30 November 2013

Always look on the bright side

Veering towards the optimistic, perhaps, but Neal Ascherson is unlikely to be way off beam:
What makes cheeky Salmond think an independent Scotland would be allowed to use the pound, or enter the EU, or be admitted to Nato? Well, the answer is another question: "if it comes to it", what sort of Scotland do you want as a neighbour? Does London seriously want to force a currency frontier at the border and screw up trade with England's second biggest partner? Does Brussels really want to expel a loyal member and accelerate the EU's disintegration? Does Nato want a new hole on its east Atlantic flank? No, if the Scottish people do vote yes in September (which is still unlikely), healthy opportunism will cobble up solutions to all these problems.
Mariano Rajoy might wish to put that in his pipe and smoke it.

29 November 2013

The spirit of Christmas

Is Boris a thicko?

I have never been any good at IQ tests, so it may be that I find myself in the 16% of the population that Boris seeks to have dismissed to the outer darkness.  But what I remember of the conclusions of the controversy stirred up by Eysenck and his followers decades ago was that IQ test scores demonstrated little more than ability at doing IQ tests.  And even if there were a reliable measurement of intelligence (whatever you interpret intelligence to be), it is no more legitimate to dismiss or mock those of us with less of it than it would be to dismiss or mock those of us with lesser physical abilities.

To put it another way, would you consider Boris to be sensible?  Or wise?  Or well-balanced?  Or generous?  Or exhibiting any kind of empathy for his fellow human beings?

28 November 2013

Quote of the day

From The Guardian.  Tony Blair (yes him) explains to Rupert (yes that Rupert) the circumstances of his alleged dalliance with Wendi:
"It was like this, Rupey. I just happened to be driving my Chevvy convertible down the Pacific Highway late one July night. The hood was down. The hot tub was calling. My shirt was unbuttoned to the waist and the soft summer breeze was blowing through my hair. I had the Eagles' Witchy Woman playing on the stereo and I was just, like, you know, chillin' out, wonderin' what more I could do for world peace and how much I could get away with chargin' for my next lecture tour."


27 November 2013

Have Alex and Nicola worked this out?

Hey, it amounts to 670 pages.  Do you expect me to have read the whole thing?

But here's a bit you may find interesting.  From chapter ten of the document:
In the period between a vote for independence in the referendum on 18 September 2014 and independence day on 24 March 2016, agreements will be reached with the rest of the UK, represented by the Westminster Government, and with the EU and other international partners and organisations, on the issues set out in this guide. We are planning for independence in March 2016 to allow a realistic time for preparations and for the Scottish Parliament to take on the necessary powers.
Existing constitutional arrangements in Scotland will provide the basis for the transition to independent statehood, with additional powers transferred as soon as possible after the referendum, giving the Scottish Parliament the ability to declare independent statehood for Scotland in the name of the sovereign people of Scotland.
The key legislative steps towards independence will then be taken by the Scottish Parliament, following the initial transfer of responsibilities. As with the referendum, independence will be made in Scotland. Some parallel legislation, dealing with matters relating to the rest of the UK, will be taken forward at Westminster.
This early transfer will also enable the Scottish Parliament to extend the devolved competences of the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government into all policy areas, including those currently reserved to Westminster, for the purpose of making preparations for independence.

Aye well.  So independence is to be made in Scotland (from girders?).  But it is clear from the above text that it will also depend upon the passage of Westminster legislation to (a) transfer additional powers to the Scottish Parliament and (b) deal with certain UK consequentials (including, I  imagine, the elimination of Scottish Westminster MPs) .  Assuming a yes vote in September 2014 referendum, how likely is it that the UK Government will amend its legislative programme to rush forward a bill to transfer those required powers so that it is enacted before the May 1915 general election?  I rather doubt that the UK legislative authorities will have worked up a bill in advance of the referendum, so that they would have to start from scratch in September 2014.  Even with the best will in the world, I cannot imagine that a complex and controversial constitutional bill (which would have to be taken on the floor of the house) could be drafted, introduced and processed through both houses of parliament in the brief period of six or seven months before a general election.  It might even be argued that it would be wrong to do so, in that it would be pre-empting decisions which might more properly fall to the post-May 2015 UK government.

