11 Aug 2014, 2:52pm
reflections Suffolk:


  • August 2014
    M T W T F S S
    « Jul    
  • Archives

  • Supermoon reflections

    It’s not often that someone goes and moves a celestial body closer to us so we can see it clearer. The Grauniad has a far better series of supermoon pictures along with why it’s a supermoon, ‘cos decent photography is about the context and telling a story.

    However, although the tail of storm Bertha had been giving the region some stick it all cleared for the moon. I don’t know how your astronomer types get to see anything through a telescope, because when I stuck my birdwatching telescope at it it was far too bright to see much. However, it was easy to take a photo 1and I was surprised to see all the gnarly bits on the bottom. Taken a hell of a hammering, that has


    And I’d never noticed that in many decades of looking up at the moon. Obviously if you want a decent picture of the Moon you head over to NASA, cos they have better gear, my photo shows I’m not totally over the chimping of a tourist with their crappy smartphone photo – but hell, it’s my picture, I pressed the button. Kudos to NASA for a superior take, nevertheless :)

    NASA have better gear and get to spin it round a bit

    NASA have better gear and get to spin it round a bit

    While over at NASA I took a gander at their Apollo mission pages, I have fond memories of watching the July 1969 landing at school (we didn’t have a TV at home) at about lunchtime – they had dragged the great big set into the assembly hall. Either it’s me or we just don’t have big stuff like that with the widespread buzz of some Really Interesting Stuff Going Down now. Then I looked at the timeline, and thought of Jacob ERE

    How far are we?
    That depends on your perspective. If you take the view from 400000km, humans are no longer going to the moon and have not been doing so for 40 years. From an energy perspective, the available energy/capita ratio peaked 30 years ago. Real wages have been declining for a good 30 years as well (a connection?)

    and of course Tim Morgan on the same string in a different key. Basically the 1973 oil crisis pole-axed the world I’d read about in far too much crappy science-fiction where everything was going to get better and more exciting because people were going to boldly go into an ever-expanding space exploration.

    Carter and his solar panels

    Carter and his solar panels

    Then the price of oil went up, Jimmy Carter stuck solar panels on the roof of the White House, told people to ease off the gas 2 and the American people went bugger this for a game of tin soldiers. They considered that defeatist cheese-eating surrender-monkey cobblers and elected a B movie actor who told a much more cheerful story, which sort of stuck for the next 30 years, but I notice that humanity is still too skint to go to the moon. We last put boots on the ground in December 1972.

    Strange to think back at those fast and furious years of innovation and exciting stuff in my primary school years. It’s not like we haven’t made things a lot better and progress has arrested – if things had stayed like 1972 most of Britain wouldn’t have central heating, never mind a notable section being able to live like kings. Somewhere, however, I wonder whether that last footprint in 1972 wasn’t the day some of the vision died in the West, the first time we came up against insurmountable limits to growth… You can coast a long way from the peak with the engines out, and as ERE said, it took many years for Rome to fall. Maybe we are partying in the endgame…


    1. There was a surprisinglylarge amount of  light – ISO200, f/8, 1/250s
    2. the story of what happened to those panels is interesting, you can read it courtesy of the Scientific American
    18 Jul 2014, 3:38pm
    reflections simple living


  • August 2014
    M T W T F S S
    « Jul    
  • Archives

  • Today I shall live like a king

    and so will you, unless you’re reading this on your smartphone while sleeping rough… I’m currently reading Ian Morris’ Why The West Rules for now and it struck me that in terms of lifestyle we live the life of former royalty. Take Queen Victoria, which whom Morris opens his book – despite being the richest person in the country at the height of Empire, she couldn’t do many of the things I can. There’s a chair in the drive with which I could be off and at the Scottish border by midnight, there are machines to do the washing for me and I can see and talk to anywhere in the world for a modest cost. Unlike even thirty years ago when I was at university, the accumulated knowledge of the world is largely at my fingertips – right here in the garden, I don’t even have to get up.

    So despite the Joseph Rowntree Foundation telling me that I am an impoverished Ermine unable to take part in society

    Straight between the eyes, no? You do not have enough to live on

    Straight between the eyes, no? You do not have enough to live on

    I live better than Queen Victoria, sitting in the garden out in the summer heat with a glass of iced coffee watching the birds sunning themselves near the bird-bath. I can get anywhere quicker than she could, indeed I am less than twenty-four hours away from any of the pink bits on the maps on her walls. I have libraries immeasurably richer than hers, and the state of medicine and health in Britain is much better too.

    And sometimes it’s good to lift my eyes from what’s wrong about the world and tip a hat to what’s damn well right with it.


    Drinking iced coffee on a day that's too hot to do anything else with isn't all bad, JRF - I think Queen Vic would approve

    Drinking iced coffee on a day that’s too hot to do anything else with isn’t all bad, JRF – I think Queen Vic would approve



    27 Mar 2014, 10:29am
    rant reflections:


  • August 2014
    M T W T F S S
    « Jul    
  • Archives

  • the misery of metrics and measurements destroying job satisfaction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    However, thankfully this is no longer my problem :)


    1. Our farm isn’t on the electricity network but every so often we want to all get together and have a party so I have a music system of a couple of hundred watts  run off a 12V leisure battery. Using this saves having to wheedle a mains power feed from some local business or run a genny in a public place with all the safety issues.
    2. the dreadful distortion is because the recorder was overloaded, the Ermine delivered a better quality PA service to the crowd
    3. I have some trouble picturing Michael Gove as a tomcat, he’s a bit on a weedy side for a big old ginger tom
    4. for example, CEO pay since the 1990s, NHS waiting lists and beds, Enron, the Global Financial Crisis, the list goes on
    6 Mar 2014, 4:31pm
    reflections Suffolk:


  • August 2014
    M T W T F S S
    « Jul    
  • Archives

  • Capitalism, crowdfunding and gadgetry

    Capitalism brings up thoughts of great big phallic buildings, a concrete forest of tall buildings thrusting towards the light to eclipse the others in a Darwinean struggle for urban domination. Loads of folks in sharp suits talking important stuff into mobile phones.

    God v Mammon contest - Mammon has the edge when it comes to size...

    God v Mammon contest – Mammon has the edge when it comes to size…

    That gherkin in particular dominates the skyline, it’s not just the sheer size of it, but the symbolism is all Wolf of Wall Street

    more tall buildings

    more tall buildings in the Wolf of Wall St

    A couple of finance guys from the Square Mile party.

    Couple of guys from a Square Mile press release

    Couple of guys from a Square Mile press release

    Seems to be a lot of guys, FinanceRomance sheds a bit of light on some of the issues. Maybe all this testosterone is why the buildings have a certain profile ;)

    still there, rising...

    still there, rising…

    And that’s all good. Finance is something that Britain happens to be good at 1, or perhaps I should say the future city-state of London is good at. Must unearth my birth certificate and apply for dual nationality when it secedes, and hope citizenship is jus soli. We’re good at it, and we have scale, but let’s face it, share-owning capitalism isn’t that widespread in Britain, because, er, you need capital to make it work for you. And you still need to be a pretty big fish to list on the LSE.

    Gonzo capitalism – no tall buildings and yachts needed

    However, there seems to be a curious form of capitalism rising, called crowdfunding. I’d already come across this phenomenon in the electronics small biz area. Getting a small run of electronic items made is dear, because you have fixed non-recoverable engineering costs for making masks for the printed circuit boards and assembly. These are sunk costs before you even start the project, they aren’t dependent on how many items you make. I’d used radio modules from Ciseco and they used kickstarter for one of their projects.

    Crowdfunding gets a bunch of ordinary people together to put up some of the money in small bite-sized chunks. It’s gonzo capitalism – or alternatively capitalism going back to its roots. The Stock Exchange originally started a few hundred years ago with a bunch of people coming together to share risk-funding of projects that were too big for any one individual to take on. I like the story that they got ejected from the original place for being too rowdy – looks like the high jinks that seem to go with the territory nowadays started a long time ago!

    Crowdfunding the Calf at Foot Dairy’s move

    The Ermine came across this again because I got to dig out my old MiniDV video camera a couple of days ago. This is seriously ancient, steam-driven technology from about ten years ago, and it was pressed into service to shoot a crowdfunding video for the Calf at Foot dairy, which has been given short notice to quit the place they’ve been for the last year and a half.

    It’s been an awfully long time since I worked at the BBC and saw how people pulled a programme together, and I was an engineer, not a creative sort. It’s no easy task to try and tell a story using video – you’re always fighting the tendency to run too much material and overrun. Plus the Ermine no longer has a working TV in the house, and much has changed in the 10 years since I last worked with video – HD has arrived, and computers and progressive scan seem to have muddied the waters. Culturally, it appears that attention spans are much shorter. Obviously what I needed was new video camera, but what the hell, I will see if I can tell the story with the junk that I had.

    Because in the end the story is one bunch of humans relating a tale to another bunch. The technology is part of it, and it would be a lot better with a HD camera. But there are some universals to video – hold the camera steady,  preferably with a tripod, don’t hosepipe , do not zoom on-screen. The elements of story-telling haven’t changed much from the original three act drama told around prehistoric campfires.

    A lot of the challenge here wasn’t technical. I grew up in a city, FFS. I am really, really scared of cows, indeed any animal bigger than myself. And cows are HUGE…

    Cows. They're big. And they're scary - could just crush you by sitting on you

    Cows. They’re big. And they’re coming to  get me!

    Crowdfunding seems to take two forms. The sort that the Calf at Foot use, and the sort used by Ciseco to get enough interest to do a prototype run is in fact fundraising to do a specific job or project. It’s the kind of co-operation that previous generations used for a barn-raising – everyone chips in a little to help get something to happen. In some ways it’s closer to a retail bond, but with the coupon paid in kind. These are relatively easy to qualify and secure against the natural fears of fraud because of the transparency. With Ciseco, if they achieved their target, you get a circuit board or kit, if not you get your money back. With Fiona’s dairy move, you get to see that the cows are up near Lowestoft rather than out near Hollesley – in this case it’s a straightforward support of the specific project, rather than a purchase as such.

    However, there is an equity form of crowdfunding that is in its infancy, that is closer to shares. There are strict conditions around both forms, but particularly the equity variant. After all, what do you get as an equity shareholder? You get a share in the company, and sometimes a share in the earnings of the company. Many of the equity crowdfunding projects are hard to measure value, and they are startups, so they are unable to produce money that the shareholders can take out of the company as income, just as in general you don’t go to the AIM looking for dividend stocks. Of course, this applies to stocks and shares too, but it’s particularly hard to qualify risk and do all the due diligence associated with qualifying counterparty risk. After all, over half of startups fail within the first three years. The FCA seems to require investors declare they don’t have more than 10% of their free capital 2 in equity crowdfunding.

