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Making an Arse of Myself in Wellington

Stephen Fry - 2012, February 26 - 12:58

Power, responsibility and all that…

Every now and again, what with me being what I am (a human), I find myself hurled into the teeth of some sort of twitterstorm. Either I get a bit cross with someone ( or “throw my toys out of the pram” and “have a hissy fit” as some would prefer to put it) or I tweet an opinion or experience that for some reason turns into a “story” with all the distortions, Chinese whispers, misunderstandings and embarrassments that “stories” generate.

For instance…

QANTAS and Dubai

I was returning from Australia a month or two back and on the Singapore to London leg of the journey an engine failed and our QANTAS flight had to circle Dubai for a while to empty its fuel tanks before depositing itself at the airport and disgorging us to await our destinies.

This is not so abnormal an occurrence as to merit much attention, but it didn’t help that this occurred just a few days after QANTAS had undergone a full-scale strike, its boss’s probity and competence had been ripped to shreds in the Australian press, its destiny cast into doubt and its management and future compared unfavourably with the hugely profitable Asian airlines with whom it competes. It was also, by an unpleasant coincidence, exactly a year ago to the day that a QANTAS A380 engine, also on a flight between Singapore and London, had exploded – causing much grief and heartache for Airbus, Rolls Royce and QANTAS.

Anyway, on this occasion I tweeted from the tarmac, as doubtless did many other passengers and then filed out onto the jet-way and into the airport along with everyone else.

I should add that it so happened that this incident all took place during Eid, the festival that signals an end to the fasting days of Ramadan, so Dubai Airport was busier and brasher and brassier than ever.

Let’s turn back the twitter pages to find what I tweeted. I have left the entire stream of drivel exactly as it was, without correcting some of the typical typos and weird autocorrects that flow from me when I tweet in a hurry and press send without checking. My premature entweetulation problem will be the death of me, but most of us are like that so I don’t feel too bad about it. I am fully aware of the delicious pleasure it must give people when I offer them a chance to present a perceived smart-arse like myself a damned good verbal spanking for every accidental “it’s” instead of “its”, “your” instead of “you’re” and so on. I believe, for example, that the inexplicable “Liverpool” below was supposed to have been “love to”. One tweet even starts but then goes nowhere, cut off in its prime. But you will get the general idea as you read.

The first leg from Sydney to Singapore has gone smoothly. All passengers disembark, the cabin and flight crew change, the bins are emptied and hot-boxes replaced as the plane undergoes its rapid turnaround re-service.

I check my diary and see that I have promised a tweet on behalf of the Criterion Theatre and manage to get it in before we take off for the long flight to London.

Tweet in haste, repent at leisure…

3 Nov

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Just before phones off, don’t miss the sublimely talented @TheShowstoppers‘s Improv Musical this Fri night @CriTheatre.

4 Nov

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Bugger. Forced to land in Dubai. An engine has decided not to play.

4 Nov

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My flight. Still on board. Not sure of we’ll be bussed to the airport lounges or kept aboard while they work on it…

4 Nov

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@oh_rhomson It sure is!

In reply to Rodney Thomson

4 Nov

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Hm – I’m sure we’ll

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Still stuck on Dubai tarmac. No one seems to know how long we’ll be here. Should’ve landed in London at 6:20. That won’t happen! #qantas

4 Nov

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@abcnews24 We’re just stuck on the Tarmac: have been for an hour or so. Give my Liverpool Tony Jones – enjoyed the Lateline chat.

In reply to ABC News 24

4 Nov

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@abcnews24 I think plan is to bus us to the transit lounge and await International Rescue. This plane, the crew tell me, is going nowhere

In reply to ABC News 24

4 Nov

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@abcnews24 So either Sydney send another one out or they come to an accommodation with Emirates. Either way not a great week for #qantas !

In reply to ABC News 24

4 Nov

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@abcnews24 I should in all conscience add that staff are being wonderful & that morale is high and the passengers understanding & cheerful

In reply to ABC News 24

4 Nov

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@StevieCummings Exceptionally true x

In reply to Steve Cummings

4 Nov

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On a bus from the plane to the terminal now. Who knows what treats lie in store? #qantas

4 Nov

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Oh Jesus arsemothering fuck. I’ve left my wallet on the sodding plane. Hell’s teeth this really isn’t my day. Will not leave without it.

4 Nov

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@abcnews and I’ve left my wallet on the plane – all my ID cards, money passes etc. I’m going to be siting here for ever and ever and ever

In reply to ABC News

4 Nov

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That’s it. I’m fucked. Seriously fucked.

4 Nov

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It’s at times like this a man considers taking up smoking again. Possibly with heroin, crack and MDMA mixed in & all washed down with vodka

4 Nov

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Well, SMH, not so much “upset” as bloody furious. But with myself for leaving so hurriedly I forgot my wallet: me=twat…

4 Nov

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Reunited with wallet & cards so v relieved ! Hurrah. Qantas have gone to the trouble & expense of this: which is nice

View photo

4 Nov

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I seem to have made Gulf News…

4 Nov

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Three something rather sweet about a country as advanced as Dubai still clinging to removable ring pulls –

4 Nov

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There is be a faint chance that in 4.5 hours time I might get to Munich and then have a scramble to connect for home. Luggage? Ha! #QANTAS

4 Nov

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Well it looks as tho someone’s wonderfully finagled a seat on an Emirates flight direct to London this afternoon. Should only 16 hours late

4 Nov

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@vinyllounge it is indeed most calming with its fountains and amazing floral displays …

In reply to The Vinyl Lounge

4 Nov

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A fair response from Siri I suppose …

4 Nov

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@jamesblundell haha! You’ve got to hand it to Siri s/he is a class act!

4 Nov

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@WestgarthEnt Not true. There’s UK Eng, Oz Eng and US Eng plus French & German. Tried the Oz version with Oz friends. Scottish Eng the prob

In reply to Michael Wilde

4 Nov

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Just had a terrible thought. Flying Emirates doesn’t make me an Arsenal supporter does it?

4 Nov

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Wow, look at how the digital industry are helping youngsters in Norfolk to decide on their future! #YFiD_2011

4 Nov

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Finally taking off now. Thank you Emirates.

4 Nov

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Touchdown! 14 and a half hours later than expected, but touchdown! An exciting day. All was calm in the end and no need for crack or heroin.

5 Nov

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Check out @_BROWNBOOK a magazine dedicated to profiling the creative community of the Middle East.

5 Nov

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Shop online at 500+ sites via – All4charities pick up a commission and pass on every penny to a charity you choose.

5 Nov

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Film your life next Sat Nov12 for @britaininaday and help create a historic, moving & honest portrait of the UK

5 Nov

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Comedian Simon Amstell hosts a concert in aid of London’s homeless. Great cause! Thur 10 Nov @southbankcentre Tickets:

5 Nov

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To sleep, then up again and now to sleep. Body clocks – you’ve got to love them.

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Close to 20 hours sleep. I think I’m awake now. Is there any way of knowing this isn’t a zomboid dream?

One in 4 milllion

Well, what does that all that tell us or teach us? Not so very much really. You can readily understand that because I have a public face and have been on Twitter a long time and drawn a large number of followers, an event that might otherwise pass as an unnoticed and routine flight inconvenience becomes news when I tweet about it.

You will also be aware that twitter is a duplex communication service: it is not just me pronouncing and firing off tweets, there are thousands of “mentions” and hundreds of Direct Messages coming at me all the time, only the tiniest fraction of which I will get a chance to see, let alone directly answer.

You have to picture me as being in a forest on a windy autumn day. Thousands of leaves swirl around me and every now and again I clutch at one and look at it. Newcomers to Twitter get most annoyed if they “@stephenfry” me and get no reply, but with a little thought, imagination and empathy they usually get to realize that there are literally not enough hours in the day for me to read, let alone respond to, every call to my attention.

The numbers and what they mean are both humbling and (if one is honest) quite proud-making too. Of course my 4 million is but a fifth of the staggering number who follow @LadyGaga. Nonetheless with four million followers comes responsibility, and I have been trying to hold steady to what I believe my twitter identity is and should be. Each storm when it comes can batter the outer edifice a little, but so far it is holding up and I haven’t had to run away (as I have in the past and as other “celebrity-tweeters” have decided to do permanently) for some while yet.

The stream  above shows me responding, as I try to do, to special appeals to good causes here and there. It is a very distressing thing to know that even as I am typing this, someone, somewhere is tweeting me about a fun run, a  sponsored pancake race, a terminally ill person’s blog, a YouTube musical demo, a new opportunity for digital start-ups or some either highly worthy charitable endeavour.  So, while I hung around Dubai (noticing trivial things like ring pulls on soda water cans) I chose a few calls that seemed close to home, to resonate with me in some special way or – in the case of Simon Amstell – responded to a direct request from a friend who had texted me hoping for a tweet. And now owes me big time, Simon, got it? No, no. Any time….

NOOOOO!!! Not any time. That’s the problem. Oh Stephen, you see this is the point. You say things like “any time” and people take you at your word. Not Simon, who’s very hesitant and decent. But you would not believe the number of books people expect me to read and then tweet enthusiastically about. I now refuse to plug any book unless I have picked it up of my own volition and am enjoying it. If someone asks me to tweet about it as a favour I always refuse, even if I then go on to love the book. It just isn’t fair on the hundreds of others whose works I won’t get time to read.

