Well, it’s nearly time stay up late and open a new diary.  The Earth is about to complete another orbit.  But it’s no big deal because the new year doesn’t end in ’00’ or even ‘0’.

Why are we so hung up on round numbers?  It’s not just about years and birthdays.  Some people won’t buy a car unless the registration number ends in at least one zero.  Mrs SG and I bought a house partly because it had a telephone number ending in two of them.  If I write a report and make 19 recommendations, I look for a way to split one of the recommendations into two, so I’ll have a nice round 20 in my list.

It’s daft!  And it makes me stroppy that I fall for it just as much as anyone else.

Here’s a thought for any other economists who are reading this.  If we spend more on presents and celebrations when a round number is involved, how much money would be saved if we used a duodecimal counting system instead of decimal?




Five days ago I heard someone refer to a Christmas cracker as a bonbon, and a wave of nostalgia hit me.  That’s what my mother called them in the distant past in England.  I remember being surprised to learn that ‘bonbon’ was French for a sweet – as in confectionery.  I suppose the original crackers contained sweets, instead of the toys and jokes we now expect.

And that brings me to the point of this post.  I have the impression that the toys are getting much better.  If I am right, is this a sign that Chinese manufacturing standards in general are improving rapidly?

It calls to mind the transition that Japan made in the 1960s and 70s, from being a maker of cheap crap to having a reputation for quality on a par with Germany’s.  If China is on a similar trajectory, the rest of us will have to lift our game if we want anything to bear a stamp other than ‘Made in China’.

On the other hand, I think the jokes are getting worse.  Does anyone out there agree with me?


Boiling Frog Syndrome: Manila Traffic


I’ve just come home from a 3-day business trip to Manila.  I enjoy Manila, but the traffic is horrific and getting worse.  It took more than 2 hours to travel from the airport to my hotel on Tuesday, and a similar time for the return journey on Friday.  Someone warned me that on a rainy Friday afternoon it can even take 5 hours!  That might have been an exaggeration, but many people told me of 3-hour trips.

That should be absolutely unacceptable.  But Filipinos and Filipinas are patient people.  They tend to accept things with a shrug and a wry laugh.  Perhaps this has something to do with their strong Catholic faith – but Poles are just as Catholic and they can be as impatient as anyone I know.

I think it’s the Boiling Frog Syndrome at work.  The traffic gets a little worse every day, slowly enough that people don’t notice the increments, just as a frog can be boiled to death in a pan of water without making a life-saving leap.

We’re all vulnerable to the Boiling Frog Syndrome.  A cup of coffee used to cost sixpence.  When did it break through the $1 barrier?  How long did it take for it to smash through $2?  $3?

What about foreign exchange rate spreads?  What about bank charges?  What about postal charges?  What about bed-and-breakfast tariffs?  We’re constantly being educated to regard ever higher prices as ‘normal’.

Oh-oh, my Stoppiness Quotient is rising fast.  What do you think?

Outbreak of Sanity! Cuba and USA Renew Diplomatic Ties!


Yes!  This is the kind of change the world has been waiting for since President Obama was elected six years ago.  For decades the USA has been humiliated by playing the part of an impotent Goliath trying to cow a plucky little David into submission.

I have to declare an interest: Mrs SG and I were tourists in Cuba earlier this year.  We went with open minds and a lot of curiosity.  We came away thinking that, while we wouldn’t want to live in such a paternalistic society, there were many worse places in the world, including some that are firm allies of the West.

It seemed to me that Cuba is rather like a sugar plantation where the owner (the Government) meets his slaves’ essential needs but does not allow them much say in the management of the business.  That does not sound like a ringing endorsement of the Cuban system, but there are plenty of people in the democratic capitalist world who are equally powerless and have no guarantee – or even expectation – that their essential needs will be met by anyone.

Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?


My friend Peter asked me this a week or two ago.  Peter is a Jehovah’s Witness and our house is in his territory.  He knows I’m an atheist and the chances of converting me are close to those of global warming being reversed, but we both enjoy 10 minutes of mental sparring on the doorstep once a month.

Actually, what he asked was, “Do you ever wonder why bad things happen to good people?”  I said “No” and he changed the subject.

But after he had gone I thought about it.  Why should anyone expect the incidence of good or bad things to be correlated in any way with the moral quality of the people to whom they happen?  Has there ever been any evidence for this, even evidence of the most circumstantial nature?

