31 December 2008

Oligarchs of the world unite

Almost lost among the myriad recent failings of western capitalism was the story that Gazprom is broke. This time last year it was vying to become the world's largest company, and now investors are deserting it like a new year's party after the booze has run out. Having once had the governments of western Europe over a barrel, the unofficial private monopoly of Russian gas has been forced to go cap in hand to the government for a cash bailout, after running up debts of $49.5 billion.

I realise in these days of trillion dollar debt this might not seem like a lot, but to give it some context, that is roughly the equivalent of the combined public and private debt of India, China and Brazil for next year. For those of us uneasy with the fact that our central heating bills were bank-rolling Vladimir Putin's political agenda, this is an unexpected silver lining to the rather big black cloud in the economic sky. And it also gives western governments a chance to laugh up their sleeve - after all, it seemed a touch unfair that Russian capitalism was quite so dynamic, as the Johnny-come-latelys of the free market.

But I guess the fact that Gazprom will soon be a basket-case company, propped up by government money to protect its inefficient practices, in many ways, shows how far the Russians have come in 18 years. It took General Motors nearly one hundred years to achieve that level of business acumen.

30 December 2008

Cutting crime

As if it wasn't depressing enough with half of UK retailers about to go out of business, the Conservatives have decided a good bit of panic is in order, by drawing attention to the rise in knife crime in the UK. According to their figures, there are now 6 knife murders every week in the UK. The inevitable corollary of this message is a demand for more police on the streets.

Given the disproportionate coverage this sort of crime regularly attracts in the news, I thought this was a rather small number, so the story actually had the reverse effect of its intention by reassuring me, rather than making me anxious. It is a well-known principle of political stirring, of course, relying on the general inability of humans to make sense of statistics and use them to calculate probability.

Last year, according to the Office of National Statistics, there were 504,052 deaths in the UK. Of these 2,481 people killed themselves with intent, while another 2,236 were met their deaths after an accident in the home. So by just using the raw data, I am nearly ten times more likely to either kill myself on purpose, or by accident under my own roof, so maybe the government should send round a few coppers to my house, just in case.

19 December 2008

Criminal advertising

Though it is not always easy to tell, the creation of advertisements in the UK is often considered to be something we are rather good at. Not only is there a regulator who says what you can do, there are actually lots of awards for its practitioners, giving the impression of some sort of quality standards that must exist. Not just any idea can become a professional advert, you understand.

Except at Christmas. Obviously there are conventions that are not so much expected as demanded (fake snow, golden turkeys amid a table of food groaning under the weight of its own opulence etc). But there is also an incredible amount of lazy, derivative advertising that gets redressed and wheeled out every year, like the Christmas decorations. It's as though the Christmas period is so important to so many retailers that they adopt a herd mentality, never daring to break from the pack with an original campaign. This year's John Lewis campaign (know the person, know the present) is an obvious example.

But I was today stopped in my tracks by a seasonal ad outside Colchester station that was original in its approach, but it served to remind me that 'original' is not the same as 'good'. As far as I can tell, Essex Police have dispensed with the services of a professional advertising agency in their latest PR assault upon the criminals of Colchester and decided instead to hold a competition amongst primary school children. How else to explain such an appalling piece of creative - reproduced below for your pleasure:

Where to begin? It's the season of goodwill, so let's overlook with the pretext that a local criminal will think twice about a bit of B&E when confronted with a 48-sheet normally aimed at commuters (insert joke here about City workers being criminals). We start with a statement so obvious, I can scarcely believe they bothered - if you nick something you might get caught. I presume this is also true of other times of the year, and that it's not just Christmas when coppers try extra hard to catch perps.

Then there's the pun. My son thought it was funny when he found out there was a herb called Thyme, before he became sophisticated and moved on to laughing at farts. To illustrate the power of this double entendre, we have a seasonal visual, and the central weakness of the idea: that you cannot show a picture of thyme, because that would be to underline the joke and remove the 'gap' you want the readers to close in their minds. So you have to show something else we serve at Christmas that may contain thyme - but is hardly synonymous with that herb. Because we don't serve thyme at Christmas, we serve turkey, cranberry sauce, puddings and cheap wine. We might equally have a close-up of a paper crown with the line "Commit a crime at Christmas? You must be crackers".

I suppose the main problem I have is understanding the call to action. Having processed the information, what does the advertiser want me to do? Given that the target audience is pretty narrow (unless ordinary members of the public suddenly start committing crime at Christmas), are we really to believe hardened criminals will have their hearts turned by the prospect of missing a roast turkey dinner with their families? Such insight into the criminal mind seems dangerously simplistic for a modern police force - maybe Essex Police also think lags dress up in black-and-white hooped jumpers with bandit masks and a sack marked "SWAG"?

I'm going to investigate whether this ad is covered by the remit of the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

16 December 2008

Who went bust the best?

Having dealt with irony in his interview with Andrew Marr (see below) former Prime Minister Sir John Major then moved on to delusion. In outlining where Gordon Brown had gone wrong, he also set about explaining where John Major had gone right. It turns out that, contrary to popular memory, the last recession was, in fact, his finest hour.

The problem with the present government is it is going broke in the wrong way. Because the current recession is a result of the credit crunch and collapse of the global banking system operating under very loose regulation (whose idea was that?), Gordon Brown has the "luxury" of public spending to boost growth. So pity poor Sir John whose misfortune was to create the wrong type of recession - one born of "inflationary growth" (again, whose fault was that?).

But brave Sir John spotted an opportunity for the country. His masterstroke was to cure the UK economy once and for all of the scourge of inflation that had plagued governments for 50 years. Engineering a recession to "cure" inflation is certainly a novel approach - like Henry VIII's radical solution to the problem of Anne Boleyn's headaches.

Presumably, therefore, the cure for the Conservative Party's split over Europe was to engineer the heaviest election defeat for 180 years. Another triumph for Sir John...

15 December 2008

It's like rain on your wedding day...

Sir John Major has been speaking out about the looming recession and government attempts to fix the problem. On the Andrew Marr show he said it was "ironic" that Gordon Brown should be heralded as the saviour of the world when the recession is attributable to his own mistakes.

It's an interesting point, but is it ironic? What I think would be more ironic would be, say, if someone who had been Chancellor of the Exchequer who engineered Sterling's entry to the European exchange rate mechanism, after years of pegging the Deutschmark, despite interest rates of 15%, an inflation rate three times higher than Germany's and a boom coming to the end of its cycle. And if that person then became Prime Minister, and spent £27bn of UK reserves shoring up the pound, ultimately failing, and then plunging the UK economy into a recession and housing market crash. And then if that same person had the big brass neck to turn up on TV to tell another Chancellor-turned-Prime Minister where he had gone wrong.

Yes, I think that might be really ironic.

10 December 2008

Dead air

In a great PR coup, Sky is claiming its show about assisted suicide is the first in the UK to show a man dying on air. This, of course, is patently untrue, as anyone who watched Sky's "Baddiel's Syndrome" a few years' ago will attest.

06 December 2008

Relatively speaking

While having the misfortune to be ill last weekend, I had the even greater misfortune to catch several hours of programming on The Disney Channel. For those of you unfamiliar with its oeuvre, it is an odd mix of cloying North American moralising dubbed into English accents, transmitted through a variety of emetic formats. High on the list of culprits is ‘Little Einsteins’, which I watched with incredulity.

‘Little Einsteins’ is a TV sub-brand of the popular “Baby Einstein” product range, that keeps the great scientist himself in the top ten list of highest-earning dead people. ‘Baby Einstein’ preys upon the worst instincts and weaknesses in parents who should know better, by charging premium prices for ordinary toys with some claim to pseudo-scientifically proven benefits for infants. No sooner does a story appear about an alleged link between exposure to Mozart and precocious child development, and the Baby Einstein company will produce a dummy that plays the prelude from Cosi Fan Tutte.

While the products are careful to make no claims to turn your darling dunce into a Nobel prize-winner, the inference one is meant to draw is clear: the use if the Einstein name is lending scientific credibility to the product, even if none is demonstrated. Similarly, the “Little Einsteins” TV programme purports to introduce pre-schoolers to the world around them by encouraging investigation and observation. And then it blows it by falling back into educational gibberish.

In last Sunday’s episode, the diversely representative Little Einstein cartoon characters were demonstrating how seeds grow into plants, and the required ingredients and processes. Except they were magic musical seeds which, once planted, warmed and watered, grew into musical instrument-bearing plants in the vegetable patch. Ripe harpsichords and swelling violins, growing on the vine - is this what Einstein's reputation and ideas will mean to future generations?

Of course the easy defence for this is: it's a kids TV show, not Science 101. But if you are using the power of the Einstein name to explain the world around you, that surely brings with it some responsibilities? Or does anything go? Imagine if the Little Einsteins went to find where eggs came from and discovered a magic bush that grew them, instead looking underneath a chicken - would that be a good thing to teach our children? It smacks of a middle-class muddled-headedness about the role of science, and our children's engagement with the world: that somehow teaching kids about the science of the world in which they live will stunt their imagination, or will bore them - neither of which is true.

Incidentally the word "Einstein" is a trademark of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem - so I'm guessing that's where the royalties go. I hope that doesn't so much comment on the state of teaching at that university as the parlous state of funding for higher education that relies on Disney Faustian pacts.

