Thursday, 22 December 2011

This time of year...

Christmas, winterval, yule, Hanuka, Saturnalia, whatever.

We should all be celebrating today. For today is the Solstice. The longest night and the beginning of winter, The days will get longer from now until the Summer solstice in June. All the festivals we celebrate around this time are lunarised bastardisations of our much more ancient solar festivals.

I'm not some neo-pagan, dressing up like a character from Lord of the Rings to perform some farcical ceremony at Stonehenge. But these festivals are based in something real, the seasons, which give a natural rhythm to our lives, and have always done. The light has shone through that same gap, at the same point every year for about 4,500 years. This natural rhythm, combined with a human need to mark the passage of time, is why Atheists celebrate Christmas: you don't need a God to tell you to celebrate the return of the sun.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Every Day Carry

One of the blogs in my reader is the well-known "every-day carry" where people show how they carry all the gadgets and gizmos they might need day-to-day. There are some "loadouts" that are survivalists, bristling with military hardware, hand-guns and fighting knives which are absolutely absurd, usually carried by fat men with thick spectacles acting out walter mitty fantasies, and would be illegal in the UK. There are also some minimalist and stylish collections of fine leather goods and beautifully chosen tools. It's a good place to go and indulge my small leather goods fetish, or my desire for beautiful tools, like these William Henry Knives.

I find it absurd, for example that a decent multi-tool would be (sort of) illegal to carry in the UK. Most have blades which lock in place (far safer than a UK-legal slip-joint folder) and blades greater than the maximum 3". If you have an excuse to carry a multi-tool, then it's legal. So if I carry one, it lives in my Bicycle tool kit but I regard the fact that I might have to justify carrying something so self-evidently useful as a leatherman, as a gross intrusion.

Generally speaking, the EDC is a philosophy of preparedness, at all times, while keeping the weight & bulk down. This requires thought about the objects you carry. So should your pen double as a self-defence tool? Your key-chain a tool or light? Memory sticks? Do you need a knife AND a multitool? Notebook, pens, sunglasses. Can you carry stuff on your belt, without looking like a total twat? These are all important questions.

Here's what I carry with me every day, bearing in mind I'm a cycling stockbroker. It's heavy on pens and business cards and light on firearms.

Omega speedmaster reduced (the automatic version of the moonwatch).
Wallet, business card case and pen holder by Aspinals
Parker 51 fountain pen, pencil & Victorninox Tourist which live in the pen-holder.
Fisher space pen & extra-small moleskine notebook, carried in wallet.
Brass Zippo
and of course, a phone: HTC desire, in an ultra-slim leather case by Senna.

More often than not, the Kindle plus cover by Piel Frama will come with me when I leave the house. Especially if there's public transport involved. If I'm cycling, I will wear Oakley half-jackets, and will certainly carry a flash-light, in case I need to cycle after dark. In the bag, I carry a waterproof, high-visibility jacket & overshoes (if not carried, it WILL rain), a small first aid-kit (gauze, iodine mesh, tape, antiseptic spray, tweezers, Ibuprofen scisors and a space-blanket), spare lenses for the Glasses for different light conditions, spare batteries for the bike lights.

In the small saddle-bag there is always a CO2 pump, plus spare canister, inner tube, tyre patch, puncture repair kit, tyre levers, zip-ties, a cycling multi-tool with Allen keys and a chain-breaker. I also carry a spokey, spare nipples and a kevlar spoke, enough to get the bike home after almost any disaster. This lives permanently on the bike.

Finally I usually carry an electronic gizmo "life support system" in a small pencil case, which contains a multi-usb plug, leads, adaptors and a power-monkey, a spare battery for the phone, with which I can charge any of the electronics I carry from either a computer or plug.

Is there anything else I need? It seems like a lot, but the first picture fits in my pockets, the second takes up the smallest pouch on my courier bag, including the contents of the third picture. Generally speaking, I'm ready for most things that the day might throw at me.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Cycling Kit

Since I've abandoned car ownership, I have given a lot of thought to cycling kit, as it is my main means of transport.

