Saturday, November 29, 2008

Money Money Money

As I lazily reclined following a languid session in the sauna at my leisure club the other night, I indolently grabbed from the adjacent lounger the tossed aside financial pages from some paper of a more intellectual standing than “The Star” to update myself a little in the world of finance. Of course, I have a big interest in this sort of thing as one does have to consider one's interests in one's off shore investments, one's formula-1 racing team and the upkeep of one's castles and estates in the Highlands of Scotland.

Of course, like most people who haven't been living on the planet Zarg on the outer fringes of the Zirgon Cluster for the last few months, I do nurture a slight concern about the complete disaster the financial criminals of this evil world have wrought upon us. I do not need to go over the causes of it all, ramble on about sub prime mortgages etc., etc., as I suspect that you, my readers, are well informed anyway. However, I will say a few things which help to illuminate, to me at least, what the problem actually is.

Many years ago I went away on a two week professional selling course. One of the fundamental lessons we were taught was that until something is sold, nothing happens. Or, to put it more succinctly, until something is PAID FOR............nothing happens. It therefore follows that if you set about selling goods and services to people who haven't actually got the money to pay for them, and never will have the money to pay for them, then the end result can only be disaster which then ripples outwards spreading negative knock-on affects in all directions due to the interconnectedness of the economy. This is so basic, and yet it appears to be lost upon the very people we, and the world depend for our survival.

Back in the late 1980's when house prices were rocketing, many of my work mates were jumping on the property band wagon like a bunch of greed crazed demented lemmings. They seemed to be more interested in how the value was going up, than what houses are really about – having somewhere to live.

“My house is making money faster than I am earning it” bragged a colleague. What he didn't have the brains to understand was that the value of anything is purely notional, and based upon what people are prepared to pay for it. He seemed to think the value would just keep going up indefinitely, as if there would be a steadily swelling stream of multi-millionaires, and eventually billionaires, and then trillionaires queuing up behind each other to buy the one bedroom flats at the bottom of the market, without which there would be no property market at all. After not very long when the market collapsed as it so obviously would, my bragging friend became my crying friend as he found himself in a desperate plight straining under the weight of negative equity. I had little sympathy, because there is no such thing as a free lunch and anyone who thinks there is deludes himself.

The nub of all this is that for any economy to work, there have to be tangible products for people to buy - and who can afford them. Unless these products are realistically priced, the illusion of the stable economy will be short lived. Take the example of the pyramid system. This was a scheme people of low intelligence bought into thinking they would become rich when there wasn't actually a product to be sold. On the other hand, we have multi level marketing (MML) businesses which many mistake for pyramid systems. The similarity is superficial. This is because in MML businesses, there is actually a product underpinning it, so if people are prepared to work at it, then there is a reasonable chance a decent amount of stable income can be achieved for a large number of people. Of course, not all MML businesses are the same, and some should be avoided like the plague (did I say Amway???).

It is now time to return to the financial pages I browsed on my lounger. What took my attention was that it was about the banking system. However, it was not about any old banking system, it was about the Islamic banking system. Now, before anyone thinks this offering is about to turn religious, fret not because it isn't. It is, however about morals nonetheless.

From the Islamic viewpoint, the Western banking system is immoral and corrupt. It is based upon greed and make believe values which exist in the wild imaginations of the greedy, but not in anything tangible giving it stability. Okay, I know I am being incredibly simplistic here and I realise things are a good deal more complex, but the fact is that the Islamic Banking world has barely been scratched by the credit crunch and the attendant financial melt down. The reason for this is that Islamic banking is founded upon ethical principles underpinned by tangible assets, rather than much of the notional make believe which has got us into the mess we find ourselves. I had a conversation about this with a friend recently and he commented that an Islamic bank account might not return as high a level of interest. This might be the case, or it might not, but surely it is better to have a stable economy with lower returns than one which gives you a high return one moment, and destroys your investments and pension funds the next. I am not suggesting we all rush out and open an Islamic bank account, though it might not be a bad idea, but it would appear that our banking system needs to be overhauled and based upon ethical values and tangible assets if we are not to find ourselves falling into the same mess in the future.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Woolworths

