In praise of meatspace

There’s a new trend in the world of work. Meatspace. Presentee-ism. Being there, in the flesh. Bums on seats.

The fragrant Marissa Meyer is into meatspace - she's all for yahoos getting up close and personal
The fragrant Marissa Meyer is into meatspace – she’s all for yahoos getting up close and personal

I haven’t been able to trace the MBA paper that started off this management fad, but I saw the beginnings of it in the last few months at work, where the same thing was being said. Not with quite the same panache as Yahoo’s Meyer, who hit Yahoos straight between the eyes with having following edict  issued from Yahoo HR:


Over the past few months, we have introduced a number of great benefits and tools to make us more productive, efficient and fun. With the introduction of initiatives like FYI, Goals and PB&J[ref]apparently that’s Process, Bureaucracy and Jams, not Peanut Butter and Jelly[/ref], we want everyone to participate in our culture and contribute to the positive momentum. From Sunnyvale to Santa Monica, Bangalore to Beijing — I think we can all feel the energy and buzz in our offices. [Don’tcha love the poetic alliteration, Yahoos?]

To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side. [The slack way of life all you lot have gotten used to is about to end, numbskullz] That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home. We need to be one Yahoo!, and that starts with physically being together. [Repetition to Re-educate any Recalcitrant Refuseniks that Resistance! Is! Futile!]

Beginning in June, we’re asking all employees with work-from-home arrangements to work in Yahoo! offices.

In other words, Yahoos, your cushy lifestyle and childcare arrangement Have! Just! Ended! Because we own your time and We Can. Pretty much the same was said at The Firm. The keening noise from homeworkers far and wide was pretty similar. I admit that I simply suspected it was to encourage some people to take up the voluntary redundancy scheme the next time it came around. Yahoo may feel itself similarly overstaffed. However, in the US it seems much easier simply to issue pink slips all round, so I conclude that I was being over cynical as this explanation doesn’t apply in the case of Yahoo.

On a side note, imagine the feeling of Power you get issuing an edict like that? All of a sudden, you can turn over the lives of hundreds, if not thousands of your fellow human beings and make them follow your whim. Sometimes you have to look sideways in the mirror, and acknowledge the heart of darkness with its swishy arrowed tail 😉 Gordon Gekko was a wimp compared to Meyer.

Is she right – is homeworking detrimental to the working environment?

It depends on the work. There are some things that are fiercely individually creative and individualistic – writing a book, creating great art, that sort of thing. These things tend to be done by people acting as individual agents, not cube farm workers.So we can probably discount that sort of thing. It’s also not cut out for anything involving Stuff, usually. It’s about knowledge work – ideas, not things. And to be honest, the ‘knowledge worker’ office environment also used to be better in many ways than the typical open plan office/ hot-desking sty.

I saw a gradual degradation of the office environment over my three decades of working, but it is hard to separate the variables. Some of my early work was done where we had a group office of about ten of us, and a group lab where we could work on the development of electronics. This was a great working environment, which I saw both at BBC designs and at The Firm, but it was of its time – an expensive work environment where companies focused design talent and supported them for both the reflective design work (in the office) and the hands on lab work, which was a different sort of thing. There was also secretarial support – other people set the printers, made sure office supplies were replenished, all that sort of thing.

There was clear interplay between the staff- I learned an awful lot from more experienced hands, both by observation and by asking. Homeworking would have sucked here – the resources of my own electronics lab at home are a pale reflection of what was available thirty years ago at industrial research facilities despite three decades of technical development.

Even if I could replicate that, I would be at a disadvantage without the meatspace interaction with other people of a similar level or greater experience – Internet based discussion and email doesn’t go anywhere near compensating for that. Even thirty years of experience doesn’t entirely make up for that – if I haven’t experienced a particular design rathole I’d fall into it without the benefit of others around, the experience just helps me realise this faster.

Many people don’t interact with Stuff at work, they interact with thoughts or ideas. If they do interact with Stuff, homeworking is usually out. Not many people build aircraft commercially at home. So we are talking about knowledge workers.

Knowledge work and better communications – a match made in heaven

I recall the first time I came across the power of computer communications. I was working on an international collaborative project, and every so often I’d have to fax over a document to about ten groups of people in different companies. A fax machine has all the evils of a computer printer together with some pathologies all of its own, this was an early 1990s world without Internet email. Not only is a fax machine a ropey reproduction, it does a bad job of reproducing technical diagrams due to a nasty habit of not bothering to display fine lines. I spent about £500 of The Firm’s money (about £900 now) on a full-length fax card for my Dell 386 computer. All of a sudden people could read the diagrams right, and I could send the 10 lengthy faxes over lunchtime rather than take all afternoon at the fax machine feeding a multipage document in 10 times. And so it went on, with email, scanners and better computers, till we could share the results of our work with other people, from almost wherever we were.

Somewhere we jumped the tracks, and imagined that if we could share the results we could share our ideas. Yes, if it is just us who have the ideas. Yes if the ideas have been crystallised into a presentation. But compared to a bunch of interested and motivated people in a room together actually creating and swapping ideas – no. Even Cisco Telepresence which is HDTV videoconferencing is but a pale shadow of being there – the small time lags, the whole booking in advance thing, it’s crap compared to meatspace, though it’s great compared to an audio conference, or nothing. A lot better than nothing, but crap all the same compared with the best.

