Archive for February, 2008

The FT is very gloomy

Thursday, February 28th, 2008

Belated news, but hardly out of date: the FT on Monday had a remarkably pessimistic commentary on its op-ed page by Wolfgang Münchau, saying, in essence, that the credit crunch will be even nastier in the UK than in the US, because our economy is still more run on smoke and mirrors than theirs.

In the next few years, I expect the UK economic miracle to be exposed for what it was: an overlong joyride on the back of an overlong asset price bubble. The UK economy is about to undergo a downturn at least as large as that of the US – maybe even worse, because of an even more inflated housing market and because the financial sector constitutes a larger share of gross domestic product.
According to my calculations, UK residential property prices are about 30 per cent above their trend in real terms. If the trend has not changed in the past few years, that would suggest that inflation-adjusted prices could fall by up to 40 per cent from peak to trough.

A house price crash would take time to unfold. Assuming a constant inflation rate of 2 per cent a year, nominal house prices would have to go down by about an unprecedented 25 per cent if the decline stretched over six years. Remember: the first stages of a housing downturn consist of denial followed by anger. A fall in actual prices is a relatively late-stage phenomenon of a housing crash.
The UK financial sector is in no less trouble. The credit crisis has a lot further to run, as it moves from one subsector to another. As I have argued previously, credit default swaps pose very serious risks to financial stability and the City of London has been the centre of the European CDS market.

This, remember, is the view of an associate editor of the Financial Times, hardly a ranting anti-capitalist rag. In fact Münchau goes on to say that one of the worst consequences will be that working in the financial sector will no longer be cool — so the people who see their house prices slide by forty per cent can console themselves that there is some banker even worse off than they are, since his job is no longer fashionable.

Silly Scanner fun

Thursday, February 28th, 2008

The wonderful Librarything is selling off cuecat scanners, to read the ISBN numbers off barcodes, very cheaply, and mine arrived this morning. It took about ten minutes to learn that the secret is to swipe quite fast, and after that, the widget just works: take a book, run the scanner over its barcode, and you have its title, author, publisher and so on entered all neatly in the library, ready to tag. I could do a huge pile in an hour with a laptop. There are not many of my books that don’t have barcodes these days, and certainly very few that I buy. I wonder if I can use it for tagging entries about books here. hmmmm.

Raymond Chandler

Thursday, February 28th, 2008

So hard to do right; so easy to do like this:

For an instant, I saw the golden ring on his drumming fingers. A five-pointed star was engraved on the ring that Dr Albert Fowler was no longer wearing when I found his body locked in the upstairs bedroom. Here was the missing piece in the puzzle.
The revelation hit me like an ice-water enema.

And now I suppose I will spend months looking for an opportunity to use this analogy in conversation. Better yet, in an interview. “What would you say, professor, to the results of this experiment? Would you not say they hit your theory like an ice-water enema?”
Or in Parliament: “Would my right honourable friend agree that the results of the latest polls must have hit his party like an ice-water enema?”

The quote comes form an otherwise amusing bit of hokum called Falling Angel by the American thriller writer William Hjortsberg, whose name raises an interesting question. How do Americans pronounce it? I know perfectly well how to pronounce it in Swedish, where the name means “Stag mountain” but I wouldn’t have clue how to say it in English. Jortsburg?

The best modern Chandler pastiche I know is still Loren D Estelman’s Whiskey River, about Detroit in the prohibition. There are frozen lakes there, and assholes, but no frozen assholes.

Onward, Christian soldiers

Monday, February 25th, 2008

There is a rather good and very chilling article in the most recent Atlantic by Eliza Griswold, daughter of the former Presiding Bishop, which casts some light on the reasons why Dr Akinola might want to hold a conference in Jerusalem without caring very much whether it upsets the Muslim Arabs.

