Southern Comfort

English: Entrance to Birmingham-Shuttlesworth ...

English: Entrance to Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport in Birmingham, Alabama. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although it’s only a couple of hours away, I’ve never spent much time in Birmingham, the UK’s second city. Now, thanks to a recent acquisition by my company, I’ve spent more time in a place I never thought I’d visit, Birmingham Alabama. Not that it’s particularly easy to get to. Despite the nomenclature, I couldn’t find a single International flight heading into or out of Birmingham International Airport, not even to neighbouring countries like Mexico or Canada.

In the absence of direct flights, connecting flights are the order or the day which means a very long journey from the UK. I don’t know whether I’m especially unlucky, but when you have flight connections in the States, you only have a 50:50 chance of making it to where you intended when you intended. The scope for things to go wrong (weather, mechanical failure, long immigration queues, airline incompetence) seems immense. How native US citizens put up with it is beyond me.

I didn’t know much about the place before I got there and a quirk of fate gave us a free day during our business trip. As we were in the centre of town, we picked up a tourist map from the hotel and set off on foot. The closest destination picked out on the map was the Peanut Depot. We had no idea what to expect but thought if it’s on the map, it must be worth a visit. When we found a shop selling peanuts, we assumed there must be more to it. A quick scan around the place told us that the only other thing worth noting was a plaque on the wall proclaiming it a historic building at 115 years old. If that’s what defines a historic building, half the buildings in the UK wear similar plaques.

The next entry on the map was a tower. When we got there, we realised it was just an office block. A tall office block, but an office block all the same.

Clearly, we needed advice. Luckily, the next destination on the map was the tourist information office. Upon arrival, they greeted us enthusiastically and insisted we sign the guest book. Although there was no dust on the guest book, the previous entry predated ours by some margin. The friendly people directed us to the Civil Rights Institute. Inside the foyer of the Institute, we spied a display case containing something both sinister and ridiculous; a Ku Klux Klan outfit donated by an anonymous donor. Wandering through the exhibits was enlightening but also shocking. It’s hard to imagine mistreatment of a whole race on such a scale barely 20 years after World War 2 and only 50 years ago.

Birmingham city centre is a lonely place. We hardly saw a soul and we walked around for hours. There is a staggering dearth of people given that there are over 200,000 residents. As so few Alabamans seems to walk anywhere, it’s also surprising to find so many cobblers.

I have subsequently stayed outside of town where bizarrely, there is more going on. The scenery’s amazing. There are more bars, more restaurants, more shops and more people. The people in Birmingham are very friendly. They did try to poison me once with something called a peanut butter & jelly sandwich. A vile concoction of sweetness and ungodly textures contained between two slices of bread. I’ve forgiven them, for now, but I will be deeply suspicious of any strange-sounding fare from now on!

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On a scale of 1 to 10…

Risk

Risk (Photo credit: avyfain)

If you ever want investment advice – especially if you reside in the UK, an advisor will ask you to fill in a survey all about risk. I understand why these surveys exist, after all, the advisor needs to make sure you understand the concept of risk versus reward and pitch investment advice to you that is appropriate to how you feel.

By necessity, the survey is relatively simple consisting of statements like “Compared to the average person, I would say I take more risks” and you then tick a box to show how strongly you agree or disagree with the statement.

But who’s the average person and what do you consider a risk? I wouldn’t try anything like skydiving and I’m not too keen on the idea of deep-sea diving, but I do recognise that any kind of reward comes with risk. There’s even a risk of doing nothing because depending on your situation, the lack of action could leave you considerably worse off. If you’re standing in a burning building, you probably take a different view on the risk of jumping out the window.

I find such forms very difficult to fill in because my answers to the questions can vary wildly depending on which aspect of my life you are talking about. I have a very different attitude to the risk I take when I buy a £2 lottery ticket compared with one of those £50 tickets at the airport to win a car. It depends on so many factors; the amount of outlay, the potential reward and the likelihood of winning (or as is more often the case – losing).

