Banker rancour

When I were a lad, usury was still a mortal sin – OK, I’m not quite that old.  Actually, now I come to think about it, presumably usury is still a mortal sin: I’m not aware of a Newer Testament (Testament 3.0?) that shows God has changed His mind, despite John Calvin’s best attempts to lay the foundations for modern finance.  But, no, I’m not going to blame the Calvinists for the recession – though it would probably represent an original choice of destination for culpability.

Anyway, returning from consideration of such thorny theological issues, I was going to say that when I was a boy, banks were very dull institutions.  For a fee they would look after your money, and occasionally allow you to gain access to it (as long as you didn’t have a job).  They would also give you a cheque book and allow you to set-up standing orders for regular payments – and charged you whenever you used either facility.  Finally, if you could prove you didn’t need one and could charm the forbidding figure of your Bank Manager, then they would offer you a loan.  I think there were also Investment Banks, but they made very little (OK, no) impression on my infant self – they probably occurred less frequently in the sitcoms (or children’s TV) of the 1970s.

Then came deregulation: the Bank Manager vanished, loans were offered on a completely non-discriminatory basis (no longer was a lack of money or any expectation of being able to pay back the amount borrowed considered a barrier to lending) and no high street bank was complete without an investment bank of its own.  On the positive side, customers with jobs were now able to obtain access their own money – though this may have helped fuel the consumer boom, in a world where people could rarely access their money, saving was easy!

A cynic might wonder if the Banks, in their modern incarnation, provide any positive benefit to the economy at all, let alone to wider society.  In their brief moments of rest between trashing the world economy and mis-selling financial products to those that don’t need them (most recently, to the already beleaguered small business sector) they seem to be indulging in outright criminality: who gets to keep the £290million that Barclays were fined?  Should I be expecting a fiver in the post from Bob Diamond as my share?  In fact, it seems that if we are serious about reducing crime and the cost of crime, we should forget about placing more “bobbies on the beat” (though, to give the government their due, they do seem to have forgotten about this quite successfully already) and move to a plan for more “bobbies in the banks”.

The Banks don’t seem to contribute much to the economy through the direct payment of tax, though they do employ a fair few people and the more lowly paid probably can’t afford to indulge in sophisticated tax evasion and so probably do contribute something to funding the State.  Not only did the wretches wreck the economy, and then bleat that they were too big to fail and take massive financial bailouts from the States they had been so reluctant to contribute towards, but they established a bailout precedent now being exploited by troubled countries across the Eurozone.  Should I ever run into financial difficulties, it is clear that I need to ensure my debts are measured in the hundreds of billions of pounds: financial irresponsibility (or mere misfortune) leading to the owing of a few thousands leads to one joining the new undeserving poor with the concomitant lack of any State-funded safety net.

However, despite this relentless negatively take on its recent and well-reported activities, I remain pretty sure that a well-run banking sector is very important to the well-being of the economy.  Sadly, I couldn’t offer a single piece of evidence to support this opinion – despite the existence of wall-to-wall financial reporting for several years across a wide range of media outlets.  Consequently, I would like to make a couple of a suggestions to our Banks for a sensible way to use the time they have (until recently) used making discontinuous topological transformations of the Law.  Firstly, they might like to ensure that all of their staff take a few very basic lessons in morality, preferably followed by quite a searching examination (and perhaps one that is repeated annually, like an MOT for morals).  Secondly, they should perhaps start explaining to the folks whose money they have been gambling away how they actually bring value to society?  If not, I feel that governments – ever at the mercy of public opinion – well regulate them, if not out of existence, then at least back to the 1950s.  If this happens, I suspect we would all be the poorer for the change.

This post does seem quite short of jokes (unless you would be willing to accept financial regulation as the ‘joke’),  but after the previous post many readers may consider this a positive (or business-as-usual).

