Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘UK culture’

Golfing VCs

Economist David Blanchflower wrote an article for The Guardian inviting us to pity the poor underpaid university vice chancellors with their paltry sub-million-pound salaries. In discussing what an awful job it is, and why you

A vice-chancellor’s schedule is set for them. The job has a huge effect on family life. There are few places to hide and find privacy. You are always on show, even on the golf course.

Even on the golf course! Have these vice-chancellor-oglers no shame?

Oddly enough, the analysis by this economist, which included the striking phrase “If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys” — the monkey here being everyone who is not a vice chancellor — omitted any evidence that universities do indeed prosper from having non-monkeys doing the job. I mean, there are all kinds of jobs that are hard and important, but there’s a limit to how much you’re willing to pay to get just a tiny bit of extra talent (assuming that you can even reliable recognise those distinctions in the course of the hiring process). The suggestion is that you need to pay huge sums just to get one of the exceptional rare individuals who is even minimally qualified not to run the university into the ground. “In the end, there are few qualified and willing applicants.” I’d like to see some working-out on that problem.

The people let down the NHS

I saw this headline in the Daily Mail yesterday:

Pity the poor NHS. Doing its job perfectly, but being cruelly let down by the shiftless population. To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, perhaps it would be better were the NHS to carry out a root-and-branch reform of the British public. Eliminate waste. Get rid of the dead wood.

This could have been me…

Ten years ago, still living in Canada, I had to look into the procedures for acquiring the right to work in the UK. As my partner is German, and would be working here as well, I had the right to live and work here under EU law. The procedure looked easier, and it would be free. Instead, I chose to spend hundreds of dollars to get my own UK work permit. Why? Looking at comments on various web forums I got the general impression that the UK authorities were generally hostile toward the EU. It seemed to me that I could have trouble if the laws or circumstances changed, and the UK bureaucrats felt that I had evaded their laws to sneak into the country under colour of foreign laws. I wanted to have my rights registered under UK law.

Here is what could have happened otherwise:

A Spanish woman who has lived in the UK for 15 years has accused the Home Office of treating her family like criminals after her American husband and the father of her three children applied for a permanent residency (PR) card.

In a three-year ordeal, the Home Office threatened to deport the historian Stuart Ross three times, suggested he was lying about his wife’s work as a Spanish language teacher and refused to accept a judge’s verdict in a Belfast court that officials had been wrong to refuse him a PR card when he first applied in 2013.

 

Intimate English

Der Spiegel posted a little quiz for people to test their colloquial English skills. Some of the questions strike me, as a native English speaker, as somewhat off. For instance, the first question is:

Sie kennen einen Geschäftspartner aus dem Privatleben und machen Ihre Kollegen darauf aufmerksam. Wie sagen Sie es – ohne unfreiwillig Gerüchte über Ihr Intimleben zu streuen? [You know a business associate from your private life, and want to mention this to a colleague. How do you say it — without unintentionally arousing scurrilous rumours about yourself.]

  • I know him privately.
  • I know him a bit better.
  • I know him personally.

The second one is obviously anglicised German. The third sounds like you’re saying, I’ve actually met him, rather than knowing him by reputation or having heard him give a talk. The first one sounds like something I might say, even if in reality I’d be more likely to say something slightly more specific about the context from which I know him: He’s my neighbour, I know him from the rabbit-breeding club, we do hang-gliding together, etc. But their favoured answer is #3, and about #1 they have this to say:

TMI – too much information. Da hätten Sie auch gleich ausplaudern können, dass Sie die Person schon mal nackt gesehen haben. Ihre achtlose Bemerkung klingt auf jeden Fall so, als wollten Sie ein wenig mit einem intimen Geheimnis prahlen. Doch das will niemand wissen. Jemanden privat zu kennen, bedeutet im Englischen, sie/ihn in einer vertraulichen Weise zu kennen, die in der Öffentlichkeit nichts zu suchen hat. Nur als Tipp: “Private parts” im Englischen sind die Geschlechtsteile. Sagen Sie deshalb “I know him personally”, und Sie werden garantiert nicht missverstanden.

You might as well have blurted out, that you’ve seen this person naked.* Your careless comment certainly sounds, in any case, as though you wanted to boast of an intimate secret. But no one wants to hear this. To know someone privately means, in English, to know him or her in a confidential way that has no place in public discussion. A tip: “Private parts” in English are the sex organs.

