Sunday, 26 October 2008

How to avoid huge floating things

There seem to have been a lot of big floating things in the news lately. Like the Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska's mega-yacht for example. As it says here:

Your bog-standard superyacht now costs between £40 and £70 million depending on the interior specification. The running costs tend to be about £5 million a year for the bigger vessels. “It's roughly £1 million a metre,” says Jamie Edmiston, of Edmiston & Co. “For that you get helipads, swimming pools and spas as standard.” The oligarchs want more. “They don't just want a slide for the children, they want a submarine,” says one broker.

Seduced by the jet-set glamour of it all, it looks as if those smart political operatives George Osborne and Peter Mandelson failed to spot the obvious danger signs. As anyone who goes to the cinema could have told them, only Bond villains own that sort of floating lair and people who are unsuspectingly lured on board inevitably find themselves getting hurt. George and Mandy really should have listened to Shirley Bassey.

Such a cold finger
Beckons you
To enter his web of sin
But don't go in!

You said it, girl.

Of course, like most ordinary people, I have nothing to do with big vessels like that. Well, that's not strictly true. Most of the stuff I've ever bought has come here on board something even bigger than an oligarch's yacht. I'm talking about container ships, which have been in the news recently because the shipping lines, like everybody else, are sailing into an economic storm:

Late last year, users of major European container ports kept complaining about one problem. Volumes of containers arriving at ports such as Rotterdam and Antwerp from Asia were rising so rapidly that ports were struggling to cope.

This year, ports can only wish for such problems. Drewry is predicting growth of only 4.1 per cent, and Eivind Kolding, chief executive of Maersk Line, the world's biggest container shipping line and part of Denmark's AP Møller-Maersk, says that volumes are currently shrinking against the same months of last year.

It's strange how invisible these fleets of vast container ships are, especially as the ships are among the biggest vessels on the planet. Consider the Emma Maersk, pride of the Maersk Line and the largest container ship in existence. 397 metres or 1,300 feet long, powered by the world's largest single diesel unit (the ship's engine alone weighs 2,300 tons). Yet I was hardly aware of the ship's existence. She's not to, my eyes, at least, a particularly beautiful ship and the photographs I've seen hardly convey an impressive sense of scale, but how can you not be aware of such a colossus? Especially as it was built in little Denmark, known to the rest of the world for beer, bacon, Sandi Toksvig and open sandwiches (although not necessarily in that order) - you'd think if they'd built the biggest object of its class in the world, they'd be shouting their achievement from the rooftops.

A book called How To Avoid Huge Ships recently came third in The Bookseller magazine's recent competition to find the oddest book title of the last 30 years (first place went to Greek Rural Postmen and Their Cancellation Numbers) and most of us, it seems, avoid them by not giving the subject a moment's thought. Yet the container ships and their sisters, the oil tankers, which can get even bigger, are the largest self-propelled objects ever constructed by the human race and play a vital role in keeping our civilisation going. There's no practical reason for me to know that the tanker Knock Nevis is the biggest ship in the world by length (the Batillus class supertankers, which have now all been scrapped, beat it in terms of tonnage), but I just feel it's the sort of thing anyone who takes an interest in the world around them ought to at least be aware of.

Maybe it's just me - obscure and perhaps irrelevant facts often delight me, especially as distractions from harsh and uncertain times. I did come across details of another class of vessel this week, which has no relevance to anything in the news, but they just looked so weird I felt I had to share the discovery. Re-reading Neal Ascherson's book Black Sea recently I came across a reference to the Russian Tsarist navy's circular ironclads, shallow draft vessels developed to defend coastal waters around the Crimea in the nineteenth century. They sounded rather extraordinary, so I looked up some details on the Internet and they look as every bit as strange as they sound - flat as pancakes, chugging through the shallows like steam-powered lily pads - see for yourself here and here.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Best before

I was in my local Co-Op in Newport Pagnell the other day and and they had a display stand full of reduced mince pies. Reduced, because the "best before" date was October the 27th. Okay, I thought, I guess you don't only have to eat mince pies at Christmas. But no, there was the word "Christmas" in large, friendly letters on the packaging.

I don't know who buys these things, but it's that sort of thing which destroys the Christmas spirit for me. I don't do religion, but I do actually like some aspects of the old midwinter festival (Christmas, Yule, Saturnalia, Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, whatever you choose to call it) - some of the carols have cracking tunes whilst Christmas lights, atmospheric ceremonies in churches smelling of old stone and incense, blazing plum puddings, the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl singing Fairytale of New York and even mince pies (at the right time) are quite jolly. What I don't like is the way Christmas has grown into an enormous bloated monster which dominates the final quarter of the year and is makes inroads into the third quarter.