First of all the Bike itself. I ride a Condor Squadra. This is not the bike I would have chosen were I to buy it again as it is an out and out road bike, with no eyelets for luggage or room for mudguards or tyres bigger than 25mm, it's fine in the summer, but not so great in the winter. Carbon fibre, which is what the seat-stay is made from, isn't the right material for an everyday bike.

So what advice would I give to someone thinking of selling their car for a bike. First, bicycles are still seen mainly as a leisure activity in the UK and the bikes available reflect this. Road bikes have tight clearences, skinny tyres and close spaced gears. Mountain bikes have strong frames, knobbly tyres and extravagent suspension. You do NOT need suspension on roads, it's just weight. Both road and mountain are almost useless as an everyday commuting bike. You know why? Because they weren't designed for it. Road bikes gear ratios are too high for climbing if you're carrying anything at all, and knobbly mountain bike tyres and suspension make pedalling about 50% harder work than it needs be on most mountain bikes.

Buy a Dutch, Hybrid, Audax or touring bike, with clearances for big tyres for the winter and room for mudguards. Did I mention mud-guards? The Crud Road Racer IIs are excellent and make a road bike acceptable in winter, but a proper set of mud-guards are even better and certainly tougher. Most bikes in the UK are sold without mud-guards for aesthetic reasons. None of the bikes you see mountain-biking or racing on TV have them, so bikes with them look old fashioned. It is quite simple. With mud-guards and a decent coat, only the tops of your thighs get wet, in all but the most torrential downpour. Without mud-guards, you get soaked in seconds in the merest drizzle.

Frames should be steel or (if money is no object) titanium, not aluminium or carbon fibre. Why? Because steel and titanium are tough, and aluminium and carbon fibre are brittle and you're going to be lugging stuff over pot-holes. You wouldn't use a Ferrari every day, why would you use your Colnago?

Wheels. Any fewer than 36 holes on the rear is just stupid. Once more, Tour de France bikes have as few spokes as they can get away with for aerodynamic reasons. They have a mechanic who can and does true the wheels daily. These guys also weigh half what most of us weigh. You're buying a bike to use every day, and it's going to be lugging stuff over pot-holes. Leave the 28-spoke wheel for the weekend, on your carbon fibre road bike.

Gears. If you don't have a hill to climb, 3 or 5 speed hub gears will be fine. Otherwise derailleurs are popular everywhere for a reason. Although they require maintenance, the close ratios and index-shifting make much more efficient use of the 1/2 horsepower you have available. Hub gears are however, basically maintenance free. Beware road-bikes. There is a culture amongst freds of Big-Ring masochism. Because Miguel Indurain could climb on a big ring, everyone wants to. This hurts knees. Get gear ratios apropriate to the task and your level of fitness. Were money no object, for my every day bike I would use a Rolhoff Speedhub, but as it is, I have a 9speed Camagnolo cassette and a compact front.

Saddles: Padded saddles are NOT comfortable for any more than a mile. There's a reason why almost all round-the-world cyclists use the Brooks B17, a saddle which has been in constant production in the same factory in Birmingham since 1866. Because it's the most comfortable. Trust me on this one. £70 for a saddle, and you will never, ever want another. I use the Brooks team Pro and I love it. If you're sitting very upright and Comfort is your main consideration, try this, but really, if you're using the thing every day, buy a Brooks saddle there is no other choice.

You can spend anything from £400 to £4,000 on an every-day bike. At the bottom end, you'll get a reliable if heavy hybrid, and at the top end, you will have a hand-built steel or Titanium frame, measured for you with top-of-the range components. Remember the cardinal rule of cycling. Cheap, Light, Strong: Choose two. You get more benefit from tyres at the correct pressure and the saddle at the correct height (probably up a couple of inches) than an extra £1000 on the bike's cost. You're not racing, so don't buy a racing bike. You're not going off road, so you don't need knobbly tyres. You ARE going on roads which may be wet, so get mudguards. Mudguards make all the difference to winter cycling. They're even more important than the clothes.

