The Coronavirus pandemic is disrupting many facets of daily life.
The speed and frequency with which my sense of “normal” has been upended during recent days left me feeling punch drunk at times. Yet I am also heartened by how adaptable we are proving to be.
This page is a microblog that chronicles what I thought and how I reacted while experiencing these most interesting of times.
One of my ɪɴᴅᴇᴇᴅᴀʙʟʏ ɢᴏᴏᴅ shares this week was a Forbes article about deepfakes.
No longer a niche realm of creepy fans splicing the face of their favourite celebrity onto a porno model’s body.
Today these videos are good enough to pass a casual inspection. Able to make real people do and say just about anything. Able to invent fake people doing those same things.
One commenter observed that this was a huge potential threat that most people weren’t watching for.
Another opined that it would be nothing major. We would learn to mistrust photos and videos in the same way most of us maintain a healthy scepticism of anything written in a supermarket magazine or tabloid press.
For mine, I think the former is correct. The George Floyd riots tragically showcase the power of a single video.
A white policeman.
A black suspect subdued.
A murder caught on camera, then endlessly rebroadcast on television and social media.
Violent protests erupted across more than 75 cities that have lasted six days and counting.
Now just for a moment, ask yourself how things would have played out any different had the video been a deepfake?
The tragedy portrayed would have been just as convincing. The injustice of it would have been just as outrageous.
Would there have been protests and riots? Probably.
Would Trump have been just as invisible? Most likely.
Now consider recent events closer to home.
The United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union after being force-fed a torrent of lies and misinformation. Scotland nearly declared independence after a similar effort.
In these cases, they were real politicians telling lies designed to mislead the angry, ill-informed, and easily led voters into lodging protest votes in sufficient quantities that when combined with people who genuinely did wish for the changes in question, they carried the day.
It narrowly failed in the Scottish case.
Lessons learned, and approach refined, it succeeded in the Brexit case.
Now consider what would happen if somebody had released a deepfake of Boris declaring the coronavirus pandemic lockdown to be over on the Easter weekend, at the time of peak (to date) infection in London.
Or perhaps a series of incoherent or inconsistent or conflicting messages, undermining public confidence in the measures designed to protect them from an invisible foe. As we have seen from the Cummings saga, it took very little to burn down the goodwill the government had spent months establishing.
Deepfakes will be a new form of terrorism.
The social media outrage machine, fuelled by bot accounts and gormless lackwits, will unquestioningly spread the message at the speed of thought. Retweeted by the thousands within minutes, faster than any news cycle can cover, or any governmental response can be coordinated.
Insight a mob.
Take out a rival.
Ruin a reputation.
Destroy the value of a company’s stock price.
The barrier to entry is vanishingly small. The consequences of getting caught are barely worth considering. Yet the upside of getting your preferred candidate elected, so that your own agenda is furthered, is virtually unlimited.
Media moguls have used this approach for centuries.
Just as the internet gave everyone with a voice a platform, deepfakes give anyone with an imagination and an agenda the ability to manipulate and deceive on a scale we haven’t witnessed previously.
“British police chiefs have advised the government that lockdown rules are now “unenforceable” and the public will “do what they want to do“.
They said the sunny weekend had been marked by widespread breaches of the lockdown, which one senior police figure suggested was “to all intents and purposes ended“.
Ken Marsh, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, said: “I don’t think the public are taking much notice of what is laid down in front of them. They are doing it how they want to do it. In terms of it being enforceable, I don’t think it is.“
He said there had been widespread abuse of the rules in London over the weekend: “It’s been very, very busy. We have had a lot of gatherings of people not adhering to the rules.“
He said the new rules – which include letting people attending a garden party use the indoor lavatory – were unclear and “unpoliceable“.
Game over. If the public have given up on self-policing the rules, and the actual police can’t understand or enforce them, then they effectively don’t exist.
With no contact tracing mechanism in place, there is little chance of catching early sight of infection pockets. No chance of a New Zealand like claim to have eradicated the disease from the island.
As the London lockdown draws to an end, a quick summary of the personally noteworthy events of the last three months:
- Younger son – school closed in March and will not be reopening to his year group until September. They have followed the teacher’s union guidance, and provided no lessons or remote interaction. His class teacher has emailed out a couple of photocopied handouts per fortnight, which kept him occupied for almost an hour. I’ve had to learn a lot about lesson planning, the curriculum, and what resources are available for teachers to keep my son’s education progressing and keep him stimulated.
- Elder son – school closed in March and will not be reopening to his year group, possibly until September though they are talking about calling an early end to the summer holidays is the lockdown conditions allow. The school has really stepped up, providing virtual classrooms every day in all subjects with assessable class work being submitted and marked electronically.
- Lady wife – One job came to an end. A new opportunity presented itself in a new industry, and a big step up the career ladder. She is now back to where she felt she should have been after paying the career advancement maternity tax (x2).
- Business – staff remain furloughed, our remaining client engagement limps on for now but will likely end before the summer. Forward work pipeline is empty, layoffs are more likely than a return to work.
- Stock market – nothing to see here folks, normal service has been resumed.
Riots across 30 cities in America have managed to displace COVID-19 from the news headlines for the first time in months.
The usual themes. Police brutality. Racism. Inequality. Throw in high unemployment and economic uncertainty, and it becomes a powder keg.
What is interesting is the number of sides who appear to be attempting to manipulating or manufacturing the narrative on social media.
Stories of rent-a-crowd troublemakers being coached in from out of state to liven things up, the same playbook used when Trump sought to destablise the Michigan Governor’s strict pandemic lockdown by sending assault rifle wielding militia members to the state capital.
Trump stoking the unrest by quoting 1960s era segregationist politicians and calling in the military.
Palette loads of bricks being conveniently delivered to street corners near where crowds were expected to assemble. Ensuring sufficient ammunition to create dramatic news footage.
Accusations and counteraccusations of a protest outside the White House being entirely staged for the cameras, political theatre to allow Trump to be seen as a strong leader cracking down on lawless masses.
Is any of it true? That probably doesn’t matter.
The goal was always to influence opinion. Elicit behaviour. Divert attention. Stage magician meets reality television.
Every image broadcast of a dark-skinned person standing on top of a burned-out police car or throwing a brick helps to sure up Trump’s voter base. Playing on existing bias and preconception. Reinforcing the beliefs of the MAGA tribe.
Every image broadcast of a riot police officer firing rubber bullets on unarmed journalists helps secure votes for the other side, opposing big brother style authoritarian governments.
Both sides playing the political game of block and wedge. Seeking to divide and undermine the other.
Noah Smith wrote an interesting piece a few years ago comparing the current tensions in the United States to the build-up to the Spanish Civil War. He left an open question about why the majority of the population sided with on the right, choosing to fight with Franco’s Fascists, when they didn’t buy into their ideology. One of the commenters on the piece made an astute observation:
“Why right? A number of reasons I think. Order over chaos. Certainty over uncertainty. Stability over change. Simplicity over complexity. Reassurance of custom, hierarchy, past, place, status, tradition, over anxiety of unknowns. Fear of loss over any gain. Terror of anarchy followed by tyranny rather than being a part of an existing order even if tyrannical, being in rather than out. There are always more rebellions than revolutions but few of either turn out well.”
In other words, better the devil you know. Which is why achieving real and lasting change is both difficult and unlikely. Rarely do the majority want it. Not really. Those with something to lose have the least to gain.
There wasn’t much social distancing going on during the riots, so it will be interesting to watch the virus infection spikes across those same 30 cities over the next week or two. Amongst the protesters. Amongst the police. Amongst the national guard and army units called up to restore order.
The Guardian had an anonymous editorial today, supposedly written by one of the new “high trained” contact tracing professionals that Boris and the health minister have been announcing and re-announcing during their nightly televised press conferences about the pandemic.
It was unsettling if true. Yet I have little trouble believing it is possible. Likely even.
The other bullet in the government track and trace armoury is a mobile phone app. The same app that has been delayed by a month, when countries from ranging from Singapore to Australia have already written, tested, and deployed virtually identical apps months ago.
Why duplicate the effort? Why not make use of the purpose built functionality that Apple and Google both baked into their operating systems with exactly this job in mind, while also seeking to protect the phone user’s privacy?
It is a good question, for which there has yet to be a plausible and sensible answer.
Which is troubling, given stores from Ikea to Wickes are reopening on Monday.
The profession rated amongst the highest risk of COVID-19 infections, dentistry, can follow a week later.
Pretty much everyone else can join them from the 15th. Clothes and book stores are talking about quarantining and sanitising items touched but not purchased by browsing customers. Can’t see that lasting for long as to do it systematically would require each customer to be accompanied by a personal shopper, a staffing ratio the retailers could not afford
There was an amazing piece of the writing in the New Statesmen this week, recounting the experience of a doctor in one of the main treatment centres for COVID-19 back in April. It is worth a read, though will make you want to cry. One quote stood out for me:
“The lackadaisical UK government seemed to be ignoring the advice so the medics ignored the government.”
Another day, another ill-conceived government guideline.
From Monday groups of 6 people can socialise outside together, a nice picnic in the park for example.
From six different households.
Each of whom could then happily socialise with five more people from five more households. And repeat.
Pretty quickly the person has mixed and mingled with the equivalent population of a crowded tube carriage and peak hour.
Which is a problem, because if the person had been contagious they have potentially infected half a dozen of their friends. At a time.
Which won’t be apparent for a week or more, until they start to become symptomatic. And then, only if they happen to seek medical attention or are admitted to hospital.
The cause of their infection, would only be discoverable via contact tracing back to the nice day out in the park. But only if there were trained contact tracers who were assigned to investigate.
Which there aren’t.
Not an issue if 60-70% of the population have acquired the antibodies required to fight off the dastardly virus.
Except that the current rate of acquired immunity remains at less than 20% of the population.
Meanwhile, Spain has demonstrated the problems of re-importing the virus as borders reopen to tourists. After enduring one of the strictest lockdowns in Europe to get on top of the pandemic outbreak, Spain has reported 25 cases of imported COVID-19 during May, despite their borders being closed to foreigners from outside the Schengen Area of visa free travel
Two of the cases were people returning from the United States, where the clown car response to virus outbreak would be comedic were the body count not so tragic.
According to media reports, the virus carriers didn’t fly directly into Spain from the United States, instead working out they could evade the 14 day mandatory quarantine by travelling via an intermediate country.
This is no doubt troubling for the Spanish authorities, who had announced they will open their borders to international tourists from the start of July, in the hopes to rescue the summer tourism season.
However, under the current moving feast of regulations, Brits who did holiday in Spain would get hit with a two week quarantine upon their return.
With all the talk of workplaces reopening and predictions of the demise of hot desking, it occurred to me that while social distancing is required the cost to employers of commercial real estate will potentially increase.
It is basic maths. If you want your workers on site, but have to spread them out more, then you need more space.
For example, my current client site was absolutely rammed pre-lockdown. Freelancers and consultants were perched two or three people to a hot desk. Not enough chairs, meeting rooms, or power sockets.
When I wasn’t camped out in their kitchen, I often found myself in front of a laptop balanced on the top of one of the few remaining desk pedestals. No desk of course, those were in precious scarce supply.
Such stingeyness would no longer be viable, at least until the requirements for social distancing pass.
Which means returning workers have one of several problems.
Either they ignore the social distancing requirements in favour of the working conditions their employer insists upon.
Or they continue working remotely, knowing full well that the C-suite has spent the last month plotting and scheming to offshore many of those roles now they have seen that physical proximity makes little difference to productivity, while their only chance of achieving any sort of performance bonus in 2020 is through aggressive cost cutting.
Or their function simply ceases. They don’t return at all. If the cost of additional real estate space is added to their blended day rate, then workers in high salaried locations are even more likely to be purged.
This is a sample size of one employer, who had long bought into the commodity skillset mindset before the lockdown.
However, the ONS released a piece yesterday that said “Of the 14% of businesses who reported they had paused trading but are intending to restart trading in the next two weeks, 31% of their workforce will return from furlough leave”.
Which means the other 69% of their former workforce will not be returning from furlough when the firms reopen. In some cases, their return delayed until trading conditions warrant their appearance.
I suspect In many cases, not destined to return at all.
There was an article in the Financial Times this week reporting that the UK had the highest number of excess deaths out the 19 countries with national statistics agencies who produce comparable figures.
Nearly 60,000 more people had died so far in 2020 than by this point in previous years.
Which sounds like a lot, because it is.
One of the unchanging parts of the COVID-19 narrative has been that a person can be contagious with the disease for up to a week or more before becoming symptomatic. This was the driver behind the 14 day quarantining of inbound visitors and returning residents that has been implemented in places like Australia.
There were reports out of China that the second wave of infections they experienced appeared to take even longer than that for symptoms to develop.
That makes me curious about the sudden rush to end the lockdown.
The release of the tracking app has been delayed. The take up rates for them in other countries were pretty low at any rate.
Those vast numbers of track and trace professionals aren’t yet in place.
And the government has been caught out inflating the testing figures by double-counting tests distributed by post, once on dispatch and then again once the test has been processed.
Yet each day Boris is announcing an ever-accelerating pace of reopening the economy.
Primary schools partially reopen. Some “non-essential” retail goes back. Dentists go back. High schools partially reopen. Department stores go back.
All over the space of a period of three weeks.
Which means if infections spike as a result of the first week or reopening, the infected people won’t become symptomatic until part the way through the second week. By which time even more of the economy has been reopened.
By leaving inadequate elapsed durations between the steps, it won’t be possible to effectively measure what the increased risks and infections rates were from specific groups of activities. There are too many changes occurring concurrently, without the control and measurement apparatus in place to monitor and govern it effectively.
Britain is like the lazy kid who mindlessly copies the answers from their peers, without comprehending what the words mean. Able to parrot responses in a half-assed manner, but unable to critically assess or analyse the information.
It doesn’t inspire confidence.
It has been an interesting week for the post-truth world.
A carefully timed and stage-managed media campaign sought to topple Boris’s puppet master over the weekend. Allegedly, he had broken lockdown several times while knowingly contagious with COVID-19.
The Guardian attempted to whip up reactionaries on the left, while the Mail concurrently did the same on the right. There was an old saying in the Blair administration that if the Mail and the Guardian ever agreed on anything, you have lost.
Boris fronted a press conference defending his mate. During which he tore up the carefully crafted illusion that Britain’s pandemic response was evidence-based and scientifically led. It didn’t land well.
The upshot of Boris’s press conference was the acceleration of the lockdown end. Shops and high schools reopening on the 15th. Only two weeks after primary schools return, too soon to assess whether there would have been a surge in coronavirus infections. Before trained contact tracing teams are in place to manage virus flash points.
A full-court press of cabinet ministers took to social media, endorsing the aide’s actions.
The next night the aide, normally a behind-the-scenes figure, stepped out the shadows to give a briefing about the events himself. No apology was necessary. He felt he had done nothing wrong.
Whoever orchestrated the campaign had swung and missed.
The adviser and Boris weathered the storm, living to fight another day, as the outrage machine diverted the electorate’s attention towards the next injustice. Security laws imposed on Hong Kong. A blackface skit broadcast on Saturday Night Live over twenty years ago.
The following night the health minister fronted the briefing. The usual NHS supporting cast were again noticeably absent, as they had been since the Boris fast tracked the lockdown exit to misdirect attention from his errant aide.
