27 Mar 2014, 10:29am
rant reflections:
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  • 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 :)

    Notes:

    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
    13 Feb 2014, 11:41am
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  • 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.

    Notes:

    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…
    22 Jan 2014, 5:28pm
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  • 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

    Aristotle

    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.

    1311_Tay_bridge_down

    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

    Leadership

    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.

    Picard

    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.

    Notes:

    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
    4 Dec 2013, 12:15am
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  • UK OECD PISA scores – the hand-wringing starts again…

    Oh boy, the OECD keeps the bad news coming for Britain’s teens, well according to our press, anyway. I debunked the last attack from the retired colonels at the Telegraph about the OECD scores, but this one seems more serious. I figured I really ought to take a look at the enemy first, and courtesy of the Torygraph I had a go at what PISA call the maths. I am pleased to say that this retired old git managed to do okay in maths. I do have one grouse on the terminology, because when I went to school this sort of thing was called ‘rithmetic – maths started with algebra and trigonometry, your multiplication and division, ie your sums, did not enter the lofty realms of maths, which started at first grade in grammar school, whatever benighted key stage whatever that is called now. It appears that when the OECD and PISA test if you can do maths, they are testing your sums… Meh.

    an ermine did okay, despite my skooldaze being three and a half decades ago

    an ermine did okay, despite my skooldaze being three and a half decades ago

    Even the Grauniad, the paper of choice of the chattering classes and teachers all round, stuck the boot in to the kidz,

    UK students stuck in educational doldrums, OECD study finds

    Cripes. How did our bilious retired colonels take it then over at the torygraph? Straight in the kisser, it seems, and they know exactly what is wrong.

    OECD league tables: UK pupils ‘fail to work hard enough

    There. That’ll learn ‘em, lazy good for nothings. I’m not quite sure I dare see what the Daily Fail has to say on the matter. I had to pinch this next graphic from the Grauniad because the PISA site has barfed, or more specifically the compareyourcontry bit, presumably sagging under the load of parents and journalists tearing their hair out and wringing their hands, respectively.

    1312_OECDLITERACYCHART0212pngNow the first thing is all the papers have chosen the ranking to grizzle about, but if you look at the actual scores they are compressed towards the top. the UK is worst at ‘rithmetic, but 60 points are between us and the top score versus 85 to the bottom score, and yet we’re a bit more than halfway down there. For all that, it’s fair dos to South Korea, Japan, Finland and Poland, who show and excellent score and excellent balance. The Swiss are all round better than the UK scores but are less balanced, and  other countries are less balanced than the UK result, which surprises me.

    I don’t actually find this so terrible either, Perhaps I am complacent, but I think the UK comes off okay in terms of the balance of the education achieved by school leavers. It’s an easy headline to yell that the UK slips below 20th in ranking (I’m not quite sure how the Graun got the UK at 26, 23 and 20 in maths, reading and science as it doesn’t really tally with the numbers they’ve lined up on the right, maybe they are showing the rotten UK education of their interns while the staff went down the pub).

    I can’t face rekeying in the data to place this on a linear scale to show the compression towards the top. I’m also surprised at some of the results – take Israel for instance, which has a seriously good high-tech industry, in particular some areas of software, codecs and compression, the poor showing in science and maths is odd. The US shows a poorer result than the UK, so God knows how they get to be the largest single economy in the world with such an absence of smarts, and we presume that the Swedes were generally out to lunch when the PISA team came round ;)

    Obviously the UK could and should strive to do better. It probably is fair to say that some Asian countries place a very high premium on studying even at school level – in which case trying to replicate those systems will rub up badly against more individualistic Western cultural preferences. More importantly we need to ask what we want of our education system – in general it seems to be creating citizens that can add value in the economy. Hopefully PISA score line up with that.

    Getting better scores really shouldn’t be that hard. I could manage to do my bit for Britain score, despite there being an presumption that skills start to decay immediately on leaving university (from the OECD paper referenced in the earlier article). I’d be a little bit disturbed if the 50+ year old ermine’s education had decayed back to the level of a 15 year old simply due to the passage of time! US Slate’s article hints that an excessive focus on testing and test results hampers PISA scores, as they are also tests of inference and analysis, whereas from what I’ve seen of modern school tests (it isn’t a lot) is that the questions strike me as spoon-fed, no inference necessary. And yet inference is necessary to apply knowledge to the real world and turn it into wisdom.

    So once again, leave them kids alone ;) it could be better, but it isn’t dire. In many ways educating our schoolchildren in some key intangibles would be a better win – doing better at deferring gratification, and the fact that often in life you have to stick at something to actually get anywhere could make them a lot more effective. I am not so sure that the problems of Britain’s young are all placed at their education, it is their upbringing and the values their parents seem to fail to instil in them that seem to be thwarting effective behaviour when they grow up. Perhaps the excess focus on testing and metrics is trammeling thought too narrowly, it wouldn’t be the first case in recent times where an excessive focus on process and metrics delivered lots of what we say we want but failed to deliver things we couldn’t easily measure but really do want.

    Although I am with Lord Kelvin’s grouse about qualitative information for things like battery life, I suspect in business and in education we have too much measurement of the things that are easy to measure and are taking our eye off the ball as far as the good things that are hard to measure. Metrics without values is a nasty road to hell IMO despite the good intentions.

    After writing this I came across this which has an interesting angle on the remarkable success of the Asian countries at improving things greatly relative to Western countries. Although he considers that the UK is very average, he says a key difference with Asian countries is

    The OECD argue that the single biggest reason why the Far East does so well is that they do not have the fixation with innate ability that many Western countries have

    Now I do have this fixation, though it was partly a result of my selective experience. Selective education worked for me, because it got rid of the chavs kicking holes in the classroom walls. In educational theory if you throw enough adults at the problem you can discover what is troubling the chavs enough to raise their self-esteem so they don’t kick the damn walls in and crap on everyone else who are cowering trying to avoid getting a thump from these little shits.  1960s Britain was not rich enough to do that, and selective education at least save some people, the young Ermine included, though it let the less able go hang 1

    So pardon me if I am thoroughly of the opinion that you have to triage kids in education because otherwise some of the little blighters will wreck the life chances of others in order to express their precious little selves. Too much of the anti-selective narrative is about the life chances of the ones that failed the 11+ being wrecked. I’d find it more convincing if it acknowledged that lumping everybody together has its issues too – it only takes a few little bleeders to stiff the chances of everyone in a class of 31. Despite that delightful experience I do accept that the plural of anecdote isn’t data, and theoretically perhaps nonselective education might work. I don’t believe it, but because I have nothing to do with education what I think doesn’t matter so it doesn’t harm any kids’ education ;)

    I do agree that pretty much anyone could be taught how to achieve a decent score in PISA. As I said above, the maths section in PISA is not maths, it is arithmetic, and unless you are the wrong side of Boris’s 16% – and maybe even into that, you can be taught how to do basic sums, and perhaps how to apply this in the real world.

    However, getting decent PISA scores isn’t going to make you advance human knowledge. At the higher levels, innate ability, combined with competent teaching, is where the leading edge will out. My maths 2 is relatively poor despite doing fine with PISA. I flunked university second year maths because I had no talent for it – and solving differential equations was where I ran out of road. There are some aspects of maths that you either get, or you don’t. Yes, reading the old textbooks now and with no pressure I might be able to comprehend it a little better, but I will never be good at it. I was one of the early users of the DOS version of Mathcad at work because I knew I was weak there, so I looked for ways to work round it 3. And when it comes to knowledge, I’d say the few percent at the leading edge are what matters to push a technological economy forward. I’m not sure that we should give up this fixation with innate ability at the highest levels, although I do take the point when it comes to school.

    It probably costs an awful lot of money to drag the bottom end up to PISA standards, but it appears it can be done. Whether that is a worthwhile economic proposition for society I don’t know, but if it’s considered so in Asia and they get the results then it’s worth considering. However, I figure they have far better discipline in schools than we have – the crowd control aspect of teaching due to piss poor parental values in many cases could stymie attempts to bring everyone up to a decent level of PISA attainment. And before my money is spent in nonselective attempts to bring everyone up I’d like something to be done about discipline and attendance. It may be that to achieve Asian level attainment we will need to spend a hell of a lot more money and violate some of the rights of some parents to not give a shit. Which may not square with Western individualism and the right to self-determination and pursuit of happiness.