Luggage is the other reason people give for not wishing to commute. Very few people need to carry more than a ruck-sack every day. Certainly two panniers and a ruck-sack will carry a week's shopping. And if you regularly take big loads, I reckon this will carry more than a small car. Kids? No problem. For day-to-day use, I've a courier bag, from Bagaboo in Hungary, which keeps everything dry, even in the most torrential downpour, and can take a week's shopping for one home from the supermarket. If you want a courier bag, I would highly recommend their Workhorse messenger, and they will even stitch your own design. Others swear by rucksacks. Most people who carry lots of stuff over a long distance, let the bike take the load with panniers, bar-bags and baskets. Trial and error, work with what you're comfortable with as there is no right answer.

What about clothes? Well the commuting cyclist is well catered for now. One extravagence is a pair of Rapha jeans which are wonderfully comfortable. Another is a merino wool habit. This means I don't have to dress up as a mobile billboard every day and can more or less cycle to work in normal day clothes. Merino resists odour, wicks sweat and keeps you warm or cool. Magic stuff. I have in the past kept suits in the office, and carried them with me. It's not a great problem having to change. If you're clean, you shouldn't need a shower if you're commuting less than 5 miles, especially if you take it steady. A pair of overshoes is a must, as is a waterproof, some of which are not eurofluro. Also look at Outlier and Velobici. It's not cheap, but think of it in terms of full tanks of petrol. Ah, that merino Jersey costs one tank of petrol... see. Easy to justify.

These days there is no reason why you shouldn't abandon your car entirely for all journeys of less than 5 miles. Try it. You might just start to like it.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Youth Unemployment....

....Is an absolute disgrace.

Problem is Labour's mantra that this is an economic problem is belied by the fact that this has been rising since they introduced the minimum wage about 2000. In Spain 40% youth unemployment is indicative that most young people have half a job, before they eventually join the ranks of the protected insiders.

In Britain however, 20% youth unemployment means many of those 20% of young people won't get a job, now or ever. This is one of the broadest measure of Britains multi-generational welfare dependency. There's the Workless households, in which one in six children grow up; without a role model of a parent going to work every day, the majority of which are headed by a lone parent. At the top of the heap are the "problem families" which blight every poor neighbourhood.

The problems are circular. Increasingly feminised schools have little relevance to working class boys in particular. They bunk off, find they can't catch up if they ever have periods of motivation, get frustrated, bunk off some more, and leave school without any of the basic skills necessary to succeed, or any of the qualifications employers demand. These boys then go on to lead chaotic lives, without the hope of employment, fathering children they have little intention of bringing up. Who grow up in workless households, for whom school has no relevance.... and so on.

The problem isn't a lack of jobs (the number of employed immigrants gives the lie to that), a lack of skills, or even discrimination against the working class, one ludicrous CiF article (I can't find the link) suggested employers' demands for punctual, hard-working, well-presented, literate people with clear diction was 'discrimination'; instead it's a moral poverty.

There are vast armies of state employees, some 43 agencies by one estimate, focused on solving these problems. Income transfers ensure that the multi-generational welfare families are not cash poor. There are plenty of low-paid people on wages lower than that which can be achieved by farming the benefits system's (at one recent count) 73 different payments.

Chris Dillow will scoff at the idea that living on £51 per week unemployment benefit. But this number is a joke. Unemployment benefit: that's just pin-money, when housing benefit ensures there's a roof over your head, and income support & child benefit to ensure little Wayne, Lee and Kayleigh don't starve. A multi-generational moral vacuum has been created, where there are no consequences to catastrophic life choices. Few single mothers get sent to gaol unless they've killed someone, and there are no punishments short of that hold any fear.

The Problem families don't need another agency of troubleshooters to ensure they behave. They need a system of consequences. Beyond a certain point of catastrophic stupidity, petty criminality, and ignorance the state needs to cease its efforts to 'help'. Perhaps above a certain number of ASBOs and convictions, all benefits should be stopped, all children taken into care and the family evicted from state housing. The adults would be free to find a living without the help they've spat out all their lives. Link
Consequences for actions. That is all that is required. It may even filter down through the levels of uselessness, without the hard-core of trouble families, their neighbours' kids might find education in sink comprehensives improve. This might mean that the employers, who've been importing labour rather than employing illiterate British teenagers, might start making a dent in youth unemployment. If you build an incentive or two into the welfare state, in 20 years, Britain's underclass might actually start to shrink.

