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NOVEMBER, 2006 → ← JANUARY, 2007

The City, Richard Roberts … Also sprach Golem, Stanisław Lem … талаба 29th of December, 2006 ANTE·MERIDIEM 12:47

The City—A Guide to London’s Global Financial Centre,  Richard Roberts, Profile Books: London, 2004. The Economist realises that a massive proportion of its readership is in the US and votes Republican, and as a result its reporting on the government over there has been wilfully stupid since January 2001. It’s a profit-oriented publication, it needs people to buy it, I see where they’re coming from on that—doing what the New Yorker currently is was not a real option for them. Still, I haven’t regularly read it in years, because of that reporting, but I will still read and pay attention to its non-US coverage if I come across a copy.

This book was published under their imprint, but written by a member of faculty at the University of Sussex. A result of this seems to be an interesting mix of the Economist’s careful clarity (opaquely named companies and other bodies are quickly summarised the first time they’re mentioned, no matter how well-known they are in Britain, historical background is well and saliently summed up) and an academic’s careless obscurity (‘swops’ are just dropped into the flow of the text without any explanation of what they might be). Happily, my accountant sister was in the house while I was reading this, and while she doesn’t know what KPMG stands for despite working there, she gave quick, clear answers to my questions about the terminology that wasn’t explained (‘swops’ are negotiated exchanges of financial instruments with similar underlying value; an extant variable-rate loan for a fixed-rate one for the same amount, for example).

Anyway, from it, here’s one more reason why Britain intervening in World War I was a terrible idea for it:

On the outbreak of the first world war the [London] Stock Exchange [at that point the centre of the world’s financial industry] closed for five months and the money market was thrown into turmoil, because one-third of the bills of exchange (money-market short-term instruments) in circulation were due to be redeemed by German, Austrian or Russian firms from which payments would not be forthcoming. Many merchant banks and discount houses faced ruin, and their collapse threatened other city houses and the national banking system. However, prompt government action led by the Bank of England prevented a wave of bankruptcies. With the money market dominated by Treasury bills and a ban on the issuing of foreign securities, the war years 1914–18 were bleak for many City firms.

The City’s problems provided an opening for New York to emerge as a major international financial centre. With encouragement from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, a discount market based on dollar bills of exchange developed on Wall Street. It captured the financing of US commodity imports and much Latin American and Asian trade that had hitherto used the London money market. With the London capital market reserved for British government borrowing to raise war finance, the international capital market moved to Wall Street and the relocation proved permanent. Even the British government turned to the US capital market for war loans, giving a further boost to Wall Street, as well as selling off dollar assets held by British nationals to pay for munitions

Relative to the pre-war “golden age”, the 1920s were difficult years for most City firms
[because of the relocation of most of their business to Wall Street], but they were a lot better than the 1930s and 1940s.

‚Also sprach Golem‘,  Stanisław Lem, tr. from the Polish by Friedrich Griese, Suhrkamp: 1986. Read this in Wexford, while using a thin dictionary instead of my usual Duden-Oxford behemoth. (Shh, don’t tell anyone I put the latter online.) The book is relatively short, but the amount of frustration from reading it, looking up words, and finding three in five of them not listed was considerable. Buy decent dictionaries, folks! The book is by the author of the novel Solaris,  on which was based a Russian film of the seventies, and a more recent version with George Clooney and Olivia Smurfit, of all people Natascha McElhone—I really enjoyed the second film, and haven’t seen the first. Anyway, it’s about one of the first computers to become self-aware, a machine built to direct a theatre of operations in coöperation with a US general should the Cold War have turned hot in the 2020s. I like lots of it—the commentary on the futility in searching for intelligent life that, if it exists, is probably not intelligent in any sense useful to us (given potential limitations of speed of thought or lifespan), and that evolution is the agent in so much more of human behaviour than humans are normally willing to recognise, for example. I did find it over-thought in places—why would anyone be unhappy with a definition of personality (or rather of an ‚ich‘) as anything which can conduct one side of a conversation, and perhaps retain what was exchanged? Why add constraints that may or may not exclude a multiply-present, sexless robot? What value does it bring?—but that won’t put me off reading Solaris,  which came in the same Amazon package.

Anyway, just back from Christmas in Wexford and a few days in Dublin. And as so often before, the former was very motivating in the direction of putting getting useful work done well before wasting time online or shooting the breeze with whomever. And, yes, back in Berlin! No more fighting with systemic cock-ups to do basic things like buy clothes (random shop’s cash register took my credit card but its CC machine didn’t; I offered my Postbank Maestro card, which the latter accepted and the former didn’t; I had to withdraw the money from an ATM and need to double-check that the latter charge was actually cancelled) or withdraw money from any ATM of several at a substantial bank in an airport.

Word of the day: талаба is Tajik for schoolboy, толиба for schoolgirl. They’re both from the same Arabic root as ‘Taliban’; the latter is the Pashto (Pathan) plural form, if the English Wikipedia is to be believed on this, which is not necessarily the case.

Last comment from Aidan Kehoe on the 4th of January at 16:41
Thanks Steve, I did—and the best of a 2007 to you too!

[Three older comments for this entry.]

Apparently, Gordon Freeman was named after Freeman Dyson … Secret Santos … ‚Schräge Musik‘ 9th of December, 2006 POST·MERIDIEM 04:36

An interesting article from Freeman Dyson on researching British bomber raids on Germany in World War II as they happened; he worked for something called the Operational Research Section, which had been modelled on something parallel in the Navy. It was a much less effective unit, as he explained it because its boss didn’t have the freedom to honestly threaten to resign—he was a career civil servant, whereas the Naval unit’s chief was a successful academic—so he basically spent the war doing nothing productive as a consequence of a hierarchical problem. It was the sort of situation that I hear about from academic friends regularly, but that was the first time I had come across it in published prose.

Anyway, in it he mentions a German technology that clears up why in books on the RAF of the time bombers would be routinely shot down by ‘flak’ in places, like rural Germany, where there was no good reason for anti-aircraft batteries to be in place. Usenet says:

On his first mission with the device, Lt P Ehardt of the 6th Squadron, NJG 5 shot down four bombers in 29 minutes as they attacked Peenemuende on 17/18 August 1943.

Also, the secret Santos worked out well; I got a present, it wasn’t wildly inappropriate, yay! Now to work out who it was.

Word of the day ‚Schräge Musik‘ was the Nazi propaganda term for Jazz (pronounced /jats/ back then); ‚schräg‘ in this context meaning ‘weird, dodgy.’ It was also used for a skewed emplacement of guns in night fighters, that allowed them to approach British bombers in the blind spot below and slightly aft, and shoot them down unobserved.