Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Should we Seek Material Security?

In the Weekend FT, "The Shrink & The Sage" ask, "Should we seek material security?".  I particularly like the Shrink's response:

"It may be easy to agree that an acquisitive approach to life is not likely to be good for our mental health. But surely a certain amount of material security is a prerequisite for wellbeing? After all, safety sits squarely near the base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, among those that should be satisfied first in order for us to move on to higher ones such as achievement and creativity.

And yet there are many examples of people who deprive themselves of common necessities for the sake of something they see as more valuable...

The traditions that encourage us to toss away what most of us crave also point to the fact that these things can only give us an illusion of safety. Ultimate security is not an achievable aim. Instead of chasing chimeras, we should learn to come to terms with life’s fundamental insecurity.

The idea of giving up all the common human ambitions – not only material security but also love, belonging, recognition – may be daunting for most of us. Not many people would want to forego these most natural of goals, which on average tend to make people’s lives better. But in a world where the satisfaction of evolved needs is often portrayed as a necessary condition of wellbeing, it’s good to entertain the possibility that these desires don’t have to be pandered to unreflectively.

Only some of us will choose the ascetic path of renunciation. But all of us can learn the lesson that if these goods are not indispensable to some, they need not be everything to the rest of us. It’s sensible to plan for our pension but we should do it without excessive fear and anxiety."

For more good stuff, see the Shrink and Sage blog here.

Buddhism quote from the Dalai Lama

"If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change. In my view, science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality. By learning from science about aspects of reality where its understanding may be more advanced, I believe that Buddhism enriches its own worldview."
I like the basic principles of Buddhism and believe the Dalai Lama is a highly pragmatic and effective teacher. I am also impressed with the idea of Buddhism, particularly with how aspects of the practice fit so well with the scientific process, and also the idea of viewing it as a rebellion against nature (as taught in an excellent Coursera course by Professor Robert Wright).

However, while above quote indicates a level of openness to rational and scientific thought that some other belief systems (or at least some specific believers) do not share, note how the Dalai Lama's message is highly qualified. By saying that it's up to science to prove something wrong in order for Buddhism to change is one step in the right direction. However, science cannot disprove reincarnation, karma, or heaven or hell, or ghosts, or fairies. You've got as much of a rational basis to belief in any of these as you have to believe that the centre of the earth of made of cheese, or that when we die our spirits all go to another planet, or that we aren't alive at all, but are just advanced computer simulations living a completely artificial existence - we just think we're "real". That we might believe these types of things as individuals or in large groups doesn't make them more or less true. I'm not knocking these constructs from a social value perspective, not at all, but you can't ask science to disprove any them...THAT IS NOT HOW SCIENCE WORKS. Whilst you have a think about this, I'll be off playing hop-scotch with some goblins and a pygmy dragon that lives in my garage.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Audi 80 - goodbye to a good ten years

I scrapped my much loved Audi 80 (1994) a few months ago. Its MOT was coming up and while the old horse was still trotting along really well, the tyres all needed replacing, the brakes were on their way out, and some other bits and pieces also needed looking at. Combined with the paltry fuel consumption, this made it too costly to maintain, even though a lot of the spend would have been on standard wear and tear.

Looking back at the original receipt, I bought the car in June 2004 so it did last me a good ten years with appreciation of a mere £170 a year and absolutely minimal upkeep costs. Alas, Audi we knew each other well. All I have left of you is memories, a few photos, and the Audi logo which I prized off the glove box ; )

Being a little desperate to replace the car, I decided to go for a 2002 Golf GT TDI. In haste, I bought the car from a dealership who had just got the car in on a part exchange deal. I really should have spent more time kicking the tyres, because after I bought the car I realised the suspension was shot to pieces. The windscreen was also cracked and needed to be replaced for £150. At the very least, I could have bargained a few hundred quid off the price. Nevertheless, I figured it was a solid car, with a good service history, a decent set of tyres, and excellent fuel efficiency. Over the coming weeks, I picked up on a few more faults, such as dodgy electrics and a broken electric window, which surprisingly turned out to be typical of these cars (one reviewer describes the window mechanism as being made out of chocolate). Also, despite having various mod cons such as climate control, leather seats with heating built in, and a twin electric sunroof, the interior feels much cheaper than the Audi 80, a car that was eight years its senior!

