Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘California’

A walk in the park

A land without serious problems, Australia is worrying about the pampered dogs of a pampered movie star, who were smuggled in on a private jet without proper medical screening. Agriculture minister William Joyce has declared that the dogs must be returned to California forthwith or be put down. These dogs are of particular concern because they “come from a country that has rabies.”

The reason you can walk through a park in Brisbane and not sort of have in the back of your mind – what happens if a rabid dog comes out and bites me or bites my kid – is because we’ve kept that disease out.

Obviously he is not aware that Californians always put on their bite-proof body armour to protect themselves when they leave their fortified bunkers. Rabies is pretty much all anyone thinks about when they walk through a park in San Francisco.

The reign in New Spain

There’s nothing funny about the never-ending drought in California, but I couldn’t help being amused by the misspelling of the word “rain” — sorry, “rein” — in this Slate article about the lack of rain:

These moves are small potatoes compared to what’s needed to reign in statewide water use, of which agriculture forms the vast majority.

I think what strikes me here is that “reign” is such an oddly spelled word in English, with its vestigial silent ‘g’. Why would you want to put it in when you don’t need it?

The “small potatoes” cliché in a sentence about big agriculture is the icing on the cake. Or the manure on the strawberries. Or something…

Abercrombie cool

I don’t know anything about Abercrombie & Fitch. I know it’s a chain of stores that sell clothes, I’m sure I’ve seen their stores, but I’ve never been inside them. Everything I know about their brand comes from an 80-year-old satire by James Thurber that begins

 I always try to answer Abercrombie & Fitch’s questions (in their advertisements) the way they obviously want them answered, but usually, if I am to be honest with them and with myself, I must answer them in a way that would not please Abercrombie & Fitch. While that company and I have always nodded and smiled pleasantly enough when we met, we have never really been on intimate terms, mainly because we have so little in common. For one thing, I am inclined to be nervous and impatient, whereas Abercrombie & Fitch are at all times composed and tranquil…

Take the one recently printed in an advertisement in this magazine. Under a picture of a man fishing in a stream were these words: “Can’t you picture yourself in the middle of the stream with the certain knowledge that a wise old trout is hiding under a ledge and defying you to tempt him with your skillfully cast fly?” My answer, of course, is “No.” Especially if I am to be equipped the way the gentleman in the illustration is equipped: with rod, reel, line, net, hip boots, felt hat, and pipe. They might just as well add a banjo and a parachute….

I was reminded of this in reading about a case that is currently being considered by the US Supreme Court, in which Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has charged the company with religious discrimination, after it refused to hire a Muslim woman, because her headscarf would conflict with the Abercrombie dress code. (As the law would require reasonable accommodation to be made for religious observance, the legal case turns on the relatively uninteresting question of whether the district manager who made the decision, and who reportedly said  “if we allow this then someone will paint themselves green and call it a religion”, is really the last man left in America so uncontaminated by media representations of Muslims that he is not even aware that Muslim women often wear headscarfs as part of their religious practice.)

According to court documents,

Abercrombie described its brand as “a classic East Coast collegiate style of clothing.” When Elauf applied for a job in 2008, the Look policy included prohibitions on black clothing and “caps”; these and other rules were designed to protect “the health and vitality of its ‘preppy’ and ‘casual’ brand.” As Justice Alito put it during oral arguments, Abercrombie wants job candidates “who [look] just like this mythical preppy or … somebody who came off the beach in California.”

From fly-fishing in an east-coast stream to a beach in California. You’ve come a long way, baby!

Wi-fi jumprope

At a recent committee meeting, where the provision of wireless internet access in our college library was discussed, someone raised the question “What does ‘wifi’ mean, anyway?” As it happens, I’d looked into that about a decade ago, when I was brought up short by a bizarre comment in an article the East Bay Express (a generally excellent free weekly in the Berkeley-Oakland area):

In the East Bay, cities such as Concord, Hayward, San Pablo, and Walnut Creek are launching or planning on launching citywide wi-fi, which is short for wireless fidelity.

