Thursday, 30 October 2008

Windowsill Toad

Windowsill Toad. Sounds like it could be a popgroup, or a fairly secure password. But she is actually a toad (well, I don't know, but I feel she is a she):

Windowsill Toad gets her name from the following. Of an evening she climbs up about six of these steps to get to our kitchen window. There the light streams out and attracts insects. And she catches the insects.

She's big, but small compared to the steps. And toads don't jump. They do an exaggerated four legged crawl, Gollum-like.

I sometimes wonder if she is daunted by her task, which feels about as tough as salmon leaping upstream. If she is, she never shows it. You may feel a bit skeptical, but I kid you not, she is a character.

(If you haven't already done so, click the pic and you will be rewarded with a better view of her kindly face).

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Afraid of the free market? Err ... why?

Afraid of the free market? Personally, I'm afraid of the opposite.

I could leave it at that, but I think the concept of the free market is under a lot of pressure right now, pressure that may be undeserved. And maybe a bad time is a good time to scrutinise this.

And wow, is this a bad time. The world order is in an uncomfortable state ... I for one have considered that my money would actually be better off under the mattress.

You may have seen the posts of various bloggers who are concerned too, and who have picked different facets from the chaos (the greed/need contrast crops up more than once):

like this one from janelle where she highlights the case of a Belgian banker walking out of a disaster with millions of euros in his back pocket
or this one from family affairs who describes how the employees of the failed Lehman Brothers are nevertheless going to get their bonuses paid by Nomura
or this from bush mummy in which her friend Gav, surviving a cancer operation, hits out at inequity: "when I run the world we will swap nurses' and bankers' salaries over..."

You will have seen more of the same. No one, I suspect, has trouble identifying with their sentiments.

But when we look at the financial turmoil of the world right now are we really seeing the results of greed, unbridled capitalism and the failings of free markets?

I'm not so sure. And I (brave, stupid or both) intend to try and make my case here.

Let's take the case of senior executives leaving failing enterprises with fat severance cheques, lovely index-linked pensions and the like.

What are we seeing? We are seeing civil contracts being honoured. When they were hired, the shareholders represented by the boards were so keen to have these individuals that they gave them very attractive contracts, including severance terms should those contracts be prematurely terminated.

While that might stick in the craw, the fact is the world would be a whole lot worse off if people could, at their whim, fail to honour contracts. This would affect us all - buying and selling houses, making an insurance claim, replacing something under guarantee ...

If the other party could just say, "Sorry things have changed and I now have a poor opinion of you, so I'm not going to pay up" then we would really be in the shit.

Are they greedy? Well, maybe, but that's another matter. Keep the money, give it to charity, that's up to the executives concerned. But honouring contracts is central to civilised life.

How about swapping the salaries of bankers and nurses?

Well, that's an interesting idea and one that has already been tried (I'll come to that). The new state would not last long. Why? Because you would have the worst paid bankers in the world and the best paid nurses in the world. The bankers would go and do other things (the resulting shortage would have their salaries bid up in no time) while the nursing profession would be flooded by incomers (the resulting oversupply would have their salaries crash in no time).

I said it had been tried.

Time Out is a what's on magazine established by Tony Elliot in 1968, originally as a London Guide. In a fit of egalitarianism everyone was originally paid exactly the same wage. He said (it was his words I borrowed, above) "We had the worst paid journalists in London and the best paid cleaners". The journalists could not wait to leave, while the premises were besieged by frantic wannabe cleaners. It did not last long.

The only alternative is to have the state legislate that your salary shall be X while you, yes you over there, your salary shall be Y.

Thanks, but no thanks. Not a world I want. (It too has already been tried).

The fact is that in a free market people are paid what they are worth, no more and no less. No legislation is needed; it is automatically regulated by supply and demand. Bankers are paid outrageously precisely because (a) not many people have their skills and (b) not many people would like the demanding life style.

But, hey, there's no closed shop. If you want a banker's salary, don't bitch about it, go for it. And see if you like it.

One of my daughters is in the City. She's crammed all her life - GCSEs, slogging to get the A levels results that allowed her to be selected for Cambridge, four years at Cambridge slogging her guts out to get the first she needed to have a chance of getting a training contract by the right kind of corporate law firm, two more years at law college, another training year in the firm (she's at that stage now), nights and weekends mean nothing - the firm gets first call on those hours ... and then, in a year or two, yes, she will be on a six-figure salary. You want all that? Really? I don't.

Result - very little supply, unmet demand, huge salary. It's not rocket science.

Or you can be a nurse. A lot of people want to do it. A lot of people can do it. Therefore it does not pay very well.

So it's not unfairness, or greed, or altruism, or someone manipulating something. Nurses may be saints and bankers may be wankers. But there are, apparently, more saints than wankers. QED.

What about the free market and its failings?

Problem is, markets are seldom free. Consider oil and its yo yo pricing that has been a pain for all of us. The exact opposite to a free market. OPEC is a cartel, sets prices and production quotas and then polices its members to make sure they stick to it.

