Saturday, 28 February 2015
I've been watching that television series about the House of Commons.
Add some recent news coverage exchanges from the floor of the House and extracts from the new Caroline Lucas book. Mix with a few of the expense listings from public record.
It continues to paint a fairly dismal picture of the State we're in.
Current news has touched on the sufficiency of MP salaries. At least one MP appeared to not notice he even had a salary from Parliament.
I decided to take a look at MP salary and expense turnover. By casually pivoting the MP IPSA expense records (I used 2013) the average expense amount claimed by an MP appears around £38k per annum, plus generally another £120k for payroll for their staff.
The biggest single item is still accommodation/rent at an average of £8.7k (although for those that claim it is closer to £16k) and office rental at an average of £6.1k. I've included a quick screeengrab from a small part of my Excel on the left.
If we add the £67k salary and the average expenses of £38k together, we're hovering at just over £100k of turnover per MP, before the addition of their staff allowance of apparently around £120k.
I know some MPs are very hard working, but whenever we peek inside, we cannot avoid the impression of a boys' school misbehaviour of braying and paper waving in the Commons.
Add the whips archaic bullying tactics to herd MPs through the voting lobbies instead of having electronic voting. There's a huge industry of paper-based Bills without decent summaries.
The recent TV show illustration included MPs literally camping out in offices for days to get to the front of the line to get a slot for a private member's Bill. Those that get a slot at Prime Minister's Question time are 'encouraged' to ask questions that mean the Prime Minister can trot out polemic.
The Friday Private Member Bills are bullied and traded with the threat of no support or filibustering to talk them out of time if they won't play along.
I know we all call it a democracy and the obvious argument is that it could all be a lot worse.
Agreed it could be a lot worse, but that's no argument to not make it a lot better. It would seem that it is still in the vested interests of those in power to keep it the same.
Cameron has already stated that even if the main Parliament buildings requires refurbishment, he will want to keep it largely as it is. No semi-circular chamber and e-voting when the two party sword-waving serves him and his class so well.
Friday, 27 February 2015
I was recently reminded by blogger Naomi that my DVD player can support multi-region DVDs. Useful if I really want to see something that isn't available in the UK. Mostly, our DVD player hardly gets used because of online films, but I did that thing to get it to work properly for all-region playback again.
It made me think about getting a few more movies that were on my 'want-to-view' list but which were not available on any of the streamed services.
I hit eBay and to my surprise found a random bundle of around 30 DVDs which were nearly all ones I wanted to see. It looked far more curated than most of the eBay 'job-lot' collections which are suspiciously like the unsellable ones from a car boot sale.
So I took the plunge and bought the inexpensive bundle. It turned out the fella selling them was on a meditation retreat somewhere, so they took about three weeks to arrive. Now I've a fresh selection of recent and mainly indie film titles to work through.
I'll add them to my iTunes library as well, so a spot of Handbrake + MetaZ is required to get them converted.
The thing about that particular combination is that it can make the videos looks the same as others downloaded from the iTunes Store, complete with the plot precis, actor and production credits, certificates, run-times etc.
I mainly convert videos on the Mac using Handbrake's 'Normal' setting. It nearly always finds the correct DVD track of the main movie and a couple of decent soundtracks (2 channel and 5.1). Occasionally a movie with a Theatrical and a Director cut will cause it to ask which one to use.
If there's subtitles, dubbing or a director's commentary (like some Swedish films that have an alternative English language dubbed soundtrack, or foreign films requiring subtitling) then there's usually a customisable combination, although for most movies there's no need to tinker with any of the settings.
MetaZ can be run after conversion and adds the same information that the iTunes store includes. It's slightly more fiddly with a TV series, although Handbrake happily handles multiple episodes on the same DVD.
The end result seems to me to be indistinguishable from the iTunes layout, and the video quality can be at the highest level available from the original DVD.
It's a handy way to keep videos catalogued, compared with having them laying around in cupboards and shelves and makes them available on demand, from any device including when I'm stuck on the bike turbo.
Which reminds me...
Thursday, 26 February 2015
A little group of us met at the Royal Court to see How to Hold Your Breath, written by Zinnie Harris and with Maxine Peake in the lead role.
Before the play, we attended the related Big Idea talk, 'How to find the Good' presented by Oxford teacher of Philosophy A.C. (Anthony) Grayling. He defined ethics and morals using classical stories to espouse ways to answer the Socratic question of how should one live one's 1000 months well. Grayling promotes humanism, whilst drawing in this talk mainly upon the gods and philosophers of Greece to illustrate his points.
