Redundant, risible and sublime

"Have you ever wondered what celebrities do when they use the web?" asks Google. No, actually, I haven't. Never mind, Google ploughs on, you can now tour the homepages of your favourite celebrities, using iGoogle. Eight celebrities are mentioned; I have heard of four of them, only one of whom I know to have done anything useful (Al Gore). I can't bear to write more, but please do visit the Google blog if you want to know more about it.

As more ministers toppleTop five political backstabbings. Funny, but is that all they could think of? Or should I write, Et tu, Brute?

Sean French writes that "DVDs are good for movies but utterly fantastic for opera". Bernard Haitink's Glyndebourne version of The Marriage of Figaro will cost you £175 to see live (the only price on offer) or £14 to buy the DVD. Advantages and one disadvantage of the recorded medium are duly noted.

Overheard on a train from Lords of the Blog

From Lord Norton at Lords of the Blog:

Travelling back to Hull on the train last night, I was sat opposite a businessman who was using his mobile ‘phone.  He was speaking loudly.   I was sufficiently engrossed in my work not to pay much attention to what he was saying.  However, at one point I did hear:
“No, no, don’t call it a bonus.  Call it a temporary supplement".

Twelve events that shaped your world

What are the 12 most significant global events that have happened throughout your life, that have had an impact on you? I was thinking about this question the other night- I just missed the birth of the Mark I computer although I was almost born on it, but since then I can remember these events clearly and my reaction to them at the time:

1963: Assassination of J F Kennedy

1969: First man on the Moon

1972-1974: Watergate

1980: Assassination of John Lennon

1987: Hurricane in UK

1989: Fall of Berlin Wall

1995 (ish): World Wide Web

1997: Labour party wins UK general election

2001: 9/11

2004: Tsunami in Indian Ocean

2008: Global financial crash

2009: Obama becomes US President

What are the 12 external events that have had most impact on you in your lifetime? (It's hard to keep the list limited to 12.) For quite a long time in my life, I thought that "great events" were things that happened in history, or a long way away so only interesting in a sort of theoretical sense. But all that changed with Gorbachev – Glasnost, Perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union - followed by various terrorist and climate upheavals, culminating with the current global financial meltdown. Bring back boredom!

Clare Dudman on what we do and don’t need

A couple of weeks ago, the Keeper of the Snails, Clare Dudman, posted two lists – do needs and don't needs. Her post was inspired by the question of why we are continuing to produce cars that nobody wants. Clare is very sensible, so her do needs are things like clean water, sanitation, comfortable clothing, 4 TV channels and so on; and her don't needs are things like celebrities, fashion, more than 4 TV channels, politicians, etc.

There is a lot of discussion in the comments to Clare's post about what we do and don't need, which I recommend perusing. Globalisation seems to be high on most people's lists of don't needs, with local produce, etc, highly prized. Here is my contribution:

Don't need:

* Banks
* "Customer service" departments of companies, especially when "outsourced", and even more especially when outsourced to other countries where operators do not understand the product or the language.
* Oversimplistic and petulant demands, opinions and expectations by people on internet forums
* Adverts in TV programmes
* Junk food
* Salt in ready meals and other prepared foodstuffs
* Free newspapers and especially when left to litter train compartments

Do need:
* Integrated train network system
* Decent underground station at Kings Cross that can cope with the number of (attempted) passengers
* The ability to walk down and cross York Way without risking life, limb, lungs.
* More individual choice in shops and fewer chain stores selling the same thing as each other
* Actual people answering the phone (in organisations).

And another do need – more English-subtitled films of (other) European language crime fiction.

Economist and credit-card crises

Daniel Finkelstein tells a good joke about economists. At the airport, a man rushes up to a group of waiting passengers in the lounge and shouts "is there an economist here?". One person stood up, puffed out his chest (always having wanted to help out in an emergency), and says "yes, I'm an economist". The man looks at him with a mixture of contempt and bewildered surprise. "The magazine", he said, slowly.

