how Britain fell back in love with borrowing

In the Ermine world, people clearing their unsecured debts sounds like A Good Thing in general, after all, when I was growing up there was no unsecured personal debt 1 and people survived, the sun rose each day and they seemed to have fewer financial crises… In the Through the Looking Glass world we have now that’s all bunk. Apparently, more unsecured borrowing is a good-news story. Let’s hear it from PriceWaterhouseCoopers

Just as daffodils herald the beginning of Spring, it’s a sure sign that people are feeling better about their economic prospects when they dust off their credit cards. […]

In the five years after 2008 people worked hard to reduce their debts and managed to clear almost a quarter of their unsecured borrowing. But the latest report shows a sudden and sharp return of unsecured lending

[…] In cash terms, that’s more than ever before and a reflection that many people feel more confident about their finances than they have in a while.

Matthew’s Moronic Money Muppetry

On the radio I hear such a stupendously moronic statement from a mouth-breather that makes me  ask WTF is going on here? Did I stick shift somewhere and end up on a different planet rather than a different lane?

The man-child Matthew tells us something at 16:44 that informed me that the fight is futile, the good guys lost and the bad guys won.

Q: Are you spending money you don’t have:

Err, yes, people do these days, things are expensive, you have big outgoings, …Christmas, I put things on credit card… then you get into a cycle of just paying the minimum amount…transfer the balance again…hopefully that won’t run out

I definitely use credit cards to pay for major times like …Christmas… I’ll spread that over the year, won’t be gone by the end of the year…you wanna have a good time, wanna have nice food and things…it’s important for me to keep a good credit score

Q: when was the last time you were credit free?

6 or 7 years ago

Q: is there any end in sight?

when those interest-free offers run out, and I do pay interest on some things; when that all comes on top of me I will eventually get a loan, and then it will stop..until then it works for me.

Fundamentally my lifestyle revolves around exceeding my income and I think that’s a normal thing

There are times that you weep for all the previous life-forms that struggled their way across the geological aeons, the fish that left the sea, and indeed our own human forebears who endured desperate privation to produce the pinnacle of wisdom delivered by Matthew encapsulated in

Fundamentally my lifestyle revolves around exceeding my income and I think that’s a normal thing

Live intentionally, Matthew. Christmas should be about gratitude, not spending to make corporations rich

Go on Matthew

Go on Matthew. In the unthinking stir-fry that occupies that cranium of yours, ever look at things like this and ask yourself if there’s more to life that rolling over your Christmas consumer debt from year to year?

Now I know you’re not a fellow who’s given to deep thought on the meaning of life and all that jazz, but Matthew, has it ever occurred to you that the purpose of your life on this sparkling blue planet may not be totally summed up in doing as you’re told and buying shit you can’t afford to make other people rich? Let’s take a look at that Christmas thang, for starters. What is Christmas? Why is it there? Ever thought about that, y’know – why do you want to have a good time, drink yourself stupid on wifebeater and pig out? Let me tell you a story

more »


  1. this isn’t strictly true, there were ways and means but usually associated with the threat of violence for defaulters. What we know as consumer credit to buy Stuff was regulated hire purchase secured on the goods
30 Nov 2014, 6:38pm


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  • Dear Mr TV Licensing. The Ermine has no TV licence…

    Because he doesn’t watch live TV. What part of that do you not understand?

    It’s not often that the Repo Man tries to call at Ermine towers, but one of your boys visited this Sunday, while the Ermine is laying out a printed circuit board, so no, I don’t appreciate the gratuitous interruption to something that needs concentration and keeping a load of spatial stuff in mind. But you’re also cheeky enough to want to come inside my house because you want me to prove that I am not lying to you. Well F*** off.

    I’m not having you search my house for it. An Englishman’s home is his castle etc. And I’m not pulling down my aerials either. I may want to use them one day, in which case I’ll pay out. All I have to do to be legally absolved of the need to buy a TV licence is not watch live TV as it is broadcast. And I don’t do that. It’s really no great deprivation, despite the apparent incredulity. One of the joys of becoming financially independent is you usually get to do that  by living a bit differently to the way other people do. This is one of them.

    There are ways of looking for signals leaking from TV gear in use. It’s a lot harder now those damn Europeans with their pesky EMC regulations mandate lower emissions from  consumer electronics. I wouldn’t imagine it’s economically viable for TV licensing to have people capable of driving the gear and making sense of the results. And it doesn’t look like this

    And it doesn't look like this you bunch of chumps

    And it doesn’t look like this you bunch of chumps

    There is a satellite dish and a TV aerial on the outside of my house. You are very welcome to park a Transit van on the public highway and point a dish at the Satellite quad LNB and look for the 11GHz local oscillator, and use a Yagi aerial to look for the Freeview local oscillator leaking from the TV aerial, it’s about 39MHz off the wanted channel if I remember right. Take yourself down to Livingston Hire and book out something suitable, the Rohde & Schwartz FSV13 would probably see you right. If you pay my consulting fee I’ll show you how to use it :)

    You won’t find any signal, because I don’t watch TV, there’s nothing connected to these aerials. I do still have the Humax Freesat box I talked about a while back but it is in a box in my loft – the resale value is sod all and I might one day change my mind. It’s not hurting anybody and I’m not using it.

    I’m not one of the rabid refuseniks who doesn’t think there should even be a TV licence, though the vexatious rudeness of TV licensing could turn me into one. There may be other better ways to fund the BBC but to be honest that’s not one of the problems in the world I give too much headspace to. The reason I don’t need a TV licence isn’t that I don’t watch TV, but I don’t have any way of picking out what’s worth watching ahead of time, other than people telling me. Obviously they have to watch TV first – thank you Under The Money Tree and Mr Squirrel for the last couple of recommends. I can’t abide TV series of the sort most people really rate like Breaking Bad or The Wire. I don’t do sport.  If I am interested in someone’s recommendation  I watch it on iPlayer or the ITV/C4 equivalents. There’s not much point in me shelling out £145 a year for the privilege of being able to do something I don’t do. If I needed to pay for iPlayer I’d live without. I do vaguely miss the TV news but it’s hardly as if the Web is without news, for instance if I want to see some people fighting over buying a television set then due to the magic of the new-fangled intertubes I can do just that. I think this is my favourite clip of Britons behaving badly, though I do note on some of the videos the gentlemen of the press outnumber the punters. The weather forecast is that much better on the Web, and if I want cat videos then there’s always Youtube.

    I do have a TV, though not the big one from this post – that went to the county dump a while back. Mrs Ermine uses it to watch DVDs. It is so old it doesn’t do Freeview or HDMI, though it has a nice analogue tuner showing many varieties of snow. I was even toying with getting a bigger TV monitor, preferably without fighting for it, because a 20 inch 4:3 machine at not even SD resolution isn’t that easy to see from a distance 1 and does lose the effect somewhat. But then I’d have to get a secondhand stereo for the sound because that’s half the story and it would end up in some ghastly version of the Diderot effect. And I’d like to go HD but couldn’t find anywhere to rent HD movies without being sucked into a subscription, and movies aren’t important enough in my life to subscribe to anything. DVDs seem to be £1 a go PAYG from the library, and you can’t argue with that.

    TV Licensing are a vexatiously rude bunch of tossers

    The reason TV Licensing get such a load of shit from people is that they are bully-boys. There’s a tradition in this country that you are innocent until proven guilty, but in TV Licensing start from the assumption that nobody in 21st century Britain can live without the glass teat feeding the lifeblood of consumerism directly into their face. Despite there being the competing multimedia firehose pointed at their face that you’re now looking at, and the smartphone for da yoof. So you are guilty and they address you as such. It starts off with the wheedling


    TV Licensing -> Ermine after 1 month  Shurely Shome mishtake, Sire has omitted to renew?

    NO, you numbskull, I don’t watch live TV because it consumes too much of my precious time to find what I want, so I wait for others to tell me, OK?




