The next recovery won’t improve living standards for most people

All around there seems to be relief at the end of the recession, but also a feeling that respite is still some way away. There’s a growing awareness that households aren’t really going to be experiencing any of the benefits either, and this surprisingly accessible IMF report describes why, in the piece Stable Disequilibrium. The thesis is that there are still serious imbalances between consumer economies in the West and producing economies mainly in Asia, and there is no theoretical or analytical understanding of why these persist. Without an operating theory of why something is happening it is difficult to formulate policy of how to address the problem. All is lost to policymakers in the fog of war:

The global economy today is in the midst of secular and structural realignments at the national, regional, and international levels as relative dominance and dynamism shift from the older advanced economies to emerging market economies. These realignments are occurring during a period that includes a highly unusual economic downturn that spawned a degree of policy experimentation in advanced economies trying to shake the recession that not long ago would have been deemed unthinkable. These developments also explain why markets have tended to fluctuate violently—as investors alternate from being risk friendly to risk averse.

The prognosis isn’t that good for Western economies. Without a working hypothesis it is difficult to see how the IMF expects their preferred second scenario to happen

There are two ways to resolve the inherent […] contradiction of a stable disequilibrium over the medium term.

The unpleasant resolution involves the advanced economies tipping once again into recession. […] The policy responses would inevitably be less effective now that central bank balance sheets have ballooned to 20 to 30 percent of GDP in the major advanced economies while deficits and debt remain high.

The better resolution is one in which policymakers are proactive and preemptive. […] In this scenario the United States regains competitiveness and growth, Europe reforms itself into a more robust and harmonious economic union, and systemically important emerging markets encourage their growing middle class to consume as well as produce. All of these developments would have to take place simultaneously

Hmm. Guess which one of those is more likely to happen? My money’s on the first rather than the second, for the simple reason that the second demands simultaneous and proactive action from governments that have been reactive until now. So we are looking at either a triple-dip recession on a bit of recovery followed by a second recession in a year or so.

In particular, the population of the West is in deep shit. It was called out in in The True Lessons of the Recession by Raghuram Rajan

For decades before the financial crisis in 2008, advanced economies were losing their ability to grow by making useful things. But they needed to somehow replace the jobs that had been lost to technology and foreign competition and to pay for the pensions and health care of their aging populations. So in an effort to pump up growth, governments spent more than they could afford and promoted easy credit to get households to do the same. The growth that these countries engineered, with its dependence on borrowing, proved unsustainable

This is also shown in the flatlining improvements in living standards across the generations, highlighted in The Jinxed Generation in the FT. It shows some interesting conclusions.  The generation following me (Gen Y) achieved faster career progression in material terms. I was in my mid twenties before I could afford to go on holiday abroad and I was in my thirties before I got on a passenger aircraft for the first time. This would align with the massive increase in disposable income in the 21-mid thirties. People reaching working age two decades after me had a better income boost, particularly in their 20-30 year mark, but it is possible that career progression is slower after that. My career progression roughly tripled my pay in real terms (ignoring casual jobs at the start), or doubled it from the first graduate-level job I had.

Although the FT brings out the biggest gains among the pensioner cohorts, it is grinding the jinxed generation axe somewhat, as there are also these large gains early on in people’s working lives too. Integrated over time I would say the front-end gains are larger. I am starting to wonder if this doesn’t explain some of the nutty increase in house prices. But wages aren’t increasing any more. And they probably won’t increase in real terms for a long time, because of that drag of accumulated debt, which must either be forgiven or paid down.

Nevertheless, we should beware of being trapped in hedonic adaptation. The so-called Austerity Britain of today is immeasurably richer on nearly all fronts than the Britain I grew up in. Indeed, on the measures where it is a lot poorer – the freedom of children to roam  and the cohesion of society, I would venture that it is not more money that we need to improve these. It is more heart.

That is perhaps the core of a lot of our problems. We confuse quality of life with standard of living. As an individual my standard of living plunged as I started to save to retire early. Initially, my quality of life took a hit as well, as some of that spending was on distracting myself from the pressures at work and interacting with stupid objectives dreamed up to push the wage bill down. Now my standard of living is still massively lower than it was in 2007. But my quality of life has improved immeasurably, because I have the freedom of self-determination. Money isn’t the only thing that makes live worth living, and yet you’d get that impression at times when people talk about Austerity Britain.

Spending on some things improves quality of life. It is frightening just how much spending doesn’t do that, once you choose to live your own values, rather than the ones pushed by consumerism.

The next recovery whenever it shows, won’t improve most Britons’ standard of living. It still is pretty good on average compared to what it was a decade or two ago. The problem is that it’s not that good compared to five years ago, and that doesn’t feel good because the party is still a recent memory. As time goes on that memory will recede. The Kubler Ross model of grief seems to apply

  • Denial – it’s not happening, we just need to remortgage, flex the credit cards
  • Anger – it’s all the fault of the bankers or the 1%, string them up by the lampposts
  • Bargaining – Keynes will save us now, more spending, more borrowing will fix it and make it go away
  • Depression – we’re probably getting to this stage now…
  • Acceptance – we have a little way to go for that, to acknowledge the good times aren’t coming back any time soon.

According to this, I’d probably agree with Monevator that we are halfway through the recession. Until acceptance is achieved, there will always be the hankering for policy to get back to where we were before, which blinds us to looking at what we have in front of us and what needs to be done to steer a straight way forward.

It’s a shame the IMF prognosis is so bad and understanding of what is going on and why is so limited. I guess on the upside personally, I will be a net buyer in my S&S ISA for the next ten years or so, and it looks like the first years of that at least will still be under a cloud. Which is a good time to buy, though it never feels that way at the time 😉

Tighter Lending? Interest-only mortgage timebomb? That was set ticking years ago

Shock across the nation as our biggest building society, the Nationwide, KO’s the interest only mortgage. Apparently it means there’s an interest-only mortgage timebomb that’s just gone off! Oh No! The Daily Mail’s Simon Lambert tells us

Do you have an extra £400 a month spare to spend on your mortgage? That is the kind of the potential rude awakening that awaits millions of homeowners with interest-only mortgages the next time that they want to move home or remortgage. Many of them will be blissfully unaware that their personal interest-only mortgage timebomb exists.

Well, no. Let’s reframe this a little bit. Joe and Josephine First Time Buyer wander into ther friendly local building society to see the manager, Mr Wolf. The conversation goes like this

JJ: we’ve seen this lovely little house and we’d like to buy it with some of your money, please.

Wolf: okay, we’ll take a look. So you want to borrow £250,000 over twenty-five years you’ll pay us back the money and we’ll have to charge interest on it I’m afraid.That will be £10,000 capital and £12500 interest at 5% each year[ref]I have brutally simplified the complexities of mortgage interest calculations, it’ll do for this[/ref]. How do you feel about paying £1875 a month for your house?

JJ oh that’s far too much. Here, how about we just pay the interest?

