Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Happy New Year!

Well, this is weird. It's coming up to 11pm as I write this, and we've just come back from a wander around town that we started at about 8pm. The City Centre, around Puerta Del Sol is pretty busy. We even saw Police doing work: some were chasing illegal street vendors ('have you got a licence to sell this street?'), others were carrying steel barriers and putting them into place around the square.

But as we got further away from Sol, bars and shops were closing. We found one street in Barrio De Los Letras where some bars were open, and had a glass in three of them. And then we walked up Paseo del Prado and Paseo de Recoletas: these are broad streets with an equally broad walkway on one side, and they are normally full of people. This evening, they were deserted. Likewise, Plaza de Chueca. Every single bar was closed.

Here's the deal. In Spain, New Year's Eve is a serious family occasion. They'll be feasting until midnight, after which, bars and clubs will open up, and those who feel so inclined will party till dawn.

Meanwhile, in Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed (de facto Ruler) cancelled all New Year's celebrations yesterday, as a gesture of solidarity with the Gaza Strippers. I'm surprised at how little outcry there has been about this from my UAE blogging buddies. All it means is that every single hotel in Dubai will lose a shitload of money, and people who had tickets for these events will miss out on a great night, and probably not get their money back. And the good people of Gaza will be thinking 'well, I'm really glad they did that, it'll definitely stop those Israeli bastards from killing us, thank you Shiekh Mo.'

Tuesday, 30 December 2008


This is our second Christmas in Madrid. Last year's was all so new, with lots of stuff to do and new (to us) traditions to learn about, that we completely missed Spanish Christmas music. We've made up for that abundantly this year. MamaDuck bought a few CDs of Villancicos, we've been to a concert of them, we've heard people in the streets singing them, and sung a few ourselves at our mince pie/mulled wine thing.

MamaDuck has done a post with two or three embedded videos of a range of people singing them here. Enjoy.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

So Here It Is...

Friday, 19 December 2008

I Promise To Pay The Bearer On Demand

The ongoing descent into recession gets more bizarre by the day. I guess none of us have ever seen anything like it. I left the UK in 1992, as that recession crushed the construction industry: I was an Interior Designer at the time, and the company I worked for had gone bust. I could have survived on state benefits for a bit, I suppose, but opted for the Norman Tebbitt 'get on your bike' approach. I cycled to Saudi Arabia, and then Dubai.

I know that recessions or economic downturns were supposed to operate on 11-year cycles, but we seem to have missed the one that was due for 2003. Ah, well, that's it then. Governments have abolished boom and bust, it's boom all the way from now on (actually wasn't 2003 when the dotcom bubble burst?).

What is happening now is pretty hard to comprehend. Banks began to realise, all of a sudden, that not only did they not have the money they thought they had, but they actually had anti-money in extremely large amounts. I find this to be totally astonishing. The idea of a bank is that it is a safe place to keep your money. You, as a customer, understand that while you are not actually using your money, your bank will use it for its own purposes (normally the creation of more money). That's okay, as long as you can get access to your money whenever you need it.

The problem is that banks are a bit more complex than that. If every single customer turns up on the same day and wants to withdraw all of their money, the bank will not be able to do it. Each bank branch only stocks enough cash to deal with its normal daily business. It could take them a few days to physically get cash money to the place where it is needed. But here's the thing: they will have cash tied up in medium or long-term deposits, in shares or bonds or whatever. They will not be able to immediately extract their money from these things.

And so there's a panic reaction from the public. There's a 'run on the bank'. There are paper assets but no actual cash. There's insolvency.

Normally a bank would get around short-term liquidity problems by borrowing from other banks, and that has worked well for centuries. But now, banks are wary of lending to each other. In fact, they're just not doing it. And then they discover that their highly-paid rocket-scientist investment bankers have placed the bank under some exceedingly large obligations. They have huge bills to pay, and they simply cannot raise the funds to pay them. There's insolvency.

How did all this happen? We have to blame Ronnie Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. They adopted an economic model that said markets were the best thing. You would find true value in a market. Traders in a market would never do anything bad, because the results would hurt them too.

Yeah, right.

So money market dudes were allowed to invent all kinds of stupid stuff that nobody could understand, with the end result, here in 2008, that the Western world owes itself more money than actually exists.

There is this place called Planet Zog. This is thought to be the location of the difference between the world's GDP and its financial liabilities. If it is, the place must be awash with money.

Which brings us to the real point of this post: what exactly is money?

Money is a means of exchange. It's a way to place a value on things. In the early days of currency (in the West - I'm not talking about conch-shells or stuff like that), money was real money: its value came from the value of the metal it was made from, gold, copper, brass or whatever. Then we got paper money, because the metal stuff was just too heavy to carry around. In Britain, banknotes carry the legend 'I promise to pay the bearer on demand the sum of x pounds.' What that used to mean was, 'this paper is worth the equivalent value in gold, and you can have the gold if you want.' What it means now is 'I want you to believe this is worth something, and don't ask for the gold because we sold it.'

We now have the slightly amusing sight of Western governments begging Arabian Gulf states and China for money. But guess what. They are broke too. We might as well adopt the Zimbabwe dollar as a global currency.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Christmas 2008

We've been a bit busy the last few weeks - I've had a couple of jobs with tight deadlines, and MamaDuck has been spending most of her waking hours either at work or making mincemeat. We're doing our traditional mince pies, mulled wine and carol singing thing next weekend.

Madrid's Christmas budget has been slashed from about €4.6 million last year to €1.6 million for 2008. The town is still looking pretty festive, although the lights are less plentiful than we saw last year.

We tootled into town this afternoon: MamaDuck had seen a notice pinned up at work about Carol Singing on Calle Preciados. It was supposed to be outside Zara starting at 4 o'clock, but when we arrived (in prompt Madrileño fashion at quarter past) there was only a fed-up looking guy with a guitar. It turns out there are two Zara shops on that street, so we joined the group of Santa-hat-clad singers outside the other one. Actually, the Duck did - my singing tends to scare people away. They sang mostly English songs, but threw in two or three Spanish ones as well. MamaDuck had bought some CDs of Spanish 'villancicos' a few days ago, so we knew the tunes even if the words were a mystery.

After about an hour of this, the Duck decided she wanted a break, so we wandered around the back of El Corte Inglés, where we had to fight our way through a crowd of about 48 million people to get to a bar. The crowd was there to look at 'Cortylandia', a massive animatronic wossname on the rear facade of the building.

When we got back to the carol singers, they'd been joined by a crazy old man who was playing an industrial-strength harmonica. He could also moonwalk and stand perfectly still for ages. Useful talents to have, obviously. Oh, and it snowed! Only for about fifteen minutes, and only tiny flakes that had no chance of settling, but it definitely feels like Christmas now.

The guys above are one of the more spectacular busking outfits in Madrid. I don't know what the instruments are called, but they're like the inside of a grand piano, and the players beat hell out of the strings with hammers. Fantastico!

Merry Christmas, you lot.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Birthday Boy

It was our baby's 21st birthday the other day. We were wondering what things he can now legally do in the UK that he was not allowed to before reaching this exalted age. The only thing we could think of was very rude indeed.