in the battle between virtual reality and reality, real reality always wins…

Imagine you have a group of fourteen of your fellow human beings, and you decide to go for a tootle up the second highest mountain in the UK, Ben Macdui in the Cairngorms (OS getamap)

In itself a great idea, all part of the new sporting ethos our Dave wants the Olympics to inspire in us, all that faster, higher, stronger, all Good Stuff. So you haul your smartphone out and plot a route.

Then you get on Facebook and invite thirteen of your m8s to join you, take smartphone, stick in front of snout and follow the nice line into the great British Outdoors. What on earth could go wrong?

This is so obviously a place where you’d expect to get a cracking signal on your smartphone (photo: Ben Macdui from Càrn a’ Mhàim, by Paul Kennedy.)

Well, you might need to call on the services of the coppers, two mountain rescue teams, and a chopper. They were lucky, because smartphones are crap as actual phones. Manufacturers seem to leave no space for the aerial gubbins in a smartphone because they pack them full of frippery. As a result the RF performance seems to be ropey – DW has to go upstairs to talk to people on hers whereas on my old work mobile and on another I can sit in the middle of the house on the ground floor and have an uninterrupted conversation.

Presumably our motley crew of f***wits realised their main and only navigational device  had lost contact with the mobile network and failed them in their hour of need when they started going round in circles. Somewhere in the assembled dimwittage somebody had a old steam driven mobile which was still in contact with the network so they could raise mountain rescue or call 999. You can imagine the 999 call now.

999 op: Hello, emergency services. Which service do you require

Dimwit: Dunno, we’re lost

999 op: [facepalms] what area are you in

Dimwit: Scotland

999 op: Any idea what part of Scotland

Dimwit: No, the smartphone doesn’t say

and so on. I guess mountain rescue had to DF the handset signal when they got there.

[edit: This report seems to indicate they were using a GPS app. In which case I was being harsh taking the piss for them expecting mobile phone service in the Carngorms. It seems to be the fundamental flakeyness of smartphones that failed them, which is slightly better than expecting the mobile phone network coverage to be there. Why everybody’s smartphone apps failed together beats me, I assume in a group of 14 teenagers there is more than one GPS enabled smartphone 😉 ]

Now the Ermine does occasionally rouse his idle fur to take a wander in the hills. I’ll even admit to daftly climbing Ben Nevis (via the tourist trail, natch) with a pal in my twenties with simple regular office clothes and shoes 🙂 However, even then, we were bright enough to check the weather forecast on the morning, and take a map and compass with us, although we didn’t use them since the trail is well signposted and the rest of Scotland was doing it as well. This was pre-GPS days.

Many years later, I climbed Nevis again with DxGF. We were considerably better prepared, walking boots, map, compass, GPS and low-grade wet-weather and cold-weather gear. The trouble with Scotland, and the Cairngorms in particular, seems to be that the weather can turn suddenly, and fog descends in about five minutes. We were on our way down, and all of a sudden you couldn’t follow the trail. Although hard nuts and Boy Scouts could probably read the map from only 10 yards of visibility, we couldn’t. However, the track on a GPS is still works in fog, and we could see where the turns were we’d used to get there, and so could stay on the trail and correct wrong turns within about fifty yards of taking the wrong track.

I’m  big fan of the handheld GPS, however I still think it’s dumb not to have a compass as backup. Most handheld GPS units, unless they have a compass too, don’t help you to take up a heading. You can start out in a direction and find out if it corresponds to a heading, but that’s very different from being able to orient a map in the right direction from the off. This wasn’t obvious to me when I first got a GPS.

The lesson for the smartphone/Facebook generation is that in the conflict between the map and the territory the territory is always right, and it looks like four separate groups found that out the hard way in the Cairngorms this last weekend. Although most of the time you can live inside an app, the times you can’t are the times that matter. Which is why they make things like maps, compasses and GPS – things that don’t depend on a mobile phone network to run.

It will deeply sadden me if I ascend Ben Nevis in the future, and as well as the usual detritus of beer bottles and uncivilised trash that seems to collect around the observatory ruins, there is a mobile phone mast at the top. Certain kinds of stupidity should not be encouraged. If you can’t face a world away from the mobile phone network then just leave it be. However, I can have sympathy with the mountain rescue services who may feel that compromise is worthwhile in the interests of not being called away from their families to rescue morons that think their smartphones will give them continuous coverage. Including in a mountainous unpopulated region ten miles away from the nearest road. Another little step on the road to Idiocracy will be completed.