I find it a great shame that Woolworths has gone into receivership. I am probably partly to blame because I can't honestly remember the last time I bought anything there. Of late, I have found Woolworths stores to be a bit like glorified rummage (or jumble) sales. That may sound a tad unkind, and I suppose it is. I think over the decades Woolworth lost its way. Whereas other stores evolved and changed with the times (remember when Dixons was a photographic shop?), Woolworths just carried on in the same old way and got swamped by the competition. How often do you find yourself thinking “Wow, I simply must go to Woolworths and see what's new”. No, you don't. When I think of Woolworths now I think of Pick and Mix and CDs I can buy for cheaper elsewhere. It wasn't always like that.

When I was a toddler in a pushchair, there was a gap in the row of shops at the local shopping centre. The gap comprised of a small grassed area, which I suppose was a field!!! One day, builders arrived and worked on it. A few months later, our brand spanking new Woolworths was finished and there was great excitement in the town while we waited for the first day of opening. There was no self-service then, but lots of counters with uniformed girls behind them waiting to serve you.

Amongst my school mates, Woolworths became the shop of choice for nicking things. I never stooped to this low level myself, but did get thrown out one day for letting off a stink bomb near the toy counter. Talking of bombs, cap bombs were another favourite item I would buy in Woolworths.

The toy counter was, to me, a joy to behold. One of my favourite toys at the time, was a red plastic rubber band powered aircraft kit. They never seemed to last long though; I was always crashing them. I remember the counter right at the end of the shop which was full of different types of torches and every kind of battery. Batteries at the time, didn't last long, and we were always warming them by the fire to squeeze an extra bit of life out of them. No trip to the shops was complete without popping into Woolies.

Today, if I go to Woolworths, it is only when I am at a very loose end that I go in to take a look. The shop today, is a bit of an anachronism, an institution from the past which seems a little out of place and somewhat quaint on the modern high street. Even so, if it disappears, I guess I shall miss it because it is one more link with my youth vanishing into oblivion.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Film Review - Quantum of Solace

This afternoon I went to my local picture house to catch up on James Bond's latest exploits.

Quantum of Solace has been criticised in two areas. One is that it is so fast moving that it is difficult to keep up with. The second is that it lacks humour.

First off, I liked the fast action, although I could have done with longer intervals between each transition, it was blindingly fast. I did discover that if you just relaxed your mind, stared at the screen, didn't think about it, and just let it all wash over you, then I found it easier to follow. I had a little extra difficulty earlier on in the film because despite the fast action and the loudness of the sound-track, I fell asleep several times. This was probably because I was tired out from putting together the tall-boy cabinets I bought at Ikea !

Secondly, it did lack humour. Even so, the very lack of humour actually seemed to make it more humorous. I found bits to laugh at, but then maybe I'm just a bit weird. Some of the action sequences, well actually - most of the action sequences - were so outrageous and downright impossible that I found it funny - it made me smile. He should have been wiped out a hundred times over, but that is one of the great joys about Bond films - they are escapist fantasy.

Overall, I thought the film was brilliant and it will probably find its way into my DVD collection. Go see it.

Ikea

Today, I undertook the ultimate shopping experience with my wife. It had to be with my wife, because a trip to Ikea is something a man never undertakes by himself, but only as a result of the cudgelling of a shopping crazed spouse. I have been building up to this for the last week. A few days ago, my wife, in idle conversation mentioned the word “Ikea”. This is a word, a name, an experience I had been trying to forget. I have been in receipt of psychiatric counselling since my last visit. I would suffer from nightmares, night terrors in fact, and wake up in a cold sweat and screaming “Where's the exit – where's the exit” as I was convinced I was trapped in a world filled with hordes of the undead, green skinned and fowl smelling rotting flesh, forever following an endless succession of arrows marked on the floor, and never, ever being able to break free into the outside world and freedom. Yesterday, almost inexplicably, my wife received in the mail a £10 Ikea shopping voucher. This was almost unreal. Sensing the unseen powers of the universe at work, and my wife exclaiming that we are obviously meant to go, I resigned myself to the inevitability of today's expedition.

