Friday, September 26, 2014

Thank you Alex Salmond

In my heart, I was glad Scotland voted to stick with us
For a long time I wasn’t sure how I felt. Tempted by change for its own sake.  Excited by the prospect of something new. Romantic about a resurgent England.
But Scotland has voted to stay. We owe it to Scotland to build a union worthy of their continued participation – and we owe it to ourselves too.
English votes for English MPs at Westminster does not represent real change. It is a subset of the Westminster elite (English MPs) holding its power to its chest in the closest solution to the status quo that remains tenable.
An English assembly answers a nationalistic calling, a desire for a romanticised England of Jerusalem etc. I love England and many of the ideas, romantic and practical, associated with it. But its status as a historic, constituent nation of the United Kingdom does not make it an appropriate political solution to the West Lothian Question.
Inasmuch as there is a satisfactory answer to the problem of our over-centralised, unbalanced state, it is regionalism. And if there is to be any English body – unlikely given the public disregard for politicians and their institutions – it should be based far from Westminster. Nottingham or York, perhaps.
We live in exciting times. There is now an opportunity to remake our union, to forge a new constitutional settlement. With imagination and resolve, this extends not only to political processes but the practical change on the ground they are designed to bring about. Not only a remaking of the British state, but a remodelling of society. Could this now be the time for rediscovering the spirit of 1945.
As Alex Salmond said, this is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Don’t let's squander it.
So thank you Alex.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

A historic commitment by society

Brighton’s most historic of buildings was witness in the early hours of Saturday morning to a truly momentous event, which will be remembered not only for its significance for the gay community but for the whole of society.

The first same-sex weddings mean that, with a few exceptions such as direct family, the state no longer dictates who an individual can marry. It is now more of a witness to a declaration between individuals than a jealous authority conferring rights.

The relationship between church, state and society has been changed too, with the former’s right to claim tenure over marriage further reduced. While religious groups retain the right to their own ceremonies and traditions within the law, they do not have a veto over the rest of society. As the established church with a unique relationship to the state, the Church of England remains the only institution other than the state itself with the right to legally marry people. It is questionable how long that special status can last.

From now on, marriage is a public declaration of love by the parties concerned and of their intent for their chosen spouse to be recognised as next of kin.

We are still getting used to the idea of husband and husband or wife and wife, but people and their languages are remarkably adaptable. It may be that a unisex terminology evolves, as has been the trend for other roles in recent years. It is not so long ago that head teacher, actor (for a woman), chairperson or life partner sounded contrived. Perhaps spouse would fit the bill.

That is for the future to dictate, hopefully in a reasonably organic, evolutionary manner. This weekend however has been a revolutionary one in which the state and society have recognised the right of the individual to choose who to marry. The oft-conflicting values of liberty and equality go together here hand in hand.

For today, we should feel proud of the fact that we have collectively declared our intention to live in a more inclusive, tolerant and better society.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Indefinite Leave to Remain.

Rosey's been here for approaching two years and it's time to take the next step on our journey towards normalisation. Tomorrow we go to the UK Border Agency centre at East Croydon to apply for her Indefinite Leave to Remain - in other words, permanent residency. It's taken a lot of form filling, collecting documents such as bank statements and other official letters, not to mention a hefty fee. I'm only thankful that we got in before the rule changes that would have made it more expensive and the criteria more difficult to meet.

Other than having the right to be here indefinitely without worrying about whether the government thinks we are able to support ourselves "without recourse to public funds", this means that Rosey can now live off benefits provided by the taxes of "hard working families" as we all know immigrants are wont to do. She will also be able to bleed our education system dry by only paying home students' rates.

The process itself should be quite simple. We've opted to pay the extra £500 for the face to face interview and same day decision as things are wont to get lost in the post or stuck at the bottom of a bureaucrat's in tray. This means that we go to the UKBA office, no doubt go through everything in triplicate, answer some probing questions worthy of an outstanding investigative journalist and then leave with a yes or no answer.

By this time tomorrow we will know whether we can move on, or rapidly have to come up with a Plan B - which I have no conception of at this time.

Here goes.

Monday, December 9, 2013

It's about time.

I've been thinking about time. Not in the Einsteinian sense, but in the human sense, the wristwatch sense.

What is it for, why do we use it?

