18 Jul 2014, 3:38pm
reflections simple living
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  • 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

     

     

    Two years in – how’s that early retirement working out

    It’s soon coming up to two years since I checked out of the rat race, a good time to take stock and look at what I’ve learned. This is particularly long. I did think about breaking it over several posts, but what the hell, it is a long story. I’ve collected a few pointers to some things I’ve heard people being interested in over the years as a table of contents

    1. become an opportunist
    2. A lot of early retirement is about reducing living costs
    3. Retirement is a different phase of life. Making it like work without the work is not the only choice you can make
    4. Not having a regular income is scary
    5. what it feels like to live off ‘drawdown’
    6. The extra win a 40% tax payer gets from pension saving is much higher than that for a basic rate taxpayer
    7. Work and all that
    8. The distinction between work and not work is peculiar to the non financially independent
    9. Grow within yourself – or else
    10. The tl;dr summary

    Overview

    First off, I am not using any of my retirement savings – my pension remains deferred along with my linked AVC savings.What I am using now to live off is saved cash, though I also have income from ISA savings but these are reinvested. If I were to draw it now, my pension is notably above my annual running costs.

    Three things contributed to this –

    getting the mortgage monkey off my back

    Paying off my mortgage eliminated much of the static drain of housing from my finances.It was a long job paying down the debt over twenty years. It’s not always a wise thing to do for an early retiree – anybody who is retiring before they can access their pension savings may want to consider keeping their mortgage and saving into pension savings with the aim of paying off their mortgage with the pension commencement lump sum. I didn’t do that because I was reactive and fearful. It’s a mistake that’s fail-safe – I live off less at the moment but will have more later on. It so happens that I was able to save the maximum worth saving into my pension savings and pay down the mortgage, after which I tossed what would have gone into the mortgage into ISA savings because I also saved money by

    shooting the consumerism monkey

    Breaking the cycle of mindless consumerism has helped me no end. Initially I did it because I was desperate to win freedom from The Man and needed to save every pound I could. I’m not going to bullshit, the first six months are hard. I never borrowed to buy consumer crap, but I wasn’t above buying Stuff because I thought it would make me happy. Only after about a year did I come to the awful realisation that

    Stuff very rarely makes me happy

    Now the validity of this varies across one’s life-cycle. When starting out, and you have very little, of course Stuff makes you happy, from you first iPad/kettle/car/bed/chair whatever. It’s later on, particularly in the upgrade cycle where the wheels come off the whole spending money on Stuff thing. People started to realise this, so there are some classes of Stuff that are deliberately engineered to become worthless or hard to use over time – the way Apple manages IOS to depreciate their historic gear is a classic example. Other examples are cloud services. I am using a 10-year old copy of Quicken because it does what I want it to – the rental versions introduced after 2004 have become worthless in the meantime.

    I say very rarely because some Stuff does make me happy. The key to achieving a decent balance with consumerism is to know why you are buying something, and to evaluate its likely impact on your life without the spurious trappings of advertising. One of the simple rules to help with that is to wait 7 days before buying it – the initial sugar rush of ‘this will change my life’ decays over a couple of days, leaving me with a clearer head.

    Mr Money Mustache has an entertaining read on this topic, titled recovering from the Pack Rat years. I came to a very similar conclusion to him independently – all the way down to no longer having a broadcast-TV capable viewing system. The only area I disagree is that I have no smartphone, because a smartphone is an absolutely shit digital camera and equally crap audio recorder 1, and it seems I am more demanding of these functions than usual. However, all my camera and recording gear was bought before 2007 – I am still the limitation there. In the event that my skills and creativity become honed to get better results out of better gear and I can turn that into profit I will consider it.

    savouring the moment

    It took a long time to realise this, and it wasn’t the result of any conscious decision. Perhaps it’s the result of having more time – when I was working I was always chasing after being somewhere else, in space or in time. I don’t know why, maybe it’s the ‘anywhere but here’ of a drone, I spent too much life energy wanting what I didn’t have rather than wanting what I did have. I need time to appreciate what I do have, and maybe it was time I didn’t have before I retired.

    There’s a corollary to this, which is

    become an opportunist as a retiree. It’s cheaper, and more fun

    Many of the costs associated with life are to do with controlling your world. As a wage-slave you must control your world to fit in with the strictures of your job. You have to make sure you are somewhere for specific times. Even if you are a freelancer you have to work a certain amount of the time unless you are financially independent. You have to arrange a lot of things to be just so, you have to take your holidays within so many days, often people have to match their availability with the requirements of other people’s jobs and childcare etc.

    All of this takes optionality out of your life so you need to control your non-work life to fit in, and control costs money. If you have to be at work you have to pay someone to look after your children in the day. You have to pay commuting costs. And so on.

    It takes a long time to realise that there are other ways of living, that are far less structured if you let go of the inner control freak that had to fit in with work. Roll with opportunities.

    A lot of early retirement is about reducing living costs

    As we go through the many decades of a working life, we tend to see some lifestyle creep. We are social animals, we spend money on things that other people do because no man is an island, entire of itself. Others may spend money on things that really matter to them, and often we end up apeing these or hankering after stuff because, well, if it’s valued by others it must be good.

    In the first couple of decades of working this social pressure is stronger – as time goes by there are more differences in the way people live their lives and this pressure is less. In my twenties most of my peers lived similar lives, often flatsharing or in digs. As time went on they paired up, then many had kids. The differences in living styles diverged more, and these divergences add up, reducing the social pressure. I should add that being childfree means I don’t know about child-related social pressure, though I suspect this is high. The way people work themselves up about schools indicates this child-related peer pressure is of a quite stupendous nature!

    The key to early retirement is to look at how you are living and to ask yourself how much of this spending matters to me or people dear to me, how much does it enhance my quality of life? Then stick with that, and start to eliminate the rest, and simplify things. Complexity begets cost and dependencies. And take a wider systems approach to your living – how far you are living from work, how big a house you have.

    For instance I took the shaft from housing early on, so I am in a lower grade of housing than most of my ex-colleagues. There is an indirect upside to that – my house is smaller than theirs, easier to heat, less to decorate and furnish, and less council tax to pay. Year on year on year, and that adds up over time. Some of this shows in the result – I discharged my mortgage in 20 years despite buying at a stupid time, taking a hit on a relationship breakup and buying with an endowment. My ex-colleagues often still had big mortgages on their big houses as they entered their 50s. Obviously I don’t get to spread myself out over such a wide area. Unlike them, housing is not the largest capital ‘asset’ I have.

    A lot of consumer complexity I seem to have avoided by a combination of luck and the fact there were fewer temptations in my formative years. ERE has a nice wiki article on this for people who want to design their lifestyle by intent rather than by happenstance. Like starting to save for retirement, ideally you try and design your life consciously by the end of your twenties, because a lot of big lifestyle costs start to get baked in to your life after that.

    You can reduce living costs further by ignoring differences that don’t really matter to you. MMM has a great rant on Cure Yourself of Tiny details Exaggeration Syndrome which saves me the bother of explaining that. It often staggers me, when talking to people who in theory would like to retire early how much they cling to things like being able to run new cars every three years and regular high-cost things like the fast and furious skiing holidays of the cubicle slave. As for golf – it seems designed to be the nemesis of economy, with high course fees, club fees and equipment costs plus the depredations of the 19th hole.

    Now if they have sat back and asked themselves does this really matter to them and the answer is yes, then of course that’s intentional living and to be saluted. But often if you scratch a little harder it is because they fear the loss of status. The obvious question is who are they living for, because the Joneses don’t really give a shit. But to ask it would be unkind – people can only shift their world-view at a certain speed, and it’s always better if that shift comes from within.

    Retirement is a different phase of life. Making it like work without the work is not the only choice you can make.

    Retirement is a different phase of life. The tradeoffs are dramatically different. If you want your retired life to look exactly like your working life but without the work, then fine, you gotta do what you gotta do, generally working to 65. You will be able to broadly maintain the same spending, provided you have paid down your house. But you owe it to yourself to at least challenge the assumption and examine alternatives. Many people at The Firm have this pathology – they’ve been there so long they struggle to imagine anything other than the same life they have, but without the work. Some indeed fear that subtracting work will subtract meaning from their lives. These types of people should never stop work – because Nature abhors a vacuum. It goes along with the general thread that flexibility and openness to new ways of doing things is important to retiring early successfully.

    Not having a regular income is scary

    Two years ago I went from being a wage-slave with a steady income to being some odd combination of drawdown retiree and investor, I’m not even an honest pensioner because I’m not drawing a pension. I am doing what any early (pre-55) retiree has to do for some of the time. It’s impossible to overstate how different that feels to having a regular income. People who have been self-employed or otherwise handle a variable income will find that transition easier, but I find it scary.

    The problem is that the job of squaring the financial circle is easy to define to a wage-slave. Keep at it, don’t do anything to lose your job without lining up another, and don’t spend more than you earn, with some notable exceptions (housing and education).  Summed up pithily by the distillation of my parents’ wisdom

    Don’t spend more than you earn, son

    The definition is easy, though the implementation isn’t. What you earn in a year is a number, written on your P60, and what you spend is a number too, in my case available from Quicken. Take one from the other, and Wilkins Micawber is your man

    Tools of a typical office-based trade

    checking in the tools of a typical office-based trade

    So the Ermine checks in his computer, phone and staff card and all of a sudden the inflow stops. Now I got a year’s salary as redundancy, so the intuitive answer to ‘how long to go before I have to draw my pension’ is one year, but all of a sudden everything gets more complex.

    For starters I had to toss a significant part of the redundancy into my pension AVCs to avoid paying tax on it. I also want to fill an ISA’s worth every year, so doing that for a couple of years means all of a sudden I am left with less than the minimum full-time wage for a couple of years. And at the moment I don’t use any of the income on my savings; the reason for that is that at the moment I cannot turn a useful return on cash savings so it makes sense to run my cash reserves down and reinvest the dividends from the ISA.