Now, as soon as the word “Ikea” is voiced, I know it is only a matter of time before I will be going back, inexorably drawn by its siren calling and the lure of Swedish Swedishness. And I have to admit, I have been pretty much sucked in. In my study, or computer room as I sometimes call it, I have three Ikea bookcases, all black, with white “doily” patterns on them. They look really garish and everyone hates them - except me. The walls are painted blood red, which blends well with the red table lamp which I bought for a song at Ikea. As you can tell, I am a real style guru.

I first came across Ikea some 28 years ago when I was living in Germany. It was this big blue building I would drive past on my way from M├Ânchengladbach to D├╝sseldorf. I never went into it, and the innards remained a mystery to me for years, until we came across it again in England. Then we had our first visit.

What makes Ikea so different from every other shop is that it is laid out in a totally different way to every other shop. It has a beginning and an end, a start and a finish. Once inside, you reach the starting line at the top of the escalator, and then work your way around the course, following the arrows on the floor, until you emerge, hopefully (if you work for Ikea), laden down with a vast mass and array of goods you never knew you wanted or needed. The course you follow is a long one – a bit of a marathon in fact. Its a bit like trekking up a mountain. When you think you have reached the top, there is always something beyond, and so you stagger on, never quiet sure where you are and when the end will be reached. Along the way, you will pass myriad examples of every type of household item you could ever want – or never want, and many of them at extremely low prices. It really is a case of “stack-em high and sell-em cheap.” Another thing about Ikea is that it is impossible to have a quick visit. Every trip to Ikea is a major event, and conscious of the hours and hours customers spend in the always overcrowded store, they have a large restaurant to feed the starving masses before they are once again ejected into the never regions of the beyond, well, the car park, anyway.

And so it was that I have now found myself the proud owner of a set of eight coat hangers I didn't know we wanted, a set of 6 wine glasses I didn't know we wanted, a load of golden Christmas baubles I didn't know we wanted, and two tall-boy multi-shelved cabinets my wife has been telling me we do want. Of course, they are flat pack – what else? And of course, we will be spending a good proportion of tomorrow banging and screwing the things together before they are proudly placed into position in our porch where they will be used as posh shoe-racks in place of the course, ugly, lude rack occupying the space at the moment, and due to be re-employed in the depths of the garage, out of sight from those who might frown upon their banality.

One has to maintain one's standards – even if they are cheap and Swedish.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Cambridge Con


As I was sat eating my lunch the other day, I heard the letter box cover go thwump! At this point I decided to forgive the postman because I was convinced he was deliberately keeping my mail back as it seemed somewhat late in arriving. Despite my initial arousal, I decided to finish eating first before investigating the postman's offering given that man shall not live by mail alone, but by every ham and tomato sandwich which issues from the kitchen.

Anyway, I discovered three letters poking through the letter box. One was from the County Council about the proposed A14 (killer road) re-routing improvement. This seems to have been talked about, debated and protested against for about the last two hundred years. I'm sure I'll be six foot under by the time they actually get around to building it. While we are on the subject, a word to the nimbys in the local villages. “No new A14 in our village” their placards proclaimed. Actually, its not routed through any village at all, but half a mile up the road. As one who lives a lot closer to the A14, it really is no big deal, and certainly nothing to complain about. And don't worry about your property values (the issue which is usually at the back of most rural protests), I doubt they'll be affected. Anyway, the credit crunch has already done much more demolition in that area than any nearly half mile distant road building scheme. If you want to continue protesting, then I am sure that you will have the sympathy of all the relatives and loved ones of all those who have been killed and injured over the years on this horrible road.

Another of the letters was addressed to my eldest son. He's out of the country so I'll be keeping it for him.

The third envelope was addressed to me, and me alone. This one looked a bit special. Good quality, pre-printed with gold embossed letters on it. With a feeling of mounting curiosity I ripped the envelope open and pulled out the letter.

