Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Ok, so it’s not getting great reviews, and when a girlfriend pouts her way through the whole two hours it’s a fair bet she doesn’t like it either*. But I enjoyed Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Which means it’s fair to say you probably won’t.

It was obvious rather a lot of the audience were expecting a James Bond-style thriller. (Comments overheard on the way out: “appalling”, “junk”, “boring”, “slow”.) But I take that as a sad indictment of today’s want-it-all-now, over-stimulated, X-factor’d up society – a society of instant gratification where not having to wait for stuff is seen as a basic right.

But real films are narratives, not rollercoasters. To get this film you’ve got to sit quietly and actually listen. Which, let’s face it, is more than most people are capable of these days. This film is a piece of art – from its pixel-perfect 1970s sets (remember those funny-looking Saabs and cans of Harp?) to the quality of the acting.

I’ve never quite “got” Colin Firth – nor what women see in him; he always seems to spend about a third of his screen time blubbing. But he’s pretty good here – and it says something that in TTSS, he’s one of the worst-cast. And Gary Oldman’s George Smiley IS the Le Carre original. The slightly effete awkwardness of the harmless-looking middle-aged man who was actually the most effective agent on either side of the Cold War … Oldman captures every twitch and shuffle. The one occasion he holds a gun, it’s dangling unwanted at his side, a slightly distasteful accoutrement rather than a tool of the trade. And there are a LOT of extreme close-ups. Half the narrative is in facial expressions; this dialogue-driven film has relatively few words-per-minute. People are civilised, waiting for each other to finish a sentence before presenting their rebuttal.

(Is this gentlemanliness what’s missing from British society today? The chavster classes inhabiting so much of the mass media don’t have the wit or breeding to consider any situation not pertaining directly to themselves?)

And the narrative gains a lot from being pared back to a movie’s essential elements. The setpieces are terraced townhouses and workaday government offices; SiS high command inhabits a grimy Cambridge Circus building and the overseas headquarters are grimy import/export sheds. You get the feeling this is how intelligence work really was during the Cold War – a lot of dull hours waiting around at Teletype Terminals, where privileged but intelligent and civilised men pondered tiny scraps of information and deducted Red military policies and Kremlin power structures from a half-hidden salute in an old photograph.

(Of course, the blue connections and personal relationships of such groupings led to things like the Cambridge Five in real life, but the point stands: this film works.)

And because it was a more formal decade, protocol and procedure seem a lot more important. Simple acts like looking up files in a fifth floor archive are imbued with sweaty-collared menace … no Tom Cruise wirobatics, no webs of red lasers, just the clenching anguish of doing stuff you’re not supposed to be doing. Everyday tradecraft was about not leaving a paper trail, right down to swapping bag-check chits and leaving woodchips in the doorjamb. You never see James Bond walking around in his socks while a friend listens underneath to see if the floorboards will creak, but such details are what distinguish a good agent from a bad one. The beauty is many such scenes are never explained; you’re left to work it out for yourself.

Go and see “Tinker Tailor”. Chances are you’ll hate it.

And by the way, Odeon, your cinema is still crap. For future reference, it’s normal practice to TURN THE LIGHTS OFF BEFORE THE FILM STARTS, without members of the audience having to come out of the theatre to tell you.

 

*Possibly connected to me upending her popcorn before the film started.

The incredible story of SNS and a Kindle

I thought nobody would ever buy e-readers. They seemed  a gimmick for geeks, not a tool for people who read in high volumes; books have done perfectly well for thousands of years without needing a battery to look at them. And besides, there’s the tactile aspect. You want to mark a book, put notes in the margin, make it yours. Creases in the spine and dog-ears on every chapter are a mark of pride on one’s bookshelf; the subtle visual cues of how many pages you’ve consumed and how it falls open on a table all add to the immersive experience. No chunk of technology could do better.

Or so I thought.

I’ve had my Amazon Kindle less than a week and I’m hooked.

Hooked on a carryalong gizmo that can’t do email, doesn’t handle touch, and whose screen is a 16-shade greyscale not seen on a PDA since 1998. While I work in technology I’m not much of a gadget fiend; I’d rather let someone else do the bleeding edge and I’ll buy it when it works, thank you. So why did I buy a Kindle?

The reason? It does one thing – but does that thing very, very well.

I subscribe to an insider’s newsletter called SNS. It’s distributed in PDF. Since PDF is portrait-friendly and most computer screens are landscape, reading SNS on my laptop sucks (let’s face it, reading anything off a computer screen sucks). Perversely, the only way to read a PDF is to print it out – which destroys the value of electronic distro. And anyway, SNS’s 20-30 pages are a lot of tree. I’ve been researching a lot this year and I’ve had other things to read; unbelievably, when I checked my SNS folder I was nearly a year behind.

This newsletter costs $595 a year, and I’d gained no value from it since Q4 2010.

That’s important, because publisher Mark Anderson writes about below-the-surface upheavals in macroeconomics and geopolitics that’ll impact the world a year-plus later. Being a year behind puts me back with the rest of the world – you know, the people who think the FT and WSJ are the most intelligent takes on where the economy’s going. (For all they’re worth, they might as well write a daily headline “To hell in a handbasket” and not bother.) SNS draws together disparate threads of business innovation and government policy into reasonable conclusions, and frequently those conclusions tell a very, very different story to the front pages of mainstream media.

So I bought a Kindle. For no other reason than I thought it’d get me back “into” the SNS Newsletter.

The first thing you notice is its beautiful look and feel. (The Kindle, not the newsletter.) You don’t quite “get” e-ink until you’ve used it. Not My Kindleemitting light, it drives no eyeball fatigue and you can read it in bright daylight (or Tube striplight) without pain. The page-turning experience is natural; it weighs less than a paperback and the reading experience is just as immersive. This thing was designed by people who really, really love books. (Only nag here? The page-turning buttons on the left should’ve been inverted, so the lower left button would turn pages back rather than forward.)