    Many aspects of finances are easier for a wage slave, with their steady flow of income. For instance I have to hold much higher cash reserves against the unexpected – fortunately this is held with NS&I so at least it doesn’t particularly depreciate over time. If you have a regular income you don’t need to do that, so simply need enough slack in the system to be able to cut back if something untoward happens like the roof leaking. You simply cut down your partying until you’ve paid the unexpected bills down. I have to hold the cash to address these hits up front.

    But the hardest part of having no annual income is that it’s hard to qualify what a sustainable annual spend would be. If  you ask Wilkins Micawber he’ll shoot back

    expenditure > income, result misery, wrong way, do not enter, turn back now, don’t go there bud

    I don’t have any of my retirement capital available to me, as I am deferring my pension to raise its annual value once paid. So my AVC savings are also quarantined by that. In one limiting case I am okay now – if I drew my pension now my spending is lower than the net amount, and that also excludes any value from my AVCs or existing share portfolio. The job of bridging this gap has also been made harder by some of the opportunities that the Chancellor has made – the greater flexibility of taking a DC pension pretty much mandates saving about a personal allowance-worth of DC pension because HMRC toss a fifth of it in the pot and the new increased ISA allowance needs filling up.

    Fortunately I have a shedload of The Firm’s shares purchased under Sharesave and Share Incentive Programme, all unwrapped. These can get sold over time and the proceeds bulk up the ISA. Once I get hold of the pension the I will have the AVC funds to shove into ISA savings over a few years. In the long run my ISA savings will be about half the capital value behind my pension which is RPI linked to a point. The ISAs  job is to fight inflation in the medium to long term.

    what it feels like to live off ‘drawdown’

    So I’m easy with the long term strategy. But obviously, I am running down the cash at the moment. And that’s not a good feeling. I fought against the depreciation of my net worth intially after I retired, before coming to the conclusion that wasn’t possible. At the moment it turns out that it was possible – this is a zero based networth chart, excluding the value of my house and any pension associated savings.

    Ermine instantaneous networth excl house and pension

    Ermine instantaneous networth excl house and pension

    It looks okay, but I’d also have to deflate this by inflation, two years of inflation roughly knocks 10% off the real value. I don’t have an excel version of this so I used the shear function in Photoshop to drop the right hand side by about 10% 2.

    inflation-adjusted version

    inflation-adjusted version – the original baseline is shown by the dates

    What is, however, happening is that the balance is shifting from cash to equities, which looks in Quicken like a madcap 20-something’s asset allocation. Although the equity allocation is getting on for three-quarters equities, this also explains the strange image of networth increasing while drawing down some of the capital. I need to remember the good men in white coats (hat tip to Monevator) who rock up just in the nick of time with their ‘this too will pass’ ring and remind me that this is illusory.

    Observe the increase, and increasing volatility with time. That, my friend, is what the stock market does to you. In exchange for a little bit of real return, it gives you a hellaciously rough ride with a massive noise signal to bamboozle any attempt at rational thought. Remember there isn’t any income in here 3, there is some spending, and the equity ratio is increasing. And stock markets have been on a tear for the last few years, only last year people were asking ‘I don’t know what the ‘king hell we’re doing up here mate‘. Twice

    Three-quarters of my current asset allocation is in equities, and in a bad year, equities can fall by 50%. In a different world it could look like this

    the retired in 2007-ish version

    the retired in 2007-ish version. Okay, falls happen more sharply than rises so it isn’t that realistic. There’s only so much you can do with Photoshop ;)

    This sort of roller-coaster ride is what awaits anyone with a DC pension who does not annuitise any part of their capital on retirement or shift to some safer asset class. In particular, the good people who the Pensions Minister exhorted to enter drawdown rather than go buy a Lamborghini are going to be facing this. Yes, they don’t end up getting a fixed crap income of 5% of their capital, non RPI linked. But they have to accept that bronco ride. And every time an IFA asks Joe Public about his risk profile the answer comes back that he hates risk. I am in the stratospheric nutcase end of the risk tolerance (because my risk tolerance is balanced by the bond-like nature of a final salary pension)

    An Ermine's risk profile

    An Ermine’s risk profile

    And I don’t like it. Am I drawing down at a sustainable rate? The 4% SWR is an article of faith, and that faith is easy to come by at the moment, as the good doc said. It was probably harder to find in 2009. If it mattered greatly, I’d have to ‘fess up that I have no idea to that sustainable question. However, since I have a pension that is greater than my rate of spend waiting, plus an AVC fund that is in cash and larger than my ISA I will probably get away with it.

    The takeaway is that living off a large equity based capital allocation feels like a very rough ride indeed, and let’s face it, I’ve only have the upside of that ride. For someone who has drawn a steady salary for 30 years, that is not a peaceful feeling. I have other options, and perhaps I am more fearful than others, but it would totally creep me out to rely on that 4. I don’t know what the answer to that is, but I am happy to say I don’t need to find out, because I will get some of that steady income back.

    I am probably underspending

    It’s not a common observation in the PF universe, but I am probably running below my financial capacity. I had expected to reach the zero cash line between a year and a year and a half out (that would have been end of 2013), and to be drawing my pension already or imminently. I am six months into extra time. The reason for the underspending is because I extrapolated from spending at work, and it was also cluttered a little bit by spending on establishing a business.

    Now if you’re going to err in retirement, err on the underspending side. However, da yoof is not totally wrong with YOLO and at some stage I need to review this. Even after two years, I am still in the recovery phase from a pretty rough experience of the last couple of years of work. So this spending pattern fits my needs at the moment.

    The extra win a 40% tax payer gets from pension saving is counterintuitively high, compared with the BRT win.

    We all know the pack drill. When you save £100, you put it somewhere and you can’t spend that £100. Easy – that’s pretty much how your ISA works, and almost all non-pension saving. The deal with pensions and taxation is different – you save some amount x and you don’t earn £100 net. The net effect is the same – you have £100 a month less to spend on beer/chocolate/paying off your mortgage.

    It’s very counterintuitive, but forego £100 of net income and you get to save £166 in a pension. That’s because the £100 has been taxed at 40%, ie your net £100 is 60% of the gross amount, so the taxman gives you back 40/60 ie 2/3 of the amount you have foregone. Everybody thinks oh it’s only 40%, but in truth of the amount you can forego it is 66% – for every £100 net you don’t earn, you save £166 in your pension, a 66% bump up compared to if you earn it and bung it in an ISA.

    Compare that with the basic rate taxpayer – they forego £100 and it’s made up to £125. Okay, it’s still a 25% boost but it’s nowhere near the boost the HR taxpayer gets. It was a little bit better at The Firm because they used salary sacrifice, so the BRT payer gets 32% (20% tax and 12% NI) so for every £100 he doesn’t earn he gets £47 added, which is nearly twice as much.

    I hit this hard, and I started investing in a Global:FTSE100 50:50 fund from March 2009 on, so I got a 20% uplift in my AVCs from the stock market and the depreciation of the pound. But even so, I look back at my AVC savings and wonder how the bloody hell did I manage to save a year and a half gross salary in pension AVCs in three years. And fill my ISA each year and save a third of a year’s gross from net savings into NS&I ILSCs. I still don’t really understand it, but that tax relief did a lot of the heavy lifting, and the stock market played its part too, in that lift from March 2009.

    This is why old gits at the end of their working lives can karate-chop the much vaunted magic of compound interest and bust its ass. They’re more likely to be higher rate taxpayers, they have more chance of having paid down their mortgage and they are a hell of a lot closer to getting the win so they are much more motivated because of the effect of hyperbolic discounting – loads of wedge in five years is a damn sight more interesting than loads of wedge in four decades. I saved a quarter of the total value of my work pension in the last three years, which is roughly an eighth of my time there.

    Work

    I retired early because I was stressed and became increasingly out of sync with the way work was being run. I am still recovering from that. It is only recently that I can reliably hear what is good in music, and there’s still a while to go before I will have recovered this to what I once had. In a myriad of small ways I am still reminded that I pushed my luck flying into the storm for three years, and indeed to carry on after I had been off sick. To a large extent the emotional centre shut down, and what was left was fearful; I retained most analytical capacity. Emotion gets a lot of flack in the PF world, and people draft long lists of ways it leads us astray. And yet it relates us to others of our kind, it gives us the hope to carry on against adversity.

    Emotion is the chief source of all becoming-conscious. There can be no transforming of darkness into light and of apathy into movement without emotion.

    Carl Jung Psychological Aspects of the Mother Archetype (1938)

    The old boy had a point, try living with that function shattered – you attempt to strike lights and they sputter and flare out, never overcoming the steely greyness of undifferentiated days. The analytical capacity did refine my investing behaviour and this was easier with a spanner jammed into the works of some of the biases. But it’s no fun, because I would see how to do things but not why. Motivating yourself when you know how but not why is sheer effort of will, not inspiration.

     

    It’s also interesting that ERE observed

    On an anecdotal note, I vastly prefer less stress to the low level stress that is present in most modern life. The stress I feel now is the “original” stress of a boat about to crash. Not the continuous stress of not being able to meet deadline after deadline.

    Because the world of work changed slowly, I did not realise the low-level stress increasing at work with the gamification of the workplace. That sort of continuous stress is bad because the response of increased heart rate and adrenaline has nowhere to go, it doesn’t help. Whereas when some stupid twat got pissed up at lunchtime last year and came round a corner fishtailing on my side of the road then yes, that is stressful when you see a dark Jag incoming at 12 o’clock. But it did some good, because it did the time-dilation thing and I was able to see what was happening, brake and pull way into the side, turning a head-on crash into a glancing blow. That is one of the correct uses of stress, because it did some good in improving clarity of thought and reactions for a short while where it matters.

    ERE is much younger and fitter than I am, so if he noticed that it took a while to adapt  then it isn’t surprising that the results of the work stress is still washing out of my system. I crossed the finish line exhausted and no reserve capacity. I didn’t expect to be still recovering two years on and to still have significantly impaired capabilities but it is better to roll with it than fight it. It’s also a warning call for all those ‘one more year to comfort‘ merchants. You will almost always be financially better off working for another year. But you may be running out of other resources that occasionally matter more. And everybody is running out of time, 24 hours in every day.

