Energy efficiency for the poor is a matter for taxation, not arbitrary levies

Britain hasn’t really done very well for a cold-ish country in the Northern Hemisphere on the energy efficiency front, for residential property anyway. I’m not quite sure why this is so – there seem to be a mix of factors at work.

  • Old houses – We churn our housing stock very slowly. My first house was a mid-terrace built in 1840 to house the Industrial Revolution workers. It had solid walls but no central heating – the rooms were heated by gas fires when I lived in it.
  • Houses not designed for central heating – although it gets cold in winter in the UK it doesn’t get really cold in the same way as in parts of Continental Europe. Even before central heating they often took a whole-house heating approach, for instance using things like the German Kachelofen – apparently it’s called a Masonry Heater in English, which I never knew until now because I’ve never seen one in the UK. It was in the 1970s that central heating arrived in the UK, and combined with the slow turnover of the housing stock means everyone I know has a house where the central heating is a retro-fit.
  • General constructional lackadaisical approach. Things like double-glazing came to Britain late in the day – another 1970’s/80s innovation, though Nordic countries have had double and triple-glazing for years. I’ve never come across triple glazing in the UK.

The trouble is the UK winter just isn’t such a big deal as it is in other Northern European countries – our climate is buffered by the close proximity to the sea, so as such we’ve never really sorted ourselves out regarding dealing with the cold. It’s why our roads, runways and railways freeze over (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013) and come to a standstill if it’s a bit colder than we are used to. Unlike in places like Norway or even Germany, where if they didn’t have plans in place to tackle serious snow and ice they wouldn’t be able to move for three months we can get away with it, most years.

Now before the 1970s we tended to heat just one room, and everybody congregated in that room, which had the open fire. Although it plays well to an atavistic human race-memory, an open fire is a ghastly way to keep warm in winter – it works by generating a massive uprush of air through the chimney, sucking in the cold air from outside through any crevices it can find, and old British homes have lots of gaps. They’re about 40% efficient at best, can can be as low as 15%. You could end up starting the fire up and finding out other rooms in the house would get colder at times[ref]according to these guys this effect was used in the 19th century to provide coal fired cooling at times![/ref] due to the stupendous inrush of cold air sucked in by the fire 😉 With an open fire you also get a massive temperature gradient – the bit the cat curls up and lies down on is red hot, but by the time you get to the door it’s brass monkeys and cold and draughty.

However, it is very convivial – Ivan Illich would have approved. It’s not a great match for today’s atomistic virtual living, but in the ’70s we came up with an answer. Rather than heat one or two rooms, we’d heat the whole house! I know this probably doesn’t sound so radical now, but it really was a step-change. Shame that the US peak oil crisis and the Arab Israeli war which generated the 1970s oil shock was to rain on the parade in a few years, and in the UK Arthur Scargill and his chums were going to educate us about energy security closer to home, but it sounded like a great idea at the time.

So we took these leaky old houses, retrofitted a hot water distribution system and radiators into them, put hardboard over the previous fireplaces and hey presto – instant warmth. It wasn’t even that much dearer to run, because the shocking inefficiency of an open coal fire and all the attendant air leaks necessary to not have it kill you due to CO poisoning were eliminated. In the mid 1970s Britain converted from town gas created from coal to natural gas from the North Sea, and we were reasonably happy. Those that couldn’t use gas were pointed towards electric storage heaters in towns and oil-fired systems in the country.

When you heat a room from a coal fire, insulation and draught-proofing doesn’t matter so much

Everything was sorted – except that our houses were still draughty and leaky. When you are heating one room with a coal fire, the draughtiness isn’t such a bad thing, and because that room presents only one or two walls to the outside, you don’t need to mess around with insulation so much, because the radiating surface is small. If you’re lucky, the heated room is on the ground floor[ref]you get a double win by having the fire on the ground floor of a two storey house because having a longer chimney is beneficial to getting enough airflow – the pressure difference is proportional to the chimney length if it is adequately insulated.[/ref]  so loft insulation is neither here nor there as some of the heat rising is a welcome move, particularly if the bedroom is above. The layout of the typical Victorian two-up two-down house is very conducive to that, and works well with an coal- or gas-fire in the living room with the bedroom above.

So we never bothered insulating our houses, and draught-proofing wasn’t really approved of. That coal fire has got to breathe in from the house as well as breathe out through the chimney, else carbon monoxide will bind to the haemoglobin in your blood and you don’t get to wake up. Ever.

central heating changed all that

Then we installed central heating. All of a sudden those draughts weren’t so useful and because we were now heating the whole house, the whole house is turned into a radiating surface, so there were benefits to be had from insulating the walls and the loft. Our crappy sash windows with a great big space between the sliding panes were also leaky, opening up potential for double glazing salesmen…

It’s easy to insulate the walls if they are cavity walls, and according to the DECC[ref]DECC  – review of the number of cavity walls in Britain[/ref] a bit over half of the UK’s dwellings have or can support cavity wall insulation, which largely sorts out wall insulation. This sort of insulation is usually blown in from outside, and is relatively easy to do. Insulating the roofspace or loft with rockwool or fibreglass is also reasonably easy to do if you can get access.

The poor ended up with less well insulated houses – because they lived in older houses with solid walls where you can’t do cavity wall insulation. The way to heat a house like that is to heat one room – I know because that’s what I used to do when I lived in a two-up-two-down, and indeed this is the solution advocated by one Guardianista who has thought about it.

However, it appears that nowadays everyone has the right to heat their entire home; and indeed they do if they can afford it 🙂 So the last Labour administration, in a remarkable piece of sleight of hand decided that we should all pay to insulate the homes of the poor. As a social goal there may well be something to be said for that, but I always find it’s nice if people ask first. The way they did it was sneaky and underhand. We have an existing method to redistribute income from the rich to the poor. It’s called income tax, but politicians hate putting up income tax because people hate them for it and don’t vote them in again.

So they made all our fuel bills larger, so that we could all pitch in to help insulate the homes of the poor. And this does piss me off, because it’s dishonest, and it’s regressive – after all, not only do I end up paying more/getting less, the poor also end up eating the costs in higher energy bills unless they can take advantage of the insulation efforts. The whole thing seems to be an exercise in doubleplusgood Newspeak

The overwhelming reasons for power bills soaring are that fossil fuels are getting more expensive and that two decades of underinvestment by energy companies in the UK’s now creaking energy system has left customers with a steep bill to catch up. […]

SSE’s own figures, analysed by Reg Platt at the IPPR think tank, show the rise equates to £93 a year. Of that, £23 is due to rising wholesale energy costs and £28 for investment in the grid and meters. VAT adds £5 and another £23 is unaccounted for, but will include SSE’s own costs, profit and projected rises for the next year, during which SSE has pledged to freeze its tariffs. That all means that just one sixth of SSE’s rise – £15 – is due to the rise in government “green taxes”.

Crafty, that – a part of the latest rise isn’t so bad? It’s not this particular rise, it is the total amount including all the stuff that has already been added. We have an evil combination of Soviet-style central planning and redistribution along with some free-market muppetry, it’s no wonder nobody can understand energy prices with everything pulling in different directions like that. The investment in the grid and meters is a ‘green’ requirement, because renewable energy increases the peak to mean ratio on specific sections of the network, which means you have to over-engineer it to handle the peak inflows as well,  where previously it was engineered to handled the peak demand (you’d dimension the generation to match expected demand, but patterns in that could be characterised and have daily, weekly, and yearly patterns) .

