A fascinating peek into the inner workings of capitalism – manufactured demand in the making

Years ago, my Dad had reason to take the cylinder head off the engine of his car and regrind the valves.He showed me the engine running without the rocker cover, and it was fascinating – the busyness of something we take for granted many a day. I’ve never forgotten that insight into the workings of something so commonplace, yet so hidden from everyday sight.

So it is with the works of capitalism at times. Many companies exist now to create wants in their customers’ minds, which they can then address. One of the secrets to retiring early, indeed to financial freedom of all sorts, is to avoid being sucked in, and here is a beautiful example of the process of need creation in the making. Sheer genius!

A decent piece of chocolate is a very good thing indeed. Thing is, with gustatory pleasures as well as most consumer goods, the relationship between quality and cost aren’t directly connected. They go something like this:

genral form of quality versus price for consumer goods
general form of quality versus price for consumer goods

Now the trouble is that the price axis is logarithmic – each step roughly doubles the price of the previous step, whereas quality is linear. This reflects the fact that most improvements are subject to diminishing returns. Most of the win is had early on, though there is a rump of cheap and nasty crap that is not really fit for purpose at the bottom end below a price of 1 unit. Most of the quality improvement is to be had in the steep rise of the curve between 1 and 2, and then it flattens out as the price skyrockets. Now what a company wants to do is create a sense of want and desire in you, so you ignore the fact that the price is skyrocketing but the quality isn’t really much better than lower down the scale.

Fortunately, humans are social animals, and we ascribe value to scarcity, all sorts of fancy trimmings and plumage irrelevant to the item in question, and we are suckers for a good story. Plus we don’t have the time these days to really think about what we are buying, so we make mental shortcuts and analogies with similar patterns elsewhere. As well as these foibles, there are, of course, the age-old things we inherited from the animal kingdon – the value of a peacock’s feathers are not in their great utility, but in showing the female that even carrying all that conspicuous consumption around, the peacock doesn’t get eaten. That same applies to bankers swilling Dom Perignon to excess. It’s not the champagne they are valuing, it is the fact that drinking it to excess shows they are rich enough not to worry about the price 😉

What a great piece of marketing puffery - Coastal Ecuador, Hacienda Iara 100% Organic Dark
What a great piece of marketing puffery – Coastal Ecuador, Hacienda Iara 100% Organic Dark

Allow me to introduce you to Exhibit A. The Hotel Chocolat corporation, and more specifically their Single Estate Rabot 1745 collection, welcome to the £7 bar of chocolate. I first came across this in the Torygraph, who basically line-printed the press releases with a moducum of added spin by the looks of it. However, I was tickled. A few years ago I read Jason Vale’s Chocolate Busters which sensitised me to how chocolate is promoted, and I thought of that book when I saw this.

You can picture the scene now. Somewhere in a three star corporate hotel near an airport somewhere, a newly appointed Head Honcho of Hotel Chocolat is organising a hothouse workshop, on how to enhance the brand, and drive profitability. In short, to create some value that can be sold to more willing punters. A bunch of guys in off-the-peg suits show up with those wheeled cases with their laptops in. In the morning, the Head Honcho addresses his droids, and tells them this hothouse will come up with thrity-six Innovative Ideas to Revamp the Brand and Drive profitability. Their bonuses depend upon it…

The trouble with meetings like this is that time is so short, and the leadership usually such arrogant peacocks that there’s no time to actually reflect on whether some of the ideas that come out of the pressure-cooker hothouse are actually any good. We’ve all had those ideas that seemed good at the time, but on reflection of a few days or weeks were actually quite ghastly. However, this one isn’t so bad, perhaps Hotel Chocolat don’t do things that way. Perhaps they have stand-up meetings of no more than 15 minutes, or something like that. The basic idea was

Why don’t we make chocolate more like wine. Let’s give it a massive big backstory and raise the perceived value. There’s only so good chocolate can get for 99% of our potential customer base, but everyone is a sucker for a great story!

And so the new marketing was born.

