Friday 30 September 2011

Deutschland Unter Alles

The net and other media are full of stuff about Germany at present. Something to do with Europe and having to find the money to keep it in the style to which it has become accustomed.

Then reading around, I discovered that the Reichstag (or is has it changed?) were alleged to have coughed up the money to save us all, but first the Greeks, then the French and other banks who had lent Greeks a lot of money, then the governments who were propping up the banks and incidentally the European Union in passing.

Perhaps the media in general felt that this was a little too complicated to explain to a public who needed more important information about a deceased American singer who died in tragic circumstance and an English footballer who was terribly upset when a lady of close acquaintance told all or nearly all.

But what was not clear was that what the Germans had decided was that they went along with the deal agreed a few days back but that this was likely to be “thus far but no further”. As we are being told that another big bill is on the way five times larger than the last one that this might be problematical was not discussed.

From time to time one or other members of the UK Cabinet chime in with passing comments about as useful as the helpful advice given to referees by the crowd standing behind the home side’s goal at a football match. They may offer insights in what is going on in front of them but not to any real purpose.

Meanwhile, David Cameron was spotted in the director’s box at the Queen’s Park Rangers game at the weekend. Whilst I was glad to see he was supporting his home side as opposed to slumming it at Arsenal or Chelsea it was intriguing that Lakshmi Mittal, one of the leading magnates of India was there beside him.

He may have been trying to explain the offside rule to Cameron, whose politics lead me to assume that this is not one of his strengths, but there may be other matters. If the UK is going to need all the help it can get if the Reichstag goes up in flames again then it is to Asia he will have to look.

One particular talent that Mittal has to offer is how to ride a gathering inflationary storm of the kind that is now going on in India. Another is that he is so involved already in the UK economy and property that he is a key player in any decisions relating to our economy. Ed Balls we recall, relied greatly on the advice and help of Sir Fred Goodwin, let us hope that Mittal can do better than that.

So there we go then. If Europe collapses and takes Germany with it the UK may just about survive the storm with the support of Asia, notably India. What might Mittal suggest? A new company created, perhaps to preside over the remains of Europe?

Call it the Honourable West Europe Company and allow it to put in Governors, District Officers, Political Advisers and small forces of troops, the Bengal Lancers would do very well with a few regiments of Guides. It might just work, if so then perhaps Sir Paul McCartney could knock out an oratorio or two as a change from ballets and stuff, to be premiered in Hamburg where his band performed not long after Western Germany were given back their sovereignty.

They could now be about to lose it. I was there at the time and when giving the opinion that it would never last was derided for my lack of belief in the future. One reason for that was that the value of the mark rose against that of cigarettes and I still believe that ciggie’s are a more reliable currency.

Start stocking up and soon.

Thursday 29 September 2011

Muscles Make A Man Or Woman

As the day has been taken up by other matters, this is simply an item taken from the web in 2009. It is in line with some of my own ideas and as times are going to be hard it is arguable how far modern man is up to real challenges.


“Modern man 'a wimp', says anthropologist”. From Reuters - Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Many prehistoric Australian aboriginals could have outrun world 100 and 200 metres record holder Usain Bolt in modern conditions. Some Tutsi men in Rwanda exceeded the current world high jump record of 2.45 meters during initiation ceremonies in which they had to jump at least their own height to progress to manhood.

Any Neanderthal woman could have beaten former bodybuilder and current California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in an arm wrestle. These and other eye-catching claims are detailed in a book by Australian anthropologist Peter McAllister entitled "Manthropology" and provocatively sub-titled "The Science of the Inadequate Modern Male."

McAllister sets out his stall in the opening sentence of the prologue. "If you're reading this then you - or the male you have bought it for - are the worst man in history. "No ifs, no buts -- the worst man, period...As a class we are in fact the sorriest cohort of masculine Homo sapiens to ever walk the planet."

Delving into a wide range of source material McAllister finds evidence he believes proves that modern man is inferior to his predecessors in, among other fields, the basic Olympic athletics disciplines of running and jumping. His conclusions about the speed of Australian aboriginals 20,000 years ago are based on a set of footprints, preserved in a fossilized claypan lake bed, of six men chasing prey.

An analysis of the footsteps of one of the men, dubbed T8, shows he reached speeds of 37 kph on a soft, muddy lake edge. Bolt, by comparison, reached a top speed of 42 kph during his then world 100 meters record of 9.69 seconds at last year's Beijing Olympics.

In an interview in the English university town of Cambridge where he was temporarily resident, McAllister said that, with modern training, spiked shoes and rubberized tracks, aboriginal hunters might have reached speeds of 45 kph. "We can assume they are running close to their maximum if they are chasing an animal," he said."

But if they can do that speed of 37 kph on very soft ground I suspect there is a strong chance they would have outdone Usain Bolt if they had all the advantages that he does. "We can tell that T8 is accelerating toward the end of his tracks."

McAllister said it was probable that any number of T8's contemporaries could have run as fast. "We have to remember too how incredibly rare these fossilizations are," he said. "What are the odds that you would get the fastest runner in Australia at that particular time in that particular place in such a way that was going to be preserved?"

Turning to the high jump, McAllister said photographs taken by a German anthropologist showed young men jumping heights of up to 2.52 meters in the early years of last century.

"It was an initiation ritual, everybody had to do it. They had to be able to jump their own height to progress to manhood," he said. "It was something they did all the time and they lived very active lives from a very early age. They developed very phenomenal abilities in jumping. They were jumping from boyhood onwards to prove themselves."

McAllister said a Neanderthal woman had 10 percent more muscle bulk than modern European man. Trained to capacity she would have reached 90 percent of Schwarzenegger's bulk at his peak in the 1970s. "But because of the quirk of her physiology, with a much shorter lower arm, she would slam him to the table without a problem," he said.

Manthropology abounds with other examples:

Roman legions completed more than one-and-a-half marathons a day carrying more than half their body weight in equipment.

Athens employed 30,000 rowers who could all exceed the achievements of modern oarsmen.