Friday, 9 December 2011

Cameron's Euro Gamble.

We will find out over the next few days, but I suspect the conversation went something like:

France: "We want to impose a Tobin tax, Europe-wide"
The UK: "Um... sod off, you greasy little squit".
Germany: "We'd like to impose regulation on financial services designed to move transactions from London to Frankfurt"
The UK: "You two are shitting me, right".
France & Germany "No".
The UK: "Fine then, bugger off".

Everyone is claiming either victory, or that Cameron's made a terrible error. UKIP, because we're not getting a referendum that for some reason they think will solve everything, STILL call Cameron a Europhile. Labour think it's terrible that Britain is "isolated".

Actually I think the situation is broadly what the Conservative party AND the British people want: a 2 Teir Europe, with the UK the leading member of the small "never going to join the Euro" club. These will slide towards a Norwegian/Swiss position, while everyone else forges ahead with a Franco-German empire monetary and fiscal union.

So Cameron has shot UKIPs fox who will continue to frot themselves about a referendum which is no longer needed and will fade into irrelevance. Labour will find themselves arguing that Cameron SHOULDN'T have wielded his veto and should have instead bent over for whatever the Merkozy borg was suggesting. This demonstrates Ed Miliband's tactical and strategic ineptness, and may have cost him the poll lead.

I am not sure Cameron could or should have played it differently. But there are deeper and more lasting issues here, which may or may not cause problems further down the line. This is an epoch-making moment. It is the end of 500 years of consistent English (& 300 years of British) foreign policy towards the continent. Namely that if the dominant hegemonic power isn't England, no other power, or combination of powers should be able to rise to dominate the continent. As I mentioned before

Since the wars with Spain in the 1500s, when England stood at the head of an alliance of anti-Spanish nations culminating in the Armada of 1588. Next, through the Wars of religion Protestant England was happy to ally with anyone including Catholic powers keeping Spain down. France was (believe it or not, after strings of stunning military victories) next up in an attempt to become the dominant power in Europe, first under the Bourbon monarchy and later under Bonaparte. Comprehensive British victories at Trafalgar in 1805 and Waterloo (with a little help from ze Prussians) in 1815 put pay to Napoleon's ambitions in that regard. The Russians made an abortive bid but were seen off by a Anglo-French alliance in the Crimea and turned their imperial ambitions east. A long peace saw the Rise of Germany, and the brokering of an Entente Cordiale between France and the UK should Germany get uppity and start throwing its weight around. They took some stopping, and the help of the Americans but Germany was prevented from getting a massive European empire....

...1914-1918 and 1939-1945 were the same war, with a bit of time to let Fritz regroup. The hun may have been utterly defeated, but they have never abandoned the dream of European empire which has burned in the Teutonic heart since the unification of Germany under the Hohenzollerns in 1871. The hush-puppy may have replaced the jackboot but the Boche are still marching in step.
Well that nightmare is upon us. A unified Europe stares at us across the Channel and our only allies are Sweden, the Czech republic and Hungary to block the behemoth that is the Eurozone and the lackeys who STILL wish to join. Our influence in a club, which by treaty and Geography, still affects us deeply, is much, much less today than it was yesterday. The UK cannot outvote a EU17 voting at Merkozy's whim as a block. Euroskeptics, amongst whom I count myself, should not kid themselves that this decision is without cost.

Even if we leave the European Union, we still have to deal with that European behemoth, which will remain our biggest trading partner and closest neighbour, linked by money, blood, and habit. Unlike yesterday, we have no reins with which to control the monster which a federal German-dominated euro zone will become. It will rapidly become under French influence, more protectionist and inward-looking as our counterbalancing influence will wane. This isn't in Britain's interest.

Britain got what she wanted and may yet regret it.

