Saturday, 27 February 2016

my oscar plunk


It's a standing joke that whenever I plunk for anyone in one of those TV-vote competitions, they are knocked out at the very next vote (if they even last that long). I'm probably best kept away altogether from those kind of shows.

Nonetheless, I'll put in a small word for the movie Brooklyn at tonight's Oscars. I'd like to see it win Best Picture, but it is up against The Revenant (box-tick success) and (not my thing) Mad Max, so I doubt if it could win.

Brooklyn's lead is also in for best actress in a leading role, Saoirse Ronan (surely must have a chance here?) and Writing (Adapted Screenplay), which was Nick Hornby.

It is a lovely film, in which Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) leaves Ireland to immigrate to (predominantly Irish) Brooklyn, where she has a better chance of finding work. Crushed by homesickness, she meets Italian-American Tony (Emory Cohen, channelling some young Sinatra) with whom she falls in love.

It is a simple story but magically told and beautifully filmed. I remember and have rewatched Saoirse Ronan in Hanna, the utterly different and somewhat uneven story where she is a young warrior on a mission.

Brooklyn feels somehow both like a movie from another time and simultaneously very up-to-date in its treatment of the material. I hope it wins something.

I've put up an 'About' clip instead of the official movie trailer.
Join the 9000 views of this instead of the 2.5m views of the trailer, which I think gives away too much of the storyline.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

dicing with a jelly steering wheel?


Sitting in various traffic jams, I was musing about the latest developments in the EU 'negotiation' and the planned referendum. I decided if the UK was a car it would now have a steering wheel made of jelly.

We've got a divided majority party as well as a divided opposition. The Scottish are already angling for another 'leave UK' referendum of their own and even the 'leave Europe' party is split into several pieces. The Conservatives are somehow headlining both sides by having two of their ex-Bullingdon Club top politicians supporting both 'Stay' and 'Go'. BoJo becomes BoGo?

Meanwhile, the London Stock Exchange is already positioning to be able to operate from within any revised EU borders, with the third attempt at an envisaged takeover by the Deutsche Börse.

They are saying the new exchange is all going to be even and balanced, but the share split would be something like 46%LSE and 54%DB1. Assuming there's not some kind of regulatory hoo-hah about the whole thing.

Most of the real debates about reasons for being in or out of the EU are being relegated to vox-pop commentary behind the personality-based discussions of Boris's haircut, Cameron's innuendos and Farage's ribbiting. Meanwhile, corporations and financial houses are already hedging their options, much like the Stock Exchange.

Maybe I should forget the jelly steering wheel; I wonder if they also make jelly dice?

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

following Elizabeth Line?

In London news, following the naming of the new TfL Crossrail line, I see the real Elizabeth Line has stepped forward.

Sunday, 21 February 2016

towards the northern powerhouse?


Up to the Northern Powerhouse for a few days, although the infrastructure and communications with the south is still in need of attention.

Heading north, I travelled through around 100 miles of coned motorways and trunk roads.

Whilst there, we were looking for flights to Prague. Fly on Thursday or go via London. Alternatively, add between 4 and 20 hours to the journey to go via Amsterdam, Frankfurt or, less obviously, via Oslo. I suppose a stopover could be entertaining, but it misses the powerhouse direct flight aspect.

And then returning south, one of us used trains and suffered a curiously non-functioning 'replacement bus service' for part of the journey, despite taking a different route to avoid a different replacement bus service.

Now, whatever happened to that £7 billion of improvements that the Treasury provisioned back in 2014? Promises, promises...

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

goofing around with apple

iClone 6
As part of my investment experiment, I've added a few Apple shares to the portfolio. I noticed that I'd already got some as part of a fund, but I thought a direct punt would be interesting, especially as they are at a lowish figure at the moment.

I've illustrated them here with a random sprinkling of other well-known shares across a 52-week spectrum. The Apple shares are clearly toward the low end of their 52 week value - although of course they could keep going down.

Some of the pundits are saying that Apple has run out of ideas because they don't keep churning out new iShiny things every few days. I'll disagree. Sometimes it's the other moves that need to be watched. The US Justice Department invoking the 1789 All Writs Act to hack an iPhone is getting all of the attention. Yet tomorrow Apple launches its Apple Pay system into China. Here in the UK the 'tap to pay' thing is already fairly established, whether with NFC payment cards, Apple Pay or even London's Oyster.