The Story

Hotel Chocolat: – I’d have guessed established in the 1990s, and that was a good guess. Companies House tells me that it was incorporated in 1993. Good move on changing the name in 2003 to Hotel Chocolat from Chocexpress Ltd, which made me titter, that sounds so low-rent compared to the image Hotel Chocolat is trying to project now 😉

I was actually warmed up to be sceptical by the marketing strapline “British cocoa grower and chocolatier”. It’s very nouveau-riche and pretentious  – Cocoa doesn’t grow in Britain and we have confectioners, not chocolatiers. That dissonance matters, particularly if you are trying to create a patina of established competence with

Rabot 1745: rare and vintage

The implication is that there is an esteemed heritage going back to days of Empire. It’s bollocks, of course, but adds a haze of antiquity, without ever claiming anything really goes back that far 😉

The label: a classic piece of spin and flummery. That’s the beauty of taste, it can’t be measured. I could say it tastes like angel tears and pulverised unicorn horn with a soupcon of plum and be just as right 😉

A charmer with a smouldering intensity. Quickly floods the mouth with super-mellow but deep cocoa, roast nuts, vintage leather and cream.

Short story: The battle of the cocoa bean is ongoing in Ecuador. The less flavoursome but easier-to-grow CCN-51 variety has been taking over from the delicious and indigenous Arriba Nacional, the one used here.

Harvest: 2012 Roasting time: 35 min @135 C. Refining & Conching: 65hrs.

(label backstory, from the website)

 Ecuador was once the world’s powerhouse of cocoa back in the late 1800s, but a disease wiped out many estates in 1919. This estate, known as Hacienda Iara, was re-planted with the fine Arriba Nacional cocoa from the more protected interior of Ecuador and is run on organic principles. An easier to grow, but less flavoursome cocoa variety known as CCN-51 has recently been taking over the country’s crop, but a fight back has started to maintain the true ‘Nacional’ cocoa taste, characterised by an intense cocoa flavour with a subtle jasmine/floral note and relatively low acidity.

I wasn’t able to substantiate this with research on the web. The whole CCN-51 and Nacional seems to be a shimmering chimera, and depends on who you are reading 😉 But I do accept this isn’t my area of expertise.

The Price: £7 for 70g, that’s 10p a gram. Tesco sells Galaxy for 1.2p a gram and a good match for this would seem to be something like Green and Black’s Organic Dark at 2p a gram. We’re clearly straddling that knee point of the graph.

Let’s take a look at what’s happened here. I’d hazard a guess that the value price chart looks something like this

all that yellow value has been created by marketing
all that yellow value has been created by marketing

Basically a huge amont of perceived value has been created by the guys in the suits creating a story that people will buy. It’s because of things like this that many of us find that our Wants grow to about 110% of the size of our take-home pay. We’re suckers for a great story, and we get caught up in it and buy into it.

Don’t get me wrong, I am sure Hotel Chocolat’s Hacienda Iara Organic Dark is probably a very decent chocolate. But chocolate just isn’t worth the extra 8p/g  a throw to me, compared ot the Green & Black’s version at 2p/g, which is about as far as I need to go with chocolate. Life is too short to go around paying more for the Story than for the Stuff. I try to just pay for the steak, not the sizzle, because there’s a limit to how much steak you can have before you just don’t want any more. Not so for the sizzle 😉


Retirement isn’t like a long weekend, or a long vacation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food. Overpriced and aspiration next to overpriced and junky. I'll pass on that, thanks all the same
Food. Aspirational but dearer than if you made it at home and brought it to work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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



Why is everything Apple so easy and so hard at the same time?

Note this post is a random musing of an ermine poking an inquisitive snout into a wrinkle of the world that interested him. Nothing made by Apple can ever be described as frugal, there’s no personal finance angle and it’s definitely not simple living 😉

The Ermine has avoided everything to do with Apple in life so far. I didn’t own any Apple hardware, don’t own AAPL stock, never understood the fandom. It all started badly when I began work at The Firm – everyone in the office used the little squiffy mac classic/plus computers to write reports, and there was an Apple Laserwriter laser printer.

