Thursday, April 30, 2009

Big brother is listening to you

Yesterday, for the first time since Taiwan's independent government was established by Chiang Kai-shek in 1945, a mainland Chinese company, China Mobile, bought a stake in a Taiwanese company, Far EasTone Telecommunications. The present government in Taiwan, the KMT, is pro-China and has now signed three trade agreements with China, the most recent one, this week, allowing Chinese companies to invest in Taiwanese companies. The Taiwanese stockmarket has a limit rule: share prices can only move by a maximum of 7% up or 7% down on any one day. The whole Taiwanese market was limit up today.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Bodily preservation

I was reading about an excavation in 1485 of a tomb on the Appian Way in Rome. The body of the 26 year old woman is speculated to be that of Cicero's daughter. Here's a contemporary account from the diary of Antonio di Vaseli:

"To‑day, April 19, 1485, the news came into Rome, that a body buried a thousand years ago had been found in a farm of Santa Maria Nova, in the Campagna, near the Casale Rotondo. . . . The Conservatori of Rome despatched a coffin to Santa Maria Nova elaborately made, and a company of men for the transportation of the body into the city. The body has been placed for exhibition in the Conservatori palace, and large crown of citizens and noblemen have gone to see it. The body seems to be covered with a glutinous substance, a mixture of myrrh and other precious ointments, which attract swarms of bees. The said body is intact. The hair is long and thick; the eyelashes, eyes, nose, and ears are spotless, as well as the nails. It appears to be the body of a woman, of good size; and her head is covered with a light cap of woven gold thread, very beautiful. The teeth are white and perfect; the flesh and the tongue retain their natural color; but if the glutinous substance is washed off, the flesh blackens in less than an hour. Much care has been taken in searching the tomb in which the corpse was found, in the hope of discovering the epitaph, with her name; it must be an illustrious one, because none but a noble and wealthy person could afford to be buried in such a costly sarcophagus thus filled with precious ointments."

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Bluebell woods

What better tonic for the spirits than to walk through the bluebell woods?

Monday, April 27, 2009

The romance of outsourcing

Readers of this blog have sympathised in the past with my frustrations of dealing with Barclays Bank, Winchester via its outsourced telephonists somewhere in India. Today's FT reports that 80% of the staff in outsourcing companies in India is below the age of 25 and that office romance is rife, with 58% of a survey's respondents confessing to it. One company, Wipro, even has an internal prospective matrimonial website. No wonder so many of these telephonists are distracted!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Bankrupt Britain

My favourite journalist at the FT, Gillian Tett, makes an interesting observation: yesterday's cost of insurance against default on UK gilts was 0.95%, compared with 0.5% for insurance against Cadbury defaulting. British American Tobacco, Compass, Unilever, Centrica and Pearson are also all deemed less likely to go bust than the UK Government.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Acis and Galatea

Polyphemus, the one-eyed Sicilian giant was in love with the mermaid Galatea, expressing his emotions in this song:
"Galatea, whiter than the snowy privet petals,
taller than slim alder, more flowery than the meadows,
friskier than a tender kid, more radiant than crystal,
smoother than shells polished by the endless tides;
more welcome than the summer shade, or the sun in winter,
showier than the tall plane-tree, fleeter than the hind;
more sparkling than ice, sweeter than grapes ripening,
softer than the swan’s-down, or the milk when curdled,
lovelier, if you did not flee, than a watered garden."
As you can see, his love was unrequited and Galatea loved handsome Acis, a sixteen-year old youth. Polyphemus spotted them together and he was so incensed with jealousy that he hurled a rock at Acis, killing the boy. Blood flowed from beneath the rock which then turned to water and the rock split open and revealed that Acis had been transformed into a river god.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Hot money

The turnover on the mainland Chinese stockmarkets yesterday was US$30bn, more than that of Japan, Hong Kong, Australia, Taiwan and Korea combined.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Not cricket

