunch of chainsaws to chop up all that firewood. You'll need lots of gardening equipment to make sure you're growing enough food to keep yourself nourished the whole time. You'll need lots of building equipment, to make sure you keep your house repaired and maintained.

If you don't have a well on your plot of land, you're going to have to dig a borehole and install a pump. Building a sewerage processing plant is no small investment of time, labour and materials, and probably not something you would do yourself, although you would be responsible for ongoing maintenance: a lovely job.

Remember, you're also going to need a lifetime's supply of petrol, engine oil and other consumables such as soap, toothpaste, spare lightbulbs etc.

So, after all this, your miniature self-sustaining estate has probably set you back the best part of £1 million, and you still have to work full-time to tend to your fruit and vegetables, and maintain all the equipment that generates power, pumps water, pumps sewage etc. etc.

Worst of all, you're going to have to sell some of the fruit & veg that you produce to pay your council tax, so really, you're not very free at all.

You may end up busting your balls in all weather, just so some council bureaucrat can take paid sick days and generally not work very hard at all.

Through economies of scale, farmers can harvest the crop in huge fields in a single day, when previously it would have taken men and women all summer to do it with sickles and scythes. Something as basic as a masonry nail is incredibly hard for a blacksmith to make, but in factories, vast quantities of goods like nails can be produced much more cheaply, in terms of labour effort.

"The good life" and nostalgia for a time of peasantry is nothing more than stupidity. Only a tiny handful of people blessed with inherited wealth can be idle in the countryside, doing the occasional spot of gardening, and otherwise spending their trust fund income in Waitrose and charging around the countryside in a gas-guzzling Range Rover.

Thus, I don't believe in communism, with its emblem of the sickle and hammer. Growing your own vegetables, or making ornate ironwork is a nice hobby, but we don't want to return to the era of blacksmithing and working in the fields. The combine harvester is a thing of great progress, as is the ability to mass-produce metal goods in factories.

The communes that sprang up in California in the 1960s and 1970s all failed, because they were set up by lazy bums who just wanted to sit around smoking dope. When they ran out of money, they found that they had been subsidising their stupid middle-class fantasies all along. Eventually power struggles tore the little hippy communities apart, but they were doomed to failure from the start.

In climates where the need for heating is less pronounced and the crop yields can be much higher, there are already population problems. For sure, you can go and buy a plantation in the developing world relatively cheaply, but aren't you then headed down the colonial path? When you employ local labour to till the fields, because it's too hot to do it yourself, you've then economically enslaved your workforce.

The division of labour is a hard problem to solve, but there is also dignity in labour, if you're doing something that you feel is productive and useful. Perhaps the high sickness rates in local government are due to the fact that their staff know that all they're doing is pushing paper around their desks and looking busy. It doesn't feel morally right, to tithe the estates of the hard-working men and women who are working the land, only to spend it on fancy offices, coffee machines and watercoolers.

Eventually, I decide that we must move to a model of state-owned enterprise for everything that's in the public interest: transport, education, healthcare. But where do you stop? What about housing, food and clothing?

Clearly the technocrats of the Soviet Union completely failed in their attempts at central planning, but can we be sure that there's less wasteful use of resources in private enterprise? My experiences certainly don't bear this out. Every company I've ever worked for has been full of idle incompetent fucktards. That's not supposed to happen in capitalism. Capitalism is supposed to lead to efficiency.

If we look at the vast amounts of food and energy that are wasted by the United States and Britain, we can be certain that capitalism is a failed model for the efficient use of labour and scarce resources, and the fair distribution of wealth. Capitalism has failed every single test, including its ability to weed out the 'bad apples'. One only has to look at the 2008 financial crisis to see that the idea of market efficiency has been replaced by monstrous monopolies: enterprises that are too big to fail, but are bleeding our economy dry.

The banks need to be nationalised. The railways need to be re-nationalised. No more council houses can be sold off. Any private parts of the National Health Service need to be re-nationalised, and a huge cull of middle-management dead wood needs to happen. Executive pay needs to be capped, and those who wish to work in public services should be proud to be performing their civic duty for their fellow citizens.

Of course, wealth will flee offshore. Investors will panic. Let them.

The assets are here. The workforce is here. We don't need the paper money created by the plutocrats. We can rebase our currency back to a sensible gold standard, forgive all loans and start over. Clean slate.

One only has to study the German economic miracle to see that these reforms can work, do work, and will transform a country into one of happiness and productivity.

The strategy of trying to print money to get out of economic trouble, and enforce bad policy with a police state and martial law, is always doomed to failure. We are at the tipping point. Things could boil over at any moment.

So, the Western world finds itself at a crossroads: to continue with the folly, down a path that has always led to ruin for past civilisations, or to learn from the lessons of history, and take the alternative route.

 

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London Runaways

7 min read

This is a story about being chewed up and spat out...

Nicholas Lane

London might only be the 17th most expensive city in the world to live in, but it's still in the top 20. I call it home, and I have nowhere else I can saunter back to if things don't work out. Where would I go?

The work that I do demands that I have my bum on a seat in an office a stone's throw away from the Bank of England, 5 days a week. It's not like I'm one of those fabled tech workers who can just idly tap away on a keyboard from some remote location. I get paid to be in the same room as my colleagues, face to face. I need to be in London for my work. It's not like I could just pop into town for meetings. I spend at least 40 hours a week immersed in my job.

How bad do you want it?

In order to remain in London, I've slept on night busses, in parks, on heathland, in squats and in hostels.

Nobody is underwriting my risk. When things have gone wrong, it's meant homelessness. I don't mean the kind of homeless where you sleep on your friend's couch. I mean the kind of homeless where you're dirty and you're getting robbed in a park, freezing cold, snatching some fitful sleep in a bush.

Lots of petulant children will run away to London, get tired, hungry, dirty and find out that being homeless is pretty shit. They will slink off back to their families. I don't have that option. Homeless means homeless, in my case.

Sometimes being homeless means living in a dormitory with 15, 20 even 30 people, all snoring and farting. People come into the dorm and make a racket all night, and then they cause an almighty disturbance in the morning, as they fuck about with their luggage. Theft is a constant problem. People have taken my wallet out from under my pillow while I slept. None of your valuables are safe, even in the lockers, which are often prised open with crowbars. It's exhausting, being in such close proximity to so many other human beings, night & day, 7 days a week. It's relentless.

Sleeping in the parks and on heathland is welcome relief from the stress of having to live in such close quarters with other people. The weather is a problem though: fine summer evenings are all well and good, but rain and cold weather are miserable. Muggings and thefts are a nightly occurence, as well as fights and generally being preyed upon by other homeless and vulnerable people. To keep clothed and clean is hard enough, let alone keeping a few possessions safe.

When I was in the position where I knew that homelessness was a very real threat, I prepared. I would sit with homeless people and talk to them for hours, making notes on how to survive. I found out which night busses you could sleep on. I found out what the laws around squatting were. I learned how to spot overgrown back gardens of houses that were unoccupied, that could be used as campsites. I learned where the soup kitchens and Hare Krishna gave out free food. I learned how to spot friend from foe. I learned how to stay away from trouble. I learned where the cheapest hostels were. I learned how to stay reasonably clean and presentable, using showers in railway stations and such like.

A friend stayed one night in a youth hostel, and asked me where you could get a shower when you were homeless. He was clearly considering the possibility of homelessness, as if it was some jolly adventure, a silly fun game, When the day of reckoning came, his parents paid for him to go home and stay with them rent free. He knew which side his bread was buttered. His risk was underwritten. He didn't want to stay in London badly enough. He had backup options.

My backup option is a tent and a sleeping bag.

I've lived in doss houses, with 8 people in a room, all working black market jobs and spending all their money and spare time messed up on drugs. I've seen the grimmest possible working and living conditions. I've been bitten to death by bed bugs. I've experienced the cold and the damp of London's shittest accommodation, where people just about eke out an existence.