*Which, in a German context, actually doesn’t necessarily mean that you know him well, but only that you’ve been to the same beach, or possibly the naked swimming hours at the local pool.

Poor “negotiating tactic” tactic

From the Guardian:

The Brexit secretary is determined not to table a figure for the price the government is willing to pay to settle Britain’s obligations as it leaves the EU – believing that putting a figure on it would be a poor negotiating tactic.

Might I suggest that presenting as sole justification for your uncooperative negotiating tactics their quality as “negotiating tactics” is itself a poor negotiating tactic?

Not everyone shares the British view that everything in life is a sporting competition.

It’s all fine

Regulations are commonly enforced by fines. Economic logic says that the level of fines should be set high enough to discourage most of the violations, and if the laws are being violated frequently that means that the penalties are set too low. But that’s not how British politicians and businesspeople think. I commented before about how the Conservatives seem to think that high levels of speeding and parking violations are prima facie evidence that the laws need to be changed, rather than that there needs to be more effective enforcement.

Now we have this comment in the Oxford Times about the “bus gate” (ban on private vehicles) in one part of High Street. It should be prefaced by saying this is hardly an arbitrary restriction. Because of river geography and the huge space taken up by colleges, Oxford is inevitably a challenge for transport. High Street is sufficiently congested at most times of the day, with just buses, taxis and bicycles, as well as the vast numbers of tourists on foot, as to be difficult and dangerous to pass through.

A top businessman said Oxford’s bus gate in High Street should be reviewed after it emerged council bosses have raked in fines totalling more than £6m over 10 years.

The bus gate uses camera enforcement to restrict normal traffic from using the High Street between 7.30am and 6.30pm.

After the £6.2m fines total emerged following a Freedom of Information request by the Oxford Mail, Jeremy Mogford, owner of The Old Bank Hotel in High Street, called for the restriction to be reviewed.

Weirdly, he also seems to believe that it’s a problem that many of the scofflaws paying the fines are tourists. Given that Oxford has to pay a huge burden for maintaining transport infrastructure for millions of annual visitors who don’t pay local taxes, what could be more appropriate than that those who abuse the system and endanger our lives to get an advantage would pay the costs.

Two other points that Mr Mogford makes:

“I do think the bus gate should be better signposted in High Street because some drivers are clearly missing the signs or ignoring them.

“It’s quite likely some delivery drivers will go through the bus gate and pay the fine instead of spending half an hour going all the way round.

I agree with the first point, though the current signs don’t seem obviously deficient. As for the latter, I don’t really object. Fines can serve as a kind of stochastic congestion charge, allowing those with an urgent need to use a certain resource to pay the cost. I think that a formal congestion charge is better, though, since it is less ambiguous, more predictable, and removes the taint of illegality.

Boris is Britain

Of all the bizarre developments in British politics over the last couple of years, none is stranger than the appointment of Boris Johnson as foreign minister. I genuinely don’t think it is possible for any foreigner to understand him — or, to put it differently, I think that if you understand Boris Johnson you must have sufficiently internalised British values™ that you should be granted citizenship. I listen to him and am reminded of Oliver Sacks’s essay about observing a ward full of aphasics — patients with damage to the language-processing centres of their brains — laughing at a speech by Ronald Reagan. Limited in their ability to interpret the verbal content of his speech, they focused on the tone and expression, which they found grotesque and dishonest. One patient, with tonal agnosia, had the opposite problem. She could only recognise the text, not the charming expression, and so judged “Either he is brain-damaged, or he has something to conceal.”

I feel like I have tonal agnosia listening to Boris Johnson. He’s obviously playing a complex tune on Britons’ class consciousness that I simply can’t hear. Some people here find him clever, some call him a buffoon. I just hear the verbal equivalent the scene in Amadeus where the court opera is commanded to clomp through a dance number without any music.

One shorthand I’ve come up with to explain Johnson is that he is a stupid person pretending to be a smart person pretending to be a stupid person. I mean stupid in a relative sense. You don’t get to the highest level of politics without significant mental resources of some sort. But he has chosen to play the role of an exceptional intelligence, despite his average endowment. I’ve been around elite universities most of my life, so I recognise the glib, polished facade over the mediocre mind.

