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The world's longest suicide note

I write about life with bipolar disorder (a.k.a. manic depression)

All opinions are my own


Short & Sweet

11 min read

This is a story about burnout...


There's a lie which we're all guilty of perpetuating: Work hard and you can improve your life; if you work hard enough you can achieve anything. It's not true and it's wicked to repeat the lie, because we end up blaming ourselves for our appalling living conditions. "If only I'd tried harder in school" so many of us wail, but "if only I worked harder" is not something that a dying person ever says on their deathbed.

It's obvious that there's a grotesque disparity between hard work, dedication, passion, productivity and personal wealth. If you're going to try and argue that the owner of a large property portfolio works harder than a nurse, then you deserve a punch in the face. If you believe that the beneficiary of a trust fund, who doesn't have to work at all, is somehow more deserving than the person who cleans toilets for a living, then you must be suffering from psychosis.

I've heard it said that life is fair, because it's unfair to everybody. Human afflictions don't care whether you're rich or poor - a billionaire still needs an ambulance and a cardiac surgeon if they have a heart problem, and money can't buy them immortality. However, this does not seem to consider the great injustice of the world: that our efforts and actions will make virtually no difference at all. It doesn't matter how badly you want to study at Oxbridge and enter a lucrative profession - if you were born into the wrong socioeconomic circumstances, you're not going to be able to achieve your potential. It doesn't matter how badly you want to elevate yourself from poverty, and how hard you work - you're trapped and you'll never escape.

The media love to shove folklore heroes in our face. The media work very hard to assist our willing suspension of disbelief. Little girls think they're going to be like Kate Middleton and marry a prince - the tale that we're told is that she's an ordinary girl and that any one of us could be plucked out of poverty, but it's bullshit... she went to a very expensive private school. Little boys think they're going to become 'self-made' men, and there are plenty of examples of entrepreneurs who claim to have not received any assistance in building their business empires, except that close scrutiny reveals that they had their risk underwritten by friends and family; they have access to wealth and connections that ordinary people don't.

You show me the success story and I'll show you the unfair advantages that the person enjoyed. Nobody got to the top on merit. Nobody gets anywhere by working hard - it's a lie.

In fact, to work hard and assume that it's going to lead to pay rises and promotions is a kind of mental illness: it's called "Tiara Syndrome". It's a bit like the fantasy of a knight in shining armour coming to rescue us - a person who has Tiara Syndrome is expecting that somebody will come along and put a tiara on their head, just because they work really hard and they're good at their job. Sadly, it doesn't happen.

Behind every fortune is a great crime. The only way to get ahead in life is to lie, cheat and steal.

"The power of enclosing land and owning property was brought into the creation by your ancestors by the sword; which first did murder their fellow creatures, men, and after plunder or steal away their land, and left this land successively to you, their children. And therefore, though you did not kill or thieve, yet you hold that cursed thing in your hand by the power of the sword; and so you justify the wicked deeds of your fathers, and that sin of your fathers shall be visited upon the head of you and your children to the third and fourth generation, and longer too, till your bloody and thieving power be rooted out of the land"

A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England (1649)

So, if we've been writing about this problem for the best part of 400 years, things must be alright, mustn't they? Don't fix what ain't broke and all that. Why rock the boat?

Life expectancies are starting to fall - people are dying younger. There's a mental health epidemic. There's an opioid epidemic. Living standards are declining. Billions of people live in poverty, and within our lifetime we'll witness a Malthusian catastrophe that will dwarf any other mass extinction event seen on planet earth. If you thought the Ethiopian famine was bad, wait until you see what the next few decades have got in store for us. With high-yield modern mechanised farming techniques, we have plenty of food, but we are staggeringly bad at sharing things fairly. If you believe that the present situation of wealth disparity is acceptable, then you're signing the death warrant for billions of people - a holocaust knowingly perpetrated on the human race, for no better reason than sheer unadulterated greed.

Remember that none of the Nazis were allowed to say "I was just following orders" as any kind of defence. To fail to act and to say that you're just doing what everyone else is doing, is immoral. To be passive and turn a blind eye, or to throw up your hands and say "there's nothing I can do" is not acceptable. Yes, it's our instinct to look after our own families, but the day is coming when that selfishness will backfire. Your kids are going to need a place to live. Your kids are going to end up in debt. Your kids are facing a shitty future, and your grandkids are going to inherit a completely hopelessly screwed situation - do you think they'll agree with you, that it was right that you sat back and did nothing?

If you think you're helping your kids by instilling some kind of 'work ethic' in them and getting them to study hard, you're making a mistake. Remember: nobody ever got anywhere by working hard. Hard work can be a useful thing, but we must consider what our labour is being used for - if it's making weapons and oppressing people, then hard work is immoral when it contributes to the war on humanity. Sometimes the best thing to do is to withhold labour - to deprive the tyrants of the manpower they need to conquer and achieve world domination. Sometimes the best thing to do is conscientiously object; to nonviolently protest.

I've thought long and hard about how I can make a difference. I thought about medicine. I thought about law. I thought about politics. I thought about science and engineering. I find myself in technology, and I'm desperately disappointed. No amount of smartphone apps and websites is going to address the problems at the root cause, which appears to be competition. Why must there be competition? Why do we have to measure and grade people, and declare that some of us are not worthy of consideration? Why do we have artificial scarcity and force people to fight over an artificially limited amount of so-called 'money'? Why do we put artificial limits on the numbers of people who can pursue a certain professional discipline? Why do we want to have elitism? Why do 99% have to be told they're shit and they don't matter and they're expendable, so that the 1% can feel special?

I was on the fast-track. I was made unconditional university offers and allowed to skip entire academic years. I got onto a graduate training program 3 years sooner than any of my peers. I got pay rises and promotions so quickly that I was earning six-figures by the age of 20. I'm an example of one of those success stories that you might read about, that are supposed to make you believe that with enough hard work anyone can reach the top of the pyramid - be a CEO or a prime minister or a president, or a king or queen. It's bullshit. Why would I turn on the system that's given me everything I've ever wanted? Why would I bite the hand that feeds me?

No amount of houses, sports cars, yachts, speed boats, luxury holidays and all the other trimmings of a wealthy life can ever make you quite feel like you're content with the way things are, because you can never fully insulate yourself from the suffering and poverty that surrounds us. The fact that you're reading this on a PC, laptop, tablet or smartphone, means that you're one of the lucky ones - you're somewhere that has electricity and the internet, which means there's probably clean drinking water too. If you think about those less fortunate than yourself, they're probably considerably well below your standard of living. Wherever you are in the pecking order, there's always some unfortunate who's desperately in need of help, because we've set up society to fail people - the very process of succeeding ourselves means trampling others underfoot to get ahead in life. It's a zero sum game - for somebody to win, there has to be a loser.

Life doesn't have to be like this - so adversarial. There's no limit on the number of "A" grades we can give out, or the amount of money we can print. There's no limit on the number of doctors we can have. We live in a world that's been artificially constrained to create winners and losers. There's no need to have competition so inbuilt to society. Yes, we might see that nature is full of competition - survival of the fittest - but we're not beasts. We've become super-intelligent and capable of producing vast surpluses of everything we need. With high-yield farming techniques and agricultural mechanisation, we can feed ourselves until we burst. With mass production and factories, we can have a virtually unlimited amount of goods - clothes and shoes and building materials, as well as pointless consumer crap that we arguably don't need.

Like the many utopians who I studied while doing the research for my second novel, I can see a world that's jam-packed with all the technology that we need to improve the human condition, and elevate half the planet out of poverty. I can see that we already possess everything we need - we don't need nuclear fusion or flying cars or any other sci-fi fantasies... we already have the means at our disposal, to improve our lives.

As a person who wants to make a positive difference - to effect meaningful change - I find it very distressing that those who are working very hard to improve the world are being thwarted. Imagine all the effort put in by doctors, nurses, politicians, charity workers and myriad others who do what they do because they want to make the world a better place... but it's not working, is it? The world is getting steadily more and more fucked up.

