Monthly Archives: February 2008

The English earth quakes!

I am up late tonight, admittedly.  I have to work from home tomorrow to accommodate a delivery of some IKEA goodies to try and sort out the storage problem in my flat, so I was feeling Friday night-ish and chatting on the videophone (Sing along: Meet George Jetson…) to someone back in the US.  All of the sudden I had the odd sensation that everything was wiggling and not insignificantly.  I had the fortune (and engineering sensibility) to guess that it was a minor earthquake long before I could find any confirmation of this fact online.  In the end, it was confirmed (BBC, USGS) that we had an earthquake here in the middle UK.  Magnitude is small, but boy did I feel it.  I’m not sure I will ever forget that sensation, like being in an amusement park and being moved around against your will.

I’m feeling like the coolness gap with my amazing world-traveling baby sister has taken another hit.   Although in my flat nothing broke or fell, but we all just moved around quite a bit, which was odd, as though the ground was shaking and we were just shaking too.  I was actually quite surprised, given that I live in a brick building and on the third floor (which is the fourth floor in US nomenclature, you take three flights of stairs up to get there), and I recall thinking at the time “how odd that we all seem to just be moving pretty substantial distances but quite smoothly and nothing seems to be actually breaking or cracking or moving off shelves”  It’s remarkable how sensible and yet non-sensical one can be at such moments.  Had I been really prepared, I might have headed towards the interior of my flat instead of sitting along an exterior wall….with a set of bookcases loaded with books immediately to my left.  Had this been a serious earthquake I’d guess many of the books might have moved and perhaps my internet connection might have failed!  I calmly reported to my colleague on the Jetson-phone that I thought we might have just had an earthquake and he did the “yes, dear, perhaps that lovely wine has gone to your head” response.

Note I walked into my favorite wine store the other day and they had California chardonnay (Collage?  ever heard of it), first time I have seen a CA wine in the shops since my arrival n the UK 18 months ago.   I bought two bottles and encouraged the shop-keeper to continue to stock it, funny the things you miss!  In the US I almost always bought new world wine–never California and always Aus or NZ–with the grand exception of Fess Parker.  I miss Fess Parker.

Regardless, I am glad to report on the general health of my many precious items in the UK flat (some of which that have caused some attention by the locals as being quite eccentric) including my Delft, teacup collection and my Wedgewood.  Come to think of it, the Brits should love this stuff, I don’t know what their problem is!

And the Oscar goes to…

“Falling Slowly” from Once!  It won the Oscar for best Original Song.  This was a bit of an adventure; there had been questions about whether it should even be on the ballot, but in the end not only did it get on the ballot but it managed a much-deserved win.  It seems perhaps I am not the only one to have loved this film…


I was going to title this post “Potpourri” since the second definition as “a miscellaneous collection” was appropriate.   However, I then realized that my midwestern sensibilities would be more appropriately represented by the term hotdish, which is also a pretty miscellaneous collection of ingredients thrown together and stirred.  That’s about all I’m capable of right now, no gourmet cooking.  I’ve been so busy that I’ve run out of clean silverware for the second time in the last few months.  I’m right now drinking coffee in which the milk was stirred in with a fork.  Fortunately, today is Saturday and my catch-up day.  This will be a hotdish of work, laundry, dishes, errands, and yes, a few happy minutes blogging.  It’s always clear I’m busy when nothing gets written for a while.

Big news this week was that Heathrow Terminal 4 messed up its baggage handling system and caused chaos.  Or really, that should have been big news but it somehow didn’t seem to rate in the British media.  The story was buried on the “UK” page of the BBC.   I have to guess that that’s because the problem was just a computer glitch, not terrorist activity.  But the way that BA and the BAA chose to handle it was nothing short of bizarre.  I know because I got a first hand account from a friend who got caught in the chaos.  He arrived at Heathrow after having checked in online only to be told he could not check his bag and his options were to re-book for another day or ship the bag.  He chose the latter, but stood in line for more than 90 minutes to get it sorted out and was a very unhappy traveler.  I was aghast for several reasons:

  1. there was no notification in advance.  I’m sorry, when you do online check-in and the baggage system is down, it should tell you this when it asks you how many bags you have to check!
  2. BA/BAA didn’t help with the alternative arrangements.  The 90 minute line was for the excess baggage company kiosk, who did not have enough staff on to handle the problem.
  3. The thing was completely classist.  If you were travelling first or business class, they would still take your checked bags.  The restriction was only for the cheaper tickets.
  4. How is there no back-up system in place?  If a computer goes down, the entire system just stops?  There’s no mechanism for bringing in extra staff and doing a manual, Ryan-air style system?