I never learned orienteering or map reading as a child, which seems to be where outdoorsy types of my age seem to have learned it. However, there’s much to be said for having two independent means of navigation, and it’s nice if at least one doesn’t use batteries (and obviously you carry two sets of spares for the one that does). A compass, even on its own, performs a valuable service – even without a map it can keep you going in one direction, which is probably good enough for an able bodied person in the UK to get to civilisation. It wouldn’t help you in remote areas of the States because if you’re unlucky enough to choose the direction that goes 50 miles across a desert you’ll end up looking like the bleached cow skull in Depression era Dustbowl photos.

Rothstein’s Depression-era bleached steer skull – not a good fate 😉

However, nowhere in the UK is really more than half a day from anywhere else. So I’d say the compass is a really useful device to have along, and it has the advantage of not requiring batteries and being small and light. If you really have to rely on a smartphone because that’s important to your world-view then at least take a compass along as well 😉

BMC Safety on mountains (Amazon link)

FWIW here is an more comprehensive list of how to tool up for a mountain walk from the Ramblers Association. The leader of our 14-strong party might have cared to read the Ramblers’ Leading Remote Walks guide, or even the British Mountaineering Council’s Safety on Mountains. Mountain rescue have some advice, and a specific section on how to use mobiles to best effect in a group on mountains (but don’t rely on them!)

I learned a few things from those, such as it takes 10 mins to gain 100m of vertical height. Plus the recommentation for group walking of frequent rest stops. I don’t usually do that when walking, I have at it for as long as it takes to get knackered, then take a while out. The ramblers probably assume a higher level of physical fitness which may be why they adopt the pattern they do, although I am by no means a straggler in group walks.


The Olympics was a fantastic show, Well done Britain, Well done London – let’s not extrapolate about competitive sports, Dave

It was a fantastic show, and it turned Brits from a bunch of cynical curmudgeonly gits to cheerful folk for a while.  Well done everybody – the athletes, the crowds, Danny Boyle, even Zippy BoJo in his own curious style. The Ermine has his own reasons for being grateful for London 2012 as it allowed me to run my exit plan, a great swansong project to work on as a small piece for The Firm and to save enough to retire early. It’s good to go out on a high 🙂

Something to also be thankful for is that no bunch of idiotic sociopathic zealots managed to kill people or otherwise bugger things up.

What I wouldn’t like to see is for politicians to take the wrong message away though. There is probably a legacy to be taken away from the success, but it needs care and nuance to derive it. Not everything is as it seems.

No, Dave. Some is good. More is not always better

Our Dave has decided to hitch a wagon to the moment, and is calling for More. Competitive. Sport. In. Schools. Now.

The ermine says NO. I went to a grammar school, that did a lot of things right, in hindsight. However, in the frenetic anti-grammar school ethos of 1970s Labour, they were also a wannabe independent school, and actually became one later on as they were forced out of the LEA unless they became a comprehensive school. One of the things people associate with independent schools in Britain is some sort of Calvinist concept that competitive sports is character building.

Dave is half right. I’d agree with him that the ethos of not failing needs to be canned. Not convinced about team sports at all. My experience of compulsory-for-all competitive sports in schools is that it is character building – just that it builds the wrong sort of character. Competitive sports doesn’t, in general, teach schoolkids to be sporting and to play the game and have respect for your fellow man and win or lose well. It pumps up those with more physical prowess, tells them they are great. That turns them into nasty bullies. I ended up on the wrong end of that. I am of average build but physically nothing special. I didn’t see the point of sports. And got hassle all the time in competitive sports, until one day I came to the conclusion that though it wasn’t considered sporting and cricket, when the lead of the rugby team decided to pick on me for the n’th time that a good hefty knee in the nuts would improve this psychopath’s attitude no end. It did. It also improved the attitude of his mates; they realised that the Ermine was capable of totally unpredictable and dangerous behaviour, even though he was a weakling.

Before then I had been knocked out cold and generally harassed, all in the name of sport. School children are nasty and immature – the whole point of school is to mould them until they can function in a human society. Competitve psorts are great for those good at it, and this goes to their head, so they despise and pick on the uncoordinated or the weak, or the different. I was different, and poorly coordinated.

Now it may be at Eton they actually take the time to teach the weak and uncoordinated how to use their physical capabilities to better effect. The different they probably deal with by not accepting them in the first place 😉

I had to get to work and go through safety training before I learned I had more upper body strength than typical, because I was shown how to apply it properly. Teenagers are often poorly coordinated because their bodies are growing, perhaps I had a worse case of that than normal. Becoming an adult fixed that for me.

