Strong in these padawan, recency bias is

Thus quoth ZXSpectrum48k, over on Monevator. From a fellow who does this as a day job, looking at the legions of wannabe escapees from the office


Socrates was the counterfactual, though he defined the Dunning-Kruger problem in his first sentence.

for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know

Or Plato talking about Socrates.
whatever, there still be truth in it

It is part of the way of the world – the young fellow must be ignorant to his faults to make his way in the world and try and put his ding in the universe. ZX was also talking of the younger ermine, and probably even of me now, after all, how would I know 😉

You don’t often get away with thinking that you know, when you don’t. Particularly in the markets. Somehow TA’s article showed that in a harsh light. Let us look at the thrust of his article Should you use cash to bridge the gap between your ISAs and your pension?

In it, TA postulates saving ten years worth of cash, to bridge your spending over 10 years between retiring early (the RE part of FIRE), and reaching 57, the earliest point the Agglomerator, hero of his journey, gets to access their tax-privileged pension savings (SIPP). I confess I haven’t studied his derivation of that requirement, but I was only a little bit older than his putative future Millennial when I packed in work, I was very early fifties whereas Agglomerator wants to clear the workforce at 46.

Let’s just zoom out a little and put that into perspective, the Agglomerator enters the workforce at 21 on leaving university, and clears it at 46, so he works for 25 years. In that 25 years, somehow he saves 10 years of spending as cash and about twice that much in tax-privileged accounts to see him out. That looks like a massive ask to me, saving effectively 30 years of essential spend1 along with buying a house outright and establishing himself.

Today’s FIRE community is very different from that 10 years ago

For a start, fat FIRE is a much bigger thing than it was in the past. When I started it was about frugality first

UK Personal Finance Blogosphere, Source:

there are only 5/13 left standing (I haven’t counted those that haven’t been updated for over a year). It shows how different the world is now that it was just over ten years ago when I started down the FI/RE track. It was about saving and frugality.

Why was this – it was just after the GFC, people didn’t really believe the stock market would come good. Apart from Monevator, who sounded the clarion call into the low-water mark – git your ass into this market- NOW. However, valuations were such that you could get a decent return on shovelling money into that market. Although you were never going to retire early making minimum wage, you didn’t need the fancy City finance pay packet.

Today’s FIRE community is much, much richer than that of ten years ago. Some of that reflects these high valuations – if you want to accumulate enough to retire early now it’s a much tougher job. A safe withdrawal rate of 5% was conceivable in 2009, it’s much lower now, simply because valuations are higher. You need to be working in finance to get enough. There’s much more emphasis on fat FIRE now – starting off with a lot more, and spending at much higher levels. The frugalistas have been run out of town.

If you’re starting out, that’s not so bad, I have the suspicion that valuations will become more reasonable2 in the not too distant future, you need to keep buying into it. You have three decades.

But if you need to make it all happen in five years starting yesterday, then it’s going to be tough sledding. And I would imagine that a lot of getting-on-for-fifty-somethings are going to find themselves heading towards early retirement this year and next.

Talking of padawan, bless my younger self’s cotton socks, I thought I would have edge in sectors. Then I chased the HYP, is some ways because after a GFC yield was easy to find. Dunning and Kruger would be proud of me. I did do well. But not for the reasons I believed. I have no particular edge is stockpicking. But I was next to an open goal. Truth be told it didn’t really matter what you bought at that time. Valuations were in the dumps. My big win was to buy anything. I would probably have done better buying VWRL, except it didn’t exist in 2009 and before the RDR there were all sorts of dodgy practices to do with funds and backhanders. I was weak on the US market, which has been on a tear for most of that time. But I bought in at a low, and while I would have been better off buying a broad index, getting the timing right trumped sector allocation.

It’s not what I bought, it was when I bought – at low valuations. The rest of the journey was slowly coming to the conclusion that I am still a padawan, though not hopelessly so. I did OK, such that now, marked to market at high valuations (now) I have more capital than market to market at low valuations (the GFC) despite living off investment return over the last 8 years.

TA’s article says I was nuts. I agree, if I were starting now being balls-deep in equities other than three years’ essential spend would be crazy. It was less nuts starting from low valuations, because it is the truth that passivistas never allow to be heard – valuation matters, and the other name for that is market timing  😉 . But Dunning-Kruger probably would have the last laugh, because if TA went back in time to the younger Ermine and said ‘my crystal ball tells me you have to have enough cash to carry you for the next 8 years, what do you know that I don’t?‘ I am not sure that the younger ermine would have puffed up his furry chest and say ‘traveller from the future, valuations are historically low now, so the risk is much lower than it will be in your time.‘ TA wasn’t there, though Monevator said pretty much that at the time in his if not now, when?

A tale of desperation against logic

We are all, of course, the hero of our own narrative. Using the flight  analogy from a few weeks ago, I ready myself for the eight lean years in a flimsy craft, refuelling and seeing fire streaking across the runway behind. I am faced with the choice of wealth or health, and choose health. TA would not have cleared me for take-off, I did not have eight years cash saved, I did not have enough to bridge the gap. But enough to be prepared to take the chance. Against the backdrop of the GFC, the increasing value of the shareholdings stiffened the spine enough that I felt I could make it, though I did have to experience the lean years, particularly at the beginning. But in the years after the GFC, many people were skint. The ask is much, much higher now.

The Ermine cast a cynical eye at the Bank of England’s UK’s implied inflation forward curve (H/T Monevator’s should you use cash to bridge gap between your ISA and pension) and thought to myself flipping ‘eck, you lot must think we are born yesterday.

Look at the sedate trajectory On the one hand they’re expecting to write lots of letters to the Chancellor on how they cocked up bringing inflation down to 2%, indeed this will be a regular event for the rest of my lifetime. The Bank of England has a lot of finance bods much smarter than me, and I am sure that they will say well, hey, this is what is implied by the yield curves, it’s not our opinion. Sort of like a variant on guns don’t kill people, people do. Nothing to do with us, guv, it’s wot the market numbers say.