You can see this if you take a look at this site

part of NG loading, Friday 16:30pm-ish on Nov 20, 2013
part of NG loading, Friday 16:30pm-ish on Nov 29, 2013

If you look at the daily and weekly demand you see a characteristic pattern, and you see a fairly harsh, and random, peak to mean ratio on the wind subchart. It’s also clear that the heavy lifting in this snapshot is done by fossil fuels[ref]I regard nuclear as a fossil fuel though not a CO2 generating one, because they ain’t making any more uranium in places we can get at easily, like on earth…[/ref] at about 80% of the total. Wind is ~ 12%, increase that to say 50% target and the unmanaged volatility is going to skyrocket. I can’t get a really clear answer of the wind peak to mean ratio from the chart, but I’d estimate it at about 3:1. If it’s half the generation, then the total volatility will be about 3:2, and we then have the issue that wind isn’t necessarily close to the consumption centres of the country. You get to say where you are putting fossil fuel power stations – sort of, so you can shorten the transmission network a bit. So all that will add up to extra costs and it’s fair enough that power consumers get to eat the cost of engineering the network, that’s part of the cost of supply. However, insulating some people’s homes at everyone else’s cost is social policy, and our government seems to have stolen a march on the Greek method of loading crafty taxes on to hard to avoid consumables – years before the Greeks had the idea!

The investment in meters is because there’s a theory that people manage their usage if they can see it. I personally would leave this up to the consumers – you don’t have to roll out smart meters to track consumption. I purchased a Efergy energy meter to manage this and may upgrade this to identify specific power hogs, and I have probably recovered the capital cost and more in reduced power usage. But not everybody is that interested the consumer needs to understand the difference between kilowatts and kilowatt-hours and which of those numbers they should try and minimise. If they don’t know they can’t use a smart meter properly. If you want to know, you’ll stump up – again, why everybody has to be provided with this just in case some are interested beats me.

I’ve at least done my bit to pay as little as possible for other people’s insulation – by reducing my energy usage 😉 However what I didn’t realise is how shocking these levies are. They aren’t listed explicitly anywhere, but can be seen in the background radiation of their effect on fuel prices. I brazenly pinched this chart from here

Relative domestic energy prices, in kWh
Relative domestic energy prices, in kWh

Now you have to factor in efficiency into the equation – my wood stove is rated by the manufacturer to be > 70% efficient. Electricity is always 100% efficient[ref]obviously there are losses in generation and transmission, but these are taken into account in the price per kWh you pay when it crosses your meter[/ref] in being turned into heat, because you have no exhaust to vent the products of combustion. My gas boiler is over twenty years old and according to the energy saving trust it is about 70% efficient too.So you have to deflate the cost of electricity by 30% to compare it with wood, whereas gas and wood are pretty much of a muchness efficiency-wise for me. That economy7 is about 5.1 p/kWh because you get to use all of it, so it’s cheaper that heating oil or LPG for kWh of heating functionality delivered to your living space[ref]I am making the assumption that haven’t already inflated the cost to compensate for efficiency, which they sort of confirm by saying For further clarity this is the amount of potential energy in the fuel, and not the energy delivered from an appliance[/ref]

According to them I could save £310 p.a. if I bought the latest whizz-bang condensing boiler, which would be impressive it it were true – I pay £500 for gas in a year as it is 😉 However, elementary arithmetic indicates they are wrong. Assume a new boiler is 100% efficient. I throw away 30% of my £500 due to the notional inefficiency of my boiler, £150 tops. So they are presuming a higher consumption. Not only that, but the payback period is thus very very long – if it costs £3000 parts and labour to install a boiler I am looking at 20 years to amortise the cost[ref]I expect gas to rise in real terms, which would shorten the period of amortization by some uncertain amount. Even if it’s ten years, that seems to be the anticipated service life of a modern boiler, so I would have to add £300 p.a. to my gas bill just to save up for the cost of the new boiler in 2023, making the efficiency saving of £150/year look very bad value indeed[/ref], and condensing boilers are notoriously unreliable – I’d be lucky to get ten years service life. So I’ll pass on that, thanks.

Now the interesting part of this is if you look at the cost of wood, in terms of logs. It’s probably safe to say that nobody has yet thought of putting green levies on logs. Wood processing is shockingly manually intensive, and yet is cheaper than anything else other than coal in price per kWh.  It’s got to be dearer to harvest, store and dry out for a year or and supply than gas – there are few economies of scale to be had. I suspect gas would be cheaper if it weren’t distorted by social engineering, which guesstimates the social engineering at about 1p out of 3.5p, a heady 28%.

You can take matters into your own hands, however. Burn coal in a multifuel log burner, or if you have children and issues with global warming then pay people to chop up wood and deliver it to you by the ton, which has the nice social engineering byproduct of improving manual employment opportunities in your local area, because wood is a low-density fuel and the economics go pear-shaped as soon as you shift it any significant distance 😉

This is striking a blow  for freedom from social engineering
This is striking a blow for freedom from social engineering

Do your bit for the country. Declare independence from these chiseling ways. If politicians want us to pay for the poor to insulate their homes then let them man up at the ballot box, say so and do it above the line. Shysters…

Having now discovered this I will be buying coal, if I can get it at the prices quoted. I don’t see why I should be chipping in just so that the Guardian can print this heart-warming tale of four working-age adults getting their house insulated for free on my power bill and now I know how to stop being rooked for this 😉

Rogers believes the ECO scheme should be expanded, not slimmed down. “It’s a brilliant idea. I don’t know why we don’t do more of it.”

Take a guess. Go on, try. Perhaps we don’t do more of it because you run out of other people’s money?



A Genius way of qualifying Needs and Wants

Sadly it’s probably one of those rear-view mirror tools, something that seems to be a recurrent theme in investing, but Lam Thuy Vo – Quantified Breakup has a great way of summing up the continuum between the wants and needs axis and the associated costs.

Love the title – buying shit 😉

Lam Thuy Vo did pretty well, really, in fact she did better than I did some years ago under similar circumstances. I bought a fine pair of Leica binoculars for about £700, a secondhand Naim CD player for £1500 and other baubles . I’m still a crap birdwatcher and should have spent the money on getting places to see odd birds with my existing gear, and I bought the CD player just as I was about to switch to streaming 😉 But it helped get it out of my system a bit, so it was probably a good investment of the non-financial kind. What I like about her approach is the graduated scale of useless to useful – there is a continuum between Wants and Needs. When I first had to tackle excess spending to tackle saving massively into a pension, I went digital about this – the aim was to shoot all Wants and tighten up on the Needs, to get where I wanted to be – free of The Man.

I use a copy of Quicken to track my spending and income, such as it is, and it would be great if it had a ‘how useful is this to me’ axis and could summarise spending in this sort of way. Quicken is a decade-old program and people now entrust this sort of thing to Mint but even on Mint I still don’t think there’s a feature to enter – ‘how well did this spending serve me’.