It is obvious to anyone that were my twitter stream to become nothing but a bulletin board of worthy causes it would soon lose all interest, spontaneity and appeal. Enough people as it is, if I RT or tweet about three or four good causes in a row, accuse me of becoming a bore. Enough people tweet at me sniffily if I ignore/don’t notice or pass on their request or demand to have an event or charity passed on to my flock. I’m not complaining, such is the consequence of having a large following.

Should that matter?

Maybe it is my duty to retweet everyone who asks for an RT.

Well, experience has taught me that this won’t do. This won’t do at all.

All in a good cause…

Firstly, intergrity has to be checked. There are vile creeps out there pretending to be terminally ill and in need of just a fiver here and a fiver there to be able to fly to America to have that necessary life-saving operation. It isn’t nice to be reminded that there exist fellow-citizens who would stoop so low, but I fear we all know that it is the case. So it follows that I can’t automatically retweet every cry for help. Each has to be checked for authenticity and honesty.

In addition to this, it must be understood that my twitter space is not for sale. If people send me things (gadgets, music tracks, poems, cupcakes, robotic vacuum cleaners) I have to make it clear that I cannot accept them on condition that I tweet about them. It has to be agreed that I MUST BE FREE to see or buy or experience something that I really love and then rave about it without everyone thinking I am doing so because in some way I have been bribed or arm-twisted or in any other fashion coerced into doing so. There are those who will never believe such a thing, but that’s their problem frankly. To be live life as a cynic is to condemn yourself to eternal misery and distrust, especially of yourself: the clearest route to failure there is. Yes, I do TV ads and voice overs, but (even if no one else does) I see a clear difference between that, which is a form of (albeit whorish) acting and personal product endorsement. The one is a gig, the other is me.

Accidental DDoS

Secondly, if I do recommend a site, well those who want that site to be visited had better be damned sure that their servers can take the strain. We are talking about thousands of hits a second at peak times. The host had better have a good cluster of servers ready or there’ll be nothing but tears and distress as what appears to have been a Dedicated Denial of Service has been perpetrated on their proud and noble site.

I think I have put it this way before: it is a sad sight to see a shop-keeper react to four thousand people simultaneously bursting into his tiny little antique business. He sweeps up the broken china, splintered wood and glass, eyes his ruined business and then casts me a baleful glare. ‘But you asked me to tell people about your shop!’ I want to cry out, but he shakes his head and turns his back on me and I tip-toe guiltily away feeling as if I have been the most awful bully.

Google, YouTube, facebook, Amazon – I can of course be sure of the biggies bearing up under any kind of strain but otherwise I and my two little Twitter helpers have established a system whereby everyone who wants a charitable or useful cause tweeted has to go through my website and see what you might call the terms and conditions. It involves emailing [email protected] and being told how to set about “applying” for a mention or RT. That in itself isn’t a guarantee of course. I may decide that a sponsored backpack up the Inca Trail just isn’t enough, or that I’ve tweeted about libraries six times that week and I should give them a rest for a while.

I honestly don’t otherwise know how I could run that side of twitter without constant mishap. As it is I carelessly break my own rules from time to time and will unthinkingly hit the RT button and crash someone’s site. I did it the other day to a kind New Zealand girl who had written a blog that had, it seemed to me, precisely got the point behind my most recent debacle. More of that in a moment.

Be yourself…

Above all — and I have been dispensing this advice to people who have asked me about joining twitter since it began, politicians, entertainers, friends, journalists, whoever — I have to be myself on twitter. It is utterly useless and painfully transparent and wholly counterproductive to construct a false personality, or always to be in exactly the same mood. If I tweeted regularly, always in the same restrained, friendly, perfectly pitched and framed register, it would (in my opinion) be creepy and unreal. Twitter is a social network, and man as a social animal is a victim of moods, appetites, weariness, phases, energy loss and any number of other imponderables. I am not a machine, my tweeting is not regular, consistent, predictable or flawless. And sometimes, I tweet like an arse, without thought or sense.


There are days too when the very prospect of opening Twitter fills me with dread. I cannot face the number of DMs, the potentially upsetting insults, the sorrowful appeals for help. I keep the lid on the box closed and get on with whatever else I’m doing. There are other days (and I am going through such a time now) when I might be on a film set, in a country thousands of miles and over a dozen time zones away from home. My tweeting device of choice will have to be switched off while I’m working and when finally we wrap, it’ll be six in the morning in Britain and I’ll be ready for nothing much more than a Martini and bed.

And then sometimes, without one ever seeming to spot it, another Incident rears its ugly – or sometimes fascinatingly beautiful – head.

How did it happen?

Here I am in New Zealand, a country that I love, working on a film, The Hobbit. I have rented a little house in Wellington and it has a broadband connection provided by just about the only player in the game here, TelecomNZ. If you are British think of them of the rump of a denationalized Post Office, much as our GPO became British Telecom which in turn became  BT and  Cellnet and O2.

Well, I won’t take you into the full details, but one morning I found, much to my surprise, that my (already rather slow)  connection had been strangulated to a crawl. A data download limit had been reached and, all unknowing, I had fallen victim to the dreaded throttle. Pioneered by the unpopular Comcast, who own so much of the infrastructure in the US, the throttle is applied here in New Zealand and over the Tasman Sea in Australia as well, to those who exceed a contractually agreed download limit. It might be 50GB, it might be 200. Now, if such a system is mutually agreed, this might be regarded as perfectly fair and reasonable, and doubtless it is in many people’s eyes. I confess that in my lazy way of being accustomed to Britain’s service (which is by no means universally perfect) it just never crossed my mind that a civilised country would do this. Maybe it’s the future and will happen with electricity, gas and water. But as a “power user” who regularly downloads new beta versions of whole operating systems (but doesn’t file share or bit torrent) and the partner in a production company I do get to down and upload large files.

Well, at five or six in the morning, sipping my first cup of coffee before being picked up and taken to the set, I tweeted my annoyance at how bad the broadband was. I suspected a throttle, but wasn’t sure, but anyway wanted to say that it was a pity New Zealand didn’t seem to have a better service. I had been here last year in August, in a hotel. I had been in cafés and museums and other public places that offered WiFi and always I had found the uplink and downlink slower than I am used to.

So what? Fast broadband is not a right (although many propose that it should be and internet access has specifically legislated into the condition of a statutory right in France, Spain and a few other countries).  Fifteen years ago broadband didn’t exist outside Ethernet connections in universities and governmental institutions. I remember having ISDN installed before ADSL or cable became an option in London. Before that it was good old-fashioned dial-up. So why visit a country and be so rude about their service provision? A) it’s impertinent and B) it’s trivial.

Absolutely. There are more important things. My tweeting about an issue is not meant to suggest that I think that issue to be crucial, critical or of vital importance. Otherwise I would be doing nothing but twittering about Syria, global warming, the Greek financial bail-out, racism in British football, poverty, HIV/AIDS, species extinction, sex-trafficking and the Occupy movement. There’s the darling Avaaz movement for all that – you couldn’t visit anywhere better. I am allowed to tweet about vagina-shaped pimentos or having just met someone called Henrietta Cock.

It’s not a parliament, for fuck’s sake…

Twitter is called, in case you hadn’t noticed Twitter. Not Earnest Debate, not Focus, not Forum or World Crisis. Just Twitter. And that’s what I do, I twitter away. Sometimes sensibly, sometimes not. I am not the Op Ed page of the New Yorker or a Times of London Leader. I am not a Papal Bull or an Imperial Edict. I am not an elected official or a princeling. I am, in Douglas Adams’s immortal words,’ just this guy, you know?’ And Twitter is for twittering on: so I do.

Yes, I know that I should by now have realised that my smallest utterance might have a disproportionate outcome – but I return to the earlier point. I’m me. Self-conscious tweeting isn’t social: what kind of anal no-hoper would come to a dinner party with a typed list of topics of conversation in their pocket? On Twitter, as around a dinner table, one gets caught up in the real cut and thrust of social interaction. I don’t do these things to attract attention or get special service, I just tweet away.


As it happens, I love New Zealand very much, and I genuinely do think they deserve a better digital infrastructure than the one they have. That my (rapidly typed, highly confusing and incoherent) stream of tweets on the subject so swiftly sparked the national debate it did, on NZ TV news, in the papers and, of course, throughout the twittersphere, genuinely surprised me.

I certainly didn’t expect that Telstra, one of TelecomNZ’s few rivals, would take up the opportunity to being out a full page ad.

Fry's Trail of Twitter Slime

Mostly I think it fair to say a majority of New Zealanders have agreed with me. Some were put out by my criticizing their country, but most have travelled abroad and know that the standard of broadband you get back here is not exactly up to snuff. It isn’t perfect in Britain of course, but with a regulator ensuring that the old monopoly (BT in our case) doesn’t hog all the copper wire but must allow it as a pipeline to any of the half dozen or so major rivals, there is competition driving down pricing and driving up service. In theory. Hell, it isn’t perfect in that sector any more than it is in electricity or water provision, or any other form of mixed economy capitalism. It’s better than unregulated capitalism (hello, Enron) and better than monopolistic nationalised industry (hello, Britain in the 60s and 70s). No question, the average Brit, mutatis mutandis, gets a better megabyte for his/her money than the average kiwi.

