An insight into the consumer heart of darkness of watches

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

The paradox of choice makes me think better

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Self-seeking vacuum cleaner manufacturers lambast energy efficiency moves

Consumerism, don’tcha love it. Take the humble vacuum cleaner – invented around the turn of the last century. They served previous generations well, given our Northern European habit of carpeting homes. In much of the rest of the world people use hard surfaces for floors like wood or tiles, but that’s a bit chilly in winter. Hence the need to clean carpets using technology more advanced than a broom or a mop.

In a curious marketing arms race started by that James Dyson fellow, what was once a pedestrian and functional piece of kit throughout the 1970s and 1980s after being perfected over the previous 50 years became an aspirational product with innovation for the sake of it – one obvious problem was solved and a few more subtle ones introduced. Consumerism loves that sort of thing – make big positive changes and introduce faults that take time to develop – you only find out about the irritations as you own the product. It also became a damn sight more noisy that it used to be, with a particularly horrible high-frequency whine, in the case of the Dyson DC03 I used to have. Yeah, I was that middle class consumer suckered by the hype. The Dyson was a lot harder to troubleshoot. There were only four things that could go wrong with a bag-ful vacuum cleaner. The bag filled up, something got stuck in the intake hose or something jammed the brush roller, and all of these were something that were easily visible to the untrained householder. The fourth thing was the motor burning out, and you could smell that 🙂

Compared with that the airflow of my old DC03 had loads of rubber seals, plastic channels that would crack under use and the whole thing gradually degraded so it was replaced after changing lots of expensive parts because it lacked suction compared to the basic Henry vac in a church hall we hired. I pulled it apart to see if there was anything worth salvaging, expecting to see all sorts of high-tech wondrousness. And was greeted with a bog-standard universal motor – so much for all the high-tech wizardry, eh, James? I don’t doubt the cleverness of the cyclone engineering, but it was the marketing of a new, and ultimately not very useful, technology that enabled you to jack up prices in the 1990s. Yes, bags make the suction fade, but the consumer can fix that. Whereas whatever made the DC03 fade over a few years wasn’t replaceable by a reasonably technical consumer – for all I know the usual little lumps that get sucked into the airways and trashed the plastic channels I replaced may have knackered the cyclone bit. I always hated that DC03 for the earache, anyway, glad to see the back of it 🙂

Vacuum cleaners are now marketed by the power of the motor, which seems to be pure specmanship and lazy engineering. Previous generations worked in dirty manual industries, their kids played out in the street and garden rather than sitting in front of the computer. These generations were served by vacuum cleaners that were specified in hundreds of watts – I recall being surprised in the late 1980s to see a Miele vacuum cleaner that was rated at 1100W on the high range. So the question has to be asked, if one and a bit horsepower[ref]one horse is good for about 750Watts – your can call on the rippling muscles of nearly three from one UK socket – ain’t modern technology marvellous[/ref]was enough to clean the homes of our grandparents with their grubby street urchins, why do we now all of a sudden need the power of three horses running flat-out to clean a carpet?

Apparently, according to Which,and Dyson  an affront is being perpetrated on the human rights of European consumers by those pesky bureaucrats in Brussels limiting vacuum cleaner motor powers to 1600W, one and a half times the power of the machine that surprised me 20 years ago. It’s still more than two horsepower – people used to deliver coal and collect scrap metal with less power than that.

Right. So you're telling me that after 100 years of impovement, you need more power to clean your carpet than this guy needed to haul tons of coal? Ain't progress marvellous, and don't spare the horses...
Right. So you’re telling me that after 100 years of vacuum cleaner refinement, you need more power to clean your carpet than was needed to haul tons of coal? Ain’t progress marvellous, and don’t spare the horses…

Now some pieces of technology have been reasonably perfected for the requirements most consumers have of them. The bicycle, screwdriver, the pen and paper, the digital SLR and many others. It’s not that innovation isn’t possible in any of these, but 90% of users’ needs are met adequately. The vacuum cleaner reached this stage by the beginning of the 1980s – my experience of Mr Dyson’s much vaunted advances were mixed – great at the start but hellaciously noisy, and, to be honest, overpriced to boot as well as fading over the years and being fiddly to maintain.

I’m with the Eurocrats here – you don’t need three horsepower to clean a domestic carpet, and motor power doesn’t seem to be turned that well into sucking power. This is specmanship and marketing spin, and more power means more weight and more noise. It’s easy to sell something on a number, but after more than a century of making vacuum cleaners this isn’t a high-tech market in its infancy.

Also if you have to make more vacuum cleaning stuff to sell to people to make them buy things they don’t need ,why not go the Roomba route – at least it’s genuine innovation in one aspect, rather than just making the motor bigger, noisier and heavier so the marketing droids can push the bigger number? Then at least you can use the time you save to go to work to pay for it. The very fact that people will put up with a Roomba, which clearly doesn’t have a three-horsepower motor[ref]very few things powered by batteries have a 3hp motor. And yes, total energy consumed is a function of power and time – even there it seems the Roomba scores relative to one of those eighties-powered units of 2/3 the new EU limit, never mind a 2010 behemoth, and there are many extra inefficiencies to a Roomba)[/ref] shows you don’t need stupendous amounts of power. One horse power, maybe. Knock yourself out with the power of two horses – the eurocrats are easy with that too.


It’s when you running the same sort of power  that used to pull a coach and horses up the Great North Road that you have to ask yourself whether you aren’t just being suckered by specmanship.

More power, more noise and more weight  is not the answer. Let’s hear it from Mrs Kingsland – whose machine failed in service after 70 years of cleaning her B&Bs. Apparently the new one is quieter – but too big and heavy 😉 They don’t make ’em like they used to, eh?

Fight consumerism – get time on your side

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

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

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

First, check out the enemy

the credit problem

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

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

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

Benjamin Barber, Rutgers University

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

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

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

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

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

Benjamin Barber, Rutgers University

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

Don’t spend more than you earn, son

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

the Buy It Now problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

increasingly things are being sold in a dishonest and gamified way

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

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

case study:  buying an app to play a mixtape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

update 9 July 15:00 –

Another great example of this came through my door

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

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

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

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

create more, consume less – it’s cheaper and more fun

The Ermine household decamped to North Norfolk over the last week, to reflect upon the world, eat seafood and wonder on the meaning of life. The North Norfolk coast is an unspoiled part of the country noted for its birdlife and fine beer.