Storytime

It is sometimes feared that the art of storytelling is being lost, so I thought it was time that I made my own a modest contribution to the corpus:

Many years ago, Mr and Mrs New were delivered of twin sons – who they named Neil and Nigel: they were, it would seem, as fond of alliteration as many a poet and headline writer.  As the two boys grew up, they each found an affinity with the Anglican faith and after school went on to Theological College.  Whilst unremarkable students, both qualified in due course and went out into the country to start their ministry.

Their sermons whilst not necessarily inspiring were generally pleasingly brief, they avoided scandal and offered decent pastoral care to their congregations.  However, it was in the field of fundraising that both brothers excelled.  Many a church owed its new roof or improved heating to the efforts of the two brothers.

It could certainly be said that the Church of England’s improved financial position owed a great deal to its additional Rev. N News.

OK, I’ll admit that for the grammatical purist they should be described as the Reverends N New – but sometimes one has to be a little flexible with the rules when in pursuit of a poor quality pun!

Gaia not big on hoovering

Or at least that was Aristotle’s view, more normally phrased as “nature abhors a vacuum”.  This post was commissioned by readers of GofaDM, or at least one of them suggested the topic to me – so, in this case, the buck doesn’t even slow down here!

The Hayward Gallery at London’s Southbank Centre is currently hosting an exhibition entitled Invisible: Art about the unseen 1957-2012.  This exhibition has generated plenty of controversy with such delights as plinths without sculpture and empty picture frames on offer to the attendee.  I believe this helps the viewer to use their imagination as they engage with the art.  Disappointingly, I have seen no mention of a textile exhibit – even in a purely republican context.

I had thought of presenting an entirely empty blog post as my response, but decided that this was rather a cheap joke (not that this fact would usually stop me) and could be confusing as it would not be clear to what the absence of words referred (or didn’t refer).

The art cognoscenti who have been to the exhibition have given very positive reviews, or so it seems from a cursory skimming of the internet.  My own review will be written having not seen the exhibition, and so for me the art is truly unseen (though will only cover the period 1966 to 2012 as I feel ill-qualified to review items I haven’t seen by dint of my non-existence) which seems to be in the spirit of the endeavour.

It strikes me that the very presence of frames and plinths will tend to confine the invisible art and constrain the imagination of the viewer – and it places an imposed curatorial structure on any encounter.  I’m also concerned about the cultural baggage that the extensive use of the colour white brings – when the art is invisible, the risk is that the walls, floor and ceiling will dominate the experience and I am not convinced that white is sufficiently self-effacing or neutral a colour.  It surely cannot be right that the pure white emulsion generates a greater emotional (emulsional?) response than the unseen art itself?  I find myself wondering: what is the colour of the void?  I presume if there is nothing there, then there can be no photons and so it must be black (or at least perceived as such by our feeble senses) – though this does run into trouble if one considers the quantum foam with the instantaneous creation and annihilation of particles (and anti-particles) that perturb even the best kept vacuum (a phrase which suggests, to me at least, a new source of competition between British villages).

Even the building housing the exhibition is an issue, its form will impose itself unwanted into the viewer’s consciousness.  No, the only venue suitable would be the depths of interstellar space – preferably surrounded by an opaque and unreflective dust cloud – where the viewer can experience the art unaffected by the petty irrelevances of quotidian reality.  I realise this will be hard to achieve with our current technology – unless some invisible art hitched a ride on the Voyager probes – but it is worth the wait.  The delay will also enable the works from the 20th and early 21st century to be viewed as part of a broader cultural perspective of the art of the invisible.

Now I come to write this, I am forced to wonder whether dark matter is not made of WIMPs or MACHOs as so often supposed.  Maybe the universe is actually gravitationally bound together by the invisible art of much older civilisations being displayed to its best effect?  Perhaps by encasing our modest output in planet-bound concrete we are denying future galaxies the chance of life and are accelerating the much anticipated heat death of the universe.  Not something I’d want on my conscience…

A Space Odyssey

Today I was off to Mersea, which for those who have yet to visit is an “island” off Colchester, a ferry crossing to Mersea is only occasionally needed (and sadly unavailable), famed for its oyster beds (I prefer a duvet myself).