    Nevertheless, it is heartening to see that there are attempts being made to democratise capitalism, that it isn’t all about massive buildings, that people are looking for ways to increase access to small scale funding. It’s to the stock and bond markets like Zopa is to the banking and savings market. And it’s where some of these large institutions had their roots. After all, building societies got their name because in more cash-straitened times, people banded together to raise the capital to build houses. The crowdfunding website Abundance Generation draws out this parallel in their blog. One of the things the original building societies got wrong is the concept of one member one vote (OMOV), which gave rise to carpetbaggers taking out a lot of accounts with the minimum amount of £1 or so. They then used their OMOV votes to force a demutualisation and get a hold of the fossil wealth accumulated by the building society. The moral of the story is allocate voting rights by invested capital, but the problems weren’t obvious in the 1700s. I don’t know how equity crowdfunding works, but if you see OMOV as an investor avoid. Or open lots of accounts funded with the minimum amount for lots of voting rights ;) OMOV is one of the problems with consensus decision making. It hamstrings it – in the end people who put more in should have more say, to build an effective system. Dunno where this goes with democracy, perhaps we have to live with the Churchillian democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

    One of the pluses of being in charge of my own time – I can say Hell Yeah if I want to

    I don’t know if this is the way of the future, or it is an evolutionary dead-end of the tree of capitalism. But it was an interesting diversion. And it’s one of the things that is a joy of being retired. It didn’t cost me anything apart from a couple of late nights to start with nothing and end up with something that might help someone take their cows to pastures new. An Ermine is capricious. If something tickles my fancy, I’ll have a go. If it doesn’t, I’ll pass. I enjoyed the challenge of trying to make a coherent story out of this. Of course the result could have been better if it were made by some indy video house somewhere. It would be better if I used a modern video camera, it would be better if I’d had more time and less coffee. But it’s probably good enough, and I learned about crowdfunding, something I had no idea about. I don’t personally have any application for it, but I have to say, looking at the projects on crowdfunder and kickstarter, that there are a lot of small enterprises that are in the extreme bootstrapping phase.

    Although I worked for a year in a 10-man SME firm at the start of my working life I didn’t realise it was so hard out there for entrepreneurs. I also ran a multimedia firm on the side for a few years, but that was purely selling the products of mind – I took on commissions but didn’t have the cashflow issues that are associated with doing real stuff, where you have to buy the supplies and services  to make the product. I have a renewed admiration for the grit of Britain’s SMEs!

    It isn’t all about your camera

    Oh yes, and one in the eye for consumerism. A lot of consumer goods like cameras and the like are sold with the promise that this gizmo, feature or gimcrack will make you creative. And I’m sort of susceptible to some of the siren song. But I don’t need the latest, I probably do want to upgrade to HD if I do more video, but ebay will probably be my friend – you can get now for about £150 what you’d have to pay £500 before. But what I do need is the ability to set the exposure to manual. And a camcorder sound is junk – I shoot separate sound with an audio recorder and separate furry microphone and resynchronise in post, so all I need of the camera is some sound to sync to. Eliminating any quality cares there saves me a load of cash.

    I did experiment with an iPod, my stills cam and with the last gadget I bought before I went into save for retirement mode, a Flip cam. All of those are great for shooting first-person simple stuff, and facebook here’s my mates mucking about in a bar, but they just don’t let you shift perspective. All of them can give a better rendition in that first-person up to 10 yards away scenarios that my 10-year old camcorder – two of them can even do HD. But I realised why they make me angry when trying to do anything else – the auto gain kills anything in the shadows and the lack of zoom is a massive handicap. A truly talented artist would probably be able to work within those limitations, but it would take them time. I ain’t got that sort of talent. But I’m not so gormless that I need face-tracking.

    So I learned something and had some fun. I saw a new form of capitalism in the making. And the cows didn’t crush me!


    1. yes, we did have a major snafu a few years back, but it seems we sort of survived that, and animal spirits seem to be back
    2. free capital excludes property and pensions. I am pleased to see that the FCA has adopted the Ermine’s policy – your house is not part of your financial capital assets. It’s official, and you read it here first :)
    6 Feb 2014, 5:01pm
    living intentionally reflections


  • August 2014
    M T W T F S S
    « Jul    
  • Archives

  • how much work can you withstand?

    I’ve already had the rant about how The Man is gamifying the office and turning it all into a Kafka-esque numbers game. But you can eventually buy your way out of The Man’s filthy paws.

    However, it appears that The Man is not the only bad guy in getting the balance between Work and Life right. The enemy is embedded within us, according to this NYT article on mindless accumulation. (hat tip to Monevator)

    “[earning more than you can use]It’s a waste of effort,” he added, “But once people are in action, they can’t stop.” [...] Dr. Hsee said strongly suggested that both groups were driven by the same thing: not by how much they need, but by how much work they could withstand.

    I’d have berated the good prof in an earlier life, goddamn it, I need to work to earn all the money to…

    buy things I don’t need with money I don’t have to impress people I don’t like?

    Damn. I was that guy, and heck, I didn’t even have the need/want for the yachts of the Wolf of Wall Street 1

    Till one day, in Tesco as the picture in front of my eyes shimmered and dissolved into a jumble of meaningless lines as for a second the thin line that keeps the delicate fire of reason alight failed. Slowly I gathered my wits and drove back. Really slowly. And then asked myself WTF just happened – and the short form of the answer was basically ‘wrong way, do not enter, turn back now‘. I was lucky, some colleagues discovered they had taken more than they could withstand when they wake up in hospital from a stroke or heart attack. I had to form an exit plan. I was happy as an engineer and with what I was doing, but the micromanagement, targets and bullshit I grew to really hate.

    The prof is right. I haven’t earned any notable amount of money for over a year and a a half. And yet I could still go into any Ipswich car dealership and buy a car, new, with cash 2. Because of the paradox he hinted at – I needed the extra cash when I was working to compensate me for the bad experience and the way it stopped me following my own interests, hopes and dreams. Now I can do that, I don’t need the cash – I’m already six months into extra time from when I thought I would run short.

    Nobody will listen to the good prof though. Michael Norton put his finger on the problem at the end of the article.

    Still, he said, choosing happiness or leisure over earning is challenging, in part because accumulation of money — or candy — is easier to measure than, say, happiness. “You can count Hershey’s Kisses,” Dr. Norton said. Being an involved parent or partner is not so quantifiable. “Most of the things that truly make us happy in life are harder to count,” he said.

    Well that’s a bastard then. We are losing our complex values to the simplicity of one-dimensional numbers. We are becoming number-savvy and value-blind.

    I walked away from working before the strokes and heart attacks. But I haven’t recovered all intellectual facility. I still occasionally look at things and feel shit-for-brains as I think to myself when faced with a task that once I would have been able to do this easily. I find concentration and focus hard to hold for more than a few hours, though it is slowly getting better – but the recovery time is measured in months and years, not days and weeks. It isn’t all bad- I find it easier to see the big picture and not dive down ratholes of detail. It’s one of the things that helps with not spending badly – I don’t mind spending more for something that I use every day. Or means something to me, but a lot of advertising and a lot of overspending is because the customer doesn’t stand back, ask themselves whether they need this class of thing or service in their life, and if so, do they really need the best or will cheap do. Often the best and dearest is the cheapest – if you use it often, this is the Vimes Boots theory why the poor pay more for many things.

    Vimes Boots happens in other areas too – Adnams had an offer on beer, it wasn’t a huge saving, but since everybody seemed to be both skint and on the Carol Vorderman misery diet 3 and beer keeps, I’ll save the tenner. We buy coffee from Garraways in London by mail order as beans and grind these, rather than getting itty-bitty bags from Tesco. I take higher insurance excesses to keep premiums down.

    So back to The Man – now that’s a problem you can do something about. But the enemy within, who blinds us so our values compass spins and knows no north as we focus on the countable at the expense of the valuable, against this there is little defence. You find out how much work you can withstand by discovering how you can’t withstand and easing off from there. If you’re lucky…

    Compared to the enemy without, the enemy within is a trickster. Reining that one in comes down the the old Gnostic maxim, ‘Know thyself’. Getting to do that usually takes two qualities that are in very short supply in the modern world – reflective introspection and time.

    Know Thyself in Greek in a stained glass window

    ‘Know Thyself’ in Greek in a stained glass window




    1. What’s up with this yachts thing on Wall Street – and where are the customers’ yachts anyway
    2. we don’t have any Lamborghini or Ferrari dealerships in Ipswich, it’s not that kind of place
    3. Why the hell do people do stupid things like that – you’reb etter off drinking 10% less all year than nothing for a month and then going on a bender in February, which seems to be the way people deal with the end of the 28-day detox, from observation
    3 Jan 2014, 12:56am


  • August 2014
    M T W T F S S
    « Jul    
  • Archives

  • Isaac Asimov’s visit to the World Fair of 2014 – 50 years ago

    The turning of the year is a time of soothsaying and people getting their crystal balls out. So it was with some surprise that I read this 50-year old prediction from Asimov in 1964 – hat-tip to Slate for the heads-up.

    As a teenager I rotted far too many of my brain cells reading science fiction. The future engineer was drawn to this genre, and I didn’t have enough life experience to make sense of all the mushy stuff that polluted novels featuring more human characters. I loved the Foundation series and in particular the notion of psychohistory  - even now I am drawn to the myth of the macro trend though experience has tempered it a little bit in that the shocking chaotic variations of real life throw those macro trends off course. Asimov did pretty well as a fortune-teller, and it’s striking how well he cast an eye over five decades of future human development. I was particularly struck by

    One thought that occurs to me is that men will continue to withdraw from nature in order to create an environment that will suit them better.

    Right on the nail old boy. I wandered into Carphone Warehouse while Mrs Ermine was getting some part of her mobile fixed after it’s been trodden into the mud while wrangling a bunch of errant hogs. It was a pretty alienating experience – people ready to plump down a shitload of money on smartphones and tablets and what-have you. In small print was the up-front price of one at £200, and in great big letters was the monthly price of £21 a month. On what looked like a two year contract – basic ‘rithmetic doesn’t seem to be a strong point round here, or Ipswich is full of high data users…

    Do some Facebook stalking - in the woods

    Do some Facebook stalking – in the woods

    A little piece of me started to die when I read this exhortation to get out into the Real World™ and immediately nullify the whole point of doing that. I had just come up the main road, noting the slack-jawed punters in the betting shops feeding money into the fixed odds betting terminals while others watched loads of flat screens showing sport. And now we have ads saying you need this gadget to do something rad – like going into the woods and firing up Facebook. That Thoreau geezer was so full of shit when he wrote

    I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

    I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms.

    Nope, Henry, you were on the wrong track, m8. You go to the woods to plug yourself into the hive mind, because in 200 years of human progress since you wrote that cobblers in Walden we have discovered that in a life well lived you find meaning from without, preferably garnished by ads…

    All round it was a bad day for the customer experience – a while ago I read “Authenticity” Which was meant to have been a seminal work in helping brands connect with customers. It seriously disconnected this customer as I have been sensitized to fake-real crap ever since, and I wasn’t a great fan to start with.  In Wilko I was treated to a classic example of what they meant with this complex cardboard easel rigged up to look like wood. Wouldn’t it have been easier to have a quick word with those nice Swedish fellows at Ikea? And maybe send a few of your employees back to school… Making the mistake is fair enough, but surely someone on the staff spotted it by the afternoon?

    fake easel, real illiteracy

    fake easel, real illiteracy

    Asimov was absolutely right, and we now have people worrying that nature deficit disorder is turning our children into sociopathic screenbound slobs. At least Asimov’s Solarians weren’t fat bastards though they hated being in the presence of real people and the real world. So Asimov got there first, though I am not sure that withdrawing from nature suits us that much better – I listened to ‘The Slow Coach’ on Radio 4  – this was someone who was coaching people to not fill their lives up with so much artificial garbage they forget to live.