In other financial crisis news, some credit card companies are paying their customers to go away. According to an article in the New Yorker, aptly titled House of Cards, American Express is offering some people $300 to pay off and close their accounts. Unfortunately for me I am one of those people who always pays off her bill each month (it almost entirely consists of credit with Ocado and Amazon, with a dash of Typepad), so no chance of making a quick shilling or two there. Credit-card companies don't like customers like me, and they don't like customers like the ones they have just paid off, either. They like most the "revolvers", customers who have relatively high debts, pay off only a little each month, but who don't default by going broke, as explained in the New Yorker piece. The challenge for the companies is to identify and encourage the revolvers who aren't going to go bust, milk them for all they can get, while getting rid of the rest of us pesky defaulters and non-indebted. Maybe if I keep paying off my monthly balance and the global recession continues for a while longer, they'll offer me a payoff, too?

Moscow debriefing session

No real post tonight because I have been at a Moscow debrief evening, i.e. listening to 30 young women (aged 16-18) reporting back on their recent school trip. The history, politics, entertainments and culture of this fractured country, so conscious of its own nobility, told through the eyes of these students over a period of a few days – plus the unintentionally hilarious exhortations of Lena the tour guide – were most charming.

However, we do now know that Pushkin is a more famous and greater poet than Shakespeare, that Tchaikovsky composed Swan Lake at the lake of that name in Moscow, and that the KGB building at Lubyanka is exactly equivalent of the MI6 building in London and hence unworthy of stopping to look at or any other comment (whatever may have been promised in the tour documentation). Oh, and a trip to the Moscow state circus is not an adequate substitute for the opera or ballet visit also promised in the tour literature - but we shall draw a veil over some of the turns there, which if nothing else provided the UK visitors with a culture shock. (The loudest applause of the evening from the locals was for the waving of the Russian flag, even so.) And the Hotel Cosmos, built for a 1970s Olympics – forget it.

How to avoid the financial crisis

From today's Times, print edition, p 4 (brief):

"Girl Guides are to be given advice on money management to help them through the credit crunch and to prepare them for the modern world. Tips include avoiding store cards, fashion fads and relying on parents for handouts."

Even though my daughters are and were not in the Guides, I was sufficiently alarmed to check out the source of this information, which is this glossy leaflet. Thankfully from my perspective, the grammatical ambiguity in the Times piece turns out to be in the right direction (i.e. the girls are not being advised to indulge in fashion fads or parent-begging). However, I can't help thinking that my initial reaction to the Times piece, that one saves money by asking someone else (who actually has it) for it as opposed to spending your own, was probably more on the mark.

Apparently 'money management' was considered the most pressing issue in a poll of members of GirlGuiding UK. (Next was 'personal safety'.) I wonder how much was spent in conducting the poll, analysing the information and producing leaflets to provide these particular pearls of wisdom?

The mess we’re in, and some poetry

If you don't keep up with the Internet for a couple of days (RSS reader, home email account, blogs, FriendFeed, Twitter etc), your home life soon starts to become like your work life, constantly chasing to keep up. After opting out for 48 hours or so, it seems from my several thousand unread items that the majority is posting about the financial crisis or about end-of year-related material. I'll just post a few on-topic-recession items that caught my interest from the many I glazed over:

The Times Comment Central blog rounds up the worst predictions of 2008 – the one in the post being the in-retrospect trivial one that Hillary Clinton would gain the Democratic nomination. Doubtless in the links there are plenty who confidently failed to counter-predict the mess we are all now in (an increasing number of hard workers and careful savers being penalised by the greedy, irresponsible and self-interested actions of the financial "industry" and associated hangers-on).

Before I get carried away on that score, can science solve the economic crisis?, asks the Edge, via BackReaction (with added commentary).

Frank Wilson draws attention to an interesting way to make a bit of money if you are feeling the pinch – predict how well people will perform on the basis of how they perform.

I've got quite fond of Robert Peston's blog now: although the one-sentence paragraphs and (BBC house style I am told) patronising phrasing put me off I suppose that isn't the author's fault. Lots of good if grim posts there, anyway, but of special interest is his article (downloadable as a PDF from this link) about "how we got into this mess and what the re-made economy will look like".

OK, that's enough financial crisis, ed. How about a bit of getting poetical?

A civilized political interlude

You might be surprised to know that there has been, to date, no debate in the House of Commons about the financial crisis. On Monday of this week (3 November) the Lords had their first debate on the subject. Lord Taylor of Warwick summarizes the main points in this blog post, concluding "you do not have to be a prophet to make a profit. However, this recession is a time for fresh, creative thinking out of the box. We cannot have a financial system which allows a hedge fund boss to pay less income tax than his office cleaner. It is time for fresh thinking. Seek and Ye Shall fund."