    Notes:

    1. This wasn’t as harsh in those days as it would be now, at the time the economy had jobs for the non-academic in abundance.
    2. maths is knowing what div and curl are, how to wrangle tensors, calculus and statistical methods. It isn’t working out the average speed of a kid’s pushbike :)
    3. that doesn’t always help, but it was good enough for analogue filter design, nowadays you’d use computer programs, simulation or more likely do it in DSP
    29 Nov 2013, 5:17pm
    frugality rant:
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  • Energy efficiency for the poor is a matter for taxation, not arbitrary levies

    Britain hasn’t really done very well for a cold-ish country in the Northern Hemisphere on the energy efficiency front, for residential property anyway. I’m not quite sure why this is so – there seem to be a mix of factors at work.

    • Old houses – We churn our housing stock very slowly. My first house was a mid-terrace built in 1840 to house the Industrial Revolution workers. It had solid walls but no central heating – the rooms were heated by gas fires when I lived in it.
    • Houses not designed for central heating – although it gets cold in winter in the UK it doesn’t get really cold in the same way as in parts of Continental Europe. Even before central heating they often took a whole-house heating approach, for instance using things like the German Kachelofen – apparently it’s called a Masonry Heater in English, which I never knew until now because I’ve never seen one in the UK. It was in the 1970s that central heating arrived in the UK, and combined with the slow turnover of the housing stock means everyone I know has a house where the central heating is a retro-fit.
    • General constructional lackadaisical approach. Things like double-glazing came to Britain late in the day – another 1970′s/80s innovation, though Nordic countries have had double and triple-glazing for years. I’ve never come across triple glazing in the UK.

    The trouble is the UK winter just isn’t such a big deal as it is in other Northern European countries – our climate is buffered by the close proximity to the sea, so as such we’ve never really sorted ourselves out regarding dealing with the cold. It’s why our roads, runways and railways freeze over (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013) and come to a standstill if it’s a bit colder than we are used to. Unlike in places like Norway or even Germany, where if they didn’t have plans in place to tackle serious snow and ice they wouldn’t be able to move for three months we can get away with it, most years.

    Now before the 1970s we tended to heat just one room, and everybody congregated in that room, which had the open fire. Although it plays well to an atavistic human race-memory, an open fire is a ghastly way to keep warm in winter – it works by generating a massive uprush of air through the chimney, sucking in the cold air from outside through any crevices it can find, and old British homes have lots of gaps. They’re about 40% efficient at best, can can be as low as 15%. You could end up starting the fire up and finding out other rooms in the house would get colder at times 1 due to the stupendous inrush of cold air sucked in by the fire ;) With an open fire you also get a massive temperature gradient – the bit the cat curls up and lies down on is red hot, but by the time you get to the door it’s brass monkeys and cold and draughty.

    However, it is very convivial – Ivan Illich would have approved. It’s not a great match for today’s atomistic virtual living, but in the ’70s we came up with an answer. Rather than heat one or two rooms, we’d heat the whole house! I know this probably doesn’t sound so radical now, but it really was a step-change. Shame that the US peak oil crisis and the Arab Israeli war which generated the 1970s oil shock was to rain on the parade in a few years, and in the UK Arthur Scargill and his chums were going to educate us about energy security closer to home, but it sounded like a great idea at the time.

    So we took these leaky old houses, retrofitted a hot water distribution system and radiators into them, put hardboard over the previous fireplaces and hey presto – instant warmth. It wasn’t even that much dearer to run, because the shocking inefficiency of an open coal fire and all the attendant air leaks necessary to not have it kill you due to CO poisoning were eliminated. In the mid 1970s Britain converted from town gas created from coal to natural gas from the North Sea, and we were reasonably happy. Those that couldn’t use gas were pointed towards electric storage heaters in towns and oil-fired systems in the country.

    When you heat a room from a coal fire, insulation and draught-proofing doesn’t matter so much

    Everything was sorted – except that our houses were still draughty and leaky. When you are heating one room with a coal fire, the draughtiness isn’t such a bad thing, and because that room presents only one or two walls to the outside, you don’t need to mess around with insulation so much, because the radiating surface is small. If you’re lucky, the heated room is on the ground floor 2  so loft insulation is neither here nor there as some of the heat rising is a welcome move, particularly if the bedroom is above. The layout of the typical Victorian two-up two-down house is very conducive to that, and works well with an coal- or gas-fire in the living room with the bedroom above.

    So we never bothered insulating our houses, and draught-proofing wasn’t really approved of. That coal fire has got to breathe in from the house as well as breathe out through the chimney, else carbon monoxide will bind to the haemoglobin in your blood and you don’t get to wake up. Ever.

    central heating changed all that

    Then we installed central heating. All of a sudden those draughts weren’t so useful and because we were now heating the whole house, the whole house is turned into a radiating surface, so there were benefits to be had from insulating the walls and the loft. Our crappy sash windows with a great big space between the sliding panes were also leaky, opening up potential for double glazing salesmen…

    It’s easy to insulate the walls if they are cavity walls, and according to the DECC 3 a bit over half of the UK’s dwellings have or can support cavity wall insulation, which largely sorts out wall insulation. This sort of insulation is usually blown in from outside, and is relatively easy to do. Insulating the roofspace or loft with rockwool or fibreglass is also reasonably easy to do if you can get access.

    The poor ended up with less well insulated houses – because they lived in older houses with solid walls where you can’t do cavity wall insulation. The way to heat a house like that is to heat one room – I know because that’s what I used to do when I lived in a two-up-two-down, and indeed this is the solution advocated by one Guardianista who has thought about it.

    However, it appears that nowadays everyone has the right to heat their entire home; and indeed they do if they can afford it :) So the last Labour administration, in a remarkable piece of sleight of hand decided that we should all pay to insulate the homes of the poor. As a social goal there may well be something to be said for that, but I always find it’s nice if people ask first. The way they did it was sneaky and underhand. We have an existing method to redistribute income from the rich to the poor. It’s called income tax, but politicians hate putting up income tax because people hate them for it and don’t vote them in again.

    So they made all our fuel bills larger, so that we could all pitch in to help insulate the homes of the poor. And this does piss me off, because it’s dishonest, and it’s regressive – after all, not only do I end up paying more/getting less, the poor also end up eating the costs in higher energy bills unless they can take advantage of the insulation efforts. The whole thing seems to be an exercise in doubleplusgood Newspeak

    The overwhelming reasons for power bills soaring are that fossil fuels are getting more expensive and that two decades of underinvestment by energy companies in the UK’s now creaking energy system has left customers with a steep bill to catch up. [...]

    SSE’s own figures, analysed by Reg Platt at the IPPR think tank, show the rise equates to £93 a year. Of that, £23 is due to rising wholesale energy costs and £28 for investment in the grid and meters. VAT adds £5 and another £23 is unaccounted for, but will include SSE’s own costs, profit and projected rises for the next year, during which SSE has pledged to freeze its tariffs. That all means that just one sixth of SSE’s rise – £15 – is due to the rise in government “green taxes”.

    Crafty, that – a part of the latest rise isn’t so bad? It’s not this particular rise, it is the total amount including all the stuff that has already been added. We have an evil combination of Soviet-style central planning and redistribution along with some free-market muppetry, it’s no wonder nobody can understand energy prices with everything pulling in different directions like that. The investment in the grid and meters is a ‘green’ requirement, because renewable energy increases the peak to mean ratio on specific sections of the network, which means you have to over-engineer it to handle the peak inflows as well,  where previously it was engineered to handled the peak demand (you’d dimension the generation to match expected demand, but patterns in that could be characterised and have daily, weekly, and yearly patterns) .

    You can see this if you take a look at this site

    part of NG loading, Friday 16:30pm-ish on Nov 20, 2013

    part of NG loading, Friday 16:30pm-ish on Nov 29, 2013

    If you look at the daily and weekly demand you see a characteristic pattern, and you see a fairly harsh, and random, peak to mean ratio on the wind subchart. It’s also clear that the heavy lifting in this snapshot is done by fossil fuels 4 at about 80% of the total. Wind is ~ 12%, increase that to say 50% target and the unmanaged volatility is going to skyrocket. I can’t get a really clear answer of the wind peak to mean ratio from the chart, but I’d estimate it at about 3:1. If it’s half the generation, then the total volatility will be about 3:2, and we then have the issue that wind isn’t necessarily close to the consumption centres of the country. You get to say where you are putting fossil fuel power stations – sort of, so you can shorten the transmission network a bit. So all that will add up to extra costs and it’s fair enough that power consumers get to eat the cost of engineering the network, that’s part of the cost of supply. However, insulating some people’s homes at everyone else’s cost is social policy, and our government seems to have stolen a march on the Greek method of loading crafty taxes on to hard to avoid consumables – years before the Greeks had the idea!