A Mac classic. Nasty little things, where the obvious way to shut theb uggers down is - wait for it- drag the floppy disk into the trash icon. Obvious, innit. Stupid human for thinking this neans "Computer - erase all my shit, NOW."
Mac classic

Much was made of the intuitive nature of the Mac, compared to the arcane command line of the PC. I didn’t find it intuitive at all. F’rinstance how d’you turn one of these off? The obvious way to shut the bugger down is – wait for it- drag the floppy disk into the trash icon. Obvious, innit? Stupid human for thinking this means “Computer – erase all my shit, NOW.”

Unfortunately at that time you couldn’t do anything useful with a Mac as an engineer, y’know, like run circuit simulation software or the like. I had a great big 286 PC that could do this. I was able, via the Appletalk network and a shockingly expensive PC Appletalk card, to copy the output of a SPICE circuit simulation file to the office LaserWriter. I shouldn’t be too hard on Apple about the cost, this was in the late 1980s, where Novell Netware ran a piece of software on their servers for the sole purpose of counting up the number of connected network cards and kicking people off if there were more simultanous users than there were network connection licenses. Cheeky blighters. TCP/IP and the Internet came along just in time to save us from this sort of rent-seeking usury, Apple at least just collected their rent from the high cost of the network cards. However, Apple never allowed me to me print that document, because if I wasn’t in the Apple ecosystem I was Unworthy to touch their printer. I was able to get the file onto the printer, but without some sort of fork file to attach the file to something to make it do something I was stuffed.

Every so often one of these macs would have a hissy fit and the EHT would start to flash over. We’d take it into the lab and pull it apart. We were electronics engineers, don’t try this at home. You could usually get it going again by pulling off the anode cap[ref]really don’t do this at home. You have to short the CRT to ground after removing the cap, but dielectric absorption means the some of the charge on the CRT comes back while you’re not looking, ready to give the unwary a shock ;)[/ref] and getting some isopropyl alcohol and cleaning round it. It was then that I was exposed to my first experience of fanboidom. Everyone crowded round to observe the most vainglorious piece of narcissistic codswallop I have seen in any piece of gear. Apple thought they were so Really Great they inscribed the signatures of the design team in the plastic moulding of the inside of the case, and everyone cooed about how marvellous this was. It was all I could do not to chunder in the wastepaper bin.

I ended up with a deep dislike for everything Apple ever since 🙂 When I buy a piece of equipment I own the damn thing, not the manufacturer, and this seems to be a simple fact that the Apple corporation doesn’t get. What else does a printer expect to do when it receives a PostScript file other than print it, FFS? HP got this, but Apple specifically made their printers slightly nonstandard so they would only work with Apple kit. When you buy a piece of Apple hardware, you get to check in your balls with Apple. You do it their way, or you feel the squeeze…

So how do people use smartphone screens then?

Fast forward 25 years, I have no smartphone. It was a struggle for me to imagine how people use any sort of website on a poxy little two inch wide screen, and in portrait mode. And I needed to understand this, else I would be authoring stuff that would really hack my users off, and in the end the user is always right, even if they’re mad as a bag of spanners. So the Ermine was in the market for an iPod touch, which does most of the things a smartphone does, but using wifi, so without tying me into a phone contract and feel the squeeze of a different corporation on my parts – the Ownership of my bank account via a mobile phone contract for the next three years.

Now I have to say that the experience of unboxing the device, sparking it up and connecting to my wifi network was the best ever user experience of connecting a piece of computer kit I’ve ever had. The various programs look nice and run well. Since this is the Apple universe you get to call programs Apps, and they tend to be single-function. I was quickly able to run up the browser and learn what I needed to learn about the website design – and that my use of a folding CSS structure did indeed sort of track iPod and presumably smartphone screens. Thank you Skeleton CSS for doing the grunt work and saving my ass while I was authoring blind 😉

And I discovered I was getting old 😦 I had lost my last pair of glasses so I was slumming it with the pair from before, on an old prescription from 10 years ago. But the iPod scales websites down if they are too wide for the screen. As you get older the short focus of your eyes drifts out. Mine was different in each eye, and I could not read the roughly 4pt text with both eyes unless I held the device so it was too far away to read. So I either read it with one eye and get a splitting headache, or do without. Getting this machine has cost me about £400 so far – £160 for the iPod and the rest because I have to accept I need varifocals and reading glasses. In the optician at least I was able to read the smallest grade of text so I will be able to read the iPod rendered website and develop with it. I can’t blame this on Apple 😉

