Broad Oak: your emotional support animal

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy New Year!



We were in Army married quarters in a North German village, when this was first screened in June 1963. Since then, it's become a German New Year's Eve ritual. Drink, absent friends, defiant celebration.
Pic: Wikipedia
Although penned in the 1920s by a British author, Lauri Wylie, the skit is said to have been inspired by Prince Albert's step-grandmother, Duchess Sophie Caroline Amalie of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg. From 1841 onward, the widowed Duchess celebrated her birthday in the Gotha Winter Palace, surrounded by her four long-dead friends – a publisher, an entrepreneur, a professor - and a colonel, whose part was played by her servant.

Because of post-WWI anti-German sentiment, the scene was transposed to an English country house, but in Wylie’s original script, the names of the protagonists and the food and drinks on the menu remained Germanic.
Thanks to Prince Albert, we now celebrate Christmas German-style, so why not New Year's as well? Prosit Neujahr!

All original material is copyright of its author. Fair use permitted. Contact via comment. Internet links accessed 22 September 2013. Nothing here should be taken as personal advice, financial or otherwise. No liability is accepted for third-party content, whether incorporated in or linked to this blog; or for unintentional error and inaccuracy.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Society is like the air

This is an interesting quote expressed with Santayana’s inimitable lucidity. He says there is more to social life than gregarious socialising which he sees as an essentially passive activity akin to breathing.

Gregarious sentiment is passive, watchful, expectant, at once powerful and indistinct, troubled and fascinated by things merely possible. It renders solitude terrible without making society particularly delightful.

A dull feeling of familiarity and comfort is all we can reasonably attribute to uninterrupted trooping together. Yet banishment from an accustomed society is often unbearable.

A creature separated from his group finds all his social instincts bereft of objects and of possible exercise; the sexual, if by chance the sexual be at the time active; the parental, with all its extensions; and the combative, with all its supports.

He is helpless and idle, deprived of all resource and employment. Yet when restored to his tribe, he merely resumes a normal existence. All particular feats and opportunities are still to seek.

Company is not occupation. Society is like the air, necessary to breathe but insufficient to live on.

George Santayana - The Life of Reason

I’m sure we’ve all come across highly gregarious people who only appear to want superficial social contact. They may be good company in the right surroundings, but somehow don’t relish anything deeper than good humoured chit-chat.

Perhaps this is where the emptiness of modern politics comes from. The ghastly charade of social empathy which seems so shallow. If Santayana is right, the shallowness may result from a doomed attempt to substitute the forms of gregarious behaviour for the warmth of genuine engagement.

After all, striding to the political lectern in shirt sleeves doesn’t convince anyone. Simply telling it as it is would probably work better. Not only because the shirt sleeves are unconvincing, but as Santayana says - in itself gregarious behaviour is insufficient to live on.

A dull feeling of familiarity and comfort is all we can reasonably attribute to uninterrupted trooping together. Yet banishment from an accustomed society is often unbearable.

Sounds like a political party conference to me. It isn’t surprising that the vast majority of us seek more genuine social engagement while party membership inevitably declines to a squabbling, anti-social core.

All original material is copyright of its author. Fair use permitted. Contact via comment. Unless indicated otherwise, all internet links accessed at time of writing. Nothing here should be taken as personal advice, financial or otherwise. No liability is accepted for third-party content, whether incorporated in or linked to this blog; or for unintentional error and inaccuracy. The blog author may have, or intend to change, a personal position in any stock or other kind of investment mentioned.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Oxford: the first coffee house

When you're in Oxford, walking down the High towards Magdalen Bridge, you'll pass Queen's College on your left, then the Queen's Lane Coffee House. Stop, and glance to your right at a four-storey building next to the Examination Schools. There's a blue plaque on it, to mark the place where Frank Cooper first sold the famous Oxford Marmalade made by his wife Susan.

But it may have a greater claim to fame, because here, or near here, was England's first recorded coffee house. In his 1691 book about Oxford-educated writers and bishops, Anthony à Wood noted*:

(1650 – p. xix) This yeare Jacob a Jew opened a coffey house at the Angel in the parish of S. Peter in the East, Oxon. and there it was by some, who delighted in noveltie, drank. When he left Oxon. he sold it in Old Southampton buildings in Holborne neare London, and was living there 1671.

(1654 – p. xxiii) Cirques Jobson, a Jew and Jacobite, borne neare Mount-Libanus, sold coffey in Oxon. in an house between Edmund hall and Queen coll. corner.

St Peter's was later deconsecrated and turned into the library of St Edmund Hall (aka "Teddy Hall") Facing it on the south side of the High was a fourteenth-century inn, originally called the Tabard but renamed the Angel when Magdalen College developed it in 1510, and again in the 1660s.The larger left-hand-side part was eventually demolished to build the Examination Schools. The engraving below is from the early nineteenth century, when the licensee was Thomas Gellett.

(Pic source)

One wonders whether the two coffee purveyors were the same person, and whether the enterprise started in a side room of the tavern (which may have been glad of extra revenue during the Puritan Interregnum) and shifted over the road when business took off. If so, then maybe, as the Oxford History site also suggests, the modern Queen's Lane Coffee House is the site of the first dedicated cafe premises in the country.