All over the decadent demise of the Western world there is this refusal to take responsibility for the consequences of our actions in favour of magical thinking. I’m all for magical thinking, but in that case let’s have some magic back, eh, rather than pretending we’re all materialist rationalists. Smells and bells, please. At least some of the ride will be more fun. Meanwhile

You’re having a larf, guys

In an exceptionally paranoid moment the ermine looked at what I expect coronavirus to do to the economy, followed by a quick one-two of Brexit, and figured that I see inflation in my future. In the BofE’s favour, if we take a look at the UK inflation rate history

UK historical inflation (CPI) Macrotrends

it looks not so different from the B of E’s prognostications, if we stick to the last 40 years. We have to go back nearly 30 years to the last time it was over 5%. Case proven, m’lud. Along with history, inflation has ended. Obviously you need some inflation, else capital will sit back on its lardy butt rather than get out into the world making good stuff happen in theory, but we’re sorted as far as inflation taking off. Hmm. In other news

We seem to be suffering a general competence deficit

We seem to be suffering a major competence deficit these days. In the battle between ability and craftiness, everyone seems to be losing their grip. The malefic Dominic Cummings seems to losing his mojo – starry-eyed for Big Data, his feet of clay show when it comes to hiring people to do anything with it. Obviously you ask your mates first, because, well, corrupt bastards are like that. He’s of the view that leadership in politics requires a science degree, but his own ancient and modern history degree from Oxford clearly failed him in his/our hour of need. He’s unable to find competence in handling data.

If the answer to your data processing job is Excel, the question is wrong

Back in the day, the Ermine was chatting to the guy at the next desk, who was tasked with keeping records of set-top boxes. Now I had an electronics, not software background, but he was planning on keeping this in Microsoft Excel. “Your problem there,” opined the Ermine, “is that you can’t do ‘owt with the data. What you need is a database”. This guy was going to try and search for repeating faults and that sort of jazz. Now you can do that is Excel, but it’s a bit like Samuel Johnson’s quip about a dog waking on its hind legs, it’s not so much that it’s done well, it is that it’s possible at all. It grinds to ever slower after about a thousand records – I discovered this the hard way when running the records of a club that had about 1500 members at its high water point. I switched to Access3 after about 500 members.

The trouble is everybody can understand Excel, whereas getting your data into a database is a different level of abstraction. Even in DOS days, dBaseIV had the edge on Lotus 123, though wrangling the forms to make it work was a nightmare.

Excel just isn’t designed to handle huge amounts of data – wrong tool, wrong job. This fellow might have had a hundred thousand set-top box ids, and Excel was only good for 65535 rows back then. You don’t use Excel for massive lots of data. I’d get off that wagon at more than 5000 data points, so you don’t use Excel for tracking your set-top boxes. Or your coronavirus victims

Now in fairness to our Dom, he’s busy getting his mates to do his data munging, falling for the old saw of anonymised data. The trouble with AI and Big Data in particular is that the aim is to de-anonymise everything.  AI looks intelligent because it cross-correlates everything, at scale. The public data Dom’s giving his buddies may well be anonymised on its own, but when combined with other data the keys to the kingdom often show up.

Now is the winter of our discontent[…]
I am determined to prove a villain
And hate the idle pleasures of these days.
Plots have I laid, inductions dangerous,
By drunken prophecies, libels and dreams,

This lot seem to have skipped a few lines of Richard III, and gone straight on to the doing evil. The thing that’s saving the rest of us is the competence deficit – in driving out Brexit non-believers, they seem to also have driven out anybody who can spot a bad idea miles away. Or indeed anybody who’s got a clue. Funny old thing, that… Correlation is not causation, eh, Dom?

Brexit zealotry doesn’t seem to correlate with competence

Perhaps driving out those who had a clue was the point – disaster capitalism unfolding before our eyes. Never let a good crisis go to waste and all that. Perhaps it has to be the way- you need moronic slavishness to the Brexit Ideal to Get Brexit Done, and perhaps afterwards we can engage people who understand the art of compromise. A little bit of that on t’other side wouldn’t go amiss, either, but we have to stick with what we can change…

I’m sure we will trade with other people after Brexit. But let’s get some people who can talk in a civilised manner to others, eh, rather than yelling we have the sovereign right to do exactly as we damn well please, and thanks for all the fish. That’s an awful long way towards the Juche doctrine of North Korea, and I suggest Brits are a little bit too soft and used to their creature comforts to want to pay that sort of price for absolute sovereignty, regardless of what Jacob Rees-Mogg and his disaster capitalism compadres in the European Research Group have to say about vassal states.

I am old enough to just remember 1973. Britain was a lot more self-sufficient in many things then, like food and cars for instance, than it is now. We weren’t that good at a lot of this, which was roughly why we signed up to the Common Market as it was then  – we were the sick man of Europe, economically speaking. However, the issues raised by James Goldsmith of the Referendum Party weren’t ever addressed with Maastricht. Brexit will definitely fix those. A little bit like burning the house down fixes bad wallpaper, but some non-ERG eyes can probably make Brexit work right after a few years. Britain’s economy did sort of work before 1973, and hopefully we have all learned something in the intervening 47 years. Just for God’s sake keep the British Eton-educated whazzocks away from leadership of our companies, particularly any that make cars, it took foreign management to make Britain’s car factories make cars that were worth buying…

work is not the route out of poverty for the ability-challenged or those with more children than skill

I confess I will struggle to drum up sympathy for the Red Wall if they find they are vassals to British plutocrats rather than EU technocrats. True, they weren’t to know of the coronavirus pandemic, but the deep compassion for those who fall on hard times of the crew that they voted in to Get Brexit Done has been hidden in plain sight for a very long time.

I still remember the relatively benign version of that looking for my first job nearly 40 years ago, it scared the hell enough out of me to never take any time between jobs until I packed work in for the last time. The experience of being unemployed in Britain doesn’t seem to have improved between Margaret Thatcher and the punitive and nasty Universal Credit.

Let’s take a look at the latest tweets by the bell-ends at the DWP about Job Entry Targeted Support.

