Thursday, February 26, 2009

Job News

Well, I didn't get the job. I found out yesterday morning. The good thing is that I applied for a position this morning that I saw on a job board and actually got a quick response from the recruiter and had a nice long talk with him about my experience so it has given me a little boost.

You may notice the new design, I was getting tired of the colors of the old template so I decided to switch it up.

Monday, February 23, 2009

The Credit Crunch

I have mentioned before during the election that I like to keep politics out of my blog, so if you think my views on the economic crisis are "political", well... too bad. I don't think my views are politically influenced at all, they are based on my experience and observations.

This week I had only my second job interview in two months. Both of the jobs I have interviewed for have been a step down from my experience level and a 20% pay cut from my last job (adjusted for exchange rate and cost of living). I think the biggest problem right now is that when I go into an interview I don't know that I am the only overqualified candidate. Its quite possible all of my competition are equally experienced people who were laid off in this shrinking marketing industry and would be willing to do anything related to marketing.

I first started hearing "Credit Crunch" used to describe the financial crisis when I moved over here to the UK and to be honest I am sick of hearing it, it just doesn't seem like an appropriate description. This is an economic crisis and "credit crunch" sounds like some kind of fad workout.

The economic problems in the North of England are worse than anywhere else in the country, and based on the culture of spending over saving its probably much worse here than in most parts of the US. I have discussed this with many of my friends and they point out that most working class people don't save. They don't have retirement funds and often not even a savings account. Its just not a part of the culture to encourage saving. Even with my tiny (and getting tinier) 401K I am already far ahead of most of the working class people here in the North in terms of savings, even those who have been working for decades longer than I have. I heard a statistic on the news the other day that as many as 1 in every 250 mortgages are in danger of going into foreclosure.

I have been paying attention to the news lately and I am happy to see some positive things happening like executives' salaries being capped. If there is one thing that I learned from my time working in a very corporate environment and interacting on a daily basis with high-paid executives from Fotune 500 companies it is that a high salary doesn't always reflect the level of talent or value to the company. It is easy to tell the difference between an executive who has made it to the top through their merit and which ones have made it to the top through their charisma, or else just plain nepotism and cronyism.

The one defining difference is that the executives who are talented are always without fail penny-pinchers down to the cost of copy paper and staples and in times like this even their own salaries and bonuses. They understand that running a business is about making the most of every penny. Keeping a tight reign on the bottom line is always their top priority. The execs that fit the mold of the latter are usually focused on what they need to do to get the next bonus or business trip/all expense paid vacation. These people drain a budget so fast because on top of how expensive they are to keep, their value to the company is usually in the red. Their departments are usually hemorrhaging money due to poor management and terrible business strategies. They mimic the moves of savvy colleagues without considering the relevance to their own initiatives and jump onto trends way too late.

I think a big reason we are in this financial crisis is because the scales were tipped far off balance and there were far too many of the charismatic and well-connected execs and not nearly enough of the people at the top who are actually talented and accomplished businessmen.

As evidence of this, I was watching a session of Parliament the other day and they were questioning the heads of several failed banks. Out of all of these men who were the heads of major banks, not a single one had any banking experience at all. Not even one of them. How does someone become the head of a bank without having any experience or education in banking? It is pretty irresponsible to put someone so overqualified in charge of people's money.

Countries the world over are capping salaries and bonuses and I had to laugh out loud when I read quotes from some critics claiming that these restrictions were going to "chase away talent". Quite the contrary. This is going to cut the fat and open doors for the truly talented and conscientious execs to take their places. For every overpaid exec there are plenty of experienced and talented people waiting for the opportunity to get into those top positions and actually do something with them. This is the time where the scales need to be tipped in the opposite direction, its time for some house cleaning and its the only way for businesses to keep afloat in the face of such a huge financial crisis.

There is still a long way to go though, of the £1 billion given to British banks meant to go to small business loans and other loans to stimulate the economy, only about £12 million in loans have actually been granted. It appears its going to take a lot of hand-holding to get the banks and businesses through this crisis.

One thing happening here that makes me a bit sad is that while the bankers and executives are moaning over cuts to their 6 and 7 figure salaries, the working class people who are struggling are still willing to make sacrifices for others. I hear stories on the news all the time of workers banding together and offering to cut their own hours in order to save a coworker from being laid off, all of this is happening while the people at the top are resisting pay cuts and would rather sacrifice someone else's job than their own lifestyle. Its incredibly sad that in this crisis the people taking the brunt of the load for corporate irresponsibility are the average people.

