Founder of Immortalist Society Dies

I guess Robert Ettinger, founder of the Immortalist Society went seriously off-message. Every so often, you get fiendishly clever guys like this chap and Ray Kurzweil, who seem to have overdosed on 1950’s science fiction. Either I am bizarrely dumb or these guys are, in the specific area of consciousness. In other areas they’re probably a lot smarter than me 😉

It’s not that I fundamentally believe that humans mightn’t be able to transcend death. However, what I do fundamentally believe is that if you’re gonna do that, then you need to avoid dying in the first place. We might be able to arrest the ageing process, or as a second best compensate for it, or replace elements on the worn out flesh with bionic bits. I don’t think it’s happening any time real soon now.

However, one thing that seems self-evident to me is that once you’d died, however, the organism that was you has lost state. The information content of your mind dissipates, the sequences of nerve firings and elemental signals that make your consciousness fades to black, since the power supply is lost and this is dynamic storage, not static storage, the electrical charges will leak away swiftly without maintenance in milliseconds, not years.

And in that process of losing state you’ve lost life. The wanton materialism of whacking your carcass into deep-frozen nitrogen is fair enough. These are clever guys, and bright enough to engineer the process so the natural process of recycling that carcass doesn’t happen, and the decay of the cells is arrested. There are two versions of this, one is the full-body freezing, and the other is “just the Head, Ma’am” where they cut off your head and freeze just that. Presumably some über-mensch in the future splices on another body from someone who couldn’t afford to avoid dying 🙂

Either way, so what, where’s the state that has been lost, where is the boot CD? Even if you had the darned thing, you need the bootstrap reloader that the original designer, if any, seems to have been remiss enough to leave out. So even if you had the data you couldn’t reload it and set it off running at that far distant future.

So Robert, I reckon it’s Game Over, no place to put in another coin in the slot and hit the replay button. All that money going into freezing your carcass might have been better spent on finding out how to avoid dying in the first place. Though I absolutely respect your right to spend your money on creating the most expensive piece of deep-frozen meat on Earth. Bet the UPS on the Cryonics Institute is something to behold!

Avoiding death is a classic preoccupation of the old, and they ain’t getting any better at it. It raises all sorts of interesting conundrums. Let’s say it were possible to avoid death. We’d better do something about stopping birth PDQ as well, otherwise we’d have to recreate death to thin out the burgeoning ranks of humans. And what sort of society would it be?

Doesn’t humanity need some young Turks who know they’re invincible to take chances, try new things out? On the other hand we might do something about pollution and other sorts of environmental degradation if we figured we’d be around to deal with the consequences. Maybe governments would have to start paying down their debts. We don’t seem to mind borrowing from our children, but making our future selves poorer may seem a worse deal.

Now I could see how humanity could get to immortality by avoiding death, but let’s just say the Cryogenics Institute were right, and state is irrelevant for human minds, as a curious exception to all other sequential state devices. Why would anybody reactivate these frozen heads? Let’s say we are some über beings in 2100. Let’s say we avoid the macro economic hazards. Sure, some inquisitive über-human might reawaken the dogs they’ve also frozen to see if it could be done. Then perhaps we may want some simple-minded proto-human pets, and break out the frozen heads. There’s just so much that could be wrong with this. And what would the head make of it all?

All this worrying about death obviously did something for Ettinger, he got to the ripe old age of 92 when his brain was last illuminated by the light of consciousness. That’s not a bad innings, even if shit did happen in the end. Good luck to him, and if he gets his head reheated I hope the stateless mind feels chipper, rather than having to learn everything new like a baby, but with a 92-year old brain. I could see that could take the edge off your life…



Advantages and Disadvantages of Reading with a Kindle

Over the past month or so I’ve acquired a bunch of PDFs of books on finance and investment, and stared with the first one, Reminiscences of a Stock Operator by Edwin Lefevre, a fictionalised biography of the legendary trader Jesse Livermore, who was notable for shorting the market in the Great Depression.