It’s a funny old game really – as Martin Lewis said, time is a fossil resource, they ain’t making any more of it in your lifetime. Every day that passes your lifetime  shortens by exactly 24 hours, so a fleeting selling some of those hours for a cup of coffee should deliver some utility. Ideally more utility than you surrendered to earn the money to buy it…

This is now a hard calculus for me – after all, I am now a rentier. The fires that burned to raise my career have how faded, I am running on the accumulated capital. How do I qualify this? I spend more than I earn, though the trajectory will not fall to earth before I draw my pension. When I was working I could qualify it easily – it would take me a year and a half to earn this car, 20 years of paying a mortgage to buy this house[ref]it never looks that way at the start, always far worse. I thought I would still be paying off the mortgage on the first house for another 10 years. The power of inflation to save debtors’ asses should never be misunderstood – it’s why governments love it and why savers in cash assets are being ruined now. However, what you must never do while you have that mortgage is take on any other debt, particularly consumer debt! Paying interest on that kills you faster than inflation helps you.[/ref]

Nevertheless, everyone should have a chart like Lam Thuy Vo’s. I salute her – she will do well. She reined it in, acknowledged what’s up, and got on with life. If I look back over the last year or so, I don’t have too much in the Useless Shit category, but by no way is everything a Need. On the useless side is perhaps the Raspberry Pi, and a load of electronic components – but then I use them to turn over the brain a bit, learn about new things. Possibly break out into a different piece of engineering, though I must be careful not to call it work 😉 I still maintain my C.Eng, though it is an ultimate piece of frivolity. I haven’t used it and probably won’t ever use it, unless Britain’s retiring engineers cause a surge in demand matched by a cull of management stupidity 😉

A quick scull through her purchases show that Lam Thuy Vo was probably still more disciplined through her breakup and faced with the world’s #1 consumer society[ref]she’s a reporter with Al-Jazeera in the States[/ref] than I was. I shares some of her excesses – I also have a fine Waterman fountain pen, though I would shift it well past the halfway mark on the usefulness scale, My writing is still revolting with it, but I can actually read it, and that was worth paying £50 a few years ago for the capability.

I didn’t go into musical instruments, but I bought a Kindle, though I need to illuminate the bastard with the light of a thousand suns, whereas I can read a real book in the half-light perfectly well – the e-ink display has low contrast and poor sharpness, with a laggy fuzz to lines.However, I have probably recouped the capital cost in freebie books, and it is a great way to hold PDFs of datasheets, though the Kindle’s library management functions are disgracefully crap. Amortisation of the capital costs through utility drifts a purchase from the useless into the useful over time as you win utility from them, as long as you don’t churn your gadgets!

Some useful things come for free – even if they aren’t practically useful.

I bummed a lift ot get to see this - I got top utility out of it :)
I bummed a lift to get to see this – I got top utility out of it for £0 🙂

Maybe this kind of charting is the ultimate nemesis of capitalism – the Avenging Angel that rocks up at the end of the month, taps on your shoulder regarding spending, and asks you, on a scale of 1-10, how much did that purchase enhance your quality of life? And then serves you a nice infographic that shows you are trending towards the Useless Shit axis.  It’s the ultimate neutron bomb to capitalism – it will destroy the activity while leaving the superstructure standing, when consumers start to live intentionally and ask themselves these questions about how much their spending actually delivers enhanced quality of life for them. – your users need you. But how would you get paid – it would reduce your advertising revenue to dust in a month.


Come Swine with Us – oh by the way somebody’s left a great big blue cock behind in Trafalgar Square

Note: this post isn’t really one for vegans. Or for fans of fried chicken street food that seems to be taking over the place at the moment, either…

 I say, chaps, here's a rum thing if ever I've seen one
here’s a rum thing if ever I’ve seen one

Ever since I first heard about it, I wanted to go see BoJo’s great big blue cock in Trafalgar Square, and his sponsored ‘Come Swine With Us’ event seemed to be a way of combining that with a free lunch. As an engineer, it really doesn’t matter if I have zero artistic taste, and I do have a penchant for the odd and quirky in public spaces at times. And this is quirky.

It was also a day to go get a free lunch, in the interest of railing against the the daft 2004 EU regulations that prohibit the feeding of swill to pigs.

The whole point of a pig is to recycle waste – as Simon Fairlie puts it in Meat: a Benign Extravagance

8000 years ago, when herds of wild swine were attracted to the settlements of early agriculturalists, an interspecies bargain was negotiated.
‘You give us your waste food and a bit of that extra juicy grass seed you have, and well keep your camp clean and let you eat our surplus offspring, of which we have many’

The trouble is that the pig industry is concentrating. Midland Pig Producers are going to keep 25,000 pigs in a roughly 20-acre site, 100 metres away from existing dwellings near Foston. Apparently it won’t smell. Really. Trust them on that. They can control 97% of the smell. From 25,000 pigs. That’s great, so it will just smell like 750 pigs then – and that’s assuming the sense of smell is linear. If it is logarithmic, like many other senses, then the difference will be less. Now I wouldn’t have an objection to living 100m away from the smell of 50 pigs kept in the open, but the leakage is equivalent to 750 packed all together in an industrial unit? 100m away from some poor sod’s house? And this is good in what way?

I can honestly say that standing from the camera point I can't smell the shit from these guys - but they are moved regularly and it isn't concentrated like a CAFO - the shit is broken down in the soil as is Nature's way
I can honestly say that standing from the camera point I can’t smell the shit from these guys – but they are moved regularly and it isn’t concentrated like a CAFO – the shit is broken down in the soil as is Nature’s way

The industrialising pig industry hasn’t any great use for swill – it’s can’t use it because it’s not homogeneous enough on controllable enough to be used on a large scale, and doesn’t want to use it because they are paranoid about extra disease because a concentrated animal feedlot has no spatial diversity against disease – take one hog down with something serious and you take the lot out, it goes with the ‘concentrated’ part of the territory. This also leads to the regular abuse of antibiotics to manage low levels of disease. You get to eat that in the industrialised pork, and we spike some of the most powerful guns in the medical armoury, all in the name of about 10% off our chow. So do try not get sick in a way that needs serious antibiotics, m’kay…

With those 2004 EU regs that ancient pact ‘twixt Man and Pig is broken, and we feed our pigs on soya imported from South America rather that the waste from the Great Wen’s restaurants, which presumably we get to landfill rather than turn into pork. To give him his due, BoJo groused about this in 2004 and has supported The Pig Idea to try and get some of this rolled back.

It’s a theme that comes all too often when industrial processing meets Life, and the result is never pretty, though it does reduce non-external costs. Automation, standardisation and conveyor belts are a fantastic way to speed up, cost-reduce and produce things that are the product of human ingenuity, from cars to iPods[ref]yes, there’s still a need to control externalities and pollution, it’s not a panacea, but it’s served us reasonably well[/ref]. Industrialisation and automation leads to unspeakable cruelty and shocking levels of pollution when if comes to things involving Life. In the case of vegetable farming there is the pollution in terms of nitrates but no cruelty. In the case of meat farming industrialisation has brought down costs, without a doubt, but the cruelty is ghastly, and the pollution is none too pretty either. In the States they can get away with this because the country is huge and has large regions that are thinly settled, so concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO) can get far enough away from people to not stink them out, but 80% of antibiotics in the US are consumed by animals and the US government arm the EPA seems to indicate there are a fair number of issues.

First they came for the chickens…

In 1971 chicken cost 40p/kg[ref]ONS[/ref] so a typical 1.5kg bird would have set you back 60p. According to the Bank of England inflation averaged 6.2% p.a. over the intervening four decades so that chicken would have cost you the equivalent of £7.20 in today’s money. Tesco will sell you a chicken for £2, so industrial agriculture works in bringing down the price – and chicken welfare wasn’t unimpeachable in the 1970s though egg production seemed to hold the greatest excesses. A Tesco free-range chicken is to be had for £8.25, roughly tracking that 1971 price[ref]that ’71 bird was probably not free range, though the excesses of meat chicken rearing seemed to take off in he 1980s.[/ref]

Can’t argue with the improved financial case, though cheap chicken is pretty bland – it’s raised quickly and it takes time and input food variety to build flavour.You local independent dirty chicken shop selling fried chicken has an answer to that blandness – lots of hot spices, batter to pad it out and shedloads of fat, sugar and salt. To be honest they could probably substitute TVP or Quorn for the chicken and their customer would be none the wiser because most of the flavour is not in the meat.