North Norfolk
North Norfolk

It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been up here, we rented a cottage for the week in Brancaster. Mrs Ermine delivered herself of the opinion that the coast was becoming “chi-chi” which I think means gentrified somewhat. . Burnham Market seems to have become a kind of culinary haven. There was lots of reasonably tasteful housebuilding going on on the south side of the coast road, though the usual 3,4,5 bedroom sizes, ‘cos house building is more profitable at the ‘executive homes’ end of the market, so all the people who are making things happen for the holidaymakers seem to have moved to the towns such as Hunstanton. On the personal finance angle this sort of thing gave me the willies –

Help to Buy
Help to Buy – don’t do it

Seriously, good people of Hunstanton, don’t do it to yourselves. I bought my first house with effectively an 80% mortgage in one of these pump-up-the-market fiascos in ’89 – I had 20% down and I bitterly regretted it. House prices don’t always go up. If you have only got 1/20th of the cash to buy a house and need a mortgage for the rest then you can’t afford to take out a mortgage when interest rates are at historic lows because you will be killed when they rise. I paid 14% at one time. But you won’t listen, so the best of British luck to you, you’re gonna need it…

Aye, it could get you moving. Could get you repossessed later on, too...
Aye, it could get you moving. Could get you repossessed later on, too…

However, my third holiday of the year seemed to be a good time to ponder on that numinous quantity known as ‘living life to the full’. I normally hear the latter in terms of ‘I want to spend loadsamoney on manufactured experiences and extreme sports on the few days that The Man lets me off the leash, which is why I need to spend more than I earn, and YOLO[ref]I like the Urban Dictionary’s definition of ‘The dumbass’s excuse for something stupid that they did'[/ref]

My journey out of the rat-race wasn’t as measured as, say RIT, who carefully plans it and track progress. However, I did discover some odd things about my life as a consumer, and then as a consumer of less. I discovered some of these by sounding the extremes – by first consuming at a average middle class level (couple of foreign holidays, Sky TV[ref]DxGF was the main consumer, I didn’t miss it after we parted[/ref], loads of driving etc) and then by slamming the brakes on – no foreign holidays for a few years. Like many things in life, the optimum is to be found not at the extremes, but somewhere in between. However, it is surprising how far towards the low-consumption end the optimum is, for me.

You see, the trouble is that we humans are creatures of difference – we observe things as dynamic contrast, rather than absolute levels. This is good, in a way, because it helps us adapt to the stupendous variation in the natural world. We can see a candlelit face, and recognise the same in full sun – we pick out the differences in shade, not the absolute levels. We do that at the macro level too – too many studies show that happiness is in our relative position to others in many things. We all want to be king of the hill, and consumerism increasingly plays towards this ‘lifestyle’ element.

I was able to break the hold because the experience of working was worse than the upside of consuming, but the aim of marketing is to keep us in the zone – where there are improvements to be had, but that each hit gives us the feel of a slightly improved lifestyle. It struck me when I inquired of Quicken[ref]Intuit’s Quicken, and Microsoft Money, were programs on a PC that used to be the ways people tracked spending before we all decided to surrender control, lose resilience and invite all sorts of bad guys to observe our finances using web-based ‘services’ in The Cloud. I don’t do Cloud, unless broadcasting is the nature of the product, I think it’s mad, insecure and leaves you hostages to fortune as companies turn things off or hike fees.[/ref]  how things had turned out since I left work.


An Ermine's net worth
An Ermine’s free cash net worth


Although Mr Micawber wouldn’t approve[ref]This is the reason why early retirees are usually advised to retain their mortgage and not pay it down before they draw their pension. They can smooth out the suckout in income during the intercession between stopping work and getting hold of their pension commencement lump sum, which they then use to discharge the mortgage. I will have to invest mine.[/ref], it isn’t a precipitous crash, and, indeed, since the original plan was predicated on a two or three year stretch before I draw my pension, and I am nearly a year and a half on, I actually have more options than at the start. Quicken seems to indicate I’d have about four more years of burn from now before I’d have to start liquidating non-ISA holdings.

This is a subset of what most PF folk count as net worth. It doesn’t include my house, because despite what some people say, it isn’t part of my financial net worth 😉 I list my non-ISA investment portfolio at the price it cost me to buy,  underestimating it because a lot of this was stock options, and The Firm has been going strong since 2009. Some of the drift upwards early in 2013 wasn’t moonlighting, it was taking vesting stock options onto my books at option price. It shows nothing of my pension, either the AVCs that I poured money into for three years nor the capital equivalent value of the main pension. I don’t count what I can’t touch.  It doesn’t show the value of my ISA, because I can’t make Quicken show it at purchase price – it always uprates the value from the last transaction. If I allowed Quicken to include the ISA it seem to indicate a gradual rise in free cash net worth, which is barmy – my total income is a long way below the personal tax threshold, and stock gains aren’t real till you either take the divi or sell up. It appears the Man from the Clapham Omnibus is back in town, which roughly translated means the figure for market value at the bottom of my ISA statement is overvalued compared with what it should be. I struggled to find value earlier in the year so I did a Bed and ISA capital gains defuse rather than buy.

Quicken is all about cold hard cash going in and out. It tracks the bills going out and non-ISA dividends and stuff coming in, because I take all my dividends as cash. It’s a shame that there’s no decent alternative to Quicken, which is ten years old and no longer downloads stock prices. I did look at alternatives to this over 10-year old program, but unlike MMM I just don’t do cloud.

What every wannabe early retiree is scared of, while working, is that they quit and find their expenses are a lot higher than they anticipated. I was scared of this too over three years ago. I was really scared of it when I retired as such, because once your rattle over the tracks past the point of no return there is no way back. It caused me to over-estimate spending, big-time.

It also caused me to underestimate income. Share dividends come in ratty little onesy-twosey bits, but they add up over time. I’ve only ever had one main source of income, and I find it hard to see small bits that rattle in from disparate holdings as income, it just doesn’t feel real. Although Quicken counts them in, I don’t know how to budget for that.

Why did I over-estimate spending so badly?

There are some things that are easier to see in the rear-view mirror. Working really screws up your life in some ways. It means you have to buy control over some things, and pack the rest of your life into evenings, weekends and four to six week’s annual holiday. It pays you handsomely, hopefully, so you can pay for that control, you can buy experiences that are as much unlike work as possible and try and recover in that time, it makes you pay for other people to do what you may be able to do yourself. And it’s really, really, amazing how much that adds up. It’s not just amazing, it’s actually quite scary. If I’d know that earlier I would have done quite a lot of things differently.