But the real work’s in the way the enabling experience – let’s be accurate: the Amazon experience – is replicated. It dog-ears everything for you; no need to insert bookmarks, it’ll just return to the place you left. Your preferences and purchases are saved back at the Big A and if you lose the machine it’s no problem: just deregister it. To get a non-Amazon title (like the PDF’d SNS) onto your Kindle, just email it to your unique kindle address and seconds later it pops up on the gadget. (Don’t forget to put “convert” in the subject line; SNS’s standard PDF is unreadable without it.) It’s as smooth as any iPod.

Other features replicate the social experience of reading. Remember how fascinating it was to come across someone else’s note in a university library book? The Kindle shows you where other people have annotated a passage in whatever you’re reading; you can even broadcast it on Facebook and Twitter. It answers an FHT (Fundamental Human Truth) other e-readers never did: we want other people to know how clever we are.

Next, the 3G. Amazon’s bought up some dwarfstar mass of bandwidth on the world’s wireless networks, and the 3G-enabled version (no phone contract or fee) simply subs for Wifi anywhere, so your Kindle can receive books anywhere and  always-on. I didn’t buy the 3G version and already wish I had. To have a 3G connection where you don’t have to worry about cost-per-megabyte – or contract fees – is amazing, and the fact it’s happening in 100 countries even more so.

Anything missing here? Perhaps it wasn’t legally possible, but what if: for every book you’d ever bought on Amazon, you were entitled to a free downloaded copy? I’ve spent £60 on Day One buying books I already owned.

In summary, a great machine. I’m not sure this will ever be out of my bag again. (And it was really good of them to match the colour to my car, too.)

Mark, I’m up to March.

On pensions, part 4: building a strategy

So you’ve got your Stakeholder Plan and a simple online management tool. How do you use them? Here’s how I do it: a simple investment strategy that takes barely an hour a month to administer.

It relies on three principles: a) the market knows more than you; b) retail pension funds have two good years; and c) charges are your enemy.

First , work out what you want, so you can spend the next couple of decades getting it. A £350 monthly contribution, rising by 10% each year will, over 25 years, grow to a £1.6m pot if you keep an 8% return over costs and inflation. It can be done – but you’ve got to be active about it. Here’s what I do.

Choosing your funds

Risk-taking and yo-yo’ing may produce great returns by chance over a short term, but we’re looking for long-term growth here. Hence my rule: don’t bother with company shares. As a retail investor, you’re there for one thing: to absorb risk on behalf of institutional investors (i.e making sure they make money, not you). No retail investor ever makes money consistently over time.

The vehicles to invest in are pension funds, a spread of investments packaged together (usually on a theme, such as mining companies or technology businesses.)

If you’ve opened a Stakeholder or SIPP, your provider will have a wide range of funds to invest in. They’re sold in “units” (you can buy fractions of a unit, so you never have money sitting there uninvested) and the better fund providers let you choose and swap your investments online. It’s a liquid and transparent market, with unit prices published in places like the FT.

The list of funds offered may run to over 100 entries, so let’s narrow it down using two parameters. First, only go for funds marked “Acc” – accumulators, where any returned income (such as dividends) is automatically re-invested in your fund. (This is a pension; you’re looking to build it up, not withdraw from it.)

Second, only go for funds offered by your pension provider, not “external” funds it offers on behalf of other providers – these will carry “external fund charges”, and it only takes a couple of those to seriously eat into your growth. (One thing pension fund providers aren’t good at, for obvious reasons, is making clear how much they’re skimming off your fund each year.)

I choose my funds on a simple algorithm: whatever’s been doing well over the last year, I invest in. My feeling is that a pension fund has a couple of good years in any investment cycle. I try to catch that fund as it’s warming up, with a few quarters of solid growth behind it and a few more ahead. It means I’m never buying the cheapest, but usually the most solid. The returns you can make here can run above 12% consistently, if you pay attention.

Deciding how much to invest

Remember that £1.6m pension pot that’ll provide an upper-percentile income from age 60+? To get it, you need to invest about £350 a month gross, and get an 8% return over inflation and fees, every year. Realistically that means a gross return around 13%. Keep about half a dozen funds in your pot, and the fees will be around 1.5% a year (the maximum they’re allowed to charge – some providers charge less. Just remember there’s a fee per-fund which may drive your total fees higher. Sometimes it’s pleasantly cheap, though: one UK fund charges an annual management fee of just 0.15%.)

There’s another thing you need to do: tie your contributions to your earnings as they rise over the years. That £1.6m pot needs that £350 to rise by 10% every year. About 3% a year will, over time, only keep pace with inflation. About 6% a year will make your contributions double in a decade… and wages rise at about that rate, so you’re keeping pace while being able to afford it.

The younger you are, the more flexible you can be here. If you’re under 30, that £1.6m pot costs less than half as much each month to build. The moral? Start young.

Keeping it up!

In the private pensions market, a huge percentage of people simply stop making contributions after the first year or two. It’s too hard, too expensive, and they lose faith in something they won’t see the benefits of for decades. (It’s easy to understand why. Many Stakeholder pension providers choose rather low-risk, and therefore low-return, funds for you. That’s why I want to have a say in the choice myself.)

So the last part is keeping your pension top-of-mind.

First, set aside one Saturday morning each month to review your portfolio and make any changes. It only takes two hours and can be fun. Simple rules – like mine, which sums up as always keeping the top 4-6 funds, whatever they are, in the portfolio – work. I tend to keep 10% or so in something solid and stolid, like UK Gilts (which only return a few percent) but over 80% of my portfolio is in moderate-risk funds like smaller companies. That suits my risk profile; yours will be different.

Second, watch the numbers over time. You’re not a momentum trader; you’re looking at long-term performance, not short-term dips. 2011 has, of course, been pretty awful. Look at the graph over the last year; you’re looking for smooth and steady above-inflation returns with a reasonable chance of continuing. There are plenty of websites that’ll track your investments for you. Use them. (Morningstar is among the most complete.)

