14/01/05

Global Dimming - our control of it is creating a bigger threat

There was an interesting TV programme last night on global dimming. It seems that there are two conflicting environmental effects working at present - global warming and global dimming.

Global warming is due to greenhouse gases and global dimming is due to pollution which reflects sunlight and also causes many smaller raindrops rather than fewer larger ones. This has caused rain to fall in different places during the 1980s and 1990s, for instance causing the decades-long droughts in Ethiopia. Monsoons in Asia have been disrupted.

The cooling effect of reflected sunlight has counteracted the warming effect of global warming so the net increase in global temperature has not been as much as it would have been if the global dimming effect had been absent.

The degree of global dimming was unknown until the September 11th attacks in America provided an opportunity for it to be tested. For three days nearly all air flights over the United States were grounded. A scientist had been trying to measure the effect of aircraft vapour trails on global temperature. He realised that the atmosphere was much clearer on the day after the attacks so he got all the weather data from about four hundred US weather stations.

Since daily temperature varies due to weather conditions he used the temperature range between the day and night temperatures which is more stable. He plotted the ranges for three days prior and immediately after the attacks and for three days after flights recommenced and compared the results with the annual average.

He found that for the three days before the attacks and three days after the recommencement the temperature range was slightly below the annual average but while the flights were grounded the range was ten per cent higher than average, a huge difference.

Since the 1990s the world has started reducing pollution by cleaning power station gases, car exhaust filters and so on and already the rainfall in Ethiopia and the Far East is more normal. However, for the last few years daily the temperatures have been greater than usual in many areas of the world. England had the first daily temperature over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Scientists are now concerned that the effect of greenhouse gases will be much greater than before and that a run-away temperature increase could result if greenhouse gases are not controlled drastically very soon. There is only an opportunity during the next two decades otherwise the effect will be unstoppable. If pollution is increased again to counteract the effect as before other problems will arise such as respiratory diseases so this is not an option.

If the Greenland ice cap melts then the sea level may rise two metres and swamp a large number of cities.

There is a huge store of methane in the sea bed, especially in the Arctic Ocean, which will be released as sea temperatures rise; this will add massively to the greenhouse gases and we will be unable to stop the release once it starts except by lowering the sea temperature - quite beyond our present technological powers.

Postscript 16/01/05

One scientist said that he thought most of the effects assumed to be global dimming were in fact due to sunspot activity. I always thought sunspot activity was in bursts, usually over a few days but also over a few years. Climate change has been a steady change over at least three decades so I'm not sure if he is correct.


16/01/05

Soft landing on Titan by the Huygens space probe

An unmanned space probe has landed on Titan, one of Saturn's moons, and has sent back pictures, sound and data for about half an hour before succumbing to the temperature of minus 180 degrees Centigrade.

Titan is covered in cloud and so no one has known whether the surface is solid or liquid until now. During the descent it took pictures from various altitudes which showed lakes and river valleys and a lighter area next to the lake which might indicate a beach washed by waves. The liquid would be of methane or ethane due to the low temperature. No hills or mountains were visible from the landing site but the pictures during the descent may indicate some.

The landing site appears to be soft like compacted snow and is covered with small round objects assumed to be super-cooled ice. They have rounded surfaces so there must be a wind which seemed to be confirmed by the recorded sounds.

The ground and sky looked amber and a distant horizon was visible, all illuminated in the reflected light from Saturn.


24/01/05

Celebrity Big Brother

I watched a few programmes on the first "Big Brother" six years ago but have only seen a few minutes of later programmes until this year's Celebrity Big Brother.

The first one was interesting because of its novelty value and for the mix of people - including the ex-public schoolboy later called "Nasty Nick" because he kept illegally asking the others about their voting intentions and being deceitful about something.

Later shows seemed to be composed of similar types of person; they appeared to be young lower middle class or working class types that didn't appeal to me.

This year's show included a big range of types and ages although most were minor celebrities I had never heard of.