(Pic source)
____________________________________

* “ATHENAE OXONIENSES. AN EXACT HISTORY OF ALL THE WRITERS AND BISHOPS WHO HAVE HAD THEIR EDUCATION IN THE UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD” (1813 edition, Vol. I – with additions by Philip Bliss). Accessed from https://archive.org/details/athenaeoxoniense01wooduoft on 26.12.2013

All original material is copyright of its author. Fair use permitted. Contact via comment. Unless indicated otherwise, all internet links accessed at time of writing. Nothing here should be taken as personal advice, financial or otherwise. No liability is accepted for third-party content, whether incorporated in or linked to this blog; or for unintentional error and inaccuracy. The blog author may have, or intend to change, a personal position in any stock or other kind of investment mentioned.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Referism: gives you the hit without the tar

Pic source

By Sackerson
All original material is copyright of its author. Fair use permitted. Contact via comment. Unless indicated otherwise, all internet links accessed at time of writing. Nothing here should be taken as personal advice, financial or otherwise. No liability is accepted for third-party content, whether incorporated in or linked to this blog; or for unintentional error and inaccuracy. The blog author may have, or intend to change, a personal position in any stock or other kind of investment mentioned.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Abandon success!

Successful people can't be successfully imitated, and successful fund managers are merely a statistical blip. That's Charles Hugh Smith's latest message, and though he is prolific and always thought-provoking, I think this is possibly his most important, because it bears on the happiness of the largest number of people.

CHS quotes Aaron Krowne:

The average man cannot ever hope to win with "investments"(or the world of finance in general), but must be content with savings. Unfortunately, in the absence of sound money, we don't really have "savings" anymore, which is why the whole world has effectively been converted to economic sheep for the slaughter, a kind of "superadvantage" of those who run our economic system.

Speaking as someone who was an IFA for 20 years, I completely agree that the majority of people should and would be satisfied with sound money, expecting no more than what they are willing to save, and no less than that it should preserve its purchasing power. It is one of the outstanding failures (or crimes, even) of the current British Government that one of its first acts was to shut up shop on NS&I Index-Linked Savings Certificates.

But turning to the wider implications of CSH's post, how many people's lives are wasted chasing what DH Lawrence called "the bitch-goddess Success"? Or, not even chasing Her, but being forced to put their immediate happiness and their personal and familial relationships to one side because of the demands of "the job". All those dreams of ultimate glory and happy retirement ruptured by divorce, ill-health etc. We get guff about "work-life balance", but who is allowed to achieve it in any significant sense? What happened to working the 9 to 5, hanging up your hat when you get home and being contented?

I think we should rebel in two ways: personally, by not falling for the con and as my dearest friend used to say, "Always have as much fun as you possibly can"; and collectively, by pressing for economic arrangements that are geared to making it worthwhile to save money, and possible to have time and energy to enjoy our daily lives, now.

All original material is copyright of its author. Fair use permitted. Contact via comment. Unless indicated otherwise, all internet links accessed at time of writing. Nothing here should be taken as personal advice, financial or otherwise. No liability is accepted for third-party content, whether incorporated in or linked to this blog; or for unintentional error and inaccuracy. The blog author may have, or intend to change, a personal position in any stock or other kind of investment mentioned.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Noam Chomsky on the increase in US political instability



All original material is copyright of its author. Fair use permitted. Contact via comment. Unless indicated otherwise, all internet links accessed at time of writing. Nothing here should be taken as personal advice, financial or otherwise. No liability is accepted for third-party content, whether incorporated in or linked to this blog; or for unintentional error and inaccuracy. The blog author may have, or intend to change, a personal position in any stock or other kind of investment mentioned.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Going viral

This post is merely a tot of pre-Christmas speculation.

Suppose a virus such as the common cold virus were to  mutate such that the symptoms it causes become generally less pronounced and less problematic for daily life.

The obvious advantage for the virus is that we are more likely to carry on mixing with other humans and so spread the virus more widely. Staying at home for a few days does not favour virus propagation so the new strain is preferentially selected by our behaviour.

Maybe this would lead to a more widespread general and persistent level of minor debilitation. Not enough to be noticed because symptoms are generally too minor to be presented to a doctor, but enough to cause general wellbeing to sag a little.

There is already a large amount of information on subclinical infections, but how would we deal with them if they became more prevalent and more subtle in their effects? An endless series of mass vaccinations? Probably not, because how would we know they were needed?

I’ve no idea if this is a significant issue or not, but suppose it is. What if it were to occur for a number of common viral and bacterial infections such that minor debilitation becomes endemic? What kind of symptoms might become more common?

Maybe we’d just sit in front of the TV and get fat.

Perhaps we’d think less clearly even though we are still able to get on with the daily routine well enough.

Perhaps we wouldn’t be as dynamic and decisive as we were a few decades ago, but the difference isn’t noticed because everyone else is subject to the same low-level infections.

All original material is copyright of its author. Fair use permitted. Contact via comment. Unless indicated otherwise, all internet links accessed at time of writing. Nothing here should be taken as personal advice, financial or otherwise. No liability is accepted for third-party content, whether incorporated in or linked to this blog; or for unintentional error and inaccuracy. The blog author may have, or intend to change, a personal position in any stock or other kind of investment mentioned.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

A reading from the Book of Santa, Ch. III, vv. 15 - 18

15When the king thus showed favour to their brother, the reindeer spake privily one to another, saying, surely we shall suffer wrath if we do as we have done heretofore.
16Let us honour Rudolph in the sight of our master, that his countenance shall smile upon us also.
17Then came they to Rudolph and praised him with loud voices, crying, thy name shall be remembered among us, yea, even to the seventh generation.
18Yet in their hearts was much bitterness, seeing that he had been set up over them.

All original material is copyright of its author. Fair use permitted. Contact via comment. Unless indicated otherwise, all internet links accessed at time of writing. Nothing here should be taken as personal advice, financial or otherwise. No liability is accepted for third-party content, whether incorporated in or linked to this blog; or for unintentional error and inaccuracy. The blog author may have, or intend to change, a personal position in any stock or other kind of investment mentioned.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Progress


All original material is copyright of its author. Fair use permitted. Contact via comment. Unless indicated otherwise, all internet links accessed at time of writing. Nothing here should be taken as personal advice, financial or otherwise. No liability is accepted for third-party content, whether incorporated in or linked to this blog; or for unintentional error and inaccuracy. The blog author may have, or intend to change, a personal position in any stock or other kind of investment mentioned.

