Sunday, 30 November 2008

hamlet - robert mason

On Wednesday I went to see the Frank Theatre production of Hamlet at the Barons Court Theatre, which is in the basement of the Curtain's Up pub, a fringe theatre I've not been to before (and which doesn't seem to have its own website, which is surprising, as the theatre calendar I saw had quite a few interesting things in it).

Frank Theatre's website shouts, 'FRANK THEATRE: COMMITTED TO EXPOSING UNIVERSAL HUMAN TRAITS THAT WE ALL WOULD RATHER NOT REVEAL', which doesn't lift the spirits.

The production was heavily abridged, and was set in modern day, in a council estate - it says in the programme, although there's nothing in the set, unsurprisingly, to let you know that specifically, being very minimal, but you get the impression of inner-city violence. Modern gangs - criminal or youth - aren't an unusual updating for Shakespeare tragedies, and although I haven't personally come across a Hamlet one before, it lends itself to it perfectly well.

The acting was okay on the whole. Quite a young cast - I wouldn't have been surprised to learn they were mostly students, and the programme indicates that most of them are recent drama graduates. Tony Rowden as Claudius was probably the strongest, and oldest, and was the founder of Frank along with Amy Son, who did the abridgement. Robert Dobson as Polonius was also pretty good, funny and made a fairly convincing second-in-command. Robert Mason as Hamlet was fairly unremarkable; the performance was unusual among most of those I've seen in that much of the madness was conveyes as real rather than just put on. As with the Factory Hamlet of recent memory, there were places where it felt like the cast were remembering and getting through their lines rather than giving them any meaning.

Fortinbras was cut out, not unusually; less usually, so were the gravediggers, the players and Horatio. This meant that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern survived to the end, unusually - pretending they were the players to humour Hamlet, and sharing Osric's and Horatio's lines in the second half. Perhaps the most interesting characterisation was Rosencrantz (James Killeen), who was played as sullen and dangerous, while Guildenstern (Steve Cain) was a tubby, genial, dim sidekick, both gang archetypes. Gertrude (Eilis Jordan) and Ophelia (Michelle-Jane Barlow) were underclass gangster girlfriends, with gangster bling. Rather amusingly, when Ophelia went mad she dressed like a student, in dark floppy clothes. Hamlet and Laertes's (Daniel Addis) duel was a knife fight. Inarticulate rage was certainly an element being conveyed by the young men.

I don't think I'd seen any of them before (and the biogs in the brief programme suggests I probably haven't): Steve Cain looked familiar, but just a type, I think; Tony Rowden looked rather like Andy Parsons. Perhaps I'll see some of them again in the future, but I don't feel that that's as likely for most of them as in, for example, the Hamlet and other productions at the White Bear.

The layout was odd, due to it being obviously a converted cellar fitted out with old cinema or theatre seats around three sides of a stage area at the same level with a back wall and a pillar at the front two corners. Stage area about the size of our sitting room, then an equivalent area of seating stage left (perhaps seven rows of seven seats), half that depth stage right (three rows - I was front row right, beside the pillar at the front right of the stage) and half that depth stage front (three rows). Quite a lot of younger people - mostly girls, perhaps students or friends of the cast. When I phoned up for a ticket on Tuesday they said it was sold out but could fit another in, and it was fairly full, though some didn't come back after the interval and a couple left not long into the second half, which surprised me, as it certainly wasn't bad enough to leave early from.

There's a bit of info on the Barons Court Theatre on this pub theatre website - info, pictures.

The only review I have found so far is this one by a theatregoer on Remotegoat, plus a comment on the Time Out listing page (these comments don't always survive, or persist on the next production at the venue). The Remotegoat review is fairly accurate, especially reminding me that Ophelia is presented, pre-madness, as very robust and strong, and that the relationship with Hamlet really existed rather than being a possibility, although he found Laertes more memorable than I did and I didn't feel the lack of drug/alcohol possibilities not drawn out. The Time Out comment is slightly more positive than I would be, but I'd be in the same direction, certainly on Polonius.

The Mystery Worshipper reports have near the end a question along the lines of 'What one thing will you remember about this visit in a week's time?' For this production, it would probably be Rosencrantz being played as overtly dangerous; it would be interesting to look at his lines and see if you could carry that off in a full production.

If I remember rightly I heard about this production through the Birmingham University list of current and forthcoming Shakespeare productions. It would have been nice if someone at the end had announced that by thus showing our commitment to Hamlet rather than Doctor Who, we would be told a secret box office phone number to get access to a reserve stock of tickets for the RSC David Tennant production. But no one did.

Saturday, 29 November 2008

sharp's

On Tuesday I went to Sharp's. In the first half sang Jamie Raeburn (didn't do it justice) and in the second half Old Maid in the Garret (did okay). Richard asked me if Jamie Raeburn was from Willie Scott. I had to confess my ignorance of Willie Scott, and that all the songs I knew were from widely available CDs rather than any authentic direct sources. Richard, like several of the others, I'm discovering, has been going to folk clubs since the sixties (for as long as I've been alive), and he heard Willie Scott in the sixties. He said most of the songs/tunes he knows (he sings and plays concertina) he heard at folk clubs. This is the first folk club I've gone to regularly.

On Willie Scott, this from Footstompin (new to me) and this from Dick Gaughan's site - the second time I've been led to his site recently. Nice line from Dick Gaughan page: 'Hamish Henderson once told me that one of his finest moments was when Willie sang him "an auld song" which turned out to be Hamish's own "Gillie Mor".'

the day I shot the queen

On Tuesday the Queen and Prince Philip visited Potters Fields near the office to meet the All Blacks at a giant rugby ball designed to promote New Zealand tourism. David and I went down from the office to see if we could get some photos, always handy to have some file photos of that kind. Without planning it, I found myself in a very good position where the royalty arrived in their cars. I got a few acceptable photos of Prince Philip hanging around with others waiting for his wife to turn up in her car; I got a couple of photos of the queen very close up as she passed me, but they're both soft, sadly, as my camera is getting slow in recovering between taking photos and refocussing. I got photos of them both from greater distance. I guess they are now the most famous people I have ever seen in the flesh.

In our family it has often been said that my auntie Joan looks like the queen, and I can say, without having been thinking about it beforehand, that I laughed as the queen passed me as it struck me just how much like my auntie Joan she really looked in the flesh.

There weren't as many people there as I had expected, but I guess it may not have been particularly widely publicised - I knew of it from the SE1 website, it certainly wasn't a big deal, and I'm sure some of the guys around me were more interested in seeing the All Blacks - and clearly there was going to be no walkabout element. I'd have reckoned it was mostly office workers and builders, along with quite a large press pack and police presence.

Most of the press coverage that comes up on Google are New Zealand outlets - like here, here and here - although I didn't think it was as cold as they made out. And here's a set of photos of the event on Flickr, press pics here.

pigeons and bricks

One award judge [of the e-health Inside IT-related awards] blamed Richard Granger, the former programme director [of the government's NHS IT programme for it being a disaster]: 'Granger kicked out anyone who'd previously worked in NHS IT and decided to design an entirely new system from scratch with people who hadn't worked in healthcare. He believed he could control the whole programme from the centre, without learning any of the lessons from the past. But command and control only works with very simple, linear systems. Throw a brick out of the window and you can predict where it lands. But healthcare is far more complex, more like a pigeon than a brick. Throw a pigeon and you've no idea where it will land. If you're clever, you get people together locally, decide where you need your pigeon and put down bird seed. If you're Richard Granger, you get the pigeon to land by tying a brick to it.'
- from the medical column in the current Private Eye, which also makes the interesting point that the Scottish and Welsh IT systems are more succcessful than the English ones because 'they assume that NHS staff are generally trustworthy and have developed "higher trust" IT systems that are simpler and easier to access, and have managed to gain the consent of patients. Contrast this to England, where no one can be trusted and the media is paranoid about leakage of confidential data. So you've built hugely complex programmes with military grade security to block the few bad people but which take ages to long on to, navigate around or swop user. At their worst, they stop you practising medicine, rather than enable you to do the job better.''

Bob was saying this week about how someone from their firm went to a client to tighten up, at their request, their computer security systems, and then was called back a week later to undo his work because they could no longer to their jobs properly.