The answer is fairly straightforward. Time of day is a tool. We use it to coordinate with the world, physical and social. In other words, to help us do things at the right time either in relation to the sun, moon, tides etc, or in relation to other people. And the tool we use for a given task changes over time, depending on the way we live our lives and relate to the world and each other.

Once upon a time (no pun intended), we all lived our daily lives according to the sun. Time related to sunrise, noon and sunset and these depended on where you were on the planet. We were in touch with our environment. Society and technology developed. Division of labour meant that not everyone was ploughing a furrow or herding sheep and so not everyone was so closely wedded to the sun. As our working lives (and it was mostly work) became less wedded to daylight, so did our measurement of time. We went from using sundials to clockwork. Of course we still set our clocks locally, using the sun as reference. Consequently, noon in Bristol happened about 10 minutes after noon in London. It was only with the combination of of really accurate timepieces, the coming of the railways and the telegraph that time was standardised across a country in the 1840s and 50s, using what was called Railway Time.

During the mid 19th Century, local solar time persisted and some clocks displayed both the local time and GMT, which did not become the official legally recognised time until 1880. The idea of using more than one time was not uncommon in this period. World trade, communication and transport demanded mutually comprehensible time references. This could be achieved either by knowing what time zone you were referring to and doing the maths, or by reference to a universal standard time. Italian mathematician Quirico Filopanti proposed such a universal time to be used alongside local time zones for astronomy and telegraphy. Such a universal time would provide a point of reference for global events and make it impossible for an event to end before it's begun simply by crossing the international dateline. In the 19th Century, globalisation had not yet proceeded to the point where it was really useful and the technology was probably not refined enough to keep everyone on track. It's worth noting that India and China, both vast countries crossing several time zones, only use a single centralised time.

Now, we have the internet, global positioning, vast processing power and friends and business partners all around the world. Many of us work from home at least some of the time and  may never meet the people we do business with. So in a world in which universal time is relevant and possible, what of local time? Here's the really interesting part. Local time can now be liberated from the time zone, artificially shackling it to its capital city. Micro time zones, kept pace of by the device in your pocket, on your Google Glasses or in a chip in your head; can allow you to live much more in tune with your neighbours and your world. Don't worry about how you'll work things out. Your gadget will do the work. All you need to know is that you want to meet your friend in Brighton at 1400. If that means 1408 where you're travelling from and 1356 where she's coming from, that's no problem. Your journey time, transport connections and everything else will be taken care of.

Why, seems the obvious question. Universal time has a fairly obvious practical use. The year 2014 will only have one start - a shame for those who can only imagine fireworks as the way to herald the exact start of the new year but hardly a deal breaker. Coordinating global communication will be easier. And referencing events of global significance will be clearer. As for the local times, the answer is that given our information technology capability, they are the flipside of universal time. Zones shackled to 19th Century industrial nation states are irrelevant in a global society, but noon where you are retains a meaning. Children can walk to school at the most practical and safe time all year round, across the country. No need for the sudden loss of an hour's daylight in the autumn.

The most important thing to remember here is that the hours on our watches are human inventions and we already work with numerous definitions of time in parallel - based on the sun, the stars, the day, the year or caesium 133. Are measurement and use of time has changed in the past and it is likely to again. The capability to measure time and place accurately and the need to coordinate globally mean that change is likely again.
What does a writer do for a living. Prior to writing the masterpiece, that is. Content marketing seems to be the answer and it's a subject I'm learning more about, some of it good. The most noticeable thing I've noticed is that a lot of content websites are not designed to be read by a human being, but exist either to attract the attention of Google to other sites, where the real selling is going on. At this point, I should be including a link to a tenuously connected website - selling antique typewriters perhaps.

So I've joined a couple of freelancing websites. They pay about a penny a word, which, bearing in mind that you can't just pick up jobs one after the other, means knocking off a 1000 word piece in an hour to make it worthwhile, in terms of the money that is. Another site has jobs of as little as 100 words - at the same rate. It seems to me that once you know what you're doing you may be able to bang them out without much thought - but it has to be said getting my head around what a website selling car tyres wants to the extent that I can write 250 words, all for £2.50, is not an attractive prospect. Currently I can't imagine it taking less than an hour to work out what I was going to write, check against their style, purpose and audience and then write it.

