Monthly Archives: December 2010

Scrooged

I’ve been struggling for more than a week over my feelings about Christmas. I have not done the big family Christmas back in Minnesota since I moved abroad, and I know my family find this a bit strange. I would argue that someone would have to be insane to fly in or out of Minnesota in December voluntarily, but clearly many people do so that argument does not exactly carry a great deal of weight. It is a big change, because there was a time when I was the big Christmas kid. I loved Christmas well into adulthood and everyone knew it. I had a full service of Christmas dishes for 8 people. I had decorations. I had sweaters. I played the music incessantly. I decorated every available surface.

And then it stopped. I sort of know what happened. Christmas itself played a huge role in the break-up of my marriage. And at the time of that big meltdown, that was the same Christmas, 2000, when I had just dealt with the deaths of 3/4 of my beloved grandparents in a six month time-frame. The magic left that year and I’ve never gotten it back.

I try. I have an annual holiday party for my team at work, and I force myself to put up lights and to decorate a bit and to do a bit of Christmas-themed cooking or baking. I buy new Christmas music on iTunes every year and listen to it a bit. But I just cannot seem to recover the joy and happiness that the whole season used to bring me.

And I don’t try and force it any more. Christmas is mostly about the little ones, and I am resolutely child-free. The big family Christmas back at home would involve many of the offspring of my own generation of cousins, and I really don’t feel much up for that. I quite like being an adult and being at holiday meals that are more like posh dinner parties with nice wine and nice food. (I did cook my traditional from-scratch green bean casserole as usual, from fresh–not canned–green beans and with a home-made mushroom-cream sauce instead of mushroom soup from a can…) I feel mostly at peace with my “Bah, humbug” attitude towards the holidays and my choice to spend them away from Minnesota and largely ignoring the past when I was the Christmas kid. But I did have a good cry this week when I read this blog post about Christmas. At least I realized I was not the only one to be struggling to get through this week.

Life List Update

The news media here on topics of snow and cold keeps insisting that the weather has been rough for now three consecutive winters in the UK. I certainly can agree with this year and last year, but I was having a hard time remembering a big problem the previous year. So I was back in my blog archives reading posts to see if I’d complained much about the weather, and instead I found this post: “My own life list” which had a list of 25 things I wanted to do in life. On reading it, I discovered that I’ve managed to do several of them in the last few years, and now it’s time to update the list. So here’s the original list with deletions and a few new ideas of things to do.

Places I want to visit
1. China April 2010
2. Japan
3. South Korea
4. Prague
5. Russia
6. Melbourne Christmas 2008
7. New Zealand
8. Machu Picchu
9. Great Zimbabwe
10. Morocco

Sporting events I want to see in person
11. 6-nations rugby
12. Aussie rules July 2009
13. World-class cricket Christmas 2008 (again)
14. Long bike ride with mountains (a la the Tour de France or similar)

Self-improvement
15. become fluent in a foreign language
16. learn to use all the buttons on my camera
17. organize all my photographs
18. get promoted
19. buy my own place
20. clean out my old files (hard copy and computer)
21. learn to play the banjo
22. take a full week’s vacation without checking my email
23. write a book (technical) Published recently, though not blogged about in the interests of my pseudo-anonymity.
24. write a book (general audience)
25. get to Friday and have gotten everything done for the week–carry an empty bag home and enjoy the weekend. Done just this week. Had the most worthless sofa web-surfing weekend ever, after having had one heckuva year.

That’s six things off the list, and a few more of the self-improvement ones are in process but not complete. So I get to add 6 new things for the December 2010 version of the list:

Places I want to visit:
1. Australia again. Uluru, Tasmania, Great Ocean Road, I could go on all night.
2. Brazil
3. Norway
Sporting events I want to see in person:
4. English football. Be it premier league or the local club that plays just down the street from my new flat.
Self-improvement:
5. Finish syncing and backing up all my files via dropbox on all computers and external hard drive devices
6. Sort out my application for permanent residency in the UK!

Six things off the list in nearly three years is not bad but not good enough… let’s try for a better performance in the next year or two.

The perfect storm

Last weekend there was a huge snowstorm in my home town of Minneapolis. This was newsworthy mostly for the fact that the Metrodome roof caved in, causing all of my friends in the UK to think of Minneapolis, which they had never really heard of before, as the place where large engineering objects fall apart unexpectedly–first the bridge, now the dome. (If you haven’t seen the snow-dome-collapse viral video on youtube it’s highly recommended…) The Minnesota Vikings had to play a “home” game in Detroit last Monday, and they are playing their final home game of the year tomorrow at the University of Minnesota football stadium, which is open-air and thus had to be shoveled out this week by an army of volunteers.

Yesterday, there was a snowstorm in Britain. NB I did not say a “huge” snowstorm. Where I am we only saw an inch, maybe an inch and a half. The official snow total at Heathrow airport was 9 cm. So a few inches. Minnesota, in contrast, got 17 inches in their storm. At Heathrow, temperatures after the snowfall “plummeted” to -5C/23F. In Minnesota, temperatures really did plummet as windchills got down to -40F (I can’t find the actual low temperature but you get the point). The airport serving the Twin Cities, MSP, actually closed for a few hours for one of the few times in recent memory. British airports mostly all closed down, including Heathrow and Gatwick. But that was yesterday. This morning I woke up to the news that Heathrow was still closed. And in the last few hours it’s become clear that this might take quite some time to sort out. Gatwick is apparently up and running, but Heathrow–the British Airways flagship airport with the brand new 5th Terminal–is not. Hmmm.

