Festival of Brexit – less dismal than expected

The Ermine household ventured to Weston-Super-Mare, where the Mendip Hills surrender to the sea in the Bristol Channel. There was a free public spectacle, part of the Festival UK scratch that, Festival of Brexit no, it’s definitely not called that, Unboxed 2022. Sounds like the sort of thing that people do on YouTube when they get a new gadget, but it’s all about mind-blowing creativity happening now across the UK

Ceci n’est pas une pipe. This is not a Festival of Brexit

Round these parts the mind-blowing creativity is  a whacking great big oil rig on the beach. It’s one of the more accessible of the exhibits. The Ermine is on the philistine end of the spectrum when it comes to the arts. Not as far as reaching for a Browning when I hear culture, but not a luvvie. I was middle-aged before Mrs Ermine educated me that you don’t qualify art by whether you like it but whether it makes you see the world in a different way. It’s always easy to carp on arts funding, but I will leave that to others

I’m not sure that it made me see the world in a different arty way, but I certainly saw WSM in a different way physically – some of the faded grandeur of the beachfront hotels from a height.

Weston-Super-Mare faded Victorian grandeur from 30m. Unboxed saved me the price of a camera drone

I’ve never had the opportunity to be on an oil rig before – it was surprisingly small. They didn’t have the workers’ accommodation or much of the functional plant. I was trying to place the guys from Tabitha Lasley’s book Sea State on it. Even getting a helicopter onto the helipad must be a serious challenge in high winds. I got a useful amount of exercise climbing 30m of steps, but I missed the entire renewables theme, I had to look at Wikipedia to get that. Even the seemonster website left me confuzzled.

the garden. You will be pleasantly surprised that the plants will be moved to community projects ratherthan binned. I thought they could use some water

Weston-Super-Mare has seen better days, like so many British seaside town. If you are in the area, go north to Clevedon for a classier experience, or south to Burnham-on-Sea for a less tacky experience on a smaller scale. WSM hosted Banksy’s Dismaland in 2015, so it has form on public arts projects. As far as bringing money into the town, that’s a maybe. It certainly gives employment – they have people everywhere on all levels because I would imagine the temptation for kids to climb over the guards rails could be a bit much, the water this thing stands in is only three feet deep, not enough to break a fall from 30m. And we did have a full English of industrial sausages, white fried bread and instant coffee at a local caff, because sometimes you have to rough it. You can get a better breakfast in Clevedon and Burnham-on-sea, though whatever you do don’t carry on to Bridgwater, because the guys building Hinkley Point power station need good honest grub at low prices, rather than poncey ‘elf food and the town is set up for that.

An echo out of time, before Covid and the Brexit dividend showed its face

Once upon a time, four years and three prime ministers ago, a Remainer who didn’t really believe in Brexit proposed an arty celebration of all things British, to be funded with the lolly on the side of the bus we were going to save leaving the EU. There was going to be so much the NHS wouldn’t need it all.

conceived once upon a time, before the cake was a lie

To be fair, that was Theresa May in Oct 2018 so nobody had heard of Covid-19 She called it Festival UK, but the temptation was always there to rename it as a Festival of Brexit, and Jakey boy took the opportunity to change the label, despite asserting we have to wait half a century to see the economic benefits. Put the champers and the festival on the National Debt, then, JR-M, or on the tax rises? The varmint is from Somerset though thankfully not my local MP.

See Monster from the beach

There was something dismal about a Remainer trying to implement Brexit, in the end if you are going to implement a car crash you really need someone who is going to put the pedal to the metal and go out with a bang rather than try to survive the experience. Think Vanishing Point rather than The Italian Job, so well done Bozza for Getting Brexit Done. Covid gave you enough time to pretend the fail wasn’t too much Brexit but that’s starting to wear a little bit thin now. Well done you on making it not your problem now, mate.

Brexit seems to have a voracious appetite for Tory PMs, chowing down four and countin’. Couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of people. You can get Brexit Done but you’ll never make Brexit Work Well until you learn to talk civilly with our nearest neighbours, even if you don’t want to be in their club, I curse you and the horse you rode in on always offends.

As for our talents at striking dynamic alternative trade deals, there seems a lack of bovine reciprocity in the Aussie-UK trade deal brokers by Liz Truss – as in importing Aussie beef is dandy but importing British beef is still verboten Down Under. They must’ve cracked a few tinnies on getting that past La Truss. The Aussies keep the Ashes then, and it’s about time Britain learned that negotiating against self-inflicted deadlines gives the other side the upper hand. Them 2 Us Nil if you add in the Article 50 fracas. There’s a whole field of Game Theory, and even Harvard geeks yattering on about BATNA but, well, experts, schmexperts, we don’t need no steeking expertise round here, eh, Mikey? Cynics might say it shows, Gove my boy, sure shows…

Curious how selecting True Believers seems to have selected against Basic Competence. Still, we have a couple of years of tax rises and spending cuts to look forward to as a lovely Brexit dividend. Paris is now the largest European stock market by capitalisation as London fades. Just as well that the major age group that voted for it don’t need to earn a living any more, eh? Curious how Truss and Crazy Kwazy missed the most obvious way to get a bit more growth, selling more shit to rich neighbours. Even the rabidly Brexity Daily Express is flying a kite for better dialogue under the guise of monstering Nicola Sturgeon

Instead of Boris Johnson’s “oven-ready deal”,  Rishi Sunak’s Government could “consider a much more softer version of Brexit – for example joining the Single Market.

“If they did that, a lot of the powerful messages for an independence referendum would go out of the way, or would be reduced.”

I do wonder if the subeditor who allowed this heresy through has actually thought what that implies for the desires of their more rabidly xenophobic readership cohort. They could do well to remind themselves of what the single market is. Maybe they feel more strongly about the Union than not hearing Polish spoken on the High Street? The power of analytical thought is not strong in Brexity cakeists.

the cake is a lie

Still, we did our bit for this echo from a distant world, before the uneaten cake/eaten cake wavefunction had collapsed into the cake is a lie, and the  Festival of Brexit the Great Unboxing was celebrating the success of the idea of the cake still existing after it had been eaten. Original attendance numbers for the whole shebang were projected at 66 million. The outcome is somewhat lower at about a quarter mill. Some bugger’s quaffing all the champagne as per  Jake R-M’s edict, but it wasn’t us, guv.

Googly eyes. Mebbe See Monster’s quaffed all the champers. Let’s hope the guerilla sand artists didn’t drive there and heat their homes with wood rather than nasty fossil fuels, eh?

See Monster is only open for five more days until the 20 November 2022, but you can see a VR tour on the website. FWIW I did appreciate not being charged, and even the bogs were free.

One thing you must not do, BTW, is swim in the sea in Weston. I don’t indulge, personally, but Mrs Ermine did on a previous occasion. And got to wonder why there was a smell of shit after getting out. Well, before Liz Truss ruined the UK economy even more by starving it of money, she ruined the Environment Agency by starving it of money. Fortunately everyone was OK apart from having to run boil wash afterwards. But the shit in the sea can apparently get up your arse and put you in hospital. You wouldn’t want to do that, because a different part of the Tory party has been starving the NHS of money in the hope of selling bits off.

Shit in the water seems to be a widespread problem. I tried paddleboarding in the summer, in the Avon. I am a weak swimmer, but drowning wasn’t the problem. It had been raining a couple of days before, which apparently is when the shit gets into the river when the rainwater overtops the capacity of the sewers. I fell in, as you do as a tyro. After a couple of days I felt sick, achey and weak to the exent of only being able to crawl to the head. After about three days of that it went away, so I got off a lot more lightly than the 22 year old swimmer. But I am going to avoid open water in the UK in future, because I didn’t realize that sort of thing could put you in hospital, I thought it would just give you bellyache and the shits if you were unlucky. I never liked swimming that much anyway…

The limits to growth and declining living standards

For some light relief as to the recent theatrics, let’s take stock. There seem to be several things not going entirely as expected or planned, and they are a little bit more than down to the antics of one man. Even if his name is Vladimir Putin…

I was listening to a couple of punters bemoaning the energy crisis and saying that the Government really should do something about this, to which the obvious question is, how do they go about doing that?