Third, know what they’re charging and what inflation is today. Add these numbers together and you’ve got a figure – possibly as high as 7% – and that’s the amount your pension provider and the invisible hand of economics are taking out for themselves. And they take it out every year, whether your investments have grown or not.

This is the biggest pitfall in the pensions biz, and it hugely affects your longterm projections.

On my plan, a two-percentage-point difference in overall return is the difference between my pension pot lasting a couple of years and lasting… forever. By “forever” I mean that taking out my planned income, an amount that rises with inflation each year, only reduces the pot by a proportion of its growth over inflation – in other words, I’m living off the interest after inflation, keeping the capital’s buying power constant.

(Think it’s stupid to have a pension pot that lasts “forever”? In today’s world, the fastest-growing demographic is people over 100. You could be living off that pension income a long time. So you need to make sure it’ll last.)

And that’s how I do it. Make your own decisions – but remember, it’s all up to you.

On pensions, part 3: setting things up

So you’re ready to set up your own pension plan. Here’s what I did.

1. First, look at your employment situation. There isn’t much point in being a one-man limited company any more; if you’re a service provider charging a day rate or similar, go self-employed instead. The reason: it makes you eligible for Class 2 National Insurance Contributions for the Basic State Pension. While the Basic only pays out a small amount per week (currently £105 from age 67) it costs a self-employed person as little as £2.50 a week (for 30 years) to secure it.

(You pay Class 4 on top, but only at 9% above a certain level of profits, and it tops out with a marginal percentage of just 2% when your profits exceed £40k.) Being government-provided and linked to average earnings, it’s a great deal (who wouldn’t appreciate an extra four hundred quid, index linked, every month in a few decades for just a few percent downpayment?)

So check you’re eligible for Class 2 Contributions. If you’ll build up fewer than 30 contributing years before you hit 67, apply to catch up. (Having spent part of my life overseas, I’ll only pass the 30-year requirement in my 60s.) Bear in mind an average-salaried individual will pay £200 a month in NI to get the same basic entitlement; if you’re self-employed, that money can be going into your private pension pot instead.

2. Next, talk to a financial advisor if you like, who will advise you to open a private pension plan. If you’re in my situation – self-employed UK citizen with your own business and wild income swings – there’s only one choice: a Stakeholder Pension Plan. They’re designed for people on lower incomes, but since the contributions ceiling is £50k/year – around twice average household earnings – the “low income” bias isn’t relevant in practice.

(If you’re an employee, the first £3,600 per year is eligible for tax relief, so if you pay up to this out of your after-tax income, an £80 monthly investment will be topped up to £100. The self-employed of course don’t get this, but other benefits balance out.) The other great thing about Stakeholder Plans is that money managers’ fees (the killer) are capped at 1.5% per providing company. There are fancier alternatives, like SIPPs, but if you’re looking for a tax-efficient wrapper for financial assets, a Stakeholder is all you’ll ever need.

When choosing a provider, look for three things:

Web-based account servicing. You want the Web because you’re going to be looking at your funds regularly; make sure your provider’s web services are up to scratch. Look for a provider the same way you’d look for a new bank – secure web access and the ability to conduct business entirely online. (I haven’t been into a bank branch in years.)

A broad choice of funds to invest in. The UK’s bigger pension providers, like Legal & General, have a choice of over 60 funds that fit into a Stakeholder Plan. It’s less well known that Stakeholder Plans let you self-invest, but it’s one of their biggest advantages. Make sure the choice of funds your provider gives you covers a broad array of geographies, business sectors, and financial instruments from index trackers to government bonds.

Fee-free fund reallocations. Make sure your provider allows you to flip and switch your money between different funds as often as you like. Some providers even allow an unlimited number of switches per month. At minimum, you want the option to completely re-allocate your pension pot four times a year.

3. Check and recheck. Make sure your employment status is correct; make sure your Class 2’s are being paid by direct debit; test your Stakeholder Plan’s online servicing features. And you’re set up. Next:  my investment strategy.

On pensions, part 2: understanding the concepts

There are only seven concepts needed to understand pensions. First, the two types of pension. Then a word on funds. Then the four mathematical concepts to see them in context. (Remember the basic rule: this stuff ain’t hard. The financial industry just wants you to think it’s hard.)

There are two basic types of pension: defined-benefit and defined-contribution.

Concept 1. Defined-benefit includes those gold-plated final-salary and the slightly-less-golden career average schemes in the public sector. Pay in throughout your career (usually not very much; your employer coughs up too) and you’ll receive a proportion of your salary at retirement. Forever. Not subject to how long you live, not subject to the ups and downs of the markets. Since such deals often rise with inflation too, they’re a great deal.

So great that they’re bankrupting every country that offers them.

Because defined-benefit is inherently unsustainable. Imagine a senior manager retiring at the public-sector average of 58. His employer may have to stump up two-thirds of the salary he earned in her last year … bumped up with inflation… every year for the rest of his life. With today’s lifespans, that might mean paying his pension for more years than he worked. That’s defined-benefit, and it’s killing both our public finances and the finances of private companies offering such schemes.

(So why does the public sector continue to offer them? Simple politics. Promising a pay rise costs money now; promising a pension costs money after the next election. Both are effective in buying public sector workers’ votes and sending the bill to future generations. And in countries like the UK, which has a large public sector, there are many millions of votes to be won that way.)

Concept 2. Defined-contribution. This the only reasonable way to run a pension fund without storing up trouble. You have an individual retirement account, it grows or shrinks with whatever you invested in it, and what you get out relates to what you put in. (A simple savings account is a defined-contribution plan.)

Defined-contribution plans tend to pay out far less than defined-benefit, largely because you’re taking all the risk instead of outsourcing it to your employer.

While it might be great to have someone else taking all your investment risk, it’s happening less and less for private employees; defined-contribution is now all anyone outside the public sector can expect. Taste the difference: a senior civil servant on a defined-benefit retiring today, on £85k at the age of 60, will receive a pension exceeding £5k/mth. That sum will be adjusted upwards for inflation, risk free, for the rest of his life. To get the same through a defined-contribution plan,  you’d need to have north of £2 million in your pot.

