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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy New Year!


(don’t mind the German introduction — the video is in English)

 

T here are myriad New Year’s Eve customs worldwide. In Japan, toshikoshi soba noodles are eaten to bring in the coming year. In Anglo-Saxon countries, finding someone to share a New Year’s Eve kiss with as the clock winds down has become a boon to the romantically-challenged. In Germany, however, a different tradition has taken form: every year on December 31st, TV networks broadcast an 18-minute-long black and white two-hander comedy skit.

In 1963, Germany’s Norddeutscher Rundfunk television station recorded a sketch entitled Dinner For One, performed by the British comics Freddie Frinton and May Warden. The duo depicted an aging butler serving his aristocratic mistress, Miss Sophie, dinner on the occasion of her 90th birthday. Although four additional spots have been set at the table, the nonagenarian’s friends have long since passed away, and the butler is forced to take their places in drinking copious amounts of alcohol while toasting Miss Sophie’s health. Hilarity, as it is wont to do in such cases, ensues.

Since its initial recording, the clip has become a New Year’s Eve staple in Germany. Although Dinner For One has never been broadcast in the U. S. or Canada, the clip has spread throughout Europe to Norway, Finland, Estonia, Lithuania, Austria, Switzerland, and beyond the continent’s shores, to South Africa and Australia. In Sweden, a bowdlerized 11-minute version of the clip has been produced, where, for decency’s sake, much of the butler’s boozing was excised alongside its attendant comedic effect. In Denmark, after the national television network failed to broadcast the sketch in 1985, an avalanche of viewer complaints has guaranteed its subsequent yearly appearance. Although the category is now defunct, the clip held the Guinness World Record for Most Frequently Repeated TV Program.

Above, you can view the original 18-minute comedic opus and celebrate New Year’s day in the same way that much of Europe will ring in 2015.

All of us at Riverbend wish you a happy new year! Rest assured, it'll be the same procedure as last year.

 

 

Monday, December 29, 2014

Am I missing something?

 

So another plane went missing! Missing??? With all the surveillance these days, you couldn't cross the street without being recorded somewhere! And if Obama were to ask the CIA for a satellite close-up of what I had for dinner last night at Riverbend, they'd probably ask him, "You want it streamed live on your handy as well?"

So what happened to flight QZ 8501? It certainly didn't go 'missing'!

 

May the New Year bring you the courage to break your resolutions early!

 

I can't believe it's been a whole year since I didn't become a better person. And so another year has come to an end to take away all the pain, all the disappointments and all the mistakes to give us a new start on old habits.

The 1st of January is a stirring testament to the human capacity for hope and optimism, not to mention the self-delusion that a totally arbitrary date could be the new start to a better future.

Even so, a whole 365 days is a long wait and in the past I would move from job to job and country to country, sometimes several times in the same year, to give myself a new start and altogether fifty-five new blank slates and fifty-five new chances to do it right next time. This self-delusory attempt at renewal seldom worked but it certainly made for an interesting life.

The German word for 'real estate' is 'Immobilien' and now that I'm 'immobile' here on my real estate at Riverbend, I have to fall back on the 1st of January to reflect on the past and make plans for what's left of the future.

The always quotable Oscar Wilde wrote, "Good resolutions are simply cheques that men draw on a bank where they have no account", and I won't even be foolish enough to draw one. As for the New Year, don't be a pessimist who says it can't get worse. Be an optimist and say it can.

So, while I may do a "Mr Bean" and go to bed early, I wish you all the best for the New Year and may your right hand always be stretched out in friendship, but never in want.

 

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Big Ideas

 

Driving home from a Christmas get-together at Corrigans Beach, I was pulled over by the police. I seem to have given them all the right answers because they waved me on. I had only had two beers which, while they didn't push me over the limit, gave me a splitting headache. I think my drinking days are gone!

Not so my addiction to ABC Radio National whose program Big Ideas I listened to while driving. It made me aware of a TV show by the name of Breaking Bad which is hailed by Stephen King, Chuck Klosterman, and many others as the best of all TV dramas.

It tells the story of a man whose life changes because of the medical death sentence of an advanced cancer diagnosis. The show depicts his metamorphosis from inoffensive chemistry teacher to feared drug lord and remorseless killer. Driven at first by the desire to save his family from destitution, he risks losing his family altogether because of his new life of crime. In defiance of the tradition that viewers demand a TV character who never changes, Breaking Bad is all about the process of change, with each scene carrying forward the morphing of Walter White into the terrible Heisenberg.