Energy is pretty much about oil and gas at this stage. You may not like that very much, but let’s start with where we are. If you look at a list of oil producers in the world, the top five in 2021 are the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq, in that order. The first three are the big hitters, responsible for about 30 billion barrels a day, and Russia and the US are about neck and neck at ~10bbl/day. Slightly ominously, they say of the top three “since 2014 all three have been producing near their peak rates of 9 to 11 million barrels per day” and Russia and Saudi are the top exporters. We have decided to stand with Ukraine, so that’s the second largest exporter we have declared persona non grata.

What do we use for energy? Fossil fuels, bar the shouting…

the UK energy mix. Don’t be fooled – despite the whacking great three pin pug symbol, I read this as total energy usage, not that used to generate electricity, of which more later

If you look at the UK’s energy mix, it is three-quarters oil and natural gas combined, in about equal portions. So even if we did have a disciplined functioning government that hadn’t had enough of experts, there’s a serious limit to what can be done. I’m not taking an opinion here about the virtue of standing with Ukraine – history does show that it is sometimes necessary to tolerate privation in the interests of a wider goal, but if you want to know why energy costs are rising, well removing a large source of supply for what is basically an imported product will tend to push the price up.

Vlad the bad has played a good hand

I’m not a Putinversteher, IMO he’s is a psychopathic nutcase who is mad a box of frogs, just not randomly mad. He’s sitting on a massive resource that people want – gas and oil, and our Vlad has spent most of his life understanding power. If you are going to have enemies, it pays not to underestimate them. Sure, Putin and/or his military ballsed up some of the initial parts of their invasion, but they seem to be learning from their mistakes. I am not saying this is a good thing in the round, but it is good for Putin and his aims. Putin is right in one respect, in that the much vaunted Western sanctions are a weapon that fires on both ends. In raising the price of energy by restricting sources of supply, Putin doesn’t have to sell as much to raise the same revenue. Well done us. Perhaps there was no other way, but strangulating his cash base only works if the West was like it was before the Millennium, a much larger part of the world economy. The world is multipolar now. Sanctions may have other effects in the longer run, but it’s not a quick win, and energy prices will be higher for a fair while as a direct result. It is interesting that 50 years ago this was predicted. Not in the Nostradamus sense of

Two great men yet brothers not make the north united stand
Its power be seen to grow, and fear possess the eastern lands

which is just as well, because the West is  short of great men, we seem to be scraping the barrel of late. More in the sense of Asimov’s Foundation, with the role of the Second Foundation played by the 50 year old Club of Rome Limits to Growth crew. A couple of recent updates comparing the track we are on shows the future not being terribly rosy even with everybody’s high-tech dreams coming good.

LtG World3 model, with lots of technology (left) and business as usual (right). From Graham Turner on the Cusp of Global Collapse

on the left is the high-tech dreams of Wired magazine – even with that industrial output doesn’t continue rising on the trend of up to now. If we look at extracted resources specifically

LtG World3 model, comparing actual results with model results with lots of technology (CT) (top) and business as usual (bottom). There’s some support in the observed model for the comprehensive tech track relative to BAU, so that’s collapse averted, eh, but growth still ain’t going to carry on as before.

there is some evidence we are more high-tech than BAU. So that’s all right then? Well, Gaya Herrington tells us a little bit about the world your children will be growing up in

CT represents the technologist’s belief in humanity’s ability to innovate out of environmental constraints. It assumes unprecedented technological innovation in a world that otherwise does not change its priorities much. The new technologies do in fact help avoid an outright collapse. However, CT still depicts some declines (Figure 3) because the technology costs become so high that not enough resources are left for agricultural production and health and education services.

There was a nice little radio play about the preparation of the original model, still on BBC sounds

Back to our dictator, who is perhaps a symptom how the LtG model is playing out. Like Asimov’s psychohistory, they did not claim to foresee the individual track the future plays out, just the broad sweep of history rattling in the channel of the available resources. The resource curse means that petro-states tend to be unsavoury, and in the past perhaps we could afford to be precious about our values. These days there is more realism, yes Saudi Arabia did most likely top that Khashoggi bloke but we want their oil so perhaps we need to STFU about that sort of thing.

Putin has willing customers for his oil, which is more transportable than gas due to its value by volume. India seems to taking up a fair amount of Russian oil and China will take some of the gas off Putin’s hands. The leverage of gas is very high because of the same thing – it’s hard to reroute supply for producer and consumer alike. Germany has made itself exceptionally exposed to Russian supplies through Ostpolitik, combined with a historical anti-nuclear stance.

Atomkraft Nein Danke – that’ll cost ya

There’s a cost to Atomkraft, Nein Danke, and the bill has just landed on the doormat with a Cyrillic stamp that says hefty fee to pay, our product our rules. It’s understandable for the country that anticipated invasion through the Fulda Gap for years to try and play nice with the big bad bear, but there’s a cost to singing Kumbaya like that, in the end you get to rely on Russian gas. As the old saying goes “When you have them by the balls, hearts and minds will follow”. It could be a long winter, and Germany is already rationing gas.

Before we think stupid Germans, I suspect we will see energy rationing this winter. Germany has relatively deep pockets and will drive up the price of gas from other sources. You just can’t knock out a leading supplier of energy and carry on as normal. Italy seems quite exposed too, so perhaps we will see another Euro crisis. I don’t know how Greece will fare…

The Ermine as a nipper can remember Britain before central heating became widespread in the 1970s. Insulate Britain is wrong – British houses in the 1960s were far less insulated than now, they were draughty and often heated with coal fires, which needed a decent airflow from outside to get enough draw. People generally heated only one room – the one with the fire in it. If you wanted to heat another room you got to do that with open bar electric fires, or the sort you wouldn’t be allowed to even think of now. A mustelid kit learned something interesting about the power of electricity with a screwdriver and one of those.

People got cold. Ice would appear on the inside of the single glazed window panes. People survived. They used coats, jumpers, blankets, tea and hot water bottles. That is how we will deal with less energy. We aren’t going to ponce about insulating the bejesus out of homes that serviceably sheltered earlier, hardier generations and were never designed for insulation. They worked OK then. They will serve people again.

Continue reading “The limits to growth and declining living standards”

Ten years of leisure wrested from The Man

I stopped working for The Man ten years ago, at the end of June. I spent my last working day in the Athlete’s Village in the 2012 Olympics. It was a little bit odd to end my career working off-site, but I had a little bit of annual leave to use up. I did return the The Firm at lunchtime at the end of June for a valedictory round of drinks at a local pub and a send-off, and that was it, three decades of working life came to an end. It was a good way to finish off, on a high as the last manager said. I look at the pictures and they are good, though I see the signs of three years of the stress and the effects of drinking too much to dull the pain.

Not many FI/RE people are still writing after a decade, so here are a few takeaways from the ride. It has been against the background of a long bull run that is only just fading, as the firehose of central bank interventions begins to surrender to the irresistible force of the accumulated pathologies stoked with it.

I did not get bored

Honestly, I still can’t understand why bright young fellows like Monevator still link to cruft like this. Seriously, if work is the best thing you can think of to do with your limited time on Earth, then you need to get out more and get some hinterland in your life. Preferably half a lifetime ago, but now is better than never. I am sure that for 1 or 2% of people their profession is their one true passion. They tend to be outliers, often psychopaths like Elon Musk, or Mark Zuckerberg, and that passion tends to be unbalanced. That leaves over 90% of us who can probably do more congenial things with our time than working, if only we could solve the conundrum of dreadful things happening in our lives if the flow of income from our jobs were to stop. You know, like losing your home or your kids starving, that’s the sort of thing that keeps most of us working past the point that the Do What You Love, Love What You do meme has transmogrified into Suck it Up, Our Way or the Highway. Solving that is what financial independence is about, but too many people end up with Stockholm syndrome with work. The Escape Artist summed up the problem. Don’t just load the gun. Pull the trigger.

