Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘UK society’

NHS hit by unforeseen Earth tilt

A critical government service has to be prepared for all foreseeable contingencies. But sometimes the unpredictable occurs, and bureaucrats can fall into panic.

A tilt in the Earth’s axis that no one could have foreseen is apparently causing daylight to grow shorter in northern latitudes and temperatures to drop, leading to an increase in communicable diseases and accidents that threatens to overwhelm NHS emergency services. Or, in other words,

Disclosure of NHS England’s attempt to impose a detailed series of duties on hospitals comes amid claims by senior insiders that its leadership is in a state of panic over winter.

The past isn’t even past

I was slightly perplexed by this statement by the PM’s spokesman about the defense minister’s misbehaviour:

He did say the prime minister believed her defence secretary was right to say sorry for repeatedly touching the knee of Julia Hartley-Brewer, a journalist, during a dinner. “He has been clear he apologised for something that took place in the past – it is right that he apologised in relation to that incident,” the spokesman said.

He added that the prime minister did not approve of Fallon’s behaviour towards Hartley-Brewer in 2002 but said the case was in the past and would not be taken further.

I’m wondering, what is the role of the repeated phrase “in the past”? There seems to be an attempt to excuse the behaviour, to say it’s not worthy of punishment, because of its pastness. How far would this go? “Your honour, I would like the court to consider that the murder of which my client is accused (and for which he has apologised) took place in the past, and should not be taken further.”

Update: Fallon has resigned. Apparently some of his inappropriate behaviour was not quite so distantly past…

Polar-bear academics

I have on occasions compared my position, as a statistics professor in Oxford, to that of one of those forlorn polar bears photographed on shrinking ice floes as the Arctic melts around them. In my immediate neighbourhood the ice is still ice: my job looks like the academic profession that I imagined when I started training for it three decades ago. But if you go just a little distance away, either to other UK universities, or even within Oxford to some other disciplines, you see something that looks like a freakish hybrid of the worst features of academia and corporations. I just came upon this disturbing account of the phenomenon by Michael Edwards, a lecturer in music in Edinburgh, now moving to Germany:

Now that I’m constantly being monitored and spending increasing amounts of time justifying what I do instead of doing it, I, like a lot of my colleagues, am taking all of my leave and I’m not answering emails while I’m away. My perception is that, because of the increasingly unattractive working environment, academics are correspondingly increasingly unlikely to put in all of the extra hours organising talks, concerts, and other activities that, let’s be honest, make universities so attractive in the first place, not only for staff and students but for the wider community too. All in all, the good will which holds together UK universities is being stretched beyond breaking point.

I realise that some of these trends are universal, but I believe that Britain is, at least in this pathological respect, exceptional. Seen from the outside, the UK has first-class universities that are the envy of the world, and a mostly hapless industry and business sectors (excepting the finance industry, with its world-leading money-laundering and tax-evasion facilities). A healthy reaction might be to consider what lessons British business could learn from the successful universities. A neurotic nation trapped in pathological mourning for its lost empire instead tries to destroy the universities by forcing them to be more like British business.

“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.

NHS wants you! (to spread the varicella virus)

I’ve long wondered why children in Britain generally don’t get the chickenpox vaccine. In an article describing a move by drugstores to offer the vaccine for a substantial fee, the BBC quotes the NHS:

The NHS said a chickenpox vaccine is not offered as part of routine immunisations as it would leave unvaccinated children more susceptible to contracting the virus as an adult.

There could also be a significant increase in shingles cases as being exposed to infected children boosts immunity to this.

This is like the cracked-mirror reflection of the usual herd-immunity argument for why, even if you don’t want vaccines for yourself or your children, you have a civic obligation to make yourself immune to avoid transmitting the virus to others. Here they say that children have a duty to suffer with an unpleasant disease, so that they can serve as walking virus reservoirs that will more efficiently infect other children, and boost the immunity of adults.

I suppose there’s a cost-benefit analysis somewhere that shows this is the cheapest approach. And I’d bet that the cost of children’s discomfort is set at zero.

Slippery slope

At the Kepier School, a secondary school in North England, it is reported that children were being sent home on the first day of school if their trousers were not purchased (at inflated prices) from a particular supplier. The teachers walked around with colour swatches, checking that they were exactly the right shade of grey. Lest you think this was merely an irrelevant distraction from education — if not actually evidence of a corrupt kickback — there was this explanation from the headteacher:

If you have different types of trousers it leads on to different types of shoes, different types of shirts, etc.

“Etc.” indeed. Once they have different shirts, it’s just a short step to different thoughts, and then it’s straight downhill to heroin addiction and human sacrifice in the parking lot.

Perhaps this is why the school inspectorate Ofsted wrote in their report on the school in October 2013

leaders and managers do not always focus their actions where they are most needed and do not check the impact on students’ achievement.

The true face of capitalism

Modern capitalism started with the railways. And today:

A mother has launched an appeal to try to find a generous stranger who bought her stranded daughter an £85 train ticket home.

India Ballancore, 16, missed her return train to Bristol from Stockport, Greater Manchester, on Sunday.

Her mother Andrea said the stranger stepped in and paid for a new fare after India was told her ticket was not valid for the next service.

Of course, the only reason why she needed this kindness from a generous stranger is that Cross Country Rail employees couldn’t resist the opportunity to profiteer off a vulnerable girl who had already paid for a ticket, but had missed her train.

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…)

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!”

 

Das ist bei uns nicht möglich

I happen to have just noticed that there is a new German edition of Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here. I wonder what motivated it?

I was struck again, in reading Amos Oz’s account of his childhood and family history, how his aunt told of welcoming the prospect of German conquest of her Lithuanian homeland: The Germans wouldn’t tolerate the sort of barbaric chaos that the Jews were subject to. The Germans might be antisemitic, but they had always proved themselves to be civilised and orderly.

Too many people lazily learn the wrong lesson from the inability of Jews and others to recognise the full dimensions of the Nazi menace. The problem, they suggest, often in cheap jokes, is the failure to recognise the profound taint of the German soul. The real lesson should be, it seems to me, you never can tell. Past performance is no guarantee of future results, as they like to say in finance. The Germans descended into the most horrible racist violence in the 1930s and 1940s. Their children and grandchildren have built one of the most securely democratic and humane nations in the world. Britain pioneered annihilationist antisemitism in the Middle Ages, then moved on to a more benign view of Jews as being almost white people, potential allies in subjugating the genuinely inferior races.

Is there anything in the British soul that will make them resist when the EU offends their amour propre and the Daily Mail is baying for mass expulsions? The question answers itself. 

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