I am really encouraged by the level of international cooperation. There are blanket changes being made and governments aren't trying to solve their problems on their own. They are really looking to the international community and coming together to present a united front against corporate irresponsibility. In an environment where corporations have a foothold on every continent this is really necessary to reign in corruption. I don't think it would be possible for any plan to work without the cooperation of all the world governments affected by this crisis.

Its hard to say how much worse this crisis will get or how much more my job market may shrink, but this is definitely a time where I am really grateful that Jason pretty much has 100% job security and I know we will get through this okay.

As I post this at 10 AM this Monday morning I haven't had any news about my job interview. As soon as I get some news I will post, so keep looking out for it over the next couple days.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Two British Dishes

This week I successfully baked two British dishes. The first was a batch of scones, which were fairly simple and the second was a batch of homemade Yorkshire puddings for our Sunday dinner yesterday.

This Saturday was the first Valentine's Day that Jason and I have ever spent together. He had planned a special dinner for us and I planned a special breakfast for us. For this special breakfast I baked a batch of homemade cranberry scones, and for an extra Valentine's Day touch I made them heart shaped.

Yesterday I decided to try my hand at Yorkshire puddings, which you may remember I have mentioned in earlier posts. Yorkshire puddings are a light airy dinner roll made with flour, eggs and milk. Traditionally they are cooked in hot lard or beef drippings but I used sunflower oil instead.

Yorkshire puddings are notoriously difficult to make. I did some research and found out there are basically three essential steps to successfully baking Yorkshire puddings. The first important step is to blend the batter well and then leave it to sit for at least 30 minutes. Leaving it to sit is supposed to make the batter smoother so its easier for them to puff up.

The second and probably the most important step of making Yorkshire puddings is to be sure the oil is piping hot. To bake Yorkshire puddings you put an empty Yorkshire pudding or muffin tin into an oven and turn the heat up to the maximum temperature. Then after the oven has completely heated you pour about a tablespoon of oil in each hole of the tin. Then the tin is put back in the hot oven for 5 minutes until the oil is smoking hot. If the oil isn't hot enough the Yorkshire puddings won't rise so this is the most important step to get right.

The third step is to pour the batter quickly and keep the over door closed. You must pour the batter into the tin as quickly as possible and slide it back into the hot oven. If you take too long to pour the batter the oil will cool too much and the puddings won't rise. Another important step is to keep the oven door closed for at least 15 minutes. It is hard to resist the urge to take a peek and make sure they are rising but if oven door is opened prematurely the puddings will fall before they have crisped enough to hold their shape.

As you can tell from the instructions above Yorkshire puddings are easy to screw up. My research did pay off and my Yorkshire puddings puffed up perfectly! They may look lopsided and deformed but this is actually exactly what they are supposed to look like. They are crispy on the outside and soft and a bit chewy on the inside. They are great with a bit of gravy poured over them and they are a great pairing to Sunday dinner roasts.

We had a great Valentine's Day weekend together despite the bad news we recently received. Jason will be returning to Bahrain in September and he will be deployed for 6 months. This news came a week after we found out the Jason's brother Thomas will be deployed to Afghanistan in April. Its going to be a very difficult 6 months for me but I am happy to have good family and friends here to support me.

If you are interested in making scones or Yorkshire puddings, I have posted the recipes below in two separate posts. Please note the measurements are in metric so you will need a kitchen scale for these recipes.

Yorkshire Puddings

From Jamie Oliver's Ministry of Food

3 eggs
115g plain flour
a pinch of salt
285ml milk
vegetable oil

Whisk the eggs, flour, salt and milk together really well in a bowl to make your batter. Pour the batter into a jug and put to one side to rest for 30 minutes before you use it- this will help to make it smoother, giving you wonderfully light and crispy puddings.