Now, I live in a lovely apartment, but it comes at a price. Not only is the rent extortionate, but I also have to drag myself into a job that I hate, 5 days a week. There are few words to describe just how incompatible my job is with my mental health. There is so little stimulation and challenge, that the hands of the clock seem almost stationary. I'm battling severe depression and 'recovering' from addiction. Do you think it's a great idea to be so alone with my thoughts, with no distracting tasks to hurl myself into? Do you think it's a great idea that I have to be a steady dependable worker, turning up on time and working all the hours, when my moods are unstable and I'm exhausted from all the stress and anxiety of getting myself off the streets and off the drugs?

It's a fucking miracle that I'm paying my rent, paying my bills, servicing my debts, working my job, pleasing my bosses, putting on my suit and looking like I've got my shit together.

I really haven't got my shit together, and I'm not taking passengers or carrying any dead wood, because I don't have the spare capacity to do that. It wasn't that long ago that I was hospitalised with the stress of it all. It's still a pretty desperate situation, even if it doesn't seem that way on the surface.

What more do you want from me? What more can I give?

Why don't you get a job? Why don't you try working full time? Why don't you try taking responsibility and paying the rent, the bills and paying off your debts?

It sickens me that anybody would suggest that I could be doing something more fun and in line with my values. It's a joke that anybody suggests that I could take my foot off the gas, take some time out. How the fuck could I do that, when it's me who's the responsible one round here, holding down a job and paying the rent & bills.

Yes, it's OK if you can go back and live with your family. It's OK if somebody's there to pick up the pieces of your failed idle fantasies, when they don't work out. But a fuck up for me means homelessness and destitution. Nobody underwrites my risk.

It's not that hard though: get a fucking job and work it, or fuck off back to mummy. Don't hang around in my fucking home town, mooching off people and talking about your grand plans, when really you're just sponging off those who are genuinely working hard. I'm sick of the bullshitters.

I know the difference between those who are genuinely industrious and hardworking, and those who expect to get paid for nothing. I know the difference between those who are genuinely facing homelessness and destitution if they don't get off their backsides and work their way out of a bad position, and those who have a comfortable position to fall back on, if they hit [not very] hard times.

My charity seems to have attracted more than a couple of idle wasters, but thankfully, I also have some other people who recognise that I'm vulnerable and can be taken advantage of. I'd go mad if I didn't have the counsel of true friends, who can tell me the truth, when people are looking for a free ride at my expense.

I don't mind giving people a chance. I don't mind taking a risk. I don't tend to lend more than I can afford to lose. Everybody deserves a break.

I would never ask anybody to work harder than I'm prepared to work myself.

But, if you don't share in the risk, you don't share in the reward.

 

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Breaking the Fourth Wall

16 min read

This is a story about speaking to the audience...

Shadow the cat

Acknowledging the reader is not a great literary device, when overused. I think I have pushed most people away, by writing with a very lecturing tone. When I address my readers as "you" I normally have somebody in mind. I tend to be using this blog as a passive-aggressive device, to attack those who have wronged or offended me.

When I write about "get a job" idiots, it's because I'm highly offended, when I've had a 20 year career and been in full time education or employment since age 4. When my hackles are raised because somebody says "everybody has to work" it's because I've probably put up with more shitty boring jobs than most people, and racked up more hours. Investment Banking is not known as a career for slackers. IT projects always demand you to pull some epic hours to get things over the line.

When I write about the hypocrisy of my parents, it's because they epitomise everything I would never want to become: lazy, underachieving, highly critical and negative people, who have always put their own selfish wants ahead of their children's needs. When I look at the general decline in living standards of the younger generation, it triggers my deep sense of having had an enjoyable time as a child and young adult robbed from me. And for what? So I can now have a miserable boring job?

There's a Frank Zappa quote that I like, though:

If you end up with a boring miserable life because you listened to your mom, your dad, your teacher, your priest, or some guy on television telling you how to do your shit, then you deserve it

But, in the words of my Dad: "you've got to pay to play". Of course, he forgets that his Dad was a wealthy accountant who very much paid for him to play.

So, I'm working a job that I hate, because I needed money and I needed it fast. Here in London I can get an IT contract very quickly and easily, and earn 5 or 6 times more than the average wage. You might think it's ungrateful, spoilt, to take this for granted and to even be unhappy, but after 20 years of playing the same game, using the same tried-and-trusted formula, there is no novelty, no surprises.

When I was 20 years old, I was earning £400/day working for Lloyds TSB in Canary Wharf. I was doing exactly the same work that I do today. It might seem vulgar to talk about money, but maybe you need to know why I'm not exactly thrilled to get out of bed in the morning.

There's a high-water mark: an expectation, set by your experiences. I really don't live any kind of jet-set life. I shop in regular supermarkets, I rarely eat out, I drink wine that costs less than £10 a bottle. I don't pay for satellite television, luxury gym membership or in any way indulge expensive tastes. Even my suit is threadbare and worn out, and I wear cheap shoes.

Some people need the status symbols, the trappings of wealth. Sure, I could plough my income into having a Ferrari, a speedboat, but you're missing the point: I completely rejected the rat race, made myself destitute, and I loved it. The feeling of liberation from monthly downpayments on some material object, or mortgage payments on bricks & mortar, brought joy back to my soul.

The highlight of my week was talking to the guy who shone my shoes. Under the grand arches of Leadenhall Market, by the futuristic Lloyds building in the City, this chap told me that he had quit his job as an auditor for Ernst & Young, and had become an actor. Sure, he was poor - having to shine shoes for £5 a pop - but you could see he was clearly in love with his life again.

Puppet show

You might see pictures of my fancy apartment, with its river views and think "flash bastard" and "that must cost a pretty penny". However, you have simply been fooled by the image that I wish to project... in fact, I need to project. I get paid a lot of money because I'm successfully hiding the fact that I'm a desperate man on the ragged limit of control. Only the semicolon tattoo behind my ear slightly gives away the fact that I'm living a life of quiet desperation.

In actual fact, the rent on my apartment comes to roughly double what it cost me to live in a hostel. Instead of living in a 14-bed dormitory with people who are on the very bottom rung of society, and having to share a bathroom and protect my few possessions from theft and spoil, instead I have an ample sized ensuite bedroom, storage cupboard and expansive reception rooms in which to relax in comfort.

You would think that living in a hostel would be cheap, so paying twice as much does not sound unreasonable, correct? When you consider that I can safely keep my bicycle in my hallway, I have a central London parking space, and amazing views over the River Thames from my balcony, you must surely recognise the value for money that I'm getting.

My one threadbare suit I only use for interviews, and the rest of the time I wear £50 trousers from John Lewis, no jacket and no tie. Somebody complemented me on my sharp attire the other day, and asked if my clothes had been tailored to fit me. I could only chuckle to myself, knowing that my outfit is entirely cheap off the peg stuff.

My accountant must despair of me, as I always cut things mighty fine. There is no profligacy - every penny I spend is calculated, right down to the few bits of bling that are necessary to indicate that you have attained a certain social status. It's just going to look a bit weird if you're an IT professional with a cheap shit laptop.

Hack a john

The really frustrating thing is how easy it is to fool people. Everybody assumes that under the surface, everything is just fine. If you dress yourself up in the right clothes and pretend like everything is tickety-boo, people have no reason to suspect that you are one negative event away from killing yourself.

I have no idea how I'm going to sustain the charade. Just because you're settled into your little rut, and figured out a system to keep turning the pedals, doesn't mean that I can do it. Smile and take the money, right? But what if it's too easy? What if the formula has been so perfected, that life is a paint-by-numbers?