(Also in this issue, for the second issue, some stuff on the Oasis-run Mayfield Academy, which doesn't look so good. Related articles (and some long comments tails) here, here, here, here, here (a Steve-Chalke-interview-based Guardian article, which ends 'But if my local school had to be taken out of the control of the community and handed over to some faraway sponsor, I'd rather it was the dynamic, egalitarian Chalke, who knows we are giving him a privilege by letting him run our children's education, rather than the grey Anglicans at the Church of England and the United Learning Trust, who seem to think we ought to be grateful to them'), and Oasis responses here.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

jane's london

Jane's London - a photoblog of London details, featured in the the Time Out Big Smoke section this week; here are her Flickr sets (and the Big Smoke blog has some interesting posts and London links).

The site has links to several interesting related sites, including Ghost Signs (photos of wall-painted signs and adverts, in various conditions, mostly in London), Faded London (street details), and a posting about London street signs on Rodcorp (which also has a posting about the Tube map vs actual distances involved.

changing of the guard

Changing of the Guard: What happens to the Religious Right?
- Christianity Today, 7 November 2008

Saturday, 22 November 2008

lucia di lammermoor at zurich opera house

When we were up the mountain for the fancy meal on the Sunday evening during my work weekend in Zurich, some of the other folk there were smoking cigars. That's a bit posh, I thought, and then I remembered that the night before I'd gone to the opera.

I missed a reception at the town hall because of a mix-up over the timings, so I had a wander which took in the Opera House (here is the official website, the English version). I'd seen some listings stuff in the hotel, so I knew there were things on. It was Lucia di Lammermoor by Donizetti. The man in the box office spoke English, and I asked if they had tickets, which they did, and then asked for the cheapest ticket. It was 35 Swiss francs, which was between £15 and £20 (I forget which side of 2:1 the exchange rate was), so I went for it.

The seat was at the very left hand end of the very back row - although the back rows didn't go all as far round the sides as the rows further forward in the circle I was in, so it wasn't as far round as you might think, perhaps not even 8 o'clock. The view was only slightly restricted, with just the left bottom and top corner cut off, and because of the staging I didn't miss very much - there was a see-through building on most of the left-hand side.

Something I think I've learned about opera staging is that in general it's all about a striking set which doesn't change and then the creation of tableaux within that set - a series of photographs not that large could communicate the stage presentation fairly comprehensively. Something else is that it's perpetually emotional - everything else is cut out, simply singing the emotional extremes.

I didn't know the story, but I got the gist of it. The leads came out through the closed curtains for bows at the end of each act, which I hadn't expected (perhaps I had forgotten it happened). Lucia obviously goes mad during it, and her pieces in that period are impressive (although I don't remember recognising any of the music in the opera). Lucia also kills herself, and that was done very impressively: she was high in the building, above a crowd, and getting more precarious, then out onto a projection, then all of a sudden allowed herself to topple off forwards and disappeared into the crowd, presumably onto a catching net out of sight.

I enjoyed it a lot. Certainly the high point of my trip.

This is the Zurich Opera House page on the Lucia di Lammermoor production in question, but I don't know if the page will survive after the season ends. There appear to be a number of clips of it on YouTube - here is one, and another - I don't know if they were official or bootleg, and they're not necessarily the same singers I saw... let's see... I was there Saturday 20 September, and I think from the listings I saw 'Mosuc, Peetz, Grigolo, Cavalletti, Polgar, Zvetanov, Bidzinski', so it was Elena Mosuc and Vittorio Grigolo I saw; at least one of the videoers, and another site I found, is a big Grigolo fan it seems (and, perhaps not uncoincidentally, he has a Wikipedia entry where Elena doesn't, so perhaps he's a big or coming deal (I see from Wikipedia he's had a popular CD hit in the English-speaking world); I thought she was better than he was, but I know nothing; she has a page here, which may be her management company. This Opera Critic review page has no reviews in English, but does have some photos. The conductor, Nello Santi, was warmly received, and seemed to be old and well-beloved. The free magazine I picked up in the Opera House had an article on him, and one on the production, in German of course, but I kept it for the photos (and the seating plan). The first hit in Google on Nello Santi is the almighty Wikipedia, which tells me that he was to be 77 two days after the performance I saw.

3-5-2

The Question: is 3-5-2 dead? In the latest instalment of our in-depth series, Jonathan Wilson tracks the rise and fall of a tactical survivor
- an extraordinarily detailed article from the Guardian Sport Blog of 19 November

Or, as the Guardian Fiver football email introduced it, 'In the most complicated article about football the Fiver has ever half-read, tactics nerd Jonathan Wilson uses lots of small numbers separated by hyphens to explain why 3-5-2 will never die, in the process also explaining, however unwittingly, why he will die ... alone, surrounded by cats and yellowing copies of the Rothmans yearbook.'

knight rider building

A clip entitled 'knight rider building' from youtube, impressively achieved by turning lights on and off rather than digital jiggery-pokery I think.

barts choir at the albert hall

On Wednesday we went to the Albert Hall to see Bethan and the Barts Choir (and the RPO) doing Carmina Burana, Vaughan Williams Symphony No 5 and Vaughan Williams Toward the Unknown Region. It was very good, although I'm not that keen on CB (which seems to have been on there last month too). They had a children's choir for bits of CB, primary school children, and they were very good, but the fact that one of the bits they were singing in was the sex section did seem rather unsavoury. It's good to have a programme from the Albert Hall with Bethan's name in it. And the lighting of the ceiling and the sound reflectors in blue and red made for some very Pink Floydish photos (I see from this search on Flickr that they use lots of different colour combinations; mine are warmer and fuzzier as I didn't use flash on my tiny camera, and took them much closer up). I got some photos of the choir too during the interval; we won't be able to make Bethan out - second-back row, five along from the right of the organ - but we'll know she's there. Here's a Daily Mail article from earlier this week - actually, might be Sunday Mail - by someone in the choir.

in our time - miracles email

From Melvyn Bragg's post-programme email for the In Our Time of Thursday 25 September, on miracles:

Afterwards in the studio, which we now convert into a Green Room because the Green Room is too long a trek, the programme went on more vigorously than I can remember for many years. Janet Soskice wanted to discuss the basic notion of creation ex nihilo. She pointed out that in the last thirty years metaphysics is back. Heidegger said that metaphysics had had it. Now, Janet says, Heidegger’s had it. Justin Champion said that compared with Hume, Spinoza and Hobbes were much tougher at around the same time. They did not think of a separation between God and nature. There was only nature. And yet we come back to the notion of St Augustine, that everything comes from nature which was, in the Augustine view, the creation and therefore nothing can be a violation of nature, neither a resurrection, nor a disaster, nor a miracle. Janet then said she wished we’d talked about Dante and ‘the love that moves the stars’. I think it was Martin who brought in Daniel Dennett and the idea – which many people have expressed – that the human mind craves meaning. Janet pointed out that it was difficult to confess to being a Christian in America at the moment, partly because the evangelicals were so fierce but also because, in her view, the liberal consensus in America was so dogmatic and all-pervading. Much talk of Richard Dawkins and his book, comparing it with Christopher Hitchens and his book. And then on to the Big Bang and Janet’s view that before the Big Bang there were no laws of nature, as the so far fruitless search for the absolute cause of the Big Bang proves. Scientists, she thinks, are in the same place as religious believers in this. The origins are not self-explaining. Even Martin Rees, she pointed out, doesn’t understand them.

Friday, 21 November 2008

bakerology

From 28 October:
How soon after a game you've seen a player: story from a previous time of a supporter at Luton going up the stairs at the train station across the road after the match and being passed by Luton player Bontcho Guentchev with his tracksuit on and boots in his hand running to catch his train. Conversely, Izzy never had to wait longer for a post-match interview than for Lenny Lawrence, who used to come out with his own little hairdryer in a little leatherette pouch so as to be perfectly coiffured for the camera.

It was also the day Harry Redknapp went back to Portsmouth, just days after he'd left them for Spurs, to be granted the freedom of the city after their FA Cup victory, which showed impressive nerve.

Mr Ed, the talking horse from the old US TV series, was made to appear to talk by being given a toffee. (Wikipedia says at the start of the article that it was by peanut butter, and at the end of the article that that was a myth and that it was a nylon bit.)

Hardest team you've ever played against: on the old 606, a former Hong Kong prison chaplain rang in to tell him about the time he had to referee a game between a local team and the team from death row.

obama's terrorist friend

Bill Ayers talks back: Sarah Palin called him a terrorist, Barack Obama called him an acquaintance. A Salon editor who knew Ayers back when talks to the ex-Weather Underground member turned Republican talking point.
- Salon, 17 November

Thursday, 20 November 2008

two more city churches

I popped into two more City of London churches this afternoon.