And yet, that doesn’t totally explain the dramatic over-estimation. I pinched the title from this great article which pointed to another reason – because the blog is the Art of Manliness it talks to the masculine but I don’t think it’s just a guy thing –

Men have an inherent desire to be creators, to change the landscape, to turn wood into furniture, to transform a blank canvas into a work of art-to alter the world and leave a legacy. It’s the denial of this aspect of manliness that is perhaps most plaguing modern men. Young men are taught to think of life past 30 as a certain death, a time when they have to stop being selfish and live for others. The paradox that’s never talked about is that consuming is the real dead end when it comes to happiness. Your mind gets caught in an fruitless cycle-new experiences initially give you intense pleasure, but the more you consume of it, the more saturated your pleasure sensors become until you have to ratchet up the intensity and quantity of the experience to get the same “high” you used to. And the cycle endlessly continues.

I did some of this – all the way from teenage years to my 40s I was creative, outside work I would develop things and design stuff, poke around on how things worked. But slowly the wellspring of creativity dried and I became that consumer. I had plenty of hints of consumerism earlier in life with too much spent on hi-fi and photography, but as a form of anomie started to settle in as I found the workplace more alienating my creativity fell away and passive consumption rose.

It was a vicious circle, because it started to rob meaning – the process of originating, creating, directing and learning and becoming more aware is part of what I find gives meaning to life. I’m uncomfortable with some of the Calvinist terminology in the AoM post, but I admire its resonance with some degree of inner truth. I may not share their terminology or world-view, but I recognise the map and the territory described. As working life faded to grey after two or three decades, I became reactive. In build resiliency by taking control they have a summary of the characteristics of having an internal or external locus of control

Those with an internal locus of control:

  1. Are confident that they can be successful.
  2. Tend to be leaders (leading those with an external locus of control).
  3. Exhibit greater control over their behaviour.
  4. Seek to learn as much as they can.
  5. Take personal responsibility for their actions.
  6. Deal with challenge and stress better.
  7. Use challenges to come out stronger than before.
  8. Thrive in the midst of change.
  9. Are less likely to submit to authority.

Those with an external locus of control:

  1. Feel like they’re a victim.
  2. Are quick to blame everyone but themselves.
  3. Want to be led by others.
  4. Avoid responsibility.
  5. Are more prone to stress, anxiety, and depression

Here’s a test you can take to observe your own Locus of Control. To me its 1966 provenance shows in the unusual question bias, but I guess the principles still hold.

If I lose internal reference I drift towards the second list. As a younger Ermine (20-40) I had more characteristics from the first list, particularly 1,4 and 9, although I was weak on 5, tending to blame circumstances though fighting them nevertheless. And as far as the right royal shafting I took from the housing market I had 1 and 2 off the second list in spades – I could whinge like the best, just 20 years early 😉 But at least I did do something about it.

From 40 onwards though I made some progress outside of work intellectual creativity began to fade, part of this was rising up the greasy pole, and part of it was shifts in work from electronics design to software design, then networking, all coinciding with increasing managerial role while The Firm was getting less hierarchical but more command and control[ref]When I started as a grunt in 1988 I could sign a purchase order for up to £500. When I was working on the Olympics in 2012 I had to get rail tickets authorised in advance from two levels up[/ref]. Once upon a time I probably had the potential to be outstanding with electronics design, just as The Firm moved away from that. It obviously wasn’t such a burning ambition as else I would have switched job, maybe moved to Cambridge which has numerous little companies in need of designers. I learned to be mostly competent at software but code is probably something where you should have started in your teens if you want to be brilliant at it. I was too broadly based whereas what IT wants nowadays  is depth – I’d programmed in Pascal, Modula-2, C, c#, c++, Visual Basic, Z80, assembler, Perl, PHP, Python, Javascript, Java, ASP – a motley mishmash of technologies depending on what I was doing at the time.

IT networking bores me senseless, I could do it serviceably but all the daftness of Cisco accreditation[ref]the world of IT networking involves Cisco (or vendor of choice) accreditation exams, which, I’m sorry, but in my view are a combination of vendor lock-in, memory tests and low-level technician qualifications about how to use the specific unix-like command set and feature set of the specific boxes. And it’ll be outsourced to India by the time I manage to cram all that stuff, after all, connecting disparate locations together is what computer networking does to earn its rent, and it’s easy enough to remote the management network.[/ref] struck me as tedious. and by the time that became the Next Big Thing at The Firm I was burned out, and displayed too many characteristics of the second list. I never looked to work to give meaning to life the way many do, but I wanted to at least pass the time doing something vaguely interesting that offered challenge. Anomie is a warning sign that says ‘Self, thou art not true to thyself’ but like many such warning signs they only become apparent once you have passed the point of no return. By the time I got that way I was well into List 2 territory, and an external signal was necessary.

The Pleasure of Walking Tall (cringe)
A Man with Savings…doesn’t have to kiss The Man’s ass…

It came in a performance review in 2009 that I interpreted as a charge of incompetence. One project had collapsed, I hadn’t found another, and this manager was fitting a distribution that was squeezed down because of some ghastly Group financial results. [ref]There was a financial silver lining in that a sharesave came out right at the low-water mark -I dropped every single previous scheme I had running to reallocate to that one, split across the three and five year terms, because I didn’t know how long I could stick it for. These, plus a lot of Share Incentive Programme shares  are a large lump of my non-ISA shareholdings and The Firm is now working for me rather than the other way round.[/ref]

The narrative I told myself in the next three years until I retired was that this was a dreadful experience in which I lost – the wheels came off a a serviceable career as it exploded on me in the home straight. However, on reflection, it discounts an important part of the story, once again, one of those things that is clearer in the rear-view mirror than as you drive over it. In one way this tosspot did me a favour, because he made me angry. The signal reached the jammed creative centre, and a spark was struck across the fallen poles, and I remembered the values of the first list. I decided that I really was an awkward bastard and didn’t want anybody being able to push me around like that. It helped that I soon found out this manager had had a new baby (he was in his early 40s and on a second marriage) and was therefore particularly financially fearful himself in those troubled times of 2009 and needed the security. He was the antithesis of where I wanted to be – The Man owned his ass. As The Pleasure of Walking Tall narrates, the point of having savings is not to end up in that sort of hole. So I needed to get me some, and sharp.

Two days later I committed savings to filling a Cash ISA, and two weeks later I read this and opened an III S&S ISA all before the financial year end, to clear the way to repeat the exercise the next month, derisking the impact of getting ejected from the company. An internal application launched earlier paid off and The Firm discovered I had a unique skill they needed for the Olympics work.