Due to the dodgy electrics the headlight buzzer doesn't work and I've had to call the RAC out twice to jump start the car because I left the lights on - just today I had to replace the battery, which was drained to death. Oh the car also keeps locking itself, which means I could easily find myself locked out of my car if I leave the keys inside. As I don't have a spare key made up yet, this could be an expensive mistake.

On the upside, the suspension fix can wait, the cambelt has already been replaced, and the diesel engine is a rock solid  lump. Visually, the car looks okay (it's just lacking soul and character), and the fuel efficiency is outstanding at over 53 mpg! The savings on fuel and road tax mean that I could happily spend about £600 a year on this car in repairs and it wouldn't hurt my wallet any more than if I kept the Audi running. Also, there is an important mental effect of having minimal fuel costs, which is that you don't feel that you are killing your wallet every time you take a drive!

Monday, October 20, 2014

Buddhism overview

The School of Life has just printed a perfect short summary of Buddhism.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Will Ebola make the US turn to science....from The New Yorker

NEW YORK (The Borowitz Report)—There is a deep-seated fear among some Americans that an Ebola outbreak could make the country turn to science.

In interviews conducted across the nation, leading anti-science activists expressed their concern that the American people, wracked with anxiety over the possible spread of the virus, might desperately look to science to save the day.

“It’s a very human reaction,” said Harland Dorrinson, a prominent anti-science activist from Springfield, Missouri. “If you put them under enough stress, perfectly rational people will panic and start believing in science.”

Additionally, he worries about a “slippery slope” situation, “in which a belief in science leads to a belief in math, which in turn fosters a dangerous dependence on facts.”

At the end of the day, though, Dorrinson hopes that such a doomsday scenario will not come to pass. “Time and time again through history, Americans have been exposed to science and refused to accept it,” he said. “I pray that this time will be no different.”

Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee

I mentioned Jerry Seinfeld's web series "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee" a long time back. Well, I just revisted the site and am happy to report there are  stack more episodes, and more seasons have been commissioned. This is really nice stuff. There's even a mock Seinfeld episode in the mix, featuring George Costanza!

Friday, October 17, 2014

The shrink and the sage: on motivation

From the pair's weekly column in the FT:

"Our motivations spring from desires but rationality has no desire, which is why, as Hume said, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.”"

Leading on to:

"Reason’s role is to work out if our motivations – and what we do with them – are coherent. This also extends to checking whether one motivation conflicts with another or whether the values that we hold are consistent with what we find ourselves wanting to do. This makes reason less of a slave and more of a kind of existential coach. By making us rigorously examine the coherence of our motivations, reason sometimes changes them. Realising that fame is empty, for instance, can get us to concentrate more on what we want to be famous for. Motivations therefore don’t come directly from reason but they are and ought to be shaped by it."

Thursday, October 16, 2014

One for the coincidence file

I just googled the actor Mike Myers to see what he might be up to...not so much apparently. Well, literally a minute after doing this, I'm watching an episode of Futurama and the character Zoidberg randomly leaps back in time to the 60s and takes the guise of Austin Powers for a brief moment. Freaky coincidence, what.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Markets follow on

On the BBC newspaper round up, the commentators including the newsman agreed that the markets hate uncertainty and then cited uncertainty in Greece, risks around Ebola and a downturn in Germany as factors behind the sell off. What a nonsense, as if the markets had been asleep over the past few weeks.