    Asimov did well on estimating the 2014 human population, and that we would start to get a handle on it by limiting the birth rate – as Hans Rosling shows us engagingly in his TED talk

    Self-driving cars – check. 3D movies – check. Sight-sound communications is a quaintly archaic description of Skype, Facetime or Cisco Telepresence.

    It’s also interesting where Isaac Asimov went wrong -

    Although technology will still keep up with population through 2014, it will be only through a supreme effort and with but partial success. Not all the world’s population will enjoy the gadgety world of the future to the full. A larger portion than today will be deprived and although they may be better off, materially, than today, they will be further behind when compared with the advanced portions of the world. They will have moved backward, relatively.

    Hmm – I do not believe this is the case now, relative to the 1960s, at least in the predicted increase of inequality across the globe – the narrowing of this may be softening the Western expectation of your children will be better off than their parents, but not elsewhere in the world.

    The situation will have been made the more serious by the advances of automation. The world of A.D. 2014 will have few routine jobs that cannot be done better by some machine than by any human being. Mankind will therefore have become largely a race of machine tenders. Schools will have to be oriented in this direction.

    Sort of draw on that – yes and no. I’ve reserved Asimov’s epic fail for last

    Indeed, the most somber speculation I can make about A.D. 2014 is that in a society of enforced leisure, the most glorious single word in the vocabulary will have become work!

    You were one smart cookie, Isaac, but I contend that work is vastly overrated ;) Although thinking back to the slack-jawed in Ladbrokes, maybe that’s also a score-draw…

    Looking back over several decades of work, it struck me that most of the advances we have had have been due to technology – the advances in fundamental science have been much slower. One of the discoverers of the DNA double helix structure, Francis Crick, never lived to see any discoveries that would explain consciousness and repudiate vitalism 1 – he’d still be waiting. To my knowledge we have no scientific understanding of what is essentially different about consciousness or whether the very precept behind cryonics misses the point entirely. After all, we struggle to determine the information-theoretic  death when decades of searching has still to find the structures within an animal that record memory, despite this regular structure being immediately obvious in any machine memory store on microscopic examination 2

    The sequencing of the genome, while it is  a stupendous technical achievement, hasn’t led to specific drugs and the other malarkey it was meant to lead to, because it appears that we cannot read the language properly, or we are looking in the wrong place. In the same way as leaving out all the vowels of this post would still be readable, there seems to be a lot of redundancy. In physics gravity is still out on its own and we still don’t have a theory of everything, just as my professors bemoaned at Imperial in the early 1980s.

    But technology, it’s been the bees knees. In some ways the accuracy of Asimov’s predictions may be a result of the failure of fundamental science since the 1960s to deliver breakthroughs that would have looked like magic 3 to him. We have had evolution, not revolution. So much works better, faster, smaller than when I started work. I’m not absolutely sure that withdrawing from nature into virtual worlds to Facebook from the woods was exactly the pinnacle of human existence that he might have wished for, and the problems of excess leisure were a common theme in his books showing an unhealthy influence of the Protestant work ethic 4.

    It’s strange to look back and see that over my lifetime the remarkable advances have been largely due to improvements in technology rather than improvements in scientific understanding. That wouldn’t have been the case for the first half of the twentieth century. It’s also notable how the STEM story is so dismal now – it’s all about stuff going wrong and global warming – in the 1960s it was all about he white heat of technology, and people going to the Moon and upbeat. Maybe it’s because I’m looking through the wrong end of the telescope, I hope our kids are seeing exciting opportunities and a great story in the STEM area. Otherwise our technology is going to run out of science at some point. Sic transit gloria mundi…


    1. in 1966 Crick delivered himself of the statement “And so to those of you who may be vitalists I would make this prophecy: what everyone believed yesterday, and you believe today, only cranks will believe tomorrow.”
    2. it is obvious in its regular repeating structure in a microphotograph of a microcontroller or other single-chip processing device
    3. One of Asimov’s contemporaries, Arthur C Clarke said that Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic
    4. Asimov was of course of Jewish heritage and an atheist/rationalist as an adult – the work ethic is thus a cultural influence from the society he inhabited

    Come Swine with Us – oh by the way somebody’s left a great big blue cock behind in Trafalgar Square

    Note: this post isn’t really one for vegans. Or for fans of fried chicken street food that seems to be taking over the place at the moment, either…

     I say, chaps, here's a rum thing if ever I've seen one

    here’s a rum thing if ever I’ve seen one

    Ever since I first heard about it, I wanted to go see BoJo’s great big blue cock in Trafalgar Square, and his sponsored ‘Come Swine With Us’ event seemed to be a way of combining that with a free lunch. As an engineer, it really doesn’t matter if I have zero artistic taste, and I do have a penchant for the odd and quirky in public spaces at times. And this is quirky.

    It was also a day to go get a free lunch, in the interest of railing against the the daft 2004 EU regulations that prohibit the feeding of swill to pigs.

    The whole point of a pig is to recycle waste – as Simon 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’

    The trouble is that the pig industry is concentrating. Midland Pig Producers are going to keep 25,000 pigs in a roughly 20-acre site, 100 metres away from existing dwellings near Foston. Apparently it won’t smell. Really. Trust them on that. They can control 97% of the smell. From 25,000 pigs. That’s great, so it will just smell like 750 pigs then – and that’s assuming the sense of smell is linear. If it is logarithmic, like many other senses, then the difference will be less. Now I wouldn’t have an objection to living 100m away from the smell of 50 pigs kept in the open, but the leakage is equivalent to 750 packed all together in an industrial unit? 100m away from some poor sod’s house? And this is good in what way?

    I can honestly say that standing from the camera point I can't smell the shit from these guys - but they are moved regularly and it isn't concentrated like a CAFO - the shit is broken down in the soil as is Nature's way

    I can honestly say that standing from the camera point I can’t smell the shit from these guys – but they are moved regularly and it isn’t concentrated like a CAFO – the shit is broken down in the soil as is Nature’s way

    The industrialising pig industry hasn’t any great use for swill – it’s can’t use it because it’s not homogeneous enough on controllable enough to be used on a large scale, and doesn’t want to use it because they are paranoid about extra disease because a concentrated animal feedlot has no spatial diversity against disease – take one hog down with something serious and you take the lot out, it goes with the ‘concentrated’ part of the territory. This also leads to the regular abuse of antibiotics to manage low levels of disease. You get to eat that in the industrialised pork, and we spike some of the most powerful guns in the medical armoury, all in the name of about 10% off our chow. So do try not get sick in a way that needs serious antibiotics, m’kay…

    With those 2004 EU regs that ancient pact ‘twixt Man and Pig is broken, and we feed our pigs on soya imported from South America rather that the waste from the Great Wen’s restaurants, which presumably we get to landfill rather than turn into pork. To give him his due, BoJo groused about this in 2004 and has supported The Pig Idea to try and get some of this rolled back.

    It’s a theme that comes all too often when industrial processing meets Life, and the result is never pretty, though it does reduce non-external costs. Automation, standardisation and conveyor belts are a fantastic way to speed up, cost-reduce and produce things that are the product of human ingenuity, from cars to iPods 1. Industrialisation and automation leads to unspeakable cruelty and shocking levels of pollution when if comes to things involving Life. In the case of vegetable farming there is the pollution in terms of nitrates but no cruelty. In the case of meat farming industrialisation has brought down costs, without a doubt, but the cruelty is ghastly, and the pollution is none too pretty either. In the States they can get away with this because the country is huge and has large regions that are thinly settled, so concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO) can get far enough away from people to not stink them out, but 80% of antibiotics in the US are consumed by animals and the US government arm the EPA seems to indicate there are a fair number of issues.

    First they came for the chickens…

    In 1971 chicken cost 40p/kg 2 so a typical 1.5kg bird would have set you back 60p. According to the Bank of England inflation averaged 6.2% p.a. over the intervening four decades so that chicken would have cost you the equivalent of £7.20 in today’s money. Tesco will sell you a chicken for £2, so industrial agriculture works in bringing down the price – and chicken welfare wasn’t unimpeachable in the 1970s though egg production seemed to hold the greatest excesses. A Tesco free-range chicken is to be had for £8.25, roughly tracking that 1971 price 3

    Can’t argue with the improved financial case, though cheap chicken is pretty bland – it’s raised quickly and it takes time and input food variety to build flavour.You local independent dirty chicken shop selling fried chicken has an answer to that blandness – lots of hot spices, batter to pad it out and shedloads of fat, sugar and salt. To be honest they could probably substitute TVP or Quorn for the chicken and their customer would be none the wiser because most of the flavour is not in the meat.

    Every time someone buys pretty much any kind of fast food chicken, or a £2 Tesco chicken, they also buy into this.

    Which is a shame – we are much richer now than in the 1970s, and perhaps we don’t need to be so beastly to our farm animals. Humans are carnivores and top predators, which is why we have our eyes facing forwards rather than outwards like a bunny rabbit or a cow 4, we have omnivorous dentition and a taste for flesh, though we aren’t obligate carnivores like cats. However, top predators don’t usually torture their prey for most of a lifetime before eating it, so I think humans can claim a first on that, inventive blighters that we are. I can’t help feeling that we ought to be able to do better, particularly in the First World. The RSPCA will go nuts if you mistreat a dog, but set up a company to be incorrigibly mean to chickens, or pigs, and, well, have at it, guys. You’ll probably get a government grant to do it.

    The standard riposte is the the poor have the right to eat chicken too and indeed they do, Tesco will be their friend, or any of the zillions of dirty chicken shops that litter the streets of UK towns that caused the Grauniad to weep into their beer. In times of dearer chicken previous generations addressed this by eating meat once a week rather than every day, and also having more awareness of what to do with vegetables. The standard of professional and foodie cooking in Britain is immeasurably better than in the 1970s 5, but the awareness of what to do with food by people who just want to eat and don’t take any interest in preparation is a lot lower now than it used to be 6, because fast food and ready meals are much more affordable and taste better than they used to. However, there are costs – and these are borne in the high levels of fat, hidden sugar and salt in ready meals. And the chickens get the rough end of the deal too.

    now they’re coming for the pigs…

    And now industrial farming wants to do this with pigs in the UK… The foot and mouth debacle of 2001 seems to have been a turning point, and large-scale farming seems to have been drawn to the concentrated animal feeding operation. This dominates US practice, though we should bear in mind that the US has a lot more land per person than the UK. You can see what one of these operations look like here - from there you can zoom in and see the individual cows. So we have battle lines drawn between the industrial pig industry, who don’t want anybody feeding swill or waste food 7, and 10,000 years of pig/human waste management. Plus some celebrity chefs and Boris Johnson. Obviously the Great Wen has got a serious food waste problem. Eight million souls, a shitload of chi-chi restaurants and nary a green space to offload their trash, it ain’t good at all. They’re even having to upgrade the sewerage system to cope with the stuff that’s passed through the humans because they toss 39 million tons of raw logs out into the Thames every year, which is clearly not an ideal situation. Up until recently that historic pig/human pact still held good for commercial food waste – they used to boil up some of the waste in industrial units and feed it to pigs. Then after the foot and mouth epidemic the EU decided that nobody is going to feed swill to pigs in Europe and they iced ten millenia of co-operation between pig and man. And the pig industry saw a chance to industrialise, as well as importing grain from halfway round the world, which cost more, again pushing the the high volume/low welfare agenda.

