Brexit planning in a mysterious tribal dialect

Among the many recurring farcical features of the Brexit morass has been the British government’s willingness (as I discussed two years ago) to proclaim, that its Brexit plans and negotiating position needs to be kept secret from the UK public because, in its favoured gambling vernacular, its ability to bluff would be fatally undermined by showing its cards. In recent weeks we have learned that no-deal Brexit is easily managed, nothing to be frightened of; and yet, the EU will truckle at the whiff of grapeshot, once it is clear that Parliament cannot rescue them from this terrifying fate. That proroguing Parliament changes nothing, and yet will persuade the EU that the UK has thrown its steering wheel out of the car in its game of diplomatic chicken.

What is odd is not that the government might have a public posture (e.g. no-deal Brexit is easily manageable) at odds with its private beliefs (e.g. no-deal Brexit will be hugely destructive). It is that they openly and persistently proclaim these contradictions, using poker metaphors to justify their contradictions. As though their diplomatic counterparties in Brussels would not also read their allusions to bluffing and draw the appropriate conclusions.

I am reminded of an anecdote in David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day. Sedaris, an American writer who lived many years in France, describes the conversation of two American tourists who were crammed in close to him in the Paris Metro:

“Peeew, can you smell that? That is pure French, baby.” He removed one of his hands from the pole and waved it back and forth in front of his face. “Yes indeed,” he said. “This little foggy is ripe.”

It took a moment to realize he was talking about me.

The woman wrinkled her nose. “Golly Pete!” she said, “Do they all smell this bad?”

“It’s pretty typical,” the man said. “I’m willing to bet that our little friend here hasn’t had a bath in a good two weeks. I mean, Jesus Christ, someone should hang a deodorizer around this guy’s neck.”

It’s a common mistake for vacationing Americans to assume that everyone around them is French and therefore speaks no English whatsoever… An experienced traveler could have told by looking at my shoes that I wasn’t French. And even if I were French, it’s not as if English is some mysterious tribal dialect spoken only by anthropologists and a small population of cannibals. They happen to teach English in schools all over the world. There are no eligibility requirements. Anyone can learn it. Even people who reportedly smell bad…

“Indefinite” leave to remain

I came back from Germany yesterday. Passing through UK passport control in the Brussels train station I was confronted by an extremely aggressive border agent. I have had “Indefinite leave to Remain” (ILR) status in the UK for the past five years, and I understood the “indefinite” to mean “with no fixed endpoint”. This border agent seemed to interpret it to mean “conditional”. The following is an approximate reconstruction of the dialogue:

Border Agent: It says here you have settled status. What category is that in?

Me: I don’t know. What are the possible categories?

BA (already almost yelling): You must have had some basis for receiving settled status.* Was it Tier 1, Tier 2, Student, Spouse?

Me: I was working. I had a work permit.

BA: What was the category of the work permit that you first entered the UK on?

Me: I don’t know. It was ten years ago.

BA: You need to know that. You can’t enter without that information.

Me: I thought the ILR card has all the information I need to enter.

BA: I have the card here. You need to know it.

Me: Well, I don’t. I’ve forgotten. How can I find it out?

BA: You should know it. It must be in your paperwork, or an old passport.

At that point she just gave me a particularly menacing scowl, stamped my passport, and let me through.

Until now, I’d thought that ILR should leave me fairly unmolested at the border, and that’s mostly been my experience, but this servant of the Crown clearly thought that my ILR status was somehow a sneaky trick, and she resented the fact that she had to let me in on such a flimsy pretext. I don’t know if this was just an individual unpleasant character, or if this is the developing shape of Theresa May’s planned “hostile environment” for foreigners. (People forget that May has been pushing this notion since long before Brexit.) She says it’s only for “illegal migrants”, but UKBA may be reading between the lines.

* It’s funny, with her obsession with my failure to remember the precise bureaucratic immigration categories, I think she was using obsolete terminology: I believe “Indefinite Leave to Remain” replaced the older “Settled” status.

Slow travel

After plunging UK travel into chaos, British Airways CEO Alex Cruz announced that he will not resign. And why should he? BA needs his bold leadership now more than ever. In the spirit of not letting a crisis go to waste and no such thing as bad publicity and there’s no platitude like business platitudes, I’m expecting him to announce that this was actually a successful promotion for BA’s new motto: Slow Travel©.

Imagine the scene: First a harried woman being yelled at by her boss, forced to rush through some task, papers dropping every which way. Voiceover: Your work life can be pretty stressful. Rushing all the time.