Mr Wolf thinks  Interest-only? pleasure doing business with you, Josephine’

Wolf: oh, okay then, that’s just £1041 pcm by then

JJ: fantastic, where do we sign up?

furious scribbling of documents. JJ leave with smiles on their faces. Just as they turn to leave, they say

JJ: Thank you so much Mr Wolf!

Wolf: And thank you, JJ. I’ll have retired by then, but my successor will be along in 2037 to pick up the keys to the house when we take it back. Great doing business with you. [bares rows upon rows of pearly teeth in a smile]

Therein lies the rub. If you can only afford the house of your dreams by just paying the interest on the loan, then your dreams are too big for your pocket. You can’t afford the house, and in practice your shortfall is about half.

Of course, this isn’t how people think about it. Typical thinking is epitomised in this Torygraph article about Tough New Mortage Rules to hit First Time Buyers and borrowers in their 50s. What part of ‘home owner’ does the Torygraph not get? To own something, you pay all of it, not just the interest on the credit card used to buy it.

Here what they have to say about one of the more pernicious pieces of financial engineering over the last decade or so, the interest-only mortgage

Because they have lower monthly repayments, these types of loans have in the past helped millions get onto the housing ladder.

There’s a perfectly good alternative way of looking at this

Because they have lower monthly repayments, these types of loans have in the past helped millions to overpay by about twice for their houses, which they will never get to own.

Doesn’t sound so nice put that way, does it?It also fundamentally builds in a deep need for house prices to rise nominally. Not in the abstract I feel richer because my net worth has risen way, but in the ‘Aaargh I owe more money than I’d get if I sold up‘ way.

Now for those hard pressed 50-somethings for whom the Telegraph’s heart is bleeding, because, shock horror,

It will pose difficulties for people who are in their 50s wanting to take out a typical 25-year mortgage. For example, a 55-year-old would struggle to obtain a home loan because it would not be paid off until they were 80.

Well, er, yes, I mean the obvious question has to be asked of Johnny-come-lately.

You should be owning your house free and clear, not getting a 25 year mortgage at your stage of life. Two score years and ten + 25 into three score years and ten won’t go!

A mortgage is a way to place a claim on the value of your future work to buy something expensive now.  The Jobcentre doesn’t have many outlets six foot under. You’re a rotten risk compared to a 30 year old, because over the next 25 years you’re more likely to die and you’re much more likely to lose your job permanently, plus you don’t exactly show an awesome track record of saving. That’s forgivable in a 30 year old but not in a 50 year old. So thanks but no thanks, we won’t be lending you any money!

If I wanted to take out a mortgage now I would damn well expect the mortgage firm to ask me how I was going to repay the interest and capital within ten years or less. If I couldn’t afford it I’d expect them to tell me to get on my bike. And I’d expect them to demand life insurance to discharge the mortgage should I peg it in the duration.

As you get older a mortgage simply isn’t a good product for much of the equity in your main residence. If you need one, you aren’t rich enough to be able to afford to live there, unless you can pay a 10 year repayment mortgage. If I want to buy another house I either use the accumulated equity in my current house by selling it, adding cash if I upgrade, or I pay cash for it or I secure a mortgage on it as a financial investment like a buy to let mortgage, but then I don’t get to live in it.

stick half your working life into ten thousand or so of these, or…

But – but – but it’s so unfair! I can hear the wannabe homebuyers of the country thinking. This actually will work in your favour over the next few years. It will stop all those other jerks offering way over the odds for houses using their interest only mortgages. That will reduce demand at current prices, and the sellers will have to eat crap and drop their prices. Which means less of your lifetime earnings will go into housing, and more into foreign holidays, and meals out. It’s not all bad, eh? What would you rather have, 25 years of sun sea and sand or a pile of mute bricks soaking up your dreams?

alternatively add 25 years of beach holidays to the mix by overpaying less?

So not only are current buyers sinking more of their lifetime earnings into houses, they don’t get to own the damn things at the end! That’s the ultimate tragedy of the commons – it’s nuts from a collective viewpoint but rational from a individual viewpoint, because everybody else is at it. It a rough deal and It.Must. Stop – so good on the FSA for finally putting an end to this racket[ref]Unlike in the past when lenders would take a primary charge on an asset this has many loopholes. Lenders would be required to check at least once during the term of the loan that the savings pot its still in place. I am happy to say I back a borrower for a month during the check with the contents of my ISA in return for a fat fee and the insurance premium, and I am sure there’ll be others providing the service on a commercial basis ;)[/ref] Yes, the buyers from 2006 and 2007 will get to eat the crow, just like I did after buying in 1989. The only way for prices to go up as fast as they have done over the past 20 years again is if we start to have Japanese or Swiss-style intergenerational mortgages. Let’s hope the regulators aren’t asleep at the switch if that idea raises its ugly head, eh? The level-headed Swiss are probably more competent to handle that sort of thing, the gnomes didn’t get to watch over the assembled loot of the rich for generations without showing some track record of financial nous. It still seems barmy to be, but most nations have at least one widespread bizarre national quirk that looks mad to the rest of the world.


UK home ownership. From Nationwide,

In Britain before Thatcher, a lot fewer people owned[ref] In the UK people say they own their houses even if they have a mortgage. I personally believe I only owned my house when I discharged the mortgage, but nearly all stats use the more general used sense of owned by the finance provider on behalf of the borrower[/ref] their own homes (50% as opposed to todays ~70%)[ref]about 50% in the mid 1970s as compared to ~70% now[/ref], and they invariably took out either repayment mortgages or purchased an investment that was intended to repay the capital at the end of term in combination with an interest only loan, and the building society took a primary charge on that investment. I was shocked when I moved in 1999 and the building society didn’t ask me how I was intending to pay the 40% extra that wasn’t covered by the endowment I had at the time. I switched the mortgage to a 60% interest-only (covered with an endowment) and 40% repayment mortgage. Incredulously, I asked the mortgage adviser what he expected to happen at the end, to which he replied most people want to keep the payments down as much as possible.

Well, I didn’t. I intended to pay my debts thanks all the same, and had to kick up a fuss to do so. There are a few sharp people around who know how to play an interest only mortgage. They are very few and far between, and the interest-only mortgage is a Weapon of Wealth Destruction in most people’s hands. There are two ways that it destroys wealth. One is people getting repossessed if they stretch themselves too far, but there’s a much more insidious way it destroys wealth.

It lets many people overpay for houses, bidding the price up too much

Houses are effectively sold by auction, because they aren’t easily comparable or interchangeable with others. If you can borrow interest only, you can ‘afford’ to bid roughly twice as much as if you actually had to pay that money back over 25 years. Ergo, the price of houses goes up about twice. This goes for other means of artificially supporting house buyers. Every single attempt by governments or other agencies to make them ‘more affordable’ has simply jacked the price up to compensate.

