Friday, 29 January 2010

A Fistful of Motorcycle

I shook off the chains of my regular commute last night to blast up to Bennington, where the church hall was packed to hear a talk by Austin Vince, renowned maths teacher, raconteur, authentic round-the-world motorcycle adventurer, author of Mondo Enduro and maker of the follow-up film, Terra Circa, about spanning the dreaded Zilov Gap in Siberia.

Austin has to be among the most entertaining speakers I've ever had the privilege to hear - ironically, more for the things he can't tell you than the topic of the evening, like his passion for spaghetti western posters. Yet his irreverent comparisons of life in far flung countries to daily English life are a tonic for the credit crunch blues. And his insistence that facing a challenge with nothing more than the bare minimum of equipment required, a sense of humour and a commitment to resourcefulness should be enough to inspire even the most dedicated 'weapon of mass consumption' to try eating life rare rather than well done.

Mondo Enduro traces the seemingly impossible round-the-world journey by a bunch of guys in their late 20's without experience, sponsorship, support vehicles, camera crews or even Ewan McGregor. I learned with some regret that it began in April 1995, a time when I'd recently arrived here at the same age, wondering what the hell I was going to do with myself. Listening to Austin, I could've done a lot worse than hop on a bus to Mill Hill that fateful April morning. 

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Perils of Celebrity Nos. 642/3

I apologise for my party in this exchange with Harry Enfield at a "Mad Men"-themed party last night:
SDJ: Are those glasses part of your costume?

HE: No, actually. The shop assistant said they looked VERY COOL... which could have had something to do with the price tag, I suppose.... Of course, if I wore your glasses I'd look like Lord Archer.

SDJ: [laying on the irony with a trowel] Of course, you could make a lot of money looking like Lord Archer.
It might've ended there, except that Mrs DJ arrived:
Mrs DJ: [sticks out her hand] Macca! [mistaking the Comic Genius for an old friend and, as it happens, advertising account director]

HE: No, Harry! [shaking her hand].
Harry took it all in his stride, as one would expect. Very amiable, gracious and very entertaining. Funny that...

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Dear Gordon

Thank you for my tax code for 2010-11. May I say how delightful it is - nay, what an honour and a privilege it is - to be given the opportunity to donate further to your profligate public expenditure programme. With any luck, some of my money might even go towards your last personal expenses claim!


Tuesday, 19 January 2010

The Natural Economy - Sustainable Capitalism

In this age of economic and environmental meltdown, it's worth considering what "sustainable capitalism" means to you. And whichever way you plan to vote (if at all) in the next UK general election, Zac Goldsmith's book, The Constant Economy, is worth reading as part of the process.

Goldsmith rightly cites as "an extraordinary statement" Neil Armstrong's belief that 'the important achievement of Apollo was that it demonstrated that man was not forever chained to this planet'. There may be few better examples of man's apparent contempt for his environment than incinerating vast quantities of fossil fuel to escape it. Perhaps this is harsh, but the Apollo missions do seem to mark an acceleration in what we now recognise as a wasteful, exploitative energy binge.

The Constant Economy provides a concise summary of what we've learned since the Apollo years about both the scale of our environmental problems and potential ways to address them. Importantly, Goldsmith calls for greater focus on addressing the root causes, rather than merely some of the causes or the symptoms. A key starting point is actually valuing the various elements of our environment and including that value in our growth and accounting metrics.

I hope I don't do Goldsmith or his book any injustice in listing the gist of most of the policies below. It would be interesting to see them voted upon in much the same way as Power2010 is deliberating over a list of wider policies to develop a Top 5.

1. Tax pollution, waste and the use of scarce resources - inappropriate or polluting agriculture should not be subsidised;

2. Promote more direct democracy - ballot initiatives, referenda and recall initiatives;

3. New food technology (like GM) should not be able to be released without proof they do no harm;

4. The public sector should buy sustainable, local produce;

5. Food growing should be part of the school curriculum;

6. Agricultural subsidies should reward farmers for land management that benefits society, but is unrewarded by the market;

7. Planning policy should favour walkable town centres and maintaining the viability of independent shops;

8. There should be a stronger code of practice for supermarkets with more than 8% market share;

9. There should be less prescription and red tape for primary producers who meet quality standards;

10. Nations (particularly EU member states) should be able to insist that imported food meets the same standards as locally produced food;

11. Antibiotics should only be used to treat sick animals, rather than boost meet yields;

12. We should identify and promote GM-free produce/regions;

13. We should create more marine protected areas to aid re-generation of fish stocks;

14. We should ban the use of destructive fishing methods;

15. We should limit industrial fishing catches;

16. There should be higher standards for fish farms;

17. We must establish the truth about oil reserves, and extraction costs vs price;

18. We should require power generation to occur closer to where it is needed, and facilitate community-level generating capacity; appropriate micro-generators should be a permitted development, rather than require planning permission;

19. There should be a "feed-in tariff" to ensure the export price of sustainably-generated electricity stimulates investment in the alternative methods;