On the other hand there is pretty good evidence for the following propositions:

  1. The universe behaves in accordance with a set of fixed physical laws.
  2. Within those laws, there is plenty of scope for random events.
  3. Conforming with the laws, customs and values of one’s own community is likely to result in better outcomes than flouting them (eg not spending time in jail or being ignited by an angry mob).

I suppose the third of these propositions goes a little way towards validating Peter’s question, but I don’t think that’s what he had in mind.

Terrorism in Sydney


15 December 2014

The big news in Australia today is the taking of hostages in a Sydney café, apparently by Islamists.  We are all shocked of course, but no-one should be surprised.  We are at war.  We send ’planes to bomb IS positions in Iraq.  We should expect them to do all they can to frighten us and harm us.  We are their enemies.

They despise our democracy – in their eyes a weak man-made system that must ultimately crumble before their own, which is simply to follow the will of God.  They hope that our democracy will deliver our surrender.  After all, we are soft and godless and have no stomach for the fight.  We will tell our leaders, “Don’t get involved, don’t spend our money, leave us alone to shop and drink coffee.  Yes, yes, they are evil, but they are someone else’s problem.”

I don’t have a copy of the book ‘Tales of the South Pacific’ to hand, but there’s a passage towards the end in which James Michener extols the strength and courage of free people who choose to resist tyranny.  I’m paraphrasing b ut that’s the gist.  I hope the same might be said of us when the history of our own present struggle is written.



Oh, ye greengrocers!  Hang up thy marker-pens, and then hang down thy heads!

That’s an example of apostrophe: a rhetorical device wherein a person or group is addressed in an exclamatory passage.  But the word also applies to the little curly mark that signifies either a possessive (the cat’s whiskers) or missing letters (you can’t or you won’t?).

I was moved to write this post, unfairly to the great majority of greengrocers I’m sure, by a brilliant 5-minute film that my friend Ron sent me today.  There are subtitles, and it was the appearance of a rogue greengrocer’s apostrophe* in one of those subtitles that made me stroppy.

Even so, it’s a really good film so I’ll share it with you.  Here’s the link:


*  That is, an apostrophe that’s incorrectly inserted before a pluralising S, as in “Banana’s $2.99/kg”.



What is so hard about distinguishing between the nominate and accusative cases?!  How can people with even a slight knowledge of good English literature say things like “Me and the wife went to the flicks last night.”  Have we ever heard the Queen start a speech with “Me and the Duke went to Africa this year…”?

And the same people mess up the other way round as well.  Even on the radio people say “Between you and I” and…  I won’t go on.  You can compile your own list of appalling howlers.  I’m already working myself into a dangerous state of stroppiness.  I will sit quietly and contemplate split infinitives.  That usually calms me.

Trip Advisor


I have to share this news…  I have my Trip Advisor Reviewer badge!  It is a Passport badge, because I am so well travelled.  How does Trip Advisor know that I am well travelled?  Because I wrote a review of a B&B in St. Austell and a review of the Eden Project.

Mrs SG and I were travelling by rental car in Devon and Cornwall a couple of months ago – we can’t afford trains any more – and finding B&Bs as and where we could at the close of each day.  We discovered some interesting facts…

First, British B&Bs are very expensive these days: around GBP100 for a double in St. Ives, which could be why the man with seven wives was coming back.  Why is that?  Only 50 years ago you could stay at a B&B anywhere for between 6/- and 15/- a night.  Half-a-guinea was pretty normal, which was about 3% of the average weekly wage.  Now you’re lucky to get away with GBP30, which is about 5%.  True, you get an en-suite bathroom and a flat-screen TV now, but do those fripperies really justify such a hefty hike?

Second, Trip Advisor has replaced the AA as the arbiter of quality.  Every B&B has a certificate on the wall or even a metal plate beside the front door.  That’s why I’m so proud of my new badge!

English Language: Obscenities


I remember when the word “bloody” caused refined ladies to call for their smelling salts.  Now %?&/ and @!\# are commonplace, and &?*# is the only word left with power to shock.

What makes me stroppy is our failure to agree on when it’s OK to use these words in print; when we have to use asterisks and ampersands; and when we should give the reader a clue by supplying the initial letter.  I’ve even seen different treatments in the same edition of the same newspaper.

Why can’t the editors of the world get together and agree on a standard?!  To save money, they could share the conference facilities with the electricians when they agree on a universal power socket.