It makes me scared for the upcoming T5 opening.  One can imagine that this is even more reliant on computer systems, and that in the switchover there is an even greater likelihood of bugs in the system.  Thus perhaps I’m no longer so glad that Northwest has switched the direct Minneapolis flights to Heathrow from Gatwick!

I recently had the opportunity to see the Archbishop of Canterbury speak in person, which was very interesting.  I was very impressed with his speaking style although I certainly did not agree with everything he said.  At least the calls for his head seem to have died down after the recent furor, and he can go back to the business of leading the Anglican church.  He used one of my favorite words that I don’t remember hearing in the states, “natter“.

An interesting article here suggests that Britain is in a loop of despair from which it will be hard to recover.   The fact that the manufacturing infrastructure has more-or-less completely disappeared is a real problem for small businesses trying to make their mark.

The fake British citizenship quiz here (date of 21 Feb.) is priceless.

That’s it, time to get back to the coal face.  Happy Saturday, can you believe Feb. 2008 is almost over?

Random acts of senseless violence

It seems as though it is now the American trend to shoot and kill as many people as possible in shopping areas or in Universities.  It makes me so upset to hear about yet another multiple-fatality shooting at a midwestern institution of higher learning, albeit one that I had not actually heard of prior to this latest tragedy.  On the one hand, I’m glad I’m no longer at a US University, as I spent many years in several of them doing my own degrees (which take about twice as long, start to finish, as these little mini-degrees they give out in the UK; my PhD alone took longer than most complete UK sequences from undergraduate through PhD and that was after an equal number of years of BS and MS training) and then working in one after graduating.

I complained about mall shootings previously,  and I am generally even more upset by University ones.  I don’t really know what to say anymore because it’s not clear that there’s a real pattern in these.  The most recent gunman was “a former graduate student in sociology” which strikes me as odd for a few reasons; the wording implies non-graduation, which could involve motive, but also sociology is the field in which I would expect people to study the motives behind things like University shootings!

Jen noted in the comments for my previous post that most gun violence still involves single acts, but in my experience that also is more likely to involve the shooter knowing the targets.  These shoot ’em up killing sprees have more of an air of randomness about them.  I guess that’s why they seem scarier and also why they therefore capture the public imagination so much more than single shootings.  But I’m really worried, as Jen pointed out, that gun control and random acts of senseless violence do appear to have fallen off the US political radar.  I can’t keep up with the politics as much as if I was in the US, but from this distance I certainly hear about the economy and other financial issues but very little about anything related to guns and shootings.  Regardless, I’m some days actually glad to be here and not there; I walk the streets alone at night in my commute home from work and the thought of attack by a gunman does not cross my mind.  I could not say that about any city in which I lived in the US, no matter the size.  There’s a good reason people take cars everywhere there, and it’s not just laziness.

Ah the temperature

It’s been cold here in the UK, at least cold by my current standards (having physiologically adapted to a location where crocuses are in full bloom in the first week of Feb.) which are not the standards of my native land. It’s been actually cold in Minnesota. In northern Minnesota in the last week it’s been forty below F, which coverts to forty below C–it’s the magical convergence number for those of us that can’t do this in our heads. Regardless of which system of units you use, -40 is cold. It used to be that I’d laugh at that, but I’ve gotten soft living in England. Here in England “cold” means that I cannot walk to work in just a long-sleeved t-shirt and sweater, at least not if I will be returning home after dark.

So I wear two sweaters, the “sweater coat” being something I never had in the US but love here. Not really a jacket proper, just another, longer, sweater with a fashion sensibility that allows for accompanying scarves and mittens. This I love. I have a great winter coat, from Anthropologie, that I pretty much don’t wear much here–although it’s what I brought home on my US trip in December. For the record, my sweater coats here are from my favorite stores in the UK, Monsoon and Next (I’d also put East on that list of favorite UK stores, but only sometimes, they can have great stuff or very matronly stuff. Not unlike M&S where sometimes you find something brilliant and sometimes you age 20 years by just walking in the door and looking around). I almost never wear a proper jacket here in England, and in the summer I almost never dress as I would in a Minnesota summer and wear nothing but shorts and a tank top.  I wear my long-sleeved t-shirts and cardigan sweaters year-round here and think very little about the seasons.