This benefits the providers of capital, ie the banks and building societies because they get to lend twice as much money. The higher price helps housebuilders, but all this doesn’t help the borrowers one bit. Of course banks were up for interest only mortgages – they got to lend a lot more money that way!

We had a much less dysfunctional housing market before Thatcher got in there and started buggering about with it. Those who couldn’t afford housing lived in council housing if they had children and lodging or bedsits if they didn’t, and a small proportion bought a house using a mortgage.There was a lot wrong with council housing, but in general it worked for a much wider range of society than social housing seems to now.

Britain is a small island with a lot of people in it. The sad fact is that not that many people can really afford to truly buy a house over a working life. The 1970’s ratio of 50% is probably on the high side. The even sadder fact is that all the muddling with the housing market has jacked prices up so much that an even lower percentage of people will probably get to own their houses in future.

The interest-only mortgage timebomb started ticking roundabout when I remortgaged to move, when mortgage providers let people get out of the door without having a repayment strategy in place. But we can’t just place the blame on the providers. The borrowers have to take a teeny bit of the blame too, for not asking themselves the question I asked myself in 1999. That question is

how am I going to pay back the money I have borrowed, 25 years after I sign up on this dotted line?

It has been surprisingly possible to achieve this in the past, probably because mortgage companies only lent money to people they expected to be able to repay it, rather than indulging in NINJA loans.

homes owned outright almost at parity with ones on a mortgage

I was surprised to discover this graph  [ref]DWP[/ref] showing the percentage of people that own outright, compared to ‘owning’ with a mortgage. I hadn’t expected 50% of owner occupiers to be mortgage free. I suspect this will be lower in 25 year’s time when Joe and Josephine approach the end of their working lives, precisely because of those interest-only mortgages. The bank will have made a shedload of money, though not as much as they lost lending money to Americans without any money. And JJ still won’t own their house, though they will have the warm glow from feeling they were worth a lot of money way back when. One of their best hopes is this fellow

With a bit of luck he’s devalued the currency enough that the capital cost of their house is worth the price of a Mars bar and a pumpkin latte.

They might wish to bear in mind my experience as a cautionary tale, then. I stupidly paid way over the odds for a two-up-two-down in 1989. Sticking a sly paw into Merv’s back pocket to borrow the inflation calculator the Ermine dicovered that the inflation-adjusted value of this amout in 2011 was over two-thirds of the price of my current house. Now the capital doesn’t appreciate on an interest only mortgage, but even the original capital amount is a third of the price of my current house. Zoopla tells me it is about half the price of a house of the same type in the same road as the one I owned. Yes, inflation is your friend, but not as much as it was in the 1970s.

Oh and Mr Wolf? Happily retired and studying the phases of the moon with his telescope.

Saving money on heating – 2

This is an expansion of the previous post, as it seems I have more luck with a wood stove than the general experience.

Saving energy seems to be all the rage these days, it isn’t just me, both the Grauniad and the Daily Fail seem to be at it. Looking at the scepticism in the Grauniad article comments, it seems not everyone can make a wood-burning stove work for them from a financial viewpoint.

My experience is most definitely that a wood burning stove can reduce heating bills. Indeed, if I could think of an intelligent way to go about hot water I could bring my gas bill down to just cooking; I managed to avoid running the central heating at all last year, but I didn’t particularly want for heat.

I figured it would be interesting to revisit this, to bring out the parameters that enable me to heat the whole house, which seems key to transforming a wood burning stove from lifestyle accessory to money saving tool. I have to admit that I bought the stove as a lifestyle accessory in the easy party times before I realised I wanted to retire early, so I am sweating an existing asset 😉

#1 Don’t own too much house

I had a rough experience with negative equity early in my house owning career. This has made my vision of a house very different to that of most of my fellow Britons. I do not have a deep existential belief that property always goes up in value.

Sarah Beeny and the rest of Britain may believe houses always go up, but I don’t, because I know otherwise from personal experience

As a result I didn’t stretch myself to the maximum mortgage I could get after that first one, I bought as much house as my living requirements wanted. As a single man I bought a two-up-two down, because that was all I could afford. When I bought this house, with DxGF we went for a three bed semi, which suited us about right, and it suits my current living arrangements right for DW and I.

It is small compared to the houses of many of my work ex-colleagues, many of whom subscribed to the mantra of buying lots of house because it made them feel good about themselves, and well, y’know, housing always goes up so it’s a great investment too. Good luck to them, and obviously with kids you need more than the one spare room we have. Somewhere between when I grew up and now, we also collectively decided that children each had to have their individual bedrooms, which obviously puts the pressure on families as we increasingly live separate lives.

Nationwide house price index. House prices never go down, well, until they do.

Over a thirty-year plus house owning career the price of a house probably does go up in real terms, but the change is not smooth or monotonic. There be switchbacks in the housing market, and woe betide you if you buy and take a switchback at the same time as some bad luck. If you can sweat it out that’s great, but lose your job or need to move at the wrong point in the cycle and you are exposed to negative equity. I cannot describe the soul destroying feeling of paying down a mortgage on a house you’ve sold for less than the mortgage…

What’s that got to do with heating? It’s a damn sight easier to heat a small space than a big one 😉 Heating a modest house is always going to be easier than heating a McMansion, all other things being equal. That is not the only extra cost of a larger house, you also have to clean, furnish and decorate the extra space too.

FWIW some people claim you can get round having too much house by just heating part of it. Don’t do that for long periods. You may be able to get away with it in drier parts of America but not in the damp of a British winter. You need both ventilation and some heat in a house otherwise condensation will get you, and you’ll have to redecorate that room in Spring 😉

#2 prize features in the house that help you save energy

The trouble with these are you have to do this before you buy the house. I was lucky in getting a collection of features that worked well with a wood burner, but it may be of value to call them out.

The principal disadvantage of a terraced house or semi is you get to hear your neighbours, so you want to avoid choosing a house next a young couple of child-bearing age 😉 I should have jumped to that with my first house. On the upside, you get to use some of their heat on the party wall, which is a quarter of your wall area. Although it’s probably a significant effect it isn’t make or break. In an ideal world I’d like to live in a detached house, and would look to retain some of the following features:

Cavity walls

wall temp upstairs

My house was already cavity wall insulated, which is something else to look for, but it had crappy single glazing which I put up with for far too long. The actual cost of changing this wasn’t too bad – I had a grossly inflated expectation of the cost which is why I stalled it for a long time. I’d buy a house with single glazing over one of a similar size that didn’t have cavity walls any time. I’d go as far as not having cavity walls would be a dealbreaker for me in any future house purchase unless power costs came down a lot. Retrofitting cavity insulation is cheap enough, and  you can do something about single glazing, but insulating solid walls is very, very dear it seems. Having lived with both, solid walls are comparatively cold in winter, and seem to increase the thermal delays of the house. That’s bad for the typical work pattern of non-occupation during the day, unless you can reduce draughts so the heat isn’t lost in the day. That doesn’t usually go with the sort of house that has solid walls, because of their age.

