Sunday, February 17, 2013

If you're reading this, Cuba isn't quite what I expected...

It would be fair to say that, when agreeing with Ros that we should go to Cuba on holiday, I did have some doubts. It is, after all, a communist country with a controlled economy, where those opposed to the state are imprisoned on a fairly capricious basis. And given that I am by nature someone who cleaves to the notion of comfort in travel, Havana might not be an obvious destination.

As it turns out, the dictatorship is not entirely what one might expect. Experiments with capitalism have unleashed an entrepreneurial spirit hitherto unsuspected, American television shows are rather more readily accessible than might be expected, and the security on display seems designed to make sure that we get back to our hotel safely. Oh yes, and the mojitos are cheap and plentiful. Mmmm, mint...

We've been for an explore of the old city already, and I've been impressed by efforts to restore the historic centre. Havana is one of the oldest cities in the Western Hemisphere, with a cathedral that dates back to the mid-sixteenth century, and the original core is packed with badly neglected architecture crying out for restoration. And, at last, the government have realised its tourism potential.

There are restaurants and private taxis, there are people in the streets trying to sell you things, and if you didn't know that it was a one-party state, I'm not entirely sure that you would appreciate that it was one. And the mojitos are very good, although I may have inferred that earlier.

So, if you were thinking of coming here but thought that it might be a bit too complex, I would say, "Come on in, the Havana Club, mint and sugar syrup are lovely.".

Monday, February 11, 2013

Rosenberg and Cooper - avoid like the plague? (UPDATED)

Recently, I received an e-mail from a company called Rosenberg and Cooper, inviting me to invest in coloured diamonds. Naturally, being a cautious soul, I've learned not to get too excited about such invitations, knowing that if someone is sending spam e-mail like that, they probably aren't likely to be reputable. So, I deleted the e-mail and thought nothing more of it.

At least, I hadn't, until my BlackBerry rang on Friday evening. I picked it up and found that not only do they send spam e-mail, but they do cold calling too. And high quality cold calling it is, with the usual exciting claims of high yields, impending scarcity and occasional references to market developments - the comments on the effect of a new Governor of the Bank of England on inflation were particularly entertaining.

Funnily enough, for a company talking about investments in excess of £10,000, the background noise, akin to that you might expect from a call centre, is hardly that of a bespoke enterprise offering a niche investment product, and the 'patter' is surprisingly pushy for someone attempting to persuade a well-heeled individual, and therefore probably well-educated, to part with a five-figure sum.

Of course, receiving cold calls is much more fun when you can look the caller up on the internet whilst you keep them occupied, and allows you to discover that their website is extremely amateurish, their headquarters is a rented office suite, and that whilst they may claim many decades of experience in the business, the company was only incorporated on 18 December 2012 - yes, less than two months ago.

They are very kindly sending me a brochure, to the address that they have on record for me, an address that I vacated more than three years ago, which implies that they've bought a contact list from somewhere, and were too cheap, or too incompetent, to buy one that had been filtered recently.

So, my advice to anyone who hears from Rosenberg and Cooper is, "avoid like the plague" unless you have so much money that you can afford to throw it away. And even if you do, if you're reading this, I probably have a duty of care towards you...

Reader... see update...

Monday, February 04, 2013

Are politics and polite disagreement mutually exclusive?

Is it me, or is politics becoming ever more unpleasant as the years go by? Perhaps it has always been thus, but the unpleasantness is much more immediate, much more public than it was previously.

Once upon a time, politicians were treated with rather more deference than is the case now. Interviews with the media were more of a lecture than an inquisition, and there was little attempt made to challenge what was being said. It made for rather dull television, I suspect, but then there wasn't an awful lot of choice, was there? Effectively, you got to find out what the politicians wanted you to know.

As that deference has been stripped away, we have become a more informed electorate, with more media outlets, more rigorous questions, more research capacity. Alright, a potentially more informed electorate, as it has become more difficult to judge the value, accuracy and  credibility of any one source, presuming that any one voter has the skills or desire to find out for themselves.

But the end of deference has gone beyond that to almost aggressive cynicism. The assumption that politicians are fair game for the sort of treatment that is now commonplace means that there is no level to which some in the political arena will not stoop.

It does, in too many quarters, seem entirely reasonable to describe someone with whom they disagree with as mad, idiotic, corrupt or simply evil. The notion that,  for entirely honourable, philosophically consistent reasons, a different view might be held cannot, accordingly, be respected, it must be quashed in an aggressive, offensive, bombastic way. There can be no doubt, the heterodoxy must be preserved.

And yet, most people, most ordinary, non-political people don't lay claim to such certainty. If presented with a credible (in their eyes) argument, they can be persuaded to at least keep an open mind on an issue.

The internet has made matters far worse. You can now, from the safety and anonymity of your keyboard, make vile accusations as to the motivation of your opponents without evidence or accuracy, and drive the less thick-skinned from the field altogether. But what if they're right, either partly or wholly. Or, what if there are equally effective, but alternative, means of achieving the same thing? You have, technically, won. But mightn't everyone have lost?

The advantage of debate based upon mutual respect and an openness to other ideas is an increased likelihood of reaching a conclusion which taps more of the knowledge and expertise that exists whilst increasing buy-in. It encourages greater participation and engagement, broadens the field of potential elected officials and, by doing so, creates a politics that looks more like the communities it seeks to serve.

Isn't that the aim of the exercise?...