Friday, February 17, 2006
Well, a few posts ago (HERE, in fact)
I raved enthusiastically about El Panzon, and called it the best
Mexican food in London. Well, since then there has been even more
raving, and two more visits (including last night, when we convinced a
third party to come along). If anything, we are even more enthusiastic
now, despite ambience that is, shall we say, severely lacking. We've
ordered a variety of things on the menu by now, and I have to say
nothing has been any worse than "good". It's true, due to our eating
habits we haven't ventured onto the "flesh" section of the menu, but
last night our carnivorous friend took care of that. Now he too has
been added to the enthusiastic raving club. I believe his words were
"I've waited 11 years for good Mexican food in London. Now I can live
And due to some very unfortunate confusion about which Thursday we were
planning to visit, it looks like we will have to go there again next
Thursday. I suspect there will be a few more converts this time next
Like last week, this week has remained insanely
busy at work. A couple of days have been mostly taken up by courses
related to British Sign Language and communication strategies: both of
these have required a very high level of concentration. I realize now
that in normal conversations or everyday activities, my eyes wander a
lot (perhaps related to my limited attention span, nervous energy, and
all my other similar characteristics). But this just doesn't work when
you're trying to communicate using sign language (and/or lipreading).
After a day on the course I feel like my eyes are ready to bug out and
my brain is ready to explode. The first few course meetings I found
myself taking a lot of notes, but this was quite counterproductive as
it's not really possible to watch the signs while writing, and it's not
at all easy to summarize a signform in a concise manner (especially as
my drawing skills don't extend beyond the logos for heavy metal bands).
I found myself writing lots of things like this:
WHAT: RH, palm F index up, waggle "don't go there", make Q face. Which means...
For the sign "WHAT", using the Right Hand, palm forward, index finger
pointing up, make a waggling motion ("don't go there" as the nearest
approximation to the motion and location), while making a facial
expression that signifies a question.
WORK: chest, LH palm R/in, thumb in base, RH same shape chop L on thumb base 2x. Which means...
The sign "WORK" is made near the chest: the left hand palm is halfway
between pointing right and inward, with the thumb tucked in. This left
hand provides the base for the sign. The right hand is formed in
approximately the same shape, and makes two chopping motions against
the base of the left thumb.
Needless to say, I can miss quite a few signed sentences while I'm
writing even the most concise notes I can, and it's not so easy to
interpret my notes later . Even assuming I've gotten all the details
right, which is not always the case. BSL is flexible but there are
certain phonological* requirements (hands may move in certain ways but
not others; hand shapes may vary to some extent in some ways but not
others, etc.). So I decided to stop taking notes, and suddenly I felt
like I was picking up a lot more information (although maybe it was
just more practice).
We've finally gotten to the stage where our instructors are weaning us
off English syntactic structures: now that we have a small BSL
vocabulary, it's time for us to start thinking about putting them into
appropriate order for BSL. For example, English questions begin with a
WH-word, while BSL questions (sentences too, for that matter) begin
with the main topic, and have the WH-sign towards the end:
English: Where do you work?
BSL approximate equivalent: you work where you?
The multiple use of the pointing pronoun I've glossed as "you" in BSL
is quite common, but differs in different expressions and different
signers, in ways I don't have a clue about so far. It reminds me of
reflexives ("sich" in German, erm, there's one in Italian too,...) but
seems somehow different.
Fortunately, all of my other officemates (and the centre's senior
researcher whose office is just around the corner) are BSL signers.
Only one of them is deaf, so I will need to make a real effort to try
and use sign as much as possible if I am to improve.
*The term "phonology" and its derivational variants are used in an
analogical sense from spoken languages, in which "phonology" refers to
the sound system of a particular language. For example, in English the
-ng sound cannot appear at the beginning of a word; certain consonants
don't (typically) appear in sequence (counterexamples for any pair of
consonants can be found, but "phonologically illegal" combinations are
quite unusual and often appear across the parts of a compound word,
like HD which can be found in "BIRTHDAY"). These kinds of constraints
are also present in sign languages, but rather than referring to sound,
they refer to movement, position, handshape, and so on. But the term
phonology is used even though there's nothing "phono" about them.
Monday, February 13, 2006
Yesterday we came home to discover that a handwritten (photocopied) poem had been anonymously pushed through our mail slot. I'll post it below without commentary, criticism, or pretentious drivel (but feel free to add those yourself in the comments if you feel so inclined).
SERVICE RENOWATION AND
-PAINTING, CARPET, LINOLEUM
BRICKLAYING, KLIN GARDEN
LEYBERS, RABISH TEKE
AWEY, PLASTERS MEN!
The numbers in lines 7 and 8 are UK mobile telephone numbers, and were written in a very nonstandard form for the UK: loopy nines, crossed sevens, fours that looked more like lightning bolts and ones that looked more like lambdas.
Well, today was the day the Dunces went to take the UK Citizenship Test.
