Friday, February 29, 2008

An end to the one child policy?

China is considering aborting its one child per family policy. It was introduced in the late 70s and it is estimated that 400m abortions have been performed as a result of it. Currently, in urban areas, parents who are themselves only children are allowed to have two children whilst in most rural areas, parents can have a second child if the first is a girl. It seems that the rules are also often flouted for Commmunist Party officials (some people are more equal than others). However, in all other cases, if a couple has more than one child, their benefits are withdrawn and the child is not allowed to go to school.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Solar energy

My new job consists of investing in water companies all over the world. Some of the companies I look at have alternative energy businesses as well and I was interested to read that one of them is building a solar power plant in Arizona. This consists of a three square mile plant with tens of thousands of mirrors to catch the sun's rays. The problem with solar power is storage and transportation. If these difficulties can be overcome it will, in my view, be the clear front-runner for the main source of energy.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Wake up with the sun

Morgan Stanley very kindly took our office out for dinner last night. Their expense accounts are still intact, perhaps because they've had 2000 redundancies and the structured credit department has been axed completely. One of them, a Taiwanese Texan, told me that she lives near the office in Canary Wharf but still has to set her alarm for 5am in order to be in at 6am. She has three alarm clocks and a Lumie to achieve this. I had not heard of Lumies before. They are devices which create your own sunrise in your bedroom so that you wake up slowly and your body adjusts naturally rather than being jolted out of a deep slumber by a harsh ringing (or earthquake if you're in Market Rasen).

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

What's in a name?

I missed the Oscars on Sunday so didn't hear these comments from the American comedy host, Jon Stewart: "You have to give Barack Obama credit. His middle name is the last name of Iraq's former tyrant. His last name rhymes with Osama. That's not easy to overcome. I think we all remember the ill-fated 1944 presidential campaign of Gaydolf Titler. It's just a shame, Titler had so many good ideas. We just couldn't get past the name."

Monday, February 25, 2008

Horses for courses

My friend has become joint Master of her Hunt and is having a smart new coat with special buttons made in her honour. She does not currently have a horse of her own and has to borrow or rent one for their outings. The other week she was offered a horse from the King's Troop. It was black, had a thick neck and was full of muscle, being used to pulling cannons behind it. She was rather unsure about the ability of the animal to ride with the hunt but was assured by a Sergeant-Major that it would be absolutely fine. On asking the horse's usual position in the Troop, he was rather bashful at first but finally admitted that this one always led the charge. And so it did. Off at a gallop, head up, nostrils flaring, you could almost hear it shouting, "Charge!" My friend was nervous. She pulled on the reins. These military horses are well trained, as you would expect. The horse screeched to an abrupt halt. My friend was relieved not to be thrown over its head. She called it a day.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Diego Garcia

The row about rendition flights landing on Diego Garcia, which houses a US military base anyway, reminds me of a horrible incident in its history. The Americans were looking for a communications base in the Indian Ocean in the 1960s and at first refused the British offer of Diego Garcia because of the large number of wild dogs on the island. The man in charge at that time was Sir Bruce Greatbatch, Governor of the Seychelles and Commissioner of the British Indian Ocean Territories and he was told to deal with this problem. His solution was in Indian style: to make the dogs commit suttee. He organised a funeral pyre of coconut husks to be built inside a shed, forced the dogs inside and set fire to it, burning alive around 1000 dogs. This was in 1971.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Lunar eclipse

The prospect of seeing the moon blood-red was to my mind worth the effort of setting the alarm for 3.15am. To say that I leapt out of bed would be an exaggeration but mind eventually won over matter and I drew back the curtains and peered up into the sky to see the moon, not its usual brilliant shining self, but a dull, glowing sphere. To my great disappointment there was not a touch of haemoglobin about it.
I had a very different experience once on holiday in Mexico. I was travelling around part of the country, enjoying a mix of Mayan remains and beaches and the pyramid at Chichen Itza was going to be one of the highlights of the trip. When I arrived there, there must have been a thousand people. Golly, this is a popular site, I thought. On closer inspection, there were hundreds of hippies with flowing hair and beards, wearing long florrid robes. They told me that it was the spring equinox and that this was the day to visit the pyramid. All became clear later that afternoon. The sun was going down and at one particular point its rays hit the top of the pyramid, went through a structure which the Mayans had built on the top and the light came down the other side of the pyramid, in a zigzag, slowly descending from side to side, like a snake, until it reached the bottom. The Mayans were accomplished astronomers and on the equinox the priest used to dress up as their great god, the plumed serpent Quetzalcoatl, the people used to gather around and he would invoke the god just before the sun got to the necessary point for the light to do its tricks. That really was amazing.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


I am not a fan of oysters having been poisoned by one a few years ago. The mention of the word always makes me think of these lines from Lewis Carroll:

"The time has come," the Walrus said,
"To talk of many things:
Of shoes - and ships - and sealing-wax -
Of cabbages - and kings -
And why the sea is boiling hot -
And whether pigs have wings."