Unlike Eton, at a State school there probably isn’t enough time to teach the less able, and there isn’t the time to teach those good at competitive sports some social compassion either. My experience of competitive sports is that it is a bullies’ charter. There’s not enough money in the education system in my view to avoid that, and in the end school is also about giving people the skills to be productive workers in an industrial society, and we probably need improvement in that area which is also a call on resources.

No, Dave. More competitive sports at school is not an answer until you can find a way to stop it being a bullies’ charter. I was lucky enough to be self-aware enough to see that exceptional circumstances needed exceptional solutions and realise that going outside socially accepted norms was a reasonably response to a pumped up thug high on praise. Not every picked on kid is lucky enough to have an insight like that, or to have the grit to execute such a risky plan.

It also had a knock-on effect. I hate and loathe all sorts of team sports in all their manifestations. I probably am physically lazy by nature, but school gave me a specific loathing for sport. I’ve never set foot in a gym since leaving school. It does show 😉

I’m not rabidly anti-exercise, but I do demand it does something for me. Cycling is okay because it gets me from one place to another without running costs. I am prepared to hike to see interesting stuff. But team sports, no. I am extremely happy that they are not part of my life, as a participant or a spectator, ever since the experiences of school. At least there’s an upside – Sky is never going to sell me an expensive sports package 😉

So, Dave, the Olympics was magic and showed the best of British on the fields of play and off them. This was the pinnacle of human physical achievements. You can’t just infer the general from the particular to say that therefore more competitive sports is needed in schools until you have the answer to the side-effects of encouraging nasty little pieces of work to bully the less physically competent. Competitive sports teaches kids might is right as a byproduct. That’s not necessarily a good thing to do…


25 years of bike lighting improvement, but why doesn’t Tesco allow kids to change their batteries now?

Sometimes it’s the little things that alert us to the slow decline of the West towards a world of Idiocracy. DW needed some bike lights, and I’d bought some from Tesco a while ago so we got another set. Innovation is a marvellous thing in the world of bike lights.

Nightriders from the 1980s. The good thing about them was the plastic brackets didn’t snap off like the cheap one do now. The bad thing was the contacts and switch were flakey and had a shocking power drain.

25 years ago I used to have a set of Ever Ready Nightriders, great big things that took D cells. The route back from BBC Television Centre to my crummy shared house in Alperton was 5 miles, taking in the A40 westway and Hanger lane gyratory system. At least the 12r day 3/4 day week BBC AP shift pattern meant it wasn’t in the rush hour, though often returning in the night.

Bike journey from BBC TV centre to Alperton. Not sure I’d go up the Westway nowadays, the traffic was manageable in the 1980s. Google maps offer a different bike route but I didn’t know about that.

Everything was wrong about bike lights for this journey. The A40 westway is a major arterial road, and I used rechargeable D cells, which then as now were a little AA cell with a great big wrapper to make them D sized, so their capacity was low, just about enough for the 5 mile journey. Thatcher’s recession meant the roads were potholed so the lights took a lot of vibration.

Something people underestimate these days is just how damned expensive batteries used to be. The capacity of rechargeable batteries was lower than use once types, but it would have been a serious cost. Rechargeables and chargers were also flakey in the 1980s as well as being dear – the chargers tened to knacker the batteries as there was no attempt to monitor state of charge. So not only have bike lights improved dramatically nowadays, but the batteries are more reliable and have more capacity – an AA battery was about 500mAh then, whereas now Maplin will sell you one of five times that capacity.

Cateye’s revolutionary 1990s HL-500 light. Why did it take such a long time for humanity to realise that mounting the batteries vertically on a bike light was such a stupendously bad idea, given that’s where all the rattle and shake happens?

The fantastic insight from the Cateye HL 500 was still over ten years in the future. Like all great innovations, it was both obvious in hindsight and deceptively simple. Basically never, ever, mount the batteries vertically in a bike light. All the road vibration is in this plane, and a bike is unsprung, so it shakes the bejesus out of any spring contacts, which get weak and ratty for the 0.5A that a incandescent bike light runs at. So you end up with an unreliable product. I was always thumping the crap out of Nightriders to get them to come back on again.

Unlike those lights, needing charging at each end, the Tesco lights would have lasted me a week, all on 6 AAA cells rather than four Ds.

