Friday, April 28, 2006

Tax Those Dammed Profits - Not!

As always, throughout my career, I am exasperated by the average joe politican's knee jerk reaction to oil companies making profits when their product prices are high. For once I endorse Bush. And I'll explain why.

The oil industry supplies an essential basic need - energy - mainly in the form of gasoline, or at least that is what the public perceives. Gasoline is the cheapest, most efficiently produced commodity ever distributed to all corners of this planet. Of course, by the time governments have tinkered around with taxes, etc., it doesn't seem to be that inexpensive, but it is. Try comparing a gallon gasoline with just about any other product you might purchase in bulk and only one other item comes close. Natural gas.

Yet petroleum is seen to be the great scapegoat. When prices are horribly low, no mention is made of the fact. Extremely low prices have become the base line on which society judges whether or not the oil companies are gouging, windfalling or whatever. I doubt if there is another industry that is judged in this way.

So, with spiralling energy costs it is natural that anyone who needs to justify their existence would start to mouth off about the indecent profits being made by the big oil companies. And so we have the call to apply windfall taxes to the excessive profiteering that is going on.

Where Bush is particularly right is that he insists that the profits be re-invested in looking for replacements, whether that be more hydrocarbons or alternative energy sources. Oil companies tend to do oil better than anything, so their profits should be re-invested in replacing production. They better had do that or their business will shrink. In fact the reason we have such high prices now is because that reinvestment hasn't been possible in the recent past, either due to low prices or high windfall taxes on higher prices. I know because I've had to work (or not) through major slumps since 1983.

There used to be a bumper sticker in Texas that said "Dear Lord, Please Send Us Another Boom, We Promise Not To Screw It Up Next Time!" Well, we've got a boom and this time we'd better not screw it up. And the politicians had better not try to screw it up either. But we know they will and who do you think will ultimately get the blame?

Thursday, April 27, 2006

TV Turn Off Week

I was reminded this morning that this is TV Turn Off Week. Since I don't actually watch TV this is somewhat moot but for all those who have their TV sitting opposite the most comfortable couch in the house, may I suggest that you try at least the rest of this week without the tube switched on. It could change your life!

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Hiking in East Devon

Another travelogue has been uploaded, this time a composite of many hikes along the East Devon coast between Sidmouth and Branscombe. This coastline is part of the Jurassic Coast (I would prefer it be more accurately named the Mesozoic Coast but there you are!) and is a world heritage site.

The joy of this 12 kilometer hike (which has several steep inclines along the way) is that it rarely comes near to a road with traffic, has good hiking on cliff tops and pebble beaches, and affords the opportunity to swim along the way in summer. The beaches and water are clean and in August and September the sea is warm enough to relax in!

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Higher Dunscombe Cliff Rock Fall

We just spent a week in East Devon and decided that a professional inspection of the recent rock fall (or cliff collapse, or whatever you would like to call the periodic and catastrophic erosion of a cliff face) was justified.

Rockfall on Higher Dunscombe Cliff

The South West Coast Path has been blocked off with tape so we had to work our way around the padlocked stiles, etc. What we found was that a large section of the cliff path has simply disappeared. This set of Flickr images will help to show what exactly happened. The Flickr photos have notes, so do explore the set.

It is clear that, although a large section of the cliff collapsed in February, this was not the largest rock fall to have occurred as older, larger rocks exist further out to sea. But it is quite dramatic, nonetheless. And there are a few more bits remaining up there to fall as soon as the cracks widen (if there is no rain) or become waterlogged (if there is rain). No predictions as to when this might happen but in geological terms, "soon" might be appropriate!

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Proud to be a Brummie

A recent post by Pete about the relevance of Tolkein to Birmingham (and vice versa) had me writing comments and then I thought "why am I doing this?"

And I realized it is because I am a Brummie!

(A word or two about the term Brummie. Wikipedia says "Brummie (sometimes Brummy) is a colloquial term for the inhabitants, accent and dialect of Birmingham, UK, as well as being a general adjective used to denote a connection with the city, locally called Brum. The terms are all derived from Brummagem or Bromwichham, historical variants or alternatives to 'Birmingham'". I think that's accurate enough though of course you don't have to be an inhabitant of the city or have the accent/dialect to qualify.

I was born on the southeastern side of the city - my birth certificate says Solihull but apparently this was because the nursing home I was born in was on the boundary between Birmingham and Solihull and my parents (both Brummies) were then living in Earlswood, a part of Solihull. I suppose there is a certain caché about being born in "Soily Hill" so there you are!