When it comes to investment, it’s even more complicated. My attitude to risk changes with timescale, so I have a different attitude about the investment that’s supposed to pay off my mortgage compared to my retirement fund. The age at which you can retire in this country is galloping over the horizon so I’m fairly relaxed about taking some risk because a lot can happen between now and then.

It also depends on where in the world you are talking about. We have people in the western world doing essentially the same job as their counterparts a few thousand miles to the East, but we earn orders of magnitude more money. There is a considerable rebalancing that’s going to play out over the coming years which will affect the likelihood of growth in each area. Asser class makes a difference too. We have a saying “safe as houses.” I imagine many people across Europe and America take a very different view about the relative risks of investing in housing since the sub prime market imploded five or six years ago.

And it interest rates start going up or America decides that what the world really needs is another war – it will all change again. Maybe I’ll fill out 10 different forms.

Home sweet home

English: The interior of a migrant ship to Ame...

English: The interior of a migrant ship to America At the Ulster American Folk Park, the transition from the Irish display to the New World is made by boarding a (static) ship and emerging in America. This is the interior. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is a unique museum just outside Omagh in Northern Ireland called the Ulster American Folk Park. Set in delightful countryside, the museum aims to tell the story of how the natives used to live and follows those that emigrated overseas to seek new opportunities in the new land of America.

As you walk through the park, the buildings start from the simplest of hovels and progress along the evolutionary scale until you come to a wooden sailing ship in the centre of the park. All the buildings before the ship reflect what life was like through the ages in Northern Ireland. The buildings that follow the ship reflect the lives of those who chose to settle on the other side of the Atlantic.

Inside the ship itself, the exhibit tells the story of what the emigrants went through during their long sea voyage. As if the voyage wasn’t hard enough, they were ensured a frosty reception at the other end with many sent back because of suspected disease. It seems even back then, the Americans were particularly choosy about who they let in.

The park is very interesting and well worth a visit. One of the things I find most interesting about the place is how housing technology changes over time. In the space of a few hundred years, the humble abode evolved from little more than a cave through a single room hut right up to multi-storeyed, multi-roomed, stone built dwellings. At the end of the park, although the timeline hasn’t moved beyond the 19th century, the technology used is not that different from brand new houses being built today.

Sure, there have been advances in glazing technology which means windows are no longer single glazed, they’re double or even triple glazed. Homes are built with more advanced materials with less environmental impact, but the majority of new houses today still have four walls and a pitched, tiled roof. Modern heating means less chimneys, but the silhouette of a modern dwelling is broadly the same.

When I was young, I used to think that we would all be living in space or under the sea. Or maybe a troglodytic existence in an underground labyrinth of tunnels. I assumed that we would use far more advanced materials than merely bricks. Houses would have a fusion reactor to provide energy. Windows would be extra-dimensional spaces which would have whatever you wanted on the other side of them. Fancy looking out on Lake Geneva – no problem.

There would be no need to clean or even decorate. Drones would wake up now and then and take care of the dusty corners and usher out the occasional rogue spider that breached the laser defences. Instead, we all live in houses that our Great-grandparents would feel right at home in.

No heart attack problem!

Part of the tunnel complex at Củ Chi, this tun...

Part of the tunnel complex at Củ Chi, this tunnel has been made wider and taller to accommodate tourists. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We were all exhausted. The man next door to me held my arm as he sat down. Then he lay down. In some fairly uncomfortable looking undergrowth. His breathing was slow, laboured.

All of a sudden, I heard screaming from behind me. I moved back out of the way as two women from our party rushed over and ripped the man’s shirt open. They started cardiac massage and mouth to mouth resuscitation. They seemed to know what they were doing.

We were in Vietnam visiting the Cu-Chi tunnels. A couple of years before we were born, a battle raged here between the United States and the Viet Cong guerilla army. The Viet Cong lived and fought from the tunnels. They covered a massive area. I don’t remember how many Viet Cong the tour guide told us, but I remember thinking that something like the population of my home town lived down there in the darkness.