Defined-contribution isn’t generous. But it’s sustainable.

(There is one lump of sugar: with defined-contribution, you get to be in control. If you’ve got a taste for risk, you can dial your preferences into your fund and enjoy wild growth if your investments have a good year. I don’t need to mention the corollary, of course.)

However, most defined-benefit plans from employers make it hard for you to exert a great deal of control over them, which is why this blog is mostly about defined-contribution. It’s about what you can do to maximise your pension.

Concept 3: the investment fund. Whether you’re defined-benefit or defined contribution, you pension is part of a fund, a sheaf of investments (shares, bonds, cash) chosen to increase in value over time so the pensioners can be paid. Big companies and public sector organisations might have only one fund for all employees; individual self-investors might buy slivers of many funds bought on the markets. (There are thousands to choose from.)

The only thing worth remembering is that funds are aggregated. One fund may bundle together many investments (such as shares) and sell the bundle as units. (Imagine a basket of vegetables: that’s the fund. Your pension pot contains a bite of carrot, a slice of cucumber, a peck of peas, and so on.)

A £100 unit may contain slivers of a telecoms giant, an oil startup, and government bonds, weighted by the fund manager to produce maximum return. Funds on the markets are very liquid; if your pension pot isn’t in nice multiples of £100, you’ll simply own relevant fractions of a unit too.

Now for the maths: compound interest, pound-cost averaging, weightings, and Projected Value. Relax; it’s all simple.

Concept 4: Compound interest is what you learned in school. Put in £100 at 10% interest, get £110. Leave it there, and next year you’ve got £121. Investment funds carry other goodies like dividends and coupons, and if you reinvest these back into your pension plan (you should) the compounding just works harder. Compound interest is simple.

Concept 5: Pound-cost averaging is the reason you should invest a set amount in your pension each month, before any other expenses go out. It’s a way of smoothing out the stockmarket. Let’s say you’re in Fund X whose component companies did well this month. Their share price is high, so you’ll get fewer shares, but they’re doing well, so you don’t mind. The next month, when the company hits the skids, your regular payment buys a lot more of their shares, so you own more shares and reap the benefits when the company starts growing again.  Pound-cost averaging is simple.

Concept 6: Weighting. Your pension plan is probably in more than one fund; how they’re mixed or “weighted” is a key concept to understand. Fund Y is making 20% and your fund contains its units; why has your pension fund lost money? Because Fund Y comprises just 10% of your portfolio and the rest of it is toxic waste. Weighting is how you balance your pension pot with your appetite for risk. Adventurous young males in good health choose funds in emerging markets and new technology; sozzled greybeards stick to bonds and index trackers. Weightings are less simple but more fun.

Finally, concept 7: Projected Value, or PV. This is how you plan for the future: given average returns of X percent a year (long-term stockmarket returns are surprisingly stable) with n years of contributing N pounds rising at Y percent a year…  accounting for inflation, charges, and risk by Z percent… and you’ve got your pension pot, from which you can work out what you can afford to draw as your monthly pension. Projected value is simple and fun.

That’s all you need. Next: setting things up.

On pensions, part 1: getting the mindset

I’ve worked for myself for over a decade, and spent a lot of years outside the UK or on non-paying projects like an MBA. Wild income swings are normal to me and my risk profile is off the scale, but I do have two fears: a) Getting old, and b) Being poor. Both can be influenced if you take the right actions in good time.

This blog’s about setting up a pension if you can’t rely on anyone else providing one.

(First, a disclaimer: I’m not a financial advisor, and this isn’t financial advice, nor should you take it as such. I’m just sharing what I do on my blog which helps me.)

Financial advisors go out of their way to make pension provision sound complex. Well, there are hard aspects to it – but the hard parts aren’t where you’d think. The hard part is simply getting the mindset: looking at your pension fund as an asset like your house or car. Except that it brings you benefits later on instead of tomorrow. And nudging yourself into that mindset can be surprisingly simple.

The first concrete thing to do is bring your pension into your life. (I have the login page of my account as a browser home page. This daily “nudge” keeps it top-of-mind.) What this does is negate the feeling you’re throwing money away.

(Deferred benefits, i.e pension payouts several decades away, will always feel harder to pay into than your new car or computer that brings pleasure TODAY. But by keeping your pension top-of-mind, it feels an asset like any other. Many providers offer web-based portfolio management tools; make sure you get a plan with decent online services.)

The next thing is to make a regular contribution on your payday, NOT when you’ve “got other expenses out of the way.” Even if you’re in an employer’s scheme, make sure you know how much you’re contributing and ask to increase it if the projections don’t give you what you want when you turn 60+.

(Working for myself, I don’t get the tax relief formally salaried people do, but I treat my monthly gross contribution with the same importance as paying the mortgage. I’m a spender, not a saver; this is the only way I (and most people) can ever save.)

Last, have a monthly ‘money day”. The third thread – whether you’re a hands-on self-investor or leave it to others – is simply to keep yourself informed. Know what your contributions are being invested in, know the weighted return over the last 12 months, know the inflation rate and charges that are eating away at your nest egg.

This is part of the habit-forming needed to get the mindset: I’ve set my pension fund tracker to be among the start pages for my browser, so I’m constantly reminded what’s working and what’s not. The same applies if you’re in a company scheme: are they making investments that give returns, or are they investing mainly in the same sector as your employer? Let’s just say we can all guess which oil and gas company was the primary weighting in the pension fund of… Enron. Know what’s going on.

That’s the mindset. In forthcoming days I’ll be blogging my takes on understanding the concepts, setting things up, and building an investment strategy. Next: understanding the concepts.

Plannning for re-tyrement

  I’m not a car geek, but it’s amazing the difference a new set of tyres make. They’re Continental ContiSport Contact 3’s in 225/45 R17 reinforced to 94Y, and amazingly I now know what that means. (Thank you for a great price, blackcircles.com, although the service from the garage left something to be desired – chaseup calls went unreturned before I could collect my Audi.)