Australian aboriginals threw a hardwood spear 110 meters or more (the current world javelin record is 98.48).

McAllister said it was difficult to equate the ancient spear with the modern javelin but added: "Given other evidence of Aboriginal man's superb athleticism you'd have to wonder whether they couldn't have taken out every modern javelin event they entered."

Why the decline?

"We are so inactive these days and have been since the industrial revolution really kicked into gear," McAllister replied. "These people were much more robust than we were. "We don't see that because we convert to what things were like about 30 years ago.

There's been such a stark improvement in times, technique has improved out of sight, times and heights have all improved vastly since then but if you go back further it's a different story.

"At the start of the industrial revolution there are statistics about how much harder people worked then. "The human body is very plastic and it responds to stress. We have lost 40 percent of the shafts of our long bones because we have much less of a muscular load placed upon them these days.

"We are simply not exposed to the same loads or challenges that people were in the ancient past and even in the recent past so our bodies haven't developed. Even the level of training that we do, our elite athletes, doesn't come close to replicating that. "We wouldn't want to go back to the brutality of those days but there are some things we would do well to profit from."


When I travelled along the line of march of Wellington’s army in the Peninsula I wondered how on earth they did it. How many of our men could do it now?

Wednesday 28 September 2011

Cockle Picking For Financiers

Not long ago there was a tragedy in Morecambe Bay when a large group of people brought in to pick cockles were swept away by the incoming tide. They had little or no experience in the conditions at the Bay and neither did their gang masters. They were there to serve the demands of distant traders and others in the food supply business.

For those who know it or know about it the Bay is notoriously dangerous and can catch out even the most aware and cautious who go out on to the mud flats. There is the unpredictable movement of the waters coming down from the watershed going out by changing channels.

There is the mud and sand which is constantly changing its shape, form and mix. Above all are the tides which can go far out leading to a false sense of security. Because when they come back in they are racing faster than a man can run and how fast and high will depend on season, winds and water.

So those who know the Bay and depend for their incomes either on guiding people or picking cockles or taking other forms of seafood need to have knowledge, their senses fully attuned and an innate caution and readiness to leave at any hint of danger. Some may say they regulate themselves, they do not they are ruled by the forces of nature and need to know that.

If you apply this thinking to the world of finance and the politics that bears on it then explaining what has been going wrong is a simpler task. Those in charge of very many of the financial organisations, public sector or private, did not know what they were getting into. Their gang masters (senior executives) often did not tell them what they were doing, they just delivered the results.

The gang masters themselves thought it was just a question of getting there first, taking out as much as possible and that they could control the situation. The authorities who might have reminded them of the potential complexities and dangers did not.

They thought they had found ways of changing nature, or of exerting absolute control over the elements by decrees or pumping water (money) in or out according to formulae which they were assured were mathematical certainties. In the Bay, the tide tables are a useful guide but you need to look at sky, water and the mud to judge what can happen.

Financially, when the weather changed for the worse and the conditions began their usual shape changing under the various pressures then the tide started coming in and to their horror began to sweep away their pickings.

What we have going on now is that some are running, some are seeking advice on how to get out of the quicksand they are in and some are piling up mud to try to stop the water.

There may be a few that survive, others might be rescued, but who and to what effect is far from certain, the incoming tide has not finished and it is a high one.

And for us, the customers, there are going to be many fewer cockles to be had and we might not like the taste.

Tuesday 27 September 2011

Animal Crackers

Out of curiosity last night put up the Channel 4 broadcast on Tony Blair and his new found riches together with a saved documentary on The Royal Welsh Regiment, point and counterpoint. Today there has been the customary dispute between those who are sceptical about Blair’s money and those who feel that he is entitled to take whatever cut he can get.

In the Blair item there was much solemn mention of millions, the estimated total and where it might all be. What struck me as strange and omitted was that the people and corporations who were shelling out were some of the wealthiest in the world. To them the odd million or two or even several millions was just small change. The recurring theme was oil and gas.

It was on a par with magnates and aristocrats of old rewarding Head Porters and Concierges of their hotels with good big tips to ensure their continuing loyalty and service. The more the programme went on the more the comparison seemed to be valid. Clearly, we already knew who his friends are and how well connected they were, so what changes?

The real question they tried to address but did not follow through was what value for his money Blair was and just how much useful work he was doing. Evidently, there was the odd favour he extracts occasionally. But too often he reminded me of being the sort of well meaning ignoramus that you dread to see coming through the door offering to help.

What is a lot more worrying is that if this is the way critical international relations and problems are being handled and by whom then the Almighty help us all. It is little wonder that bad problems worsen, people’s revolts and extremism are on the rise and communities disconnect. In the UK Blair’s bungling, ignorance and arrogance has more or less done for the UK.

That he is now trotting around poking his nose into some of the most difficult and dangerous world situations is enough to make fall on our knees and offer prayers. In that department, we can hope only that when Blair’s time comes the Almighty will be applying the needle eyes and camels test on entry with full rigour.

The programme on the Royal Welsh Regiment was interesting and balanced. The men (and women) these days seem much more restrained, polite and well behaved than in my day although their foot drill made me wince. But in the field they were doing the job very well indeed and could not be faulted.

What was intriguing was that as one of their predecessor regiments was the 24th Foot, whose 200 plus “B” Company held Rorke’s Drift in 1879 against the Zulu Impis.  Not only does the regiment celebrate rightly the heroism of those men but that it still remains a feature of their organisation. Another feature is that the regimental mascot is a billy goat who is given the rank of non commissioned officer.

There was no mention of the delicate issue of why a large column of British Troops should have gone into Zululand in the first place. This was the great age of British expansion into Africa driven by the need to be there before other European powers, a natural hunger to possess land and very importantly to have what lay underneath the land in the shape of precious metals, gemstones and other ores and metals.

At the end of watching the second programme I realised suddenly that just as in George Orwell’s book “Animal Farm” when at the end the other animals realised that they could not tell the pigs and humans apart, I was unable to work out which was the blustering Blair and which was the grazing goat.