    Some of London’s restaurateurs and foodie glitterati decided to push back on the swill ban and so The Pig Idea was born. They held a shindig in Trafalgar Square on Thursday involving free food, and let me tell you that’s a marvellous thing in Central London. Non-Londoners need to understand something about London restaurants in the centre of town – basically if you need to read the prices on the menu you can’t afford it.

    Thomasina Meiers and Sara Cox at The Pig Idea

    Thomasina Miers and Sara Cox at The Pig Idea

    The Pig Idea is fronted by the fragrant Thomasina Meiers 8

    Tristram Stuart, Thomasina Miers and Sara Cox cooking up some pork

    Tristram Stuart, Thomasina Miers and Sara Cox cooking up some pork

    Tristram Stuart sort of sums it all up at the start (~1min)

    Thomasina, bless her, comes over all Sloane Ranger with this little quip which bombed with the audience, you could see why. Although there were a fair number of London’s young and beautiful there they all seemed to PR interns – even your mustelid scrivener was asked if he was a member of the press, as I was tooled up with a SLR camera and an audio recorder.

    Earth to Thomasina – you may well not need to work, and indeed the one over there with brilliant white fur is also of independent though far less means, but it’s not a common condition in modern Britain, though it may well be in your social circle. We didn’t all go to Mexico on our Gap Yah to come back and found Wahaca. Even seasoned standup comics tremble to extract the yellow stuff from the audience, so don’t rush in there like that ;)

    However, despite the foot-in-mouth bit the day went well and the free lunch was indeed mighty fine.

    Grub's up!

    Grub’s up!

    Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall doing his stuff - with trotters?

    Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall doing his stuff – with trotters?

    Now to be honest I think this battle is already lost, and it’s a strange sort of thing to be in the same camp as a bunch of folks with upper-class accents. It’s notable that celebrity chefs do seem to live on a separate planet from most people in Britain. I might be a heartless bastard but Jamie Oliver needed to make his point about about the f*ing great big TV in a different way – he has a point that the poor sometimes don’t choose the cheapest way to eat and drink but that is a separate issue from the TV. Then we have Thomasina of the tin ear telling us all that we’re layabouts and doesn’t anybody have jobs these days, well, maybe we believed you when you said it was important to make a stand and took some time out to support you in return for a free lunch ;)

    I’m not so hung up on the swill issue though I can see that returning to our millenia old tradition would be good from a waste management point of view in our capital city. But what I really don’t want to see is US-style industrial CAFOs in Britain. Yes, we are going to send our pigs to slaughter and eat them. The only time I hear a pig squeal is when it takes a zap from the electric fence that stops them breaking out, and they are smart enough to learn, it’s a very rare occurrence. Obviously it’s going to happen again at the end – I’ve seen what happens in a slaughterhouse too. Whereas if you take a look at The Pig Business movie, squealing seems to go on all the time in Smithfield’s ghastly operations, and a squealing pig is not a usually a happy pig – squealing seems to be an alarm call. Pigs grunt to communicate with each other – when one of the herd thinks grub’s up, there is a characteristic sound to the low grunt which seems to mean ‘oi, food’s up’. They then charge over to whoever is dishing out the food and then get their heads stuck in, again grunting to each other.

    We don’t need to cut off their tails, or inject them with antibiotics either. They serve us well, they clear our waste veg and trimmings, and they turn over the ground without having to put diesel in something – they just get on with it.

    pigs, after feeding. They grunt, not squeal

    pigs, feeding. They still grunt, not squeal, unlike at Smithfield’s CAFOs in The Pig Business

    So while I have sympathy with the view that the poor don’t need to be spending any more of their money on chicken, I am still not sure that the protracted animal cruelty that we prohibit outside farming is a price worth paying without some sort of debate about our inconsistency on animal welfare. I don’t know what the right answer is. Ultimately resolving this sort of issue is a political decision, but I still don’t understand why the RSPCA can prosecute people for keeping their dogs in squalour but not an industrial chicken or pig unit keeping farm animals in squalour.

    Oh yes, just to save all of us the trouble I don’t deal with militant vegans. I respect the right of any entity to decide what goes into it’s mouth and require the same civility in return. If you’re of the view that meat is murder then you’re clearly can’t understand the difference between murder and killing 9 and I have no desire to debate the issue with you. Eating meat obviously involves killing things, and I’m easy with that. What I’d prefer not to do is mistreat the animal for a lifetime first, in ways British society has decided is unacceptable outside the farming system.

    People queuing for a free lunch under the friendly gaze of a big blue cock

    People queuing for a free lunch under the friendly gaze of a big blue cock

    pork - pizza anyone?

    pork – pizza anyone?

    On a lighter note I was greatly taken with Boris’s art commission. That sort of strangeness is what an mayor should be all about, so the rest of this post is dedicated to his fantastic big blue cock. I’m also deeply grateful to Boris for finally putting public toilets at Trafalgar Square -and they’re free, unlike the chiseling barstewards at Leicester Square and Liverpool Street Station.

    That cock is fantastic

    the cock has a certain regal charm head-on, n'est ce pas

    the cock has a certain regal charm head-on, n’est ce pas



    1. yes, there’s still a need to control externalities and pollution, it’s not a panacea, but it’s served us reasonably well
    2. ONS
    3. that ’71 bird was probably not free range, though the excesses of meat chicken rearing seemed to take off in he 1980s.
    4. herbivores tend to be prey, so they need all-round vision to damn well watch out for the carnivores who are looking to eat their flesh. Carnivores tend to need binocular vision and focus so they can track their prey. Which is why your eyes, and those of your dog or cat are in the front of your head whereas a rabbit’s eyes are either side, all the better to spot the incoming fox
    5. for readers too young to have had the pleasure, British cooking was dire – we boiled the shit out of our vegetables for half an hour and stewed meat. If veg held together after cooking it hadn’t been cooked long enough.
    6. I can’t be bothered to cite any particular part of the research for this because this rant would shift from the pigs to the people. Google uk skills cooking public and read some of the stuff that comes back, preferably after pouring a stiff drink and sitting down far away from anything sharp. If you can’t see what the problem is then you are part of it. Our government has to tell people via the NHS that they should sit down with their kids for at least some meals, turn the bloody TV off, and there are courses to teach adults how to cook. Were these parents themselves raised by wolves, FFS?
    7. Note that it was never mandatory to feed swill to pigs, so they had and will still have the right to carry on feeding imported grain – but presumably some people will ask awkward questions.
    8. I vaguely recall having a crush on her in some foraging TV programme from years and years back, think it was wild gourmets
    9. Let’s start with Google, shall we

    create more, consume less – it’s cheaper and more fun

    The Ermine household decamped to North Norfolk over the last week, to reflect upon the world, eat seafood and wonder on the meaning of life. The North Norfolk coast is an unspoiled part of the country noted for its birdlife and fine beer.

    North Norfolk

    North Norfolk

    It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been up here, we rented a cottage for the week in Brancaster. Mrs Ermine delivered herself of the opinion that the coast was becoming “chi-chi” which I think means gentrified somewhat. . Burnham Market seems to have become a kind of culinary haven. There was lots of reasonably tasteful housebuilding going on on the south side of the coast road, though the usual 3,4,5 bedroom sizes, ‘cos house building is more profitable at the ‘executive homes’ end of the market, so all the people who are making things happen for the holidaymakers seem to have moved to the towns such as Hunstanton. On the personal finance angle this sort of thing gave me the willies -

    Help to Buy

    Help to Buy – don’t do it

    Seriously, good people of Hunstanton, don’t do it to yourselves. I bought my first house with effectively an 80% mortgage in one of these pump-up-the-market fiascos in ’89 – I had 20% down and I bitterly regretted it. House prices don’t always go up. If you have only got 1/20th of the cash to buy a house and need a mortgage for the rest then you can’t afford to take out a mortgage when interest rates are at historic lows because you will be killed when they rise. I paid 14% at one time. But you won’t listen, so the best of British luck to you, you’re gonna need it…

    Aye, it could get you moving. Could get you repossessed later on, too...

    Aye, it could get you moving. Could get you repossessed later on, too…

    However, my third holiday of the year seemed to be a good time to ponder on that numinous quantity known as ‘living life to the full’. I normally hear the latter in terms of ‘I want to spend loadsamoney on manufactured experiences and extreme sports on the few days that The Man lets me off the leash, which is why I need to spend more than I earn, and YOLO 1

    My journey out of the rat-race wasn’t as measured as, say RIT, who carefully plans it and track progress. However, I did discover some odd things about my life as a consumer, and then as a consumer of less. I discovered some of these by sounding the extremes – by first consuming at a average middle class level (couple of foreign holidays, Sky TV 2, loads of driving etc) and then by slamming the brakes on – no foreign holidays for a few years. Like many things in life, the optimum is to be found not at the extremes, but somewhere in between. However, it is surprising how far towards the low-consumption end the optimum is, for me.

    You see, the trouble is that we humans are creatures of difference – we observe things as dynamic contrast, rather than absolute levels. This is good, in a way, because it helps us adapt to the stupendous variation in the natural world. We can see a candlelit face, and recognise the same in full sun – we pick out the differences in shade, not the absolute levels. We do that at the macro level too – too many studies show that happiness is in our relative position to others in many things. We all want to be king of the hill, and consumerism increasingly plays towards this ‘lifestyle’ element.

    I was able to break the hold because the experience of working was worse than the upside of consuming, but the aim of marketing is to keep us in the zone – where there are improvements to be had, but that each hit gives us the feel of a slightly improved lifestyle. It struck me when I inquired of Quicken 3  how things had turned out since I left work.


    An Ermine's net worth

    An Ermine’s free cash net worth


    Although Mr Micawber wouldn’t approve 4, it isn’t a precipitous crash, and, indeed, since the original plan was predicated on a two or three year stretch before I draw my pension, and I am nearly a year and a half on, I actually have more options than at the start. Quicken seems to indicate I’d have about four more years of burn from now before I’d have to start liquidating non-ISA holdings.