The Americans tried many different ways of destroying the tunnels. They tried dropping bombs. They assaulted the tunnels on foot. They tried gas and boiling water. They even trained some small guys (called tunnel rats) to infiltrate the tunnels armed with little more than a pistol, a knife, some string and a torch. I can’t imagine the horrors they experienced. Despite all the efforts of the good old US of A, the tunnels persisted and were a major factor of the outcome of the conflict.

The Viet Cong were tiny and their tunnels commensurately so. They were far too small for us tourists. A small section of tunnel specially widened was available for us to crawl through. I was keen to experience what it was like down there. Julie was less convinced, especially when the tour guide said over and over in his Vietnamese accent “No-one with heart attack problem down tunnel”.

“You’re not going down there are you?”

“Absolutely.”

“Oh my God – that means I have to go with you!”

I don’t have a “heart attack problem” but I do take tablets for blood pressure. I looked at some of the people getting ready to descend into the tunnel. If they can do it – I can do it. We climbed down a ladder into a small chamber before climbing down further into the tunnel. For some reason, I assumed the tunnel would be cool. It wasn’t. It was claustrophobic and hot. It was also dark. We had to crawl along in single file. I quickly realised that with a man in front of me and Julie behind, there was no quick way out. It was also very hard work.

The man in the bushes was not doing well. One of the women attending to him kept screaming for a doctor. The other kept screaming for oxygen. The tour guide apologetically said “This is third world country – no oxygen”. A Vietnamese man with a stethoscope appeared briefly but I suspect I knew more about medicine than he did.

Unfortunately, that was the last holiday for that man – he didn’t make it. I’m sure if he was at a tourist attraction somewhere in the Western world, he might have fared better.

A state of war now exists between our two countries

Falkland Islands

Falkland Islands (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Camping in the Forest of Dean during a chilly April in 1982 was not my idea of fun. Some people like to be at one with nature. I’m not one of them. I like my accommodation to have stars (the more the merrier), central heating and a bed. Preferably with some soft down pillows that you can just sink into.

When we arrived, there was a list of jobs waiting for us. The first thing to do was to put up the tent. It was massive. We were not. It was a struggle. Then we had to make a drying rack out of whatever we could find. If you know we’re going to need a drying rack, why not pack one.

Then one night, everything changed. The word went out. Something big was about to happen. We crowded into the only tent with a radio. The Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, made a live broadcast. Her tone was sombre. Her words were deadly serious. The Argentinians had invaded the Falkland Islands. Britain would put together a task force to retake them. “Where are the Falkland Islands?” someone asked. “Just off Scotland.” someone replied sagely. It felt like the most momentous event ever.

After the radio broadcast, some gurus came on and discussed what that meant. We then learned that the Falkland Islands were not just off Scotland. They were a very long way away indeed. Our task force had a very long journey ahead. It would be weeks before they arrived. America tried to broker a peaceful deal between the two countries in the intervening time, but to no avail.

War should always be a last resort, but there was a certain purity of purpose about the conflict that has sometimes been missing from later engagements. Argentina invaded because they though they owned the islands. We retook the islands because we disagreed. You could argue about who’s right and who’s wrong, but there is no doubt about why each country behaved the way it did.

Apart from the abortive diplomacy efforts by the Americans, there were only two parties involved. There was a definite trigger and the conflict came to a definitive end with nearly a thousand people dying in the process. The argument still rumbles on because both sides feel they are right. Funnily enough, a state of war was never officially declared.

A small garrison remains there to this day. The cost of this presence equates to over $30K per year per islander. If we spent as much for everyone in the UK, our defence budget would rocket by nearly $2 trillion!

I wonder if we had this clarity of purpose about the Iraq and the Afghanistan conflicts, would they have taken so long and cost so much? Would they have achieved more?

Would they have even started?

Does progress always have to be savage?