So the necessary legislation would more than likely be the business of the new UK government formed in May 2015.  In practice that would mean that the bill might be expected to be debated and processed through the winter of 2015-16.  In which case it would be spring 2016 before the Scottish Parliament received the necessary powers to declare nationhood and to take "the key legislative steps towards independence".

Of course, it is just possible that Labour, Tories and LibDems will agree to facilitate matters by co-operating with the SNP to make these arrangements happen more speedily, but it does not seem probable.

And that is one reason why the proposed timetable for independence seems a bit iffy ...


26 November 2013

Less bonking?

The Guardian reports:
The frequency with which Britons have sex has declined over the past decade, in what one researcher has suggested could be a "recession impact".
The third National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal) found that, on average, people aged 16-44 have sex just under five times a month, compared with figures of 6.2 for men and 6.3 for women in the previous survey, in 2000.
Or maybe Britons are being more truthful?

24 November 2013

Just like that?

The SNP is perhaps veering to the optimistic with regard to this timetable:
ALEX Salmond will this week announce that Scotland’s independence day will be 24 March, 2016, when he unveils his blueprint for breaking up the UK amid growing disagreement in the Yes campaign over plans to keep the pound.In the event of a Yes vote in next September’s referendum, Salmond proposes that Scotland will become a sovereign nation state some 18 months after the poll, on a day that marks the 309th anniversary of the 1707 Act of Union.
Assuming (somewhat heroically) that the referendum were to produce a "yes", eighteen months is not a long period of time, given the vast number of issues which would need to be resolved between the Scottish and UK adminstrations before any declaration of independence.  Furthermore, the UK administration would be most unlikely to take seriously any negotiations before the general election in May 1915; and, even after a new UK government had been elected, the prospect of detailed negotiations on matters such as debt repartition, oil revenues, defence responsibilities, currency unions, is unlikely to be one of its first priorities.  And should be we be proceeding to set up an independent state wihout sorting out where we would stand on membership of the EU and NATO, neither of which is renowned for speed of decision-making?

Domestically, there are even more tasks to undertake, from setting up a Scottish Treasury and Inland Revenue, a Scottish Ministry of Defence and a Foreign Office, to arranging for new elections on the basis that the present Scottish administration was not intended to form an independent government.  Do you really see yourself paying income tax to a Scottish Inland Revenue with effect from 16 March 2016?

Could all this happen within less than twelve months, as the SNP envisage?  Well maybe, but I rather doubt it ...

19 November 2013

Knowing your onions

Not a lot of people know this.  Bloomberg reports:
Record onion prices and the soaring cost of rice and coriander are frustrating Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan’s battle to curb inflation while supporting growth in Asia’s third-largest economy.
The wholesale-price index for onions, a staple food for India’s 1.24 billion people, has climbed 155 percent this year, hitting an all-time high of 820.5 in September, according to the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. The index, set at 100 in 2004, has almost quadrupled in 12 months. A broader measure for food is up 19 percent in 2013, while spot prices for coriander climbed about 29 percent and basmati rice advanced 40 percent.
Yes, I know - it brings tears to your eyes.


Unanswerable questions of the week

From a letter to The Guardian:
What is it with George Osborne and hard hats? Not a week goes by without the chancellor appearing on the news clad in the outfit of a manual worker. Is he going through a crisis about his masculinity, or is this an attempt to divert our attention from his Bullingdon background? Perhaps the headgear is to protect him from the flak being hurled in his direction by critics who think that his Help to Buy scheme is economically misguided. Or does he just want to be in Village People?


The last word ...