I also suspect sound and vision are not the only signals used between people. I was a techy sidekick in a high level business meeting between a CEO who was putting one over an opponent in a weaker position, and smelled the sharp metallic smell of anger/fear in the adversary. The CEO picked that up a couple of seconds later and went for the kill – he was just a little bit further way and must have subliminally reacted to the cue as the aircon wafted the smell to him.

The open – plan office was a step down in the working environment IMO

In the late 1990s companies were all for saving money and the open-plan office was a way to save an awful lot of money associated with physically moving infrastructure and reorganising work groups. For me it was an unmitigated disaster because of the noise problem, and this was aggravated by the advent of the mobile phone. Voice quality on mobiles is poorer than on landlines so people tend to HOLLER AT THE TOP OF THEIR VOICES in an attempt to make up for the impaired signal quality. Most natural audio path impairments are helped by shouting but the problem with mobile phones is the inherent infidelity of the GSM codecs, which is particularly bad when the wanted signal is polluted by background noise. Like in an open-plan office, a train, a public space, indeed anywhere you find shouty mobile phone users. The transmission path can just about get speech through, add junk to that and there’s less left over for the wanted signal.

I’ve been in small (ten man) offices where one of the occupants was involved in long landline phone altercations with their divorcing spouse, and while that was distracting, it was infrequent. An open plan office increases the statistical chance of serious disturbance far more, because there are far more people in earshot. I’d go as far as to say the use of mobiles for speech should be banned in open plan offices. Texting and non-voice communication started to alleviate this problem towards the end of my career.

I’m also written code and part-benefited from being in a colocated group, though the interruption and noise problem is an issue for that kind of work. I have seen a different approach to the open-pan office in American IT offices, where high partitions are used, creating cubicles – the classic Dilbert cube farm. I’ve never actually worked in a cube open plan office so I don’t know if it helps with the noise problem.

Unassigned hot-desking in an open-plan office

One of the problems for companies is that while open plan offices make changes easier, it didn’t address the problem of utilisation, so, fortunately just before I retired, there was a move to unassigned desk allocation (hot-desking). There are some things that educate a drone that he’s no longer in tune with the world of work and needs to surrender it to younger folk, and hot-desking was one of these things for me. I did this in Canary Wharf, where you’re roll up with a laptop and log into your desk phone. The desk phone was an IP telephony device, which introduces half a second’s worth of lag into the conversation. Most people nowadays have learned to live with that because of the similar lag in a mobile phone but I always struggled, particularly when another participant in a phone conference was next to me on a mobile and I heard his speech through the air a full second before it came back from the conference bridge, which added its own half-second latency to the inbound mobile call.

However, the main problems with hot desking were the simple things. Like where the hell is the bog on the floor I am today? How do people do coffee in this building? Where are the printers today – both physically, and having recognized them, how do I get connectivity to the suckers? Then if you’re trying to print something commercial in confidence you have to run a test print first. And so on. I found hot desking is a barrel of minor frustrations and time-wasting just-jobs, before you can actually start anything simply because it takes time to acquire situational knowledge in an unfamiliar work environment. Oh and office planners, allocating just four 8-seat meeting rooms for 300 people on a floor just sucks, okay?


I never did much homeworking, but observation of the reasons for people sending in an email WFH (working from home) showed me the most common reasons had to do with their children, though that wasn’t to say that in the case of some child-free colleagues I wouldn’t also reassign WFH to SFH (skiving from home). There was an increasing trend towards the telephone conference and I am all for people going home to do those so they don’t disturb other people who are actually trying to work in the office.

The telephone conference has the advantage of being cheap. It has no other advantages IMO. In a meatspace meeting at least you have to look people in the eye while you are wasting their time, and in a video conference you can observe the sleeping participants, and it’s expensive enough to discourage excessive meetings. Indeed the only thing worse than a telephone conference is a telephone conference with shared powerpoint presentation, because of the waste of the first 15 minutes while everyone tries to connect to livemeeting and agrees that they have a common view of the presentation, which will then be read out to them anyway 😉

Teleconferencing, virtual working, road warrioring, homeworking – form over function

As communications got better interactions got worse, IMO. I spent a few years of my former life in videoconferencing – great big room setups like Cisco Telepresence as well as the sort of crummy video chat applications exemplified by Skype. All of these methods have a problem, they are a pale imitation of really being there. They work very well with a bunch of people who already know each other, are greatly motivated, and really want to be there. Skype is great for lovers and grandparents/children separated by continents despite it’s multisecond lag and inherent skankiness. These people really want to be in touch. But the impairments of the medium get more significant as more people are involved and the motivation is less. Do you really want to be thinking about work when your child is learning ABC or watching a sparrow? I’m been in enough meetings where Tom and Jerry would be a positive enhancement



or this? no contest, IMO
or this? no contest, IMO

In the early days of virtual working people had to be really motivated to overcome the limitations of the technology, so though it was pretty crap it worked well in the world of work, because a) few people were using it and b) those people really wanted to use it. They were also usually smart enough to use the technology to share the results of their work, rather than to work together with people.

Then technology became cheaper, bandwidth became cheaper and more ubiquitous, and companies concluded that if some is good more was better, and so it was rolled out more widely. At the same time it began to blur the personal space and work space part of people’s lives.