I tried to teach a friend how to blag and hustle. I tried to show him the magic formula. I busted my balls to transfer as much knowledge as possible about how to play the game. He's no fool, and knew a few of the tricks of the trade already. However, ultimately he let himself down, because of the subtle detail.

There must be something that sets people apart. What is it that shatters the illusion? It could be something as simple as not noticing that your suit has still got the slit in the back of the jacket held together by a stitch of thread that you are supposed to cut yourself. It could be as simple as a cheap pen, or umbrella. It could be a single moment of self-doubt, or an answer to a question that clearly betrays the fact you're blagging, because you fail to one-up the interviewer and blind them with things they don't understand.

It might sound like snobbery, but it's actually the very essence of how people get into positions of authority. Having a shirt monogrammed with your initials, wearing an expensive wristwatch, carrying a Moleskine notebook, writing with a Mont Blanc pen, wearing the correct style suit and shirt and shoes. It's all so shallow, but sadly it works.

I'm part of a boys club, and there's no way I can show my hand. There's no way that my colleagues would be able to process the fact that I'm barely coping with mental health problems, the threat of relapse into drug addiction, and a desire to return to a simpler life when I didn't have to grind just to pay taxes, rent and maintain a fake image of having my shit together.

If I address the audience, it's because I'm so lonely in the little stage-play of my daily life. From Monday to Friday, I'm putting on a poker face, and looking busy at my desk. I face the threat of being found out as a blagger, a hustler, at any moment. The homeless guy is not welcome in the club. There's no room for anybody with a weakness, in the corporate dog-eat-dog world.

Canary Wharf

My colleagues tell me I'm doing a good job, and they like working with me, but I feel like a fraud when I submit my invoice for the week, and I think about how much time I spent on Facebook, writing blog posts, tweeting, reading the news and hiding in the toilet. I look at my timesheet, and it doesn't reconcile with the amount of work I have actually done. Sure, I was present in the office. My bum was on the seat for the hours I declare, but I don't feel productive or even useful.

So, I cast out into the world, looking for a connection, desperate for somebody to acknowledge my existence. Even when I rub somebody up the wrong way, at least it means some of what I say is hitting home somewhere. Most of the time, I'm alone with my thoughts and lonely as hell.

Every time I address "you" it seems to fall on deaf ears. I quickly forget that people have reached out, gotten in contact, because the conversation is so sporadic, unpredictable. This is such an unusual mechanism of communication, but what would I do without it? Friends have literally threatened to unfriend me on Facebook, because of the disproportionate amount of space I have consumed on 'their' wall.

I'm rambling, but I don't want this to end. It feels like I'm talking to "you". It feels like "you're" listening. It feels like I have a human connection, an honest relationship, that I just don't get for all those lonely, lonely office hours, where my whole focus is on trying to hide my depression, anxiety, boredom and desperate lack of purpose.

Without this blog, I'd be stuffed. There's a temptation to adapt my writing to be more appealing again. There's a desire to drive up the number of readers, by writing things that I know will be like clickbait, and nice to read.

However, that's not my style, not my purpose. We're having an intimate conversation, you & I. You might not realise it, but I'm thinking about hundreds of different potential audience members, as I write... trying to engage you... trying to connect.

Even if this isn't being read by the people I intended, at least it's there. There's something comforting, knowing that a little piece of me has been captured somewhere, in my own words. It feels like I'm at least winning, in the battle to leave a true account of who I was, and not become a convenient dumping ground for those who seek to abstain from any blame, for the part they did, or did not play in somebody's life.

I live in London. I'm practically an expert in turning a blind eye: ignoring the Big Issue seller, the clipboard-wielding survey taker, the collection tin rattling charity worker, the beggar, the pavement evangelist, and every other undesirable member of society who has fallen on hard times. I know what it's like to have your head down because you're so wrapped up in your own struggle, and so fixated on the rat race.

I've considered the question many times: am I a melodramatic attention seeker? Are my cries for help completely unnecessary? Is my lot in life no worse than anybody else's?

Frankly, who gives a shit? I'm just about scraping through every day by the skin of my teeth. Not only walking out on a boring job, but potentially leaving this shitty life altogether. I know how decisive I am. I know how bold and brave I can be, once I have decided to do something. I know I could easily snuff out my life, in the blink of an eye.

Doth I protest too much? Why take the chance?

Isn't this somebody else's problem? Aren't there pills for this?

Yes, try clinging onto those pathetic get-out-of-jail-free cards, once the person has gone.

Perhaps I'm dredging up emotions that could be suppressed? Perhaps the very act of writing is prodding at raw nerves, and actually keeping feelings on the surface that could easily sink back into my subconscious. Am I, in the very act of writing this blog, talking myself into depression and suicide? Well, the journal charts my moods, so you have all the data you need for the postmortem.

I live for writing. I live for my browsing stats and my Twitter followers. I live for those few moments when somebody emails out of the blue, and acknowledges my existence. You would be surprised how few and far between those precious events are.

Moan, moan, moan, right? Poor me, poor me, pour me another drink?

Rainy London

Perhaps Alcoholics Anonymous is the place for this, even though I'm not an alcoholic? Dylan Thomas wrote that an alcoholic is somebody who drinks just as much as you, but you don't like them very much.

Why do we push people to the fringes, the periphery? Why do we want the people who wail in distress to just shut up and go away? Do you think it completely meaningless, when somebody goes to great effort to explain how they're feeling, and attempt to communicate with you, by whatever means they can?

How long have I been doing this for? Shut up! Give up! Go away! Right?

If something doesn't immediately work, just quit, right?

Hasn't the message been received from you, loud and clear? You don't care. You're busy with your own life.

Is it the bystander effect? Surely somebody else is going to do something? Not me, I'm not going to be first. I don't want to get involved!

What do you think's going to happen? Are you going to catch my mental illness? Are you going to be made responsible for my life? Are you going to be shackled to me, forced to live with me, with me stealing food from your children's mouths? Am I out to ruin you and your family?

I feel like a dirty leper. I feel contagious. I feel a huge amount of pressure to pretend like I'm capable of just conforming, complying... when the truth is that things are getting worse, not better. My patience is worn thin. My energy levels have been exhausted. I'm later and later getting to work. I can no longer even pretend to be busy, and keep up the charade.

Join a gym. Eat some kale. Go to a book club. Get a girlfriend.

Can I chase away the existential dread with trivial frivolities, when the bulk of my waking hours are filled with such utter bullshit? Having a taste of freedom has perhaps ruined me. Knowing how the game is rigged, and how to play the system has left me reeling, with the shocking revelation of the pointlessness of it all.

Even if - for the sake of argument - I'm a dimwitted fool, it still doesn't take away the fact that my brain is in overdrive. I'm bombarded with thoughts in the empty hours where I am so unchallenged, so bored.

You educate a person. You train them for a job. You stretch them and challenge them and titillate their interests, and then what? You put them into a corporate machine where independent thought is undesirable? You put them into a bland business environment where creativity is discouraged? You put them into the straightjacket of the working world, where innovation and ingenuity are unnecessary?

Yes, I'm compliant, because I had a tax bill to pay, and debts to pay down. But every day is a simple test of patience. What's going to win: am I going to commit suicide, run away from my pointless responsibilities, or simply sit mute in my chair trying not to scream for long enough that I have built up another nest egg to fritter away on more life-affirming pursuits?

Life's too fucking short for all this. The clock ticks down to the day I die, and what can I say I did with my life? I didn't tell the boss to go fuck himself? I didn't storm out of the office, yelling at the top of my voice that everyone is wasting their precious existence on pushing paper around their desk? I didn't let the bank, the landlord, repossess their precious property and go live somewhere off-grid, to get away from the constant pressure to run just to stand still.

I'm writing and writing, because there is no end until going home time. How do I fill these empty hours where I'm 'working'. Does anybody even care that I've churned out tens of thousands of words, at the expense of the companies I'm contracted to work for? Does anybody even notice, that it makes not a jot of difference, whether I'm fulfilling my job description or not?