The world is plenty interesting enough to reward an inquiring mind and an inquisitive snout. Learning new stuff has never been cheaper or easier, though it pays to remain critical as there is also much more misinformation about. In many areas of factual learning, favour books over online, and I personally almost always favour the written word over video1.

I got less hard-line about working than my younger self, who was running away from a crap situation. But the key takeaway is still the same. Don’t rely on income from work after you have become FI. Save it, spend it on champagne and caviar, but never, ever, set up your life so you depend upon it again. Otherwise you are no longer financially independent. This severely limits what the financially independent can safely do with the proceeds of work.

Spending FI/RE earnings on  lobster is OK. You can live well without lobster, but perhaps better with.

Breaking that rule is fair enough if you opted for thin-FI/RE and came to the conclusion you don’t want to live that way – financial independence is not worth more than anything else, and if you want to live high on the hog, or live in London, or send your kids to private school, then you are probably not going to be financially independent as early as someone who can eschew some of that and drink prosecco rather than Dom Perignon.

Continue reading “Ten years of leisure wrested from The Man”

A trip to the Great Wen in the Ides of March

The Ermine made a rare visit to London recently, to see the World of Stonehenge exhibition at the British Museum. The exhibition is striking enough – not so much about the specifics of Stonehenge but about the development of the Neolithic world-view in North-western Europe, insofar as we can determine.

Part of the trouble with Stonehenge is that it is very clearly there, after forty-five centuries, but there is no story associated. That is the enigmatic appeal of prehistory. "Every age gets the Stonehenge it deserves — or desires"1 This exhibition tries to fill in some of the blanks, with analogy, with a general timeline meandering through the exhibition sequence.

The ticketing roster packs ’em in, and while it’s not explicitly prohibited to go back, it’s hard and discouraged. So if you want to admire Seahenge, the wooden circle with upturned tree trunk in the centre, do it as you pass the first time,

Seahenge exhibit, normally at Flag Fen

Because else you will be going against the tide of visitors for a long time. There’s a certain prelapsarian hint to the narrative, peaceful cooperation in the the early days, and remarkable evidence of quite long-distance communication and exchange of ideas as styles. Technology remains simple, there is a certain beauty in the collections of stone axe-heads.

Stone axes
a polissoir - how you sharpen your stone axes
a polissoir – how you sharpen your stone axes
Evidence of remarkable craft skill in gold

Until the advent of iron in metal working, and then this happens

Overall good stuff and worth the £20 a head cost of admission, if a teeny bit rushed 😉

Continue reading “A trip to the Great Wen in the Ides of March”

Dolmens and doldrums

Strange and fractious times on the markets. Not enough of a hammering to be a crash, but perhaps some of the froth is coming off the top. As it happens I have a significant amount of capital I want to invest. Looking at the sturm und drang on UK share forums, looks like there were many folk balls-deep in Tech, but out in the real world it seems a bit of a meh so far. Of which more later.

What’s a fellow to do, eh? Time to take advantage of a bright winter day to look at some ancient stones near Avebury. As soon as we came past the main stone circle we saw that World + Dog was out. It probably wasn’t the wisest thing to go on a Sunday, after all part of the point of being a retiree is that you avoid the times when others are using the great outdoors. You need other people to make a music concert work, or presumably a football match, and arguably being in a restaurant on your own is a little bit lonesome, but the outdoors is generally best enjoyed with you and yours. The Ermine household switched to the wider landscape and visited Devil’s Den, a dolmen I haven’t seen up to now. We had it largely to ourselves, and very fine it was, too.

We parked at Gravel Hill car park and walked down to it. It was a bright day, and you could see the dolmen from above, there is a permissive footpath to the site. You are aware of old money and the Norman pattern of land ownership in the UK as you pass the horseyculture gallops, but looking at the map the National Trust is making inroads into the estate 😉 In theory National cycle path 403 and 45 would take me from Marlborough where there is a campsite to Avebury, but I only have a road bike, and it’s not clear to me whether the NCN cycle tracks need something more hardy.

Continue reading “Dolmens and doldrums”

Coiled spring and missing Claw

Andy Haldane, Bank of England chief economist at the time, said that the economy was like a coiled spring, ready to leap into action after the Covid crisis. He’s now off to head up the RSA after 32 years.

An Ermine is left scratching his head and wondering what the backstory is here. Did Haldane always have a hankering for the arts, and his mastery of the metaphor made him wonder if the grey garb of the professional economist was beginning to chafe? Did he pitch for a promotion and get blanked? There’s also the admiration for a fellow up to working for more than three decades, clearly the FI/RE mantra speaks less to him that say one of the mustelid species, or Monevator’s TA.

Coiled Spring

When they reopen, pubs and restaurants could see a boom because of the Joni Mitchell effect: you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

Investor’s Chronicle

Fish and chips

It’s a fair cop, guv. Kicked off early last week with a full English Breakfast at one place which was mighty fine, and we repeated the exercise today, apparently they are overbooked for Sunday lunch so we needed to clear off by 11:20, which was fine, it doesn’t take an hour to eat breakfast! They’ve had to ring round to drum up staff, with the added incentive of free drinks at the end of the shift. However, it helps that the weather is reminiscent of that in lockdown 1 last year, a light breeze and sunshine. Their problem is that it’s all up to the vagaries of the weather – people aren’t going to want to sit outside in the rain, more typical of April weather in the UK.

Missing Claw

A couple of days after the first breakfast we sought out lobster on the beach, now that it’s open season on them.

We were out of luck, perhaps the cafe doesn’t want to carry the capital risk to having too much of a wasting asset. I can see their point, so we slummed it with fish and chips instead.

Fish and chips

However, we did see evidence of lobster being eaten by one of the other patrons. After such hedonism a wander up to the top of the hill and look out over the surprisingly blue sea. It is still a surprise to me. I am used to the coastline of East Anglia bordering on the North Sea, where the sea is shallow and easily churned up so it always looks like dirty dishwater.

Dorset coast

In some parts of the Dorset coast it’s clear enough you can see your feet in the water, though I leave that sort of thing to Mrs Ermine. I’d always thought blue seas are a Mediterranean sort of thing.

Eating out is a slightly odd experience. Many people find it difficult being around others now, I am not sure I noticed a change. Perhaps I never melded with the mosh-pit in the first place. However, here’s a sound I haven’t heard for an awful long time, humanity in its garrulous exuberance.

As I was waiting for the bill I was trying to work out exactly what it was that disturbed me about the King Charles spaniel at another table. Obviously that a dog was in an eatery, but after a while I sussed it. This craven mutt had no lower canines. Not a gap where the original ones had been, just no pointy eyeteeth in the lower jaw, all incisors. No damn self-respect.

The markets are not the economy

Despite the Joni Mitchell effect, the coiled spring may not have much substance behind it in the medium term. Unless you’re in your twenties you shouldn’t really eat something and chips more than once a week, so you’re not going to eat a year’s worth of missed meals out in three months. As that Investor’s Chronicle article observed, much is in suspended animation at the moment, and jobs will be lost as the rubble hits the ground.  On the flipside, capitalism turned out a lot more resilient in the face of the challenge than we expected this time last year. As evidenced in the markets. After settling down the frenzy of the first part of last year, I’ve been buying FTSE250 since mid last year, because sometimes you have to stake a claim on what you don’t believe in.