What I'd really like is the sound of carols on the crisp air, candles and Yule logs just for a week or two in the dark days of December. What I positively refuse to do, despite the marketing, is give any thought to Christmas until we're well into November. The sight of Christmas tat in the shops just annoys me when we've not even put the clocks back or done bonfire night yet. Usually I'm already got bored with Christmas by early December.

And have you seen some of the rubbish that gets bought and sold over the Christmas season? Like a plastic reindeer that shits chocolates. Just think about that for a moment. Some person or people sat down and dreamed that up. Then, that person or people pitched the idea to a manufacturer, who bought the idea. People spent hours, days and weeks of their precious time on this earth designing this product. Then they sent the plans to China, where they produced thousands of the buggers and shipped them half way across the world, using up tons of our finite, irreplaceable petrochemicals in producing the plastics and transporting said product across mighty oceans. All to produce something which will amuse the feeble-minded for about a millisecond before being consigned to the attic or landfill for eternity. And they called the late Roman Empire decadent...

Not an original or unusual viewpoint, I'm sure, but I just felt the need to release my inner miserable old git....

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Moving on

Today dawned drizzly, dank and depressing. It didn't help that Radio 4's Today programme's opening headline was a story about rapidly worsening unemployment figures, with worse to come, just to darken the mood (that was their lead story before the latest figures had even been published for heaven's sake). Not that I'm directly affected at the moment, although (like millions of others) I have plans which aren't exactly helped by the massive economic storm clouds presently obscuring most of the globe.

So I've decided not to dwell on what's going on with the economy. Nor will I harbour a grudge against the over-paid twits who have so spectacularly trashed so many ordinary people's dreams - even if an enraged mob were to arrange for them to be horse-whipped in the street, I wouldn't join in, firstly because hatred is an ugly and self-destructive state of mind, and secondly because quite a few of those alpha-male freaks would probably enjoy it in a Max Mosley-ish sort of way.

Instead, I'll just ponder some of the more interesting comments and lessons from the almighty mess - see here, here and here. And then move on, with a song in my heart and a tune on my lips....

There. Now I've got closure, a couple of other things I noticed today. Firstly, in a branch of W H Smiths, I noticed they had a entire shelf of books labelled "Tragic Life Stories" - not a category I'd previously felt the lack of, but I suppose it takes all sorts. Second, a company that my workplace does business with described themselves on their letterhead as installers of heating and solar systems. I must admit to being impressed - even the Magratheans from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy could only manage to produce custom-made planets. These guys, though, install of whole solar systems. Wow! If there's a market for those babies then the economy's as far from being screwed as Cliff Richard...

Monday, 13 October 2008

Warning - adult material

There's a passage I vaguely remembered from Tom Wolfe's The Bonfire of the Vanities, which popped into my head whilst listening to reports of the global financial services industry going up in smoke. Bonfire's not one of my all-time favourite books (in fact it's not even my favourite Tom Wolfe - I enjoyed The Right Stuff far more), but it does have at least one brilliant moment.

That moment concerns the main character, Sherman McCoy and his relationship with his young daughter, Campbell. Sherman makes his unspeakably well-paid living doing fantastically intricate and, to most people, abstract things with bonds on Wall Street. Campbell tells her father in clearly awestruck terms that her friend MacKenzie's daddy makes books for a living and has eighty people working for him. She then asks Sherman what he does for a living. As a big beast on Wall Street, Sherman McCoy knows that what he does is more important than the activities of some small-time printer, but finds himself at a loss, floundering hopelessly as he tries to explain investment banking to a seven year old. Needless to say he can't find anything to say about what he does for a living which impresses her.

Sherman's wife, an interior designer gets involved in the discussion, not taking Sherman's profession as seriously as he thinks it deserves. A bit of a domestic ensues, with Sherman laying into his wife's job (she's an interior designer). Her reply to this attack contrasts the self-importance, insane complexity and sheer unreality of most of the "work" done on Wall Street or in the City with work done in the real world:

Well at least you're able to point to something you've done, something tangible, something clear-cut .... something real, something describable, something contributing to simple human satisfaction, no matter how meretricious or temporary, something you can at least explain to your children. I mean at Pierce and Pierce, what on earth do you tell each other you do every day?