I was planning to say a little bit more about it, but the terms &
conditions forbid doing so. Something like "if you reveal the contents
of the test, you will be automatically failed, drawn and quartered,
broken on the wheel and dismembered, with your head placed on a pike
near the city gates, and your body left for the crows". So I can only
reveal the important details: we showed up, provided our £34 testing
fee (each!), and sat down for the test: 24 multiple-choice questions,
administered by computer, with a mere 45 minutes allowed. Five minutes
later (literally) we were both finished, both with passing marks. It
happened so quickly I didn't even think of asking whether I could bank
the remaining minutes for future use. Next step: getting certified
copies of our passports (we could submit our REAL passports but then
our activities would be seriously curtailed for however many months the
Friday, February 10, 2006
One of the great things about living in London is all the unusual international food that's available here. Quite often we see something unusual and can't resist having a try. This week was fruit week, as Mrs. Dunce came across a "honey pomelo" at our local Turkish shop. Neither of us had heard of a pomelo before, so we had no idea what to expect. It was fairly round and of a light orange color. And it was very large, about the size of my head (and not just any hat will fit me). We figured it must be some sort of melon, and chopped it open to reveal... well it was not a melon at all. Instead it's definitely a citrus fruit, perhaps intended for a giant (gigantic segments, with very thick, heavy pith [or whatever you call the icky inedible stuff between segments of citrus fruits). It smelled a lot like a grapefruit, and tasted like one too (slightly less tart, but gradually increasing as we ate more of it, even with a sprinkling of brown sugar). For more information we turned to my favorite food-related book by far, McGee on Food and Cooking1. McGee didn't list "pomelo" but we came across "pummelo" in the Citrus section. Pomelo/pummelo, botanically known as citrus maxima originally comes from southeast Asia. It's in fact the ancestor of the grapefruit (which developed in Barbados in the 18th century, apparently the product of spontaneous miscegenation between pomelo and orange.). We're still not sure what it was doing in our local Turkish shop.
1You can get a good idea about why I like McGee on Food so much from Amazon's "Statistically Improbable Phrases" (SIPs) that are listed for it. Among them are "savory amino acids", "collagen into gelatin", "buttery diacetyl", "browning enzymes", "noncrystalline candies", "chlorinated flour", "aroma molecules", "gelatin molecules", "continuous meshwork", "antioxidant phenolic compounds", "wood decomposers". Yes, it's a highly scientific treatment of food, but with plenty of historical and practical information provided as well.
Wednesday, February 08, 2006
This week almost all of my working time has been
eaten up by a move into a new research centre. In theory, the move was
supposed to be practically instantaneous: office contents transported
from A to B in the blink of an eye, and new offices instantly equipped
with furniture, computers, appropriate contents, and busy-as-a-beaver
research people. Of course, in practice nothing like this happened. It
took all day yesterday to get the office contents moved into the new
centre (as many as 5 floors up narrow stairs), and today all the
offices are still loaded with moving crates. The furniture didn't
arrive right away (and plenty of minor things like filing cabinets and
drawer units are yet to be ordered), and there's no point in getting
computers set up if there are no desks to put them on. Shelves were
also meant to be installed, and that will apparently happen later
today. I will retain my current office, but am meant to spend a sizable
amount of my time in the new space (a not-so-large office shared with
4, or 5, or 6 other people by the time all the newly hired people have
arrived). I figured it would take a couple of days until I could
actually do some work in the new office; now I've revised that estimate
to "this time next week".
It is a really nice building. While the psychology department is in a
1960s concrete abomination; the new research centre is a nice Georgian
house that has been (largely) renovated for the purpose. Its location
is right in the heart of Gordon Square, where the Bloomsbury Group
began in the early 1900s (more about them later). Some comparative
photos will be forthcoming (once we've all moved in, and settled a bit).
Monday, February 06, 2006
Given the massive popularity and incredibly publicity for the Super Bowl in the US, it always comes as a bit of a surprise to me how little attention it gets in the UK. I was planning to watch it last night (it is at least broadcast on a major network -- not difficult given the late hour), but couldn't even stay up until coverage began at 11:30. This morning, well, it may as well not have happened. To give you an idea, here are the top sport stories at the moment, according to BBC's Sport Bulletin:
1. Football: Arsenal defender Sol Campbell returns to training after disappearing on Wednesday.
2. Football: Queens Park Rangers have suspended manager Ian Holloway as suspicion mounts that he will become the manager of Leicester City.
3. Rugby: Scotland upset France 20-16 in Six Nations rugby
4. Rugby: England beat Wales 47-13 on Saturday's Six Nations match; England are now strong favourites to win the tournament (betfair currently gives [decimal] odds: England 1.75, France 3.5, Ireland 13.5, Scotland 19, Wales 38, Italy 1000).
5. Rugby: Ireland beat Italy 26-16 on Saturday, in part due to what is widely believed to be a terrible call.
6. Formula One racing: Michael Schumacher returns to training early, grumpy about Ferrari team's preparation
7. Cricket: Pakistan beat India in the first one day international. According to this article, "Pakistan 311-7 beat India 328 by seven runs (D/L rule)". For those few readers unfamiliar with the D/L (Duckworth/Lewis rule), it can be explained very simply. So simply, in fact, that I won't even bother, but will instead refer you to a few relevant websites:
Summary of D/L method, International Cricket Council
The dummy's guide to Duckworth-Lewis
Cric Info Duckworth-Lewis Update
Duckworth/Lewis made easy?
although of course the definitive reference should be the Duckworth/Lewis source "Your comprehensive guide to resetting targets when the overs have been reduced in some limited overs/one day matches", available for a mere £5.95+p&p here. But I digress.