I like his ideas around secularly finding one's own path although there needs to be a basic supportive context in which to achieve this. He talks of resisting habits which simply consume living without creating high points and of the need to spend the most productive 250 months well. In 45 minutes he was able to open many lines of thinking. A spike to add to my life collection. If we all light up we can scare away the dark.
And then, after pause for refreshment and chatter, I took up a front row balcony seat as the devil had a one night stand with Dana the customer relations expert. Now the devil doesn't like being in debt, but his attempts to pay Dana were rebuffed and led to a ratcheting spiral of descent for Dana in what became an increasingly fractured Europe.
This devil has a Mephistophelian scar across his chest where his soul has been removed. Unlike in Faust, we see Dana apparently having an upper hand because of the debt. In Goethe, Faust is trying to find the essence of life (ahah, an AC Grayling connection) and Mephistopheles manipulates the world to help him see it. In this we see equivalent manipulations as the devil attempts to extract the 45 Euro debt repayment from Dana.
And this devil plays hardball. After low-key initial attempts, he just keeps increasing the pressure. We see the ruin of economic Europe, personal tragedy and horror as the play unfolds.
There's some set-piece staging too, with interventions from a difficult librarian who mainly seems to stock 'how to' guides. There's also a Greek chorus of interviewers for what could be Dana's next job.
Maxine Peake's performance is extremely strong, and the immediate accompanying cast of her sister(Christine Bottomley), the devil(Michael Shaeffer) and librarian(Peter Forbes) all play well. Other characters are less developed and are there chiefly as instruments of the production. In a play that mixes together a wide range of plot-lines, Zinnie Harris creates many themes to deal with in the 2 hour continuous run-time.
When we chatted again afterwards, I said I was really pleased to have seen this - which has been written with quite some ambition. It wasn't what I was expecting, and because of the many different strands, we could take away different elements from the production's ideas. Like Grayling suggested, it's important to have the right personal character to take away the right action from a situation.
Tuesday, 24 February 2015
Yet more potentially dodgy dealings revealed from various politicians over the last couple of days. We were talking about some of it in the Cluny a few days ago, over bowls of chilli and maybe a pint or two of Ouseburn Porter.
The current largely two party system evolved back in the 1885s and was supposed to ensure that stuff got done. A multi-way split was considered to be something that could slow down legislation and progress.
Perhaps in a different way than that of the time wasters like Philip Davies, MP for Shipley with landlord interests who stopped the revenge eviction bill, Christopher Chope, MP for Christchurch who delayed the Turing pardon and the floccinaucinihilipilificate Jacob Reeesss-Moggg, who proudly 'talks out' Bills not for, but against, Britain. It'd be interesting to know how many of the electorate actually know what some of those folk get up to?
The First Past The Post FPTP system ensures that, with the right political boundaries, only the Conservatives and the old Labour Party can statistically ever be the main options at an election.
I've taken a the most recent data I could find from election forecast.co.uk and produced a quick comparison table. It's too early to get a full prediction, but not too soon to show the different leverage of voting percentages across the main parties.
Both Conservatives and Labour get around 8.4 to 8.7 seats per percentage point of the vote. The SNPs get an amazing 11.8 seats per percentage point. That's probably a Conservative strategy to help reduce Labour probabilities, too. Everyone else gets between 3.6 seats and as low as less than 1 seat per percentage point.
We can look at how this plays out.
I've taken a mid-range result, with generally balanced Conservative and Labour outcomes, neither of which is enough to hold a majority. The other three bundles of parties SNP, Lib-Dem and 'Others' are enough to control the votes.
We'd have a kind of quasi-Belgian situation. Their hung parliament lasted leaderless for 535 days, despite students stripping to their underwear and handing out free chips, giant lions and roosters snogging in the street and a national Belgian shaving strike.
For the UK it could mean that the SNP (Scottish) vote controls the balance of power and could tilt the results even on matters only affecting England and Wales, a curious outcome after the Scottish Referendum.
Just for entertainment, I thought I'd recut the graph to illustrate Proportional Representation.
I've simply allocated the seats on a more or less balanced format, which is representative of the way the electorate has chosen to vote.
Many comfortably appointed MPs wouldn't stand for this, of course. Curiously, using the raw stats from my tables, the two main parties lose a huge number of seats and the other five parties combined would hold the majority. They'd never all vote together, of course and it would make getting anything done quite a challenge. Maybe that's the point of the Victorian model and Duverger's law.