During his address, the minister announced there would be regional lockdowns when virus flare-ups occurred. Think about that for a minute. A lockdown requires borders. Enforcement. Monitoring. Controls. Administered on a regional level. Will we see the equivalent of passport control around the fringes of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea? A Berlin wall established to keep the Cumbrians in after the Lakes District tourists make an unwelcome contribution to the local economy?
Shortly afterward the address, the minister’s office sent out a press release stating the minister had NOT announced the fines issued to lockdown breakers experiencing childcare issues would be reviewed. Despite what the potentially 65 million-strong audience of the live national broadcast may have thought they heard him say on their televisions.
Meanwhile, President Trump’s tweets have started being tagged with fact-checking warnings by Twitter, after it finally conceded that they contained misleading information. Predictably, Trump came out swinging, defending his Freedom of Speech. This appears to exist to protect his God-given right to lie, cheat, and swindle the electorate as often as possible before his time in office ends.
Controversies all. Terrible behaviours. Poor examples of character and leadership.
The sad truth is nobody cares. Not really. We’ve become so conditioned to our leaders lying to us that we merely shrug and accept it. After all, this is the same bunch of clowns who lied their way to Brexit without consequence, then rode the wave of their triumph into the nation’s highest offices.
One of the local pubs on the river reopened this weekend.
They had found a clever way around the lockdown restrictions.
A new “pop-up” café offering “click and collect” orders and home delivery was operating out of the pub’s kitchen. The indoor seating area was closed off.
No cash accepted. Payment via cards only, preferably via their ordering app.
Beers and wine in bottles. Gourmet Coffee if that is more your thing.
Burgers. Fish and chips. Sunday roast.
The pub has a huge beer garden. Notionally closed.
Not associated with the pop-up café.
But no longer locked or fenced off either.
Absolutely rammed and buzzing.
Rowdy groups of patrons mingling and overflowing up and down the Thames Path. Hugs and kisses. Enthusiastic handshakes. Slaps on the back.
The gaggles of girls downing Prosecco were all there.
So too the inevitable gangs of young guys, hoping to attract their attention. Brewdog, Corona, and Peroni by the ice bucket full.
The lager louts were out in force. Beer bellies and buzz cuts forming part of the uniform, to go with their matching cases of sunburn.
Nearby the suburban Dads sought an escape. Universally white, middle-aged, and balding. Lily-white legs and fluorescent light tans contrasting the difference between those who are furloughed and those who are working from home.
At the opposite end of the beer garden were a large and loud group of older women, presumably their wives. Florid complexions. Fading dye jobs. Jowls and bingo wings all testifying to the liberal consumption of coping juice and “Mummy’s helper” while navigating the daily challenge of doing the lion’s share of the household chores and keeping the peace over the long months of lockdown.
To a person, the assembled crowd looked happy.
Social distancing? Good luck with that!
Society gave it a valiant attempt. It lasted longer than many thought.
In the end, the British public learned nothing. The battle has been lost.
The virus will now either fade away on its own or some clever scientist will discover a vaccine.
Either way, the general public’s part in this collective endeavour has ended. If you’re looking for them, they are down the pub drinking with their mates.
The University of California is a pretty good school. Berkeley and UCLA are both famous campuses.
A pretty big one too. More than a quarter of a million students are currently attending classes there.
This week the board of regents announced they would eliminate the standardised writing test that has long formed part of the admissions process.
Not only that, but standardised testing scores would be not be required for admissions until at least 2024. Possibly continuing beyond that point.
Think about that for a moment.
The most successful, and therefore in demand, secondary schools exist to “teach the exam”. Their reason for being is providing a very good chance that their students will achieve admissions offers from good universities.
Not how things should be, but unfortunately it what the schools are measured on, so it is how the system works by design. Secondary schools serving as a customer funnel to tertiary institutions, an endless wholesale production line serving up new generations of fee-paying students.
What happens when one of the major consumers of your production line no longer requires your product? Were McDonald’s to stop putting pickles in their hamburgers, it sucks to be the pickle farmer.
Cambridge University announced this week that they are cancelling all face-to-face lectures for the entire 2020-2021 academic year. All courses will be taught online due to social distancing requirements.
Students from all around the world can stay living in their parent’s house, and watch Cambridge professors give lectures via YouTube. Talk to a tutor via Zoom.
Same brand on their degree at the end of the course.
No need to pay rent for a room in a college or flat share.
No student societies.
No university social life.
Very limited ability to break into those old school tie networks of contacts that open doors, provide opportunities, and in many ways run much of Britain.
The university will still charge the same tuition fees, however. For an inferior knock-off product.
That feels like a very tenuous and fragile business model to me.
The pandemic lockdown has adversely impacted the educations of a generation of students. These are just two examples of institutions adapting their business models to try and keep the supply of fee-paying students flowing through their doors.
These changes do raise the question of how long it will be before tertiary education will be delivered via on-demand self-paced remote learning.
Last year I completed a post-graduate qualification. The awarding institution insisted on following a strict academic timetable. Only two semesters per year. Only a set number of subjects per student per semester. Forcing a glacial pace.
My qualification took several years to complete. However, I could have easily completed each unit in a single month and achieved the same (if not better) grades. All the reading. All the assignments. All the exams. If I’m honest, that was about the total elapsed time I invested in each unit I studied.
The whole course could have been wrapped up in less than a calendar year.
I don’t say that as an idle boast. I’m a pretty average student, certainly not the smartest or most diligent. No, I’m merely highlighting how much dead time there is during a typical academic year.
If a student were able to buy the branded degree from home, after watching youtube videos at 2x speed, and flying through the course at their own pace, then that would be a superior outcome.
For which the institutions should be charging a greatly reduced fee!
The younger boy’s primary school announced their plan for a graduated return from lockdown today.
Lots of prefacing with cautions about safety of staff and students.
Understanding that most parents will want to keep their children home. Did we mention the truancy rules won’t be enforced? By the way, the (very limited) homeschooling support currently being provided will be continued through to the end of the school year.
Then the big announcement….
The end of year school play is cancelled.
Parent-teacher night is cancelled.
Sports day is cancelled.
Prom is cancelled.
Year 6 to return on the 1st of June. The two classes operating a Red team / Blue team arrangement.
Mondays and Tuesdays only the red class attends.
Wednesdays the school will be closed for a “deep” clean.
Thursdays and Fridays only the blue class attends.
Lunch will be eaten in the classrooms. No school dinners provided.
Kids can’t share stationary. Learning materials. Library books. Readers. Sporting equipment.
Children are expected to sit in an allocated seat and stay there.
No approaching their friends.
There will be no before or after school care. The former provider went broke while waiting for the small business bailout program to open.
There will be no school holiday program this summer. The former provider is no longer in business, after failing to qualify for either the small business bailout program nor an emergency loan.
All extracurricular language, music, or sports programmes have been terminated. The providers have closed down, their former staff now driving Ocado trucks or packing shelves in the local Tesco.
A fortnight later a second, much younger, year group will join the Year 6s, on the same Red team / Blue team arrangement.
Kids will remain in the class groups at all times. No mingling with other classes.
Each class is allocated a dedicated set of bathroom facilities. No sharing.
Due to social distancing requirements, any child who suffers an injury requiring a plaster will be immediately sent home.
Due to social distancing requirements, any child who has a bathroom accident will be immediately sent home.
Due to social distancing requirements, any child who exhibits any sign of illness such as coughs, sneezes, or sniffles will be immediately be sent home.
Any child who repeatedly breaches the social distancing requirements will be immediately sent home.
Parents must remain contactable and available to collect their children at all times.
Another fortnight, another year group.
By that point, the school will have run out of pairs of bathrooms to dedicate to a single class. Presumably, if the pattern continues then the bathrooms will become unisex.
That leaves just one week of the school term remaining before the school holidays. Only three of the seven year groups will have resumed by that point.
As my younger son doesn’t belong to any of the three nominated year groups, the school has essentially said that he won’t be returning before September.
Six months after the lockdown began.
2020 has certainly been the “lost year”.
I heard about a tricky edge case for the coronavirus lockdown today.
We all know about the vulnerable folks whom the lockdown was intended to preserve. Including those old folks you see queueing up outside the local Tesco every day with their shopping carts, or sitting on park benches along the river. Rarely wearing masks!
However, we don’t often hear about how the lockdown impacts those able-bodied folks who cohabitate with a vulnerable person. Perhaps they live with someone suffering severe asthma. Maybe share a bed with cancer patient receiving chemo. Possibly their flatmate takes immunosuppressants to treat Crohn’s disease.
All deemed at risk. All requiring shielding.
Catching the virus would be a big deal. Unlikely something they would easily shrug off. Possibly something they wouldn’t survive.
As businesses come out of hibernation, and the lockdown starts easing, there is an expectation that everyone will return to school or work like normal.
For those playing this supporting role to someone requiring shielding, that return isn’t so simple. Every time they venture outside the house, they run the risk of bringing home an infection that will finish off their flatmate or family member.
What is the right thing for an employer to do in those circumstances, particularly if the job requires their physical presence? A bus driver or a shelf packer for example.
While the furlough scheme remains in effect the employer has the luxury of choice.
However once that winds down, the employer faces a tough decision.
The work won’t do itself. The employee is unable to perform the function of their role. They aren’t out on long-term sick leave like a transplant recipient or a stressed-out cubicle dweller.
Yet their absence, through no fault of their own, leaves them vulnerable to being terminated.
Anecdotal evidence. It colours our perspective. Frames the lens through which we perceive the world.
Our brains seeking a narrative that seems to fit the pieces of the puzzle, make sense of random events and the unknown.
Competing forces seek to influence that narrative.
The media, for the most part, wants to see the economy reopening. Their business model is largely advertising driven. Businesses that are closed don’t buy adverts.
The government wants to be seen to be in control. Generating goodwill by being seen to taking demonstrable steps to master a crisis. Using the same crisis as top cover to implement all manner of election promises made to votes, ideological promises made to members, and favour promises made to backers.
“Hospital cases are falling!”
“The daily death toll is falling!” Here look at this chart. Ignore the asterix in the corner about the regularly changing measures being used.
“Other economies are opening! We’re being left behind. Have you forgotten we are still hurtling towards the Brexit cliff edge, just seven months away?”
Except the ONS statistics tell a somewhat different story to the daily government press conferences.
The government is pushing for primary schools to reopen in a fortnight time. Nearly 10% of state primary schools (more than 1.500 of 16,786), across 18 local councils (out of 343) are refusing to comply.
Those local authorities believe their duty of care to provide a safe environment to students, teachers, and parents prevents them from potentially facilitating a second wave of infections. In other words, they don’t trust the competency and planning of the national government. Other countries have “track and trace” procedures in place to ensure virus flashpoints are swiftly identified and isolated. Three months in, the United Kingdom has only vague promises about what it plans to do.
Early on in the pandemic coverage, the likes of Trump and Bolsonaro were widely criticised for making decisions that actively endangered the lives of their voters.
Today, the narrative has shifted. Leaders who are portrayed as being slow in easing restrictions are criticised and bullied. For example, a quick skim of the headlines shows a similar vein of attack editorials being run against the First Minister of Scotland and the Premier of Queensland.
The challenge those leaders face is the virus is an invisible foe. A bogey mind hiding under the bed. Claiming tens of thousands of unfortunate victims, a horrifying number. Except that is out of a population of 66,000,000, meaning that as a proportion that horrific toll is mere rounding error.
Meanwhile, the economic consequences of the lockdown are visible. We all know people who have lost their jobs or had their businesses fail. The proportion of the population adversely impacted by the lockdown is larger, and rising. Breathing life into the “cure is worse than the disease” narrative.
A story our brains will accept because it appears to fit the anecdotal evidence we see around us.
The shopfronts now displaying “For Lease” signs, once containing thriving takeway shops or retail stores.
The neighbourhood gyms that have permanently shut their doors, members cancelling direct debits on memberships they cannot use, while the rent and equipment lease bills continue to mount.
The holiday club/after school care facility at the primary school announced it won’t be reopening.
Then there are all the folks who have lost their jobs. Terminated, not temporarily furloughed.
Democracy is a case of majority rules. Choosing the will of the many over the needs of the few.
Received a letter from one of my kids’ school today talking about the challenges facing them with the reopening. It was a basic lesson in logistical planning. Factual. Non-emotive.
A typical class contains around ~30 students.
With social distancing applied, a typical classroom can accommodate at best ~10 students.
Therefore each class would need to be split into three groups.
To be adequately supervised, each class would now need three teachers. Schools don’t have the budget to support that level of staffing.
Some parents won’t send their children back out of fear of the pandemic. Other children won’t be able to return, vulnerable people within their households requiring their continued self-isolation.
So that those children are not left behind, the online provision of lessons would need to continue, which further increases the load on teachers.
Government advice has been to stagger start and end times to the school day, to minimise the size of the crowds at the school gates. This means parents with multiple children would likely need to make multiple trips to and from the school.
Transport For London has called for everyone to avoid catching buses and tubes between 05:45 and 08:15 in the mornings, then again between 16:00 and 17:30 due to capacity constraints required to support social distancing. That means for many, those multiple trips are going to be time-consuming expeditions.
Without looking at the issue of whether schools can provide safe working environments for teachers, the letter provided a pretty stark reality check for those parents who were dreaming of a return to normalcy in early June.
Entirely possible if the virus had been contained or eradicated. If that were really the case, then social distancing would no longer be required, and none of these special measures would be necessary.
Conversations this week lead me to believe the climb out of lockdown will be trickier than portrayed.
Me: “Hi. How do you feel about returning to work this week?”
Long serving staff member: “Oh, hi boss. Great to hear from you! Umm… no thanks, I’m happy being on furlough for now. Let’s talk again in October.”
* * *
Me: “Hi. It has been a while. Are you still interested in working on the project we had been discussing prior to the lockdown?”
Prospective staff member: “Hey there. I’d love to… but I have child care issues. We don’t know when the schools will open. We don’t know that the schools will stay open once they do open. And the after school club provider at my kids’ school went broke waiting for the self-employed bailout to commence. So when I do start, I can only work part-time until the school sorts out an alternative.”
* * *
Me: “Hi. I need you to help out on the big project at
[REDACTED]. Initially working remotely, but once the lockdown eases it will be run out of the client’s office in the City.”
Reliable staff member: “Oh. Well… I’m happy to help out, of course. But…. can’t it all be remote working? I could maybe ride a bike in to avoid catching the train. However, I don’t like the idea of working in an office. Hot desks and lots of people, breathing in all that recycled air containing all those nasty germs. It has killed thousands of people, you know?”
I’ve been in my head a bit lately.
Too many spinning plates. Not doing any of the jobs well. Finding myself apologising for letting people down rather than prioritising the important stuff and saying “bollocks to that” to the noise like I would normally do.
It feels like forever since I’ve taken some time off. My batteries are flat. And I’m about one more bad day away from telling the client to shove their underresourced fantasy land project portfolio where even an army of overpriced consultants armed with hazmat suits and a high-pressure hose would have difficulty extracting it.
That mindset has coloured my thinking and my writing.
So today I decided to turn things on their head.
What if conventional thinking is wrong?
What if all the doom and gloom media/social media coverage of all-virus-all-the-time is just a self-reinforcing feedback loop?
A couple of smart blokes from Oxford recently published a paper that took an alternative interpretation of the pandemic related datasets published around the world. What if the number of asymptomatic folks who had been infected was much larger than has been understood? Say around the 60% level?
