Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Terminal decline?

I am writing from a doomed laptop. As if the Blue Screen of Death episode wasn't enough, it has decided not to recognise its own sound card (whilst still making all the usual Microsoft noises), can't work its internal wireless modem and has begun to ignore the USB ports. Oh, and when I tried to view a file on my data-stick, it couldn't view it, attempted to "install new hardware", looped on trying to find a driver (there isn't one - it is only a flash drive), and seized up.

This has never been a 100% happy relationship. I bought the laptop blind in 2005, through a scheme at work, the year the British Government decided to give tax breaks to fund its "home computer initiative". There were only two laptop choices in the scheme and I rejected the Apple one on the grounds that it didn't contain a DVD-writer. So I ended up with this, a Fujitsu Siemens Amilo D. I can't recommend them. I've been disappointed from the day I opened the box.

From the start, switching it on was a nightmare. I thought the problem was the on-off switch, but it turned out to be a battery connection. (This is one machine that won't work unless it's battery is in its socket. And battery life is abysmal.) I spent an hour on the phone to Fujitsu sorting that out.

The current sound-card problems are just an extension of an intermittent problem it always had but was hard to demonstrate on demand: the first time I wanted to play back a recording to my singing class, it failed. It had worked fine the day before, but at class we only got the video playback without any audio. Since it was still under warrantee at the time, I got onto the help desk and naturally it worked perfectly.

And then there is the fact that it has always been too big and heavy. We've always had a desktop computer - I'd wanted a small, lightweight laptop that was easy to carry around with me. I've been using laptops for work since 1997, when "going out on audit" meant lugging around a Cannon 386 laptop equiped with Windows 3.1. Even that dinosaur was lighter than this one!

There is only one thing for it. It's time to buy a new laptop. We went window shopping yesterday. I saw some pretty netbooks (keyboards are two small for this touch typist). My inner-accountant thrilled at the new wide-screen laptops that come complete with a built in number pad (no more struggling to enter columns of numbers into Excel). But I've defined what I want: a 12-inch screen; minimum of 3GB of RAM; integrated webcam; 250GB hard disk; DVD-writer with Blu-Ray, Dolby surround sound, etc. Sadly, my budget is a bit lower than the price of my wish list, so I will have to compromise somewhere. But a girl can dream.

The next problem is what to do about Vista. I don't want it and I don't need it. I own licences for Windows XP and Office 2005. I haven't heard a good thing about Vista from any of the users I know. I want to wait for the next generation to be released, when all the bugs will have been sorted out, before I install it. Any suggestions as to how to rid myself of this blight?

- Pam (got to go. DH wants to go shopping.)

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Merry Christmas Everybody!

Santa on Boxing Day

Wishing you and yours a very Merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year. May the best of your past be the worst of your future!

- Pam

PS: I call the above image "Santa on Boxing Day". I lifted it from a website at the American University in Beirut years ago. Couldn't find it today on the internet to attribute it properly.

Monday, 22 December 2008

It's the Economy. Stupid!

A month ago, the British Government issued its "Pre-Budget Report" (a.k.a. a mini-budget that covers government spending). If you click on the link and look at the fourth item down, you'll see that from midnight on 30th November 2008, VAT was cut from 17.5% to 15% in an effort to boost the economy.

This VAT cut is the Government's main weapon in fighting the current recession. They estimate that it will add a £20bn stimulus to the economy. How?

The theory put out by the spin-doctors is that the cut will lower prices in the shops, consumers will stampede snapping up cheaper goods and thus spend the country's way out of Recession. Looks good on paper, doesn't it? But will it work? I don't think so.

(VAT stands for "value added tax". If the business is VAT registered (i.e. all businesses with sales > £67k), then they can reclaim the VAT on goods/services they've purchased by offsetting it against the VAT payable on the sales they make. Therefore, they only pay VAT on the difference or on the "value added" to the goods or services by their business. VAT cannot be reclaimed on purchases for private use.)

From the moment I heard it, I've been trying to figure out how it will stimulate the economy. And each scenario I come up with, doesn't work. Here's why:-
  1. It misunderstands the way business thinks about VAT because in virtually all businesses it is excluded from decision making calculations. Cutting it won't affect a multi-national's decision to build a new factory - that will be decided by the cost of the capital needed to fund the investment. And few banks out there are making money available to borrow at an affordable price. If the VAT cut offers any advantage, it is to cash-flow only since it slightly lowers the amount of cash businesses have to pay out to their suppliers and/or to the VATman. Even this, though, comes with barbs attached: for the first month or so, businesses will still be paying out VAT at 17.5% on invoices received prior to the cut-off but will only be able to recharge their clients/customers VAT at 15%.
  2. A 2.5% discount is useless at enticing consumers back into the shops when the 25%-50% discounts already on offer have failed. This response to the VAT Cut was raised by most political and economic commentators: consumers aren't shopping because they're worried about jobs, credit card bills, the price of fuel and mortgages. Cutting VAT won't affect that behaviour because it is only pennies - it doesn't put a lot of real money in our pockets. When your credit card is maxxed out and you are worried that you won't have enough money to buy petrol to get to work at the end of the month, the last thing you're going to do is go out and buy a new dress! This is the reality we are living with: the average Briton is carrying £4,000+ in credit card debt; mortgage interest rates are still rising, even though the Bank of England Base Rate has fallen to 2% (those on variable mortgages are paying close to 7% interest); in the past 9 months, the price of petrol and diesel increased by a third with knock-on price increases for virtually everything that is shipped by road. (FYI, for routes out of London, public transport is frequently more expensive than driving.)
  3. Where will the additional money go? Out of the Country. Whilst grocery items (food, toiletries, etc) are either made here or elsewhere in Europe, much of the "discretionary spending" items (clothes, shoes, household goods) are made in China, Vietnam, India, Africa, etc. If the consumer does go out and spend on nonessential items, they'll be purchasing cheap goods made in China or India and ultimately their purchases will benefit workers/investors in those countries and not here. Just as in the US with George Bush's Economic Stimulus Package, it will stimulate their economies and not ours.
For my £20bn, I'd like the Government to spend the money on something concrete HERE instead of exporting it to China. This country is crying out for capital investment: new roads, new railway tracks, a mainline rail hub at Heathrow, additional housing stock, a new storm-water drainage system for London (to stop effluent being washed into the Thames/flooding homes each time it rains for more than 10 minutes) etc. Why not use the £20bn to directly fund capital projects here???