Translated: People on the scheme which get a personal DWP goon on minimum wage who is incentivised to make your life a misery and get you to apply for endless jobs for which your skills and personal circumstances don’t fit you

Personalised, like the red dot from a rifle. The personal adviser will be targeted to make your life miserable. If you want to cop a feel of the quality of the personalised advice, knock yourself out on the careers advice beta to gauge the accuracy.In the case of the Ermine, that’ll be

ORLY? The last time I had anything to do with sports was the very last time i packed my PE kit away at school, in the late 1970s…

Because there is a fundamental truth here. Britain is a rich, First World country. That means the cost of living is higher here than in many other places.

Sadly, Brits are not, on average, cleverer than other people. We’re average. Quelle surprise, eh? As a result, the sort of jobs available in the UK that pay enough to live on need to demand a higher level of skill than the global average, and the bar is increasing all the time4. Because: globalisation. If you thought Brexit is going to fix globalisation, then you should have been more careful about the people you gave the keys to.

Elementary logic shows that the result of increasing skill requirements is that fewer and fewer people will be able to earn enough for the average cost of living. Some of them won’t be bright enough. Some of them will have had children too early in life, or split up with the other party involved. That means you won’t have enough time to get a full-time job. As a society while we mouth platitudes about wanting to make up the difference, by our actions we clearly don’t care that much to be prepared to carry your choices for years and years.

We have hidden this in the past by increasing the number of shit jobs in the economy, things that should have been done by machine or not done at all, and priced these at minimum wage. It is one of the reasons why productivity has gone down the toilet in the UK since the credit crunch. For contrast, I started work when this was about 55 on that scale, and left when it was about 95. Britain got better off while I was at work – not due to me I hasten to add. You need an increase in productivity to address poverty. There has to be more shit to go around per head for the country as a whole to get better off – it is a necessary but not sufficient condition.

UK per capita productivity, it’s less than it was in 2016, and pretty flat since the GFC. Source: ONS

There’s only so far this can go. Another way we are hiding this is to create a punitive DWP system for the un(der)employed called Universal Credit, employ young graduates who can read and write to be mean to people who perhaps have literacy issues or generally can’t stand filling in forms. We incentivise the graduates to disenfrachise as many of their ‘clients’ as possible so that they keep their sort-of middle-class jobs, while making it all look like the clients’ fault that they don’t have the natural ability to get/hold a job that pays enough to live on.

Let’s not even start on what we do to the physically and mentally ill, eh? We just don’t care. Oh and then we wring our hands about the amount of homelessness.

Now I’m not saying I am clever enough to know the solution to this problem, but I have learned over several decades is that whistling a tune and repeating inappropriate platitudes like ‘work is the route out of poverty’ isn’t the way to fix the problem. It would be more honest simply to tell some of the people with insufficient skills or chaotic lifestyle choices that there is nothing we are prepared to do for you. Work is not the route out of poverty, for the simple reason that the cost of living is too high in Britain to keep a roof over your head on anything less than the full-time minimum wage, and there are too many people in the UK who don’t have enough aptitude to add enough value to something to even justify the minimum wage.

Some people are seriously short of basic life skills, like recognising food 😉

Ceci n’est pas food

Microsoft offered me this picture of a field of Halloween pumpkins in some American field. It’s a little bit weird, a tad Magritte, IMO. How do I know it’s American – there are no trees, hedgerows, we don’t have one-armed pylons unless there’s a really good reason and we don’t run our railway tracks with no guarding, and I don’t think I’ve seen boxcars like that.

However, it’s in keeping – Halloween never used to be a retail-fest or even A Big Thing until about 30 years ago, and it’s been pushed like hell, imported from Over There. It’s still rather disturbing that a significant proportion of British parents were presumably raised by wolves themselves in being unaware that you can eat what’s inside pumpkins5. Although I had no idea how they grew, I was aware of this by the time I left home, though it wasn’t particularly useful information as Halloween wasn’t a big thing, and I am child-free anyway 😉

However, I am with hubbub – eat your damn pumpkins FFS 😉 Tossing 90% of the pumpkins we grow is just plain rude. Mrs Ermine grows these smaller ones which look the part but taste better. We don’t need to carve them, but with cucurbits size does not correlate with flavour IMO.

It’s not so much that the big supermarket ones will taste horrible, the main failure mode is to taste of nothing much at all. Think marrows as opposed to courgettes. Having said that, if it tastes bitter, then toss it out. Pretty much a rule of everything to do with eating really, but according the the RHS bitter squash can give you bellyache if it doesn’t breed true. So don’t seed save curcubits unless you know what you are doing.

Last year I was in Morrissons and they actually labelled their Halloween pumpkins as ‘not for human consumption’, which makes me wonder what the hell they spray the buggers with. And quite frankly, parents, maybe you want to ask yourselves, if you buy this sort of contaminated shit for your kids, then what sort of world you are encouraging capitalism to build for them?

  1. I know, he doesn’t keep it all in cash and gets some return on his money. But the maths works out at enough for 30 years essential spend, even if it isn’t deployed in that way. 
  2. Valuations becoming more reasonable is otherwise known as a bear market 
  3. Before all the DBAs take the piss, Microsoft Access was the right solution for a club database, easy enough to a tyro to make it work. If it didn’t, the result was going to be embarrassment rather than death. I’m not saying PHE should have used Access ;) 
  4. I took my O levels in the mid 1970s. The typical class sizes of my grammar school was 31, but after the O levels class sizes were about half, because half the kids had gone into the world of work. They were fixing cars, helping in businesses, all without A levels or a degree. I saw far more people as a child building the Goldsmith’s College halls of residence than I saw on the entire Olympic Athlete’s Village building site in 2012. You wouldn’t need to be able to read and write as a hod carrier in the 1970s, I saw nobody carrying bricks onto the scaffolding up a ladder in 2012, there were mechanacal aids t do that. 
  5. While I despise Halloween for being a jumped up capitalist consumerism-fest, rather than an honourable celebration of the turning of the seasons/harvest festival/thinning of the veil, the truth is that parents who eat their pumpkins with their kids and then carve jack o’lanterns out of them use more of the fruit than I do. Upcycling writ large and they should be applauded! 