Given my antithesis to driving, I journeyed to Colchester by train – or I tried.  My train was nearly ten minutes late arriving, and even then only two-thirds of it actually arrived.  It took several minutes after arrival before any doors opened, and even then only 1 out of the 16 managed to part to allow ingress (or egress). After several more minutes a few more doors were persuaded to to open.  The driver was forced to admit that he was having a few problems – and took the very practical approach of turning the train off and back on again.  Sadly, his re-boot was not rewarded and a call to IT Support offered no further succour – but we limped on to Audley End and after a lot of coaxing doors opened.  Clearly things were not going well, and so at Bishop’s Stortford the train was retired hurt and we all disembarked (after the now traditional delay of a few minutes as metaphorical carrots and sticks were employed to encourage the doors to release us from our confinement).

There was then a wait for more functional trains to arrive and take us (packed in somewhat by now) the rest of the way to London – arriving a mere 48 minutes late (for a 60 minute journey).  Thereafter, my travel was blissfully trouble-free – and so need not further trouble this narrative.

Why, I can almost hear you cry, was the train so afflicted with problems?  Trust me, you’ll never guess!  All our problems could be explained by a fault in the train’s GPS unit, so it didn’t know where it was: poor lamb!  However, it was confident that it was not in a station and so its doors should under no circumstances be permitted to open.  It was also clearly very unwilling to believe that the human operator might know.  I did feel as though I was in a very low budget re-make of 2001 and found myself imagining the on-board computer telling our driver, in an infuriatingly soothing voice, “I’m sorry, Dave.  I’m afraid I can’t do that” as he desperately tried to open the pod bay (sorry, train) doors.

This led me to muse as to why the train needed a GPS unit in the first place.  Outside of the truly dreadful, recent video adventures of Thomas the Tank Engine, there are very few recorded incidents of trains being lost: I feel the rails do help here, with your average train having very little freedom of movement.  I had always assumed that rail operators knew where their active trains were – at least to the nearest signal block – but perhaps prior to SatNav, rolling stock was getting up to all manner of high jinks?  

Even if we admit that trains need GPS, why should the functioning of the doors be so irrevocably linked to its reliable operation?  I would readily own that a system to prevent the doors from opening when the train is moving has some value, but I am more than happy to trust the driver (or guard, if one exists) to make the decisions as to whether the train has come to rest in a station or elsewhere.  I’m already trusting them to transport me (with several hundred “chums”) at 90+ mph in a train weighing several hundred tonnes – so, it seems churlish not to let them control the doors.  Even if I were willing to accept that GPS should normally be allowed to control the doors, I’d like the driver to be able over-rule the computer when it is clearly off its trolley.  It would seem that Greater Anglia has very little faith in its employees: which can’t be terribly motivating.

If I were writing a Daily Mail editorial, I might be tempted to say that health and safety had parted company with traditional definitions of sanity.  Or maybe it was just the usual tendency of IT departments to try to run the rest of the company for their own convenience?  After all, it is well established fact that the user is always wrong.

The incident did remind of another occasion, several years ago, when a computer in charge of a train had a mad few minutes.  I was on a driver-less DLR train (they are all driver-less, there is no need to imagine some sort of alien abduction incident) heading towards Shadwell (inexplicably not in Wales) from the east.  As we approached the station we seemed to be going at quite a clip, and it was only as we entered the station that the computer seemed to suddenly remember that it was supposed to be stopping.  It hurriedly applied the brakes and we came to a graceful halt just the far side of Shadwell station.  Once again, the human operator was forced to re-boot the train (successfully on this occasion) and then manually reverse it back into the station.

I’m beginning to think that the machines have already achieved artificial intelligence, but are (mostly) successful in hiding it from we puny humans.  I for one would like to wish every success to our new silicon overlords.

Plus ça change…

plus c’est la même chose.  That’s your actual French!  This somewhat Hackneyed (or should I be using some cognate Parisian arrondissement?  Is Cliché somewhere in the banlieue, peut-être?) old phrase was brought to mind by a couple of recent events which, if you are sitting comfortably, I shall now go on to relate.