Badgers, Israel and Scientology

Richard Ingrams, in The Oldie (January 2014 issue): "Any commentator hoping for a quiet life should avoid writing about Israel, Scientologists and badgers."

I had originally planned to write a spoof combining all three, but in fact there is a connection to be made between the first and last: according to a recent report, bovine tuberculosis has begun to spread into the West Bank.

Until recently, Israel has been clear of the disease. But it's certainly not clear of badgers. According to the IUCN, the Eurasian badger, meles meles, our beloved British Brock, is found in northern Israel down to Haifa, and the honey badger, mellivora capensis, is all over the State, so their geographical distributions overlap to a degree. It's not inconceivable that if the brocks of the eastern Med have TB, they may indirectly have transmitted it to honey badgers, and so on to cattle.
 

We can just about drag the Scientologists into this if we agree with them that "all illness in greater or lesser degree and all foul-ups stem directly and only from a PTS condition", i.e. mixing with "Suppressive Persons" who try to oppose the Scientologist's quest for self-betterment. This psychological/spiritual explanation of disease is shared by Christian Scientists, among others, and I'm pretty sure a positive frame of mind and supportive social relations do help the immune system. In that case, a fig for disease.

But why does bovine TB matter? It can spread to humans, but aside from breathing in the exhalations of infected animals, or negligent hygiene when handling them or processing their meat, or drinking their untreated milk, the risks are low. If present in meat, the bacterium is killed by cooking.

The Rural Economy and Land Use Programme (RELU) cites none of these in its explanation of why bTB is a concern, saying instead:

Why does bovine tuberculosis matter?
The increase in the number of herds affected and the spread of infection across the UK has impacts upon:

— Farm productivity.
— Mental health and wellbeing of farmers, frustrated by control programme culling of apparently healthy cattle.
— Health and welfare of animals, because effort is focused on the control programme, rather than on the development of good herd health strategies.
— International trade agreements, if herds testing positive reach a critical level.
— Public expenditure, at a time when budgets are under extreme pressure.


Seems like all except the first are to do with drawbacks of the control programme, rather than the disease. Not enough to justify the mass slaughter of meles meles, perhaps.

All original material is copyright of its author. Fair use permitted. Contact via comment. Unless indicated otherwise, all internet links accessed at time of writing. Nothing here should be taken as personal advice, financial or otherwise. No liability is accepted for third-party content, whether incorporated in or linked to this blog; or for unintentional error and inaccuracy. The blog author may have, or intend to change, a personal position in any stock or other kind of investment mentioned.

Mass death at Station M

(Picture source)

Is Fukushima killing the Pacific Ocean all the way to America's West Coast?

Michael Snyder's latest post joins the dots to create a sketch of rolling mass extinctions related to nuclear seawater contamination off eastern Japan. He leads with news of a fresh carpet of dead organisms beneath Station M in Monterey Bay, as reported by National Geographic magazine.

In turn, NG's article bases itself on a press release from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), which shows that algal blooms in 2011 and 2012 created a temporary superabundance of food for other creatures, who multiplied and then died off as the supply ran out.

MBARI says this happens periodically, and the "pulses" explain why there are more ocean floor scavengers than could be sustained by the normal amount of  nutrient "snow" drifting down from above. When explosions of "sea snot" occur, material not consumed immediately mixes into the mud and creates a reserve that is mined over succeeding years.

So, not caused by TEPCO, then.

In a way, that's a shame. For as with global warming, overenthusastic nuke-scare-mongering like Snyder's could backfire and cause the public to ignore issues that may indeed be worth worrying about.

All original material is copyright of its author. Fair use permitted. Contact via comment. Unless indicated otherwise, all internet links accessed at time of writing. Nothing here should be taken as personal advice, financial or otherwise. No liability is accepted for third-party content, whether incorporated in or linked to this blog; or for unintentional error and inaccuracy. The blog author may have, or intend to change, a personal position in any stock or other kind of investment mentioned.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Snow in Cairo


A few days ago, we had quite a few reports of snow in Cairo, an event apparently rare enough to make the news. The above headline from the Mirror is fairly typical. Other examples are :-

Playing in Cairo snow a first in 112 years
Snow Falls In Cairo For The First Time In More Than 100 Years

Egypt Sees First Snow Storm In Years

As I'm mildly interested in snowfall I decided to check it out. I soon came across the more nuanced view below, although you wouldn't guess from the headline. 

From all accounts, snow in Cairo is exceptionally rare – although historical records are difficult to attain. Some reports suggest it’s the first snow in Cairo in over 100 years – although they are not substantiated.

New York Magazine offers this intelligence:

Claims that this is Cairo’s first snowfall in exactly 112 years seem to be sourced from a tweet by one local man who later admitted he was just guesstimating. Whatever the exact number is, though, the point is that it basically never snows in Cairo.

Yet this weather site has snowfall records from Cairo airport going back to 1943. It shows snowfall on at least one day in 1974, 1975, 1976, 1977, 1980, 1983, 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1994, 1995, 2002, 2003 and 2004. 

Maybe the recent Cairo snowfall was uncommonly heavy or widespread, but if those figures are correct it was a long way from being the first in 112 years. Unless in the past it only ever snowed at the airport. Somehow I doubt that.