However, reading it on laptop is the damnedest way to read anything that was designed as a book or other long-form document. I learned to read before I went to school, so I have a higher reading speed than most people. However, probably because I didn’t learn to read from a computer screen, my reading speed drops dramatically on the laptop, and it costs me 20 W of power just to hold the page on my screen. I can’t read it in anything other than a sitting position, the whole thing is a pain.  Paying for Stock Operator in book form almost starts to look attractive, but I have another 20 or so books to read like this. The reading experience needs to get better, and a Kindle could do it.

I’ve come across the Kindle before, though I hadn’t seen one, and my first reaction was along the lines of

this is like a games console or similar consumer thneed designed to create a locked down consumer space to part the simple-minded from their money.

If used as intended, that’s exactly what you get. You can get a Kindle version of Reminiscences of a Stock Operator for £9, and off you go. That’s not bad for this book if you compare the dead-tree versions, though the secondhand market will come up with the goods in real form for £6.42 at the time of writing. My copy is a PDF, and was the result of a Google search. The book was from 1923.

Monevator’s Kindle books on investing article made me think about this again, particularly as I have now collected even more PDFs from the fascinating period between 1900 and 1930 when the Haber-Bosch process of creating artificial fertiliser from natural gas hadn’t been refined, and all sorts of bizarre methods were tried in agriculture using electrical discharges.

At the same time Martin Lewis’s moneysaving expert website warmed me up to how to get a WiFi Kindle for £75-ish so I figured it was time to revisit this, so I bought one, and loaded it with PDFs. You get a 30-day trial during which you can return and get your money back less delivery if you don’t get on with it, so I figured I could take a flyer.

Kindle on a paperback book set in 10.5pt
the total Kindle area is similar to the book, but the screen is a lot smaller

As the picture shows, a Kindle isn’t the same as a paperback, because the screen is smaller than the page of a typical paperback. And though I am middle-aged I can see easily enough that the resolution of the screen isn’t the same as a paperback, but it is far, far, closer to it than my laptop.

It’s good enough. I’ve got my normal reading speed back, it’s a lot more convenient and I can read anywhere. I’ve only read PDFs on the Kindle apart from the instruction manual, and the image quality of the result with PDFs isn’t as good as with a true Kindle book. To get a whole A4 page onto the Kindle screen results in a small and ill-defined font. However, you can spin the Kindle through 90 degress and read in landscape mode. It doesn’t reformat automatically, I would have thought an orientation switch would have been an easy win, but it can be done manually. The result is much sharper than reading the same PDF on my laptop, even though the screen is physically much larger on the laptop.

Landscape mode is easier to read on this PDF
Landscape mode is easier to read on this PDF and matches the book font size more closely

So I’m a convert – but I won’t be buying from Monevator’s list yet. I don’t like paying for what I can’t touch in terms of media, and there’s no used market for Kindle books, because they’ve presumably stitched things up so you buy a license and not a product. Embodying your media in Real Stuff has the advantage of giving such monoplistic control freaks the shaft, they surrender control of the secondhand market as soon as they let go of the physical embodiment. Hoever, if I don’t buy ebooks I don’t get to eat that crow. The Kindle works well for PDFs, and Google can turn up all sorts of good stuff.

The go anywhere appeal is the best part of the Kindle, in all sorts of surprising areas. At the electronics bench, once upon a time you could have databooks with device pinouts and application data. Since the 1990s you had to print out the PDFs, and datasheets aren’t concise. With a Kindle, all the datasheets are to hand at the bench. That go anywhere feature is what makes this transformational. For other people it will be having recipes in the kitchen to hand, or workshop manuals in the shed – all places where taking a laptop is doable, but a right pain.