Monday 26 September 2011

Oil Peaks Off Peaks And Economics

As well as the financial issues at present gripping the attention of the media there is also the longer beat of change in energy, food, water and population. In The Oil Drum today is a long article of near 3000 words with diagrams going into the economics of it all.

These are not simple. It is a very complicated area which takes in the whole scale of human activity given the critical role played by oil in nearly all our economies and ways of life. The article attempts to deal with what is involved.

The link is below with the conclusions quoted.

Conclusions Quote:

"Unless and until adaptive responses are large and fast enough to constrain the upward trend of oil prices, the primary adaptive response will be periodic economic crashes of a magnitude that depresses oil consumption and oil prices.

These have the effect of shifting consumption from incumbent consumers—the advanced economies—to the new consumers in the developing economies.

This is exactly what happened in the last recession when between the start of the recession in January 2007 and its effective end in 1Q 2011 demand rose by 4.3 million b/d in the non-OECD area and fell by 4 million b/d in the OECD area."

In the west we have a lifestyle and indeed social structures essentially built on an era of cheaper oil which is readily and immediately available. Also, our food supplies are largely dependent on oil based agriculture and transport.

Add to that the complex financial arrangements originally designed to deal with it which have recently taken on a life of their own, but dependent on that lifestyle and structures.

It is not looking good.

Sunday 25 September 2011

Pretty Pictures

Events have crowded in this weekend, so only some nice pictures for you to relax with.

Friday 23 September 2011

This Is Cameron Enterprises How Can I Help You?

With all the gathering gloom and everyone climbing on the economic disaster bandwagon it is time to look at things on the lighter side. One hilarious item was the reports that our Fifty Best Businessmen will each be given a “buddy” in government to help spur our economic revival.

Given the track records of some of our designated “best” businessmen of recent years then the chances are that what the government could get would be quite the opposite. It would not be the ascent of the mountain it would be down faster than your average downhill skier could manage and just as likely to end in a pile up.

What is striking is how quaint a notion it is. In the USA they are much more organised and caring about such things. The Supreme Court, I believe, will have no truck with limiting political contributions or restricting such activity. So there is a free market for both politicians and political favours.

The difficulty in the USA is that so many politicians are damaged goods and are unreliable in use, but by and large they satisfy their purchasers. That what appears to be the US Constitution and policy turns out to be very different from what really happens out there and who benefits is another issue.

The “buddy” principle to us what look at some history is an abiding feature of British politics. Know your friends and know your enemies and anyone who is not your friend is an enemy has been the basis of political interchange in Britain these centuries past.

One of the classic illustrations of the “buddy” principle at work emerged in the Marconi Scandal of 1912. Another is how Britain dealt with some things. Rothschild gold helped win the Battle of Waterloo and in Disraeli’s time the same family coughed up £5 million overnight for us to buy into the Suez Canal and Egypt. More recently Peter Mandelson became their friend.

Country House weekends have been a fixture in all this for a very long while. At one level the Cliveden Set operated and other levels different gathering in many places.  Amongst the Tories and old Liberals it was a matter of which club you joined. Also for many Tories which Hunt and which Grouse Moor you joined could be important.

Canny businessmen would join the favoured haunts of both parties. When Labour became the other party it became more intricate. For someone around then the quiet cosying up of the business chiefs they liked to many of the government ministers was little secret.

This could put someone in an embarrassing position. My parents bought me a Gannex raincoat as a wonderful Christmas present to make up for all the treats not available during my childhood and later years. How could I explain to them that this branded me publicly as a fan of Wilson and his more opportunistic business friends?

Perhaps for a time at the end of the 20th Century all this disintegrated to some extent and there was a scramble for other ways and means. The Blair centralisation of political influence also restricted the market. Now it seems more open but the essential structures for contact more uncertain. It is unlikely to be the open and free market of the USA.

Given the performance of many call centres to day I hope our Best Businessmen do not have to put up with what ordinary people have to endure and make the right kind of contact in the right way.

If everything does go bad what happens if the Cameron Call Centre is outsourced to Shanghai?

Thursday 22 September 2011

Spot The Backyard Beast

When you come upon a particularly foul pile of material left behind by a wandering beast and it is within the forest of property capers planted and fertilised by the Labour Government then you will see the paw marks of the Great Grumpy Grabber. Unluckily this beast often strayed into ordinary communities.

It is said to be a humanoid variant from a long past era, possibly the Cretaceous, who has survived and found a welcome home in Labour as their last remaining senior being from their former base support. The Grabber acted as a sort of totem and symbol of being, although his use of his pole was unreliable.

It is a pity that the media, too many of whom were implicated in the strange life of the forest, have never looked hard at all the major capers involving property and financial deals related to building investment as well as redevelopment.

Unfailingly, lurking in either the background at least or scavenging what there was to had from the prey that fell into their hands would be the GGG himself. Beginning as a small creature dependent on a burrow given by his trade union he has amassed a great pile of homes and fodder for his and his family futures.

You may think he has now gone into the wild. Do not believe it, the smell is still there, the foulness left behind in almost every public service sector he got his teeth into and others and the costs of clearing it all up are down to you. His presence still haunts the darker corners of politics.

And the media is still paying him money for special appearances.

Wednesday 21 September 2011

How Much Did You Say It Cost?

As we survey our finances and look accusingly at each other there are the unspoken questions. Is healthy eating just costing too much? What does it do to the electric bill to have the silent football on screen and music on the radio while we look through the magazines?

Then there are the unpleasant reactions when we have to buy things and find the prices a lot more than we expect and the goods shoddier. It is not just us, it seems be a great many people out there who are in the same situation.

Also, we have begun to factor the petrol costs into any shopping or going about anywhere. That run to the seaside where the petrol cost did not bother us we now have to look at in relation to any other spending.

I could go on and on. Rather than ramble round the shire with my own theories a few links on the web today gives some explanation of at least part of it. The first is where the money is going for some people who have oil to sell.

The other is the consequences of the tax gap and its implications. The third relates a tale of financial hanky panky which is but a tiny part of the whole.