You're going to look at the length of this essay and think "what the actual fuck, who has the time for this?". I could put a cork in my mouth. I could curtail this bout of verbal diarrhoea. But what else would I do with my time? At least this wall of words - this tidal wave - records for posterity, the angst that might drive me to my early grave. At least people can see the kind of torture that my soul was subjected to.

Suffer in silence? Fuck off.

 

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Chemical Hooks

10 min read

This is a story about addictive personalities...

Snorting Coffee

We all know what the root cause of addiction is, don't we? It's taking drugs. It's the chemicals that cause addiction, by getting their 'hooks' into us. We get hooked by these chemicals, and we're then going to be a filthy addict, until the day we die, right? Wrong.

Nobody would think that a sex addict injects prostitutes and pornographic DVDs. Nobody would think that a gambling addict would inject a pack of cards or casino chips. Nobody would think that an 'adrenalin junkie' would inject a snowboard or a mountain bike. Clearly, there's something else that's going on, apart from the chemicals that we put into our bodies.

In fact, none of us can survive without a whole chemical cocktail, of vitamins, minerals, amino acids and proteins. We put myriad chemicals into our bodies every day, and if we don't we are in some way deficient. I don't just mean in our diet that we consider 'food'.

Your morning cup of coffee is not food. If you were to have it black, with no milk or creamer, without any sugar, then you would find it very bitter. Espressos are very small. There is probably negligible calorific value in black coffee, so why would you drink it?

Similarly with tea, which is an infusion, very little nutritional value has passed from the tea leaves into the hot water. There is some value in drinking the water, but you'd be more hydrated if you just had it in unadulterated form.

Why do we put milk, creamer and sugar in our tea & coffee? To make it taste nicer. Why would you want to drink something that doesn't have any nutritional value, is less hydrating than water, doesn't taste very nice and needs something in it to mask the taste? Answer: because you have been habituated into drinking it.

Habituation is not the same as addiction.

I gave up all caffeine, and it was an incredibly hard thing to do. Once I had gotten over the headaches, I then had to suffer cognitive impairment, sluggishness, and tiredness. Then came the cravings. I used to fantasise about having hot drinks or an ice-cold Coca-Cola.

The combination of caffeine and sugar is certainly a nice thing to get habituated to, unlike cigarette smoking, and the chemical hooks definitely play a part in both - nicotine and caffeine - but it's the habituation that is the hard thing to break.

Are you bored? Have a cup of tea or coffee, or smoke a cigarette. Are you anxious? Have a cup of tea or coffee, or smoke a cigarette. Are you waiting around for somebody? Have a cup of tea or coffee, or smoke a cigarette. Are you trying to concentrate on some work? Have a cup of tea or coffee, or smoke a cigarette. Are you travelling somewhere? Have a cup of tea or coffee, or smoke a cigarette.

The habit-forming things that we do become the punctuation in our life. Our dirty little habits become a measure of time. We get through our days with a remarkably similar amount of cups of tea or coffee, diet cokes and cigarettes. We know we've had a super stressful day when we've ripped through a packet of smokes. We know we've had a super boring day when our bladder is full of tea. We know we were super exhausted, when we load up on coffee.

Beer in the sun

What about downers, sedatives, relaxants? Well, we need those to calm down from all those stimulants that get us through the day. If you've loaded up on caffeine - which is identical to amphetamine in the brain - then you're going to be full of nervous energy, and could even potentially suffer from insomnia if you've been having it late in the day.

Eventually though, you'll become tolerant of both your chosen uppers and your chosen downers. These habit-forming things will be woven seamlessly into your daily routine. Coffee with breakfast, tea breaks throughout the day, can of cola with your lunch, and wine, beer and spirits to relax after work.

All these things cost money and have either negligible nutritional value, or are actually bad for your health, so why don't you just quit? Well, you'll find it very hard to do if you try. You might think to yourself "there was that one time where I didn't have any coffee, so I can give up anytime I want" but actually, caffeine is everywhere in your life, and you're unwittingly topping yourself up, at least every couple of days. You probably didn't count the coffee you had after dinner at that restaurant at the weekend, or the can of cola that you had when you were out shopping.

Gamblers are notoriously bad at only remembering their wins, and forgetting about their losses. If you ask a gambler whether they've made money or lost money, over the course of the years they've been betting, they'll probably tell you they're "up" overall. This is nonsense. The more you play, the more you're down: it's a statistical inevitability. In much the same way, people just aren't able to admit to themselves how many cups of tea and coffee, cans of cola and cigarettes they consume. They have no idea how habituated they are.

But, is this addiction? No, it is not.

Addiction is the point where something becomes detrimental to your life but you're unable to stop. It's true that 50% of smokers will die as a result of complications associated with their habit, but at any one time, only a small percentage of smokers will actually be in immediate danger of dying of cancer, heart disease and other smoking-related diseases. It's easy - in the short term - to say that the bad stuff hasn't yet happened.

Most smokers, drinkers and consumers of caffeinated beverages, don't steal to support their habits. They are holding down jobs and providing for their families, even if they're spending a proportion of their income on their poisons. In this way, they're not actually addicts.

When we look at 'adrenalin junkies', many of them actually have toned and athletic physiques from a healthy outdoors lifestyle. What could be further from the life of a heroin junkie, who is pale and emaciated, than a surfer with their tanned and muscular body? A surfer wants to look after their body, because it provides the power to catch waves. An injecting heroin addict's body is ravaged by abscesses and collapsed veins, as the suffering individual places higher importance on intoxication, than on preserving their health.

So, language is failing to capture what exactly addiction really is. Loving your family or your pet is not an addiction. Enjoying sex is not an addiction. Playing poker is not an addiction. Being passionate about a hobby is not an addiction. Even drinking tea, coffee and smoking cigarettes is hard to call an addiction, until you develop a problem where you can't afford your habit or you have actually developed a disease.

I was once asked in rehab, where I was recovering from a binge on benzodiazepines and stimulants - whether I thought I was an addict. I replied that I didn't think I was an addict. I was going cold turkey from a horrible cocktail of about 5 different drugs, all of which I had paid for with money I had earned in my job. I had paid for the rehab out of money which I had saved up. When I got cleaned up, I went back to work as if nothing had happened. No lasting health damage. Nothing to suggest I had ever come off the rails.

Java house

It's stigma and ostracisation that creates 'addicts' in the conventional sense. For most people who struggle with drug addiction and alcoholism, we label them and make life extra hard for them to get ahead, get back on their feet. We put extra stresses and strains on them that other people don't have to face. We demonise and scapegoat them.

We are always asking how to free people from the chemicals; how to release them from the 'hooks', but we're asking the wrong questions. We should be asking what's so awful about a person's life that theft, prosititution and terrible health consequences are a preferable fate to whatever crappy alternative is seemingly offered.

Are there alternatives? We say that people should clean up, get a job, and live like 'normal' people. You mean the 'normal' people who drink poisonous bitter liquids in order to quench their thirst for something with no nutritious value? You mean the 'normal' people who inhale toxic smoke? You mean the 'normal' people who imbibe fermented fruit and grains in order to become intoxicated? Who the hell are these people to judge others who are merely less fortunate than them?

Would you employ an addict? Would you let them look after your kids, your money? No, I didn't think so. You've been indoctrinated into this culture of demonisation, where we're looking for convenient scapegoats, whether it's immigrants, blacks, Jews, the poor, the mentally ill, the sick or the needy. It's playground politics, where we pick on the weakest members of society, nothing more, nothing less.

My employers would shit a brick if they found out that I'd recently had my struggles with substance abuse, despite 30+ years of squeaky clean living. It doesn't seem to matter that I don't smoke, I don't take drugs, I quit boozing for the best part of 4 months. It doesn't seem to matter that I can start and stop at will. Nobody seems to take the blindest bit of notice of the obvious difference between me and a 'filthy junkie': it's the fact that I have opportunities that meant I was able to quit cold turkey and resume my normal life.