25 November 2008

Speak softly and carry a big stick

When financial experts first started wringing their hands over the nationalisation of Northern Rock, there was much talk of Moral Hazard - the risk of incentivising immoral behaviour by preventing business failure. Today it seems so many institutions have been shored up, underwritten, merged and injected with government cash, there are more moral hazards than in a vicar's billiards room.

We don't tend to hear much about this phrase anymore, probably because we have moved beyond the point where we can debate the ethics of bailing out large banks. But I think we are finally starting to understand what it means: it's when the government gives a bank a squillion quid to lend to its customers, and the bank decides it wants to keep the money, because all its customers don't have the luxury of Moral Hazard and might go bust. Finally, the government tells them they really should think about letting other people play with the money, and the banks say: "Or you'll do what?"

It reminds me of the observation by the American comedian, philosopher and visionary, the late, great Bill Hicks, about the fact that British policemen do not carry handguns as standard issue. "What do they shout when they're chasing crooks: 'Stop. Or I'll shout stop again'? ". Maybe Alastair Darling should take a leaf out of his book and start carrying a loaded gun to his regular meetings with the banking Chief Execs. Instead of pleading with them to play fair, he could start to redefine the meaning of Moral Hazard.

Neither a borrower or lender be

One outcome of the apparently endless global financial crisis is it makes everybody very relaxed about unfeasibly large numbers. Last year we gulped at the prospect of a £50 billion guarantee behind Northern Rock, this summer we remained calm despite a £500 billion programme of bank guarantees and underwritten savings. So by the time it came to yesterday's Pre Budget Announcement that government borrowing would rise to £78 billion, we were all fairly blase.

In 2010, this borrowing is set to rise further to £118 billion. Meanwhile, in the USA, it was announced that an additional $800 billion would be injected into the American economy, taking their annualised borrowing to nearly a trillion dollars. As this is all being done in order to save a paralysed global banking system, the question occurs to me: who is Alastair Darling borrowing from?

It's such a simple question, and probably explains why I never studied economics. But if no-one has any money, forcing the government to borrow beyond the realms of the human imagination, then who is doing the lending here? Because if the government has run out of cash, and so have the banks, I wonder who actually has all the money that is keeping everything afloat? Probably a ship of Somali pirates on a floating barge full of cash, somewhere in the Indian Ocean.

22 November 2008

A question of privacy

The death of a child in Haringey has been exercising the minds of the fourth estate this last week. Half a million people have signed a petition calling for the sackings of those in charge of his care. His image has been plastered all over every newspaper and media outlet. His parents have been named, shamed, convicted and sentenced over his death, in a public court of law. The sordid details of his sorry, short life have been endlessly picked over, including the results of his post-mortem.

Yet the media persist in referring to him as Baby P. Sticking my neck out, but I reckon it wouldn't really be considered an invasion of privacy to use his actual name, whatever that is. I'd hazard a guess that protection from media intrusion is not something he has much use for these days. At least putting a name to that sad, haunted face might give him a shred of dignity, and remind us he was a person not a political football or means to sell newspapers.

The sound and the fury

Newspapers are very angry places to be at the moment. Frustrated because no-one reads them anymore, their obsolete technology is lost on an entire generation of young people who simply do not read the daily press. Circulations are falling through the basement, and they are reduced to hawking their editions through the lure of tie-in promotions: free DVDs, health spas, discount vouchers, anything as long as it isn't associated with reading the printed word.

Recently they have hit upon a new strategy - creating a climate of anger, harnessing the public reaction, and riding it like a bucking bronco until the next object of bile comes along. In an attempt to appear relevant, online versions of the same press encourage the world to join in the hate - email your views, sign a petition. In London, free newspapers are given out on the streets every evening that consist mainly of the opinions of its readers, the angrier the view, the more likely its chance of publication.

There is no consideration of the implications for this spleen venting beyond the next month's ABC figures, but it seems to be a model in tune with times of uncertainty and economic depression. If we were riding the crest of a booming economy, with the prospects of jam tomorrow instead of bread and dripping, I can't think that the whole Ross/Brand phone pranks story would have garnered the interest it did. Of the 30,000 people who complained to the BBC, about 29,998 never thought to complain until prompted to do so by the media. They bought the papers, logged on to the YouTube postings to enjoy the permission granted by the press to get angry.

This week saw the strategy descend into bathos, as the same set of journos at the start of the week were telling us to be angry about the death of an abused child that, by the end of the same week, urged us to rage about a contestant on Saturday night TV show. There is no quality control - the anger itself is the main thing. So far half a million people have signed a petition with The Sun newspaper following the death of Baby P at the hands of his parents that is revealing in its vagueness: rather than a reasoned assessment of where the fault lies before judgement is made, it demands a mass sacking of anyone who went near the case.

Some might argue this is good for democracy - that at least getting angry is better than the indifference of a non-voting population that feels unengaged with the political process. Personally, I feel P.J. O'Rourke put it best:

"The idea of a news broadcast was once to find someone with information and broadcast it. The idea now is to find someone with ignorance and spread it around."

08 November 2008

Between a Rock and a hard place

Forgive me for coming over all Chris Rock after the euphoria surrounding Barack Obama's election, but there's a part of me that thinks the President Elect's recent elevation might not be the liberal, inclusive evidence of America's tolerance that everyone is reporting it to be. Now the bunting has been packed away and the "McCain/Palin 2008" buttons have hit the remainder bins, the Obama campaign is letting everyone down gently by talking up the size of the task. And with good reason too, as all the sensible analysis points to an economic crisis of biblical proportions.

You can look at this two ways - after eight years of catastrophically bad leadership, the country was crying out for radical change, no matter what colour the candidate. An alternative view might be that things have gotten so bad, a small majority of Americans thought: what's the worst that could happen? The small, cynical part at the back of my mind thinks: what does this say about America, that it takes the biggest crisis of the last 80 years before a black man can make it into the white house?

Actually I don't think this is cynical at all, but quite a reasonable conclusion to draw. After all, Obama didn't start pulling away from McCain until the banking crisis really pushed the US economy down the toilet. President Bush has been setting records for the worst poll ratings for the last three years - to be in the same zip code as him, never mind the same political party, should have been as toxic as a sub prime mortgage in Detroit. If the economy had been bumping along with a few job losses, Cindy McCain would be choosing curtains for the Oval Office by now. Despite the fact that Obama was clearly the best candidate in terms of brains, eloquence, inspiration, organisation, decision-making, judgement, policy, savvy, originality and nous, it took a earthquake to the entire underpinnings of capitalism to give him a chance.

02 November 2008

The unusual suspects

A judge in Spain has recently referred a case for trial for crimes against humanity. What makes this trial unusual is that the accused is the former head-of-state General Franco. Those of you with GCSE history will have already spotted the snag with this plan: the small matter of Franco being dead for more than 30 years. For good measure judge Baltasar Garzon has also indicted 34 other assorted stooges of the former dictator's regime, all of whom are also no longer living. This will obviously limit the ability of the defence to make its case. The other obstacle to overcome is the fact there has been an amnesty law in place since 1977 that protects former regime members from being tried for war crimes.

No doubt there is much soul searching in Spain about whether this is meaningful or helps the country in any way come to terms with its past. But, in the week when it was revealed that British police had probably been under counting the number of violent crimes, I wondered whether there were plans to adopt this approach in the UK.

After all, it has certain obvious advantages - if you can pin something on a dead man, it would certainly help clear-up rates. Or perhaps we will see employment of mediums by the police, to interrogate crooks beyond the grave? The possibility of spectral mugging might explain how I can end up with no money at the end of the month.

31 October 2008

Protecting children from the Sachs offenders

Did you hear about that terrible earthquake in Pakistan on Wednesday? So far 300 dead and 50,000 made homeless, and all in desperate need of food and shelter. You may have missed this, because apparently the most important story of the week was a rude message left on an actor's answerphone. And not just the Daily Mail, the green-eyed monster who never passes up the chance to kick the BBC; even the BBC pulled on its hair shirt to flagellate itself, determined not to be accused of bias.

The caricature is a tempting one: two overpaid, over-confident, overtly sexual comedians preying on the elderly from their towers of money. At the risk of adding a little balance to the debate, the reason Brand and Ross ended up leaving messages on Andrew Sachs's answering machine is because they were trying to conduct a pre-arranged phone conversation with him, but he wasn't there. Does that justify leaving an obscene message and then broadcasting that to the nation? Probably not, but it's also not the case that they sat around thinking of old people to pick on - two broadcasters with a mischievous sense of humour then egged each other on when they probably should have known better. End of story, or at least it should have been.

Too much has already been said about the merits of "edgy" comedy on the BBC, whatever that means. But if what happened this week is the occasional price of trying to be innovative, then I think it is worth paying, with all the caveats and apologies you like. The BBC should be allowed to fail, because without that risk of failure, they will never achieve greatness. The victory of a policy of taste as dictated by the Daily Mail will be the triumph of mediocrity - where all comedy is Terry and June, all entertainment is Dancing on Ice and everything tastes of vanilla.

23 October 2008

Buyer beware (2)

Given the way the present financial crisis seems to have caught even the brightest economic minds in the world by surprise, perhaps we are looking too deeply for the tell-tale signs that would have warned us of impending meltdown. Certainly the development of increasingly complex financial instruments, from Options to CDS'es, that separated the price of the risk from the asset it backed didn't help.