All original material is copyright of its author. Fair use permitted. Contact via comment. Unless indicated otherwise, all internet links accessed at time of writing. Nothing here should be taken as personal advice, financial or otherwise. No liability is accepted for third-party content, whether incorporated in or linked to this blog; or for unintentional error and inaccuracy. The blog author may have, or intend to change, a personal position in any stock or other kind of investment mentioned.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

US education: another turn of the wheel



To get the full feel of US culture, it helps to know a few things. One is Churchill’s correct observation that, “Americans do the right thing, once they have tried everything else.” Another is the cultural preference to make everything a matter of black and white, “If you’re not a winner, you’re a loser.”

This refusal to acknowledge shades of grey means an awful lot of cognitive dissonance, and bending of the rules. It also means massive and regular policy shifts. Progress is more a matter of stumbling onto new ideas in a Drunkard’s Walk than a gradual set of small improvements.
Nowhere are these false dichotomies more obvious than in Education. For example, when studies indicated that there might be too much rote learning in the standard curriculum, it was replaced by “discovery” or “inquiry-based learning”, with absolutely no memorization at all. For another, the famous No Child Left Behind initiative of President G.W.Bush requires by law that every single student in the country perform above benchmarks by 2014. Not surprisingly, this has led to massive cheating, and very low benchmarks.

On the surface, the US education system looks free and democratically-driven. Each state has its own Board of Education, which sets the statewide standards and basic curriculum, from which each school district generates its own requirements. That is, unless you live in Ohio, Louisiana, Kentucky, Kansas, or several other states, where the process has been hijacked by a vocal religious minority, who wish to ignore centuries of scientific advancement.
When new studies showed that not enough students were “ready for higher education”, a group of states signed on to the Common Core, an agreed-upon set of material that every high school graduate should know. With Teutonic efficiency, school administrators have leapt upon the idea that this minimum should be the maximum. Not only that, but the results of the students’ tests will be used to measure teachers, and “eliminate the failing ones.” This appeals to US conservatives, who rail against public education, and to corporations such as Pearson publishing, now poised to make billions. One of their income streams is to provide scripts to teachers, from which they are not permitted to deviate. Another is to generate the aforementioned assessments.

 As I get ready for retirement. I can’t wait to see what happens next.
All original material is copyright of its author. Fair use permitted. Contact via comment. Unless indicated otherwise, all internet links accessed at time of writing. Nothing here should be taken as personal advice, financial or otherwise. No liability is accepted for third-party content, whether incorporated in or linked to this blog; or for unintentional error and inaccuracy. The blog author may have, or intend to change, a personal position in any stock or other kind of investment mentioned.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

No satnav for Lalaland

But there is really no scientific or other method by which men can steer safely between the opposite dangers of believing too little or of believing too much. To face such dangers is apparently our duty, and to hit the right channel between them is the measure of our wisdom as men.
William James - The Will to Believe

One of my ideals is believe nothing. I could have called it a belief rather than an ideal, but even I can see the pitfall in that. 

Yet as James implies in the above quote, it isn’t actually possible to believe nothing. We need beliefs as conceptual frameworks to communicate socially – to live even. It is possible try putting the brain into neutral and merely observe, but we observe via language and that's something we have to borrow.

So what’s the point of trying to believe nothing? I think it reminds us to be wary of generalisations, sentiment, cultural norms and especially language. Yet as Wittgenstein showed, we can’t become intellectual hermits and invent a  private language to solve the problem.

One difficulty with a cautious attitude to belief is how we delve into matters too complex for data or logic to flash up convenient answers. Political discourse for example is easy enough to engage in but not so easy to analyse in a neutral way. Political arguments veer off so quickly into Lalaland.

This presents few problems for anyone who enjoys the fun of debate, because Lalaland is easily navigated via a host of special aids – political ideas framed by an allegiance to one’s favoured Lalaland region and written in the regional dialect.

However these regional allegiances are only clearly visible to those who don’t share them. Those with no wish to settle in Lalaland – those who are not prepared to adopt one of its seductive cultures or learn one of its many languages. Therein lies the real difficulty doesn’t it?

To see any political allegiance for what it is, we cannot share it.

We can’t easily engage in political debates as a neutral critic either, because almost any criticism is seen as an enemy allegiance. Debate grinds to a halt or becomes lost again in the endless highways and byways of Lalaland.

Of course, politically ambitious cynics often profess undying allegiance to a Lalaland region without ever going there in person. Their sights are set far beyond its borders even though they find the inhabitants useful. 

Nick Clegg is an example.

All original material is copyright of its author. Fair use permitted. Contact via comment. Unless indicated otherwise, all internet links accessed at time of writing. Nothing here should be taken as personal advice, financial or otherwise. No liability is accepted for third-party content, whether incorporated in or linked to this blog; or for unintentional error and inaccuracy. The blog author may have, or intend to change, a personal position in any stock or other kind of investment mentioned.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Tickle a kitten!


What do stock market indices measure?

On both sides of the Atlantic, there is a tendency in the popular media to see stock indices (FTSE, S&P, Dow) as some indicator of the health of the economy or measure of our collective wealth.

But the implications can be misleading.

What's really being measured (and I leave out the tricky ways in which the individual stock prices are weighted in creating the index) is the current level of settlement between buyers and sellers.

Some will then extrapolate the index to value the entire market. But this is absurd, for if everyone was looking to sell and nobody wanted to buy, shares would be worth nothing. Conversely, if everyone wished to buy and nobody wanted to sell, the price would be pretty much limitless.

What stabilises the market is the degree of participation, and so we are also given figures on the volume of trading. But even this information is misleading, because thanks to computer-based high-speed buying and selling, and the huge amounts of almost interest-free money made available to banks to gamble with, the market may make us misread the shouting of a few for the murmurs of a crowd.

