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”

Priapic solstice perambulations in pursuit of weed

I know what you’re thinking, but we are country mice, so we are after seaweed, not yer metropolitan weed.

Seaweed drying on the washing line

Mrs Ermine had bought a snorkel, and was going to search the deep for seaweed. You can fry it and it makes pretty good crisps, as well as drying it and pulverising it in a food processor. She’s of the opinion that it’s good for you, well, as far as anything fried is ever good for anybody 😉

The snorkel was totally superfluous to requirements, because when the sea sounds like this

and looks like this

what you need is a RIB and an outboard motor. However, what the sea also does is uproot the seaweed from the sea floor and dumps it on the beach, which seems a much better win than getting wet to do this. Why keep a dog if you have to bark yourself…

I always look a bit askance at things from the sea, not only do fish f*ck in it, but you get diesel oil, heavy metals and tons of sewage, bunker fuel etc. It’s basically the dustbin of the world. Hopefully the seaweed filters this out, in the same way as your spuds filter out the muck they spray on the fields. It tasted fine. There were fewer people about this time than last time, and they seemed to be having fun.

These things were a git to get off the ground…
but looked like fun once you had done

We went back and had a coffee stop in the viewpoint of the Cerne Abbas Giant in honour of the summer solstice just gone past. He seems to have been newly cleared and was in gleaming priapic splendour

Cerne Abbas Giant

Normally we’d stop off at the little tea shop in the High Street, but as that sort of thing isn’t open yet it was coffee from Thermos flasks in the full view of His Horniness. It’s one of the delights of England that you get mad things like this plastered on the hillside for hundreds of years, outlasting Cerne Abbey.

The seaweed shrinks massively as it dries out

You don’t get left with much – it has been chopped up

and it has a deep and existential affinity to water. To the extent that if you dry it in the day and leave it on the plate overnight it sucks some water straight out of the air!

The trick seems to be to get it inside an airtight jar ASAP, which turns Nikon’s glass into a funky lomography lens

It’s odd stuff – varying in colour

Seems there is a tradition of eating seaweed that I was unaware of. The Danes call it sea vegetable not weed and it is industrially extracted in Scotland. The seaweed crisps are divine, sort of natural and far less bad for you than anything made of spuds, but their inherent nature of wanting to suck the water out of anything is preserved. They give you a stonking thirst, so do not consume anywhere which has a proximity to beer… The salt is probably bad for you whatever the Danes say.

No fighting please, we’re British?

This was written early in the week. There’s no need for hot-headed argy-bargy. Some London lads went to Bournemouth and ended up in a knife fight and a few people left their shit in a box. Just…go for a dump before you leave the house?

One of the advantages of being an island is that Britain has a hell of a lot of coastline, you don’t all have to head out to where everyone else goes…

At some point during this bear market I realized that I probably shouldn’t keep doing this

We get to learn something new about ourselves in these unusual times. Some are new and interesting – I am a lifelong introvert – heck my primary school headmaster wrote1 ‘this mustelid is a lone wolf’ in the valedictory report. I am not as much an island as I thought I was. I spent too long reading science fiction in my youth – everybody told me this is tripe2, but it’s probably as far as I am able to go towards fiction, I tended to borrow more non-fiction from the library than fiction. I am weak on things like 100 books to read before you die because of this bias. I couldn’t make it through Heart of Darkness, and pretty much anything by Charles Dickens does my nut in – I am a fast reader but couldn’t get anywhere with Great Expectations which is part of why I failed Eng Lit O level.

Last time I considered work, and in a trivial event that happened less than 24 hours after that I learned something humbling about myself. I knew it four years ago, but I have become complacent.

I was fortunate in my upbringing, I had parents who loved each other, and stayed together till death did them part. Although we were poor, by modern standards, I was loved and knew it. And so I came to believe that Time healed all psychological injury3. As I grew older I came to see this is not true for all people, sometimes issues from childhood drag people back to early hurts, and it takes effort for them to regain equilibrium.  Philip Larkin had something to say about this. I saw a little echo, a resonance of the pathology in myself more recently. Time does not always erase.

The best-laid plans of mice and men

The Firm, whose research campus I worked at for over 20 years was a fantastic place to work for a long time. There is a Facebook4 group Friends of the site recently established, and some ex-colleagues invited me. Despite the fact that the campus had a pretty clear no photography rule for a long time, it was good to see some bygone days, and reminiscences of some of the earlier projects. Even the barmy ones, like trying to splice optical fibres with a box that was a controlled spark gap, which needed careful positioning – on the roadside while there was snow on the ground.

Another project where two of us were working in Portugal, and as we drove off from a border crossing checkpoint from Spain the hatch of our rental car opened and dumped some very expensive HP kit on the highway. Amazingly it was still serviceable after we gathered it up.

Some things were entertaining – the 1980s hair. The impression that there were women on site – yes, technically there were, but they or their partners must have taken all the photos, because science and engineering joints like that were virtual monasteries. Dear xGF came from Lancashire, not Suffolk 😉 For Ipswich’s women who were so inclined, the odds were good, but the goods were odd. One of the high schools near the site has a much higher prevalence of autism than is typical in the county. They get decent grades, but the second-generation goods are probably still odd.