    The two years since retiring has given me some space to see where the working world and I drifted apart. The obvious reason is a combination of the 2008/9 financial crisis and changes in the way The Firm was being run. The obvious reason is not always the whole reason.

    I’ve avoided the vexatious issue of making money myself, largely because I don’t want to enter the world of wage-slavery and I have no desire to fill in an income tax return for lousy itty-bitty amounts. However I haven’t avoided directed action of the sort that sometimes goes under the title of work, I’ve taken these to add value to other people’s projects. And I look at them, and I realise that there was one big thing that I missed where I was diverging from the world of work at The Firm.

    I am a generalist, and worse than that the sort that Firestarter identifies as both Renaissance Man and dilettante :) This runs terribly against the way work is going, which is specialising, knowing more and more about less and less. This applies particularly to IT, which was the way The Firm was going.

    As they drove their way down the value chain they became much more prescriptive in structures and methodology. As a research facility it was a very wide-ranging operation for much of my career but as this was moved to become an outsourcing jobbing shop it narrowed. Specialisation is an aspect of the IT contract world too, it would be unfair to blame The Firm purely for this. For illustration, as a generalist since retiring I have programmed in assembler, JAL, Python, Perl, PHP, C and VB. I code in whatever suits the application and the platform. Raspberry Pi? That’ll be Python then. Arduino – C, Pic microcontrollers? MPASM or JAL. The Firm was trying to make everybody code in Java, and only Java. I am dilettante in seven languages and not master of one ;) In my last project for the London 2012 project I also didn’t focus in IT – CATV was from legacy electronics and system design. Indeed, at work the one thing I didn’t do much of was Java, that policy was instigated just before I got onto the 2012 Olympics project…

    When I retired I had thought that if I were to sell time or skills for money it would be in the field of engineering. But it isn’t likely, because I am running against the tide with that generalisation.

    After leaving work I built wooden shelters and fixed tractors, I’ve designed an irrigation system (the design part is being able to operate through winter, it’s not just going down to B&Q and buying up a load of hozelock connectors). I’ve produced and edited video. I have electronics design facilities, but this is at a fairly modest level. I have produced some IoT environmental sensors and the like. But only as part of a system design to do something else. This may point the way in future - don’t do stuff, do capabilities and services. I’m not going to be hidebound about it – a lot of the problem with Stuff is regulation; small fry can get away with a lot and if you get bigger you can afford the overhead. No small business became a big one by following all the rules…

    Where I’ve actually made money, is photography and sound recording.  I’ve managed to work a little bit harder than my ISA, though these guys will pay me in dollars so I have to wait until the exchange rate is better. Unfortunately this is impaired because the stress nearly wiped out any creativity I had.

    But without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth (Carl Jung, the psychology of individuation)

    I actually see some of the recovery in the improved popularity and profitability of the photos I take…

    The fact that I can tell the agency to pay me when I’m good and ready means I am safe from the Internet Retirement Police – I haven’t done that for the money and it forms no part of my financial planning. But even as a cold-turkey retiree I haven’t totally avoided the four-letter w word. But I didn’t seek it out, indeed the problem I have with work is the whole bad power play of it. Perhaps I will have to reconsider this and view that I have achieved manumission through financial independence as opposed to retiring. It’s not really catchy though, is it?

    The thing that runs through these things is that there isn’t any single thread running through them, and if there is something running through them then it was only incidentally engineering, indeed much of it wasn’t even left-brain stuff.

    Google will save serious office space when they get to this stage

    Google will save serious office space when they get to this stage, though they’ll need to improve connectivity

    I am probably unemployable now because of this hopeless sprawling generalisation, it’s just not what the modern workplace wants. The reason for this is the concentration of power to capital and the improved communications. Companies can concentrate the work to hyper-specialists, the distribute the results to the proletariat virtually cost-free. Look at the setup at Google. These will eventually become brains in a jar with multiple redundant high capacity optical fibre data connections. You ain’t seen nothin’ yet with Google Glass. Google employees can’t cook for themselves or do their own washing, which is why Mama Google sees to it to fix their household requirements. Free food, free laundry, free haircuts. free cars. If you want to see where white collar work is going, look at the leading edge – it’ll be most places in 10-20 years. Hyper specialisation has a dark side. I am nowhere near bright enough to work for Google. Nor are many of my fellow Britons. Specialisation is where it’s at, but it will need fewer and fewer people and require more and more of those it does need.

    Generalists work well in a small scale – there are often opportunities to use knowledge across unrelated fields in small-company operations. They are more flexible, there isn’t a structure of existing practice to adapt, and they can get away with short-term fixes for temporary requirements as long as they trust their generalists of they have seen enough track record. But I have no desire to work full-time as a general fixer. The 21st century technical workplace is no place for a generalist Ermine, because of this culture shift towards specialisation and narrow but deep skillsets. But then that’s the whole point of becoming financially independent. I don’t have to give a damn.

    The distinction between work and not work is peculiar to the financially dependent

    because you’re financially dependent (usually on a job). So you have to do what The Man tells you, and that division is clear-cut and non-negotiable. Contractors and the self-employed soften this distinction a bit. It seems to easily end up with work taking over their life, however, because work is still not elective, it is when they work that is more elective than someone working for The Man. Not that they work.

    Philip Greenspun posted an interesting article on early retirement way back in 2006. I used to read his site as photo.net just before the the turn of the Millennium, the empty dreams of a cubicle slave dreaming of making shitloads of money on the stock market from the dotcom boom and then making pin money shooting picture and travelling, those heady days when Momentum was King.  And that’s when I really enjoyed work. Anyway, I came across his article, and the comments as he was seeking feedback on the article. Although I’m normally of the opinion comparisons are vexatious, part of the insight from the article does come from the differences and the similarities between two different journeys.

    I’m nowhere near as rich as Greenspun and I earned less. There’s at least one order of magnitude in it, probably two, possibly more. This is not something that particularly bothers me, I don’t have the desire for flying. However, I can see it gives you more options in the US, where distances are much greater and people disperse over a wider area; Greenspuns college pals are more important to him (Even for couples/people with kids they get a little more important to people after most have gone through the baby/children tunnel of 30s to early 50s)

    He is/was single and is about 10 years younger than me. He had to take special measures to address the social life issues that I just don’t have – he’s clearly given it some thought and does it well. He’s more outgoing that I am. In particular his angle on that being single has a very strong effect on where you choose to retire to have a decent chance of stimulating human interaction is quite an eye-opener. I didn’t appreciate there was this difference, but what he says makes sense. A single early retiree (~40) probably does need more money than someone who has a partner. However, since the single fellow probably doesn’t have kids he probably does have more money, so there’s some auto-compensation.

    Time management (pinched directly from Greenspun)

    How much work does the average college student get done? Almost none. Yet the same person, injected into a corporate bureaucracy, becomes a reasonably effective worker. Why? Most people have terrible time management skills. This limitation is of no consequence in public school. The school tells you where to sit and what to do and when, at least for six hours per day. This limitation is of no consequence at most jobs. The employer tells the workers where to sit and what to do and when, at least for eight hours per day.

    If you’re retired, however, nobody tells you how to organize your life. If you have goals that you’d like to accomplish and your time management skills are poor, you might end up disappointed in yourself.

    Now an ermine isn’t an enormous fan of the self-help industry, though I’m happy to accept it helps a lot of people and occasionally indulge. There’s a very heavy thread of self-discipline and virtual Calvinism in the personal-finance world, but it is nothing to the apotheosis achieved by some of the American writers – Steve Pavlina is over 1000 times more effective than I could ever be, and it’s not like I disagree with the efficacy of what he says. But to me seems me as a joyless way of living – life needs dynamic contrast and empty spaces for reflection and understanding. I didn’t stop work to reproduce the problem again in a different place. Each to their own.

    However, Greenspun has a point. I found it helpful to take the time out in the morning to centre and actually write down what I wanted to achieve that day. The idea is roughly pinched from a book The Artist’s Way at Work, which I bought way back as a cubicle slave looking for a way out. It didn’t work for me, I produced trash because I was trying to make money which shuts down the playful creative side. Presumably people who work in the creative arts don’t have this problem, or the fact they start off with a damn sight more talent makes up for it. It was in the box of to get rid of books until I read How to get Unstuck, and figured I should reread it from a point other than desperation.

    That rough orientation is generally enough for me. though I have used the basic tools of project management for longer projects, such as the open source Gantt Project, and of course Excel has its place in the finance area. It’s not mandatory to leave all the useful tools untouched when you stop work.

    Work, cold turkey, rentierism, aristocracy and the Ermine

    I went cold turkey, or so I thought, because the word work became associated with a traumatic experience. This made the transition easier. And unwittingly, I overlooked some of the positive aspects of making stuff happen in the world for pecuniary reward, because it was associated with having to suck up to stupid crap. The two aren’t inherently linked, provided you don’t need the money. The money has some value – it is an estimation and recognition of exchanged worth.

    And I’m left with a load of inconsistencies and conflicting attitudes because I have simply buried this subject and left it, so it is still linked with outdated psychological forms. To live intentionally I need to dig this out, untangle the knots and live my values.

    The trouble is I have spent 30 years being motivated to work for money because Bad Shit would happen if I didn’t. That’s a terrible way to motivate anybody – it’s the Bad Shit that puts the slave into cubicle slave 5.

    for a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone

    Thoreau, Walden, delivering a message for the 1% that they will not hear

    And now, curiously, I have the edge on a significant part of the 1% – who all earn far more than I did. But they spend more, whereas I am within spitting distance of becoming a rentier. Much of the secret, as Thoreau observed above, is to reduce spending. If that works for you, of course!

    So the whole reason I worked for money has gone. The empty space still speaks – I cannot relate to some of the ways the retired ‘work’. I don’t volunteer. I don’t understand it, and at some level I find the concept demeaning, of working for nothing . Maybe I am just a bad person, maybe I will chill on that in time, though I doubt it. There’s still the echo of work being a four-letter word, and ending up in a situation where other people tell me what to do still reminds me of that fateful February day in 2009 in a one to one where I realised that the Ermine was out of luck, out of time and out of options but needed to suck it up for long enough to buy freedom.  I have added value to other people’s projects without being paid, because of this

    Still, it’s hard to suddenly turn off an educated brain.