Film: Particle Fever

Just watched a cracking documentary about the large hadron collider. It gave a great behind the scenes look at the completion of the particle accelerator, and the subsequent discovey of the elusive Higgs particle.

But get this, the slides they used to reveal the discovery to the world press used the..... COMIC SANS typeface! I mark this as the worst use of the font in its history.

Markets comment

Today is one of those rare days when the markets completely tanked. The FTSE closed down over 2.8%, while the dollar sold off and gold rallied. Cyclical commodities also got whacked. All in all it's classic "risk off". One of the really scary movements was in US 10-year treasuries, which at one point today posted a yield decline of 34bps, the biggest decline in some five years.

Some analysts are pointing to soft economic data coming out of the US, which may have a grain of truth, but is really a case of scrambling about for a fundamental explanation when there might not be one, and because analysts can't bring themselves to say "Sorry, I don't really know". I would be inclined to look at the market structure and distortions willfully created by the authorities in response to the credit crisis, and hypothesise such fall outs are to be expected when governments and central banks create artificial stability, which in turn allows positions to get overly built up in one direction. Oh, and the artificial stability has come at a terrible price: monetary policy is relatively impotent against the next crisis, given that interest rates are so low. What's left is more unorthodox monetary operations, distortions and unintended consequences, as the authorities scramble about trying to find new ways to push the economic pain into the distant future. Bleak times.

PS - I am not invested in anything other than Tesco shares (bought after the fall-out as a long shot recovery play).

Poem: Desiderata by Max Ehrmann (1927)

Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.
As far as possible without surrender be on good terms with all persons.
Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.
Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.
If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter;
for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.

Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
Keep interested in your career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.
Exercise caution in your business affairs; for the world is full of trickery.
But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals;
and everywhere life is full of heroism.

Be yourself.
Especially, do not feign affection.
Neither be critical about love; for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is as perennial as the grass.

Take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings.
Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.

You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be,
and whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life keep peace with your soul.
With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be careful. Strive to be happy.

Poem: To Risk by William Arthur Ward (1921-1994)

To laugh is to risk appearing the fool.
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.
To reach out is to risk involvement,
To expose feelings is to risk exposing your true self.
To place your ideas and
dreams before a crowd is to risk their loss.
To love is to risk not being loved in return,
To live is to risk dying,
To hope is to risk despair,
To try is to risk failure.
But risks must be taken because
the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing.
The person who risks nothing, does nothing,
has nothing, is nothing.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Economic stagnation

Every silver lining has a cloud.

Inflation appears to be at a five-year low at just 1.2% y/y. This means the purchasing power of my wages isn't as weak as could have otherwise been the case. Combine this with the fact that my main two expenses (petrol and rent) aren't ticking higher, and it means my disposable income isn't in bad shape, relatively speaking. I imagine this will be the case for the majority of commuting workers.

But there are clouds, lots of them:

- Low inflation means interest rates will be lower for longer. The key point here is that the Bank of England would likely want to see inflation pick up quite strongly before jacking up rates - because of this lag, savings can be expected to earn close to negative real rates in the near term.
- Also, the chart below shows how our wages haven't been keeping up with inflation for six years. Even if we are optimistic on wage growth from here on, there is a lot of catching up to do before celebrations are warranted.
- If we aren't earning anything by parking money with the banks, maybe we can make our money work for us? What about investing in the FTSE? Doh, the index of the UK's largest stocks has been tanking over the past few weeks. What about property? It's so expensive that it's out of reach for most people, and prices look to be continually supported by low interest rates!
- Maybe we should just go on holiday to forget about our troubles...that's all good and well but the pound has been falling quite sharply on the back of a weak growth-low interest rates story, so things are getting increasingly pricey abroad!

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Speech: The Man in the Arena by Theodore Roosevelt

The Man in the Arena
[Excerpt from the speech "Citizenship In A Republic" by Theodore Roosevelt at the Sorbonne in Paris, France on April 23, 1910.]