Central chimney

the chimney wall temperature is 22C, 2C higher even after the stove has not been running for more than 12 hours overnight

If you are going to use a stove that is, obviously irrelevant if you use gas central heating. You want to use that precious heat all for yourself. You don’t want to share half of it with the neighbours, or even worse do your bit for global warming by sharing it with the great outdoors.

The chimney in my house goes up the middle of the house. As such the flue runs past the bedroom wall and the wall of my den (the second bedroom) and the heat does warm the walls and the room perceptibly – though with a latency of several hours. As shown, the temperature of the chimney breast upstairs is 2C higher than the adjacent wall, so it is effectively a low-temperature radiator about 0.5m by 2m area. This is measured 12 hours after the stove has stopped running, outside temperature was about 14C.

That’s good in practice, we tend to start the fire when the sun goes down and the first floor is perceptibly warmer the next day than the ground floor. Which is great, it works with the usage pattern of the space. I would also favour a house with a chimney running through the middle of the house in a future purchase, assuming it were a two-storey house.

Of course you don’t get character with a house like mine. This sort of thing doesn’t particularly trouble us, but from TV shows it seems this matters to many people, not just Sarah Beeny 😉 In general you need more energy to heat a house with character because they tend to be more draughty and have solid walls, this is all part of the complex tradeoff you have to make when choosing somewhere to live. Having a significant heat gradient from the room to the fire does make things feel more homely, as it draws people together, and probably panders to some atavistic memory of our forebears in front of the fire. Not for nothing does the cat curl up in front of the fire rather than the radiator. That is also part of the character of a place, I love it when we go away to somewhere in the winter with a massive open fire in a huge inglenook fireplace with a heat gradient that  made us feel cosy in the warm space. However, I wouldn’t like to pay for it every winter day.

#3 Insulate and draught-proof first

The great thing about insulation is that it’s cheap, and a reasonably easy DIY win. I only have three inches of loft insulation, and a reasonable amount of junk up there. Go for more than 3 inches and you can’t use the loft for storage since 3 inches is the typical depth of the rafters. In a modern house you can’t store much in the loft anyway, because of the cheap prefab woodwork cluttering up the loft. Although I only have three inches of rockwool and the current recommendation is for more than twice that, the loft boards and the junk probably help. It’s damn cold in the loft compared to the house in winter 🙂

Draught-proofing is best done in double glazed windows using integral rubber seals, but you can DIY here, though none of the DIY solutions last more than a couple of years. They are at least cheap DIY. Doors are also a problem. For me the double glazing fixed draughts almost totally (there is a porch and old conservatory that keep draughts from the main front and back door). I believe nutting draughts is a major part of why I can avoid using the central heating, because the house can hold the heat from a fire in the evening almost through to the next afternoon.

My previous Victorian two up two down had individual room gas fires. For a gas fire to work it has to be open to the outside to vent the flue and open to the inside for the heat to get out. No complaints about the efficacy of the gas fires, but the house would not hold heat from the evening to the morning, let alone the afternoon. It was always brass monkeys in the morning, and that’s a bastard for getting up to go to work.

In the current house I didn’t notice the problem of the house not holding heat, because like most people I’d set the central heating to come on a bit before it was time to get up. So that solved the problem with the brass monkeys, but the leakage of heat meant the wood burning stove couldn’t work well for the whole house – it had the same problem as the previous house, it was freezing in the morning. So I used the central heating just for the morning. This combination reduced the gas bill, but what transformed things was fitting the double glazing. That allowed the wood stove to take over the heating of the whole house. The stove is a small one with a rated max output of 6.5kW. In all fairness to the installers, it was only specified to heat the front room, which it was easily able to do despite the initial draughts, and those draughts were hardly perceptible to me. It’s extremely necky to then pitch for using a single room heating appliance to heat the entire house, but it works for me.

So the takeaway is that you can heat your house with a log-burner alone, as long as the house isn’t too big, as long as you have dealt with insulation, double glazing and draught-proofing properly first. Insulation and draughtproofing are relatively cheap to do compared to installing a log burner. I’ve probably spent £10k on windows and the log burner combined. It’s hard to say where the break-even point is. The windows have probably added something to the value of the house, if only because the previous ones were obviously ropey. If I say the total outlay is £8k allowing for that then the breakeven point is about 8 years or so, shorter if gas prices rise faster than inflation.

various other related issues

My gas boiler is over 20 years old, and a modern one would undoubtedly be more efficient. I have savings allocated to replacing that, but I am putting that off because there seem to be very serious reliability problems associated with condensing boilers which is the only type allowed to be fitted these days. The problem seems to be the extra complexity, and the condensate has to be discharged outside, and there is a problem with the discharge pipe freezing so the condensate backs up and the safety system shuts down the boiler. A heating system that doesn’t like freezing temperatures outside isn’t the greatest triumph of engineering smarts IMO. On the other hand, I would benefit from a modern pressurised on-demand hot water system without storage. Downsides of that are I have mixed feelings about the lack of resilience against interruptions to the mains water supply that I expect to be increasingly likely as we have interruptions to the mains power supply. The 25 gallon cold water tank in the loft gives some peace of mind there 😉

Since I don’t use the boiler for heating I can eat the lack of efficiency, and I haven’t come to a conclusion about the hot water. Losing the storage tanks would KO any opportunity to use solar hot water, and I could probably halve the dwell time of the boiler by changing the primitive mechanical programmer for a modern electronic one to get just one heating period for hot water a day rather than the two the current programmer insists on. You probably need that for a four-person family but it’s overkill for the two of us most of the time.

All round, saving money on energy/heating demands a whole systems approach and a reasonably methodical process before you do anything, and the opportunities may well be constrained by the design and size of your house.You have to start with what you have and work with it, and unfortunately the main issues are the size and design of your house, which you’re pretty much stuck with.

Running a 25 year old boiler and a modern wood stove isn’t the obvious way to attack this, but it works well enough for me, my combined gas and electricity bill is ~£500 and I believe they are still significantly overcharging me on estimated consumption. This is less than half the typical UK power bill, and it is notable that about a third of it is the fixed standing charges.

I was lucky with some of the features of my house, but only realised the benefits once the last link had been completed of the insulate and draughtproof chain, which was replacing the windows. Unfortunately, it looks like you have to get everything to work together before you can use a wood burning stove for the main or only heat source. Mine is only 6.5kW flat out. Using this calculator a replacement whole house boiler for my house would need to be 17kW with typical assumptions. The improved heat holding capacity I’ve ended up with probably explains why a wood burning stove works for me. I can leverage the investment by using it to replace my heating gas consumption, shortening the break-even period.

Looking at all the grousing in the Guardian comments, many people buy wood stoves as a lifestyle acessory, and there’s nothing wrong at all in that. It is then a lifestyle cost, not a way to save money, even though some of the cost is defrayed by reduced gas usage. It’s reasonable to allow for that but it won’t pay for it.