If you think I'm seeing the world through a 'blue filter' and my depression tinges my perceptions, we only need to look at the hard data - homelessness, depression, anxiety, alcoholism, drug addiction, poverty, crime and all the other indicators we have of the health of our society are telling the same story: Things are getting worse, not better. Your kids will have to get into heaps of debt to obtain their education, and then they won't be able to afford to buy a house. Your kids are going to struggle to find work. Your kids are going to struggle, full stop. Your grandkids are absolutely fucked. It doesn't take a genius to extrapolate from the data and see where we're headed. Things aren't just going to magically improve without anybody doing anything. Don't look to politicians to cure society's problems. Don't look to charity to cure society's problems. Don't look to the church to cure society's problems. If any of the existing status quo members were going to do something to fix things, they'd have done it at some point in the last 400 years, wouldn't they?

I haven't figured out what I'm going to do yet, but the best "not in my name" protest I can think of is to kill myself. The best way I can think of to register my objection with the status quo, is to end my life.

Maybe I have a lemming-like instinct to kill myself because of overpopulation. Perhaps my genes are telling me to kill myself for the good of the species. Certainly the self-preservation instinct feels much weaker than the powerful emotions that tear through me, thinking about the futility of the oft-tried ways of making a difference.

If there's no opportunity to make a meaningful contribution, why go on?




High Availability

6 min read

This is a story about keeping the lights on...

Bright city lights

There used to be a time, not so long ago, when banks were closed at weekends and on bank holidays, and the only way to do financial transactions was with cash, or otherwise with cheques that used to take 3 working days to clear and could 'bounce'. Today, we can do credit and debit card transactions 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Today money flows across the globe in the blink of an eye - pay for some sunglasses in Singapore and your current account will be immediately debited back home here in the UK.

There used to be a time, not so long ago, when getting online meant phoning up another computer. We weren't online all the time - we'd connect once in a while to check our emails, but the rest of the time our telephone line had to be left free so that people could call us. Likewise, computers weren't always available to be connected to - the dial-up number might be engaged because somebody else was connected, or maybe the computer would be switched off or having maintenance done to it. Today, you can access websites 24 x 7 x 365 and you'll never see a message that says the service you're trying to access is offline because of maintenance or some kind of problem. That's what "high availability" means.

So, did we stop turning off the computers, or install some more phone lines or something? Did we get rid of the need to upgrade and do maintenance on the computers? Are the days of engineers having to take a service offline now gone? From a consumer's point of view, that's certainly the way it appears.

In a post 9/11 world, disaster recovery is seen as an essential requirement for business. A terrorist organisation could blow up the headquarters of your bank, but to you as the customer, the computer systems have been designed so that things should function just like normal - business as usual as far as you're concerned. Does that mean that computers are now bombproof? From a consumer's point of view, it certainly seems to be the case.

The reality is that behind the scenes there is a lot of redundancy and failover design so that if anything catastrophic happens, other parts of the system can take over from the parts that have failed. If a computer blows up, another one immediately takes over its work, seamlessly. If a hard disk fails, the data has been copied across a bunch of other ones so no information is ever lost. Software is designed so that it can be upgraded without the users even realising that it's happened - you get new features on the websites you use all the time, but you never notice any interruption in the service. That's high availability in action.

Behind the scenes, there's an army of developers, testers, devops, support analysts, network engineers, sysadmins, database administrators and other flavours of infrastructure engineers, who keep things running smoothly. To keep you plugged into the digital world 24 hours a day, allowing you to send and receive emails, text messages and naughty photos whenever you want, a huge stack of systems have been designed, built and maintained with the principle that they must be "always online". It's a bit like repairing a broken-down car while it's still driving down the road at 100mph.

The net result is that the main skill in IT is not creating the hardware and software anymore, but in keeping the lights on all the time - 100% uptime. Teams of people work in shifts around the clock just waiting for something to go wrong so that they can spring into action and fix it, even though faults are not fatal to the overall functioning of the system, and the users won't even notice that there's been a problem. Computers still fail and hardware still needs replacing. Things need upgrading; things need maintaining, but it all happens without anybody ever seeing a message that says "SERVICE NOT AVAILABLE".

Personally, I do not enjoy sitting waiting for something to go wrong. I'm currently working for a team whose role is to keep the lights on, and it got briefly exciting when the air conditioning failed and a whole datacentre shut itself down, but that was the briefest possible thrill. I'm like a firefighter in this modern world where modern fabrics, improved electrical safety and central heating systems mean that fire is an increasingly rare occurrence in the domestic home. I'm built to fight fires, but everything's built to be so resilient. There are no crises that demand heroics anymore.

I'm pretty much in the wrong job. I deal with machines all day long but I want to deal with people. I'm bored but banking is supposed to be boring - when it gets exciting it means stock market crashes and people not getting paid. I need variety but once you've grasped how to build a computer system, they're all the same - I've built everything from torpedo guidance on nuclear submarines, to bus ticket machines and iPhone apps, and it's all built exactly the same way. I am devastatingly depressed about my job. I think banking is 99% evil, with only 1% of it having anything to do with keeping people's wealth safe from robbers or facilitating transactions that are easier than barter. I need to be solving problems, but I've already solved the same ones a million times, and if I do a good job upfront then there aren't many to solve anyway. It's a dismal existence.

So, I sit at my desk and I get paid an obscene amount of money for doing nothing, just in case something goes wrong... which it very rarely does. I'm highly available, but like a disaster recovery site, hopefully I never have to spring into action, because things are really bad if I'm put to good use. It's really horrible, sitting and waiting for something terrible to happen, and really wanting a crisis to develop because I'm so bored and under-utilised.

I really need to find some kind of app which serves some kind of societal function, beyond stupid distractions from the point of living. Surely the point of living is to spend our brief time on this earth with our family and friends, eating, drinking and making merry, not chasing money and other made-up bullshit.




London is Full

8 min read

This is a story about immigration...

Rush hour tube

My journey home this evening took me from the western side of the Square Mile, along London Wall and past Moorgate, past Liverpool Street and into the East End. Suit-clad city workers scurried with their briefcases and brollies, desperate to return home to their families after a long day at the office. Overcoats were all navy blue, black and grey, in conservative styles designed not to attract attention; sensible haircuts, no piercings or visible tattoos.

The crappy vegetable market that used to be virtually derelict now houses every designer brand and label that you could possibly imagine, from Barbour jackets to pairs of jeans which cost in excess of £200 a pair. Money is no object in the very place where a friend of mine used to sell knock-off copies of Calvin Klein underwear, three pairs for a fiver.

The council flats - social housing - have all been sold off as part of Thatcher's right-to-buy scheme, and all that money has flown off to the Spanish Costas, where the weather is better and the cost of living has remained lower.

The East End boozer that I used to love because it was cheap and virtually empty except for a few local alcoholics, is now brimming with hipsters and charges more than £6 for a pint of beer. Instead of looking closed and disused the pub has had an expensive makeover and its customers are spilling onto the streets - standing room only.

The pie and liquor shop, which sells jellied eels, is now a tourist attraction and there are people queuing out of the door, because it represents the very epitome of East London, despite the fact that East London is now epitomised by overpaid hipsters who do a bit of web development in trendy offices that used to be warehouses used by the cloth trade.

Everything that the the slum-dwellers and council tenants wished to escape has now become fashionable and extremely expensive. To live in an overcrowded city that's noisy and full of crime and pollution, seems like utter insanity. Why do people pay a premium to live in Central London?

A hundred languages are spoken in London, which is double the number spoken in the next most multicultural city: New York. Within a ten minute walk of where I'm staying, I can eat food from at least 30 different countries. Away from the homogeny of the City of London, traditional dress indicates that there are ghettos where people are living very much as they would have done in the countries where their families originated - entire communities have been lifted and shifted to the centre of the UK's capital.

The Crossrail engineering project - the new Elizabeth line - will be jam-packed with commuters as soon as it opens. London cannot keep pace with the demands of its residents and workers. Infrastructure is creaking at the seams. Tube stations regularly have to be closed because of overcrowding. The roads are virtually at gridlock. The congestion charge and T-charge are doing nothing to change anybody's habits. Deliveroo and Uber vehicles compete with black cabs and red double-decker buses, and more lorries than ever must deliver a relentless amount of ready meals and pre-prepared sandwiches for busy office workers who are too tired and stressed out of their minds to be able to cook for themselves.

In a desperate struggle for space, gone is the spare bedroom. Gone is the place of your own. Gone is your own kitchen and bathroom. Airbnb makes every inch of spare space pay its way. Hostels and hotels are no longer viable business models. Everybody has to pay big bucks for barely enough space to sleep - we're all living on top of each other; piled high.