    Ermine to TVL – no, I am not telling you anything, this is something I am no longer doing. I’m not paying money, wasting time on your phone system, giving you my phone number or email address to hassle, and the onus is not on me to prove my innocence. The onus is on you to prove I am doing something you can charge me for. As I walk down the street I can see lots of people’s TV screens. You are more than welcome to see if you can see mine from the public highway. Maybe I should get me one of these TV simulators  to make your pay-per-hit Capita dudes have a rush from the thrill of the chase, eh?

    TV Licensing -> Ermine after 2 months, random mailed intimidation and final demands.

    Random unjustified aggro by post

    Random unjustified TV Licensing aggro by post

    I haven’t had this sort of aggravation since Thatcher’s Poll Tax in the early 1990s!

    TV Licensing -> Ermine after 4 months  Up close and personal we want to inspect your house to make sure you aren’t watching TV.

    Eh? I haven’t ever had so much bloody grief for something I’m not doing and don’t need to do. It’s not 1984 guys, where you get into deep doo-doo for switching the damn telescreen off! Chill out and piss off.


    It appears that I will never be shot of this grief, this bloke has been harassed for the last 8 years…. Still, saving ~£150 a year is worth some aggro, the opportunity cost is a respectable  amount in red wine and coffee or 3 DVD rentals a week!


    1. I can see the damn thing perfectly well but it hardly fills the field of view :)

    Self-seeking vacuum cleaner manufacturers lambast energy efficiency moves

    Consumerism, don’tcha love it. Take the humble vacuum cleaner – invented around the turn of the last century. They served previous generations well, given our Northern European habit of carpeting homes. In much of the rest of the world people use hard surfaces for floors like wood or tiles, but that’s a bit chilly in winter. Hence the need to clean carpets using technology more advanced than a broom or a mop.

    In a curious marketing arms race started by that James Dyson fellow, what was once a pedestrian and functional piece of kit throughout the 1970s and 1980s after being perfected over the previous 50 years became an aspirational product with innovation for the sake of it – one obvious problem was solved and a few more subtle ones introduced. Consumerism loves that sort of thing – make big positive changes and introduce faults that take time to develop – you only find out about the irritations as you own the product. It also became a damn sight more noisy that it used to be, with a particularly horrible high-frequency whine, in the case of the Dyson DC03 I used to have. Yeah, I was that middle class consumer suckered by the hype. The Dyson was a lot harder to troubleshoot. There were only four things that could go wrong with a bag-ful vacuum cleaner. The bag filled up, something got stuck in the intake hose or something jammed the brush roller, and all of these were something that were easily visible to the untrained householder. The fourth thing was the motor burning out, and you could smell that :)

    Compared with that the airflow of my old DC03 had loads of rubber seals, plastic channels that would crack under use and the whole thing gradually degraded so it was replaced after changing lots of expensive parts because it lacked suction compared to the basic Henry vac in a church hall we hired. I pulled it apart to see if there was anything worth salvaging, expecting to see all sorts of high-tech wondrousness. And was greeted with a bog-standard universal motor – so much for all the high-tech wizardry, eh, James? I don’t doubt the cleverness of the cyclone engineering, but it was the marketing of a new, and ultimately not very useful, technology that enabled you to jack up prices in the 1990s. Yes, bags make the suction fade, but the consumer can fix that. Whereas whatever made the DC03 fade over a few years wasn’t replaceable by a reasonably technical consumer – for all I know the usual little lumps that get sucked into the airways and trashed the plastic channels I replaced may have knackered the cyclone bit. I always hated that DC03 for the earache, anyway, glad to see the back of it :)

    Vacuum cleaners are now marketed by the power of the motor, which seems to be pure specmanship and lazy engineering. Previous generations worked in dirty manual industries, their kids played out in the street and garden rather than sitting in front of the computer. These generations were served by vacuum cleaners that were specified in hundreds of watts – I recall being surprised in the late 1980s to see a Miele vacuum cleaner that was rated at 1100W on the high range. So the question has to be asked, if one and a bit horsepower 1was enough to clean the homes of our grandparents with their grubby street urchins, why do we now all of a sudden need the power of three horses running flat-out to clean a carpet?

    Apparently, according to Which,and Dyson  an affront is being perpetrated on the human rights of European consumers by those pesky bureaucrats in Brussels limiting vacuum cleaner motor powers to 1600W, one and a half times the power of the machine that surprised me 20 years ago. It’s still more than two horsepower – people used to deliver coal and collect scrap metal with less power than that.

    Right. So you're telling me that after 100 years of impovement, you need more power to clean your carpet than this guy needed to haul tons of coal? Ain't progress marvellous, and don't spare the horses...

    Right. So you’re telling me that after 100 years of vacuum cleaner refinement, you need more power to clean your carpet than was needed to haul tons of coal? Ain’t progress marvellous, and don’t spare the horses…

    Now some pieces of technology have been reasonably perfected for the requirements most consumers have of them. The bicycle, screwdriver, the pen and paper, the digital SLR and many others. It’s not that innovation isn’t possible in any of these, but 90% of users’ needs are met adequately. The vacuum cleaner reached this stage by the beginning of the 1980s – my experience of Mr Dyson’s much vaunted advances were mixed – great at the start but hellaciously noisy, and, to be honest, overpriced to boot as well as fading over the years and being fiddly to maintain.

    I’m with the Eurocrats here – you don’t need three horsepower to clean a domestic carpet, and motor power doesn’t seem to be turned that well into sucking power. This is specmanship and marketing spin, and more power means more weight and more noise. It’s easy to sell something on a number, but after more than a century of making vacuum cleaners this isn’t a high-tech market in its infancy.

    Also if you have to make more vacuum cleaning stuff to sell to people to make them buy things they don’t need ,why not go the Roomba route – at least it’s genuine innovation in one aspect, rather than just making the motor bigger, noisier and heavier so the marketing droids can push the bigger number? Then at least you can use the time you save to go to work to pay for it. The very fact that people will put up with a Roomba, which clearly doesn’t have a three-horsepower motor 2 shows you don’t need stupendous amounts of power. One horse power, maybe. Knock yourself out with the power of two horses – the eurocrats are easy with that too.


    It’s when you running the same sort of power  that used to pull a coach and horses up the Great North Road that you have to ask yourself whether you aren’t just being suckered by specmanship.

    More power, more noise and more weight  is not the answer. Let’s hear it from Mrs Kingsland – whose machine failed in service after 70 years of cleaning her B&Bs. Apparently the new one is quieter – but too big and heavy 😉 They don’t make ’em like they used to, eh?


    1. one horse is good for about 750Watts – your can call on the rippling muscles of nearly three from one UK socket – ain’t modern technology marvellous
    2. very few things powered by batteries have a 3hp motor. And yes, total energy consumed is a function of power and time – even there it seems the Roomba scores relative to one of those eighties-powered units of 2/3 the new EU limit, never mind a 2010 behemoth, and there are many extra inefficiencies to a Roomba)
    3 Jun 2014, 2:12pm


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  • Dear Amazon. Want more than 40%? Quite frankly, stick it

    The Ermine occasionally flogged off some spare CDs. In a previous life I used to wholesale some and occasionally I’d come across yet another bunch of these. It was an easy win – I get to clear out some space and somebody gets a new CD. But I’m down to the last box now. I had an Amazon Marketplace account. And today, having sent one of these and mailed it off yesterday, I get this peremptory message from His Jeffness.


    Dear Seller,

    We are contacting you today regarding your seller account. Please be advised that we have made some structural changes to our EU Marketplace. As before, Amazon Services Europe S.à r.l. operates the Marketplace platform and provides the Selling on Amazon service. However, from now on, Amazon Payments Europe S.C.A. will provide the new payment component of the service.

    [translation: we have opened up yet another tax-beneficial scam joint who will no doubt start raking off more fees just like Paypal with Ebay]

    In this regard, EU regulations require Amazon Payments Europe to collect certain business and personal information from you and take steps to confirm your identity. To fulfil those requirements, we need your support to make some changes to your existing seller account with Amazon Services Europe:

    In addition to your current seller account you now need to open a Selling on Amazon payment account with Amazon Payments Europe. The proceeds of your transactions on Amazon EU Marketplaces will be disbursed from this account to your bank account.