Of course, acting smart isn’t like acting strong*: You can’t just put up a show at some decisive moments and conceal your true deficits. It requires that you actually produce some penetrating insights on a semi-regular basis, and if you could do that you would really be smart. Johnson has, I think, adopted a strategy that one also sees at times in mathematics students: appealing to stereotypes of an idiosyncratic genius where the idiosyncracies take the place of demonstrating actual brilliance. Johnson invites people to identify him with a stock figure, the brilliant toff who hides his light under a bushel to feign the common touch. So he is dumb, and he acts dumb, but people attribute assume that’s all just covering up his secret brilliance.

But maybe I’m wrong and he’s just faking that, and he’s secretly an evil genius…  (more…)

Absence and present values: A thought on monuments

I’ve just been reading Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, and came upon this passage, that is relevant to current debates about maintaining monuments to once-admired figures who have now fallen into disrepute:

[The Republican Party] did gain the support of General James Longstreet, whose example inspired some Confederate veterans to follow in his footsteps… General Longstreet’s decision to join the Republican Party made him an object of hatred among Southern Democrats for the remainder of his life. When he died, in 1903, the United Daughters of the Confederacy voted not to send flowers to his funeral, and unlike other Confederate generals, no statues of Longstreet graced the southern landscape.

It’s incredibly naïve to say, monuments should stay as they are because they are part of history. They’re not. History is history, but monuments are present expressions of an attitude toward history. Sure, the statue of Robert E. Lee that was recently taken down in New Orleans was itself a historical artifact, and part of (a certain period of) city history, but the curatorial choice of what to keep is a statement about our current values. To the untrained eye, the statue was not a monument to 1884, when it was put up, but to 1863.

If you really want it to be a monument to 1884, and the intervening time when it has stood, so that the public could appreciate the “history” represented by the erection of a statue of Robert E. Lee (or of Cecil Rhodes), you would need to be able to make them see not only the statue that is present, but also the statue that is absent (of General Longstreet, say, or Olive Schreiner). But an absence can never compete with a presence in its impact on the viewer. So Lee and Rhodes must fall.

More honesty: Migrants and Expats

I was poking around Google for more tabloid reporting on Brexit, and found this headline from The Sun:

Brussels ‘plotted for weeks’ to scupper Theresa May’s deal to secure fate of Brit expats in Europe and EU migrants in the UK

The British in Europe are “expats”, while the Europeans in Britain are migrants. Opinions differ, but to me the word expat is redolent of colonialism. An expat, in British vernacular, resides only temporarily in the benighted country where he labours to construct a simulacrum of civilisation, even if measured by calendar time he has spent most of his life there and never actually returns “home”. A migrant — not even an immigrant, which has a certain nobility to it — is an ethnic and civilisational climber, probably swarthy and reeking of garlic, who can wish nothing more than to leave his degraded origins behind him.

Bearing your cross to Cadbury

The Church of England wants people to know the true meaning of Christian faith, which is, apparently, chocolate eggs. Official church spokesmen have attacked Cadbury’s and the National Trust for conducting “egg hunts” without mentioning Easter. It’s just like when Peter denied his Lord three times, and then left his name off the adverts for his Galilee fish shop.

The chocolate-maker retorts “it clearly used the word Easter on its packaging and in its marketing”, and no greater love hath a man than to use his suffering and death in packaging and marketing. But the Archbishop of York* says that’s not enough:

The Archbishop of York said calling the event the Cadbury Egg Hunt was like “spitting on the grave” of the firm’s Christian founder, John Cadbury… He said if people were to visit Cadbury World in Birmingham “they will discover how Cadbury’s Christian faith influenced his industrial output.”

I think we can all agree that Easter is a time for all Christian believers to reflect on industrial output.

And despite the politically correct marketing gobbledegook of the Cadbury’s representatives — “We invite people from all faiths and none to enjoy our seasonal treats” — it is appropriate to expect that people should think of the Church of England when looking at a hollow shell stuffed with unhealthful, cloyingly sweet goo.

I’m reminded of the stories I heard from East Germany about attempts to rechristen the Christmas tree to Jahresendbaum [end-of-year tree] and the traditional angel on top to Jahresendflügelpuppe [end-of-year winged doll]. Christmas itself was supposed to be called Fest des Friedens [festival of peace]. I’m not sure if these were jokes, or whether they referred to genuine government initiatives — maybe both — but here is one report of these designations actually being used, and even compulsory.

* This statement really should have come from the Archbishop of Cadbury…

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