... on Qatar's new sports stadium, whixh is somewhat inadvertently shaped:
... why not have 45,000 people crammed inside a woman's reproductive system? It's not like they haven't been there before.


17 November 2013

Who's in charge?

Interesting problem, which is almost philosophical in nature, revealed by The Observer:
The government's drive to introduce more competition into the NHS is having the perverse effect of holding up the creation of world-class cancer treatment centres, the Observer can reveal.
Investigations show that individual hospitals whose roles would be downgraded under reorganisations are blocking moves to concentrate cancer services into fewer top-performing specialist centres, by claiming such mergers would be anti-competitive and would reduce patient choice.
NHS leaders, who are deeply concerned about the effect that legal disputes are having on progress, have admitted some cancer units are being allowed to carry on operating even though they do not meet the latest official guidelines on how services should best be organised.
In one case, a "rationalisation" of cancer services in and around Manchester, proposed by NHS England as a way to improve "outcomes" to world-class levels, is being challenged and held up by complaints from south Manchester NHS foundation trust and Stockport NHS foundation trust on legal grounds.
In the good old days, before the Coalition (and indeed New Labour) got their grubby mitts on it, the NHS was for most purposes a top-down, centrally controlled service where patients (customers?) were expected to take what they were given and where priorities were determined (and rationed) by Ministers and a few health bureaucrats at the centre.  This is still the case in Scotland.  This system worked more or less adequately for fifty years from its inception in the 1940s.

The attempt to introduce competition/patient choice into the system was, rightly or wrongly, a reaction against the dead hand of central control.  But of course Ministers and bureaucrats wanted to retain the option of central direction where they deemed it necessary.  Alas, once you give "the little people" a taste of freedom, they insist upon exercising it.  And as competition spreads further into the NHS, we can expect further local/central conflicts to emerge.


14 November 2013

Carney's conundrum

The Governor's work is never done.  Just because the recovery has "taken hold" does not mean that he can relax.  The Guardian obliquely hints at his problem:
The Bank of England will be in no hurry to raise interest rates during the key pre-election year of 2014 despite being taken aback by the strength of the economy's recovery over the past three months.
Mark Carney, the Bank's governor, said recovery had "finally taken hold" but that Threadneedle Street believed an early end to ultra-low interest rates would threaten business and consumer confidence.
Carney stressed that the Bank could deal with the threat of a house-price bubble without the need for dearer borrowing and that there was no guarantee its nine-strong monetary policy committee would raise rates even when unemployment fell to 7%, the level at which an increase in the cost of borrowing will first be discussed under the governor's forward guidance plan.
It is all very well to be in no hurry to raise interest rates but action cannot be postponed indefinitely.  Even now, inflation remains above target.  If house prices continue to race ahead, and bubbles continue to develop on stock markets, Governor Carney will be forced to dampen that irrational exuberance and take the punchbowl away.  He will then find himself between the Scylla of letting the economy get out of control and the Charybdis of rising interest rates with all the pain that offers to middle England mortgage-holders.  Then we will see if he is worth all the money that Chancellor Osborne agreed to pay him.


13 November 2013

Mine is bigger than yours

Childish argument:
One World Trade Center has been officially crowned as the tallest building in the western hemisphere after a row that threatened to embarrass the building's designers and see it demoted to second place.
The debate centred over whether the 408ft steel structure on top of the New York skyscraper was a spire or an antenna. Supporters of the Willis Tower in Chicago argued it was an antenna, and so the building was only 1,368ft, rather than its stated height of 1,776ft. 
But the 30 members of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat's "height committee", who met on Friday, ruled that One World Trade Center reaches 1,776ft and its claim to be the tallest building in the western hemisphere is legitimate. 
"We were very clear that it was a spire and not an antenna," said Timothy Johnson, chairman of the Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat at a press conference in New York City on Tuesday. “Spires, we feel, are part of the architecture of the building that will not only be there permanently but have a significant effect on what the building is perceived to be,” Johnson said.
Put a flag on the spire and see if anyone salutes it?