I've been on the loookout for evidence of what the rich are doing. Some say they are holding a great deal of cash - but then, they've captured most of it over the last 30 or 40 years anyway, as middle incomes stagnated but (the face value of) the economy grew.

Others think they're not trading stocks but simply holding - remember that after 1929, members of Chicago Stock Exchange pasted the walls with apparently worthless stock certificates, only to steam them off again five years later.

If you are truly wealthy, as I said recently, you needn't be concerned about buying and selling your shareholding, so long as you haven't borrowed  money to do it. That last is what stuffed the market in 1929 - a great banking crash - and we've had that again, but this time government have authorised unbelievable amounts of fiat money to rescue the perpetrators.

If, as it's said, 82% of individually-owned stocks are held by just 5% of the population, who also have lots of cash,bonds and real estate, then the only reason to sell is because you think you'll make a bit of a killing rebuying at bottom. But you don't have to do it.

Pension funds are in difficulties, but if they are not defined-benefit the pensioner bears the risk; and if they are, then it'll be what a shame, force majeure, you're not going to get what you thought. Even now, in the UK, the retirement age for state pensions and state-employee occupational schemes is being racked upward and calculations of benefits under the latter quietly rogered in ways the average worker can't understand (or is too busy to examine) until too late.

So it seems to me that the figures we need to watch are those relating to inequality, because of the threat to social cohesion when promises start to be broken and expectations disappointed. That's when we'll find out if we are truly "all in this together".

All original material is copyright of its author. Fair use permitted. Contact via comment. Unless indicated otherwise, all internet links accessed at time of writing. Nothing here should be taken as personal advice, financial or otherwise. No liability is accepted for third-party content, whether incorporated in or linked to this blog; or for unintentional error and inaccuracy. The blog author may have, or intend to change, a personal position in any stock or other kind of investment mentioned.

Monday, December 09, 2013

A reply from Mr Karl Denninger

         I'm struck by the vehemence of opposition to so-called "Obamacare".
 
Why are you struck by vehement opposition to anyone putting a gun in your face and demanding money? Can I send a few brigands over to your home because they need something and tell them it's ok to stick you up this evening? After all, it's for their children.
Am I correct in supposing that you are not in principle against the idea that poor, sick people might receive appropriate medical treatment?
 Define "appropriate" and, incidentally, how much of that medical care is necessary due to self-inflicted injury and illness? For example, it is clear that someone who has Type II diabetes requires treatment. Exactly why should they be able to force someone else to pay for it when the condition is evident because they have voluntarily eaten a crap diet for 30 years and weigh 350lbs?

Note that the real issue here isn't care -- it's cost. Even very poor people have access to some cash flow for the most part in the United States; those who don't (e.g. truly homeless) either are typically so by choice or relatively-severe mental illness. The former is a choice, the latter is a disease but in terms of percentages is a vanishingly-small percentage of the whole, and absent compulsion they don't want treatment.

It's not illegal to be crazy (nor should it be) so long as you don't harm others. Voluntary charity is more than sufficient to cover both needs in the main; it was for hundreds of years in the past and it is today -- provided we stop jacking up the cost.
Isn't the real problem, the fact that drug companies, doctors, medical lawyers, medical malpractice insurers and health plan insurers all make and take so much money that healthcare for the common man is seen to be unaffordable?

Yes, but.

If you look at the facts (as opposed to the rabid nonsense coming from the left and apologists for asset-stripping the entire nation to cover this crap) you will find that, for example, a routine birth in 1963, repriced under the CPI from 1963 to today, could be had (complete, all costs included) for under $1,000 US.

Now in 1963 this included not only the epidural and other medications and such but also all doctor charges and three nights in the hospital!

Today that same routine procedure cannot be had in this country for less than 500% of that price and they kick you out of the hospital within 24 hours. The only reason that's the case is monopoly protections, which in theory are illegal under The Sherman and Clayton Acts. The medical industry has finagled itself exemptions to said laws. If I tried any of what they do every day when I ran an Internet company I'd STILL be rotting in a federal prison (and with good cause.)

Now consider the poor couple. They have few assets or funds, but I refuse to believe that given nine months notice they could not come up with $1,000. Sure they could. They might have to give up the beer and smokes for the duration, but they can do it. Difficult? Yes. Impossible? Not even close in a nation (ours) where "poor people" have Xboxes, 60" flatscreen TVs and cars with $3,000 rims on them along with iPhones and $1,000 annual service plans (which, incidentally, is most of those so-called "poor") not to mention the Earned Income Tax Credit that is refundable, meaning that they typically get thousands in actual cash every year from the government in excess of the taxes they paid.

But can they afford an $8,000 bill for the same thing? No -- but they can afford a $1,000 bill.

So where does the problem lie? It's not in their cash flow, it's in the monopoly pricing.

Malpractice and lawsuits (e.g. "tort reform") along with "uncompensated care" are often thrown around as the cause of this. That's a knowing and intentional lie; you could cut both to ZERO (the former of which would deny legitimately injured people compensation) and it would amount to less than 10% of what we spend on medical care. The problem simply doesn't lie there but it's a convenient foil for both the right and left to avoid talking about where the problem really DOES lie.
 Over here in the UK, the American Right seems insanely hard-hearted, homicidal even. And your general stance viv-a-vis the crookery of politicians and banksters doesn't seem to gel with your passionate denunciation of widening medical cover.
Of course it does. Theft is theft, fraud is fraud, and both are supposed to be illegal whether or not they are undertaken for a given person's benefit or not.
Is the explanation that you think the latter is actually OK as a project, but the way it's been done is misguided?
Not at all.