But following the Icelandic banks whose assets are now frozen, there seems to be more nominative determinism at work, as Goldman Sachs laid off 10% of its workforce today, giving lazy headline writers perhaps the easiest day's work this year. Certainly the credit ratings given to banks by Standard & Poor must feel uncomfortably close to the truth. And I am not sure I would trust my savings to the New Zealand-based company called Blackhole Investments. As for the Fuxin Bank in China - let's hope that one stays nationalised.

19 October 2008

Sounding off

Much has been made of the return to government of Peter Mandelson, now ennobled as Lord Mandelson, in his role as Business Secretary. I had forgotten how long he had been out of the cabinet, not least since the rise of David Cameron to the post of Leader of the Opposition, so it was not until today that I was struck by how similar their voices are. I am now thoroughly confused when I hear either Cameron or Mandelson on the radio, as I struggle to work out which one it is.

Maybe it's the logical conclusion of both parties copying each others policies, presentational style and techniques. It's not like you can even be sure when you hear their views, as both parties seem intent on muscling out each other for occupancy of the centre ground. I'm also unsure as to who should be most offended by the comparison.

10 October 2008

The show must go on

I've recently started reading Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, and found it surprisingly easy going, despite its 1200 pages. I must admit, though, that when reading about the lives of the wretched of 19th century France, my first thought isn't: this would make a cracking musical.

I haven't seen "Les Mis" on the stage, so can't pass comment on it. But so far Fantine has left her daughter with a family to live in child slavery while she has had both her front teeth removed, and her hair cut off, to pay for the child's upkeep. Now she has had to resort to prostitution to support herself and her growing drink habit. It's not exactly Salad Days.

09 October 2008

Art for wealth's sake

The best place to put your money right now seems to be into safes. And not just literally, for it seems the sales of home safes has gone through the roof since the start of the recent global economic crisis. And no doubt someone at IKEA is right now inventing a new mattress with a zip and padlock on the side for the lower end of the market. As the world looks for new places to put cash it once thought was safe in the bank, a few surprising investment trends have become apparent.

It might seem counter-intuitive in these uncertain times to invest in luxury goods, but it seems that is where the smart money is going. Fine wines and champagnes continue to buck the trends, and the recent auction at Sotheby's of Damien Hirst's work shocked the art world with the prices he was able to attract, pocketing the shark pickler a cool £111,000,000.

But I can see a problem with this:

"Darling, the milkman needs paying, and I've only got an early Picasso - he says he can't change more than a small Braque."

"Try next door - see if they'll change it for a couple of Rothkos"

08 October 2008

An Englishman's house is his castle in the air

Another day, another impressive range of zeros is wheeled out by the UK government to persuade the heroes-turned-zeros in the banking world to cheer up a bit. As the panic raises another notch seemingly every day, the amounts of money being found behind the back of government sofas gets every more dizzying. It seems to have reached a point where most people are numb to developments; a year ago, a run on a middling UK bank was a sign of the apocalypse. Today, we greet the imminent collapse of titanic high street institutions with barely a raised eyebrow, before changing the channel.

And so it is with the money required to pay for the investment folly of the elite. Today the UK government announced financial guarantees to the money markets worth up to £500 billion, according to the Evening Standard. The BBC, however, reckoned it added up to £400 billion, further proof of this blase response that two media outlets could disagree about the most important news story of the day by the equivalent of total UK annual health budget. As the numbers get ever greater, the nature of what is underpinning the entire economy becomes ever more surreal.

To put it in context, today's announcement guarantees the near-equivalent of the government's entire annual budget. That's like the government not spending money on anything for a year - from paperclips to pensions, DSS leaflets to Darling's tea bags. Think of how much of a fuss was made about the will-they-won't-they vote by the US Congress over the recent US government bail-out. This was more money - both in absolute and relative terms - but do you think our elected representatives will get the chance to tilt at the idiots who got us into this mess, make them sweat a bit? I think all we'll be invited to do is shut up and pass the money.

Assuming the government spending will not immediately cease for a year, they will have to borrow the money. I'm guessing not from the banks they are bailing out. I am also presuming that the collateral used to secure this borrowing is that famous bottomless pit, the UK Taxpayer? So, in fact, the government is not the lender of last resort - I am. And if those loans are called in, who's going to bail out the government?

This begs the question: can I ever be said to own my house if it is, effectively, part of the security against bailiffs reclaiming the entire United Kingdom? No wonder the housing market is a bit flat at the moment.

Buyer beware (1)

Savers in the bank "Icesave" woke up yesterday to find their assets had been frozen, as part of the global bankers' bonus panic.

I think the clue was in the name - something of a risk, you'd think, when investing in banks in Iceland.

24 September 2008

Just because you're paranoid...

Noel Edmonds has been creating publicity for his new Sky TV show, though maybe not the way his new employers had in mind. Having mugged his way through a 30-year career at the beeb, and diverted a fair chunk of the Corporation's earnings into his own trousers, he has announced he is no longer willing to put some back in the other end by stumping up for a TV licence.

This is not, you understand, a protest against the quality of programming or declining standards that usually marks people having a pop at Aunty - he even described the licence fee as "astonishing value". It's because the BBC has become too "aggressive" in the way it goes about collecting the fee: "There are too many organisations... that seem to think it's OK to badger, hector and threaten people," he said. In Noel's eyes, then, the BBC is no better than a loanshark.

In Edmonds' world, time was when Lord Reith himself would come round with a posy of flowers and a four-pack to ask if you wouldn't mind most awfully chipping in a tanner or two for that lovely Mr Dimbleby's wages. Presumably he doesn't remember the TV Detector vans of the 1970s, or maybe he views them fondly because of their ineffectiveness - a fig-leaf for the fact that, for years, successful collection of BBC revenue was largely self-policing. Even today, when the idea of a collectivist entertainment system seems increasingly at odds with a culture of individual choice, more than 93% of properties pay for a TV licence.

True enough the BBC will prosecute people for failing to pay for a service they use - more than 1000 are caught every day. But I am willing to bet they aren't half as "aggressive" as the Royal Bank of Scotland when it called in a disputed debt it claimed it was owed by Noel Edmonds, precipitating the collapse of his business empire. The sort of thing that might make a man feel as if the world was out to get him.

I began to wonder whether Edmonds applies this rather bizarre principle to other parts of his life. When he pays for something in a shop, does he walk out without paying if the vendor forgets to say 'please'? Does he dodge bills in restaurants if he feels the waiter was looking at him funny? Maybe Sky could try their luck by refusing to pay him for his new TV show, just to see how aggressive he became - then withhold indefinitely as a matter of principle.

Politics in the age of celebrity

Two eight-year-old schoolgirls were on the London underground yesterday sat beside me. One was ostentatiously showing-off her sophistication by reading the free Metro newspaper while her friend looked on admiringly. They came to a double page spread of the Labour party conference showing lots of shots of David Milliband grinning somewhat manically after his keynote speech.

"Who's that?" asked the ingenue, indicating the Foreign Secretary.

Without skipping a beat, her friend sized him up and replied, confidently: "Lee Evans".

Such savage satire from one so young.

21 September 2008

I name this President...

Two truisms about the US Presidential race are under particular scrutiny this time around.

The first is that the Vice President is "a heartbeat away" from being President; this is of particular interest given that the Republican candidate, John McCain, will be the oldest first-term President, should he win the election. A surprisingly high percentage of Presidents fail to complete their terms of office, adding further spice to the media interest bubbling around his choice of Veep, Sarah Palin.

On average, a Vice President will succeed to the top job once in every 4.77777777777778 Presidents. The last man to do so was Gerald Ford, some 5 Presidents ago, so if the mathematical mean holds, watch out for President Palin.

Which brings us to the second truism - each party's candidate will start the campaign from the extremes and gravitate towards the political centre, as the need to shore up party support turns into a need to appeal to the broadest base of people. This campaign is unusual in bucking that trend as candidate McCain has to move from a centrist nothing-to-do-with-George Bush position to reach out toward the traditional right-wing Republican base. So for all the talk about this campaign breaking new ground, it comes to something when the right-wing candidate has to recruit a small-town, pro-abortion, fundamentalist Christian gun-nut in order to give his ticket "balance". For that to represent balance, it would put McCain somewhere to the left of Fidel Castro.

Much has been made of Governor Palin's suitability for the task by both sides, but leaving aside the mud-slinging over her executive experience or lack of it - for me the key is in her children. She's had five opportunities to give her kids proper names, and blown it each time, coming up with the following collection of apparently random nouns: Willow, Piper, Bristol, Track and Trig. If we can't trust her judgement when it comes to the comparatively simple task of naming an offspring, I'm really not sure she is the best person to trust with the nuclear missile launch codes.

11 September 2008


For a country that cannot produce enough physics teachers to pass on the secrets of the universe to the next generation, it was a pleasant surprise to find the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN was the lead story on yesterday’s news. Things went so smoothly with the switch-on process that it seems the most difficult problem identified so far is whether to pronounce Hadron as “Hay-dron” or “Had-dron” amongst the scientifically illiterate reporters.

Best headline of the day goes to the London Evening Standard for the incontrovertible "World survives 'Big Bang' ". Presumably if the world hadn't survived the switching-on of the LHC, the Standard would have been there to report it - just in case we'd been too busy to notice.


A poster outside my local train station for the Alpha Course asks, “If God did exist, what would you ask him?”