"But wait a bit," the Oysters cried,
"Before we have our chat;
For some of us are out of breath,
And all of us are fat!"
"No hurry!" said the Carpenter.
They thanked him much for that.

"A loaf of bread," the Walrus said,
"Is what we chiefly need:
Pepper and vinegar besides
Are very good indeed -
Now if you're ready, Oysters dear,
We can begin to feed."

"But not on us!" the Oysters cried,
Turning a little blue."
After such kindness, that would be
A dismal thing to do!"
"The night is fine," the Walrus said.
"Do you admire the view?

"It was so kind of you to come!
And you are very nice!"
The Carpenter said nothing but
"Cut us another slice:
I wish you were not quite so deaf-
I've had to ask you twice!"

"It seems a shame," the Walrus said,
"To play them such a trick,
After we've brought them out so far,
And made them trot so quick!"
The Carpenter said nothing but
"The butter's spread too thick!"

"I weep for you," the Walrus said:
"I deeply sympathize."
With sobs and tears he sorted out
Those of the largest size,
Holding his pocket-handkerchief
Before his streaming eyes.

"O Oysters," said the Carpenter,
"You've had a pleasant run!
Shall we be trotting home again?'
But answer came there none-
And this was scarcely odd, because
They'd eaten every one.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

European disunion

Kosovan independence is testing the mettle of those who believe that the EU should have a united foreign policy. Spain, Romania, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece and Slovakia are refusing to recognise Kosovo. These countries are largely concerned that the precedent will clear the way for the independence of minorities within their own countries, for example, the Basques, Catalans and Turkish Cypriots.
Meanwhile in Iceland there is much discussion about whether to join the Euro. The central bank of Iceland was outraged by an application from the two largest banks there to report their accounts in Euros. A paper has been written suggesting that they abandon the krona and adopt the Euro. This in turn has provoked outrage in Brussels. No country can decide unilaterally to join the Euro, it says. A country has to be invited to join and Iceland has not yet been invited. So there you have it.

Monday, February 18, 2008

A rock and a hard place

Old Labour may be cheering this morning that nationalisation is back but I wonder whether Tony Blair is laughing or cringing at the Northern Rock news. The most irritating aspect about this crisis is that in the old days it would never have happened. Four of the big banks approached the Bank of England in September to take over the Rock. The deal could not be done because of EU regulations about transparency. Compare that to what happened to Citibank in the US: it was badly shaken by subprime losses, it was bailed out by Saudi and Chinese investors without any prior agreement from shareholders, it made management changes and it got on with its business. Meanwhile over here, we've had the run on the bank widely televised, the Governor of the Bank of England almost having to resign over the issue and everybody calling for Darling's head. Prudent Gordon is being lampooned, after all it was his move to split the banking supervision between the Bank and the FSA in order to reduce risk which has proved to be a disaster. Gordon's golden rules have gone up in smoke as this pushes government debt levels above 40% of GDP, not to mention the fact that ministers will now have direct responsibility for home repossessions. The most galling thimg about this news, however, is that the consensus view is that there may be 3000 job losses in Newcastle whilst the man whom Gordon and Darling have brought in to run it, Ron Sandler, will get a salary of £90,000 per month. How do they justify that?

Friday, February 15, 2008

Swiss Valentines

Credit Suisse is clearly in a very chirpy mood having posted far better results than its old rival UBS. Yesterday it announced a Valentine's Day jolly for charity: any employee in could pay for a Valentine to be sung to a colleague by a group of tuneful Credit Suisse workers. Secretaries swooned to "You look wonderful tonight" and managers were mellowed by "Baby you can light my fire!" Even a sad single Irish bloke who'd recently split up with his girlfriend was cheered by the familiar strains of "In Dublin's fair city."

Thursday, February 14, 2008

The Statue of Liberty

I was listening to a programme on Radio 4 this morning about the history of the Statue of Liberty. The idea for it was conceived at a dinner in Paris is 1865 by the French sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi who was inspired by the colossi at Thebes and whose plans to sculpt a colossus overlooking the Suez Canal had been scuppered. It took 10 years for his American idea to take off and another 10 years to build, by which time the enthusiasm for it had somewhat dampened. The French had agreed to fund the statue and the Americans were supposed to pay for its base but when the time came French-American relations were somewhat strained and nobody in America wanted to pay up for what was seen to be something for New York rather than for the whole country. Joseph Pulitzer, the newspaper magnate, came to the rescue. He organised fund-raising from the American people via his newspaper, saying that anybody who made a donation, even a schoolchild giving 50 cents, would have their name published in his paper (a cunning ploy to boost his sales). Bartholdi modelled the face of the statue on his mother and its body on his wife. There was some discussion on the radio about why Liberty, Britannia etc are always depicted as women rather than men. The answer, to my mind, is that the ideas of freedom and patriotism are dear to men's hearts and things which they are naturally inclined to look after, just like the fairer sex.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Buffett-Gates partnership