Perhaps amusingly, there’s a strange mental block that I have here, I still, after eighteen months in residence in the UK, where I cannot convert temperature units properly. I have a few benchmarks: 25C is room temperature and thus not unlike 75F (actually more like 77); body temperature is 98.6F or 37C. But I seem to have no concept of other temperatures. I still cook everything at 200C in my oven; I got it into my head that this was a good generic temperature. It’s not bad, it’s 392F which is not far off from the ubiquitous 375F. But it’s not my educated self that thinks this in a rational sense, I essentially have a binary oven due to my own ineptitude. It’s off or it’s on at 200C. I convert the BBC forecast into F but still find that because it does not change much–in stark contrast to the mood-swing temperature cascades in Minnesota–that I don’t really think much about the weather. It’s very un-English to not be obsessed with the weather, but I guess that reveals something about me and my process of getting used to the UK.

Grammy goodness

Grammy award winners from my “Best of 2007 list“:

  • Pop Collaboration With Vocals: “Gone Gone Gone (Done Moved On),” Robert Plant & Alison Krauss.
  • Country Album: “These Days,” Vince Gill.

And a few other winners from the stuff that I have in my iPod:

  • Male R&B Vocal Performance: “Future Baby Mama,” Prince.
  • Jazz Instrumental Album, Individual or Group: “Pilgrimage,” Michael Brecker.
  • Instrumental Composition: “Cerulean Skies,” Maria Schneider, composer (Maria Schneider Orchestra).
  • Male Country Vocal Performance: “Stupid Boy,” Keith Urban.
  • Rap/Sung Collaboration: “Umbrella,” Rihanna Featuring Jay-Z.
  • Pop Vocal Album: “Back to Black,” Amy Winehouse.

I apparently do very poorly with pop music these days… and although I’m a jazz fan in general, I was not loving the Herbie Hancock choice.

The Archbishop’s storm in a teacup

The Archbishop of Canterbury has caused a lot of trouble by saying something sensible.  Meanwhile, the British press (even the BBC) is acting like its normal hysterical tabloid self and turning it into an even bigger storm in a teacup.  Let’s recap.  Rowan Williams commented,

Dr Williams told BBC Radio 4 on Thursday that he believed the adoption of some Sharia law in the UK seemed “unavoidable”.’

And the crazy people started yelling.  Oh yes, and don’t forget that Sharia law is ALREADY allowed as a dispute resolution mechanism outside the normal courts here in the UK:

Under English law, people may devise their own way to settle a dispute in front of an agreed third party as long as both sides agree to the process.

Muslim Sharia courts and Orthodox Jewish courts which already exist in the UK come into this category.’

So why is everyone up in arms?  Why?  Hello???  A few sensible comments have been uttered:

‘Catholic leader Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor said he was “saddened” by the way the archbishop had been misunderstood.

“I think he did raise a point of considerable interest and concern at the moment, namely, the rights of a religious groups within secular state.

“Everyone in Britain must obey the law and therefore the question of how one can be a loyal British citizen and a faithful member of a religious group is a very pertinent question,”‘

But for the most part, most of what is going on here is absolute nonsense.  There are calls for him to resign, statement that he has lost the world’s faith in the Anglican church, etc.  Of course, there was this gem of a quote in the BBC article, from a Lord Carey:

“There can be no exceptions to the laws of our land which have been so painfully honed by the struggle for democracy and human rights.’

That I loved.  Living in the UK as an expat, you are a second class citizen in many ways.  The government is adding to the burden, with things like required registration/ID cards for foreigners, and there’s always my favorite “must ask the home office for permission to marry” bit.  So I’m not sure I’d go with the “finely honed democracy and civil rights” part of that, I think this is where xenophobic Britain has a lot of work to do.  And of course I’m white and American, with a good job and so my experiences here are only the tip of the iceburg compared with what many other immigrants and visitors must face.

Regardless, I urge the British press to stop the fear-mongering, I urge “respected church leaders” to stop yammering about this one.  Sharia law is already here, it is finding a niche within British civil law, and Dr Williams was being quite sensible in noting this and wondering whether it would someday have an expanded role.