It probably means that we'll still get one of two bad choices, perhaps without the surrealism of Belgium. Something to put in the pipe, I suppose.
Monday, 23 February 2015
Adam...Whose line is it?
I don't normally watch Eastenders, but was around whilst a catchup version of the live week was being watched, back here at rashbre central.
The normal game during the unremittingly bad times of Eastenders is to spot how many scenes use expressive eyes instead of dialogue to convey meaning. Sometimes it can be a whole row of scenes and camera angles.
The setup needed to be different for the live shows. For a start they had a big jib crane camera, so they could show the distant Canary Wharf in some of the wide angle shots. Later, in case you missed it, they used a burger joint parked on some wasteland across from the Dome, just to be sure that the viewers spotted the soon to be Qatari owned skyscraper complex (although I didn't notice the HSBC logo).
But, you see, I am getting distracted from the storylines. Because I don't really watch the series, I was under strict instructions to refrain from out loud comments about the to-ings and fro-ings of the most dangerous square in Britain. No wonder it hasn't seen gentrification price rises and rows of parked Porsches and left-hand-drive European cars, no one would dare to live there.
It was sensible, if predictable, to underpin the main narrative with a wedding. The live camerawork could be used during these type of crowd scenes and some over-panning and excess zooming wouldn't look too out of place. It also gave the characters a chance to dress up, which meant that the live scenes inside the Beale household could be filmed in the style of an am-dram play, albeit with slightly more camera angles.
And hats off to Adam Woodyatt, who played the Ian Beale character and acted as a sort of engine to keep the plot driving forward. Sometimes other actors would be woodenly stuck in best Crossroads/Acorn Antiques moments, but Ian Beale kept things on track. I'm still not clear why he looked so drenched wet throughout the show though?
Also fascinating to see that even with all the cameras, there were still bits of the live action with blocked angles and the challenges of filming live, but in ways that you'd not normally see in the crafting of modern soaps. That was until the episodes clicked across to a pre-recorded insert, of which there seemed to be several. Each time the framing would go solid, the actors wouldn't look nervous and I assume behind the scenes the live actors were running around the set.
I'll confess I didn't watch all of it and missed what I presume was the actual wedding, when I gather that Barbara Windsor turned up? If truth be told, there were a few other characters that had re-appeared after sometimes lengthy or even deadly exits, but this was lost on me as a casual viewer. I had to be told that 'Kathy', sighted at the burger bar, was missing presumed dead, but apparently she is now returning.
For regular viewers this would all be great telly, with a proper knees up both inside the Vic and also in the Square. Regular viewers would also say that there's never been a happy wedding in Eastenders and this was no exception, what with a new dead body, a Exorcist-like child killer and even another semi-dead body that has now gone missing. Did one of the ruffians make mincemeat from the one left in a pool of petrol in the bottom of the pub cellar? I doubt it; the arsonist was one of the dancing celebrities from Strictly.
I must admit to a 'things to do in Denver when you're dead' thought when they needed to get rid of the first inconvenient new body and did say out loud 'they need an undertaker' when, amazingly, it turned out that there was actually one having a pint in the Vic! Talk about lucky.
The pan-shots across to Docklands also raised another interesting point. We had Dot doing a Dixon of Dock Green style voiceover part way through across the deserted Square, which usually marks the outer bounds of the show. But not so for the flashback episode. I'd expected the flashback to have been an optional episode, like those More4 programmes, but this was a key component of the denouement. Not only that, it wasn't live - it was on location. A proper location episode with real buses and everything! I don't watch enough of the regular show to know how often they use location scenes, but it immediately added some realism to the proceedings. As an experiment in episode types, I'd pick location over live, even if some of it is just a B-reel team getting some footage. That's what the Americans do, with soaps using short location inserts to add grounding.
But I suppose it's all written into the Eastenders Charter or something. That characters are only allowed to go wild if they move to Australia, Cardiff, Canada or an alleged crime-intensive resort.
I probably won't be watching what happens next, but I can say that I did get some genuine laugh out loud moments from the shows, which is probably a first. Corry is still the show with a sense of humour.
Friday, 20 February 2015
Along to see a couple of excellent and thought-provoking plays at Live Theatre this week. Written by Robin French and directed by Melanie Rashbrooke.
Choirplay presents a wry dig at consumerism. Society’s individuals were blended to become a chorus of voices as they searched for fulfilment of true happiness.
It's a cleverly arranged piece, which has a sort of flat pack format, where the words and sequencing can be re-arranged to suit the situation.