Every time someone buys pretty much any kind of fast food chicken, or a £2 Tesco chicken, they also buy into this.

Which is a shame – we are much richer now than in the 1970s, and perhaps we don’t need to be so beastly to our farm animals. Humans are carnivores and top predators, which is why we have our eyes facing forwards rather than outwards like a bunny rabbit or a cow[ref]herbivores tend to be prey, so they need all-round vision to damn well watch out for the carnivores who are looking to eat their flesh. Carnivores tend to need binocular vision and focus so they can track their prey. Which is why your eyes, and those of your dog or cat are in the front of your head whereas a rabbit’s eyes are either side, all the better to spot the incoming fox[/ref], we have omnivorous dentition and a taste for flesh, though we aren’t obligate carnivores like cats. However, top predators don’t usually torture their prey for most of a lifetime before eating it, so I think humans can claim a first on that, inventive blighters that we are. I can’t help feeling that we ought to be able to do better, particularly in the First World. The RSPCA will go nuts if you mistreat a dog, but set up a company to be incorrigibly mean to chickens, or pigs, and, well, have at it, guys. You’ll probably get a government grant to do it.

The standard riposte is the the poor have the right to eat chicken too and indeed they do, Tesco will be their friend, or any of the zillions of dirty chicken shops that litter the streets of UK towns that caused the Grauniad to weep into their beer. In times of dearer chicken previous generations addressed this by eating meat once a week rather than every day, and also having more awareness of what to do with vegetables. The standard of professional and foodie cooking in Britain is immeasurably better than in the 1970s[ref]for readers too young to have had the pleasure, British cooking was dire – we boiled the shit out of our vegetables for half an hour and stewed meat. If veg held together after cooking it hadn’t been cooked long enough.[/ref], but the awareness of what to do with food by people who just want to eat and don’t take any interest in preparation is a lot lower now than it used to be[ref]I can’t be bothered to cite any particular part of the research for this because this rant would shift from the pigs to the people. Google uk skills cooking public and read some of the stuff that comes back, preferably after pouring a stiff drink and sitting down far away from anything sharp. If you can’t see what the problem is then you are part of it. Our government has to tell people via the NHS that they should sit down with their kids for at least some meals, turn the bloody TV off, and there are courses to teach adults how to cook. Were these parents themselves raised by wolves, FFS?[/ref], because fast food and ready meals are much more affordable and taste better than they used to. However, there are costs – and these are borne in the high levels of fat, hidden sugar and salt in ready meals. And the chickens get the rough end of the deal too.

now they’re coming for the pigs…

And now industrial farming wants to do this with pigs in the UK… The foot and mouth debacle of 2001 seems to have been a turning point, and large-scale farming seems to have been drawn to the concentrated animal feeding operation. This dominates US practice, though we should bear in mind that the US has a lot more land per person than the UK. You can see what one of these operations look like here – from there you can zoom in and see the individual cows. So we have battle lines drawn between the industrial pig industry, who don’t want anybody feeding swill or waste food[ref]Note that it was never mandatory to feed swill to pigs, so they had and will still have the right to carry on feeding imported grain – but presumably some people will ask awkward questions.[/ref], and 10,000 years of pig/human waste management. Plus some celebrity chefs and Boris Johnson. Obviously the Great Wen has got a serious food waste problem. Eight million souls, a shitload of chi-chi restaurants and nary a green space to offload their trash, it ain’t good at all. They’re even having to upgrade the sewerage system to cope with the stuff that’s passed through the humans because they toss 39 million tons of raw logs out into the Thames every year, which is clearly not an ideal situation. Up until recently that historic pig/human pact still held good for commercial food waste – they used to boil up some of the waste in industrial units and feed it to pigs. Then after the foot and mouth epidemic the EU decided that nobody is going to feed swill to pigs in Europe and they iced ten millenia of co-operation between pig and man. And the pig industry saw a chance to industrialise, as well as importing grain from halfway round the world, which cost more, again pushing the the high volume/low welfare agenda.

Some of London’s restaurateurs and foodie glitterati decided to push back on the swill ban and so The Pig Idea was born. They held a shindig in Trafalgar Square on Thursday involving free food, and let me tell you that’s a marvellous thing in Central London. Non-Londoners need to understand something about London restaurants in the centre of town – basically if you need to read the prices on the menu you can’t afford it.

Thomasina Meiers and Sara Cox at The Pig Idea
Thomasina Miers and Sara Cox at The Pig Idea

The Pig Idea is fronted by the fragrant Thomasina Meiers[ref]I vaguely recall having a crush on her in some foraging TV programme from years and years back, think it was wild gourmets[/ref]

Tristram Stuart, Thomasina Miers and Sara Cox cooking up some pork
Tristram Stuart, Thomasina Miers and Sara Cox cooking up some pork

Tristram Stuart sort of sums it all up at the start (~1min)


Thomasina, bless her, comes over all Sloane Ranger with this little quip which bombed with the audience, you could see why. Although there were a fair number of London’s young and beautiful there they all seemed to PR interns – even your mustelid scrivener was asked if he was a member of the press, as I was tooled up with a SLR camera and an audio recorder.


Earth to Thomasina – you may well not need to work, and indeed the one over there with brilliant white fur is also of independent though far less means, but it’s not a common condition in modern Britain, though it may well be in your social circle. We didn’t all go to Mexico on our Gap Yah to come back and found Wahaca. Even seasoned standup comics tremble to extract the yellow stuff from the audience, so don’t rush in there like that 😉

However, despite the foot-in-mouth bit the day went well and the free lunch was indeed mighty fine.

Grub's up!
Grub’s up!
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall doing his stuff - with trotters?
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall doing his stuff – with trotters?

Now to be honest I think this battle is already lost, and it’s a strange sort of thing to be in the same camp as a bunch of folks with upper-class accents. It’s notable that celebrity chefs do seem to live on a separate planet from most people in Britain. I might be a heartless bastard but Jamie Oliver needed to make his point about about the f*ing great big TV in a different way – he has a point that the poor sometimes don’t choose the cheapest way to eat and drink but that is a separate issue from the TV. Then we have Thomasina of the tin ear telling us all that we’re layabouts and doesn’t anybody have jobs these days, well, maybe we believed you when you said it was important to make a stand and took some time out to support you in return for a free lunch 😉

I’m not so hung up on the swill issue though I can see that returning to our millenia old tradition would be good from a waste management point of view in our capital city. But what I really don’t want to see is US-style industrial CAFOs in Britain. Yes, we are going to send our pigs to slaughter and eat them. The only time I hear a pig squeal is when it takes a zap from the electric fence that stops them breaking out, and they are smart enough to learn, it’s a very rare occurrence. Obviously it’s going to happen again at the end – I’ve seen what happens in a slaughterhouse too. Whereas if you take a look at The Pig Business movie, squealing seems to go on all the time in Smithfield’s ghastly operations, and a squealing pig is not a usually a happy pig – squealing seems to be an alarm call. Pigs grunt to communicate with each other – when one of the herd thinks grub’s up, there is a characteristic sound to the low grunt which seems to mean ‘oi, food’s up’. They then charge over to whoever is dishing out the food and then get their heads stuck in, again grunting to each other.

