Vacation For One?

•October 19, 2012 • Leave a Comment

It’s already October, and this is the first time this year I’m taking time off work for any significant period — meaning more than a week.  I’ll also be spending most of this time at home.

Of course the fault is entirely my own. I am not under the same sort of pressure that US workers face when planning their vacations.

According to a careerbuilder.com report, 38% of American workers said they were planning on taking a so-called ”staycation” or choosing to spend their vacation time at home. …

Last year, only 65% of workers took a vacation, compared with 81% of managers and 80% of workers in 2007, according to the Travel Industry Association of America. Trips are a short 4.3 days on average.

It is unfortunate that the abbreviated stay-at-home break from work may become the new normal in the UK also:

Millions of Britons have decided to stay at home for the holidays waiting for the recession to be over. During the credit crisis, significantly more people were reported to be taking “staycations” – for example, in 2011 there were 5% more British people taking their holidays in the UK than in the previous year. The upward trend continues in 2012.

A trend that will only be reinforced by rising transportation costs, higher energy prices, and food inflation. Furthermore, there is an entire generation locked out from the first time buyer market who can barely afford rent on their primary home that some are forced to move back in with their parentsthe boomerang generation. Renting a vacation property, even for a very short period, seems difficult to justify were it not for the cultural pressure to take at least one vacation annually. However, the Great Summer Vacation was only a recent development in the history of the modern middle class workforce, and I am no stranger to the irrational urges of other deeply ingrained social pressures — coupling up, marriage, and raising children.

We can see how well integrated the notion of vacation travel has become with those mainstream life goals when trying to book a trip as a single person. Quickly one runs into the problem of the single supplement

For all those who prefer to travel alone, or have little choice but to do so, they seem like an unfair imposition, sharply increasing the cost of holidays and rooms. …

They argue that they have to charge extra because singles are a less attractive commercial proposition for them. The fixed costs of running a room – cleaning and servicing, linen, heating and so on – are the same no matter how many people occupy it. And single travellers spend less money in the restaurant and bar than couples.

With the cost of room booking making up a significant proportion of the vacation budget, a single person is forces to take cheaper vacations, shorter in duration, and less frequently. It is already more difficult for single adults to overcome a reluctance to travel alone, especially for women.

“Generally, single women have never felt as free to travel alone as single men, due to the personal safety risks involved for them,” explains Kayte Williams, holidays manager at travelsupermarket.com.

“Even if a woman can get beyond the fear and stigma of holidaying alone, she can also face paying hefty single person supplements which creates another reason to stay at home.”

To address these concerns, there are a growing number of websites specially catering for solo travel, some catering specifically for single women. However, single men should be wary of the gender-specific stereotyping that often lies behind the travel itinerary. I’ve confirmed this for myself when Googling holidays for single men — one finds dating tours that assume single people are only interested in hooking up.  If you’re a single man organizing a vacation for yourself, you are probably on your own. Ultimately I find myself much in agreement with Charlie Brooker regarding taking leave from work by staying home.

I’m useless at every single aspect of holidays. Timing them for one thing. I tend to exist in a permanent workbubble, fighting off deadlines with my bare fists. Then, when there’s an eventual lull, I think, “Wow, I really need a holiday”, but by then it’s too late. What’s more, I’m single. How, as a tragic singleton, are you meant to go on holiday anyway? I know from experience what couples do on holiday: they argue. But I’m not a couple. Who am I supposed to slowly fall out of love with? I can’t slowly poison my relationship with myself. Or can I?

a small caveat. “Just don’t go for more than a week, because you end up talking to yourself.”

“Huh?”

“Well, it’s the evenings, you see. It’s fine during the day, because you can just lie on the beach or walk round museums with an iPod on, but in the evenings there’s not much you can do except eat alone in restaurants or sit alone in bars. If you’re a woman it’s not so bad, because you get chatted up now and then, which can be amusing, but you’re not a woman so you’ll probably have to sit there reading a book or something. And eventually you’ll get so lonely you’ll start talking to yourself. I went for a week and started talking to myself on the last day. Go for a fortnight and you’ll totally lose your mind somewhere around day 10.”

Yup, that is me in a nutshell. One must now work so hard to earn enough money to spend on a vacation, that the expectations can easily be unrealistically inflated. And much like marriage and parenthood, the reality often doesn’t meet expectation.

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Perceptual Dissonance as a Measure of Inflation in Food Prices

•January 30, 2011 • Leave a Comment

I decided to try a brand of frozen pizza that I never tried before. As with most frozen pizzas sold these days in the supermarket, it came in an opaque box. This is what was actually inside.

Doesn't look as satisfying as the picture promised

The packaging depicts a pizza with enough chorizo to be shared among the six slices so that each got 2 pieces. What I actually got was barely one third of this amount. The chicken didn’t fare much better — less than a half. And I doubt there’s sufficient cheese to even constitute an complete layer. Count the ingredients yourself.

