Faith and belief are marvellous things, aren’t they? I’ve never been one for millenarianism or doomsday predictions. I never doubted for a moment that my Apple Mac would see me through to the 21st century. I’m content to meet my Maker when He (or She) decides the time has come, and I’d sooner not know the date in advance, though I can see how some might want to. I don’t have a great deal of faith in politicians – but I do have some sympathy for the impossible situations democracy puts them in. They have to promise heaven and earth to get elected, then have to back-pedal rapidly when post-election reality bites. Hands up who really thought Barack Obama would be allowed to close Guantanamo and stop the water-boarding.
So I’m not generally one to point the finger at politicians and accuse them of breaking promises. I was pretty sceptical in the first place. And I’m certainly not generally given to laughing at the misfortunes of others. Those recent riots in cities across the UK looked pretty scary, and nothing can excuse the burning of property and looting of businesses large or small. David Cameron’s government re-established the rule of law, and good on him, you have to say. However, I couldn’t help noticing that he pre-empted criticism by referring to his own pre-election promise to mend Britain’s ‘broken society’. It seems that ‘There are pockets of . . . society that are not just broken but frankly sick’ which seemed to suggest that mending society might be just a tad trickier than British voters had been led to believe. We need a medical professional rather than a simple repairman. But then most of us knew that already, right?
I’m not going to join the ranks of those who suggest that inequalities of wealth distribution are the root cause of these riots, and other forms of violent social unrest. I certainly do not intend to suggest that burning and looting are understandable or acceptable responses to social injustice. In fact, I want to agree 100% with Dave Cameron in his belief that pockets of modern society are sick. On the other hand, I’m not sure he and I would agree totally on which ‘pockets’.
|Istanbul Park – former home
of Turkey’s Grand Prix
My work-place is located on the southern outskirts of Istanbul, on the Asian side of the city. It’s a pleasantly green spot still, despite the building of airports, industrial complexes, monstrous shopping centres and acres of two-storey villas with private swimming pools. A kilometre or so across the fields from our campus stands Istanbul Park, the venue for the Turkish Formula One Grand Prix. Most of the time it sits there, in patient torpor, waiting for the one weekend a year when it will spring to life, and the hills will echo to the whine of high performance engines operating at rpms that would cause our Honda Jazz to melt down to a blob of metal and plastic.
I couldn’t help wondering what sort of money went into this project, so I checked it out, and I can tell you that Istanbul Park was built in 2005 at a cost of €80 million (about 200 million Turkish Liras at today’s rates). I went to the Grand Prix in Auckland once. We didn’t see any spectacular crashes, and we weren’t sitting in a corporate box being served chilled Dom Perignon and crab claws, so maybe I didn’t get the full effect, but honestly, I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Still, I’m not one to spoil other people’s fun. Sadly for those other people, however, it seems that the 2011 Turkish Grand Prix may actually be the last one to take place at Istanbul Park. Apparently Bernie Ecclestone, head honcho of international Formula One racing, decided to double the fees Turkey would be charged for hosting the race. The Turks said ‘%&$#?@ off!’ or words to that effect, and that, it seems, is that.
Well, of course, running a business like Formula One racing costs money, and no one would begrudge Bernie his right to make a living – but this spat did come to mind when I saw a news item in July that the most expensive house in the USA had just been sold to . . . Bernie’s 22-year-old daughter Petra. Reports say the 5600 m2 house in Bel Air, Los Angeles had been on the market for two years for $150 million, but some tough negotiating got the sellers down to $85 million. I just hope Petra’s making a generous donation to help those starving kids in Somalia. By the way, for the sake of comparison, I read that Mr and Mrs Brad Pitt have just put their California mansion on the market for a relatively modest $13.75 million. I guess at that level, the 0.75 is still important.
Nevertheless, one swallow doesn’t make a summer – and one sick billionaire doesn’t make a sick society, right? But did you see that film, ‘Inside Job’ that won the 2010 Oscar for best documentary? As the Timereviewers said: ‘If you’re not enraged by the end of the movie, you weren’t paying attention.’ I’ve read a number of articles about a gentleman by the name of Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of the Blackstone Group. Most sources agree that he is a major player in the world of finance, and he has been quoted as saying in a speech in March 2009, that 45% of the world’s wealth had been destroyed by the global credit crisis. However, he took heart that the US government was committed to the preservation of financial institutions (like his, one assumes) and would do whatever it took to restart the economy. It’s hard to establish exactly how much money Mr Schwarzman earns. Some sources say he made $5.1 billion in 2007, down to $702.4 million in 2008. Some say he took a 99% pay cut in 2009 down to a paltry $350,000. Whatever the truth of it, it’s a fair bet that a good chunk of that missing wealth ended up in his pocket. But somehow, I suspect that’s not one of the ‘pockets’ David Cameron was referring to.
Getting back to Petra Ecclestone, and her generosity to the kids in Somalia, don’t you find it interesting how a girl (or a guy) can make mega-tanker-loads of money from some dodgy enterprise, then, at some later date, donate large sums to a pet charity, and suddenly she’s on the fast track to benefactor’s heaven? Back in 1992 a Hungarian born gentleman of Jewish parentage by the name of George Soros achieved fame (or notoriety) as ‘the Man who broke the Bank of England.’ Surprisingly, the ‘breakage’ didn’t involve safe-cracking, ripping ATM machines from walls, armed holdups, or, in fact, any violence at all. The technique is known in the trade as ‘short-selling’, and, according to well-informed sources, it allowed George to pocket a cool $1.1 billion (whatever that was in sterling at the time).
