Category Archives: Personal

No place for novices

I used to work for an auction house, and found myself campaigning constantly for the simplification of the business’ operations. So I felt somewhat vindicated this weekend when the Financial Times published an article about investing in antiques (The fine art of polishing auction costs) that concluded with the following:

Would-be investors need to look closely at the fine print and bone up. Auctions are no place for novices, say experienced collectors. And it is not like buying stocks and shares. The process of buying and selling antiques, fine art and collectables is considerably less transparent than dealing in stock markets, where trading is incomparably quicker, easier, cheaper and clearer.

The moral of this story is that there are easier and much safer ways in which to make money.

Cheese cleavers and other dilemmas

I spent last weekend in a very wet Scotland. Sudsy Dame and I flew to Glasgow from Heathrow on British Midland. Disappointingly, the service on this supposedly full service airline left something to be desired. On the way there I asked for a Coke with ice, and the stewardess returned in record time with very hot tea and a packet of treacle biscuits. Luckily the pilot was more on the ball, and we reached our planned destination intact and on time.

While we were there, we were given our first Christmas present. As you’d expect it was disguised with seasonal wrapping paper that bore the usual tidings of peace and goodwill. We thanked our friends, and thought nothing more about it … until Sudsy Dame tried to carry it onto the plane for our return journey.

The security officer watching the x-ray screen nearly fell over backwards as the picture of our bag appeared on his screen. I had forgotten completely about the gift and had no idea what the problem could be. Eventually of course, we were forced to unwrap it and we discovered that we’d attempted to take three Laguiole cheese knives, including a two-inch cheese cleaver, onto the plane.

Laguiole 3-piece cheese knife set

Tools for cleaving cheese

The security staff were very good about it. They notified the airline, which accepted it as checked baggage, and we collected the knives, along with our suitcase, from the baggage carousel at Heathrow once we’d arrived back in London.

So now, once the Camembert is ripe, we can cleave our cheese till the cows come home. How can you tell if the Camembert is ripe? According to Monsieur Taittinger:

You put your left index finger on your eye and your right index finger on the cheese … if they sort of feel the same, the cheese is ready.

Now you know.

Nice work if you can get it

Just another example of how absolutely crazy my former employer really is: Rags to Rothkos.

Here’s the introduction:

According to the influential Art Review magazine, Gil Perez is the 50th most influential figure in the art world. Not bad for a doorman, he tells Stuart Jeffries.

If the doorman is on six figures, what’s the receptionist making?

Can you imagine what this news will do to the morale of the rest of the staff, many of whom are well educated and highly skilled, but not nearly so well paid?

Dear trains

I don’t travel much by train in the UK, but every time I do it becomes easier to understand why so many people in this country complain about the railway.

The following table compares the cost of a future journey to Coventry by train with my most recent trip to France by air. In both cases I booked the least expensive fare available.

Mode of Transport Distance Price Cost per km
British Airways to Nice 1,030 km £ 98.00 £ 0.10
Virgin Trains to Coventry 139 km £ 41.00 £ 0.29

Discount airlines have received a lot of attention in recent months. Clearly it’s time we had discount railways too.

Un aide-mémoire

Last year I mentioned a vinyard in the south of France called Chateau Routas. This year I finally visited it and purchased some of its wine.

I’m not an expert oenophile, but Sudsy Dame and I both agreed that the 1998 Agrippa was delicious and we purchased the last five bottles of it, along with a case of the 2002 Rouvière rosé and some of the red Infernet.

I first read about Chateau Routas in an article written in 1999 by Anthony Dias Blue (see The Wines of Sunny France) in which he wrote:

Near the tiny hamlet of Châteauvert, about an hour east of Aix-en-Provence, proprietor Philippe Bieler and his American winemaker, Bob Lindquist, are making news at Château Routas with a series of wines named after historic French figures. “The vineyards here are old and interesting,” said the affable Lindquist, who is also the proprietor of Qupé Winery in Santa Barbara, California, “but they haven’t been taken seriously for centuries. For years there has been very little attention paid to the quality of wines here.”