This is the bees knees for the job I bought it for. I can see how stuff looks like on a smartphone like screen, I now know why I get headaches using the computer and what to do to fix this, and the iPod fires up in a couple of seconds so it’s easy to see the weather, email and stuff like that. The share price screen even works well, though I was reminded of the original vainglorious streak when I see the first example stock is AAPL. The iPod doesn’t owe me anything now – I was able to finish the job and the project has already earned me more revenue than the capital cost of the iPod. And I understand how teenagers can use the web on a small screen, because the screen has a finer dot-per-inch resolution that a regular computer screen. Although the total number of picture elements is still larger on a laptop or desktop, the iPod screen picture elements are closer together, so the loss of quality isn’t as much as I had expected from the smaller physical screen size. But you do have to be under 35, or equally short-sighted in both eyes if older, to be able to see the screen well enough to use that resolution without visual aids, and you’d look kinda daft on the bus looking at your smartphone with a magnifying glass!

How to you use this thing for music then?

Then I thought I’d try and put music on it. This, apparently, is the primary purpose of an iPod after all, though I didn’t buy it for that reason. Now I have it, I may as well use it 😉

First, some background. I’ve loved music over the years, and it is one of the pleasure I used to have in life. I never used portable music players in a big way – with a car commute of 20 minutes each way there’s no need. I don’t have the death-wish of cycling plugging up my ears and losing situational awareness. Call me chicken-hearted, but I like to know if a great big truck is coming up behind me, even in rural Suffolk.

a detour into hearing

As a result the ermine is still capable of hearing up to about 12kHz though I have to be careful to use hearing protection with power tools. The mammalian ear is strangely and poorly designed in that there is a mechanical amplifier inside. The ossicles couple the high impedance of the air to the low impedance of the fluid-filled works inside the snail-shaped cochlea, using three bones to the eardrum. Then you get to the outer hair cells, which act as chemically powered-mechanical amplifiers, they do not send signals to the brain. This cochlear amplifer is the damnedest way of getting amplification and very susceptible to damage from loud sounds, but this preamplifer gives the ear remarkable sensitivity if working right. Then you get to the inner hair cells, which occupy a tapered shape, resonating at the input end for high frequencies and further in for low frequencies, acting as a coarse spectrum analyser. As you get older you lose some of the ability to adjust tension in the eardrum and the ossicles which reduces the damaging effects of loud sounds, so you need to be  more careful to avoid exposure to excessively loud sounds from 40 onwards.  ‘Cos otherwise you start to trash the hairy preamplifier, and you get to know about that eventually, because it has a stupendous amount of amplification- about 50dB or 100,000 times power gain. Lose or seriously damage that and you are deaf as a post. Young’uns should note that you’re not immune to the damage, it just takes a little more loudness to do it. From what I hear on the Tube and on the street, some of you are doing fine wrecking that sucker. Please, for God’s sake read this and take the test. If you are below 40 and it indicates any problem whatsoever then you may want to re-evaluate your relationship to music. I am well over 40 and do fine on the test, and there are a lot more miles on the clock in my case.

Music isn’t particularly a threat to my hearing as when I listen there is a convenient device called a volume control, and I don’t go to that many live concerts. I stopped using portable audio devices on planes  (then called a Walkman not an iPod 🙂 ) after I got off a LHR to LAX flight and fired up the walkman in the hotel room, to be greeted by a hellaciously loud volume I’d never normally listen at. A jet plane is a stupendously loud environment already, running at 80-85dBA[ref]Passenger noise environments of enclosed transportation systems, US Office of noise abatement and control[/ref], there’s no real headroom to make any music heard safely above the engine roar unless you are using noise cancelling headphones. 80dBA is considered the danger level so you don’t want to add too much more noise to your ears inside a plane.