Bear in mind that in the UK people typically move house every seven years so the opportunity for cost recovery is limited. I’m unusual in that I stayed in my first house ten years and have only moved once, I’ve lived in this house for 14 years and don’t have any current plans to move, so  I can expect to reach breakeven and into the free lunch beyond.


Saving money on heating

The Torygraph tells us, shock, horror, that fuel prices are going up by about 10% this winter, and the Grauniad is up in arms about ‘Millions of householders face record high heating bills this winter‘. Well there’s a surprise. Here’s news for you. Energy costs are always going to go up higher than the rate of inflation. The reason for that is that we keep on adding energy users to the world, and while we’re at it we haven’t been that hot at finding new oil deposits either. So we have an end of cheap oil. We’ve probably also passed peak oil too, and the price mechanism is there to ration demand in a capitalist system…

The problem is apparent in this Guardian chart, gas is red line

A quick glance at this chart from the Grauniad is enough to show the enemy. This is not going to a good place. It’s not quite as bad as it looks because the graph is linear, not logarithmic and you have to mentally compute the ratio of inflation to gas price. It confirms my recollection that energy prices used to be higher than they are now in the early 1980s. People have become used to the price suckout since the early 1990s to 2006 which is why there is such a massive keening noise about this at the moment, but it isn’t actually anything new.

There are some that say that’s no bad thing what with global warming, and others that say it’s all a conspiracy to rack up our bills to pay for this that and the other. Ofgem even threatens us with blackouts, pity that Aggreko has such a crappy yield and a shockingly high P/E these days. Others jab a finger at the current great white hope for Business As Usual, fracking. This has reduced natural gas prices in the United States. Maybe it will make gas too cheap to meter, now where have we heard that before?

Now we have hard nuts like Rob who lived in Edinburgh for three years without running the heating. You can do that, indeed I did it as a student and early householder, but Ermines get used to some creature comforts after a while. The aim is to stay warm, just not to pay British Gas or anyone else for it.

Gas is convenient, but not the only way…

The way to do this is to look back in time. Gas central heating is dandy and very convenient, it comes on in the morning without having to do anything. It came to Britain in the 1970s, with our draughty single-glazed housing stock, and very welcome it was too, no more freezing cold house when the alarm went off in the morning. However, modern houses, or rather houses insulated to modern specs, hold their heat reasonably well overnight, so that’s not a critical as it was in the 1970s.

Before central heating, people used primarily coal on open fires to heat their houses, though they would also use free-standing paraffin heaters and the like. ‘Elf ‘n saftey has probably done for those these days, and that’s not necessarily such a bad thing. However, people also used wood, particularly in more rural areas. Wood runs with the zeitgeist because it is considered a renewable resource.

Mrs Ermine was instrumental in getting the Ermine household to secede from Big Oil as far as domestic heating is concerned, and we got a log burner, looking for one that is reasonably efficient (~70% apparently) and also capable of running coal. So far it has only run wood. The old boy Karl Marx was right on the money when he said that you need to get control of the means of production, and when it comes to heating that means insourcing. Indeed, there is a more general case here – insourcing is a large part of the solution to not getting ripped off in a lot of areas of life 🙂 Some of these fall into the class of non-financial investments, land, fruit trees, facilities and energy saving steps like insulation fall into this category, and good asset allocation requires a spread of investment classes.

Wood is a low energy-density fuel

Wood is a tremendously low-energy density fuel compared to coal. What that means is that it’s big and heavy for the amount of heat you get from it. You really want to get your wood locally, otherwise you are going to be paying a lot to shift it to your fireplace. We use wood from the locality, either from the hedgerows at the Oak Tree, where we plant ash replacements for the 1970s dead elms, but we also acquire some as cordwood from a local tree surgeon. The low density does have some advantages. In more rural areas of Suffolk, it has been known for people in the sticks who use diesel oil for heating to lose a thousand pounds worth of heating oil overnight. It is easy enough to steal if you can get a Transit van nearby, what people do is lower an electric pump into the tank and pump the oil into a tank in the Transit or disguised in a horsebox. It’s unlikely to be a horse occupying that horsebox if you spot one at night 😉 The low energy density of wood means it’s harder to run off with a load of wood, particularly if it’s stored as cordwood lengths that need chainsawing to be usable. Those on mains gas don’t have this problem because gas is delivered on demand, and it’s kinda obvious if someone half-inches a Zeppelin full of it or runs an LPG plant next to your house.

Wood is a fair amount of work if you don’t want to pay for it

Processing wood always catches us a little bit on the hop around this time of year because it is time consuming and a fair amount of work. Of course the easy way to do this is to pick up the phone and order up a ton of logs delivered by tipper truck. However, basic economic theory says that as the price of something like gas goes up, people will drive the price of alternatives up, and this is visible in the price of logs. The demand also seems to have caught suppliers out, as people observe that ‘seasoned logs’ tend to need another season to dry out properly. This is why you should buy your logs in Spring and stash them in a covered log store that air can permeate, to get some chance to dry them out under your control.

In the end saving £700 is always going to be some work – we didn’t use the central heating for heating, only for hot water last year, and the aim is to do the same this year. I also don’t know where Ofgem get their £700 figure from as most ex-colleagues paid a lot more than that. I used to pay £400 a couple of years ago but it is very hard to track this now because monthly direct debit with annual bills is the demon spawn for accountability. I am beginning to wonder if investing the money I have on depost with EDF would not save me more than the money saved for direct debit.

Gas prices have increased since the last time I used gas 100% for heating. You can see the downtrend since 2008 as this started to knock out some of my usage, and it saves us at current prices about £500 a year. The payback time is about six years at current rates. This may be shortened however, because fuel costs are rising, and the independence of the fossil fuel price means this is something that concerns us less. A fire is more convivial too – it’s difficulat to place a monetary value on the differetn feeling of a glass or two of red wine shared with others around the flickering flames and direct heat.

Reuse, recycle…

Sweating the asset – this Ikea sofa will serve me well as fuel after 15 years as seating

This year we are breaking out into two new firewoood sources. One is locally nonrenewable though globally renewable. It was hasta la vista to the trusty Ikea sofas that served me well since bachelor days as we bought nice replacements secondhand from a friend moving to Canada. There’s a reasonable amount of pine in there, and with a jigsaw mounted in a Workmate that was quickly rendered to firewood. Yeah, I know I should use a table saw but I don’t have one.

The second more renewable resource is pallets, which we have been collecting over the summer. A little bit of me weeps when I see people burning pallets as waste on a site, because these can be used inside a wood burner to provide useful winter heating, and it’s generally a waste. Many people are glad to be shot of them.