    Gail Buckner, Fox Business

    What I really want to avoid is an ongoing commitment. It’s far more satisfying to start in the morning, get some tools together and wrangle something into a more useful form and then get out.

    irrigation system under construction

    irrigation system under construction

    That favours Stuff and kind of runs counter to the Don’t. Do. Stuff  argument, but most of the objections are lifted when other people have the problem of buying the Stuff and storing it, and all I have to do is show up sometime and turn it into a working system.

    So there are loads of inconsistencies and conundrums in my approach to work. None of them are urgent, though resolving and drawing the sting from the psychological hangups is probably worth the investment of time. I want to live intentionally, and not shadowboxing the psychic wreckage of past injuries is part of that goal.

    Grow – or begin to die within

    You have more opportunity for self-development and individuation when you own your time, but you have to engage and work at it. Many people really hate that – they feel they are adults and have it all sorted, that was the whole point of the first 20 or 30 years of their life. Individuation involves being more reflective, writing about what you feel or even things like the Artist’s way journaling. There’s often not enough time to fit that sort of thing into a busy working life, so it easily gets put on hold. It takes time to unstick that.

    Your vision will become clear only when you look into your heart … Who looks outside, dreams. Who looks inside, awakens.

    Carl Jung

    I’d really like to say I had done well there, but progress is slower than I had expected. I have started, and of course the process of individuation does not have an explicit end target. Journey, not a destination etc. There’s no point in wasting too much time trying to describe this because it’s very different for different people. Just remember that

    the day you stop growing is the day you start to die.

    William S Burroughs, Junky

    Observation shows that one of the big ways people go wrong when they retire is they stop growing, because most of their challenge was at work. Too much TV and too little curiosity kills the cat…

    Luck plays a big part in the story

    More than I had realised, and while it’s easy to point at the things that went wrong far more went right. I had rotten luck in two big areas at the beginning and at the end of my career – I bought a house at a terrible time, and I lost the last eight years of earnings by retiring early. I’ve had good luck in other areas – joining a final salary pension and getting nearly 24 years out of the design 30 in it is a large stroke of luck as is never losing a job since getting my first one 6. And if I was going to bail out 8 years early, then being a higher-rate taxpayer and recognising the open goal of the stock market next to me and taking the opportunity was another piece of luck – if I started now my ISA and my AVC savings would both be a lot lower after five years, assuming we aren’t about to enter the mother of all bull markets ;)

    The tl;dr version

    Looking back after two years I have spent about half of what I expected, and largely got away with retiring early. I am still not drawing on my retirement savings. I have a decent measure of what running costs are in retirement, I am probably underspending and have space to adjust upwards. Cutting costs helps greatly – it helped me save more when working and reduces the drawdown when retired.

    I have learned that being a generalist is also very bad for the way work is going, particularly in big firms. And the recovery from getting knocked out of the workplace by stress has progressed but by no means finished – even after two years.

    Retiring early is good  -I can allow the generalised interests that were becoming toxic in the workplace free rein, and they help me live cheaper than would otherwise be the case because of the various reasons skecthed out by ERE

    Flexibility and openness to new ways of doing things seems key to retiring early successfully.

    Notes:

    1. a smartphone has no optical zoom, and is preset for a good first-person shot of a human-sized object about 2-5m away. Which is what most people want and makes great Facebook posts. Audio recording seems to be stuck in mono and doesn’t take external microphones. Again, great for facebook video. To make a smartphone into a good camera or audio recorder, you end up with a great big smartphone which is stupid as a smartphone
    2. which is obviously a linear interpolation of an exponential function, but it’s okay with such a short period and relatively modest inflation
    3. this isn’t strictly true, as the HYP ISA pays a shade under 5% dividend and there is some unknown amount of capital appreciation too. But I don’t spend this
    4. This is a peculiarity of the short timescale of my DC savings of less than a business cycle. If my savings were the result of a typical DC pension this concern would be softened because I would have entered the market over many decades, the 4-5% SWR would have greater validity because I would have a better idea of what the true value of my savings really was after saving across many business cycles
    5. I use the Americanism cubicle slave because it is common shorthand in the personal finance world. However, the enslavement is just as much for anyone who has to sell their time or skills for money to keep Bad Shit from happening in their life – whether they’re a office worker, a CEO, a coal miner or a Big Issue seller
    6. there is a year’s hole when I took time out to do an MSc but I was sharp and did that in an economic boom so it was easy to get a job afterwards
    12 Jul 2013, 12:51pm
    personal finance reflections simple living
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  • You really don’t need as much money post-retirement as you did while working

    Three years ago, almost to the dot, I wrote a post called Post Retirement Needs & Wants are Hard to Envision in Debt Slavery  I’ve come across this again a few times since then, and it seems that though I found it hard, it was a damn sight easier for me than many people. So I thought I’d revisit the theme, with about a years worth of hindsight.

    1307_think_outside_the_box1

    Artist: Rene Schute

    Most people, particularly those who have been working for a while and got set into a certain lifestyle spending, lose the ability to think outside the box. yeah, I know it’s a terrible piece of management-speak that I heard all too often at work, but it seems uniquely apposite here. I can’t believe the number of times I’ve heard variations on the theme.

    how on earth do you have a life on that little?

    A lot of successful people seem to gain their sense of self-worth from the number on their P60 corresponding to their salary, and there’s a knock-on effect that means their sense of self-worth ends up connecting to their spending. They feel that life isn’t being lived to the full if they aren’t spending a similar amount in retirement as they were spending at work.

    Now there’s nothing fundamentally wrong in identifying yourself with your spending, provided you can afford it, and most of these successful people can afford it. Many people become successful precisely because they identify themselves with their salary, I know I switched jobs a few times early on because I thought I was worth more than what I was getting, and stopped when I figured I had reached Enough. Identifying yourself with your spending, however, has a cost. It makes retirement in general, and early retirement in particular, scary.

    That’s because you lose a bit of your sense of self-worth if you retire, since in most cases the maths dictate your retirement income is lower than working income 1. Early retirement in particular, is all about reducing your spending. It isn’t about earning more, because earning more is generally associated with lifestyle inflation, if only to compensate for the extra stress that usually goes with it. If you get your self worth from some of your spending, then reducing that is going to make you feel like shit and generally give you the willies. There are three things you can do about this

    1. Accept this is the way you are, these are the values you choose to live by, enjoy the spending and retire later!
    2. Examine your priorities, and ask yourself if your spending is really that important to you or if working is costing you more in loss of quality of life than the increased spending is improving your quality of life.
    3. Refuse to look at the situation and conclude that people who reduce their spending are living a miserable life of slumdogs

    1 amd 2 are both valid and reasonable courses of action. While 3 may make you feel better, if you haven’t asked yourself the question and honestly considered the alternatives, well, you haven’t really got your head out of that box, have you? It’s not like you are committing yourself to course 1 or 2, but at least if you go for 1 then you know that you are living your values, that there are other options but on balance you know you prefer to work longer and spend more.

    One of the problems is the classic one associated with all change. It is easy to see what you will lose with a change, but not so easy to see, and impossible to live, what you will gain with the change. The vast majority of the benefits of retiring I found were not to do with money. They were to do with the extra time I have, the vastly increased sense of self-determination, and the elimination of stupid rules and hoops to jump through.

    Many people think they will dive into a frenzy of DIY which will save them a load of money, and good for them. I did repair a tractor starter motor and a few things. But I can’t be arsed with many DIY tasks – I still have a flat roof fund against the time when that will need redoing, I paid a chimney sweep rather than do this myself though it’s perfectly in my capability, and I still haven’t really convinced myself I want to paint the house. All of these are still choices and the balance may change in time. There are some things I will do if it’s too hard to find competent workmen or the labour cost would make it prohibitive but I haven’t run into too many of those yet.

    My spending dropped because far too much of it was compensating for the stress and ennui of not being a free-range human being. And here’s a secret I can share with you – all the money in the world can’t compensate you for the deep loss of personal freedom that working for a living imposes upon you. Each one of us has 24 hours allocated to us every day, and about 8 of those we have to sleep. Of the remaining 16 half of them are sold to work. It’s a necessary evil, but over the course of three decades it is easy to end up with the words of Tyler Durden being all too true

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

    Now there’s no getting away from the fact that the transition from working to retired is a change, and a challenge to boot.

    It made me nervous. More so in my case than most, I should imagine, I went from having a decent income to sweet FA, because I am not drawing my pension. Why not? Because I saved a shedload of money as cash, I had a year’s worth of salary under the tax-free threshold as cash and even after filling up 2012’s ISA I still had a load of cash left over.

    And you can’t turn a profit on cash these days. So the best I could do with this cash is to live off it and defer my pension. Because the trustees in charge of my pension expect me to die 20 years after I turn 60, each year I defer my pension it gets bigger by 5%, though since I am running into tax that actually only increases by 4%. It would be mad to take that income now because where the hell else am I going to turn a 4% in real terms return on investment on cash after tax? What am I going to do with it, there’s no point in drawing it and saving it, or even investing it, because I am not such a smart investor that I can say I have a good chance of doing better than 4% real.

    However, I have the ghost of Micawber on my shoulder, yelling out

    You are spending more than you earn Wrong Way, Stop, TURN BACK NOW

    He’s right in a narrow way and wrong in a big picture way. At the point of transition this gave me grief, I had just come out of three years of saving to get out, and wasn’t in the greatest place mentally.  I tried to maintain my net worth, becoming virtually catatonic for a short while after leaving. No, that isn’t living life to the full, but the time was productively used, it’s called convalescence, and that sort of thing takes just as much time as it’s gonna take ;) Life is a dynamic balance – as so well summarised in Ecclesiastes on “a time for all things

    However, looking back I went on holiday three times in the last year. So why is it that I needed less money after retiring? Was it as simple as Jacob ERE highlighted in his direct way – that for most people, the idea of living life to the full consists of

    In general, if you ask the average consumer what enjoying life is all about, it distills to the following trifecta: buying tickets, going to restaurants, and shopping.