Using tools and transportation which is probably my main noise risk. I use hearing protection even for things like hammering, now, and definitely for any use of power tools. I may look like a jerk, but so what. There’s not much more I can say to the young, but it saddens me when I walk on one side of the street and can hear what track someone is playing on the other side of the street from their earbuds. There is no cure for deafness, and if you are young now and start to lose your hearing before my age you are likely to spend half your life in a silent world cut off from the rest of humanity’s preferred way to communication. My Dad once worked in a glass bottling factory and was very hard of hearing towards the end of his life. It was no fun at all for him.

back to music

1304_1940_family_radioI grew up with actually sitting down to listen to music. Yeah, I know it sounds kinda funny now, like a family gathering round the wireless to listen to the news on the Home service. Part of this was determined by the media of the day – record players were never portable in any useful way, and I’d have never played mine on anything crappy. Each time you play a record, a little piece of it dies, and the capital cost of the record collection was by far the greatest investment in audio entertainment, even for a hi-fi nut, so I didn’t take risks.

Cassette tapes were noisy, unclear and all round ghastly, and I was unlucky enough to be oversensitive to speed instability. I was eventually reasonably happy with CDs, and more recently have moved to a Slimserver (now Logitech) media server and streaming players, playing losslessly compressed data from the CDs (ie the player gets exactly the same digital data as was on the CD). All of these work entirely within my four walls. I don’t do Cloud anything, for the simple reason that I hate third-party dependency for anything I put effort into. Cloud is fine for something you don’t need, or only need for a few weeks, and you don’t put any effort into. My music collection has been with me for thirty years and I’d like to hang on to it…

Getting CDs into a digital music library is something that costs a lot of effort, leastways if you start off with a few hundred CDs. Transferring my CDs was a project that took me two years using multiple PCs and CD drives, sometimes running EAC on two drives at once, ripping the CDs to lossless FLAC and Cue files, which the SlimDevices/Logitech kit can play. It’s a long, tedious and soulless job ripping CDs. You only ever want to do that once, though I had to do it one-and-a-half times because I discovered why you should not split CD albums into tracks as soon as I ran into my first live album, and reinforced again when I ran into my first classical album. It’s a bastard when you get a gap between the first and second movements of a symphony that wasn’t there on the CD, or the applause hiccups between tracks on a live CD.

And then work went bad and other things went wrong. In a twist of fate something that had given me joy for decades came to hold no meaning for me, and there is a gap of about three years when I bought no CDs and listened to hardly anything at all, and even that with jaded perception. Although I love the idea encapsulated in Miranda Sawyer’s lovely Observer article about the power of music to score our lives, and lift spirits in adversity I didn’t find the same. Until the spell was broken earlier this year, and the music came back to life.

Now in trying to sort this out I discover much has changed in the three year intercession. Some people actually pay for digital downloads. When it comes to information I don’t pay for what I can’t touch, and in many cases the CD is actually cheaper these days if you take it secondhand, but yes, you do need to wait for it in the post. It seems there is some unholy digital download battle between Apple/iTunes AAC and the rest, led by Amazon MP3, with cloud streaming systems like Spotify throwing in a wildcard. I don’t want any of that shit. I grew up with a standalone audio system depending on only power and what’s within my four walls. Sometimes I am going to run a party in a field with no phone service or mains electricity. No Cloud service, no tunes.

I managed to use the iPod without trouble for everything but music. When it comes to music, there seems to be a world of hurt in store for me, because I am not a new-born come to Apple to sort my life out. I have a perfectly good existing  digital music collection, held in a free open source losslessly compressed form specifically because I don’t want any company to be able to control my usage or suddenly render my collection useless. It seems the way you are meant to get music onto an iPod, iTunes, wants to control me 100%. It wants to say how and when I can listen to my own music, and how and where I can move it. I’m not having that at all. I didn’t rent this iPod, I bought the damn thing, and  I want to use my existing music collection without handing over the keys, so iTunes is right out. I’m happy to accept compression on a portable, but not the lock-in, and as for saying what I can or can’t do with my own data, sod that for a laugh. I say what I can do in my own four walls, not Apple.

How to get music onto an iPod without installing iTunes

I did finally crack how to do this, without installing the infernal iTunes. I have a desktop computer with a load of electronics software, kept on XP which I have to use for ripping CDs because EAC doesn’t work on Windows 7. The last time I installed iTunes on this XP machine it installed half the contents of Steve Jobs’ control-freakery ecosystem without having the decency to ask if that really was what I meant to do. Not just iTunes but bonjour which confused the hell out of my existing streaming system, Quicktime, Apple updating service, the lot. Not an exercise I wanted to repeat.