 

Churchill: greatest Briton of all

Spent some time today at Blenheim Palace, birthplace (the actual birthing room) of Winston Churchill, perhaps the greatest of all Britons. I’m not sure Churchill ever cared much what anyone thought of him: he only cared about doing the right thing .  I reflected on what utter pygmies today’s politicians – even the well-meaning ones like David Cameron and Nick Clegg – are by comparison.

What really annoys me, though, is the way extremist parties in the cloak of “Britishness” have appropriated his image (and that of the Union Jack and Spitfire) to bolster their own views. Churchill wasn’t for white or black, you ignorant little fuckers: he was for something good (fair play and good humour) over something bad (dictatorship and . And not one of you is fit to lick the soles of his shoes. Fortunately, he’s a lot bigger than you’ll ever be.

Why I’m voting NO to AV

The UK doesn’t have many referendums, so today’s poll on the Alternate Voting system is a rarity. In AV, you can vote for more than one party in order of your preferences and if no party gets a clear majority second-preferences are “distributed” again and again until someone does.

I just voted NO to it, and hope you did, too.

Not because it favours a party I happen not to support (the liberals) but simply because it’s COMPLEX. And complexity is something we have enough of in Britain today.

First-Past-The-Post (the system we have now) may be brutal – there’s a clear winner and loser – but it’s simple. Votes are tallied and the person with the most votes wins. With any form of AV, multiple rounds of counting mean countless opportunities to “game the system”…. and creating any opportunity to game any system is a bad thing. Particularly when that system is paid for out of our taxes.

Democracy is messy enough without complicating it further. The AV system would seek to deny that in politics, as in life, there are winners and losers; AV supporters believe even smaller parties should get a “fair chance” – “fair” here meaning “staying in the race after another party got more votes.” AV is a fudge factor. A kludge. A hack. It’s not “fairer”, nor is it more “democratic”

AV is “the stupidest, the least scientific and the most unreal” voting system…. where elections are “determined by the most worthless votes given for the most worthless candidates“. That quote came from the greatest Prime Minister ever – Winston Churchill. I agree.

Next on the agenda: proposal to re-arrange deckchairs on the Titanic

The religionistas are at it again, fervently protesting that their private feelings are the equal of rational inquiry.

Is this – as I hope – the last thrashings of religion, now it’s served its purpose (shared beliefs allow civilisations to emerge) where those with a vested interest in maintaining the power structures try to make peace with the other side?

Well, probably not, but it’d be nice to think so.

Take the guy from Manchester – who said: “Science can only explain how something was created; religion can explain why” – well, no it can’t. But it can make you feel better about not knowing. But we’ve won half the battle – this religious guy has admitted science can explain how the world was created, and therefore he admits the whole six-days-plus-a-rest brigade got it wrong.

(“Why” is a straw-man question. There isn’t any purpose or meaning to existence, save that which we impose upon it. For many people, a belief in supernatural beings is that imposition.)

And this Bishop of Southwark character, Tom Butler, said “the average person’s view is that science has disproved religion” – but spoke of the scientific theory of dark matter, which involves “a lot of dark matter which we can’t even see, being propelled by forces we don’t understand”

(That’s the point, Mr Butler. Science isn’t a frozen edifice; it’s a method of inquiry. It doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. Your crew does, and is therefore wrong by definition.)

Butler, then, is a classic god-of-the-gaps man – anything we don’t yet know everything about, he points at and yelps, “LOOK! There’s god! Over there! Just look!” And a few years later, when science has come to a reasonable consensus about its natural origins, he’ll find somewhere else to point.

And as for the mooted “battle between atheists and believers” where those nasty atheists are “misleading the public… claim[ing] science and religion are incompatible” – where are all those militant atheists, then? Where are the demonstrations in Oxford St by white-coated scientists and placard-waving mathematicians? Where, exactly, are all these damnable unbelievers sneakily inserting their rationalist agendas into the national debate?

Or could it be that religionistas just don’t like anyone disagreeing with them?

It’s a basic tenet of organisational behaviour, after all. People believe in things; a power structure takes root to take advantage of those people; the group defends its turf and its own existence, from the Romans to the Crusades to the Inquisition to Islamic terrorism.

(While it seems incredible today, for most of history the Muslims were the good guys – for around a thousand years Islam was a tolerant, diverse system that celebrated science, mathematics, and discovery. How far they have fallen, in less than a century… and, uncomfortably, it’s all Europe’s fault. After being attacked by uncivilised savages of medieaval Europe, Islam started Batmobiling, and hasn’t come out of its shell since.)

I know I shouldn’t make fun of people’s deeply-held beliefs, especially when I’m the most tolerant person in town; people are free to believe whatever private feelings make them most comfortable. But that tolerance also means I have right to take the mickey out of such beliefs.

What Chris Watches On Television

SkyTV comes to my sofa!

My life’s been mostly TV-less. Lots of films, preferably in actual cinemas, but very little TV. Due to a) living square-on to a sharp edge of the notoriously reception-unfriendly One Canada Square (I can see the giant silver obelisk from my balcony) and b) there being nothing good on. (Whenever I visit my parents all that seems to be showing is ballroom dance competitions hosted by a guy I thought’d died in the 80s.)

The visual language of television is very different to that of movies – so little narrative, so many ads – and I’ve just never had much interest in it. Until now, checking out broadband deals and discovering I can sock away TV, phone and Internet in a single £50 monthly lump. So tonight, all this will change. Because I’ve just gone for an HD package, and dozens of pin-sharp 1080-line channels are mine for the taking.

In the fridge, there are a large number of bottles of Guinness, the sweet Nigerian stuff, none of that 4% shit here. In the oven is a pizza. Around the kitchen are strategic reserves from the great manufacturing facilities of faraway Frito-Lay. I am ready to enter the strange twilight existence of… the Saturday night television viewer.

In the interests of research, I’m going to spend a solid eight hours channel-surfing. Trying to work myself into the same state of uncritical catatonia experienced nightly by 90% of UK citizens.

Trying to be like them.

