Odd Christmas sales and consumerism

Unlike most years, where the Santa rally is a thing, there’s not so much cheer on the stock market at the moment.

In other words, there’s a sale on. The Ermine has an additional problem, in that my money is held in increasingly worthless Lesser British Pounds, which are going lower relative to foreign assets day by day. That’s largely due to the pickle we have got ourselves into. Having narrowly voted to leave the EU for a land of unicorns and unlimited supplies of cake, hard reality seems to have met the dream. Usually when that happens the dream loses the fight.

The narrow majority for Brexit covered up an inconvenient problem in that there are two pro-Brexit constituencies, and their interests don’t really overlap.

These are roughly the groups as I see it – one lot want their unskilled jobs back, or at least not to see them going to young folk from the EU who can live more cheaply than their constituents can for a while1. There’s another lot who are the Tory headbangers of the ERG group, who are sore about the loss of sovereignty. There’s an argument that the sovereignty fight should have been had at the time of Maastricht and they should have signed up with James Goldsmith’s Referendum Party. These guys are usually rich enough to weather any storm of a no-deal, or old enough that they don’t have to find work in the resulting maelstrom, and some of them have fond memories of an imperial past when Britain ruled the waves. Whenever I hear Jacob Rees-Mogg speak, I do feel that the 1950s called, and I wasn’t even born in the 1950s, although I am about ten years older than him!

The top left side want much less immigration, they don’t really care about trade deals with non-EU countries, the top right don’t care about immigration but get off on the idea of trade deals free of the yoke of the EU that limits their coruscating ambition. There’s a small dark side of xenophobia, which isn’t necessarily just people who favour Brexit though it does tend to go along with the Brexit patch

At best only one of these groups with non-overlapping interests can be satisfied. Rationally, the largest group that can be satisfied would be the Remainers, because their desire is simple and achievable, what we had before that Cameron chap cocked it all up trying to hold his party together.

If one of the Brexit group gets what it wants, the other group largely doesn’t. The Remainers at least know they lost the fight. The Brexit contingent that doesn’t get what they want will be doubly pissed off because they thought they won. There is no win on offer here that gets anywhere near 50% of people happy. And yet Brexiters are busy screaming the house down about “The Will of the People Must Be Respected”. Well, yeah, as long as it’s not the will of the remainers and as long as it’s not the will of the other half of the Brexit voters, because for them that other lot’s Brexit is not my Brexit.

I’m all for respecting the will of the people, as long as they tell us which will of the people they think that should be. Will the real Brexit stand up and make itself known to the hapless captain of the good ship Britannia? Even when May brings them something that looks like a Brexit, as in ‘submit Article 50 to leave the EU’ people still yell out like two year-olds that’s not what we wanted, Waaah. So they defenestrate May and it’s Groundhog day again.

There should be an honorary eagle pecking out the liver for David Cameron for putting the question is such a stupid, damn-fool and undeliverable manner. It is like having a referendum on “Do You want Real Live Unicorns on the High Street Every Sunday”. The answer may well be yes, but it’s a tough one to deliver. Because: Unobtanium. In the form of cakeism in the first case and unicorns on the other

All that is as may be, but in the immediate future it drives down the real value of my cash.

What’s a fellow to do faced with a falling currency and a falling stock market?

This is probably one of the lower points for the pound, because uncertainty is high. Independently of this, the markets are falling, partly I would say as a reversion to the mean, partly as a reaction to problems way outside the UK – pathological liars at the helm in the US and aggro elsewhere, combined with a secular trend of the Western Imperium losing its grip on economic clout as power shifts towards Asia.

Of late I have been buying a world index. I have largely met my requirements for the stock market since retiring in 2012 – I survived the intervening years and soon I can draw my pension. I had a lot of luck – I started in a market swoon in 2009, and Osborne’s changes allowed me to spring some of the proceeds of pension investing since 2014. Starting then, investing steadily, and sitting on my backside did it for me. Oh and not spending too much 😉

The Ermine snout begins to twitch when I hear sounds of doom on the markets, it is only a minor doom at this stage. I use VWRL, which is a standard world index tracker, but I have increasingly used IGWD, which is hedged to the Great British Pound. It isn’t exactly a world index tracker – it is a developed world tracker. That’s OK because for historical reasons I am less exposed to the US than I should be.