Oh an if you haven’t got a PDF creator, Google docs creates PDFs if you want to print something, as the cloud hasn’t got access to your print drivers. The Kindle can take these too, so you don’t have to pay the Adobe corporation for the privilege of using your Kindle. Two proprietary closed shops designed to part the punter from their money circumvented at a stroke 🙂

The Kindle works for me. I have my reading speed back, I don’t have to put up with the intermittent noise of a fan and I can focus on what I’m reading as I used to be able to with paper. There are things wrong with the Kindle, colour would be nice, the screen could be 1.5 times bigger, the sturm und drang on the screen associated with a page turn isn’t so great, though it is over quicker than a page turn. It would be nice if it would slowly scroll the page itself as you can do in Word. But I’m carping here – the overall experience delivers.


There are a lot of Bears in the camp these days…

I’m a macro-bear – I think that there are some pretty serious long-term hazards to economic growth, such as peak oil, environmental degradation and the like.

I’ve all of a sudden been joined by a whole shedload of Johnny-come-lately bears who are focused on the seriously short-term. Yes, we all know the Greeks are bankrupt and that the European politicians are trying to do a stealth bank-bailout of French and German banks. They’ll lose the fight sometime. The US is devaluing and seem to be in an epic internal fight of their own. The second dip of the double dip recession is hammering at the door.

It all reminds me of Ben Goldacre’s Twitter comment, on Rebekah Brooks

must feel amazing to work in an industry where when you f*** up, everyone else loses their job

only here its that everybody else gets to pay when the financial bank-wizards screwed up. There again, everybody was happy to take the liar loans, and we do so like to see really big numbers in house prices which loose lending is very happy to help with.

However, when it comes to looking at the stock market, it looks to me that companies are in a lot better shape than your average over-indebted Western consumer, and for that matter their over-indebted governments. At least the yield-paying sorts I am looking at are. Their debt levels seem lower and often profitability seems up (or costs are down).

I’m not sitting on anything that I’m currently unhappy with owning, as long as they keep on paying dividends. Obviously if this is the second dip on the way to down and out due to all that macro crap falling out of the sky then all bets are off, but I don’t feel that’s the case at the moment. This is the crap falling that was dodged the first time round. It’s still there, it still stinks, and it’s still out to get us, but I don’t feel that it’ll destroy steady companies that are making stuff that people need. As opposed to stuff they want, I’m not about to buy Thomas Cook even at a high yield, because it’ll be a long time before Brits are going on foreign holidays to the extent they were in 2007, particularly when interest rates go up on their over-leveraged homes.

So I have a list of companies that I’m interested in and would like to buy, and I’m keeping an eye on the price. This will probably be a drawn out slide, so I have to buy these companies is small amounts over several months. For instance, I’d like to buy Tesco, and I’d like to pay less that Mr Buffett did (about 380p in June last year), on the grounds that the yield at 3.6% is below my usual 4% minimum target and heck, I don’t have as much money as Buffett 😉

I have a price alert on them of 380 and will start to look then. I’ll probably split my purchase in lumps spaced a couple of weeks apart as I can’t call where in the downswing I’ll find myself. I figure that I might as well ride with Buffett’s analysis, the financials are right for me, my shares based HYP is missing this sector and people probably aren’t going to give up eating any day soon.

I’ve got an eye on some others, I could do with another income IT, at a two digit discount, please. Discounts have narrowed a lot of late, what with everyone wanting income it seems, well, it’s time to shake the tree and see if people start selling again.

Valuations are improving on quite a few shares at the moment. I’m happy with the gains on my sharesave shares, so I am shorting a quarter of those to lock in the current price until I can get hold of them, as a bear market can hang around for a year or so.

It’s one of those sad things in life, that it’s easier to live with the stock market when you don’t need the money right now, it makes it easier to watch the gut-wrenching 50% loss in value that happened in the last bear market (2007-Mar 09 for the FTSE AS). This one could be a chance for me to fill in some of the missing slices in my asset allocation pie chart.