St Botolph without Bishopsgate (official, Wikipedia, Google images) I've seen a few times from outside but never been inside before; a surprising amount of space around it outside too, given its location. Okay, nothing in particular striking, took a few photos, more outside with cranes and gherkin in background in particular. The tennis and netball court next door is theirs, interestingly; there were lunchtime city women playing netball there when I was there.

St Ethelburga's (official, Wikipedia, Google images) was thoroughly destroyed by an IRA bomb and was rebuilt as St Ethelburga's Centre for Reconciliation and Peace, which from my brief visit seemed to mean multifaith, which seems rather a betrayal or denial of the church's history up until then, as if suggesting that a Christian church can't be a centre for reconciliation and peace in its own right.

local news from se1 website

Iceland store at Elephant & Castle fined £10,000 for rodent problem

Elephant & Castle housing delay "not acceptable" admits regeneration boss - and further details on the slower than planned E&C regeneration

Elephant & Castle: tube station refurb cost is "final major hurdle" to regeneration deal - A final deal between Southwark Council and developers Lend Lease for the Elephant & Castle regeneration project is being held up by negotiations about the cost of rebuilding the Northern Line tube station.

Elephant & Castle roundabouts 'as dangerous for cyclists as all bendy buses' - The London Assembly has accused Mayor of London Boris Johnson of failing on his election pledges by putting a question mark over the removal of the southern roundabout at Elephant & Castle.

Also, we're getting a new supermarket at our end of Walworth Road; unfortunately, it's another Tesco's. And the Clark's factory shop in the shopping centre, sadly closing this month, is being replaced by a pound - no, a 99p - shop: hurrah!

And there's a new 'district' website for the Elephant & Castle, from TownTalk, who I'd not heard of before. There seem to be variety of people who try to produce these, but they rarely seem to take off beyond being local business advertising/directory things, perhaps because they're a big operation trying to do the same for lots of areas without any particular connection or investment in these area. Unlike the SE1 website, which is a one-off and specific, and good.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

this is what it sounds like, when monks clash

Riot police called as monks clash in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre
- Times, 10 November

My favourite bit is the ladder:
The feud is only one of a bewildering array of rivalries among churchmen in the Holy Sepulchre. The Israeli government has long wanted to build a fire exit in the church, which regularly fills with thousands of pilgrims and has only one main door, but the sects cannot agree where the exit will be built. A ladder placed on a ledge over the entrance sometime in the 19th century has remained there ever since because of a dispute over who has the authority to take it down. More recently, a spat between Ethiopian and Coptic Christians is delaying badly needed renovations to a rooftop monastery that engineers say could collapse.

ten surprising things darwin said about religious faith

God, Evolution and Charles Darwin: Ten surprising things Darwin said about religious faith
- Times, 17 September

rcs help sway vote for obama, despite white evangelicals

RCs help sway vote for Obama, despite white Evangelicals
- Church Times, 14 November 2008. The notoriously pro-abortion Catholics thwart the single-issue right-wing evangelicals who continue to place themselves in the pockets of the Republicans in return for absolutely nothing on their single issue, but plenty of self-serving un-Christian right-wing policies which seem to satisfy them. (Ooh, Mr Grumpy!)

Extract:
Analysis of how religious people in the United States voted in last week’s presidential election indicates that the victorious Senator Barack Obama managed, in the words of one Washington analyst, to “narrow the God Gap”, principally by winning over Roman Catholics.
Senator Obama won the popular vote by 52 per cent to Senator John McCain’s 46 per cent. Mr McCain attracted more Protestants (54 per cent against 45 per cent) but fewer Roman Catholics: 54 per cent voted for Mr Obama and 45 per cent for Mr McCain.
Seventy-four per cent of white Evangelicals supported Mr McCain, just 24 per cent voting for Mr Obama; 55 per cent of regular church goers voted for Mr McCain, 43 per cent for Mr Obama. In 2004, the proportions were 61 per cent for George Bush and 39 per cent for John Kerry, a Roman Catholic.
“Obama forged a new democratic faith coalition,” the analyst Steve Waldman told the Wall Street Journal. “To a large degree, he was able to make such progress with these groups because of the economy. Some pro-life voters went with Obama in spite of his positions on ‘values issues’, not because of them.”
The Democrats continue to support legalised abortion, but it is thought that their parallel commitment to strengthening social support for women to encourage them to have their babies enabled Roman Catholics to vote for them. Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago and president of the United States’ Conference of Catholic Bishops, said, however, that Roman Catholic leaders must remain opposed to the party’s approach.
“Common ground cannot be found by destroying the common good,” he told the New York Times. But he also pledged the support of Roman Catholic bishops in the US, and told Senator Obama: “We stand ready to work with you in defence and support of the life and dignity of every human person.”

how satire changed the course of history

How satire changed the course of history: Forget the crash; it's not the economy, stupid. This election will be recalled for when the titans of TV comedy ruled the world
- Joe Queenan - in the Guardian of Tuesday 4 November - thinks satire won the election for Obama. I don't think so.

more bakerology

More from Danny Baker's 606 on Tuesday 21 October:

Another Bakerology theme, shortest time spent in a football ground. Alan rang in, who used to be fans chaplain at Rushden and Diamonds, season ticket holder, went through the turnstile, picked up his free programme, noticed the date on the programme, realised he had a wedding he was meant to be officiating at, and turned round and went back out without having reached the terrace.

Also on the same night, people who don't know much about football joining in. Watching the World Cup, after Beckham had moved to Spain, Craig's wife asked him why Beckham didn't play for Spain now. Danny's own daughter Bonnie suggested, after a player was stretchered off in the game they were watching, that for people like her, less interested in the game, they should have a camera following him so that you could go with their camera and have an 'ER' going on. Another spouse at her first match asked, ten minutes in, where the commentary was.

Same night, on nearly kits, Mike's parents bought him an England third kit, sky blue, but bought the shorts from the first kit because they said the third kit shorts didn't match.

Another theme, teams made up of particular names. They've done teams of boys names (first names as surnames), girls names and dogs names, tonight looking for surnames that make up whole names, inspired by the first two names on the England team sheet, James and Brown. Martin pointed out Norwich's bookings from last Saturday: Bertrand and Russell. And Charlton's back four once upon a time were Young, Fish, Costa, Fortune.

Dave in Brixton was watching a Pele video and remarked to his friend that it was interesting that Pele was as well known for his misses as for the goals he actually scored. His wife piped up, over her newspaper, 'Why? Who is he married to?"

dragon castle

A review from the Guardian of Saturday 8 November of the fancy new Chinese restaurant that opened up a couple of years ago not far from us, on Walworth Road. It gave the restaurant quite a good review and the area quite a bad one. We got a takeaway from there once; really expensive, and no better than the little takeaway place just round the corner, nearer us. We ate in once, with my mother, quite early evening, so it wasn't very busy, and I saw a mouse gambolling around up the empty end of the restaurant; the food was okay.

I was interested to learn this: 'You need to be quite the telly nerd to recall this one, so let me remind you that Jim [Davidson] once starred (as Jim London) in the ITV sitcom Up The Elephant And Round The Castle, a riot of staggering witlessness most notable for the fact that female lead Marina Sirtis's next TV role was as the psychic Deanna Troi in Star Trek: The Next Generation.' I saw it once or twice, long ago, certainly before I was ever in London. Wikipedia (of course) tells me much more of Marina's British background, which I didn't know, including that she played the stewardess in the Rossiter/Collins Cinzano ad.

Searching the Guardian site for that review link, I also came up with other positive references, here, here and an Observer review here.

makeshift whistle

A recurring theme over the Danny Baker phone in years has been what you've used instead of something - eg the ball, the pitch, the ref's whistle - in a game of football. On 21 October Darren rang in to say he'd played in a match where the ref forgot his whistle and they bought a sweetie whistle in a shop, which a) dissolved as the game progressed and b) made the sound of a bird tweeting. 'It was like being reffed by Percy Edwards.'