That has done well, but I suspect that some of the hurt is being felt more in the unlisted small firms, the tiddlers. Oddly enough I was looking out for this on the drive down to the south coast, and I didn’t really see much that was shuttered, more was shouting that it was open than usual1. Most of the pubs looked okay, it’s not like the drive through Dorset was like driving through the Welsh valleys, where the mark of Thatcher still blights the land three generations on. The worst part was coming back through Yeovil, but that’s a town that always looks like hope came to die. Enough boarded up shops, but I couldn’t remember if these were places that had been boarded up two years ago. Yeovil is that sort of place…

It’s hard to see where the markets are now. However, after the last post where the sentiment seemed to be that I am not representing the bond value of my DB pension adequately using the HMRC scale factor of ~20, perhaps I am overly defensive at the mo. It did lead me to ask the question of whether I really should hold getting on for twice my erstwhile salary as cash. I am not at the widows and orphans end of the risk profile scale. This mustelid fears inflation. It doesn’t have to be in equities, but it shouldn’t be so much in cash…

Hard to know what to use this year’s ISA allowance for, though. Perhaps a little more gold, and then there’s the Lars doctrine, nobody ever got fired for buying VWRL. Indeed, Lars’ latest has an indirect bollocking for those in cash because they fear the stock markets

If you feel the minimal-risk asset’s interest rate does not give you enough return in your simple two-product portfolio – and you’re willing to take more risk – I’d say maybe take that risk in the equity markets. At least that keeps things simple.

The non-equity part of the portfolio is bonds, which in my case is the DB pension. If I am undervaluing the bond component by using the HMRC multiplier of 20, then perhaps I can shift some into equities. Shame they are up in the sky… I missed this point about the State Pension shifting the needle on the dial in the more bonds department.

Since it appears that Vanguard’s ISA is a flexible ISA, I can ground my Charles Stanley and move it to Vanguard. What I will do is first open Vanguard with this year’s ISA allowance, and buy VWRL or the fund equivalent on the same day as selling out the similar fund in Charles Stanley. Which will reduce market risk. I haven’t yet worked out if Vanguard’s ISA will only hold Vanguard’s products. I normally transfer ISAs in specie which gets round that problem.

Perhaps the markets are expecting a massive post-pandemic boom. Personally I wouldn’t be surprised to see another lockdown as Autumn turns to Winter – yes vaccination is giving us breathing space, but the enemy is adapting too. Maybe capitalism has the resilience to adapt and profit from the new normal, though it seems to be doing so by throwing an increasing part of the workforce under the bus. That tends to have undesirable side-effects. There are cheerleaders for the concept of the Roaring Twenties, let’s hope that Kondratieff was wrong, because that didn’t end well on the last turn of the arc 100 years ago. Now is the winter of the fifth Kondratieff wave, let us hope that winter holds a spring…


  1. There’s sample bias here, since if you’re the Abbotsbury Swannery you have 20 billboards advertising for the masses to bring their ickle children for a perfect family day out, whereas if your eatery is closed you can get away with a single ‘closed’ sign on the door. However, I was looking out for the latter 

Imbolc – return of the spring and a new beginning

In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.

Albert Camus, Return to Tipasa

Ah, so much to celebrate, the joy of victory over the EUSSR, we’ve already had the Godwinian cheering in the Express about the clusterf*ck that the EU have made of their vaccine procurement compared to Blighty. They seem positively delusional falling back on the idea we are risk mavens. This is a revolver with 100 chambers and a bullet up against everyone’s heads. You can take a lot of risk if you are up against that. I would say hats off to the UK response in one area, vaccination seems to be a stand-out on the success side.

But seriously, fellow-citizens, WW2 is 90 years ago, and if we are still looking at our place in the world through that prism then perhaps we should ask ourselves why we haven’t done much of note since then? Dean Acheson observed there was a problem in 1962. Still, we are busy looking to give away a bit of that hard-won sovereignty in joining the Asia-Pacific CPTPP. Eh what?

It is just as well that we have sorted our shit out with the vaccine procurement. Because we have made such a hellacious mess of just about everything else to do with coronavirus that vaccination is our only hope. Unlike NZ’s 25 deaths to Covid, or Japan’s 5000 on a population twice our size, getting on for 100,000 people down is well up in the pack, but not in a good way. I’ve still never heard a good explanation for how the world-beating track and trace system, staffed by expensive mates of Boris and the finest management consultants £12bn can buy, hasn’t been disbanded and the £12bn given to councils. Or a conclave of mustelids for all the good it’s done. I know wingnuts don’t really like local government, but they couldn’t do a worse job that dear Dido. Take a look at her CV, and its clear track record of understanding healthcare, or even just, like, success in anything. I know scum floats to the top, but normally all it does is make things unsightly, rather than contributing to a higher death rate through culpable incompetence.

Despite all that, I would say round one to perfidious Albion. When Michael Gove starts looking like the adult in the room, you know you’re on the wrong track. Well done the EU. Just for the record, two massive EU cock-ups don’t make the massive perma-cock-up of Brexit a terrifically good idea IMO, but that train has left the station.

Fans of Sweden’s outstanding success in saying boo to the Covid19 goose and aficionados of the Great Barrington Declaration, I am going to shoot any comment promoting that sort of claptrap. Why is this? I know someone in London. The tests failed to qualify her as Covid, but the symptoms meant her doctors conclude it is.  Not so long ago, if you were that ill, you would be in a hospital, but London seems to no longer have capacity, they have virtual wards, where doctors check up on you by phone. Well, except on Sundays. So the nutjobs that post pictures of empty hospital corridors to social media and CRGs and Desmond Swayzes of this world, piss off. This shit is real and it does happen. Those corridors are empty for the same reason as the Nightingale hospitals are empty – because we don’t have enough boots on the ground to staff them, so you focus your scarce resources on what you can do. And is seems London is on a sticky wicket in terms of capacity. It’s got lots of hospital buildings, but buildings alone doesn’t do much.

Still, things can only get better. Damn, that was the other lot. And twenty years ago.

Investing opportunities

Ah Covid and Brexit, the Bash Street Kidssuper skill, Maximum chaos! The Ermine has been investing a little into the FTSE250 from about halfway through last year. On the grounds that people have hated the UK ever since 2016, and the sector’s taken a lot of punishment. On the principle that history doesn’t repeat itself but it rhymes, perhaps there will be a roaring Twenties. No, I can’t believe it either, but sometimes you have to invest in what you don’t believe in. I have got out of the FTSE100, because I now use VWRL for a general index, and the pandemic highlighted that the FTSE is quite sectorally concentrated1, and with some clapped out companies too. I also still have most of my original high yield portfolio. Ah, yield, that was soooo last decade, dahlink. So if I want more big fish, VWRL will do, because that’s what market cap weighting does for you.

Whereas everybody knows that the UK midcaps has been hammered by Brexit, will be hammered by Brexit, and if it isn’t hammered by Brexit it’ll be hammered by Covid. What’s not to like – well pretty much everything. Apart from the price…

It seems to have been on a roll showing a decent 10% lift since I started last year, in the Charles Stanley account where I use the L&G FTSE250 ex investment trusts fund. I figure I have enough investment trusts .

If you compare the FTSE250 ex IT with the same inc IT you see a possible case made for the virtues of active management 😉

maybe active management works – the actively invested ITs seem to lift performance

but there’s not much in it  over the period I have invested. And I am going into this chasing a particularly troubled sector with poor prospects, though I’m glad I bought a most before that mad lift at the end of last year. Are these the Lamontian green shoots of recovery?

Where was the last time I heard that? Way back in 1991, when I was freezing in the first house I daftly bought, and I had been paying 15% mortgage interest. You gotta watch those buggers, you need deep pockets to take cheer at the green shoots stage. Still, there’s lots of money flying around to make it happen. Bozza told the Torygraph that the £350m p.w. promise on his bus was a dreadful underestimate

So let’s be seeing some of that then, Vote Leave. It’s delivery time and the Kingdom is in its hour of need. Remainers have been purged, pissed upon from a great height and ground into dust. The Govester was even able to be magnanimous in victory over the EU NI Border cock-up. And their vaccine cock-up.

I can see jingoism is going to be the main dish of the day for the next decade if not my lifetime. The time will no doubt come when the boot is on the other foot, and we didn’t get a month out of the gate before the UK-EU relationship turned fractious. Since Brexit fans are on a roll at the moment  how’s about delivering some of that £350m a week into getting a working track and trace system? You’ve spaffed £12bn on getting Dido Harding and Deloitte to balls it up royally, so sack the lot of them and start again with a clean slate and £50m a day. Let’s be seeing some action, then, boys, and P.D.Q. It’s time to make good on the promise of those sunlit uplands. Let’s see the plucky li’l FTSE250 pull ahead of the behemoths in VWRL 😉


  1. Even more bizarrely, the sectoral concentration seems to go in waves. It was all banks in 2009, it’s all oil and mining 

early retirement isn’t boring. Brexit and Covid are

There’s an interesting discussion over at Finimus, who characterises the tl;dr as

So that’s my verdict after four years of early retirement: boring.

and over at Monevator TA fears the dying of the FI/RE light.