If I was to become labelled, and hamstrung by stigma, then I would without doubt just give up and while away my days in an intoxicated state. What would you do if you weren't able to get a job because you were no fixed abode, and the truthful answer to the question "what have you been doing with yourself recently?" was "getting ridiculously fucked up"? Try saying that at a job interview and see how it goes down.

I'm risking my entire career, my prospects, my future, by writing this so publicly, but why should I continue to prosper from my advantages when so many people are crushed underfoot for no more reason than because they're more honest and less fortunate?

What have I learned from my little trip to the bottom? I learned this: we're all the same under the skin. We all respond the same to stress, misfortune and every external circumstance that is beyond our control. Do people choose to get addicted to drugs? Only as much as they choose the colour of their skin, or the wealth and privilege of the family they're born into.

Take the red pill take the yellow pill

You'd probably choke on this giant pill. You wouldn't die because of the chemicals.

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Advent Calendar (Day Eighteen)

30 min read

This is a story about running out of ideas...

Let there be light

That's a light box. It's supposed to be a way of treating Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). It's the final thing I thought I could try, as a natural remedy for depression. The regimen that I have followed for 6 months is:

  • Varied diet, including plenty of fruit & veg
  • Sleep hygiene: strict bedtime and getting up after 7 or 8 hours, even on weekends
  • No caffeine
  • No alcohol (actually only 3 months)
  • No medication
  • No drugs
  • No legal highs
  • Amino acids
  • Vitamins
  • Minerals
  • Exercise
  • Making new friends
  • Trying to have a stable place to live
  • Trying to have a job
  • Reconnecting with old friends
  • Getting some professional help (only had a whole week in hospital)
  • Being disciplined and self controlled
  • Wearing blue-light filtering glasses after 4pm (for the last few months)
  • Using the light box for at least an hour every morning (for the last month)

Guess what happened? My mood was able to react to things, and I reacted to my mood. There was no stability. In fact there was no coping mechanism. Everything I used to do to regulate my mood was removed, so I did other things that were detrimental to my overall wellbeing.

Being hung over or drunk at work is quite good if you hate your job and think that the management are idiots. Because I was sober, I told the HSBC management team that their project didn't stand a chance in hell of being delivered, because it was being run by people who are terrible at Agile Project Management, and seem to be completely lacking any relevant software development experience. I said I didn't want to be any part of it unless some big changes were made. I said I wasn't comfortable doing the wrong thing.

Being hopped up on coffee is good if you want to rescue a project. I recoded Barclays entire Corporate Pingit system, in 30 hours, with no sleep. I kept the existing public API, but everything else was thrown away. Instead of spaghetti code, full of copy & paste, and buggy as hell, poor error handling, poor logging - unsupportable - I just rewrote nice clean code. Lots of coffee, 30 hour hackathon, all the bugs solved, code reduced by 80%, production grade error handling and logging. The team leader felt important because the old system barely worked, so he spent a lot of time understanding the spaghetti. There wasn't really anything for either me or him to do after I wrote a decent system. My boss was happy, the team leader wasn't, I got my contract terminated, Barclays customers were happy, I was happy that I'd delivered the software that meant I no longer had any work to do.

Corporate software is boring. The projects I'm asked to do are child's play. 48 million customer's metadata? That's only 48 terabytes, if we store a megabyte per customer. A low res scan of their passport and maybe a utility bill, plus a few thousand characters for their name, address, phone number etc. etc. At JPMorgan we stored about 3 petabytes of document scans. That's about the same amount of data in the entire Library of Congress.

AI, games, simulation, data analysis, physics & cosmology modelling, codebreaking... those are the hard problems. I remember I wrote a program that calculated every single possible checkmate. Then I wrote a program that found all the moves that led to those positions. It ran out of memory before it got back to the early moves. Then I wrote a program that could take the position of the pieces on the board, and find the moves to checkmate, where there is no opportunity for your opponent to win. Most of the time the program couldn't find a path where the opponent had no chance. In theory, with enough processing power and storage space, chess could be solved by a program. However there are 10 to the power 80 (10 + 80 zeros) atoms in the universe, and there are 10 to the power 123 (10 + 123 zeros) moves in the chess game tree. We should probably concentrate on modelling the cosmos at subatomic scale before wasting our time on a silly game.

So, that's my quandary. I'm not very challenged or interested by anything in the corporate world, and my solution of just being drunk all the time can't have been doing my liver much good. However, without alcohol/benzodiazepines I think too much, and without caffeine/bupropion/stimulants, I can't get motivated to keep solving the same easy problems that don't even need solving.

In fact, when I think about it, I must have made a lot of people redundant. I've automated a lot of stuff that people used to be employed to do. I've made corporations very rich, by allowing them to lay off loads of their workforce, but increase their productivity and profitability. My main specialism is Straight Through Processing (STP). I know how to get $1.16qn processed with just a few programmers, database administrators, infrastructure engineers, network specialists and system administrators. You don't need project managers, because they just put the lies you tell them into a spreadsheet and tell everybody that everything is going really well. You don't need testers, because good programmers write good automation tests, and they don't write bugs. There's no difficult logic or calculations in a corporate system. I do get spooked out when my code works first time, but it's quicker to do it that way.

Human workflow and user experience. Here's a better use of your time and money. Fill out paper forms and then set fire to them. Nobody gives a shit about having to go through your life story just to become a customer or get a government service. If I want broadband, just send somebody to install it and set up a direct debit. If I want to rent a flat, I'm going to pay you 6 weeks deposit plus a month's rent in advance, plus letting agent fees. Just give me the keys as soon as I've put the money in your account. Don't even bother with the contract. Burn it. The contract is simple: I pay you rent, I live in the flat.

You send a person to read the electricity meter. They can take my card payment for whatever I owe when they are in my home. You send a person to read the gas meter. They can work out my bill and I'll pay it on the spot. You send armies of traffic wardens. They can spend less time hiding in bushes and more time knocking on doors taking card payments for the rubbish collection, street lighting, police, fire service, libraries, schools and other things that I quite like rather than hovering near cars whose meter payment is about to expire.

My bank sends me a letter saying that they've paid a bill for me, but I didn't have quite enough money, so they're going to charge me even more money. My bank's only function, so far as I can see, is to make my problems worse. Rather than ringing me up and saying "Hello, Mr. Grant. We can see your income has suddenly stopped. We're not going to charge you any interest until you start earning again, because otherwise we are going to stress you out and make you bankrupt, and then we won't get our money back"

You see, everything trundles along fine when you play along with the game. Keep working doing that job you hate, at a company run by imbeciles, on a project that just needs 5 decent full stack developers to get on with what they do best, for 2 weeks, with no project managers who couldn't organise a piss up in a bar, and no 'architects' who just draw on whiteboards and produce documents that nobody reads, because they were rubbish at actually producing real working software.

The worst code I ever wrote was my first iPhone game. Games are awful as a single indie dev. You have to do all the graphics, sound effects, music, plus design the user interface, and then there's the game itself which has to run at at least 30 frames per second. The calculations are hard. Doing it in Objective-C was a nightmare. I've never know a language with such whacky syntax. I can probably write code in about 20 languages (BASIC, Pascal, Assembler, C, ADA, C++, Java, Javascript, C-shell, Korn-shell, Bash, Perl, PHP, C#, SQL, AWK, Batch, Google Apps Script, Logo, VBA, XSLT) and there's a bunch more I know enough of the syntax of to read and edit.

I can glance at some data and tell you if it's XML, JSON, Base-64, HEX, key-value pairs, fixed position, CSV. I can probably guess how the programmers of your favourite game store the high score table, and insert myself as the number one player with an unassailable score.

