Money madness

Things I learned this week:

At $51m the Sochi Olympics is the most expensive ever.

Apple’s revenue for the last quarter exceeded Luxembourg’s annual GDP. Annual!

This is bonkers. What the hell is Apple going to do with all that sloshing dosh? Just sitting there making minor, underwhelming improvements to iPhones and iPads?

WW1 and family genes

My grandfather, bottom left

My grandfather, bottom left

My maternal Grandfather was born in 1898 and died around 1958 or thereabouts. Having never met him (or, sadly, my Grandmother) I only have snippets of their character from my mum and inevitably don’t hold much emotional attachment to them. They are names, and were important figures in my mum and her two brothers’ lives but mean little to me.

And yet, it struck me the other day, without them both I would not be here. Without them, my mother wouldn’t have been born, nor met my dad, nor had me and my brother as children. My girlfriend wouldn’t have met me, and somebody else would be living in this house and doing the job I do. I owe my existence to their survival.

So far, so obvious, so sickly.

The reason this all came to me was the dumb realisation that my grandfather fought in and survived WW1 – fought as a 2nd Lt, the rank of soldier who most got culled throughout the war. It occurred to me how little I knew of his feats, or how he managed to survive while millions perished. I’d always been blase about his involvement, partly because it was in World War One (most of my generation’s grandparents were likely born on or around WW2), a war about which I know embarrassingly little, but also because nobody in my family knows much either.

That’s how it was, of course. If you survived the hell of war, you certainly didn’t talk about it, and my grandfather was a wallflower at the best of times. Not even his son, my uncle who fought in Malaya in the 1950s, knew anything of his father’s deeds, other than he was awarded an MiD (Mention in Dispatches) and the troop/company to whom he belonged. We know nothing other than several cuttings from the London Gazette that my cousin discovered.

So, if I am indebted to his survival, I’m also indebted to his parents. And theirs. And my great-great-great-great grandparents. Had just one of those people not survived, or met a different husband/wife, I wouldn’t be here. None of us would. I’m not sure if genealogy has a connection with the butterfly effect, but it does seem to share similarities. It’s also a mind fuck. Had one of the Hun’s stray bullets headed in his direction, I wouldn’t be inflicting this rambling saccharine nonsense on whichever poor soul is reading it.


Castlepoint Lighthouse, Wellington, built by my family

About ten years ago I was arguing with my aunt about our paternal family history. To my astonishment, a quick Google search uncovered my entire family history stretching back to the early 1600s. The only missing parts were, well, me and my brother and father. It had been done by a lovely bloke who was housebound due to an illness, and had discovered that his family, Taylor, and ours had married in the 15th or 16th century. Since then, he helped me find the tiny little Cornish town where my family lived, Phillack, near St Ives, which is doubly odd considering all the family holidays we had there as a kid. Makes you wonder…

Since knowing my family’s history in such detail, I have to admit it’s changed my outlook on life a little. Knowing all that they accomplished gives you an incredible feeling of duty to carry it on. Hasn’t quite gone to plan as yet, as I haven’t built any ships, engines, lighthouses, mines or buildings or been a politician nicknamed Peanut, or had a road named after me, but there’s time yet.

A man’s life is a long time waiting

“I could be wasting my time so much more productively”

20:30. If you added up all the moments spent by men waiting for their better halves, it should roughly equate to the same amount of time it has taken for humans to decode DNA. It’s a very, very long time, just waiting and waiting and waiting.

I am here, sitting on my sofa, waiting for her to get ready. We’re only going down the road for a pint, but at 20.30 on a Saturday, I’m definitely ready to have several. Yet despite three precursory warnings of “So then. Shall we?” and “Let’s go?” and “Do you want a drink?”, I’m still waiting, stuck in a warp of existential anxiety; really keen for a drink, but knowing that I probably don’t have enough time to get twatted without really going for it. Waiting so long, in fact, that I decided I may as well write about it.

I was taken back to when I lived with my best mate. Then, we would make split-second decisions. “Pint?” This question was followed by what seemed an eternity for both the proposer and the recipient. It probably amounted to no more than five seconds, yet such is the questioner’s urgency – and his mate, so aware of how crucial his answer has now become – that those five seconds feel almost as long as the 45 minutes I have spent waiting this evening. But, decision made – “yeah, quick one” – we’d be inside the pub and a third of the way down our first pint in under 10 minutes. In 20 minutes, we’d be setting yet another gut-wrenching ultimatum. “‘nother one?” Another five-second chasm before the inevitable “well, one more won’t hurt, will it?” Once the third pint has disappeared, there’s no point asking or answering any more questions. The drinks will keep coming and you’ll keep watching them slip down your throat.