Turn up the oven to the highest temperature and let it preheat fully. As it's warming up, put a muffin tray on to a baking tray and place on the top shelf of the oven. When the oven is up to temperature, carefully remove the trays, close the oven door and add a tablespoon of vegetable oil to each muffin hole in the muffin tray. Pop the trays back into the oven for 5 minutes, until the oil is smoking hot. Open the oven door and slide the shelf with the trays halfway out. Quickly fill each muffin hole 3/4 with batter, then slide the shelf carefully back into the oven. Leave the door shut for at least 15 minutes, and don't open it even to check on how the Yorkshires are doing, otherwise they'll end up sunken. After 15 minutes the Yorkshires will be crisp and golden with soft, fluffly centre. If you prefer them to be crispy all the way through, turn the oven down to 150C/300F/gas 2 and cook them for another 10 minutes. Remove the tray from the oven once the puddings are crisp, golden and puffed up. Serve as soon as possible.

Fruit Scones

From Jamie Oliver's Ministry of Food

120g cranberries, sour cherries or raisins (any dried fruit will do)
orange juice for soaking fruit
450g self-raising flour, plus a little extra for dusting
2 teaspoons baking powder
120g butter
2 large eggs
5 tablespoons milk, plus a little for brushing

Preheat oven to 400F/200C/gas 6. Soak dried fruit in a small bowl with just enough orange juice to cover them. While they are soaking, you can either pulse the flour baking powder and butter in a food processor just until the mixture starts to look like breadcrumbs or you can rub them together by hand. Transfer to a mixing bowl and make a well in the middle. In another bowl, beat the eggs and milk with a fork. Drain your fruit in a sieve and add them to the beaten eggs and milk with a good pink of salt. Then pour your beaten eggs, milk and fruit into the well in the flour mixture and stir well, adding a splash more milk if necessary until you have a soft, dry dough.

Dust a clean work surface and your rolling pin with flour. Roll out the dough until its 2cm thick. Using a 7cm round cutter, or rim of a glass, cut out 10 circles from the dough and place these on a non-stick baking sheet. Dip a pastry brush into some milk and brush the top of each scone. (If you like your scones a bit sweeter, I would suggest dusting them with a bit of granulated sugar at this point) Bake in the preheated oven for 12-15 minutes, until risen and brown. Take them out of the oven and place them on a wire rack to cool.

Serve with butter or clotted cream and jam.

Scones hold their shape very well when baked so I used a heart-shaped cookie cutter to cut out my scones, but any large shape cutter would work.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Where do aircraft carriers go when they die? Hartlepool of course!

For months now we have been hearing that a retired French aircrafter carrier, The Clemenceau or "Le Clem" as it was fondly known to the French, would be making its final journey right here to Hartlepool to be recycled. It has been controversial and dubbed the "toxic ghost ship" because the ship contains 700 tons of asbestos and environmentalists worried about moving the ship, even though France or its previous address in India hadn't the facilities or technology to properly dissasemble the vessel. I am not sure what the environmentalists wanted to do but I think despite the hazard its best to take it here where we have the largest dry dock in the world and a company with a proven track record who does only this type of work. Currently there are several retired members of the American fleet awaiting the same fate as Le Clem in the dry docks of Hartlepool.

The papers finally reported mid-week that Le Clem had set off and would be arriving on Sunday around mid-day.

I woke up early Sunday morning and made myself banana pancakes and set up my computer in front of our front window so I could watch all of the action as I type. I was armed with my camera, a telescope I don’t know how to use and a pair of binoculars. Its time for… TOXIC GHOST SHIP WATCH 2009

9:12 Midway through my second banana pancake I spot a strange silhouette on the horizon. Its resemblance to a familiar Battleship gamepiece tips me off that this is the aircraft carrier I am waiting to see.

9:30 The Clemenceau, which is being towed, has begun swinging around to face Teesport (South, about a mile down the coast from me)

9:45 A bird dives into the sea in the foreground. The positioning and scale is perfect and looks like an aircraft landing on the deck. Wish I had my video camera out.

10:30 The Clem has swung around AGAIN and is now facing the Headland (North) again. I am puzzled as to why they would be towing this thing around in a tight circle, this seems to me a dangerous thing to do with a vessel containing nothing other than 700 tons of asbestos

10:43 The Clem is definitely going around in circles. My theory is that they are in a holding pattern until the tide is all the way in. The tide here is pretty extreme but it takes a long time to come in. For the ship to pass safely into the docks the tide will surely need to be all the way in.

As a side note, two pigeons have just perched on the gutter outside the window and they are cooing at me. I am really glad I shut the window earlier for exactly this reason.

10:57 Four tug boats have just left Teesport and are headed toward the ship

11:24 Managed to fiddle with the telescope and have looked at the ship. It is massive. Its hard to tell the scale of things that are so close to the horizon but when you see it next to the surrounding ships the scale begins to come into perspective.