It’s only Broadband – get a life…

Human right or not, if the board game Monopoly were invented now, Broadband would be one of the Utilities. When I was a child the cliché remark Britons and Americans would make about countries like Tunisia, Turkey, Greece and even Spain as holiday destinations would be, “Don’t drink the water”.

Americans are horrified at the lack of air-conditioning and dribbly shower pressure in Britain, we are alarmed by sanitation in India and Kenya. Delhi Belly, Montezuma’s Revenge, Gyppy Tummy, all that. Wider issues of social justice, equity, western snobbery aside, it’s human nature when you travel to think of how your stay might be in a far country.

In New Zealand the roads are as good as any country I’ve ever visited. The coffee is better. The food generally is exquisite. The water supply fresh and easily drinkable. The wine-making is outstanding. The public transport system (certainly within Wellington) as is good as it gets. The infrastructure fabric on both islands is as first world as you could find. I don’t remember seeing so much as one pothole in the surface of the roads from the top of North Island to the bottom of the South. I do wish there was a better signage system telling you whether, as you approach Mount Victoria from Seatoun and Miramar and have to make up the choice to drive round the headland or not, whether the bloody tunnel is going to be opened or closed, but that’s another matter. There is a sign, it’s just that it’s a useless one. Stop, it Stephen. You’ll only get into trouble again.

NZ rocks…

My 23 year old godson sent me this, just today, direct quote. Unaltered by one syllable.

“I imagine you might be in New Zealand right now, is that right? Hobbiting? I hope that that’s all going well and that it’s nice being out there. From the three weeks I spent in New Zealand on my gap year I do remember thinking that I had never, and would never be again, be in a more stunning place in my life. So I hope that’s the case for you too. “

Those are the words of a privileged, intelligent, talented, charming and well-travelled Englishman. There is so much to love here, so much for Kiwis to be proud of.

This is the country that produced Ernest Rutherford, the man who split the atom and Edmund Hillary the man who first stood on the peak of Mount Everest. This is the first democracy to give women the vote.  Despite the sheep jokes this is as sophisticated, progressive and forward looking a nation-state as exists in the world, its population of a mere four million or so punching hugely above their weight in almost every field of endeavour.

A flat white. Invented by Australians and adopted by New Zealanders. (Actual flat white from @SensoryLondon)

The harnessing of the remarkable talents of Sirs Peter Jackson and Richard Taylor created the Wellywood phenomenon. James Cameron had to come to Wellington to make Avatar because, quite simply, there weren’t the technical facilities or expertise anywhere else in the world.  New Zealand is a most astonishingly beautiful country, the people are friendly and charming, though I wouldn’t want to be in a ruck or a maul with them on a rugby field. They’re outdoorsy but lack the brashness that can be found (attractively in its own way) in Australia. Modest, welcoming, zoologically and botanically unique, there are few places in the world where I feel more at home than kiwiland and if I offended by being rude about its digital performance, then I am sorry. But I promise you it came from love. Well, love with mixed with early morning grumpiness.

My good friend, the ever reliable @elvis717 alerted me to this excellent document which outlines Sweden’s digital roadmap.

Like New Zealand, Sweden has a relatively small and scattered population.  Sweden too punches above its weight, not just with Ikea, Volvo, Girls with dragon tattoos who kick over hornets’ nests and get up to all kinds of shenanigans, and Abba of course, but as a digital force. The home of Spotify and dozens of other influential start ups and major players in the IT world, Sweden decided some time ago that it wasn’t good enough to be good enough, it was important to be ahead of the game throughout the country and in terms of global comparison. As the document says in its opening statement:

We have probably seen only the start of all the benefits that the use of ICT can bring. If we use the technology correctly:

  • those schoolchildren who find it most difficult to learn can instead, using their own computers, become the best in the class at searching, editing and presenting information

  • severely ill patients admitted to hospital in an emergency will avoid having to give their case histories as the doctor will have received all the relevant information from the electronic patient records

  • it will be possible for more service jobs to be done from home, raising quality of life, saving travel, time and money and reducing environmental impact

  • ICT can make democracy more accessible, even from someone’s kitchen table.

None of that is news to any one you I am sure, but the permanency and importance of IT (or ICT as the Swedes like to call it – for Information and Communication Technologies) to the economies and destinies of nation states and their citizens cannot be overstated. Sweden, it seems, wants to emulate Steve Jobs’s quote from the great Wayne Gretzky who, on being asked why he was the greatest hockey player who ever lived, shrugged and replied that he guessed it was because while others skated towards the puck, he skated towards where the puck was going to be.


The New Zealand newspapers covered the government’s reaction to my “outburst” as such tweets are inevitably called by journalists. It is pretty clear that the New Zealand administration is aware that many Kiwis are highly dissatisfied with the performance of TelecomNZ, who had very swiftly moved to cancel the data cap on my service and replace an ancient dusty modem.  I appreciated their attention and rapid service, but of course I had to point out – as many New Zealanders did – that I shouldn’t be getting any preferential treatment (and I certainly didn’t tweet in the expectation of it). It is not Stephen Fry who deserves a better broadband service, it is every New Zealand citizen.

Now I am aware that the heart-breaking catastrophe of Christchurch held back both government finances and also technology that was based out there and was preparing to improve the digital infrastructure. No one can blame TCNZ for that: what they and almost all New Zealand corporations have done to help rebuild the lives, destinies and future of Christchurch is inspiring and wholly to be commended. I am also aware, because the Hon Amy Adams, Minister of Communications and IT, wrote to the Hobbit production office to tell me about it, of the government’s $1.5 billion ultrafast broadband rollout. But are they still just looking at where the puck now is, I cannot but wonder?

I may have been grossly unfair. I certainly put a bit of oomph into the response of TCNZ’s competitors and perhaps that venerable old corporation itself, but it may be that it was not my place as a happy visitor to say or do any such thing.

The whole point of this blog is to try and explain that I will always make an arse of myself from time to time, whether it’s because I’m drunk, or lazy, or thoughtless or in a bad mood or just because I’m not thinking straight. I hope I don’t ever bully anyone or use my numbers to humiliate or harass, that would be very wrong, but I am a human being, not a public service. The whole Twitter experiment for me is about seeing whether I can, as a public person, be myself in public, unfiltered by a journalist, a PR company, an agenda or a ghost writer.

Why tweet, if you’re in the public eye? Just to sell tickets?

Why, you may ask, would I want to do such a thing? Lead a public life through Twitter? What possible bizarre form of exhibitionism would lead me to this? Or is it just crass commercialism?

Well, I shall level with you. It never started out as my intention, but the result of my life in Twitter is that I need never ever contribute to print media in any form again. Ever. If you have more followers than subscribe to the Independent, Guardian, Times, Financial Times and Daily Telegraph combined, then you can finally dispense once and for all with the whole horror of having to submit yourself for interview and profile. Sadly this includes saying no to all minority and student magazines or newspapers too, because of course mainstream papers ruthlessly steal from them, or the poverty-stricken minority magazines are persuaded to sell their content on.

Rupert Murdoch expressed the hope yesterday that his all new, all shiny, all ethical Sun on Sunday would print two million copies. Two million? Why would anyone in the public eye need a newspaper interview any more in order to discharge their publicity duties?

When it comes to being in a film, or having a book or TV show out one is contractually obliged to do a certain amount of publicity. I will happily consent to radio or TV interviews. People can see me and decide I am an entirely intolerable piece of offal they never want to have anything to do with again on the basis of watching and hearing me. That’s absolutely fine. But at least it won’t be because of a misquote, a vicious aside or some skewed distortion from the bitter mind of a print “profile writer”, filtered through envy, dislike and that special brand of dyspeptic, growling misanthropy and “I see through you” cynicism in which British journalists specialise. And yes, I do reserve the right, from time to time, to announce that I’m doing a public signing in a shop, a show at the Albert Hall or that I have a film out. It would greatly annoy the most loyal of my followers if they heard from anyone else first, which incredible in their detective work as they are, they so often do. They seemed to know I was playing Malvolio in London’s Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre this coming summer before I did.

What price freedom from gossip?

Maybe celebrity interviews and trashy gossip are the price we pay for funding foreign desks and “proper journalism”.  That has always been the excuse. Video never did kill the radio star, and I don’t suppose Twitter will kill the columnist and professional trafficker in opinion and comment and gossip, but what of Maria Colvin and brave reporters like her, or genuine investigative journalists who spend years chasing down corruption and wicknedness in the world? I don’t have an answer to that.

Is the internet getting all a bit … oh I don’t know, shopping mall-like and over-organised?

On a wholly different note, is it just me, or are the big internet players all getting rather nasty and styleless at the moment? Google is irritating the crap out of everyone with its new rules and protocols. It has also, quite literally, been caught with its hand in the cookie-jar.  Spotify has lost all the world’s affection and respect by locking itself into Facebook. Facebook continues to startle everyone with new depths of asinine redesign and security madnesses. And Twitter, Twitter has taken Loren Brichter’s (@lorenb) quite brilliant original Tweetie client, turned it into the “official” Twitter app for desktop and mobile devices of all stripes and is slowly stripping it of all useful functionality and the almost lickable glide, ease and sweetness of use that first brought it to everyone’s attention. Maybe Dick Costolo (@dickc) and Biz Stone (@Biz) of Twitter and other players in these huge entities all feel that it is payday – time to cash in. Maybe they know something we don’t about the future of banking and need liquidity now.