I got the power…

There is no power at the Oak Tree but using a car battery and a Handy Mains inverter the jigsaw served me well again. We can fit a pallet whole into our van but for those who need to cut them up a bit that’s one way to do it on site. You can get battery powered jigsaws or reciprocating saws but I don’t really get on with cordless tools other than cordless drills. They’re either gutless, expensive or both, and the batteries never last as long as they should do. When they get knackered, due to a conspiracy by the manufacturers the battery packs have become obsolete and new ones won’t fit. As a result the cost of a new battery is the same as a replacement too.

Mr Money Mustache seems to rave about battery tools but he is a real carpenter and I am probably cheap 😉 Perhaps in America they have laws to stop the manufacturers changing the shape of the batteries every two years, which is about the time it takes to wreck one with heavy use.

Using an inverter and a leisure battery has transformed wrangling pallets on site. You should  monitor the battery voltage and avoid letting it fall below 10.5V on full load, though modern inverters usually have a low-voltage cutout. I don’t know if mine does, you get a lot of jigsawing out of a leisure battery. Decent connections matter too – a 350W tool is looking for about 33A at 12V. That terminal block probably wants to be replaced with a soldered connection at some stage. The jigsaw should be a low-tech on-off unit with a universal motor (one where you see occasional sparks from the commutator at the back) for best results with a inverter… Having said that, the Scorpion reciprocating saw I also use has an electronic speed controller but works fine.

taking on a pallet with a jigsaw

There are two ways of tackling a pallet with a jigsaw – either slice through the runners at the bottom to make it easier to pry apart the planks, or do that, rest the pallet against a stack of logs and bash seven bells out of it with a sledgehammer, which if targeted right breaks the planks out from the middle purlins. You need to use eye and ear protection and be ready to duck until you have the hang of it. The trick is to aim into the plank along the line of the nails.

Obviously the combination of power tools and a planks with nails and a sledgehammer is kinda dangerous and you should take due care and attention 😉

Jar of annealed nails, of no earthly use whatsoever other than as a “what the heck is that?” talking point!

Pallet wood goes a treat and works well with some logs, the fast-burning pallet yang works with the yin of a slower burning log. We don’t bother having the nails out. If you are going to use the ash for something, like Mrs Ermine does at The Oak Tree, you can either sieve the buggers out, pick ’em out have them out with a loudpeaker magnet. They have their own rustic aesthetic charm. I presume that being annealed through the fire they are pretty useless for their original purpose.

Kindling, ready made by Nature. Beats chopping it up IMO!

Another recent discovery is that pine cones make excellent kindling if you dry them out for a short while. We do this in a mesh container in the south-facing porch – heating the cones up opens them out as well as drying them. I did wonder if there were issues with resin but it seems they are no worlse than burning pine wood. And they deliver. Chopping up wood for kindling with an axe is tedious compared to a stroll in the wood for cones, and a little bit goes a long way.

As a result of this, there are no plans to allow icicles to form on the tips of the Ermine’s fur in the winter, and he need not be fleeced by the power companies either. Or harassed the Russkies having their occasional barney with the Ukraine. The latter would still get in my way because about half of the UK’s power is generated with gas. Although I do have a standalone 12V solar lighting system capale of running through the shortest day, I would need to use the 12V party audio amplifier for entertainment through the long dark nights promised by OfCom for the years ahead. Al least I’ve fixed my portable CD player, but to be honest the car audio amplifer sounds rough as guts for use indoors, so perhaps I should look out for a decent 50W secondhand car CD player. And buy those damn Aggreko shares with some of the savings on gas 😉

added 22 Oct It seems not everyone has as much luck with a wood burning stove as I did – I’ve tried to bring out some of the things that help this for for me in a follow-up post.

Osborne – workers of the world unite – and take the shaft?

Wow, ain’t he generous? When I was a young Ermine, one of the principles I was taught was that the whole point of the rule of law meant there was one law applying across the land. Okay, as I got older I realised that often money and influence could tarnish the ideal, but here’s George on the TV offering people nothing for something:

George, me old mucker, there was a story on some old book years ago about some fellow selling his birthright for a mess of pottage. You read that and figured it sounded great. Let’s take a butcher’s hook at this deal for new workers:

Here you are, £2000 to £50,000 worth of shares in your future employer, in return for losing most of the the expectation you used to have of remaining an employee or at least there being some warning of getting the hoof, and your overall employment security. There is already a well-established and equitable way of companies getting a flexible workforce.

Contractors sell security of employment – for extra pay, not a one-off bung!

Hang on, didn’t that used to be called contracting? I once saw a spreadsheet of departmental salaries where they had us permies and the salaries of the contractors. The contractors were typically on three times the gross salary of permies.  They have no employment rights, no pension, no statutory sick pay, they get to pay their own employer NI. That’s why they earned so much more! If they had any brains they’s use some of that excess to stick into a pension,  insure against sickness, and build up an emergency fund. Oh and pay NI to HMRC under IR35. All that probably took up half the excess, and the rest was compensation for being more entrepreneurial and the fact that the company could hire and fire at short term notice.

Not a bad deal at all. Boy George wants firms to get that on the cheap. Here’s an Ermine’s word in the shell-like of putative employees that are tempted. Just Say No. Want £2000 worth of shares in the company you are about to join absolutely tax free? Here’s how to get the gain without the pain.

Save up £2000, open up a stocks and shares ISA, instruct broker to purchase £2000 worth of Company of your choice, sit back, job done. No CGT to pay in future either! No need to sell your employment rights for that.

There are other ways to build up a stake like that, for instance join Sharesave, on maturity you can transfer up to £10k worth of shares to a S&S ISA, job also done but you are also protected against share price movement downside!

Boy George’s offer is a bum deal. Do yourselves a favour. Just Say No to the Osborne pottage. If you like the firm’s prospects that much, contract for them, and use an ISA to save some of your contractor’s premium, in shares of the firm. Each and every year you work for them!

As of the end of this year, I will own about an equivalent value of shares in my former employer as my take-home pay would have been, purchased in employee shares and Sharesave. That’s a damn sight more that the one-off £2000 Osborne’s offering for your surrender of your employment rights, and that is about half the extra amount firms have to pay contractors to accept for not having any – each and every year. I don’t particularly consider myself an ‘owner’ of The Firm. I get some satisfaction from the fact my ex-employer has to pay me about a month’s take home every year in dividends, but it’s a bigger stake than Osborne’s offering people to sell their legal rights for. Your pissant stake in the company is going to do diddly-squat to influence the direction of the firm. The interests of shareholders are to some extent diametrically opposed to the interests of the employees. I don’t hold this stake in my ex-employer just because Neil Woodford owns a big slug of it in Invesco Perpetual’s high income fund; some of the reason for holding the shares in The Firm were some of the reasons that made it a worse place to work in the end.

Free shares for your employment rights –  Snog, Marry, Avoid?