    That’s it. Those three things are all there is to enjoying life. The uninformed opinion is that if you don’t have these these three things in your life, your life sucks. I know, because that’s what I used to think. And it’s also what consumers keep bringing up

    Why is this so? Jacob linked to this post on Raptitude which makes an attempt to nail down why, where the author looked at what changed when he went back to work

    We buy stuff to cheer ourselves up, to keep up with the Joneses, to fulfill our childhood vision of what our adulthood would be like, to broadcast our status to the world, and for a lot of other psychological reasons that have very little to do with how useful the product really is. How much stuff is in your basement or garage that you haven’t used in the past year?

    The ultimate tool for corporations to sustain a culture of this sort is to develop the 40-hour workweek as the normal lifestyle. Under these working conditions people have to build a life in the evenings and on weekends. This arrangement makes us naturally more inclined to spend heavily on entertainment and conveniences because our free time is so scarce.

    I’ve only been back at work for a few days, but already I’m noticing that the more wholesome activities are quickly dropping out of my life: walking, exercising, reading, meditating, and extra writing.

    The one conspicuous similarity between these activities is that they cost little or no money, but they take time.

    Suddenly I have a lot more money and a lot less time

    I failed dismally to call this out in my post on post-retirement needs and wants, because I wrote it while still at work. I missed Raptitudes’ insight because I hadn’t lived it, but now I have lived it he’s spot on. He goes on to say

    Can you imagine what would happen if all of America stopped buying so much unnecessary fluff that doesn’t add a lot of lasting value to our lives?

    The economy would collapse and never recover.

    All of America’s well-publicized problems, including obesity, depression, pollution and corruption are what it costs to create and sustain a trillion-dollar economy. For the economy to be “healthy”, America has to remain unhealthy. Healthy, happy people don’t feel like they need much they don’t already have, and that means they don’t buy a lot of junk, don’t need to be entertained as much, and they don’t end up watching a lot of commercials.

    I recommend his post to those who say that reducing spending means not living life to the full. To wit –

    Big companies didn’t make their millions by earnestly promoting the virtues of their products, they made it by creating a culture of hundreds of millions of people that buy way more than they need and try to chase away dissatisfaction with money.

    Now if that’s really what you want to do with your three-score-years-and-ten then have at it, but do take the time out to ask yourself whether that really is what living life to the full means to you ;)

    Me, I’m going to post this and then wander out in the neighbourhood and look at the bees skimming the clover and the flowers growing and the birds singing. It’s part of my investment in health insurance after MMM punched me in the face with his 23 1/2 hours article.

    That’s why I need less money than I anticipated. It’s that I have more time. And no, it’s not as simplistic as time=money so I can do for myself what I’d pay others to do. That sounds smart but it’s bollocks. More time has an existential value in and of itself. It enables me to live better, so I don’t have to chase away dissatisfaction with money.

    Notes:

    1. a typical expected retirement is about as long as your working life, so unless you are saving nearly half your pretax salary you will retire on less than your working pay. Compound interest isn’t enough to do most of the heavy lifting here
    7 Jun 2013, 8:55pm
    fixing things rant:
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  • Maplin Electronics – if it’s under £100 and lasts a year that’s as much as you can expect

    Way back in March 2012 Maplin sold me this 7″ TV from Maplin. My main application was lining up security cameras, but I also thought it would be useful for checking the weather forecast when in our campervan. As it was I didn’t realise there is no useful Teletext replacement on digital TV. A smartphone and the weather page on the BBC website is far more practical, unless you’re in parts of Scotland. And then you probably don’t get DTT service either.

    Today I wanted to rig a camera looking at the massive Barn Owl box kindly provided by Suffolk Wildlife Trust at the Oak Tree farm because a barn owl is a frequent visitor, occasionally to be seen at the box and there’s loads of bird crap underneath it, and some owl pellets, or so I am told by people who know about this sort of thing. I get to see this, rather than a blue screen I’d expect with no signal

    Maplin customer service is crap

    One dead Maplin TV that they refuse to replace

    So I take advantage of the glorious sunshine and take a wander through a couple of recs and the park, to it back to the store

    And they refused to replace it or refund. It was the usual runaround, sorry sir, yes, I agree it’s a bit short for the TV to fail but company policy is yadda yadda. They suggested I contacted Maplin Customer Services, where I talked to Kirsty who repeated the story. I educated her as to the Sale of Goods and that this TV was not of suitable quality as consumer durables should last longer that a year and a bit and she more or less said “f*ck you, so sue us” I wish I had a recording, but since I used Maplin’s phone to avoid paying some usurous 0844 charge I couldn’t do that. Next time I will take one of those sucker pickup coils and a recorder.

    I really try and avoid using the phone with big firms. If I have to deal with them then writing a letter is usually quicker and cheaper, plus it wastes less of my time. But if I do have to use the phone then I always record the call as a matter of policy.

    This reminds me that there are added advantages to not buying consumer crap. Not only do you not spend money. You also don’t get the sort of deliberate frustration that companies like Maplin set up to reduce their costs by avoiding their legal obligation to supply goods of suitable quality.

    I remember Maplin from a time when it wasn’t a purveyor of cheap Chinese crap but actually a supplier of useful components. They took a business decision somewhere in the 1990s to get out of the electronics hobbyist market and into the gadget end, and increased their prices to about one and a half times what they should be. And became a damn sight more successful ;)

    Now I can’t really get too excited about the £70, but I sure as hell don’t like being taken the piss of. So I got onto MSE and looked at what I should have done and exactly how to put the letter which will be the next step. I suspect that Maplin take the Ryanair policy of customer service. They spend the money on training their staff to runaround complainants enough  that they give up, and in the end there’s only so much effort I’m going to put into this.

    But it’s a little bit more than rolling over. I’ve taken MSE’s template letter, though I’m not going to threaten legal action fo a £70 TV, otherwise I think the people in Maplin’s complaints centre would be justified in having a titter.

    The official Maplin policy seems to be –

    If it’s under £100 and it lasts more than a year, that’s it, sunshine. It doesn’t owe you anything

    Not only does this sort of shoddy approach contribute to the amount of e-waste, it’s also taking the piss. A TV is not a consumable item. Okay, 10 years is asking a bit long, but five years is a reasonable minimum service life to expect.

     

    18 Apr 2013, 9:37pm
    living intentionally simple living:
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  • Retirement isn’t like a long weekend, or a long vacation

    Something I’ve discovered is that many people who have been working for some time find it hard to imagine what life is without work, and occasionally fear the void. I’m not talking about someone who has found their vocation and genuinely enjoyed most of it. I observe that most often in the self-employed at the entrepreneurial end of things, be that in DW at The Oak Tree Farm, or the driven creative entrepreneur, or hell, even Diamond Geezer Bob ex of Barclays ;). That’s fine – but some of the rest of us wage slaves occasionally look at our lives, look at the bits that aren’t work (weekends, vacations) and subtract work to think ‘is that all there is’? with a little shiver down the spine at an imagine life of long weekends and extended vacations. For some, it seems to lack meaning and purpose.

    It isn’t how it will be, but it’s an understandable mistake. When you have retired, life is not like one long weekend, or even a long vacation. Yes, the weekends are less different to the working week, obviously, but therein lies the clue. For people working 5 days a week, the two-day weekend is a brief respite, a chance to recharge the batteries, to take a break. You don’t need to do that when you have control of your own time, so your weekends are different! it still staggers me how I became almost zombified as energy drained, whole swathes of weeks merged into grey blocks of time compared to the kaleidoscope of variety. Don’t get me wrong, there was much more busyness then, but the ancient Greeks identified the problem with their concepts of Kairos and Chronos. You must live time, not just watch the hands sweep over the face of the clock. That means paying attention and doing things with respect.

    Retirees still have to take some regard of the weekends, of course, because meeting up with others who are working is usually easier. Just as steam gives way to sail you need to respect other people’s time pressures. Nevertheless, life retired isn’t one long weekend, because there’s no need to decompress from the stress of work or to pack all the stuff into the two days that you couldn’t do in the other five days. It’s hard to say exactly how that is different, but it is – it is much more relaxed and more fun. Your weekends are no longer the bassline to the strident demands of work, they are part of a greater harmony.

    It’s not one long vacation, either. Unless you’re very rich ;) Even if you are, ask yourself whether an endless vacation isn’t perhaps the grown-up version of the kid who only wants to eat ice cream all the time. A life well lived has dynamic contrast, moving between different poles. A lot of your vacations while working are expensive because you are packing in a lot of stuff to make it as different from work as you can. You are usually time-constrained, too. I can’t really put this much better than GOP from this comment:

    One change since I retired relates to travel. I used to go on far-flung holidays ranging from Bolivia to Bhutan which I thoroughly enjoyed but which also satisfied a need to get as far away from work as possible in every sense. Since retiring, although I can still afford to do it and my partner would be happy to let me, the need has somehow gone and I’m content with more local travel which, preferably, does not involve flying.

    Now I am somewhat constrained at the moment in that I have no income, so I’m not going to spend large amounts on travel right now, but that won’t last forever. I still feel similarly to GOP – I travelled reasonably well with work when I was a single man and had a penchant for trying to take longer but travelling overland. Most of the time I love my fellow humans but that doesn’t extend to seeing them milling around in airports, or pretty much anywhere where a whole load of people have to line up all in one place. MMM may have put his finger on the problem with a Peak life is lived Off-Peak.

    One of the key Principles of Mustachianism is that any and all lineups, queues, and other sardine-like collections of humans must be viewed with the squinty eyes of skepticism. Because if so many people simultaneously decide to do something that they are forced to stand or drive in a queue to do it, there’s a good chance it is something that is not worth doing.

    He’s got a point. Don’t travel at the same times as the rest of humanity if you can. Sometimes that means don’t travel at all ;) Often it’s as simple as travelling midweek, sometimes it means travelling at night. Similarly if you have to queue to buy something, it’s probably a carefully orchestrated shortage (think anything made by Apple, Christmas toys where the supply, marketing and demand are carefully managed to engineer a shortage and pester power that keeps sales up well after Christmas).