With my interest piqued, I GOOGLEd for it when I got home and not only found the DVDs but also the book Breaking Bad and Philosophy which asks the questions: Can a person be transformed as the result of a few key life choices? Does everyone have the potential to be a ruthless criminal? How will we respond to the knowledge that we will be dead in six months? Is human life subject to laws as remorseless as chemical equations? When does injustice validate brutal retaliation? Why are drug addicts unsuitable for operating the illegal drug business? How can TV viewers remain loyal to a series where the hero becomes the villain? Does Heisenberg's Principle of Uncertainty rule our destinies?

Needless to say, I ordered both ☺

 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Christmas a hundred years ago

Click here

Insomnia grants us an encounter with our weirder, truer selves

 

It’s far into the night, but sleep won’t come. You turn over. Perhaps a different position will quieten the mind. Or maybe the other side was better after all. Know the feeling? Can't sleep at night either? Join the club!

I can't remember if I have always been an insomniac. Maybe it's an age thing - an old-age thing, to be precise - or the result of acquired habits such as drinking copious cups of black tea and listening to the ABC Radio's "Late Night Live", but I'm certainly an insomniac now.

However, there are a few benefits to sleepless nights, which we might focus on to alleviate the sheer panic that a failure to sleep can cause.

Read this article by The School of Life to leave you a little less exhausted from your insomnia - and this one - then take a nap or rest.

 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

If you haven't got a Q what's happening to this country, you'd better read and listen to this:

 

It had to happen and it has: Australia has its first anti-Muslim organisation, the Q Society, so named because the group was founded at a 2010 meeting in the upper-class Melbourne suburb of Kew.

The Q Society is incorporated as a not-for-profit association in Victoria and states on its webpage Why We Oppose Islam:

"For too long Islam has enjoyed immunity from necessary analysis, due criticism and debate because of its status as 'just a religion'. Unfortunately, if we continue to tolerate Islam without understanding it, Australia as a free, secular democracy will be lost."

You make up your own mind whether you want to join. I have (made up my mind)!

In the meantime, please accept without obligation, implied or implicit, my best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, politically correct, low stress, non-addictive, gender-neutral, celebration of the summer solstice holiday, practiced with the most enjoyable traditions of the religious persuasion of your choice, or secular practices of your choice, with respect for the religious/secular persuasions and/or traditions of others, or their choice not to practice religious or secular traditions at all, while any reference in this greeting to “the Lord”, “Father Christmas”, “Our Saviour”, or any other festive figures, whether actual or fictitious, dead or alive, shall not imply any endorsement by or from them in respect of this greeting - or, as we used to say in happier times, have yourself a very ...


Merry Christmas
Click here!

 

Monday, December 22, 2014

Flashback

NCR computer at Morgan Equipment, Bougainville Island 1980

 

Thanks to our cottage guests, we needn't go anywhere as the world comes to us. We constantly meet interesting people and I met my 'alter ego' in our recent guest Bernard whose experience in computing parallels my own.

We both started programming with the help of punchcards in the mid-70s, he in New Zealand and I on the Waigani Campus of the University of Papua New Guinea where the English lecturer Ian Grant opened my eyes to the beauty of FORTRAN IV.

Then came the first harddisks which, when first created in the 1950s and 1960s, were the size of a cheese platter with just a few megabytes of storage. The removable harddisk I am holding in the photo above in the offices of Morgan Equipment on Bougainville Island in 1980, held what is now a laughable but was then a whopping big ten megabytes.

Now we have tiny memory sticks with the capacity of a terabyte (TB) which is 1000 gigabytes (GB) or one trillion bytes! For the tetrapods amongst you who still walk on all fours, please note that it is terabyte which is derived from the Greek word 'teras', meaning “monster”, and not tetrabyte which is ancient Greek for "four".

Both Bernard and I had programmed in COBOL ("common business oriented language") which was invented in 1959 by a committee established by the U.S. Department of Defense. It is the oldest computer programming language. Banks, financial markets, governments and the military-industrial complex all programmed their computer mainframes with COBOL. Only a few had bothered to spend the vast sums necessary to retool or update when more advanced languages came along with the result that fewer and fewer cutting-edge programmers and IT experts in the West were versed in COBOL.

Which led us to talk about India and Y2K. You remember Y2K or the millenium bug, don't you? All computers have internals calendars which employ six digits - YYMMDD - to display the date. The first two numbers in the sequence signified the year; consequently, "991231" was scheduled to become "000101" at midnight, on January 1, 2000, at which point all old computers using this illogical calendar and programmed mainly in COBOL would go into meltdown. Planes would plummeted from the sky, trillions of dollars would be wiped from banking systems, and governments would stop functioning. It was even suggested that confused computers in Washington and Moscow would launch nuclear weapons on each other.

