Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘UK customs’

Clushtering

I was somewhat nonplussed by this article in Slate by journalist John Ore, who gives up drinking alcohol every January and had the dubious inventiveness to coin the name “Drynuary” which, he says, has caught on in some circles. What I found odd was that he seems to be plagued by demands to explain or hide the fact that he’s not drinking alcohol.

Everyone who knows me well already understands that I do this Drynuary madness every year—I’m not shy about it, after all—so their immediate reaction is usually an eye-rolling “Again?!” as they pathetically try to peer-pressure me into doing a shot with them.[…]

My wife, and other pregnant friends, have used certain sleight-of-hand tricks early in a pregnancy before they were ready to reveal that they were expecting. She would order the same drink as I would—say, a glass of red wine with dinner—and wait until mine was almost drained. Subtly, we’d switch glasses when no one was looking, and viola! It looked like she was pounding hers, and I was playing catch up.

It seemed odd to me personally because I rarely drink alcohol — and in Oxford that means frequently turning over my wine glass at dinners and drinking orange juice at social events with students — but I can’t recall that anyone has ever asked me why. Maybe it’s a difference between Britain and the US — more universal alcohol consumption here, but less eagerness to intrude on other people’s privacy — but I never had those questions when I lived in the US either. (Once I recall someone expressing surprise that I did drink something alcoholic, but without asking for an explanation. Perhaps I was just not sufficiently sensitive to the implications.)

I recently came upon this plot of alcohol consumption in the US. About 30% consume no alcohol, and the median is about one drink per week. So if Ore were hanging out with average Americans one would have to think that one in three of his companions would also not be drinking, and a second of three might very well pass on the opportunity as well. It wouldn’t seem worth commenting on. But obviously people don’t hang out with random samples of the population. And he specifically says that in his profession — presumably he means journalism — “business events and travel naturally involve expense accounts and the social lubricant of alcohol.” I’ll refrain from commenting on what this might explain about the state of journalism as a profession, but I’m pretty sure that in my profession alcohol definitely doesn’t get to be counted as a travel expense, and in some cases even the bottle of wine shared at a post-seminar dinner needs to be paid for separately because it’s specifically excluded. (more…)

Who is Santa?

Do adults struggle to distinguish reality from fantasy?

Growing up in New York, and attending a Jewish primary school, I don’t have a very intimate relationship with Santa Claus. Of course, I knew the story — fat man, presents, chimneys, reindeer — from television, and from Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer, but it was more or less of a piece with the tooth fairy, Spiderman, and Mickey Mouse. That is, when you’re 7, you may have a heated discussion over the details of Spiderman’s backstory, and which other characters he knows (he may know Captain America; probably doesn’t know Santa or Mickey Mouse), and what he might do in the future, but that doesn’t mean he’s real, in the sense of inhabiting the same world that we do. Magical beings are something you play make-believe with, tell stories about, act out stories about.

(I remember when I was 3, my brother told me that there used to be a Santa Claus, but he was killed falling off a roof. I guess that did seem plausible to me at the time.)

What I only learned much later that for many (perhaps most?) in the US (and the UK, apparently) Santa Claus (Father Christmas) is a different sort of magical being. Children seem to genuinely believe he exists, and, even more strangely, adults seem to think it important to encourage them in that belief. It’s not just, “Let’s pretend on Christmas that a magical man comes and brings your gifts”, but “No, really. He really does come.” And making significant effort to prevent anyone from revealing the wicked truth. I was reading about a weird spat on American television, about an online article that suggested portraying Santa not as a white man, but as a penguin. The article was criticised on right-wing Fox News, but what I found most interesting was that the television reporter Megyn Kelly apparently began the discussion by announcing “By the way, for all you kids watching at home, Santa just is white but this person is just arguing that maybe we should also have a black Santa.” She was heavily criticised for prejudging the issue of the skin colour of a fictional character, but she was just following the prescribed line of pretending publicly (whenever children might be listening) that Santa Claus is real. Not “real” in the “let’s pretend” way that the child’s mudpie is really a cake. Really really real.

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A squash, not a pumpkin

A NY Times article on the spread of Halloween culture in Britain, includes this explanation

Britain’s adoption of the American holiday is perhaps not a surprise. Halloween was originally an ancient Celtic celebration in Ireland and Scotland, exported to the United States by immigrants. The Irish and Scots point to older Halloween traditions. The jack-o’-lantern was originally a squash, not a pumpkin; apple-bobbing began as a matchmaking ritual; and people wore costumes to ward off evil spirits.

A bit confusing to those of us who know that pumpkins are squash. What they mean to say, I think, is that before the pumpkin and its squashy compatriots migrated to Europe in the backwash of the conquistadores, the jack o’lantern was a turnip, hence the famous quip of Winston Churchill on seeing Stanley Baldwin in his dotage “the light is at last out of that old turnip.”