Bieler, a passionate cook, bought the château for its “proximity to epicurean raw materials” — like the truffles he often adds to his guests’ scrambled eggs — but the business of wine is foremost at this property. The Routas Cyrano (named for the big-nosed poet and swashbuckler Cyrano de Bergerac) is a fleshy, ripe Syrah, while Pyramus (named for a botanist ancestor of Bieler’s) is a white blend with deeply extracted flavors and a lush finish. The official Coteaux Varois appellation, which includes most of the Routas wines, was created only in 1993 — a sign that greater things are to come from this area. “I think that Grenache and Syrah have enormous commercial potential with American consumers,” said Lindquist.

Chateau Routas does seem to be making a name for itself, albeit mostly in the US. The wine correspondent for the Financial Times, Jancis Robinson, mentioned it recently (see The rehabilitation of rosé), despite the fact that the wine is currently unavailable in the UK. At the domaine we were told that a new UK distributor is imminent, so perhaps we won’t have to travel quite so far when the time comes to replenish our cellar (well, wine rack actually).

A place in the sun

As usual in August there’s little real news, so the BBC is reporting on the weather, which is just barely newsworthy. In French heat deaths ‘up to 3,000’ it states:

The French health ministry has said the deaths of up to 3,000 people in recent weeks could be attributed to the European heatwave.

That number of deaths is plausible depending on the number of weeks concerned, but the report goes on to say:

Police trade union officials have called on the army to help remove the bodies of the deceased, saying that undertakers have been “overwhelmed” by the number of dead.

This misleading statement makes it sound like the plague is revisiting France. Here in the south I have yet to see a single dead body (not to mention any Police trade union officials), and we have experienced the same hot weather as the rest of Europe. As I write, it’s 35° Celsius in the shade!

I must admit that even the locals are complaining about the weather now. It hasn’t rained significantly since May, and everyone is feeling the effects of such a long dry spell.

La Vallee de la SiagneStill, it didn’t stop Sudsy Dame and I from hiking in La Vallee de la Siagne on Monday. The Siagne river runs at the bottom of a beautiful gorge overlooked by the village of St.-Cézaire-sur-Siagne. The hike begins in the village, but immediately descends to the river 200 meters below. It involves walking along a precipitous canal wall, and straight through a waterfall just before reaching an old Roman bridge across the Siagne, the Pont des Tuves. You then walk along the river for a few kilometers before re-crossing it at the Pont du Moulin. The best swimming is available at the two bridges, where there are incredibly refreshing (i.e. cold) pools of clean water that are easy to reach from the riverbank. You then return to the village by hiking up the east side of the valley back to St.-Cézaire.

It’s important in hot weather to take lots of water to drink. Between us we consumed 4.5 litres while walking, but nothing matched the drinks in the main square in St.-Cézaire at the end. They were pure bliss.

It’s hot, hot, hot…

Fountain in VidaubanLike most of Europe, the south of France is in the middle of a hot, dry summer. Three weeks ago there were serious forest fires near the town of Vidauban, and we could see the effects as we drove past on the autoroute two days ago. The forest was completely destroyed right up to the edge of the highway. A few metres more and the gas/petrol station that services the motorway would have gone up in flames too. How demented must you be to start a fire like that intentionally? I’m sure the French authorities will incarcerate the arsonist for a very long time (both before and after his trial!).

It’s so hot in the Var that all serious activity needs to be completed by noon at the latest. Consequently, we haven’t done much since we arrived. We did attend a recital in the village church last night, which was interesting largely because I hadn’t set foot in the church before. It’s a big cavernous room with a vaulted ceiling, and is in serious need of more windows. It was stifling! The church is well known for two reasons:

  • the gloire (literally “glory”, but it’s a big wooden carving behind the alter illustrating Christ or sometimes a Saint) is so artistically important that it’s listed as one of France’s national monuments.
  • every time the 3rd of May falls on a Friday (i.e. once every 11 years?) huge numbers of pilgrims descend on this small village to walk through the church’s porte du pardon in order to have all their sins instantly forgiven.

