06 February 2016

Americans are crazy

The Times reports:
It is the rock-star vegetable of the moment, the brassica with brass, the unsung flower that flowered: cauliflower has hit the big time.
Demand fuelled by low-carb diet fads and supply problems arising from a cold snap in California and Arizona have driven prices in America for the humble vegetable to the absurd peaks usually reserved for exotic foods.
Shoppers have reported paying up to $8 a head — three times higher than normal. Mellissa Sevigny, a low-carb blogger in New York state, wrote a furious “break-up” letter to cauliflower. “You have turned into a real diva,” she complained after being charged $6.99 for “the tiniest, most anaemic head of cauliflower I had ever seen”. She added: “Someone needs to tell you to get over yourself and I love you enough to be that person.”
When will they discover the swede?


Quote of the week

From David Cameron's diary:
“So Boris,” I say. “It’s crunch time. Are you in or out?”
“Do you mean in of out?” says Boris Johnson. “Or out of in?”
I rub my eyes. Only with Boris do I need to have these conversations. It’s infuriating. Everybody agrees that his position is of paramount importance to whether my EU negotiations are considered a success or not. And yet, he never seems terribly interested in them.
“In of in,” I say. “Or out in out.”
“Wait,” says Boris. “How many referendums are we having?”
“One,” I say, firmly. Then I tell him that things are looking up. Because, after months of negotiation, I’m on the verge of striking a deal with Donald Tusk.
“That’s odd,” says Boris. “You’d think he’d be busy in New Hampshire.”
“Tusk,” I say. “Tusk.”
“Don’t tut at me,” says Boris, crossly. “You’re only the prime minister.”


For rugger buggers

If you have nothing else to do, you can watch the Georgia - Germany match here, live at 10.00 GMT, followed by the Russia - Spain match at 12.00 GMT.

I understand that there are some other international matches on later today ...


A result to cherish

Scotland rugby teams have had a fairly lean time of it in recent years, especially against the auld enemy.  So last night's match at Cumbernauld by the Under 20s against their English counterparts was something to savour.

As ever, the English lads were bigger and heavier than the Scots and they duly dominated the set-pieces.  But the Scots tackled like demons.  Even so it was surprising that the Scots picked up a couple of tries in the first half against two penalties for the English, turning around at 12-6 for the home side.

In the second half, English domination of the scrums intensified and wave after wave of white attacks were stoutly resisted by the boys in blue. Nevertheless, a brace of forays into the English 25 led to two more opportunist tries for the Scots, doubling their score to 24 points and leaving the English to reflect on their utter failure to convert possession and territory into points.

The future's bright and it's Scottish blue!


05 February 2016

Is this necessary?

Oh dear, diacritics in danger.  The BBC reports (disdainfully refusing to employ the appropriate accents):
Suggested new spellings for more than 2,000 French words have sparked controversy.
The Academie Francaise proposed changes in 1990, including the deletion of the circumflex accent and hyphens in some words, but they were optional.
Now publishers say they will include the new spellings in schoolbooks.
France's education minister has said the changes will not culminate in the end of circumflex and that both spellings will remain correct.
La fin mince of the wedge, I believe.

As Le Monde makes clear, the circumflex will be retained in some cases:

...  la réforme ne « tue » pas vraiment l’accent circonflexe. En réalité, celui-ci serait facultatif sur les « i » et les « u », mais demeurerait sur les « a » et « o ». En outre, il resterait employé dans d’autres cas :

  • Au passé simple : nous suivîmes, nous voulûmes, nous aimâmes ; vous suivîtes, vous voulûtes, vous aimâtes…

  • À l’imparfait du subjonctif (troisième personne du singulier) : qu’il suivît, qu’il voulût, qu’il aimât…

  • Au plus-que-parfait du subjonctif : qu’il eût suivi, il eût voulu, qu’il eût aimé…

  • Lorsqu’il apporte une distinction de sens utile : dû, jeûne, mûr, sûr… Dès lors que l’enlever créerait une confusion de sens entre deux mots (« mûr » et « mur », par exemple).

So the circumflex disappears above i and u (apart from those pedants with a predilection for the imperfect and pluperfect subjunctives) but is retained for a and o.  Where is the logic in that?  And what about e?

It's all a bit of a mystery ...


03 February 2016

What to make of the EU deal?