What companies didn’t appreciate was that there was the risk of blowback. If they placed a greater claim on people’s time and commitment with an always on Crackberry virtual office, then they would start to find people’s childcare requirements encroaching on work time. Observation should have warmed them up to that – I’ve been in numerous phone conferences that had to have a break in transmission while a vocal child needed to be attended to, until it became possible for the conference chairperson to mute individual participants remotely. But that’s going to be the cost if people schedule phone conferences at 8am or 7:30 pm and demand people show up. They spread the working day, but received less commitment  in those hours. It appears that we have lost the years of industrial analysis that indicate you can’t run people at > 40 hours a week without productivity falling.

Work – it’s not just about the results, It’s about the process, too, and Marissa has a point – homeworking stiffs collaborative processes

I think I’ve got a sneaking respect for Meyer’s angle on this. There’s a lot to be said for meatspace when it comes to working with people. Humans are terrible multitaskers – we time-slice, but don’t have the information architecture that makes this virtually cost-free to a computer. Meatspace supports focus, and thins distractions. Being there shows commitment, and the bandwidth of face to face beats that of remote anything hands down.

A valid counter to that is that real time interaction is usually only a small part of any knowledge job, and homeworkers often play this card in opposition to meatspacers. The problem is that it’s hellaciously difficult to predict when that face to face meatspace interaction needs to take place –  few creative projects have a regimented time flow. One fellow at work who was big on homeworking though he lived only five minutes on foot from the office (he was in his fifties but had a young daughter) did actually master this. If on a phone conference something wasn’t working clearly enough, then nine times out of ten he would put on his coat and start walking to the office, and be there face to face in 10 minutes.

However, most home workers want to work at home because they want to live at a cheaper or better house further from the office, or they have childcare commitments, or both. They need advance warning – if only for the reason that they would need two hours to get to a face to face meeting!.

There is a darker corollary to this. If you are in a job where meatspace really doesn’t offer an edge, then the logical conclusion of virtualisation ends in India, not the Home Counties. Homeworker employees may not want to press the point too hard, and consider how well you can accommodate the meatspacing zeitgeist in the years to come.


SIP and Sharesave Employee shares and Capital Gains Tax

Now is the time to be thinking about capital gains tax, with the ending of the tax year. I have never had reason to be concerned about CGT before.  I’ve always done my stock market saving in ISAs apart from a rush of blood to the head in the dot-com bust. I do know one fellow who got into hot water at that time by making a shedload in the run-up, incurring a reasonable amount of CGT, which he struggled to pay because he, er, reinvested and got hammered in the bust. Ouch.

Looming large is the accumulated detritus of decades at the coalface of The Firm, in particular the last ten years when I was trying to reduce my higher rate tax liability but wasn’t close enough to retirement to unleash the big bazookas of pension savings.

If there’s one lesson to take away from this – Sharesave: Just Do It.

I was always a fan of sharesave – nobody’s ever offered me a one-way bet on the stockmarket before or since, so I filled my boots.The trick with sharesave is to keep on turning up. Most of the time it’s a damp squib or a minor jolly down the pub, but every so often your boat comes in and you get a great one-way win on the stock market without eating the corresponding risk. Just do it, though how you do it depends on whether you can cancel previous schemes to get the lowest share price or have to spread yourself evenly across schemes. Many people get bored with the dry periods, it so happens that the boat came in just as I left The Firm – the profit on the last Sharesave is probably half of the total profit I made on sharesave while working there. In total over my career Sharesave paid me probably about a year’s final salary tax-free; over nearly twenty-five years working for The Firm that adds up to about a 4% pay rise across my working life.

Obviously the statistics for another company will be different, what makes sharesave so unique is it’s a rolling one way bet on the share prices rising. You just can’t lose. Most people, sadly, saw no longer than the end of their noses, and having to do without £3000 a year out of post-tax pay for the first five years was too much to pay for the opportunity to jump at the chance of a 4% pay rise. After the first five years they can pay for succeeding Sharesaves from the proceeds of the first lot.

To reduce HRT exposure as I crept into the HRT band I started with ESIP – a share incentive plan. You get to pay up to £125 per month into a share incentive plan, which immediately buys that much of shares in the FTSE100 firm I worked for. Later on they softened it to that I could make a lump-sum purchase of up to £1500 a tax year. This comes out of pre-tax pay, so as I was drifting into HRT it was the first obvious win. I got paid dividends on the shares as soon as I bought them, and had to hold for five years to avoid paying tax. I always religiously sold in the year after they came out of the embargo period, on the usual principle that as an employee you want the least additional exposure to the firm you work for, because if the firm has a hard time you get to lose your job and your savings at the same time.

As the good people at Northern Rock or Enron discovered, for God’s sake don’t needlessly increase your strategic exposure to your employer while still employed with them. The tail risks are very nasty indeed. That’s obviously not what sharesave and ESIP are all about, but you have to watch your tail 😉

The trouble with buying stock £125 at a time, is that the calculation for capital gains tax is really, really, hateful. Most of my gains are due to sharesave, buying at 70p and selling at about four times that. However, the pool of shares is polluted with all those itsy-bitsy ESIP purchases – in the round these roughly doubled, with dividend reinvestment and the 41% tax and NI bung added.