    [translation: we will be salami-slicing you for fees upon fees, because we can]

    The Business Solutions Agreement has been amended to reflect this change, and you will need to agree separately to the Amazon Payments Europe User Agreement. Because these are new agreements and formats, we ask that you accept the new and amended agreements and provide the requested information in Seller Central.

    *** It is essential that you accept the new agreements and provide the requested information within the next 60 calendar days in order to continue to sell on Amazon. If you do not provide the required information within 60 days, you will not be able to open your Selling on Amazon payment account and you will not be able to continue to sell on Amazon. ***

    [translation: we hold all the cards and have you by the balls. You will do what we say because you’re a sharecropper on our estate and we’re bigger than you are]

    Err, no. Piss off. All items removed. If you aren’t prepared to pay me the less than a tenner for that last CD then I am absolutely fine with that – my customer will get his goods, presumably Jeff gets a few quid to take over more of the world(edit: 5/6/2014 in the interest of observing Queensbury Rules  Amazon will pay for that last CD in the old way I have now heard) and I don’t have to agree with yet another non negotiable shrink-wrap you do what we say or you suck it up demand. I had enough of that sort of stupidity at work, but at least they paid properly. Working for Amazon is already low-rent enough as it is, Amazon makes about 40% on the deal – more than the postage. Royal Mail actual do the work shifting goods from A to B, Amazon just pay the ‘leccy bill for their website. Well, okay, and make it easy for people to find stuff 😉

    As a retiree it isn’t always totally possible to avoid the issue of making money, but it’s the power-play I always want to avoid. I have done too many things for too long because I didn’t have options, and now I have the option it’s sweet. I don’t have a religious opposition to making use of skills, though curiously enough most of what I have done that’s made people money since leaving work has had nothing to do with engineering. Maybe I was too narrow in my engineering career, and lifting the daily grind has shifted the balance.

    This much I know, however – selling or giving mind and know-how is far preferable to wrangling Stuff. Cash-flow and storage is always such a pain with buying and selling stuff, you have to store this clobber, you have to look after it, even after you’ve turned a profit on the deal it feels bad to just throw stuff out that has sold well even if you have a more profitable/timely product. Compared to that shooting sound and video, editing it, or hacking code doesn’t consume anything other than a bit of power, you get to see new situations  and problems, and junk doesn’t build up in your garage or loft. Selling knowhow or ways of doing something has other subtle business benefits – there are often indirect lock-ins or costs of changing, whereas with mass-market products you’re just a rat on a wheel, particularly selling made goods on the internet.

    Every so often I’m tempted to make products, and even got a bunch of boards made for one design, but after I’ve used half of them on my own sensor network I think about all the EU crap like CE marking that didn’t exist the last time I produced devices and figure I need to remember the lesson from my multimedia company on the side relative to the CD operation run by DxGF.

    Don’t. Do. Stuff.

    Yes, if you’re starting out and want to make your fortune it’s not a bad way to go if you have the skills, but it’s a full time job. If you want to turn a little bit on the side it’s a hard row to hoe, because the margin on Stuff and the added value seems lower than adding Mind. And you need to warehouse Stuff and it moulders quietly if you keep it too long. So I’m going to toss the remains, get it out of my way and declutter. Jeff can get on his bike, and thank you very much sir for highlighting the low rent of that sort of work by being such a greedy bastard as to prep for extracting another slice of the action. The rake on Amazon Marketplace makes people like Hargreaves Lansdown look like public-spirited philanthropists -only 1.5% fees at HL compared to 38% at Amazon. And I’m no longer prepared to be a sharecropper for them and their bunch of Luxembourg umbrella companies.

    I’m starting to warm to the concept of Bitcoin, just to get shot of all this bollocks. Seriously, Amazon, there’s less than a ton left worth of goods here. I’m not validating my bank account and giving you shitloads of personal details, which you will use a) to scam me brainless with advertising crap to me that I don’t want and b) no doubt fail to secure your corporate network at some stage like your mates over at Ebay, spewing this information all over the internet so some bunch of ne’rdowells can cause me grief. No. And of course you’ll probably do like the fine fellows at Selftrade and ask for all sorts of extra useful marketing cobblers because, hell, the EU made you do it.

    25 May 2014, 9:16pm


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  • Dear Mr Gove. Do not be such a parochial prat

    An Ermine notes with displeasure that a certain Mr Gove appears to have charged out of the stable with his blinkers on. To wit he has decreed English Literature will be dictated thusly

    Students taking the OCR exam from 2015 will be required to study a pre-20th century novel, Romantic poetry and a Shakespeare play.

    i.e. none of that damned American stuff like To Kill a Mockingbird. Or perhaps appositely, The Grapes of Wrath, maybe…

    Now unlike the NUT I’m not implacably against Mr Gove. I do agree that our children should leave primary school being able to read, write and do ‘rithmetic including tables. And that whatever today’s equivalent of maths O level should at least have acquainted the little dears with differential calculus. But hasn’t anybody told Mr Gove that the past is a different country?

    I had the bad luck to have to do Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations at O level. The prose is turgid, dense and repetitive. It’s like trying to read a newspaper with a 1″ loupe – you can’t stand back enough to get an overview. Let’s face it, here was a dude who was paid by the flippin’ word. Plus the gruesome detail is of an age that was a different country. I cite Exhibit A

    A now economically worthless document because my human capital is worth jack shit in the marketplace. One line stands out ;)

    An economically worthless document because my human capital is now worth jack shit in the marketplace. One line stands out for all the wrong reasons ;)

    Now I was to become an engineer, and had already done maths and physics early to get the suckers out of the way. You will already see the signs of weakness in the humanities in the History grade 1 . But I wasn’t so terrible at reading – but I just could not get enough overview of the tedious turgid tripe that is Great Expectations.

    Over thirty-five years have rolled by since I sat that exam and flunked Eng Lit because I hadn’t read enough of the the book, and what I had read had been routed to the trash dump of my brain, which had tried to parse it for meaning and had come up with a null pointer.

    The world has become more global since then. And around Europe the lamps are going out in the intellectual sphere as fearful citizens from Scotland to Greece  seek to make their world a smaller place and hold the tides of globalisation at bay because ‘dem furreners a comin’ fer ours jobs’. These citizens were happy when dem furreners were making their DVD players and their iPhones cheaper, and they are not being served well by the spineless political class that hasn’t got the balls to tell the electorate that the good times are gone for good – living standards will stagnate or decline because power is shifting East. GDP will no doubt increase, it’s the slice of it available to the 99% that will fall.

    This is no time for parochialism, Mr Gove. We need to light the lamps of Reason and of culture so that some pathfinders will be strong enough to navigate their way across the long Western Intercession of the next 30, 50, 100 years. I read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird at the same time as Great Expectations – for interest, because the story captured my attention. It is not time now, Mr Gove, to pull up the shutters and look inwards at a little Britain of its Victorian heyday. If anything we need to read a wider pool of literature, so let’s not lop out our American novelists, eh?  Maybe das Glasperlenspiel in translation or Flaubert’s Mme Bovary. It is probably too big an ask to include non-western literature and teenagers are hardly well-read enough to put it into context, but the British canon is too old and too narrow now. The journey is longer to Dickensian London than to the American South of the early 20th century.

    Mr Gove, keep the windows to the world open. We aren’t little England now. The flame of the Enlightenment is flickering in the wind, now is not the time to drain the fuel supply. Spengler had it nailed in Der Untergang des Abendlandes

    [of a culture that has passed the high-water mark]

    And we find, too, that everywhere, at moments, the coming fulfilment suggested itself in such moments were created the head of Amenemhet III (the so-called ” Hyksos Sphinx ” of Tanis), the domes of Hagia Sophia, the paintings of Titian Still later, tender to the point of fragility, fragrant with the sweetness of late October days, come the Cnidian Aphrodite and the Hall of the Maidens in the Erechtheum, the arabesques on Saracen horseshoe-arches, the Zwinger of Dresden, Watteau, Mozart.