Well, don't expect any help from The Guardian:
There was still a long way to go and the deal was far from sealed, Dave soothingly cajoled, but “what we’ve got is what I basically asked for”. It was the basically that gave the game away, because basically he hasn’t. There’s a huge gulf between what he promised in the 2015 election manifesto and what he’s hoping to get but hasn’t yet got. “People said this wouldn’t happen,” he continued. But it has. Exactly as everyone predicted.
“At the beginning, there were people who said I should start the negotiations by kicking over the table,” Dave said, waving his arms and pumping his fists. The bags that have appeared under his eyes over the past few months jogged up and down in time. Still, the Siemens employees who had been co-opted as his audience remained largely unmoved – and just as confused as Dave about what had and hadn’t been achieved. Some were wearing white coats; waiting to take Dave away, presumably.
Dave dug deep in search of the Cicero within. No joy there. “But I chose to go about it in a calm and measured way,” he said. So calm and measured that he has managed to negotiate almost everything the EU was already quite happy to concede. “We’ve got an emergency brake on benefits to migrants,” he said. “It’s a very special emergency brake. It’s an emergency brake that will last for X and only if Y and Z also happen.” And what were X, Y and Z? Dave couldn’t say, because the other 27 countries hadn’t yet agreed on the exact definitions of both emergency and brake. In mathematical terms, it’s known as the Cameron conjecture.
Some of us would describe it as a farce ...

29 January 2016

Sacré bleu!

What is the world coming to?  The Times reports:
There was a time when no French village would be without its flour-covered baker — an endless source of bread and gossip.
Now this most emblematic of Gallic figures is being replaced by a machine after the invention of the automatic baguette distributor.
Hundreds of the vending machines, which cost about €9,000 each, have appeared on streets across the country, and manufacturers say there is no end in sight to the rise in sales.
Mon dieu!  Qu'est-ce qui se passe?  Où sont les neiges d'antan?  Foutu ...

Quote of the day

From The Guardian (here):
... for three years, Google’s tax avoidance has bubbled away in the news and calls for any kind of collective action have never got further than a few comment pieces and a bit of noise on social media. Four years ago, one tweeter nailed the obvious reason why. “That’s it. I’m boycotting Google,” he wrote. “Apart from their maps. And their search engine. And the docs. And Gmail. Other than that, we’re over.”
You may wish to note that Blogger, which is the cost-free host of this blog, is also part of Google.  As is YouTube.  Oh, and also the Chrome browser ...


28 January 2016

Pots and kettles

CityAM reports:
Media mogul Rupert Murdoch took to Twitter today to blast politicians in the UK and the US for giving Google an easy way out of questions over its tax arrangements.
Google recently reached a £130m deal with HMRC over corporation tax claims covering a 10-year period.
However, Murdoch referred to the payment as a "token amount", handed over for "PR purposes". 
In a series of tweets, the News Corp boss accused politicians of being "easily awed" by tech industry figures such as Google chairman Eric Schmidt, and said the tech giant had "planted dozens of their people" in governments around the world.
I have a vague recollection of senior figures in the Murdoch empire getting close to the Prime Minister - country suppers, loan of a horse, meetings on yachts, etc ...   But perhaps the old monster is merely envious.


That's me, probably


The man who changed his mind

27 January 2016

Google's money tree

Like Topsy, it just grows and grows.  The Guardian reports:
Alphabet, Google’s parent company, will report its 2015 earnings next week and is expected to confirm that offshore cash funds have grown by about $4bn in just 12 months.
Offshore reserves of $43bn, held largely through Bermuda, represent profits from markets outside the US. Of these markets, the UK is the largest, accounting for 17% of non-US sales. But latest published accounts show Google’s UK subsidiary paid just £21m in tax for 2013.
Google’s tax structure means income from many major overseas markets – including £4.56bn from the UK – is booked through Ireland. Much of it is then bounced through the Netherlands and back to Ireland and Bermuda. These strategies are known in tax jargon as the “Double Irish” and the “Dutch Sandwich”.
 Tax strategies have nicknames?


26 January 2016


Even The Times thinks it is on the dodgy side:
If Google thought it would win brownie points from its tax deal with the UK authorities, it misjudged things badly.
It might not be terribly fair. At least Google is coughing up £130 million more than it might have done otherwise had it dug in its heels. In future, it will pay a bit more than it did in the past. Yet the deal looks terrible, playing into the hands of those who see tax for multinationals as optional and usually cooked up in cosy sweetheart pacts with the Revenue.
The timing of the announcement, 10 o’clock on Friday night, looked suspicious, as did the paucity of hard information in the Google statement. George Osborne’s hailing of it as a “major success” was not a good idea. People are more likely to remember Boris Johnson’s verdict: “Derisory.”
So there you go - mud all over the government, the HMRC and Google ...


21 January 2016

You know you're getting old ...

... when you accept that, while Abba may be older than they used to be:

they are growing older rather more gracefully than you are.