We don’t need to cut off their tails, or inject them with antibiotics either. They serve us well, they clear our waste veg and trimmings, and they turn over the ground without having to put diesel in something – they just get on with it.

pigs, after feeding. They grunt, not squeal
pigs, feeding. They still grunt, not squeal, unlike at Smithfield’s CAFOs in The Pig Business

So while I have sympathy with the view that the poor don’t need to be spending any more of their money on chicken, I am still not sure that the protracted animal cruelty that we prohibit outside farming is a price worth paying without some sort of debate about our inconsistency on animal welfare. I don’t know what the right answer is. Ultimately resolving this sort of issue is a political decision, but I still don’t understand why the RSPCA can prosecute people for keeping their dogs in squalour but not an industrial chicken or pig unit keeping farm animals in squalour.

Oh yes, just to save all of us the trouble I don’t deal with militant vegans. I respect the right of any entity to decide what goes into it’s mouth and require the same civility in return. If you’re of the view that meat is murder then you’re clearly can’t understand the difference between murder and killing[ref]Let’s start with Google, shall we[/ref] and I have no desire to debate the issue with you. Eating meat obviously involves killing things, and I’m easy with that. What I’d prefer not to do is mistreat the animal for a lifetime first, in ways British society has decided is unacceptable outside the farming system.

People queuing for a free lunch under the friendly gaze of a big blue cock
People queuing for a free lunch under the friendly gaze of a big blue cock
pork - pizza anyone?
pork – pizza anyone?

On a lighter note I was greatly taken with Boris’s art commission. That sort of strangeness is what an mayor should be all about, so the rest of this post is dedicated to his fantastic big blue cock. I’m also deeply grateful to Boris for finally putting public toilets at Trafalgar Square -and they’re free, unlike the chiseling barstewards at Leicester Square and Liverpool Street Station.

That cock is fantastic

the cock has a certain regal charm head-on, n'est ce pas
the cock has a certain regal charm head-on, n’est ce pas


Poundland are cynical con-artists

We make so many consumer purchases now, that we don’t think about them or educate ourselves about what we are buying. We often go for the easy metric, which for most of us is price. The modern consumer is thus often price-conscious and value blind, and places like Poundland play to this. They simplify the price bit, so as a result value is simple never mind the quality, count the quantity. After all, Martin Lewis shops at Poundland, so it’s gotta be good, right?

everything's 93p this week. suspicious minds might think it's due to the <99p shop that's opened opposit to replace QD
everything’s 93p this week. suspicious minds might think it’s due to the 99p store opened across the way 🙂

Poundland had a discount offer when I was in town, so I thought I’d take advantage of it to uncover some subtle price-gouging

Batteries. So many. Such good value. So cheap. So, er - crap? Zinc Chloride? Why'd they bother importing this shite from China, FFS?
Batteries. So many. Such good value. So cheap. So, er – crap? Zinc Chloride? Why’d they bother importing this shite from China, FFS?

Such good value. 10 batteries for less than £1. Bargain! Pile ’em high and flog ’em cheap. An ermine’s inquisitive snout was piqued, and I encountered battery technology that was already identified as seriously second-rate in the 1970s of my schooldays.


Yup. Before Sex And the City polluted our minds with a different sort of pink battery powered rabbit, there was the Duracell Bunny, that tireless campaigner for the alkaline battery made by the Mallory Corporation.

In the 1960s and 1970s all common batteries were of the zinc-carbon or zinc chloride type. They were crap – they had sod all capacity, and started to fade as soon as you started using them. Mallory batteries were the non plus ultra of the battery world then – longer lasting and only fading in terminal voltage towards the end of their useful life.

promoted heavily, these took ever so slightly longer to leak and wreck your battery compartment than the SP2 variant. Poundland's bringing back 40-year old technology because people are price sensitive and quality-blind
Promoted heavily in the 1970s, but still crap, these zinc chloride batteries took ever so slightly longer to leak and wreck your battery compartment than the SP2 zinc carbon variant.

However, service life wasn’t really the main problem – after all in those distant days the only battery powered devices in common use were torches and transistor radios, none of the widespread motorised and heavy loads of today. The reason we moved on from zinc chloride battery technology was this

zinc chloride battery failure mode
zinc chloride battery failure mode

The suckers eat the zinc metal casing in the process of generating power, or even sitting on the shelf due to self-discharge. Eventually the gunk inside gets to break out and ruin your device. Charming, eh?

In theory these are ideal for low power devices that are used rarely, such as clocks and remote controls. However, unless you religiously change all the batteries every year, the blighters will leak and gunk up your devices, and corrode the contacts. You need to wash out all the gunk[ref]obviously without soaking your item in water or getting it into the works[/ref], then dry the battery compartment out. Then remove the corrosion from the battery terminals because it is insulating and gives you ratty intermittent behaviour. A Dremel with the brass, not steel brush on slow works well, as does wet and dry used dry. Steel wool can work, but you easily get strands of steel left behind which is all very exciting when introduced to a battery.

Let’s get some science into the subject. One of the great things that has happened in electronics over the last 10 years while I was sitting behind screens coding after The Firm got out of hardware has been the introduction of the microcontroller, a simple single-chip microprocessor and associated bits. In Europe we tend to favor the Atmel range with Arduino, but because of my interest in low-power sensor design I use the US-favoured PIC series, and constructed this panjandrum to measure the service life of these batteries.

Poundland battery tester
Poundland battery tester

Every minute it reports the voltage and current from the batteries running through a 2.5V torch bulb, the third bulb is maintained at 2.5V to provide a reference. It transmits the signal using radio to a datalogger. I got a camera to take a picture every 15 minutes, as a video the results are reasonably clear.

The left-hand bulb is powered by the ‘cheap’ battery that Poundland sell for 9p, the middle is powered by the ‘dearer’ alkalines they sell at about 17p.

Alkalines - only six, not 10. I will sprt the £2 one day to test how much more capacity these have than the cheap ones
Alkalines – only six, not 11. Obviously dearer then.

It all happens a bit quickly in the video, but the results from the datalogger clearly show that you get more than twice as much power from the alkalines, and they have a much more stable terminal voltage too.

Battery life of alkaline and zinc chloride batteries in Poundland
Battery life of alkaline and zinc chloride batteries in Poundland

If we take the service life as the time for the battery voltage to drop by a third to 2V (for two 1.5V batteries in series, which is the most common torch configuration) then you get 1.7 hours from the cheap ones and 5.8 hours from the alkalines. Therefore the twice as dear batteries last three-and-a-half times as long. You get 1690mAh from the alkalines and a lousy 481 mAh from the zinc chloride batteries if you run them to the 1V/cell point.

special offer at Poundland - woohoo
special offer at Poundland – woohoo

Nowhere does Poundland or the original manufacturer  provide you with the information you need to make an informed choice here. It’s particularly crap that Kodak/Strand don’t provide this info on their website – WTF is the point of the website if they don’t give you details of the battery capacity? It’s full of waffle and garbage about Kodak’s trade dress. George Eastman must be turning uncomfortably in his grave at what the stupid tossers have done in turning a  pinnacle of research and innovation into a purveyor of ‘trade dress’ to tart up cheap Chinese batteries so that Western consumers can be fooled into paying more for less by pound/dollar stores. Instead of useful capacity info, there’s some meaningless waffle

Is this suitable for a torch? Buggered if I know, what does low powered equipment mean?
Are these ZnCl batteries suitable for a torch? Buggered if I know, what exactly does low powered equipment mean, Kodak?

What does it all mean? Damned if I know, and I’m a chartered engineer and worked in the electronics industry for many years. What does low power mean? Is the 300mA of my torch bulb low power or high power, Kodak?  How do I check my device for suitability? Where do the words ‘Heavy Duty’ fit in with ‘low power’ you oxymoronic gits? Let’s take a hint from the old geezer Lord Kelvin, who quoth thusly 130 years ago

When you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts advanced to the stage of science.