“The West has thrown God out, and Islam is filling that vacuum for you, and now your Christian heritage is being destroyed … You people are so afraid of being accused of being Islam-phobic. Consequently everyone recedes and says nothing … Over the years, Christians have been so naive—avoiding politics, economics, and the military because they’re dirty business. The missionaries taught that. Dress in tatters. Wear your bedroom slippers. Be poor. But Christians are beginning to wake up to the fact that money isn’t evil, the love of money is, and it isn’t wrong to have some of it. Neither is politics.”

Dr Akinola is not afraid of politics. He used to be the president of the Christian Association of Nigeria, and attempted, against the statutes of the organisation, to stand for another term. While he was in office, the organisation preached and practised, remarkably muscular Christianity. Here is some more from Ms Griswold’s article:

A few hundred yards down the road from the church, [ in Yelwa, where 70 Christians had been murdered in a riot earlier] there’s a cornfield. In it, a row of mounds: more  mass graves. White signs tally the dead below in green paint: 110, 50, 65, 100, 55, 25, 60, 20, 40, 105. Two months after the church was razed, Christian men and boys surrounded Yelwa. Many were bare-chested; others wore shirts on which they’d reportedly pinned white name tags identifying them as members of the Christian Association of Nigeria, an umbrella organization founded in the 1970s to give Christians a collective and unified voice as strong as that of Muslims. Each tag had a number instead of a name: a code, it seemed, for identification. They attacked the town. According to Human Rights Watch, 660 Muslims were massacred over the course of the next two days, including the patients in the Al-Amin clinic. Twelve mosques and 300 houses went up in flames. Young girls were marched to a nearby Christian town and forced to eat pork and drink alcohol. Many were raped, and 50 were killed.

When asked if those wearing name tags that read “Christian Association of Nigeria” had been sent to the Muslim part of Yelwa, the archbishop grinned. “No comment,” he said. “No Christian would pray for violence, but it would be utterly naive to sweep this issue of Islam under the carpet.” He went on, “I’m not out to combat anybody. I’m only doing what the Holy Spirit tells me to do. I’m living my faith, practicing and preaching that Jesus Christ is the one and only way to God, and they respect me for it. They know where we stand. I’ve said before: let no Muslim think they have the monopoly on violence.”

Remember this, the next time someone tells you that Nigeria is the future of Christianity.

Nineteen percent

Wednesday, February 20th, 2008

Did Nixon get down to fourteen? Well, there are ten months left for Bush to beat that. But this approval rating is still rather gratifying. Of course, once the air goes out of the American economy, the rest of us will have a very unpleasant few years as well. But sometimes there isn’t anything to be gained by putting off the reckoning.

Small self plug

Wednesday, February 20th, 2008

I am going to deliver one of the Oxford Amnesty Lectures tomorrow, or at least participate in a sort of debate that replaces one of the lectures. This is one of the most honouring things I have ever been asked to do and any readers in those parts are urged to come along and contribute to a good cause. I’ll post a draft of the text here later.

Sushi Pizza

Tuesday, February 19th, 2008

On this blog we refrain from Norwegian jokes but I would not like to take seriously this recipe from Dagbladet. Yes, it is a sushi pizza, with the fish (Norwegian salmon and Norwegian halibut are specified) arranged on round platters of sushi rice and with a “wasabi sauce” made with mayonnaise to bind it.

I am not going to translate the whole thing, but even non-Norwegian speakers will notice, if they click through, that the sushi pizza is garlanded with strawberries.

Filthy synod blogging

Wednesday, February 13th, 2008

There is something about the extreme boredom of a routine synod meeting which fires up the erotic imagination, and yesterday afternoon, as I sat in the press room trying to summon up the will to live, or at least to write a column, my reverie was interrupted by the voice of a pretty colleague asking in tones of very well controlled excitement, “Is it in yet?”1

Other noises became clear. From the television at one end of the room a middle-aged woman was speaking in a tone common among synod delegates, very slowly and distinctly, like a primary school teacher whose charges are the product of millennia of inbreeding. Much later, I realised that someone with better technical skills could make the perfect mash-up, reversing the joke in Jesus of Montreal where a bored housewife is giving phone sex while getting breakfast for the family, and redub the dialogue as if spoken in a synod debate on freehold. Yes! ….. Yes! …. That would be very exciting!