I think my answer is probably: “Why are you using 48-sheet ambient media when a targeted email would be more cost-effective? As an omniscient being, I presume he must have all our email addresses.

From a professional point of view, in these tricky economic times it’s comforting to know that even the Almighty needs media advice.

The child wot I named.

Everyone's favourite fictitious Cock-er-ney landlord, Shane Richie, has been proudly showing off his new baby daughter, who has been burdened by the moniker Lolita Belle. I wouldn't wish to cast aspersions upon Mr Richie's literary tastes, but I am assuming he hasn't actually read the book - unless he thought that a synonym for pre-pubescent sexual precociousness was exactly the sort of thing he was after in a name.

Of course you should be able to choose an appellation because you thought it was pretty, regardless of its connotations. But all the same, if you were to call your kid Adolf, Caligula, Crippen or Osama, you shouldn't be surprised if the birthday party invitations prove thin on the ground.

03 September 2008

It's the economy, f*ckwit

Alistair Darling is in a unique position for a politician: he is accused of being too truthful in his assessment of the state of the UK economy. Having grown up with the comfort of being lied to by politicians, it seems an honest assessment of things is something we can't handle.

But while everyone is keen to point out apparent differences between the Prime Minister's position and that of his chancellor, Darling's use of the phrase "pissed off" to describe voters' attitudes raised barely a remark. Every pre-watershed news broadcast bandied the phrase with such matter-of-fact insouciance, it made the reporting of the story more remarkable than the use of the phrase itself.

Maybe he also described the economy as being "shagged" and growth forecasts as being "shit", with a recovery likely to take "fucking ages" - which might be one reason why "pissed off" seems not to have really registered. I'll have to listen to the interview in full to find out - but faced with the unusual prospect of having a Parental Guidance warning preceding the broadcast of the interview on the BBC website, I'm half afraid of what I might hear.

30 August 2008

Where am I?

There is an attempt to modernise the image of the London Tourist Board, captured in a new advertising campaign. In a departure from the traditional shots of Beefeaters, Changing of the Guard and punks with mohican hairstyles, it uses the distinct U-bend shape of the river Thames as a visual leitmotif in a variety of settings, and carries just two words: visit London.

Yesterday I saw one of these ads on a train on the London Underground. I am not sure exactly how attention-deficient the average visitor to London is, but if people do find that particular ad useful or well-placed, I'd wonder how on earth they managed to tie their own laces, never mind negotiate the interchanges on the Central Line.

26 August 2008

Shooting fish in a barrel

Carol Thatcher revealed yesterday that her mother, the former British Prime Minister, has been suffering from dementia for 7 years.

Too easy, I'm afraid; you can fill in the punchline yourselves.

Spot the difference, part two

One is a country persecuted for the ethnicity of its majority population, which must be recognised as an independent state in record time by the Russian Duma. The other is an illegitimate polity run by criminals and terrorists. Or is it the other way around?

22 August 2008

All that glitters is news gold

The news that pop star-turned-sex-criminal Gary Glitter is heading back to the UK has been met with undisclosed glee by the reptiles of fleet street. Even the normally sober 'Today' programme on Radio 4 was reduced to tracking his progress though the airports of Asia and into the UK, as though they were expecting him to violate a child halfway through the flight.

I was left to reflect on the irony of the situation when my son was left confused by this news story that was apparently just about someone travelling on an aeroplane. Without some heavy censorship of the news by me, the feverish speculation ahead of Mr Glitter's arrival was much more of a threat to my son's mental well being than anything 'The Leader of the Gang' was likely to do.

Too much information

The government has outsourced its data-losing responsibilities to a company called PA consulting, who have 'mislaid' a memory-stick containing the personal details of 84,000 people. This is clearly a much more efficient way of lose information, rather than the recent spate of laptops left on trains in the Surrey area; memory-sticks are small enough to fit into a pocket, or down the back of the coffee machine, which means it's extremely unlikely ever to turn up again. Presumably this will be the next line of defence the Home Office will try, to reassure people the data won't fall into the wrong hands, once it has stopped shouting "IT WAS ALL THE CONTRACTOR'S FAULT" at any journalist who'll listen.

Anger seemed to dissipate once it turned out the data lost was the private addresses of the entire UK's prison population. As audiences warranting public sympathy go, banged-up criminals would rank pretty low, somewhere just ahead of Gary Glitter. But in an attempt to keep the story alive the Conservative Party has been keen to imply that this exposed the government to being sued by those affected, which seemed a pretty desperate take on the facts. After all, last year the government lost even more sensitive personal data belonging to me, along with about 25 million other people, when two CD-ROMs went missing in transit between London and Newcastle. At no point did anyone imply, let alone advise me, that I might be entitled to sue the government for negligence and claim compensation.

To me the most surprising thing is not that data gets lost - given the numbers of people who come into contact with sensitive personal data held by the Government, it is inevitable. Rather it is the dizzying quantity of bytes that seems to go astray on every occasion. Why on earth did the worker in question need the personal data on every prisoner in the UK? What was he doing - compiling an HMP Christmas Card list? It's like the stationery manager of the Bank of England taking the entire national gold reserves to the corner shop, in case he doesn't have enough cash for a packet of paperclips.

20 August 2008

Meddling at the games

The Olympic Games in Beijing has seen a new intransitive verb creep into the English language: to medal, meaning to finish in the top three places in an Olympic final. So when an unfancied Lithuanian takes bronze in the syncronised underwater hurdles, Gabby Logan turns to Michael Johnson and says: "a surprise there in third place - she wasn't expected to medal in that event".

It certainly confused me when I first heard it, as the idea of "medaling" in anything sounded very rum, as a homophone for illegal interference. To my traditional ear, for example, medaling with the Women's Beach Volleyball Team would earn a slap.

Someone else earning a slap, at least metaphorically, for the other form of meddling was Liudmyla Blonska, a Ukranian Heptathlon silver medalist who tested positive for banned substances. This brings the total of doping cheats caught at this games to five. Amid the usual cyclists and weight lifters was a North Korean shooter, Kim Jong Su. Quite what competitive advantage a shooter would gain from a dose of anabolic steroids I can't quite imagine.

Unless the North Korean food shortage has reached such heights they are feeding people on steroids to keep them going. It would certainly make for an original explanation amongst the litany of excuses usually offered by offenders.

11 August 2008

Faking Peking

Sighs of relief all round in London, as it seems the impressive opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic Games, was not all it seemed. Just as the London Organising Committee was scratching its head about how to top the Chinese efforts, it emerged, first, that the "firework footprints" that travelled across the city were actually filmed in advance. And today it was admitted that the nine-year-old girl featured singing "Ode to the motherland", Lin Miaoke, was actually miming to another girl's voice.

The Chinese authorities have been very matter-of-fact in their admittance, excusing the voice substitution: "The girl appearing on the picture must be flawless in terms of her facial expression and the great feeling she can give to people", the musical director of the opening ceremony explained. Quite what this will do for the self-esteem of the 'flawed' little girl was not mentioned.

The fireworks sleight-of-camera was provided to broadcasters for "convenience and theatrical effects", according to Wang Wei, Beijing's Organising Committee's executive vice-president, to counteract the effects of "poor visibility". That's 'pollution' to you and me.

This has given a new angle on Olympic Cynicism, a syndrome that sets in sometime between the optimism of the opening ceremony and the first positive drugs test of one of the weightlifting competitors. Now we can speculate whether, in fact, a result will be invalidated not by an injection of nandrolone, but for convenience and theatrical effects of the host nation. Look out for the first Chinese winner of the Men's 100m Final.

Spot the difference

One is a persecuted minority fighting for self-determination in armed defence of their nation. The other is a bunch of terrorists committing an act of treason.

Or is it the other way around?

10 August 2008

If I should die, think only this of me...

The conflict in North Ossetia between Russia and Georgia has caught everyone off guard - the most serious news story of the year right in the middle of the silly season, the classic example of the place "far away about which we know little". While all reportage of bombardments and refugees fills the airtime, it seems even the "serious" journalists have been so busy trying to work out which side is The Good Guys, everyone seems to have overlooked a salient point:

Georgia is an "accession" country to NATO - on the threshold of joining the biggest military coalition since the great alliance between France, Britain and Russia in 1914. And we all know what happened then. So, if we had accepted Georgia's entry when it was last mooted at the Bucharest summit last April, we would technically find ourselves at war with Russia right now, under the protocol of mutual security.

As NATO seeks to expand ever eastward, under the principle of Annoying The Russians, the potential for embroiling ourselves in ever more obscure ethnic conflicts multiplies almost exponentially. There may well come a time when there's some corner of Kamyanets-Podilsky that is ever England.

06 August 2008

A feel-it of fish

A week's leave, so I went to the London Aquarium today. One curiosity was the fact that every sign in the place was also written in braille.

Who exactly was that for?

30 July 2008

Life lessons from Ryanair

Earlier this week Ryanair, the world's least favourite airline, issued a profit warning, turning its earlier rosy forecasts of 10% growth in profit into 10% reduction in profits. As the shares slid, Chief Exec, Michael O'Leary, warned of even lower fares and subsequent margins in order to keep up its market share. He blamed not just the rise in energy costs, but the potentially damaging proposal by the EU to drop subsidies for regional airports, subsidies that underpin the entire Ryanair business model.