That would be entering into the levels required for “herd immunity”, and see the virus start to fade into the background as it struggles to find sufficient new hosts to continue spreading. It wouldn’t go away entirely, but it would become part of the normal landscape, like chickenpox or the common cold.
The authors weren’t saying they were correct in this interpretation. They were simply saying that in the absence of sufficiently widespread anti-body testing it would be impossible to prove or disprove the theory.
Which makes sense in a way.
That also means it is impossible to prove the conventional narrative, that the virus will be a major disruptor until sufficient therapeutic treatments or possible a vaccine were discovered and applied on a global scale. Years, not months away.
The answer is more testing, along the lines of the study in Spain I referred to recently.
The takeaway is just because a narrative has become accepted as conventional wisdom, that doesn’t make it true.
Which strangely made me feel heartened, as the doom and gloom isn’t a forgone conclusion, even if it is one credible outcome.
A bit like folks predicting what will happen with the economy or the stock market. Lots of opinions. All of them guesses. The lucky ones hailed as a genius in hindsight. Nobody provably certain in the moment.
Received an email from Transport For London this weekend.
It suggested they are being asked to return to full volumes of trains and buses.
Yet are also being required to enforce social distancing on those trains or buses.
The end result is lots of trains and buses, which are restricted to ~15% of commuter capacity in order to spread people out. No standing. Leaving empty seats between people. And so on.
Think about that for a second. Picture the daily scrum during peak hour at Bank, Canary Wharf, Cannon Street, Liverpool Street, and Monument stations. There is a physics problem there.
I read somewhere about the challenges at airport check-ins while maintaining social distancing. The queue to get through the boarding gate onto a full Airbus A380 would stretch for more than 1.5 kilometres through the airport. That was just for one single flight, containing only 850 people!
Until there is no more virus within the population, as appears to be the case in places like New Zealand and Taiwan, then I would be hard-pressed to come up with a more perfectly designed system to feed a second wave of infections.
Thousands of impatient commuters jostling to get to work. Platforms and then stations being closed due to overcrowding. The argument against having the scrum of parents outside of schools at drop off and pick up times should logically also apply here outside bus stops and tube stations.
When I thought back to Boris’s “first sketch of a road map for reopening society” quote, it became pretty clear that suggested there was not (yet) a plan.
Earlier in the week, I read an article that outlined some increases in the charges TFL levies. It appears that children and old folks will lose their free access to public transport. Congestion charges on cars will also rise.
Given the confluence of risk and cost, I suspect my elder son is going to need to get up a bit earlier so he can walk to school instead of catching the bus, whenever school goes back.
In the news this week was a photo of a businessman in his office.
Over his shoulder part of a framed poster was visible. It said:
“Do it by the book. But be the author;
the best way to predict the future is to create it yourself;
if you can’t win, change the rules;
if you can’t change the rules, ignore them.”
That quote seemed to sum up modern leadership so very well.
The populist politicians.
The short-termist executives.
The attention-seeking media.
Britain and America’s approach to muddling through the coronavirus pandemic. Compare what we know about how the virus is transmitted with the policy goals of sending people back to offices and schools and public transport.
Do what you want. Make it up as you go. Bugger the consequences. Sing when you’re winning. Make hay while the sun shines. Snouts in the trough until the gig is up.
After some fleeting outrage, nobody will care. Neither held to account nor remembered.
Not the sort of leadership they taught at university back in the olden days.
I read an interesting tweet that left me chuckling. It was called the “Shopping Cart Theory”.
In a nutshell, it made the argument that whether or not a person returns a shopping cart (or shopping basket) once they have finished with it at the grocery store is a test of character.
Society benefits if they do.
It costs little time or effort to do so.
However, in the absence of penalties or enforcement, few people actually do.
Therefore the theory poses the hypothesis that the shopping cart provides an insight into the character of the individual. Will they do the right thing, when they are not made to do the right thing?
By extension, is a person a good member of society, or a bad member of society?
Benefiting society, or being selfish?
Substitute shopping trolleys for social distancing and the downside of bad behaviour potentially becomes the difference between life and death.
Yet judging by the footpaths and parks near where I live, many people are found to be similarly wanting.
I read an article this morning that put a smile on my face. The City of London says it will pedestrianise many of the main streets inside the Square Mile. That is a great idea, given how congested the footpaths get during peak hour and at lunchtime.
Less happy was the observation that during the Global Financial Crisis traffic volumes through the City fell by 16.5% between 07:00 and 19:00 weekdays, and never recovered. Nobody laments the absence of the traffic, but that suggests many of the jobs associated with that traffic volume went elsewhere.
In some cases nearby, like the glass towers of Canary Wharf. Others went a bit further afield, like the satellite office parks located commuter towns outside of London. Still more went abroad. And many vanished altogether
It poses a question about what the impact will be this time around?
Meanwhile, in Spain 70,000 people were tested for COVID19 antibodies. The results were largely consistent with an earlier (and much smaller) study in New York. It found that just 5% of the population had antibodies in their bloodstream. Herd immunity requires in the order of 60% of the population to carry antibodies, in other words, it would take years for the population to acquire organically.
The other thing the study showed was more than 90% of cases had gone undiagnosed.
Finally, one of the heavies at the World Health Organisation mentioned in an interview that the world may need to get used to having COVID19 around, much as it has done with HIV.
I had thought that was a given, as viruses don’t magically disappear. However, judging by the backlash those comments received, it appears that many people had taken the political propaganda sound bites about “crushing the virus” and “defeating COVID19” literally. 🙄
When was the last time you paid close attention to the coronavirus death toll? I mean actually stopped and thought about what it represented?
~30,000 according to the official score. Roughly 0.05% of the United Kingdom population. A population the size of town somewhere between Chichester and Salisbury vanishing from the map.
More than 50,000 according to the NHS. More like 0.08% of the population. Sold out Arsenal home games are better attended.
Individually each of those numbers represents a personal tragedy to the friends and family of the deceased.
Collectively those tragedies have blurred into an arbitrarily large intangible number. Beyond comprehension. Yet once the human face behind each of those numbers is forgotten, they appear to be a vanishingly small as a proportion of the whole.
How many people are still tuning in for the daily blow-by-blow accounts in the government press conferences? The same faces reciting the same t-shirt slogans and giving the same non-answers.
Stay alert? Meh.
Flatten the curve? Meh.
Countries competing in the global leaderboard of pandemic tests? Meh.
Given each country uses different methodologies to keep score, meaningful comparisons are a stretch. Yet there is competition. Highest deaths. Highest number of tests. Per head of population. And on it goes.
64 days in, the game has lost its appeal. I’m no longer scared. Or shocked. Or dismayed.
There was an announcement about the furlough scheme yesterday. I had to go looking for it. It was buried in the business section of the BBC website, didn’t even make the front page. It appears I’m not the only one losing interest.
The initial goodwill and flexibility at worksites is fast disappearing.
Attending video conferences with bed hair and wearing pyjamas might remain tolerable, but skipping them because the kids are staging a smackdown wrestling tournament in the family room is no longer acceptable. It was nice while it lasted, but employers have worked out they can re-baseline salaries and day rates by swapping out expensive unreliable folks for those more desperate and hungry.
Sometimes life in lockdown feels like one of those sliding tile puzzles, where I’m constantly shuffling pieces around attempting to reveal the hidden big picture. A challenge. Driven by hope, stubbornness, and faith that it will eventually emerge.
Other times, life feels like doing a charity store jigsaw puzzle. Half the pieces are missing. Some of the pieces belong to a different puzzle entirely. Rationally knowing the box will almost certainly contain frustration and ultimately disappointment. Yet going through the motions anyway.
Occasionally there are magical moments where something long lost or unknowingly missing is rediscovered. The delight on the face of my younger son when a once favourite toy is found in the bottom of the toy box. Hidden glimpses of the lovely boy who is now mostly hidden inside a surly hormonal teenage exterior.
More often, there are elements of all these things. Confinement making them impossible to escape.
I’m struggling with somewhat of a quandary at present.
My lady wife and I have been juggling the home parenting around conference calls. After a bumpy start, we collectively found a routine that worked. A new job for her, and a significant ramping up in the demands of mine mean we’re both stretched. The little bloke is losing out as a result.
The government says that state primary schools may return at some point in June. A month away.
The school says they’ve had no more guidance than Boris’s televised address to the nation, and they “understand that the majority of parents will have concerns for their children’s safety, and that of the school staff. As was the case in the lead up to the lockdown, the truancy rules won’t be enforced for the remainder of the school year.”
The summer holidays run from late July through to early September.
Which means my younger son may return to school for a month. Possibly less. Maybe not at all. Before being home once more for another six weeks.
In other words, he could be home for at least four more months. With just his too-busy parents and his elder brother for company and interaction.
My client is still wielding the axe. Not clinical. Seldom well thought through. A drunken Parkinson’s sufferer randomly following sample chapters of a DIY amputation manual they found somewhere on the internet.
The remaining projects are being piled up on the few remaining bodies. None adequately resourced. None capable of succeeding. Mostly this is signalling. The board attempting to demonstrate to the world they are investing for the future, determined to emerge from the recession alive and still trading.
This creates a toxic atmosphere. Middle managers act like modern-day pirates, raiding and pillaging resources in the endless office politics Game of Thrones. The law of the jungle states that to survive you don’t have to be the fastest, just not the slowest!
Which leaves me wondering why I’m putting in the hours?
Letting myself get crushed by the relentlessness of it all?
Intellectually recognising that these endeavours can neither be sustained nor successful. Shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic.
Pulling the pin would provide an escape. A blissful release. Freeing up the time needed for my son.
The letter giving notice has been written and sitting unsent in my drafts folder for a month now.
And yet I hesitate.
In a normal year, I would already be a month into my seasonal semi-retirement by now.
This is far from a normal year.
My next winter working hibernation will likely be hard to come by, as up to a quarter of the workforce will be similarly seeking for their next paycheque.
Years ago the financial imperative would have made the decision for me. Now it is a choice.
Yet some habits are hard to break. The fear of the unknown remains. My version of “one more year”.
Experienced being thoroughly fucked off by the lockdown for the first time today.
Some miscreant appears to have taken out a store card in my name. Which is inconvenient and somewhat annoying. Unfortunately, this sort of thing happens to people every day, so there is a well-trodden path outlining who you are supposed to notify and what hoops you are supposed to jump through to get the problem resolved.
Except we’re currently in a pandemic lockdown.
Which means the call centres are closed, and those few customer support staff who can work from home are overwhelmed.
In this case, the store in question has closed its customer support lines, opting for an email-based approach. Which introduces latency, because you can’t get on the phone and beg, bribe, intimidate, shout, or schmooze (as appropriate) the person on the other end of the phone to make the problem go away. Nor can you ask to be put through to their manager, or the fraud department, or so on.
Then there are the credit bureaus, who are suffering from the same logistical problems. Their folks do eventually answer the phone, but everything takes that extra bit longer because of all the remote working and communications disconnect.
Of course, the fraud (probably) isn’t the fault of any of the people answering, or not answering as the case may be, the phone. So there is little point being frustrated with them, they are doing the best they can in difficult circumstances.
Fraud certainly seems to be contagious at the moment. Under-occupied folks stuck at home seem to be coming up with all manner of ways to try and get one over on an unsuspecting mark.
Just in the last week at the security folks at my client site have had to deal with ransomware attacks delivered via Zoom. Two separate attempts to instigate bank transfers via somebody doing a credible impersonation of the CEO’s voice over the phone. That is on top of the usual mix of compromised network logins, lost laptops, filing cabinet break-ins, and attempts to hack into databases. After the customer support staff, the security team have easily been the busiest part of the business.
It will be interesting to see if I ever learn how my personal details came to be compromised. From what I’ve been told today it is more likely to be the result of a large data breach than someone phishing or social engineering me specifically.
In other words, one of the organisations who has performed “know your customer” checks by requesting my proof of identity and recent proof of address has likely been breached and the evidence I provided them has, in turn, provided the fraudster with the means of impersonating me.
Which leaves me feeling slightly less good about having moved early to get my lending facilities in place so that I could take advantage of opportunities provided by the pandemic.
Boris addressed the nation last night. I made my boys watch it with me.
At the end of it, I asked them both what it meant? What had changed? What do we do now?
The younger one rolled his eyes, said “there was a lot of blah blah blah, but I don’t get it”.
The elder one looked puzzled.
“We can exercise more. Play sports. Have picnics. Hang out. Except only with people in our household. And only while social distancing.
Some people have to go to work tomorrow, but he didn’t say who. The workplaces are supposed to do social distancing ‘where possible’, but he didn’t say what happens if it isn’t possible.
Schools might go back at some points in the future. But only some year groups.
Quarantine might start for people coming into the UK by plane. But not by train or boat.
I still can’t see my friends. Shops and playgrounds stay closed.”
Later that evening, I reflected on their observations. Couldn’t argue with either of them.
Lots of words, but little actionable information. A sketch of a plan for a roadmap towards an exit.
“Data” and “science” buzzwords to make it sound reasoned. Lots of discussing the “R”, yet an opaque attempt to articulate what that meant.
A five colour status graphic seemed like an intuitive mechanism for communicating. But then the examples showed the indicator straddling two colours. Later on, each colour block had multiple tick marks.
As an update, it failed. My seven-year-old son didn’t understand it. My thirteen-year-old son couldn’t make it pass the “so what?” test. There is an alert status, but little clarity of what each status means.
If my staff proposed such a briefing to client stakeholders, they would get the red pen treatment and a “Dad talk” about keeping the needs of the audience in mind when telling the story.
All told, it wasn’t Downing Street’s best work.
The lockdown continues.
It is Mother’s Day today where my elderly mother lives. No hugs or visits from grandkids this year. She is spending it alone.
Or at least she would have been.
One of the other lonely grandmothers in her social group organised a celebratory outing for a gang of old folks who had been left isolated from their families by the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. With cafes and restaurants remaining mostly closed (social distancing presents a physics problem when it comes to table service), I think they went for a picnic or similar.
Yesterday my kids were talking about what they missed about life before the lockdown, and what they were most looking forward to once it lifted.
Both missed hanging out with their friends.
My elder one said he missed having time to himself, and also the experience of going out for a meal.
He said he and his friends had either finished or become bored with all the computer games they play together online, and there hadn’t been any new ones released that they wanted to try. He had also finished watching all the shows he liked on the streaming services.
In other words, they had reached the end of the infinite scroll! It took less than 60 days.
The younger one said he missed feeling excited about doing things. Since the lockdown he says he mostly feels like he can’t be bothered. He was also looking forward to not having to talk to people on the phone all the time, because he hates talking on the phone.
Both missed their after school nanny’s cooking, survival skills kicking in after braving several culinary “Dadsasters” in the kitchen. Surprisingly neither missed her company, given she has been a big part of their lives for several years.
Nor did they miss their extracurricular activities like sports or music. I was surprised by this also.
If the tabloid owners get their way, the “back to work” genie will be let out of the lockdown bottle this evening during Boris’ television address. I can’t see this happening myself, but it will be interesting to see whether there is any substance behind the much-touted roadmap out of the lockdown.
Ahead of the announcement that potentially ends the lockdown, I decided to revisit my list of predictions and fears made at the beginning of the pandemic. How have they held up? Has my thinking changed?
As is tradition with making blind predictions about the future, I was wrong about more things than I was right. Some things remain too early to call, but I would expect a similar success ratio to apply.