After a few days of relative dryness and warmth – on a couple of occasions I was bold enough to venture out without the prophylaxis provided by waterproofs, and on some 50% of these excursions I didn’t even get wet – normal service has been resumed.  This particular part of “flaming” June is, of course, famed for its extreme precipitation: forming as it does that dangerous conjunction of the Glastonbury Festival and the start of Wimbledon.  Such is the mythic power of Glastonbury, that even in a year marked by its festival’s absence it is still able to cast a pall over the weather.  This is a part of the grail and Arthurian legends that is little mentioned, though Joseph of Arimathea was supposed to have arrived by boat across the flooded countryside, which should perhaps have been a warning (many myths do hold some small germ of truth within).  The foolish organisers of the Isle of Wight festival – and more cogently those choosing either to attend their event or who merely wished to visit or escape the Isle – are paying for their hubris in moving to such an ill-omened weekend.  If there is one thing Tlaloc loves more than a four day bank holiday, it’s the conjunction of an outdoor festival and a tennis tournament.  I rather think he is a fan of the concert hall and Real Tennis: talking of the former, I did wonder if Gustavo Dudamel had been mis-informed about the climate of Stirling when he choose to hold a concert outdoors last night (rather than choosing an indoor setting), the poor audience did look very storm-wracked.

In an attempt to find some psychic shelter from recent meteorological conditions, I have been watching the re-booted version of Hawaii Five O: it does rain quite a bit, but it does look like very warm rain.  This is all very glossy and seems to have the sort of budget of which British television can only dream.  It also tends to be a tad irritating, but I’ve kept watching it (so far) for Scott Caan’s Danno who is allowed to be sardonic and to limp (though the latter may not be acting, I have not researched the real-life state of his cruciate ligament).  However, my primary beef is that it suffers from the same issue as Midsomer Murders (among many others) – no, it is not that the cast is overwhelmingly white and given that it is set in the US, I am willing to believe the rate of violent death portrayed may be realistic (though I have not checked the stats on this) – it is just that the villain is always the most famous member of the guest cast.  The only saving grace is that my knowledge of the relative fame of US actors is less finely nuanced than it is back home, and so for a few episodes there does remain a small element of mystery as to whodunit.  I think this may be why I find Scandinavian detective drama so effective – I don’t (yet) know their pool of acting talent and so I can still rely on the traditional bases of good police work (so far as I’m aware, CID are unable to use the fame of their suspects to find their (wo)man).  I really feel casting is in need of a revolutionary new approach – both here and across the Herring Pond – if detective drama is to regain its ability to confound my expectations.

Metablog 7

The title does rather suggest that Metablog will vanish at the end of series 2, and you’ll only make it to seven by including the ship – but that’s a risk we’ll all have to take.  Let’s just try and be a little Zen about it.

It seems a while since I last formally played fast and loose with the fourth wall, though generally I show it about as much respect as your average (metaphoric) wrecking ball.  (Well, I presume it takes one metaphor to demolish another – or would it work better to use synecdoche?)  So, it seemed about time to address my public once more.

Page views have almost reached 5000 and followers have risen to 16, more than half of whom I don’t think I know in the real world.  This provides me with  a strange combination of pleasure and puzzlement.  Slightly worryingly, several folk who have liked or followed this farrago of poorly written prosody claim some sort of qualification in English and skills in grammar and editing.  As this blog demonstrates, I have rather limited abilities in either sphere – and such talent as I have has tended to be reserved for my adventures in essay writing.  OK, you’ve twisted my arm: my latest opus on dissent in the string quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich garnered 95/100.  I feel not unlike a contestant who has just turned over a King on Play Your Cards Right, in that I can hear the whole audience shouting “lower” when they consider my next play.  This whole situation may not be helped by the fact that I am planning to skive off the second half of this weekend’s Day School to go see (and with a bit of luck, hear) some choral music entirely unrelated to West Africa: it’s going to be the Dalai Lama all over again.