The fourth is one of the long and expensive catalogue of gross errors by our super efficient highly managed financially knowing consultant driven machinery of government which seems to be cocking up almost everything it touches.

Is there honey still for tea?

Tuesday 20 September 2011

Say Cheese

According to the long and learned article below about Professor Berit Johansen’s work on genes and food in Norway the best food balance for the genes is one third protein, one third fat and one third carbohydrate.

The ideas put forward are at variance with many currently popular diets as well as the ordinary patterns of eating of many.

Mine’s a cheese and onion sandwich and a pint, thank you.

Monday 19 September 2011

Bond Washing For Pensioners

Recently, the TUC have told us about its campaign to keep the public service sector pensions arrangements at substantially their current level. Yes, these are the people who provide us with many services we regard as necessary and yes, the majority are on middling or lower incomes, whose pensions will reflect this.

As ever, the debate has been affected as well as the pension schemes by the activity of rogue elements in the most senior positions who have awarded themselves spectacularly generous arrangements. Not quite in the financial sector class, perhaps, but enough to make the ordinary persons eyes water.

The TUC assures us that the present problems can be “managed” and the money can be available. This depends on which Santa Claus you have been talking to. Also, the TUC gives the impression that all the public sector is equal and more or less the same. Equality, liberty and fraternity, maybe, but life isn’t quite like that.

On 2nd May 2011, this year, in “The History Men” in this blog there was a brief explanation of the teachers superannuation scheme which is unfunded, that is the pensions to be paid out derive, in theory, directly from the money paid in by teachers currently employed and their employers.

Clearly, for this scheme as well as other unfunded ones, if the income stream is not there then the government has to stump up the rest. Currently, because government tax income does not match its obligations this is covered by borrowing. At present, this is at low rates of interest.

Elsewhere, there is a complicated and varied set of arrangements for the many different categories of employees in one or other part of the public sector. Often the government might add to the problems. For example, when some NHS salaries had their huge boost under Labour this translated into major impending pension liabilities. Some senior staff took the money and ran as soon as they could.

Many schemes are funded with the trustees under an obligation to do the best they can. Under Labour at one stage they were urged to get into the big time and take on investment opportunities in the bandit territories of global capitalism.

When this went wrong and our government needed to borrow a lot in a hurry, they were then leaned on to put their pensioner’s money into government bonds. These when bought were low interest bonds which means that the buyers were paying historically high prices for them.

By now, most readers will see where this runaway train is heading. With the stock market highly volatile and dominated by financial sector ups and downs, never mind relentless speculation, there are now suggestions that the bond markets are due for a correction at least, even a crash of some kind.

So all these funded pension reserves could be stuck not only with elements of toxic debt from the past obtained at the behest of government, they could also be stuck with large amounts of reduced value government bonds that pay low interest at a time when inflation is seriously on the up and large numbers of staff are being dumped into early retirement as staff reductions occur.

So either the government has to make up the difference, either by borrowing at greatly increased costs, or by hitting taxpayers very hard either in central government taxes or local taxes. If the bond markets turn nasty then the borrowing option may not exist.

The only way out could be to freeze or even reduce public sector pension payments and to substantially change current schemes to get the unfunded ones back into balance and the funded ones able to sort out their particular mess. There may be some funded schemes that go into default.

Add to that the prospect of radical reductions in pensioner and other consumer spending, something of a disaster in savings and a few other delights such as inflation hitting real incomes and it does not look good. The TUC does not and cannot have a real answer to these problems.

Why are so few people trying to explain this?

Friday 16 September 2011

Trading For Pluckers

Today, I had an interesting conversation about the backsides of ducks, or rather drakes. It started as one about duck eggs. These are produced by female ducks whiles males are only good for making a lot of noise, breeding and then eating.

If you want to produce duck eggs therefore you need females. However, for the unwary or hasty when offered ducklings for sale it is very easy to find yourself stuck with useless males (where have I heard that before?) because the sellers pluck out the identifying feathers from the rear of the males.

Rogue trading therefore can know no limits to which traders will not stoop as any duck plucker can tell you. Today, we learn of the billions dollar bilker of UBS who was discovered not by ongoing audit, management or accountancy or any of that foll de roll but because the bloke concerned went to a boss, coughed a couple of times and the coughed the lot about his many errors of judgment.

My question is how many more of them are there out in the trading rooms or huddled over home computers bringing about the end of capitalism a lot quicker than any Marxist campaigner ever did. There is a long history of people like this as well as corporations, governments and religious organizations that have ramped all humanity in generations past.

For the most part, humanity just suffers it and accepts that greed, if not good, is always there and to be on your guard. There are laws and systems of justice that are supposed to deal with but quite often do not if the rogues are powerful and connected enough to avoid trouble.

When humanity does take action and often extensive and dangerous action is when the trading in food becomes disrupted or destabilised by the actions and dealing of people who knowingly distort the market pricing.

The latest Ecologist newsletter that landed in my mail box this week has a lot to say about what it claims is happening at present and two links on the issues are given below.

What the media have said little about in the many disturbances around the world is how many of them are triggered not so much by political belief but by the fact that world food prices may be rising at levels that put real pressure on the incomes and standards of living of the poor.

Moreover, it is not just the poor that are feeling the pinch. The prices impact on the middling orders in a variety of ways notably in their patterns of spending. The less you have to spare when the food has been paid mean less to spend on other consumer goods. We, like others, have discovered that our food is costing much more and requiring reduced spending elsewhere.

In the developed west in the recent past we have had cheap food and for many the food bill has shrunk as a proportion of our living costs. This may well have ended and we are faced not simply with natural food price rises but the effects of an out of control trading system across the whole food supply chain.

In the foreseeable future it could be that our rioters will not be looting shops for fancy goods and gizmos but for bags of spuds and any cabbage they can find.

Perhaps how to tell a plucked drake from a duck needs to be taught in schools.

Thursday 15 September 2011

Stand To The Guard

With all the troubles about this currency and that and these worrying figures and those our many and various leaders seem to be at a loss to know what to do next.