More hopefully, fresh bands of guerilla app developers and social network designers are already working on The Next Big Thing in the background and in a few year’s time having an FB or Twitter identity might well be as embarrassing as having a MySpace or AOL account is now. I do hope so.

Bye bye.

Oh dear me, I do go on don’t I? Embarrassing or not, I’m having a fine time here in New Zealand. The weather is … fascinating. The work is long and hard and hugely satisfying: if I tell you any more I will be imprisoned for improper disclosure, the contractual equivalent of flashing in public. I apologise for not being able to Skype or DM friends at sensible times of the day, but New Zealand is, after all,  13 time zones away from the meridian line.

Days may go by in the next week in which I will barely tweet at all. Or there again, my next tweet may embroil me up to my neck in the soup once more. That’s the beauty. One never knows.

My next blog might address two Windows Mobile phones and a Samsung Note that I’ve been using lately. Or maybe they will  be on another subject entirely for those of you whose hearts sink when I get all techie. We shall see.

Thanks for your time.

Categories: Blogs

Repeat of Spark 151 – February 26 & 29, 2012

Spark - 2012, February 24 - 13:55

This week on Spark’s regular, over-the-air radio broadcast, you’ll hear Spark 151: Bee Furniture, Fan Subbing and The Smartphone Wallet which first aired back in June 2011. But you won’t hear Spark 151 this week on the podcast, because we’ve promised no more podcast repeats. We’ll be back with a brand-new episode of Spark next week, on March 4.

In the meantime, you can listen to the original broadcast of the whole show below (runs 54:00).

[Audio clip: view full post to listen]

You can also listen to individual stories below.

Making Our Money Mobile

Image by Google

The launch of Google Wallet in the U.S has got us thinking about mobile money again, the idea of using your smartphone to pay for things – no cash, no plastic. This may be a new idea for the western world, but mobile money systems are already operating in other parts of the world where cell phones are the way to pay for goods and services. A couple of months ago we took a look at the already functioning system of M-Pesa in Kenya, and had David Schropfer on the show to talk about the prospect of it ever becoming a reality here. David is the author of The Smartphone Wallet – Understanding the Disruption Ahead, and in light of the latest developments, we decided to call him up again on Skype. (Runs 13:51)

[Audio clip: view full post to listen]

Inter-species Collaboration

Photo by kokogiak

These days we see all kinds of human-machine collaboration around us. But how about a little inter-species collaboration? That’s what Canadian concept designer Vanessa Harden’s been thinking about. Vanessa is currently in London, England developing a new design process that fosters a collaboration between honeybees and humans to create bespoke furnishings. Yup, right now in London, bees are working with humans to make furniture. Vanessa, along with project co-designer Kevin Hill and beekeeper Angela Dougall, take Nora on a tour of their project. (Runs 9:21)

[Audio clip: view full post to listen]

The Art and Commerce of Fan Love

Photo by Rainbow Photos!

What happens when you bring together the internet, a niche international fan base, and an obscure German soap opera? Quite possibly, the future of television. Hand aufs Herz fan Clare Lawlor and digital strategist Xiaochang Li tell us all about the world of fan subbers – people who painstakingly do their own translations and subtitles on programs they love, and then put them up on the Web on places like YouTube. It sounds harmless and probably good for publicity, right? Well, the broadcasters aren’t always so keen. Copyright, dontcha know. But could it make good business sense to allow your fans to do it? (Runs 16:14)

[Audio clip: view full post to listen]

The Domino Project

Photo by Malkav

Author and entrepreneur Seth Godin is known for harnessing the disruptive power of the internet. Now, he has set his sights on publishing. His latest venture is called The Domino Project, and the model is simple: get rid of the middlemen, and try to create direct connections between authors and readers. That means publishing books without the help of agents, publicists, or even bookstores, and working with tight turnaround times and very little capital. (Runs 9:19)

[Audio clip: view full post to listen]

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Categories: Blogs

A Modest Proposal

Stephen Fry - 2011, December 19 - 03:23

Greece is the Word

I have a modest proposal that might simultaneously celebrate the life of Christopher Hitchens, strengthen Britain’s low stock in Europe and allow us to help a dear friend in terrible trouble.

Perhaps the most beautiful and famous monument in the world is the Doric masterpiece atop the citadel, or Acropolis, of Athens. It is called the Parthenon, the Virgin Temple dedicated to Pallas Athene, the goddess of wisdom who gave the Greek capital its name.

Parthenon - west side © A Sampson 2009

The Acropolis contains other temples and represents in the minds of scholars, historians and all who care about our past and the source of our civilisation, the pinnacle of Athens’s Golden Age under the leadership of Pericles; that period of peace between the wars against Persia which they won, and the wars against their neighbours Sparta, which they lost.

For students and lovers of architecture the Acropolis (over which I made a spectacular fool of myself some years ago) will always remain one of the most perfect examples of the Doric order ever constructed. The Romans and Arabians later added arches, ogees, domes, pendentives, barrelled vaults and squinches to the basic elements of architecture, but the Parthenon’s grace has never been surpassed. Its influence is all around us. Pillars, pilasters, porticos, pediments, architraves, entablatures, triglyphs and metopes may sound strange but we see them every day in high street buildings, town halls, 18th century churches, squares and crescents. Some people who spot trains or birds are called sad. I am a sad corbel, buttress and apse spotter – one who loves that there is a name for everything in architecture, a full and rich anatomy.

© A Sampson 2009

Doric elements were not the only thing that came from Greece. 5th century BC Athens was a city state that gave us Aristotle and his devising of logic, categories, ethics and poetics; Plato and Socrates led ceaseless quests for the discovery of the truth behind people, phenomena and politics. Their refusal to take as true any baseless, unprovable assertions made by priests, tyrants and hierarchs but instead to examine honestly from first principles took nearly two millennia to be rediscovered by the renaissance and then enlightenment philosophers who shaped our modern world very much with Periclean Athens in mind. Euclid and Archimedes are to this day heroes to all mathematicians and engineers. Their blend of rationalism and empiricism is at the heart of all science and sense. The sheer magnificent beauty of Euclidian geometric theorems and their proofs, has never, most mathematicians would agree, been surpassed.

The duty of Athenian citizens to play a part in justice through the tribunals on the Areopagus Hill was taken seriously, as was democracy in the form of regular voting: there was even an agreed assumption that theatre as a total art form that combined mask, dance, poetry, drama, history, music and religious ceremony was an essential element of public life and formed part of an open analysis of Athenian identity. As Nietzsche pointed out in his supreme The Birth of Tragedy, the Greek people had gone from tribal blood feuds, war and savagery to a peak of civilisation in a very short time indeed. Nietzsche chose the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus as representatives of the two sides of the Greek (and of course all human) character. One part harmonious, reasonable, artistic, musical, mathematical and idealistic, the other consumed by appetite, lusts and loss of reason through desire, greed and ambition. Whether we call these Freud’s ego and id or Forster’s prose and the passion, which we must “only connect”, no civilisation I can think of seems so clearly to display through its art, rhetoric, philosophy and politics just what it is to be a human, a social and collective being, what Aristotle himself called in a phrase almost worn away by universal use, “a political animal”.

Of course we are not talking about an ideal society. Slavery, the subjugated role of women, open paederasty and xenophobia, helotry and harlotry – these are not things wholly in tune with the temper of our own times. Read E. R. Dodds’s masterly The Greeks and the Irrational and you will see they weren’t all algebraic geniuses with a bent for brilliant oratory and logical exposition. But Athenian education, open enquiry, democracy, justice and a harmony of form in sculpture and architecture were quite new to our world and indeed their ability to question themselves is one of the things for which we are most indebted to them.

We have them to thank for the Olympic Games too, and the next Olympiad of the modern age will of course be held in London in 2012, and very excited and pleased about that I am. Excited and pleased because I love sport and always and automatically want to line up on the opposite side of cynics, curmudgeons, wet-blankets, pessimists, and (literally in this case) spoilsports.

I am also excited and pleased because the occasion — the largest regular gathering human beings on the face of the planet — offers…

A) a remarkable opportunity to appease the dead spirit of the great Hitchens

B) to make up to some small degree for our recent devastating and pathetic humiliation in Europe

C) to redress a great wrong and

D) to express our solidarity with, affection for and belief in Greece and the ideals it gave us.

The Hellenic Republic today is in heart-rending turmoil, a humiliating sovereign debt crisis has brought Greece to the brink of absolute ruin. This proud, beautiful nation for which Byron laid down his life is in a condition much like the one for which he mourned when they were under the Ottoman yoke in the early nineteenth century, taking time off from the comic ironic tones of his ottava rima masterpiece Don Juan to insert this mournful threnody….

The isles of Greece, the isles of Greece!

Where burning Sappho loved and sung,

Where grew the arts of war and peace,

Where Delos rose, and Phoebus sprung!

Eternal summer gilds them yet,

But all, except their sun, is set…

And where are they? And where art thou?

My country? On thy voiceless shore

The heroic lay is tuneless now—

The heroic bosom beats no more!

And must thy lyre, so long divine,

Degenerate into hands like mine?

‘Tis something, in the dearth of fame,

Though linked among a fettered race,

To feel at least a patriot’s shame,

Even as I sing, suffuse my face;

For what is left the poet here?

For Greeks a blush–for Greece a tear….