So a bit of Dev world that is mainly US in reality helps the overall balance a bit. I need to hope that the irresistible force of US business smarts can run faster than te immovable object of  Donald “Trade wars are easy to win” Trump’s facile policymaking acting as sheet anchor.

VWRL and IGWD

VWRL and IGWD generally track acceptably, presumably because at this stage the developed world is still the largest by capitalisation – about 80% of VWRL is dev world, and 54% of global assets by capitalisation is the US. There was a particular disconnect in June 2016, wonder what on earth happened then, eh?

The discontinuity doesn’t bother me so much because I didn’t own IGWD before June 2016. I am Monevator’s canonical Barry Blimp – a fifties something whose portfolio did very nicely in GBP nominal terms out of Brexit. One of the corollaries of being in your fifties is that you are running out of human capital – I don’t have any because I have no significant income from working. So buying hedged foreign assets makes much more sense to me that it would to someone in the first half of their working lives2, given I don’t share Barry’s politics or positive expectation of the sunlit UK future free of the EU yoke.

Wider derisking also made sense – buying gold as a straight hedge against the fall in the currency, and an indirect one against a fall in the overvalued stock market. I cocked up deeply here by buying gold in my ISA because it was bought with some sales from the ISA. I hold far too much cash, which is doubly bad when that cash is GBP, to the extent some of it is in European government bonds. Normally I would  never have a reason to buy bonds because my deferred pension is very bond-like. But that’s a GBP denominated fixed income, I need some protection against the GBP downside. My investments have drifted closer to Harry Browne’s Permanent Portfolio, I rotated some out of shares into gold a couple of years ago and  aimed new money into bonds and the mix of IGWD and VWRL. I hold the cash part out of the ISA for as long as possible, to retain optionality, this year’s allowance is unallocated.

Harry Browne was very rich, so having 50% of his assets in unproductive gold and cash3 worked for him. I am not sure that’s a recipe for success for someone accumulating assets over a working life to try to retire early, because that deadweight of having half your assets in unproductive investments means you will have to work harder to accumulate, rather than having a larger proportion of your money working for you. But you will experience less volatility probably. Volatility makes many of us panic sell into downturns, so avoiding that may bring a better result in the end.

On the subject of unproductive cash, Hargreaves Lansdown keep yelling at me to sign up to their active savings product in my SIPP that ties up the cash for a year or more. IMO the job of cash in a SIPP is to allow you to buy beaten up stocks should the opportunity arise. That opportunity is more likely within a year than after two years, and I for one am perfectly happy to pay 5% loss to inflation for that flexibility, thanks.

Contrary to Monevator’s article, I didn’t sell existing assets to buy GBP hedged assets so I will always be more than 90% unhedged. I was happy with those assets I had at the time I bought them. If I got an illusory 20% boost from the fall of the pound, then I am perfectly happy to give that up in the unlikely event that Britain’s political class sorts its shit out and the country finds its mojo. I bought a fair amount of IGWD last year, and now I buy about equal amounts of IGWD and VWRL. buying IGWD when there is more bellyaching about the pound being low and VWRL when I want to get the balance right.

referring the chart to the date of that ghastly act of British self-immolation makes the choice clearer for me

Earlier in the year was the time to buy VWRL, now is a better time to favour IGWD the aim is to buy about equal amounts (in GBP terms) of each

All in all I am chuffed that the markets are tanking. It means that I get a little bit more IGWD for my money. One should take advantage of Christmas sales, provided it’s a product that you want…

Don’t hold gold in your ISA

Unless you are very rich you don’t need to hold gold in an ISA, it pays no dividends. You have a yearly 10k capital gains allowance which is probably enough for strategic rebalancing a la Harry Browne’s Permanent Portfolio, and while it’s possible for gold ETFs to have a corporate event that makes you a forced seller in one year it’s unlikely – I haven’t heard of any. Gold itself is unlikely to have a corporate event unless Auric Goldfinger has his way, in which case just pay your sodding capital gains tax 😉 I suppose CERN could find a way of economically transmuting other elements into gold to pay for their toys, which would depress the price of gold, but so far they haven’t cracked  the economically part.

Of consumerism and spending it

From my corporate life I recall some pseudy airline magazine4 which had a section called Spending It. I haven’t darkened the threshold of a decent airline since leaving work – presumably on business class carriers you can connect to the internet in flight these days so the airline magazine has no reason to exist and everyone is glued to their smartphones. Anyway, the desiderata in these mags always seemed to along the really bizarre ‘what this product says about you’ sort of line. Don’t get me wrong, a mechanical watch can be a true thing of beauty in some ways, but it’s simply the wrong engineering solution to accurate timekeeping, and has been since the 1970s.

