An insight into the consumer heart of darkness of watches

The peacock has his tail, and it seems humans have jewellery. In general the march of technology has made many things cheaper and sometimes better, though often not more durable. However, it seems the humble wristwatch is not one of these things, here we have a dude inquiring about finding good value in a watch for £8000. Don’t get me wrong – there are some sorts for whom maybe £8000 is about value. Say you are the crew of Apollo 13, you are SOL when the tank explodes in space, you are on 20% of electrical power, and you need a 5 minute burn to speed you on your way round the moon before your ticket to ride expires with the air. You have two chances to get this right. And the knob of the Command Module Interval Timer comes off in your hand. Then you might be grateful that someone spent a shitload of money on a watch that could survive takeoff. £8000 well spent, you get to see you wife and kids again. Early twenties, working for a REIT, looking to be individual in the stuff that you buy rather than the person you are, well, not so much.

I was recently on a retreat where they aren’t keen on mobile phones. I’m with them there, I don’t tote a mobile most of the time, although often I have one with me when I am out, even if it is mainly switched off. I discovered it’s far too easy to switch it on in a pocket just by bending down, pressing the button on the side that starts it all up. I get to be that tosser with the mobile, and I don’t like it, even if it is just the Galaxy startup sound on low.

A mobile is an okay way of telling the time, though I am still shocked that mobiles don’t update the clock from the mobile network, or failing that use NTP. But I have discovered that I want to go back to an old way of knowing the time, which used to be known as a watch. I have two, both from 30 years ago. One was my own, an automatic mechanical watch, because 1986 was still just in the time when it was cheaper to buy an analogue watch[ref]digital display watches were cheaper[/ref] as a mechanical one than a quartz watch and just about the time when mechanical cheap watches became serviceably accurate – the ones of my schooldays would gain or lose five minutes a day. The Seiko was good enough for that much a week ISTR.

I could use this if I could wind it manually, but I'd have to wear it for half a day before it would run reliably
I could use this if I could wind it manually, but I’d have to wear it for half a day before it would run reliably

I would use the Seiko but I don’t want to wear a watch all the time. So it would run down and stop, and generally be a pain, because for some reason I can’t wind it manually, so I’d have to shake it about and hope the mainspring has enough energy to run, that’s too much trouble for occasional use. Plus it’s the 21st century, FFS. William Gibson was right. There is no point to a mechanical watch, which is exactly why they sell for shitloads of money. Because humans are funny like that. The other one has some sentimental value because it was given to my Dad on his retirement.


This works – but the trouble is it eats batteries, they last less than a year. I took it to be changed a couple of times but after that I’ve had enough.

What I basically want of a watch is battery powered – I can’t be fussed with winding them, and the mighty quartz crystal pretty much solved the drifting out problem, you can check a quartz watch monthly and never be more than a couple of minutes off. Analogue, because I can easily compute 20 minutes from now in a third of the sweep. I confess as a retiree it is sometimes nice to know what day it is as well as the date. I had a browse of Amazon, and after a couple of minutes I lost the desire to look any more, because the paradox of choice was doing my head in. I did since discover one should change watch batteries yearly or maybe every other year. This is to forestall the blighters spewing out sludge, the idea seems to be change the batteries before they run flat. I didn’t know that, though it applies to other sorts of batteries I guess.

There are two other techniques, that replace the battery with a supercap. Either charged by movement energy like the automatic mechanical watches of old or by solar. The latter sounds like it could eliminate the not wearing it all the time and the battery leakage problem. So if my investment in a little bit of IPA and a new battery fails, that seems to be the way to go. Shame that people still putz about with a mechanical ring for the date, which is fundamentally a digital display. It wouldn’t be too hard to use a LCD display for the day and date, which would save mucking around with the date on months shorter than 31.

a bit too industrial IMO. I am also disturbed by the concept of Sunday the 36th...
a bit too industrial IMO. I am also disturbed by the concept of Sunday the 36th…

Casio do these, but I can’t really cope with the idea of a plastic resin case. I don’t really care how ugly a mobile phone is, but a resin watch will offend me regularly with its gauche machismo. I am too old to join the military. I appreciate this is a matter of taste, but it isn’t mine. And I really don’t want a watch that even thinks of making a noise. Five alarms is five too many. It seems nobody simply takes all the mechanical gubbins of showing the day and date and swaps it for a LCD of the same size. Perhaps they can’t make LCD displays small enough and sharp enough, though with watches there seems to be some kudos in doing bizarre things mechanically that really should either not be done at all, or done electronically.