- Bumpy ride for the service industry? – Pass. The hospitality, retail, and tourism sectors dominate the ranks of the newly unemployed.
- “Helicopter” money stimulus? – Pass. Bailouts for all… except freelancers and private landlords.
- Rationing – Pass. It was briefly for things like toilet paper, rice, and pasta. Once the panic buying subsided it was no longer required.
- High demand for bailouts – Pass. The bill is into the trillions.
- Bank lending criteria will preclude many – Pass. Treasury ended up underwriting it all.
- Invisible service workers become “key” workers? – Pass. Amazon and Ocado workers enjoyed their moment in the sun. I suspect it will be brief.
- Direct B2C celebrity – Pass. Will take a while to commercialise however.
- Use the lockdown productively? – Epic Fail. TheFireStarter was right, apathy for the win. Humanity is doomed to becoming the people in Wall-E.
- Lockdown potentially lasting years? – Fail. Society’s valuing of life more than money lasted for about 6 weeks. That said, Singapore and now South Korea are experiencing second waves of infection.
- Supply chain disruption leading to food shortages? – Fail. Amazon and the grocery stores held up surprisingly well, once the panic buying subsided.
- Populist politicians stepping up and leading? –Fail. Trump is still Trump. Boris was out sick.
- Nationalising things to help “fight” the virus? – Fail. A few factories retooled to make ventilators it turned out weren’t required. Much of the additional hospital capacity went unused.
- Food delivery becomes meals on wheels? – Fail. About half the takeaway shops in my neighbourhood remained open throughout the lockdown, so it was a lower volume business as usual for the riders. Interestingly, many swapped scooters for electric bicycles during this time, not sure what the driver is there.
- E-sports becoming mainstream – Fail. Formula-E did a credible virtual season, but e-sports failed to capture the sort of audience Premier League football or IPL cricket command.
- Blogging/podcasting/vlogging resurgence – Fail. Instagram stories and TikTok won, but substance light. The sound of crickets was heard throughout the blogosphere.
- Anti-globalisation rescinds, cooperation returns – Hard Fail. Author slaps himself upside the head for once again underestimating humanity’s propensity for self-harm and stupidity.
- “Boomer remover” redresses the demographic imbalance – Fail. Mortality rates aren’t nearly high enough for that. Even in America.
Mulligan – too early to call
- Remote working by default? – Mulligan.
- Divorce lawyers making bank – Mulligan.
- Homeschooling becoming accepted – Mulligan.
- “Emergency” powers remaining– Mulligan.
- Pandemic baby boom – Mulligan.
- America’s ascendancy wanes – Mulligan. The difficulties and incompetence demonstrated procuring or manufacturing simple things has highlighted an underlying fragility that makes it hard for them to get things done. Echoes here in Britain.
- China’s ascendancy begins – Mulligan. All those infrastructure loans made to secure the “Belt and road” and secure votes in the United Nations will be hard for countries to service during a deep global recession. Watch for expansion via repossession.
- Debt hangover – Mulligan. “Worst unemployment rates since the depression” headlines suggest a problem that is not quick or simple to resolve.
My nice Grandmother was adamant she would never live in an aged care home.
“Horrible places! Once you go into one, you never come out again”.
She was adamant that she would live in her own home. Be carried out in a box when her time came. She got her wish.
Unfortunately, her home was a fifth-floor unit in a building with no lift. For the final 18 months of her life, limited mobility kept her inside. An experience that the pandemic lockdown has provided an insight into in many respects.
Her only interaction with the outside world was looking out the window or watching other people live their lives via the television.
A generation later, my elderly mother’s peers are steadily migrating into aged care homes. Their suburban family homes proving too big. Maintenance and gardening becoming too great a challenge.
Years ago she put her name down on several waiting lists, mindful that there will probably come a time when she too requires assisted living.
Yet each time she rises to the top of a list, she thanks the facility kindly and takes a hard pass. “Not yet” she says, unconsciously channelling much of her own mother’s reasoning.
Lately, there have been news stories from all around the world about care homes being clusters for COVID-19 transmission, veritable Petrie dishes for the disease. The “boomer remover” putting a broom through the elderly residents and their carers. Refrigerator trucks replacing hearses, a necessity due to the tragic volume of business headed for funeral homes or the morgue.
I can’t help but wonder whether my nice Grandmother had been onto something? A lady ahead of her time.
This pandemic has got to be bad for the brand. Indelibly tarnishing the whole concept of residential age care. Retirement homes were already an unethical rort. At the moment at least, they also appear to represent a death sentence.
Will we see a return to the days of the extended family living together? An interesting question.
What are the other options, if more elderly folks adopt my nice Grandmother’s perspective?
A report issued by the Bank of England today reckons UK GDP will be 30% lower at the end of Q2 2020 than it was at the corresponding period a year earlier. Ouch!
However, they then see the economy bouncing back 15% (from that low base) in 2021. Maybe.
Ed Conway thought that would be the strongest year of economic growth since the early 1700s.
I can already picture the headlines and political narratives.
“Boris / Trump delivers the strongest economic performance in over three hundred years”.
“Unemployment rate falls [n]% in under Tory / Republican economic stewardship”
“[n] new jobs created under successful employment programmes and economic policies…”
The argument will be that the pandemic recession was an external shock to economies. One that hit everyone and nobody saw coming.
If you lower the bar enough and just about anyone can clear it. Percentages make for flattering headlines and heroic stories.
After a year of spin-doctoring, few will remember the dithering and early pandemic policy response missteps.
Fewer still will care.
The dead will still be dead, but they don’t vote.
The young and the cynical don’t vote either, having long since given up on a self-perpetuating system that does not appear to look after their interests. Climate change providing a topical example.
The lackwits who are so easily conned by dog-whistle political narratives do vote. Happy to be members of a tribe. Wanting to back the winning team. Desperate to hear what they want to believe, even when there is strong evidence to the contrary. Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story. “Don’t mention
the war Brexit…“
How hard is it to imagine a narrative of strong powerful individuals leading nations and economies out of calamitous ruin to a promised land of rainbows and unicorns is a powerful one?
Cue the ticker-tape parades and cheerleading.
Will we see the name of Johnson mentioned alongside the likes of Churchill, Walpole, Thatcher, and Attlee?
He who controls the pen gets to write history.
Rumours abound about whether the lockdown of London is about to end.
Originally the update was due today, but that has been deferred until the Prime Minister gives a televised address on Sunday.
A cynic might wonder if the promise of good picnic and barbecue weather over this long bank holiday weekend is a contributing factor to that timing?
A pessimist could be forgiven for wondering why a televised address to the nation would be required to issue good news?
It could be as simple as Boris wants to see his mug on every television in the land once more.
The South Koreans and New Zealanders appear to have wrestled the coronavirus into submission.
The Americans phoned in a half-assed effort, then threw the towel in early, and shifted their focus back to making money.
Many other countries have landed somewhere in between, gradually (or less gradually in some cases) easing restrictions, sending the kids back to school, and attempting to restart their economies.
If the lockdown does ease, how comfortable will people be doing things that were once commonplace, then potentially life-threatening, then verboten for the last couple of months?
Shaking hands or receiving hugs?
Sardining themselves into a crowded tube carriage at peak hour?
Spending numerous hours in a flying can of recycled air, breathing in the excretions of hundreds of fellow passengers?
Sitting in grotty meetings rooms, smelly conference call pods, or sticky hot desks?
Using germ-infested employer-provided communal keyboards, mice, coffee mugs, and remote controls?
Dining in cramped takeaway places, crowded bars, or poorly ventilated restaurants?
Feeling comfortable with a random stranger breathing over you to or touching your face while they whiten your teeth, cut your hair, massage the knots from your muscles, or apply your make-up?
It is not like the coronavirus has magically disappeared. Been cured. Or vaccinated against.
It is still out there. Lurking. Waiting to mug a hapless victim.
So far as I can tell the risks remain the same today as they were 57 days ago. There has been a lot of misinformation, propaganda, and wishful thinking. Yet reading back through this microblog, can we honestly say we know any more about how the virus spreads or how it can be successfully treated than we did back then? I’m not convinced that we do.
Maybe we have all had it, and not noticed?
Maybe it isn’t as contagious as we were led to believe?
Yet those 30,000+ unfortunate people who have sadly died from it so far would tend to indicate otherwise. Were they just the slowest runners in a game of natural selection?
Or is the release from lockdown being driven by money? And a tacit acknowledgement that the public was rapidly giving up on social distancing because they could see little evidence of the virus in their own families, streets, or workplaces?
I suspect it is the latter. Magical thinking. Hopefully the story has a happy ending. Time will tell.
Another of my projects at the client site got mothballed today.
Half the project team had quit due to a self-important pointy-headed manager insisting they all keep UK working hours, simply because he didn’t fancy suffering his share of time-zone tennis pain.
Which was fine for those us fortunate enough to be based in the UK or Europe. But it proved tough on the home lives of those based in Mumbai, Hong Kong, and the East Coast of the US.
Most of the remainder had already requested transfers simply because he was an incompetent dickhead.
Consequently, I had a bit of time on my hands to catch up on some reading.
I read an article that claimed in the UK “more than half of all adults now paid by the state”.
There was another that stated “… some scenarios have suggested we are potentially spending as much on the furlough scheme as we do on the NHS for example. Now clearly that is not a sustainable situation”.
Running some quick numbers, that broke down as follows:
- 6,300,000 workers furloughed. That is over 18% of the eligible working population, the “about to be unemployed” as Finumus somberly expressed it recently.
- 1,800,000 universal credit applications since mid-March, another 5%.
In total 23% of the potential workforce having their freight paid by the taxpayer, before accounting for those who are state-funded as a matter of course, such as old age pensioners and civil servants.
Those are some eye-watering numbers!
Another figure that blew my mind was a story about Singapore Airlines mothballing the bulk of their fleet in the Australian desert, after their scheduled capacity reduced by 96% in just three months.
The total pre-pandemic value of the planes now parked outside Alice Springs? More than USD$5,000,000,000.
That got me wondering roughly what proportion of the world’s passenger aircraft were similarly parked up? Turns out the answer is around 61%, according to travel data analytics firm Cirium.
So if you were looking for a slightly used plane, it appears to be a buyer’s market! Not sure where you would fly it to though, given all the closed borders and travel restrictions.
Finally, a commenter shared the story of a young nomadic couple who had been sailing around the world as the pandemic struck. They were turned away from islands in the Caribbean as borders closed, and now find themselves holed up off the coast of Saint Vincent and worried about the rapidly approaching hurricane season. I don’t envy them that, sometimes there are only bad choices.
Celebrating the small wins today.
Months ago I had booked a summer vacation to take my boys to a couple of sunny places in Europe.
Then the pandemic arrived, and disrupted all that.
When borders started closing and flight crews started working as Tesco delivery drivers, I got in touch with the airline. There is a bit of brinkmanship here.
If you cancel on the airline, you generally are on the hook for any fees or penalties detailed in the ticket terms and conditions. Depending on the reason for the cancellation, travel insurance may or may not minimise those costs.
However, if the airline cancels on you, they are supposed to refund the fares, or give you the option for travel credit at a later date.
In my case the airline originally said they would refund the fares. Then a week later, presumably when every prospective traveller was attempting to do the same, they reneged and instead announced I was going to be fucked over via a 100% cancellation charge. “Have a nice day”.
I didn’t think much of that, so for the last 8 weeks I have been waging a protracted campaign to get unfucked and then refunded.
The airline has now capitulated.
They still refuse to pay the refund in cash, as they don’t have any.
What they did offer is an open-ended travel credit for 100% of the fares, taxes, credit card charges, and so on.
Providing the airline survives the approaching severe economic downturn, and assuming international summer holidays eventually becomes a viable option once more, then this counts as a win.
However, my faith in the airline industry’s future prospects is limited. They are on the receiving end of both the pandemic travel restrictions and the ever-increasing concerns about climate change.
This turns out to be a view shared by Warren Buffett during the televised annual Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting.
So I am continuing my campaign for a cash refund, but this is a step in the right direction.
Another day, another shit-stirring tabloid induced skirmish.
Last week several of those ever sensationalist herders of sheeple whipped the unthinking masses into a frenzy by declaring that folks aged 50 and over should remain locked down, when their younger and more sprightly peers may be imminently released back into the wild to roam freely in their natural habitats.
The stories didn’t make it through my noise filter or onto my radar, so regardless of whether it was a test balloon or a manufactured controversy, it appears to have fizzled out rather than captured the news cycle.
Except here is the thing. Many of my lady wife’s friends are on the wrong side of 50.
Cue the hand wringing and outrage.
There is no small irony here, given these are the same folks who are criticising the selfishness of their own elderly relatives and neighbours for not abiding by the lockdown. In doing so, they are said to be throwing all the noble sacrifices that society is making on their behalf back in our collective faces.
Interesting how quickly perspective shifts when you’re the one society is attempting to restrict!
In hindsight that was probably an observation best thought rather than articulated out loud.
Speaking of elderly relatives, the lockdown restrictions where my mother lives have now been lifted.
“Unnecessary shopping” is now encouraged. Road trips to the beach or the big city are in bounds. Dinner parties and playing non-contact sport with friends are permissible.
Even the football codes are threatening to restart, though how they’ll keep hundreds of boofhead footballer from messing up and breaking the few remaining restrictions will be fascinating to watch.
Today started with a bump and escalated quickly.
My lady wife was reading mind rotting tabloids online, one of which boldly pronounced that English state schools would return at the beginning of June.
Being a “trust, but verify” kind of person, I sought out confirmation.
No mention on the government’s propaganda mouthpiece.
Radio silence in the safe spaces of the social justice warriors.
Ditto for the financial papers, amongst the rent-seeking press releases, sponsored studies and think tank advertorials, and celebrity gossip in suits.
Which doesn’t mean that schools are not resuming of course. Just that as is so often the case with leaks and “breaking news”, it is entirely possible the publication she was reading had it wrong or was being used as a test balloon to gauge public response in certain sectors of the electorate.
Could it be true? Possible. The 1st of June is the first day back after half term, and the last serious opportunity for face-to-face classes to recommence in the current “lost” academic year.
Was I in trouble for being sceptical? You bet.
One thing is for certain. The moment the lockdown eases enough for offices to even partially reopen, my lady wife will be the first one out of the house, on the tube, and back to her hot desk.
Trailing roadrunner-like smoke trails and setting the land speed record along the way.
Now for the counterpoint to yesterday’s thought experiment.
For those in lockdown, but able to work from home, how is your ambient level of contentment with your home life?
You might be constantly surrounded by kids. Kids who once could be gratefully offloaded to the child minder, nursery, school, or nanny. Now they are always home.
Perhaps you used to get your daily exercise in running or cycling to work. An automated part of your daily routine. Faithfully performed before the day got away from you.
Maybe you revelled in that half an hour of “me time” at each end of the business day. On the bus or the commuter train, alone with your thoughts or a good book. Mentally escaping to your happy place, while sardined in with hundreds of strangers attempting to do exactly the same thing.
How often have you been able to spend a couple of months straight with your significant other? For many, aside from a week or two worth of vacation, the first time they would ever experience this would be when they retire. Based on the apocryphal stories my elderly mother had to tell, more than a few of the marriages in her peer group derailed shortly after that point!
Consider all those projects you imagined taking on, if only you had the time. How many have you actually started? The problem was never the time, but intent and discipline. If you haven’t done after two months of lock down, if you’re honest with yourself, when will you ever undertake them?