Because I still think in terms of albums and not tracks, I use foobar2000 to split the CD image files into tracks and convert to MP3 for the iPod, which, though proprietary is at least a widely supported standard. Somehow foobar2000 was smart enough to tell the MP3 files that they are part of an album and tell them the track number, and the iPod is bright enough to take note of this and present me the music in terms of albums again. I used CopyTrans to do the job of shifting the MP3s to the iPod. Foobar2000 can also embed the cover art, which helps brighten up the selection process on the iPod somewhat. Both programs are free though only one is open source.

CopyTrans had to download iTunes and use some part of the guts of it, but other than that I have snatched control of my own hardware back from Apple, without making the Beast angry by jailbreaking it. It kinda scared the hell out of me when I pressed play without headphones to hear a truly nasty tinny rendition of the track sodcasted to me from the internal speakers. It’s funny to think that forty years of technological innovation has brought us a poorer portable loudspeaker reproduction quality that the first transistor radio I ever owned, because at the portable level it’s all about the size of the enclosure that baffles the out-of-phase back output of the speaker. This was nasty, tinny, distorted and unclear. It was fine when I jacked in my headphones. I’m still not sure I have the clarity/resolution of playing back on my hi-fi, but it’s entirely fit for purpose as a portable 😉

Apple products are great and easy to use as long as you are prepared to stay in the walled garden. Do as the nice man says and use the Apple ecosystem in the way prescribed, which in my case presumably would mean paying for several hundred CDs from the Apple store again or losing another two years of my life to ripping them into a compressed format that is locked to one PC and one iPod. And it will all work a treat, in general attractively, smoothly and without serious problems apart from the hurt to your wallet. That’s the easy part of the Apple universe.

If I’d wanted a portable music player as such, I should probably have got anything other than Apple, where you can simply dump the MP3s onto the player as a mounted mass storage device, and the player sorts it all out. However, I needed to understand the smartdevice and Apple world and this the iPod has done for me. I do like some of the one-task programs, the share prices, the weather app and, to be honest, the music player itself with the cover art. So I can accept the hoops I have to jump through to make this device work with my existing digital music library. However, it’s another example of how Apple makes life hard for free-thinking customers. I’m not particularly tempted to buy an iPad after this experience if and when my existing laptop cashes in its chips. That’s the hard part of Apple.

I was left with a greater admiration for Apples’ craftiness and the quality of their customer experience. And a greater dislike for the company at the same time for trying to turn an Ermine into a consumer zombie. A lot of the developments in computing, information technology and telecoms at the moment are trending towards making us good little consumers who don’t have any control or creative output. You can’t write code or write books or articles on a tablet computer[ref]not fundamentally impossible, but without a real keyboard your productivity sucks[/ref], an iPod or a Kindle, but they’re great for consuming the work of others. We are all consumers now, it seems, and soon the act of creating content, which was democratized by the general-purpose personal computer in the 1980s, will be professionalised and locked down again, by the simple act of not allowing the user to install non-approved programs 😉


The ISA conundrum, and a Cyprus memento mori…

The Ermine ISA has had three and a half years in it. I still have the cash ISA with the other half year in it 😉 So overall that’s about 36k lobbed in the pot. Now the FSCS protection on nominee providers is 50k. [ref]Note that the protection on investment accounts is against the nominee getting frisky and running off with the cash or going bankrupt, it isn’t on the companies you invest in going bust ;),[/ref], so I’m good for another year with TD, eh?

Not so fast. The whole point of an S&S ISA is that it is meant to appreciate in value, basically if I contribute this year’s money to the ISA I will go over the 50k limit. Plus obviously I’d like the ISA to keep on growing, if you please, so there wants to be some headroom in there.