Although I perpetrated a bit of old trading  folly in the ISA at first before I straightened myself out and learned some of the art of sitting on my hands, the next year I read this and got myself onto the right track. One of the entries in my ISA, Merchant’s Trust is still one of my favourite portfolio lines because buying that marked my transition from a trader to an investor. I still look at it fondly, because MRCH has now repaid me 1/5th of my capital stake in dividends over the years and appreciated in value by about 50%, it’s the oldest holding I have. Other shares have appreciated by more, and I was far too slow to build on that by buying other investment trusts on a discount but it marked the turning point, and a shift from thinking like #1 on List 2 to #1 on List 1. I was repossessing my locus of control, and MRCH gave me hope when I needed it that this investing malarkey could work to help me gain control of my financial destiny. I built on that, although it is my non-ISA investments and other motley bits that have headed off the expected decline in cash networth sine 2012, the ISA is growing well.

It’s a gradual shift in perspective, to come to see this manager not just as someone who stiffed me to save themselves, but also as a wraith that woke the slumbering pilot at the controls drifting aimlessly in the foggy murk. The external signal highlighted what I needed to do and the choices before me. The low-risk option was to try and find a job elsewhere, and the long shot was to chance it and buy my way out of the rat-race. I favoured the latter, because it attacked the cause, another job would have been attacking the symptoms. I didn’t want to appease The Man, I wanted to eliminate the sonofabitch from my life. That needed three years – however I sliced the spreadsheets it was going to take that long[ref]on the original spending assumptions – in hindsight I could have probably done it earlier[/ref].

Casual consumption showed up as something that was standing in my way, and by force of will I grounded as much of it as possible. An awful lot of people call casual consumption ‘living life to the full’ which is great if it works for them, but it doesn’t wash for me. Meaning doesn’t come for me with what I buy, it comes from what I do and what I am. It’s funny how easily The Man gets people to identify with an advertising slogan so they keep working for him. Inadvertently I discovered what the AoM said was true

Your mind gets caught in an fruitless cycle-new experiences initially give you intense pleasure, but the more you consume of it, the more saturated your pleasure sensors become until you have to ratchet up the intensity and quantity of the experience to get the same “high” you used to. And the cycle endlessly continues.

You only get to see that in the rear-view mirror after you’ve won the battle, the sulphurous stench of the slayed dragon stinks up the place and you wonder how you missed it for so long. Maybe it’s swept away in the tailwind of all that consumption.  Now I wasn’t exceptionally susceptible to consumerism – I didn’t do consumer debt f’rinstance, but it still called me off course. Consumerism is designed to do that, it’s how profits are made, by getting people to think they want things that they don’t need, and getting them to depend on stuff for their happiness. This is, indeed, being honed to a higher plane as I write – businesses are increasingly selling experiences rather than Stuff, and even experiences that ‘lead to personal transformation’. If you think about it, paying someone to transform you is a little bit bizarre, perhaps with the exception of medical intervention. Take Weight-Watchers for example. Customers are basically paying the company in the hope of avoiding using self-control. After all it’s fairly well-known how you get fat – you eat too much[ref]For the likely customers of Weight Watchers it’s not about exercise. Although there are good health reasons to do exercise, for non-athletes the effort of the amount of exercise you need to do to burn off calories is unrealistic compared to the effort of not eating them in the first place – most of the win is in consuming less IMO[/ref]. Apparently doctors

should also explain to patients “how much motivation and commitment” is needed to complete weight management schemes and that enrolling on one will not be a “magic bullet”.

No shit Sherlock. If this comes as news to you then I’d say your weight is not necessarily your most pressing problem…

Consume Less – YOLO and life is too short to sell it for trinkets and baubles when you can create more

I shot the beast of Consumerism in the three years of saving, and that is long enough to break the chain, I don’t identify with what I buy any more. If I have a requirement, I will go on the Net and see if I can find something that will help me with that at a price I am prepared to pay.  And it’s increasingly tools that I want to pay for, that help me transform my world, and create stuff.

Consumerism tries to make everything easy for a price, but it carries the corollary, that in making everything easy, the blade of directing your path through life loses its edge. It  holds people in thrall to working for The Man and weakens their ability to take action to shift their destiny. And it did that to me. I’m not inviting this sucker back into my life any time real soon, though I shall make peace with it.

As a welcome side-effect of that my costs go down. I hear from other retirees that they were often pleasantly surprised by the lower spending rate. So much of consumer spending is compensating for flushing away one’s life 8 hours a day, five days a week. It doesn’t hold for everybody, there are many people who do enjoy what they do at work and the way in which they do it, though the latter seems to be dropping away with the way finance seems to drive human values out of managing people at work.

What do I spend less on –

  • cars. I sold my car soon after retiring and the ermine household is a one-car household. If I wanted to enterprise rent-a-car is just up the road but I haven’t felt any need
  • transport generally. I walk a lot more, and I’m ready to fit in with other people for rides – to lend a hand in return for seeing new places, I have a perfectly serviceable bicycle
  • holidays (compared to my wage-slave self, not ultra-frugal Saving Madly self) – I go on holiday more often, but fit in with other opportunities. Like going to a campsite in the Cotswolds while Mrs Ermine was at a spa – I do the driving, get a free ride, and spas are not my thing at all so it would have been a sheer waste of money to join her 😉
  • casual eating out
  • anything to do with work, natch – clothes, meals, commuting etc

What do I spend more on

  • Wine. Given up using supermarkets and I use a local firm Wines of Interest because I’m prepared to pay for people to screen out ropey wine for me. We drink less than through some of the ghastly period but better, so overall cost has gone up
  • Things to make things with – tools, components, materials. I don’t spend money on training or learning because I have time and Google is my friend 😉
  • decent eating out. The overall total is probably lower but when I do I want it good. Seems to be a theme on retirement spending – it has to be good or not at all. Better and fewer times beats often and crap

I am easy with slowly losing the fight to inflation as well as the slings and arrows of spending and monthly bills, because at the moment I have no pension income, which will more than fix that. I reinvest ISA divis back into the ISA, natch, so these don’t show. Too many people labouring away at the coalface believe that once you’d retired you end up eating roadkill by the flickering light of a paraffin lamp under the railway arches unless you have stupendous amounts of capital. Even without a pension and no access to a significant part of my savings there isn’t the precipitous fall that scenario would imply.

I can also now  strike a better balance with consumption. One of the things I discovered by cutting as much as possible out is that you do miss some gratuitous consumption. Some consumption adds colour to life, but like herbs in cooking, a little goes a long way. My biggest loss was no holidays for three years. I haven’t continued with that policy, because holidays are a lot cheaper when you have control of your time. I discovered several shorter ones more local are the right balance for me at this time – so that’s what I’ve done – three out of my four holidays this year are in the UK.