Fear is the mind-killer

Frank Herbert, Dune

I looked at the signals coming from the markets, and they blithely ignore the massive economic shock there is now. Yes, Donald Trump threw a shedload of money at the markets, but it doesn’t explain it all. The compass spins and knows no north. I look at the numbers in my ISA and I don’t believe them. My ISA has a lot less crap in it and it has a fair amount of gold, but even so. It keys an atavistic memory from long ago, of my great-grandmother describing losing her life’s savings. Twice.

So I consider returning to work, to head this off. And within 24 hours the Universe delivers a slap to the chops with a wet fish. Synchronicity in motion. Continue reading “At some point during this bear market I realized that I probably shouldn’t keep doing this”

The Ermine considers returning to work

I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin’
Heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
Heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin’

Bob Dylan, 1960-something

I retired eight years ago. There are many people who retire and return to work because they find their lives have no meaning without the 9 to 5, or they miss other aspects of work. I’m not one of them.

If we didn’t have coronavirus in the world I wouldn’t give the idea the time of day. I am old, and compared to the young mustelid that graduated in the early 1980s I have no human capital left. I look at some of the jobs that come through LinkedIn and I have have neither the desire nor really the capability. Imagine the job interview

“Yes Mr Ermine, tell me about how you tackled blah blah blah”

“Well, nine years ago I….”

Nope. Not gonna wash. Plus after a few years out of the workplace I dress like Dominic Cummings, so I am on a sticky wicket from the start. Or maybe not, I quite fancy being untouchable in the workplace. 1

So why even consider it. Everybody wants you to be passionate about work, and I’m not.

Financially I am OK. I have a DB pension that pays my needs and wants, particularly at the moment when some of my wants can’t be had anyway. I have a couple of S&S ISAs which are probably about half the value backing my DB pension, and I don’t need to touch them. In less than 10 years I will draw a State pension. But –

A hard rain’s gonna fall

We have taken a massive economic shock, but on its own we could probably overcome it. The trouble is the background  – the Western Empire is falling, and this shock could accelerate the decline, because predators always prey on the weaknesses.

Most likely I will pass another couple of decades, cash in my chips and then the state of the world will be other people’s problem. But I have already had the experience once of blithely carrying on as if nothing will change while there’s fire burning underground, and then playing catch up to deal with the outbreak – getting out of the workplace in three years rather than a decade.

I need to also qualify what I am trying to fight, because some things are unfightable. I am at the coffee end of the spectrum. Social collapse, zombie apocalypse – wine is for that. If the answer is guns, beans and ammo, the question is wrong.

Let’s scope the enemy

Monevator is the cheerleader for never stopping work, and part of the problem is summarised in it takes a lot of money to replace a salary. But this is not relevant to me, after all, I am unlikely to get sacked from my pension, so in some ways my income is more secure than my salary was. The bar to getting it is to keep on breathing. Compared to the misery of mendacious metrics that’s a low bar 😉

But there’s an enemy in town. That enemy is inflation. It moves slowly, but irresistibly. My pension will keep up until it gets to 5%, and every year inflation overtops 5% I get poorer by the difference for the rest of my life.

Monevator has a depressing table of the value of capital in terms of income.

This is not quite so bad for me. For starters I began a few years back, so I have gotten myself a fair way down the chart already. While inflation will erode my pension it is unlikely to destroy it, unless we have a Germany situation. In which case nothing will help me, other than wine.

Inflation is good for people in work, as long as they stay in work. It’s even better for people who stay in work and take out big mortgages. One reason2 my Dad paid off his mortgage on a blue collar wage earlier in his life than I did on a white collar wage and without kids was inflation – his wages rose in numerical terms quickly but the value of the debt was frozen in time at the nominal value when he took it out.

Inflation is bad for people on fixed incomes. There will be enough people going inflation – schminflation. The hazard is deflation. At the moment you can make the case:

Petrol at less than £1/l in May 2020 (diesel was £1.04). The short shutter speed on a sunny day meant it didn’t catch all of the information on the sign due to strobing.

Compared to this picture, taken over ten years ago

This photo was a year old in 2010

and in the short term that is probably true. But we have borrowed a shitload of money, and the easiest way of making that cost less is to devalue the currency. The pound in your pocket stays the same, you just get less Stuff for it.

Change offers opportunity as well as hazard

So what are the possibilities for me? I could look at the electronics/IT industry, there is a lot of aerospace around Bristol. Main pros here are the money. Cons are everything else:

  • Employers
  • performance management crap
  • Commuting
  • The Man
  • I am out of date

Probably the biggest con is a serious mismatch – I don’t need to earn a huge amount, and my time is more valuable to me. I could see if part-time work were available, but the engineering industry, being male-dominated, despises part-timers.

I am more after a side hustle, but without the main job it’s a side to.