(I did a Google search to check the provenance of this quote. Amusingly, two web sites that mention it give diametrically opposed contexts. The website winstonchurchill.org cites a book Irrepressible Churchill for placing the anecdote as a devastating barb in the Commons smoking room in 1937, shortly after the end of Baldwin’s active political career. Another website cites no source for making it a “fond” remark after Baldwin’s death, in 1947.)

On foot and cycle in Berkeley and Oxford

Big-ChanningMLK3

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.

In America everyone lives like royalty

Twice as well, actually, at least when giving birth. According to this article, the hyperluxury private hospital wing where the DoC gave birth to our new royal master, may have cost as much as £10,000, or $15,000. The average American woman gets twice as good a birth experience, worth $30,000 according to the bill, which must be a pretty goddamned awesome hospital suite. And then, because this is such an amazingly great country, she gets the price discounted so that only $18,000 has to be paid, on average. What a deal! It’s no wonder that Americans refuse to be reduced to the kinds of primitive, parsimonious conditions that even the future queen is subjected to in England.

Kate’s lucky she got out of there before they set the leeches on her.

Genetics and Democracy in the United Kingdom

What is the attraction of monarchy? According to the BBC headline “Kate Middleton in labour as world waits”. Really? The world? What exactly are they holding off on? Doesn’t the world have important things to do? (On the other hand, I’ve just discovered that The Guardian now has an alternative “republican” versions of its web site, with a report on rock star Morrissey in place of the princess’s labour pains. Just click to toggle.)

In honour of the newly announced maturation of the royal zygote into an air-breathing royal neonate — and its generous decision to head off a constitutional crisis by choosing to make do with only half its potential complement of X chromosomes — who is already predestined to rule over Britain, even while he is likely to be occupied less with affairs of state in the near future than with spitting up curdled royal milk from HRH the DoC’s royal mammary glands, I am reposting my proposal from two years ago, occasioned by the royal wedding. The proposal has been unaccountably ignored, despite its prospects for improving the democratic legitimacy of the monarchy. I can only infer that the neglect is due to a basic discomfort among the British elite with the innovations of modern science (unlike the innovations in, say, tax accounting, of which they tend to be avidly fond).

crowned_egg

With the impending union of male and female royalty breeders, there has been increasing tendency to cite Thomas Paine’s evergreen mockery:

The idea of hereditary legislators is as inconsistent as that of hereditary judges or hereditary juries; and as absurd as an hereditary mathematician, or an hereditary wise man; and as ridiculous as an hereditary poet-laureate.

(Paine never got to see the number of statistician children filling posts in some of today’s leading statistics departments, but the point is, in principle, well taken.) Seen as the monarchical version of an election — the keystone of the procedure by which a legitimate head of state is created — a Royal wedding certainly feels a trifle arbitrary. But this opposition to monarchy, though it wears the finery of modernity, has failed to keep up with advancing technology. True, it might formerly have been the case that the hereditary principle made the choice of head of state no different from a lottery (for which, see this suggestion). It seems impossible to unite the hereditary principle with the increasingly popular superstition that rulers should be selected by some non-random process, and that hoi polloi should have something to say about it. But now the following arrangements have been announced by the Palace (a particularly sodden corner of the palace wine cellar, to be precise)*:

  1. Following the wedding, a selection of at least 5 royal spermatozoa** will be extracted and fully sequenced by a specially selected team at the Royal Institution for Genetics Pedigree Studies. The secret method (which, in a nod to popular taste, does use beer as a reagent) has been designed to be maximally non-destructive.
  2. The sequences will published on the website princesperm.gov.uk. The public will have 5 days to register and vote for the one that they prefer be invited to form their new ruler.
  3. The elected sperm will be invited in the first instance to inseminate the royal egg. Should it fail in its attempt, the second-place sperm will be sent in. In the case of a repeat failure, a national referendum will be held to determine the correct voting procedure.

* It may be argued that this election proposal, being purely fictional and even farcical, has no bearing on the justification or not of the British monarchy. A dangerous argument indeed, for those who would dispense with fiction and farce would leave central pillars of the British constitutional order bereft of all foundation.

** Why are the future queen’s eggs not also sequenced? Choice of the ovum is a royal prerogative, cf.  Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, v. 5, section 113 (Oxford 1765-1769).

purim_royal_wedding

British riots

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The well-known history of enclosure riots in 16th and 17th century England fascinates above all for their orderliness. Describing one riot in early Jacobean Bedfordshire, V. Magagna writes “The assembly that plotted the riot met in the church[…] The leader of the riot was the village constable.”