The paradox of choice makes me think better

A retiree should be insanely curious about the world. One is simply to sharpen the saw, the other is because he has the luxury of time, to really get into something because it is there. One of the incidental values of being curious is that it leans against the learned helplessness of living in an unrepairable consumer world. And so I thought ‘Self, for thirty odd years an electronics engineer, what is the obvious most likely cause of a watch working, but running batteries down excessively? Well, it is what battery operated devices left in a drawer for years have always suffered from – a battery leaks and leaves gunk behind, which adds a slight load. You don’t notice that with a radio or a power drill, but a 373 battery is tiny, so the added load is much bigger in proportion to the capacity of a watch battery[ref]leakage is a much bigger issue than I’d expected. After I got the replacement and pressed it into place with my fingers, I noticed the bit on the invoice where it said “please refrain from pre-testing watch and coin cell batteries, and only use plastic tools (no fingers!) to insert battery wherever possible to avoid premature failure of battery cells” Oops. Oh well, I will know next time, eh ;)[/ref]. I confess I’d never really thought about a watch battery leaking, I have never seen a leaking button cell. I just didn’t think it happened.

So I popped the back off this and observed that there was indeed gunk from a previous battery. Not only that, but neither the place in LA who had swapped the first battery in 1993 nor the well-known high-street jeweller’s in Ipswich  had seen fit to inform me of this (the battery I extracted was clean, so not at fault).

leakage from an old battery
leakage from an old battery and corroded terminal, easily visible to me, though I had to really push the contrast in the photo.

A tissue and some isopropyl alcohol were my friend, so writing this post saved me the price of a new watch, by galvanising me to get off my backside and remain challenged and keep learning. It isn’t that I am short of the money for a replacement watch, and indeed if I miss having the day display then I will buy one. But  all H Samuel had to say is “we will change the battery for you for £5, but there is evidence of leakage and we recommend a clean of the compartment if you find battery life is reduced, that would be £25”. This took me less than five minutes [ref]this is apparently not the correct way to clean this off, but it will do for me[/ref] it would have been an easy £20 profit guys! Even if they didn’t want the profit warming me up to the issue wouldn’t have left me pissed off thinking they sold me an old battery when it expired in less than a year.

A visit to the bizarre form over function world of Consumerism with a capital C

When I was at school, the office used mechanical adding machines, because electronic calculators only started to appear in the mid 1970s. When the hell was the last time you saw a mechanical adding machine or a slide rule in an office? There is absolutely no reason for the mechanical watch to exist, perhaps save in the West Virginia Radio Quiet Zone or the like. The sheer exuberant impracticality of the mechanical watch and bizarre fetishes like the tourbillon have become mobile jewellery in themselves – Blancpain tells us

The tourbillon compensates for running errors due to gravity by mounting the balance wheel in a rotating cage. Equipped with a tourbillon, your watch runs with greater accuracy.

Well, yeah, but not half as much as throwing the bugger out and swapping it for a quartz crystal would.

Call a tourbillon a complication? THIS is a complication. By I, Mogi, CC BY 2.5,
Call a tourbillon a complication? THIS is a complication. By I, Mogi, CC BY 2.5

Okay, so you lose out on the pretty rotating device, but the accuracy wins out. I don’t know why they don’t get rid of the dial altogether then and have a living, breathing mass of rotating and shifting whatnots in a crystal round case. An orrery or an astrolabe, maybe an Antikythera mechanism would suit Sir to a T, and our young REIT worker could use his iPhone to tell the time while dazzling his boss and clients with his metropolitan sophistication and one-of-a-kind-ness

Meanwhile, the Chinese can send me a working analogue quartz watch from Shenzen for less than three quid, delivered. That’s only twice the price of my replacement battery, although the aesthetics suck slightly (but not as much as the Casio IMO). Ain’t consumer capitalism amazing…


The real way to make money using old pallets is to be Blake Lively

Wow. I was wasting my time recycling pallets into kindling or log-stores. Here’s the way to do it


Upcycled pallets - way to go, Blake!
Upcycled pallets – way to go, Blake!