    The investment in meters is because there’s a theory that people manage their usage if they can see it. I personally would leave this up to the consumers – you don’t have to roll out smart meters to track consumption. I purchased a Efergy energy meter to manage this and may upgrade this to identify specific power hogs, and I have probably recovered the capital cost and more in reduced power usage. But not everybody is that interested the consumer needs to understand the difference between kilowatts and kilowatt-hours and which of those numbers they should try and minimise. If they don’t know they can’t use a smart meter properly. If you want to know, you’ll stump up – again, why everybody has to be provided with this just in case some are interested beats me.

    I’ve at least done my bit to pay as little as possible for other people’s insulation – by reducing my energy usage ;) However what I didn’t realise is how shocking these levies are. They aren’t listed explicitly anywhere, but can be seen in the background radiation of their effect on fuel prices. I brazenly pinched this chart from here

    Relative domestic energy prices, in kWh

    Relative domestic energy prices, in kWh

    Now you have to factor in efficiency into the equation – my wood stove is rated by the manufacturer to be > 70% efficient. Electricity is always 100% efficient 5 in being turned into heat, because you have no exhaust to vent the products of combustion. My gas boiler is over twenty years old and according to the energy saving trust it is about 70% efficient too.So you have to deflate the cost of electricity by 30% to compare it with wood, whereas gas and wood are pretty much of a muchness efficiency-wise for me. That economy7 is about 5.1 p/kWh because you get to use all of it, so it’s cheaper that heating oil or LPG for kWh of heating functionality delivered to your living space 6

    According to them I could save £310 p.a. if I bought the latest whizz-bang condensing boiler, which would be impressive it it were true – I pay £500 for gas in a year as it is ;) However, elementary arithmetic indicates they are wrong. Assume a new boiler is 100% efficient. I throw away 30% of my £500 due to the notional inefficiency of my boiler, £150 tops. So they are presuming a higher consumption. Not only that, but the payback period is thus very very long – if it costs £3000 parts and labour to install a boiler I am looking at 20 years to amortise the cost 7, and condensing boilers are notoriously unreliable – I’d be lucky to get ten years service life. So I’ll pass on that, thanks.

    Now the interesting part of this is if you look at the cost of wood, in terms of logs. It’s probably safe to say that nobody has yet thought of putting green levies on logs. Wood processing is shockingly manually intensive, and yet is cheaper than anything else other than coal in price per kWh.  It’s got to be dearer to harvest, store and dry out for a year or and supply than gas – there are few economies of scale to be had. I suspect gas would be cheaper if it weren’t distorted by social engineering, which guesstimates the social engineering at about 1p out of 3.5p, a heady 28%.

    You can take matters into your own hands, however. Burn coal in a multifuel log burner, or if you have children and issues with global warming then pay people to chop up wood and deliver it to you by the ton, which has the nice social engineering byproduct of improving manual employment opportunities in your local area, because wood is a low-density fuel and the economics go pear-shaped as soon as you shift it any significant distance ;)

    This is striking a blow  for freedom from social engineering

    This is striking a blow for freedom from social engineering

    Do your bit for the country. Declare independence from these chiseling ways. If politicians want us to pay for the poor to insulate their homes then let them man up at the ballot box, say so and do it above the line. Shysters…

    Having now discovered this I will be buying coal, if I can get it at the prices quoted. I don’t see why I should be chipping in just so that the Guardian can print this heart-warming tale of four working-age adults getting their house insulated for free on my power bill and now I know how to stop being rooked for this ;)

    Rogers believes the ECO scheme should be expanded, not slimmed down. “It’s a brilliant idea. I don’t know why we don’t do more of it.”

    Take a guess. Go on, try. Perhaps we don’t do more of it because you run out of other people’s money?

     

    Notes:

    1. according to these guys this effect was used in the 19th century to provide coal fired cooling at times!
    2. you get a double win by having the fire on the ground floor of a two storey house because having a longer chimney is beneficial to getting enough airflow – the pressure difference is proportional to the chimney length if it is adequately insulated.
    3. DECC  – review of the number of cavity walls in Britain
    4. I regard nuclear as a fossil fuel though not a CO2 generating one, because they ain’t making any more uranium in places we can get at easily, like on earth…
    5. obviously there are losses in generation and transmission, but these are taken into account in the price per kWh you pay when it crosses your meter
    6. I am making the assumption that confusedaboutenergy.co.uk haven’t already inflated the cost to compensate for efficiency, which they sort of confirm by saying For further clarity this is the amount of potential energy in the fuel, and not the energy delivered from an appliance
    7. I expect gas to rise in real terms, which would shorten the period of amortization by some uncertain amount. Even if it’s ten years, that seems to be the anticipated service life of a modern boiler, so I would have to add £300 p.a. to my gas bill just to save up for the cost of the new boiler in 2023, making the efficiency saving of £150/year look very bad value indeed
    9 Oct 2013, 8:55pm
    rant
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  • Frozen supermarket food has more vitamins and antioxidants than fresh

    Yes, really. In studies coincidentally sponsored by the frozen food industry it appears that supermarket fresh food can have fewer vitamins and all round Good Stuff than frozen food. Yesterday I railed against the Daily Telegraph for reading into the OECD survey on skills a result that favoured their own prejudices that the world’s all gone to hell but I’m thinking they’ve got a point, what passes for public discourse could use a bit of common sense.

    Let’s take the headline:

    Frozen food IS better than fresh: Higher levels of vitamins and antioxidants in frozen fruit and vegetables say scientists

    Now let’s think about what this claim actually means, shall we? On the face of it, it means that the very process of freezing food improves its nutritional quality. Doesn’t something strike you as ever so slightly odd about this assertion?

    Fresh fruit and veg is often still alive

    I didn’t realise this until recently Mrs Ermine showed me some time ago that a head of broccoli would last longer in the fridge if you stick the cut end in a cup of water, and tastes better for it. In just the same way as if you bought a bunch of flowers – you put them in a vase with some water, so that some of the processes of life continue, else you end up with a wilted bouquet in half a day. Obviously without the root structure and connection with the soil this isn’t going to last for ever, but you can buy useful time against the  processes of decay. This is why you shouldn’t trim all the leaves and bits you don’t eat until just before cooking.

    Let’s take a look at some sweetcorn growing

    Sweetcorn growing in a field (you can't see the corn cobs because it's the devil's own job to see them as they are covereed by leaves lower down the plants)

    Sweetcorn growing in a field (you can’t see the corn cobs because it’s the devil’s own job to see them as they are covered by leaves lower down the plants)

    It’s basically minding its own business, with the structure of the plant turning water and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates using the energy from sunlight. Sugar and starch, in the case of the bits we eat, the seed-bearing bits. The sugar is what makes sweetcorn sweet, and the process of photosynthesis is very noticeable in sweetcorn. The best way to have sweetcorn is to start in the noonday sun, and get a pan of boiling water ready on a camping stove. Crucially, do not add salt.

    Then send a small child up to the corn to harvest a couple of cobs, and get them to run, not walk, the 100 yards back. Get parent to take cobs, trim all the stringy stuff and leaves, boil for a couple of minutes and definitely less than five (depends on size and how windy it is giving the stove a hard time). Fish out insert fork into either end, add butter and salt and hand to child. And watch the amazing smile – because this is SWEETcorn and they have never understood why it was called sweetcorn. Freshly harvested contain about 5-10% sugar by weight of the kernels. The sugar is turned into starch by the endosperm of the kernels. Sweetcorn is picked immature, before this conversion is complete otherwise you end up with maize – sweetcorn is a variety of maize.