One of my friends was invited to play in the fathers against sons cricket match at his son's prep school last year. He hadn't played cricket for years so had some practice in the nets the day before with one of the other fathers in the team and hit some cracking shots and bowled well and as a result he felt confident before the game the following day. The boys batted first and the form was that each father should bowl one over against his own son. He was duly called to bowl and then had a slight panic attack: he hadn't thought about pacing his bowling for a ten year old batsman. The result was that the first few balls went straight over the wicket, the next few crashed into the ground at his own feet and his first over ran to 14 balls, much to his embarrassment. He was called for a second over which was going much better until, horror of horrors, he clean bowled the headmaster's son. He has not been invited to play in this year's match, despite his second son being one of the boys' 11.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Nonsense of the day

"You are old, father William," the young man said,
"And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head
Do you think, at your age, it is right?"

"In my youth," father William replied to his son,
"I feared it might injure the brain;
But, now that I'm perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again."

"You are old," said the youth, "as I mentioned before,
And you have grown most uncommonly fat;
Yet you turned a back-somersault in at the door
Pray what is the reason for that?"

"In my youth," said the sage, as he shook his grey locks,
"I kept all my limbs very supple
By the use of this ointment one shilling a box
Allow me to sell you a couple?"

"You are old," said the youth, "and your jaws are too weak
For anything tougher than suet;
Yet you finished the goose, with the bones and the beak
Pray, how did you manage to do it?"

"In my youth," said his father, "I took to the law,
And argued each case with my wife;
And the muscular strength, which it gave to my jaw,
Has lasted the rest of my life."

"You are old," said the youth, "one would hardly suppose
That your eye was as steady as ever;
Yet you balanced an eel on the end of your nose
What made you so awfully clever?"

"I have answered three questions, and that is enough,"
Said his father. "Don't give yourself airs!
Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?
Be off, or I'll kick you down stairs!"

Lewis Carroll

Thursday, April 16, 2009

RIP Clement Freud

I shall miss Clement Freud on Just a Minute. Radio 4 replayed one of his witticisms this morning:
'There’s not much doubt but we are in a period of great inflation. As the farmer said to me the other day, "Apples are going up," to which I replied, "This would come as a severe blow to Sir Isaac Newton!" '

Wednesday, April 15, 2009


Pictorial association is a good way to improve one's memory. For example, if you wanted to remember all the plays by Shakespeare beginning with T (not including those starting with the word "The") you could imagine a boat on Twelfth Night in a Tempest with Timon of Athens, Titus Andronicus and Troilus and Cressida sitting opposite Two Gentlemen of Verona, with the shrieking of the Taming of the Shrew in the background. I have been trying to master this recently but was mortified yesterday on my return from the supermarket when I realised that I'd forgotten my handbag and had left it in the trolley in the car park. I drove back from Winchester to Romsey and, crestfallen, approached the Welcome Desk at Waitrose. Joy of joy, somebody had handed it in, contents intact!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Japanese poetry of the day

Here are three poems written by the Japanese poetess Ono no Komachi who lived around 825-900 AD.

Did he appear,
because I fell asleep
thinking of him?
If only I'd known I was dreaming
I'd never have wakened.

* * * * *

Now that I am entering
The winter of life,
Your ardour has faded
Like foliage ravaged
By late autumn rains.

* * * * *

Sad -
the end that waits me -
To think at last
I'll be a mere haze
Pale green over the fields.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Yates of the Yard

Congratulations to John Yates on his appointment as Head of Anti-Terrorism Operations in the UK police force. I have never met the man but am encouraged by my MEP, Dan Hannan's, assessment of him. According to Dan, in March 2007 when asked what stage the cash-for-peerages investigation had reached, Yates is reported to have replied "Act V, Scene One". Hannan wrote, "What a telling answer. Shakespeare's fifth acts tend to open with the protagonists nervously awaiting their fate. Often, they are preparing for battle: Act V, Scene One finds Octavius and Antony encamped at Philippi (Julius Caesar); Octavius preparing to attack his former ally at Alexandria (Antony and Cleopatra); and the royal army at Shrewsbury (Henry IV Part One). Act V, Scene One presents the panicky Romans arguing over whom to send as an envoy to Coriolanus, who is on his way to raze the city...He's plainly an uncommonly clever man, this John Yates. Not the kind of copper you'd want to be on the wrong side of."
I hope he has more success in his new post than in the cash for peerages prosecution attempt.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Classical qin