Yes, playing the games that everybody else does, competing... it seems a bit pointless when you know the game is rigged, and if I really wanted to, I could tweak my bank balance. Fraud is not hard, and banks make so much money they don't even go after the small fraudsters. It's easier to charge honest hard working people exorbitant rates of interest and fees rather than doing their actual legal & moral duty to Know Your Customer (KYC). I could buy a digital identity for about $100, open a bank account, get some loans, use the money to buy a real passport from a European country that's a bit more relaxed about staff members making identity documents in return for a cash bonus.

Once you're in Europe you can just keep heading east until you find a country where people don't read too many newspapers and watch too much TV. You can find somewhere you can afford to eat and sleep for a couple of years, while you wait out the storm. You can take some time out from the rat race, because you deserve it.

My iPhone app business was a hit, my first IT contracting company made loads of money, my electrician business was profitable, but the building trade is hard, my enterprise mobile apps business was too ahead of its time and never made much money, my Bitcoin trading and mining was hugely profitable, my second IT contracting company made loads of money. I don't really want to sell out and get another contract just yet. I've got some cool software ideas.  Instead of doing what I normally do and start with a profitable business model, I want to do something I'm passionate about.

I don't work at MIT or Stanford. I don't work at CERN or the UK Atomic Energy Authority, but I can tell you that the strong nuclear force is the energy that's released when a heavy element is split into two lighter elements. But what does "heavy" even mean when we haven't managed to get the Standard Model of Particle Physics to be unified with Special and General Relativity. Special Relativity tells us that energy and mass are two sides of the same coin, and General Relativity tells us how mass stretches the fabric of spacetime. Gravitational lensing has proven the theories predictions. The Standard Model had it's wartime and industrial applications. The transistor radio and faster computers. Every experiment discovers new weirdness though, rather than proving the model is complete. The particle zoo grows and grows, every time we smash protons together at higher and higher energies.

What does Quanta mean? It means "how much". A photon - a packet of light - comes in a specific frequency, which tells you how much energy it has. Let's imagine that a red photon is 2, green is 4 and blue is 6. We can also imagine that an X-ray might be 20 and a gamma ray 50. Do you notice that all the numbers are even? That's because you can't see anything odd numbered. A photon with the wrong energy won't interact with an atom that needs a higher energy to absorb it, and then emit a new photon. The only way you know anything exists is because of the photons that are emitted from atoms.

So we can only work with things we can see, and those things will only tell us about the photons that have the right energy. We can build a machine that measures microwaves, but what material should we use to listen to the frequencies that no known material interacts with. How would we even find elements that our eyes and our radios and our photographic chemicals can't detect?

Well, cosmologists reckon there's loads of it, whatever it is. They call it Dark Matter and Dark Energy. Nobody can see it, but they've done the math, and there just isn't enough visible matter to glue the galaxies together. Imagine if Dark Photons came in frequency 1, 3, 5, 7 etc. but our visible universe is governed by the Planck Constant, which means multiples of 2, in this  simplified example. If you can only see 2, 4, 6, 8, 10 etc. then you can't see the Dark Photons and the Dark Matter that can only be seen with the materials that we only hypothesise to exist.

General Relativity is normally right, and GR isn't fussy about the matter that it accelerates. It doesn't deal in packets of energy. GR doesn't do probabilities. Quantum Mechanics says that if we stop observing something it loses certainty and spreads out into a probability cloud. If you know the location of something, you can't know it's momentum. If you know something's momentum, you don't know where it's located. It's like saying that if everybody stops looking at the moon, it won't be where you predicted it to be when you look back. But GR doesn't care about that. GR has predicted the moon's orbit with incredible accuracy, and the moon always obeys the law of gravity.

If you ignore gravity in your subatomic world, you permit matter to behave unpredictably. If you ignore special relativity, you permit massive particles to fly around faster than the speed of light, in order to uphold the uncertainty principle.

If we think about the duality of light. Both a particle and a wave. We think of photons as massless, but they have energy and finite speed so General Relativity applies. The speed of light is too fast to get caught in orbit but light will bend around massive objects. Let's use the Pilot Wave Theory instead of all that Quantum weirdness. Imagine our photon being carried along by the gravitational waves that it's making. Gravity waves can travel as fast as they like and can even escape black holes. You can't detect them, because your ruler will stretch and compress as a wave passes. You can't take a timing of how long it takes for something to travel from A to B because time and space are different for different observers. Just by carrying my atomic clock to my fellow experimenter, to compare the time I measured and the time they measured, my clock will run slower because I'm moving in space. Time is not distance divided by speed.

Time measures how much slower you're moving than the speed of light. If you could travel at the speed of light, and tried to shine a torch forwards, no light would come out and your watch would be stopped. You wouldn't even be conscious, because you'd be frozen in time. If you slowed down to 99% of the speed of light and shone your torch, you'd see it beaming off just as fast as normal. That's because time is passing more slowly, so you don't notice that your light is moving at 1% of its normal speed. When you get back home, you'll probably find that everybody is dead, because time didn't slow down for them. Your clock is right, but so is theirs.

So what's going on at the subatomic scale then? Well, you can't really detect a single particle. When a photon hits the Charged Couple Device in your digital camera, it's absorbed. Enough photons have to be absorbed to trigger the discharge of a capacitor. Only the amplified signal is strong enough to be measured. The thing about amplification is that you get noise. You're trying to measure a signal, but a percentage of what you measure is noise. That's the signal to noise ratio. It gets worse. Because instruments are digital, they have limited precision. If you measure colour with 8 bits, you can only pick the closest of 256 colours. A CD can only store 16 bits of air pressure: 65,535 possible values. It does this 44,100 times a second. Pretty good, but only an approximation.

Because all digital equipment depends on an effect called Quantum Tunnelling, it's hard to know if the Quantum phenomena are being observed, or whether it's the instrument's noise that is being amplified. Early computers sent signals in parallel, but sometimes the data got 'skewed', with some bits arriving later than others. Now data is sent in serial, with very fast modulators and demodulators, but that means that a lot of buffering has to occur. If you imagine the time it takes for a detected signal to be amplified, that amplified value to be measured, the value stored in a buffer, a modulator to turn the value into electrical pulses, the time to travel down the wire, a demodulator to measure the pulses and store a value in another buffer, a memory controller to load that value into the computer processor's register, the processing instruction has to be loaded from the cache, and then the calculation is performed, the result is copied from the result register to memory, the I/O controller sends the result to the storage device.

Then, ages and ages and ages later, a scientist comes and looks at the values. According to Quantum Physics, every piece of measuring equipment, power source, data transmission cable, the computer and it's storage device, are all part of a quantum superposition, and the value is not determined until the scientist observes it, at which point the wavefunction collapses. Computers are great at doing calculations and for sharing research, but by their very nature as machines that exploit strange subatomic behaviour - semiconductors - they are also not very reliable when measuring the very properties of physics that they themself are built on.

It's useful to think of the Pilot Wave theory, because it explains observations like the double-slit experiment, in a nice deterministic way. Photons don't travel through both slits, but the wave does, and then the two waves interfere. Interference disappears as soon as you polarise the particle, because the peaks and troughs are no longer in phase. We really don't need to mess around with probability waves.

Yes I really hate probabilistic theories. Because subatomic things are smaller than the wavelength of light, we can only make statistical measurements. The size of the atomic nucleus was estimated by hammering a sheet of gold really thin and then firing electrons at it. Based on the number of electrons that bounced back and got detected, an estimate was made of how much empty space there is in an atom. However, you might know the weight of the gold, and the surface area, but you don't know how thick it is. It might be 5 atoms thick, it might be 50. Where did you get your measurement for the weight of a gold atom? How you know its density? How do you know how tightly packed the atoms are together?