    This is how nature meant us to eat sweetcorn. Freshness is critical in Britain because sweetcorn originated in sunnier climes in the Americas, and we are at a much higher latitude, our sunlight is weak compared to there. Cynical readers might think that freshness can’t matter that much, I was chuffed to find backup in the Wikipedia article when I researched where sweetcorn originated from ;)

    Su varieties are best when cooked within 30 minutes of harvest.

    Leave it kicking around for an hour and it is very noticeably less sweet. Still thoroughly decent, but it shows that once the processes of life are slowed, the sugar begins to turn into starch. I don’t know enough about biology to know if that builds up the body of the corn cob, after all this process must cycle daily.

    At The Oak Tree we harvest corn on the day it’s collected, it should be less than 12 hours old. Ideally it doesn’t see the dawn before it’s eaten…

    Sweetcorn - needs to be < 12 hours old IMO

    Sweetcorn – needs to be < 12 hours old IMO

    If it’s older than that it doesn’t go to waste, but it’s not good enough for humans. We have other ways of dealing with it

    Chickens will run, not walk or hop, for sweetcorn

    Chickens will run, not walk, for sweetcorn

    So what exactly do we mean by fresh these days?

    Earlier this year I was in the Cotswolds, in the chi-chi town of Stow-on-the-Wold. There is serious money in this part of the world – these good people think nothing of shelling out more for fancy water than they do for diesel.

    Wow. Borehole water at nearly £3 a litre, there's some money around these parts

    Wow. Water at nearly £3 a litre, there’s some money around these parts

    Tesco sell the good people of this discriminating part of the country sweetcorn labelled as fresh. I took this photograph just before noon on the 31st of August

    Tesco sweetcorn - as sold on the 31st August

    Tesco sweetcorn – as sold on the 31st August

    Eat fresh, eh, Tesco 1? Putting lipstick on pigs, are we? Indeed at three days old we’d probably feed old sweetcorn to the pigs. It won’t do you any harm at three days old, but it’s not exactly fresh, is it? No wonder kids don’t understand why it’s called sweetcorn!

    Here is a video from Tesco, where their poor producer gets to tell you that they have packaging keeps the corn fresh for a week after purchase!

    I have no beef with Barfoot’s, whose job is done when they deliver Tesco fresh sweetcorn. It’s now Tesco’s job as wholesaler and retailer combined to get that sweetcorn in good eating condition to you, and removing the husk and topping and tailing it reduces the chance for your corn to stay alive. That endosperm will still be there, turning the sugars into starch. In theory it would be easier for Tesco to get that product to you within 24 hours than those stallholders getting it from the 1970s Covent Garden wholesalers, because Tesco and the other supermarkets have eliminated the wholesaler.

    But they can’t be arsed. We’ll leave it kicking around for up to a whole week shall we – and to add insult to injury they’ll tell you about it in their magazine titled Real Food. It’s not what it looks like, it’s what it tastes like you toe-rags. And a week is not fresh. What ordinary people knew in the 1970s was don’t take all the flippin’ leaves and husk off either – because your produce will fade faster. Remember it’s alive, and it dies from the cut point in. Bunch of shysters. No doubt Tesco corporate PR will tell you that today’s food consumer is frightened enough of veg that doesn’t come in a ready meal, so they don’t recognise the husk is to be discarded just before cooking. Maybe they’re right. But it’s cheap, innit?

    The meaning of fresh is something that we lost all contact with as the supermarkets have taken over the role as single supplier of our cheap food. This is cheap, at £1 a pop, and it is from Suffolk, so it is local in a relative sense of the word. But it’s crap, because it’s too old. My mother bought her sweetcorn decades ago from market stalls in London, and these guys would go up to Covent Garden market early in the morning to get their fresh produce 2. They would aim to sell all they bought wholesale in the morning to their customers by 6pm that day – i.e. in 12 hours. They could achieve field to fork in 24 hours if necessary, as the suppliers harvested and took to market the day before for leafy and easy-spoiling items.

    produce wholesaling before Tesco

    produce wholesaling before Tesco

    In the primitive systems of food distribution we used to have before the fantastic marvel of cheap supermarket food fresh actually meant fresh. These market stallholders wouldn’t have got away with selling sweetcorn more than 24 hours old – their customers knew what fresh food tasted like, and they’d have the traders’ guts for garters if they tried to palm off two-day old sweetcorn on them. We, of course, are so much more advanced, so we spend all our time working for The Man so that we can’t buy fresh food on the day we eat it. Every so often we look around and wonder why there are so many lardy butts, obviously the cheap food’s all right then, it’s not like people’s ribs are showing…

    random picture from local paper on QD bargain hunters

    cheap food fills you up okay ;)

    Chub rub is the problem these days, as prepared meal manufacturers use our ancient instincts for sweetness and fat. They concentrate these, making  things moreish before the “I’ve had enough” messages can get to the brain. As evidenced in this random photo from a local press article ;)

    Just like in Orwell’s 1984, a lie repeated often enough gets accepted as the truth, and so Tesco can get away with describing this as ‘fresh’ though it went from Suffolk (let’s assume they harvested and packed it in a day) to the Tesco regional distribution centre that serviced Stow (probably Tesco RDC Didcot) and back out to Stow, so it’s probably already 24 hours at least off the stalk before I snapped this, and it’ll stay on the shelves for up to two more days.

    So unless you get up in the morning, look in the bathroom mirror and see this looking back at you

    1310_hogs_IMG_7746

    then that Tesco fresh sweetcorn ain’t fresh enough. Not in the way that someone in the 1970s or before would call fresh. They’d probably know what do do with stuff that old too, because in another example of outstanding modern progress and an inability to balance risks and rewards we have decided to do away with Northern European’s waste management traditions and banned feeding food leftovers to pigs in 2001. We’re flippin’ clever that way, aren’t we, so now we get three problems for the sake of none. We landfill food waste instead to of turning it into sausages, feeding our pigs with cereals instead. So our diminishing holes in the ground fill up with decaying food, stinking the joint up needlessly, releasing greenhouse gases like methane, and stopping us filling up the holes with other stuff we’d like to go away for good, like bags of dog shit, old iPads,  last year’s must-have Christmas toys and plastic junk food wrappers. We lose out on about £1billion worth of fine British pork sausages, according to Simon Fairlie’s calulations. Oh and we now have to grow the cereals to feed to the pigs we used to feed the waste to, rather than  turning the cereals into, y’know, human food maybe. I don’t even think there was any hazard to human health in the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic, that caused all this knee-jerkery, just a hazard to the profits of concentrated pig operators where disease runs through a massive herd like a dose of salts.

    The Mayor of London, aware that the Great Wen generates an awful lot of food waste, bitched about it entertainingly and lent his support to The Pig Idea. I see his point, I wouldn’t like to have to think up a solution for where to bury London’s food waste either. The whole point of a pig is to recycle waste – as Fairlie puts it in Meat: a Benign Extravagance

    8000 years ago, when herds of wild swine were attracted to the settlements of early agriculturalists, an interspecies bargain was negotiated.
    ‘You give us your waste food and a bit of that extra juicy grass seed you have, and well keep your camp clean and let you eat our surplus offspring, of which we have many’

    I guess if Tesco had any of that sweetcorn left over after the 2nd they landfill it. Barmy as hell, though the regs aren’t Tesco’s fault.

    Now it’s easy to see why frozen supermarket food has more vitamins and antioxidants than fresh

    …because fresh supermarket food ain’t fresh, not in the way people of my parents’ generation and before knew as fresh. Now supermarkets do use some wheezes like nitrogen-enriched protective atmospheres in some packaging to slow the process of decay, and I’ve used a particularly rapidly ageing vegetable as illustration, but it gives the lie to the claim of fresh food. Freezing operations can be gotten closer to the harvest than supermarket fresh delivery with the hub and spoke RDC system. Although freezing does considerable damage to the texture and structure of many foods, it does almost arrest the chemical processes of decay, so if I were to freeze sweetcorn within hours of harvesting then it would be sweeter than Tesco’s fresh sweetcorn after 24 hours. Let’s just not think about what that fresh sweetcorn is like after a week…

    We have gotten much smarter and cleverer since the 1970s, we can now make our food still look fresh, although it doesn’t taste fresh. On those market stalls the produce looked distinctly tired by the end of the day, and what was left over probably did go to London’s pigs. We have used our cleverness to make our food a lot cheaper. Shame we’ve made it taste insipid and crap, but hey, it’s convenient. Oh and did I say cheap? And all this cleverness means you have the choice – if you want nice fresh food then you can buy it fresh, well, labelled as such and looking as such.