The official statistics say that London's daytime population is ten or even twelve million. The truth is that nobody really knows. Every runaway goes to London. Every asylum seeker; every economic migrant. All roads lead to London, and London is where everybody ends up - the gravity is inescapable.

I was working on a project which needed to work out how many people the company employed. The company who employed me thought they had about 700,000 people working for them, but the truth is that nobody really knew. You'd think such a thing would be easy, but it wasn't. We had to use biometric data - fingerprints and facial recognition - just to stand a chance. Turns out, there are always more people on the payroll than you thought; more hands in the till.

I work 0.3 miles from the Bank of England. You can never work more than half a mile from the Bank of England in the Square Mile, because it's pretty much in the middle. It's the feeding trough. All of us little piggies come to the feeding trough, because that's where they make the money, and we get to gorge ourselves on it until we are fat.

I keep coming back the City of London because capitalism keeps clinging onto power, and that means I need money. Where do you get money? The Bank of England and the City of London, of course - go and fill your pockets at the source of all the wealth in the country. The streets are paved with gold.

One thing I notice when I keep leaving and coming back, is that there are always more and more people. There are huge skyscrapers springing up everywhere. I try to walk from one place to another via the same route I would have taken prior to the year 2000 and I find my way is barred. The shitty old office I worked in on Bevis Marks got replaced by a tower block that was supposed to accommodate 8,000 people, but has 12,000 working in it. There's an insatiable appetite for financial services workers. I remember going home after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and I'm pretty sure I had a seat on the tube. Things were civilised. There weren't crowds of people. What I witnessed tonight - and every night - is far more harrowing in terms of sheer numbers of people competing with each other to get home; to get away from this place.

When those two planes struck those two towers, we were convinced there were more planes headed for London. We were convinced that capitalism had had its day and that the subsequent stock market collapse had marked a changed mood - our appetite for the unrestrained free market had reached its limit. It seemed like the insanity of house price inflation and the asset bubble was going to burst. It didn't.

Now, we're living in a strange type of dystopia. German bombs are not falling on London, but there's a kind of resigned expectation that at some point terrorists are going to attack us. We go about our daily business with posters that constantly remind us to stay vigilant in the face of inevitable violence that will be perpetrated against the capital and its people. We are no longer living in Victorian Britain, but the slums are just as bad. Air pollution and overcrowding are terrible, and high stress jobs with long working hours has been proven to be a toxic health combo as bad as smoking cigarettes.

For some, there will be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. London still holds the possibility of fame and fortune. Dreamers from all over the world beat a path to London, to attempt to make a name for themselves and line their pockets with money. If you can cope with the sensory overload, the invasion of your personal space, the danger and the stress, then you can get a real buzz out of pounding these mean streets. Fortune favours the bold.

I had to get a tube train this evening, but the first one that arrived was too crowded for me to board. People behind me were pressed into my back and I was teetering on the edge of the platform. I asked if I could move back away from the edge, and one of the men who were shoving at my back looked at me like I'd asked if I could take a shit in his mouth. We gave each other an impassive non-aggressive stare, of course. Grudgingly, people allowed me to take half a step back from the brink of certain death. Reluctantly, I was given a few inches to spare between myself and the speeding trains and electrified rails.

This is the world we live in. If you're not living on the edge, you're taking up too much space.




As Fast as Humanly Possible

10 min read

This is a story about the origins of [my] bipolar disorder...

Me in hospital

Here are a couple of select conversations from the last year that might help you to understand the circumstances that influence my mood instability.

Me: "I'd like to discharge myself from hospital, please"

Doctors: "No. You are on a high dependency ward. You will die"

Me: "It can't be that bad. I want to discharge myself, please"

Doctors: "Your kidneys aren't working. You need dialysis. Your blood has dangerously high levels of potassium in it and you could go into cardiac arrest at any moment"

Me: "But I need to go to work otherwise I will lose my job"

Doctors: "You can't work if you're dead"

Me: "I'm going to have to risk it"

Why would I do such a staggeringly stupid thing? Why would I risk my life like that? It seems patently absurd, doesn't it?

For my whole career, bosses and shareholders have demanded only one thing: do more, faster.

I decided that I was being exploited. I'm the one who makes the software. Without my software, there's no product; there's no business and there's no profit. Without software that I've built, no amount of lawyers and salespeople and middle managers and jumped-up idiots with important sounding job titles, would have anything to do other than burn what little money the company had left. If the software is the product, then you've got nothing if you've got no software. If the software is what allows you to do thousands of times more volume than you'd be able to do without it, then you haven't got a business if you haven't got the software - your business model would collapse. Your business is software.

I'm not saying that software is important. Software can't build a house. Software can't plant carrots. Software can't dispose of your sewerage. Software is bullshit. However, most of the economy is bullshit - at least 85% bullshit here in the UK anyway.

So, anyway, some jumped-up little twat with his daddy's money comes up to me saying "I'm an entrepreneur and I've got a genius idea... I just need a geek to make the software". On closer inspection the software is where the genius lies. When the business idea is examined with close scrutiny, it turns out that none of the important details have been figured out. Turning an idea into a working business - the execution - is something that gets figured out by the lawyers and software engineers. The "entrepreneur" just provides his daddy's money, while he walks around with his chest puffed out pretending like he's a serious businessman.

The next thing that happens is that I say "how much money have you got to spend and when do you need to have a working product?". The answer is always the same: "I haven't got any money and I need it yesterday".

Where did the budget go for the software? It seems to have all been spent on employing a bunch of old schoolchums to do "brand consultancy" or "business development". Basically, the directors fly all around the world attending conferences and "networking", which is very costly because they're running up huge expenses. Meanwhile, the geek is expected to churn out the software - "I don't know what it is, but is it finished yet?" - as fast as they possibly can. It's quite common now for very capable young computer programmers to work unpaid, or on slave wages, because they're desperate to gain commercial experience. Some idiots even think that I'd enjoy working on a software project for free, like it's a motherf**king hobby or something.

So, I arrived at the situation where I would always work at top speed. I've pleased my bosses and shareholders, not because I give them what they want, but because I've generally been much faster and much cheaper than anybody they've used before. In short: I deliver.

I was working so damn hard all the time and not seeing much of a reward for the dedication I put into my job, so I started to work for myself. I made software and I sold it. I made some iPhone apps and I sold them. One of my apps took me half a day to code and it was downloaded thousands of times. This made sense to me - the whole reason I work with computers is because they can do things while I sleep; a computer can perform many thousandfold tasks than I ever could. It makes sense that I would use a computer to leverage my talents and efforts.

I didn't quite understand that the whole reason why I came to be writing iPhone apps was because I'd been burnt out by my employer. I'd landed a hell of a project. The world's biggest project, in fact - "Nick, would you mind creating us a system that can process a quadrillion dollars worth of credit default swaps, please? Have it done as soon as you can, please, there's a good chap... we've got a global economy that needs wrecking".

I didn't quite understand that I burnt myself out again writing iPhone apps. I coded as fast as I could. I catnapped and skipped meals. I worked 7 days a week. I knew that every moment that I wasn't coding was another moment that my competitors were potentially going to release a similar app. I had to be first to market with my ideas. I had to be the first person in the Apple App Store with an app that did something that nobody else had thought of yet.

I decided to start a proper business. I decided that I'd create a piece of software with a recurring license cost. I decided to create a piece of Software as a Service (SaaS) and then I'd be able to earn money while I slept, once I'd completed the system. I didn't have any of my daddy's money to spend though. I didn't raise any money from friends and family. I just had me and my idea, my software engineering skills and 24 hours in every single day.

I didn't quite understand that I burnt myself out doing my startup. I didn't understand that writing the software - the hard bit - was only the beginning of what I had to do. I had to raise investment to be able to market my product. I had to sell the product. I had to support the product. I had to do all the business administration. I had to raise investment to be able to afford to hire people, so that I didn't collapse under the weight of all those competing demands. I didn't go fast enough though, so I did collapse.

With every burst of intense focus and effort, there would be a windfall. Particularly in investment banking, if you do a good job then you get a big fat juicy bonus. If you make an app that goes to #1 in the App Store charts then you get a windfall. Even if you do a startup, you can sometimes get a reward - my startup was at least profitable; investable.