Trying to experience the slack-jawed drooling of the British underclass.

Tonight, I shall become one of the lumpen proletariat. And perhaps, in doing so, I shall understand them.

Here we go.

(Bear in mind this blog may sound like I’ve just been reanimated after a century in the freezer and am awestruck at the way everyone gets around without horses.)

ACT ONE: The Beginning

7pm. National Geographic and Discovery Channel. That’s my kind of television. A historical piece about Port Royal, a documentary on Henry Morgan, and another on the way 20 Americans heroically faced down four Somalis off the African coast. (I sense a theme.) They’re well-narrated, with high production values, and enjoyable. I am amused by the way the subjects and themes keep being re-introduced by the presenter: it’s to provide catch-ups for people who’ve just switched channels or returning after a break. (In the UK they’re shown without commercials.)

I grant you one thing: HDTV is amazing. Rich colours, great detail, and – now 37 channels broadcast in it – the content to match; I can’t help but think the waving fields of corn, exquisite cityscapes, and wide-angle wildlife were made for High Definition. (And Sky only broadcasts in 1080i, not 1080p.)

And the Live Pause feature is awesome. Computer and phone marketers could learn a lot from Sky: the way they understand that the most important element of user experience is simply response time. Hit Pause during a broadcast, and there’s no wait for the hard disk to whirr up or the software to answer: it’s just instant. Five minutes later, I’m watching TV from five minutes in the past. And doing so enables me to skip commercial breaks by fast forwarding into the future, i.e. getting back to the present. I am impressed by the feature, and saddened by my mangling of tenses.

The evening has started well. But there’s a long way to go.

ACT TWO: The exhibition(ism)

At 9pm, I start on the Big Numbers: the niche channels and special-interest shows far down the listings. Many are adult. Basically, the format is a girl squirming and jiggling on a soft surface, with constant invitations to phone or text for money. They all have names like “The Boudoir”, “The Pad”, and “Babestation”. Many are trend-blends of several media: the girls take calls on air and read out texts from viewers in real time.

And on every channel, the girls’ training includes looking directly at the camera – directly at me. Coaxing, cajoling, pleading me to dial premium-rate numbers and send £2 texts.

This is truly unnerving. It’s as if she knows I’m watching her, knows my address and birthdate and why I’m at home on a Saturday night. And given that it’s a Sky box – capable of phoning home and keeping detailed logs of everything I’ve watched and bought – she possibly does.

It’s a different paradigm to Internet porn. For a start, it’s titillation not sledgehammer: the girls roll around, cast you glances, play with straps and hold phones as if they’re warming a dildo. And secondly, it seems to go on forever. 30 minutes and up of the same bed. For the girls, it must be serious work; looking both interesting and interested for up to an hour, when all they’re seeing is a cameraman who’s seen better days.

Thirdly, the costs for anyone addicted to this stuff seem extraordinary. It’s free to air, but the small print (there really is small print at the bottom of the screen) notes that texts cost £2, pictures £3, and calls £1.50 a minute. And that’d hardly be the end of it; once they’ve got your mobile number all sorts of adult content, probably charging you without your permission by some legalistic interpretation of Opt-In, would come gushing into your SMS Inbox. I can imagine even occasional viewers spending £200 a month on this stuff. This isn’t a cathode ray tube, it’s a crack pipe.

(I know TVs don’t have cathode ray tubes anymore, but the simile with ‘pipe’ was too good to miss.)

11.20pm. I’m still watching. All the shows are the same, but bizarrely I’m developing my favourites. Babestation Xtra – a chatshow about what’s on the main “Babestation” channel – has occupied most of my time so far. If you listen they’re talking complete crap; I should be like the non-toker in the room of hysterically laughing potheads (which has happened many times and annoys me to the point of violence) but I’m not.

The percentage content of sheer inwardness should even be celebrated; this is media about media, creating content out of nothing, form from void. This is not merely creative; it is deific. (See, I’m doing it too: making up my own words.) These girls are creatives, as much as Rodin or Picasso. They have seen the world and found it wanting, so they have created Another. And for just £3 you can get a JPEG of it on your phone.

My journey is almost complete. I am, indeed, becoming One Of Them. (Not one of the girls on screen; I mean one of their audience.) Comfortably numb. Utopian, in the sense of being happy where I am for I know nothing better. The Socialism Stalin and Marx dreamed of.

SLAP! I change position on the sofa… then go back to the same position. After all, it’s kind of me-shaped now.

I think I’ll stay here.

I am content.

While I know intellectually she’s not going to do anything beyond snap the odd stocking top and – oh wait, there are boobies too – I can imagine what a thrill it must be for the inveterate couch potato. To see her onscreen, dial a number, and watch her answer and talk back. It’s hardly a new TV technique, but … they must get to know these girls individually, develop their favourites.

If I felt lonely now, I’d feel less lonely now. These girls are becoming my friends. Changing channels actually makes me feel guilty.

Midnight. They get nakeder. “Honey”‘s underwear is G-stringlike, barely-there, and the 180s – where she flips from front and back and when the imaginative may, with ambition and alcohol, just about snatch a glance of the holiest of holies – almost make me want to reach for my phone. Well done girl. You’ve proved that few men can withstand your charms if you persist.

In a world of 1000-minute deals and broadband where content far stronger is available for free in endless terabytes, she’s somehow built a business that monetises what’s become a commodity by sheer force of her personality. Writhing on a bed somewhere in Romford.

This is surreal. I have to get out. Goodbye, Northern Lasses. Goodbye, Essex Girls. Goodbye, Babestation.

Wait – it’s repeating. I’ve seen this bit before. Click.

Wait. Just a few minutes more.

Act 3: Remains of the Day

1am. I’ve been here so long, the video’s looping. I definitely saw here do that turnover before. It’s so obvious I can almost hear the studio hand yelling OK, On My Mark, Get Ready… Turn! Stomach to Back… NOW!