Not only do you get to touch the hemline of Blake Lively thus acquiring a sprinkling of her faeriedust that will make you younger, more beautiful and generally transform your otherwise pedestrian life of quiet desperation into celebrity heaven, but you also get to read cock like this

The bones of old New York get a new lease on life in these Dutch-style bicycle crates. Built to last a lifetime from reclaimed local wood sealed with natural tung oil, each beautiful Brooklyn-made piece is imbued with its own unique character. Caboose it onto your bike to carry the day’s produce, impromptu flowers for your sweetheart, or whatever you need to transport in a stylish manner—emission-free!

Ninety-Five flippin’ dollars – that’s fifty-six of your Earth Pounds. For something with massive great slats that will spew your designer shit out all over the highway if you actually did stick it on a bike, which is why people in Amsterdam use bike baskets made of mesh so all their crap doesn’t fall out, particularly when they ride over the cobbles. Not only that but bitter experience has taught me that you stick your flippin’ uprights on the inside of the slats so you can get enough screw into the damn things else you’ll have a kit of parts again in no time at all. Years ago I made some VHS tape holders along these lines inspired by the ones in Sex Lies and Videotape where I forgot this, or else got to learn it for the first time 😉


It’s time to throw in the towel on the you can become free through not spending all your wages buying shit meme. The opposition forces are too strong when people bankroll this sort of cobblers. Decadence has set in too deeply. The economy is shattered, fewer and fewer people will earn enough to fulfil their modest aims in life, and yet the froth rises  and spreads over the surface to cover the roiling darkness. The fight is futile, the bad guys won, the battle is lost. The centre cannot hold; the falcon can no longer hear the falconer. All hail to the God of Shopping, our new overlords.

Won’t someone send out the search party to find and scoop up all the brains that have fallen out all over New York City  so at least they can be given a decent burial rather than feeding the dogs? And please, please, let Preserve go bust quickly to restore my erstwhile belief that I don’t share a planet with too many fools ready to be parted from their money…

Time for homage to the Holly King

Summertime in the city finds the good people at Monevator dwelling on thoughts of refreshment, but out here is the sticks while sipping my iced coffee I sensed a stirring in the Force and the distant laughter of the nascent Holly King, with thoughts of Winter. The old boy Thomas Tusser has something to say about summer idleness

Some of the Five hundred points of good husbandry, Thomas Tusser
From “Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry”, Thomas Tusser 1580 (link to Google books scan of reprint from 1848)

Even though the Oak King holds sway, the Holly King‘s powers are now rising. Hard to believe on balmy lazy Summer days when school is out, but this too will pass, and the nights draw in.

A depiction of the Oak King, on Lloyds Bank in Ipswich for some reason
A depiction of the Oak King/Green Man, in this foliate head on Lloyds Bank in Ipswich for some reason

Now, at the height of Summer, it is a good time to convert a pallet into the finest kindling known to Man – the wood is so dry the pieces are almost musical when they hit the ground, like the plates of a xylophone.

an axe, some wooden tongs to hold the piece upright, and some iced coffee
an axe, some wooden tongs to hold the piece upright, and some iced coffee are what’s needed to make a lot of kindling out of pallets

Sound of kindling pieces being moved – each almost has its own note, the tonality sounds different to me from ordinary bits of dry wood being moved.

Like so many things you can do yourself for modest cost, consumerism has a ready-made alternative – Wilkinson’s will sell you some in a plastic bag

Wilko kinding
Wilko kindling

but what’s the fun in that? The cynical part of me did wonder if the plastic bag might not have more calorific value than the product if you could use it without the noxious byproducts. I knew one fellow in an old house with an open fire and a massive inglenook who would toss an entire bag of coal on the fire, plastic bag and all. There was enough draught up the chimney that it didn’t stink the place out, but I still felt it a teeny bit on the coarse side of living.

Thomas Tusser would look askance at such effete consumerism, and I’m with him there. I now have a couple of great big garden bags full, probably about £200 worth of kindling at Wilko prices. And running it in July means it’s absolutely bone dry, I stow the bags in the garage so it stays that way. A fine alternative are pine cones which make good kindling, and they are to hand in the coming months.