I’ve only got shares in The Firm outside my ISA, so I will sell £10,000 of this lot this tax year, and a similar amount next year. Not all of that is a capital gain, of course, but mathematically the capital gain must be less than the annual CGT allowance of £10,600, and my disposal is of course less than four times the allowance too. One thing that was interesting from HMRC is that if you keep your shares in the share incentive plan until disposal there is no CGT to pay, however I was unable to work out if this applied to me as I don’t work for The Firm anymore. If you still work for the employer, and I know an awful lot of people at The Firm will have a big sharesave come out next year, assuming it doesn’t all go titsup, then it’s worth really understanding what HMRC mean here.

Approved share incentive plans (SIPs) If you keep your shares in the SIP until you dispose of them, you will have no Capital Gains Tax to pay in respect of this disposal. If you keep the shares after you take them out of the plan and dispose of them later, your cost for capital gains purposes will be their market value on the date the shares leave the plan.

It looks like if you sell your shares straight from the Equiniti SIP/Sharesave corporate nominee share scheme you don’t take a hit for CGT whatever the gain, but do please ask the Sharesave team because it isn’t 100% clear to me, but it might be useful to those of you still at the coalface 😉 They usually hold a Q&A teleconference just before maturity which may be useful to attend.

Selling my part-holding will give me the problem of having the vilest asset class of all, cash, which is rotting daily by the devaluing charlatans at the Bank of England.

My, doesn't he look handsome. He's still a thieving SOB who wants to destroy the value of cash as quickly as possible, despite his good looks and clean-cut image.
My, doesn’t our new Bank of England top dog look handsome? He’s still a thieving SOB who wants to destroy the value of cash as quickly as possible, despite his good looks and clean-cut image. That’s why Cash is not King…

A year’s CGT allowance is conveniently about the same amount as an ISA allocation, but I already have funds allocated to that, so I will probably switch the proceeds for something tediously boring but not cash, like 60% Vanguard Lifestrategy and 20% Vanguard Europe and 20% gold just to observe the disgusting brutality that QE will do to the pound. The CGT clock will start ticking again on these unwrapped shareholdings, of course, but at least it’s an easier calculation than 60 monthly ESIP purchases 😉

This will still leave me with a lot of The Firm’s shares, but brought down to a more manageable amount of only a third of my total holdings. The Firm fits well into a HYP, so once I have finished loading my ISA with savings I shall bed-and-ISA those unwrapped residual holdings of The Firm over a couple of years


I have always wanted to do this, in every office job I had…

a pictures's worth a thousand words

I’ve had this printer for more than 10 years, it was ratty when I got it, and it became increasingly reluctant to print on the other side of the paper without screwing it up if I fed it through again. Further investigation after it jammed all the time  showed the paper jam to be mid-printer, and applied either to the manual feed or to the tray feed.

I have repaired printers before, but anything involving the paper feed seems to be so finely balanced between running right and jamming that I figured I had zero chance of success – the fault wasn’t obvious, like something broken off or loose. Getting spares for something 10 years old isn’t that likely either.

So I extracted the memory and jetdirect network card, and took the opportunity to vent thirty years of frustration at recalcitrant office equipment by taking the bugger outside and smashing it on the ground, then laying into it with a spade. I do recommend taking the toner cartridge out first 🙂 Yes, I did end up with a lot of small pieces to sweep up, but I felt so much better. And it all fitted into the bin after smashing it up too.

In every office job I’ve had I’ve wanted to do this to the printer when the damn thing jammed with some report that was meant to be in yesterday, and now the itch is scratched. Office printers seem to have a knack for knowing the most inconvenient time to break down and a perverse dlight in using it.

Funnily enough the HP Laserjet 5P that I originally bought in the last century for £600 (!) is still in service after more than 15 years with only one roller kit replaced. What will take that sucker down is the fact it only has a Centronics parallel port, and I haven’t seen one of those on a PC for years…

the real thing that we’re missing with the horse for beef swap is…

…that nobody picked it up by tasting the difference. Even at 100% horse.

NB not a post for committed vegetarians 😉

where you're supposed to start with a beef lasagne
where you’re supposed to start with a beef lasagne (OK so they’re actually dairy cows)

It’s a rum old world, eh? One upon a time people knew what beef tasted like. I’ve knowingly eaten horse in France because I don’t have any hangups about it, and while I can see the generic big herbivore similarity it isn’t that close – much leaner and a stronger taste than beef.

Nowadays we eat an awful lot of ‘mechanically recovered meat’ which is the processed to look like real meat. Take a look at Tesco sliced ham in packets. Looks real enough, apart from the occasional few mm hole where an air bubble in the process shatters the illusion. They even work hard enough to make it look like there is structure and differences in the regions of the ham, rather than the universal pink slime favoured in the fast food trade.

Industrially processed food is crap. It doesn’t have to be for fundamental reasons, but it is crap for economic reasons. It favours the greedy and the money-grabbing, because it anonymises the product time and time again. Every time you test humans on the test

What would you do if you knew nobody was watching

You get the answer – anything to make life easier, make more money and to hell with concern for the health and safety of our fellow humans or abstract notions like animal welfare. Gordon Gekko doesn’t just occupy Wall Street – Greed is Good runs throughout business where suppliers don’t know and see their customers. This is just what you get if you Manage By Objectives rather than manage your firm by Values – you incentivise profit objectives, and you get it.

