Thursday, May 31, 2007

Picky Poles

Earlier this month we heard that the UK strawberry crop's under threat because there aren't enough Poles to pick them and today Germany's complaining that fields of white asparagus are rotting for the same reason. So many Poles left Poland to look for work in other European countries when they joined the EU that there are labour shortages in Poland and not many people are interested in summer fruit picking this year.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A la recherche de modes perdues

(Please correct my French if necessary.) It was a gloomy bank holiday. Drizzle by day, gales by night and fifty years of fashion to go through with my sister. Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Jean Muir: Oxfam is having a good time at the moment from my mother's wardrobes. Lizard skin handbags, Rayne shoes from the 50s in mint condition, a beautiful brocade coat from the 40s, many mini skirts and incredible 70s shorts with loud tops. We laughed at how out of date some clothes had become whilst some were so dated that they were back in fashion and were earmarked for first refusal for my nephew's girlfriend. We cried remembering Christmas dresses, wedding outfits and holiday clothes. We took those that fit and those which still spoke to our hearts. I was going to give away a long black Jaeger jacket when I heard my mother screaming, "Don't give that coat away! It's in excellent condition and will be very useful in the winter!"

Friday, May 25, 2007

Vulture funds

Campaigners are trying to get vulture funds on the G8 agenda in June. These operate through shell companies generally based in the Caribbean and buy cheap African debt at a fraction of its face value and then try to get full payment through the courts. Michael Sheehan's Debt Advisory International hit the headlines with this dubious practice last month when his fund took Zambia to court in London, seeking over $55m in payment for a sovereign debt which the fund had bought in 1999 for $3.2m. The high court awarded them $15.5m which is about a third of Zambia's total debt relief savings for 2007.
Over 40 more vulture funds are in the process of pursuing $1bn claims from around 12 other heavily indebted countries. Bush doesn't want to raise the issue. Gordon Brown has promised to act against the possibility of these trades in the past but he won't be there as it will be Tony's final swansong. We'll see if the campaigners succeed.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Silence is golden

Alan Greenspan is very annoying. Now that he's left office he keeps making remarks which cause the markets to dive. At the beginning of his tenure, Bernanke made the mistake of being caught offguard speaking about the US economy at cocktail parties, only to find share prices savagely marked down the following day. Now he's more cautious.
Korean proverb of the day: "Work like a dog, spend like a Minister."

Monday, May 21, 2007

Four men on a bummel

Item from the BBC: "Four men who claimed to be part of an Iranian team taking part in the FBD Insurance Ras race touched down in Dublin, then promptly vanished.
Race Organiser Dermot Dignam said he thought he had been negotiating an entry with a legitimate representative of the Iranian national cycling federation.
Visas were granted for five riders and four officials, but four of the group arrived a week early.
Immigration at Dublin airport contacted the race organisers, who arranged for emergency accommodation. However, the men never arrived at their destination.
"Everything appeared to be above board," Mr Dignam told the BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme.
"It turns out that it was an attempt by persons unknown to get a group of Iranians into the country."
Mr Dignam believed he had been dealing with Ali Zangi Abadi, vice-president of the Cycling Federation of the Islamic Republic of Iran and a former successful racer in Asia during the 1980s.
It now seems that the person concerned was posing as the former international rider.
Mr Dignam said there was no reason to believe there was a sinister motive for the men's arrival, and that it was simply a ploy for the men to gain entry to Ireland and possibly make their way to another European country."
Oh that's ok then: as long as they're on their way to England with their terrorism manuals. You'd have thought it wouldn't be too hard to catch four Iranians on bikes...


The latest official inflation rate in Zimbabwe is 3713%, which means that the unofficial rate is far higher. Food is running low and queues start outside shops on rumours of any deliveries arriving, meanwhile many shops are putting up their prices twice a day. Banknotes are exchanged in huge wads as one US dollar is now worth 30,000 Zim dollars and this has become so cumbersome that most business is now being done by barter. Today's FT quotes a businessman saying that he used to tell his wife that she was spending too much but now says, "You're not spending quickly enough."

Friday, May 18, 2007

The H word

Having first said that his Government would be humbler than Tony Blair's, Gordon Brown said yesterday he was "truly humbled" by the overwhelming support for his leadership from Labour MPs. He's beginning to sound like Uriah Heep.