Instead of funding public works, the Government is actually cutting them. An example: because the private companies involved can't raise capital, the Government has CUT the number of apartments that will be built in the Olympic Village to the minimum allowable under the IOC athletes' housing rules. This is in a country where we need an estimated 250,000 more homes just to meet current demand, in a city where the premium for new builds is still 100% over the cost of the build.

The lower rate of VAT will exist for 13 months. What worries me is that the VAT cut is short term but the long term costs will be with us for many years. To quote from the BBC
"..[The Shadow Chancellor]..George Osborne said the government's package of measures would double national debt to £1 trillion.

"He said this would leave "a huge unexploded tax bombshell timed to go off under a future economic recovery".

"He said Chancellor Alistair Darling was giving away £20bn but taking back £40bn through tax hikes."

Ouch! I've heard commentators say that it will take at least 20 years of tax rises to pay it back. In addition, the increase in National Debt will handcuff our economy, decreasing prosperity long term. It also makes us more vulnerable to economic and political shocks worldwide. Remember, he who owns the debt, calls the tune. (Don't believe me? Check out the Oscar nominated documentary: I.O.U.S.A. recently featured on the BBC.)

This is going to be an interesting few months, particularly if I'm proved right.

- Pam

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

I'm not a yarn snob. Really.

Towards the end of last week, I learned of a yarn shop not too far from here in Uxbridge, so on Saturday I went to check it out.

Baron's don't have a website and their address in the phone book just says "Market Square, UB8 1LH". I'm not that familiar with Uxbridge, so wandered around for a while before I realised that the Market Square has long-since been subsumed into the Pavilion's shopping mall. (Town planning vandalism, don't you think, building a shopping mall on the site of an ancient market?)

It turns out that Baron's is little more than an indoor, overgrown market stall. I felt pangs of disappointment - I was half-hoping to find a shop that might just, possibly, be that rare-to-Britain gold-mine, an American-style LYS - but wandered in anyway to check out their range. There was a lot of yarn crammed into a space that is maybe 12 feet by 8. They had some fun fur, a small quantity of wool, a little bit of cotton and a large amount of acrylic.

After a bit of a search, I gave in and asked for assistance. I was after sock-yarn, not just because that's my default purchase when in a new-to-me-yarn-shop but also because I have a pair of socks to make as a Christmas present. "Do you mean wool for darning socks?" was the response. "No, I mean wool for knitting socks, usually 4-ply", I replied. I got the feeling that knitting socks was an unusual concept, rarely encountered before. Still, the teenage shop assistant was good at her job - she found me the only sock yarn they had: Elle Machine Washable Sock Wool in brown. I'm not sure who was more surprised: her or me.

On the way home, I pondered my reaction to the shop's range of yarn. The vast amount of cheap acrylics and acrylic blends found me mentally wrinkling my nose and curling my lip in distaste. What made me such a yarn snob?

The first three or four garments I ever knitted were made in acrylic. It was cheap and my mother didn't want to waste money buying wool for a teenager who might never finish the garment she was making. Then, when I was 16 or so, I knitted my first pure wool sweater and I've rarely touched acrylic since.

When I think about acrylic, I think about yarn that squeaks when you knit it, yarn that feels plasticky and leaves your hands clammy as you knit. I use it occasionally in baby garments (normally Plymouth’s Encore which is 25% wool), but the 100% stuff? Haven't knitted with it in a long time and don't intend to. Emblazoned on my psyche is a belief that acrylics are cheap and nasty and that if I'm going to spend my time knitting, then I deserve better.

And 99% of the acrylics out there just aren't good enough. There are some beautiful yarns out there that are acrylic in all-but-name (I have some silky soft eyelash made by Elle that is so beautiful to handle, I just sit here and stroke it), but they are the exception. Good marketeers know that putting "acrylic" on a yarn label is the kiss of death to people like me - we won't touch it, but we might look twice if it's described as "microfibre" or even "polyamide" and included in a blend with wool or cotton. However, no matter what is on the label, if it feels like cheap acrylic, I won't use it. Why waste my money on something that makes my skin creep?

I think that's the crux of the matter - I believe I deserve to knit with decent quality yarn. Anything else isn't worth my time and attention. If valuing my handiwork makes me a yarn snob, then so be it.

- Pam (will probably go back to Baron's, sometime)