Looking around the web, it seems that they are not alone, and while everyone is worried nobody has any real answers.

For some reason both Merkel and Sarkozy, never mind Cameron and Miliband, in their different ways remind me of the sentry in the cartoon above.

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Train Pain And Gain

Travelling by train, we are told by a government minister, is becoming strictly for the rich in that many of the lower paid cannot afford the fares. He may be right, but in my memory rail travel always made a hole in the personal cash flow.

There were a number of offers, certain cheap day returns, excursion trains and the occasional special for one reason or another. But in the mid 20th Century and earlier despite the flim flam of the films most people did not travel much having neither the time nor the cash.

It was why Beeching took the axe to so much of the rail system. There seemed to be little hope for increasing rail travel use and all the signs of a collapse in the passenger numbers due to the increasing car ownership which impacted directly onto rail’s key market segments (how about that?).

With freight demand also on the wane, partly due to reduced costs of road transport, better delivery possibilities and far less pilfering, especially in the parcels traffic, some places were notorious, there was little hope of making rail carriage for goods cheaper by taking advantage of the increasing demand for consumer goods.

Today, despite the huge subsidies and elaborate financing mechanisms, it is still a form of transport that has relative costs. Certainly, more people have been using rail lately and the numbers are well up. But with an increasing population that is more adult and the sprawl of modern life it is arguable how much traffic is being taken off the roads and just arises from natural increases.

Where services have been greatly improved or introduced to meet modern needs the use has been much greater, notably on the Chiltern Lines, again this may be due to urban sprawl in the South East. Also, with the Cotswolds increasingly part of the commuter belt you would expect more bottoms on seats, or rather squashed up against each other on the old GWR.

The real problem is that between the Ministry of Transcendental Meditation, formerly Transport, Network Rail or whoever it is and the various companies there is a muddle of thinking compounded by lurches into prestige projects like HST2 and schemes in the South East designed to create increased property values along selected corridors.

There is not much joined up thinking, nor for that matter joined up networks and facilities. At the same time there is talk of the need for infrastructure projects to deliver investment in the UK that retains the spending in the UK monetary system.

Which brings me back to the Big Idea for Railways. This is the decision that was ducked after the 1923 Rationalisation and the 1930’s Scotch Expresses and the 1947 Nationalisation and the Beeching years and then the turn of the 21st Century.

It is spurred on this time by the complaints of M.P.’s in the South East over the winter fiascos that badly affected the old slow third rail systems. Their hopes of a better type of electrification have been quickly put into the back of the bottom draw of the Ministerial filing cabinet.

It is to electrify the whole system to a single standard, join up a lot of lines that would benefit from it, add schemes like the Oxford to Cambridge link between the South West and the East and others and perhaps rationalise stock as well to decent modern and fast running standards.

Alas, that one would not make for either easy headlines or short sound bites.

Tuesday 13 September 2011

The Falling Leaves Of Autumn

Great international organisations in the modern world tend to have a shorter life than most of the empires and great alliances of the past. After World War I the idea (or ideal) of a League of Nations was created to ensure that such a conflict never happened again. Unluckily, President Wilson, who presided over its inception, failed to secure the agreement of the USA to join.

It did not take many years before all the great ideals were lost and it was back to basics in international relations. The years 1918 to 1939 are often called “between the wars” but just look at where British troops were deployed in that period. In the early 1930’s there was a full division in China.

So in the 1940’s the League had to be reinvented as a United Nations and this time the pressure was on to gain its acceptance and validity. Agencies and bodies were created to spread the word. This has lasted as an organisation but it has not stopped the wars, it has simply institutionalised them giving a patina of justified policy to an often grubby business.

In the meantime, European politicians, unable to find ways of making trade agreements between each other came to the conclusions that some sort of bigger club was necessary. The history of all this is on the web. It was all done to stop wars between us and so divert spending on the military to consumerism.

Unluckily, the drive to consumerism and money creation needed a single currency because a number of states were unable to manage their finances and economies to allow reliable exchange of currencies and other complications. So we have the Eurozone.

This was a political decision, the economics we were all told would have to follow and it would all mean that busts would be abolished and life was going to one long boom so get out there and borrow and spend. The idea of getting and spending was old style economics, we were now in a new world.

The governments went out and borrowed and most of their peoples did the same. The UK, not in the Eurozone but too closely linked because of trade and finance to avoid it, like all the others found ways of disguising debt and putting off payment.

Now it is falling apart in its present form and all the effort is being made to prop it up and keep it going until at least the next election here or there or until someone invents a perpetual motion machine that will allow perpetual energy.

One Big Idea is the political union of Europe so that real decisions can be made and applied. That this will be done by a largely unrepresentative government which has shown staggering incompetence in financial and other management does not seem to matter. It is posited as the only answer.

Putting Brussels in charge of the riot is a little like locking all the violent drunks in the local distillery. It may look the only place for them in the sort term, but what happens when they have to be let loose?

In the last century or a little more, the Chinese Empire fell apart and look what happened, ditto The Ottoman Empire, The Austro-Hungarian Empire, The Russian Empire and the British Empire. When Empires fall it is usually a bad business.

Next up as well as The Fall of the American Empire, will we have The Fall of the European Empire?

Monday 12 September 2011

Shock Thought For The Day

Just as Anand Giridharadas in the New York Times on 9 September said, I never thought to see the day when I would be retailing some of The Thoughts Of Sarah Palin. They are about what government we have in our modern “democracies” and who controls it.

For some of us in the UK do these ideas strike a chord? It is a pity that because of the UK media such views are unlikely to be given any coverage in our own. Hat tip to Some Assembly Required one of the liberal web sites of the USA.

Quote from NYT:

So here is something I never thought I would write: a column about Sarah Palin’s ideas………………..There was plenty of the usual Palin schtick, words that make clear that she is not speaking to everyone but to a particular strain of American. ………But when her throat was cleared at last, Ms. Palin had something considerably more substantive to say.

She made three interlocking points.