£50 worth of pine cones, at Wilkinson's rates
pine cones – some people pour wax into them but if you collect them in summer they work just fine on their own

It’s the open structure and large surface area that seems to be the win here, rather than any particularly resinous property like fatwood. I figured I’d see why my kindling is almost musical in its dryness with a fine Chinese gizmo

what my cheap Ebay meter says for the kindling water content
what my cheap Ebay meter says for the kindling water content

Now you can’t rely on a cheap piece of Chinese junk traceable back to national standards of a finger in the air via an indirect measure (bulk resistance?) but comparing the kindling with

arbitrary piece of recently acquired pallet
arbitrary piece of recently acquired pallet
a piece of a joist that's been in a neighbour's garage since 1969
a piece of a joist that’s been in a neighbour’s garage since 1969
Biomass willow harvested earlier this year
Biomass willow harvested earlier this year
Log dropped off with us earlier this year and drying since
Log dropped off with us earlier this year and drying since

the kindling does seem pretty good! The willow is deceptive – the end I stuck the meter in is good (you can burn anything with less than about 20% water content) but further in it is too high, over 30%. They do generally say you have to season willow for two years to get the best of it.

The universal handy rustic construction resource – the wooden pallet

Loads of these get thrown out, and indeed I’ve seen many people on building sites burning pallets in the open to get rid of them. In the US they seem to worry about termites and stuff so they chemically treat them. I’d probably draw the line at using them for construction inside the house[ref]not only do you not know where they’ve been, but all the pieces are of slightly varying thickness and width. I’m not a competent enough woodworker to do cabinet making with decent regular sized wood, never mind all sorts like that![/ref], but for a log store extension they were neat

we need to finis the roof trim but this was done running ahead of an incoming thuderstorm so it wanted to be fast rather than great
we need to finish the roof trim but this was done running ahead of an incoming thunderstorm so it wanted to be fast rather than great

Unlike in the States the majority of pallets round here are untreated so they will rot, or maybe that’s just the result of scroungeable pallets tending to be one-wayers[ref]According to this in Europe we do not permit chemical treatment of pallets, which is why your pallet compost bin rots so fast. That’s good if you want to burn them, though avoid engineered wood bits like the compressed blocks of the side riser because the glue gives of bad stuff if it burns.[/ref]. This was constructed so the pallet used for the base and the side can be dismantled and replaced if need be. You can’t have too much wood storage, though most of our core drying is on the farm on a bigger scale. The one thing I am hopeless at is stacking wood – Mrs Ermine converted my efforts into something a third the size

I am just no good at this compared to Mrs Ermine
I am just no good at this compared to Mrs Ermine

That’s enough headspace allocated to the Holly King for now, time to consider the virtues of Pimms in the late afternoon like those decadent city folk 😉


Fight consumerism – get time on your side

mistersquirrel  has been watching TV, in particular an excellent three-part series about consumerism. The third programme was the one I found most insightful, which develops the theory that adults are being infantilised by systems that give micro-rewards to urge them into purchases, and the process of buying is being made as frictionless as possible.

Tesco really loves football. Look at all the things Euro 2012 realted you can buy
Stuff. Shopping. Special Offers. Buy it Now! Won’t it be easier when you simply pay for the item as you put it in your trolley with contactless payments?

It goes along with the general gamification of the world – people being herded along desired paths of action using sophisticated micro-reward systems. This sort of thing started to really piss me off at work, stupid metrics on irrelevant areas being used to herd and control people, and it appears to be going on in the consumer space too. Unlike work, however, in theory as a consumer you are in control of the money so you are in charge. One of the key techniques, however, is easy to fight. Trying to get you to buy quickly. Don’t do that. Buy slowly.

First, check out the enemy

the credit problem

It’s in Episode 3 at 45mins into the programme

“Every other company on Earth is trying to get you to spend money, and they’re putting all their effort into getting you to spend your money on Stuff all the time. […] Make no mistake, the house always wins. […]Business had learnt from children how the adult market could be turned into a game.!”