OK, well I’m up to 15 units and the girls are looking better despite being uglier. They’re very average-looking girls, in the main: perhaps that’s to be celebrated. With reflective lipgloss and the right lighting, you too can have your few moments of fame, gyrating nightly to a few unhappy thirtysomethings with a remote in their other hand. “Reede” for example wouldn’t attract a second glance in the street, but onscreen she’s just filthy and fully in control. The boobies are out rightaway. Not good. Not good.

But it creates a genuine sense of up close and personal. After all, the audience for these shows is probably in the low thousands, a few guys without girlfriends with nothing else to do on a Saturday. (I stare into the abyss; it stares back at me.) The girls create a very good impression of actually taking calls from viewers, although if I dialled I’d doubtless get through to some less toned individual the other side of the camera.

Goodbye Michelle. Goodbye Morgan. Goodbye Geri. I switch back to the listings, with a pang.

2am. The rest of the dial is a strange mix of teleshopping and advertising. Long informercials the likes of which I haven’t seen in over a decade; cheap enamelled jewellery for the proles to spend the dole on; it’s a catalogue of teased hair and peroxide and the channels are blending into each other.

And blending into me.

My eyes are heavy. The heating is too warm and the sofa a womb. The remote is like a childhood teddy. The images on the screen no longer mean anything, but they comfort me.

I am become television. I have achieved my goal. Nothing else matters. My world ceases to exist beyond the sofa, and its only channel of communication is the glowing rectangle in the corner.

Buzzzz…..

“Thank you for watching Late Night with Chris. It’s 2.15am and I’m signing off… NOW!”

Click.

2009: as good as it gets

My first dream of 2010 was an odd one: watching a frog hop around a psychedelic 70s-style lounge changing not just colour but texture. The frog grew a carpet on its belly, white with black spots, as it trundled across a rug, and reared up to show me. As it journeyed over floor and table and scattered books, it changed colour instantly, perfectly, duplicating patterns and shades without hue or cry. There was a photo album of the frog too, taken by the family whose lounge I was visiting, and in one of the pictures the frog was getting humped by my sister’s childhood soft toy. (Also a frog.)

Quite a metaphor. Because that’s the world: multicoloured, varying, and you either adapt to its terrain or you don’t. If you do, you might as well glory in your abilities, because you’re one of the chosen few: the infinitesmal fraction of all possible combinations of sperm and egg that survives to carry the species forward one more generation.

Years don’t get much better than 2009, except perhaps for 2010. In the broader world it was another year of New Labour ineptitude, worldwide recession and interfering politicians, but – I’m not part of any broader world. Since I learned to live life on my own terms I haven’t noticed booms and never noticed the bust. You just do what you’re good at and try to get better at it, broadening your base by constantly trying new things, and always be utterly honest with the people who pay you. That’s what life is.

And a new year is the perfect time to make the best of it.

I don’t do Christmas, London on New Year’s Eve is a zoo, and I hate the cold. But I genuinely love New Year’s Day. So full of possibilities. If you did something bad, now’s the time to put it right. If you did something great, now’s the time to build on it. One year older too, but I don’t think of it as one year closer to the grave; for me it means victory over death, another year I moved closer to the possibility of immortality.

Because death is just a cellular-level defence against cancer: as our understanding of molecular biology grows, so will our ability to defy it. Cell division, molecular repair, even the aging process itself will one day be reversible. The first generation for whom dying is an option may already have been born. All I have to do is outlive them.

In the spirit of those great philosophers Calvin & Hobbes in their last-ever cartoon:

“It’s a magical world, Hobbes ol’ buddy… let’s go exploring!”

A UK-based Tesla

Hmmm, have I espied the only Tesla in the UK? I mean, they’re made here (the body’s based on a Lotus) but I didn’t think any were actually on Britain’s roads ,and this one appears to be right hand drive too. Whatever, it’s a great indication that electric vehicles are becoming more and more viable for everyday driving.

The middle two-thirds: facing extinction

There’s a huge group of people in this country causing me more and more concern. It’s a strange sensation. I think I might … actually… care about them.

I’m not talking about the bottom demographic, the low-margin service sector workers who work crap jobs behind counters or carts and – just about – get by. In fact, I hugely admire them. Starting from the back of the grid, coming from difficult circumstances in rough neighbourhoods, millions of people are prepared to work long hours for little money without complaint. That’s incredible. While these people have hard lives, there’ll always be work for them: you can’t export a barista. I don’t worry about these working poor, although I do support a minimum wage to recognise their toil.

(Why would an right-swerving ultra-capitalist support a minimum wage? Because if a quarter of the population wants to work but can’t support itself by doing so, there’d be no civil society – these are the people who’d be decently ashamed about not working. More importantly, without these ten million people there’d be no market for base-layer products and services like hair grips or Zhu Zhu pets. Heat Magazine and Strictly Dancing are modern Britain’s bread and circuses; you’ve no real problems if you can keep the proles amused.)

Nor do I worry about the top tenth: the professionals, the movers and shakers who shape the base inputs of the economy into useful forms. Their tools are brainpower and laptops rather than hands and time; These people are intelligent and flexible; they can move roles, understand change, adapt like the higher creatures they are. Hell, we can just move country (I’ve done that five times.)

No, my concern is for the people in the middle. Let’s say social classes C and a chunk of B. Basically, it’s the people who gave Blair his victory in 1997 and are now paying the price for it. But we should let that one mistake slide, because…

… these people are the backbone of the nation. There are fifteen million of them: skilled workers, white-collar worker ants, mechanics and bookkeepers and long-distance lorry drivers. They’re the bulk of the tax base, but they get a lower proportion of their taxes back in services than any other demo. They’re over-administered, under-managed, and bullied by a State that sees them as the easy target.

These people are having an increasingly difficult time of it. And there’s no easy escape for them. They’re pulled on one side by fragility of their jobs: most office and factory jobs are exportable. They’re pulled on the other by the pressure on their incomes: taxes taking an ever-bigger bite, gushing straightaway from them to Labour’s base of the weak and the workshy. And they’re pulled in another dimension by their Futures. If they’re private sector, they have no certainty of a comfortable retirement; if they have children, little chance of a decent state education for them; and if they’re Londoners, no way to afford a decent sized family home.