It’s those snap decisions you realise men and women, both, cannot make together. Well, we can. They can’t. And I will never understand why!

20.42. Still waiting.

BBC’s WW1 centenary season

The BBC have had a pretty shoddy few years. Savile and Newsnight; pay-offs and salary disputes, camera trickery and other sleight of hand within its management. The organisation – not something everyone would deem it fit to be called – is so vast that many who work there consider it a corporation of mini corporations. But for all its many faults, the BBC continue to produce some of the most watchable, popular and educative programming anywhere in the world. Who else could even contemplate competing with the ambition they have shown in their World War One “centenary season”?

Of course, a centenary only happens once, and let’s not be naive: the BBC, like all companies, needs success – now more than ever. Success for them is in numbers, eyeballs, readers and consumers, so there’s no grander way to prove their worth than by dramatising parts of our history whose stories have yet to be properly told. And why not start with the bloodiest of conflicts? Seems as good a place as any.

The scale of this project is startling in its ambition. iWonder guides (digital interactive content); 1400 separate local stories; apps and microsites; nine or ten TV documentaries on TV, yet more on radio. Fully-fledged films. Programmes dedicated to the art and music born during the war. There’s even a radio programme called Day By Day broadcast every day between June and August showing the build-up to the war, “live”, 100 years on. The list goes on.

As a friend said the other day, the only annoyance is the pre-curtain-raiser anxiety of knowing that you can’t possibly watch everything, but there’s a part of me which wouldn’t mind putting my life on hold for a few months and gobbling it all up. I’ve been fascinated by World War Two all my life – I think most of my generation are, in fact – but know little of its predecessor. The BBC’s going to change that and I’ll happily pay my licence fee for that.

Talking of which…

* * *

It’s coming to that time of the year when I have to renew my TV licence. I always hold an unjustifiable grudge about this; I love the BBC, its programming, authority and balance. Well yes – the scandals are a bit of a blight, as are the pay rows and bonuses, and some of the output is outrageously repetitive and often the presenters talk to us as though we’re imbeciles and I hate it when the local news people with enormous shiny faces just appear in between programmes “with YOUR 90 second update” (it’s mine? Oh, thanks, but no thanks).

But apart from all that, I admire the BBC and watch its channels (and listen to its radio) more than any other broadcaster, and £145 a year represents incredible value for money.

Anyway. This came up recently while C and I were comparing Portuguese and British media (we are thrill-seekers). In Portugal the equivalent licence fee is included with their electricity and costs roughly €3/month, but all they get for that are two measly TV channels (RTP1 and RTP2) and some radio. The rest is privately owned and, overall, the quality is fairly mixed. Their daily national evening news, for example, lasts an interminable hour-and-a-half, every night. And on their commercialised channels, you can forget brief four-minute advert breaks. You have enough time to make dinner and, in some cases, gobble it up, salted cod and all. In contrast, not only is our news distilled to about 25 minutes, but we have a stack of regionalised news centres around the country.

£145 is a lot of money, but we get a vast amount. BBC 1, 2, 3 and 4, and BBC News. The entire BBC website is free and uncommercialised. Mobile apps; catch-up apps, supportive apps and other appy apps. The BBC World Service, the largest international broadcaster. BBC Radio. And bear in mind, when the licence fee was first established in 1948, it cost £2/year – the equivalent to over £70 in 2010, but you didn’t get much for your money.

We are a nation of moaners, and that’s a good thing, but we really have no idea how lucky we are to have the BBC.

iPhone signals the death of SLR photography

The iPhone has single handedly transformed how easy it is to take and share photos. So good is the quality, so easy is it to take and edit photos, that for many photographers it has replaced the point-and-shoot pocket camera they keep as backups.

It’s remarkable how quickly this has happened. When the iPhone first came out its camera was a nice addition to a transformative device. It took poor quality stills with lots of noise and artefacts; the fact you could quickly email them to friends, though, showed its future potential. But with the latest iPhones, the quality is now so high, and the software available to tweak/improve/modify photos so advanced, that many professional photographers are using them as part of their workflow or, in some cases, their main device entirely.