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

bringing the house down

Bringing the house down: In Britain there's long been an obsession with owning property. Prices may wobble but home owners are convinced they'll be rich in the end. It's always been an illusion, John Lanchester argues, but this crash may finally push the property market over the cliff
- very interesting article from the Guardian of Saturday 8 November 2008

Extracts:
Take a step back, and there's nothing inherently interesting about the British property market. Say you bought your house in 1970, and paid the then-national average price for it: £4,378. At the peak of the current spike in prices, that same average house would have been worth £184,431. Congratulations! You've multiplied your money almost 43 times. You're rich, do you hear me? Rich!
Except you aren't, really. Strip out the effect of inflation, and that spectacular sounding 4,300% price rise works out as 2.4% a year in real terms. This is close, in other words, to the historic long-term average for investments regarded as being more or less without any risk at all. That's where the expression "safe as houses" comes from. Pick slightly different starting and finishing points, and the conclusions are pretty much the same - from 1973 to today, for instance, when inflation rates were different, and prices were higher at the start and lower at the end: the result is 2.6% annual growth. That's more or less exactly the rate at which the whole British economy grew over the equivalent period. In other words, house prices performed exactly the same as the economy. So there's nothing interesting to say about them.
...
And that was the last and most important thing I learned from my first flat. House prices go up and down, but the main thing is not to pay them a blind bit of notice, unless and until you have a good reason to move. I learned that a rising price will not rise for ever; that when prices stop rising, it will be difficult to sell your flat, because the reason the price has stopped rising is because the climate has changed. The money you have in your house is not liquid money; it's not money that can easily be converted into something else other than your house. It's stupid to feel richer because the value of your house has gone up, since the resulting rise isn't money you can use or spend. If you're going to move, you still need somewhere to live, and the cost of that place, too, will have gone up, so there will be no net gain from the increase in your property's value.
...
70% of the population lives in their own home. This is a much higher figure than in comparable economies in Europe; for instance, only 40% of Germans own their own home.
...
So that's the first thing that's different about British mortgages: there are more of them. Second, they are bigger: the size of the loan is proportionately bigger, in relation to the value of the house. German banks, for instance, will lend only a maximum of 60% of a property's value.
...
Another feature of the UK mortgage market adds to that risk: the fact that we prefer to pay our mortgages at variable rates. The US, which has a similar home ownership rate to the UK, is more like us than like Europe: more mortgages, for a higher proportion of the property value, and with longer repayment periods. In the US, though, far more of the loans are at fixed interest rates. British householders are allergic to fixed interest rates; we prefer variable loans. No one quite knows why, since fixed interest rates often make good sense, and have the effect of transferring some of the risk of the loan to the banks. If you have a variable rate mortgage, and the central bank interest rate goes up, you feel it in your pocket; if you have a fixed rate and the same thing happens, the bank feels it. In the US, the two institutions designed to help the banking system to bear the risk of this fixed-rate lending are called Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. That's the same Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that on September 7 were taken over by the US government in the biggest nationalisation in the history of the world; and the reason they went under was precisely because they were swamped by the cost of these risks.
...
The rise of the buy-to-let sector - which came into existence to provide places to live for all the people who could no longer afford mortgages, a classic example of how a boom creates phenomena that magnify its own effect - has created a category of investor who won't be able to afford to sit still and wait. Towards the end of 2006, the average investment yield on a buy-to-let property no longer covered the mortgage that had been taken out to buy it. In other words, the average buy-to-let investor was losing money on a monthly basis. The reason for hanging on in there was the hope for capital growth. But house prices in the UK are now in decline. The Nationwide survey for the year to October showed a decline of 14.6%; add the CPI inflation rate of 5.2%, and prices have fallen almost 20% already. So for those buy-to-letters already losing money on the interest payments, capital growth now looks some way off. Depending on what was paid for the property, it may be many years off. If all buy-to-let investors realise this and stampede for the exit at the same time, the UK property market will go off the edge of a cliff.
There would once have been an upside to that. It always happens that during a bubble, first-time buyers are priced out of the market - indeed, it's fear of that happening that causes a lot of people to buy a property in the first place. (I know: that was me, 20 years ago.) Then the bubble bursts, and all the people who couldn't afford a property can, if they can find someone willing to sell one. This time round should be ideal, with all the buy-to-let speculators dumping their investments at the same time, and most of those properties being the smallish flats ideally suited to first-time buyers.
The trouble here is the credit crunch. It is an almost perfectly cruel thing to have happened: just as first-timers get their chance, the banks become paranoid about lending money. Anyone who did not have a mortgage approved is now finding it dramatically harder to get one: mortage approvals are down from 134,000 a month to 33,000.
...
The bubble was different this time for another reason. On October 27 1986, Margaret Thatcher enacted Big Bang: the end of the rules controlling ownership in the City of London. The result was to make London the financial capital of the world, ahead of New York and Tokyo; and the result of that was to make the City of London, and financial services in general, disproportionately important to the UK economy. The financial services sector now accounts for 20% of the UK economy; it is by a huge margin the most important sector. This has all sorts of effects, and one of them is in the housing market. In a boom, UK house prices are always headed by London, with a ripple effect radiating out from the capital. This time the phenomenon is much more marked, because of City salaries which are cut off from the rest of the economy in a separate wonderland of six-and-seven-figure bonuses. That is the difference between this boom and previous ones: it is, because of the effect of the City, boomier. That means the bust will be bustier. London has become a Manhattan, internationalised in its workforce, cut off from the rest of the country, with a thriving financial sector which no one outside it understands, but which underpins much of the rest of the economy. No one knows what will happen when that whole sector crashes into a wall.

london street signs project

London Street Signs Project: An interesting little website project, now over it seems, in which the photographer gets her friends to dress up appropriately next to London street signs.

second life affair

Divorced - for having an affair in Second Life: The romance was virtual. But the behaviour of David Pollard's character in an online game has cost him his real marriage
- Independent, Friday 14 November

Extract:
The day after discovering his online affair, Ms Taylor filed for divorce, which is set to be finalised next week. Their virtual divorce went through in the Second Life courts in May. She is so furious that she has already reverted to her maiden name by deed poll.
Mr Pollard, 40, admitted he had been having an online affair with a woman from America, and the pair's characters are now engaged in Second Life. But he insisted that his real marriage had been a "bit of a joke", and that his affair was prompted by his wife's addiction to the popular fantasy role-playing game World of Warcraft.
...
"Amy never did anything around the house. She just played World of Warcraft all the time. If I wanted to spend time with her I had to ask, but it was always too much trouble for her to come off the game to spend time with me, so the marriage was a bit of a joke."
Ms Taylor's love life has since moved on, but she does not seem to have learnt her lesson. She met her current boyfriend while playing World of Warcraft.

remember the revolution

Remember the revolution?: A nation divided, a king beheaded, a people resurgent: the civil war is one of the most exciting episodes in British history. And yet we seem almost embarrassed about it. Ronan Bennett welcomes a Channel 4 drama that is a rare celebration of that radical adventure
- Guardian, Friday 14 November

the publicity game

Christian group halts book launch: A poet has been forced to launch his new collection in the street after a bookstore cancelled the event because of a campaign by Christian activists. Patrick Jones was due to sign copies at Waterstone's in Cardiff but the shop cancelled the event at the last moment. Christian Voice said the book was "obscene and blasphemous" and called on the chain to remove copies from stores.
- when I saw this story, from the BBC website of 12 November, I thought, way to go to give him some free publicity. I'm not very enamoured of Christian Voice, which seems to be a one-man publicity machine, representing I don't know who.

Then today I saw this, from 15 November, on the BBC website:
Poet 'stirred up' storm over book: A bookstore chain has accused a poet of deliberately provoking a "furore" about his latest collection, forcing the company to cancel its official launch. Waterstone's in Cardiff called off Patrick Jones's book signing after a campaign by a Christian organisation. He has confirmed that he e-mailed his poems to Christian and Muslim groups and to the far-right organisation Combat 18 beforehand.

darren anderton

Darren Anderton: 'I never thought I'd end up in League Two but they all try to play football': One of the stars of Euro 96, Darren Anderton was once known as 'Sicknote' because of his injury record but is still playing – for Bournemouth – at the age of 36
- interesting interview from the Independent of Monday 17 November. Two interesting facts: his last five England caps were won under five different England managers, and he's the only one of the 1996 European Championship semi-final team still playing.