She’d say Avoid to Osborne’s deal 🙂

Know a bad deal when you see it. This one’s definitely Avoid. Unfortunately, it looks like employment law is going to be rewritten to allow for new hires to be only offered second-rate employment rights, rather than having a genuine choice. You may not have the option to avoid, and contractors may also get the shaft, as the flexibility they offered at a price is going to be undercut somewhat. Heck, as an employer I’d rather offer an Osborne hire and fire ’em contract at permie salary with a bung at the beginning for any role where the extra cost of NI, NIST pension + £2000 share bung is less than the contractor premium over the expected life of the job. Yes, the range is £2000 to £50,000 worth of shares, but somehow I get the feeling £2000 is going to be the thick end of the distribution 😉 The £50k will be at the board level end, and these don’t usually have to worry about getting the push unexpectedly…

Osborne’s not offering you anything of significant value compared to what you have to surrender, and what he is offering is pretty cheap to buy on the open market along with the much vaunted CGT tax advantage carrot he’s dangling. He could have done so much better – how about vesting a six months to a year’s salary worth of share options at the start, to mature after five years or when you are terminated, if the latter is earlier? He could sweeten the deal for companies by foregoing NI until the vesting period ends, the saving in unemployment benefit would probably make this revenue neutral.

Try harder next time, George.

Finally Debt-Free, and it feels good

Credit card mandala

For the last 16 months or so I’ve carried a £5800 balance on a Tesco credit card. Yesterday it was due to be paid off, so the day before, I rang up Mr Tesco and paid it off. It’s the last piece of long-term consumer credit debt I’ve had, and it felt good to discharge it.

The Ermine is unlike those exemplary 1-4 users of Drew’s Making Peace with Credit Cards. Hell, I buy luxuries and non-luxuries on my cards. I don’t pay the damn things off every month, I’ve been making minimum payments.

Has there been a secret Ermine gadget buying spree going on? No. While I was working I ran up a debt on this Tesco credit card. Each time I bought something on the card, I paid about the same amount to a Nationwide savings account. I had a serious credit card habit – Barclaycard had offered me interest-free credit for a year, and so I took them up on the deal as well.

Then Martin Lewis of Moneysavingexpert introduced me to this MBNA deal where I could transfer a balance to it interest-free for 12 months, so I shifted the Barclaycard balance to them as it was due to time out. Nationwide gave me a paltry rate on their savings account, so I shifted that to National Savings and started saving up the amount again in a different account. I paid MBNA down last month. The Tesco card had been running at the same time, all in all I had about £10,000 worth of consumer credit accumulated over about three years. A lot of it was equipment purchased for the farm, although there were a few meals out, shedloads of fuel purchases and some groceries and wine purchases too 😉

When is 0% interest not 0%? When there’s a 3% handling charge!

There seems to be some collusion between card providers, because Barclaycard and MBNA have been regularly sending me 0% balance transfer offers. But with a 2.9% handling charge, so they can get on their bike. A 12 month 0% balance transfer with a 3% ‘handling charge’ is a 3% p.a. loan. Some of the offers were six month, making a 6% APR. Some people may be daft enough to get caught out by that but I’m not one of them.The frequency of these offers has increased over the last couple of months, presumably as they suspect I am getting desperate to pay the Tesco card off.

I got about 2.1% on the savings, so I guess all this kerfuffle meant I made about £300 in interest over a year and a bit. Yes, it’s worth having I suppose. However, I do remember times when this game was a lot more worth doing.

Even 0% debt has a cost – it complicates my life.

Debt is still a claim on my resources. It takes away a little bit of my soul. It was good to pay down MBNA last month and is was even better to pay down Tesco. There wasn’t a monetary cost to either debts, that’s the whole point. And yet I’m not sure I want to carry that sort of debt any more in future. Stoozing is very hard work at 3% interest rates, it was much more fun at 6 or 7%. Stoozing isn’ simple living, it’s taking extra complexity on to make money.

It’s possible that Equifax and their ilk already know I don’t have any income and the blizzard of faux-0% offers is a cynical ploy to take advantage of that. Hell, I got rejected from Zopa as a lender because of something that wasn’t right at Equifax. Maybe I should check it out so I can have another bash, I certainly wasn’t going to send Zopa a notarised photocopy of my passport just to lend money to them!

My credit score probably stinks now, because credit scoring is all about looking for the out of the ordinary. I am going to stick out for miles as out of the ordinary because I have no income they can detect, and I don’t hold revolving credit card debt now. I don’t have a job, I don’t draw a pension, indeed the God of Shopping will probably send a SWAT team out to crush this sort of dissent before it catches on. I presume at the moment Equifax doesn’t have its tentacles in accounts where I have capital, because it doesn’t have any business there.

I will still use the credit cards I hold for the other advantages, particularly the consumer protection. But if a credit card company decides I shouldn’t hold a card from them then so be it. I don’t have to borrow money on a credit card. I don’t buy enough Stuff to be worth chasing cashback deals and the like, stoozing isn’t worth the candle for me so to hell with that. Simplicity has its own rewards. If interest rates on deposits tick up to useful levels in the future I’ll review that, but I’m not holding my breath.

My values are not objective, they are often irrational

Being debt-free is a very different feeling from having more than enough capital to pay down all debts, ie net-worth debt-free. My net worth in Quicken hasn’t changed one bit. It’s irrational as hell, a bit like paying down my mortgage; I could have held on to it and invested instead. Objectively the two are equivalent, indeed carrying the debt to invest is a classic use of other people’s money for leverage. However, personal finance is not objective, it is also about values. These values are not universal and independent of the observer. My values are that owing this money probably cost me more than I was being paid to owe it. That is the time to stop chasing the small freebie and live those values. For any month now, I owe nobody anything that came from previous consumption.

For a long time I have craved simplicity, too enmeshed with claims on my existence, and in the last few years of work I found servicing those claims meant I was doing something every day which pissed me right off in some respects. In these recent years, I have been reducing this noise and hum, to quieten the enervating racket and the grasping hands and entities demanding I live by stupid rules. Then I started to turn the tables and lay my own claims on others’ work, because the process works in reverse too. Among others, from the end of the year The Firm will pay me in dividends more than a month’s salary every year, without having me on their payroll. They need to start working for me now, rather than the other way round.

Being debt-free in an absolute sense feels good. Now the process of reduction in almost complete. The quieter time of the year is coming, the darker months are for introspection and reflection sometimes in front of the fire, occasionally with a glass of some fine red wine. For elimination of what is wrong is a necessary part of the process, but it is not sufficient to live intentionally and well. I have cleared the way by elimination, but then need to build anew by synthesis to shape a life that matches my values.

Tell Sid…about the Direct Line IPO

RBS is flogging off some of their holding in Direct Line with an Initial Public Offering (IPO) to close on the 9th. On the face of it, there’s a lot to be said for Direct Line, one of the larger UK motor insurers.

Motor insurance is something you have to have. Well, I don’t but I don’t have a car, if you do then you need it and there are all sorts of threatening aggravation if you don’t, which has been recently computerised. So the elasticity of demand is lower than for more elective forms of insurance, like life, house or contents insurance. DL does write a fair amount of that, too, FWIW.