8. Tennis: Tim Henman moves up in tennis rankings, now #38 in the world. Even though he lost in the semifinals of, erm, some tennis tournament in Zagreb.
And that's it. End of the sport bulletin. No mention of, erm, hot new superstar who led his team to the pinnacle of NFL success. Or, of the grizzled old veteran who taped up his broken knees and made the game-saving tackle. Or perhaps the shamed kicker whose shaky nerves lost his team the ultimate prize. Or, I dunno, hotshot receivers shamed after being caught live on camera at halftime in a cocaine-fuelled romp. Whichever, if any, of these stories were relevant to this year's Super Bowl, I couldn't say. I should note that it wasn't *completely* ignored. For example, on this morning's Radio 4 sport news, they did report that the Super Bowl had indeed happened, and gave the final score (probably for the benefit of American expats alone).
Thursday, February 02, 2006
One of the most challenging aspects of my new post is that I must get up to speed with British Sign Language (BSL). Many years ago I did take a class in American Sign Language1, but as many people are very surprised to learn, knowledge of one sign language does not automatically bring with it knowledge of any other. Even the fingerspelled alphabets are completely different, despite the fact that the letters themselves are exactly the same (I am ignoring the difference between "zee" and "zed", and the even more subtle difference between "aitch" and "haitch"). Fortunately, I have many colleagues at the same early stage of BSL, and a weekly course is being offered in house. So far we've covered the rough basics (fingerspelling and numbers; getting someone's attention; introductions and basic getting-to-know-you topics; London locations and transport options; how viciously cold it is outside and what kind of crazy idiot is wearing short sleeves on a day like this. Erm, maybe that last one was just a conversation rather than a lesson. But I wasn't cold!). Once the research centre opens its doors (moving-in day is next Tuesday), there will be a lot more opportunity (read that as a positive spin on "necessity") to converse in sign language as there are quite a few fluent signers around, and all the non-signers are required to achieve a certain level of competence relatively quickly. For now, however, a "BSL Lunch Club" has been set up: a good number of "real" signers join us newbies for lunch and conversation. At the moment there's a substantial gap between the groups; mainly because we're mostly limited to Tarzan-sign ("Me name Dunce me work in 'ology' learn-learn sign language hard ok thank-you?") as soon as the conversation turns away from our constrained practice exchanges. But it's an excellent way to get a good sense of the mechanics of BSL conversations, to get used to following conversations & understand how turn-taking and interruption work, and also to learn a lot of vocabulary under battlefield conditions. OK maybe not "battlefield conditions" but definitely mentally-taxing conditions -- I found the Lunch Club much more difficult than the class itself. But it's all being quite useful at helping me to absorb the course content.
1I have to admit my shameful sign language past here. I took a short ASL course when I was in 8th grade (or thereabouts), as part of "Project KEY" ("Kokomo Enrichment of Youth", i.e. the school system's gifted and talented program). Not long thereafter, our church was putting on a children's musical, by the name of Papa John's Garden (a musical that occasionally provides the soundtrack to my nightmares even decades later). And someone got the idea that the musical would be particularly enhanced if sign language interpretation were provided. Since I had learned sign language, I was the natural choice. I don't remember exactly, but I think I was asked if I could do it. At that age, the only answer I could possibly give was "of course I can"; because to say otherwise would have been an admission of ignorance.
I went and met with the instructors of my course, who gave me some good starting advice about sign language interpretation in such circumstances. They advised me first, that at the beginning of the musical I should introduce the names of the main characters, fingerspelling them first and then providing a corresponding sign name (i.e. a short sign that refers to a character; think of it as a nickname) so that I wouldn't need to spell each name every time it occurred. And second (but more importantly), to practice, practice and practice on the lines and lyrics. Of course I didn't, although I may have pretended to do so (sitting stage right during rehearsals, daydreaming but with my fingers vaguely fluttering so it would look like I was concentrating on the signs).
And then the day arrived: SHOWTIME (actually, SHOWTIMES: I'm pretty sure there were multiple performances). And was I prepared? Definitely not. I hadn't really thought of sign names for any of the characters (except for "PJ", abbreviation for "Papa John", [the only adult character in the musical, and a character who maybe you don't really want your children to be around]). I didn't know the signs for most of the words in the musical; in fact, I didn't know most of the words. I thought maybe I would come down with a devastating illness of some kind, but I'd used up all my devastating illnesses already to stay home from school on various occasions. So then the curtain went up. Well, there was no curtain, but there I was standing stage right, with a spotlight shining on me. And they were off, singing and talking and all that. And I was keeping up, with an impressive flurry of sign language interpretation! Or at least, I was moving my hands along with the music, making sure they were formed in legitimate ASL handshapes most of the time. After one of the performances, someone came up to me and thanked me for my interpretation. She said that she knew a little sign language (and with that my heart sank)... but not enough to keep up most of the time. Hooray! With that, my secret was safe, and I avoided punishment for making a mockery of sign language. Thank goodness there were no Deaf people in the audience; it would have been a serious insult.