Monday, 17 November 2008

ray lowry

Ray Lowry has died - here's the Guardian obituary, and a follow-up letter with a cartoon reading ('a businessman behind his office desk addressing three others. His nameplate identifies him as Mr Bang. Caption: "I'm sorry Mr Crash, Mr Wallop - but I've decided to go with Olufsen here."'). I knew him from Punch (I used to read them in Stornoway library, and then subscribed for a few years at university at least - mostly the Alan Coren years, another recent death - I've got a couple of bags somewhere stuffed with cartoons cut out from them) and later Private Eye (which I really started buying with the Princess Diana death issue), but it's the NME I associate him with most closely (and he designed the Presley pastiche cover of London Calling).

bluebell railway

On Saturday 8th we went down to the Bluebell Railway, which was good fun, though very wet. An impressive testimony to what dedicated and committed volunteers can do, and the devotion old railways inspire. The three stations currently on the line have been thoroughly restored, to different periods; I don't know how much was originally there, in the way of tin advertising boards for example, and how much was bought in; they're buying and restoring a lot of rolling stock from different periods also. The Wikipedia entry is packed with historical and technical information, another volunteer hard at work.

continued adventures in cartoon readings

From the current Private Eye, a cartoon version of one of the Escher stairs pics, in which illusionary-staired house appear two men, one saying to the other, 'I'm sorry Mr Escher but yes, you will have to fit disabled access.'

Sunday, 16 November 2008

sharp's

On Tuesday evening I went to Sharp's. It was 11th November, so there were a number of war-related songs. In the first half I sang Pink Floyd's When The Tigers Broke Free (the club is very accepting of things not usually strictly considered folk - more than one might imagine at the home of the EFDSS - and I do think it has quite a folky tune, and of course a familiar folk theme). In the second half I sang Cruel Brother, which I know of course from The Corries; I sang it probably a bit too high and a bit too fast, a combination familiar to anyone who's experienced my precenting. Afterwards someone asked me where that version of Cruel Brother had come from, interested in the tune in particular, and I was able to email him info and a sound file later. He was in fact in my opinion the star turn of the evening - and it was another good evening with a range of interesting stuff - a tremendous guitar player with a good voice, and I found out later he was Matthew Ord, who can be found here on Myspace and in a clip here on YouTube, and here on Myspace as part of Hey Negrita.

When Steve Turner was the guest artist, the third-last time I was there, he mentioned that one of the songs he played he'd first heard sung by Clive, who attends Sharp's, in Manchester, which made me wonder if Clive had been a professional in the past. With the wonders of Google, I found a number of references, including this from Dick Gaughan's official site, where Dick says, 'Before I had gone to London in 1971, I had worked together on occasion with both singer Bobby Eaglesham and fiddle player Chuck Fleming. Chuck had been a member of the ground-breaking JSD Band, had gone south to work with Bob Pegg and the band 'Trees'. In late 1971, I had done a tour in Holland with Chuck, fiddle player Tom Hickland from Belfast and singer Clive Woolf under the name of 'Firewater'. I then joined Boys of the Lough and those three were joined by (ex-Trees and Mr Fox) bass player Barry Lyons and by a Scots drummer called Dave Tulloch (who had worked with Clive in Cecil Sharp House) to form a band which they called Spencer's Feat. Clive then had a very serious stroke which took him out of playing and Bobby Eaglesham joined, with the band name changing to Five Hand Reel. Shortly after this, I was approached but this was during my period of temporary retirement and I declined.'

Also this mention in a thread on thesession.org forum: 'He-man-cat-thing; in your list of early names re the use of DADGAD for english folk, surely you meant MARTIN Carthy, and somewhere in the list you forgot Clive Woolf, one of the early great folk guitarists, founder member of Spencers Faete, the precursor to Five Hand Reel, which had to replace Clive with TWO people a musician and a singer, after he was laid low by a crippling brain haemorrhage in 75; and also Angus Baxter, another one in the chain of early, London-based experimental folk guitarists.'

There was also a reference I saw which said that he'd been credited on Liege and Lief for his help in his role in the library of Cecil Sharp House. (Ah, here it is, amazingly enough just written on Friday, it seems.)

Interestingly, also mentioned in that first source, the Dick Gaughan, is Bob Pegg, who with his wife Carole were the musicians at the Highland Youth Theatre when I was there. Funny old world. I find that Bob has a site, here, and Carole (I'm guessing this is the right one) has a site here; Bob's in the Highlands and Carole's an expert on Mongolian and Inner Asian Music. I can still remember two of the songs they wrote, one beginning 'Every man is an island, and every woman too, set apart in the vastness of the sea', and another on the mundanities of life after marrying the fairytale prince.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

laurel and hardy with live music

Went to this today at the Barbican:

Millennial Territory Orchestra meets Laurel & Hardy
The perfect Jazz Festival event for families.
15 November 2008 / 16:00
Barbican Hall

Part of Autumn Contemporary Events 08
Part of Barbican Families
Part of London Jazz Festival in association with BBC Radio 3


Tickets: £10 / 15 (Children under 16 free)
A fusion of classic jazz and comic film for the family!

The spirit of the 1920s shines through in the witty arrangements of Steve Bernstein’s versatile nine-piece New York based MTO as they play new scores to 3 side-splitting Laurel and Hardy films; Sugar Daddies (1927) (Cert U), Double Whoopee (Cert U) and Wrong Again (1929) (Cert U).

A jambalaya of traditional jazz, swing and the blues, this is jazz Americana at its rootsiest.

About the films:
Sugar Daddies first appeared in 1927; Double Whoopee – with the added bonus of Jean Harlow – and Wrong Again were first shown in 1929.

Steven Bernstein was inspired to form MTO while working on the score to Robert Altman’s film Kansas City , and the spirit of the 1920s shines through in the wit and sass of arrangements played with tremendous flair by a ninepiece ensemble of New York’s finest. A jambalaya of traditional jazz, swing and the blues, this is jazz Americana at its rootsiest.

Line-up featuring some of New York's hottest jazz talent:
Steven Bernstein Trumpet
Carver Clark Gayton Jr Trombone
Charles Robey Burnham Violin
Douglas Wieselman Clarinet
Peter Noah Apfelbaum Tenor saxophone
Eric Brian Lawrence Bari Saxophone
Rene Alexander Hart Bass
Matthew Peter Munisteri Guitar
Ben A Perowsky Drums


---

The music was slightly more modern than I'd expected, and the shorts less funny, but it was good fun all the same.

sparrows

Today we passed through Bernie Spain Gardens, where they are doing a sparrow watch of a flock in some nearby trees. We're less common, it seems, in having a small flock of sparrows coming into our garden regularly, especially when we remember to fill the bird feeders. One of the RSPB ladies at the sparrow watch said that they tend to nest in older buildings, so I'm not exactly sure where around here they are; perhaps the older social housing flats between Crampton St and Penton Place.

After that, we also went down onto the foreshore of the Thames onto the sand, which always seems odd. The Museum of London, and London Walks, organise beachcombing trips from time to time which we should go on, since we can't identify any of the debris which we see - apart from lots of old bricks, for some reason - and there are apparently no end of Elizabethan pipes in among it, for example.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

thomson's holiday reps

Danny Baker has been railing against people who wear replica football shirts on holiday - and drawn in stories like people sharing a holiday hotel with a family who seemed to have taken nothing but a range of Liverpool replica shirts with them to wear. On the 21 October programme (which, like most of them, I listened to after the event as a podcast - you have to sign up for all the 606 progs, but I just delete all the others), John had written in to say how he and his wife had been on a holiday in Majorca; they were having trouble with their apartment, and their holiday rep was being elusive, and his wife said, 'We should have come with Thomson's'; Why Thomson's in particular, he wondered; 'Their reps are everywhere!'. He had to explain that they were not Thomson reps but actually Spurs fans on holiday.

prune song

Is there anything not on YouTube? Here is Frank Crumit's Prune Song.

Monday, 10 November 2008

in our time newsletters

An extract from the black death programme newsletter, from May this year, on some of the post-programme discussion: 'Miri Rubin said that the population of England did not overtop that of England in 1346 (the year before the plague) until the 19th century. One of the other speakers said that boys of ten were being accepted into the priesthood (although they could not give Communion) because they had run out of men. The idea of giving gifts to churches or founding institutions on a much wider scale was partly to do with the realisation that you couldn’t rely on perpetual prayer for monks and their successors in perpetual residence because so many of them had died and, who knows, more would die as the plagues came back.'