    Except it isn’t. Which is why frozen is better than fresh, from a supermarket ;) There’s no problem with that, the evidence seems to be that most of us can’t be arsed to maintain standards of taste and quality with food, we just want it cheap. Eventually we probably can get it down to popping a custom-tailored ‘nutrient pill’ just like in those sci-fi movies of old. At least that would be honest. We could save ourselves all the other rotten crap associated with ‘cheap’ food, like concentrated animal feeding operations, our inability to tell farm animals apart, disease running through massive confined herds so we have to dope the beasts up with antibiotics leading to antibiotic resistance.

    Fresh. It means up to 48 hours from harvest in fruit and veg, and less than 24 hours in some cases

    It has only been the advancement of technology with the RDC hub and spoke based system and the elimination of the wholesaler that has made our fresh food stale, because of the imperative to reduce labour. Look at the photos of 1970s Covent Garden here with what looks like horrific amounts of manual handling to modern eyes. Something had to give – and quality and taste went. Progress is fantastic. We can’t tell horse from beef, there’s shit in the meat, most of our fresh veg would have been fed to the pigs in earlier times for being stale, frozen food is better than so-called fresh food, it all tastes of diddly squat, McCance and Widdowson tell us the trace mineral content of our fresh produce has more than halved over the decades and for some reason we are all becoming fat bastards but damn, did I forget to say – it’s cheap. Cheap is like that, it sometimes costs in sneaky ways .

    loss of minerals in seven vegetables  analysed by McCance and Widdowson

    loss of minerals in seven vegetables
    analysed by McCance and Widdowson

    I am the world’s most incompetent gardener, but even years ago I used to grow tomatoes in the back garden to occasionally have some of the blighters that tasted of something. I didn’t understand rotation so eventually I was nuked by blight, but even my early September crops tasted far better than the insipid taste-free ‘taste the difference’ vine-ripened tomatoes 3. What was my secret?

    • I grew them in the ground (my later downfall as I didn’t understand rotation) not in growbags. So there were trace minerals
    • I picked the tomatoes when they were red
    • I ate them within half an hour

    I never realised you could ripen green tomatoes, so when the sun gave out and they stayed green I chopped the lot down and threw it out till next year. Vine ripened, FFS, lying sacks of shit that supermarkets are.

    Cheap food, don’tcha just love it, but if we we really want cheap and aren’t bothered about taste let’s take it all the way to synthesising those NASA style pills and lose some of the nasty externalities of industrial agriculture and food distribution… If we want vitamins and antioxidants we’ll just put ‘em there. I’ve never bothered with supplements and vitamins and all that clobber, on the grounds that humans and food have worked okay for tens of thousands of years, so I should be able to get all I need from food. It’s starting to look as if that’s not a wise assumption if you get your fresh food from supermarkets, which I don’t. Let’s have some TV ads with the strapline

    Frozen – fresher than supermarket fresh

    Notes:

    1. I don’t particularly mean to pick on Tesco – they are what I have a photo of, but they aren’t any worse or better than other supermarkets
    2. Covent Garden was a wholesale fruit and veg supplied by farmers
    3. I learned while researching this article that vine ripened tomatoes are simply cut off the plant with a bit of vine while green and then ripened using ethylene gas unattached to the plant. Isn’t industrial farming lovely, eh? And there I was thinking they were ripened on the vine attached to the plant, boy was I a sucker, though at least I tasted the difference and observed it was no good
    8 Oct 2013, 2:02pm
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  • School leavers falling behind in Literacy and Numeracy according to the OECD – Not

    You know how it goes – lovely bright sunny day here in the East of England, sparrows chirping, and it’s time to see what’s new in the world. The Torygraph tells me it’s all going to hell in a handcart, the old buffers at DT towers tell me

    School leavers in England have lower levels of basic skills than their grandparents and now perform worse than young people in almost every other developed nation, according to a major international report.

    Cripes. Okay, this is the Torygraph and the sky’s been falling in for decades. Frustratingly, they don’t give you a reference to this OECD report, presumably because as a reader you’re too thick as shit to be able to understand it, in some ironic post-modern self-referencing proof. However, the Ermine is tenacious and I have been digging for it so I have the reference for you 1

    The whole document is strange – it is comprehensive but tries to slice and dice the survey of adult skills in all sorts of ways. The data is derived from interviewing and testing 5000 people in each country in their homes apparently. It would have been interesting to see what the tests were.

    Now if we look at literacy proficiency 2

    Mean literacy proficiency

    Mean literacy proficiency

    and we lop out the 16-24 year olds, because a) they haven’t been to university yet and b) half of them aren’t adults IMO then the Torygraph’s snarl is not substantiated. Scores for old gits are 267 (chaps, 55-65) whereas for the 25-34 year olds it’s 281 (chaps, 25-34). Advantage, handsomely, to the young pups methinks.

    Let’s take a look at numeracy 3

    Numeracy

    Mean numeracy proficiency

    Scores for old gits are 265 (chaps, 55-65) whereas for the 25-34 year olds it’s 275 (chaps, 25-34). Once again, advantage, handsomely, to the young pups, making it game,set and match.

     

    University. Despite the fears of the Telegraph's retired colonels, something useful does seem to happen here

    University. Despite the fears of the Telegraph’s retired colonels, something useful does seem to happen here (photo iStock)

    I suspect the page that got the Telegraph’s dander up was this one

    OECD literacy by age group

    OECD literacy by age group

    You can find this here and it clearly shows that the 16-24 years olds are short relative to the about to be retired. Unfortuately the tabular formation of this sucks, and even worse because I’m not entitled to get the PDF version I had to rekey some of these into Excel, to show this thusly

    Hey, Torygraph, leave them kids alone!

    Hey, Torygraph, leave them kids alone!

    I’ve picked out the England results 4 in the heavy blue line. Note that our kids start about midway in this motley collection of First World countries, and get a lot better by the time they leave university. Which implies to me that for literacy our schooling is serviceable, and that our universities are remarkably successful in building on that, making the assumption that since about half of all English schoolkids go to university they lift the average, though of course it could be the non-uni half also make a decent fist of it. We also keep our literacy well in this country, by the time we become grizzled old gits like me (and I’m not even in the last cohort ;) ) we are still able to read.

    Note that this data has been adjusted for various factors. That may favour English old gits – when I went to university only about 11% of school leavers went, so higher education adjustments would up the scores for older people to compensate. There may be other factors – the trouble with compensating data for confounding factors is that you have to agree on the amount of detriment to compensate for.

    I didn’t expect to come to that conclusion

    When  I started writing this I was expecting to have a laugh with the Torygraph’s line. But it doesn’t stack up to my reading of the OECD data, and although I can be  stuck in my ways I try not to hold too many opinions that clearly at variance with the data. I used those ageing numeracy and literacy tables to come to a conclusion that isn’t the same as the Torygraph, and in general I charge the Torygraph with an across the board fail in their article.The OECD data does not show

    [British] Young worse at maths and English than grandparents and behind ‘almost every other nation’

    The writer knew the end of the article before they started writing it, and didn’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. No wonder they didn’t cite their sources properly, either ;)

    I’m not saying it’s all hunky-dory – it may well be that the Chinese and Indians are miles ahead of us, work harder and the rest of it. The bar required for getting a job paying enough to enter the middle class is rising with globalisation, and living standards relative to the rest of the world will probably fall, though not necessarily absolute living standards.

    I also have a suspicion that the young Ermine leaving Imperial with his Physics degree in 1982 might hold a decent candle to one leaving now, relatively speaking. My time in industry didn’t give me an overwhelming feeling that we were becoming better at general problem-solving, inferring knowledge and perhaps wisdom from data, and indeed on more than one occasion I had to stop someone about to so something that was going to be seriously dangerous. Even simple things that were universal knowledge (of electronics engineers) like the difference between audio Vrms and Vp-p, which can spoil an engineer’s day if not right 5 were sometimes increasingly unfamiliar to those who should have known. But that’s probably why you need some old gits to leaven the young-uns – who were more open to new ideas, risk-taking and in specific fields knew far more even fresh out of university than I did after 30 years of working, though The Firm employed fewer and fewer graduates as its business changed.