What about socialising? How many of the folks from work that you would go out for a cheeky beer after work with have you had any form of social interaction with outside of work? Not many I would expect.
Next think about those who have checked in on you, called you up for a chat, or had a Zoom drinks/party with? These are your real friends, the ones who remain when simple convenience of circumstance has been removed.
Food for thought.
Here is a thought experiment for you.
For those in lockdown, but able to work from home, how is your ambient level of work related stress?
Your commute has shortened. No more battling the elements, crowds, of traffic.
Your pointy headed micromanaging boss is no longer peering over your shoulder and second guessing your every move. Physically at least.
You are no longer dashing out between meetings to choke down a quick store bought sandwich.
Those work related expenses like dry cleaning, train tickets, gym memberships, and after work drinks are no longer forming a hole in your wallet.
Much of the “lost” time associated with a typically white collar working day at the office has been reclaimed.
The volume of pointless meetings where underutilised middle managers seek to fill out their calendars has reduced.
By now many of you will have figured out that few jobs actually require always-on synchronous communication. You can got for a run mid morning, or take time out to play swing ball in the back yard with your kids, and nobody cares. Nobody even notices.
For the most part, what remains is just you, and the work.
It is worth taking a moment to reflect on, once you separate the stress associated with trying to homeschool kids, or from suffering cabin fever.
Chances are your productivity has improved.
I wouldn’t be surprised to learn the number of hours you are actually working has reduced, compared to all those hours occupying a desk in the office. Mine both have.
While I miss the physical activity of walking to and from the office, and I suspect some people may miss socialising with their colleagues in person, this lockdown lark isn’t all bad while we can “bill from home” .
Less than two months.
Feels like more than two years.
French GDP figures released today were grim, a quarterly drop of 5.8%. That is a lot. The biggest drop since they began keeping score more than 70 years ago. It is worth noting that the pandemic lockdown only took effect during the final two weeks of that period. Things had already been slowing down in the previous quarter.
Nearly 4 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week, taking the total number of new applicants over 30 million over the last six weeks. The silver lining appears to be that the rate of applications has slowed, suggesting that many of those who were going to lose their jobs in this first raft of lay offs now have.
There is starting to be talk about how difficult reopening the tourism and hospitality sectors is going to be. If social distancing must be preserved, that means the capacity of venues will be greatly reduced. Therefore their need for staff, and their profitability will be similarly reduced.
It won’t be like the present, where the government has ordered everything closed. Instead it will feel more like a local corner store when a Westfield shopping centre opens at the end of its street.
Combine that with the eventual end of the furlough scheme, which is currently paying the bills for approximately 11% of the potential UK workforce, and it is likely to be a protracted and bumpy ride out of the lockdown for many.
My eldest niece and nephew return to school this week.
The local government where they live has implemented a staggered return, as society was largely giving up on social distancing.
She can attend on Thursdays only.
He on Fridays only.
Attendance is optional, in the sense that their government has said they won’t enforce truancy laws while valid health concerns remain.
The implementation makes little sense. There are still ~30 kids in each class room, with no realistic option to maintain any kind of distance from one another.
The kids still all play together outside at recess and lunch times.
There will still be a scrum of parents outside the school gates at drop off and pick up times, though a smaller scrum given only a subsection of the school population is attending each day.
Many kids will still be catching public transport to and from school, again with no viable social distancing option.
Masks aren’t mandatory, in fact they are discouraged.
The rest of the week the kids are supposed to continue being home-schooled, which in turn precludes those parents who still have jobs from returning to work where they want/need to be physically present on site.
These kids were pulled out of school a couple of weeks before the local lockdown was belatedly implemented, as their parents were concerned for their health and well-being.
After a month spent cooped up with them 24×7 the kids will be the first ones dropped off at the school gates. A low potential mortality rate deemed to be a lesser risk than a continued pressure cooker home life.
Will be interesting to see how things unfold here.
The local lockdown is set to be reviewed in early May. The government messaging indicates it will likely continue some time beyond that date.
The head of the teacher’s union said it couldn’t be before June.
Our local head teachers are working on a return date in September, with normal school not resuming until after the summer holidays.
Much has been made of the recent declines in the various Purchasing Managers’ Indexes from around the world.
This is a survey based index that collates the sentiments of supply chain managers, providing a rough leading indicator about whether they are expecting their business activities to expand, do more of the same, or to contract.
Unsurprisingly, those pretty pictures show economic activity falling off a cliff during the pandemic lockdowns. Government’s putting their economies into hibernation will do that.
The more interesting story was what the trends over the previous 12-24 months had to say.
European PMI values had generally been negative since early 2019, with a notable outlier being Greece.
Asia had largely been neutral through 2019. This time the outlier was Hong Kong, reflecting the political uncertainties and civil unrest experienced there in recent times. Sentiment had been starting to improve in both China and India towards the end of 2019.
What this showed is that even before the pandemic, forecast economic activity had been slowing throughout Europe and Asia for much of the last year.
Despite the mild optimism in the United States during the period, Bloomberg’s global PMI index show sentiment was positive in 2018, neutral through 2019, and negative in 2020.
The takeaway is that the pandemic is providing top cover for many underlying economic trends that were happening anyway. Expect many organisations to “bring out their dead” during the upcoming round of earnings calls, as the virus provides a convenient narrative to mask all manner of pre-existing ills.
It appears to have been a busy weekend for my client. Their website received some much needed tender loving care, and had some lipstick applied.
Curiously, before the weekend they operated a number of offices in the high double digits.
Today there were just a third that number listed. No contact phone numbers, email addresses, or transition arrangements for existing customers were listed for the remainder.
They had simply vanished.
Turns out it wasn’t a mistake. However, the wording of the communications informing staff of the changes had been delayed, so it was left to their imaginations to fill in the blanks. Ouch!
The largest change programme the client has undertaken in recent years recently launched. Its scope involved visiting several of those locations that are soon to be a distant memory. Suboptimal.
The programme kick-off video conference featured the great and the good. The board. The C-suite. The movers and shakers. A few people from “big IT”. A significantly larger number from the various “shadow IT” organisations scattered around the globe. Their relative representations indicative of their delivery track record.
There was a comedy moment when one attendee took their laptop with them to visit the thunder box. After being serenaded with a collection of animal noises that alternately sounded painful and orgasmic, there was a loud flush and a collective sigh of relief from the 60+ people who had vicariously shared the experience.
The CEO normally resides in a time zone that would have meant the call occurred around dinner time. At the beginning of the call he was witty and articulate. After topping up his drink several times throughout, he became an increasingly incoherent dribbling mess.
It was only right at the end that he moved his camera, and we all saw that he was sitting in front of a window admitting early morning sunlight, and a half empty bowl of cereal.
An inspiration to us all!
Brad Pitt, playing Dr Anthony Fauci, did the opening skit for this week’s Saturday Night Live episode. It was a masterful performance, the simplicity of the format made it surprisingly powerful.
Play a brief clip of the real President Trump saying something false. Then have the fake Dr Fauci explain what it really meant. Rinse and repeat.
No need to be funny. Trump sets himself up to be the joke. SNL provides a public health service.
I found myself thinking about observer bias today.
Happy clappy cheerleaders, who normally tell everyone to ignore the news and live in a blissful bubble of ignorance, are on message about strong economic rebounds, “V” shaped recoveries, and a near-immediate return to employment for all.
Truthful? Nobody knows.
But consider the sources. What is their message in more normal times? How do they make their money? Are they trying to sell their audience something? Affiliate marketing? Financial planning? Life coaching? Wealth management?
They are so earnest about their opinions about something so uncertain as the pandemic. They are equally earnest about their message about how their audience should live their lives, manage their money, and find value in how they invest their time.
Does that give added credibility to their views on the pandemic? Or does appearing so confidently certain about something nobody can be certain about, undermine the other things they confidently opine on?
Meanwhile, doomsayers are doing their best Eeyore impersonations with equal confidence, proclaiming the sky is falling and the end is nigh.
PMI indexes are in the toilet.
Corporate debt is off the charts.
Inflation (or deflation) is coming.
Global trade, migration, and tourism will never recover. Raise the drawbridge! “Foreigners go home”.
In bailing out everything, governments are underwriting risk, indirectly nationalising everything, or stealthily converting capitalist jungles into socialist wonderlands.
They can’t both be right. In fact, they will almost certainly both be confidently wrong.
Each will be able to mount a credible argument, citing cherrypicked datasets over time series that support their viewpoints.
Crimes against charts abound.
“Lies, damned lies, and statistics”.
Yet we all seek out voices that tell us what we want to hear. Populist politicians are masters of this. Boris’s Brexit. Bolsonaro’s Brazil. Trump’s “Make America Great Again“.
Some of us want reassurance that everything is going to be ok. Mostly it will be, but it won’t be all rainbows and unicorns.
Others demand confirmation that everything really is as thoroughly fucked up as we perceive it to be. Mostly it isn’t, yet an endless series of bad things happening is the underpinning of the whole insurance sector.
Occasionally we will read or view something that flips that on its head. Like the SNL video where the “leader of the free world” plays the joker, while the comedian finds themselves playing the moderate voice of reason.
Think for yourself.
Be careful who you listen to.
Be more careful what you choose believe.
It is a choice. And yes, they really are all trying to sell you something. In return for your attention. Your custom. Your endorsement. Your money. Your network.
I went for a walk around my local high street shopping precinct today.
The large supermarkets like Tesco and Sainsburys are essentially back to normal in terms of product range and stock levels. Isolated gaps on the shelves, but little visible disruption. By contrast, Marks & Spencers had lots of empty shelf space and signs apologising. Waitrose was somewhere in between the two.
Ocado got speared in the press today for price gouging, a hatchet job claiming their average grocery bill had increased 15% while the prices at Tesco and Sainsburys remained largely unchanged. It appears the goodwill and collaboration between supermarket chains was shortlived!
Main visible difference to pre-pandemic days are the queues outside the door to limit concurrent customer numbers, though even those are markedly shorter than a week ago. The other difference is the one-way systems that stores have tried to introduce but the customers aren’t following. Customer’s grocery lists appear to be uncorrelated to the aisle layouts in a supermarket.
Take away shops are starting to re-open, everything from the gelato shop to KFC have emerged from hibernation. The local Prets appear to be preparing to follow suit, which probably makes sense given the neighbourhood skyline is dominated by a big busy hospital.
The range of options on food delivery apps like Just Eat and Deliveroo apps are nearing normal levels. This suggests the earlier supply chain problems are being managed. It will be interesting to see whether cooking fatigue amongst punters manages to trump a cautious cashflow posture, as furlough schemes and bailouts won’t be open-ended.
The thing that struck me more than anything else was the sheer number of “vulnerable” people who were out and about. Elderly folks with shopping trolleys were everywhere. All the park benches and outdoor tables were occupied by old-timers. Morbidly obese folks of all ages out walking their dogs and enjoying the sunshine.
I asked my elderly mother about this.
She said in her community folks are forever being diagnosed with cancer, dementia, or all manner of lifestyle impacting diseases. There has long been a sense that they are all on borrowed time. Their time in the workforce is done. Their children raised and educated. Their work is complete. Now is the time for living, because they don’t know how much more they would get.
She said they didn’t want to be “protected” or quarantined. They wanted to socialise with their friends, play with their grandkids, and live their lives to the fullest while they still can.
I was a little taken aback by the vehemence of the response. A bit pissed off that some of the folks the inconvenience of this lockdown is designed to protect resented anyone thinking they needed or wanted protecting. There is a dissonance there, hard to reconcile.
The social media departments of restaurant chains around the world are battling to keep their brands front of mind in a time when their customer base are often unable to dine upon their products.
One approach has been publishing the recipes of crowd favourites so that the punters can have a go at making the dishes at home.
Will KFC reveal what Colonel Sanders’ “11 herbs and spices” are?
How about McDonald’s publishing what is in the “special sauce” on a Big Mac?
To break up the homeschooling routine, my kids and I have attempted a few of the recipes that chains have published online, with mixed success. In many cases, they enjoyed making more than eating.
Some brands have provided enough detail to reproduce a reasonable facsimile, limited more by our dubious culinary skills and improvisation with whatever is in the cupboard.
For others the recipes are more like advertorials for their bottled sauces or marinades, yielding disappointing results.
It is an interesting business model, giving away the intellectual property and then relying upon the customer’s desire to have somebody do the hard work. Reminds me of open-source software, supported by commercial professional services.
Below are a few of the recipes we’ve attempted:
- IKEA – meatballs with cream sauce
- Hilton DoubleTree – chocolate chip cookies
- Pizza Express – doughballs and garlic butter
- Nandos – spicy rice
Earlier this week I virtually attended a technology conference. Some of the speakers were interesting, but (as usual) I found some of the networking aspects a bit tiresome.
After the presentations, I got chatting to a guy who had a niche investing sideline financing class action lawsuits. From what he described, it sounded a bit like angel investing. A bit of fun. Expects to lose his entire stake. Very occasionally one of them will “go big”.
I was intrigued. The financing of lawsuits was not something I had ever given much thought to.
The investor rattled off a host of pandemic related issues that he believed were potential litigation gold mines. He rattled off a host of potential actions, many of which I can’t remember now. A couple that did stick out were:
- Employers liability – failing in their duty of care to provide a safe working environment for their staff. Think bus drivers, supermarket staff, garbage collectors, and medical staff who are all exposed to the coronavirus via their interactions with the general public, but have been provided with insufficient safety equipment.
- Occupational health and safety – employers failing to provide appropriate working environments for their remote workforce. Does your home office have the same ergonomic standing desks, Herman Miller chairs, and glare-free soft lighting as your normal workplace? Or are you slouched on the couch with your laptop perched on your lap? How’s that bad back holding up? Stiff neck? Eye strain? Headaches?
- Data protection – data breaches, leakages, or contractual breaches over data handling controls due to hastily implemented tactical remote working arrangements.
- Unfair restraint of trade – businesses who were denied the ability to trade by governmental orders to lock down the economy, ranging from hairdressers to professional football teams.
- Human rights “abuses” – hyperbolic claims of unlawful detention, denial of liberty, suppression of freedom of assembly and movement.
- Violation of treaties – commercial organisations suing governments under the terms of international trade treaties like the Comprehensive Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership.
By the end of the conversation I was undecided whether the guy was an ambulance chasing fool or a lateral thinking genius.
Either way, it sounds like under-occupied lawyers are a dangerous breed!
School went back this week, or rather the “holidays” ended. A return to what has become our normal routine.
A bit more structure to the teaching packs that were sent home towards the end of the Easter school holidays. Still mostly links to websites. Some prescriptive and detailed. Others just collections of random stuff. All free.
Life in the house has evolved a delicate balance. A carefully orchestrated dance. Not imposed. Not written down. Just a combination of trial and error, innate survival skills, and conflict avoidance.
Territory has been carved out.
Bounded by a combination of bandwidth, geography, time, and volume.
It is pleasing how quickly many of the superficial judgements and the pretence about what was deemed “professional” when it came to working have been dispensed with now that everyone is working from home.
The cut and label of your suit? Nobody cares.
Whether your shirt is ironed or make-up applied? Nobody cares.
Background noise or interruptions caused by children, pets, or the television? Nobody cares.
The working hours you keep, the standard Monday to Friday 9 to 5 or asynchronously on a best endeavours basis around family responsibilities? Nobody cares. Providing the work is getting done!