I thought of this when I read the following on the BBC web site, on the third day of riots and looting throughout London:

“Full scale looting going on at Clarence convenience store right by the burning car on clarence road. “One by one” shouts one man as people crowd round to get into the shop, whose entrance has been smashed in. Women calling: can you get me a magazine? Other people asking for alcohol.”

One by one. That’s British looting for you. They’ll pillage, and they’ll rampage, and they’ll kill, but they’ll queue up in an orderly fashion to do it… particularly if they have hopes of being rewarded with alcohol.

“Petitioning implies a belief in a natural order of society protecting the interests of rich and poor alike, which the authorities can be expected to enforce once the misdeeds of individuals are brought to their notice. Even riot can be seen in this light, for the intention was usually to compell authority to maintain a traditional order, rather than to overturn it.” Underdown, 1985, p. 118

london looting

Genetics and Democracy in the United Kingdom

Solving the democracy deficit through modern science

 

crowned_egg

With the impending union of male and female royalty breeders, there has been increasing tendency to cite Thomas Paine’s evergreen mockery: “the idea of hereditary legislators is as inconsistent as that of hereditary judges or hereditary juries; and as absurd as an hereditary mathematician, or an hereditary wise man; and as ridiculous as an hereditary poet-laureate.” (Paine never got to see the number of mathematician children filling the posts in most of today’s leading mathematics departments, but the point is well taken.) Seen as the monarchical version of an election — the keystone of the procedure by which a legitimate head of state is created — a Royal wedding certainly feels a trifle arbitrary. But this opposition to monarchy, though it wears the finery of modernity, has failed to keep up with advancing technology. True, it might formerly have been the case that the hereditary principle made the choice of head of state no different from a lottery (for which, see this suggestion). It seems impossible to unite the hereditary principle with the increasingly popular beliefs that rulers should be selected by some non-random process, and that hoi polloi should have something to say about it. But now the following arrangements have been announced by the Palace (a particularly sodden corner of the palace wine cellar, to be precise)*:

  1. Following the wedding, a selection of at least 5 royal spermatozoa** will be extracted and fully sequenced by a specially selected team at the Royal Institution for Genetics Pedigree Studies. The secret method (which, in a nod to popular taste, does use beer as a reagent) has been designed to be maximally non-destructive.
  2. The sequences will published on the website princesperm.gov.uk. The public will have 5 days to register and vote for the one that they prefer be invited to form their new ruler.
  3. The elected sperm will invited in the first instance to inseminate the royal egg. Should it fail in its attempt, the second-place sperm will be sent in. In the case of a repeat failure, a national referendum will be held to determine the correct voting procedure.

* It may be argued that this election proposal, being purely fictional and even farcical, has no bearing on the justification or not of the British monarchy. A dangerous argument indeed, for those who would dispense with fiction and farce would leave central pillars of the British constitutional order bereft of all foundation.

** Why are the future queen’s eggs not also sequenced? Choice of the ovum is a royal prerogative, cf.  Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, v. 5, section 113 (Oxford 1765-1769).

purim_royal_wedding

Missing Canada

I was recently in Montreal for a conference, and briefly in Kingston and Toronto. Registering at the conference (actually, filling out a receipt when buying a Canadian Mathematical Society t-shirt) a secretary wanted basic address information. She looked at my conference name-badge, and asked, “Oxford… Is that in Ontario?” (To be fair, it was the France-Canada Mathematical Congress, so it was not unreasonable for her to assume that anyone apparently not French was probably Canadian, and the best guess for an English-sounding place-name is Ontario. In fact, there is an Oxford, Ontario, though it is actually a county — or, more precisely, a regional municipality — and does not, to my knowledge, have a university.) What followed, though, was typically Canadian. “No, UK.” “Oh, you came all the way from the UK? Welcome to Canada!” The greeting seemed touchingly enthusiastic and heartfelt. It was like someone saying, “So glad you could drop by. Sorry, the place is a mess, but make yourself at home.” It’s a sense I’ve often had in Canada, of an unpretentious pride in their humble home; it’s really not much, but we hope you’ll enjoy it. I really enjoyed the three Canada Day celebrations (July 1, naturally — British imperial order ensured that any important events would happen January 1 or July 1, and you’d be crazy trying to make anything happen in Canada in January) that I attended — in Vancouver, Kingston, and Ottawa. The tone was remarkably inclusive and I felt none of the crazy world-dominating fervor of US patriotism, or the weirdly forced exceptionalism of British national pride, expressing itself in such atavistic ideas as the recent government report on citizenship, which proposed encouraging school children to swear a formal loyalty oath to the Queen. (What is this monarchy thing about, anyway? I’ve never seen people more touchy than the British about someone putting on airs, or acting like he’s better than someone else; and yet, they’re content to let their country be formally ruled by someone whose qualification for the post is that her great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather was Elector of Hanover (or something like that). Of course, the Canadians also have Queen Elizabeth on their money and stamps, but they keep her at arm’s length through the Governor General.) It is perfectly possible to be proud of being Canadian, without hating other people for being something else. The US finds its existence threatened by the mere existence of people in the world who neither are nor aspire to be American, and in this struggle the UK sees its proper role to be the valet de bourreau.