    This is a subset of what most PF folk count as net worth. It doesn’t include my house, because despite what some people say, it isn’t part of my financial net worth ;) I list my non-ISA investment portfolio at the price it cost me to buy,  underestimating it because a lot of this was stock options, and The Firm has been going strong since 2009. Some of the drift upwards early in 2013 wasn’t moonlighting, it was taking vesting stock options onto my books at option price. It shows nothing of my pension, either the AVCs that I poured money into for three years nor the capital equivalent value of the main pension. I don’t count what I can’t touch.  It doesn’t show the value of my ISA, because I can’t make Quicken show it at purchase price – it always uprates the value from the last transaction. If I allowed Quicken to include the ISA it seem to indicate a gradual rise in free cash net worth, which is barmy – my total income is a long way below the personal tax threshold, and stock gains aren’t real till you either take the divi or sell up. It appears the Man from the Clapham Omnibus is back in town, which roughly translated means the figure for market value at the bottom of my ISA statement is overvalued compared with what it should be. I struggled to find value earlier in the year so I did a Bed and ISA capital gains defuse rather than buy.

    Quicken is all about cold hard cash going in and out. It tracks the bills going out and non-ISA dividends and stuff coming in, because I take all my dividends as cash. It’s a shame that there’s no decent alternative to Quicken, which is ten years old and no longer downloads stock prices. I did look at alternatives to this over 10-year old program, but unlike MMM I just don’t do cloud.

    What every wannabe early retiree is scared of, while working, is that they quit and find their expenses are a lot higher than they anticipated. I was scared of this too over three years ago. I was really scared of it when I retired as such, because once your rattle over the tracks past the point of no return there is no way back. It caused me to over-estimate spending, big-time.

    It also caused me to underestimate income. Share dividends come in ratty little onesy-twosey bits, but they add up over time. I’ve only ever had one main source of income, and I find it hard to see small bits that rattle in from disparate holdings as income, it just doesn’t feel real. Although Quicken counts them in, I don’t know how to budget for that.

    Why did I over-estimate spending so badly?

    There are some things that are easier to see in the rear-view mirror. Working really screws up your life in some ways. It means you have to buy control over some things, and pack the rest of your life into evenings, weekends and four to six week’s annual holiday. It pays you handsomely, hopefully, so you can pay for that control, you can buy experiences that are as much unlike work as possible and try and recover in that time, it makes you pay for other people to do what you may be able to do yourself. And it’s really, really, amazing how much that adds up. It’s not just amazing, it’s actually quite scary. If I’d know that earlier I would have done quite a lot of things differently.

    And yet, that doesn’t totally explain the dramatic over-estimation. I pinched the title from this great article which pointed to another reason – because the blog is the Art of Manliness it talks to the masculine but I don’t think it’s just a guy thing -

    Men have an inherent desire to be creators, to change the landscape, to turn wood into furniture, to transform a blank canvas into a work of art-to alter the world and leave a legacy. It’s the denial of this aspect of manliness that is perhaps most plaguing modern men. Young men are taught to think of life past 30 as a certain death, a time when they have to stop being selfish and live for others. The paradox that’s never talked about is that consuming is the real dead end when it comes to happiness. Your mind gets caught in an fruitless cycle-new experiences initially give you intense pleasure, but the more you consume of it, the more saturated your pleasure sensors become until you have to ratchet up the intensity and quantity of the experience to get the same “high” you used to. And the cycle endlessly continues.

    I did some of this – all the way from teenage years to my 40s I was creative, outside work I would develop things and design stuff, poke around on how things worked. But slowly the wellspring of creativity dried and I became that consumer. I had plenty of hints of consumerism earlier in life with too much spent on hi-fi and photography, but as a form of anomie started to settle in as I found the workplace more alienating my creativity fell away and passive consumption rose.

    It was a vicious circle, because it started to rob meaning – the process of originating, creating, directing and learning and becoming more aware is part of what I find gives meaning to life. I’m uncomfortable with some of the Calvinist terminology in the AoM post, but I admire its resonance with some degree of inner truth. I may not share their terminology or world-view, but I recognise the map and the territory described. As working life faded to grey after two or three decades, I became reactive. In build resiliency by taking control they have a summary of the characteristics of having an internal or external locus of control

    Those with an internal locus of control:

    1. Are confident that they can be successful.
    2. Tend to be leaders (leading those with an external locus of control).
    3. Exhibit greater control over their behaviour.
    4. Seek to learn as much as they can.
    5. Take personal responsibility for their actions.
    6. Deal with challenge and stress better.
    7. Use challenges to come out stronger than before.
    8. Thrive in the midst of change.
    9. Are less likely to submit to authority.

    Those with an external locus of control:

    1. Feel like they’re a victim.
    2. Are quick to blame everyone but themselves.
    3. Want to be led by others.
    4. Avoid responsibility.
    5. Are more prone to stress, anxiety, and depression

    Here’s a test you can take to observe your own Locus of Control. To me its 1966 provenance shows in the unusual question bias, but I guess the principles still hold.

    If I lose internal reference I drift towards the second list. As a younger Ermine (20-40) I had more characteristics from the first list, particularly 1,4 and 9, although I was weak on 5, tending to blame circumstances though fighting them nevertheless. And as far as the right royal shafting I took from the housing market I had 1 and 2 off the second list in spades – I could whinge like the best housepricecrash.co.uk-er, just 20 years early ;) But at least I did do something about it.

    From 40 onwards though I made some progress outside of work intellectual creativity began to fade, part of this was rising up the greasy pole, and part of it was shifts in work from electronics design to software design, then networking, all coinciding with increasing managerial role while The Firm was getting less hierarchical but more command and control 5. Once upon a time I probably had the potential to be outstanding with electronics design, just as The Firm moved away from that. It obviously wasn’t such a burning ambition as else I would have switched job, maybe moved to Cambridge which has numerous little companies in need of designers. I learned to be mostly competent at software but code is probably something where you should have started in your teens if you want to be brilliant at it. I was too broadly based whereas what IT wants nowadays  is depth – I’d programmed in Pascal, Modula-2, C, c#, c++, Visual Basic, Z80, assembler, Perl, PHP, Python, Javascript, Java, ASP – a motley mishmash of technologies depending on what I was doing at the time.

    IT networking bores me senseless, I could do it serviceably but all the daftness of Cisco accreditation 6 struck me as tedious. and by the time that became the Next Big Thing at The Firm I was burned out, and displayed too many characteristics of the second list. I never looked to work to give meaning to life the way many do, but I wanted to at least pass the time doing something vaguely interesting that offered challenge. Anomie is a warning sign that says ‘Self, thou art not true to thyself’ but like many such warning signs they only become apparent once you have passed the point of no return. By the time I got that way I was well into List 2 territory, and an external signal was necessary.

    The Pleasure of Walking Tall (cringe)

    A Man with Savings…doesn’t have to kiss The Man’s ass…

    It came in a performance review in 2009 that I interpreted as a charge of incompetence. One project had collapsed, I hadn’t found another, and this manager was fitting a distribution that was squeezed down because of some ghastly Group financial results. 7

    The narrative I told myself in the next three years until I retired was that this was a dreadful experience in which I lost – the wheels came off a a serviceable career as it exploded on me in the home straight. However, on reflection, it discounts an important part of the story, once again, one of those things that is clearer in the rear-view mirror than as you drive over it. In one way this tosspot did me a favour, because he made me angry. The signal reached the jammed creative centre, and a spark was struck across the fallen poles, and I remembered the values of the first list. I decided that I really was an awkward bastard and didn’t want anybody being able to push me around like that. It helped that I soon found out this manager had had a new baby (he was in his early 40s and on a second marriage) and was therefore particularly financially fearful himself in those troubled times of 2009 and needed the security. He was the antithesis of where I wanted to be – The Man owned his ass. As The Pleasure of Walking Tall narrates, the point of having savings is not to end up in that sort of hole. So I needed to get me some, and sharp.

    Two days later I committed savings to filling a Cash ISA, and two weeks later I read this and opened an III S&S ISA all before the financial year end, to clear the way to repeat the exercise the next month, derisking the impact of getting ejected from the company. An internal application launched earlier paid off and The Firm discovered I had a unique skill they needed for the Olympics work.

    Although I perpetrated a bit of old trading  folly in the ISA at first before I straightened myself out and learned some of the art of sitting on my hands, the next year I read this and got myself onto the right track. One of the entries in my ISA, Merchant’s Trust is still one of my favourite portfolio lines because buying that marked my transition from a trader to an investor. I still look at it fondly, because MRCH has now repaid me 1/5th of my capital stake in dividends over the years and appreciated in value by about 50%, it’s the oldest holding I have. Other shares have appreciated by more, and I was far too slow to build on that by buying other investment trusts on a discount but it marked the turning point, and a shift from thinking like #1 on List 2 to #1 on List 1. I was repossessing my locus of control, and MRCH gave me hope when I needed it that this investing malarkey could work to help me gain control of my financial destiny. I built on that, although it is my non-ISA investments and other motley bits that have headed off the expected decline in cash networth sine 2012, the ISA is growing well.

    It’s a gradual shift in perspective, to come to see this manager not just as someone who stiffed me to save themselves, but also as a wraith that woke the slumbering pilot at the controls drifting aimlessly in the foggy murk. The external signal highlighted what I needed to do and the choices before me. The low-risk option was to try and find a job elsewhere, and the long shot was to chance it and buy my way out of the rat-race. I favoured the latter, because it attacked the cause, another job would have been attacking the symptoms. I didn’t want to appease The Man, I wanted to eliminate the sonofabitch from my life. That needed three years – however I sliced the spreadsheets it was going to take that long 8.

    Casual consumption showed up as something that was standing in my way, and by force of will I grounded as much of it as possible. An awful lot of people call casual consumption ‘living life to the full’ which is great if it works for them, but it doesn’t wash for me. Meaning doesn’t come for me with what I buy, it comes from what I do and what I am. It’s funny how easily The Man gets people to identify with an advertising slogan so they keep working for him. Inadvertently I discovered what the AoM said was true

    Your mind gets caught in an fruitless cycle-new experiences initially give you intense pleasure, but the more you consume of it, the more saturated your pleasure sensors become until you have to ratchet up the intensity and quantity of the experience to get the same “high” you used to. And the cycle endlessly continues.

    You only get to see that in the rear-view mirror after you’ve won the battle, the sulphurous stench of the slayed dragon stinks up the place and you wonder how you missed it for so long. Maybe it’s swept away in the tailwind of all that consumption.  Now I wasn’t exceptionally susceptible to consumerism – I didn’t do consumer debt f’rinstance, but it still called me off course. Consumerism is designed to do that, it’s how profits are made, by getting people to think they want things that they don’t need, and getting them to depend on stuff for their happiness. This is, indeed, being honed to a higher plane as I write – businesses are increasingly selling experiences rather than Stuff, and even experiences that ‘lead to personal transformation’. If you think about it, paying someone to transform you is a little bit bizarre, perhaps with the exception of medical intervention. Take Weight-Watchers for example. Customers are basically paying the company in the hope of avoiding using self-control. After all it’s fairly well-known how you get fat – you eat too much 9. Apparently doctors

    should also explain to patients “how much motivation and commitment” is needed to complete weight management schemes and that enrolling on one will not be a “magic bullet”.