Every time one of these FIRE-ees announces their return to work, I think of another soldier falling to cannon-fire amid the thinning ranks of a Napoleonic line.

I am one of the old guard, I have passed the FI/RE event horizon, and it seems the chimera of reappearance from RE of some folk caused a disturbance in the Force. It’s time to start rolling the cannons to the front line and fight for the noble cause. For the record:

I am not working a few hours a week because:

  • FI/RE didn’t work out and I am skint

2020 has been kind to me in net worth terms. Quicken extract, marked to market as of now, excl house and DB pension capital. Liabilities are borrowing wedge from a credit card on some deal, usually 0% on spending, Suckout is bridging a house purchase.

The step-changes at the end, while clear, aren’t important, they are one-off windfalls. You really shouldn’t charge around shorting stocks in a pandemic, Do Not Sell  but if you are going to sell, double down and short. Still, if Monevator can ‘fess up to a bit of non-passive jiggery-pokery, well, so can I. The first lift in 2019 is not investing win, it was a dialled down PCLS and not all of the lift in 2020 was shorting – a lot was simply the market roaring back. We should also remember that this is denominated in Great British Pounds, and Brexit has made them more British and less Great. You need more of ’em to represent a given value. But what is clear, in a more understated way, is the trend of decline has been arrested and reversed, since mid-2019.

of valuations and safe withdrawal rates

When I left work I did not have enough ISA+SIPP capital to match the safe withdrawal rate. That was okay strategically because I had a DB pension to come later/ From 2012 to 2014 the market crawling from the wreckage of the GFC beat out what was a too high spending rate, but the fall showed up in 2014, as the irresistible force of spending overwhelmed the immovable object of ROI. I had to fall back, fall back, fall back and hope the engines restart in the low-water mark by the time I started to draw the pension.

Valuation matters

It’s not supposed to, and perhaps it doesn’t if you accrue over many market cycles. I didn’t. Imagine the trajectory of 2015-2018 imposed upon the start. You’re never allowed to say that valuation matters to the passivista crew, but I would say that trajectory shows just that. I started out at low valuations into the GFC. I was able to make a SWR of 5% work – that’s what people said was OK back in the day. Don’t even think about that now. 3% is probably racy on current valuations. Continue reading “early retirement isn’t boring. Brexit and Covid are”

on paying for an arts education

I could talk abut Trump in a grump, but World + Dog is at it, so I’ll do some retiree navel-gazing instead. Yes, I’m relieved to be shot of the narcissistic psychopath in the short term, but still fearful of the poison he gave licence to. A lot of people thought he was so good at his job that they wanted more of it, the pushback was a blue ripple, not a wave. There’s a message in that signal that bodes ill for 2024 IMO, so I’ll celebrate a reprieve, but not trumpet a resolution for now.

So I will talk about life beyond the 9-5. And how Covid helps clarify some things and mess up others.

living well in covid confusion

Well, obvs #1, try not to get it. Many people’s lives make that difficult, but for a retiree it isn’t that tough.It’s the whole K shaped recovery thing – there are many people who are really suffering. And others who are doing OK, I am fortunate enough to be in the latter camp.

Covid has buggered up recreational ideas, which is a pisser because it’s the first year for a long time when I have an answer to the question how much can I spend – pretty much all of my pension. Before it was always ‘as little as possible’ to try and bridge the gap between leaving work and getting the pension. We were toying with going to Paris in March, glad we didn’t book that. In general, I book nothing. If an opportunity presents itself, I will pay over the odds to do it. That’s not what the economy needs, but sod it. Book nothing…

I still remember the tale of one fellow at work who had been on holiday with his family to Morocco or something like that when the volcanic ash cloud from Iceland grounded flights ten years ago. He was spitting bricks because if cost him over five grand and an extra week to get ’em all back overland, plus extra accommodation costs.

It’s not that I can’t afford that. But it’s not what I want to spend my money on. And from enough experiences of having gutrot or the flu in hotels when I was travelling for business I don’t want to fall ill in foreign parts. So I haven’t been abroad this year, and that’s OK. And that was just flu and gutrot. I really don’t want to fall potentially life-threateningly ill in foreign parts, even if the revolver has 99 empty chambers…

So the answer to living well is different these days. It also makes for a wider reflection because of the narrower experience.

working

As it turns out, because Covid stopped many other things I’d like to have done I have started working, at a relatively low level. I am doing some engineering/CAD work for a small firm. I don’t need the money, but I am solving problems, it is mostly in a computer, and I learned some new stuff. Crazy old world, eh. In the absence of Covid, I am still of the opinion that if the best thing you can think of to do with your time is working then perhaps you lack hinterland, but on the other hand these are unusual times and one should deploy resources where best they can fit. This works for me. I am, of course, sore because I pay 20% tax on the entirety of my work income because my pension already takes me over the personal allowance. First world problems, eh?

Now Monevator bangs the drum endlessly that you should never give up working, because otherwise your brain rots and drips out of your nostrils. I haven’t gone over to his way of thinking at all.

I understand – The Man sucks – but it’s not a good reason to quit working. Especially if you’re impoverishing yourself for the rest of your life to do so.

Reversing this, the money I do earn isn’t enriching my life either. It’s the absence of other options due to all the other shit that’s going down this year that makes that attractive. I can never earn enough to appease these fears. This is because they are recordings of ancient stories playing out- hearing my German great grandmother relate losing her life savings. Twice. If I went back to work for The Firm I couldn’t earn enough to forestall that sort of incoming grief. We’re talking Peter Thiel prince of darkness sums to be able to buy the NZ island retreat. Even assuming that I could do that, there’s one small problem. I would have to become an evil shithead like Peter Thiel1, and I don’t have the talent, and I’m not sure I have that level of Ayn Randian sociopathy in me. I am an introvert, and while the introvert stereotype is the shy, dangerous loner with a gun  I am not a sociopath.

The other points Monevator raises about working at home sort of  hold. I am a right pain in the arse for people to get hold of, because I am not in one place at one time, and I don’t have a mobile phone implanted. If I am in the lab I can’t use Zoom because the computer there isn’t hard enough to run Zoom, and anyway you don’t want to be interrupted if you are developing some circuit and it’s being ratty. If I am out on the Somerset levels for a walk you can’t get hold of me because: no mobile phone. OTOH I am reasonably responsive by email. I’m not being deliberately obstructive, but I seem to have skills and originality valuable enough for people working full-time to be prepared to put up with my working pattern. And if I say I will do something  I will do it, or flag up showstoppers. And I am flexible, and capable of lateral thinking. Because I am very part-time, I can reflect on things and seek solutions which full-timers are too run-ragged to wrangle. So it is a win-win in the face of Covid limitations. Covid also made me think about other things in life, in the way an increased presence of death does 😉

Q what is creativity?

A the relationship between a human being and the mysteries of inspiration

Elizabeth Gilbert, Big Magic

early passive income successes

The Ermine is biased towards the sciences, by inclination, by education, by career. Oddly enough, early in my post-work ‘career’, it was in the arts that I made money, at that stage my investments didn’t return enough to help much.The shock of an instant-off to what had been a decent salary was massive – all of a sudden I had decent savings, some tax-embargoed. And hardly any income, but I did have some. I didn’t recognized it as ‘passive income’ because it didn’t fit any of the classic personal finance models of the time. The FI/RE community is not biased to the arts 😉

I earned money through writing2, I earned money through stock photography, and I earned money through field recordings, more particularly sound effects (SFX).