John McGririck - the racing tipster - old, dirty, coarse and grumpy.
Germaine Greer - gave up after about five days complaining that it was too filthy and germ-ridden inside the house and I don't think she got on with the others. I think she was just too sensible and mature to put up with the shenanigans
Brigitte Nielsen - a star once married to Sylvester Stallone - very tall, blonde and statuesque
Bez - a former Happy Mondays band member and dancer. I'd never heard of him or the band
Caprice - the supermodel - there's no doubt she has a fantastic pair and a very flat tummy with lovely muscle definition
Jeremy Edwards - an actor in Hollyoaks and Holby City with an educated accent who went to public school I think
Kenzie - a nineteen year old rap star
Lisa L'Anson - a presenter on KissFM amongst other things
Jackie Stallone - a psychic astrologer and a pensioner probably - Sylvester's mother and so Brigitte's ex-mother in law - an ugly old bat who lost her temper and never smiled

Caprice Bez and Brigitte Nielsen

The first time I watched Bez was in bed most of the day and missed a group task so they failed it before they had even started. I didn't think much of him but he must have been a bit down that day. In later programmes he showed that he's an emotional guy and good fun. At one point he was sitting on the sofa near Caprice and said that he really needed a cuddle but Caprice was as cold as ice and just said "Ohhh". Later when Davina was interviewing Jeremy they agreed that she should have given him one.

One of the first things I noticed was that the shower room was next to a window to the garden and they were showering in their swimming costumes - including bikini tops (except Brigitte). How they washed their private parts I have no idea. Jeremy confided to Big Brother in the diary room that he had voted against Caprice partly because she had never let herself go and never got her knockers out once for the benefit of them and the general public. In the first show there was a camera in the shower cubicle but they could face the wall away from it; this shower room was more exposed.

I also noticed that they were all sleeping in the same dormitory - in the first show the sexes were separate and didn't venture into each other's rooms at night. A few years ago I heard the UK and US shows were the only two where sex between the contestants had never taken place. In the Latin countries it seemed to be a common occurrence.

Lisa admitted she was bossy. She was however always cheerful and alert but loud-mouthed. She always wanted to organise things and I thought she would go the distance.

Big Brother controls everything except the evictions and they can be perverse. Normally the contestants nominate two by voting and then the public vote for one to be evicted. On a few occasions the public voted without the contestants nominating someone and indeed the evictions took place unexpectedly to them.

Three contestants that I thought would continue to near the end were Lisa for her confidence, Jeremy because he was smart and took care of Kenzie who was a bit lost at times and Caprice who I thought would not be voted out because people would want to continue looking at her in the sauna, Jacuzzi or shower. However, they were all voted out after John and Jackie. Perhaps the majority of those voting were women who voted for the more emotional characters. Jeremy was sensible and clever, Caprice admitted she is a quiet introvert (and a bit shallow and dim to my mind) and Lisa just noisy.

On Sunday there was a public vote for third place which Brigitte won. She had been a sensible contestant without many good or bad points. Unlike Caprice she had been prepared to shower and hot-tub without her bikini top. Caprice was extremely quiet, nervous and seemed a bit distant most of the time.

There was then the final public vote which Bez won with 54% so Kenzie with 46% did very well. Bez, though, was always the one who most showed his inner feelings, sometimes angry, clumsy, falling over somewhat uncoordinated, dropping things, crashing out in depression, recovering to be cheerful. Bez needed loving care and so did Kenzie because of his immaturity. Brigitte wasn't in that category but more likely to get a vote than Lisa or Caprice from women voters I suppose.

I thought that Kenzie as a young lad might take an interest in Caprice but in all the programmes I watched I never saw him near her. I expect Big Brother was hoping that Caprice would attract someone but John got very annoyed with her, Jeremy thought she wasn't opening up and Bez did try once but got a cold response. He did show some interest in Brigitte. In fact, the blokes were often seen together playing chess or just chatting.

There are many people who would never watch Big Brother on the assumption that it is just mass-media trash. However, the psychologists have a field day. In most programmes one of them interprets the feelings and actions of the housemates in various situations. Big Brother doesn't just watch them but deliberately puts them all under stress.

On one occasion they gave diet coke to all except John knowing that he had said that he just couldn't manage without it. On another occasion they were offered breakfast in bed and dribbled baked beans onto them from holes in the ceiling, ruining their bedclothes. All the time small things were done to inconvenience the housemates to generate confrontation either with each other or with Big Brother.


18/05/05

Dr Who is back

I've watched the new episodes so far and even after the first programme I thought that it was far too scary for young children. Dr Who is screened at 7 pm on Saturday when many kids will be watching. Years ago Dr Who had children hiding behind sofas but these episodes are worse. The second episode was about ghosts in Victorian England in damp, dark cellars. Mothers were phoning the BBC afterwards complaining that it was too frightening.