Lord Kelvin

Lecture on Electrical Units of Measurement” (3 May 1883)

Howsabout it? I’d say by the piss poor performance of the ‘cheap’ batteries that the low power line should be drawn at about 50mA, but I wouldn’t normally think of a torch as a high power device. [ref]I was slightly unfair on Kodak when I wrote this, as I’ve since discovered this page which indicates that these are suitable “For common household appliances, our zinc-chloride heavy duty range is meant for everyday use such as toys, flashlights, clocks and remote controls” [/ref] A shaver, yes, a kid’s RC toy, yes, digital camera, yes, Carrie’s SATC pink rabbit probably yes, but a torch?

Bet Carrie uses alkalines. It's a high power device - doing a lot of work ;)
Bet Carrie uses alkalines. It’s a high power device 😉 As the man said in the ad, Duracell batteries can make fun times last a lot longer. ’nuff said.

In terms of the energy you are buying[ref] the energy available during the service life was 0.6Wh for ZnCl and 2.2Wh for alkalines. I paid £141/kWh for ZnCl and £72/kWh for the alkalines, as opposed to 21.4p/kWh from the wall socket from those nice Frenchmen at EDF[/ref], which is what you buy batteries for, the dear batteries are in fact the cheaper ones and the cheaper batteries are the expensive way of buying power. The cost of running a 2-cell torch with cheap ZnCl batteries is 10p/hr and the cost of running the same torch with dear batteries is 5p/hr. Plus you get to change them a third as often and a reduced risk of gunkage which has to be worth something in itself.

It was plainly obvious that Poundland were shifting a lot more of the ZnCl batteries, cynically abusing their customers’ inability to make the right call with the information supplied, and marketing the ‘lots of batteries for a pound’ to make twice as much money out of their customers. While doing this they’re shipping twice as much weight from China and creating twice as much waste. No doubt they would say they are simply providing consumer choice, it’s out of our hands. There’s a lack of integrity in selling things like this. I can think of only one use for the ZnCl batteries, which is if you are going to give a child a toy for Christmas that makes an irritating noise then you may be prepared to pay double for your power so the pain only lasts a third as long 😉 But you really should ask yourself some searching questions about what you are doing and the example you’re setting in that case…

We discovered that in the 1970s that you get longer runtimes from alkalines, and you don’t get to chisel corrosion out of your kit, but it seems Poundland is taking advantage of generations who don’t remember that – I don’t recall seeing many ZnCl batteries for sale in the 1990s or early 2000s though they never totally disappeared. Poundland is promoting an obsolete 40-year old technology because people have become price sensitive and quality-blind, so they can make more money out of them. The value for money equation has two sides – the value you get and the money you pay for it. Focusing just on the money side leads you to rotten value at times. We seem to have become inured to that, and become trained like Pavlov’s dogs to always follow the lowest price in a race to the bottom. You’ve got the science here. Don’t buy trash, it’s better for your wallet and better for the environment 😉

Poundland also sell a lot of gizmos to discharge those batteries so you come back for more. Take this battery discharger


Can't use rechargeables
Can’t use rechargeables

It draws 15mA from two AA batteries. You will observe Poundland reminding you to go get yer batteries bottom left.

AA alkalines - great (probably okay on zinc chloride too, the terminal voltage is the same)
AA alkalines – great (probably okay on zinc chloride too, the terminal voltage is the same)

These things are designed not to work right from rechargeable batteries[ref]rechargeables have a terminal voltage of 1.2V as opposed to 1.5V, and it is the 0.6V lower voltage that conveniently stops you using them with the Poundland lights[/ref], which is by far the cheapest way to run standalone Christmas lights. Remember I was paying 21p/kWh from the mains and £72/kWh to Poundland for their alkaline batteries. Even if I lose 5x the power in the inefficiency of the charger and battery cycle[ref]this is an overestimate – you lose about 14% of the power over the battery charge/recharge cycle[/ref] I’m 70 times better off. As an added bonus I can get 1/3 more runtime from a 2400mAh rechargeable. However, if you try that you will find the LED string is dim as a Toc H lamp and no earthly use to anyone.

Gutless at 1mA with rechargeables
Gutless at 1mA with rechargeables

I went to Poundland last year after Christmas to see if they were selling Christmas stock off cheap, but they weren’t – they’d cleared the shelves overnight for a new range of junk. I wanted about 20 of these things, because an Ermine can make these work with rechargeables – you order three-battery switched battery boxes on Ebay, wait three weeks to get them from China and then unsolder the wire from the old two cell battery box and swap the resistor to run the LED string at 20mA off three NiMH rechargeable cells. I get to reuse the original two cell box elsewhere. On taking this to pieces I discovered what Poundland did with their unsold Christmas stock from 2012.

What Poundland do with the unsold stuff - store in in a damp environment for next year, I guess ;)
What Poundland do with the unsold stuff – store in in a damp environment for next year, I guess 😉

They store it somewhere damp and flog it to us next year 😉 The 20Ω series resistor looks just ready to short against the battery terminals too. You can’t get the staff anymore in China it seems…

So overall I think it’s game, set and match. Poundland are cynically selling an obsolete battery technology to extract more money from customers, along with devices that can’t use rechargeable batteries. But of course it’s a discount store and everything’s only £1 so it’s great value. Kodak can do with a mention is a supporting role, along with Strand Europe with a gong for most useless website of the year award.

Welcome to the World of KODAK Batteries

Strand Europe are delighted to present to you the world of KODAK Batteries. From the brand known as its excellence in photography over many decades, comes a range of quality batteries to compete with the very best in the market. Enjoy browsing our site to see how we can support you in your use of our products.

Support us in any way other than telling us some basic facts like the capacity and the absent great big warning that using these batteries may knacker your gear.


It’s not the bad guys like Wonga who won, it’s the good guys who lost by playing on their patch…

Every so often you come across a small detail that reminds you that it’s a different world out there. So it is when I came across someone who seemed to be in sound mind who wanted to get a credit card to pay for her honeymoon in a year’s time. The approach was critiqued (not by me) in that there’s something to be said for saving up for a consumer purchase ahead rather than starting married life in debt.

Wedding industry to young couple: Here, let’s make it less likely that your very special day will continue being special by sucking shitloads of money from your personal finances to enrich ourselves. Have a nice day
Wedding industry to young couple: Here, let’s make it less likely that your very special day will continue being special by sucking shitloads of money from your personal finances to enrich ourselves. Have a nice day

Although I’ve generally of that curmudgeonly opinion, a honeymoon isn’t exactly like buying a new TV – as long as you know what you are doing, and are prepared to accept the attendant risks it’s probably less bad than buying a car on tick; hopefully you aren’t planning to do it again any time real soon. However, it was the reply that showed me it’s a strange world out there.

Yes it will be special enough to get into debt for, at least it’s not as much as some people spend on their honeymoon 7k plus! Ours is a lot cheaper and will only take a year to pay off so well worth it, saving for us would take a lot longer and harder than paying off a card.

I’ve really tried to think of the eventuality where saving up for something ahead of time would take longer that spending the money and paying back a card. Unless you’re expecting a raise, I just can’t do it, which shows me something I just didn’t understand.

People nowadays often seem think of credit as a different sort of money to normal money. This has been a failure of education, and by education I don’t mean what goes on in schools. It is the parents’ job to educate their children into how to use the resources of this world. Preferably by example – it makes it a lot more convincing when you show your children that you have more options in life if you occasionally go without and take responsibility for your actions, rather than saying that but doing otherwise.