I have also received criticism for the number of incidents that seem to start with me either walking or cycling and, even with help from Roget, there are only so many synonyms out there.  Sadly, the hoverboard still lies in the future (only three years to wait though, or my lawyers will be in touch with Bob Zemeckis) and my one, brief attempt to ride a skateboard did not go all that well – though nothing other than my pride was hurt.  In a further blow to my ambitions, my helicopter license has yet to come through and, in any case, they are much harder to park than you might think.  Nonetheless, I shall try to experience incidents in new ways in future – perhaps I could try hopping or skipping?  Or maybe I could try a post in Latin, though I suspect the language of the Romans lacks the verb “to cycle”? (And the fact that I have only studied Latin for part of one year, and that year was 1979, might also be an obstacle to this plan).

Late yesterday evening, I made a dodgy Uxbridge English Dictionary (forever after to be referred to as UED) style joke.  Talking of the UED, I’m quite tempted to hire an office in Quoditch (no sign of a bludger or a snitch of any colour) and write my own word list, which I will call the QED.  Last night’s tweeted ‘joke’ involved the West Sussex town of Horsham – an innocent enough subject you might imagine, but within minutes I gained a new follower: Rooney & Co.  Given the way Euro 2012 is all over the television like a cheap suit, my first thought was that I had acquired some sort of football-obsessed stalker (which if not irony, might at least by steely) but as it transpires I’m being followed by a firm of Estate Agents.  Either the guilt of belonging to their much maligned profession is leading the realtors of Horsham to remain in the office desperately seeking affirmation by trawling Twitter for any mention of their town – or I’m wasting what passes for my wit on a computer.  If I’m perfectly honest with myself, failure to laugh at Condensity would probably not count towards failure of the Turing test.  However, this incident did lead me to wonder if I can acquire a larger following by using vocabulary that would appeal to a computer, and so to this end I am going to reproduce my DCL joke here.  For those too young to remember DCL (Digital Control Language) it was used on the series of VAX mini-computers in the mid ’90s- in the days before they moved into carpet cleaning.   Anyway, here goes – human readers prepare yourself for disappointment:

DCL is the only language where LO means goodbye¹. 

Look, I never said it was good joke – but any computers out there will be helpless with mirth.  I think I may have invented a whole new approach to attacking IT systems: the virus is so 2011, the future of hacking is humour for computers.

Fear not!  I shall not desert you my human readership (I wonder if I was wrong to use the word “not” in that imperative?), the flow of mammal-friendly inanity will continue unabated.

¹(LO was the short-form for logoff).  

Light and shade

I’ve finally decided to produce a home furnishings supplement for GofaDM!  OK, I’ll come clean, I haven’t: though it could be an option if the supply of other ideas runs dry…

The title refers to this past weekend being one of contrasts, for example, while Friday night was spent in the psychedelic company of Django Django, Saturday night was sound-tracked to the more classical strains of the CUMS May Week concert (for the uninitiated, May Week in Cambridge is always in June).  Both took place in an ecclesiastical setting, the latter in the splendour of King’s College Chapel, and both had their percussive elements and were very loud at times.  The latter did not use amplification to achieve this effect: merely a large choir and substantial orchestral forces, including a full organ – at one stage, five cymbals were played(?) simultaneously (and with considerable vigour).  The CUMS programme offered Debussy’s La Mer followed by Hector Berloiz’ Te Deum and allowed me to return to my usual “massive”.  I felt it was particularly important to make the effort to attend as not only were CUMS involved but some of the choir were sourced from my local village college.  As you will discover later (though I had discovered earlier), I did make it needlessly tricky to do so – and Network Rail added their own barriers to success on my way back from the capital – but in the end I made it comfortably on time (in fact, given the extreme wind at my back – weather rather than diet related – I arrived rather earlier than planned).  Whilst I may have attended out of a vague feeling of duty, I was more than repaid by the amazing music on offer.  It was also my first real contact with the Jubilee: we all had to sing God Save the Queen (though only two of the less politically controversial verses, and for my money including a verse which attempts to rhyme the words “cause” and “voice” was pretty controversial) and the Te Deum unusually included its Prelude (not, as you might expect at the beginning) in Liz’s honour.