Wednesday, February 01, 2006
For the past two and a half years, I've been
employed as a research fellow, paid through a research grant
investigating how language-specific properties affect the way speakers
think about objects and events in the world. A few weeks before this
grant was due to end, certain members of my department discovered some
kind of minor error, reflected in the last budget/spending report. It
seems that there was a sizable surplus in the "salary" category,
amounting to some thousands of pounds. "How could this be?" they
wondered. As it turns out, it was all because of me.
I was previously employed here on another research grant, and when that
ended and the new grant started, my appointment was set up under the
same terms (in particular, that I would be paid at 85% of full time). I
was under the impression that this was being done because I had not
successfully obtained a Ph.D., and thus was only entitled to a
percentage of the pay that would be earned by a Ph.D. holder. The
administrator of our department also thought this to be the case and
was quite aware that I was on an odd sort of partial appointment.
However, my supervisor somehow managed to miss this minor point,
believing that I was on full (100%) pay and budgeting the remaining
salaries accordingly. There were plenty of opportunities for her to
discover this discrepancy: my employment contract and my work permit
renewal both contained statements concerning my partial appointment
level; I applied for bridging funds to cover the gap between two grants
at the partial appointment level; I may have griped a few times about
being on a partial appointment. And most crucially, as the grant
progressed the monthly budget/spending reports clearly indicated that a
salary surplus was developing. Anyway, regardless of how many signs
were missed, this discrepancy was finally discovered just before the
grant finished (thank goodness!), and a concerted effort was made to
get the surplus funds to their rightful owner.
I received an official apology from departmental staff immediately, and
an assurance that they'd work quickly to get me my money by the time
the grant ended (31-January). Sure enough, a couple of weeks later, I
received a delightful letter from University Higher-Ups:
Dear Mr Dunce,
I am writing to confirm that I have been informed by your Department
that your FTE should have increased to 100% from 1 July 2003.
Unfortunately your FTE remained at 85% resulting in you being
Your file has been passed to Payroll and Pension Services who will
adjust your salary accordingly and arrange for you to receive payment
of the arrears due....
This was very encouraging, but I wasn't going to be happy until I got
my money. And yesterday, there it was, having magically appeared in my
bank account overnight. So indeed, for the past 30 months I've been
saving an additional 15% of my salary without knowing it. If it were
coming in on a monthly basis, I would surely have spent it on fast
cars, fine cigars, expensive champagne, jewels and furs. Now, instead,
well I guess I will still be spending it on fast cars, fine cigars,
expensive champagne, jewels and furs.
Monday, January 23, 2006
Good Mexican food is something that has been inexplicably lacking in London for a long time, but things seem to be gradually changing for the better (in particular, "El Panzon" in the Hobgoblin pub in Brixon, and "Mestizo" on the Hampstead Road near Euston. More on those two in a future entry when I have time to give them proper credit). And Mexican food is much beloved in the Dunce household. So I was quite excited to notice that a new Mexican restaurant had recently opened in our general vicinity, and last night we finally managed to pay them a visit.
And gosh, it's a bad start because I can't even remember the name! Fortunately some determined Googling led me to the answer: El C.Panchos (ELC Panchos? ELC Pancho's? El C. Pancho's?), 21-23 Green Lanes (just off Newington Green). We arrived around 9:00 on a Sunday evening to find it open, but entirely deserted. Perhaps Sunday is an especially quite night, but more likely nobody knows about it (its location isn't ideal for passing trade, and who knows whether they've had any publicity). They do serve a fine margarita (and have a two-for-one happy hour M-Th until 8pm), but the big question was the food. The first step, chips and salsa, didn't answer any questions: the chips came from a bag, and the salsa wasn't anything special. We were a little concerned about what the "real" food might be like, especially as they hedged their bets with a number of "American grill" menu options (burgers, onion rings, catfish). Such diversification often spells trouble for the Mexican side of the menu, and indeed Mrs. Dunce was drawn to the dark side. Being a Southern girl at heart, she couldn't resist ordering the blackened catfish, served "hillbilly style" with cheese and jalapeño peppers. Not very blackened, and somewhat overwhelmed by the sauce. But as this has nothing in particular to do with Mexican food, I'll let it pass. My choice, on the other hand, was a cactus chimichanga (served with Mexican rice on the side). Very tasty indeed and nicely done. Finally, our dining companion (a gentleman with some Southwestern dining experience under his belt) had a chicken burrito which he found "decent but nothing special". I'll have to give it a rating of "Promising" for now; one good dish is not enough to warrant a full recommendation. Perhaps we'll make another visit to make a fully-informed decision. In the meantime, though, we need to pay another visit to the Hobgoblin. Just writing about it is making me hungry.