First, that the United States is now governed by a “permanent political class,” drawn from both parties, that is increasingly cut off from the concerns of regular people.

Second, that these Republicans and Democrats have allied with big business to mutual advantage to create what she called “corporate crony capitalism.”

Third, that the real political divide in the United States may no longer be between friends and foes of Big Government, but between friends and foes of vast, remote, unaccountable institutions (both public and private).

In supporting her first point, about the permanent political class, she attacked both parties’ tendency to talk of spending cuts while spending more and more; to stoke public anxiety about a credit downgrade, but take a vacation anyway; to arrive in Washington of modest means and then somehow ride the gravy train to fabulous wealth.

She observed that 7 of the 10 wealthiest counties in the United States happen to be suburbs of the nation’s capital.

Her second point, about money in politics, helped to explain the first. The permanent class stays in power because it positions itself between two deep troughs: the money spent by the government and the money spent by big companies to secure decisions from government that help them make more money.

“Do you want to know why nothing ever really gets done?” she said, referring to politicians. “It’s because there’s nothing in it for them. They’ve got a lot of mouths to feed, a lot of corporate lobbyists and a lot of special interests that are counting on them to keep the good times and the money rolling along.”

Because her party has agitated for the wholesale deregulation of money in politics and the unshackling of lobbyists, these will be heard in some quarters as sacrilegious words.

Ms. Palin’s third point was more striking still: in contrast to the sweeping paeans to capitalism and the free market delivered by the Republican presidential candidates whose ranks she has yet to join, she sought to make a distinction between good capitalists and bad ones.

The good ones, in her telling, are those small businesses that take risks and sink and swim in the churning market; the bad ones are well connected mega corporations that live off bailouts, dodge taxes and profit terrifically while creating no jobs.

Strangely, she was saying things that liberals might like, if not for Ms. Palin’s having said them.

“This is not the capitalism of free men and free markets, of innovation and hard work and ethics, of sacrifice and of risk,” she said of the crony variety. She added: “It’s the collusion of big government and big business and big finance to the detriment of all the rest, to the little guys. It’s a slap in the face to our small business owners, the true entrepreneurs, the job creators accounting for 70 percent of the jobs in America.”

Is there a hint of a political breakthrough hiding in there?

The political conversation in the United States is paralyzed by a simplistic division of labor. Democrats protect that portion of human flourishing that is threatened by big money and enhanced by government action. Republicans protect that portion of human flourishing that is threatened by big government and enhanced by the free market.

What is seldom said is that human flourishing is a complex and delicate thing, and that we needn’t choose whether government or the market jeopardizes it more, because both can threaten it at the same time.

Ms. Palin may be hinting at a new political alignment that would pit a vigorous localism against a kind of national-global institutionalism.

On one side would be those Americans who believe in the power of vast, well developed institutions like Goldman Sachs, the Teamsters Union, General Electric, Google and the U.S. Department of Education to make the world better.

On the other side would be people who believe that power, whether public or private, becomes corrupt and unresponsive the more remote and more anonymous it becomes; they would press to live in self-contained, self-governing enclaves that bear the burden of their own prosperity.
No one knows yet whether Ms. Palin will actually run for president. But she did just get more interesting.


Ms. Palin has had some rough handling by the US and World media and indeed may not be amongst the intellectuals or even those who are best educated. But perhaps her critics have been protesting too much.

Sunday 11 September 2011

An Anniversary And Questions Of Security

There is enough comment about the tenth anniversary of 9/11 for me to avoid saying too much. What I can say was that with two of ours working over the Atlantic at that time, in and out of New York and the World Trade Centre on occasion it was much too close for comfort.

It was at just on 2.00 p.m. UK time that I got the call from Miami to tell me to stay out of London and look at CNN news, so I was watching from then on. We did go to the Prom’ the next day and there was a good deal of discussion about how the BBC might react with the Last Night.

In 2001 a good many of the Arena season ticket holders including ourselves decided not to go to the Last Night because it was going to be an awkward compromise. But for most of us the fact that on the Friday night there was to be the Verdi Requiem was the best way to finish the season.

One of the ‘planes that was used in the attack flew out of Boston Logan and it was only days later that we flew in. The flight was less than half full. The security at Logan was a shambles. But the Americans were both surprised and happy to see us.

We were staying with family and meeting their friends and others and I think saw the reactions as typical of the great majority of Americans at that time. It was a severe shock then and it is a shock that they have not forgotten. Much as I have not forgotten what happened to Bootle and Liverpool.

When the London 7/7 bombings occurred again we were up in London the following day. It was very quiet and people left early to go home. The security at the Prom’s Last Night two months later was almost as bad as that at Logan. There was too much posturing and too little effective communication by the security goons.

The threats are still there and perhaps it is only a matter of time before in one place or another that the next bad one will occur. Can we get our act together?

Saturday 10 September 2011

When Will The Music Stop?

After some light relief recently, if you can call it that, it is time for some more serious matters. The Oil Drum link below is a post of about 2200 words that attempts to deal with the complications of the future.

It begins by asking how energy needs can be met other than oil or fossil fuels. This is complex enough. But then it is argued that it depends on money and that the oil boom and debt are intertwined. This is not all because on that our current political and government structures have been built.

So the changes that need to happen do not just mean the ways and means of oil supply, they entail a profound reordering of international finance and political systems.

That this may not be easy is seen in another post, hat tip Subrosa, from Planet Save on just who calls the shots in the world of today. Apparently, an analysis suggests that a small number of corporations are key to the world economy and finance.

The implication of this is that it is not the nation states that rule, it is them. They do not merely provide for the states and their governments, they provide the cash till for the corporations to take in the money.

What this can mean on our own little patch is indicated by Richard Murphy drawing on other sources showing one small way by which a small number of banks are doing well out of public subsidy.

And now for the football results, sponsored by your favourite gambling firm…………

Friday 9 September 2011

Choose Your Own Disaster

Not many days ago a group of geophysics experts and scientists gathered in California to discuss the prediction of earthquakes. After many fine minds have worked and studied the issues a good many feel that whilst it may be possible to identify the areas of higher risk, accurate prediction is unlikely.