Needless to say, whatever Ryanair loses in fares it will make up by increased charges for baggage, overweight baggage, unevenly distributed baggage contents, early boarding, food, drink and unfashionable clothing. Actually the last one might not be true, but with Ryanair you never can tell. They seem to pride themselves on delivering a service that gives customers a philosophical lesson in the sheer arbitrariness with which they can apply the rules and fleece passengers of cash.

I flew Ryanair four times (I say "flew" rather than "have flown" because I do not intend to ever use their 'services 'again), and of those four flights, I had a profoundly negative experience on two occasions. They apply the principle of Lowest Common Denominator not just to their prices, but as an entire customer service philosophy, all the time asking the question: exactly how much bad service can we get away with? The answer is, of course, almost anything as long as they keep the fares low, as they understand customers, essentially, in terms of prostitution - we will suffer more or less any degradation as long as the price is right. And the lower the fare, the lower the service, but the more we love it, apparently.

I am intrigued by the point at which people realise that a service is something that is actually worth paying for. That no matter how low an airfare becomes, there is a point at which human dignity requires some self-respect.

I suppose I should end my boycott of Ryanair in order to enjoy an experience of the arbitrariness of life - random punishments and misfortune would remind me of the chaotic lack of purpose that characterises human life on earth, and that all complaints famously go unanswered would serve to remind me that there is no retribution after the event.

But I'll settle instead for the amusement of hearing Michael O'Leary call the European Union "communists" because they are considering stopping paying him subsidies via the obscure airports Ryanair uses. Maybe he should write them a letter of complaint?

24 July 2008

Moon Unit Esq.

As someone who has had the awesome experience (in the true sense of the word) of giving another human being a name to be known by, I read with interest about the New Zealand judge who has drawn a line in the sand over the choice of names parents may give their children (story here). In such a subjective field, clearly one man's Matt is another man's Poison, but there can be few who wouldn't consider the newly-outlawed name Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii to be rather unusual. I don't know by what moniker the nine-year-old former Ms Hawaii goes by now, but it must certainly make school registration less onerous.

It has thrown open the debate on acceptable names, as this decision is just one of a number that the kiwi judiciary has been comfortable making in recent years to combat extreme parental boredom. It also reveals the arbitrary nature of what is deemed acceptable - apparently you can get away with calling your offspring Violence, Number 16 Bus Shelter and Benson & Hedges (twins), but not Sex Fruit, Stallion or Fish & Chips (twins). Such randomness seems almost as bizarre as wanting to call your child Yeah Detroit, another unacceptable name according to the NZ courts.

Casting my mind back to the naming process, while I don't think I would have been troubling the Registrar with Keenan Got Lucy or Cinderella Beauty Blossom, the desire to be different is certainly a strong one. While we may crave the anonymity of conformity for ourselves, we think our children so profoundly unique that they must stand apart from the crowd. Thus names such as John and Alan have dropped out of common usage altogether for the under 5s - instead replaced by herds of Freyas and Benjamins.

When considering these things, you have to think of the long game. Prince Harry's on-off girlfriend Chelsy Davy is clearly from posh stock, so imagine her parents feelings about the ubiquitousness of that name that must have seemed so other-worldly back in the 1980s. I recall hearing a distinctly non-ABC1 parent screaming "You-ni-ee" across a crowded TK Maxx at her errant daughter, no doubt sending the Mitford sisters spinning in their graves. Who knows whether similar fate will befall the Oscar of today in 20 years time. No doubt there were a few teenage Adolfs in the 1940s who felt the uncomfortable need to change their names. Under such circumstances, it is perhaps not surprising parents reach for ever surreal combinations of names. After all, if you met Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii, it seems certain you'd remember her, which is surely part of the point about being named.

22 July 2008

Drink up, there are thirsty children in Africa

Volvic's latest sales promotion employs an interesting approach to the psychology of selling. As you prepare to slake your thirst with a litre of France's finest H2O, your eye is caught by the label that tells of the chance to turn this into a 10 litre drink for people in Africa. For every litre of Volvic sold, Danone is committed to delivering 10 litres via various well-creation schemes in Mali, Ghana, Malawi and Zambia. So you can offset your guilt about the amount of landfill your plastic water bottles create with the knowledge you are helping the needy in Africa.

Maybe it's just me, but there seems something ridiculously mercenary about this whole scheme. By combining the two events (water sales in Europe, water supply in Africa) in such a precise ratio, it has the unintended consequence of making them appear to be linked as cause and effect. The proposition 'if you drink our water, we'll pay for water for Africa' begs the question: "what happens if we don't drink enough"? Will the wells run dry across the savanna if we stop sticking away litres of spring water? Drink faster everyone, the summer is coming.

It also is to misunderstand an important sales technique: the reciprocity principle. Humans are hard-wired to understand reciprocity as the basis for social organisation - you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours. Numerous successful sales techniques are built upon the idea that giving something to a customer makes them far more likely to buy something from you. But your chances of doing this successfully are multiplied if you do the giving first - it puts the obligation onto the customer, even if no formal arrangement exists. If it didn't work, companies wouldn't bother giving away free gifts, trial packs, BOGOFs, discounts and prize draws.

Returning to our thirsty Africans, Volvic are expressing this the wrong way around - putting the onus upon us to act, before they will fulfill their side of the bargain. Of course the small print reveals that they are not that callous: they have actually already committed to paying for kit that will deliver 2 billion litres of water regardless of my consumption. But to make the promotion pay, they feel the need to link this provision directly to sales, which is not just an error of PR judgement, but one that will directly impact upon the bottom line.

I'm willing to bet the president of Volvic that he would sell more water if he put the 2 billion figure up front, and let consumers follow with their wallets. I'll let you know what he says.

11 July 2008

The White Man's Burden

There was a lot of interest in the recent 11th African Union summit amongst western media. African leaders turned up to discuss the pressing matters of Millennium Development Goals around water and sanitation to find European media outlets telling everyone that the issue of Zimbabwe had overshadowed everything. Whether it did or not scarcely mattered, since the likes of The Sun were hardly going to sit through all that boring development agenda talk. They were there to observe Mugabe's arrival like schoolboys trapping bugs in a jar to see if they'll fight.

I'd like to think the British press and other parts of the Conservative party were particularly prescient in their calls for action to be taken against the Mugabe regime these last 5 years or so. No doubt the plight of the oppressed all over the world touches them deeply, evidenced by the wealth of front page news stories and foreign policy pronouncements, demanding all political corruption be opposed by force, not coming to a British newspaper anytime soon.

In fact, Mr Mugabe probably felt quite at home in Sharm el Sheikh, mixing the likes of Omar Bongo, the improbably-named President of Gabon. He's been in power for 40 years now, last elected in 2005 despite widespread accusations of electoral fraud and bribery, not to mention violence. I don't remember that leading the news 3 years ago - I must have missed it.

President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan was also there, someone whose use of violence as a political tool overshadows even that of Robert Mugabe. President Gaddafi of Libya was a low-key presence - the western media no longer seems interested in the fact that political parties have been banned in Libya since 1972 and there are no free elections as we would understand the term. Not since they gave up their WMD programme at least.

There is, of course, one big difference between Zimbabwe and other African countries: a substantial white population. Surely that couldn't be the reason for the focus on Mugabe's ills at the expense of similar coverage of some of his neighbours? Not that they deny it happens elsewhere, just that, well, it's somehow less newsworthy. Those pictures of Amy Winehouse won't print themselves you know.

The wages of sin

The Daily Mail is not a publication known for its sympathetic treatment of minorities claiming Human Rights infringements. But today they celebrated the case of Lillian Ladele, a registrar who refused to conduct civil partnership ceremonies for same-sex couples on religious grounds. When pressed to do so by her employer, she sued for infringement of her religious beliefs and won; an employment tribunal ruled that Islington Council "took no notice of the rights of Miss Ladele by virtue of her orthodox Christian beliefs."

The most interesting part of the ruling, it seems to me, is the qualification about the rights of people who hold "orthodox" religious beliefs to have their rights respected. Apparently religious orthodoxy can now be judged by industrial tribunal - that if enough people claim a faith-based reason not to to do their job, then it's okay. What about if she had refused on the grounds that she just hated gay people instead of playing the God card? Would that have been grounds for dismissal, or would Islington Council have to respect her rights to hold those views and not do her job? If not, that is putting religious beliefs on a higher footing than non-religious beliefs - what does that say about the rights of atheists?

Presumably if Ms Ladele had been a member of the South African Dutch Reformed Church, she might have claimed to right not to marry mixed-race couples. Fifty-thousand people in South Africa say that's an orthodox view, even if it might not get you on the front page of the Daily Mail.

07 July 2008


Hazel Blears, the improbably titled Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, made an exciting announcement last week about government plans to enable local authorities to tackle something called "Migrancy". It marks a return to the Good Old Days of New Labour: creating a new word to control the terms of political debate.

After all, if you were to talk about "tackling the challenge of migrants", you'd be embroiled in a political knicker-twist quicker than you can say 'Trevor Phillips'. But by saying "migrancy", you take away the agent - it's not saying the Polish builder is the issue, just the act of him coming here that is a problem. I mean challenge.

Unwittingly it gets closer to the truth than intended - Hazel loves those Czech plasterers for keeping labour costs down, if only they wouldn't insist on speaking funny and making the place look untidy. "Migrancy", then, is a new word that successfully combines two existing words: "Migraine" and "Vagrancy", planting a negative connotation in the mind without you realising. Peter Mandelson would be proud, were he not trying to concoct a few neologisms of his own to describe President Sarkozy.