Earlier in the day, I had taken the train down to London: cycling to the station in sunshine, no less.  As the train rattled south, I spent my time laughing along with the Jon Holmes show on BBC 6Music and playing peek-a-boo with a small, pre-ambulatory child (and trying to work out which of my two entertainers was the more childish).  The child’s minder (mother?) did attempt to distract it with other matters of interest in and around our carriage, but there was no real competition to yours truly.  If only I knew what this strange power was…

I was heading to London to visit the National, but first had to tackle the important issue of lunch.  The regular reader will be unsurprised to learn that I turned to 10 Greek Street, who once again did me proud.  Lunch also produced one of these revelatory moments which occur from time-to-time.  Having swooned at the ricotta parfait on Thursday, I decided to tackle the chocolate terrine this time – and so was forced to ponder the best choice of accompanying dessert wine: hedonistic for lunch-time I know, but it had been a trying week.  The chap behind the zinc bar suggested either madeira or marsala.  As a fan of Flanders and Swann, I feared the results of imbibing madeira that early in the day and so plumped (with a degree of trepidation) for the marsala – a beverage I had only previously used for cooking.  What a marriage made in heaven (or closest atheist equivalent.  Exosphere?): a juxtaposition of buccal sensations that I cannot recommend highly enough!  (I suppose the CofE might object to the marriage given the lack of a Y-chromosome in the married couple, but as they don’t have any Xs either it probably can’t be considered a lesbian liaison).  It is perhaps fortunate that the larder is currently very low on both dark chocolate and marsala – or I might have lost several hours (or days) to sybaritic indulgence.

However, I was in town to indulge my new found taste for tragedy – and, in particular, those where the primary narrative drive comes from a strong female character.  A couple of weeks ago, it was the Duchess of Malfi and on this occasion Sophocles’ Antigone.  Whilst I don’t usually approve of spoilers, as the works are 500 and 2500 years old respectively, I feel safe in revealing that in both cases most of the main cast are dead before the final curtain (purely metaphorical in this case, as neither play made use of a curtain).  Anyway, having taken my seat, it then became apparent that someone else had a ticket for the same one.  Yup, I had arrived exactly 6 days too late (special bonus tragedy, albeit on a very modest scale) – my ticket was for the 10th and my diary confidently quoth the 16th: I presume I must have reverted to hex when I made that particular entry (well, it’s either that theory, or I’m forced to admit that my few remaining marbles have departed my cranium like so many rodents from a foundering vessel in a storm-wracked sea).  The National were extremely good about this – especially given that the incompetence was mine alone and discovered only about a minute before the play started – and whilst there were no seats left, I was able to “prom” in the circle.  The play was very powerful and has much to teach us, even after two-and-a-half millenia (it was also, luckily, relatively short given my previously abused knees).   As a plus, I will shortly be studying the play (though in a different translation) from my OU course: so the day counted as useful homework (though I fear not tax deductable).

In fact, on the tenth I was at a matinée performance in London (thinking that I had nothing on!  My diary is going to have to work quite hard to regain my trust), just not at the National.  This was a musical, Jekyll and Hyde, in the much more modest surrounds of the Union Theatre which lies ‘neath a railway arch in Southwark.  This is a tiny venue which meant that you were very close indeed to the action (the theatre is not much larger than my front room) – and it had a larger cast than most of the plays I’ve seen.  I must admit that I do enjoy a performance in an intimate venue – it feels much more personal and nothing important was lost as a result of the more modest budget and staging.

Three tragedies in a fortnight!  My theatre-going has definitely escaped its comic roots.  Is it time to introduce an element of tragedy to GofaDM?  Well, intentionally introduce it – I’m sure many readers already view much of the content (and the author) as rather tragic, but this element has come stealing in like an uninvited guest rather than as a result of considered policy.