It’s a shame that there are only about five people in the world who will understand this joke, and three of them have dog collars.

1 She wanted to know whether her copy had been published.

Emergency Sanity blogging

Monday, February 11th, 2008

Before I go into London. I just want to record that spring has arrived in the countryside. I was struggling with a filthy cold for most of the weekend, and turned down an invitiation to go on the Sunday programme because of it, but managed a short walk around the village of Henham in the afternoon, in the course of which I saw two blackbirds mating, three greenfinches (which are, confusingly, yellow), a pair of jays, a dunnock, some glorious catkin buds, and two nesting moorhens. I took pictures of all of these with the lovely telephoto lens my mother gave me for my birthday, but, snot-stupid, failed to notice that there was no card in the camera at the time. I did manage some pictures of the 13th century church with a spare memory card inserted, which I will put up on Flickr later.

Monday Press blogging

Monday, February 11th, 2008
  • Let the record1 show that Ruth Gledhill had the only news this morning, and that her analysis piece actually moved forward our understanding of the story. She is the only person who has actually explained how the catastrophe happened — not that her version makes Rowan look very much better. In particular, she has found been forwarded a quote from a letter to Irene Lancaster from Rowan’s interfaith adviser, Canon Guy Wilkinson, who explained that the lecture would be “a response to rising concerns about the extent to which Sharia is compatible with English civil law, especially in the extensive Muslim neighbourhoods where informal Sharia councils are widely in operation. In areas such as marriage and divorce, there is evidence that there is no proper connection with the civil courts and that women in particular are suffering.”

If Rowan had said those words on the radio there would have been no story

It is obvious to anyone who reads the lecture that this is one of the things he was trying to say. Had he placed his radio interview (clarified after lagomorphic comments below) in the context of enabling good Islam against bad Islam, which is undoubtedly the frame in which he was thinking, he would still have upset a lot of people, but not the same lot, and much more productively. That he did not do so is not a testament to cleverness or unworldliness. I’m not one to use “Intellectual” as a term of abuse; but Academic arrogance is a fair description of his attitude, and so is stupidity, because this is, after all, about the fourth time he has made the same mistake.

Two further small points emerge from her piece. One, that his staff deal with Irene Lancaster. Two, that Lord Carey reads (presumably for pleasure) the News of the World.

  • The Telegraph news desk is currently staffed — as the Mail would see it — with rejects from the Daily Mail and it shows. Their only understanding of this story is that if the Archbishop has screwed up, he must resign. That is the narrative that the BBC started, and it’s pointless. But whereas the Mail has quickly grasped that it is not going to happen — it is a very feeble lead indeed to say that The Archbishop of Canterbury is expected to face calls for his resignation when the Church of England’s general synod meets today. — the Telegraph is still flogging the dead horse, or bashing the dead bishop: Dr Rowan Williams has faced fresh calls for his resignation and claims from within the Anglican Church that confidence in him had “plummeted”. Jonathan Petre, who wrote that, knows perfectly well that it is irrelevant. But in his case, at least, it is a complete defence to say that he was only obeying orders.
  • Looking at the weekend’s papers, it was not surprising that the FT had the best leader, one which both understood Rowan’s underlying position and rejected it clearly on principle. But I was surprised that two of the best comment pieces were in the Independent, both for and against. Deborah Orr gave much the most sympathetic reading of the speech; Yasmin Alibhai Brown much the best feminist response. To the extent that the Archbishop did stir up debate, rather than vituperation, those columns are where you will find it, though on the general matter of religion in a secular age, Parris and Barrow (earlier referenced) are the ones to go to.

1 Well, this immensly influential and widely read blog, and perhaps, even the Church Times too.