Cut to: Same woman with her family, rushing through an airport, trying to catch a flight to Disney World or Mallorca. Boarding closed, children in tears. Voiceover: You don’t need the same stress on your holidays.

Cut to: Another family happily strolling through the duty-free selection. Voiceover: When you fly with British Airways, our international team of IT experts will make sure that you have untold hours to browse through the world-class shopping attractions of Heathrow… Maybe even days!Heathrow stay-and-playCut to: Happy children playing in the Terminal 2 play structure. Voiceover: Joyful moments like this can’t be rushed!

Cut to: Passengers sleeping on the floor and seats in the terminal. Voiceover: Travel means taking the time to get close to new people.

Cut to: Alex Cruz saying “Slow travel. Because Bland Acquiesence is what BA is all about!”

 

The Jerusalem Syndrome

I just spent a few days as a tourist in Jerusalem. The city has many lovely and fascinating qualities, but it also felt generally stressful to be there. It got me to thinking, maybe in retrospect it wasn’t a good idea to put the Israeli capital in a city that is famous for making people crazy?

Now that Trump seems keen to move the US embassy to Jerusalem the two of them can join in a folie a deux.

More uncertainty confusion

After commenting on the confusion between different clichés about physics and physicists in reporting about Angela Merkel, I feel obliged to note this sentence, from an article in the New Statesman about the fake traveller-tourist dichotomy:

The rush to witness the “authentic” ultimately alters the reality, in a kind of behaviourist butterfly effect.

Once again, physics clichés are being confounded. When you’re looking for an educated-sounding way to make the banal observation that it’s hard to observe things without getting mixed up in them, and so changing them, the cliché you want is “uncertainty”. The “butterfly effect” is what you cite when you’re bloviating about how small actions can have large long-term effects.

It’s slightly depressing for anyone who has hopes for general science education. It suggests that even if you come up with compelling ordinary-language metaphors for scientific concepts, the result will just be a salad of interchangeable expressions gesturing vaguely at an undifferentiated mass of physics woo-woo concepts.

Towers of Power

In the week after the September 11 attacks, my Berkeley colleague George Lakoff got rounded up in a dragnet of conservative outrage for a heartfelt reckoning with the meaning of towers and the violent destruction thereof. Whether or not you agree with his points — which were mostly anodyne applications of his general theory that all abstract thought is at base metaphorical, but which seemed to offend people mainly for the brief mention of one very traditional metaphor, the tower as phallus — it was almost a prototype for what people think a public intellectual should be doing: bringing the fruits of his technical research to bear in making sense of confusing events, and public responses.

Anyway, I’ve just been visiting Washington DC for the first time since I was a young child, and I was struck by the differing levels of security at the two monuments to great American presidents that stand on opposite ends of the reflecting pool. The towering Washington monument has airport+ level security: Metal detectors, no large bags, no food or drink. The squat Lincoln memorial has no security at all — not even the health-and-safety guardians whom one would expect at any modest monument — with people walking freely in or out. It doesn’t seem wrong. Somehow it feels intuitively obvious that a tower would attract political violence in a way that a squat temple would not.

It’s similar to the issue of why terrorists always like to hijack airplanes. There are more people on a big train than on any airplane, but still terror attacks on trains are rare, despite the vastly tighter security at airports.

Security theatre review

The newspapers are full of the new rules, requiring that electronic devices be powered up at the security checkpoint before entering flights to the US. Apparently, this is in response to information that terrorists may be hiding explosives in smart phones.

Now, I am fully aware of the limitations of the usual common-sense criticisms of anti-terror and anti-crime measures. Most criminals are not masterminds, and the same is true of suicide bombers. But here we’re not talking about a bunch of crackpots with big ideas and a truck full of fertiliser. The whole premise is that a master bomb designer is packaging a bomb powerful enough to bring down a plane into a Samsung smartphone. Surely, with modern miniaturisation, he can also design it to include a reasonable simulacrum of an Android home screen. Maybe he just won’t think of it, but unless the intelligence agencies have some very specific design specs for this device, it seems like they’re targeting a very narrow gap of stupidity: Smart enough to design an ingeniously concealed bomb, not smart enough to make it behave, at least superficially, like a smart phone. (“Why has the email app been removed and replaced by the “Blow Up the Plane” app?”)

(And one more thought: If the phone is designed to explode immediately upon being powered up, then the effect of this measure will just be to kill a few dozen people at the security check, which is probably an improvement, but hardly counts as a solid win for our side.)