Dr Who and Rose

I like way-out sci-fi programmes. I was a Red Dwarf fan which was just stupidly funny and not a bit frightening. Dr Who is more emotional as there's obviously a kind of love between Dr Who and Rose but it isn't sexual. She has entrusted herself to him and he feels he needs her as a travelling companion and wants to look after her.

Last Saturday's programme was about Rose's wish to see how her father died, which had happened when she was just a baby. She found herself watching a car crash but was frozen to the spot and couldn't manage to go to his aid. She asked Dr Who to take her back a second time and this time she rushed forward to push him out of the way of the car. Since she had interfered with the process of time this unleashed strange large bats which were killing everyone to repair the damage to the time line.

They were holed up in a church with the bats swooping around outside and Rose's father kept looking out of the window and seeing a car come round the corner and the driver put his arm up to shield his face, whereupon the car disappeared. He realised that he was supposed to be in front of the car and ran out in front of it next time it reappeared to fulfill his destiny. Rose rushed out to comfort him as he died and the bats disappeared.

It was powerful stuff with Rose in tears at several points in the programme. Too much for young children I should think, especially any who happened to have lost a father in an accident.


19/05/05

Equitable Life's court case against the auditors and previous directors

The court case has been ongoing for about five weeks now. Many of us several years ago thought it was pointless suing the previous directors. They all transferred assets to relatives as soon as they got a whiff of the case against them and although this might not stop a claim on the transferred assets if they lost the case it may have been done early enough to avoid a claim or it will be too costly to pursue it. Their insurance doesn't seem to be enough to make winning the case worthwhile either. The case is expected to cost ELAS hundreds of millions of pounds by the time it has finished which will mean winning may only be a small benefit to ELAS.

The claim against the auditors E & Y (Ernst and Young) seems weak too. The auditors maintain that they were never required by law to qualify the accounts for a final (terminal) bonus as this was not guaranteed and therefore not a liability which would have the effect of vastly increasing liabilities over assets. In addition, the directors with their own actuaries and internal accountants should have known more about the state of the business than the auditors so that qualifying the accounts would only be informing the directors of something they should already have understood. It would, though, have informed the policyholders but the policyholders are not bringing the case and the auditors do not seem to have any responsibility towards the policyholders, just the company who are employing them.

The company had been reporting final bonuses in annual statements while other companies did not and still do not - they just state that a final bonus may be applicable or indicate in an overall way what it might be. ELAS then always paid out the indicated final bonus on maturing policies. Consequently the final bonus became a PRE (policyholders' reasonable expectation) and this is why policyholders think the auditors should have qualified the accounts, but the company should have already been aware of the problem so even if E & Y are guilty of issuing unqualified accounts it seems that the compensation would be low.

The court case is exposing some facts already reported by EMAG (Equitable Members Action Group). It is a joke amongst smaller policyholders that there was a brahmin caste that was getting benefits at the cost of other policyholders. ELAS targeted high-earners, professionals like barristers, lawyers, doctors and so on. They were privy to special concessions not generally known about. They were allowed to top up their policies shortly before retirement with vast funds either from cash or transferred policies sometimes of several hundred thousand pounds then take a guaranteed annuity rate often double the current market rate, effectively doubling their money in a year or so. Before retirement they were also able to close and then reopen a policy or transfer the fund to a second policy thereby converting a non-guaranteed final bonus into a guaranteed sum. This was known as "round-tripping" to the favoured few.

At the same time ELAS was "over-bonusing" in other words reporting final bonuses in annual statements and paying them on maturity where the bonus was for instance 8% when the fund only earned 3%. It appears that the final bonus was just a figure plucked out of the air to look good compared with the bonuses of rival companies and of no great concern to the company as it was non-guaranteed.

However, because ELAS was the only company to publish each policyholder's final bonus and pay it on maturity Lord Penrose in his report considered this to become PRE (policyholders' reasonable expectation) so it may now be considered relevant to the guilt of the auditors or the previous directors. This over-bonusing took liabilities way above asset values. This was supported by drawing in funds because of the good reputation it generated - in other words a type of ponzi scheme that only kept afloat because incoming funds exceeded outgoing funds. At one time the government regulator drew attention to this funding gap but the chief actuary who was also the chief executive browbeat the regulator into keeping it quiet.