So what happened? In a word, nothing. But India benefited hugely from this non-existent problem because, having only reluctantly entered the computer age in the 1980s and a decade on still teaching and using COBOL, it suddenly had a huge competitive edge when Western multinational were caught up in the Y2K hysteria. The Indian government promptly advertised the nation's debugging expertise in COBOL and earned more than US$2 billion in export revenue. In addition to this immediate revenue from the 'fixing' of the Y2K bug, it also launched Indian IT on the path of becoming the world's leading supplier of outsourced computer programming skills.

Those days are gone now and so is Bernard and I am waiting for our next guests to bring back other long forgotten memories.

 

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Long overdue

 

I wasn't going to go into the new year with the same old messy shed and so, with the help of a beer (or two), I launched myself into a big clean-up as evidenced by these photos:

 

And while I was at it, I also gave those two big bluegums by the 'Pizza Hut' a "haircut" before they give me one in the next strong wind:

And that's it for another year! Back to the 'Clubhouse' for a snooze!

 

 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Be afraid, be very afraid!

 

When the Murray Financial System Inquiry declares that dividend imputation creates a bias in the system because income from other investments including bank deposits and fixed interest investments do not have the same concession, you should be afraid, very afraid! That people in such high places in finance as Mr Murray could put their name to such ignorance is highly disturbing.

(Of course, Mr Murray, a former Commonwealth Bank chief, wants us to deposit our money into his bank to earn a miserable 2% interest on which we still pay income tax, instead of investing in shares which yield fully-franked dividends of 5% and more, and carry a tax credit of 30%.)

Trish Power, author of "Superannuation for Dummies", the plain English super bible for all Australians, who also publishes a free monthly SuperGuide Newsletter - subscribe here - , explains:

"The reason for that incongruity is simple. If banks paid tax on bank interest before the interest was paid, the depositor would need to take that tax already paid into account before they prepared their own tax return. Unless the tax already paid was a tax credit to the depositor, the interest on the bank deposit would effectively be paid taxed twice; once by the bank and again by the depositor.

This is precisely the situation that applied to dividends from Australian shares before 1987. Dividends are always paid out of after-tax profits. Until 1987, companies paid tax on their profits at the company tax rate, which was then as high as 39% and dividends were then taxed again in the hands of the shareholder at their marginal tax rate which was as high as 60%. With these punitive rates of tax there was little incentive for companies to pay dividends. Many companies preferred to reinvest the after-tax profit into the business and many shareholders preferred to take their investment returns as capital gains which were then lightly taxed. That situation still applies in the US and may explain the greater volatility of the US stock market.

Since 1987 the dividend imputation system has been straight forward. If a company makes $100 in profits and the company tax rate is 30%, then $30 is sent to the ATO and $70 is sent to shareholders as a dividend. The dividend carries a tax credit to the shareholder for the tax already paid. These tax credits are sometimes called franking credits because after a letter goes through a franking machine it comes with postage paid and is said to be “franked”. These tax credits are described as imputation or franking credits and these terms are used interchangeably. In this case franking means “tax paid”.

A PAYG taxpayer has tax withheld from their wages by their employer but their taxable income includes both their take-home pay and the tax already paid by their employer. Similarly, a shareholder’s taxable income includes the dividend and the associated franking credit because this tax has already been paid to the ATO on their behalf. Importantly, the franking credit is a tax credit that can be applied to their tax liability from their dividends and any other income.

Clearly if the company tax was lower, the franking credit would be lower but the dividend, all else being equal, would be higher and the shareholder’s taxable income would be unchanged. Using the previous example of $100 in company profits, if the company tax was 20% only $20 would be sent to the ATO and $80 would be sent to the shareholder. As the shareholder’s taxable income remains unchanged at $100 ($80 plus $20), so their tax liability remains unchanged.

In the extreme case there would be no company tax and all company profits would be taxed in the hands of Australian shareholder at their marginal rate. For Australian shareholders, clearly their taxable income is still unchanged but non-residents, who pay no personal income tax in Australia, would receive their dividends tax-free. Lowering the company tax (and the associated imputation credits) is designed to ease the tax burden on foreign shareholders. Why would an Australian government want to do that?

The purpose and effect of the dividend imputation system is to ensure that Australian shareholders pay tax on their dividends at their marginal rate and no more. It is not a tax concession to shareholders.