Another, exact opposite to a free market example: agricultural production, and the obscenity of groaning surpluses in one part of the world and starvation in another. Western governments guarantee prices so there is no market feedback to the producer. In a free market, a grain surplus would lead to falling prices which would have two positive effects - poor countries would benefit from the falling price and farmers would switch to other outputs so that the surplus would self-correct. We hit poor countries again by imposing quotas and otherwise making it difficult for them to sell to us (even though you and I may want their products).

Banks. The exact opposite to a free market. Heavily regulated, unable to set their own interest rates (base rates are set by central banks/governaments), operate on a fractional reserve system which has been passed into law by our governments - which means they actually can't pay us if there is a run on a bank; even in good times!

Don't get me wrong. Many banks have behaved like arses and exposed themselves to enormous risk.

So do we punish them by allowing them to fail?

Nope. We guarantee deposits and nationalise them to recapitalise them and punish our tax-payers twice. First, by making citizens shareholders (whether they will or whether they won't) of some pretty dodgy enterprises. Second by hitting the value of their savings by printing money to make up the loss of liquidity.

And by the way, where did all this risk arise? Well in the UK trillions are being lost in the housing market. The banks lend money against assets (land and buildings). When people default, the banks have found that they can no longer cover themselves because the asset value has fallen. This is why sub-prime is such a panic. The shortfall is huuuuuuge.

But the housing market has been, yep, the exact opposite to a free market. For years various governments pushed people into house ownership by giving them tax breaks on mortgages, but no tax breaks on rent payments. Then they choked off the supply of land by zoning restrictions. So on the one hand they stimulated demand and on the other hand they restricted supply, leading to decades of house price inflation. And everyone felt rich. Yippee.

Yes. I respect the self-correction of the free market, its flexibility, its responsiveness and the way it aligns the needs of buyers and sellers. There really is nothing like a free market. And what we see around us is nothing like a free market.

OK. That's my rant. I've put my tin hat on. Tell me where I'm wrong.

Monday, 20 October 2008

And the award goes on to ...

The lovely pouting Karen has bestowed an award on me. She is naughty, but I like her. She is also very funny, so as I plough my way through the 31 questions, I shall have to pretend that I have not read hers (or could that be her's; she's a librarian you know, and could be awarding, or deducting, points).

Oh, and I need to remind you that these are to be one-word answers:


1. Where is your cell phone? Wozzat?
2. Where is your significant other? Onmyback
3. Your hair color? Grecian
4. Your mother? Dead
5. Your father? Deader
6. Your favorite thing? Whoa!
7. Your dream last night? Freudian
8. Your dream/goal? Breathing
9. The room you're in? Roomy
10. Your hobby? Snapping
11. Your fear? Fear
12. Where do you want to be in 6 years? Here
13. Where were you last night? Abed
14. What you're not? Senile
15. One of your wish-list items? Nurse
16. Where you grew up? Calcutta
17. The last thing you did? Drink
18. What are you wearing? Stuff
19. Your TV? Wavy
20. Your pets? Hairy
21. Your computer? Digital
22. Your mood? Moody
23. Missing someone? Everyone
24. Your car? Carboniferous
25. Something you're not wearing? Contipad
26. Favorite store? BricoDepot
27. Your summer? ish
28. Love someone? Aaaah
29. Your favorite color? Blue
30. When is the last time you laughed? Today
31. Last time you cried? Sob

And since I frightened myself and everyone else with the exponential thingy, I'm not passing this on to anyone else, but you know who you are and I love you all.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Pressing the grapes, French style

It's the time of year when the vine harvest happens. Naturally the French have a special word for this type of harvest, different from others, and it is "vendange".

We have a small vineyard. In a good year it produces maybe 800-1000 litres of wine. In a bad year, perhaps 250-400. This is not a great issue as it is not commercial and only for our own use. So far I have failed to average a litre a day so there is always a surplus. Which is a handy local currency for returning favours etc.

This has been an awful year. But with an interesting consequence, which I will get to.

This is the raw material; one of our vines on harvest day.

These are some neighbours helping to bring it in. Some we give wine to; others are already wine growers and we reciprocate by helping them harvest in turn.

This is a tombereau, or at least that's how it sounds when they say it. It belongs to a neighbour and I get the loan of it on harvest day. Not only does it hold the grapes you chuck in, but it also has an archimedes screw at the bottom. That means you can pump and slurry the grapes at the same time, and straight into a large barrel called a tonneau, where the primary fermentation takes place.

This is the tonneau (1000 litres capacity), with my bro in law Donald helping after the previous harvest.

Now it happens that this convenience comes at a small price, in that you can't get the last few litres out - the screw won't push them up the pipe and into the tonneau without more stuff behind to help with the pushing as it were.

With the harvest being so poor this year (very late frost and some poor hungry beasts having a bloody good autumn munch) I decided not to use the tombereau.

How, my wife enquired, would we crush the grapes then?