winter is coming

It is August, California has recorded the hottest temperature on Earth at the aptly-named Furnace Creek. I just can’t imagine 54 degrees. I went there in 1993, and overheated my rental Grand Am in the 1500 meter lift up from Zabriskie Point through Daylight Pass, with the heater flat out and all the windows open. In July…

Nevertheless, in Blighty there is the hint of Autumn in the air in the changes of the natural world. Birdsong has changed from the frenzy of the breeding season, perhaps most clearly and commonly with the Robin, which sings a song that sounds in a minor key to me, which we associate with mournfulness, though of course this is pure anthropomorphising. The retired Ermine is more physically active than the working Ermine. Earlier this year in lockdown there was an edict from the government that you were permitted to spend an hour walking. I stayed with some of this, while I don’t do it every day I cover about three miles. Walking is good for reflection and rumination – in the heat of summer I started earlier, and there is some reward to doing it before wrangling anything that needs an Internet connection to happen.

I get to know the small area better, and living in a small town it is easier to get out into the countryside by shanks’ pony. The transition between town and country is sharp, I cross the liminal space in about fifty yards. Earlier in the year I got to know the territory of some of the blackbirds and robins by their individual song. Now these ranges are more fluid, and I hear the lovely sound of flocks of goldfinches who have swelled their ranks in the breeding season, feasting on the seed-heads. Although the swifts have gone some time ago, the swallows are still swooping over the fields with their chattering sound.

Swallows chattering hawking insects over the fields as I come to the main road

The bold song of the chaffinch has been replaced with the double finch-finch sound of their alert call, and the lovely arrow-like white tail feathers flicker in the morning light as they make their swooping flight away from the paths into the trees. I have seen herons courting and the odd egret drifting lazily on the summer breeze.

Egret, another type of heron. Probably a Great White, this was big and the wildlife trusts say they are in the area

I have learned that the sound of the wind in the oak is not the same as the wind in the ash or the willow. In some ways it is reminiscent of the almost animistic approach of my primary-school self, where I knew a very small area intimately. I cover more ground, and there is far more natural variation in the natural world of the Levels than there was in the urban landscape of New Cross. When I checked the size of my childhood world on Google Maps the size of my patch was amazingly small. Continue reading “winter is coming”

Hedging is not just about money

One of the likely issues we will have later this year due to coronavirus is a shortage of fresh produce. This is absolutely not the same as OMG WE ARE ALL GOING TO STARVE! For starters, a fair proportion of the population doesn’t eat fresh produce at all. In general, young males living in cities don’t, and the very existence of my older self is living proof that it doesn’t kill you. Indeed, the very existence of urban food deserts shows that you can live perfectly OK without fresh produce, though perhaps you shouldn’t do it for more than 10 years once you have reached 30, for your general health. so once again, I am saying things may not taste as good as normal by the Autumn. We are not going to starve by Autumn. There are just some lines you won’t find in the produce aisle that you usually do.

We should tip our hats to the fact that society has managed to keep the wheels running despite the lockdown in terms of the essentials. The Chinese managed it, the Italians have managed it, we are managing it, I hear you can even buy bogroll again 😉 This is not an existential challenge. But we are going to face shortages of fresh produce in the Autumn, and we import a lot from Spain, which is not having a great time of things. The price is likely to go up and the quality will be down.

But you can do something about it, particularly as you may have more time on your hands. Now (in the UK) is a good time to start. Last month would have been better, but you start where you find yourself.

Now I am the first to admit that this isn’t really my area of expertise. I am writing it because I am closer to an ordinary punter, but I have observed Mrs Ermine, for whom this has been a passion from childhood.

Hit the tasty and the exotic first, particularly if you don’t have a garden

We will be fine on staples I should imagine. There will be shortages of some basics, because we import more than half our food, and we featherbed our aristocracy to ruin our soil1 or play silly buggers on our hills. Tim Lang summarises the issues of how we got here, a combination of our early industrialisation and imperial past, we grow about half our food.

but if you turn some of those issues on their head, we will probably be OK, because we can probably pay more on the global market than poorer people. T’ain’t pretty, but it’s the way of the world. But you can fight back and make Autumn taste a little bit better, if that matters to you. If it doesn’t, then I am sure Nando’s and your local kebab shop can keep the show on the road. About a quarter of London’s food by value is eaten outside the home- there have been reports written before the current crisis promoting the kitchenless city. NYC has already got there in part 2.

Probably the easiest win for the space-challenged are herbs – a little goes a long way, they are usually cut and come again, they don’t need huge amounts of water, you can use a window box. But they do generally want sun. They make things taste a lot better, and fresh always beats dried. You can grow these from seed, but for a window box get ’em from a supermarket, given garden centres aren’t open. Compost is a problem, some supermarkets carry it. It’s not essential, my younger self never realised you were meant to use compost. I used earth from the garden. Sure, things work better if you have compost, but use what you have to hand. The young Ermine was perhaps unwittingly channelling Masanobu Fukuoka’s natural way of farming ahead of time. There’s too much dogma in gardening. The will to life of most things is strong. If you want to optimise yields and germination rates, sure you have to work harder. But seed is cheap, in most cases JFDI and see what happens.

If you have a small space, then eschew staples. There’s no point in trying to grow a field of wheat in your back garden. Similarly a bag of Maris Piper or King Edward spuds is cheap. Don’t bother. If you are going to grow potatoes, grow fancy ones with a distinctive taste –  something like Pink Firs. You can also grow potatoes in compost in containers on a patio.