Two years ago a new and beautiful Acropolis museum was completed, allowing visitors a much more intelligent enlightening, captivating and informative journey through the history and meaning of the Acropolis than the rather rocky hillside rambles of the past.

View of the Acropolis (south) taken from the balcony of the museum. © A Sampson 2009

A year earlier, in 2008, the Italian and Greek Presidents had taken part in a ceremony in which a fragment of marble sculpture taken from Greece and left in Italy 200 years earlier was returned to Athens. This small fragment had been taken by the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Lord Elgin.

The greater part of the haul was taken to England where they have been housed in the British Museum in London since 1816 under the now highly charged name of the Elgin Marbles. Even at the time plenty of Britons thought the Ottoman Empire’s granting permission to take so many elements of the Parthenon (and the stunning Erectheum, the temple with its famous caryatids further down the hill) away from their home and into London was little short of looting.


What has all this to do with Christopher Hitchens, polemicist, shamer of Clinton, Kissinger and Mother Teresa, champion of Orwell and Payne, scourge of tele-evangelists and mountebanks everywhere? Well, in 1997 Hitchens wrote a book called The Parthenon Marbles, the Case for Reunification. In it he lays out how, inspired by reading Colin MacInnes (of Absolute Beginners fame) on the subject, he threw himself into finding out more about the marbles and came to what he saw a frankly irrefutable case for their return.

Parthenon Marbles - west pediment. © A Sampson 2009

It was, as the author Simon Raven pointed out, the Greeks who maintained that anyone who tells you what happens to a person after they die is either a fool or a liar. The speculation over Hitchens’s soul’s fate has been as disgusting and degrading as the age of indulgences, sold pardons and chantry chapels, but comes as no surprise to anyone. His legacy however, his doctrine of decency, his war on bullies, tyrants, liars and frauds, now that can be honoured and it can be called, if you wanted to do so, his imperishable soul.

Arguments for keeping the Elgin Marbles in the BM usually boil down to:

A) If Elgin hadn’t appropriated them they would probably have rotted or crumbled away so we saved them and deserve to keep them

B) Once you go down the path of museums returning ransacked treasures to their countries of origin then all the great museums and galleries of the world will have their collections dispersed to the great detriment of scholarship, visitor access and common sense

C) Every year, more people see them in the British Museum than visit Athens, so to move them would be to reduce their availability to be seen.

Argument A is most peculiar. As Hitchens put it, if you rescue furniture from a neighbour’s fire and keep it for them while they rebuild their house you then give it back, you don’t claim rights over it. Hitchens points out in his book how gracious Greece has been about the whole affair. It was Melina Mercouri (at whose funeral he was a pall-bearer), the actress, singer and politician, who really got the campaign going and always conducted it, on her part, with great good grace.

The British Museum has been utterly intransigent over point B. “Over my dead body” appears to be the view of each successive Director. The current chief, Neil MacGregor has had a brilliant tenure but is quite as foursquare against the return of the marbles as his predecessors. It is axiomatic that no museum or gallery ever likes to de-acquire. “What next?” they cry. “Every mummy, every Babylonian pot, the Rosetta Stone? The Royal Game of Ur? The Madonna of the Rocks and Rembrandt’s self-portraits at the National? Cleopatra’s Needle?”

Well, the answer to that is NO. We are discussing a specific part of an existing building, which we now know can be properly and professionally curated and displayed. The argument “Oh, once you go down that path…” has never held water. The weirder kind of libertarians said it about seat belts. “Oh, once you make people wear seat belts it’ll be helmets and roll bars next…” that kind of drivel. “Once you ban hunting, they’ll ban fishing.” If you ban citizens from owning Uzi machine guns it doesn’t mean you’re “going down the path that will lead to the banning of shot-guns and peashooters. Get a grip everyone.

Humans have will. We can go down a path and then turn left or right, or turn right round. Legislature is, perforce, nuanced and (we trust) skilfully drafted precisely so as to introduce regulation with the minimum loss of wider rights and liberties. “Going down the path” of the return of the Elgin Marbles need not be fatefully precedential. We could decide to let it not be. Of course plenty of countries will seize their chance to have a go at demanding returns of this artefact or that, but this is happening anyway. The Parthenon affair is a special case. Italy returned their fragment two years ago and haven’t been badgered, bullied and ballyragged since.

Parthenon Marbles - east pediment. © A Sampson 2009

Greece made us. We owe them. They are ready for its return and have never needed such morale boosting achievement more. And it would be so graceful, so apt, so right.

As for Point C, visitor numbers, well that is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, not to mention a counsel of despair. As Kevin Costner almost said, ‘If you move it, they will come.”

Not everyone likes the new Acropolis museum it must be admitted: apparently its construction flattened the musician Vangelis’s charming house and the reinstalled friezes would, say some scholars, be hardly more ‘authentic’ in their new home than they are in Bloomsbury. But the stone quarried from Mount Pentelikon, the dazzling white pentelic marble from which the Parthenon is made, is for Greece what the marble of Carrara was for Michelangelo and it belongs in its homeland, it expresses it. There really is such a characteristic as terroir. Which is why something as disgusting as retsina tastes so delicious on a beach in Patmos and so horrific in a warm kitchen in Wincanton.

As it happens the British Prime Minister’s office and the Department of Culture , Media and Sport are, even as we speak, planning a ‘Great’ campaign in which they wish to show the world what is Great about Britain (in fact the Great is really of course is a geopolitical term, as in Greater Manchester, not a profession of superiority, but never mind). I am patriotic I think. I fact I know I am. And like most people who truly love their country, I don’t think it perfect but want it always to strive to be better, nobler, kinder, smarter. I want to be proud of it. Some will see the ‘Great’ campaign as a Ladybird Book version of Blair’s embarrassing Cool Britannia ‘initiative’ back in the 90s. A step back to a heritage museum Britain where we’re all the best of (Julian) Fellowes and grandeur parallels diversity, tolerance and innovation. I wish them well and offer this thought:

What greater gesture could be made to Greece in its time of appalling financial distress? An act of friendship, atonement and an expression of faith in the future of the cradle of democracy would be so, well just so damned classy. The City of London whose “interests” Cameron wishes to protect, but which independent observers say is now if anything less secure in its hegemony than ever before, has buildings in which people sit all day betting “against” Greece, or “taking positions” as they would rather put it. In other words they get home from the office happy in the thought that their transactions have hurled another thunderbolt into the land of Homer and Plato, Themistocles and Pindar. May they rot.

There is much talk of “repatriating powers” from Europe amongst Eurosceptic and even middle-of-the-road politicians. To repatriate a power takes treaties, rows, enmities, alliances and betrayals. To repatriate a collection of stolen marbles take good will, moral courage and a decisive belief that right can be done. Oh, and I suppose a Hercules transport aircraft or large ship. Rope, voiding, bungees, castors. That kind of thing. Bean-shaped foam too I shouldn’t wonder.

How can we British be proud until we sit down with Greek politicians and arrange for the return of their treasure? It would be a dignified, but a thrilling celebration. No need for head-hanging apology or anything silly, just a recognition that the time is now right. Remember that dipping of the head, that bow, made by the Queen to the fallen of Ireland on her last visit there? Symbols mean a great deal. If the Hulture Secretary, Jeremy … oh, you know who I mean … or the Prime Minister or his Desperate Deputy did have the grace and guts to make this gesture, perhaps at the opening of London 2012 and then following it up in Athens with a full reinstallation it will achieve many things: it might remind us of what we all owe Greece, it might encourage us to visit the country and spend a little tourist money on its ferries, islands, temples, attractions and dazzling beauty: those blue seas, the warmly hospitable people, the theatres, temples, statue, beaches and bottles of resinated Domestika.

Such a fine gesture might also help make the rest of Europe decide we are not always the perfidious Albion they have traditionally believed us to be. I believe we would gain far more than we lost. A simulacrum in plaster or resin could hang in the BM where the real ones now do and an series of photographs could display the process of the return and the history behind it.

I certainly wouldn’t rename them the Hitchens Marbles, Christopher would bridle and writhe at such a thought, but those who wanted to, might discover the part he played in this long struggle and know that he wasn’t all about trashing icons, vilifying statesmen or taunting faith-healers. He once defined an educated person as one who knows the limits of their knowledge. His own self-professed philhellenism stemmed as much from the great gift Greek civilisation had given him and has given all of us– the confidence to doubt, to reason and openly to question. To know how little we know. To be curious about ourselves.

It’s time we lost our marbles.

x Stephen Fry

Categories: Blogs

A London secret shared

Stephen Fry - 2011, December 5 - 08:42

I believe every great country should have a great capital. Naturally, a metropolis will absorb plenty of resentment and bitterness from the provinces, that’s as true of London as it is of Paris and Rome, Washington, Moscow and Madrid. But as a provincial boy growing up in Norfolk, I dreamt of London almost every night as I tried to fall asleep. Reaching it seemed like an impossible dream. I am tired of having to apologise for it. It is one of the wonders of the world.  I love Norfolk no less, nor Yorkshire nor Gloucestershire nor Burnley. But hell, what a city London is.

This is a Britain where metro-hatred and provincial arse-licking has led to such fatuous absurdities as the farcical moving of the entire BBC sports department to Salford months before the Olympic Games come to London. Read that back twice and forbear to weep, groan, roar or wet yourself laughing.