04 July 2008

Apostrophe now

While looking for a present yesterday in a bookstore on High Holborn, London, I consulted the store directory, which read:

Basement: Childrens Books

In a bookstore. A place where you might go to get some learnin' about how to punctuate words right and stuff. Innit. Sweet screaming Jesus, if we can't even rely on a national chain of bookstores to punctuate its store livery correctly, then I think the end is surely nigh.

28 June 2008

Splashing out at Tesco

One of Tesco's great strengths is its understanding of price-targeting: the art of getting customers to reveal exactly how much they are prepared to pay for any goods. The genius lies in developing three lines of ostensibly the same products, aimed at three different categories of purchaser: Tesco own brand; Tesco Finest; and Tesco Value. Thus Tesco can cash in on both the people who are prepared to pay through the nose for finest* Tin Foil, as well as those who would only pay bare minimum for the same product in the Value range.

Previously I have questioned the validity of applying the finest* branding to products such as Tesco Broadband, given their inability to promise a higher-quality online experience than ordinary broadband. But today I saw an interesting application of the Value branding: Tesco Value bottled water.

Now correct me if I am wrong, but I thought that Tesco Value was aimed at people who wanted basic products. Surely bottled mineral water is the preserve of those fairly insensitive to the price of food. What next - Tesco Value fois gras?

At 17p a litre, Tesco Value Still Water does represent a more realistic cost for one of the most basic products of all, certainly when compared with the equivalent volume of, say, Evian. But if you turn on your tap around here you can apparently buy a cubic metre of clean, still drinking water for £1.20, according to Anglian Water's website. I don't even know how many litres you get in a cubic metre, but I'm willing to guess it is more than 8.

I'm quite tempted to bottle up some of my tap water and sell it outside Tesco for 10p a litre to this clearly burgeoning gentry who fancy "designer water" to accompany their turkey twizzlers. After all, at 17p each, I can't imagine Tesco is doing anything different.

27 June 2008

A tale of two Davids

Noting the candidate list at the upcoming Haltemprice and Howden by-election, I have suddenly realised why the Labour Party is not fielding a candidate against the incumbent David Davis. It's one thing to finish behind the BNP, as the Labour Party did in this week's Henley by-election. But at Haltemprice-Howden, the government would face an even greater fear: the risk of finishing behind the Other David - David Icke.

With this in mind I thought I'd check out the website of our favourite conspiracy theorist for fresh news of his run for parliament. Disappointingly, there is little comment on Mr Icke's website about his latest assault upon our intelligence, though I noted with interest all his books are available to buy online - and web-based applications to join his organisation are similarly welcome.

Given the extraordinary nature of Mr Icke's claims (see previous Hofflimits entry here) of multiple conspiracies on an eye-popping scale, you would have thought he'd be rather suspicious of the World Wide Web: a global network of computers, controlled by large corporations and governments. But there is not the slightest whiff of talk of Lizard men, the "Illuminati" or international banking being linked to this all-encompassing net. Surely he is missing a trick here?

Or could it be he has already taken a stand against the Internet but his views are somehow being suppressed by an electronic information conspiracy from which even the turquoise son of God cannot escape? That David Icke has become part of the conspiracy? I'd like to see someone on the doorsteps of Haltemprice try that one out on him, when he comes knocking for their votes.

The price of everything and the value of nothing

You can't put a price on your health, or so the saying goes. But in his book The Undercover Economist, Tim Harford argues you can do exactly that. To put it simply, the information revealed by pricing is something that can just as easily be applied to how much you'd sell a kidney for as to how much you'd sell your house for.

But can you put a price on beliefs? For example, if I think that Rupert Murdoch is an egomanical monster whose obsessive need to control the news agenda is corrosive to democracy, how much does that view cost me? After years of self-flagellation - not buying a Murdoch newspaper or a Sky TV subscription - I have settled for the moral defeat of middle aged compromise. I am now a Sky subscriber for phone, TV and Broadband.

I can, of course, comfort myself with mealy-mouthed excuses: for every Murdoch paper I didn't buy I probably read a Harper-Collins book or watched a Fox Corporation movie or TV show, both of which line Murdoch's capacious pockets. I can say I am doing it for my family, providing the best value multi-media package on the market. But I suppose the most curious compensation is that I now know the exact price of my principles. £28 per month, apparently.

15 June 2008

update: moving (very slowly) in mysterious ways

At the start of the week, I mentioned my Jonah complex, after experiencing significant rail disruption while reading God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens. By Thursday the power lines had been repaired and travels times were getting back to normal, and I continued to read Mr Hitchens' polemic as I waited for cancelled trains to take me home.

Thursday evening came, and my scheduled service left on time for the first time in a week, as I buried my head in my book, by now nearly at the end. Meanwhile, ahead of me a goods train was being derailed, bringing with it the usual effects with which I had become so familiar: replacement bus services, misinformation, confusion and open-ended delays.

While I accept the logic of Mr Hitchens' arguments, I think I'll be sure to finish the book before I next take the train to London.

With fiends like these, who needs enemies?

Much debate this week about the passage of the proposed legislation through the British parliament to enable the government to imprison people without trial for up to 42 days. Currently the police have a mere 28 days to charge people, and with much huffing and puffing, the government squeezed the bill through its second reading, like a camel through the eye of a needle.

In the agonised debates about the need to protect its citizens versus the rights of those citizens to remain unmolested, it's hard to pinpoint the precise point at which detention becomes unacceptable. No-one would deny the police some time to question arrestees before charging, but whether that is measured in hours or days, or even weeks can become Reductio ad absurdum: is 21 days acceptable but 22 a violation of habeus corpus?

Looking overseas for a steer on this debate, we can see the UK leads the way amongst western democracies, who mostly limit such detention to 7 days. Even in the War-On-Terror United States it is limited to just 2 days - on the mainland at least (military facilities in the Caribbean don't count). But I think the truth of how illiberal the UK has become is to be found in the exact opposite of such places.

Take Burma (please), or Myanmar as nobody insists on calling it. This week their military junta - generally acknowledged to be high in the Top Ten list of "people you wouldn't want running your country" - offered its latest explanation of Aung San Suu Kyi's indefinite house arrest. Her detention for the last 13 years was justified as being in line with modern anti-terrorist legislation passed by the likes of Britain. Surely you know the game is up when the Burmese government compliments you on your criminal justice system?

The fact that the UK subjects some of its citizens to indefinite house arrest, in the same way as Burma does, shouldn't fool one into making lazy comparisons, of course. After all, there are other regimes that allows such practices, so we are in good company: North Korea, Iran and Zimbabwe.

10 June 2008

Keep the change

Now Barack Obama has won the Democratic Party nomination for President, there is much idle speculation about which "first" will be realised in November - first Black President or Oldest President. The USA seems keen to congratulate itself on its apparent lack of bigotry for picking a candidate for its highest office from an ethnic minority. But is this such a breakthrough? After all, white Americans would be fairly comfortable with the sight of a black man pleading for their support behind a sign with the word "change" on it, albeit usually at the side of the road rather than a political platform.

Never mind that black politicians have been winning elections for a generation in the US, this is deemed to be some sort of breakthrough moment. Obama is clearly an extraordinary man in many ways, but he also conforms to a certain template of Presidential candidate: overachieving, driven, ambitious and articulate, with a great background story with which to burnish the myth of the Presidency. A template whose main exception seems to be the present incumbent to the Office.

If it's not Obama, then someone else will break the ceiling before long. But how long until America is confident enough to vote for a candidate who claims no religious affiliation? I think they'll have elected a score of black presidents before that particular "first" ever happens.

Moving in mysterious ways

I'm reading a book by Christopher Hitchens called God is not great. Amongst other things, it is a critique of the instinctive tendency in humans to see providential signs in the world around us - either of God's approval or disdain, depending on whether an apple falls on your head or a grand piano.

While reading this book on the train yesterday returning to London, I chanced to look up to check how far we were from our destination. At this moment I found myself looking at a billboard on the side of a house adjacent to the railway line that simply read:

A little spooky, I thought. But if Jehovah is trying to speak to me, I'd have thought he'd be a little more up-to-date than using 48-sheet ambient media. In London I transferred stations to head home, and, as I read, things got a little more direct: the overhead electric cable powering our train snapped and wound its way around the pantograph, like a fishing line snaring an angry catfish.
After dragging down a mile and a half of cabling, we had to sit for two hours in our abandoned train before help arrived. As I clambered into the relief train that would take us on our way, I think I realised how Jonah must have felt. And if we had had to wait any longer, the rest of the exasperated passengers might have felt inclined to throw me to the fishes - this being a more reasonable response than expecting a normal service from National Express trains.

28 May 2008

The book wot I didn't write

Last year, Kerry Katona published her first novel (Tough Love) and I hear the second is due to hit the remainders bin anytime soon. There is little pretence that she has written either book, in the usual sense that ordinary people would understand the phrase: put pen to paper, or fingers to key, to produce an original line of prose. She is simply the brand used to promote a product that Ebury Press no doubt hope will make a lot of money, maybe also becoming unique in the annals of literature for having written more books than she has read.