Until 2001, imputation credits could be used to offset other tax liabilities only up to the limit of those tax liabilities. Any excess credits were simply lost to the taxpayer. Since 2001 any imputation tax credits in excess of tax liabilities are refunded in cash. Taxpayers whose marginal tax rate is lower than the company tax rate obviously benefit from this tax refund. Taxpayers whose marginal tax rate is higher than the company tax rate clearly need to make up the difference.

The refund of unused imputation credits and the tax-free status of super pension funds together explain the popularity of Australian shares inside SMSFs. Because the marginal tax rate of a super fund paying a pension is zero, the imputation credits are refunded in cash to the fund on completion of the fund’s tax return. Using the example above, if the fund receives a $30 refund in addition to a $70 paid in dividend, the tax refund is more than 40% greater than the dividend itself. Retail and industry super funds paying pensions also receive a refund for their imputation credits but the lack of transparency around their operations means that most members of these funds are unaware of the benefits that Australian shares bring to their retirement savings. That notwithstanding, fund managers most certainly are aware of, and keen to retain, these tax benefits.

In the context of the Murray Inquiry there have been a number of suggestions made, each would have far reaching consequences:

◾ The abolition of imputation credits would simply mean a reversion to the double taxation of dividends that applied before 1987, once at the company level and again in the hands of the shareholder.

Removing imputation credits would adversely affect every Australian shareholder, including those who hold shares directly as well as those who hold superannuation accounts with retail or industry super funds that invest in Australian shares.

◾ Removing imputation credits would decimate those shares which have become popular because they pay high fully-franked dividends. The impact on superannuation funds is incalculable and because the superannuation system is now so large, the impact on the share market would be profound

◾ Allowing dividends to be considered as tax-paid by virtue of the imputation credit but without a cash refund for taxpayers on low marginal tax rates would discriminate between taxpayer as some would benefit from these tax credits and others not at all. This would not be politically popular."

 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Bah, humbug!

Read the story here

 

Charles Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol should get you into the mood. It's the only adaptation of the story with an invisible Marley's ghost. Seymour Hicks plays the miser who's visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve. He wakes up on Christmas morning a changed man.

So on Christmas Day when you hear that grandest and most triumphant of all hymns, no matter whether you hear it rolling out of a great organ in some vast cathedral, played on a wheezy instrument in some small village church, or even on the radio or on a record, let the full magnificence of the Adeste Fidelis be an actual demand! "Come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant!" and be joyful, and open your hearts.

Enjoy yourself, and have a Merry Christmas which means you up the lane, you across the river, you in the Bay, you up the coast and in Sydney, you out West, you in Germany, you in Indonesia, you in Greece, you in Papua New Guinea, you in Tonga, you in Fiji, you in Canada (both in British Columbia and Ontario), you sailing somewhere off the coast off Malaysia, and you in South and South West Africa!

 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

I have just one question:

 

Why didn't they shoot the bastard with one well-aimed single shot when he was visible for several minutes to every onlooker?

Look, I wasn't there. All I can go by are the news clips on television which seem clear enough: that bastard was visible, upper torso, head and shoulders, for several minutes, long enough to be taken out with one single shot. Why wasn't he?

You don't N-E-G-O-T-I-A-T-E with vermin like that! You shoot to kill!

 

If you keep biting your nails, you end up like this!

 

Well, I didn't nor did I grow any upper-body protuberances or do any of the other things my parents had expected me to do.

My years of discontent began in 1960 when I refused to be confirmed by the Lutheran Church - as had been expected - and instead joined the Deutscher Freidenkerbund (German Freethinkers League).

And the discontent continued when I refused to stay - as had been expected - for the rest of my life with the firm I had been articled to or to serve - as had been expected - in the Bundeswehr for the obligatory eighteen months' military service.

Instead of dutifully working towards a retirement with the predictable gold watch, I 'escaped' - as had not been expected - to Australia where I stopped biting my fingernails and started making a new and better life for myself.

The end of yet another year is a good time to look back and reflect on the many things I should be grateful for.

 

Dodging the real estate rip-off

 

Our long-departed neighbours have just gone through their fourth real estate agent in a fruitless effort to sell their property. With each agent they would have spent a small fortune on aerial photographs, 'virtual tours', advertising boards, display ads in local papers, and several 'Open Houses'.

None of them pulled in a buyer, not even the fourth agent's auction, and I feel like giving them my copy of Mark Schneider's excellent little book "Dodging the Real Estate Rip-Off" which kicks off with the qualifier, "Now, I'm not going to tell you that all real estate agents are a bunch of shifty, lazy, money-grabbing sleazebags who think ethics is the English county near Suthex", but then continues with a no-holds-barred explanation of why YOU are better qualified than any agent to sell your own home.