We didn’t cover ourselves with glory with tomatoes, they went out too early too fast, but will still happen

Look at what’s expensive, and favour that. Favour the vertical over the low and spreading. We3 favour tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, though we also do beans and lettuce. Grow from seed, it’s cheap and lets you succession sow so you don’t end up with more than you can use at any one time

Stagger your planting, because you stagger your eating in the usual way of things

Continue reading “Hedging is not just about money”

Monzo, metal cards and bullet journals

There are intrepid folk like RIT and TA flaying fees on their investment products. Quite rightly so. Anything to do with storing and processing your money should cost as little as possible, subject to delivering a satisfactory service. After all, your money is embodied life-force. You exchanged hours of your life for it, and you want the leak in the tank to be as low as possible.

Oddly enough, when it comes down to credit cards, this seems to escape people totally. I can live with over 20% APR on my credit cards because I don’t pay it. I pay them off or I use promotional deals. If you carry debt on a credit card at 20% off, that’s like every store you buy things from using that card having a big notice – Anti-Sale – pay 20% more for everything. However, clever marketing folks being what they are, there are even more methods to separate credit card users from their money – even if they don’t pay interest! Step forward modern fintech fast-movers. Y’know, the guys that don’t come with lots of legacy Big Iron in their IT systems, who can most fast and break things, and rip you off on the Q.T. , make you feel special about the colour or materials your credit card is made of. The thing replaced by that whizzy fintech app is on your phone so you don’t need to use?

The Ermine  failed to understand why some of da yoof chooses to spaff £72 p.a. for a Hot Coral Monzo card. It’s not a one off. I sparked up You and Yours on the wireless1. The programme was mainly about Greta Thunberg, but there was a segment about money saving.

handsome Monzo CEO in front of the colour he’s managed to separate his customer from their hard-earned money for

Apparently as well as rushing some punters for a brightly coloured card, Monzo is ripping off their even vainer customers charging a premium for a Metal card, as are Revolut. I was tickled to hear Alexander, a fresh-faced and insecure twenty-something digital media wallah opine that a metal card is also more environmentally friendly, well, no use of plastic, innit? Dude, if you are in the presence of a fire, piss on the nearest bit first. That’s your food packaging and Amazon Prime packaging, not a 5×9cm piece of plastic you replace every three years… Continue reading “Monzo, metal cards and bullet journals”

97% off annuity rates – with Class 2 NI contributions

Annuities are dear, so if someone offers you 97% off, you run, not walk to take them up on it. If you are an early retiree, don’t leave State Pension on the table. You need to get enough NI to get a full SP before you reach SP age, though don’t be in too much of a hurry to pay extra years until you are in the endgame of working.

I’ve always wanted a good reason to pinch this pic from Monevator’s post that kicked me up the backside to get into the market in 2009, and now I have it

The Ermine declared himself done with work in 2012, and little has occurred in the intervening seven years to make me enamoured with the idea of working again. I’d reconsider if I were going to live forever, or perhaps even to 150+.  Despite Monevator’s exhortations to the educated erstwhile specialists among us to get their asses back into the workforce – on a post ironically titled Choose Time, I can’t be arsed, I’ll choose time, thanks. Continue reading “97% off annuity rates – with Class 2 NI contributions”

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. Continue reading “Odd Christmas sales and consumerism”

Anti-FIRE – the YOLO train-wreck edition

It’ll soon be the season of goodwill, which also seems to bring about exceptional financial muppetry for some reason. A few years ago it was Shona Sibary and her excessive brood that was financial folly du jour, along with TV producer Charlotte and a few also-rans. Along with running articles on how you can get to retire early, we’ve had a few on people who don’t seem to be planning on retiring ever.

I was tickled by this young 30-year old singleton living with her parents. Now I have some sympathy for her original plight of living in London on 40k a year. If you don’t want to share your living costs with other people, be they a partner or some sort of shared housing/flatshare arrangement, I can believe 40k isn’t enough to live in London. What’s a girl to do in such a quandary? Clearing off back home to live with Mum and Dad seems like an eminently sensible thing to do. Hats off to her for effective action in the face of adversity.

£40k p.a and living in her childhood bedroom, but still with a negative savings rate. WTAF?

I also have to admire that she doesn’t have a credit card because she’s too worried about ending up in debt. Wise move, that. But where I am totally nonplussed is that of her £2200 pcm take home,

By the time I’ve paid rent, done some food shopping (I want to pay my way as much as I can), settled my phone bill and insured, taxed and put petrol in my car, there’s not a great deal left.

I mean FFS? Let’s leave aside the breathless insouciance of not getting that: hitting Bank of M&D for a few hundred sods a month for foreseeable expenses like eating and car maintenance is not paying your own way by any of the usual definitions of the term.

An ermine spent some £400 on road tax and insurance and £1k on servicing and fuel last year. My phone bill is some £50 a month, so that’s about £2k p.a. Let’s say that’s £200 a month. Leaves our heroine with £2k a month. Say she spends £1000 a month on drinking with her workmates and clothes, and surely the reduced rent to Mum and Dad plus food can’t eat up the remaining £1k. I’d say our young lady has a serious drugs habit she’s not letting on about if it’s really true that none of the £2200 a month actually sticks to the sides. There’s precious little detail about what she actually does spend it on, this is Grazia, after all, which seems to have little detail about anything. It did, however, introduce me to the latest wheeze to part the financially naive from their hard-earned:

Klarna – a buy-now pay later app

As I was considering a corduroy pink boiler suit in the Topshop Black Friday pre-sales, under the Add to Basket button, a rectangular box winked at me: “Pretend it’s pay day! Pay ⅓ now and the rest later”. That’s Klarna.

I confess I’ve read the entire article, and looked at the Klarna website, and it looks like a credit account that’s restricted in stores you can use it to pay. It absolutely beats the hell out of me why on earth you would want to do that, but if a subset of Millennials really are so gormless that they find ease of use of payment so important to them that they will take these restrictions lying down, then they deserved everything that’s coming to them, quite frankly. A jolly good shafting, by the looks of it.