Eventually the stock market crash in 2000 brought the edifice tumbling down. We suspect that the government and regulator hoped that the continued issuing of policies and incoming funds and transfers would keep the company afloat; exposing the company's bad management would have reflected badly on both the financial services industry generally and the regulator. Policyholders still think the government wants to keep ELAS afloat at all costs, even though it is now in a stagnant coma. Belatedly the regulator demanded that an attempt should be made to bring liabilities and assets into line. Equity content of about 70% was reduced to near zero and now the fund consists of gilts, bonds and cash with low growth prospects and with potential legal costs to finance.

The burden is falling mainly on with-profits annuitants whose guaranteed funds are reduced by each annuity payment while any bonus is added to the non-guaranteed bonus which is unlikely to be eventually forthcoming so they are being fleeced. Meanwhile they are prevented by ELAS from transferring out to another provider. Although the law allows this ELAS would value the transfer fund at a ridiculously low level if it felt inclined to play ball.

Of course all pension companies were up to the same tricks but all others had a smoothing fund (ELAS had none) and/or a rich parent and had a lower equity content so the effects on them were less. Standard Life was forced by the regulator (FSA) to sell about 7bn of equities near the bottom of the stock market crash and buy bonds, so missing out on the revival of the stock market in 2003.

Independent financial advisors were almost completely unaware of the problems building up at Equitable Life or the concessions available to the brahmins. They never sold any ELAS policies as ELAS never paid commission, so they never investigated or recommended ELAS. ELAS had its own sales force which was carefully briefed. The salesmen never informed me of the value of continuing premiums into the guaranteed annuity rate (GAR) policy, nor many other policyholders. Only the brahmins knew! Those brahmins who are collecting their inflated guaranteed annuity rate pensions are at the front of the queue after the Inland Revenue and the liquidator if ELAS folds and meanwhile their pensions are being financed by lowering values of with-profits annuitant policies and reducing any terminal bonus which may remain on older with-profits policies.

The GAR was written out of policies (those before conversion to annuities on maturity) in the compromise agreement in 2002. GAR policyholders were given compensation of about 16% to buy out this benefit, but this was counter-acted by a 16% bonus reduction and other minor bonus freezes. This compromise agreement was voted through as the only plan on the table to ensure survival. The other option was liquidation. However, the agreement is now known as the CONpromise agreement! It never mentioned, amongst other things, that a certain group of policyholders was entitled to a guaranteed bonus rate of 3%. These policyholders continue to get 3% annual guaranteed (interim) bonuses while other policyholders get nothing or the 3% added as non-guaranteed final bonus which will never be paid.

Many policyholders think that liquidation in 2000 or at the time of the compromise agreement would have been fairer as it would have meant a complete revaluing of all types of policy and an "equitable" division of assets, allowing transfers to other providers and a fresh start with some opportunity for growth. (With hindsight many would have gained from the stock market revival in 2003).

The new board of directors at ELAS have compounded the above problems by giving another concession to brahmins recently. The mva (market value adjuster) or reduction applied to policy values on transfer out to another provider was 20% at one time but brahmins were allowed to leave with only 5% mva, subject to a gagging order. This was justified on the grounds of a discount for large sums!

John Humphrys the journalist was very outspoken initially as he thought ELAS management had robbed him, but for a few years now has not uttered a word. Several large companies that had their policies or AVCs with ELAS have been similarly fortunate. The pension funds of MPs, BA and other huge companies are believed to have benefited.

In recent days the former directors seem to have got the better of the ELAS QC in court. Some have just said they can't remember anything or don't understand the intricacies of the accounts (usually the non-executives). Others have answered a question with an answer of such actuarial complication that the ELAS QC hasn't been able to counter it, merely moving on to another topic. Many of us think ELAS is wasting policyholders' money with this court case.

Minor policyholders think that ELAS should be suing the regulator (currently the FSA) for malfeasance or negligence for ignoring the state of ELAS when it knew that liabilities were not being adequately covered and allowing ELAS to continue to sell policies, continue over-bonusing and continue to allow brahmins to "round-trip" or gain a GAR after transferring in funds shortly before maturity.

The Parliamentary Ombudsman did look into the actions of the regulator but she chose two years when there was unlikely to have been a problem, so found no problem! She also did not investigate GAD (government actuary department) which had been privy to the actuarial situation. The PO has now been persuaded to look into the situation going back decades covering the suspicious years and also to cover GAD. If she finds malpractice the company may then sue the government but to date has shown no enthusiasm to do so.