The pattern of behaviour was established. It made sense to me to work as hard and as fast as I could, because the rewards seemed to be there.

When I run a software project - a team of people who work for me - then I put developer welfare as the top priority. I set realistic deadlines. I allow time for people to catch their breath. If the pressure starts to increase, then I move the deadline rather than asking people to work longer hours. Bosses should hate me, but I underpromise and overdeliver, and I run happy motivated high-performing teams. I get great feedback from the people who work for me.

When I'm coding, I seem to forget about my own mental health. When I've got a tough deadline and a tough deliverable, I'll work as hard as I can. I get scared. I think I've forgotten how to code. I feel like my skills are rusty and outdated. I feel old and useless. So, because of this fear, I go as fast as I possibly can.

It hasn't helped that I've never quite managed to gain a comfortable financial cushion that would allow me to feel like I can consider my health and general mental wellbeing, as well as just delivering the software. I always put work as my first priority.

Me: "I'm going to go to London to do some IT consultancy for an investment bank"

Psychiatrist: "But that's what you always do, and you know it makes you unwell"

Me: "But I need the money"

Psychiatrist: "You need to look after your mental health"

Me: "My mental health can wait. I'm nearly bankrupt"

Psychiatrist: "Well go bankrupt then. Allow yourself time to recover"

Me: "But then I'll never be able to work in investment banking again"

Psychiatrist: "That might be a good thing. It makes you unwell"

Me: "Yes, but it also makes me rich"

In the interests of completing the picture: I am not rich. The amount that I earn would make me rich if I could stay well for long enough to keep working, but the stress and the pressure also mean that I almost always get sick. It's a horrible catch 22.

So, I've completed another software system and it's live - it's up and running and people like it. My boss is pleased. Am I burnt out? Yes, I am a little. I had to bunk off work yesterday. In fact, I've bunked 3 out of the last 9 days. Is this the beginning of me starting to take a little more care of myself?

The cycle is very much not over. I need at least another one or two decent length contracts before I have that all-important financial cushion. It's going to take me until the end of the year to get back to financial security. It's going to be months and months before the ever-present threat of running out of money goes away, even if some money is slowly starting to trickle into my bank account.

It's quite ludicrous that I was on collision course with certain bankruptcy, and now I'm solvent and I've delivered another project on time and on budget. Last year was the year where I gave up. Everything was just too damn hard. I had a great contract, then my kidneys packed up. I had an OK contract but the boss didn't seem to realise he'd hired a bit of rock star at a bargain basement price. I got a contract, but I only just had enough money to be able to afford to go to work... I was running on petrol fumes.

If you were to ask the most stable person you know to live my life, I guarantee that their mood would be unstable as hell. How can you expect anybody to go through the kinds of ups and downs that I go through, without accompanying high and low mood? My mood is a sane reaction to an insane world.

I don't think I have bipolar disorder. I think I'm a product of my environment.




Tortured Soul

9 min read

This is a story about the brain drain...

Daily photo of me in a suit

I should keep photos of myself wearing my ordinary work clothes off my blog. I should take more care to separate my professional identity from my blogging identity. I should ensure that Nick "Manic" Grant and the name that's written on my CV can never be connected.

To even write my proper name - as it appears on my passport and birth certificate - onto this website would risk appearing at the top of Google searches that prospective employers might do. I've been careful to separate my LinkedIn and never mention my consultancy company name. I rarely mention client names, and certainly not the names of clients who I wish to continue working for.

However, I'm starting to slip. I'm starting to not care so much. I'm starting to prefer my real identity to the fake one that's necessary to get a well paid job. I was finding it cumbersome to try to pretend like everything was A-OK in my world, and attempt to stop rumours spreading about me in the companies I used to work for. It was exhausting, trying to cover up my indiscretions. It's been exhausting, leading a double life.

One of the biggest double life issues I have is that I have nothing but contempt for capitalism and banking, and I completely fail to see the utility of computers and apps and software and data. Yes, in our super tech-heavy world, it seems inconceivable to say such a thing, but I definitely think humanity's headed in the wrong direction. The mechanisation of farming and the industrialisation of food production are two examples of tech's potential to feed the world's hungry, but we're not using tech to do that, are we? Instead, we're using tech to create artificially inflated asset bubbles and an ever greater rich:poor divide. It eats me up inside that I'm involved, but I'm also shackled with golden handcuffs to the cash cow that provides a hefty income. What am I supposed to do?

Many people think it's churlish that I bite the hand that feeds me. Many people seem to think it's not possible for me to have ethical concerns about what I'm involved in as a day job. Why don't I quit and do something else? It certainly seems to upset me and cause me a lot of angst and anguish.

As I've written before at length, I'm economically incentivised to get the most bang for my buck. I'm economically incentivised to sell my labour to the highest bidder. I need a place to live and food to eat, don't I? So of course I'm going to plump for an employer who's going to give me enough money to live, rather than one who would leave me starving, homeless and impoverished.

I should be rich & retired by now. Here's how my strategy to become rich went:


Me: I'm going to invest all my money in gold

Her: no

Result: gold plus exchange rate of US dollar would have delivered 500% return on investment


Me: I'm going to quit my job and write iPhone apps

Her: no

Result: we broke up. I made enough money from my iPhone apps so I didn't have to work... until I got back together with her


Me: I'm going to be CEO of a tech startup worth millions of pounds

Her: no

Result: my company continued to trade profitably and win big customers... without me


Me: I'm going to invest all my money in Bitcoin

Her: no

Result: each Bitcoin is now worth $15,000. I would have paid about $5 for each Bitcoin. A $5,000 investment would now be worth $15 million


Me: I'm going to invest all my money in Bitcoin

Her: no

Result: we separated and divorced. I've hardly had to work since then.

In the absence of any good ideas to get rich quick, I always fall back on IT consultancy. I was getting £40 an hour when I was 19 years old, and then £470/day when I was 20. I was on-track to retire at 40, if I stuck with the consultancy gig, even though it was soul destroying.

Now, it galls me that I've been so close to serious wealth so many times. It galls me that my ex-wife was such a toxic person that she's fucked up a whole bunch of very decent ways I could've made a fortune. It galls me that I'm back doing the soul destroying day job, because my ex-wife held me back and sabotaged some very smart and shrewd plans I had. It galls me that I'm doing a job that I mastered a long time ago. It fucking sucks to only earn six figures and have to work like, maybe 35 whole hours or whatever, doing a really easy job.

Of course, I'm deliberately writing in such a way that might cause offence. Many people dream of earning decent money, or having a shot at getting rich. Well, here's the solution: do a job you really hate.

I hate my job so very very much. I can't believe just how flipping easy it is. I also can't believe just how awful it is to be part of the capitalist machinery that's wrecking the planet and the wellbeing of humanity. I'm involved in legal loan-sharking. I'm an accessory to murder. I'm guilty by association.

I started out my career in defence - the military - so I'm no stranger to the ethical dilemma of working for a weapons manufacturer. I had to wonder to myself how I'd feel when lives were inevitably lost as a result of my software. It seemed wrong to think that I'd succeeded as an engineer, if I successfully brought about the death of the so-called 'enemy'. My software was very definitely going to be used to kill people; nothing defensive about it at all.

What should I be doing? Working for a charity? Working for an NGO or some other kind of humanitarian cause? What, like your chum Hugo from private school, who went off and built a school in Africa... he put that on his CV and now he works for a fucking bank because he's not fucking stupid. Hugo tells all his chums that he's done important work in the developing world, because he's an insufferable tosspot; he's a smug spoiled little shit, who's never known anything other than wealth and privilege.

You might hear my posh accent, or see the big name multinational companies I've worked for on my CV, and you might be mistaken for thinking I'm posh and spoiled and entitled and all the other things you don't like very much. In fact, I've had to spend my whole career with ethical conflict in my heart. I'm a bleeding-heart liberal who puts on a sharp suit and pretends to be a banker. I have to think about the part I played in the 2007/8 financial crisis. I have to think about my part I played in the whole stinking shitpit that is capitalism. I could hide behind the defence: "I'm just an engineer" but I can't.

"I make the rockets go up. Where they land is not my department"

I don't think it's a valid defence for an engineer to say that they're apolitical; amoral. I write software that's unopinionated, but I know what it's going to be used for. I know that I'm donating my brainpower and brawn to an evil cause. I know that ultimately, I'm helping the rich get richer.