I predict there will be some easy picking press stories about some things not working but Apple will effectively be second in the Chinese payments market only to Alibaba, who are the Chinese 'Amazon equivalent'. Of course, I've really no idea whether any of this will make any difference to share prices but I suppose if Apple's shares go down further I'd be tempted to buy some more.

Many would say that China itself has a long way to go before their own stock market makes any sense. Currently their volatile stock market appears to behave like more or less a betting shop. McKinsey and Economist analysts reckon that the middle class in China will grow from 47m to 470m across the 10 years from 2010 to 2020.

If they are right, then the middle class numbers approach the same size as all of the continental EU. And their aspirational phone is, yes, the iPhone instead of a a goophone copy.

That's my 2014 Chinese goophone at the top of the post, by the way - click left a frame to see the back of it. It's useful to briefly bring out in a pub for entertainment - it runs Android as well as an iOS Shell. No wonder Apple have been designing various form factors to include lower cost options and beat the clones - as well as quietly adding the 'Pay' feature.

Anyway, I had a play around with the trend graphs for Apple's shares and although the price is currently going down, it looks to me as if it should soon be heading north again.

And that's before R&D intense Apple launches its attempt at a feasible Twitter competitor, its TV-streaming service and its car technology. Not forgetting the home automation and some sort of wearable technology that actually works.

But then again, I didn't do so well with my National Lottery gambles, so perhaps this will be no better?

Sunday, 14 February 2016

jazzin' with vinyl

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Something of an experiment, I grabbed a copy of the current issue of the new partwork of jazz LPs. Yes, real vinyls, covering a range of jazz greats. It means I can dip into some music where I have less familiarity.

The idea for the revival of the record player came back in 2011 when we were in Hollywood and our apartment had one. I received one as a gift the following Christmas.
Untitled
Compared with the olden days when a hi-fi installation would be roughly the size of a NASA Mission Control, this is a small unit with all the amplifier and tone control built in. It still packs a reasonable punch and creates the whole process and feeling of playing a record.

So back to the new jazz record. I've still only got one from this emerging series, although they promise to all be well-known jazz classics.

Aside from some Miles Davis, my normal music collection is almost devoid of jazz, although it occurs to me that this collection amounting to around 20 vinyls would be a way to develop some knowledge.

The John Coltrane album (number 2 in the series) is a great recreation of the original 1957 Blue Note album, with the right sleeve, label and so on, plus a helpful little booklet to explain the context. It has some cracking tunes on it, with a really good ensemble of Coltrane's tenor sax, plus trumpet, piano, double bass, and yes, trombone. It's a fun change from my usual listening. I'll see how it goes as the series develops.

Friday, 12 February 2016

on the menu?


Next week sees the next step of the process leading towards the UK Referendum about the European Union.

We have to go through the Cameron negotiation process first. It's salutary to think that even the four points he's taken into this round get diluted down to something about red cards and emergency brakes. That's after his army of sherpas have been dispatched in advance to smooth the path.

I worry that the bigger picture around the European Union gets lost in Cameron's four point debate about protection for non-euro countries, competitiveness, end to 'ever closer union' and benefit restrictions. Some of these are relative no-brainers, yet none have been negotiated with clarity and all can be held up in bureaucratic wrangling such as deferment until treaties are renegotiated. Truly the long grass.

It's also worth remembering the old phrase about "if you are not at the table then you are on the menu". If it is difficult to negotiate these four points, what would it be like from outside of the tent if Britain exits?

There's a much longer list of things to resolve around trade, foreign direct investment, liberalisation, industrial policy, immigration, financial services, influence, budgets and uncertainty.

I'm sure the remaining 480m EU bloc will want to play around with some of the terms applied to their 70m UK "outsiders but close friends". Like the 50 or so trade deals that EU has with rest of the world and which Britain would need to redevelop.

And take a Brit speciality like financial services. Presumably Frankfurt already has some ideas about ways to refill some of its fancy downtown buildings?

We could get years of a kind of uncertainty, during which time we'd probably see some UK based organisations looking elsewhere for stability. It could become a great opportunity for the EU to pick off a few of the highly profitable parts of the Brit economy, particularly when Britain, through to 2025, is having to run around fire-fighting the things it needs to renegotiate.

The 'be like Norway' argument doesn't work for me. Norway is a physically large country with huge financial reserves stashed away derived from its oil production, yet a whole country population that is smaller than London. Some things just don't work when rescaled.