Here's pretty much a whole newsletter from June, I forget exactly what the programme subject was:
'One second after we went off air Tim Blanning exploded. Rosemary Ashton had ended by saying we must remember that Wagner was Hitler’s favourite composer. Tim said, “Wagner was also George Bernard Shaw’s favourite composer!” To which Rosemary replied, “That’s true, but it’s also true that he was Hitler’s favourite composer.”
'The beginnings of a deadlock. But it was pointed out that George Bernard Shaw’s view of The Ring was that of a revolutionary, socialist work. Rosemary also pointed out that Wagner picked up where Goethe had left off. Goethe had aimed to create a world literature and Wagner aimed to create a world opera or a world in opera.
'The two Cambridge professors of history, who I hope are travelling on the same train, entered into a, I suspect, long-practised and amiable but fierce debate about the origins of the First World War. If the British had not dithered for so long and been so hesitant. If the Germans had followed through the Serbian response to Austria when the Kaiser said that there was then no need for war, etc, etc. James Cook, the Producer, and myself decided on the spot that, when the dust has settled, we would like to reconvene and do a programme about the effects on the 20th century of that catastrophic engagement in 1914. It was also – I think this was Tim Blanning – remarked on that in 1914 it was seriously thought of as something that would be over briefly in a few months, with a few battles, like the Franco-Prussian War of 1871. The generals didn’t think that, said Richard Evans, but the politicians did. We came back to Disraeli’s extraordinarily prescient notion that the Prussian victories over France and Austria meant that the balance of power had changed radically and that there was now the possibility that the biggest power in Europe, ie: the new Germany, would occupy all the coastline facing Britain, which some would consider to be unacceptable.
'One of the things we missed out was the widespread British admiration for the German welfare system, for its hospitals and for its social services, way in advance of the British at the time. We also failed to mention the influence of the Left in all this and should have noted that by the 1890s there were 30,000 Germans in London, the largest single immigrant group hitherto and considered to be vast numbers at the time. They were basically poor, in the East End of London of course, largely in bakers’ shops and cake shops and quite well accepted until the spy scares of the first decade of the 20th century when opinion turned against them. There was even a speech made in the House of Lords which said that 150,000 German soldiers were in London, dressed up and disguised in civilian clothes. The scare stories got completely out of hand. Not only the Daily Mail, with paper sellers dressed as German soldiers, complete with spiked helmet, selling copies of the paper which explained (with maps) where the Germans would be tomorrow. But it got so bad it was unable to bear comedy. P G Wodehouse wrote a spoof on the scare stories about a little boy called Clarence who saved the country from many foreign invasions. Nobody bought it. Nobody wanted to listen to anything but scare stories and the propaganda build-up of the monstrosity of the Prussians. And yet, as Rosemary Ashton pointed out, there was, right up to 1914, a clear view of the great qualities of Germany: its education, its culture, its philosophy, its art, its welfare system and so on, together with a growing apprehension of its military ferocity and its imperialistic intentions.
'The conversation then switched to Patrick Leigh Fermor’s book, A Time of Gifts, where he walked from Amsterdam to Constantinople between the two World Wars and found a medieval Germany untouched by war at that time. Tim Blanning then brought in John Buchan’s Greenmantle and Richard Hannay finding much the same and doing much the same journey. Then I had to flee back to ITV to see a couple of rough cuts and think about the two Cambridge professors on the train, getting down to serious detail.'

in our time

In Our Time is back, which makes for some meaty podcast listening. I also get the newsletter, which make for interesting supplementary reading (they often tell of the conversation after the programme, and his walk from the studio afterwards to the House of Lords, and the reaction he gets there; in one he mentions hearing from someone who gets the newsletter but doesn't hear the programmes). it's also one of the few BBC things - at the moment, at least - that has an archive of old programmes. There also seem to be pages for each programme, with some listeners comments, which I didn't know they did (I doubt it's any better for the comments).

I realised recently how often the academics around the table are from Oxford, Cambridge or London; one programme recently, it was the full set of three. One of the good things about it is that it's not a group of people arguing against each other for their own positions, but all working together under Melvyn's guidance to inform the interested listener. The first in this series, on miracles was a good example, in that they spoke about the cultural importance from the perspective of the time through the centuries, rather than the veracity of the miracles in particular (of course, some of the comments on that page take issue with that approach). (And I guess it shouldn't be surprising how central religion is to so many of the programmes, given that religion has been central to the history of ideas for so much of that history.) It's interesting how thoroughly prepared it is - Melvyn obviously gets notes from all of them on the theme, and then maps a route through it all and tries to lead them on.

It's not always predictable which will be interesting and which won't, whatever one's previous knowledge or interests; the range of subjects, some of which you wouldn't naturally seek out, is one of the good things about it, like the Speechification podcast. The translation movement into arabic didn't hold me. Godel's incompleteness theorems was one of those where once you lost your understanding of the logic at one point, the rest of the programme just slipped away from you; maths theorems like these seem bonkers and/or baffling, and are clearly hard to communicate. Dante's Inferno was good but one of those that didn't manage to do justice to it in the time.

'we feel about her the way you feel about the queen'

'We feel about her the way you feel about the Queen': She exploded out of small-town Alaska on to the international stage, but what is next for Sarah Palin? Her supporters want her to run for president in 2012, but to millions of others she is now an embarrassing joke. Ed Pilkington tests the water in Wasilla.
- Guardian, Monday 10 November

grandpa gogo

I see from the latest Rudhach that my classmate Gogo is now a grandfather.

the evangelical left and the blob

Two interesting articles from the same Christianity Today Books and Culture email:

Leveling the Playing Field?: A report on the evangelical Left.
- posted 27 October

The Blob and I: Was the 1958 horror flick created to advance the agenda of a Christian fundamentalist cabal close to the dark heart of American power?
- no date more specific than November/December edition. A review of a ridiculous conspiracy theory book, in which The Blob features as part of the conspiracy; the review, amusingly, written by a Christian actually involved in making The Blob.

charlie brooker on ross brand

Want a rush of empowerment? Join the angry idiots registering their disgust with Ofcom: The sad, likely outcome of this pitiful gitstorm is an increase in BBC jumpiness
- Charlie Brooker, Guardian, 3 November

Extract:
The Mail was so incensed, it printed a full transcript of the answerphone prankery under the heading "Lest We Forget" - and helpfully included outtakes that weren't even broadcast, so its readers could be enraged by things no one had heard in the first place. This was like making a point about the cruelty of fox-hunting by ripping a live fox apart with your bare hands, then poking a rabbit's eye out with a pen for good measure.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

london road crash

I saw the aftermath of this crash on London Road on Thursday, with the car still in the open space beyond the pavement. My guess at what had happened confirmed by the first posting on p2 of this thread by someone who was on the bus.

Friday, 7 November 2008

12-1

Paddy Power is taking bets on Barack Obama being assassinated during his first term in office; down from 16-1 to 12-1, apparently. I wonder what the odds are that John McCain dies during Obama's first term in office, causing people to contemplate the dodged bullet of President Palin. Not least because of stories now coming out from the Republican camp about what she was like and what she knew - like the suggestion that she thought Africa was a country. Reporters knew, but because they'd been told off the record by Republican insiders they didn't/couldn't report it. I wonder if this is a strategy that will always work, gag the press by revealing all your skeletons to them off the record.

google

That interminable 0.9 seconds: Andy Beckett discovers how Google became one of the world's most important companies.
- Guardian, Saturday 1 November. Extracts:

Three years ago, when Google and its products were not quite so potent and ubiquitous, a reporter for the technology website CNET News did a quick experiment with the company's internet search tools. For half an hour she would find out as much personal information as possible about a revered Silicon Valley business executive. In a few dozen predictable clicks and keystrokes, she had his home address, his hobbies, the level of his wealth and his political affiliations. As a case study of how Google has eroded the privacy of even the most powerful it was a useful and justifiable exercise, especially as she did not include the most sensitive material in the story she wrote.

The executive did not see it like that. His corporation informed CNET that its use of "private information" had been highly inappropriate. As a punishment, the corporation would not speak to CNET reporters for a year. After a few weeks, the ban was quietly lifted, but among those who follow the computer industry the incident has not been forgotten, for one reason. The prickly executive involved was Eric Schmidt, the CEO and public face of Google.
...
Early on, Google chose as its hardware "a system cobbled together with inexpensive PC components" rather than more costly specialist equipment. This was a clever, counter-intuitive decision, the first of many. Google's racks of cheap servers could easily be expanded or others added. The company then set about placing them as close to its potential customers as possible. Stross explains: "As fast as electrons travel, physical distance still affects [online] response speed ... Reducing [it] by even a fraction of a second mattered to users, as Google discovered when it ran experiments to see if users noticed a difference between [a wait of] 0.9 seconds [and one of] 0.4 seconds ... Users were conspicuously more likely to grow bored and leave the Google site after waiting that interminable 0.9 seconds."