Thursday, May 17, 2007


The French health system is ranked number one in the world by the World Health Organisation. It provides universal coverage, gives patients choice of primary care providers and specialists, incorporates public and private insurers and has high life expectancy results. Their cancer treatment is far more successful than ours, mainly because it takes less time to see a doctor and they have more diagnostic equipment per capita than we do. The cost of the system is 10% of GDP which is marginally above ours and compares with 14% in the USA. The USA is examining the model but finds it hard to swallow because of the large pay differential between the doctors in the respective countries: doctors in France earn around a third of those in the USA. This is partly because their medical school tuition is free so they don't have huge student debts to repay but also because the level of litigation in US culture is now so high that doctors have to be able to pay large legal fees in the event of their being sued.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Innocent until proven guilty

It's quite wrong that the media should name and shame suspects in criminal cases before there is sufficient incriminating evidence. An Englishman in Portugal is complaining that his life has been ruined because of the insinuations relating to the disappearance of that poor child Maddy. I seem to remember that a supermarket worker was subjected to the same vitriol when he was wrongly implicated in the prostitute murders in Ipswich. There is no adequate compensation for being misfired to infamy by the tabloids.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

War memorial

I have an invitation to the Institute of Contemporary Art's exhibition about the Iraq War. The caption is "Blown up by a bomb hidden inside a body blown up by a bomb."

Monday, May 14, 2007

Cage the growling bear

Russia has banned imports of food from Poland because they are "insanitary". It says Estonia has committed "blasphemy" because it moved a Soviet-era war memorial and the resulting repairs has led to Russia closing down an oil pipeline to Lithuania for 10 months. Germany wants to improve EU relations with Russia but Poland and Lithuania are not playing ball and do not want to negotiate at this Friday's summit in Samara in Russia. Poland has already vetoed talks with Russia once and now Lithuania wants the meeting to be cancelled. They are hoping that Sarkozy will support them when he takes over this week. On va voir.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Of sparrows and storks

At the beginning of the twentieth century, an elderly Spanish lady living in a remote part of Mexico received some European visitors and asked them what was going on in the world. "Men have learned to fly" they said. "Are they flying with their legs tucked underneath them like sparrows or with them stretched out behind them like storks?" she asked.

Thursday, May 10, 2007


"There is only one government since 1945 that can say all of the following: more jobs, fewer unemployed, better health and education results, lower crime and economic growth in every quarter. Only one government, this one." So says Blair, under whose government the independent Office for National Statistics was abolished. The "unemployed" doesn't factor in the 2.6m people on incapacity benefit. "Better health and education" is spurious considering the numbers of people cathcing infections in hospital and the dumbing down of exams. Crime may be lower overall but there's been a huge increase in violent crime. As for economic growth, it's been positive in every quarter since 1973 apart from one flat quarter in 1990.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Limerick of the day

There was a young curate from Kew
Who kept a tom cat in a pew
He taught it to speak
Alphabetical Greek
But it never got further than mu

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Perfect numbers

A perfect number is one which equals the sum of all the numbers which can divide into it eg 6 is divisible by 3,2 and 1 and is also the sum of 3,2 and 1. The second perfect number is 28 (1, 2, 4, 7 and 14) and the next two are 496 and 8128. These were all known to the ancient Greeks but the fifth one was not discovered for another 1700 years which is not surprising considering its size: 33,550,336. As far as I know 37 perfect numbers have now been discovered and they are all even numbers.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Golden rules

A true hedge fund minimises risk. Therefore one of my golden rules is not to hold companies when they are reporting results: the volatility of the share price can be too painful. Inadvertently I shorted a stock on Monday whose results were due on Tuesday. The price fell on Monday and when I realised the results were due the next day I thought about buying it back. Thoughts did not translate into action, however, so it was a painful start to the week when the results on Tuesday exceeded all expectations. Since then, that loss was more than covered by good news in some of my other stocks but today there was another blow: one of the other companies where I'm short has been approached by a potential predator and the price is up 20%. Memo to self: death by a thousand cuts can be avoided by strict observance of golden rules.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Football mania in Winchester

Thousands of people are expected to attend Alan Ball's funeral at Winchester cathedral this afternoon. I suppose that's to be expected after the family invited the nation on television...

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Turkish update

Here's a brief update on events after a question from a dear reader. Yesterday, the Constitutional Court cancelled the first round of the presidential election because two-thirds of MPs had abstained and so there were insufficient votes to achieve the quorum of 367.Prime Minister Erdogan's party, the AKP, responded to the Court’s verdict by calling for early elections on either June 24 or July 1. It also proposed to amend the Constitution in order to let the voters (not the parliament) elect the president, reduce the minimum age required to run for MP to 25 from 30 and reduce the parliamentary term to four years from the current five. The ANAP leader Mumcu welcomed Erdogan’s proposals and said that they would support the proposed constitutional amendments. This should ensure the two-thirds majority needed to approve the changes as the AKP has 353 seats and the ANAP has 20. The main opposition party CHP is not backing them.
However, constitutional changes must be approved by the president but the current president Sezer’s term in office expires on May 16. Some legal experts are arguing that it will be impossible to amend the constitution and change the entire political system in quite fundamental ways in the run up to general elections.
The problem is this: the military wants to maintain a secular state but if it were to exercise another coup to achieve that aim, hopes of EU membership would be scuppered in the short-term. Let's hope it's achieved by an election instead.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Palindrome of the day

A man, a plan, a canal, Panama