Monday, 5 December 2011

The Darwin Economy

Robert H. Frank, professor of Economics at Cornell university has written a very interesting book called the Darwin Economy. The central Idea is that Humans are prone to decision-making which is optimal for the individual, but damaging to the Group, in a manner similar to the evolutionary Arms race which sees Bull Elk producing enormous antlers every year. Such adornments are costly, not only in the resources of calcium and protein, but also in the difficulty of moving in forests with such ungainly headgear, leading to predation by wolves.

Thus spending on such display items as cars and houses is excessive and sub-optimal. Humans being status-conscious beings, we feel it necessary to keep up with the Joneses, leading to an arms-race of consumption cascading from the super rich all the way down to the very poor.

This is market failure, but not in the way the left thinks, as is explained at some length in the book. Instead Professor Frank suggests it is a failure in the basis of taxation. Why do we tax things that are good, like income or jobs which we need more of? Why not tax things like status consumption or use of scarce resources, in which the effect of the tax is beneficial (lower mileage driven, fewer resources consumed, less excessive status arms-race) over and above the tax raised?

This isn't to say that tax doesn't take out of the productive economy, of course it does. But that the blow would be softened if IN ADDITION to the tax raised, there was some compensating behaviour change which made some people a bit happier. No-one benefits from a payroll tax like National Insurance in the UK. Many people benefit from lower congestion as a result of high fuel duty, not least the people paying it who would otherwise find traffic much more problematic than they do now were taxes less than 65% of the cost of their fuel. Perhaps a brand-new BMW (which as everyone knows will immediately turn you into a sociopathic tail-gating arsehole) should be taxed at a higher rate than a more utiliarian vehicle?

It's an interesting idea, but is perhaps over-argued. I'm not sure I appreciate the endless repetition of the zero-regulation, zero-tax Libertarian caricature in the book, which has me screaming "STRAW MAN" in almost every chapter. Most libertarians, on this side of the pond at least, accept the need for some regulation, especially in competition. Zero tax isn't a realistic propostion either and I am convinced by the Rahm Curve, with a peak at around 20%. Many Libertarians (including this one) even accept the need for some redistribution of income, to compensate people for the extent to which people's station in life is defined by luck (a lot more than most people think). Finally, redistribution is an important guarantor of social cohesion, preventing, in final analysis, the rich ending up swinging from a gibbet.

Where the book is strongest is in its defence of free markets. Many leftists think "market failure" is the observation that the rich have more options than the poor. It isn't. I would urge my left-wing friends to read it simply to hear a cogent and well-thought out explanation of how markets benefit ESECIALLY the poor. It is also why cash transfers are better at increasing utility, especially for the poor, than "free" top-down administered services, all areas which had me nodding in agreement.

I am not wholly convinced that the steeply progressive consumption tax Professor Frank advocates, should be the proper basis for Government revenue, but it certainly got me thinking. Certainly a properly constructed negative income tax or citizens' basic income fulfils many of the benefits of the free market that Professor Frank supports, in that they give the poor agency in how they spend the resourses available to them, rather than ceding all that agency to well-meaning bureaucratic agencies. Where I disagree with Professor Frank is the extent to which status displays and positional goods (especially access to education) hurt the poor. The mansion-extension example which crops up though the book may lead to bigger houses further down the income distribution, but I am not convinced this is a wholly bad thing. Maybe amongst vulgar americans, where relative size is everything (over here, of course, we pay up for age, which is um... better or something). And the benefits felt by tradesmen who will build the mansion extension appears to be completely ignored.

Everyone engages in status displays amongst those either side of them, and by and large, aren't that fussed by the lives of the rich & famous with whom they're not competing, however much media bien pensants think they shoud be. A progressive handicap system to status displays, as proposed, won't really change that desire to compete in status display. To decry as fundamental a human desire as competition as "waste" seems like social engineering and I'm not convinced by Prof Frank's explanation. Even Guardianista's eschewal of status displays can become competitive, as parodied in Viz's Modern Parents. The evidence appears to be that the demographic most upset by high GINI coefficients appears to be relatively wealthy lefties who frot themselves into a state of deep mailaise over the statisitics. If there is one group of people for whom I have zero sympathy, it's Hampstead sociailists. I like much of Professor Frank's analysis, but I remain a flat-taxer.

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