Meat being of highest perceived value gets the most adulterated because that’s where the profit margin is. It’s not the only reconstituted product – I was intrigued to read in Fresh that baby carrots were pieces of full grown carrot sanded down 😉

Just a really fit cow, really ;)
Look at it as just a really fit cow;)

In the long supply chains favoured by cheap industrial food, there is room for abuse all along the chain, from the US meat processors who can’t be bothered to butcher their carcasses properly so they wash them in ammonia to render the shit less hazardous to human health to the anonymous horse for beef swappers somewhere along the line to FindusTesco, Aldi et al.

The trilemma – You can have it cheap.You can have it good. You can have it as it says on the tin.

– but only one or two of those at a time, never all three. In all the hyperventilating and bizarre conspiracy theories, nobody has stopped to ask the simple question

why the hell did nobody notice that the beef is a bit funny in this lasagne/burger whatever?

The answer, sadly, is that very little industrial chow tastes of much, and very rarely does it taste of anything in particular. This is because the long supply chains mean that things aren’t fresh when they get to us, so much of what gives something taste has broken down, and the extensive mixing and grinding up makes what taste is left an amorphous average.

Industrially raised meat starts off wrong because it does stupid things. You’ll observe the cows in the picture above are on grass, which is how humans have run cows for centuries. Most of the cows raised nowadays are fed on corn derived feed, often in massive feedlots like this one. You don’t get pictures of cows in cornfields because they never evolved to do that, and pasture fed cows taste better in terms of beef and milk products.

The French still know that, insisting that Camembert AOC has to be pasture fed. So industrial food doesn’t exactly start off with the finest ingredients selected for their taste. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong in that if people want to buy cheap meat, but the fact it has little significant flavour makes substitution harder to observe. It’s been a long time since I’ve eaten a fast food burger, but I don’t recall it tasting particularly of beef. The Ermine dislikes relish and despises mustard, so the usual way of making fast food taste of something, ie to slather on sugary chemicals isn’t open to me.

We have become so deracinated that much of our food is a step up from baby food. It’s been minced and ground and cut with fillers and pumped full of water and artificial taste improvers. To be honest if you’re going to eat industrial meat, perhaps it would be better to have it grown in a lab, rather than trekking the carcass thousands of miles from one part of the long supply chain to another.

You, the consumer, can do something about this

Don’t want to eat horse without knowing it? Stop being such a cheapskate. Meat is a piece of an animal’s body, and it should look like one.

I knew it as a pig
I knew it as a pig

And you should know what your carnivorous treat looks and tastes like.

I had some of this last night
I had some of this last night

Don’t eat it as burgers, or Mickey D’s or ready meals that can hide a multitude of sins. Avoid mince unless you get it from a butcher that you can trust; in the past they used to make it on the premises.In fact generally, avoid long supply chains, that means supermarkets, fast food, industrially produced food. Demand that your meat looks like a piece of animal.

Shorten the supply chain for better taste

If you want it to taste better then go local – shorten that supply chain and deal with people you can get to know and trust. That means taking more time about it and usually paying more money. In Ipswich I can recommend Lux Farm – I used to drive past their herd of belted Galloway cows every day, and the shop is on the farm, Eileen and her team are very helpful and they know their stuff – and they knew their stock when it was on the hoof. She won’t sell you horsemeat – I can guarantee you that. Even if someone swapped one of the cows for an old nag at the slaughterhouse it wouldn’t get to you, because she knows what her cows look like and they butcher the carcasses on the farm when they come back from slaughter. Even if they didn’t, she knows what beef smells and looks like. As an added bonus her beef tastes far better than the anonymous industrial beef from Tesco, because the cows are pasture-fed – you can see them on the side as you drive in. I’ve talked about Richardson’s smokehouse before – again, go local – there you can see the stuff being smoked out the back on your way in. It has flavour and distinctiveness. But it comes at a price premium.

Take ownership and control

Take some responsibility for what you shove into your gob. We got beef made out of horseflesh because we want it cheap. We also got here because we seem to be less able to accept that meat comes from animals these days, so the children’s market in particular hides the fact that this is a piece of animal. Unlike cats, humans aren’t obligate carnivores, so there’s a perfectly good, if more time-consuming and less flavourful IMO alternative.

Milling meat finely into a puree lacks honesty, which is why it is so beloved of industrial food processors. So does pressing it into cute shapes so your kids don’t realise that this

Dino chicken nuggets, WTF?
Dino chicken nuggets, WTF?

has a theoretical and intellectual relationship to this


Though it never pays to make the assumption unreservedly with industrial food products.

Previous generations only ate meat once a week, it’s inherently more expensive than food from plants. If you want to eat it every day you’re either going to have to be rich or you’re going to have to accept industrial meat. Or follow Mrs Ermine’s advice and eat offal which is nutritious and cheap, but nowadays often thrown out or fed to cats and dogs.

More regulation is not the answer

The Grauniad, bless their cotton socks, recommend more regulation as the answer. I’m not so sure. Regulation just seems to encourage the ‘it’s not me, I wasn’t there, I wasn’t the only one, if it was me it was the fault of people i had no control of, and  lessons will be learneddefence. How do you make regulation stick across four countries and even more companies? What’s wrong with the regulation we have already – last time I looked it was illegal to pass one thing off as another. I’d say we need shorter supply chains and a bit more human integrity in those suppliers. It’s the sheer number of companies and subcontractors  that the ingredients are relayed through that is the problem – it is asking for trouble, and at each handover information is lost about where the food came from.