Navvies monument

Navvies monument (Photo credit: phill.d)

Whenever there is a great leap by mankind, someone, somewhere suffers. Empires rise and fall, companies thrive, plateau and die. Whole industries die out to make way for new ways of doing things. It happens over and over. In the long run, the human race as a whole blossoms, but in the short-term, someone, somewhere gets hurt. The incredible feats of Victorian engineering that came about during the Industrial Revolution only exist because of hoards of navvies. Working in appalling conditions for pitiful pay, these manual workers toiled away to produce some marvellous structures. The mortality rate was sky-high. More navvies died building the Woodhead Tunnel than during the Battle of Waterloo.

Jobs in manufacturing disappeared thanks to the rise in mechanised assembly lines. Printing jobs went up in smoke because of the digital age. Where it once took an army of workers to produce a large print run of newspapers, it now only takes a handful. Office workers in their droves saw their jobs vanish due to computerisation. Cars today are much more reliable thanks to the robotised construction techniques, but that means we employ far fewer car assembly workers.

The sheer amount of technology available to us today is mind-boggling. 10 years ago, I only had one multiple electric gang socket. Today, my house is riddled with them. All this technology has an increasingly diminishing shelf life. Many people replace their mobile phones every year if not more often. Today’s laptop will be tomorrow’s landfill.

English: Mobile phone scrap, old decomissioned...

English: Mobile phone scrap, old decomissioned mobile phones, defective mobile phones (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

30 million computers are discarded in the USA every year. Europe manages to ditch 100 million mobile phones. All in all, an estimated 50 million tonnes of electrical waste needs to be disposed of every year. All of this waste contains a cocktail of poisonous substances and useful materials that could be recycled. Unfortunately, much of this waste ends up in developing economies where workers are slowly poisoned whilst earning a pittance to separate the wheat from the chaff.

In this country, we immediately throw our hands in the air whenever there is any kind of project that might affect the resale values of our precious homes. Spare a thought for anyone who stands in the way of a big engineering project in China. They certainly get the job done and progress is made, but at what human cost?

Of course, we eventually clean up our act. If you work on a big construction project today, the laws in place to protect you are legion. We are starting to put together frameworks for the handling of electronic waste. China has even passed a new law, after a tortured 12 year journey through the courts, to better protect the rights of homeowners when faced with compulsory purchase.

But when the trail is being blazed, the damage gets done.

Predicting the future is a very tricky business

future

future (Photo credit: Sean MacEntee)

Predicting the future is a very tricky business. Probably because the rate of change in our lives means that by the time you have made the statement or written the article, time has moved on. Because of this, only the foolhardy or the charlatans make such predictions. Here are some famous quotes about the future to give you the idea;


“There are many methods for predicting the future. For example, you can read horoscopes, tea leaves, tarot cards or crystal balls. Collectively, these methods are known as nutty methods. Or you can put well-researched facts into sophisticated computer models, more commonly known as a complete waste of time.”
Scott Adams

“There is no need for any individual to have a computer in their home”
Ken Olson, President of Digital Equipment Corp

“640K [of memory] ought to be enough for anybody”
Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft

“Computers of the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons”
Popular Mechanics Magazine

“One-hundred million dollars is way too much to pay for Microsoft.”
IBM 1982

“It would appear that we have reached the limits of what it is possible to achieve with computer technology — although one should be careful with such statements, as they tend to sound pretty silly in five years.”
John Von Neumann 1949

“I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won’t last out the year.”
Prentice Hall business book editor 1957

“This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication.”
Western Union memo 1878

“We will never make a 32 bit operating system.”
Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft

“The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty – a fad.”
The president of the Michigan Savings Bank advising Henry Ford’s lawyer, Horace Rackham, not to invest in the Ford Motor Co., 1903


After Obama’s victory in the US elections, I thought that now is a good time to make some predictions about what the world might look like at the end of his 4 year term. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether I’m foolhardy or a charlatan.

My version of the future goes something like this;

After  nearly a decade since the banking crisis, the world economies are booming once more. Growth is positive just about everywhere, but some countries are doing better than others. Africa is the new powerhouse of manufacturing with a constant flood of cheap consumer goods flowing both into the Western economies but also Eastwards into the burgeoning Chinese and Indian middle classes. Living standards are improving in Africa but there are many stories of exploitation, low wages and child labour.