Now if you add any money at all to an ISA in this tax year, you have to stick with that ISA provider for this year, so it pays to think about this before I do anything with this year’s ISA allowance. I like to spread my contributions across the year, though I will up the rate if things like 2011’s summer of rage happen, or the Euro goes titsup, or Mad Kim goes willy-waving with his nukes. Obviously assuming there’s enough of the world left standing 😉

Something else we’ve learned from a divided Mediterranean island, is that anybody who has any money in an account over the government guarantees is considered a rich bastard who needs to help with the national debt. The more cynical who sleep on a bed of gold and line their walls with tinfoil will correctly opine that because governments have a monopoly on the use of force they get to do as they damn well please in times of real trouble. which is true, but let’s hope those sort of times don’t arrive, because how much is in your ISA is probably not one of the most pressing concerns at that juncture.

Nevertheless, when there is some simulacrum of democracy running, it seems that you’re still going to take a hit if you are a minor Rich Bastard. Truly rich bastards have of course spread their vast wealth far and wide. I don’t think the Rothschilds are that troubled if their ISAs go down the pan, and Warren Buffet’s Roth IRA is probably not the largest part of his holdings either. However, it does matter to me, and from recent events in Cyprus, it pays to avoid being considered a Rich Bastard. I would have thought that thirty years of paying taxes would be considered a decent enough attempt on the National Debt, but it seems not.

I can’t recall any UK ISA providers going bust, but the US firm MF Global shows that brokers can go bad. It’s the same old same old – power corrupts, and money is crystallised power, so get too much of it in one place and the effect of it on frail human integrity can pass critical mass. We are still blinking in the daze from the result of the last chain-reaction of  too much money controlled by too few hands. And I’d say that the financial system is still deeply damaged and there are still big debts on private and Government books. Being an identifiable financial milch cow is unwise, so I need to find another ISA provider. Not because I believe TD Direct are a bunch of crooks and the Toronto-Dominion bank is about to go titsup. But just in case they have their internal thief, their Nick Leeson, Jerome Keraviel or Kweku Adoboli.

It’s not that easy to select an ISA provider these days, because the effect of the FSA shakeup of the fees structure, the RDR, means that something that looks good now may turn out not so good a year down the line. There’s no point in me doing the analysis when there’s this comparison chart at Monevator that summarises the issues. But it still lacks the crystal ball to see what the fee structure will change to in future as RDR settles down. It is often fearsomely expensive to shift a S&S ISA – you either have to sell all the holdings and shift as cash, or shift each line of stock, for which there can be a hefty transfer charge. I was lucky enough to avoid that when I transferred my iii ISA to TD Direct because iii were trying to avoid any more negative publicity from their fees hike, they intially wanted their £15 per line of stock. I had 13 lines of stock at the time, so that would have been £200 to show a clean pair of heels. You just don’t want to do that too often, it would knock about 10% off my dividend income for the year.

I’d like to carry on with running a HYP – indeed I’d probably buy more of what I have already, and break out a bit into sectors I don’t have yet, particularly oil, mining. However, I may take some time out for this year, allocate my ISA allowance and ride RDR out with a 100% Vanguard Lifestrategy fund with Hargreaves Lansdown, on the grounds they’re big, and one fund can’t be too expensive to shift out if necessary. Plus there’s the issue that I’m not sure I was getting a better return for focusing effort on making money from money, rather than allocating the same amount of effort to alternative passive incomes. As long as it doesn’t start to look anything like work, that is 😉 I’m still glad I did it, and the principles of making money from money still hold. I just don’t need the streetfighting with rapacious transfer fees at the moment if I need to move because of RDR. Hopefully TD won’t go bad like iii, and my existing HYP can continue to grow there and work for me. This is the first year that I’ve managed to sell nothing at all, apart from two find I had in iii when they threatened to start charging for buying and selling funds. Much of the secret to stock market investment seems to be to choose well, and then sit on your ass and leave it be.

It appears that provided you aren’t contributing to the ISA in the current year, you can shift out a lump from an ISA provider or just one line of stock for instance, which may be the solution for if/when my TD HYP grows beyond the FSA protection limit. If I don’t add to it this year I should be good for a couple of years yet there.

Oh and thanks to the good citizens of Cyprus and indeed the nameless EU bureaucrat who let the cat out of the bag. Hold more than the EU protected limit in any one account at your peril…