Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween (London Style)

Yes. This is an actual sign we saw last night while hitting the mean London streets for some Treat or Treating.

As I've said before, Halloween is not a British holiday, it's an American one. It's getting bigger, to be sure, every year. Our first Halloween here in 1999, when Thing One was just one month old, I couldn't even find a pumpkin in our local market to carve.

Things have changed, but it still doesn't feel quite right. Earlier today, our friend knocked on the door and asked, "So how do you do this whole trick or treating thing?" I answered the question by saying we would all go together. You can see from above that not everyone has embraced the spirit of the holiday. (Thinking about it, though, it's also possible that there's some mean people in the U.S. who also had "No Trick or Treating" signs. Did anyone in the U.S. see something similar?)

We kicked off our festivities by going on a Ghost Walk at the Old Royal Naval College, followed by the fanciest hot dog dinner I've had, or will ever have, in the Painted Hall. We wandered the undercrofts, stood in the old prison and heard tales of ghostly wanderings. Once we had polished off the hot dogs and took our annual Halloween picture (see below) behind the door of the Painted Hall, we were off for our trick or treating adventure.
To see the rest of the annual Halloween pictures, from 2002 to 2007, go here.

Joining us for the trick or treating portion of the evening was our friend Dave, for his first trick or treating experience. He's in his 40s, so that sums up the history of British Halloween nicely.

In the past, I tended to direct the children to go to the houses of friends. But this year, in a bold move, we decided to go to a particular street and see how we did (though we did stop at friend's houses along the way). It was a perfect Halloween night-- cold and crisp. We kept bumping into other friends trying to secure some Halloween treats. One family-- they're Russian, but they certainly got into the spirit of things-- gave out "poo" which I hope was chocolate, though I haven't investigated further yet.

A big group of kids and adults finished the night back at the house playing the Wii Fit and admiring our pumpkins. All in all, it was a wonderful day: distinctly British with a dash of American thrown in.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Walking the Red Carpet

Living in London gives you many, many opportunities to do and see amazing things on a regular basis. So much so that the extraordinary becomes the ordinary.

Take for instance, going to a film premiere. For most people, that would be something really, really special (unless of course you're an actor, in which case, it's just work). But Thing One and Thing Two now have been to two film premieres in the last year, both as part of the London Film Festival.

Last year, we got to see the U.K. premiere of "Bee Movie". It was exciting-- walking the red carpet, getting free water and chocolate at our seats, seeing the special Jerry Sienfeld introduction. After that, every time I told the boys we were going to see a particular movie, they would say, "Is it the premiere?" followed by disappointment that it wasn't.

On Sunday, it was time to walk the red carpet again to see "The Secret of Moonacre." Unlike last year, some of the actors, the director and the producers of the movie were there, which was pretty cool, but unfortunately none of them were Ioan Gruffudd or even anyone I remotely recognised (other than the guy who runs the quizzes at the monthly family funday at the British Film Institute, but that doesn't really count).

So again we got the free chocolate and the Icelandic water. We got to hear the director, the producer and the actors talk a little about the movie. And we got to walk the red carpet. Again.

I now will prepare myself for yet another year of the inevitable question, "Is it the premiere?" when we go to see a movie.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

There's No One As Irish as Barack Obama

Maybe this will change the vote of the Dad of MarathonMum!
It's also a nice catchy tune.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Sea Monsters in the Thames!

I know. This doesn't look like much. In fact, it looks like this photo could belong in the "This is the Loch Ness Monster" collection or the "Look! It's Big Foot!" photo anthology. But maybe that's the point.

Today (Sunday) Thing One, Thing Two and I found ourselves on London Bridge at sunset (5:45 p.m.) and looked into the abyss below. The only thing we could see was the swirling brown water of the Thames, along with some of the associated flotsam that comes with city living. We patiently waited for a few minutes, hoping that the light would get low enough so we could see something, but alas, nothing. We had been promised sea creatures, and by God, we would see them, even if it meant hanging around the Thames all night. 

But we were hungry. So we walked over to the nearest Wagamama, which is probably one of our favourite London restaurants, to pass the time before we could see the creatures. After some edamame, green tea and some noodles we headed back to the northwest corner.

The sea creatures were shy, though. There was a small plaque explaining their presence, but you had to be patient. They didn't just show up. When they did finally appear, I started to yell, "Look! Look! There it is!" Luckily, there were only about six other people on that part of London Bridge, so I didn't look TOO foolish. The boys had fun looking, pointing, yelling, and then waiting some more.

I know the picture above doesn't do them justice. This was really something you had to see in person. If you don't live in London, sorry about that. If you do live in London, you've missed your chance because tonight was the last night. 

The sea creatures were magical. Sometimes you only saw a big head. Sometimes only a tail. Sometimes there would be long pauses between appearnces. But they were something to behold on a cold night in London. And in a city full of amazing sights, that's saying something.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

What You'd See at today

To mark the visit of Queen Elizabeth II's visit to Google UK headquarters, Google put her in the title for today only. See it for yourself at, but only if you visit on Thursday, 16 October. Otherwise, you can see it here.