"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat."

Friday, October 10, 2014

Free market miracles - bananas

I just bought a pack of eight bananas from Tesco for a mere £1.15. Consider the following:

The bananas were grown in a plantation in Costa Rica for a year, where they would have been carefully tended to ensure a good crop (e.g. planting the plant and feeding it so it grows strong, tying the plant down so the weight of the bananas don't topple it, and placing bags over the bananas so they don't get eaten by pests). When ready the bananas would have picked by hand at harvest time. They would have been checked by a quality controller and then washed. Next up, the bananas would be stickered, wrapped in bags, boxed up and crated and loaded onto a shipping container. The container would be driven to the port by a driver, where somebody else would load them onto a vessel. The ship's journey would take about 12 days, and span a few thousand miles across the Atlantic. On reaching the port in the UK, the cargo would unloaded, ready for pick-up. A driver would then take the container to one of Tesco's distribution centres in the middle of the country, where it would be unloaded and re-checked for quality, and the bananas allowed to ripen. From here, the bananas would be re-loaded on to Tesco vans and dispatched to stores across the UK, where local supermarket staff would put them on to the shelves, ready for the customer.

Now get this: you can pick up eight of these bananas for £1.15 or a single banana for about 12p. And for that price everybody involved the above process makes a profit or a wage along the way. All the people involved have decided to be part of this amazing, unplanned mechanism not out of a great love for the global banana logistics system, but simply because it is profitable to do so. And consider that next time you throw away a banana because you let it sit there for too long and go all brown and spotty!

Thursday, October 09, 2014

The new road tax service

I'm impressed. I renewed my road tax on-line in less than five minutes, start to end.

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

Book: Mavericks by Jack Schaefer (1970)

Mavericks is the first western that I have read and I enjoyed it greatly. The story is a collection of reminiscences by the old timer Jake Hanlon, who for one last time visits the desolate ranch where he spent many of his years. Once there, he revisits his past, taking stock of his cowboy life and reliving memories and adventures of a bygone era.
"Old Jake has come out here where some of his best years were spent in the satisfaction of sweat and dust and hard work. He is an old grizzly that knows his time has come and has retreated deep into its range to meet death in dignity alone. He is an old lobo wolf that had lived out his years and has crawled back to its den to wait for the final dissolution. He is an old pine long past growth and the renewing sap of recurrent spring, waiting now for the winds to topple it to the last merging with the land from which it came."
Just off in the distance is a highway roaring with traffic, providing the perfect contrast between the old and new, between the modern man who is in a frenzied rush and the man of a bygone era, a man who was more in tune with nature, and in this case a man who was particular in tune with a specific breed of horse, the great mustang.
"Cars with gas pedals to the floor, racing hot engines past the speed limit, taking businessmen to appointments that mean dollars, taking tourists to the next comfortable air-conditioned motels marked for them on their maps. Buses, big and ungainly, ripping away rubber trying to keep to impossible schedules. Huge tractor-trailer trucks with diesel exhausts snorting fumes hammering the pavement in their rush to reach the haven of distant warehouses.
'All of 'em sure in a hell of a hurry', says old Jake. 'Tryin' to get somewhere. Ain't they ever figured they was somewhere's afore they started.' "
Mavericks is wonderfully effective and simple book that stands out in today's world of complex narratives and anti-heroes - we are presented with a protagonist who has a set of virtues that are almost wholly admirable! The book also includes some nice illustrations.

The Sound of Rain

We've just experienced a heavy down pour, which made me realise how much I love the sound of rain. It is sometimes soothing, sometimes angry, and sometimes calm, and it is always connecting and unifying.  It is, quite likely, my favourite sound in nature.
I remember, a few years back, having the idea of placing a discreet weather-proof microphone outside the window to pipe the sounds of the nature into the house, bringing the outside inside. If you had a decent speaker system, it could make for an interesting alternative to listening to the radio.