    But saying that the youth of today are less literate and innumerate compared to their grandparents is bollocks. We spend a shedload of money on tertiary education, so if some of that didn’t improve things from the 16-24s to the 24+  we really would have a problem. Graeme Paton is the Telegraph’s Education Editor, and while he delivered customer satisfaction to the Telegraph’s readership with a list of dog-whistle phrases

    • policies followed by the last Labour government had led to a decline
    • drop in achievement levels being disguised by years of “grade inflation” (yes, I’ve moaned about that too but the OECD tests were independent of O and A levels)
    • OECD data suggests that the UK has effectively gone backwards while other countries have surged ahead in terms of the basic skills needed in the workplace (err, no it doesn’t)
    • England’s position internationally is being dragged down by a long tail of underachievement
    • These are Labour’s children, educated under a Labour government and force-fed a diet of dumbing down and low expectations

    I don’t find the data backs him up. I think the grade is “Could do better” me old boy…

     

    Notes:

    1. It’s really maddening on some proprietary system because as an ordinary non-paying grunt you can’t d/l the PDF, but start at http://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/education/oecd-skills-outlook-2013_9789264204256-en.

      (edit) that was apparently a press preview – get the full monty PDF for free with Greg’s link! (end edit)

      There’s a more user-friendly interactive summary version at http://skills.oecd.org/informationbycountry/unitedkingdom.html

    2. to be found at http://www.keepeek.com/Digital-Asset-Management/oecd/education/oecd-skills-outlook-2013/oecd-skills-outlook-additional-tables_9789264204256-12-en#page26
    3. to be found at http://www.keepeek.com/Digital-Asset-Management/oecd/education/oecd-skills-outlook-2013/oecd-skills-outlook-additional-tables_9789264204256-12-en#page26
    4. I’m not really sure why Scotland and Wales aren’t part of the OECD, while Northern Ireland is (and is comparable with England). Perhaps the OECD knows something about the Scottish referendum we don’t
    5. the former is about a third of the latter, so getting this wrong can really piss you off if one end of the interface didn’t realise what’s meant; this is something I learned in 1976 O level Physics, not at university
    9 Sep 2013, 3:14pm
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  • James Dyson moans he can’t get enough engineers He is part of the problem

    James Dyson is grousing about a shortage of engineers and wants more government pork to help with that. A word in your shell-like, James. You are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

    Now firstly, engineering and engineers have a problem generally. They are engineers because they have an interest in how stuff works, and so they aren’t always the most articulate or the easiest to rub along with. In the early days of British engineering, this was not such a problem because you could solve a lot of engineering problems on your own with drive and application, so Britain has an illustrious history of talented Victorian and earlier engineers. Thomas Telford, Isambard Brunel, Robert Stephenson, Michael Faraday, Oliver Lodge, James Watt, Frank Whittle, Alan Turing, Ernest Rutherford, Alan Blumlein, William Crookes – and that list is just off the top of my head, with no help from Google apart for checking the first names :)

    Tragically, engineers aren’t easy to work with for many people. They tend towards cantankerous crabbiness, they favour purity and precision over practical compromise and ‘good enough’. In its heyday, The Firm where I used to work concentrated these sorts in its research facility. Let’s just say that some of my colleagues in those early years were serious geeks, and often they were unbalanced characters. Some of them watched far too much Star Trek and spent too much time indoors. I believe much human progress is made by people who have something wrong with them, the guy who invented the wheel was probably a nutcase in some way. The broad swatch of humanity, the ones who do what the society norm of the time is, aren’t usually the ones who make the inventions to improve the common weal. Originators are usually the outliers – they make most of the change in human society, because they see things differently. It’s not just engineering either – pretty much across the field of human endeavour, it is the single-minded, the passionate, the eccentric who make the running.

    Interviewing engineers is always difficult. In the past companies had engineers interviewing engineers, which at least meant there was some common language, and the interviewers knew what the challenges were in making whatever the company made, and could qualify the skills interviewees claimed to have. I was lucky enough, in the three successful job interviews I have had in my life as an external candidate, to be interviewed by real people from the departments I was applying to.

    That’s all considered effete and non-PC these days, because the downside of having real people who know about what they are doing interview people is you get a lack of consistency. People favour their own characteristics, and tend to hire in their own image. Now it’s more important to get your equality and diversity tickboxes ticked than to have an effective process of interviewing people by the people they will work with, so many firms contract out the process to recruitment agencies. These take away the diversity tickbox bother and seem to run a computer process that greps the unfortunate candidates’ CVs for keywords of the particular job at hand.

    There are two problems with that – one is every firm is looking for people who have exactly the mix of technologies they want, to be able to hit the road running. They have stepped back from the process of developing their engineers. When I started work, although I was going to work with the electronics and systems of broadcast engineering, in the induction process I learned not only about the specialisms, but how a programme was made, what the issues were for the camera ops and lighting people. I also learned how to do oxy-acetylene welding and how of anneal and harden steels and why these processes existed and how to use a lathe and shaping machine, building on what I had learned at school. These were not because I was going to be doing this day to day – I have never welded or turned anything professionally, but so that I could see the wider setting of what I was going to be doing, and so that as a graduate engineer I had an awareness of the issues facing the people who would be using the gear I was working on or who I would be asking to provide services to me to make things mechanical.

    These companies, both the BBC and The Firm later on, invested in people before the trite bullshit of Investing In People™ 1 had been invented by management consultants. These firms, at the time, were driven by values, and they knew that they had to invest in skills to apply to the unusual requirements of their fields of work. Some of them had training facilities, all of which have now been contracted out or disbanded. It takes time, and occasionally you lose out is someone moves on to another company, though occasionally you gain if someone moves to your firm.

    Dyson seems to have forgotten you have to plant and nurture before you harvest...applies ot his people and their talents too

    Dyson seems to have forgotten you have to plant and nurture before you harvest… applies to his people and their talents as much as these squashes

    Dyson is a showman, but he’s also part of the problem. If he wants more British engineers he needs to invest in them – support them financially through university in return for the right grades and subjects, offer them sandwich year terms at Dyson so they can learn a both the technology and the ethos of his company. In short, take them from A level, not bitch about there not being enough of the right kind of postgrads. Let’s face it, if we want veg to grow at The Oak Tree, we plant the seeds months in advance  and water the damn things, we don’t get to harvest time and start moaning that all we have is a plot of thistles and where the bloody hell are all the fully grown vegetables we’d like to harvest that day. Somewhere British industry seems to have forgotten these fundamentals – presumably if they have the Investors In People tick boxes ticked it’ll be all right on the night.

    There was a recent programme, Make Me a German, where a UK journalist went to work for Faber-Castell in Nürnberg. Germany still appears to have an industrial training system that UK companies seem to have given up, as evidenced by the 20-year old who was training for Faber-Castell. Perhaps this explains why Germany still has a reputation for engineering across a broad spectrum. Particularly where it interacts with mechanical stuff, engineering still has a lot of craft in it.

    Oh and James Dyson, as a personal grouse, why the hell is all the gear you make so damn noisy? As I get older it gets harder to pull apart the bones in the inner ear to protect the hairy preamplifier from damage. Okay my Dyson vacuum cleaner is over 10 years old but makes a dreadful and screechy racket; it always did from new. If I go into a public bog with an Dyson Airblade hand dryer I live with just shaking off the water that subject myself to the noise. Did nobody test the Airblade in a tiled room as it would be used before you produced a device chucking out so much nasty high-frequency noise? Although I have never experienced it I would hate to think what a Dyson fan sounds like for £300 – with fans big and slow-moving trumps small and fast-moving, think ceiling fan as opposed to a computer fan. People have to live with your products too, it’s not all about the efficiency!

     

     

    Notes:

    1. Just read the turgid corporate duckspeak and BS, anyone with an ounce of common sense can see that people who write “Investors in People specialises in transforming business performance through people. Our mission is to help you achieve the results you want by focusing all our work on your business objectives, and acting as a critical friend so that you maintain continuous improvement. At the heart of Investors in People is the Standard, a framework of best practice that’s outcome focused: it outlines what you need to achieve but never prescribes how, making it truly flexible regardless of your size or sector. ” are passionless droids who believe that process is a substitute for action. Give me the messy randomness of people trying to do the best they can over outcome focused frameworks of best practice any day. Process shields the incompetent from being pilloried for their cock-ups – culminating in the ‘lessons will be learned (but nobody will lose their job)’ when some organisation screws up royally. If the Ermine were God for a Day I’d dictate that all process documents self-immolate :)
    27 Aug 2013, 8:20pm
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  • Flânerie – and the drumbeats of war again?