It wasn’t that the bad guys actually won, it is that the majority of consumers seems to have lost the fight, and are now playing in a virtual world where there are two types of money: credit, that is generally easy to get and comes in in great big lumps but goes out in little monthly repayments, and real money, that comes in in little monthly payments and never adds up to enough to make a great big lump. Ergo, you spend for a great big lump like a honeymoon on credit, and it would take longer and be harder to save up for this beforehand (scratches head in wonderment).

That logic is just plain wrong. When you have managed to tell yourself that borrowing money on a credit card and paying it back is faster and easier than saving it up front then you are so far down the wrong track that even stopping is probably not enough to save you. You need to back up a long way.

It’s such an egregious example that it showed me that the vastly increased amount of consumer credit and easy acceptance has made people think about money in a different way. I have grown up with credit; I had an Access card as a student in London but I never thought of the money on it in a different way. I’ve paid interest on credit cards in the past through incompetence and through greed. But I now understand why people are sore when they can’t get accepted for a credit card. It is because they believe that consumer credit is the only way of buying some things, and that they are therefore entitled to a credit card.

I never grew up with the belief that I was entitled to somebody lending me money.

I have no income that a credit card company would recognise, so I presume none would give me a card now despite a blameless record. If that became the case then I’d suck it up and do without, and use a debit card instead, because when I lend a bank my money I get to have the right to tell them I want to be able to use it every so often.

Money, as a medium of exchange [ref]as opposed to a store of value[/ref] is amenable to arithmetic and logic, and it’s very bad when you get that wrong and start to use voodoo economics in your personal finances. The value you place on money, in contrast, is inherently subjective. I didn’t go into debt on my honeymoon, though I did make it an exception to the cut all holidays to save for getting out of work early.

I hope the credit-card toting lady is aware that disagreements about money are a more prevalent cause of relationship grief than sex 😉

Money is one of the main topics of discord in relationships. Today, more than ever, in the current climate, it’s all about keeping a roof over our heads and feeling secure.

Denise Knowles, a relationship counsellor from Relate

It’s one of the reasons why I think that the wedding industry is ghastly – it’s aimed at people when they are hopefully young and in love and aiming to push consumer experiences at them to make as much money as possible on the back of ‘their special day’. All the knick-knacks and extras that all exist solely to push the price up. Take, for example, vainglorious excesses like the ‘ring cushion‘ – something has the sole purpose of displaying the rings as you walk up the aisle, so it has about five minutes of fame tops. And really, shouldn’t your wedding-guests be looking at the happy couple as they walk up the aisle rather than their rings carried by some oik?

Extracting tens of thousands of pounds from a couple just as they get married is about the one thing most likely to reduce the chances of that marriage lasting. It takes a long time to synchronise values enough to get a working common view on money in a relationship – years rather than months, and loading up with debt from the off makes that job much harder.

However, as long as she/they are aware of the issues and have weighed up the pros and cons then fair enough – deciding to borrow money for a honeymoon is a value judgement. However, logic shows it’s still never going to take less time or be easier to pay down a credit card rather than saving up first. The credit card enables you to Have It Now – normally at a price that means paying the bugger off  at a given amount per month takes longer than if you saved the same amount per month. Inflation is bad but it’s not that bad now.

Your risk profile is also worse if you spend money before you’ve earned it. Spend the money now and you’re exposed to the risk of losing your job or otherwise finding a more pressing need for the money. That’s the beauty of saving up beforehand, and that’s why every good salesman wants you to pay now using credit if you don’t have the money to hand – so nothing can lose them the sale!

BrightHouse – the high-interest lifestyle store

It's all about the weekly instalments at brightHouse, the high interest lifestyle store. Just as well, because the total price would scare the horses...
It’s all about the weekly instalments at BrightHouse, the high interest lifestyle store. Just as well, because the total price would scare the horses…

Another example of this kind of thinking is BrightHouse. Say the Ermine washing machine had gone titsup.  The last one served me for 15 years – I bought it as a bachelor, and replaced it around 2005 for about £250. Brighthouse will sell me a Hoover WD9616C washer dryer for £812. This already caused me a double-take – it’s been 8 years since I bought a machine, and personally I wouldn’t use a washer-dryer because using a dryer costs more energy than washing, but £800? WTF? F’rinstance this machine from Tesco, A rated and 8kg rather than 6kg washing load is £428. You could argue that BrightHouse’s free repair for 3 years is worth something, so let’s throw in Tesco’s 3-year extra warranty for £70 to end up with £500. I really struggled to find BrightHouse’s WD9616C but it was apparently a 2009 model. So for £300 less Tesco will offer me a better, more modern machine with the same warranty.

But it gets worse. I actually worked hard to find out what BrightHouse would sell this to me if I came in with my chequebook and wanted to pay cash, upfront. Because that’s not how Brighthouse works. They want you to pay for this at £10 a week, for three years, after which you will have paid nearly twice the cash price, an APR of 64%, and a total of £1560!!! The Grauniad had a gripe about Brighthouse recently, but it was only when I picked up their catalogue that I realised the horror. I couldn’t believe people really were that daft. The Grauniad cited BrightHouse chief executive, Leo McKee, who delivered himself of the following pearls of wisdom:

‘People have always had to buy beds, sofas, washing machines. This format, whereby people need access to credit in order to purchase essentials, has been there for a long, long time.’

Err, Leo, me old mucker, no. For starters, they don’t need to buy these new, never mind at inflated prices like yours. Many of these so-called essentials aren’t essentials if you have no money! I know consumerism tried to sell you the idea that you deserve it because you’re worth it, but the trouble is when you’re skint you aren’t worth it!

WTF has gone wrong with us all that people like BrightHouse can fool people that they ‘deserve it’ so much as to pay over twice the odds for a four-year old model of washing machine? Let’s see how people used to do this.

In 1989, an Ermine foolishly purchased a house paying over the odds at a 5*income multiple. I was boracic lint and had to pay off 20% of the price of the joint in the first year, though I could take a leisurely 25 years about the remaining 60%. I had saved a a 20% deposit. The Ermine’s first rule of home furnishing when setting up home was simple. If you don’t have the flippin’ money, don’t buy it – scrounge, buy secondhand or do without. I was so scared of going into even more debt [ref]I had a £10,000 interest-free credit card loan to pay off in the first year to reduce my mortgage from 4*salary to about 3*salary to avoid being rushed for various arrangement fees for HLTV) Unlike the wedding lady I knew I had passed the probationary period and my salary would rise[/ref] I bought a settee for £25. I used a cardboard box with a piece of wood over it for a desk. I hardly dared use the gas fires because I vastly overestimated how much it cost to run, because I had only been in shared houses before and assumed the heating costs would be the same. I had a borrowed television set. I patched the cheap gas cooker I bought secondhand for £10 by jumping the failed timer so the oven would work. I took my washing to the launderette up the road. I didn’t have a fridge for a year until a colleague sold me one for £15 when he moved.I used cardboard over the windows to get some sleep at night.

It simply never occurred to me to charge out and buy all these consumer goods brand new on credit. It was probably easier then in that there were far fewer consumer goods, and many of them were durable – you didn’t have to change them every year ‘to keep up’.