    No shit Sherlock. If this comes as news to you then I’d say your weight is not necessarily your most pressing problem…

    Consume Less – YOLO and life is too short to sell it for trinkets and baubles when you can create more

    I shot the beast of Consumerism in the three years of saving, and that is long enough to break the chain, I don’t identify with what I buy any more. If I have a requirement, I will go on the Net and see if I can find something that will help me with that at a price I am prepared to pay.  And it’s increasingly tools that I want to pay for, that help me transform my world, and create stuff.

    Consumerism tries to make everything easy for a price, but it carries the corollary, that in making everything easy, the blade of directing your path through life loses its edge. It  holds people in thrall to working for The Man and weakens their ability to take action to shift their destiny. And it did that to me. I’m not inviting this sucker back into my life any time real soon, though I shall make peace with it.

    As a welcome side-effect of that my costs go down. I hear from other retirees that they were often pleasantly surprised by the lower spending rate. So much of consumer spending is compensating for flushing away one’s life 8 hours a day, five days a week. It doesn’t hold for everybody, there are many people who do enjoy what they do at work and the way in which they do it, though the latter seems to be dropping away with the way finance seems to drive human values out of managing people at work.

    What do I spend less on -

    • cars. I sold my car soon after retiring and the ermine household is a one-car household. If I wanted to enterprise rent-a-car is just up the road but I haven’t felt any need
    • transport generally. I walk a lot more, and I’m ready to fit in with other people for rides – to lend a hand in return for seeing new places, I have a perfectly serviceable bicycle
    • holidays (compared to my wage-slave self, not ultra-frugal Saving Madly self) – I go on holiday more often, but fit in with other opportunities. Like going to a campsite in the Cotswolds while Mrs Ermine was at a spa – I do the driving, get a free ride, and spas are not my thing at all so it would have been a sheer waste of money to join her ;)
    • casual eating out
    • anything to do with work, natch – clothes, meals, commuting etc

    What do I spend more on

    • Wine. Given up using supermarkets and I use a local firm Wines of Interest because I’m prepared to pay for people to screen out ropey wine for me. We drink less than through some of the ghastly period but better, so overall cost has gone up
    • Things to make things with – tools, components, materials. I don’t spend money on training or learning because I have time and Google is my friend ;)
    • decent eating out. The overall total is probably lower but when I do I want it good. Seems to be a theme on retirement spending – it has to be good or not at all. Better and fewer times beats often and crap

    I am easy with slowly losing the fight to inflation as well as the slings and arrows of spending and monthly bills, because at the moment I have no pension income, which will more than fix that. I reinvest ISA divis back into the ISA, natch, so these don’t show. Too many people labouring away at the coalface believe that once you’d retired you end up eating roadkill by the flickering light of a paraffin lamp under the railway arches unless you have stupendous amounts of capital. Even without a pension and no access to a significant part of my savings there isn’t the precipitous fall that scenario would imply.

    I can also now  strike a better balance with consumption. One of the things I discovered by cutting as much as possible out is that you do miss some gratuitous consumption. Some consumption adds colour to life, but like herbs in cooking, a little goes a long way. My biggest loss was no holidays for three years. I haven’t continued with that policy, because holidays are a lot cheaper when you have control of your time. I discovered several shorter ones more local are the right balance for me at this time – so that’s what I’ve done – three out of my four holidays this year are in the UK.

    Another thing I discovered was that you get a lot more bang for the buck if your consumption is infrequent. You just notice it more and get more from it – it’s that human sensitivity to differences again. For instance, in Norfolk a couple of times we walked about fifty yards to the pub round the corner, the White Horse, to have a meal and a couple of drinks, despite having a generous stock of fine beers with us. We had discovered Tesco had an offer on Adnams bottles beforehand, so we had taken some with us.


    However, there’s that dynamic contrast thing again. We could have eaten out in the White Horse every night, and indeed the first night we dined well there. It’s apparently a Telegraph favourite though Guardinistas favour it in the summer. Presumably they divide up the year that way there aren’t any fights in the bar given the differing world-views ;)

    But eating out and drinking every night would have been too much, and would have doubled the cost of the holiday. A couple of times, however, was just right, and if you are going to do consumerism then savour it – infrequently but well scores over frequently and routine to me. Plus, let’s face it, you can’t do this too often

    they had a wonderful plum and ice cream dessert

    they had a wonderful plum and ice cream dessert

    because otherwise you become a fat bastard ;) I can vouch for the fish and chips which are a step apart from the usual pub fare, and Mrs Ermine can vouch for the mussels which are from about 100 yards away. It is a transformation when you reasise the truth of what Mr Money Mustache opined. Restaurants aren’t a place to get food. They are a place to get experience, preferably enjoying good company. At a single stroke that destroys the raison d’etre of all fast food and coffee experiences, and almost forces you to raise your game.

    Consumerism isn’t inherently the devil in disguise, it is the degree to which you do it. Without thinking what is of value to you, it’s easy to end up doing way too much. RIT has a nice  post on how to qualify what matters to you and spend accordingly. I have to admit that I don’t follow his step 1. I have never run a budget – I have always used Quicken to observe and analyse spending in the rear view mirror, and adjust accordingly. But this was probably born from not spending more than I earned (using the feedback from Quicken, or the balance in my bank account before I had Quicken). Whenever I’ve tried to do a monthly budget it made me annoyed because it forced things into monthly cycles, so you’d have to divide annual spends like insurance, TV licence and road tax by 12 and they’d still catch you out. Must be just me that has the problem though. I’m absolutely behind RIT from Stage 2 onwards.

    I had no idea that I could ground spending enough while still consuming at a level that gives me 80% of the enhancement of quality of life consuming can do for be with less than 20% of the cost. I underestimated the yield from non-ISA investments, which appears as cash in Quicken, paying things like bills and general running costs. More importantly, however, I consumed less than I thought I would, and created more…

    Hat tip to the Art of Manliness 10 for summarising how to control your costs and have some fun so well. It works particularly well in retirement because you control your time, but the principle is general.

    Create more, consume less


    1. I like the Urban Dictionary’s definition of ‘The dumbass’s excuse for something stupid that they did’
    2. DxGF was the main consumer, I didn’t miss it after we parted
    3. Intuit’s Quicken, and Microsoft Money, were programs on a PC that used to be the ways people tracked spending before we all decided to surrender control, lose resilience and invite all sorts of bad guys to observe our finances using web-based ‘services’ in The Cloud. I don’t do Cloud, unless broadcasting is the nature of the product, I think it’s mad, insecure and leaves you hostages to fortune as companies turn things off or hike fees.
    4. This is the reason why early retirees are usually advised to retain their mortgage and not pay it down before they draw their pension. They can smooth out the suckout in income during the intercession between stopping work and getting hold of their pension commencement lump sum, which they then use to discharge the mortgage. I will have to invest mine.
    5. When I started as a grunt in 1988 I could sign a purchase order for up to £500. When I was working on the Olympics in 2012 I had to get rail tickets authorised in advance from two levels up
    6. the world of IT networking involves Cisco (or vendor of choice) accreditation exams, which, I’m sorry, but in my view are a combination of vendor lock-in, memory tests and low-level technician qualifications about how to use the specific unix-like command set and feature set of the specific boxes. And it’ll be outsourced to India by the time I manage to cram all that stuff, after all, connecting disparate locations together is what computer networking does to earn its rent, and it’s easy enough to remote the management network.
    7. There was a financial silver lining in that a sharesave came out right at the low-water mark -I dropped every single previous scheme I had running to reallocate to that one, split across the three and five year terms, because I didn’t know how long I could stick it for. These, plus a lot of Share Incentive Programme shares  are a large lump of my non-ISA shareholdings and The Firm is now working for me rather than the other way round.
    8. on the original spending assumptions – in hindsight I could have probably done it earlier
    9. For the likely customers of Weight Watchers it’s not about exercise. Although there are good health reasons to do exercise, for non-athletes the effort of the amount of exercise you need to do to burn off calories is unrealistic compared to the effort of not eating them in the first place – most of the win is in consuming less IMO
    10. I see absolutely no reason why this should be particularly applied to men specifically
    4 Oct 2013, 2:40pm


  • August 2014
    M T W T F S S
    « Jul    
  • Archives

  • We’re back to paying people to dig holes, and paying others to fill them in again with IDS

    Apparently George Osborne had to deny Matthew d’Ancona’s report of him saying 1

    “You see Iain giving a presentation,” George Osborne, right, is reported to have observed during a turf war, “and realise he’s just not clever enough.”

    I think this is a bit harsh on IDS. There seems to be a general shortage of brainpower in the political sphere, or a general shortage of cojones in levelling with the electorate. I suspect here are more fundamental problems than the skivers and strivers rhetoric allows.

    Apparently the unemployed are going to be given a 35-hour a week detention for being unemployed, or do community service/workfare. Lest it be said I’m picking on the Tories, Rachel Reeves of Labour delivered herself thusly

    But this policy is not as ambitious as Labour’s compulsory jobs guarantee, which would ensure there is a paid job for every young person out of work for over 12 months and every adult unemployed for more than two years.

    Compulsory jobs, eh? Labour seems to believe more an more in its overwhelming power to control things, from the price of electricity to the jobs market. The Condems claim the problem started with the previous lot…

    The Tories argue that the number of households where no member has ever worked doubled under Labour from 136,000 in June 1997 to 269,000 in June 2010. They claim that in the decade to 2010, 1.4 million people had spent nine out of the previous 10 years on out-of-work benefits.

    Now the Ermine is not a bleeding heart liberal. In the decade of plenty under Labour no doubt many people did come to the same conclusion as I did, that work is overrated. Some people wouldn’t or couldn’t save up first to buy themselves out of the rat race, so they do it on other people’s dime. And yet even I think it’s time to stop, and think, and ask more searching questions about what it means that 1.4 million people spending 90% of a decade on out of work benefits. According to the ONS we have thirty million souls in employment, so we are talking 5% long-term unemployed, out of an unemployment rate of 7.7%. The traditional viewpoint of unemployment is it is something that people cycle through every once in a while, after all, an Ermine has been unemployed for 2% of his working life 2.

    And yet when when you look at the stats and two-thirds of the unemployed have been on out-of-work benefits for many years then something else is going on. This could be explained by -

    1. many of the unemployed are lazy bastards and chose this as a lifestyle
    2. sickness and pestilence stalks the land such that 1 in 20 of the workforce is seriously ill or disabled – God help those of pension age in that case
    3. our economy has changed and cannot gainfully employ 5% of the workforce due to them not fitting the requirements an employer needs

    or some combination of all three, and maybe factors I failed to spot.

    I favour an increasing amount of 3. There are undoubtedly some lazy barstewards about. But not enough to explain two-thirds of the unemployed being long-term unemployed IMO. I suspect the answer is that globalisation, outsourcing and automation has raised the bar on what is required of an employee – after all the Flynn Effect is apparently traceable to the fact that an industrial economy requires its workforce to infer the particular from the general, extrapolate and make mental models of an increasingly complex and abstract world.

    James Flynn on the Flynn effect – increasing IQ over the 20th century (hat tip to Greg).