Warren Buffett set markets alight yesterday by his proposal to send the cavalry into the gloomy American financial sector to cherry-pick the less toxic bonds held by the three US bond insurers. Meanwhile Bill Gates' old shop Microsoft is trying to win over Yahoo shareholders in order to take control. Buffett and Gates are good friends and bridge partners. They once took a train journey from Alaska to California purely to be able to play bridge 12 hours a day and they paid for a first class plane ticket for Fred Gitelman, a well-known American player, to make up the four with Sharon Osberg, another bridge partner of Gates.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

St Wulfstan

I had lunch overlooking Worcester Cathedral on Saturday and was reminded that it is the 1000th anniversary of the birth of St Wulfstan who was Bishop of Worcester under the last two Saxon and the first two Norman kings. He was the only Anglo-Saxon Bishop to keep his job after the Norman Conquest and the legend is that when he was asked to resign by Archbishop Lanfranc, he pushed his crozier into the stonework of the tomb of Edward the Confessor. Nobody but Wulfstan could remove it, which was considered a miracle and he was allowed to remain Bishop. He was famed for his powers of healing and prophesy and he stood up for Anglo-Saxon rights to property and preached against the slave trade in Bristol. He became a vegetarian having been distracted from his prayers one day by the smell of a goose being roasted and he died whilst engaged in the daily ritual of washing poor men's feet.

Monday, February 11, 2008

The meaning of life

Winchester Cathedral has a Benedictine history stemming from Fleury on the Loire where St Benedict lived and where his relics remain. This week two monks are visiting from the Abbey at Fleury. One of them told me how he sees his life. He envisions God's designs as a huge tapestry. His role in his monastic life is akin to knotting the threads of a tiny part of it on its underside. He can only see the knots in this life and not the picture which is being created on the other side. When he dies he is looking forward to seeing the whole tapestry in its full glory from the other side.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Sea and sunshine

On days when we have the Archbishop of Canterbury condoning Sharia Law, the Premier League proposing to move UK matches overseas and no political party opposing the idea of using telephone conversations which have been unbeknowingly taped as evidence in court, I am grateful to be at the seaside on a sunny day and am looking forward to a walk on the beach at lunchtime.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Deutsche Bank joke

Friends of rogue trader Jerome Kerviel last night blamed his $7 billion losses
on unbearable levels of stress brought on by a punishing 30 hour week.
Kerviel was known to start work as early as nine in the morning and still be at
his desk at five or even five-thirty, often with just an hour and a half for
One colleague said: "He was, how you say, une workaholique. I have a family and
a mistress so I would leave the office at around 2pm at the latest, if I wasn't
on strike.
"But Jerome was tied to that desk. One day I came back to the office at 3pm
because I had forgotten my stupid little hat and there he was, fast asleep on
the photocopier.
"I remembered he had been working for almost six hours."
As the losses mounted, Kerviel tried to conceal his bad trades by covering them
with an intense red wine sauce, later switching to delicate pastry horns.
At one point he managed to dispose of dozens of transactions by hiding them
inside vol-au-vent cases and staging a fake reception.
Last night a spokesman for Sócíété Générálé denied that Kerviel was over
worked, insisting he lost the money after betting that the French were about to stop
being rude, lazy and arrogant.

La Traviata

I went to see La Traviata at Covent Garden last night. It was the most wonderful production. Norah Amsellum sang Violetta's part absolutely beautifully and the duet with Mariusz Kwiecien who played Alfredo's father was particularly briliant. The sumptuous Parisien scenery and the fabulous choruses of gypsies and matadors all made for an unforgettable evening.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Effective communication

Fabio Capello gave an interview on the radio yesterday using an interpreter to translate his Italian. He explained that his English isn't perfect and that he didn't want his words to be twisted by journalists, although he insisted that he does speak to the players in English. This reminded me of the Emperor Charles V who used to speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men and German to his horse.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Editorial bias

The Communist Party still holds some sway in Italy and some of its members are despairing that their beloved newspaper, L'Unita is probably going to be bought by the Angelucci family who own the right-wing tabloid Libero. At its peak, L'Unita sold 300,000 copies and its reporters in Moscow, Beijing and Havana had unrivalled access to the communist elite but after the collapse of the Berlin Wall it declined and shut down for most of 2001, on the verge of bankruptcy. Today its circulation is 50,000 and it has switched its allegiance to the Democratic Party whose leader, Walter Veltroni, the mayor of Rome, was once a communist and editor of the paper. Veltroni is campaigning to become Prime Minister of Italy. One advantage of owning a party newspaper in Italy is the eligibility for a E6.3m annual government subsidy so in theory there is no reason for the readership to be concerned that it might swing to the right under new ownership. However, the Democratic Party is a merger of two centre-left parties and the other party, the Catholic wing, also has a newspaper, Europa, so the question is which one of those will survive. Veltroni's background means the answer is clear.