Absolutely everything in the BrightHouse catalogue I could live without. You don’t need a settee. Heck, when my parents first moved into their rented flat in Camberwell Green more than fifty years ago they had no chairs, no table and made do with orange boxes scrounged from the market stalls (these were wooden in those days). It’s the whole point of setting up home and being twenty-somethings in love. You’re young, you’re adaptable, you got each other, you’re in love, there’s a lovely rosy glow over the world, you don’t need to rush out and buy a whole set of brown and white goods. Buy secondhand, scrounge off colleagues, use freecyle/freegle/charity shops. Above all else, give usurers like BrightHouse the finger. The Furniture Reuse Network, a charity umbrella organisation called BrightHouse out for what it is

BrightHouse is a high-interest lifestyle store

That’s really all you need to know. If you are paying a high interest rate to maintain your lifestyle then you cannot afford your lifestyle. With BrightHouse everything costs about twice as much as it should, ergo your lifestyle is going to be halved for the simple reason that you are paying way over the odds for your lifestyle consumer items for the sake of having them three years early. Unless your lifestyle includes robbing the occasional bank in your spare time, paying twice as much for something means you can only afford half as much of it. If you want to spend money before you’ve earned it, then everything is going to cost you more. So try not to do that…

64% APR is a high interest rate. Trust me on that one... ;)
64% APR is a high interest rate. Trust me on that one… 😉

We don’t have to buy things we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like

Meh. It seems the battle is already lost. Apparently credit is the only way of paying for things larger than your monthly disposable income. Even if you’ve been living with the groom for several years and could have saved towards that wedding it’s just so much easier with a credit card. Cheaper too, probably 😉 Let me share with you why a consumer might find it’s easier to pay off a credit card or pay BrightHouse twice as much as an item is worth than to save beforehand

because self-control has become a dirty word

Without self-control, yes, it’s easier to pay off the credit card, because Bad Shit happens if you don’t – guys with thick necks and a bad attitude get to yell at you through the letterbox and harass you. You don’t want that to happen so while you are paying off your card you buy fewer gewgaws. Think of the credit card firm like a self-control loan – they charge you money to force you to save. It’s the threat of aggravation that makes it easier to pay off a credit card than save up beforehand.

As a consumer, you can fix this, because the enemy lies within. Not only that, when you get rid of the consumer credit middleman, you get a higher standard of consumer goods – because none of your hard-earned cash goes towards paying the middleman to use his money. Cut the sucker out – use your own money instead. It’s the Vimes Boots theory in action[ref]The reason that the rich were so rich, Vimes reasoned, was because they managed to spend less money[/ref].

Wonga didn’t win. We seemed to have allowed our brains to fall out and litter the ground when it comes to consumerism. Previous generations focused their spending on essentials like food and shelter, and didn’t go into debt if they could help it. There has been a long suckout in the amount spent on food and shelter, and it is now gradually rising. We have become used to having a very high level of disposal income relative to even the 1960s and 1970s, and consumerism has risen to meet the challenge and give us opportunities to spend our money, and ways to help us spend it before we’ve earned it.

The warning signs are all around us that the basics of life will probably start to cost a little bit more of our total incomes. The pressure is going to be a lot higher because we have been used to living above our means with borrowed money for a long time. In The Sun Also Rises there is a line of narrative

“How did you go bankrupt?”

Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.


I’ve still got no idea what we are doing up here, mate. There’ll be trouble brewing…

A while ago I posted the observation of a trader at FinanceRomance’s workplace, and it seems to hold just as much now. I was browsing the Ermine ISA, and looked at the bit on TD where they say the difference in purchase price and valuation and thought to myself WTF? Has there been a party on the markets these last few months?

FTSE100. Mad, don'tcha think?
FTSE100. Mad, don’tcha think?

I struggled to find value this year, so I did a capital gains transfer into my ISA rather than buying new shares. And I’m still struggling to find value, though of course a lot can happen by the time of the next ISA allowance in April. Presumably our American friends are going to shut down the government a couple of times and generally give people the willies, though the last shutdown wasn’t really a great win on buying opportunities. In general I’ve dismally failed to find much worth purchasing. Royal Mail was a win, but £300, while worth having isn’t going to make a tremendous difference. The Direct Line IPO was more lucrative but that was so last year. I took a punt on Europe last year and swapped my HSBC dirty funds[ref]dirty with trail commission[/ref] for Blackrock’s clean funds in the same space, adding to it. That’s performed well enough since I suppose. But other than that, nothing much of note. I had to liquidate £5000 worth of The Firm’s shares to make space for the Royal Mail IPO, and have had a devil of a time finding somewhere to lodge the remainder. I’ve put half of it in RDSB because I had nothing from that sector, but the remaining half is in cash awaiting opportunities, and they’re thin on the ground.

Let’s take a look around us at the twisted wreckage that still surrounds us in Britain. The economy seems to be doing well, but it’s been saved by a neutron bomb – the structures are standing but many people seem to be doing badly and falling behind. Some stupid tosser has gone and pumped up house prices again by charging about doling out free money[ref]It’s not officially free, but who’s going to be paying off a 95% mortgage in a world of 6* earning multiples and falling real wages?[/ref] to people who can’t afford to buy houses. I suppose there may be a case for more Castle Trust I suppose. Or Grainger

Grainger - on a roll
Grainger – on a roll

but everything about their fundamentals either offends me like the astronomical PE and the yield of <1%. In a HYP? Sometimes you hafta accept you know that you don’t know and leave alone – it’ll probably carry on rising forever – things to do with British housing tend to do that. Until I touch them 😉

It's mad, it's bad, and it's gonna go downOver in my non-ISA account I have mainly index trackers, another wodge of Europe value shares from an idea by Monevator who has served me well once again. I didn’t have to hold my nose to buy in Europe because I was already in there and filling my boots because it looked like it was going to blow imminently. I used a generalist EU ex-UK index – and these were big European firms earning money all over the world, in some ways more attuned to a HYP approach, so I had some of that IDJV. I like a jolly bad smell in the morning when it comes to buying. Emerging markets have got that sort of feel at the moment, but I’m not yet that brave and I have zero expertise – this seems to be one of the few areas there’s something to be said for active management, but I’m damned if I know what that looks like. Whereas indexing seem to work a treat in the developed world – I may move on from being a HYP investor[ref]move on as in leave my existing HYP shares right where they are, not sell and chop and change[/ref], now that everyone else is at it and mine is up to the target size to becoming a contrarian indexer – find regions/sectors out of favour and buy into them.

But the biggest indication that there’s trouble ahead at t’mill is this extract from my ISA on the right. It’s telling me the markets are overvalued.

In a previous life I would have loved everything going up, and would have piled in. This now gives me the willies – it’s frothy and it’s mad, bad, and it’s gonna blow at some stage. As a net buyer, I want to be buying after the blow, not now when the market is becalmed in the waters of irrational exuberance. I can’t say the sight of all those nominal gains doesn’t give me some sort of a sugar rush – the gain exclude the dividends which I recycled to buy more shares – the spreadsheet version of this looks more outrageous. But it doesn’t feel like it will hold. And I can’t find anything to buy that gives me decent dividend returns these days, not without having to take on dodgy operations.

I’ve learned however – looking back at my 2011 review I have learned one simple move to improve my results no end. It’s simple

never sell

Yes, I’ve broken that rule to try and diversify my large shareholding of The Firm, from all the employee sharesave and Share Incentive Plan shares – it’s just mad to hold more than 50% of one’s total shareholdings in one firm. And I’ve broken the rule in selling that HSBC European Tracker to pick up Blackrock’s fund investing in…exactly the same thing, but with lower fees.

Although that sea of green and some of those nice figures are great, the sooner we get off this high horse and back to buying territory the better IMO. There’s work to be done, this party needs to stop! Dammit, I’ve been so bored this year I’ve bought more index trackers than anything else – even Vanguard Lifestrategy 100% as I feel somewhat exposed with no US, not AsiaPac or Japan and no emerging markets, There’s no thrill of the chase there though, it’s not like buying something stinking up the place in the hope of a reversion to the mean…

That trader was right in May, and he’s right again now. I’ve still got no ‘king idea what we are doing up here, mate.