Anyway. All this came to me while sitting in Starbucks, of all places, escaping the humdrum of the office and playing with SlowShutter, an app which makes low light and slow-shutter photography ridiculously easy. For 69p. Has the iPhone signalled the death of photography or the generation of something new?

Portugal, the world’s first superpower

Vasco de Gama, the great explorer

Vasco de Gama, the great explorer

My girlfriend is Portuguese. One of the terrifying parts of relationships is not knowing how you’ll get on with the extended family you are afforded. In my case, it’s great; I like them hugely, they’re warm, interesting and quite similar to me, except for being Portuguese of course. All is well.

Because of that, they give me things I like. C’s father bought me this book above by Martin Page, First Global Village: How Portugal Changed the World. For a microsecond I thought this was a brainwashing experiment by him; is he trying to convert me to an Iberian? Because he should know that I’m not easily converted, and that I hold strong views on things you know. Can’t think what, but I do. Oh yes! But despite knowing him for two years and beginning to understand the travails of Portugal in the 21st century, I realised I knew embarrassingly little about the country’s history, so the book has been a total revelation.

And I really mean that. I had no idea their influence on navigation, exploration or shipping; on India; on the influence the Romans have on the entire country (bacalhau, salted cod, was eaten and prepared by Roman soldiers in an identical fashion today; there was no other way of preserving fish back then, or now, apparently…). They brought tempura, guns and “arigatou” (“thank you”) to Japanese culture as well as building Nagasaki. They commanded power from Brazil to Africa to India to Japan, all the while never having more than 1.5m people in the country. At the time (1500s), the United Kingdom boasted many more, and Italy roughly four times that number. Their history is unique, and it maddens me that the rest of the world doesn’t know more about them. Such is the Portuguese’s deference and humility…

It wasn’t all good though. Some Portuguese are quick to claim that they were the first to outlaw slavery, they were also the first to adopt it as part of business, law and society.

I am well aware Britain has had a pretty shocking past – overall, we must be front-runners for the Most Barbaric Country In History award, surely – but it was only after watching 12 Years A Slave (incidentally, the best film I’ve seen in three years) that I realised how little I know about Britain’s slavery past. C, on the other hand, was educated in Portugal and their education system is a bit more open; she’s well aware of all the horrors her ancestors committed, and the book goes into full graphic detail. Hard to imagine a time when a goat’s value on the common market would be compared not to one human being’s life, but three.

Anyway. A great book, but it made me wonder what other countries (all of them!) I know little about, and which books would provide a brief-but-brilliant overview of their history. Recommendations welcome…

The importance of sleep

Delicious irony in posting this at midnight on Sunday, but so be it. A great Ted talk from Russell Foster on why we need sleep, and apparently so much. I need at least 10 hours to function at anywhere near my best.

If atoms are nothing…

My head hurts. I just heard something I’ve long known, that atoms are 99.9% nothing. Just space.

We are made up largely of atoms.

What we see, feel, touch, taste and smell is therefore only 0.01% of *stuff*. So what and where is all the other 99.9% of stuff? These are exactly the types of topics I should not be thinking about at 4pm on a wintery Sunday.

Topics like these have always slightly bothered me, which has been a challenge since I’m absolutely fascinated by them. One of my earliest memories is of being shown a picture of the cosmos, and our planet and its position within the milky way. Various statistics were vomited into my brain: the sun, which to me always felt so close and unbelievably hot in August, even preventing me from riding my bike in the Thames Valley of the UK (not exactly Death Valley in terms of temperature), was about 145million miles away.

I then asked my dad how far away Grandpa lived, a journey we did most weekends and which took 45 adult minutes, or roughly 12 child years (or so it felt). “About 30 miles,” he said. I couldn’t get my head around the distances in space, and at 31 I still cannot. Many of the stars we see at night are dead or dying. The light from their death just hasn’t reached us yet.

Anyway. My response to being told this for the first time was almost to give up on life’s rules and set plans. I remember being told off for drawing on a wall, and my reaction was “Who cares? Nothing matters. It’s just a small mark on a wall. We are nothing!” I probably didn’t use those words exactly, but the sentiment is right. What does anything matter when we are all so insignificant?!

But, regardless, I still absolutely adore tea, even if it’s 99.9% “nothing”.