    At last, in the grey dawn of Civilization the fire in the Soul dies down. The dwindling powers rise to one more, half-successful, effort of creation, and produce the Classicism that is common to all dying Cultures. The soul thinks once again, and in Romanticism looks back piteously to its childhood; then finally, weary, reluctant, cold, it loses its desire to be, and, as in Imperial Rome, wishes itself out of the overlong daylight and back in the darkness of protomysticism in the womb of the mother in the grave. The spell of a “second religiousness” comes upon it, and Late-Classical man turns to the practice of the cults of Mithras, of Isis, of the Sun – those very cults into which a soul just born in the East has been pouring a new wine of dreams and fears and loneliness.

    That Intercession must come to pass, the West is tired and weak, it’s once shared values lost, and its energy washed out in dissipation, bread and circuses. The seed must lie dormant, perhaps for centuries, until it is ready and willing to serve humanity again, perhaps in a totally different form. Your hearkening back to the old, Mr Gove, is just as hubristic though perhaps less disastrous as the Project for the New American Century, but it’s born of the same refusal to see that death is the necessary counterbalance to birth, in human cultures as well as in Nature.

    Look outwards Mr Gove. You cannot forestall the Intercession, but maybe, if the seed is fed well in the dying of the Light, you can shorten the Interregnum. Somebody has to staff the Second Foundation 2of the West. That child may enter one of your schools, Mr Gove, and you are cutting him off  from the narrative of the recent West in favour of the small-Britain distant past. We don’t need to be reframing our cultural references for a smaller world. One of those kids may be charged with carrying the Staff of Knowledge across the rocky pass that leads future Europeans out of the darkness as the new wine begins to flow.



    1. note that these exams were norm-referenced and not the everyone’s a winner sort now. A B was still respectable and nowhere near as dreadful as it would be considered now. This is because norm referencing is autocalibrating. However an E was definitely  an incontrovertible fail, the pass mark was C I believe
    2. A reference to Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, which held the  same Spenglerian concept that the Intercession cannot be avoided, but had the thesis that if some way can be found to preserve the essential values then it can be shortened.  Science Fiction was considered arrant trash and the lowest form of literature in my school-days, I still don’t know why it’s so reviled. Perhaps there was more reason why I got that E than failing to read Dickens, maybe the Ermine has really has no understanding of literature :) I really liked the Foundation trilogy
    13 May 2014, 2:51pm


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  • The sleep of Reason is producing monsters in the UK

    We recently received the postal ballot papers in the UK, and I was reminded of this classic drawing by Goya in 17th century Spain

    Goya's darwing from 1799

    “Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.”

    We humans tread a thin line between rationality and unreason, and it feels like the trendline is pointing away from the direction of Reason and has been for the last three decades. I recently discovered that the proportion of GDP Britain spends on R&D has really fallen over the years I have been in work, which might explain why my experience of the world of work moved towards a tedious paint-by-numbers and away from the interesting stuff as time went on. But that’s all for another day, because this ballot paper showed me, at a glance, what is wrong. And it is frightening

    This ballot paper is either a triumph of the democratic process in giving an insight into the true feelings of my fellow countrymen. And giving them a way to vent their spleen in a way that really doesn’t matter one whit, because the European Parliament has no executive power. Don’t take my word for it, get it from the horse’s mouth

    To wit

    Under Article 289 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), consultation is a special legislative procedure, whereby Parliament is asked for its opinion on proposed legislation before the Council adopts it.

    The European Parliament may approve or reject a legislative proposal, or propose amendments to it. The Council is not legally obliged to take account of Parliament’s opinion but in line with the case-law of the Court of Justice, it must not take a decision without having received it.

    In the beginning, the 1957 Treaty of Rome gave Parliament an advisory role in the legislative process; the Commission proposed and the Council adopted legislation.

    So it doesn’t really matter who becomes an MEP – I personally would be in favour of abolishing the whole shooting match and making the Council of Europe representative to the electorate in some population-related way. I don’t think the European Parliament performs any useful function and costs us shitloads of money, and gives a platform for some very strange people of which Nigel Farage is by no means an outlier – he’s positively square compared to some. It’s not gonna be changed in my lifetime. These European elections therefore give the opportunity it seems for a primal scream.

    Psychology tells us that the human mind has to deal with a lot of complexity, and the self-aware I is only partially self-aware/conscious. There is an unknown part of the mind that runs in the background, collecting and sifting data, forming opinions, holding grudges, simplifying the world around to make it digestible by the limited lens of consciousness, at it scans across the too big to read newspaper of our experiences.

    This unknown part of the mind is the back-seat driver to the conscious mind, and it guards the boundary well. It has to, because if the thin line fails under the load then you have a range of rotten experiences from bad dreams through a nervous breakdown to the a full blown breakdown of everything like the effects of LSD gone wrong. Huxley got away with it, Syd Barrett didn’t… That line is there for a purpose, mess with it at your peril. But you can see it indirectly. If you want to know what your worst character fault is, think of what all the people you instantly dislike have in common. The unconscious mind projects some of this upon the world it sees outside, and that gets read back through the lens of the conscious mind.

    Despite that fact that Britain is immensely richer than it was in 1973/5, this primal scream is taking the form of ‘There’s lots of stuff that I can’t have and it’s not fair. It’s all somebody else’s fault’. And this scream is getting voiced in this ballot paper.


    the sleep of reason

    the sleep of reason



    The Squeezed Middle are Doomed

    Because they are puppet slaves buying empty dreams. They’ve lost the ability to look around them and the cornucopia of goods and services an advanced industrial nation has to offer them, and ask themselves the simple question

    Does buying this crap improve my quality of life?”

    and if the answer is no, then leave it well alone!

    Firestarter and MMM kicked this off with a deconstruction of one example from the USA, and I’ve now found one from the UK. Get your violins out for Guy and Shaz on £120,000 who haven’t been out for a meal for yonks.

    Annually it’s costing £45,000 after tax, which is a considerable outlay, but I’m happy to pay because I want them to have the best start

    Folks, you were part of building a world where there are no bloody jobs for your kids no matter how much money you throw down the toilet of school fees. We’re talking a sunk cost of  £157,000 per child (11 to 18). There’s a case to be made for setting up the trust fund – it’ll deliver ~£8k each for your precious nippers to sit on their backsides all day. Every year for good.

    Independent schooling seems to be one of those empty dreams that caters to people’s understandable sense of vicarious living and immortality through their children. But here’s a shock finding – it is values, grit and integrity that maketh the man, along with a decent dollop of good old-fashioned luck. That used to be your job as parents to do bar the luck, but I guess along with the usual trend of outsourcing things so you can earn more money to outsource more things that sort of thinking seems to be passe.

    Now you can tell that this is ad-land berlercks from the Mission Statement of Lord Wandsworth college where Guy sends his progeny to –

    LWC is a socially inclusive non-denominational boarding and day Foundation school for boys and girls. We focus on the needs of each individual, while developing in each child a concern for others and a love for and loyalty towards the school community. We ensure that each pupil shapes their values and aspirations within a stimulating and supportive environment, and strive constantly to improve the quality of teaching and learning.

    We aim to equip pupils with character attributes, passion, resourcefulness, independence, skills, knowledge and qualifications so they can become the best possible version of themselves and make a great contribution to a changing world.

    LWC should reach out and become known as a leading and opinion forming school, in principle and in practice.

    Now bearing in mind that presumably if you are charging shitloads of money for entry you can hire the best ad copywriters, WTF is this passionless management speak that we see before us – it’s more befitting an firm of book-keepers that a bunch of people who will relieve you of nearly 200 grand to do a job you could get done for free if you were prepared to be part of the solution. Let’s deconstruct this fine prose. It isn’t a fair fight – the Ermine has merely a thirty-year old grammar-school edukayshun and I failed 1 English Literature. Whereas Lord Wandsworth are education.