It troubles me that the largest UK party representing Britain in the EU is UKIP, which has 26 seats of the UK's 73. Their leader is reining in his expense boasts nowadays, but seems to live well from his EU-funded remuneration and expenses.

It needed an average of around 153,000 votes to vote in the MEPs in 2014, with a total of 4.3m votes. The next three parties yielded another 9m votes from an overall total of 16m votes, roughly half the 30.6m turnout for the 2015 general election.

Of course having years of the largest single party of UK MEPs saying they want 'out' drip feeds a kind of sabotage of UK's representation in the whole process.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

spinning around to avoid knives like la fille sur le pont


I've been looking at the shares market for a while now as part of a way to create my own metrics to monitor my finances since they took a tumble under "professional" management.

I've noticed that many of the market commentators don't seem very certain of what they are talking about. It seems empirically coin-flip random about whether they get things right or wrong. I assume they don't really have time to research things and perhaps have to regurgitate wire feeds and PR puff about whatever the next big thing is. Contingent Convertibles anyone? I should CoCo.

For a single event, some will play it up and others will talk it down. That recent Deutsche Bank slump was a case in point - they suffered a loss of confidence in their debt position and their shares fell. Then they announce they'll buy back some bonds and the shares start to go up again. All in 24 hours.

It reminds me of the twitchiness of the goshawk in Helen Macdonald's book, with its eyes providing hyper-efficient reflex movement attuned to hunting. For people with less time to play around with all of the market stuff, there has to be another discipline based more on patience.

Not to become a rabbit in the headlights of a downturn, but to have some straightforward strategies for when to kill a share and when to hunt for more.

The current markets create a strong example. The FTSE started 2016 at 6242. Today it's at about 5592. That's just 89% of January 4 or an 11% drop. That amounts to a lot of disappearing money, but from an investment standpoint only if the share values are being crystallised back to money. I'm guessing it is better for many to hang in there and, if anything, look for any relevant bargains among the things falling in cost. Like it's the winter sales.

Again, there's two storylines that the advisors trot out: “Stocks are on sale!” and “Never try to catch a falling knife” - they are pretty much opposite, and are both being used at the moment. No wonder people don't trust the bankers.

I'm currently considering whether the 'guess the sweets in the jar' theory is almost as good for predicting outcomes. Instead of taking one or two expert views, take a whole bundle of peoples's views and sample them to find which way the wind blows.

It doesn't always mean act though. There still needs to be an underlying idea about why to do something or when best to do nothing.

Of course, for this discussion, I'm taking a very capitalist view of everything. Right now it is made more pointed by the banks wanting to charge for holding clients' cash (i.e. negative interest). The high end bankers want people to move money onto risk, such as equities. The sneaky capitalist thing in the background is all of the quantitive easing being quietly fed in through central bank underwriting. The European Central bank is just about to fire up the Euro in a similar manner.

I ran my own little spreadsheet and table to check for the point of criticality in markets. I used £10,000 as a notional fund to make it more obvious what was happening.

It illustrates that the paper losses from the first part of a downturn are fairly recoverable, but somewhere after 17% is all starts to get rather more tricky. The bear territory is at 20%. And yep, that's where we are right now.

Here's a mix from the rather brilliant 'la fille sur le pont'. Watch out for the knives.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

magpie


I did see more than one of them (two for joy), but a particular magpie caught my attention today.

I was waiting for the lights to change at a massive roundabout. The magpie swooped down to the driver's side lane and looked along the grassy inside edge of the roundabout. Then I saw it take off, with a red carton almost the same size as its body in its beak.

French fries. It was obviously urban, knew where to look and had decided to go for a take-away meal.

Monday, 8 February 2016

sicario


I've just rewatched that Sicario movie - which has now been released on streaming services.

The title is Latin American for hitman, usually referencing drug cartels. That is supposedly the basic plot line, although there isn't a hitman in the Timothy Oliphant or Rupert Friend style.

This movie is set along the US-Mexican border and we get stunning swooping views of the territory showing its immense scale as well as the menacing cartel run towns with optional laws such as Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua.

The crowded movie poster shows the tough-guys (Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro) and the ingenue female cop (played by Emily Blunt). The way things get done is frequently by passive-aggressive bullying of Blunt's character and not telling her what is happening. The guys frequently use their knowledge and swagger to exert power over her character.

Despite the crowded poster, the movie actually breathes with a lot more space. Space between characters, large distances, large gaps in the communications.