How little chorizo and chicken is there?

As currency depreciation injects excess liquidity into commodity prices worldwide, the resulting spike in food prices is being passed onto the consumer in two ways — direct increases in shelf prices, or reducing quantity and quality of the contents of a product sold at a given price. As the speculative bubble driven by quantitative easing drives food prices to ever new heights, we can expect the gap between the images printed on the outside of packaging and what we find inside, to continue to widen.

As for my lunch, I had to use up my own supply of cheese and sliced Italian salami which added to the total cost. That’s real the price of having a complete pizza.

A Year in Transition

•January 10, 2011 • Leave a Comment

What? No post for the whole of 2010?!

The usual reason… life gets in the way. 2010 turned out to be a major turning point for me. I’ve changed jobs and begun a new career in a different town, leaving my academic life far behind. The early part of 2010 was basically a lesson on why one should never go against one’s heart. To understand why here is the background story:

In 2009 when the bottom fell out the job market and my current contract entered its final year, I was offered a job that seemed to be a very ill fit for me. But my boss recommended me for it, and these academic posts are said to be like gold dust. Such opennings appear extremely rarely and the competition amongst applicants is tough. Not having my heart really in it, I flunked out at the interview. It didn’t help that the boss gave me bad advice — when I signed up for a staff development course on how to prepare for academic job interviews, he said I didn’t need it and that my time was better spent attending his weekly 2 hour group meetings. Trusting his better judgement I cancelled. After all he’s the professor and I was merely a post-doc.

After a predictably bad job interview, the boss showed off how much clout he had by forcing the decision in my favour. Such is the power when an academic can bring in a lot of research funds and prestige to a college. I should have been happy, but the first few months of 2010 confirmed what I had instinctively been fearing all during the first year as a probationary lecturer — it was basically just like a post-doc post in everything but name and salary. In fact the work load, expectations and stress were even higher. Ending up in the wrong faculty for my particular skill set only added insult to injury.

I gave my next career move some thought over the Easter vacation in the Caribbean. Thanks to a hyperactive Icelandic volcano, this thinking time was more than sufficient. I decided to start looking for a new job in the middle of one of the worst recessions to hit the UK. As luck would have it, within two months I had managed to land a job in an industry more to my liking that would fit my skill set much better. And the salary ain’t that bad either. Looks like I would be leaving academia.

Now as I look forward to what 2011 has in store, I don’t have any regrets about this major transition. My old job looked pretty much like a dead-end to me, and there are many in a similar situation who are finding this out for themselves. Academia itself is going through a painful transition. Given such pressures, it is easy to see why my former boss, and academics in similar positions would stoop to using highly manipulative tactics to get post-docs to do their bidding. But this should not be mistaken as an excuse for such disrespectful behaviour.

Let’s just say that I’m glad that I managed to free myself from the pressure cooker before the poisoning became irreversible.

Singles Documentary Overly Focused on Marriage

•November 15, 2009 • 5 Comments

single_dvdI ordered “Single: a Documentary Film” from Amazon in the US since it was unlikely to be sold by Amazon, UK, in the immediate future. A couple of years ago I had ordered Maxed Out and In Debt We Trust from the US for similar reasons. To this day, those DVDs are still not sold on this side of the pond, unlike all the other more mainstream DVDs.

Despite the Amazon estimated delivery date of late November to early December, the DVD arrived at my door a few days ago. I’ve watched it and can now see why this would appeal to those frustrated with their single status, or those repeatedly pestered by parents and colleagues with that most hated of questions at weddings: “When will it be your turn?”

But perhaps this is where the documentary fails to deliver. By focusing on the question of why people are delaying marrying, the documentary examines how women have become more independent and how we (both men and women) have been culturally indoctrinated to expect everything from an exclusive pair bond – the soul mate concept. So at the same time that women can afford to take greater care over who they end up marrying, both single men and women are being conditioned to not stop looking until they find their ideal match. However, the viewer is left feeling that this is the norm, and although alternatives to seeking happiness through marriage are given a passing mention this whole area is left under explored.

The concept of happiness through couplehood is further reinforced by the documentary’s structure. It begins with interviews of experts, social commentators, and journalists interspersed with clips of singles in New York and London expressing how everything about the search for a romantic partner has changed.

Single 20-something female New Yorker: “I know a lot of  people who are 30 – single women, great, attractive, great careers, and they just aren’t ready. They want to, you know, fulfil their own dreams and travel and do some of these things before having to commit to someone and start their own family life.”

Christine Whelan: “Women and the majority of students in college. They are the majority of college graduates, and in fact the majority of people who get their Master’s degrees are also women. Women are also rising in the ranks in every field, professional degrees, etc.”