Tesco’s Chinese manufacturer also achieved an insight that the designers of the expensive Bspoke light I had got earlier failed dismally on.

Bspoke bike light – FAIL on excessive directionality

That was so directional you couldn’t see it was on as a cyclist unless you waved your hand in front of it, and sideways visibility was dire too. So enter Tesco’s bike light set, along with minimalist instructions. Nothing wrong with the lights at all – the front light can be seen from above (by the cyclist) and the side (by the cars about to drive into your path) as well as the front. Great functional design, though typically ropey Chinese aesthetics, for an ancient culture with a long artistic history China doesn’t seem to export any of that heritage in its industrial design. The Bspoke was far better aesthetically, even if they didn’t screw it to a bike and try it at night where the design flaw would have been immediately apparent 😉

Tesco bike light set and manual

So why the portent of the decline of the West? Well, take a look at the few words on the instructions.

Batteries should be replaced by an adult? WTF?

What has happened to British children in the last 30 years? If you’re old enough to ride a bike on the public highway and so need lights, you’re old enough to change your own batteries. It isn’t as if this is a 45 volt valve B+ battery from yesteryear, we are talking AAA 1.5 volt cells. Fair enough to warn against leaving batteries in the way of babies and toddlers who are going to put them in their mouths, but you really should have progressed from the thumb-sucking stage by the time you take your bike on the road, or even (tsk tsk) on the pavement (sidewalk to any American readers wondering what exactly is wrong with riding a bike on the pavement 😉 ).

There’s no earthly reason for the CYA statement prohibiting non-adult cyclists from changing their batteries and Tesco need a slap roung the chops with a wet fish to get them to wise up and stop infantilising our children by suggesting that swapping batteries is some risky exercise requiring a hazmat team or at least Mum or Dad.

The evidence of the dead hand of Tesco Group Legal Services is also evident on the other side. Who the hell is going to call up the local council and say “I have some BIKE LIGHTS I need to dispose of in a SAFE way”. It ain’t gonna happen. Yes, if you still have some NiCad batteries you should really go out of your way to take them to a recycling facility because Cadmium is nasty shit that pollutes water as it leaches out of the landfill sites. But bike lights? Heck, my council tells us to put used paint tins in the household waste in the bin ratherthan taking it to the city dump. The dump used to have a special facility to take old paint tins, but now they outsourced it to Viridor actually dealing with the sort of household rubbish households generate would cost more so they don’t take some categories. Electrical waste probably falls into the ‘too hard category as well’.

Facebook Becomes Evil

Just when an Ermine thinks it’s safe to poke an inquisitive snout out into the open after the disconcerting Ladbrokes double vision along comes another corporation that believes actually delivering something to you in return for your hard-earned cash is all too much trouble.

Hello fresh-faced Mark Zuckerberg, take a bow, your organ spake thusly to it’s victims future shaftees prospective customers

Real money gaming is a popular and well-regulated activity in the UK and we are allowing a partner to offer their games to adult users on the Facebook platform in a safe and controlled manner.

Fantastic. That’s all right then. Fortunately the Ermine has got one of those EU translation babelfish in its virtual mind, and a swift spin of the ‘translate this for me please’ dial brought up this

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Yup, That’s what we really need in this septic isle at the moment. More ways to separate the punters from their money. Crikey, even as Labour’s Harriet Harman and David Blunkett admit they made a cod’s of the gambling reform in 2005 that facilitated the rash of  betting machines.

What exactly is the point of Facebook nowadays?

I’ve been trying to work out what the hell Facebook is for these days. It used to be straightforward, you could see what your mates were up to and share photos of inebriated indiscretions. Oh and make the clock in the office go round faster 😉 Then bloody Farmville showed up and all manner of associated spurious garbage, which meant I was bombarded with crap until I found a way to ice these requests. Did make me wonder what some folks were paid for doing all day 😉

Now you get businesses inciting you to like them on facebook, and all round facebook appears in too many places where it shouldn’t. Like all those blasted strings of ‘social media buttons’. One or two or three might be okay. This is over the top

Daily Fail social media come-hithers

Even The Economist wants you to like them on Facebook. And Pinterest, FFS. Have they no self-respect?

I kid you not. The Economist hasn’t got enough friends on Facebook, poor dears.

I run using AdBlock Plus so it was news to me that there were ads on Facebook so I had to stop that to research whether Friendzy was real – I thought people were having me on at first. But it’s all too real.