20. We should encourage the formation of renewable energy investment funds;

21. Reduce subsidies for fossil fuels in favour of renewable energy;

22. Invest in high speed rail and hold off on airport expansion;

23. Make green cars cheaper;

24. Encourage only biofuels that generate a net carbon saving, are not generated at the expense of valauble habitat or at the expense of food production or security;

25. Transport policy should favour cycling, buses and a school bus system;

26. Promote technology that reduces travel;

27. Protect the greenelt and gardens;

28. Ban building on floodplains;

30. Incentivise building in the right place - improving an existing building should be VAT-exempt;

31. Subsidise energy-efficient homes, including smart-meters and water efficiency;

32. Create building standards to replace prescriptive regulation about how to build;

33. Taxes, subsidies and public procurement should promote a zero-waste economy - take-back rights for appliances, paid recycling, reduce landfill, recycle building material, promote long-life goods/buildings, combined heat and power systems;

34. We should contribute to a forest fund to support conservation by countries with forests;

35. Buy sustainable timber, starting with the government;

36. Implement carbon pricing.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Which 5 Policies Should Be The Power 2010 Pledge?

I voted for:

1. a fully elected upper house;

2. fixed term Parliament;

3. proportional voting, not first past the post;

4. hold elections on the weekends, not Thursdays;

5. caps on political donations;

6. MPs to control the Parliamentary timetable, not the government;

7. the right to vote to recall your MP if he/she is doing a poor job;

8. a ban for a reasonable period of time on MPs taking a job directly related to their work in Parliament;

9. reduce the use of statutory instruments to avoid Parliamentary debate;

10. more 'free votes' in the Commons, rather than voting along party lines;

11. stronger Parliamentary select committees to scrutinise government activity (or lack of it);

12. public consultation should involve a deliberative step involving members of the public;

13. local mayors elected by local residents, not councillors;

14. scrap the ID card programme.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Serious Reading

I recently embarrassed myself hugely while reading Three Men in a Boat, Jerome K. Jerome's 1889 account of a trip up the Thames, on that other river of humanity, the Tube. I had the singular misfortune to stumble upon Herr Slossen Boschen's "comic song" during the morning commute, obliging me to hide my face in my hands until each laughing fit passed. A dozen times I tried to get it together, but a single glance at the stony faced commuters opposite was all it took to render me helpless. One should exercise caution while reading this novel at lectures, conferences, in court rooms and in the Houses of Parliament.

I've since ordered Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow, which I shall mostly be reading at home.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Improve Financial Capability - Simplify Products

The FSA says, "Financial Capability is about being able to manage money; keeping track of your finances; planning ahead; choosing financial products; and staying informed about financial matters."

The implication is that financial services don't have to change - you do. And the FSA provides a dazzling array of data to bamboozle you along the change curve.

This approach is doomed. Adult learning research has emphasised that the older you are, the less likely you are to learn. Of the 20-24 age group, 61% say they are learning now or have been recently. For the 55-64s, that statistic is 31%, and for the 65-74s, it is 18%. We have an ageing population and a ballooning pensions deficit.

So financial services must change, not you. Products must become simpler and cheaper, and it must be really easy for investors to develop fully diversified portfolios that produce sustainable returns.

Why can't I put suitable financial services in a shopping cart, like I can buy other stuff?

To make financial services simpler and more consumable for more people, providers and intermediaries must do much more to make it easy to find, compare, choose and buy products that contribute towards sustainable returns for the investor rather than scandalous profits for the provider. I'm not talking about the price comparison sites that simply list the same old stuff, by product type, by price. I'm talking about far more automated services that make the detail available to those who want it, but simply deliver diversification without the average person needing to understand more than the concept of not putting "all your eggs in one basket".

To support this, the clear objective of the financial regulatory regime should also be to deliver simple, low cost financial products that are accessible to us all. Currently, regulation funnels investment opportunities and funds into a zone in which relatively few firms are permitted to operate, enabling them to charge excessive fees and related compensation. In other words, regulation designed to protect the consumer is actually underwriting "fat banking". But what we need is a regime that fosters the growth of low cost 'facilitators' such as those who've allowed us to unbundle flights and hotels, music tracks and other one-size-fits-all products to create our own personalised, lower cost alternatives.

Training Tips

I spent much of the Christmas holidays digesting Joe Friel's The Triathlete's Training Bible, now in its third edition.

Having plodded my way through various multisport events since 2005 with only sporadic assistance from search engines, I've found myself at a bit of a performance plateau. So I figured I need to get more scientific if I'm to wring any more improvements out of my limited schedule. Although daunting in size, I've found Joe's bible has the right balance of science and practical tips to confidently tweak the training plan. He does a thorough job of explaining the latest research into physiology and diet, and recommending different workouts that contribute endurance, strength and/or speed depending on your needs (all of the above). Hell, just reading about training is a morale boost in itself.

Already I can report an increase in velocity, although times may have been wind-assisted by brussel sprouts.
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