Financial Friction is your Friend

There’s a strong hint that Klarna’s bad for your wealth right in the rubric here

Klarna is the millennial store card, designed for a generation who want things as easily as possible, or in Klarna’s words “a frictionless buying experience”

You want friction in the buying experience. It throws sand in the wheels of your advertising-addled monkey-brain. One of the wins I had in racking back my spending was the simple addition of controlled friction. If it cost more that £100, I wrote it down on a piece of paper with a date. Allow a week to pass. If it still looks like a good idea a week later, go get it. It’s really quite amazing how many things don’t look like such a good idea a week later. Hours of your life died to earn that money. Honour the sacrifice by taking the time out to think. Obviously if it’s a piece of safety equipment or it’s going to save life right now then go right ahead, but most purchases really aren’t that urgent. A little bit of sand in the wheels of the Iwantitnow reflex doesn’t hurt. Nowadays I can get away with 24 hours, but the week cooling-off period is a good one to break the I-want-it-now habit at the start.

Klarna is good for them. It’s not good for you. Much of Grazie’s article is spent talking about how great it is to be able to ‘buy’ a gazillion sizes, try out the ones that fit and return the others, without having to front the money. In the old days you could do that in the store, it was called a changing room. But fair enough, I geddit, things change, Millennials live busy lives and don’t do face to face, life is lived best through the screen of a smartphone. What I can’t get is what does Klarna do here that my trusty credit card can’t.

If I buy five pairs of high heels just after I pay the card off, I get well over a month before I even need to think about paying back my flexible friend. That’s probably long enough to find out which four pairs will give me bunions and return the buggers for a refund 1

a hard credit search each time you want to slice it

But the worst thing about Klarna is that say I am Grazie’s Sian, and while Klarna lets me return 9 out of my 10 items without raising the capital up front, I still decide that I need to slice it because my 40k salary is insufficient to buy myself all the things and experiences I wish to have in my young life. Each and every time Sian hits the old ‘slice it’ button, that’s a new hard credit search. Since she’s in the habit of spending more than she earns, that’s a new hard credit search every month, if not every purchase.

In comparison, if a grizzled Ermine decides to slice it, that’s called ‘not paying off the credit card in full every month’. No new credit search, just business as usual. It’s a stupid way of living for all the usual reasons, but were I saving for my house deposit then when I get to ask for a mortgage the bank isn’t going to go ‘Holy cow, 12 hard credit searches in the last year, no way am I lending this punter a single lousy penny, never mind a couple hundred grand’.

Nobody will lend me any money, because I have virtually zero income. The last time a hard credit search for ‘would you lend this mustelid any money’ was run on me was when I took out my credit cards, which was when I was still employed – it’s getting on for over ten years now. I took a look for credit searches on me. They are all for insurance and ID qualification, plus one for Starling bank. Who then go on to lie about my balance, saying it’s £0. It’s £2500 FFS, because they pay me a gnat’s cock of interest on the current account as well as being the solution to not getting receipts for contactless payments. They also don’t charge me stupid amount for using the card abroad 2.

Over There and Overindebted

Everything’s bigger in the States – houses, hot dogs, cars, and debt. And Financial Folly in the pseudonymous Kate and Tom. The problem is simple. Too many snowflake kids, too many airs about the kids, too much house.

Our first house was perfectly fine, but I was pregnant with our third child, and we had three bedrooms in that house and wanted a fourth.

They could probably afford the kids – just save the $15k pa each that goes on private schooling and give it to them as a bounty on reaching 21. See Rule 5 later on

But we have a good deal — we’ll pay $15,000 for the three of them. But, of course, it’s all going back on credit. There’s a company that offers educational loans for private school.

I love the way he claims to be good for $90k a year, and get works as a bartender at night. I mean, how does that bartending job even get to shift the needle on the dial? Then there’s this sort of addled thinking:

Tom: To be fair, we do try to save money where we can. We had a lease on a minivan that was costing us $405 a month that we just downsized to a $208 car.
Kate: We always lease cars. Honestly, we can’t afford repairs. If our car broke down, we wouldn’t have the $3,000 to fix it. We need to have that high car payment because, frankly, we are not good enough with money to have savings.

Dudes, it’s simple. If you need to lease a car, you can’t afford to drive one. End of. Sure, if you could afford to buy one, but choose to lease, well, perhaps you get the new car smell more often. I pay too much for some things, because I can’t be arsed to squeeze the lemon on everything. I can afford to do that because I don’t borrow money for these things.

These guys aren’t stupid and they’re earning a decent screw. They’re playing a strong hand incredibly badly.

More and more I start to wonder if the road to financial success is far less about what you do do. It’s a tough one – in nearly all other endeavours you progress by getting better at what you do do. With money, an individual surrounded by clever people manipulating the atavistic monkey-brain with advertising, social media FOMO and people who want your money finds themselves in an unfair fight. It’s what you don’t do that matters:

Rule 1: Don’t spend more than you earn

Rule 2: if you really must break Rule 1, then not on wasting assets. Sadly wasting assets often includes education nowadays

Rule 3: Don’t lock in commitments you can’t afford

Rule 4: Never own anything that eats while you sleep

Rule 5: invest in your children. Teach them the skills to be self-sufficient adults

The writers of The Millionaire Next Door bring out rule 5 of unassuming millionaires: Their adult children are economically self-sufficient.

None of that is about investing. You gotta plug enough of the holes in the bucket to stop running out of month before you run out of money.

  1. I guess as a quadruped an ermine will need two pairs of heels to strut its stuff, but Visa and Mastercard can handle that 
  2. Not that that’s going to be a thing until we find out which way is up with all the Brexit bollocks coming along. 

FIRE in the news, liar, liar, pants on FIRE

Escapism seems to be the norm, people have got back from their hols and the rude awakening of life back at the office makes for good newspaper copy. It seems the Torygraph is working on this sort of thing, and let’s hear it from the Grauniad –

…the secret to never having to work again – but does it work for everyone?

Ah bless ’em. There are people who get to live in London and retire early. They aren’t the Guardian media types, though, who asked themselves this question and failed to detect yes in the echo from the walls of the city skyscraper canyons.

