Badgers recovering?


I was just listening to Deutschlandfunk, and there was a weird report in which a typically serious-sounding and besorgt German banky sort of person prophecied doom, now that the US Fed is promoting cheap money with promises of long-term low interest, “und wie hoch die Inflation dann steigt, das fragt keiner.”

And then, a breathless reporter telling us that the one question on everyone’s mind in Frankfurt is: “Ob der Dachs sich erholt.” And this while the British are killing badgers because they spread disease to cattle.

But there’s a serious question here: The metaphors that are used for describing market trends are bizarrely elaborate, compelling, and contradictory. On the one hand, a stock index is like a climber subject to gravity: It “slips” or “falls”, it “climbs” and “slips back” or “sinks”, it “claws back” its losses, or is subject to “corrections”, it “soars” unless it is “weighed down” by bad news, in which case it might “dip” or “plunge”. (I’m sure there are lots more colourful words that I’m not thinking of now. In German I’ve seen reference to a “Börsentalfahrt”. And at least the stock market is springy — after it crashes, it tends to “bounce”.) So, the gravity metaphor suggests that the natural tendency of markets is to go down, even”crash”.

On the other hand, the stock (or other) market is also a sick person, who may be “infected” from someone else (usually “the economy“, but it could be “caution” — well, I guess caution is the disease), but whose natural tendency is to “recover”.

Drinking in the park

Codornices_Park_Berkeley chavez_park


We’ve been spending a month back in our old hometown of Berkeley, California. Of course, there are features that distinguish Berkeley from Oxford — the hills, the ocean, the redwoods and eucalyptus, the sunshine — but one that particularly struck me this time were the drinking fountains and toilet facilities in all the municipal parks. It’s not just Berkeley. The whole Bay Area, at least, seems to have these basic amenities in parks, as does Portland, Oregon, where we’ve also just been visiting. Some parks have clean, well-lighted, well-functioning toilets, while others have dingy, rudimentary sanitary facilities, but they all have something. Where I grew up, on Long Island, you also expected to have them, so I’ll make the inference that this is a general US thing. It’s not such a big deal if you’re not a parent or a child, but for children and their caretakers the opportunities to take in water and to let it out loom large. You can make a point of bringing water with you, but public displays of excretion are generally frowned upon in public, even if you do use your own containers, so the absence of lavatory facilities puts an effective time limit on playground visits. (Although, I’ve seen surprisingly large boys peeing on the grass at playgrounds in Oxford.) The only playgrounds in the UK that I’ve found to have toilets (I’m judgeing, admittedly, from a tiny sample, having been living there for less than two years) are the two in Regents’ Park in London, and these are exclusively for children, to the extent that each playground has a fulltime attendant who seems to have no duties other than to keep unauthorised age-groups out of the loo. Drinking fountains seem to be entirely unknown on the Sceptered Isle. Interestingly, there was recently a BBC report, on the suggestion of some children’s health advocates that providing water at the playgrounds would reduce the temptation to bring bottles of sugary drinks instead, a net plus for children’s health. A representative of the Local Government contended that it would be too costly to maintain the fountains, and that they would quickly be rendered unusable by vandals.

Now, it may be that the park officials were lying, and drinking fountains just seem like too much bother. But if they are to be believed, there is a huge gap between the US and the UK, either in the competence of municipal engineers and maintenance workers, or in the extent and intensity of antisocial behaviour. (The latter may really be the case. On my initial visit to England, for job interviews, I read in the local newspaper in Coventry that a new city playground had been taken over by feral youths, and that a father who had attempted to use the playground with his young child had been set upon and beaten.)

I’ve been in the UK long enough to be, at the first moment, shocked to observe in Berkeley signs, scattered around houses and apartment blocks, saying “No Solicitors” — much as I know that members of that occupation are not held in the highest esteem. For that matter, the trash bins stenciled “REFUSE ONLY” struck me for a moment as a polite variant of Nancy Reagan’s antidrug “Just say no” slogan.


From the old “Moving to Canada” blog, originally posted on 10 July, 2005:

To begin with, I should say that, for the first time ever, I was on a Canadian train that arrived on time.  In fact, it was half an hour early.  Of course, that’s just the flip side of the casual timing that I mentioned in my previous posting.

At home, I am rarely out of contact with real-time news sources for very long, so one of the real novelties of travel is that I get to be surprised by an accumulation of news.  We arrived Thursday, July 7 in Winnipeg, and one of our fellow travelers, someone we had spoken with in the Jasper station, told us she had heard that there had been a major terrorist attack in London.  No further information.  Then we walked out into the city.  We passed the provincial parliament building, and noted that the flags were flying at half staff.  It was another couple of hours before we learned that several dozen people had been killed by four separate bombs on public transport in London: horrid, but not another 9/11, not even (apparently) another Madrid.  Such is the calibration of our times.