Vertical integration is the only way to get enough control over the variables, and that fell out of fashion in the 1970s. The alternative is to shorten the supply chain by going local, buying from farmer’s markets and the like, but while than usually improves quality no end, it doesn’t come cheap.

In the end this is the choice of the consumer. Want to eat a lot of cheap meat? You’re going to be eating industrial processed meat, and every so often you’re going to be eating something other than you think you’re eating. But hey, the price is right! What has happened is the problem described by Ellen Ruppel Shell in Cheap. Modern capitalism hollows out the middle ground and polarises the market, because like good little consumers we generally focus on the ‘for money’ side of the value for money equation, ignoring value. So we all crowd down the bottom end of the market, leaving a few intrepid souls who do care to hold up the top end of the market.

Britain is a rich country, but we had better fresh food when we were poorer but didn’t buy everything from supermarkets

Obviouly if you’re a top end consumer shopping at farmer’s markets or chi-chi London gourmet stores you’ll get much better food than we used to have in the 1960s and 1970s, but for the average British consumer quality has dropped – average and even poor consumers had access to better, fresher food then because the supply chains were shorter.

Not so long ago we used to have a method that drew an acceptable balance between quality and price, indeed even offering a range of price points that the customer could choose between, even for a big world city like London where I grew up. London used to have wholesale markets – Smithfield for meat, Covent Garden for fruit and veg and Billingsgate for fish. These supplied the butchers, greengrocers/market stallholders and fishmongers where my mother bought food in the 1970s.

These markets and retailers are virtually irrelevant to retail buyers now, because from the 1980s onwards we decided that food wasn’t something we wanted to spend time bothering with, either preparing or taking time to buy, so we turned to the supermarkets to supply our food. And so the inexorable slide down in quality and, to be fair, price, began. Supermarkets taught us to value looks and convenience over quality and taste, because this is what they could deliver, consistently and to a price. They pretend to care about quality, but it is more consistency and ease of handling they value. If you actually sit down and take it out of the packaging, there’s not that much between most ‘value’ and ‘taste the difference’ ranges in terms of taste.

I don’t know who the London markets supply now, but they seem a shadow of their former selves in the London I grew up in – I went to see one once. The functions they provided now go on in anonymous warehouses and distribution points by the sides of European motorways. No Smithfield market trader would dare try and pass off horse as beef in the 1960s and 70s, because the butchers he was selling to knew what beef looked and smelled like. If caught out, his reputation would be trashed in the market and he’d be ruined.

Some of the outrage and hoo-hah about the horsemeat scandal are because it shines an unkind light on the deracination of modern industrial food. It’s generally serviceable, it is cheap-ish, it doesn’t usually make anybody ill, but it isn’t good. That fact that nobody seems to be asking the question why this has to be picked up by DNA testing rather than those strange knobbly bits all over people’s tongues shows our expectations of industrial food aren’t really that high. In that case, does it really matter what it’s made of? Perhaps we need to stop kidding ourselves, and just label things ‘meat’ or ‘herbivore mammal’ and ‘pig’ and accept whatever the market can bring cheapest at the time. It’s not like anyone seems to be able to tell the difference what a ready meal is really made of 😉

Money can’t buy you love, but it can buy you happiness

A few papers challenging the Easterlin Paradox seem to counter the original thesis which runs roughly like this

after basic needs are met (food, shelter, environment) there seems to be little correlation between GDP per capita and happiness.

I like the summary of this one in the torygraph – The Fact is, the Richer you are, the happier you are. Well, D’oh. Curiously enough, whenever I thought about this, I thought in terms of income, and for sure, in many ways the guys doing manual work (when there was such a thing in Britain) usually were the source of more raucous laughter than the suits. However, I usually assumed that the suits were happier.

Let’s first get the Gore Vidal part out of the way.

It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail

Humans are social creatures, and what really makes peo0ple happy is having more money that the people immediately around them. That is why comparisons between countries aren’t that great. It’s comparison with your neighbours, your street, your town your county that matters. An Ermine in Ipswich is richer than an Ermine in London. Also there needs to be some sense of proportion, there’s no fun in seeing your fellow humans dying in the gutter, everybody should be basically OK, you just want to be more OK than they are 😉

So I have a low income now, a pale reflection of what it was while I was working. But I’m happier than when I had a higher income. When I looked at this as a wage-slave I got the wrong end of the stick – I assumed a higher income was meant to make you happy.

It’s bollocks. It is agency that matters – and agency goes with wealth, not with income. You don’t need a high income to have wealth, though it sure as hell helps if you are building wealth. If you have a high income, and you spend all of it, you are rich but not wealthy. If you are poorly paid, but you have saved several years of salary, you are poor but wealthy.

The Ermine is poor. But also wealthy, relatively speaking. One of the most difficult things about the adjustment after ceasing work is when I look at my accounts I see multiples of what my annual salary was when I was working. These scare the hell out of me, I think of the empty years, and some part of me weeps. But I have to live as if they are a tenth of the figures on the screen[ref]strictly speaking 1/20th but I do not have to preserve the entire capital value as I have future income streams in the 5 year timeframe[/ref]

I recall making this point about income to one of my colleagues, who was moaning that he wasn’t paid enough and he felt poor. I pointed him at this wikipedia entry – he was in the top 3% of UK household income, higher than mine because his household had two incomes and mine had one. If you’re in the top 3% of incomes then you should STFU about feeling poor, because you aren’t. If you are feeling poor then you are overspending.