These people face a stark choice in the years to come. Get pushed down into the McJobs and spend their lives in simmering resentment. Or try to forge upwards into jobs they’re not cut out for, sectors where they’ll always be at a disadvantage.

I worry about these people. They will live long, but never prosper.

And it’s difficult to fully reconcile these concerns with my core beliefs: that markets should be red in tooth and claw, the drivers of excellence are conflict and competition, and the weak are best left to die so the civilisation can develop. If you’re smart, go where the jobs are; if your economy isn’t competitive enough, move your resources elsewhere. Open borders, free movement of people, goods, services, and capital. There are winners and losers – and there have to be. It’s a big, bad world out there, and the spoils go to the best and brightest.

All of which sounds great in theory, but – I can’t stop thinking about those fifteen million people, who just want to work and live, and are losing the chance to do so.

And if I’m having thoughts lik this, it’s all too easy to see why so many policymakers think protection and tariffs are a Good Thing. (Doing so, of course, would simply exacerbate the problem, as global GDP shrinks into a set of pinched-off bubbles without the Magic Of Trade to help them grow.)

I hope those fifteen million have a decent Christmas, because unless we have a complete change in government next year, it may be the last time they sit down to eat with any dignity.

Yet more creationists given space in the media

I dislike Richard Dawkins methods for dealing with the fairytales of religion: he tries to argue against creationists with reason and intellect, and of course religionistas and the ID brigade are by definition neither reasonable nor logical. Why wrestle with a pig? (You get dirty and he enjoys it.) Meeting them in the media plays to their strengths: the god squad use the tactics of the lawyer, the loophole and the procedural technicality, not science.

And precisely for that reason – it makes controversial copy – the UK’s national newspapers see fit to give pagespace to deluded fools. Today’s exhibit: this bit of Intelligent Design claptrap in The Guardian.

The author neatly demonstrates ALL the faults with creationists: they’re just so fucking thick. You could fairly sum up this article (one of the commenters does) as “Oooh! That looks complicated! A god must’ve done it!”

I understand religion, and have no problem with it. Life is hard, and it’d be really comforting to think some Big Guy is above the clouds looking out for us. And shared beliefs, however factually incorrect, allowed civil society to form and civilisations to get traction. There’s nothing wrong with believing in myths, as long as you understand that they’re only there to satisfy your need for comfort.

The “best” religionists understand this, and don’t allow themselves to be drawn into an argument about how things really happened. For them, it’s enough simply to say “I believe”. Which is fine by me.

But idiots like the ID rabble are too feeble-minded for that. Their educationally underdeveloped brains don’t have the wattage to be comfortable in their own convictions; everyone else must take their beliefs seriously, so they come up with subterfuge and twaddle. And this guy was a science teacher? A schools inspector? Hardly surprising the UK’s education system is such a cesspool if the decent teachers have to contend with guys like this telling them how to run things.

Just because someone has a right to speak doesn’t mean they need equal airspace with experts who’ve spent decades doing the hard work of actual research. Let the fools speak, if they wish. But don’t give them a national platform.

Giving minarets the finger

The Swiss ban on mosque minarets is an interesting decision, because it illustrates the misguided thinking common to most hot buttons: trying to influence a deeper condition by controlling its outward symptoms.

There were only four minarets in the whole of Switzerland before this ban on new ones, so the whole process was bunk to start with. If there’s a reason to not approve a tall pointy thing at one corner of a planned building, then disallow it… but do it for architectural and local planning reasons. In the ultra-conservative world of Swiss building regulations, it’s highly unlikely many mosques with minarets would ever be approved anyway. The rabble-rousers behind this ban put up a straw man, and whoa, did the Swiss ever fall for it.

(Not sure there are that many church spires in Saudi Arabia, but that’s beside the point.)

Like France’s ban on the headscarves in schools or Turkey’s burqa ban in government offices, they’re looking at outward effects rather than root causes. Think of how airports making you take your shoes off, on the basis one terrorist once hid something in his shoe. Or Germany’s ban on drawings of crooked crosses, which has given the symbol glamour among skinheads.

A ban on minarets is a bit like those south seas islanders who wave palm leaves around on dirt tracks and build wooden control towers expecting 747s to appear. This is all going to end in tears…

New train station built… in six days!

I know it’s just a few platforms on a patch of waste ground – but even so, when combined with the complications of merging timetables and pointwork, building a new train station in six days after the Cumbrian floods that destroyed most of the area’s bridges was a real feat.

Presumably on the seventh day they rested.

Simple answers 2: the US representational system

I’ve just realised why Obama can’t get anything done no matter how hard he tries: it’s the Senate. So it’s time for another simple solution to a complex problem.

The solution: give each Senator a vote equal to the percentage of the US population he or she represents.

(Note these are simple solutions, not simple implementations.)

The issue is that while the US Congress is basically representative – California has over 50 votes in the electoral college given its population of over 37m – the Senate is not. Two Senators from every State, each with an equal voice in the upper house. This is the complete antithesis of the most basic principle of democracy (one man, one vote.

In practical terms, this means barely 10% of the US population have a veto over all US legislation. That 10% is almost entirely in the Red States: the god, guns ‘n gays crowd. (Apparently they have certain views on abortion, too.)

Worldly-wise, internationally aware (sort of) California and New York, with over 56 million people, have no louder voice in the Senate than … North Dakota and Kansas.

Now there’s nothing wrong with North Dakota or Kansas (or indeed with voting Republican if you’re into that sort of thing) but should the interests of a few hardscrabble villages really outweigh the greater good of cities with economies larger than most countries?

I mean, it’s hardly unique to the USA (the UK’s electoral boundaries favour the Labour Party, whose parliamentary seats require fewer votes on average to win) but nothing in Europe gets anywhere near the situation in Washington.

Odd that the world’s strongest democracy is ultimately overseen by a couple of farmers in the vast flat states inland. But the solution, at least, is simple.