“The trouble with adult consumers is they think too much”

Benjamin Barber, Rutgers University

I hear there’s a fellow who’s saved loads of money doing just that – thinking. Don’t give it up, adults. That’s why you’re adults – so you get a hold of the steering wheel of Life…

“The last 30 years of selling has been about getting us to give in to this instant gratification”

Now I have to admit, at first the Ermine thought to himself “bollocks”, but the programme developed its thesis well. In particular, the process of handing over your money has been transformed. There has been a progression –

cash -> credit cards -> stored card details like Paypal, 1-click, mobile purchasing, contactless wristbands,

The consumer merchandisers came up with a magic bullet, the credit card. The credit card becomes the facilitator of impetuous, narcissistic buy now consumerism, because you don’t have to wait a second.

Benjamin Barber, Rutgers University

Now I got my first Access credit card in 1979, as a freshman student. And yet I never got into huge trouble with it, indeed I was in my mid-twenties when I came to the conclusion that my parents were right

Don’t spend more than you earn, son

So I have generally paid them off within the interest-free period. Yes, I cocked up a few times and had reason to be grateful for the minimum payment direct debit feature all suppliers offer. I have sometimes carried a rolling balance, if some card company is going to be so dim as to offer me interest-free credit. On occasion I’ve been prepared to pay interest – when the Nationwide building society was prepared to pay me more interest on the borrowed money. So I don’t viscerally understand this part of how Big Consumerism is suckering the proletariat. Despite what one woman in the programme claimed, credit cards can be used properly. Just always remember you’re not borrowing money from the bank, you are borrowing from your future self. Make that your one month future self and you’ll be fine, because you’re close to him and he’s real to you. And the card won’t charge you interest!

the Buy It Now problem

However, I am susceptible to the buy it now problem.It’s across the modern consumerism estate – they are trying to shorten the gap between want it and buy it. Credit cards help you buy it now if you don’t have the money, but things like Amazon 1-click and Paypal make the process of paying quicker and less onerous. There’s a simple way to fix this, however. Remember the good Prof Barber. The solution I use is simple

Put the stuff in your virtual shopping cart. Then wait 24 hours before making the purchase

You don’t have to do too much thinking. If you’ve been suckered by gamification you will come back to the purchase the next day and think ‘how dumb is that’ and move on. Though with Amazon remember to empty the cart – else you’ll end up buying it with the next thing you get there, although there’s enough of a grace period to cancel the order. I used to think that the cooling off period needed to be seven days, and indeed in my hardest saving period at work I used a month. But I’m not so frazzled now, I can recognise dumb consumerism within a few hours now. [ref]This is probably the same sort of thing as your mother used to tell you to sleep on something before doing something crazy – I think most people’s emotional states vary across the diurnal cycle, it’s a way of getting a ‘different you’ to look at the purchase.[/ref] That inserts a great big monkey-wrench into the ad-men’s ability to tap into your ‘I want it now’ state of mind. It’s future-proof too – even if in ten years time they have a thought-swipe method of instant purchase you can still split the ‘I want it’ from now. Live intentionally. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with consumerism – as long as it suits your wants and needs rather than theirs.

Think like an adult. Think too much for marketers of consumerism. Ice the “I want it Now” mentality. And don’t spend money you haven’t got, which is a different take on the same problem

But – but- what if it’s a unrepeatable sale, or a Black Friday or a Everything Must Go?

Leave it be. Remember the fellow above. The house always wins. They’re trying to deny you the space to think. There’s only one way to beat the house, and that’s not to play their game. You don’t have to be nutty about it – for regular consumables it doesn’t really apply. If you always buy organic butter, know the price and it really is on offer at 10% less then knock yourself out and load up on it (you can freeze butter). It the purchase of something new to you, or being stampeded into an upgrade, where I’d say just ignore the special offers if they can’t match the 24 hour rule.

increasingly things are being sold in a dishonest and gamified way

Take the concept of apps – where you get something that appears to do a job for free, but to make it work you need to make an in-app purchase, for some individually small amount. Now I despise apps and the concept of paying for software in general. I wouldn’t mind paying if you had some comeback on the supplier, but licensing has generally been on a ‘sold as seen’ basis for the last 20 years or so. Open source has largely fixed that problem – by dealing with the ‘sold’ part of the deal 🙂