Thursday, 6 November 2008

family guardian

An interesting batch from Saturday's Family Guardian section.

Haunted by my lost son: Nine years ago, Victoria Lambert terminated a much wanted pregnancy after a test showed chromosomal abnormalities. She has always regretted it. Is it time, she asks, to stop seeing abortion as the only solution when a foetus is not 'perfect'?

'My daddy is the man in the telly': Storybook Dads allows fathers in prison to record bedtime stories for their children. Rob Kemp went to Dartmoor to see how it works.

First person: Novelist Emily Barr was brought up as an agnostic and does not believe in God - but her mother was ordained by the Church this summer and religion is slowly seeping into family life.

Down with the kids: Chris Cleave's family column. Extract:
My mum - I've known her long enough to see a pattern emerging - calls me by my full name only when I'm in trouble. If I've been good - stayed out of jail for another year and delivered her grandsons to her with their faces washed - she'll call me Chris. But if I dare to walk across her carpet with my shoes on, she'll raise a sardonic eyebrow and murmur: "Christopher James Cleave!" It's a tradition that my own children have seized on with gusto. This week, I was shouting back at some sophistry on the radio when our two-year-old picked up the remote control for the stereo, levelled it at my head and, with a grave expression, pressed "pause". I was so surprised that I stopped, my mouth frozen in mid-indignation. He then replaced the remote control gently on the kitchen table, pursed his lips in satisfaction and went back to eating his cereal. In the sudden silence you could hear every spoon-click and every crunch of his Coco Pops. Our five-year-old nodded in approval. He murmured: "That's better, isn't it, Christopher James Cleave?"

My family values: Desmond Morris, zoologist. Extract:
When my mother was in her 99th year and fading fast, I asked her if I could get her anything. "Yes," she answered meekly, "Gin and tonic." She had to drink it through a straw, poor old thing. Afterwards she was coughing and spluttering and when I asked whether she was OK she said: "If you've got to go you might as well go with a swing." Those were her last words.

frankie boyle

An interview with Frankie Boyle from the Times of 1 November. I noticed that one of his months-old lines from Mock The Week was picked up on in the aftermath of the Brand/Ross fuss, but he's a different class. The article refers to him as a 'shock jock' but I rate him much more highly than that; there's clearly a moral heart and purpose to what he does.

wee theo

"I was in the car with my dad and brother. A kid was walking down the road with a 'Walcott 32' shirt on. I put the window down and said 'I've got a shirt like that too'!"
Theo Walcott is living the dream.
- from the BBC's sports quotes of the week, 5 November. I thought it was sweet.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

sharp's

No special guest last night at Sharp's Folk Club, but extended sets by regular Terry meant that only one song each for most others (except a couple each by two couples, obviously known visitors, one couple using a hurdy gurdy and a hand-pumped organ, fascinating), but there were so many along for some or all of the evening that I don't think all would have got two goes anyway. In honour of the election I did 'When all night long a chap remains'; ironically having been worried about forgetting the words it was the tune I went astray on at one point, but recovered okay; it was obviously less familiar to folk than I'd assumed, I'd assumed it would be old hat to most. I do tend to assume, in all kinds of areas, that if I know something then everyone must know it.

It was a good evening, big on the 'you never know what's coming next' factor, which is one of the many good points about the club. Someone from Greenland via America sang one of their own songs with guitar, which was very good; I think there were at least four others, as well as him, for whom it was their first time performing. I spoke to John, and older English gentleman who always does good material, sometimes music-hally, who was one of those involved in setting up the club in the late 80s. He'd been up to the Highlands on holiday after demob; he'd been in the air force, implied wartime, in which case he's older than he looks. He did a spoken version of Sir Patrick Spens which was very good indeed, perhaps the best thing in the evening.

ansible extracts

Paul Krugman, winner of this year's Nobel Prize for Economics, is an unashamed sf fan who earlier in the year said of Isaac Asimov's _Foundation_ series: 'It's somewhat embarrassing, but that's how I got into economics: I wanted to be a psychohistorian when I grew up, and economics was as close as I could get.' (_New York Times_, 8 May)

Tainted Money. The US games con GenCon 2008, held in honour of the late Gary Gygax, raised $17,398 for his favourite charity the Christian Children's Fund. On learning that the money came partly from sale and auction of Dungeons & Dragons material, the CCF refused the donation. Another charity benefited; but how dreadfully petty. [SHS]

As Others See Us. As usual, if it's good it can't be sf, except maybe superficially: 'This [AI-related] scenario is dealt with magnificently in the Emmy award-winning television series _Battlestar Galactica_ (2004-2008). The series (only superficially in the sci-fi genre) ...' (Andrew Stephens, _The Age_ [Australia], 11 October) [DB]

- November Ansible extracts

historic but not very exciting

I watched the US election last night - for the first time ever - until after 2am. I was dozing off. Not long before I went up to bed David Dimbleby asked the analysts with him why they were all saying it was all wrapped up for Barack when he'd just won states so far that Kerry had won last time. And Ohio, they said. He's won Ohio, so it's all over, he's going to win for sure. Oh, okay. Everything was very downbeat; there was certainly no sense of suspense or excitement. Of course, when you think about it, it's just like a general election in this country but with only fifty constituencies; some will always go one way, some always the other, and there are a range of changeable ones in the middle, except that it's a much smaller set of swing constituencies.

Still, certainly historic. In this country of course Barack would be described as mixed race rather than black, which is interesting in a dull kind of way, and yet our news media is falling in line with the US practice and referring to him as black, which is also interesting in a dull kind of way.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

crowe lee deehan delap sodje

First done on the ill-fated Baker and Kelly football podcast, and possibly the funniest thing I heard last year, Teletext Alex has redone the 'Bohemian Rhapsody in which all the words are replaced by footballers' names' on Danny Baker's new Tuesday 606 on Radio Five (on 14 October), and the lyrics are up on the 5 site.

Update: here it is on YouTube.