The same entry has a piece about wealth. It’s outdated, and they perversely count house ownership in net worth which I don’t. Even given that I discount house equity as wealth because you have to live somewhere, I was surprised at the time just how little accumulated wealth people had in the UK.  I was never in any danger of paying 50% tax ever in my career. I don’t know what people do with their income, but clearly not that many of us save much of it. This University of Birmingham paper (PDF) contains more recent data. Since the time of that wikipedia entry things have skewed in favour of the ultra-rich.

Yup. Parsi Hilton looks fab. But her shit till stinks like mine and she will get older and her flessh will droop faster thanmine ;)
Paris Hilton looks fab. But her shit till stinks like mine
and she will get older faster than me 😉


Earn More or Spend Less?

If wealth = income – outgoings, then it’s simple. You either earn more, spend less, or some combination. Intuitively earning more is the obvious way to go, after all the upside is unlimited, whereas once you’ve cut your spending to zero you will never do better, huh?

The trouble is that only works up to a point. If you’re working minimum wage, it’s a no brainer, try and earn more. If you are earning more than twice the UK median wage, however. strange factors seem to kick in. For one thing ,you are working harder for the taxman above about £42,000, so ideally you save anything above that figure in a pension. The trouble is that you have to put up with more crap and demands are higher as you earn more. You have to pay more for goods and services to make life easier. You interact with more spendy people all round. You get airs and graces like having to send your kids to public schools[ref] to bemused and logical Americans, in the UK public schools are in fact private, fee-charging schools[/ref].

Sally Hawkins in ‘Happy Go lucky’ She didn’t go the earn more route

Earning more would seem to be the logical thing to do – but it doesn’t always work out that way. People get wealthy by practising frugality, in my experience. They don’t usually suddenly sit up in middle age and think ‘crap, I haven’t got enough of a nest egg, let’s go and get a job paying 50% more’ and then save the extra.

If a rat wants to leave the rat-race, he downshifts, not upshifts

By the time you get to want to leave the rat race, you probably don’t have the energy or inclination to become King Rat for a while. Some people get wealthy, of course, by never overspending. They don’t have to change anything, they just accumulate cash because they have always lived below their means. It’s easier to live below your means if you have a high income right off the bat. There aren’t many Tesco shelf-stackers in the Forbes rich list. But someone who comes to the conclusion that they want out of the rat-race and wants to build wealth?

They don’t commonly achieve it by increasing their income. Wanting out of the rat-race is not a career-enhancing decision. That’s not to say folk who increase their income don’t have a great time, for sure they do. But I’ve never seen someone get wealthy from a position of non-wealth by increasing their income and then quitting. I’ve seen people get wealthy by screwing down their expenses, and I’ve followed the same path. And I’ve seen people have a lot of fun by increasing their income.  But it just doesn’t seem to stick to the sides for some reason, so they have to keep that income flowing. There’s nothing wrong in that. These people get to use their passports more often than I do. They drink better wine than I do. That’s great, each to ther own. But they aren’t wealthy if they are six months away from bankruptcy. I am ten years away if future income sources all dry up – as long as I eat only ramen 😉

That’s what wealth gives you. It gives me the option to eat ramen for ten years, but nobody owns my ass. If you’re poor and not wealthy, you don’t get the option to eat ramen. You do it because you have to. I haven’t actually eaten ramen, because DW doesn’t let me. but I would if I had to, rather than work for The Man again.

I was shooting some pics for a magazine today, and I heard a chaffinch give some song. In a couple of month’s time I will be sick of chaffinch song, but this time I stopped a while, parked my bike by the side of the road, and listened up, because the cheerful song of a chaffinch is something I haven’t heard for nine long months.

I heard the chaffinch because I sold my car, so the only way I can get anywhere is by bike[ref]On leaving work I sold my car, so we are a now one-car household[/ref]. If I were in the car, I wouldn’t have heard the chaffinch, and I wouldn’t have been able to stop the car, because it would have made me late for work. That’s what wealth does for you- you get to stop your bike to listen to a bird 😉 If I am lucky, I have forty springs that will turn to summer. I aim to listen up if I hear a finch tell me one of those springs is coming up. I’ve missed too many of the last thirty of them…


a hat tip to Monevator

I started the journey to early retirement towards the end of February 2009, a low-water mark where I realised that something needed to change if I was to preserve some quality of life. The work environment and what I wanted to do in life had diverged, and rather than retiring in 11 years as it was then, I wanted to draw that short.

At the same time it seemed all around me the world was falling apart, we were a year into what was clearly a different type of recession to the three I had experienced in thirty years of working [ref]Thatcher’s first in ’82 when I started looking for work, her second in the early Nineties and the one we are still in[/ref].

It was both the best time and the worst time to try and do that. Worst mentally, not only had the assumption I had made that I would finish working at the normal retirement age become untenable, I was too old to have a good chance of finding a job at similar pay without at least a long commute to Cambridge and even that was unlikely. Oh and the world around me was falling apart.


Stuck in a storm in a pathless land, I looked for some route out. I read this post from Monevator, which I had only started reading a few months before

Anyone waiting for a clear buy signal will likely wait forever.

Buy low because one day you’ll buy high

and it led to this post, which had a strange resonance. One of the things I learn as I get older is how much more there is to learn. Some things have a ring of truth in and of themselve – in general the route to success in this world is via things that are hard. This is something that we are losing in the West, but we once knew it very well. It was once summarised very well in a recording I heard often as a child.


