Monthly Archives: April 2011

Unseasonal

By the calendar it’s spring.  By the weather it’s high summer, with daytime temperatures well into the twenties and lots of sunshine.  And our reservoirs were unusually low for the season even back in January and February, before (by some accounts) the driest March on record, and an April that thinks it’s June.

So you’d think spring produce would be in the shops.  Yet my attempt to find spring onions just now failed to find any such thing in two greengrocers and one supermarket!  As with most produce they’re usually in the shops in all seasons – either imported from distant parts or force-grown in artificial conditions when out of season.  Yet now, nothing!  Bah, Humbug.

More positively, I’ve got some nice firmly-in-season asparagus and rhubarb in the kitchen, and six months of continually-varying seasonal goodies ahead.

As for the weather, will it turn out like 2007 when a hot dry April was followed by heavy rain, with floods in parts of the country, in June/July?  Or will this year be the big drought?

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Misselling

If I train my spam filter in advance to reject any mention of “Payment Protection”, will I be spared a forthcoming wave of phishing spam?

Our Financial Services Authority – the ones who sat around playing with trivia while the banks printed money noone was ever going to make – are at it again.  They’ve found another misselling scandal (payment protection insurance) and want the banks to review all PPI customers – including those who are perfectly happy with it – and invite them to claim compensation.

You can be sure the phishers will be happier about this than the banks, and will be eagerly contacting a lot more people than the banks even know about.

Every time there’s a new misselling+compensation scandal, I get mildly irritated: I should’ve taken the carrot, enjoyed the benefits, with the backing of compensation.  They’re penalising the prudence that steered me away from, for example, Icesave’s market-beating interest rate on savings (which I avoided in 2005 because the risk of losing it seemed far too high).

Now if only they’d deal with our elephants in the room: historic pension promises and fantasyland mortgages.  If I’d taken that bubble-mortgage in 2005 I could be enjoying not one but two government bailouts right now (zero interest rates and SMI).  Instead, I’m just paying for them.  Grrrr ….

The sincerest form of flattery

Intel looks ever more like someone whose birthright is slipping away.  While it continues to dominate both its core PC market and the server market it usurped from an earlier generation of distinct top-end hardware, this is no longer where interesting growth is happening.  In the mobile space – where power consumption means a tradeoff between battery life and weight that people really notice – it sounds ever more shrill and desperate.  Otellini & co: we ARE relevant!!!  Rest of world: shrug.  Even the best friends are slipping away: long-term partner Microsoft openly double-timing them; a year-long fling with a rudderless Nokia going nowhere exciting.

But are they actively paying tribute to their own nemesis?  It sure looks like it!  They’re naming their efforts to compete in the lower-power-consumption market from ARM’s family history.  First came Atom: Intel’s low-power processor range named after the Acorn computer of the early 1980s.  And now Oak Trail, the latest, lowest-power-consumption processor in the Atom range.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to name one product after your competitor might be considered a misfortune.  To name two looks like carelessness!

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For the benefit of non-techie or too-young-to-remember readers, ARM, which dominates the mobile processor market, was originally a spinoff from Acorn Computer, so might be considered an Oak.  Atom was an early personal computer made by Acorn, superseded by the BBC Micro and the Electron.  Those early Acorn computers were powered by processors from Intel’s then-biggest but long-since-vanquished rival Motorola.

Minefield File System

Just hit a nasty gotcha on Mac OS.  Specifically 10.6.0 Darwin Kernel Version 10.6.0: Wed Nov 10 18:13:17 PST 2010; root:xnu-1504.9.26~3/RELEASE_I386 i386.  The filesystem is schizophrenic over case sensitivity!

Of course we expect case-sensitivity in normal use.  But watch:

$ scp remote:/path/to/File .
File                                   100% 3086     3.0KB/s   00:00   
$ scp remote:/path/to/file .
file                                   100% 3757     3.7KB/s   00:00
$ ls
File
$ wc File
125     237    3757 File
$

The second file has overwritten the first, and taken its name.  Ouch!

New year, new regime

The tax year just ended is the third and last in which I had substantial PAYE earnings to worry about.  So I’ve used the same three tax-saving measures as in the last two years, including my biggest ever venture capital investment.  I seem to be one day late for my annual review, so here goes.

I also need to consider better measures of performance.  As portfolios mature, so naïve measures of current value vs money paid in become increasingly meaningless.  But that’s beyond the scope of anything I want to publish here.  So how am I faring?

The ISA is the most conservatively invested, and is cumulatively showing +26%, against 24% last year.  Net of new money invested, that’s a modest 5% actual rise over the year (tax-free), so I guess it’s treading water.  Not complaining too loudly, since my priority there has been to preserve value and save tax.

The SIPP is up either 126% or 36%, depending on whether or not we include the tax breaks in the calculation.  That’s a moderate advance on last year (112%/27%), and better when you factor in the fact that most of the new money was put in at the end of the year and so is showing no gains beyond the tax break.  It’s now reached a level where, if I have a house by then, I can expect to be quite a lot richer as a pensioner than I have in my working life.  Even factoring in the demographically-inevitable loss of pensioner tax breaks and perks!  But it’s still worth building the fund, because the tax-free lump sum is my most likely route to paying for a house (or paying off a mortgage), and if I’m still paying rent it wipes out the pension and more!

Finally, the Venture Capital portfolio.  On paper it’s a capital gain of just over 27%, though due to liquidity issues I wouldn’t expect to be able to realise the whole of that paper gain.  More important is the rising dividend stream: over £1100, plus ex-divs worth another £300+.  That’s more than double last year’s income, and I expect another significant improvement this year as more investments mature (though the chances of all the funds contributing are remote).  Most encouragingly, the government has improved VCT rules in this year’s budget (along with even bigger EIS improvements, that I suspect will lead to EIS schemes being offered to retail investors alongside VCT).