    Food. Overpriced and aspiration next to overpriced and junky. I'll pass on that, thanks all the same

    Food. Aspirational but dearer than if you made it at home and brought it to work

    Your life will change post-retirement. When you’re working more than half your time is owned by someone else, and in a hard twist that means you often have to pay other people to do things for you because you don’t have the time, be that Starbucks to get you coffee, some deli in London because you didn’t make sandwiches or calling in a plumber because you don’t have the time to fix the problem yourself or understand and learn what needs doing.

    The other thing, for which I have to thank GOP for introducing me to, is Herbert Marcuse, and his critique of capitalism, which is even more true now than when he wrote it :

    The people recognize themselves in their commodities; they find their soul in their automobile, hi-fi set, split-level home, kitchen equipment,” meaning that under capitalism (in consumer society) humans become extensions of the commodities that they buy, thus making commodities extensions of people’s minds and bodies.

    You are not what you buy or use. Your soul is to be found in the space between your ears, in the web of life with other sentient beings, in your love of life, and of others. It has no barcode; there is none other like it. Never lose sight of that in the mesmerising maelstrom of marketing messages. Thoreau had some point when he said

    “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone.”

    For a more direct dissection Jacob ERE gives it to us straight between the eyes with both barrels.

    In general, if you ask the average consumer what enjoying life is all about, it distills to the following trifecta: buying tickets, going to restaurants, and shopping.

    That’s it. Those three things are all there is to enjoying life. The uninformed opinion is that if you don’t have these these three things in your life, your life sucks. I know, because that’s what I used to think. And it’s also what consumers keep bringing up.

    Gulp. The Ermine has been known to darken the door of a restaurant occasionally ;)

    It is a little over three years since I started this blog. The first real transmission was this one. It’s hard to picture your life retired when working – I found even the financial issues hard to envisage and they are among the more tractable and quantifiable changes. Nobody bangs the drum for things after the change – because nobody has the experience of being retired before they are retired ;) Looking at that post, it was quite prescient. Illich had a point when he said choose a life of action. I spend more on tools and things to investigate stuff and make things happen. I don’t spend money on DVDs and video games. I’m fiddling about with finding out how to post a graph of the temperature of some chickens, and a polytunnel on Cosm. Because it’s a challenge. The secret to retirement is to be curious. Become like a child, always ask the question why.

    1304_flowers_P1040805

    I took a rotten shot of some flowers I passed because I’ve seen them before, and I figure it’s time I knew enough about my world to know what they are called. It’s one of the things that the gift of time gives you – you don’t have to live life on autopilot any more. Take joy in the quotidian as well as the unusual. I hear the song of the blackbirds slowly becoming more accomplished as time goes on. I learned about how to use json for data interchange.

    It was easier for me to not fear the void, because my work experience had deteriorated, and I was seriously stressed, not by what I was doing but by the stupidity of the system. In life you should generally try to run towards the light rather than away from the darkness. But sometimes it simplifies things. For someone who doesn’t have serious issues at work, there is much to be said for taking some time. I can’t recommend highly enough scaling down your expenditure to match what you expect to retire on, and do that for a year at least. The decision to retire, and if so to retire early, is one that is important, though not urgent. You have to make time to consider it. I was seriously motivated to retire early, but it still took me three years to get to the right point for me. The delay wasn’t for the want of trying to convince myself I could do it earlier.  And you have to be prepared to take some leap of faith, because you have no clear idea of what it will be like. Sometimes in life it is good enough to do the best you can with what you have to hand ;)

    It won’t be an endless weekend, or even an extra long vacation. Like sculpting anything, crafting a good life free of ‘work’ is a matter of having a general idea in your mind’s eye, and then taking the first steps. It won’t turn out exactly like the mental picture, and that’s fine. It won’t solve all your problems either, because remember that every place you go, still yourself you see in the mirror, and it is still your shadow that the lamp throws on the wall. Issues that lie within will retire with you. You may have more time to ruminate on how to work on them, but you won’t leave them behind as you hand in your mobile phone, computer and access card. Possibly for the first time you will be in charge of most of your time. Carpe diem – and may it serve you well.

    I spent a lot of time thinking about the money aspects of retirement. I overshot somewhat – I don’t spend now as much as I’d get if I drew my pension early right now. Getting the money straight is a prerequisite, and I would urge anybody thinking of retiring early to inform themselves about the financial aspects of retirement as much as they could. But money isn’t the whole story.

    Finance is necessary to crafting a decent retirement. But it isn’t sufficient. Your setting is just as important – who you will spend your time with, where you are, who is in your life, what your connections with the wider community is. Early retirees have some extra challenges in this area (most of their current social circle will probably be still at work) but they have other advantages unique to them too. They are younger, and probably more adaptable too. In the end I only retired eight years early, so I am not that unusual, compared to, say, Retirement Investing Today or Mr Money Mustache. There is a big difference in retiring in your early forties compared to early fifties. While the principles are the same – basically spend less than you earn, the scale is very different.

     

     

    22 Jan 2013, 11:02am
    simple living Suffolk:
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  • Scandinavian invasion – Waxwings

    This morning I heard a welcome noise, a fine trilling in the air. It can mean only one thing, Scandinavian invaders on the loose. Stand by your ornamental garden berries!

    Waxwings

    Waxwings

    These guys had come all the way from Scandinavia over here, in search of berries. And they parked themselves on a telephone pole at the end of my road. so I could go get a camera for a second look at these handsome creatures with their jaunty crests. They aren’t particularly shy, and tend to group in garrulous flocks, trilling away to each other.

     

    what they're really after is berries

    what they’re really after is berries

    They post some of the ranks on the telephone pole as lookout, busily digesting the spoils of war.

    waxwings massing

    waxwings massing keeping a lookout

    Sitting around also helps them digest :)

    They crap a lot too

    They crap a lot too

    It’s kinda rude to ignore something as lovely as these guys, and what’s nice about them is they are drawn to urban areas, because fo the ornamental berry crop. They aren’t particularly shy and have a penchant for supermarket car parks which have a lot of that as low ground cover. first time I’ve had them in my road!

    16 Jan 2013, 8:18pm
    fixing things:
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  • Why you shouldn’t break the ice on the birdbath with a hammer

    snow

    It’s a bit parky round these parts, so I reloaded the spadgers’ nuts, which is more fun in the interludes between the snow rather than in the anticipated blizzards to come. I figured I’d break the ice on the birdbath, with a hammer.

    The trouble is it was one of those plastic resin jobs, which is hollow inside. and despite being 2pm in the afternoon sun, the ice had frozen solid.

    Damn. Any fule kno plastic gets brittle in the cold...

    Damn. Any fule kno plastic gets brittle in the cold…

    So I’m down one bird bath and the sparrows are SOL on water. It’s the second time I’ve knackered it de-icing it, the first time was breaking the ice with a spade a couple of years ago. It’s a curious hollow plastic construction. I fixed it the last time using Milliput, which is a sort of epoxy resin putty. The same trick could sort this break out too.

    The right way to do this is with hot water from a kettle, but I was trying to avoid losing a load of heat to the latent heat of fusion of the lump of ice. I shouldn’t have been so tight, the bird bath holds probably about 5 litres, so I’d take a hit of 5 x 334 kJ or about 0.5kWh, about 10p these days. It would be several kettles’ worth of boiling water though to thaw it. Whereas now I’m down either £2 for some Milliput, or I may junk this and get a replacement.I’ve been coveting a cement/concrete one at a local hardware store for a while at £22.

    The sides of this birdbath are a bit steep for the spadgers and I have to put a piece of wood in as a ramp in the breeding season to give baby birds a fighting chance of getting out. The trouble is many modern ones are resin again so I really need to learn to to stop using blunt instruments on the ice.  I could repair this with Milliput and then fill some of the bottom with concrete to make it shallower, but the £22 one starts to look like a better deal. Plus this is only as high as a cat standing on its back legs, which is poor design in a birdbath IMO.

    So if you have one of these apparently solid birdbaths are are tempted to de-ice it with a blunt instrument, perhaps ahead of the Big Garden Birdwatch next weekend then learn from me

    don’t do that ;)

    knackered

    where did we lose the basic skills of self-reliance to cope with financial austerity?

    The Grauniad’s had a series called Breadline Britain about how dreadful life is for our increasingly financially challenged nation. Now I just about experienced Britain in the 1960s, as it was pulling itself out of the post-war austerity, and one of the things that strikes me about the difference between the Britain I saw as a child and that of now is that adults have become far less self-reliant. We have lost many basic skills that soften the issues of having less money, and it appears that many adults just don’t seem interested in learning. The second thing that strikes me is the appalling incompetence at household financial management. Perhaps it was easier for my parents’ generation because borrowing money was much harder in the past, so people had to live within their means or just lump it. And the last thing that is obviously wrong is people don’t seem to be asking themselves whether they can afford to have children before doing so. This lady has four children – on a family income of £44k. It isn’t hard to see why she is struggling.

    People design in fixed costs into their lives without giving them enough thought. It first struck me when I reflected on a colleague who lived 25 miles away from work, where I was 6.5 miles from work. We were both higher rate taxpayers, and I calculated that he needed to earn ~£5k more than me, just to have the same disposable income. How’s that? Well, design in a 50 mile round trip instead of a 13 mile round trip. That’s an extra 37 miles he needs to drive, each and every day. That’s about £1300 a year in fuel alone. He’s putting 8100 extra miles a year on his car, with all the wear and tear that entails. I could keep my cars for 10 years and buy them well secondhand; he bought his cars new – in the service life of one of mine, he’d have put 80,000 miles on the clock, so that just wasn’t an option for him. I could bike to work when the weather was congenial. Taken in the round he was taking a hit that was probably equivalent to a salary cut of £5000 a year. And of course he was losing about an hour of his time each day.

    Every time you pay someone to do something you can do yourself, you have to earn enough to be able to pay tax on the money you are paying out. If that person is employed, you have to cover the overheads, sick pay, employer’s contributions, the lot, whereas if you are doing it yourself, you do not have to earn the money and pay the tax and NI on it.

    It is always much more expensive in cash terms to pay someone else to do something that you can do yourself.