Another thing I discovered was that you get a lot more bang for the buck if your consumption is infrequent. You just notice it more and get more from it – it’s that human sensitivity to differences again. For instance, in Norfolk a couple of times we walked about fifty yards to the pub round the corner, the White Horse, to have a meal and a couple of drinks, despite having a generous stock of fine beers with us. We had discovered Tesco had an offer on Adnams bottles beforehand, so we had taken some with us.


However, there’s that dynamic contrast thing again. We could have eaten out in the White Horse every night, and indeed the first night we dined well there. It’s apparently a Telegraph favourite though Guardinistas favour it in the summer. Presumably they divide up the year that way there aren’t any fights in the bar given the differing world-views 😉

But eating out and drinking every night would have been too much, and would have doubled the cost of the holiday. A couple of times, however, was just right, and if you are going to do consumerism then savour it – infrequently but well scores over frequently and routine to me. Plus, let’s face it, you can’t do this too often

they had a wonderful plum and ice cream dessert
they had a wonderful plum and ice cream dessert

because otherwise you become a fat bastard 😉 I can vouch for the fish and chips which are a step apart from the usual pub fare, and Mrs Ermine can vouch for the mussels which are from about 100 yards away. It is a transformation when you reasise the truth of what Mr Money Mustache opined. Restaurants aren’t a place to get food. They are a place to get experience, preferably enjoying good company. At a single stroke that destroys the raison d’etre of all fast food and coffee experiences, and almost forces you to raise your game.

Consumerism isn’t inherently the devil in disguise, it is the degree to which you do it. Without thinking what is of value to you, it’s easy to end up doing way too much. RIT has a nice  post on how to qualify what matters to you and spend accordingly. I have to admit that I don’t follow his step 1. I have never run a budget – I have always used Quicken to observe and analyse spending in the rear view mirror, and adjust accordingly. But this was probably born from not spending more than I earned (using the feedback from Quicken, or the balance in my bank account before I had Quicken). Whenever I’ve tried to do a monthly budget it made me annoyed because it forced things into monthly cycles, so you’d have to divide annual spends like insurance, TV licence and road tax by 12 and they’d still catch you out. Must be just me that has the problem though. I’m absolutely behind RIT from Stage 2 onwards.

I had no idea that I could ground spending enough while still consuming at a level that gives me 80% of the enhancement of quality of life consuming can do for be with less than 20% of the cost. I underestimated the yield from non-ISA investments, which appears as cash in Quicken, paying things like bills and general running costs. More importantly, however, I consumed less than I thought I would, and created more…

Hat tip to the Art of Manliness [ref]I see absolutely no reason why this should be particularly applied to men specifically[/ref] for summarising how to control your costs and have some fun so well. It works particularly well in retirement because you control your time, but the principle is general.

Create more, consume less

Ermine in the City – Westfield, a Cathedral to Wants, not Needs

Did some work on the Olympic Park today, while it was hot. It’s the devil’s own job to get a pass to get a vehicle on site, so we ended up carrying a load of test gear on site by hand. Now on TV it doesn’t look that big, but on the ground it’s very spread out, there’s a good 10 minutes walk from one venue to another. That probably isn’t an issue for the public, as you’ll be going to the venue for the sport that you’ve got a ticket for, and there will be a shuttle bus from the entrance direct to the venue.

But after carting a load of gear for a while, it was time for an Ermine to get some refreshment. And what indeed is that before my eyes, but Westfield, shopping centre extraordinaire. Not just any shopping centre, but Official Shopping Centre of London 2012, I’ll have you know.

Westfield, welcome to the Pleasuredome

Okay, so I don’t actually need a casino at the moment, but a bite to eat and a drink, perhaps, at less that £2 together?

Official shopping centre of London 2012, apparently

I’m chuffed that centre is still spelled centre and not center, Westfield presumably paid good money to say it’s the official shopping centre. Just in case you’re too dumb to spot it’s right outside the Olympic Park. Addles the brain, too much shopping does.

When I got into Westfield I realised why nobody in Britain who has got a credit card has got any money left. The place was a cathedral to manufactured wants and solutions to problems that had to be created to exist.

Does anybody use a watch these days? So how come theres a stall selling just watches

When I ask DW if she knows what time it is, she looks at her phone. So does every other person I know. With one exception, which is me, because I don’t generally carry a mobile phone with me. So how the hell does this stall, and the many other brand-specific watch shops like Breitling and DKNY make their money?

Presumably by parting fools from it at a brisk pace. Take Breitling for a moment. Nobody in Westfield needs a chronometer to go to the Moon. We haven’t been to the Moon for 40 years. It ain’t happening any more, because the economy is shot and the fire of innovation failed under the load of too much shopping so we can’t be arsed to invent anything any more. It mattered 50 years ago, but it doesn’t now. Hey, even Neil Amstrong would probably use his iPhone if he wants to know the time now.

Shoppers of Westfield, you ain’t going to the Moon. Just use your phone

You don’t need a watch, shoppers of Westfield. Think about what you do if you want to know the time. And while we’re at it, DxGF who did use a watch in those pre-smartphone days had a nice dainty thing, ‘cos she was a girl, y’know, with smaller wrists than mine. So WTF is up with all these whopping great big gauche things nowadays, even for the gurls? Extravagant exhibitionism is the hallmark of ill-breeding and a lack of any sense of aesthetics, chavvery, indeed…

Onwards in the quest for the essentials of life, the needs, not the aspirational wants. Unfortunately The Firm has screwed down on T&S for its staff, and since this is on the ermine’s dime I am still looking for something to eat and drink for under £2 all in.

Meet Peppa Pig, exclusive wristband only in advance extra. Click to enlarge if you feel the need to meet Peppa the Pig

I look up, drawn by the soft London sunlight. Ah, another advertising opportunity here – apparently, should I so wish, I can meet Peppa Pig. Was it the Jesuits that said

“Give me the child till the age of seven and I will show you the man.”

well, it seems that Mammon has barged in on the action. Get ’em into branded merchandise early, and you’ve got ’em hooked for life.Ah, talking of branded merchandise

Apple Store with adoring fanbois and iGroupies ogling the gear from outside

here’s the Apple Store, with a few of the punters basking in the reflected glory of all things Apple. Sweet, don’tcha think? Almost like a pilgrimage to The Source of All Joy and Coolness. At no other altar to Mammon did I see the cognoscenti gathered outside to pay homage like that.

Why do I need a network of brands in a cathedral of brands?

So red. So gaudy. What exactly is a network of brands? WTF do they sell, anyway? Or doesn’t it matter, just cut a few tenners loose from your flexible friend and you can get an essence of brandness? And a debt you can’t pay off.

Food. Overpriced and aspirational next to overpriced and junky. I’ll pass on that, thanks all the same

Of course there are plenty of eateries, to cater to all tastes, aspirational and clean-living-ish, or good honest junk.