This Bliley quartz crystal is old, but it still works. Bit of a bastard to get into a watch, though, which is why it took them 10 years (the holes in the board are 1/10th of an inch apart).

It seems to be the season for FIRE folk to do a Spending It and acknowledge their darker, non-FIRE selves. Monevator has ‘fessed up to a penchant for expensive steampunk coffee-making hardware, costing Holy cow – how much?

Steampunk coffee, in a, how shall we say it, somewhat hipster urban setting from the ad agency. Better book in with A&E if you are going to take on that much strong coffee at one sitting even split between two of you…

Mrs Ermine, having lived for years with the stovetop gonzo version of this upgraded to something that cost <£100. I am too much of an animal to appreciate the finer essences of strong coffee, what her machine produces seems pretty close to battery acid in my view, but each to their own. Seems to be a rum deal that Monevator has to learn how to use the darn thing, personally if I’d dropped several ton on a coffee machine I would have expected learning to use it would be down to choosing the beans and pressing a button. Why keep a dog if you have to bark yourself?

Perhaps it’s the impending Christmas, I will join Monevator in acquiring Stuff. Having moved, I am regretting a few of the things I threw out thinking I will never use again, and I do rather miss the collection of random bits of wood, ally angle and acrylic sheet built up over 20 years of making odds and sods. We burned a lot of the bits of wood in the preceding winter, but it’s damned expensive to buy bits of PSE pine again in the new place.

One thing I have come to the conclusion is I am not going to be an avid DIYer as far as the house is concerned. People here are a little bit poorer here than they were in Suffolk, and services seem to be cheaper. Sure, I’ll change tap washers and unblock simple drains, sort basic electrics etc, but for instance the bathroom here wants changing, and somebody else can do that for me.

Of pastimes, hinterland and the odd pleasure of Stuff

From my schooldays I remember the old boys5 in the neighbourhood had hobbies and were much more practical than people are now6. They were, of course, helped by the fact that technology was simpler then, cars were understandable and few and far between. People’s Dads made furniture then, using hand tools. I am still in awe of these, in as much as things lined up and didn’t look wonky. Many of the adults worked in factories, but they had hinterland – interests outside work and the immediate home and kids.  They made stuff, created things from parts. There were a lot of model making and train sets being made. Of course, it could be the sample bias of childhood summers always being warmer. I remember the noteworthy, the guy who made ships in bottles, others made model aircraft from pieces of wood (not from kits) and quite a few painted. I probably don’t recall the guys who slumped in front of the telly and didn’t go out.

Amazon and Ebay have made it easier to buy in specialised items. As a kid I had to get on the bus to go to Peckham to get my electronic bits and bobs from Garland’s Electronics, either already mounted on ex-military panels sold by weight to be scavenged or as new. If they didn’t stock it that was it. Hence it was always worth taking the complete parts list and asking if they had all the oddball bits first. Now somewhere on the Internet supplies that sort of thing, no need to go out the house.

tinkering with radio

A young Ermine was looking at going to university in the late 1970s. I was trying to add some colour to my young and therefore inexperienced life, and big up my application to potentially Oxbridge and  Imperial College to do science. I think nowadays that sort of thing is called your personal statement, and when I look at personal statements this has obviously become a Big Thing. The cynic in me refuses to believe any 18-year old speaks thusly:

The creativity inherent in crafting and applying mathematical concepts is what inspires me to study it[…] It’s remarkable that infinity is concurrently present, both inside and outside Euclidean geometry, in the singularities of black holes and in the relationship between the area and radius of circles.

Does the secret of a rip in the fabric of space-time lie in the simple curve around a circle? Pi’s relevance to Euler’s identity or the Schwarzschild radius suggests its central role in defining how our universe works. The connection between such simple geometrical ratios and the sophisticated universe is where the beauty of mathematics and physics lies.

Perhaps I was just a slow developer, and I did fail Eng Lit, but I would suggest some ghostwriting happened here 😉 I confess I had to Google Euler’s identity, though after I saw it I recall I was taught it at some point. I was comfortable with the Schwartzschild radius, because – well black holes kind of stick in your mind even after three decades7.