“Response Necessary by 21st November 2008” was the bold proclamation at the head of the letter. Well, that gives me a lot of time, given that it was already the 17th. I also spotted that the letter was dated 1st November. Gosh, the mail really is slow these days. Must be clogged up with Christmas cards. The letter was from a company called “Cambridge Who's Who.” It began:
“You were recently proposed as a biographical candidate to represent Cambridgeshire in the 2008/2009 on-line Cambridge Who's Who Registry among Executives and Professionals."

 How wonderful. How great. How the hell do they think I qualify for such epic heights which I would have thought was strictly reserved for the captains of industry, the Lord Farquehars, the old Etonians, and Grandees of the Tory Party??? Surely not me, a fair to middling manager of no significant merit or social standing? What possible claim could I have to this hallowed territory? Have they read my blog? Do they consider me a literary giant along with the likes of Dickens and Salman Rushdie?? One final question – who the hell proposed me?? I decided to do some delving. It didn't take long.................

The “Cambridge” Who's Who is nothing to do with Cambridge as in Cambridgeshire. Its more to do with Cambridge in the USA. Its also more to do with a scam which is exactly what it is. Although it costs nothing to register your details with them, you are very soon contacted for a telephone interview for your biographical details where you are also very quickly put under pressure to part with vast sums of money. Naturally, as its such a fantastic privilege to be listed on this esteemed database, you would naturally be only too happy to part with hundreds of pounds for the privilege of owning a hard copy, or ensuring you remain on it for years to come. I decided to take a look at some of the members (suckers??) on the database. They were nothing special. They were so unspecial that there was no real reason why anyone, let alone a sharp suited executive would want to head hunt anyone from this list. I would suspect that the only people who actually look at the list are the same people who are on it. To be honest, they'd probably do better and find out more about people by looking on Face book. Needless to say, I will not be ingratiating myself to this bunch of con merchants.

Actually, it has given me an idea. It goes like this. Send me a load of details about yourself and a cheque for £500 and I will publish it on this blog. There – who said brilliant opportunities never come your way?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Sugar is sweet, but not for me.

Following my recent blood tests, I recently returned to the doctor to be told the results. Whenever I have had any kind of tests in the past the outcome has always been clear, with no problems emerging. This time however, I could feel it in my water that it would be different. Why had they requested a second test? I asked myself. If you are anything like me you always think the worst. So, in the back of my mind I had some horrible incurable disease, and the future, if I had a future, was bleak.

I sat in the waiting room cacking myself. My wife was with me to give me reassurance. I was glad of her presence. I needed the loo. I don't like going to the loo while waiting to be called into the doctor's surgery, because I just know that the moment I drop my pants and sit down, that is the moment I will be called. And guess what? - that was the moment I was called. On this occasion I simply had to go – probably nerves, so the doctor had to be entertained by my wife before I appeared – feeling flushed!

He explained to me that there were problems with my results. I could feel myself about to be immersed in a serious situation. He told me I was folic acid deficient. Was I pregnant? I wondered, but didn't ask. Could this have anything to do with the tingling in my legs, I asked. “Possibly” was the non-committal reply. He then went on to tell me that my sugar levels were raised, and my blood pressure a little high. Does this mean I am diabetic? I asked. “Yes” he replied. I have Type 2 Diabetes.

A few days later an envelope appeared through my door enclosing a letter from the doctor telling me I had an appointment to see the nurse for instruction on how to manage my Diabetes. This was good. I was being looked after.

The nurse asked me about my diet. I proudly announced that I had made some changes and cut down drastically on my sugar, was drinking more water and eating more fruit and vegetables. Also, I was only having half a teaspoon of sugar on my breakfast cereal. She wasn't having that. All the sugar had to go, and that was half a teaspoon of sugar too much.

I have a sweet tooth. I like sweet things. I like sugar. I don't like artificial sweeteners. I have now cut out even the half teaspoonful of the thing I love. Better that than have my leg drop off! I am growing to love bitterness. Tea without sugar was anathema. It is now the norm. I will have to lump it.