Facebook used to be useful as social media. It’s becoming a stream of advertising evil – and for me it’s getting to the point where Facebook jumps the shark. Apparently that would mean I self-identify as a psychopath – it has to be admitted the Daily Mail article is more entertaining 😉

Zuckerberg – “Damn, I usually get my PA to deal with these things”

Anyway, I guess I’ve found out what the point of Facebook is. To make the Facebook corporation richer, and its original purpose as a virtual noticeboard just doesn’t do that very well. Even if it does project its human face as the gangly and affable down-dressed Zuckerberg who can’t drive an ATM, there is an evil heart beating within. Banned from offering gambling to its US customers, it will insert its money funnel into the Great British Public, bringing Real Money Gaming to a Screen Near You right away. Looking at the ad it will also share with your pals that you are dumb enough to play fixed odds betting.

FWIW I don’t think they should ban it. Just make it a regulatory requirement that there is a running tally on the website, to the rough effect of

Friendz Take in the last 24h: 10,998,567

Punters Take in the last 24h: 00,056,078

and each time you bet, it posts to your news feed

HAHAHAHA – JOE LOSER Lost £500 on Friendz Just now!!!

If you’re too dumb to get it after seeing that, you probably deserve the right royal shafting you’re about to take.

Why does it take so long to move an ISA?

I have an ISA with iii, who jacked up their prices, in particular charging for funds and generally carrying on in a cavalier fashion. So more than a month ago I initiated a shift to TD Direct, telling both iii and TD, and filling out the relevant forms. iii at least revoked their exit charges for aggrieved customers transferring out who didn’t like the unilateral hike in fees.

So far, the transfer still hasn’t competed, though it is within the specified time of six weeks. What the heck is the reason in this day and age for a transfer to take so long? I am transferring as stock rather than cash, but I now have an additional challenge in the form of a share certificate from one of my sharesave schemes that I want to shift into the ISA. I don’t dare put any money or stock into the TD ISA while the iii one still has anything in it, for fear of being hauled up by HMRC for double dipping. In fact all in all the process of transferring share accounts, within or without an ISA seems tediously drawn out and grief-stricken.

I have a ESIP shareholding with Equiniti that I want to shift to TD in a non-ISA wrapper because Equiniti have outrageous selling fees that are avoided by transferring out within 90 days of vesting. However, The Firm’s shares are going XD in a few days and I’m avoiding a move over the XD period. There still seems plenty of opportunity for the transfer to make a right muddle of things between the XD and dividend payment date in a month’s time.

What I need is a good Coffee Can

The whole point of nominee shareholdings was to make computer transfers easier, but my experience of the ISA transfer is beginning to piss me off about holding shares in this way. If I can’t find a way to transfer the sharesave amount into my ISA I will hold the damned thing as a share certificate; it’s a large enough holding to be worth a grand a year in dividend income. The stock is good enough for Neil Woodford’s top ten which my HYP seems to have ended up being perilously similar to so it’s good enough for me as a core holding.

Although paper is so yesterday, it has some attractions – it doesn’t mess you about to change nominee accounts and it doesn’t charge you any quarterly account fees. Account fees seem to be where nominee share accounts are going to – and I have become accustomed to not having them over the last few years. Guess I was freeloading on all the guys holding active funds, and this cross-subsidy is being banned by the Retail Distribution Review, which as an unforeseen consequence is going to shift the balance from electronic to paper for long term holdings. For a share that I’m going to sit on for a while as I build up my HYP ISA around it to get my sector allocation back into line there’s much to be said for paper. What I now need is a good can to stash these in, as described by Robert Kirby in his 1984 article ‘the Coffee Can portfolio” – basically stick share certificates in can, collect £1500 a year tax – free (when the second sharesave comes out in December to join this one) and forget about the tin. He said in 1984

You can make more money being  passively active than actively passive

Something the III experience has shown me is I want some diversity in nominee providers, and having no nominee for a significant holding is one step towards that. That way if I fall out with a nominee provider I don’t end up with my entire income stream held up to ransom. This isn’t easy with small accounts of < £10k each because you often get tapped with account fees below a certain size (with TD it seems to be £7500), and ISAs in particular are a pain to have spread around. However, I’m out of that limitation now, and after next year I will probably leave my HYP as it is and switch future years contributions to some sort of Vanguard lifestrategy fund if RDR hasn’t made funds expensive to hold. That will probably necessitate starting up with a different ISA provider to get access to the Vanguard fund.