Indeed, as audience, we were asked to fill in little forms with those stubby pencils, like the type you get in a furniture warehouse, to add our own modest component to the production.
An ensemble cast of Steven Blackshaw, Glen Collier, Jessica Dawson, Amy Foley, Chris Foley, Zoe Hakin, Stan Hodgson,Katie Powell and Alex Tahnée riffed from one another. Parts were in unison, others individual and some of the phrasing sliced into individual words spoken around the group.
Despite this unusual delivery, it was clear to understand whilst packing many consumerism and lifestyle related ideas into a short duration. Some of the thoughts take longer to process than the play's speedy pace. I'm still musing some of it 24 hours later, but I guess that is a good thing.
I'll happily see this again, and thoroughly enjoyed the liveliness brought to the piece by the cast.
Breakfast Hearts was an altogether different kind of play, using a stark minimal set and a kind of hyper-reality to describe a series of situations.
There were some ideas across from the first play that slid quietly into the second one, but this only added to the fun of what was a very dark comedy exploration of human nature.
Reminding me of that Beautiful South track, two couples slice across one another in a dark and offbeat comedic exploration of the need to be loved.
The casting for this was a subset of the earlier cast comprising Alex Tahnée, Stan Hodgson, Katie Powell, Steven Blackshaw, Chris Foley and Amy Foley.
The four main characters pinpointed recognisable human conditions, deploying whacky situations to illustrate varied life moments. Even the amateur magic was a metaphor and took the interactions to whole other places. There were many bursts of laughter and recognition from the audience as erstwhile domestic situations played out.
Notable also was the gusto of the cast as they handled both parts of the evening. There was a sheer energy to both the shows which Live Theatre should be pleased to be cultivating with this type of new production with its different edge and ascending talents.
Wednesday, 18 February 2015
Walking along the quayside today, I spotted what looked like two large cardboard boxes walking along the other side of the road.
They recognised me, and asked if I'd help with the accompanying flat pack chairs, on their way to the Broad Chare.
Once inside the venue, I could see the enormity of the task ahead, requiring extensive home assembly furniture knowledge as well as an understanding of glitter and twinkly lights.
Yes, it was the get-in for the first performance of Choirplay and Breakfast Hearts, at Live.
Tuesday, 17 February 2015
Back to the North again today. Google is hedging its best and estimating between 5h20 and 6h34 for the journey. I'll go with the slower time as my own estimate.
For those in this week's fitbit challenge, I think I'll be losing a day's step count over this, nosediving from second place to somewhere in the lower part of the pack.
At least my destination is hilly, so maybe I'll make up with some climbs.
Sunday, 15 February 2015
Entertaining to see Tom Hiddleston, Josie Rourke and David Tennant amongst the stars out on Sunday evening.
Yes, a quick wander along some comically densely surrounded red carpet to the What's On Theatre Awards at the Prince Charles Theatre, which was taking a night off from Book of Mormon.
The awards were hosted in suitably raucous, irreverent and sometimes chaotic style by Mel Giedroyc (of Mel and Sue and that cake show on telly) and Steve Furst (Made in Dagenham).
Miss Saigon claimed a huge stash of awards - including Best West End Revival. Actually Cameron Macintosh didn't do so badly in person, with a couple of awards to collect on stage.
Other shows claiming awards included A Streetcar named Desire, Great Britain, Memphis, Oliver, Wicked, Sweeney Todd and to show that Shakespeare is alive and well Coriolanus, Richard II and Shakespeare in Love.
Most were present to claim their awards but Billy Piper as the phone hacking editor from Great Britain had a dialled-in iPhone acceptance in full snapchatty wobblecam.
And some said that David Tennant's hair extensions from Richard II should have won their own award.
Saturday, 14 February 2015
Thrills as the new bit for the toaster arrives. Ordered one day, arrived the next.
Our Dualit toaster makes lovely toast. Except that after about twelve years the little clockwork timer dial stopped working reliably. I've just received and fitted the new one, which cost about £15 and took about ten minutes to swap over.
I idly looked in the local supermarket a couple of days ago when I passed the toasters aisle, and I noticed that there were new toasters crazily on special offer for £4.50. I picked one up and noticed that the thin metal prongs to hold the bread were already bent out of shape.
But that's the dilemma. I can have my 'Crafted in Britain' toaster self-service repaired for £15, or buy another boat-ballast 'Made in China' toaster for a fiver.