My client site recently dispensed with the default of having webcams switched on. The excuse was bandwidth, and the myriad of security vulnerabilities in Zoom. The reality was it preserved people’s privacy. Maintaining that thin veneer of divide between work life and home life.
It isn’t anyone else’s business whether they live in a mansion or a group house. Live with a same-sex partner or a dozen cats. Happen to have a tribe of kids they never mention at the office or live somewhere with an amazing view.
In a way, it has been like a reverse “instaglamming” of work life. Having everyone working from home has shifted the focus from how long/visible people appear to work, to what they actually achieve.
That doesn’t make it a meritocracy in the textbook sense, but it has gone a long way towards evaluating people based on what they do rather than how they look.
That has been a painful adjustment for many. In the current economic climate, there is no room for passengers.
Will it last? Will it survive the transition back to normalcy? I doubt it.
This weekend finished with a beautiful sunny and warm day.
It also ably demonstrated that the public’s willingness to embrace social distancing is drawing to an end. There were many signs when I started looking for them.
Perhaps encouraged by President Trump attempting to incite civil disorder with his “liberate” foolishness? Maybe mistrustful of the government’s competence after the damning exposé in the Times. These are the same people who “got Brexit done” after all.
More likely, after waiting a month for the grim reaper to cut swathes through their peer groups and co-workers, the general public is starting to wonder whether the whole thing hasn’t been overhyped.
Traffic volumes have picked up. We needed to use pedestrian crossings for the first time in a month. Not quite back to normal, but certainly busier than a weekend during Christmas week. The car park outside the big Tesco’s was two-thirds full. A fortnight ago there were less cars than I have fingers.
Cyclists were riding in pelotons, rather than just the pairs of recent times.
One of the neighbourhood running clubs has restarted weekend runs, a dozen sweaty participants puffing their way around the neighbourhood. Personal trainers were conducting group “boot camp” classes in the groups of the new apartment development near the river.
Large groups of teenagers were hanging around on park benches and in the graveyard, smoking dope and trash-talking.
The local sporting oval had football games going at both ends, more than 5-a-side.
Families with young children were picnicking together with their friends.
In short, it felt like a normal Spring weekend, except that half the people were wearing masks.
The sense of normalcy was refreshing, yet jarringly incongruent to the messaging being espoused by the nation’s leaders.
At the start of all this, I had wondered whether countries like Britain would stand for the sort of measures authoritarian governments could get away with applying. It appears the answer to that was mostly yes, but not for long.
The idea of a quarantine originated in the Republic of Ragusa in the late 14th century. Ships arriving from plague-infected ports were required to anchor offshore for 40 days. Then as now, there were mixed results. The city of Ragusa, now known as Dubrovnik, still suffered from the plague. The balance between public health and the economy is a fine line indeed.
Today marks the 40th day since I last spent a full day on a client site. Since then my lady wife’s office closed. Both kids’ schools closed. At times it has often felt like the whole world has closed.
So what have I missed?
What have I learned?
And what would I change?
I have led a semi-retired existence for the last five years. That has meant months at a time without needing to commute, spend the best part of the day inside an office, or scoffing down sandwiches at my desk in between meetings. I can’t say I miss any of those things.
Working from home full time has involved considerably less work stress than going to the office, but at the cost of blurred demarcation between work time and “home” time. The scheduled conference call on Sunday night was a case in point. On balance, I prefer this arrangement, and for my next winter working hibernation I will actively seek out a remote working role over an office-based one.
Amazon, Deliveroo, and Ocado have done a remarkable job at preserving much of the convenience of living in the big city. The impact of being locked down is considerably lessened when you have ready access to fast internet and delivery on tap to almost instantly gratify spending whims.
This has drawn my attention to the fact that much of what I enjoy about “London” life could be found virtually anywhere in England. I find myself occasionally checking out property prices in towns with sandy beaches in Cornwall. Though the rational part of my brain recognises that for now we’re tethered to the good state schools we have gone to great lengths to get the boys into.
An uncomfortable truth for FIRE seekers is that the lockdown does a reasonable job as a dress rehearsal for “normal” life after work. Not the dream holidays and volunteerism, but the general day-to-day routine part. If you thrive in lockdown, you’ll thrive in retirement. By contrast if you’re struggling, then you have some thinking to do about how you get your fix of structure and socialising otherwise provided by a job.
I miss having time to myself. Being a full-time father 24×7 is exhausting and full of compromises. We all benefit from space and social interaction outside the house.
I have learned that I’m going to have a problem when the kids have grown up and moved out. Supporting their lives, interests, and activities has provided a convenient excuse to justify the absence of my own. This is something I have been conscious of for a while, but the lockdown has hammered it home.
What would I change? As far as lockdowns go, Britain has been pretty relaxed. Infrastructure and supply lines have generally worked. Outside of the main train stations and the main roads out of London the restrictions aren’t really being policed. The government appears to be relying on a combination of goodwill, peer pressure, and social shaming to promote social distancing. For now at least, that appears to be working.
While we’re more restricted than the silliness of America or the half-assed approach adopted by Sweden, we are a far cry from the experiences of some of my offshore teams at my client site. Armed soldiers ensuring people stay inside. Curfews. Food shortages. Riots.
Things could be a lot worse.
Being a landlord sucks sometimes.
Most of the time it is a hands-off endeavour, as passive as investing in stocks. Put a good property manager in charge, set them a noise threshold for maintenance requests, and get out of their way.
Now and again something will occur that reminds me that being a landlord is running a real business with customers, stakeholders, suppliers, and all manner of ever-changing legal obligations.
A leaky dishwasher or a leaky roof. Hot water heaters that won’t. Garage door openers that don’t. Minor, though often expensive, annoyances to me. Major inconveniences for the tenants.
The pandemic has changed that proposition somewhat. Highlighting that tenants are real people with real problems. No longer just the names of strangers appearing on a lease document and the source of occasional maintenance requests.
One of my tenants lost their job early on in the pandemic induced economic slowdown.
Unfortunate. It sucks to be them.
In a normal circumstance, they would sulk for a day or two, then pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and go find a new job. Now their whole industry has been ordered closed. A fate faced by many professions from dental hygienists to gym instructors, pilots to professional sportspeople.
Then their spouse had their working hours slashed. The prospects for their employer are not good.
Creating a cash flow problem for them.
They tightened their belts and reduced their outgoings.
Proud people who lived off their savings, the beginnings of a house deposit, while they lasted.
Smart, driven, and well educated. Studied hard. Worked hard.
How did it come to this?
Facing no option other than to apply for unemployment benefits.
Enough to buy groceries. Just. Definitely not enough to pay the rent.
But what to do? Tenancy agreements are time-bound, containing notice period to exit. Lockdowns mean moving house to somewhere cheaper would not be an option, even if they could afford to.
No parents to move back in with. Nowhere else to go.
Yet responsibilities remain. Bills to pay. Kids to feed and entertain, nursery and school closures demanding at least one parent must become a full-time caregiver.
Reluctant to cause financial pain to their landlord. To pass the buck on their problems. Conscious that both parties had entered into a contract in good faith. Aware that the authorities are seeking to use landlords and lenders as shock absorbers during these uncertain times.
I have gotten to know these particular tenants this week. Nice people, trying to do the right thing. “Life happens” events outside of their control have derailed their hopes, delayed their dreams, and obstructed their ability to provide for themselves.
We have reached an arrangement that allows them to remain in place. To pay what they can afford.
I can afford to absorb this financial hit, likely to last for months. Some rent is better than no rent.
I wonder how many landlords are similarly positioned? Few I suspect. Variants of this story will be often repeated.
Storm clouds are gathering on the horizon for buy-to-let landlords.
Morgan Housel wrote an interesting piece about how governments could possibly ever repay all the debt it is wracking up in bail-outs, hand-outs, acting as lender of last resort, and investor of last resort.
His conclusion surprised me. In short: they can’t.
But this didn’t matter, because they don’t need to.
He hypothesises that as countries (and companies) are effectively immortal, they aren’t bound by the same sort of time limits that might constraint a personal mortgage. In essence, countries can act like a borrower who refinances their mortgage each time the honeymoon rate expires, over and over, until the end of time.
The piece is well worth a read. It succeeded in changing my mind about government borrowing when used for constructive purposes.
I read a report today that estimated roughly 13.5% of the potential US workforce had applied for unemployment benefits in the last month.
That is a lot.
For context, it is just over half the US unemployment rate experienced during the depths of the Great Depression, or half the unemployment rate experienced by Spain during the Global Financial Crisis.
An American colleague laughed when I expressed concern about what that might mean for the US economy. He told me that an unemployed person was currently entitled to around USD$4,300 per month for the next few months.
Normal unemployment benefits were apparently about USD$385 a week.
Then there was a temporary additional pandemic related unemployment benefit of USD$600 a week.
Finally, everyone was receiving a one-off USD$1,200
vote-buying bribe helicopter money stimulus cheque.
Apparently, some US states offer even higher unemployment benefits. For example, residents of the state where my colleague lives can receive up to USD$400 a week more than that normal base rate of benefits.
He thought most people who lost their jobs shouldn’t starve or get evicted, for the next few months at least. In fact he thought that many people formerly employed in the hospitality, retail, or service industries would probably be receiving more money now than they would have earned while working.
Maybe that is one of the reasons the stock market seems so divorced from the economic statistics?
One of my freelancer friends at the client site got fired a couple of weeks ago. Game of thrones.
Two more had their contracts terminated last week. At the start of the year their team contained a dozen freelancers. Now there are three. Cost savings.
Today an entire team, business-critical a week ago, was suddenly surplus to requirements. Efficiency gains.
Death by a thousand cuts. Each day a redundancy here. A downsizing there.
Rarely communicated. People just disappear. Absent from conference calls. Vanishing from email distribution lists. Deadlines missed. No baton pass. Complete absence of handover. They may as well have been abducted by aliens. Perhaps they were.
I learned today an entire multi-year programme, one which the client has already invested a low eight-figure amount in, will be cancelled before the month is out.
A new hire started working at the client site last week. A permanent employee. Multi-disciplined. It must be bizarre trying to establish yourself at a new site working entirely remotely.
Whom do you trust?
How do you find out the lay of the land, when all written communication is recorded and e-discoverable?
I am sympathetic to his plight. To a point.
He has become my shadow. Wants to be my new found best friend. Poor bastard hasn’t figured it out yet, but he has been recruited to take over the smarter end of my role. The more commodity aspects can be distributed throughout the offshore teams. It won’t be long now.
Vendors and suppliers have started refusing to engage in commercial contracts with the client. Their balance sheet so swimming in debt as to set the due diligence klaxons sounding. The warnings are loud enough to scare off even the most ardent of commission chasing salespeople.
Hopefully, my firm’s invoices get paid while there are still payables staff who know me working for the client.
Before the money runs out.
Lockdown looks like it will be extended for at least another three weeks, taking us into early May.
The experience is an interesting, though somewhat disheartening, one.
Rationally I understand that the pandemic problem doesn’t go away until the majority of the population has gained immunity to it. To achieve that outcome without collapsing the health system takes time.
I am forever admonishing my staff to recognise and call out assumptions. There are several baked into that statement.
The first assumption is that immunity is possible, more like chickenpox and less like the common cold. This remains unproven, yet everything else is dependent upon it being true.
The second assumption is that immunity, assuming it exists, is reasonably persistent. This makes it unlikely people will swiftly catch it again. More like measles and less like gonorrhoea. For any vaccine to be effective, this assumption must also prove to be true.
The third assumption is that once somebody who has ceased experiencing symptoms of the virus, they are “cured” rather than the virus having simply switched off or gone dormant temporality. More like tuberculosis, and less like herpes. Unless this assumption proves to be true, then previous virus sufferers will randomly spark pockets of infection and as we have seen can quickly spread.
I find myself being occasionally swept up in the media hype and wishful thinking.
“The lockdowns will end soon“.
“Businesses and schools will reopen“.
“Normal life will then immediately resume“.
“The economy and job market will bounce back as quickly as the stock market has done“.
Except then I remind myself that everywhere which has so far thought they had conquered the virus have experienced secondary waves of infection. There will likely be many more, until that herd immunity is prevalent.
The Spanish flu spread around the world for three years before sufficient widespread herd immunity robbed it of enough potential hosts to continue thriving. This time around, widespread air travel has meant the whole world is struggling with it at once, rather than with the ebbs and flows experienced by that sea travel dominated era at the tail end of World War I. Hopefully that means the global herd immunity establishes itself more quickly.
However, anyone who thinks we are almost there is kidding themselves. Or trying to sell us something.
Investment grade covers anything down to BBB-, which subsequent downgrades may have pushed firmly into junk territory.
This bailout even covers those infamous CDOs responsible for triggering the financial crisis.
In effect, the Fed is nationalising all this crappy quality debt.
I can’t help wondering whether this is a bad thing? If the taxpayers indiscriminately pick up the tab for all the bad behaviours of the corporate world once again, what are the consequences of failure?
The GFC left a myriad of zombie companies awash with debt, yet able to limp onwards because of the low costs of servicing those financial costs. Did any of the bad actors from the last time around learn anything from their actions? Given how indebted many firms now are, it appears not.
The increasingly popular private equity model appears to be purpose-built to create more of them.
If all these interlinked institutions really are “too big to fail”, then doesn’t that suggest a systemic fragility to the entire system? The more times the authorities ride to the rescue, the less regard bonus chasing risk-takers and return hungry investors will have for the consequences of their actions.
The large banks and finance houses who provide liquidity to the economy are too big to fail.
The large insurers who underwrite risk and ensure business continuity are too big to fail.
Pension funds, who are supposed to take the burden off the state by financially supporting everyone in their dotage, attempt to close funding gaps by seeking ever-higher yields from ever riskier investments. They too are too big to fail.
Now it appears that just about any firm is deserving of a bailout from the state. That seems at odds with the stated goals of a privately funded pension sector.
Without risk there should be no return. Is that the right path? Do we really wish to continue down it?
I haven’t done the thinking on this yet, but it feels like there is a dissonance there somewhere. An inherent inconsistency.
Family tradition for the last five years has been to grab the kids and head to the beach, where we would be joined by all their cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents.
Each family rents neighbouring seaside cabins. Close enough to play together. Far enough apart that there are plenty of neutral corners and places to escape. It is great to see all the relatives. After a couple of days together it is great to see them go.
Families are complicated!
This year is different. Flights cancelled. Borders closed.
Social distancing and Facetime replacing hugs and tickles.
So far we have been fortunate. Everyone healthy. Mostly happy, though homeschooling is taking a toll, magnified in some cases by job losses or matrimonial disharmony.
Instead of waking to watch the sunrise over breaking waves, today I was startled awake by a demanding seven-year-old.
Him: “Do you think the Easter bunny really makes chocolate eggs?”
Him: “Or do you think he lines up to buy them in the supermarket with all the lying parents?”
Him: [Raised eyebrow, arms folded]
Me: “I don’t think there is any harm in believing in a little magic occasionally”
Him: [eye roll]
Me: “Just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”
Him: “Like God you mean? Nobody who believes in him has ever seen him either. My friend Layla stayed awake one night when the tooth fairy was supposed to visit. She saw her Mum come into her room and swap the tooth for a coin!”
Him: “Why do grown-ups think it is ok to tell children off for lying? Then tell them bullshit stories about imaginary beings, that nobody can see, who do impossible things?”