The great thing about in-app purchases for the seller is that the app promises, fails to deliver but says you can make it work if you pay the ransom money. In other areas of life this is considered nefarious activity. It isn’t actually new – PC software used to be sold this way in the late 1980s – it was dearer to start with but often many layers of functionality that you’d pay more for. The piss-taking toerags at Novell Netware used to sell you per seat network connection licences[ref]it was sweet when MS, and then TCP/IP destroyed Novell’s business case and ate their lunch. I still detest this company for that egregious policy a quarter of a century after it got in my way at work[/ref], and the DOS version of MS Word had varying levels of functionality. Electronics schematic layout software would sometimes only let you lay out so many components before you’d have to pay. So this sort of incremental sales strategy isn’t new, but it was usually confined to the B2B sector back then. Businesses are usually much better at qualifying the ROI they will get on a piece of production equipment than consumers are at evaluating the enhancement of quality of life they will get for spending money on some consumer goods.

case study:  buying an app to play a mixtape

A mixtape is a long continuous gapless track – my application is for parties, where I use foobar and continuator to intelligently crossfade a sequence that I’ve manually scheduled and mixed in key. Some time a go I bought an iPod to develop some mobile web HTML. It did the job admirably and cost-effectively, and to be honest doesn’t owe me anything now. But I have never got it to work properly for playing music, because I despise iTunes,  which failed me dismally. Given I am playing this out on a field with no power or Internet access I had one primary CD player and two failover solutions – a second copy of the 7 hour mixtape CD on a cheap backup player and the iPod as third-line.

As the weather deteriorated and the humidity rose[ref]everybody thinks dew is a thing of the morning, but it happens in the evening as soon as the sun goes down. Humidity rises and condensation often happens by twilight[/ref] the main player started to skip, so I wanted to crossfade to the iPod, with no moving parts it should be best able to run through the dew point.

iTunes lied to me when it said it uploaded the file
You really don’t want to see this if you’re going to crossfade to it. iTunes lied to me when it said it uploaded the file

So I had to crossfade to the crappy CD player and a regular album, and start to cue the backup CD four hours in. For technical reasons that sort of track fast forwards glacially slowly, I just got there by the time the regular album was about four tracks in, ready to crossfade back.

Now I should have tested everything including the third-level failover, so it’s my bad. However, in seeking a solution to this, I find the music app on the iPod can’t play a mixtape and index the songs. Most people play pop songs on their iPods with a gap or an auto-crossfade, which sound poor to me[ref]the crossfade is fixed in the iPod which works fine most of the time but sounds rotten when it doesn’t and the iTunes soundcheck level matching sucks compared to foobar’s replaygain[/ref], and is what I’m trying to improve on. Presumably nobody listens to classical music or live albums on an iPod which are also long gapless tracks. The correct solution to indexing a continuous track without gaps is to use a cuesheet and FLAC, because another thing I realised when playing the regular CD is although I can’t hear the difference between MP3 and CD audio at modest listening levels the difference is all too apparent at high levels .

So what I need is an app. I now know what I need is an app that will play a cue-indexed single track file, but initially I thought I could mix the tracks automatically on the fly. I don’t want to manually DJ it because I don’t have the skill, I don’t get to  talk to anyone and the results will get worse as the evening goes on due to the power of drinking 🙂

Enter the world of hurt that is apps – gamified consumerism in action

I really hate apps. They’re vile, because they do so little, and the nickel-and-diming to coax even the slightest bit of usefulness out of them is hard to track. I got Algoriddms djay LE for free. but to load my own tracks would mean an in app purchase. So I did that, for £1.50, only to find that once I’d downloaded into itunes it wouldn’t let me load it on anything less than iOS7, which is Apple’s way of deliberately deprecating old gear – they just stop updating iOS for it, and 6 is as far as they will go for mine. Would it really be too much to ask that they check first before letting you buy an upgrade that won’t work on your kit, given they use such corrupt business practices? The ermine is down £1.50 with a fail on caveat emptor – I was unaware that an upgrade to a working program could be non-compatible. As I observed before, everything Apple is easy but hard at the same time.

So I look for an app that does work. Ah DJ mixer 3 does work, but you need to pay £7 to be able to use your own tracks. Now I can’t say I didn’t have fun with that app scratch mixing and finding sixty seven ways to make things sound crap. But the automix sounds poor with pop and rock, though it’s okay with dance. I still don’t think most  of the adults at the Oak Tree farm parties are ready for EDM/dance, though I got some of the kids out in the middle dancing with the odd dance track.  I have no complaint about that app, it works for what it’s designed to do, but not well enough for me.