I am reminded of my favourite bit of security theatre, from about 2006. Passing through security in Montreal, the man ahead of me had a bag filled with small cans and jars of what looked like Jamaican delicacies. Solid food is permitted on the plane, but liquids are forbidden. But these were in sealed tins, and obviously you couldn’t open them all. So the security agent did what any reasonable person would do: He read the labels to determine the contents and quantity. All the cans and jars were cleared to be taken on the flight.

Why should David Miranda keep David Cameron’s secrets?

One more thought on l’affaire Miranda that hasn’t, I think, been sufficiently represented in the public discussion: What is stolen information? If David Miranda had picked up the British crown jewels in Berlin, and was flying them to Brazil, and was foolish enough to change planes in Heathrow, of course the police would have every right to stop him there and confiscate the jewels.

In fact, though, Miranda was carrying information. If his memory was good enough — if he had a photographic memory — he could have carried it in his head. He is a Brazilian citizen who has, so far as I know, no connection to the UK. What possible justification could there be for expecting him to keep British secrets? If we consider the implications of countries stopping travellers in transit, to examine and confiscate the information they are carrying, it is chilling. And again, what if the traveller is carrying the forbidden information in his head rather than on a hard drive? I’m sure I know many things which whose distribution could benefit enemies of, say, the Iranian state, or the Chinese.

On foot and cycle in Berkeley and Oxford

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Berkeley bicycle boulevard.
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Wide Berkeley sidewalk.

I’ve just returned from my sabbatical in Berkeley, and while I’ve written some harsh criticism of life in the US when it unfortunately intersects with the medical system, as long as you can stay healthy there are some conspicuous advantages to life in Berkeley. Particularly if you walk or ride a bicycle.

Some of it is no one’s fault: There’s obviously more space in Berkeley for wide sidewalks, and the crush of tourists on a few major boulevards, particularly in summer, is peculiar to Oxford. On the other hand, Oxford city council chooses to allow merchants to block half of the narrow pavement with advertising signs. Still, with the narrow, often one-way streets, Oxford is no paradise for drivers either.

And maybe that’s part of the reason why Oxford drivers are, there’s no way to prettify this, hateful toward non-drivers. (Presumably toward other drivers as well, but I haven’t had that experience.) Not all of them, of course, and not all the time, but enough to make cycling something I avoid when I have time to walk, and makes me feel on edge much of the time even when I’m walking. Berkeley drivers are sometimes thoughtless, of course, but the threatening incidents of recklessness still seem less frequent in Berkeley than the incidents of active aggression and rage in Oxford.

Cycle lanes are occasional and intermittent, and the average Oxford driver considers “cycle lane” to be just a fancy word for “free parking”. We don’t have as much of a problem with restaurants or constructions sites parking their dumpsters on the cycle lanes as they apparently have in Belfast, but here’s a cheeky comment on their difficulties.

I suspect that the better conditions in Berkeley are a good example of the civilising influence of the law. California law requires that drivers stop for pedestrians in any crosswalk, whether or not it is marked. And they do. Nearly always, except on high-speed highway-like urban roads, and even there if you make yourself conspicuous you’ll usually get someone to stop pretty quickly. This gets people into the habit of paying attention to slower travellers using the road, and frequently they’ll stop even when they are not required to, for instance, for pedestrians crossing in the middle of a block, or for cyclists on a cross-street.

In Oxford, as in all of England (I have been informed), cars are required to stop only at elaborately constructed official zebra-striped crosswalks with huge flashing lights overhead. Because of the elaborate construction these are rare, and even so are often ignored. And I can certainly count on the fingers of one hand the number of times in five years that any driver has stopped to let me cross the street as a pedestrian when it was not strictly required by law. It didn’t matter if it was snowing or pouring rain and I was out walking with a small child. In Berkeley I was more likely to be embarrassed by a car stopping for me to cross when I was merely loitering near to the crosswalk.

The Home Office strikes back

The UK government has been aggressively defending its decision to interrogate Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda for his links to Edward Snowden’s purloined NSA files. The Guardian reports

A Home Office spokesperson said: “The government and the police have a duty to protect the public and our national security. If the police believe that an individual is in possession of highly sensitive stolen information that would help terrorism, then they should act and the law provides them with a framework to do that. Those who oppose this sort of action need to think about what they are condoning.”

Notably lacking from this utilitarian justification is a legal justification. As I remarked here, schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000, which they seem to be using as their legal framework, interrogation is permitted only to determine whether the person is a terrorist, where a “terrorist” is specifically defined as a person who “is or has been concerned in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism.”

Absent from this list is “possessing information that would help terrorism”. The rest is just a smear, and the insinuation of what the journalists are “condoning” is just disgusting, reminiscent of the “fellow traveller” smears of the 50s.