Big downside: hustle. I am neither entrepreneurial and nor do I hustle. I lose interest in people very quickly when I detect they are trying to network/sell something to me, and I could not do that convincingly to other people. It seems a very big part of the contracting/self-employed world, and I have been an employee all my working life. I despise hustle, and this may be a show-stopper. Also I am going to be in an environment full of people trying to hustle once the furlough scheme stops.

Passive income

Ah, remember the halcyon days of five or six years ago when every FIRE dude and their dog were after passive income? I actually have some from ten years ago, because I sold pictures and recordings to stock agencies. This seems to be reliable, it has been static for about ten years. I did a lot of that in the early fearful days of setting my exit plan, and it pays off. Unlike when I was writing for a content mill, which was, in all fairness, quite successful to the tune of thousands of pounds until it wasn’t, when Google deprecated their stuff and the business case went titsup overnight.

I could look at this again. I am less desperate and perhaps more creative now. There is some network effect, the more you do the more your other stuff sells.

A big disadvantage I have is that I don’t play computer games, which is what a lot of field recordings are used in. So I don’t really know my customer, what does well and what doesn’t is purely a matter of luck.

Other vaunted wheezes for passive income in the FIRE community were –

Matched betting . It’s too much like work to me, and bullshit work at that. Plus I have zero interest in sports.

Chuntering out Kindle ebooks. Sort of like writing for a content mill but a little more control. There was a fellow called Huw who was big on this a few years ago. I presume the business model went titsup, which I am grateful for as a Kindle reader, because there is a lot less shit to wade through on Amazon these days. Presumably Amazon deprecate the results of that sort of desperation.

Non-passive income.

I have made a slight name for myself in some electronics/recording areas by writing a couple of rants deconstructing why some sensors sound crap as typically misused. There is perhaps a product in there. The hazard with selling electronic products are

  • lead-free solder- just hurt for hand soldering
  • regulation – I’d have to wing it with CE marking
  • it’s Stuff, and there’s a lot of hurt in selling Stuff
  • The large country full of copycats who can work at scale for little that is China

Some of these are tractable, you can get things made cheaply now. The maker community has solved a lot of these problems. For instance I recently bought an AudioMoth to scout recording locations.Sure, I could have got the boards made and done the work myself, but CBA.

I could leverage that reputation, perhaps, and also it would save me having to answer some questions from wannabe makers that make me totally despair about the current state of training3 of electronics engineering courses. Some of the things being asked I knew before leaving primary school, FFS… But it’s Stuff. I don’t like selling Stuff, because some things about it don’t scale. Like going to the post office.

Oddball coronavirus opportunities

One thing that has happened is everybody is spending much more time online, and videoconferencing is a much bigger thing these days. I have occasionally helped some performers locally and shot some movie clips for them. I’m fiercely aware that this is an area where there are huge numbers of young media studies4 folk in prime competition.

And yet being in basic control of sound and vision seems ill-taught, along the general lines of “take that f*cking thing off auto, you muppet” as well as educating people that if your microphone is where your camera is then either your sound is shit or you subject will have the most enormous conk and teeth like a horse.

However, for every 100 muppets there are a few of these media studies people that are really good, particularly when it comes to NLE editing. I stopped working as a studio engineer at BBC TV Centre in the late 1980s, so vision mixing was still done in real time although shots were of course assembled in nonlinear time with VT5. Nowadays most of what was done in real time vision mixing is done in non-real time on computers with a NLE editor. There are great similarities between the old method of working and mixing/producing a live presentation with multiple sources. You can do all that on a computer, you don’t need hundreds of thousands of pounds of Grass Valley‘s finest hardware.

However, with the increase in the use of Zoom and live conferencing and presentation, there are opportunities for live vision mixing but with software. And I may have some relevant skills there, both from a background in videoconferencing, and also being able to  set up scenes and vision mix live. There’s nothing in there that a half-competent YouTuber won’t know, but many people only seem to know the boundaries of their phone…

Whether it will amount to ‘owt remains to be seen, after all I have to both add value and find people who will pay. But I was surprised that a couple of opportunities along those lines have opened up here.

many of us have learned new things about ourselves in the last couple of months

There are lots of problems, but some interesting possibilities. I don’t have to make enough to live on, and indeed I have just signed off being self-employed, so I wouldn’t expect to make more than the £1000 tax-free earnings allowance. It would kind of make me sore to pay 20% tax on the output of any such sideshow. I may hate it. And I will have no lifestyle benefit, though through this coronavirus lockdown I have discovered that while an introvert, I am not as much an island as I thought I had been. So perhaps helping other people do interesting shit will have some intangible value, even if I bank all the income against the troubled times to come.

There there is the question of whether such frivolity will hold in hyperinflation. After all, knowing how to make knives out of vehicle leaf springs, or use car batteries and scavenged solar panels off roofs to make light and comms work in a grid down situation are more relevant skills for that sort of world. But – red wine is for that scenario, you have to be 20-something to have a chance of making a good life in that sort of hazard.