 

Money Magazine October 2014

 

To whet your appetite, read this short sample chapter although I am sure Mark won't mind if I also quote him on those expensive display ads ...

"... those huge display ads are not really aimed at selling your home, they're aimed at selling the real estate agency that's selling your home, which is why so much space on them is taken up with logos and the beaming faces of Mr Furphy, Mr Rort and Ms Diddle. Spare a thought for your fellow home seller who's listed their property with an agent and is paying hundreds of dollars for the pleasure of advertising their agent's real estate business! Be thankful that you're not one of them."

and on that furphy that real estate agents are better negotiators ...

"If there's one part of the private selling process that has many people worried it's negotiating the sale. It's a worry that's readily exploited by the real estate industry who like to convince people that negotiating is a terribly difficult process fraught with pitfalls for the inexperienced - a job best left for the cool, calm negotiating professionals of the real estate industry, in fact.

Well that's just bullshit. ... real estate agents get no formal training in negotiating - none, nada, zilch and bugger all! Most real estate agents' expertise is limited to harassing the home-owner to drop their price for a quick sale so they can pick up their 'hard-earned' commission."

and that other great furphy of the real estate game ...

"... that people who want to sell their own homes can't get access to specialist internet real estate websites and hence the marketing power of the net? This is usually told to would-be DIY sellers by our stern-faced real estate friend, Mr Furphy, in an effort to persuade them that selling their own home is just way too difficult for mere mortals, and they should really list their home with Mr Furphy who has the arcane skills and secret knowledge to do the job properly.

Well it isn't true, although to be fair to Mr Furphy he may think he's telling the truth. He may truly believe that only real estate agents have access to the main real estate sites like realestate.com.au and domain.com.au. It usually comes as quite a shock to him when you tell him that you're selling your own home and it's already listed on all the big industry sites (and it will drive him to absolute distraction if you give him a knowing wink and refuse to tell him how you've done it!)."

I listed my own property on realestate.com.au for an all-up and one-time-only fee of $499 through realprivate.com.au but there are several others, for example forsalebyowner.com.au.

 

Monday, December 15, 2014

An end-of-year memo from my office

It's so quiet in the office today, I can hear myself not working

 

December already? Really? Where has the year gone? We all have the same 24 hours in a day but our perception of it differs, even in retrospect, when the year seems to have passed faster than the one before and yet, day by day, it was a bit like Waiting for Godot.

You know that bit, don't you, when Vladimir celebrates passing a small amount of time to which Estragon replies: "It would have passed in any case" and when Estragon celebrates passing a small amount of time, Vladimir replies: "Yes, but now we'll have to think of something else."

I wish I could tell you that I've travelled the world or discovered a latent talent for painting or poetry or music but all I did was built a 'Clubhouse' by the pond and a 'Pizza Hut' for our cottage guests and (almost) completed the kitchen renovation. And that's it for 2014.

To sum up life at Riverbend: Nothing happens. Twice.

 

He was a brave man who first ate an oyster

 

The practice of casting votes to send someone into exile in ancient Greece was done by writing the name of the person on the flat shell of an ostreon which is Greek for oyster. I hope I won't be ostracised for having never eaten an oyster.

I mean, it doesn't just arrive at the table on a plate of ice fait accompli but is in fact a living and breathing animal which is also hermaphrodite - changing throughout its lifetime from male to female and female to male. Some have even been observed, though rarely, to be both male and female at the same time.

Not everyone shares my aversion to these strange animals. Oysters were always a staple food of coastal Aboriginals, as can be seen by the number of 'middens', or mounds of shells, which look to an untrained eye like hills or natural cliff ledges since they are often covered with vegetation which have been carbon-dated to at least 6000 BC.

These middens were quickly exploited by the white man because lime, made from the ashes of oyster shells, was an important ingredient used for mortar in the buildings of the new and burgeoning colony. When it was discovered that the lime provided by live oysters was far superior (giving the lime more 'body') to that manufactured from empty shells, the natural oyster beds in Australia were soon depleted.

Today the Clyde River is one of Australia's major oyster-growing areas and I am literally surrounded by oysters. To paraphrase Shakespeare's 'Merry Wives of Windsor', the oyster is my world which, however, has never tempted me to gorge myself on this hapless mollusc. I leave this to our guests who regularly feast on the fattest growing on our jetty.