At the time I needed a science-related interest because ‘picking old TV sets out of skips and trying to make something of the parts‘ probably would have admissions tutors looking down their noses at impoverished city urchins dumpster diving8. Truth be told I struggled to make anything useful out of these bits – I had learned from books and too many of those sets had valves in them, I could repair things with valves but not design.

Amateur radio was the obvious electronics based hobby to put down, and had an exam which provided tangible proof of what we’d now call an interest in STEM. Nowadays we have STEM clubs and whatnot, but pretty much all my learning was from material designed for adults, because the world then wasn’t set up to pander to children – if you were interested enough you’d find a way9.

I bought a couple of books and sat the Radio Amateur’s Exam in 1978, I knew enough about electronics to pass, and learned the licence terms well enough from revising on the train up to Central London to get a distinction in both technical and regulatory papers. While it added colour to my university applications, I was too poor to buy any gear and not smart enough to make use of those scavenged TV chassis parts10.

I never really did much with radio – when I joined The Firm there were a few of the guys into it, indeed a Head of Group that I still have fond memories of as a great boss is still a leading light in one of the RSGB groups. I played around on VHF and packet, I now had the money. But not the time, and I had bought a house at the bottom of a hill. There is only one thing that you need with radio aerials, and that is height, and playing a very long second fiddle, physical extent. All the rest is window-dressing, so I was SOL in a terraced house low down on a postage stamp sized piece of land.

In the forty years that have rolled past taking the RAE exam much of what was apparently magical about amateur radio has been taken over by the Internet – now if you want to speak to someone in Japan you pick up your mobile, or use Skype. If you want the two-way radio one-to many experience you use Zello, I am surprised this isn’t used more in some areas where you have a team of people working on a common project and want everybody to have situational awareness – some of the work on the farm was like that, for instance setting a watch on the public footpath when felling trees. Sure, it needs the mobile phone network and data, but most everyone has the hardware already, and you don’t need a licence. Signal quality is fantastic – indeed better than a mobile phone used as a mobile phone, because the GSM codec is a foul 13kbps. Not that it particularly matters, I guess, since nobody uses a mobile phone to make a phone call nowadays, though I do wonder if someone ever joined up the dots with the crap sound quality11.

Perhaps I am living out some of my teenage self, but I came to the conclusion that there was still some of the magic for me in the unassisted connection, subject to the capricious ravages of the ionosphere, which is on a sulk at the sunspot minimum now. A commenter on The Register nerd site summed it up well

It was all about making a tenuous connection, against the odds, probably transiently, with some like-minded stranger far, far away.

Sure, the internet can do the job better. But it needs all that ancillary guff.

Diderot and his Principle on the Multiplication of Stuff

The trouble with Stuff is the Diderot effect. To mess with this I need an antenna tuner. So I start with a piece of wood as a baseboard, and it ends up wonky.  I am finally sick of trying to hand-saw anything to get it straight, square and to the right size. I can have any two but not all three.

My dad was a fitter12, and he most definitely did not want his son to be working with his hands, so he never showed me how to use hand tools right. He didn’t really approve of metalwork and woodwork at school. I turned a piece of metal at school and Dad didn’t share with me the secret of not getting it to look like an Edison wax cylinder – rack down the speed of the lead screw or run it on manual. Slowly… But I can’t knock his aims – after all his job definitely wouldn’t have seen me to retirement age. His heart was in the right place, bless him.

I learned these manual skills, therefore, as an adult13. These things are better learned earlier in life, a bit like riding a bike. You need patience, skill and experience to use hand tools well. For a lot of my working life this wasn’t so much a problem, I could use the power tools in the lab or workshop. It’s been a pain since then, but most of the things I made from wood were outside. You can usually live with half an inch off here or there in the garden, it adds a rustic homespun charm, and the wood is going to warp like hell in a few months anyway.

Trying to make equipment boxes, though, is a different matter, half an inch of drift is right out. I was finally sick of it and bought a chop saw. I can now get edges straight, and square, and mostly to the right size.

So I now have a baseboard for the tuner that doesn’t offend the eye. I am also set up to mass-produce nest-boxes to the BTO design, should I feel the need. Then I have another problem, which is how to get the holes in the right place. I still have a steady enough hand to drill holes to a 0.1″ accuracy in a circuit board if the drill is very sharp, but that’s because the centres are already defined. Getting things in the right place on an even surface is more hit and miss. I need a defined relation between the drill and the workpiece.