So I don’t really know what I fear, other than financial capital draining through my fingers as the underlying assumptions of western capitalism begin to fail. There are too many of us, and we don’t create the amount of value that we consume, and somehow things that can’t go on for ever don’t.

But none of what I am looking at needs a huge investment of capital, so I may end up losing money I can afford, as well as some time and effort, in finding out I am still unsuited to working. And that’s OK. But it may turn out differently, and that’s OK too, and it may give me some resilience in the troubled world to come.

Even in this post I see that most of what I think about working is negative, and I need to overcome this, because otherwise I will hamstring anything I try to do. And the impetus is more a degree of fear than the deep search for meaning and purpose many seem to attach to working. Perhaps I will get over it. Perhaps the stock market is right and we will have a V-shaped snap-back recession.

Our beautiful blue skies are increasingly scarred by aircraft trails, supporting the snap-back theory

and this will be an oddball post that never went anywhere.  But at the moment – nah. The stock market6 is still bloody mad, and snap-back ain’t gonna happen. There’ll be hell to pay, and I can’t work out who is going to pay it.


  1. Correlation is not causation – Dom isn’t in charge because he doesn’t dress like a gigolo, he can dress like a slob because he’s in charge 
  2. The other reason he got there quicker was absolutely terrible market timing in my part into the residential property asset class. Unlike buying shares, which is always elective, you get to the stage of wanting to buy a house roughly as a function of the date you were born. So while there was financial muppetry there, some was forced. Buying that house is still the #1 personal finance mistake in my life. 
  3. In analogue electronics. Although it is a much, much smaller part of the electronics world now than when I started work, typically only where sensors meet the real world, sensors are finicky oddball elements which usually don’t tolerate sloppy analogue design well. 
  4. Why on earth is meeja studies so popular? It strikes me as a serious misallocation of capital. There used to be money in it, like journalism, but the film and TV industries in the UK are a place for rich kids with decent connections and the ability to live in London while doing unpaid internships. And my second gripe is why do these courses chunter out people who can sort of control their equipment, kind of string a story but abjectly can’t handle people. I am an introvert and not great at it, but I was at least able to see that I had to get better at directing the talent in front of the camera to get better results. You can learn to get decent results from equipment in reasonably short order, but getting decent results out of people, now that is a lifelong learning curve 
  5. Professional video tape recorders were shockingly expensive in the mid Eighties, and a bitch to maintain and keep lined up within spec. They were also mechanically noisy as hell, a dire chainsawing noise you had to keep well away from any open microphone. As a result in Television Centre VT was in the basement, where they have about 10 recorders servicing a 8-studio production centre. Nowadays you can run and record all the cameras and do all the mixing in post on a NLE, but then you could only really afford to record one signal, so you had to mix the cameras in real-time and record the output of the vision mixer. 
  6. The stock market is absolutely freaking outrageous. I have just had a look at my ISAs and the total value is shamelessly more than it was in January. WTAF? There is absolutely no earthly reason, hundreds of thousands of firms will go bust, output is dramatically down and a lot of consumers will not just be skint, they will be destitute. Even the mid-cap index is in the bloody money. The only explanation that makes any sense to me is that the Great British Pound is worth a lot less now than it was in January. The gold price lends that some credence, £1150 on Jan 1 and £1400 now, so the £ has fallen 20% 

What will we do with our world when this is over?

As my ageing mother said a couple of weeks ago, up until this you have not lived through any crisis. This is a woman who was not yet into double digits before the second world war ended.

You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.

Rahm Emanuel

Having switched off a fair part of the economy, it’s a fair chance to ask the question “If we started with a blank sheet of paper, I don’t know, say about May 1979, would we design to get to where we are now?”

if it was meself that was going to Letterfrack, faith, I wouldn’t start from here

apocryphal Irish joke

Let’s take a look at what we have got in the UK compared to what we had. Way back when a young Ermine entered university around that time, inflation was way up in the sky. By the time I graduated,  the economy went titsup in a big way, and it took six months to find a job. I plied my trade in a small company making electronic gizmos. Britain was a different place then.

When we wanted castings for a piece of equipment, we were able to go a couple of miles down the road to meet up with the suppliers, they could point to the part of the design that would reduce the yield, tell us why and we got to change that. The people who wound the transformers for us were in walking distance.

In my next job, I travelled by train from SE London to Cannon Street Station. No city, other than perhaps Edinburgh presents a pretty face to the railway line, but I saw light engineering firms here and there from the railway line, amongst the council estates and blocks of flats. As the decades passed, billboards went up ‘you could be home by now’ as the factories were cleared to make way for estates of ‘executive’ homes. Funny how every bugger buying a new house wants to feel they are an executive, I’d imagine a real FTSE100 CEO wouldn’t be seen dead in one of those rabbit hutches.

I inherited this pump made in east London from my Dad, we still use it when making compost to get enough pressure from our water butts to run a sprayer.