I’ll probably take the last bear market as a guide. Some firms such as Tesco took a reasonable hit to the share price but they’ve kept steady dividend growth through from 2005. Others such as ULVR have had a more ropey dividend performance. So I’ll take some hints from what happened last time, as it’s only a couple of years ago, and favour steady as she goes dividend performance where other parameters are comparable.  Oh and I’ll pass on financials, having eaten a £200 loss on BARC (and having missed most of the recent slide I’m happy to say!). There’s still too many unknown unknowns for me there. I’ll stick with the one financial I do have, RSA.

So overall, all these bears jostling by my side need to start selling, but I’m not going to be one of them. I am a different sort of bear. I don’t think any of the firms I own shares in now will be destroyed by the forthcoming storm, and more than half steadily increased or maintained their dividends since 2005.

If they can keep doing that, I can eat a repeat of the 50% variation in share price some of them experienced in the last bear market. Unlike my previous forays where I chased growth, with the share price volatility making me nervous and jumpy, the stability of the income is a much more peaceful ride. As Monevator said

the companies chosen have steadily increased their dividends over the past five years, but during the same time their share prices have been all over the place.

All of the firms in my portfolio took a hit in the last recession, and none have reached their pre-recession heights. However, I had the good fortune to start in April 2009. There’s something to this buying when others are selling lark… I haven’t got the diversification right yet, because I targeted the higher yields first. Looks like the opportunity to fix that at a decent yield may be coming my way soon!

Spreadbetting Sharesave, Riding with the Devil…

One of the benefits of working for a big FTSE100 company is they do sharesave schemes. I’ve never understood why anybody doesn’t do sharesave if they’re offered it, but less than half seem to. You get to save up to £250 a month from taxed income, and get the option to buy shares either three or five years in the future. The option price is set at the price at the start of the scheme, usually with a small discount on the current share price.

Now these are optional options, mind you, so you don’t have to buy them at the off, but you have the right to take them. That’s not like any share options you normally buy. If the SP of your company has gone down the toilet over the 3 or 5 years, well, let the options lapse, and instead take the cash you’ve saved and go on holiday/buy a flat panel TV/stick it in an ISA/buy the shares of your company or another on the open market if you like.

There is absolutely nothing not to like about sharesave. But what you mustn’t do with the buggers is look at the sharesave account screen and start thinking what you’ll spend the money on. Because you ain’t got it till the options mature and you take them (or not). So I keep ribbing a colleague who has already decided what he’s going to spend it on, ‘cos these suckers have got another year to run.  Believing you’ve got it now is like the poor saps that start to think about spending the winnings from their Lottery ticket before they’ve actually won them.

The SP has gone up about three times the option price. That time two years ago was a dark day for the company. I dropped every single previously running sharesave contract to hit that one which the full £250 per month, even at the same time as I was wondering if I could stick some of the nasty practices any more. It’s not like betting on red, if I left early I collect the cash savings plan, so no big deal. Sharesave is like that, the worst that could happen is you get your money back 😉 Compared to anything else to do with shares, that’s pretty damn good.

Don’t count your chickens…unless you can lock the suckers in

My colleague sets me off thinking. The SP is three times higher than at the start. I would be happy with that, what if I were to lock in that price? I’ve had the prior experience of things looking great only for it all to go pear-shaped by the maturity date. Generally Joe Public can’t sell shares they haven’t got, well not for only £15k worth of shares. However, there is a shady part of the financial market called spread betting that lets mere mortals short shares. What if I use spread betting to lock in the current SP?

My favoured financial spreadbet company is IGIndex, because I understand their system. Hey, I’ve lost money with them before 🙂 The advantage of expensive education is you get to remember what went wrong.

I cocked up massively at an earlier date using spread betting, through coming up with some byzantine approach to try and measure the value of the SB options, and getting the tracking wrong. There was no need for all that complication. The way to look at it is I hold options on 7,535 shares. If a share moves a point it goes up by 1p. IG options go up by £1. So I need to sell 7535/100 = 75 options to cover my real holding of buy options. I then need to cover the margin.