The qin is a Chinese musical instrument, described in the West as a seven string zither. Each one has a name often taken from stories, for example this one:
Zhang Ji was skilled in healing illness. One day he entered a cedar wood, looking for medicinal herbs. There he met a sick man, who asked for a consultation. Having examined him, Zhang Ji said: “How is it that you have the pulse of an animal?” Then the man told him the truth, that in reality he was an old monkey and lived in a cave. Zhang Ji took some pills from his bag, and gave him one. Having taken this, the monkey was immediately cured. The next day this monkey came again in his human form, bearing on his shoulder an enormous log. He said: “This cedar is ten thousand years old. I offer it as a slight payment.” From this wood Zhang Ji made two qins. One he called Old Monkey, the other Ten Thousand Years.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009


Yesterday I was reminded of the myth about Erisichthon, described by Ovid in his Metamorphoses. Erisichthon had no respect for the gods and decided to chop down an oak tree in a grove which was sacred to Ceres. Each blow from his axe produced blood from the tree and eventually a voice cried out, "I who dwell in this tree am a nymph beloved of Ceres, and dying by your hands, forewarn you that punishment awaits you."
Ceres gave her messenger this instruction,"There is a place in the farthest part of ice-clad Scythia, a sad and sterile region without trees and without crops. Cold dwells there, and Fear, and Shuddering, and Famine. Go to Famine and tell her to take possession of the bowels of Erisichthon." The messenger found Famine: "her hair was rough, her eyes sunk, her face pale, her lips blanched, her jaws covered with dust, and her skin drawn tight, so as to show all her bones," and Famine took hold of Erisichthon while he was asleep.
"When he awoke his hunger was raging. Without a moment's delay he would have food set before him, of whatever kind earth, sea, or air produces; and complained of hunger even while he ate. What would have sufficed for a city or a nation was not enough for him. The more he ate, the move he craved. His hunger was like the sea, which receives all the rivers, yet is never filled; or like fire that burns all the fuel that is heaped upon it, yet is still voracious for more."
He spent all his money and even sold his daughter "and at last hunger compelled him to devour his limbs, and he strove to nourish his body by eating his body, till death relieved him from the vengeance of Ceres."

Monday, April 06, 2009

Comfort and speed

Mentioning to a friend that some elegant shoes I had bought last year could only be worn for two hours before causing severe agony, she said she knew the solution: "Put on the shoes and stand in a bucket of water until the leather is thoroughly soaked. Then continue to wear them until they have dried out and they will mould themselves onto your feet and be perfectly comfortable." Does anybody know if this really works?

Friday, April 03, 2009

The toxic roundabout

The US Treasury's plan to sell off toxic, I mean "legacy", assets at mouth-wateringly attractive levels of gearing is now being hijacked by US banks. Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and JP Morgan Chase are all mustard keen to participate in the auctions. This is hilarious as the whole point of the exercise was to help banks sell, not buy, rancid securities and loans, and now these same banks want to use taxpayers money to take on more poison and more leverage. It just goes to show that one bank's poison becomes another bank's meat if the terms are sufficiently juicy but it's also worth remembering the Chinese cautionary tale about drinking poisonous liquid to quench one's thirst.

Thursday, April 02, 2009


Call me old-fashioned but I thought it was disrespectful of Michelle Obama not to curtsey to the Queen. The First Lady was meeting the Queen at and accepting hospitality from Buckingham Palace and therefore she should adhere to the customs of our country, not her country.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009


I met a Taiwanese company yesterday which is at the forefront of coloured e-paper. They have been working with Japanese supermarkets to enable them to display their prices electronically so that at the end of the day when they give discounts on fresh food, they can change the prices on the computer rather than doing it all by hand. They are also working with a Taiwanese newspaper to go completely electronic. A regular reader of the newspaper will subscribe to an e-reader and will thus get updated news through the day. No more wasted newspaper.