I'm still much happier with the shiny Dualit which, despite its recent glitch, again makes fresh toast with just the right amount of crunch and feels like something built to last.
Friday, 13 February 2015
The wheels on the bus go round and round and people still stay that London buses come along in twos and threes. I'm less convinced of that last point, with the 137s and 452s coming along at nicely spaced frequent intervals.
I'll settle for some of the current political scandals coming along in twos and threes though. Not that it will be easy to work any of it out. Now that Prime Minister's Question time has become Prime Minister's Evasion time, or even Prime Minister's Distract and Blame The Others time, its almost impossible to get a straight answer in anything.
The current interest could be in the various Grey Enterprise Holdings and their off-shore frolics as they find ways to save tax and aim political donations towards gaining influence, power and honour.
Why is it in twos and threes? We see Conservative and Labour caught up amongst the donors. We see knowledge of the events from around 2005 (Labour) and then repeated in 2010 (Conservatives and Lib-Dem).
But in case this all seems to be about Switzerland as a tax haven, let's not forget the other locations like the Cayman Islands. Is it too old school of me to mention Luxembourg? That's another two or three. If I decided to go with just British options I suppose I'd have to resort to Cayman, Jersey, Bermuda, Guernsey, British Virgin Islands, Isle of Man, Gibraltar and maybe Anguilla. That's their order in the Financial Secrecy Index, last updated in 2013. In fairness, only 5 of them are in the FSI Top Twenty and the UK itself comes in at number 21.
But that all leads in to another set of twos and threes. This is the banks themselves. The current focus is on HSBC, which was the one mentioned in the recent Swiss leakage of information.
So let's pick one of the other places on the list and have a quick look. Cayman Islands sounds very John Grisham novel. The sort of place that Christian Grey might take Anastasia to on a private jet for some privacy.
Hmm. Barclays have reduced their number of subsidiaries in the Caymans. From 181 to 134. Only 134 subsidiaries on that island with a population of 57,000? But wait. A couple of the part Government-owned banks have some interests too. RBS has around 37 companies in the Caymans and Lloyds Bank around 24.
Presumably there's more than two or three Grey Enterprise Holdings style organisations and Christian Grey type people around to need that kind of support?
Okay, so Christian is completely fictional. The Prime Minister appears to blend both fact and fiction.
His own family have dabbled in creative tax management too. Blairmore Holdings Inc was set up by his father, and then another fund based in Jersey and a third in Geneva. David was still at Eton when Blairmore Holdings was started.
The Blairmore Prospectus makes interesting reading: "The affairs of the fund should be managed and conducted so that it does not become resident in the United Kingdom for UK taxation purposes."
Blairmore's original registration is in Panama, its principle trading office shows in the Bahama, yet the Smith and Williamson Investment Manager is in Moorgate and the Simmons and Simmons Legal Advisors in Ropemaker Street, both London, EC2.
I suppose the respectable London connections made it convenient for British investors to get signed up. Blairmore's opaque structure also makes it difficult to see where the money has gone.
So let's summarise:
- Donors to both the biggest parties can be implicated in off-shore tax matters.
- Other banks than HSBC (including those part-owned by the UK Government) appear to operate tax avoidance processes.
- The UK itself has various related sovereign states with tax avoidance operations.
- The Prime Minister's statements could appear to blend fact and some less factual points during an increasingly distracted and more Punch and Judy based question time.
- Blairmore and its related implications may be worth some clarification?
Thursday, 12 February 2015
Saul Goodman's prescience regarding his future after Breaking Bad was baked into the opening of Better Call Saul. So much so that I genuinely thought I had selected the wrong show or that Netflix was having a meltdown.
Okay, about a minute later I worked it out, and was then pleasantly surprised to see that the series won't just play for laughs, as some had originally predicted.
The show is set six years prior to Breaking Bad, and notwithstanding the Nebraska monochrome, it is still splashed in the supersaturated colours of Albuquerque.
I'm waiting for Episode Three now and actually relieved that they are giving the plot and characters a time to develop rather than rushing straight into 45 minute episodic bursts. There's already a slew of hooks and unanswered questions developing, so I'm expecting this to be a good series.
And my own self-preservation rule about Cinnabon is to only eat them in America, despite the high-calorie tourist venue in the Trocadero.
Wednesday, 11 February 2015
Ever since I saw the Shaun the Sheep 'switch off your mobiles' trailer in the cinema, I've had it on my list to see the movie.
It's crazy capers as Shaun and accomplices visit the Big City looking for their missing farmer. There's so much detail packed into every scene, I'm sure I could watch it another couple of times to try to pick up on other jokes.