    LWC is a socially inclusive non-denominational boarding and day Foundation school for boys and girls

    To be honest, if I’m a parent, I want a school that is a bit socially exclusive – to keep the thickos and oiks away from Tarquin. Even if Tarquin is a moron and I know it, I want him to go to a school where they keep out the rough sorts. With the exception of people like Fiona Millar, most parents are like this, once you have loosened their tongues with enough wine. People are tribal that way. However, this is achieved in a roundabout way. Obviously if you can stump up £20k+ per head per annum, you have automatically eliminated most of the lower classes 😉

    Of course the social inclusives would say ah but 10% of our intake have bursaries. Well yeah but you gotta know the lingo to apply for a bursary. I had to look it up to know what it means in a school context.

    We focus on the needs of each individual, while developing in each child a concern for others and a love for and loyalty towards the school community.

    The usual oxymoronic claptrap. Humans are not multitaskers and you can develop the individual or generate good community sheeple, but you cannae do both. Look around you are the people who have made a difference in the world. They are often borderline sociopathic, driven and not balanced all-round team players. It goes with the patch – great talent sticks out because it is so rare. So don’t go cutting my tall poppies down, school. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there.

    We ensure that each pupil shapes their values and aspirations within a stimulating and supportive environment, and strive constantly to improve the quality of teaching and learning.

    The Ermine has parsed this sentence searching with his beady eyes for any semblance of meaning beyond the sort of random gwana-gwana that exercised the Register years ago. And failed to discover any. It’s like the snow you used to get on a television when the aerial had fallen out – the random hiss as the intermediate frequency amplifiers are turned up in the vain search for an incoming signal. Is it a dog-whistle to acolytes of Tom Peters, MBAs an other purveyors of management-speak who torture the English language daily? WTF does it mean? How exactly do you do this? Where do you start, and where do you go for help?

    Do or do not, do not try

    We aim to equip pupils with character attributes, passion, resourcefulness, independence, skills, knowledge and qualifications so they can become the best possible version of themselves and make a great contribution to a changing world.

    Way back in the mists of time, when there was still talent and creativity flowing in George Lucas’s veins rather than an unending search for filthy lucre amongst the twisted wreckage of his youthful originality, he created a remarkably plug-ugly character whose greatest statement highlights what’s wrong with that sentence 2.

    It seems following generations have projected these wise words upon subsequent heroes, according to Google. The truth is timeless.

    my fellow Google searchers consider this worth of Dumbledore and Gandalf

    my fellow Google searchers consider this epithet worthy of Dumbledore and Gandalf


    LWC should reach out and become known as a leading and opinion forming school, in principle and in practice

    More of the same, really. If you should reach out and become known, then what is standing in your way, FFS, and give no quarter – sack them or eliminate them from your world. Do or do not, people.

    So I thought I would investigate more as to what Mr Squeezed Middle is shelling out for. They have an entry in the Good Schools Guide, so I took a butcher’s hook

    A good, broad, mid-range school, and a good place to be a bright kid – they are well rewarded for working hard, half a dozen Oxbridge candidates each year.

    Obviously nobody has stupid kids, because this might be a crap place to be dumb. But then no parent has stupid kids, right? Have you ever known any  parent who says “my child has shit for brains and is talent-free, not even good with his hands”? Obviously all humans are above average, then…

    That yells out aspirational mediocrity to me. Now Guy and Shaz may know that their kids are no-hopers in the smarts department, but as I said, the trust fund is the alternative, and the great thing about investing in that is that Guy can evaluate the likely return what with being a finance compliance wallah, presumably some of the know-how sticks around. The advantage of the trust fund is even if the kids have the entrepreneurial instincts of a beach pebble there’s a known return.

    As for the Oxbridge entry the odds look poor – three decades ago even my sarf London grammar school of 600 kids all in managed to muster half a dozen Oxbridge candidate in my year 3. I was one of them – though not up to scratch. I’m always suspicious of schools that talk about the candidates and not the entry, too.

    And we had genuine problems, like dimwits kicking a hole in the plaster because they were bored and wanted to leave at 16. I couldn’t determine how many kids LWC has but if he’s dropping three hundred grand on buying the best start it might behoove Guy to look at what he’s actually getting for his hard-earned money. And slightly lower odds than a south London grammar school could muster when five times as many people go to university now as did then is a little bit crap in my view.

    But it’s the mealy-mouthed mission statement that made me smell a rat. Now obviously if you’re dropping well over half your take-home to pay for a service that can be had for free then you don’t get to eat out much. But you’re also not going to get shedloads of sympathy. I’ve never earned anywhere near what Guy earned, and while I don’t begrudge him his hard-earned, nor his right to piss it up the wall of a school that can’t see what’s wrong with not being able to say what they stand for, I can’t really find it in myself to feel a great deal of sympathy. The single mother going to a food bank to buy her kids a book, yes. Guy who is buying what he thinks he ought to buy because he’s only a member of the middle class because he pays for his children’s education, no. Since when did you have to be paying for public school, never mind boarding school, to become middle class?

    This is where the middle class went wrong and why they are doomed. Somewhere along the line they lost their values. They’s skint because they buy without thinking, they are sold dreams of the way they should be living and go for it hell for leather. You only get one chance at life, and it’s too bloody short to spend living somebody else’s dream. Particularly if the somebody else is advertisers looking to created desires in you to make as much money out of you by selling you services and stuff.

    Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need.

    Tyler Durden, Fight Club

    Look at LWC’s website. It’s all about the sizzle, not the steak. It’s about the 1200 acres, the founder, the farm. What do you need to have a good school? You need good teachers, you need to have clear aims and goals. I’ve never been to LWC –  they may be a perfectly good school. Maybe Guy assessed this himself. Or maybe he is just buying into a chimera of what it’s like to be a well-off resident of the Home Counties doing the job of financial compliance and raising kids. Which apparently means paying shedloads of money on public schools to be in with the in crowd. I suppose you gotta spend your money on something, can’t take it with you…

    There seems to have been an explosion of independent schools out there to shake down the ‘middle class’, feeding off the inchoate fear of not doing the best for their children. I take the point that if you want political influence and are rich enough, send your offspring to Eton or somewhere where you can buy influence. Money has always bought influence. It is crystallised claim on future human work, so it goes with the patch. I suspect there are a lot of redbrick independent schools set up to feed the increasing aspiration. And why not – if people want to pay for it, let ’em.


    How much you need to earn gross as a household to enter the relevant decile accordig to the ONS. Guy's well over to the right

    How much you need to earn gross p.a. as a household to enter the relevant decile according to the ONS. Guy’s well over to the right, assuming his wife doesn’t work

    Finally, Guy should take a butcher’s hook at the ONS Gross Household Income by Income Decile (Excel sheet) You need a household income of £70k to enter the highest income decile. Guy and Shaz, you are not the squeezed middle. There are people queueing up at foodbanks. They are squeezed. Finding out that you have to budget and discovering it is a stretch to pay more than a 7th decile household earns for public school education 4 is not being squeezed. You have options that many Britons couldn’t dream of, so you’ll have to excuse us when we say tough luck mate.

    I don’t actually have anything against LWC, apart from their pedestrian ad copy. They may be a perfectly good independent school, just a tad short on the imagination and self-critical side. In old-skool-speak that used to be called ‘could do better’. I believe these characteristics used to be considered important aspects of self-development from Socrates onwards.

    LWC are unlucky enough to have one of their customers moaning in a national newspaper that they are bleeding him dry with their outrageous fees so he can’t afford to go for a meal with his good lady wife. His lack of irony demanded a snarl, LWC is collateral damage. I’m sure they’ll weather the storm.