This sort of game sterilises a lot of cash if the SP rises a lot. I have enough to cover a fair change in the SP, and my company is an elephant, in a mature industry, so it will probably not gallop. So if I cover a 2x margin I will probably be okay. I’m only protecting 1/4 of my options to start off with, so if this elephant starts to gallop I’m still in the money (by 3/4 of what I would otherwise have gained relative to now, less the spreadbet spread). I should be so lucky. On the other hand if it tanks then I’ve locked in the tripling in value for 1/4 of the stake, minus the spreadbet spread. If I haven’t screwed up, I can’t lose, subject to the force majeure conditions later.

The trouble with spread betting is you are dealing with spivs

Spreadbetting isn’t real, like Contracts for Difference. Spreadbetting is effectively playing inside a model of the stockmarket set up by IG Index. It has to bear some resemblance to the stock market to be credible, but there are traps for the unwary in terms of short-term spikes and distortions at times of market stress. I need to have enough margin that for IG not to feel they could get away with forcing me out. There is no recourse or process of appeal.

IG Index are basically spivs. The clue’s in the name – spread betting. The trouble with dealing with spivs is you get spivvy behaviour. They’re as crafty as they can be without being provably dishonest. I wasn’t aware of their fun and games with spiking people out beforehand, and as a timid spreadbetter I was tossed out on earlier forays. At an unnecessary loss, natch.

So I’m only protecting 1/4 of my option holdings, and have a very high cash holding relative to the difference I am expecting.  That isn’t how you’re meant to use spread betting – it is sold to the impecunious as a way of leveraging up.

That’s not true, and it fails you when you need it most, so neophyte punters get margin called and eaten for breakfast. It seems if you haven’t got a cash holding with them that would be equivalent to the cost of the equivalent shareholding on the stock market, (covering a fall to zero for call or a doubling in SP for put options) they’ll have the opportunity to close your position on spikes. I’m reducing my exposure by only covering 25% of my holdings as I can only take a position until March which I would need to rollover at some cost to get to Sept 2012.

I will see how it goes with this before covering any more, ideally with a spreadbet reaching to September 2012 in one go. If the current spreadbet works okay for the next quarter (i.e. the change is what I expect, it doesn’t have to be positive) I will consider protecting another quarter of the holding, effectively freezing my gains progressively; pound cost averaging in reverse.

SB firms have a bad reputation (thanks to the anon poster who educated me to this) for putting spikes in their data so people that use stop-losses get spiked out and their positions closed. So I need to take an unprotected position – I have the stock assets to cover it in my options, so the only way I get kicked out is with a margin call. I need to front load the account with enough cash to cover a notional 2x increase in SP.

Having understood my previous cock-up and been warmed up to the shady tricks used by IG to trip up over-fearful punters with narrow margins/stoplosses I’m up for it. The fundamentals of what I’m trying to do are sound. However, it’s unusual – most spreadbetters are trying to make money from trades without underlying assets to back up the trade.

What could go wrong? Force majeure for starters…

If I lose my job before next August and the SP has risen I lose the options and get to eat the crow on the spreadbets. If the company takes an external unforeseen hit then the SP usually tanks, think News International. However, if the company management announce redundancies the SP usually goes up, because stock markets hate employees in the way vampires hate garlic 😦

Likewise if there is a bid for the company the SP goes up, though the pension scheme issues with my company probably make it toxic enough for that to be unlikely at the moment. I’m prepared to take these risks, let’s face it if redundancies are on offer then I will be first in line for voluntary redundancy The pension scheme means compulsory redundancy is expensive, the firm has never gone that way yet, though there are other ways of ejecting people without making them redundant. I’ll eat the loss on the spreadbets without too much remorse in that case.

Dividend payments are taken from the account on the ex-dividend date for sell options. In theory this should be offset by the corresponding fall in the SP which boosts the value of the sell option. I will experience this at least once. The divi has been declared, so I know how much this is and consider this the price of insurance.