It's a great The Emperor's New Clothes moment, where a child's directness cuts through the self-important adult bull. Perhaps there's something in the idea that any job you can't explain to a child isn't a proper job. People use the term "adult material" to describe porn, but I think that the description applies equally well to the world of high finance and financial services, too abstract and wilfully wrapped in layers of obscure and arcane complexity to engage the mind of a child. Come to think of it, if you published magazines for and about the whizz kid traders who, until recently, made fortunes out of all this tortuous financial complexity, you could call them Playboy, Hustler, Loaded or Nuts - the titles would be just as apt for money porn as they are for the top shelf market.

The abstraction, over complexity and lack of a direct, child-like perspective is, I think, important. The root of the whole crisis depended on people getting caught up in an almighty tangle of complex deals, which they still haven't been able to wholly unpick.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

You can't just throw money at the problem....

I was going to do a post last night, inspired by all the economic turmoil / rescue stuff all the newsreaders were getting so exited about. But I was a bit tired so we just ate a nice dinner, drank some red wine and watched some telly instead. Just as well, really - I was going to call my post International Rescue, but I see that this morning The Sun nabbed that headline. Yes, I'm finally beginning to think like a Sun headline writer, an admission which makes me feel grubbier and less human than I'd ever thought possible.

Recent dramatic action by governments hosing down crashed and burning banks with gazillions of our money had me reflecting on the nature of these bankers and hedge fund managers and the like. Most normal people, having screwed up so completely would be rather sheepish and have the odd iota of gratitude for those who'd saved them from complete annihilation. Yet Radio 4 always seems to find one of these people to come up to the microphone and whinge on about how it was all the regulator's fault for not saving them from the results of their own actions, or how governments had done "too little too late" to help the banks deal with the consequences of their own bad decisions.

Clearly, these people are financial titans who can rise above such petty human emotions as shame or gratitude. I'm struggling to find a down to earth analogy for such superhuman feelings of entitlement and awesome capacities for blame-shifting and I'm imagining a weekend sailor. A rather overconfident weekend sailor, who sets to sea in an unseaworthy boat, without bothering to take a chart and without tuning in to to the weather forecast which would have warned him of stormy weather ahead. Heedless, he sails into the approaching storm, to be tossed about like a cork. Up go the distress flares and the lifeboat battles though the surf to save Captain Catastrophe.

Members of the lifeboat crew fight their way on board the stricken vessel. In the cabin, they find Captain Catastrophe, impatiently drumming his fingers on the (empty) chart table, ostentatiously looking at his watch.

What time do you call this? I let off those distress flares over an hour ago. Look, I'm a very busy man and I really don't have time to sit in all day just waiting to be rescued. And don't start giving me some pathetic excuse about force ten gales. Anyway, you've already made me late and I don't want to waste any more of my valuable time, so let's get on to this lifeboat and get home. Now where is it? What? There? You sent that thing out to rescue me? What the hell were you thinking of? You couldn't swing a cat in it. I've seen bigger toys in my bath. This rescue is a complete joke and you are really beginning to piss me off. Listen, when I want to be rescued I expect it to be done by professionals, not by a bunch of clowns who bring me this sorry excuse for a lifeboat. Just look at it - where the hell is my private cabin? Wi-Fi enabled conference suite? Bar? Cinema? I'll tell you where; nowhere. And you know why? Because you bunch of pitiful losers have screwed up, big time. Nobody tries to palm this sort of crap off on me and gets away with it. Call yourselves a lifeboat crew? Not any longer. You're fired!

Clearly, unimaginably, eye-wateringly colossal shed-loads of cash are just not enough to satisfy our poor, needy little pan-national megabanks, so I'm wondering what more could be done to make them feel good about themselves. Then I remembered a lovely little phrase. Ever since the glorious Reagan-Thatcher revolution we've heard a pithy little slogan from the ideologues of the unchained free market - "you can't just throw money at the problem." Education? Well, throwing money at it won't help, obviously. The National Health Service? You'd just be chucking your money away. Pensions? No, no, no, just wasting taxpayers' money - we're all self-reliant now, and able to provide for our own old age, thanks to the wonders of financial services. Help for the industries and communities destroyed in the rush to de-industrialisation? That would just be propping up failing industries - financial services again, my boy, now that's the wave of the future, no more state-supported lame ducks in today's dynamic Britain.