    1. I got an E. In those days people weren’t afraid of calling that a fail. But then I only sampled Great Expectations, despised poetry and was slightly bored with Shakespeare. I was to become an engineer, FFS
    2. SW geeks, of which there are many, will slam me for misquoting the Great Yoda. I like my version better, this is my blog, and if you don’t like it then go read another of the several billion pages on the internet
    3. This should be taken into perspective; far fewer people went to university when I left school, roughly a fifth of the current proportion
    4. for any bemused Americans reading, in Britain public schools are the ones you pay for privately, and State schools are the one the public pays for

    the misery of metrics and measurements destroying job satisfaction

    Yesterday I chose to get wet in Ipswich town centre to demonstrate about Mr Gove.  Okay, that’s bull, but I was roadie for the day as I ran the PA 1 for the NUT strike demo about pay and conditions, and Mr Gove.

    The NUT rally. can't work out why this iPod photo is such bad quality; is it me or do mobiles always take crap pictures?

    The NUT rally. Can’t work out why this iPod photo is such bad quality; is it me or do mobiles always take crap pictures?

    I’m not a teacher and don’t have kids so he isn’t specifically my problem. However, some of the themes sounded familiar. In particular the rise of collecting ‘data’ for performance measurement systems and the trends of micromanaging the shit out of white-collar jobs was exactly the sort of thing that pissed me off about work. I wrote about digital Taylorism in 2010, and the NUT’s Jon Parker indicates the issues that sound similar – listen to the crowd response to ‘data’ being collected pointlessly 2

    Ipswich NUT John Parker on data and metrics (MP3 1min)

    There’s a case to be made that The Firm was trying to squeeze their old gits out of the place, which is why they employed pointless pricks to produce software systems to piss people off. This doesn’t seem to apply to teaching, however, where it seems the working environment is such that 2 out of 5 teachers quit within the first five years, there’s presumably no imperative to thin the ranks at a time when Britain is experiencing a baby boom and somebody presumably has to teach them.

    Now some of the changes to the workplace are the result of secular trends like globalisation and technology, which at least does somebody some good even if the end of the boat Western workers are in is sinking. But the stupid pursuit of pointless performance metrics making jobs a misery seems to be 100% own goal. Not only do we have to employ useless patsies  to collect the pointless performance data to piss people off, but the measurers are usually paid more than the people who do the work being measured, because of the Peter Principle.

    That’s the trouble with the homogenized management theories that come out of MBAs. Theories and fads go through companies like a dose of salts. and because we have people benchmarking along the lines of bollocks like ‘business best practice’ they all follow the same bullshit until the next fad comes along that is going to be the Holy Grail and sort out the crap that the last fad made. Let’s have a sample of bullshit MBA fads from my working life.

    • Empowering employees
    • TQM (total quality management)
    • winning edge – mindset management
    • investing in people
    • managing my performance
    • shareholder value (that’s 1 year share price hiking so the CEO can Maximise his Apparent Performance by buying today at tomorrow’s cost)
    • Agile development (in a big firm?)
    • six-sigma
    • just-in-time
    • business process re-engineering
    • mission statement
    • outsourcing
    • Putting Customers First
    • core competency

    All of these can work well some of the time in specific instances. None of them work when applied across the board like velveeta. One of the worst things they must teach people on MBA courses is that there is a silver bullet. You see these wet-behind-the-ears young pups promoted into a situation beyond their competence as they wax lyrical about the next best thing that’s going to transform everything and have to keep a level gaze… Because you know that it’s never different this time, and it wasn’t different the last ten times either. One size does not fit all. And these berks have insufficient experience of the real world to have had that belief in the silver bullet beaten out of them in the school of Real Life™. Reorganisations are political, they are the new Top Banana and Chief New Broom acting like a tomcat 3, spraying his mark on the organisation. They are not functional.

    The teachers are just taking the same hit from performance management theory which is a Current Big Thing – tell people how shit they are doing, preferably every quarter, because you can manage expectations about pay that way. That’s obviously the way to motivate people to do better. That toe-rag Tom Peters has a hell of a lot to answer for. You get what you measure. Right. You can measure a pint of beer easily enough. How do you measure a teacher? A CEO? An income tax inspector? Ah, teachers, that’ll be exam results then? What about if they have to teach a whole bunch of stupid kids then, or the kids of parents that don’t really give a shit and probably shouldn’t have been encouraged by Tony Blair to have ’em in the first place? Ah, let’s measure how clever they are when they enter school. Right, so how do you measure how clever they are? Is cleverness the only dimension of success – maybe a reduction in sociopathic behaviour and not kicking the shit out of the municipal bus shelter is a good outcome too? How do you measure the civic street furniture not trashed by the little tyke because he’s inspired to do something else? Measurement always has a problem with the counterfactual and the road not travelled. And so on. I’m with Lord Kelvin when it comes to measuring things that have a numeric answer that matches with the aspect of reality you’re trying to get, but when it comes to people the belief that Tom Peters prosyletised that ‘measurement works’ seems to be responsible for a lot of hurt in the workplace, and some not  particularly great outcomes. If you link people’s pay to metrics you get those metrics, but you don’t usually get great performance 4.

    However, thankfully this is no longer my problem :)


    1. Our farm isn’t on the electricity network but every so often we want to all get together and have a party so I have a music system of a couple of hundred watts  run off a 12V leisure battery. Using this saves having to wheedle a mains power feed from some local business or run a genny in a public place with all the safety issues.
    2. the dreadful distortion is because the recorder was overloaded, the Ermine delivered a better quality PA service to the crowd
    3. I have some trouble picturing Michael Gove as a tomcat, he’s a bit on a weedy side for a big old ginger tom
    4. for example, CEO pay since the 1990s, NHS waiting lists and beds, Enron, the Global Financial Crisis, the list goes on

    Owen Paterson: GM science good, Climate Change science bad

    Our Environment Secretary, Owen Paterson, is a corporate GMO shill. Now it itself that’s no surprise, the previous occupant of the role, Caroline Spelman, ran a firm, Spelman, Cormack and Associates to lobby on behalf of GM firms.

    Anyway, our friend Owen is dead keen or rationality and science and all that good stuff.  Owen says people who don’t like GM are humbugs, and if we don’t have GM in Europe WE WILL ALL STARVE. Obviously we don’t want to do that. 1. To wit :

    An aide to Mr Paterson said: ‘He wants to have a national conversation about it, based on scientific evidence, and the Prime Minister supports that.’

    Now it’s probably a good thing to have somebody in charge of public policy who is prepared to listen to the science – at least as far as knowing what is going on is concerned. Trouble with Owen Paterson, is that he likes to pick and choose his science. GM science is good, because there’s money in it for his chums so Owen likes that sort of science, and indeed his general assertion that safety is okay with what we have had so far is probably right, according to the science. The sort of science that our Owen doesn’t like, however, is anything to do with global warming. As Greenpeace rather wittily pointed out

    Owen Paterson has ignored all expert advice warning him of increased flood risks, choosing instead to cut funding and flood-preparedness staff. Instead, he claims that "[climate change] is something we can adapt to over time and we are very good as a race at adapting" People are suffering - and we owe it to everyone to get an environment secretary who is serious about climate change

    Owen Paterson has ignored all expert advice warning him of increased flood risks, choosing instead to cut funding and flood-preparedness staff. Instead, he claims that “[climate change] is something we can adapt to over time and we are very good as a race at adapting”
    People are suffering – and we owe it to everyone to get an environment secretary who is serious about climate change

    Indeed, since dealing with the effects of rotten weather is something that falls in the remit of Owen’s department, it’s interesting that despite his fondness for the scientific method in regard to GM, Owen hasn’t bothered to get briefed about climate change for 14 months. Presumably because he knows in his gut that it’s all bollocks, and also presumably because the good people that wine and dine him would be financially inconvenienced if he were to go along with the scientific consensus and try and do something about carbon emissions.
    wouldn't want to spill your drink now, Owen?

    careful there, wouldn’t want to spill your drink now, Owen?

    The chief scientist of the Met Office indicated that Owen might be off on his assumption that climate change is a load of bollocks. Presumably scientists know about science, in their area of expertise?

    “But all the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change,” she added.

    “There is no evidence to counter the basic premise that a warmer world will lead to more intense daily and hourly rain events.”