Inevitably, the ancient gods then decided to show them who was boss to hit Washington DC with one large enough to shake things up a little. Just to add a touch of interest they have sent in a number of hurricanes and typhoons to make the point. One, Katia, is said to be on course to visit the UK in the next few days.

At about the same time another group of experts declared that the possibility of a volcanic eruption disrupting air travel was unlikely for a while to come. Within days Katla in Iceland became twitchy. This one could be bigger than last years and have widespread effects.

But there is another much bigger and more dangerous one that has signalled a swarm of minor earthquakes. This can be a precursor to an eruption. It is Mount Tambora in Indonesia.

Just put Mount Tambora 1815 into search and see what it can do. 1816 was “the year without summer” and the dire effects lasted rather longer than that. If this one goes up with a full eruption it could be a world disaster and not just one that causes some grief in the airport waiting rooms.

There are other seismic type events and some of those who follow finance and money in relation to chaos theory and collapse dynamics like to see patterns. When what seems a minor event or arrangement occurs what can happen.

For one in this area take a look at the website run by Nicholas Shaxson and the story today, Friday 9 September about “Britain, New Offshore Gateway To China”.

A tale about the renminbi is not as immediately exciting as a big bang of one sort or another. But if what is happening does indicate the attempt by China to establish its currency as the world’s reserve instead of the dollar then it will mean immense changes to the whole of our thinking and ideas about world finance.

What it also means is that the UK is deserting the USA and tying itself to the Chinese financial system via the City of London. This is being done by stealth.

Our only hope is that Tambora will see off the present world financial system in the disruption it could bring. It has done it before and can do it again. According to Subrosa, if the clouds clear you could see a supernova out there tonight.

In the old days this would have been seen as an omen of the gods.

Thursday 8 September 2011

By The Rivers Of Babylon

In the Oil Drum there is an article on Saudi Arabia that managed to mix oil and water. It seems the two go together much more easily than we think. In SA their water supply largely depends on oil as it is produced by desalination from sea water.

This process is not cheap and does take a good deal of oil. As the population of SA grows and as they are using more water per head in common with many other countries they are now coming to a point of Peak Water.

This is not all as there has been a policy of increasing agricultural production for their food needs and this involves extensive irrigation. Some crops are thirsty and need a lot more than others. Once grains are being grown inevitably some is then used for fodder for stock to produce more meat etc.

Additionally, SA has been developing industry and other activities some of which need augmented water supplies. Add to that the fresh water that needs to be pumped down oil wells to force up oil in areas of reserve that are reducing and it is becoming very complicated.

As SA needs to use more of the oil it is producing, necessarily this impacts on potential exports. In the event of world oil prices rising this has its effects on the overall balance of SA’s financing.

The oil kingdoms and others have been a key source of finance in these troubled times so the less they have to spare then the less we have to spare as well. The intricacies of all this have not been lost on the governments of nations who are in increasing oil deficit, notably the USA and the UK.

Additionally, in the UK the SA elite have been especially active in various ways relating to our management of financial affairs to the relief and gratitude to many of our elite; notably, those who are centred in London and need the place propping up.

What has to happen is that the government of SA will need to invest a great deal of wealth in expanding its desalination and water distribution systems. Also, as the population has come to expect cheap water as well as other benefits politically it will be very difficult to increase prices by any amount.

It this pattern repeats itself in any number of other oil exporting nations on top of their own increasing demand for fuel and petro-chemical based consumer products then a great deal of future oil production may already be spoken for.

So if the interest in what happens in Libya and elsewhere becomes more frantic in the coming months it may not be just a question of oil and gas but one of water. Perhaps the Coalition will sing Psalm 137 at the beginning of Cabinet Meetings.

Personally, my answer is to take more whisky with it.

Wednesday 7 September 2011

The Generation Game

As I have gone broody over computers time has been spent into looking around. This has not been easy since it means getting the head round all sorts of things that are not familiar. At the shop, going along the displays it is like an old fairground, one amazing spectacular after another to make you part with your hard earned cash.

What this brief excursion into current retail reality has taught me is that the world is changing ever faster and this means many of the jobs in it as well. Communication, the transmission of information, personal contact, data storage, search and research has been transformed. Things that might take days or weeks of running about and effort can be dealt with almost immediately.

This all has its costs. At one time the experience of age and of having lived long would be a vital source of information in a group or community. The ancient who knows how the river can flood because they remember the one of half a century ago or who knows the fields, the stars and the way of the weather was a vital and respected person.

Today the older person who is adrift of all the technology or who does not realise what modern communication systems are and how they work is on the wrong side of a deepening divide. Those who cannot afford to buy into this and are also adrift are equally at a loss. There are many in the Third World also not connected.

It was a strange experience sitting in somebody’s home sipping at a cup of tea while they went on with an international conference on a business matter. Would it be impolite for me to join in or bad manners to stay out? Given the sort of contribution made to conferences and meetings I have attended in the past probably it was better to stick to finding the bottom of the biscuit tin.

Yet I am someone who, because of the accidents of time and place, has a little more experience and knowledge of what is involved. Also, I have ready personal access to other people who know a lot more and are up with the latest developments. If I am beginning to find it hard to stay in the game then it is bad news for the great majority of my generation and perhaps the one following.

One problem with age is the misunderstandings that can arise. Checking out the webcam on one machine for sale when the picture came up I pulled a few faces. The persons across from me looked alarmed as you might expect. I was checking out the response speed and quality of picture but I suspect they thought something else entirely.

The realisation that nowadays I work in a very different way from the past and if I continue to try to keep up it will change further and more radically is a daunting one. Procedures and methods I learned in the mid 20th Century were not too far removed from those of the late 19th, give or take a typewriter or telephone or two.

The economic upshot is that we have an electorate and population now with many at the senior end who have little or no real understanding what most modern work is like or what has to be done to earn incomes whilst the younger ones are on a treadmill of change that is rapidly running faster and faster.

Will the generation gap become a generation war?