In September 1962 JFK made an inspirational speech that included this

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win

I took it at face value in those innocent times, though the succeeding decades did inform me that the Americans had had the living shit scared out of them by Sputnik – they may have had the A-bomb but they had no presence in space etc. Although the adult version is more accurate, sometimes the childlike version has a greater holistic truth.

It was hard, but it did happen

Seven Habits of Highly Effective PeopleThings that matter in life are often hard. It stiffens the spine to do things because they are hard, and always choosing the things that are easy weakens the will. The delightful innocence and purity of the American psyche can deliver these truths well – Stephen Covey’s the Seven Habits of Effective People can sound hokey to my British ears, but I wouldn’t disagree with his list:

  1. Be Proactive – Take responsibility for your choices and the consequences that follow.
  2. Begin with the End in Mind – know where you’re going an how to get there
  3. Put First Things First – do the important stuff first, not the easiest
  4. Think Win-Win – I don’t really get this because it’s probably the weakest area for me. An ermine wins as the rabbit loses IMO, but Covey’s probably right, he’s more effective than me 😉
  5. Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood – listen first, before opening your gob.
  6. Synergize – Combine the strengths of people through positive teamwork, so as to achieve goals no one person could have done alone. I pinched that straight from Wikipedia because I don’t get that habit either. An Ermine is an island, it largely stands or falls in its own light or darkness.
  7. Sharpen the Saw – Balance and renew your resources, energy, and health to create a sustainable, long-term, effective lifestyle. This was my greatest failure before 2009 – I grew lazy in a velvet-line rut of enough easy money in what looked like a job that had been a great place to work. I did not heed the warning lights on the control panel of life light up red one by one over time because I did not want to know.

So what’s all that got to do with Monevator? Well, his writing has some of the characteristics that an ermine sniffs out as showing integrity and wisdom. After it’s easy to be a blowhard on the web that know everything, from Nouriel Robini calling Doom repeatedly to the Krugmans of the world who want to bankrupt my retirement with 100% inflation. It takes courage and grit to say that you know that you don’t know. And to have the courage to search for the faint lights of knowledge in the noise and hum of speculation and opinion. Habits 1 and 2 covered 😉 There’s even a Seven Habits of Successful Private Investors post to give that Covey chap a run for his money.

Monevator epitomises the F Scott Fitgerald doctrine with Passive Investing

In The Crack-Up, F Scott Fitzgerald delivered himself of the great line

the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

Monevator’s head knows that passive investing is probably the safest route to investing for the vast majority of his readers. I suspect his heart hopes this isn’t true for himself 😉  He’s prepared to take the chances and eat the consequences should this be the case. Knowing that you don’t know, living with it and still being able to run with it is rare in a 24/7 world that often prizes clarity of the message above the accuracy.

I actually used index funds that for the largest application of the spine-stiffening post, it dominates my ISA holdings. Though I saved cash in ISAs for two half-years around April ’09, I also hit my pension AVCs hard with a global index fund. Using salary sacrifice I drove my pay down to almost national minimum wage (you aren’t allowed to sal sac below that).

Although hindsight shows that the real star of the show was the Bank of England, as shown in this 5 year GBP/USD chart

GBP USD chart
GBP USD chart

that devalued the currency by 40%, I gained the uplift that caused indirectly

L&G Global/ftse100 50:50
L&G Global/ftse100 50:50

I’m out of that now, because my pension AVCs are nearly the maximum 25% pension commencement lump sum in cash terms. But I have that distant lamp to thank for giving me sight of a way to through the storm.

A track record of some great finds

In the review, I took a look at some of the holdings I have that I discovered via Monevator. The track record ain’t bad. I don’t use his blog a a tip sheet, but if there’s a resonance in the rationale for me I will consider a stock, if it fits in with my prejudices and values. I’ve taken a look at these, and they all show a handsome profit –

MRCH – bought a little while after reading this. TR of > 50% (ie if I sold now I would receive 150% of the cost)

NWBD – got some after reading this. TR ~ 40% He actually traded these since, but I just sat on my backside and took the divi

LLPC – had an eye on those but only bought after they started to pay – TR about 27%

CLDN – I bought these in a string of messy bits and peices over the 2011 Summer of Rage after reading this – TR > 20%

ASL – after reading this, TR > 30%. I’d have liked to have bought more, but I had endstopped my ISA by then

BBY – bought on a fall because I needed the sector and I was monitoring it because it was in the Monevator HYP I also hold TSCO which I notice is in there, but that’s more because of Warren Buffet – I just waited until I could pay less than him.

Now the market is riding high at the moment, so it wouldn’t pay to read too much into the capital value. Only four out of  my18 holdings are down on a share price basis, and only one on a TR basis, but none of these are in this list. So a hat tip to one of Britian’s finest sources of market insight for me, and a salute to the success is has brought me. And no, I won’t blame you if it all goes titsup this year with Grexit/Brexit/US debt ceiling histrionics/Israel-Iranian war or any of the other stuff that Dr Doom is promising us for 2013.

These six holdings are a testimony to the quality of the analysis, which is much valued as a source of inspiration. Mistakes and errors I happily accept as my own. Stephen Covey got it in one right at the top of his list. Be proactive – agency is what matters.