As a frequent traveller, and someone who takes frequent trips on BA out of Heathrow, I’ve been watching this with a great deal of interest. As of yesterday it was clear that the actual runway was not the problem, which is in stark contrast to the MSP closure. The Heathrow website has had variations on this message posted all day:

This morning, we listened carefully to the advice of our airside operations team and reluctantly judged that while Heathrow’s northern runway remains clear, the change in temperature overnight led to a significant build up of ice on parking stands around the planes and this requires parts of the airfield to remain closed until it is safe to move planes around.

So let’s recap, the snow cleared out late yesterday afternoon, the runway is clear, but not a single gate at Heathrow is in use or can be used. Heathrow now seems to be saying that delays and cancellations will last well into the week. Apparently 200,000 people were due to go through Heathrow today. Via Twitter I just saw that over a hundred flights have landed at Gatwick and over a hundred flights have departed Gatwick. Wait a minute….

I admit it: I simply find it implausible that they could not have cleared out even a single gate at Heathrow and started to try and move a few flights in and out, assuming what they say about the runway is correct. (And I believe it is: why would Gatwick’s runway be able to function when Heathrow a mere 44 miles away could not?) Something else is going on. And I want to know what it is. Did BAA and/or BA decide that the only way to avoid melee was to make everyone suffer equally by canceling all flights? Do they really not have the equipment and know-how to resume partial operations more than 24 hours after a relatively minor snow storm? I’ve seen excuses flying around all day on Twitter about how the UK does not normally get weather like this and thus is not prepared when it comes, but that sounds a little hollow in my ears since the last major snowstorm here was… two weeks ago. And last year the country was crippled for weeks by snow. You can say what you like about this being unusual, but apparently this is the third year in a row of this type of weather, are the bosses running operations at Heathrow just hoping after each storm that it’s the last for a while, so they don’t have to get the proper equipment for dealing with snow and cold weather? Weather patterns shift. There was a time (Victorian times, to be precise) when you could ice skate on the Thames. Perhaps this IS normal English winter weather and the previous mild years were the anomaly. Perhaps it’s time to stop pretending that the climate here is tropical and to work on snow and winter preparedness, which are clearly things that can be done because of the simple proof-by-existence of airports that function in the winter in places like Minnesota. Yes, that might cost money. But so too must being one of the world’s busiest airports and being closed for several days the week of Christmas.

It will be interesting to watch this play out in the next few days. I have several friends due to travel trans-Atlantically tomorrow, and my fingers are crossed for them. I’ve been watching travel sagas playing out on Twitter today, where a popular move appeared to be taking the Eurostar to Paris for much better odds of taking off from there. Should we take bets on whether they get a reasonable set of Heathrow flights back to normal before Christmas? (I’m guessing not, if they could not do anything at all today.) Do we find BA to be the most beleaguered airline of 2010? (Most definitely: between the cabin crew strikes, the volcano and this…) Do we have serious qualms about a country in which the flagship airport housing the flagship national carrier in a flagship brand-new terminal has such problems with a few inches of snow and temperatures barely below freezing? (Yes, duh.) Do we wonder what’s really going on here? (Super-duh.) Stay tuned for updates in the soap opera saga that is winter in Britain, where apparently after each snowfall clears up, amnesia sets in such that no lessons are learned for the next time the white stuff starts coming out of the sky.

The big Universities vote

Ahhh England. Always willing to get all up in arms over something that would never had occurred to me. Apparently for many years, university tuition was “free” for students. Of course, it was never actually free, as there is a real cost associated with education. But the funds to support universities were all central, meaning that each and every tax-payer contributed to the higher education of each student. Some number of years ago “fees” were introduced, at the meagre sum of about £3k per year. So £9-12k for a 3-4 year degree, and a generous system of student loans that means that you only paid money back once you had a certain income.

Today is the big vote in parliament about increasing the level of these fees for university tuition, to a maximum value of £9k per year. Still a bargain in the context of an American university: that’s £27-36 for a 3-4 year degree, or $42-57k for an entire degree, including at places like Oxford or Cambridge, compared with $50k PER YEAR to attend a comparable US institution, such as Harvard. Even “public” (state) universities in America cost a fortune: at the very non-Harvard state University I attended, this year the numbers are:

In-State Freshmen

Tuition and fees (15 credits/semester): $11,722

Housing (double room/Silver Meal Plan): $7,820

Total for two semesters: $19,542

Non-Michigan Freshmen

Tuition and fees (15 credits/semester): $29,622

Housing (double room/Silver Meal Plan): $7,820

Total for two semesters: $37,442

So again, for an out of state student, a year is almost as much as a complete UK degree.

My biggest beef with the coverage of all of this, and believe me, it’s been a near-constant drone in the background for the last few weeks, is the prevailing idea that “it used to be free and now it’s not.” It was never free. This is just a shift in the burden of who pays, from a distributed model (everyone pays for the few students attending university) to a direct model (those who attend university pay for it). I don’t understand what’s not fair about this. The benefit is direct: yesterday I saw numbers showing a £400k+ lifetime additional income for those with a university degree compared to for those without one: is that not worth paying a few paltry tens of thousands for? Especially when none is demanded up-front and the overall payments don’t start until you have a significant income? Sounds fair to me. But then again, I’m always confused when the welfare state model is supported over the personal responsibility model, because after all–I am American. This is what I’m used to.

Oh I know, I’m risking significant ire for having this opinion. The BBC even seems keen to dump their neutrality and never uses the words “universities fees rise” without the word “controversial” in the same sentence. Maybe it is controversial to some, certainly we’ve seen students protesting and even mini-riots in the last few weeks. But on this one I’m with the much-beleaguered coalition government: someone has to pay for higher education, and I’ve not yet seen a good argument as to why it should not be the people who benefit directly from it. (Now ducking for inevitable flames…)