The film ends with a selection of those experts expressing their opinion that marriage will not decline and in effect be strengthened by these changes. It was as if the producers and editors of the documentary wanted to end on an optimistic note, but as a consequence this merely contributed to the tranditional meme – fullfilment through marriage.

Stephanie Coontz: “I think that delayed marriage is a sign that Americans value marriage more than ever before…”

Peter Francese: “… most marriage that have occured in the last 10, 15, 20 years are likely to last a lifetime.”

Of course if the viewer was paying close attention to all that went before, the above comments would not be an indication that the risks of marital breakdown have suddenly diminished and that it is now safe to enter the water. Marriage is only appearing to be a more reliable route to happiness because a lot more work is being done prior to that union, and because many are opting out of marriage all together. But you’d have to be a keen listener. Much of the film was devoted to the pressure to marry by a certain age including the alleged child rearing drive of most women, but a fair amount of time was spent explaining how recent changes in the way people find romantic partners has raised everyone’s expectations to unrealistic levels. Everything from the paradox of choice on internet dating sites, to easy availability of pornography, gets blamed. But there was some lip service to the fact that the pairing of romantic love and marriage is only a very recent development, however this view was limited to the 20th to 21st century and gives only  a tiny glimpse of the long history of changes in the role of marriage in Western civilization. The type of union that today’s post-feminism young adult, with all their technologically driven sense of entitlement, is encouraged to seek is very much an experiment that society is conducting for the very first time. No one can really predict how successful anyone embarking on this untrodden path will be.

So it was a bit disappointing that so much time in a documentary title “Single”, was spent redefining marriage in the 21st century. But perhaps the closing quote paves the way for a followup DVD:

Stephanie Coontz: “…but as a society we have to come to terms with the fact that marriage is no longer the only game in town.”

Apparently there is already a film in the works that hopefully seeks to explore the other “game in town”, but it is not a direct sequel as it  is produced by an entirely different team of film makers. The film is called “Seeking Happily Ever After“, due for release next year:

The film makers talk about what inspired them to make the film:

If instead of focusing solely on redefining marriage for singles, they are focusing on how singles are redefining life fulfilment as not being necessarily through marriage, then I know for certain what DVD I’ll be ordering from the US next year.

Flip flopping economy?

•June 28, 2009 • Leave a Comment

US tenants gain new rights in foreclosure

•May 24, 2009 • Leave a Comment

This past week, US President Obama signed into law the Helping Families Save Their Homes Act which among other things would allow tenants to stay in their residence for 90 days after the bank forecloses on the owner from whom they had been renting. Before this law was passed, tenants basically had no rights during a foreclosure and often have little or no warning when an eviction order is served. They are given little more than the time it takes to change the locks to vacate the property, as shown in this Current TV Vanguard special. How long must British renters who are caught up in the buy to let metldown wait for the UK government to afford them a similar privilege in the event of landlord default?

As always with new laws passed with the best of intentions, there are wrinkles:

For their part, lenders applaud the new notice provision, but are unclear when the 90-day clock starts, said Francis Creighton, vice president of the Mortgage Bankers Association. The foreclosure process can last more than a year, and the law isn’t specific on when notice to the tenant must be given.

While Creighton said renters are “blameless” in these situations, honoring their leases could disrupt a foreclosure sale as new owners try to move in. Other times, lenders have no idea renters live in the properties, Creighton said, because the landlords claimed the property was their primary residence, not a rental, to qualify for a lower mortgage rate.

Most banks, in addition, don’t have property management departments, so collecting rent, keeping up with renter complaints and maintenance is outside their business.

“If the boiler doesn’t work, then they will have to take care of it. Lenders aren’t set up to do this,” Creighton said.

Measures such as this will also keep renters, who could otherwise have exercised their non-rental options (stay with family or friends) , in the rental market and thus help slow the precipitous collapse in the housing bubble.

Buy to Let imploding?

•May 20, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Commuting in and out of London for my job does take its toll. At around two hours each way, I am tempted to take advantage of falling rents in London now that there are so many property sellers that have reluctantly entered the lettings market. They cannot get the price they were originally expecting as prices are crashing after the bursting of the housing bubble. But perhaps I should be more cautious about becoming a London tenant as there are still significant counterparty risks. Tenants generally have few rights in a repossession and the decade long buy to let boom implies that there are a lot of BTL speculators in the system that are now facing receivership. The process of flushing out the amateur property investors seems to be picking up as BTL repossessions are increasing. Probably not a good time to consider renting in London where the bubble had grown quite large indeed and still has quite a way to fall.  Small wonder that there is pressure to give tenants more rights especially when it comes to BTL repossessions where a tenant will be given a minimum of two months to find an alternative residence. If this comes to pass perhaps I’ll reconsider.