I am not really into genealogy like April is, but my known family tree goes back to around 1860 and all my direct forebears lived in what is now Birmingham (Aston, Bordesley, Handsworth, etc.) so I definitely have Brummie blood. In my youth I spent a lot of time in the city (see this travelogue). And when I visit the city these days there is a certain level of pride that I really connot justify except for the historical relevance that "I cum from Brum".

What has Birmingham given the world? Plenty to be proud of, I would suggest, and here's a list:

An early market starting 1154 that just happened to be near the center of the country. It's current manifestation, the Bullring Shopping Centre, is now world famous!

An early opposition to London and the Establishment. The city supported Cromwell in the Civil War. There's something good about being on the anti-establishment side of the fence!

The Industrial Revolution, Part I - during the Age of Enlightenment (say 1750-1800) Birmingham was a center for invention and change. They must have been exciting times indeed.

The Industrial Revolution, Part 2 - the Victorians took the Age of Enlightment, destroyed it but improved such aspects as mass production, gothic revivals, narrow mindedness, slum habitation for the workers etc. (can you tell I don't like the Victorian era?)

The Great Reformers - in order to curb the excesses of the Victorian exploitation of everything, along came the Quakers and like-minded reformers. George Cadbury and Joseph (Joe) Chamberlain come to mind. Birmingham stopped building slums decades before other cities followed suit.

Civic Pride. An example to the world of a people who, when confronted with the 1960s, gave it their all and embraced concrete like the Victorians embraced terracotta! Then in a complete reversal, that same civic pride attacked concrete with avengence and started to tear it all down in the 1990s!

A strong work ethic and self-deprecating sense of humor.

These form my list. Did I miss anything?

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Chelsea Tractors

This just in from the BBC. To summarize, 4x4s are more likely to kill small children than smaller vehicles, so a sign should be placed on the dashboard reminding SUV drivers of this statistic.

Now, I do emphathize with the anti-Chelsea Tractor brigade even though I own one! But in truth it is not the vehicle, it's the driver! No matter how large an SUV may be, it cannot hurt a child if it isn't moving! Put a driver inside, particularly one who is rushing to collect the children from school before taking them on to various after school activities ("Hurry up Dad, Judo started five minutes ago!") and I can see how they can become potential killers.

We have an elementary school just across the road and at 3:30 p.m. the area suddenly becomes ten times more dangerous as mothers (mostly) vie for parking places on double yellow lines and then stand around chatting until little Johnnie and Jenny come out of class. Half an hour later and peace is restored!

The most interesting pro-SUV comment I know is how on earth do you fit four small children in a small econobox. You can't. Only two child seats will fit which means that econoboxes become a very good family planning tool. When we visit my daughter (who has two under three) and drive off somewhere, the three adults and two toddlers need two vehicles - unless we switch car seats into the SUV and then it's only one. And if son-in-law joins us, even the SUV isn't big enough. Progress.

Monday, April 10, 2006

The Enron Saga Continues

I don't spend much time in Houston these days but the news coming from the courtroom there has caught my attention. Our apartment is a couple of miles from Enron's famous edifice and we know a lot of Enron people who have suffered badly from the company's collapse. So it is with interest that we watch Mssrs. Lay and Skilling have their days in court.

I've never met either of them but I have been in their old executive suite on the 50th? floor. This in itself spoke volumes about their lavish use of stockholders money. Ken Lay was considered the most generous man in Houston, lending his and Enron's name to all types of good works. I rather think that a lot of Enron's stockholder's money went the same way in a huge plan of self-agrandisement for the Lay family.

Many Houstonians were shocked when his wife opened "Jus' Stuff", basically a second hand junk shop selling off the family furniture. I could never understand why no-one threw a brick through the window. Doonesbury spent several weeks taunting the Lays about this venture.

But in many way it is Geoff Skilling who justifies the deepest analysis. He came, he profited, he resigned. Then Enron went into swift decline. He wears a continuous pained expression as if he is really hurting from all the adverse publicity. See through it, folks! He has not been wronged in any way. He thought he could get away with converting Enron from a company with assets to a company with knowledge. Trouble was, the knowledge was flawed and with no assets the stock collapsed. Once he recognized that, he was gone. A good captain doesn't leave his ship before the crew have put on their life jackets.

The key to the law suits probably lies in the timing of various stock sales when Lay, in particular, was urging employees to invest in their company and add more stock to their retirement accounts. Lay will say he had a tax bill to pay. But that does not excuse the fact that many ex-employees now have no pension after giving years of their life to Lay's dream.

The most interesting aspect of all this is in the way it emerged, through a whistle blower, Sharron Watkins. She is one brave lady who was able to see that the emperors wore no clothes and decided they should know it too.