Well, Wikipedia tells me that Mr Soros is ‘a financier, businessman and notable philanthropist focused on supporting liberal ideals and causes’, but it hasn’t always been so. Back in 1997, when Asian economies suddenly began to crash, the Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir bin Mohamad, went public with his opinion that the crash of Asian currencies had in fact been caused by Mr Soros and his short-selling ilk. To be fair, it seems George didn’t actually invent this dubious financial activity. That honour goes to a Dutch merchant named Isaac le Maire, who, it seems, came up with the scheme in 1609. Subsequently, the British Government banned it totally in the 18th century, but more recently un-banned it. Some economists blame short-sellers for the Wall Street Crash of 1929, and the US Government passed regulations controlling it – which, apparently, were also repealed in July 2007. Any significance in that date, I wonder? Still, you can’t blame a guy for making a buck any way he can – but again, I feel pretty sure that Dave Cameron wasn’t referring to George Soros’s pockets when he sought the cause of the UK riots. Interestingly, one of united Europe’s attempts to save their common currency has recently involved the banning of short-selling in Belgium, France, Italy and Spain.
If you don’t live in the Southern Hemisphere, you probably don’t care overmuch, but New Zealand is about to play host to the 2011 Rugby World Cup Tournament. Old guys like me can actually remember when rugby was still an amateur sport, but these days, it sure as hell isn’t. Professionalism, as you know, means a whole lot more than merely paying the players to play. Commercial sponsors are the life-blood of professional sport – but there are times when they seem to lose sight of the fact that, without the nameless millions of supporters, blood wouldn’t flow. Sportswear giant Adidas is one of the major sponsors of the Rugby World Cup, and they have recently upset rugby fans in New Zealand by offering to sell replica ‘All Black’ uniform jerseys for $NZ220. Quite steep, you might think, especially with the current strength of the NZ dollar – and most NZ rugby fans thought so too, more so when they found the jerseys were available online for about half the price . . . until, that is, Adidasmanaged to close the sites to purchasers in New Zealand.
Still, manufacturers are entitled to earn a fair living too, and, as the Adidas people have pointed out, they invest a good deal of money in New Zealand rugby. On the other hand, most Adidas products are produced in Asian factories where workers typically earn around $1 an hour. It’s been estimated that the cost of producing the replica All Black jerseys in a Chinese factory is approximately $8 – which leaves a tidy profit for the owners and shareholders of Adidas to pocket. But I don’t suppose David Cameron was referring to those ‘pockets’ either.
Back when I was a lad, science fiction was a popular literary genre. There were some prophets of doom, but, on the whole, there was a strong feeling around in those days that science had, or would soon have, the answers to most of the world’s problems. Labour-saving devices would remove the drudgery from human existence, the green revolution would do away with famine and starvation, and anyway, if by chance we weren’t able to solve all the problems on earth, such as over-population, it wouldn’t be long before we set up colonies on the Moon, Mars, or other extra-terrestrial real estate. The future was generally expected to be Utopian.
Well, somehow, it doesn’t seem to have worked out that way. A recent Timemagazine article on rapidly increasing global food prices suggests that the only way for prices from here is further up. Increasing population, climate change, the channeling of food-growing land to bio-fuel production and falling water tables will all contribute to a continuing rise of demand over supply. ‘Enjoy your dinner tonight,’ the writer concludes. ‘While you can still afford it.’
So it seems that technology isn’t going to save us after all, and you’d have to think that most of the major techno-companies in the world have figured that out. Make your buck while you still can, they seem to have decided. Get cell phones into the hands of the Somalian public, and at least they’ll be able to keep in touch while they’re dying of starvation. I guess it’ll be a while before they can afford self-driving cars, but the rest of us have that to look forward to – once the automobile industry gets the bugs ironed out. Despite the entry of Google into the market, I’m backing the Germans to sort out that technology first. Apparently Google’s self-drivers are still tail-ending each other on the testing circuit.
Well, if technology hasn’t got the answers after all, what’s a person to do? Surely there must be hope somewhere. Luckily, there is, and, according to another recent Time article , a lady by the name of Michele Bachmann has the matter in hand. Michele has stormed on to the scene as the possible Republican nominee to contest the US Presidency, and she’s hot! Apparently God Himself thinks so, because, so she says, ‘She’s hot for Jesus Christ.’ This divine support has clearly struck a chord with Middle America – probably some of those recently disappointed by the failed doomsday predictions of Harold Camping. The Time writer quotes one of Ms Bachmann’s supporters, a certain Becky Magee, as saying, ‘I think Jesus is coming to get us. I think we’ll be raptured soon.’
Now I’m going to make a confession here, and confide in you that, until May 22, the day after Harold Camping and his flock attracted media attention because the world didn’t end as they had expected, I had always thought rapture had something to do with sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. But the world has changed in many ways, and even my MS Word dictionary hasn’t caught up with the new usage, as evidenced by the squiggly red line underneath the word when I typed it. Microsoft’s best suggestion was, in fact ‘ruptured’, which may not be far from the truth. My trusty old Chambers lexicon at least provided a range of options:
Rapture: a seizing and carrying away [it says], extreme delight, transport, ecstasy, a paroxysm (a fit of extreme pain, laughter, passion, coughing, etc)
From Latin – to seize and carry off 
Well, much as I’d like to think Jesus or some other omnipotent immortal would come and save the world from the consequences of our greed and stupidity, I just can’t seem to get my head around the concept. I have to say, it seems more likely to me that we’ve had the ‘Rapture’; the good old days are over, and we’d better start figuring out ways to save ourselves and Planet Earth, because time, I reckon, is running out.
 Time, July 25, 2011
 Chambers English Dictionary, 1990)