The way our forebears used to, naturally. By treading on them. And I did. Stripped down to my undies, up a small ladder, into the tonneau, and started treading. I have to leave a plastic chair in there so I can get out again!

Now I know the question you are asking. Did I wash my feet? Come on, give me a break, of course I didn't. (They never did in the old days, did they?)

Well the good news is the primary fermentation is coming on just fine. Every two or three days I pop into the tonneau and do my treading. Funny, no one else seems inclined. At the end I emerge, slightly light headed, and with very purple feet.

This evening I sampled my first glass. Still a bit sweet, so more fermenting time needed, but it tastes delicious. Strange, though, I have a feeling that there may not be a stampede for this vintage.

Which is fine by me.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Falling in love

I have been inspired to write on this topic after reading a post by mud who is feeling a bit forlorn about the whole bizz.

The post attracted a bunch of comments, as you might expect. And quite a few of them were along the lines of "it just happens, and sometimes when you least expect it". That is endorsed by no less than Helen Fielding, author of Bridget Jones' Diary, which was, perhaps, a tad autobiograhical. I read an article by Fielding describing her long wait for the right man, whom she did eventually find, and thinking to herself afterwards "why was I so anxious?"

Anyway, that had me reflecting on love and thinking about how effing useless psychology is when it comes to these important things. We probably learn more from the language around love. For example we have

- "falling in love" which is suggestive of its involuntary and random nature (as when we fall over an obstacle)
- "love struck" much the same
- "love is blind" which is probably a reference to 'blind eye' but in effect says it is hard to predict
- "love sick" which captures its rather overwhelming visceral effects

The first three support the view that love "just happens", can't be hurried along, and can't be engineered.

So what, and perhaps more important, why is love?

We already like to have sex, a handy side effect of which is reproduction, so love doesn't seem to be a necessary condition for anything. But it's here. How come? Well it's a biological truism that we fall in love because those people who did, in the geological past, had better breeding success than those that did not.

Which is interesting.

Perhaps it has to do with what Desmond Morris called "pair bonding". Pair bonding keeps the breeding couple together for all those years it takes to get offspring from infancy to independence. Falling in love initiates the bond, which is then supported and maintained by lashings of sex over the years. Well, quite, but it's true you know. Nothing in the animal kingdom goes in for bonking as we do.

Anyway, none of this gets me nearer to mud and love, so I'll take my chances and move on to what I think it's all about:

attraction -> approach -> reciprocity -> sex -> love (then lots more sex, but we've been there already)

Or for the more romatically inclined, reverse the last two.

First, attraction. Now this is a real mystery. I think we all know that sudden jolt when you find someone attractive; but could we define what it is? Hard for any one of us I suspect but science does provide some clues.

What makes for a beautiful woman? Apparently an "average" woman. You doubt that? Well take some female faces and crank them through a computer to get the morph average. The result is surprisingly pleasing. This photograph is one I made earlier, morphing just 10 random female faces. It's fun to do, and you can make your own average here. BTW, all this works for male faces too.

Why? Most faces are slightly asymmetrical; the more symmetrical a face is, the more attractive it is judged. Apparently symmetrical faces are advertising hordings that say "I've got good genes, choose me". And the morphing process tends to balance out asymmetries.

Another thing that has men interested is the waist-to-hip ratio. You measure your waist at the narrowest point and your hips at the widest point and get the ratio waist/hips. A ratio of 0.7 seems to be rated universally as the most attractive which is interesting because that is the best predictor of fertility. Apparently Marilyn Monroe had it as does the skinnier Kate Moss.

And so amazingly does the classic Coke bottle; I did some consumer research that showed men find it attractive. Sad buggers.

There is much else; have a look at this article on attraction.

I personally think that attraction is a must. But I have a friend who has been married for 35 years and has grown-up children. He married because their families kind of expected them to. There was really no attraction or love, I don't think.

Next, check that it is reciprocated. It may not be, but that's not the end. I've known people become attracted later, as it were, a kind of catastrophe switch from non-attraction to attraction. I think that sex itself can cause this to happen, but don't do it just because I said so.

If the attraction is mutual you are kind of home and dry. If not, it's uphill work, and in the end unrewarding.

Well, I say home and dry, but that's not quite true. The suggestion is that the more alike the two of you are in background, social standing, education, economics and even genetics, the more likely the relationship is to succeed (boring, but there you go).

Based on my own experience I would say that if it turns out your love is not reciprocated, cut and run no matter how attractive you find them. You may be unhappy now, but boy are you going to be unhappy later if you don't.

Anyway, I think this is why people say well it just comes along, you don't know when, then bam etc etc. The whole attraction thing is very statistical (symmetry and various ratios notwithstanding).

So for two people to get the hots for each other at the same time is just improbable - though completely possible. It just takes time. If you think it is happening, then go for it, and be prepared to make the running.

Postscript: This post was much harder to write than I thought. And a whole lot less useful. But it's late and I'm off to bed.