    Now that isn’t a reason to insource everything, because there’s the opportunity cost to the money you could be earning at the same time ;) If you are hiring someone on minimum wage and you’re on minimum wage yourself, that is barmy – do your own cleaning. If you’re earning £50k then knock yourself out and hire the cleaner if it means you can earn £20 an hour net and paying them £6.19.

    The cleaner on minimum wage is the obvious example, but there are more subtle costs. For instance, it’s more expensive to get Tesco to prepare your meals for you rather than do it yourself, which is why ready meals are more expensive than the ingredients, and if the cost is the same then the ready meal will contain ropey ingredients ;)

    I was staggered at this bunch of Guardianistas who are struggling to feed two children and two adults on the meagre income of… £35,000 if you please, and they’re living with his parents! Let’s take a closer look. They were on a combined household income of £75,000. Now I have never lived in a household that had this much income – ever! I haven’t been in a household with two incomes for most of my life. The Ermine is not one of the 1%. So I ask myself how the hell these good people managed to get made bankrupt. She lost her job when they had twins. Now I appreciate that it’s not meant to happen that way but in general many mums leave the workforce for a few years after having kids, so the loss of that income was to be expected. Have they never heard of savings? Now they are complaining of not being able to afford decent food, and having to use ready meals. Mrs Ermine has examined that fallacy in this post and found it wanting – the problem there is food preparation skills, or the lack thereof, as well as a shocking lack of imagination and general get-off-your-backside-and-do-something smarts.

    Now eating is one of those fundamental things that everybody needs to do. If you’re rich enough to afford ready meals, then have at it, but if you’re not, or you have the temerity to want your food to taste of something other than sugar. vegetable fats and monosodium glutamate, or maybe you are rude enough to want vitamins, then you have to re-acquaint yourself with the food prep skills that humanity has preserved across generations – until now. Sometimes I wonder if people realise that food doesn’t only come from supermarkets – it’s actually possible to grow some things yourself ;) I particularly like the line

    I’m not stupid: I know this is going to have a detrimental effect on my children’s health.

    For God’s sake, woman, you’re running on £35,000 a year, and have more time, being unemployed. And yet you see fit to switch from cooking yourself to using ready meals? Where’s the rest of that £35k going, on the horses?

    It is the loss of skills that will hurt people in future. In the past people grew food on allotments and in gardens, which saves a lot of money – Mrs Ermine qualifies that at about £2000 a year saved; for a basic rate taxpayer that’s equivalent to needing to earn about £3000 less every year! As an added bonus, although your veg will look gnarlier that Tesco’s, it will actually taste of something and be good for you, as well as filling you up.

    Food does this – it just sprouts from the ground, despite what Tesco would have you believe, and here some citizens of Ipswich are taking advantage of that fact

    There are other skills that could save people money. When I bought my first house, I had a problem with a stuck main intake stopcock under the kitchen sink. Now I could have called in a plumber, but because I had seen my Dad do plumbing, I figured I’d change this myself. I had ambitions of using a blowtorch and Yorkshire fittings but couldn’t reduce the seepage from the Water board stopcock enough to get enough heat into this, so once I got within 5cm of the inlet with some abortive attempts I sucked it up and used a compression stopcock. Job done. I replaced the guttering myself on that house – for the cost of an aluminium ladder and the materials, which was a lot cheaper than when I had that job done on this house; I was time-poor and wanted the soffit and bargeboads changed to uPVC which wasn’t within my capability. I fixed my heating system when the timer/programmer died and again when one of the motorised diverter valves died. I changed my own cold water tank, taking the opportunity to relocate the bugger to the apex of the roof to give a decent head of water to the shower, rather than run a power shower. I changed the water pump on my car, and replaced brake pads in the past. I did this because I grew up with the expectation that any halfway competent person who wasn’t rich would be able to do those – people just couldn’t afford not to.

    More work, yes. More money, no – I can’t save any more money on heating ;)

    Mrs Ermine asked me recently if I was going to run the wood stove in the day. I don’t generally, because the heat is preserved in the house from the evening before. I said no, because I didn’t want to spend the money. She looked at me as if I was crazy. “How’s that going to cost us more then?”. She was right – we don’t pay for heating, because we are prepared to chop up wood and pallets. I did some of that today. Heating less doesn’t save us money. But we need to chop up more wood.

    In Britain we need to become more self-reliant. We need to learn how to cook decent food from ingredients that our grandmothers would recognise. We need to learn to fix some of the basics ourselves. We need to learn to go without if we haven’t got the money, rather than borrow money and have our future selves pay even more back. In the last decade or so we have outsourced a lot of these basics to outside agencies and to the welfare and benefits system, to try and buy our way out of needing to tackle the gritty basics of life. It’s time to roll up our sleeves, spit on our hands, and get to work relearning some of the basic skills our grandparents used to take for granted.

    Where’d they print the instructions on this darn thing?

    Knowing how to feed yourself and your children from food not sourced from supermarkets and food that doesn’t come with instructions printed on the back is a skill we seem to have lost somewhere. My mother’s opinion of supermarket veg was unprintable – she got that from Lewisham market stallholders who would get it from Covent Garden market in the early morning. Even as a student supermarket veg was tired and low-grade. Fortunately students don’t need veg ;) The supermarkets have found how to make veg last longer by chicanery like de-oxygenated atmospheres in plastic packaging and the like, but they can’t get round the problem that the flavour of food fades with time, and most of it seems to fade in the first day or two. It’s why those stallholders got their produce from Covent Garden barrow-boys in the early morning – because they’d have got an earful from their customers if their produce tasted as poor as Tesco’s finest. But it was more faff, and somewhere between the 1970s and now we collectively decided that all the adults in a household should go to work, so we don’t have time to buy decent fruit and veg, or grow it, or cook our own food, or fix our own plumbing or any of those things that our grandparents took for granted.

    We could afford the luxury of losing those skills in the last couple of decades. From the Guardian’s Breadline Britain series it looks to me that these skills are now being very sorely missed. We need to stop borrowing so much money and start living within our means. We need to think about whether we can afford to have as many children because it looks like some of the freebies there are drying up. And all in all we need to man up and start to take responsibility for the choices we make in our lives and skill up to be able to do more with less. The Guardian’s we never had it so bad is absolute bullshit. I grew up in a London of coal fires where only a single room in a house was heated in general, where most people didn’t have cars, and where people grew their own food and cooked it themselves.

    Fridges had no freezer compartment – I recall the excitement when we got the first one with a two-star icebox – you could store frozen food in that but couldn’t freeze it I think. Respiratory ailments were widespread, because the damp and condensation were endless problems; I got bronchitis nearly every year until we moved to a house with central heating. That was not poverty in a Guardianista sense of the word – nearly everybody was like that. But what we did have was a broad base of basic skills, and good and reasonably stable communities. The move to paying for everything and having both adults working has atomised those communities and we have surrendered some basic skills for the blandishments of advertising. It would make the Guardianistas wring their hands in horror.

    And yet there was some satisfaction and camaraderie there. People had hobbies other than watching television, and often these were creative, in quite eccentric ways. There may not be so much money about in future, but we have enormous advantages over those times, communications are far cheaper, the relative level of wealth in much higher.

    The essential difference is that Britain in the 1960s, though it was far poorer than the Britain of 2012, was improving. It was better than Britain in the 1950s, and immeasurably better than the Britain that had endured its darkest hour standing alone against the Axis. The Britain of 2012 stands wanting compared to the Britain of 2006/7, and the Britain of 2015 will probably be wanting in material terms compared to today never mind 2007, for many people.

    We probably can’t dodge that, but we can soften the blow by taking our lives back from the endless messages of spend spend spend. There is a certain reward in taking control of some of the variables, and pulling back from the money economy to improve our quality of life, rather than our standard of living. In a previous life, I used my meagre skills to grow tomatoes in the back garden. The crop was variable because I didn’t really know what I was doing, but for a lot of the time they were far better than Tesco’s Finest vine-ripened tomatoes-  because they had experienced th sun until the day they were eaten. Some simple pleasures can’t easily be bought, and perhaps we will find pursuing these more rewarding than chasing the admen’s plastic dreams. There’s something peculiarly short-lived about the enjoyment derived from satisfying a want that is created by marketing, because it is always a hostage to the next updated version. The stillness when the treadmill stops is a silence that is valuable in itself…

     

     

    23 Sep 2012, 9:59pm
    living intentionally simple living
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  • Simple Living is about more than money…

    It’s about living well. Welcome to a guest post from Mrs Ermine on some of the finer aspects of living well

    How, you may ask, does the Ermine household keep itself in high style on a modest budget? Mr and Mrs Ermine like to eat well, but don’t like to fill the coffers of large food corporations. Fortunately good food and industrial food are two very different things.

    So while Mr Ermine prepares his next post on financial wizardry, or perhaps another of this rants about the state of modern Britain, why not come and join me in the Ermine Towers kitchen on my new blog Simple Eating in Suffolk? The kettle is on (with just the right amount of water, of course) and right now there is something with a distinctly South Indian theme being prepared… a fine dish which Mr Ermine enjoys, and which costs just a few pence.

    17 Sep 2012, 10:48am
    fixing things rant:
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  • Where have the decent, middle ground consumer products gone?

    In her book Cheap, the high cost of discount culture, Ellen Ruppel Shell observes the increasing polarisation of products. Globalisation is driving most of us towards the Poundland end of the market, with stuff that is cheap, absurdly cheap compared to earlier times, and a very few people who are either fanatics or have a lot of money towards the high end. As a result, the quality and reliability of a lot of products is, quite frankly, crap, though their functionality is pretty good. Nowhere is this more apparent than in electronics. Digitalisation, higher integration of components and Chinese manufacturing have all made it a lot easier to do many things in electronics, in particular adding features and functions. These are pushed relentlessly by marketing departments, and we often fall for it. The entire history of the iPhone is an example of featureitis gone mad. Just as well this makes the product cycle so short.  The vacuum tube kitchen radio my mother had in the 1960s operated from 1960 to 1976 ISTR. None of the replacements have lasted 16 years. There’s no point in making an iPhone last more than 5 years, it will be hopelessly naff by then in the eyes of consumers.