11:44 Pigeon flew in front of the lens as I was observing the ship at the closest magnification and I nearly had a heart attack. I am leaving no details out here folks. I have heard accredited news anchors say much stupider things while trying to fill airtime during live coverage.

12:03 The tugs have made their rendezvous with "Le Clem" and she is beginning to make her advance. Some details are visible with the naked eye.

Also a group of young men has gathered on the promenade that I have seen surfing here before. Might see some surfers out today.

12:18 As it comes closer I can see through the telescope how dilapidated it is. It looks like a computer generated image from one of the apocalypse movies. A bit spooky...

12:37 Le Clem is not far off from the coast now. I can see the entire length of it as it moves closer. It appears to have 4 tug boats towing it, two in the back and two in the front to keep it as steady as possible. There is also a larger green ship out front leading the ship and its entourage of tugs.

12:52 The ship is moving parallel to the beach, probably as close in as it will get until it swings in to Teesport. It is creeping along at a snail's pace.

1:27 I went down to the beach to take some photos of the last moments before The Clemenceau pulled into Teesport. The Clemenceau has now safely entered the mouth of the Tees River and will never again sail the high seas.

A surfer getting a front row seat

Le Clem crossing in front of the snow capped Moors

I sent some of these photos into the local paper, The Hartlepool Mail, and they may be putting them in there today.

Last night at around 10 it started to snow again, and this time it was the beautiful silent and gentle snowfall I am used to. This morning was lovely, here are a few photos I took just few minutes ago of the snow-covered sea front.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Only in England...

It is nearly 10 pm here and I am just now finishing my post. No, I was not busy today. I was just stuffing my face with the delicious pulled pork I made from my leftover Sunday dinner pork roast. It was delicious and I am sorry to say totally worth putting off blogging for. 


My favorite British TV personality and comedian is a man called Stephen Fry. He is shamelessly hoity-toity but still doesn't take himself seriously at all. He is Hugh Laurie's partner in crime (Laurie is known to his American audience as House, M.D.) and they wrote and starred together in several comedy series here. He is currently the host of my favorite show, QI. 

QI is a sort of quiz show with Jeopardy-like questions. The pivotal difference is that all of the contestants are comedians. Here is a clip of it:

Stephen Fry recently did a show for the BBC where he traveled to all 50 states in the US. It was a wonderful series and after the series aired he did an interview on a nightime talk show where he made an interesting observation. He made the comment that we have  a wonderful phrase in the US, "Only in America" which he said is remarkable because it really captures the essence of the American spirit. It usually refers to situations like when a man rises from poverty to success or when someone invents a fantastically useful tool. There is always a sense of optimism when you use the phrase "Only in America".

Fry said that by contrast, whenever you say "Only in England" it usually means something terribly disappointing has happened. In some ways I experienced this briefly on our "mini-break" to the Lake District but only for a fleeting moment and in the end the amusement outweighed the disappointment.

On the third day of our trip the weather cleared up as much as it was going to and compared to the impenetrable fog of the past two days it was all we could really ask for. I had the spectacular idea that I wanted to see the Irish Sea coast. So, I got out my guide to the Lake District and our Garmin GPS unit (here they call it a "sat-nav") and I put in the postcode of the nearest seaside town on an A road. I figured because it was a road on the map it must be alright and since the town was also on the map there must be something there as well.

It is a credit to Jason's driving ability that we got there and back in one piece (that and the sat-nav) because the road we were on was approximately the width of a sidewalk (or "pavement" if you are English) and there seemed to be a hairpin turn every couple hundred yards as well as steep 15% grades. It took us nearly an hour to travel about 20 miles. 

I had hoped in vain that I would see a spectacular West coast sunset that would rival the lovely sunrises I see out my front window but when we arrived this is what we saw.

After driving through what can only be described as a ghost town we came upon the only living things on the beach. These sheep. This is when I muttered "Only in England..."

The beach itself was actually pretty neat. The whole beach was covered in smooth stones in every shade of gray, white and brown. Sadly I did not get to see even a hint of a sunset since the drive took longer than expected and even had we arrived earlier the clouds were so thick I doubt there was anything to see.

Overall our trip was fantastic. We took a cruise on Windermere which is England's largest lake and I took some nice photos. Here is a link to the photo album