Ian Fleming also has a new book published this week to mark his centenary. He has had to overcome even greater hurdles than Ms Katona to make it to print, what with him being dead for 44 years. But into his shoes Sebastian Faulks has bravely stepped, and the result is The Devil May Care, which is rather curiously described as being "by Sebastian Faulks, writing as Ian Fleming". Unless Mr Faulks wrote the book while in costume, I'm not sure how he can honestly be described as "writing as Ian Fleming". You'd think he'd have enough trouble writing as Sebastian Faulks, judging from his recent novels. What will be his next turn - staying in bed for 20 years so he can claim to be writing as Proust?

And, so, does the ghostwriter for Tough Love have to claim to be writing as Kerry Katona? That would surely be an assignment too far for even the gamest writer.

26 May 2008

A whinge for Europe

Much muttering amongst the British conspiracy theorists, as once again the UK came last in the Eurovision song contest, something which happens almost as often as Ireland used to win it. I say "used to", for now, according to popular wisdom (or at least Terry Wogan), it would be impossible for anyone outside one of the so-called "regional voting blocks" to win. This means a country outside either Scandinavia, Baltic states or former Soviet Bloc countries.

Actually it's a pretty loose amalgam, but more or less any combination of results can be used to frame the sceptics arguments - thus if Croatia votes for Russia, it's called a slavic fix, or if they vote for Bosnia-Herzegovina, it becomes a Balkan carve up. Never mind that UK and Ireland regularly prop each other's feeble efforts up with maximum points, such sour grapes seems to be overlooking some rather basic points.

First, how many of us could remember what the UK entry was called, never mind hum it 48 hours later? By a singer whose chief claim to fame was not winning a talent contest; as a former bin man, it seems maybe Andy Abraham had been on a busman's holiday. If the UK didn't have a guaranteed bye into the final, it would have pushed Ireland's singing puppet for a less lifelike rendition of a novelty record.

By contrast, the Russian winner, Dima Bilan, is the Robbie Williams of eastern Europe, shifting millions of records as his day job. Is it possible people might have voted for him because he was an already popular singer? Of course not, because we hadn't heard of him. As well as himself, Mr Bilan had a bloke with him playing a 200-year-old Stradivarius AND an Olympic ice-skater doing circuits of the stage; give the guy his dues, at least he made the effort.

According to Terry Wogan, the performance by Andy Abraham "certainly deserved more marks than it got". Truly we must be clutching at straws, the day when we start taking Terry Wogan's views on pop music seriously

Leaving aside the aesthetics of the song contest, it seems our knowledge of recent history is about as attuned as our ear for Slavic pop. According to the conspirators, an eastern European love-in happens every year, simply because they are next door to each other. On Saturday night both Georgia and the Ukraine awarded Russia the maximum 12 points, less than 5 years after nearly declaring war on the former Motherland. Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia all traded points, despite a bitter and bloody civil war in recent memory, not to mention centuries of ethnic tension.

But let's assume the conspirators are correct and Britain will never triumph again. That would explain an entry attaining mid-table obscurity, not last place. Saturday's piss-poor finish by the UK is not explained by Croatia giving Russia 12 points, but rather by nobody at all giving us 12 points. Not even Ireland, a country whose own entry suggests they know a thing or two about singing turkeys.

22 May 2008

Keep music dead

There are sometimes advantages to not having a written constitution. The absence of Freedom of Speech laws enshrined in a codified single document used to mean that busking - the art of public performance - was illegal. But in recent, supposedly enlightened times, local authorities, and in particular Transport for London, have permitted the public destruction of music in the name of local colour.

It's ironic that this should have happened in an era when we least need it. Once upon a time, when musical reproduction equipment was confined to the home, and before the ubiquitous infiltration of muzak into every commercial building, busking might have had its place to cheer people up or help people pass the time, waiting for buses and trains. Staying one step ahead of the police, our peripatetic piper could bash out a quick tune into a world of white noise.

But when every other person seems to own an iPod or MP3 player, the market for gratuitously incompetent musicianship is surely limited. There is no greater irritant, come 6pm, when, having entered the bowels of the London Underground and blocked out the trials of another hard day with music through your headphones, the reverie is shattered by the inescapable cacophony of someone playing "Apache" at top volume on a cheese wire guitar.

The word busk comes from the Spanish root word buscar, meaning "to seek" – buskers are supposedly seeking fame and fortune, though some are clearly looking harder than others. And to the man who insists on singing "Mr Tambourine Man" at Chancery Lane station every evening in the manner of a constipated chicken: please, call off the search.

19 May 2008

No sects please, we're British

Tonight's Dispatches on Channel 4 turned its lens on the rise of fundamentalist Christianity as a political force in the UK. Being Dispatches, it had to ramp up the hysteria, painting the sorry gaggle of would-be Jeremiahs into some sort of fifth column, with the ear of decision-makers, pulling the strings of power.

The reality, of course, was a documentary about a dreary series of meetings, thinly attended by marginal people whose main threat to the mainstream population was forcing a leaflet about homosexual abomination into unwanted hands. The premise of the film - that this somehow constituted a real and present threat to British democracy - was undermined by the sheer numbers of people who failed to turn up to any of their organised protests.

In truth it was a very British form of fundamentalism: a lot of shuffling embarrassment by participants and passers-by. In fact their supposedly explosive views on Islam as apostasy were no worse than I have heard coming back the other way from members of the Muslim Council of Britain, which is supposedly the political mainstream. Certainly there was no Oliver Cromwell amongst this New Model Army.

After the storm

At last some decisive action taken by the government of Burma, to help its cyclone-ravaged population. After 17 days of inaction, it was finally announced there would be three days of official mourning. As the crowds grasp desperately for the sustenance that only a flag flying at half mast can offer, I can only guess that the Burmese authorities had been waiting until there was a really worthwhile number of dead before beginning.

It should be noted that this is official mourning. No doubt the military Junta is vigilant for anyone trying to partake in any unofficial mourning - contraband sadness that falls outside sanctioned parameters. After all, in a country infested with poverty, corruption, starvation and slavery as an official economic model, the living might start to envy those who died.

12 May 2008

Too much information

Privacy and politics do not make for easy bedfellows. From David Cameron's claims on his "private past" to Tony Blair's almost pathological obsession with protecting his children's privacy from media invasion. In 2002 Blair took a stand against media questions about whether his youngest son, Leo, had had the MMR vaccine injection on the basis of the principle of privacy: that we were no more entitled to know than we were entitled to know anything else about Leo's medical records. Presumably it reflected the consensus of Mrs Blair too, as she followed this domestic policy to the letter.

Until today, when, in exchange for a large amount of Rupert Murdoch's money, she was prepared to tell us, in, frankly, unnecessary detail, how Leo was conceived at Balmoral. As you try to remove from your mind that image of Tony and Cherie bumping uglies together in the highlands, instead reflect on what a difference to MMR take-up it might have made to have the Prime Minister publicly endorse its use. In parts of the UK, vaccination levels are as low as 70%, putting all children at risk, both inoculated and non-inoculated.

Is that Tony Blair's fault? Of course not. But, funny as it might seem now, in those days he was a sort of role model. Maybe Cherie was aware of the meaning of 'Politics' as defined by Ambrose Bierce's Devil's Dictionary: "(n.) Strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles."

06 May 2008

The book wot I didn't read

Last year Woolworths got into trouble for launching a furniture collection that included a "Lolita" bed for girls (story here). Possibly one of the few occasions when having an English degree would have had a practical workplace application.

I thought of this today when I passed the "Catch 22" employment agency in Victoria, en route to a client. Apparently the agency has been in business since 1982, though I wonder if, in all that time, any of its staff had bothered to read the eponymous Joseph Heller classic? It's not the sort of thing you'd necessarily want associated with a temporary employment agency - being trapped in a hellish existence by the merciless logic of the language of the system.

Or else the sort of place that wouldn't do much business:

"Excuse me, do you have any jobs?"
"Are you registered with us"
"No - how do I do that?"
"Well, first you'll need to have a job"

05 May 2008

Has bin

Story on the BBC Website:

"Downing Street stands by rubbish tax"

It begs the question: Which one?

Hail the victory

Tonight's episode of Waking the Dead was another weekly foray into an extreme environment, this time a thinly-disguised BNP and underground white supremacist activists. Cue the usual American History X-inspired black-and-white flashbacks to neo-Nazi gatherings - bare-chested skinheads chanting in underground meetings.

It reminded me of the one thing that always puzzles me about depictions of UK fascists: why do they always chant "Sieg Heil" at these mini-Nuremberg rallies? Is it that the enjoy either the sound of the German, or the irony of using a foreign language to describe their ultra-Britishness? Or should that be Uber-Britishness?

A third possibility is that they might not know what it means, but figure it sounds threatening enough to the average English ear. Or maybe it is simply a lazy assumption on the part of scriptwriters who don't fancy checking out a White Power meeting in order to sample the tone of voice - and the result is the equivalent of a Stonewall meeting as depicted by Jim Davidson.

28 April 2008

The day the music died

Buddy Holly has a lot to answer for.

Or, rather, his estate does - for I am sure that he little imagined, when he buckled himself into his seat aboard that Beechcraft Bonanza back in February 1959, what a monster he had spawned. Thirty years later, someone chanced upon the idea of turning his life story into a stage play, complete with soundtrack. They set in motion a terrible bandwagon that has culminated in the head-on collision that is "Never Forget - the Take That story", currently being advertised across London. Truly the new theatrical genre of "Jukebox Musical" has reached its nadir.

