Sunday, 25 November 2007

Missing Numbers

Always on the lookout for the reasons “why I went wrong” I was reminded recently about my ineptitude at mathematics. Sure I can add and subtract. Multiplication, percentages and even long division are skills I can just about perform. But I went through my formative years regarding mathematics as being much too technical, much too boring. As a result I possibly missed out on both great wealth and, strangely, some (almost incompehensible) element of pleasure.

I could, for instance, have become skilled at computer programming. I would have learned the different forms of Basic, C, C++, the two great aunts (Fortran and Ada), and thence to HTML, Java, and so on. After all this is an area which hardly existed when I was born, and which has developed through my lifetime. As a bookseller I sold the books which inspired the Internet boom of the nineties, but I failed to pay attention to the content of those books and totally missed any opportunity of becoming a dot.com billionaire.

And then there is the Square Mile. Could I have been an Investment Banker, a Hedge Fund Maestro, a Stock Market King? Again, probably not. I’m not good enough, or interested enough, in the maths. This week I leafed through a new book on technical analysis, Marber on Markets. Here are the charts that define good trading. The “head and shoulders” peaks, the different variations, the clouds, the bounces. And Brian Marber explains all these with the rather fetching enthusiasm of a man who really enjoys what he is doing. Whenever I select a share (I don’t do commodities, currencies, bonds, etc.) I act as if I’m on a racecourse looking for a horse to back. “Ah, this one is a snowy white grey (like the older brother) and is drawn on Mum’s birthday – I’ll back that”. Never will I check the form book, the breeding, previous timings and draw numbers. Marber was the first man to run an Investment Fund entirely through Technical Analysis and he prospered. Not only that, but he enjoyed himself.

The good Captain Aubrey in Patrick O’Brien’s novels, may have been a swashbuckling, fast-living, Boys Own Magazine hero. But he was also a keen mathematician, and wholeheartedly enthused about the subject which, as a navigator, was essential to his career. Only yesterday a septuagenarian neighbour told me how a long coach journey taken a few weeks ago had afforded the opportunity “for me to teach Barbara calculus – such fun!”

Maybe I’d better stop fighting with Sudoku puzzles and try and learn some healthy trigonometry instead. A little strenuous mental discipline would probably do me good.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

St Pancras

Sightseeing with the wife in London and a good time to have a look at the re-vamped St Pancras Station. It really does deserve all the praise it is getting. Okay the champagne bar may be the longest in the world, but it was packed end-to-end. The roof is a marvel and the building combines its three functions – as a public space, as the new Eurostar terminal, and as a normal London railway terminus (with trains to Nottingham and Sheffield and the like) extremely well.

I'm a bit confused about St Pancras himself (there appear to have been two of them). Anyway one or other gave his name to an area of London. There was a church once but it seems to have disppeared by the fourteenth century. Ipswich has a Roman Catholic church dedicated to St Pancras and, according to Wikipedia, there is a village of St Pancras in Northern Holland.

I suppose the only let-down to St Pancras station is the tube connection. The ticket hall for the underground station may be an engineering marvel, but it isn’t big enough to cope (another ticket hall is in process of construction). And when you descend for the Victoria or Northern line there is all the bleakness of an under-funded transit system (unpainted, unclean, pipework wrapped in tinfoil endlessly waiting for someone to finish a refurbishment started many moons previously).

But I ramble on. When the redevelopment of St Pancras as the new Eurostar terminal was announced I thought the idea was bonkers. The terminus at Waterloo seemed to do the job well enough and to my eye is much closer to Paris, as well as being wonderfully convenient for central London. Appararently 84 million passengers used the now empty Waterloo platforms and I hope they get re-used sensibly. I'll eat my hat over St Pancras - it is a masterpiece of refurbishment.