Last fall I received a letter from our Toronto lawyer, informing me that our permanent residency application in Canada had been approved. It was not only the accompanying bill for $4000 that left me feeling slightly sad, but also the sense of a missed opportunity. Of course (!) I miss the Kingston winter, the bracing -20°C mornings, tramping through the snow, and skating with Chaya in the park, or the Market Square. (I noticed here a day care mentioning in its brochure that the children would go outside every day, unless the temperature were below 0°C. You’d never leave the building for months with that policy in Kingston!) I loved Chaya’s Waldorf school in Kingston, and am struggling to come to terms with the state church here. But there was something more fundamentally attractive about Canada and the idea of Canadianness. I have always cherished my status as an outsider to any group I may be suspected of belonging to, but I think I could have enjoyed getting to be a Canadian. What’s more, it seemed even vaguely possible, whereas regardless of good intentions, oaths sweared and formal conferral of citizenship it seems absurd to imagine becoming British. I don’t think there is any country more welcoming of foreigners than Canada. (Well-off and well-educated foreigners, to be sure, but then that is my experience.) Just compare the immigration authority home pages: Immigration and Citizenship Canada is full of smiling faces and links to promotional information like “Coming to Canada as an immigrant is an exciting opportunity” and “Canadians are proud to hold one of the most prized citizenships in the world. Every year about 150,000 people become new citizens of Canada.”  The grim UK Border Agency page, on the other hand, leads with the declaration “The UK Border Agency is responsible for securing the United Kingdom borders and controlling migration in the United Kingdom.” On this particular day (15 July) it prominently features the news flash that “Foreign nationals wishing to become British citizens will have to earn the right to stay, the Government announced today. The tough new approach will require all migrants to speak English and obey the law if they want to gain citizenship and stay permanently in Britain.” The presumption being, of course, that migrants are unlikely either to learn English or to obey the law. (This is followed by somewhat defensive sounding citations of public opinion polls which supposedly show the populace supporting this “tough” approach — or some tough approach, anyway.) The underlying legal regimes may be quite similar, but there’s no mistaking the difference in attitude, between the Canadian “Please consider joining us. I hope we can use your skills” and the British “We may desperately need your skills, so please come, but fuck you anyway.” (For specifics, see my comments on Polish nurses and maternity ward overcrowding here.)

canada-map UK map

The established church

One of the most seemingly archaic features of modern Britain — and the one that outsiders may be least prepared for — is the “established church”.  Formal secularism takes many forms, in the US, Canada, France, Turkey; but one does get used to thinking of religion as no proper business of the state. Not in the UK, where the Queen is Defender of the Faith, and the Prime Minister had to wait until he had left office before he could comfortably change his religious affiliation. The highest position in society that anyone can aspire to who does not happen to be the first-born of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha — I mean, the House of Windsor — is to marry the first-born of this famous princely family, and a Catholic maiden, however virginal, may not aspire to this august status. (My impression is that current law currently restricts the spousal position to members of one sex as well, and the constitutional status of a same-sex civil partner of the heir to the throne is, so far as I can tell, still unresolved.) Apparently Jews, Muslims, and Wiccans are not formally excluded, though the tabloid press might raise a fuss if the next queen hosted witches’ sabbaths on a regular basis at Buckingham Palace. Balmoral might be another matter…

Punch cartoon: Shows the struggle between Anglicans and Dissenters for control over education, while the needs of the children are ignored.

The most practical consequence of this establishment is that a large fraction of the state-funded schools (called “maintained schools”) are actually subsidiaries of the Church of England. The state provides most of the money, and the church gets impressionable children to proselytise at will. In some parts of the country these schools are selective and people get themselves and/or their children baptised to get them in; in Oxford, the C of E snapped up most of the good school sites long ago, and we’d have to travel far from home to find a non-church primary school. Not that that would do any good, given that daily Christian worship is required by law in all state schools. (To be precise, the communal worship must be “mainly of a broadly Christian character”, “which accord a special status to Jesus Christ”) There are literally no secular state-funded schools in the UK. You can worship whatever you want, as long as you do it in school, rather than in, say, a church or other such inappropriate institution.

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