The House of Lords is such a civilized place. Baroness Murphy writes her account of the debate on the Counter Terrorism bill on the same blog (Lords of the Blog). "One of the “noble and learned” Lord Lloyd of Berwick’s amendments was graciously accepted by the Minister, “noble and gallant” Lord (formerly Admiral) West, but a second one he resisted but suggested an alternative of his own. I listened very carefully but thought the arguments finely balanced. In the end I voted for Lord Lloyd’s amendment. The votes cast were equal, 130 on each side, which caused a great deal of consternation on the part of the Clerk who had clearly never encountered this before. The Blue procedure book was consulted and it emerged that the amendment could only prevail if a majority voted for it, so a tie  meant it was lost.  West is a listening Minister, he’s inclined to refer to himself as a simple sailor, but one can see how he became an admiral, he’s certainly steering his departmental ship in the Lords in admirable fashion."

And on the matter of the US election, of the many blogs and comments about it today, my favourite is author Nick Hornby's post, both for the story he tells about "Its been a long time coming", and for his list of UK newspaper headlines this morning (bear with it, it is worth reading to the bottom, and hence the Mail's take on world events.)

Career advice from Rifkind and Skidmore

Last night was the second 'humanities evening' at Cathy's and Jenny's school (Last year's inaugural event is described here.) Although it was not put quite like this, the evening is for students who "aren't scientists, mathematicians or linguists". Attending, therefore, were assorted lawyers, politicians, managers (eg health service, theatre), investment analysts, educationalists, journalists, publishers, a clerk to the House of Commons, armed services staff (RAF), academics, and others. Thanks are due to them for taking the time to volunteer to tell young students (age 13 to 18) about their lives and career choices.

Stars of the evening, so far as Cathy was concerned, were Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who gave the keynote speech, and Mr Chris Skidmore, a young (my adjective) historian and politician. Malcolm Rifkind is currently MP for what I think of as "Alan Clark's seat", that is, Kensington and Chelsea. Before that he served as a minister in several departments for 18 years of Tory administration under John Major and Margaret Thatcher, and before that was a lawyer. He spoke entertainingly and informatively about why he chose to study law at university – he was in the school debating society – and why he went into politics – both debating and law taught him to be articulate and to see both sides of a question. While studying as a postgraduate he went to Africa (Rhodesia as was) and subsequently taught there for two years, a broadening experience of the type he recommended to everyone. After his witty speech, he kindly stayed behind to answer questions and chat to the students, which he did very openly and amusingly. (I now know who is going to be the next US president ;-). )

Perhaps more appealing to Cathy was to see and hear Chris Skidmore, who is either 26 or 27. He studied history at Oxford, then embarked on a PhD, at the same time joining various political groups and networking compulsively (his fingers typed imaginary emails while he explained how he did this). He did various "casual" jobs, including one for Robert Lacey, helping the author with his famous (to us) "tales from history" series of books. Apparently Mr Lacey offered to introduce Chris to his agent, who signed him up. Chris was writing a book about Edward VI, so wrote his outline and sample chapter, which the agent took round the publishers. "After about 10 rejections" (not giving up being a theme of his talk), Chris won a contract and then had to write the rest, so gave up his PhD and set himself the task of writing 1,000 words a day. He said his history degree came in very useful for this purpose as he'd had to write so many essays – the process of writing the book was very similar. He's currently working for Michael Gove, Tory shadow education minister, and is now parliamentary prospective candidate for Bristol Kingswood, which is where he grew up. What made him throw his hat into that particular ring, he said, was when David Cameron became leader of the Conservatives. He could see the party was onto a winner, so applied to be "listed" as a possible candidate. He could not apply for the Bristol Kingswood vacancy when it first came up because it is an "A list" seat (?!), but the person who won that job lost heart in 2005 and resigned, which meant by party rules that Chris could apply. He was relieved to be appointed, not only because he knows the area but because he was previously prospective candidate for an Islington (central north London) constituency – not a good place for a Conservative in any event, and certainly not when the sitting MP has the persuasion and majority of this gentleman

In the meantime, Edward VI: The Lost King is doing very well, being chosen as Guardian book of the week when published in 2007. Chris is currently writing another book, this time on Elizabeth I.