I’d been a fairly early adopter of wireless internet, having installed it at home in 2003, before it was available in many public places (though I’d first encountered it at the University of Copenhagen, when I attended a conference there in January 2003; at that time my Apple laptop didn’t have any built-in wireless connectivity) but I’d never paid much attention to the term “wifi”, which seemed silly to me. I assumed it was a meaningless back-formation from “hi-fi” — odd in a way, since that term itself was so outdated, and even in my childhood I knew it mainly as a joke, as in the Peanuts strip (which itself was more than a decade old at that point) where Lucy boasts to Charlie Brown that she has a “hi-fi jumprope” — which turned out to be true. But I found it hilarious that some journalists completed the cycle, assuming that if “hi-fi” was short for “high fidelity” and “wi-fi” is analogous to “hi-fi”, then “wi-fi” stands for “wireless fidelity”.

Failed advertising: Henry’s restaurant at the Hotel Durant

I just spent a week at the Hotel Durant in Berkeley. Around the hallways were prominently displayed advertisements for their in-house restaurant Henry’s. “It’s back,” said the signs. “And better than you remember.” A bit further on the signs boasted of food that was “Fresh, seasonal, and surprisingly delicious.” So, my immediate reaction to all of this is, how close to a gastroenterological vision from Dante (first book) was it before the “extensive remodelling”? Without the “surprisingly” my eyes would just skip over the anodyne advertising copy. As it is, I can’t help but wonder why I should be surprised that they have delicious food, and whether this has anything to do with their protesting too much that the food they now serve is “fresh”.

Obviously, they’re trying to convince survivors of their previous version that it’s worth trying again. Maybe it will work. But those of us who were spared the experience are just left wondering how deep the hole was that they are trying to climb out of.

Update: I mentioned this to an older couple, Berkeley natives, and before I could get very far the following dialogue ensued:

“They’re probably referring to…”

“Oh, now don’t mention that. We’re about to eat.”

“Well, it was quite a while ago.”

Hippie science

There are two books I’ve read sort of recently, From Counterculture to Cyberculture by Fred Turner and How the Hippies Saved Physics by David Kaiser, that supplement each other as a picture of how antimaterialistic culture of the SF Bay area in the late 1960s through mid-1970s produced a lot of nonsense, but also hugely important new impulses in hard technical fields. Silicon Valley grew out of an ethos of DIY back-to-the-earth-ism (hence the “Homebrew Computer Club”), while the Fundamental Fysiks Group at Lawrence Berkeley Lab, took the energy of enthusiasm for parapsychology and mysticism, and channeled it into revival of an inquisitive style of physics that rediscovered entanglement and Bell’s Theorem, and laid the groundwork for quantum cryptography and quantum information science.

Maximum utility

Back when I first arrived in Oxford I remarked on the peculiar repurposing of utility bills as the indispensable proof of address. That is, the banks were enjoined by law from opening an account without proof of address (except Lloyds, which didn’t care for some reason, and so won our custom and our loyalty — until they lost the latter by refusing to consider us for a mortgage on account of my irresponsible decision to be a foreigner), and they seemed to consider proof of address to be equivalent to providing a utility bill. This seems strange for many reasons. First, utility companies are private entities that have designed their bills for, well, billing purposes, not as secure identity cards. The security measures on my water bill are pretty negligible. They have made no effort to check whether the person residing at this address is the same person who is paying the bill, or that either of them has the name on their records. Second, not every legitimate resident has utility bills. In particular, people who have just moved house don’t have utility bills for quite some time.

This requirement is usually attributed to a money-laundering statute. Is there a money-laundering scam that depends on faking a residential address? By criminals who are incapable of faking the address on a water bill? But who would be able to fake a lease, letter from an employer, or any other means of proving identity?

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.

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