After a long period of inflation in India and China coupled with stagnant wages in the Western world, Western companies are busy either repatriating their offshore operations or moving them to the much cheaper African continent.

The European union now operates two separate currencies; the Northern Euro (or Neuro) and the Southern Euro (or Seuro). The whole world is involved in a massive aid operation for Greece which is now a third world country thanks to the austerity measures and constant recession of the last 10 years.

Screens are rare and have largely been replaced by worn screens in the form of virtual reality spectacles and contact lenses. Keyboards are rarely seen, all input is carried out either via voice or gestures. Wireless networking is now free and universal so cables are a thing of the past.

Scientists are in the advanced stages of testing genetic treatments which render cancer an innocculable condition and treatments have been developed to cope with the effects of obesity and alcoholism.

Someone else will have invaded Afghanistan. The Israelis and Palestinians will still be at each other’s throats although peace talks will be looking promising. There will have been 3 gun massacres in the United States by crazed gunmen. After the last such incident in which a huge number of schoolchildren were gunned down, the USA are seriously considering new gun control laws.

Oil is now running at $20 per gallon and people have abandoned petrochemicals at an ever increasing rate. Renewable energy is the new oil and companies leading the field are booming. Most town and city centres have outlawed petrochemical powered vehicles. Global warming has stabilised and the Northern ice cap is starting to grow back once more.

Do I seriously believe my version of the future ? Well – no, 4 years is far too fast for some of the things on this list, but I live in hope that the more positive items in the list do become true and that we wake up in time to prevent the negative items.

Why I could never vote for Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney Steve Pearce event 057

Mitt Romney Steve Pearce event 057 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A wise man once told me that if you are hiring someone, you should look for three essential qualities; the ideal candidate should be smart, get things done and not be a jerk. These seem like excellent yardsticks against which to judge the candidates, Barrack Obama and Mitt Romney.

Although the discussion is moot because since the declaration of independence, I as an Englishman, have no say over what happens constitutionally in the good old US of A. Our needs of the future president are somewhat modest. As long as he keeps the wheels on the world economy for the next four years and as long as he doesn’t drag the world into mass conflict, we will be reasonably OK.

So are they smart? There are rumours that Barrack Obama was a C grade in school and college. As you can imagine, it’s very difficult to find dispassionate and impartial evidence either way during an election. What we do know is that he graduated from Harvard with a law degree in 1991 so he must be reasonably intelligent. What about Romney? He also attended Harvard gaining both a law degree and an MBA so he’s pretty smart too.

So far, so good. Do they get things done? No-one could argue that Barrack Obama was dealt a good set of cards by the previous administration. George Dubbya Bush buried toxic waste under the White House lawn in the form of the nose diving economy, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and Guantanamo Bay before handing over the keys.

Obama failed to close Guantanamo. Closing the place is easy. Finding a politically acceptable home for the 166 detainees is another thing altogether. So on this point he failed, although I have more hope that he will close it eventually than Mitt Romney ever doing so.

Although Obama brought the war in Iraq to a close in 2011, the war in Afghanistan rumbles on, but at least there is a timetable for withdrawal in 2014 and the Obama administration managed to scalp Osama bin Laden.

On the economy, since the deep recession in 2009, the GDP growth rate has been positive in the US ever since. For over 2 years, the US economy has added jobs and the trend seems positive. Critics have been quick to highlight the rise in the unemployment rate in the latest figures from 7.8% to 7.9%. You could argue anything with statistics, but there are more jobs and there are more people hoping to find a job which must be a good thing.

Critics also point to the towering deficit. As with lots of countries, the US deficit has ballooned since the banking crisis. The US defect stood at an inflation adjusted $1.5 trillion in 2009. Every year since, the deficit has been steadily reduced to a still eye watering $1.1 trillion, but at least it’s heading in the right direction. To put this in perspective, the US budget has been in deficit for 60 out of the last  72 years and the current figure stands at roughly double the deficit from the previous peak in 1945.