We suspect that the government, regulators and new company board have been trying and continue to try to close ranks, hide the truth and hope that ELAS stays alive just covering liabilities, gaining from profitable mvas, winning court cases, fleecing with-profits annuitants or confidence in the whole financial services industry and government regulation will be destroyed.

EMAG have also made a petition to the European Union Petitions Committee about the failure of the UK government to implement the Life and Non-Life Insurance directives in the regulation of Equitable Life. This may also bring a favourable result and allow some action against the government.

There have been several official and unofficial reports into Equitable Life, many indicate mismanagement by the company and laziness or worse on the part of regulators. The latest was by Lord Penrose who was specifically forbidden to allocate blame, merely to make recommendations on how the problems at ELAS could be avoided in future. The report has, however, led some individuals to make an allegation of fraud to the SFO (Serious Fraud Office). The SFO has said absolutely nothing, presumably holding fire until the court case and PO report and EU findings are over and probably hoping the whole matter will fade away.

MPs of all parties seem relatively uninterested. They have increased their salaries in recent years and also the benefits of their tax-payer financed rock-solid index-linked pensions. They and many others think that ELAS policyholders are all rich in other ways and losing part of their wealth is unimportant. Many believe that anyone who invests in the stock market gets what they deserve when the market collapses. This ignores the earlier incompetence and alleged fraud by the management which was merely exposed by the market crash and the ineffective regulation. It also ignores the fact that many policyholders were led to believe by the financial services industry generally that with-profits plans were safer than direct equity investment and couldn't go down in value because of a smoothing of returns. ELAS has now been shown to be less safe than an equity investment for several reasons outlined above.

Most with-profits plans were relatively safe decades ago with only 30% to 40% invested in equities but all companies were seduced by the high but risky equity returns in the late 1990s. The FSA has now, after the event, imposed strict guidelines on the solvency margin to be achieved, usually by reduced equity and increased bond investment.


20/05/05

Railtrack court case against HMG in the balance

Railtrack Private Shareholders Action Group (RPSAG) has spent about three years preparing a case against the government alleging misfeasance in public office and breach of human rights because we think that Stephen Byers as Secretary of State misused his powers to bring about the collapse of Railtrack plc.

Stephen Byers held secret meetings with Tony Blair and others about bringing Railtrack back under state control without paying for it. Stephen Byers announced late on a Friday that he was stopping any further drawing of a loan which Railtrack had available but had not in fact asked to draw at the time as the accounts were showing a profit.

He went to court on the following Sunday (how do some people manage to get courts to sit at short notice?) and convinced the judge that as Railtrack had no loan facility from then on they would soon be insolvent and the judge put Railtrack into administration.

The company directors and the Regulator were caught unawares and could not muster any form of defence in such a short time. We think that the directors capitulated (possibly because they were offered jobs in the not-for-profit company Network Rail which was to be set up to take over the running of the rail network).

The Independent Regulator was apparently very annoyed that he had been kept in the dark and has said that he could have started a financial review to discuss alternative funding or fare structure but of course the government wanted to kill off Railtrack as a private company.

Most people including RPSAG members admit that at a future date Railtrack would have required additional funding so why didn't Stephen Byers just wait until the current loan had been fully drawn? There would not have been much chance of raising more cash on the market at good rates, if at all. Instead he used devious tactics with the knowledge of Tony Blair and has, in our view, broken a contract. We don't want to live in a society where the government can ride roughshod over the law to achieve its political ends. This is what third world dictators like Mugabe do.

The major financial institutions set up the Railtrack Shareholders Action Group (RSAG) which negotiated 97p from the government which with other assets owned by Railtrack will generate about 2.60 per share eventually. However, the institutions held Railtrack bonds and shares in the ratio of about 6 of bonds for every 1 of shares. The bonds have been repaid in full so they were reasonably happy with the 97p from the government.

Private shareholders do not own bonds and have in many cases been Railtrack employees who in addition to buying shares at issue bought more shares in the share option scheme to boost their savings. We think 2.60 per share is much too low. Some people argue for 3.50 which was the issue price, but most say that what has happened is a re-nationalisation and there is a European Community principle that governments should pay the average of the last three year's share price. Railtrack's share price had been much higher in previous years and had Railtrack been formally and properly nationalised in 2001, shareholders may have received 8 - 10 per share (the average of the previous 3 years' share price).