10 November 2013

Playing the man

Are pro-union MPs motivated solely by ignoble selfish interests?  The Observer seems to think so:
The reaction of some Scottish politicians over the loss of 850 jobs on the Clyde was quite sickening. The new Lib Dem Scottish secretary, Alistair Carmichael, and the Glasgow Labour MP Ian Davidson, both of whom will lose their highly paid Westminster jobs if Scotland votes Yes, are obviously feeling the heat. Carmichael, one of the most obscure figures in the world's most obscure political party, stated that an independent Scotland would not be awarded any future UK defence contracts. The Glasgow Labour MP John Robertson said baldly: "No yard, no ships" in an independent Scotland.
All of them seemed to be inviting the UK government to kill shipbuilding on the Clyde as a punishment for Scotland exercising its democratic right to say Yes. Davidson actually stated that the loss of "only" 850 jobs on the Clyde – 20% of its workforce – was a cause for celebration.
These three wretched, wretched men have put their own soiled political careers above the needs of those whom they are supposed to represent. It is all about hanging on to their fat Westminster salaries after September 2014. Instead of putting their careers before the future of Scottish shipbuilding, they ought instead to be concerned that, two weeks after Grangemouth, another rich and powerful magnate can force governments to play dice with one of Scotland's great industries.
I would contend that it is possible to disagree with one's political opponents without imputing baser motives. It seems not unlikely that Messrs Carmichael, Davidson and Robertson genuinely believe that Scotland's best course is to remain part of the United Kingdom.  That does not make them right.  By all means, attack their views and opinions, but do so on the basis of reasoned argument rather than personal vilification.

07 November 2013

Should I buy shares in Twitter?

CityAM reports:

SOCIAL media colossus Twitter priced its initial public offering (IPO) at $26 (£16.17) per share late last night, ready to float today on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE).
The pricing is a dollar higher than the upper range of the previous attempt to value the company, and suggests a total valuation for Twitter of about $18bn.
Earlier this month Twitter announced that it was planning to sell 70m shares at $17 to $20 each, but lifted the price in response to buoyant demand. The price was then boosted to $23-25 per share, implying a market valuation of about $17.4bn, before yesterday’s hike.
Grey market trading on IG Index’s market during the middle of October suggested that the company could be valued at closer to $30bn.
Leaving aside the merits (or demerits) of investing in a company which has yet to make any profits, there is a structural barrier to successful investment in US shares.  If you buy shares in a UK-listed company, you only need to worry about whether the price will rise or fall; the value of the shares need only rise by enough to cover the fixed acquisition costs (stamp duty and admin fees) in order for you to make a profit.  Buying American shares is a trickier business:  the pounds you use for share purchase need to be converted into dollars, a process which cost you up to one or two per cent of their value, and you will face a similar cost after selling the shares when converting back into sterling.  That alone adds substantially to the difficulty of securing a profit.  You also need to keep an eye on the movement in exchange rates; the value of the shares may rise but this may be obliterated if the dollar pound rate moves the wrong way.

Of course, you may choose to open a trading account in the US and deal in dollars on a longer-term basis.  But, if your home currency is essentially the pound sterling, who needs all the hassle?

Nevertheless, I did give it a try (once) and bought some shares in Amazon.  I was lucky and emerged with a small profit.  But I resolved to stick to UK-listed shares in future.

Stick or twist?

The deal on the naval shipyards poses a problem for the SNP.  The Guardian sets it out somewhat brutally:
Vote no to independence, and Scotland's shipyards can continue to get new orders from the UK Ministry of Defence, and be in pole position for the construction of the Royal Navy's new frigate later this decade. Vote yes, and the Scottish yards are likely to suffer the same fate as Portsmouth, with thousands of job losses in areas of already high unemployment.
And looming above the shipyard question is Trident.  The nationalists are apparently determined to banish the so-called nuclear deterrent from Scottish shores, whereas a London administration is equally determined on its retention.  Throw in the fact but there is nowhere else in the UK where it can be feasibly based, and there emerges an impasse which would be central to negotiations following a yes vote.