    Owen’s of the opinion that “the weather’s been changing all the time”. So that’s all right then, nothing to see, move along now.

    Fer chrissake, Owen, we have 100mph winds, Eton Prep school is under water and shit’s coming out of the sewers and swirling around the drawing-rooms of the Home Counties but it’s nothing particularly out of the ordinary? WTF? It appears that Owen won’t even read a briefing if it contains the words climate change. That, Owen, is not a canonical example of the scientific method. Now it’s a perfectly rational thing to say that we feel the cost of reducing carbon emissions is too much, or than it needs qualifying and estimating before doing anything. A fellow called Nicholas Stern commissioned by the last government did a report something along those lines. The BBC has a summary here. Of interest at the moment is

    There will be more examples of extreme weather patterns

    Extreme weather could reduce global gross domestic product (GDP) by up to 1%

    so even if Owen’s gut is absolutely right and the fact that people are up to their necks in water has nothing to do with global warming it’s perhaps an example of something that the UK will have to be dealt with more often. Even Bjorn Lomborg doesn’t say climate change is not happening, just that it might be cheaper to adapt. Which may well be true for the rich world, but the do nothing option doesn’t seem a particularly clever response. Cutting back on people in the Environment Agency dealing with flood risk doesn’t seem to be the obvious way to go here.

    What stinks about Owen is the way the mendacious little twerp is all for science where his paymasters like the results – like GM. But if they don’t, like with climate change, then he’ll go with his gut. That’s not cool, that’s not clever, and though I’m not always the greatest fan of Greenpeace who have their own agenda they’re absolutely right. Owen’s gotta go, and please, Mr Cameron, can we for once have somebody at the Environment Agency who isn’t a panhandler for the GM lobby? Maybe even have that national conversation, based on scientific evidence, about the Met Office’s Chief scientist telling us we have to face this increasingly often, and not just Owen’s gut saying it’s all gonna be all right.


    1. I used to have a problem with GM from a fear of frankenshit charging around the environment killing us all off but I don’t any more. It’s the lack of regulation and control of the monopolistic barstewards like Monsanto who scare me. GM would probably be okay if it were open-source and unencumbered with ‘intellectual property rights’ – an awful lot of agricultural research used to be done and the national and government level, up until the 1980s and therefore didn’t have the tendency to screw farming into hard commercial lock-ins. You can choose to do without most things associated with IPO which means the market can set a price for it and price gougers get stuffed eventually. But it’s really, really, hard to stop eating…

    empty metrics are strangling vision and leadership

    I’ve spent the last year and a quarter trying to avoid anything that smells like work, but stood in for someone who fell ill at the last minute at a conference on how to leverage the private sector and the third sector in Suffolk. There’s no money in local government, hence the absence of the public sector in the roll-call…

    Some things are clearer when you stand back and look at them from a distance. I listened, and much was about ‘collecting evidence for metrics’, and somewhere in the back of my mind a refrain was building. It reminded me of all the stuff on performance management instead of inspiration, and I realised that what has gone wrong in much of business is that process is being elevated above common-sense in an attempt to make things more transactional, so that interfaces between companies and business units can be defined with greater precision.

    Precision without accuracy means you may always miss – every time

    It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits


    The trouble is precision and accuracy are not the same thing. It’s too easy to end up precisely getting not what you want…

    you can be precise but not accurate

    you can be precise but not accurate. In most things accuracy is what you want, rather than precision. You don’t want to be always shooting the wrong guy ;)

    Metrics emphasise precision rather than accuracy, particularly when implemented by people without a scientific background. The Guardian has a wordy version for people who prefer narrative to visuals, but basically in the battle between precision and accuracy precision is easier to assess but accuracy is what you want. You’re better off generally shooting the right guy even if you take out the wrong-un every so often rather than always shooting the fella to the right of the bad guy.

    The tragedy is that it’s really, really, easy to tell if you are precise – you always get the same answer, or at least the spread is small. Whereas it’s a bugger to know if you are accurate, particularly if you are trying to find out something unknown. If your spread is wide you may well be centred on the right target but your opposition will holler the place down yelling out at your inconsistency. So in practice we focus on measuring things that tend to be consistent, even if the answer is wrong because we had to ignore too many pesky variables that throw the accuracy off.

    Process makes us focus on metrics, and thus we easily end up with a culture with

    The endless search for evidence nobody needs, to tick boxes that shouldn’t be there, to impress people who don’t really care.

    There’s an answer to this. We used to know what it was. And we desperately need it now. It’s called leadership.

    We humans live in an uncertain world, and yet we still have to take decisions. We will get things wrong sometimes. Some things are amenable to analysis and science, and these should be assessed that way. Engineering projects often have a lot of this – nowadays we can determine if the bridge will stay up given the likely loading, unlike the Victorians, who often had to over-engineer some of their great works after they discovered the hard way than erring to over-engineering was preferable to under-engineering.


    Not everything to do with science is amenable to exact analysis, particularly when it comes to the unknown unknowns, which is part of science’s core business. Sometimes the balance of probabilities is the best you can do.

    James Delingpole is absolutely right. It’s perfectly possible that global warming doesn’t exist and/or if it does then it’s not anthropogenic. It’s just not incredibly likely given the data that has been collected.

    Many things in public policy are a balance of opposing forces. There’s never enough money, never enough time, there’s always more than can be done, and sometime alleviating one thing can lead to unintended consequences. There is no right answer, and cod metrics and getting your tickboxes in a row won’t help. All they will do is deflect the blame away from you and into the ‘Lessons will be learned’ catch-all refuge of last resort.

    Nowhere was this clearer than in the health and environment session. Britain seems to suffer from an appalling level of mental health problems, and one of the proposals was to get children to experience the natural environment before they were 12 – apparently the period before 12 is when a lot of attitudes and predilections are formed 1. There is significant anecdotal evidence that exposure to the natural environment and exercise are favourable to good mental health.

    Now I had the assumption that this is why every child has parents, in the case of a species such as humans that has a long period of dependency. However, it doesn’t seem to happen often enough in today’s Britain, and so the job falls to the schools in loco parentis

    After several proposals on how to measure the success of the result if something were done along these lines, I couldn’t hack it anymore, and told the assembled folk how this had happened for me. I grew up in New Cross, in London, in this area, and the primary school was also there.

    View Larger Map

    The teachers did not rely  on metrics. They relied on something older, something that has served humanity for thousands of years, mostly for good though sometimes for ill. It’s called


    The teachers knew they were teaching a bunch of city kids. So one spring, when it was sunny, they took us to Telegraph Hill, I believe, which is to the southwest of this map. I still remember lying on the grass and looking at the deep yellow of buttercups as they explained flowers, and how been pollinated them, and the cycle of nature 2. There were no metrics, no customer satisfaction forms to fill in, no key stage whatever garbage. The school headmaster knew his school, its intake, and led from the front. Resulting in a memory that stayed, even after four decades have rolled by.

    Curiously enough the Ermine seemed to carry people with the idea. Leadership did seem to matter, and indeed several other delegates recalled their schools doing this without funding, using local resources. Despite that the challenge was countered with another issue  as people said that schools have no funding to go into the natural world.

    Now if my inner city primary school could find green space within school crocodile walking distance then I have difficulty in believing that this is insurmountable, but I let this failure of leadership be – I was primarily as an observer, this isn’t my problem. I suspect the perfect is being the enemy of the good here. That’s again where leadership trumps box-ticking. Sometimes good enough is good enough, and it’ll do – you do the best you can with what you have to hand and then move on 😉 It would be nice to have the money to do it at Minsmere, but if the local rec or the town park is the the best that can be offered then it’ll do. I can show you sparrows, blue tits, great tits, robins, blackbirds, starlings, black-headed gulls in the rec near my home. a couple of hundred yards away in the town cemetery there are jays, crows, squirrels, green woodpeckers, chaffinches, greenfinches, great spotted woodpeckers, song thrushes and sometimes fieldfares. It really isn’t hard.