I had my youngest son and his girl friend visit during the week. She is a dietician. We discussed my Diabetes. She told me it was a progressive disease and would definitely get worse as I grew older.

Nothing like the truth, I suppose!

Actually, since I gave up sugar I have felt a lot better in myself. I have also felt more energised. The other night at the gym, I really let rip on the running machine – I hadn't felt this good in ages. I am also not waking up in the night feeling short of breath and having to take great gulps of air to avoid the sensation of drowning. You are what you eat. I am eating healthy so I am healthy and will be healthy. That's positive thinking. My blood Group is B Positive. I will B positive. I will live my blood group.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Supernatural?

Although I am very pessimistic about the existence of the supernatural, I have to admit that there are some things which make me wonder. Being a bit of a doubting Thomas, unless I experience something weird myself, I tend to suspend belief when confronted by the accounts related by others, particularly where people are claiming to have been abducted by aliens.

Whilst I am not aware myself of ever being abducted by aliens, (though who knows what happens between falling asleep at night and waking up the next morning – wooooh spooky), I have had some pretty strange experiences – which I am about to relate.

Many years ago, when I was a teenager, I was cycling home late at night after visiting a friend who lived in Hadley Wood. The sky was very clear, and the stars shone like diamonds. Being a bit of a stargazer, I stopped, partly to take a break, and partly to look at the stars and Milky Way. I spotted a bright point of light moving rapidly across the sky. It seemed to be following a bit of a wobbly path. Suddenly, it changed direction, accelerated and disappeared. I have to say that I have seen many phenomena in the sky, but this is one I’ve never found a good explanation for. Whatever it was, I do not believe it was little green men. I have seen many shooting stars, satellites, and even the odd fireball, but nothing quite like this.

When I was even younger, I went up to bed one night and was soon beating a hasty retreat again down the stairs in fright. As I approached the bedroom and looked in through the open doorway, I saw a kind of apparition which seemed to float across the room and disappeared behind the wardrobe. My mother said that it was probably the spirit of my Grandmother who had died some years earlier.

However, the above two accounts pale into insignificance against this next event.

A few years ago while I was away on a course, I was staying by myself in a hotel. One night I dreamed that I was with my mother, and together we were looking through a photograph album I had never seen before. The dream was very vivid and clear in my mind when I awoke. The spooky bit is this: the pages of the album were full of photographs of Sir Winston Churchill. After I awoke, I switched on the television and watch the news. One of the news items was that a photo album had just been discovered which belonged to Sir Winston Churchill, full of previously unseen images from his life. I am not making this up. I had not heard anything of this before the dream, and the coincidence was just unreal.

There have been many instances, particularly with my wife, when we have both said the very thing which the other was about to say despite the fact that it was in no way related to the conversation previous, and there was no reason why we should be thinking the same thing at the same time. I believe there is a name for these types of coincidences, and that is synchronicity.

There have been other events I could relate, but the point is that there are things which you just cannot, or have very great difficulty in explaining. I believe there are rational explanations for most unusual things we experience, but there is still the odd thing which makes one pause and wonder………

Saturday, November 01, 2008

In praise of our troops

I am very proud of our armed forces. As far as I am concerned, they are amongst the best - if not THE best in the world.
I spent many years of my life in the armed forces. I suppose in a way I was fortunate in that the whole period of my service was a time of relative peace in contrast to the deployments and conflicts of today.
I was very moved watching the "X-Factor" last Saturday with the performance of the contestants "Help for Heroes" recording. Buy it.
There has been a lot of publicity and media coverage of our troops in Afghanistan. This is right and proper - for some time this conflict was called The Forgotten War because all the attention was on Iraq. Our troops have performed with the kind of courage and commitment - in all conflicts - which is beyond criticism, awe inspiring and demanding of our total admiration and pride.
The 9th November is Remembrance Sunday. Buy a Help for Heroes wristband. Buy a poppy. Get out there and support our servicemen. They give so much, and sacrifice more than any of us will ever know. They stand between freedom and tyranny on our behalf. When you see them on parade - be proud!