They used to make pumps in London – yes, Romford is in London, not Essex

As the entertaining wingnut David Starkey related, today’s Britain is buggered if it can make shaped bits of plastic in any quantity, for that is largely what PPE is. Sic transit gloria for the erstwhile workshop of the world. I’m sure Mr Carter would have something to say about that, once he’s stopped spinning in his grave on his sintered bearings, still serviceable after six decades or more.

Starkey is surprisingly dirigiste for a wingnut. Perhaps he hates globalisation and its inhabitants of nowhere even more than furriners. Maybe here is a way to make a success of Brexit, with hyper-localisation, though I thought we had given industrial policy up with Thatcher in favour of Ricardian advantage and the invisible hand of market forces. Too much of a good thing can be wonderful and all that.

Maybe there is a turning point here. We could draw in our horns and make more stuff, indeed balance the economy, though I don’t think that we will have employment enough for the horny-handed New Tories of the North. But hopefully we could make shaped plastic quicker… We used to have big companies that made the raw materials, with grand sounding names like Imperial Chemical Industries.

Britain decided to maximize the amount of money we could make, by specialising in finance, and tossed an awful lot of the population’s dreams and expectations1 by the wayside. Now although I blame the borked state of the housing market squarely on Mrs T and her cursed Right to Buy sale of votes, clearly the world didn’t stay static over the intervening 40 years, so you can’t blame other pathologies of modern Britain on her. But it did set the direction of travel, a focus on the numbers and Ricardian advantage. Despite the bad rap she has for manufacturing, causal inspection of the share of GDP as manufacturing chart lower down shows that it was the Rt Hon Tony Blair who was in the wheelhouse when manufacturing got run out of town.

Our finest minds went into finance, and there’s some pretty damning critiques of the desperate lack of balance in the British economy from some of these. There’s the short form from ZXSpectrum on Monevator

The UK made a sort of Faustian bargain: low unemployment for high underemployment and low skill base. Taxpayers subsidize many corporates and SMEs, through low taxation and incentives, to provide rubbish jobs on low pay. These jobs should have been offshored to EM markets years ago. It’s unsustainable for UK workers to be paid 3-5x an EM worker for something where they offer no advantage. It’s also results in terrible productivity and low capex.

I’m clearly going to have to pay more tax after this crisis. I’d much prefer to pay people UBI so that they could stare at the ceiling, than see my tax used to subsidize Richard Branson, Mike Ashley or Phillip Green. Machine learning and AI is going to make many middle class people unemployed.

and the long form with knobs on from Tullet Prebon’s Tim Morgan

In the West, a small minority prospers, principally the CEOs of companies whose profits have surged, and bankers who gain from the expansion of the lending sector. On the other hand, the majority suffers, both because of declining wages and because of rising indebtedness.[…]

Our Tim ain’t feeling any more chipper about things now, here’s what he has to say about the much-vaunted V-shaped coronavirus recession that the markets are telling you do go buy into RIGHT NOW ‘cuz everything is up in the sky and going up. There’s an updated version of Tim’s growl H/T FI Warrior which makes the same sort of Limits To Growth angle. For the moment let’s set the LtG angle aside2. After all, I was still in short trousers when the Club of Rome said we were doomed in thirty years, and I am now within spitting distance of The Firm’s normal retirement age, after two decades of extra play.

However, it is clear that since 1980 we in Britain have designed a world of work that is a seriously shit experience for a lot of people after 40 years of TINA. In particular we shifted the UK economy to services, and created an awful lot of crap low-paid bottom end jobs, and a lot of middle-class bullshit jobs. The poor on zero-hours contracts can point to what the problem is with their service jobs. They aren’t reliable, and they aren’t enough to pay the rent, never mind a good life.

Many in the middle-class find their bullshit jobs eat their souls, though they pay OK. One of the problems of bullshit jobs is that they are like Universal Credit for the middle class without the DWP torture, they still lower productivity. Bullshit jobs produce services/goods that nobody wants or needs.

We have maximised money, but not meaning, and muddle along with misery for the many

It’s all very well to clap for our carers, but we will learn what our values are if we collectively stick our hands in our pockets and pay the poor bastards a living wage, and perhaps bring back bursaries so they don’t carry student debt. In general this crisis is highlighting that an awful lot of people who keep the wheels running for us are paid the minimum wage if they are lucky, and don’t have a minimum guaranteed hours if they are unlucky.

And, when we get to stand back a little bit from it all, we discover that an awful lot of better paid middle-class jobs are a bizarre combination of make-work and perverse incentives. F’rinstance, several years ago, we took a look at how some funding organisation was setting up a community project. The first rule of funding is that you have to fund the consultants who happen to be funded by the funders somehow, that advise you on how to use the funding, then how to get next year’s funding, how to fill in the innumerable forms to get the right ticks in the boxes so the funders feel good about the funding.

Personally, I’d pull the plug on the lot, including the National Lottery and all its good causes. There’s a lot to be said for the Hippocratic oath when it comes to fiddling with the lives of the poor. First do no harm. Betting on the horses or greyhounds in the 1960s was more honest than ‘it could be you’ but pretty definitely won’t be. I have some recollection that there was regulation of that but it appeared that the Tote established by Churchill was sold off3 to Betfred in 2008. Ain’t privatisation such a great thing, eh? I’m sure Betfred maximises the amount of money not ripped off from the punters and feeds it back to the sports. Not.