It is a beautiful Springtime in London. T-shirt weather. Doors and windows open. The air is absent the tang of exhaust fumes and pollution that is the inescapable hallmark of life in the big city. That once ubiquitous sound of aircraft on final approach to Heathrow is almost entirely absent.
There are early warning signs that the acceptance of quarantines and lockdowns amongst the public are beginning to fray.
Many Germans traditionally head north to the beaches on the Baltic during Easter. Lockdowns and travel bans appeared to make that illegal this year. Until some sun-seeking lawyers challenged the local authority’s power to curb the people’s right to freedom of movement. The court ruled the travel bans to be “disproportionate”, striking them down. Germans are now free to go to the beach.
Closer to home, the tone of political coverage of the daily crisis press briefings is turning aggressive.
Demanding to know when the lockdowns will end?
When the crisis will be over?
When life can return to normal?
When the economy will restart?
Wanting to see the exit plan?
Lockdowns and social distancing, when the weather is cold and wet, are easy. It is a much bigger ask to get people to stick with them when the sun is shining.
When they would normally be socialising with their friends and families. Barbecues. Picnics. Parties. Weekends away.
When they aren’t seeing local evidence of the reported New York mass graves and the refrigerated trucks being used as makeshift morgues parked outside their hospitals.
Irrespective of potential public health or economic consequences of an extended lockdown, it seems unlikely the current restrictions will extend into the summer.
Enough people will start ignoring the rules by then that they become ineffective and their enforcement logistically impractical.
My childhood experiences on a farm taught me that a herd of sheep or cattle can be flexibly steered with some degree of success, but are very difficult to rigorously control.
Universal credit applications have increased to 1,200,000, roughly under 3.5% of the potential workforce.
Meanwhile Tesco hired 45,000 additional workers over the last fortnight. To stock shelves. Drive delivery vans. Serve customers. Take over for their many colleagues who have fallen ill.
People clap in appreciation for the NHS each week, but don’t spare much thought for the bin collectors, posties, and home delivery folks.
All are doing the jobs they are paid to do. All involve interacting with the general public, which at the moment involves putting themselves and their families at risk of getting sick.
That “human shield” comment from last week has gnawed away in the back of my mind. Folks at the shallow end of the earnings spectrum do the work that can’t be done remotely.
Breathes new life into the old “stay in school” cliché. The student’s life, and those of their families, could depend upon it.
I read an excellent article illustrating how all the usual suspects have their snouts in the trough, rent-seeking and diverting the government’s vast bailout funds into their own pockets. It observed that private equity firms are now “too big to fail”, the age pensions of a huge proportion of the population are now indelibly linked to the fortunes of these opaque investment vehicles.
Troubling thought that.
One of the elderly neighbours we have adopted cooked us some cupcakes to say thank you for keeping them in groceries, changing light bulbs, and giving their clocks the daylight savings treatment.
The real deal, not a packet mix. Reminded me of the cake my evil Grandmother used to occasionally make when I was a little kid. That one used to have a dozen eggs in it!
Getting old living alone had always seemed like a scary prospect to me in abstract. Nobody to pick you up if you slipped and fell. To remind you to take your pills or put on trousers before you go outside.
Witnessing it up close makes it terrifying.
Unable to dress or shower herself. Dependent upon carers that only visit when they are supposed to about half the time. My neighbour sat in her pyjamas from Sunday morning to Wednesday, waiting for them to come. Fortunately, she is not dependent upon them to prepare her meals!
We all chafe at the social distancing restrictions, inconvenienced by the closure of pubs and coffee shops. For the elderly, it represents a sharp reminder of their frailty. An enforced loss of liberty and independence.
All the old folks I’ve adopted during the lockdown are proud people.
Being dependent upon anyone irks them.
Having to rely on the generosity of relative strangers must be hard indeed.
My working days often consist of a non-stop string of conference calls.
Starting in Asia in the mornings, then following the sun around the globe, ending with the Americas. It struck me yesterday just how remarkable that was, technology having effectively eliminated many of the cultural and geographic barriers to participation. Every call is like a scaled-down United Nations, reminding me of a typical night out in a London pub ~20 years ago, only without the fun.
Almost all call participants are experiencing or have experienced some form of pandemic lockdown. The exceptions were some Americans living in Republican-controlled Mid-Western or Southern states.
Experiences vary greatly.
In some places, the lockdown is absolute. Police, or the military, delivering (or in some cases not delivering) food parcels to each household.
In others, the lockdown is being administered by local gangs or factions, following temporary cease-fires or where a government refused or failed to act.
By all accounts, folks in the UK have retained more freedoms than many.
One aspect of the tumult and disruption that few are talking about is how the sudden need for the global workforce to instantly work from home has created a whole world of security vulnerabilities to corporate networks, data protection policies, four-eye tests, and regulatory supervisory requirements.
Few organisations were prepared for their entire workforce to work remotely. The goldrush for laptops, Office365, Citrix, and DocuSign has exposed many vulnerabilities. Remote administration, centralised patching, ensuring adequate virus and malware protection are amongst the many things that have been compromised.
How many “work” computers are now tethered to insecure home or “free” wifi networks?
Being used to watch Netflix or entertain the kids outside of hours?
Have been connected to work file shares at the same time as personal DropBox, GoogleDrive, or OneDrive accounts?
Are signed-in to personal email accounts, where corporate files can effortlessly be attached to email messages saved as drafts, then downloaded outside of the network at the employee’s leisure?
This isn’t Hollywood style “black hat” hacking, or the Chinese military performing corporate espionage, or even those pimply-faced teens infiltrating as a dare.
This is organisations leaving the porch light on and the back door wide open.
Expect a long tail of losses from this.
Lawsuits over intellectual property theft and patent violation.
Compromised merger and acquisition activities, in the fire sale feeding frenzy that follows the lockdown exit, as over-leveraged distressed companies try to sell out before they go under.
The client CEO sent out a flowery all-hands message yesterday, praising how well the organisation has adjusted to the global lockdown, reassuring them about how well-positioned they are to grow from strength to strength during the anticipated challenging economic conditions ahead.
“blah blah strong cash flow blah blah diversified customer base blah blah healthy reserves blah blah”
At the bottom of the message was a terse paragraph that had clearly been written by somebody else:
These unprecedented times demand we adopt a conservative cashflow posture. With immediate effect:
- There is a hiring freeze. All recruitment activity must be personally authorised by me.
- Pay rises awarded during the recent annual appraisal process are rescinded.
- Annual bonuses and stock options for 2019 have been suspended, to be reviewed in 12 months.
Which of course sent the rumour mill into overdrive. The best way to plant the notion there is a problem is to randomly and unconvincingly deny that said problem exists.
The organisation further tipped their hand when all line managers were asked to show a friendly interest in their team’s current workload. Some proved more subtle than others at obtaining the informal estimates of when all business-critical activities that had already been committed to could be completed.
Austria is talking about reopening businesses next week. They are also talking about making the wearing of masks mandatory on public transport and in shops. Will it work? Or are they dropping their guard early, only to experience a sudden spike in infections as a second wave of the pandemic hits? Hopefully, it works out for them, leading by example for the rest of us.
The S&P500 total returns for 2020 is teetering around the -20% mark. If it climbs much further, does that mean the bear market that everyone is worried about is a figment of our collective imaginations?
Jamie Dimon penned his annual letter to JPMorgan shareholders yesterday. He was predicting a severe recession and similar financial stress to the Great Recession, otherwise known as the Global Financial Crisis.
Given those defining names have already been taken, what would the current incarnation be referred to as?
The Great Great Recession?
The Greater Recession?
The Great Recession II?
Personally, I’m not sure that “great” is the right word. It is going to suck mightily for the many small business owners who will lose their businesses, jobs, and homes.
There will be more than a few who find themselves in that boat.
My elderly mother was doing a happy dance this morning.
She was graduating from her two weeks of quarantine at home. Healthy and fortunately absent any sign of the virus after her mad race through international airports to beat airline cancellations, border closures, and the new rules insisting travellers serve two weeks of mandatory detention locked in an airport hotel.
She went on a rant about how irresponsible people were. Apparently, there were a couple of hundred people who were supposed to be similarly self-quarantining at home in her town. Random door knocks by the local health authorities revealed that almost half hadn’t been home where they were supposed to be. There are supposed to be big fines and even jail terms for those breaking the rules, but so far they aren’t being enforced.
Another thing she mentioned was one large regional government nearby had outlawed Airbnb and short-term holiday rentals. The relevant government minister had said that while it wasn’t illegal for landlords to advertise the properties, any guests occupying them were violating the emergency shelter-at-home laws.
One of my property managers recently mentioned the volume of housing stock available to let had increased by over a third in the last month. The only takers are folks whose relationships hadn’t survived the pressure cooker of life under lockdown.
Earlier this week I saw an ironic post by Daniel Cleaves that cut uncomfortably close to the bone.
Someone said something very true about IR35 to me today.
How can HMRC say to contractors “we believe you are employed”
Then say, in the midst of a pandemic, “we aren’t supporting you as you are a company director and not employed”
Then say “in April 2021 we believe you are an employee again, and therefore owe us tax and NI”
It is funny because it is true. Yet it raises some interesting questions and more than a little ire amongst freelancers and the self-employed.
From the ridiculous to the sublime, there is another funny story I heard this week to brighten your Sunday.
A colleague of mine is experiencing lockdown while living alone. Imagine a portly version of Mary Poppins aged in her early 50s, a very prim and proper Englishwoman. She decided to use the lockdown as an opportunity to get fit and lose the excess weight.
The Amazon man delivered a starter pack of home exercise equipment. Dumbbells, skipping rope, yoga mat… and a kettlebell.
This lady lives in a fifth-floor apartment, in a complex that has hundreds of similar apartments, all looking out over a shared communal garden.
A YouTube video demonstrated the mechanics of a kettlebell swing.
She faced her open balcony door. Legs spread. Leaning forward. Swinging the 10kg kettlebell. Backwards. Forwards. Backwards. F…..
The weight slips from her fingers. Launches out the door. Over the balcony railing. And plummets five stories into the garden far below with a thud!
Fortunately, it didn’t hit anyone. The gardens have been padlocked to prevent communal gatherings.
My colleague dropped behind her couch, fearful her neighbours would identify her as the source of the missile. She spent the whole day out of sight of the open balcony door.
Once darkness fell she dressed up in dark clothes. In the dead of night, she slunk downstairs to rescue her errant kettlebell. Ninja Mary Poppins.
I can only imagine the ungainly sight of her trying to scrabble over the garden fence to retrieve the weight.
The mental image left me chuckling.
I experienced an ethical dilemma yesterday.
This was unusual for me. Normally I just automatically do the “right” thing (as defined by my individual experience, perspective, biases, and values) without giving it any thought.
On this occasion, I felt conflicted.
One of my furloughed staff is bright, enterprising, and has a lot of get-up-and-go. They have worked for me for more than 5 years.
They also have a complicated home life with heavy responsibilities. I don’t envy them that, sometimes life deals people a shitty hand.
Yesterday I checked in on them, making sure they were doing ok and had everything the needed. During the conversation they let it slip they had been working from home. A raised eyebrow from me lead to a confession that they had taken a second job.
The opportunity is a good one, and the pay is fair for what they are doing.
However, the working hours fully overlap with the time they would ordinarily be working for me.
This meant they were being paid for that time twice. Once by the new employer for the work they were actually doing. A second time by me, for the work they were being paid not to do.
I felt strangely conflicted.
Part of me was proud of them for playing the angles and gaming the system.
The rest of me was hurt, feeling like I had been taken advantage of.
Their furloughed wages are being paid out of my own pocket, an arrangement entered into before the government made its announcement to underwrite 80% of qualifying worker’s wages. That scheme commences at the end of April, with no concrete detail yet on who actually qualifies.
They needed the money, and I could afford to help. For a while at least.
Except it turns out they don’t need the money after all. Unlike the common experience during the lockdown, their income has doubled in an arbitrage play.
Which left me strangely disquieted. Like I had been screwed with my pants on.
The DWP published the fortnightly applicant count for Universal Credit yesterday.
950,000. In a fortnight.
9.5x the typical number of applications for the social security safety net.
This with the government promising to underwrite 80% of furloughed worker’s wages.
According to the ONS, before the pandemic there were about 1,350,000 unemployed people in the UK, and just under 33,000,000 employed people.
That means nearly 3% of the UK’s potential workforce applied for benefits. In one fortnight.
And that is just the people organised enough to apply in the first fortnight of the lockdown.
Those figures don’t include those too proud to claim benefits. Yet.
Nor those attempting to ride out the storm by living off their savings.
What do Universal Credit applicants receive? A single person my age would receive £73 per week. A family of four would receive £232 per week.
That is just £8 to £10 per person per day.
To survive on.
Pay all the bills.
Make ends meet.
I went to the grocery store yesterday.
Felt mildly guilty for venturing outside.
Queued for 20 minutes to get in.
More staff than customers prowling the aisles.
Large plastic screens between the checkout operator and the customers.
And yet all these things have come to feel normal. I am still surprised at how quickly we have accepted all this change. We had little choice, the other options weren’t all that palatable.
The noteworthy thing was the full shelves. Almost everything was in stock, even toilet paper and Panadol. Panic buying appears to have abated. For now, the Just-In-Time supply chains outwardly appear to still be working.
I was pleased by this, but also recognised the risk of wishful thinking that this would all be over soon. Lockdowns are being implemented in ever more places, which can only impact the ability of suppliers, wholesalers, and distributors to smoothly carry out their business.
The staff in the supermarket were all temporary new hires, having lost their professional jobs. Grateful to be earning anything, even if it was a zero-hours contract paying minimum wage.
One of the shelf packers described “key workers” like delivery drivers and shelf packers as human shields. Putting themselves, and the families they return to each evening, at risk to ensure the vast ranks of middle managers and office dwellers could remain safely on their conference calls at home.
A troubling thought that. One which hit uncomfortably close to home.
An interesting side effect of the pandemic lockdowns has been the vanishing of interesting content from around the web. There is a firehose of speculation and conjecture about the virus, and to a large extent a vacuum of anything else.
The sounds of crickets emanate from my Feedly, as the sound of pigeons echo from the once bustling landmarks of the world’s great cities.
There is no sport to watch. Celebrity gossip has been reduced to social media postings of home videos showing bored famous people doing boring everyday things. No travel stories. Little in the way of random “life happens” events on the news.
Just all virus all the time. The virus economy. “Flatten the curve”. Social shaming of quarantine violators. Bewildered and exhausted politicians briefing the nation, talking a lot but saying little.
The Personal Finance blogosphere seems to have gone into hibernation. I must confess to being surprised by this, as market volatility, sudden widespread unemployment, and an indefinitely uncertain future are all good reasons for people to need to get their finances in order.
Perhaps the stock posts and listicles promising easy answers are no longer relatable?
More likely the affiliate marketing funnels have dried up.
Curious about this, I looked at the readership statistics for this blog.
It appears the audience has gone wherever all the PF bloggers went. Perhaps the bulk of the audience read it during the daily commute they are no longer undertaking, or while scoffing down sandwiches at the office desk they are no longer sitting at?
Times of uncertainty make for fascinating people watching.
Some folks shut down or withdraw inward.
Others overcompensate, wanting to be everyone’s friend.