I was vaguely tempted to get a dremel drill press, I don’t need a massive workshop gizmo. But one thing my Dad did teach me is ‘don’t buy rubbish tools, son, buy quality or do without” There’s an awful lot of reviews saying the run-out on a Dremel is too much for accuracy. I want to be able to make a line of holes on a panel for LEDs and for it not to look immediately wonky.

small bench drill

So I bought one of these. Saving money on that tuner is costing me a fortune 😉 But on the other hand it’s time to stop misusing handheld power drills. I am now £50 down on just going out and buying the tuner, and had to build it myself. But I now have the means to make more things now. I am only making instrumentation and front panels, and the modelling scale is right for me. Of course, the temptation to buy a Chinese workshop pillar drill from Screwfix for half the price was there, but the ghost of my Dad had a word in my shell-like and stopped me.

I should have bought this 20 years ago, when it was still worth building regular stuff. Now it is only worth building things that are too oddball for the general market, particularly customised to my needs, and some types of instrumentation. A diligent Google search before starting a design is always worthwhile – the modern equivalent of Westheimer’s  observation that

“A couple of months in the laboratory can frequently save a couple of hours in the library”

In classic consumer sucka mode, I am going to slap the drill, and pretty much everything else I buy for the next few months on my credit card and not pay it all off. That’s because Barclaycard have offered me a 0% interest on purchases to late 2019. Now most people, when they hear an offer like that think oh great, no need to pay for a year. Not so fast. You always have to pay about 5% off every month, just to retain the offer. So if you buy your new fitted kitchen in Month 1 then to a first approximation you expect to have paid The Man a shade under half the capital by the end of the first year, to keep your interest-free status, and that’s assuming you don’t buy any more consumer shit on your card after the kitchen. I am surprised Barclaycard made this offer, since they haven’t made money out of an Ermine on any other such scams. It works well for me, as it runs over the time when I will draw my pension, and take a pension commencement lump sum of some sort. By deferring paying for purchases for a year I get to stick more of my savings in my ISA this year, and backfill the spending from the PCLS next year. Thanks Barclaycard.


  1. There is a second order problem in that people who move countries are usually more motivated or more desperate than those who don’t. They are prepared to accept poorer conditions. Removing these from the workforce won’t necessarily mean these jobs get filled, but that is a fight for another day. It is not unreasonable for parents that didn’t have to compete with free movement of people to ask tough questions about what went wrong when they see their children struggle with it. There are not always good answers to those questions, however. The response ‘your end of the boat has to go down for the common good of humanity‘ tends to offend. 
  2. Someone in their mid-twenties buying regularly will be soaked on the existing value of their assets if Brexit is a success and the pound strengthens. But they will be buying foreign assets for years with a stronger currency, so it will come out in the wash. If Brexit is not a success and the pound weakens, it will drive inflation up. They can hope to be paid more of the increasingly worthless pounds to compensate, so although they will pay nominally more for their foreign assets it will hopefully be from a nominally bigger pay packet. Time is on your side if you have a longer accumulation time to integrate the shitshow of Brexit. 
  3. To be fair, in Harry Browne’s day you could probably turn enough of a return on cash not to have the real value slowly go down the plughole. You just don’t have that luxury now. 
  4. it appears my memory is playing me up – Spending It is a section in Money Week and there is a close run thing with How To Spend It in the Financial Times – subheads ‘unforgettable experiences’ – ‘Things to Love’ – Mr Money Mustache needs to scramble a SWAT team to take out the printing presses before this seditious material sucks people in. 
  5. I was an ankle-biter, old boys to me then were pretty much men out of their 20s ;) 
  6. we shouldn’t romanticise their greater practical skillz too much. Some of it was out of necessity – blue-collar workers couldn’t afford the luxury of hiring tradespeople in those days, and furniture was a hell of a lot dearer then, though it lasted longer. 
  7. You really don’t want to go anywhere near those 600lb gorillas- no taking short cuts across the Milky Way, sci-fi authors. 
  8. Most of these skips were when builders working for the Council were renovating houses presumably after people died. The 1970s were salad days for people throwing out full sized black and white TV sets because colour TVs were becoming affordable. These things packed a bit of a bite because they weren’t isolated from the mains and the anode cap was good for a few kV. A healthy teen can take the odd mains shock in their stride ;) 
  9. I have some sympathy with the POV, both for the obvious reason I found a way to learn from material written for adults to learn, but also for the reason described in this I don’t teach my kids to code and neither should you article. STEM stuff written for kids is cringeworthily patronising IMO, because it emphasises the how rather than the why. That’s great for getting kids going quickly, but it skates over the principles. One should infer the particular from the general, not the other way round. 
  10. I could slap the teenage Ermine around the chops with a wet fish, those old TV sets had great coil formers and big easily won capacitors. Many of the valves were good for the HF bands, given a TV typically has an intermediate frequency of ~39Mhz. But the school library didn’t have books with this sort of information, nor did the public library, and Google wasn’t a thing then. Radio gear was shockingly expensive then, I read prices in old mags from the 1970s and 80s and in some cases the equivalent now is cheaper in numerical terms and far better in performance. 
  11. I do get the irony of grouching about the GSM codec in a post talking about amateur radio – SSB sounds universally shit, but somehow you can still make some sense of how someone is feeling, in a way that GSM seems to just strip off. And anyway, the ham radio signal has crossed hundreds or possibly thousands of miles twixt ground and the ionosphere unassisted and unamplifed in its journey. The inherent coolness of that from an engineering point of view makes up for the rough-as-guts signal quality. 
  12. Non-Brits may understand the term machinist, though the job is fast passing out of use. Companies don’t repair plant using generalist skills now, with people turning and making spare parts by hand. Even in original production I guess this sort of thing is done by CNC machines, rather than guys with micrometers and a pencil behind their ear, and knowing the gear ratios to turn screw threads on a lathe. 
  13. I was taught some workshop skills as a graduate entry engineer to BBC Studios. Companies used to train people in the basics of their business in those days. 
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21 thoughts on “Odd Christmas sales and consumerism”

