Don't you just love American terminology. Glancing at a business magazine as I sped to another seminar, I read that the keyboard on my computer was "toast". It seems that speech-recognition techniques are now so sophisticated that basic functions, such as word processing and controlling computer programmes, can be handled by voice. Speaking as one whose computer keyboard is seldom graced by my fingers, the developments have not come a moment too soon.
The application of speech-recognition systems fascinates me. In America, this technology is expected to be introduced to car-navigation systems next year. Then there are the handheld translators. Nevermore need travelling in the Balkans be a problem. Speak into the machine in English and it will immediately translate and play back in Serbo-Croat. It will translate the answer back as well.
Technology rather got the better of the London Stock Exchange last week. Problems on an Exchange computer halted trading on the electronic order book. The order book is not turning out to be the success that the Stock Exchange hoped for.
First, only a third of trades in FTSE stocks are conducted through its order-matching system. This is significantly less than in other markets where similar technology has been applied. Moreover, the problems remain that volatility has been greatly increased and dealing has become more difficult, particularly for private investors. Competition is reduced, too, with just four retail service providers now looking after the bulk of private-client orders.
One of my co-presenters on a local programme could barely disguise his glee when the story of the computer's discomfiture broke. Now he really is technologically challenged, with a mistrust and lack of understanding of computers that make me feel a positive anorak. He was less cheerful over the Bank of England's decision to up interest rates though. I wasn't that enthusiastic either. I told everyone it wouldn't happen.
The City bore the news stoically. Most commentators believed that turbulent markets would make the great and the good of Threadneedle Street stay their hand. Not so. Evidence of a pick up in retail sales and a tightening of the labour market has encouraged the bank to believe action is needed sooner rather than later if inflation is not to rise.
The bank would undoubtedly receive a satisfactory nod from Professor Tim Congdon who remains convinced it is inflation -not deflation – that is the real problem. Sharing a platform with one of the City's most respected figures, who is a noted bear, is not easy.
If the Bank of England's move on interest rates was a surprise, the Autif dinner had a warm sense of familiarity about it. Having first inadvertently joined the guests for the rival attraction at Grosvenor House – the Welding Institute dinner – I found myself in the convivial company of Commercial Union's Ruth Clarke. Lewis McNaught delivered a pithy speech with at least one joke I had not heard before. Or perhaps it was the only joke.
His reference to Pep sales helping unit trusts in recent years reminded me of the stark contrast between the growth of US mutual funds and that of the unit-trust industry. The take-off in the US has been nothing if not dramatic. Mutual funds now contain approaching £3,000bn of investors' funds – 20 times the UK figure.
Moreover, it is estimated that one in three households own one or more funds. I do not know the UK figure but
I doubt it even approaches that degree of penetration. With Individual Savings Accounts on the horizon, the unit-trust industry has an opportunity to broaden its message.
Traditionally, December is a month where stockmarkets enjoy a resurgence of interest. The troubles are far from over in the Far East but evidence of decoupling exists. At the end of last week, we saw the Thai and Hong Kong markets each move 5 per cent but in different directions. Meanwhile, Japan continues to deliver a worrying picture. Not only has a major securities house folded but concerns over the stability of the banking system have again emerged. At least you can earn a little more on your cash now, thanks to the Bank of England. But if you do feel the urge to invest ahead of a pre-Christmas surge, then the UK has to be the cheapest market around.