Winnipeg was a bit of a surprise.  Knowing nothing about the city except its geographic location, I expected it to be like all the flat US cities I know, pedestrian in all but the literal sense.  In fact, Winnipeg is a good deal more attractive than that, on a human scale, pleasant to walk.  I had been warned that torrential rains over the past several weeks had caused an upsurge in mosquito activity, and potentially an early start to the West Nile Fever season.  It sounded bad enough that we considered giving the city a miss — and we might have, if not for the extra fees that Via Rail would have charged to change the dates for our travel, about $600 extra on $700 tickets.  I’m happy they dissuaded us, though, because Winnipeg is definitely worth visiting.  I got a few bites, but nothing terribly unpleasant, and there didn’t seem to be any toxic spraying going on either.  I wish we had more time to see the city, because we ended up spending most of our time (as planned) at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. Continue reading “Winnipeg”

We enter Canada

In the end, the immigration procedure was at the very lower limit of the range of hassle I had anticipated.  The immigration officers did not kiss us on both cheeks, shout “Welcome home, future Canadians,” or sing a chorus of “O Canada!”  (It would have been premature, in any case.  Perhaps they do that at citizenship ceremonies.)  But they were cordial, calm, and easy to please.  Over all, the procedure was about as formal and confrontational as purchasing a gym membership — You don’t qualify for this deal, how about this other one? Sorry it’s taking so long, we’ve just had a rush of customers.  (There were two RV-loads of Israelis whose passports were about to expire, requiring some personal attention from the immigration officer.)  There was none of the atmosphere of suspicion that hangs so thick over US Customs and Immigration. In fact, of all the papers we brought with us, the only ones they even looked at were the passports, the letters about the job offers from Queen’s, the HRDC letter (which they said I actually didn’t need, because of NAFTA — the people at Queen’s have a different interpretation), and Chaya’s birth certificate.  The list of items we had with us were cursorily perused, because I handed it to the official who was asking us what we might have to declare, but it was clearly more than she wanted to know.  The biggest surprise was on the issue of common law marriage.  I had expected a discussion that started with a presumption of marriage, then we would explain that we are not married, and would then be asked for the form, and some documentation.  Instead, she asked, “Are you married?  Common law?” and didn’t ask for any proof.

Whereas we ordinarily speak German at home — except Chaya, who typically insists on speaking mainly English — Julia felt it would make a bad impression on the immigration officials for us to be speaking a foreign language between us, so we spoke English.  Chaya was in no mood to change routines.  “We don’t sprech Englisch.  Wir sprechen German.”  She was also upset that the woman took her passport away, and asked quite boldly for its return.

Chaya has been challenged by the new circumstances.  In particular, for the past couple of months she has been telling everyone she meets, apropos of nothing, “I’m going to Canada.  There’s snow there.”  I’ve been trying to explain to her that it makes no sense to tell people that she is going to Canada when she is already in Canada.  She feels a bit cheated by the absence of snow, but if you try to explain seasons to a native Californian two-year-old, you may as well teach quantum mechanics.

Introduction to “Moving to Canada”

Introduction to the old “Moving to Canada” blog, originally posted 20 June, 2005:

Why are we moving?  Why Canada?

The simple answer is, we needed jobs.  Professors are like soldiers and priests, sitting on their bags, waiting for their next billet.  Less so in North America than in Germany, where you do 15 years of postgraduate training, and then cluck about in the university coop until a job opens up.  Between us, we applied for about 60 jobs, were invited for 11 interviews, and received two offers, one from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and one from Louvain-la-Neuve, in Belgium.  About two thirds of the jobs were in the US, but we only had three interviews.  Two of these were at Yale, where they told us they found us quite interesting, but they didn’t really have jobs open, and weren’t quite sure why they had invited us.  We had heard that Canadian universities often have very generous policies for supporting academic couples, a crucial point when considering how many couples we know who work hundreds or thousands of miles apart, or where one or the other has abandoned all career ambitions.  Queen’s attracted our attention very early for its very generous policy, clearly stated on its website.  They were as good as their word: After offering me a position as associate professor in the mathematics/statistics department, they created a special five-year position for Julia, half in math/stat, half in community health/epidemiology.

While many left-wing Americans like myself have prattled about moving to Canada as a protest against the Bush regime, or to have a field where progressive politics are not forelorn, they pretty much all stayed put in the end.  We have no illusions of Canada as a progressive Shangri-La, but we are going.  Sutter’s Mill pulled more pioneers out west than a dozen idealistic Horace Greeleys.

Continue reading “Introduction to “Moving to Canada””