Brands stretching as far as the eye can see

The Ermine is beginning to suffer from anomie, now. Looks like the Massage Angels have that taped, only chillaxed shoppers in this Cathedral of Wants, please. Does Sir want a massage treatment?

God knows how much that was, indeed, there’s a theme to Westfield that hardly anyone has prices clearly on show. I was brought up with the maxim that if you need to ask the price, you probably can’t afford it, but the credit card can fix that round here.

Do you need a massage, sir?

Here in this brandfest I see happy smiling people in thrall to Consumerism. I’d be nicked if I took a wet fish and slapped a few round the chops and said hey, there’s a real world out there, can’t you see this is the road to Debt Hell. Maybe I need to invoke Mr Money Mustache over from the States to deliver some good Mustachian Punches to the Face but then he’d get nicked. And I’m still hungry and above all thirsty.

Starbucks – hits you right in the face as you get off the station at Stratford

There’s the evil Starbucks, the trouble with that joint is it’s hard to get both a regular filter coffee rather than some poncy confection that has half a ton of sugar in it. And then their cup sizes are so huge. The last time I used to drink coffee by the pint was at university. And it doesn’t matter if it’s Jamaica Blue Mountain, if you serve coffee in a frickin cardboard cup it tastes of waxed cardboard first and coffee second. And you can’t get anything for under a pound in Starbucks. I guess for cost by volume it’s not so bad, but even two thirds of a pint of coffee is a bit much.

I spot a shop that sometimes sells needs, not wants, WH Smith. Look at the evil heart of darkness that stirs in the pricing structure of drinks.

How often do you drink two sodas in a row, eh?

Once again I see why we are all getting so fat, as the evil God of Consumerism decrees that chilled sodas are sold in Twos. Let us ignore, for the moment, the fact that nearly all of the stuff in this cabinet is basically chilled sugar water (or aspartame flavoured water) which costs about 10p to get here, and is stupendously unhealthy. The Buxton mineral water (a Coca cola franchise now ISTR) is okay, but you’re still being rushed at £1 a pop IF YOU BUY TWO. It’s the Starbucks problem again. I don’t want two. I want one, to drink now. Two would make me go looking for the toilet, and if I hang on to it the chill will go by the time I want to drink it. No wonder that we are all getting to be fat bastards, if we have to buy two sodas because the marketing is such that you buy one for £1.50 and two for £2. No. On yer bike, WH Smiths.

I consider going to the toilets at the other end of the mall and cupping my hands under the tap, but it’ll taste of chlorine. I take a gander at M&S, who are selling ginger beer (yes, I know, sugary crap but I quite like it). Once again the Starbucks doctrine holds, 90p for one and £1.50 for two. I stick with one. Then go to Waitrose and get a sausage roll for 85p. So the Ermine managed to get out of Westfield without being fleeced, but boy, did I see an awful lot of other people being fleeced.

When you boil it down to the essence, there’s nothing that you can buy in Westfield that you need. Everything is a want, and most of these wants you didn’t know you want until you got there. And there are loads of happy people running up loads of happy debt. It’s called retail therapy, making yourself feel good by buying Stuff. No wonder Damian Thompson, channelling Paul Graham, claims that addiction will be the leitmotif of the 21st Century. I have seen the addictive future in Westfield, and it ain’t a pretty sight. I got out just £2 poorer, I’d imagine most of my fellow shoppers would have been skinned for at least £200 by the looks of the shopping bags 😉

Ermine 1, Westfield Cathedral of Wants 0


A Close Shave with Consumerism and a Canon G12

The price of freedom is eternal vigilance, and that applies to freedom from consumerism too. I came close to being had by the old serpent of gadgetitis lately, and it was the good old 30-day rule for new purchases that saved me from an unthinking purchase suckered by marketing. I might even make the purchase after 30 days, but I’ll make it for my own reasons.

I was looking at Everyday Minimalist’s pictures from China which are quite striking. I’ve never been to China so  of course it will be striking because it’s new to me, but I was struck by gadgetitis was when she said

I took each and every shot with my amazing Canon G12 camera.

I will go as far as to say it is the best camera for a tourist because of it relatively light body compared to its packed features, the easy exposure dial on the left to adjust each shot, the amazing flip screen and overall awesomeness.

BF was cursing his heavy “professional” camera the entire 5 weeks, although he loved his wide lens option. He wished he had brought his Canon G11 as well, for quick (amazing) shots like mine.

I know how he feels – I have a couple of SLRs and if you’re going to shoot pictures that will be used in print or of anything that moves then it’s the only way to go – the larger sensor and the fact that the picture gets taken when you press the shutter button rather than some random but noticeable period of time afterwards means a digital SLR is the only way to go – for A4 size and up you need the quality, which is different from pixel resolution,  and to capture the decisive moment you need the speed.

But they’re a bear to cart around, and don’t go in your pocket. Plus for some types of photography like street photography you change the action with a big SLR so you need something smaller, like EM’s Canon G12. Or in my case, my Canon Ixus 950

Canon Ixus 950, somewhat worn

Pocket digicams don’t last forever with me, whereas my SLRs are still going, even my film ones, ‘cos they are in a bag when not actively used. I don’t know how people manage to keep their digicams in the sort of condition where they can sell them, perhaps they don’t take them out with them. I can see how girls have a chance keeping them in a handbag, but as a guy I stick the damn thing in a pocket. The trouble is that if you stick a pocket camera in you pocket, it gets to look like this. After a while, dust works its way into the lens mechanism and you get the dreaded E18 lens error. I’ve already had to dismantle this, taking out a bazillion tiny screws to get dust out of the lens mechanism. The only way I could do this was with compressed air, after which some of the dust lodged in the sensor cell so I get dark spots in the sky on bright days.

I use this one if I expect low light and the aperture wide open, and a secondhand Nikon coolpix 4500 for daytime digicam shots. And in general, the photos I took with those a couple of years ago, or their predecessors five years ago, are better than what I shoot now.

It’s not the camera that takes the picture, it’s you

I’ve read a fair few photography magazines in my time, and the spiel is always the same in both editorial and the ads, if you want to take great pictures, get a better camera. Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they? This advertising was imbibed over many years, all B.F. (before frugality). It still lies there in a corner of my mind, and rises like a snake-charmer’s cobra when I think of wanting to take better pictures.

It’s utter bollocks. The message is always something like:

Psst – wanna take pictures like David Bailey? Use the same camera as he does and you’re away!