Friday, January 20, 2006
I am now a proud owner of Life in the United Kingdom: A journey to citizenship (ISBN 0-11-341302-5), the source material for the Life in the UK test
which all applicants for UK citizenship must pass. Actually, the test
does not cover the whole book, leaving out most of the chapters. These
"The making of the United Kingdom": pretty anything to do with the history of the UK
"Everyday needs": Islamic mortgages, refuse collection, banking,
education, public holidays, pubs, and "groups of young people who
deliberately drink too much ... and can then become noisy and
aggressive on the streets"
"Employment": how to arrange an interview, equal rights, entitlement to
at least four weeks' paid holiday per year, and children at work
(basically, if you send your child down the mines, don't tell)
"Sources of help and information": (libraries, police departments, the Radio Times, and "search engines" such as AltaVista, Google or Yahoo!: "If you put key words, such as consumer rights, into the search box, the search engine will look for the words consumer and rights
quite separately and will probably produce several million results."
(Quite an understatement: Google: 224m, Yahoo: 201m [Altavista doesn't
give numbers] In fact, using "double inverted commas" as recommended,
both engines still give 2.4 million results).
"Knowing the law": How to report a crime (dial 999 or 112), what to do
if the police stop you (RUN!), human rights, cohabitation and marriage,
child protection, consumer protection, courts and legal advice.
So the content from all of the above chapters is not
covered on the citizenship test. Although it's good to know that
potential citizens aren't required to know the details of the slave
trade in the UK, the correct response to spilling a stranger's drink in
a pub (response: buy another one), or which three search engines appear
to be endorsed by the Home Office, I really wondered what was left. A
mere three chapters of the book, only 32 pages, that's what's left.
It begins with chapter 2, "A changing society:
migration to the UK (which groups came to the UK in large numbers in a
given period); the changing role of women (apparently some ladies go to
work, presumably as domestic servants); children and family ("Children
in the UK do not play outside the home as much as they did in the
past"; the official party line is also that few children are working in
the mines and factories these days, wink, wink).
The next chapter is "Britain today: a profile":
This chapter includes demographic statistics (population of Wales?
2.9m. UK population of Bangladeshi heritage? 0.3m. UK population
describing their religion as Hindu? 1%); also customs and traditions
such as national days (St. David's Day, St. Patrick's Day, St. George's
Day, St. Andrew's Day), holidays like Christmas (in this country,
Christmas cards are normally sent from the beginning of December. In my
country, I think it's early January at best. Also the eating of
suet-based delicacies), Boxing Day (many people give money to the
postman. Not us, perhaps because we're misers), and New Year
(depression sets in, and people often give up a vice or two for a few
hours). Also given space are Easter, Valentine's Day, Mothering Sunday,
April Fool's Day (!), Guy Fawkes Night and Remembrance Day.
Finally, we will be tested on "How Britain is governed".
This is the largest section but I haven't bothered to look at it,
because everyone knows it already. There is a Queen and her word is
law. Bad people are broken on the wheel, drawn and quartered, and/or
hanged; their bodies (or parts thereof) are placed on poles, gates and
walls as a message to other potential wrongdoers. There is also a Prime
Minister, and a House of Commons and a House of Lords. These are like
fun clubs that exist so that their members can appear on television and
radio. They like to argue amongst themselves and these arguments are
often a great public spectacle (so great, in fact, that similar
activities like cockfighting, bull- and bear-baiting, and taunting the
village idiot are virtually unknown these days).
The citizenship test should be no problem, then. I suspect the last
question will be something about the Queen, and woe betide anyone who
gets it wrong.
Thursday, January 19, 2006
It's time for another language digression, and this time the topic is
corn. Of course the topic is corn, I am a Hoosier after all (OED: Hoosier: a. a native or inhabitant of the state of Indiana. b. An inexperienced, awkward, or unsophisticated person.).
It's always struck me as odd that not only do British pizzas often come
with sweetcorn as a topping, but also that they call it "sweetcorn" in
the first place. We Hoosiers would just call it "corn", and we sure
know about corn1. As it turns out, this is one of those
sneaky linguistic differences that easily passes under the radar. In
American English (see dictionary.com), "corn" refers specifically to a plant known as Zea mays,
and the grains or kernels thereof. And also an ear of the same. This
plant, in British English, goes by "maize", because UK "corn" is fairly
synonymous with US "grain": a more general term referring to any type
of cereal (OED: wheat, rye, barley, oats, maize, rice, etc.), and often
simply refers to the main crop of a particular area. UK "sweetcorn" is
the edible part of maize, I suppose (to be honest, I haven't ever
noticed British speakers using the term "maize", but sometimes I
suppress my Hoosier heritage by limiting my conversations about grain
and cereals). Apparently (i.e., according to the OED), US usage of
"corn" is a shortened form of the original (British) reference to maize
as "Indian corn" (i.e., that cereal grown by the Indians). I guess the
"Indian" part was dropped when the Indians "decided" to move west to
land where cultivating crops was more of a challenge. Anyway, if you're
a Hoosier in the UK looking for a cornfield, don't be surprised if it
doesn't have any corn in it.
1For example, the custom of "corning houses" at
Halloween. Feral youths go into cornfields and collect loads of corn
kernels (quite dry at this time of year, as they've been left to go to
seed, or to be fed to pigs, or something. Erm, you can see I'm only
loosely acquainted with agricultural practice). When thrown at houses,
the kernels make a rattling noise, just like, ummm, there's corn being
thrown at your house. It's really fun and a great alternative to
driving up and down the main drag. Never mind the much-reviled slogan
for a rather low-rent amusement park, "There's more than corn in Indiana" (proper retort: "There's soybeans too").