Where does one begin with the BBC’s “regionalism”? They destroy local radio but move to Salford to “appease” the North. As if “the North” is one place! Do they think the citizens of Sunderland and Leeds are cheering because there’s a new BBC media centre in Salford? I should think even Mancunians are pissed off by it, let alone Geordies or Lakelanders. In-fucking-sane. But don’t get me started. Oh – you did.

Takes deep breath. Calms down.


Central London, like all great capitals, has its grand cathedrals, palaces, memorials, parks, public spaces, fashionable shopping districts and wild Bohemian quarters.

But also, like most great cities, it has its hidden secrets. Tiny little gardens, yards, alleyways, statues, institutions and passageways that maybe just metres away from the thronging concourses of Leicester Square or Cheapside, and yet are as quiet and undisturbed as a village churchyard.

One of my favourite areas of London is St James’s, that area bounded to the north by Piccadilly, to the south by the Mall and St James’s park, to the east by Haymarket and to the west by the Ritz and Green Park. Of course the very name summons up the worst images of elitism, aristocracy and old-fashioned, self-serving grandiosity. This is London’s clubland. Whites, Brooks’s, the Carlton Club, Boodles, Bucks, the Reform, the Athenaeum, the Oxford and Cambridge, the Travellers and even Pratt’s (it’s true). For all but a tiny percentage of you reading this, such places are at best amiably preposterous hangovers from a bygone age and at worst a symbol that Britain is still the same hide-bound, class-bound society it ever was.

I’m not going to go into all that. I’m just speaking of one who loves to wander around. I love to glance up at Blue Plaques and try to recreate in my mind the days of horse: when phaetons, landaulets, berlins, curricles, stage coaches and grand equipages dominated the streets that are now owned by vans, Boris bicycles, motorbikes, taxis and cars.

Let us just look at St. James’s Square in particular. Whenever I pass the north east corner I marvel that the memorial to WPC Yvonne Fletcher is never unattended. There are always fresh flowers and hand-written notes. In 1984 a member of the Libyan mission shot and killed her from a window of the embassy during at anti-Gaddafi demonstration which she was helping to police. The murderer got away, such are the laws that govern diplomatic immunity. It is hard not to whisper now, as I pass, “Don’t worry. He’s gone now.” If I thought that way, I would fancy that she is now sleeping more soundly.

Just next door to the ex-embassy is the house where Nancy Astor lived and entertained. It now has an “IN” painted on the left hand column of its portico and an “OUT” on the right hand. This is typical English eccentricity. I’ll tell you how it came about.

Lord Palmerston, the 19th century prime minister, used to live in a fine mansion on the north side of Piccadilly called Cambridge House. It was so grand it that it had a carriage sweep, with one gatepost marked IN and another marked OUT to prevent collisions and assist the flow of arrivals and departures. After Palmerston’s death the house was sold and turned into a club, called the Naval and Military (not to be confused with the Army and Navy or United Services or Cavalry Club, oh no siree. This is clubland, nothing’s that simple). The Naval and Military club’s nickname, on account of the gateposts, was “The In and Out”.

Fast forward many decades and the Navy and Military moves to Number 4, the old Astor homestead in the North east corner of St James’s Square (by the way, note that it is always St James’s ­– never just St James). These new premises have no carriage drive or gateposts, but the Naval and Military painted up a completely meaningless “IN” and “OUT” either side of the front door just so that it can keep its affectionate nickname. Batty but  somehow adorable.

Even battier is the name of just one of the other clubs in St James’s Square. The East India, Devonshire, Sports and Public Schools. I mean, what? You couldn’t make it up.

Elsewhere it’s all a bit corporate. BP have their HQ there as do Rio Tinto Zinc and other so-called “blue chip” companies. The address still has great cachet around the world.

On the north west side is Chatham House, Britain’s leading foreign office think tank. William Pitt the Elder (later Earl of Chatham) lived there. You may be familiar with the “Chatham House Rule”, a protocol agreed at meetings between politicians (or indeed businessmen or any other group of people). The rule is understood to mean: “whatever is said here can be repeated outside this room, but you can not say who said it or who was present at the meeting.” They use this phrase around the world now I believe.

But I want to concentrate your attention to the building in the north west corner, between Chatham House and the afore-giggled-at East India, Devonshire, Sports and Public Schools Club.

The London Library.

The London Library is, I believe I am right in saying, the world’s largest independent lending library. Which is to say it is not affiliated to a university, it is not owned or subsidised by any local council, by government or any public body. It was founded by, amongst others, that monumental man of letters Thomas Carlyle. The list of current and past members is astonishing. Darwin, Dickens, Gladstone, Thackeray, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Winston Churchill, Agatha Christie, Rudyard Kipling, J. B. Priestley, T. S. Eliot … and these days members include its president Tom Stoppard, and writers like Sebastian Faulks, A. S. Byatt, Claire Tomalin, Simon Shama and, even, er, me.

You wouldn’t believe that its modest entrance (well I agree it’s a grand address, but there is a more discreet back door in Mason’s Yard behind) could reveal so remarkable and beautiful a building.

There are fifteen miles of shelves containing over a million books dating back to the very beginning of printing: you can clamber across the marvellously mysterious original 1890s catwalks and gantries or luxuriate in the light and modern Art Room. They never throw a book away and there are NO FINES! You can keep a book as long as you like or until another member asks for it, in which case a polite letter will ask if you could return it at your earliest convenience.

Art Room of the London Library © Paul Raftery

You don’t have to live in London, in fact a third of the over 7,000 members live outside the city. There’s a postal loans team who’ll send you the book you want, and there are unique internet archives (including every past edition of the Times newspaper as well as dozens of scholarly journals and databases).

One of the miracles of this unique institution is the quality of the staff. They seem to know where everything is and will hunt down what you’re after with zeal and good humour. Some of the cataloguing is inspired. The Science and Miscellaneous collection is especially highly prized. Books about Coffee, Explosives and Dreams jostle happily alongside works on Home, Duels, Yachts and Cheese.

You can bring in your laptop and find just the cranny, desk, table or sofa where it best suits you to work, study, chase ideas or dream.

The London Library is one of Britain’s best kept secrets. Because it’s private there is an annual fee, which is reduced for young people, but which I won’t pretend is a small consideration. Nonetheless the advantages are enormous and just think what a present it would make for someone you love. Subscription to a place that can become a mixture of college, West End Club, snug, den, writing room and welcoming island – and all just a stone’s throw from Piccadilly Circus.

London Library Lightwell © London Library 2011

I know that municipal libraries are feeling the pinch horribly. Feeling the punch might be more accurate, right in the solar plexus, and of course many of us are anxious to believe that public libraries have a real future in the internet age. The London Library may seem like an elitist enclave, but actually it is just another example of what great cities can achieve over time and can keep alive with care and continuity. Its existence isn’t a threat and never has been, to public libraries, or to the great British Library in St. Pancras. It costs no more than many gyms, and what gyms can do for your body, this magical place can do for your mind.

If the subscription is beyond your reach I’m sorry to have tempted you, but maybe it won’t always be thus, and maybe you can save up or hint to an aunt or uncle… there are student prizes offered too.

Anyway. I have no vested interest in getting you to join other than the enthusiasm that anyone who enjoys something is anxious to communicate.


Stephen Fry

Their website is London Library and, bless them, they’re on Twitter and their Facebook page is You can also Email: [email protected] for news of free guided tours.

Categories: Blogs

Smartphones Arms Race

Stephen Fry - 2011, December 1 - 15:41

For some weeks now my jacket pockets have been bulging in an unsightly manner as I have gone about the world with a BlackBerry Bold 9900,  two HTC Android handsets, the “Rhyme” and the “Sensation XL with Beats Audio” and the all new Nokia Lumia 800 running Windows for Mobiles 7.5 “Mango”.

Nokia Lumia 800

What’s the smartphone world up to at the moment? Well, mostly we have had to witness the sorry spectacle of patent suits and counter-suits between Samsung, HTC, Apple, Google, Nokia – in fact all the big players in the game, each of them shelling out huge sums in lawyers’ fees for cases where they are fighting each other or those creepy companies who have invented and given the world nothing but stealthily bought up patents over the years and now hope to rake in many tens of millions. By way of retaliation and to prevent more of this, a consortium consisting of some of the biggest beasts in the jungle – Apple, Microsoft and BlackBerry maker Research in Motion amongst others – paid four and half billion dollars for Nortel, while Google splashed out even more impressively, paying twelve and half billion for Motorola Mobility and its 17,000 patents. Yes, 17,000. How many patent lawyers charging how much an hour will it take to work through that portfolio? The mind boggles.

Do we remember any of this happening in the auto industry? Does whoever came up with the limited slip differential get a licence from every car that uses one? Or the inventor of fuel injection, the overhead camshaft or the wishbone chassis? Did it happen in the manufacture of radio and television sets? Maybe it did but we just didn’t know about it. To the outsider the current situation resembles nothing so much the bloodiest kind of shark feeding-frenzy.