The ermine already established part of the dirty little secret to retiring early. You need to earn more than average for a decent amount of time, or massively more than average for a shorter time. The Times qualifies that as having £600k in the bank and a fully owned house, H/T Monevator for breaking down the paywall.They also say that Barney from Surrey managed this as a modestly paid accountant after 20 years. WTAF, guys, compound interest is irrelevant over a period of 20 years so there’s an implication this modestly paid accountant was on a screw of ~£800k * 2 / 20, assuming he had a savings rate averaging 50% and his Surrey place cost him about £200k1. That’s about £80k net pa, which is way over the average UK income. Now it’s possible he got lucky on the stock market, let’s face it the stock market probably worked the equivalent of three years of an ermine at the office, but there’s another little dark truth here. We are several years in to a bull run that is long in the tooth by historical standards.

Oh yes, and half our blessed fellow countrymen decided to devalue the pound in a rush of blood to the head a couple of years ago, which made the numbers bigger by roughly the same as the loss in currency value. It ain’t real guys, the tide’s gonna run out at some time, and much shorter than the 40+ years a fellow retiring in his forties and drawing down needs it to last… Let’s hope Barney has some other plans, eh?

I only earned a bit more than the British average wage compared to many others in the PF scene, but I did it for thirty years. Let’s get that into perspective, however, I earned getting on for twice the average national income for more than half my working life. Many PF writers earn a lot more than I did, but they are in industries where burnout is rife. So it’s pretty darned obvious  that it’s not going to work for everyone, d’oh. And we really shouldn’t be bullshitting people, if you are earning the average wage, and get up to the average level of spendyness and the average number of kids, there’s not a snowball’s chance in hell you are going to retire early. End of. Sorry about that. You might get it so you don’t have to wait to 67, but 40? Fuhgeddaboudit.

Let’s look at a poster child  – MMM. That was deconstructed by Flannel Guy a while back. It’s still an impressive achievement – most people who have a household income of $100,000 for ten years don’t end up retiring early, they rack their lifestyle up to spend that and then gaze longingly at the people earning $500,000 and wishing they were them. Yacht envy is a thing2, y’know.

So you gotta earn more, but that’s not enough. Not only do you have to do an MMM and know when to stop, you need to have a stroke of luck, or at least avoid some types of bad luck. The prime example is for God’s sake don’t have kids and get divorced before they all come of age. So the answer to the rhetorical question

but does it work for everyone?

Is even more a great big fat no. Not a prayer, Guardianistas. If you want to live an average life, do the things everyone else does, well, you ain’t gonna retire early, because that’s not an average thing to do.

There probably aren’t that many people who live in London and get to retire early in London. For two reasons. Just about everything about London, with the exception of transport and art galleries/museums, is dearer than pretty much everywhere else. So you need more to retire there, unless you bought your house 40 years ago on a teacher’s salary. Plus you’ll have more going out the kitty day-to-day, though perhaps that is compensated by the fact you can earn more in London. The operative word there is earn, which implies w-o-r-k.

The other reason is that of sample bias – if you are the sort that flourishes in London and earns shitloads of money you are probably driven, and would find doing without the finer things in life a massive privation and you’d feel out of kilter with your peer group. You’re more Wolf of Wall Street than the Good Life. Jeroboams of champers and fine dining don’t grow on trees. If you want to stop working and enjoy that, then you either need to have earned stratospheric amounts of money, in which case hitting the off switch early may be tough though necessary, or you need inherited money. Take Petra Ecclestone, for instance. A great way to retire early is to get Daddykins to earn the money 😉

Petra Ecclestone – one way to FIRE. They still can’t mend the holes in their clothers, or in her case get shoes that fit [irony off]. It’s a tough life at the top, eh?
Wikipedia says about herPetra Ecclestone (born 19 December 1988) is a British-born heiress, model, fashion designer and socialite.” I’m guessing here, but probably the modelling and fashion designer income wasn’t quite enough for a 29-year old to buy the $90M Chelsea place and the 57,000 sq ft LA place. Thanks, Dad, is probably the order of the day, here…

The Times did a feature on FIRE where apparently 900 good people from London piled into a pub to hear about how they could retire early. Several things vaguely disturb me about this –

  1. London
  2. In a pub – you’ll find it easier to be an introvert if you want to retire early, because to be different you have to do different 😉
  3. but the #1 thing that worried me was if they were paying to hear how to retire early, because they’ve started off on the wrong track. Retiring early is usually about spending less, and spending to find out how to spend less has a delicious irony of its own. If it was a general shindig to chinwag and you got to cover room hire, fair enough, but if it’s like one of those make-money-fast trading seminars then it’s wrong foot forward, people.

Update 30/9/2018 – it was a Facebook meetup and the only cost was the price of your beer, see Luke’s comment below. I am getting too much of a cynical S.O.B. I’ve been punted too many payable London events but I should roll back my guns in this case. There’s everything good about the extrovert wing of the FIRE clan getting together and drinking beer. I’m all for it. Mea culpa

The Times headline is modest earners find formula to retire in their 40s, which should be banned under advertising standards regulations. If these are modest earners in London they are stuffed. Has anybody told these poor saps that we are ten years into a massive bull run fluffed up by funny money? You don’t have to be clever to have made money on the stock market in the last 10 years. Weegee’s quip on how to get a great picture applies – f/8 and be there. The f/8’s irrelevant, it’s the be there. Where you gotta be clever is holding on to that wedge over the next 10 years – and if you’re retiring at 40 then you need to accumulate and hold on to that for the next 40 years.

How do you make a small fortune on the stock market? Start with a big one, or start when it looks like it’s going to hell in a handcart. That time is not now, dear modest earning office workers, so if you want to start your FIRE journey on your modest earnings, then don’t start with the stock market, start with racking back your spendy ways. Some of your spendy life choices have probably already been made, but don’t add to ’em.

So no, the ermine is not going to add to this pipe-dream. If you’re on a modest income in London looking at a bull run that’s one of the longest in recorded history and you are looking back at what would have happened if you had invested along with Monevator in March 2009 then stop right there, breathe in deeply and remind yourself that it was all a dream.