To date there are approximately 9,588 pop groups being written up for the stage, with another 5,116,225 in development. Having already been hit with Abba (Mamma Mia), Boney M (Daddy cool), Madness (Our House), Billy Joel (Movin' out), The Beach Boys (Good vibrations), Rod Stewart (Tonight's the night), Queen (We will rock you) and Frankie Vallie and the Four Seasons (Jersey Boys), I do begin to wonder where the line will be drawn. Milli Vanilli? Toni Basil? Or maybe "Shaddap You Face - the Joe Dolce Story".

Perhaps more worrying is the impact this will have on future creative endeavours of the pop stars of tomorrow. When the Amy Winehouses of next year are discovered, will the A&R men suggest they write an extra track that could be turned into a first half closer for the musical of their life? Will future artist sing summaries of their careers to date, in order to give any future stage show a lift halfway through the second act?

Even more frightening is the prospect of "Unbreakable - the Westlife story", coming to a stage near you. At which point I will launch a campaign for the reinstatement of the Lord Chamberlain's office as licenser of plays to the west end stage. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

23 April 2008

Man eats dog

In his forthcoming memoirs, John Prescott admits he was “not a very successful bulimic”, which probably doesn’t come as much of a shock to anyone who has seen him in the flesh. I should also hazard a guess he wasn’t much of a 100m hurdler, disco dancer or spandex model either.

Look out for Tony Blair’s autobiography where he tells the world he was a little bit taken with political spin.

02 April 2008

Dr. ink

Headline on today's London Evening Standard:

"Binge drinking crisis in London A&Es"

You'd think doctors would set a better example.

01 April 2008

Le jeu belle

Widespread consternation has been caused by the announcement of a tightening of the rules around foreign football players coming to the UK. For those coming from outside the EU, both players and their wives will be expected to speak English to secure a work permit. Jacqui Smith, the home secretary, has warned: “It’s fair that we should now set our expectation that they’re able to speak English before they come here.”

Fortunately for the future of the game in England, there are, as yet, no proposed requirements that British players should be able to speak English before they start work.

Getting out of arms way

Last week at their annual conference, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) denounced the Army for visiting a disproportionate number of inner-city schools on recruitment drives. The implication being that those attending under-performing schools in the UK would have limited career options other than as IED-fodder in the back streets of Afghanistan.

In 2007, 27 youths were murdered in London alone, mostly from knife or gunshot wounds. So far in 2008, nine young men have been stabbed to death in the capital. Maybe school leavers living in some British cities might fancy joining the army just to get away from all that violence.

25 March 2008

Thought for the Deity

As the most important festival in the Christian festival, Easter is generally treated as a more serious affair than Christmas. Rather than unmitigated joy, it is a time for reflection, for contemplation of deeper spiritual matters. It is also a time for the most smug and sanctimonious piffle you are likely to hear broadcast on public airwaves. I can't remember hearing a more self-righteous collection of judgements masquerading as moral guidance as came out of the broadcast media over the four day weekend.

Kicking off on Good Friday's "Thought for the Day" on Radio 4, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, Archbishop of Westminster, takes a swipe at the faithless for their arrogance. What puzzles the bish, apparently, is "the absolute certainty of their conviction which does not allow for any doubt ...the believers I know have a much humbler attitude".

It's a reworking of a very familiar claim - the last resort of someone who has run out of ideas. To seek an explanation of the complexities and mysteries of the world around based upon only what we can prove, in my humble opinion, is, well, pretty humble. To say: "I can explain it all - God made it" is surely the most arrogant position of all. But it saves having to expend too many grey cells.

Next up the leader of the Scottish Catholic Church, Cardinal Keith O'Brien, used his Easter sermon to pile into the debate on the proposed embryology bill as a "monstrous attack on human rights, human dignity and human life". He forgot to add something about the "human dignity" of those who live with Parkinson's and Alzheimer's who might face the prospect of a cure through such research, but I'm sure that was just an oversight.

He concluded that it would allow experiments of "Frankenstein proportion." Which was ironic, really - I don't think any of the scientists I have read on the subject have mentioned using the bill to turn the dead into the living, as Dr Frankenstein attempted. They leave that sort of thing to the church every Easter.

Finally, even the non-conformists felt a need to get in on the act, when faced with the prospect of bookmakers opening on Good Friday for the first time. A spokesman for the Methodist Church said they would prefer people to think about the day's religious significance rather than placing bets. In logical terms that's a false opposition, surely? I don't believe that one activity excludes the other.

In fact I would go further and say that placing a bet can be part of contemplating the wonder of the universe and complexity of life. If you care to really think about the chances of life existing at all on earth, and marvel at the process through which we came to be, I reckon a £10 punt on a 50-1 outsider might put things in perspective. It would certainly seem like short odds, all other things considered.

The floating holiday

This year Easter has thrown everyone: schools, first-quarter reporting for business, end of financial year. Given the ubiquitous 2 month lead up to any public festival of consumption, it meant Valentine's Day build-up started at New Year, and we had barely finished the Christmas Pudding before pancake day had rolled around. It has stretched the traditional business lull around Easter to about three weeks, as it fell upon just about the earliest possible date it can.

I'm prepared to guess that a smaller proportion of the population knows how the date of Easter is calculated than attempts a DIY project over the four day break. For the record it is, according to the English book of Common Prayer, "the first Sunday after the full moon which happens upon, or next after the 21st day of March; and if the full moon happens upon a Sunday, Easter Day is the Sunday after."

Can you imagine if Christmas was calculated in the same way? Which begs the question: why do we not decide on a fixed date in April? If we can cope with a fixed date for the Messiah's birth, I'm sure we can struggle through when it comes to mark his crucifixion. It would make it a great deal easier for the rest of the real world that has to plan holidays, work cover and Q1 revenue reports.

19 March 2008

The Ministry of Teenage Kicks

The government’s attempt to deflect attention from the recent budget took the form of a curious story about getting British teenagers to swear allegiance to the state. Given the staggering stupidity of such a proposal, it was obviously not a real story, any more than Alastair Darling is the real Chancellor of the Exchequer, but it was a curious piece of kite-flying even by New Labour standards.

At no point amid all the huffing and puffing did anyone mention what the object of such a policy would be. Arguments were advanced on either side (well, mostly against) about the practical challenges, and whom or what would be sworn to or at – but no-one seemed to come out with a straight answer about what the scheme was for. A cure for binge drinking, teenage pregnancies or happy slapping? Like ID Cards, it was a solution in search of a problem.

I think the answer was the first attempt to standardise the Traditional Teenage Rebellion. If we recognise youthful contrariness as a necessary developmental stage between acne and employment, it would be much more efficient if it were channelled into specific forms at predictable times. Giving school-leavers the chance to tilt at the establishment through provocative but harmless decrees would give them a focus for their angst, to slot alongside the other parts of the National Curriculum. Whatever form their protest took, they could then get an official certificate to put on their UCAS form.

Look out for the setting up of a new government Task Force on Buying Halves Of Cider In Pubs or the launch of a Certificate For Navel Piercing.

Back to the future

My friend Phil pointed me towards a story of astonishing magnitude that, amid all the hurly-burly of stock market plunges and ex-Beatles divorces, seems to have slipped through the general consciousness: an experiment scheduled for this summer at CERN – the particle accelerator in Switzerland – will attempt to send an atom several thousand years into the future, in the first steps towards time-travel (story here). I’m not quite sure how they will verify that the experiment has succeeded, bar waiting around for a few millennia to catch up with their atom, but it opens up exciting possibilities.

According to the Daily Telegraph: "The debut in early summer could provide a landmark because travelling into the past is only possible - if it is possible at all - as far back as the point of creation of the first time machine." In other words, if this experiment does, ultimately, lead to the creation of a working time machine in the future, the resultant time travellers could be amongst us as soon as July.

So if you catch sight of a DeLorean leaving fiery-tracks in the road, it might not be the local joy-riders earning their next ASBOs. (And if you don’t understand that reference, the only time-machine you need is a beta-max video to take you back to 1985, when time-travelling was just about the coolest mischief a kid could get up to.)

05 March 2008

Past its sell-by data?

The British police's DNA database - the largest in the world - has recently been the focus of attention by both its supporters and opponents. At the same time as police have sung its praises for tracking down two murderers, two innocent people have gone to the European Courts to have their own details removed from among its 4.5million records.

Public support for a universal database, hosting the DNA profiles of all UK citizens, seems to vary from week to week, depending on the number of murderers caught versus the number of records mislaid by the government. This is reflected in the government's own apparent double-think on the issue: they maintain that a universal system would have "significant ethical issues", while simultaneously opposing the removal of innocent people's data from police files.

Those who hope such a database would be able to solve all future murders will probably be disappointed by a fact that has gone widely unreported. That the database itself is riddled with inaccuracies and duplications. Surprising as it may seem, when people are arrested, they sometimes lie to the police about their identity - but not before their DNA sequence is committed to record. If I were nicked for an offence and gave an acquaintance's name and address it would not only get me off the hook, but would leave me free to commit at least one offence at his or her expense.

Of course the error would soon be realised, but not before my associate had been banged up for a couple of hours. And, of course, have his own DNA profile added to the list for absolutely no reason. But as the Home Office says "They have nothing to fear from providing a sample". Nothing except the incompetence of the Home Office, of course.