That's it! Money isn't the answer - you can't solve this problem by throwing money at it. By Jove, I think I've got it! But if money won't help, how do we save our banks from hurting themselves like precious but clumsy toddlers let loose in the big world? Maybe our politicians have to think outside the box here and provide a few of those things that money can't buy. Personal services. Now let me think, what would an international hug-a-banker task force look like? I think the national leaders would have to play to their strengths. Obviously, America would have to take the lead, maybe with the President doing that motivational speech thing which Americans do so well and which corporate execs love. But which President? Well, up to the election George W would do a fine job - his mangled speech and thought patterns don't seem obvious for a motivational speaker, but just think of the effect on the listener - after five minutes of listening to Bush mangling the English language, the most obtuse Banker would feel like a sophisticated amalgam of Carey Grant and Einstein in comparison. Confidence restored, job done.

After the polling, well, if Obama gets the gig, he'd be a natural for the more traditional sort of motivational speech - lots of soaring abstract generalisations backed by a driving soft rock soundtrack - the suits would lap it up (note to speech editor - delete all references to "America" and replace with "Citibank"). If McCain lands the job, he might find the inspirational thing a bit more challenging, but he could always deputise the job to Sarah Palin, whose chirpy moose-brained streams of gibberish could instill a warm feelings of effortless superiority in any half-sentient being.

What about our own dear leader? I wouldn't recommend Gordon Brown for the more personal form of personal services - if there's an element of interaction and reassurance needed, he might just ruin it with one of his scary not-quite-smiling grimaces, but he could always make himself useful in the background by polishing the bankers' Mercs, Rollers and Lexuses.

And if you've got a flash, shiny car, obviously you'll need someone to drive you around. Step forward Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel, bewitchingly squeezed into a chauffeur's uniform. Because I think a lot of these fabulously wealthy and powerful men (and they are mostly men) would go for that. After all, bossy uniformed women speaking German certainly did it for Max Mosley.

I'm sure that other world leaders could chip in to increase our bankers' feelings of confidence and well-being - M Sarkozy could flit about dispensing fine wines, canapés and the occasional wafer-thin mint, whilst the Icelandic President must have loads of time on his hands now that the banks have turned his entire country into an ungovernable basket case, so might as well devote all his free time to dabbing the bankers' poor, stressed foreheads with little silk hankies dipped in eau de cologne or soothing lavender oil.

Like they say, you can't just throw money at the problem. So can we have ours back please? Ta very much.

Then I woke up....

Saturday, 4 October 2008

I do like to be beside the seaside

Confined to barracks today with a dose of the exhausting lurgie which toddler Tom brought back from nursery in the week, appeared to shrug off in a day or so and passed on to both his parents, reducing them to apathetic snivelling wrecks (no mean feat - it usually takes a week at work to do that to us). Surfing the net to keep my flagging spirits up, I stumbled on two images of bathing machines, originally found on Dark Roasted Blend.

The first photo was taken close to my birthplace in Scarborough, towards the end of the nineteenth century - long before I was born, although in my current poorly state, I feel as if I'm old enough to have been there in person. I like the Scarborough picture because it's rather strange and beautiful, a scene from a truly lost world; the bathing machines in which Victorian bathers preserved their modesty whilst changing in and out of their voluminous swimming garments, and in the distance, the ghostly sails of the fishing fleet dissolving and dwindling into the past. Only the sand and the sea remains.

The second image stirs rather different feelings - it's the personal bathing machine of His Majesty, King Alfonso XIII of Spain (Order of the Golden Fleece, Order of Charles III, Order of Santiago, Supreme Order of the Clueless Jug-Eared Inbred Parasite, etc, etc, etc). It's a vast, ornate juggernaut, like an architectural wedding cake, trundling down to the sea on two railway tracks. It's both an extraordinary object that seems to belong in some steampunk science fantasy and a monument to the pampered excesses of a King whose inept and extravagant reign in one of Europe's most unequal and poverty-ridden countries paved the way to to a Spanish Republic and exile in Mussolini's Italy. Even when Franco had demolished the Republic and put the wealthy, the army and church back in charge, Alfonso was, apparently too useless, to be invited back - Franco's rule turned into an interregnum, whilst he tried to bring Alfonso's grandson Juan Carlos up as a good little Falangist, to ensure the continuation of his vile little dictatorship. Fortunately his cunning plan for the succession a complete failure and the monarchy is now mostly a constrained appendage to a liberal democracy - although the Spanish Royals are still inclined to fly into a petulant and litigious strop when the citizens of said liberal demoracy display less servile respect than their "betters" expect as their due.

Thursday, 2 October 2008

Ship of Fools

I freely admit to not fully understanding the current financial turmoil, although I suspect that a lot of it might have been avoided if some of the major players in the City and Wall Street had admitted in good time that they really didn't know what the hell they were playing at, either. But there are a couple of interesting comments on the fallout from the huge mess here and here.

History - we don't seem to learn from it, do we?