I spend my days somewhat outraged that my time's being wasted on trivial bullshit, that contributes nothing to society except for improving the apparatus that oppresses the planet's poor people - tools to better extort money out of the 98%. I spend my days frustrated - I want to be doing something worthy, but I can't.

Of course I'm not going to jack in my job and go work for a charity. Charities pay shit money. Of course I'm not going to work for charity. Charities have failed to deliver any meaningful change. Impoverishing myself is the world's most stupid first step towards any meaningful change.

I'm frustrated and upset, because my ingenuity was thwarted so many times by my ex-wife that I'm now exhausted. I'm not a young man anymore. I was lucky enough to have a couple of moments of glory that proved my point - I can build valuable stuff that works - but now I don't have the energy or the financial security to make another foray into something more worthwhile than the bullshit that passes for my day job.

I'm trapped by debt that I ran up when I got sick. I'm trapped by the capitalist trap of high living costs. I'm trapped by the need to speculate to accumulate, but I've got nothing to speculate with. I'm hoisted by my own petard. The irony is not lost on me, of course.

It's torturous agony, working a job that I mastered 21 years ago. It's torturous agony, solving the same problems that I already solved a million times over, knowing full well that everything is doomed to the same fate. Of course the global financial markets are going to collapse again, imminently. Of course, the whole bullshit system can't be propped up anymore. Of course, the bubble has to burst. Bubbles always burst eventually. It's physically painful in a way that's hard to describe, knowing that the whole ridiculous house of cards is going to come crashing down again at any moment. I know it's just anxiety and stress and depression, but it's not made any better working for an investment bank, doing the same bullshit job that I was doing - I was so close to ground zero when the whole fucking financial crisis happened. I was feeling ethically challenged 10 or 11 years ago. I was feeling ethically challenged 21 years ago. Fuck my life, that I'm back doing the thing that I hate most, because it's an economic necessity.

Who's to blame? Me presumably.

Fine, pin it on me. I'll take the rap.

Imma kill myself.




Performance Enhancing Drugs

7 min read

This is a story about arms races...

Pool table

Being the only honest player in a game where everybody else is cheating is a fate worse than death. Where do you draw the line for cheating though?

When playing pool, it's a well known phenomenon that there's an optimal level of intoxication to be a better player. Alcohol relaxes you, which means your muscles are less tense and the action of your arm should be smoother, delivering a straighter strike to the cue ball. Is it cheating to have a cheeky couple of pints when you're playing pool down at the pub?

Computer programmers are machines that turn coffee into software. Stimulants like caffeine and the other amphetamines - caffeine being indistinguishable from amphetamines when given intravenously - are well known for improving concentration. If most programmers are gulping strong coffee all day long, how's anyone who's caffeine-free going to compete with the rest?

The combination of caffeine and glucose is proven to improve athletic performance by a remarkable amount. Given that energy drinks are not banned and can even be sold to children, how is anybody supposed to compete at sports unless they're guzzling Red Bull?

There's a great deal of pressure on me to perform at the moment. My entire future rides on me doing a good job at work. If I fail, I go bankrupt and I become a leper: unable to gain well paid employment or even have a mobile phone or broadband contract, let alone rent an apartment.

Therefore there's a temptation to use substances to help me perform at the top of my game. With a strong coffee in the morning, I'll be able to concentrate on writing code all day. With a few glasses of wine or a sleeping pill, I'll be able to unwind and relax after a day of hacking away at complex computer systems. Uppers and downers. Round and round. Highs and lows. This is the life that we should all lead, isn't it?

I'm staggeringly well paid for what I do. Why would I want a lower paid job? Why would I want to be on average Joe wages when I could earn five times as much doing the same job? Why would anybody deliberately impoverish themselves? However, my high-risk, high-reward strategy demands that I perform to the best of my abilities. Without substances, would I have been able to get my foot in the door and hang on to a highly sought-after job?

Thus, caffeine, alcohol, sleeping pills and tranquillisers circle like vultures. I need the effects of substances, in order to cope with the life that I'm built for - I've been in this career for over 20 years. How am I supposed to cope without the unhealthy coping tools that I used successfully... until I had a breakdown; a burnout.

What goes up must come down. The candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long.

It's better to burn out than fade away.

Even music has become performance enhancing. I listen to high-tempo dance music - blasting away at 130 beats per minute - in order to focus my mind and put myself into a trancelike state where I can concentrate on software code for hours and hours. What must the effect be, to be in such an unnatural state for so long?

What must it be like to have a job that brings you into the unpredictable chaotic world of people and human interactions? What must it be like to have a job that's full of intrigue and unexpected surprises? What must it be like to never have to fight your constant existential crises and suppress all invasive musings about the absurdity of existence, because you're just a rat waiting for the next food pellet: when's the next order going to arrive; the next email; the next patient; the next customer?

As I do battle with boolean algebra every single day, there is no comforting wiggle-room of the humanities - computer says yes or computer says no; true or false. There are no shades of grey in my world - there's a right answer and a wrong answer. I sit in front of three screens and I try to figure out the right answer. I can go for weeks without speaking to another person. It fills me with terror sometimes, thinking that the ultimate arbiter of whether I've succeeded or failed is a cold, rational and unthinking machine. It's like playing chess against myself.

Some would say I'm a success story. Isn't the whole reason for paying attention at school and trying hard during your exams so that you can land a good job and get promoted into a position of seniority? Aren't we all trying to climb the greasy pole and get a big fat wage packet at the end of the working week? Aren't we all trying to compete and win? I won... didn't I?

I wouldn't be so churlish as to say "it's tough at the top" and of course, I'm laughably far from the top, but I'm sure there would be a plenty long queue of people who'd swap their salary for mine, so let's not be too hasty. It's worth considering just how destabilising my career choices have been to my mental health: feast & famine, boom & bust and the ever-present pressure to perform. Alcohol and caffeine are ubiquitous - as they are everywhere - but you haven't seen alcoholism in the workplace to quite the extent I have, unless you've also worked in the City of London in investment banking.

They say that banking greases the wheels of capitalism. Alcohol greases the wheels of banking.

The most successful strategy that I could play right now would be to have have two or three strong cappuccinos every day at work, and at least a bottle of wine every night. I'm sure my career and my bank balance would benefit handsomely from such a strategy.

I do worry about my mental health, but in this capitalist society, who has the time & money to stop and think about such a trifling thing? I'm reminded of this time last year, when I had to discharge myself from hospital against medical advice, to go chasing a banking IT contract. Money, money, money. Find an edge. Do whatever it takes!

You understand, it's not greed that drives me. This is the world we live in. We all need a competitive edge. I have no idea how to function in a world where I'm not compelled to use uppers and downers to help me perform. What do people even do without their morning coffee and their evening wine?

I earned well over a thousand pounds for two days sitting in front of a computer screen thinking "what the f**k am I doing?". I'm winning aren't I? This is what winning looks like, isn't it?

I'm winning... aren't I?

Before I know it, I've had more than the magic two pints and I can't hit a ball to save my life. I've gone beyond the sweet spot. I've had too much to drink and I'm just drunk. There's a fine line between performance enhancing, and substance abusing. I wake up one morning and all I've got is a habit. A stimulant habit. An alcohol habit.

We can all reach for substances to give us an edge, but you're playing a high-stakes game. The bigger you are the harder you fall.

It's almost impossible to change the habits of a lifetime. Of course I'm going to reach for substances when I'm struggling. Of course I'm going to return to the same boom and bust lifestyle that's served me so well, and also threatened to destroy me.

Roll the dice.




Drug of Choice

8 min read

This is a story about cyclical patterns...

Me with pills

In 2014 I was homeless and addicted to drugs. I got myself a job at a bank, got myself a place to live and paid off all my debts. Then, I lost my contract. I went to a shop in Soho and bought two packets of a legal high powder and proceeded to undo all my hard work. Within a matter of weeks, I was back on the supercrack.

In 2015 I was homeless and addicted to drugs. I got myself a job at a bank, got myself a place to live and paid off all my debts. Then, I lost my contract. I went online and bought two packets of legal high powder and two packets of legal benzodiazepine tablets. Within a month, I was back on the supercrack.