Monday 5 September 2011

Hound Dog

The problem is that for all the information, relentless media and floods of reports and figures very few people if any know what is going on. Not only that but for the most part they have only a hazy idea of why and that is conditioned by old ideas and the need to defer to present ideologies.

We are told that to make some readjustments to banking practice will mean lower growth or even a reduction in GDP. As in the present calculations that money which is being slushed rapidly around bank accounts counts as economic activity then just how much does it matter if there is less of this and more of sensible husbandry?

How much “economic growth” in the past has come from the effects of a host of regulations driving up costs and adding financial complications to the activities of almost everyone. Indeed GDP will go up but efficiency and capability will go down.

If you have a hound and you want to hunt with it, do you use a dog that goes after the prey or one that chases its own tail? At all levels in government and in the management of a large part of our real economic activity there is a lot more chasing of tails than used to be the case and a lot less effective work.

So much of the material is put out is spin, public relations and often plain self interest statements. All too often “sponsored research” means findings made to order with the figures manipulated or a design that is made to produce a pre-determined result.

Some recent memoirs and other revelations tell of key figures who have neither a grip on the situation nor adequate reliable information. Decisions are driven by the narrowest of short term interests. Immediate gain and high returns are demanded without much of any regard to even the medium term.

There are said to be “gaps” opening up as well as increasing “disconnections” in a world that is globally wired up and in 24 contact with almost everywhere else. We demand total privacy whilst frantically socially networking and striving for our 15 minutes of fame. We want it all so long as we all have more than the next person.

National governments have surrendered their power to irresponsible global elites. We demand democracy and then give all our attention to football and celebrities. We complain about the way the world is going and then do not bother to address the issues.

In the meantime this has been happening:

In order to pay all our debts we need “growth”, but if this is the only growth we have been getting and will get we are not going to repay our debts.

Something has to give.

Saturday 3 September 2011

Where My Caravan Is Restive

“How horrible, fantastic, incredible, it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.”

The quotation is from Neville Chamberlain in September 1938 in a broadcast referring to the Czechoslovakian Crisis. It is not in my memory; perhaps I was scrumping or doing something equally socially useful at the time.

It might well apply to the current worries about the Bank of America in the USA although it is now apparent that a number of UK banks are embroiled in the disastrous mortgage mess there. It is going to cost someone a lot of money. Mostly it will be ordinary taxpayers.

So it is not so far away as it seems, it could be your own bank, whether it be nationalized or not. But it is more than that. As a consequence of the default of the major property groups owned by the Tchenquiz brothers the Bank of America now has control of the relevant assets put up as securities.

These include companies that hold the freeholds to a major part of the UK leasehold property sector and also those providing property management services to a high proportion of leasehold developments, critically including a large number in the retirement sector.

At least we think that it will be the Bank of America that owns these companies. But as a great deal of assets and income streams have been deployed into leveraging a variety of financial instruments for trading and speculation, it is far from clear who really owns what. The slew of toxic debts has meant that nobody anywhere may know.

In the media reports and discussion as to what is going on, there is some UK comment but not a great deal. It is almost certain that the government will not realize that a lot of UK property assets are on the slab in the USA and what the impact and effects may be if it all goes wrong is not known.

If the Bank of America can unload this unexpected burden onto someone then who can it be? Perhaps one of the larger Private Equity Groups, probably offshore somewhere, or the Chinese, always eager for a punt, or the Arabs, persistent collectors of property assets for the long term, or even the Russians, looking to put more squeeze on UK property.

Whoever it will be, it will not be good news for those involved. The only certainties are that the new owners will want to extract a much larger amount from these investments and almost all of it will go offshore one way or another given recent deals made by the government with financial interests.

This might well happen when the US authorities whack some of our big banks for a substantial amount of compensation money that they so badly need for their own property sector. The quarrel in a far away country could become a riot at home.

Go long on second hand caravan prices?

Friday 2 September 2011

Taking To The Road

Yesterday, we spent many hours out in the sunshine. The trouble was it was on our local motorway which had been closed due to a bad accident with serious injuries. There is a stretch that is notoriously risky which has more shunts than an old BR marshalling yard. Clunk click every trip almost, but not the seat belts, the cars.

Quite a few pulled over onto the hard shoulder, to nap, have lunch or in some cases pick blackberries over the fence. Personally, we would not care to eat soft fruit that had grown next to one of the busiest motorway stretches but we have always been fussy eaters.

It gave me ample time to watch the traffic on the other carriageway and to look around. There were a lot of heavy vehicles about. What was striking was how many were from Eastern Europe and the The Balkans. The proportion has been increasingly over the last decade and is now high.

There are others from European destinations but their numbers have dropped slightly although there are still many Spanish food wagons. The numbers that have dropped substantially are the UK and Irish ones. One of our local international truck companies has now just closed as have others recently.

Sightings of Scots vehicles are quite rare apart from Eddie Stobart, but this company now has a European base. There are few Welsh and from many parts of England hardly any, notably the old industrial areas, although Norfolk Line has a few.

One complication is how the container ships are now directed. These may have changed patterns but it is uncertain. One thing that is certain is that the freight is not going by rail. If anything rail freight seems to be down as well.

What does this tell us about the real Balance of Trade? If this small sample which may not be typical and have its own distortions is any guide then it is not looking good for the future. If we have a declining balance in real terms then this will impact on other sectors.

If it means we are now more beholden to the old “invisibles” then this is not good news given what globalisation has given us in recent years. BBC4 ran a repeat of its history of container shipping to remind us of how changed it all is.

What is tragic is that during the 1960’s and 1970’s the UK and especially the Civil Service and governments simply did not register what was beginning to happen. It was not until the 1980’s that realisation happened and little of this was due to Mrs. Thatcher or for that matter Mr. Callaghan. They had been presented with change on a scale they could not have imagined.

It is my personal feeling that we are seeing some kind of change of this order now taking place under our noses and there are no UK politicians or civil servants who either recognise or understand what is happening and will happen regardless of all their policies and programmes.

Is there honey still for tea?