Monday, March 31, 2008

More red tape

The latest idea about how to secure the financial system is to set up UK-US"supervisory colleges" to oversee banks and financial institutions with significant cross-border activity and a working group has been set up to investigate the mechanics. My gut reaction to this is scepticism. In the old days when the Bank of England had sole responsibility for regulating the banks, it made sure it was cognisant of the banks' financial ratios and could efficiently resolve any problems arising. When the banking responsibility was split by Gordon Brown as Chancellor in 1997 between the Bank and the FSA, the FSA was not nearly as stringent a regulator. As it admitted in its report last week, it only met executives from Northern Rock face to face six times in the 2 years before it collapsed. Banks operate effectively if they have clear guidelines and strong relationship with a regulator which has knowledge about their whole range of their activities including credit and equity derivatives and the risks associated with those exposures. Having another regulator on top, which is half British and half American is rather like having European law overruling our own judges' decisions. It muddies the waters, brings into the spotlight the differences in law and accounting between the UK and the US, costs taxpayers money and increases the amount of red tape for financial institutions to deal with whilst not providing any real assurance that it would be more capable of spotting problems than the national regulators.

Friday, March 28, 2008

No milk on Fridays

Bournemouth is a party town, full of students and nightclubs and this has consequences. A few weeks ago, a group of "youths" ran along the road where our office manager lives, smashing a window of every car they passed. Now our milkman is saying he won't deliver on Fridays because when he does his round 4am it's then stolen by people leaving the clubs.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The golden ratio

A commentator on this blog yesterday was questioning the presence of poetry in science and made me think of the golden ratio: 1 plus the square root of 5 divided by 2 which works out at approximately 1.62. Pythagoras discovered this number when he was working on pentagons and the ratio of 1:1.62 was used by the architect of the Parthenon's facade and taken up again in the Renaissance by Leonardo da Vinci with his Vitruvian man and later by Le Corbusier, Dali and Mondrian who all believed the ratio could produce aesthetically pleasing proportions. It has widely been used in music as the ratio between notes, for example by Bach and Debussy. Alfred Zeising found it in plant stems and veins of leaves and wrote in 1854: "The Golden Ratio is a universal law in which is contained the ground-principle of all formative striving for beauty and completeness in the realms of both nature and art, and which permeates, as a paramount spiritual ideal, all structures, forms and proportions, whether cosmic or individual, organic or inorganic, acoustic or optical; which finds its fullest realization, however, in the human form."

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Centaurs and satyrs

All this talk of combining human and animal cells makes me think of those Classical half-beasts, centaurs who had the heads and chests of men and the bodies of horses, and satyrs who had the upper half of a man and the lower half of a goat. Sex, food and wine were the driving passions of these creatures. The love of women led to the destruction of the centaurs when they tried to abduct the fair Hippodamia on her wedding day. Her people, the Lapithae, were so incensed that a great battle erupted and the centaurs were wiped out. The underlying message is that these half-beasts are a lower form of life, a message with which today's scientists would seem to agree with if they're prepared to mess around with them for experiments. The Church believes human life should not be degraded in such a fashion, a sentiment with which I concur.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

St Aldhelm's riddles

I went over to visit some friends in Sherborne yesterday and had a quick look at the beautiful Abbey which was saved from destruction by Henry VIII when the locals bought it as their Parish Church. There was a modern statue of St Aldhelm (639-709) who became Bishop of Sherborne in 705. He was famous for his riddles and here are two of them:

Though the war trumpet bray with hollow brass,
The lutes throb sweetly and the bugles call,
My inward parts give forth a hundred notes,
And, when I roar, men hear no other sound.

From cracks of stone I came in molten flood,
While flames were battering the rocky core,
And the loud-roaring furnace brightly glowed.
Now clear as ice am I, capricious too,
And very brittle; men may break my neck,
Taking my slippery body in their hands.
Yet wits I alter, when I kiss men's lips,
And fill their cheeks with Bacchic sweets, and make
Their tottering footsteps bring them to the ground.

Answers please!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Happy Easter

My sister and her family are coming for Easter so it's going to be rather a cooking marathon. I've decided against making a Simnel cake this year: it's too soon after Christmas for another fruit cake with marzipan. Instead, I've been inspired by Sicily Scene's recommended book of Italian cakes by Ursula Ferrigno and I'm attempting a Colomba di Pasqua (an Easter dove) which is basically a fruit loaf in the shape of a dove, decorated with almonds for feathers and a raisin for a eye. The last time I cooked with yeast at Easter was many years ago when my hot cross buns turned out like cannon balls so if the dove dives, I have ingredients for an emergency orange sponge cake. All being well, I may even get my nephew to post a photo of it on this blog. Fingers crossed and a very happy Easter to you!

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

No news is good news

My 96 year old great aunt lives with her two Siamese cats, looks after her Japanese style garden and drives her buggy to buy her groceries in the village where she lives. Recently she hasn't felt very well and has spent much of the day in bed. She cannot bear to listen to the news as it's so depressing and she's convinced there's a national policy to make us all miserable. She thinks there should be a limit of three pieces of bad news per bulletin.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The East/West divide

I've been meeting many Chinese companies at a conference. On one occasion, the Chairman opened the meeting by belching and asking a chap sitting next to me if he'd met him before. The Englishman said he didn't think so and the Chinese man replied, "You Westerners all look the same."