Large corporations can at least look after themselves. The problem is that smaller, ever creepier parasitic corporations, “patent trolls”, have been currently making life hell for individual third-party app developers too, bombing them with Cease and Desist letters asserting that the app they have designed has used, probably in all innocence, some algorithm, routine or in-app purchasing technique that has been sneakily hoarded by the company – an algorithm, routine or technique that would certainly have been independently invented by hundreds of different app developers anyway. Earlier this year it seems that in the case of the most notorious of these companies, Lodsys, Apple stepped in on behalf of the developers

Well it’s not an area I have any expertise in, but it does leave a nasty taste in the mouth. Of course original creations and inventions should be protected, but as with the case of musical copyright I would argue (as I did here  at the iTunes Festival in London in July 2009,  the periods of greatest creativity have been those where weak copyright has prevailed. It is, to (mis)quote, the fencing master in Scaramouche, like holding a bird. Clutch too tight and you will crush it, too loose and – pah! – she will fly away.

Anyway, while all this goes on, the multi-billion dollar business of trying to get you to buy into a smartphone continues apace. There are, I’m sure I don’t need to remind you, four big players here. RIM, who make the BlackBerry that once dominated the business world almost entirely, Apple, whose iPhone utterly transformed the idea of what a smartphone could be, the Google Android Open Handset Alliance which was (cough) inspired by Apple to produce their own not strikingly dissimilar operating system and finally, last year, Microsoft, who threw their hat in the ring with Windows Mobile 7, now called just plain Windows Phone.

They all take apps, they all can play YouTube films, but only the Android devices have Adobe Flash – and most Androiders will try and avoid using it very much. Everything Apple said about it when Steve Jobs declared the iPhone would never carry it has turned out to be true and Adobe themselves have finally come to realise this and to accept the inevitability of HTML 5 constituting the proper way forward.

There is a core of must-have productivity apps these days that is beginning to dominate: every operating system has its version of Kindle and Evernote for example, or Dropbox (in the case of Windows Mobile only a free client app at the moment) – the latter two cloud-based utilities allow users to ensure that the files they create on their laptop or desktop are also available on their tablet or smartphone. And vice versa. If you get me. Plenty of  security or photo utilities like 1Password or DropImage for example, are beginning to get a similar kind of traction, by being Dropbox savvy.

So in the end, what I suppose I am trying to say is that these phones I have been using are all converging somewhat. I find I am using email clients on all them that are intelligently plugged into Gmail and allow me to do anything in terms of archiving and drafting that I could do with a desktop app like Sparrow or by Gmailing on the web. I use Dropbox on all the devices, and I use Kindle and Evernote too. Each system has its official Twitter app and a variety of third-party options available through their App Store, Market, Marketplace, App World or whatever they might choose to call it.

Little arms races take place between the systems: Apple released the iPhone 4S complete with built in voice recognition for every app that uses a keyboard, as well as the much feted, mocked, loved, tolerated, abused, seduced and shown-off Siri, “your personal assistant”. Just yesterday an Android equivalent Cluzee was announced (who dreams up these names? Are they paid? No, I mean in actual money. Really?).

New ways of integrating GPS, mapping and intelligent shopping, parking, sight-seeing, navigating and trekking come along all the time, but to be perfectly frank things have got to the stage where each of the four systems can be said to offer broadly the same functions and capabilities. Which leaves us, as it always did, with the question of preference. Which experience is most satisfying, most fun, most reliable and most desirable? Or to put it another way, which is the least fiddly, the least flaky and the least intuitive? I can’t claim to have a definitive answer for that. It would be like telling you which breed of dog is best. Opinion, emotional attachment, aesthetics, social pressure and cost will always come into play quite as much as functionality.

We live in hard times and these gismos are not cheap. Your network operators offer upgrade paths that may seem slow to those who want the newest phone now, but it is worth either phoning up or going in to your local store and turning on the charm. One hears stories of  some lucky people getting upgraded because the assistant they spoke to seemed to be in a good mood while others whose accounts were identical have been met with nothing but blank indifference.

So to the devices themselves.

BlackBerry Bold 9900

Recent news has been bad, very bad, for RIM. I have tried to like their terribly flawed Playbook tablet, but failed to find it had any part to play in my life. I have always thought their original Bold handset was as perfect in its day as a phone could be, and was pleased that after the catastrophe of the Storm and the ho-hum of the Torch they finally produced a month or two ago their Bold 9900, a phone that seamlessly blends touchscreen and keyboard capabilities in a totally satisfying way. If you are a happy BlackBerry fan this will be the phone that you want. Battery life used to be the BB’s great selling point when compared to power-hungry rivals, but what with the way apps use 3G and Wi-Fi and mapping and GPS and Bluetooth, you can easily find yourself out of juice half way through the afternoon if you’ve been hitting the phone hard. But this is true of all the devices under consideration. Blackberry, like the HTC devices, can at least offer removable batteries. The new Bold is also one of the first to offer “Near Field Communication”, a standard yet to be widely implemented that will allow the phone to activate other devices close to it, such as smartpay machines and, of course, other phones or computers.

In the wider corporate context, the world of Enterprise which has been the bedrock of BlackBerry’s business success has been slowly slipping away from RIM. As a result they announced only yesterday that they will be allowing their Enterprise Management Suite to work with other platforms. A sign of weakness, but also a recognition of the inevitable, as most commentators have agreed. This move may allow them to stay in the game, even if they will never again be quite the force they once were.

The two HTC phones I’ve been playing with reveal the startling turn around rate that goes on in Taiwan, where HTC are based. They seem to bring out new Android and Windows phones four times a year. It is getting very hard to tell which kind of Desire or Sensation you have and what the difference between them is. The Sensation XL With Beats, is as big a phone as I’ve seen in a long while. For all its size, the 4.7” LCD screen doesn’t excite with colour richness in quite the way that the AMOLED displays of many rivals do, I’m thinking of the Samsung Galaxy for example. There’s an 8 megapixel camera, all the HTC Sense scenes and widgets and pages full of the useful free bundled software that Android users have come to expect. There’s a video store called Watch which has a reasonable selection of films for downloading and, most importantly of all, there are the Beats that give the device its strange name. You will probably be aware of Dr Dre and his Beats earphones; well, a pair of these come with the Sensation XL and baked in is his personally tweaked “Beats Audio Technology”. I have absolutely no interest in such things to be honest. The sound appeared to be excellent, but maybe it suits someone with a different kind of music collection.  I don’t suppose the hip-hop legend had Wagner and Glenn Gould in mind when tweaking the audio for HTC. With a single core 1.5GHz and 768MB or RAM such a large phone seems significantly underpowered. And when the next flavour of Android comes out (mine is running Gingerbread 2.3.5) it will be a question as to whether this behemoth will be up to the task of coping with whatever demands Honeycomb and Icecream Sandwich make of it (in case you wonder what I’m drivelling about, Android name each full new release after a cake, ice-cream or pudding. We started with Cupcake, Donut and Éclair who knows where we’ll go after Honeycomb).

HTC Sensation XE with Beats Audio™

So, not a bad phone, but not a great one. Its slightly smaller sister, the dual core Sensation SE seems a more sensible solution to me, a very similar device but with just a bit more oomph.

Compared to either the Rhyme seems absolutely tiny, although in truth it is about the size of an iPhone. I can’t quite make the Rhyme out. It has two new hardware features; one is a docking station that turns it into a beautiful alarm clock if you locate it on your bedside table. The other is most extraordinary. It is a long string with a small white cube on one end and a mini-jack on the other. The idea is that when your phone is in your bag, you attach this “glowing purse charm” into your earphone socket and leave the white cube outside the bag. When the phone rings the cube glows and you can follow the string down into your bag and find your phone. Here’s a film if you can’t make sense of the way I’ve tried to explain it.

HTC Rhyme

This accessory and the fact that the default colour of the phone is a lush kind of purple alerts us to the distressing truth. HTC is making a phone for women. Women are always fiddling about in their bags for their phones and so they need a “glowing purse charm” to help them out. At least, this is the implication: but let’s be frank, the sight of women diving into their bags trying to locate their phones is not so rare. Motorola didn’t do too badly with Razr devices aimed squarely at pink-loving, fun-loving ladies, and far be it from me to decry HTC’s attempt to attract a female following too. As a phone the Rhyme is not a stand-out. It is perfectly fine, it is, as are all Androids, especially those front-ended by HTC Sense, much more customisable and pimpable than rivals, so if you don’t like the default screen you can easily change it. Well, fairly easily – there is a shallow but undeniable learning curve and I have seen people throw their Androids across the room because they couldn’t work out how to get two clocks with two different time zones onto their home screen at once.

And so we come to the most important (in terms of corporate destinies at least) phone of all. The Nokia Lumia 800.

The story of Nokia’s rise from lumber, wellington boot and lavatory paper company to world domination of the mobile phone market is the stuff of legend (and admirably told here, should you be interested. The inexorable relaxation of their grip as Apple’s iPhone reshaped the world of mobile telephony has been a sad sight to behold. Their venerable Symbian operating system was a miracle of compactness, reliability and power economy and is still in use (and will continue to be) in fantastical numbers around the world. But their share price has slipped as their market share has fallen here in the west and grim prognostications were being made about the Finnish giant.

They bit the bullet last year and realised that they were going to have to play or leave the table. An alliance with Microsoft was announced. Here were two corporations who understood all too well the pain that comes when what seems like unassailable domination turns with such dizzying speed into a humiliating downward spiral. Neither had reached anything like rock bottom and they were cash rich enough to invest in their new partnership. The hope of each CEO, Stephen Elop of Nokia and Steve Ballmer of Microsoft, is that Nokia’s brand reputation as a reliable builder of phones and Microsoft’s reach and penetration as a software provider will allow the alliance to face up to Apple and Google and carve a share in this quite unbelievably valuable market. The stakes are very very high.