Wednesday, January 18, 2006
I will soon be moving into a new office, moving from a nasty concrete monstrosity into a lovely Georgian building that is being remodeled to house a research centre. In theory, there will be a substantial improvement as there is a dedicated area for bicycle parking, surely an improvement over my present situation: a choice between crowding my bike into my tiny office:
or locking it to the Bike-Thief Buffet outside the building (not just bike thieves, but also vandals and the low sort of saboteurs who will stoop to removing quick-release skewers from the wheels of properly locked bikes):
The new building, instead, has two old wine cellars that extend from a basement courtyard under the pavement (sidewalk), and the centre director has wisely reserved these spaces for bicycle parking. However, the proposed parking solution fell somewhat short, and in a meeting yesterday I volunteered to make suggestions for improvements that would actually suit cyclists. The arrangement looks somewhat like this:
The solid rectangle (above) depicts the courtyard area, viewed from above. A gate at street level leads down the stairs into the courtyard. The wine cellar/bicycle parking areas are about 3m deep, but only about 2m wide. They are currently empty, and are "secured" by fairly solid wire/metal doors. The only light is a fixture in the courtyard. The idea, I suppose, is that cyclists can park in the cellars and secure their bikes by keeping the door locked. This is a good start, but doesn't protect against internal theft (another person with access to the bike areas decides to have a bike upgrade), or external theft (someone breaks the combination lock and walks off with whatever they like), mainly because there is nothing to secure a bike to. There's also nothing to lean a bike on, except for the early risers who can lean their bikes against the walls.
One possibility is that I should just avoid parking in the insecure area, and just bring my filthy commuting bike into my new office. The new office with brand-new carpet and fresh paint, that is, which is four floors up by stairs (again, newly carpeted and freshly painted). On the other hand, how can I be evangelistic about cycle commuting if I practice a parking regimen that only a lunatic and/or martyr would consider? So more practical solutions are in order.
Obviously the first step is to install some kind of rack or fixture to which bikes can be locked. Any such fixture must allow the frame of the bike to be locked to it; there is a remarkable range of wheel-only bike racks which are useless from a security standpoint. Perhaps most ideal would be a row of Sheffield stands so that each bike could be secured to a stand, parked in a row facing the back of the cellar. But the building is listed and it's unclear whether any sort of drilling/mounting solution would be permitted. It's also unclear (to me) what the ideal spacing between stands would be. Another possibility would be a stand-alone bike rack such as a traditional single-face bike rack. Anyone who could carry such a rack out of the space, with bicycles attached, could probably not be stopped by any means. It seems difficult, however, to find such a rack of suitable dimensions (most seem to be 10' long or longer). In addition, it's necessary to have some lighting installed in the cellars, and to ensure that their doors are locked with quality locks. Combinations have a way of circulating, but this problem is minimized if bikes are also locked to a fixture inside.
So that's bike storage sorted (hopefully). If only the facilities for cyclists themselves were better. The building has a bathroom on the top floor. Which would be really nice as filthy cyclists arriving at work could get cleaned up first. Except that there's no shower, only a bathtub. I'm not so sure about a leisurely soak in the tub at work.
Monday, January 16, 2006
Very soon the Dunces will be eligible to apply for British citizenship. Although we both have permanent residence (technically, "indefinite leave to remain"), which confers permission to live and work without a work permit, citizenship is an important next step. There are various benefits to British citizenship for us...
British citizens can travel to Cuba without risk of being charged with federal offenses.
British citizens (at least those living in Tottenham) are able to cast votes against David Lammy next election (Mrs. Dunce's Australian citizenship already allows her to do this).
Naturalised British citizens must swear allegiance to the monarch, and no one loves royals more than I do.
If you're not a British citizen you cannot go on the dole.
Holders of "indefinite leave to remain" must pay to transfer their residence permits when renewing their passports; citizens don't need to bother with residence permits.
But the biggest benefit, and a major reason for taking this step in my eyes, is that it allows us to return to the UK at any time, regardless of where the circumstances of life may take us. Holders of "indefinite leave to remain" typically lose that right if they live outside the UK for two years or longer, and (I believe) must start the process from the beginning. And that process is bloody expensive these days (every step costs hundreds of pounds): both applicant and employer must pay for a work permit; the applicant must also pay for "limited leave to remain" (permission to stay in the country is considered separately from permission to work in the country. Both steps were free back in my day ). Only after four years of continuous (work permit) employment in the UK can an individual apply for indefinite leave to remain (at a hefty cost). Employees who work on a contract basis (like my previous and current posts) need to apply (and pay) each time a contract expires and another one begins.
Eligibility for citizenship in our case is quite a straightforward matter: an individual (or couple) becomes eligible one year after being granted indefinite leave to remain. We would have been eligible in December, but for an administrative fumble by the governmental department responsible for preparing the residence permits. Mrs. Dunce's residence permit was issued in her maiden name (her married name appears as a minimally-noticeable amendment on the last page of her passport), so it had to be sent back for a correction (I am surprised they didn't charge her again). Anyway, the corrected version was granted nearly a year ago, and the date is fast approaching.