I'm sure this isn't that big a deal for a woman whose visage is on all the paper currency in this country (and some others), but I'd be pretty chuffed if it was me.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Global Economic Meltdown Explained (or at least I try)

A friend of mine who's a journliasm professor wanted someone to explain the global economic meltdown. This is what I wrote. So for anyone who needs to have the current situation explained, here's what I wrote to her:

Paul Krugman, new Nobel Prize winner for Economics (and op-ed writer for the New York Times) wrote on Sunday:

"The details can be insanely complex, but the basics are fairly simple. The bursting of the housing bubble has led to large losses for anyone who bought assets backed by mortgage payments; these losses have left many financial institutions with too much debt and too little capital to provide the credit the economy needs; troubled financial institutions have tried to meet their debts and increase their capital by selling assets, but this has driven asset prices down, reducing their capital even further.

What can be done to stem the crisis? Aid to homeowners, though desirable, can’t prevent large losses on bad loans, and in any case will take effect too slowly to help in the current panic. The natural thing to do, then — and the solution adopted in many previous financial crises — is to deal with the problem of inadequate financial capital by having governments provide financial institutions with more capital in return for a share of ownership."

So basically what happened is this:
Historic lows in interest rates, while Alan Greenspan was chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve, led to more affordable mortgages. Suddenly, people who never have been able to buy their own home were able to get a mortgage. Great, right? Wrong. The problem was that many of these "sub-prime" loans were based on the interest rate. Once the rate went up, many, many people could no longer afford to keep up with the payments. This led to foreclosures and bankruptcies.

The banks thought that they would be REALLY clever and bundle these "sub-prime" loans together and sell them as investments. Not a lot of people, including executives at the banks themselves, understood how they worked. But they appreciated that the returns were great, and so they didn't care. But just as people got caught out by the rise in interest rates and defaults started skyrocketing (see: Summer 2007), the banks realised they had worthless investments. These are the "Toxic Assets" that people keep talking about, and are now owned by the US government. The assets are worth something-- not a lot, but something-- but no one knows just how much because they were such a new and unusual investment vehicle.

(For more information, and a hilarious explanation of the sub-prime mess, go to

Meanwhile, the banks who had the greatest exposure to these mortgage-backed securities were the ones that got into the most trouble (see: Bear Stearns, RIP Feburary 2008 and Lehman Brothers, RIP September 2008). But as these investment houses failed, the bigger problem began: banks began to be hesitant to loan money to each other. Banks loan money to each other every day-- this is how the market is financed. But when that line of credit froze, suddenly the banks found that they couldn't do all the trades that they needed to because they couldn't get the cash to do so.

(Still with me? I hope so)

Now, it's late September 2008. Governments realize that they have to do something. In the past, a central bank (like the Federal Reserve) could lower interest rates and that would get things moving again. It didn't work. Central banks could loan money to banks to get capital moving again in the markets. It didn't work. In cases of really dire circumstances, several central banks, like the Fed, European Central Bank and the Bank of England could do a coordinated rate cut to get things moving again. That didn't work this time either.

The equity markets are important for many reasons (and not just because it gives CNBC something to talk about), but they're important to most people because they're retirement savings are tied up there in their 401k. For people our age, it doesn't matter: we've got another 25 years of working ahead of us, so this decline in the last month won't hurt us in the long term. But for people like our parents, who have a lot of their net worth tied up in stocks, this is really bad news as it's unlikely to recover anytime soon.

After all those things that usually did work didn't work, the G7 had to take the extraordinary move to part-nationalize some of their banks. This cheered everyone up, and the markets had one of their best days ever on Monday, 13 October, posting 11 percent gains. While the equity markets-- like the New York Stock Exchange-- had this big bounce up, it remains to be seen if credit will finally be loosened up enough between banks to get credit moving again.

While all this was going on, people are still watching the economic reports to see what the overall economic situation is. Nearly everyone is in agreement that a global recession will take place. (Very important: While lots of people throw the word "recession" around the technical definition is this: You need two consecutive quarters of negative GDP (gross domestic product) to take place. That hasn't happened yet, but it will).

Things are dire, make no mistake about it. The big question is this: have we hit the bottom, or do we still have farther to go?

Friday, October 10, 2008

What the Economist cover SHOULD have been this week

(Sorry. MarathonMum has strayed somewhat from her "Family Newspaper" stance on obscenities, but this was far too funny not to post. Thanks Anne!)

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Another Fun Morning Getting Ready for School

The weather has turned definitely autumnal here in London, and so Thing One and Thing Two insisted that they would need their winter hats. Thing Two, in fact, had found a Tigger hat that his grandmother had made him that he wore quite stylishly through breakfast and getting ready time.

But when it was time to leave, Thing Two found another hat that he wanted to wear just as much. So (as you can see) he's wearing both.

As we approached school, one our friends said to him, "Love, you look as though you're ready for the asylum!" I scolded her, telling her that he was only five and he could get away with sartorial misdeeds like that one. Besides, he looks great.