Recently the government asked the court to demand that RPSAG pay a security into court before the case starts of 2.7m which we cannot afford as we have raised 2.4m and have our own legal costs. The government reduced this demand to 2.25m which the judge has approved. RPSAG now have to raise another 900k before about 6 June and it may be impossible as many members will feel unable to contribute more than they have already. Perhaps a white knight will emerge at the last minute to make up the balance.

The legal process of disclosure has unearthed some amazing emails between ministers, government departments and No. 10's advisors. Some extracts from newspapers or the emails are shown below.

Advisers' e-mails, which speak of "triggering" and "engineering" Railtrack's insolvency, pose fresh questions about the honesty and integrity of Tony Blair's Government - a major issue for next Thursday's election.

The next day, Shriti Vadera, a special adviser to the Treasury, wrote an email to Martin Wheatley, a Treasury civil servant. "I was thinking we need a trigger to insolvency that we decisively pull," she wrote.

The handwritten minutes for one Whitehall meeting end with the question: "What can we do with grannies - compensation? eg travel pass?"

'PM wants Regulator out of it,' Mr Byers said.

On August 23, Dan Corry, a special adviser to Mr Byers, sent an email saying: "I have spoken to SOS [Secretary of State]. He asked me to pass on the following views. He is very attracted to the option of pushing them [Railtrack] into administration. It does not cost too much. He imagines making a statement towards end of September."

The whole matter of the government engineering the collapse of Railtrack raises the issue of creating a false market in the shares which is illegal.

One other matter which has not been given any special attention in the claim is the valuation of Railtrack's stations. These were only given a very rough valuation in the annual accounts and many stations over fifty years old were valued at nil. Even though there was a restriction in the Privatisation document that Railtrack could only benefit to the maximum of 200,000 in any redevelopment works, this still means that most stations could benefit to this extent. Most have spare sidings, railway arches or spare space for retail outlets. We should be due more from HMG just on this issue alone.


17/06/05

Free voice and video calls to anywhere

A year or so a company called Skype www.skype.com introduced a phone service using computers. This wasn't new because Microsoft Messenger has been doing it for years. However, Skype allowed calls to a normal or mobile phone if PC to PC calls weren't possible. They charge for PC to phone calls but not PC to PC calls. I got it mainly because calls to normal phones are about half British Telecom's daytime rate - 1.5p compared to 3p. I'm using my old microphone and it is perfectly OK. Sometimes there is a small echo but this would disappear with a headset.

Almost immediately I was made aware of another service in beta (test) mode called voipbuster www.voipbuster.com which gives free calls to normal phones in UK and between UK and USA, Europe, Canada and Australia and free calls to mobiles in some countries so I am using this for almost all my calls now. I still use BT for 08 and 09 calls and to mobiles as Skype and voipbuster are more expensive for these. Voipbuster may charge once it gets a general release but for the time being it's worth using.

About three weeks ago a video plugin was released in beta (test) form by Dialcom called Spontania video4skype. It's completely free and doesn't need a username or password as it is just an addition to Skype. I got it and so did many others. I'm using my old webcam and the quality of my image is much better than the ones I see from others. There are occasions when it doesn't connect, usually because someone hasn't clicked the right button or it wasn't open when the Skype call was initiated. Lots of people were testing it and reporting problems with audio or video on the Skype forum but by and large it works well. I have recommended it to cousins Jan next door and Margie in Australia but they don't seem very interested.

Just over a week ago another video plugin www.vskype.com was advertised and the company asked for beta testers. When they had enough they closed to new downloads. On 13th June it was released and many people who had previously been contacting each other with video4skype lost interest in that and started using vskype. There seem to be many more bugs because it is a far more complicated system. I haven't risked it yet. One of my USA contacts has already uninstalled it and another hasn't been able to get his microphone to work although we had a video call yesterday alright using video4skype.

Vskype allows eight video screens and two hundred audio calls although only four can speak at any one time. It seems designed for university lecturers to speak to students and he or any of the eight video callers can display from the desktop a powerpoint presentation or anything else instead of their image so that the majority of those in the call are just watching and occasionally speaking. Video4skype is a simple one to one video although Skype allows an audio conference call of five people.

It's noticeable that the Skype forum is full of Europeans with broken English whereas the vskype forum is dead until evening UK time suggesting that they are mainly from the west coast of USA where it was designed by Santa Cruz Networks. I may get it eventually just to play with but I can't see myself doing many conference calls. Skype was designed by a Finn and a Dane I believe and video4skype's Dialcom has offices in Spain, Germany and Portugal.

This is from vskype's homepage

from Vskype's homepage