Normally, when you buy shares, there’s some history. You shouldn’t use that because previous performance is not guarantee of future gains etc, but it seems to work often enough in combination with some valuing of the company, leastways with dividend targeting. The trouble with an IPO is you don’t have any history other than what’s in the Prospectus, and the information on valuation is provided by the IPO sponsors 😉 In the end deciding whether to go for an IPO is all about valuation, which is a bastard, because of this (brazenly pinched from the pricing press release):

  • Price range set at 160 pence to 195 pence per share.
  • Offer of up to 500 million shares (the “Offer Shares”) (prior to any exercise of the over-allotment option), comprised solely of existing shares being sold by RBS Group.
  • Expected offer size in the region of 375 million to 500 million shares, representing between 25% and 33% of the existing shares.
  • Over-allotment option of up to 15% of the aggregate number of Offer Shares (prior to exercise of the over-allotment option) granted by RBS Group.
  • The mid-point of the price range implies a market capitalisation for Direct Line Group of approximately £2,663 million.

So you get to make an offer on a moving share price target that can vary by 20% from the low-water mark to the high-water mark. At the top end, if every one goes for it, DL is valued at 2925 million pounds. DL also seems to make a loss on its underwriting, and there’s an OFT investigation into collusion with third party service providers in the motor insurance market. There are a lot of known unknowns.

It’s being offered at less than RSA which is a share I own. I’m thinking of hitting this in my ISA, which happens to have a lot of space in it due to the fracas invoved in moving it from iii to TD direct.

Insurance companies fit my desire for yield, however, I already have a shocking weighting towards insurance in my ISA, despite RSA’s best attempts to reduce it 😉  The sector represents about a sixth of the asset allocation, and this could potentially more than double. OTOH perhaps I should look at my equity holdings as an integrated whole, in which case it’s a lot less bad because my ISA is < 50% of my holdings at the moment and there’s no insurance in the unwrapped part.

Tactically, in the event I do come to the conclusion this works for me, I will leave it to close to the deadline. October has bad memories for Sid because the 1987 stock market crash hammered the BP IPO across Black Monday, the anniversary of which just happens to be when DL shares become freely tradeable (Oct 16th, Black Monday was 20 Oct 1987). And the stock market is frothy at the moment with no good reason I can see. However, that yield is attractive. So far I haven’t fallen into any value traps, but there’s always a first time 😦


Don’t Just Sit There Moaning about TV, Do Something

Daytime TV has no reason to exist in my view. It wasn’t just my opinion either – TV companies used to be of the same opinion, and helpfully transmitted testcard signals and the like, so that young Ermines could while away the slack time in the lab of my first company trying to fix a TV. And learning that a 26kV belt from the anode cap makes you end up lying on your back looking at the lab ceiling with stars  in front of your eyes. It confirmed the power supply and LOPT worked okay and the problem lay elsewhere, but I’ve been leery of TV since then 😉

The testcard signals were at least something useful, if not interesting, on TV in the daytime up to the early 1980s. The testcards have quite a following, as indeed does the testcard music, I was surprised to see. I recall it as light entertainment with all strings and no vocals, like muzak, but clearly it has its aficionados. Whereas apparently what they use the time for now seems to be upsetting people, particularly some shift-workers and retired people who are getting incensed because the BBC is showing a load of antique and auction programmes in the daytime. This was news to me, because life is too short to watch TV most weeks. Even if it is the case, so far in my life I’ve never come across a TV without one essential function. You sometimes have to look hard for it, and in the olden days when you actually had to get up to change channels on the TV  manufacturers had a pesky habit of combining it with the volume control. I’ve located it on my TV and helpfully arrowed it 🙂

Welcome to the Off button, Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells. It is your friend…

It’s called an off switch. If you ever find some piece of consumer electronics that is meant to be entertaining you fails in this task, press that and the problem is instantly sorted. Nondestructively, too. There are other ways of solving the immediate problem should you find an antique show not to your liking.

This switches off most things and some people, but it does have problematic side effects


Let’s take a closer look at all this upset. Viewer #1, presumably of sound mind and hale of heart, gripes

‘I work in the evenings, so all I see all day on the BBC are constant shows like Homes Under The Hammer, Cash in the Attic [and] Bargain Hunt. I sit down to dinner and I see Flog It, Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is, Antiques Road Trip [and] Antiques Roadshow. Do you really need so many of these types of shows?’

to which the obvious riposte is “Don’t be such a frickin slob.” Your food died for you. At least do it the honour of sitting down and paying it full attention while you eat it. You might find it tastes better, because humans only have so much sensory bandwidth. And if it doesn’t taste better then you could use some of the time you’re not watching crap on TV to cook something more nourishing!

While he’s at it, I have news for him. Starting somewhere about the mid Seventies, people invented something called the video recorder, explicitly to timeshift TV programmes. These have been refined over the years to a high art, as epitomised in my Humax Foxsat HDR. This was a massive upgrade to a Sky TV dish because it got rid of Rupert Murdoch’s blood funnel inserted into my wallet, and it means you can record TV shows and watch them later, like when Antiques Roadshow is on in the daytime! Ain’t technology wonderful? Go on, Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells, knock yourself out with one of those.

Viewer #2 seems to have a more intractable problem

Another said: ‘Being retired now, and because of the awful summer this year, I’ve spent more time at home than usual. These cheap and nasty [home and auction] programmes definitely aren’t aimed at me, or if they are, they are way off target.

Day after day of the same pointless, boring, mind rotting junk is insulting to anyone’s intelligence.’

Not sure there’s any intelligence to insult here, pal. We’ve sent a search party out for it and came to the conclusion that it’s MIA because you failed to make use of that on/off switch and go and do something more useful with your time.

I’ve been retired for three months and watch less TV than I did when I was working, because without the pain of working breaking up your day guess what? You can really get a run at something, and y’know, focus on it, or learn how to do something. I have focused on mimimising my outgoings at the moment because at this early stage of retirement maximising my capital is important so that I don’t deplete my future income. I haven’t been bored though – it’s a big wide world and the magic of Google means you can find out about all sorts of stuff and creating things. I’ve been learning how to code in Ruby, saved £300 by fixing a broken camera lens. On an off I try and make this motley collection of parts do something for me, though I know I ought to get on and build it properly once it covers more than half a solderless breadboard.

Now that the library has a decent search systemwhere you can order books online I’ve been reading Cheap. Heck, I’ve even discovered how to make the Amazon widget vaguely relevant/useful to this post. It’s really quite remarkable what you can do with the time that would otherwise be dedicated to watching Antiques Roadshow.Maybe these guys didn’t watch enough TV as kids. As the erstwhile TV show said, Why Don’t You Just Switch Off Your Television Set And Go Out And Do Something Less Boring Instead?