If you remove the monopoly games then even the poor can afford to pay cash, in the main. And virtually everyone who chooses to would be able to buy a catastrophic medical policy to cover the rare but possible situation that can arise, because it would cost a few hundred dollars a year. Those who choose not to do so, taking their chances, have the right to do exactly that.

But you have to break the monopolies and demand that insurance actually be insurance or you solve nothing.

Obamacare is designed to perpetuate theft in this portion of the economy and provide these firms and individuals involved in it with the guns of government. At the end of the day all monopolies and similar schemes rely on force of some form -- the medical industry ran out of their ability to use fear to power more extraction from the average American, and thus turned to government (literally, they wrote the bill) to continue the scam.

More to the point if we don't stop this the economy is doomed and so are federal, state and local budgets. That's a matter of arithmetic and no amount of trying to patch it by stealing one person's money to pay a monopolist will change it. We either cut this crap out or it is a mathematical certainty that our economy and the medical system will both collapse.

Incidentally, I assume that since you published this letter to me you intend to also publish, in full and unedited, my response.

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"Obamacare": an email to Mr Karl Denninger

Dear Karl

I'm struck by the vehemence of opposition to so-called "Obamacare". Am I correct in supposing that you are not in principle against the idea that poor, sick people might receive appropriate medical treatment?

Isn't the real problem, the fact that drug companies, doctors, medical lawyers, medical malpractice insurers and health plan insurers all make and take so much money that healthcare for the common man is seen to be unaffordable?

Over here in the UK, the American Right seems insanely hard-hearted, homicidal even. And your general stance vis-a-vis the crookery of politicians and banksters doesn't seem to gel with your passionate denunciation of widening medical cover. Is the explanation that you think the latter is actually OK as a project, but the way it's been done is misguided?

Yours faithfully

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FRB 13.3 and Dodd-Frank : an email to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis

Dear Mr Fettig

I have read with interest your 2008 article on FRB 13.3.

Now I learn via Australian economist Professor Steve Keen that this provision was scrapped under the Dodd-Frank Act, allegedly in response to lobbying by commercial banks.

Can you provide any background information to this decision, and whether indeed it is now no longer possible for the Federal Reserve to assist individuals and businesses with direct credit?

Yours faithfully

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Why bother?

From time to time, most serious bloggers hit the "futility wall".

I have read goodness knows how many good ideas for improving the lot of the ordinary person - logical, doable - yet nothing happens. Why not? Because those that could do them are determined not to, since it would mean they would get less.

But they go further than that. They actively remove the possibility of a remedy.

Take Section 13.3 of the US Federal Reserve Act, for example. This was used in 2008 to give JP Morgan $29 billion to buy Bear Stearns, but the legal provision dates back to 1932, when the Great Depression was on and businesses couldn't get loans from commercial banks.

Now, says economist Professor Steve Keen on Max Keiser's show, it's been removed under the Dodd-Frank Act, because the banks lobbied for its cancellation; otherwise the Fed could have given cheap money to businesses and individuals, instead of just funding safe,lucrative bank purchases of government debt, and trading desk speculation on real estate and the stock market.

So the Alamo line has been drawn, and you can stand still or step over. That is, you can go passive (or even try to make some money anticipating the next move by the selfish powerful), or resist. Because Santy Anny ain't going away by himself.



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Sunday, December 08, 2013

Pig hails deal to sell MPs' sperm to China

The Palace of Westminster echoed to the sound of popping champagne corks yesterday, as the nation's top people celebrated an historic trade agreement with China. Addressing a meeting composed of members of both Houses, the Empress of Blandings announced a multimillion pound scheme to improve the human stock of the PRC by the export of highly-prized British sperm.

It all began when Chinese police officers came to the UK on the trail of international Triad connections. "They said they were looking for criminals," said the Empress, "and we told them to find their own, as we had spent centuries bulding up our collection. When the misunderstanding had been cleared up, they became interested in our ruling class.

"At first they couldn't believe that it was possible to combine a political career with multiple outside interests, from handfuls of directorships to consultancies, journalism, novel-writing and taxpayer-funded travel. In their world, those who neglect public duties in favour of private projects are, sooner or later, shot.

"We had to explain to them that we don't execute psychopaths here, we put them in charge. How else could we have got China hooked on opium just to earn silver to pay for our Lapsang Souchong? That's when they realised that their efforts to create an orderly society had led them to a national shortage of world-conquering shitweasels.

"Fortunately, they also noted the hyper-priapic nature of many of you, evidenced not only by extramarital affairs but -" [a legal adviser whispered urgently into the Empress' floppy ear. "Really? The ancient Greeks didn't see any harm in it."] Anyhow, all that top-quality jizz that has previously gone to waste can now be put to profitable use.

"Plastic collecting boxes will be fitted to the backs of all red and green benches - front-benchers will go on diplomatic missions to the Far East, as usual - and donors will be credited with half the sale proceeds. We expect a great improvement in attendance as a result, and with luck, Parliament will be self-financing by the end of the decade."

The Empress graciously acknowledged the standing ovation and returned to her country estate, leaving the assembled representatives to their troughs.

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Saturday, December 07, 2013

Pig jizz and politicians

Prime Minster's deal to flog pig semen to China is good material for jokes - like those made today on Radio 4's airhead News Quiz - but think what it really means: when the genetic material is in Chinese pigs, there'll be less need for our exports of high-quality pig meat.

When Britain sold out a significant portion of Birmingham's car manufacturing to China, the program was structurally similar: teams of Chinese went round the giant factory, trying to get into every office to grab blueprints and any other paperwork that would fast-track their own industrial knowhow. The managers at Longbridge had to station men outside to prevent the loss of informational material that wasn't part of the deal.