Obama brought healthcare to 32 million uninsured Americans, saved the beleaguered US car industry, stopped US torture and allowed gay people to serve in the armed forces.

Romney famously captained the successful Olympics 10 years ago in Salt Lake City. He was elected governor of Massachusetts in 2003 where he managed to cut the deficit from $3Bn. There is history of him running for the White House before, but until now he retains bridesmaid status.

So they can both get stuff done. Are they jerks?

At the end of George Dubbya Bush’s tenure, world opinion of the US seemed to be at an all time low. Obama has done much to restore that reputation. His smooth, tolerant and patient demeanour was exactly the right tonic. He is a likeable man.

Romney famously wrote off nearly half the country with his 47% comments. During the 2nd Presidential debate, he said he would add 12 million jobs to the economy only to say 45 minutes later that Government does not create jobs. He insulted Britain on the eve of arguably the most successful Olympics ever by calling into question our ability to run the show.

And that is why I could never vote for him. The man’s a jerk.

Number 1 or number 2?

English: Ancient roman latrines / latrinae, Os...

English: Ancient roman latrines / latrinae, Ostia Antica Nederlands: Oud-Romeins openbaar toilet Français : Latrines romaines à Ostie. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There are some things in life that I feel demand solitude. So when I learned that Romans built their toilets as social gathering places where men would sit side by side in long rows casually chewing the fat whilst their bowels did their best to dispose of the very same, it made my toes curl.

You can learn a lot about a society from the nature of their human waste disposal facilities. The British, for example, seem to have a higher urinal to cubicle ratio than any other nation I have visited and I’ve travelled around a bit. I assume it’s because of the relatively high national consumption of beer, but other countries with similar rates seem to get by with far fewer urinals.

The Americans build industrial strength toilets. According to many surveys and studies, Americans on average are more obese than any other nation, so it stands to reason that they consume more and therefore expel more than other people around the world. So I suppose it makes sense that their toilets are somewhat more robust, but they are epic in scale. I’m sure that I could have flushed the bed down the toilet in some of the American hotels I’ve stayed in. It doesn’t matter what’s in the pan – hit the flush and it disappears.

English: Taken by me whilst on holiday in Fran...

English: Taken by me whilst on holiday in France, at a motorway service station somewhere near Toulouse. This one is surprisingly clean, usually they are filthy. I love holidaying in France but I hate their toilets. Français : Prise par moi lors de vacances en France sur une air d’autoroute pres de Toulouse. Celle-ci est étonnamment propre, d’habitude elle sont sales. J’adore passer mes vacances en France mais je deteste leurs toilettes (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The French seem to have an indifferent attitude to toilets. Bare minimalism seems to be the order of the day – sometimes literally. I remember going to a restaurant in Tours and visiting the facilities. In front of me was a porcelain moulding with two foot plates. Between them was a hole. On the wall was a faded sign that showed which way you needed to squat depending on what you had in mind. There was no door. There weren’t even fixings for a door so there had obviously never been a door.

The Germans are efficient and believe in quality. Maybe that’s why they build inspection pans into their toilets. Whatever you’ve produced is held up for you to examine to make sure it’s satisfactory before hitting the flush and consigning it to oblivion.

I’ve been to Poland a few times, mostly to Warsaw, but once – I went to Katowice. Unlike Warsaw, no-one spoke English. They have a cryptic alphabet, so I couldn’t even take a guess at what was on the menu. Unwilling to be accidentally poisoned – I gesticulated wildly and spoke loudly unit they found someone who spoke English, the washer-up. Unfortunately, the only word he seemed to know was “please”. He did well though. I asked for a toasted cheese sandwich. Out came a platter full of salad with 2 bits of toast and a lump of cheese.

When I came to go to the toilet – I was baffled. One had a circle and the other a triangle. There was no other clue as to which was which, so I took a guess. I had a 50:50 chance. I don’t know who was more surprised – me or the Polish lady I bumped into!