Sheep don't speak English (although some of them can understand the written word) so the film doesn't really have human dialogue. Even the doctors speak in bad handwriting.
There's also a recognisable Britain in the town scenes, with shopping centres of closed dry cleaners and charity shops, busy elevated road sections and realistic looking bus stations. I slightly found myself thinking "Ooh, is that the bus station at Chichester and is that the hospital in Southampton?"
Of course not. It's all plasticine and models. In some scenes you can even see the fingerprints.
But its crafted with a real heart and some delightful story telling.
A lovely movie and not just for kids.
Tuesday, 10 February 2015
Monday, 9 February 2015
The latest tax avoidance allegations rippling through the City are showing how certain politicians live by their wits. There's a stern message from the Prime Minister about how no government has done more than the current one to tackle tax evasion and regressive tax avoidance.
Maybe that's the same government that didn't chase when Vodafone avoided most of a tax bill after its £84bn windfall from selling its stake in Verizon? The curious reasoning was that Vodafone with its London headquarters and 19 million UK subscribers isn't British, it's based in the Netherlands.
Perhaps its same government that changed that coffee-shop chain's tax situation? They were also based in Netherlands. Then Chancellor Osborne and Lord Green created a new territorial taxation scheme, with a modernised Controlled Foreign Company (CFC) regime which trumped the Dutch option. Certain multinationals could move to UK for their European operation but then only be required to pay tax on their UK 'royalties'. Worth gaming the system to obtain this advantage for companies of a certain size?
Could it be the same government that has allowed a big mail order company to have 8 major distribution centres in the UK, yet that company seems to be able to operate from Jean-Claude Juncker's well constructed tax haven of Luxembourg?
And it's the same government that appointed the ex-head of the bank providing the Swiss tax avoidance advice to be minister of trade and investment to Cameron's cabinet until 2013.
Cameron's economic measures seem to be extending to the truth.
Sunday, 8 February 2015
We stopped off at the Electric to watch Kingsman: The Secret Service at the weekend. Comfy seats for a bonkers movie.
Screenplay from Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman (who worked together on Kick-Ass). Colin Firth playing a toffish Steed-like spy, complete with the umbrella. There's his new working class apprentice Eggsy played by Taron Egerton, who has to go through various secret service joining trials to avoid being taken away in a black taxi. Stereotypes prevail throughout the characterisations.
The movie is pure wild escapism, with the baddie tech genius played by lisping Samuel L. Jackson, and his lithe accomplice Sofia Boutella using her razor sharp legs to devastating effect.
All the Bond bits are there somewhere. Alpine lairs, tunnels into mountains, big places to explode, car chases. Martinis (but made with Gin and no vermouth). There's cuddly animals (one with initials J.B.), Sarf-London hows'ya'favvers, Mark Strong as a gadget-man and even Michael Caine turns up in the tinker-tailor-soldier's shop.
The product placement is there too, although set to tabloid rather than glossy. We get Guinness and -er- McDonalds. A Royale with cheese moment, maybe with Château Lafite.
Fast paced, although with a plot line that runs on rails, you kind of know what the next section will be like. All the good bits from Saturday morning pictures. Okay, there's more gore than ABC Minors would have allowed, but you get the idea.
Saturday, 7 February 2015
Like many, I probably receive most of my phone calls on my mobile phone nowadays. The landline is still there although for incoming calls it gets used more by family than anyone else.
Despite the Telephone Preference Service, which is used to block out nuisance calls, I'd say we were still getting several such calls every day. TPS doesn't exclude so-called survey calls. It also doesn't exclude pre-recorded calls nor those silent calls - when a call dialler is checking for pickup or is simply overloaded.
We changed the home phones recently and now have that Truecall thing which seems to be quite effective. Teach the phone the numbers you want to get straight through, (anyone in Contacts) and the phone puts up its own silent call screening for everything else.
The first half day I had it switched on, there were nine calls screened that didn't ring through. I could also see from the phone that it was apparently just three numbers making the calls. So much for that "don't hassle" clause that these telemarketers are supposed to follow.
I don't pay as much attention now, and genuine callers to the home land line don't seem to have noticed the difference. If anything, they are getting faster pickup because we don't need to listen to that first few seconds to work out if it's spam.
Deflector fields are set.
Friday, 6 February 2015
A couple of recent evenings out have created some music and film swapping moments. A few of us emailed quick lists of recent music we liked - it gave me some new ideas as a result.