Nor can the SNP leave the issue on the shelf during the run-up to the referendum.  Can the Scottish people be expected to vote for independence under the implied threat of massive job losses at defence establishments if the SNP insists on telling London where it can stick its nuclear submarines?  On the other hand, would it be possible for the nationalists to undermine a central plank of their appeal by offering some kind of deal whereby a foreign power in the shape of the London administration could keep its nuclear bases in Scotland, even if such a deal opened up the possibility of better treatment for Scottish shipyards and other military establishments and of longer-term co-operation between Edinburgh and London on defence matters?

It’s a difficult choice ...

06 November 2013

As others see us

Bloomberg has been reviewing the UK political scene, not unfairly, I think:
... the U.K.'s ideologically driven politics of class warfare are back after a brief respite during the booming Tony Blair years. In the space of a few weeks, Miliband has proposed a price freeze for energy companies and a cap on the interest rates that lenders can charge, as well as steps to increase the minimum wage, reduce the number of low-skilled immigrants coming to the U.K., and set up state-backed regional banks like in Germany.
I suspect that unless living standards start to rise substantially in the next year (the current increase in economic growth rates won't cut it), Miliband's back-to-the-future case for change will be hard to defeat at the next election in 2015.
The honest answer to most of Miliband's proposals is that they address only the symptoms of a wider problem: productivity in the U.K. is falling, business investment is anemic, and the high value industry in which the U.K. excels -- finance -- is still tangled in the debt crisis it helped to create. The answer to these problems is to invest more, raise productivity, fix the banks and diversify the economy. Yet these things are hard to do and don't make a good election manifesto.
The bottom line is that real wages are falling and a growing number of people can't afford basic utilities that are taken for granted in a developed economy. Prime Minister David Cameron and his government haven't done enough to speed the recovery, and Miliband has some of the right answers, such as his focus on vocational training. Yet many of his proposals, such as making it harder for companies to fire employees, betray old interventionist reflexes that will turn a cost-of-living crisis into a jobless one.

05 November 2013


Oh yes, Beowulf, the great Anglo-Saxon epic (strictly speaking, it is written in the Anglian dialect).  All this over the meaning of the first word:
It is perhaps the most important word in one of the greatest and most famous sentences in the history of the English language.
Yet for more than two centuries “hwæt” has been misrepresented as an attention-grabbing latter-day “yo!” designed to capture the interest of its intended Anglo-Saxon audience urging them to sit down and listen up to the exploits of the heroic monster-slayer Beowulf.
According to an academic at the University of Manchester, however, the accepted definition of the opening line of the epic poem – including the most recent translation by the late Seamus Heaney - has been subtly wide of the mark.
In a new paper due to be published this month Dr George Walkden argues that the use of the interrogative pronoun  “hwæt” (rhymes with cat) means the first line is not a standalone command but informs the wider exclamatory nature of the sentence which was written by an unknown poet between 1,200 and 1,300 years ago.
According to the historical linguist, rather than reading: “Listen! We have heard of the might of the kings” the Old English of “Hwæt! We Gar-Dena in gear-dagum, þeod-cyninga,  þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas  ellen fremedon!” should instead be understood as: “How we have heard of the might of the kings.”

My dear old Anglo-Saxon lecturer used to argue that, as the poem was meant to said aloud, “hwæt” was nothing more than the bard clearing his throat before starting the poem proper.


02 November 2013

The goalkeeper's head and shoulders

I blame those shampoo ads. He has never been the same since. The Guardian reports:
Joe Hart has been dropped by Manchester City for Premier League game against Norwich City but the goalkeeper is determined to win his place back and is not considering his future with the club, despite the decision potentially having consequences for the Englishman's World Cup hopes next summer.