Monday, March 17, 2008

The madness of crowds

There was a blind auction of art recently to raise funds for a school in Chiswick. Various pupils' work were up for grabs and also a piece by Damien Hirst but nobody in the audience knew which was the Hirst work. Consensus was that it was a model of a mouse caught in a trap. The price rose and rose and it sold for £9000: quite a sum for a work of art created by a sixthformer. The Hirst watercolour went for a mere £100.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Income tax

Douglas Hurd's biography of Peel is quoted in today's FT ahead of the Budget. Peel consulted various people before introducing income tax in 1842. One of the advisers was Lord Ashburton of Barings Bank who "could see the attractions of a temporary income tax" but warned that it could be a "hazardous experiment" as "it would be next to insupportable to live in a country where such a tax was permanent." Hurd writes that after then the Baring family has "just about managed to scrape a living in a country where at one stage under Labour tax was levied at 80%."

Tuesday, March 11, 2008


I was dashing home via Romsey yesterday and didn't notice in the dark that the road was being prepared to be resurfaced. Jolt, jolt, jolt and a collision with a rocky patch finally persuaded me to slow down and then the car still didn't sound right, even though I'd left the resurfacing. It occurred to me that I might have a flat tyre. I pulled over on a dark country lane but couldn't see much so I proceeded at a slow pace until I reached the White Horse at Ampfield where I saw that indeed one of my front tyres had gone. Call me pathetic but I didn't really feel like changing the tyre in the pouring rain so I phoned the AA (who said they'd be there in an hour) and waited in the pub which had had a power cut so the coq au vin temptingly advertised on its board was not available. At rather a loose end, I was reduced to doing the FT crossword and looking periodically out of the window for the AA. I noticed a man smoking outside and he caught my eye. This man then came in and asked me if he could have a go at the crossword. Precisely at that moment, the AA man arrived so I gave the crossword to the smoker and said he could certainly finish it whilst I was sorting out my car. When I came back, he invited me for a drink which I declined. He'd done 4 clues and was stuck on "Revolting coarse tie and mysterious objects", which rather summed up the evening so far. "Esoterica" I replied. He shook my hand and I departed.

Monday, March 10, 2008

The eye of the storm

Well not quite but the view from this office is rather like a 1930s film set today with bucketfuls of rain being hurled horizontally across the windows, the midday sky dark and the wind howling. There was a glorious rainbow over Winchester yesterday and in the evening, in a moment of clear sky, I saw the moon's crescent gleaming across my garden like a crooked smile.

Friday, March 07, 2008

The New Forest

I'm not sure why it's called "New" but the New Forest never ceases to amaze me. I was cycling through it once and in the space of two hours came across an enormous wild sow with about fifteen squealing piglets running after her, many shaggy wild ponies and quite a few deer. At one point, three stags literally leapt over the path in front of me but the most amazing sight was when I'd ridden off the main path into the thicket and came into a forest glade with emerald green grass. The sun was shining through the trees and there in the middle was standing, quite still, a beautiful black foal. Apparently albino deer have been spotted there recently and I heard on the radio that somebody's seen an albino stag in the Highlands this year. That would be quite a sight, something which the ancients might have interpreted as a good omen.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Nick Clegg

I cannot understand Nick Clegg's motivation for abstaining from the vote on the call for a referendum on the new EU Lisbon treaty. He wants a referendum on our membership of the EU. He says that the British people should have their say. Yet when it came to the crunch, for semantic reasons or for fear of aligning with the Conservatives, he didn't stand by his principles, moreover he was neither Liberal nor Democratic in demanding that his Party abstain from the vote. What do the constituents of those MPs think? This one from Winchester is not happy.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Panther Soup

I went to the book launch of Panther Soup by Johnnie Gimlette last night. It's an interesting story of his meeting an American veteran, Put Flint, with whom he struck up a friendship and eventually persuaded to retrace his steps 60 years before in the Second World War when he'd been in the tank destroyers (the Panthers) who'd swept through France from Marseilles and ended up in Innsbruck. Put hadn't been back to Europe since then so it was very emotional for him to revisit those places in peace and to remember what had happened. They arrived in a Europe which was "smashed and sodden. In Germany over 3m homes had been lost, and another million in France. 60m Europeans had been uprooted or 10% of the population...Huge areas of the continent looked as if they'd been harrowed, or at least raked of life...Many German towns appeared to have been pulverised, and the commentators of the day often wondered whether Germany would ever support civilisation again."They were in Innsbruck when Eisenhower announced that the war in Europe was over. As Johnnie writes, "There was no fanfare and no church bells, just a deadening sense of relief...Some men got drunk, and a few let off their guns. But for most, they simply couldn't think of a gesture that properly reflected the enormity of the occasion, and so they let it pass...Even Eisenhower had struggled to find his euphoria. 'The route you have travelled is marked by the graves of former comrades...'"

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Public/private ownership

Somebody was berating the sale of UK water entities to foreign companies on this blog yesterday. The ownership of a country's resources is a serious issue but usually only comes to the fore in times of crisis. Singapore relies on Malaysia for its fresh water, a subject which is often raised when Singapore is worrying about its national security. I was looking at a Dutch company which owned a water concession in Mexico. It was suddenly told by the government that its plant was being taken over by the state. No negotiation. Anyway they came off better than a UK registered mining company which had a mine in Kyrygzstan. When their mine was expropriated by the government, they sent their CFO over to try to negotiate. He was shot dead.

Monday, March 03, 2008


One of our brokers was telling me about a conversation he'd had with the Chief Executive of an Australian company. The man said how much he enjoyed going round in his PJs. The broker assumed he meant his pyjamas and muttered some suitably sympathetic comment. He subsequently realised that the CEO had in fact been referring to his private jets. It was a clear sell signal.