At some point you're going to have to rely on some old science. The periodic table gives us the atomic weight, based on a presumed number of protons, neutrons and electrons. But what about the strong nuclear force that's holding the nucleus together? What about the energy of the electrons in the biggest orbits? Does a 1g diamond have as many atoms as 1g of Carbon dust? Prove it.

So we know that heavier elements are unstable, radioactive, and decay into lighter elements. We know what amount of what element, in a certain isotope, will give a self-sustaining fission reaction. We guess that fusion in stars creates all the elements up to iron, and all the elements after that we guess are created in supernovae. We haven't done much apart from a bunch of chemical reactions and some atom smashing yet though. We've done pretty well with electromagnetism and radio waves. Semiconductors and transistors are completely ubiquitous. It's all useless junk if the Van Allen belt blows away in a coronal mass ejection and we're all bombarded by cosmic rays and the radio waves are filled with static noise.

I can tell you something that's fairly easy to observe. Hotter air takes up more volume than colder air. Also, there's an altitude where Earth's gravity can no longer hang onto its Nitrogen, Oxygen, CO2 and noble gasses. Also, if you suck up dense polycarbons from deep underground, where they have been heavily compressed, and then set fire to them, the result is less Oxygen, more heat, and the expansion of liquid into a big volume of gas that's heavy, so it lies close to the ground, while the useful Oxygen is pushed into the upper atmosphere, where it thins out and drifts off into space.

If you have more CO2, you should plant more trees. However, we're doing the opposite. Deserts are spreading, rainforest is being cut down and fire sweeps through vegetation in California, Australia and Borneo.

So many people work in banking, insurance, accountancy, financial services, paper pushing jobs of such woeful uselessness that probably the bulk of humanity's job description is: sit at desk in front of computer, wear telephone headset, read the script on the screen to people on the phone and type their answers on the keyboard, drink tea & coffee, go home.

Why can't I do something to help feed some people, spread the wealth, speed up the conversion to clean energy, get more computers doing more useful calculations and modelling, rather than just massaging sales figures and marketing crap that nobody needs?

I'm going to risk running out of money for another few weeks at least, and that means I definitely will run out of money, because it's usually 60 days until I get paid. For the amount of money I'd get selling my depreciating electronics, and the time and hassle involved, I might as well get a job stacking shelves in a supermarket.

I'm just going to do the type of work that I'm passionate about and good at for a few weeks. I know HSBC are going to need a Customer Due Diligence system before February. I like my ex-colleagues, but my god nobody had the balls to just bin the junk and start again. It doesn't scale, it's not maintainable, it's so hard to roll out in-country, the pilot was a disaster, all the good people are leaving, and 85% of the work still has to be done.

I remember getting really angry at an all-day meeting with about 40 people. I didn't know at the time, but the CIO was there, and head honchos from Retail Bank & Wealth Management and Corporate Banking, plus the best in the software business trying to save Europe's biggest bank, on their number one project, money no object. It maddened me that we spent 2 and a half days estimating how much work there was to do in 3 weeks, but nobody knew what our productivity was. Nobody knew what the backlog was. Nobody knew what Minimum Viable Product was. Nobody was bothered about Continuous Deployment. Nobody had thought about the godforsaken task of pumping thousands of questions and rules and logic into a spreadsheet that you needed to know 3 programming languages to even make a stab in the dark.

I said I'd do half the questions on my own. I then had to spend an absolute age reprogramming the core system so that it would spit out meaningful syntax errors. There were about 500 things wrong before I even started. Then the architect admitted that he hadn't even thought about some fairly fundamental things and his solution took days to get right, while my suggestion was roundly ignored. Then the data architect started changing everything, even though it was tightly coupled throughout the entire system. I had to give loads of people lessons on Git and Maven artefact versioning. It was madness, and I had to call time out: I asked for a code freeze while we got everything stable. To everyone's credit, they listened to me, trusted me and supported me. I think it was only 5 straight days of midnight finishes. The work wasn't hard, but there were major bugs in every single component of the system. The pressure of knowing that hundreds of people are effectively twiddling their thumbs, and if you don't get it all working, you've damaged a huge amount of productivity.

A little cheer went up when everything integrated and the screens went green for the first time in weeks. It was also just in time for the CIO to announce that we'd achieved a significant milestone at the Town Hall. It was false optimism though. I had unearthed an absolute mountain of buggy code and dodgy config. My worst fears about performance were confirmed too. It took 5 minutes for the homepage to load.

I found a Scrum Master I liked and gave him a list of names that I wanted to work on a new version of the application. We picked good tech, designed a simple system and had something to demo in a week. They sacked my scrum master, me, and the longest serving member of the development team. People were getting jumpy and we were making management look pretty incompetent. I was also leaving a paper trail that was inconvenient. I was quite explicit about the urgency of the situation and what the simple remedies were. I didn't sugar coat it, because I'd been giving the same advice for 5 months.

I had plenty of warnings to keep my head down, and toe the line. I knew my days were numbered, and when I found out my old scrum master wanted me back because everything was tanking, I fired my parting shot. I knew I'd get terminated. Quicker than having to work a notice period. No need to lie about your reasons for leaving. No 4 weeks of hell working for a micromanaging idiot.

There's no challenge for me in corporate software. I ran the IT for a nice medium sized company. The board asked me for a data warehouse and a new phone system. Instead I gave them a new card payments processing system and an accurate set of accounts, with the correct ledger for all their customers. It's the only reason why the Office of Fair Trading didn't shut them down when they sent their forensic accountants to see why the books didn't really balance. Oh, and they were in breach of card data protection and were going to have a data theft until I tokenised all the card numbers. I had such a hard time in convincing the CEO of the right technology strategy that when he said "fit in or fuck off" I was more than happy to leave that rudderless captain.

When JPMorgan needed somebody to figure out why their FX system was running like a dog and they were going to cause a market liquidity disaster on International Money Markets Day, they'd had 10 Oracle consultants and none of them could find anything wrong. I found a DBA I liked in London, who didn't even work in my department, and we went through everything with a fine tooth comb. I also harassed the sysadmins until they got my disk I/O up to scratch and tweaked every kernel configuration value, applied every patch and generally wrung every bit of speed we could muster out of the hardware. I then had to take the vendor's code to bits and tell them where they had multithreading issues. They didn't believe me, but I kept sending them the measurements I'd made and pretty graphs, until they put a dev on the phone to me, and we talked through the code, and found a bug. Then the marvellous DBA found the setting that was causing the latency. With the new code and the much faster database, I could hardly believe the timings from the performance tests. When IMM day came, we blitzed it. We absolutely wiped the floor. Fastest FX platform in the world. There wasn't much appetite for developing our own in-house system anymore, I really didn't want to sit around looking busy. I liked my friends and the culture, but I still need interesting work.

And that's how it goes. Hire me to fix your technology problems, and I will, but then I'll want to leave if new challenges don't come along. I hate just keeping a seat warm. I guess that's Bipolar. I work like a son of a bitch for 3 or 4 months, then I'm really struggling to stay motivated for another month or two, and then I'll just stop coming to work.

I could try and pace myself, but invariably I find myself drawn to the impossible challenges. Normally you hire somebody who turns out to be rubbish, but refuses to leave. They literally stick to their chair like glue, because their main motivation is job security, not being good at their job. When you hire somebody who's really good, you can't let them know what a hideous stinking mess everything is in, and that they're going to be under relentless pressure to do horrible work. People who are really good will just go and find somewhere better to work.

I'm an idiot. I want to finish the job I've started and leave feeling proud of delivering stuff. I never ask for the poor performers to be fired. Most of the time I'm able to calmly filter out the new guy I'm training, when they're trying to impress me, but they don't know what they're talking about, and I've got an absolute bitch of a schedule to keep. I had to keep just saying "no" when 3 people were shadowing me, and they were all saying you forgot this or that, or you did that wrong... then I press a button and it all works first time and I can start to be more amenable again.