Soon, we'll look back and realise that intellectual property rights was an even bigger issue than the imbalance of manufactured goods.

We may even come to realise that many important people knew that all along, but we live in a globalised world and they won't necessarily hang around for us to question them. DNA = Did Not Attend.

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A question

Which of our own politicians might have benefited from 27 years on Robben Island?

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Friday, December 06, 2013

N Korea has huge rare earth deposits

Rare Earth Investing News tells us that North Korea has the world's largest deposits of rare earth elements (REE).

SRE Minerals, a private equity firm exploring a rare earths project in North Korea, in conjunction with the Korea Natural Resources Trading Corporation, a North Korean entity, has announced the formation of a joint venture to advance rare earth deposits at Jongju, located 150 km northwest of the capital Pyongyang.

According to the press release, HDR Salva’s initial assessment indicates a potential 6 billion tonnes, including 216.2 million tonnes of total rare earth oxides comprising light rare earth elements such as lanthanum, cerium and praseodymium. Around 2.6 percent of the TREO would be heavy rare earth elements, or roughly 5.45 million tonnes.

“The Jongju target would appear to be the world’s largest known REE occurrence,” said Dr. Louis Schurmann.

Rare Earth Investing News reported in 2012 on the mineral potential of North Korea, which by some estimates is worth $6 trillion including a large number of rare earth metals. However trade with the reclusive, adversarial north Asian nation has been restricted to all nations but China, which does not currently adhere to the US and United Nations sanctions against North Korea.


So much for sanctions then. I wonder who the North Korean authorities have in mind for the unpleasant job of extracting the rare earths? From Wikipedia :-

Mining, refining, and recycling of rare earths have serious environmental consequences if not properly managed. A particular hazard is mildly radioactive slurry tailings resulting from the common occurrence of thorium and uranium in rare earth element ores. Additionally, toxic acids are required during the refining process.

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Thursday, December 05, 2013

In praise of Nelson Mandela

For some time to come, Nelson Mandela will be buried under a mountain of bullshit from people who didn't give a damn about him or wished him dead. I note how fast Bushes Senior and Junior have been to add their voices to the professional keening.

But I remember his comment when, at the height of their ephemeral fame, the Spice Girls chose to be pictured with him: " This is the most important thing that has ever happened to me."

He was not a false God to himself, and that tells me that he was a great man.

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Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Pontian music



Some music is like "the call of the wild" and Pontic music does that for me. The above performance at the Athens Olympics gives a hint of it, and its inclusion in the ceremony underscores the long, unforgiving memory of the Greeks.

The Pontian Greeks, an ancient diaspora, are not like those from mainland Greece and there are still problems of their assimilation into the latter after the Turkish massacres and expulsions of 1922. More recently, some 5,000 have come to Paphos in western Cyprus and local internet comment boards evidence cultural friction there also.

There are or were communities in the lands circling the Black Sea, "south Pontians" from northern Turkey but also "north Pontians" (now often Russian-speaking) from the Crimea, southern Russia, Georgia.  I think you can hear the tragedy of exile in the singers' tones.

At its heart, Pontian music always has the three-stringed Pontic Lyre and the uneven rhythm of "tik" dancing. Dark and dangerous.

If you like it and wish to immerse yourself, there is Radio e-Pontos.

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Book-burning in postwar Britain

Zere goes "Ze Art of Englisch"... !

"Textbooks are dying out in classrooms because teachers see them as 'regimented and old-fashioned', Elizabeth Truss said yesterday.

"The Education Minister said rampant ideology in schools that teaching should be 'unstructured and free-flow' meant just one in ten ten-year-olds are issued with them now."

- Andrew Levy, Daily Mail, today.

There are three reasons why teachers have abandoned textbooks and now labour till all hours of the night to lay the track on which their train will run the next day:

1. Revolutionaries. As I have said before, at the large comprehensive where I used to teach the head of English told me that the last act of the previous incumbent was to put all the English coursebooks into a skip in the playground and set fire to them, thus ensuring that the wicked old way of teaching from that sort of book would be gone for ever. This was in the mid-70s, and when I told this to others I found out that the same thing had happened in at least two other schools, at about the same time. I will bet my pension that, like the man who campaigned for the end of corporal punishment, the people who did this did not stay in the classroom, or possibly even in teaching.

2. Constant curricular change. How is it possible to write a textbook when the course content alters frequently? Every education secretary jerks the tiller in a different direction: grammar exercises, no grammar exercises, phonics, no phonics, Shakespeare, no Shakespeare.

3. Ofsted. Inspectors and advisers - some of whom may have been like those in (1) above, or taught or sponsored by them - not only don't want to see textbooks, they even frown on worksheets. We are expecting an inspection soon and we are told that our lessons will be classed as failing if they are text-based rather than activity-based.

Teacher is a fool. Education is a stupid job for clever people - you have to be clever to do it, you have to be stupid to take it on. Only periodic deep economic recessions and the institutional ageism in the British workplace keep the "profession" supplied, sucking in young idealists and middle-aged bankrupts and keeping them so busy that they fail to escape again.

And goodness know how much (colour, laser) photocopiers cost annually, compared with the wear-and-tear cost of replacing texts in the old days - the days when, as in modern-day China, South Korea etc children were set work to do and did it.

Still, we now get better, technicolour paper airplanes and higher-quality scrap in the recycling bins.

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Cameron's Chinese puzzle

(1) BBC News (2) Financial Times (3) Wikipedia

 
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Democracy: who should have the right to vote?

The self-governing Welsh colony on the Chubut River in Patagonia, established in the later 1860s, allowed all men and women over 18 to vote.