I’ll have to make an effort to attend the next pilgrimage in 2013 if I’m to have any hope of making up for lost time.

There’s lots going on in the village at this time of year, so we have made our plans to accomodate the brocante (rummage sale) on Sunday and the bio foire (organic produce fair) next weekend. In the meantime I have cleaned the aquapack, configured the GPS, and calibrated the altimeter in my wrist watch, so I think we’re almost ready to go. If only it would cool down a little!

Alberta bound

This week’s edition of the Economist contains an article about Canada’s potential to rival Saudi Arabia as a producer of oil (see | Energy | There’s oil in them thar sands!).

As the Economist states “there may be more oil trapped in Alberta than under all of Saudi Arabia”. Trapped is an appropriate word because the oil is embedded in thick, viscous sand and cannot be extracted without considerable effort and money. The process involves injecting steam into the ground in order to reduce the viscosity of the sand such that you can pump it out of the ground and separate the oil.

Twenty years ago my first summer job after starting university was in the Reservoir Engineering department of Gulf Oil in Calgary. I was a computing major at the time, and my job was to analyse the results of a computer simulation of in-situ oil sand extraction. It was a good summer job and I learned a lot, although it was totally unlike anything I’d done before or since.

Now it seems that after considerable research and investment, it may finally be economically viable to begin developing Alberta’s oil sand industry. It’s nice to think that Alberta’s natural resources may one day lessen the developed world’s dependence on the Middle East, although according to the Economist we shouldn’t hold our breath.

An Internet Bestseller

Given the boom and bust, the long-term impact of the Internet on business largely remains to be seen, but there’s at least one industry where its effect is a huge improvement: the sale of antiquarian books.

Believe it or not, but the impact of the Internet on the sales of used books was far from certain. Would the improved ability to find specific books increase demand and sales sufficiently to offset any decline in prices that might occur if customers could easily shop around? That’s the question Björn Frank and Guntram Hepperle asked at the University of Hohenheim in Germany at the end of 2000. In the abstract to their paper entitled The Internet’s Impact on the Market for Antiquarian Books: Some Unexpected Empirical Results (click here for the whole paper in PDF format)
they concluded:

Though there is a considerable variance in most books’ prices, we do not observe the expected negative correlation between price and share of internet sales (in relation to a seller’s total sales). We find other factors which have a systematic impact on prices, but with respect to the Internet, our main result is that e-business currently contributes little or nothing to driving prices downwards.

Memoirs of Mrs. Rebecca WakefieldI have to say that I’m not surprised. Yesterday a biography of one of my distant cousins arrived in the post from Hoffman’s Bookshop in Columbus, Ohio. The third edition of Memoirs of Mrs. Rebecca Wakefield: Missionary in East Africa was published in 1888 and written by the subject’s brother, Robert Brewin. I only discovered this book two weeks ago in the course of doing some family history research, and yet thanks to the information superhighway I already have my own copy and Hoffman’s Bookshop has another satisfied customer.

Although I purchased the book from Hoffman’s, the transaction was brokered by, which “connects those who buy books with those who sell them, providing abundant selection at affordable prices”. The Memoirs of Mrs. Rebecca Wakefield was only the second book I have purchased in this way, but I’m in the market for a third, and thanks to’s “want list” feature there’s every chance that I’ll find it eventually.

Last week when I was searching for the Memoirs of Mrs. Rebecca Wakefield there was only one copy to be found, so comparing prices was impossible; but in my limited experience prices on the Internet for books in a similar condition are also similar. So the real benefit the Internet brings is the ability to track the books down in the first place. There’s no way I would have found copies of my books without the Internet.

Of course, there’s another benefit. I have yet to set foot within 250 miles of Columbus. In fact, I’ve never been to Ohio at all; and now, fortunately, I don’t have to — at least not to spend time in its bookshops.

Update: For more on the Canadian success story see Giants and behemoths in The Globe and Mail.