20 January 2016

Quote of the day (well, a couple of days ago, actually)

Alex Massie of The Spectator channels his inner Clint Eastwood:
Support for the Union – the British Union, that is – has never been more provisional or contractual. The idea of independence cannot be put away or dismissed as unthinkable. It is plainly thinkable and thoughts, once thunk, cannot be unthunked.
So imagine a situation in which, just for the sake of argument, Scotland voted 65-35 (as the latest poll suggests might happen) to stay In but the UK as a whole voted 51-49 to Leave. That would be a clear, unambiguous, declaration of difference between Scotland and England. (A reminder, too, that though the Scots and the English largely think alike on most subjects, europe is a large and, in fact, ever-heftier exception to that general rule.)
Sure, it would be a decision made by Britain for Britain but it would not be universally perceived as such in Scotland. Here it would be seen by many people as though Scotland – at present much more than a region but not quite a state – was being forced to leave the EU despite manifestly preferring not to.
And that would change things. It would leave people here questioning whether Britain was still home, whether there was still a future here. At the very least, it would open space for a fresh discussion on this question. What kind of country is this? What kind of country would it like to be? If one jig is up, another ship can sail too. Perceptions would shift; impressions would change.
I assure Brexiters that a post-Brexit indyref campaign that argued Scotland cannot afford to be independent or in the EU if England is not is an argument that cannot be won with honour even if it were won at all. It would leave many Scots thinking, Well, maybe that’s true. But we’ll no be told that by the likes of you. We’ll make our own decisions, for ourselves, for better or even for worse....In the end it is simple and it comes down to this: Is there a risk Brexit might lead to the break-up of Britain? People who’ve been wrong about everything in the past tell us there isn’t. Other people, including many people who actually live in Scotland, suggest there is a risk.Perhaps it is only a small risk; it remains, I think, a risk. An entirely avoidable one, too.
So this is what it ends as: I know what you’re thinking Brexiters, ‘Did he fire six shots or only five?’ Well to tell you the truth in all this excitement I kinda lost track myself. But [being that this is a powerful set of constitutional problems] you’ve gotta ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?  



The constant admonitions to reduce our booze intake appear to be having little effect.  The Guardian reports:
Soaring sales of sparkling wine, beer and gin at bargain prices helped supermarkets to a much happier than expected Christmas, figures show.
Total sales of beer, wine and spirits rose 2.2% across the grocery market in the three months to 3 January, according to analysts at Kantar Worldpanel, boosted by an 11% increase in sales of sparkling wines.
Sales were driven by bargain prices, with 16 out of the top 20 spirits cheaper than a year earlier, according to Nielsen. The market research group said the grocers had used discounts to pull in shoppers.
Sales of gin in the major supermarkets rose by more than £14m to £121m, making it the fastest growing spirit, followed by cream liqueurs, including Bailey’s Original, which was on offer at Asda and Morrisons, Nielsen said. But the researchers also marked out sparkling wine as the standout category, with nearly 16% more bottles sold as prices fell.

Disgraceful.  Mine's another G&T, Jeeves ...


What is she on?

17 January 2016

Quote of the day

From my old acquaintance, Will Hutton, in The Observer (here):
The Chinese economy is a giant Ponzi scheme. Tens of trillions of dollars are owed to essentially bankrupt banks – and worse, bankrupt near-banks that operate in the murky shadowlands of a deeply dysfunctional mix of Leninism and rapacious capitalism. The Chinese Communist party has bought itself temporary legitimacy by its shameless willingness to direct state-owned banks to lend to consumers and businesses with little attention to their creditworthiness. Thus it has lifted growth and created millions of jobs.
It is an edifice waiting to implode. Chinese business habitually bribes Communist officials to put pressure on their bankers to forgive loans or commute interest; most loans only receive interest payments haphazardly or not at all. If the losses were crystallised, the banking system would be bust overnight. On top, huge loans have been made to China’s vast oil, gas and chemical industries on the basis of oil being above $60 a barrel, so more losses are in prospect.
Hard to disagree.  But what to do about it?  Aye, there's the rub ....


16 January 2016

Music of the week

Quote of the day

From The Independent (here):
Are your feet icy cold despite you wearing thick socks and slippers? Is your boiler revealing itself to be on its last legs? Did you go to work in dank darkness and return in the very same dank darkness? Are you fatter than you were in October and have no one to blame but yourself and a tub of Lindt milk-chocolate reindeers? Has a curious despondency over the point of human existence enveloped your soul? Well, this is what January in Great Britain feels like. The sooner you accept it the better.
Being back in Edinburgh is not actually as depressing as the above might imply.  But "dank darkness" rings a bell.  Meanwhile my chums in Spain are still sipping their beers on the terrace in the sunshine. As the taxi driver from the airport said "why did you come back?".

But needs must.  And there is a perverse calvinistic pleasure in tholing the worst that the weather throws at us.  Besides, it is difficult to find a decent mutton pie in Andalucia ...