In 2016 I had a lovely apartment. I was clean all summer. I went on holiday. I met an amazing girl who I was totally in love with. I wrote my first novel. I had a brilliant Christmas with my girlfriend and her family. Then, I got myself a job at a bank. My left leg swelled up to twice the size of the right leg, both my kidneys failed, I was put on emergency dialysis and I had to be admitted to hospital for a couple of weeks, on a high dependency ward. Then, I lost my contract. Within a fortnight I was back on the supercrack.

In 2017 I had a lovely apartment. I took supercrack. I tried to quit the supercrack. I got depressed. I tricked my doctor into giving me California rocket fuel - a combination of venlafaxine and mirtazepine antidepressants. I went hypomanic and split up with my amazing girlfriend. I bought enough supercrack to last me two years. I went insane with stimulant psychosis and was thoroughly beastly towards my amazing girlfriend. I ran out of money. I moved to Manchester. I got another girlfriend. We broke up. I tried to kill myself. I spent a couple of days with a machine breathing for me in intensive care. I got sectioned and got locked up on a secure psych ward. I moved to Wales. I wrote 42,000 words of my second novel. I got myself a job at a bank. There isn't enough time left in 2017 to get back on the supercrack. I'm worried I'm going to relapse in January. I haven't lost my contract yet.

Fluid in my leg

If we dip into each year a little bit more closely, 2014 was a really dreadful one. I was an inpatient for about 14 weeks. I lived in a bush in Kensington Palace Gardens and slept rough on Hampstead Heath. I was in two rehabs. I lived in a 14-bed hostel dorm, but that was actually one of the highlights. I abused a lot of benzodiazepines and amphetamines, as well as the supercrack. I got in trouble with the police. Twice.

2015 looks tame by comparison. Although I abused stimulants and 'downers', I had a couple of visits to a lovely family in Ireland, who looked after me. Strangely, it was working 12 hour days and working 7 days a week that exhausted me and tipped me into hypomania. I spent a week suicidal on a psych ward then suddenly decided to fly to San Francisco. I went straight to the Golden Gate Bridge, which I had contemplated jumping off. I was sober for 120 consecutive days. I deliberately got my contract terminated, because I had ethical objections to what the bank I was working for was doing. I started blogging.

2016 is unusual - perhaps there is no easy pattern we can spot - because I got myself clean and into work much earlier than I'd managed in previous years. I worked a whole contract - notably not for a bank - without going mad and getting sacked. I got a good reference and my team were really pleased with the way I ran the project. My life was quite stable. However, I was a sneaky bastard. I was using supercrack and benzos in secret, and lying to my amazing girlfriend to cover up my drug abuse.

2017 was off the charts. I've never been so sick. I've never been so close to death. For the first half of the year I had binge after binge after binge. I abused opiates, sleeping pills, tranquillisers, club drugs and stimulants. My drug abuse was definitely going to kill me. I had a physical dependency on benzodiazepines that looked impossible to cure - how was I going to escape from the death trap? I decided I couldn't escape, so I took a massive overdose. The hospital gave me a 50:50 chance of pulling through.

I'm worried that I'm repeating old patterns of behaviour. I always go back to the banks when I need money, because they pay so well and it's the quickest way of digging myself out of debt. I'm living out of a suitcase, moving from AirBnB to AirBnB. It's exhausting and stressful: factors that tipped me into hypomanic insanity back in 2015.

What is unusual is that I'm going into the New Year with a contract in place: I have my job and it's going well. I'm starting 2018 with money on the way, as opposed to the fear of bankruptcy and eviction. I'm going into next year with far fewer stresses than I've had for a very long time. Perhaps it's good that there aren't even any girls in the picture at the moment. Love and sex always have a bit of a destabilising effect on me.

Writing this summary of my hit-and-miss boom-and-bust crazy life, I wonder if I'm doomed to forever repeat the pattern.

One thing that's notably different this year is living with a family. I care about them. I imagine what it'd be like if the kids asked "where's Nick?" and the answer was that I was dead, or as good as dead because I'd relapsed onto supercrack.

This year, I quit supercrack, tramadol, codeine, dihydrocodeine, diazepam (Valium), alprazolam (Xanax), zolpidem (Ambien), zopiclone and pregabalin. I was prescribed venlafaxine, mirtazepine and lamotrogine, but I don't take any of them now. I had 30 consecutive sober days during October. In fact, I was sober from more or less the start of September to early November. My brain has been completely drug-addled at times, but I'm clean as a whistle at the moment - I'm unmedicated and I'm not taking any mind-altering substances. I don't drink caffeinated beverages.

I'd like to tell you that I feel wonderful, but I don't. I have a cold. It's winter. Winter is shit.

You might look at all the times I've tripped up and conclude that I'm bound to trip up again. However, you might look at all the things I've fixed and conclude that I'm pretty good at fixing up my life when it's fucked. All I've got to do is bring together all the different elements: friends and family, work and home, money and rest and relaxation, stability and exercise and hopes and dreams, love and romance and sex. Easy, right?

If you're wondering what my drug of choice is, and thinking that it's supercrack, you're wrong. Look more closely at the picture at the top of this blog post. What's that thing in-between my legs? It's not my male member, it's a wine glass.

Hello wine my old friend

With closer examination of my entire adult life, we can see that alcohol features heavily. In fact my latest job came about as a result of being friends with a lovely guy who's an alcoholic. We spent a week getting pissed, when I was supposed to be finding my feet with the new job. Somehow, I've managed to drink my way through a very successful career. Without booze I'm somewhat out of kilter. Without booze, how would I self-medicate for my mood fluctuations?

Yes, without booze, my bipolar disposition rages out of control. I work too hard. I take everything too seriously. I fly off the handle.

I'm not genuinely suggesting that booze is harmless or the cure of all ills, but it's been such a big component of my adult life that I don't really know how to cope without it. How would I have survived the recent stresses and strains of a 2,500 mile round-trip, to go and gather money from the latest bank I'm working for, without alcohol? How would I square away my deep unhappiness with the work I do, with the need to earn money, if it wasn't for drowning my sorrows? Alcohol might be a terrible solution, but it's the one I've got and I know it works.

Is it lunchtime yet? I'm not an alcoholic, because I don't drink in the morning. I just make sure I lie in bed until it's after midday.




Spectator or Participant?

9 min read

This is a story about being a groupie...

Windfest 2007 Podium

On the steps of the podium stand the winners of the 2007 Poole Animal Windfest. There is a girl and a boy for 3rd and 2nd place. If you look closely, where is the boy who won 1st place?

In 2007 I was involved in building part of the software system that processed over a quadrillion dollars worth of toxic bullshit for JPMorgan, in a single year. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't a bad job and they didn't treat me badly. In fact they kept a private driver waiting down by the seashore; engine running; waiting for the kitesurfing competition to finish. Then I jumped in the Mercedes with smoked glass windows and we sped off to Heathrow for me to catch a flight. I didn't even have time to wash the salt off my skin or sand out of my hair... or collect my prize for winning the competition.

There used to be a time when JPMorgan's main office in Bournemouth had squash courts and a gym onsite. There was a bar. There were enough car parking spaces for everybody, so everybody drove to work. Then, they grew; and they grew; and they grew. Investment banks were - and still are - ludicrously profitable. The IT budget that paid for my little team of 30-odd people was circa $10m per annum. You're never quite sure what the real numbers are though, when you work for an organisation with 130,000 direct employees.

Slowly, prefabricated office buildings sprang up on parts of the car park. The bar, gym and squash courts were turned into office space. That was OK. We still had several tennis courts and a sports centre nearby with badminton courts and 5-a-side football pitches. You could park nearby in an overflow car park. It was still a great place to work, and nobody had a fucking clue what they were doing or what impact it would have on the world, unless they really stopped and thought about it.

I've always been one of those pain-in-the-ass employees who does stop and think about the ramifications of everything that's being done. When it turned out that senior management had decided to support outsourcing a lot of our software development, I was very vocal about my displeasure and concerns. I was a thorn in the side of everybody more senior than me, in the hope of JPMorgan seeing sense: cheaper employees do not equate to cost savings. You get what you pay for.

So, I got landed with a stinker of a project. To train up about 20 brand new offshore employees, in Mumbai, and also to build a piece of software that was not only late, but was a critical component in a global initiative to get all the toxic bullshit warehoused in one place - a depository - so it could be figured out who the fuck owed who what, and how much? Who was holding the toxic debt? Who was bankrupt?

How big is a million dollars?