A few believe the best form of defence is attack, laying waste to all who surround them. Scorched earth. No quarter given. Take no prisoners. Burn the boats, there is no going back.
There is that rarest of beasts, the sympathetic listener. Hearing without judgement. Offering advice, but only where it is requested.
Change is in the air at my client site.
Rumblings of pending pay cuts.
Rumours of redundancies.
Freelancers and consultants wondering if their invoices will be paid at all, let alone in full or on time.
Knowing it is coming is one thing. Helping to perform the triage analysis is something else entirely. Sometimes these things are euphemistically referred to as a “hair cut” or “belt-tightening”.
This time it is more a question of which limbs to amputate first? What is the bare minimum of “run” required to keep the firm on life support?
On spreadsheets, such analyses are academic numbers exercises. However, in real life each of those numbers has a backstory. Responsibilities. Hopes and dreams. The single mother. The person caring for elderly parents with dementia. The fool with three kids in private school and a massive mortgage.
Sucks to be them today. Looks like it will suck a great deal more in a couple of weeks time.
My elder son showed me a meme a week or so ago that has stayed with me. It read along the lines of “what are ‘they’ up to out there, while we are all locked-down in here?”.
There was an old West Wing episode where they talked about “taking out the trash”, dumping all the bad news story media releases when nobody was watching, for example during a crisis or after the press corps had clocked off for the weekend.
Incoming CEOs invariably use their initial honeymoon period to air all the dirty laundry and reset expectations while the can still get away with blaming the previous occupant of the big chair.
With the whole world obsessed with the pandemic to the exclusion of all else, I wonder who is getting away with what? Normal rules aren’t being enforced, providing a license for bad behaviour.
Commercial tenants shafting their landlords, opportunistically renegotiating more favourable deals?
Media companies doing the same over broadcasting rights for professional sporting codes?
Lobbyists convincing governments to quietly roll back burdensome governance and oversight regimes?
The desire to “track and trace” revoking many of the privacy and data protection established in recent years?
Competition laws set aside, which once prevented dominance or oligopoly market concentration in certain industries?
Foreign takeovers of once protected precious “national” assets?
Property market has seized up. Lockdowns mean no viewings. No viewings mean no purchases. No purchases mean no comparable sales. No comparable sales mean it is difficult to determine a market price.
Many of the big banks have massively reduced their mortgage product range, unable to determine which applicants represent bad risks, given the prevailing high degree of uncertainty.
Looks like I may have timed my run too late for getting that interest-only offset mortgage lined up, positioning myself to do some bargain hunting when the estate sales start in a month or two.
Turns out my brother panic sold all his shares during the recent market crash. Then, confidence shattered and ego bruised, waited too long to re-enter the market and consequently missed the bounce back.
Yesterday he owned up to his wife just how much they had lost. Poor bastard will be sleeping in his shed for quite some time. To cap it off they have both lost their jobs in the last fortnight. His contract not renewed. Her employer deciding to retire now rather than reopen when the pandemic passes.
A week of social distancing has been full of interesting experiences and challenges. The role of a primary school teacher is time-consuming when done well, demanding a lot of interaction and support of the young student. Not really compatible with concurrently working a full-time job.
A constant lament from the teacher’s at my younger son’s school was how few parents spent any time reading with their offspring, practising times tables or learning spelling words.
How long would the lockdown need to be before the children are forced to repeat the year of school?
Many of the kids who due to sit GCSE and A-Level exams next year will be going in undercooked.
I attended a virtual birthday party last night. 40 people dialling in from around the globe to raise a glass and applaud the celebrant having successfully surviving another lap around the sun.
It is interesting how my sense of time is warping. The days are slow, yet the weeks pass quickly. The non-stop firehose of all Coronavirus all the time news and social media coverage distorts perspective, making events of just a few days ago feel like ancient history.
The urban myth about boiling frogs springs to mind as I reflect on how quickly we are becoming accustomed to this new normal. Conditioned to accept the restrictions on our freedoms as being for the greater good in the face of an invisible enemy.
I had to laugh at the irony that Eton Tory Boris has become the most socialist of British leaders. State support for everybody. Will be interesting to see how he is legacy is framed in years to come.
A few interesting announcements yesterday.
Support arrangements for the self-employed, great to see but unavailable until June. How many businesses remain viable after no sales for three months?
Tenants protected from evictions via suspension of the court process required to remove them. Distressed landlords asked to seek assistance from benevolent lenders.
The American unemployment figures were eye-watering, 3,3 million applicants in a week. This is just the beginning!
I read an excellent article in The Atlantic today about some of the systemic factors at play that will determine how the pandemic plays out, and some of the potential lasting legacies it will leave behind.
Then I read an article that provides a pretty good case study illustrating how a lack of personal accountability and a sense of entitlement can be a dangerous combination.
It has been fascinating how the government’s unwillingness to appear dictatorial, using loose language like “should” instead of “must”, gets spun by individuals. The approach depends upon people’s individual judgement. That they are sound, and will ultimately do the right thing.
Except folks are forever thinking the rules don’t apply to them. They are special. In their individual case, an “emergency” is whatever they want it to be. Out of hair dye? Panic!
Spend half a day walking around a dozen pharmacies looking for a do-it-yourself kit.
Never once pausing to ask themselves whether their actions may prolong the need for the lockdown by spreading the virus further. Or worse, may indirectly cost someone their life.
A smoother day in lockdown. Starting to find a routine that works for most of the household, most of the time.
Insufficient bandwidth in the house to do concurrent video calls, particularly upstairs. Need to figure out an alternative to using the old house’s dodgy electrical wiring as an internet conduit. Variable 4G coverage complicates matters.
The lockdown has meant my staff are unable to work. A combination of logistical challenges, family obligations, and wanting to help prevent the spread of the virus. The furloughed workers scheme is not yet available, contacts at HMRC fear the computer systems won’t be ready until the end of April.
Was a glorious spring day in London, our “one daily outing for exercise” was greatly appreciated.
Stress is starting to dissipate. Transitioning into acceptance. We’ve all been going to bed earlier than normal, and waking up a bit later.
Mortgage stress in the US is gathering speed. Airbnb landlords with no bookings have a cashflow problem. So too landlords with now unemployed tenants.
First day of homeschooling yesterday. A tough day at the office for all concerned. Seven year olds need a lot of support and interaction while learning.
The local Marks & Spencers had been restocked, almost back to a normal range of items for sale. Victory dance.
London lockdown starts today. Leaves me feeling strangely uneasy in a manner eerily reminiscent of when I heard the result of the Brexit referendum. A mixture of anger, frustration, resignation, and a recognition that I would need to make my peace with it and learn to live with disappointment.
Trump’s stock market measuring stick dipped below where it had been when he was sworn in. Now he’s talking “restarting the economy” rather than listening to his health advisors.
Is telling watching each country’s morals and values place a value on human life.
My mother finally returned from her holiday. Celebrate the small wins.
A low key Mothers Day yesterday. Took the kids for a bike ride along the river while we still can. Street food market heaving. Playground rammed. Social distancing message falling on deaf ears.
Two men sold black market toilet paper and hand sanitiser at inflated prices from the back of a van.
A housebound workforce is proving toxic at my client site. Those worried about being laid off have already turned it into a never-ending 24×7 working day. Game of Thrones style, killer blows delivered via email rather than at the point of a sword.
Feels like I’m doing two jobs badly, stay at home parent meets professional services consultant. Isn’t sustainable. Is it better to do just one job, but do it well? Something will have to give soon.
The challenge is switching off the stress. Usual vehicles are curtailed or closed.
Early economic rumbling about 30% unemployment rates coming out of the US. Sound crazy, yet is consistent with the anecdotal experience here at school drop off last week.
One of my tenants is an airport baggage handler with a stay at home wife and a tribe of young kids. Stood down on leave without pay. Applying for jobs as a supermarket shelf packer.
Another has “temporarily” moved in with their parents outside London after their workplace shut down. Remote working for now. How long will they pay rent for a flat they aren’t using?
Squatters may be a problem as people run out of money?
Government’s new furloughed worker scheme triggered a wave of retail chain closures yesterday. Scant on detail, but appears they will cover 80% of wages up to ~£575pw. Will need to keep an eye on that for my staff when the time comes.
Watched two huge guys enforcing the Waitrose one pack of toilet rolls per household rationing policy. They looked terrified. Lager louts they could handle, but what can they do to badly behaved little old ladies?
Looks like TFS has become the textbook case study for “sequence of return risk”, undoing his best-laid FIRE plans. Unlucky.
FvL would have been worrying about margin calls recently. Hope he can roll with the punches. Having to sell at these prices would sting a little.
I wonder how Big ERNs naked option writing strategy is weathering the erratic markets? Quite the adventure I would think.
It all shows how random things are, our feeling in control is often an illusion.
My younger son has been cuddly the last couple of days. Last night he rescued a long-forgotten teddy bear out of his cupboard to take to bed.
Explained as best I could what was happening, and how our routines would change over weeks ahead. He decided we will camp out on the dining table together, and help each other with our homework.
Down side is he will witness first hand just how unexciting white collar work really is!
Last day of school. Am I doing the right thing letting my sons attend? Government guidance of “should” rather than “must” is ambiguous. Last chance to play with their mates for potentially a long while.
Government called up 65,000 retired/resigned doctors and nurses. They wouldn’t do that if things were under control. The lockdown hasn’t even started yet!
Lady wife had a virtual girls night, got shitfaced but seems happier for it. Two weeks ago the whole idea would have seemed ridiculous. Already it seems normal.
Chancellor announced underwriting the wages of everybody today. Restaurants and pubs to close tomorrow. Wonder how many will reopen? The speech also announced closing shops, but he walked it back afterwards.
What a baptism of fire he has had. Talk about a hospital pass! Ditto for the new BoE head.
They seem to have forgotten about the self-employed and the folks the IR35 reforms were targeting.
Tax avoidance could prove to be life-threatening. Who would have believed that a month ago?
School’s caretaker hospitalised overnight. All this was abstract before, suddenly seems real when it hits where we live. Hopefully, they can fix him up and send him home.
Grocery shops out of fresh produce, meat, and dairy today. The shelf packer, with nothing to restock with, said folks had begun queueing up from 5:30am based on the rumour of a delivery.
My Mauritian colleagues are now locked down in their homes. The police keeping people inside.
The realisation is dawning that the lockdowns can’t end until a vaccine or drug has been found, tested, and distributed globally. Not the work of just a few months.
Received word from two different sources that the London lockdown is planned to start Friday night. Baseless gossip or early warning? Will only know in hindsight.
Working from home at the same time as my lady wife has been bumpy. Bandwidth struggles when there are concurrent video conferences. Doing it with both kids home will be challenging indeed. Might have to drop back to voice-only calls.
I read a beautifully written Bloomberg article about the past few weeks in Rome. Made me want to cry. We’re less than a fortnight behind what it described. Every NHS worker we know has said things are already bleak, the government is massively understating things.
Starting to feel stressed by it all. Have never seriously wondered how I would provide for my family before. Now wondering whether living in the middle of a city containing 8 million people is wise? But where to go now the flights are mostly grounded? And when?
My stubborn mother is still holidaying abroad.
Have adopted the elderly neighbours. Their carers have stopped coming. Distant family are social distancing or self-isolating. Flashbacks to childhood, running errands and doing chores for old people. Hopefully, with fewer beatings this time around.
UK abandoned its misguided “herd immunity” plan today. How many frail people has that silliness condemned?
Pubs and coffee shops remain full, predictably ignoring Boris. The British population are a bunch of lemmings.
IR35 was deferred for a year. Celebrate the small wins. Hopefully freelancers will be earning enough to continue avoiding tax.
Macron has pledged to underwrite the entire French economy. All jobs. All businesses. Doesn’t that effectively nationalise the whole economy? More troubling, doesn’t that mean the entire economy will require bailing out?
What is the exit strategy from all of this?
Debt forgiveness on an epic scale?
Won’t that cause rampant inflation?
Supermarkets picked over. Felt pretty smug about not participating in the panic buying last week. Regretting that now. These things become self-fulfilling, the psychology of crowds.
Lots of scared folks at work. All desperately trying to be seen to be adding value, while working remotely. Freelancers fearing an extended period on the bench as the economy seizes up.
Borders are closing and flights are drying up. Starting to hear of more people trapped, having left their exit too late, now unable to return home.
Boris told the country they “should” stay home if they can. Not “must”. Good luck with that. Chickened out from closing the schools and shops. Can’t be far away.
Countries across Europe are copying the Italian style lockdown. Meanwhile, the UK government hints that the elderly might be self-isolated for four months.
A friend’s daughter is studying at an American university. The dorms have been closed with little notice, rendering her homeless. The ban on European flights means she can’t easily get home. She and a couple of other foreign students clubbed together to rent a vacant furnished flat nearby to continue their studies.
My elderly mother’s decision to go on a pensioner tour abroad is looking increasingly shortsighted. These entitled old people are stubbornly refusing to return early, playing chicken with border closures and flight cancellations. Hopefully she makes it home ok. Not much I can do about if she leaves her return too late. Silly old woman!
Elder boy stalling on doing homework, questioning whether teachers will ever mark it. He might be right?
Local supermarkets picked over, most of the packaged goods gone. Curiously, there still seems to be plenty of fresh produce, meat, and dairy. Local supply chains still working? Not according to the labels, imported from Kenya, Vietnam, and New Zealand!
Trump is starting to raise the drawbridge, banning flights from Europe. The UK isn’t included. Brexit related?
Dad’s taxi to various children’s sports and activities. Seems to be a lower turnout than normal. Amazon delivery arrived. A bittersweet box of gifts for the Australia trip I had cancelled that morning, and kids art supplies in preparation for a likely stint of homeschooling.
Younger son mentioned one of his classmates had abruptly relocated back home to Ghana with their family, wanting to be able to assist elderly parents through the coming storm.
New Zealand seems to have found a natural-born leader. Decisive action, with follow-through. Lucky them.
Normally there aren’t enough desks at the client site, today that wasn’t a problem. I pitched in to help the overwhelmed service desk kiddies building a bazillion laptops ahead of the inevitable London lockdown.
A rapid tech refresh by stealth, after the C-suite had previously refused to pay for upgrading all the beyond end-of-life Windows 7 desktops in use throughout the organisation.
My Polish staff reported their schools had all closed today.
Chatted with an Iranian guy on the tube home. He was worried for his parents, who don’t get along, but had been locked down together for a couple of weeks. Official statistics report low numbers, yet his family described bodies being buried by the truckload in mass graves.
Scary if true, makes me wonder why our government isn’t taking the impeding threat more seriously?
S&P500 bounced like a raver on ecstasy at the end of the days trading. Coordinated move? Who is doing the buying?
Day trip to Jersey for work. A beautiful place I hadn’t visited before.
Tumbleweeds in the airport. Nervous tourists racing home before rumoured border closures. Travellers in the departure lounge leaving a couple of empty seats between themselves.
Apart from a couple of posters advising people to wash their hands, and empty soap dispensers in the gents, there was nothing unusual about the airport security or travelling experience.
Minicab drivers all complain about the absence of jobs. Worried about how they will feed their kids.
An airline servicing Jersey had gone broke a few days earlier. A sign of things to come?
Somebody started a rumour I was marooned in Jersey after the airport closed. Wasn’t true, but I have never felt so popular as the client’s senior management called to apologise for my inconvenience.
Departure lounge TV showed markets dropping their guts again today. Ouch!