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For most consumer products, it’s true, because they are consumed passively – if you want to get the same features on your phone as David Bailey then use the same phone as him. If you want to look like Kate Middleton then wearing the same dress as her gets you some of the way there if you’re young enough and of her general physique.  Unfortunately if you want to take the same sort of pictures as David Bailey then you really do need to be him. You need to go where he goes, have his contacts, and his vision. Even if I use the very same Olympus Trip as he did, his photos will be better than mine.

At least there is something noble about aspiring to be like a well-known photographer if you want to take pictures, even if it isn’t your camera that will make your pictures great. I detect the strong whiff of decadence in Nikon’s adoption of a well-known generic celebrity to market their current camera line. I had to look him up, because my first reaction was who the heck is Ashton Kutcher, I’d never heard of him? As soon as I saw a picture of him I knew he wasn’t a photographer. Real photographers usually look grizzled and weatherbeaten, rather than some Hollywood pretty boy. Let’s just say that when you Google Ashton Kutcher photography you get a load of pictures of him rather than by him.

I’ve got nothing against the guy, and good luck to him for earning a few more dollars. It’s more the social science of it. Either the ad company was lazy, and generalized the usual ‘if you want to get her look, wear her dress’ ad campaign. I hope so, because otherwise we’re all getting simple, and merely aspire to be minor celebrities by using the same Stuff.

So why are my pictures getting worse then?

It’s not that my camera is knackered. It’s what’s behind the viewfinder that is at fault. I am jaded, I am not living my values. Saving money means I haven’t been anywhere different on vacation for a while, apart from the odd work trip. What you put in front of your camera is half the work of making decent photographs, however, I live in a beautiful county of England and occasionally travel to London for work.

Most cities ramp building height to downtown gradually, but London and LA have planning regs that give this toytown juxtaposition of the old and the gargantuan new. My work mobile did a serviceable job here 🙂

Let’s face it, tourists from other countries come to the UK for its sights and history, so it would be rude to use that as an excuse. And I’ve taken enough magazine features even in the last couple of years, so 40 years of experience is still working for me, I can get the light right and depth of field and all that jazz, and basic composition.

So I thought I’d go out into the pleasant Suffolk countryside and shoot some pictures with my old Nikon Coolpix (it was bright enough the Ixus will have spots in the sky from the dust).

Five spot burnet day flying moth

I ran into this red-spotted moth, it’s a workmanlike record shot of what is probably a five-spot burnet. Or maybe a six. Something bored me about this so I figured I could try a bit better, the bugger’s trying to get out of the frame so it was time to see if I could nail him in context.

Moth with some of the Suffolk countryside t keep it company

It’s better. It’s not a great picture, but it’s a step in the right direction, the moth should be pointing up a bit and shame about the moth antenna in line with the thistle spike. I wasn’t able to see subtleties like that on the screen in daylight.

Further on the light interplayed with the water-starved grain which is a sort of greeny-yellow compared to what I think it usually looks like.

Luminous water-starved Suffolk grain. I'm sure it should be a different colour this time of year

All-in-all the trip served me well. it reminded me that it’s not my camera I need to fix, it’s me. That’s not to say I won’t get the G12, but it’ll be for the right reasons. Not because it will make my pictures better, because only I can do that. But because I’m tired of spotting the dust specks out of the sky with the Ixus in Photoshop, and because the flip out screen will enable me to shoot from lower down or higher up than the usual eye level. Perspective is another key aspect of getting better pictures, and eye level isn’t always the best vantage point for a lot of things – like the moth for instance.

Or I might wait, because the greatest weakness in my image taking system is my own inspiration, which is unlikely to be fixed for a year and a bit. I’m not David Bailey, the fire of photographic creativity doesn’t blaze from my very pores, it burns low at the moment. That’s the trouble with anything in the artistic line, it’s moody, and sometimes creativity just goes AWOL. And I learned the memes of advertising sleep for a long time just below consciousness. That is scary…


The Defining Myth of Our Culture

Many people view the word myth as almost synonymous with ‘story’ or ‘fairy-tale’. This sells myth appallingly short, for it is much more that that, a trope that can give meaning and context to a whole culture.

Myths can define a culture, giving a people a shared world-view, a common set of assumptions from which to experience the world. We may sneer and say the myths were wrong, for instance the view that the Earth is at the centre of the universe, requiring byzantine wheels within wheels to explain the movement of the planets in the sky. And yet even such a world-view is good enough to farm successfully, it was good enough for Ptolemy to be able to predict planetary motion reasonably well.

Religion is often a defining myth, indeed Christianity has probably been the defining myth of the West for much of its written history.

We believe, of course, that we are more sophisticated. We don’t need a myth. But we have one

Our myth is continual growth

Like Ptolemy’s geocentricity, it needs to be true enough to explain many observations. From where I’m standing it explains most things. I grew up in a world of coal fires, frost on the inside of windows in winter and pipes that froze up in the cold and vacuum tubes in the radio.

We now have central heating, iPods and a bewildering choice of all sorts of things. That’s growth for you, and pretty much continual growth at that. I’m not complaining, but I don’t think I’ll see another 30 years of it at the same rate.

So the myth of continual growth is a good myth for our times. Our economic system appears to be predicated on it, and until now it has worked pretty well. However, most natural systems have limits, beyond which they won’t go. Draw too much water from a well, and you don’t have any any more.

It is this part of our myth that I think is breaking down. Humanity is continually adding to its numbers, we are consuming more and more energy and we are using more and more mineral resources. At some time this has got to stop increasing. The Club of Rome looked at this in the 1970s, and produced a seminal work, Limits To Growth. People hated it, because it challenged the defining myth of the Western world. Few people that panned it had actually read it, the title pretty much said it all and they wanted none of it.

I borrowed an updated copy from the library recently. It wasn’t as incendiary as I had been led to believe. It said that there were natural limits to growth, in several areas, energy and food growing capability being two of the main ones. It proposed husbanding resources and managing the transition to a steady-state society, with a stable human population growing food in a sustainable way.

The way we grow food at the moment is not sustainable, requiring prodigious amounts of fossil fuel for machinery and fertiliser. It knackers the soil as well, which will seriously spoil our day if we need to farm without the help of oil-derived products. We are just as likely to find out we are running short of oil in terms of price spikes at Tesco’s supermarket as we are to find out at empty petrol pumps.

The updated versions of Limits to Growth make the tart observation that we have collectively failed to take the steps recommended in the 1970s, even though there was a wake-up call in the oil price shock early in that decade.

I think this myth is beginning to fail us. Oil production is flatlining, despite there being over a billion new middle-class aspirants in China and India ready and willing to take up the slack where the economically moribund West is rolling back.

All sorts of other indicators are suspicious, too.