A Faustian pact with spivs is never going to be easy

In the end hedging is never going to be easy, it’s counter-intuitive and a spreadbet is inherently leveraged as you’re focusing on the difference in SP rather than the total SP, so it’s easy to bite off more than you can chew.  I can afford to lose the entire stake, though it won’t make my day, it would nearly wipe out my entire ISA gains this year.

If that happens I’ll take the lesson, and actually close this spreadbetting account and accept I haven’t got the smarts to use it properly. Assuming, that is, that I don’t find out that I fundamentally failed to understand how to track my sharesave options with the spreadbet. If it’s my bad I don’t mind paying for education, though I’ve double checked this time 🙂

I’d like to find a decent solution to the hedging conundrum. It’s particularly valuable for sharesave, and it would have been great to have found a hedging solution in years gone by. I’m also sitting on a stack of Share Incentive Plan shares which I have to hold for another four years to retain the tax advantages. It would be nice to lock these suckers into the current share price without selling and eating a 40% hit.

Why not Contracts For Difference?

On the face of it CFDs look like a better approach. However, I’ve opened a demo CFD account with my ISA provider, iii, and there appear to be significant commission and financing costs for a year’s worth CFD. For a short trade the finance charge seems to be in my favour, but III in their own literature say that CFDs tend to be shorter term holdings.

Daley says that, ultimately, choosing between a CFD and a spreadbet tends to come down to personal preference: “People tend to go for one or the other. If they like CFDs, they don’t like spreadbetting, and vice versa. Overall, CFDs tend to be used for slightly shorter intra-day trading or for perhaps two to three days.”

Plus there’s a £35 per month (!) inactivity fee on their CFD platform. So in this case it’s better the bunch of spivs that I know…



A tranquil Suffolk weekend away

This post is about something which is about as unfrugal as you can get, gratuitous travelling. Maybe it’s the mad dogs and Englishmen sort of thing and summer is breaking out…

The county of Suffolk is charming and pretty, and DGF and I though we might try going away at home so to speak. A long time ago she had stayed in a B&B in Southwold and was surprised at the number of weekenders from London who were up there, and also how well they seemed to know the county. We were trying to work out why, and came to the conclusion Suffolk is is quite a rural and tranquil county reasonably close to London and easy to get to from there. The relative isolation in the bulge of East Anglia such that nobody goes through it to get anywhere else, there are no motorways in the county for instance.

We haven’t been away for a fair old time, but the weather looked good and there’s no point in living in a beautiful county if you don’t make use of it every once in a while 🙂 So I thought I’d share some of the local treats.

We started off near Aldeburgh on Friday night with some fish and chips from Aldeburgh Fish and Chips. This place has a seriously good rep, because the fish is fresh.

Aldeburgh fish & chips, unfortunately eaten before I'd though to take a picture 🙂

You do have to put up with a fair old queue, this next photo was taken on a chilly December day and there was still a long line.

Aldeburgh Fish & Chips still has a queue on a cold December's day!

Then if was off to find a suitable spot to eat next to the long shingle beach with the roar of the sea as a background. The beach at Aldeburgh is very long, and though of course at the town itself there will be enough other people, but it was easy enough to find seclusion here. We went a little way along the coast road north of the town towards Thorpeness, past the Maggi Hambling shell sculpture to more isolated parts of the beach.

Our fish was very fine indeed. If you’re into self-catering instead and want really fresh fish then Aldeburgh beach is a good place to get it at one of the local fish stalls selling fresh fish just in

Fresh fish stall selling locally landed fish at Aldeburgh


Aldeburgh Beach

This area is a nature reserve and as the dawn broke there was birdsong against the crashing of the waves, including this flock of linnets that appeared in the gorse bushes on the landward side of the road.

[audio:|titles=Suffolk linnets]
Dawn breaking over the Aldeburgh coastline

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