Remembrance Sunday

In the same way as bonfire night is celebrated over a six-week span, people (particularly TV presenters) start wearing poppies in mid-October nowadays. But, despite all my moaning, it is still a very important occasion and the Royal Albert Hall commemoration was particularly well done. The BBC have found in Chris Stewart a wonderfully solemn voice for the big occasion. How extraordinary to see Harry Patch (the last surviving Tommy from the First War’s Western Front) wheeled out – aged 109.

In my odd way I found myself on Remembrance Sunday, at the 11th hour on the 11th day, in a lay-by off the main Dover-Folkestone road as I hurried in pursuit of a ferry. Other cars had stopped for the two minutes silence including (slightly to my surprise) a French motorist.

Once in France I marked the day by stopping for rather more than two minutes at the Etaples Commonwealth Military Cemetery which has 12,000 graves of Commonwealth soldiers, mostly from the First War, and the almost inevitable Lutyens memorial. A few years back the cemetery was vandalised by yobs with paint spray canisters, but now it looks immaculate. The French were treating the day with just as much respect as the British and the locals had laid wreaths alongside those from Britain and the Commonwealth. Sad though that our troops are still involved in active warfare. Peace on earth would be a very good idea.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Waste of Time - Waste of Money

Oh heck, I'm starting to rant again.

First the poor old Jeep had to be returned to its maker. I'd ignored the first "urgent recall" letter but the rotters tracked me down through DVLA and I agreed to let them do their worst on Tuesday after an hour-long dentist appointment on the outskirts of Portsmouth. "It won't take more than an hour" said the Jeep main dealer - who lives on a modern estate devoted entirely to "main dealers" (Audi, VW, Mercedes, BMW, Seat, etc., etc.) on the other side of Portsmouth, "so you can wait, if you like".

So I waited, and waited, and waited. The first hour passed by okay, I suppose. I had some phone calls to make, a book to read. Like posh car dealerships everywhere I had access to free coffee, a water machine, and the droning of BBC News 24.

There were newspapers and magazines (an odd selection ranging from Harpers and Queen, to Jeep News and 4x4 magazine by way of Esquire and Hello). But I was getting bored. Did Tchibo pay for the coffee machine to be installed, or did the dealership? Does Eden Springs give a bulk rate to all the dealerships on the estate for providing water machines. Every so often Mr or Ms Car Salesman would come by in search of water or coffee - I tried guessing if they were "Jeep" people, or "Mercedes" people (as Mercedes shared the showroom).

Two hours had passed and I thought about blogging about the delay. I even went outside and took a snapshot of the dealership premises. Thank heavens I had taken the day as official holiday. Even so the wife had TV aerial people fiddling with our connections and would doubtless be impatient for my return. I found the viewing area overlooking the Mercedes service area (very clean, lots of diagnostic kit, boring). Having been reassured that work was progressing on my car I sidled off to check the parking area (might my car still be where I had left it? No).

I then started a patrol of the new Jeep salesroom (rubbish), the second hand parking lot (rubbish), and for good measure checked out the other dealerships(all rubbish unless you have £20,000 or so that you are absolutely want to waste unnecessarily).

Pshaw! The three hour mark arrives and there is news: "They've finished your car and it is now being washed". Washed? My car is there for an essential repair at no cost so what are they trying to do by removing the mud and dust camouflage? It'll be another fifteen minutes and so I start photographing the water cooler and coffee machine, I give up! Never again will I visit a Jeep main dealership, unless ...

And then there is the "waste of money". The new laptop I bought myself comes replete with the new Microsoft Vista operating system. What Mr Compaq and friends never told me was that Microsoft Vista is totally incompatible with Orange Livebox technology (which powers my broadband at home).

Sure Orange are apparently working on "drivers" which will lessen the problem, but you cannot buy a new PC today without Microsoft's new Vista operating system pre-installed. So you are stuffed. Somewhat miraculously (and with help from the father of my latest grand-daughter) this blog has come off the new machine, but Holy Cow (to pardon my French)!