Take university education, for example. When I went to university, only 7% of school-leavers went to university, and many applicants failed. I applied to Cambridge, and though I managed okay on the subject exams (Cambridge tested entrants itself in those days, I don’t know if it is still allowed to do that) I didn’t even understand half the questions on the general studies papers. It was fair enough. I failed because I wasn’t bright enough, though at least I got into Imperial as a second choice.

I have no idea what makes Labour choose the  nutty target of 50% of school-leavers going to university. Why, FFS? University starts to look more like a parking bay for school leavers to hide the fact that the economy isn’t providing useful work for them. The parking fees are outrageous, too, so as a by-product it is damning them to debt so they become pliable debt-slaves.

That is such a rude thing to do as a society to our young people. We pick on them when they are starry-eyed, and sell them an empty dream that costs them over a year’s median wage, and 4% of their allotted time on earth upfront. If we can’t help them because the myth of our culture is failing and our economy is so damaged that it does not have enough middle-class jobs requiring a university degree, then we should let them make their own decision, not sell them this expensive pup at the beginning of their working lives, when they can least afford it.

We should cut those university places by 80% and make the exams discriminate between the bright and the not so bright. Then support those that do get in to university, that means grants, not debts, assuming that we do have a requirement for trained engineers, scientists, historians, medics, etc. We’ll get our cash back in taxes.

The 90% of school-leavers that don’t get in will still get a strategic benefit. Though their precious self-esteem may take a hammering, they won’t be clocking up debts chasing the will’o’the wisp of a graduate career, and it will also put paid to piss-taking employers demanding a degree to work in a call centre or wait on tables. You don’t need a degree to do that. In the past those not going to uni were sometimes supported via employers with vocational qualifications like HNC/Ds, practical apprenticeships or they simply did without and got on with the serious business of earning a living. All these alternatives have been flattened into the one-size-fits-all notion of pay-as-you-go university.

The curious futility of higher education is one indicator of the economy running out of steam. There are others – the bizarre level of house prices in the UK is another. At some point since the 1970s, we had the choice, to work more hours and make more money to buy more Stuff, or to take longer holidays. We went for the more Stuff, and no, I don’t recall being asked which I’d prefer either. Then crazily we went and instead of buying more stuff we decided to all make houses more expensive and tie up most of our national wealth (or tolerate the inflation that appeared to be wealth) in the numbers printed in estate agents. It’s not that we got any richer for it all – the vast majority of British “homeowners” live in houses owned by a bank or building society. So the banks end up making a packet from the interest.

Another example of things going wrong is in the sheer level of consumer crap that abounds. Take this delightful article, for instance, on best toothbrush holders. If that isn’t a sign that we have collectively lost the plot, I don’t know what is. Even the ghastly quality of the industrial design indicates an existential decadence.

So what will the world look like, if the myth of our time turns out not to be true?

In some ways I am living one alternative. As part of my escape plan, I stopped buying nearly all consumer crap. I’ve still got everything I had before, I simply haven’t added to it. What I do spend money on is tools, so I can make things I need cheaper. With that I include safety equipment, because that is investing in my health. I bought a bike, for a safer riding position commuting to work, this is an investment in reducing travel costs that will be recovered by Christmas. I replaced a fridge freezer, becuase I measured the old one as consuming so much power the new one would pay for itself in a year.

And I do celebrate the odd birthday going out for a meal with DGF and we spend a bit too much on wine. I don’t have cable, or Sky, or a mobile phone, or an iPod. I don’t need these – because I don’t watch much TV, work supplies me with a perfectly serviceable mobile and if I want to listen to music I want to hear it properly on my hi-fi, and if I’m on my bike I want to be able to hear the cars about to overtake me, not to mention the birds singing.

That’s not a criticism of any of those things per se. For someone with a boring commute an iPhone can be a godsend, and if sport is your thing you probably have to suck it up and pay the Digger his due. But they’re expensive to run. And they’re part of the myth of our culture; we didn’t need any of them 20 years ago, they are the result of continuous growth.

My story, of course, is a benign alternative to the myth of our time, a simple stasis at current levels. It applies to capital assets, things like buildings and land. It doesn’t apply to continuous inputs, like energy, though I have attacked that with some success. I have reduced my electricity consumption to < 4KWh per day which is less than half the average UK household usage of 3300kWh p.a = 9kWh per day.

This is still deadly unsustainable. One British Standard Horse is good for 746W, so if I get two horses and run them in the living room for two hours, which I think is the longest time you can run a horse flat out, I would be okay, conversion efficiencies notwithstanding. There isn’t enough room in the garden to grow the hay, so I am SOL for sustainable energy *. Half of this goes to running my (A-class efficiency) fridge freezer, so next time you take a look at your fridge-freezer think of that sweat-streaked equine pounding away for two hours each day to keep your milk and frozen peas in good condition if oil runs out. And make sure you close the door properly – get that wrong and you’ll probably kill the poor beast.

Believers in the magical properties of CFL light bulbs should note that I mainly use incandescent bulbs and a LED reading light. A household with adults only does not need to use CFLs, other than in hallways. Energy-efficiency is about hitting the measurable power hogs first. Never underestimate the energy-saving capabilities of the humble light switch set to the off position.

* I know I haven’t taken into account the energy for transportation, heating, the energy to grow food etc etc. There’s only so much apocalyptic exuberance a guy can handle in one day

I hope that the defining myth of our culture continues to explain how the world plays out, despite the increasing world population and apparently limiting oil production. I’m not omniscient, and it is perfectly possible that I am pumping the hazards up out of all proportion. The bearish argument always sounds smarter.

The more likely alternative, IMO, which greenies call Contraction and Convergence will result in a very serious loss of living standards in the developed world which has built much of its living standards on the basis of easily obtainable energy. If and when that energy returns to a little bit above what it was before the Industrial Revolution, the amount of energy per head will be a lot less, because there are so many more of us (about twice as many as since Queen Victoria died in 1901) in the UK than there were before the Industrial Revolution. Technology may help us, at least with electricity to some extent, but a lot of technology depends on cheap energy to mine and refine specialised raw materials. C&C is a hard sell for politicians, it fails the “what’s in it for me?” test. What’s in it for you? How about “Well, a damn sight less than you have got already, chum”.

It is always possible for some people in society to live a more energy-rich lifestyle. In Victorian times it was done with servants and child labour. In the American South, it was done with slaves. What isn’t possible, however, is for everybody to live an energy-rich lifestyle, unless there is an abundant and cheap source of energy like oil.

So here’s a toast to the myth of our age,

continuous growth

May it live long and prosper, and may humanity have the wisdom to know when it is time to get a new myth. We may be smart enough to do anything, but we are probably not powerful enough to do everything.