Separately, a different group of us exchanged a single DVD with one another. I received Cosmopolis, which is the 2012 Cronenberg movie adaptation of the Delillo novel. Someone else got Lady and the Tramp.
I read Delillo's book a few years ago, which I remember as a sort of road-tripping life-loop compressed into a single journey.
I hadn't seen the movie, which stars Twilight's Robert Pattison playing Eric, a different kind of blood-sucker.
The focus is a 28 year old billionaire in a white stretched limousine crossing a road-blocked Manhattan to get a haircut. He's received a death threat. The soundproofed limo is configured like a gleaming space capsule and on his journey he meets his wife, lovers, his art advisor, a doctor and colleagues as well as going through the asteroid shower of an 'Occupy Wall Street' type demonstration.
Many of Eric's reactions appear as automaton-calculations, challenging the notion of richness and smartness being linked. A quarter second of a real shared glance could violate the agreements that made the city operate.
The immersive numbers soup echoes current global trading where markets are tweaked and debts offloaded to unwitting consumers.
“Look at those numbers running. Money makes time. It used to be the other way around. Clock time accelerated the rise of capitalism. People stopped thinking about eternity. They began to concentrate on hours...using labour more efficiently.”
As various brainiac accomplices of Eric briefly join him in the car, there's only a fuzzy understanding of the way the markets work. The machine algorithms rule the organic charts. No shoeshine story, but a 24 year old who briefly joins him has had enough and wants to get out of the markets.
From a book written in 2003, there's plenty for 2015. Take falling energy markets where oil slid from $130 to around $60 per barrel. Everyone trades with all the right software. Allegro, Openlink, Triple Point, Amphora. Roll out the names. Roll out the barrels. Yet be surprised.
US fracking increases oil availability, energy efficiency in cars improves, middle east conflicts fluctuate, China shops around, Russia creates embargoes and the Saudis keep production levels for market retention. A few events outrun the systems - halve the price. Now wait to see whether Saudis hold their nerve and American fracking becomes unprofitable.
The machines' trades win over the humans' comprehension with the capture of margins creating an ultra-minority wealth. Just like the 28-year old in the story.
"Money has lost its narrative quality the way painting did once upon a time. Money is talking to itself. as Delillo puts it.
Frankly, it's a tough movie to watch. Tight one-to-one interactions with Pattinson's character, dealing in whip cracks of Delillo thought. Eating and sleeping in the shadow of what these people do.
Thursday, 5 February 2015
I've been watching two different Sky series recently. One is about 700 people stuck in an out of the way place which has a crime free record for ages and then someone gets murdered. The other is about 600 people stuck in an out of the way place which has a crime free record for ages and then someone gets murdered.
Okay, one is set in let's say Iceland (Fortitude) and the other appears to be in outer space (Ascension). There's a whole bunch of quirky characters. In one they can carry guns into the supermarket when shopping, because it's okay in they'd only ever point the guns at a rampant bear. In the other, despite being 1960s all-American, curiously, they don't have any guns at all. Except when one gets discovered as part of the murder weapon for the unfortunate person that was strangled, drowned and shot.
The victim's name was Lorelei, which is coincidentally a great name for a spirit that might re-appear and murmur warnings from time to time. Ideally close to water, of course, like the German folklore.
Later in the same story a Rilke book is found. Rilke, whose haunting images focus on the difficulty of communion with the ineffable in an age of disbelief, solitude, and profound anxiety. Tellingly, in this story, the pages have been made blank which sets the tone for the rest of the space series.
When I watched the Sopranos, I always thought they'd written two endings. There's one at episode Final minus 3, when Tony Soprano stands triumphant on the edge of the cliff. Then the main script team return for the last two episodes to set up the final Final ending. The one where the audience don't see it coming.
The same for Breaking Bad. There's a change of tempo for the finale when Vince Gilligan is clearly back in the driving seat.
Not so for Ascension. It looks as if the moment when the Rilke was discovered becomes the point when the plug was pulled. It reminded me of that ending of the original Prisoner series (closed world with maybe 200 people in it) when the Beatles play 'It's all too much' or something similar. For Ascension they brought in some fixed-price context-free scribblers who were told to repurpose a defunct and humourless kitchen sink drama and add space bits.
For Ascension, I get the Narrenschiff idea. The ark of salvation and the ship of fools. The Catholic Church and skittishly the rest. Albrecht Durer famously illustrated the original German version of the ship. The pigs from the Durer seemed to make it to the deck of the madship in this story.