It's hard to say, but it's probably a few times bigger than the value of your house, or twenty times bigger than your salary. Now, let's multiply that by a thousand.


Now what you're looking at is a billion dollars. 1% of a billion dollars is $10 million. You'd be pretty happy with $10 million, wouldn't you? That'd set you up for life. Now, let's multiply that by a thousand.


This is quite obviously a trillion dollars. 5 trillion dollars is the value of all the world's 'money' - the cash in your pocket, the coins in your purse, your bank balance etc. etc. Now, let's multiply that by a thousand.


We've reached a quadrillion dollars. 1% of a quadrillion dollars is $10 trillion, which is twice as much as all the 'money' in existence. So, how the fuck does JPMorgan process over a quadrillion dollars in a single year? Two answers for you: 1) Derivatives 2) Financial crisis of 2007/8

A derivative is a financial instrument that derives its 'value' from an underlying security. By security, I mean something tangible: a fucking house or a metal coin that has its value stamped on it. Derivatives are just pieces of paper that say "in the event X, I will pay Y"... for example "if the stock market goes up, the value of this derivative goes up ten times as much". Derivatives contracts have been created that have become more valuable than all the 'money' in the world. As much as a thousand times more valuable. This is just worthless paper, and nobody has the money to pay up: insufficient collateral.

I know, right? Don't stop and think about this stuff too much. Nobody else did. There was too much money to be made.

So I get landed this stinker of a project, drive off from the beach at Sandbanks to Heathrow airport in a luxury car, in order to train 20 or so Indians on how to build a piece of software that's going to be instrumental in the Financial Crisis of 2007/8. I'm an engineer. I solve problems. I stopped thinking about the madness of outsourcing to India when JPMorgan was already plenty profitable. I stopped thinking about the madness of there being quadrillions of dollars worth of derivatives contracts, when there was only $5 trillion of money in existence. I started thinking about software designs and who I had in my new team to build this software system.

7 star hotel

At some point, I was seduced. I was seduced by limo travel, private drivers, 7-star hotels, business class flights, everything paid for on expenses, company credit cards. I was seduced by everybody telling me what an important project it was, and what an honour it was to be in charge - the manager - when I was only 27 years old; so young & ambitious. Giddy with this seduction, I started to see the world in different colours. Things were rose tinted. I was sucked in. It was like I was dreaming.

A year later, I'd woken up from a nightmare where I'd played a significant role in helping the Investment Banks to hold the world to ransom. "Pay up, or we'll crash the global economy and plunge the world into a depression that will make the 1930's look like nothing" they said. And the ransom was paid. Every government; every central bank coughed up hundreds of billions, so the bullshit could continue and none of the bullshitters had to lose a cent. In fact, the only people I knew who lost their jobs were the ones who were replaced by Indians I trained.

I started thinking again. Big mistake.

I took to the bottle. I drank every lunchtime and every evening. I was drunk most of the time. How could JPMorgan sack me or even reprimand me? What they'd paid me to do; what they'd asked me to do... they could never make that right. They just let me do whatever I wanted, which was mostly to go to the pub and get drunk. Nobody ever questioned it.

As Bear Stearns was being taken over by JPMorgan - asset stripped under the auspices of being 'rescued' - I'd had enough. Building software for banks made me sick. I was sick at what they did to their own people. I was sick of what the industry was doing to the world. I was sick of producing nothing of value; helping nobody except the lucky few who knew how the con-job worked.

Don't get me wrong, I should have looked the other way; kept taking the fat bonus cheques and big salary; kept those golden handcuffs on - loose enough that they never chafe - but I wanted to get as far away from it as possible. The whole thing left me feeling like I had blood on my hands. Every company that went bankrupt; every person who lost their job; every home repossessed; every suicide due to financial worries... I was one of the co-conspirators who fleeced them out of their money and assets.

Some colleagues stayed, but most of the cynical ones - like me - drifted away. Some died or at least nearly did, as they beat themselves up with alcohol for their sins. JPMorgan paid for a lot of people to go to The Priory to dry out. Those who couldn't face working again were pensioned off early. You only had to work for a year, and then you were covered by a generous insurance policy so you never had to work again. Occupational health were busy, getting rid of an entire generation of engineers who had built the bedrock foundations of the global financial services empire, now shakily propped up using public money. Masses of public money.

Ten years on, I watch in horror as those hastily made repairs to a fundamentally broken system start to crumble.

UK debt

Record high national debt and record low tax receipts. Our economy is 80% financial services - an industry that's booming if you haven't noticed. You probably haven't noticed unless you work in the Square Mile or Canary Wharf. You've probably seen stagnant wages, a lack of jobs and insecure employment, such as zero-hours contracts. There's always a McJob, if your self esteem is finally fully eroded by the capitalists.

Brexit had a frontman - Nigel Farage - who was a trader from the City. Brexit had billionaire donors, like the stockbroker Peter Hargreaves, who literally said "insecurity is fantastic" - referring to his desire to see workers abused by their employers, in the interest of profits.

I don't wish to segue into commentary on current affairs, but you have to be aware who you're dealing with. Who's putting words in your mouth? Who's planting ideas in your head, through the newspapers and TV channels they own?

You have to wake up out of your nightmare.




The Path of Least Resistance

5 min read

This is a story about living an easy life...

Level 39

Our behaviour is shaped by circumstances far more than free will and conscious decisions. I suddenly stopped using my smartphone, looking at Facebook and writing. Did I decide to stop wasting time, pointlessly reliving old memories and making myself look like a fool on social media? No. I broke my wrist.

My generation, and a few generations before me, found ourselves in the right place at the right time. No skill, hard work, good judgement or other factors are attributable to us other than being born in a rich country during a period of peace.

The Americans wasted a lot of time and talent on the Vietnam War, which allowed Britain to become a world leader in banking software and the global financial markets. Silicon Valley is on the opposite coast of the USA from Wall Street. London has everything you need all in one place.

British men have sheds, in which they tinker and invent things. There's a proud tradition of geekery in Britain, which includes trainspotting, stamp collecting and pipe smoking. I'm a member of the last generation who were able to turn their geeky hobby and wasted youth into cold hard cash.

Most parents have dismally similar plans for their offspring: to pressure them as much as possible to try hard at school, in the hope that they'll survive the onslaught and be able to go on to university and become an accountant or a dentist or something... take up a profession. Medicine, law, architecture, surveying.... basically anything with a Royal Institute. Something to give you letters after your name. Something respectable.

Barrowboys from Essex and the East End made a killing as stock market traders, because they already had an eye for a good deal and a head for numbers. Later, software became something that anybody could stumble into, if they had the aptitude.

All those years at school and college proved a waste of time, when the fast-paced world of technology demanded magicians, wizards, sorcerers: anybody who could conjure up working computer software, no matter what their academic credentials looked like. The curriculum vitae was overlooked in favour of technical tests and whether a candidate knew the latest jargon.

Briefly, the snobbery over Oxbridge graduates and the class of degree that one had attained, was overturned and the prized star employees in the multitude of software houses and consultancies that sprung up, were often self-taught and not considered academically gifted, in the traditional sense.

Filial obedience proved disastrous, when many parent-pleasing academic high-achievers entered corporate law firms, only to find that the remuneration in no way compensated them for the hours that they worked and the pressure they were under. The story was the same everywhere you looked: hard work didn't pay.

Private school fees, university tuition fees and loans for maintenance, would all be far better off simply invested in property. Buy your kid a house and let them sub-let rooms out. They'll be richer and happier in the long-run. House prices are an asset bubble that just refuses to burst: we all need somewhere to live.

Now I find myself in the position where I haven't been dismissed in disrepute from the professional body, to which I belong. I haven't been struck off the GMC's register, or expelled from the Law Society. I can still practice software and nobody gives a fuck, so long as I can make the magic happen.

When it comes to imposter syndrome, and the sense that you can't possibly be worth the money that the market is prepared to pay for your skills, there could be nothing worse than knowing that you took up your particular career, because it was a gift that was handed to you, requiring no effort: you just happened to have an aptitude and be in the right place at the right time. I can't point to a fancy diploma that took me many years to obtain. I can't rely on my membership of an exclusive professional body, to give me a sense that I'm somehow deserving of a certain salary or consultancy day rate.