    One of the joys of having control of my time is to become a flâneur. I have always been a generalist at heart, even when I specialised for work. The world is full of an endless array of interesting stuff for an inquisitive ermine to stick his snout into, and learn. I was recently trying to make a cheap Chinese humidity sensor work, and lost myself for a few hours in the curious ways of Cuban cigars and learning why you need a humidor, why they are made of Spanish cedar. I have no expectation of ever smoking, never mind Cuban cigars, but I learned about humidity control and how I can calibrate my cheap and nasty sensor using saturated salt solution.

    And now, if I want to chase a knowledge rathole I can, without the feeling in the back of my mind that I should be learning about something useful. What is useful, anyway? The previous experiments with humidity sensors improved our hatching rate on eggs to about 75% from 50% – sometimes intellectual ratholes can be useful in some unrelated field.

    Goslings. Being waterfowl they expect to hatch from eggs in a more humid environment than chickens. Their aggressive heart of darkness begins to show later on...

    Goslings. Being waterfowl they expect to hatch from eggs in a more humid environment than chickens. Their aggressive heart of darkness begins to show later on…

    People sell fertile eggs and send them through the post at about £2 a throw, so improving the hit rate was direct gain to the bottom line.

    With curiosity in mind I walked into town to take some library books back, and observe, in an active but detached way. That’s flâneur after Baudelaire, who described him as “gentleman stroller of city streets”. I learned something about Britain today. It was a marvellous day, sunny but not too hot. It started well with this tree

    maybe it's just be that suspects a face in this tree bark

    maybe it’s just me that suspects a face in this tree bark

    before I entered the town. Too often when I go to the High Street I find the experience alienating, the clamour of all the advertising trying to sell me something right now. It’s attempting to create a perceived need, to which of course some particular product or service is the solution.

    There are signs the economy is improving. For starters there isn’t such a rash of empty shops as there once was. Indeed, I didn’t see any, though the improvement wasn’t that great. For instance, colour me surprised that BetFred are offering you these hideous machines to help you basically flush your money way.

    self-service money flushing terminals, whatever will they think of next?

    self-service money flushing terminals, whatever will they think of next?

    Self-service, apparently, presumably so you don’t have to look someone in the eyes as you take the shaft? So much nicer that way, I say. It puzzles me why you have to walk into town to do this job – if you simply want to flush some money away most homes these days have a toilet that will do the job perfectly adequately, and if you want the thrill of the chase I’m sure that there are online places that will debit your credit card for a suitable fee ;)

    I’ve lived in Ipswich for nearly a quarter of a century, but never noticed this massive advertisement dating from the 1930s, though presumably I’ve seen it numerous times

    Symonds chemists from the 1930s. Their paint was good, to stand up to 80 years of the British weather so well

    Symonds for Kodaks. They were chemists from the 1930s. Their paint was good, to stand up to 80 years of the British weather so well

    Somehow I don’t think that flâneurs in 2090 will be wondering what just essentials or Chinese herbal medicines were. I’m left wondering if there are planning rules now that limit shop signage to the ground floor, or if this is the invisible hand of the market. After all, it took 25 years and stopping work for me to lift my gaze, maybe first-floor and up advertising isn’t economically viable.

    I also recorded the dire sound of people sitting in a darkened room flushing their money away on a different kind of fleece-the-punter contraption – the amusements, which seem to be blighting the High Streets in vast numbers.

    Here I ran into one of the banes of the street photographer’s trade – the punk who doesn’t understand what public means. The proprietor/franchise holder objected to pictures being taken of the back door of this place from which this noise was emanating.

    Well, perhaps since it’s air conditioned you don’t need to leave the back door open, and that wouldn’t attract inquisitive ears to find out what the racket is all about ;) However, since you did leave this door open

    the sounds of good monye being thrown after bad emanating from this door

    the sounds of good money being thrown after bad emanating from this door.

    I’m perfectly within my rights to photograph it, and indeed almost anything and anyone from a public place in Britain. Being followed for a few hundred yards and harangued for intimidating her customers by taking pictures of them and accused of breaking the law was starting to piss me off. I can be charged with crimes against photography, it’s a shit picture, but it didn’t harass her or her customers because there’s nobody in the photograph ;) It was a record shot of where the noise was coming from.

    She was jabbering on about calling the cops so I inquired what particular crime she was alleging had happened, and invited her to go call the coppers if she wanted, but in the meantime I’d be on my way. For some strange reason she didn’t bother to call the cops. However, it is nice to know that the franchisee/proprietor at least feels a little bit bad about what they do, which is basically making a living out of the human weaknesses of their customers. If you open a betting shop or slot machine emporium then some people will occasionally going to say you’re exploiting people. Just like some people say fast food joints serve crap food.If you don’t want to feel bad about basically ripping people off, then here’s an idea. Stop ripping people off?

    More foreign wars seem to be imminent

    So minor altercations aside a pleasant time was had. Then I get back home and find apparently ‘The West’ has decided to go kick the shit out of Syria. All of a sudden it gets to feel like groundhog day. We get to see this fella again, delivering the usual message – Weapons of Mass Destruction. Must. Kick. Ass.

    Hang on, Tone, how did this go last time?

    Hang on, Tone, how did this go last time?

    saying Go get ‘em, boys, and I start to think to myself, this is the UN Middle East Peace envoy? Let’s just remind ourselves of how that went last time, eh, Tone? You were so enamoured with Dubya that you dreamed up some weapons of mass destruction to go in and get ‘em. Okay, things can only get better – at least there is evidence of WMD being used, and at least circumstantial evidence that it was Assad. Let’s hear it from Tone himself

    In Syria, we know what is happening. We know it is wrong to let it happen. But leave aside any moral argument and just think of our interests for a moment. Syria, disintegrated, divided in blood, the nations around it destabilised, waves of terrorism rolling over the population of the region; Assad in power in the richest part of the country; Iran, with Russia’s support, ascendant; a bitter sectarian fury running the Syrian eastern hinterland — and us, apparently impotent. I hear people talking as if there was nothing we could do: the Syrian defence systems are too powerful, the issues too complex, and in any event, why take sides since they’re all as bad as each other?

    But others are taking sides. They’re not terrified of the prospect of intervention. They’re intervening. To support an assault on civilians not seen since the dark days of Saddam.

    It is time we took a side: the side of the people who want what we want; who see our societies for all their faults as something to admire; who know that they should not be faced with a choice between tyranny and theocracy. I detest the implicit notion behind so much of our commentary — that the Arabs or even worse, the people of Islam are unable to understand what a free society looks like, that they can’t be trusted with something so modern as a polity where religion is in its proper place. It isn’t true. What is true is that there is a life-and-death struggle going on about the future of Islam and the attempt by extreme ideologues to create a political Islam at odds both with the open-minded tradition of Islam and the modern world.

    While I’m uncomfortable with the idea of charging in and telling people what to do, all that is Tone at his silvery-tongued best, it’s here where I really part company with him

    In this struggle, we should not be neutral. From the threat of the Iranian regime to the pulverising of Syria to the pains of the Egyptian revolution, from Libya to Tunisia, in Africa, Central Asia and the Far East, wherever this extremism is destroying the lives of innocent people, we should be at their side and on it.

    The evidence from Iraq indicates we just aren’t powerful enough of clever enough to improve things for those innocent people. That roll-call of 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths shows it didn’t work there. Intervention did work in Bosnia and in Sierra Leone – well done Tone. It hasn’t worked in anywhere big. I suppose Libya counts as some sort of success because the oil is flowing again and Gaddafi is pushing up daisies which is why Cameron is all gung-ho. But it’s been a long time since the Pax Britannia was non-negotiable.

    Now Assad is a sonofabitch, but the trouble with Syria is okay so you do the whole no-fly zone and bomb the shit out some of it, but exactly how is this going to make things better? The whole place seems to be running with people who have some sort of reason to hate each other. After all, in Eye-rack after 10 years of war it seems like 100,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed. So maybe, Tone, and Cameron, and all the others who are gung-ho, you should just take five and ask yourselves the simple questions.