    Leadership is what we seem to be sorely lacking now, in many areas of life both corporate and political – the courage to have convictions. Its handmaiden, initiative, seems to be a little bit in short supply too, run out of town by the processes and procedures that seem to gum up the works. Where decisions can’t be avoided, we now often try and hide behind precision without accuracy, meaningless metrics collected without awareness of sample bias.

    We establish processes and systems so that faceless and distant bureaucracies can micromanage the operation from afar, maximising their metrics and results, run by vapid caretakers in systems designed by committee. When something goes titsup in such a system, it is never anybody’s fault, and inquires are held and ‘lessons will be learned’. Colour me unreconstructed, but sometimes a good honest apology along he line of ‘we really screwed up there, sorry to the people affected and I will do my damnedest to avoid this happening to us again’ would be a good deal more convincing than the mealy mouthed ‘lessons will be learned’ bullshit. Who will learn the lessons, and if they were hired to do the top job, then why the bloody hell are we paying them all this money to duck and dive their responsibility for this SNAFU rather than taking it on the chin?

    Every organisation should have the equivalent of this

    We need more of these signs

    We need more of these signs

    “If we’re going to be damned, let’s be damned for what we really are.”

    Picard, Encounter at Farpoint

    At work these spurious metrics seem to be what Farhad Manjoo calls the ‘Gamification’ of the Office (hat tip to Monevator for this one). I saw that first hand at The Firm and it did for me – it robbed working for a living of everything worthwhile. The Firm contracted a company called Successfactors to implement a software system where quarterly you’d have to gather evidence on what you were doing, how you were doing, get SMART 3 objectives.

    And with this endless measurement and metrication, the fire began to flame out. I found it alienating and hateful. For over twenty years I hadn’t had any general problem with the annual appraisement process  – I was assessed by people who knew what I was doing and its setting. I didn’t always agree with everything but  the overall process gave a fair balance between short term delivery and long-term improvement of one’s craft. Above all I could respect the people, their competence, skill and judgement.

    Successfactors and the American HR consultants turned that on its head. I am introverted, and to some extent a loner, I believe in achieving results through understanding and learning. I do my best work on  my own or with one or two others. I’m perfectly happy to present things once I have enough results to present, but what I don’t respond well to is endless interrupts. I could live with that, but the stupid performance management stuff, quarterly, with metrics of people giving 5 minute seminars and how often they used Instant Messaging that counted for 25% one one’s score drove me nuts. People ended up taking up massive amounts of time on all hand events giving 5 minute seminars on stuff that could be better learned from Google.

    There’s no point me detailing the particular problems of implementation. Farhad Manjoo did that far better than I can – I recognise every one of the ills he cites – The Firm was there ahead of time.

    Too much energy, resources and time are being spent on the worship of false metrics, in an attempt to avoid the difficult business of leadership – the art of taking decisions in the face of uncertainty, and knowing that sometimes you’ll be wrong. It’s often better to be wrong 20% of the time than to be right 20% of the time and paralysed by analysis 80% of the time. Micromanagement does that to people, and the worship of false numbers leads to micromanagement, and so the cycle turns and starts anew.

    Numbers have their place – it is knowable whether the bridge will stay up. It is knowable whether cheap Poundland batteries are actually cheap or they just look cheap. There are places where you have to run with the balance of probabilities. there are other places where it’s good to ‘fess up that you know that you don’t know – the classic Rumsfeldian treatise on epistemology and the known unknowns and unknown unknowns. A lot of economics seems to fall in the latter category.

    This is because systems with feedback mechanisms in them are the worst of all – they are often susceptible to chaotic behaviour that cannot be known other than in terms of probabilities, and then only if you can characterise and model them properly. Social sciences have a lot of this, where individual humans are adaptive creatures all trying to maximize their experience, with different time lags in the information flows. It’s why the stock market has such a shocking volatility, as all of this is worked out between independent actors, it is the analytical principle that underpins the efficient market hypothesis behind passive investment. The fundamental presumption behind passive investment is the myth of continual growth – it’s worked so far and has given a reasonable long-term trend. You are buying a slice of that and going along for the ride, with diversification averaging out company and sector volatility and decades long accumulation of holdings integrating the temporal volatility against the desperately low 4-5% or less real over inflation trend. 4

    However, systems involving humans aren’t perfect – it leads to old hands acknowledging that the market is not efficent, albeit not inefficient enough to get ahead using that awareness. Or perhaps yes, but the opportunity is temporal – we humans are prone to collective mania and the madness of crowds where everyone decides the world is ending 😉 This human capriciousness applies across the economy and across the social sciences.

    Something else I heard at the conference, for instance, was that there really do seem to be an awful lot of young people who have been deprived of, what in my day would have been called competent parenting, which is why it falls to the schools and/or society in general to try and compensate for the lack. It amazed me that everything seemed to be about identifying the problems without asking the fundamental question how the bloody hell did we get here?

    In my inner-city London primary school which had a single class of 32 of each age group, there was only one pupil that left unable to read and write. In relatively affluent Suffolk, forty years later, a fifth seem to struggle 5 Something has changed, and not for the better. One common theory is that the standard of teaching has fallen.

    However, an alternative could be that the economic cost of having children is not as devastating as it used to be, partly due to Gordon Brown’s misguided war on child poverty – where poverty was determined in relative terms. You aren’t normally allowed to even think that because it’s everybody’s right to have children, innit? Well, I don’t know, not really, not when you bail in everybody else to help clean up the mess you make and screw up the poor bastards that you invoke into the world by not giving a shit. I’d lob having kids on the responsibility side of the balance as opposed to the rights side, but obligations are unfashionable it seems.

    Or it could be something else completely different. Whatever the cause, Britain doesn’t seem to be a happy place to be young for a lot of  people, which seems rough for what is one of the ten biggest economies in the world. You’d have thought somebody would be on the case of trying to unearth the cause of this problem and nutting it at source, so that people don’t end up wringing their hands in similar conferences in 20 years time about kids that don’t seem to be getting adequate parenting… Once again, however, it takes leadership to dare stick one’s head up and ask these awkward questions about how we’ve ended up down this hole with a shovel in our hands.

    We humans aren’t logical brains on a stick and yet we have to deal with an uncertain world somehow. We need hope, grit and determination to prevail in the face of uncertainty, and what we don’t need are false numbers precisely measuring the wrong things, because measuring the right things is either impossible or it’s too hard. Better to know we are whistling in the dark; knowing that you don’t know is better than believing that you do, when you don’t know the right thing. If we applied the resources we applied to getting false metrics to actually trying things to solve the problem we’d get there a lot faster, and the third sector in particular, though well-meaning, seems terrified of being seen to have screwed up.

    Screwing up is part of life. There are no guarantees. Let’s do some real investing in people and empower them to acknowledge that known unknowns exist along with their demon spawn the unknown unknowns. To pinch another line from the fictional Jean-Luc Picard

    Sometimes, you can make no mistakes, do everything right, and still lose.


    We’re richer than we ever were. We want for a lot less than we used to. But we’re not putting this to good use, because we seem to be building a system that existentially pisses a lot of people off. It dangles futile distractions in front of their eyes, while making essential things dearer and non-essential things cheaper. We measure the stuff that doesn’t matter because we can, and give up trying to qualify things that do matter because it’s all just too hard. That’s no way to make a better world.


    1. there was some supporting evidence asserted, I have to take that on trust
    2. my parents had already shared some of these essentials with me, to give them their due :)
    3. Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-bound
    4. In a bad year you can eat a 50% fall year on year from temporal volatility. That’s ten years worth of the roughly 5% real terms assumed up trend, worst case, which leads to the old rule of thumb that you shouldn’t commit to the market resources that you will need to call on within the next 5 years. Alternatively, if you are in the market but will need to raise a lump sum, eg on retirement and buying an annuity, you should pull yourself out of the market gradually over the 5 years preceding the lump-sum payment
    5. I’m not exactly comparing like with like, there were no key stages and all that malarkey. It is possible that the bar for being considered able to read and write is set higher now than it was then
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