How come, after all it’s not something I have shown previous form? Because my exit from the workplace was a rout, not a controlled descent, it shattered my view of the worth of my primary skills, which are along the thinking/academic3 axis. People under pressure tend towards binary thinking, and for me it was working full-time on a decent screw at The Firm, or it was working minimum wage at Tesco, I could not see any shades of grey. The loss of this primary function4 made way for the inferior function of feeling, which as a very broad approximation mediates the arts among many other things.

I did not leave work with enough5 to bridge the eight-year gap, so the fearful early me searched for solace in the chimera of passive income. Oddly enough, the arts have some semblance of passive income because of the way intellectual property is viewed in Western culture. It’s a hard row to hoe for many reasons, and I am still not quite sure how I got away with it. But I did, because I was given grace in those first years of leaving work, until the stock market crawling from the wreckage of the GFC could take over. It was the stock market that did all the heavy lifting, but it took about five years for the ISA income to cross the totemic point of being more than JSA. That was a concern in 2010, where I hadn’t made it, though I was still working. I cleared the more income than JSA bar in 2015, three years after leaving work

Back in the day, passive income used to be a big thing in the FI/RE world, presumably until people realised that passive income meant an awful lot of work up front, and if it was mediated by platforms, your passive income had a half-life of about three years before the platform went titsup or got taken over. The grand-daddy of passive income is a stock market portfolio of ~25 times your desired annual income, but that’s a  really big ask, so in the FI/RE world we hung our hats on other so-called passive income streams that were easier to achieve. The classic passive income streams of yesteryear were:

  1. Buy To Let (leveraged on a mortgage). How the hell people didn’t class wrangling with tenants and fixing houses as work beats me, but anyway. If I had a penny for all the people who said property is my pension, you can’t go wrong with bricks and mortar, I would be rich as Croesus by now. As someone who had battle-tested how to go wrong with bricks and mortar early in my career I couldn’t see the attraction. BTL was finally pasted by the demise of the tax breaks that privileged BTL slumlords over people who wanted to borrow money to buy a house to… boom-tish… actually live in it. There’s nothing wrong with BTL if you are rich enough to buy the house outright, it is BTLers fighting real people wanting to buy their first houses in the mortgage market with the unfair advantage of not having to pay tax on the interest that was wrong. The problem here was regulatory hazard
  2. Matched Betting. Also looked like work to me, the upside was you could do it at home. The down side was you felt a little bit bad about fishing in this pool of sewage, and the risk of screwing up was high for people without OCD. You’re basically arbing one big number against another one cancelling it out. It’s picking pennies up in front of a steamroller, I’m just not a careful enough worker for that to be safe in my hands. Other people make it work. It’s extractive, but you can’t feel too bad extracting money out of bookies, or rather their punters by proxy. regulatory hazard is a problem here too, because betting really shouldn’t be allowed on that scale, and historically in the UK it wasn’t. To that should be added technological hazard, because I assume bookies are paying bright minds in AI to run matched bettors out of town by spotting them and shutting them down.
  3. Spam Kindle ebook writing. As a Kindle customer I reserve a particular place in hell for the people who churned out tripe which made it harder to find books worth reading on Amazon. Presumably Amazon jumped to this too, because it’s not a problem any more. Trying to charge people real money for pay by numbers tripe is cheeky, particularly when you try and masquerade as a useful source of information, padding out an index of attractive chapter-heads up until the end of the free preview and it’s followed by padding. Looks like the clockwork stopped on one major protagonist, who also charged people to learn from him how to…get rich writing crap Kindle books. Let’s hope he got financially free by his target age. technological hazard writ large. Betting that you are smarter than Amazon is a fool’s game…

All of these were extractive to some extent, good while it lasts. BTL lasted until there were enough people taking the shaft from buy to letters that even the Tories saw that tax-favouring people front-running first-time buyers  was evil and not a long-term vote winner as the shaftees started to outnumber the shafters. MB is an arms race between the matched bettors and the bookies trying to shake them off their backs, one that so far the matched bettors seem not to have lost yet. The rubbish Kindle books presumably collapsed when Amazon got AI onto their platform because they don’t want too many customers getting pissed off with their purchases on Kindle. That’s the trouble with a lot of “passive” income – when the mother lode runs out your passive income dries up. There is no safe withdrawal rate from that sort of income, because it’s living on borrowed time.

Compared to the extractive nature of those sorts of things, royalty income for minor creative works is relatively benign. It’s always puzzled me that passive income tends to mean skimming in the FI/RE world. I guess we have a bias towards the sciences and tech so it’s not the obvious route.

There is an argument that writing for a content mill fell into the parasitic category, and sure enough, I got my comeuppance about four years later when the business model went titsup when Google cut the operation off at the knees. Nevertheless, making a few grand out of the operation was more than I got out of matched betting, and a lot less like hard work, and I felt less filthy afterwards. I had no money capital value at risk, either, although of course my time on this earth is one stock of capital that was consumed a bit.

For photography and audio I used iStockphoto, which got subsumed into Getty images. I wasn’t really a strong enough photographer to do well at stock, certainly not enough to make a living. I’m not sure anybody makes a living at microstock, because the business model is a little bit evil, it borders on the vanity publishing of the photography world. But it paid for the hobby, when you are newly out of a regular paycheque is no bad thing to sweat existing assets. I had spent too much of camera gear while working because I was a geek, and it was actually getting the kit out into the field and using it that made the difference in getting better pictures. A better camera means you can make pictures under more varied conditions, but most of the effort and money should be invested in getting the damn thing in front of interesting stuff. Again, like the writing, I did learn something from producing for a market rather than as a pure hobbyist.

I was a competent field recordist, albeit very much on the technical side. My revenue followed Zipf’s Law, however – one recording made the lion’s share of my revenue. I never really understood enough about how people used these short clips to be able to target subjects better. And my edge was probably that I had decent gear and knew how to use it. Some subjects simply can’t be done with a handheld recorder and a cheap and noisy microphone. That recording was technically quite difficult to make, and although the talent was common, it was difficult to manage,

Anyway, Getty music has got out of the SFX biz, so my ten year run is at an end. But since there is a global pandemic on, and the SFX field recordist has a dislike for the presence of other humans6 with their wittering, noise and clobber, I wondered if this is perhaps an opportunity to try and learn something and develop the inferior function. I am also mindful of a commenter from a while back observing that scientists and engineers do their greatest work in the first half of life, but artists can improve through their lifetime. I am not in the first half of life…

the arts is a foreign country, they do things differently there

Nearly all sound recording is pressed into the service of music or film. Even there it’s shockingly tough to make money in it. It’s slightly easier to make money in these fields as an engineer/tech/operator than as an artist. The starving artist in a garret is a cliche because it’s common. The world is awash with starry-eyed young folk who call themselves film-makers, though they sometimes have limited control of both their story and their tech. But it lets them express their dear little selves. Art delivers part of its pay packet in terms of meaning and expression, but the trouble is a lot of art has meaning only for the artist originating it. Which is why it isn’t always terribly good at paying the rent. This comes as an unwelcome surprise to legions of meeja studies graduates, because while there are examples of where art pays the rent, only good or great art resonates with enough other people that they sponsor it. Many are called, but few are chosen. Right up top in prospects.ac.uk

The creative industries are competitive, so use the skills gained from your media studies degree along with personal determination to succeed

Ermine Translation of ‘personal determination’: If you are rich enough to consider your degree part of the entertainment budget, and Mom and Pops are rich enough that you can spend two or three years working for free (called interning) in London, one of the dearest cities in the world to live, then knock yourself out. Everybody else, save yourself fifty grand and a shedload of heartache.

Elizabeth Gilbert would not approve of my cynical curmudgeonliness. She had a whole page on trying to shut down such naysayers. But she would say that, it’s not like she is a resting actress down to her last ten bob, eh? Maybe it’s different in America. But it’s a recognised problem over here. They are also rampant lefties but I guess you knew that already. It tends to go along with being skint 😉

Some of these young media studies pups also need to pay attention in lectures, or mebbe even show up. If you are interviewing someone and your mic is on the camera then either your microphone is in the wrong place or your camera is.