    Flynn asserts that IQ scores at the end of the 19th century would be averaging 70, on the verge of mental retardation, if ours are normalised to 100. However, as technology progresses, requirements presumably increase, and the bar for employability is probably scanning across the bell-curve of IQ distribution, leaving increasing numbers of people behind. IQ is not the only parameter employers need, but there’s less call for sheer physical strength, for instance, of even skilled craftsmanship. Humans are adaptable, but not infinitely adaptable, and I think we are beginning to lose the race.

    And there, I believe, is where politicians are failing us. We pay them to lead, and to adapt our societies to changing conditions, be that increasing industrialisation, global warming or societal changes. And adapting to a world where there is not enough work for people, in particular if an increasing number of people are becoming unemployable, is as much a political issue as it is of one of ‘fairness’. After all, it is perfectly possible to postulate a world where all the work is done by machines 3. Such a world would not be divided into workers and shirkers. If we are on our way to a society when fewer and fewer people produce the GDP in association with machines then none of these get people back to work initiatives will work, for the simple reason that there aren’t enough jobs that match the abilities across the working-age population. Do we even need everybody in work for the economy to grow? After all, Britain doesn’t need me to be in work – although I am technically ‘economically inactive’ I don’t know what the Government thinks I am doing with my investment portfolio.

    At the moment the discussion on unemployment is predicated on an assumption that nearly anybody is employable – hence all the emphasis on

    ‘Claimants will attend a local centre full-time for up to 6 months, with support and supervision to look for work and apply for jobs,’ Mr Duncan Smith will add.

    ‘No attendance. No benefit. That is only fair.’

    There’s a hidden assumption, there, IDS. And that is that, assuming everyone were willing, and took your training to the best of their ability, that the economy can find gainful work for all these people. I am not so sure, in which all you are doing is the equivalent of Depression era digging holes and filling them in again.

    There are similar fallacies in the under-occupancy levy, leading me to suspect a lack of smarts at the Dept of Work & Pensions. I’m all for the principle that if you want to to live in a bigger house than you need, that you pay for it yourself, and if you live on the public purse then you don’t get to do that automatically. However, changing the housing benefit terms without having looked to see if what you’re asking people to do – downsize to social housing that fits their household size – is possible is just as bloody unfair as people living large while taxpayers have to scrimp and save. It wouldn’t have been beyond the wit of man to say that if you refuse the offer of a smaller sized place then your housing benefit gets docked, rather than we will take the money off you but tough luck, buster, we can’t offer you a smaller house, so you’re SOL on that one. On the other hand, I don’t find it unreasonable to ask people to move out of damned expensive places like London – after all I had to.

    Perhaps it is time for us to ask ourselves what a successful first-world human economy looks like in the 21st century. Maximizing the amount of consumer goods and services in the country, with all the attendant damage to the environment is one option. Is the 35-40 hour five day week the optimum? Do we need to maximise GDP? Is the world changing, an increasing competition in the workplace? Can we design a society to maintain living standards in the face of that, and if not, what are the alternatives? What do we mean by living standards anyway? Modern Britain  seems to have a high material living standards compared to a few decades ago but shockingly high levels of stress and job insecurity, unhealthy physically inactive lifestyles and an increasing difficulty of doing something most people want to do – have children and perhaps get to see them grow up.

    I don’t know what the answers to any of that is, but I do know that from observation the assumption that 1950s and 1960s levels of employment are possible looks less and less tenable to me. This debate needs to be widened out from skivers and strivers, to ‘what would an economy with 100% strivers look like? How about 100% skivers (a bit like Solaria, or Japan in 100 years)

    The former looks too much like that hole-digging and hole-filling to me. Labour attempted that – throw money at problem and hope some of it sticks to the sides on its way down the drain. We ended up with a lot of middle-class welfare jobs and diversity outreach coordinators, basically white-collar hole-digging and filling. Unwinding that is causing much hurt and loss of employment now, but it shows how much make-work covered up for some fundamental problems – there just doesn’t seem enough work for everyone in Britain now. Telling the unemployed that it’s possible for all of them to get jobs is bollocks.

    We need to understand, or at least debate what we think we are up against, preferably not in a sectarian black-and-white way. Understanding of the physical world has helped make Britain a rich nation; more understanding of the human world can hopefully make us a rich society. At the moment we seem to be having a shouting match based on a Calvinist work-is-inherently-good-for-you lines. It may be the the collective viewpoint of Britons is that paying people for futile work is how we prefer to allocate resources, but at least let’s know that’s what we are doing here ;)


    1. hat tip to the Indy
    2. 6 months, after graduating, out of a 30-year working life
    3. A young Ermine addled his growing mind with far too much science fiction, and I am sure Isaac Asimov’s Solarians featured one such world
    14 Sep 2013, 12:30pm
    personal finance reflections:


  • August 2014
    M T W T F S S
    « Jul    
  • Archives

  • being in the rat-race made me spend badly

    Okay, this doesn’t apply to everyone – maybe you are King Rat and have this taped. But it made me, unwittingly, spend badly on stupid things 1. I was lucky – I was raised to not spend more than I earned, and I was lucky enough to start work in a more paternalistic age so the whole pension thing was set on the right track for me. I therefore simply ended up stuck in the rat race earning money to spend badly, which stopped me saving enough to get out of the rat race. As opposed to owing shedloads of money and all the hurt that goes with that.

    I was set on this train of thought by Monevator’s How to Make Easy Money post. Which, fair enough, is about making easy money. A common theme in personal finance is that you improve your financial situation by making more money. Monevator’s gently steering you into the direction of honest money-making in the Ayn Randian version of delivering value to your fellow-humans rather than the get-rich quick of P.T. Barnum. Making more money didn’t work for me to accumulate financial assets until I wanted a way out. Reducing spending did the job fine. 2 I have less income now, below the full-time national minimum wage 3. But I have control of my time, and I have a much better quality of life as a result. Something about not being in charge of my own time encouraged me to spend unwisely.

    Working makes many people spend unwisely, of course, in two ways. One is that there is a steady income, so your decisions are made in an endlessly static present. Presumably this explains why interest only mortgage owner-occupiers find themselves surprised to be 50 without a stake in their home. I have some sympathy for the young who may go IO because they have no experience of the toxicity of UK housing, but by the time you’ve got to 50 there’s no excuse…

    The other factor is that they spend as distraction from the experience of working. I watched some colleagues come back from their summer holidays and immediately book their next year’s summer holiday, “to have something to look forward to”. That was probably the sort of spending that limited my savings, until the external shock of the credit crunch and some nutty management behaviour then focused my mind to stop doing that and get my head round the saving lark.

    Trends in the world of work are running away from me, promoting an extroverted ideal

    In reading Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking I discovered another possible reason why the way of working was becoming tiresome. I had previously put it all down to changes in The Firm, but I see there were wider changes in the world of work that were unfavourable to me. The workplace is increasingly being designed for extroverted and collaborative working – qualities organisations now prize in people is ‘team player’. I do my best work on my own. It’s not that I can’t collaborate, but I find the jabber of all the interaction counter-productive. However, the world of work is being cast in the image of extroversion – the massive increase in the number of meetings, the open plan offices, the hot-desking, and oh, the endless interruptions and meetings and all-hands events.

    Take communications – the  move to people having always-on mobile phones. It still to this day strikes me as bizarre that people go around their business willingly packing a device that interrupts their train of thought on a sporadic basis. If I ran a software coding joint I’d seriously consider asking people to check their mobiles in at the door ;) Of all the engineering jobs I’ve ever done, software coding is one where if you have an interruption to a critical point, you lose hours if not half a day to pick up the thread again. A mobile phone is a weapon of productivity destruction in that sort of task.

    Sherry Turkle’s TED talk “Connected but Alone” touches on this in business, as part of her more general talk about how many humans, it appears, use mobile technology to make themselves feel connected to the hive-mind because they are scared to death of being alone with their own thoughts. I don’t understand how one can feel that way, which perhaps is why I and quite happy without a mobile phone always to hand. Unless I am going somewhere and expect to want to arrange things at the last minute with someone, in which case they are a great tool for addressing that requirement ;)

    The current flavour of the month in software design is the highly collaborative Agile development, with its Scrum meetings – every flippin’ day, and the grand Scrum of Scrums, what the hell is it with people nowadays that they confuse talking about things with action? This is what it’s like in a typical scrum meeting, with a tip of the hat to Wikipedia’s explanation:

    During the meeting, each team member answers three questions:

    • What have you done since yesterday? less than I’d like because meetings took up so much time
    • What are you planning to do today? catch up with the stuff I missed yesterday and am missing right now
    • Any impediments/stumbling blocks? TOO MANY BLOODY MEETINGS stop flapping your lips people and git back to work for God’s sake. Talking about it ain’t gonna get it fixed…

    Paradoxically the little and often rinse-repeat-recycle approach of Agile can work very well when I am on my own – I developed a microcontroller product on my own, but using that methodology with a customer and we both managed to feel our way towards what the customer actually wanted to do with their device. Things I thought really mattered to them they didn’t give a toss but technically trivial mods to the user interface made a big difference ot how they liked it. However, in a development team Agile consumes time and nervous energy, but presumably everybody else gets a big rush from feeling connected.

    I don’t get people that run instant messaging and Facebook all the time either. And email – open it in the morning, do your stuff and then close the darn thing, so that the “you got mail” message doesn’t break the train of thought. Twitter and IM have no place in the creative workplace either, IMO. Everybody else, it seems, thought differently.

    So the world of work was moving away from matching my temperament. It seems a bit sad that business is embracing methodology that disenfranchises / plays to the weakness of a third of the workforce 4, and cuts itself off from analysis and considered action, but that’s the way things are shifting. I guess optimising the workplace to  the majority makes some sense. However, it makes the workplace more stressful for the remaining third. Indeed there’s some evidence that introverts respond particularly badly to observation – annual appraisements I found fine, but justifying my existence quarterly with modern performance management did me in, though looking back at the results they weren’t that different. It was the process I couldn’t stand.

    What’s with that improving finances making less money then?

    It’s not because I make less money that my spending has improved. I designed my target spend rate to be about twice elective spend in the last three years at work. To start off with I didn’t spend that much because I was still shellshocked from the transition. It takes a very long time – months and maybe years, not weeks, to get your head round living from the return on capital as an ordinary grunt who has always lived off income. Then I started to find that exiting the rat-race is changing me. I have become more opportunistic and flexible. While working not only did recreation have to fit in time-wise with work, but I craved control over things, and to make things happen exactly how and exactly when you want them is costly. I go with the flow more now.

    I take more time to try and think laterally now, can I achieve what I want to do with something I already have? Do I actually really want this – I try and imagine what it would be like to have whatever the item or experience is and look back. More than half the time the answer is no, this is a desire that is being induced by advertising. It’s often something I can do with what I already have. That has two rewards. One is saving money and not consuming more resources, but often the greater reward is in turning over the grey matter and thinking laterally.

    Sadly that’s only rewarding because I have the choice. While I was saving hard and working I felt I had to do more with less, which is enervating and leads to frustration. Choosing to do more with less is rewarding, because there is always the implicit backstop – if I really want to do this and buying something is the answer, then I can do it. My tastes are not so extravagant that I can’t afford them ;) However, if I take the extra time to make sure they are my tastes, I get to save money too, relative to the original projections when I was working.