One of the jobs I came across was an invitation to write a blog post on how much money to give your girlfriend's parents for Chinese New Year. I have some experience of this. So I thought I would put myself to the test, see if I could bang it out in half an hour and then see if they accepted my offer - this is in reverse to the normal order of things but my main aim was to see if I could quickly write something suitable, at least on a subject I knew something about. This one at least didn't have to be particularly search engine optimised or contain links to manufacturers of red envelopes!

So, I wrote the post in about half an hour, which would have been viable. Sadly, the customer chose another offer, but, rather than waste it, here it is, a short piece for the uninitiated on how to play red envelope roulette.

How much money should you give your girlfriend's parents for Chinese New Year?

Chinese New Year is approaching for the first time since you got together with your girlfriend, or perhaps the first time since she made the big step of telling her parents about you – make no mistake, telling the parents about a suitor, particularly a foreign one, is a significant milestone in a relationship. Your girlfriend will of course be visiting her family, assuming she has already left home and you may even be accompanying her. Naturally, you want to make a good impression, aware of how important this is, particularly given your status as an outsider. And so the issue of hong bao (red envelopes) arises.

Initially, particularly if you have not been in China for long, you may have difficulty with the idea of giving envelopes stuffed full of money to family or friends. To your mind, gifts are more personal and hard cash seems rather mercenary – as if you’re saying exactly how much they’re worth. People do give money as a gift in the west but it is often in the form of tokens and more likely to be for children. Lets face it, a gift of money says to you “I really couldn’t think of what to get you and I didn’t want to risk getting it wrong”.

This is something you just have to get over! You are not going to single-handedly change Chinese culture and as you come to a deeper understanding of it, you will see that this practice is not so strange or mercenary. Bear in mind that giving money is not unheard of in European culture – for example pinning money to the bride’s dress in Italy. Nevertheless, you know you are going to be judged on how much you give and upon whether you get the figure right, avoiding inauspicious numbers. Get it right and you may well have smoothed the way to a fruitful relationship with those who may one day become your in-laws. And what goes around comes around – strong family relationships can be very helpful in Chinese society, particularly in terms of getting started out in married life and providing childcare.

Fortunately, you have one asset up your sleeve – your girlfriend. You love her. You trust her. She understands the culture. The simple answer is, you should let her decide. She knows best. Really. Talk to her about it, tell her how you feel about it and discuss what you can afford – there may be alternative figures depending on how much you have spare. But do not skimp. There really is no point and it will only get you into trouble. The likelihood is that you are well paid compared to most local people and even if you are short of money at the moment, as far as they’re concerned you should be well off. The fact is, this is more important than a couple of nights out with your mates as you enjoy ten days off work. You should listen to her while expecting her to listen to you too. And then do what you’re told.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Still here, still there.

The recovering Taiwanoholic has not yet recovered.

I had a bit of a wobble today when I met some Taiwanese students at the language school I work at. After saying that I'd lived in their city for 9 years, then telling them that I used to live on Sanchong night market where the smell of stinky dofu filled the air every night, I found myself welling up and having to withdraw in order to maintain my teacherly dignity.

Recovery is an act in progress.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Lost and found in cyberspace.

I had a bit of a techno-nightmare last night. After spending several hours writing the previous post, I hit "Publish". Then, with an idea in my head, I set about starting another post - who knows whether it will materialise now. The previous post had been open in more than one tab in Firefox, in draft form. I closed the one in which I'd completed it and switched to the other tab, which was presumably no longer necessary. I cut the text from the input box leaving it apparently a pristine input page and started putting down some ideas. It was time for bed by this time, so with a few notes written, I hit save and returned to the front page to admire my work. The post that I'd seen only minutes previously had gone, replaced by my new notes. I was fairly pleased with my post and it had taken several hours over three days to write, it couldn't be repeated.

Frantically, I searched for some kind of archive on Blogger but found that my post had been erased from history. Not quite panicking yet, I thought "Google caches everything". There's no getting away from it, when you put something online it's there forever. My post had only been online for a couple of minutes though, so this would test that hypothesis.

I could remember the title and certain snippets of the text so I googled on or other of them. I must admit, I felt pretty pleased with myself when Google graciously threw up a hit. Great. Follow the link and I'll get a nice copy of the page from which to rebuild the original.

"The page you requested no longer exists"


But it existed somewhere even though Google didn't seem to be offering me the option of a cached version. So I copied and pasted the end of the excerpt presented by the search engine into the search pane to see what I'd get. I got slightly more of the same sentence. I was encouraged. It must all be out there, but it was going to take time.