Of course, citizenship is not automatic. There are some minor hurdles that must be overcome. Some of them are quite easy, for example, verifying that neither of us has spent more than 450 days outside the UK in the past five years; stating that we've not been in any trouble with the law (true, by the way!); listing previous addresses; paying a few hundred pounds and waiting 4 months (average time to decision) for the decision to be made. The really annoying part, however, is the "Life in the UK" test. Launched in November 2005, all applicants for citizenship must pass this test (at £34 a pop). This requirement (perhaps along with the increase in fees) has apparently reduced the processing time from 13 to 4 months, but I feel rather insulted at having to pass a test with (apparently) such arbitrary content. Test questions are taken from Life in the UK, which we haven't got around to purchasing just yet. There have been plenty of news reports which give a kind of indication of the content (BBC, Guardian 1, Guardian 2, Telegraph, Independent. Yes I know I'm behind the times but this story is much more relevant to me now).
Some British topics I would be very happy to see on the test:
Some British topics I would be very UNhappy to see on the test:
Buying a home in Spain
Motorways and A roads
Why immigrants should go back to where they came from, of course not counting the kind of immigrants like Americans and Aussies and the like because they aren't what's causing all the trouble innit, you know what I mean (wink), "immigrant" immigrants, the kind that's driving the country into the dumps, coming in and taking all the jobs and leaving good honest hard working people nothing, I remember when it was all fields here and all the children were down in the mines and we all lived on one pork pie a month and now the foreigners are everywhere and all the freezers are full of pies but they're made by immigrants and probably full of whatever they put in them.
Wednesday, January 11, 2006
Last night we decided to set out for parts unknown, in order to pay a
visit to the very recently opened Pembury Tavern. Publicity for the
Pembury is very limited at the moment: of the 63 main results of a Google search, only a single one (from beerintheevening)
actually indicates that the Pembury is actually open for business. Even
the small pubco running the show seem to be keeping it secret; their website only says "The Pembury Tavern is not yet open; we hope to open in September 2005." (some construction photos are cleverly hidden here).
Nonetheless, we decided to pay it a visit on the strength of the
promised "up to 16 real ales", as well as its accessibility from our
home (short [free] train ride, or not-so-long bus ride, both
essentially door-to-door). It's been closed for some time, and the
upper floors have been converted into flats. First impressions were
that it didn't look so much like a pub from the outside; frosted
windows did read "Pembury Tavern", but the doors looked very
un-pub-like. The side doors were also locked; perhaps making it unclear
to unknowing passersby that the pub was actually open for business.
Inside, it's absolutely huge, and its size was further magnified by the
light-colored walls, overly-bright lights, and lack of customers (only
one small group was there when we arrived, and there were never more
than 10 customers at any time, including the 3 or 4 at our table). It's
furnished with (giant) wood-top tables and your typical collection of
chairs varying in shape and size. It was also incredibly quiet (not
only because of the few customers, but also there was no music, no TV,
at times no sound whatsoever). It's also non-smoking throughout, which
meant a NYC-style temporary exit for certain members of our party at
As promised, however, the beer selection was impressive. I believe all
16 handpumps were in service, each dispensing a different real ale
product. An assortment from the Milton
brewery (including my favorite, Sparta), but also a goodly number from
other brewers. One real cider on hand (Weston's Old Rosie, I believe,
but I didn't taste it as I prefer a dry cider). Budvar is also
available for those who absolutely require a lager fix, and there were
an assortment of bottled products I didn't inspect at all. We stayed
until the call of "last orders" (which actually wasn't much of a call,
but more of a mutter as we were the only remaining customers), then
hopped on the bus for home.1. It was a very enjoyable
evening even though the pub was empty, and I'm sure we'll be back in
the future for more. I just hope there is a little more publicity in
the very near future.
1The bus ride home was very odd. Mainly because of
the antics of the driver. Most notably, for the last few stops before
our exit, he was engaged in a spirited arm-wrestling match with a very
young girl (who had her arm through the cash window). He was at a
disavantage because he was arm-wrestling left-handed, but also because
he was trying to drive the bus at the same time. I was quite happy (and
somewhat surprised) when we managed to get off the bus without
Tuesday, January 10, 2006
Last week I wrote anout BBC's series "Balderdash and Piffle", a program about words and the stories behind them made in collaboration with the Oxford English Dictionary (that post is here). I was especially bothered by all the fluff that was included in the attempt to create some suspense, and to make the show more interesting or accessible. Well, yesterday was the second episode of the series, focusing upon the letter M. My hopes were not high, and rightly so as this episode seemed to include even more fluff. It started with an investigation of the term "management-speak" which, the show's presenter argued, is frequent enough in the language that it warrants an entry in the OED. Well, that seems straightforward enough, right? Just assemble an assortment of evidence showing consistent use over a period, submit it to the OED who will decide whether it warrants an entry. Well, that's not entertaining enough. So before the dénouement (SPOILER: the answer is "yes"), there was a lengthy and painful digression showing how ineffective Churchill's wartime speechifying would have been, had it been implemented and delivered in the application context of a management-speak framework paradigm. Ho! Ho! Ho! How silly it would have been if his speeches had been delivered in management-speak with crucial supplemental information provided by Powerpoint(TM). We'd all be speaking German today, jawohl! Und so weiter.