The Ermine has a thread of philistinism running though his lopsided one out of Two Cultures bias. For example, when I was working as a studio engineer in BBC TV’s White City complex, the Television Centre bar was a watering hole common to the engineers and the arty sorts. Every so often I would hear someone waxing lyrical about theatre and how absolutely fantastic it was, while bemoaning that the pay was absolutely crap, that this was for people doing this occasionally in London’s West End, not some provincial repertory. They’d do some TV to pay the bills while ‘resting’ 😉

I have great admiration for my younger self’s restraint in not asking the obvious question after eight pints of whatever, broadly along the lines ‘if it’s so fantastic then why are people not prepared to pay a living rate for it then?’ I’ve been to the theatre on about three occasions spaced out by a decade. Every time I did it I came away with the feeling ‘why do people do this, now that we have invented movies to make sets look less kludgey and scene-changes work right?’

Up and down the country, there are am-dram societies putting no end of work and time into staging plays. I can only presume that the experience is rewarding to them.  There’s nothing wrong in hobby acting, but it doesn’t pay the bills. You wouldn’t expect to make a return on fishing, or model railway building either. Theatre is one of those artistic endeavours that seems terrifically rewarding to do. To consume, not so much. There are 4500 cinema screens in the UK, and about a quarter that many theatres. QED.

One of the things that has always done my head in about the arts is its relation to pay. If you engineer/design a product or service, in general if it sells then it does something for the user. If it doesn’t sell, it’s considered a failure. For a good artist, it seems that it first has to do something for the artist – express something within themselves, the search to be witnessed is secondary to communicating something. If it doesn’t then it will probably end up pablum. I saw this in my content mill days – occasionally I would write something to meet some minimum delivery requirement. It was always crap, and monetized poorly. So you can have a successful piece of art that just lets the artist express themselves, even if nobody is prepared to pay for it. That is not necessarily a failure, indeed some art is only considered great posthumously.

Mrs Ermine improved my art appreciation no end when she shared the concept that you shouldn’t look at art purely along the lines of ‘do I like it’ but more along the lines of ‘what does this tell me?’  – if you think it sucks but you look at the world a slightly different way mediated by that, then perhaps it has done its job.

I still struggle with that – suffice to say that I don’t think I am ever going to go to the theatre again in my life 😉  But it has helped me open up to some material where I would have just passed it by.

As a sound recordist, I favoured accuracy 7, but people often use field recordings as part of telling a story. Either in film, or increasingly in video games. I have never played modern video games – I used to play the odd shoot ’em up on an old Atari 800 in the 1980s but I don’t do that now. Not because I think games are terrible, but I am not young, so I do not have the loads and loads of time people tend to put into that. I’m not sure that video games are necessarily an art-form, but on the other hand perhaps they are very much so – a different form of story-telling.

Something else about the arts is that there is a lot of baggage – you need to know the vernacular of that genre to be able to appreciate the content. I don’t have the right sort of education or background for that sort of thing. I pass CP Snow’s test of having read some Shakespeare, but  I have read only 13 out of Penguin’s 100 must-read classic books, for example. Slightly more worryingly, I have given up on quite a few, literary talent is thin in this mustelid.

Google can tell me how to make something. It can’t teach me the language of the arts

Up until now, I have taken the line that if I want to learn something new, spending time with Google and armed with an inquisitive mind is pretty much all a fellow needs. So far that has served me well. It worked well in my last few years at work, it solved many problems at the farm, I have stayed generally with the twists and turns of Web design. It’s a shame that so much instruction has gone towards YouTube these days, I hate learning anything that way, I far prefer to read about the principles. Science and technology is easy with Google. For example if you want to know how quaternions help you rotate stuff in 3D and avoid gimbal lock, Google is your friend. One of the few examples where YouTube works rather better than text 😉

Most days I have learned something new and one of the good things about being a mustelid of leisure is that it doesn’t have to be useful or directed.

Conversely, I am terrible with MOOCs. I just don’t stay the course. I hate the pacing, often glacially slow to start with, the faux-interaction with others. It is possible that I am culturally unattuned to modern teaching. It is over 30 years since I last darkened the halls of a university, and over 40 years since I matriculated at what was then called Imperial College of Science and Technology. To me MOOC pacing stinks, and I am used to yearly exams, not itty-bitty coursework. I did okay on a MOOC learning how to use R, but the government futurelearn digital skills course on how to use social media for business bored me shitless in about a week, so I quit. And the pacing sucked. It is possible that my problem was I didn’t have anything to sell and wasn’t that interested in social media, but hey, I am not a statistician, or writing 3D software so I will never use quaternions for anything. I retained interest long enough to at least feel good that I understood it while they were talking.

However, Google failed me in teaching myself to read anything academically written about the arts. Sure, the words pass my eyes, and each one I can understand or look up each and every one of them. But I read such papers like a nervous rat in a maze, skipping ahead, searching back, trying to distil understanding from an alien world. For instance, I found Michael Gallagher’s publications less impenetrable than many, but Listening Geographies is still tough sledding for me.

I did learn something from it though – as I walk through the Somerset Levels I become more aware of the interrelationship between places and the sounds. Enough to investigate when I heard the sound of water running where I was not used to it, and then to investigate how the Somerset Drainage Boards try and keep this water in the right place.

I’d say the Somerset Drainage Boards Consortium keep their water in the right place with the help of some fine Dutch engineering

With the help of some fine Dutch engineering from HC Waterbeheersing by the looks of it. So I could temporarily shift my consciousness to a artistic sensibility, though I didn’t really understand what the heck he was on about. I’ve walked past that thing many times without observing it or asking myself how the heck does that happen that the water isn’t up to our knees on a regular basis.

Now realistically my professional sound recording career has gone with the closure of gettymusic. Most sound designers now either shoot their own SFX or they use libraries, it appears bought from individual recordists than from aggregators.

This surprises me. After all, if I am some young sound designer working in post up against a deadline I would have thought I want one large library, but clearly the economics of the business didn’t work at scale. Or it’s just too hard to locate the sort of sound I want in a large collection – searching for a particular type of sound clip is notoriously difficult, there is no competent audio search engine.

I don’t want all that overhead of selling the brand of me, I liked the faceless anonymity of Getty. So what I really ought to do is to return to being a sound hunter8, and carry on as a hobbyist. Most of what I record is humdrum, it is evocative for me only. Some of it is more widely evocative – on 11-11 it seems apposite to hear the sound of a Spitfire flying over England’s green and pleasant land

It is ML407, the Grace Spitfire, noodling over the Suffolk countryside. Apparently you can get 425 mph out of these things, which is most of the way towards the speend of your Easyjet flight to Ibiza. It’s quite remarkable something which is towed by a spinning bit of wood. Kind of heartwarming that replacements are made in Germany these days, although concerning for the state of British manufacturing 😉

keeping the learning curve vertical for the hell of it

But that way lies stasis. I want to learn something new. Goldsmith’s College does a 10 week course in an Introduction to Field Recording. Now I know most of the early part, and from my previous rant about MOOCs, I’d be in trouble, though I have much to learn from week 1 and 2 which are the arty meaning sort of thing. Week 3 and 4 will be a dead loss for me. The practicals are lost with online, but the last four weeks are what I want to learn, because I always stopped before the composition stage.

So the question I have to ask myself is do I want to spaff £300 on what is basically a MOOC, in a field where I have spent several decades showing no aptitude for? Playing on the weakest string, the inferior function

Also it’s on Zoom, FFS. I will look different from all the other students. They will be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, dreaming of great things as a sound designer in the already oversubscribed media industry. There will be all these bright young things, and a cynical grizzled mustelid with streaks of grey hair. Look at the pictures on the ASD website. Nobody over 40 😉 Looks like I need to watch it with that attitude to theatre, too!

educating ermine – the business case doesn’t stack up

In my work using the primary function of thinking, an inquisitive mind and the trusty sword of Google and the most mind-bendingly aggressive ad-blocking and cookie-destroying plugins serve me well. Strictly speaking the sort of engineering I am doing now isn’t something I’ve ever done before but I have been able to learn how to use the tools and I am adding value and solving problems.