Following the path of least resistance has allowed me to find my place: where I'm most qualified to work and the market pays the most for my skills. However, I'm full of self-doubt. Am I too old for this game? Have my skills gotten rusty? Have I missed the boat on a new development, and taken myself up a technology cul-de-sac?

I can point to exceptional things I've done as evidence that I'm no slouch, but it's often hard for a salaryman to understand just how hard it is to run your own business, for example. In fact, having run your own business is something that is often held against you.

I find myself somewhat trapped. Nobody will hire me as a permanent member of staff because I've been contract for so long. I can't use my highest achievements to their fullest advantage, because they're things that your 9 to 5 regular guy just won't wrap their head around. I can't even consider escaping and living a simple minimalist life, until I deleverage: I'm financially trapped.

It's strange that the path of least resistance would lead here, with me somewhat able to sit by the riverside, writing, but paying an extremely high price for the privilege.

It's almost the final straw, to break my wrist and be unable to even write.




The Dickhead of Docklands

9 min read

This is a story about the wanker of the wharf...

Canary Wharf towers

London's financial services sector is the gift that keeps on giving. Through Y2K, the dot com bubble bursting, 9/11, 7/7 and the credit crunch, the good times never stopped rolling.

I'm now experiencing deja vu. My very first contract in Docklands was at Harbour Exchange, working for Lloyds TSB. I wore a shirt with cufflinks shaped like taps. I thought I epitomised the height of business fashion. In my defence, I was only 20 years old.

As I look around the glimmering tower blocks on the wharf, and look at their revolving doors leading into their fancy foyers, I realise that I've done at least two tours with so many of the companies: HSBC, JPMorgan, Barclays, Lloyds and others too.

It's good that these places will have me back. Why wouldn't they? I left on good terms, with great references and a bunch of people who'd remember me and some of the things I did when I was there.

But, I've started to burn bridges.

I know how to play the game and keep my mouth shut; not rock the boat. I know that the whole banking world keeps you hostage with golden handcuffs. You're ridiculously well paid, so you try to silence the voices in your head that say: what we're doing here is just not ethical.

You can immerse yourself in the propaganda, that says that the financial products that we offer are greasing the wheels of commerce, but you know that deep down, most of what you're doing is helping the rich to hide their wealth and shield it from taxation. When you ask your customer what their source of wealth is, they're not exactly going to say that it's sweatshops and drugs, are they? They're not exactly going to confess that their family is wealthy because they embezzled a load of money, leaving their fellow citizens starving.

Even a close friend, who seems reasonably ethical banker, has helped his father - a judge - to hide the family wealth in an offshore trust. They had some problems proving that they controlled the money, in order to get a mortgage, but the bank was eventually satisfied. The people who work in banks are outsmarting the ones who work for the regulators and the taxman, so that's why the rich pay very little tax, while the poor shoulder the burden of social programs. Socialism for the rich and capitalism for the poor.

Am I a hypocrite? Am I ungrateful, when I bite the hand that feeds me? Well, the easy defence is just to say that if I didn't do my job, somebody else would. Isn't it better that I'm on the inside, trying to make things better, than on the outside where I would have very little power and influence. I could easily throw my clogs into the loom, if I thought that was the right thing to do.

Fintech is a conflation of financial and technology. Fintech tends to mean the challenger banks and ecosystem that exists outside of the long-standing institutions. Arguably, I've been working on Fintech - financial services technology - since 1998, but yet I might get mocked by my startup buddies as working for dinosaurs. Indeed, one well-respected friend from the venture capital world, even wrote a blog post which suggested that my return to Canary Wharf was an admission of defeat; a failure.

do feel like a failure. Even though I just secured yet another contract for yet another massive bank, doing some cool stuff with AI and other bleeding-edge tech, and I'm going to be exceedingly well remunerated, I still feel like I sold out. I'm also really worried about my chequered past catching up with me. Instead of popping a champagne cork in celebration of my new role, last night, instead I have butterflies in my tummy and I'm incredibly anxious about getting everything signed, starting the job and making a good first impression, without any hiccups.

My self-assured manner and my self-confidence has all been destroyed, replaced instead with self-doubt. I started looking for a new contract on the 30th of November, and it took all this time to get one. I take that pretty personally, and I worry that I'm not a competitive candidate anymore: I'm not making the grade, amongst the other contractors in the market.

Obviously, when I actually start working these contracts, I realise that there's a real lack of tech pedigree and good leadership. I realise that there is a need for my skills and experience, and I can add value.

However, I struggle to play the game anymore. I struggle to keep my mouth shut for the benefit of my career and my bank balance. I struggle to let things go, for my own personal benefit. When I see wrongdoing and incompetence, I feel that I have a responsibility to the general public, to not just turn a blind eye. I feel like I have to act ethically... not because the regulators are watching, but because it's the right thing to do.

I struggle to do the work anymore. I don't enjoy tech for tech's sake. Often times I don't really believe that tech is improving anything. Most projects are doing the same kinds of things that have been done time and time again, for years. You'd have thought that if we were solving real problems, we'd have solved them already and moved on to something more useful, like finding a cure for cancer. The banking problem - debit account A and credit account B - is not a hard one to solve.

Who the hell am I, to sit idle for the whole month of November, writing a novel instead of trying to get a job. Who am I to arrogantly assume that I'll be able to win another lucrative contract, instead of getting a regular job like everybody else does? Who am I to only work 4 or 5 months of the year? Who the hell do I think I am?

Well, you're welcome to hate me if you like. I'm a banker; a capitalist pig; a lickspittle of the wealthy elites who cause so much human misery.

However, I'm an ideological misfit. I know that I'm well remunerated, but I don't confuse that with value. I don't feel valuable, I feel like I'm wasting my time building stuff that doesn't help; it hinders. I feel bribed into doing a job, because I need the money. Aren't we all? Yes, so why work a job that's just as pointless, but get paid a lot less? Do you think that by depriving that massive corporation of yourself, you're hurting them?

Arguably, if we were to all take an ethical stance with our employment, and refuse to work for weapons manufacturers and banks, we would starve them of the manpower they need to function. However, humanity responds to incentives: if you couldn't buy guns, somebody would start sharpening pointy sticks and selling them; if you couldn't get a bank loan, loan sharks would lend money.

The problem is when you follow a set of rules to their ultimate conclusion, you get some undesirable outcomes. Free-market capitalism might work when you're conquering the Wild West and building all the critical infrastructure to colonise the New World, but what about when it's all done, and populations start exploding? Is it right that being born into wealth or poverty is not a choice: inherited wealth and ownership determine everything.

If we pressed the 'reset' button and set all the bank balances to be the same, how many would lose and how many would gain? Yes, it's unfair that some who've worked very hard would lose out, but what about those who think it's unfair that their inherited wealth shouldn't be subjected to a Robin Hood tax? Surely it's more unfair that some people have a lifelong trust fund income, while others have to flip burgers and still can't afford to raise their families. Surely, there are more people who would benefit, than lose.

So, eventually I arrive at the conclusion that we need to have debt forgiveness, or else civilisation will be destroyed. I mean, what are the wealthy even doing with all their ill-gotten gains? It's dog in a manger behaviour that's the problem here, not jealousy.

In the rigged system we've built, success is not about hard work. The fable of the girl who swept the factory floor being promoted up the career ladder until she was eventually the CEO, is total horse-shit. We know that all the best jobs go to wealthy men from a handful of powerful families. You could bust your ass your whole life, and still have nothing to show for it except the little plastic stars on your McDonalds name badge.

To say "twas ever thus" and blame human nature, is disingenuous. You don't have to look very hard to see that civilisations rise and fall, based on the satisfaction of the hoi polloi. It doesn't matter how high you build the walls: when enough people want to smash down your defences, you'll find that even the most robust barriers are too flimsy to protect you.

What do we really believe in? What cause are we fighting for?

The top echelons of society are wealthy enough to have their every whim catered for, but what do they believe in? How many of our rulers are passionately engaged in the pursuit of something more meaningful than money?

I wanted to save up and buy a house. I wanted luxury holidays and fine dining. I had become totally bourgeois.

If we leave noble causes - like the search for scientific knowledge, world peace and hunger - to a handful of charity workers, while we ourselves fret about buying a bigger house or another boat, then our most educated and powerful portion of society is consumed by the consumer economy, which is intent only on separating fools from their money.

Western civilisation will fall, as if knocked over by a feather, because we believe in nothing.