Another "fluff" element of Balderdash and Piffle I didn't mention before: various famous individuals telling the delighted viewers about their favorite word beginning with this week's letter. I can tell you that Germaine Greer's favorite M-word is "moan" (in the sense of "to complain"). Why this matters I cannot say, but just in case I should choose one for myself (I'll decide by the time I finish this entry).
Another sizable chunk of the show investigated the origin of the phrase "the full Monty". Various unsubstantiated theories have been put forward: "Perhaps. the most plausible is that it is from a colloquial shortening of the name of Montague Maurice Burton (1885-1952), men's tailor, and referred originally to the purchase of a complete three-piece suit. Also popular but unsubstantiated is the belief that the phrase is somehow derived from Monty, the nickname of Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery (1887-1976)." After substantial investigation, on-site interviews with individuals somehow connected with the two Montys, and some other digressions, various unsubstantiated theories remain unsubstantiated. However, an early piece of evidence for this term was found: a 1982 Manchester telephone directory which listed The Full Monty Chippy. Not exactly headline news, though.
Perhaps the best part of this week's program relates to the term "Mackem" (someone who comes from Sunderland, or a supporter of the Premiership's worst football club at this moment [won 1, drew 3, lost 16]). This term didn't appear in the OED (until now!), but is widely used (at least regionally). The piece may have been more interesting because it did not involve an annoying presenter, but instead focused upon a local publicity effort to find the origin of the term, and also because it really focused upon the word: the regional extent of its use, the semantic breadth of reference, and also trying to find printed documentation of its use (also raising the issue of difficulty in finding such evidence for terms that are much more common in speech than in writing). The segment also featured some brief interviews with young Newcastle football supporters (Newcastle and Sunderland are fierce local rivals) who provided helpful and amusing definitions of Mackem ("It's a _______ ________", "*******", "%£%@$%", and so on).
But I reserve my greatest vitriol for (what felt like) the longest segment in the program: exploring the term "man" (to me it's mainly interesting because of the amount of detail in the OED's etymology). It featured my favorite presenter who seems to relish the idea of providing filler fluff for the program, and went on and on about how shocking it is that "Man" once meant "Person", not just "Adult Male Person". This segment reached its low (and a low I doubt can be exceeded in future episodes) when the presenter made her way to the Cerne Abbas Giant (another link, National Trust link) (if you don't know about the Giant, follow one of the links or the following won't make much sense). While an overhead (helicopter) shot showed the presenter standing on the Giant's phallus (removed by the Victorians but returned to him later), she reminded us that a phallus does not make a man; she then made her way to the Giant's head! Aha! That is what makes a man! A brain! Not what's down below! This segment irritated me so much I intentionally soiled myself. I can't wait till next week's episode.
Anyway, now it's time for my favorite word beginning with "M". There are just so many to choose from. "Myth" has been a word of some discussion in the Dunce household (Mrs. Dunce wonders whether its origin is related to the cult of Mithras. Answer unknown so far), but I can't really call it a favorite. For now, I think I'll go with "maim": OED: "Originally: to disable, wound, cause bodily hurt or disfigurement to. Subsequently: to deprive of (the use of) a limb, etc.; to mutilate; to cripple." Documented uses of "maim" in the OED range from centuries old (Chaucer, c1395) to quite new (Maya Angelou, 1981). And there is some debate about the ultimate origin of the term, which comes to us from Anglo-Norman (mahaigner, maheimer, mahemer, mahimer, maigner, mehainer), and Old/Middle French (mahaignier, mehaignier, meshaignier). I was having a lot of trouble deciding between "maim" and "mayhem". Turns out I shouldn't have bothered; "mayhem" originated as a variant of "maim".
Monday, January 09, 2006
Last night Mrs. Dunce and I made
yet another visit to our Local, one of the things I seem to blog about
most often (Local-themed posts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6).
It was fairly early on a Sunday evening, but the place was deserted
even for that time of day. Only a handful of regulars were gathered
around the bar watching one of the FA Cup David v. Goliath matches (Burton Albion 0, Manchester United 0).
It's always distressing to see a favorite business establishment so
empty, but mitigating factors may have played a role (for example, the
detox regimen adopted by so many people for the first week or two after
the new year).
One such factor may be the very recent opening of the Pembury Tavern in Hackney, formerly one of the many examples of dead pubs
in London. After a lengthy refurbishment, it seems to have re-opened
this past weekend with practically no publicity; the only mentions I've
seen so far are a very recent entry on beerintheevening.com ("[a] completely non-smoking environment in which to enjoy up to sixteen real ales"), and a couple of recent blog updates
from Steve ("timeplease") who (it seems) has been putting in loads of
work to getting it ready). But this minimal publicity is quite enough
for me; we will definitely be making a visit in the very near future.