On a more collective level we end up with the deeply borked twisted mess that the DWP has become. They start with a buggered up premise from the get go, which is that work is the way out of poverty. No. It used to be, when the economy had a wide range of jobs for a wide range of talents, and we needed hod-carriers as well doctors. That was forty years ago, guys.

That’s just not true any more, because: globalisation. There are many people in the UK whose skills aren’t up to adding enough value, because it is cheaper to go to somewhere where the cost of living is cheaper and hire that function there – or build a factory to make it there and import the product.

Now there are lovely jobs and lousy jobs, and whaddya know, there are a lot more lousy jobs than lovely jobs. This was spotted 17 years ago, it’s not new. You can’t make a lovely life out of lousy jobs.

That is why they don’t make pumps in London any more – they make money in London, and making pumps is just too low value-add compared with making money.

That isn’t to say we make nothing in Britain any more – the added value of manufacturing has been sort of retained, even as the share of GDP has dropped like a stone

Share of GDP added by the manufacturing sector as percent of GDP
Added value of manufacturing, bn USD, probably slightly declining over time given 30 years of inflation probably make 500bn 2020’s US$ worth less than 300bn US$ in 1990

So what, many might say. After all, my Dad was notably hard of hearing by my age due to working in a glass bottling plant, and he was stone deaf by the time he cashed in his chips.

People may wax lyrical about the mining community spirits but it was still a pretty ghastly tough job. There’s not that much great about a lot of manufacturing jobs, because wrangling Stuff tends to be physical, noisy and hard work. The younger ermine thought I would have to leave the electronics industry due to getting asthma. That first company was probably not COSHH-compliant. The problem turned out to be that we would wash circuit boards in boiling Arklone with the instruction never fall to the floor in that room, because the vapour is heavier than air. I never had trouble with asthma4 since leaving that first job after a year, though soldering was still part of the electronics industry, and fume extraction was not a thing until a few more years. As a design engineer and then research engineer I didn’t do enough soldering for that to be an issue.

Many manufacturing jobs were bad for you, but an awful lot of modern service jobs are shit in a different way. At least many of the problems in manufacturing were soluble with PPE and automation, whereas many service jobs seem to gravitate towards low-end minimum wage zero hour contracts that you can’t live or die on. The micromanagement and metrics of some middle-class jobs lead to chronic stress and the associated strokes/heart attacks.

In Britain Thatcher inaugurated the practice of buying votes by raising house prices. This was achieved by destroying social housing, giving bungs to people who were too poor to buy a house. Credit was expanded massively with banks going into the home lending market. In 1989 a young Ermine as a single man stupidly bought a house on 3.5 times earnings. Apparently you can still do that oop North, but according to the ONS your average English first time buyer earns5 52k, saves one year’s earnings and spunks 237k on the house.

Over a couple of generations, that means a higher level of housing precarity, though house owners feel good about higher nominal values, and they increase inequality by favouring their own children with the loot when they die. Those not so blessed with ancestral wealth also take a hit from BTL landlords hoovering up starter homes, because homeowners are of the view that bricks and mortar = money tree. Present company excepted, that is…

One thing I have always thought would be a good way to eliminate a lot of what’s gone wrong with employment practices is to terminate all agencies and middlemen. If somebody pays you to pay someone else to do something then you are skimming, and should be run out of town. We did it to wholesalers of Stuff, let’s repeat the exercise to wholesalers of people. The Firm used to employ its cleaners directly. They saved money by outsourcing that, goodbye paid holiday and sick pay. Agency is a fancy name for gangmaster. Oddly enough digitalisation has greatly disintermediated buying and selling stuff, but has greatly intermediated employment with agencies and job-search platforms.

What could we do better?

We will have less Stuff. Probably fewer Services. It’s not all bad – you might get to see your kids more. Here are some things I would like to happen. I’m sticking with the UK here, we seem to want the world to get a larger place what with Brexit etc and I am nowhere near clever enough to fix anything wider, but I could probably match the current shower in charge of the UK in basic competence. Ain’tcha glad I’m not in charge. huh?

1) Destroy the low-cost leisure airline industry. Burn it, and encase the memory that it ever happened in glass and concrete, and bury it so deep nobody will ever find it for five thousand years.

Easyjet will resume domestic flights in mid June. There is absolutely no need for domestic flights in the UK ever. Britain is not that big – we aren’t Australia or the United States. I want to see EasyJet, Ryanair, the lot of them destroyed and the ground that low-cost airlines grew in salted and burned. If you have grandchildren, you don’t need low-cost airlines. Because: their world when they are your age.  Let’s quietly ignore the possibility that air travel got Europe into serious shit in March according to the ECDC. The original mistake wasn’t malicious – people weren’t to know then. However, after what happened, if you postulate air bridges – well, it pretty much sums up air travel all round. No externality is important enough to constrain the God Given right to cheap air travel. This is not about people starving like the Berlin Airlift, it’s about the right to fight for towels on a packed beach.