There were some half-hearted allegorical references to Eurydice and Orpheus too. People being rescued, but don't look behind you or you'll get zapped.
Fortitude is still on Episode One. Great scenery. A super cast. All High Definition arty colour palates. A metal bar that makes the Underworld at World's End in Camden seem jolly quaint. Mysterious Mammoth remains. A Science Research Block That Seems Too Big For Its Stated Purpose.
My fingers are still crossed.
Wednesday, 4 February 2015
George Cadbury, the original creator of Cadbury's chocolate was famously known for his Quaker beliefs and for the well-being of his workforce. He built the Bournville garden village adjacent to the factories, to 'alleviate the evils of modern more cramped living conditions'. It became a blueprint for other similar worker villages and set a high bar for worker care.
Cadbury's was sold off a few years ago and their products diluted. This season's Cadbury's Creme eggs have a recipe change, as well as moving from half a dozen in a pack to that well-known egg quantity of five. That's the effect of Kraft, the processed cheese slice people that manage Cadbury's in Europe.
Now it's the American version of Cadbury's brand that has created further mutants. Hershey's operate the Cadbury manufacturing in America and have been dabbling too.
To my palate Hershey chocolate tastes chemical, as if it has some kind of antiseptic injected. I'm told it's just got a higher percentage of sugar and lower amount of cocoa, but whatever it is, nowadays I won't even accept the English 'dare' to eat it.
Hershey's money-savers have also re-engineered the Cadbury ingredients. Less cocoa, more sugar, less milk, more powder. More like Hershey.
And now I see the Hershey lawyers have prevented British-style Cadbury chocolate even being retailed in the USA. They might as well lose the purple Pantone 2865c packaging on the American variant to avoid confusion.
Far removed from George's principles of improvement?
Tuesday, 3 February 2015
I often drive past a huge advert on the M4 near the North Circular off-ramp which says something like 'Been mis-sold SWAPS? Phone this number'. It's been there for quite a while and another sign of the times.
Wide boys in the city create ostensibly fixed rate business loans but then embed derivatives to hedge their position. It's another round of sharp practice and some big name banks have been implicated.
And I'm expecting the next few months to be full of politico mis-selling as we hit the election on-ramp.
According to Parliament.uk, I see the UK national debt is up at around £1.48 trillion, with £48.1bn in interest per year. That’s without adding in the extra bit for the part government owned banks.
This debt is about 80% of GDP, or about £25k per person.
Now between, say, the mid 80s and around 2009 the debt was in the 40%-50% range, but since 2009-ish it has risen steeply every year and looks set to continue at least until 2016/17. Not my figures, they are from the Office of National Statistics and the Office for Budget Responsibility.
So despite any pandering give-backs before the election, it's highly likely we’ll see another taxation rise after the election. Nothing new there, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, each of the last six new elected governments have announced net tax rises, which average £7.5 bn per annum.
That's unless we go back to printing money, I suppose, like the £375bn that the Bank of England electronically issued during UK quantitative since 2009. Instead of channelling the money into public schemes like, say the NHS and schools, it shunted the money directly into gilts, consequently driving bonds and equities.
And guess what?
The richest few percentage of share owners own 40% of all the shares and saw them rise 20%. They liked this and invested even more in upwardly mobile shares. Not in trickle-down spending. Okay, maybe some champagne and caviar. The banks could use their quantitively eased books to create more twisted financial instruments aimed towards those from whom they could make quick bonuses.
As for where the gap gets hidden. As gilt yields fall, so do pension annuity prospects. No biggie for the ever decreasing number of people still on final salary pensions, but for those in pension pots or whatever follows in April, it's a another devaluation.
So, most of the quantitive easing money didn't make it to the 'real' economy. That's the economy where a mere £1bn will rebuild more than 500 schools and £10bn will build 200,000 starter homes. The real workers that would be deployed could spend their sovereign money on stuff, which boosts other parts of the economy.
Oh no. This would never make a Westminster Village scheme, would it?
Even with my profligate spending above of £11,000,000,000, there's still the other £364,000,000,000 of the quantitive easing scheme to consider. That's still more than half a year's total UK government spending.
There's still arguments being trotted out around future austerity - sometimes that's also a code for punish the poorest. Another argument is about how low growth deepens debt so the private sector cuts spending - not what they said when the money was being printed. All of it seems like broken logic after the 2009-14 performances.
The political classes need fresh thoughts as we enter the last 90 days. I suspect it will all be trite polemics whilst the meaningful graphs remain hidden.