    An example – I don’t need a better trail camera. I need to fix the one I have and then use my brain to establish what success looks like. Consumerism is rarely the answer

    Let me take an example. A stoat killed some chickens a while back. Now the offer was made to trap it, but I don’t really want to charge around killing my totem animal. I have a high regard for Mustela erminea, and they do a good job in the hedgerows killing mice and rats. Plus we are not very far from sandy heathland, and a gamekeeper advised us that there will be a massive pool of stoats there. I quite like the idea of a massive reserve of stoats…

    To deplete a population of stoats you have to kill at least 2% of the population, monthly 5 I’m just not prepared to be part of that.

    Personal biases aside, one should think carefully before fiddling with a natural balance of predator and prey, after all the stoats are thinning out the rabbits and stoats don’t eat veg but rabbits do. We go and upgrade the chicken wire around the remaining chickens (a stoat can get into a 1.5cm hole or more), kick ourselves for keeping these a bit too close to the hedgerows – stoats don’t like crossing open ground 6. And I am after a picture of the stoat when he tries again, now we have targeted the electric fence to stoat height.

    I have a trail camera. I believe their main use is for Americans to attach to trees so they can get an idea of where deer run in the night so they can go shoot them, because deer are creatures of habit. In the UK we call these nature cams because it’s not so encouraged to go around blowing away critters, and also because UK hunting and shooting traditions tends to be more focused on tracking skills than hardware IMO ;)

    someone who's meant to be there. I don't  totally approve of the method of tackling the gate, which is why it hangs a bit, but I can understand the temptation ;)

    someone who’s meant to be there. I don’t totally approve of the method of tackling the gate, which is why it hangs a bit, but I can understand the temptation ;)

    I use mine as a security camera to look for humans – similar size to a deer. I mainly get cats ;) Fundamentally, however, these things are very hit and miss. The Chinese chunder these things out from Shenzhen in the hundreds of thousands, so you have the usual problem with Chinese electronics – they just don’t last, often for design flaws.

    I get my trailcam out. Battery life had been falling and the clock wouldn’t keep time between the frequent changes of battery, so I opened it up and observed that the Chinese firm had soldered in a watch battery, which was going to last all of about two years. Then corrode and spew gunk all over the circuit board, making it leaky hence the crap battery life and clock problem.

    Built-in obsolescence, Shenzhen-style

    Built-in obsolescence, Shenzhen-style

    I unsoldered this bastard, cleaned the board with alcohol and swapped the battery for the  memory supercapacitor they should have used in the first place. It’s twice the price but lasts for decades, recharged from the camera battery. No future leakage and the clock holds time again. So I go looking for stoat

    Stoat in lower RHS. Some people find it hard to see him so I've highlighted it in red

    Stoat in lower RHS. Some people find it hard to see him so I’ve highlighted it in red

    And find one. This shows what’s wrong with trail cameras – you get the whole soot-and-whitewash effect because it’s basically a point and shoot camera being used at close range. As demonstrated millions of times every day on Instagram and Facebook, an on-camera flash used at close range really sucks because the light falls off very rapidly with the square of the distance. Then of course you’re trying to take a photo in the night – pretty much all products that claim to let you see in the night over-promise and under-deliver. Mammalian night vision is pretty good, so even trying to match it is a big ask. Like all other photography, you can spend loads and loads on tiny camera improvements, whereas what you really want to do is get the light right. If I want to improve the results from a trail camera I should take the money I’d spend on a slightly better one and use it to buy some infrared LEDs and construct myself a slave flash to fill in the shadows.

    Nevertheless, for a few hours I thought to myself

    ‘hey – I know what. This camera is shite, I can rush out and BUY something better’

    Whoa. I now have the time to research, and understand. I’m using something designed to get big animals at a longer range. A stoat is only a foot long. I can’t buy anything better. I could make something better. I could put an IR beam round the chicken house and trigger a camera or use a Raspberry Pi and camera module to do this. Getting a better picture of a stoat needs creativity and activity on my part. It is not just a matter of going out and buying something, despite what the ads tell you.

    The other problem is that I probably don’t need a better picture of the stoat. I need IR video of him, so I can understand his modus operandi, how he thinks. A stoat is a worthy adversary, wily and persistent. However, this camera is telling me something, which is that his visits are becoming less frequent 7. Presumably the improved stoat-worthiness of the chicken pen denies gratification and a hefty zap to the snout from the electric fence offends…

    The right solution is often not buying something. It’s often about doing something different.

    Retirement transforms you. Otherwise you wither and die…

    It is more time that gives me the opportunity to spend less. That’s counterintuitive if you extrapolate from elective spending while working. I spend £x with two days leisure time a week, so obviously it’s going to be more with seven days of leisure time a week. Not so fast…This may well be the case for those who need lots of external stimulation, and perhaps it is the general experience. But it hasn’t been mine.

    Everybody thinks about less money in retirement, and more time doesn’t get so much as a how do you do. More time enables me to work for me. I can think about what I want to achieve, research it, and consider if spending more money will give me enhancement of quality of life. Sometimes it will. I will probably shift up a notch in the quality of wine I drink, because the experience is improved notably as you get away from the low end. I don’t need to go mad and only drink wine that’s more than a tenner, but I want to go upmarket a bit. I probably want to spend about two and a half grand on a Hameg oscilloscope. I still want that drill press. But I didn’t need a new trail camera to know what my stoat is up to. I needed to take time to think better ;)

    For me most of the joy to be had in the world is in being creative, to find my own answers to problems, and poking my nose into interesting corners of the world to make stuff happen. That means where I spend money I want to be spending on tools and not solutions, invest in improving my skills and understanding. It means thinking more and spending less on obvious ready-made solutions. Very often the journey is more interesting than the destination. It means embracing serendipity, it means being actively curious. I can remember a time when this was the default mode…forty years ago ;) It’s far more powerful and involving with adult resources. Keynes was right with Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren, but I needed to buy myself out of wage-slavery first. It’s like somebody has gone into the world and turned up the interestingness level to 11 from about 3. The world didn’t change. But I did…

    One of the amazing things now is that you can get a half-way working knowledge of a lot of the issues on something with a quick search of the Web. The last time I had this much time to be able to recreate was probably at primary school, though first year at university runs a close tie. Compared to then the big change is the ease of finding information wrought by the Web. Yes, an awful lot of it is garbage, but once you’ve told Google you never want to see results from ehow, from springerlink 8 and a few other trash sites then the ease of getting oriented in anything still fills me with wonder.

    This is actually getting even better now – for instance Greg has just reported the Feynman lectures are online. I still have my copy of one of the Feynman lecture books from university – they were fearsomely expensive then, but his engaging writing was worth spending the money even though it was a non-core item on the booklist. There are many online courses available for free at places like coursera. It seems a peculiarly harsh twist of fate that now, just as the cost of really turning up to university is becoming an unaffordable luxury for the young, the people who really need it to get a job, it is becoming almost free for anybody who doesn’t actually need a ticket at the end of it :(

    Some people retire and focus on what they lost – their income, their sense of meaning, their place in the world, and they atrophy. I was perhaps lucky, not only in being introverted, but I was also a wreck when I left. The only way was up. I didn’t anticipate a second childhood with the benefits of adulthood, but I sure as hell am not going to pass up the opportunity to repossess some of the wonder at the workings of the world. To do that well I must be in the world but not of it – as an interface to life consumerism sucks. It makes you focus on the minutiae of product differentiation rather than the big picture – you are taught to care about the difference between Nike and Adidas or Pepsi and  Coca-Cola and all the other things you are meant to care about which don’t amount to a hill of beans once you have Enough. I used to go through too many gadgets because I was too harried to really learn to work with the ones I had.

    I am the adaptable and superior being compared to a consumer product, so why on earth I expected to sort everything out with a new product still makes me shake my head a little bit in retrospect. Raptitude nailed the issues with I don’t Need Stuff any more, only Things. I don’t have his Zen-like decluttering urge, and indeed I do collect some useless junk, because I want to scavenge it for bits and materials. But there’s something to be said for his angle on

    If I take it into my home, I should provide a place where it’s properly, officially away, or I shouldn’t pretend I have any business owning it.

    even if I need a better junk box for the Things I can scavenge to make stuff out of ;)

    It takes time to learn how to use a new consumer item, be it an iPad, a musical instrument or a video camera. It take time to evaluate your requirements against all the things that could meet them. It takes time to get yourself to interesting places that aren’t the ones everybody else is gawking at. And it’s this time that the rat-race robs us of. There are whole industries designed to manufacture novelty that people can chase after en masse – step forward fashion, a lot of what Hollywood makes, Sky Sports, i-anything. An awful lot of it is designed to be disposable, providing the hit of novelty on its way to landfill. I want a lot less of that. It appalls me how badly a lot of things are made – I’ve slowed the increase in landfill from my own consumption by fixing some things – this camera, a CD player, a car battery charger, coffee grinder, a Kenwood chef, but some things are just hopelessly shoddily made and aren’t even worth attempting to repair.

    Britain is far richer that it used to be, so why are we so stressed and unhappiness seems to abound? We are surrounded by stupendous availability of knowledge for free, and opportunities previous generations could only dream of. I suspect it is because the pace of change has been raised, and though in theory we are rich enough to take more time to handle the change well and take advantage of the far wider range of opportunities presented to us by that increased level of change, as a society we didn’t go that way.

    We chose to keep the working hours the same, and take the extra money. Indeed, families with children did even worse – they decided that they would increase the number of hours that the family unit worked outside the home in return for more money.

    The rat-race has got a lot to answer for. We didn’t need to design it the way we have, but globalisation will probably mean it’s stuck where it is.


    1. I don’t mean ‘made’ as in The Man held a gun to my head and said ‘spend your money on shit so you hafta keep working for me’
    2. making more money works for other people – take RIT, ERE or Mr Money Mustache for example
    3. I’m not saying you can have a great time earning just NMW. Because I can’t turn a return on cash I live on it and reinvest ISA income.
    4. Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking, Susan Cain, Penguin 2012 p.3. She’s talking about Americans, the ratio on introversion to extroversion may be higher than 1:2 in other countries, particularly Asian ones (ibid, p.29)
    5. Barlow, N. D., and Mandy Claire Barron. Modelling the dynamics and control of stoats in New Zealand forests. Department of Conservation, 2005. For some reason the people of New Zealand, admirable in many ways, have a really bad attitude to the humble stoat. Let’s face it, Homo sapiens is an introduced species that has caused far more hurt to NZ wildlife than Mustela erminea, they could do with chilling a bit IMO ;)
    6. King, C.M. 1989. The natural history of weasels and stoats. Christopher Helm, London, U.K.   And the personal knowledge of a gamekeeper
    7. S/He seems to have given up now, I haven’t got a picture for the last week now
    8. because Springerlink want to charge you shitloads of money to read academic journals – I’d rather not know it exists, rather than knowing I could buy it for $100, not because the papers are garbage