  1. When it comes to woodworking I never have been a DIY person. My uncle was a cabinetmaker and ran a 10 person woodworking business. He was a true craftsman himself – and he had a guy working for him who was even better. The shop was chokka-block with professional tools.
    It was so much easier to get uncle Howard or Luther to do it – so I never learned. I still have all my fingers though.
    As I type this the wonderful grandfather clock Luther made for me in 1976 is chiming. I had to buy a new movement for it a while ago but the case is pristine. God bless the two of them.

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  2. I enjoyed boat-building as a boy. I did assemble a radio once but found it dull. Few may say this, but I found undergraduate chemistry labs fantastic fun. Such a change from lectures – teaching yourself to do stuff, thinking through what to do, and then doing it. And knowing you’d done a good job by objective criteria.

    But my back doesn’t work any more so even most of my beloved gardening won’t happen again. God is a bastard.

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  3. On the subject of quartz timekeeping, my wife keeps bringing home dead watches from the thrift shop where she works and wants me to DIY the battery replacement. I did buy a gadget to get the snapbacks off these junkers, and a gadget to press the backs on. I also need an inventory of sundry batteries. It all seems worthless to me but sometimes you have to suck it up to keep peace in the family.

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    1. A gotcha that got me with battery replacement is if any previous battery has leaked then your replacement will last months, not even a year. Happened to my Dad’s watch he was given on retirement in the 1980s, which was a Longines so decent in principle.
      The solution is to very carefully remove all the gunk from the battery compartment – even if you can’t see it, using IPA and a cotton bud. I think it was these guys that warmed me up to the problem and how to fix it. The result – the last battery I replaced was three years ago and still going strong 😉
      My gadget to get the back off is called a penknife, because I am a cheapskate…

      I am in awe of your uncle being able to make a long clock case with hand tools!

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      1. I have some case knives but I am too afraid of the sight of blood to use a penknife. The gadget I have has a screw and pry mechanism that’ll get the toughest case back off. Most of the watches I change the battery on are fashionista brands that really aren’t worth the effort.
        I wouldn’t try a battery change on a really nice watch. The local jeweler does it for little more than the cost of the battery. I have a 1980s Omega that still runs although my wife’s Omega (windup) is now DOA for lack of parts.
        I’m sure the clock case had some mechanical sawing done on it, but the assembly and fitting were all by hand. Those guys were real pros when it came to wood.

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      2. Inspired by your example, I snapped the back off a much-loved old quartz that had been lying around in the desk drawer. Several jewellers I had taken it to three years ago to get a new battery all removed the existing battery, ‘tested’ it and declared it to be ‘live’, and said there was nothing else to be done except replace the watch mechanism. Now after obtaining my own replacement battery from Amazon and cleaning out the terminals with white vinegar on a Q-tip, the watch is going again and keeping perfect time. Thanks for the inspiration.