I’m not saying you can’t retire a little bit earlier than normal, if you invest sensibly and consistently, and control your spending, and you have reasonable luck. But look at the sort of privations RIT had to put up with to retire in his 40s – and he was an above average earner, again. But if you are looking at the stock market to do the heavy lifting, then forget it. If you are beginning to aim at retire in your forties, assuming you have started work, you are between 20 and 30. You can’t retire on a modest salary from a standing start in 10 years without having given it any thought beforehand. Really you can’t.

Take it from me – at 49 I wanted to retire early, from a standing start. By then I owned my own house almost (bar £1000) mortgage free, had a decent built up pension and I was earning a decent salary. Plus I was starting in a stock market swoon otherwise known as the global financial crash. Try as I might to munge the figures to give me a shorter timescale, I had to work another three years saving as much as I possibly could, living on less than the national minimum wage after all the saving. That really wasn’t any fun at all. 3

30 year-olds on a modest salary in London probably haven’t paid off their mortgages and you’ll have 20 years less pension savings than I had. You’re unlikely to cross the finish line in 10 years, and you have to stretch it for 15 years longer. And whatever you read about the magic of compound interest, forget it. Over a 30 or 40 year working life, compound interest sort of doubles the real value of your pension savings, as long as you leave them  alone to grow. Over 10 years, not so much. If you don’t believe me, listen to RIT. There is no snowball in FIRE.

There’s a general rule about investment. By the time you read it in the papers, it’s too late. Beware Greeks bearing gifts. It’s going to be a tough ask for somebody starting now to replicate RIT’s work of retiring by 40. Oddly enough your greatest hope of doing that is for the greatest humdinger of a stock market crash to occur ASAP, provided you get to hold your job. But remember Weegee. You gotta get in there and stay there, and stay the course.

Passive investing aficionados will no doubt tell me that’s market timing, to which I would say yep. You want to retire in only 10 years, you need a bit of market timing on your side to get yourself a place most have to work for more than 30 years to get to. RIT reached the finish line using passive investing. But he sure started at a reasonably good time, too, like me. Methinks he earned more than that average British wage for much of that time, too. RIT also highlights some very serious social costs that will be more of a load on younger people – to wit:

The vast majority of my friends and certainly my indirect family are still from my pre-2007 days.  This means that over time a big shift between our once reasonably common values and beliefs has occurred.  […]

At the same time I have found it very difficult to find “new” friends with common interests to my new self (it really is amazing once you have shunned consumerism to see how much it dominates people’s lives).  They really do seem to be few and far between.[…]

my day to day contacts and colleagues have changed and because their standard of living matches the salary they receive today I am now starting (if I’m not there already) to be seen as very obviously different.

The social contact is more important when you are younger. I didn’t experience these issues because I didn’t really rise through the ranks as I was saving to escape, I did that from the high-water-mark of my career. So while I experienced a much more dramatic adverse change to my lifestyle than RIT, I didn’t have so much of a drift away of common interests.

Beware newspapers bringing you promises of freedom from The Man through the stock market. It’s doable, but as a marathon if you start now. The starting pistol for the sprint probably fired over five years ago.

The stock market gets all the attention because of the promise of free money if it goes right. The other things – getting out of debt and reducing your spendyness are the Mr Boring of the FIRE world but they are reliable. They will deliver dividends just as they always did. FIRE wannabees should start with those first – get out of debt and spend less.

Don’t believe all you read in the papers…

  1. I know, you don’t get to buy a garage in Surrey for £200k. Let’s assume Barney got lucky at some stage in the housing market. It’s what the asset cost Barney when he bought it that matters, not what it is worth now. 
  2. I wrote that before googling the supporting reference because a lifetime of studying the human condition taught me yacht envy would be a thing ;) 
  3. The fellow who introduced me to using pension contributions to save the loading of 40% tax, who opined that you have to be mad to be working here after 50? He’s still working there as far as I know. Absolutely nothing wrong with his theory. It was selling the lifestyle to his wife and kids that was too hard. Let’s face it, there’s nothing in it for his kids but privation, they don’t have to earn the money for their nice middle class lifestyle. I can see their point ;) 

Trending now – automate your spending with subscription shopping

A few years ago1, a young-adult daughter of some friends posted on Facebook about one of the delights of her office routine that made the experience of work bearable – “Look at all these yummy treats in my Grazebox, oh my,” with obligatory pic of the contents. I remember thinking at the time that this was wrong on so many levels, starting with the fact that sedentary office workers don’t really need to ‘reimagine snacking’.

“Imagine having taste experts on hand to select snacks for you! With a graze subscription you’ll do exactly that, all you had to do is tell us what you like and we’ll tailor the flavours of each box to suit you.” It’s a packed lunch, FFS. Just say no to mindless shopping and consumption. If you want office snacks, go get em, but make the effort

You sign up with Graze, they mail you snack-sized boxes weekly at £4 a box, so you are paying £20 a week for your packs of mixed nuts. Tesco will sell you a 250g bag of mixed nuts for £1.50. Estimating your graze box is about 100g, you’re paying £17 a week for the privilege of not having to think about the office snacks aspects of your shopping 😉 That’s about £900 a year, a sizable chunk of a typical starter wage.

The Grauniad tells me that this is a special case of subscription shopping – a new up-and-coming trend

Welcome to the shopless shop, where customers pay for decisions to be taken out of their hands. Since 2014 the number of visitors to subscription shopping websites has grown by 800%. Customers receive a “curated box” of items of beauty products, clothes for work, even toys for their pets.

This sort of thing should really come with a whacking great link to MSE’s Demotivator tool, to help you compute just how many extra hours you are working to save yourself the effort of thinking about what you’re about to shovel into your piehole on a workday. It’s getting on for 4% of your take-home pay if you are on the average UK full-time wage of ~£27k. Let’s hear it from the Demotivator2

At least with the latte factor 3652days took us to task for being miserable gits you can’t forget it at home, with the graze box you still get to brown-bag your lunch.

We do not need more mindless consumption

I did my fair share of mindless consumption, the purchase of this that and the other that would make me better at something.

Continue reading “Trending now – automate your spending with subscription shopping”

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…