Slowly, bit by bit, I added different search terms and keywords, and bolted sentences and paragraphs together like a jigsaw puzzle. By running directly from one sentence to the next, within quotes, I could be sure that I'd got the order right and eventually I had what I think is the whole original text, possibly with one sentence missing. I'm sorry, you'll have to put up with that.

All in, it took me about two and a half hours to recover the 800 word document. Frustrating since it must all be out there somewhere in one piece, but my priority was to get it back quickly in case it could somehow disappear entirely, not to investigate further ways of working the web.

So, I worked for that post and didn't get to bed until 2.30am. But I exercised my problem solving brain to get it back which I have to admit I quite enjoyed. So read it, and hopefully appreciate it.

My journey, diverted.

Spring is well and truly here and it is good. It is my first real spring in 10 years. Nothing compares to an English spring, certainly nothing in the tropics where temperature variations are less extreme and the trees hold their leaves year round. The sight of bright green leaves fresh from their buds, unsullied by life's travails never fails to inspire me, as does ancient woodland carpeted with bluebells for a few short weeks in April and May. Visiting as I did in the summers, I had not seen daffodils or bluebells in ten years.

Spring is not the only thing that is here. Rosey is here now too. For the first three weeks she was here, the weather was consistently warm and sunny - with the occasional fog to be burnt off in the morning. So England chose to give her an unrealistic first impression. This has been put right since, at least as far as temperature is concerned, but there have still been few April showers. I hope the weather holds out and gives us a glorious summer, whatever the effect on the lawns and gardens of England.

I cycled home from Shoreham today, taking the Old Shoreham Road around the back of Portslade and Hove to where Dyke Road intersects the bypass. There, I had the choice of whether to go down Mill Road and come straight home up the A23, or to take a longer route via Saddlescombe and Poynings. It's an area that has significant meaning for me, having spent a lot of my formative years building camps in the woods, drinking illicit beers and lighting fires on which we exploded full cans of WD40 (highly flammable aerosol lubricant) and second world war era machine gun bullets we'd found in The Dyke, which was then a military firing range. I occasionally return there, not just because of its personal meaning, but because it is an area of outstanding natural beauty with commanding views across the Weald of Sussex.

So, by the time I reached the junction the decision had already been made subconsciously, regardless of going through the motions. I was going the long route (neurological research suggests that the brain has made decisions before people are consciously aware of it). A few hundred metres later, I had the second decision of whether to ride to the top of the Dyke, or continue straight along the road leading through The Downs to Saddlescombe and Poynings on the far side. There was no going back at this point and I decided to ride on to the top, further diverting from the direct route home. It was a good day for it and when I reached the ridge from where the escarpment drops away to The Weald below, I was not disappointed by what John Constable described as "the grandest view in the world".

From this point, the sensible option for me on my touring bike would be to follow the road that returns to the through route. But I'd already set a precedent for being further distracted and I wasn't going to miss the opportunity to revisit the V shaped cleave in the Downs that is Devil's Dyke.

Devil's Dyke is said to be a trench dug by The Devil with the intention of drowning the God-fearing people of Sussex. God, in his wisdom, gave The Devil one night in which to dig his trench from the sea to The Weald. However an early rising old maid in Poynings lit a candle before dawn, fooling The Devil into thinking his time was up and sending him scuttling off to wherever it is he scuttles off to. So much for the fiendishly clever fallen angel.

In reality, Rick Santorum not withstanding, the Dyke was formed by a combination of thawing snow and running water over 10000 years ago and it is now the longest and deepest dry valley in the UK. More recently, the area around The Dyke has been the site of a funicular railway rising 100m from the village at its foot, a standard gauge railway from Brighton and a cable car crossing the valley.

After the first few metres, the middle of the valley is not enormously steep, but steep and bumpy enough to be riding constantly on my brakes. It would have been a lot of fun on a bike that was designed for that kind of thing.

It took another couple of diversions before I finally made my way home, including a visit to my grandfather's grave for what must be the first time in well over 10 years. It was hard to find the headstone in what is an unfamiliar graveyard and when I did, it was hard to make out the writing beneath the lichen that has colonised it. Life has moved in and moved on in the 25 years it has been there just as the natural processes made the Dyke over time. We return, less frequently over time, but still maintaining the link to our past.