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      3. @Keith – glad that was a win! I usually use the end of a screwdriver or a fibreglass pencil for terminals corroded by battery leakage, which is what seems to have been the problem with your watch if the batteries measured OK but the watch doesn’t power up. The fibreglass pencil is a bit harsh for a watch, your method sounds more civilised 😉

        There’s a putty called Rodico that watchmakers use to extract miscellaneous gunk and oil from watches, should the leak have spread further, though IPA and a cotton bud worked well for me.

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  4. I also fished old circuit boards out of skips (and found out what happened when you unexpectedly discharged a large capacitor) but making the cathode ray tubes implode was way more fun. I think it was the Tandy Science Fair 150-in-1 electronic project kit that really got me going, although ~25 years in the chip industry never presented an opportunity to use a class-B push-pull amplifier.

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    1. cathode ray tubes implode was way more fun

      And an education into the great match of the half-brick to the upper-body strength of the teenage male 😉 Maximum range and greatest heft ISTR!

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  5. I don’t know if we were different, but when I was growing up, people’s spare time tended to be spent on things that helped the family out in some way, even if only indirectly. I suppose people were poorer in that pre-credit time and so it was encouraged out of necessity, even if just at a subconscious level. My old man was an engineer and we had a ramp at home where he fixed the vehicles, but he could fix pretty much anything mechanical, including the delicate and sophisticated, like antique timepieces. (He had been apprenticed young, so was very experienced quite soon)

    Similarly my mother cut hair, made any food that’s store bought today (icecream, yoghurt, pasta, cured meats) and could make all our clothes if needed. This was not even a part of her professional qualifications, which were in an area of specialist nursing. So us kids naturally copied and as well as looking after the younger ones, pets and the sick could do anything in the garden as well as take care of basic meals and any housework, even if we had to be chased down at times. It wasn’t for money either, the parents were far too smart for that, they cunningly said tell us what you need and we’ll get it if it’s reasonable; so as teenagers we were SOL for the means to buy cigs and booze to impress peers.

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  6. Oddly enough I too sat the Radio Amateurs Exam in 1966 when I was at school and passed but I kept quiet about it at school – looking back, I think that was because the school wuldn’t have approved of off piste exam-taking. I still mess about with amateur radio. And I enjoy your blog. We’re thinking of moving the Somerset!

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  7. I think the guy refusing to teach his kids to code is missing the point. Teaching kids to code isn’t about preparing them to be programmers any more than showing them how to paint is about preparing them to work as an artist.

    It’s about ‘computational thinking’ – exposing children to abstractions, operations and algorithms early gives them a powerful mental toolkit that they can use to solve all sorts of problems of greater complexity later. (After all, breaking things down into pieces that you can solve is applicable everywhere!) Logic that the current generations have to think through would be automatic for people used to it from an early age, leaving them another level of abstraction higher – we could keep the Flynn effect going for a while yet!

    He is partially right though – you can do all of this without going near a computer (at least at first), and teaching people JavaScript doesn’t seem a good idea. Something like https://scratch.mit.edu/ would be much better. Let them be creative in an additional medium, bending a computer to their will, as well as more physical media.

    Interestingly, this is something that seems to be done very sensibly in UK schools, starting from a year or two ago.

    Happy New Year everyone!

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    1. I confess that as soon as I saw the first page of scratch.mit.edu the curmudgeonly old git in me thought dumbed down frippery but each to their own. It’s only with the advent of the Pi3 that I’ve used the GUI and I’ve used cut down versions without Scratch 😉 I still suspect that my teenage self reading books upon books only just about understanding bits here and there, where real adult engineers described solutions to real adult problems meant I had a harder time learning but learned more useful stuff and also how to think in a more real-world useful way.

      The Slate guy had a point in that a lot of IT teaching aimed at kids seems to be syntax. After all, UK schools computing used to be how to use Microsoft Word which was a waste fo time. How the hell did you learn to use Word? Most of us were sat in front of it and had a go. If someone needs to be taught how to use Word they should ask themselves if computeracy is their milieu in the first place IMO. An inquisitive mind and a bit of time is all you need. Sure, if you have a 1980s copy of WordPerfect and want to use dot codes for formatting a cheatsheet is worth having, but nowadays?

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