Zooming out, you will never electrify air travel. Sure, you might be able to do it technically in a couple of decades, but you have to plug the entire output of Sizewell B power station into a future electric 747 for an hour to achieve one long-haul flight. Even if you don’t give a shit about climate change or know for a fact it’s all a Deep State cabal, just how much nuclear waste to you want those grandchildren to have to deal with to keep up your flying habit? People used to have one annual family holiday to foreign parts. If we could make work less hateful, perhaps we might not need to run away from it so often. As for commuting by air…

Right, capt'n, where do I plug this sucker in? Photo Dave Croker, Geograph
Right, capt’n, where do I plug this sucker in? Photo Dave Croker, Geograph

I really hate the low cost airline industry. It fucks up our skies which is patently obvious now, it generates needless unholy rumble through most of the day and encroaching onto the nights, it ruins your kids’ future worlds,  it facilitates stag party twattishness, it makes places like Barcelona nd Amsterdam crap. It’s just gone too far. If coronavirus can kill it that is all to the good IMO. Less is more. It’s a proxy for the pathologies inherent in late stage capitalism. It just doesn’t know when to bloody well stop. More is not always better.

2) A four day week isn’t a bad idea, along the lines of making work less hateful

3) Do something about crap jobs. Automate the ones that aren’t worth doing, pay the ones that are worth doing a living wage.

4) String up anybody who even thinks “work is the way out of poverty”  – it hasn’t been for 40 years and it never will be. Talent that matches well paid work opportunities and luck are the route out of poverty, and neither are something you have overwhelming influence over. You can play a good hand well, but you can’t do anything with a weak hand, the opportunities just aren’t there. We have specialised too much.

5) Fix Universal Credit. Turn it into a universal basic income, or for all I care universal basic services. Or at least be honest and say we believe some people’s lives are worthless, we aren’t going to get involved, we don’t give a shit, and basically, kill ’em all. If we can pay Endemol to round up Iain Duncan Smith and have him live a month on UC that should be good for a laugh, too.

6) Destroy bullshit jobs. A Universal Income/Services would save the waste of human potential. And the trees. And reduce the pressure on the transport system.

6) Think about how we feel about poverty. If we collectively are chilled about it, there are enough dystopian way pointers on how to deal with it. If we aren’t, then finding some way of learning to live within our means will mean rationing of some things. Probably including air travel,  and probably including other popular lifestyle choices.

7) Reinstate previous generations’ controls on ownership and share of media6. There was an awful lot wrong with the media in the UK before Mrs T gave it to Murdoch, but I would suggest that while the cure eliminated the disease, the pathology metastasized into something worse. There was at least plurality in the previous disease.

Ain’tcha really glad I’m not in charge? Before I take too much heat for the air travel, note many people would have more time in an Ermine world, you can get to your Alpine skiing second, third, fourth holiday by Eurostar. I’m only coming for your second and up air travel holidays. We’ve probably got enough world for the air travel of the 1990s. But not the amount in 2020 BCV.

How about that Limits to Growth stuff?

It is possible that this second global financial crisis of the new Millennium is the result of systemic overreach as described by the Club of Rome. Let’s not beat about the bush here- the prognosis for FIRE is dire in this case. If you aren’t there you’re not getting there, and if you are there you may not stay there, and yes, that’s me too. The problem is an overhang of debt accumulated, this covered up the fact that global production hasn’t kept up with global population, and some of the limiting inputs to production are becoming exhausted. These are claims on future resources that will not be honoured because they just aren’t possible.

That narrative makes a lot of sense, but there are other stories playing out. For starters old men have been saying the world is going titsup ever since Roman times and probably before.

an alternative – Spenglerian decline

Secondly there is a power shift in play – the ascendancy of China and the East in general, which is a longer example of the cycles of the Imperial decline of the West. These were the European empires of Victorian times, of which the best know example was of course the British Empire, but I would also say that the American Empire is also into decline, the Project for a New American Century looks like a Spenglerian dream gone wrong.

Old men dreaming of past Imperial glories, back in the last century. Diddums. Now where have we heard that recently?

Trump and Brexit both express nostalgia for past exceptionalism, but this is not just a pathology of the Anglosphere, it’s writ across the Western world IMO.

Spengler’s – The Decline of the West was written a hundred years ago, and the narrative runs true to form, and it predates the Club of Rome by fifty years. Like Asimov in Foundation, Spengler did not predict a catastrophic fall, but a protracted decline. That’s pretty much what this looks like to me. Maybe the Chinese will fix air travel with small fusion nuclear reactors that won’t spew foul shit everywhere in the event of a crash. Maybe we will have five thousand years of darkness until the new Imperium rises. Hopefully humanity will have learned a thing or two across the interregnum.