The setup, right from the start, shows the never ending brutality of the drug cartels, and role of Brolin and Del Toro is supposed to be to create some chaos and clean up. That creates a slightly episodic journey with several taut set-pieces. Noticeably, it's almost as lawless on the American enforcement side, although some of the captures seem to survive until they get roughed up in later scenes.

There's some perfunctory attempts to paint the bigger picture of the cartels and the amount of drugs entering the USA, but the story revolves mainly around a specific sequence of events and doesn't really explore the broader theme.

There's an interesting pulsing soundtrack too (right from the first second when it almost sounds like its spill sound from another theatre) and the cinematography is quite stunning. This time I watched it on a small screen and already decided it really needs to be seen again on a large screen.

Friday, 5 February 2016

another spin of the dice?


I've been challenged to one of those weekend warrior step count things again this weekend.

I'll probably accept.

I seem to use metrics for quite a few things, although the main ones I publish on this blog usually relate to my cycling. As an example, today I cycled 20.3 miles.

A few recent conversations mean I'll be taking a closer look at some of my more financial metrics too.

Talking with a mix of friends and relatives over the last month or so indicate that it is an area that many of us neglect. Not the day-to-day bills so much, but more what the financial institutions are doing (or not doing) with our savings.

In my own case I wrote to one of the financial providers supposedly investing my money. It was part way through last year and although they charged me a regular fee for the 'management' of my investments, they somehow managed to lose quite a lot of the money. Something similar happened once previously when I had money stashed in an Equitable Life scheme that tanked.

This recent well-known organisation replied with some kind of standard letter about market volatility, but it just reinforced my view that there's still a lot of cavalier fee-chasers operating the accounts of people like me in the financial markets. Tellingly, the well-known original company (with ethical Quaker origins) had been taken over/renamed by another well-known company and then later that had been taken over by a third well-known company. Try finding the right part of their online system. I also noticed that recent written communication from the now de-mutualised organisation are now from offshore.

What also got me at the time was that they didn't bother to send me any notice of their poor performance other than an annual statement. I'm sure there's many other folk in a similar situation who don't even realise what has been happening.

I was drinking with a friend of mine who is pretty smart at all of this stuff, but he's also been zapped out of money through an opaque managed fund, and a different friend took IFA advice to put money into some funds that are suspiciously tax free when the money gets released in about couple of years. He feels a bit trapped into something that seems to be more like a sealed unit where he doesn't really know what is going on.

Someone else told me about an investment model which was causing them a few hiccups, and when I glanced at it on-line, the mechanics of the way the thing worked and what was in it were completely hidden. It reminded me of the section in The Big Short where no-one knew what was in the sub-prime housing funds.

Back to my storyline. It seems to be that these generally switched-on people are letting someone else do the work (i.e. through the payment of fees) but in practice the end result isn't particularly good. Not payment for resultant performance as much as payment for desultory performance. We all know the current economic climate remains poor because of all the prior banking mishaps and the losses are now running downhill.

The reality is that many people in regular employment have these types of situations, whether it is through savings in ISAs or investments towards pensions or similar.

I feel another metric in the pipeline.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

reading about Mabel the goshawk

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I've just finished reading the Helen Macdonald book 'H is for Hawk', about her very personal story whilst training of a goshawk. It's been a Costa book of the year.

It is a cracking read, about one person's coming to terms with changes in her life and with the raptor almost like a Philip Pullman sprite providing some of the counterpoint.

Helen drives from Cambridge to Scotland to transact for the goshawk, seen in an online advert.

Originally a different raptor was earmarked but this became her immediate preference. Then we hear how this captive-bred, 2 month old goshawk appears as “A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary."

I love Helen's writing style and the descriptions of the goshawk, wired for its hunting tasks with astounding eyesight operating across more spectrum than humans can see and with reflexes jacked for ultra fast flight transitions when on a hunt.

The goshawk gets the name Mabel. Apparently the best hawks don't have names like Hunter, Flash, Thunderbolt and so on - the more gentle the name the better spirited the hawk. Mabel, the lovable.

A goshawk takes immense patience to train and we get the sometimes stream of thought account of the odyssey.

Helen runs a parallel story of the hit-and-miss training of another goshawk, this one in the hands of the novelist T.H.White, best known for stories like 'The Sword in the Stone'.

In some part this whole book is steeped in a mono-obsession about every aspect of working with hawks whilst also a story with a real heart. Well worth a read.