15 January 2016

Er, no thanks

Not my idea of a party.  CityAM reports:
If you want to celebrate the Queen's birthday with her in what will be one of the biggest street parties the country has ever seen, you will need to fork out £150.
Tickets to the Queen's 90th birthday party in The Mall, Westminster, are to be sold for the Patron's Lunch on 12 June, her grandson announced. 
While most of the 10,000 guests will be from organisations associated with the monarch, 1,000 tickets will be released in a public ballot in February, Peter Phillips said. The winners will be able to buy the tickets from the event's website.
So, one of the richest women in the UK is charging her subjects to attend a birthday party?  She has no shame.


13 January 2016

Apocalypse now?

I see that the Royal Bank of Scotland has been doom-mongering:
... RBS advice, which warned that investors face a “cataclysmic year” where stock markets could fall by up to 20% and oil could slump to $16 a barrel.
In a note to its clients the bank said: “Sell everything except high-quality bonds. This is about return of capital, not return on capital. In a crowded hall, exit doors are small.” It said the current situation was reminiscent of 2008, when the collapse of the Lehman Brothers investment bank led to the global financial crisis. This time China could be the crisis point, RBS said.
 A bit late in the day, I would have thought, as the FTSE-100 has fallen from over 7000 last April to substantially below 6000 today.  And, anyway, if you liquidate all of your investments, what are you going to do with the cash? Stick it in a bank account where it will earn less than peanuts in interest?  Even buying additional property is subject to increased attention from the taxman.

But you can still find shares at relatively cheap prices offering reasonable dividend prospects, especially in the utilities, telecomms and retail sectors.  Probably best avoid oil companies and miners for now.


12 January 2016

Migration explained

A charmed life

The teflon civil servant.  The Times reports:
Lin Homer, the chief executive of Revenue and Customs, has announced that she is quitting her job only two weeks after being made a dame.
She will leave in April after a barrage of criticism from MPs over her performance at HMRC and at the UK Borders Agency before that.
Wikipedia has the mud attaching to her stellar career:
In 2005, she was criticised by the Election Commissioner for failings in her role as returning officer during a postal vote-rigging scandal involving Labour candidates the previous year, described by the Commissioner as one that "would disgrace a banana republic", and involving hundreds of votes failing to be counted.
The Home Office was re-organised in 2008, with the formation of the Border and Immigration Agency, later renamed the UK Border Agency, of which Homer became the first chief executive. In 2013, Homer's tenure at UKBA was criticised for its "catastrophic leadership failure" by the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee, which said it had been repeatedly misled by the Agency. Committee chairman Keith Vaz said her performance was "more like the scene of a Whitehall farce than a government agency operating in the 21st century".
In March 2013, HMRC was criticised by the House of Commons Public Accounts Select Committee for its "unambitious and woefully inadequate" response to a report from the UK National Audit Officein December 2012 concerning poor customer service by HMRC.  Homer has said that the agency has "turned a corner" in dealing with the 79 million calls and 25 million pieces of post received by HMRC each year, having injected £34 million to tackle the problem with that aim of reaching a 90 per cent success rate.

Happy retirement to Dame Lin.  No doubt a lucrative post in the financial sector awaits ...


11 January 2016

Jolly japes

According to The Times, accountants are having fun.  Yes, I know it goes totally against the grain, but there you are:
There has never been a more fun time to be an accountant. Yes, really. This week, after the small matter of 20 years chatting about it, the international accounting standards board finally will abolish the last bastion of off-balance sheet financing with new rules on operating leases.
All companies lease something or other, but it is big-ticket leasers, such as airlines or retailers with multiple rented aircraft or properties, that will be affected most.
The new rules mean the value of that, say, five-year lease on a plane or shop will have to be recognised as an asset on the balance sheet. And its total cost over that time will have to be registered as an upfront liability.
This plainly is going to wreak financial reporting havoc, with higher interest and amortisation costs in the profit and loss account while debt numbers get appreciably larger. There will not be a banking covenant in the land that will be left unlooked at. Key performance indicators such as return on capital employed will have to be recalibrated.
Gee whiz - how terrifically exciting.


09 January 2016

Music of the week

It's a tough old life. leading the Labour Party

From Jeremy Corbyn's diary - according to The Times (here):
I’m locked in the opposition offices in the House of Commons, beginning work on my new year reshuffle. Shouldn’t take long.
“It’s a shame George Galloway lost his seat,” says John McDonnell. “Because he’d have made an excellent shadow defence secretary.”
I tell him I’m actually thinking of Diane Abbott, but Diane says she’s quite happy in her current role.
“Although I cannot at this precise moment remember,” she adds, “what it actually is.”
Then Seumas, my press guy, says the Blarites are all spreading rumours about a purge.
“We can’t have that,” says Diane. “You need to purge them.”
“Or kneecap them,” says John.
“Stop it,” I say. “That’s the old politics. This is the new politics. People need to be free to disagree with me.”
Diane says she’s not sure she agrees with that.
“Kneecap her,” says John.