In the inferior function this is not enough. I cannot compose discrete sound element parts into a whole, and I am unable to derive how to do that from YT videos. It is, of course, possible I have no talent. That would be the obvious conclusion for ‘why have I never gone further in several decades’. I am very unlikely to recover the £300.

So I’d have to file it under entertainment budget. And I have spent many years being cynical about the value of paid-for university education, along the general lines of that Monevator fellow.

But the Ermine snout is curious. One of Carl Jung’s ideas was that the process of individuation was the gradual integration of the opposites. Perhaps the inferior function that was written off early on wants to go to university. I am not short of £300, so perhaps the primary function’s cynicism about the value of an arts college experience is irrelevant. I don’t need to make a career out of it. I am not 19 and starry-eyed, thinking I will be the next [insert name of current celebrity here]. The business case doesn’t stack up at all.

Maybe the signal I am hearing is of that unvoiced part, saying

“I was there when all seemed lost. I held the flame that gave irrational hope among the wreckage when you left work, a trickle of passive income that slowly grew. I forestalled the total surrender, I am the strand of the wire that did not fail under the load, because I was not the part of you that established your career.

And now, because symbolically my apparent value has come to an end as these earnings cease, because you know the price of everything and the value of nothing, I ask for a channel that the river can still run towards the sea. I have been despised and never regarded, but I am part of the whole, and I share the inquisitive nature of the primary function, but in a different realm.

And over the eight years my earnings worked quietly and steadily. They never amounted to much in any given year, but when you compute the total they are about half of your last year’s working salary. I want recognition, so for a moment, still the cynicism you share with Monevator.”

Anyway, it wasn’t a less time-consuming arts degree, let alone something deeply spurious like a photography course or a diploma in fashion

“You are cynical because you repudiate the life not lived. I am always the shaded pole, but I have carried the torch across the darkness before, when the primary function failed. At school in the Lower Fourth (key stage 3 Year 8 in modern parlance) when you fell to rank 31=31 in the class in many academic subjects you came first in art9, much to Dad’s annoyance, because the shaded pole became unshaded when the primary function went. You had cleared the de facto 11+ entry exam, but it untempered the mainspring. I took the lead in that troubled year, before the fire returned for your O levels.”

“You have seen many people become ossified as they refuse to change across the first and second part of life. I am the skull in the picture because no traveller on the path of life reaches the other side intact if they have thrown something of themselves overboard in haste to gain speed.”

Perhaps I should find the £300. Not because it will restart my moribund sound recordist’s earnings. Not because I will make a £300 back with what I may learn. The shaded pole paid its dues – all the gear is bought and paid for many times over, but like the primary function the shaded pole wants to learn, and perhaps it needs to learn that in the normal way that my primary function despises. Still grates to pay for arts education, though, because I have long held the view that artistic talent is innate, if it’s there it will out.

Thunder on the horizon

It has been a strange year, one of greater hazard, one of more general angst among  many people, and an awful lot of real distress and tragedy. I have had good fortune that I am less exposed than many. I rolled back the stone that jammed work, but perhaps in doing that I destabilised something. Perhaps the unvoiced inferior function feels the echo of what happened in the GFC, and demands to play its part for the sake of balance. Maybe it senses the distant sound of thunder on the horizon.

I opened Iweb for the first time after the election, and thought holy shit, something has screwed up. The excitement isn’t particularly in VWRL, though that is doing well enough, it is in the investment trusts, where someone seems to have stuck a rocket up their backsides. I don’t really understand why there is this skew, but then perhaps at the moment nobody knows anything.

The one thing I do know is that markets are either too high or the value of money is dropping like a stone. This really isn’t right. I am uneasy about both things that seem to be driving the euphoria. The Covid vaccine is good news, but even if it sorts the problem 100% much lies broken and ravaged. The answer to why are the markets higher in Q4 2020 after a year of value destruction than they were in Q4 2019 isn’t that everything is tickety-boo and going swimmingly after a great and productive year.

Many things are deeply borked, and solutions are being sought along some strange axes. For instance the Tory Northern Research Group is banging the drum for

building up a research capacity, and looking at how the north can be turned into a ‘globally exporting superpower to drive Britain’s economy forward after Brexit’.

which sounds great, but I would say a universal basic income is probably a better way to improve the lot Up North, because after 10 years since the financial crash the idea that work is the way out of poverty should be classed as religion, not evidence-based policy. The modern world needs smarts that are above the level of most of us, and the bar is rising. I am not smart enough to work for Google in research, though I was smart enough in the past to work in industrial research. The difference isn’t that I have become shit for brains, the difference is that globalisation means the competition is a lot harder. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but the assumptions we made when the economy could find productive work for most of us need to be re-evaluated.

Pandemics accelerate social change  – perhaps the Christian West got a boost from one pandemic at the start of the Dark Ages. Niall Ferguson would go on to claim that the Protestant Work Ethic derived from that after a thousand years was one reason is why the West owned all the things up until recently. But there was a fair amount of collateral damage.

As for t’other reason to celebrate, there is this issue

Let’s hope it’s a matter of “I’ll be back”, rather than “I’m still here, whatcha gonna do about it?”


  1. See also Thiel’s fellow sociopathic PayPal alumnus Elon Musk. ‘Evil is strong in these padawan, it is’ 
  2. somewhat to my shame for a content mill, but it was a decent run while it lasted. I still can’t write a decent headline to save my life, but I did learn something from some basic targeted discipline. And I did try to add value. Was it art? Probably not, but if Dickens got paid by the word and is considered art, I’ll have a bit of that. I did reclaim some of these articles then the site went titsup, and one of them is still the goto article on why one type of sound tech sounds shit if you plug it into your mic input. 
  3. academic as the sort of thing you get a leg-up at university, not academic as in being a professor 
  4. Primary function in Carl Jung’s terminology is the  most differentiated, in me it is thinking and analytical, which is fitting for someone who worked as an engineer. The corresponding inferior function is feeling, which I would say mediates artistic sensibility and expressivity. I have used Jung’s terms here because I find his model useful. Any capability that lies unused has hazard in it, it can easily become destructive. Part of the aim of individuation is as you go through like is to integrate the various aspects of the Self. 
  5. Enough being defined as as enough cash to clear the gap at a minimal rate of spending. Something will Turn Up, Mr Micawber. It did, but there was more luck in it that was initially apparent 
  6. Oddly enough some of the field recordings I am most pleased with as derivé feature humans, but you can’t use them for stock audio/SFX because you need model releases and all sorts of argy-bargy. So as a professional field recordist I don’t like humans. As a sound hunter, they’re fair game 
  7. to my simplistic mustelid mind accuracy is does this darn thing sound like it did IRL. I have read a lot of academic critique that challenges this, saying by choosing your moment or letting the helicopters fly by before pressing record you are distorting reality in a different way, and separating sound from the environment does violence to the notion of accuracy in a different way. I couldn’t work out whether these guys were really onto a truth I could only see dimly or if they were simply overpaid trustafarians, since everybody in this biz seems to be sponsored by some arts organisation. At least they made me think I guess, which is part of the job description of the arts. 
  8. in the Karin Bijsterveld sense of the term rather than the early years spelling program. It’s surprising that post-war manufacturers expected people to create using their tape recorders, rather than tape their records which is what happened. The irresistible attraction of the lowest common denominator is strong in tech users still now. I recall the tail end of this from my schooldays, and it influenced radio programming, much more so in mainland Europe than the UK, though Radio Ballads like Song of a Road by the BBC about the construction of the London-Yorkshire motorway (now knows as the M1) show the slow pacing and unusual production of mixing with tape and the discrete production in those days. We are much more used to layered production now, and this is something I never learned. 
  9. And first in physics. Which puzzled the teachers, crap at most  subjects apart from opposing the ends of the spectrum, If you are going to have a teenage crisis, the L4th is a good year to go off the rails – enough to establish some competence in the third form so they don’t kick you out, and getting it out of the way before you start the first set of formal exams (O levels at that time) 

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
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”