    Have we got the resources and will for overwhelming force – which I would say is no. Let’s face it, Cameron preferred to wind down the Navy’s strike capability rather than ask the electorate to be taxed more. The whole point of an aircraft carrier is to, well carry aircraft maybe? So deciding we won’t bother shows where our priorities lie.

    If we go in half-assed, is it likely that we will improve the situation in the long run, given that we can’t really see any good guys in this conflict, simply different sorts of bad guys?

    In the meantime, perhaps it’s time to remember the Hippocratic Oath

    First, do no harm

    At least it was possible to understand why Iraq was invaded. There’s oil there. There was oil in Libya.  Just don’t try and pretend to us again that it’s for humanitarian reasons. To be honest Cameron and  Tone don’t give a shit about chemical weapons, other than as a pretext to get into the fight. Is it better to stop another 1300 people being gassed by starting another Iraq war in Syria that will top 100,000 civilians? I’m not so sure the end justifies the means, sometimes there is no good answer and shit is going to go down regardless. You can have more shit, but not no shit. As Cameron very well knows, shit happens. This is a rerun of The Great Game, the players are different 100 years on but it’s the same sort of thing. This isn’t about humanitarian anything, it’s about power.

    And Britain is immeasurably less powerful relative to the rest of the world now than it was 100 years ago. It didn’t actually happen on Tone’s watch, but we went bust since taking part in Dubya’s misadventures in Iraq. We have run down our military because we couldn’t afford it. I don’t see how we can ask the British military to fight with what they haven’t got. If we want to go and kick some ass in Syria on anywhere else, it will mean making economies at home. Okay, at least Parliament will be recalled, but it appears that the decision has already been taken.

    If you take the Wikipedia entry about the Great Game and swap British-Russian rivalry  for Western/Russian rivalry, and maybe throw in Chinese interests in there somewhere we are following the same path once again. It’s kinda scary that next year will be the 100th anniversary of the First World War, and here I get the feeling the history is perhaps not repeating itself, but it is rhyming…

    Yes, looking at it from the personal finance angle war is a great opportunity to buy into the stock market as everybody is scared shitless. But I am human enough that I’d very much rather do without the opportunity if it sees fewer of my fellow humans slain in the crossfire of another Great Game. It took thirty years,  two world wars and a lot of shit to get the various forces into another semi-stable equilibrium the last time the Great Game was played. So for God’s sake, willy-waving macho war-mongers of the West, put a bloody cork in it. And if you can’t, stop lying to us about humanitarian this that and the other. It’s all about power, not humanity. This is not the century of the West. It’s somebody else’s century, We have grown effete and complacent, and we aren’t prepared to put up with the sacrifices that go along with being king of the hill.

    In The Decline of the West Oswald Spengler called us out.

    A Culture is born in the moment when a great soul awakens out of the proto- spirituality of ever-childish humanity, and detaches itself, a form from the formless, a bounded and mortal thing from the boundless and enduring. It blooms on the soil of an exactly-definable landscape, to which plant-wise it remains bound. It dies when this soul has actualised the full sum of its possibilities in the shape of peoples, languages, dogmas, arts> states, sciences, and reverts into the proto-soul. But its living existence, that sequence of great epochs which define and display the stages of fulfilment, is an inner passionate struggle to maintain the Idea against the powers of Chaos without and the unconscious muttering deep-down within. [...]

    It was thus that the Classical Civilization rose gigantic, in the Imperial age, with a false semblance of youth and strength and fullness, and robbed the young Arabian Culture of the East of light and air. This – the inward and outward fulfilment, the finality, that awaits every living Culture – is the purport of all the historic ” declines, ” amongst them that decline of the Classical which we know so well and fully, and another decline, entirely comparable to it in course and duration, which will occupy the first centuries of the coming millennium but is heralded already and sensible in and around us today – the decline of the West. Every Culture passes through the age-phases of the individual man. Each has its childhood, youth, manhood and old age. [...]

    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.

    This is the spell that Cameron, and Tony Blair are trying to breathe life into, wishing themselves out of the overlong daylight.

     

    19 Jul 2013, 12:30pm
    debt personal finance rant
    by

    8 comments

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  • When is 0% not 0% and £5 not £5 – when you ask Tesco Bank, that’s when

    With a thump on the doormat a new missive come from Tesco Bank who are  feeling in a jolly  mood, inviting the ermine to give himself some breathing space from the crushing weight of consumer debt, with a kind offer of taking it off my hands at 0% interest. Presumably their impecunious customers are supposed to read “0% – that’s FREE OF CHARGE”. I regularly get this kind of offer from all sorts, but without shedloads of consumer debts it’s hard to avail myself of the pleasure. This one, however, came with an added wrinkle which was new to me. Usual puffy piece, enjoy some breathing space

    breathing space from Tesco

    Ta-Da! Tesco Bank – you win the lying sack of shit award of the week as I turn the page

    IMG_9155

    So I pay no interest, but the usual scam of a ‘handling fee’. Presumably it’s to feed the hamster that runs the wheel to keep the supercomputers running in Tesco Towers. Or to pay the grunt to lick the stamp – no, that can’t be it as it’s a typical 21st century financial proposition that won’t involve any humans at all. Except for you, the willing consumer, who is the Debt Slave to be bound by the system. At least Asimov’s robots had the Positronic laws but Tesco clearly feels that sort of thing is effete and robotic computer shafting of their customers is A Good Thing.

    In my book if it costs me 2.99% (min £5) to borrow £10,000 for a year then that’s an APR of about 3%, simples dear Tesco Bank. One of these days I may rouse myself to grouse to the Advertising Standards Authority about the fact that 0% isn’t 0% when it’s really about 3%, but I observe the new wrinkle, that the fee is charged as a purchase and what’s more that will be charged interest at the purchase rate. Just so you don’t get suckered by oh it’s only £5, I’ll save you fishing the calculator out – unless you’re borrowing £125 or less that hamster is going to be demanding more than a fiver for the privilege of ‘handling’ your 0%! Interest-free! loan. Life’s a bitch at times, innit?

    2.99%? 3.5%? What’s a mere crafty 0.6% interest rate uplift between friends, eh?

    Say I borrow £10,000 that way, and pay £299 for the privilege. Which is obviously not 0% of £10,000, unless something has changed since I went to school. However, feeding the data into the munge-a-tron that is Excel, and assuming the purchase interest rate is about 16.9% p.a. which seems to be the going purchase rate at the moment in Tescoland  it appears that after 12 months of this game, I owe £353. Which is a tad in excess of 0% to £10,000, to the tune of about £353 :(

    So that 2.99% is actually 3.5%, which is what got Tesco the Liars of the Week award. In fact that means that at Tesco Bank 0% interest is really 3.5% interest, so on your bike, peeps.
    It’s deceitful, underhand, and just downright wrong. Way back in 1989 when I borrowed some of the deposit for my house from those nice people at MBNA on interest-free credit interest-free actually meant interest free, and these were the days of 7% interest rates. Somewhere along the line in the intervening years we seem to have accepted that 0% doesn’t mean 0% when it comes to credit cards. I was under the impression that credit card firms had to put your payments ot the dearest part of the loan first these days, in which case overpaying the first payment by about £309 would save me £40 of that purchase interest rate if I were to borrow £10309 right off the bat (and pay the excess £309 back ASAP). Con-artists… In the meantime, if anybody feels the need to avail themselves of interest-free credit that isn’t interest-free, then remember the solution to this chicanery

    Borrow the handling fee on top and pay the handling fee + £5 back ASAP – before you start paying back the loan monthly

    As usual DYOR and make sure that your card provider does apply your payments to the dearest part of the loan first – this will be in the small print. As I read this from the card payments association they are bound by law to apply the payment to the highest interest part of the loan first, but I am sure that Tesco’s and your card-issuer’s lawyers are more crafty than I am clever. In theory your first payment (of £10,000/12=£833) should wipe out the high interest rate purchase bit, but something gives me the feeling that Tesco haven’t done it this way simply to win a crafty £3 extra on my putative £299 extra cost. You can’t exactly expect the sort of people who call a 3% APR offer a 0% interest offer to play straight down the line now can you? They’re also hoping you carry on buying consumer shit with the card, where they can sting you for 17% APR, cos you didn’t pay it all back in the month, did you Sir?