As before, the element of ‘green’ in my portfolio is showing mixed results.  The ‘dark green’s continue poor, though losses have been much smaller than before.  The ‘light green’ portion continues to show excellent returns.  In terms of ‘dark green’, the government may already have pulled the rug out from under my latest substantial investment, by slashing the FITs scheme for investors and turning it into (almost) just another homeowner perk (hey, if I were rich enough to own a home, I’d’ve spent that money on my own solar panels – I only invested it in a fund because I’m too poor for that).  I’m no great fan of FITs (charging a more realistic and rising price for non-renewable energy would be a much better incentive), but I’m not happy about the government moving the goalposts retrospectively with regard to already-committed investments.

What of this tax year?  Well, I’m back to being my own boss, and I’ve no idea whether I’ll get any significant income.  If I do, I can once again take advantage of small-company tax management, so I should have much less need of tax-saving investments regardless.  Unless I end up in another PAYE job.

Modern electrics

Just a few minutes ago I was sitting at the desk, when I heard an alarming ‘pop’ and the light went out.  I assumed the bulb had gone suddenly.  It was half-past midnight and I wasn’t in the middle of something important, so I took the cue to suspend the ‘puter and head for bed (from where I’m now blogging, using the laptop).

On the way I went to make my customary bedtime pint of herb tea, whereupon I found the kitchen light was also dead.  Now curious, I tried all the ceiling lights: the entrance hall and the bathroom were the only ones to work.  Evidently a safety device had been triggered, so with luck it should be easy to reset.  Except of course, I’d never before looked in the control box, and I couldn’t read the instructions in the dark.  Oops!  Still, I can boil the kettle in the dark, and I have the bedside light on a different circuit.

Hmmm, can I do better?  I don’t have a torch, but the bike light was where it’s supposed to be, and cast sufficient light to read the instructions and identify the relevant switch.  Reset it and all’s well, except the popped bulb which is indeed dead.  Have to try and remember to replace it in daylight tomorrow.

I’ve been here six years now, and this is the first time I’ve had to use that box (I turned off the master switch to wire in the cooker, which is the only thing I’ve done that required any non-automatic safety measures.  And when something does go wrong it proves utterly trivial to fix.  Something’s right about modern electrics, even to the point of putting the hall light on a different circuit!

Shame I can’t say the same about the fire alarms.  Both mine and the neighbours tend to get over-enthusiastic for no good reason.

Concert

It’s time to give a mention to next week’s concert.  Sunday April 10th at the Guildhall, Plymouth.  We’re performing Haydn and Mozart.  Haydn’s Creation Mass, along with Mozart’s great C Minor mass.

Of the two works, the Mozart is the one that really turns me on.  This mass was left unfinished at his death, but what we have is an exciting and glorious work.  To my mind, it leaves his better-known Requiem sounding almost dull by comparison.   I expect an important reason for the Requiem’s popularity is that it’s not just one of Mozart’s great works, but also a safe and straightforward choice for anything more than a basic church choir, whereas the Mass is rather more challenging.

If you’re within evening-out distance of Plymouth, this concert should be worth seeing!

It’s in the post …

You have a good friend who’s retiring.  You think we all owe him something, so you help organise a presentation.  You get a nice card, get mutual friends to sign and to contribute to a present.  You discuss a few ideas with your co-conspirators, and decide that an e-book reader will be appreciated, and matches the money collected.

I ordered a Kindle from Amazon last Saturday.  Because the presentation was due on Thursday evening, I didn’t take free delivery, but paid a fiver extra for the fastest possible delivery, which the ordering system told me I could be sure of receiving by Wednesday.

On Monday I get email telling me it’s been dispatched and I can expect delivery on Tuesday.  Great.

I stay in all day Tuesday.  Nothing arrives.

Ditto Wednesday.  By this time I’m getting concerned, and I contact Amazon using their online chat facility to complain: if delivery time wasn’t important, I’d’ve gone for free delivery.  They stonewalled my complaint: nothing they could do before April 6th, a full week after the ordering system had promised.  I complained that we can’t just move our friend’s retirement, and I had paid good money for better than this, but no joy.

Thursday, still no delivery.  We ended up having to present him the card (a lovely card which my co-conspirator had commissioned from a local artist) but apologise lamely that the present was in the post.  Aaargh!

When the package from Amazon finally arrived early on Friday morning, I was sorely tempted to send it right back.  Bah, Humbug.

Just to cap it all, today I got spam from Amazon.  At least I’d taken the precaution (as I generally do when I give my address to anyone commercial) of giving them a unique amazon@[my.domain] email address, so deleting it was clean and easy.

Solitary Confinement

What do you do when you’re anticipating a long session on the ‘puter, naturally including ‘net access, only to find your connection is dead?  A call to your ISP gets you a recorded message about a major ‘net outage, though only after you’ve listened through a tedious spiel telling you please use their website to deal with problems(!)

If you have any sense, you get on with something else once you’re done cursing and swearing at it.  Something you can do offline.  And so I eventually tried to do: started hacking on something I could do quite a lot of without having to google anything.  It didn’t work: my concentration span was shot to pieces by wanting to look up the latest updates from my ISP (which I could access from the pocket-‘puter over O2’s mobile data network).  And, worse, I felt a perverse need to browse all my regular websites using the small screen and inadequate keyboard.

Is that a symptom of addiction?   It’s not at all so bad having planned offline time, e.g. when travelling without the laptop.

(This was Wednesday evening, from early evening through the night to Thursday morning, when the problem was finally fixed.)