We could make a better world, and for all I know this may be the impulse that makes us ask some tough questions about would we want to end up here if we started along the track that got us here. We could start with the question anybody contemplating FIRE asks themselves.

Is our current level and form of consumption the optimal way to live, or is there a better way to optimise our experience?

But I fear we will let the crisis go to waste. The desperate urge to get air travel going again is symbolic of the driving impulse for a snap back to how things were before. There’s all sorts of special interest pleading to get back to the status quo.

A lot of that is understandable – this has been a sudden stop for an awful lot of economic activity. But it isn’t unheard of for us to say ‘we want to see less of this sort of economic activity in future’, usually because it has undesirable outcomes, usually externalities, costs paid for by other people who often don’t get a say or a share of the economic advantages.

It won’t happen. The drive towards a snap back is strong, and the countervailing forces are weak and disorganised. Macchiavelli was right

“there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new. This coolness arises partly from fear of the opponents, who have the laws on their side, and partly from the incredulity of men, who do not readily believe in new things until they have had a long experience of them.”


  1. The dreams include raising children, having jobs that you could plan a life on, being able to buy a house. The reason their dreams were tossed by the wayside is because they don’t have the aptitudes for high finance. That’s the problem with doing one thing overwhelmingly well, you tend to suck at other things. Specialisation is for insects 
  2. If you want to see how Limits to Growth is going now, take a look at the thirty years on update. It ain’t looking good. 
  3. Blair’s government should be charged with the original idea and doing all the groundwork for this, even though the next government actually pulled the trigger. New Labour was no friend of the statistically illiterate working classes, since t’was they who inaugurated the National Lottery to happen. 
  4. Curiously enough the OSHA doesn’t cite getting asthma as a side effect of CFCs, they reckon it causes you heart problems. You can get away with anything in your 20’s, eh 😉 OTOH the datasheet seems to say respiratory problems were possible. 
  5. I can’t work out if earns means individually or collectively, best not have kids in that house if collectively given what young children do for the household income, eh? 
  6. Goldsmith’s College have a longer form report on UK media shares/ownership  

Musings on misadventure and market madness

I was listening to a young fellow on the radio who delivered himself of the observation that in lockdown the days are long but the weeks are short, and thought to myself there is wisdom in this 24 year old fellow.

It reminded me of Gretchen Rubin’s similar observation, that I watched on my office PC in my last month at work. If only I had seen that in the low-water mark early in 2011, half-way through my dispiriting passage out of the workplace. The half-way point in any long term goal is always tough, for you have committed enough resources to preclude other courses of action. And yet the final destination is not yet in sight. Rubin’s narration is cheesy as hell, as pretty much anything that involves parents talking about children is. But it is fluent. Part of our problem now is that we don’t know how long it will go on for. These days are long, and make for rumination. Such as

Did I err in jumping out of the market?

I jumped out of a lot of stuff in the second week of March. To put it into perspective I still have two-thirds of my holdings in my Iweb ISA. All my VWRL, all my HYP from way back. But I did make tactical errors in continuing to buy a little bit in 2019 despite the high valuations, although a lot of what I did buy was bonds and gold. But I bought some more VUKE in 2019. Bad move.

I sold all my VUKE, and other stuff I didn’t love. I have a Google spreadsheet of those sales, and it updates the current market values with the Googlefinance option. Those sales are still well worth having made, but the notional reduced losses have fallen by two thirds, because I did not account for the wall of money that was created and thrown into the system. This is not a crisis of confidence. It is an exogenous shock to the system. So far that has been rugby-tackled to the ground, in the view of the stock market, by a wall of money. Jolly good for the market, and us as asset holders. It’s a little bit shit for everyone else, though, no?

The hazard has changed from losses to inflation IMO

I am badly exposed to inflation in the long term, because half my income is an annuity, albeit with some inflation protection, but only up to 5% p.a. Any time inflation goes above that, I get permanently poorer for the rest of my life in terms of income.

Now to get this into perspective, there’s only a need for the tiniest of violins. There is some awesomely bad shit going down. Deaths are up, running about twice average for the time of year. As for the living, many people have lost 100% of their income, and there are some poor bastards who are sleeping on the mean streets of London because they used to work in restaurants and live in lodgings. Now they have no job, no money and no home. Half of the world’s workers’ jobs are under threat. The UK seems to be making a particular bugger’s muddle of handling coronavirus.

The John Hopkins tracker currently shows the UK has roughly 10% of the world’s Covid-19 deaths, which is a little bit crap for a country with 0.87% of the world’s population. Let’s hope that the good folk in London who are of the opinion that most people in the city have been exposed but were asymptomatic are right, because if this is what success looks like I hate to think what the face of failure is. At the moment if you’re a confirmed case1 you have the same chance of pushing up daisies as playing Russian roulette. Let’s look on the bright side. You’re likely to join Graham Greene on the side of the living. But the odds aren’t terriffic. Enter a hospital in the UK and they put two bullets in the chamber before spinning it. You really don’t want to see Arnie  in your hallucinatory dreams in the ICU, do you? Continue reading “Musings on misadventure and market madness”