The Diary

May 16, 2014 6:57 pm

The Diary: Izabella Kaminska

The FT Alphaville reporter on organising a tented event for finance types, moving back to London from Geneva and operating drones
Phantom quadcopter drone illustration©Luke Waller

I am now a blogger-turned-event planner. The event in question is Camp Alphaville, a new real-life offshoot of the FT’s Alphaville blog. Our boss Paul Murphy outlined to the team what it would be like: “You know, like a British summer music festival but for finance types – salmon pink wellies and portaloos.”

A few weeks later, members of Alphaville find ourselves on a site visit to check out the grounds of the Honourable Artillery Company in the City, a significantly posher festival site than a muddy Glastonbury field, and one that satisfies Paul’s requirements for an “open-air tented event”. While there, Paul informs us he’s off on a month-long sabbatical and it’s up to us to sort out the details. We’ve got until the festival takes place on July 2. Joy.

Take five financial bloggers, put them in a room (two of them present virtually, through a speakerphone) and ask them to organise an event for more than 500 people. What do you get? Chaos worthy of a scene from The Apprentice. We are not short of hare-brained ideas. After two hours, we’ve come up with a festival wishlist that includes Janet Yellen lookalikes, financial challenges, robots, Bernanke burgers and a burlesque cabaret. Confidence is high and we feel anything is possible until, that is, someone points out that the event’s panels and speakers have yet to be organised.

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I go on the hunt for inspiration from the FT newsroom. I bump into John McDermott, former Alphaviller. He recommends what is possibly the best idea I’ve come across for a conference full of economists, academics and financial types. “You should organise some sort of trading game to run in the background,” he says. I am tickled by the idea of financial professionals having to respond dynamically to fluctuating food and drink prices throughout the day. We discuss the idea of issuing “Alphacoins” to redeem against food and drink, as well as an Alphacoin central bank.

As week two of my new life as an event planner approaches, it feels an awful lot like we are into week 16 or more. It is also becoming clear that we’ve been overenthusiastic about what we can achieve. With regret, we put the trading game on ice (maybe one for next year?) and begin work on securing panellists.

. . .

I am beginning to appreciate what I was missing out on by being based in sleepy Switzerland for more than two years. In Geneva, my average day consisted of working from home, cooking, watching box sets and, occasionally, if I was lucky, interacting with a postman. On really exciting days there might have been an encounter with a policeman reprimanding me for a slightly overgrown hedge, or a meeting in town with a contact who happened to be in town (this happened approximately once a month) or dinner at an extremely overpriced restaurant.

I returned to live in London two months ago. In just the past two weeks I’ve eaten out almost every evening, attended four panel events – one in Oxford – and caught up with more than a dozen contacts over coffee or lunch, while totally losing track of my inbox and, most significantly of all, missing the Eurovision Song Contest.

. . .

In Chamonix, France, I savour the last snows of the season with my friend Jan, a self-confessed geek who has invested in a drone business and decides to use our trip as an excuse to test his latest prized possession: a small Phantom quadcopter drone, no bigger than a briefcase, which he has bought for fun.

Jan is adamant that 2014 will be “the year of the drone” and is determined to play his part. His prediction is looking sound, given that I’ve already spotted a Phantom quadcopter for sale at Geneva airport. Our plan is to use the drone for ski photography, building on the fad for helmet-mounted cameras. The rationale is simple: a drone can get to places people can’t and, on that basis, should be able to capture impressive footage of off-piste skiers and boarders.

Arriving at the resort, I realise that Jan is desperate to give the drone a go, even though it is already past 10pm. Like any male geek, Jan is convinced he doesn’t need to read the operating manual to know how to fly it. In hindsight, this turns out to be an oversight. The maiden voyage takes place outside on the decking. It does not end well. The drone proves hard to control, drifts sideways, then crashes into an unopened beer can. The propellers shred the can to smithereens, leaving a frothy mess. We are grateful the victim is a beer can rather than someone’s face, deem the incident a valuable lesson in health and safety, and retire for the night. Good news for the neighbours, because the contraption is noisy as hell.

When I wake up, Jan is already tinkering with the drone. He has finally read the manual, claims to know what last night’s problem was (something to do with the GPS lock) and is confident another test-flight, this time on the slopes, can proceed without delay. I head up the mountain accompanied by a man with a drone protruding from his rucksack.

Having found a suitably isolated – and thus safe – location, we proceed with drone-testing. Jan has done well. Everything is much more responsive. Once the GPS is locked, the copter’s movements become creepily efficient. The drone moves exactly where he wants it to go. It soars on command, then descends. It goes sideways, then forwards. It goes slow, then fast. Most impressive of all, it stays suspended in mid-air, not moving at all. Until, that is, it drops suddenly like a bomb.

We are lucky. The snow cushions its fall and there is no one in the way of the missile as it lands. The problem, once again, is the GPS lock. If lost, this puts the drone at the mercy of the skill of the operator. These are skills that Jan, as a newbie pilot, hasn’t acquired yet. Flying drones, it turns out, isn’t easy. Given the public risk, we decide it’s probably advisable that we rename 2014 the “year of the skilled drone operator”.

Izabella Kaminska is a reporter for FT Alphaville

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