    One of the advantages of taking an axe to consumerism is I get off some of this hamster wheel. The recent launch of the iPhone 5 left me as cold as the previous four launches. However, I still have the problem that stuff breaks down, and it seems that this is much more likely for newer stuff than kit I’ve had for a while. It makes me loath to replace something with a more modern replacement if it can be avoided, because capitalism seems to have hollowed out the middle ground. I either end up with cheap rubbish that fails me in my hour of need or top-end products that are often too fancy and too pricey for my requirements.

    Demise of a faithful friend

    This was brought home to me when my 10-year old Iriver IMP-250 mp3 cd player died. I don’t have an iPod because I don’t do portable music on the move, it’s kind of hazardous as a cyclist, and when I had my car it had a perfectly serviceable CD player ;) However, the iRiver CD player was nice for the outdoor parties because a MP3 CD would run for several hours, and being a CD player meant we could take other people’s music too. Ipods seem unreliable in this kind of service as well as being a closed box without a computer- I constructed a switchbox to select different people’s iPods but the big problem seems to be iPod battery life plummets as it gets colder when the sun goes down, I will have to run a USB hub from the main battery in future to counteract this.

    The iPod doesn’t really like to party after sundown…

    All portable audio devices live on borrowed time, due to the hard life they lead and the inevitable drop-tests. Nowadays, to make manufacturing cheaper the connectors are mounted on the main circuit boards, which is a really bad idea. Pretty much anything I make myself uses connectors mounted on the case with wires to the circuit board, because the connectors take a lot of mechanical stress. Fixing the connector to the case stabilises it, and the wires to the board take out any residual strain. However, this is a very pre-1980s constructional style.

    Transmitting the mechanical strain to the circuit board flexes the solder joints, which causes micro cracks and ratty intermittent connections. It’s why you should always try and use right-angled audio jacks on portable gear. Presumably Apple provide straight plugs so you break the iPod faster and have to get a new one, leastways the earbuds I observed on people’s iPods all had straight audio jacks.

    This 10 year old iRiver was just dead. That sort of fault is good, the ones I hate are the intermittent ones where you never really know if you’ve nutted the problem. I took it to pieces and was faced with this

    iRiver IMP250 innards. That’s a lot of small parts, as its about 13cm across

    In previous lives like at the BBC I’d fault find to individual components but that’s not going to happen with this, no circuit diagram and no service manual. You used to get one in the handbook of most consumer electronics until the mid 1970s when people expected to repair things if they went wrong.

    Even if I had these there’s no fun in trying to unsolder parts here. That involves magnifying glasses, tweezers, lots of bad language and a fair chance of knackering some other part in the process. These things are assembled in the Far East by automatic pick-and-place robots, though an awful lot of module level assembly still seems to involve humans even on the iPhone 5.

    the offending connector, black item on the left

    However, there’s a good win in faulting consumer  electronics by knowing that 90% of problems are to be found in connectors or the power supply. Power supply problems are usually associated with smoke and visible damage. Connectors, however, aren’t so obliging. Probing on the circuit boards showed battery power wasn’t getting to the player, and nor was external power, and the problem was traced to the DC jack which switched the battery to the player when the DC jack wasn’t inserted. Or not, in this case. So I unsoldered it, cleaned out the microscopic switch contacts and reassembled the part, and the player came back to life, both on external and battery power.

    iRiver IMP 250 working again, once more into the breach at the Christmas party then…

    Now I could have bought a current replacement for about £30 at Argos or a little media player secondhand from Computer Exchange for £20-ish. I had been on a previous reccy for that sort of thing but come away empty handed. I have to admit that I hat been tempted by a secondhand DJ CD mixer that looked like it could run off 12V, but then sense prevailed. Not only was I setting myself up for an audio earth loop fail, but in the end I don’t really want to be a live DJ. I want to talk to people at parties and maybe get hammered, not do a Paris Hilton ;)

    Paris Hilton DJ-ing. It didn’t go well, apparently

    The price of freedom from consumerism is still eternal vigilance. There is still somewhere in the back of my mind the ad-man’s meme ‘if you just buy this product, your problems will be solved and life will be wonderful‘. No. All I want is what I had before, thanks, it’s worked well enough for  five parties outside, and if I’m going to spend money then I should change the old hi-fi speakers, which are clapped out from being a) overdriven and b) far too small for the job of running outside, which is why they’ve been pushed too hard ;)

    Although the repair was effectively paying below minimum wage, I just didn’t want to add to the mountain of e-waste without trying at least to inquire what had caused this faithful old middle-range CD player(it cost about £120 in the early 2000s ISTR) to give up the ghost. Plus I know that once started, it will keep running outdoors past the 11 p.m point where dew starts to accumulate on metal surfaces, because the self-heating of the circuit boards stops the dew forming. It had been a surprise to me that dew forms in late evening and the small hours of the night, I’d always thought it was an early morning thing.

    More digital casualties in the pipeline

    The digital camera seems to be another terribly unreliable electronic gizmo in the modern world, particularly the point and shoot digicam. Digital SLRs seem okay, I even managed to keep one in good working order until I sold it to a colleague. Digicams, however, are a whole different world of hurt.

    I learned photography with film, and one of the great advances in photography in the early 1980s was the autofocus lens. Manually focusing was fraught even with some visual aids and just one more thing to slow you down in capturing the moment. In the 1990s manufacturers made automatic exposure work properly most of the time, and then came digital, which after some early issues sorted many of the residual problems, in particular the running costs and latency of seeing the results. Digital SLR cameras reached a point  in the late 2000s where for the vast majority of people the main improvements were to be had behind the camera, not in front of it or inside it; a rotten photographer will take poor shots no matter how expensive the gear.

    My old Canon AE-1P from the 1970s that I bought second hand in the late 1980s is still serviceable, as are the lenses. I’ve had five digicams fail on me with lens jam failures, a Fuji 1700, Canon Ixus 80, an Ixus 950, a Nikon 995, and I will have to take my Panasonic digicam to pieces to remove dust from the sensor which makes the camera useless at high f-stops (in bright light). That’s four down permanently and one fiddly repair job, in the course of ten years. I look at the cost of a digicam more as a two year rental, rather than as a capital investment. One of the advantages of digital was supposed to be you don’t have film costs any more. Looks like you still have the same costs, however, just in a different form as the gear falls apart in your hands as you use it. Money still has to made somewhere ;)

    You can make a digicam last if you keep it in a box and only haul it out for birthdays, but the whole point of a camera is you take it to interesting places and put it in front of new vistas. Every time you switch the damn thing on and the lens comes out, it sucks in a little bit of dust and fluff, which eventually gums up the lens mechanism (Canon) or gets dust into the sensor (Panasonic). On a film camera that dust only affected one frame because it was advanced with the film. On a digicam you get this after a while.

    dust on the sensor causing splodges in the sky

    The manufacturing effort seems to go in features rather than fundamentals. What’s so hard about making a digicam that doesn’t suck dust into the camera? It’s so much easier for Panasonic to say hey, this camera has got Face Tracking, than for them to say this camera won’t suck dust into the works so your pictures won’t gets spots after a year or so.

    after taking the camera apart and decoking the sensor. Face tracking is obviously more important than, say using the CPU space allocated to Face Tracking for something useful, like saving the dust pattern and removing it from future images, for instance.

    What the hell does anybody need face tracking for? If you are so drunk that you need the camera to find the face in the shot for you, then either you aren’t close enough or you don’t need to take that picture for uploading to Facebook because a) it might not be the right face and b) they’re probably as drunk as you are.

    What face recognition is for. Hat tip to Glenys for sharing with the world

    It’s hard to deny the sneaking suspicion of advanced decadence in Western capitalism here. Faced with the choice of making this kind of shot easier, or keeping the dust out of the sky, the obvious choice is sod the dust, help the Facebookers out even if they are a few sheets to the wind. Bless…

    It isn’t just the digicams, either. I have a Canon 18-75 IS zoom lens which has developed a stock fault after 5 years. This was something that cost about £350 new ISTR, and I had expected to be a decent middle ground product. Those old Canon FD lenses for the AE1 are still going fine, forty years after they were made… There’s no point in sending off the lens to be fixed if this is a stock fault, it will only happen again. Just how common it is was brought home to me in that the replacement part was only £2 on ebay, however the process of taking the lens to pieces and changing the ribbon cable is fraught and likely as not to break something else. For £2 it’s worth a go, and I’ve become happier with dismantling ribbon cables that seem to be widespread in small gadgets after learning from some videos on Youtube and experience gained with the iRiver repair. If I screw up I guess I just have to take the £600 hit on the 15-85 replacement. Or take an extra £200 hit and go with the 2.8 aperture  17-55 and get closer to the subject at the long end. I was more often short of light than of reach in using the old lens ;)

    I really miss the middle ground in many products. The AE-1P was a middle ground camera – it worked well and lasted, but that part of the market is evaporating fast. As a result I end up buying rubbish, just because I don’t think it will stay working. Tools seem to be another case in point –  you can get a set of 50 spanners for a tenner. Just don’t expect a 13mm spanner to stay a 13mm spanner after you’ve used it a few times. Fortunately I still have my old ones from the 1990s, before the Chinese got in on the act ;) I want a pillar drill. The whole point of a pillar drill is precision, and I know if I buy something for £90 then mechanical precision is not what I’m going to get. However, I don’t need a 1kW three-phase pillar drill for a thousand pounds either. Something in between, say 800W for about £300 would match my usage, but it’s not to be had locally.

    Bring back those mid-range products. Not everything is life is black-and-white where you need either something disposable or the very best. Often something well-built but less capable than the best is good enough. I don’t want to be endlessly buying junk, and throwing it out after a few uses. There’s got to be a place between the Trabant and the Rolls-Royce. As Ellen Ruppel Shell asked in Cheap

    Why was there such a scarcity of things reasonably priced? It seemed that all coonsumer goods were cheap, like the Chinese boots, or extravagant, like the Italian boots. Where, I wondered, was the solid middle ground that offered safe footing not so many years ago?

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