I'm absolutely not perfect. The first implementation is normally a dog. An ugly dog. But it works, and then the pressure is off so I can refactor for elegance. It's a bit of a thankless task though. When you start refactoring you then start looking at other code, and you end up having to change more and more and more and all the tests break because everything is so fragile, and then people start complaining that they can't find their bit of code anymore, and they have to merge their bit of work into an unrecognisable new world, because people don't pull, commit and push often enough.

I don't even write much code. Ask me for a bit of code that does something, and I'll give you a little bundle that you can plug in wherever you want it. When everybody is developing features but the application doesn't work, I'll concentrate on bug fixing and stabilising the build. When everybody is trampling on each other's toes, I'll concentrate on release management and versioning. When an important demo is coming up but people are committing code that doesn't work, I'll roll it back and tell them to put it on a branch until it integrates. When code starts getting promoted from DEV, to UAT, QA and PROD, somebody has to make sure the database is created with the latest schema, test data is loaded, Business Process Management tasks are cleared down, and all the little microservices are up to the right versions. That can take 3 hours on a bad day.

Software is not hard. Managing a huge team is hard. I haven't had a management role since 2013. However, I know that every untalented email forwarder who thinks they can manage a big project says "features, features, features, we're late, features, features, oh my god we are so late, let's just get it working, get it working, oh my god so many bugs, performance is terrible, let's try and go live anyway, oh my god it's hard doing a production rollout, and the users hate it even more than the testers, what do we do? what do we do? everybody panic, work 25 hours a day 8 days a week, 366 days a year, what do you mean we don't have any metrics? what do you mean we don't have any reporting? what do you mean it's not multilingual? why are all the good people leaving? why do things seem to get done a lot slower now we're supporting 3 or 4 more environments, instead of just one? who could have predicted such a thing? why didn't any highly paid consultants tell me? oh, they did? get me the mail server administrator immediately, there's some junk mail I don't seem to be able to delete permanently. Just get it done before the regulators come asking why we've failed to meet our timetable commitment".

And that's why I hate corporate bullshit.

It's the engineer's curse: we want to just solve problems, to make stuff that works, to make things better. I don't care that it hurts your feelings when I say your idea's rubbish. Your job is to listen to the experts, motivate people and sign the paychecks. My job is to come up with the ideas and make them a reality for you.

I don't really think I'm cut out for having a boss. I don't really think I'm employable anymore. I just completely ignore all the management, then they love me, then I tell them I'm not doing it again unless things change, then they hate me, then I get fired, then they get fired.

I probably need to figure out a way to get paid for more than 5 or 6 months of shouting and swearing at everybody and just doing whatever the hell I want. But it's so soul destroying to go to work and think that you made absolutely no difference. In fact you were complicit. Your day rate bought your silence. You were more worried about losing the stream of big invoices than your ethics. You put financial benefit ahead of professional, moral and legal obligations.

A bunch of white collars have got to get prosecuted soon.

Bankers have had their hand in the till for far too long.

 

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The Passive-Aggressive Pedantic Pacifist

6 min read

This is a story about being patronised...

Mad Frankie

This is my cat, Frankie. He was the kitten that nobody else picked. He's the most loving cat you could ever hope to meet. He loves humans. He thinks he's a little doggy, and follows you around and licks your face and stuff.

I think that I provide a nurturing and loving home for people and animals. I don't have a lot of evidence for this, but my friends used to love coming to my house, before it was sold, and Frankie used to call it home, and be a happy well-adjusted kitty there.

I'm going to switch this blog from telling you about me, and tell you the story of two Franks. First, there is Frankie my cat. Second, there is Frank: my homeless friend from Primrose Hill. I promised Frank that I would tell his story, and in telling Frank's story, I inadvertantly became entwined in it.

Climbing the Hill

This is me climbing the hill, where I met Frank. I had no idea I was going to meet him. I was just taking photographs of London's skyline at daybreak. I sat down to rest on a park bench, struck up a conversation with a stranger, and our story began.

Frank's needs were not hard to understand, and seemingly not hard to address. As a firm believer in direct action, I was galvanized into a blur of activity. Who was I trying to save, him or me? Who cares... nobody else was there for Frank. Were you there for Frank? No. A lot of people had let him down. I had the time and the means to be able to try and help him.

Try is the operative word here. I'm going to try and not spoil the ending - which is going to be easy because we are writing the future as we live it - but I should let you know that this is no fairytale. I'm certainly not the knight in shining armour here. Despite my initial patriarchal attitude, it was me who learned from Frank, not vice-versa. He ended up helping me more than anybody could surely have predicted. I will leave it up to you, dear reader, to judge (with your super judgey-judgey face you reserve especially for people like me... whatever box that is you've tried to put me in).

So, what did I do? Well, we had a normal human conversation. Who knew that this is how human relationships are formed, and bonding and empathy can occur when we do such a thing. This so-called 'human connection' seemed to somehow transfer some understanding of Frank's fears and needs, into my brainbox, whereupon I somehow naïvely imagined that with whatever surplus I had, I might be able to help with some of his basic needs.

I defend thinking that I could help. You can't just throw money at the problem, but what have YOU tried yourself? Sure you read in a newspaper that we spend X on dealing with problem Y, and you think "that sounds like a lot of money" but really is it? How much direct support actually reaches people on the streets?

We absolutely can not criticise those who are trying to help, and take it from me, there really are not enough resources (shelter, food, volunteers, money for full-time workers and the real estate that is needed) to go around. This might sound anecdotal, but just use your eyes. Do you think people choose to sleep rough on the street? Are you stupid?

View from Primrose Hill

While you're digesting the fact that I just insulted your intelligence for being so prejudiced about the homeless, here's a photo of the view that Frank and I were enjoying on our park bench. Seems like a pretty sweet life, huh? Imagine waking up to this view every morning.

Have you noticed that it's not sunny every day? Have you considered that it rains a lot in the UK? Are you aware that it's pretty cold for most of the year, especially at night? Have you thought how you would stay warm & dry, if you had to sleep on the street year-round? How would you keep your clothes and sleeping gear from getting sodden with rain and dew? How would you stop your stuff from being stolen? Have you thought how much of your life you take for granted?

Is this too challenging? I know that it is, but I don't really care if you want to bury your head in the sand. I don't actually care if you switch off, disengage. I'm not writing this for you. I'm writing this for me & Frank. Maybe I'm just writing it for me, but it's still about Frank and it's still true. Try and dismiss me, try and dismiss this... go on!

JPMorgan Chase & Co investment bank employee and home owner tries to help homeless guy... coincidentally becomes homeless himself and follows in the footsteps of Frank. This is the true story I'm going to tell you.

God Bless the Met

I asked a member of Her Majesty's Constabulary (a Metropolitan Police Officer) to be a witness to me fulfilling the first of Frank's needs, right there and then, on the spot. Frank did not have a mobile phone, as he had been mugged. Without a means of contact, the Safer Streets team have very little way of finding people, except if they are sleeping somewhere obvious where they are preyed upon by muggers... Catch 22. I gave Frank my iPhone, and had a passing Policewoman witness the giving of this gift, in case he was ever accused of theft.

This was just the beginning of a journey that entangled the tale of Frank with mine, as we travelled on a similar voyage, through the same social ecosystem and his story became our story.

I took photos, and made notes throughout, but you have to believe me when I say that nobody would choose to go through what Frank and me went through. Nobody could plan for it. Nobody would want to experience it. Nobody should have to go through it, and I plan to share our journey, in the hope that people can empathise, rather than dismiss.

If you think "I've heard it all before" please share any links to those stories in the comments section below. Don't you think that the people who fall between the cracks should have their stories told? I do.

Fair Verona

From high up, we see just how far we can fall (October 2013)

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