I was present at the launch of Microsoft’s Windows Mobile 7 last year. I liked what I saw and was happy to say so. There were many similarities with the release of the iPhone in 2007. No microSD slot, a GUI precisely governed by MS, at launch no cut and paste and naturally a very small choice in third party apps… but there was much to like. The smoothness and glide, the cleverly baked-in social networking elements, the (only to be expected) quality of MS Office and Xbox Live compatibility. LG, Samsung and HTC were the two major manufacturers for the OS then and they each did a good job.

And now Nokia has stepped in with two models, the Lumia 800 and 710. I haven’t had any experience of the latter, which is a more affordable version of the 800, with 8 GB of internal flash memory to the 800’s 16.

Now, Microsoft’s approach has been ever more “walled garden” than Apple’s, and Windows Phone devices are the least pimpable of all. You can change the colour of the signature tiles that make up the GUI, you can have a black background or a white background. You can certainly introduce wallpaper, but that is about it. Ringtone customisation has arrived and the app Marketplace is filling up with well designed version of old friends like Angry Birds and IMDB as well as the essentials like Evernote that I’ve already discussed.

So all I can do when I describe the Nokia is tell you that it is an elegant candybar (familiar to those who remember the N9) it has a very bright and likable AMOLED screen, a rear 8 megapixel camera (no front facing one) and the obligatory three touch screen buttons at the bottom: Back, Home Screen and Search.They have decided against the removable batteries found in HTC and Samsung Windows Phone devices.

Nokia have added their own goodies, Nokia Drive, Nokia Maps and Nokia Music. Nokia Drive is a turn-by-turn GPS navigation system (with selectable voices) which works extremely well and is certainly enticement enough to buy the phone, given the cost of some GPS apps. Nokia maps seems an oddly redundant replication of what MS’s Bing already offers, but it’s there, along with something called “Local Scout” which is yet another way to see where the nearest Flat White or pizza parlour might be. Nokia Music would seem to be in direct competition with the Zune based music store that’s also a de facto presence in all Windows Phone handsets. I dare say Stephen and Steve banged heads a bit over that one, but compromise seems to be the order of the day. No harm in more choice.

Mango, which is the codename for the latest version of the OS is slick, smooth and a pleasure to play with. If you are of an Android turn of mind you might find the inability to pimp frustrating, but for the minimalists of this world the cleanness, the slide, glide and flow are sumptuous and delightful. It’s easy to get connected via a Windows Live or Hotmail account (indeed that’s a necessity if you want to take advantage of all the social networking features) and to set up a Gmail or any other email account is straightforward too. Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn can all be embedded into your identity allowing seamless transitions and postings. An ever changing display of your friends faces (if like me you add pictures to your address book) will greet you every time you fire the phone up. The feature that will grow with Windows Phone is “live tiling” which will allow tiles to alter according to need or notification. A BA app tile will turn into a boarding pass QR code when you check in for example. Multitasking has arrived too, after a fashion. It seems to apply to some apps but not others and I haven’t figured out how to quit an app that’s running in the background. That’s probably just my stupidity, and I certainly haven’t found speed in the least compromised by having four or five apps running at once.

The Lumia, like the iPad and iPhone, takes a microsim card, though in the Lumia’s case via a rather fiddly system of flaps that have to pressed and slid and prodded and poked. Each time you connect your USB cable the flap has to be popped and lifted and I fear that many phones will have lost theirs after just a few weeks. Nokia have rather overdone their attempt to be entirely sleek and finished here.

I should imagine the closest rival phone to the Lumia 800 is the HTC Titan, which offers very similar specs. I wish Nokia well. For them to fall by the wayside would be sad indeed. They have produced a phone here that should have great appeal to first time Smartphone buyers who are comfortable with the name Nokia and pleased by the elegant simplicity of Windows Phone.

Windows Phone Mango looks and feels great, it is simple and yet – the more you drill down and play – remarkably flexible and versatile.

It is an anxious time for the corporate chiefs in Finland and Redmond, WA. Much gnawing of nails. If the Nokia gains momentum and is a sales success this Christmas, if the number of Windows Phone users increases, then so will the variety of apps, and that critical mass will also increase the resolve of Microsoft to keep innovating with their tiles and their widgets and encourage Nokia to produce new and ever more interesting and desirable devices.

If, if, if …



Categories: Blogs

Mel on Radio Again

Mel Hurtig - 2011, October 26 - 12:25

  Please note that the wonderful CBC IDEAS programme on Mel, “Citizen Mel” will be rebroadcast   this Thursday and Friday at 9p.m. on CBC radio. Jillian

Categories: Blogs

“Let Them Eat Dirt.”

Mel Hurtig - 2011, October 17 - 23:02

  Senate reform? I say dump it and add seats by proportional representation to the House of Commons. Harper’s present plans will result in U.S.-style dysfunctional government with an undemocratic Senate blocking House of Commons legislation,  Severe, lengthy periods of legislative deadlock. Who needs it?  Mind you, the present 10 Senators each for Nova Scotia [...]

Categories: Blogs

Lawrence Martin “Hurtig Lecture” A Great Success

Mel Hurtig - 2011, October 12 - 11:18

The Hurtig Lecture at the University of Alberta was a great success.  It will be broadcast by CBC’s IDEAS programme soon.  I’ll let you know the details.  In the meantime, here is an article that you should find interesting.

Categories: Blogs

Chris Hedge’s “The World As It Is” / Disgraceful Child Poverty / Harper and Stupidity

Mel Hurtig - 2011, October 5 - 01:02

  Now available in Vintage paperback Chris Hedge’s excellent book Death of the Liberal Class. “An important book” by a Pulitzer Prize winner. Do try to read it. Hedge’s new book is The World As It Is.  Good stuff!! Did you read the Vancouver Sun article about the disgraceful level of child poverty in her [...]

Categories: Blogs

Canada Continues to Spiral Down – New OECD Comparisons

Mel Hurtig - 2011, September 21 - 09:41

  The following is from the new OECD publication , Society at a Glance 2011, which is the OECD annual publication of leading social indicators.  This is a reminder that there are now 34 countries in the OECD. Looking at median income in OECD countries, Canada is now in 7th place.  Bear in mind that [...]

Categories: Blogs

Voter Turn-out / Extreme Poverty in the US / The Truth About Canada

Mel Hurtig - 2011, September 19 - 10:50

  The voter turnout in the recent Danish elections was 87.7%.  Aren’t you ashamed of our terrible Canadian record by comparison? I am. Next time you hear someone complaining about Ottawa, ask them if they voted in the last election. If they didn’t, you know what to tell them. *   *   *   *   * There [...]

Categories: Blogs

We Just Keep Falling Behind…

Mel Hurtig - 2011, September 13 - 09:09

  Next time you hear Stephen Harper boast about what a great job he and his friends have done managing the Canadian economy, consider this: Canada’s government debt (84.2%) as a percentage of GDP in 2010 was far higher than the OECD average of 74.2%, and our gross national savings as a percentage of GDP put [...]

Categories: Blogs

Some Interesting Facts…

Mel Hurtig - 2011, September 5 - 10:56

  The August 20th Economist tells us that the U.S. mission in Iraq has so far cost over one trillion $ and just under 4,500 American lives.  It costs about $1 million as year for every U.S. soldier in Iraq. *     *     *     *     * About one third of Canadians want us to ditch the monarchy, [...]

Categories: Blogs

Tribute to Jack Layton

Mel Hurtig - 2011, August 23 - 16:50

  There have been so many truly wonderful tributes to Jack Layton  -  editorials, columns, letters etc.-  that it’s difficult to add more without covering much of what has already been said. One thing we can all see is just how much the man has been loved by so very many of his fellow Canadians.  [...]

Categories: Blogs

Linux Virtualbox images

Craig Jones - 2011, August 10 - 09:53

A very cool website has a bunch of Virtualbox images of different linux distrbutions one can download and try out.

Categories: Blogs

Many Thanks for the Great Feedback!

Mel Hurtig - 2011, July 12 - 08:35

  First, many thanks to all of you who wrote or phoned about the two CBC Ideas programs. The response has been wonderful and I am most grateful, especially grateful to Kathleen Flaherty and company who put so much time and effort into producing the shows. They did a truly splendid job. Many of you [...]

Categories: Blogs

Obvious Interview Mistakes

FoxSuit - 2010, June 29 - 13:24

You may be concerned that your rehearsed response to the question, “What is your greatest weakness as an employee?” is far from perfect, but at least you know well enough not to ask your interviewer to buy you a lunch. Get some laughs from the Wall Street Journal’s Big Blunders Job Hunters Make. Need more? Check out CareerBuilder’s Top 10 Interview Mistakes.

Complaining about your previous employer is probably the one mistake that I see smart people repeat. Focus on why the job you are interviewing for is right for you, not the reasons why your old job was wrong. If asked during an interview why you left your previous position, you can answer honestly, but don’t go on at length.

Other clueless mistakes that I’ve seen that were not mentioned:

  • Casual swearing
  • Chewing gum

If you’ve ever beat yourself up over an interview misstep, some of these major lapses-in-judgment ought to make you feel better.

Categories: Blogs