wyndham web quote

I asked her:
'How do *you* find it. Is it what *you* expected?'
'Yes, I think so. Mind you I've only been a few yards from the landing-place, so far. The secondary growth is perhaps a little denser than I'd looked for, but generally speaking it *is* much what one had expected. Except for the birds . . . I don't understand that. There ought to be millions of birds . . .' She paused, considering. 'There seem to be fewer flowers, too - still, that could be due to a number of causes. Might be purely local.'
'Apart from that it's much as you'd expect to find a place without any men to upset the balance of nature?' I suggested.
She did not reply immediately. Then she said:
'If I were given to thinking in phrases of that kind, I'd not be in my job.'
I was puzzled for a moment until I perceived what she must mean.
'The balance of nature? That's a common enough expression, surely?'
'It's common, as you say - and mischievous.'
'I don't see why. After all, we've been upsetting it enough to change half the world in the last generation or two.'
She said, patiently:
'It is mischievous because it is ill-considered, and entirely misleading. To begin with, the idea that man *can* upset what you call the balance of nature is a piece of arrogance. It assumes him to be outside the natural processes - the "man like god" theme again. Man is a product of nature - its most advanced and influential specimen perhaps, but evoked by a natural process. He is part of that process. Whatever he does, it must be part of his nature to do - or he could not do it. He is not, and cannot be, *un*natural. He, with his capacities, is as much the product of nature as were the dinosaurs with theirs. He is an *instrument* of natural processes.
'Secondly, there is no such thing as the "balance of nature". It does not exist, and never did. It is a myth. An offshoot of the desire for stability - of the attempt to reduce the world to a tidy, static, and therefore comprehensible and predictable place. It is part of the conception of a divinely appointed order in which everything had its place and purpose - and every man had *his* place and task. The idea of natural balances goes right back to the origins of magic - left balanced by right, white by black, good by evil, the heavenly host by the legions of Satan. It was an article of faith set out in the Zohar that "unbalanced forces perish in the void". The attempt to reduce an apparently chaotic world to order, of a kind, by the conception of balanced forces has gone on since earliest history - and it still goes on. Our minds look for reasons because reason, and balance, give us the illusion of stability - and in the thought of underlying stability there is comfort. The search for stability is the most constant - and the most fruitless, quest of all.'
I was taken aback. I had evidently trodden on a tender corn, or at least introduced a hobby-horse for her to ride. I did not care for her lecturing manner, particularly from one young enough to be my daughter, but she had not finished yet. She went on:
'Nature is a process, not a state - a continuous process. A striving to keep alive. No species has a *right* to exist; it simply has the ability, or the inability. It survives by matching its fecundity against the forces that threaten it with destruction. It may appear for a time to have struck a balance, a fluctuating balance, but it has not. All the time there is a change - change of competitors, change of environment, change of evolution - and sooner or later any species will prove inadequate and be superseded.
'The reptiles after dominating the world for millions of years were superseded by the mammals. The mammals have recently been dominated by the super-mammal, man. And yet people talk glibly about "preserving the balance of nature". It is impossible - and if it were possible, why should it not have been the Mesozoic "balance" of the giant reptiles just as much as any other period that stood in need of "preservation"? Why should the existing state be so much more valuable than the past - or the future?'
'Surely,' I said, taking my opportunity to break in, 'surely the crux of the present concern is the improved methods of destruction - insecticides, and so on, and the inability to determine the side-effects of their use. Isn't it due to the speed of everything nowadays? - when you can exterminate a species in a year or so, and only begin to perceive the secondary effects when it is too late? It seems to me that is another way to the dustbowl.'
'It could be,' she agreed. 'But the discretion in their use needs to be intelligent, not sentimental. Behind most of this talk of "balance" I perceive the old idea that "Mother Nature" knows best. Leave everything to her, don't interfere, and she'll look after us. Which is, of course, complete rubbish. It is a concept that could only have arisen in a comfortable, well-fed society which has forgotten what it is to struggle for existence. Nature is *not* motherly, she is red in tooth and claw, she ravens for food - and she has no favourites. For the time being we are sitting pretty - but not for long. The same laws that operate for every species that outbreeds its food supply will operate for us. When that happens we shall hear no more of this benevolent Mother Nature. Without the knowledge we have of manipulating Nature for our own ends our present population would already be going hungry - if, indeed, it had come into existence at all. The only difference between us and other species is that we have superior equipment for preying on them, and for coercing Nature for our own benefit. Beyond that the same rules apply. There is no warrant whatever for supposing one can "preserve the balance of nature" - with man comfortably in the saddle, which is what the whole concept implies.'
We looked across the water to the dark bulk of the island.
'Well,' I said, 'if one takes a long enough view, I suppose all existence can look futile. A planet is born, it cools, it brings forth life, it dies. So what?'
'So what, indeed?' she replied. 'There is only the life-force, the patriotism of species. And that is blind. It is shared by the highest organisms and the lowliest . . . and understood by neither . . .'
'How do you, speaking as a biologist, see the future of man?'
'I can't look round corners. Life is full of accidents and imponderables. He seems evolutionarily to have come to an end. But he is not effete. Who can tell? He *may* produce a new type - and *may* allow it to survive. He may all but wipe himself out, again and again - and start again each time, becoming a new creature in the process. Or he may be superseded . . . just scrapped; another of Nature's unsuccessful experiments. On the face of it, and as he is at present, I can't see much future for him.'
- Web, John Wyndham, p63-66

the chelsea murders

Very disappointed with The Chelsea Murders by Lionel Davidson, which won the Gold Dagger in 1978. It was muddled, it cheated, and ultimately you didn't really care that much who of the ill-distinguished suspects had done it. One of the oddest things about it was that it felt like it was set in the sixties, in its themes and language, but was supposed to be contemporary, with references to Thatcher.

falling windows

All ailing governments have an atmosphere. In the mid-1990s, John Major's slowly expired amid pinstriped rebellions by Eurosceptics and Tory sleaze stories in the papers. In the early 90s, Margaret Thatcher's sickened more suddenly as poll tax protesters rioted and Michael Heseltine quietly plotted. In the early 70s, Ted Heath's was stalked and then strangled by the National Union of Mineworkers.

Yet British Labour governments - less common than Conservative ones, less tolerated by the press and, perhaps, by British society as a whole - can seem particularly doomed and melancholy in their final stages. Thirty years ago the then Labour prime minister Jim Callaghan took delivery of two new official cars. Callaghan was a highly patriotic premier, and British manufacturing was in need of a lift after the recession of the mid-70s; so the cars had been ordered from British Leyland, the state-owned car maker. But to many of his government's critics British Leyland's workmanship exemplified all that was unhealthy about the economy under Labour in the 70s. The cars, when they arrived, were found to have 34 mechanical faults between them.

They were sent back, repaired and fitted with £250,000 of security features, a considerable outlay at the time, especially for Callaghan's administration. When the cars were finally ready, the prime minister was taken in one to an official engagement. On the way, he opened one of its electric windows for some air. The window fell in his lap. He lost power nine months later.

This example of how accident-prone prime ministers can become when their fortunes turn downward comes from the diaries of Bernard Donoughue, Callaghan's senior policy adviser during his three years as premier.
- from a Guardian article, Saturday 13 September

unbribed

In the meantime those who have lambasted Styles should remember that at least British refs make honest mistakes, in which respect they are a bit like Humbert Wolfe's view of the press: 'You cannot hope to bribe or twist, thank God, the British journalist. But seeing what the man will do unbribed there's no occasion to.'
- nice quote from the end of a piece on Rob Styles and refs mistakes, Guardian, Saturday 25 October

residual racism

Even in the rural heartland, Obama has sparked an explosive conversation: In this weathervane state they love God and guns. But they also see the long shadows of slavery and discrimination
- Guardian, Thursday 30 October

extract:
Up the road in Sedalia a former army officer, for many years a staunch Republican, tells me he will vote for Obama. He's disgusted at the way the Bush administration lied to them about Iraq. But it would be easier if Obama were white. In fact, he would find it difficult to vote for him if he were really African-American "That's black slave American", he helpfully explains to this foreigner. Those people are so "mad" inside, he says, using the word in the colloquial American sense. Fortunately, Obama's not really an African-American, just an American with an African father. But still, he feels "queasy" about that.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm emphatically not here as a condescending urban liberal, a cultural tourist from the Guardian, hellbent on sneering at these sad, backwoods rednecks, and maligning them as racists. Far from it. These were decent, honest, warm-hearted people I met, and they were acknowledging and frankly wrestling with the problem of residual racism, not propagating it.

richard dawkins interview

Interesting interview with Richard Dawkins from the Guardian of 25 October, although he could have done with a better interviewer. He is as dismissive of the suggested 'comforts' of religion as any Christian would be.

the consciousness of severed heads

A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge: Does the head remain briefly conscious after decapitation (revisited)?

- final section particularly striking:

Then I received a note from a U.S. Army veteran who had been stationed in Korea. In June 1989 the taxi he and a friend were riding in collided with a truck. My correspondent was pinned in the wreckage. The friend was decapitated. Here's what happened:
My friend's head came to rest face up, and (from my angle) upside-down. As I watched, his mouth opened and closed no less than two times. The facial expressions he displayed were first of shock or confusion, followed by terror or grief. I cannot exaggerate and say that he was looking all around, but he did display ocular movement in that his eyes moved from me, to his body, and back to me. He had direct eye contact with me when his eyes took on a hazy, absent expression … and he was dead.
I've spoken with the author and am satisfied the event occurred as described.

holiday lifestyles of the rich and powerful

Even a Bullingdon baronet can struggle in the rarefied air above democracy: Osborne's Corfugate error was to break the club rules of the powerful rich who, sweetly, let political types appear important
- Guardian, 25 October

One of the most interesting things about this whole story is, as this article focuses on, the peculiar world these people move in where these kind of holiday locations and holiday companions and activities are normal. Makes Alistair Darling's Uig holidays all the more admirable.

more ross and brand

Puerile prank that left BBC stars and executives on the ropes: Corporation reeling as crisis reopens old wounds from celebrity salaries to the relationship with licence fee payers
- Guardian, 30 October

The Brand-Ross affair is a chance for the BBC to end the culture of cruelty that permeates its comedy: For most people, the 'line' in comedy is between what is funny and what is not. Well-directed satire amuses everyone, young or old
- Alexander Chancellor, Guardian, Friday 31 October


Four of the surprising things about this whole business: how old Andrew Sachs is; seeing a photo of the granddaughter in question; that the thing was pre-recorded and edited; that it became a story so long after the event.