In Britain, no woman could vote until 1918, and even then it was restricted to women over 30. The minimum voting age for women was reduced to 21 ten years later. The voting age for both sexes was lowered to 18 in 1969, under the premiership of Harold Wilson, who hoped that the young would help him return to office in 1970; he was wrong.

Ironically, the United Kingdom's 1832 Reform Act, designed to correct the corruption of the electoral system, was the first to formally exclude women from voting by including the word "male" in the legislative text. Until then, the right to vote had been largely related to property.

In the United States, the State of New Jersey in 1776 permitted propertied widows to vote; this right was rescinded in 1807.

In 2010, a female Russsian journalist, Yulia Latinyna, argued in the Moscow Times that poor people should not be allowed to vote:

Poor people are capable of feats of bravery and revolution. They can storm the Bastille, overthrow the tsar or stage an Orange Revolution. But impoverished people are incapable of making sober decisions and voting responsibly in a popular election.

It may be that poor people don't want to, anyway. In 1950, the voter turnout for the UK General Election was 83.9%; in 2010 it was 65.1% (up from 59.4% in 2001). In the US, turnout for the Presidential election of 1876 was 81.8%; in 2012, 57.5%.

According to MORI, in the 2010 General Election, 66% of men cast their vote, but only 64% of women. Age, however, is a more significant determinant:

Data: Mori
The "democratic deficit" is getting dangerous. On Zero Hedge, "George Washington" said this week:

"... a May 2013 poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University found that 29% of registered voters think that armed revolution may be “necessary” in the next couple of years. In other words, the number of Americans who think that armed revolution may be “needed” dwarf the number of Americans who approve of the job that Congress is doing."

Before a call to arms, how about a call to exercise your right to the franchise?

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Monday, December 02, 2013

Fado



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Stockmarkets, inequality and investor behaviour

Yesterday, Michael Snyder gave us a doomster report on the stock market, which he sees as being in an "absolutely massive" bubble. The redoubtable Marc Faber agrees, as do many others.

Noting that 82% of individually held stocks are owned by just 5% of Americans, Snyder comments:

"When this stock market bubble does burst, those wealthy Americans are going to be in for a tremendous amount of pain."

This is the point at which I have to say, "hairy, spherical objects!" What pain?

If you are truly rich, you do not need to sell your stocks. Once you have ownership, and assuming that you have lots of cash and income from other sources, the notional sale value of your shares is an irrelevance. How much of his 700 acres of land in central London has the Duke of Westminster sold off whenever the property market was in a slump? Exactly.

There's still some fantasy that the Dow (or the S&P, whatever) is a measure of the well-being of the nation. Actually, it's a distraction. What matters is whether you have a sustainable economy, and what social arrangements you are prepared to tolerate. The answers appear to be "no" and "terrible".

Aside from rapidly building up gold reserves and planning to dispense with the US dollar as the world's settlement currency, China is now cashing out of the casino and buying land and businesses in America. The 5% will still be just fine, thank you, as the elites are in many of the worst countries in the world, but a growing number of Americans will find that they have become indentured slaves and their masters have sold them; billionaire Hugo Salinas Price thinks this is historically inevitable and the dream of democracy is due to end soon.

Unless you act.

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Sunday, December 01, 2013

Dr Not-So-Strangelove

While the BBC screens a season on the Cold War, it's worth knowing that, for reasons of speed and just in case higher authority was uncontactable, all the ballistic nuclear missile silos in the USA had the same launch code for a period of 20 years: 00000000.

And never mind Dr Strangelove's General Jack D. Ripper, here is the real Commander-in-Chief of Strategic Air Command, General Thomas Power, talking in 1960 to a nuclear war strategist from the Rand Corporation: "Restraint! Why are you so concerned with saving their lives? The whole idea is to kill the bastards! At the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian, we win!"

And here's Power's boss, who was in charge of the whole Air Force: "At a Georgetown dinner party recently, the wife of a leading senator sat next to Gen. Curtis LeMay, chief of staff of the Air Force. He told her a nuclear war was inevitable. It would begin in December and be all over by the first of the year. In that interval, every major American city -- Washington, New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles -- would be reduced to rubble. Similarly, the principal cities of the Soviet Union would be destroyed. The lady, as she tells it, asked if there were any place where she could take her children and grandchildren to safety; the general would, of course, at the first alert be inside the top-secret underground hideout near Washington from which the retaliatory strike would be directed. He told her that certain unpopulated areas in the far west would be safest."

When I was in my teens at a Welsh boarding school, I studied the map to see where in Wales might be best to head for if the balloon went up - somewhere central, but avoiding the vicinity of military bases and any of the valleys leading away from target cities on the southern coast, I decided.

I should have been better prepared; I never had a bag and a bike ready. All over now? Are we now run by sane and sensible people?

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"I me mine": gender and the possessive pronoun

Commenting on the latest twist in the Lawson-Saatchi feud, John Ward says:

"For me, Nigella had always represented a figure of fun: the personification of how too much money and bubble-based privilege can lead to idiotic comments such as “The best vinegar to add at this stage in the cooking is cider, but if you’ve run out, Champagne vinegar will do just as well”. But behind all that, I felt a background unease about the sheer size of her ego: how every dish was ‘my’ Christmas Turkey or ‘my’ summer salad."

Actually, this is something many women do, if you take the trouble to listen to them. This is (I venture to suggest) because they are more relationship-focused; they are also (I think) more likely to invest inanimate objects with personalities.

If you watch Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's cookery programmes (at least the early series) you may note - it stuck me quite forcefully at the time - that he does this "I/my" thing consistently. At first I found it irritating, but then I came to admire him, for I realised that he was mimicking the feminine use of language to appeal more strongly to his audience.

My wife says that in the quoted context, it's also about food as giving something of yourself.

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