So I still need an app to play a long wav or FLAC track with a cue sheet, so that’ll be Golden Ear then. I now have a bit of trepidation about dropping £6 on something that promises it’ll do the job after the frustrating experience with apps so far. You can’t trust apps to do what it says on the tin, it appears, even down to basic things like installing…

I’ll be down £15 just to get this to play music in a way that fits my requirements. Now I can’t say that’s a huge outlay, but I only wrangle apps every six months or so, and I’ve had rotten value so far because I wasn’t allowed to test with my material before shelling out. Not only that, but there’s the incremental way these are sold. If you have a smartphone and are buying apps every other week your app costs could easily exceed your mobile subscription, but it’ll happen in random itty bitty pieces so you won’t clock it. Plus the way individual functions are chargeable means they can avoid sticker shock – you wouldn’t pay £20 for an app in one go but you might to get different levels of functionality enabled as the crippleware gets in your way.

This experience has left me much less likely to get a smartphone in future. I hate working this way, I’d much rather pay for something that does the job upfront[ref]although I don’t like paying for software I’m not religiously opposed to it. I try and find a free way of doing things but I do have a  folder of shareware registration details and I still use some of these programs[/ref] than be nickel-and-dimed like that. I do want to be able to test things out properly, and this is something that is craftily prevented by crippling specific features.

The other thing that is nasty about iOS is I can’t code for it without high up-front costs. Even if I had a Mac, I’d have to pay $99 a year for the privilege of getting my own programs onto my own machine, WTF is up with that?

Low capital costs and high running or replacement/upgrade costs is the way things are going

Unfortunately an increasing amount of things are sold this way, at a low upfront cost and you get sliced and diced on the consumables. You rent your music with Spotify, you rent your printer with shockingly expensive ink cartridges though the machine is virtually a freebie, any Apple hardware is on borrowed time because it will become orphaned as iOS leaves it behind in a few years. You as a good little consumer will simply funnel part of your paycheque into the consumerism machine to keep the world turning.

It’s not how I want to buy Stuff, I don’t expect to keep on changing it. For instance, I have only ever had one scanner, an Epson Perfection 1200S SCSI scanner, it is now about 15 years old, and I recently got this working with my Windows 7 machine. It would have been easier to buy a new USB scanner, but I like this, it’s served me well and I want to keep it going. Back then I used it a lot, now I just want to scan the odd thing here or there. My computers are about seven years old. I can’t use a tablet because I am also a creator of content as well as a consumer. I’d punch the screen out if I had to tap tap tappity tap on a touch screen.There hasn’t been that much development in computers over the last few years that makes a difference for writing, browsing and running design software or editiong audio[ref]I do feel the lack of performance when editing video, but I don’t do enough of that to be worth changing[/ref]. Obviously if you play games to push the graphics then you’ll disagree, but I don’t have those sorts of requirements.

I purchased my hi-fi preamplifier secondhand thirty years ago, and my power amplifier is a secondhand Naim 250 which has probably been in service for 20 years. I have had to service the preamp and had the power amplifier serviced a few years back. Decent gear lasts if you look after it. But more and more there just isn’t decent gear to be had, or it is made deliberately obsolescent. And I’m tired of it.

This low service life and deliberate obsolescence is one of the reasons that I find Stuff much less rewarding now. I don’t want to have to  buy a new phone, or music player, or camera every year. I don’t give a toss about being with it, I’d just like to be able to do what I used to be able to do with it, and if apps are part of the way to make it do stuff then not get locked out of the app ecosystem after a couple of years.

update 9 July 15:00 –

Another great example of this came through my door

1407-tesco-140709Loads of savings on offer from Tesco, What do I have to do to get my £45 off –

you want me to trot along once a week like a good li'l consumer? On yer bike...
you want me to trot along once a week like a good li’l consumer? On yer bike…

I have to spend £375 with them, over six successive weeks. No Mr Tesco, I am not a lab rat in your maze, so I’ll pass on this. In the event that I really do want something worth £70+ from you I’ll consider it, but the existence or otherwise of your promotion will not change what I do.

Fight impetuous, narcissistic buy now consumerism. 24 hours at a time. Time is on your side…

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.


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.

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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.